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Abominable

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Abominable starts with our hero, Everest, the folkloric Yeti, escaping from a scientific facility and finding itself hiding out in downtown Shanghai. Everest soon bumps into Yi (Bennet), a grief stricken girl who dreams of travelling through China, and she gets her wish when along with two other kids they head across the vast and beautiful Chinese countryside to help Everest return home, all the while being pursued by an eccentric millionaire, scientists and commandos.

If you took a cynical reading of this latest Dreamworks animated feature, you could deduce that with the rapidly growing Chinese market for movies (it has the most cinemas of any nation, and growing, and is predicted to end 2019 as the biggest market in the world for theatrical releases, eclipsing the long-held US), that a Hollywood studio begins with an idea that will allow them to not only appeal to that market, but better still, engage their industry in working on the project for a fraction of the price that you would pay a Western crew.

Additionally, and most crucially, China limits the number of Western cinema releases seen on the big screen, so this co-production between Dreamworks and Pearl Studio guarantees that Abominable will be released to much fanfare.

But why be cynical, when this is showbusiness after all, and better still, some of the most creative and accomplished artworks throughout history have worked on a restricted canvas, be it censorship, budget or otherwise.

The computer animation in Abominable is what we’ve come to expect from Dreamworks (Croods, Trolls, Boss Baby, How to Train Your Dragon, etc), however, what is new here is the setting, with the streets of modern Shanghai and regional China, along with The Everest, offering something that we have not seen before in such a mainstream animated film, making the story in turns engrossing and wondrous. The same applies to the wholly Asian cast of characters, portrayed just like any Western character would have been, with little cultural stereotyping or clichés. The magical aspects in the film don’t quite match the transcendence of classics such as Kubo and the Two Strings – perhaps they should have considered less Coldplay and more class, but you can’t have everything.

Ultimately, the core message about leaving nature alone more than makes up for any shortcoming, and what you get is a film that reaches close to peak entertainment for kids and adults alike.

 
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T is for H Is For Happiness Teaser Trailer

Premiering at MIFF in August, this new Australian family film stars Daisy Axon as a quirky kid with a wild imagination, and a complicated family life that is played out by the likes of Richard Roxburgh, Emma Booth and Joel Jackson. The supporting cast includes Deborah Mailman and adopted Aussie, Miriam Margolyes. Director is first timer John Sheedy, script by Lisa Hoppe, adapting the book My Life As An Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg.
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Asterix: The Secret of the Magic Potion

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Author Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo’s Asterix comic books are iconic not only in their native France and Belgium, but have literally travelled the world, with plenty of adults in Australia growing up reading the English translations.

A series of live action films, with Christian Clavier as the title character and Gerard Depardieu as his bulky buddy Obelix, were box office hits in French speaking territories but hardly travelled, whilst an animated franchise was launched with 2014’s Asterix and Obelix: Mansion of the Gods, and was a massive hit, especially in France. The same filmmakers return with a follow up, an original story this time (as opposed to a comic book adaptation) with The Secret of the Magic Potion.

In the tradition of the comic books, the adaptation into English is seamless, with puntastic character names – Getafix, Demonix, Vitalstastix, Tofungus and our fave, Cakemix – offering passing laughs as the full tilt action takes hold.

The story devised for the film takes many of the series’ favourite motifs (magic potion for one) and channels them into a narrative that sees the holder of the magic potion recipe, the ageing Getafix, fall from a tree and decide that he needs to find a gifted young Druid to pass on the recipe to. Escorted by Asterix, Obelix and Dogmatix, and not-so-secretly followed by the entire village who need the potion to ward off those dastardly Romans, the group soon encounter the evil Demonix, a Druid who has turned to the dark side, and who alerts Julius Caesar and the Roman army about the mission and the possibility of discovering the secret of the magic potion.

The 3D animation is never less than impressive in adapting the original characters into moveable form. There are reverential references to the original 2D comic, and some lovely touches such as the use of a map to illustrate the countryside, something that was always a feature of the comics. Like the comic, the main source of the comedy is the slapstick derived from the use of the magic potion and the buffoonery of the Romans, the villagers and particularly, Obelix.

It’s all in good fun and moves along at a brisk pace; almost too brisk as there are aspects you will struggle to grasp before it moves on to the next scene. A particular subplot involving wild pigs, in particular, may make sense upon repeat viewing. Which is a kind way of saying that the main pleasure derived from this entry may be in nostalgia. Parents will be able to take their little ones to enjoy a bit of silly buggers for 100 minutes, whilst you recall why these characters struck a chord with you in the first place. This time around, unfortunately, it will not have the same impact.

 

 
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Aladdin

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Few films in recent memory have managed to maintain a level of potential audience scepticism like the remake to Disney’s Aladdin. With every new piece of marketing that became public, it somehow grew less and less appealing at every turn. And bear in mind that it started with the idea that Guy Ritchie should direct a musical, as if his collaborations with Madonna weren’t enough of a sign that he shouldn’t. This film could only go in one of two directions with that in mind: It could either be a pleasant surprise that sticks to the mostly-positive turn-out for Disney’s recent remakes, or it could be a trainwreck that ranks among Disney’s recent worst. Sadly, this is the latter.

More so than any of the other remakes thus far, this film is hurt the most by the transition from traditional animation to live-action. All of the personality and expressiveness and just plain fun of the original is sorely lacking here, managing to make a screen flooded with Bollywood colours feel drab and uninteresting. Where there should be wonder, there is CGI serving as the watered-down substitute. Where there should be frisson-creating music, there is feeble lip service to the music of the region. And where there should be a fun and exciting comedic presence with the Genie, we get Will Smith doing his best Kazaam impression.

In keeping with Disney’s M.O. of late, the intent behind this film is to fix something that was present in the original, in this case being the agency of characters that aren’t in the title. However, much like when Bill Condon attempted the same with Beauty And The Beast, raising supporting characters comes at the expense of others.

Naomi Scott as Jasmine has been given a more wilful presence, akin to someone who could foreseeably be the ruler of a kingdom, and Smith as the Genie has been more humanised and even given a love interest. But even with an extra 40 minutes in running time, Ritchie and co-writer John August (Frankenweenie) somehow weren’t able to juggle the character boosting without turning Mena Massoud’s Aladdin into a footnote. The attempts at juggling even result in a gaping plot hole, making the filmmakers look like they’re unable to count up to 3 accurately.

With everything being considerably toned-down, including the legendarily-energetic Genie who basically made the original into the classic it is today (and whose actor got screwed over by the House of Mouse in the process), there’s nothing here that makes this remake feel like it has a reason to be. Even the Beauty And The Beast remake, as misguided as it is, still has a stronger raison d’etre than this. The only reason this doesn’t turn out worse than B&TB is because this doesn’t actively hurt the original through sheer proximity to itself. Let’s just hope that Disney doesn’t try for a Return Of Jafar remake anytime in the near future; they’ve done enough damage to this IP already.

 
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Louise Alston: Kicking Goals

For her third feature film, Back of the Net, the filmmaker took a pragmatic, backseat position in the process – something rarely done in director-driven Australian productions.
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Dumbo

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With Disney well and truly in their postmodern era, bringing back just about every one of their animated classics to be remade in varying forms of live-action over the last several years, their latest ostensibly should serve as just the latest in a recent trend. Take something about the original, whether it’s the characters, where the narrative is focused, or even just translating the original directly, and re-examine it with a fresh perspective; it started with Burton’s own Alice In Wonderland and it persists to this day. However, this film serves as a different kind of examination; not of narrative or character, but of the company that brought them to life.

Director Tim Burton has made an entire career out of telling the stories of talented outsiders being exploited, so to find him at the helm here is very on-brand. And sure enough, he and DOP Ben Davis (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Captain Marvel) bring a sense of Disney wonder and grandeur to the classic story of a flying circus elephant. The CGI work is about on par with Wonderland, in that it is quite iffy in places, but they at least do the title character justice by maintaining the inescapable cuteness that is Dumbo.

Not that Dumbo really ends up being the character to focus on here. Nor is it Colin Farrell’s war veteran or his wonkily-performing children (Nico Parker as his daughter is way too stiff to be given this much dialogue). Instead, it’s the villain, Michael Keaton’s V.A. Vandevere, who ends up drawing the most attention.

He is shown as an entrepreneur and showman who buys out the circus owned by Danny De Vito’s Max Medici (it’s like the Batman Returns reunion we never realised we needed), absorbing the company and its properties into a larger fold, which includes a gigantic theme park where “the impossible is possible”. He is also presented as someone whose want for power grows so disastrously that he ends up destroying everything he set out to build. It’s difficult to look at this and not think of how this reflects on Disney as a company, given their own practices along with their recent acquisition of Fox.

Burton and an uncharacteristically subtle script by Transformers scribe Ehren Kruger, essentially create art from dissent behind the main lines, showing a cautionary tale of what happens when monopolistic capitalism goes unchecked and who suffers as a result. It furthers Burton’s oeuvre by going beyond who is being exploited, namely Dumbo and the other circus ‘freaks’, and dives right into who’s doing it. It’s still wondrous, but it’s a wondrousness that is tempered by who is presenting the performance both in and out of the universe.

Whether this falls under critique, irony, or just plain hypocrisy remains to be seen, but with the current cultural climate, it still shows a commendable amount of brass in everyone involved to take aim at a target this massive, and under their own banner at that.

 
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The Kid Who Would be King

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With a nod to Rudyard Kipling, his own Attack the Block and the nostalgia of ‘80s Amblin movies (which infiltrates every other family film these days – made by filmmakers who grew up on a diet of Back to the Future and Goonies), writer/director Joe Cornish rewrites Arthurian legend in a kids’ film that offers plenty of delights but doesn’t quite package them together in a way that is wholly satisfying; hello 2 hours running time!

Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis – there are flashes where you think that Andy Serkis is doing more of his acclaimed mocap work due to characteristics inherited from dad) is a nerdy high school kid, living with his single mum, loving science experiments and hanging out with his bullied mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo). When he is visited by a young Merlin (Imrie stealing every scene he is in; with Patrick Stewart playing the older, seemingly drunker version of the character) and realises that he is the only one that can raise Excalibur, it comes to pass that Alex has 5 days to save the world from Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) by secretly traveling cross country, rallying the troops and winning the day!

The Kid Who Would be King actually starts with a hardly subtle rallying cry that the world is being taken over by dictators; you know, like BlacKkKlansman ended, but for kids…. However, this tangent doesn’t really go anywhere apart from setting up our hero’s journey. Maybe in the sequel Alex will take on Kim Jong-un, Putin and Trump; however, here it is an origin story of a boy in suburban London who discovers that he is heir to the Arthurian legend and literally rewrites the books in the process.

As per his previous film, Attack the Block, Joe Cornish locates the fantastic among the ordinary; in this case suburbia and public schooling with the supernatural/mythological. He casts widely, with all ethnicities and genders covered when it comes to diversity on screen. This results in humour, but unfortunately little wonderment.

Aesthetically, the introduction of magic – both light and dark – into the ordinary world is impressive, but dramatically, Cornish cannot make us care enough in our hero’s journey. For such a simple story, it is narratively too expansive, and at two hours length, it is always 30 minutes behind the audience’s natural pacing for such a tale. The villains are never genuinely threatening either, and there’s a key decapitation scene that plays out falsely, and hardly appropriate for the film’s target audience.

All of that being said, there will be kids in the audience who will find this original material new and exciting, they will relate to our young protagonists, and it will encourage them to read up about Arthurian legends. They may even end up making films in 20 years’ time inspired by seeing The Kid Who Would be King in their youth.