Frozen

The story of the Canadian folk hero, a moose, and his best friend the snowman

The story of the Canadian folk hero, a moose, and his best friend the snowman

Frozen, the new Disney film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, has been garnering rave reviews everywhere it goes and, to be honest, I’m struggling to see why. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it – it’s a perfectly entertaining film. It rattles along, has some laughs along the way, and has some strong female characters at the centre of it who don’t need to be validated by a man. It’s fine. It’s good fun. But nothing more. It’s not up there in the pantheon of great animated kids movies. For me, it’s a little behind Tangled, the 2010 retelling of Rapunzel, but it doesn’t get up there with the great films Pixar have produced (even if their standard has dropped the past couple of years) or the best of Disney from the past.

Still good fun though. Worth a watch.

B

Film length: 1hr 42mins – Feels Like: 1hr 50mins

Saving Mr Banks

Tom Hanks and Emma Thomson cross rivers of blood. Only Liam Neeson can save them...

Tom Hanks and Emma Thomson cross rivers of blood. Only Liam Neeson can save them…

Mary Poppins is an all time classic film beloved by adults and children around the world, but it’s journey to the screen took over 20 years and the finished product wasn’t loved by the author of the book upon which it was based. Saving Mr Banks tells the story of the final stage of the jounrey from book to screen, with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) pulling out all the stops to convince PL Travers (Emma Thomson) to sell him the rights to her story. It is a lovely film set around a brilliant performance from Thomson but being a product of Disney films, there are some questions that have to be asked about how truthful it is, specifically with regard to the final scene.

Before we get on to that, and the aspect of the story that I found of particular interest, I want to look at the story a little more. There are two strands which run throughout the film, the first concerning Disney’s attempts to buy the rights from Mrs Travers, and the second concerning Travers’ childhood growing up in Australia and her relationship with her alcoholic father. I understand the narrative need for the sequences in Australia but unfortunately the film doesn’t quite find the right balance in cutting between these sections meaning that the moment you leave Thomson you and yourself aching to get back to her part of the story and losing the impact of the earlier section. This could, in part, be due to the fact that Thomson’s performance is so strong that it casts a shadow when she’s not on screen, but I think it’s also down to the fact that the tone between sections differs wildly. Travers’ tut-tutting school-ma’am attitude has a lightness of touch that keeps a smile constantly on the lips, while the Australian sequences are melancholy and lack the lightness of touch and sparkle. While this is appropriate for the aspect of the subject these sections examine, it does mean they don’t fit the tone of the rest of the film, leaving an ultimately uneven experience.

Now, what interests me most is what this says about an author’s ownership of the story and characters. For me, the film portrays Travers’ wariness about letting someone else take control of her characters as being almost petty. Disney is a caring man who would never do any harm to her beloved Mary Poppins, and of course we, the audience, all know that an all-time great film will be the result. But of course that presents an unfair picture. What of all the good, personal novels that are ruined by Hollywood? Without the benefit of hindsight, how would Travers know what fate would befall her character? (And that’s setting aside the fact that she didn’t like what was done with the film ultimately). Look at, for example, The Golden Compass, the adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. A film which tore the heart out of the source material. Or as Travers’ herself says in Saving Mr Banks, “Poor AA Milne”, whose Winnie the Pooh lost his soul at Disney’s hands.

The film seems to be saying that, while it understands her reluctance to sell, ultimately that is the right thing to do, which leads to the (is it or isn’t it) troubling final scene. This may be a spoiler, so you have been warned. Travers attends the premier of the film and, when it reaches its conclusion with Let’s Go Fly A Kite, a song which is given some emotional resonance earlier, Travers is shown crying. While she says “I hate cartoons” by way of explanation, the implication is that she has been drawn in and won over by what she has seen on screen and it has exorcised some long held demons for her.

I completely understand and accept this as a narrative device for telling the story, and I have no issue with true stories being tweaked to make them fit a narrative arc – it can be a necessary evil to make the story resonate – but I feel here the film is trying to have its cake and eat it. “She says she hates it” defenders can say and baldly, on the page of the script, that is true, but that is not what is shown on screen. I know I am not the only one to have drawn these conclusions from the way this scene is shot.

As I say, I don’t think, ultimately, this matters, but I do think an acknowledgement needs to be made somewhere. The story isn’t well known enough for it to outlive the film – this will, no doubt, become the definitive version, and that can be troubling. Hopefully the bluray edition will feature some documentary evidence which tells the *real* true story as well.

B+

Film length: 2hrs 5 minutes – Fells like: 1 hour 50 mins

Monsters University

It's like Animal House! For Kids!

It’s like Animal House! For Kids!

Monsters, Inc. is one of the most beloved Pixar animation films, but it is a long time since it came out. Twelve years, in fact. Pixar have shown they can do sequels to their standout films, with Toy Story 2 and 3 being excellent extensions of an already pretty brilliant movie, but in returning to the world of Mike & Sully, they’ve made a mistake.

Instead of taking the characters forward, Pixar have decided to head back in time to let the audience discover how Mike & Sully became the team we all know and love, but in doing so they have removed a key plank upon which the original film was based – the fun and joy of their repartee and banter. Instead the movie turns into a fairly cliched story of a bunch of rejects having to upset the odds with a lot of standard college type jokes, though toned down for the younger audience. I worry, though, that some/much of the college-based humour might be lost on the younger audience who have little or no knowledge of colleges.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the film is fine. It entertains while it’s around but it doesn’t stick with you. You don’t walk out of the cinema grinning like you did after seeing Monsters, Inc. for the first time. It’s a thorough disappointment that drags in some places in the first half, before picking up a little in the second. It’s difficult to tell whether it is the weight of expectation that does for it or if the film is genuinely this average and bland, and I think it’s probably a little of both. At the end of the day it’s Direct to DVD quality and nothing more.

C-

Length: 1hr 43 minutes – Feels like: 1hr 50 minutes

Wreck-It Ralph

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Ralph

A very quick review here – something you may have to get used to. They can’t all be 2,000 word essays like the Django one after all. I can hear you say woohoo.

Anyway, brief outline. Wreck-It Ralph is a Disney computer animated film produced by John Lassiter. However, it’s not a Pixar film, which is a bit strange. Pixar is clearly where the comparisons are going to lie, and specifically Toy Story.

Where Toy Story focused on the inner life of Toys when you shut the bedroom door, here we’re dealing with the secret lives on videogame characters (or, more particularly, arcade machines). The world is populated with a mixture of genuine VG characters (Rui and Ken from Street Fighter, Sonic, a ghost from Pacman all make an appearance) and those invented for the film – in the same way that Toy Story had real and invented toys. Our focus is Wreck-It Ralph (if you hadn’t guessed) – the bad guy form the 30 year old arcade favourite Fix-It Felix (invented for the film, lest you be confused).

[Sorry all for all the parentheses there]

Ralph has grown tired of being treated as a bad guy when he’s “off-stage” as well as in the game itself. Like a traffic warden, he’s just doing his job. Or to put it in the terms of the film:

Just because you’re the bad-guy, doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy.

When Ralph is left out of the celebrations of the game’s 30th anniversary he runs off on a quest to gain a medal in another game to prove he can be a hero too. He’s adventure takes him first to a Call Of Duty-style first person shooter (“Hero’s Duty”) and then to a Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game where he meets Vanellope von Schweetz a glitching character who wants to take part in just one race.

It’s a thoroughly entertaining film, good fun throughout, and will no doubt be enjoyed by both kids and the adults who take them (or, like me, go without any). There are plenty of in-jokes for gamers to enjoy, but nothing too nerdy to put off people who don’t play games.

However, the real question is where does it stand against Pixar? That’s always going to be the question with any computer animation. Last year Pixar couldn’t live up to their own billing with the good-but-not-great Brave, but it’s not like any other computer animation stood up to take the top spot. Wreck-It Ralph is a better film than Brave, if only because it doesn’t have a jarring plot twist halfway through, but it suffers by way of comparison to the upper echelon of Pixar classics – the Toy Stories, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E. That’s not necessarily because it’s story isn’t as fun and engrossing, but it lacks the depth of those films. Where the Toy Story films have a variety of things to say about growing up and about our relationships with our families, Wreck-It Ralph is what it is, no more, no less.

Great fun, but not quite great.

8/10 (4 stars)

Star Wars Episode 7: Ewoks in the Magic Castle

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So the big news this week for anyone interested in film or the world of the geek has been the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for a staggering $4bn, Lucasfilm being George Lucas’ company and home to Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This sits alongside Lucas’ proclamations of the past few years about wanting to concentrate on smaller, more personal films, something which he first put into action with the $30m film Red Tails about African American fighter pilots in the second world war.

The news of the sale was accompanied by news that could both delight and strike fear into both the casual and dedicated Star Wars fan, possibly at the same time: that Disney intended to release a 7th Star Wars film in 2015, and to follow that up with an 8th and 9th and, no doubt, never stopping to churn them out. So what to make of this? Let’s dispense with the business side first…

It makes perfect sense for Disney; they acquire a brand which is a licence to print money, in Star Wars, and also get Indiana Jones, which could be worth a pretty penny too. As a very astute blog on the Guardian pointed out earlier this week, this purchase helps fill a gap which Disney have been trying to fill for some time. Disney have the 0-8 year old market (and a lot more people besides) locked up with Pixar, they have the Disney Princess market which does for the young girl market, Pirates of the Caribbean for the teens and teen girls, but they had been struggling to really grab the young boy market. Star Wars and their other big claim of recent years, Marvel Comics, fill the gap for boys from 5-15 perfectly (and, as a nice bonus, also have big appeal for boys 15+). So it makes sense for them. Whether $4bn is sensible is a matter for other people, but I can see them making that back pretty easily with all the toys, blurays, video games and everything else that comes along.

What about Lucas? Well, $4bn is a lot of money, and it will fund a lot of smaller, more personal movies. I have no more knowledge than most people but I’d be surprised if we see more than 1 movie every couple of years. What he does with the rest of that money is anyone’s guess and nobody’s business, really… Good luck and fair play to him.

What does it mean for the rest of us? Well, for starters it meant a million tweets like this one being sent on Tuesday night:

 

And also like this:

 

And it’s this second tweet that actually cuts to the heart of the matter of what you actually feel about this move happening. Star Wars may beloved by many people across a number of generations, but is it actually any good? I’d argue both yes and no, and it’ll come as no surprise as to how I differentiate.

The first 3 films (episodes 4, 5 & 6) are good, the next 3 (eps 1, 2 & 3) are not, really. I’m not saying that the original three films are Vertigo or Citizen Kane, just that they are enjoyable and well constructed blockbusters and that the latter three are not. Where the first three movies use classic archetypes to tell the stories, the latter may as well use cardboard cut-outs such is the lack of depth to the characterisation.

Back when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 I was at University studying screenwriting. I wasn’t a Star Wars obsessive, and I was someone who wanted the inside track, so I bought the script and read it before the film was in cinemas. Then I got to the end and thought to myself “Where’s the rest?” There was 40 minutes of story in the film and when I came to see the film at the cinema it became clear that they had crammed those 40 minutes of story into 136 minutes of screentime. It was dull, tedious and lifeless – everything the original trilogy could never be accused of.

But do we need to go over that in any greater depth? It’s old news now.

No, what I find interesting is the way in which Disney is deemed perfect because of some examples of great movies they have produced. The tweet mentions Wall-E and The Avengers (the latter of which is not all that, sorry), but could have broadened that out to just Pixar in general, along with The Muppets, Enchanted and Tangled – all great movies. These are mentioned by way of proof that Disney will do a better job than Lucasfilm did, juxtapositioning them against The Phantom Menace and Indiana Jones & The Crystal Skull, poor, poor movies, the pair of them.

However, let me give you another list:
• The Santa Clause (1, 2 and 3!)
• Around the World In 80 Days (starring the perfect ensemble of Steve Coogan, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger)
• The Pacifier
• Beverly Hills Chihuahua
• The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
• John Carter

Those are a lot of bad films, and those are all Disney films produced during the 21st century. It’s not a pretty sight, and I didn’t even include the Pirates movies (terrible, but liable to provoke an argument).

The point is that yes, Disney have a lot of incredibly talented people and yes, the last 3 Star Wars films were terrible, but the combination doesn’t mean that the next Star Wars films will be great. They say that in Hollywood, “Nobody Knows Anything” but I think it’s safe to say that, no matter how good the output from the Disney/Lucasfilm deal, the next Star Wars film will make an awful lot of money. That much we do know.