Cinderella (2015)


Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

Cinderella in pumpkin coach with fairy godmother.

(2015) Fantasy (Disney) Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stellan Skarsgard, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Jana Perez, Alex Macqueen, Tom Edden, Gareth Mason, Paul Hunter, Eloise Webb, Joshua McGuire, Matthew Steer, Mimi Ndiweni, Laura Elsworthy, Ella Smith. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

We all grow up with fairy tales. We’re familiar with all the ones in which courageous and kind young women overcome poverty and the machinations of villains to triumph over adversity and win the love of handsome young princes who whisk them away to a happy ending of wealth and privilege. Most little girls grow up wondering what type of prince is going to sweep them off their feet.

Like most fairy tale heroines, Ella (Webb) wasn’t really thinking in those terms, at least not right away. She was too busy living an idyllic childhood on a country estate with a loving mother (Atwell) and a doting father (Chaplin) who’s often away on business. She doesn’t have many human friends but she has companions in a trio of mice that she feeds and also the farm’s goose. It’s a lovely, sun-dappled existence.

But all good things must come to an end and Ella’s golden childhood does when her mother takes ill and dies, lingering long enough to make her daughter promise to have courage and be kind in life. She takes comfort in that she still has her father but life isn’t quite as golden, not nearly as idyllic. Thinking that Ella needs a mother around her, her father decides to remarry, bringing into the household Lady Tremaine (Blanchett), the widow of an old friend of his, and her two spoiled, cruel and stupid daughters Drisella (McShera) and Anastasia (Grainger). None of the three are very pleasant but Ella treats them with kindness.

Then on a business trip her father also takes ill and dies, leaving Ella alone with these three monstrous females. Reduced to being essentially a servant in her own home, the newly rechristened Cinderella (James) – so named because of the embers staining her cheeks – tries to cope with being an orphan and being so cruelly used.

After a chance meeting with young Kip (Madden), who claims to be an apprentice in the castle of the King, in a forest during a hunt, Cinderella has hope that things might get better for her. What she doesn’t know is that Kip is actually the Prince who is apprentice to be the next King and with his father (Jacobi) in poor health, the pressure for him to marry is becoming intense. Traditionally, the royal family throws a ball at the castle in which all the eligible princesses from around the world are invited so that the prince of the castle might choose from one a bride to become the future Queen, but he has fallen deeply in love with Cinderella, although he doesn’t know her identity or her station in life. Desperate to see her again, he manages to convince his father to allow all the women of the kingdom to come to the ball as well, while the Grand Duke (Skarsgard) manipulates behind the scenes a match with the lovely Princess Chelina of Zaragosa (Perez).

Of course, everyone in the land is all aflutter over the prospects of attending a royal ball and Lady Tremaine knows that to get out of the financial bind she is now in due to her husband’s death that marrying off one of her daughters to the Prince would solve everything. Cinderella in the meantime longs to attend the ball so that she might see Kip again, whom she is quite taken by. She even finds an old dress that was once worn by her mother to wear, but the spiteful stepmother tears the dress and forbids her from attending, fearing the competition to her daughters.

Distraught, Cinderella sobs in the garden, realizing that her life will never change but her breakdown is interrupted by the appearance of an old crone begging for something to eat and drink which the compassionate Cinderella gives her. Turns out the old crone is her Fairy Godmother (Carter) who says “Hell YES you’re going to the ball,” or words to that effect. She conjures up a fabulous coach out of a pumpkin, footmen out of a pair of lizards and a driver from the goose. She also transforms her mother’s now ripped and ragged old dress into a beautiful gown and a pair of glass slippers – which are surprisingly comfortable – for her to wear. All the better to win the heart of a prince, although she has until midnight before the enchantments wear off.

For hordes of little girls, the princess fantasy is one that is central to their lives, the belief that a better life and a handsome princess who will adore them and see to their every happiness is just around the corner. How healthy this fantasy is can be debated as to whether it raises unrealistic expectations – not every handsome man is a prince, after all, and maybe the expectation that their own personal happiness is wrapped up in finding one. But that’s a debate for another time or place.

Branagh has always been a terrific director but as of late he has moved from Shakespeare and art house films to big budget event movies and this one continues in the series of live action reimaginings of classic Disney animated features. Inevitably, Cinderella will be compared to its 1950 predecessor but surprisingly it doesn’t fall as short as you think it might have.

The costumes and set design are lush and detailed, from the gilt on the pumpkin coach to the sumptuous ball gowns to the rustic charms of Cinderella’s home. This really looks like you’ve always imagined the fairy tale to be and I wouldn’t be surprised if down the road it got Oscar consideration for costume design and/or production design.

The acting is another matter. James is certainly as beautiful as a fairy tale princess, but her smile seems forced at times and her acting seems a tad stilted. Julia Roberts was a more believable fairy tale princess in Pretty Woman, that most modern of fairy tales, and more relatable. Not that Cinderella has to be a hooker mind you, but there was more genuineness coming from Roberts, although to compare James whose career is fairly nascent with one of the most glittering stars in the Hollywood firmament may be a trifle unfair.

One of the main attractions of the movie is that it is a retro fairy tale, which in this case is a good thing. This isn’t a re-working or a re-imagining; this is Cinderella exactly the way you remember it and the way your little girls envisioned it. This is the kind of movie that puts to the lie the old adage that “they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” because clearly they can and occasionally they do.

REASONS TO GO: Lush costumes and sets. Beautifully shot. Retro in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: James’ performance a bit forced. Princess porn.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for most audiences except the very wee and impressionable.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James and McShera both appear in the hit PBS series Downton Abbey although their roles are reversed; in the show, James plays an aristocrat and McShera a servant.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Maleficent
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Divergent Series: Insurgent

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Jack the Giant Slayer


Think of it as "rural renewal".

Think of it as “rural renewal”.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line) Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Christopher Fairbank, Simon Lowe, Mingus Johnston, Ralph Brown, Warwick Davis, Joy McBrinn, Lee Boardman, Tandi Wright. Directed by Bryan Singer

Fee, Fai, Fo, Fum…I smell the blood of a Hollywoodman. A beloved fairy tale is given the reel CGI treatment and turns out a cut above other recent celluloid fairy tales.

Jack (Hoult) is the son of a farmer recently passed of the plague. He lives with his uncle (Fairbank) who is stressed out – money makes the world go round even in the world of Grimm. As a boy, Jack’s father read him the bedtime story of the mighty King Erik the Great, who fought the evil giants who lived in a land between Heaven and Earth and has used magic seeds to grow enormous beanstalks that rose to the land of th Giants. It was only through the use of a magic crown forged from the heart of a giant that allowed Erik to vanquish his much larger and stronger foes.

Isabelle (Tomlinson) has heard the same tale only from her other the Queen (who, like Jack’s father passes away before the opening credits) and yearns for adventures of her own. Her good but misguided father, King Brahmwell (McShane) has betrothed his headstrong daughter to his advisor Roderick (Tucci), a man she thoroughly loathes. She is constantly slipping out of the castle to mingle among the common folk much to the consternation of Sir Elmont (McGregor), the brave and noble knight charged with the protection of the Princess. Not an easy task to say the least.

Roderick has in fact discovered the magic crown and remaining beans and means to use them to get to the Land of the Giants and lead them in conquest of the entire Earth (why have one kingdom when you can have it all?) or at least the parts they can reach. A monk (Lowe) has stolen the beans and manages to pass them on to Jack while he is at market trying to sell his horse. Jack takes the beans home, not knowing what they are.

In the middle of a rainstorm, the Princess (who is out on one of her adventures) seeks shelter from a storm in the farmhouse Jack lives in. The two hit it off but accidentally activate the beans which of course grow a beanstalk, sending the farmhouse up into the clouds. Jack is knocked senseless in a fall, discovered by the King and Elmont who are out searching for the wayward Princess.

They quickly discover the story of the giants was no myth and the giants, led by the fearsome two-headed General Fallon (Nighy) have quite the mad on about humans and also the treachery of Roderick is revealed. Jack will have to rescue the princess and warn the King before it’s too late – but who will believe him?

If you gathered 100 people together, I doubt you’d find even one who would name “Jack and the Beanstalk” their favorite fairy tale and therein lies the main obstacle for the filmmakers. They need to take a story that is well-known but not necessarily beloved and make it appealing for modern day moviegoers. That’s no easy feat – ask the makers of recent fairy tale adaptations like Mirror, Mirror. There needs to be a balance between light and dark to appeal to children who prefer the light but at the same time dark enough because as Christopher Nolan will tell you dark sells.

Nicholas Hoult, who has shown promise in recent roles like Warm Bodies is an engaging hero, likable and charismatic. He is still a bit raw but he shows every sign of graduating up the ranks into the pantheon of A-list stars. He’s not quite there yet but his work here illustrates that he has the tools to get there. He’s come a long way since About a Boy.

Tomlinson I’m less sure about. Her performance isn’t particularly memorable but to be fair she’s given kind of a lousy hand to play with. Sure, Isabelle has spunk but then she spends most of the film being rescued. Note to filmmakers: the reason little girls are so obsessed with Disney princesses is that they are given girls who are not only glamorous and beautiful but also self-reliant and heroic. Most Disney princesses will like as not be the ones doing the rescuing; they don’t need a prince to do the job for them.

The giants are kind of fun, although there’s not a single giantess – apparently these humanoids reproduce asexually. They have a variety of looks which is to the good, from the two-headed Fallon to the squat-headed Fum. They are kind of goofy-looking and not particularly scary, but they unleash a good deal of mayhem and find human flesh to be a delicacy. It’s not so much the look of the giants but their actions that might induce nightmares in the very young.

The CGI is fairly impressive in most places, with the beanstalks themselves some of the best of the computer generated filmmaking here. They are labyrinthine, semi-realistic (real world physics would collapse the structure of the beanstalks if ever a magic bean makes its way to our dimension) and impressive. The castle of Cloister and the Giant’s Castle are both impressively rendered, a tribute to the set designer as well (Gavin Bocquet, take a bow).

Sadly the story doesn’t pass muster. It’s fairly predictable and despite McGregor’s and Tucci’s best efforts and bringing comic relief, it lacks a lighter side that will make this more palatable for parents. However, thanks to Hoult and director Singer’s acumen with action scenes and CGI, the movie actually is much better than I expected it to be. In a year which has been off to a rocky start in terms of quality movies, that’s as good as a goose that lays golden eggs.

REASONS TO GO: Hoult has A list potential. McGregor and Tucci are fun. Some fairly decent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Some fairly significant plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  While most of the giants aren’t terribly frightening in looks, the damage they do (and is done to them) is and there are a few foul words thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D.J. Caruso was initially set to direct but was replaced in 2010 with Singer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100; the reviews were fair to middlin’.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Crime

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters


This isn't your grandparents' Hansel and Gretel.

This isn’t your grandparents’ Hansel and Gretel.

(2013) Fantasy Action (MGM/Paramount) Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Thomas Mann, Pihla Viltala, Derek Mears, Robin Atkin Downes (voice), Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Joanna Kulig, Rainer Bock, Bjorn Sundquist, Zoe Bell, Kathrin Kuhnel. Directed by Tommy Wirkola

Even after I outgrew them, I always loved fairy tales. You know, the sort in which brave heroes outwit fiendish foes, beautiful princesses await rescuing and fantastic creatures exist in a kind of idealized Renaissance Faire-like environment which is free of disease, the commoners were well-treated by their land-owning nobles and nobody starves, living a simple life in which everyone is basically good. You know, Fantasyland.

Certainly it never existed in real life. Still, we all know the story of Hansel and Gretel, a brother and sister who wandered into the woods to find a cottage made of candy – what child wouldn’t investigate that. But then they meet the owner of the cottage – a witch who uses the candy to attract children whom she imprisons, fattens up and then cooks. Sort of like Gordon Ramsay on estrogen. Of course the kids trick the witch and shove her into her own oven. And there the tale ends.

But in a marvelous idea of what-if, a 15-years older and wiser Hansel and Gretel are posited. They have evolved into professional witch hunters, travelling from village to village to rid them of the witch menace while collecting the bounties offered. Hansel (Renner) ate too much candy at the witch’s cottage and now must inject himself periodically or die. Think of it as fairy tale diabetes. Gretel (Arterton) is a kick-ass ninja who while beautiful and desirable doesn’t seem to have any takers. Hansel, on the other hand has attracted the comely Mina (Viltala) whom he rescued from being burned by the overzealous Sheriff (Stormare) who resents the bounty hunters incursion into his territory. It seems that children have been disappearing in great numbers in the village as of late.

Notwithstanding, the Mayor (Bock) insists so the pair go after the kids and find the witch responsible. Which happens to be Muriel (Janssen), who has it in her head to perform a ritual in a few days during the blood moon that will let her create a potion that will permanently make witches immune to fire. Muriel also has a connection to their late mother (Kuhnel) and Gretel herself has in turn a connection to this ritual.

So they need to stop this thing from happening but they will have to get past an angry sheriff (whose had his nose broken by the no-nonsense Gretel), a monstrous troll (Mears, voiced by Downes) and a coven of very nasty witches who have a broomstick up their butts about the whole thing.

Wirkola, best known for Dead Snow, the zombie Nazi ski resort horror film of a few years back, has a great concept to work with. Unfortunately, his writers (of which he is one) do nothing creative with it. This is a generic fantasy action film with nothing unusual to recommend it.

Oh, Renner is good. Renner is, in fact great. He has a kind of sardonic grin throughout as if he is saying to the audience “Yeah, I know it’s crap but it’s a paycheck and I’m gonna have a great time making it.” He’s a terrific action hero as he showed last summer with The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. He’s a star and time will tell how big he’ll be. This movie unfortunately won’t help.

It might help Arterton though. She’s had some pretty good performances in films that ranged from good (Tamara Drewe) to not-so-good (Prince of Persia) and here she continues that streak. She’s due a movie that is worthy of her talents and one in which she’ll get enough fans where she can be a star herself. She’s not quite there yet though.

As you might guess, there are a lot of effects here much of which have to do with witches getting eviscerated by Hansel and Gretel (a sentence which sounds kind of crazy on its own merits). There is the troll who is well realized with some very evocative facial expressions; there are also tons of fire effects some of which looks none too realistic. It’s pretty much hit and miss. The 3D incidentally is pretty miserable; there really isn’t much reason to have made this movie in 3D other than as a cash grab; that they pushed back the movie nearly a full year in order to retro-convert it is even worse.

This is a major disappointment. They had a great idea but could think of nothing good to do with it. There are some humorous bits – drawings of the missing children on the milk bottles for example but not enough of them. The anachronisms – the swearing, the machine guns, the magic bullets – simply don’t work. They remind you that you’re watching a movie instead of being part of a mysterious. The reason that a movie like this works is that you feel a part of the experience. The reason that it doesn’t is that you’re constantly reminded that you aren’t.

REASONS TO GO: Renner and Arterton are pretty damn good. Janssen makes an effective baddie. Edward the Troll is nicely realized.

REASONS TO STAY: A great concept poorly executed. Too many anachronisms.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence albeit mostly of the fairy tale variety although there is a goodly amount of gore i.e. heads exploding, heads being hacked off, heads being stepped on etc. – this isn’t a good movie to be a head. There is also some brief nudity, a bit of sexuality and a lot of bad language – who knew there were so many f bombs in medieval Germany!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was already in pre-production and was to be about the unsuccessful hunt for Osama Bin Laden when the news broke that Bin Laden was dead. Immediately the screenplay was re-written to turn the movie into the story of the successful hunt for Bin Laden.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100; the reviews are miserable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Pearl Harbor

ParaNorman


ParaNorman

Norman has a different kind of homework.

(2012) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Tucker Albrizzi, Jeff Garlin. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler

 

There are those who believe that death brings peace, at long last, for the living. Of course, given what life is like why on earth – or beyond it – should we expect that? Why wouldn’t the afterlife be just as bothersome and as annoying as life is?

For Norman (Smit-McPhee) the current life is plenty bothersome and annoying. He is the weird kid, picked on by bullies like Alvin (Mintz-Plasse), his own exasperated sister Courtney (Kendrick), his mom (Mann) who doesn’t really understand him but tries to, and his dad (Garlin) who doesn’t even try.

See, Norman lives in a New England village called Blithe Hollow (a combination of Blithe Spirits and Sleepy Hollow  – not the first nod to both the film and literature of the spooky) which is famous for executing a witch 300 years earlier. Norman also happens to see dead people. And talk to them. And they, for their part, talk back. In fact, Norman has more friends among the dead than he does the living. His only corporeal friend is Neil (Albrizzi), a rotund but indefatigably cheerful kid who accepts things more or less at face value.

The witch, you see, had managed just before dying to affix a pretty awful curse on the town that had been stemmed off by members of Norman’s family. The latest in the line, an uncle (Goodman) has a bum ticker and is trying to transfer his knowledge to Norman but doesn’t quite make it to the big day. That’s ok; he can talk to Norman anyway.

Norman is tasked with reading from a sacred book in a certain spot. The problem is, Norman doesn’t understand what he’s reading and why it will save the town from being beset by the walking dead. He will have to link up with unlikely allies and fight against some unlikely opponents if he is to save Blithe Hollow from an army (all right, seven) of zombies.

The animation studio that gave us Coraline give us another horror-themed stop-motion animated feature that is as much for adults as it is for kids. Talk about finding your own niche. Still, if you can’t be Aardman (and how many studios really can be) this is a good place to be. Stop motion has an inherent 3D feel to it; there is depth to the faces here, from bags under the eyes of some of the characters to zits to sallow, sunken cheekbones. The movie itself is pretty dark in tone (most of it takes place at dusk or after dark) so the 3D doesn’t help it from that standpoint; still it looks pretty nifty as animated 3D features go.

The voice casting is on the quirky side. McPhee-Smit is best known for the downer action film The Road as well as the winter vampire remake Let Me In. In many ways, he had to carry a good deal of the latter film; he has to do it here vocally and does a pretty fine job of it. He has some pretty good chemistry with Mintz-Plasse and Albrizzi which helps a whole lot.

The writing is clever and lovers of horror films both classic and modern will get a kick out of the many, many references here. Whether it’s Norman being startled by a figure on his front lawn wearing a Jason-like goalie mask only to have it turn out to be Neil who calls out “Wanna play some hockey?” or nods to ghostly thrillers like The Sixth Sense and The Frighteners. However, there were some kids at the screening we went to who were clearly too young to really get the playful tone of the film. Wise parents should exercise caution before taking their kids as some of the situations and imagery is genuinely terrifying.

Still, there are some strong anti-bullying and acceptance of diversity messages here that will resonate with older kids. While the theatrical run is nearly done, this feels like it will be a Halloween kids classic that certainly out-charms and out-smarts fare like the Scooby-Doo movies and more classic TV kidfilms like Monster Mash. There is plenty of heart here and some surprisingly funny moments like Norman’s late grandmother (Stritch) who complains that the afterlife sucks because there is no cable. Having been in some pretty rustic places in the past couple of weeks, I can certainly relate.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and genuine. Lots of homages but doesn’t date itself.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes a little too cute for its own good…and a little too terrifying to really nail that core audience it wants.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the imagery is a bit too frightening for the very little. Some of the humor is a little crude as well; in fact, you might want to skip this if your kids are in single digits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although none of the cursed zombies are referred to by name (except for Judge Hopkins), they all were given names; Eben Hardwick, Thaddeus Blackton, Lemuel Spalding, Amelia Wilcot, Goodie Temper and Wile London.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are pretty darn good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Nightmare Before Christmas

JOHN CARPENTER LOVERS: While there are several classic horror films referred to throughout the script either directly or indirectly, the ringtone on Norman’s phone is the iconic theme from Carpenter’s Halloween.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Premium Rush

Snow White and the Huntsman


Snow White and the Huntsman

Charlize Theron was really hoping for “A Game of Thrones.”

(2012) Fantasy (Universal) Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Stewart, Sam Claflin, Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Eddie Izzard, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Nick Frost, Stephen Graham, Lily Cole, Sam Spruell, Vincent Regan, Liberty Ross, Noah Huntley, Jonny Harris, Brian Gleeson, Rachael Stirling. Directed by Rupert Sanders

 

Fairy tales have a reputation for being sweetness and light, stories for children that are suffused with happy endings. In truth, fairy tales are dark things for which happy endings are often a matter of perspective.

The kingdom of good King Magnus (Huntley) is a kindly and prosperous place, where justice reigns and the people are content. All adore in particular the beautiful child Snow White, who has hair dark as a raven’s wing, lips red as rose petals, skin pale and flawless as alabaster. But one particularly cruel winter, the queen (Ross) dies, leaving Magnus bereft.

Shortly thereafter a mysterious army attacks his kingdom and Magnus leads his army out to defend his subjects. They are victorious and amidst the carnage they discover a wagon with a beautiful woman in it. She is Ravenna (Theron) and seems to have been a captive of the evil army that Magnus has vanquished. She is beautiful and slightly timid and Magnus is immediately taken by her. In a matter of days he proposes and the kingdom rejoices; it will have a queen once again.

Ravenna and Snow White are friendly; the latter is thrilled that her father will be happy once again, the former insisting that she has no plans to replace her mother. The wedding is joyous and solemn, and for a night things are perfect. However in their wedding bed, Ravenna’s true nature reveals itself; she has poisoned her new husband and stabs him through the heart to seal the deal. Then she opens the gates and allows in her real army to massacre everyone inside.

Count Hammond (Regan) escapes with his son William and leave for their own castle, thinking Snow White dead. She is very much alive, however, and grows to adulthood (Stewart), imprisoned in one of the towers of the castle. Ravenna, who is a powerful sorceress, is bleeding the land dry. She has a magic mirror (which moves, Terminator T-1000 like, into a puddle of liquid silver to take shape as a cowled man) who reassures her that she is the fairest one of all. To insure that, she steals the youth from many maidens in the kingdom including Greta (Cole), keeping her young and vibrant.

Then her mirror tells her that the only threat to her reign is Snow White, who is alone capable of killing and defeating her (not necessarily in that order). However, if Ravenna kills Snow White and takes her still-beating heart, Ravenna will live eternally and reign forever. Ravenna then sends her brother Finn (Spruell) to fetch Snow White but she manages to escape, finding her way into the Dark Forest, where even the bravest of the Queen’s soldiers don’t dare go.

The Queen enlists a Huntsman (Hemsworth) who is grieving the death of his wife. His qualifications: he has entered the Dark Forest and survived, returning to become a bit of a tosspot. He is unwilling to help the Queen for whom he holds no love but when promised to be reunited with his love, he goes even though he doesn’t trust the Queen or her brother.

His instincts prove to be true and he manages to not only avoid the trap set for him but to find Snow White and become her ally. He guides her to the forest to a town made up mostly of women whose men have gone to war for the Queen. They have scarred their faces in order to protect themselves from having their youth taken by Ravenna’s magic. However, this proves to be a brief respite as Flynn and his men arrive, searching for Snow White.

With Flynn is William (Claflin), the son of the Duke and Snow White’s childhood friend. He’s hunting her too but for a different reason than Flynn – he wants to rescue her and take her back to the castle where she would be the symbol that the people of the kingdom need to rally behind and rise up against the evil of Ravenna. However, the Huntsman and Snow White escape into an enchanted fairy forest where dwell eight dwarves, including Beith (McShane), Muir (Hoskins), Gort (Winstone), Nion (Frost), Duir (Marsan), Coll (Jones), Quert (Harris) and Gus (Gleeson) capture them.

Beith and the Huntsman apparently have a past which is none to friendly but the blind Muir persuades the band to take Snow White under their wings, which proves to be a smart decision when she is blessed by the Great Stag, indicating that she is destined to dethrone the Queen and allow nature to return to the Kingdom. But how will she do this, chased by the Queen’s deadly magic against a magic army in an impenetrable castle?

While the basic outline of the story is the same of the beloved fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm, this ain’t your momma’s Snow White – and it certainly isn’t Disney’s either. Sanders – a British commercial director, makes his feature debut with a splash, creating a vision that is both ugly and beautiful, magical and authentic. There are medieval battles as well as the gorgeous fairy forest, where mushrooms stare back at you, fairies ride mossy turtles and butterflies combine into a giant stag.

As good as the visuals are, Charlize Theron is better. As the evil Queen she is more than just a cold-hearted bitch that other movies relegate evil queens to. She is evil, but with a personality; she is dreadfully in fear of losing her youth, and possessed of an intense hatred of men who have used her for her beauty throughout her life. She is evil as a means of taking control, and punishes women for being younger than she, men for being…well, men.

Also of note is Hemsworth who has achieved stardom through his portrayal of Thor. His work here convinces me that he is going to be an able leading man and not just a one-dimensional superhero. This Huntsman is grief-stricken and looking for something to believe in, finding it with Snow White. While some of the mead-drinking shenanigans are reminiscent of his work in Thor, there is enough here that is new that leads me to believe that the man’s career will have staying power.

Less successful is Stewart. Legions of her fans helped give this an impressive opening weekend, but she never really convinced me of her authenticity here. Not so much as a princess – any little girl can play that – but as a leader and as someone people would want to follow. Stewart also overacts a little bit in places, particularly when she’s called upon to make a stirring speech. She’s beautiful, sure – but fairer than Charlize Theron? I don’t think so.

I would have liked the movie to meander a little bit less. The battle sequences were also far less convincing than the magic, and I think the movie would have benefitted from leaning more in that direction than it did. Still, the visuals are so striking and Theron’s performance so compelling that I can recommend this even to non-fans of Kristen Stewart – and the anti-Twilight legions will probably want to give this a miss (with good reason) but you’re missing some solid summer entertainment if you do.

REASONS TO GO: Theron is deliciously evil. Hemsworth shows signs of being a terrific leading man. Some of the special effects are lovely.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit jumbled. Stewart overacted a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of science fiction violence, explosions, gruesome aliens and a lot of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kristen Stewart had to overcome a childhood fear of horses in order to do the battle scene which called for her to ride one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are nearly all rotten.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mirror Mirror

CELTIC ALPHABET LOVERS: The dwarf names are based on Ogham, the ancient “Tree Alphabet” of the Celtics in which letters are associated with certain trees and assigned a symbolic value; for example, Beith equals “B” which equals birch which stands for new beginnings.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil

Tangled


Tangled

Yet another magical Disney moment.

(2010) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, M.C. Gainey, Jeffrey Tambor, Brad Garrett, Paul F. Tompkins, Richard Kiel, Anne Lockhart, Laraine Newman.  Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

Shutting your kids away from the world is a double edged sword. Sure you might be protecting your kids from the awful things that the world can be, but you also create an overwhelming curiosity that will inevitably send your kids into that world you’re so terrified of. Of course, if your motives are more selfish than for the benefit of your child, that can really come back to bite you in the tush.

Rapunzel (Moore) is locked up in a tower in the remote corner of the kingdom. She has the most amazing hair – it is incredibly long, incredibly pliable, almost alive – and when Rapunzel sings a particular song, it has the power to revive the elderly and make them young again.

Rapunzel is actually the daughter of the Kingdom’s King and Queen, stolen from them by the nasty Mother Gothel (Murphy) who wants the magic all for herself. Thus, the lonely tower, the refusal to let her out even though now she’s a curious teen who wants to see all the wonders of the bright, beautiful world outside her window, especially the bright glowing stars that move and dance in her window on her birthday. What she doesn’t know is that these are lanterns, released into the sky to help the missing princess find her way home.

Enter Flynn Rider (Levi) a somewhat dashing, not altogether unlovable criminal sort who has stolen the Princess’ tiara from the castle and who is being chased by the King’s Guards, most especially the horse Maximus who is certainly one of Disney’s most persistent characters ever. Flynn is also being chased by his compatriots, the Stabbington Brothers (Perlman) who he double-crossed.

Rapunzel sees Flynn as her ticket to see the world and manages to knock him senseless with a frying pan, his knapsack (containing the tiara) hidden as collateral for Flynn’s co-operation. Flynn takes his new role as tour guide only reluctantly but as he spends more time with Rapunzel begins to realize that he is as trapped in his own way as Rapunzel was in hers.

This is one of the most beautiful-looking Disney films in decades, going for an old-school painted look that reminds me of Disney classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella. While the movie is computer animated, it looks 2D in a lot of ways and has moments that are truly magical, such as the one where Flynn and Rapunzel are on a lake filled with floating lanterns (see photo).

There is also real chemistry between Moore and Levi; they make an appealing couple. Murphy does the Disney villainess to a “T,” making Mother Gothel malevolent but showing that delicious evil side that makes a good Disney villain so enjoyable, much like James Woods’ Hades in Hercules.

In fact, Murphy is so good, I wish the filmmakers had spent more time with her instead of the minor villains the Stabbington Brothers and the Captain of the Guard (Gainey). It tends to dilute the menace of Gothel who I’m not saying should be scaring little kids into nightmares, but should at least be a bit more formidable. I’m just saying.

The music is by long-time Disney songster Alan Mencken, who has written some of the most memorable songs in the Disney songbook. However I don’t see any of the songs here making that grade; I honestly couldn’t remember any of the tunes half an hour after the movie was over which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Some of this smacks of a studio listening more to focus groups than to artistic muses but there is enough of the latter to make the former more bearable. There is enough princess-y stuff to make the little girl in your life go gaga, while the swashbuckling Flynn will delight the little boy in your party. Tangled is actually one of the better non-Pixar Disney movies of the last decade. It certainly is one of the best-looking and for those who have to go see a kids movie with their hyperactive spawn will appreciate the pretty pictures.

WHY RENT THIS: That Disney magic. Levi and Moore make an appealing team. Gorgeous looking movie that is very reminiscent of the 2D Disney princess classics.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The musical numbers lack a truly memorable song. Too many villains; more time should be spent with Mother Gothel.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of really mild cartoon violence; otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Rapunzel is constantly barefoot in the movie, a nod to voice star Mandy Moore who loves to perform sans shoes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Surprisingly, a little sparse considering Disney’s usual kid-friendly DVD/Blu-Ray fare. There’s only a featurette called “50th Animated Feature Countdown” which is kind of a guessing game for Disneyphiles.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $590.7M on a $260M production budget; the movie made a little bit of money in its theatrical release (but I’m sure with merchandising and home video sales made a ton).

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tabloid

The Princess and the Frog


The Princess and the Frog

For every princess, there must be a prince, frog or not.

(2009) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Terrance Howard, Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Jim Cummings, Bruno Campos, Randy Newman, Emeril Lagasse, Jennifer Cody, Peter Bartlett, Michael-Leon Wooley. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker

Once upon a time, all animation was hand drawn in a painstaking process that took years for each feature to be completed. However, computers not only made the process faster, allowing for more animated features to be created every year, those who were more programmers than artists created an onslaught of computer animation that had little soul and nothing much to recommend them while still doing great box office. The days of hand-drawn animation seemingly at an end, Disney shut down its pen and ink division and decided to go full time to computer animation. When their own in-house efforts yielded less-than-stellar results, Disney wound up buying Pixar (whose films they had distributed from the get-go) and installing their chief, John Lassiter, in charge of Disney’s entire animated division, including Pixar.

But Lassiter did a funny thing for a computer guy; he re-instated the traditional animation department, hiring back many of the animators who had been let go. Their first effort is this take on “The Frog Prince” only with a distaff sensibility.

Tiana (Rose) is a young waitress in jazz-age New Orleans with a dream. She wants to open up her own restaurant where she can serve up her daddy’s gumbo recipe, with just a dash of hot sauce. Her daddy (Howard) died in the Great War, leaving her and her momma (Winfrey) to care for each other. Tiana’s ditzy best friend, Charlotte LaBouff (Cody) and her doting dad (Goodman) are out to get Charlotte a prince, and when one drops in her lap, she’s ecstatic.

That Prince is Naveen (Campos) from the impoverished country of Moldonia. He needs to wed a rich lady to help restore the empty coffers of the Moldonian treasury but quite frankly, Naveen is more interested in playing music and letting Le Bon Tomps Roullez in the French Quarter. He also attracts the attention of the evil and nefarious Dr. Facillier (David) a.k.a. the Shadow Man, who casts a voodoo spell on the Prince, turning him into a frog while his soul is transferred into the body of Naveen’s manservant/butler/attaché Lawrence (Bartlett) who would then hand over control of the money and Moldonia to the evil Doc.

In desperation, Naveen tries to find a princess to kiss him and restore him to his former shape, but mistakes Tiana, dressed up for the engagement party of her friend Charlotte, for a princess and the kiss only turns Tiana into a fellow amphibian. Chased by Dr. Facillier who needs the frog prince to refill his magical potion that keeps Lawrence in the form of Naveen, Tiana and Naveen head to the swamp where they meet up with allies of their own; the practical firefly Ray (Cummings), the trumpet-playing crocodile Louis (Wooley) and his buddies (Lagasse, Newman) as well as Mama Odie (Lewis), a voodoo priestess who perhaps alone can reverse the curse of Dr. Facillier.

Is this a return to the form that saw Disney create classic after classic in the 90s? Yes and no. While this doesn’t quite measure up to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, it’s much better than recent attempts such as Home on the Range or Brother Bear. As a matter of fact, while it doesn’t hit the high notes that Pixar’s movies tend to, it’s still a pretty solid effort.

Rose makes for a feisty princess, the kind that Disney can easily market not only to young African American girls but to the legions of princess-happy tots whose parents deposit hundreds of millions of dollars into Disney’s coffers. The cast has a great deal of energy, particularly Cummings, Cody and Wooley, and the movie barrels along at a jolly pace.

The New Orleans locale is inspired, albeit this is something of a fantasy Big Easy, but it’s recognizable nonetheless. New Orleans is the kind of city that has enough mystery and romance that other cities can only hope for; only New York and San Francisco among American cities have the kind of cachet that the Crescent City possesses, and the jazz age New Orleans is something special again.

There are some passable musical numbers but oddly enough, many of them bring the movie to a grinding halt as the characters go into a song and dance routine that temporarily halts the story’s progression. Personally, I might have cut two or three of the numbers, but I might be in the minority on this one; certainly kids will love the brassy, jazzy music that has a touch of modern hip-hop, gospel and even rock and roll on the edge. This isn’t your mommy and daddy’s Disney.

And yet, in a very real way, it is. This is very much the kind of movie that Disney was making ten years ago to great success and had it been released then, it might well be considered a classic on the level of, say, The Little Mermaid. Even so, it is better than most of the Disney releases before and after that incredible run in the last decade, and marks a welcome return of an art form that was certainly on the endangered list. For that accomplishment alone, regardless of the social implications of an African-American princess (which are certainly important in their own right), this movie deserves a respectful audience, who will be rewarded with a rollicking good time.

WHY RENT THIS: The first hand-drawn Disney animation in six years is worth celebrating; it is also a return to form for an artform that has widely lost its luster with the explosion of computer animation which Pixar helped usher in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Two many musical numbers stops the films momentum dead in its tracks from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences – c’mon, it’s DISNEY, you know.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not only is this the first Disney film to feature an African-American princess, it is the first to feature a left-handed princess (Rose is also left-handed and she requested that the animators make her character the same).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray includes featurettes on the history of Disney Princesses and how the newest one fits in. There is also an interactive game for the kids, as well as a music video of Ne-Yo’s “Never Knew I Needed You.” All in all, chock full of goodies as is the way Disney normally does things.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $267M on a production budget of $105M; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Morning Glory