He’s been the voice of Olaf in Frozen and Chuck in The Angry Birds Movie. Now American star Josh Gad, 39, pitches up as Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Artemis Fowl, a family fantasy adventure based on the best-selling books by Eoin Colfer.
Winner of the 2019 CinefestOZ prize ($100k, thank you very much), H is for Happiness is the feature debut of theatre director John Sheedy. Girl Asleep from 2015 also won the prize, and was the first feature from celebrated theatre maker, Rosemary Myers. Both films were about a girl going through puberty, the awkwardness, obsessing over appearance, and starting to be attracted to the opposite sex. The similarities go beyond this premise alone, and are uncanny in fact, though H is for Happiness is a superior film.
Girl Asleep started off with a bang, establishing a very strong style, which unfortunately went awry in its third act’s turn to the surreal. In H is for Happiness, the film’s style is initially clunky, as each scene is presented without enough connecting tissue or cinematic style, but thankfully, as the film progresses, and the characters build, so does the audience engagement.
Candice Phee (impressive newcomer Daisy Axon) is full of life, smart and nerdy. She’s happy in her skin, even though the cool kids look down on her. When new kid in school Douglas Benson (adorable Wesley Patton) turns up and sits next to Candice, sparks eventually fly, and the two become inseparable. The ever-chirpy Candice also has a challenging home environment, with a tragedy clouding over her dad Jim (Richard Roxburgh) and especially her mum Claire (Emma Booth). On top of all this, Rich Uncle Brian (Joel Jackson) loves Candice but has been ousted by the family for a deal gone wrong.
As per the title, an assignment has been set at school by eccentric Miss Bamford (Miriam Margolyes), in which students must take a letter of the alphabet and create a presentation around it. Candice makes it her mission to make her family happy again.
Sheedy’s inexperience in cinema (his only effort behind the camera is the 2017 short film Mrs McCutcheon) is evident, making the early scenes especially uncinematic, despite the premise’s potential, the beautiful locations (Albany, WA), cinematography (Bonnie Elliott – Slam, Palm Beach) and production design (Nicki Gardiner). However, the source material, Barry Jonsberg’s book My Life as an Alphabet adapted by Lisa Hoppe, means that the spine is strong enough to sustain your interest, and build your investment in the characters, performed expertly by the cast, including small turns from Deborah Mailman and WA legend George Shevtsov (Love Serenade).
Unlike Girl Asleep, H is for Happiness plays much younger, and should appeal to family audiences (lookie here, it’s not even the end of January and we have a second local family film to embrace), despite slightly dark themes. It is generous hearted, embracing the rich, the poor, the normal, the damaged, the eccentric, the full breadth of humanity. Life in Australia may look idyllic but it isn’t neat and tidy, and out of the optimistic hopes of its damaged young heroes emerges true happiness, and an ending that will have you sailing away to another world.
Tell you what, everything else aside, a big budget adaptation of Jack London’s 1903 literary classic TheCalloftheWild seems a weird fit for Disney. Under ordinary circumstances, the House of Mouse releases slick, homogenised animated films, slightly baffling ‘live action’ versions of earlier works and StarWars flicks that make internet people apoplectically angry. CalloftheWild, while uniformly slick and very expensive-looking, hews a different path and does so in a mostly effective fashion.
The movie is the story of Buck, an enormous St. Bernard/Scotch Collie who is flogged from his home near the start and embarks on an involuntary, but exciting, adventure across the Yukon in the late 1800s. The first thing you’ll notice is that the dogs aren’t real, but motion-captured CGI and the idyllic surroundings aren’t shot on location, but also CGI. It’s a little distracting for the first fifteen minutes or so (although never as immersion breaking as the ill-advised LionKing remake), but you’ll soon find yourself engrossed in the appealing world of the film. Eventually, Buck runs into grizzled old bloke, John Thornton (Harrison Ford) and the pair form an unlikely bond and get into further adventures.
The CalloftheWild is essentially a series of lengthy vignettes, but the good news is, most of them are engaging. The turn of the century setting feels fresh in cinematic terms, even if most of the edges have been well and truly beveled off London’s original text, and the appeal of an old fashioned story about a good-hearted dog remains strong even in 2020. Harrison Ford actually seems to be having fun for a change, and a capable support cast includes Dan Stevens, Bradley Whitford, Karen Gillan and Cara Gee.
In many ways a slight, throwback to appealing family-oriented matinee movies and taken on that level, there’s quite a lot to like about TheCalloftheWild. It’s unlikely to spawn an entire generation of outdoors people (particularly since most of the nature scenes are digitally rendered) but it’s an amiable flick about a very good boi indeed.