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Godmothered

Disney have perfected the art of branding, first by establishing a brand and then consistently and skilfully deconstructing it. 2020’s direct to Disney+ release Godmothered demonstrates the House of Mouse’s understanding of their back catalogue, as an idealistic heroine seeks to achieve her destiny, and in doing so encounters ideas and beliefs different to her expectations thanks to the modern world, and yet still sprinkles enchantment wherever she goes. Our heroine is Eleanor (Jillian Bell), a trainee fairy godmother who seeks to grant wishes, and in doing encounters Mackenzie (Isla Fisher), a single mother who gave up on fairy tale endings long ago. Godmothered is essentially Enchanted with a fairy godmother instead of a princess and, like the earlier film, is filled with knowing humour, sparkling intelligence and buckets of charm. Director Sharon Maguire beautifully blends modernity with magic, offering new and relatable versions of true love and living happily, as well as the importance and practice of telling stories.

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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After the repackaging of A New Hope that was The Force Awakens and the flawed but adventurous The Last Jedi, JJ Abrams returns with the least innovative Star Wars film since Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm. The set up from the previous instalments, not to mention the talent involved, carry plenty of potential, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her Jedi training, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seeks to further his power, and the Resistance builds its defences against the First Order. It is therefore frustrating that much of what has been set up previously is not explored, especially the egalitarian tropes of The Last Jedi and the creative courage to strike out the territory of this new sequel trilogy. Narrative threads are forcibly rather than organically connected; dramatic stakes are established then abandoned; certain characters appear (aside from the obvious returning stars, what the hell is Dominic Monaghan doing here?) for scant purpose while more interesting figures are side-lined. On the plus side, the central four characters – Rey and Kylo along with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are well drawn and their arc is highly engaging. Abrams also delivers some great set pieces including several lightsaber battles between Rey and Kylo that are both gorgeously choreographed and emotionally weighty. Across the sequel trilogy, these two characters have been the tortured heart, their strange love/hate relationship providing the human clash within the grand scale conflict. Star Wars has long been interested in issues of power, identity, redemption and legacy, and it is pleasing that these receive due attention here. It’s just a shame that the surrounding narrative is such a mess.

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The Lion King

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The Lion King is a timeless classic. Released during a golden period for Disney Studios, it remains a touchstone for many viewers as a demonstration of what animation can do. Jon Favreau’s photo-realistic digital animation remake may also come to occupy a significant place in animation history, specifically in terms of its animation. As a visual feast, The Lion King 2019 is dazzlingly realised. Descriptions of the film as ‘live action’ are nonsensical – everything is animated here as surely as it was in the original. The difference is that it looks real – from the lustrous fur including lions’ manes that you want to run your hands through, to the textured skin of elephants and warthogs to rippling water and intricate blades of grass, the African landscape looks as rich and tactile as that in a documentary. Indeed, at times a voiceover would not seem out of place, recalling both BBC nature documentaries and Disney’s ‘Real-Life’ adventures of previous decades. Yet the illusion of reality is easily broken by the talking and singing of the photo-realistic animals, and this break is hard to get away from.

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The lifelike visuals are simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and its most crippling weakness. There is an inescapable disjunct as the visuals look real, but quite clearly are not. Similarly, the animals are anthropomorphised, but not by much. They speak and sing, but their faces remain largely blank and their movements are appropriate for animals. It is therefore hard to relax into the film, as one constantly marvels at the visuals and is then jerked out of the marvel by the obvious artifice. In addition, one may have to keep reminding themselves that of course lion social dynamics do not work that way, this being a fictional drama, but that concern never arose in the original, fantastical animation.

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A further problem is that this film does nothing new narratively. Previous Disney remakes elaborated on the previous versions, expanding characters, updating representation and, in some cases, reducing or omitting the songs altogether. Unlike Favreau’s previous Disney remake, The Jungle Book, which works as an entirely new adaptation of the source material, The Lion King 2019 makes almost no changes to the original story. The Lion King is an original story (borrowing some elements from Hamlet), and as an original story for an animated family adventure, it is hard to improve on. Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson expands some scenes and provides some additional detail to a few characters, including Nala (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter), Shenzi (Florence Kasumba) and Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). This development of female characters does continue Disney’s greater diversity and improvements in representation, but because the rest of the film follows the original so closely, these expansions create a further disjunctive element. The end result is ambivalent, as the visuals are utterly stunning and incredible, but the film lacks soul and emotional engagement.

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Aladdin

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Disney’s animated Aladdin from 1992 is a classic. Its animation, its songs and Robin Williams’ Genie have entered the pantheon of iconic animation and family entertainment. The 2019 remake, directed by Guy Ritchie, therefore has a lot to live up to. As with previous remakes Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, the film faces a dilemma. Be too different and fans will be alienated. Be the same and what’s the point? Ritchie’s film, if that is even a fair description, gets some elements right and others not so much. The setting of Agrabah is detailed and immersive, rendered in bright colours and vibrant regions through which the inhabitants run, leap and bound. These inhabitants are a colourful (more on that later) cavalcade including Aladdin (Mena Massoud), Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Sultan (Navid Negahban) and Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), along with animal sidekicks Abu and Rajah, and an array of supporting players. The performances are all fine, the highlight being Will Smith as the Genie. Smith makes the character his own, not imitating Williams even when delivering the same lines. Less successful is the direction, as there seems to be an unresolved tension between Ritchie’s distinctive flourishes and the clarity of Disney’s house style. Scenes between characters as well as the action set pieces are effective, but the musical sequences constitute a distinct shift and feel forced, suggesting Ritchie does not come naturally to the musical genre. There are commonalities between Aladdin and Ritchie’s precious work, especially his two Sherlock Holmes efforts that managed to be family friendly urban action tales. At some points during Aladdin, the speed of the action varies which recalls sequences of Holmes (Robert Downey, Jnr.) planning his next move. Unfortunately, Aladdin‘s characters bursting into song jars with the immersive approach that Ritchie otherwise cultivates. It could be said that all musicals stop for the big numbers, but here the numbers do not feel of a piece with the rest of the film. As a case in point, in one scene a character goes into a personal fantasy to sing, other characters literally vanish, but when she finishes her song, the scene picks up from the point where she started, making the song noticeably separate.

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That said, this musical number itself is part of the film’s strongest element – its progressive politics. Much like recent Disney output, such as Frozen and Zootropolis as well as live action fare including Black Panther and Rogue One, Aladdin displays progressive politics without emphasising them. The cast consists almost entirely of people of colour, and rightly there is nothing extraordinary about this, as it is a story set in the Middle East. Even better, the arc of Jasmine at least as significant as that of Aladdin. This Jasmine is not only a woman of independence and agency, but she is also a ruler in waiting who does not need men instructing her. For all its problems, Aladdin does present a whole new world we could all benefit from seeing more of.

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Mary Poppins Returns

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There is a moment in Mary Poppins Returns when the titular magical nanny, played with sparkling brilliance by Emily Blunt, looks directly into the camera before plunging backwards into a bathtub. This look to camera is an acknowledgement of audience expectations, that manages to be completely uncynical or overly knowing. The shot is indicative of Rob Marshall’s superlative sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time, as throughout Mary Poppins Returns, audience’s knowledge of Mary Poppins and the Banks children is acknowledged with postmodern awareness. Despite this acknowledgement, and quite remarkably, the film never slips into parody, or becomes too clever, or loses sight of its central, irresistible charm. Blunt is charm personified as Mary Poppins: from her cut-glass accent to her no-nonsense attitude to the neat curl of her ankles, Blunt’s performance can stand alongside Julie Andrews’ in the pantheon of great performances. Alongside her, Lin Manuel Garcia, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters and Colin Firth, as well as the younger performers Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh and Joel Dawson, all embody their characters beautifully, blending adult weariness with childlike delight. Not that every moment is happy – grief hangs heavily over the Banks household and the economic context mirrors our contemporary times. Problems of mounting debt and eviction notices are not simply dealt with by snapping fingers or singing, demonstrating the need for hard work, cooperation, compassion and a little bit of luck in the overcoming of obstacles. Nonetheless, at other points, Mary Poppins Returns launches into unadulterated and unashamed fantasy. The aforementioned bathtub scene is a highlight, as is a sequence into a bowl that blends cutting edge digital effects with classic Disney animation. This sequence also combines musical whimsy with real world concerns, rendered through a thrilling chase scene. It serves as a microcosm of the film as a whole: a magnificent amalgamation of styles, genres, themes, tones, nostalgia and innovation. In fact, one might say that it is practically perfect in every way.

Beauty and the Beast

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Here’s a wild thought – Bill Condon’s remake of Disney’s animated classic, that arrives complete with songs, talking candelabra, clock and tea pot, not to mention a mo-capped Beast (Dan Stevens) as well as Belle (Emma Watson) in the expected attire, is a parable about Donald Trump’s America. Wait, come back! Condon devotes a good portion of the film to the Beast’s enchanted castle, surrounded by perpetual winter and occupied by all manner of eccentric characters, but equal attention is paid to the ‘provincial town’ where Belle and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) reside. The villagers are a varied bunch, but share narrow beliefs and easily thralled by Gaston (Luke Evans), a charismatic local celebrity with great force of personality, who is self-centred and conceited, contemptuous of women and expects everyone to adulate him. Sound familiar? More tellingly, the villagers are easily swayed by Gaston’s charisma to (spoiler alert) go after someone different. The Beast is the most obvious example, but Belle herself is a social pariah while Gaston easily convinces the townsfolk that Maurice is mad, while the minor yet significant character Agatha (Hattie Morahan) is similarly ostracised for not adhering to social mores that Gaston exploits and epitomises. And yet it is these different people, those who are ‘Other’, that display the humane qualities of empathy, kindness and compassion. While the overall story arc is of course about love, a central conceit of not judging by appearances and instead accepting and embracing difference pervades the film. Beauty and the Beast therefore continues Disney’s progressive streak that includes Zootopia and Queen of Katwe. Long may the House of Mouse continue this open door policy.

Queen of Katwe

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In 1993, Disney released Cool Runnings, in which 80% of the main characters were black. In 2016, Disney released Queen of Katwe, in which 100% of the speaking characters are not only black, but African. For a mainstream family film, this is quite extraordinary. There is no British or American outsider to appeal to audiences, nor a white saviour coming to save those who need it, or even a climactic trip to a First World country as some kind of ultimate victory. Instead, Queen of Katwe is a genuinely progressive portrayal of people who are typically excluded from mainstream cinema, while also being a warm, engaging and moving tale of talent, ambition and nurturing, all based on a true story.

Despite its credentials, Queen of Katwe is far from a PC diatribe. Director Mira Nair crafts a vibrant and lively tale that brings the slum of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda to energetic life. The largely young cast of first time actors are beautifully varied and a far cry from stereotypes. Some are shy and uncertain, others angry and resentful, but none are less than human, rounded and thoroughly engaging. Among them is Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) a teenage girl who works hard to help support her family, but finds in a community chess club a previously unknown talent. Nalwanga is extraordinary in the role, completely conveying Phiona’s sense of confusion and isolation that leads to consummate attention and a fierce desire to win.

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Phiona is also torn between two mentor figures. Her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is harried and put upon, and takes some convincing that her daughter should be playing chess. This convincing comes from Robert Katende (David Oweloyo), coach of the chess club that is run as part of a community enrichment scheme. Although a qualified engineer and a frustrated soccer player, Robert finds genuine enrichment and inspiration from his young chess players, whom he dubs ‘Pioneers’. And so they are, as many of them have never been to school yet boldly embark across the uncharted squares of the chess board as well as previously undreamed-of places.

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In taking his Pioneers to new places, Robert encounters class prejudices as well as harsh economic realities, not to mention the inherent difficulties of marshalling young people into a disciplined unit. Many of these scenes are played for laughs, including a particular highlight where Robert outsmarts a supercilious and patronising official. This strategising as well as Phiona’s mimics that of skillful chess playing. Throughout the film, parallels between the game of chess and the everyday life of the characters are clear but this strategy is never overplayed. In addition, however, Nair wisely avoids trying to dramatise the playing of chess itself, such as presenting chess pieces as enormous and each move on the board as hugely significant. In much the same way as Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby are not really about boxing, and Rush about motor sport, Queen of Katwe is about chess players rather than playing chess. During the actual – and dramatically momentous – matches, Nair and DOP Sean Bobbitt focus on the faces of the players, thoughts and strategies playing behind their eyes. These sequences convey the passion and importance of the matches to the viewer, who need not be an expert or even particularly interested in chess in order to be drawn into the drama. To draw such drama from a board game of stratagem and patience is remarkable, and William Wheeler’s screenplay skilfully balances the tension with comedy, such as nervousness conveyed through hiccups.

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Not that chess makes everything alright, as family tensions escalate for several reasons. As mentioned above, Harriet is less than enamoured with Phiona spending so much time studying chess. And as Phiona progresses and is increasingly successful, she becomes arrogant and even contemptuous of her family. By including these aspects, Nair strikes the right balance between sentiment and grit. It would be an exaggeration to describe the film as grim, despite its shanty town setting and inclusion of such issues as teenage pregnancy, limited access to medical care and education and the threat of eviction or even starvation. Vague suggestions of prostitution are not explored and it could be fairly argued that the film has a sanitized portrayal of people living in poverty.

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However, to complain about this seems churlish when the film is so refreshing in its engagement with such areas and demographics. Queen of Katwe may be the finest family film of the year, and is an important piece of work in placing non-white, non-Western characters at the center of a mainstream film. After the brilliant Zootropolis offered a hopeful and affecting portrayal of the need for diversity and tolerance, Queen of Katwe adds to Disney’s progressive credentials, which may not be expected, but are therefore all the more satisfying.

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Mid-Year Review

By the Beard of Kubrick, we’re already half way through by the year! 2016 seems to be disappearing faster than good sense and decency in the UK electorate. But the movies keep coming thick and fast, and like a good critic, I need to rank them in my arbitrary and completely subjective fashion.

As we’re six months through the year (and I do a top 12 overall), I rank my top six films so far, based on the cited date for UK general release (so don’t go telling me ‘That film came out last year!’). Therefore, with much aplomb (which you can provide yourself), here are my top six films of the first half of 2016:

1. Room (15 January 2016)

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A sublime, magnificent, heartwarming, heartbreaking tale of the terrible and the wonderful.

 

2. Zootropolis (25 March 2016)

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A brilliantly inventive, hilariously zany, poignant and intelligent anthropomorphic comedy.

 

3. Eye in the Sky (15 April 2016)

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A tense, nerve-shredding thriller of surveillance, globalization, military, political and ethical conundrums.

 

4. Spotlight (29 January 2016)

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An absorbing, compelling journalism thriller about community, tradition and responsibility.

 

5. The Big Short (22 January 2016)

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An equal parts hilarious and horrifying tale of economic, intellectual and moral bankruptcy.

 

6. The Revenant (15 January 2016)

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An immersive, ethereal yet tactile portrait of survival, nature and revenge.

That’s a pretty good bunch, so if any of these don’t make it into the Top Twelve at the end of the year, 2016 will have been a very impressive year indeed.

The Jungle Book

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If you’re of a certain age, Disney’s 1967 animated version of The Jungle Book is likely one of your earliest cinematic memories. Therefore, you may approach a new version with trepidation. Fortunately, I can report that not only is Disney’s new version just right for the age I am now, it is also likely to delight a whole new generation. Director Jon Favreau wisely avoids simply remaking the earlier film with a single physical actor playing Mowgli (Neel Sethi). Much like 2015’s live action version of Cinderella, 2016’s The Jungle Book takes the basic premise – boy raised by wolves in jungle must travel to man village for protection from tiger – and explores this premise in new and interesting ways. Nods to the original are clear, such as the contrasting attitudes between Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray), the hypnotic abilities of Kaa the python (Scarlett Johannson), and the musical riffs. Unlike its predecessor, Favreau’s film is not a musical, and its one false note is the isolated scene when a character launches into a musical number. When the film declares its own identity, it works superbly, with well-motivated characters – including a convincingly vicious but embittered Shere Khan (Idris Elba), and a menacingly massive King Louie (Christopher Walken) – astonishing visuals that bring the animals and the jungle to vibrant and startling life, some genuinely thrilling set pieces, and a central theme about finding one’s place in the world that can speak to all ages. Re-making a classic is always a daunting task, but with photorealistic yet slightly fantastical animals, a genuinely affecting protagonist and Favreau’s lively, enervating style, Disney may just have created another classic, that today’s generation will look back on with great fondness in fifty years.

Cinderella

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A well-known story poses the challenge of how to tell it in a way that is fresh and engaging. The further challenge of a fairy tale is how to make it relevant. Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz complete these challenges admirably with Cinderella, an unapologetically traditional and gloriously romantic reinvention of the classic tale that pays homage to Disney’s animated feature while also creating an identity all of its own. The essential elements of the story are present: the cruel stepmother and stepsisters, the fairy godmother and pumpkin coach, the ball and the glass slippers, as are the more specifically Disney elements including Cinderella’s (Lily James) animal friends and the famous “Bibbity-bobbity-boo”, brought to charming life by the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter). Branagh handles these elements brilliantly, especially the magical transformation scene and the glorious ball sequence. Where this live action version really shines though, is in its expansion of the story. Cinderella’s stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) are not ugly but vain, stupid and spiteful, while her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is beautifully nuanced – not simply cruel but bitter and more than a little desperate. Similarly, Prince Kit (Richard Madden) and his royal contemporaries are far more than the ciphers one might expect, concerned with tensions between tradition and progressiveness as well as their own political agendas. The Prince and Cinderella share far more than simply seeing each other at the ball, drawing closer as they discover they have a surprising amount in common. Meanwhile, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård) emerges as more of a villain than the Stepmother, who is almost as much a victim as Cinderella. Nor is Cinderella passive and simpering, guided as she is by the principles of courage and kindness. Even at her lowest ebb, she offers forgiveness and generosity at every turn and, similarly, the film’s sweeping joy is its own form of magic, enrapturing the viewer with gorgeous production design, ravishing costumes, a splendid score and fluid editing and cinematography. Only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be bewitched by Cinderella, a reminder of the romance and hope that fairy tales and movies alike can inspire.