Disney’s new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, is coming at an opportune time and in some ways it’s a movie of the moment. It’s all about a divided nation learning to heal and learning to trust one another despite bitter disputes. I can only hope the ensuring months and years of political dispute in this country can end as fortunately as Disney’s fantasy fable.
We follow Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to save her people and the divided lands of Kumandra from a mythical evil that has returned to the land. Dragons gave their lives to fight this monstrous force known as the Druun that turns life into stone. The world has been divided into separate nations surrounding a dragon-shaped body of water. There is Tail, Claw, Heart, Fang, and Spine, Raya ventures to uncover the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon that originally thwarted the Druun, except Sisu says she’s not exactly the best at magic and dragon stuff. Together, Sisu and Raya are chased by Raya’s childhood nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), the next-in line with Fang, the nation blamed for the new outbreak of the Druun. Raya must find a broken piece of Sisu’s dragon stone from each nation to level up her powers and banish the Druun once and for all and return everyone who has turned to stone, including her father.
In many ways, Raya feels like Disney trying to do its own fantasy universe akin to the Last Airbender series. The world building is tantalizing and feels lived-in, the lands distinct and with personalities and different cultures, and those cultures are respective of their environments. I was pleased to continue with the movie and discover more well laid details that built out this world and its inhabitants, the relationships to the dragons, and the veneration of magic. The stone statues each represent a person succumbed to the evil, itself a byproduct of the inability of the splintered nations to unify and trust one another (more on theme later). I appreciated the respect and reverence given to the fallen and to the dragon statues as well. There’s a scene where Namaari and her crew are walking through a field of overgrown dragon statues and they treat it with such reverence like it was a war memorial. For Namaari personally and for Fang especially, the sacrifice of these creatures is one that humanity has been struggling to live up to. I also appreciated that the magic and lore is presented as we need it, so that the audience is overloaded early with an onslaught of new information needed to orient this make-believe world. The filmmakers do a fine job of building from previous established information and expanding naturally to complicate their world and the larger conflict. The plot through line is left pretty simple, collect the pieces of the magic rock, but because of the accessible formula it also builds anticipation we can attune to. It gets me to wonder what new power Sisu will inherit, how that new nation has dealt in the ensuing time with the power and influence of the magic shard, and what new fun character we’ll pick up along the way.
Raya is also an exciting edition to the Disney animated collection. I’ve watched the movie twice, and would watch again, but I really honed in on the action during my second viewing. The fight choreography is impressive and not simple standard kicks, punches, and sword slashes. There are specific moves and countermoves here, and the long takes with the action allow the audience to appreciate the complexity of the brawls as if we were watching The Raid. There were some moments that genuinely gave me goosebumps. I also appreciated that the action isn’t gratuitous; each scene has an emotional connection to a character and their conflict, even the many run-ins between Raya and Namaari trying to prove themselves against one another. This is also a movie where we are replete with strong female characters, diversity, and women in positions of power, and nobody makes a big deal out of it. It’s accepted as the norm and I think that’s smart. It’s nice to add another kick-ass Disney “princess” and for there to be not a single mention of romance throughout the movie. There are bigger issues and the ladies aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention but over their personal rivalry and anger. For a briskly paced 100-minute movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has enough action and awe to provide satisfying thrills for all ages.
Where Raya admirably succeeds is with its adherence and execution of theme. The characterization can be limited at times for anyone beyond our protagonist, but that doesn’t mean that the supporting players are without charm and resonance and importance. They contribute nicely, just in other ways. The screenplay does an excellent job of supporting the theme of trust and unity, a topic that is in short supply today in a turbulent time of social and political upheaval. The different clans of this fantasy land have resentment, animosity, and decades of score-settling to make it even harder to trust, especially anyone from the Fang nation, the people blamed for the current epidemic. It’s much easier to project anger on an outward force rather to blame than look at our own culpability, and it’s even harder to take that first step to repair the damage done from broken trust and manipulation. Still, the entire journey of Raya, both film and character, is on the importance of taking that step regardless of whether or not it works. Each character from a different nation represents another factor in dealing with grief, and each has reasons not to trust the others, to only think about themselves and their interests, to perpetuate a failing cycle.
The movie articulates the dangers of holding onto grudges and distrust with every moment, so when the climax happens it’s a small yet very meaningful payoff, where the characters don’t make grand final stands and showcase amazing powers against an overwhelming force. No, instead it’s about demonstrating faith in the possible goodness of another person and taking a leap. Sisu suggests offering a friendly gift to make amends and it becomes a running joke but it’s also indicative of her character and personal experiences, how she differs from the contemporary and more nihilistic world, and the larger theme. The movie mentions several points how empowering trust can be, to be valued and believed in, regardless of mistakes and misgivings, and Raya embodies this with every decision, meaning even the small moments and silly side characters have a larger purpose and contribution to the overall message of this tale.
There are some elements that hold Raya and the Last Dragon back from true greatness, joining the ranks of Disney’s recent epic 2010s run of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Moana, and yes, Frozen (sorry haters, it’s still great). As I said before, the supporting characters are kept more at the idea level than multi-dimensional. They each represent a facet of loss, but I would have liked a little more attention given to them to have more tiny character moments and maybe even some realized arcs. As it stands, they support Raya on her arc and they become subsumed by her arc, and it works, but there was an opportunity to deepen these cute supporting players into more meaningful members. There are some elements that feel like holdovers or clues about earlier drafts, little remnants of scrubbed storylines. Repeatedly Sisu will remind us what an excellent swimmer she is as her special dragon power and we witness this once to use in a minor escape. With the build-up given, you’d expect the movie would make more with this in a climactic manner.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy and exciting entry into the Disney animated canon and presents a fantasy world of its own making with detail, ingenuity, and care, supporting a central theme with every primary creative decision, even if some of them hinder what could have expanded the film into an ever bigger and more diverse ensemble. As it is, it’s all about Raya, who is an engaging and compelling figure trying to prove herself and atone for her own guilt. Her rival is given consideration as well from the pressure she’s under to serve her people. However, this is the Raya show (her name is in the title after all) and that’s plenty for 100-plus minutes of entertainment. Raya and the Last Dragon is a good-to-great animated fantasy film and one I think could support further exploration. This could be the start of Disney’s own Airbender world if they wanted. The animation is fluid and colorful and gorgeous and the character designs are easy to distinguish without placing undue emphasis on exaggerated features to characterize this as a Chinese fable. The vocal acting is great, and by the end of the movie, as its theme comes full circle, I don’t mind admitting I was even tearing up a bit. It’s a well-designed and well-developed fantasy with a secure emotional foundation to build upon.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I was not a big fan of writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s first movie, 2012’s indie darling and surprise Oscar contender, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Some choice highlights from my mixed review include: “This movie is awash in all sorts of tones and storylines, failing to cohesively gel together or form some kind of meaningful message…. [it] offers half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register… This is just a swampy mess of a movie, one that sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. It’s admirable from a technical standpoint but, as a movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing.” So as you can see, I wasn’t exactly heartbroken that Zeitlin took eight years for his follow-up, Wendy, a loose reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story. It has many of the same flaws as Beasts and not enough of its few virtues, which means Wendy is its own lost movie experience.
We follow a group of children from a working-class diner waitress in small-town Louisiana. They watch the trains speed by on the neighboring tracks and dream of far-off adventures. Wendy (Devin France) and her two younger twin brothers (Gage and Gavin Naqui) sneak off one night onto a passing train and meet Peter (Yashua Mack), a boy who promises to guide them to a magical island where they will never grow old as long as they believe in Mother, the spirit of the island and embodied as a giant glowing fish. Wendy enjoys the freedom but worries if she’ll ever see her mother again and if this extended excursion is worth that level of sacrifice.
Maybe I’m just going through Peter Pan fatigue or maybe this latest variation on the mythology of J.M. Barrie just failed to provide any really thorough message, theme, or entry point of interest for me. Wendy seems to be going for whimsy and flights of fancy, once again attaching its perspective to that of children escaping into the realm of fantasy as a means of avoiding the hardships of their impoverished lives and what it means to be a working stiff (one child in the opening runs away at the prospect of becoming “a mop and broom man”). It’s meant to be diverting but it’s never really that exciting or involving, tapping into a wellspring of awe. There’s a beautifully idyllic island and a volcano, and of course our magic fish, but there aren’t nearly enough genuine magical elements to convey that desired whimsy. The freedom of a life without adults seems less free when there’s less to do. Much of the movie feels closer to The Florida Project where a group of poor kids are playing around junk to keep from being bored. This Neverland universe feels very limited as far as what can be done. They run around, they pretend, there are even some decrepit buildings, but what else? There isn’t really a society here in concert with our lost children and former lost children. It’s a pretty empty island retreat.
Perhaps that was Zeitlin’s goal, to strip away the romanticized notions we attach to forever staying young, chasing the fleeting feeling of the past while ignoring the present and adulthood, but this more critical theme doesn’t come across thoroughly either. There is one interesting aspect of the island’s unexplained magic and that is the older adults are former lost boys and girls who lost faith in Mother, thus activating their advanced aging and expulsion from Peter’s posse. I like the idea that the future villainous pirates of a Neverland are former lost boys; it gives an interesting personal dynamic for Peter. These adults, though, want to go back to being young again and they are convinced that killing Mother will achieve this, and it doesn’t go as planned. The deconstruction of fantasy with real violence doesn’t work because the consequences aren’t at the same level of realism. A child, in an effort to avoid growing old, makes a drastic decision, but the brushed-off aftermath makes the insertion of the harsher violence feel perfunctory. Peter is portrayed as an idealist leader one moment and ignorant and selfish the next, even with Wendy scolding him that there’s nothing wrong with growing up and becoming an adult, despite the mixed message of the former lost boys. The movie concludes with a goofy sing-a-long for magic resolution purposes that is played so earnestly that it makes it hard for me to believe Zeitlin was intending to be too critical of his magical world.
Is Wendy about rejecting adulthood or the unavoidable perils of rejecting adulthood? I cannot say because the themes are so muddled with such a precious lack of significant storytelling content. Once again, a Zeitlin film feels like an improvised series of redundant scenes, where we watch kids play fight, we watch kids yell at one another, we watch kids run, we watch kids swim, all with headache-inducing handheld camerawork, but do we get to know these kids on a deeper level where they feel like people rather than figures? The plot of Wendy, written by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is very unclear about the rules of its magical world, which makes for a hard time to understand why anything is really happening. It also makes the movie less fun to experience because we don’t get to play along with the discovery of a fantasy world, its new parameters, and how we can develop and complicate them (not that there’s really much to discover; Neverland gets old quickly). This is definitely a movie that’s meant to convey more in feeling and inference, so the plot beats are very inconsequential outside of a few key movements. I didn’t find myself caring about any of the kids and their general well-being, even after they take it upon themselves to make some rash medical decisions. Wendy is our best realized character as she at least seems conflicted about the appeal and consequences of staying young indefinitely. The others are easily replaceable.
Wendy isn’t a bad movie and it’s clearly a very personally designed project from Zeitlin given the years of preparation. It has consistently gorgeous photography by Sturla Brandth Grovlen, the first film production shot on location on Montserrat island, and the score by Dan Romer (Maniac, Atypical) excels at the big swooning, churning melodies that crescendo into triumphant bliss. But even these positive technical qualities can only distract you momentarily from the missing center of Wendy, the story and characters and themes and discernible messages. I’m not asking for my entertainment to spoon-feed me what to think and feel from my art, but having a consistent message, or even an accessible entry point to decode and debate the art would help, as would engaging characters and a plot that felt more meaningful than just another disposable color to blend into a murky abstract mess of childhood whimsy, magic realism, and coming-of-age themes. A little of Wendy goes a long way, and two hours gets quite tedious. I just cannot foresee people falling under the spell of this movie. I wrote that Beasts had “half-formed ideas, strange, conflicting imagery, and characters that are rather thinly written and barely register,” and this much is also true with Wendy. I also wrote that Beasts was “an exercise in eclectic indie navel-gazing,” and this much is also true with Wendy. Maybe I’m just not the right fit for a Benh Zeitlin film. This is two hours of kids running around on an island without supervision and the occasional Peter Pan element thrown in. Maybe that sounds like a grand retreat as a viewer but it made me happy to be an adult and leave.
Nate’s Grade: C
Cadia: The World Within (pronounced Kuh-Dee-uh) is a fantasy film that was made in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio and directed by an alumnus of my own college. 24-year-old Cedric Gegel (The Coroner’s Assistant) wrote and directed Cadia, which was inspired by a story he was making up to entertain 12-year-old triplets backstage during a theater show. He spent years revising and elaborating that tale and elected to make it a big screen adventure, and starring those same triplets in starring roles. He even attracted known actors like Corbin Bernson and one of the two Harry Potter twins. I attended the special Capital University screening before Cadia begins hitting festivals and seeking distribution. As I have in the past, I happen to know several people that were involved in this production, primarily behind the camera, and I promise to try and be as objective as possible in this review.
Three teenagers are dealing with the recent loss of their mother. Renee (Carly Sells), David (Keegan Sells), and Matthew (Tanner Sells) are now living with their Aunt Alice (Nicky Buggs) and their Grandpa George (Bernson). One day, a magic set of stones takes the kids to another world, Cadia, where they meet Elza (John Wells) shortly after escaping a monster. They learn there are dueling factions in this realm, and Tannion (James Phelps) wants one of the siblings to tap into an elemental power supply to rewrite the cosmos for the better.
I’m going to caution that this review will likely sound more negative than I intend. I want to be supportive of local filmmakers and encourage their efforts, and any movie by itself is something of a miracle considering the countless people who work in tandem to bring together a vision. The people behind Cadia seem like genuinely sweet and thoughtful individuals who cared about the movie they were making. I wish them all well. However, it does nobody good to avoid constructive criticism where it’s warranted, because ignoring problems is unhelpful. The characters of Cadia might even agree with that sentiment. So, dear reader, let’s dive into what doesn’t quite work here and keeps Cadia from being more than the sum total of its many influences and good intentions. Much of the faults chiefly come down to the writing.
Fantasy stories are tricky because they need to be transporting but also accessible, otherwise they will feel like they’re being made up on the spot or like a private story that wasn’t intended for a wider audience (Lady in the Water, anyone?). With Cadia, the influences are easy to pick up on (Narnia, Harry Potter, Peter Pan, the Bible) but the rules and understanding of this new world feel too murky and unclear. It’s a magic world with… warring factions that are at war because… power? I never understood who just about anyone was and what their purpose served beyond allegiances. It’s too vague and the world feels too small and undeveloped, making it feel less a new world and more like a weekend excursion. What is the relationship between this family and the history of Cadia exactly as it comes to Grandpa George? Did this world come into existence with George telling the story and thus linking it to this particular family and giving them larger importance, or did it exist on its own? Why do some people have powers and what are the extents of those powers, the limitations, the costs of those powers? Is dead mom alive in this world or simply a ghost? Are there more potential ghosts? What started the factions? There are teleporting stones but are they direct portals or can they be manipulated? It feels like this should be of greater importance just from a novelty of how they can be clever (and cheap to execute). There’s one malevolent monster witnessed but otherwise it’s just a bunch of people hanging out in the woods. Too many of the too many characters are just sitting around, seemingly like they’re waiting for something to do. Cadia operates on a level that assumes you know what is happening or find this new world intriguing, but as a viewer it feels like you’re missing vital critical info to make that happen.
Fantasy world building is essential because the new world has to be teeming with interesting life and details, the stuff a viewer could immerse themselves within. Barring that, the fantasy details can be shaped and pruned to serve the thematic journey of a character, externalizing the internal. I thought Cadia was going here. It kind of does and kind of doesn’t. The central trio are dealing with their grief over their late mother, except when the movie doesn’t need them to. I thought the world of Cadia would present itself as symbol for the grief and anger of a character, luring him or her as temptation to reverse course and save dear dead mom, and therefore we would learn a lesson about healing and about facing loss. This element is present, yes, but “element” is the proper term; it’s not a theme or anything larger in plotting, it’s merely there as needed like any other sudden magic power that goes without explanation or question. Overall, the fantasy world just felt under developed in detail and scope.
I was hoping for the thematic personalization because there’s a general lack of urgency when it comes to any looming sense of danger. For being transported to a new world, these kids take it all in amazing stride. Even after a long-clawed monster chases after them, the kids are so casual and nonplussed the next scene even as they have just barely eluded this monster. Nobody seems in a hurry to return home. We’re constantly told of warring factions but the only outward danger felt is from this one monster, and even when the kids are close their fear seems fleeting. The characters they encounter don’t present (immediate) danger, which makes the film feel rather loping and without conflict and danger. It’s lacking potent stakes. What’s stopping these kids from returning? What’s stopping anyone from anything? The world of Cadia is too plain and safe, which coupled with its undeveloped nature, only makes things less interesting. If the world doesn’t present interest, it can at least present a palpable threat, and Cadia does not.
Another miscue that hampers the stakes is that the film keeps cutting back and forth between the kids in Cadia and the adults on Earth. Why? Do we really need to see Aunt Alice having coffee with her friend while the kids are lost in a new realm? Do we really need two check-ins with Grandpa George to literally watch him put together a puzzle? Cutting away from the discovery of the magic world to watch characters do mundane things back home is detrimental to pacing and establishing a growing threat. Can it be much of a threat if the kids seem chill and we cut back to puzzle formation? Without a threat, without an interesting setting, and without a personalization toward one of the main characters, Cadia feels like a less-than-magical retreat.
The characters also suffer from both being underwritten and simply having far too many of them. The main trio of real-life triplets are left as archetypes; there’s the more introverted one (The Nerd), the more rebellious, aggressive one (The Jock), and the… girl (The Girl). Seriously, that’s her characterization. The other brothers get starting points on a scale to grow from but her characterization is simply not being the things her brothers are, and also being a girl. It’s not like the characters are running away from confronting the hard truth of death and Cadia will allow them to better process their grief, like A Monster Calls and I Kill Giants. Other characters talk more about their mother than the actual children of that mother mourning that mother. It’s difficult for me to go much further in describing the characters because once they travel to the fantasy realm their characterization gets put on hold as they encounter a slew of dull new people.
There are several scenes where we introduce a group of new, personality-free characters. That’s the other necessity with fantasy, writing larger, expressive, and memorable characters. There’s a Lost Boys-esque group of centuries-old Cadia dwellers, but this group could have been one person, could have been twelve, because there aren’t differentiated characters within, only actors fulfilling space in the frame. This isn’t the fault of the actors. They just weren’t given material to work with. A way to establish a memorable character is through a memorable entrance or at least with significant contrasts. Cadia has trouble with this even as it presents characters on opposite sides of its vague conflict that is eventually resolved through platitudes about love that could have been reached at any time prior to the characters’ fortuitous arrivals. The narrative feels polluted with extraneous characters that exist for no other reason than to squeeze another actor onscreen. Characters should have a purpose for their inclusion and the narrative shouldn’t be more or less the same without their involvement. With Cadia, you could eliminate 80% of the characters and still tell this story. Do we need a lady in the river? Do we need two untrustworthy schemers to tempt the kids? Is the cousin needed? When the big fight arrives, with side-versus-side, your guess is as good as mine who they are, why they are important, and what they’re even doing here.
The dialogue is also heavily expository, where characters are tasked with asking questions or making statements so that the audience will know critical points of information. Characters talk in inauthentic manners, the kind of stuff that seems like they know an audience is watching. “I know you’re having a hard time dealing with mom’s death,” sort of thing. Or you’ll have characters talk so point-of-fact, like this exchange: “Who’s good and bad?” and then, “Well that depends on who ‘you’ is. Good and bad depends.” It’s pretty on-the-nose, but even ignoring that, the two sentences in response are redundant, conveying the same idea. Naturally exposition is going to be needed when establishing an alternate, living world, but when it feels like characters are going from person to person to only digest info because the plot demands it, then it feels less like a film narrative and more of a museum display guiding you to the next exhibit.
The acting is a high-point for the movie. The triplets all handle their first big screen acting job reasonably well and demonstrate future promise. My favorite was probably Carly Sells as Renee, which is even more impressive considering she has the least amount of material to work with of the three. She has a particular sense of poise that lends to better imbuing life to her character. Keegan Sells is at his best in the beginning as he’s internalizing his grief and frustrations. Tanner Sells has a nonchalance to much of the world, which can be funny. Bernson is a lovable grump that doesn’t feel too off from his father figure in TV’s Psych. He doesn’t have much to do in the film but he’s a welcome presence who feels glad to be there. Phelps (Harry Potter) and Wells (Piranha Sharks) do a fine job as the resident schemers, concealing their intentions. Brittany Picard (Alan and the Fullness of Time) had a nice ethereal charm even in brief moments as the departed mother Maggie. Why wasn’t she in more? If mom is potentially alive, or at least corporeal in Cadia, why isn’t that a narrative resource to be tapped for further drama especially as it pertains to acknowledging loss? I was most impressed by Buggs (Powers) who was the one immediately processing the emotions of grief. She sells her scenes with subtlety and grace. Another pleasant standout was Grace Kelly (Kill Mamba Kill!) as Jade, the school guidance counselor. She has a presence that grabs you, and the fact that she’s a Marine athlete makes me yearn for her to have a starring action vehicle that can show off a full range of her capabilities. She’s a breakout star waiting to happen, so somebody make it happen.
The technical merits are pretty agreeable for being a low-budget feature, but there are a couple aspects that I think take away from the overall achievement. The cinematography is very limited in how it presents the scenes, which follows the pattern of master and then shot-reverse shot. There are very long running takes with a swooping Steadicam that centers the action. It can be impressive at points but at other points, as the scene carries on without variation, I began to wonder if this was continuing because, frankly, that was all they had to work with. The editing can also be curious with certain choices. There’s a scene where Aunt Alice runs out of the coffee shop, having learned of the children’s disappearance. Instead of the scene ending there, the moment holds for another four or five seconds on Jade’s reaction, which is fine considering later revelations. But even after that we hold on the scene and a waitress comes to ask about taking away the coffee cups, and Jade says, “Yes, you can take them.” Why was any of that necessary? The scene just carries on awkwardly after its import has literally left the building. During the family dinner, the camera circles around the table for a full minute while they gab and reach for the food. Did we need a full minute of them vamping while eating? Is this included simply because they wanted to maximize the amount of Bernson screen time they could? The costumes are pretty standard fantasy garb except when they’re not. During the big showdown, there are characters dressed in flowing robes and tunics, and then there are others just in ordinary clothes. There’s one woman in like a polka-dot skirt and it just directly draws your eye. This incongruity almost made me chuckle, and then polka-dot skirt lady is given prominence in the fight too. It’s unfair to be too critical on any technical limitations of a low-budget film as long as they don’t impede the vision and intent of the filmmakers, but these decisions occasionally took me out of the movie.
I honestly feel conflicted about writing this review because I knew it was going to have some significant criticisms. It’s genuinely impressive that a film like Cadia: The World Within got made, attracted known actors, and pulled it all off on a low budget with many artists who were eager to sink their teeth into a bigger project. I definitely think there is an audience for Cadia and that there will be plenty of people that genuinely enjoy the movie on its own terms. Afterwards, at the screening, one such fan asked about the possibility of a sequel (Gegel respectfully demurred). For me, the fantasy world felt diminished, opaque, and too often as ordinary as the “normal world.” The characters are kept at an archetypal level, or are superfluous additions, and the plot seems to lack urgency, propulsion, or needed steps to tap into larger emotions and themes or intrigue. It felt like watching a bunch of people having fun with make believe and putting on a show, and they just happened to have larger names involved in the fun. Cadia is a family fantasy that might play well for its intended audience but unfortunately is a fantasy that feels less than magical.
Nate’s Grade: C
I walked away from the new live-action Aladdin feeling less agitated than I did for the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, and I’m trying to determine whether that was because this was a better interpretation or simply because my expectations have now been calibrated to know what to expect from these remakes, namely an inferior version of an animated classic. I’ve written about it before, recently with Dumbo, but the problem with the recent spate of live-action Disney releases is that they are too new, too beloved, and thus the audience is beholden to their nostalgia and resistant to dramatic changes from those original movies. The audiences demand fidelity over creative liberties. Without much attempted change, the finished versions end up feeling like big screen cover bands, going through the motions imitating the famous predecessor but ultimately reminding you how much more you’d rather be watching that original. I felt it with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast and now I’ve felt it again with the 2019 Aladdin.
The plot should be familiar to anyone who grew up with the 1992 classic. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is an orphaned street thief (“street rat”) who runs into Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), a woman yearning to have a life on her own terms rather than being sold off via marriage. The evil advisor Jafar (Marwin Kenzari, a surprise highlight) is after a special hidden treasure, a long-lost lamp said to house a wish-granting genie. Aladdin is entrusted on this mission, gets trapped, and meets Genie (Will Smith), a boisterous figure trapped by the laws of the lamp. He must grant his new master’s three wishes, with some limitations. Aladdin wishes to become a prince and impress Jasmine, but he must withhold the truth, or so he feels. What rich woman could fall in love with a poor theif with nothing to offer but his heart?
So does the new Aladdin bring anything new and improved? It does sport a more feminist-friendly message and a more active Jasmine, who wishes not to simply be a free-minded princess but her people’s sultan, taking on the responsibility of leadership. It’s a nice addition that makes her more integrated into the story and developed. Unfortunately, Jasmine is also the recipient of the newest songs and they are, in a word, dreadful. They have little life to them or are crushed to death by simplified intentions, like when Jasmine storms around in a quasi-dream sequence belting how she won’t be silenced by the sexist men of her kingdom (the song is called… “Speechless”). It’s a pretty tuneless number and it doesn’t help that the entirety of it feels screamed at the audience. The portraits of Arabs aren’t terribly improved. Thirty years later and much of the story is still built around rather stereotypical depictions of heroic and villainous Arabic figures, though the movie seems to also be influenced by neighboring Bollywood. It just feels like there were some areas the filmmakers could have updated in the ensuing 27 years, but perhaps again they were too hesitant to not anger their core audience of fans.
Guy Ritchie (Snatch, King Arthur) was a strange choice when he was tapped to direct and, having seen the finished product, he shows no feel for musicals whatsoever. It’s a surprising realization considering his background in action and crime movies, genres that likewise rely upon a heavy understanding of choreography, use of screen space, editing, and furthering plot with action. It’s apparent very early, by the time we segue into “One Jump Ahead,” that this is going to be a tepid experience devoid of a sense of energy and style. Ritchie isn’t a bland director even in his bad movies, but his Aladdin feels like a for-hire gig where he has mitigated any stylistic flourishes. Aladdin is also a mystifying 38 minutes longer than the original cartoon and yet feels far more rushed. Even the song numbers feel like we’re speeding through them. The signature showstopper “A Whole New World” feels less than revelatory as we quickly traverse the city at night, muddy colors making the magic carpet ride less than magical. The entire movie feels weirdly paced and awkwardly developed, rushing to hit familiar plot points and yet paradoxically taking longer to do so. I’ll say that it doesn’t feel like a movie that runs over two hours long.
There is a middle portion of Aladdin becomes something like a fantasy version of Hitch, a romantic comedy where Smith was playing the confident wingman to an awkward foil. This is the only part of the film that feels like it’s settling down and giving the characters time to develop in a more organic fashion. The interplay between Aladdin and the Genie is entertaining and Smith puts his smooth charm to maximum effect during this sequence. The filmmakers even add a love interest for the Genie himself played by Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live), and this allows him to put his own advice to the test and stumble in the game of affections as well. It’s quite reminiscent of Hitch but it made me smile and laugh more than any other part. It also felt like the one portion of the film where it was staking out its own identity and utilizing the talents of its own cast. I wish the entire movie had been retrofitted to be an Arabian Hitch of old.
Nobody can replace Robin Williams’ iconic performance as the Genie, but Smith is a mighty fine choice for a replacement. His effervescent charm cannot be killed but it can be dulled, and too often the new Aladdin feels like it’s misusing the man’s many natural talents. Smith has a very shaky singing voice, and I was wincing in the opening minutes as he began to warble “Arabian Nights.” Oh no, I feared, what have we gotten ourselves into? Smith is no stranger to musical performances but his career is in rap, so I was expecting the Disney folk to re-imagine several of the songs with a more contemporary hip-hop angle to play to his strengths. They do not. The best performance is easily “Prince Ali” with its propulsive drive that Smith stakes full command of like the head of a drumline, slowing the tempo down and asking for participation from the sultan in order to ramp things back up. It’s a fun moment and made me wish the songs (with brief additional lyrics by the team behind The Greatest Showman) had been allowed to stray further and discover new angles that make better use of this version of this story. Also, the special effects make his blue genie look horrifying and should have been scrubbed as soon as somebody first saw him as a blue Shrek creature.
The highlight performer for me was Scott as Jasmine, an actress that first caught my attention as the Pink Power Ranger in, what else, the big-budget Rangers reboot. She demonstrates the most range and has an immediate presence; her Jasmine seems to be holding back, always wary, always assessing, and knowing more than she lets on. It feels like a more politically astute figure that can still give in to carefree moments of jubilation. Her singing is also pretty good even if she’s saddled with the worst solo songs. It’s not her fault that her onscreen lover seems to have better chemistry with Smith than her.
The new Aladdin does have some of its own virtues. The costumes are gorgeous and the sets are carefully crafted, making the world feel lavish and real and often stunning. Smith is still a charming performer and Scott feels like a great pick for a character given more agency. I enjoyed that Jafar is given a new character inferiority complex about being second best, and this is better used to fool him into his downfall. Even a less accomplished rendition of great sings reminds you that they are still great. Likewise the story is so well constructed that it’s hard to completely mitigate its delights and payoffs. The 2019 Aladdin is everything you expect from it, though possibly less, and it never truly justifies its own existence. There are moments to tantalize what a slightly different big screen revitalization could have been, like its rendition of Hitch. If you’re a super fan of Aladdin, it might be enough to get you over the rough spots. However, if that’s your starting point, I would advise staying home and just watching the superior and shorter version.
Nate’s Grade: C
I have no real investment in Mary Poppins as a character or the original 1964 movie, so I was expecting to walk out of Mary Poppins Returns with a shrug, likely finding it middling at worse. I was unprepared for what I endured, and endured is the accurate statement. Mary Poppins Returns is an insane movie and one of the most maddening and painful experiences in a theater I’ve had all year, and no number of spoonfuls of sugar will help this bad medicine go far enough down.
It’s the “Great Slump,” a.k.a. Depression, in London and the Banks children have grown up. Michael (Ben Whishaw) has three young children of his own and he’s struggling to maintain his job at the bank and be the father they need in the wake of his wife’s death. His sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer), has moved into help but it’s still not enough. Enter that famous nanny, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), who takes it upon herself to watch over the children, help them through the grieving process, and explore the outer reaches of London with some help from some friends, chiefly Jack (Lin Manuel-Miranda). The Banks family is in danger of losing their home to the head of the bank (Colin Firth) unless they can find a specific title of shares that will grant them a wealth denied their adult lives.
This movie felt like it was eight hours long and I had no sense of how much time was passing, mostly because of its misshaped structure and general lack of pacing. Mary Poppins Returns feels like it could have been renamed The Tony Awards: The Movie. It’s one unrelated song-and-dance number after another, rarely building from the previous one, and so it feels like an eternal televised awards show that just shuffles from one set piece to the next, never providing a sense of direction or finality. Things just happen in this movie and then different things happen but rarely do they feel consequential. This makes the film feel endless because you have no real concept of progression. It’s just another unrelated song into an unrelated magical realm that doesn’t really seem like it matters, and then we’re off to the next. I think some part of me is still trapped watching Mary Poppins Returns, never allowed to leave.
This would be mitigated if the songs were any good. There are over a dozen and not a single one is memorable. It was mere minutes after leaving the theater that I pressed myself into trying to hum any one of them, and I could not. They instantly vanish from your memory because there are no melodies or interesting production aspects that cause them to stand out. They assault you with their blandness and staid orchestration. They’re a careful recreation of an older sounding, 1950s musical, an antiquated sound that doesn’t have the same traction today. The only way you can remember one of these songs is if you have a traumatic experience forever linked to one of these mediocre, warbling collection of sounds.
There are two astoundingly peculiar songs. “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” is a big ensemble number involving the lamp lighters lead by Miranda. However, the song reference is clearly evocative of the Timothy Leary “trip the light fantastic” comment about LSD. It’s strange to think this is only a coincidence when the lamp lighters are dubbed “learies.” It’s not a good song to begin with and the performance literally involves men on BMX bicycles flying around and doing tricks. How is any of this happening in a reported Disney family film? The Meryl Streep “Turning Turtle” song may be the most excruciating five minutes I’ve sat through for all 2018. It’s just embarrassing to watch and made me honestly think of the children’s movie disaster, The Ooogieloves, where you watch once proud actors debase themselves and their legacies in depressing fashion. That’s the level of dread and mourning I had watching Streep slog through a Bela Lugosi accent and dance upside down. It has to be seen to be believed but you shouldn’t ever have to see this. I have a new appreciation for the La La Land songs.
The continual removal of stakes robs the movie of feeling like anything onscreen genuinely matters. Mary Poppins is a magical creature without clearly defined rules or limits. At any point she might simply have the solution to a problem that she wasn’t sharing. Take for instance the ending (spoilers for the duration of this paragraph, but really, who cares?) where the lamp lighters and the Banks family race to ole Big Ben to literally “turn back time” by adjusting the clock hands. The lamp lighters use their ladders to free climb the face of the clock to the very top, only to be undone by not being able to reach the minute hand at it nears twelve. Then all of a sudden Mary Poppins scoffs to herself and flies up to the clock face to adjust it. If she could do this the whole time why did these very mortal men risk their lives in this exercise? I think Mary Poppins may be a cruel god (more on this later). The concluding dash to ensure the Banks family can keep their home involves not one, not two, but three deus ex machinas, a “Turducken of ex machinas” as my pal Ben Bailey termed it. Ultimately all of their actions do not even matter because the film routinely provides an unknown escape route that invalidates their efforts. It turns out, in the end, they weren’t even going to lose their home thanks to (at my best guess) a magical bird head that is best friends with the head of a bank and who never mentioned this before, the same head of the bank who has just been off in what appears to be an adjacent room for whatever reason and that also knows that Michael Banks has accrued a hefty fortune from a childhood investment, and has never mentioned it as well except in this crucial moment. Why, why does Mary Poppins Returns do this? Why does it present stakes or the illusion of stakes only to sabotage them every time?
Is Mary Poppins really a creature of good or does her need to be loved prove her a fickle god who demands adulation, subservience, and obedience? When Mary Poppins travels from world to world, some live action, some animated, all fanciful, every inhabitant seems to know this woman and love her unconditionally despite her prevalent smarm. The bigger question is do these magical worlds exist independent of Mary Poppins? Is there a pocket universe in existence on the side of a chipped porcelain bowl, or did it only come into existence when Mary Poppins decided it would be a lovely vacation spot? If so, that means she is calling into being a throng of adoring creatures that exist to validate her impulsive whims. She is a selfish god that demands an audience of servants and sycophants, not unlike the Javier Bardem character in Darren Aronofsky’s polarizing polemic, mother!.
The actors acquit themselves fine for their roles. Blunt (A Quiet Place) and Miranda (Moana) will still be charming performers even when given substandard material. Blunt holds your attention with her prissy, schoolmarm persona, balancing the audience’s memories of Julie Andrews without going into parody. Her singing (as also evidenced from 2014’s Into the Woods) is above average and can help make some of the songs more tolerable to listen to. Miranda is a talent bursting with charisma and range, which makes it all the more frustrating to squeeze him into the narrow confines of a cockney scamp. He does get a rapping reprise in “A Cover is Not the Book” with a group of cartoon penguins. The stranger element is that it really feels like Miranda’s character wants to have sex with Mary Poppins. They slot him as a forced romantic option for Mortimer’s underwritten sister, but his eyes are clearly set for the woman who bosses people around and has magic in her fingers. He remembers her when he was a boy chimney sweep and I think he’s been fantasizing about her every day since. Plus, she hasn’t aged in 30 years.
Mary Poppins Returns is a bizarre artifact of a displaced time, taking great pains to recreate a style but without providing a purpose or sense of feeling beyond emulation. I don’t know who this movie is for besides the hardcore fans of the original. There are dancing dolphins, talking dogs, bathtub portals, an upside down house, flying balloons, union protests, Angelina Lansbury or an animatronic lookalike, and there’s lots of songs you will be unable to recall and a story that repeatedly removes any stakes or grounding from beneath itself so that the movie never feels firm or purposeful. There were several points where I just wanted to throw up my hands and ask, “What am I watching?” I still don’t know. Mary Poppins Returns is a movie musical that is nothing short of super-cali-fragil-awful.
Nate’s Grade: D+
When they adjusted the Hobbit movies so there was going to be three instead of two, it required some very noticeable padding and filler material to meet out that requirement. The second Fantastic Beasts film (of a planned five film series, expanded from a trilogy) feels exactly that way, a mostly table-setting movie with more incidents than plot, a few pertinent revelations, and not much in the manner of resolution. The second Fantastic Beasts does improve on its predecessor in several regards. It introduces a formidable villain that’s well played by Johnny Depp. It introduces a compelling younger version of Albus Dumbledore that’s played by the dashing Jude Law. It also finds more purpose for its hero, the shy magical zookeeper Newt (Eddie Redmayne), as the series inches closer to a wizards-vs-wizards world war. Things take a turn for the darker; within the First Act, a baby is murdered. They didn’t even do that in the new Halloween. The larger world building of Beasts, written by author J.K. Rowling for the screen and directed by longtime stalwart David Yates, has been its biggest draw. The supporting characters are back, though not everyone has much to do. Rowling is improving as a screenwriter but she still has trouble executing exposition-heavy scenes, resorting to sequence after sequence of characters prattling on. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of consequence until the very end, so we endure characters running through underdeveloped and contrived storylines. One of these involves Katherine Waterston mistakenly believing Newt is engaged (his brother is) and somehow, despite having access to magic let alone other forms of media, never findings out the easy truth. It’s stuff like that that show me Rowling was struggling to find material for every character to push them forward on this now extended journey. Crimes of Gindelwald is an overall step in the right direction for the prequel series even if this individual movie has trouble standing on its own magical merits.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.
This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.
Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.
I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.
The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.
The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Everybody loves magic, right? At least the prospect of being surprised and delighted. Now You See Me takes something everybody loves (magic) and mixes it with a genre everybody loves (heist movie) and has already profited from the results at the box-office. Mix an ensemble of actors, though all of them white, and look over in this direction for a diverting, entertaining, and ultimately frustrating film that is too breezy to hate.
Four different magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco) have teamed up to form a super team, The Horsemen, and they’ve taken Vegas by storm. A year into their reign, the insurance magnet and casino owner, Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine), is sitting pretty with his investment until the Horsemen turn their targets on him. With each new fantastic trick, the quartet fleeces the shady businessman of his money, returning it to wronged parties and the public at large. FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) are tasked with finding the magical fugitives and figuring out their greater scheme. Just as one of the magicians notes, every time they think they’re one step ahead, they’re actually three behind.
Let’s begin by admitting that the premise of a group of magicians performing heists is excellent. Seriously, on that alone I’d be hooked. Wouldn’t an Ocean’s 11-style movie about a group of magicians working a big score just be awesome? There’s so much fun to be had with such a breezy premise and for the most part Now You See Me lives up to its breezy potential. It works in segments, presenting a magical set piece, watching it unfold, and then unpacking it, sort of like a reverse heist sequence. It provides a bite-size moment of satisfaction, and then the movie goes off and repeats the process. The Horsemen elude the police and we start to get a broader sense of their aims, namely a slice of class warfare vigilante justice. There’s a genuine thrill to watching smart, talented types outfox their antagonists, and Now You See Me is no different. Under Louis Leterrier’s (Clash of the Titans) direction, the results are fast-paced, constantly shifting and surprising, and so cheery in tone that it’s hard to fault the movie for its lack of substance. Here is an example of a summer movie that’s just fun to watch. It taps into the desire we all have to be fooled, the same willful disbelief we process when watching magic or movies themselves, the modern artistic equivalent of magic. For a solid hour-plus, Now You See Me is a diverting and entertaining action thriller.
There are only a handful of traditional action sequences in the movie as most of the thrills are comprised of the illusions and some foot chases. I do want to single out a great moment, namely a magic fight where Jack Wilder (Franco) runs al over an apartment subduing police officers with magic. At first he relies on stealth to get the drop on them, but then the guy resorts to what is practically magic kung fu, using his sleight-of-hand to disarm his attackers. He then uses playing cards and flash paper at his disposal. I only wish that Rhodes, Wilder’s main adversary in the scene, tried to fight fire with fire, so to speak, and make use of the magical accessories in comical matters. The scene’s imagination reminded me of the final confrontation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where a selection of toon-specific tools were brought back for a unique showdown.
But with most magic acts, the good times start to fade once you find out how the trick is done. What hampers Now You See Me from being a stronger movie is a convoluted third act that goes to great preposterous lengths to explain the source behind the Horsemen. It’s pretty much who you’d assume it would be but I’ll still refrain from spoilers. Suffice to say, it’s an ending that doesn’t really work especially since it’s one of those reveals that makes you think back and question ordinary scenes. The movie muffs the landing, relying on twists to satisfy what was really just a high-concept heist movie. Another issue I had with the film is how quickly it marginalizes our would-be Robin Hoods of magic. After about the 45-minute mark, the Horsemen get sidelined as supporting characters and the movie is almost entirely told from the perspective of Rhodes. I understand there’s got to be some narrative discipline so that we don’t know the protagonists’ tricks before they perform them, but if I’m going to stuck with the dogged cop then make it his movie from the start. Compounding this problem is that the Horsemen, through no fault of the actors, barely register as characters. The actors are given one-note, and in the case of Fisher (The Great Gatsby) it was Woman, and that’s it. We see them as they perform their tricks and their daring escapes, but that doesn’t count as character development. In this regard, it’s less bothersome that these poorly conceived people get sidelined but then you stop and think that the only character you actually feel some interest in is Laurent’s Interpol agent.
My suggestion for any possible future installments (Now You See Me Again? Now You Don’t?) is to focus more on our core team of magicians rather than their mysterious benefactor. I would also stress less time spent talking about The Eye of Horus or whatever through-the-centuries secret club of magicians the film was hinting at. I liked that, while completely elaborate and with endless fortune in preparation, that the illusions still had some tenuous foot in reality, that the magic tricks could be done in a somewhat recognizable world of ours (ignore the hologram junk). I strongly feel that even hinting about secret magical orders is just a step too far, breaking the film’s credulity, and taking what was fun and making it silly. I was worried before seeing the movie that the magic, as advertised, was going to be too supernatural. I was relieved that there wasn’t going to be a late reveal where some character rolls their eyes, probably Eisenberg, sand says, “Well, yeah, magic is real. Stupid.” When you’re playing around with larger-than-life figures that deal in theatricality and misdirection, I think it’s paramount not to get too carried away, failing to ground your movie for the audience.
If you’re looking for a fun time out at the movies, Now You See Me will serve its purpose well enough until it begins to fall apart by the end. You may find yourself looking back and the earlier mystery and thrill of the unknown will dissipate upon reflection, leaving you with little. It’s fun while it lasts but when it’s all over you’re left with substandard characters and an overly convoluted plot that doesn’t satisfy in the clinch. Magicians-plan-heist is such a juicy premise that I hope someone else makes better use of it. I would still love to see that movie, only well developed and giving me characters to actually care about. Now You See Me is as substantial as a magic trick itself but it’s an inoffensive, carefree, and mostly fun ride at the movies, though I think so much more could have been done with this concept and this budget. For a $75 million dollar magic trick, I want a better result.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is a far better comedy than it has any right to be. It’s not perfect by any means, but it finds clever or darker angles to take that surprise, at least until it hits the next big marker on its jerk-learns-a-lesson plot playbook. The titular magician (Steve Carell) has a falling out with his longtime assistant and even longer-time (is this a word?) friend played by Steve Buscemi, who is disarmingly affable and warm. Their Vegas act is old hat in the face of younger, hipper, and more danger-seeking magicians, notably the Chris Angel-styled Steve Gray (Jim Carrey). While only a supporting character, Carrey’s bits onscreen are easily the best thing he’s done in a decade, comedy-wise. His physical comedy finds a perfect outlet. Gray’s schtick is more Jackass than David Copperfield, and the movie does well to explore this division and why people gravitate to magic in the first place. It’s ultimately a sweet film about the bonds of friendship, with Carell and Buscemi taking the bulk of the running time, and while it has plenty of silliness there’s also sincerity there. It all builds up to a great climax and a conclusion that left me laughing so hard I was in stitches. Make sure to stay through the credits. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, from the writing team behind Horrible Bosses, is a charmingly broad comedy that has enough heart, committed comedic performances, takes enough clever turns to justify a viewing.
Nate’s Grade: B
While not the best film in a series spanning ten years, part two of the final chapter of Harry Potter is a solid, satisfying close that’s fittingly grandiose but also sneakily emotional at points. The plot finally gets simplified once all those silly magic items are found, and what we have is a war at the Hogwarts School of Magic between good vs. evil. The action sequences are the best in the film’s series and some very dark events take place, including the deaths of many characters, some children, though too many critical deaths occur off camera. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) faces off against Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) for the fate of the world, and after the protracted, wearisome setup of Part One, it’s a relief to say that the final film moves like it’s on fire. There’s very little downtime and a great pull of urgency to the flick. So what if Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), Harry’s best pals since the start, are completely forgotten and useless in the movie’s final hour. The focus is all on Harry and his messianic sacrifices. Alan Rickman shines again, showing a depth of emotions not available to Snape until the character’s final revelations. In fact, there needed to be more Rickman, but I can lay this same charge with every film. I wish the resolution, spanning forward 19 years, would have slowed down a bit and accept the paternal/maternal changing-of-the-guard as the emotional payoff billions of people have been waiting for. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two is a thrilling, gratifying capper to a series that, while to me was never as magical as the Potter die-hards have claimed, was, over eight movies and almost 20 hours, an enchanting franchise that stayed consistent in quality and entertainment. Here’s to you, Potter. Now maybe I can finally stop hearing people badgering me about how the books were better.
Nate’s Grade: B+