Pandemic commissions: The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve had multiple requests for reviews of The Last Jedi, though my mate Bojan (an absurdly gifted Baroque violinist, lecturer at the RCM, and husband to Esther) got in there first. Seeing as the sequel trilogy is its own entity, I’ve decided to review them all together.

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I’d already seen The Force Awakens (or, as my housemate Joe and I kept cacklingly calling it, The Force Wakes Up) and already thought it makes a great, great start to the sequel trilogy. A rewatch didn’t change my mind on that. What’s always interested me about the Star Wars universe is the fact that, although so many spinoffs in so many different formats exist—comic books, novelizations, fanfic, extra TV shows like Clone Wars and The Mandalorian—the original movies don’t strike me as being particularly interested in that kind of elaboration. Maybe that’s exactly why it happened, because they provided a universe with a million different environments and possibilities, then demonstrated interest in virtually none of them: the original trilogy’s vaunted failure to  provide any world-building detail about economies, religions, day-to-day lives, left a vacuum that fandom (and the franchise itself, in many cases) has rushed to fill.

All of which is to say that maybe that’s why The Force Awakens has such charm. It feels like the official big proper Star War films are actually now being made by someone who’s really interested and invested in the questions that the original films raised. What’s it like being a stormtrooper? What if you don’t fancy it anymore? Does PTSD exist in this universe? What has it been like living in the literal ruins of the Empire? Who got—figuratively and literally—left behind? The film at least acknowledges those questions.

Daisey Ridley as Rey is a major asset to this film, as are all of the major players. Disney’s primary takeaway from the prequel trilogy, luckily, appears to have been “Cast people who can act”, which is a nice change from the Portman/Christensen dynamic. Ridley projects exactly the kind of wounded strength that a person develops when they’ve had to fend for themselves for a very long time, but there’s no cynicism at all in her; she believes in the Resistance, and in the efficacy of hope. This makes her an extremely effective foil to Kylo Ren, who is a child of privilege and has never been raised to doubt the love of his family and the security of his place in the world, yet whose seduction by the Dark Side is presented, quite disingenuously, as some kind of inevitable, heritable trait. The choice of Adam Driver for this role grew on me, a lot; he’s got that slightly unhealthy look and flat affect that seems to characterize incels, active shooters, white supremacists and so on, all of whom—@ me if you please—are real-life models of Kylo’s whiny/murderous behavioural complex. More pleasingly, John Boyega as deserting stormtrooper Finn and Oscar Isaac as sexy flyboy Poe are both wonderful (Boyega makes me laugh out loud and want to hug him in every single scene he’s in), and they have such great chemistry with each other that I spent most of their escape scene wishing they would kiss. It’s a shame the film doesn’t spend more time on Finn, to be honest; his premise is so good, but is never explored on the emotional level it has the potential for. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher both deliver magnificently, feeding nostalgia without pandering to it.

The film falls down most heavily when it comes to villainy. Supreme Leader Snoke? The “First Order”? Bitch, please. None of it makes sense, not philosophically, not narratively, not geopolitically. The fact that at some point in a planning meeting, someone clearly asked “What’s scarier than the Death Star?”, someone else answered “A bigger Death Star!”, and everyone around that table nodded their heads, is also unfortunate. It is, however, also not surprising, because the Star Wars franchise has never been able to create a coherent moral framework, or even conceive of one. It is not interested in the nature of good and evil. The bad people are bad because they are bad. The good people are good because they are just naturally better at being good. It’s completely circular, it makes no sense and never has, and it’s the sequel trilogy’s greatest obstacle. Having defeated mega-evil in the original trilogy, having failed to nurture an audience’s sense of how evil develops, and faced with the prospect of needing a new form of evil for the sequels, the filmmakers are forced to rehash old ground. It’s a shame in a movie that’s otherwise so exciting, fresh, funny, and above all, not self-serious.

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The acting continues to be top-notch in The Last Jedi, with the notable exception of Mark Hamill, who at this point is more famous for being a not-very-good actor than anything else, so at least that feels pretty consistent with the original trilogy. The training sequences on Ahch-To between Luke and Rey are both fun callbacks to Luke’s training montage, and a genuinely exciting expansion of the way the films have historically talked about the Force—which is to say, very little. When Luke explains to Rey what the Force isn’t (a magic power) and what it is (energy that binds all objects in the universe, living and inert, and that can be manipulated), it feels like the most serious attention any of these movies so far has paid to the conceit that holds them all together. The sets for Ahch-To, which was filmed on the remote Irish island of Skellig Michael, are seriously stunning, and it also provides two of my favourite comic relief creatures: the porgs (DADDY, I WANT AN OOMPA-LOOMPA), and the weird mute fish nuns who seem to spend all their time doing Luke’s laundry. Both are excellent additions. Also, the introduction of Kelly Marie Tran as awkward mechanic Rose is a delight, one of the few moments that properly surprised and intrigued me, that felt really original.

The big thing about The Last Jedi, though, is the way it reveals (or supposedly reveals) Rey to be a nobody; her parentage has been in question for the better part of two films, because of her unusually strong Force abilities, but Kylo Ren tells her, in a moment of pique, that her parents were no one and she comes from nowhere special. Even in the moment, I assumed this would be walked back in The Rise of Skywalker—if they can do wrong by Rose, we’re now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where every supposedly irreversible plot twist is just another stick with which to emotionally abuse the audience when it turns out to be, in fact, highly reversible—but if it had been respected, I would have had a lot of good things to say about this choice. It would have suggested that the franchise that has been obsessed with heredity and close-knit elite family connections since day one is opening up, but of course this is not to be. The closest it gets to emotional complexity, as before, is by making Rey deeply invested in Kylo’s salvation, an investment mainly demonstrated to the audience by their scenes of mutual extended telepathy, or, as my boyfriend called it, “Force FaceTime phone sex”. Since Kylo in this film is not just bad, but actively makes choices to abuse the increased power he gains, and since Rey’s virtue as a character is based on her choice not to use her power for genocidal, murderous purposes, it is at best frustrating, at worst deeply disingenuous, to establish Rey’s good opinion as being key to Kylo’s redemption. She, after all, was abandoned as a child and grew up frightened and alone, and yet she does not need anyone to hold her hand in order to make choices with basic decency—as, indeed, most of us do not. If it is necessary to trick someone into goodness by bombarding them with assertions of their potential for it, despite evidence to the contrary, their problem is not that they are simply misunderstood.

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I must confess that The Rise of Skywalker lost me. I mean, I watched the whole thing, and paid attention, mostly, but it’s much longer and, unfortunately, much less self-aware than the first two installments. Therefore, the most I can really do is comment on the bits I remember, and most of those, I regret to say, aren’t very good.

Rey’s increasing attraction to the Dark Side manifests in her increasing willingness to use the Force to get results when she’s impatient. The revelation of Rey’s ancestry is both unsurprising and infuriating. There are heavy hints that the “nothingness” of her parentage previously established is, in fact, not the whole story. Given what we know about the films’ obsession with heredity, it’s clear she must be related to someone we’ve already met; Leia is out (we’d absolutely know if she and Han had had another child, plus that would mean Rey’s interest in Kylo was actually incestuous, and I think we can all agree that even the hint of incest is something we’re happy to leave in the ’70s). Luke is out (he never had a viable love interest and has clearly remained celibate since the fall of the Empire). Lando only shows up in this movie and Rey doesn’t exactly look mixed race, so the only possible option is Palpatine—which is also stupid, because Palpatine as a character is neither sexual nor romantic and there’s never been the slightest indication that he’s had a spouse or partner, not even in order to promulgate his own dynasty; in fact, Palpatine is characteristically disinterested in having a dynasty, because he never had any intention of dying. (His return from the dead is one of the stupider parts of an already quite stupid movie, on a par with “bigger Death Star!” from The Force Awakens.)

The fallen Death Star, by the way, is also one of the stupider parts. The thing explodes in A New Hope; it does not fall from the sky. It fucking supernovas. How, therefore, is it possible for a huge and recognizable chunk of it to be protruding from a tempestuous ocean? The answer, of course, is that it needs to be there in order to Look Awesome and for Rey and Kylo to have a semi-climactic showdown in its ruins, for reasons of Heavy-Handed Symbolism. It’s a good fight, to be fair. Rey’s fatal wounding of Kylo is the proof of what we’ve always known—that she’s a much better fighter than he is—and her choice to bring him back to life, proof that she’s a much better person than he is. She can’t bring herself to be a murderer, not even of someone who would seem to richly deserve it; she can’t stoop to Kylo’s level.

A more concretely terrible development is the diminution of Rose’s role. I had been vaguely aware that racist bullying after The Last Jedi had pushed Kelly Marie Tran off of social media, and had had some effect on The Rise of Skywalker but I’d assumed it was very much of the “asshats gonna asshat” variety. Obviously, all bullying is, but it’s equally obvious that the filmmakers took one look at the roiling shitstorm online and decided they’d have easier lives if they virtually cut Rose out altogether. Presumably, Tran had signed a contract for two movies and they couldn’t just delete her, but the early potential of Rose’s relationship with Finn and her charming, clumsy courage has been shoved so far into the background, she’s really not in this. She gets a line, maybe two, that could have been spoken by any random background character, and our main trio never talk to or about her again. Given how hard the earlier film was pushing Rose and Finn’s storyline, the backpedaling here is glaring, and shameful.

The rest of it—all the Resistance stuff—is quite frankly filler, and there’s too much of it. The showdown on the Sith planet (Exegol, which sounds like one of those minor northern countries from Lord of the Rings) makes a good stab at creepiness, with all those hooded Sith minions chanting in darkness and the terrifying glow of Palpatine’s yellow eyes under his cowl, but really it’s all a bit much. And Rey killing Palpatine is okay when she does it with the help of the whole history of the Jedi behind her, but it would have made her evil to do it when he invited her to? I’m sure it makes some sort of sense if you squint. Meanwhile, it turns out Finn is Force-sensitive but absolutely nothing is made of it, Poe does a sexy nod at his bounty hunter girlfriend but they don’t actually get together, and somewhere in the background, Rose gets a hug from a Wookiee, while Lando and the only other black character in the film trade warm quips. I mean, it’s all right, I suppose. Better than the prequels. But the whole sequel trilogy is a downward slide, really.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here. Or, if there’s another film you want to commission, message me directly (or drop a line in the comments) and we can discuss it.

Pandemic commissions: Monsters University

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Literary analyst extraordinaire and blogging buddy Laura commissioned me to watch and review Monsters University, a sequel to Monsters, Inc. about which I had no great expectations whatsoever. It’s Pixar, so I figured it’d be good, but the movie’s existence seemed inessential. On the whole, watching it just confirmed my thinking, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, and it’s got a heartwarming message, so let’s dive in.

The interesting thing about Monsters University is that it almost feels like fanfic. It fleshes out the world of Monstropolis in ways that the earlier movie didn’t have the time or the inclination to do: it becomes evident, for example, that there’s more than one scaring company, and by extension, there’s more than one institute of higher education. The focus of this film is also very firmly on Mike, who (as I think I mentioned in my review of Monsters, Inc.) has hitherto been presented as a lifelong sidekick. The beating heart of Monsters University is in showing us how no one is a sidekick in their own story, nor should they be. If Monsters, Inc. is about the jocks, the big-time celebrity scarers (developers have described their conception of Sulley as being “like the star quarterback”), Monsters University is–quite literally–about the nerdy weirdos, misfits and outcasts, and it handily dramatizes how short-sighted it is to valorize jocks and popularity culture.

This makes it extremely well suited to be a movie for kids, since popularity is a major concern of every child who attends school. Even if you have no interest in it, it is a force that shapes your kid-life like gravity, and it’s also easy to get caught up in these contests despite your best intentions. Randall Boggs, the villain in Monsters, Inc., is given something of an origin story here: he’s Mike’s roommate at university and starts off as a friendly, hapless nerd with no self-confidence, attending a frat party bearing a box of cupcakes decorated to read BE MY PAL. (During a chase scene, the box is upended and several of the cupcakes fall on Randall’s head, forming the word LAME, which is the sort of thing that both works brilliantly, as a visual gag that appeals to the general emotional cruelty of kids, and has always made me intensely sad. I’ll be your pal, Randall! Cupcakes aren’t lame!) His garden-of-Eden moment comes when the cool guys at elite frat Roar Omega Roar accept him, because his ability to blend in with his environment is considered scary. He’s never seen himself this way before, and popularity is a drug; it goes straight to his head, and he’s no longer friendly to Mike. He’s a cautionary tale: we know how he ends up.

Mike, meanwhile, is a fount of boundless optimism and jollity, and he doesn’t really give a damn who likes him. His sidekick nature in Monsters, Inc.–we see him as Sulley’s coach, personal trainer and cheerleader–is developed in Monsters University; he’s desperately ambitious, if also overly theoretical, and anything that stands in the way of his becoming a scarer is simply an obstacle to be surmounted. Threatened with expulsion, he determines to win the Scare Games, a student-run competition, but can only scrape together a team composed of the frat brothers of Oozma Kappa (yes, it’s abbreviated as OK). They’re wretchedly unscary: round-bodied mature student Don, a former sales manager with a mustache and ’80s glasses; goony (and apparently stoned) arch of purple fluff Art; two-headed Teri and Terry (drama and dance majors, respectively) and monster-version-of-the-kid-from-Up Squishy, whose mom’s house doubles as the frat house. As in all such films, the training montages–Mike attempting to teach them how to roar and sneak and pounce, the OK brothers failing dismally but hilariously–are delights. The real emotional heft of the film, though, is in the discovery that “scary” can be a lot of different things; that people monsters can achieve success by embracing what they have–even their weaknesses–instead of trying to be something that they aren’t. The final round of the Scare Games is a great set piece, but the best bit is when Squishy (who really does just look like an elongated pink potato with legs) achieves the highest score simply by utilizing his ability to appear, absolutely silently, right over someone’s shoulder.

The OK brothers are the best-realized of the new characters. Don’s character arc–from laid-off, middle-aged middle manager with disappointed dreams to newly confident scarer to dating Squishy’s mom (yes!)–is particularly moving; as ever, Pixar is good at bringing out the poignancy of adulthood even while it continues to be brightly coloured, funny, and fast-moving enough for its child audiences. The other new characters are less impressive. Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble, though brilliantly designed (she does look bloody scary; she’s sort of part dragon, part centipede), is basically a stereotype of a stern professor and not particularly believable. Worthington, the president of Roar Omega Roar, is again a jock-y cliché, as is his own sidekick, the intensely stupid and boorish Chet. Alfred Molina plays a Scaring 101 professor who makes virtually no impression, which is a brutal waste of Alfred Molina. Squishy’s mom, gloriously, is a curlers-in-her-hair, minivan-driving housewife who listens to thrash metal, but that’s as much nuance as she gets. (You might say that’s all the nuance she needs. It’s a good joke and the timing is impeccable.) There are sororities as well as fraternities at Monsters U, but they’re weirdly uniform; all the members of Python Nu Kappa look exactly the same, for instance. Sulley’s character arc, though, is very well done. The privileged scion of an ancient scaring family, he appears to regard his position and success as his birthright, an attitude that enrages scrappy, started-from-the-bottom-now-I’m-here Mike. (We still never see their parents or families, though; this must have been a deliberate choice, though I can’t quite work out why.)

It’s a lot of fun, then, Monsters U, although I don’t think it reveals anything particularly new about the world we already know through Monsters, Inc.: it gives us more detail, sure, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything. A sequel, instead of a prequel, might very well have done so; there must be serious economic and social implications for the adaptation of the energy industry to the discovery that laughter is ten times more potent than screams. But I don’t think that’s likely anytime soon, and I don’t think it’d be necessary either, even though Sulley and Mike are fun, lovable characters.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 4

I have been reading, a lot. I just don’t want to write about books at the moment. They’re as great as ever and they’re getting me through—from my first forays into really well-written romance with Aster Glenn Gray’s Briarley, a tender WWII-era m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast starring an overprivileged aristocrat/dragon and a battle-scarred vicar, to classics like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s socialist dystopia We and Willa Cather’s gorgeously atmospheric My Ántonia (which I’m currently rereading). But right now I want my reading to be just that: mine, private, just for me. And I want to write about silly movies. Things where everyone knows the plot, so I don’t have to do any summary, and can just tell you what works and what doesn’t. Here’s some more.

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Growing up in Virginia in the ’90s, it would have been weird if I wasn’t wildly obsessed with Pocahontas when it came out. Other people seem to have been less affected by it, but a rewatch only confirmed its place in the Disney pantheon for me. Alan Menken’s music is ten for ten, every song evocative, sophisticated and often funny. “Just Around the Riverbend” and “Colors of the Wind” are the obvious standouts, but there are strong showings from “Mine, Mine, Mine” (which is A PUN, HOW DID I NOT GET THAT AGED THREE) and “Savages”, which uses intercutting shots of Powhatan and Governor Ratcliffe to brilliant metaphorical effect. Speaking of Ratcliffe: contemporary reviewers seem to have thought him a weak villain. I think he’s brilliant: pompous and silly, yet sufficiently unanswerable to anyone else to be dangerous. (His valet, Wiggins, clearly designed as comic relief, is delightfully twinky, and their relationship remarkably queer-coded, if not exactly healthy.) The fact that the animal sidekicks don’t talk is something of a blessed relief; Meeko, the cheeky and permanently hungry raccoon, is perfectly comprehensible with his clicks and purrs, and less grating than the more vocal Disney animals (see Iago in Aladdin, below). Pocahontas herself is a touch Manic Pixie Dream Girl–forever running off to the forest or leaping down waterfalls–but the vast majority of her dialogue with John Smith reveals the astonishing presumption and irony inherent in the Virginia Company’s “civilize the savages” mission; it’s much more directly addressed than I remember, which feels impressive for 1995. And the film is visually stunning, maybe the most beautiful thing Disney has ever made (with the possible exception of The Lion King). The sets are so saturated with colours: pink and purple sunsets, red dawns, green mountains, blue rivers. I could look at it for hours.

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Pixar never seems to fail, but Ratatouille hasn’t historically been among the number of their movies that I feel a particularly strong love for. Rewatching it, though, I couldn’t get over how much I wanted to be in Paris, and as the film progressed, I remembered what a charming piece of work it is. Remy, the gourmet rat with a gift for cookery, is beautifully animated; his little pert nose and expressive ears are used to heartrending effect. The long scenic shots of Paris are, of course, stunning. (Is it possible that Lingini’s apartment has the same blueprint as Sulley and Mike’s from Monsters Inc.? I’m just thinking of that long window…) All of the scenes set in the kitchen of Gusteau’s restaurant are exceptional on a technical level: many of them are shot from above, giving viewers a strong sense of an industrial kitchen as a well-oiled machine, as well as a haven for life’s misfits. (One of my favourite parts of the film is when Colette gives a potted biography of each chef, none of whom has an uninteresting past.) The floating Gusteau force-ghost who periodically appears to Remy, always clarifying that he is “a figment of your imagination”, is a delight. Other than that, I think the human plot is less engaging: hapless young Linguini is sweet when he’s interacting with Remy, but a bit of a waste of space in every other context, and Skinner’s villainy feels a little pantomime-y, although still executed with panache. What surprises me is the fact that the filmmakers make Linguini’s illegitimacy quite explicit: he’s Gusteau’s son, and Gusteau famously never married, but apparently “became close” to Linguini’s mother Renata. As ever with Pixar, an adult concept is treated without either sentimentality or luridness, but it still comes as something of a shock given that their core audience is probably middle America. Their perfect emotional pitch comes to the fore in the treatment of Anton Ego, though: the wordless scene where he eats Remy’s ratatouille and is instantly transported back to the comforting country kitchen of his childhood is worth a thousand words in cookbooks about the mnemonic powers of food and flavour. It never fails to make me cry a bit, actually.

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Famously, the first film I ever “saw” in cinemas was Aladdin, which my parents (clearly more enthusiastic than practical about child-rearing) took me to when I was still an infant. Wildly overstimulated by the lights and noise, I started screaming during “Friend Like Me”, forcing my parents to flee the cinema with me, and didn’t see the film again for probably a decade. Given this inauspicious beginning, though, I’ve always really liked Aladdin, right from the opening shots of waves of dunes and the (somewhat stereotypical) caravan trader who sings “Arabian Nights”, then breaks the fourth wall in a very particular way that I can’t remember another Disney character doing. He’s not perpetrating a smug aside to camera; he’s addressing us directly, molding us into the audience for this particular story. It’s a shame we never come back to this frame device. It’s smart and a little bit sinister; I remember being slightly freaked out by it even as an older kid. There are other genuinely freaky moments too: the appearance of the mysterious elderly prisoner in the dungeons of the sultan; the booming voice of the cave as it rises out of the desert sands. Aladdin himself is a bit bland as a human, but at least he does more than Disney leading men normally do, and he’s a working-class hero. Jasmine is surprisingly resilient and sparky, standing up to powerful men and flirting sarcastically with Aladdin: no one comes close to Mulan for ballsiness, or Meg for sass, but Jasmine is among the most interesting of the Disney princesses. Jafar is SOOOO GAAAYYYY [coughs] dramatic (how many other Disney villains actually get subtitled as “maniacal cackling” more than once in their movies?! It seems to be Jafar’s every other line.) The sultan is utterly adorable and useless, a big baby-man in the vein of Prince Charming’s royal father from Cinderella. The few shots of him dressed up as a puppet jester during Jafar’s brief reign are genuinely pretty horrifying, not to mention the infamously sexy outfit Jasmine has to wear; it’s a surprisingly dark movie in general, with the parrot Iago’s anger management problems exploding in violent verbal fantasies. (Iago is dreadful. He’s banal and unfunny and his voice is grating. Abu is a slight improvement because his dialogue is delivered in what sounds like monkey chatter. Rajah the tiger is lovely, and, not coincidentally, mostly silent.) And Robin Williams as the genie, may he rest in peace, is superb. He makes the movie, no question. The sheer amount of verbal energy he pours into his performance, both sung and spoken, could power a small city. Will Smith could never.

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At last, a toe in the waters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I felt less driven to explore via Disney+ because a lot of its movies have been on Netflix recently, one way or another), with its very first installment, Iron Man. Somehow I had never seen it. Given that my expectations for MCU movies are now a) many explosions, b) extremely dubious faux-ethical hand-wavey explanations for extreme violence, and c) extremely dubious faux-feminist hand-wavey sops to teh wimminz (look, all the lady superheroes fight together for one shot! The battle for equal rights is won!), it’s a pleasant surprise to go back to the start and see that it actually wasn’t terrible. The MCU is always better with single-character-focused movies than with its ensemble pieces, I feel. Iron Man is largely carried by Robert Downey Jr., whose come-to-Jesus trajectory is the plot of the movie: a billionaire genius playboy weapons manufacturer, he changes his life after spending three months in captivity at the hands of a (totally fictitious and implausible) Middle Eastern insurgency group called the Ten Rings who happen to have large amounts of his company’s weapons. (What do they want? What’s their history? Who’s in charge and why? What’s the command structure? How do they recruit? Not only do we never find out, we never get the impression that there even are answers. Bad man Raza muses that with some iron suits, he could “control Asia”; that’s as much as we’re gonna get.) Downey Jr.—sorry, Tony Stark—declares that his company will no longer manufacture weapons, which scares the investors and pisses off his right-hand man, poster boy for nominative determinism Obadiah Stane (played by a bald, bearded, call-me-daddy Jeff Bridges). He then builds an iron suit which is essentially its own weapon, perpetrates what in real life would be acts of treason against the US Air Force that would absolutely get him shot down as a matter of national defense, and saves LA (and his love interest, Gwyneth Paltrow) from Jeff Bridges, who has built his own mech and wants to take over… everything, I guess? I didn’t say it was a great movie, I just said it wasn’t terrible in comparison to later MCU forays. What it has going for it is an extremely realistically-shot first half, which mostly takes place in the mountains of Kandahar Province—it’s easy to see how, twelve years ago, this kind of gritty, current-events-based approach to a superhero story would have felt like a breath of fresh air, especially after nonsense like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies—and a real sense of growth and evangelism in Stark, who is completely thrown and then horrified by the fact that his weapons can in fact be used against America. (Always interesting to check the timing of movies like this. Iron Man came out in 2008, seven years after the 9/11 attacks. The most deadly bombing of the Afghan war happened that year, in Kandahar.) Stark’s not really a heroic kind of guy, but he wants to do the right thing eventually, and that—at least in theory—is the cornerstone for the MCU we’ve come to know.


Next up will be another commissioned review, this time requested by Laura, of a sequel I’ve never seen before: Monsters University. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!

Pandemic commissions: Monsters, Inc.

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Annabel, British-book-blogging celebrity and webmistress of Shiny New Books, commissioned a review of Monsters, Inc. (2001) last week. This was an utter delight, as it was one of the handful of VHSs my brother and I had as kids and rewatched fairly obsessively, but I hadn’t seen it for over a decade, and it’s a wonderful world to re-enter.

The reason Pixar is so successful—I have theorized—is because every one of their films turns on a premise that is so simple you could summarize it in a sentence, and every one of those premises is simply a flipping or inversion of a situation we (the audience) are intimately familiar with, or encounter daily. The Incredibles: what if two suburban parents having mid-life crises were literally superheroes? Ratatouille: what if the creature most horrifying to find in a kitchen was a really talented cook? Monsters, Inc: what if they’re more scared of the kids than the kids are of them? The exotic and the quotidian don’t just shake hands; they change places. In the case of Monsters, Inc., this means we get to delight in sequences like Mike and Sulley’s walk to work: waving to the neighbourhood kids (who are jumping rope using the enormous sticky tongue of one of them), encountering a co-worker at the pedestrian crossing (albeit a co-worker who’s several storeys tall and of whom we only ever see a single scaly leg), talking about the day’s headlines (an energy crisis engulfing Monstropolis, which of course is the hinge of the plot).

The main characters are a huge part of Monsters, Inc.‘s brilliance. Sulley and Mike’s locker room banter is delightful: Sulley as celebrity wrestler, Mike as hype man. The fact that John Goodman’s and Billy Crystal’s voices so perfectly suit their characters’ physicality and personalities is the icing on the cake; we believe their friendship, we can see right from the start that Mike has always been the sidekick, and we can understand his frustration later when Sulley seems perfectly happy to throw away everything they’ve devoted their lives to. Villainous Randall, who’s voiced by Steve Buscemi, is genuinely scary: his plot to forcibly extract screams from abducted children is one of the more sinister concepts Pixar’s ever introduced, and his character design—sinuous, reptilian, sneering—matches. (I also love virtually all of his dialogues with other characters. He’s much wittier than our heroes, for all that he’s a jerk, and “Shh shh shh, ya hear that? It’s the winds… of change” makes me laugh every time.) The female characters, of course, are still one-dimensional; there are only two of them, beautiful airhead Celia and repulsive late-middle-aged cardigan-wearing Roz, which is an unfortunate reflection of how we still generally seem to feel about women (and, clearly, how we felt about them in 2001). The fact that Roz turns out to be the undercover head of the Child Detection Agency is clever, but doesn’t necessarily make up for anything.

The film’s visuals are its other main strength. It was made at a time when computer-generated animation was just about to really take off, and the way that cloth, fur and hair is rendered here is noticeably more realistic than in earlier movies. (Look at any scene with Sulley in it, for example.) Just as impressive as the more photographic look is the sheer quantity of creative energy on display: every crowd scene in Monstropolis contains bystanders, all of whom had to be invented, drawn and animated. The ensemble shots of scarers entering the scare floor are among my favourites for this: a tall blue monster unsheathing his claws and growling, a short red monster having his enormous sharp teeth brushed, poor hapless orange-and-yellow George! The best sequences, of course, are those in the door vault; I vividly remember seeing those for the first time and being completely blown away by them, and the scenes haven’t lost anything with age. Watching Mike and Sulley sneaking Boo in and out of various childrens’ rooms across the globe, followed closely by Randall—one minute we’re in a wood-fire-lit room in Scandinavia; the next, there’s a curlicue balcony and a window view of the Eiffel Tower—is one of Monsters, Inc.’s greatest joys.

This sentence, however, brings me to Boo, whom I have no memory of disliking as a child but who, upon rewatching, strikes me as one of the oddest, most obnoxious versions of childhood ever animated. It’s hard to tell how old she’s meant to be. Maybe two or three? She can walk on her own, has object permanence and some gross motor skills, and experiences mood swings the way a toddler ought to. And yet for some reason she can barely talk. The only comprehensible words she ever says are “Mike Wazowski” and “kitty”; the rest of her vocalizations are (very high-pitched) shrieks and giggles. It’s as though she’s a sort of Platonic ideal of toddlerdom: the animators and scriptwriters seem to have created her character around a core of what we generally accept to be “cute” behaviour in children, but it feels curiously unreal. More concerningly, it had precisely the opposite effect to the one presumably intended: instead of finding Boo adorable, I cordially hated her. During the scene where Sulley “roars” and scares her—which is meant to tug at our heartstrings! We ought to feel protective of her!—I found myself thinking yes, bitch, cry. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that I’m a psychopath, of course. But surely with a character whose creators are so clearly reaching for a certain reaction from an audience, the failure to elicit that reaction on any level is a problem.

I don’t think Monsters, Inc. is one of Pixar’s best films, honestly, but I think at the time it came out, it probably was. (It was the second of their movies to get an A+ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, after Toy Story 2.) Its emotional engagement is fairly superficial, and the comedy is pretty broad. But it’s still astonishingly creative—like watching fireworks in someone’s brain—and the ending is sweet. Definitely worth revisiting.


The next commissioned review—naturally—will be of the follow-up to this film, 2013’s Monsters University. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!

Pandemic commissions: The Prince of Egypt

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After serious alarm over whether I could find a copy of this to watch without infecting my laptop forever with sketchy maybe-porn and casino sites, the day was saved. (It’s on YouTube.) It’s not a Disney movie, but a Dreamworks one, which makes the inclusion of songs a little unusual. I can only imagine that, in 1998, they were making a bid to steal the animated-musical crown. On the basis of The Prince of Egypt (requested by witty, dedicated blogging buddy Rachel of paceamorelibri), it was a strong effort.

The movie opens with a disclaimer that acknowledges the filmmakers’ “liberties” with the Exodus story, but that hopes they have remained “true to the essence, values and integrity” of their biblical source material. I’m not Jewish, but I was raised Episcopalian, my grandpa was a vicar, and I spent my first fifteen years of Sundays in Sunday School (where, yes, I was an obnoxious question-asker), so I felt reasonably qualified to assess this claim. The most obvious difference, I think, is that the Pharaoh whom Moses has to face is his adopted brother, Rameses, whereas from Egyptian sources it seems most likely that the Pharaoh who served as his adopted father was Akhnaten, and the Pharaoh ruling at the time of the Exodus of the Hebrews was Tutankhamun (who was actually Akhnaten’s son-in-law, not his son). Presumably, however, Rameses the Great has almost equally strong name recognition, and claiming that King Tut (he was the famous one, the one whose tomb Howard Carter opened in the 20s) was Moses’s step-brother was considered off the table. (It’s worth noting that apparently no Egyptian records that survive mention the enslavement of the Israelites, or the Exodus. At all. Which is interesting, and doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen. But that’s a historical curiosity for another day.)

Back to the movie! First of all: it has an absolute all-star cast, for apparently no reason. Val Kilmer plays Moses; Rameses is voiced by Ralph Fiennes, of all people, who also does his own (brief) singing. Sandra Bullock is Miriam, Moses’s devout sister; Tzipporah, his wife, is Michelle Pfeiffer. Pharoah Seti, the father of Rameses and adoptive father of Moses, is Patrick Stewart, and his queen is played by Helen Mirren! Neither of them have a great deal to do. In fact, given the state of the cast in general, most of them don’t have a lot to do, and some of the dialogue feels surprisingly wooden. (When Moses flees into the desert after having protected a slave by killing an Egyptian foreman, his farewells with Rameses seem to consist primarily of them repeating each other’s names, which, let’s be honest, no one does in real life with people that close to them.)

If the spoken words are average, though, they’re more than made up for the soundtrack and score, which start off intense and memorable and never become less so. The whole opening chunk of the movie isthe iconic “Deliver Us”, which starts as a (literal) chorus of the Hebrew slaves and becomes a wailing ballad delivered by Moses’s birth mother, Yocheved (played by Ofra Haza, known as the “Israeli Madonna”); it then turns into her lullaby, repeated by Miriam, as Moses floats down the river and is rescued by Pharaoh’s wife. We barely hear a person speak til the queen picks up the baby. And the rest of the songs are equally brilliant. My favourite is “Through Heaven’s Eyes”, delivered mostly by Brian Stokes Mitchell as the singing voice of Jethro, Moses’s future father-in-law; it’s probably the only really upbeat number in the film and it’s animated beautifully as a time-passing montage. It also provides a sense of warmth and belonging that’s curiously lacking in the rest of the film, which overall isn’t very good at engaging our emotions on a character level. It’s mesmerizing because it’s epic, not because we really have a strong sense of most of the human players within it, and in a sense that’s how it should be.

It does, however, mean that the female characters get very short shrift. They are, I think, a good example of where popular feminism was in the late ’90s: strong on girl power, weak on nuance or individualism. Miriam is a strong woman, in the sense that she never, ever doubts her brother’s calling or his ability, even when he does; she’s the psychological MVP of the Hebrews, the one who never stops hoping. Tzipporah is a strong woman, in the fairly limited sense that she’s suicidally defiant when presented as a prize at the Egyptian court and then a little mean to Moses before marrying him, but if Dreamworks were trying to whip up a challenger to, say, Meg from Hercules, they didn’t come close. Queen Tuya, meanwhile, is the biggest waste of Helen Mirren that has ever been perpetrated; there are whole scenes where the character is physically present–animators spent time on her!–but says nothing, and her biggest scene with Moses is a total washout during which she’s given the line “Please try to understand”, but then stops talking, as though Moses is meant to magically guess what her perspective might be.

The one misfire, musically speaking, is “Playing With the Big Boys”, which is so close to being a great song but is hobbled by its baffling slowness. It is clearly a song that’s meant to baffle and bamboozle; it’s sung by the two Egyptian priests Hotep and Huy (also, possibly, attempts to challenge Hercules, since they correspond to the tall and thin/short and fat body types of the latter film’s bumbling comic relief characters, Pain and Panic). Their rhetorical strategy is to throw the entire Egyptian pantheon into battle against Moses’s singular God, and if you want to overwhelm an opponent with quantity, that calls for speed. Instead they’re always a beat and a half behind where you expect them to be, and the effect is to make the song confusing and a little boring. (The words also aren’t very good; the title phrase is made far too much of.)

One final comment: the voice of God in this movie is portrayed, quite softly, by Val Kilmer, who also does Moses’s voice, and it’s one of the smartest, most theologically apt choices they could have made. I asked a lot of obnoxious questions at Sunday School, but I did absorb some things, and one of them was this passage:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lordwas not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lordwas not in the earthquake;and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lordwas not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

That’s not from Exodus (it’s Kings 19:11-12, for the curious), but it really captures the sense in which the voice of God, or conscience, or whatever you feel comfortable calling it, is less to do with resounding trumpets and stentorian pronouncements, and much more to do with the quiet, persistent assertions of our own hearts.

(There will be no comments on “When You Believe” at this time, because its stature is immense and of course it is a ridiculous ballad and an absolute banger at the same time.)


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here.

Things we did in the pandemic: episode 3

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So the other week my friend Katie asked if I would watch Brave for her (which sort of sparked the whole idea of commissions). I’d seen it before, so had reasonably strong memories of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s a good movie; maybe not Pixar’s finest (because, yes, it’s Pixar!) but really fun to spend time with and possessed of an enormous heart. The pre-credits sequence with Mordu works well—I’d completely forgotten it, but it effectively front-loads what we need to understand for the plot to work. The most interesting thing about Brave, of course, is that it’s a mother-daughter love story, with Merida’s independence, uncouth manners and rebelliousness pitted against her mother Elinor’s profound, and probably painfully earned, awareness of the role of women in their society: to wield soft power as peacemakers, diplomats, and, frankly, designated adults. The scene where Elinor walks through a room of fighting chieftains, who immediately stop throwing things and settle down by the mere virtue of the presence of a woman, is perfectly pitched to convey this (and I hope I don’t have to spend much time on the fact that it’s not feminism, given that it relies entirely on the pedestalization of women and the infantilization of men). It’s later mirrored in a scene where Merida throws herself into the centre of the hall to speak to the chieftains, drawing attention to herself and giving Elinor-as-a-bear a chance to move through the room unseen. The fantasy element of the movie is, as they often are, the least compelling aspect, but what the animators manage to do with bear-Elinor is beautiful and convincing, from the way her ears turn down when she’s sad to the way her eyes change when true wildness takes over. (And her final fight with Mordu! Of course animators know their onions, but it’s so exactly what bears look like.) A lot of the comedy in the middle section of the film comes from bear-Elinor pretending she’s still human, and the bittersweet moment when Merida sees her catch a fish like a real bear and is torn between pride at her capable mother and fear that her mother will become truly feral is perfectly judged. The rest of the comedy comes from Merida’s three little brothers, who are probably dividers of opinion; I loved them because I love comedies of scale, and the idea of a tiny menace is never not funny. Likewise, you’ll either find busty and constantly-shrieking nursemaid Maudie tiresome or hilarious; I tend towards the latter, and defy you not to at least giggle when she sees the three little lads in the form of bear cubs. It’s almost as good as the moment when one of the three suitors for Merida’s hand speaks in actual Scots (as opposed to the other characters’ commercially friendly Scottish accents), and no one understands him.

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Moana is the other HUGE Disney success of the 2010s, and it would be unfair of me not to say from the start that I’ve seen it twice already and absolutely love it. Watching it shortly after Frozen is an exercise in comparison; both of them front-load their bangers (a technical term) in a way more reminiscent of a Broadway show/operetta like Les Mis than of the evenly spaced songs characteristic of the earlier films. As my very clever housemate Joe points out, this strategy is way more musically and structurally sophisticated, because it establishes three or four tunes that viewers then recognize when they recur (instrumentally or in vocal reprise) later. (It’s Wagner’s tactic. Yes, I just compared Moana to Wagner. This is the kind of hot take you love.) So, for instance, the song “Where You Are”, which is the second number in the film and happens within the first twenty minutes, comes back when Moana’s Gramma appears to her as a kind of force-ghost (in a scene that always, always makes me cry). Narratively, Gramma’s apparition exists to buck Moana up, remind her of who she is, and inspire her to use her own inner strength. That aim is reinforced by the music; we last heard that tune being sung by her whole village, on her island, and she draws her strength from being a part of that community. It’s a powerful parallel, and it helps that the music is so good (Lin-Manuel Miranda!!) And, my God, this movie has heart. Dwayne “The Rock” “My Future Husband” “Pretty Sure My Boyfriend Has a Man-Crush On Him, Too” Johnson as Maui is magnificently selfish, yet also likeable and funny; Auli’i Cravalho, who was sixteen when she voiced Moana, is vocally gifted and conveys the headstrong determination of a teenager so well. (The lack of a marriage plot means Moana as a character can be younger than Disney heroines usually are, too, which I love; I’d say she’s about fourteen.) The Mad Max coconut pirates and the cabaret crab are kind of weird if you stop and think about them too hard (they feel rather too much like episodic obstacles to be overcome because otherwise it’d be too easy), but both are executed in a way that feels thorough and considered. And OH MY GOD, THE CHICKEN. It’s literally one joke for two hours, but perfect. Solidly in my top five, so far.

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The Star Wars project continues with Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, which is the source of almost all the images, memes and incidents I associate with the original trilogy. Luke is still lame and drippy (theory: he, Harry Potter and Frodo comprise the OG Troika of Boring Chosen Ones), but the training montage on Dagobah at least shows some work being done with and around the Force, which is the first time in five movies that anyone has expended any kind of effort in order to wield it. Perhaps the most surprising thing in the film is Yoda, who when we first encounter him is completely chaotic and steals Luke’s flashlight for fun, then shouts “Mine! Mine! Mine!” at R2D2 until Luke lets him have it. He’s a far cry from the gnomic sage of the prequels, and I really much prefer him this way. Perhaps he’s meant to be a bit mad after his long exile?! Leia and Han’s chemistry is on fire (as I said on Twitter, it’s not that on-screen couples have to be fucking irl, but there’s a reason Ford and Fisher work so well together). I like the introduction of Lando Calrissian; we didn’t necessarily need another loveable rogue, but it feels right that Han should have had some handy contacts outside the dynamic trio. (Quartet? Do we count Chewie? I don’t, really; he’s basically useless, although he does put C3PO together again, so that’s nice.) Luke’s showdown with Vader feels like it’s treading water, though—until that line, which is what we’ve all spent the past ten minutes waiting for anyway. And the ending is a great, infuriating cliffhanger.

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…Which meant it was lucky I could carry straight on to Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It’s got Jabba the Hutt, which is a major plus; the scenes in his court are a mix of decadent, horrifying, and absurd, which makes me wonder what life as a Huttian courtier is like. I’m sure there’s fanfic in abundance. Carrie Fisher’s chainmail bikini, and the fact that she’s chained by the neck and reclining on Jabba’s enormous fleshy slug-body, is waaayyy more sexual and simultaneously more disturbing than I remember (though I do remember being very disturbed by it as a nine-year-old. I think the overt sexiness of the bikini somehow suggested to my pre-adolescent mind that she’d Had Sex With Jabba, which I knew in some obscure way would have been coerced and deeply not okay, although I didn’t have the vocabulary or the framework to understand that at the time. For the record, adult me is pretty sure she hasn’t Had Sex With Jabba.) Anyway, the Emperor finally shows up and is horrifying (he’s played by Ian McDiarmid, who plays Palpatine in the prequel trilogies! He was in his early 30s and in heavy makeup when he played the Emperor, and in his 60s when he played him as a “younger” man. Oh, time is so weird.) Ewoks are cute as hell, though I know they divide opinion; I really like them. Vader redeems himself, the ending is touching, blah blah. (I actually was touched by Luke’s final farewell to his father. I know Vader is one of those awful genocide guys whom we like to pardon in our collective cultural consciousness because he sheds a single tear before dying, which apparently, to us, constitutes meaningful remorse, but it is a genuinely moving moment nonetheless.) But the moment that really matters in this movie, maybe the best sixty seconds or so in the entire original trilogy, is right after the death of the Rancor. Everyone runs around screaming and Luke is dragged out of the lair, and in amongst all of this, there are two shots of a guy who’s clearly the Rancor’s keeper, crying. We never get any more of it. We don’t know his name, where he’s from, he doesn’t get a word of dialogue, he never appears again, he’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but for a moment, a profoundly unimportant character’s humanity is fully exposed to us. It’s not too much of a stretch to call this Shakespearean. It reminded me of Aguecheek’s line in Twelfth Night: “I was adored once too.” The audience never gets to know that story, but they know it’s there.


Next up will be another commissioned review, this time of Dreamworks’s 1999 political epic, The Prince of Egypt. Don’t forget, if you want to commission a review, you can!

Pandemic commissions: Tangled

I’ve been enjoying these write-ups so much, and other people seem to be enjoying them too! So, more in hope than in expectation, there’s now a new element to the process: if you want to, you can tip me £3 (the cost of an average coffee in central London) and I will watch and write a longer-than-usual piece about the Disney, Pixar, Marvel Cinematic Universe, or Star Wars film of your choice (assuming I haven’t already written about it). If you want a film from a different franchise, just send me a message along with your tip and we can work out access. (This has already happened, and I’ll be watching and reviewing that commission soon!) I will also continue to watch and review things at my own pace, and roundups of those slightly shorter reviews will be posted regularly.

For now, though, commission number one came from the ever-supportive, creative and talented Esther, whose three-and-a-half-year old (who happens to be my goddaughter) has just seen Tangled. To Esther’s horror, Bea loves it.

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The most glaring failure of the film is its music, which is aggressively medium roast. Fifteen minutes after I finished it, I couldn’t remember a single tune. (After some thought, “Flower, gleam and glow” came back, but it’s weak sauce as Disney tunes go, and also only four lines long.) Even the prettier songs, like I See the Light, are unmemorable. A big part of that is the lyrics, I think, which can sometimes carry a melody that’s less strong but which in Tangled are generally just anodyne expressions of clichéd feelings. (In Frozen, “the wind is howling like the swirling storm inside” is lifted from potentially being a cliché because of the film’s use of pathetic fallacy, where external weather conditions do mirror a character’s interior feelings; in Tangled, “And at last I see the light/And at last the fog has lifted” doesn’t have the same charge of literal truth and therefore is simply hackneyed.)

The love plot is also a major issue. The story of Tangled, fundamentally, is about Rapunzel’s coming to terms with what amounts to lifelong abuse by someone who she not only trusted, but who was virtually the only other human being she’d ever seen. Her real identity—the long-lost princess in whose memory lanterns are released every year—makes her not only deeply loved and cared for in a way that Gothel specifically denies her, but also the locus of an entire nation’s annually-enacted grief. Her character trajectory ought to be both enormous and primarily centered on her processing of a trauma that the film is happy enough to gesture at, but that turns out to be almost too big, too serious, to actually engage with. I would argue that Rapunzel’s first eighteen years constitute a more profound trauma than Elsa’s and Anna’s, for instance; Gothel’s constant belittling, casual cruelty and thoughtlessness revealed in their dialogues, and her drive for absolute control of a person she sees essentially as a commodity, are classic indicators of an emotionally abusive, narcissistic parent (and that’s not to mention the actual imprisonment). That stuff lasts. It is no small feat to get out from under it. The closest the film gets to acknowledging this is in a sequence just after Rapunzel escapes from her tower; she alternates between merciless self-flagellation (“I’m a despicable human being” as she lies face-down on the forest floor) and hysterical rejoicing (“I’m freeeeee!” as she dashes across the screen, followed by floating yards of golden hair). It’s almost painful in its portrayal of an abused person’s cycle of punishing themselves for wanting the liberty and respect they deserve, but it’s played for laughs—wisely, in a sense, because this really is a movie for children, but also a clear demonstration of how unprepared the film is to explore the very conditions it sets up.

Rapunzel’s story of self-discovery is almost entirely shoved out of the way by the appearance of Flynn Rider, who—let us not forget—is literally the only other person she’s ever met, making it not that surprising that she would imprint her affection upon him, but a little shady of him to willingly accept it from someone so clearly naive. (The moment around their campfire when he finally clocks how badly she’s been treated, though, is tenderly done; Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi do convey a surprisingly strong emotional connection.) The film essentially presents us with two plots—Rapunzel’s growing self-confidence, and the growing attraction between her and Flynn—then throws all of its eggs in the basket of the less powerful story. I See the Light starts off as a song during which she realizes a lifelong dream, and (unwittingly) witnesses a ritual that is her heritage; in its second verse, it immediately turns to Flynn and becomes a song about him and his relationship to her. It’s disappointing.

Major plus points, however, for the scene in the Snuggly Duckling, which is so obviously a gay leather bar. (The guy with a hook who wants to be a concert pianist playing show tunes! The guys who knit and crochet and collect ceramic unicorns! THE MIME, FOR GOD’S SAKE, THE MIME. Not to mention the guy whose costume design includes something that can be passed off to kids as “metal helmet with horns”, but to the over-18 eye looks a hell of a lot like a fetish mask.)

Esther’s least favourite part of the film, when I asked her, turned out to be what she described as “the exaggerated movements of the horse”, which I think is kind of a Marmite thing. It’s Disney, and Disney does silly animals. Still, a truly baffling choice comes in the form of Rapunzel’s animal sidekick, which is a chameleon (a tropical animal) named Pascal (a French name), despite the topography of the kingdom, which, though it might charitably be called inconsistent (one moment our protagonists are frolicking in an alpine meadow; the next, they’re in what appears to be a deserted mine from the California Gold Rush), never appears to be set in anything more humid than a temperate climate.

Decidedly not in the top tier of Disney films, then, and probably not even in the second rank. Redeemed primarily by the rather beautiful, delicate emotional treatment given to the king and queen, whose silent reunion with their long-lost daughter is a masterclass in how to animate faces so that they convey as much emotion as real ones do, but other than that? A bit of a mess.


Got a Disney, Pixar, MCU or Star Wars film you want me to watch and Have Opinions about? You can commission me here.