Tag Archives: movies

Revenge of the Jedi

May the Fourth be with you, Dear Reader! (Yes, I know that was five days ago. This one ended up taking a long time to write, okay?)

This seems like an appropriate day to relate to you the tale of showing my kids Return of the Jedi, the last of the Star Wars films (as far as they need to know, for now). I had waited a year between showing them A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, but after RU’s reaction to Empire, I decided they should go ahead and watch the concluding chapter.

So, a few weeks later I took the DVD with us on a weekend visit to Coach and Nana’s house. It did not go as well as I had hoped.

We started the movie late one rainy afternoon. The girls were not in the mood for it, wanting to sit in Coach’s lap and watch YouTube videos of people making Disney characters out of Play-Doh. (“But kids, Jabba the Hutt is a Disney character now and he’s made of Play-Doh!”) They dutifully gave it a try, but weren’t fully paying attention most of the time.

By the time the Jabba’s Palace sequence was over it was clear we needed to just call it quits and try again another time. The girls did pay enough attention, however, to be turned off by the opening of the film. Yeah, I’d kinda forgotten that Return of the Jedi actually starts off with all of our main characters being caught one by one by a vile gangster. Jabba is mean and frightening and gross. The droids, our point-of-view characters, are enslaved and abused. An erotic dancer gets fed to a monster. The usually confident and jovial Han Solo is as blind and weak as a shivering newborn puppy. There’s nothing to lighten the mood until a little bit of gallows humor just before the action breaks out. The entire sequence at the beginning of Return of the Jedi can be unpleasant for a kid to watch.

Which is where we left it for the rest of the visit.

At home a few days later, we tried again. As I’ve pointed out before, the Star Wars movies are long (especially Return of the Jedi), so you have to be prepared to have an intermission or two. We started in the early afternoon so we could break for dinner halfway through and end without keeping the kids up too late.

The Dad: “Okay, kids, do you remember what happened in Star Wars so far?”

MeToo: “Star Wars is funny! When Darth Vader told him he was his father, I thought that was funny.”

RU: “Well I didn’t!”

The girls only protested a little that we started back at the beginning and that the upcoming scenes were a little scary. They hadn’t paid much attention before, though, so it was still pretty new to them. This time around, I was able to explain more about what was going on as it happened. Talking about why Lando might be there, for example, or pointing out that “Shoebacca” had been brought in as a prisoner by Princess Leia so that must be part of the plan seemed to help.

As I had dreaded, RU did ask about why Jabba made Leia wear the slave-girl outfit. That one is really hard to explain to a five-year-old. Jabba is obviously sadistic and enjoys going the extra mile to humiliate people. He keeps Han up as a trophy, he makes his slave girls wear skimpy, objectifying clothing, he and his whole court watch behind a curtain while Leia frees Han from carbonite just so they could laugh at her failed rescue attempt. Carrie Fisher has a good take on it, but I just settled on, “Because he’s mean.” By then, Luke had shown up and RU wasn’t interested in a deeper exploration of the subject.

Perhaps the dark ending of Empire and the brutish opener of Jedi damped their enthusiasm, but RU and MeToo didn’t seem quite as into this one. I say that because they didn’t ask quite as many questions or get visibly excited to the same degree — but, on the other hand, maybe that was because they were too absorbed in what was going on. I dunno.

I was very surprised that they did not immediately fall in love with the Ewoks. While MeToo did get a kick out of the baby Ewok you can catch a few glimpses of in their village, the girls were wary of the cute little fuzzballs. Then I remembered that I didn’t warm up to them, either, when I first saw the movie myself. After all, they do capture our heroes (apparently intending to eat them!) and although they look cute, they aren’t played cute. (Yes, that makes them even cuter. “Awwww! They act like they think they’re people!”)

Seeing Return of the Jedi through my kids’ eyes also helped me to remember that, teddybear-like though they are, the Ewoks are depicted with a bit more realism and depth we give them credit for. (They’re far easier to watch than the annoying, one-note Gungans.) Yes, they are there to provide humor. But for all of us (myself included) who have rolled our eyes at the idea of an army of stuffed animals defeating an Imperial garrison, note that the Ewoks get slaughtered up until they start smashing Scout Walkers with tree trunks at the very end of the attack. They get blown up, blastered, and I’m pretty sure one gets stepped on by an AT-ST. The one in the goofy, stone-age hang glider manages to a single stormtrooper, then immediately gets shot down (and I bet the trooper just stood right back up). We see two of the short, furry treehouse dwellers go flying from an explosion; one picks himself up but discovers his buddy wasn’t so lucky, then proceeds to collapse and mourn for his fallen friend right there. The Ewoks may be hokey, but the movie gives them a real story arc and gives you real reasons to root for them (even in spite of yourself).

Okay, enough about the stone-age trash pandas. What did the kids think of the ending?

They had a lot of questions, mostly about what was going on during the scenes between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. RU was not drawn into the battle scenes as much as she was during the Hoth sequence (though Jedi cuts between three different battles and the context for what’s happening is a lot harder for a young child to grasp). By the end, I think they were a bit fatigued but they continued to show interest. There was no, “Yay! The good guys won!” moment. Then again, I can recall that the way the final confrontation between Luke and Vader turned out really threw me for a loop, too, when I was a kid.

In the final analysis, I think the sequels exhausted my girls’ enthusiasm for watching Star Wars for a while. I think they enjoyed the films — I know they liked the A New Hope a great deal — but they are just a bit too young to be fully engaged, especially with the darker, more complex stuff that develops in Episodes V and VI.

Which is fine. The girls should be ready to enjoy the Star Wars movies again by the time Z and Sprout see them for the first time.

Triple Crown, Part Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Two

Thanks for returning, Dear Reader, after I spent all of the last post venting my spleen when I should have been reviewing the new, live-action Cinderella movie. So let’s get to that without delay.

My verdict: it’s quite good!

This adaptation takes the Disney animated version of the Cinderella story and plays it refreshingly straight. It doesn’t make the story darker or more adult. It doesn’t add any inventive twists that make us see it in a new light. It doesn’t try to make the characters “fresh” and “hip.” Instead, this film takes the story you already know and just does it well.

Except for the songs, everything from the classic animated film is there. Even Cinderella’s mouse companions are included, rendered not-too realistically in CGI. They don’t talk or wear clothes, but they appear just cartoony enough that when they listen to her and give her aid it doesn’t feel like something out of Willard.

The only real change is that we actually see our heroine in her pre-cinder days having an idyllic childhood with her parents before her mom dies and her dad remarries (and then dies). Yes, they give Cinderella an origin story. Perhaps it’s the influence of all the popular superhero stuff these days. I would say that this bit wasn’t needed except that, just like Peter Parker, she’s given words to live by that become the core of her character. Rather than “with great power comes great responsibility,” Cinderella’s mantra is “have courage and be kind.” It’s a small thing that has a big (though subtle) impact. On a number of levels, it might be hard for modern audiences to accept a heroine who is so subservient to her stepmother and takes the cruel barbs from her stepsisters without so much as a snarky comeback. But with the simple addition of this phrase — “have courage and be kind — we can now view Cinderella as a strong character who stays true to herself and doesn’t let her vicious antagonists tear her down. It is her courage and kindness in the face of a long, hopeless life of toil that is rewarded by her fairy godmother.

As a parent who keeps a close eye on the messages his kids are exposed to, I find Cinderella’s “have courage and be kind” refreshing and even laudable.

Director Kenneth Branagh’s experience with adapting Shakespeare to the big screen must have been a real boon when it came to maintaining the traditional story. I imagine that when most of your career is spent working on productions where you don’t allow yourself the leeway to even change a single line of dialogue you get pretty good at focusing on how to bring out the best of what’s already there. Branagh’s Shakespearean background also probably has something to do with the nuanced, multi-dimensional performances he coaxes from the actors.

Okay, not that it’s difficult to get fine acting from the likes of Cate Blanchett or Derek Jacobi. But remember how my biggest complaint about Maleficent was that no one besides the protagonist seemed to be a real, fleshed-out person who had reasons for doing whatever they did? Well, in Cinderella, everyone down to the lizard-turned-coachman feels fully-realized.

The king (played by Jacobi) doesn’t want his son to marry a peasant girl but comes off as a good, likable person even as he stands in our protagonists’ way. The king’s advisor is a schemer (and clearly is taking kickbacks to arrange a particular marriage with the prince) but his efforts to keep the prince from Cinderella are professional, not personal, since he’s acting on the king’s wishes. Cinderella’s father dotes on her and was deeply in love with her mother, but after years of being a widower is desperate to grab a little happiness for himself. Cinderella’s stepsisters are… well, they’re pretty shallow, but it’s not surprising considering who raised them (and you can tell that even their own mother doesn’t like them).

That brings us to the Stepmother. She’s a catty, jealous, mean-souled harpy who cares only about making a secure future for herself and her terrible daughters. Yet, despite the hints that she only married Cinderella’s father for his modest estate, Blanchett’s performance suggests that, like him, she still carries the wounds from losing her first spouse. There’s an interesting bit when Cinderella is having a heart-to-heart with her dad before he leaves on a trip and the Stepmother, spying on them for a moment, looks hurt. Now, it takes a very small, petty, self-centered person to be jealous of a father’s bond with his daughter… But, given that, why would she be hurt if she didn’t care on some level? We never really see why Cinderella’s father falls for this woman shrew but it’s possible that there really was some spark between them. At any rate, the film is full of little touches like that which, when added up, create an antagonist who is utterly despicable yet pitiably human. By the end of the movie, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Stepmother was, ultimately, someone who was not able to hold on to her courage or kindness and let life transform her into a grasping wad of insecurities who would take pleasure in trying to do the same to an innocent girl.

Another major success for Cinderella is the chemistry between our heroine and her love interest. She has a chance encounter with Prince Charming — not realizing that he’s the King In Training — and the actors really sell the instant attraction. Lily James looks as though she’s just on the verge of leaning in and kissing the Prince throughout the whole conversation. In a later scene at the palace, Richard Madden’s expression shows us just how smitten Prince Charming is when he is able to drop the “have courage and be kind” line in conversation.

So, yes, it’s good, but how is it for the kids? Well, given that it adheres so closely to the source material, it’s just as appropriate for young audiences as the animated Cinderella. My girls paid attention but seemed a little bored at times. This may have been because it was during their sleepy time of day. As I recall, though, they weren’t exactly riveted by the original version, either (sorry, Walt).

By way of justifying my previous post, I will say that Cinderella is as well done as Maleficent was poorly done. It may not be a movie that we will feel the need to own or re-watch often but it’s absolutely one I will hold up as a model of how any future such live-action adaptations should be handled.

 

Triple Crown: A Review of Three Princess Movies

We recently saw the new Cinderella movie. This is the third of Disney’s live-action remakes of their classic animated features. The first being Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the second being Maleficent. You can be forgiven for thinking that one of the two Snow White movies released back in 2012 was a Disney film. I had assumed that Mirror Mirror was, and it wasn’t until I double-checked things for this post that I found out any different. However, I did see it and I didn’t see Alice in Wonderland, so I’m gonna stick with my plan of reviewing it alongside the other two “princess” films.

Not that I have a whole lot to say about Mirror Mirror. I went in expecting it to be just okay, and it was a bit more enjoyable than that. Like, maybe a 6 out of 10 rather than the 5 I was anticipating. In particular, I couldn’t help enjoying the dwarfs* — their bickering group dynamic was as amusing as their teamwork in action was fun to watch. Otherwise, I don’t remember much. It wasn’t too dark. It felt like there was an actual relationship between Snow White and the Queen, at least as people who had to put up with one another prior to the start of the film. I can’t comment on how good it is for kids beyond pointing out it’s PG rating; RU would have been, maybe, 18 months old or so when we saw it.

I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise, especially when I have so much more damning to do. So let’s move on.

Disney’s live-action version of their Sleeping Beauty story is Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role as the villainous evil fairy from the animated film. In this movie, however, the focus is on Maleficent herself. We’re shown her backstory, her relationship with King Stephan (Sleeping Beauty’s father), and a new take on the Sleeping Beauty tale (which, here, is just one piece of a larger story).

Now, I don’t think I’ve seen Sleeping Beauty (the animated classic) since I was very young, and I may not have ever seen it more than once. I don’t remember most of the film at all but have a fairly vivid recollection of a few snippets — mostly from the end when Prince Phillip battles the evil Maleficent. At the time, I found it quite frightening. When she calls upon all the powers of Hell (and it really stuck out to me that she said “Hell” — have never forgotten that for some reason) and turns into that dragon I figured Prince Philip was up Crap Creek without a canoe. Or even a paddle. Those bits really stuck with me and, probably as a result, I’ve always found Maleficent to be the most powerfully evil and terrifying of all the Disney villains (even topping Chernobog — and congratulations if you can name the Disney film he’s in without looking it up).

When I saw the trailers for Maleficent, I thought it looked pretty good. Maybe it even had the potential to be very good. Angelina Jolie seems like she’d excel in the role, even getting her voice’s modulation just right. The idea of flipping the story around to focus more on the villain is interesting and has been done well in the past. The Wife and I were cautiously optimistic when we went to see it in the theater (without the kids, fortunately). So what did we think?

Maleficent sucks. Don’t let anyone you love waste 98 minutes of their life watching it when there might be some dental surgery they’ve been putting off that they could get around to instead. If there’s a bright center of the universe, this movie plays at the theater it’s farthest from. Seriously, I can’t malign this film enough.

The whole thing is like bad Angelina Jolie fan fiction. The title character manages to be both the hero and the villain. And I don’t mean that she’s some complicated anti-hero. No, she’s the goodliest good guy and the baddest bad guy in the story, it just depends which scene you’re currently watching. When she shows up at Aurora’s christening to lay her curse on an innocent baby, she’s as wicked as it gets**. Her antagonist — who is primarily King Stephan — is just malignant and vain, and can’t match the depths of Maleficent’s darkness. In fact, in the entire world presented by the movie, no one is as interesting or dynamic as Maleficent. To put it another way, the film is full of bland, one-dimensional characters, except for one great big Mary Sue.

The biggest failure of Maleficent is that no one is given any real motives for anything they do, other than Maleficent herself. The filmmakers clearly wanted to make this apparently evil character more sympathetic and complex by showing, through her history, that she has reasons for what she does. But they forgot to do that with all the other characters.

Shall we consider King Stephan? He meets Maleficent when they are both children and he’s wandered into the fairy (faery?) realm from the adjacent human kingdom. He’s in trouble because he’s been caught attempting to steal a gem that was just lying around on the ground. It’s forbidden to remove anything from the fairy land — it belongs to them — even though fantastic jewels are just left to litter the ground like burger wrappers behind the McDonald’s. I think this incident was supposed to establish that the orphaned, rag-wearing, filthy Stephan is greedy. At no point does the film attempt to show his side of things or give him a justification. He doesn’t say, “Well no one seems to actually own this and if I take it back where I’m from and sell it, I won’t have to eat cold garbage and sleep in the sewage ditch anymore. I don’t suppose you could give me a hot meal and a warm blanket?” Nope, he has no motivations, just character flaws.

I was prepared to go on about the movie’s malfeasance in grinding detail. About how the good fairies who raise Aurora (the sleeping beauty herself) and are charged with her safety are portrayed as quarreling idiots who ignore a crying baby. Or how Prince Phillip is treated as merely a pretty boy toy whose kiss [SPOILER ALERT] can’t awaken Aurora because only Maleficent’s maternal love can be powerful enough for that (which makes it kind of creepy, or at least shallow, that Phillip and Aurora are still paired up at the end). I was going to lay out all the unexplainable idiocy that drives the story whenever Stephan shows up, warping the plot like a black hole bends light. (If he’s so concerned about Aurora’s well-being that he puts her in a fairy-run witness protection program why doesn’t he give a crap about her when she comes back to him on the day the curse is supposed to trigger? Oh, right, because Maleficent has also shown up and she’s so much more interesting.) However, if I were to delve into that level of detail about all the ways Maleficent sucks, I’d pretty much be writing about that full-time and would have to change the name of this blog to www.maleficentsucks.com. (Which, it turns out, hasn’t been registered yet, so I’ll leave that on the table for one of you to pick up and run with.) Instead, let me just discuss one more malfunction that I found especially irritating.

King Stephan is just the premiere example of what all the other people in the human kingdom (which is probably named something like Surly or Crapland) are like. Everyone is a festering boil of pettiness and vice wearing drab earth-tones. Stephan’s soldiers are cowards and/or mindless thugs. The sons of the previous king were drooling over which one of them would inherit the crown upon his death. At one point the kingdom goes to war with the fairies next door. Why? We’re never told, but we’re left to assume it is either due to an irrational hatred of the magical creatures or a lust for the resources their land has an overabundance of. I like to imagine it’s because the fairy creatures have been nipping over the border to steal human children but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a deleted scene where the king finds out his polling numbers are low and decides a war is the best way get the public’s support again. The only positive example of a human being (besides Prince Phillip, who I think was from some other country, so he doesn’t count) is Aurora, who is both pretty and nice — though that’s probably just because she was practically raised by Maleficent.

What chaps my hide so much, though, is how this combines with the opening narration of the film. We’re told at the very beginning that this story takes place in a human kingdom inhabited by “people just like you”. That’s right, you can relate to these despicable, small-minded people because they’re just like you. You big jerk.

Okay, enough of that. I’m sure none of you wanted to spend so long reading about how passionately I regret wasting two hours of childcare on Maleficent. I sat down to write this because I wanted to talk about Cinderella.

But it’s real late now, so stay tuned and I’ll post about that next time.

*Dwarves or dwarfs? I know that contrary to what years of reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons has taught me about spelling, in the Disney version the plural of “dwarf” is “dwarfs.” Mirror Mirror is clearly a take not on the original Snow White fairy tale itself but on the version of it we all know from the 1937 animated feature, so I will continue to use “dwarfs” for it. Even though it should be “dwarves.”

**This is the best scene of the film, which isn’t surprising since it’s the only one that is actually from Sleeping Beauty and it’s played pretty close to the original. As you might guess, Jolie provides an excellent performance here, oozing sinister power while delighting in her own maliciousness. Even the backstory you’ve suffered through to get to this point finally works as context to add another layer to the scene. It’s a shame the rest of the movie isn’t as good, and it is not worth watching just for this one bit.