The Graphical Review:
Why see it at the cinema: The imagery is undeniably impressive, but the sparsity of laughs makes this one for families who really do have nothing much better to do. I’d wager older children or middle-aged movie bloggers will enjoy this more than the majority of youngsters.
Why see it in 3D: It’s brightened up enough that the normal sunglasses-indoors issues aren’t too much of a problem, but there’s not a huge amount of things coming out of the screen or much in the way of extra depth to perceive. 2D fine if you have to pay a premium.
What about the rating: Rated U for mild threat. The U rating suggests a film is suitable for any child aged four and upwards, and I can’t disagree with that. Expect some of the tinier ones to be just a tad bored, though.
My cinema experience: A surprisingly sparse Saturday afternoon showing in the largest screen at the Cambridge Cineworld. No projection or sound issues, although the brightest moment was provided by the young audience member who did the monkey impersonation. All together now, “da-da-DAAAAH!”
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Twenty three minutes, and thanks to it being a U-rated film we were mercifully spared the latest EE Kevin Bacon advert.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: Much has already been made of the fact that this is Disney’s 50th full length animated feature film, which is an incredible run by anyone’s standards. During that time, there have been a number of genuine classics made, but recent years have been more filler than killer (if you think that The Lion King, which feels like a recent classic, is actually 32nd of the 50, you realise how much filler there’s been in recent years). With the rise of Pixar and the move away from hand drawn animation, it seems it’s become more and more difficult for Disney to produce quality animation, so for the 50th film they’ve returned to a staple of the series – a classic fairy tale. While by no means the majority of that 50, it’s the classic stories that have often ended up being the most fondly remembered, so it makes sense to tap that rich vein of storytelling again, this time with a modern twist on Rapunzel.
“Modern twist” might be words to strike fear into the hearts of traditionalists, but rest assured that Disney, this time at least, knows what it’s doing. (Let’s be honest, despite being a Grimm fairy tale, no one really wants to see a prince fall out of a tower and get blinded on thorns. At least, not in a family animation.) So this is inspired by, rather than slavish to, the story of Rapunzel, and manages to put enough of a unique spin on events while still allowing it to hold together as a solid piece of drama. Sensibly, the story requires the main protagonists to get out of the tower after the first act and go on a quest, so there are plenty of characters and plenty of solid moments along the way.
Some modern animation is built around famous faces, almost animating the personalities of well know movie stars and then trying to fit a story around them. While Dreamworks are the most regularly guilty of that, they’re by no means the only ones, and traditionally that wasn’t the Disney way, at least until Robin Williams’ scene stealing performance in Aladdin. Thankfully the Disney tradition these days goes for a middle ground, much in the way that most Pixar movies do, of matching voices to characters of people you’ve probably heard of, but who aren’t quite on the A-list. Mandy Moore voices the hairy female lead, and Zachary “Chuck” Levi gets to play the stooge to the thankfully voiceless animals of the story, all of whom have excellent coming timing. The stand out, though, is Donna Murphy as the scheming Mother Gothel, who oozes menace and manages to recall the best of the evil witches from the Disney pantheon, while being able to belt out a winning tune as well. Character actors and old hands of the likes of Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Tambor and Richard Kiel round out an excellent cast.
Speaking of tunes, the other thing that Disney films used to be good at was their music, hitting a real high point with the Nineties work of Alan Menken and his various collaborators on scores such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Menken is back again here and the tunes are again fabulous, and help to round out the overall package. There’s a lot of hallmarks of the best of Disney animation of years gone by here, but also they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. There are moments of real beauty, but there are also plenty of chuckles and a solid narrative to hang them all from, and if Disney can keep producing work of this standard then it should have no problem turning out another fifty.
Why see it at the cinema: The animation is more stylised than some of the photo-realistic attempts of recent years, and all the better for it, but everything from the action sequences to the mournful gazing is set against dramatic backdrops and works well on the big screen. There’s also plenty of incidental detail to be picked up on the cinema screen.
Why see it in 3D: The 3D is very well structured, with scenes such as the bar being arranged so that you feel the depth of field and it enhances the scene. The main attraction is the lantern sequence, and this should delight children of all ages – even those that have accompanied their children.
The Score: 8/10
There are two events that booked February in the worldwide calendar, and there is a striking similarity between both. At the beginning of February each year, over 150 million viewers tune in to watch one of the most viewed events in the sporting calendar, the Super Bowl, in which two teams fight for the title of world champion. Except all of the teams involved come from America, of course, so it’s not much of a “world” championship. But it would be hard to argue that there’s a team better at the sport anywhere else in the world, although it would also be hard to argue that there’s much interest elsewhere in the world, when that audience is composed over 100 million people in America watching, and barely half that across the rest of the planet.
At the end of February, there’s an event that’s a different story. Typically getting a US audience in only the 30-40 million range (still enough to beat top rated shows like American Idol), but getting a worldwide audience higher than the shoulder-pad wearing ball-throwers, the Academy Awards have a much bigger reach, with audiences genuinely around the world tuning in. But sadly, there’s not much more chance of something non-American winning than there is at the Super Bowl.
The Review: It’s easy to wonder today how many of the spate of animated movies which have followed in the wake of Toy Story and other Pixar classics would have been made in the days of hand-drawn animation. Certainly computer graphics have opened up the opportunity to increase the level of detail on the visuals, both in terms of quality and content, but if any lesson should be learned from Pixar, it’s that story is the key – get that right, first and foremost, and the rest is complementary rather than essential.
The story here is a classic juxtaposition – Gru (Steve Carell) is an criminal mastermind working in the tough and competitive field of criminal mastermindery, but whose previous schemes have not met the success he’d have liked. His efforts to achieve prominence in his chosen profession pit him against up and coming evil genius Vector (Jason Segel), and in his efforts to get one up on his new nemesis, he’s willing to take any steps necessary, even the adoption of three unwanted orphans who turn up on his doorstep one day to sell cookies. His underestimation of the implications of this development only serve to complicate his efforts to achieve his greatest challenge yet – to steal the Moon…
So the story itself is fairly solid, and there are a few standout elements. The first is Gru himself, Carell going for an indeterminate Eastern-European style accent that actually gives his character just that – character. It’s easy to warm to him and also to remain sympathetic, despite his oddball plans. The little ones in his care are also extremely entertaining, be it the perfectly balanced orphan trio or the vast array of freakish-looking yellow minions, and the movie isn’t afraid to play on some of their stranger physical characteristics, which also generate some of the bigger laughs.
But, and there is a but, that’s all that really stands out. If you’ve seen the making of that gets cycled on afternoon TV and satellite channels, you’ll have seen how good Julie Andrews is as Gru’s mum – but she actually gets about four lines in the final cut. The plot itself has some rough edges (these criminal masterminds are oddly civilised and very formal for a bunch of evil criminals, even the cute and cuddly kind) that diminish its impact. It’s not fair to expect everything to have the large emotional impact of (yes, them again) Pixar, but it only engages the emotions a little, and also ends up being mildly chucklesome rather than laugh out loud funny. Most of the rest of the supporting cast, including an oddly miscast Russell Brand, also leave little impact. It should please your smaller minions and it’s good value for the whole family, but this is more “Despicable Meh” than anything else.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s some well-handled action sequences and generally lots going on at any one time, so the cinema does do Despicable Me some favours.
Why see it in 3D: There’s moderately effective use of the third dimension during the running time, but the end crecits are the most prominent 3D showcase, with minions competing to see how far into the audience’s faces they can get. Ah, my eyes!
The Score: 6/10
The Review: With the seeming descent of hand-drawn animation into obsolescence, and CGI animated movies all but taking over, it’s left to the occasional bastion of alternative traditional techniques to keep the old-fashioned animated flag flying, with the stop-motion animation of the likes of Nick Park and Henry Selick. Painstaking in their attention to detail, the most successful animated movies these days seem to be as rich in character and story as they are in their visuals, in order to compete with their shiny counterparts. So is there room in this world for a (very) crudely animated Belgian pair’s odyssey of a cowboy, an indian and a horse?
Hopefully so, not least because this is completely bonkers. The animation style should be instantly familiar to most people in the UK, having been used by the same production company for the Cravendale milk adverts, but the original Western-themed characters and their fellow villagers have a much longer history, stretching back ten years and even including an Aardman-produced English language version. For their step up to the big screen, though, they stay resolutely French (which works for me as an Englishman, as a heavily accented “Ah non!” is always more amusing to me than a similar “Oh no!”), but of course requires a longer narrative for the characters to inhabit.
I’m not sure any attempt by me to describe that narrative would give you any idea what the movie’s actually about anyway, or indeed highlight the true beauty of Aubier and Patar’s distinctive style. There’s huge amounts of wonderful background detail going on, but much of the joy comes from the foreground style as well – A Town Called Panic has its own internal sense of logic for the most part, but it’s a very loose framework on which to add lots of visual and narrative oddness. For example, as well as Cowboy, Indian and Horse, the other inhabitants of the village include a policeman with a sentry box that can instantaneously transform into a prison, and an incessantly shouting farmer who resuscitates a poorly tractor in an operating theatre and sends his animals to school, where piano lessons consist of several pianos in the same room and where the teacher is Horse’s fellow equine love interest. Still with me?
This is occasionally anarchic, but more often than not simply surrealist and absurdist, and the sheer amount of detail and invention here should keep you going easily for the 75 minute run time. What keeps this just short of true greatness is the absence of those strong character arcs that the likes of Pixar and even Nick Park are so good at – the ending feels like a non-sequitur to everything that’s gone before, but that’s no great shakes when everything else is just so enjoyable. If you like your animated movies completely unhinged, then pay a trip to the village.
Why see it at the cinema: The big screen allows you to truly appreciate how deformed the lead characters appear most of the time, but there is definitely a cinematic sensibility to many of the scenes and it will benefit from larger viewing.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: Magic and illusion is a dying breed. Those who keep its arts alive, like the Penn and Tellers of this world, are the exception rather than the rule. The entertainment industry decided it was more fun to show how the tricks were done than to leave us guessing, and at that point the wonder went out. Animation is maybe an industry to give magic hope; having gone through a real low point in the eighties, the Disney resurgence in the nineties, followed by the emergence of Pixar and computer animation, coupled with the use of animation in a much wider selection of storytelling capabilities, means that the best animation today stands toe to toe with its live action counterparts.
Often, there is something to gain from telling a story using the medium. In this case, the slightly naive charm of the late fifties and early sixties is reflected in the story of a stage magician struggling to make himself visible above the rock bands and the teenage entertainments that were starting to take over popular culture. The story moves through Paris and London to settle in Scotland, taking in the scenery along the way, and a combination of animation techniques, all supporting a style that makes the images feel like a moving work of art, evoke the period with an incredible level of period detail that would probably have cost significantly more to create in real life.
While the film looks gorgeous, and is extremely successful at evoking the mood and feeling of the period, it’s the characters that are the standouts here. Anyone expecting fast paced narratives or dense layers of plot should look elsewhere; this is a meditation on the passing of an era, told through the eyes of an aging magician, his young friend who tags along as soon as he comes into her life and a belligerent bunny who won’t do as he’s told. There’s very little dialogue, most of the time phrases or words being captured off screen or behind glass, and the story is entirely conveyed through the silent motions of its protagonists. This serves to enhance the humourous touches, as we see clips of the illusions, not always going to plan, but as the movie takes on an air of melancholia as it progresses, the absence of words allows us to form unbroken connections with the characters.
The Illusionist is a charming piece, not the most substatial movie ever made but full of character notes, entertaining set pieces and an almost tragic inevitability of what is to come. There’s a magic at work in the narrative which gives strong subtext when the conclusion comes (although to distinguish it, the feeling is real and definitely not an illusion), and what has been conjoured onto the screen is enough to charm even the hardest of hearts, if you can open yourself up to its mood.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a love affair with all of the visual arts (including a scene in the cinema where the central character’s real life inspiration is very directly referenced), but the message on that is clear – if you don’t go and watch, it won’t be there for much longer. So see this with a crowd to experience the animation in its full splendour, and share a chuckle and a sniffle with your neighbours.
The Score: 8/10