I never saw Oliver and Company when I was a kid but I remember seeing the trailer for it whenever we watched a Disney film on VHS. Every time I saw it I wanted to watch it but it never happened. Probably because I’d get too distracted by whatever Disney film I was going to watch. It always looked really fun and, as someone who loved dogs, I was obviously into the idea of Oliver Twist being remade with animals. I mean if The Lion King has taught us anything it’s that taking a piece of great literature and retelling it with animals is a great strategy for storytelling. I mean who’d even heard of Hamlet before Disney introduced us to Simba, right? Plus, there is a whole host of Disney films that prove that dogs and/or cats having adventures together is an instant winner. I’m not a big fan of Dickens anyway so I couldn’t imagine how it could get any worse by involving household pets.
I went to the cinema with a friend today and she happened to mention that she’d just seen the remake of Beauty and the Beast. When I asked her what she thought about it her answer was “I really liked it because it’s exactly the same.” Anyone who has read my review from Tuesday will know that, whilst I didn’t hate the film, I didn’t exactly feel blown away by the new film. Especially after we’d been promised such great things by its director, Bill Condon, and its star, Emma Watson. My issue with the film is exactly the reason that people love it so much. The reviews have been great because it is exactly the same as the film they love. The film took no risks and added nothing new to the narrative, except for a wife for Cogsworth and a husband for Mrs Potts. There’s been great feedback from audiences but it’s mostly because it just reminds them how good the original film is. It feels like cheating. Why would you want to watch an imitation when you can still watch the real thing? It’s like tribute bands to real bands that are still touring. Yeah, it’s fine in a pinch but you’d much rather see the real deal. So, for TBT this week, I did.
Beauty and the Beast is getting older now. It’s only 3 years younger than I am and I’m fucking old. However, saying that it’s old does not mean that it is in anyway inferior. You can tell that isn’t because the updated film is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the original animated film. Of course, for all of the nostalgic warmth that Emma Watson and co. may have been able to drum up, there can be no substitute for the real thing. No matter how dodgy the story at the heart of it is deep down. I mean, I know that Coke is really bad for me because of the sugar but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start drinking Diet Coke with it’s shitty tasting sweeteners, does it. There is so much charm within the ’90s animation that just couldn’t be replicated with a cavalcade of CGI household objects.
There’s a reason that Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to be nominated for an Oscar. It’s possible it could be because 1991 was a shitty year for films but, looking at the evidence, it’s more likely that it was because Beauty and the Beast is a fucking great film. It’s a triumph of animation, voice acting, and soundtrack. Everything comes together perfectly to create a truly magical experience that helped strengthen a new era in terms of Disney’s movies. Emma Watson may be desperately trying to convince us that her version of Belle is a super feminist but, the fact is, Belle kind of broke the Princess mould back in ’91. Yes, the story is all about love but Belle doesn’t spend all of her time mooning over a guy. She craves adventure and bravely steps into dangerous situations to save her family. She’s intelligent, creative and wants to make something of herself. She’s always been inspirational.
But, let’s be honest, the story itself isn’t what made this film so memorable. It’s a story about a girl meeting a guy and the story of how they fall in love. Just like every other Disney film. This film holds up because it is so incredibly well made. When we look back now and remember that, in another timeline, Beauty and the Beast could have been made as a non-musical it seems insane. The soundtrack, created by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, is pretty flawless. The compositions are rich and memorable, whilst the lyrics are funny, emotional and really clever. It helps that the voice actors give such solid performances. Angela Lansbury’s version of the title song can not be surpassed for the understated simplicity that makes is so romantic. I love Emma Thompson but she lacked something the ’91 version had oodles of.
It’s one of the reasons that ballroom scene is such an iconic moment in film history. The grandness of the animation next to Angela Lansbury’s almost timid performance is quite spectacular. To be honest, the song didn’t need to be something too extravagant because the visuals were so impressive. This was the first Disney film that used any digital assistance in its creation and it remains an impressive feat even to this day. The details on Belle’s dress as she twirls round the ballroom is still some of the best animation I’ve ever seen. The world of Beauty and the Beast is a classic cartooony Disney world but it was a revolutionary step into their golden age. This was film made by the best people that could be found and it has stood the test of time. Call me cynical or biased but it’s not something I expect to be saying about the latest version in 26 years time.
Let’s be honest, Batman has something of a chequered history when it comes to live action adaptations of the comic book character. Aside from the supremely cheese but colourful television show of the 1960s and the best forgotten Joel Schumacher films of the late 90s, the Dark Knight has provided something of a literal interpretation. The films created by Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan and, Zack Synder are all part of that super cool, edgy and moody brand of superhero film. Batman has long since shed the image of his cartoony caper when Adam West was the man behind the cowl and has transformed himself into an angsty longer who most probably listens to MCR and muttering about people just don’t “get him”. So, when Lego Batman, voiced by the supremely funny Will Arnett, became the breakout star of the 2014 The Lego Movie nobody was sure how his solo outing would fit within Batman’s canon. Especially cause, as we know from the past, comic book fans are massive dicks about this kind of thing. A colourful, family friendly and comedy filled story is hardly on a even playing field with the politically heavy and mature narratives on display in Nolan’s trilogy. After all, the sillier that Batman became the more his fans complain. I mean are we still not ready to admit that there is something so gleefully bad about Batman and Robin that we kind of don’t completely hate it? No? Okay then.
I was excited about Lego Batman and I could never understand the people I met who weren’t. The signs were all there that it could end up being magnificent. The Lego Movie was great, Will Arnett is always super funny and Lego leads to so many possibilities. Like all the other Lego video games I’ve played over the years, the Lego Batman one were full of in-jokes and silliness that made my heart leap. The only thing that could go wrong are the fans. As we’ve seen before, there are certain Batman fans out there that take their shit very seriously. They don’t like the idea of someone taking the caped crusader and making a mockery out of him. Which, when you think about it, is kind of silly considering what he’s put himself through over the years. He is an ageing billionaire who dresses up at night and plays with expensive toys in the streets of Gotham. If that doesn’t deserve even some gentle ribbing then I don’t know what does.
And Lego Batman is full of references to the character’s past. There are multiple references to the comics as well as each film adaptation and the, now, infamous television series. We see flashbacks to previous costumes and mentions of iconic moments. We are in no doubt that this is supposed to be the same characters who, as he points out himself, has aged remarkably well since his first appearance. There will be people who will fan this continual fan service annoying and will become irritated by the endless in-jokes and self-parody. I, however, have always been one of those people that loves it when these Easter Eggs appear.
Of course, none of this means that Lego Batman doesn’t know who it’s main audience is. There are plenty of jokes for the older members of the audience who remember where Batman has come from. However, it is, at its heart, is a children’s film. It is filled with the same sort of action and adventure that the first one offered and it hammers home its major theme with exuberant force. That moral being “it’s better to face things together than alone”. After all, Batman is the solo hero who never plays well with others and avoids significant relationships. There is a beautiful moment, after he has once again saved Gotham, where Bruce Wayne sits alone in his mansion eating Lobster and watching Jerry Maguire. He doesn’t celebrate with her super-friends but microwaves his dinner and reminisces about his dead parents. He’s sad, wounded but has too great an ego to realise it.
Until he finds himself unwillingly taking on partners. When Commissioner Jim Gordon retires at the start of the film his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) offers the masked vigilante a chance to work with the police instead of against them. He, unsurprisingly ignores this offer and, when his nemesis the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hands himself and his evil colleagues over to the police, Batman, against Barbara’s better judgement, decides it is time to rid the world of Mr J once and for all. When sending him to the Phantom Zone only results in the escape of every famous villain of film, television and literature Batman must finally accept help to get things back to normal.
All the while Bruce must come to terms with his issues with family when he accidentally adopts an orphaned boy, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), his father figure and butler, thinks it will help him to accept the boy but Batman just uses him in the same way the Lego Star Wars games used young Anakin: to get into small spaces. The back and forth between Batman and Robin is fantastic and their relationship is a perfect melding of both sides of the coin. We have a sidekick who is straight out of the 60s TV show and a brooding hero that has more in common with Christian Bale than Adam West.
There are moments when Lego Batman loses its grip slightly and some jokes that just don’t land properly. There is an awful lot going on and a huge range of characters to contend with. A usual criticism of super hero movies is the final act when the big bad is suddenly joined by more big bads to up the tension. Here, we see every possible bad buy stepping forward to cause chaos and, whilst the end results is exciting as fuck, it proves to be a tricky thing to pull off. It doesn’t quite work on a visual basis and there are perhaps one too many irons in the fire. However, I feel as though it’s worth it for Eddie Izzard’s Lord Voldemort and Jermaine Clement’s Sauron. The final action piece is another of those moments that has so much fan-service to contend with that the story gets lost a little. It could have done with some refining.
Watching Lego Batman is not the same as watching The Lego Movie. But it’s not supposed to be. This isn’t a sequel and it has dropped several of the themes that made the previous film so refreshing and original. It is, instead, a celebration of an iconic character using the same beautiful animation and propensity for fun that it’s predecessor was so loved for. This is a Batman film like we’ve not see before. In a sea of endless bleakness where Bruce Wayne is concerned, this film puts him back in the fun zone and shows us that superheroes don’t need to take themselves so seriously, Who else but Will Arnett could get away with rapping his way to victory? Not Christian Bale that’s for sure. Unlike everything we’ve been programmed to believe, Lego Batman shows us, once and for all, that silliness is best and being broody and dark is not the best way to achieve anything. Wouldn’t you rather microwave Lobster for four instead of one? This isn’t the Batman we know but he is the one we deserve. And, after the abysmal Batman vs Superman, he’s also the one we desperately need right now.