Disney

Frozen II

28/11/19

Disney’s Frozen II  is facing a hard slog with this particular critic: I’m not a great fan of fantasy/quest stories, power ballads don’t really float my boat, and sequels are rarely much cop. But, being firmly of the opinion that opinions can and should change, I’m determined to approach it with an open mind. After all, there are great tales in every genre. In the end, if it’s done well, I’m happy.

2013’s original Frozen is a case in point. Despite myself, I liked it. A lot. Of course, this second outing can’t benefit from the freshness of the idea, and is bound to suffer – to some extent – from trying to replicate the original’s huge success. You can almost hear the songwriters’ straining for this year’s Let It Go. 

It’s three years after Elsa’s coronation, and everyone in Arendelle is enjoying Autumn. But then Queen Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling to her, and feels compelled to follow it. But her sister, Anna, won’t let her go alone, so – quelle surprise – they are accompanied by Christoph (Anna’s boyfriend), Sven (Christoph’s reindeer) and Olaf (the chirpy snowman). The voice leads them to the enchanted forest where, years ago, the women’s grandfather was killed. Elsa’s mission, it turns out, is twofold: to heal the rift between the Northuldra tribe and the soldiers of Arendelle, all trapped together in the forest since the fatal fight; and to appease the elemental spirits angered by human folly.

The songs, sadly, are all so-so ballads, with little to distinguish them, and none as memorable as Let It Go; more variety would really perk things up. Olaf’s constant joking is less adorable in this outing; I find myself wishing he’d shut up. And honestly, I’ve no idea why Anna and Elsa wear dresses, high heels and full make-up for hiking in the hills.

Still, the animation is glorious: the water horse (or Nokk) and the earth giants are particularly impressive. The plot is convoluted and a bit silly, but it skips along nicely and holds my attention.

The verdict: Frozen II is… lukewarm.

3.2 stars

Susan Singfield

The Lion King

19/07/19

Much to the dismay – and often outright incredulity – of every millennial I know, I’ve never seen the original Lion King. I mean, I’ve seen the original original (Hamlet), but not the much-loved 1994 animation. Quelle horreur! So it seems tonight’s the night to – sort of – put that right, by reclining in my brand new leather Cineworld seat and checking out Jon Favreau’s new CGI adaptation.

It looks… ravishing. It’s stunningly impressive. The animals are so perfectly rendered I find myself thinking of it as ‘live action’, then have to remind myself that these are computer-generated images, not real wildlife at all. It’s truly awesome; I’m sure that even ardent fans of the cartoon would enjoy this iteration.

Because – apparently, according to Philip – it’s faithful to the original. It feels like a  lovingly recreated version of an old favourite, using new technology to enhance the look.

For those even further out of the loop than me, this is the story of Simba (JD McCrary/Donald Glover), a lion ordained for greatness. When his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), is killed by his evil uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Simba has to leave the plains he is destined to rule. He buries his sadness and shame, and forges a carefree life for himself in another region, where he befriends comedy warthog/meerkat duo, Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) and Timon (Billy Eichner). Meanwhile, Scar and the scary hyenas are destroying Simba’s homeland. Eventually, fate comes calling for the young lion, when his childhood friend, Nala (Beyoncé), seeks him out, demanding his return.

Of course, the story is an old one, so there are few surprises in the script. No matter – it’s beautifully told. Sure, it’s a bit schmaltzy at times (that’s Disney for you), but it doesn’t shy away from the difficult stuff either, and is really rather dark at times. The hyenas (particularly Shenzi, voiced by Florence Kasumba) are genuinely terrifying, and the battles violent and visceral. I do have a few issues with the central premise (I’m not so keen on the idea that some are ‘born to rule’), but – honestly –  my main take-home from this is a sense of marvel at the technical accomplishments.

It’s very definitely worth seeing.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Beauty and the Beast

13/04/17

We’re a little late to the party on this one, finally sitting down to watch Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast almost a full month after its UK release. Still, even without our patronage, it’s been a rip-roaring success, and so we’re able to pick from a plethora of performance times at our local Cineworld, despite the passage of time.

And it’s easy to see why this film has been so well-received. It’s lovely. Emma Watson is a perfect Belle for the modern age, conferring a sense of agency and autonomy without undermining the source material. And the CGI animations are just so very Disney – cheeky and cute and oozing personality. Sure, there’s an enchanted castle full of emotional manipulation here, but would we have it any other way?

I can’t compare this new version to the much-loved cartoon, because – gasp! – I’ve never seen the earlier incarnation of the tale. Philip tells me that it’s pretty much a frame-by-frame copy, with only subtle changes applied to reflect twenty-first century ideologies. For example, the much-vaunted ‘openly gay character’ turns out to be Le Fou, whose homosexuality is a lot less ‘open’ than I’d imagined from the on-line fervour it elicited (admiration for Gaston, and a flirtatious glance during the finale dance). I guess it’s a step in the right direction, but it seems unnecessarily restrained. This is 2017. LGBTQ characters don’t need to be so hidden and covert, do they? Still, even baby steps move us forward – and this is a film with a good heart.

Dan Stevens imbues the Beast with a deep humanity; Luke Evans relishes in denying Gaston has a heart at all. Both male leads are played with real aplomb, nimbly treading the fine line between stock-character and depth. I’m particularly fond of Kevin Kline’s bumbling Maurice; he’s just so incredibly appealing despite his neediness – no wonder Belle feels so responsible for him.

The music is great – memorable and catchy and beautifully performed (is there anything Watson can’t do?). And the choreography of the crowd scenes is truly breathtaking. This is Disney doing what Disney does, with such confidence and assurance that success was always inevitable.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Moana

05/01/16

Moana is the name of a young Polynesian girl, the daughter and heir of a chief. Her father wants her to take his place one day, and can’t bear the idea of her leaving Motonui, their beautiful island. But Moana is fixated on the ocean and what lies over the horizon, and it seems her destiny lies elsewhere. All becomes clear when her grandmother explains that Moana has been chosen by the ocean to find the demigod Maui and help him return the goddess Te Fiti’s heart, which he had stolen a millennium before. Moana sets sail, and so the adventure begins.

It’s a wonderfully animated film, with some absolutely gorgeous seascapes in particular. Te Fiti is also beautifully rendered, her transition from goddess to island a delight to see. And the story is engaging, especially once Moana tracks down Maui and their odd-couple interplay begins.

The music works well as a soundtrack, and never feels wrong, but neither is it especially memorable; none of the songs sound like they’d have a life outside the film. And some of the tropes feel a little too well-worn: comedy animal side-kick? Check. Contemporary Americanised dialogue? Check. Cheesy final message: just be yourself? Yawn. Check.

Still, overall this is a very watchable movie, and certainly one that will entertain the kids. Is it up there with the best Disney animations? Not really.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Life, Animated

18/12/16

Owen Suskind is autistic. He’s also a huge fan of Disney animations – and this passion has saved him from an isolated life.

This documentary, based on a book by Owen’s newspaper journalist father, is beautifully directed by Roger Ross Williams, with a lightness of touch that allows Owen to shine. And shine he does.

This could have been a tragic tale. Owen’s parents, Cordelia and Ron, tell of their despair when they realised that Owen, aged three, was regressing; their fear that their son was lost somewhere inside himself, losing both his physical and cognitive skills, losing his ability to communicate. Like all parents would, they did their best to help him, taking him to a range of specialists and learning all they could about his condition. But nothing seemed to work. The only thing that kept him calm, kept him happy, was watching Disney animations. And so he watched a lot of them.

And then, one day, Ron realised that Owen could communicate if he used the language of the cartoons, that he’d been using the films to make sense of the world. And this was the breakthrough they needed to help Owen access society again.

Of course it’s not all plain sailing; Owen still faces huge obstacles, and the documentary does not gloss over these. But he’s out there, growing up, learning to live independently, and experiencing all the highs and lows of a human life. And yeah, he’s lucky: his family is wealthy, intelligent, stable and well-connected, so he has an awful lot of the right kind of support. And thank goodness for that. Because Owen Suskind has a lot to offer the world and it would have been a tragedy if he’d stayed locked inside himself.

Funny, heartbreaking, uplifting and educational. Really, this is a must-see film, and a late contender for one of our favourites of the year.

5 stars

Susan Singfield