Lady and the Tramp 2019 ***

lady-and-the-tramp-224a4ccAndrew Bujalski is something of a mercurial figure in American cinema; his Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation created a new genre ( mumblecore) and launched him towards such surprising indie fare as the alarming Computer Chess, a seemingly genial look at retro-computing style the concludes with a final scene which is genuine nightmare fodder. 2018’s Support The Girls was his best to date, a humanist account of women fighting a hard-scrabble existence in a Hooters-style eatery, leading critical figures such as myself to sign up for daily updates as to what Bujalski was up to.

Somehow, that next project is the live action version of Lady and the Tramp that appeared with a remarkable lack of fanfare on Disney+. There is form for this kind of decision; Noah Baumbach brought considerable wit to Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Bujalski’s aspirational, working class heroes are a good fit for the original 1955 animation. Some have suggested that Disney have dumped this $60 million project on their streaming service like a tv movie, but that’s no more accurate that saying that Netflix ‘dumped’ The Irishman; these are loss leaders. On watching Lady and the Tramp, it’s hard to imagine it doing the business of Lion King, Aladdin or other 2019 hits, but it’s still a prestige project with points to commend it.

Thomas Mann and Kiersey Clemons play Jim and Darling; he gifts her a dog, Lady, voiced by Tessa Thompson, who falls for Tramp, a diamond in the rough voiced by Justin Theroux. Tramp’s back-story, as to how he was abandoned by his owners, is genuinely heart-breaking, and chimes with Lady’s understanding that when the baby comes, the dog goes. This is a bitter-sweet thematic for a children’s film, and Lady and the Tramp balances both worlds, with angry dog-catchers, nasty-minded dogs (Clancy Brown) and restrictive mussels like the one Tramp sorts out for Lady. Other retro-items like the Siamese cats which stitch up poor Lady have been altered to avoid accusations of racism, but the less said about Ashley Jensen’s stereotyped Scottish terrier the better; some forms of racism die harder than others.

Lady and the Tramp’s reputation hinges largely on the animation, and the designs for the dogs here are the problem; neither Lady or the Tramp look quite as good as their animated selves, and the musical elements are inconsistent compared to Lion King or Aladdin’s full scores. But there are points to relish, like Ken Jeong, Adrian Martinez and Arturo Castro, all of who project exactly the right larger than life quality for live-action Disney. And the classic restaurant scene still works, with Lady and the Tramp sharing a spaghetti dinner under the auspices of master-chef and Oscar-winner F Murray Abraham. For Bujalski, co-writing with Kari Granlund, it’s a time-passer, hopefully on the way to more personal projects, but there’s enough elements consistent with his other works to make this worth a look for fans of his downtrodden style.

https://www.disneyplus.com

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea 1954 *****

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A good few decades have passed since I first saw this at my local flea-pit, and now the Disney+ catalogue provides a chance to look again at Richard Fleischer’s robust adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic story. I saw this on a revival at my local fleapit at the age of six, and was impressed by the Gothic design of the Nautilus ship, by the dynamic lead performances, and the impressive physical effects, not least the giant boggle-eyed squid that was worth the price of admission if paying to see fighting squids is your thing.

Disney’s adventures in live-action haven’t always been successful, but with an expensive, state-of-the-art Technicolor/Cinemascope pedigree, this is one old movie that comes up looking pretty spruce. Sure, there’s a few dated process shots, but there’s also some stunning glass paintings, notably Captain Nemo’s volcanic base, and lots of well–integrated hydraulics and clever model-work. When I was a kid, this movie was all about the monster, but the plot and character development still made an impression, and while the submarine effects are still cool, it’s the acting that really seals the deal on classic status here.

Was there ever a better leading man that Kirk Douglas? Often shirtless, resplendent in his earring, never short of a sea-shanty (A Whale of a Tale!) or a cheeky rabbit-punch in the melt for those who annoyed him, his Ned Land is a rambunctious creation, and the fore-runner of many inferior action heroes to come. He’s perfectly matched in James Mason’s Captain Nemo, who comes on all saturnine charm, but the veneer soon gives way to intense philosophical wrestling about the current state and vexed future of mankind. Nemo is an ambiguous character, the very opposite of Ned’s two-fisted, straight-up heroism, and yet the two men play off each other perfectly.

Ned eats with his hands; he’s ‘indifferent to utensils’ and unimpressed by Nemo’s sophisticated, evolved diet, which serves up ‘milk of a sperm whale’ and ‘sauté of unborn octopus’. Their struggle, narrated by the wonderfully bug-eyed Peter Lorre, is that of the heart and the brain, yet both men have each quality in abundance and this isn’t a shallow story of good and bad but does justice to Verne’s loftier ideas. Ultimately, 20,000 Leagues is the yardstick by which Disney/family films should be judged; yes, there are attractive carnival elements like Douglas serenading a seal or fighting off cannibals, but 20,000 League Under the Sea delivers when it comes to story, dialogue, acting and overall bonhomie; it’s a cinematic game-changer of its day that still comes up fresh as paint today.

Basil the Great Mouse Detective 1986 ****

basilPerhaps it’s due to the deep dive into the Finnish suicide/BDSM scene that my reviewing duties led me to yesterday, but this seemed like a good time to enter a more familiar world and that world, dear reader, is the world of mice detectives. Sure, Stuart Little always had some problems to solve, and I was impressed by meeting of minds featured in Tom and Jerry meet Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately the greatest mouse detective is Basil, and a opening trial offer on Disney + provided this critic with a welcome opportunity to examine this seminal story in the annals of the shrew shamus.

Disney’s financial and creative issues are well documented in the 1980’s, and the failure of The Black Cauldron to revive the studio’s animation fortunes is often seen as the end of a chapter that re-opens with The Little Mermaid. But Basil The Great Mouse Detective was something of a hit, not enough to revitalise the studio, but certainly identifiable as a turning point in retrospect. The John Musker and Ron Clements team that worked on Mermaid and Aladdin found their feet here, and the lively style that suffused these films starts here.

Based on Evie Tutus and Paul Galcone’s book Basil of Baker Street, this is the story of Basil (Barrie Ingham), a mouse detective who lives in 221b Baker Street, and emulates the more famous denizen of the property; he has his own Watson, freshly returned from a mouse war in Afghanistan, and his own mystery to solve, a kidnapped mouse who may have fallen foul of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Those wags who like to question the details of fictional world will have a ball with Basil’s London; there are mouse speak-easys, mouse prostitutes, a sexy mouse song sung by Melissa Manchester (Let Me Be Good to You) and mouse drugs; Watson is knocked for six by a solution put in his beer while he and Holmes are tracking down Rattigan. Their investigation leads them to their foe, and there’s an elaborate and highly impressive climax involving airships and a fight in and around the face of Big Ben. But the scenes before, with Basil taking control of an android mouse Queen of England to give Ratigan a public spanking, are as funny as the climax is thrilling.

Basil is never less than enjoyable, but there’s a few narrative flourishes, like the wonderfully elaborate manner of execution prepared for Holmes, that look forwards to the best comic exaggerations of the later Disney style. And in Ratigan’s batty assistant Fidget, there’s a truly iconic foe; wonderfully characterised, Fidget feels like the fore-runner of Iago and Abu in Aladdin, a side-kick whose expressiveness doubles-down on the main emotion of the scene, and he also feels like an ancestor of Bartok the bat in Don Bluth’s Anastasia.

This is arguably the most underrated Disney film, a secret success, sewing the seeds for a revitalisation of a creative identity that leads directly to the Disney+ brand. And no film that features Vincent Price as an evil villain can be dismissed; his saturnine voice works wonders here, and the scene in which he announces his tax plans for the country’s future at the expense of the weak and elderly is a neat indication of the moral folly of rampant capitalism, exactly the kind of trenchant political satire the kids today need to hear.

The Mandalorian 2019 *****

mandoEven if they’re still open, UK cinemas will be screening the first episode of The Mandalorian to empty auditoriums; events have overtaken the four-month wait to see the new Star Wars tv show from the Disney+ channel. A world forced to seek entertainment indoors is likely to lap up Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s riff on familiar characters and settings, not least because it feels like the first Star Wars sequel not slavishly following in the dull Skywalker mythology of force ghosts and soppy soap-opera revelations, but kicks-ass in the world of bounty-hunters; if there was a cinema in the Mos Eisley spaceport, it would be showing The Mandalorian to a gaggle of rough customers.

In general, this blog hasn’t considered individual episodes for review, but we’ll make an exception here; the first blast of The Mandalorian gets everything right. Tonally, we’re borrowing from the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s as a bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) completes a violent mission and returns to his sponsors, firstly Greef Karga (Rocky’s Carl Weathers) and then The Client, played by the inimitable Werner Herzog. Herzog claims he’d never seen a Star Wars film, and it would be nice to imagine that he’ll think the whole saga is as terse, imaginative and gripping as it is here. Manga Lone Wolf and Cub seems to have been the inspiration, but Favreau’s show is very much in a groove of its own.

The Mandalorian heads off, after a bit of self-repair, on a mission, running foul of a farmer (voiced by Nick Nolte) and a droid with self-destructive tendencies (Taika Waititi); both of these interactions are genuinely funny, and built nicely to an action climax that reveals, in a moment of quasi-Biblical grace, that the child he seeks is baby Yoda, at the tender age of just 50. And so, with just one episode under our belt, we’ve got an empathetic hero, a mission laced with intrigue, and a whole lot of momentum moving forward; it really doesn’t look so hard to make a satisfying Star Wars story on the basis of The Mandalorian.

This is the Star Wars that fans have been waiting for since 1978; making good on all the promises the franchise has previously ignored. The US has already gorged itself on the Baby Yoda meme, but The Mandalorian is the kind of fresh, must-see tv that will successfully launch a new channel worldwide, and finally bring balance to the force after four decades.

From March 23 in the UK, see http://www.disney.co.uk/

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.

Underwater 2020 ***

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‘You sweet, flat-chested elfin creature,’ is how Kristen Stewart gets described in Underwater, a slick, predictable but enjoyable horror/action hybrid that takes a lead from the highlights of the Alien franchise. Filmed in 2017, but sneaking out in 2020 as the last film under the 20th Century Fox banner now absorbed into Disney, it’s clear that Underwater’s belated release is a contractual obligation rather than a passion project; still, it’s a big film with a great star, and it’s far better than most of the misfits that appear in the January/February dump-slot.

It’s possible to imagine an alternate universe where Underwater is the big blockbuster of the year; about 1995 would seem like prime-time for William Eubank’s film, which hits the ground running as Norah Price (Stewart) struggles to protect the crew of the Kepler Minig station from a series of explosions, deep in the Mariana trench. Price manages to rescue her Captain (Vincent Cassel) and together they look for a way out, but there’s something in the water that doesn’t want them to leave. Before you can say Leviathan, Deep Rising, Deep Star Six or any number of genre titles, Price finds herself embarking on a hazardous walk across the sea-bed, with all kinds of Lovecraftian creatures in wait for her.

Underwater is a cut above most creature features, and suggests a project that could easily have been released under the Cloverfield banner. The timing of the film’s release give Stewart an uneviable 123 combo of flops, with Charlie’s Angels and Seberg barely making an impression, and yet the mark of a real star is that they’re good in everything, and Stewart is terrific in all three films. An action woman who doesn’t need any help from men, she’s got this, and manages to be the Ripley that Underwater needs. The gear shifts might be generic, but the dialogue has the right salty feel; “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,’ is a good way to describe the miles of bad road that Price has to navigate.

It’s a shame that Underwater is being so comprehensively buried, and that this is seemingly the last gasp of the Fox imprint; the consolation that that Eubank’s film is a good example of the kind of lean, futuristic action movie that Fox did so well, but it’s unlikely that Disney will want to do at all. With the number of action movies, teen movies, comedies and other genres decreasing at the multiplex, it’s a shame that this kind of tough action movie is an endangered species. Stewart will go on to bigger and better things, but Underwater gives a spirited last hurrah for a lock-and-load ‘soldiers vs monsters’ thrill-ride.

Dumbo 2019 ****

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Disney didn’t bother mounting any kinds of awards campaign for Dumbo, arguably the runt of the litter of live action re-enactments of classic animations that dominated the box office of 2019. In the UK, there’s not yet been a chance to view Andrew Bujawski’s Lady and the Tramp, but Tim Burton’s superior Dumbo stands aside from the rest of the pack by dint of revising and remodelling the original rather than just a shot-for-shot remake.

In fact, the only thing wrong with Dumbo is Dumbo himself: the CGI elephant, like most photo-realistic creatures, lacks the charm of the way that Dumbo was originally drawn. Story-wise, there’s more going on that just censoring songs (When I See an Elephant Fly) or situations (Dumbo getting hammered), with strong elements of corporate and business satire via crooked businessmen Vandevere and Remington (Michael Keaton and Alan Arkin), who lock horns as they try and figure out the best way to exploit the flying elephant in the room.

Danny DeVito makes a sympathetic ringmaster, and the moppet kids are fine as these things go; Burton creates a package that’s ideal in terms of putting new wine in old bottles, but also doesn’t let up on the darkness. ‘Everything is going to be like it was before’ offers one character soothingly, but this Dumbo doesn’t coast by on nostalgia. Several close-ups of elephant dung on the sanded floor of the circus hardly lend themselves to warm and fuzzy feelings, while the death of an audience member is lingered on, even down to a follow-up shot of a stretcher being loaded into a coroner’s van.

Given that Dumbo kicks off with children discovering that their father (Colin Farrell) has lost his arm in the war, it’s clear that Burton’s mind was on something more here than flogging toys; the animals may be photorealistic, but the Dreamland amusement park which ends up on fire could only come from Burton’s Gothic imagination, and the same goes for Eva Green’s trapeze vamp. Like Dark Shadows or Big Eyes, Dumbo may not please it’s target audience with it’s feeling for both light and shade, but it provides plenty of evidence of Tim Burton’s genuine acumen and showmanship as a director.

Ultimately, Max Medici’s aphorism feels relevant to Burton’s wrestling act with his studio; ‘Never do anything I tell you without checking with me first.’ With directors and other talent seemingly falling in and out of popular franchise projects, Burton is one of the few who can bend a studio to his vision. Presumably the dismal $350+ million box office take for Dumbo will put a stop to such original thinking in future family films. But Tim Burton’s failure brings back memories of the 1980’s, when Disney couldn’t get arrested, and films like The Black Cauldron, Tron, Dragonslayer and Something Wicked This Way Comes went rapidly down the tubes. In retrospect, these failures are often better than most successes, and there’s far more of interest in Tim Burton’s Dumbo than The Lion King and Aladdin put together.

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.

Kiki’s Delivery Service 1989 *****

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The news that Disney+ has knocked a million subscribers off Netflix constitutes the first substantial flare-up in the streaming war. Amazon’s agreement with Studio Ghibli to feature their stunning collection of animated films suggests that the battle for the hearts and minds of living-room dwellers is about to switch into a higher gear; the Ghibli catalogue is as rich as Disney’s, and arguably has fewer mis-steps or changes of direction. Ghibli make beautiful films with genuine depth; sign a child up for a course of Studio Ghibli and you’re buying them a ticket for a regular Sunday-service cat-bus to a unfamiliar yet instantly relatable world of originality and imagination.

While Spirited Away is arguably the most full-realised Ghibli film, Kiki’s Delivery Service is the place to start, and the latest blu-ray incarnation, arriving just in time for Christmas, is the obvious jumping-off point. Kiki is a young witch, sent away from home by her parents to find herself in the big city; this is a coming of age story rather than an adventure, the stakes are small but have gravity.

Gigi the cat joins Kiki on her broomstick as she flies high in the night sky; voiced by Phil Hartman, Gigi’s caustic commentary grounds the sweetness of the enterprise with a more knowing sense of the real world. There’s are no villains to stereotype; Kiki’s fight is to find her place within the community as she runs erands, find a job in a bakery, observs the way that people interact. This is a film that addresses young people in a carefully drawn adult environment, and has valuable lessons to accompany lush storybook visuals and a soaring score.

The voice cast here is top notch; Kirsten Dunst, Debbie Reynolds and Hartman all do great work in the English dub, and both the revised and original versions have disparate selling points. While language and characters change between the two, each conveys a fresh take on Kiki’s development. The plentiful extras on a second disk include and investigation of where the real locations are that inspired the look of the city, plus feature length storyboards that capture the essence of the look. It’s a substantial package that will also appeal to anyone interested in the art of animation.

Disney had recorded issues with religious groups who didn’t like the witchcraft theme featured here, and perhaps that’s why they allowed their grip on Kiki to slip. Their loss will be Amazon’s gain, but even thinking about such corporate conflict is incongruous to the simple charm that Hayao Miyazaki’s film offers. Kiki’s Delivery Service would be an ideal gift for a family or child, a gentle, subtle, magical animation that is as close as can be imagined to a perfect film.

Kiki’s Delivery Service 30th Anniversary Limited Edition is available exclusively at Amazon and is available to order here – http://po.st/KIKI30

 

The Watcher in the Woods 1980 ***

watcherThe file marked Disney Horror films isn’t too substantial; the notion of staff hailing John Hough’s The Watcher in the Woods as ‘This could be our Exorcist’ suggests that the company were indeed looking in surprising directions in the early 1980’s. The Watcher in the Woods came out just before The Shining, and has a number of similar tropes, notably children discovering backwards writing on the windows of a crumbling mansion. But Watcher was pulled by the company bosses, re-edited and given a new opening and closing sequence; the original version, and Hough’s preferred version, are even harder to find than this 1982 reissue. Safe pair of hands Vincent McEveety was drafted in for the reshoots, but the regular reader of this blog will know that John Hough is the draw here; from Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry to Biggles, his skills are first rate. Here, he brings a real gloss to proceedings as David McCallum and his family move into an old house, where Bette Davis has a secret relating to a missing child and a spectral presence. Since the 1980’s, PG horror has become something of a staple, but in 1980, the whole concept of a children’s horror movie seemed like a contradiction. Hough’s movie has plentiful jump scares, like a child putting on a witch’s mask, that don’t connect to the main narrative. But reboots and remakes are welcome when they right wrongs; Disney’s idea was ahead of the curve, and even though there’s been a take Lifetime tv movie remake with Anjelica Huston, it would be nice to see Disney get to grips with this property and see what attracted them to it in the first place. It’s certainly got atmosphere, even if the story defies logic for children and adults alike.