Hamilton (2020)

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2020 #157
Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hamilton on Disney+

Hamilton, the original musical, is one of the great works of art of the 21st century so far, and now we all get a chance to be in the room where it happened (provided you’re prepared to pony up some dough to Disney+) thanks to the makers having had the foresight to film a full production with the original Broadway cast back in 2016 (and then flogging that recording to Disney for $75 million).

The show is a genuine phenomenon, but if you’ve let it pass you by, allow me to explain the basics. This is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA; an immigrant who fought in the War of Independence, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and in between and around all that most assuredly lived a life — there’s friendship and rivalry; romance and infidelity; genuine triumph and heartbreaking tragedy. Here that story is told via music, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also portrays the title role), a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and more traditional Broadway stylings, performed by a cast mostly made up of people of colour. It’s a tale of outsiders and immigrants and forward-thinkers who battled for the right to be recognised and respected — it’s a history lesson, but oh yeah, it’s timely.

It premiered back in 2015, so over the past five years the praises of the original show and its successful soundtrack album (the primary medium through which most people have been able to experience the work, given the scarcity and cost of tickets) have been thoroughly sung. To briefly offer my perspective, I came to it ‘late’ — sure, I heard about it (initially thanks to references to its ticket prices), but I overlooked it as just another bit of mass-popular culture that likely didn’t have any weight or staying power. My mistake. Long story short, I finally listened to it in full in 2019 and was blown away.

Aaron Burr, sir

Adjectives to describe its quality are endless. It’s densely and intelligently written, packed with historical information at every turn, abundant with sly references to other media. Its structure is sublime, laced with callbacks and nods forward from the very opening number; musical motifs repeat, as do lines and ideas, some cropping up before their real significance has been reached, like flash-forwards; elements of plot and character are echoed and mirrored. Many of these are observable first time through; others only reveal themselves with repeat visits. The characters are sharply and smartly drawn, revealing layers and nuances and different perspectives as the piece goes on — it may ostensibly be about Alexander Hamilton, but multiple other characters are at least as richly painted, if not more so. It engrosses like a thriller and packs the serious emotional punch of a finely-wrought drama, but it’s also very funny at times, with numbers as toe-tappingly addictive as a great pop song. It’s hard to think of a more complete all-round experience.

Well, complete but for visuals if (like me) you’d never seen it performed, only listened to the soundtrack. And, you know, the soundtrack’s not a bad way to experience it — it doesn’t feel notably incomplete. Normally when you listen to a musical’s album, you just get some nice songs from the production. With Hamilton, you get (very nearly almost) the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire story — you can follow it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. (I do wonder if that’s part of why it’s been such a success.) The lyrics and music conjure up their own imagery in your mind — certainly for me, ever since I first listened to it I’ve pictured whole chunks of it as I’d realise them in a movie version. I’m sure they’ll do a ‘proper’ film of it someday (you really think they’re going to leave all that money on the table?), but I think it’s for the best that’s not the first way I’m seeing it, because I worry it won’t live up to what I’ve concocted in my version.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t a film reimagining like a normal movie musical, but rather a filmed record of the original production. It was shot over three days back in June 2016 (shortly before the original cast moved on), during a mix of live performances and in an audience-less auditorium for the sake of closeups, crane shots, etc. That’s one of the things that elevates this particular film above other recorded-theatre productions I’ve been watching recently (like One Man Two Guvnors, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, or the RSC’s Macbeth): whereas they have clearly been filmed live during a single performance, with all the restrictions that implies (limited camera angles; making editing choices in real-time), Hamilton has some extra remove, which has allowed director Thomas Kail to be a bit more creative.

Looking for a film at work, work

The camerawork endeavours to add something no theatre performance could, allowing us to see details that would be missed from even the best seats in the house. Closeups let us appreciate the full spit-flecked contempt from Jonathan Groff’s George III in You’ll Be Back; the restrained emotional sacrifice injected into Angelica by Renée Elise Goldsberry during Satisfied; Eliza’s heartbroken defiance from Phillipa Soo in Burn; or the rare occasions Leslie Odom Jr. allows Aaron Burr’s true emotions to break through in the likes of Wait For It and The World Was Wide Enough. That’s not to mention the countless other moments and performers that benefit from us being able to see how much they’re giving their performances; all the subtleties they’re adding.

At other times the camera angles show off the choreography, for example with punch-ins to highlight specific elements during stage-wide ensemble showpieces, like the rewind at the start of Satisfied, or a bird’s eye view as paper flutters in the air during The Reynolds Pamphlet. Still other scenes are reframed for our convenience, such as an exchange between Burr and Hamilton during Non-Stop that takes place upstage off to one side, but is now centred through medium shots and closeups. If all that sounds like it might serve to undermine the staging, it most certainly does not. When called for, Kail and editor Jonah Moran frequently fall back on wide angles to ensure we see the scope of what’s occurring. Only once or twice during the whole two-and-a-half hours do you feel maybe they chose a less-than-ideal angle or over-edited a sequence.

Having said that listening to the soundtrack feels like a complete experience, watching it certainly shows what you were missing. There’s so much more to add, from little nuances of performance, to visual-only gags and callbacks, to impressive dance and staging — and if we’re already comparing this to the presumed ‘proper film’ version that will exist someday, I also presume some of that staging will be lost in the visual translation. But while there’s an undoubted “designed for the stage” aspect to the blocking or the way some things are realised, it still works on film.

Not throwing away their shot

You can’t ignore that this is a film of a Broadway production — even if you wanted to, an opening subtitle reminds us it’s June 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the audience is frequently to be heard clapping, cheering, and laughing (mixed onto the rear speakers if you’re watching in surround sound, as you’d expect, along with a few other moments and effects that add to the experience if you can benefit from such a setup). But it’s so well staged and filmed that you can buy this as the intended experience. With those other filmed-theatre productions I mentioned, you’re often aware that what you’re watching has primarily been staged for those in the room, and that you getting to observe it from a few fixed camera positions is a nice bonus if you couldn’t be there. With Hamilton, it feels like nothing is missed; not only that, but that this is the way the story was meant to be told, complete with elements of theatrical artifice, like the stripped-back staging and actors playing multiple roles (which roles are shared by the same actors is not without significance). Whenever and whatever they do for that theoretical ‘proper film’, I feel like it won’t negate this version, not just as a record of the original show, but as a film in its own right.

That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of this particular version: it doesn’t feel like a mere stopgap until they film it ‘properly’, nor a “that’ll do” stand-in for a real theatrical performance, but instead like a legitimate experience in its own right. Hamilton is a masterpiece, and getting to see it performed by the original cast in its original staging via a film so carefully and lovingly crafted is an absolute thrill.

5 out of 5

Hamilton is available on Disney+ now.

The Lion King (2019)

2019 #103
Jon Favreau | 118 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Lion King

The Lion King might be the best Disney film. It’s that or Beauty and the Beast. (I’m sure many classicists would plump for something older, but sorry, I’m a ‘90s kid.) (Also, by “Disney film” I mean their animated output. Obviously Disney release tonnes of other stuff, and have for a long time, but by “Disney film” we really mean the animations, don’t we? Not “any film that happens to be released by Disney”. I do, anyway. Especially in this context.)

Sorry, let me start again: The Lion King might be the best Disney film. So when they started down this road of live-action remakes of their beloved classics, it was inevitable their attention would turn to it. Of course, you can’t really do a live-action version of a film whose characters are all lions and hyenas and warthogs and stuff — not without going down the puppetry/costumes route of the stage version, anyhow, which apparently is gangbusters in the flesh (I’ve never seen it; that’s changing in August, Coronavirus permitting) but I can’t envisage working for the mass moviegoing audience. So instead they did the obvious thing and went for photo-real. CGI. Heck, most “live-action” blockbusters nowadays are 50%+ CGI anyway, especially Disney ones (they didn’t even design the Avengers’ costumes for Endgame until post-production, ffs). But, at the end of the day, “photo-real CGI” is just another kind of animation. So what Disney have done is remake the animated Lion King in the totally different form of… animation.

Yeah, you probably knew all that already, and maybe had similar rants in your own mind / reviews / Twitter feeds / in Wendy’s / shouted at tea, Sue (delete as culturally appropriate). But it remains a relevant perspective on this film, because it indicates the essential question one keeps coming back to when watching it:

Why does this exist?

The cub who would be king

Obviously, the simple and true answer is “to make money”. These Disney live-action remakes have been financial successes, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing them. The more popular the original animated movie, the more successful the remake. The Lion King is one of the most popular of them all, ergo it was a safe bet to be big hit. The biggest risk was that “why bother?” question — audiences might’ve felt it was pointless and stayed away — but that didn’t happen: it made $1.656 billion worldwide, making it the 7th highest-grossing film of all time. The original film is down at a lowly 47th. If you were the kind of person who thought box office numbers were the be-all and end-all, you might conclude that this film is even better than the already-classic original. It is not. That it did well at the box office is no surprise — I think there’s a massive curiosity factor involved in these remakes (how faithful will they be; what will they have added or taken away; how will this familiar tale look and feel in a new medium) — but that would only get it so far, and most of it would come from opening weekend. Something obviously worked for audiences, because they must’ve kept coming back.

Well, I can’t explain that one for you. On my first viewing, I didn’t think it was a particularly good film. I rewatched it last night, this time in 3D, and enjoyed it a little more second time round. In part that was because it has really good 3D. Indeed, the praise I’d read for that version was the only reason I was tempted to give the film a second look, and it didn’t disappoint in that department. Whatever you make of the rest of the movie, the photo-real CGI is undeniably a phenomenal technical achievement, and it’s only improved by the life-like dimensionality brought by 3D. With a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it really is like looking through a window. Beyond that, though, I liked the film itself a little more. That’s probably down to expectations — not that I was expecting great things on my first viewing, but knowing exactly what was coming, being fully aware of all the disappointments in store, mitigated them somewhat, and so I was able to enjoy the bits it did well.

Be prepared for disappointment

Nonetheless, I think the best way to sum up the experience is to say it’s like a cover song from a TV talent show: a reasonable approximation of the original, although clearly not as good, with unnecessarily added riffs and tricks as the cover artist struggles in vain to “make it their own” while not fundamentally deviating from what made the original so beloved. The trailers made it look like a shot-for-shot remake (possibly deliberately), but director Jon Favreau insisted it wasn’t. He’s right, but it might be better if he had been slavishly faithful, because when he strikes out in a different direction it undermines some of the best bits of the original. At least two songs are rendered as damp squibs by less-imaginative staging, while Can You Feel the Love Tonight is for some reason staged in the afternoon. But even more poorly handled is Be Prepared. It’s perhaps the greatest villain’s song in the Disney canon. You might’ve thought it was impossible to ruin a song so inherently fantastic. I certainly did. Sadly, Favreau has proven us wrong.

The voice cast are uniformly adequate, with a couple of standouts. The major one is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a suitably menacing and conniving performance as the treacherous Scar. It’s at least the equal of the original, which considering that was performed by villain par excellence Jeremy Irons is saying something. (Be Prepared is obviously a black mark against this interpretation, but it’s not Ejiofor’s fault he was lumbered with an underpowered rewrite.) James Earl Jones reprises his commanding performance as Mufasa from the original movie. Actually, I don’t know whether he performed it anew or they just recycled his original recordings. You assume the former, but the film is so faithful that the latter may have sufficed. Elsewise, it’s the comedy parts that are given room to shine, with a nice double act from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, and John Oliver nabbing the lion’s share of the best lines as Zazu (pun very much intended).

The box office king

This remake has enough residual quality leftover from the original film to tip the scales into the “didn’t hate it” category. More critical viewers may not be so kind — indeed, they haven’t been. Conversely, those who are less demanding may find the result reasonably likeable (I first saw it with my mum, who thought it was a pleasant couple of hours at the cinema). Still, even with all the technical prowess on show, it can’t replicate either the magic or the majesty of the original animation.

3 out of 5

The not-live-action live-action Lion King is on Sky Cinema from today.

Toy Story 4 (2019)

2019 #101
Josh Cooley | 100 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Toy Story 4

Last weekend, with dull inevitability, Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Of course it did — in the last decade, the award has gone to a Disney or Pixar movie eight times out of ten. I’ve not seen any of the four other nominees, but I strongly suspect at least one of them deserved it more, because Toy Story 4 is… fine. Heck, it’s good, even. But when the three films that precede it are all-time classics that formed a perfectly complete trilogy, just being “good” is not enough.

Its first mistake is that it doesn’t need to exist. The filmmakers have self-mythologised that Woody’s story wasn’t complete and so needed this final chapter, or some such gumph, but anyone who’s actually seen Toy Story 3 knows that’s not true. No, this is someone at Disney or Pixar hoping they can mine one of their most popular franchises for more gold. Whether or not they also believed lightning could strike for a fourth time, or they didn’t care so long as it made bank, I’ll leave up to your own levels of cynicism.

So rather than feeling like an equal part of a four-film series, Toy Story 4 feels like an afterthought; an addendum; a “here’s another one because you liked the others”. And at times it delivers on that — we like these characters, so they’re fun to be with; some of their antics are amusing or exciting; there’s a positive moral message or two about acceptance and seeing worth in yourself. There are attempts at emotional resonance too, particularly when the film tries to feel like an ending and a farewell; but 3 already did that, and did it extremely well. 4 has an uphill climb trying to match that, and even if it did (which it doesn’t), why should we believe it? It’ll only last until someone decides there’s a narrative for Toy Story 5 that simply has to be told (see you for that c.2026, I guess).

In search of a new story

Of course, there’s no doubting the film is well made. It’s easy to disregard that as just Pixar being Pixar, but there’s an ever-impressive technical skill on display here. Maybe on that level it does deserve award wins — although, while Pixar are undoubtedly frontrunners in such a race, there are other animation houses who can and do produce work that’s just as beautiful. (Besides, the Best Animation category is a funny one in that regard — is it rewarding the artistic/technical accomplishment of the animation itself, or is it “best film that happens to be animated”? A debate for another time.)

Toy Story 4 is the kind of film I enjoyed well enough while it was on. Whenever I get round to rewatching the series, I’ll happily include it. But, while it doesn’t tarnish the series’ legacy, it does blight its unbroken record. If it had never existed, I’d’ve been fine with that.

4 out of 5

Toy Story 4 is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

Finding Dory (2016)

2018 #122
Andrew Stanton | 97 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Finding Dory

I was never that big a fan of Finding Nemo. I mean, I like it well enough — it’s a very good movie — but I’ve never loved it. My rewatch last year confirmed that feeling. It was something of a surprise, then, that I mostly really enjoyed this sequel. It’s a weird thing where I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s better than the first film, but I think I like it more.

Made 13 years later but set not too long after the events of the first movie (I don’t know what the lifespans of these fish are in real life, but I imagine considerably less than 13 years), the plot revolves around Nemo comedy sidekick Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) — in the first film her memory loss was a comedy bit, but here it’s front and centre, as Dory goes searching for the family she forgot she had. Accompanied by Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and his dad Marlin (Albert Brooks), she heads to California and the theme park-ish Marine Life Institute.

Like so many Pixar movies, Nemo didn’t desperately need a sequel, so I was worried this would seem like little more than an excuse to return to these characters. In fact, the plot actually works very well. Far from being a desperate stretch, it actually feels like a worthwhile development and follow-up from the first movie. Alongside the worth of the narrative, it’s also just a lot of fun to watch, even if it gets a bit outlandish in the final act (fish driving cars…?)

Something fishy going on...

Another concern I had was that I remember thinking Dory was a bit irritating in the first film, so making her the central character could’ve scuppered it for me (other people seem to find her endearing, so I can see why Pixar went with this concept). But no, she makes for a likeable enough companion. The film does a really good job of handling her memory loss, too. It’s more than just a joke this time round, what with Dory being the central character. The easiest route to take for the filmmakers would’ve been to cop out of it somehow, either by flat-out fixing her memory, or at least not being wholly true to how short-lived it was before. Instead, they’ve put the problems and the scariness of having no memory at the forefront of the film. For example, at one point Dory needs to enter a network of pipes to get somewhere vital within the Institute, but she won’t go in because she knows she’ll forget the directions. A more constant fear is that she’ll forget about her family or friends, the people she loves, which I think is the kind of notion a viewer of any age could empathise with.

As a Pixar movie, it goes without saying that it looks superb, but I’ll nonetheless take a moment to mention that I thought the 3D aspect was really great too. It seems to be pot luck with this stuff (I found Nemo’s rather underwhelming, and I wasn’t that impressed by Coco’s either, for example). I guess most people don’t care anymore, but there we go.

Finding Dory was a pleasant surprise all-round. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is Pixar’s best non-Toy Story sequel. Maybe that’s not saying much (half its competition is Cars movies), but I mean it positively nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Pixar’s latest sequel, Toy Story 4, is out in the UK and US next Friday.

Incredibles 2 (2018)

2018 #233
Brad Bird | 118 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Incredibles 2

Brad Bird — the director behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and not letting them release the IMAX version of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on Blu-ray (I will never be over that) — returns to the movie that made his name with what must be Pixar’s most-requested (probably “only requested”, actually) sequel, Incredibles 2.

It’s been 14 years for us viewers since the last Parr family adventure, but in-universe it’s been no time at all — literally, as Incredibles 2 picks up by recapping the closing moments of The Incredibles, which saw the eponymous family of superheroes about to face off against villain The Underminer. That confrontation goes disastrously awry, landing the family in a whole heap of trouble; but it also attracts the attention of media mogul Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who believes superheroes should be made legal again. Recruiting parents Bob and Helen Parr — aka Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) — and their friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to his cause, the first step in Deavor’s public relations plan revolves around public crimefighting appearances by Elastigirl… alone. This leaves Bob holding the baby, literally, as he’s stuck at home with the kids while his wife gets to have all the fun.

At its most basic, Incredibles 2 is a gender-reversed do-over of the first movie… to a fault, in fact. The closing moments of the first film suggest a “family of superheroes” future for the Parrs, with them battling crime together. The sequel immediately works to put everything back in its place: the kids aren’t allowed to use their powers (until they must for the climax, natch); one of the parents gets to go off and be a superhero, while the other has to stay at home. The difference is it’s the man staying at home, and where Helen was consummate at looking after the kids, Bob finds it a challenge — because Men, amirite?

Left holding the baby... literally

Part of what made The Incredibles so successful as a movie was it mixed a plausible family dynamic in with the superhero capers, but here that home life aspect is what holds the film back, because Bob’s struggles with the kids are 66.6% cliché. His son struggles with homework, and Bob doesn’t know how to do it either! His daughter has boyfriend problems! The 33.3% that works comes courtesy of baby Jack-Jack, who is beginning to develop powers — plural. As the middle of the film drags on, becoming a bit “we get the point!” with Bob’s familial woes, the bright spot is continually Jack-Jack’s humorous madcap antics.

Mind you, the actual storyline in the superhero section isn’t much better. It revolves around the hunt for a mysterious villain, which naturally ends in a twist reveal… but as their true identity is pretty obvious as soon as they first appear earlier on, that reveal is a long time coming. Depending how critical you want to be, this part of the movie also has a lot of thematic points that seem to peter out or had nowhere to go in the first place. Is the film trying to say something about our addiction to screens and media? About the merits of vigilantism over bureaucracy? The dangers of being reliant on ‘higher powers’ to look after us? It touches on these things, and more, but they’re only given passing reference. Okay, yes, when you boil it down this is “just” a kids’ action-adventure movie and maybe we shouldn’t expect too much depth of thought… but Pixar are always hailed as being much more than that. Is it too much to expect that, if they’re going to introduce a topic or perspective, they’ll also at least close it out somehow?

Yet for all these story woes, Incredibles 2 does indeed work as a colourful action-adventure movie; gloriously so. The action sequences are absolutely thrilling, beautifully choreographed and constructed. They’re even better in 3D, too — Elastigirl’s stretchy powers seem to have been made for the format. And while the middle of the film may refuse to pay off the “family of superheroes” thing, the opening sequence and climax let them all in on the action, and it’s all the better for it.

Stretchy superheroics

What made The Incredibles one of Pixar’s best films, and one of the best films in the whole superhero genre, was the way it combined the action and adventure with family dynamics and concerns, seamlessly marrying the two. The sequel lacks the clarity and connectedness that first movie boasted, working very well as a fun superhero action movie but struggling as a family comedy-drama. It’s still an entertaining time (the sometimes-slow mid-section aside), but it’s not the genre and studio standout that the first film was.

4 out of 5

Incredibles 2 was released on DVD and Blu-ray (2D & 3D, but no 4K) in the UK this week.

Christopher Robin (2018)

2018 #180
Marc Forster | 104 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Christopher Robin

Disney appear to have found a rich seam to mine for box office gold when it comes to live-action remakes of their most popular animated properties. Some have been variations different enough to almost stand on their own two feet; others have been straight-up remakes, because why mess with success. Christopher Robin is, perhaps, the most original so far. There have been many Winnie the Pooh adaptations down the years, as well as original movies and TV series featuring the same characters, so rather than remake any of those, here Disney have set about telling another brand-new story (although it begins with an adaptation of one of A.A. Milne’s very best Pooh stories, which is nice). This new tale justifies its live-action form by moving beyond the confines of the Hundred Acre Wood; and it also, smartly, trades on our own childhood nostalgia for the silly old bear.

We all remember Christopher Robin as a small boy, but small boys grow up, and now Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is an adult in post-war London with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). He works for a luggage company that is facing the prospect of firing most of Christopher’s team, unless he can find 20% of cuts; so instead of going away with his family for a nice weekend in the country, he must stay and work — again. With both his personal and professional lives on the brink of collapse, Christopher is very stressed.

Pooh in the park

Meanwhile, in his childhood playground of the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh (a convincingly cuddly CGI creation, given voice by Pooh’s regular performer, Jim Cummings) awakens one morning to find all his friends are missing. Deeply concerned, he wanders through the door through which Christopher Robin used to appear, and finds himself in London, where who should he bump into but his old childhood friend — now all grown up and serious. But Pooh is still a childlike innocent, of course (don’t worry, they haven’t given him a Ted-style makeover), and maybe that attitude is just what Christopher needs.

Having said they haven’t made Pooh into Ted (thank goodness — I like Ted, but that really isn’t the spirit of this franchise), there’s more than a little whiff of Paddington here. It’s not the exact same plot, but the overall theme — of a naïve but good-hearted bear arriving to help humans overcome their problems with kindness — is certainly similar. Indeed, many beats of the story that unfolds are familiar — the climax is somewhat borrowed from Mary Poppins, for example; and you’ll know how every subplot will end as soon as it’s introduced. For some viewers, this will render the film pointless and clichéd. For others… well, it’s not really the point.

The joy of Christopher Robin is it takes those recycled elements and filters them through the prism of Pooh. If you too loved Pooh as a child, or an adult, then Christopher’s journey to rediscover that connection is relatable and supportable. And it’s simply a delight to spend time with the characters, as Pooh casually (and accidentally) dispenses heartfelt wisdom that both delights and, occasionally, may even cause you to think.

Tigger on the loose

The other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood do pop up too: miserable old Eeyore (Brad Garrett) stole the show for the audience I watched with; Tigger (also Cummings, after test audiences objected to Chris O’Dowd’s English-accented take on the character!) is as exuberant as ever; and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) remains the voice of caution and cowardice, and as sweet as ever. As “the main ones”, those four get the most to do in the story, but there are also appearances from Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) to complete the set; and with actors that good providing the voices, they make their mark.

But, really, this is all about Pooh. Well, Pooh and Christopher Robin — the title’s not inaccurate. For those who don’t feel a connection to the bear of very little brain, I guess the familiarity of the narrative he’s part of in this film will drag down enjoyment — this, I presume, is why the reviews have been somewhat mixed. But, in my opinion, a little Pooh goes a long way — as Christopher says, he may be a bear of very little brain, but he’s also a bear of very big heart. The combination makes for a film that is amusing, sweet, and thoroughly delightful.

4 out of 5

Christopher Robin is in UK cinemas now.

Coco (2017)

2018 #109
Lee Unkrich | 105 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Coco

Pixar’s 19th feature is an American-produced animated fantasy movie that co-opts a foreign culture to tell a story about a guitar-playing kid remembering his dead family — wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? Yes, in broad strokes, Coco is Kubo and the Two Strings Pixar-style. But, instead of Japan, this is Mexico, based around the famed Day of the Dead festival — which has also already been the subject of an American animated movie, The Book of Life. But that didn’t get the best notices, and Kubo didn’t get the respect it deserves, and this is Pixar in non-sequel mode, and so Coco has been praised to the high heavens. And it is good. But I didn’t think it was that good.

So, to start again: Coco is the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a kid who desperately wants to be a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately for Miguel, all music is banned in his family, due to his great-great-grandfather abandoning his wife and young daughter to pursue it as a career. On the Day of the Dead, a convoluted and overlong first act eventually gets us to a point where Miguel finds himself actually in the Land of the Dead, surrounded by the skeletal form of everyone who’s passed away. To get back to the land of the living he must go on a quest, accompanied by downtrodden Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who’s being forgotten by the living and needs Miguel to reestablish his memory in the real world. More or less. I mean, the rules get more fiddly and complicated than that.

The magic of music

Frankly, the rambling length was my biggest problem with Coco. It’s not badly flabby, but it’s not as taut as I’d’ve liked it to be either, especially during stretches where you’re waiting for it to get to an inevitable plot twist or development. That’s not to say it’s without surprises — it pulls quite a dark plot twist about an hour in — and surprise isn’t the only virtue a story can have, of course, but it did reach a point where I was virtually shouting at the screen for them to finally get on with what was inevitably going to happen. Surely that’s a sign of something not working.

Maybe that was the music — quite a central part of the storyline, as you may’ve inferred, but I can’t say I was a fan. Mostly it’s fine, but there’s the occasional musical number that just slowed things down. It’s not a musical in the strictest sense either, so the film does stop a bit in order to get each song underway (at least it usually then tries to progress the narrative while the song continues). The big number is the Oscar-winning Remember Me, which has grown on me slightly since I first heard it but, again, I’m not particularly a fan. I don’t know what it is, really, because when I’ve come across mariachi-style music in movies before I’ve often quite liked it. I guess it’s this particular set of tunes, then.

Naturally it looks great — it’s Pixar, would you expect anything less? The colourful Land of the Dead stuff is the best visually, wide shots creating epic vistas, with stunning architecture that suggests quite a world… not that we get to explore it very thoroughly, even though the quest narrative takes us to a few different locations. We certainly don’t get any indication how it functions for the other 364 days of the year. Zootropolis showed us a glimpse of a well-imagined full-scale world, teasing enough that I wanted to explore it comprehensively in further stories. Coco’s just looks pretty.

Colourful vistas

Maybe I’m being too picky? Maybe I’m just trying to work out what it was everyone else loved so much, when I saw a pretty standard Pixar buddy quest story with new surface flourishes. Or perhaps I’m right, and other people were blinded by the emotional ending? The final few minutes are certainly effective at tugging at the heartstrings — even though I hadn’t fully invested in the rest of the film, even I felt a pang… albeit slightly undercut by once again having to yell at the characters to get on with what they were inevitably going to do. Not everything should move at a mile a minute, but c’mon, sometimes you’re just being languorous.

Reportedly Coco had the longest active production of any Pixar movie, with work beginning in 2011 and (obviously) being completed in 2017. There are quite a few deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray which (from a brief flick through) seem to suggest the story once went in quite a different direction. I saw one person say those scenes suggest a much worse movie, too. I guess they kept tweaking the plot, then, maybe until it eventually resembled that familiar broad Pixar shape that dates right back to the original Toy Story.

Coco is good, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s perfect. And I think I might go watch Kubo again now, actually.

4 out of 5

The UK becomes probably the last major market to get Coco on disc with its release on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3D Blu-ray today.

Cars 3 (2017)

2018 #54
Brian Fee | 102 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Cars 3

At this point I think it’s fairly well known that the Cars movie series continues not because of any artistic desire on the part of Disney/Pixar, but because the toys the films generate sell like hotcakes. Indeed, that situation hasn’t necessarily changed with this third instalment: apparently Cars 3 features 65 different individual racers, more than both the previous films combined. And several of those appear kitted out in different paint jobs. Disney gotsta make that toy money! The disregard with which they hold the actual movies is perhaps demonstrated by the fact this third one is helmed by a first-time director, Brian Fee, whose previous credits are as a storyboard artist on a couple of Pixar productions. Maybe they lucked out, then — or maybe they actually knew what they were doing promoting him — because I think this is easily the best film in the Cars trilogy.

Beginning with nary a reference to the events of Cars 2, racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is back doing what he loves: racing. That’d be American-style racing, i.e. constantly turning left for hundreds of laps. Anyway, turns out there’s a new generation of hot young racers, who are less on their way up and more already here, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). They use advanced training techniques and statistics to beat the old guard — soon all of Lightning’s contemporaries are choosing to retire or being forced out, leaving him the last one standing… until he crashes in the final race of the season. Is his career over? Well, what do you think? With the backing of a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and all the latest high-tech gear, Lightning sets to work training with young wannabe-racer-turned-coach Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). But as he struggles to regain his mojo, perhaps there’s something to be said for the old ways after all…

Storm vs Lightning

Although I wouldn’t say sports movies are my bag, I think Cars 3 probably benefits from taking a more clean approach to that genre, ditching all the spy hijinks distractions of the last one. That purity of genre keeps it straightforward and focused. It also re-centres itself on Lightning McQueen, shoving Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) back into a cameo-sized supporting role, which is about where he belongs (I wouldn’t say he’s likeable in small doses, but he’s tolerable). It still finds room for humour and levity, just in a more natural, less goofy way.

Around that, it actually takes a run at some weighty themes — specifically, old age and obsolescence — and carries through on them too, with a finale that goes for more of a “finding worth in what you do next” ending rather than a “still got it (for now)” one. Such maturity means it’s perhaps more suited to Pixar’s grown-up fans than their young ones — it’s a surprisingly serious movie, in fact, without being po-faced about it. That said, you could probably play down the thematic stuff and just be entertained: there are still good set pieces, both action-based and comical, to keep the right family-friendly tone.

It makes for a winning combination. Cars 3 may not trouble the upper echelons of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but it is the best of their Cars movies — the first of the trilogy I remember genuinely enjoying, rather than just finding tolerably okay. That might sound like a low bar to set, but Cars 3 clears it admirably.

4 out of 5

Cars 3 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

The Jungle Book (2016)

2018 #40
Jon Favreau | 106 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.78:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG

The Jungle Book

One of the successes that has convinced Disney to remake basically their entire animated back catalogue in live-action, Jon Favreau’s take on Disney’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s stories barely counts as “live-action” really: the vast majority of it is animated — often the only real bits are Mowgli and some (but by no means all) of the props and scenery he interacts with — but it’s done to be photo-real and so we pretend that’s live-action.

Whatever you want to call it, the visuals are stunning. It’s incredible stuff by the animators, though also by Favreau and DP Bill Pope to make all that hard work look great as a film too — they put special effort into making sure the CGI was properly lit, etc. And I reckon it’s even better in 3D. Presented in a screen-filling 1.78:1 ratio, unconstrained by the black bars of your nowadays-standard 2.35:1, it honestly feels like a window into another world. You sometimes see reviews of good 3D that say “you feel like you could reach out and touch it”, which I’ve always taken as A Thing People Say rather than an actual inclination, but at one point I did feel like I wanted to reach out and stroke Baloo’s fur, he looked so soft. The end credit sequence (a kind of pop-up book routine) looks particularly great in 3D, which helps to sell the miniaturised dimensions.

Bear necessities

Anyway, the film itself. Disney’s Jungle Book is such a well-known childhood classic that I don’t imagine you need me to recap its plot, though this version doesn’t ape it one-for-one. When Favreau was first brought on board the story treatment Disney had in development was much closer to Kipling’s work, including none of the changes Disney made when they adapted it before (i.e. adding songs and the character of King Louie), as well as being more violent, aimed at a PG-13 rating. So it was Favreau who decided it should be closer to the Disney classic, aiming to find the sweet spot between the two styles. I think he’s nailed that, mixing in enough that’s familiar from the animation with a bit more seriousness derived from Kipling.

That said, I wasn’t wholly convinced by the use of the songs. The rendition of Bare Necessities is disappointingly truncated, though at least fits in context. Conversely, King Louie’s song, I Wan’na Be Like You, is so out of place that I found the sequence kind of uncomfortable. Weirdly, its reprise at the start of the end credits is great. There it’s followed by Trust In Me, which isn’t included in the film proper but might actually have worked there.

I wanna be like you-oo-oo

Still, the film as a whole functions well; surprisingly well, one might even say. You may remember the Rotten Tomatoes score for it went crazy when it came out, hiding the high 90s — it ended up at 95%. And it’s the perfect example of why Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t score a film’s quality, but does score the chance that you’ll enjoy a film. I’m not sure many people would think this is a “9.5 out of 10” kind of film, but one there’s a 95% chance you’ll think is good? Yeah.

4 out of 5

The Jungle Book is available on Netflix UK from today.

Saludos Amigos (1942)

2017 #161
Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Ham Luske & Bill Roberts | 40 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / Portuguese & English | U / PG

Saludos Amigos

The sixth film in Disney’s official animated canon was the first in a run of cheap “package films” that span the gap from 1942’s Bambi to 1950’s Cinderella. Frankly, if Disney hadn’t decided to make it part of their animated canon whenever that list was first settled upon, I very much doubt it would be remembered today.

It’s called a “package film” because it bundled together a handful of animated shorts, linked by live-action footage of Disney’s team on location researching the films, to form a feature-length movie (though in the case of Saludos Amigos it barely qualifies as feature-length). This particular set depict various aspects of South America, apparently in an attempt by Disney to improve US relations with its neighbouring continent during World War II. According to this item of trivia on IMDb, it worked — but thanks to the linking documentaries, not the animation: by “featuring footage of modern Latin American cities with skyscrapers and fashionably dressed residents [it] went against the then-current perception of the American audience that Latin America was a culturally backwards area, predominately rural, and mostly inhabited by poorly-dressed peasants. The film is credited with helping change the American perception of Latin America and its inhabitants.”

No stereotypes here

Viewed today, it’s largely fine — one or two parts are likeable, even — but there’s not a great deal to it. The live-action linking segments are meant to show what inspired the short animations, but sometimes that goes a little too far and they seem to convey the same Educational info twice over. And unless you’re looking into, say, North American perceptions of South America in the 1940s, there’s not a great deal of value left in it as a factual piece.

So my score errs on the harsh side, because it’s not a bad film per se, but I think it has very little to offer the modern viewer, either in terms of entertainment or education.

2 out of 5