Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

2020 #78
Jake Kasdan | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: The Next Level

The previous Jumanji movie, Welcome to the Jungle, was officially a sequel to the 1995 original. In practice, however, that amounted to little more than a brief nod / tribute to original star Robin Williams, and maybe a few Easter eggs scattered about. The Next Level, on the other hand, is much more in the traditional “direct followup” mould.

Despite our quartet of heroes having destroyed the eponymous game at the end of the last movie, one of them rescued and repaired it, and when he goes back in (for old times’ sake or something) the others must follow to rescue him. But he’s not repaired it properly, and so his septuagenarian grandfather and his chum are sucked in too, and everyone’s inhabiting a different character. And so The Next Level plays with a lot of the same comedic ideas as its predecessor — i.e. the mismatch between real-life person and in-game persona — but mixes up who’s imitating who. Primarily, this means The Rock gets to do an impression of Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart is being Danny Glover, and Jack Black is a black American football player. Karen Gillan doesn’t immediately get to join in the fun, but the film has some tricks up its sleeve. Anyway, once in the game, they head off on an Indiana Jones-type adventure — again, much like the first movie.

For many, this repetition of ideas has been a stumbling block. “The same but slightly different” doesn’t really cut it for a sequel nowadays, when you can easily rewatch the thing it’s repeating. However, I don’t think The Next Level is actually such a slavish clone. The “mismatched identities” schtick arguably worked better the first time, when it was a shiny new gag, but the fact most of the cast get to play at being someone else keeps it at least a bit fresh. There are also several new characters in the mix, with an especially entertaining performance from Awkwafina. More importantly, the adventure itself is considerably different. In my review of Welcome to the Jungle I noted that its locales were “jungle, jungle, and jungle”. Here, we get snowy mountains, vast desert, plus towns and castles. To me, it feels like they took what worked in the first movie and polished it. It’s still fundamentally the same kind of comedy action-adventure — if you disliked the first movie, there’s no reason this should appeal to you more — but refined.

Snow wonder it's better

That said, there’s still ideas left on the table. That game malfunctioning only affects who gets zapped in and which characters they play, but what if it kept glitching throughout? It’s arguably a tricky conceit to manage — if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to integrate it; but you can’t really have our heroes winning (or losing) thanks to random mistakes. But this is why Hollywood filmmakers get paid the big bucks, right? To solve these kind of things. Do it right and the glitches could’ve added an extra zing, either to the humour or as an obstacle to winning or, ideally, both. (Also, on a slightly more personal level, I think it’s a shame they didn’t release it on 3D Blu-ray this time. It was released theatrically in 3D, so a conversion exists, but they didn’t bother to put it on disc anywhere in the world. Adventure movies like this can look great in the format, and there’s a sequence with rope bridges that could’ve been really special.)

I was surprised how much I liked Welcome to the Jungle, but I held back somewhat on the sequel because of the reactions I’d seen. As it is, I was surprised again, because I think The Next Level is an even more enjoyable adventure.

There’s now a third (aka fourth, or you could even say fifth, depending what you count) Jumanji in development, which a credit scene here teases might go off in a new direction; plus cast and crew interviews have hinted at some other intriguing additions to the mythology that spin out of this movie. There’s no guarantee it’ll be a success, of course, but, nonetheless, next time I won’t be so reticent.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: The Next Level is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

aka Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw*

2020 #40
David Leitch | 137 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Samoan & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw

In my review of Fast & Furious 8, I singled out the odd-couple double-act of lawman Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and semi-reformed criminal Deckard (Jason Statham) for particular praise. Well, clearly I wasn’t alone in that view, because the pair have become the subject of the first Fast & Furious spinoff. (It’s kind of ridiculous that this is devalued as a spinoff while Tokyo Drift gets to sit there as part of the main series, but that’s a whole other debate.)

Here, despite their mutual antipathy, Hobbs and Shaw are forced to team-up when technologically-augmented super-soldier Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) manages to frame Deckard’s MI6 agent sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) for the theft of a programmable super-virus. Yep, the series that started out as a based-on-a-newspaper-article story of illegal street racers continues to play in more of a James Bond sandpit, albeit with a continued focus on vehicular activity for the action sequences.

If you’ve seen any of the recent Fast & Furious movies (since Fast Five performed that soft reboot into the spy caper genre), you should pretty much know what to expect here: physically-implausible OTT action, with a knowing wink to the audience so we can all share in the ridiculousness. It certainly shares some of the main series’ preoccupations — crazy stunts with cars; the importance of family — but it’s a bit less self-serious whenever the latter is mentioned. Obviously on one level it’s a spinoff because the main characters (Vin Diesel and co) aren’t here, but they’ve used that “not part of the main saga” thing to allow it to cut a little loose with the tone; to have a bit of fun. The FF films aren’t at all averse to ludicrous hijinks, but even they don’t indulge as consistently as Hobbs & Shaw does.

The car's (not) the star

In fact, while not ‘officially’ labelled a Comedy, Hobbs & Shaw borders on being one. Johnson and Statham are both outwardly old-school action stars who’ve demonstrated a surprisingly good acuity for comedy in previous roles, so pairing them up in a buddy-comedy actioner allows them to spark off each other nicely. It’s directed by David Leitch, who demonstrated a fine handling of the balance between action and comedy in Deadpool 2, and brings a similar touch here. The plot is regularly paused to indulge in what are effectively comedy routines, to the extent of bringing in some cameos to basically do a couple of sketches. (No spoilers as to the identity of the cameos, other than to say they have connections to other work by members of the cast and/or crew, which makes them fun little meta-nods.) If you’re looking for a streamlined story or nonstop action, you’re out of luck, and I imagine the funny bits (which sometimes are allowed to run just a little too long) will get on your nerves. It may push the comedy a little further than regular FF films — tonally, it’s almost Deadpool level at times — but I’m all for it being self-consciously funny, rather than trying to remain po-faced while taking the action to cartoonish extremes.

Like its saga brethren, Hobbs & Shaw aims squarely at being a couple of hours of pure entertainment for people who enjoy imaginative, physics-defying action scenes and a bit of a laugh on the side. It’s possibly my favourite Fast & Furious film since Fast Five — and I thought F7 and F8 were a lot of ridiculous fun, so that’s not damning with faint praise. There are some teases that it might spark a sequel, or even series, of its own, and I’m definitely up for that.

4 out of 5

Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

* I would love to know why Universal continue to insist on slightly retitling these movies for their UK and European releases. At least with, say, The Fate of the Furious I can see they wanted to get the brand name in there properly by officially calling it Fast & Furious 8, but removing Presents from this one? It looks neater, because “Presents” serves no purpose other than to try to suggest this isn’t a ‘real’ Fast & Furious film (and who the fuck cares? Except Vin Diesel, I expect), but, still, why bother to change it? ^

Rampage (2018)

2019 #61
Brad Peyton | 107 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rampage

A big-budget live-action movie adaptation of a 32-year-old arcade game that I’m pretty sure only old and/or hardcore gamer geeks remember? Was that the wisest moviemaking decision? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being old, but is a PG-13 CGI-fest like this really aimed at that age group? Well, I guess these days it is, so maybe it wasn’t such a poor commissioning decision after all — and it made over $428 million at the box office, so someone knew what they were doing. And, before this year, Rampage was tied for the honour of being the best-reviewed video game adaptation ever made… though as it achieved that with a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 52%, it’s certainly damning with faint praise.

Anyway, I don’t really care about all the video game-y stuff. I’m here because it’s a The Rock movie, and I tend to find his stuff pretty entertaining nowadays (as do many others — I bet he’s a bigger part of that $428 million than “based on a video game” is), and it’s about an ape, a wolf, and a crocodile who get mutated into giants and set about destroying Chicago. I mean, who doesn’t want to see that? (Yes, I know: well-adjusted adults who actually grew up.)

If you think I’m being facetious, nah, that’s the plot; or it’s the climax, anyway, and the rest of the film exists as a way to find a narrative reason for said climax to happen. Naturally, with such a batshit barmy climax as the end goal, the story that gets us there is thoroughly daft also. It involves corporate skullduggery and genetic experimentation and all kinds of stock plot-building stuff like that, but at least it’s all executed with a certain amount of humour. No one is taking this too seriously.

Monkeying around

So it’s a little odd, then, how gruesomely violent and gory it gets, and sometimes kinda unnecessarily cruel with it. But there are no nipples and only one use of “fuck”, so, sure, PG-13! I would describe the gore, but a lot of it is kinda spoilery so I’ll refrain; but the film’s opening shot features a drop of blood floating into a dead guy’s empty eye socket, and later we see people ripped in half, one character falls into the mouth of a monster in slow motion, we see another get beheaded and the head get eaten… Yeah, okay, it’s all ridiculous CG BS, but still.

The Rock is truly the closest thing we have to a genuine Movie Star right now, I think — a guy who can still lead a movie on the strength of his name and likeability alone (look how many original or near-as-dammit-original movies he’s done in the past few years that’ve made bank). He’s got just the right level of charm to keep us engaged and on side without it tipping over into smarminess. He also has a remarkable skill (or at least I think he does) whereby, without breaking character or immediately undermining what’s happening, he lets us know that the story and its antics shouldn’t be taken too seriously because, hey, it’s just an action movie. Or maybe that’s just something I inherently infer from his very presence, considering the kinds of movies he stars in and the fact he always plays more-or-less the same character. Anyway, in this one he convinced me that he had a tight brotherly bond with a giant CGI ape, and consequently made me care about the fate of said collection of pixels, so that’s an achievement in itself.

“Jeff, stop chewing the scenery — that's the CGI's job.”

This time, most of the rest of the lead cast are in on the gag too, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan chewing more scenery than the monsters as a cowboy-ish government agent, and Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy hamming it up as the corporate bitch villain and her halfwit brother. Naomi Harris pops up as The Rock’s love interest cum sidekick, who’s a clever scientist lady and can hold her own in a verbal slanging match with him, but, yeah, is still primarily there to be the love interest.

Rampage is not big and it’s not clever, but it is kinda fun. Although it is actually quite big — that’s kinda the point. But anyway, it’s mostly big dumb fun, and naturally a lot of that looks pretty awesome in 3D. I liked it as a thoroughly ludicrous, brain-off entertainment.

3 out of 5

Baywatch: Extended Cut (2017)

2018 #62
Seth Gordon | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 15

Baywatch

Once upon a time, I probably wouldn’t have given Baywatch a second thought. For one, I never paid the TV series any heed (its popularity was slightly before my time, but apparently it was knocking about until 2001, which I guess explains why I vaguely remember it being on), and although the theme song was inexplicably popular in clubs and the like while I was at uni, that wasn’t really my scene. As for this movie taken in its own right, I used to just write off modern American film comedy, and this cast wouldn’t have done anything to recommend it either. But, you know, some modern American comedies are actually funny, and I’ve warmed to The Rock a lot in recent years. So, despite the terrible reviews, I dove in.

“Dove in”, you see, because it’s a movie about lifeguards. That’s a pun.

Anyway, lifeguards. They protect people on the beach from things like drowning and, in this case, drugs. Yep, when a new street drug begins to flood (water pun! Anyway:) their beach, head lifeguard Mitch (Dwayne Johnson) and his team, including hot-headed new recruit Matt (Zac Efron), set out to investigate and stop the criminal enterprise behind it. Just like real lifeguards would, I’m sure. Or, as we all know, not. But, thank goodness, the film knows it too, and makes jokes about it, so that works, more or less.

As I say, the stars of the film are Johnson and Efron.

Dwayne Johnson and Alexandra Daddario

Oops, sorry, that’s Johnson with Alexandra Daddario. She’s also in the movie. Um, let’s… let’s try that again…

Zac Efron and Alexandra Daddario

Okay, so, now that’s Efron with Daddario. Third time lucky…

My God, just look at that pair of big, beautiful eyes…

No, that’s just Alexandra Daddario.

Keep your eyes on the eyes

Oops, there’s another one.

Oh, this is funny to you?

Yeah, I give up.

Okay, joke's over.

Okay, I’m done now.

As I was saying before, the film makes jokes at the expense of its own plot about lifeguards investigating crime. I presume that kind of plot line is something inherited from the original TV series. There are some more decent jokes at the expense of the original show’s reputation, too. Of course, most of those gags were in the trailer, so if you already saw them there then, well, that’s that. Similarly, someone involved should’ve been told that your big surprise cameos don’t really work as a surprise if the actors’ names are in the opening credits…

Other than that, if you’ve come to this review wondering what differentiates the extended cut (or “extended edition” if you buy it in the UK — why they made that insignificant change on the cover, God only knows), it adds less than five minutes of new material. There’s a full list of changes here if you’re interested in the details. It doesn’t add up to much, but it’s not egregious either. The main highlight is a bitchy line from the villainess when the girls arrive at the party (“You look amazing” “Someone has to”), and Daddario flashing her bra is, shall we say, a bonus. (Did I already mention that Alexandra Daddario is in this movie?) Technically the longer cut is unrated, but there’s nothing in it that wouldn’t pass at an R easily. Heck, ditch a couple of F words and it’d pass at PG-13.

Well that's just gratuitous

Hey, look, a photo that doesn’t feature Alexandra Daddario!

Surprise, it's Alexandra Daddario!

Dammit!

Anyway, as I mentioned in my intro, this got terrible reviews. Terrible, terrible reviews — it has 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, for chrissake! That should’ve warned me off… but… well, I actually thought it was fun. Big, dumb, daft fun. And that’s what I think it’s meant to be, so, really, what’s the problem? It’s not clever and it’s not subtle, but why would you expect it to be? Okay, fair enough: maybe you flat-out don’t enjoy this kind of movie. That’s fine. But for anyone who chooses to watch it with realistic expectations about the kind of film it will be, it delivers what you’d expect in reasonably good fashion.

3 out of 5

DaddarioWatch Baywatch is available on Netflix UK from today.

Skyscraper (2018)

2019 #35
Rawson Marshall Thurber | 102 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Cantonese & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

Skyscraper

If you were to describe a movie as “Die Hard in a building, from the director of Dodgeball”, you’d expect some kind of spoof. Not unreasonably: “Die Hard in an X” is (or was) a fairly common movie pitch, but the original is set in a building, so clearly someone’s making a joke (it’s me! And also everyone else who used this line to describe Skyscraper); and Dodgeball is, well, a comedy. Combine the two and you’ve definitely got a parody movie… right? Turns out, no.

That said, Skyscraper certainly owes a debt to its genre predecessors. It stars Dwayne Johnson as a security consultant employed to okay the world’s new tallest building for its imminent opening. When a group of terrorists break in and set the building on fire, endangering not only the rich dude behind the building’s construction but also Johnson’s family, it’s up to our guy — who used to be in the military or SWAT or something, I forget — to save the day. Plenty of running and jumping ensues, as you well know if you’ve seen that poster that went viral as people tried to work out if the angles add up. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t.

Beat THIS, Alex Honnold

That jumping scene does actually occur in the film, though. Does he make it? You guess. Does it make any more sense on screen? Eh, who knows? Frankly, who cares? Skyscraper is not a movie overly concerned with realism. Or originality. It’s not just the obvious stuff nabbed from Die Hard and/or The Towering Inferno (I’ve never seen the latter, but it’s been cited as an influence) — tropes and clichés abound. If you’re in a miserable mood, the endless parade of familiarity will likely frustrate any viewer. Conversely, if you’re in a forgiving frame of mind, it executes them at least as well as any other derivative action-adventure blockbuster.

The film doesn’t acknowledge or spoof these glaring rip-offs — as I said, it’s not actually a parody — but I think everyone involved was aware that it’s all a bit silly. Or maybe I’m being kind. Maybe I think the film is so obviously silly that I can’t believe they meant it to be read seriously. Either way, it’s at least as daft as you’d expect it to be, but that means it’s pretty fun if your expectations are right. It’s an undemanding 90-minutes-or-so of derring-do, where the scenarios are so extreme and OTT they can’t elicit much tension, but occasionally achieve a modicum of suspense nonetheless. And as so much of it is about doing things at great distances above the ground, it’s highly effective in 3D. One near-miss moment even made me gasp, so it was obviously doing something right with its sense of jeopardy.

3 out of 5

Skyscraper is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

2018 #89
Jake Kasdan | 119 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

As Avengers: Infinity War breaks almost all opening weekend records, a surprise box office champ from last year makes it to UK DVD and Blu-ray. Well, it’s not all that surprising that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did well at the box office — it’s the belated sequel to a successful film that has become a childhood favourite for many, and it stars one of the few current actors who’s more-or-less guaranteed to get a film good gross on his appearance alone, The Rock — but how well it did shocked many who commentate on such things. In the US, although it only opened at #2 (behind The Last Jedi in its second weekend), it climbed to #1 for its third weekend, then stayed there for four of the next five weeks. Eventually it overtook every Spider-Man movie to become Sony’s highest-grossing film ever domestically. Worldwide, it’s taken just shy of $957 million to be Sony’s second highest-grossing film of all time (behind Skyfall). That’s more than just some vague nostalgia for an old Robin Williams movie.

Set 20 years later, a group of mismatched high school kids wind up in detention and are assigned to clear out an old classroom. There they find an old games console with a single game: Jumanji. They boot it up, select their characters… and are sucked into the console, finding themselves inhabiting their avatars inside the game’s jungle world. In order to escape they must complete the game, by battling against a gang of mercenaries to return a jewel to its rightful home.

Search for the high school kid inside yourself

It’s a very different setup to the original movie, which is refreshing — it could’ve just been a rehash with modern effects (while the Williams movie still has a lot going for it, the mid-’90s CGI is definitely not one of them). That said, it’s not as innovative or inventive as the first movie. The way that brought the board game’s environment to life in the real world was a unique concept, whereas this sequel merely offers an Indiana Jones-esque jungle adventure, albeit with self-aware characters. It doesn’t even use the fact it’s supposedly a video game that much, aside from a few jokes (our heroes have ridiculous only-in-a-game abilities and weaknesses; non-player characters sometimes have looping dialogue).

Where it does work is the characters and the performances. The headline cast are excellent, playing at once their in-game characters and evoking the real world counterparts who’ve inhabited them. Much of the film’s fun comes from the juxtapositions: the most obvious is Jack Black as a self-obsessed teenage girl in the body of an overweight middle-aged man, but there’s also Dwayne Johnson as a scaredy nerd in the body of, well, The Rock; Kevin Hart as a bulky jock reduced to being a short-ass backpack carrier; and Karen Gillan as an under-confident academic girl now in the body of a sexy Lara Croft type. Well, frankly, I’m not sure how much Hart brings to the table, but Johnson and Gillan are really good (and — minor spoiler! — share what is perhaps one of the best kisses in screen history), and Black is clearly having a whale of a time. The quality of the characters quietly builds to a point where the epilogue back in the real world is surprisingly emotional.

MVPs not NPCs

Unfortunately, not everything works that well. The main thing that suffers is the villain. I suppose there has to be one, if only to provide an obstacle at the climax, but that’s also the only reason he’s there — an antagonist for the sake of it. He either needs more time investment, to make him a proper character, or, actually, less — make him even more of an uninteresting obstacle than he already is. Heck, they could’ve got some gags out of the weak plots of old video games. It’s a similar situation with world building. For example, the city they visit looks fantastic in the establishing shot, but there’s no time invested in it — it’s just a place for an action scene, clearly meant to provide visual variety from the other settings of jungle, jungle, and jungle. Maybe that’s ok, but you feel like there could be more to this world.

These issues with plot construction extend to individual gags, some of which feel like setups in need of pay-offs. For example, Hart’s character has a weakness for cake. We learn that, then he accidentally eats some cake and loses a life, but… that’s it? The scene is mildly amusing thanks to the OTT way it causes him to die, but it feels like that’s a reminder — “weaknesses matter, and cake is his” — before a proper pay-off later. But there isn’t one. I mean, how about this: not only does cake kill him, but he can’t resist it (it’s like, you know, a weakness). So in the rhino scene, instead of just dropping him, they drop a trail of cake to lure him along; then, rather than the rhinos just being distracted by him running away, he eats the cake and explodes, which takes out the rhinos. (Hire me, Hollywood!)

There is running. There is also jumping. Yep, definitely a video game.

In some respects these are all nitpicks. They don’t detract from the main fun of the film, which is the mismatch between real-world kids and their in-game avatars, and putting those characters through an action-adventure. The result is amusing and exciting, and ultimately a lot of fun, even if a bit of polish could’ve made it better. Nonetheless, I probably enjoyed it more than the original.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Fast & Furious 8 (2017)

aka The Fate of the Furious

2018 #21
F. Gary Gray | 136 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, China & Japan / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Fast & Furious 8

Anyone who’s watched a Fast & Furious movie will know that the most important thing to our heroes is not fast cars but family. Family, family, family — they don’t half go on about it. But what might make one of the team betray their all-important figurative family? Well, that’s what the series’ eighth instalment sets out to ask, as patriarch Dom (Vin Diesel) is forcibly recruited by terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), and government agent Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) counter-recruits Dom’s family to track him down and stop Cipher’s evil plan.

You may remember that, once upon a time, these films were about street racers who occasionally carried out on-the-road heists, all the better to keep the focus on the cars. Those days are long gone, despite an opening sequence here that tries to pretend that’s still part of the game. No, nowadays we’re in the “international spy actioner” genre, and our former street racers have somehow become highly capable agents… whose primary tools/weapons are still vehicles. It’s utterly ridiculous… but, thank goodness, everyone involved seems to know that.

Well, most people do. I reckon Vin Diesel might think it’s a serious movie about the emotional turmoil of being kidnapped by a global cyberterrorist who lives on a plane and can remotely hijack a city-load of cars and is threatening your family unless you help her steal a nuclear submarine. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?

A lot of men would betray their family for Charlize Theron, to be fair

So, yeah, the story is thoroughly daft. But it exists primarily to connect up action sequences, and in a movie like this I’m fine with that — I’m here to watch people do cool shit in cars, hopefully with some funny bits around that action, not to be wowed by an intricate plot or ponder meaningful character development. On the things I expect, then, FF8 more or less delivers. I mean, the series has always been renowned for using CGI to augment its car chases, which is less thrilling than doing stunts for real, but it really blurs the line nowadays: you might think dozens of cars falling from a multi-storey car park is all CGI, but you’d be wrong.

Any time almost anyone besides Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) or Deckard (Jason Statham) has their mouth open, FF8 is pretty dumb; but when those two are talking, especially when they’re bickering with each other, it’s often pretty funny (they’re definitely in on the joke). And when the action’s a-go-go, the film’s either solidly pulse-racing or, actually, being kinda witty — there’s a prison riot, for example, that is, appropriately enough, a riot. Though it’s as nothing to Statham engaging in a protracted gunfight-cum-punch-up against a bunch of goons while carrying a baby.

Bromance

Fast & Furious 8 isn’t strictly a comedy, but a sense of humour is required to enjoy it. There’s no way to take this palaver seriously, and fortunately the filmmakers have embraced that. It’s deliberately OTT, dedicated to being entertaining for almost every minute of its running time. Taken as just that, it’s a lot of fun. Also, probably the series’ best instalment since the fifth.

4 out of 5

Fast & Furious 8 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Moana (2016)

2017 #85
Ron Clements & John Musker | 103 mins | TV (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Moana

The latest entry in Disney’s animated canon (the 56th), Moana is another princess-starring musical — that genre fully back in vogue for animated movies since the success of Frozen, I guess. The twist (if you can call it that, because the film thankfully doesn’t belabour the point) is that this isn’t another European-style princess fairytale, but rather one inspired by Polynesian culture, with songs co-written by That Guy From Hamilton.

Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of a chief whose tribe never venture far from their island’s waters, despite the sea calling to Moana — literally, as it turns out, because when the island’s crops begin to wither, the sea chooses Moana to undertake a quest to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore a MacGuffin and make everything a-okay again. Along the way, there are moral lessons about being adventurous and stuff.

Although the cultural setting is notably different to Disney’s usual stomping ground — and, don’t get me wrong, that diversity is something to be applauded, both for putting different kinds of heroes on screen and for giving us all something fresh — Moana is executed with Disney’s customary slickness. It looks fantastic, especially in 3D, where the ocean stretches forever into the screen, and there’s a musical sequence with 2D backgrounds that, ironically, is one of the best extra-dimensional bits because of what it does with said backgrounds. The songs are a toe-tapping treat too, with Moana’s big number, How Far I’ll Go, a more likeable earworm than certain other Disney songs about going; a David Bowie-inspired villain’s song, Shiny; and, my personal favourite, a comedy number sung by the Rock called You’re Welcome (this being the one with the 2D-that-looks-fab-in-3D animation).

Maui and Moana

Surprisingly for a Disney princess film, there’s a superb action sequence in the middle, a rope-swinging sea battle against… miniature… pirate… coconut… things… er, I guess…? Anyway, it may actually be one of my favourite action scenes of the year, which is not what you generally find in a Disney musical. The big action scene at the end is perhaps slightly less effective as it strives hard to be an epic climax, but I think that’s nitpicking — it’s conceptually strong, with another positive underlying message. A bigger problem is the character of the sea: it chooses Moana for the quest, which arguably takes away some of her agency (the film fights to seem like it’s giving it back to her), and regularly turns up as a mini deus ex machina every time the characters need a hand.

That said, while I can observe those issues from an objective and critically-minded point of view, they didn’t actually bother me all that much. If you just (ahem) let it go, Moana is a ceaselessly likeable, consistently entertaining musical adventure. Along with Frozen and Zootropolis, it suggests Disney have hit a real stride right now that hopefully they can continue to build on.

4 out of 5

Moana is available on Sky Cinema from today.

It placed 16th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

San Andreas (2015)

2017 #24
Brad Peyton | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

San Andreas

San Andreas is a most amusing movie. It’s not a comedy, just a generic effects-driven disaster movie in exactly the same style Hollywood has been producing for about 20 years.

In its favour it has the surprising likeability of Mr The Rock, Paul Giamatti hamming it up for a paycheque, and the mammarially blessed Alexandra Daddario running around, lazing in a bikini, getting wet, etc. There’s some solid spectacle, including a couple of nice long takes, which is what these movies are all about.

Conversely, it couldn’t be any cheesier if it had been entirely made out of dairy products.

3 out of 5

Hercules: Extended Cut (2014)

2016 #10
Brett Ratner | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

The answer to the question, “Hey, remember Brett Ratner? Whatever happened to him?”,* Hercules stars Dwayne Johnson in full The Rock mode as the eponymous demigod. In this comic book adaptation, we’re introduced to Hercules at a point in his life after the famous labours but before he’d passed into legend, when he’s just a mercenary… or maybe he’s always just been a mercenary, and the legends are a tall tale to help him and his band of warriors sell their wares. Their latest mission is to defend a kingdom from a vicious warlord, but all may not be as it seems…

A belated entry into the swords-and-sandals-and-epic-CG-action subgenre that Gladiator started, and which begot the likes of Troy and 300 a decade or more ago, Hercules is much closer to the latter than the former pair. It’s cheesy as heck, but passably exciting when the action kicks in, and also frequently funny (intentionally so, I should add), making it decently entertaining in a brain-off lazy-weekend-evening kind of way.

Johnson has the physique for Hercules, obviously, but the role as written doesn’t play to his real talents, which lie at the more comedic or knowing end of the action spectrum. It’s not his fault the part is the boring heroic lead and everyone else gets to have all the fun, though. Quality Brits like John Hurt, Ian McShane, Peter Mullan, and Rufus Sewell add not so much class as skill, knowing just how much to ham it up to sell their characters while maintaining the light-ish tone. Elsewhere, warrioress Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is the spitting image of (a younger) Nicole Kidman.

This extended cut wasn’t included on the UK Blu-ray, so no BBFC rating (it’s about a 15), but it is available on Netflix over here (it’s not listed as the extended cut, but it is). It’s no great shakes, though, adding only a couple of minutes. That’s made up of three short scenes, another half-a-dozen additional lines of dialogue, a couple of extra seconds of action, and some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it CG blood (full details here). An entire subplot about a traitorous scout was excised from the theatrical cut with the deletion of just three lines — a wise cut because, as the simplicity of its removal might suggest, it’s not so much half-arsed as sixteenth-arsed.

Hercules is not quite good enough to earn 4 stars, but if you’re in the mood for a fantasy-ish swords-and-sandals adventure which doesn’t offer anything challenging but is moderately entertaining and doesn’t outstay its welcome, you could do much worse.

3 out of 5

* You may recall that there were two competing Hercules movies released in 2014. The other, even-more-forgotten one is the answer to the question, “Hey, remember Renny Harlin? Whatever happened to him?” ^