Monsters University (2013)

comedy, family, fucking beautiful, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Monsters Inc, Monsters University, review, sequel

With every new Pixar releases we find an influx of reviewers and random people on the internet (*ahem*) getting angry about the recent abundance of sequels and the company’s supposed focus on merchandise. I have, in the past (as you can see in this very blog), argued that the once outstanding animators are running out of fresh ideas but I must get angry at the suggestion that this prequel to the super popular Monsters Inc. was created solely because of the merchandise potential. Just take a handful of the many reviews out there and you’ll no doubt get bored of the phrase ‘golden age of Pixar’ and the lamentation that we are witnessing yet another nail in the studio’s coffin. Saying that Pixar have lost their way since Disney got involved is as much of a reviewing cliché as saying that every Woody Allen film of the last 20 years isn’t Annie Hallor Manhattan. Quite frankly guys, I’m getting a bit bored of it. Monsters University isn’t a terrible film and certainly doesn’t bring shame on it’s predecessor. Also, in my opinion this film had way more going for it than last year’s Oscar winning Brave (but you can read about that for yourself when you’re done here).

One of the greatest things about Monsters Inc. was how wonderfully it turned the idea of the bogeyman on its head by creating a familiar society that was inhabited by ghoulish creatures. Monsters Universitydelves further into this other world and shows us what life was like when the characters we met previously were entering University. This perhaps removesthe child audience slightly further but, if we’re being honest, this isn’t Pixar’s usual children’s film. The primary target audience are the now grown-up fans of the original who are at an age where they either are in or about to enter the world of higher education. This isn’t another Toy Storystyle franchise where a whole new audience was introduced to the magical toys with the release of every new adventure (which always looked a little too much like their previous adventure if we’re brutally honest). This is an animated Animal House that young children will no doubt enjoy even if they can’t completely appreciate the more specific references to college life.
The major problem with making a prequel is that you are working towards a known time and place. Going in the audience know how the story ends so everything is simply taking place to get us there. That means that the journey we go on must be engaging and entertaining enough to keep the audience on board with the concept. Although the plot is hardly breaking new ground and anyone who has ever seen a film before will know exactly which roads we are being walked down. This prequel borrows the typical buddy flick structure where these future friends start off hating each other. Of course they quickly discover that, in order to get what they want, they will have to work together. So yeah just like every 70s buddy cop film, 80s teen movie and 90s caper then. Although, this one does have added cartoon monsters which is pretty cool.
Lets say that Monsters Inc. is, at its heart, a film about Sulley coming to terms with who he is and who he could be. Monsters University throws the spotlight onto his small cyclops friend Mike Wazowski. The story begins with a young Mike deciding his future after getting a ring-side seat to a successful scare (pulled off by an octo-monster played by the vocally exciting John Krasinski no less). Mike knows what he wants to be and he has no doubt that his never-ending determination will get him there. Move on a few years and Mike is starting his first day at MU where he is ready to impress his tutors in its famous Scare Programme. Not beng the most obvious candidate to strike fear into the hearts of young children, he does this in the same way that any self-respecting nerd would do: by avoiding parties and other distractions and hitting the books. The polar opposite, as it turns out, to James P. Sullivan who has found a place in the programme thanks to his well-known family name and natural scariness. Sulley isn’t the man we knew: he’s the stereotypical jock who came to college for fun and only turns to books when his table legs are wonky.
So who will succeed in this monster-eat-monster world of terror training? Well, neither if the terrifying Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) has anything to say about it. Thrown out of their programme the duo are forced to team up with the outcast fraternity Oozma Kappa (who encourage team spirit by chanting “we’re OK”) and win the University’s annual Scare Games. So it hardly takes a rocket scientist to figure out how this is going to turn out but there is enough interest in the bunch of monster misfits battling superior scarers that it doesn’t feel like a drag getting to the inevitable ending. And, it turns out that there are still a few surprises in store to keep even the most cynical audience member on his toes.
Just as it was with Monsters Inc., it is the more intimate and emotional moments that resonate most with the audience. The other members of OK take the place of Boo from the first film and Mike and Sulley are once more placed into the roles of parents to bring these underwhelming individuals up to scratch. Watching the pair come together to help someone who is dependent on their superior skills is as wonderful as it was in the first film. This is a heart-warming film and even the lack of a human presence can’t remove the humanity from this beastly world. Though by far the most affective aspect of the plot is its stark reminder that, no matter how much you want it, your dreams might not always come true. We are used to Disney films telling us that if we work hard we can achieve anything. However, we live in a world where that simply isn’t the case. Mike obviously gets his happy ending but it is not the one he always dreamed of. It is something that will resonate with the audience and provides some of the sweeter moments.
For all of this intimacy and heart, Monsters University is a big film. The supporting cast is simply massive and you can tell how much of an effort it was to bring it all together. Whatever their issues may be with original storylines and concepts, Pixar thankfully still know how to write quirky and engaging characters and fill their empty screen with more than enough visual comedy. There are some delightful new additions to the cast including Mike and Sulley’s lovable team-mates and the delightfully icy Dean. Of course, at its heart this is a college movie in the same vain as university based teen comedy we have seen before. All of the familiar faces are here but with a slightly monstrous visage. For that is one of the greatest things about Monsters University, seeing typical college situations played out by monsters and given a fresh new spin and even go against their stereotype. The frat parties, college rivalries, and the various cliques are given a new lease of life simply by placing it within this vast new world.
A world that has been created with the same love and attention to detail that Pixar is still praised for. In animation terms, the company has never been better. With the use of new Global Illumination technology the animated world has been given an even greater depth and provided a much more immersive setting. Pixar are constantly updating their software between films and it certainly pays off. After all, their overhaul of the rendering software pre-Brave created a beautiful if slightly damp squib of an Oscar winner. Although, in the run up to Monsters University the changes went a little deeper and Jean-Claude Kalache (director of photography) started a crusade to change Pixar’s relationship with lighting. (It’s a fascinating subject and, if you like that sort of thing, I recommend reading up on the subject after you’re through here. But then I’ve always been a bit too geeky about this kind of thing.) Global Illumination represented a complete overhaul of the lighting system and made a massive impact on the way their artists worked. However, the results speak for themselves and the lighting ends up feeling much more realistic than we have ever seen before. Some of the scenes are truly breathtaking. Particularly those taking place at night or in darkened spaces. It’s worth the admission price alone I’d say.
That and the immense details of the monster world. Just look a little closer at the architecture of the Monster university and you’ll see that everything has been thought through with an obscene amount of care. We have doors within doors to cater for the wide variety of student sizes and additional entrances for aquatic and flying creatures. The monstrous aspects of the buildings themselves with horns, spikes, fangs and tentacles feature on the outside of the campus buildings creates a sense of Gothic history that is in stark contrast to the modernised Monsters Inc. buildings. The landscape is lush and expansive and shows that, despite a possible lack of fresh film ideas, visually they are still at the top of their game. Its just a shame that their writing department are trailing so far behind.
But who really cares? Yes, Monsters University may not be a critically acclaimed and an example of perfect film-making but it is something that will speak to its intended audience. It has taken two characters who a great number of us fell for 12 years ago and shows us more of their history. We see a heart-breaking new side to the lovable fool that we saw pratfalling to keep young Boo entertained. Yes it feels confused in places and the plot is a bit of a lame duck but it does what it wanted to. It entertained me. Pixar are doing what they know best here. Making fun and entertaining films with well-loved characters. So does it really matter that this isn’t exactly thought-provoking and academic film-making? Monsters University is like your favourite jumper. It’s a little worn out and raggedy but its comfortable and familiar. You like wearing it even though you know there are better jumpers out there. You may not wear it out of the house but, ultimately, you’ll always love it.

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

CGI, family, James Franco, meh, prequel, review, Sam Raimi, Wizard of Oz

There have been a great number of attempts to make money from L. Frank Baum’s series of novels set in the magical world of Oz. Dating back to well before the insanely popular 1939 film starring Judy Garland. Although none of the films released before or after Victor Fleming’s family favourite have ever captured our imagination in quite the same way. The Wizard of Oz is one of those sacred classic films that has a firm place in many people’s hearts and the idea of trying to top it would bring fear into the heart of most filmmakers. If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s fuck about with MGM’s Oz spectacular. Although, in more recent years audiences have been embracing Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and its subsequent hit Broadway musical. With narratives looking back at the land of Oz before it was discovered by Dorothy and her little dog too, they gave Disney more than enough excuse to delve into the untold history of another key figure. So it is that we find ourselves here in 2013 pulling back the curtain a little further and shedding more life onto the mysterious wizard himself.

Sam Raimi’s new film introduces us to the pitiful carnival conjurer Oscar ‘Oz’ Diggs who is reduced to entertaining country bumpkins throughout Kansas despite dreaming of the level of fame achieved by true magic men Harry Houdini and Thomas Eddison. This young Oz is a lothario who cons his way into women’s beds and creates cheap tricks to keep the masses amused. However, he fails to live up to the greatness of his heroes. His downtrodden assistant (Zach Braff) is the closest thing he has to a friend but must put up with Diggs’ egotistical taunts. Then we have the heartbreaking but key moment when a young disabled girl (Joey King) begs the Wiz for help and all he can do is run off stage with his tail between his legs. The Oz we see here is a pitiful and pathetic shell of a man who you have no doubt will go on a Disney-styled journey to find his true ‘greatness’.

James Franco plays the title role and, as the entire film falls under the shadow of its predecessor, the actor finds himself having to compete with the original choice for the great pretender. Robert Downey Jr. would have been such a fantastic choice for the charismatic Diggs that the actor who finally took the role on was always going to feel like a bit of a rubbish back-up choice. Franco does an OK job but he never seems to connect with his role. The narrative only works if the audience accept that Diggs is more than just a womanising scoundrel looking for easy ways to make a quick buck. Franco doesn’t bring much humanity to the role as he mostly seems a little bewildered by his digital surroundings. He is an actor who has proved himself many times before but here he just seems out of his depth.

Although, he has no problem in winning over the ladies and it is one of his past conquests that causes him to embark on his life changing journey. The irate husband of his one-time lover, also the circus’ strong-man, is out for revenge meaning Oscar is forced to leave his true love (Michelle Williams) and escape in a handily placed balloon. After being caught up in a terrifying tornado he is transported into an exciting new world where he meets young Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis). She mistakenly believes Diggs is the great saviour of her people and sets about dreaming of their future as King and Queen of Oz. Kunis does a pretty good job with the young witch in these scenes and plays her as a teenager caught up in the early stages of lust. She is emotional, melodramatic and has a bit of a temper. However, she quickly descends into a one dimensional scorned woman when she discovers that Oscar has pulled the wool over her eyes. It seemed lazy to just explain the witch’s actions because of her jealousy and broken heart. There was a great deal of potential lost to another movie cliche.

Theodora’s sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) is less impressed with the supposed chosen one and demands he proves himself by saving her people and destroying the Wicked Witch. Weisz is by far the best performer of the lot here but that really isn’t a compliment. She is an amazingly talented actress (seriously, watching her in Deep Blue Sea changed my life a little bit. Phenomenal.) but she is given so little to work with. It’s all about the window dressing with the witches. Dress them up in the finery but give them no real depth. For her part, Weisz lets go and has fun with it but it is really on towards the end of the film that there is anything for her to do.

Although, she has a great deal more to do than Michelle Williams in her second role of the film. In keeping with original film, several of the actors have roles in both the real world and Oz. We see Braff returning as Oz’s winged monkey butler and King returning as a China girl who is discovered shattered after an evil minion attack. Williams is back as the third witch Glinda. As Glinda the Good, Williams has little else to do than sweep through her scenes surrounded by a heavenly light and smiling at all the little people under her protection. She is a reminder of the old school Disney princess who had the tricky task of being beautiful but pretty useless in real life situations. After she has used her bubble and mist power for all she can she has very little left. Whatever you think about Raimi revisiting the land that spoke to so many people’s childhood imaginations, you have to criticise him for his criminal waste of good talent. These three women are some of the biggest names in Hollywood right now and they are used a little more than real life mannequins for the impressive costumes. Yes the characters don’t have any depth to them but at least they look pretty.

Raimi is known for bringing an occasionally over-the-top enthusiasm to his films and his Oz prequel is essentially an in-your-face tribute to Fleming’s own adaptation. The narrative is littered with little in-jokes and references to the books and the 1939 film. We have lions, scarecrows, the China village, flying monkeys and singing Munchkins. On top of this, Raimi has gone to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of the classic with the help of several computer wizards (or at least as far as he can go without being on shaky legal ground). In keeping with tradition the film begins in black and white in 4.3 aspect ratio before bursting into a shiny and colourful computerised landscape. I can’t deny that it is an effort that has paid off. The land of Oz is detailed and exciting. Visually speaking there is a lot to keep the audience happy and, despite not seeing it in 3D, I can imagine it works fairly well (not that I’ll ever be a fan of it in general). It is a real spectacle that, unfortunately, does not hide the fact that there is very little else going on.

Oz the Great and Powerful, much like the wizard himself, is all style and no real substance. The CGI backdrop is pretty impressive and recreates the world Fleming first created in 1939 but with a bit more of a Disney theme park attraction feel to it. There isn’t really anything else there to keep you engrossed in the massively cliched moral message. We all know that Oscar will eventually find redemption and win the girl of his dreams so the whole charade of a con-man only interested in gold and fame feels as false as the facade he puts on when he arrives in Oz. We find a cast of talented actors and actresses floundering against their invisible background and doing the best they can with a plot that cared more about the references to its predecessor than it did with creating a decent story.

Had he not existed in the fictional Kansas of the early 20th century, Oscar Diggs would have fit in extremely well with modern day Hollywood. Oz the Great and Powerful would be Diggs’ finest illusion: throw tons of money and technology at an energetic director to create a big, brash prequel to one of the world’s most loved children’s film and wait for the money to come flooding in. As for the story? Who cares about that when you’ve got some of the most recognisable and talented performers onboard to convince people this is a film with some substance.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (2012)

animation, boat, comedy, David Tennant, family, Hugh Grant, pirates, review

When talking animation there is one studio that is often overlooked thanks to such superpowers as Pixar and Studio Ghibli. That studio is the vastly talented Aardman Animations. The studio is known for its work using stop-motion clay animation, in particular the series of films featuring the popular man and dog team, Wallace and Gromit. It easy to see why Aardman doesn’t quite have the presence of other studios as its number of feature films to date is only 5. They started off on a high with two critically acclaimed stop-motion films Chicken Run in 2000 and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbitin 2005. It was their third attempt and, incidentally the first film to move into CGI, Flushed Away, that broke their streak. This and the run-of-the-mill Arthur Christmas were perhaps telling Aardman that it was time to go back to their roots. Thankfully, their 2012 feature film The Pirates! In an adventure with Scientists! shows us what this company is really capable of and it sort of feels very much like the kind of film they’ve wanted to make for years. Now I admit that I’m an unashamedly massive fan of all things animated and I am particularly fond of the more traditional efforts. There is still something so magical about stop-motion animation (so wonderfully displayed in the likes of Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox) and there is no doubt that there will always be a feeling associated with these works that completely computer-generated works will never be able to achieve. The films being produced by this quiet Bristol-based studio in particular have what can only be described as a definitive spirit that comes across from the opening credits onwards.

The film is based on the first book in the series of ‘The Pirates!’ books written by Gideon Defoe. The books share the great sense of Britishness and silliness that has underpinned all of Aardman’s most popular works. It follows the exploits of the hapless pirate captain named, quite helpfully, Pirate Captain as he vows to win the much coveted Pirate of the Year Award. Our well-meaning hero is voiced by Hugh Grant who shows off a great sense of comic timing, something that was lost in all of the twee romantic-comedies he bumbled his way through in the 90s. Whilst this Captain seems unlikely to achieve success in the pirating world he will certainly find a place in the hearts of the audience. He is the charming but frustrated would-be scourge of the high seas who finds himself distracted by sea-shanties, ham and maintaining his luxuriant beard. Jack Sparrow he is not. More like the kind of pirate that, if I’m brutally honest, I will turn out to be when I eventually leave the humdrum of everyday life and take to the waves. He is the biggest joke pirating world and finds himself constantly being belittled by the rest of the pirating community.

Mocked by his fellow captains, our hero is nevertheless beloved by his naive and fiercely loyal crew: consisting of the likes of Pirate with the Scarf (Martin Freeman); Pirate with Gout (Brendan Gleeson); the Suspiciously Curvaceous Pirate (Ashley Jenson) and the Albino Pirate (Russell Tovey). Martin Freeman does well as he finds himself in another of his traditional roles playing the frustrated second fiddle to a well-meaning but, ultimately, fairly useless leader. He is the Ernie Wise to the Pirate Captain’s Eric Morecambe and, whilst he may not be the greatest comic creation ever, his presence perfectly offsets the latter’s foolishness. Gleeson and Jenson both do admirably with their role but it is Tovey’s voice in particular that really lends itself to animation. So much so that even his small role proves to be utterly memorable. The crew encourages their captain to fight for his title and with a newfound eagerness set out to acquire their greatest haul of booty ever.

All does not go according to plan and instead of finding riches they come face to face with Charles Darwin, voiced by Dr Who himself David Tennant. This is not the Charles Darwin that we are used to. Gone is the brilliant scientific mind who gave us his Theory of Evolution and in its place we have the shy geek, often outwitted by his own monkey butler, whose major concern is finding a girlfriend. There are moments when Darwin falls flat but there is some much needed humour to be found in his primate sidekick who is thoughtful enough to provide his own subtitles.

Unable to offer the much needed booty, Darwin instead informs the Captain that his much loved parrot Polly is actually the last Dodo in existence. He is quickly promising the Pirate Captain fame and fortune if he gave permission to show her at the Scientist of the Year competition at the Royal Academy in London. Whilst Pirate with the Scarf is skeptical of Darwin’s motives, Pirate Captain is soon hightailing it back to London with the help of some beautiful 2d topographical animation. This journey turned out to be one of the most visually memorable scenes and goes to show that Aardman never miss a moment to pack in a treat for their audience.

Of course, Darwin’s motives are at loggerheads with the band of swashbucklers as he intends to use Polly to ingratiate himself with the villainous Queen Victoria, an infamous pirate hater. With the help of his trained monkey butler he embarks on his mission to steal Polly and present her himself. Queen Victoria is an inspired character voiced expertly by Imelda Staunton (who manages to recall her most despicable moments as Professor Umbridge whilst playing one of our greatest monarchs).  Pirates! offers us a Queen Victoria who could stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest cinematic villains. With her secret trapdoors, steampunk airplane, ninja skills and murderous hatred for all things piratical, she would make an excellent Bond villain should 007 ever find himself back in an animated Victorian period. Historically accurate she is not but a terribly enjoyable scoundrel.

There is plenty to enjoy about Piratesas the makers fire gags at the audience like an excitable 12 year using a submachine gun during his first go at a FPS. The quick fire assault of humour includes some fantastic throwaway lines of dialogue and non-stop sight gags. It’s worth taking note of any newspaper headline, road sign or shop front so you don’t miss out on any of the humorous puns hidden away. The world created by Aardman is exquisite in the amount of detail it contains. The filmmakers play with the stereotypes associated with pirates as the audience would view them and with all aspects of Victorian culture. It is delightful to watch something so silly that is also so beautifully crafted. For there are some truly fantastic set pieces throughout the film and none more so than the dramatic runaway bath scene which harks back to the exciting toy train chase in The Wrong Trousers. A sure fire sign that they are getting closer to their past glory.

My major issue with Pirates is the plot itself. Or, at least, the speed with which the plot moves forward. The one problem with the ceaseless campaign of visual gags is that it tends to take centre stage and the action in the foreground is often dismissible. There is often too much for the audience to take in and the plot twists so much that it often seems preferable to immerse yourself in the background instead. The narrative suddenly lurches forward every time you think you’re on solid ground without giving you much time to breathe. The plot ends up being choppier than any of the waves the Pirate Captain and his crew encounter along their way. After getting the introductions sorted the plot steams forward at such a speed that we end up in London before we’re really aware of what’s happening. It speeds though the final act so quickly that it doesn’t really matter how we get there just as long as there is the dramatic showdown.

It’s not as if the film was at risk at running to a ridiculous length so I fail to see why the writers couldn’t have slowed the plot down so the audience was able to really engage with the story before them. Had the narrative been just a little more considered this film would have felt less chaotic and out of control. From my point of view it would have been a nice counterpoint to the hectic backdrop if the plot had been stronger and more self-assured so it could stand out. The characters can only keep one engaged with the action for so long and even the lovable Pirate Captain cannot completely keep our focus when he is constantly zipping from one island to another. And, whilst I’m at it, what of the actual pirating? For a ship that was constantly on the move the crew can hardly be accused of doing much plundering on their way. We have the science and the adventure but perhaps, next time, we deserve a little more of the piracy.

And I really do hope there will be a next time. What Aardman have managed here is to create the start of what is bound to be a great franchise of children’s animated films. It was a bit of bumpy start maybe but with the characters, cast and the exquisite animation on show it would be a shame if it’s the last we see of the Pirate Captain and Co. It is a film that you cannot watch and end up not feeling warm and thoroughly satisfied. It is delightfully British and fantastically silly. It is the sort of film that demands a second playing almost as soon as you’ve finished the first just so you can search for any hidden gags that you missed first time round. I for one cannot wait to sit down and enjoy it again.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Christmas, comedy, Dickens, family, Michael Caine, Muppets, musical, review

In mid-November I had a dream. It was a crazy, naïve dream that came out of my guilt surrounding my failure to update this thing very often: I told myself that for every day of advent I would write something Christmas related for this blog. These ranged from the mundane (and lazy) top 10 lists to the more ambitious reviews and general musings. Considering this is my first Christmas themed post and we’re already in mid-December I think it’s safe to say I failed to live up to my expectations but better late than never I say. Oh and quick warning, I’m about to write about a film that is probably my all-time favourite Christmas film so be prepared for it to get a bit sentimental.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has become a favourite and reliable yuletide tale. Without meaning to sound like an awful literary hipster, I would suggest that, whilst everyone knows the narrative, fewer people have experienced the novella itself. This is perfectly understandable (I’m actually all for people ignoring Dickens as I feel his fifteen minutes of fame should have ended long ago) but it is unfortunate. The tale is one of the only works by Dickens that I genuinely enjoyed reading and the only one I have wanted to read multiple times. The book is a much more Gothic and disgusting tale than many adaptations have made it out to be. It is well worth a look and, unlike most of his literature, ends up being both a quick and easy read.
Of course if you can’t be bothered with all of that reading you could always check out one of the many features that have adapted it or, at the very least, taken inspiration from the novella. For their 1992 adaptation, and in a shrewd attempt to make the dark tale more child friendly, Disney placed the tale into the expert hands of the Muppets. For some unknown reason, I find that I am friends with quite a few people who, in their own words, “don’t get the Muppets”. Every time I got overexcited after seeing the trailer for the most recent film they would just ask me what the point was. The point? To paraphrase my old buddy Charlie Bucket, ‘the Muppets don’t have a point. That’s why they’re the Muppets.’ I can’t think of anyone better to tell this chilling tale.
With a little help from Michael Caine that is. Caine steps into the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old man who benefits from other people’s hardship. When faced with a supporting cast of colourful animal puppets, Caine doesn’t make the mistake of trying to play the role for laughs. He plays it as straight as he would do if this were a traditional adaptation of Dickens’ work. He is an astounding performer and he always hits the right dramatic and emotional notes. I also find it odd that, in a film where rats can get turned into icicles and frogs and pigs can mate, I can still be found tearing up as Scrooge is forced to remember his past.
At a recent screening at the BFI, producer Martin Baker suggested that Caine often found the technical side of working with a bunch of puppets fairly tedious. Whilst I can imagine that being the case, the finished article doesn’t show any negative of handing over the majority of the novella’s characters to the Muppets themselves. They fit into their respective roles incredibly easily and, thanks to a fantastic group of puppeteers, there are no glaring signs of their limited field of movement. Everything fits together and ends up looking great, even 10 years on.
We are lead on our journey by the blue alien Gonzo who takes the role of Charles Dickens’ himself. His narrative remains faithful to the original story and much of his dialogue is taken straight from the novel itself (although with a few necessary changes here and there). It is a tale that most will be fairly familiar with: a bitter and hateful man is visited by the ghosts of his ex-partners who urge him to change his ways before promising three more spirits will turn up to guide him on his journey of redemption. Add into that a poor and desperate set of employees and we have a happy look at a traditional Victorian Christmas. Yes the story has been plumped out with humorous Muppet specific sections to keep the children interested but I don’t think the screenplay fails to get the message across. Scrooge’s change may happen quickly but, despite the fact we are dealing with the suffering of Muppets rather than people, I think there is enough emotional resonance there. Many of the reviews that were written when the film came out suggested that it was only suitable for its child audience. As a 24 year old myself I’d have to disagree. At the screening I mentioned earlier, the audience mainly consisted of people over the age of 18 and most of the kids in the audience had clearly been dragged along by their overly keen parents.
As with the majority of their feature films, The Muppet Christmas Carol is, in part, a musical and we are treated to a few original songs written by Paul Williams. The soundtrack is fairly hit and miss but there are some great pieces in the mix. In keeping with the tale they are of a more classical bearing rather than attempting to reflect a more modern sound. The opening track ‘Scrooge’ is a truly amazing composition that perfectly fits into the Victorian environment that is being recreated. Hearing it on the big screen genuinely sent shivers down my spine. With its use of brass and harpsichord, it sounds exactly like the kind of piece that Bach could have written… well on one of his off days maybe. Not all of Williams’ efforts stand up though. I personally find Tiny Tim’s ‘Bless Us All’ to be annoyingly schmaltzy and the Marley brothers’ ghostly introduction is fairly forgettable. Unfortunately, the lyrics are at times questionable but I don’t think that really matters. I defy anyone to watch the gigantic Ghost of Christmas Present and Michael Caine bopping along to ‘It Feels Like Christmas’ (my favourite Christmas anthem) and not feeling warmth spreading from their soul. This film isn’t about being perfect and it is not pretending to be the best film ever created. It’s about the heart and fun that is so easily associated with the studio and well-known characters. It’s even easy to forgive Michael Caine’s fairly abysmal singing towards the end because at Christmas who the hell cares.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the first film produced by the studio after the deaths of the Muppets’ creator Jim Henson. Brian Henson stepped into the director’s chair and created an admirable homage to his father’s legacy. It certainly carries on the good work that the studio produced during his father’s days and the creature workshop continued to get better in bringing everything to life. If I’m honest, I can understand why people are so quick to criticise this film. It is not a masterpiece. It doesn’t break new ground as far as the material is concerned and it is a very basic children’s film. To see it in those terms is missing a major factor. It’s got heart and passion. The people involved with this film loved what they were doing and it shows. It’s an entertaining and colourful look at a story that had arguable already become stale. If nothing else The Muppet Christmas Carol is fun and, let’s be honest, if the Muppets have to have a point then I’d say that was probably it.

Brave (2012)

animation, bear, Emma Thompson, family, review, Scotland

It’s been a good while since I watched Brave and I found that I was unable to find anything to say about it. It didn’t really have much of an impact on me. The film wasn’t the worst film that Pixar has ever produced but it is in no way up there with the greatest. It’s difficult to discuss a Pixar film without looking back at their (mostly) great back catalogue of films. Much in the same way that people can’t open up to Woody Allen’s latest films without getting nostalgic about the Woody of the 70s and 80s. Of course, it’s not a great system but when you’re dealing with a film studio that brought us family favourites like Toy Story and Finding Nemo it’s hard to forget just how much potential they have. Up against some of these greats Brave just comes across as much less ambitious and suggests that Pixar are quickly running out of fresh ideas.

Brave is set in the luscious Highlands of Scotland where young princess Merida attempts to fight against the expectations put upon her so that she is free to romp around firing arrows and hunting bears. As heroines go, Merida is a major improvement on the old Disney princesses we grew up on. She knows her own mind and isn’t afraid of standing up to her mother and father. However, Merida is still a child and her independence can often descend into whiney and bratty behaviour. Of course, I can’t say that I don’t agree with her idea that riding through the forests and shooting arrows from her bow is much more appealing that marrying the son of a Scottish lord. I reckon if someone was forcing me to do the latter I would moan about it a little too.

In fact the first part of the story, which sees Merida take a stand against the law that demands she marry the winner of the Highland games, provides a strong foundation for a great story. However, the writers make the strange decision to change direction and turn this young woman’s fight to prove herself into a tale of accidental transformation. Merida is then forced to set out on a fantasy adventure with her mother in tow. The character who was given the least amount of build up and, after the unnecessary triplets, is the least interesting character in the film. Emma Thompson does as good a job voicing this lame and undeveloped character but it is difficult to care about the fate of a woman whose only role in the film is to be more annoying and whiney than her daughter.

This incredible decision turns what could have been an interesting update to the traditional fairytale into a simple family soap opera. What begins as a potentially clever, coming-of-age struggle descends into an obvious series of cliches. There is nothing clever about the second half of the script and the emotional impact is lost within the wave of boredom and deja vu that will be washing over most of the audience. Without wanting to sound too brutal, this part of the film left me absolutely cold. I lost interest in what was going on as it was so painfully clear how the story was going to progress and how the writers would try and inject humour. I stopped paying attention to the action and instead counted down the minutes until this dismal story was over.

A story that also ensures that Merida’s father is completely underused and becomes nothing more than an irritating bumbling fool. At least this explains the bizarre decision to ask Billy Connolly to voice him. Who better to lead a rowdy bunch of lumbering Scottish warriors than the rowdy, lumbering Scottish comedian? Of course, he does pick up the role fairly easily because it’s almost identical to the one he played in the disappointing Gulliver’s Travels. There is a direct link to the Scottish ogre of the Shrek films here but there is no sense of subtle humour here. Rather than have a sarcastic and cutting outcast we have a bumpkin whose manic behaviour just became tedious.

Although Brave does have its amusing moments, it never quite reaches the mark. The script doesn’t really take off and we miss much of the subtle humour and witty one-liners that fill Pixar’s back catalogue. It is a film that finds itself sucked into its fictional traditions and flits between vaguely serious melodrama and over-the-top silliness. There is none of the refreshing self-awareness and simplicity that made previous offerings so entertaining and engaging. It has some great standout moments but the film ends up dragging on whilst offering very little to keep you intrigued. For a story set in the wilds of Scotland that promises archery, bears and battling Scottish clans, it ends up being a bafflingly dull affair.

Thankfully those Scottish highlands have been beautifully recreated and the visual imagery is as stunning as you would expect from such great animators. The textures of the backdrop are gorgeous and show just how far animated films have come since Pixar’s early days. Just take a look at Merida’s flowing ginger curls as she races through the trees on her adventure. In terms of animation, the studio is continuing to push themselves and showing that even this type of complex imagery is well within their reach. Had this film not been so incredibly beautiful to watch I am sure there is no way I would have reached the final credits. It is a massive shame that such a fantastic example of this studio’s work is let down by a storyline and script that can’t have seen much in the way of editing or rewrites. This artwork demanded sharper dialogue, a more thought out plot path and fully fleshed characters.

Brave is one of those disappointing Pixar films that had so much potential but just falls short by the end. The plot will unexpectedly changes direction whenever it can and get rid of inconvenient characters in the most ridiculous manner. Julie Walters turns up for a brief spell as a Macbeth style witch who offers Merida a glimmer of hope. Then poof! Gone. It isn’t wholly disappointing but it a film that doesn’t go anywhere. There is no real direction for the plot and we end up with a feeling that neither Merida, her family, or the audience are really any better off than they were before the opening credits began. Pixar have a reputation for producing great animated films that appeal to children and adults alike. I find it hard to believe either of these groups would have been satisfied with this production.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Andy Serkis, comedy, family, motion capture, Nick Frost, Peter Jackson, review, Simon Pegg, Steven Moffat, Steven Spielberg

I have fond memories of Tintin but certainly would not presume to position myself anywhere near the level of fandom that many possess. Although I do think the original stories are wonderful  and eagerly watched the television series as a child. Tintin is a much loved fictional character so it is safe to say that there was an awful lot riding on the much anticipated big screen debut of Hergé’s infamous journalist and his faithful dog. 

The film itself has clearly divided opinion in a dramatic fashion. Like the much overused example of marmite, it has either completely captivated its audience or thoroughly offended them. It is easy to see why there is such a split in the reaction to Spielberg’s attempt to bring the character to life. On the one hand, the plot contains plenty of excitement and fun that many would associate with the original material but, at the same time, the film lacks the passion and soul that is associated with Hergé’s characters.

Spielberg’s decision to use motion capture is one of the major culprits for this important lack of heart. There is a great deal of emotion and heart tied up within the original artwork which has not been brought to life using this modern technique. It is, arguably, only the motion capture veteran Andy Serkis who is able to bring any amount of feeling to his animated portrayal of Captain Haddock. Serkis may be forced to spout several trite and painfully sentimental speeches about “breaking through walls” but he does so with the perfect balance of feeling and downright ham.

For the most part, the rest of the cast (each brilliant actors in their own right) seem to flounder when faced with this method of filming. We just need to look at the final showdown between Haddock and his archenemy Sakharine (played by Daniel Craig) to the see the stark contrast. This supposedly villainous counterpart to Haddock is decidedly flat. Craig shuffles through the role as if he were simply providing a voiceover. There is never any real show of passion that explains his hate-fuelled mission.

The plot, written by three British screenwriting legends Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, is made up of the plots of three separate Tintin stories. The titular Secret of the Unicorn, The Crab with the Golden Claws and Red Rackham’s Treasure. This results in a fairly mismatched adventure that is fairly clumsily put together. The rushed subplot of the pickpocket, whilst interesting in its own right, is included mainly for convenience and could perhaps have been replaced in order to better set up the main narrative of the film.

The script itself often seems clumsy and awkward. The obvious and almost out of place speeches where characters are forced to state exactly what is happening and why are far more frequent than should perhaps be necessary. Although, there are some outstanding moments and one-liners (mostly courtesy of Captain Haddock) and more than enough double entendres to keep the older viewers satisfied.

This being said, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the film. From the gorgeous opening titles and the tremendous introduction of our hero (briefly uniting the Tintin of old and this modern reincarnation) the film captured my imagination. The action never slows and it is constantly apparent that, despite taking the long way round, the plot is always moving forward.  Yes this fast paced approach may be at odds with the more laidback feel of the books but it was a necessary evolution for the move to film. As much as I may hate to admit it, we live in a modern age where the Tintin Hergé created no longer fits. It was a necessity that his adventures captured the imagination of a modern audience, even if this was perhaps at the expense of the true fans.

Yes, Tintin may not be exactly as we all remember him but this is to be expected. He fights his way out of tricky situations in a manner that would have impressed the likes of James Bond. Modernising the hero was something that was bound to happen and should have been embraced as openly as the recent reincarnations of Sherlock Holmes. He is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but he is good enough. If I may quote Commissioner Gordon here, Hergé’s Tintin may be “the hero we deserve, but he is not the one we need right now”.

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

animation, Bill Murray, family, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, review, stop motion, Wes Anderson

Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox remains one of the most loved books of my childhood. My twin and our friend would demand to listen to the audio cassette whenever we were driven anywhere. I still have incredibly fond memories of this book so it was with a certain amount of apprehension that I sat down to watch Wes Anderson’s adaptation. His quirky style and fondness for more unique characters should be the perfect accompaniment to Dahl’s own style of writing but things don’t always work out the way they should. So how would one of my favourite directors fair with this significant piece of my childhood?

Fantastic Mr Fox is hardly an epic tale so Anderson and Noah Baumbach have had to flesh out the narrative a bit but all of the key points are there. After a pretty close-call, Mr Fox promises his wife that he will stop stealing birds and instead settle down into family life. He finds his subsequent work as a journalist dull so comes up with a three-part assault on the farms of his vicious neighbours, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. As Mr Fox goes all Ocean’s 11 on us, his son, Ash, struggles to live up to family name and gain his father’s respect. When his impressive cousin Kristofferson joins the family, the young fox finds himself even more removed from his fantastic parent.

This type of sub-plot, packed with troubled father/son relationships, is nothing new for either Anderson or Baumbach, which is perhaps why it feels a little stale and unnecessary. The angst of the teenage Ash and jealousy towards his cousin is such an overworked cliché that even placing animals at the centre of the drama cannot make it seem fresh. Unfortunately, the theft is over in the blink of an eye and the resulting conflict is pushed into the background once the familial plot takes over. Once the animals find themselves seeking refuge underground, the plot has worn so thin that the audience is simply faced with an unoriginal soap opera style plot.

Although at least a soap opera would be able to provide terrifying enemies. Dahl is not afraid to place his characters and his young readers in the presence of a real and terrifying danger. The main disappointment of this film is the farmers themselves. They are not the grotesque images of evil that the original text summons up. They are instead rather pathetic individuals finding themselves in a, frankly, utterly petty war. The farmers are presented as so pathetic and witless that there never appears to be any real danger for the animals. It is only in the form of the vicious Rat, voiced expertly by Willem Defoe, and a terrifying rabid dog that any real tension is created.

As with all Anderson’s film you get the sense that every detail has been thought out. The look of the characters, the backgrounds and the colour scheme. The film primarily makes use of autumnal colours and is littered with various yellows, oranges, and browns. It is only in Kristofferson that we see a rare glimpse at the colour blue so the audience is fully aware that he is an outsider.

The animation is much more traditional and looks much less polished than contemporary animated offerings. The stop-motion animation brings to mind the works of animators like Oliver Postgate and is truly astounding, despite it’s potentially outdated feel. The detail on the puppets is breathtaking; just look at the way the foxes fur moves during the close-ups. We are not left with the brash and hectic Disney universe but with an understated world in keeping with Dahl’s own, very British, setting.

As you would expect, music plays an important part within the narrative and both the original scores and well-known pop songs fit into the ensemble perfectly. It is Jarvis Cocker’s Petey and his campfire song that leads to one of the film’s best scenes. Cocker’s ditty is played beneath images of Fox and his animal friends dancing in celebration. Watching as the crude puppets perform such adorable dance moves is a sight to behold complemented expertly by Cocker‘s performance. At least Fantastic Mr Fox is a constant treat for the eyes even when the narrative proves a little disappointing.

Although I did like Anderson’s film. I think it had a lot to live up to and it’s entirely possible that I’m just being a bit too stubborn because of my vested interest. The narrative, though nothing ground-breaking, is still a pretty decent script and enjoyable for a mixed audience. Were is a film not grounded in both literary and personal history then I’d probably have been jumping for joy. The wonderful story of Dahl’s original novel may have been lost in translation somewhat but when it is presented in such a charming and beautiful way, with such an amazing array of voices and a tremendous soundtrack, I’m not really sure how much that actually matters.