“How far I’ll go” – Moana (Film Review)

2016 has been a bit of a bust, right? The constant deaths of famous individuals, conflict in Syria and Donald Trump have got a fair few people down. A shining light has been an impressive film year which has constantly delivered a strew of impressive cinematic treats. What have you got to kick off December then cinema? A Polynesian themed, Disney animated, musical directed by the pair behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Princess and the Frog starring Dwayne Johnson with music composed by Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i. Good answer.

Disney are on a bit of a roll right now. In-fact following Pixar’s domination of post millennial animated cinema they have adapted and come back as possibly the strongest studio in CG animation. Pixar continue to make outstanding cinema, though the output has become slightly less consistent, and Illumination have potential but are yet to produce anything of the level of Disney or Pixar. Since Disney’s 2010’s Tangled they have been on a streak that I would argue surpasses the famed Disney renaissance of the 90’s. Moana confirms this. After the wonderful Zootropolis from earlier this year Moana is a beautiful, funny, charming film.

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Moana (Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is an adventurous teenager with a natural affinity for exploration. She wishes to travel across the sea, however her father (Temuera Morrison) forbids travel of any kind fearing the dangers of the deeper ocean. The Island’s coconuts begin to rot, and the fish have all but vanished from the shallows. Moana’s free spirited grandmother (Rachel House) claims this is due to the Demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stealing the heart of the Goddess Te Feti. To restore the island Moana must find Maui and get him to put the heart back where it belongs.

With veteran directors Ron Clements and John Musker at the helm it’s no surprise that the film is a visual delight and is structured in an almost textbook Disney fashion. Speaking of textbook Disney, the music of Moana is truly wonderful with contemporary Pacific music band Opetaia Foa’i, acclaimed Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda and experienced film composer Mark Mancina collaborating to produce a set of wonderfully catchy musical numbers and a terrific orchestral score that complement the movie to wonderful effect. Moana rests heavily on the shoulders of 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho and, the slightly larger shoulders of, Dwayne Johnson with the pairs chemistry and boisterous energy making Moana infectiously delightful. Cravalho is quite the discovery with an astonishing singing voice while Dwayne Johnson shows off some of his lesser known qualities with a song of his own (You’re Welcome) holding his own against the talented teenager. Supporting the two leads is a colourful ensemble of characters, voiced by Jermaine Clement, Rachel House and Temuera Morrison, who are wonderfully animated and brought to life by the actors. Special shout out to whomever oversaw the animating of Maui’s tattoos which are both visually impressive and hilarious.

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The problem with Moana isn’t in its technical prowess or performances but just that sense of familiarity. Unlike its main character, it never strays from the path, and earlier I mentioned that the presence of Clements and Musker gave Moana a textbook Disney feeling and I believe this is both a positive and a negative. It’s a modern updating of the kind of classic tale Disney would have spun sixty years ago, and fits as a great companion piece to their other modern features such as Tangled and Frozen.

Frankly we’ve been spoilt by animation this year to the point where Moana is, in my estimation, the third best animated feature of the year (with Sing still to come out in the next couple of weeks). This isn’t a slight against Moana, but an appraisal of the golden age of animation that we currently find ourselves within. This is definitely one worth checking out with plenty of laughs, great music and beautiful animation, and a chicken called Heihei who is categorically the stupidest character in Disney history.

4/5

Dir: Ron Clements, John Musker

Scr: Jared Bush

Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk, Jemaine Clement

Prd: Osnat Shurer

Music: Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i

Country: USA

Year: 2016

Run Time: 107 minutes

Moana is out now in UK cinemas.

“Deep in the forest, dragons will be.” – Film Review (Pete’s Dragon)

Continuing Disney’s newest trend of releasing big budget live action remakes of their extensive back catalogue is Pete’s Dragon (though the original Pete’s Dragon was mostly live-action apart from the eponymous dragon). Following Cinderella and The Jungle Book, which were both very well received, and with numerous other projects already in production, including next year’s Beauty and the Beast adaptation, it seems this will be a common occurrence in the decade to come. However with Pete’s Dragon receiving a lot less media attention than the previously released live action remakes and also not being as popular originally is there much to like about this new take on the story.

Short answer, yes there is. Long answer, I was shocked by how enjoyable this turned to be. Cinderella and The Jungle Book were helmed by highly experienced directors in Kenneth Branagh and John Favreau and the stories long standing popularity made them a much less risky venture. Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery has a lot less experience, with his last film; the very well received Ain’t them Bodies Saints, being a romantic-drama with a $4 million budget. So to leap from that to a big budget feature like this under the watchful gaze of one of the largest film studios in the world and deliver such a beautiful, coherent film is quite astounding. The locations used within the movie are breath-taking making use of the scenic New Zealand landscape with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli capturing a soulful backdrop that is just a pleasure to take view of. Elliot the dragon is beautifully designed and animated, a gorgeous advertisement of what wonders CGI can create. In a year where Favreau’s The Jungle Book took digital animating to a new level of detail and execution to see yet another film reach such heady heights with nowhere near the budget is an incredible piece of work. Pete’s Dragon’s budget of just $65 million (I know that’s a lot of money, but in context Jungle Book had a $175 million budget) is put to great effect and in young lead actor Oakes Fegley they have unearthed a highly talented individual whose outstanding performance, especially considering a lot of his scenes are two-handers with a CGI dragon, elevates the film into position as one of the summers most delightful films. Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance is her most nuanced in years and you truly believe in the connection that develops between her character and Pete. There are also great supporting turns from the ensemble including Wes Bentley, Karl Urban and young Oona Laurence and a fantastic display of charisma from Robert Redford who brings an authenticity to the film with his decades of experience. His voice is calm, collected and without a hint of fallacy. Whilst other actors may extempore and gesticulate Redford oozes control and is as delightful a presence on screen as ever.

It would be hard to describe Pete’s Dragon as being thoroughly original and it’s perfectly happy to ride the coattails of the films that came before it. It owes a spiritual debt to E.T, as many films do, and is almost flawless in its execution. As astoundingly beautiful as The Jungle Book, more magical than Spielberg’s BFG and as heartfelt as Finding Dory this story may have the scent of familiarity about it but it is in the execution that Pete’s Dragon excels itself. David Lowery has been announced as the director of a live action remake of Peter Pan, which he will co-write with Toby Halbrooks as he did on Pete’s Dragon. I look forward to what else he can achieve following this very impressive piece of work, a late summer treat that I highly recommend.

4/5

Dir: David Lowery

Scr: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks

Cast: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Robert Redford

Prd: James Whitaker

DOP: Bojan Bazelli

Music: Daniel Hart

Country: USA

Running time: 102 minutes

 

Pete’s Dragon is out now in UK cinemas.

 

“What if I forget you? Would you ever forget me?” – Finding Dory (Film Review)

Finding Nemo is a modern animated classic, now 13 years old, it has stood the test of time and held true as one of Pixar’s finest feature films garnering massive critical acclaim and commercial success. So having already made sequels in the past of Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Cars we finally return to the ocean for a sequel a long time in the making.

It’s been a year since the events of Finding Nemo and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) now lives with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). During a class field trip she is assisting with Dory has a flashback to one of her childhood memories and has a brief recollection of her parents. This prompts her on a cross ocean journey to the Marine Life Institute to try and find her family.

Perhaps the major concern going into this Finding Dory is the idea of taking a popular supporting character and thrusting them into the focus of the sequel. In Finding Nemo Dory was a comic foil (A very fine one I might add) and there was some apprehension as to whether making her the lead in this movie was a sincere act of trying to tell an interesting story or whether Pixar were simply sticking the most commercially viable character front and centre as a marketing decision. I am happy to report it is the former. Taking Dory’s main comic trait, her short term memory loss, and making it the focus of the narrative was a wise decision as we begin to perceive her failure to recollect information as a form of disability rather than something comically appealing. Ellen Degeneres returns as the forgetful fish and her energetic performance makes her an endearing presence. Alongside the returning characters are some new faces including Kaitlin Olson as a near-sighted Whale Shark, Ty Burrell as a neurotic Beluga Whale and Idris Elba and Dominic West as a pair of possessive Sea Lions. However the stand out of the newcomers is Ed O’Neill as an introverted Octopus (Or Septopus if you will) who has to form  a partnership with Dory out of necessity and their burgeoning relationship is the highlight of the movie and provides the most amusing moments of comedy.

I don’t think Finding Dory manages to eclipse the work of its predecessor due to some slightly choppy pacing and the emotional pay off of the story doesn’t quite manage to achieve the same pathos as Finding Nemo. That being said it’s a really fun, touching film filled with a wide range of great vocal performances and invoking the same high quality animation design that was so astounding 13 years ago. It would also be amiss of me not to mention the fantastic short film that precedes the movie, Piper, that features some of the most breath-taking animation I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in a cinema with incredible detail on both the animals and the locations. Finding Dory is another successful entry in the Pixar filmography and I’m sure it won’t be the last we see of Dory, if the box office has anything to say about it.

4/5

Dir: Andrew Stanton

Scr: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse

Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell, Kaitlin Olson, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Hayden Rolence, Eugene Levy, Diane Keaton

Prd: Lindsey Collins

DOP: Jeremy Lasky

Music: Thomas Newman

Country: USA

Runtime: 97 minutes

Finding Dory is out now in UK cinemas.

Alice Through the Looking Glass – Some thoughts

When making a sequel it’s important to capitalise on the momentum of success. To keep the cycle of productions within a reasonable time of the original film otherwise you risk releasing a sequel no one wants or cares about. Sure, maybe the critics and fans are somewhat turned off by the Transformers films but they are released succinctly to capitalise on the full financial potential. I’m not saying I like either of these film series but it’s also not pleasurable to watch a creative team sink the best part of a year and a couple of hundred million dollars into something that is not only torn to shreds critically but is financially incontinent.

Six years have passed since Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland a film which grossed over $1 billion worldwide and at the time of its release was the fifth highest grossing movie of all time (Not adjusted for inflation). It was not a particularly faithful translation of the Lewis Carroll novel and received a mixed response from its audiences. However with the re-popularisation of 3-D, a big name director at the helm and a high profile ensemble cast (Headed by Johnny Depp at his most box-office bankable) it turned over a massive profit and a sequel was almost inevitable. That it would take six years for production to churn out the next film in the Alice series (and almost certainly the last) was a fault that Disney has paid for exponentially.

Alice Through the Looking Glass feels like a film processed by committee, with Tim Burton unwilling to return as director the project was overtaken by James Bobin (Who has had some great successes in the past) but the story is a concoction of several unformed concepts. Alice now appears to be auditioning for a part in the next Pirates of the Caribbean film, there is the new character Time played by Sacha Baron Cohen (because when your plot is a complete mess the addition of time travel makes everything much easier to comprehend) and the continuation of the Hatter’s storyline which intertwines with the Red Queen’s storyline which intertwines with the White Queens storyline. All this amongst Alice attempting to be an independent woman in Victorian London having to deal with the sexism enforced on her by the cartoonishly silly Hamish Ascot. What I did enjoy about Alice Through the Looking Glass were the glimmers of potential, the concept of time and mortality being something we should cherish rather than disdain but it’s lost in the void of scenery chomping acting, a confusingly muddled screenplay and naïve series of resolutions.

Perhaps it’s pleasing to look at the tangled mess of a poorly designed sequel being squashed at the box office but it worries me that studios will get the wrong message. That instead of putting money towards more original projects they will double down on more “safe” projects such as further sequels, remakes and reboots. Just because a film is a sequel it isn’t necessarily an ill-conceived project, there are plenty of good sequels, but it’s growing so ludicrously out of hand that there are so few original films produced a year, especially big budget movies. As someone who is more willing than most to overlook the over saturation of sequels/remakes I’m hoping that the failure of lacklustre features such as Alice Through the Looking Glass, and last’s years flops Pan and Fant4stic, will promote a rethink in the repetitious nature of the production of blockbusters. On the plus side the highest grossing films of the year so far have included Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book and Zootropolis which have all been of a very high standard and hopefully the correlation between higher quality movie production and critical and financial success will prompt a revision of how mainstream films are developed. Here’s hoping.

(Also I would give Alice Through the Looking Glass 2/5. It’s a messy film with an occasional charm, just not occasional enough.)

The Jungle Book

The classic Rudyard Kipling Jungle Book stories have had a long, rippling, effect on literature and on screen. A lot of people, like me, have happy memories of sitting down and watching an old VHS tape of the 1967 Disney classic animation. Remakes and reboots have been a controversial issue, over the last decade especially, however I’ve always believed that with the right approach and methodology no filmic concept should be dismissed out of hand, and there is always potential in rediscovery.

Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is a man-cub raised by Raksha (Lupita N’yongo) among a wolf-pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). He was brought to the wolves as a baby by the Black Panther Bagheera (Sir Ben Kingsley) who has since served as a guardian to the boy. During a water truce between the animals of the jungle the fierce tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba) threatens Mowgli’s life. To keep him safe Bagheera agrees to escort Mowgli to a nearby man village. Along the way Mowgli must deal with a multitude of other jungle creatures such as the snake Kaa (Scarlet Johansen), Gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken) and the free loving bear Baloo (Bill Murray).

Director Jon Favreau, DOP Bill Pope and the numerous talented visual artists responsible for the design of the film should be applauded for the fantastic world they have managed to create. Crafting a completely digital living jungle is breath taking enough but populating it with the amount of fantastically detailed environments and animals they have done is truly astounding. Neel Sethi is the only live action actor to appear in the film; however you immediately forget this thanks to the brilliant CGI The Jungle Book uses to conjure these creatures to being. Their lips sync perfectly with their speech and the movement whether crawling, walking, running or leaping is phenomenally realistic. The best work is that of the villainous Shere Khan, portrayed with brilliant menace by Idris Elba, whose beautiful design juxtaposes with his aggression and ruthlessness. Neel Sethi, in his first ever acting role, does an excellent job as Mowgli. Considering he spent the entire film shoot on a green screen reacting to pretend animals he delivers a touching and heartfelt performance that matches up to the prolific ensemble. Everybody in the cast delivers, but Bill Murray’s Baloo steals every scene he’s in. One of the most popular and beloved Disney creations of all time the role of Baloo was always going to be a difficult task but Murray’s combination of humour and heartfelt, and his relaxed, yet somehow powerful, line delivery have succeeded in bringing the character out of his animated ‘hibernation’ and back on the big screen to be loved all over again by young and old. The music is both nostalgically pleasing and impossibly triumphant, and how can anyone not like Christopher Walken as a giant monkey singing one of the jazziest songs of all time. There are a few narrative issues, problems with making the structure of the film work to be a successful collaboration of both Kipling’s story and the previous animated feature. But I’m not sure too many people are going to care thanks to the joyous romp that the film manages to be.

In the end it is a delight to report that The Jungle Book is a visual masterpiece, a fond nostalgia trip and one of the best films of the year so far rolled into one. Knowing that Warner Brothers also have a live action adaptation planned for release in 2018, directed by Andy Serkis, they’re going to have their work cut out as the bar has been set pretty darn high, and I highly recommend a trip to the jungle as an (undeserved smirk) ‘Bear-necessity’.

4/5 stars

Review by Alexander Halsall

Zootropolis

Zootopia

Zootropolis, or Zootopia as it is titled in America, an animated film in which animals take on anthropomorphic characteristics. The premise seems simplistic, and about as basic and unoriginal a filmic concept there could be. That it seems Disney animation studios are risking their current streak of success on something so ‘safe’ and seemingly ordinary by design prompted some to wonder whether Zootropolis would be the weakest film released by the studio in over a decade?

Zoo/tropolis/topia/city/town/province/Upon-Trent centres on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) a rabbit with ambitions of being the first of her species to become a police officer. Despite making the force she is not respected by her colleagues, and is treated with disdain by her superior Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). However when a number of Zoovillages residents turn savage and vanish Judy must solve the case with the help of a street smart fox, Nick Wild (Jason Bateman), and restore natural order to the city.

Following upon the success of Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, Zoohampton has quite the pedigree of expertise behind it. Seven different people have a story credit on Zoozealand, including Frozen co-director Jennifer Lee, Wreck-it-Ralph director Rich Moore (who also co-directs here), and Wall-e co-writer Jim Reardon amongst many other very talented individuals. Often such a roster of creativity would threaten to unbalance the film but Zooshire is a brilliantly equated film. Deftly sweeping between comedy and drama, and packing an emotional punch on numerous sombre occasions in the film. I mentioned earlier that Zooleftsandovertheroundabout seems quite a simplistic concept to a passing eye but the filmmakers utilise their world to comment upon racial, gender, and social prejudices that are cleverly manipulated for both comic and dramatic effect. At first I thought Zoo Fu Panda was an entertaining well written film with a positive thematic tone. However in the final third we are entreated with a deeper message that looks at the more entrenched fears of the characters and how our difference and upbringing can define upon us a subconscious bigotry. That we should never let our fear allow us define others as we see fit. Are they a threat, or am I just scared? This turned an already delightful feature into one that was both timely considering the current political landscape, and emotionally resonant. The casting of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman is perfect and both deliver great performances managing to show their prowess for the comic requirements of the film, and also deliver at the integral dramatic exchanges throughout. Judy’s short monologue to Nick underneath the bridge (So I don’t spoil with anything more specific) felt sincere and powerfully expressive thanks to a combination of Goodwin’s performance and the animation of the character’s physicality.

It’s no surprise that the animation is beautifully detailed, you would expect no less. However Zoo York City is also brilliantly directed and paced perfectly. A difficult task combining the frenetic frivolity of the films action and comic sequences with a gentler tempo that manages to maintain the earnestness of the films more sensitive moments.

I had a delightful time seeing Zootropolis, the name change baffles me slightly but did allow me to display my awful sense of humour on numerous occasions. I hope if you’re reading this you have seen Zootropolis, or you plan on doing so, as I think it’s a wonderful experience for people of all ages and creeds. Except if you work for the DMV maybe? Though I think they would still have a hard time disliking Flash ‘the hundred yard dash’.

***** stars out of *****

Words conglomerated by Alexander Halsall