When I was eight years old, my cinema experiences involved attending a reasonably clapped out West London screen – still with ashtrays built into the seat backs – and being permanently scarred by Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It led to a lifelong love of films all the same. My daughter just attended her first film premiere, alongside Holly Hunter and Samuel L. Jackson, weeks after being given the opportunity to draw alongside an absolute animation hero of mine.The universe likes its little surprises. But that’s parenthood for you. Continue reading →
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
By now, it’s likely you will have seen posters featuring Baymax, a portly inflatable robot, and probably watched the trailers of him footling gently behind a football that remains just out of his reach. The question, of course, is if this evidently charming and unlikely superhero’s sweetness can provide a solid core for the latest Walt Disney Animation outing- and the first to use one of their Marvel properties.
In a word: yes. In a few words: a thousand times yes. Baymax (voiced gorgeously by Scott Adsit) is a beautifully realised creation – a ‘personal healthcare companion’ created by idealistic nerd Tadashi Hamada and inadvertently bequeathed to his younger brother Hiro (Ryan Potter) after a terrible tragedy. Baymax’s relationship with a slowly recovering Hiro forms the essential core of a film that – while it has many fast-paced sequences and explosive exchanges – is in many ways a tender love story. It packs in the brilliant irreverence and humour of a Marvel adventure, but tempers it with lashings of heart. In fact, what it reminded me of most was ET.
The beautiful setting of San Fransokyo, a near-future East-meets-West mashup, is somewhere I instantly wished I could visit, crammed with touristy cable cars and cherry blossoms but also with a seedy backstreet or two so that it felt just real enough. Hiro’s life is also a welcoming mixture of the mundane (familiar forms of transportation) and the ridiculous (his carbon-fibre 3D printer). The film eagerly champions geekery and also acknowledges the inevitability of failure; at some point every character finds themselves in a bind they have to think – not just blast – their way out of. And there are plenty of fanboy references to keep the nerdiest fan entertained (I can’t have been the only person who flashed on Tom Fitzgerald’s Horizons legacy when Hiro announces of a new invention that “if you can think it, they can do it”).
A review of this would be incomplete if it failed to mention one of the things I was most heartened by, which is that Big Hero 6 does more to advance the position of women in the Disney Animation stable than anything that has come before – even Wreck It Ralph and, yes, Frozen. The latter certainly did its bit to advance the princess narrative but in the case of Big Hero 6 there are strides made in abundance. The title refers to a superhero crew made up of a ragtag band of nerds from a university science programme; two of them are female, and each in her own way defies expectation. While Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is fond of stilettos and pink, she is also obsessively pedantic about science and unashamedly smart and capable. Speed-obsessed Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung) bats the boys out of the way, demonstrating her impressive physicality and barking at them to “woman up”, but never becomes a Strong Female Character stereotype, showing a full range of emotions.
This trend continues outside the heroic sextet. Hiro and Tadashi’s Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), raising them since the loss of their parents, is a loving parent but not necessarily a natural one; she also sinks time, passion and love into running her own business. Dropping in to Tadashi’s lab for the first time, Hiro ambles past quite a few women tinkering away alongside the men – and a number of experienced scientists featured in the film are female. Best of all, I’ve already noticed this reflected in the merchandising, with the female characters displayed among the men, in fighting poses, and with their physical features represented – such as Go Go’s muscular legs. And as for the boys? Well, most of them are shown as eschewing unnecessary violence, offering affection and exhibiting fears; my favourite, Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr) is a welcome and genuinely funny mixture of insecurity and swagger.
Given that this balance is at the core of each character, its no surprise that the real power of Big Hero 6 lies in its essential humanity. Every element of it is rooted in relationships – in love, in loss, in revenge and in redemption. These are weighty themes for the most youth-focussed of Marvel outings, but in many ways the naive directness of childhood is what makes it so perfect a medium for this message.
Beautiful, smart, moving and funny; I couldn’t recommend it more.
Big Hero 6 is on general release in the UK on January 30th. It is preceded by an insanely adorable short, Feast.
Parental advisory: I have a nervous 4-year-old who needs gentle leading into some films so I pre-vet them for her. In terms of scary moments this is quite manageable; there’s a spooky-looking villain and a lot of loud fights, but no teeth-and-claws scariness. There is a great end-credit sequence worth getting through the wriggling for.
So, 2015’s Year of Asking is already shaping up rather nicely. I’ve used it to book into catch up dates with three people I’ve been doing the “let’s do tea” dance with for far too long. I contacted a brand with a cheeky request and it paid off. Basically, we’re a week in, and it’s all looking pretty good.
So, for a more fun resolution, or goal (the word we use when it’s not a resolution, just a goal, like it’s not a diet, it’s a healthy eating plan) or just general hope for the year, I’ve realised that film – something I used to be seriously into, but which kind of fell by the wayside with time and parenthood – has muscled its way back into my sightline. Okay, it’s far more blockbusters and far fewer indies (not because I don’t like them, but just because time means I have a more superficial grasp of what’s happening – and since Ramona there’s a certain amount of misery I can no longer take). But who cares? This is my year of film, and I don’t need to justify my taste or choices to anyone other than myself, and whichever poor sap I force to come with me.
So, here is my list of things I want to see this year. It will grow, undoubtedly, and I’ll try to remember to come and tick things off as they happen, or link to reviews if I scribble them. Although they’re simply in alphabetical order (projected release date order just got too messy), the ones in bold are the ones I’m OMGSUPEREXCITED about, so are the most likely to actually get watched asap… though it also assumes that those in the latter part of the year will see their UK release before 2016.
Ant-Man – watched
Avengers: Age of Ultron – thoughts
Big Hero 6 – reviewed
Birdman – watched
Cinderella – reviewed (plus Frozen Fever)
The Dreamer (now known as Walt Before Mickey)
The Fantastic Four
Far From the Madding Crowd
The Good Dinosaur
High-Rise – reviewed
Inside Out – reviewed
Into The Woods – reviewed
The Jungle Book
Jurassic World – watched
Mistress America – not reviewed but utterly marvellous
Mockingjay Part 2 – watched
Mr Holmes – watched
The Peanuts Movie – watched and loved
Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens – watched
Suffragette – reviewed after the BFI Opening Night Gala
Testament of Youth
The Theory of Everything – thoughts (with thoughts on Only Lovers Left Alive)
Tomorrowland – reviewed after the European premiere! Also some (slightly spoilery) further thoughts
Trumbo – reviewed after the BFI LFF gala
Am I missing something really obvious you think I would like? Bear in mind that I do also like quiet, lovely or clever little films (as well as loud, explosive or clever big films) but can’t really be dealing with horror (soz Crimson Peak – Hiddleston almost won out, but no). I’d love to hear suggestions that would help broaden the list a bit or introduce me to something I might not otherwise have thought of watching.
As with many bloggers, I find myself with many post ideas brewing in my head – but I occasionally lack the time to actually write them. It seems to me that many of the things I’ve been thinking about lately are things I’d like to do when I have more time. And while I’m still working throughout December, there is always more time around Christmas for doing Things and also Stuff. So here are five things I’d either like to do or recommend doing during the downtime – in whatever amounts you get it – before the new year.
No resolutions necessary – unless you want to.
1. Read Joanne M. Harris’s The Gospel of Loki
…and while you’re at it, follow her on Twitter, for she is delightful.
I’d actually fallen a little out of love with some of Harris’s writing after somewhat bingeing on it after Chocolat. Around the time of Five Quarters of the Orange I’d felt like there wasn’t much more I wanted to read. It happens sometimes, and it doesn’t really necessarily have as much to do with the author as where you are right at that moment.
Anyway, a few months ago I started to see tube posters for this, and it looked very different. And I think no
Tom Hiddleston Marvel fan could quite resist being plunged back into the Norse mythology that has spawned a thousand books, comics, films, plays, artworks and Allfather knows what all.
The Gospel of Loki delivers in spades. For a start it’s extremely funny – sometimes just in the turn of phrase, but often in the broadly grotesque characterisation that our fiendish narrator employs to breathe life into his antagonistic fellow Asgardians. And then it is by turns gut-wrenching, guiltily relatable and uncomfortably tense. Loki, forever a victim in his own head, is the perfect anti-hero, and incredibly cleverly drawn; he walks the extremely delicate line between sympathy and disgust, being largely a terrible individual that you somehow root for anyway. The delightful episodic storytelling took me right back to childhood and falling in love with the stories from The Odyssey, and there’s nothing like starting a new book with a cast of characters (except maybe a map. Books with maps = the greatest).
2. Wear something ridiculous
A lot of lucky people (like me) will be working from home for at least part of the festive season, but to be honest I’ve worn every single one of these ridiculous articles into the office in the last three months (yay creative industries!). So let out your most ridiculous side because honestly? It really does make you feel weirdly happier.
I imagine you might be picking up on a theme here, but don’t worry – that’s about it. At least for this post. Maybe.
3. Give something… extra
If you’re sitting there thinking “well, it’s Christmas, duh!” I don’t blame you, but I’m not talking about the usual presents for friends and family. I’m talking about considering how you can spread a little cheer to a stranger (or even not a stranger, but someone you wouldn’t usually give something to – perhaps even the time of day). It could be a donation of money or time, a present to someone who isn’t expecting one or even a clear out for your local charity shop.
I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit after we had a bit of a mess up with a Disney Store order that didn’t arrive. In the interim I nipped into an actual bricks and mortar store to buy the key item just in case it couldn’t be resolved by Christmas Day. I kept the receipt thinking I’d return the excess item if all worked out.
Disney Store has now resolved the issue, and we have both items. But then I started thinking about doing something else with the spare one (it’s a dressing up costume). I could give it to another child as a Christmas present, and I might. But I could also get in touch with a local hospital and see if they could do with something new for the children’s ward. Or I could auction it on eBay and set the proceeds to go 100% to a charity (won’t make as much as the original sale price, but I can top up AND someone who perhaps can’t afford the full whack will still get the gift). Or I could return it and donate the money. I haven’t really worked out what I’ll do yet, and it might well not get to anyone by the big day, but I figure presents are welcome all year round. The point is, there are opportunities to be generous even in places you didn’t expect, so maybe consider even more options than you already do (if you haven’t already).
In related news: if you’re not a Kiva lender already, do consider making that a giving resolution.
4. Start (or review) a gratitude box
At the end of 2013 we put a big tub in the kitchen and labelled it ‘good things’. Then we started popping stuff in it like theatre tickets, travel mementoes, letters from friends, little notes on which happy moments were scribbled and anything else that generally spoke of a joyful moment that happened that year. My notes are as random and varied as “Armistead Maupin called me ‘wise’ on Twitter” through to “got a promotion at work”. It’s basically #100happydays, but in physical form, and it’s pretty awesome.
Thing is, I haven’t looked at it since then (and I’ve got a little lax about filling it). It’s time to review all the amazing experiences we’ve been privileged to have over the past year and think about what’s around the corner – that we know of. Sometimes I can be guilty of only placing significance on big things, and that just leads to a kind of vague and unhelpful dissatisfaction with everything. A little gratitude goes a long way.
5. Watch something you haven’t seen before. And something you definitely have.
Last year, I saw Elf for the first time. And it was… quite good? Better than okay? Not my favourite Christmas movie*? Whatever. I can’t really be arsed to watch it again, but I won’t turn it off if it’s on. The point is, it was nice not just spending the entire festive period watching classics and favourites, but potentially allowing for a new classic or favourite – even if Elf turned out not to be it. This year I haven’t yet decided what it will be, but I have some shameful gaps in my film viewing and, having bullied Ash just this past week into watching both Network and Edward Scissorhands since he hadn’t before, I think it’s important to bully myself a little too. Because even in the midst of the most cosy, nostalgic, comfortable familiarity, a touch of newness is healthy.
And yet of course Christmas is the season for binge-watching your absolute favourites – whether they’re festive classics or not. Obviously we’ll be having a family sit down in front of The Avengers / Avengers Assemble* on Boxing Day and I will be as enthralled as ever in front of the underappreciated gem that is Ratatouille. Because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an ambitious rat… right?
*Die Hard. YES IT IS A CHRISTMAS MOVIE. THE HO HO HO JOKE WOULDN’T WORK OTHERWISE, WOULD IT? WOULD IT?!I
*Pick your regional variant. Amusingly, the first time I saw this I blundered in about a quarter of the way through, completely confused, and I hadn’t yet seen Captain America: The First Avenger or Thor and I was all “who the hell is this guy with the unfortunate hair? WHY IS HE WHINING ABOUT EVERYTHING? Loki my arse – he’s like Louis from Interview with the Vampire…”. So.. yeah. Give things a second chance. Watch them in their proper context. *cough*