Descendants (2015)

I don’t intend to make a strong case for High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega’s latest film, but it is brightly coloured and likeable in a fairly anodyne way, as befits a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie. The premise is that Disney’s famous villains, having been sent away to live on the Isle of the Lost, far from the good guys, have grown up and a number of them now have children who are to be reintegrated into the mainstream world of Auradon, where their parents hope they will continue to spread their legacy of evil-doing. As ever, the hierarchical society is premised on benign royalty (Beauty and the Beast in this case) ruling justly over a fluffily-updated mediaevalesque world populated by bland white prep kids. It’s up the bad guys to inject some colour (not to mention people of colour, for that matter) and they are all so clearly far more interesting than the ‘heroes’ that this amounts to its own form of critique. Certainly brief book-end appearances by musical veterans Kristin Chenoweth (as Maleficent) and Kathy Najimy (as the Evil Queen) lend a bit of Broadway pizazz to the older generation (which also includes a Black Cruella de Vil and an Iranian-American Jafar), though generally the film could do with more music and dance numbers — I understand these were only added at the late arrival of Ortega to the project, so at least there are some I suppose. The kids are all pleasant to watch, with Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) being the purple-haired highlight. There’s not a whole lot more to say, and for what it sets out to achieve it feels like it’s generally a success.

Descendants film posterCREDITS
Director Kenny Ortega; Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott; Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 27 January 2016.

Maleficent (2014)

Disney’s output of late has focused on the way that bonds of family and friendship can be stronger and more meaningful than those between lovers, which is just as well for the Sleeping Beauty myth because it has always relied so heavily on non-consensual kissing that nowadays it sort of seems a bit creepy really (that scene is still here, but it’s played quite reasonably all things considered). Frozen dealt with Elsa and her sister the ice princess, while Maleficent instead focuses on Princess Aurora (our Beauty) and her relationship to the malevolent (or magnificent?) fairy of the film’s title, the one who curses her to eternal sleep on her 16th birthday at the outset.

In the way of such characters, Anjelina Jolie’s conflicted Maleficent runs away with the film; the blandly beaming Aurora (Elle Fanning) never stands a chance. The film’s turn, too, away from its twinkling, twee fairy-world vision of the start cannot come too soon — there’s only so much pastel-coloured paradisiacal nonsense that any viewer (well, this one, anyway) can take. As with Frozen, though, it’s just a pity that our eventual heroine, saviour of all our hearts, to whom all must pay obeisance, is so startlingly, blindlingly Aryan; there’s no questioning of beauty standards here, as even such silly frippery as Shrek managed years ago (a film series that very quickly outstayed its welcome, incidentally).

The central conflict in the film, expressed at the level of this relationship, is the division between the human and fairy worlds. (I might propose that, as the bearded bad guys are all Scottish while the elven fairies are English, this film is in fact a coded allegory about the dangers of a partition between Scotland and England, but then again maybe I’m just reading too much into it.) Certainly this central conflict between the autocratic humans and the ungoverned fairies isn’t really fully worked-through and seems to find benign aristocracy an acceptable compromise (perhaps the Scots just need to put more faith in the royal family?). It’s perplexing ideologically, and it’s perplexing tonally, but there’s enough here that’s enjoyable, particularly in Jolie’s star turn.

Maleficent film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Stromberg; Writer Linda Woolverton (based on the Disney film Sleeping Beauty); Cinematographer Dean Semler; Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Sunday 6 July 2014.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

As Cast Away (2000) proved, Tom Hanks hasn’t exactly been averse to feature-length product placement films, and while it would probably be perverse to say this is all just one big advert for the magical power of Walt Disney, it certainly doesn’t shy away from hymning the transportive power of childhood entertainment (after all, it’s made by Disney Studios). It deals with the making of their film of Mary Poppins (1964), specifically with the negotiations that took place to get the original book’s author, Mrs P. L. (Pamela, but never call her that) Travers, onboard. It’s through the curmudgeonly Travers, played by an on-form Emma Thompson, who makes the whole enterprise at least somewhat palatable, taking Disney’s self-aggrandising lustre off with her bitter and cynical asides about just about everything she encounters. In that sense, you could look at it as a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, and that’s probably the best way to enjoy the film.

Part of the success of the film is that its subject, Mrs Travers, is clearly such an interesting historical character, but one whom very few people know about. From the very first frames of the film, a parallel structure is set up between the contemporary world of the early-1960s and Travers’ childhood growing up in Australia just after the turn of the century, as the son of an alcoholic bank manager father (played by Colin Farrell). In some ways, you need the saccharine pomp of Disney in his Los Angeles headquarters to temper the bitter edge of Travers and her life, though the parallel structure does mean that Travers herself is seen coming to some kind of understanding of Disney’s project through reflection on her childhood (in reality, she hated the finished film). This creates an explicit link between childhood memories and the fantasism of the children’s entertainment industry (as epitomised by Disney) — between Travers’ real father and that of the father in Mary Poppins (after whom this film is titled) — which can all seem a bit obvious and over-sentimentalised at times in the film.

That said, Thompson’s performance is a marvel, given the character as written hardly has very much more to say for most of the film than “No, no, no. No no no no NO! This simply won’t do” and the like — she is particularly set against the animation. The bulk of the film’s Los Angeles sections are taken up with her locked in conflict with the film’s writer Don (Bradley Whitford) and the two composer brothers, Richard and Robert Sherman (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak, respectively), into which fray Disney himself (an avuncular Hanks) tries to bring peace, to limited success. These sections are however far more enjoyable than those set in colonial Australia, though Farrell does perfectly well as the loving but dissipated father. The younger Travers has little more to do than look golden-haired and angelic, betraying little hint of her later grumpiness.

In the end, Saving Mr. Banks is a film about the interplay between childhood innocence and adult disappointments as made by Disney, so that should be a guide for viewers as to the tone the finished film takes. That said, Thompson and Hanks do their best to efface any of the more overt sentimentalising in their performances at least, making this a very watchable and easily digestible piece of filmmaking history.

Saving Mr. Banks film posterCREDITS
Director John Lee Hancock; Writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Monday 23 December 2013.

Frozen (2013)

I think by now most people are familiar with the standard-issue Disney animated schtick, which involves a hunky hero, a blushing princess, a comedy sidekick, a whole bunch of sappiness, and some songs. In that respect, I don’t think Frozen is going to particularly surprise anyone. What makes a nice change is that the heroine is the star of the film, she doesn’t really need the bloke, and her story is not resolved by his kiss. That aside, both female leads can belt out a pretty big vocal (despite being stick thin), there’s a whole bunch of sappiness, and there’s a chirpily naive comedy sidekick. So, a success all told. Oh, and it’s very very white.

It’s based — pretty loosely — on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, hence it’s set in a sort of faux Scandinavian northern land where the people are called Olaf and Hans, and where you’d think they’d be a bit more used to bitterly cold winters. However, when Princess (and later Queen) Elsa’s magical powers to make things very very cold go awry and she flees like Superman to a solitary ice castle, the people must face up to a perpetual Winter. Unless! Unless her frozen heart can be thawed by love! (Or something like that.) Heading up this quest to get through to Elsa is her sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), whom Elsa has shunned since childhood (because dangerous magical superpowers). Anna is sent on this quest by Prince Hans, with whom she is in love and who has abrogated to himself power over the kingdom in the sisters’ absence (hmmm). And on the way, Elsa somehow brings to life a jolly and impish little snowman called Olaf (Josh Gad) and together they meet a kindly ice farmer (you heard) called Kristoff (Jonathan Groff). So that’s the setup.

Clearly, a sense of slavish accuracy to historical detail — or maybe because of a strongly-articulated aesthetic focused on snow — means that this world is almost entirely populated by white people. The film is a lot stronger when it comes to female agency, given that the two leads are women, and it’s their story which is the most important one. There is still, of course, a tangled romantic sub-plot, but it never becomes the film’s focus, especially given that the presence of Olaf pretty much steals any scenes in which Anna and Kristoff are together. Olaf certainly follows in a strong tradition of comedy musical sidekicks, but thankfully has been written as entirely double-entendre free, with a lack of self-awareness and a charming naïveté which is actually quite refreshing in the context.

There’s still plenty of sappiness on show though, and the soundtrack as sung by the voice cast has the required balance of moving ballads and big belting power solos (on which territory, Princess Elsa voiced by Idina Menzel, dominates). One of the strongest, because most interesting, numbers is the one that opens the film, as we see Kristoff and his tribe (I guess) doing their ice farming — which is to say, cutting up frozen lakes into chunks and transporting it — all while singing their ‘traditional’ work song.

Obviously, as you may already have intuited, I am not the target audience for any Disney animated musical, but I feel like I’ve seen a fair few over the course of my life. Disney pretty much created this genre with The Little Mermaid (1989) and thus more or less owned it during the 1990s (with the occasional challenge), but the form has been in something of a decline since then. That makes Frozen something of a retro throwback, but without the tiresome self-consciousness that marks most ‘retro’ enterprises. Therefore, I think the highest praise I can give it is that it would have fit seamlessly into the height of Disney’s mid-1990s animated film roster, and if that’s what you’re looking for, then Frozen might be for you.

Frozen film posterCREDITS
Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee; Writer Lee (based on the fairy tale Snedronningen by Hans Christian Andersen); Starring Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Thursday 12 December 2013.