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.
Aaaah, what this could have been. Deadpool 2 trimmed, repackaged, and reheated as, um, a family film? The foulmouthed Merc With A Mouth forced to keep it clean? A tourniquet applied to the film’s eye-popping levels of bloodletting? That’s one bizarre experiment we’d like to see! If only that’s what Once Upon A Deadpool was! Sadly, this is even less of a “new film” than fans may have been led to expect…it’s literally Deadpool 2 with the F-bombs deactivated and the moments of supremely nasty violence excised, and then wrapped in a new – and admittedly brilliant – framing device.
In the film’s mega meta conceit, Ryan Reynolds’ fast-talking, pop culture quoting super-anti-hero, Deadpool, kidnaps the now adult Fred Savage, tapes him to a bed, and forces him to re-enact his famous framing device scenes from Rob Reiner’s much-loved 1987 cult classic, The Princess Bride. But this time, it’s Deadpool reading the story of Deadpool 2 rather than Peter Falk trotting out that family favourite’s far more genteel fairy tale. The scenes between Reynolds and Savage – which are cut throughout the film – are snappy and hilarious, delivering sneaking gut-punches not only to the Deadpool films themselves, but to the superhero genre in totem. We won’t spoil any of the gags here because, well, they’re the only things that can really be spoilt in Once Upon A Deadpool.
If you’ve already seen Deadpool 2, then you’ve seen Once Upon A Deadpool too…it’s basically an old-style “in-flight entertainment” bowdlerisation of the film, and what’s the appeal in that? If the makers had actually gone all the way and literally turned Deadpool into a family film (by, say, incorporating footage and outtakes from both Deadpool movies, and then messing with the dialogue to Frankenstein it into something “new” altogether), that would have been a true metafictional feat. As it is, this rehash sits in a tedious no-man’s-land: the retained gags about child molesting, rape whistles, and prison sex mean that you can’t safely take the kids, while the cleaned up action is far less enthralling than the balls-out slug-fests of the original. A Christmas bauble for only the most hardcore of fans, Once Upon A Deadpool is a massive disappointment, and a major pop cultural misstep for one of the savviest franchises around.
For a little over a decade, Michael Bay built a billion-dollar empire on treating his audience like children. In his eyes, all the people want to see are boobs, explosions, and jokes about boobs and explosions. He has become, for many, a symbol for just how little Hollywood actually thinks of its customers, capable only of money-grubbing cynicism.
Enter Travis Knight, president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, director of the phenomenal Kubo And The Two Strings, and the human that this series has been needing for a very long time now. If there’s one thing Knight knows, it’s how to make inanimate objects feel like they are just as full of life as any flesh-and-blood human. And through Bumblebee and his interactions with the perpetually-on-the-edge-of-seventeen Hailee Steinfeld, we get a very tender and emotional display of that in action. Through sheer body language and sampled speech, Bumblebee becomes something worth caring about, worth crying with, and worth sharing victories with.
He’s also someone worth seeing in a fire fight, and this is another result of Knight’s involvement. Stop-motion animation is a gruelling and time-consuming process, one that requires a metric tonne of patience to see through. The kind of patience that, unlike Bay, allows Knight to give the audience time to breathe between action scenes so it doesn’t just blur together into a sprawling behemoth of incoherency. It maintains the CGI fidelity of the other films, one of the few consistent high points for the series, and applies it to fight scenes that may lack a certain bombastic punch but balances that out with plenty of emotional hutzpah. They work because we care about who’s involved.
But more than anything else, what Knight and writer Christina Hodson do that warrants the most praise is that they actually have an idea of who their audience is. The film is soaked in ‘80s nostalgia, showing a lot of reverence for the era that gave birth to Transformers and so many other toy-licensed cartoons, referencing everything from ALF to The Breakfast Club to make for cheesy but undeniably fun moments. These work nicely to counteract how sombre this film can get, with the relationship between Bumblebee and Steinfeld’s Charlie a surrogate for grief and adolescent woes and all those other things that most would wish to forget.
Much like with Kubo, Knight trusts that his audience, young and old, can accept the darker aspects of life and death, up to and including how it is perfectly fine to not feel fine. Then again, even without that context, being handed a book titled ‘Smile For A Change’ will never not be patronising, as happens to Charlie early on.
For the first time in over 10 years, we have a Transformers movie worth watching; a fun, well-acted, exciting and even emotional piece of popcorn action.
There have been six Spider-Man movies since 2002, seven if you include Venom – not to mention Spidey’s various smaller roles in the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War – so it’s safe to say that the web-slinger has been well represented on the cinema screen. Taking that notion one step further, it’s perhaps fair to say your friendly neighbourhood arachnid chap is perilously close to becoming over-exposed. It’s something of a miracle, then, that the animated Sony film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feels like not only a decent addition to the spider-library, but one of the best flicks in the canon.
The plot focuses on young Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who, through a plot contrivance that would be a little mean to spoil, finds himself saddled with a 40-something slacker Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) from another dimension.
Dealing with his very new powers, a plot by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) that may result in the destruction of reality and yet more alternate dimension spider-folk including, among others, Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Noir (Nicolas Cage!) and motherflipping Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) – not to mention his awkward relationship with overbearing father, Jefferson Davis (Bryan Tyree Henry) – it would be fair to say poor old Miles has a lot to deal with.
In lesser hands this embarrassment of plot riches would swiftly become confusing noise, but happily screenwriters Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman keep the tone light and breezy, with enough self-awareness to have you chuckling through some of the more absurd sections and enough heart to make you genuinely care about the massive cast of endearing misfits.
And all of the above is before we even talk about the animation! Put simply, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is quite possibly the best looking animated superhero film of all time. The juxtaposition of animation styles, comic book iconography and kaleidoscopic collages of vivid colour imbues every damn frame with a jaw-dropping level of detail and artistry that is impossible to look away from. This is the kind of creativity and effort a good animated movie should have and will hopefully raise the bar for some of the lesser entries out there (we’re looking pointedly at you, DC).
Ultimately Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a two hour-long explosion of joy and colour, brimming with laughter and heart, and the kind of film even the most superhero agnostic will adore.
Shakespeare, Marvel, Christie, now the actor/producer/director turns to Eoin Colfer’s best-selling books and a potential franchise starter for Disney. We caught up with Branagh on the set of Artemis Fowl.