Category Archives: Disney & Pixar …ing

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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c 2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

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!

Film review: Inside Out (UK Gala Screening)

A couple of weeks ago, BuzzFeed did a rundown of the year’s movie hits and misses, defined mainly by box office take. Tomorrowland – which I enjoyed so much I blogged about it twice – performed modestly at the box office and therefore was classified in the ‘miss’ category. Inside Out, which toppled the mighty Jurassic World from its multi-million dollar perch and has been drowning in glowing reviews, would – by this reckoning – rule the ‘hit’ column. But here’s the curious thing: when it comes to essentials, Inside Out and Tomorrowland are astonishingly similar.

How so? Well, their strengths – proper, rounded female characters; an inspiring message; a beautifully realised fantasy world – are the same; their weaknesses – more emphasis on set up and world exploration than tight plotting – are also the same, although I must say in both cases I didn’t actually care if it was all brought to a mildly unresolved conclusion quite suddenly in the last ten minutes. The journeys are considerably more interesting – creatively speaking – than the destinations.

Of course I loved Inside Out. There was a lot to love. Pixar ingenuity and humour drip from every scene; the animation is glorious, and Pete Docter’s ability to drag on the heartstrings remains unparalleled. We were delighted to be surprised by Docter (!), Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger (!!) and the voice of Joy, Amy Poehler (!!!) at the screening; Poehler asked the kids if they were ready to laugh and the grown ups if they were ready to cry, because when it comes to emotions there is no man better qualified to mess with the mind than the creator of Monsters, Inc. and Up! (never has an exclamation mark concealed so many bitter, salty tears).

As the film has been out for a while in the US and the teaser trailer was everywhere for a while, I’m going to skip the plot summary and cut straight to the key things I think people should know about Inside Out – all of which are, in my opinion, excellent reasons to see it.

  • IT’S A GIRL! Aside from Merida – and that was still in the princess area, albeit not the traditional sort – Pixar has been rather short of female leads thus far. Much is done to make up for this here. In fact, I can’t remember a non-princess animated film with women on screen for such a large proportion of it. It passes the Bechdel Test in its sleep. Riley’s interests centre around her (female!) friends, ice hockey, and generally being 11 years old and a bit daft. Her emotions are of mixed gender (an interesting choice – especially as adults are portrayed as single gender), but the majority are female, and it is two key female emotions (Joy and Sadness) who steer the action.
  • It continues, as is Pixar and Walt Disney Animation’s way, to make profound statements and use animation as a device rather than a distraction. The idea that as we grow up we can no longer be piloted by pure Joy, but have to accept the role of Sadness in our lives, is, by definition, bittersweet. It seems strange to me that people still assume kids made to include children are only for children – especially as the major studios are continually putting out films with an adult audience in mind – but if that might be your reason for missing Inside Out, then you’re just plain missing out.
  • There are Easter Eggs and jokes galore – I’m not even sure I caught a fraction of them (although even my daughter’s ears perked up at the snatch of Grim Grinning Ghosts!). The credit sequence is brilliant too, so don’t be too quick to bolt up from your seat.
  • The now obligatory short, Lava, beforehand, is pretty cute.

Almost-5yo child’s verdict:

Joy was my favourite, then Sadness, then Disgust. Mama, Daddy looks kind of like Fear [he does], I look a bit like Disgust [she does] and you look a bit like Sadness [ha!]. I thought it was really funny and I liked the bit with the rocket. The bit with the clown scared me a bit.

We then spent a happy afternoon filling in the sticker book we were given at the screening, and using the discussion prompts to talk about what makes us happy, sad, scared, disgusted and angry. I’m pleased to report the child has a much harder time thinking of things that make her sad and angry than thinking of things that make her happy, which suggests that her Joy is operating at optimum levels… and my Fear hasn’t got the better of me.

I leave you, then, with the gallery of Joy – photos from the screening, some taken by the lovely Rochelle Dancel, at which we had an absolute ball. Thanks Disney!

Disclosure: I was given tickets to the screening by Disney UK and all attendees got a little bag of goodies including snacks, themed sunglasses, mood door hangers and a sticker book. This is not a paid post and all opinions are my own.