Onwards 2020 ****

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Pixar seem to have survived the Disney take-over without too much bother; still, it’s something of a surprise to see a Pixar movie emerging just as the winter chill fades; we’re used to seeing the animation studio’s films at the height summer or Christmas holidays. But Onward feels like a minor entry in the Pixar canon, perhaps a cousin to The Good Dinosaur; it bears all the care and skill of a Pixar blockbuster, but there’s something deliberately muted about the atmosphere that makes it slippery to pin down.

Dan Scanlon’s comedy-drama starts on a melancholy note; Ian and Barley Lightfoot (Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) have lost their father, and their mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents them with a gift on Ian’s 16th birthday; a staff and jewel which will allow them to spend a precious 24 hours with their late father. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t quite work, and Ian and Barley’s dad returns only in the form of a pair of legs. With said legs in tow, Ian and Barley set out on a quest to find another jewel they hope will enable them to complete the transformation, but time is against them…

Onward wears some Joseph Campbell influences on its sleeve, with lots of discussion about the nature of quests and finding yourself. It’s also set in a complex world where the fantastic and the real exist side by side, a la Bright, although Onward doesn’t view this with the kind of zany bounce that Zootopia/Zootropolis did. The theme is that magic has gone away, and there’s a quite laborious set-up explaining that magic is now something that technology has erased from everyday human existence. That’s something of a bummer, and the plot of Onward doesn’t resolve the issues, instead falling back on familiar ‘journey is the destination’ tropes to create a happy resolution.

Onward gets a little lost as it navigates the different forms of grief that the two brothers experience, and probably requires a little warning to ticket-buyers that this film deals overtly with death in a way that Coco managed to nimbly side-step. But there’s also plenty of pleasures, particularly Octavia Spencer as a manticore, and there’s trademark Pixar wit in the elaborately realised world of Ian and Barley inhabit. Onwards is a very neat little animation that skews towards teens rather than kids, and pushes the Pixar envelope in an unexpectedly serious direction. It’s a success, but also a diversion from a familiar formula that suggests that the animation studio isn’t entirely bogged down in sequels and toy licences.

Beowulf 2007 ***

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Let’s pity those who aim to push the boundaries of computer-generated technology; there’s ever chance they’ll end up with a film is weirdly misbegotten as Beowulf. One of two competing works based around the Old English epic poem, Robert Zemeckis’ expensive film didn’t bust many blocks on release, and has since vanished into relative obscurity for such a bally-hooed prospect. There’s a simple reason for this; time has not been kind of Beowulf. A year later, 2008 saw Iron Man generate a run of hit Marvel films and imitators that used CGI to create action scenes in the real world, making Beowulf’s motion-capture/animation hybrid look decidedly dated.

The oddball writing team of Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction, The Rules of Attraction) and Neil Gaiman gives some clue as to the wobbly tone here, but Beowulf feels like the result of some shonky creative meetings. A big cast including Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson and Robin Wright Penn allow their likenesses to be used for CGI characters that look as dead-eyed and inexpressive as PS2 game characters, while Ray Winstone lends his gravelly betting-shop-flogger voice to Beowulf, who looks like a Jesus-Christ super-saviour hero, often naked but with helmets, pillars and other items obscuring his genitals in Austin Powers-style. Beowulf aims to please the king (Hopkins) by defeating the monstrous Grendel but, in a twist that’s familiar from the 1998 Godzilla to Pacific Rim, discovers he’s killed off the child, not the mother…

And the mother is Angelina Jolie, also unclothed throughout; this Beowulf’s adventures looks like a Jim Steinman album cover and bears the unmistakable feel of a teenage boy’s fantasy. And yet a $150 million film based on an Old English poem can only be interesting, if only to see how the narrative is reshaped into a modern idiom. There are some really striking visual flourishes here, like a view from beneath the ground as a bloodstain spreads. In fact, the world of Beowulf is striking to behold, and the dialogue and restructuring isn’t bad, it’s just that technology hadn’t caught up with character design in 2007, and the resulting lack of involvement with these waxwork figures is fatal.

Beowulf is something of a noble failure here, and attempt to harness Hollywood to access classic texts rather than comic book archetypes. It doesn’t quite work, but in amongst the ruins, there’s the design of what might have been a game-changing dive into turning great literature into great art.

 

Aladdin 2019 (no award)

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Disney no longer seem to be able to put their mitts on the £200 cash required to put on press shows in the country I live in; either that, or they have developed a fresh political desire to stifle any public interface outside of London other than the collection of cash from the rubes. From The Lion King to Star Wars, if it’s a Disney film, Scotland is no longer allowed to write or talk about their product; now that Aladdin has cleaned up at the worldwide box-office, the dust has settled enough to have a backward look at exactly what that product was.

Putting fond memories of the original films aside, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is over-long, poorly conceived and something of a strain to watch. Two colorless leads play the street-rat and his princess, while Will Smith takes on the iconic role of the blue-skinned genie. The plot follows the classic beats, with the resourceful Aladdin pressed into service to steal a magical lamp, but using the genies’ powers to restyle himself as a prince and win the heart of his true love.

Like a themed costume party, Ritchie’s Aladdin echoes the look of the original film without capturing any of the charm; Iago the parrot, the monkey Abu, even the tasselled carpet are side-lined, and when they do briefly get centre stage, disappoint with their dead-eyed appearance. The makers of the original animated version didn’t imagine they were creating a story-board for live action, so their hand-drawn conceits don’t work in live action; there’s no creativity here other than a wrong-headed desire to replicate the original, with a few groan-worthy additions, including a framing story and a general push for Will Smith.

Smith actually does well with the scenes in which he’s not painted blue; the actor has a bubbly irreverence that works well when plugged into a staid scene at the Sultan’s court. Robin Williams’ routines have been revised to fit Smith’s voice, but his genie seems snug rather than mapcap. Similarly the production numbers are big without being well-sung or choreographed; they boggle the eye without impressing, and have a tin-ear for melody, aside from a loose but jolly closing number set to Friend Like Me that bursts into life and makes you wish the whole film was made like this.

There are points of interest (and entertainment) in the 2020 Aladdin, but they’re few and far between. It’s easy to see why, with great songs and a beloved story, Disney might feel the property was worth a do-over, although every element here is a downgrade. Despite Aladdin being a well-loved tale for centuries, this 2020 version seems to limit imagination or fresh interpretations by mimicking the 1994 version so slavishly. It’s a financially lucrative but artistically bankrupt move that seems to go against the style and ethos of Walt Disney himself; an elitist power-play by a company seeking access to our homes as children’s entertainers while politically active to ignore local traditions and values.

Spies in Disguise 2019 ***

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“I call it Fifty Shades of Yay!’ shrieks an exuberant Tom Holland in Blue Sky’s new animated film, a vehicle that pairs the Spiderman star with venerable character actor Will Smith for some espionage capers. This Fox/Disney co-production is cannily placed in the festive market to mop up an audience of kids who are too young or unwilling to debate the ins and outs of Emperor Palpatine’s sex life circa Xmas 2019.

Troy Quane and Nick Bruno’s film is based on a short called Pigeon Impossible, which offers a title which shoe-horns pigeon-based humour into a spy theme. And that is where Spies in Disguise goes, unexpectedly; a good forty minutes of the film sees superspy Lance Sterling (Smith) transformed into a humble pigeon. He’s helping do-gooder scientist Walter Beckett (Holland) as the two come into conflict with super-villain Killian (Ben Mendelsohn, typecast beyond redemption) and his metal hand. Killian has a drone army in place for nefarious purposes, and has set-up Sterling as his patsy; transformed into a pigeon, Sterling fights to clear his name and save the world.

Spies in Disguise pretty much drops the pigeon angle for the last half an hour and becomes a straight spy spoof, but not before it’s generated a few good lines. ‘I don’t think that subtitle was in my favour’ Sterling quips as foreign henchmen gather around him. Better still, although the production has a sleek Incredibles look, the film doesn’t rely on big guns and weapons; Walter prefers glitter bombs and holographic kitten distractions, and the conflict between the boy and the older, more experienced Sterling attempts to defuse macho stereotypes.

It’s notable that Spies in Disguise also offers a more hawkish stance towards geopolitics than other kids films, with Sterling teaching Walter about the need to interfere in foreign affairs. It’s a moot point, but this Blue Sky production doesn’t labour it, and with a notably slick car chase that gets off to a slow start when Sterling can’t get into his own car, plus some cool character designs, it’s a satisfying cinema outing for families who just want a quick sugar-rush and a few laughs rather than the final confusing instalment of a forty year old story.

Abominable 2019 ****

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The sound of shared laughter is one of the most magical things in cinema; there was plenty of it at the public screening of Dreamworks’s Abominable that I attended at the weekend. The packed house was, presumably, not drawn by political controversy over a map which appears in the film, but due to the How To Train Your Dragon connection via the film’s makers; Everest the Yeti might not be quite as complex a character as Toothless the Dragon, but he’ll do for now.

Everest is introduced in a fast-out-of-the-traps opening that sees him escaping from a holding pen in a laboratory, and swiftly making friends with Yi (Chloe Bennett). She has a yearning to escape from her family in Shanghai, and mourns her father by playing her violin to the city skyline at night. Yi and Everest begins a repatriation mission to get Everest back to his Himalayan family, very much in the style of Missing Link, with Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson in pursuit.

Abominable rises above many of the familiar tropes of animation; it’s slower than might be expected, and it takes a long time for the pursuers to catch up with the pursued for a vertiginous rope-bridge climax. Along the way, there are some touches to savour, notably the comical whooping snakes that steal scene after scene with their comic timing. But almost as sweet as the children’s laughter at their antics are the gasps of disbelief when it look like poor Everest is done for. His recovery, with a little help from Yi and her violin, makes for a rousing finale and hits just the right spot with a positive message that doesn’t feel contrived.

Animated films are ten a penny, and there’s always plenty of cheap imitations. The animation standard is high here, but what sets Abominable on the way to financial good heath and worldwide popularity is the standard of the film’s conception; Everest isn’t immediately lovable, and earns our affections through an engaging and imaginative story; this is no Mac and Me rip-off, but a sweet story of friendship between human and monster, and one that deserves its growing reputation and success. For Pixar graduate Jill Culton, who wrote and directed here, it’s a real triumph.

The Angry Birds Movie 2 ***

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The unimpressive box office results for the Angry Birds sequel formed part of a limp summer for sequels; with that in mind, this critic skipped the first Angry Birds Movie on Netflix to head straight for the second instalment. The question was; do modern sequels work as stand-alone films? The answer was a resounding no.

Watching Angry Birds 2 with no prior information is to witness a baffling, Godardian soup of colourful shapes, cartoon images, pop culture needles drops and familiar SNL voices. Red (Jason Sudeikis) is a red bird who lives on an island of diverse birds. Their neighbours and rivals the green pigs announce a truce so they can join forces against Zeta (Leslie Jones), a giant eagle spurned in love by Mighty Eagle (Bill Hader). Despite his various hang-ups, illustrated by an abortive speed-dating event, Red and his gang try to infiltrate Eagle Island to stop Zeta.

The Angry Birds Movie 2 has such a roster of talent involved that almost none of the characters stick, and the micro-plotting for each character is hard to follow. And yet, in the second half of the film there’s some inspired slapstick, including a set piece involving a collapsing eagle costume and a public urinal that’s probably the funniest moment in 2019 cinema so far. And Leslie Jones, often resistibly shrill in SNL, knocks it out of the park with Zeta’s voice, making her both abrasive and sympathetic.

There’s a lot of talent here, but the assumption that the first film will front-load audiences with relevant information is overplayed. It’s nice to see Zeta and Mighty Eagle put aside their issues and finally get married, a moment scored to the Turtles anthem Happy Together. The song accidentally evokes memories of a prominent place in Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 gay arthouse film which tooks it’s name from the track; the nagging take-away is an Angry Birds movie shouldn’t require the same concentration levels as the work of a Chinese visionary.

The Thief and the Cobbler 1990 ****

the-thief-and-the-cobbler-post2A few long car journeys with a friend recently gave birth to a new conversational cliche; when you first discovered the internet, what was the thing you searched for? One of the original reasons that this blog was created was Richard Williams’ astonishing animated film The Thief and the Cobbler, which popped up in the amoral copyright-free wild west that was You Tube over a decade ago. This was big news; Williams’ masterpiece was considered to be incomplete, unfinished; the chance to see any version at all was like a peek behind the wizard’s curtain. Williams was an animator whose work ranges from his Oscar-winning version of A Christmas Carol to the bridging scenes of The Charge of the Light Brigade to such feted work as the Pink Panther credits and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That feature led to Williams being given the chance to make a feature with the huge scale of a Disney, or at least a Don Bluth, and Williams delivered a film of strikingly unique tone and appearance. Disney’s Aladdin is one of the Mouse House’s best, and there’s a remarkable similarity in the style of the drawings here. The Arabian theme is bent with imagination, creating dizzying worlds for the characters to step nimbly through. The Thief and the Cobbler has always been hard to track down; brief glimpses on You Tube are your best bet. It’s a shame that at the time of his death in August 2019, Williams’s terrific film was barely viewable; perhaps now is the time to exhume The Thief and the Cobbler and celebrate Williams as an all-time great in the field of animation.

The Charge of the Light Brigade 1968 ****

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Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on as Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid pictures which might created today. The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with history, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vivid tableaux that say just as much about the vain-glorious mind-set of those involved that rest of the the film itself. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.

Charming 2018 ****

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If you’ve ever wondered what kind of film might involve Sia and John Cleese, Charming is the answer; a bright, poptastic animation from John Williams, a Shrek producer who gets how a post-modern take on fairy tales might work. The result is for anyone who dug the scenes between the various Disney princesses in Wreck It Ralph2: Ralph Breaks the Internet; Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are all featured here in competition for the hand of Prince Charming.

Prince Philippe Charming (Wilmer Valderrama), to give him his full name, is a man cursed with weapons-grade charm, so powerful that all women fall in love with him. It is, quite literally, a curse, and his father sends him out to run The Gauntlet, a series of challenges. Of course, the prince is actually a vain fop who cannot shoot an arrow or drive a cart, and he depends on a mysterious stranger for guidance. The stranger is a woman disguised as a man, and her name is Lenore (Demi Lovato), a jewel thief; she has similarly been cursed with an inability to fall in love. As they bond on their voyage through the trials set against them in the gauntlet, Phillipe and Lenore fall in love, but where will that love take them?

Some of the animation, particularly the faces, doesn’t feel top drawer, but Charming gets a quite a few key things right; the narrative stops for a few good, solid songs by Sia, performed by Sia and Lovato, and a upbeat anthem Trophy Boy by Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. Classic Disney soundtracks always hark back to what the parents want to hear; it’s refreshing to hear modern music rather than retro-classics. The cast are familiar, and identifiable; even John Cleese’s bits, as a Fairy Godmother and an executioner, are specific comic characters that are similar to, but not the same as, vintage Python. And the story’s heart is in the right place; the character of Prince Charming is undefined in many fairy-tales, and writer/director Ross Venokour hits the right groove in identifying gender bias and making turning sexist archetypes upside down.

There’s something of the meta-fictional zest of hit Hoodwinked here; a section where Phillipe and Lenore is caught by a race of Amazonian women called Matilija, with huge, zombie-like eyes has a strong visual flair, and for the most part, Charming manages to be quite literally what the title says.

In the UK, CharmingMovie is in cinemas nationwide 2 August 2019.

Toy Story 4 2019 ***

Toy Story 4 brought in a lot less than was expected at the US box office; $118 million is a huge haul, but the relative failure of the animation to draw crowds will be something of a talking point, given that Pixar’s brand is considered to be so powerful, and the franchise one of the best loved in cinema. Josh Cooley’s film is extremely well done, and doesn’t let down the series, but it is inessential; the previous trilogy wrapped up the characters, took them to the edge of extinction, and brought them back for a happy ending, with life lessons learned in time for bedtime. Toy Story 4 sets up the idea that Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Beep (Annie Potts) have an unrequired love, and that their separation is due to Woody’s loyalty to his owner, who doesn’t play with him so much. A new, home-made toy called Forky gets all the attention, and Woody and the other toys embark on various familiar heist scenarios to united the little girl with her toy. New elements, like Keanu Reeves as a Evel Knievel-style motorcycle jumper called Duke Kaboom, are great fun, and the animation is wonderful, but the bottom line is that Toy Story 4 attempts to spin out beloved characters once too many; it’s a trip to the well that wasn’t required, and the classic Toy Story characters are tarnished as a result.