The new Hellboy reboot is utterly fascinating but in a way I doubt the filmmakers intended. The confluence of bizarre, arbitrary plotting, budget limitations, artistic self-indulgences, and tonal imbalances makes for a truly entertaining watch but for all the wrong reasons. A recent apt comparison would be the Wachowskis’ 2015 shining artifact-of-hubris Jupiter Ascending, an expensive and ambitious mess that left me dumbfounded how something like that could slip through the studio system. Right from the 500 A.D. opening prologue of Hellboy I was laughing under my breath, trying valiantly to make sense of what I was watching. It played like camp, ridiculous high-end camp, but I don’t think that was the intent of director Neil Marshall (The Descent) and company. I think they were going for a cocky, carefree sense of apathetic cool and wanted to have fun unleashing an adolescent fantasy of monsters, violence, and droll one-liners. Hellboy is an experience, all right.
Hellboy (David Harbour), child of hell and intended tool for evil Nazi world domination, has been raised by his surrogate father, Professor Bloom (Ian Mcshane), as a valuable asset in the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense (BPRD), the fighters against the things that go bump in the night. An ancient evil witch, The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), is being resurrected one dismembered piece at a time. Hellboy and his associates, psychic smartass Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and agent/were-jaguar Major Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), must track the whereabouts of the Blood Queen before she can fulfill her goal of unleashing hell on Earth.
The storytelling for the 2019 Hellboy is its biggest hurdle that it cannot get over. I think ninety percent of this movie’s dialogue, and storytelling in general, is expositional, and the remaining ten percent are groan-worthy quips (after kissing a gross witch, Hellboy says, “Somebody get me a mint” — har har). Every moment is explaining the person in the scene, the stakes of the scene, the purpose of the scene, the setting of the scene, the other people in the scene, and then re-explaining one of these elements. Every single freaking scene. Every ten minutes a new character is thrown into the mix and the cycle starts anew; it feels like the screenplay is cramming for a test by the end credits. In addition to these expository present-day scenes, there are five separate flashback sequences to explain superfluous back-stories. Do we need a flashback to explain the motivation behind the pig man, who is pretty much a standard henchman? Would the audience not believe he has a grudge against Hellboy if we lacked a key flashback to set up the history between our protagonist and this unimportant side villain? Does Daimio need a flashback to showcase his military team being attacked by something vaguely mysterious? Or can he just say he was attacked and we reveal later the full extent of his… were-jaguar powers? Did we need an entire segment where Hellboy travels to another dimension to tussle with the imprisoned witch Baba Yaga to find out a location? Did we need an entire Arthurian legend to set up a super special weapon that will kill our villain, or could it have been anything else? Then there are prophecies and counter-prophecies and I was exhausted by the end of these relentless two hours. It feels less like a coherent two-hour movie and more like an aborted television pilot intending to set up weekly wacky adventures and preview a larger realm of potential storytelling avenues. We even get the extended set-up for a hopeful sequel that will all most certainly never materialize.
The bonkers narrative inconsistency and runaway pacing make it feel like anything can happen at any moment, but not in a good way. It makes it feel like very little onscreen legitimately matters because the next second a character could just say, “Hey, here’s that thing,” or, “Here’s a new person that cancels out that previous thing.” It feels like the internal rules of the storytelling are completely ephemeral. I kept shaking my head and shrugging my shoulders, just like the breathless inconsistency of Jupiter Ascending. I was not a fan of the original 2004 Hellboy (if I recall I cited it as one of the worst films of that year) and one major reason was just the sheer number of goofy elements that felt overwhelming to any sense of a baseline of believability for me to gravitate toward. I feel like if I were to revisit the original Hellboy I might be more charitable (I enjoyed the second film), but this 2019 edition is an even bigger culprit because it feels like nothing in any previous ten minutes matters. The screenplay is structured like one disposable video game fetch-quest after another.
You can almost see the movie that Marshall and his team were aiming for, a weird hard-R action/sci-fi film with strange creatures and smarmy attitude. There are moments where you can tell a lot of fun was had designing certain ghouls and monsters, like the hell beasts unleashed that include a spike-legged monstrosity that ka-bobs people as it stomps. It’s moments like that where you see the zeal of crazy creativity that must have attracted Marshall and others to this project. It’s too bad there aren’t enough of them. There’s a sequence where Hellboy takes on a trio of giants that’s filmed in a style meant to evoke one long tracking shot. It doesn’t quite get there thanks to the limits of the budget’s special effects to conceal the seams. This is an issue throughout the movie. The special effects can get surprisingly shoddy, especially a spirit late in the film that shockingly resembled something akin to an early 2000s PS2 game. If the budget could not adequately handle these sequences then maybe there should have been less new characters and excursions and we could have concentrated on what we had and done it better.
I pity Harbour (Stranger Things) for stepping into the oversized shoes of fan favorite Ron Perlman. It’s quite a challenge to follow up the guy who seemed born to play this part, but Harbour does a good job with what he’s been given. The character is a bit more sulky and surly than we’ve seen in the previous incarnations. It makes Hellboy feel like a giant moody teenager chaffing under his dad’s house rules and saying nobody understands him. The practical makeup is great and still allows Harbour the ability to emote comfortably though he always appears to be grimacing. MacShane (TV’s American Gods) is a more ornery father figure than John Hurt, and he seems in a hurry to get through his lines and get out of here. Jovovich (Resident Evil… everything) is an enjoyably hammy villain with her withering sneers and overly dramatic intonations, but she knows what she’s doing here. The same can be said for what might be the most pointless character in the whole movie, a Nazi hunter known as “Lobster Johnson,” played by Thomas Haden Church (Easy A), who plays it like he’s in one of those heightened propaganda inserts from 1997’s Starship Troopers. The actual side characters for Hellboy are the weakest because the film doesn’t know what to do with them. Lane (American Honey) and Kim (TV’s Lost) are both good actors but the movie doesn’t understand that a character foil is more than a bickering, doubtful sidekick.
I would almost recommend watching the new Hellboy reboot for the same reasons I would Jupiter Ascending. It’s rare to see a big screen stumble where it feels like the movie is just being made up as it transpires before your eyes, where the mishmash of tones, intent, and mishandled execution is confusing, disconcerting, and even a little bit thrilling. This might not be a good film for various reasons but it can be a good watch. If that sounds like your own version of heaven, give the newest Hellboy a passing chance.
Nate’s Grade: C
Snow White & the Huntsman is meant to be a darker, splashier, more action-packed retelling of the classic story, and when compared with the earlier 2012 Snow White venture, Mirror, Mirror, it certainly merits all those descriptions. With Twilight star Kristen Stewart at the helm, this movie seems tailored for teens looking for some girl power. I have no problem with reworking fairy tales to suit our modern-day cultural interest, but just giving a person a shield and a sword does not instantly make them a warrior. And just plopping Snow White into a medieval war does not instantly make this a movie worth watching.
The wicked Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) killed the king and installed herself on the throne. She sucks the youth directly from ingénues to keep those good Theron looks of hers. She is the fairest of them all but she is warned that one day the king’s daughter, Snow White (Stewart), will overtake her in fairness. Snow’s been living in a prison cell for about ten years since her evil step-mom took power. She escapes her imprisonment and flees to the Dark Forrest beyond the castle grounds. The Queen’s powers will not carry over into the Dark Forrest (for whatever unexplained reason), so she hires the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to retrieve Snow White. The Huntsman changes sides, allies himself with Snow, and some dwarves, and then everyone bands together to retake the kingdom under Snow’s stout leadership.
Snow White & the Huntsman falls victim to that age-old screenwriting curse of failing to show us its work. I get so sick of movies, or any narrative really, that heaps praise upon some person and then never shows us any convincing evidence. If somebody is said to be a great poet, I want to hear one of his or her great poems. If somebody is said to be a great leader, then I want to see him or her inspire. To make up for the plot shortcomings, the screenplay reminds us at every moment of downtime how special Snow White is, how glorious she is, how different she is, how she is the only one to bring down the tyrannical rule of Ravenna. At no point did I believe any of this. Just because I have characters tell me, ad naseum, that someone is special doesn’t make it so. I need to see the evidence, and from what Snow White has to show, it is not that impressive. She’s somewhat resourceful, escaping from captivity, but she’s not exactly a figure of compelling strength, magnetism, or inspiration. She gives one “rally the troops” speech that gets the townspeople all fired up to go to war; it’s no St. Crispin’s Day speech, but even if we’re grading on a curve, it’s a pretty weak motivational speech. There’s no reason these people would line up behind this displaced damsel other than the fact that the plot requires them to do so. This Snow lady has, much like the infamous Bella Swan, the personality of a dead plant, and all the proclamations to the contrary will not change that fact. Snow White is just not an interesting of compelling person, period. The only way Stewart could be most fair is if we’re talking about being pale.
There are two reasons why Stewart is completely wrong for this part. First off, when we’re objectively talking about one who is “fairest of them all,” and Charlize Theron is in your movie, you’re going to lose every time. I’m not saying Stewart is wretched looking; quite the contrary. Debut director Rupert Sanders finds ways to film her that make her look lush and vibrant, giving more life to his heroine than his actress is capable of. Some would argue “fairest of them all” is not in references to physical beauty, which it has always been, but to the fact that Snow’s heart is so pure and good. If that’s the case, that’s just stupid. Then why even make it Snow White if the nemesis to the evil queen is simply somebody who is morally just? You could have had a commoner play the role and that would have brought about more interesting class conflicts. Secondly, Stewart is such a modern era actress, someone who has so effectively channeled the rhythms of a blasé generation of young people, that dropping her into a medieval time period is jarring. She doesn’t fit. Everything about her aloof acting style screams modern times. Maybe that’s why her speaking is kept to a minimum. She can ride on horseback, dress in Joan of Arc armor, but she’ll never strike anyone as a fitting Epic Heroine. I feel that her acting has blended with the sullen nature of Bella Swan to the point that it’s hard to separate the two. I’m not a Stewart hater at all. I actually think she can be quite a capable actress (see: Speak, Adventureland, the upcoming adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road) when paired with the proper material. Snow White & the Huntsman is not the proper material.
Aside from casting errors, this dark fairy tale doesn’t find any time to settle down and develop anything that could approximate characterization. Case in point: all we know about Snow is that she is a princess, everyone tells us how beautiful she has always been, she runs away, and then leads a rebellion, then she become queen (don’t pester me about spoilers). What else do we know about her? She’s defined entirely by outside forces, especially the charitable words of others. Snow White is not a character but a symbol, the prophetic Chosen One. She’s really a placeholder for every lazy archetype needed for epic fantasy. Stewart cannot connect with the material, so she seems to wander around, mouth agape, almost like she’s stumbling drunk through the whole movie. It seems that Snow White & the Huntsman just provides us the familiar elements of the story (evil stepmother, huntsman, dwarves) and expects us to fill in the rest with our own wealth of knowledge over the famous fairy tale. The rote insertion of a long-lost childhood friend/eventual love interest (Sam Claffin) is made tolerable only by the fact that he does not eventually become a love interest. This Snow doesn’t need a man, and good for her.
Sanders’ background in commercials definitely shows in his superb visual palate. The man knows how to frame a beautiful shot, and the visual highpoint is Snow’s hallucinogenic shamble through the Dark Forrest. Without the narrative traction, though, the movie starts to resemble one very long, very excruciating perfume ad, particularly when Snow comes across a white horse just laying down in the surf. Some of Sanders’ “ain’t nature great” creations deeper into the forest reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, especially with the godly stag. Despite its considerable faults, Snow White & the Huntsman is a great looking movie. Sanders’ crisp visuals are further enhanced by wonderfully theatrical costumes from multiple Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood (expect another award on that mantle come 2013). Queen Ravenna has more eye-catching outfits than Cher in her heyday. They seem to be made out of interesting organic elements, like a gown accented with diminutive bird skulls. She may be a ruthless tyrant, but man does that lady know how to dress. The fashion choices became so exotic and intriguing that it provided another reason for me to hope we’d get more time with the queen. The production design by Dominic Watkins (United 93) is fittingly medieval. At least there’s always something nice to look at with this monotonous bore.
I don’t really get the geography of this kingdom. By all accounts, it looks like one poorly guarded castle, one poor mud town, and a deep expanse of forest. The fact that it’s labeled as the Dark Forrest seems shortsighted, since it takes a few hours continued walking to come across all sorts of other civilizations, including our scarred matriarchal society. And then there are dwarves too. It all feels so listless, lacking any sort of connective tissue to help round out this magical world. After a while, it just becomes an assortment of cool stuff just put into a movie because it’s cool. The fact that none of these magical creatures or assorted villagers ever pop back again, except for our coronation in the resolution, means they were meaningless to this story other than being a rest stop.
The screenplay is surprisingly rushed; rarely do we spend more than five minutes in any location. I was interested in a city of women with self-inflicted facial scars to protect themselves from Ravenna coming for them. Just as things start to get interesting, it’s like the movie gets antsy and has to keep moving, and we’re off again. It’s hard to work up any sort of emotional engagement for anyone when we just spend a few minutes with these characters. The brisk pacing also gives the impression that the characters really don’t matter in the end. If it weren’t for a scene where the Huntsman blatantly explains every feeling he has to a comatose Snow White, we’d know nothing about him. The Huntsman is grieving over the loss of his wife, and oh she just happens to have been killed by Ravenna’s creepy albino brother (Sam Spruell). The pigment-challenged dolt confesses this convenient bit of information at a strange time. Why confess to killing a man’s wife when you’re battling to the death? Confess afterwards. It’s another example of lame screenwriting and nascent characterization. Even the queen gets a bizarre throwaway bit of characterization. For whatever reason, we have a flashback to when she was a child and her mother forced her to drink the magic immortality elixir. Why did we see this? It’s too late to make her sympathetic. And yet, even this brief glimpse at Ravenna’s back-story makes her more interesting than our feckless Snow White.
The bleakly brilliant Young Adult renewed my fondness for Theron as an actress. For a while, she seems to really sink her teeth into the role, lapping up the villainy in a satisfyingly menacing manner. It’s at this lower level of burn, the quiet intensity, where Theron is most enjoyable. When the movie requires her to raise her voice is when things start to go bad. She shrieks in such a campy, over-the-top, weird overly enunciated style. Any hope of secretly enjoying this movie died with Theron’s stagy agitation. Hemsworth (The Avengers) adopts a thick Scottish brogue but does little else. At times I found that he looked remarkably like a cartoon tough guy; just something about his face lends itself to clean, burly definitions. The best actor in the movie is Bob Hoskins (Mrs. Henderson Presents) as a blind dwarf, and perhaps that sentence alone should say all that needs saying.
This film is more Lord of the Rings than fairy tale. It’s got some battles and some siege action to pacify the men folk, but this is obviously aimed at the ladies. It’s a feminist, Robin Hood-esque reworking of the Snow White tale, recasting the damsel as action heroine, and I’d have no problem with this revision if: 1) the film made her an actual character, 2) it had been played by anyone other than Kristen Stewart. It’s got all the familial elements but they have no context in this reworking; it lacks internal logic. If I did not have sufficient background knowledge about this tale, I’d be left wondering why any of this should make sense (apples are poisonous now?). At every turn, the movie has to tell us why things should matter rather than showing us. There’s no evidence onscreen why this Snow White lady deserves any fuss. Snow White & the Huntsman is a movie obsessed with appearance and precious little else. Snow White & the Huntsman is one boring, truculent, dreary chore of a movie that goes on far too long. Just because it’s darker doesn’t make it more mature or exciting. Fairest of them all, my ass.
Nate’s Grade: C
The public reaction to the two previous Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, 2006’s Dead Man’s Chest and 2007’s At World’s End, were decidedly mixed, though that didn’t stop them each from earning a bazillion dollars. Fans didn’t care for the darker tone, the confusing interlocking of the story, and especially the bloated running times. It feels like Disney’s uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer must have taken notes from the sequel backlash and they amounted to: “Less of everything.” Welcome to less plot, less character, less involvement, and far less entertainment. Welcome to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
It’s been a few years since the non-world-ending events of At World’s End, and Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has been in London putting a new crew together. Except, it’s a Sparrow imposter. Turns out it’s Angelica (Penelope Cruz), a former lover of Jack’s who woud still like to settle some scores. She and her father, the feared pirate captain Blackbeard (Ian McShane), force Sparrow to lead them to the Fountain of Youth. Apparently, Jack at one point had the map. King George II (a delightfully hammy Richard Griffiths in one of the film’s best scenes) is in a race against the Spanish crown. The English monarch hires Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), Sparrow’s occasional enemy and ally, to find the fountain as well. It’s a race to see who can benefit from eternal youth first because, apparently, no one can share a source of water. Second grade teachers nationwide are very disappointed, Disney.
The entire enterprise just lies there on the screen, devoid of all energy or danger. The entire picture is just so shockingly inert, lazy, phoned in from every angle, missing any resonance of magic. Rob Marshall was the wrong man to be tapped as the new director of this series. Marshall has a fine eye for visuals, but the man couldn’t stage an action sequence to save his life. The Oscar-nominated director of musicals like Chicago and Nine stages his action sequences like dance sequences, which on paper don’t sound too far off. That’s until you realize action needs to incorporate story, location, build in tension, create organic obstacles, and be easy to follow. The action sequences in On Stranger Tides aren’t outlandish enough. It’s all so dull, a sword fight here a sword fight there. Short of a mermaid attack sequence, there’s no excitement to be found onscreen. That is disastrous for a franchise that has built a reputation for its anarchic, wild action and storylines. Marshall’s action angles and editing don’t communicate urgency. There’s no mood to these set pieces. The editing feels like it’s always catching up, always too late, needing a myriad of trims. Action cinema has been lambasted when it’s hyper edited and the audience cannot see what is happening; On Stranger Tides is not edited enough. One of the reasons these half-baked action sequences can never get going is because they always seem to be starting and stopping with the lackadaisical editing, always a step behind. The shots linger when they shouldn’t. The ingredients are there for a tasty meal but the chef (Marshall, screenwriters) doesn’t know what to do. The musical score by Hans Zimmer tries very hard to compensate and rattle the audience, compelling them to think what is transpiring on screen is exhilarating. It is not, and the music is just loud and annoying.
One of the chief criticisms of the two Pirates sequels were that they were overstuffed with storylines, characters, setups, and were just far too convoluted and confusing for their own good. So with On Stranger Tides we get a simplified, pared down one-off movie. Much of the film is just characters walking in circles and, likewise, talking in circles. Motivations are flimsy. The dialogue is stilted; Sparrow’s malapropisms and one-liners feeling sloppy (“I agree with the missionary’s position,” he quips. Groan). The entire premise is to get to the Fountain of Youth, and then they get there and, well, very little happens. The characters will talk about little, walk a few feet, talk about little more, and this process repeats. Barbossa should be an interesting foil, going from fop to pirate by film’s end, and yet his every appearance in the movie feels like when the next-door neighbor appears on a TV sitcom. It’s an intrusion meant to remind you that you, the audience, like this character, even if they don’t serve any point in the story. The plot lacks any twists and turns, ultimately having every competing force converge on the Fountain of Youth at exactly the same time for a slapdash climax that involves more lackluster sword fighting, just like all the other sequences. On Stranger Tides is a full half-hour shorter than the third movie, and yet it still feels like an eternity at two hours and seventeen minutes because it spends so much time doing so little.
At least the other three Pirates movies found clever ways to mingle their sci-fi mythology into an old-fashioned Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure. With On Stranger Tides, the sci-fi fantasy elements are just as underdeveloped as the characters. The Fountain of Youth is another of those magic do-hickeys that involve gathering magic tokens and blah blah blah, mermaid tears, silver chalices. Hey, if you wanted to drink up some mermaid tears, have them watch 2009’s Oscar-winning best documentary, The Cove. That ought to do it (a scene driving the mermaids into nets oddly reminded me of The Cove). Blackbeard and Angelica have a Jack Sparrow voodoo doll, which is highly effective, and yet this plot device is nearly forgotten for the entire film. There is no clever application of this unique device. Blackbeard has a magic sword that makes ships come alive. Why? How? It’s just another magical Macguffin, like Jack’s compass. Man-eating mermaid temptresses is an interesting idea, and a great way to squeeze in a lot of obfuscated nudity in a Disney film for teen boys who have not discovered the Internet. Too bad the mermaids are confined to one scene, albeit the highpoint of an otherwise bad film. Their feeding frenzy is the only moment in the film that channels that high-flying sense of verve that made the original so memorable. Don’t even get me started on the fishy romance presented between the captive mermaid (played with all the acting capability of a French perfume model) and a missionary (Sam Claflin). The whole experience feels like a shambled, draggy, inarticulate rip-off of Last Crusade, complete with a climactic drink from a magic chalice. I appreciate Marshall’s emphasis on practical special effects but if these are the results then bring back the previous sequels’ CGI vomitorium. This franchise feels like every ounce of energy and danger has been squeezed out of it.
So does that means that this Pirates venture is more character-based now that it has jettisoned side characters and complex plots? Fat chance. The problem is that Jack Sparrow is not a good lead protagonist. He’s not meant to be a classic good guy. He’s a libertine, somebody who makes selfish choices but will revert to do something proper when his conscience nags him enough. Sparrow is more of the dashing rogue at best. Does anyone remember how he was going to trick doomed men into signing their souls to Davy Jones? He also needs a foil, a striaghtman to bounce off of. I almost miss the wooden performance of Orlando Bloom. Without a do-gooding striaghtman, Jack Sparrow plays like a man adrift, searching for his groove. Unfortunately, Sparrow never finds it in this vehicle, which just asks him to go through motions and mannerisms. Blackbeard makes for one very bland villain. McShane (TV’s Deadwood) can glower and chew scenery with the best of them, but his baddie never seems too menacing. He burns one guy alive and threatens to kill his own daughter in order to keep Jack in line. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t even compare after the previous films included a monstrous ship captain who would readily slice prisoners’ throats and a British bureaucrat who hanged an eight-year-old before the freaking opening credits. Blackbeard, in contrast, just comes off like a crusty old man in need of a shave.
The film’s biggest addition was bringing in Jack’s former flame Angelica, a woman he robbed of her virtue and personally betrayed. But is there any tension? No, because Jack and Angelica don’t have any old feelings for one another they rehash (oh how I was even pleading for a trope like that), and the characters don’t really feel any antagonism either. Sure they will parry and threaten one another, but it’s so devoid of danger or tension or interest. This is no screwball romance. They feel like a couple that can’t be bothered working up any notable feelings toward one another. Therefore, all their shared scenes, and there are many, sink the film’s flow. Their bickering should bring some sparks. She should be exciting; she’s the daughter of a notorious pirate, she was going to be a nun until Jack Sparrow came sailing into her life. She should be sore. She should be angry. She should be a lot of things that ultimately the character is not. Cruz (Nine, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) doesn’t come across as an equal or love interest, she just feels like an annoying sidekick, harping on “Yack.” At one point, Jack tells her, “If you had a sister and a dog, I would take the dog.” When she’s got a personality like this, I’d agree.
Depp (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd) is obviously a comic gift and his Sparrow character will go down in the ages as one of the most universally beloved figures in cinema history. Everyone adores this character, a loveable scoundrel. But that doesn’t mean the screenwriters can just strand him in a crummy story with nothing to do. Depp will always be enjoyable when he puts on his Captain Jack eye liner and does that funky, swishy walk of his, but even he feels like he’s phoning this one in. He realizes that his character is trapped in a sodden adventure that offers little to do as a character and an actor.
I never thought I would say this, but On Stranger Tides makes me positively reevaluate the other Pirates sequels (I admit to being one of the few critics who liked Dead Man’s Chest a good deal). If this is what a simplified Pirates of the Caribbean film gets you, bring me back the messy, maddening plots of the previous films. Bring me back the scope, the danger, the clever mingling of genre elements, the adventure, the sizzle, the anarchy, and bring me back director Gore Verbinsky. Marshall has no feel for this material or how best to serve story. I never expected a movie with this kind of budget to be so lifeless. It all just sits there on screen, expecting the pieces to come together through ardent wishful thinking. On Stranger Tides suffers not because it strips away some of the excess and convolution that plagued the other films, it suffers because it gives no reason for its existence. It does not enrich the characters, the Pirates universe, or provide a rip-roaring story. Obviously, the film exists to line the coffers of Disney. It may earn plenty of booty this summer, but this is no way to rejuvenate a sinking franchise.
Nate’s Grade: C
The beauty of stop-motion animation is that everything is painstakingly handcrafted so that it’s like watching a whole other world. Coraline is a wonder for the eyes and I loved just watching the movement of characters, their facial expressions, which were all done in great fluid motions. I loved that I could see Coraline thinking just through how her eyes were animated. The story, based upon the Neil Gaiman book, is about an alternative world where people have buttons for eyes provides enough eerie intrigue and some creepy imagery to spook younger kids. This is a fantasy film that doesn’t shy away from childhood scares. Coraline has an altogether pleasant feel with its spunky heroine and fine vocal cast (Dakota Fanning did not get on my nerves at all), but what’s most special is just watching the movie come alive; it’s enchanting to watch this world simply exist. There are some terrific displays of imagination in the alternative world, and it all looks even snazzier in 3-D where the world takes on further depth. Director Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas) is the master of this peculiar art and thankfully Coraline follows its own visual style, never stooping to imitating Nightmare (like Corpse Bride). This is a visually stunning movie that may not leave much of an impression once it’s over (predictable story, thin plot, kind of slow ending). Coraline is a feast of artistic talent with something to discover in every awesome second.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Beloved by many and condemned by others, Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, is widely popular. New Line Cinema placed an expensive wager in adapting the first book of the series, The Golden Compass, with the express desire of having their own Narnia-style franchise. Chris Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy) was hired to adapt and direct the enterprise. The final tally had the budget somewhere around $180 million, add in an extra $60 million for marketing, and New Line was pretty much banking their studio’s fortunes on this would-be fantasy blockbuster. Trouble is, there is not built in audience for a Golden Compass movie. The books are more popular overseas and less than ten years old, so there hasn’t been enough time to build a sense of lore or greater anticipation, like with Narnia. As of this writing, it looks like The Golden Compass is going to tap out at about $70 million domestic haul, and while I have no doubt that figure will be much higher overseas, I do not think it is a coincidence that soon after The Golden Compass fizzled New Line buried the hatchet with Peter Jackson and started the process on engineering two Hobbit movies. You see, that’s guaranteed money in the bank unlike The Golden Compass.
On a parallel Earth, people walk around with their souls in the form of animals known as daemons. These creatures serve as conscience, servant, and protector. Until a child reaches adulthood the daemon will often change form until it settles on one creature, be it a cat or a hawk or a toad. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) has discovered an inter-dimensional hole around the Arctic Circle, and a magical substance known as Dust is seeping through. The all-powerful Magisterium feels that they know best for others and that people need to be told what to do, and they most certainly do not appreciate Lord Asriel’s scientific discovery. They have decided to silence him permanently as he travels to the Arctic.
Meanwhile, Lord Asriel’s niece Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) is investigating poor orphans that seem to be vanishing around her school. The Magisterium has taken an interest in Lyra and “asked” that she accompany Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), an icy woman with a wicked monkey as a daemon. She has great hopes for Lyra, but soon the child realizes she is a prisoner in the care of Mrs.. Coulter and that the Magisterium is responsible for abducting children and conducting experiments to remove their daemons from them forever.
She escapes and heads to the North, and finds help amongst nomadic people known as Gyptians, an air cowboy (Sam Elliott), a group of flying witches led by Serafina (Eva Green, as lovely as ever), and a scarred and grumpy polar bear named Lorek (voiced by Ian McKellen) who has been exiled from the Ice Bear kingdom after losing in one-on-one combat with the cruel current king, Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane). Lyra leads this motley crew to the Arctic where the Magisterium is keeping the absconded children for experiments.
Most noticeably absent is a sense of wonder. The Golden Compass kind of plods along, and when new magical creatures are introduced they’re done so with such matter-of-fact complacency. If they can’t pretend to be impressed then why should I? There’s a difference between playing the fantastic straight and just shrugging it off. The structure of the screenplay doesn’t help things much. Many subplots feel rushed or grafted on to a lumbering plot that collects minor characters like static cling; it isn’t until the climax that the whole slew of people combines forces. As a result, some subplots are far more interesting than others, like the world of armored polar bears. This imaginative diversion, like much of Golden Compass, reveals itself as simply a side step in a plot littered with nothing but side steps. Just as soon as the storyline has started it’s pretty much over and the movie has moved on to new ground.
The movie fluctuates between the silly and the confusing. The hardest part of any fantasy film is establishing the rules and laws of this new realm, and The Golden Compass seems a tad overburdened in trying to explain its world. Weitz’s adaptation is heavy in lugubrious exposition without the benefit of drawn-out explanation. Often some character will explain something briefly and then the audience is left to orient themselves with this new morsel of information. Cosmic dust, alternate dimensions, Magesteriums, daemons, Gyptians, polar bears, witches, prophecies, it’s a bit much to decipher for an adult let alone a child (I’m convinced that the sluggish pace and confusing jumble of a story will totally bore kids). The golden compass itself is a very awkward creation and really has little purpose or connection to the events of the film. First off, in order to pose a question a person must align three hands to varying pictures to best describe what they will ask (how many pictures do you need to ask where you left your keys?).
The book’s anti-ideology stance has been severely watered down and replaced with half-hearted euphemisms. Gone are any overt references to the church or Christianity, instead the movie couches its ire in vague authoritarian terms, a giant entity that wants to separate children from their daemons (souls) to purify them from Dust (sin). I do find it amusing that the villainess is a tall, thin blonde woman named Mrs. Coulter, though this seems more coincidence than indignation. There is a brief scene in the film where a bunch of frowning, older white men (one of them Christopher Lee) sit around a table clucking their tongues and talking up their evil scheme; that’s about as provocative as the movie gets. But by sanitizing the book’s provocative nature, Weitz has produced a movie adaptation that feels too silly to be taken at face value and too bland to be taken as anything but.
From an effects-driven perspective, The Golden Compass is admirable even if few of the CGI works manage to truly dazzle. The special effects are sturdy for a tale with such demands as talking animals and winter icescapes. The bear battle is the film’s highlight but a climax involving a sprawling brawl, which visually indicates a person’s death by a daemon vanishing into a cloud of gold smoke, is fun to watch. Sadly, an ongoing sense of fun or enjoyment is missing from most of The Golden Compass. It feels more dutiful when it should be wondrous and timid when it should be exciting.
The Golden Compass is a less spirited fantasy adventure that skimps on what makes the genre special. It has no sense of awe and wonder, and even worse the movie is structured in a rush with little time for clarification and growing characters. The film is crammed with cheerless exposition and the bulk of the plot is built around a lame rescue attempt. Weitz has sanitized the intellectual and religious provocations of the book to appeal to greater mass audiences, but by doing so he’s robbed the audience of substantial subtext. The Golden Compass even ends on kind of an unresolved, Fellowship of the Ring, “Oh, it’s over” kind of way, finishing before even reaching the climax of the first book it’s based upon. I have read that the studio shot these scenes, and you can even see them in the original trailer and access them via the video game tie-in. They wanted to save them for the start of a second movie. It may be painfully obvious to most, but allow me to say it: there is not going to be a second movie. The Golden Compass is a slightly entertaining but mostly charmless fantasy film. Someone figure out the right three pictures to ask, “How could we have made this movie better?”
Nate’s Grade: C+