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Oliver & Company (1988)
One of Disney's weakest animated films
I have nostalgic memory of watching the original trailer for "Oliver and Company" a lot as it was on the British VHS of "Sleeping Beauty", one of the first videocassettes we ever had. This made me interested in the film as a child, even though I only got to see it many years later. As an adult, however, "Oliver and Company" seems a bit of an enigma. Made during a period when the whole Disney company was back on the up after a slump in the early to mid 80s, it's surprisingly one of Disney's weakest animated films from the main animation division, greatly paling in comparison to the likes of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "The Little Mermaid". Reimagining the story of "Oliver Twist" with cats and dogs is a bit of a far-fetched idea, and taking a long, rambling Victorian epic and turning it into a fun-filled adventure with cuddly cats and dogs in New York doesn't really work. The characters are cloying, and the desperate urge to be contemporary results in a film that ends up being truly dated. Some of the songs are fine enough, while others are embarrassing (especially Bette Midler's number "Perfect Isn't Easy", penned by Barry Manilow). Equally, the film feels very disjointed in tone. It starts off as a comical urban romp but in the last act suddenly turns into a dark story of kidnapping child characters. There may be a happy ending, but overall, the turn of events just seems inappropriate even for a film studio renowned for specialising in mild peril for children. It might be worth a watch if you're a serious Disney aficionado and want to watch all 50 plus animated features, but for anyone else, I wouldn't recommend it.
Into the Woods (2014)
Please don't expect a nice, cuddly fairy tale from Disney
First of all, this is not a Disney film and should not be viewed as such, at least in the traditional sense. Yes, it was released and produced by the Walt Disney Company, but I think people seem to be forgetting or are unaware that this is an adaptation of a late 80s Broadway musical by Sondheim and not something developed in-house at Disney. Comparing it to any of Disney's animated films (or more recently its live-action remakes of animated films) is perhaps a bit unfair. Moreover, the original stage production was not trying to follow the Disney fairy tale formula. The original Grimm tales, while diverse in range and tone given their number, are generally quite sombre stories. In a way, they are reflections of the world we live in, as brutal as it may be at times. Moreover, many tales from the Grimm collection, and other folk traditions (such as "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "Puss in Boots"), have morally ambiguous protagonists. Was simply being poor or potentially being eaten that good an excuse for Jack to steal from a giant? After decades of Disneyfication, the plot of "Into the Woods" essentially takes the originals in their rustic, plague-ridden glory and adds a second act, probably intentionally written for this generation, reminding us to be careful of wishes, decadence and ambition getting the better of us.
This take on the fairy tale may not be to everyone's liking, just as how some people may not enjoy the classic Disney formula or the practice of turning fairy tales into action movies. What is important is to not confusing the purpose of this film with the purpose of "Frozen", "Maleficent" or many other recent fairy tale films.
As for myself, I really enjoyed "Into the Woods". I hadn't been too familiar with the original stage production so I didn't have high expectations in that regard. In any case, I loved the music and the script. The cast was very good, and the costumes and sets were enchanting (for the critics of Johnny Depp's wolf: use your imagination); overall they caught the spirit of enchantment and the hardship of pre-industrial Europe so present in many classic fairy tales so well. Seeing the Grimms' version of "Cinderella" on screen as opposed to the Perrault/Disney model was also a refreshing change. The infamous final act is admittedly a bit slow but ends on a poignant note.
Attention-grabbing but sleazy and embarrassing
I really don't know what to think of "Cucumber". It's certainly gripping but it also left me rather uncomfortable and wondering what I was doing to myself. To give you a bit of context: I'm from the Manchester area and it took me until my early-to-mid 20s to buck up the courage to come out. In the past few years since then, I've encountered a variety of gay people. Some are scene- obsessed, others don't have anything to do with the scene. Some are intelligent, some are stupid. Some seek alternative lifestyles, some don't. Some are quite conservative regarding sex and relationships, others far from. The fact is that sexual orientation does not necessarily define one's lifestyle or personal beliefs, nor should anyone try to beg to differ.
Though not as sleazy as the earlier "Queer as Folk", "Cucumber" portrays a stereotypical world of gay people (particularly gay men) who are narcissists, sex-addicts and general sleaze-balls. True, these people exist, and perhaps it's good to see gay people who are broke and on the fringes of society instead of fabulous, perfect- bodied and super-successful people who live in penthouses in LA or Manhattan. For someone who doesn't want to be shoved in a category and only interact with people of my own sexual orientation, it's quite frankly insulting. I understand that it's meant to be an over- the-top comedy-drama series and that it shouldn't be taken as realistic, but the fact of the matter is that some less informed people may watch it and come to see it as how gay people act and live. Feel free to make up your own mind on the programme, but just be warned.
Robin Hood (1973)
A charming little gem, if far from perfect
"Robin Hood" was made at a strange transit point in animation history, long after the Golden Age of Cartoons yet still some time before the renewed interest in animation brought about by Disney, Pixar and others. Moreover, it was one of the first animated features made in the awkward period just after Walt Disney had died, a period renowned for being Disney's creative nadir.
Many of the criticisms of the era can be rallied against "Robin Hood". The pace is off sometimes, and the plot itself isn't very cohesive (then again, the original legend is essentially a cycle of various stories and episodes). Many of the characters look like carbon copies of designs from earlier Disney films, and indeed whole sequences feature animation re-used from productions as far back as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".
Yet for all that's going against it, "Robin Hood" strangely seems to work. For one thing, it has a sheer charm and spirit to it that few films can boast, and the strong appeal of the original source material arguably helps as well. In addition to it generally being a fun film, it has some good songs, including the soothing ballads "Love" and "Not in Nottingham" and the catchy "Oo-de-Lally" and "Whistle Stop". While it can't be classed as highly as the likes of "Snow White", "Pinocchio" and "Beauty and the Beast", "Robin Hood" is definitely worth a watch.
Les Misérables (2012)
Do You Hear the People Sing?
I wasn't sure what I was going to make of "Les Misérables". I'm a casual fan of the original stage musical, having starred in a youth amateur dramatic version as a teenager, but I was intrigued to see how it may play as an actual film considering its stagy, somewhat conceptual nature. As it turned out, I really enjoyed it. It does seem to run on a bit too long, but I think that is the case with such an epic story following several characters over several decades. Interestingly, the film adds in a lot of plot points and details from Hugo's novel originally trimmed from the stage musical.
I wasn't sure how the live singing aspect would work (especially since some of the soundtrack recordings sounded a bit muffled), but I do think it worked really, really well, and gave an authenticity to the production. The performances were generally all very good, in particular Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Russel Crowe as Javert. The "I Dreamed a Dream" number brought me to tears, as did the reprise of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" at the end of the film. I can easily recommend this film to anybody who is interested in musicals or historic cinema in general.
Used to be a guilty pleasure, but has long jumped the shark
What I really liked about "Glee" in its first two seasons was that the characters and their situations were so easy to relate to, especially for someone like me (and many others, naturally) who went to a conservative, small-town school and never seemed to fit in. Despite the odd ridiculous moment or some bland covers of already bland songs, "Glee" became a true guilty pleasure, and I put the emphasis more on pleasure than on guilty. However, the whole premise of it involving a group of pupils at a high school would mean that it was never meant to last that long, and I do think it should have stopped once the main characters had left the school. Now the ridiculousness has become more and more pronounced, and I've stopped paying attention to the series. Sorry.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Definitely gets better with multiple viewings
When I first saw "Fantastic Mr Fox" back when it was first released, I did like it, but didn't think it was amazing. However, multiple viewings since have allowed me to reappraise the film, and it has now become one of my favourite films. I think I initially expected it to be a fairly straight adaptation of the Roald Dahl original (a modern classic I, along with many others in the UK, grew up with), something I should have realised it wouldn't necessarily be given Wes Anderson's unique way of fingerprinting his films. Upon successive viewings, I realised that Anderson had simply reinterpreted Dahl's vision in his own unique, beautiful fashion, and by doing so made it Dahl-esque in other ways. Definitely recommended.
Song of the South (1946)
Wonderful animated segments, but the live-action segments are rather underwhelming
"Song of the South" may be renowned today as the film Disney wants you to forget about, with no official DVD or Blu-Ray release. However, the complete stance against the film has only fairly recently been imposed outside the US. In the UK, it was available on VHS throughout the 90s, and it was also shown from time to time on the BBC2 channel. I was therefore able to watch this film growing up, and have both a taped-off-TV version and an official release I managed to find for 99p in a charity shop.
Concerning the live-action parts, while pleasant enough, they are not all that well realised on the whole. With regards to the film being racist, I wouldn't label it as such. However, the race relations in the film are handled incredibly naively, which makes them indirectly insensitive as a result. However, the animated segments more than make up for the rather dull live-action parts. They're certainly among the best animated things Disney produced after 1942, with some great characterisation and animation. And of course, there are some wonderful Disney songs, including the famous "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah", easily one of the most joyful songs ever composed.
Though I understand the controversy surrounding it, it would be nice if it were given a commercial release, even if it were only advertised to collectors. Though the film overall may not exactly be a true classic, the animated segments certainly are.
Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
Fee Fi Fo Fum, I watched something kinda dumb...
I think that the key to a truly successful fantasy story, be it on paper or on film, is one that embraces the humble nature of the story and provides a wonderful adventure narrative that also can play to real human emotions. This is probably the reason why the old myths, legends, fables and fairy tales have endured in some form or another for hundreds of years. "Jack and the Beanstalk" may have fanciful imagery of beanstalks rising into the clouds, but I think that another key to its endurance is the way it addresses themes of retribution and the underdog overcoming huge obstacles.
"Jack the Giant Slayer" hardly ticks this box. It instead goes the route so popular as of late of forcing aspects of an old fairy tale or children's classic into a clichéd modern action film, without successfully focusing on the really engaging human aspects of the story. Any attempt at incorporating human emotion seemed truly contrived. There is hardly any character development, with practically every Hollywood clichéd stock character being used at one point or another. With regards to the acting, Ewan McGregor is the only real shining star for his rather tongue-in-cheek turn as a pompous yet good-natured knight. The plot has several holes (especially with regards to how the giants seem to be able to live for so long, and how they seem to exist in such large numbers when they're all male), and overall, the script just seemed generally misconceived. In all honesty, it got so slow at points that I kept on thinking how I would have adapted the original "Jack and the Beanstalk" story. In short, "Jack the Giant Slayer" is truly a missed opportunity for bringing a wonderful story to the screen in proper grandeur.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Honestly runs better in the standard cut
Though far from perfect, "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" has always been a favourite of mine since childhood. The plot may be a bit muddled in places, but the sheer joy and fun of the fantasy material makes up for it. The animated sequences in particular are a real joy, as is the comedy-action climax to the film. Some of the songs are underrated classics, in particular "The Age of Not Believing" and "The Beautiful Briny". Also, the elaborate opening credit sequence is gorgeous to look at.
That said, you may want to be careful which version of the film you see. The film premiered at around 135 minutes, but was cut down for general release to 117 minutes. This 117 minute version was the one I first saw as a child. In 1996, Disney restored the film to a length comparable to the premiere version, and this is what was released onto DVD. Ironically, I think the film does run better at a shorter length. Much of what is added are new or extended musical numbers, as well as the extension of a rather superfluous subplot involving a somewhat saucy vicar. I don't particularly find the new musical numbers that engaging, and the numbers that are extended aren't that great. Though there are some interesting extra verses in the extended "Portobello Road" number, the several dance scenes added to it renders it seemingly unending. "Eglantine" also goes on a bit too much for my liking. In addition some re-dubbing was required for some of the new scenes as the original mastertracks were not found. Angela Lansbury was able to come back and sounds fine, but many of the other actors weren't and the results are mixed.
It would be nice if an inevitable Blu-Ray showed the film in either two of its versions, or if at least the original dialogue tapes were found for the extended scenes. I do believe that there are still ways to get hold of the 117 minute version. I have the first UK DVD release from around 2002, but I have read on Amazon that a later UK release has the film run at 117 minutes in order to align itself with some old European dubs on the disc, and I've also read online that TCM in the US sometimes shows the shorter version. In any case, "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" is a fun, family classic and easily worthy of my recommendation.
Rise of the Guardians (2012)
Decent but not amazing animated film
"Rise of the Guardians" seems to have underperformed at the box-office, particularly when judged against the majority of Dreamworks animated films. While I'm not a regular follower of Dreamworks animated films (at least compared to how I am with Disney and Pixar), I did catch this one. Something regarding "Rise of the Guardians" that stuck with me was that it did come across as a bit childish and saccharine at times, especially in the scenes involving Jack Frost and others interacting with a group of child characters. However, the animation and art direction is fabulous, richly detailed and haunting. I also liked the imaginative renderings of the stock legendary characters, even if the difficult relationship between Jack Frost and the Easter Bunny seemed to scream of cliché. Though hardly the best animated film of the year, it's still worth a watch.
Fairylore Pixar Style
"Brave" is unlike any film made previously by Pixar. Not only does it feature a female protagonist as hyped prior to release, but it is essentially a fairy tale instead of a science-fiction or funny animal story. Having said that, it doesn't quite fit the typical Disney Princess niche that you may expect. For one thing, it isn't based on a traditional story from Grimm or Andersen, nor does it focus on a romance between two young lovers. It instead is an original story inspired by Scottish legend and focuses upon the type of family relationships that a modern audience can easily relate to. As a result, it does what a good fantasy film does best; underneath all the enchantment and magic, it speaks directly to the heart. Not to mention, the film looks beautiful. "Brave" perhaps won't top the list of best Pixar films, but it still ranks as a lovely, involving film.
Bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, wouncy, fun fun fun fun fun!
"The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" combines the three original featurettes based on A.A. Milne's original Pooh stories (the first two of which were produced under Walt Disney's guidance) with some new brief linking segments and a new, touching epilogue. Although ultimately Americanised, the original wit and tone of A.A. Milne is captured well, something that a lot of subsequent Disney Pooh product can't claim. Adapting E.H. Shepard's lovely illustrations with a touch of the Disney style, it contains so many wonderful, whimsical moments - Pooh getting stuck in Rabbit's front door, Piglet being blown away by the wind, Tigger shocking Pooh with tales of hefalumps and woozles - plus a wonderful array of tunes from the Sherman Brothers songbook.
The supposed original intention with the Pooh property was to produce a feature, but was eventually reconfigured as a running series of featurettes with the option of compiling them to create a feature-length release. Re-combining the shorts into a feature was seen as a sort of tribute to Walt Disney's original intention, but it does ultimately seem a bit disconnecting. In particular, the style and quality of the later "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too" segment doesn't quite match that of the two preceding chapters. As a result, I do think the three segments perhaps work a bit better as shorts of their own, but nonetheless, the material is utterly charming and still works reasonably well in a feature compilation format. Worth a look.
Life in a Day (2011)
Interesting, if somewhat erratic, social experiment
"Life in a Day" is the result of a social experiment carried out by film legend Ridley Scott and YouTube. The objective was for participants to film their lives on Saturday 24th July 2010, answering a few simple questions along the way. Apparently 4500 hours of footage was received, of which around 90 minutes worth appears. The ultimate result is arguably a somewhat erratic film with a hurried tone, as it tries to condense as much as possible into one film of regular length.
Nonetheless, it is a fascinating look into the diversity of the world, and of life itself. The tone of the film is optimistic and hopeful without seeming too preachy or air-headed. Indeed, the joys of the world are exhibited alongside the pain and frustration that equally must be endured. The film also endures as a fascinating time capsule, and should do so for future generations; life in Afghanistan (including the type of images you're unlikely to see), the 2010 Duisburg Love Parade disaster and the life of an American soldier's wife are all referenced. Worth a watch.
Alice in Wonderland (1985)
Not one to show to the Lewis Carroll society...
I remember seeing this version of Alice in Wonderland as quite a young child (around six) and thought that it was fantastic. Having passed the 20 mark, I decided to look at it again, and I regret doing so. Not that it tarnished any sentimental childhood memories; I honestly felt that I wasted my time. Aside from perhaps some cheap direct-to-video animated versions, this probably ranks as the worst adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" I have ever seen. It comes across like some blind attempt at creating a latter-day "Wizard of Oz" or "Mary Poppins", and it completely fails.
It at least annoys me that they didn't get a British Alice, but some cutesy American girl. Even Walt Disney, king of Americanisation, understood that Alice should be portrayed by a British actress. A contrived attempt at depicting Alice's nationality comes from a single framed picture of Queen Victoria hanging up on the wall in her house at the beginning.
In any case, the story progresses in the traditional manner: a girl named Alice follows a white rabbit down a mysterious hole and into a strange fantasyland home to the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts and other funnies. "Through the Looking Glass" is also featured, linked to the Wonderland sections by an encounter with the Jabberwock. With practically all the characters invented by Carroll appearing, many of them often ignored by other filmmakers, you might be mistaken for thinking that, despite an American Alice, this adaptation is pretty faithful. This is hardly the case, however, as the tone of the original is alarmingly distorted.
Anybody who is familiar with Lewis Carroll's original books will remember "Alice in Wonderland" being anarchic, rarely sentimental in the traditional sense and above all means not didactic. Equally, the best adaptations, from the 1966 BBC film to theDisney classic, don't necessarily follow the original narrative completely; they instead re-interpret the material but stay true to the overall tone to achieve their own filmic equivalent. This version of "Alice in Wonderland", however, comes across more as a wannabe "Wizard of Oz" intent, and tones down the original's anarchy into a moralising story about Alice growing up so that she can have tea with the grown-ups. The characters, many of them sadly played by a good number of normally talented actors and actresses, will suddenly jump from acting somewhat akin to the grotesque verse-reciting loonies of Carroll into behaving like creations bent on teaching how Alice can mature. Moreover, they usually do so through horrible songs. The use of the Jabberwock as a personification of Alice's childhood fears is equally as stupid, as is the constant use of artificial thrill moments and cheesy science-fiction sound effects.
In fact, the production values on the whole are pretty dire. The sets seem lifeless and go overboard on fake plants. Most of the costumes look like they were hired from a fancy-dress shop, and, some of them look like they were made by six-year olds. For example, the Jabberwock looks like he's made of latex, and the oysters from "The Walrus and the Carpenter" look like people who got stuck in beach party props.
I understand that there are thousands of Americans out there who adore this version on the grounds of nostalgia, and by no means am I trying to wreck their childhood memories by trashing this film. However, as far as everyone else is concerned, I'd say that it's best worth avoiding. From every point of view, it's well and truly a bad, tacky, dated piece of fluff.
Make Mine Music (1946)
Not bad, but better seen as individual segments
Unable to initially return to making true animated features like "Pinocchio" and "Bambi" after the Second World War, Disney turned to making "package features". Like "Fantasia", these films strung together various shorts and featurettes into a feature-length anthology. Between their release in the 1940s and the DVD age, these films were rarely, if ever, shown in their entirety. Instead, the individual segments were re-released as stand-alone pieces, some of which became quite popular. It's understandable why this was done. Whereas the individual elements of "Fantasia" have a similar enough artistic vision to be kept intact as a single experience, the package features do seem like a line of random, individual shorts that have been strung together. As such, the films can seem quite uneven and somewhat unsatisfying collectively.
In particular, "Make Mine Music" stands out as being one of the most inconsistent package features. It consists of ten shorts, all relying heavily on music. Some of the shorts are fairly conventional, story-driven, while others are quite experimental. The real stand-out pieces are "Peter and the Wolf" (initially considered for a sequel/continuation of "Fantasia") and "The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met". The stories are engaging, and they are absolutely charming, although "Peter and the Wolf" relies a bit too much on narration. It comes as no surprise that these two shorts became the film's most famous segments. Special mention should also be given to "Blue Bayou", which uses footage from a deleted segment of "Fantasia" that was to be set to Debussy's "Clair de Lune" (here, though, it's set to a love ballad).
Other segments, however, vary. "The Martins and the Coys", which was rather stupidly removed from the American DVD, is not bad but hardly memorable. "After You've Gone", an interlude featuring anthropomorphised musical instruments, means well but falls quite flat, ultimately appearing as not much more than filler. "All the Cats Join In" and "Without You" equally seem like experimental filler, yet both are more successful. "Casey at the Bat", on the other hand, contains too many self-indulgent gags and overly caricatured animation to be of any real artistic or entertainment merit, a fact not helped by Jerry Colona's obnoxious narration. The two other segments, "Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet" and "Two Silhouettes", are so cutesy that they become nothing but pieces of unadulterated kitsch.
Ultimately, the only people I would recommend "Make Mine Music" to would be the people who would only be interested in it - Disney fans and animation buffs. To everyone else, as with a good number of package films, it would probably be best seeing individual segments, which is how these films work best.
The Jungle Book (1967)
Certainly a Disney classic but perhaps not one of the best
"The Jungle Book" was the last animated feature that Walt Disney worked on before his death, and the film's immense success probably helped prove there was an audience for Disney animation. The character animation is superb; it's no wonder why so many of today's top animators cite this as being among their favourite films. The laid-back, episodic nature of the story (far removed from Kipling's highly strung original, which Disney actually advised his staff NOT to read) allows for some delightfully entertaining scenes; the encounters with King Louie and the Liverpudlian vultures spring to mind. The characters also have a certain warmth about them that hasn't been seen in many Disney films before or since. The score is equally wonderful, and a good number of the songs - "I Wanna Be Like You" and "The Bare Necessities" in particular - have become standards.
Having said that, I can't help but find "The Jungle Book" to be rather slight, and perhaps even overrated. As far as I'm concerned, the aforementioned individual elements seem better than the film as a whole. In particular, the lack of structure is as much a curse as it is a blessing; for every engaging scene or two, there can be a truly boring scene. Regardless of these inferior aspects, "The Jungle Book" is a good film that rightly deserves the label of "Disney classic".
Être et avoir (2002)
A lovely, sensitive portrait of rural France
"Être et avoir" documents a year at a small school consisting only of a single, mixed-age class in one of the most rural parts of the Auvergne region in France. Much can be said about Georges Lopez, who is the perfect teacher; firm but fair; reserved yet never impersonal; an overall dedicated and stimulating figure. What is also wonderful, however, is that the film paints such a sensitive, lovely picture of life in rural France - very rural France, for that matter. Complimenting the footage of the school master and his pupils are poetic scenes of the surrounding Auvergne countryside and of the home lives of the school's pupils. These scenes not only show the bucolic lifestyle that has somehow managed to survive for centuries largely unchanged, but also of the impact of this way of life upon an education system prescribed by city-folk. The film is slow-paced but never boring; it suits the quiet nature of the environment being captured. In short, "Être et avoir" is a glorious, inspiring gem.
Mirror Mirror (2012)
One of Hollywood's better fairy tale re-imaginings
"Mirror Mirror" is part of Hollywood's current fascination with re-imagining fairy tales for the big screen, most likely spurred on by the success of Tim Burton's take on "Alice in Wonderland". In fact, it's the first of two "Snow White" adaptations to come from Hollywood this year; we'll see "Snow White and the Huntsman" this summer. I'm still unsure as to why either studio would go ahead with a film version of a story that is already being adapted by another studio for a release within the same window, even if the two resulting films play to two very different audiences. In any case, this one certainly seemed the less contrived of the two, and as it stands, it's not that bad a film if you take it for what it is: a campy, easy-to-watch rendition of a favourite story.
As expected nowadays, the film greatly deviates from the typical story, and much is embellished. The Queen is robbing the people of its taxes to fund her vanity and lavish lifestyle. When Prince Charming comes to town, a ball is held so the Queen can woo him to grab his gold. Unfortunately, Snow White sneaks into the ball to try and gain support for overthrowing her cruel stepmother, and the said royal instead falls for her. Spurred by jealousy and a fear of usurpation, the Queen orders Snow White to be killed in the woods. The henchman, however, lets her go. As per Grimm, the princess is taken in by a band of seven dwarfs, this time a bunch of Robin Hood-like bandits as opposed to singing miners.
From this point on, the story tends to stop following the traditional narrative altogether, with the exception of the Queen's intention to kill using dark arts. By ignoring the plot and going in the direction of a completely over-the-top romp full of garish colours and distractingly cartoon-like imagery, some of the power of the original story is lost. Nonetheless, the film is still highly fun and entertaining, and one gets the impression that the people making it had a lot of fun doing so. Julia Roberts' Queen is fabulous in her role as a completely hissable vamp, and the other cast members, in particular the guys playing the dwarfs, are wonderful as well. None of the characters are really fully realised, though in a story like this, I think we can accept the odd archetype. In any case, "Mirror Mirror" certainly ranks as one of the better Hollywood recent re-imaginings of famous tales, and comes recommended.
Delightful historically inaccurate romp
In an era where a constant flow of crass, computer-animated kiddie flicks are flung onto screens month by Hollywood after month, "The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists" is by all means a great breath of fresh air. Made in good old stop-motion animation, the film concerns the adventures of the Pirate Captain and his crew of sillies, possibly the world's worst pirates. Attempting to win Pirate of the Year award, the Pirate Captain ends up accidentally kidnapping a young Charles Darwin. So begins the eponymous adventure, with a pirate-despising Queen Victoria as a villain.
The film is by all means lots of fun. It doesn't take itself seriously by all means, and its ludicrous intentional misuse of history and historical figures makes it all the more enjoyable. Unfortunately, as with some of Aardman's feature films to date, the film seems to suffer from the fact that these productions have to be made in partnership with Hollywood studios with brainless executives calling the shots. Moments of brashness and contrived sentiment are hammered into what is a film with very British sensibilities. Needless to say, the more enjoyable aspects of the film certainly make up for these flaws, and the quality of animation is certainly top-notch. This band of misfits certainly gets my seal of approval.
War Horse (2011)
Imperfect, though well shot and thought provoking
Prior to seeing "War Horse", I had read Michael Morpurgo's book. Even though it may be a children's novel, it has as much as much for an adult reader as there is for a young reader. Against the sombre backdrop of the First World War is the simply told, heart-warming story of a horse and his beloved young master - in short, a wonderful mix.
I may be over-simplifying things, especially as the film is arguably more an adaptation of the London stage production, but the translation from page to screen does turn the story far more into an overall commentary on the First World War than the story of a horse and his young master; one such example would be the treatment of Joey the horse's health issues, which are not as widely covered in. As such, the film is not as involving as it could have been. None the less, it is still overall very emotionally effective, a reflective experience that really puts one's life into perspective and makes one really wonder what worth war is. What's more is that there is some absolutely fantastic cinematography, ranging from scenes of stunning horse rides across the Devon countryside to smoky battle shots (not to mention quick homages to previous epics, most notably a nod to "Gone With the Wind" at the end of the film). Though ultimately flawed, "War Horse" is still definitely worth a watch.
The Iron Lady (2011)
Too much frame narrative
"The Iron Lady" suffers from a number of factors, mostly pertaining to a messy plot structure. The life of Margaret Thatcher is indeed interesting subject matter, but condensing it all into a frame narrative conversing with her late husband doesn't really work. The moments that do focus on Thatcher's real life tend to work well, even though they seem a bit few and far between. Meryl Streep is obviously the big draw here, with a believable performance as both an unconventional political leader and an elderly woman, but there are plenty of others who do a great job, in particular Alexandra Roach as the younger, dizzy Thatcher (a role that seems to have been quite looked over by many). Bad plot structure or not, though, "The Iron Lady" is definitely worth a look into.
Pete's Dragon (1977)
Bland Disney fantasy
By the middle/end of the 1970s, the Disney studio was in crisis. Walt had died relatively recently, and the conservative management who ran the company kept on consciously producing films they thought Walt would have made back in the 50s and 60s. As a result, nearly all of the films being produced, at least the live-action ones, were not just throwbacks; they were generally all quite stale with it. "Pete's Dragon" is one such film. It tries to be the next "Mary Poppins" but genuinely fails. Not only does it not live up to that film's legacy, but it hasn't really got any pizazz of its own.
The story concerns a young orphan named Pete who runs away from a cruel family of hillbillies with the help of his pet dragon Eliot. Along the way, Eliot, who can turn himself invisible, gets up to mischief, and hilarity ensues. The pair arrive in a small New England town, where Pete ends up staying with a kindly lighthouse keeper named Nora and her lovable drunken father. In keeping with the spirit of replicating "Mary Poppins", the titular dragon character is animated, and the best moments in the film tend to feature him. He is a cute and well animated creation, even if he doesn't quite fit seamlessly into the live-action world around him. However, the story overall is boring and introduces too many elements at the wrong time, and many scenes fail to move the plot along at all (including a scene where the lighthouse keeper and the evil doctor's assistant go to look for Eliot in the cave). Acting and character development are also consistently below average. The musical numbers tend to be overdone, and some of them are just downright awful. Though I saw the standard version many years ago, the version I last watched was the shortened version on the UK's Channel 5, which did a lot of good by shortening or even removing the most long-winded scenes (primarily the musical numbers), but even that didn't do much to diffuse some of the film's problems.
Let me state that I did not want to go out of my way to hate this film. I am a big fan of Disney, and I watched "Pete's Dragon" as a child a few times and I quite liked it (even if not to the same extent as "Mary Poppins" or "Bedknobs and Broomsticks"). However, as an intelligent adult, I can see hardly any worth in this film. It seems overall like a mismanaged and highly amateur attempt to make a "Disney classic" based on the elements of more successful previous films.
Robin Hood (2010)
Boring and misses the point of the actual legend
When I saw "Robin Hood" in the cinema during the summer, I started eagerly scouting for the dots in the corner of the screen that signify the changing of film reels. That's how bored I was with the film.
Now, I'll add that I'm a fan of the Robin Hood legend. Equally, I appreciate Ridley Scott greatly, and think that some of his films are fantastic. I also appreciated the visual beauty of the film itself, and the fact that it showed Robin's world as plague-ridden Medieval Europe was probably more engaging than the usual nostalgic vision as seen in, say, the Errol Flynn film. So I kept asking myself: how could this film end up being so bad? It's easily one of the dullest and most uninteresting films I have ever seen in my life.
Part of me wants to give Russell Crowe the blame. I'm not exactly a fan of him to start, but here he gives Robin around ten different regional accents from across the British Isles over the course of the film, which is certainly distracting. I can't see how anyone would let that slip, especially in such a big budget production in this day and age, and it hardly does much to promote Crowe as an actor. But even then, a mishap with the main character's voice shouldn't excuse his overwhelmingly dull characterisation, a practical cypher with zero charisma.
Nor should it excuse the boringness of the other characters or the lack of an engaging plot, which is a rambling story of royal intrigue and deception set around the time of the Magna Carta's signing and continued bad relations between the medieval kingdoms of France and England (in truth, the film is a sort of prequel, sort of loose adaptation). What makes the traditional Robin Hood story so great is that, like all the great legends, fairy tales and myths, it speaks to raw human emotions, and doesn't need to be made into a deep discourse on medieval politics. The original legend has always been undeniably simple, but it was an engaging story of human liberty and wealth, and of the sacrifices some make to help the less fortunate and to vanquish the oppressors.
Call me a primal simpleton, but what made every other major production of the story so effective, from Errol Flynn's 1938 film to Disney's animated farce, was that it didn't deny itself as being much more than a simplistic story of the struggle between good and evil in a corrupt society. By letting it follow Hollywood's in-vogue trend of "deconstructing, reconstructing and re-imagining" classics without totally considering the spirit of the original, and by trying to make the characters "grey" (though ultimately not sharply developed), the film basically becomes not much more than a cold yarn of royal intrigue and confusion among nobility, undeniably missing the point of the original legend and what made it so winning, or any other traditional story for that matter. As such, the film is a complete disappointment.
The Only Way Is Essex (2010)
Bad, I'll agree, but what more do you expect?
Following the mould of MTV reality shows like "Jersey Shore" and "The Hills", "The Only Way is Essex" follows the supposed lives of a group of nouveau-riche twenty-somethings in Essex, adhering to the common stereotypes of the respective county - big yet tasteless houses, huge nightclubs and wild parties, tarty blondes coated in fake tan (with a token gay friend at their side), manly men who enjoy doing manly things, and of course, a no-nonsense grandmother who's fiercer than an RAF division. In a departure from a good number of British reality shows, the scenes are almost all evidently staged and cut, with a perfect level of soap-opera histrionics and bad acting thrown in for good measure. As such, the show comes across as a parade of cardboard cutouts devoid of any personality against a set of sterile backdrops.
It's little more than a piece of trash that makes everyone in Essex out to be superficial and stupid, but I have to question whether anyone thought it was going to be good in the first place. This type of programme hooks the viewer in its knowing awfulness; it's so appalling that it becomes morbidly engaging. To TV executives, this means good ratings and the chance to make money off a cheap franchise. Yes, it's depressing that shows such as "The Only Way is Essex" exist, but it's ultimately simply worth just ignoring.