Beauty and the Beast (1991)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #10

The most beautiful love story ever told.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 84 minutes | 92 minutes (special edition)
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 15th November 1991 (USA)
UK Release: 9th October 1992
First Seen: VHS, c.1993

Stars
Paige O’Hara (Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, Enchanted)
Robby Benson (Ice Castles, Dragonheart: A New Beginning)
Angela Lansbury (The Manchurian Candidate, Bedknobs and Broomsticks)

Directors
Gary Trousdale (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
Kirk Wise (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis: The Lost Empire)

Screenwriter
Linda Woolverton (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent)

Story by
Deep breath… Roger Allers, Brenda Chapman, Burny Mattinson, Brian Pimental, Joe Ranft, Kelly Asbury, Christopher Sanders, Kevin Harkey, Bruce Woodside & Robert Lence.

Based on
La Belle et la Bête, a French fairy tale originally by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, but in this case (and most others) adapted from the retelling by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

Music
Alan Menken (Aladdin, Hercules)

Lyrics
Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin)

The Story
An arrogant prince is transformed into a beast, with one hope of redemption: someone must fall in love with him before his 21st birthday; if not, the curse’s effects become permanent. When elderly inventor Maurice is imprisoned by this Beast, his bookworm daughter Belle offers to take his place. Spying a chance to alleviate the curse, the Beast agrees. With only a short time until his 21st birthday, could a girl ever learn to love a beast?

Our Hero
A girl who’s strange but special — a most peculiar mademoiselle. With a dreamy far-off look, and her nose stuck in a book, she really is a funny girl, a beauty but a funny girl, that Belle.

Our Villain?
The Beast’s got fangs, razor sharp ones; massive paws, killer claws, for the feast. He was mean and he was coarse and unrefined, but now he’s dear and so unsure. Perhaps there’s something there that wasn’t there before…

Our Villain!
No one’s slick as Gaston, no one’s quick as Gaston, no one’s got a swell cleft in his chin like Gaston. Uses antlers in all of his decorating, my what a guy, that Gaston.

Best Supporting Character
The comedy double act of French candlestick Lumiere and English clock Cogsworth, voiced (respectively) by Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach and M*A*S*H’s David Ogden Stiers. Funny old business, acting.

Memorable Quote
“Try the grey stuff, it’s delicious / Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes / They can sing, they can dance / After all, miss, this is France / And a dinner here is never second best.” — Be Our Guest

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“It’s not right for a woman to read. Soon she starts getting ideas, and thinking…” — Gaston. (I didn’t say it should be used.)

Memorable Scene
The film’s prologue tells the story of how the Prince became the Beast through the medium of stained glass windows. It’s a beautifully realised fairy tale within a fairy tale.

Best Song
Titular Beauty and the Beast may’ve won the Oscar (“Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme” — that one), but the actual best song is clearly Be Our Guest. A toe-tapping tune married with fun lyrics, fantastic choreography and superb animation combine to make it, for me, one of the greatest numbers in any musical, animated or otherwise.

Making of
Be Our Guest was originally to be sung to Belle’s father, Maurice, when he’s trapped in the castle. It was writer Bruce Woodside who pointed out that it was in the wrong place because such a key song shouldn’t be performed to a secondary character, so it was moved later to be sung to Belle. This is why you should always listen to writers.

Previously on…
Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s 30th Animated Classic, their official canon of animated movies. It’s the third film in the “Disney Renaissance”, the decade-long period (starting with The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan) when the studio enjoyed revived creative and financial success. In terms of this particular retelling of the tale, it owes a clear debt to Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

Next time…
Two direct-to-video animated sequels and a spin-off educational live-action TV series. In 1994, it was the first Disney animated film to become a Broadway musical. In 2002, it was extended with a new song, and in 2012 was re-released in 3D. An all-star live-action remake is out next year.

Awards
2 Oscars (Original Song (Beauty and the Beast), Original Score)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Sound, Original Song (both Belle and Be Our Guest))
2 BAFTA nominations (Original Score, Special Effects)
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Music)
2 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Individual Achievement in the Field of Animation)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“A lovely film that ranks with the best of Disney’s animated classics, Beauty and the Beast is a tale freshly retold. Darker-hued than the usual animated feature, with a predominant brownish-gray color scheme balanced by Belle’s blue dress and radiant features, Beauty engages the emotions with an unabashed sincerity.” — Variety

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“The voice cast are perfectly suited to their roles and imbue them with dexterity and flair. Paige O’Hara splendidly combines strength and touching bravery as Belle. Her singing voice is a marvel as well, singing with clarity and loving kindness. Robby Benson’s deep but engaging voice is ideally suited to the Beast, and gives him depth and mournful sorrow that subsides into happiness as he develops feelings for Belle.” — vinnieh

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Back in 2010 I reviewed The Special Edition of Beauty and the Beast (to give its full on-screen title), describing it as “impossible to fault in any significant way. The design and animation are beautiful, the voice acting spot-on, the score exquisite, the story fast-paced and enthralling […] It’s hilariously funny, remarkably exciting, surprisingly scary, relentlessly romantic […] Every [song] bursts with memorable tunes, witty rhymes, genuine emotion — even the Soppy Girly Song is a good one!” Beat that, verdict section…

Verdict

Beauty and the Beast was, famously, the first (and, for a long time, only) animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and you could hardly think of a more deserving candidate. Every element of it displays artistry, from the the witty dialogue and lyrics, to the likeable and engaging characters, to the fluid and detailed animation, to the songs which help the film to run the gamut of emotions. In the field of Broadway-style Disney musicals, Beauty and the Beast is animation perfection.

#11 will be… a long nap.

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The Lone Ranger (2013)

2015 #177
Gore Verbinski | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hated by Americans and loved (well, ok, “liked”) by everyone else (well, ok, “by lots, but by no means all, of people who reside outside America”), Disney’s attempt to pull a Pirates of the Caribbean on Western adventure IP The Lone Ranger is by no means as successful as the first instalment in their piratical franchise, but is at least the equal of its sequels — and, in some cases, their better.

The convoluted plot sees us arrive with John Reid (Armie Hammer) in the frontier town where he grew up, where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is now sheriff. Construction of the railroad is running by the town, spearheaded by Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who letches after Dan’s wife (Ruth Wilson); but work is plagued by a band of outlaws led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Receiving information on his whereabouts, Dan rounds up a posse and heads out to tackle him, with John insisting on tagging along. Unfortunately it’s an ambush and they’re all slaughtered (oh dear)… except John just about survives, and is found and nursed back to life by a Native American, Tonto (Johnny Depp). He has his own grievances, and together they set out on a mission of revenge.

And if you’re wondering where Helena Bonham Carter is in all that: despite her prominence on many of the posters, her role is really just a cameo. That’s marketing, folks.

I know some people complain about simplistic stories that are used to just string action sequences together, and that’s a perfectly valid thing to get annoyed about, but The Lone Ranger swings to the other extreme and uses an over-complicated story to string together its action sequences. All it actually needs is a little streamlining, because the film is allowed to swing off into too many sideplots. This makes the middle of the film a slog, and you feel every minute of its excessive two-and-a-half-hour running time.

That slog is made worthwhile by what comes before and after said middle: a pair of train-based action sequences that are each truly fantastic. The second, in particular, is arguably amongst the grandest climaxes ever put on screen (providing you don’t feel it’s tipped too far into being overblown, of course). It’s inventively choreographed, fluidly shot, and perfectly scored with just an extended barnstorming version of the Lone Ranger’s theme music (aka the William Tell Overture). It’s an adrenaline-pumping action sequence that single-handedly justifies the entire film’s existence, if you’re into that kind of thing.

With multiple trains, horses, actors, guns, stunts, and copious CGI to tie it together, that sequence must’ve cost a bomb. Notoriously, the whole film was deemed too expensive and Disney insisted the budget be slashed, resulting in delays… and it still cost a fortune. That, quite apart from the negative critical response in the US, is a big part of why it flopped at the box office — a recurring problem for Disney at the minute. To be frank, I’m not convinced anyone made a truly concerted effort to stem the overspend. When a gaggle of CG rabbits hopped on screen, all I could think was, “who allowed this?!” You’ve got a massively over-budgeted film that the studio want cut back, and one reason for that is CG bunnies that have almost no bearing on anything whatsoever! The amount of time and effort that must’ve gone into creating those fairly-realistic rabbits for such a short amount of screen time… it cost millions, surely. Millions that could’ve been saved with a simple snip during the writing stage if only someone had said, “well, those bunnies don’t add anything and they’ll be bloody expensive, so let’s lose them.”

So criticism is not unfounded, but the film doesn’t deserve the level of vitriolic scorn poured on it by the US press and, consequently, public. Discussing this, the “critical response” section on the film’s Wikipedia page is interesting, and this part pretty much nails it:

Mark Hughes of Forbes, analyzing what he felt was a “flop-hungry” press desiring to “control the narrative and render the outcome they insisted was unavoidable” for a highly expensive movie with much-publicized production troubles, found the film “about a hundred times better than you think it is … [a] well-written, well-acted, superbly directed adventure story.”

I’m not quite as effusive as Hughes, but The Lone Ranger is worth the time of anyone who enjoys an action-adventure blockbuster. It’s a three-star adventure-comedy bookended by a pair of five-star railroad action sequences, which make the trudge through the film’s middle hour-or-so feel worthwhile. There was a better movie to be made here — one that was half-an-hour shorter, more focused, and probably several tens of millions of dollars cheaper to make — but that doesn’t mean the one we got is meritless.

4 out of 5

Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)

2015 #196
Tad Stones | 82 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9* | USA / English | U

For most of the ’90s and ’00s, Disney churned out direct-to-video sequels to many of their most beloved animated classics. They have a reputation for being unremittingly awful, hence why Pixar’s John Lasseter put a stop to their production after he became Disney’s Chief Creative Officer in 2006. Despite that reputation, however, there are those who say one or two are actually quite good. One of those (and the only one I’ve previously seen) is The Lion King 1½ (released as The Lion King 3 in the UK), which is a sort of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the original film’s Hamlet, re-telling the story from the perspective of Timon and Pumbaa. I saw it years ago but would vouch for its relative quality — when I first re-watched The Lion King after, I briefly thought some scenes were missing, which I guess is testament to how well it fits.

Another such-praised sequel is this follow-up to Disney’s 1992 Animated Classic. It’s actually the second sequel (the first was also the first of those Disney DTV sequels) and also follows an 86-episode TV series. Fortunately, the makers dropped an early idea to use one of the series’ main villains as the film’s antagonist, and so it functions perfectly as a direct sequel to the original movie. Which is nice, because that first sequel isn’t meant to be very good and I imagine the TV series is hard to come by nowadays. Plus, neither of those can claim an ever-so-important distinction that this can: it features the return of Robin Williams as the Genie.

The film begins on the wedding day of Aladdin (Scott Weinger) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin), which is interrupted by the mysterious Cassim, the King of Thieves (John Rhys-Davies), and his gang of forty thieves seeking to steal an oracle from among the wedding gifts. Although they fail, the oracle informs Aladdin that the answers he seeks about his long-departed father are to be found with the forty thieves… I expect you can guess where that’s going. Fortunately the film gets there pretty quickly, then transitions into a story about the possible redemption (or not) of Cassim alongside the quest for the Hand of Midas, capable of turning whatever it touches into gold (natch).

The King of Thieves has a few things in its favour. It’ll come as no surprise that the biggest and best is Williams reprising his iconic performance, and consequently being responsible for most of the film’s humour. There are a couple of fun nods to some of Williams’ other best-remembered roles, and plenty to other Disney films too. The rest of the film offers a fast-paced, action-packed narrative, with a few musical numbers to boot. The songs are certainly not as memorable as those found in proper Disney movies, but most are decent while they last. Jasmine gets somewhat short shrift, but this is really a story about father and son.

Those who dislike Disney’s Aladdin won’t find anything to enjoy here, but for fans of the original, Aladdin and the King of Thieves is a solid, fun follow-up.

4 out of 5

* The film was made for release on VHS, so it’s no surprise that the OAR is 1.33:1. The HD version is cropped for 16:9. It’s mostly alright, though anyone with an eye for composition will find it obvious at times. ^

Aladdin (1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #1

Imagine if you had three wishes,
three hopes, three dreams
and they all could come true.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 90 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 25th November 1992 (USA)
UK Release: 18th November 1993
First Seen: VHS, c.1993

Stars
Scott Weinger (Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Shredder)
Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, Insomnia)
Linda Larkin (The Return of Jafar, Joshua)
Jonathan Freeman (The Return of Jafar, The Ice Storm)

Directors
Ron Clements (Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Hercules)
John Musker (The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog)

Screenwriters
Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog)
John Musker (Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Hercules)
Ted Elliott (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End)

Story by
Deep breath… Burny Mattinson and Roger Allers, Daan Jippes, Kevin Harkey, Sue Nichols, Francis Glebas, Darrell Rooney, Larry Leker, James Fujii, Kirk Hanson, Kevin Lima, Rebecca Rees, David S. Smith, Chris Sanders, Brian Pimental & Patrick A. Ventura.

Based on
The folktale of Aladdin and the magic lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, aka The Arabian Nights.

Music
Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Tangled)

Lyrics
Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast)
Tim Rice (The Lion King, Evita)

The Story
Street urchin Aladdin falls for bored Princess Jasmine when she sneaks out of her palace one day, leading him to the clutches of evil vizier Jafar, who needs Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp as part of his scheme to rule the land. When Aladdin accidentally discovers the lamp’s inhabitant, a wish-granting Genie, he uses his wishes to set about wooing the princess. Jafar, of course, has other ideas…

Our Hero
One jump ahead of the bread line, one swing ahead of the sword, steals only what he can’t afford (that’s everything). Riffraff, street rat, scoundrel. It’s Aladdin, of course.

Our Villain
Grand Vizier Jafar, a plotting underling — the kind of role that has strong precedent in fiction, I’m sure, though Conrad Veidt as villainous Grand Vizier Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad is rather clearly the direct inspiration.

Best Supporting Character
Oh, I don’t know, maybe… the Genie! Fantastically voiced by a heavily-improvising Robin Williams, praise is also deserved for Eric Goldberg’s character animation, which matches him every step of the way. In fact, it was an animation Goldberg created using one of Williams’ stand-up routines that convinced the comic to take the part.

Memorable Quote
Aladdin: “You’re a prisoner?”
Genie: “It’s all part and parcel, the whole genie gig. Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space.”

Memorable Scene
Trapped in a desert cave, Aladdin accidentally rubs a lamp and unleashes the Genie — and with it, Robin Williams’ all-time-great hilarious performance.

Best Song
For me, it’s Prince Ali, the huge Genie-led number as a disguised Aladdin arrives back in town in grandiose style. The Genie’s big solo number, Friend Like Me, is an incredibly close second. Soppy A Whole New World won all the awards, because of course it did.

Truly Special Effect
Only the second time Disney used CGI with 2D character animation. In Beauty and the Beast, it built a room for the characters to dance in; here, there’s a character (the entrance to the cave) and a whole action sequence (the flying carpet escape from said cave). It earnt the team a BAFTA nomination. There’s no shame in what they lost to: Jurassic Park.

Making of
Robin Williams ad-libbed so much of his role as the Genie — generating almost 16 hours worth of material, in fact — that the film was rejected for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination.

Previously on…
Aladdin is Disney’s 31st Animated Classic, their official canon of animated movies. It’s the fourth film in the “Disney Renaissance”, the decade-long period (starting with The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan) when they had a run of films that were critically and financially successful (unlike those before and after said period).

Next time…
Two direct-to-video sequels, the second of which is quite good; in between those, a TV series ran for 86 episodes(!); a Broadway adaptation debuted in 2014 (it’s coming to the West End in May); not to mention numerous video games and appearances in other works, almost all still voiced by the less-starry names among the original cast. The go-to new voice for the Genie? Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta.

Awards
2 Oscars (Original Song (A Whole New World), Original Score)
3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Original Song (Friend Like Me))
2 BAFTA nominations (Score, Special Effects)
1 Annie Award (Animated Feature)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Robin Williams), Younger Actor (Scott Weinger))
1 Saturn nomination (Music)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“What will children make of a film whose main attraction — the Genie himself — has such obvious parent appeal? They needn’t know precisely what Mr. Williams is evoking to understand how funny he is. […] What will come through clearly to audiences of any age is the breathless euphoria of Mr. Williams’s free associations, in which no subject is off-limits, not even Disney itself.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“the perfect Disney film, one that cleverly combines the sensibilities of classic and modern audiences, one that matches toe to toe with many of the studio’s greatest films. You may prefer the emotional heart-ache of The Lion King or the romantic magic from Beauty and the Beast, but I would always prefer the witty and charming Aladdin.” — feedingbrett @ Letterboxd

Verdict

Hailing from slap-bang in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, Aladdin may not be quite as strong as the films either side of it (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), but it’s the next best thing. Buoyed by Robin Williams’ top-drawer performance (have I mentioned that yet?), multiple toe-tapping musical numbers, and a dastardly villain who’s among Disney’s best — and is just one of several great supporting characters here, actually — Aladdin is an A-grade animated Arabian adventure.

In #2 no one can hear you scream.

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

aka: just Tomorrowland

2015 #187
Brad Bird | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.20:1 | USA & Spain / English | 12 / PG

TomorrowlandAfter making his live-action directorial debut with the unlikely sidestep of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Pixar alumni Brad Bird heads back in a familiar family-friendly direction for this Disney sci-fi action-adventure. One of several movies lambasted by critics this past summer, I actually thought it was a lot of fun.

The story concerns a future city created by scientists and dreamers; a place of wonder and innovation not constrained by the short-term goals of politicians or moneymen. Boy inventor Frank is delighted to be invited along there by recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy); years later, teenager Casey (Britt Robertson) receives similar treatment… only it turns out something is wrong, and Casey and Athena must track down a grizzled and disillusioned Frank (George Clooney) so they can head back to Tomorrowland and convince its leader (Hugh Laurie) of the way to make things right.

Something along those lines, anyway, because Tomorrowland’s storytelling can get a little muddled. It doesn’t quite conform to your usual action-adventure narrative shape — we spend quite a long time with boy-Frank, before the story essentially restarts with Casey, and eventually those two threads join up. The thing this makes me wonder is, is the storytelling actually muddled (this is not an uncommon criticism of the film), or does it just take an atypical shape, with the consequent lack of comforting familiarity making us think it’s poorly done? A counterargument might be that it helps foster some of the film’s mysteries, which might be reveals without setup if you restructured. I think if you just go along with it, the only real bump is in that restart; otherwise, it’s a pretty smooth action-adventure.

And that’s why I don’t really understand the negative response to it. Sure, the plot may have the odd hole, but there are worse in better-regarded movies; Raffey Cassidy, a findand there’s a moral lesson that’s arguably a little heavy-handed, but as it’s a moral lesson some people aren’t bloody listening to, I can’t say I blame Bird for that. The characters and performances are likeable, with Raffey Cassidy standing out as a marvellous young find, though Laurie is a little undersold. There are some suitably entertaining action scenes, some moments of visual splendour thanks to the future city, and one long take that is exquisite. I know I’m a sucker for a long take, but this is a really exceptional one, that deserves to be mentioned alongside the year’s more-praised unbroken shot, the opening of Spectre.

It’s such a shame when original blockbusters like this get pissed all over by critics and an audience who are sometimes too keen to re-parrot critics’ opinions as if they’re their own (see also the Stateside response to Lone Ranger vs. how the rest of us received it). I’m not arguing movies should get a free pass just because they’re not adapted from something else, but really, when decent adventures like this get slated and consequently flop, what incentive do the studios have to try something new, when they know producing fifth Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean instalments will make shedloads whatever the reviews say?

For anyone who enjoys a good sci-fi action-adventure movie, I urge you to ignore the critics and give Tomorrowland a go. It’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s a fun time with more than a few points to commend it.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

2015 #189
Randy Moore | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15

Escape from TomorrowDisney meets David Lynch in this arthouse-y psychological thriller, best known for being shot on the QT (i.e. illegally) in DisneyWorld.

The high-contrast black-and-white cinematography is stunning, quite apart from the marvel of how it was captured. It depicts a “not for everyone” experience: a freshly unemployed dad starts to ignore his family, stalk two jailbait teens, get into bizarre scrapes, and possibly lose his mind.

Some find it aimless. Perhaps. The end certainly sinks to gross-out-comedy-level depravity. Others say it’s poorly made. I disagree. It’s at least a strong technical achievement… even if it’s a slightly-too-long, thoroughly peculiar one.

3 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

An inside out pair of shorts

Pixar’s latest opus, Inside Out, was naturally accompanied by a short film in cinemas. On Blu-ray (out today in the UK), it’s accompanied by two. These are they, reviewed in nice quick drabbles.


Riley’s First Date?
2015 #179a
Josh Cooley | 5 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / G

In this ‘sequel’ to Inside Out, Riley is going to hang out with a friend… who turns out to be a boy, which sends her mum and dad — and their anthropomorphised emotions — into paroxysms of worry. Is this the 12-year-old’s first date?

The straightforward story is built on clichés of male and female parental reactions to their kid growing up and encountering the opposite sex (mum tries to be cool, dad gets protective), but then it’s only got four minutes so needs that shorthand. Nonetheless, it manages roughly as many laughs as the feature, even if they are easy targets.

4 out of 5


Lava
2015 #179b
James Ford Murphy | 7 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / G

The short that accompanied Inside Out in cinemas is essentially a music video for a folksy ballad about a pair of volcanoes who are in ‘lava’ (read: love) with each other.

It’s quite beautifully animated, with realistic CGI (apart from, you know, singing volcanoes) that eschews stylisation without giving in to the urge to shallowly emphasise its photorealism, but other than that I didn’t much care for it. The story and song — inspired by an underwater volcano that will one day merge with Hawaii — are a little too twee. It’s not really sweet, nor sickly, just kind of uninspiringly quaint.

3 out of 5

Inside Out (2015)

2015 #179
Pete Docter | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Pixar haven’t had the greatest start to the second decade of the 21st Century. After somehow managing to get lightning to strike thrice with Toy Story 3, they released two mediocre sequels (Cars 2 and Monsters University), and their only original film of the period, Brave, endured a mixed-to-poor reception also (I’ve still not got round to seeing it). This might go some way towards explaining why their release for this year has attracted such acclaim, despite it offering a pretty rote storyline dressed up in some fancy ‘original idea’ clothing (not that it is a truly original idea) and a modicum of genuine emotional resonance.

You see, this is the story of Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), an 11-year-old kid who moves from her small home town to San Francisco and struggles to cope. That’s because the anthropomorphised emotions who live in her head and control her moods and memories are thrown for six, especially when de facto leader Joy (Amy Poehler) and the accidentally-ruinous Sadness (Phyllis Smith) get sucked out of the control room and in to the depths of Riley’s memory, from where they have to find their way back in time to sort everything out. Fancy idea: anthropomorphised emotions. Rote storyline: mismatched pair get lost, have to find way back in time to fix things. Genuine emotional resonance: once-happy 11-year-old kid rendered miserable and struggling to find her place.

It surprises me not a jot that a Pixar film has been over-praised by critics and initial viewers. That’s pretty much my view of the their last couple of efforts before the recent doldrums, too. Those were, specifically, WALL-E and Up, both of which feature incredible, innovative, boundary-pushing openings followed by rote, familiar, genre-bound second halves. They’re both good films, but the five-star bits are contained within the first 10 to 30 minutes, followed by three- or four-star entertainments for the rest of the running time. Inside Out isn’t quite the same, because the super-high-quality bits aren’t concentrated anywhere. Instead they’re sprinkled here and there, moments of cleverness (though not genius — as I said, the concepts aren’t exactly original) hung on an easy, well-worn formula.

You don’t have to dig very deep into the Blu-ray’s special features to get an idea of how this happened. The story went through many, many, many iterations over the years and years it was in development. No wonder they wound up beating it into such a familiar shape as the quest narrative. It may also explain why some events don’t quite seem explained. I could’ve missed something, of course, but I was wondering why they were demolishing stuff in Riley’s Imagination Land until a deleted scene (culled from a very different take on the story) explained it. Many of the characters are just built from archetypes, too, like a sports-minded dad who doesn’t actually listen to mom — never seen that anywhere before!

It certainly isn’t as clever or meaningful as some people have tried to make it out to be. For example, a whole internet discussion was sparked by the fact that Riley (an 11-year-old girl, remember) has emotions that are personified as a mix of male and female. When we get a glimpse inside other characters’ heads, their emotions are all of a single gender. ‘What is this saying?’, the internet wonders. Is it to do with the fact that all gender is fluid? That gender is fluid pre-puberty? As Riley is the only one with these mixed genders, are we meant to infer she’s transgender? Fertile ground for discussion. In fact, the answers are: no, no, and no. Director Pete Docter has said he just felt some emotions were more masculine (Anger in particular) and so that’s why they’re male in Riley’s head. Why the single genders in other characters? Shorthand. We only meet them briefly, after all.

Of course, now we’re touching on the issue of the relevance of authorial intent versus consumers’ reading of the final work, which isn’t a discussion I have much interest in engaging with right now. Suffice to say, whatever anyone’s readings of gender issues in Inside Out, none were intended by the filmmakers, and so you’re projecting something on to it rather than being able to unearth a coherent statement.

In other matters, there are some nice jokes and nods aimed squarely at adult viewers, the best being a passing reference to a ’70s noir. (Yes, really. Don’t worry, you’ll spot it.) Meanwhile, the animation and design is fine. I feel that’s the best I can say about it, other than that the loose, floating, ‘bubbly’ edges of the emotion characters are quite neat. Apparently the effect was originally meant only for Joy and was immensely difficult to animate, but just as it was to be scrapped John Lasseter commented on how great it was and asked for it to be added to all the characters. Well done Mr Lasseter, though apparently it was an absolute headache for the technical team.

I do wonder if it’s just because this is the first really good original Pixar film for quite a long time (six years and five films on from Up, to be precise) that it’s gone down so well. It is good — there are some neat ideas and a strong moral lesson (even if, as with everything else, it’s not a totally original one; though from the way it’s discussed in some circles (not least the film’s own special features), you’d think it was a philosophical revelation of Nobel-winning proportions). In some respects, these qualities makes it almost a return to Pixar’s early praise-magnet form, which is enough for some to go wild for it. For me, the style and shape of the story those elements are airlifted into is so familiar that there’s little room for surprise (one highly emotional moment excepted). Maybe clearer heads will eventually prevail and people will rein it in a little.

4 out of 5

Inside Out is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK tomorrow.

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

2015 #98
Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders | 82 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English & Hawaiian | U* / PG

Lilo and StitchFrom the heart of Disney’s most recent poor period, Lilo & Stitch is possibly the only film that comes out of that era with any affection. Certainly, it spawned several sequels and a relatively-long-running TV series. By the standards of the films that surround it, it’s a good’un; in the grand scope of all Disney films, however, I didn’t care for it that much.

The story begins in deep space, where a self-proclaimed evil scientist has created a six-armed little monster, who we will later come to call Stitch. The scientist is sentenced to imprisonment, the monster to some kind of exile, but it escapes and makes for Earth. There we meet Lilo (Daveigh Chase), a rambunctious little girl who’s shunned by her peers and is cared for by her older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere), after their parents died. After a Secret Service-y child protection officer (Ving Rhames) gives Nani just three days to prove she’s capable of caring for Lilo, she decides getting a dog would help. Unfortunately, the ‘dog’ Lilo picks is actually Stitch. Mayhem ensues, life lessons about family are learnt, everything ends happily.

Lilo and NaniThe story is something and nothing. Despite strong and relatively mature thematic notes, it doesn’t quite break free of the family-movie trappings to achieve the kind of insight or age-group transcendence that, say, Pixar movies routinely manage. For kids, though, especially ones who are feeling like misunderstood outsiders, there might be a lot to take from it. The zany antics of the heroes might also work for them in a way they didn’t for me — the ‘craziness’ comes across as a series of vignettes to bide time until the climax, and I didn’t find it massively engaging either. This is also the stage at which Disney had decided musicals were a Bad Idea, so there’s only a couple of non-diegetic songs to keep things ticking over, and… well, your mileage may vary.

On the bright side, the animation is nicely done. Well, the characters are nothing to particularly write home about — they have all of Disney’s usual slickness without being particularly remarkable. Aside from the fact that it makes all Hawaiian women look exactly the same, anyway; and bonus points for giving Nani a more realistic body-type, rather than the impossibly-stick-thin way women are often rendered in animation. The real star, however, are the backgrounds, which were watercolour-painted for the first time since Dumbo, over 60 years earlier. In some respects it’s a minor, literally background touch Lilo and... Elvisthat might be missed by many a viewer, but it gives a subtly different feel. It’s a little more classical, which sits nicely against the very modern zany-aliens storyline.

Lilo & Stitch is a long way from the worst of Disney’s ’00s output; indeed, in places it’s even quite good, and I can see why a lot of kids would get something out of it. Not one that’s especially worth bothering with as an adult, though.

3 out of 5

* The version rated U has a re-animated bit showing Lilo hiding behind a pizza box instead of inside a dryer. The one I watched on Amazon Prime includes the dryer bit, but as that’s never been classified by the BBFC I guess this is technically unrated (or a 12, which is supposedly what the original would’ve received). ^

The Rocketeer (1991)

2015 #46
Joe Johnston | 104 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The RocketeerBased on an ’80s-created superhero modelled on the matinee serials of the ’30s and ’40s, The Rocketeer sets its scene in 1938, when stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) winds up in possession of an experimental rocket pack. Initially donning it as part of the stunt show, when Cliff uses it to rescue another pilot he, a) attracts the attention of the hoods who originally stole it, and b) discovers his true calling as a hero, etc. Throw in a love interest (Jennifer Connelly) who’s a Hollywood extra with connections to the swashbuckling film star (Timothy Dalton) who’s really behind the theft, and you’ve got yourself an adventure!

After years stuck in development — including, variously, attempts to make it in black & white with an unknown cast (I guess someone realised that would never make money), having to persuade studios of the possibilities of a comic book movie (this being before Burton’s Batman, even), neutering the source material to make it kid-friendly (in the comic Connelly’s character was a Bettie Page-inspired nude model), and attempts to set it in the present day (until someone pointed out the success of Indiana Jones) — the version that finally emerged on screen is a bit of a mishmash.

The real problem is the first act. It drags and unbalances the film, which picks up considerably (though gradually) after the Rocketeer himself finally turns up. It would feel a much better film, and perhaps be better regarded, if it didn’t dilly-dally for so long before getting to the meat of the plot and action. It doesn’t help that it has ambition ahead of its era when it comes to special effects. The limitations of the time mean there’s not that much action of the hero actually flying, his raison d’être. He mostly jets around a room, along the ground, or via a handful of very brief green-screen shots that are mostly confined to one sequence. Jennifer Connelly is in this movie, what else do you need to know?We all know effects alone do not make a good movie, but equally trying to make an effects-y movie when you can’t achieve said effects is a fool’s errand. Fortunately there’s some other derring-do to make up for it, and the climax atop a zeppelin isn’t at all bad.

Campbell is a nondescript lead, but there are some excellent scenes involving Jennifer Connelly and/or Timothy Dalton — in particular, the bit where he’s trying to seduce her and she keeps identifying the movies he’s stealing lines from. Connelly’s role certainly isn’t your standard “damsel in distress”, a plus side of that long development period, where it was noted they needed to strengthen her character. She very much holds her own, with a nice line in bashing people over the head. Elsewhere, Dalton’s Errol Flynn-inspired movie star is a great villain — well, us Brits always do that best, don’t we?

A lot of people seem to love The Rocketeer; I think it has a bit of a cult following, even. I wanted to like it that much, and as it goes on it plays more into such territory, but it wastes too much time early on and is somewhat hamstrung by the production limitations of its era.

3 out of 5