Posts Tagged family films

Beauty and the Beast

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

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The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge)

Year of release: 2016                      Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit.

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Every year there are films that get away, films that would have easily made your yearend “best of” list had you seen them in time, but due to late release dates or the crazy influx of new releases during the last months of the year get overlooked until a few months later. For me, The Red Turtle is such a film. I had been hoping to see it in time for it to be included in my 2016 yearend list, and while I do not believe in going back to re-edit top ten lists months after they were published, consider this review my note in favor of its inclusion.

The latest film from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies) is also the first one not to be produced in Japan. Dutch director and writer Michael Dudok de Wit takes the reins in crafting this gorgeous tale of loss, survival, and celebration of life. The narrative is propelled purely by the animation and the immersive soundscape, as de Wit wisely made the choice to have the film be dialogue-free.

From the first sound of the crashing waves and the imposing image of the blue-gray ocean peaks, the viewer is drawn into a remote world of beauty and danger. The nameless protagonist struggles against a sea storm to be crushed under the waves and thrown to shore. When he wakes up, he finds himself stranded on an island of bamboo trees, fresh fruit, springs of water, rocky summits overlooking the sea, and crabs, lots of crabs.

After surveilling the island, the man devises a plan to escape his Robinson Crusoe-esque fate. However, the island or the sea has other ideas. He quickly builds a bamboo raft and sails off, but the raft is almost immediately destroyed by a massive thud from a seemingly invisible creature. The second and third attempts are met with the same result.

When the man discovers the reason that he cannot leave the island, his anger is understandable, and the choice he makes as a result of that anger is likewise easy to understand. However, the immediate tragedy and loss of that choice is painfully acute, and the consequences of that loss overshadow the remainder of the film, for both good and ill. In the beautiful world of the film, the healing power of nature results in substantially more good than ill, which could be interpreted either as the power of the environment, or as the divinely ordered nature of creation healing any wrongs.

As the film gently unfolds its breathtaking cycle of life, death, destruction, and growth, I spent much of the time thinking about Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. The connections between the ocean, the island, the man, the eponymous red turtle, and the crabs highlight the beauty in all of God’s creation and the way that they are dependent upon one another. Something that harms one harms all of them, and all of their lives are best when none attempt to thrive at the expense of the others.

The relationship of the red turtle to the man is, in my opinion, best left unspoiled. It’s not hard to deduce, but the precise nature of the relationship has an aura of mystery worth discovering as it is gradually revealed. It is essential to mention that the red turtle is the central catalyst which emphasizes the interconnectivity of all the different characters and creatures.

The simple 2D animations throughout the film give it a richness and poetry that is haunting and gorgeous. The vibrancy of the hues shifts from scene to scene, with grayer tints for scenes of disaster and brighter colors for scenes of hope. Finally, the dark red shell and fins of the turtle stand out magnificently from the blue, brown, and gray background which forms so much of the film.

It is wonderful to see Studio Ghibli expanding their distribution to include non-Japanese films; hopefully, there will be more thoughtful celebrations of life and beauty like The Red Turtle from other cultures as well.

Personal recommendation: A

Content Advisory: Mild peril, potentially upsetting scenes of loss.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up, provided they have long attention spans.       MPAA rating: PG

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Year of Release: 2005     Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy, and Helena Bonham Carter.

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Believe it or not, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ten years old. While the film has received decent reviews from critics (it currently has an 83% at Rotten Tomatoes), audiences have been less kind to Burton’s take on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. When I saw it as a high school student ten years ago, I remember liking it more than most people seemed to, and I may or may not have said to a friend that this film was superior to the original, but that would have been said more in jest than anything else (if it had been said at all).

While Burton and Depp have done brilliant work over the course of their careers, both separately and together, they have also made some bad misfires, again both separately and together. On the other hand, they have made some of my favorite films, so I was curious as to what I would think of this now. However, as I recalled Depp’s goofy hamming it up as Wonka and how he’s lately turned into an obnoxious self parody (Mortdecai), it wasn’t hard to see roots of that here. And after watching some of Burton’s worst films, (Alice in Wonderland) I was resigned to say my high school self was badly wrong.

There’s no use in beating around the bush any longer; I guess I should just come and out and say it. This is a very good movie; it’s better than the 1971 film with Gene Wilder; and I found it to be an even better film than I remembered as a teenager. And no, none of those statements are said in jest.

If you’re still reading and have not deleted this blog from your search history or died of shock, I will emphasize that this film’s strengths lie in the perfectly cast children and Burton’s wildly creative visuals which bring the chocolate factory to life with a reverence for the source material while adhering to his own artistic vision. (I’m still not joking.)

All five of the children were terrifically cast. As Charlie, Freddie Highmore gives a great portrayal of optimism and innocence balanced with an acceptance of reality, always remaining determined and altruistic and never becoming cruel.

The four other child actors are a great contrast to Highmore, and they create delightfully repulsive characters. Philip Wiegratz does not have much to do as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, but his gloating about how much he eats makes the perfect candidate for the first victim of the chocolate factory. AnnaSophia Robb (Violet Beauregarde) delivers her lines with such arrogance and over the top energy that she’s hilarious as the über-competitive girl who detests losers (i.e. everyone else). As the spoiled brat of spoiled brats, Veruca Salt, Julia Winter alternates between pouting and grinning with such ease that it makes her being attacked by squirrels all the more rewarding, and that sequence is easily superior to the geese in the older film. Finally, Jordan Fry gives a great one note performance as the rude and sulking video game-obsessed Mike Teavee.

Burton’s set design and art direction are some of his finest, and the chocolate factory he created has a sense of beauty and danger. The opening shot — a fittingly austere worm’s eye view of the factory’s tower shrouded in fog — captures the greatness of the factory and gives it a feeling being unsafe. When we finally see inside the factory, the vibrant array of colors is genuine Burton art direction. The colorful factory starkly contrasts the drab grays and browns which permeate the London streets, with hints of those colors on display in candy stores. Naturally, the dull colors of London make the golden tickets stand out all the brighter.

I think the above points are all undisputedly fantastic —so much that I don’t really understand how someone could dislike those aspects of the movie. I do understand how someone might not care for Depp’s off-the-wall interpretation of Wonka as a reclusive weirdo scarred by a traumatic childhood. However, if one leaves preconceptions behind and gives the unorthodox performance a chance, he might be surprised to find the performance better than remembered. While Depp’s performance here clearly contains the seeds of him turning into the self parody that he has become recently, I think what he is doing actually works for Burton’s version of the story, even if it is a little overdone.

Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is essentially a horror film for children. After all, the idea of bratty children going off to a strange and mysterious factory where they fall victim to their temptations is not far removed from misbehaving teenagers going off to an abandon area and meeting gruesome ends due to their mistakes. Interestingly, the swirling melted chocolate which flows through the opening credits looks very similar to the gushing blood which flowed through the opening credits of Burton’s next film, the horror musical Sweeney Todd.

The horror in this film stems from the breakdown of families as a result of parental failure. Our hero Charlie is noticeably the only character to come from a happy intact family. As the Oompa Loompas sing: “Who went and spoiled her? Who indeed? / Who pandered to her every need? / Who turned her into such a brat? / Who are the culprits, who did that? / The guilty ones – now this is sad / Are dear old mum and loving dad.” Depp’s Wonka suffers from the same horror that affects the other children, and the film cannot be resolved until that relationship is mended. If one views Depp’s Wonka as the equivalent of the creepy guy who knows the horrors awaiting badly behaved teenagers, his character works.

I guess I should add that I am partial to Burton’s visual aesthetic, and his weakness as a storyteller often does not bother me. (Alice in Wonderland and his Planet of the Apes are both pretty terrible, but Beetlejuice is one of the greatest films ever, and I like it better than every Tarkovsky film I’ve seen. Not. Joking.) Although he slightly failed to rein Depp in, Burton created some fantastic sets, and he preserved the essence of Dahl’s story while retelling it with a slightly darker edge that makes Charlie and The Chocolate Factory a thoroughly enjoyable children’s horror film.

 

Content Advisory: Comic peril of bratty kids with possibly upsetting imagery.                      MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Inside Out

Year of Release: 2015     Directed by Pete Docter and Ronald Del Carmen. Voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, and Kyle MacLachlan.

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I’ll say it right now before I begin this review: Inside Out is one of Pixar’s top three films.

Before Inside Out begins, Pixar reminds audiences why they are one of greatest creators of family entertainment. With the short film Lava, a cute and funny volcano romance, they take the unoriginal idea of a romance between two inanimate objects and turn it into a sequence of witty wordplay and gorgeous 3D animation. There’s not much to the short beyond that, but the story is cute enough to entertain small children, and the presentation is clever enough entertain adults.

Like Lava, Inside Out contains a vibrant colorful world that is enthralling for any age to behold, and while the story can similarly be followed by any age viewer, there are many nuances which will make the film richer and funnier as it awakens memories of growing up in older viewers.

Growing up is very much at the center of Inside Out. The ten minute prologue both establishes the theme of growing up and serves as a mesmerizing introduction to the world of the film. The prologue showcases sweet and funny incidents from Riley’s life as a baby as she grows into an eleven year old girl (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias). Initially, as a giggling smiling baby, she has one emotion insider her head: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler). However, Joy is soon joined by the other emotion common to infants: Sadness (voiced Phyllis Smith). As Riley becomes a toddler then a child, three other emotions join Joy and Sadness inside her head: Anger, Fear, and Disgust (voiced by Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling respectively).

The five emotions are responsible for guiding Riley through each day and storing her memories as brightly colored balls — a different color for whichever emotion dominates the memory. Yellow = Joy, blue = Sadness, red = Anger, green = Disgust, and purple = Fear. According to Joy, a perfect day consists of an entire wall of glowing yellow globes which are then shipped off to long term memory as Riley falls asleep. Watching the humorous interactions which create those globes (Disgust: “It’s broccoli! He’s trying to poison us!”) and the intricate workings of Riley’s mind makes for Pixar’s most breathtaking and spellbinding prologue since WALL-E.

After the prologue, the story focuses on a particularly difficult transition of growing up: moving from Minnesota to San Francisco and the mild tension it creates in the otherwise great relationship between Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan). The major upheaval is naturally stressful for the eleven year old Riley, and the five emotions in her head all cope with it according to their functions, which makes it harder for Joy to maintain her perfect days. Adding to Joy’s troubles, Sadness has taken on a new ability, and any memory globe she touches turns blue, appalling Joy that Riley’s memories are now tainted with sorrow.

Initially it seems like Sadness needs to learn not to tamper with the memories and allow Joy to control the headquarters of Riley’s mind as she has always done. “Stay in this circle, the circle of Sadness,” Joy tells her fellow emotion, and that almost seems believable, especially when Sadness touches a memory that leads to an embarrassing incident of Riley crying over the loss of her old home as she introduces herself on the first day at her new school. However, all the emotions have a legitimate place, and Joy’s desire to be the predominant presence in Riley’s mind soon becomes frustrating. After all there are times to celebrate, to mourn, to be afraid, and to be upset.

All the emotions have a useful purpose; Fear stops Riley from being reckless, Disgust stops her from making a fool of herself, Anger gives her determination, Joy keeps her happy, and given Joy’s predominance for awhile it is not clear how Sadness helps Riley. It is clear that all the emotions need to work together to help Riley transition through this difficult phase of her life, and there are hints throughout the film as to how that should be achieved. The answer is far simpler and more ingenious than one would imagine, and director/writer Pete Docter saves the revelation for the perfect moment.

The ancient Greeks believed in four humors, which would be in equal balance if a person were healthy. An excess or deficiency of any one was considered unhealthy. Pete Docter has repackaged that idea as five emotions inside every person’s mind. Any of those five can be absent or over abundantly present, resulting in an ill humor. A major strength of Inside Out is the way it presents a gradual understanding of that balance; Riley’s emotions mature as she does. A humorous episode in which we see the far more mature emotions inside Riley’s parents’ minds furthers that development.

Almost all children see the world very much in terms of black and white, which is one reason it is very rare to see a children’s movie with a morally compromised hero or a conflicted villain who occasionally struggles to do what is right. (With a climax that involves the protagonist apologizing for a serious transgression and a villain having a tragic past, Pixar’s last non-sequel, Brave, is something of an exception to that pattern.) Similarly, explaining to a child how something could be simultaneously happy and sad might not be particularly easy. Inside Out offers an explanation which occurs as a natural result of Riley growing up.

Inside Out‘s climax also shares a similarity with Brave in that the climax of both films is spurred by an overwhelming sense of regret and contrition. The beautiful heart touching scene that follows as a result of that feeling may be my favorite depiction of repentance, forgiveness, family bonding, and maturing in any family film.

In addition to its other strengths, Inside Out provides some very funny explanations for the workings of our brains. When any one emotion gets out of control, the film convincingly portrays how the most illogical destructive decisions seem logical. The pain and awkwardness that many children feel as they approach adolescence is explained by over indulging in one emotion or denying another, both of which are unhealthy.

The film’s coup de maître is showing children (and adults who may need reminding) that all our emotions are intertwined, and that unpleasant experiences are just as important as pleasant ones. Inside Out is not afraid to explore the pain and regrettable decisions which stem from out of control emotions, but it also relishes happy moments with beauty and joy, happy moments which would never exist if it were not for the whole messy and wonderful spectrum that constitutes human nature.

 

Content Advisory: Nothing really, mild family discord, a depiction of a nightmare involving a mean clown, and a humorously bleeped swear word; only the most sensitive kids would be upset.           MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Despicable Me 2

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud.        Voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elise Fisher, Benjamin Bratt, and Russell Brand.

The success of the original Despicable Me can be mostly attributed to two factors: the cute and touching relationship between super villain Gru and his adopted daughters, and more importantly, the goofy, subservient minions.  The relationship between Gru and the girls is still developed and forms a decent part of the sequel, even though it was more important in the original film.  And the minions are back in spades.

Steve Carell reprises his role as Gru, no longer a villain, adjusting to life as a good guy and as a father.  He has turned his laboratory into a jelly making factory.  However, his longtime associate Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) feels unfit for this line of work and quits to take up a new job offer where he can be evil again.  Meanwhile Gru’s neighbors and his daughters are encouraging him to get married and setting him up on blind dates so the girls can have a mother, even though Gru has no interest in tying the knot with anyone.

When Anti-Villain League (AVL) agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig, in a much funnier role than the mean Miss Hattie in the original) kidnaps Gru in order for him to help the AVL with a top secret assignment, he is reluctant to accept, but changes his mind after Dr. Nefario quits and the jelly business goes awry.  Gru’s assignment is to find the villain who stole an arctic laboratory where a serum was being developed to turn innocent creatures into brutal, invincible killers.

While searching for the serum and for the thief, sparks begin to fly between Gru and Lucy to the delight of Agnes, (Elsie Fisher) while Edith (Dana Gaier) routinely says “Ew” at any sight of romance.  Edith’s protestations form comic relief as Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) strikes up a relationship with a boy whose father may or may not be a former nemesis of Gru’s.

The story is fairly formulaic for a family film, and there are a couple places where it lags.  In recent action flicks from this summer, lags in storytelling have been masked by noisy explosions and fight scenes.  Despicable Me 2 has a much more welcome and enjoyable approach to insert energy into the story the few times that it stalls: add comic relief via the minions.  Hardly five minutes pass without some sort of their antics.  There are a couple times when one could almost say there is too much of the minions, but they are so much fun that their frequent presence seems justified.  The minions do feature prominently in the story’s climax, which ties together and explains the earlier segments that featured them.

After my screening was over, some children were already quoting some of the minions’ funniest lines as they exited the theatre.  I imagine parents will be listening to many scenes reenacted for days.

There are a couple subtle references to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is always a good path for a comedy to go.  At Agnes’ birthday party, a group of minions dress up as bumbling incompetent knights and wreck havoc on the proceedings.  A surveillance video of a science lab shows a harmless rabbit transforming into a vicious killer, recalling the Rabbit of Caerbannog.  The entire concept of the serum is based on the same humorous principle of the killer rabbit: a cute innocent creature is somehow made a monster.  In both films the monster is stopped by a ludicrous weapon as well.  A chicken also serves as a fierce guard.

Co-directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud studied what worked in their first film, they repeat it here, and it still works well.  As of right now, another sequel/spinoff is in the works.  Instead of being titled Despicable Me 3, its current title is Minions.  As longs as the screenwriters can keep coming up with decent minion jokes, which is not that hard given their inherent goofiness and cuteness, the franchise will continue with decently entertaining films.

Content Advisory: Occasional rude humor and mild peril.                              MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up.

Personal Recommendation: B

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