THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING

Cert PG 120mins Stars 4

This live action fantasy adventure is a magical modern day take on the age-old myth of King Arthur and the knights of Camelot.

When an ordinary suburban schoolboy discovers a mysterious sword, he’s thrust on a thrilling quest to discover the hero inside himself, helped by an inclusive trio of schoolmates.

Far superior to Guy Ritchie’s awful King Arthur from 2017, this is packed with action and humour as it stays faithful to the broad sweep of the legend, and carefully includes key details such as pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone, the lady in the lake and shapeshifting wizards.

The great location work makes wonderful use of our ancient English countryside and monuments such as Stonehenge, while the epic showdown takes place in an urban setting which may bring out the cold sweats in any watching schoolteacher.

Louis Ashbourne Serkis is an open faced and engaging presence as the 12 year old Alex who somewhat reluctantly seizes his destiny as the new Arthur.  You may recognise his surname but not his face, as his actor dad, Andy, is usually hidden behind a CGI mask as characters such as Gollum, in The Lord of the Rings franchise.

Angus Imrie brings agreeable eccentricity as Merlin, and Patrick Stewart adds some acting gravitas as an older version of the wizard, who help the kids take on Rebecca Ferguson’s evil witch, Morgana. 

A very English film with universal appeal which carries a message of honesty, truth,  perseverance and the importance of honouring ones parents, though the last point seems to sail over the head of my 8 year old.

He’s the perfect age to enjoy this and sat rapt throughout, though he confessed the creepy factor was near the upper limit of his tolerance. Haha.

Written and directed with smart and fierce sincerity by Joe Cornish, this is as a thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted family half-term entertainment.

 

MARY POPPINS RETURNS

Cert U 130mins Stars 5

This magical sequel to Disney’s 1964 much loved musical fantasy is a brightly coloured balloon of joy which will carry you away on a giddy adventure.

Mixing live action, CGI and hand drawn animation, this is charming, heartwarming and bursting with sing-along fun. It’s glorious to look at and wonderfully played, with Emily Blunt triumphantly taking on Julie Andrews’ role as the world’s favourite nanny.

Andrews won an Oscar for Poppins and with Blunt’s recent nomination for the Screen Actors Guild best actress award is a crucial step in following suit.

With a stern demeanour and sparkly-eyed sense of mischief, she pours her heart into her performance as sings, dances and even flashes her ankles in an almost saucy music hall turn, ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’.

Mary returns to the family home of the now grown-up Banks children, which is under threat of repossession by Colin Firth’s avaricious bank manager.

Jane and Michael are played by Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw, with Julie Walters as their long suffering housemaid.

The latter two are stalwarts of the brilliant Paddington films, and their casting alongside the daring rooftop shenanigans of the finale suggest Disney executives have paid attention to the Peruvian bear’s box office success.

Joel Dawson is a scene stealing scamp as one of Michael’s kids, US Broadway star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, shines brightly as a cockney lamplighter and popular veterans Dick Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury are luminous in their late appearances.

Whether Oscar winning director Rob Marshall is insanely brave or wilfully foolhardy in attempting to follow the greatest family film ever made, he succeeds by being faithful to its spirit and respecting its legacy.

With ‘Nowhere To Go But Up’ delivering a gloriously buoyant finale, I left with a bounce in my step, a huge grin on my face and hoping it won’t be long before Mary Poppins returns.

DUMBO (2019)

Cert PG Stars 3

Disney’s mission to remake their classic animated films with a blend of live-action and CGI loses hard-earned goodwill with this disappointingly tame and heavy-footed fantasy adventure.

Competent but never endearing or involving, the story again treads the path of a young big-eared circus elephant, called Dumbo, who longs to be reunited with his mother.

When a chance encounter with a feather reveals a talent for flying, it makes him a star of the show, and brings him to the attention of an villainous impresario.

1941’s much loved original is a charmingly brief tale drunk on trippy invention and which won an Oscar for its musical score.

This is a very different beast and though it offers an all-star cast and some spectacle, it’s nearly twice as long with a barely a song of note, and lacks sufficient warmth and humour.

The performing pachyderm himself is a leathery lump of CGI who is sidelined in his own film in favour of the likeable IrishmanColin Farrell.

He plays a one-armed single parent who after military service returns to work in the circus, where he struggles to reconnect with his kids.

I have sympathy for young Nico Parker as his daughter, who has little to do beyond saying ‘science’ a lot, and as the daughter of actress, Thandie Newton, I’m sure she’s capable of a far more spirited turn than she’s allowed to give here.

With a long standing fascination with the circus and a track record in creating big budget mainstream fantasies such as Disney’s 2010 billion dollar box office smash, Alice In Wonderland, Tim Burton is a safe and predictable but far from inspired choice as director.

He’s recruited regular collaborators to help out, but Danny DeVito’s struggling circus owner isn’t as funny as the film thinks he is, Eva Green is stilted as a trapeze artiste, and Michael Keaton lacks his familiar fiendish energy.

Burton leaves the score to do a lot of the heavy lifting, but it alone can’t make this Dumbo take flight, and Burton only seems enthusiastic when showcasing the sumptuous design of the Art Deco architecture, similar to that in his Batman films of three decades ago.

Circus acts such as jugglers and contortionists are often busy in the background of scenes, and are possibly there to compensate for the lack of magic and excitement in the big ring, which fails to capture all the fun of the fair.

DUMBO

Cert PG 112mins Stars 3

Disney’s mission to remake their classic animated films with a blend of live-action and CGI loses hard-earned goodwill with this disappointingly tame and heavy-footed fantasy adventure.

Competent but rarely endearing or involving, the story again treads the path of a young big-eared circus elephant, called Dumbo, who longs to be reunited with his mother.

When a chance encounter with a feather reveals a talent for flying, it makes him a star of the show, and brings him to the attention of an villainous impresario.

1941’s much loved original is a charmingly brief tale drunk on trippy invention and which won an Oscar for its musical score.

This is a very different beast and though it offers an all-star cast and some spectacle, it’s nearly twice as long with a barely a song of note, and lacks sufficient warmth and humour.

The performing pachyderm himself is a leathery lump of CGI who is sidelined in his own film in favour of the likeable IrishmanColin Farrell.

He plays a one-armed single parent who after military service returns to work in the circus, where he struggles to reconnect with his kids.

With a long standing fascination with the circus and a track record in creating big budget mainstream fantasies such as Disney’s 2010 billion dollar box office smash, Alice In Wonderland, Tim Burton is a safe and predictable but far from inspired choice as director.

He’s recruited regular collaborators to help out, but Danny DeVito’s struggling circus owner isn’t as funny as the film thinks he is, Eva Green is stilted as a trapeze artiste, and Michael Keaton lacks his familiar fiendish energy.

Circus acts such as jugglers and contortionists are often busy in the background of scenes, and are possibly there to compensate for the lack of magic and excitement in the big ring, which fails to capture all the fun of the fair.

THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS

Cert PG Stars 4

This live-action coming-of-age fantasy adventure is exciting, lavish, sentimental and sweet in Disney’s best tradition and should beguile its target audience of young girls.

It’s inspired by the book on which Tchaikovsky based his famous ballet score, and though there’s judicious use of his glorious music, this owes far more to The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, and David Bowie’s Labyrinth.

Best known from the Twilight franchise, young Mackenzie Foy is an endearing science-loving heroine called Clara. On Christmas Eve at a grand ball she receives an intricate mechanical egg, bequeathed from her late mother.

Searching for a key to unlock her gift, Clara enters a magical world and discovers she’s a princess who must save three realms from the fourth dark one, the Land of Amusements. 

Accompanied by Jayden Fowora-Knight’s dashing Nutcracker, Clara encounters an army of life-size tin soldiers, a fearsome Mouse King, and Helen Mirren in whip-cracking form as a wicked witch called Mother Ginger. Smug posh comic, Jack Whitehall, has a thankfully very minor role as a fawning sentry.

Keira Knightley is a delicious delight who rules the film as the breathy-voiced Sugar Plum Fairy, having the time of her life in a performance and supercharges proceedings whenever she appears. 

Along with everyone else she wears fabulous costumes by Brit Oscar winning designer, Jenny Beavan, which are perfectly suited to the eye-popping and brightly coloured chocolate box set-design.

Two directors are credited and occasionally there are small indicators dance scenes have been retooled to suit a more conventional storytelling style and a crowd-pleasing framework.

Disney have been surprisingly low key about this film which is a shame as it deserves a big sell, but presumably they’ve occupied by the upcoming box office juggernaut, Mary Poppins Returns, as it rumbles up the track for Christmas.

In the meantime this is a lovely early treat which will enchant your little princess.

 

 

Moana

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker (2016) BBFC cert: PG

If you thought Zootropolis (2016) was this years high water mark of Disney animation, this awesome ocean going adventure leaves it in its wake.

The sturdy story is streamlined for efficiency, ferried along at pace by by toe-tapping songs and buoyed by a sea so gorgeous you’ll want to dive in.

Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho demonstrates powerful pipes and a sparky spirit as our heroine, Moana. It rhymes with Joanna. She’s the headstrong sixteen year old daughter of an overly protective Pacific island chief.

To save her island from disaster and find her own sense of identity, Moana must brave the open sea and combat storms, pirates, and a lava monster.

Moana is accompanied by a shapeshifting trickster Demi-god, Maui. Voiced by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the outsized physique of the former wrestling champ is strangely less ridiculous as a cartoon than it is in reality.

Nicole Scherzinger and Rachel House play Moana’s mother and grandmother, Jemaine Clement adds a touch of camp as a bling-tastic killer giant crab.

Moana is very much in charge of her own destiny as she runs, dances, jumps, climbs, sails and fights. There is a squabbling sibling rivalry with Maui but never a hint of romance. Moana is fighting for her independence, her tribe, the environment, and her future.

The messages of the importance of challenging personal and career boundaries are never laboured. They’re an integral part of the story, not something ungainly and bolted on. If arbitrarily appointed tests are your thing, Moana turns to her grandmother for advice meaning the Bechdel test is passed with flying colours.

Combining elements of classic films such as Aladdin (1992), and The Sword In The Stone (1963), this musical mystical folktale is a joyous tidal wave of fun which will leave you with absolutely nothing to Moana about.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

 

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Director: David Yates (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Let the magic of J.K. Rowling cast you back in time for another fabulous fantasy adventure. This prequel to her astonishingly successful Harry Potter series is a visually rich, fully realised world full of warm characters, cute critters and exciting action.

Set a full 70 years before Harry’s story starts, the story is shifted from the UK to New York in 1926. Our hero is Newt Scamander, an English wizard with the air and appearance of a foppish Edwardian gentleman adventurer. He carries a magic wand and a battered brown suitcase of surprising capacity. There are elements of TV’s Dr Who to his character. These include being expelled from his home, picking up companions to help out and describing himself as ‘annoying’ to other people.

However actor Eddie Redmayne is far too endearing a screen presence to be the spiky mannered Timelord and no-one in this film finds Newt annoying. If there is one major fault in the film it is this disparity between the script and the performance. This is not to say Redmayne is poor, far from it. His boyish charm encourages empathy at every turn and he gently underplays his scenes to allow others to blossom.

While shopping for a birthday present in New York, some of Newt’s beasts escape and the tourist falls foul of the President of wizards. As he tracks them down he is pursued by Colin Farrell’s dapper Director of Magical Security and his trench coat-clad henchmen.

Meanwhile an invisible creature is terrorising the city and a dark wizard called Grindelwald is on the loose and threatening war. There are chases, potions, magical battles, a speakeasy full of house elves and a menageries worth of extraordinary creatures.

Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol’s magical sisters provide the opportunity for romance. This is smart move by Rowling who recognises her key target demographic of longtime Potter fans are now adults. They may even have children of their own.

Redmayne’s generosity to Waterston, Sudol and Dan Fogler as a bumbling baker allow his co-stars to steal the heart of the film. We know we’ll meet Newt again, but we want to meet Jacob, Tina and Queenie again.

Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman and Jon Voigt add to the weight of acting talent and there’s a cameo by Johnny Depp. There are far fewer British actors in this film than in the Potter stories, possibly because those films attempted to exhaust our nations entire supply of thesps.

Rowling infuses her script with contemporary social commentary. She touches upon civil rights, the welfare of children, education and the conservation of endangered species. There are also asides on the demonisation of women in the media and their marginalisation in the workplace. The forces of darkness include a powerful newspaper magnate who are in cahoots with politicians, while an anti-witch cult is a barely concealed avatar for mainstream religion.

However Rowling’s tone is rarely preachy and she offers optimism, gentleness and nurturing. Building is emphasised over destruction and craftsmanship over mass production. The focus is kept firmly on entertaining the multiplex hordes.

There is a lot of detailed world building. We’re introduced to a city full of new characters, organisations and locations, many who will undoubtedly take centre stage in the next four films. We learn Newt has an older brother of some repute. I wonder if Benedict Cumberbatch’s agent is waiting by the phone.

Warner Bros are taking no chances with the continuation of their franchise phenomenon. They put the trusted director of the last four Potter films in charge and have backed him with all their creative, financial and marketing muscle. The opening moments are careful to include familiar images such as Hogwarts school to reassure us of their good intentions.

Though shot at Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, UK, the tremendous sets and faultless CGI never suggest we’re not in the US. Several scenes were also shot on location in London and Liverpool. There are nods to the Men In Black franchise (1997-2012) and a particular work of Terry Gilliam.

There’s no sex, drugs, booze or blood to scare the kids and you don’t have to be a Potter fan to thoroughly enjoy this as a stand alone story. But if you are a fan of Rowling’s fantastical world, you’ll love it.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

 

 

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children

Director: Tim Burton (2016) BBFC cert: 12A

Step inside the latest dark fantasy from the macabre mind of Tim Burton. Based on the best selling novel by Ransom Riggs, the director’s gothic sensibility has been fused with the superhero stylings of X-Men screenwriter Jane Goldman to create a clanking automaton of insufficient heart or electric thrills.

Whether this is an exhausted creative reaching for his reliable stock in trade ideas to get the job done or a potentially career fatal exercise in barrel scraping, Miss Peregrine’s Home makes for a great game of Tim Burton bingo.

There is a young lonely outsider of estranged parents, a kindly grandfather figure, suburbia is given its regular beating, pastel shades denote danger and sports are used as shorthand for idiocy, Visually there is elaborate topiary in the shape of dinosaurs, a scissor handed puppet is given life and a circus ring features in the finale. House!

The Birds (1963), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Time Bandits (1981) and Brigadoon (1954) are among the many other films drawn upon for inspiration.

The plot is not so far away from any X-Men movie, honestly, pick any one you want. An outsider discovers a hidden school for specially gifted children ran by a powerful mentor. Nazi experiments in genetics are hinted at the cause of the ‘peculiars’ special powers.

Despite antagonism from some pupils he eventually joins forces in defending the school against their enemies. Along the way hidden talents are discovered and lessons of reaching ones full potential are received. The End.

Talented  and likeable Brit Asa Butterfield plays Jake, a modern 16-year old American teenager who visits Wales and discovers a time loop where it’s still 1943. Wales is a modern and forward looking country so I’ll not be making any cheap gags here. Despite being replaced on screen by Cornwall, Wales is made to look magical.

Hidden inside the time loop is Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, where the never ageing pupils live the same day over again. Each child has their own peculiarity such as invisibility, great strength or pyrokinesis. Ella Purnell plays the angelic Emma who has to wear lead boots to stop her floating away.

Eva Green gives a wonderfully eccentric turn as the pipe smoking housemistress Miss Peregrine, a glamorous combination of Mary Poppins and Morticia Adams. As well as creating the time loop to protect her young charges from their fearful enemies, she can transform into a peregrine falcon and is a deadly shot with a crossbow.

Her home is only one of may such time protected hideaways and all are threatened by The Hollows, monsters lead by the evil Mr. Barron. With sharklike teeth and a white wig, Samuel L. Jackson matches Green’s performance and the film is energised by his belated appearance.

A bevy of English actors add their name to the film poster. Dame Judi Dench flies through her cameo, Rupert Everett sports binoculars and an alarming accent. Terence Stamp and Chris O’Dowd play Jake’s grandfather and father.

There’s plenty of handsomely designed spectacle adorned with a dash of romance and odd moments of black humour. Mike Higham provides the unmemorable score and the familiar strains of Burtons’ usual collaborator Danny Elfman, are missed.

But the big mystery is who this film is aimed at. Its eye eating villains are far too macabre for little ones and the sub-superhero adventure is too gentle for teens.

And true to its lengthy title, the storytelling is caged and never soars.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alice Through The Looking Glass

Director: James Bobin (2016)

It’s six long years since the staggeringly successful but forgettable Alice In Wonderland (2010) from director Tim Burton.

And time drags in this muddled sequel which has even less connection to the fantastical novels of Lewis Carroll.

There’s no lyrical sense of wonder just hack handed sentiment, blunt slapstick and plodding special effects.

It jettisons familiar characters into two distinct and parallel plots of its own invention, respectively involving time travel and female empowerment. The resolution of family conflict joins the two strands loosely together.

Never forget Hollywood’s golden rule of scriptwriting; a film is always about family, regardless of how appropriate it is to the material.

Burton butchered Carroll’s whimsical masterpiece, replacing its playful intelligence, charm and wit with flamboyant gothic design and an excruciating mannered performance by Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

Against the odds, Burton’s replacement James Bobin has made an even more unwieldy and incoherent film.

Previously Bobin directed The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014). He began in TV with The 11 O’Clock Show (1998) where he collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen. The comic actor features heavily if sadly not hilariously in Looking Glass.

Despite Alice being reinvented as an action heroine, the pale Mia Wasikowska gives a pallid performance as Alice. Perhaps she’s miffed she’s billed a humble third after Depp and Anne Hathaway.

Alice steps through a mirror and falls into Wonderland, immediately signalling to us nothing in this world can hurt her. Which destroys any potential sense of danger in one dull thud.

She is told her friend the Mad Hatter has gone more mad but in a bad way, and is dying.

In white face paint, orange wig and tweeds, Depp’s Hatter resembles Ronald McDonald’s eccentric great uncle after confinement to a suitable attic.

To cure him Alice must do the impossible task of stealing a device called the chronosphere and go back in time to rescue his long lost family.

Removing the time travelling machine risks destroying Wonderland and everyone in it. But this threat is quickly forgotten about as the film is more interested in whizzing Alice about. There’s a surprise incursion to an insane asylum.

Alice is chased by Time who wants his contraption back. The film can’t decide if the black clad and German accented Sacha Baron Cohen is the baddie.

Also vying to be the baddie but failing in villainy are Helena Bonham Carter and Hathaway. They make a squabbling return as respectively the large headed and rude Red Queen and the elegant and duplicitous White Queen.

The presence of Bonham Carter, his now ex-wife, may explain Burton’s exclusion from the director’s chair.

The sepulchral tones of the late Alan Rickman offers a fleeting moment of gravity. While in her brief appearances as Alice’s mother, theatrical Scots stalwart Lindsay Duncan makes more of an impression than Wasikowska achieves.

Lending their voices to the advertising poster in some un-necessarily expensive casting choices are Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, John Sessions, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse and Toby Jones.

Usually my heart despairs whenever Matt Lucas appears so it says a great deal about the film I found his presence curiously bearable.

Alice won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, as well as being nominated for Best Visual Effects.

No doubt Looking Glass will follow the first film in being in the running for similar awards. It’s rich and detailed production design gives us plenty to look at while everyone busily runs around.

The chronosphere is a golden mechanical marvel Alice sits in to blast back in time, a design nod to George Pal’s teen culture embracing adaption of HG Well’s The Time Machine (1960).

Alice visits vast gothic halls and traverses a tumultuous ocean of time. The world is populated by  mechanical assistants, vegetable guardsmen, giant chess pieces, a fire breathing Jabberwocky, walking frogs, talking dogs and of course the disappearing Cheshire Cat.

Bookending the film is a framing device featuring Alice’s adventures at sea pursued by pirates. Because the world needs another big budget CGI fest involving Johnny Depp and pirates.

The story stresses the importance of not wasting ones time. Which is strange as I wasted two hours of my life watching this joyless merry go round of a movie.

Mind you, it felt much longer.

@ChrisHunneysett

 

 

 

 

Room

Director: Lenny Abrahamson (2016)

Disturbingly dark and horribly tense, this modern day fable is all the more gripping for the love at the heart of its story.

It’s told through the eyes of five year old Jack via Jacob Tremblay’s astonishing emotionally truthful performance.

He’s grown up in a decaying and cramped single room, entertained with tales of imaginary worlds told by his only companion, his mother Joy.

She’s played by the staggering excellent Brie Larson and the pair share a wonderfully warm chemistry.

Larson has been deservedly BAFTA nominated for leading actress and named as one of their Rising Stars of 2016. An Oscar nom should also be forthcoming.

At night Jack must hide in the cupboard to sleep because a bogeyman called thrusts himself into their world.

We hear of him and hear his voice long before we see him and Sean Bridgers is brilliantly and pathetically creepy as the predatory Old Nick.

Joan Allen and William H. Macy provide strong support as Joy’s parents Nancy and Robert.

As adults we can guess at the truths hidden from Jack and our fears for him and Joy make for a thoroughly unsettling watch.

A great deal of this could have oozed from the mind of Terry Gilliam in his disturbing Tideland (2006) phase.

After confronting Old Nick it is Jack’s turn to keep Joy from the grasp of the room’s demons.

Their mutual love is the thin thread of hope to which they cling to survive

The extraordinary central performances are supported by smart direction, scriptwriting and cinematography.

Emma Donaghue’s screenplay from her novel (pub. 2010) has been nominated by BAFTA for best adapted screenplay. Apart from this category and Larson’s acting nod, the film has sadly been overlooked for British honours.

Room was lensed by Danny Cohen, one of Britain’s most illustrious and hard working cinematographers.

Along with Roger Deakins, Cohen seems destined never to win an Academy Award for his work.

He was nominated for Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) and worked again with the director Tom Hooper on the The Danish Girl (2016). Other recent work includes X+Y (2015) and London Road (2015).

Cohen has frequently collaborated with Shane Meadows on the This Is England TV series and his ability to capture grimy realities is fully exploited in Room.

There’s always room at the top for films this good.