Strange Magic (2015) – Film Review

After selling Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company in late 2012, writer and director George Lucas (THX 1138American GraffitiStar Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) turned his attention away from the mega franchises of Star Wars and Indiana Jones to produce many of his long-gestating passion projects. This ambitious new turn began with the war epic; Red Tails, in 2012, and soon after, Strange Magic, in 2015, an animated fantasy musical that Lucas had long wanted to produce for his three daughters, having written an early draft of the story fifteen years earlier. Upon its eventual release, however, Strange Magic was deemed a colossal failure, earning only £9 million at the box office on a budget of approximately £74 million, along with receiving largely negative reviews from critics and audiences alike due to its predictable story, dreadful humour and bizarre song choices. All of which I feel are valid criticisms.

Plot Summary: In a mystical woodland realm where primrose flowers mark the border between two regions; the Fairy Kingdom and the Dark Forest. The undesirable, Bog King, rules over his gloomy domain without love, going so far as to imprison the Sugar Plum Fairy, who is capable of mixing love potions through the use of primroses, in a bid to permanently cease adoration across his domain…

Technically the first Lucasfilm production to be distributed by The Walt Disney Company following its acquisition. The story of Strange Magic is predominantly based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream as both narratives are romantic comedies that involve misunderstandings and cross-purposes between different races or, in this case, species. The film also takes inspiration from many well-known fairy tales, including The Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast for its central underlining theme, which focuses on the belief that beauty is only skin deep and internal beauty is far more meaningful. An important message for children, to be sure. But as a result of this theme being delivered with zero charm or subtlety, the message itself comes across as incredibly forced and even somewhat contradictory thanks to some of the screenplay’s ill-timed gags.

The main voice cast of Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Sam Palladio and Meredith Anne Bull all do a sufficient job at lending some personality to their respective characters. Especially since Strange Magic supplies very little in the way of characterisation, with a majority of the animated characters only being set apart from one another by what species they are, e.g. a fairy, elf or goblin etc. Quite unfortunate as for many characters, there is a solid foundation alluding to what they could’ve been should they have been further developed. For example, Marianne (the closet thing the story has to a protagonist), becomes distrustful of men once she witnesses her fiancée, Roland, cheating on her on the day of their wedding, quickly vowing to never love again and instead dedicate her life to protecting her family, specifically her sister, Dawn, who supposedly falls in love with every man she meets.

Aside from the flavourless designs of the fairies, which appear as if they’ve been yanked from any generic fantasy flick of the early 2000s. The visuals of Strange Magic are by far the film’s finest component with nearly every shot retaining plenty of colour and ingenuity on account of the animated cinematography and the animation itself, which exhibits even the smallest of details right down to the threads on characters’ clothing or the patches of watery moss on tree branches. Yet this isn’t too surprising considering that Strange Magic was animated by famed visual effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, standing as their first fully animated feature since 2011’s Rango.

Moving from the visuals to the music, Strange Magic is what’s known as a jukebox musical. This means that rather than creating original songs for the film, all of the songs heard throughout Strange Magic are popular songs from past decades. From Can’t Help Falling in Love to Love is Strange and I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch), the film’s continuous use of on-the-nose songs is undoubtedly what will make or break Strange Magic for most as older audiences will feel as if they are being pandered to whilst younger audiences will simply be confused as to why none of the songs directly relate to any of the characters/locations within the film. Furthermore, the original score by Marius De Vries is barely distinguishable from any other fantasy score.

On a separate note, although the first entry in the Star Wars saga rarely lacked in world-building when it first introduced audiences to a galaxy far, far away. Strange Magic seems to actively avoid developing its world beyond one or two throwaway lines, establishing the two unimaginatively named regions that reside side-by-side, and not much else as to how this fantastical world functions.

In summary, Strange Magic is a film that feels far too familiar to sing its own tune, with its derivative story coming across as a hodgepodge of well-worn elements from other animated and fantasy films. Most evidently, 2013’s Epic and the everlasting series of animated Tinker Bell flicks. And, as such, there’s virtually nothing about this fractured fairy tale that feels remotely fresh aside from some of its attractive visuals. There are enjoyable moments, of course, but, for the most part, Strange Magic is simply half-hearted and creatively lazy. Rating: high 3/10.

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Cats (2019) – Film Review

Despite ‘Cats’ being well-known as one of the longest-running stage shows in West End/Broadway history, it is also widely acknowledged that the musical is empty spectacle and not much else. This along with many other reasons, may explain why the adaptation of the musical we received in late 2019 has since gone on to be regarded as one of the worst musicals ever put to film, as director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) utterly squanders an enormous budget and a talented cast in exchange for a paper-thin plot, a constant bombardment of irritating songs and some truly horrendous CG effects that will leave most audience members begging to be put out of their misery.

Plot Summary: A tribe of cats known as ‘The Jellicles’ yearly meet for a ‘Jellicle Ball,’ in which they decide which of their group will ascend to the ‘Heaviside Layer’ and return to a new life. But on this year, the mysterious napoleon of crime: ‘Macavity,’ has other, more sinister plans…

Ever since it was first announced that Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper would be adapting the iconic feline-focused musical, the film has become such joke-fodder that it’s hard to see past the countless number of memes mocking the film’s dreadful visuals or comedic moments, which is a shame. Not because the film we received is even remotely entertaining, of course, but because the adaptation we almost received could’ve been fantastic. As originally, animation house, Amblimation, planned to adapt the musical into an animated film before the project was shelved following the company’s closure. This idea of translating ‘Cats’ into a traditionally animated film remained all the way to Hooper coming on-board to direct, and, in my opinion, also makes considerably more sense considering the original musical is based on the 1939 poetry collection: ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ by T. S. Elliot, a book brimming with whimsical sketches of various cats from a variety of backgrounds.

Newcomer Francesca Hayward, stands-out as one of the film’s few redeeming aspects, as her character: ‘Victoria’ serves as an audience surrogate, her empathy occasionally shining through as she is rapidly introduced to character after character until we uncover which ‘Jellicle’ cat will be chosen to ascend. The rest of the film’s prominent cast, however, including Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, James Cordon, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Ian McKellen and many more, range from extraordinarily cringey to subpar at best, although their performances are further hindered by the story’s lack of characterisation and dramatic moments.

Whilst the film’s cinematography by Christopher Ross does a successful job of upgrading the beige setting of the stage show into a vibrant, neon-lit approximation of old London, allowing for an assortment of visually pleasing shots, it’s impossible for: ‘Cats’ to claw itself away from the rest of its distracting visuals. That not only includes the obvious, but also much of the film’s set-design, as several of the locations the cats enter are supposed to appear as if they are far larger than the characters in order to display each cast member as cat-sized, the drawback here being that there is usually no consistency with these scaled-up sets between shots.

Moving onto the music, Andrew Lloyd Webber, creator of the original musical, actually handled the film’s original score in addition to writing a couple of songs exclusively for the film. And while songs like ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,’ ‘The Old Gumbie Cat,’ ‘The Rum Tum Tugger’ and ‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’ may bring a smile to fanatics of the stage show, in the film, these songs only come across as infuriating as they are so frequent, barely making time for anything else aside from one or two atrocious cat puns.

Lastly, there is the appearance of the cats themselves, by far the most discussed/mocked element of the entire film, and for good reason, as the uncanny part-human, part-CG appearances of the furred cats appear extremely unnatural and very under-polished. So much so, that a mere two days after the film’s initial release, Universal Pictures announced that they would be releasing an updated version of: ‘Cats’ with enhanced CGI. Whilst this is partly a result of Tom Hooper’s broad direction, an article published the following year by The Daily Beast featured multiple visual effects artists who worked on the film, each claiming they had little-to-no time to finish the film’s huge array of effects, with some artists even having to sleep under their desks to get the film completed on time, at least, if said article is truthful.

In short, even though I’m personally not an admirer of Tom Hooper’s filmography, Hooper is not a wholly incompetent director, but ‘Cats’ is undeniably, an absolute catastrophe of a fantasy-musical from beginning-to-end. Quickly being placed amongst the one hundred worst films of all-time on IMDb and forcing the plans for its sequel (and spin-off television series) to be immediately scrapped, ‘Cats’ is possibly one of the biggest cinematic failures of the past decade, as its copious number of flaws massively overshadow what few, if any, redeeming factors the film had left, resulting in an insufferable viewing experience that’ll make most film buffs feel remorse for everyone involved in this embarrassing production. Final Rating: high 1/10.

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Rio (2011) – Film Review

From Blue Sky Studios, the production company behind many light-hearted family animations like ‘Robots,’ ‘Epic,’ ‘Ferdinand,’ ‘Spies in Disguise’ and most notably, the ‘Ice Age’ series. ‘Rio,’ released in 2011, is a vibrant animated adventure which despite its occasionally childish humour and relatively straight-forward story is sure to keep adults and children alike joyfully content without reinventing the animation wheel, compensating for its lack of originality though its charming voice cast and exuberant chase sequences.

Plot Summary: After being captured by smugglers and taken from Brazil when he was just a hatchling, a blue macaw named: ‘Blu,’ never learned to fly and now lives a happily domesticated life in Minnesota with his owner: ‘Linda.’ But when ornithologist: ‘Tulio’ arrives at their door and informs the pair that ‘Blu’ is the last male of his kind, the two decide to travel to Rio de Janeiro to meet ‘Jewel,’ the last female…

Taking inspiration from the true story of a Spix’s macaw named Elvis, whose owner agreed to let him join the captive breeding program to help preserve his species. ‘Rio’ may follow a very familiar formula for a family flick, yet what makes ‘Rio’ stand-out is exactly that, Rio de Janeiro itself. As director Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Robots, Ferdinand) is himself a resident of Rio, and first came-up with the concept in 1995, only at that point in time the story focused on a penguin washing-up on the beaches of the Brazilian city. However, when Saldanha learned two other penguin-related animated features were in production, these being: ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘Surf’s Up,’ he was forced to radically rewrite the film’s screenplay. Interestingly, this film is also cited as the reason as to why Pixar cancelled their film: ‘Newt,’ as it was said to have had a very similar plot.

Recording many of his lines while filming for: ‘The Social Network’ was still underway, Jesse Eisenberg agreed to provide his voice for: ‘Blu’ on weekends to compensate for lost time, admitting that it diverted him away from the mindset of his nearly joyless ‘Social Network’ character. And while Eisenberg doesn’t give an unconventional performance here, Eisenberg is, in my opinion, the perfect casting choice for this kind of character. As ‘Blu’s awkward and nervous personality shines perfectly through Eisenberg’s whiny vocal performance, which is only amplified after he encounters the feisty female: ‘Jewel’ portrayed by Anne Hathaway, as their shy romance gradually blossoms over the course of the runtime. Furthermore, the supporting cast of George Lopez, Jemaine Clement, Will.i.am, Jamie Foxx and Tracey Morgan all do a wonderful job, with nearly every member of the cast also stretching their vocal cords for many of the film’s lively songs.

When it comes to the film’s visuals, director Carlos Saldanha uses the exquisitely rendered backdrop of his home city to great advantage, as the film’s animated cinematography is constantly swooping, soaring and spinning high above the sunny beaches and multicoloured parasols of Rio de Janeiro as ‘Blu’ and ‘Jewel’ scamper through the city on trolleys, cable cars and in one of the film’s most uplifting scenes, atop the wings of a paraglider. In spite of its characters always being on the move, ‘Rio’ also manages to avoid the usual problem animated films tend to run into, as the film’s plot moves along at just the right pace to keep younger viewers entertained.

With ‘Rio’ being Blue Sky Studios’ first attempt at a musical, one or two of the film’s songs are catchy, but inevitably are nowhere near as memorable as many songs from Disney’s vast catalogue of animated classics. Yet I feel this may be due to Will.i.am’s potential influence, as many of the film’s songs such as: ‘Hot Wings’ and ‘Funky Monkey’ sound like nothing more than modern, age-appropriate pop songs forced into the film’s soundtrack. Contrarily, the original score by John Powell slightly elevates itself above your standard family film score through tracks like ‘Morning Routine,’ ‘Paradise Concern’ and ‘Birdnapped.’

Whilst the actual animation throughout ‘Rio’ is usually just as energetic and colourful as any other modern animation, its undoubtedly at its best when replicating Rio’s many iconic landmarks, with a large majority of them being almost picturesque. This accuracy is more than likely due to the crew’s research, as many of the film’s animators not only visited Rio de Janeiro in order to precisely replicate the city, but also consulted with a macaw expert at the Bronx Zoo for the design and movements of their avian characters.

Overall, although most audience members have always seen Blue Sky Studios as secondary to more well-known production companies like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and even Sony Pictures Animation in recent years. I’ve always enjoyed Blue Sky’s animated endeavours even if many of their stories do feel fairly unoriginal from time-to-time, which may have even been one of the reasons that Blue Sky Studios sadly closed its doors in early 2021 following Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox. Nevertheless, as proved by ‘Rio,’ this issue of unoriginality can be overshadowed with the right methods, as the titular setting and dazzling colour palette ensure the film’s place as a love letter to Brazil if nothing else. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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Corpse Bride (2005) – Film Review

Tim Burton’s twisted story of a man accidentally marrying a deceased bride could certainly be seen as too dark for an animated family adventure by some, but the film actually blends many of its dark scenes with plenty of heart and humour throughout. Making this stop-motion flick not quite one of the director’s best, but definitely a must-watch for fans of the unique director.

Plot Summary: When a shy groom (Victor Van Dort) practices his wedding vows in the inadvertent presence of a deceased young woman, she rises from her grave assuming he has married her. Before he knows it, ‘Victor’ soon finds himself in the land of the dead, and now must find a way to return to the land of the living before he loses his still-living wife forever…

Alongside the entertaining narrative, throughout the film there are various different musical sequences, which were surprisingly entertaining considering I’m usually not a huge fan of musical numbers in film. But I actually found many of the songs throughout the film actually added to the plot and gave the film another creative element which worked really well when combined with the brilliant original score by Danny Elfman.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter portray: ‘Victor’ and his accidental ‘Corpse Bride,’ alongside the supporting cast of Emily Watson and Paul Whitehouse. Who are all pretty great, with the two leads in particular having pretty some great chemistry with each other, which really added to some of the romantic scenes throughout runtime (especially when it comes to an animated film). The cast also features Richard E. Grant, who portrays the villous: ‘Barkis Bittern’ perfectly, coming off as very sly, rude and intelligent from start-to-finish.

The cinematography by Pete Kozachik is pretty effective considering his previous work is usually far from the realm of stop-motion animation, as although there is definitely room for improvement, the cinematography is interesting enough to keep the viewer engaged throughout the film’s story.

Without a doubt, the original score by Danny Elfman is definitely one of the best elements of the film, as well as being one of my favourites for a Tim Burton flick. As while not quite on the level of the original: ‘Batman’ or ‘Edward Scissorhands’ for example, the entire soundtrack still perfectly captures the creepy tone of the film, as well as many of it’s more emotional moments, all adding to both an extremely memorable and beautiful score. Especially the tracks: ‘Main Titles’ and ‘End Credits Pt. 1,’ which are my two personal favourites from the film.

The stop-motion animation throughout the film is simply outstanding, as each character’s unique design influences their movements, with many of the characters having very interesting and over-the-top designs which perfectly fit within the world of a Tim Burton story. The film also has an unexpectedly ranged colour palette, as in addition to the usual dark Burton-esque colours. The film surprisingly also uses a large range of bright greens, purples and reds in a few scenes, which all really help the film stand-out, and give a little more light to many of the miniature sets and various characters.

Overall, while I didn’t expect to enjoy ‘Corpse Bride’ as much as I did, the film’s fantastic stop-motion animation, great humour and emotional scenes all topped with the unique Tim Burton style, I’d say the film is a pretty solid watch aside from the occasional cheesy joke or scene. Final Rating: 8/10.

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