Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson; 2017)

This week’s review is going to be different than my normal.  When I review a film I assume that the people coming to my site have not yet seen it and are reading what I have to say in an attempt to decide whether it is a film worthy of their time and money.  This is not the case with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Since the majority of the world’s population is going to see this film no matter what reviews say, this week’s write up will be less review and more deconstruction.  I intend to talk about parts of the film in far more detail than I usually do and without trying to avoid talking about surprises and plot points which means there will be major, surprise ruining spoilers ahead.  I will write my usual Final Verdict section first without any spoilers, and from there on out do not read any farther unless you have already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi or you don’t care at all about spoilers.

Final Verdict:  Star Wars: The Last Jedi very nearly, but not quite, manages to both take the Star Wars series of movies in a new direction while also remaining the Star Wars which enraptured us from 1977 – 1983.  Almost.  The film never quite has the guts to fully commit its bold changes to the Star Wars Universe’s usual moral tropes nor its strict adherence to the typical Hero’s Journey, but it does explore a less black and white view of morality often and maturely enough to raise eyebrows in a positive way for those who want a more modern Star Wars and in a negative way for those who find the white hat/black hat dichotomy the strongest part of Star Wars’ appeal.  The Last Jedi should appeal, and therefore I recommend it, to most audiences except for those who have never seen a Star Wars movie before, but I don’t see many coming away with it as their favorite Star Wars film.

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Establishing a universe is more than writing a story

Arguably the biggest challenge the makers of the new series of Star Wars films face is establishing a coherent universe in a series that really didn’t need one before.  We didn’t need to know how the Empire came to power, who the founders of the Rebellion were, nor what the relationships of one planetary system was to another in order for the original Star Wars trilogy to work.  We just needed to have characters we could invest ourselves in and an exciting, engaging story.  In fact, once George Lucas decided to start telling a story which needed to involve politics and a larger galactic timeline the seams of the universe Star Wars is set in not only started showing but also unraveling.

A lot has happened in the larger storyline which wasn’t created with an abundance of detail in mind, but now that we have a context of 8 films plus television shows plus a plethora of novels and even a few video games which take place in this galaxy far away questions which were unimportant before are necessary to establishing a decent amount of suspension of disbelief and show that these new films are an actual story and not just a cynical cash grab via nostalgia and toys.  After The Force Awakens, we were left with many questions.  Who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents and why is she such a natural at using the Force (and anything else she puts her mind to)?  Where did The First Order come from and how did they rise to power and crush the government created by the Rebel Alliance so quickly?  Who is Snoke (Andy Serkis), and why had we never heard of him in any of the other films before now?  What caused Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to turn to the Dark Side of the Force?  Why did Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) go into hiding?

When you’re making a trilogy, most understand that not only do you not need to tell everything in the first installment but it’s actually best if you hold quite a bit back so you can create tension in the mystery and entertainment value from the reveal.  Since you want to establish your story and characters in the first installment and bring the story to its climactic finish in the third, most of these reveals will take place in the second installment.  The Last Jedi does hold to that pattern for the most part but it fails to answer a handful of important questions and many of the answers we get are at best unsatisfying and occasionally infuriating.

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We learn, for instance, that Rey’s parents were no one special.  They were just scavengers who abandoned her on Jakku.  There’s nothing wrong with that explanation, in fact, it’s rather nice that the makers of the film didn’t feel a need to tie her into the grander storyline through a shoehorned in explanation and went with something believable and realistic.  If that is her origin, though, how do we explain her extraordinary number of talents?  She could have learned to repair a starship and how to fight from her time scavenging, but how did she become an expert pilot?  How does she speak Wookie?  Or droid?  If she’s such a natural at using the Force, why did it never manifest itself in the many, many years she was struggling to eke out an existence before the start of the film?  The answer we’re given to Rey’s parentage is satisfying in that it is not the typical grandiose origin we expect, but it’s entirely unsatisfying in that it raises just as many questions as it answers, and in this case, those questions are not due to a mystery but due to sloppy character writing in The Force Awakens.

The reveal of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side is far more satisfying.  In fact, the two short scenes which deal with his turn are far more effective and engaging than three entire films dealing with Anakin Skywalker’s turn were.  We see his story from both Luke’s perspective and from Ren’s himself, and this sort of mini “Rashomon” shows how a character can become a Sith with far more nuance and true characterization than anything Star Wars has done before.  Luke senses Snoke’s influence in Kylo Ren, and in a moment of panic and doubt decides its best to kill Ren before he kills everyone else.  But, Ren wakes up at the last second, manages to defend himself, and Luke’s rash decision causes Ren to do exactly what Luke feared he would.  This shows that heroes in this universe are subject to panic and bad decisions, though we have seen that in good guys who aren’t necessarily the heroes before in Star Wars films, but more importantly it shows that the villains in a Star Wars story can have recognizable realistic motivations for their wrongdoing.  Sure, Snoke metaphorically whispered in Ren’s ear and planted some seeds of doubt, but it was Luke’s attack, his betrayal, which actually turned Ren.

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Examining the storylines

 The primary focus of the film is the relationships between the users of The Force.  In an obvious reference to The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi starts with Rey seeking training from Luke which Luke is dead set against due to his past with Kylo Ren.  Shortly after we learn that much to their surprise Kylo Ren and Rey have some sort of mental link with each other through which they can see each other, but only each other and not their surroundings, and through which they can communicate.  It’s an odd situation which doesn’t entirely work, but it does accomplish something very important to The Last Jedi‘s plot, themes, and tone which is that the primary protagonist and primary antagonist can relate to and truly understand their opposite.  This link means that they are not just opposing forces needing to get the other out of the way to achieve a goal, but that they are mirror images who see in the other what they are seeking in themselves.  This is even more nuanced and three dimensional than the relationship Darth Vader and Luke had and it’s accomplished without resorting to familial relations and without a need for one of the characters to be ignorant of their ties.  We take this journey along with them, and that makes for a more organic and multi-faceted relationship than we are used to between hero and villain particularly in a Star Wars movie.

Luke and Snoke are also mirror images of one another in the film due to the fact that both have at one point been masters to Kylo Ren, one for the Light Side of the Force and one for the Dark.  This mirrored relationship is not as nuanced and important as that between Kylo Ren and Rey, though.  This is partially due to the fact that these two are more traditional Star Wars hero and villain, but the primary reason this relationship fails is that Snoke himself is such a nothing character with no obvious connection to any of the heroes in the story.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that with no explanation of where he was during any of the other films, where he came from, how he came to lead The First Order or any other background of any kind other than he’s Kylo Ren’s master, Snoke is less a character and more a simplistic plot device.

The way the confrontations play out between these four is also highly uneven in quality.  Snoke, once again, is nothing but a mouthpiece for stereotypical villainous dialogue –  threatening and glowering but never actually doing anything which drives the story.  When Kylo Ren kills Snoke it was so obviously telegraphed that it would have been far more surprising had Kylo Ren attacked Rey as Snoke was continuously monologuing he would.

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However, the confrontation immediately after between Rey and Kylo Ren largely makes up for the disappointment with Snoke.  This is where we see the two main characters recognizing in the other traits they need.  Ren killed Snoke where Rey couldn’t have and it was the fact that he is steeped in the Dark Side which allowed him to do it.  In Rey Ren sees the balance he needs to keep from losing himself entirely to his rage.  In earlier films, the “join me” invitation is one which comes from a tactical power grab.  Darth Vader and the Emperor get a powerful subordinate to help them in their quest for more power, but they are never prepared to make nor view their invitee as an equal.  This offer from Kylo Ren to Rey adds a new twist to this now familiar Star Wars trope.  You can tell he does view Rey as an equal, as a true partner, and this offer to join him is less a power grab and more a warped marriage proposal.  This is a great twist which gives new depth to the Star Wars Universe and its characters as we glimpse the fact that balance between the Light and the Dark does not necessarily mean an even conflict but can instead mean the two sides learning to combine their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Finally for this storyline is the climactic confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke.  This is a highlight of the film cinematically and dramatically, but a lowlight thematically. Since the two major plotlines come together at this time, I’ll speak on that after I talk about the other major plot in The Last Jedi.

The other major storyline is that of the Resistance and primarily of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).  I found this to be the more interesting storyline of the two as here the writers had the guts to flip the usual Hero’s Journey story on its ear and also had the guts to commit to it unlike the primary storyline involving the Force users.  This is a subplot which seems to be the usual impetuous hero comes out on top by disobeying orders and showing his superiors that his way may not be by the book, but it is the best.  As we continue down the path Finn, Rose, and Poe (with BB-8 along for the ride) decide to take, though, we see that what they are doing just keeps making things worse and worse and the eventual payoff we’re expecting doesn’t appear to be coming into reach, and ultimately we learn that the more practical and less flashy plan the leaders of the Resistance came up with would have worked, but because Poe and Finn decided to buck command and be heroes, the Resistance is all but destroyed.  That is so un-Star Wars like as to be completely unexpected and is the real heart of The Last Jedi, in my opinion.  The second act of a trilogy is meant to leave the heroes at their lowest point, but it’s rare that that low point is reached due to their own arrogance and incompetence.  That is exactly what happens here and leaves room for a redemption storyline for the characters who are not Force users in Episode IX.

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The opening of the film in which Poe single-handedly confronts a First Order fleet in his X-Wing sets up this dynamic as his flyboy antics lead him to call in an entire bomber wing against the wisdom of his commanders, and while the target he wanted to destroy does get taken out, the Resistance loses nearly every pilot involved in the attack including every single bomber in their fleet.  This gets Poe demoted, but it doesn’t reign in his cockiness so when most of the Resistance leadership is killed (and Leia (Carrie Fisher) put into the hospital in a scene which is pure fan service and very out of place with the film’s overall tone) Poe refuses to listen to the deputy leaders thinking himself far more clever and instead ropes Finn and new character Rose into a desperate plan to save the few remaining members of the Resistance.

The actual implementation of the plan inside the casino is the weakest element of this storyline as not only is it tonally all over the place but also visually chaotic.  Finn and Rose seem absolutely lost as they try to take in everything around them and figure out how to find the master code breaker, and unfortunately, the audience shares that state of mind with them.  I imagine this was intended to be the most humorous scene in the film, but most of the comedy on display here falls flat (a lot of the film’s humor does as it seems to be aimed squarely at children, young stupid children, for the most part) and the attempt to make the setting look like a large, bustling playground for the rich just ends up becoming a dizzyingly busy crowd of CGI effects thrown at the screen.

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After the bit in the casino, and things calm down, the storyline really gets down to business again as we see Finn and Rose in their desperation to be heroes make bad decision after bad decision including trusting the enigmatic DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who ends up being one of the most mercenary characters in the Star Wars universe who isn’t a straight-up gangster or bounty hunter.  While DJ was definitely entertaining, he was another inconsistency in the film’s story.  I loved the fact that he was interested only in whomever could pay him the most, but seemed to want that person to be one of the good guys.  He seemed to have a political awareness and pragmatism rarely seen in epic stories and never before in a Star Wars film, but he was also so incredibly skilled and well equipped you had to wonder how he found himself inside a cell in the first place, especially since he demonstrated he could escape instantly at any time he wanted.

The inevitable capture during their mission to crack the First Order’s tracking system and subsequent betrayal by DJ is the ultimate payoff of this section of the film.  Finn’s confrontation with Captain Phasma is so disappointing that it would probably have been best not in the film at all, but aside from that the payoff of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) being discovered by the First Order directly due to the arrogance and impetuousness of Poe and Finn is the most powerful moment in the film from a thematic standpoint.  The villain’s to date haven’t been that organized, intelligent, nor impressive.  The heroes fail not because the villains beat them, but because the heroes are undone by the foolhardiness of some of their own.

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The climactic scene

After those few left in the Resistance make their way to the salt planet Crait they are joined by Luke, Rey, Chewbacca, and the attack force led by Kylo Ren.  The concept of a planet made up of red salt covered with snow makes for some truly spectacular visuals.  The red and white powder being thrown into the air by the fast-moving vehicles and the impact of weapons fire is reminiscent of blood on a battlefield and makes for a gritty visceral feel you can’t normally get in a film made with a younger audience in mind.  Add to that the sense of scale and motion between the gigantic slow moving weapons used by The First Order versus the speedy but small and decrepit vehicles of the resistance followed by Luke standing on his own against an army of AT-AT Walkers and  we are treated to one of the most visually spectacular scenes ever put in a Star Wars film.

The resolution of the final conflict is also satisfying as it comes down to a battle of psychology.  By projecting his image onto the planet as Rey helps the survivors in the Resistance escape, Luke keeps Kylo Ren’s focus exactly where he wants it to be, on Luke, and plays off of Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable anger to distract him just long enough that the true objective of keeping the Resistance alive for a little while longer can be secured.  It’s also a pretty great payoff to the audience when we realize that Kylo Ren has been played and he was defeated not by greater power or skill, but by his own emotional weakness combined with the cunning of his opponent.  The only problem I had with the resolution of the final conflict was wondering why we had never seen a Jedi do something similar before with the Force.  Once again, creating a consistent universe containing numerous films, television shows, and books is far more difficult than creating a single contained story.

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Finally, we end with the death of Luke.  This was a strange choice which seemed to come from nowhere to me.  It seems almost a given that he will appear as a ghost in the next film, so unless I am completely wrong in thinking that and Mark Hamill is still contracted to appear in the next film I see no dramatic reason why he should just die alone far away from anyone he knows and apparently due to stress rather than an unnatural cause.  The wisdom of this choice will hopefully become apparent in Episode IX, but it certainly isn’t now.

So, in the end, The Last Jedi is one of the better installments in the Star Wars universe.  It still has a few too many poorly handled elements such as humor which doesn’t connect, fan service which is more distracting than pertinent, and clunky dialogue to be an honestly great movie like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but there are some glimpses here into true genius and talent.   Hopefully, next time around the cast and crew can continue their exploration of more realistic themes but without chickening out and returning to the standard black and white morality of the Star Wars films of the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coco (Unkrich & Molina; 2017)

Pixar’s latest Coco is the story of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a Mexican boy who wants to be a musician but was born into a family of music-hating cobblers.   His long dead idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) always told people that they needed to seize their moment, but when Miguel decides to do just that by showing what a great musician he is in front of everybody at a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival he instead becomes cursed and is sent to the Land of the Dead himself alongside a stray dog named Dante.

Since Toy Story in 1995, Pixar Studios have been the masters of bringing us formulaic but hilarious and heartwarming family entertainment with an emphasis on the family.  The standard Pixar story is one we’ve become incredibly familiar with – fish out of water characters are forced into and ultimately embrace something outside of their normal comfort zone and learn a lesson which makes them a better part of their community and a happier person – and, they have done it so well over and over again that except for a handful of missteps they are some of the most beloved family films ever put to screen.  They always manage to skew the familiar just enough that our brains don’t ever have to put too much effort into being entertained, but we also manage to come away with what seems like a new, original perspective every time.

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Coco is quintessential Pixar.  By using Mexican folklore, and in particular their holiday and lore surrounding the afterlife, they give us the framework needed to make the familiar family-oriented story something new as well as finally giving Hispanic culture a much needed big budget major release representation.  The ties between familial generations and a passion for music give us the story element we need to relate to, and the spirit guides, flower petal bridges, and rules of the great beyond are what give Coco its spectacle and wonder.

The animation on display in Coco is not the best we’ve seen from the studio, but it is impressive in how much thought the animators put into the details of the afterlife and its color palette is at times a true wonder.  Having to work with primarily skeletal figures for the major characters, however, does tend to hamstring variety as when every character is a skeleton with eyeballs, the only real differentiating factors are height and clothing.  This makes for an animated film in which the best animation is often in the background as that is where the artists can truly let their creativity loose.

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Coco‘s script is a heartwarming one, but aside from a neat bit of writing prestidigitation in which they change the film’s message part way through, it is all quite predictable.  It’s a fantastic script for children who may not have seen these particular plot twists over and over again and therefore will actually be surprised, but the adults taking the kids to the movie will have to rely more on the humor and charm of the movie over its story for their entertainment value.

Final verdict:  This review is a little shorter than normal because Coco is a Pixar movie through and through and most already know the drill.  You’ve seen the story over and over before, but the Pixar variations on the theme are so well handled per their usual craftsmanship that you can overlook and possibly even enjoy the film more despite that.  Coco will make you laugh, cry, and smile and it will make you do all three exactly when they want you to.  Sure, it’s a manipulative film, all Pixar films are, but with master manipulators like these at the helm it’s a pleasure to allow them to do so.

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P.S. The short film before Coco, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, was merely so-so.  More an advertisement for the upcoming Frozen 2 than anything else, it really didn’t have the usual low key pizzazz the Pixar opener’s usually do.  But, it does have excellent animation and Idina Menzel’s gorgeous vocals, so it gets at least a bit of a pass.  You have to watch it to get to the main event, anyway, so may as well enjoy it.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)

In 2014, Marvel Studios took a pretty big chance, which ended up having a huge payoff, in bringing us Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel property which was largely unknown even to comic book fans, let alone those who had never picked up a comic in their life.  In Guardians of the Galaxy movie fans got a fast paced space adventure with incredibly charismatic characters and just the right amounts of adventure and humor.  It was the best “Star Wars” movie since The Empire Strikes Back (I went there).  Three years later, and the Guardians are back, minus Groot but plus Baby Groot, except this time we already know and love these characters and are familiar with their schtick and how they fit into the Marvel Universe, so can Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 have the same impact as the original?

This time around, the characters are just as, if not more, charming as in the original.  Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Star-Lord, man) is still the leader of the Guardians with Zoe Saldana as Gamora, his right hand bad ass assassin, Dave Bautista as Drax the overly literal Destroyer, Baby Groot voiced once again by Vin Diesel, and Sean Gunn and Bradely Cooper both working to bring weapons expert Rocket (don’t call him a Raccoon) to life.  Michael Rooker is also back as Yondu in an expanded role from the first Guardians of the Galaxy, and he deserves special mention as he and Dave Bautista are, in my opinion, the two true stand outs in the cast. Last time around, while the Guardians did ultimately end up as a complete group, there was still some definite pairing up going on with Quill and Gamora being one team, Rocket and Groot being a second, and Drax being the unfortunate fifth wheel.  This time around, the relationships are much more advanced with every character having quality time with each of the others and now very established ties to each other, making their interactions far more dynamic than the first time around – most of the time, but I’ll get to that in a few paragraphs.

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The visuals are of the quality we’ve come to expect from Marvel, with very proficient camera work and excellent special effects even if neither is ever terribly inventive.  The art direction on display, however, is definitely unique.  We are shown that the galaxy is a diverse place with equal parts ’60s psychedellia, dystopian grunge, and medieval retro pastiche making up its reaches.  The settings don’t always make a lot of sense, even within the confines of the story, but they are always creative and eye catching.  Even the opening and closing credits hold onto those creative and eye catching visual elements, with the opening credits being one of the most visually dynamic pieces in the entire film and a great way to open things up.

The script is well done with its dialogue being its stand out element.  The plot does have a few pacing issues unlike the first film, and the methods used to move it along can get a tad clunky, but overall it’s a story that does its job of drawing you in and raptly holding your attention, so even the few lulls aren’t obvious in the moment.  The dialogue, though, is the best I think has ever been written in a Marvel film.  Every single line is full of character, is crisp and entertaining, and this is by far the funniest Marvel film made to date with quip after quip, joke after joke, I was laughing so hard I had tears in the corners of my eyes for Guardian of the Galaxy, Vol. 2‘s entire running time, and I have never really found Marvel films quotable before despite how entertaining they are in general, but I’ve found myself wanting to quote many lines from this one, virtually biting my tongue even as I write this.

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This, however, leads me to the films largest flaw, and the flaw large enough that it keeps me from ranking it among Marvel’s best.  Can a movie be too funny?  The jokes are non-stop, one after the other, often verging into straight on slapstick territory, yet the film has a lot to say about familial themes.  Every character in the film deals with daddy issues on some level, with the exception of Baby Groot, and we see the Guardians and their various acquaintances playing the parts of a family unit in the film and all that entails.  It’s the point of the movie, showing when a family is at its strongest and when it can hold you back.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a lot to say about family, and it could say it well, except that it undercuts every serious moment in the film save one with a joke.  Sure the jokes work, but Gunn and the cast did not know when to let the humor go for a minute and let a poignant moment sink in.  I will say, though, that the part of me that’s more analyst and less film fan finds it fascinating that the movie’s main weakness is also its greatest strength.

To those who are wondering how this movie specifically plays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it can be seen without knowing much about the rest of the movies Marvel has created, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is practically a stand alone entity.  The only references to other films in the Marvel canon are to the original Guardians of the Galaxy, and even those are more character references and not needed to understand the story going on here.  The future world building that goes on in most Marvel films also seems to be absent here, though it is possible they are just more subtle about it than is often the case and we will see ripples from this movie in future Marvel installments, but importantly even if that is the case it is never distracting nor even obvious.  Anyone can see this movie without having seen another Marvel film in their life and still enjoy it just as much as someone who has seen every Marvel Studios movie to date.

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Final verdict:  Marvel films are always entertaining, they have yet to release an outright dud, and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, while not being one of Marvel’s greatest, is still excellent and continues the tradition of high quality we now have come to take for granted from Marvel.  While Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may take the humor a bit too far at times, it is still Marvel’s funniest movie to date, never, ever letting up on the laughs while also giving us plenty of eye popping action taking place in eye popping settings.  You will be entertained, and you may even gain a little insight into family while you’re at it.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is highly recommended by yours truly, go make Marvel and Disney even richer than they already are, they keep earning it.

 

 

 

Beauty and the Beast (Condon; 2017)

From 1989 to 1994 Disney brought us four of their most revered classics (and, The Rescuers Down Under) all four of which were based on a classic tale hundreds of years old.  1989 started the Disney renaissance (it hadn’t had a truly classic animated film for decades before this) with The Little Mermaid based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name.  The original story was published in 1837, and so was the newest of the four tales they were to adapt over these five years, and focused on an unnamed mermaid who wanted to be human and marry a prince, and that is really where the similarities between the two stories end.  Disney “Disneyfied” the story by adding music, sidekicks, and by giving the story an action packed happy ending complete with a giant monster to battle.

1991’s Beauty and the Beast was more similar to its original fairy tale originally penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, but it was still Disneyfied in its own way.  While the original fairy tale did have the unnamed beauty falling in love with the beast at the end, there was no sideplot involving a jealous suitor and an angry mob attacking the castle, it was a story only about a couple overcoming their own prejudices and falling in love with one another.

Aladdin was the 1992 output from Disney studios, and is the one probably most removed from its original plot, but also the most improved through the Disneyfication process.  The original story from the 18th century is a somewhat unstructured story following the adventures of an arabic street urchin who does find a magic lamp with a genie, does marry a princess, and does encounter an evil sorcerer, but the specifics surrounding all those events greatly differ from the original story and the Disney reworking of the story did manage to add structure and humor missing from the original.

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Finally in 1994, Disney brought us Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” via the vehicle of The Lion King.  In the Disney version we are given a happy ending in which only the villain dies rather than nearly every major (and many minor) character in the story, plus they turned the story into “Hamlet: The Musical”, and as bad an idea as all of this sounds they actually pulled it off and gave the world a version of the bard which younger audiences will love even if the message of the story is exactly the opposite of the original.

All of these stories, except Aladdin, lost a little something in the translation, though they did all gain something else in return.  The Little Mermaid completely changed in theme and tone, but it gained optimism and excitement.  Beauty and The Beast lost time spent on the budding romance, but gained action and conflict, and The Lion King lost the darker themes of disfunction and depression, and became a story about perseverance and friendship instead.

Fast forward to 2010 when Disney brings us a live action version of Alice in Wonderland helmed by Tim Burton.  Once again Disney changes its source material, this time that source material being its own animated movie, and makes Alice a bit older, giving us a story in which she isn’t so much a little girl lost exploring an odd world but now becomes something of a feminist bad ass.  Well, at least kind of.  The movie didn’t entirely work, but it certainly didn’t fail, either, and most importantly it made enough box office money that Disney decided to continue the experiment of turning their animated classics into live action films.

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In Maleficent, they gave us a pretty great remake of Sleeping Beauty which ditches the archaic themes of the original and gives us a story from the villain’s point of view, and flips the story’s ending on its ear to give a message about what true love really is rather than what fairy tales portray.  Again, the movie had its issues, but it was a vast improvement on the original tale and the total change in point of view and theme was quite revolutionary.  In the live action Cinderella they didn’t change things up too much, but they dropped the music, and The Jungle Book did the same except for saving one complete musical number and a snippet of another, the real revelation here being the hyperrealistic animation of the animals which was a wonder to behold (and got the movie an Oscar).

Which brings us to right now and the release of the live action Beauty and the Beast directed by Bill Condon and starring Emma Watson as Belle, the titular beauty, and Dan Stevens as Beast.  This version is a reworking of their animated film, not the original story, so Gaston, LeFou, and the castle servants are all here, as is the music.  The only major changes to the original animated film are additions.  We are given a prologue showing how and why the prince was cursed to become Beast while the other additions are new musical numbers.  In all the film’s length is increased by roughly 40 minutes.

Since the story of Beauty and the Beast revolves entirely around the love story and the themes of learning to love someone you would never expect, the actors who have to sell the love story are of the utmost importance.  Dan Stevens, for his part, absolutely sells this part of Beast.  The addition of the opening scene in which we learn why the prince is cursed does an excellent job of setting up the prince as man unworthy of and unwilling to love.  When we first see him as Beast we completely buy him as a monster, and as the film progresses and he begins to open up, smile, joke, we absolutely get caught up in and believe his transformation.  Despite layers of makeup and CGI, Dan Stevens shines through all of that outer covering and lets us see the complex man inside.  As, for Emma Watson….  don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want the ending of La La Land spoiled (that will make sense once you read it, but don’t if you don’t want it spoiled, last warning).

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Emma Watson was originally cast as the lead in La La Land, but couldn’t ultimately play the role as she was too involved in filming Beauty and the Beast, so the part went to Emma Stone.  La La Land is another film that hinges completely on the actors selling the love story.  We need to know how important these two were to each other so that at the end when they finally acheive their dreams but have to do so at the cost of their own relationship, it hits you emotionally and doesn’t just become a matter of “so what?  they got what they wanted”.  That alternate world ending montage hits you right in the gut, but it never could have if the stakes weren’t so high, and the stakes couldn’t be high if Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling hadn’t just shown you they were in love, but made you feel it yourself and made you want a love like that of your own.  If Beauty and the Beast is any indication, Emma Watson could not have pulled that off.

Emma Watson is, however, a better singer than Emma Stone if Beauty and the Beast is enough to base that opinion on as she, and everyone in the cast, bring new life to the soundtrack which is arguably Disney’s best.  “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston”, “Beauty and the Beast” are all here, and all done spectacularly, better than in the original, in fact.  The live action adds a weight and depth to the musical numbers which the original simply doesn’t have, and all the performers here sing as well, if not even better, than in the animated version.  This is where Beauty and the Beast truly shines, and it shines so brightly in this regard as to be nearly blinding.

The visuals here are also incredible, though some things don’t work as well as when they are more classically animated, and those things are very specific to the point I’d almost have to make a list, which I won’t.  But, as a “for instance” Lumiere, played absolutely wonderfully by Ewan McGregor, is so much better in this style of animation as he now has some heft and is more than just eyes and a mouth drawn on a candelabra greatly improving the ways he can emote and move.  Mrs. Potts, however, doesn’t fare nearly so well, and works so poorly in this style as to be distracting whenever she is on screen.  The best way I know to put it is that while the camera work and special effects are always well crafted, the choices made as to the actual final appearance of all these elements can be extremely hit or miss, some being a wonder to behold others actively breaking the movie’s spell with their awkwardness.

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Finally, this review could not be complete without my mentioning how great it was to see Kevin Kline back on the screen as Belle’s father, Maurice.  The man has not missed a step and steals your attention every single time he appears on screen.  This man’s bad performances are rare, and I would rank his turn here among some of his best (though, nothing will ever beat his Otto from A Fish Called Wanda, in my opinion).

Final recommendation:  Beauty and the Beast‘s story ultimately fails where it’s most important, but it excels in most other areas.  The spectacle is, well, spectacular, the music is not just as great as you remember, but is perhaps even better, and most of the cast does a great job.  This could be a movie that disappoints due to its nearly exact duplication of the animated version with the few additions not being enough to make it anything new.  But, if you need a Disney fix and don’t care about repetition, then Beauty and the Beast is about as good a repetition as you can get, I just wish Emma Watson could have made me believe.

 

Moana (Clements, Hall, Musker, and Williams; 2016)

Disney gives us its first Polynesian princess in the movie named for her, Moana, and quite the charming princess she is.  We first see her as a precocious infant, not afraid of the scary stories her grandmother tells the clan’s children, wanting to explore everywhere she can, and doing whatever she must to help others even at her own expense, even when she’s not old enough to be out of diapers, or swaddling clothes in this case.  This is typical of the modern era Disney princess, and while I’m among the many out there who are very glad to see that the modern Disney princess is very much a hero in her own right and doesn’t need a prince to rescue her, Moana shows that this formula is already starting to wear at least a little thin, and they really need to begin watching out for complacency in their story telling.

The major flaws in Moana, and what keeps it from being amongst the very best of this year’s crop of excellent animated features, are its very formulaic story telling technique, its very limited cast of characters, and its overly repetitive sense of humor.  The flaws really all go together, and negatively play off of one another.  The film really has only two major characters of any note, Moana herself (voice acted by Auli’i Cravalho) and the Hawaiian demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson).  Moana’s parents and grandmother do appear toward the beginning of the film and various villains are scattered here and there throughout, but the vast majority of the time we spend with these two and only these two.  This really limits the types of interaction which can be had, and while their relationship does, of course, develop and grow throughout the film, that is the whole point of the movie, it does so using the same methods over and over.  They argue about the same things again and again, find themselves dealing with obstacle the same way over and over, and while I love self referential humor perhaps a bit too much, they make so many jokes referencing the fact that they are animated characters singing to each other in yet another Disney princess movie that at a certain point I just wanted to yell at the screen, “Enough already!”

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We’re full time parents, full time chieftans, and full time formulaic stereotypes.

But, while the plot and humor in Moana may be far too formulaic and forced, the Polynesian setting and mythology of the movie makes for incredibly new and original settings and situations as well as some of the most glamorous animation to hit the screen in this, or any other, year, really rivaled only by Kubo and the Two Strings in how utterly beautiful it is.  Part of me wants to list some of the feats Moana and Maui have to perform throughout their heroes’ quest just to demonstrate how unusual and fascinating they are, but that would spoil one of the best parts of the film.  The feats are really just episodic events that don’t play into each other for the most part, and really could be shown to happen in any order whatsoever, but that can be forgiven as it seems the film’s authors are trying to give us as much Polynesian mythology as they possibly can in a limited amount of time, and the results are a lot of fun and a wonder to look at.

While they don’t make a big deal of it in their advertising, Moana is a musical.  I’m guessing the reason Disney doesn’t showcase this element of the movie in the marketing is because the music on display here is nothing particularly noteworthy.  Auli’i has more songs than anyone else in the film, and she is an excellent singer, it’s just that she is given very mundane, derivative music to work with.  Dwayne Johnson has perhaps the most catchy song in the film, and he was a far better singer than I ever would have expected, but a day after my viewing and I already am having a hard time remembering much of his song outside the chorus and lyrics.  Much like everything else in the film, the music is put together with talent, it’s just not anything we haven’t heard before time and time again.

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Just look at this little dude!  Look at him!

Moana is a film that, in a way, really deserves different critiques for different audiences.  This is a film that absolutely can be enjoyed by all ages, there was a very little girl who seemed to be just learning to speak and looked to be of Ploynesian descent who sat with her family directly behind me for my viewing of the film, and while she was very talkative leading up to the film, she was absolutely silent the entire time until the very end when she erupted in applause and cheers.  When I was leaving the theater I saw her posing for her parents with a cutout stand of Moana, a look of joy and excitement on her face that let me know this was one of those movies she will remember fondly for her entire life.  For older children, a grand time will still be had, and I have no doubt they will be bugging their parents for the Blu-Ray one day so they can watch it over and over again.  As for the adults in the audience, you will be entertained, particularly by the awe-inspriring animation, but you will recognize the story as one you’ve seen over and over again, it’s just the trappings that are new this time around, but those trappings are pretty damn neat, neat enough that you can forgive, if not entirely overlook, the films pretty large problems.

Rating:  6.5 out of 10

Finding Dory (Stanton & MacLane; 2016)

It’s been 13 years since Pixar brought us its 5th movie, Finding Nemo, a film about a practical, loving, but pessimistic widower clown fish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) who has to break out of his comfort zone when his son, Nemo (Hayden Rolence), is abducted.  Early on in his journey to save his son, Marlin runs into Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a fish with short term memory loss, and Dory ends up being instrumental in the quest to find and save Marlin because of her optimism, charm, and her willingness to do the impractical and dangerous.

Finding Dory picks up shortly after the first film left off, we know this because the fish in the first film are mostly here and haven’t aged much if at all, with Dory now being a part of the community in the reef where Marlin and Nemo live.  She has a place and a family now, and probably because of the fact she now has a place where she can feel at home and call those around her family, Dory begins having flashes of memories of where she came from, and in particular of her mother and father.  She is compelled to find them, and Marlin and Nemo come along to help because she did the same for them.

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They are absolutely thrilled to help out.

Finding Dory has an awful lot to live up to.  It’s the sequel to a film that introduced us to characters that have become inconic, the revolutionized the art of computer animation, and that solidified Pixar’s place as a company that could out-Disney Disney.  When it takes this long between films to release a sequel, there is more reason to hope that what we’ll be getting is a true labor of love and not just a studio making a cash grab while a commodity is hot.  Finding Dory is most definitely that labor of love, but while it is a good film, it is one that can’t match the original, unfortunately.

The characters in Finding Dory aren’t quite as charming as in the original.  There aren’t as many characters to be found here and the personalities aren’t as varied.  We can see that Marlin has truly grown as a, um, person? due to the influence of Dory in Finding Nemo.  While he is still a pessimist at heart, he’s learned to be able to set his doubts aside and put himself in harms way when the goal is important enough.  Other than Marlin, though, the returning characters don’t seem to have changed much if at all.  Most, in fact, receive nothing more than a quick cameo followed by a good bye.  The new characters don’t have as much of a range of personality as those in the original film, and really are just a group of agreeable, and very similar characters who serve no purpose in the story other than to guide Dory through one trial or another.  The only stand-out new character is the octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) who really adds a lot of life to the story as a gruff old man with a heart of gold who just wants to be sent to an aquarium in Cleveland but gets dragged along on Dory’s adventure despite himself.

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I’m really just Carl from Up.  Shh.  Don’t tell anybody.

The animation in Finding Dory is the true acheivement of the film.  As innovative as the animation in Finding Nemo was, the animation here is polished.  The colors are vibrant, the motion realistic, the framing is perfection, every second of the screen is a work of art the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Revenant and haven’t seen in an animated film since Spirited Away.  I am, of course, comparing Finding Dory to those films purely on quality and not on style.  Stylistically, Finding Dory is very much the child of its forerunner, but has improved on it in every single way, including charm.

The messages of family are definitely passed along from the original, and really aren’t expounded upon in any significant way.  The messages in Finding Nemo that family is the most important thing, but that family doesn’t necessarily have to be blood are all here, and shown to us in the same way and with very little to add.  It’s a good message, and it’s presented well, but it’s just a reminder for those who have seen Finding Nemo.  There is a bit of a new message in a running theme of people emulating Dory to be seen throughout the film, but this message is not only not as well unveiled to us as the messages on family, they are also not necessarily a positive message for a kid’s film, as this attitude causes as many problems as it solves, and in reality it could be highly dangerous.

Finding Dory is not going to be remembered as one of the greats in Pixar’s body of work.  In fact, it is ironically one of their more forgettable pieces.  It is still Pixar, though, which means that if nothing else it delivers a solid, if maybe a bit too familiar at times, story with gorgeous animation and charming characters with great voice acting.   This is a movie kids will love more than the adults, but the adults will still have fun.  If you have younger children, this one is a definite recommendation.  It’s a little more hit and miss for the adults out there, but I tend to lean more towards the hit side for all but the most cynical or pretentious out there in the movie going audience.

Rating:  7.8 out of 10

Alice Through the Looking Glass (Bobin; 2016)

It’s been six years since Alice (Mia Wasikowska) took her first live action adventure in Wonderland in Tim Burton’s foray which kicked off the now yearly live action versions of classic Disney animated films.  We find Alice is now a ship captain for some reason which isn’t really explained, that she’s made the ire of a wealthy sponsor named Hamish (Leo Bill) because she turned him down for marriage, and her mother (Lindsay Duncan) has put Alice in a precarious position by forcing Alice to trade her ship to this same sponsor so that they can keep their house for no reason that is explained past the fact that Alice’s mother feels being a ship’s captain is no job for a lady.

Enter Absalom (Alan Rickman) the once caterpillar, now butterfly, from Wonderland to show Alice that she can enter Wonderland again through the mirror in this sponsors home and that she needs to go, but again all for no reason.  When she arrives she quickly discovers that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the person Alice is closest to in the whole world despite only meeting him once six years ago, is grumpy because he found a hat and that Alice needs to save him, though doing so could destroy the entire universe.   This is not an auspicious start to the movie.  I don’t expect logic and reason to be the defining factors in a Wonderland film, granted, but there still needs to be something that isn’t completely random to give the narrative an anchor of some kind, otherwise we’re just watching random things happen for random reasons, and that’s not acceptable even in a Wonderland story.

The questionable set up leads to a main story that is not quite so random, but is still based too largely on the opening elements that are.  For some reason, Alice and the Mad Hatter are the two most important people in the entire world, even though the Hatter doesn’t do anything but have tea parties and sulk, and Alice hasn’t been around in ages, but we have to run with this for the story to make any sense.

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I’m pretty damn important, too.  But, now I’m getting ahead of the review.

If you do decide you can run with it, though, there are some amazing set pieces and performances to be seen here.  The main plot involves time travel, which in conjunction with Wonderland really does have a lot of promise which was never entirely realized here, but Time is an actual person in Wonderland, and that person is played by Sacha Baron Cohen in a scene stealing performance.  Helena Bonham Carter also returns as Iracebeth a.k.a The Red Queen and both her performance and subplot end up being the most pleasantly surprising aspects of Alice Through the Looking Glass after all is said and done.

That “after all is said and done” is of utmost importance to this film.  After spending most the film rolling my eyes for fighting off drowsiness whenever Cohen or Carter weren’t on screen, the ending brought me back in.  It’s not that rare to find an otherwise good film that is ruined by a poor ending, but Alice Through the Looking Glass is that exceedingly rare case where an otherwise dull, awkward movie is nearly saved by an ending that elevates all of the material leading up to it.  While nothing that came earlier is any better explained as far as the plot is concerned, we find that everything that happened before was very important to the messages the movie is trying to pass on to us, and those messages are worthwhile, astute, and great lessons for the kids that are the target audience for this movie.

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Didn’t see that coming, did you?

While I ultimately can’t recommend Alice Through the Looking Glass wholeheartedly, especially not in the theater, it really is a good study on how the whole of a film is more important than the individual pieces, the individual pieces are what get you to the point where you can enjoy the whole.  As to whether kids would enjoy it, I think they will more than adults, but I saw the movie in a theater filled with children, and I didn’t hear one laugh or noise of any kind the entire time until the end credits started rolling and one little girl yelled loudly that she really had to go pee.

Rating:  4.8 out of 10