Avengers: Endgame

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


We know for a fact that Avengers: Endgame will not be the last movie in the MCU. Even if the trailer for Spider-Man: Far From Home hadn’t already hit theatres by the time of the film’s release or that most of the stars in this film weren’t already contracted to appear in future instalments, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Marvel and Disney are in no hurry to end their multi-platform, billion dollar franchise. One of the most notable things about Endgame though is how much it feels like a definitive conclusion to the story the MCU has told over the course of the 22 films they’ve released in the last 11 years. This is of course partly to do with the understanding that some of the film’s biggest stars, including Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, would be retiring their characters with this movie. From a storytelling perspective, there is a definite sense of finality surrounding Endgame as it promises to deliver a conclusion to the stories of the characters who originally helped launch the series. It feels like a certain era has come to an end and the time has come for the old hands to step down and pass the torch over to the younger, fresher, and more diverse line-up slated to take their place. Understanding this, Endgame presents itself as the final chapter of an epic saga with all the grandeur, gravity and magnitude such a coda demands.

Endgame picks up immediately following the events of Infinity War, an epic earth shattering crossover event that ended with Thanos (Josh Brolin) collecting the six infinity stones and wiping out half of the universe with a snap of his fingers. Previously when the Marvel cinematic universe had seen a dramatic shift in the status quo, whether it be a change in the Avenger line-up, the disbandment of SHIELD, or half of Earth’s mightiest heroes becoming fugitives, the shift doesn’t tend to feel as momentous as it should since the filmic format favoured by the MCU is unsuited for the task of conveying long-term consequences. When Age of Ultron concluded with a new team of Avengers, we only get to see them do one mission together before the whole Avengers Initiative was terminated in Civil War. Even then, the reality of a world without the Avengers never got much time to sink in because as soon as Thanos came knocking in Infinity War, the team was back together again. This is why it’s so striking to see Endgame devote so much of its time towards depicting the tragic outcome of a post-Thanos world. Instead of immediately retconning the ending of the last film so that the Avengers might get back to business as quickly as possible, most of this film is actively focused on exploring and understanding the emotional toil of the surviving characters.

Those who survived the last film include Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Each is severely affected by their failure to stop Thanos and, even with the help of the newly arrived Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), all efforts to undo the damage prove futile. The only thing left for them is to live on in this new world and achieve what sense of normalcy they can. A significant amount of the film plays out not unlike a blockbuster remake of HBO’s The Leftovers as we’re treated to surprisingly profound explorations of grief. The characters who’ve been left behind following this galactic genocide have to deal with such feelings as personal loss, survivor’s guilt, dejection, disillusionment, helplessness and the crushing weight of failure and defeat. For those wondering why this chapter of the Marvel saga demands a three-hour runtime, this is it. In order for us to appreciate the desperation of the Avengers’ effort to fix the world that Thanos broke, we first must appreciate what it is they’ve all lost and what it is they’re each fighting for. Thus when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) returns from his ill-timed trip to the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and the Wasp and presents the Avengers with a possible solution, we’re ready to root for them all the harder.

Even then, however, the film doesn’t leap straight into the action. Endgame is a film about reflection and, given the impossibility of what they have to achieve compared with how much they’ve already lost and what little they’ve managed to hold on to, the film allows room for the characters to decide how much more they’re willing to sacrifice and how much further they’re willing to go. Given the stakes that have been set up, it’s not much of a stretch to consider that this may well be a one-way trip for some of the team, which by this point includes Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Where Infinity War struggled to accommodate each major character and share out whatever amount of screen-time they could spare, Endgame benefits enormously from having a smaller cast to work with and it is here that the long-form storytelling and character development starts to pay off. Inevitably it’s the main characters who experience the most meaningful changes while the side characters more or less fulfil their usual roles (with the exception of Nebula, who is given an extraordinary arc). Thus Captain America’s sense of duty compounded with his mourning for the life he had to give up to become a hero, Iron Man’s eternal struggle between his conceited ego and sincere desire to help and protect others, and Thor’s repressed traumas and insecurities versus the burden of his responsibility to his people; all these arcs are concluded in ways that, by the end of the film, feel fitting and earned.

The way the rest of the story plays out is a little disjointed. Characters are split up as they chase different objectives and encounter varying obstacles in ways that can feel divergent at times. Endgame plays out a lot like a Christopher Nolan movie with a dozen intricate parts all moving at the same, but without the clear sense of direction and cohesion that make his films feel so substantial. If this had been a standalone film with original character, it would have been all but incomprehensible for the viewer for all of its tangents and self-indulgence. But that’s not what Endgame is; this is a film that’s building off 21 movies worth of storytelling, characterisation and world building and that’s why its convoluted approach works. When the film seems to diverge, it’s because the characters in question need to end up in certain places at certain times in order for their arcs to be fulfilled. This is a movie that was designed to deliver pay-offs for anything and everything that long-time Marvel fans have invested themselves in from long term character journeys to tiny in-jokes carried over from previous Marvel films. The format is such that the film can structure itself around all the callbacks and references it can dream up, allowing fans to appreciate all the further how much change and growth has taken place, both in the fictional world and the real, since that moment 11 years ago when Tony Stark stood on a pedestal and announced to the whole world “I am Iron Man”.

The catharsis that Endgame offers to viewers who have followed them in their decade-long cinematic experiment and have grown to love the universe they’ve created and the characters who inhabit it is such that I can hardly bring myself to fault the film even as it missteps in the handling of certain characters’ stories (including a major death that I found deeply unsatisfying) and indulges in some of the habits and trends that I tend to dislike in their films. The action as directed by the Russo Brothers is typical of Marvel in that there are few visual flourishes and little technical inventiveness to enrich what is otherwise blandly competent, and yet the individual moments that occur, especially in the film’s colossal final hour, are so enjoyable and satisfying (outside of one rather patronising moment) that it’s a little difficult for me to care. This is a movie that was made to fulfil a very specific purpose for a specific kind of viewer and it succeeds so remarkably well both on an emotional and stimulating level that it seems almost churlish to demand more. The film doesn’t even attempt to appeal itself towards those who haven’t already been converted because it has absolutely nothing to offer them, which is a feature, not a bug. Avengers: Endgame is a singular cinematic event of unprecedented proportions and that it ended up being as great as it was is quite simply a miracle.

★★★★★

Advertisements

Hellboy

Cast: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church

Director: Neil Marshall

Writer: Andrew Cosby


Sometimes you’ve got to love Hollywood and their unfailing ability to learn the exact wrong lessons from whatever great success they want to capitalise upon next. Following the monumental success of the MCU, Warner Bros. and Universal sought to follow suit with their own franchises of interconnected films. What neither series appeared to anticipate was how difficult it actually is to make each title a distinct and satisfying film in its own right while still allowing it to serve a larger narrative. Although the DCEU films have gotten better, it is at least partly because the series has more or less abandoned the idea of tying them together. The Dark Universe meanwhile was dead on arrival when The Mummy, a movie that was dreadfully at odds with itself on every level, bombed with critics and audiences. Hellboy however is following the example of a different trend entirely, that of the R-rated superhero blockbuster. After Deadpool proved that such films could be monster hits and Logan proved that they could be critical darlings, the lesson they’ve taught Hollywood couldn’t be clearer: more swearing, blood and gore, and nudity equals ‘better’. Thus with a franchise that no longer has del Toro or Perlman attached and the R-rating that the pair never needed to make two great films, we get Hellboy, a big bloody mess both literally and figuratively.

Conceptually the Mike Mignola created character ranks amongst the most unique modern-day comic book heroes and a new Hellboy series could have made for a welcome break from the superhero routine Hollywood has fallen into. Instead the film staggers along without a trace of the personality rampant in the previous films, relying on ideas borrowed from other, better films. The opening prologue, detailing the defeat of the evil, bloodthirsty queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich) at the hands of King Arthur and the foretelling of her imminent return, feels like a half-arsed video game rehash of The Lord of the Rings, only with God of War levels of graphic violence. This sets up is followed with what almost plays out like an NSFW take on The Kid Who Would Be King as Hellboy (David Harbour) must embrace his destiny and rise to the task of combatting and vanquishing this Arthurian menace. The main difference is that more characters are bloodily decapitated while the F-word gets thrown around frequently and indiscriminately. Joining Hellboy for the ride are Alice (Sasha Lane), a clairvoyant with an unconvincing British accent and a past connection with the demonic hero, and Daimio (Danuel Dae Kim), a paranormal military specialist with an equally unconvincing British accent and some dark secret that will inevitably be revealed round about the third act.

Originally proposed as a sequel to The Golden Army until del Toro and his team dropped out, Hellboy is a hard reboot. Here the fiery, behemoth demon with his oversized rock-hard punching hand and filed-down head stumps where a pair of horns used to be is played by the star of Stranger Things while the director’s chair is assumed by Neil Marshall, director of The Descent and two all-time great episodes of Game of Thrones. Between the two of them there ought to be more than enough talent to make this superhero-fantasy romp work, but it wasn’t to be. The two previous films depicted Hellboy as this lovable outcast, as the heroes in del Toro’s films so often are; a tough guy and a wisecracker with a devil may care attitude, but ultimately a gentle soul who had to work as hard to battle his own inner demons as he did those supernatural monstrosities that threatened to destroy the world. This grittier, gorier title wants to offer a darker, more cynical spin on the character, which is fine as a concept, but what they lose in this iteration is Hellboy’s humanity. The film is so much more interested in depicting gruesome amputations and following them up with foul-mouthed one-liners that any kind of nuance the film wanted us to read into Hellboy’s character gets lost in the noise.

More’s the pity since Harbour does demonstrate some understanding of what his role is supposed to be about. His Hellboy appearance is a little less chiselled than Perlman’s, a little rougher around the edges, and some of the material he’s given almost manages to feel like it means something, especially when he’s interacting with his adoptive father Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane), the leader of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence that Hellboy works for. One source of conflict between them is how reluctant Hellboy is do battle with Nimue and her forces. As a demon who job is to kill other demons, it makes sense for him to lament the idea that every threat he faces must be met with violence and every foe eliminated. However, unlike the del Toro films which genuinely empathised with the creatures, even the villainous ones to some extent, and would treat their deaths with some degree of gravity and meaning, this one fails to live up to that theme. Instead it serves as mere lip-service that ends up adding to nought in the fight scenes where our crimson hero proceeds to massacre entire hordes of faceless creatures without a second thought. In truth the only purpose any of the plot serves is to provide the movie with some vague semblance of structure as it ravenously dashes towards the next gorefest with reckless abandon.

While the film does boast some visual flourishes in its action scenes and a few imaginatively designed creatures, as in one brief dream sequence where a fully demonised Hellboy rides atop a skeletal dragon, it gets exhausting after a while. The moviegoer can only take so much unyielding gratuity and Hellboy never lets up on that front. Excessively monotonous violence gets old if there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind it and Hellboy doesn’t offer any. All it offers is the same old tired superhero story we’ve seen dozens upon dozens of times before, just with an R-rated twist and not even an especially creative one at that. What makes Deadpool and Logan work where this film doesn’t is that they used the licence granted by their R-ratings to serve the stories and tones they were going for. Hellboy is so devoid of originality and inspiration that the excessive carnage and hardcore cussing come across more as desperate than anything, as if they realise on some level that they haven’t got anything worth a darn outside of it. The world didn’t need a new spin on this character when the last two films were as recent and as good as they were, but that didn’t mean this film couldn’t still be good in its own way. However, by trying as hard as it does to distinguish itself from what came before, the movie’s only success is proving its own futility.

Missing Link

Cast: (voiced by) Hugh Jackman, Zoe Saldana, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, David Walliams, Timothy Olyphant, Matt Lucas, Amrita Acharia, Zach Galifianakis

Director: Chris Butler

Writer: Chris Butler


Laika doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what they do. When Disney Animation chose to abandon the traditional hand-drawn style for their theatrical releases in favour of the 3D, computer-rendered form of animation that Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination and several more favour today, it marked a key turning point in the history of the craft. While the practice still lives on in some form at Disney, most recently in Mary Poppins Returns, the transition more or less confirmed that the old ways had died and that CGI was the new normal for modern animation. With so many studios favouring the form however, the films that they make, whether good or bad, can often feel quite samey in their video game aesthetics. This is what makes Laika, a studio that continues to employ the meticulous and distinct practice of stop-motion in their films (along with Aardman Animations), stand out all the more. It’s a form that requires thousands of hours of painstaking work and demands the kind of attention to detail and accomplished skill that all forms of handicraft demand. It isn’t a question of which format looks better or is more difficult to master, but with the knowledge of how much care and labour go into their creation and how uniquely physical such films as Coraline, ParaNorman and Kubo and the Two Strings look in this contemporary digital age, one cannot help but be awed by Laika’s output.

Their latest offering tells the story of Sir Lionel Frost, a Victorian explorer who travels the world in search of mythical beasts such as the Loch Ness Monster, which he encounters in the opening scene. Lionel is revealed to be an outlier to his 19th century peers, an adventurer whose goal isn’t to track and hunt animals for sport but to find these strange, legendary creatures and learn from them so that he might unlock the mysteries of the world. This doesn’t mean that Lionel isn’t a man of his time however, nor is he a saint. He is still shown to be a rather chauvinistic and egotistical man who isn’t above using others to serve his own ends and can be dreadfully immature when things don’t go his way. Things kick off when Lionel receives a letter from the United States telling of an enormous, hairy creature lurking in the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest. Lionel wastes not a second in heading straight there and it isn’t long before he encounters the Sasquatch himself. Mr. Link, as Lionel calls him at first, turns out to be a being of human-level intellect who learned English by observing humans and wrote the letter that brought the English explorer to him. Link, having recently learnt of the Yetis and believing them to be his distant relatives, asks Lionel for his help in travelling to the Himalayas and finding their hidden city so that he might finally be with his own people.

Thus Lionel and Susan, which is the name that the creature adopts (despite being voiced by Zach Galifianakis, the Bigfoot’s gender is an amusing source of some ambiguity), set off on a quest that leads them to all kinds of exotic locations. They first head to New Mexico where fiery Adelina Fortnight, an old flame of Lionel’s, holds the map they need to find their destination. She of course ends up joining them and so off they go on an ocean liner bound for Southeast Asia where they will then treck to the Himalayas in search of the secret Yeti sanctuary. Dogging them is the bloodthirsty Willard Stenk, a bounty hunter hired by Lord Piggot-Duncaby, the irrepressibly stuck-up president of an exclusive explorer’s society that Lionel longs to join. The main focus of the film throughout is the relationship between Lionel and Susan who find that despite the pomposity of the former and the witlessness of the latter (Susan is, for example, wont to takes things literally as when Lionel asks him to throw a rope over the wall he plans to climb), they make a pretty good team. The most enjoyable part of the film is watching the odd couple wind up in all manner of outlandish scrapes, stumbling their way out, and getting confused with each other at every turn through miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Missing Link, as directed by Laika regular Chris Butler, is less Kubo and the Two Strings this time and more Wallace & Gromit. The action is less pronounced, the stakes aren’t as critical and the tone is more tongue-in-cheek. While the fight scenes that do take place are inventively staged and great fun to watch, the film is far more interested in enjoying the journey as it unfolds and playing around with the characters along the way. This takes place in a time before there were planes and automobiles and so it is appropriate that the film never feels like it needs to rush things along so we can get to the endpoint that little bit sooner. We instead get to enjoy each splendidly designed setting and revel in their varying qualities and atmospheres at a pleasantly relaxed pace, allowing us to appreciate all the more the breadth of their voyage how animated each location feels. As a result, the film never feels like it’s trying too hard to keep things moving and hold our attention. The whole thing feels perfectly at ease with itself, never once resorting to eye-rollingly self-aware winks to the audience or out-of-place pop culture references, as if the children watching couldn’t appreciate an earnest, straightforward adventure such as this.

Laika demonstrates once again the breathtaking possibilities of stop-motion animation, a tradition that has been around for as long as cinema, with set-piece after set-piece featuring intricate detail, resplendent colours and wonderfully designed models, all of them lovingly crafted and positioned by hand. During the end-credits there’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of all the work that went into accomplishing this one sweeping shot of Lionel, Susan and Adelina riding on the back of an elephant through an Indian jungle. Through an engaging time lapse we get see all the effort that went into moving each little detail, not just on the main characters as they traverse through the area but also the shuffling leaves in the greenery and the scrambling wildlife all around them so that the world they all inhabit might feel as rich and lived-in as our own. The only digital effect in the whole shot is the green-screened mountain range in the background. It all makes for a film that feels utterly immersive, as if the children in the audience were watching figures they could have built themselves out of papier-mâché and paint come to life and inhabit the world they conjured in their imaginations. Missing Link doesn’t reinvent the wheel nor are its themes as deep or profound as those in Kubo, but what it does do – create an exquisite world, present some delightful characters, and give the audience a good old time – it does well.

★★★★

Shazam!

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Writer: Henry Gayden


With the global phenomenon that superheroes have become and the weightiness and maturity that many fans have come to associate with the genre, whether it be the disturbed philosophy of The Dark Knight, the reflective politics of Black Panther, or even the obscenely adult humour of Deadpool, a lot of people forget that most of the superheroes we love originate from comic books and Saturday morning cartoons aimed at children. The early DCEU films in particular tried so hard to adapt these stories into an esteemed, multifaceted saga with the kind of dark, gritty tone, densely complicated narrative and bleak (some might even say nihilistic) morality that they hoped would establish them as Marvel’s mature older brother, that I couldn’t help but feel that DC found their universe’s childish origins to be downright embarrassing. When The LEGO Batman Movie came out, a film that unashamedly aimed itself towards children and eagerly celebrated its hero’s colourful, campy history, I was as dumbstruck as I was impressed. This was a movie that wasn’t the least bit embarrassed to treat the mythology of the Caped Crusader as ‘kid’s stuff’, practically a blasphemous statement to make in this day and age. Shazam! follows in this tradition as a superhero movie that was gleefully made for kids and has absolutely no problem leaning on the inherent silliness and childishness of superhero movies.

Based on a 1940s comic book series about a superhero called Captain Marvel (a name that unsurprisingly never gets uttered once in this film), Shazam! is the story of the un-titular hero’s alter-ego Billy Baston (Asher Angel). Billy is a 14-year-old boy who has been living in foster care since he was little but has never stayed in any single place for long due to being a difficult and rebellious brat. He gets into trouble with the police thanks to a stunt he pulls in an attempt to track down his birth mother, leading him to be relocated to yet another foster home run by the welcoming and loving Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa Vasquez (Marta Milans). Their home is a large and diverse one that houses the paraplegic wisecracker Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), college hopeful Mary (Grace Fulton), tech genius Eugene (Ian Chen), uncommunicative loner Pedro (Jovan Armand), and bubbly sweetheart Darla (Faithe Herman). Billy however has no desire to become a part of their family and resolves to run away as soon as possible. He does however demonstrate a capacity for nobility and kindness when he defends Freddy from a pack of school bullies, a deed that catches the attention of a force far beyond his comprehension. Billy is thus transported to a mystical lair where he meets the dying wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), who bestows his magical powers onto the young boy so that he might defeat the great evil that is to come.

What follows is essentially Big if it were also a superhero film. Billy discovers that by saying the word “Shazam!” he can transform himself into an impressively buff, superpowered adult man in a red spandex suit (played by Zachary Levi). Whether the spandex suit is actually a part of his physical body or if it’s simply an impractical outfit that offers no apparent means of relief when nature calls, Billy never figures out. Confused and beside himself, he brings Freddy in on the secret and together they set out to discover just what exactly Billy’s new body can do. Through a series of tests they learn that Billy’s powers include super strength and speed, invulnerability, and lightning magic. Their initial response however isn’t exactly that with great power comes great responsibility. Instead the adolescent boys take advantage of Billy’s abilities by buying beer under his adult guise, using his lightning powers to charge their phones, and uploading his stunts onto YouTube. Levi proves himself to be an ideal casting choice, looking imposing enough that anyone would be awed by his presence but also making use of his comedic talents to show that there is a young kid in there who cannot believe that he is inhabiting this kind of body. Even if his brash and awkward portrayal of the character isn’t exactly consistent with Angel’s performance as the rather quiet and level headed Billy, it still works.

Soon enough the big bad comes along in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), the unfortunate child of a rotten family who was summoned by Shazam as a young boy but was rejected from the call for power and greatness when his heart proved impure. Having dedicated his whole life to returning to that magical realm and claiming what he believes to be his destiny, Sivana has struck a deal with the devil (or, rather, seven demonic entities personifying the deadly sins) in order to realise his goal. Strong is such an intimidating figure throughout that his mere presence is enough to make you forget that Shazam! is a kid’s film. One scene where Sivana marches straight into a board meeting and casually tosses a character out of a skyscraper window mid-sentence caught me completely off guard. What makes him a great foil to Levi in this kind of movie is that Sivana has absolutely no idea he is the villain in a children’s comedy, making his puzzlement at the adult Billy’s amusing antics and juvenile humour all the funnier. The best example of this comes in their climatic showdown where Sivana’s obligatory bad guy speech about how much more powerful he is than the hero and how futile his efforts are doesn’t quite land with the effect he intended.

Shazam! isn’t just a kid’s adventure with some silly gags and action scenes. Billy’s main concern before acquiring his powers is searching for his long-lost mother, a pursuit that eventually leads him to some tough truths and complicated feelings. What Billy wants more than anything is to have a family that loves and accepts him and he gets so consumed both by his fruitless search and the preoccupation of being a superhuman with god-like powers that he doesn’t even notice how close he is to seeing his dream come true. The Vasquez family have invited him into their lives and are only too willing to offer the belonging and affection he has always desired, but Billy is so blind to the chance that it isn’t until an external threat appears and threatens to take them all away that he even realises what he actually had. It’s a strong lesson with such a satisfying payoff that the movie doesn’t care if it comes across as a bit schmaltzy. Such sweetness and sincerity is almost unheard of in a modern-day superhero blockbuster and the movie wears its own hokiness like a badge of honour. This is a movie that was made with the whole family in mind and it wants viewers to walk away feeling not only thrilled and amused but also moved.

Shazam! feels like a movie that was made in the Spielbergian spirit of the 1980s, an era where PG actually meant something. It’s a kid’s adventure through and through, but with enough of a personality and an edge to make it feel like there is something grown-up happening amidst all the adolescent jokes and cartoonish action. Unlike the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things though, it doesn’t rely on direct references and callbacks in order for the connection to be made; it’s all there in the style and tone. The movie is goofy, but it’s also action-packed. It’s a movie that’s capable of being silly and light-hearted in one moment soberly dark the next without it feeling like a dissonant clash in tones. It’s a movie where not all of the digital effects look top notch, but that’s sort of part of its child-like charm. It is also, much in the spirit of such 80s classics as E.T. and The Goonies, a movie that lends much weight to childish personalities and experiences. Freddy in particular, a kid whose disability has rendered him to as much of an outcast as Billy, is a character whose voice counts for a lot as he assumes the role of both friend and (seriously unqualified) mentor. The rapport they share is one of the many pleasures of this thoroughly enjoyable movie.

★★★★

Dumbo

Cast: Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Nico Parker, Finlay Hobbes, Alan Arkin

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Ehren Kruger


At 64 minutes long and made with a relatively modest budget for the time (less than $1 million), the 1941 Dumbo is one of the simplest and least ostentatious films in the Disney canon. It tells the tale of a baby elephant who is born in a circus, is separated from his mother, and is eventually reunited with her when his ability to fly turns him into a sensation. The film is admirably economic in its storytelling, refusing to indulge in subplots or characters that don’t have a direct role to play in the titular character’s arc; the one scene that does not make any contribution to the narrative is the Pink Elephant Parade, which gets a pass by virtue of being one of the most outstanding animated sequences ever put to film. The result of their efforts is an affective and disturbing film that has endured as a classic for decades. That the film compels you to feel such sympathy and regard for a protagonist who never utters a single word throughout is a testament to the expressiveness of Disney’s animation and the clarity of their storytelling. This 2019 live-action remake, which is twice as long as the original, was made with a budget of $170 million, and was helmed by the creative mind behind Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, doesn’t even come close to meeting its predecessor’s standard.

Dumbo, a CGI elephant with abnormally large ears and huge, blue eyes, is barely the main character in his own story this time around. The film seems to be much more interested in following the human characters, of which there are far more than there were in the cartoon. The most prominent of them is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), a circus performer who has just returned from the First World War having lost one of his arms in combat. His wife has also died from influenza by this point, leaving him in sole charge of their children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The Medici Brothers’ Circus, run by the brotherless Max Medici (Danny DeVito), has also fallen on dire straits and had to sell Holt’s horses in his absence. Holt is thus placed in charge of the elephant Mrs. Jumbo, who soon gives birth to her big-eared baby. Jumbo Jr. is brought into the circus act but his debut goes awry when the crowd catches sight of his malformation. Dumbo, as they cruelly call him, becomes a laughing stock, leading his mother to violently lash out. She gets sold off, leaving Dumbo sad and alone. Later on the inquisitive children discover Dumbo’s miraculous ability to fly and realise that they can use his unique ability to boost ticket sales and raise the money they need to buy Dumbo’s mother back.

That is pretty much the plot to the 1941 film, only instead of a talking mouse and an ensemble of racist crows, we get the Farrier family blues and Dumbo donning some clown makeup. By the time this film gets there though, we’ve barely made it to the halfway mark. There’s still a whole lot of movie to go as V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a flamboyant and enigmatic business tycoon, catches wind of the magnificent flying elephant. He whisks Dumbo and the rest of his carnival troupe off to his mammoth Coney Island amusement park Dreamland. This glitzy realm of wonders and attractions (a magic kingdom, if you will) becomes the setting for the remainder of the film as the avaricious, young-at-heart Vandevere proceeds with his plan to exploit this awe-inspiring, juvenile phenomenon with his capitalist machine for all it is worth. Whether Burton is making some kind of allusion to Disney and his own experiences of working with them, I can only speculate; then again that might be crediting the film with more self-awareness or substance than it merits. Either way, Keaton and Dreamland do at least bring some light and energy to what had heretofore been a drab and characterless film. If there’s one thing Burton can still do well, it’s playing around in a detailed and visually inventive setting with some colourful, if otherwise soulless, characters.

Dumbo, a CGI elephant who is impossibly cute while somehow simultaneously being a grotesque, photorealistic abomination, barely has any agency in his own story. His narrative passivity isn’t necessarily a flaw, he is a baby elephant after all, but without any strong sense of character he effectively functions as more of an animated prop than a protagonist. The simulation is expressive enough that it’s no great effort to identify Dumbo’s emotional state in the happier and sadder scenes, what’s less clear is how much he actually understands what’s happening around him in a given moment. There is an attempt to establish a connection between Dumbo and the one-armed Holt, who apparently sees something of a kindred spirit in the physically deformed elephant (kind of like Hiccup and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon). However, if this bond is supposed to be understood as reciprocal between them, there is no indication that it is so on Dumbo’s end. He just pretty much sits there and grins at whoever happens to approach him the way that a cheerful infant with no understanding of the world would. One might not have even noticed that the relationship between Holt and Dumbo was even supposed to be a particular point of focus were it not evident in Farrell’s performance.

It is only by virtue of employing actors as talented as Farrell, Keaton, DeVito and Green (who plays a French trapeze artist tasked with riding Dumbo as he flies in Vandevere’s show) that their characters are able to convey any kind of humanity. The two who suffer the most in the movie are the children, whose performances are necessarily more reliant on the direction than the adults. Parker is the more prominent of the two and, if I were to learn that Burton had explicitly instructed not to display a single emotion throughout the production, it would not surprise me in the slightest. She plays a girl who follows in the example set by Mackenzie Foy’s character in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms of young heroines whose single personality trait is scientific inquisitiveness. The film doesn’t even attempt to integrate it into the story in a way that might feel at least vaguely organic; they just have her outright state her interest in “the scientific method” at every given opportunity. Even then, it doesn’t inform her growth as a character or figure into the larger themes of the story (a scientifically-minded child grappling with the reality of flying elephant might have made for an interesting source of friction, to give one example), it just comes across as a lazy attempt to score brownie points with feminist critics in search of smarter, more progressive female characters in big-budget children’s movies without bothering to write one.

Watching these live-action remakes make the same mistakes all over again year after year is getting so old that I’m as bored of writing about them as I am of watching them. Half of the problems in Dumbo are about trying to fix what was never broken (sans the racist crows) and the other half come about from errors in story, character and filmmaking that are so elementary, they wouldn’t even meet student film standards. All through the first half of the film, for example, the main concerns are on Dumbo being regarded as an outcast and on the familial troubles he and Holt suffer. All of a sudden, as soon as Dumbo learns to fly, a character we’ve never heard of before appears and moves the action to a location we’ve also never heard of and, just like that, the story becomes more about the evils of big business and the shamefulness of animal captivity and showmanship. These two halves have so little to do with one another, they may as well have been two separate films. What’s worse, they even screw up the ‘Baby Mine’ by having the song come from a source that’s entirely divorced from the moment! Dumbo is so ill conceived in so many aspects from its very structure down to the characterisation and motivations that I find myself wondering yet again why Disney even bothered in the first place. The an$wer, of cour$e, i$ a$ obviou$ a$ the$e movie$ are weari$ome.

★★

Us

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer: Jordan Peele


Not long after Us was released Jordan Peele premiered his revival of The Twilight Zone. While the reception was somewhat mixed and the show’s quality tended to vary with each episode (which, to be fair, has almost always been the case with anthologies), it left no doubt in my mind that he is the 21st century successor to Rod Serling. First with Get Out and now his sophomore outing as a filmmaker, Peele has displayed a dazzling genius for counterpointing personal drama with surreal concepts, all in service of delivering a larger message about society and morality. While Us is categorically a different kind of film from the dark, racially-focused satire that Get Out was, there are parallels and contrasts that are worth observing. Both are films that delve into the tumultuous state of the American condition, both depict Kafkaesque nightmares that border on the paranormal, and both convey their narratives using the language of horror cinema. Where they differ the most is that Get Out had such an alarming clarity to its vision and themes whereas Us is a messier film that seems concerned with more abstract and intangible ideas than its predecessor, the nature of which are not as immediately apparent (which isn’t necessarily a weakness). Us is also more explicitly a horror than it is a comedy; the film is a frightening home invasion thriller with a sinister Invasion of the Body Snatchers twist in which we are revealed to be our own worst enemies.

Peele wastes no time in getting things started on as ominous a note as he can possibly conjure. The opening statement announces that “there are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental U.S.” and that “many have no known purpose at all”. With that unsettling detail of a lost, mysterious chapter in recent American history, the film moves on to a scene in Santa Cruz in 1986. A little girl (Madison Curry) is on a day out with her family at the funfair, trying to enjoy the games and attractions while her parents bitterly bicker at every opportunity. She eventually wanders off while her Dad is distracted and happens upon an empty hall of mirrors by the stranded beach. The inside is dark and deserted enough that any kid would be creeped out by the warped and twisted reflections within, but the girl ends up seeing something far more disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that we aren’t allowed a proper glimpse at this point. Peele instead shows us the little girl’s shocked, eye-widening reaction, then immediately cuts to the main titles, where the camera slowly zooms out from the image of a caged rabbit to reveal it as just one among many. What has actually happened and what does the strange text and imagery even mean? You’ll have to watch to find out. And even then you still might not have a clear answer.

The film picks up with a now grown-up Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) on holiday with her sweet lunk of a husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children, bratty daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and oddball son Jason (Evan Alex). The Wilson family is bound for their lake house in Santa Cruz, where Adelaide had her distressing episode all those years ago, and the traumas of that memory are beginning to resurface. The summer house itself is pleasant enough and the other family members certainly enjoy themselves as they make for the beach with their wealthy and rather one-dimensional (intentionally so) friends Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), but Adelaide is far too apprehensive to relax with them. When Jason wanders off and Adelaide realises that they are within a stone’s throw of that same hall of mirrors, she erupts into a full-blown panic until her ingenuous son reappears, completely unharmed. That night Adelaide’s fears prove not to be unfounded when a family of four, identical to their own in almost every way, appears on their doorstep dressed in uniform red jumpsuits, wielding oversized, golden scissors, and scarcely making a move or even a sound. Who these people are, beyond being uncanny doppelgängers of the Wilsons, and exactly what they want is yet to be revealed, but the harm they intend on Adelaide and her family is immediately clear.

Each actor in this film must perform double duty, playing not only their given characters but also their respective doppelgängers. This point merits emphasis because the performances are so transformative you can scarcely believe that they come from the same individuals. Yet what makes the duality so disturbing is how closely each double reflects their counterpart like those warped funhouse mirrors. It’s Dr. Jekyll’s evil alter ago brought to terrifying life en masse; the ‘Tethered’, as they call themselves, are the living manifestations of our greatest insecurities, anxieties and fears. They are “us”, as Jason so rightly observes and, after living entire lifetimes of neglect and malnourishment, they’ve come to exact a vengeful reckoning. Each actor rises to the task of playing their twisted selves, Duke as a lumbering hulk, Joseph as a gleefully homicidal menace, and Alex as a rabid pyromaniac. Nyong’o meanwhile is performing on a whole other level as Red, the wrathfully calculating mother figure and the only one of the Tethered who can speak. Croaking her words in a deep, suffocated voice, she talks in fables and riddles of the bloody vendetta their people have come to wreak. Her deeply, agonisingly expressive deliveries and perverse body language are so eerie, so full of aching pathos while still remaining so inscrutable and otherworldly, that to call it a great performance seems inadequate. Nyong’o’s acting feat, both physical and emotional, is nothing short of superhuman.

There’s more going on here than psychological horror though. The allusions to all those forgotten tunnels beneath the ground, the recurring motif of the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 (a passage that promises divine punishment), and also the references to Hands Across America, a national, Reagan-era charity event where millions of people held hands across the breadth of the country to fight hunger and homelessness; there’s a political statement here that Peele is trying to make. It’s not an accident that the title Us also happens to be the acronym for United States. “We’re Americans”, says Red when asked who they are and it speaks to a larger truth beyond its most simple, literal sense (which is explained at length in the third act). They are an underclass; a marginalised, voiceless, forgotten many living in the shadows and the dark corners of the world. They embody our most violent and hateful impulses and they reflect an unsavoury, repellent side of history, society and culture that the human race has worked hard to bury so that they need never be confronted. They aren’t some foreign, alien threat who have conspired from afar to bring about the country’s doom nor are they mindless monsters moving without method or motive. They are “us”; the incarnation of our most destructive and detestable instincts and the greatest threat we face in the world today.

The idea that humanity is its own worst enemy is apt for a film where sometimes Peele is the victim of his own vision. While his skills as a horror director are as masterful as ever, Us is such a thematically dense film that it can sometimes feel like he’s lost his way as he attempts to tie all things together into a single, coherent whole. As everything between the Wilsons and their Tethered opposites come to a head and it starts to feel like the movie ought to start wrapping things up, the film keeps on going. We’re then treated to some exposition where many of our most pressing questions are given answers but, even then, the film keeps on going until it feels like Peele is trying too hard to make the metaphor work. It’s not that the ending is bad or that the point of it all gets completely lost, it’s more like the overall vision Peele has for this film isn’t as wholly realised and perfectly self-contained as it was in Get Out and it’s all he can do to keep the thematic house of cards he’s built from collapsing under the weight of its own convolutedness or the pressures of scrutiny. Again, this isn’t necessarily a fault with the film. In fact, there’s something about its imperfection that makes this film all the more terrifying; as if the reality of our lesser selves is as inescapable for those who made this film as it is for its characters.

★★★★★

Captain Marvel

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Jude Law

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet


While the monumental success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a record feat of production is not to be doubted, the quality of the individual films have tended to vary between pretty great and barely passable. Lately, for give or take a couple of years now, they’ve been on quite a hot streak with the emotional resonance of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the visual inventiveness of Thor: Ragnarok, the political boldness of Black Panther and the shattering scale of Avengers: Infinity War. Having maintained such a solid and consistent batting average as they have, something was bound to give sooner or later. Captain Marvel is by no means a terrible movie nor is it the worst in the MCU canon (hello The Incredible Hulk); it did however leave me feeling underwhelmed in a way that the MCU hasn’t really done in a while. More’s the pity since this is the first of their score of films to feature a female protagonist and to be (co)directed by a woman. Its creation is overdue and its ardent celebration of girl power is to be lauded; I just wish it had been in service of a more compelling story with a more well-defined protagonist and told in more engaging way.

To its credit, the film does try to shake things up on the outset by giving us a superhero origin story in reverse. Instead of showing us an ordinary person who later becomes somebody extraordinary, this is instead the story of one who is already extraordinary and later learns that she used to be ordinary. This is Vers (Brie Larson) who, when we first meet her, is completely unaware that she was once Carol Danvers, a hotshot pilot for the U.S. Air Force. By this point Vers is living on the planet Hala, the homeworld of the Kree (whom MCU fans might remember as the baddies in Guardians of the Galaxy). She possesses ambiguous super powers over which she has little control but which nonetheless prove useful in her capacity as a member of an elite squadron called Starforce. They are led by Yonn-Rogg (Jude Law), a great warrior who has taken it upon himself to train Carol and presses on her at every opportunity that her emotions are her greatest weakness. She is haunted by nightmares depicting memories of a past she does not recognise and not even the Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening), an artificial intelligence whose appearance varies depending on the viewer, is unable to provide the answers she seeks. Vers eventually winds up on Earth and there finds that the answers to her past might have something to do with the Skrulls, the sworn enemies of the Kree.

Her arrival causes quite a stir in 1995 Los Angeles and is investigated by none other than a young SHIELD agent called Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged to his Die Hard with a Vengeance self). Marvel has used this technology before on the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas and Kurt Russell, but never has it been employed at such length and executed so seamlessly. So much so that when Clark Gregg shows up as an unconvincingly younger Agent Coulson, you’ll think that the film’s entire de-aging budget went to Jackson alone. His first meeting with Vers proves a riotous one as he winds up chasing her across the streets of L.A. while she pursues the Skrulls who followed her to this planet. Realising that their goals may be similar, Vers and Fury partner up and resolve to investigate the mystery of her forgotten past together, enjoying a playful and appealing rapport as Jackson delivers his most committed performance in the ten years he’s been playing this character. He is outmatched only by Ben Mendelsohn, playing a Skrull named Talos who spends half of the film posing as Fury’s boss Keller and the other half in his natural, green form, and Goose, the feline who deserves his very own Marvel franchise.

It’s a good thing the supporting cast is as strong as it is because they have to do a lot of heavy lifting for want of a more compelling main character. None of this is Larson’s fault as an actress though; in fact, when she’s able to get into the action and deliver a few quips, she ticks all the right boxes. She can shoot energy blasts from her hands, meaning that not every action scene amounts to a simple punch-em-up, she is rather reserved in a way that the more loudmouthed Marvel heroes tend not to be, and she has this enchantingly rebellious spark befitting a woman who has zero tolerance of mansplaining and cat-calling. The problem is more with the way the movie handles her story. Since Vers has no memory of who she was before she got her powers, the film gives her little to draw from in terms of personality and motivation. Even when she does finally remember her past, the film has given her so little of substance to attach herself to that it doesn’t feel like she has all that much at stake in this whole affair. She doesn’t have any kind of family or love interest, there isn’t any place that she calls home, and the only real connection she has to her life on Earth is her friendship with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). The film was so intent on maintaining the mystery for as long as it possibly could that it only occasionally made the time for Vers’ actual character.

The film was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who are much more at home making character-driven indies, and, while it isn’t at all unusual for Marvel to hand some of their biggest titles over to formerly small-time directors such as the Russo Brothers and Taika Waititi, It hasn’t really paid off this time around. While their talents for character interaction do shine in the more down-to-Earth scenes (I mean that in the most literal sense possible), the pair seem much more lost in the spectacle of their cosmic sci-fi adventure. The action scenes are so often shot in dark, murky settings and are strung together so choppily that it’s difficult to so much as keep track of what’s happening on screen. Marvel tends to have a rather bland and generic visual style they like to impose on their films when they’re not entrusted to one of their more visually distinct filmmakers like Gunn, Coogler or Waititi and Captain Marvel is one that suffers from a severe lack of some sort of stylistic personality. The shots are routinely composed, the colour and lighting is pretty much nondescript and the action scenes don’t have any kind of punch or flair to them beyond what an anonymous second-unit team compiling a studio-mandated fight scene for a mid-90s blockbuster could have done.

Still, that this film isn’t one of Marvel’s better offerings doesn’t mean that is has nothing of value to offer. As well as the enjoyable interplay between characters and some pretty good gags, the movie is also determined to make a statement about the world today, especially as it relates to women, and there is satisfaction to be gained if only from the knowledge that a small and loathsome sub-culture on the Internet is fuming because of it. It certainly adds some amount of depth to Vers’ journey for identity and independence as she grows more defiant in her unwillingness to follow the orders given to her by domineering male authority figures that she considers to be morally wrong. There’s also a gratifying moment near the end where Vers puts one of the more obnoxious male characters in his place by refusing to do battle with him on his terms or prove herself according to his regressive standards. The film isn’t as triumphantly defiant as it aspires to be, nor is it a particularly good film in general, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there some aspects I enjoyed a good deal. Ultimately, however, Captain Marvel is more table setting than it is a cinematic feast. Maybe further along down the road we’ll get a sequel that allows the character to come more into her own, but even that wouldn’t retroactively make her first outing any better.

★★★

Fighting with My Family

Cast: Florence Pugh, Lena Headey, Nick Frost, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Director: Stephen Merchant

Writer: Stephen Merchant


Cinema has seen some truly spectacular boxing movies over the years (Rocky, Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, the list goes on), but not so much with pro wrestling (the only notable example that comes to mind for me is Aronofsky’s The Wrestler). I think this is reflective of a certain perception (some might call it snobbery) that views boxing as a more valid and prestigious sport whereas wrestling is dismissed as inauthentic and silly. While the latter certainly has its very passionate fanbase, I do think a lot of people look down on wrestling for what they see as fakery even though, as stressed in this new film, there is a marked difference between a sport being fixed and fake. Fighting with My Family follows GLOW, a criminally underrated Netflix show about female pro wrestling, in the recent tradition of media that have found more to the sport than what people typically dismiss. It tells the story of a young woman whose dream is to become a WWE champion and of the blood, toil, tears and sweat that got her there. It’s a comedy film and it’s really more about family than it is wrestling, but what stood out the most for me was the film’s utterly sincere and wholehearted regard for pro wrestling both in its demanding athleticism and its unabashed theatricality.

Based on a true story that became the basis of a similarly titled documentary in 2012, Fighting with My Family tells the story of Saraya Knight (Florence Pugh), a young girl from a wrestling family in Norwich who would go on to become Paige, a world-famous WWE champion. All her life, having been raised by her wrestling parents Ricky (Nick Frost) and Julia (Lena Headey) and been taught to fight since as soon as she could walk, she and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) have only ever had one dream, to make it in the big leagues in the USA. Together as a family they run a local wrestling ring where they put on fights and train the local youth (including a blind boy) in the sport they all love so dearly. When the siblings are invited to London to audition for the WWE, it looks like the stars are aligning and the chance has come for them to realise their dreams together. Only that’s not quite how it works out. Hutch (Vince Vaughn), the talent scout and trainer they must impress, picks Paige (the stage name Saraya has picked after her favourite character on Charmed) to advance to the next stage, a wrestling boot camp in Florida, while her brother is sent home. All on her own in a foreign country, her quest for wrestling stardom pushes Paige to the very brink of her physical and emotional limits.

As far as Paige’s story goes, Fighting with My Family is a fairly typical sports film. From day one of her training she is presented to us as an outcast amongst her American peers. As well as being a working-class Brit, Paige favours a Gothic appearance complete with dyed black hair and facial piercings which clashes with the blonde, sun-tanned models and cheerleaders she gets paired with and her anxieties lead her to lash out against them. Not only is she inconsolably lonely, she is also burdened by the guilt she feels for having been chosen for this once in a lifetime opportunity over the brother whom she felt deserved it more as well as a pathological fear of blowing her shot and letting her loved ones down. The pressure she feels couldn’t be more unbearable, except she also has a harsh and unsympathetic trainer pushing her all the harder because he apparently sees something in her that she is unable to see in herself. The film walks a fine line between having Paige as enough of an underdog that we naturally root for her to succeed and having her be flawed enough that she needs to grow up before she can win her climatic triumph. Part of what makes her an outcast, for example, is her derision for her fellow trainees whom she doesn’t see as real wrestlers, a bias that she overcomes by the end of the film when she eventually befriends the women and realises that she has as much to learn from them as they do from her.

The movie isn’t just about Paige overcoming the obstacles and winning, it’s also about her search for identity, which is the part of the story that I found to be the most lacking in development and substance. This is connected to the aspect of wrestling that many often find to be off-putting, the soap-opera-like performance of it all. The idea, as this film puts it, is to create a character with something personal and unique to say and to use the ring as a platform to tell their stories. Paige, for whom wrestling has always been a family affair, has to decide once and for all who she really is beyond that context and what it is she wants to say for herself. Pugh is certainly to be commended for the grit, humour and determinism she brings to the role, but for a film that places so much weight on the need for Paige to build a persona that is hers and hers alone, that aspect of her journey doesn’t get the focus it demands, leading to a payoff that feels more clichéd than earned. It’s my understanding that the real-life Paige was a truly groundbreaking figure in pro wrestling, a woman who lived and breathed wrestling in a world where female competitors seldom came from a wrestling background. I hoped the film would depict a more personality-driven story that delved more into how Saraya actually became Paige, but the films instead leans more on the physical challenge she faces, just like the countless sports movies that came before.

Still, as I said before, this isn’t really a movie about wrestling, it’s actually about family. The moments when Paige is with her parents and brother are when the film is at its most enjoyable and touching. The film dedicates a surprising amount of time and nuance towards the parallel struggle of Zak, who is made to reckon with the cruel revelation that he is simply not good enough to make his greatest dream a reality. Sports films are often so ready to celebrate the hero’s victories that many of them tend not to dwell too much on their failures and what it really means when you’re not a main character destined for glory. Zak is so crushed by the harshness of his rejection, the loss of his drive and ambition and the sense of unfairness clouding it all that he finds himself spiralling deeper and deeper into a dark pit of resentment and thwarted dreams that threatens to consume him. Offering a lighter touch are Frost and Headey playing as the parents, essentially a pair of overgrown children who love what they do, are always up for a laugh, but who are ready to offer a helping hand and words of profane wisdom when it’s needed. The film also features an extended cameo by Dwayne Johnson, who is always a delight even when his appearance feels inescapably gimmicky. Like its main character, Fighting with My Family is flawed and a little rough around the edges, but it’s also funny, charming, and a pretty good time when all is said and done.

★★★★

The Kid Who Would Be King

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Tom Taylor, Denise Gough, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart

Director: Joe Cornish

Writer: Joe Cornish


We live in increasingly cynical times and the idea that a noble medieval king like Arthur could possibly solve the innumerable problems facing the UK today in the age of Brexit is quite laughable. Yet that is in a sense what Joe Cornish’s newest film is about and with it he invites the viewer to consider the world as it is not through the wearied, sceptical eyes of an adult but through the innocent, eager eyes of a child. It harkens to a mythical time in Britain’s history when the whole country was united under the benevolent rule of a hero among men. In a short, animated prologue the film details the particulars of Arthur’s rule, taking care to emphasise that it was not his ability to slay monsters that made him a great king. What made Arthur a figure of such reverence was the chivalric code by which he upheld the principles of justice, honesty and honour. This was a king who treated his trusted knights as his equals, who made friends of his enemies and who inspired hope and unity in all who followed him. The legacy of Camelot has long since been lost to the world but will soon be unearthed once again by a pair of unlikely pre-teens living in contemporary London.

The Kid Who Would Be King is set in a world where everything is bad (“WAR! GLOOM! FEAR! CRISIS!” read the headlines on a local newsstand) and everyone has more or less resigned themselves to the prospect of a doomed future. The 12-year-old Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is all too familiar with the struggles of living in a world where the strong freely prey on the weak as he and his best mate Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are bullied at school. Living with his exasperated mother Mary (Denise Gough), struggling to make ends meet in the absence of the boy’s father, Alex identifies strongly with the likes of Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker, all of them orphans dreaming of adventure and destined to become great heroes. His favourite book as a young boy, as a matter of fact, was the anthology of Arthurian fables that his father left him before disappearing. On one fateful day as Alex and Bedders are being chased by their local bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris), they stumble into a building site where they find an ancient sword sticking out of a solid concrete block. Alex pulls the sword out of the stone with ease, leading the two boys to conclude that this must be the legendary sword of Excalibur and that fate has decreed they must embark on some great quest in order to save Britain.

Soon Alex is visited by the great wizard Merlin (Angus Imrie), who appears in the form of a teenager and poses as a pupil at the boys’ school under the cunning pseudonym of ‘Mertin’. An eccentric figure who’s liable to transform into an owl or his older self (played by Patrick Stewart) when he sneezes, he reveals to Alex and Bedders that the return of the evil sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), Arthur’s greatest enemy, is imminent. It is Alex’s destiny to take his place as the king the country desperately needs right now and to vanquish Morgana before she can rise with her minions and unleash her wrath on the world. Suspecting that his estranged father might have a role to play in all this, Alex resolves to set out for Tintagel, the last place the two of them met and the supposed birth place of Arthur himself. Joining him on this quest, as well as Bedders and Merlin, are Lance and Kaye, whom Alex knights so that they might redeem themselves and help save Britain from peril. Along the way Merlin trains them in the ways of the greats knights of yore and presses upon them the chivalric code and its tenets of bravery, decency, and honour. If the kids fail to stand by this code and follow it to the letter, then their quest is already lost.

While there is plenty of action along the way, it should be clear from the word go that The Kid Who Would Be King is not a high-concept epic fantasy on the level of The Lord of the Rings. It’s more like if The Goonies or Stand By Me were made today and included a fair few moderate action scenes with modest special effects. This isn’t to say that we don’t get some sense of the grand scale and threatening stakes of the adventure they’ve embarked upon. Cornish treats us to sweeping shots of the English countryside, has the fellowship do battle with animated trees and CGI skeletons on horseback and there is even a climatic siege where the weathered fortress of Helm’s Deep is replaced with a London secondary school. Far from threatening to overwhelm frame after frame with endless masses of CGI like most of the blockbusters you’re likely to see these days, Cornish keeps things simple and clean and the film is stronger for it. It’s a style that enables them to emulate the heroic fantasies that the tale of King Arthur helped inspire while still allowing them to keep things light-hearted and childishly playful; more Narnia than Middle Earth.

The action doesn’t really matter so much as the quest itself. The film is, more than anything, about Alex’s journey of self-discovery. What makes this story work in an era where modernised takes on the Arthurian myth continuously fail (remember Legend of the Sword?) is the way in which it draws new morals from the old, familiar tales. For one thing, the film drops the feudalistic notion that nobility and greatness is borne from one’s birth. In the end it isn’t Alex’s blood or his parentage that makes him great, it’s the lessons that he learns on his journey and that fellowship he builds with his brothers and sisters in arms along the way. The movie is a celebration of community and its ability to overcome any threat through unity and co-operation. The ensemble, many of whom were young and untested actors as were those in Cornish’s previous film Attack the Block, do wonders to sell the idea as well as the fantasy of it all. I especially liked Chaumoo, who I think is destined to deliver a Samwise Gamgee performance for the ages one of these days, and Imrie, who commits to his role wholeheartedly. Together they’ve made a highly charming and enjoyable film and, while it’s still unlikely to solve the world’s problems, it can at least provide a couple of hours of escape and that’s nothing to turn your nose up at.

★★★★

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part

Cast: (voiced by) Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Maya Rudolph

Director: Mike Mitchell

Writers: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller


In all the years I’ve been going to the cinema, watching The LEGO Movie in 2014 is still one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It’s not just that the film was so irresistibly funny, stupendously animated and surprisingly clever and moving, but also because I went in that day entirely convinced that I was going to detest every second of it. The very idea of it stunk to me of cheap corporate marketing tactics and I thought all I was going to get out of it was a 2-hour commercial. What I was totally unprepared for was what an astounding commercial it would turn out to be. It favoured a delightfully anarchic comedic style, it showcased dozens upon dozens of inventive and colourful sets and characters and it had a smart story to tell about the push-pull between going by the rules and individual creativity, all of which were given even greater weight with the revelation that this whole universe was born from the imagination of an eight-year-old boy. The inevitable obstacle facing this sequel is that it’s never going to astound me in the same way its predecessor did. Short of a complete reinvention of its whole ethos from the ground up, the humour is now going to feel familiar, the premise won’t be as fresh and, no matter what this sequel offers, its going to be encumbered by the burden of expectation.

Five years after the first film’s release, the second chapter cleverly realises that its original audience of young kids have now grown up to become pre-teens and so the film resolves to grow up with them. Picking up from the last film’s ending where Bricksburg is visited by Duplo invaders, the city has grown into a gritty, dystopian wasteland like something out of the Mad Max films that only adults and big kids are allowed to watch. Lucy (or Wyldstyle, as she prefers) feels right at hope in this desolate landscape, dressed up as a post-apocalyptic warrior and brooding all day long whilst contemplating their hopeless future and loss of humanity. One character who hasn’t lost a shred of his humanity though is Emmet, who continues to cheerfully go about his day humming the tune to ‘Everything is Awesome’ in an environment that’s anything but. Lucy presses onto him that Bricksburg (or Apocalypseburg as its now called) has grown too harsh and inhospitable for Emmet to survive with his upbeat disposition and one of the central conflicts of this film is whether he ought to (or even can) become tough and mean enough to be that kind of ‘hero’. Either way, Emmet must spring to action when the Duplos return once again and abduct Lucy, Batman, Benny the Astronaut, Metalbeard, and Unikitty, taking them back to their home in the dreaded SyStar System.

Given that those who have seen the first film already know about the real-world twist, there’s little point in dancing around the fact that the same device returns and is even more prominent this time around. The little boy Finn (Jadon Sand) is now five years older and his interests have moved on from the childish antics of the first film to the more gritty, angsty wasteland of Aposalypseburg. The SyStar System, meanwhile, is the bright, sparkly realm of Bianca (Brooklynn Prince), the little sister who wants nothing more than to play with her big brother. While he has a clear, controlled idea of what he wants his world to be, she favours more of an anything and everything approach, going with her whims and doing whatever it is that seems the most fun (sound familiar?). Thus it is soon made clear to us that the cosmic scale of Emmet’s quest to cross the galaxy and save his friends is in fact being driven by a spat between two siblings who can’t get along. Hanging over them throughout is threat of our-mom-ageddon, which will erupt should their conflict grow too out of hand. What’s smart about this revival of a previous device is how it expands on the conflict that shaped the first film rather than merely repeating it, even if the device is so pronounced this time around that it borders on distracting.

Back in the world of the imagination, Lucy and her captive friends are brought before Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi, a shape-shifting amalgamation of bricks and “the least evil queen in history” (words that describe her include unduplicitous, unmalicious and unconniving). She embodies the limitless and overwhelming energy of Bianca’s world and she entices the captured party (apart from Lucy) with promises of happiness and fulfilment. Her domain appears to be an idyllic one where nothing bad ever happens, much in the vein of the picturesque and musical world that Bricksburg used to be (complete with another irrepressibly catchy song appropriately titled ‘This Song’s Gonna Get Stuck Inside Your Head’). Meanwhile Emmet is doggedly on his way to rescue Lucy and co. and helping him is Rex Dangervest, a Chris Pratt-ish character who embodies the Kurt Russell sci-fi hero persona that Pratt has grown into in the five years since the first movie. He is a space cowboy who travels the galaxy on his spaceship searching for lost, ancient artefacts, training raptors and sporting chiselled, buff features where he once had baby fat (Rex Dangervest is even the exact kind of name that Andy Dwyer would invent for this kind of character). Realising that Rex is precisely the kind of guy Emmet feels like he needs to become in order to satisfy Lucy, he determines to follow his example and learn all he can from the badass hero.

Like many kids films this tells a story about growing up, but it offers a slightly different spin on the idea. Emmet’s arc in this film revolves around the idea that he needs to grow up in order to be a hero and the kind of man Lucy would want as a boyfriend. The film thus pairs him with Rex who is the personification of many of the tropes we associate with modern-day action movie heroes. Rex is less of a character than he is an archetype of the masculine ideal; one who is tough, confident (or maybe arrogant is the word), impulsive, aggressive and emotionally repressed. If he isn’t showing off his awesome lifestyle and heroic accomplishments, he’s brooding about his tragic backstory and how anybody who gets close to him is doomed to get hurt. While Emmet’s talents lie in hope and creation, Rex’s talents are all about power and destruction. This dynamic helps to inform the story taking place in the real world where Finn, a boy who has doubtless consumed much of the media celebrating such ultra masculine superheroes as those that Chris Pratt has portrayed, is playing with his LEGO more along the lines of what he now considers to be more grown-up and cooler, whereas his sister wants to play in a more light-hearted and carefree manner (along with the hearts, smiley faces and glitter that he now finds contemptible). The story is thus not so much about growing into maturity as it is about refuting a certain misguided idea of maturity that a lot of kids experience.

The film is also more self-aware than its predecessor, which is sometimes a good thing and sometimes bad. One example is when they rightly call the first film out for featuring Lucy as a strong female character who did all the work only for the hapless male to get the credit (a trope that is as common in movies today as it is tired), but if there was an attempt on this film’s part to give her more agency then it was never really brought to fruition. The self-awareness is ever present in the comedy as well, ranging from the portrayal of Rex Dangerfield as the epitome of all that is Chris Pratt to the knowing references and asides that only the adults will understand. Sometimes it gets a laugh and sometimes it feels like the movie is trying too hard to be cleverer than the already clever material delivered by the previous film’s directors Lord and Miller demands. Or maybe that has more to do with the challenges of making a comedy sequel when the audience is already in on the joke. In any case there is plenty to enjoy in The LEGO Movie 2. It has many worthwhile ideas on its mind, it boasts fantastic visuals with a greater wealth of detail than ever before, and it is consistently entertaining from beginning to end.

★★★★