Film Review: Maleficent

Maleficent, 2014 film.

Maleficent, 2014 film. The 1959 film Sleeping Beauty flopped at the box office upon opening. However, as the years went on, the film proved to be a cult classic with Disney fans and the general public alike. Here we are, 55 years on with a spin-off film Maleficent named after the films central villain. Before you set off to watch the film, take into account that this is not going to be the Sleeping Beauty you know. This is something entirely different.

Story

Let the 1959 film go. This is different in almost every way. Maleficent begins as a protector of the ‘moors’ who falls in love with Stefan. He betrays her, she gets angry and extracts revenge on his daughter: Aurora. The storyline itself is OK. Fans of the classic will most likely not enjoy the direction it takes the central star as a lot is changed. The original doesn’t really provide much in a way of reasoning as to why she does what she does; other than pure villainy. Go in to this expecting reasoning, and you’ll find it. Now, some of it does not make sense in the slightest. Basic plot points of Sleeping Beauty are changed. This will frustrate die-hard fans and even casual fans to an extent. Personally, I didn’t mind the overall plot. It’s those little changes (ok, major changes) that really had me. This is not a re-telling of the story you know. It’s a new story.

Characters

The character of Maleficent is well-developed and extremely well acted. The scene in which she enacts the curse is chilling in every sense of the word. Jolie plays a terrifying version of Maleficent with conviction. It’s the softer character of Maleficent where this begins to fall apart. This is not a critism of Jolie’s acting, she owns this part; the fault lies in the script.

King Stefan is the least fulfilled character, I don’t understand him. He becomes the real villain of the piece and a total bastard. He becomes a character we have no pity for, despite the evil villainess cursing his daughter. If this is the direction the director wanted the film to take, well bravo. But it does not fit the story.

The fairies: Flora, Fauna and Merryweather – no, I mean: Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit. Are fine. But include an unnecessary name change removing them from the Disney canon.

Ellie Fanning plays a good Aurora. Perhaps a tad irritating in her mannerisms. But for a naive, sixteen year old girl who has been brought up in the woods by fairies; I bought it. Perhaps more than any other character, this works. I have no issues with the direction her role takes – it is intertwined with Maleficent and so works.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

Effects

This is where this film gets the credit. The effects are mesmerizing. A fairy-tale needs a method of distancing itself from reality. This is achieved by creating the ‘moors’ a place of pure fantasy. Imagine this beautiful scene. It’s twilight and fairies are dancing with light. It’s a wonderful scene and one this is seen a number of times in the film – much to the films credit. The animal CGI works well and the magic looks realistic and cartoon-like at the same time. Big thumbs up to the effects team on this film. They’ve done a great job.

Summary

An OK film, but nothing more than that. A watchable few hours, but ultimately the flawed retelling of the classic tale really does let it down somewhat. This is a shame as the acting is good, as are the effects. A film is only as good as its story, and the story deviates too much from the version we all know and enjoy.

3 Stars

Frozen: Review

Anna in Elsa's ice castle - Still from 'Frozen'

Ever since The Princess and the Frog was released in 2009, Disney Animation Studios have been on an unstoppable role of fantastic films. Who can forget the widely acclaimed 50th Animated classic Tangled followed by the roller coaster Wreck it Ralph, this year Disney’s Animation department have released a film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen entitled Frozen. The film essentially see Anna (Kristen Bell) trying to end a winter brought on by her sister Elsa (Idina Menzel).

What is really nice about this film is that the story is essentially about sisterly love, during her coronation ball, Elsa argues with Anna and plunges Arendelle into thick winter. This film takes a few Disney conventions than throws them out of the window, and that was refreshing to see; the omission of a big villain running throughout the entire film, the ending perhaps wasn’t as clean-cut as recent films (But much more beautiful), and the refreshing portrayal of the princesses. Perhaps the best word to describe Frozen is refreshing.

Let’s start with the soundtrack, and wow what a soundtrack. Christophe Beck and Robert & Kristen Anderson-Lopez did a fantastic job with both music and lyrics. This film merits a cinema sound system, the soundtrack bounces off the walls and creates a real Nordic feel. The songs themselves are diverse and include many different styles of song from pop to folk. The lyrics work for the characters which they were written for and are deep in meaning. There is no weak link here, all the songs are strong; however the songs are mostly earlier on the film allowing for plot setting; that is not a criticism at all, on the contrary, it works exceptionally well. Let it Go should win the Oscar for Best Original Song, I’d go as far as calling it are sure-in.

The characters in Frozen are mostly padded out properly, we understand their character without needing too much characterisation work in the first section of the film. Anna is an instantly likable character with a personality that a lot of people will likely be able to relate to, she is quirky and modern. Perhaps the greatest accolade this film can get is the changing way in which the princesses are represented, they have flaws and are not perfect but can stand on their own feet and are not playing the ‘Dansel in distress’. Elsa is this mysterious figure that suffers from not having as much characterisation, however it works as a plot device. The stars of the show are Olaf and Sven, Olaf the snowman that dreams of summer provides us with our comic relief in the way Sven just cannot. Olaf provides lines of pure hilarity and is the quotable character. It’s easy to see why people fell in love with him based on trailers, the reality of the character in the film lives up to expectation. Sven is another comedic element, at times played a ‘conscience’ role, but also had amusing interaction between himself and Olaf. The male characters work for the plot of the film, they play a very similar role to that of Flynn in Tangled.

The plot worked just perfectly. There are no bad words to say about it, the pacing was spot on, Time never felt like it was passing and was genuinely surprised when the film ended having enjoyed almost two hours of film. The fact I really cared for the characters meant the emotional attachment was there, the film tied up very nicely in a very unrushed way.

Frozen is an excellent piece of animation, something for the whole family to enjoy this festive season, I cannot think of a more enjoyable film to watch during the Christmas holidays. If you were wondering if the film could live up to the hype, it does. If you wanted to wait for the DVD, don’t; this film needs a cinema and a shared moment. But, the film has many layers to enjoy that will allow for repeat viewing for many years. This is, simple, the best Disney film in the current era. I know that I will certainly be seeing it again soon.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Technical Profile

Frozen
Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Staring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel
Running Time: 108 Minutes
_________________________________________________________________________________

Saving Mr Banks: Review

Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) walk through Disneyland

I, like a lot of people, grew up watching Mary Poppins, it’s something so British, so magical, and so rare. It’s rare that such a film brings adults and children together in a way that Walt Disney’s 1964 masterpiece continues to do. Children of all ages know the word Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, adults across the world are brought to tears by Feed the Birds. The story of Walt’s film is widely known, the story behind bringing it to the screen is less known.
Here is a film from BBC Films and Walt Disney Pictures about that controversial story of bringing the beloved character to the screen. Perhaps what sparked the imagination of Disney fans across the world about this film is the fact that it was to be the first time that Walt Disney would be portrayed in a motion picture, whilst he is played rather brilliantly by Tom Hanks, it is Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers who really steals the show.

(Warning: There will be spoilers in the below review)

Essentially this film is a film of transition, naturally we see a rather defiant P.L. Travers as the film begins, adamant that she will not see her creation, Mary Poppins, be transformed into a Disney film, in her mind this meant a cartoon; as the film continues, her iron faced stance to Walt Disney begins to crack and crumble and we begin to see her to accept choices made. Our understanding is aided by flashbacks to her childhood, and the basis of her work, which is shown in a good level of detail.

The flashbacks are very useful to understanding the mood of Travers throughout the film, however in a sense this feels forced upon us and almost certainly removes us from the plot. At the start of the film, these flashbacks seem more bunched together and thrown into our faces. Rather than setting a plot and giving us background understanding, it actually has a more unsettling nature. The first 30-45 minutes of the film were unsettled. Once these flashbacks became more spaced out, and deeper, it had a reversed effect, they became much more of an enchanting feature of the film. It aided understanding and allowed us to sympathise with P.L. Travers. As our understanding increases, as does Walt’s; as an audience, we are as in the dark about the story to begin with as Walt Disney. The acting in these flashbacks was superb, special mention here to Ruth Wilson, Colin Farrel and Annie Rose Buckley (in her film debut).

Emma Thompson plays a wonderful P.L. Travers, we sympathise with her position on the proposed Disney film, and we believe she doesn’t like what she sees happening. We understand that to her, Mary is family and means a lot. When she turns to Walt (Hanks) and says ‘You have no idea what she means to me’, we believe her. He does not. Tom Hanks plays a fantastic Walt Disney as well, we see the magic, in his eyes, his mannerisms and speech. It’s a fine performance from two brilliant actors. The chemistry between them both is both intimate and believable, upon watching the film and scenes between them, we feel privy to these private conversations. A real success for the film makers. Other characters are equally well written and represented such as the Sherman brothers and the driver Ralph.

The real test will be upon re watching, can the magic of feeling privileged of being part of these events be replicated time and time again, much like the actual Mary Poppins feels upon the 50th watch. The film is a real roller coaster of emotions, you will laugh, and cry, feel happy and angry.
Kudos to Disney for making a film which don’t always show Disney in a good light, and portrays a woman who despised everything Walt Disney Pictures stood for. Obviously, everything needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, there are likely to be some elements that aren’t exactly true, however this is a must see for Disney fans and cinema lovers of all ages. This film is certainly Oscar worthy, and will do very well come award season.

When seeing the film, you must stay until the very end, there is a fantastic recording of the actual conversations between P.L. Travers and the writers and composers of the film, which makes for fascinating hearing. 
Also, if you are reading from outside an Anglophone country and have the choice, please see this in the native English language, Thompson does a fine job of playing Travers, matching her tone of voice. It’s certainly worth seeing in the native language.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Technical Profile

Saving Mr. Banks
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, BBC Films
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks
Running Time: 125 minutes
__________________________________________________________________________________

The Lone Ranger: Review

Tonto and the Lone Ranger on the film poster

The team of Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinkski and Johnny Depp find themselves back together after the commercial success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films. The characters of the Lone Ranger and Tonto became famous through the American radio show ‘The Lone Ranger’ in the 1930s, that then inspired comic books, television shows and now this, Disney’s 2013 live action summer blockbuster ‘The Lone Ranger’.

The film follows the story of John Reid, our Lone Ranger on a revenge tale with Tonto at his side. This film is one that doesn’t require too much thinking, it’s a hollywood blockbuster, best served with popcorn in every sense of the word. Plot wise, the way the story was told was a bit baffling at times with this contrast between ‘modern day’ (1930s) and flashback story telling, I use the word ‘baffling’ as it was never used as an important point in the plot, the story was told and the storyteller walks off. Elsewhere I found the plot enjoyable, amusing and thoroughly entertaining. The soundtrack of the film left me grinning from ear to ear, especially during the large set pieces and really added to the western atmosphere, Hans Zimmer has certainly done a fine job on this film.

The characters on the film were believable and interesting, my only criticism is that Tonto very much reminded me of Captain Jack Sparrow, not that that is a bad thing, I just left the cinema feeling it was very Pirates-esque. The humour used in the film certainly recalls to Pirates of the Caribbean, but perhaps a little bit more funny, and the humour used in a much better sense.

Overall, The Lone Ranger is a highly entertaining romp through the American west with much loved characters and actors making this possibly one of the funniest films of the summer. I challenge even the harshest of critics to not smile during the final set piece.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Technical Profile

The Lone Ranger
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Director: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp, Arnie Hammer
Running Time: 149 minutes
____________________________________________________________________________________

The Blue Umbrella review

Blue Umbrella visual featuring a blue and red umbrella.
Where do we begin with this one? Ever since the early Pixar films we have come to expect an animated short to be placed in front of the film, quite often these animated shorts remain in the memory long after we have left the cinema which is a tribute to the artists and storytellers who work on these films, this will be the case of The Blue Umbrella.

We are all familiar with the story of Paperman, the 2012 Disney Animation Studios short placed before Wreck It Ralph, the Blue Umbrella shares more than a few similarities with that film. The plot is basically it begins raining and in a sea of black umbrellas in this monotonous city, a single blue umbrella stands out, suddenly a red umbrella appears next to the blue umbrella at a zebra crossing. These two umbrellas are separated and then must find their way back together (helped by some unlikely sources).

The animation in this short film is quite honestly incredible, at times it even looked as if we were watching a live action film, we really could not believe our eyes at the rendering of the city, as in most Pixar shorts there no words used and every emotion comes from Jon Brion’s wonderful score which is as beautiful as that of Paperman.

This is a short you’ll want to see again and again thanks to its wonderful storyline (despite its similarity to that of Paperman), absolutely beautiful visual animation and the moving score. We enjoyed Monsters University, but possibly we enjoyed this little short more. One note, this is not really of interest to children, adults will appreciate this. We heard the children were bored in our screening.

___________________________________________________________________________________

Technical Profile

The Blue Umbrella
Studio: Pixar Animation Studios
Director: Marc Greenberg
Music: Jon Brion
Running Time: 6 minutes
___________________________________________________________________________________

Monsters University Review

Monsters University publicity poster
Monsters University PosterMonsters Inc. was released 12 years ago in 2001 to rave reviews and to this day remains at 96% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. So in a sense the world has been waiting 12 years for a follow-up to the film. In 2010 we learnt a follow-up was to be made, it was in 2011 that we learnt the follow-up was, indeed to be a sequel. So, armed with our popcorn we went down to the cinema to answer the question, was Monsters University going to meet our expectations?

We saw this film in 2D and we felt that was the best way to see it, there was nothing in the film that made us feel like we’d gain from the 3D aspect of the film.

Plot: Monsters University is, essentially, the story of how Mike and Sulley met each other and became the formidable scaring team that is depicted in Monsters Inc.

Monsters University is not a sequel to the original film, it is a prequel and a prequel in which, we felt, you would really benefit from separating yourself from the original as there are a few points that contradict the original film. Graphically, despite being 12 years on, the art style is exactly the same (a bit more progressed perhaps) in Monstropolis, well we assume this film takes place in Monstropolis, the city name is actually never mentioned. One thing I will say about the art style, the scenes in the human world blew me away like no Pixar film has done since Cars, it’s seriously breathtaking.

The films storyline was reasonably strong, the title basically tells you everything you need to know about the film. Our main gripe was how little we cared about the outcome, in Monsters Inc. we were made to care about Boo, there was something at stake. In this film there was equally something at stake, but it was a bit like ‘Well, if that happens, so what?’ It just lacked something to really make me care for the characters.
Speaking of characters, the child Mike was delightful to see and really created a connection with the character further on, and really set out from the first minute that this film is Mike’s story whereas Monsters Inc. was Sulley’s story. The difficulty of a prequel is that we already have our preconceptions of these loved characters, so making Sulley out to be a bit of a ‘jerk’ was difficult to accomplish, however we will all connect with the idea of Sulley being that kid in class who doesn’t make an effort and won’t bother bringing a pen. We really cared for the characters of the Oozma Kappa fraternity, especially Art who was quite easily the funniest thing in this film, despite the fact that for a UK viewer, a fraternity really is a foreign concept.

If what Cars 2 and Brave taught us, is that Pixar is imperfect, Monsters University teaches us that they have a strong set of characters and a good storyline in them. Pixar are on the way back. This film maintains a bit of the charm from the original, and adds something that many kids will enjoy. However, I think it lacks something for the bigger kids audience amongst us. If you are a University student, or have been a university student, many of the scenes will really connect with you as campus life is reasonably accurately represented.
We recommend going to see it, but perhaps don’t expect the masterpiece that was Monsters Inc.

In a separate review coming soon, the Blue Umbrella which was utterly charming.
___________________________________________________________________________

Technical Profile

Monsters University
Studio: Pixar Animation Studios
Director: Don Scanlon
Staring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman
Running Time: 103 Minutes
______________________________________________________________________________