The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur66 million years ago an asteroid missed the earth, and its dinosaur inhabitants lived happily ever after. The End. Some time later, on an a remote outpost somewhere in America, three Apatosaurus are born to a family of farmers. The youngest, named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), is smaller than his siblings, and struggles with his assorted duties, the most recent of which involves guarding the family’s food stores from a pesky hominid (Jack Bright) who keeps helping himself to their corn. When Arlo and Spot (as the former comes to call him) are washed hundreds of miles downriver by floodwater, they must join forces if they are going to make their way back home in time for first snow, and survive encounters with various other dinosaurs looking to fill their stomachs before winter sets in.

Pixar have, by and large, always known which questions to ask of their audience. What do your toys get up to when you’re not around? Why are there monsters under your bed? What exactly is going on inside your head? Obviously, these creative quandaries feed the imagination of young children who don’t know any better, but they are also intuitive and insightful enough to inspire those who really should. At their simplest, the premise of every Pixar film makes sense to children young and old on a level unspoiled by sense or reason. For these are questions that have been asked by all, at one point or another in their lives, whether yesterday or yesteryear. Their latest, The Good Dinosaur, has such a hook — What if the dinosaurs didn’t die out? — but unlike the rest of their set-ups, this one lacks a satisfying answer. Worse than that, it’s not even coherent.

Like the asteroid seen bypassing the planet in its opening moments, The Good Dinosaur is pretty wide of the mark. When you consider the success Pixar has had spit-balling ideas about fish, rats and old people it is quite simply inconceivable that they’d hit a creative wall here, with dinosaurs, and think of nothing better to do than cast them in a western…for some reason. There was that scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park that saw a pack of velociraptors chase Jeff Goldblum through a cornfield, but generally speaking dinosaurs and farming don’t exactly go hand in hand. That the film conspires to have sauropods plough fields to collect corn, which is then stored in a totemic silo that could not possibly have been built by quadrupeds is just the first in a long line of creative decisions that leave you wondering if you’re watching the latest Blue Sky animation by mistake, or maybe a prehistoric prequel to the studio’s much-maligned Cars series. After all, if dinosaurs can learn to sow and harvest crops, then what’s stopping them from evolving wheels and a thresher? Heck, Tyrannosaur’s can even gallop now.

Director Peter Sohn has clearly gone to great pains to replicate the American northwest setting, to the point that the animation borders on being photorealistic, but rather than show his characters the same reverence he has gone in the opposite direction. Arlo is unmistakably a dinosaur, but the resemblance isn’t much stronger than that of a balloon animal to an actual animal. It’s not just that he’s not particularly visually interesting either; scratch beneath the surface and the whole character just deflates into nothing. Has Pixar ever produced a less compelling protagonist? Not since A Bug’s Life has a main character appeared so anonymous — and that was a film about ants! This is all the more remarkable given how many traits Arlo has in common with Rex, the studio’s only other dinosaur character to date, and one of its best loved. It’s hard to remain focused on someone so plain when there is such depth and detail in the background, and Arlo’s motivations (he wants to put his stamp on the aforementioned silo, but first he has to earn it) are so completely uninvolving that you really do find yourself admiring the river’s keenly observed currents instead.

The Good Dinosaur is not without its moments, most of which can be attributed to the character of Spot (or traced back to an all too fleeting appearance from Forrest Woodbush, a Styracosaurus with serious squad goalsvoiced by Sohn himself), but for the most part it fails even to register as entertainment — more a handsome screensaver with a crude cartoon photoshopped onto it. It might not be Pixar’s worst film, but it is certainly their least enjoyable, and not just for the adult contingent left feeling betrayed by a studio that usually caters to all; after the multi-monster melee that closed Jurassic World it’s hard to imagine anyone but the youngest, most unassuming children getting excited about a C-list dinosaur who’s afraid of bloody birds. Even the name is underwhelming: since when did Pixar settle for good?

2-stars

 

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Big Hero 6 (2015)

Big Hero 6In downtown San Fransokyo, 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is making quite the name for himself — and a fair amount of pocket money — as an illicit robot fighter. Worried for his younger brother’s future, university student Tadashi (Daniel Henney) takes him along to the campus’ robotics laboratory to try and inspire him to put his talents to better use and perhaps even enroll himself. Before Hiro can register, however, a fire breaks out at an annual exhibition killing Tadashi. Hiro’s pain activates Baymax (Scott Adsit), a personal healthcare robot Tadashi was developing when he died, and the two bond over an investigation into the fire’s origins that Baymax believes will aid the healing process. Together with his brother’s old classmates — GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez) and Fred (T J Miller) — Hiro and Baymax confront the man they believe to be responsible for Tadashi’s death.

The 54th film in the Disney Classics series, following 2013’s indomitable Frozen, Don Hall and Chris Williams’ Big Hero 6 is the first to draw from Marvel Comics’ extensive back catalogue, which the studio acquired in 2009. It is a loose adaptation of a relatively obscure title created by Steven T Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, with the film’s screenwriters severing ties with the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe (as well as Sony’s Spider-man and Fox’s X-Men) in order to focus on the relationship between a young boy and his late brother’s legacy. Disney and Marvel, however, make for awkward bedfellows; the first act is an overcomplicated mess of technobabble and schmaltz as the film tries to meet the demands of two very different audiences, one expecting traditional fairytale values while the other anticipates pixilated superhero spectacle. However, while Pixar can condense and concentrate a life-time of love and loss into a ten minute montage or serve up space-faring set pieces at a moment’s notice their parent company can’t help but make a meal of it.

Fortunately, once the introductions, motivations and machinations are out of the way the characters and relationships begin to speak for themselves. This change roughly coincides with the arrival of Baymax, at which point the pace, the tone and the energy of the piece all pick up considerably. In the space of a single scene Hiro has found a renewed purpose, the film has reconciled its competing codas and audiences have a new favourite robot. From the moment he squeaks onto screen, squeezing past Tadashi’s bed and knocking over all of his books, an icon is born. A cross between an airbag and an iPod, Baymax — who bears little resemblance to the Battle Dragon from the source material– is completely irresistible, proving a consistently amusing presence in his own right while simultaneously bringing out the best in everyone around him. Hiro’s exchanges with Baymax are hilarious, honest and heartfelt; the complete opposite of his trite altercations with Tadashi. Indeed, their best scenes together — in Hiro’s bedroom diagnosing puberty; reporting a preposterous crime to a skeptical police officer; returning home apparently drunk and disorderly — go some way towards compensating for their worst scenes apart.

And then, two acts too late, Big Hero 6 suddenly remembers that it’s supposed to be a superhero movie. Having already upgraded Baymax with Iron Man-esque technology, Hiro turns his attention to what had previously been little more than the supporting cast. GoGo Tomago, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and Fred are all eye-catching and unique characters (though apparently from the Power Rangers school of colourisation), but given that they each constitute one sixth of the eponymous super-team they feel more like canon fodder than core members. That said, they’re undoubtedly impressive in action, helping to ensure that each set piece is imbued with as much spirit as it is spectacle — Jamie Chung and T J Miller in particularly making the most of every line of dialogue. Ultimately, however, this is Hiro’s story and Baymax’s movie, and inevitably it all comes back to them. The film has some surprisingly complex things to say about grief and maturity, and a number of twists and turns keep things interesting though the third act, but the appeal of their relationship is as much to do with flying really fast around the diverse and beautifully designed streets of San Fransokyo as it is about their capacity for foregrounding mental health and mortality.

A story of three halves, Disney’s latest struggles to define itself as either a family drama, a buddy comedy or a superhero origin story. By the time Baymax enters the fray and Hiro finally founds Big Hero 6 the film is already beset by structural issues that prevent it from ever really hitting its stride. It has its moments, undoubtedly, but in the end it’s neither an official Marvel film or a true Disney Classic.

3-Stars

Frozen (2013)

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.Princesses Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) had never been closer, until one day — to Anna’s ongoing bemusement — Elsa simply stopped spending time with her sister. What Anna doesn’t know is that her sister has a secret; Elsa has the ability to manipulate ice and snow, but is not yet able to control her powerful flurries. In order to protect her sister from harm, she has chosen to extricate herself from all avoidable human contact. When, during her coronation, she inadvertently curses her kingdom to eternal winter and flees, Anna leaves Arendelle in the hands of a friendly prince (Santino Fontana as Hans) and sets off after her, enlisting the help of ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and enchanted snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) along the way.

Like the short that precedes it, Frozen — adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen — takes a few minutes to find its feet; unlike the short that precedes it, however, Frozen has a few minutes to spare. And so it is that, following a brief moment of narrative confusion — some nonsense about treating brain-freeze with amnesia — Disney once again works its magic with a film that boasts the same timeless charm of Snow White And The Seven Dwarves and Beauty And The Beast. After almost a decade of trailing the pack, wrong-footed by the changing face of animation (CGI, 3D), The House Of Mouse is back with the sort of movie that could inspire a generation. Did someone wish upon a star?

Having tested the water with updated fairy tales such as The Princess And The Frog and Tangled, after almost a decade of straight-to-DVD sequels and Tinker Bell movies, the studio here finally dives in with a movie that couldn’t feel more Disney if it tried. That’s not to say that Frozen feels old fashioned or outdated, however, as steps have clearly been made by directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee to appeal to more discerning modern audiences. The name, for starters, is more gender-neutral than that of your traditional princess movie, while after exploring the mother-daughter bond in Tangled the studio here turns its attention to concerned siblings — sisters doing it for themselves.

The female characters may still look like anime-inflected Barbie dolls and audiences are still all but guaranteed a happily ever after, but Frozen is nevertheless gently progressive in its own way. In this post-Shrek age it’s almost expected that animated movies will do something to subvert the norm, and yet it’s difficult not admire Disney for changing things up. Anna is a smart, sassy and complicated heroine who waits for no man, instead setting off without a moment’s hesitation to save her sister, a character who is just as interesting in her own right. Emotionally, their relationship just works, and the film is driven as much by their respective characters as it is by the plot, to the point that when True Love’s First Kiss is floated as a possible solution you feel genuinely — and prematurely — disappointed.

That’s not to suggest that the rest of the cast are any less worthy of mention, however, as Frozen is chock-full of memorable characters. Both male leads are just as compelling, with both Hans and Kristoff each making a huge impression in relatively atypical roles. Regular prince charming Hans’ early scenes with Anna are genuinely hilarious, while Kristoff somewhat breaks the mould for a Disney love interest — he is like Aladdin crossed with The Emperor’s New Groove‘s Pacha. Even the token sidekicks engage: Olaf, a snowman who yearns for summer, is nowhere near as annoying as the trailers made him out to be, while Sven brings out another side of Kristoff that helps to keep him interesting. It’s a relatively small cast, but everyone has something to do and it lends Frozen an intimacy that sets it apart from most.

What you notice first, however, is not the characters or relationships but Christophe Beck’s utterly sensational score. The film opens confidently with ‘Vuelie’, a terrific little tune that was performed by Cantus, an all-female Norweigan choir, before The Book Of Mormon songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez take over what is easily one of the catchiest soundtracks of the year. Highlights include ‘Do You Want To Build A Snowman?’, ‘In Summer’ and ‘Let It Go’, the last of which will likely haunt you for weeks. Just as impressive is the animation, which creates snowscapes just as impressive as those seen in last year’s Rise Of The Guardians. In fact, where Jack Frost used his powers to inspire and protect, Elsa ends up using hers to harm and oppress. The animators give her a surprising edge that is at times deliciously dark and dangerous.

Frozen is that rarest of things, a post-modern fairy tale that could nevertheless sit quite comfortably alongside its more traditional forebears. Funny, charming, and with personality to spare, Disney’s latest is comfortably the best animated film of the year, and more importantly the studio’s first shot at greatness in much longer than that.

5-Stars

Monsters University (2013)

Monsters UniversityMike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) has always wanted to be a Scarer, at least since he visited Monsters Incorporated on a school trip and met his idol, “Frightening” Frank McCay (John Krasinski). After years of studying, Mike finally enrolls at Monsters University, befriending new roommate Randal (Steve Buscemi) and butting horns with entitled class clown James P. Sullivan (John Goodman). When their rivalry leads to their expulsion by headmistress Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), however, they must join a fraternity — Oozma Kappa — and work together to win the Scare Games if they are to be allowed to rejoin the programme. Read more of this post

John Carter (2012)

In the process of mourning the death of his wife and child, the last thing John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) wants is to take sides in somebody else’s war. Caught in the crossfire of the American Civil War, he escapes to a marked cave rumoured to be lined with gold. Instead, Carter is transported to Mars (Barsoom to the natives) where he finds himself held captives by Tharks. Eager at first only to escape and return home, when he breaks free to save a falling woman – who turns out to be Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), Princess of Helium – Carter becomes embroiled in a new war, one which looks set to engulf all of Barsoom. As Helium is forced to ally with the relentlessly deceiving city of Zodanga, Carter becomes aware of a race of shadowy puppetmasters (lead by Mark Strong) who could be the key not only to Mars’ problems, but his presence there in the first place.

John Carter (formerly of Mars), a film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11-volume Barsoom series, marks the live action feature début of one of Pixar’s finest, Andrew Stanton (formerly of Finding Nemo and Wall.E). Costing somewhere in the region of $250 million, John Carter had the unenviable task of making a profit while following in the footsteps of its own extensive progeny to cinemas, with a number of the books’ themes and ideas having already been assimilated into the likes of Star Wars, Superman and Avatar while Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars lay largely forgotten. Lumbered with an increasingly unfashionable 3D conversion and lacking any real name-recognition, it was always going to be a tough sell.

There’s a part of me that wanted to dislike John Carter. After a spate of increasingly irksome interviews, it was becoming the case that, despite having potentially dreamt up the scene from Finding Nemo in which Dory attempts to speak whale, I had a bit of a problem with Andrew Stanton, and maybe even Pixar in general. With all their talk of an inclusive Dream Team and making only the movies that they would wish to see themselves (even Cars 2, apparently), I couldn’t help but feel that the company was a little too smug, self-congratulatory and – more recently, at least, in terms of Brave – blindly defensive to reconcile with my retiring view of them as infallible masters of children’s animation. You never should meet your heroes, I suppose, however indirectly.

Even excusing the burgeoning grudge of a disgruntled hair-splitter, John Carter is no classic: the film’s bloated plot, uninspired dialogue and wooden characters instantly setting it miles apart from the director’s previous animated works. Despite starring two glorified appliances, robbed of facial expressions and boasting a vocabulary of precisely one word apiece, Wall.E boasts more personality, more chemistry and ultimately more humanity (or even martianity) in its 98 minutes than John Carter‘s entire cast manage in well over two hours. An unfair comparison, perhaps, but given the size of the budget, the identity of the director and the influence of the source material, just about anything should have been possible.

Speaking of the source material, it appears that Stanton has (rightfully or not) taken little creative licence in adapting John Carter for the big screen. Thus, we are thrust into a mind-boggling world originally shaped over the course of eleven volumes and innumerable words with only a brief introduction to soften the blow. As you are left to grapple with the ever-expanding register of tongue-tying names, it quickly become clear why the likes of George Lucas and James Cameron harvested the elements that they did; in-so-doing leaving out the likes of Sab Than, Prince of Zodanga and Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium, who, in the end, are only distinguishable by the colour of their flags, which fly above their warring light-powered airships. Or something.

As if the on-Mars action wasn’t brain-scrambling enough, the filmmakers have opted to add to the story with a series of bookends which introduce the sagas’ author as a character in the film’s own narrative – as Carter’s nephew, no less. These sequences add less than zero to proceedings, instead drawing the audience’s out of the primary plot as they are left to grapple with the unnecessarily meta suggestion that Burrough’s was actually writing fact, as though he had just watched Eric Brevig’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and wondered why those Vernians should have all of the fun. This proves even more problematic come the film’s stilted dénouement, which – without giving anything away – oversteps its natural conclusion in favour of what is either fiction’s least enticing cliff hanger or a point so ambiguous that, even in the face of the rest of the film, it seems positively absurd.

Ridiculous as it might sound, however, by no means did I actually hate Disney’s John Carter. Quite the contrary, in fact: I found its utter disregard for the deteriorating attention span of the MTV generation rather refreshing; commendable, even. While the aliens still look improbably humanoid (the ‘red’ humans thoroughly included), it was nice to see a good portion of the movie dedicated to the almighty culture clash that would follow transplantation to Mars. Carter’s adjustments to the decrease in gravity, the hand-acted greetings and initial interaction, and the fact that very little of the Martian science makes any sense whatsoever each placated me after years of diluted science fiction in which characters cross the universe with as little difficulty as one might cross the road.

Without a doubt the biggest success of John Carter is the film’s realisation of the Tharks: a race of primitive, four-armed green Martians who lay eggs, destroy those that haven’t hatched by some arbitrary date, and who maim and kill those who are weak or unruly; they are a complicated and diverse culture that – despite their unique anatomy – prove as emotive and sympathetic as any of the human characters. Across the board, John Carter is breath-takingly shot and jaw-droppingly rendered, its settings and set pieces stunning in much the same way that Avatar once achieved with its comparable race of Na’vi. Even when the creatures are communing with some higher power or pitting their captives against myriad monsters and beasts (the Thark arena bears a striking resemblance to that on Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones‘ Geonosis), they easily maintain their awe and splendour.

But perhaps I’m just a sucker for science fiction on an operatic scale. I loved Avatar, and I am routinely blown away by Star Wars (yes, even the prequels), and if you resolutely disagree then we will unlikely see eye to eye here either. I can forgive the wooden performances, the dispassionate air battles and the incomprehensible plot, because what they threaten to undermine so taps in to the childlike sense of wonder that is so key to my own cinematic enjoyment. I had no problem with Carter’s abilities being limited to a particular proclivity for jumping, or the fact that Mark Strong ultimately played a thinly-veiled angel by a different name. I didn’t mind that the names were unintelligible or that I had seen most of it before. I even enjoyed the central relationship, finding it easy enough to invest in Taylor Kitsch’s archetypal lead. I was entertained, and I asked of it nothing more.

Cripplingly overlong, inaccessibly convoluted and written by mahogany, on mahogany, with mahogany, John Carter is a film that will alienate more people than it will inspire. That said, it is also handsomely shot, beautifully rendered and, with a winningly old fashioned feel, this is science fiction writ large in both the best and worst senses. It may take a few viewings to really crack, but whether the general public embraces it or not this will be nevertheless an important release in the genre’s colourful history. I only wish I could give it 3.25 stars.

The Muppets (2012)

Walter (Peter Linz), the Muppet brother of the coincidentally human Gary (Jason Segel), has struggled to find a place in the world, preferring instead to watch The Muppet Show re-runs at home with his live-in sibling. Invited to Los Angeles by Gary, who has booked the holiday to mark the ten year anniversary of his relationship with unorthodox school teacher Mary (Amy Adams), Walter is disappointed to find the official tour of the old Muppet Theatre all-but disbanded and the building itself in ruin. Overhearing a plot by tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to purchase the land harvest it for oil, Walter hijacks the romantic getaway in order to reunite the Muppets and save the theatre by way of a money raising telethon.

It does require somewhat of a suspension of disbelief to imagine a world in which the Muppets are out of fashion and long forgotten, particularly given the troupe’s recent runaway resurgence. Since the project was first announced, Disney’s marketing machine has been in overdrive as the brand began appearing everywhere from Children In Need to YouTube to your local cineplex courtesy of the requisite Orange Gold Spot. With a push for the Muppets to host the Oscars, and even an interview with Miss Piggy in The Sunday Times, the long-awaited movie ran the risk of missing its own bandwagon, and really had to deliver something special to justify the considerable hype.

Thankfully, Jason Segel’s script does just that, its alchemic mix of nostalgia and innovation ensuring that fans of the television show and extant franchise are duly honoured, while taking measures to charm newcomers and novices alike. The results are often laugh out loud funny as our heroes are forced to accept that the world has moved on and tastes have changed. From Kermit the Frog’s contact list of yesteryear’s celebrity (we’re looking at you, Molly Ringwald) to ’80s Robot’s reliance on a dial-up modem, the incongruity is played up to great effect. The film also has fun with certain well-worn cinematic shorthand, with montage and map travel both lampooned with a lovably self-aware wink to the audience.

As with his Dracula rock musical from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel shows a startling affinity for catchy show-tunes. Kick-starting proceedings with the delightfully upbeat Life’s a Happy Song, the wit and proficiency later exampled throughout subsequent hits Pictures in My Head and Man or Muppet will not only have you spouting half-remembered lyrics for weeks to come but living in wait of Segel’s next musical endeavour. The original music is complimented with a number of recycled hits that shall remain nameless so as not to spoil their impact, needless to say that a certain recent pop hit as interpreted by Camilla and the Chickens comes close to stealing the show.

Even onscreen, Segel (alongside Amy Adams and Peter Linz) cuts a likeable presence opposite the veritable institutions of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo. Their introduction is arguably the film’s biggest accomplishment, as the new characters and dynamics are established and we get to see the glowing effects of having a Muppet in your life. As the focus shifts, the trio is even missed, with their development and resolution having to contend with the film’s namesakes for screen time. Not that it’s not nice to have the Muppets back, the ensuing madness truly celebrating all that was great about the characters and franchise, but with a plot so slight it’s a shame that anyone had to lose out at all.

This is a problem, however, and unless you are willing to let the film slide on good will alone you are unlikely to be completely satisfied with the finished product. The careful balancing act of man and Muppet struggles to give each subplot its due; with so many supporting characters, it was always going to be a challenge doing each existing icon their due, even without adding new ones to the mix – however likeable they might be. The result is a movie which doesn’t quite hang together, a miss-mash of narrative threads and secondary characters that are rarely more than the sum of their parts.

With many of the skits involved in the marketing push proving so successful, and many of the gags in the film itself working so well, the film is often at its best during relatively standalone segments and self-contained sight-gags. As soon as director James Bobin attempts tie these segments together the movie starts to fall apart, the film’s punch compromised by a plot so cliché that you’re waiting for a send up that never comes. Although many of the characters are great fun and many of the ideas come together beautifully, there are moments that fall jarringly flat. Take the movie’s “celebrity cameos”: with many of Hollywood’s least funny contemporary performers cropping up in one way or another, the diversions from the already short-changed central relationships ultimately do more harm than good.

A hugely affable affair which confirms that the Muppets are back in a big way, The Muppets is an absolute joy from beginning to end. With Jason Segel gifting us with one of the most charming, witty and tongue in cheek scripts of the year so far, and a love and admiration for the franchise which goes beyond simple nostalgia, this is undoubtedly the comedy to beat in 2012. With one of the film’s key morals being that relevance is overrated, however, I just wish all involved hadn’t been so preoccupied with shoehorning in timely celebrity cameos.

FILM NEWS: Jennifer Garner wants all the babies.

Peter Hedges’ The Odd Life of Timothy Green – an upcoming Disney film beginning its publicity push with a new poster and trailer (via Yahoo) – finds Jennifer Garner brooding and unable to conceive. Again.

Rather than putting another advert in the Pennysaver, however, she and her husband opt to fill a time capsule with written qualities they would like their ficticious offspring to possess, and subsequently bury it in the back garden. One ominously stormy night later, Cindy (Garner) and Jim Green (Joel Edgerton) awaken to find a young boy masquerading as their perfect adolescent son.

You can see the trailer below:

The Odd Life of Timothy Green is scheduled for release on the 15th of August, 2012.

How it should have ended – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

You know the story: boy meets girl, girl gets captured by cursed pirates, boy blackmails healthy-but-otherwise-insane pirate, boy becomes pirate, boy saves girl, boy becomes Davey Jones, girl becomes pirate. It’s as old as the hills. Not The Hills, obviously, because that’s – what – only in its fifth season?

Anyway, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was settling into a nice little rut when overlord Disney decided it was high-time for a series overhaul. If you’ve seen On Stagnant Stranger Tides, you’ll know that this amounted to removing boy (Orlando Bloom’s earnest Will Turner) and girl (Keira Knightly’s corseted Elizabeth Swann) and replacing them with the even less inspired coupling of an expressionless preacher and a damp mermaid. How very innovative.

While there were many, many problems with the latest installment – it was no fun, the villain had poorly drawn abilities, Penelope Cruz, the plot was mercilessly contrived, Penelope Cruz, Jack Sparrow was constantly left without anyone to banter with – one of its biggest problems was the crackpot of an ending. Should we recap?

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – Act 3 (roughly).

Jack Sparrow has agreed to take Blackbeard to the Fountain of Youth in exchange for Gibbs’ freedom and the return of his beloved magical compass. Stood atop a massive gorge, Blackbeard – who at this point has no other method of finding the fountain – asks Jack to jump to his near-certain death. As incentive, one of Blackbeard’s minion zombies (don’t worry, they’re not the flesh-eating variety) throws a voodoo doll made in Jack’s likeness over the cliff. Jack jumps to protect it somehow surviving unharmed without even having rescued the doll, presumably proving it useless.

Locating the entrance – and with the Spaniards and British (lead for no apparent reason by Captain Barbossa) in hot pursuit – Jack acquires entry for Blackbeard and his zombie crew. When the others arrive anyway, however, a great skirmish breaks out as the Spaniards attempt to destroy the fountain, Barbossa attempts to avenge his missing leg by killing Blackbeard, Phillip (our missionary from earlier) sets out to save his marooned girl-fish-friend despite his mortal wound, and Jack tries to…well, something.

When the Spaniards succeed in bringing down the fountain, and Blackbeard is finally run through with Barbossa’s poisoned sword (an act which also poisons daughter Angelica), Jack must mince to the rescue, desperate as he is to save dutiful Angelica from her manipulative father who, because he’s EEEVIL, wishes his daughter to sacrifice her life by drinking from the cursed chalice. Playing the old switcheroo, Jack succeeds in saving his love, to her own chagrin. With Barbossa having disappeared with Blackbeard’s boat, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Jack reunites with Gibbs who has found the Black Pearl encased in a glass bottle.

In a post-credits sequence – if you were hardcore enough to wait for it – it is revealed that Angelica, who was left on a desert island with one bullet (like Jack was preceding the events of the first film), has somehow got her hands on the voodoo doll last seen being flung from a cliff on another island altogether. She smiles. Someone should.

Pirates of the Caribbean 4 didn’t have to be awful. With the wealth of flagellation expounded by critics following the dire third installment, there should have been ample red-penned annotations for Disney to follow to box office and critical success. Rather than ignoring the previous trilogy, On Stranger Tides should have embraced it. Rather than continue the franchise’s trademark knotted narrative, this sequel should have simplified it. Rather than continue to get darker and more grandiose, Pirates 4 should have rediscovered is funny bone.

While all valid criticisms, I nevertheless propose that Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides could have been saved by simply using a different ending. Up on the cliff Jack should have gained the upper hand and demanded answers: Why the Hell did Angelica pose as Jack in the opening of the movie? What exactly are Blackbeard’s ambiguous magic powers? Why is the monkey the only remaining character aboard the Black Pearl? He should have escaped with the missionary and his mermaid, giving him someone to at least be funny opposite.

Arriving at the fountain, Jack enters, unaware that he is being followed by three different parties. As there are only two chalices, and one mermaid tear, the main action takes place in the gravity defying cave as opposed to inside the fountain’s chamber – where logic dictates only a few can gain access. Desperate to save Angelica, and with only the Spanish still competing for eternal youth, Jack and the commander use the tear to gain access and flesh out the latter’s character and motives for the first time during the entire movie. Jack gets the required sample moments before the fountain is destroyed and saves Angelica at the expense of her father.

Phillip, meanwhile, rescues his mermaid from her moorings and is pulled under the water. Rather than ending there, however, THE FILM ACTUALLY EXPLAINS WHERE THEY DISAPPEAR TO (Davey Jones’ locker for a fleeting cameo?). Angelica vows her revenge, so Jack leaves her alone on the same island on which he was once abandoned with Elizabeth.

In the post-credits sequence, the voodoo doll stays at the bottom of the gorge, missing its final appearance but adhering to the laws of probability. Instead, Penelope Cruz sits in the sand, practicing a series of new and decidedly more thespian facial expressions, when (lo and behold) a pair of sea turtles wash up in front of her. She smiles. Boom.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Pirates of the Caribbean is a franchise shrouded in denial. Impossible to determine how much time has elapsed since numb bums left seats at world’s end, the latest instalment of the Disney money maker finds Captain Jack Sparrow alive and mincing in a series of needless subplots that ensure proceedings sail past the traditional two hour marks for reasons best left in Davy Jones’ locker. So then, what of the actual plot?

On Stranger Tides opens with a daring rescue, as Jack Sparrow infiltrates the high court to spring his former First Mate, Joshamee Gibbs, who is on trial for piracy. When the jail-break goes awry, Jack finds himself in chains before King George II who wishes to beat a batallion of Spaniards to the legendary Fountain of Youth. When it is revealed that Jack is to sail once again under Captain Barbosa – now a privateer in the Kings navy for reasons yet to be satisfactorily explained – who lost Sparrow’s precious Black Pearl to the infamous pirate Blackbeard, the spritely pirate escapes into the arms of old flame Angelica, a wronged lover found to be recruiting a crew for Blackbeard himself. With both parties eager to reach the fountain first, and the Spanish armada in hot pursuit, the usual smattering of supernatural enemies and pandemic matinee quickly ensues.

Supposedly having learnt from past mistakes and now under new management (Rob Marshall was brought in to replace Gore Verbinski), On Stranger Tides promised a honed and revitalised new start for the ailing franchise. With Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightly unceremoniously dropped as squabbling plot devices Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, and with Marshall showing little time for the instalments that came before, this clean slate is unfortunately not the return to form many were hoping for. Apparently aware of Jack Sparrow’s inability to support an entire movie, the filmmakers have undermined their innovations with a whole new set of woeful characters that fail to generate the swashbuckling atmosphere that made the first to instalments work so well.

What is the point, Mr. Marshall, of canning one damp nomance only to introduce another, altogether less entertaining equivalent in its place? Rather than feeling fresh and rejuvenated with a new cast of characters, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides forfeits all novelty in the studios desperation to stick to the original’s blockbusting formula. Unfortunately, these new additions lack to charm and good will of the original trilogy, with the requisite musical cues and genre touches acting as a reminder of old when they should be entertaining in their own right. While the last instalment was far from perfect – barely treading acceptable at times – never felt like a choresome ticking of boxes.

Rather than confronting the issues harmonised by the planet’s critics, Marshall’s apparent overhaul never makes it beneath the skin. Where the latter episodes disappeared into a convoluted tangle of double/triple/quadruple crosses and an overcomplicated juggle of subplots, On Stranger Tides is no different. Sparrow, Gibbs and Barbosa spend so much time jumping between ships that the film never settles into the effortless fun that audiences have come to expect. As the list of items the characters must collect grows, any joviality is lost in a jigsaw of narrative clutter. What should simply have been a back-to-basics jolly roger instead becomes a tedious treading of water.

Doing little to alleviate the dizzyingly needless intricacy of series stalwarts Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s script is the apparently blasé approach to lighting. Everyone knows that 3D, while otherwise fantastic as a medium, dims the image onscreen. When moonlit sward fights and mermaid hunts are barely visible in 2D, it becomes near impossible to keep tabs on the action from behind a pair of what are effectively 3D sunglasses.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, then, is a pale imitation of a once great, and then at least competent, franchise; a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns in action. Shot in the dark and depriving Jack Sparrow of a sparring partner (wasting the character in the thankless role of straight man), this latest adaptation of a Disneyland attraction is anything but a roller-coaster ride, providing almost zero swash for your buckle.

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

Before Emperor Kuzco (David Spade) can build his swimming pool (complete with waterslide), he must first determine which mountain top ‘sings’. Gleaning the answer from humble villager Pacha (John Goodman), Kuzco reveals his plans to decimate the man’s house in order to make room for Kuzcotopia. Accidentally turned into a llama at dinner by scheming advisor Yzma (Eartha Kitt), Kuzco is carried out of the city by her sidekick, who has been instructed to kill him. Talked out of committing murder by his shoulder angel, Kronk (Patrick Warburton) instead loses Kuzco in the throng of the local market. Rescued by Pacha, the two must form a makeshift alliance in order to return Kuzco to his human form; Pacha taking the oppertunity to talk the Emperor out of building his water park. Having discovered Kuzco’s whereabouts from a talking squirrel, however, Yzma will do anything and everything to keep Kuzco off the throne.

From a studio renowned for its earnestness – where princes are always charming and in order to realise your dreams all you must do is wish upon a star – the occasional exception is always a welcome thing. Refreshingly for a mainstream Disney release, The Emperor’s New Groove refuses to take itself seriously or pander to Disneyland’s usual patrons. The film is instead populated by characters who run amok, only ever serving the plot only when it suits them — after desert…and coffee, for example.

Opening with a retrospective voice-over which layers on the sarcasm thick and fast, The Emperor’s New Groove wastes no time in establishing its desired tone. An inanely random buddy comedy, the film’s odd couple leads are almost immediately in conflict with one another. The set-up is incredibly simple, allowing more time to be spent on the characters and comedy. Kuzco is delightfully selfish, his narration only serving to emphasise his wonderfully spoilt, abrasive nature as he provides a meta-commentary for the narrative, ensuring that the focus is always where it belongs: on him. That said, he is a compelling presence who gives the film a winning irreverence as he is forced to interact with his subordinates.

While Kuzco inevitably learns the error of his egocentric ways, the directors have peppered the narrative with enough insanity to offset the studio’s token family values, embodied here by friendly-giant Pacha. The film’s secret weapon is its resident evil – on this occasion a frustrated mad scientist who must manipulate her incompetent sidekick if she is ever going to win the throne – a character so endearingly sympathetic that this is almost the villain’s movie. Animated with an impressive likeness to the late actress Eartha Kitt, Yzma is quite simply a revelation.

Without the hindrance of lovable idiot Kronk, however, Yzma would be an uninterestingly content picture of success having conquered the kingdom years earlier. Patrick Warburton’s heavy tones are an endless source of hilarity, the script spoon-feeding Kronk an unceasing stream of one liners and random observations. As he complete’s his own journey from sidekick to Junior Chipmunk instructor, he is immortalised as one of the studio’s best ever creations.

That we’ve got this far without once mentioning the animation itself really is refreshing. Sneaking into cinema’s before each new release had to push some sort of boundary, The Emperor’s New Groove is as basic as they come. This is not a criticism, however, with the animation proving almost as superfluous as the plot itself. Each character is well drawn and each joke punctuated by some perfectly timed visual gag, however the images exist only to serve the characters and therefore rarely have reason to draw attention to themselves. You aren’t admiring the billowing grass or cloud formations when you should be having fun.

A surprisingly self-aware assault on the funny bone, The Emperor’s New Groove is a lovably silly assault of witty dialogue and gleeful gags, invoking closer comparisons to Bugs Bunny than Mickey Mouse. Boasting a plot which, at its character’s own admission, doesn’t make any sense, the film’s winning direction and wonderfully realised ensemble keep the laughter coming at such an impressive rate that you won’t even notice. From Yzma to Kronk, Kuzco to Pacha, the talking squirrel to Tom Jones’ Theme Song Guy, The Emperor’s New Groove is surrealist character comedy at its best.

5-Stars