Disney’s Moana marks another solid entry from Musker & Clements

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About two-and-a-half decades ago, Ron Clements and John Musker directed two of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s biggest hits, The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). These movies sandwiched Beauty and the Beast (1991) and signalled the start of a terrific run of success for the Mouse House which ran for nearly 10 years. Pixar then took over as global kings of animation with their CGI creations, while Disney Animation’s films started under-performing.

Eventually Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006 and its Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter was given oversight of both Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation divisions. By 2010, the older sibling was showing signs of resurgence and has since had a good run of hits including Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia.

During Disney Animation’s fallow years, there are two films which I very much enjoyed although both under-performed at the box office – Treasure Planet (2002) and The Princess and the Frog (2009). Both were directed by the same duo of Clements & Musker. Somehow, I have loved their work, even though they have used different styles of animation across their films. One aspect has stayed consistent with this duo which is that their films have all been produced using traditional hand-drawn 2D animation. Now for the first time, the veterans (both are 63 years old) have directed their first fully CGI-animated film, Moana. Unlike many of Disney’s previous films which have been loosely based on fairy tales or literary characters, this is an original story.

The opening half hour of the film is really enjoyable, as it introduces the lead character of Moana, first as a child and then growing up surrounded by her parents, grandmother and villagers and the standard Disney animal sidekicks (Heihei the rooster and Pua the pig). Moana’s grandmother is a wonderful character; wise and far-seeing, she plants the seeds of adventure into the young Moana’s mind and eventually triggers her flight from the safety of her island home on a quest which will help save her people. At this point, she meets up with the demi-god Maui, played by Dwayne Johnson. Moana has to persuade Maui to join her on a journey to Te Fiti island to reverse a curse that is killing all the life in the ocean and on the islands. The two develop a semi-antagonistic relationship somewhat reminiscent of the one in Mulan between the heroine and Eddie Murphy’s magical dragon Mushu.

The film is a bit over-long, running for nearly two hours. There is a segment during Moana and Maui’s journey to Te Fiti island in which they are attacked by some pygmy pirates; it’s an entertaining sequence but doesn’t add anything to the story. In fact, other than the hilarious scenes featuring Moana’s pet rooster Heihei, the journey was a bit boring; by the time they reached the island and began the climactic battle with the lava monster Te Ka, I actually fell asleep for a short while.

Many of the songs in the film didn’t work for me, but there are three which stand out. One is the introspective How Far I’ll Go, sung by 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho who voices Moana. Another is the rousing We Know the Way, sung by Opetaia Foa’i & Lin-Manuel Miranda (who have also written all the songs in the film). And You’re Welcome, sung by Dwayne Johnson himself, the story of all his past exploits inventively picturised using the tattoos on his body.

So overall, not likely to be one of Disney’s classics, but a solid entry from one of my favourite animation directing teams.

Special mention for the wonderful short film Inner Workings, attached to the start of the feature. Real fun but also thought-provoking.


Of Erumpents and Nifflers – JK Rowling starts us off on the new Fantastic Beasts series

J.K. Rowling makes her debut as scriptwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film set in her beloved Harry Potter universe. Arriving 5 years after the final film in the original series, this one is set in the 1920’s in New York City, thereby giving Potter fans a fresh setting and new characters, while still staying in familiar thematic territory.

The film is inspired by the book of the same name which Ms. Rowling published in 2001, which purported to be one of the first year text books in the Hogwarts curriculum written by a ‘magizoologist’ named Newt Scamander. There is no story in this book; it’s just a reference compendium of all the magical creatures which exist in the world of Harry Potter. Like all good world-builders, Ms. Rowling had made extensive notes and backstories on each of the creatures and then decided to publish it as a reference guide for fans of the series. This is similar to what J.R.R. Tolkien’s son had done in the 1970’s by publishing The Silmarillion, which was a compilation of all the detailed background notes which Tolkien had created for his The Lord of the Rings books.

So, for this new movie series, Ms. Rowling decided to tell the story of Newt Scamander and his love of magical beasts which led him to publish his book.

I enjoyed the movie. Needless to say it is a top-of-the-line Hollywood production, both technically speaking – production design, visual effects, cinematography and music – and in terms of people and performances – the casting, acting and chemistry between the actors.

The real standouts in the movie are the new American actors. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, a no-maj (the American term for muggles) who inadvertently gets swept up into Newt Scamander’s adventures in NYC. He is the ‘everyman’ foil to Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of the nerdy Scamander, giving the audience the right cues to gape in wonder at the magical world, just as a pre-teen Daniel Radcliffe did in the first Harry Potter movie. Then there’s American singer-songwriter Alison Sudol in her first major big-screen role playing the very likable and charismatic Queenie Goldstein, one half of the Goldstein witch sisters who work at MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA, the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic). These two along with Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston (who plays Queenie’s sister Tina) are going to be at the centre of this five-film series just as Harry, Ron and Hermione were in the original series.

So let’s make sure we remember these four characters, shall we? Newt Scamander, Tina Goldstein, Queenie Goldstein and Jacob Kowalksi.

In terms of the various ‘fantastic beasts’ in the movie, I loved the scenes featuring the Niffler and the Erumpent. The Niffler is a platypus-like creature which has a propensity to steal anything shiny and put it away into its apparently bottomless magical pouch. The Erumpent is a rhinoceros-like creature and there is a hilarious scene in Central Park in which Scamander and Kowlaski try to capture an escaped Erumpent which happens to be in mating season.

In spite of all these great ingredients, what’s missing is a strong story. This is such an irony considering that the scriptwriter is none other than the creator of Harry Potter. I have read every book written by J.K. Rowling, including the deliciously dark The Casual Vacancy and the three crime novels published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. All her books have likable characters (except The Casual Vacancy, of course) and she captures their emotions and motivations so realistically. Most of all, the stories themselves are compelling; we are eager as readers to turn the page and find out what happens next, and we have a clear idea of what the hero’s ultimate quest is. In this case, I discovered that I didn’t really care why Scamander was in New York. The individual character interactions and scenes are entertaining, but there is (not yet) a sense of an overall journey.

Perhaps it might have been a good idea for Ms. Rowling to actually publish a novel to base this film on, one that subjects itself to the rigor of her tried and tested storywriting process.

In any case, the movie is bound to be a big success and the next film in the series will surely feature a young Albus Dumbledore and his nemesis Gellert Grindelwald (who appears briefly in this film). The films are currently scheduled to be released every two years, all of them directed by David Yates who also directed the last 4 Harry Potter films. Given that his cinematic retelling of the Tarzan story was a flop this summer, it’s just as well that Mr.Yates has secured a steady job until well into the 2020’s!

Marvel brews some strange magic

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The Marvel hit factory started off by telling us stories of modern science being used to both create and overcome evil, with Iron Man in 2008 and Captain America in 2011. Our world then had to deal with alien visitors when Thor and some unwelcome Asgardians came to visit in 2011. More aliens, all unwelcome, came through a portal in the sky in The Avengers in 2012. Soon after, we were taken on an intergalactic adventure (yes, Xandar the homeworld of the Nova Corps. is in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy) in Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Now, producer Kevin Feige and team open a new door and take us into the mystical world of spells and astral planes with their latest product Doctor Strange.

Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, who is superbly cast in the lead role, this is a welcome expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Doctor Strange’s character has been teased previously in a couple of MCU movies and the connection is made very clear early on when a shot of NYC shows the Avengers building nestling among the cluster of Manhattan skyscrapers.

This is one of Marvel’s most expensive movies, with a production cost of $ 165 million, the highest for an origin story of a newly introduced character, but of course a safe bet when you consider that this is the 14th film in the MCU. The previous 13 have collectively grossed $ 10 billion across the world and by now, Marvel fans will probably come out to watch even a reboot of the much-maligned Howard the Duck movie.

The film is mainly set in NYC, the home of brilliant but oh-so-charmingly-arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange. But the action moves from Nepal to London to Hong Kong during the course of the movie.

Given that we’ve had a profusion of fantasy and magic related movies in the past decade and a half, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that there are some familiar tropes being recycled here. For example, Strange’s semi-sentient Cloak of Levitation behaves like something out of a Harry Potter film, a cross between that crotchety sorting hat and the invisibility cloak. Likewise, the evil being Dormammu’s representation is reminiscent of Sauron’s eye in the Lord of the Rings films. Some of the reality distortion in the city fight scenes will also seem familiar to anyone who has watched Christopher Nolan’s Inception, although I have to say I was completely immersed in the experience and found myself involuntarily tilting my body in response to some of the changes in perspective.

Having said that, the whole is greater than the sum of its recycled parts and it was beautifully topped off by the Hong Kong fight sequence set-piece. It uses some of the most inventive reality-bending concepts seen on screen since The Matrix; latching on to objects moving backwards in time and using them as vehicles and weapons is a pretty neat trick!

Much has been written about the ‘whitewashing’ of a key character; The Ancient One ended up becoming this bald white woman instead of this ancient Asian man. But when actually watching the movie, I was so taken up by Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the character that she didn’t seem out of place.

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What did dissatisfy me was the portrayal of Kamar-Taj, the hidden retreat where the Ancient One lives. It seemed too easy to find and it had too many trainees going through standard kung fu moves to fit the description of an exclusive hideout of powerful sorcerers. Likewise, the ease with which Stephen Strange picks up his sorcery skills didn’t sit right with me. It seemed like he had been at Kamal-Taj for just a few weeks. In comparison, Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins goes through a seemingly more arduous and long drawn training regimen in Ra’s al Ghul’s Himalayan hideout and therefore his eventual transformation to Batman is far more believable.

When the Doctor Strange project was greenlit by Marvel Studios and the casting for the title character was on, I was secretly praying that Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen would be chosen for the role. I don’t know why this particular actor came to mind, but his strong facial features and ability to play stoic characters, seemed like the perfect fit for the confident/ arrogant Stephen Strange. Even though he didn’t get that part, I was thrilled at the irony and coincidence of him getting picked the chief villain Kaecilius. But of course, in blockbuster movie bad guy roles like this, there is little opportunity for actors like Mikkelsen to show their range, beyond the usual bombastic bad guy proclamations. As with all Marvel films, humour is used very effectively as a counterpoint to the action and the tension; pretty much all the characters, including even Kaecilius get at least one humourous line at they all work.

Marvel movies aren’t known for great music soundtracks, nothing like the iconic stuff that John Williams created in the 1970s for Star Wars and Superman. I do like Alan Silvestri’s OST for The Avengers and I have to say, Oscar winner and long-time Disney Pixar composer Michael Giacchino has done some good work here for Doctor Strange. While most of it is generic, the Master of the Mystic end credits sounds like it should be THE Doctor Strange theme and has this wonderful throwback feel like something from those 1970s British scifi TV shows, Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel.

Speaking of which, as usual, do stay through to watch the mid- and end-credits. You’ll know which MCU movie Doctor Strange will have a guest appearance in next and you’ll also know who will be his next adversary.