Film Review: Shazam!

For me, the DCEU stumbled with a few movies which just didn’t work for me (Batman Vs Superman, Suicide Squad, Justice League) but they’ve started to pull it back with a couple  of decent movies, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. This movie, however, surpasses all of them and is easily my favourite DCEU movie thus far.

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What makes this movie work is that it has a great sense of humour and a solid emotional core running through. There are big battles, monsters and superheroics along the way, but this is really a store about family and finding your place in the world. The hero and villain are given the same choice, but the hero prevails because he’s less selfish and receives support from others.

Our hero is fourteen year old Billy Baston (Asher Angel), who lives in the foster system having getting lost as a small child. Billy has been struggling with his placements, frequently running off as he attempts to track down his mother. After his most recent attempt he is sent to a group home and finds himself in a rundown and crowded house, run by two former foster kids, Rosa and Victor Vasquez (Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews, respectively). Billy is a little overwhelmed by the rest of the kids, and tries to keep himself to himself, however, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), a geeky boy around the same age, who is obsessed with superheroes attempts to befriend him.

After standing up to two of Freddy’s bullies, Billy legs it and is transported magically to the cave that is home of Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), a wizard. Shazam chooses Billy as his champion and he is transformed into a fully grown superhero played by Zachary Levi. While he now has superstrength, flight and other powers, he remains Billy inside his new body and alongside Freddy relishes his new abilities, becoming a viral sensation as they test his abilities and skip school.

However, trouble looms in the form of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), who as a child was offered the chance to become Shazam’s champion but failed to resist temptation and was judged not to be pure of heart. Sivana has obsessively attempted to track down Shazam, and when he does, he unleashes the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins, who take up residence within his body and who render him equally powerful to Billy. The sins want him to steal Billy’s powers, enabling them to grow even more powerful and wreak havoc.

Can Billy step up as a hero? Can he find his real mother, and if he does, what will he find? Can Silvana be stopped?

There’s a lot of humour mined from the “kid in an adult’s body” plot device and there’s a lovely nod to Big. Like the Hanks classic this film shows that while this originally seems like a dream and lots of fun there are soon more serious consequences, and the superpowers just heighten this. Billy goofs off with his powers, blundering through his first attempts at heroism and enjoying the fun side of it. This causes conflict with Freddy, who while supportive also wants to exploit his new powers and is somewhat jealous and overzealous about it all.

From there on it’s all about Billy having to learn responsibility and courage, as well as addressing how he has been acting. Part of this is related to his new foster family and his feelings of abandonment and insecurities following losing his mother and ending up in foster care. This is why Silvana is a a great choice as villain, because he seems a dark mirror of Billy. Growing up in a cold and distant family where he never felt good enough, the rejection from Shazam has twisted him into an obsessive maniac, determined to get what he felt was unfairly denied him and gain powers to elevate himself.

Now superpowered, Silvana wreaks havoc and is blind to the fact that the Sins may be using him. His powers allow him to indulge all his darker impulses, to give into his lust for power and revenge, and Billy is shown to struggle to resist his less noble temptations now that he is Earth’s Mightiest Mortal. Billy, however, has the help of Freddy and his new family, and has an inner decency that pushes him to do better.

Zachary Levi is a delight as the adult Billy, looking every inch the hero but never losing the confused, scared and overwhelmed teenager within. He carries himself in such a way that makes him look awkward and unsure, and his attempts to swagger and show off remind you of every teenage boy who tries to look cool. There are plenty of laughs wrung from the disconnect, and his youthful glee at his powers.

Levi is superb, and the the cast around him are great. All the young actors do great work, especially Angel and Glazer, who have great chemistry and capture the slowly developing friendship between Billy and Freddy. Glazer’s Freddy, a snarky, geeky outsider is really funny and steals several scenes.

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Mark Strong can do a decent villain in his sleep, and he’s on exceptional form here, capturing the rage and bitterness of Silvana wonderfully, and also conveying the brutal glee he takes in his new powers, a dark reflection of how Billy enjoys his own powers.

The Seven Deadly Sins, his monstrous associates are impressive foes and the climactic smackdown includes Billy pulling some clever moves and tricks out of his hat, and had a nice twist. It sets up a wonderfully satisfying battle which sees Billy use his wits, heart and powers to tip the scales and realise his destiny as a hero.

The superheroics have a real fun, smashmouth style to them, with airborne brawls and some nice send ups of genre conventions, but what gives it the edge is the human story. I genuinely cared about Billy and Freddy, and the way it sets up their new family was done in a fun and sensitive way, successfully avoiding becoming too cheesy. Their growing friendship and Billy’s shift in outlook give the movie a really warm heart and that’s what the DCEU has missed in a lot of it’s movies.

This movie is a whole lot of fun, with wonderful characters, a tongue firmly in it’s cheek and an involving and entertaining story. I came out with a big, dumb grin on my face and a good feeling I carried for the rest of the day. An utter gem of a movie.

9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Film Review: Dumbo (2019)

Last year I wrote about why I wasn’t looking forward to this movie, so I need to be honest here and admit that I was wrong, and this movie worked rather well. It’s probably the Tim Burton movie I’ve enjoyed most in years, landing with me in a way that many of his other films haven’t with me.

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The original movie, is Disney’s shortest animated movie, and so there’s a lot that has been added to this version. Set in 1919, we see Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returning from the war, it’s been a rough few years, with Holt’s wife passing away while he was in Europe and him having lost an arm during the fighting. He discovers that his old job at the circus isn’t waiting for him, as the horses he performed stunts on have been sold by his boss Max Medici (Danny DeVito).

Holt struggles to connect with his kids, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, respectively) as he finds it hard to be emotional and is trying to find a practical way to survive. Max gives him a new job tending to the elephants, including Mrs Jumbo, his latest acquisition who is due to give birth soon.

The baby is born with unnaturally large ears and is mocked by audiences, who dub him Dumbo. The mockery, and cruel treatment by one of the elephant handlers, leads Mrs Jumbo to rush to her calf’s aid, creating havoc and inadvertently killing the handler. Max sells Mrs Jumbo to get away from the bad publicity and decides to put Dumbo with the clowns. The kids are devastated by this, and angry that Holt can’t do anything to stop it.

Milly and Joe form an attachment to Dumbo, and discover that his ears enable him to fly and glide. They realise that this will allow him to become a success and if they earn enough money they can buy Mrs Jumbo back. Dumbo flies and the crowd are amazed.

At this point V. A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who runs an amusement park in New York takes an interest and approaches Medici with an offer, he will pay for Dumbo and the entire troupe to perform at his park, with Max as his partner. Max agrees and they relocate, but Vandevere announces that Dumbo will fly with his star performer, French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green).

Can Dumbo perform under pressure? Is Vandevere on the up-and-up? Will Dumbo be reunited with his mother? Can Holt salvage a relationship with his children and build a new life for them?

I really liked that the movie introduced a more human element, and did away with the talking animals, which helps ground the fantasy in reality a little bit.

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Of course, there’s plenty of magic along the way and the flying elephant is done rather well, with real lightness and a sense of joy. The animation of Dumbo also makes him emotive and extremely cute.

The human side of the story is carried by Colin Farrell, who gives a quiet, understated performance as a wounded, vulnerable man who is struggling to adapt to his new life. It’s not showy in any way and Farrell does well, especially as at times the script lets him down. Likewise, the two child performers are solid and avoid  being irritating, especially Parker as Milly, a clever and strongwilled character who works a lot of things out and who stands up for what’s right. Her clashing with her father is one of the major themes in the movie, the distance between them and Holt’s struggles, but they’re never fully developed.

The movie has just enough heart and charm to pull off the fantastical plot, and there are some great moments of wonder and adventure along the way. Unfortunately, there are a few flaws too.

One of the major ones is that there feels like there are a few story beats missing along the way. Characters come out in support of Dumbo with very little build up, and the Farrier family make up without a really satisfying moment to cap it off. You get the feeling that maybe one or two more scenes between father and children would have solidified the story a bit more. In fact, while there is a happy ending to it all, it feels a little thrown together and quick, with some of the resolutions being unsatisfying due to a lack of build up.

The supporting cast have very little to do, but handle their roles well enough- Danny DeVito is predictably great, Michael Keaton does the baddie well and Green does a good job with a fairly underwritten part. The rest of the troupe are an engaging band of misfits, but don’t get much development.

When the film hits the mark it becomes an entertaining and rather sweet treat, but some of the emotional elements don’t quite ring true and there are a few cheesy parts.

Burton reins in most of his excesses, which is good, but it seems the writers felt they had to get in as many nods to the original as they could and some feel painfully shoehorned in.

The human part of the story grounds the narrative in reality, but the film fumbles this slightly, not giving the characters enough room to breathe or a truly satisfying and convincing conclusion. Luckily, however, Dumbo’s own story has a wonderful ending, an improvement on the original and produces a moment of genuine joy and warmth.

It’s a bit hit and miss, but there’s just enough charm for it to work, and Dumbo himself is adorable enough to get you on side. For me, it’s better than the original, even if it’s still far from Disney’s best.

Verdict: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #45: Home on the Range

It’s kinda surprising that it took this long for Disney, an American institution, to tackle the most American of genres the Western in a full length story. There’s the Pecos Bill story in Melody Time, but that’s pretty much it in the animated movies.

Unfortunately the wait isn’t entirely worth it as this is a patchy affair that never really connected with me. That’s not to say it’s without charm, but it’s a distinctly middling movie, not awful, but definitely far from being a great.

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The plot deals with three cows who live on an idyllic dairy farm named Little Patch of Heaven. Two of the cows, Mrs Calloway and Grace (Judi Dench and Jennifer Tilly), have lived there a long time, while the third is a newcomer, brash show cow Maggie (Roseanne Barr), who arrives after her former home was forced to be sold after the rest of the herd was stolen by notorious bandit Alameda Slim (Randy Quaid).

The farm is in trouble when the bank calls in their debts, and unless the cash can be raised in a few days the farm will be auctioned, as several others have been, many bought by the mysterious Yancy O’Dell. The money needed is exactly the same as the bounty offered for Slim, so the cows decide to go after him and see if they can bring him in.

Also after the outlaw is Rico (Charles Dennis) a famously tough bounty hunter who borrows the local sheriff’s horse Buck (Cuba Gooding Jr), an ambitious, adventure craving individual who dreams of being a hero. Buck dismisses the cows’ idea as foolish, but finds them hard to shake and dogged in their pursuit.

The plot is all kinds of daft, and the bounty hunting cows aren’t even the silliest part. Some of the silliness is quite entertaining like Lucky Jack, a rabbit who constantly suffers misfortune, his luck gone with his missing foot.

I did really like the villain, with Randy Quaid doing a great job of making Alameda a hotheaded, arrogant buffoon who spends half of his time struggling to control his temper or strutting about. His anger that people dismiss his yodelling as mere singing is a nice character touch and the fact that he hypnotises the cows he steals with his yodels is pretty clever, especially as they set up Grace to be immune due to being tone deaf.

The problem is that the good moments are scattered out and in between it struggled to hold my attention. The art is serviceable but lacks that wow factor you expect from Disney, and the music is disappointingly average and forgettable.

Worse still, the major characters of Buck and Maggie are both incredibly irritating. While Buck is comic relief, and does have some funny scenes, Maggie is our protagonist and is a bit too brash for my liking. Also, the joke about her udders at the start jars with the tone of the movie and would puzzle younger viewers.

The ’00s appear to have been a bit of a hit and miss period for Disney, and this one goes in the miss pile.

Disney Score: 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Captain Marvel

I’ve got to be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of the character Carol Danvers. I don’t dislike her, she’s just always been one of the Marvel heroes who never really captured my imagination, so I didn’t go into this movie as hyped as I was about seeing Thor, Spidey or Captain America on the big screen.

But this is how I went into Guardians of the Galaxy too, and just like that movie this one won me over on the strength of its charm, humour and characters. Brie Larson plays the title character and does so with real likeability, her Carol is strong willed, funny and a bad ass.

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We are introduced to Carol as a soldier in the Kree forces, known as Vers and having lost most of her memories. Vers’ earliest memory is of being injured in a crash and seeing a mysterious woman killed by a Skrull agent. The Skrull being the Kree’s enemy, a race of shapeshifting aliens who have been infiltrating and disrupting life on several planets in the Kree empire.

Vers boasts superior powers, able to fire energy blasts from her hands but she is not able to fully control them and her emotions interfere with her fighting ability. Her commanding officer, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) has attempted to train her to control these powers and leads the team that Vers is a member of. During a mission to bring in an exposed spy, Vers’ team do battle with the Skrulls and she is captured.

While held prisoner they dig in Carol’s memories, revealing images of a childhood and places she doesn’t remember. Featuring prominently is Lawson (Annette Bening) the woman from her memories, and the Skrull are intent on finding her. Carol escapes and ends up on the planet from her memories, which is Earth in 1995.

The Skrull follow her looking for Lawson, and fearing that Yon-Rogg and the team will arrive too late, Carol sets off to find her first. This means that her paths cross with Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), at this point a low level SHIELD agent. Initially sceptical, Fury is convinced when he encounters, and kills, one of the Skrull. The duo decide to work together, as Skrull infiltrators have made Fury look like a traitor.

The duo dig into Lawson’s work and discover that Carol worked with her as a pilot, and has been presumed dead on Earth for six years. Can Carol work out what happened around the accident that saw her “die”? And will she like what she finds? There appear to be secrets and different sides to stories she is unaware of and it will shake the life she has with the Kree.

I really enjoyed this movie, especially how it fits with the rest of the MCU, being set before and showing the start of Nick Fury’s associations with super powered individuals and alien life. It also includes appearances from characters who appear in later movies, like Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, later seen as the big bad in Guardians. It’s interesting to see the background and the film finishes with an idea of how Ronan ends up where he does.

The ’90s setting is used pretty well, giving us an opportunity to see a world without superheroes for the first time since Iron Man, and not going too heavy on the nostalgia. There’s a ’90s heavy soundtrack and nods to Blockbuster Video and the grunge era, but it never becomes just nostalgia, and I quite liked the jokes about how bad ’90s tech was- slow loading speeds and the fact that Fury keeps in touch with his SHIELD buddies with a two way pager, which we’ve already seen in the end credits of Infinity War.

The music gives it a distinct feel to the rest of the MCU and the setting allows us to see the normally cool and collected Fury out of his element. Rendered youthful by the magic of CGI, Samuel L Jackson plays the character well, there’s the toughness underneath but previously unseen innocence, confusion and struggle. Fury is normally in charge and the most informed, but here he’s lost and trying to find his footing in a changing world.

There’s plenty of humour from this, with Fury realising how small mankind’s place in the universe is and the relationship between Carol and Fury is central to the film. Having felt like an outsider among the Kree and told to control her emotions, Fury is a large part in helping her to embrace her humanity and they spar well verbally.

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The plot has some nice twists and developments, and doesn’t go exactly where I expected it to, even if one revelation is a bit redundant as the audience will have twigged what really happened by then. However, the plot works and the story of Carol Danvers rediscovering who she is, shaking off the constraints that have been imposed on her and rising to make a stand is a solid arc and an engaging one.

The character she most reminded me of was Chris Evans’ Captain America, in that both are heroes before they get their powers and have to reflect and adapt as the ideals and organisations they stood for are shown to be flawed and corrupt.

It slots well into the MCU timeline, adding more background and depth to existing characters like Fury and Ronan, but more importantly introducing a powerful, and likeable new hero to the ranks. I really warmed to the character of Carol and her spirit, and Larson does well capturing the character’s vibe and journey.

The action sequences and special effects are top drawer, as is to be expected, and the visuals of the Marvel cosmic universe continue to impress. The introduction and use of the Skrulls is cool, and I like how they took a different approach to the alien race.

The final big action sequence where Carol embraces her new powers fully is really cool and a visual treat, and I liked that even in her fights they keep the sense of Carol having fun and being someone who thrives off action, adventure and adrenaline.

I can’t wait to see more of Captain Marvel in action, and the ending which shows her finally linking upwith the Avengers has pushed my excitement for Endgame to even greater heights.

Oh, and Goose the cat is awesome.

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Finally, I can’t not mention Stan Lee. This is the first MCU movie to come out since Stan the Man’s death and it starts with a brief homage during the Marvel logo, which actually moved me. His cameo appearance here where he plays himself reading a Mallrats script on a train, is given a strange emotional quality. I don’t know if he’d already filmed his cameos for Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home, but if this is the last proper cameo (I imagine we’ll still get little nods to Lee in future MCU movies), then it’s a really nice one to finish on.

All in all, a cracking addition to the MCU with a great heroine, a funny, action packed script and some nice touches throughout. I loved it.

Verdict: 8.5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Five years after The Lego Movie, we get a second adventure from the yellow brick men and women. In the film world five years have passed too, and the Lego world is greatly changed, having transformed into a dystopian wasteland. Everyone has had to toughen up, apart from Emmett, the cheerful, goofy construction worker voiced by Chris Pratt, who retains his sunny disposition despite the world around him.

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Emmet’s girlfriend, Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) is concerned that he is in denial and doesn’t have the grit to survive in this new world. The frequent Duplo invasions have led to mass destruction and many citizens have been gone, with the Justice League having headed out for answers, never to return.

A new attack sees a new enemy, one that they are unable to defeat. This enemy, General Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), is looking for their leader and kidnaps five of the survivors to take to the wedding of Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Hadish). These include Lucy, Batman, MetalBeard, Unikitty and Benny the spaceman.

Emmet sets out to rescue them from the Systar System, travelling alone but encounters dangers and trouble, leaving him to be rescued by Rex Dangervest (Pratt again), a cool tough guy hero who agrees to help Emmet rescue his friends and destroy Watevra’s plans.

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The Queen wishes to marry Batman, and quickly wins over the rest of the group, while Lucy remains suspicious of her motivations and escapes, hoping to derail the planned wedding as she fears it will have dire consequences.

Can they save their friends from Watevra’s clutches? What is her plan? And can Emmet really toughen up, and if he does, will he be the same person?

I really enjoyed this movie because like the original it’s a fast paced delight that rockets along on a spirit of silliness, invention and a constant stream of jokes. There’s very little and the gags range from postmodern nods, surrealist moments, groansome puns and some delightfully daft sight gags and slapstick. I had a big goofy smile on my face throughout and there are a ton of big laughs too.

It kinda doesn’t match the original, however, because the plot is less clear cut and the interaction with the “real world” while well done and with a few nice touches, is a bit more laboured and doesn’t quite click the way the father and son dynamic in the first movie did.

There’s also some time travel stuff which doesn’t make sense if the characters are just the toys of the real world people, and really the whole plot is a bit dumb. But you just have to kinda go with it.

But the movie somehow works because of it’s sense of fun, willingness to embrace it’s silliness and some clever gags thrown in to break it up. It’s a colourful, vibrant and entertaining world that’s been created and it’s a real feelgood movie. It’s well worth seeing, and it’s a solid movie for the whole family.

Verdict: 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #43: Treasure Planet

This movie came out during the time when I wasn’t going to see Disney flicks at the cinema anymore and so it totally passed me by. I only watched it a couple of years back, and while it’s fun and has some decent visuals it still feels a bit flat.

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The plot is basically Treasure Island set in space, which works mainly thanks to this unique world they create which mixes cosmic backdrops with nautical flourishes. The visuals of spaceships sailing through the stars is actually quite striking in places, and while utterly daft has a certain charm.

The problem is that this doesn’t feel like a Disney movie, it feels like the studio was trying to stay relevant or follow trends and so it lacks a certain charm. That’s not to say it doesn’t work as a fun adventure story, but it doesn’t sit comfortably in the Disney catalogue.

For starters, I can’t think of another Disney movie with such uninspired music. There are couple of cheesy power ballad type songs, but they didn’t land with me and there are no musical interludes, the story being played fairly straight.

Sticking to the novel’s plot line does mean that Brian Murray’s John Silver is a vastly different from the traditional Disney villain. There’s more conflict on display here as Silver’s conscience and affection for Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) clash with his selfish quest for the treasure. It’s an interesting dynamic, and the movie does a good job of keeping him in the grey area throughout, there are moments when he softens, but he doesn’t have the 180 degree flip that sometimes happens in kids’ movies. Even at the end, he’s got a bit of a scheming edge to him.

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The dynamic between Jim and Silver is at the heart of the movie, with Jim, a bit of a waster, finally getting the father figure he missed growing up and some encouragement and praise. It’s key to Jim’s development as a hero, having to take charge when the pirates mutiny and the Captain is injured.

The character of Captain Amelia, voiced by Emma Thompson, is an interesting one. Introduced as a strong, confident commander she’s definitely in charge but the fact that the movie sidelines her for the third act undercuts the strong female character they had created. I get that being strong doesn’t make you impervious to injury, but it’s still a shame when she spends most of the closing stages unconscious or having to be carried by other characters. Emma Thompson deserves to be a more badass character.

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In general the movie works for me, mainly because it would be hard to totally mess up with Robert Louis Stevenson’s story and marrying it with weird alien creatures just adds another cool element. The ending is where the stories divert the most, with intergalactic portals setting up the major action sequence, but this is executed with real skill, creating a genuine sense of peril and some thrills along the way.

It’s a fun adventure film, but it lacks that certain Disney charm and in making Silver a rather likeable character it loses out by not having a definite villain. But kudos has to be given for how it tweaks elements, especially in the creation of Martin Short’s screwy robot B.E.N, standing in for the castaway Ben Gunn, who is a rather fun and nutty performance from short.

It works, but it’s flawed and it’s not one I rush back to rewatch. I think the problem is that I already have a version of the story I love, and nothing can match The Muppets’ Treasure Island. I’ve heard some people really lay into this movie, but I don’t think that’s fair, it’s a little flat and flimsy in places, but it entertains enough, and the ambition and decision to try something different in this era should be applauded.

Disney Score: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

If sequels generally produce mixed results, then animated sequels have an even less impressive track record. Shrek is a great movie, but the sequels all deliver diminishing returns. Similarly, the Despicable Me, Madagascar and Ice Age series have all fallen off too. Even Pixar and Disney have had stumbles, and even their successes like Monsters University, Finding Dory and Cars 3 haven’t quite lived up to the first films. Last year both The Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet fell a little short for me, and I’m slightly nervous about Frozen 2 coming out later this year.

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule, and the obvious example is the Toy Story trilogy (hopefully not about to be wrecked by a needless fourth instalment), which used the sequels to develop and move the characters forward in a satisfying way. Toy Story 3, the emotional finale to the trilogy, served as a perfect place to leave the characters, and it’s a similar vibe that is pursued here, a send off for the dragon Toothless and his viking buddy Hiccup (Jay Baruchel).

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Set some time after the second movie, we join Hiccup and his friends have continued to build Berk, their home, into a utopia where humans and dragons live in harmony. Hiccup’s dragon, Toothless, a rare Night Fury type, is the alpha of the dragons, their leader just as Hiccup is the tribal chief. Hiccup is determined to rescue as many dragons from captivity as he can, even as it puts strain on the island and it’s resources.

Things get trickier still when a new enemy enters the picture. Tired of having Hiccup scupper their plans to create a dragon army, a group of warlords contact Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a notorious dragon slayer who has hunted down almost every Night Fury in existence, Toothless seemingly the last of his kind. Grimmel lives for the hunt and enjoys playing with his prey, and views Hiccup’s dream of dragon and human harmony as folly.

One of Grimmel’s assets is a rare Light Fury, a related species which he uses to distract Toothless and hopefully drive a wedge between the dragon and the chief. Hiccup’s decision is to flee from Grimmel, taking all the Berkians and dragons to the mythical Hidden World, where they will be safe.

Can he outsmart Grimmel, who seems to know his every move? Can he overcome his fears that without Toothless he is nothing and not worthy of being chief? Will the Berkians agree to the new plans? And will Toothless leave him for his new love?

I really liked this movie because it handles the crisis that Hiccup goes through in a really subtle and emotional way. In the first movie we’re introduced to the nerdy and weedy Hiccup, and it’s only after he befriends Toothless that he starts to achieve things and gain status among the vikings. After the death of his father he has to take charge, and finds himself forced to make difficult choices.

As Toothless begins to pull away and some of his plans go awry, we see Hiccup start to worry that without his dragon he’s nothing and not fit to lead. It’s down to his girlfriend and right hand woman, Astrid (America Ferrera) to convince him he’s more than just a dragon rider, and help him to realise who he really is. While Astrid is a good, strong female character the relationship is never really developed, or given greater depth. The audience from previous films are already invested, but there’s always been a sense of it just having happened, not having developed naturally or believably. But really, it’s just a subplot, as the films are really about a boy and his dragon.

Hiccup and Toothless’ friendship has always been the heart of the series, and this continues here. Always at each other’s side and happiest together in the air, the duo are forced to deal with what life may be like apart. Toothless, his tail damaged in youth, can only fly thanks to a rudder built and controlled by Hiccup, and Toothless gives the one legged Hiccup more freedom than he would have. They compliment each other and live almost in symbiosis.

But the arrival of the Light Fury on the scene throws this into jeopardy, as she is less trusting of the humans and Toothless can not pursue her. Hiccup having to decide to redesign the replacement tail attachment, not sure that Toothless will choose to return and he may lose his friend and control over the dragons is a tough choice. Unfortunately, the film passes over it very quickly and it would have benefited from having Hiccup struggling with it more.

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There’s a whole theme of growing up in this film, with the central friendship being a symbol of youth that both characters may have to discard as they mature. It’s a nice theme throughout the film, and really works because it shows that we often have to give up things we love in order to grow and for the greater good. This of course, sets up some emotional scenes in the closing stages, as Hiccup has to set aside some of his dreams and say goodbye to his old friend.

The final scene, set years later, has a genuine heartwarming feeling, a sense of continuing friendship and an optimistic suggestion that mankind can change, and Hiccup’s dream of living with dragons may one day be achievable.

Hiccup’s love of the dragons, and desire to live peacefully with them is in direct contrast with the villains, who seek to exploit and use the dragons for their own ends. There’s a kind of subtle green message, about how we need to work with nature, to preserve it as we benefit, and not to just destroy it for our own ends. It’s never hammered home but that’s what I drew from it.

It helps that the visuals are stunningly beautiful, and the design of the dragons, which come in a variety of interesting and unique breeds, is inventive and imbues the creatures with a sense of character and personality about them. And the film has plenty of laugh out loud moments and decent gags. It’s one of those movies that does almost everything right, and serves as a really good farewell to the world the films have built.

It’s not up there with Toy Story, but this rounds off a charming and entertaining trilogy in a fitting way, it just could have had a little more depth in places.

Verdict: 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #36: Mulan

After Hercules, Disney stay with an action hero vibe with this story of a Chinese legend.

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The story follows Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), a free spirited girl who struggles with her place in a strict society where honour is highly prized. When China is threatened by a Hun horde every family is called upon to send a man to join the army. Her aging, injured father is the only male in the family, but fearing for his health Mulan steals his armour and takes his place, posing as a boy.

The family can’t go after her because to do so would be to risk exposure and the dishonour and punishment. And can only ask their ancestors to protect Mulan.

Of course, they need to add a few elements to make it more of a Disney movie, and these include giving Mulan two great sidekicks.

The first is a “lucky” cricket, given to her as a good luck charm, the second is Mushu a diminutive dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. Mushu’s character is an interesting one as he’s acknowledged as being annoying by other characters and toes a fine line, almost tipping into irritating territory. Luckily, a fantastic script and Eddie Murphy’s dynamic performance keep him on the right side of the line. The rapid fire delivery and steady stream of wisecracks means that this is one of my favourite Murphy performances, on a par with his great work as Donkey in Shrek.

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Mushu is her guide but only because he accidentally destroyed the statue of the guardian the ancestors wanted to send. He latches onto Mulan as a way of restoring himself to glory in the ancestors’ eyes and to cover for his own mistake, and much of his advice is laughably bad.

He proves more of a hindrance than a help as she struggles to fit in with the men of the camp and her clumsiness lands her in the bad books of her commanding officer Li Shang (BD Wong). However, when she uses her wits to solve a problem he sets the men, she begins to win him over and becomes a skilled soldier.

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This transformation is, of course, shown in a montage. And what a montage! Right up there with the Rocky movies. Donny Osmond belts out an infuriatingly catchy but powerfully uplifting and motivating song in “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, and the whole sequence is superb.

Seriously, if you are a runner or need to psych yourself up for something, stick this on your playlist. You won’t regret it. Even if it’s idea of what it takes to be a man are rather lofty:

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The music and sidekicks are very Disney, but the movie is different in other areas. Most notably, the villain and stakes at play. The villain Shan Yu (Miguel Ferrer) is quite intimidating, he has a physical presence that many Disney villains lack and his design, with hollow, dark eyes is more in keeping with a comic book villain.

He also has a cold blooded nature, and as this is set in war there is a lot of death, even if much is off screen. Mulan herself kills pretty much an entire army in an avalanche, the stand out action sequence. The action scenes in general are played rather well, with genuine peril and minimal amounts of slapstick.

Disney are often criticised for their use of old fashioned gender roles, but here we have a strong heroine. Mulan seizes control of her destiny and throughout shows courage, ingenuity and decency. She is a great character and a good role model, someone who carves her own place in the world and carries herself with determination and real heroism.

A fun, action filled adventure with solid music, great sidekicks and a simple, well told story.

Disney Score: 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Disney Classics #35: Hercules

It’s weird that when I saw this movie in the cinema I wasn’t impressed, because it’s now become one of my favourite Disney flicks.

I think as a kid who had read about Hercules and seen him portrayed a bit more traditionally, this film wasn’t what I expected and wasn’t the all out action movie I was expecting. For example, Hades (James Woods) is the villain and Hercules’ background is changed, making him a full god, as the real story that Zeus liked to play around isn’t exactly kid friendly. It’s similar to why I never really liked The Sword in the Stone, because it was a watered down version of a legend I knew already, the difference being that as an adult watching this, I really like how they play around with the legend.71qzf6ebyil-_sy550_

So, the story here is that Hercules (Tate Donovan, as an adult) is the son of Zeus and Hera (Rip Torn and Samantha Eggar) and loved by all the gods, apart from Hades, his uncle, the moody, scheming god of the underworld. Hades has a plan to overthrow Zeus with the aid of the Titans, but the Fates warn him that if Hercules fights in the final battle, his plan will fail.

Hades sends his minions Pain and Panic (Bobcat Goldthwaite and Matt Frewer) to turn Hercules mortal and off him, but in the tradition of awful Disney henchmen, they mess it up, leaving him mortal but still super strong. Hades bides his time and prepares for his coup.

Meanwhile, Hercules grows up ostracized because of his strength. This part of the movie baffles me as the regular Greeks give Hercules a ton of grief which seems foolish because there’s running the risk of angering a dude they know can tear down whole buildings. Anyway, learning the truth about where he comes from, he discovers that if he proves himself a true hero he can return to Olympus.

And so Hercules heads out to find Phil aka Philocetes (Danny DeVito) the jaded trainer of heroes, who reluctantly agrees to help him. Hercules surprises and impresses him and soon becomes a hero, and Hades learns of his survival. Danny DeVito’s raspy tones are a delight here and the sarcastic, lecherous faun is great fun.

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Hades realizes he can use Hercules’ naivety against him and his attraction for Megara (Susan Egan), who is in Hades’ power having sold her soul. Meg agrees but slowly begins to have doubts, learning that Hercules is a genuinely nice guy.

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Hercules and Meg grow closer

It’s this love story that is one of the major strengths of the movie, and is probably one of Disney’s best. Meg is introduced as a cynical figure, hardened by previous hurts and she’s lost faith in the goodness of people. Hercules’ idealistic, simple character makes her rethink this, and the slow softening of her stance and growing affection is well handled. As she slowly falls for Hercules she tries to maintain her detached air and distance, leading to one of my favourite Disney songs of all time, “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love)” where she tries to deny her feelings, arguing against the narrators and finally, reluctantly accepting that she is in love, although she won’t risk expressing it.

The love story also serves as the driving force for the plot, as it’s his love which leaves Hercules open to being manipulated, sacrificing his strength and allowing Hades to make his play. It’s here that Hades is smarter than the average villain, and instead of just disregarding Hercules, he still tries to eliminate him, sending a cyclops to attack him while he mounts his attack on Olympus. Despite his lack of powers Hercules goes out to face the giant, but is utterly outclassed and badly beaten.

Midway through Meg sacrifices herself to save him and in doing so voids the deal, as Hades promised her safety as part of the bargain. Hercules is restored and saves the day, before heading to the underworld to save Meg.

The film works because it manages to mix the action, music and story well. It’s a different kind of story for Disney, with a male protagonist and a more heroic, action orientated story. The themes of heroism, sacrifice and love are all handled brilliantly throughout.

Hercules is goofy and innocent, but never overly stupid and very easy to root for. There are some decent action sequences as he fights different monsters, and the training montage is straight out of an ’80s action movie.

Another factor which works is the fact that Disney play with the genre, and add a postmodern spin. This is done through the way the film shows Hercules becoming popular with the public, leading to merchandising, adoring fans and celebrity, which poke fun at some of Disney’s own merchandise and celebrity athletes.

There are nods to other films and a few jokes geared towards the adults watching, and nowhere is this more obvious than in James Woods’ Hades, a sarcastic tour-de-force. Woods’ vocal performance is sensational as he makes Hades a strangely likeable villain, funny and clever in places, but undermined by his inability to control his temper. Hades is easily one of my favourite Disney villains.

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I also really like the uses of the muses as a chorus throughout, explaining the plot through gospel inflected numbers. It’s strange because this was one of the aspects that I didn’t enjoy first time round, I think because I thought it was out of place and silly, which is exactly why as an adult I love it so much.

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The muses are a nice touch and their interruption of Charlton Heston’s opening narration is the movie showing it’s hand that it will be a more playful, anachronistic version of the legendary hero.

The muses also get some cracking songs along the way, especially “A Star is Born” and “Zero to Hero”, and the soundtrack is fantastic across the board, not just in furthering the story but as stand alone songs. “I Won’t Say (I’m in love)” is superb, as I already mentioned, but another absolute classic is Hercules’ “Go the Distance”, a rousing, soaring power ballad which I’ve added to my list of songs to pump myself up ahead of challenges.

The irreverent tone, unique art style and fantastic music mean that I love this movie now, giving a fresh, fun spin to an old legend and ticking a lot of boxes for me. An absolute cracker.

Disney Score: 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #50: Flash Gordon

Camp isn’t really something you get as a kid.

For example, I used to settle in every afternoon and watch the Adam West Batman series, and I was gripped by it. Sure, I thought the villains’ schemes and gizmos were ridiculous, but I’d still tune in to see if Batman would escape. Similarly, when I first saw this movie as a kid, I thought it was a fantastic space adventure.

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Of course, as an older viewer I saw a lot more to it. Mainly layer upon layer of camp excess and goofiness. And you know what? The movie was all the better of it.

Cashing in on the sci-fi boom following Star Wars, the old comic strip was brought to the big screen, but shedding the square jawed heroics for humour, over the top design and a weird sexual undertone that I missed as a kid (Ming’s daughter Aura, played by Ornella Muti, is rather foxy and the film heavily implies she’s playing around a bit, and I’m sure her whipping scene was a major moment in many a young boy’s life). The result is a unique and bizarre space opera, which succeeds in having some pretty cool visuals. The design of Mongo is well done, with weird, cosmic backdrops in psychedelic colours.

Mongo is filled with diverse, bizarre races of peoples, all feuding with each other and struggling under tyranny of Emperor Ming. It’s a colourful, captivating world with monsters and aliens, and the plot moves along in the style of an old serial with frequent bursts of action and peril.

As plots go, it’s light on depth and character development, but heavy on spectacle, cheap thrills and good fun.

Given the whole tone of the movie is campy and kitsch there’s no shortage of overacting, from Max Von Sydow’s gleefully vicious Ming the Merciless to his henchman who sees footage of Hitler and comments “Now, he showed promise.” It’s all extremely daft and excessive, but in the very best way.

But even among the cartoon characters, lack of subtlety and Queen power chords, there is still something which stands above them all, which overpowers all around it. That steals the whole damn movie.

And that, is the legend that is Brian Blessed.

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Blessed plays Prince Vultan, the bellowing, belly laughing leader of the hawkmen. Never one to underplay any role, Blessed cranks it up to eleven here and appears to be having the time of his life. A fan of Flash Gordon as a child, he is reported to have strode into the office of producer Dino De Laurentis, pointing at the character in the comic and exclaiming “IT’S BLOODY ME!”. And it was, it’s the role he’s probably best known and loved for, with his roaring “Gordon’s alive!” becoming his catchphrase.

While Blessed, Van Sydow, Muti and Timothy Dalton all carry their roles off with flair, the eponymous role is filled by Sam Jones, who looks the part but suffers from having his dialogue dubbed over and who is rather wooden in places. Flash isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but is a rather likeable hero, a big, dumb jock who throws himself into the challenge of saving the world. He is, to quote Freddie Mercury, just a man with a man’s courage and there’s something endearing about his slightly stilted performance.

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I’ve mentioned Mercury and Queen already, but I have to draw attention to the soundtrack again, which is just kick-ass. Not only the insanely catchy and campy theme song, but the fact that several scenes play out to the background of Brian May’s big, loud riffs. I’d love to see a modern sci-fi or fantasy movie follow this formula, and give the soundtrack over to a rocker to crank out some power chords and solos. You can never go wrong with a bit of Queen.

Is it art? Yes, in a way, it’s a slightly trashy, silly piece of entertainment and it does the job extremely well, marrying some lavish production design with a script which revels in cliche, simplicity and silliness. It’s the kind of movie that you can switch on some dismal winter day and just revel in the goofiness, putting a big, dumb smile on your face.

I love this movie, and I always will.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.