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A Wrinkle in Time: A film review with a difference

WhatsApp Image 2018-03-19 at 09.18.40(1)It’s not every day you have to say “no” to meeting Ava DuVernay.

Having a full-time day job means I do have to decline quite a few of the invitations I get, but this one really hurt. And I was honestly really excited about seeing the film. Luckily, I had the perfect stand-in up my sleeve: web series whizz, producer, actor and writer Rochelle Dancel, who attended a roundtable with Ava and A Wrinkle in Time’s lead actress, 14yo Storm Reid.

Rochelle was all set to guest post a film review here too, when another wonderful friend, blogging powerhouse Vicki of Honest Mum, asked me if I’d like to stand in for her husband at the premiere of the film, along with stylist Lauren Jobling and the highly motivating Lucy Hird. Um, YES? Best of all, we’d get to hear Ava and all the main cast (including ZOMG OPRAH) speak at a Q&A beforehand and I not-so-quietly died inside with happiness.

So this post, while containing a film review, is a little different. We’ll look at our thoughts going in, what we thought of the film itself, and what we learned from the cast and director – so if you’re just looking for film info, head for the middle bits. No spoilers.

A culture shift

RD: Admittedly, I was a little bit apprehensive about going to see this. I am clearly not the target audience, and I don’t have kids. So the lens I naturally had through which to watch this was borne from everything I’d read about it: strong female leads, directed by one of only a handful of women to have a $100m+ budget and, in the week I saw it, the first time two films helmed by African-American directors had the number 1 and 2 spots in the US box office (shoutout Black Panther). I think it’s very difficult not to consider this film in the current social and political climate, which I’m sure also had a part to play in the creative changes they made from the book e.g. the decision to create a blended family with adopted children from different ethnic backgrounds. But it all works. Regardless, I invite any grown-ups going to see it to leave all of that at the door, and bring their younger, teenage selves into the theatre.

AG: I’m pretty much fully in touch with my inner child – potentially more than my sensitive 7yo is. If I didn’t love L’Engle’s source material – and I’m afraid I didn’t – I put this down to being 30 years a little too old when I read it, but that hadn’t stopped me being really excited to see the film. I’ll come back to the Q&A I saw directly before in a moment, but what really framed the viewing for me was the DuVernay asked everyone in the audience aged 6-16 to stand up. And then told them specifically that this film was for them, and invited the rest of us to put ourselves in their shoes. Sometimes it can feel like saying “this was made for kids” is seen as negative – or it actively excludes adults from enjoying it – but I actually prefer for films to know who they’re for. For example, my daughter and I both enjoyed Inside Out at the time, but neither of us have wanted to watch it again since because the more we look back at it the less we know what it’s for; she found it a bit long-winded for kids, I found it a bit basic for adults.

A brief history of A Wrinkle in Time

Based on a much-loved children’s novel from Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time is the story of Meg Murry, whose parents are notable physicists – but whose ambitious work is greeted with incredulity when it seems to go too far. Meg’s father disappears in the course of his research, and for four years his family – Meg, her mother and her brother, Charles Wallace – know nothing of how or why, making Meg angry and closed off. Just as it looks as if she’ll have to accept he’s never coming back, a trio of outlandish guides show up to suggest there could still be hope of unravelling the mystery and saving the day – if Meg can only find the strength in herself.

A few of our favourite things

RD: My favourite thing about this film is that our lead character isn’t a superhero: she doesn’t have to transform to be anything superhuman to do anything over and above what she has previously perceived herself to be. She’s perfect exactly as she is, flaws and all, and I think that’s a major point of difference from other films that may be thrown into the same category, especially for young people.

AG: Yes! I would have killed for a female lead that was kind of nerdy when I was a kid. But even more for a girl who wears glasses and can’t see without them and doesn’t have to remove them to be ‘beautiful’. I know that’s very specific, but seriously. It’s so rare that the removal of glasses to reveal physical beauty has become a trope. Meg’s physical appearance is almost entirely irrelevant except in terms of her being asked to accept herself as she is.

I’m all for films making proud statements, and I found myself wanting to stand up and clap as one theme after another was teased out – from facing the realities of teen life, to family dynamics, adoption, siblinghood and accepting the fallibility of the most loving parent. But there were lots of other things about A Wrinkle in Time I enjoyed that were purely dramatic. I thought the pacing was perfect, and I’m a harsh judge of films that outstay their welcome. The central performances – especially Reid and Deric McCabe – were terrific. I can only imagine the skill it takes to coax such natural performances from young actors. It’s also just really beautiful to look at. In many ways it reminded me of Tomorrowland, with its audacious scope and proudly female tone.

RD: I also thought the young actors were amazing. At the roundtable, Ava described Deric McCabe as exuberant, and it truly is the perfect adjective for him. He is so fiercely committed to his character, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what he does in future. Of her lead actress, Ava said, “Storm Reid is one of the most deeply feeling actors I’ve ever worked with of any age – I compare here with David Oyelowo who played Dr King in Selma in terms of the depth of the way that she feels about her characters.” I was immediately struck by the respect that Ava has for her young actors, and she went on to say that, as the director, she made sure that they knew they could try anything, and that she would be there to catch them. I think this reassurance shows in the final film: intuitive, confident and beautiful performances all around.

AG: I have to acknowledge a couple of avoidable issues. One was chunks of surprisingly clunky dialogue – not at all what you usually get from a film co-written by Jennifer Lee (Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph), and it meant Mindy Kaling in particular suffered from not enough to do. My main familiarity with DuVernay’s other work is 13th, a documentary, so I’m not sure if it’s her usual feature-film style to get quite so vertiginous. I did see the film in IMAX, but I found the regular extreme close ups slightly queasy, and sometimes the technique seemed to undermine the intimacy instead of underscore it.

RD: I enjoyed the concept of the Mrs characters; they’re like a squad of fairy godmothers with whom you don’t always agree or understand, but will come through for you in the end. I didn’t find them entirely cohesive though. Reese Witherspoon was perfect: Elle Woods, having had a career change, in an alternate universe. I really wish that Oprah had had more screen time; she’s always very reassuring, and both the actress and character did serve to ground the film in the little time she was there. Unfortunately, although I am a huge Mindy Kaling fan, I found that the majority of her dialogue – interjected quotes a la inspirational Instagram feed – made it really difficult to see her beyond two dimensions or connect her to the journey of the main characters.

AG: On a parenting note, I’d add that, while the themes are probably most strongly resonant for the middle of the 6-16 group, it’s pretty friendly to the whole age range. I talk a lot about my daughter being a gentle soulThe Jungle Book was too much for her – but she’s super excited to see Wrinkle and so far my judgement is that she’ll be completely fine with it. The scariest bit is mostly implied (unless you have a phobia of trees or branches) and she’ll probably miss some of the nuance there until she’s older anyway.

Hearing from the filmmakers

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RD: As I’ve worked with young actors, which means I’ve met many parents, I asked Reid what her advice would be to parents whose kids wanted to get into acting, and I was totally floored by the maturity and insight of this response: “I think that if I were to tell parents – well, you’re not supposed to tell parents anything because you’re supposed to respect them – but I would just say that, if your kid wants to do it, let them do it, and as long as they are having fun and they are enjoying it, they should be doing it, and if they’re doing the right things at home and being good people then you should let them do it. If your kid doesn’t have the same interests as you, then I don’t think that you should force your kid into something because that’s when they become resentful or that’s not when they want to put 150% into something – and not only just acting.”

AG: Storm Reid. STORM REID. She was so immensely poised at the Q&A, talking about the reality of having to find strength inside yourself as a girl or woman in this world, and especially as a girl or woman of colour. Between that and Oprah’s rallying cry to look for the positives – the uprisings, the revolutions – in every difficult and painful piece of political news, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. DuVernay also took the time to call out to the men in the room and ask them to stand up if they’re good allies; you see that figure reflected in the character of Calvin, a model for how to fight for someone else and for change even when it looks like you’re holding all the cards (and it takes time to show that all might not be as it seems).

RD: So to sum up: the film isn’t perfect. It is flawed. But in the same way that Mrs. Whatsit gifts Meg her faults, I think the film’s flaws serve to highlight the film’s strengths: courage, strength and beauty – enough of each to love it exactly as it is.

AG: That’s such a perfect summary, I’m leaving it right there. 

 

A Wrinkle in Time is out in UK cinemas from 23rd March. Thank you to Disney UK for the opportunity to send Rochelle to the roundtable and a screening, and to Honest Mum and Disney UK for the chance to attend the European premiere and Q&A. All thoughts and opinions our own (apart from where we’re quoting others, obviously…).

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Film review: Beauty and the Beast (live action)

It doesn’t feel an overstatement to suggest that Howard Ashman was absolutely key in transforming the lumbering beast that Walt Disney Animation had started to resemble in the mid-80s into the fleet-of-foot animation royalty that dominated the 90s and heralded an era of musical hit after musical hit. He did it through the gift of song – his artistic vision and a lyricist’s pen dripping with inspiration that was at its most passionately effective in partnership with his long term creative collaborator, Disney Legend Alan Menken. The 14th of March marks the 26th anniversary of his sadly premature loss, so it seems a fitting moment to return to some of his very finest work with the company as Disney indulges in its latest project to reinvent its back catalogue into live action for fun and profit.

If Bill Condon (Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1 2, Mr Holmes) attempts to tighten up the more dated elements of the tale as old as time by developing its independent and intelligent heroine’s back story, there’s no need to lift a finger to invigorate the music: it’s aged perfectly.  The sole bum note is the Beast’s new number, a rather pedestrian lament penned by Sir Tim Rice (who also completed Ashman’s work on Aladdin) – though it’s good to see the cursed Prince get his due with a bit more character development. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens brings a note of gruff sarcasm to his performance which is warm and welcome; he’s also provided with hints of a more complex story than simply ‘petulant child’, and this helps with what has always been a tough sell of a romance – even more challenging with live action characters and hard-working CGI and prosthetics than it is with animated protagonists.

The supporting cast is stalwart and solid; Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth is reliably…McKellian. Ewan McGregor can safely be counted on to belt out a rousing tune; his Lumiere’s Be Our Guest might lack the tongue-in-cheek suaveness of the sorely missed Jerry Orbach but taken as its own performance is still a Busby Berkeley extravaganza in which the running joke of Belle failing to actually get to eat anything remains. Audra MacDonald’s Mme Garderobe gets a fuller role and injects necessary notes of both pathos and jollity as a result of her continuing love affair with harpsichord husband Mastro Cadenza- a newly-created character and gleeful cameo from Stanley Tucci and his spectacular dentures. The challenges here are largely of realisation rather than performance; where Cogsworth and the Maestro’s household objects lend themselves to mimicking facial expressions, Lumiere’s tiny face, Mrs Potts’ flat surface and the wardrobe’s unnerving facelessness are at times slightly unnerving. While this doesn’t prevent national treasure Emma Thompson from being bumblingly charming and pretty much pulling off that crucial titular ballad, she’s one of the few characters that is preferable in her briefly-observed human form.

But what of Belle herself? Emma Watson’s is a very cool and reserved take on one of Disney’s more fearless heroines. In many ways she’s a more realistic introvert, and there are some touching moments, such as a small bubbling up of glee at being given the library to explore and in the richer relationship with the delightful Kevin Kline’s Einsteinian Maurice. Still, this interpretation leaves some of the high drama sadly lacking; for one, her Fraulein Maria hilltop moment is oddly muted. It perhaps doesn’t help that Watson is well nigh steamrollered by an absolute barnstormer of a performance from Luke Evans on full-bodied form as Gaston, rolling effortlessly from high camp to cartoonish villainy with a genuine note of unhinged violence. Where Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast should dominate the score, it’s actually tub-thumping tavern jig Gaston and menacing rabble-rouser Kill the Beast that lead the way as the film’s most engaging musical moments. There’s been much press coverage of Josh Gad’s Le Fou being the first obviously gay Disney character, though this is rather more disappointingly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it than advertised; still, he’s an able enough foil for his puffed-up partner in crime, even if his conflicted moments are a little lacklustre.

Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is a beauty but a funny film; just a touch too paint-by-numbers to attain the high standards set by Jon Favreau’s lavish and loveable take on The Jungle Book and certainly not about to replace the near-perfect Ashman swansong from which it took its cue. But it’s an affectionately crafted and solidly enjoyable family night out; the lights of its most stirring numbers remain undimmed and that wickedly effective Gaston is possibly even an improvement on the source material. If, being honest, it wouldn’t be included in the bookshelves of the mind where my most prized treasures rest together, I wouldn’t refuse to include it in the library.

Beauty and the Beast is on UK general release from Friday March 17th. Many thanks to @disney_uk for two press preview tickets. All opinions my own; more blog-based movie reviews here; even more film stuff on my Letterboxd profile.

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Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass with Edible Cinema

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It’s no secret that I adore the Alice in Wonderland aesthetic. As with so many tea fans and cat lovers – not to mention flamingo obsessives – I’m drawn to the twee and the fantastic, the essential Britishness. I went to the British Library exhibit earlier this year, and I’ve already assigned the animated take on the Cheshire Cat as my favourite Disney character of all time (we have both Disney and Tenniel Christmas ornaments to prove it). Mary Blair’s concept work on Alice is basically the artwork I’d produce if I had any sort of talent, let alone one as prodigious as Blair’s.

In spite of all of this, it took me an age to get around to watching 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. In part, this is because of my complex relationship with the films of Tim Burton. Having loved every second of the Edward Scissorhands era, I became increasingly disillusioned with his more recent work, culminating in a substantial dislike of Big Fish  – the point, for me, at which his work stopped being beautiful creative driven by the story but self-consciously quirky stories retrofitted into a glorious visual. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by his Alice – from the liberties it gleefully took with the source material to the canny casting of the other-worldly Mia Wasikowska. And when I heard that Alice Through the Looking Glass was going to be handed over to another director, I was heartened – if The Nightmare Before Christmas teaches us anything it’s that sometimes Burton can be credited with finer work as producer, rather than director.

And then… then I was invited to watch it as part of an Edible Cinema screening. Hell yes, my friends.

I’ve been dying to try Edible Cinema for ages – food AND films? What’s not to love? – and I cannot imagine a better pairing for this pleasingly inventive idea than an Alice film. If you’re unfamiliar with the setup, you get given a box full of numbered ‘serves’ and then are prompted unobtrusively during the film to eat or drink them at relevant points. Each serve is designed to perfectly accompany the scene it’s consumed with – like ice-cold mouthfuls of crunchy sherbet as the characters tramp through the snow… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Alice Through the Looking Glass again parks the source material at the door, simply taking the characters of Lewis Carroll’s world and playing merry hell with them. And really, maybe it’s the preferable route to take sometimes, particularly with such widely adapted and massively influential texts; without worrying about the impact of some perceived canon or other, you can simply enjoy the action for what it is. Set some years after Alice’s return from ‘Underland’, she’s now a fearless sea captain – steering her late father’s ship to safety and leaving pirates stranded in the shallows. This Alice is a fully paid up feminist, and it’s a delight to see. On her return to land, her shady wannabe-ex attempts to pop her back into the drawer he thinks she belongs in – instead Alice follows an old friend through a looking glass and ends up back in the familiar topsy-turvy world, only to be plunged immediately into a race against Time (literally, in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen) to save her friend the Hatter from a swift decline prompted by nostalgic melancholy.

If I’m honest, the plot doesn’t always make that much sense, but the rollicking, frantic pace is such that it doesn’t much matter. The moral – that you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it – is ladled on a tad thickly but it helps that it’s a pretty solid moral. Wasikowska’s straight guy turn is thoughtful, and there’s a cameo for all her old pals, from Absolem (the late, great Alan Rickman’s final work, and heartbreaking for it) to the White Queen (Anne Hathaway still keeping up the well-meant but misguided mannerisms that made the character rather irritating the first time around). Andrew Scott pops up pleasingly as a sort of Bedlam Moriarty, eyes gleaming and syringe held high. And of course Helena Bonham Carter is back on scene-stealing duty as Iracebeth, the Red Queen, but it’s Baron Cohen who walks away with the film. His sublime portrayal of what director James Bobin – he, appropriately enough, of The Muppets – called the ‘confident idiot’ is beautifully balanced: he flips on and off the manic gleam in his eye to be at one moment the frustrating villain of the piece and at the next a surprisingly moving figure.

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Accompanying the rapid twists and turns of the plot were some brilliantly creative moments from Edible Cinema. Be warned – you will be sugar high and a little tipsy by the time you emerge from any EC screening (and there are allergen-friendly menus available if you get in touch in time). I parked my sugar-quitting at the door to try a gooey, marshmallow fluff-based confection as Alice landed in a heap of flowers, a crystalline sugar butterfly when she met the transformed former caterpillar (accompanied by a shot of gin so strong I coughed like a furtive  smoker behind the bikesheds) and a rich bite of ginger and thyme spice cake as matters came to their Time-ly resolution at the end. My absolute favourite – both for flavour and the matching sensation it evoked – was the aforementioned crunchy sugar snow (and more gin). I missed one number cue which meant that two treats got shovelled in rather quickly one after another but it didn’t really affect the overall charm of the experience. Were I to give any feedback it would be that more savouries would really help cut through the intense sweetness of the menu, as some very welcome sharp and spicy popcorn did, but I imagine it’s very different with other films. And there’s no doubt that I would definitely try it again.

Glorious setting aside, I will admit that – with its madcap pace, convoluted plot and sudden resolution – Alice Through the Looking Glass is not a masterpiece, but it is a perfectly watchable romp with a universally appealing moral and a satisfyingly intentional take on creating a feminist heroine. Older children will enjoy the bonkers humour and rousing pitch, while adults can be quietly charmed by the sumptuous visuals and quality cast. Of course I didn’t take my 5yo to this particular screening (hic!); while I think she would have been fine with the nature of the content, she would likely have struggled with following the plot so in general I’d recommend it for 7+. If you don’t manage to catch it in cinemas, I definitely recommend getting creative with snacks for the home release – I can confirm it adds a whole new dimension.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is on UK general release.

Disclosure: The screening and Edible Cinema experience were courtesy of the Disney UK team. All opinions my own.

 

 

Film review: Disney’s The Jungle Book (live action)

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If I had to sum up Jon Favreau’s live action take on The Jungle Book in a single word, it would be… affectionate.

It’s perhaps an unexpected thing to say about a film that is a little darker and quite substantially more intense than the animated version of Kipling’s tale from which it takes its inspiration, but it is exactly in referencing that source that much affection is revealed. In that, and the enormous heart that runs through it which never turns saccharine.

The Jungle Book‘s stellar cast might overwhelm newcomer Neel Sethi in any other circumstances; as they’re safely ensconced in (gorgeously realised) animal characters it is perhaps the youngster’s inexperience that allows him to make such a good showing, unbowed – in that childlike way – by the amounts of green screen acting he must have done. As it is, he stands up brilliantly well to the sheer weight of talent around him. Sir Ben Kingsley’s Bagheera is particularly generous, restrained and warm, letting Sethi’s Mowgli fill the screen – even a screen as intimidating as the IMAX in which we saw it – with big-eyed naivety and youthful belligerence. Lupita Nyong’o brings the heart in spades, and even Bill Murray’s Baloo is a scene-stealer rather than walking away with the whole movie. Christopher Walken’s gargantuan King Louie is thrillingly creepy even when conducting a classic sing-song.

It is perhaps Scarlett Johansson’s Kaa that suffers most from the surfeit of talent; though her role contains a crucial bit of exposition and she’s spared the undignified exit of the cartoon concertina snake, her cameo is brief and abruptly over and her song confined to the end credits – though these are worth sticking around for. I also struggled a little with Idris Elba’s Shere Khan; never bettered when exuding quiet menace, the twisted tiger’s blistering moments of rage seemed at times a bit muted.

Still, this is splitting cat hairs. The fact is that the whole is enchanting. The immersion offered by the IMAX screen was quite something, but even on a 2D screen half the size it would clearly be a really beautiful film. Despite deft references to the animated classic – particularly in the opening and ending, and well-chosen musical links – it’s in the deviations, and the return to Kipling, that this finds its own feet and justifies Disney’s desire to explore its back catalogue in live action. Witty without being jarring or coarse, deeply emotional but not manipulative and a serious visual treat – what a winner.

The five-year-old’s verdict:

Here’s where it went slightly wrong. I actually nearly went to see this without her, as after her nervousness at some elements of Zootropolis, she and I were both uncertain. But we talked it through and thought we’d try being brave. I gave her an opt out, which was to leave with her dad if it was too much. She was actually completely fine through some early scenes of animal violence – and I should emphasise that almost everything is implied rather than seen, so the PG rating certainly holds. But the big screen eventually became too much, and she decided to opt out; while the central core of the film was then fine, the ending was intense even for me, so it’s just as well. My parental recommendation would be for 8+, particularly in 3D, perhaps a little younger in 2D. I recognise I have quite a sensitive soul on board, particularly where animals are concerned, so others of a similar age might be fine. However, I did also hear another child near us express a quavering dislike of Kaa.

The Jungle Book is on general release in the UK from April 15th.

Disclosure: We were given family tickets by the Disney UK team to a screening including some fun events like face-painting; however, all thoughts about the film are our own. 

Film review: Zootropolis / Zootopia – predator, prey and privilege

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Why didn’t anyone tell me this was Pride and Prejudice with added Breaking Bad jokes? Also, sloths. Somehow much of the build up to the release of Zootropolis passed me by, but now that it’s landed I couldn’t be happier.

Walt Disney  Studios’ latest blockbuster opened to greater success at the box office than Frozen and yet has precisely none of the hallmarks of what most people probably think of as classic Disney: it has a non-princess female lead, it isn’t a musical and there’s no love story. And yet it is unquestionably  Disney in tone, with all the characterisation, humour and heart that Disney has come to stand for, plus a dose of the more ambitiously groundbreaking attitude Disney animation has had since Pixar chief John Lasseter took the creative helm (in fact, I’d argue the Disney team has knocked out more world class game-changers than their colleagues at Pixar have in the past five years, despite popular opinion casting Pixar as the creative leaders).

Zootropolis – the UK name, though Zootopia makes more sense – shares a good deal of tone with one of my recent favourites, Tangled. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a wide-eyed, innocent yet determined bunny from the countryside, full of beans but just a touch sheltered and naive. As the first bunny police officer in heaving Zootropolis, the place where predator and prey have apparently learned to live side by side in perfect harmony, she faces stereotyping and sidelining by the cynical chief (Idris Elba) – but she grits her carrot-chomping teeth and plans to work twice as hard to show how good she is. A bewildering investigation leads her to team up with professional hustler Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), an embittered fox determined to prove that if sly is what people expect from him, then sly is what they’ll get. In a world that’s supposed to lack species tension, Judy and Nick set out to track down a group of missing animals – and discover there’s a lot more mutual suspicion bubbling under the surface than Judy, at least, had anticipated.

Bright, funny and great for almost all ages, it’s a classic buddy movie with a timely, complex message about the nature of prejudice that deftly avoids the thundering cliche of all being the same under the skin (the point is not being the same, but being equal). There are some audaciously direct references to all sorts of ‘isms’ – Judy’s reception as the minority candidate reeks of everyday sexism and tokenism; Nick obnoxiously squeezing a sheep’s hair and commenting on its texture made my jaw drop. At various times both predator and prey are shown as being fearful and ignorant and – though I’m not a believer in ‘reverse’ prejudice, since the balance of power is usually pretty obvious – the message that fear is damaging to everyone is powerful. Pointedly, the film dares to point out the hypocrisy in thinking you’re being the perfect, outspoken ally while spouting prejudice and holding on to negative perceptions without even realising it. It shows the specific, personal cost of not practicing what you preach. And if audiences like me, who fit several privilege groups, feel a little uncomfortable, then that’s as it should be.

What makes Zootropolis hugely enjoyable as well as audacious is a good dose of humour; witty and sharp, with plenty of over-the-kids-heads jokes, it also has a number of great visual gags and in-jokes. My five-year-old was highly amused by some knock-off DVDs (Pig Hero 6, Wrangled) though she missed that they were being peddled by a Duke Weaselton – come on, Frozen fans – voiced brilliantly by Alan Tudyk (come on trivia fans). A very earnest story is rattled out through a succession of one liners and smart characterisation, and even the key emotional appeal in delivered through the useful shorthand of an all-too-familiar celebrity appeal (oddly sexy Gazelle, voiced by Shakira channelling Lady Gaga). There’s no heavy-handed worthiness, but plenty of goodwill.

I strongly suspect that Jennifer Lee, who contributed to the story, had more influence than the credits suggest in turning out a balanced narrative – between her princess-subverting Frozen, which she also co-directed,  and the outstanding Wreck-It Ralph , she’s shown over and over again that she’s willing to take stereotypes, particularly sexist ones, and turn them on their heads. That the production team flipped characters during production to make Judy the lead, rather than Nick, shows that the studio is beginning to understand what it needs to produce films that are more inclusive; that very realisation is at the core of what makes Zootropolis such an honest and engaging film.

Thoughtful, wise and pleasingly zany, I’d happily and heartily recommend Zootropolis far and wide.

The five-year-old’s verdict: Despite giggling aloud at plenty of the film – we’re still hearing about the sloth, days later – being quite a sensitive soul she was also scared by some snarling animal attack moments. For that reason she isn’t sure she’d like to see it again, though her cousins, another 5yo and a 10yo, both thought it was fantastic and really funny. I think there’s a mild warning in it for easily scared types (and it is a PG, not a U) otherwise I’d say it’s a rollicking family adventure with an important message.

Zootropolis is on general release from Good Friday, 25th March.

 

Disclaimer: The Disney UK team kindly provided five tickets for me and my family to view the film. All opinions are our own.

Five reasons to love Agent Carter

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Oh, Peggy.

Agent Carter, as nerds will know, was never meant to be a long-running series. Originally planned as an eight-episode one-off season hiatus filler for shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  (a rare Marvel property I haven’t been able to warm to), it developed just enough of a following for ABC to commission a second series, which is now playing out its final episodes on Fox in the UK.

While Peggy doesn’t get the kinds of ratings – or rapturous miles of column inches  -dedicated to Daredevil  and Jessica Jones on Netflix, it has attracted a hardcore of devoted fans (myself among them). With its short, sharp seasons that allow for a single story arc to be thoroughly plumbed without ever dragging, it’s a crystalline gem of a show. But I’m getting ahead of myself – five reasons, I promised, and here they are.

One – Hayley Atwell

To be honest, she could easily be five reasons on her own. But since she waltzed onto the screen with a spring in her step and a punch in her fist in Captain America: The First Avenger, who’s been able to take their eyes off Peggy? Atwell’s trick is to make Peggy an entire woman. A whole person. She has complex relationships, romantic and otherwise, she has to fight lazy sexism at work (it is the 1940s, but honestly some of these things really are still happening) and she’s sharp, capable and wryly funny. But she’s not just one of these things.  She says wonderful feminist things, but is not a cookie cutter feminist mouthpiece. She exhibits physical strength when she needs to, but doesn’t hide behind it. She has hurts and painful memories, but she rolls up her sleeves and gets the job done – acknowledging her pain but neither hiding it nor wallowing in it. Too many Strong Female Characters are only that – relentlessly, exhaustingly, tough. There’s a fullness to Peggy that harks back to the glory days of Buffy Summers, only without the post-adolescent whining. And with a glorious English accent.

To top it all, she looks fabulous. Besame Cosmetics 1946 Red Velvet, if you’re wondering.

Two – James D’Arcy

As the youthful Edwin Jarvis, D’Arcy’s bumbling English butler with a heart of gold and passionate belief in doing the right thing- even if it costs him – provides a much needed note of lightness. He’s charming but never slimy, and serves to remind Carter of the fact that just because she can do something alone, it doesn’t mean she has to. Carter’s main weakness is what is usually considered strength in male-centred narratives – her inability to ask for and reluctance to accept help. Would that there were more Jarvises in the boy stories….

Plus, he’s an Amersham boy, raised in west London and I did the opposite, so I feel kindly disposed.

Three – Diversity

This sounds quite po-faced, I know, but it’s actually a hugely refreshing thing to watch a comic book-based piece of creative and not just see a wall of strong, white men. Aside from Peggy there are a number of interesting female characters, including  two complex and indefatigable nemeses and an older, plus-size woman who is included for her intelligence and loyalty – not as a punchline. Of Carter’s colleagues, one of the most interesting is disabled (part of his character development, but not even close to dominating it), has a Latin surname and is played by an Albanian-American actor. In season two, a potential love interest for Carter is a black man. Jarvis’ newly-introduced wife is Jewish.

It’s definitely not perfect – what is? – but I applaud what seem to me deliberate attempts to at the very least balance the gender narrative, and begin to take steps towards tackling wider race and disability inclusiveness.

Four – Humour

If it’s all sounded a bit heavy-handed so far, let that be my fault; one of my very favourite things about Agent Carter is its relative lightness. It sounds weird to say this about a programme that has so far seen a cinema full of people bludgeon each other to death under the influence of a mysterious chemical, a major character badly injured by being impaled on a metal pole and man blown up with a bomb vest as he plummets out of a window to save others from the explosion. But unlike Daredevil‘s relentless gore and Jessica Jones‘ psychological warfare, Agent Carter really does feel like a Marvel comic book – violent, yes, but not gratuitously and with regular infusions of light relief, a touch of slapstick and a hint of romance.

If Daredevil feels to me like Marvel stepping into live-action territory usually dominated by DC, Agent Carter is an explosion of colour and light: modern Marvel at its best.

Five – Short seasons

I’ve bored the pants off a few friends with my theories on how series length can make or break things for me. I genuinely think the Netflix-length 13-episode arc is what’s made the two Defenders shows so far so good (imagine that single Kilgrave storyline extending to 22 episodes; no matter how excellent Jessica Jones is – and it is – and how marvellous both Krysten Ritter and David Tenant are – and they are – around episode 18 of same-old you’d be about ready to hand yourself in for a lifetime of mind control). Eight episodes is basically four films. It’s enough time to extend into some backstory, spin off a few interesting sidelines and set up some possibilities for the next season without labouring. Season 2 has extended to ten, but it still feels tightly plotted and just leaves a little more breathing space for the slightly expanded ensemble cast.

Without wishing to sound as if things were better in my day – eleventy hundred years ago – I do think both films and many seasons of television have become, of late, more self-indulgent and far too long than ever; maybe it’s for money or maybe it’s because no-one has the heart to tell Peter Jackson to stop it, but there really is something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more. When season one of Agent Carter ended, I was bereft, because there was so much more left to tell. I will be the first to say when I think it’s been overtold. But two seasons in and there is a wealth material to explore – I’m definitely entirely behind a third season (pretty please ABC?).

And now to get ready to say goodbye again. Sob.

 

Disney / Pixar’s Sanjay’s Super Team and more animated shorts at the BFI London Film Festival for kids

Some of the most bargainous tickets you'll get at LFF

Some of the most bargainous tickets you’ll get at LFF

When I decided to go for it with the London Film Festival this year, I couldn’t possibly leave out my little future film fan. Ramona actually came quite late to cinema going (she’s spooked by sudden bangs and loud noises sometimes, so it can be a bit overwhelming) though she loves it now; tempting her in through the doors by explaining that it was ‘like watching a bunch of trailers’ meant that we got to experience something a little different from the usual family films – not that there’s anything wrong with those, but opening up horizons is never a bad thing.

One of the stunning screening rooms (NFT1, I believe) that Ramona adored.

One of the stunning screening rooms (NFT1, I believe) that Ramona adored.

While the BFI has really developed its family offering in recent years, Ramona’s age group often leaves her out of proceedings; animation workshops etc are really only going to become of interest in a few years’ time, as she’s only five. However, on the final day of the festival was the ‘Animated Shorts for Younger Audiences’ collection; at a total price of £29 for the three of us it seemed really reasonable for a central London cinema trip during an event for which I’d already dropped a phenomenal amount to attend gala screenings (still paying that off; still worth it).

The first of many step and repeat boards, I'm sure.

The first of many step and repeat boards, I’m sure.

What was actually going to be in the programme was a bit of a mystery; it turned out to be 14 international animated shorts including a UK advance screening of the new Disney / Pixar short, Sanjay’s Super Team which is due to appear before The Good Dinosaur when that’s released next month. The collection was brilliantly varied, in terms of content, technique and storytelling, from a brilliant one-minute one-man whiteboard animation from a second year student to an intricate Latvian stop motion morality tale about littering.

It's not as cute when the adults do it. And yes, my attempt at colourful 'cartoonish' dress was in line with my other 'dressing by theme' attempts...

It’s not as cute when the adults do it. And yes, my attempt at colourful ‘cartoonish’ dress was in line with my other ‘dressing by theme‘ looks…

My personal favourites included a superbly funny Swedish animation about a pair of dice and a couple of ladybirds on an adventure (hereafter, all ladybirds shall be known as ‘Bengt’ to me). I also loved a rather bleak but beautiful Canadian take on environmentalism positioned ironically around the lyrics of Que Sera Sera (pretty sure that whisked straight over Ramona’s head but she liked the cars). She particularly enjoyed a sweet film about a bird that takes a break from its migration pattern to dance with a tortoise on a beach; I thought it was beautiful yet overlong, but it was lovely to compare notes and find we really loved different things for different reasons. I found a charming French tale of a cuddly toy soothing a baby delightful; Ramona thought the battered toy (“that grey thing”) was really scary.

We were all a bit blown away by Sanjay’s Super Team,  which really made me want to see it as a full-length film, combining the visual punch of The Incredibles with  a wide-eyed, Nemo-esque sweetness. The only issue was its positioning in the programme which felt a bit odd; dropping a famous animation heavyweight in near the end but not at the end meant that quite a lot of the kids seemed to check out after that. In fact, my beloved ladybird Bengt was on last, which was another odd choice as it was one of the longest pieces and also the only on to require subtitles. Not generally  a problem for my little reader, but she wasn’t the youngest child there by a long shot and putting the one that requires the most concentration at the end seemed to be a bit of a scheduling no-no (and in fact she wriggled and jiggled and wiggled and finally expressed boredom, which earned her some steely glances and sharp words from her mother).

There were evidently some pains taken to make it feel more like a festival; the films were introduced, there was some Q&A at the beginning, and after each set of two or three we were actually introduced to some of the filmmakers for little interviews. Unfortunately this was mostly lost on the audience; the younger children figeted and checked out and their parents couldn’t listen while trying to keep a lid on things – and I did see some leave before the end.

So do I recommend it? Yes, definitely, though I wouldn’t take the ‘younger audiences’ label to mean – as many of us obviously did – youngest audiences. Ramona loved the setting, wanting to “send a message to those BFI people to tell them how BEAUTIFUL it is in here” and really enjoyed some of the films, and she’s insistent she wants to come back to watch movies at BFI Southbank. However, she’s wavering much more over the shorts programme, because the stop-start nature meant she couldn’t properly engage with what she was seeing.  My personal recommendation would either be to play straight through, allowing time for various Q&As at the end for those families with older kids, or to have more of a quiz type format to the breaks (as she really liked it when asked questions).

Roll on next year!