Abominable 2019 ****

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The sound of shared laughter is one of the most magical things in cinema; there was plenty of it at the public screening of Dreamworks’s Abominable that I attended at the weekend. The packed house was, presumably, not drawn by political controversy over a map which appears in the film, but due to the How To Train Your Dragon connection via the film’s makers; Everest the Yeti might not be quite as complex a character as Toothless the Dragon, but he’ll do for now.

Everest is introduced in a fast-out-of-the-traps opening that sees him escaping from a holding pen in a laboratory, and swiftly making friends with Yi (Chloe Bennett). She has a yearning to escape from her family in Shanghai, and mourns her father by playing her violin to the city skyline at night. Yi and Everest begins a repatriation mission to get Everest back to his Himalayan family, very much in the style of Missing Link, with Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson in pursuit.

Abominable rises above many of the familiar tropes of animation; it’s slower than might be expected, and it takes a long time for the pursuers to catch up with the pursued for a vertiginous rope-bridge climax. Along the way, there are some touches to savour, notably the comical whooping snakes that steal scene after scene with their comic timing. But almost as sweet as the children’s laughter at their antics are the gasps of disbelief when it look like poor Everest is done for. His recovery, with a little help from Yi and her violin, makes for a rousing finale and hits just the right spot with a positive message that doesn’t feel contrived.

Animated films are ten a penny, and there’s always plenty of cheap imitations. The animation standard is high here, but what sets Abominable on the way to financial good heath and worldwide popularity is the standard of the film’s conception; Everest isn’t immediately lovable, and earns our affections through an engaging and imaginative story; this is no Mac and Me rip-off, but a sweet story of friendship between human and monster, and one that deserves its growing reputation and success. For Pixar graduate Jill Culton, who wrote and directed here, it’s a real triumph.

The Angry Birds Movie 2 ***

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The unimpressive box office results for the Angry Birds sequel formed part of a limp summer for sequels; with that in mind, this critic skipped the first Angry Birds Movie on Netflix to head straight for the second instalment. The question was; do modern sequels work as stand-alone films? The answer was a resounding no.

Watching Angry Birds 2 with no prior information is to witness a baffling, Godardian soup of colourful shapes, cartoon images, pop culture needles drops and familiar SNL voices. Red (Jason Sudeikis) is a red bird who lives on an island of diverse birds. Their neighbours and rivals the green pigs announce a truce so they can join forces against Zeta (Leslie Jones), a giant eagle spurned in love by Mighty Eagle (Bill Hader). Despite his various hang-ups, illustrated by an abortive speed-dating event, Red and his gang try to infiltrate Eagle Island to stop Zeta.

The Angry Birds Movie 2 has such a roster of talent involved that almost none of the characters stick, and the micro-plotting for each character is hard to follow. And yet, in the second half of the film there’s some inspired slapstick, including a set piece involving a collapsing eagle costume and a public urinal that’s probably the funniest moment in 2019 cinema so far. And Leslie Jones, often resistibly shrill in SNL, knocks it out of the park with Zeta’s voice, making her both abrasive and sympathetic.

There’s a lot of talent here, but the assumption that the first film will front-load audiences with relevant information is overplayed. It’s nice to see Zeta and Mighty Eagle put aside their issues and finally get married, a moment scored to the Turtles anthem Happy Together. The song accidentally evokes memories of a prominent place in Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 gay arthouse film which tooks it’s name from the track; the nagging take-away is an Angry Birds movie shouldn’t require the same concentration levels as the work of a Chinese visionary.

The Thief and the Cobbler 1990 ****

the-thief-and-the-cobbler-post2A few long car journeys with a friend recently gave birth to a new conversational cliche; when you first discovered the internet, what was the thing you searched for? One of the original reasons that this blog was created was Richard Williams’ astonishing animated film The Thief and the Cobbler, which popped up in the amoral copyright-free wild west that was You Tube over a decade ago. This was big news; Williams’ masterpiece was considered to be incomplete, unfinished; the chance to see any version at all was like a peek behind the wizard’s curtain. Williams was an animator whose work ranges from his Oscar-winning version of A Christmas Carol to the bridging scenes of The Charge of the Light Brigade to such feted work as the Pink Panther credits and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That feature led to Williams being given the chance to make a feature with the huge scale of a Disney, or at least a Don Bluth, and Williams delivered a film of strikingly unique tone and appearance. Disney’s Aladdin is one of the Mouse House’s best, and there’s a remarkable similarity in the style of the drawings here. The Arabian theme is bent with imagination, creating dizzying worlds for the characters to step nimbly through. The Thief and the Cobbler has always been hard to track down; brief glimpses on You Tube are your best bet. It’s a shame that at the time of his death in August 2019, Williams’s terrific film was barely viewable; perhaps now is the time to exhume The Thief and the Cobbler and celebrate Williams as an all-time great in the field of animation.

The Charge of the Light Brigade 1968 ****

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Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on as Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid pictures which might created today. The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with history, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vivid tableaux that say just as much about the vain-glorious mind-set of those involved that rest of the the film itself. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.

Charming 2018 ****

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If you’ve ever wondered what kind of film might involve Sia and John Cleese, Charming is the answer; a bright, poptastic animation from John Williams, a Shrek producer who gets how a post-modern take on fairy tales might work. The result is for anyone who dug the scenes between the various Disney princesses in Wreck It Ralph2: Ralph Breaks the Internet; Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are all featured here in competition for the hand of Prince Charming.

Prince Philippe Charming (Wilmer Valderrama), to give him his full name, is a man cursed with weapons-grade charm, so powerful that all women fall in love with him. It is, quite literally, a curse, and his father sends him out to run The Gauntlet, a series of challenges. Of course, the prince is actually a vain fop who cannot shoot an arrow or drive a cart, and he depends on a mysterious stranger for guidance. The stranger is a woman disguised as a man, and her name is Lenore (Demi Lovato), a jewel thief; she has similarly been cursed with an inability to fall in love. As they bond on their voyage through the trials set against them in the gauntlet, Phillipe and Lenore fall in love, but where will that love take them?

Some of the animation, particularly the faces, doesn’t feel top drawer, but Charming gets a quite a few key things right; the narrative stops for a few good, solid songs by Sia, performed by Sia and Lovato, and a upbeat anthem Trophy Boy by Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy. Classic Disney soundtracks always hark back to what the parents want to hear; it’s refreshing to hear modern music rather than retro-classics. The cast are familiar, and identifiable; even John Cleese’s bits, as a Fairy Godmother and an executioner, are specific comic characters that are similar to, but not the same as, vintage Python. And the story’s heart is in the right place; the character of Prince Charming is undefined in many fairy-tales, and writer/director Ross Venokour hits the right groove in identifying gender bias and making turning sexist archetypes upside down.

There’s something of the meta-fictional zest of hit Hoodwinked here; a section where Phillipe and Lenore is caught by a race of Amazonian women called Matilija, with huge, zombie-like eyes has a strong visual flair, and for the most part, Charming manages to be quite literally what the title says.

In the UK, CharmingMovie is in cinemas nationwide 2 August 2019.

Toy Story 4 2019 ***

Toy Story 4 brought in a lot less than was expected at the US box office; $118 million is a huge haul, but the relative failure of the animation to draw crowds will be something of a talking point, given that Pixar’s brand is considered to be so powerful, and the franchise one of the best loved in cinema. Josh Cooley’s film is extremely well done, and doesn’t let down the series, but it is inessential; the previous trilogy wrapped up the characters, took them to the edge of extinction, and brought them back for a happy ending, with life lessons learned in time for bedtime. Toy Story 4 sets up the idea that Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Beep (Annie Potts) have an unrequired love, and that their separation is due to Woody’s loyalty to his owner, who doesn’t play with him so much. A new, home-made toy called Forky gets all the attention, and Woody and the other toys embark on various familiar heist scenarios to united the little girl with her toy. New elements, like Keanu Reeves as a Evel Knievel-style motorcycle jumper called Duke Kaboom, are great fun, and the animation is wonderful, but the bottom line is that Toy Story 4 attempts to spin out beloved characters once too many; it’s a trip to the well that wasn’t required, and the classic Toy Story characters are tarnished as a result.

 

Missing Link 2019 ****

Laika’s homemade ethos has, like Aardman, won over the hearts of many critics, and yet there’s little sign of a Disney/ Dreamworks-style audience share. Missing Link’s delightful parody of an old-school adventure story fell on deaf ears with audiences, and that’s a great shame. Hugh Jackman emphasises the plumiest of tones as Sir Lionel Frost, an explorer seen initially getting the hump from the Loch Ness Monster. Without an assistant, Frost travels to America to seek Bigfoot, only to find the creature to be far more urbane and literate than he imagines. Voiced by Zach Galifianakis, Mr Link, or Susan as he prefers to be known, is a solitary and lonely creature, and begs Frost to unite him with his distant cousins, the yeti. To make the journey, a treasure map must be obtained from Adelia Fortnight (Zoe Saldana) and various varmints also stand in the way. Writer/director Chris Butler’s film is slight, but swims against the current in terms of dialling down the action and keeping the stakes small and personable. Missing Link is a lovely film for children of all ages, right down to the cheerful end credits song by Walter Martin.