Category Archives: Reviewing

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.

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Sending myself a get well tea-mail from Piacha…

black-and-cherry-tea-envelopes-s

I’ve been sick, on and off, for a month. What started out as simply the world’s most disgusting head cold has ambled on as a strength-sapping virus-chest-infection combo. I’ve been working pretty much throughout (thank God I have an employer that is set up to support working from home) but this week the ongoing lurgy cost me a business trip. Things are… irritating. And that’s where tea comes in.

Tea. So much tea. You guys know I love tea, right? And write about my tea love. And you know that I visited Piacha in Islington and loved that too, and then Pia sent me a lovely email saying ‘hey, wanna try our tea subscription service?’ and basically this is the best possible way I can think of to deal with feeling so utterly grotty.

The way it works is that you pick a tea from the website as usual. Then you choose the subscription option instead of a one-off purchase. You’re asked to choose a delivery interval: 1, 2, 3 or 4 weeks. You set up payment. Then, on schedule, a foil sachet of tea arrives through your door. That’s it.

english-breakfast-envelopes-s

Being an absolute gem, Pia let me try my first delivery free. I opted for the Shui Xian oolong I tried in our tasting as it’s a lovely rich, nutty, black oolong. There was no question I was ending the subscription there – I’ve now drunk my way through two deliveries of Shui Xian in a bid to sort out my raw throat. I then fancied a change so I have switched the most recent delivery to 40g of beautiful pine needles white tea which is incredibly delicate and fragrant. Cake is now a very occasional treat for me, but my shelf of tea canisters sees me through each day in which I’m apt to drink anything from 2 to 12 cups of teas of varying colour, flavour and caffeine content. My tea shelf is packed with gems from my favourite tea shops (and one weird Disney World Alice in Wonderland weird strawberry flavoured weird tea). Knowing I’ve got a regular delivery coming from one of my most trusted sources is not only reassuring in terms of keeping my tins topped up, but being able to switch around my options means that my tea promiscuity is well catered for – I can be getting hot and heavy with one blend while flirting unsubtly with another.

The small print, as it turns out, is as uncomplicated as the principle. Price varies per tea though all have free UK delivery (with EU and international options) – plus it’s 10% cheaper than buying one off. The cheapest by volume is £5.31 for 75g of loose leaf English Breakfast and the most expensive is £10.62 for a generous 75g bag of Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong – with most at the lower end of the scale. My current delivery is just £4.95 per sachet (albeit a 40g pack). Plus of course many loose leaf teas, including oolong, can stand up to multiple brewings. You can log in and change tea type and delivery interval, or skip deliveries, at any point. I know I’ll be away at Christmas, so have already arranged to skip the relevant deliveries.

ginger-chilli-ls-front-s-2

One tip from me: if you are going to go for it, then do make one further investment if you haven’t already – tea tins. Piacha teas come in lovely foil sealed packs which preserve freshness, but once you’ve torn a pack open, you’ll want to transfer the contents into an airtight tin to keep them smelling and tasting perfect. Should you be able to resist inhaling it all, tea can stay in decent nick in a tin for up to two years.

In a long, frustrating, exhausting month that culminated in the GP announcing “you don’t look well” before I even described the problem (me: “…”) it’s been a massive source of comfort to have black tea and dark chocolate to hand at all times. I’ve always believed in treating myself, but as tempted as I’ve desperately been to sign up to all manner of beauty boxes and nerd subscriptions, I’ve resisted it due to worries that I wouldn’t really want everything I was getting, or it wouldn’t be fair to have a regular delivery that was just for me. But tea… tea I’d definitely drink. And it’s tea I’ve chosen myself, and want to drink. And I can share it with other people! It’s useful. And delicious. And one of my favourite things in the world. Self-justification made easy, my friends.

And with that, I raise my mug to you and hope that the next time you see a post from me it will be with a clean bill of health. I can guarantee there’ll be a fresh cuppa, too.

Disclosure: The lovely Pia of Piacha kicked off my subscription with one entirely free delivery for review, but all deliveries since then have been paid for by me. All thoughts, opinions and words are my own; the pics are courtesy of Piacha.

BFI London Film Festival 2016: Their Finest (review)

I have never read the source material on which Their Finest is based, Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half. However, I’m going to make a leap and blame the disappointing third act of this adaptation on the fact that it is an adaptation. A cataclysmic event that one cannot reveal for fear of spoilers could be a devastating twist leading to a richly emotional coda on paper; on screen it happens at precisely the wrong moment, melodramatic rather than moving, and a it’s a crying shame because until that moment there was a great deal of promise.

For a start this is a staunchly feminist offering by design, not just because it’s a heavily female-led production. The Second World War offered opportunities to women to step into male-dominated industries in the absence of their menfolk; we think of these largely as mechanical, physical: factories and food production, Rosie doing her riveting. But in 1940 the propaganda machine was also in full flow, and this tale focuses on Catrin Cole, whose facility with the written word leads her into the world of patriotic film production – first on awkward shorts and later on an ambitious, big budget production to win the hearts and minds of the general public and keep them behind the war effort. It’s a film about films, often wry and funny, using a talented and treasured cast to round out the thinner aspects of the characterisation.

Gemma Arterton brings gutsy warmth to Catrin, an approachably genuine mix of hesitance and growing independence. Rachael Stirling’s acerbic and openly lesbian producer and Helen McCrory’s canny agent manage to sidestep excessive stereotyping and steal the show from the sidelines, and it is female characters and female stories that largely drive the action. Sam Claflin is perhaps a little wasted in the mildly unconvincing arc of initially churlish screenwriter Tom Buckley, who spots Catrin’s potential and – occasionally grudgingly – supports her efforts while becoming a complicated potential romantic interest. His curtness is balanced by Bill Nighy’s deliciously hammy declining star with a Norma Desmond ego – a more genteel rehashing  of Love, Actually‘s Billy Mack, but no less watchable for it – who is given an unnecessary but moving subplot involving an ancient bromance with a dog-obsessed struggling agent.

Their Finest has more than that small whiff of Richard Curtis about it; a wartime setting offers ample opportunities for gallows humour alongside genuine tragedy. Director Lone Scherfig (Riot Club) keeps it light as often as possible, and were it not for the sadly uneven final act, this could be added to the list of rousing British romcoms – something I think we do almost excessively well. The development of the potential love triangle should be the emotional core of the film, and given the full space it needed to breathe it could have been a rollicking one. Sadly as things stand, the big bang rather forces the film to go out on a whimper.

Luckily there are still reasons to watch –  the insights into film production of the time, some light relief around a hopelessly wooden war hero pressganged into a patriotic performance to woo American audiences. It’s galling but also satisfying to hear small references to feminist struggles still being overcome (“of course we can’t pay you as much as the chaps…”). And speaking of chaps, the supporting cast is a small galaxy of national treasures – Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Henry Goodman and even an amusing cameo from Jeremy Irons quoting Henry V; it’s almost distracting in its embarrassment of riches.

Uneven pace and flaws aside, I’m glad Their Finest was made; thematically it’s a story worth telling. I would have liked to love it, but I’ve filed it away for Sunday afternoon TV viewing with one of those cups of tea every other character kept mentioning. I can’t mend its problems, but I can certainly make do.

Disclosure: privately bought ticket for the London Film Festival as a BFI Member. No PR / freebies involved.

Review: Alice Through the Looking Glass with Edible Cinema

IMG_0807

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.

IMG_0810

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: Captain America: Civil War (no spoilers)

  

When you take a step back, it’s clear that the Captain America franchise is what holds the MCU together. Not because of key plot points or character overlap, although those are important, but because it provides the beating heart of the whole: the moral compass and the conflicted human core. In Civil War, the Russos have built on a strong foundation to produce what is unquestionably one of the finer examples of a superhero ensemble movie that we’ve seen yet.

One of the ways in which they do this is in not shying away from telling a story: thoroughly, engagingly – above all, emotionally. Joe Johnston set the scene: The First Avenger stretched the origin story out in a way that no other MCU film has – contrast this with Tony whose suit building is done in the first 35 minutes with such alacrity that it feels like a pre-credit sequence, the emotional arc flattened by the force of his impulsive personality.  For Cap, almost half the story takes place before the (physical) hero has been created. The thrills deliver when they come, but their goal is to show the building of a man – the polar opposite of Stark, holding the attention with simple, quiet determination – not a machine. So the Russos ran with it once they had their turn at the helm: The Winter Soldier has the pace of a Cold War thriller, but is at heart an exploration of friendship and trust. In Civil War we’re treated to the evolution of that: a rich examination of the nature of family.

In the aftermath of the events of Age of Ulton and following a catastrophic intervention in Nigeria, the question of quis custodiet ipsos custodes raises its head: should the Avengers be controlled by the United Nations and deployed by committee – political weapons, if you will? Horrified by the human cost of his Ultron experiment, Tony Stark believes so; Steve Rogers, battle-scarred Boy Scout, disagrees. When one James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes resurfaces accused of a shocking atrocity, confrontation becomes inevitable and the rest of the team are forced to choose a side.

The emotional heft here is undeniable, but punctured with outrageously fluid set pieces – including a Greengrass calibre car chase – and a solid sense of humour, it works beautifully. With the freedom to choose how much to involve anyone beyond the main protagonists, rather than the obligation to balance them, Civil War feels very much like the film Ultron could, perhaps should, have been – and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script has at least a handful of Whedonesque moments to prove it.

Still, the focus is remarkably broad; alongside the ideological battles between Steve (an eternally straight-faced Evans bringing his usual quiet likeability)  and Tony (the best we’ve seen from RDJ in the role yet), is generous screen time for Black Panther in advance of his upcoming solo outing. Despite their shared litheness, steely Chadwick Boseman contrasts beautifully against a high-energy first appearance from Tom Holland that should make us all thoroughly excited for the upcoming Sony Spider-Man reboot. A pleasantly quirky fan-pleasing chemistry is explored between Vision and Scarlett Witch, though both feel a fraction underused, and if we’re not entirely sold on Natasha Romanov’s new-found maternal instincts, her long-honed propensity to play both sides renders her the most intriguingly unpredictable “enhanced individual” in the line-up. Though the seeds of the conflict are sewn long before his appearance on the scene to stir up trouble, the endlessly watchable Daniel Bruhl isn’t wasted as Zemo either, in a carefully judged and admirably restrained villainous turn.  Finally, somehow, there’s enough latitude given to make the appearances of Ant-Man, Hawkeye and War Machine worthwhile while still at least attempting to make clear that this is not an Avengers movie (honest guv).

We engage when Stark and Rogers square up against each other because we care about them – and in the choices that those around them make (Hawkeye and Black Widow hurling punches while discussing whether they’re still friends is both absurdly funny and poignant). With yet another Bruce Wayne to familiarise ourselves with and a Clark Kent who barely considers changing his world view, Batman v Superman, leached of all tension, never stood a chance by comparison. Admittedly, Civil War might have benefited from a tighter approach to the action sequences – there’s a danger some of the more dramatic clashes are undermined by the volume and length of the fight scenes. But it seems a worthwhile trade-off to allow the Russos a little bit of indulgence in the fireworks since they’re willing to invest the same effort in the more discursive scenes.

If Iron Man deals in flashy theatrics, Thor brings the Shakespearean space opera and Guardians of the Galaxy is an adult’s adventure story, Civil War places Cap firmly at the emotional centre, dragging everyone in its orbit in to examine their own place in the MCU – but crucially with wit and warmth rather than an excess of ponderous brooding. With more of Ant-Man‘s humour and Doctor Strange’s mysticism on the way to keep it balanced, there’s no sign of this juggernaut losing momentum. And thank goodness for that.

Captain America: Civil War is released in the UK cinemas on the 29th April. 

Disclosure: Press tickets were provided by the Disney UK team. Opinions are my own.

#TeamCap 

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

JB_Triptych_1-Sht_Full_Online_v4_rev_lg

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

ZOOTOPIA

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.