Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)

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Aka Pirates of the Caribbean:  Dead Men Tell No Tales. Thanks to the Australian government’s tax incentives, that Pirates-shaped gap in my life has finally been plugged with a new instalment in the delayed series. I love these films, and all pirate films, and have had to sate myself with the genius Black Sails in the interim (I have one series to go, so no spoilers please! I’m still not over Charles Vane’s execution!). This is number 5 in the franchise and it operates as a kind of unofficial reboot because it has been (gasp) 14 long years since the first film, Curse of the Black Pearl, was released. And it’s aptly returned to this for most of the bones in terms of story, character and structure, even if this has way more shaggy-dogness about it in an untidy set of plot mechanics. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann vows to find Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to right the wrong on his father who’s abiding in a watery limbo on the Flying Dutchman. He knows that the Trident of Poseidon will break the curse. Death meanwhile lurks on the high seas in the form of Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his ghostly crew who cannot set foot on dry land – also condemned and cursed by Sparrow’s antics. An astronomer Carina Smith (Kaya Scodelario) is being executed as a witch in St Martin where a bank is being opened – and this is where Captain Jack makes his spectacular reappearance with his unruly and disgruntled crew led by Kevin McNally, with their awful ship in dry dock where they’re all broke. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is summoned by Henry to help out and he is ironically reunited with a daughter who doesn’t know the provenance of the map she seeks … Colourful, silly, not entirely logical and definitely rehashing plot points from the earlier films particularly the first one, this is handled pretty well by Norwegian directing duo Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg working from a screenplay by Jeff Nathanson, with a story by Nathanson and Terry Rossio.  The young lovers story gets a run-through, the Barbossa plot gets a very fitting conclusion, there’s a fascinating flashback (I want one to give me skin like that in real life) and there are homages here and there to make you smile – the zombie sharks being a reference to the original summer blockbuster granddaddy of them all, the ghost crew a nod to the original’s skeleton crew, Depp taking his Robert Newton/Keith impersonation to new heights of pantomime, a great Paul McCartney cameo and a bank robbery like no other. Some of the lines could have done with a rewrite – especially the jokes which are heavy on the misogyny; and there’s no real mad surrealism which has graced previous episodes (is there anything as wild as the hallucination of the ship on dry land and the multiple Jacks?!). While most of the legendary tropes are present bar a real Brit villain the last action sequence is so darned complex I genuinely forgot what it was about. But it’s full of fun and wild adventure and I for one love this series even if number 4 fell far short of expectations. Thwaites and Scodelario make a pretty useful couple to base the next set of films, kicking some new plotlines into touch. What do you want – live action Space Mountain?! Hoist the mainbrace! Wahey me hearties! More!

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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It seems a little odd to suggest the obvious – that this remake isn’t as good as the original – until you recall that the 1991 animation was the first one to be nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture. While a little flawed, it didn’t outstay its welcome. The opening narration here seems to go on for about a half a day. As voiceovers go, it’s redundant if you stick to the Show Don’t Tell rule of cinematic story:  we can SEE what’s happening as Belle (Emma Watson) trots around the village waving her book-reading superiority at her fellow natives. Gaston (Luke Evans) is a bumptious character, hilariously played and sets the tone proper with his antics chasing ‘the most beautiful girl in the village’ (hmm….) His self-love is reflected in the slavering attentions of sidekick LeFou (Josh Gad) and the opening sequence culminates in an outstandingly well done groupsing at the local inn.This is one of the film’s best scenes. Meanwhile, Belle’s papa Maurice (Kevin Kline) needs to travel for his work and promises to bring her back a rose – like he does every year. And when he finds the enchanted castle where Beast (Dan Stevens, who makes a very wan prince indeed) resides reclusively since having a spell cast upon him years earlier … Belle arrives to save him and swaps places and the rest you know. The animated houseware is now characterised through CGI and voiced among others by Ian McKellen (Cogsworth – he previously worked with director Bill Condon in the wonderful Gods and Monsters), Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Stanley Tucci (Cadenza) and most disappointingly, Emma Thompson (Mrs Potts) whose harsh faux Cockney cannot approximate to the warmth and sheer incomparable charisma of Angela Lansbury. The whole film is shot in an incredibly dark palette which renders the experience quite difficult – made worse in 3D – and the staging is very awkward in places: the first ballroom scene, featuring the famous dance between Belle and Beast is really underwhelming (remember the brilliance of the original?) suggesting a lack of attention not just to famous musicals of the past but basic dance steps, decent choreography and a sense of magic which is nonexistent at what should have been the story’s high point. The shots are completely wrong for such a sequence. There are great life lessons in the story – misunderstanding people on the basis of their appearances, the swift way in which groups become mobs and the way that Belle is told of her mother’s death is very well done but the narrative momentum is lost to bad handling. The outstanding performance is by Luke Evans, literally pitch perfect in an overly long underimpressive production. Maybe if they hadn’t been so hellbent on making something so politically correct/gay/racially diverse they’d have had a monster film.There’s always La Belle et la Bete.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

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This animation brought Disney back to its classic roots with Linda Woolverton’s screenplay (working from a painstaking adaptation by eleven scribes!) of the French fairytale hitting all the right story points at a rattling pace (84 minutes). It was the first animation to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are pretty great and use a variety of forms including waltz and they are exceptionally well positioned in the narrative:  it helps that they are performed by experienced stage vets, including Paige O’Hara as bookworm Belle, who falls for Beast (Robby Benson) after he’s exchanged her father for her in his enchanted castle. If it falls down anywhere in it’s in the sequences outside – interestingly this is the flaw shared with its progenitor, Jean Cocteau’s magical La Belle et la bete (1946), a live action version whose animated statuary proved a spellbinding lure into the rest of the tale. On a technical level, Disney had abandoned their original hand inking technique in the late 1950s and the new CAPS system developed by Pixar enabled them to utilise a wider and more subtle colour palette in conjunction with digitalisation – just wait for your jaw to drop during the ballroom scene. Angela Lansbury and Bradley Pierce as Mrs Potts and her son Chip (of the teapot Potts) are particularly good, and Lumiere, the candlestick maitre d’hotel (Jerry Orbach) is pretty wild, with a great sidekick in Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers). All girls should have a library like the one gifted Belle and have the Academy Award-winning title song sung to them. Be Our Guest! Compelling. Produced by Don Hahn, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

Bambi (1942)

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A recent documentary about Walt Disney barely revealed anything about the man. For that, you watch the films. This is the high point of his achievements:  an adaptation of a book by Austrian writer Felix Salten, it is the story of a young fawn (a white tail) whose life in the meadow and the forest is mirrored by the changing seasons, his friendships with woodland creatures, death, dealings with hunters, all animated impressionistically and vividly. I can barely watch this because tears prick my eyes from the moment it starts and those memories of my first childhood viewing never leave me. It is simply stunning, moving, funny, brilliant and devastating, underscored by classical music tropes and songs. Directed by David Hand, leading a team of exquisitely gifted sequence directors, writers and artists, produced by Walt Disney. A film for the ages.

Moana (2016)

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The quest is an ancient and very potent narrative form so it was bound to inform another Disney outing, this time the vastly pleasurable story of a little girl (Auli’i Cravalho) on a South Seas island who is chosen to fulfill an ancient prophecy and be the wayfinder for her people. She’s the daughter of the island’s chief so she already has enough on her plate and by the time she’s a teenager the island’s problems are becoming hers to solve. The early parts are fast and funny, a montage of the passage of time in which she is shown to be picked out by the sea and be part of its estimable powers. She eventually takes off with the blessing of her crazy dying grandmother – with a chicken on board. She encounters the troublesome demi-god Maui (voiced by The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson) and they have adventures that are vividly realised involving coconut pirates, fire-breathing creatures and the curse of the Heart as they both help each other to achieved their intended destinies. The songs (co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame) are passable but not really memorable and there are some longeurs but these are swiftly turned upside down (often literally) by inventive, graphic animations, both CG and traditional drawings, and a real sense of girl power. Water, eh? Who knew it could be so inspiring?! Written by Jared Bush and co-directed by Ron Clements and John Muscker. Pretty wonderful.

Zootropolis (2016)

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Aka Zootopia. I cannot say I’m a fan of the latterday PC/even feelings have feelings/self-empowerment jag that characterises feature animations. But this Disney outing is kind of cute. Ginnifer Goodwin plays Judy the bunny rabbit who goes to the big city of anthropomorphised animals and gets stuck being a traffic cop until she gets to help solve a robbery. Her ambitions are complicated by departmental shenanigans and the wily con artist fox Nick (Jason Bateman) she works with and who takes her back to her childhood:  they are a most unlikely double act who have to get to the bottom of a conspiracy involving predators that goes to the top of the forces of law and order… There are some good jokes (I especially liked The Godfather ones) and terrific action sequences as Judy realises she is the patsy in a horrible Darwinian plot. Nicely done.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

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Johann Wyss’ book was a big part of my childhood and when I went to the Disney theme parks I loved seeing the treehouse – I’m old fashioned, dontcha know and it was a toss-up between that and Alice’s tea cups as to what was my favourite thing. Napoleon’s on the warpath so it’s time for the Robinsons to depart Europe for Guinea – but their ship is wrecked, chased by pirates onto rocks and the crew have abandoned them to their fate. So they set up home on an uninhabited island, experiencing crazy adventures with wild animals, fighting off the returning pirates and generally making themselves very handy indeed. Then another ship is run aground …  Mom and Dad are played by Dorothy Maguire and John Mills, the kids are James Macarthur, Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran,  cute as a button, as always. And you might recognise Turk the Great Dane,  (future) star of The Ugly Dachshund. Supreme action adventure beautifully shot in Widescreen and Panavision by Harry Waxman, with a rousing score by William Alwyn, adapted by Lowell Hawley and directed by Ken Annakin. The real treehouse in Tobago remained until it was destroyed by Hurricane Flora in 1963.

 

The Aristocats (1970)

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I don’t know how many films I’m allowed bring to my desert island but they’ll probably all be Disney animations. Since I love my little kitty cats to bits and my favourite sight in the morning is seeing their little wiggly waggly tails bounce down the stairs in front of me on the way for breakfast, well, this is top of the list. Duchess (Eva Gabor) is the beloved white short-hair in Madame’s Paris villa but her kittens Toulouse, Berlioz and Marie drive Edgar the nasty butler to kidnap the spoiled creatures and dump them in the countryside, all to get the bequest he knows is intended for them. He doesn’t count on their being rescued by insouciant alley cat Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris) and a bunch of jazzy cat associates nor the cunning of resourceful house mouse Roquefort. Somewhat derivative plot-wise of both Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians, this is however delightfully drawn, beautifully executed and the songs are superb. A film to bring you joy, this was the last project to be approved by Walt Disney. Ev’rybody wants to be a cat!

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

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Or, Disney’s version of a horror movie. This adaptation of the novel by noted Gothic/YA author Florence Engel Randall was quite the thing when I was knee-high to a grasshopper and Bette Davis was there for the connoisseur. My Disney idol was Kim Richards but it’s her little sister Kyle who features here as Ellie the younger of two girls (the elder being Lynn-Holly Johnson as Jan) whose family has relocated to England.  They lease an old country house and the girls are haunted by the spirit of old crone Davis’ daughter who disappeared thirty years before, in what appears to have been some sort of teenagers’ initiation ceremony in a derelict church during a solar eclipse. Jan bears a startling resemblance to the missing girl, Karen, and sees flashes of blue light in the woods while Ellie appears to be hearing voices coming from the new family dog whom she has christened Nerak – which spells Karen backwards. The messages come frequently and they have to try to rescue Karen from another dimension during the next eclipse … Children’s author Mom (Carroll Baker) has to deal with the problem while composer Dad (David McCallum) heads to London to produce a musical. Director John Hough had some form with this blend of supernature and sci fi – being a veteran of the Witch Mountain movies starring Kim Richards and featuring one Bette Davis in the second entry, Return From Witch Mountain. There was some issue with the concluding scenes and in the second version the effects happened too quickly to make sense of the story while Vincent McEveety was then drafted in to do a version that was released in 1981. Personally I was thrilled to see my old heart throb Benedict Taylor turn up in the cast – remember him in Beau Geste on Sunday evenings? And The Far Pavilions! And My Brother Jonathan. And A Perfect Spy…  Dominic Guard appears (uncredited) in Ian Bannen’s role in the flashbacks. Guard is now a children’s author himself, amongst other things. I’m almost as thrilled to see Kyle Richards on a Raleigh Chopper. (And Georgina Hale as Karen, of course!)  Adapted by Brian Clemens, Harry Spalding and Rosemary Anne Sisson, soundtracked by Stanley Meyers and nicely shot by Alan Hume. This is quite fascinating.

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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Bryce Dallas Howard ran around Jurassic World in high heels so donning the garb of forest ranger Grace should come pretty easy, dontcha think? Her stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) finds little Pete (Oakes Fegley) deep in the woods her uncle Gavin (Karl Urban) is busy upending. Pete’s folks died in a car crash 6 years earlier and he’s been living there with his best friend Elliott. Who happens to be a dragon, the kind that Grace’s dad (Robert Redford) has been telling her about for years, since her mother died when she was five. Grace’s boyfriend (Wes Bentley, welcome back) reads Pete the storybook that is his only remaining possession and Natalie has a copy – his own is the giveaway to Elliott’s cave, which Gavin quickly exploits … I don’t know about you but the last time I cried at a movie was … The Passion of Joan of Arc. And  Running On Empty. And ET, of course. (More than once but decades apart.) Amazingly, this out-Spielbergs Spielberg in Disney’s own remake of its 1977 musical which I have never been able to get through, despite – or maybe because of – Helen Reddy. This is straight drama and the casting is spot-on, the tone is perfectly managed and the overall effect is funny, smart, touching, witty, scary and magical. Absolutely wonderful. Now how often can you say that? And during the worst summer in living movie memory. There is a message of course – about conservation, family, decency, hunting … You can figure that out yourself. Get your tissues ready. Written and directed by David Lowery, with Tony Halbrooks also credited for writing, based on the original screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein.