Posts Tagged family films
Year of release: 2019 Directed by Chris Butler. Voices of Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Fry, Timothy Olyphant, and Emma Thompson.
Since their feature film Coraline in 2009, which remains my favorite film for that year, Laika Studios has been high on my radar. Unfortunately, the subsequent films they released—ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls, and Kubo and the Two Strings—all fell short of the greatness of their first feature, some more than others. At the same time, all of those films had many moments of inspired brilliance and breathtaking awe that endeared all of those works to me in spite of their flaws.
With Missing Link, the fifth film from the studio, they have once again hit a home run on par with their debut feature. Tragically, given its poor box office returns, it seems that American audiences have either lost interest in Laika films or have not heard about this one at all.
Either scenario is a tremendous pity, because Missing Link is not only a return to perfect form (because if we’re honest Laika never lost good form), but it is also a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of most family entertainment currently being produced.
The list of the film’s virtues includes, but is not limited to:
- It showcases the values of self-sacrifice and open mindedness as the narcissistic protagonist learns to overcome his selfishness.
- It has no surprise villain. Indeed, there is a moment, when the saturation of that trope in recent family films causes one to think a character is going to be a surprise villain, but thankfully that is not the case.
- The villains are not rationalized, (a mistake in two of Laika’s previous films) and their wicked actions lead to their own undoing, and the kindhearted protagonist even tries to prevent them.
- There are no dead parents/guardians, although to be fair, the protagonist is an adult. However, that’s another overused trope it is nice to see avoided.
- Director Chris Butler writes a compelling, interesting female character, giving her some of the best lines in the film, and he does not sideline her.
- It avoids nearly every family film cliché with aplomb by taking interesting and dramatically believable turns whenever it seems a cliché is going to occur.
- It features an extremely convincing reexamination of childhood dreams and heroes, acknowledging there is often something far greater we need to acknowledge in order to mature.
- The film manages to cross examine and critique toxic masculinity and the sexist, racist patriarchal norms of the 19th century without being preposterously anachronistic or obnoxiously contrived.
- It has an all-around fantastic voice cast
- It looks absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as all Laika films do.
- It even manages to make the requisite poop jokes clever.
The story centers around Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), who longs to be admitted to the elite explores club in London, but is excluded by the sinister Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) since all Sir Lionel’s adventures concern chasing monsters, which the rigid fundamentalist adamantly refuses to believe exist. The hilarious opening sequence with the Loch Ness Monster proves otherwise.
Sir Lionel receives a note from a fan in America asking him to prove the existence of the Sasquatch. What he finds there is a friendly, fur-covered, 8-foot tall missing link between humans and apes he aptly names Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis). Mr. Link, whose real name is a funny and touching surprise, wishes to recruit Sir Lionel, who is “the real deal,” to help him travel to the Himalayas so he can live with his cousins, the Yeti, in Shangri-La.
Their Jules Verne inspired journey takes them to Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), a former lover of Frost’s who is still rightly disgusted by his selfishness and vanity. Meanwhile, they must dodge the repeated assassination attempts of Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Lord Piggot-Dunceby to prevent Frost from ever proving his discoveries exist.
Following in the steps of Jules Verne, the adventure reaches the glorious climax promised from the beginning. The visuals of that destination are some of the most gorgeous stop motion imagery Laika has crafted, and that is in addition to a Yeti queen voiced by Emma Thompson. However, the cross-examination of those goals brings into relief that when we form our aspirations and choose our heroes for the sake of worldly fame, we will not only be disappointed but that will often prevent us from growing and maturing as well.
Not only does the destination matter, but the manner in which one arrives there is equally important. Missing Link acknowledges the importance of both in a funny, beautifully and painstakingly crafted adventure that celebrates both its destination and its journey.
Personal Recommendation: A
Content advisory: Some rather intense peril, sinister villains, and mildly crass humor. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment
Year of release: 2018 Directed by Rob Marshall. Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, and Angela Lansbury.
When Jurassic World and Star Wars: Rogue One were released a few years ago, both with scores by Michael Giacchino, I noted at the time that as talented a composer as Giacchino is, when his John Williams imitations were placed next to the original John Williams cues, the only thing he accomplished was reminding audiences that he is not John Williams.
Of all the wonderful songs that the Sherman brothers wrote for the original Mary Poppins, one of the least impressionable is probably Jane and Michael’s nanny advertisement: “If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition…” When Mary Poppins returns to the Banks’ home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, as the title of this sequel fifty-four years later promises she will, that tune plays as underscoring. Save for one scene saturated in nostalgia toward the film’s end, that brief bit of underscoring packs more of an emotional impact than anything else in this film. And as talented as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are, when clips of the Sherman brothers’ songs are placed next to their new songs here, the only thing that achieves is reminding audiences that they are not the Sherman brothers.
Shaiman is unquestionably a good composer, but his best work in musicals has been the raunchy, irreverent satires. While none of his songs here are bad, the style of music he writes well is so different from the simple, light-hearted sincerity of the Sherman brothers’ original songs, and his attempts to imitate that here pale in comparison. It does not help that the plot points of Mary Poppins Returns follow the original almost exactly, and the song placement occurs at the same dramatic points. “Can You Imagine That?” is emphatically not “A Spoonful of Sugar,” nor is “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” the equal of “Step In Time,” and “The Lovely London Sky” is no “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” “The Place Where the Lost Things Go” is a good song and one of the two best of the score, but once again it doesn’t hold a candle to its dramatic counterpart, “Feed the Birds.”
The one song that is debatably a better piece of music than its original equivalent is “A Cover Is Not the Book,” which Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) perform within the animated world to the delight of the children. It breaks strongly enough stylistically with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” not to be a reminder of that song, and we get to watch a top-notch vaudeville routine with Blunt and Miranda, complete with the latter rapping and decent dancing from both of them. At the same time, it really stands out musically and dramatically, feeling like it would be more at home in a darkly satiric musical such as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
That song segues into one of the few places where Mary Poppins Returns does break with the original with the introduction of a villain, both in the real world and in Mary Poppins’ magical outings. I understand the dramatic purpose of teaching the Banks’ children how to recognize whom and whom not to trust, but it noticeably darkens the tone from the rest of the film, and more problematically it leans too heavily on the over-used cliché of the surprise villain. To be fair, the audience learns of that character’s evil intentions early on, but I literally said to myself the scene before that reveal, “I really hope that character is sincere and not a villain,” knowing that would most likely not be the case.
If it is not clear by now, I absolutely love the 1964 Disney original. It was one of the few VHSs my sisters and I watched repeatedly as children, complete with our own dance routines involving some of the non-fragile living room furniture. With its painstaking care to mirror the original, Mary Poppins Returns is certainly not a bad movie, but it is one that constantly invites comparison to the original, and that is not a comparison it benefits from.
The plot here concerns adults Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), the former who is continuing her mother’s political activism, and the latter who is trying to raise his three kids despite a recently deceased wife (hurrah for another Disney cliché) and the bank threatening repossession of their home, against which he took out a loan. Michael is a disorganized wreck, and he and Jane have both forgotten the wonder and magic of their childhood time with Mary Poppins, becoming preoccupied with the hardships of daily life. (Just for once, I’d love to see a family film where a child grows up and doesn’t forget his/her magical adventures.)
As the magical nanny, Emily Blunt knows better than to imitate Julie Andrews. Her take on the character is slightly less prim and proper, but it is still plausible to call her “practically perfect in every way.” For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed Blunt’s characterization, and she once again proves her formidable singing and acting chops. Lin-Manuel Miranda is her screen equal as Jack, a next-generation Bert who accompanies her and the children on their magical adventures.
The trailers spoiled that Dick Van Dyke has a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns. While it is easy to guess who he’s playing, I won’t say here. I will say that scene is the only one I truly loved, not just for his appearance, but also for the choice of underscoring and for the lines he references from the original film. It was the one bit of nostalgia which landed perfectly.
As delightful as it was to see Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady in the final scene, the song which accompanies it, “Nowhere to Go but Up,” is such a pale retread of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” that the magic was promptly lost for me.
In a time of deconstructions and reboots that subvert their originals, one thing I am grateful for is that Mary Poppins Returns has nothing but affection for the original film, and that affection only serves to increase one’s admiration for the original, even as it reminds you that you would be better off watching the original for the hundredth something time.
Personal Recommendation: C+
Content advisory: Mild menace. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up
Year of Release: 2018 Directed by Wes Anderson. Voices of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Bob Babalan, Koyu Rankin, Kunichi Nomura, Greta Gerwig, and Liev Schreiber.
When the world has become pile of garbage, and humans are seized with paranoia and are searching for a scapegoat to preserve their way of life at the expense of others, is it possible to still find goodness in the world? Wes Anderson barks out a resounding “yes” with this tale of a boy and his dog and the dog’s dogs and a girl and her dog, and many more dogs.
Isle of Dogs is admittedly an over-the-top smorgasbord of characters, elaborate and painstakingly crafted stop motion sets overflowing with Anderson’s trademarks of balanced compositions, quirky dialogue, and deadpan humor. It is also a love letter not only to canines but to Japanese culture, particularly the cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
At times it can seem overwhelming, and with the exceptions of Bryan Cranston’s gruff and scraggly stray Chief, Edward Norton’s pragmatic and talkative Rex who’s basically a canine version of Scout Master Ward, and Jeff Goldblum’s gossip-prone husky Duke, none of the dogs make a particularly strong impression as individual characters, at least not on a first viewing.
However, considering the affection that saturates every detail of the production, for me, it didn’t really matter. The joy and passion that Anderson clearly had for this film, its story, the sets, and the characters was the driving force, and it is such a spectacularly beautiful thing to witness that by the film’s end I wanted to stand up and cheer.
One aspect I have repeatedly admired about Wes Anderson’s past films is the way they portray a broken world while simultaneously showing the characters’ hopes for a more perfect one. It’s what Sam and Suzy are seeking in Moonrise Kingdom; it’s what haunts Zero’s memories in The Grand Budapest Hotel. With Isle of Dogs primarily taking place on a location called Trash Island after the titular animals are exiled there by an evil cat-loving dynasty that wishes to eliminate the canine population, the brokenness of this world could not be more apparent.
At the same time, moments of hope and joy appear throughout this world. The story primarily concerns twelve-year-old pilot Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) who flies to Trash Island on a mission to find and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). A resistance led by a group of students fights courageously and continually for the rights of the mistreated and victimized dogs. Throughout the film we are invited to laugh and celebrate such simple delights as a dog understanding television and the inherent conflict of five alpha dogs all being leaders for the same pack. An adorable litter of puppies features into the story in a way that undermines the cynicism of another character.
Finally, the denouement features one of the most delightfully satisfying triumphs of good over evil, showing a world where people do not fear the unknown and help those in need rather than exile them. And if I’m entirely honest, I find it impossible not to love a story in which corrupt fascists who maintain their power through paranoia and public manipulation, who make disparaging comments about immigrants, and who have creepy, long-faced, soulless ghouls as their right-hand men are then undone by their own sinister schemes.
There are obvious political analogies which the story invites, which may or may not have been intentional – considering the length of time that production took, some of the similarities between the villains and the USA’s current administration are probably coincidental, but for a story celebrating the marginalized and their inherent value as part of the world, Isle of Dogs is a wonderful example of art being a realization of timeless truths.
An opening title card informs the audience that all the humans speak their own tongue, which will sometimes be translated via electronics or a translator; all the barks, however, have been translated into English. It’s an insignificant detail, but the conviction with which it is conveyed makes it both funny and touching. The same could be said for Edward Norton’s frequent, trivial banter and for Jeff Goldblum’s smart-alack catch phrases – mundane and meaningless on their own, but the commitment which the actors give to their parts makes them come alive. It is the same way for every detail this production, and it is in the paying attention to those details that this story shines out as the gem it is.
Content Advisory: Some intense menace and peril including a murder, much cartoon violence – might frighten young or sensitive children. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested audience: Kids and up with discernment
Personal recommendation: A
Year of Release: 2017 Directed by Michael Gracey. Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, and Rebecca Ferguson.
The Greatest Showman is a refreshing breath of fresh air: a musical that unapologetically follows the expected beats and traditional formula of a musical, and shows why that formula and those tropes were so successful at creating the genre in the first place.
The thoroughly modern score composed by songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, best known for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, is equally unapologetic in its use of contemporary music styles for a story that takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the film is the stronger for it. The central premise of The Greatest Showman is that showbusiness is meant to bring joy to the audience, and the distinctively modern score makes that joy apparent regardless of the century in which the story occurs.
“The Greatest Show” is a spectacular opening number, inviting us to enjoy the musical that is to follow while showcasing some top-notch choreography. We then flashback to learn about Barnum’s impoverished childhood, desire to prove himself better than the wealthy, and his love for Charity Hallett – all through “A Million Dreams,” a memorable, time-eclipsing “I want” song that sets the conflict in motion for the musical. The melody reoccurs as underscoring at crucial moments when something happens to affect the outcome of those dreams.
“The Other Side” moves the plot forward with a delightful song and dance between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, as the former works his salesmanship on his new acquaintance. “Rewrite the Stars” is a touching love duet with some poignant choreography. And as the anthem of the circus “freaks,” “This Is Me,” is a powerful redirection and critique of society’s prejudices, many of which are harbored by Barnum himself.
Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum is certainly whitewashed from the historical person, but the film acknowledges his unhealthy desire and obsession with proving the wealthy socialites wrong about his worth. And more importantly, it does not hide his prejudices toward the star attractions of his circus – happy to exploit them for profit, but still hesitant to welcome them fully into his life.
However, the act of bringing the marginalized into the spotlight gives them the ability to sing “This Is Me,” and having that song as the thematic climax rewrites the story away from Barnum’s “A Million Dreams.” The film suggests that Barnum’s motives were a mix of altruism and personal profit, and it’s possible to say the film comes down too heavily on the altruistic side, but the power of that song is undeniable.
Director Michael Gracey has a natural flair for staging musical numbers, knowing how to cut and edit them to make the performers look their best and how to highlight the movement we should focus on. (This is a stark contrast and welcome relief to the obnoxiously distracting single-take musical numbers of La La Land and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables).
Among the cast, Jackman stands out as the ringleader of the ensemble, but Michelle Williams gives wonderful support as his wife Charity – trusting and supporting her husband until his obsession gets in the way of his commitment to their marriage and family. Zac Efron proves himself an equal screen partner for Jackman, and Zendaya, Keala Settle, and Sam Humphrey stand out among the stars of the circus. A subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is probably the clumsiest thread of the film, where the gears notably shift, and not particularly smoothly, but it sets up the final act very nicely.
Despite the horrific trailers, The Greatest Showman delivered much of the joy that musicals were initially created to give to an audience. The take on Barnum is simplistic, but it still acknowledges his success and how that changed the lives of others, bringing joy to his audiences and his performers. And the film’s greatest success is capturing a sense of that joy for audiences today.
Personal Recommendation: B
Content Advisory: Some brief, but menacing depictions or racism, an act of arson, contemplated infidelity. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Kids and up
Year of release: 2017 Directed by Bill Condon. Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Audra McDonald.
That Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s latest live action adaptation of one of their animated classics, works as well as it does, is an impressive testament to the power and beauty of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score, which is the main star of this movie.
After the success of the live action updates of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, it was only a matter of time before Beauty and the Beast received the same treatment, especially considering there already was a successful Broadway musical based on the 1991 animated film. However, considering those three aforementioned films all notably broke with their far less than perfect predecessors, the 1991 animated Best Picture nominee is in many people’s opinion (including my own) the finest work of art that Disney has ever produced. As might be expected, director Bill Condon’s excessive reverence for the original results in a copying of the source material, which inevitably pales in comparison.
I do not mean to suggest that this Beauty and the Beast is bad; for the most part, I more or less enjoyed it, as needless as it was. The production design is exquisite; the cast is solid; and of course, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score sounds great with any decent performers.
In my mind, the biggest problem is that in addition to the unoriginal copying of the animated film, down to camera movements and costume design, is that the few times this film does break away and introduce something new, those changes are rarely for the better.
For instance, the film opens by acting out the entire prologue in which the Prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed and transformed into the Beast. While we get to see some lovely set design and hear Audra McDonald sing (more on that momentarily), seeing the Beast as a Prince undermines his ability to frighten us by turning him into something of a deserving victim. The notion that he’s a real monster, not just a monstrous person, heightens the Stockholm Syndrome element of the fairytale, and it also makes both his ultimate transformation and Belle’s heroism more dramatically satisfying.
Even the one good change from the original is undermined by later changes that should have been rejected in early drafts of the script, never mind being shot. Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle (Emma Watson) have a wonderfully supportive and intelligent relationship which starkly contrasts the bumbling old crackpot whom Belle supports in the original. However, in this film there is no possibility for the townspeople to say, “Crazy old Maurice,” which inspires Gaston’s devious plot to force Belle’s hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the film is beholden to that plot point, and the way in which it is now set up necessitates other changes to the original which are so evil and sinister that they seem jarringly out of place in a fairytale geared toward family audiences. To make things worse, those changes occur two scenes before the title number, which really impacts our ability to enjoy the gorgeously lush song.
Regarding the performance of the title song, Emma Thompson has an excellent voice, and while she unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s iconic performance, she proved herself capable of that when she played Mrs. Lovett in the NY Philharmonic production of Sweeney Todd three years ago. The more striking change, at least for me, was the decision to change the key of the song from the warm and rich D-flat major of the original to a cooler and higher pitched E-flat major. That’s the biggest difference, and probably the main reason many people will say the song is has less emotion here than it does in the original.
As to the rest of the cast, everyone gives their roles their all, even if all of them are outperformed by their counterparts in the original. Emma Watson is a fine singer, but she notably has the weakest voice of the entire cast, which is a little bit of a problem, considering she’s the lead. Her feminist portrayal of Belle comes across effortlessly. As Gaston, Luke Evans has a surprisingly good tenor, which is a notable change from Richard White’s baritone, and Evans makes the bullying malevolence of the villain even more apparent. Josh Gad’s fairly sympathetic portrayal of Le Fou is another break with the original, as is his overhyped “gay moment,” which consists of three fleeting sight gags about trite stereotypes.
The staff of the castle gives enjoyable vocal performances, even if their character design lacks imagination compared to the castle itself. Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) is a fitting curmudgeon, Ewan McGregor (Lumiere) has so much zeal in his performance that he overcomes his goofy French accent. Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) is enough of a comforting presence without copying Lansbury. Audra McDonald (the wardrobe) has by far and away the best voice of everyone (as to be expected), and it is a massively missed opportunity that she only has two brief verses to sing.
Finally, as the Prince and the Beast, Dan Stevens’ performance definitely lands more on the prince side of the character, which I think is problematic, because it weakens his transformation. Stevens has a very good baritone, and his performance of the Beast’s new solo, “Evermore” by Menken and Tim Rice, is haunting and beautiful. That performance, coupled with Josh Groban’s rendition over the end credits makes me fairly confident in saying that song will win the Oscar for best original song. It’s also a pretty great song which naturally fits into the original score.
As much as I would want to resent this film for being an uninspired attempt to replicate the original when there were so many possibilities to take this fairytale in a new direction, there’s enough good material that I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that the film was a mostly enjoyable rendition of the tale as old as time, even if it can’t hold a candle to Disney’s animated masterpiece.
Personal recommendation: B-
Content Advisory: A couple risqué sight gags, intense scenes of peril and menace. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Teens and up