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CHILD’S PLAY?

I went to see two prominent children’s films over the last couple of weeks so I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two in terms of approach and assessing whether they work.
First is Puss In Boots, a spin-off of Dreamworks’ successful Shrek animated movies featuring the swamp’s most likeable character. Voice talent Antonio Banderas returns as the ginger swashbuckling cat in a tale (pardon the pun) that gives us his origin story. Director Chris Miller throws the eponymous hero in a story that owes a lot to Jack and The Beanstalk with his partner in crime Humpty Dumpty, a fellow fairytale orphan who betrayed Puss years ago and seemingly wants to set things right. Voiced by The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis, Humpty has an accomplice, Kitty Softpaws (Penelope Cruz), who is a very talented cat thief. So they decide to steal Jack and Jill’s magic beans to allow them to reach the giant’s castle. The film is a clever pastiche of classic westerns and obviously things like Zorro and Miller has a deft hand for action and character. There is chemistry between Banderas and Cruz (not the first time they’ve collaborated) and Zach Galifianakis acquits himself pretty well as do Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris as Jack and Jill. The 3D animation works nicely and visually Puss In Boots looks lavish and cinematic. Now that Shrek has been retired from the big screen, expect to see more outings from the ginger furry lothario. Puss In Boots is an enjoyable, occasionally smart and very likeable mainstream animated feature…
Hugo, based on illustrated book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is director Martin Scorsese’s first foray into children’s films. The Hugo of the title is an orphan who lives in the works of a fictional Paris train station, making sure that the clocks run on time, who has spent a number of years trying to unravel the mystery of his father’s untimely death. His life appears to change when he meets curmudgeonly watch seller Georges (Ben Kingsley) and his young charge Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). It’s a very strange film: it starts life as an epic mystery seemingly about Hugo’s father (played by Jude Law) and an automaton that he was obsessed with and then changes tack and direction about halfway through. It is being shown in 3D but the 3D doesn’t add a lot to proceedings except when Scorsese is showing off the inner workings of the station. Asa Butterfield as Hugo is very good on screen but Moretz tries far too hard as she plays against her usual type. Kingsley is excellent: rather than chewing the scenery and the script as he usually does, he underplays what is arguably the pivotal role here, and you do feel genuine sympathy for him. The cast is a bit of a mixed bag: Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector with a clockwork leg, shows that he isn’t an actor, merely a comic turn but a small cameo from Christopher Lee as the sinister-looking Monsieur Labisse at the grand age of 89 makes you wish they did more with the character. Stepping outside of Scorsese’s comfort zone of gangsters and killers doesn’t quite work as some of Hugo feels very artificial but it is still a very charming film with mostly a strong cast and some well-excecuted ideas. It isn’t as creatively successful a kid’s film as Tintin but at a time when Hollywood blockbusters usually consist of giant robots beating the shit out of each other or meteorites destroying the Earth, there is something refreshing about what is such a nostalgic affair. Hugo passes two hours very pleasantly indeed and will do decently at the box office for cinemagoers looking for something a little bit different to the usual fare…

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LEAKY CARBURETTER
Pixar don’t often put a foot wrong and their consistency at making films that appeal to both adults and children is incredible. But Cars 2 may be their first miscalculation. The first Cars in 2006 was a shallow and rather unmemorable film but John Lasseter obviously has a soft spot for the characters as we have this sequel out now. Cars 2 has world champion Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his cretinous sidekick tow-truck Mater (the voice of Larry The Cable Guy) head out to compete in a World Grand Prix race. The race takes them to cities like Tokyo and London but there is a sub-plot in Cars 2. Finn McMissile (the voice of Michael Caine) is a British spy who enlists Mater to help him in a matter of international espionage. Cars 2 is well-animated but the script is very weak indeed with almost nothing to keep the adults occupied while the very young kids enjoy the film. Casting Caine as a British spy car is a nice touch but the story, some drivel about a fuel magnate looking to discredit green fuel, really isn’t up to much. There isn’t the connection with the characters that you have had in say Toy Story 3, Up or The Incredibles. It’s as if they were so keen to make this that they forgot what makes Pixar films stand out: their meticulous writing. Cars 2 will probably keep six or seven year old kids happy (just about) but there’s nothing for adults to get their teeth into…

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SUPERHEROIC BEHAVIOUR
The Incredibles is arguably one of Pixar’s best films of all time. There’s also an argument that it is perhaps the best superhero movie of all time. At last you can enjoy it on Blu-ray as it’s released this week. I was lucky enough to get a review copy of it. Pixar’s films almost seem designed for the format and the transfer here is very nice indeed with the colours looking super-sharp, rich and vivid. Seven years after its release at the cinema, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles still holds up wonderfully well. The Parr family, father Bob, wife Helen and kids Violet, Dashiell and Jack Jack are forced to lead a normal suburban existence after superheroes are outlawed in Metroville. Bob (Craig T Nelson) holds down a dull job in insurance while Helen (Holly Hunter) tries her best to be a typical housewife. But Bob can’t quite pack in the superhero lifestyle and spends one night a week while he’s supposed to be out bowling with best friend Frozone (Samuel Jackson) sitting and listening to the police scanner. Then one day Bob gets drawn back into the world of costumes, contacted by a mysterious figure. He gets kidnapped by the grown-up super villain who Bob rebuffed when the villain was a kid. So the rest of the family are forced to come to his rescue. Blu-ray brings everything to life and actually gives The Incredibles the opportunity to attract a whole new audience. The sound gets an extra boost with the transfer to Blu-ray and the voice talent really shines especially Nelson and Hunter. The extras include a intriguing roundtable with the key players of the movie including Bird and producer John Walker and short Jack Jack Attack, which is entertaining. For anyone who’s an animation aficionado, The Incredibles Blu-ray is a must-buy…

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PANDERING TO THE AUDIENCE?

In a summer overloaded with 3-D fare, Kung Fu Panda 2 is one of the few big tentpoles that is actually enhanced by the process. The first Kung Fu Panda was a surprise hit back in 2008, taking $60m at the US box office in its opening weekend. Dreamworks is the only credible rival as a mainstream animation house to Pixar and Kung Fu Panda, like Shrek, has an emotional depth lacking in most other animated features from other companies.

The other thing that’s sad but true is that Jack Black is only likeable and seemingly in his element when he’s the chubby unlikely action hero panda Po. The first film was a very accomplished and entertaining piece of fluff and Kung Fu Panda 2 actually manages to surpass its progenitor.

The plot is pretty simple: Shen (Gary Oldman) is a peacock who dabbled in the dark arts years ago and has returned to wreak his revenge, which would involve the end of Kung Fu. So Po and the Furious Five with the help of a number of new faces decides to face off against him.

The animation is incredible with the 3-D process giving the whole thing an almost painterly feel. You are thrown into Po’s world in a totally immersive way and the fight sequences are well-directed and move with agility and speed. The voice talent here is well chosen with new addition Oldman almost stealing the show as the evil peacock Shen.

As I said, there is depth here and when the truth about Po’s real father is revealed, there is a sense of emotion to it. Kung Fu Panda 2, despite its light and throwaway tone, isn’t just another summer toy tie-in movie: it is crafted with care and attention to detail.

It isn’t often that this is said but a sequel, as long as the same care and attention is taken to it, would actually be a welcome addition to a future summer’s movie raft. Kung Fu Panda 2 certainly doesn’t pander to its audience but makes it expect more from filmmakers…

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FROM BOY WIZARD TO SUPERVILLAIN
I have been to see two films at press screenings over the past two weeks and, while they are two very different movies, I thought I would review them in the same blog post. First up is Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1. Now unfortunately with each Potter film that has been released, they make less and less of an impact on me as a viewer. Harry Potter is one of the few modern film franchises that seems totally impervious to critical response. As I write this, Deathly Hallows Part 1 racked up an opening weekend in the US of $125m and made over £18m just in the UK. So the audience for Potter is so huge around the world that it wouldn’t matter if every critic, every magazine and every newspaper slated it. So I am going to present my thoughts here knowing full well that it won’t make the blindest bit of difference. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1, directed by David Yates and starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, adapts the first half of the final Harry Potter novel. School Hogwarts plays no part in this story as villain Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has his firm grip on the magical world and so The Deathly Hallows deals with Harry, Hermione and Ron attempting to avoid his agents while working out a way of foiling the evil magician’s diabolical plans. There are several problems with this film and the most heinous crime it commits here is that there is no concession to anybody who hasn’t lived and breathed Harry Potter for the past decade. Alright, this is the seventh part of a film series but anyone who isn’t conversant with the canon or the characters would not understand or really care if they sat and watched this film. Additionally, the opening sequence, where Moody (Brendan Gleeson) alters the appearances of several of the other characters to look like Potter so that Voldemort’s agents are thrown off the scent, is a nifty idea but one that is thrown away after the first 15 minutes and replaced by what feels like hours of turgid dullness with Harry, Hermione and Ron wandering through the forests and fields of the country, while all of the grand battles and action seems to occur off-camera. Two-and-a-half hours is a long running time for this, especially when a large proportion of this feels like filler and time-wasting. There are a couple of nice scenes, namely the chase at the beginning and the animated sequence where we learn what the title means is visually very impressive. But perhaps the other scenes were more powerful on the printed page but it slows the pacing down significantly. If all of the key plot moments occur in the second half of The Deathly Hallows, then Part 1 cannot work as a film in its own right. If you are a Harry Potter obsessive, then you would have seen this film already and if you are not a fan or interested in the genre, then you won’t see it anyway. Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is a very frustrating film…
Megamind is the latest animated film from DreamWorks and stars the voice talents of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Brad Pitt. Megamind takes the Superman story (alien gets rocketed to Earth from a dying planet) and turns it a little bit on its head. Megamind is the lifelong nemesis of square-jawed Metro Man but when he gets his wish and wipes Metro Man out seemingly for good, his life becomes meaningless. So he sets about creating a new superhero adversary for himself but that’s when things start to go wrong. Ferrell as Megamind is extremely good and Pitt ( Metro Man) and Fey (as reporter Roxanne Ritchi) are very talented vocal foils for him. The animation here is fantastic, using 3-D to very impressive effect. The flying sequences are particularly effective but the whole film utilises the format very cannily. Its script is funny and sharp where it needs to be and its mild subversion of superhero and comicbook tropes make it a much cleverer film than you might expect. Its running time of 95 minutes means that it never outstays its welcome and holds your attention throughout. Dreamworks has been one of the only animation houses to truly challenge Pixar’s dominance of the modern market and Megamind is a worthy addition to that canon…

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THREE FOR TUESDAY

The last couple of weeks have been pretty frenetic. Unfortunately the year-long contract of work I thought I had has ended prematurely now so I’m left having to go back to hustle for freelance work. I have seen three very different films at screenings, all at Paramount’s screening room at their London office at Golden Square, so I thought I’d review them in this latest entry. The first film I caught was Centurion, directed by Neil Marshall, a low-budget British film that shows a Roman legion fighting for their lives against a group of Picts in Scotland in the second century AD. Centurion as a film is a bit of a throwback to the sort of movies we used to make over here in the Seventies: it’s shot in a gritty and very violent fashion. But I’m not criticising it for that: Marshall really uses the English and Scottish settings in a beautiful but rugged way and the action barrels along in an appealing fashion. Michael Fassbender, from the awful Inglorious Basterds, plays Quintus Dias, the Roman soldier who takes up with General Virilus (Dominic West from The Wire) and his Ninth Legion to try to crush the Picts only to find that they have them outnumbered in territory that they know like the back of their hand. West is good value on screen as is David Morrissey and Fassbender makes a good fist of it here too. Whilst its historical accuracy is questionable, Centurion is an enjoyable action yarn with a solid cast and interesting direction…

How To Train Your Dragon is a 3-D animated film from Dreamworks about a teenage viking, Hiccup, in a fictional village who is no good at traditional viking arts like fighting and pillaging who becomes friendly with an injured dragon, which is when his luck begins to change. With the voice talents of Craig Ferguson and the ubiquitous Gerard Butler, this is a very likeable kids film that uses the 3-D to its full effect with some magnificent visual set-pieces. Admittedly the plot, that the dragons attacking the vikings are just misunderstood, is rather predictable but Butler and Ferguson are good choices for the voices and there are some nice touches like the slightly Japanese look of the dragon that Hiccup befriends. Most importantly, How To Train Your Dragon doesn’t outstay its welcome and holds the viewer’s attention during its running time. It’s the perfect Easter holiday treat for children…
Finally, Agora is the new film by director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, The Sea Inside). It’s a visually lavish affair about female philosophy professor Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) who finds herself caught in the middle of a turbulent period in Alexandria, Egypt during the fourth century AD while it was a Roman protectorate. Unfortunately, while it looks fantastic, capturing the feel of an ancient city effortlessly, Agora is let down by wooden acting (Weisz is particularly guilty of this here), a poor script and a plot that really doesn’t amount to anything in the end. The points it attempts to make about the friction between the Christians, Jews and the Pagans in the city are serious but they are so mishandled dramatically that it all feels like a BBC2 drama with all the money thrown at the production side. It’s a film that’s been hanging around for a while and, when you watch it, you can see why it’s been hard for it to find a slot. As a period film, Centurion works better than Agora because it does what it set out to do. File under curio…


CHILDHOOD’S END?
I’ve been meaning to put up a review of Coraline, which I went to see in the middle of April but other things kept coming up. So here goes…
Coraline, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, is a 3-D animated film directed by Henry (Nightmare Before Christmas) about a little girl, Coraline, who moves to a new place up in the wilds of Oregon with her eccentric parents. She befriends her neighbours, British actresses Miss Spink and Forcible and the bizarre Russian Mr Bobinsky and wanders the grounds of her new home in an attempt to find something interesting. She gets her wish and finds a doorway to an alternate version of reality where her other parents seem more interested in her and where her life is more exciting. But there is a drawback and her alternate parents are not what they seem. Selick is a very talented animation director and the look of Coraline is vivid and imaginative. The voice talent work well on screen, especially Teri Hatcher as both of Coraline’s mothers and Ian McShane as the strange Russian circus acrobat Bobinsky. However, French and Saunders as the doddery stage actresses are genuinely annoying: it’s surprising that people haven’t gotten bored of their limited schtick. Also the script seems a little too dark for the audience it’s aimed at and I’m sure that it would give some small children nightmares, especially the idea of replacing people’s ideas with buttons. And 3-D really doesn’t seem necessary here as it doesn’t play much of a part in enhancing the overall experience. Having said that, Coraline mostly succeeds, creating a warped view of the real world and the other place that she enters is well-realised. So, recommended with a few reservations…