Spies in Disguise 2019 ***

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“I call it Fifty Shades of Yay!’ shrieks an exuberant Tom Holland in Blue Sky’s new animated film, a vehicle that pairs the Spiderman star with venerable character actor Will Smith for some espionage capers. This Fox/Disney co-production is cannily placed in the festive market to mop up an audience of kids who are too young or unwilling to debate the ins and outs of Emperor Palpatine’s sex life circa Xmas 2019.

Troy Quane and Nick Bruno’s film is based on a short called Pigeon Impossible, which offers a title which shoe-horns pigeon-based humour into a spy theme. And that is where Spies in Disguise goes, unexpectedly; a good forty minutes of the film sees superspy Lance Sterling (Smith) transformed into a humble pigeon. He’s helping do-gooder scientist Walter Beckett (Holland) as the two come into conflict with super-villain Killian (Ben Mendelsohn, typecast beyond redemption) and his metal hand. Killian has a drone army in place for nefarious purposes, and has set-up Sterling as his patsy; transformed into a pigeon, Sterling fights to clear his name and save the world.

Spies in Disguise pretty much drops the pigeon angle for the last half an hour and becomes a straight spy spoof, but not before it’s generated a few good lines. ‘I don’t think that subtitle was in my favour’ Sterling quips as foreign henchmen gather around him. Better still, although the production has a sleek Incredibles look, the film doesn’t rely on big guns and weapons; Walter prefers glitter bombs and holographic kitten distractions, and the conflict between the boy and the older, more experienced Sterling attempts to defuse macho stereotypes.

It’s notable that Spies in Disguise also offers a more hawkish stance towards geopolitics than other kids films, with Sterling teaching Walter about the need to interfere in foreign affairs. It’s a moot point, but this Blue Sky production doesn’t labour it, and with a notably slick car chase that gets off to a slow start when Sterling can’t get into his own car, plus some cool character designs, it’s a satisfying cinema outing for families who just want a quick sugar-rush and a few laughs rather than the final confusing instalment of a forty year old story.

Kiki’s Delivery Service 1989 *****

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The news that Disney+ has knocked a million subscribers off Netflix constitutes the first substantial flare-up in the streaming war. Amazon’s agreement with Studio Ghibli to feature their stunning collection of animated films suggests that the battle for the hearts and minds of living-room dwellers is about to switch into a higher gear; the Ghibli catalogue is as rich as Disney’s, and arguably has fewer mis-steps or changes of direction. Ghibli make beautiful films with genuine depth; sign a child up for a course of Studio Ghibli and you’re buying them a ticket for a regular Sunday-service cat-bus to a unfamiliar yet instantly relatable world of originality and imagination.

While Spirited Away is arguably the most full-realised Ghibli film, Kiki’s Delivery Service is the place to start, and the latest blu-ray incarnation, arriving just in time for Christmas, is the obvious jumping-off point. Kiki is a young witch, sent away from home by her parents to find herself in the big city; this is a coming of age story rather than an adventure, the stakes are small but have gravity.

Gigi the cat joins Kiki on her broomstick as she flies high in the night sky; voiced by Phil Hartman, Gigi’s caustic commentary grounds the sweetness of the enterprise with a more knowing sense of the real world. There’s are no villains to stereotype; Kiki’s fight is to find her place within the community as she runs erands, find a job in a bakery, observs the way that people interact. This is a film that addresses young people in a carefully drawn adult environment, and has valuable lessons to accompany lush storybook visuals and a soaring score.

The voice cast here is top notch; Kirsten Dunst, Debbie Reynolds and Hartman all do great work in the English dub, and both the revised and original versions have disparate selling points. While language and characters change between the two, each conveys a fresh take on Kiki’s development. The plentiful extras on a second disk include and investigation of where the real locations are that inspired the look of the city, plus feature length storyboards that capture the essence of the look. It’s a substantial package that will also appeal to anyone interested in the art of animation.

Disney had recorded issues with religious groups who didn’t like the witchcraft theme featured here, and perhaps that’s why they allowed their grip on Kiki to slip. Their loss will be Amazon’s gain, but even thinking about such corporate conflict is incongruous to the simple charm that Hayao Miyazaki’s film offers. Kiki’s Delivery Service would be an ideal gift for a family or child, a gentle, subtle, magical animation that is as close as can be imagined to a perfect film.

Kiki’s Delivery Service 30th Anniversary Limited Edition is available exclusively at Amazon and is available to order here – http://po.st/KIKI30

 

The Watcher in the Woods 1980 ***

watcherThe file marked Disney Horror films isn’t too substantial; the notion of staff hailing John Hough’s The Watcher in the Woods as ‘This could be our Exorcist’ suggests that the company were indeed looking in surprising directions in the early 1980’s. The Watcher in the Woods came out just before The Shining, and has a number of similar tropes, notably children discovering backwards writing on the windows of a crumbling mansion. But Watcher was pulled by the company bosses, re-edited and given a new opening and closing sequence; the original version, and Hough’s preferred version, are even harder to find than this 1982 reissue. Safe pair of hands Vincent McEveety was drafted in for the reshoots, but the regular reader of this blog will know that John Hough is the draw here; from Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry to Biggles, his skills are first rate. Here, he brings a real gloss to proceedings as David McCallum and his family move into an old house, where Bette Davis has a secret relating to a missing child and a spectral presence. Since the 1980’s, PG horror has become something of a staple, but in 1980, the whole concept of a children’s horror movie seemed like a contradiction. Hough’s movie has plentiful jump scares, like a child putting on a witch’s mask, that don’t connect to the main narrative. But reboots and remakes are welcome when they right wrongs; Disney’s idea was ahead of the curve, and even though there’s been a take Lifetime tv movie remake with Anjelica Huston, it would be nice to see Disney get to grips with this property and see what attracted them to it in the first place. It’s certainly got atmosphere, even if the story defies logic for children and adults alike.

Zootopia 2016 ****

zootos-4Hard-boiled noir and political satire are two things one doesn’t expect in a Disney film; perhaps the rise of Pizar has cause Disney to raise their game, because Zootopia, aka Zootropolis, is smart stuff. In a city of animals, it’s quite literally a concrete jungle out there for Officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) to negotiate, so she falls back on the help of diamond-in-the-rough fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). They’re on the trail of a substance that unleashes the primal instincts of the carnivores amongst the Zootopia population, a plot device straight out of counter-culture 70’s extreme cinema like God Told Me To or Blue Sunshine. Of course, Zootopia doesn’t go too far down this road, and everything is satisfyingly sorted with the help of the celebrated comedy sloths, a crime-boss clearly modeled on Marlon Brando and a jolly Shakira song to finish. Zootopia is a colourful delight, popping with sight-gags and clever references for all ages, helped by the fact that the tricky central idea is explored in unexpected depth.

Maleficent 2014 ***

maleficentAn odd but rewarding slice of revisionism from Disney, Robert Stromberg’s dark fantasy looks at the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of villainess Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). With her horned headdress and high cheekbones, Maleficent is a fearsome creation, played to the hilt by Jolie, but kittled out with a backstory that explains her outsider disposition. Stromberg’s film turns the fairy tale on its head, delivering a non-family friendly message that’s some way from the original narrative. Some of the details, notably the fairies who protect Aurora (Elle Fanning) are smugly done, and Sharito Copley’s nemesis is a trial to watch, but Maleficent offers the kind of modern take on a classic story that was sorely missing from Kenneth Branagh’s dull Cinderella.

Big Hero 6 2014 ****

big-hero-6-03032016A collaboration between Disney and Marvel, Big Hero 6 is a wonderfully deft animation for children that’s got more to say than most grown-up dramas. Sold as an ET-like drama adventure about Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his robot friend, Beymax, Don Hall and Chris Williams fashion a more soulful story about a boy with an absent father; Beymax’s protruding belly and drunk-act when on low battery power mark him out as a amusing parody of parental values and vices. Hiro enlists Beymax’s help to uncover who is responsible for the death of his brother against a steam-punk SanFranTokyo setting, beautifully realised; with Scott Adsit providing Beymax’s voice, Big Hero 6 offers plenty of winning humour and bursts of profound poetry on its way to a tear-jerking ending.

Mighty Joe Young 1998 ***

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A remake of the old RKO movie, Ron Underwood’s 1998 re-imaging in a lush and family friendly movie that plays up the affection between Joe and Jill Young (Charlize Theron). Transported from Africa to Hollywood, Joe is disconcerted by all the noise (he takes a dislike to car alarms) and years for his sweetheart Jill, who he has enjoyed a decade in the jungle with. Theron has proved her chops as an actress elsewhere, but she’s a perfect heroine for this Disney film, looking luminously beautiful and believable as the girl that Joe will do anything for. A surprising flop, Mighty Joe Young is a charming family film, delivered with as much sensitivity as a love-struck giant gorilla can muster. Ray Harryhausen has a cameo that gives the impressive effects a stamp of approval.