Archive for March, 2012

Mirror Mirror

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Fantasy with tags on March 30, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Stunning manifestation of the Snow White legend looks a fairy tale come to life. Exquisite production design and beautiful costumes come together in this bold, colorful re-imagining of the classic Brothers Grimm story. Everything looks striking. For example, check out those accordion-style stilt trousers on the dwarfs. And speaking of dwarfs, they’re pretty engaging. Likable, funny and distinctive, these little guys provide several memorable moments in the film. Their fight with giant marionettes is a marvel. Also a humorous delight is the wicked queen’s beauty regimen complete with literally created bee-stung lips. That make-over segment is the single most imaginative sequence in the whole film, and believe me, there are several.

Unfortunately the script is where this re-telling really falters. Screenwriters Marc Klein and Jason Keller, from a story by Melisa Wallack, have mishandled the timeless fable in a way that removes charm and tradition. In it’s place we get a wicked queen who shares the spotlight as much, if not more than, the young heroine. Julia Roberts has been selected as a sarcastic portrayal of the queen that’s more insecure than evil. Her narcissistic performance isn’t as horrible as the idea might suggest, but the actress never disappears into the role either. I felt like I was watching Julia Roberts play a campy version of herself. She elicits an equal amount of chuckles as well as groans. The rest of the cast doesn’t help. Lily Collins is forgettable as Snow White, capturing neither the sweetness nor appeal of her character’s personality. Armie Hammer looks like a prince, he’s handsome, but possesses no other discernable qualities as to why Snow White would be taken with him. You see Snow White doesn’t need a prince to save her. She essentially saves herself and him in this variant. Ok he helps, but remember the poison apple? That barely makes an appearance. It’s more of a footnote here. An innovative re-envisioning could have been what this centuries old tale needed. However we’re given a lightly dusted politically correct rendering that’s just as timeworn as what it replaces.

Mirror Mirror ends up being a mixed bag. Director Tarsem Singh doesn’t disappoint visually. One scene after another is a sensation of color and costumes. Impressive achievement subtly recalls Tim Burton via Alice in Wonderland. Like that adaptation, this screws with the original in a way that’s detrimental. The narrative fails to enchant with its political correctness. Nevertheless, if vivid production design and some genuine laughs are what you desire, you‘ll find that here. This isn’t an entirely slick revisionist take. The script still has heart and means to entertain children with its creativity. For the most part, it wants to present the legend with sincerity for that audience. Amidst the modern touches still remains the earnest tale of a girl who falls in love with her prince.

The Kid with a Bike

Posted in Drama, Foreign with tags on March 28, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne wrote, produced and directed this account of a young boy. Cyril’s bum of a father has placed him in foster care because he doesn’t want to deal with the responsibility of raising his son. Samantha, a woman who works at a beauty salon is touched by his plight and offers to look after him on weekends.  His bike is more than a means of transportation, it’s also the last remaining physical link that connects him to his father. When the bike is stolen, he meets Wes, an older kid with ulterior motives. Cyril’s desire for a parental figure is rooted in the kindness of others.  Samantha attempts to shield him from the negative influence of this teen with questionable objectives. Wes exploits something in Cyril’s personality we haven’t seen yet. Their relationship reveals the film’s most striking development. This French language export from Belgium won the Grand Prix, the second-most prestigious prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.

Coming of age tales heavily rely on the emotional connection that audiences share with the protagonist. If we can’t identify with the star, then the story may not have merit. Even the best child actors can drift into precociousness. This is not the case here, as young actor Thomas Doret is captivating in a natural rendition. The Dardenne brothers get credit for allowing our lead character to just react. When faced with the reality of his situation, he underplays, sometimes in silence, which speaks much louder than any dialogue ever could. His acting is less of a performance than the candidly captured portrait of an actual 11 year old boy. He commands attention.

Doret’s talent makes up for the bare bones details that sometimes remain underdeveloped. Where is Cyril’s mother? Or why does Samantha agree to take care of him so quickly? These are valid questions. Yet the sketchiness of the narrative feels like real life. Often there aren’t valid reasons. For me the hardest thing for me to understand was his dad’s capacity to disassociate from his pre-teen son. How could a father abandon his child after 11 years so easily? The justification he gives doesn’t substantiate the magnitude of his decision. At first the lack of specifics is frustrating. However It provided a justification for Cyril’s subsequent misbehavior. The youngster’s inability to accept his father’s abandonment matched mine. He was an unruly little boy but I felt as he did. Despite his unmanageable behavior, Cyril always remained a sympathetic individual at heart

This heartbreaking tale never suffers from over-sentimentality. It mines emotion honestly from authentic drama. True to the structure of the plot, even the conclusion is profound in its uncertainty. It’s one of those endings where you might ask yourself, well what happens next? Ah but such is life! The brilliance of the story is in its ability to reflect the uncertainly and ambiguity of human existence, all united by Thomas Doret’s honest portrayal of a troubled youth.

The Hunger Games

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on March 23, 2012 by Mark Hobin

A girl’s struggle to stay alive in a future civilization is presented in this faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling 2008 novel. In a post-apocalyptic version of North America, children are selected as players or tributes to participate in a fight to the death with each other until there is but one victor. Naturally this is all televised to the delight of the viewing public.

First things first. Let’s discuss that timeworn plot.  A nation in which the state exerts cruel, oppressive control, often incorporating combat, is nothing new. There are many ideas within The Hunger Games that have roots in earlier works of fiction. The Most Dangerous Game, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, Rollerball, Logan’s Run, The Running Man and Battle Royale are the most obvious to me. That last example addresses themes nearly identical to this film. While I see no reason to discount The Hunger Games on that basis, I can fault the story for a lack of originality, which deliberate or coincidental, lessens the impact. I must also take exception to the basic premise. While a dystopian society might plausibly force children to face off to the death for the reasons explained here, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept that the citizens would happily bet on and enjoy their mortality as entertainment. Nevertheless I still appreciated the way The Hunger Games unfolded. I admit I was captivated.

The Hunger Games thrives in artistically representing this future society. Many scenes are perfectly realized, some of the best even precede the battle stage. In the beginning, the moments where one boy and one girl from district 12 are chosen is suitably tense. The stark color palatte of grays matches the starkness of the landscape. It’s gut wrenching and the atmosphere enhances the dire mood. Providing some comic relief is Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket who becomes a flamboyant and cheerful caretaker to her young charges. Her obsession with politeness is ironic given the sport’s barbaric nature.  Later our lead must prove her abilities to the state so she can be assigned a rating before the games begin. As we watch the athletic ability of her adversaries, we share in her dread of what is to come. Her assessment ends with an act of impudence that appropriately elicits laughs as well as concern.  All of these depictions greatly benefit the cinematic expression.

Adapting a book is tricky, especially one in which the narrative is so heavily based on the inner thoughts of the main character. To help with that, the script fleshes out what happens behind the scenes to explain things that Katniss assumed in the text. Both the President and the games’ designer in charge have deeper discussions here that elucidate the intimate workings of the competition. The events with Seneca Crane as Head Gamemaker are visually arresting. He’s surrounded by a bank of TV screens with employees that do his bidding – manipulating the action. It betrays a civilization gone wrong. Actors Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones provide color commentary like ESPN anchors to inform the audience of the game’s events. We can feel ourselves get caught up in the pageantry of it all, despite the utter depravity of the matches.

Screenwriters understand that what makes science fiction ultimately succeed isn’t a lot of special effects and pyrotechnics, it’s fascinating characters. The fact that the games don’t actually start until past the halfway point wasn’t a problem for me. This concerns a loss of innocence, not which child can throw a knife better. Jennifer Lawrence is star Katniss Everdeen. Not only does she embody her tough, athletic skills but she projects a vulnerability that is incredibly affecting. Lawrence is believable as our young heroine even when she is up against competitors that are stronger and more physically imposing like Cato from District 2. Matching her is fellow tribute player from District 12, Peeta Mellark, portrayed by Josh Hutcherson. Their relationship is touching. It grounds the picture and we genuinely care about them. Also of note is Rue, a tiny bird-like girl with a lot of heart. Her friendship with Katniss provides one of several engaging plot points. The Hunger Games is always exciting, never boring. Despite the familiar trappings, director Gary Ross infuses the story with a style and excitement that not only benefits the original novel, it improves upon it. Katniss Everdeen is a protagonist we can love and champion. She’s at the center of a swift and rousing drama. It’s telling that given the 142 minute running time, I was surprisingly prepared for a longer movie. That’s how involved I was.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on March 20, 2012 by Mark Hobin

A fishing obsessed sheik (Amr Waked), his beautiful legal representative (Emily Blunt), a skeptical fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) and an overzealous press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas) all collide in this oh-so-precious drama about introducing British salmon to the Wadis of the Yemen. Trying to care that a billionaire gets his way is pretty difficult. I mean it’s not like we’re attempting to eradicate hunger or something. It’s indulging his dream so he can fish for sport. Ok so they shove in some nonsense concerning the Prime Minister of Yemen wanting to promote improved international relations, which makes absolutely no sense by the way. In the beginning we’re treated to the snippy banter between Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt that illustrate how much they can’t stand each other. These two couldn’t possibly fall in love, right?  One look at that movie poster will tell you otherwise.  It’s exceptionally formulaic. Oh and I don’t advise watching the trailer as it effectively manages to boil down the entire narrative to its 2 1/2 minute essence. I will admit this is a strong cast. I like the ensemble a great deal. Kristin Scott Thomas is particularly over-the-top and she gave a little life to the proceedings. If all you desire out of a movie is a gentle comedy of manners with appealing actors, you could do worse. But you could do a lot better too. Local Hero anyone? Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is the kind of film that gives trifling a bad name. The story is just so insignificant. My advice?  Throw this fish back in the water. It’s not fully developed.

Kung Fu Panda 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family with tags on March 17, 2012 by Mark Hobin

The very same themes of the first Kung Fu Panda are recycled again in this noisy sequel. Except this time he’s also got to deal with child abandonment issues. Like its predecessor the panda somehow pulls it together by believing in himself, finding inner peace and blah blah blah, so that he can save the day and have a happy ending. But Po is such a bumbling, dim witted incompetent as the hero that it’s inconceivable he would ever be able to tie his shoes, let alone defeat an evil mastermind. He’s got the grace of a bull in a china shop. Seriously if you can imagine Curly from the Three Stooges using his athletic prowess to out karate Bruce Lee, then you might be able to accept Po’s story arc. Apparently we are to trust that simply believing in yourself is enough. But how can we accept that when he can’t even overpower his friend the Tigress who easily bests him in practice battle?

Kung Fu Panda 2’s technical charms are undeniable. There’s a priority placed on razzle dazzle spectacle and there are lots of battles. The narrative is highlighted by cluttered action scenes that have the emotional depth of a video game. To that end, young children should find the pretty colors and goofy antics of Po amusing. The beautiful images authentically represent the landscape and architecture at Mount Qingcheng, a renowned center of Taoism.  But all of those efforts are betrayed by the superficiality of the dialogue.  There’s a decidedly modern feel to the language and attitudes of the characters that make the historical setting in ancient China seem arbitrary. The anecdotes are even more aimed at kids in this offering.  The lack of sense gets a bit insulting.  This martial arts fantasy doesn’t have a script with personalities or drama with that will engage adults.  His fellow kung fu masters, the Furious Five, are criminally underused.  I think the Monkey had two lines. Master Shifu, the red panda who was Po’s teacher and trainer in part one, is sadly missed.  He’s basically a cameo in this entry.  He was arguably the second most important individual and that film’s emotional center. It’s regrettable that such a visually stunning masterpiece of animation has a plot that is so thoroughly lacking in originality or intelligence.

There are a couple bright spots. Po experiences dreams that are presented in traditional non-computerized cartoons that are highly stylized. These flashbacks that inform his past are absolutely enchanting because they have a sense of elegance and calm in direct contrast to the silliness of the rest of the story. Also significantly contributing to the proceedings is Gary Oldman as Lord Shen, a peacock who is Po’s arch nemesis. Oldman’s line readings have the dramatic weight of a Shakespearean actor and I surprisingly found myself rooting for his delightfully wicked Lord Shen over the wussiness of Jack Black’s Po.

Shen: The only reason you are still alive is that I find your stupidity mildly amusing.
Po: Well thank you, but I find your evilness extremely annoying!

Oldman’s voice is dripping with a sinister delight that makes his silvery white peacock someone you love to hate. He was just so much more engaging than the panda. But when the movie is called Kung Fu Panda 2, that’s a problem.

21 Jump Street

Posted in Action, Comedy with tags on March 16, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Who would have thought that adapting a serious dramatic police procedural into a wacky buddy comedy would produce such a funny picture? Even after seeing the trailer, I was convinced that an update of this hit TV show from the late 80s on the then newly started Fox Network, would be a disaster. What a surprise that 21 Jump Street is actually, you know, kind of good.

Our movie opens in 2005. Jonah Hill is Morton Schmidt, a geeky high school kid whose fashion sense channels early Eminem. In case you don’t recognize the rapper’s style the soundtrack plays “The Real Slim Shady” in the background. He tentatively approaches a pretty girl and asks her out to the prom. She quickly turns him down and athletic jock Greg Jenko, Channing Tatum in a letterman jacket and horrible hair, laughs hysterically at his expense. These are the personality formulas we expect and if this had been the gist of the humor, my review might not have been so positive. Instead cut to 7 years later where the two miraculously become police officers and are sent on assignment undercover to investigate a new designer drug that is spreading amongst the students. They are enrolled in Sagan High School where they now have the opportunity to relive their high school days. However this time around, things play out far different than I envisioned.

21 Jump Street works best when it’s satirizing teenagers. The story begins as a mockery of police procedurals but it ultimately becomes just as much a riff on the perils of high school life.  It’s here that the humor really takes off. Yes there’s the usual supply of crass schtick you’d expect in an R rated farce in 2012. The targets can be juvenile at times. But for every childish penis joke, there are several clever ones that satirize conventions. There is some intelligence in the script. The high school scenes as Jenko and Schmidt attempt to do their jobs while still trying to fit in, are hilarious. Actors Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have refreshing chemistry together with Tatum showing an unexpected gift for comedic timing.  Given his talented work here, I hope Tatum attempts more comedy roles in the future.

I think where 21 Jump Street really surpasses expectations in the way it subverts stereotypes and mines an equal amount of humor and heart. Hill and Tatum are likable and display genuine camaraderie that’s essential in any decent buddy film. The jokes don’t always work. Some of it’s vulgar, but when the script aims higher it truly succeeds. When all is said and done, the relevant question you must ask yourself when reviewing a comedy is, Did you laugh? And for me the answer was, Yes I did and quite a bit.

Friends with Kids

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on March 13, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketA circle of 6 friends includes passionate newlyweds Missy and Ben, content married couple Leslie and Alex, and unattached pals Jason and Julie, who have yet to find their soulmates. At first they frequently enjoy the hip nightlife of urban Manhattan. However, this soon changes after both married couples have kids. Jason and Julie lament the way life has adjusted since their friends have become parents. Still, it hasn’t taken away their own desire to become parents oddly enough. They decide to romantically hook up and have a baby. They’ll agree to share the responsibility of raising that child 50-50, unencumbered by the marital constraints that’s seem to have put a strain on their friend’s marriages.

Ultra modern comedy about relationships and families is bolstered by an appealing supporting cast. Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig along with Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd play the two married couples. All four were also in last year’s Bridesmaids. The atmosphere here is decidedly more serious than the lighthearted tone of that picture. The script has assembled a collection of interesting individuals but it keeps resorting to sitcom clichés. The setups appear more designed to elicit guffaws than to serve personalities that behave logically. The main story is centered on Jason and Julie. Adam Scott as Jason never quite connects as a fully formed human being. He’s a popular ladies man that has been Julie’s confidant since college. A sitcom conceit, his egotism is played for laughs. Actress Jennifer Westfeldt (who’s in a longtime relationship with co-star Jon Hamm in real life) plays Julie more on the sympathetic side.  Nevertheless, she can be rather self involved as well.  As the story continues, the fluctuating “Oops she’s falling in love with HIM” vs. the “Oops he’s falling in love with HER” structure, never rises above what feels like a very good TV comedy.

Friends with Kids is not without its charms. Star Jennifer Westfeldt also wrote and directed. She was responsible for co-writing and co-starring in the hit independent film Kissing Jessica Stein with Heather Juergensen in 2001. Overall Westfeldt has fashioned a humorous twist on modern relationships. Her non-traditional take is entertaining. She brings a vulnerability that makes her character Julie likable even when she becomes self absorbed. Her flaws seem minor when contrasted with her friend Jason. He’s unapologetically arrogant. Actor Jason Scott is often typecast as unlikable types and Jason is sometimes difficult to defend here. While we never question his unfailing support toward Julie, his egotistical personality can make him a bit hard to champion over the course of an entire movie. He’s not a bad person. At times his humor can be endearing. It’s during those moments that we understand what Julie sees in him. Jennifer Westfeldt’s reflection on adults in their late 30s and having children is just captivating enough to hold our attention. While Friends with Kids occasionally lapses into superficial and predictable situations, the way the narrative plays out is frequently funny and insightful.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on March 9, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketAlice Hyatt, a recently widowed mother with a 10 year old son, is on the cusp of starting anew. Her journey out west is an odyssey of sorts – to re-ignite the singing career she abandoned when she got married. The plot is formed from a series of vignettes as she heads out west to Monterey, California, her childhood home. On the way while in Phoenix, Arizona, she attempts to secure work as a singer in a seedy lounge to earn some extra cash. It’s one of many obstacles to come.

The story is anchored by Ellen Burstyn’s flawless achievement. She commands our attention by the sheer sincerity of her portrayal. Ellen Burstyn is positively endearing as the single mother who so desperately wants to forge a successful, independent, and fulfilling life. We are drawn to this woman because she makes us care. Her vulnerability is displayed in a particularly amusing early scene. Weary from lack of success, she breaks down crying to the manager of a dive bar. She desperately wants a job singing in his establishment. She begins to list all of the hardships that have affected her. “I don’t even have a piano in here” he maintains. She continues with one setback after another. The more she lists, the more he repeats that same phrase. It’s a poignant scene, brilliantly juggling hilarity with despair.

Her character is honest, compelling and at times even deserving of the pitfalls that befall her. The latitude she gives her young brat of a son can be a source of frustration. “How did I get such a smart-ass kid?“ she grumbles. “You got pregnant,“ he deadpans. She meets David, played with an understated skill by Kris Kristofferson. He appears to be a bright light in her dreary existence. Or is he? The disrespectful interactions of her son threaten to bring latent resentments to a head. Ellen Burstyn’s engaging presence is at the heart of every scene, whether inadvertently getting involved with a married man or having to settle for working as a waitress in a humble diner. Interestingly the diner scenes, which constitute a very small part of the overall events, would subsequently form the basis of the long running TV series Alice that screenwriter Robert Getchell would go on to create 2 years later.

Robert Getchell’s script was nominated for an Oscar and it’s ingenious in the way it fashions everyday difficulties into an intimately engaging saga. Coming at the end of 1974, the film touches on themes popularized by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique published a decade before but still very much a part of the ongoing women‘s movement at the time. At first Martin Scorsese might seem like an odd choice to direct this ode to female independence. Scorsese wrings real drama from the simplicity of this woman’s drive to succeed against increasingly insurmountable odds. But this is not some weepy women‘s picture. Scorsese brings grittiness to a narrative that could have slipped into treacle. His direction is self assured. What could have been heavy-handed is rendered as a genuine portrait of a person in crisis. There is an utter commonality to the proceedings. It speaks to both men and women. There isn’t a false note in the entire 112 minutes. What truly makes the drama powerful is the magnitude of Ellen Burstyn’s Academy Award winning performance.  Alice Hyatt is a testament to the human spirit. It’s clear why Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore remains one of the enduring classics of 70s cinema. It just gets better with age.

John Carter

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 9, 2012 by Mark Hobin

I wasn’t demanding  much.  The lackluster trailer didn’t give me high hopes for this picture. Unfortunately even with my low expectations this movie still failed to deliver. John Carter is an action-adventure vehicle that will satisfy people with those pre-summer cravings for a special-effects-laden science fiction extravaganza. But if you’re searching for a plot that will truly engage the emotions, look elsewhere. In short, when it’s not dazzling you with computer graphics, it’s a turgid bore.

John Carter is the prototypical space cowboy. Our story is based on the novel A Princess of Mars published as a novel back in 1917 by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, Star Wars and Avatar all owe a debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation John Carter. Despite the feeling of déjà vu that infects the proceedings, he was the original, so you can‘t really fault this for plagiarism. The problem is Burroughs’ Barsoom Series of books inspired better films that appropriated his ideas with more technique. This Disneyfied approach should entertain younger viewers unaccustomed with those science fiction sagas but for anyone familiar with the aforementioned productions, this episode feels a little “been there done that.”

It starts off with promise. Former Confederate soldier finds a medallion that transports him to the planet Mars (or Barsoom as it’s named here). Once there, due to the alien conditions, he acquires superhuman strength and the ability to leap enormous distances. Soon he is captured by a fierce tribe of 15 foot tall aliens called Tharks. The leader, Tars Tarkas, discovers John’s increased abilities and wants his assistance. Meanwhile Mars, excuse me Barsoom, is in the middle of a civil war. The citizens of Helium have been resisting the evil takeover by the kingdom of Zodanga led by their king, Sab Than. As he obliterates Helium’s legions, King Tardos Mors yields to Sab Than’s terms of surrender: giving the hand of his daughter, Princess Dejah Thoris, in marriage to him. But she’s not willing to go quietly. She flees in her spaceship with Sab Than in hot pursuit. John Carter observes this and he comes to her aid. Not that she needs his help. She can take care of herself thank you very much. Also causing trouble is actor Mark Strong who appears contractually obligated to continue playing the ubiquitous bad guy that‘s bald. Here he’s a manipulative villain named Matai Shang – the leader of some mysterious white-skinned race known as the Therns. John Carter is later befriended by someone named Kantos Kan, who becomes his trusted ally.

Are you still following? If so, you’re doing better than I did watching this. This is merely the set up. As the story develops it grows more perplexing and convoluted. 1980’s Flash Gordon knew how to do foolishness like this with campy glee. There’s a brief montage in the very beginning where John Carter keeps getting apprehended by Colonel Powell played by Bryan Cranston. Carter rejects his offer to fight for the Union army and Carter is repeatedly successful in his escapes, much to Powell’s exasperation. It‘s an amusing bit. If only the whole movie displayed this light touch. Slightly complicating matters is actor Dominic West who portrays Sab Than and James Purefoy who plays Kantos Kan. The two actors confusingly resemble each other. Same haircuts, same red face tattoos. Even their armor looks the same, although one has red details (West) and the other has blue (Purefoy). After awhile I gave up trying to make sense of the narrative and just appreciated the cool battle scenes. They reportedly paid $250 million dollars for the bombast, might as well enjoy the fireworks, right?

John Carter is another one of those technically well crafted but spiritually vacant creations that consistently triumph style over substance. I suppose you need to check your brain at the door with these types of tales, but how do you account for that punishing length? At 132 minutes the incomprehensible story wants to be some sort of epic when it should have just been lighthearted fun. At least 45 minutes could have been excised from the bloated script packed with unnecessary characters and jargon. It practically dares you to pay attention. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are the physically perfect embodiment of action heroes that each deliver their lines with oratory weight. But their charms are purely superficial. There’s precious little charisma to be found in either. I dare say the most engaging personality in the entire picture is this ten legged creature called a calot that is a cross between a dog and a toad. His name is Woola and he’s a loyal sidekick to John Carter. The way this lumbering monster zips around the screen like a newborn puppy seems to defy the laws of physics, but the critter is an absolute delight.  I’d rather see a spin-off flick: John Carter II: Woola the Calot!

The Secret World of Arrietty

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on March 6, 2012 by Mark Hobin

English author Mary Norton’s 1952 novel The Borrowers is transformed in this meticulously animated adaptation. Studio Ghibli’s latest offering concerns a tiny girl and her family who live beneath the floorboards of a house, unbeknownst to the human inhabitants above. They secretly acquire items without being detected in order to live. This is the same Japanese studio that brought us the critically acclaimed Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, both of which were helmed by internationally recognized director Hayao Miyazaki. However, The Secret World of Arrietty has a much more comprehensible story than those impenetrable epics. This is anime for the uninitiated. The more accessible approach may have to do with the fact that this was directed by newcomer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, making his directorial debut.

The fantasy is a beautifully designed work but dramatically it can get a bit languid. The drawings are careful in a cheerfully old fashioned style. It’s not the most fluid animation, but it takes it’s time and it has a sleepy pace that is rather soothing. Complementing this feel is the music. French singer and harpist Cécile Corbel draws on Celtic and folk traditions. Her compositions are an atypical score for an anime film. This is another example of how creativity raises this above the average. The sound effects of insects chirping or raindrops falling have sort of a calming influence that complement the visuals. I admit it’s quite peaceful.

There’s a elegance in the narrative’s simplicity. Part of the story focuses on the missions that these “borrowers” go on to obtain articles like sugar and tissue for the family to use. The point of view of the little people is perfectly captured. There’s beauty in how these characters accomplish their objectives. Arrietty’s father’s use of double stick tape and mittens to scale a wall is quaintly beautiful. But where is the excitement? Not a whole lot happens. There’s a storyline involving a sickly 12 year old boy named Shawn who comes to stay at the place while awaiting heart surgery. His friendship with Arrietty is a dramatic subplot and although it’s poignant, it never develops into anything particularly exciting. Then there’s Hara, an older female caretaker of the home. She provides some conflict, but she ends up becoming more of a nuisance than an actual threat. Nevertheless this is a welcome addition to the Studio Ghibli cannon. The details are what makes this so captivating. Despite the somewhat listless plot, The Secret World of Arrietty is an enchanting delight.

Postscript: This review refers to the U.S. dubbed version. There’s also a UK interpretation as well. Why different English voices were needed for the U.S. is beyond me.

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