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ParaNorman

Animation is for children. At least, this is what some adults will try to have you believe. Current Disney CEO Bob Chapek is one such adult, which may partially explain why the world is in the midst of a live-action-remake-renaissance. The fine folks over at PIXAR Animation Studios have never held such a belief, knowing that children can handle most of what life can throw at them and that’s there no use hiding them from reality. The same is true of Laika Studios, whose 2009 classic Coraline delighted and terrified audiences of all ages. It was the very first film they’d produced for themselves, having assisted on other projects like The Corpse Bride, but it wouldn’t be their final forray into the world of horror. 3 years later came ParaNorman, which is often overshadowed by it’s predecessor but is no less creative.

The story follows 11 year old Norman, who has the unique ability to see and speak to ghosts, as he attempts to stop a 300 year old witches curse from destroying his town. The curse, which until recently had been held at bay by a crazed hermit, brings back to life the seven jurors who sentenced the witch to death as well as the spirit of the witch herself. Along the way, he is assisted by his older sister Courtney, school bully Alvin, best friend Neil and Neils older brother Mitch. It’s a simpler plot than Coraline but the characters and their dynamics are just as interesting. There’s the classic sibling rivalry betwween Norman and Courtney which also exists between Neil and Mitch, whilst Alvin finds himself clinging to the group out of fear. Courtney’s infatuation with Mitch is especially fun to witness, particularly on a rewatch with the knowledge that Mitch is gay.

The plot never makes a big deal out of that fact. It isn’t a running thread throughout themovie and, when revealed, isn’t given an aura that demands praise. It’s just part of who he is and comes up naturally, which is how it should be. Gay people are more than just their sexuality, which is something that Laika continues to understand. Their following three films would include gay characters, both in the background and the foreground, but there was never a massive deal made about them. Disney has been expecially bad for using gay characters as a marketing gimmick but the fail to grasp that this community isn’t demanding attention. The goal is simply to be included because that’s how it is in reality. The LGBT community only seems loud because it fights so hard to exist without prosecution, which is only getting more difficult by the year. Characters like Mitch normalise a community that has been seen as “other” for decades and help children to realise that, not only are there gay people, but that it’s ok to be gay yourself. It breeds a more open and loving ideollogy in children who see it and provides hope for a netter tomorrow for the community. Mitch was the first gay character in a “children’s” movie and he remains one of the best examples of how such a character can be handeled.

The most interesting development in ParaNorman occurs as act three begins. The seven undead jurors are not the steotypical undead, but are instead victims of the witches curse who wish to be set free. The overall message here is to not jusge a book by its cover but this only works because the idea of a “zombie” is so ingrained in popular culture…which is fascinating. It’s an idea embeded so deep withing society that this tweist works regardless of the age of the viewer and it only works better as time goes on. The zombie genre has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade propelled, in part, by the success of shows like The Walking Dead (a show which ironically will not die). However it also means that subverting the expectation of brain-hungry zomnies is not as unique as it once was, having been used in films like Warm Bodies and Life After Beth. ParaNorman was one of the originators and, considering how well they pulled it off, it’s no wonder it stuck around.

It’s also a remarkable homage to the B Movies of old. The opening scene is an in-universe B Movie which perfectly sends up the hoaky acting, simple sets and bright colours. This homage continues throughout the film itself. Laika’s signature stop-motion animation comes across on screen as more jagged and slow in movement, providing a slightly uneasy feel akin to the low frame rates of early cinema. There’s also a lighter tone than something like Coraline, although it still has its dark moments. The eventual reveal of the witches identity is as heartbreaking in terms of narrative as it is in terms of historical accuracy. There is also a direct link between the witch, the hermit and Norman which is never stated outright but is evident enough from context clues. It feels that a link like that would be directly adressed in a film today, but again ParaNorman refuses to talk down to its audience.

Despite the admiration the creative team clearly have for the horror genre and the admiration audiences should hold for their creative process, ParaNorman remains second fiddle to Coraline.This is likely down to its simplicity and lack of emotional weight in comparrison, but that doesn’t make it a lesser film. ParaNorman has enough charm, humour and stly to stick around in the public conciousness…even garnering a 4K remaster for its tenth anniversary. There is plenty of room for both and they make a spectacular double bill, with Coraline serving as the major scare and ParaNorman acting as a semi-palette cleanser. Both feature a suitably spooky aesthetic and are sure to entertain.

ParaNorman is fun for the whole family.

And, incidentally, a Happy Halloween to you at home!

Thor: Love and Thunder

Comedy and film journalism are vaguely similar concepts. Responses to both are based on objectivity and are there to entertain, so when it comes to reviews of comedy films it’s probably best to form your own opinion. You can certainly gauge what your reaction might be if you have a reviewer whose opinion you often share but their objectivity is not yours. The following piece is a reflection on how I felt about Love and Thunder (the good and the bad) which some may agree with and others may not. Regardless of that, here’s hoping it still entertains.

Thor: Love and Thunder follows the titular God as he embarks on a mission to stop Gorr the God Butcher from carrying out his murderous plan. He is assisted by old friends Valkyrie and Korg, as well as returning romantic interest Dr. Jane Foster who has gained the powers of Thor. Director Taika Watiti returns, having helmed the previous installment Thor: Ragnarok, but it feels like his best comedy was used there. When the running gag is a couple of screaming goats, it’s not a great sign. Regardless of the fact that it’s a dead meme from over a decade ago, it only works when it has shock value to it, which is lessened over its 5 or so uses.

The dialogue isn’t great either. When it isn’t spouting exposition, which it so often is, it’s one-liners with a snarky undertone. Very few lines in Love and Thunder feel genuine or grounded in these characters that have been around for so long. When it isn’t that, it’s the several voiceovers from Taika as Korg, which feel unnecessary. They seem to be there to set the tone as opposed to carrying the plot forward, but the tone is so in-your-face that a voiceover isn’t required.

There are things here that are likable. The film is visually gorgeous, from the cast to the locations. Every scene is bursting with colour, much like Ragnarok was,, which gives the film a more comic-book feel compared to the Earthier hues of other MCU installments. When the cinematography is allowed to fully display these locations crafted by the talented (and over-worked/underpaid) folks in VFX, it’s utterly gorgeous. Omnipotence City (home of the Gods) is caked in classical, golden architecture akin to Asgard. The shadow Realm (residence of Gorr) is totally devoid of colour but is still interesting with its barren landscape across a miniature planet.

Gorr the God Butcher is Love and Thunder‘s greatest strength. Christian Bale’s performance is occasionally comical but never loses that sinister edge and is best demonstrated when talking with the Asgardian children he’s kidnapped. None of these children are going to die because this is an MCU flick but there’s never any doubt that Gorr would take them all out. Unfortunately, he isn’t present for the majority of the film’s runtime, which brings us to the largest of the issues. Thor: Love and Thunder wastes its characters.

A big deal was made about the return of Natalie Portman as Dr. Jane Foster but her presence here seems to primarily be furthering Thors arc. His arc, as per usual, is about discovering what kind of person he is but the plot refuses to take his arc or character seriously. His fragility is often the butt of the joke and his trauma is dismissed with similar hilarity. Meanwhile, Valkyrie (who still isn’t gay enough) is here to primarily chaperone Jane, whilst Korg (who is somehow gayer) is here to spout one-liners and exposition. Then there are the Guardians of the Galaxy who feel like a hold-over from Avengers: Endgame that need to be gotten rid of before the real plot can progress. Nebula is still great though. Her lines are some of the film’s best.

Ultimately, Thor: Love and Thunder is damaged most by its lack of seriousness. If the film doesn’t care about the lore, characters, or stakes, then why should the audience? It’s one of the weakest entries in the MCU and no amount of classic rock songs on the soundtrack can hide that.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

2D animation deserved better. For decades, it was the go-to art style and helped to make Walt Disney Pictures one of the biggest companies on the planet. Then along came PIXAR and Dreamworks, whose CG motion pictures made them as much money with seemingly less effort. There was a noticeable shift at the turn of the millennium where 2D movies started earning less at the Box Office and by around 2004, they were all but finished. They’re still out there, it’s just that they’re not hitting the mainstream anymore, and those that do, aren’t overly profitable. Unfortunately, this is the case for The Bob’s Burgers Movie.

The plot sees the Belcher parents (Lind and Bob) attempting to pay off the loan for their restaurant whilst the Belcher children (Tina, Gene, and Louise) solve a years-old murder. Unlike The Simpsons Movie or The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, this isn’t meant to serve as a conclusion to the Television show of which they are a continuation. (Bob’s Burgers, by the way, has barely faltered in quality over the last 12 series and is worth checking out if you haven’t already). Instead, it exists as part of the continuing story, which means it doesn’t require any finality or a bombastic plot. Spongebob journeyed across the ocean and The Simpsons traveled to Alaska but The Belchers never leave their hometown. The plot is marginally more extravagant than a regular episode of the show but not by much.

The main difference is in production quality. Bob’s Burgers has always looked and felt unique compared to other animated shows so a bigger budget and more staff simply exemplifies that. It seems unfair to call it more professional looking because the show has always looked professional. It’s simply more detailed. There are more shadows, and sweeping landscape shots whilst the edges and voice acting seem crisper. It’s a gorgeous film to look at, especially on the big screen.

It’s easy to get lost in the animation but the story is just as good. Each member of the family is dealing with an issue that allows for a miniature personal arc. Tina is worried about asking long-term love interest Jimm Junior to be her Summer Boyfriend, Gene is worried that he isn’t as musically gifted as he once thought and Louise is concerned that continuing to wear her pink hat with bunny ears is stunting her personal growth. Meanwhile, the parents’ journey is less about personal growth and more about dealing with a working-class issue…not having enough money. Each of these issues is proportional to the age of the characters, even if Tina’s has a fairly weak ending that maintains a series-old status quo. 

It’s all tied together with a wonderful score by Tim Davies, including several songs written especially for the film by Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith. Musical numbers are nothing new as the show has been doing them at an increasing rate for years but there are more of them here. The show has one per episode whilst the film averages one every 20 minutes or so. They aren’t just decorations either, they actively push the plot forward as any Broadway song does. Actually, taking that into consideration, a Bob’s Burgers musical wouldn’t go amiss.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie didn’t exactly underperform. It made $31.8 million worldwide, which is around what 20th Century Studios predicted it would make, and it finished 3rd at the Box Office that week. It seems to have garnered praise from all who saw it, but when it’s up against a blockbuster like Top Gun: Maverick, it’s unlikely to remain in the public consciousness for long which is a shame.

This movie is burger flipping great.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a masterpiece. Its visual storytelling makes the world feel lived in while the blending of 2D animation and real actors set the gold standard for pulling off such integration. With a lead performance from the grizzled yet charming Bob Hoskins and a child-scarring turn from Christopher Lloyd, it’s also a masterclass in acting. It deserves an article of its own but the main point is that it continues to serve as a love letter to the medium of animation, even after 34 years. Disney’s latest attempt to recapture that magic is the IP-laden Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers.

The plot sees the iconic chipmunks living their everyday lives after the cancellation of their hit TV series in 1990. Despite no longer being on speaking terms, they must cooperate to retrieve their old friend Montgomery Jack from the clutches of the bootlegging Sweet Pete. The story isn’t reliant on the original show, meaning that it’s easily accessible to everyone. Die-hard fans may pick up some extra references but it doesn’t make or break the viewing experience. The cast does a wonderful job of portraying these characters, especially John Mulaney and Andy Samberg as Chip and Dale respectively. They’re easy-going, down to Earth, and bounce off each other expertly. Their voices also do a brilliant job of distinguishing between “Chip N’ Dale: TV Characters” and “Chip N’ Dale: Actors”, although those original high-pitched voices still get their moment to shine. These classic tones are provided by returning voice actors Tress McNeille and Corey Burton, who are just some of the returning voice talent.

As an IP-packed project, there are plenty of voices required. Each frame is packed with Disney characters, old and new, many of whom are portrayed by their original voice actors. Considering the preference for hiring celebrities in years (a trend started by Disney’s Aladdin) it’s nice to hear so many of them again. Among them are the legendary Jim Cummings and Alan Oppenheimer (best known for Winnie the Pooh and Skeletor respectively). It would be easy to praise Disney for this move, but it was likely the cheapest option.

Rescue Rangers‘ biggest flaw is that it’s a modern-day Disney production. The relentless cameos, references, and occasionally cringe-inducing humour makes it feel like a corporate product. It doesn’t feel like a love letter, it feels like a victory lap for a monopolistic company. The most entertaining aspect of these cameos is how likely they are to catch the audience off guard, particularly the blue one, but they don’t feel like they belong in this world. A large part of this is the variance in animation styles that don’t gel with each other. The PIXAR-esque characters are especially jarring, although it is amusing that there isn’t a single official PIXAR character to be found here. By far the worst aspect is how the film, and the company, treat beloved childhood icon, Peter Pan.

Now an adult, Peter goes by the moniker of Sweet Pete and he is anything but sweet. As the film’s primary antagonist, he is responsible for major kidnapping toons and altering their appearance to star in bootleg movies. This Peter was hired to portray his signature role as a child but was cast aside by the industry the moment he aged out of it. There’s a solid message here about how poorly child actors were, and occasionally still are, treated but it loses all value when it’s being told by a company notorious for doing this. Bobby Driscoll, the real child voice actor of [1957] Peter Pan was cast aside by Disney, then by the industry. He fell into substance abuse and passed away in an abandoned house at the age of 31. This iteration of Pete feels like an insult to his memory.

Chip N’ Dale: Rescue Rangers has all the vibes of a fun kids’ film. The Voice Actors do a wonderful job of capturing the heart of the characters and JK Simmons is excellent as the chief of police. Fans may get a kick out of it but the film’s biggest flaw is that it feels like a product. It’s self-aware, but not enough to demand you actually hold Disney accountable for the monopoly of IP it’s flaunting here. It may have some sweet moments but it leaves a sour aftertaste.

It’s more Ready Player One than Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

The Adventures of Wallace and Gromit

*Initially written for the Autumn & Winter 2021/2022 issue of UnDividing Lines*

A Grand Day Out

I adore animation. Whether done by shading Cels, on the computer or using puppets, I am hooked. But the most love is reserved for stop-motion. It takes an absurd amount of time and patience to bring a world to life through these means, and a prime example of this is British animator Nick Park. The first project to feature his most iconic duo, lovable goofball Wallace and his trusty dog Gromit, began production in 1982 whilst Park was still in college. It would take 7 years and several monetary assists from industry professionals before A Grand Day Out finally made it onto television sets across the UK and, finally, the world.

The plot sees the plasticine man and his companion embarking on a holiday to The Moon because it’s made of cheese, which they adore. This involves building a rocket ship in their basement and staying out of the clutches of a lunar robot that yearns to come to Earth. The simplicity of the plot and models provide a “homemade” feeling that is primed for feelings of nostalgia. At half an hour in length, this short manages to feel leisurely without ever feeling boring. The primary focus is always on the story and the animation.

The craftsmanship continues to astound. Wallace’s shoes and Gromits nose are both black plastic, as opposed to plasticine, which gives them a shine whilst the flames made of paper give a better impression of free-flowing gas than a solid ever could. Meanwhile, the backgrounds and several shots of the rocket are beautifully coloured pencil drawings, like some low-budget Ralph McQuarrie art. This allows for a large scale whilst also providing that “homely” aesthetic.

All three of the characters are inherently likable. Wallace is the only character with dialogue, which is provided by the always warm voice of the late Peter Sallis. His gentle voice is matched well with the mannerisms of the character, like his signature handshaking. Gromit’s communication is all in the eyebrows and there isn’t a single point where his feelings are unclear. His primary emotion is one of exacerbation with the hapless Wallace but it’s never malicious, only ever out of love. The robot is portrayed solely through exaggerated movement. It’s like watching an old Charlie Chaplin sketch, or a pantomime, and those feel homely too.

The Wrong Trousers

Created in less time than its predecessor, The Wrong Trousers is a more high-end production. The character designs are more refined with cleaner edges, as is the audio. There are also several more locations than just The Sitting Room, The Basement, and The Moon. Here there is an entire house, a park, several streets, and a museum but this doesn’t make the short film feel like a large-scale production. A lot of the “homely” feel is maintained through backgrounds and never overcrowding the sets, as well as the emotional core of the plot.

Wallace is renting his spare room to a penguin named Feathers McGraw who turns out to be a criminal intent on stealing a large diamond from the local museum. During his scheme, Feathers isolates Gromit from his friend and steals the titular electronic trousers which can walk on any service. The tone of The Wrong Trousers is modeled after classic melodramatic thrillers like “Dial M for Murder” and does the genre a great justice. Without ever uttering a single sound, Feathers is one of the most terrifying villains ever put to screen. His complete silence assists in his mysterious anonymity, but the beady black eyes are also doing a lot of work. The choice to give him these eyes has robbed him of any humanity.

The plot’s tension is heightened by Julian Nott’s superb score which is a work of art in its own right. His work is featured in every Wallace and Gromit feature but it is particularly good here. It does well during the quiet moments, like Gromit running away from home, but it shines during the climactic face-off. This final setpiece is a classic race across a train rooftop to capture the villain, but the train is only a miniature. Feathers is wedged into the train cabin whilst Gromit is clinging desperately around one of the carriages. Wallace is…being Wallace. As the chase continues, the train becomes detached and Gromit must lay tracks ahead of himself at a rapid pace. To convey this much speed through stop-motion is an astounding feat, even if it does raise several questions about the layout of their house.

A Close Shave

For a long time, this was the last of the Wallace and Gromit shorts, but it was the first to do many things. It was the first to be presented in 16:9 instead of 4:3 which was the standard for all televisions until the 1990s, which mirrors its more cinematic plotline. It’s the first time that the duo are shown to have jobs, specifically as window cleaners, having previously been an inventor and a dog. It’s the first time that Wallace is given a romantic interest in the form of wool shop owner Wendoline voiced by the amazing Anne Reid. Lastly, this is the first time that a character will receive their own spin-off show, in the form of Shaun the Sheep which began airing in 2007.

This time, the lads find themselves in the care of an escaped lamb which Wallace names Shaun, throwing them into a sinister plot featuring wool and canned dog food. This short perfectly evokes the feeling of classic Horror B-Movies in the story, tone, and score. Much like Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End), the Wallace and Gromit shorts take the opportunity to dabble in different genres, and this allows them to stay fresh.

What A Close Shave does particularly well is comedy. There’s comedy across all these shorts and it always lands, but the humour here is particularly good. Gromit’s continued obliteration of the fourth wall and the running gag about porridge are magnificent. There’s also a lovely parody of the initiation sequence from classic TV Show Thunderbirds that hits that feeling of childhood nostalgia every time. That really sums up these first 3 shorts perfectly – nostalgic.

A Matter of Loaf and Death

In the 13 years between the last short and this one, Aardman Animation Studios had exploded in popularity. Their first feature-length films Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit were both smash hits with audiences, while Flushed Away was less popular but gained a small following. This learned experience is present in A Matter of Loaf and Death. It feels like the larger world shown in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit than the couple of streets from the original shorts, but that warmth and love are still there.

Wallace and Gromit now run a successful bakery, but their job security and lives are threatened by the arrival of Wallace’s new love interest Piella, and Gromit’s first love interest: a poodle named Fluffles. The closer these lovebirds become, the more Gromit unearths about a sinister spree of baker-specific murders. It isn’t difficult to decipher who the murderer is and, considering the runtime, that’s a good thing. It allows for the suspense to build from almost the very beginning of the plot and allows sympathy for Gromit to begin in earnest. Gromit is the real hero of this tale, although he usually is.

This installment is a beautifully written love letter to the fans. Nick Park has said that he made this one primarily for the British fans who helped launch his career, and that’s clear to see. Gromit owns a Bagpuss plush toy, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Feathers McGraw’s wanted poster and the story itself would fit right in with the writings of Agatha Christie. There are also several not-so-subtle references to pop culture, including a parody of the clay-moulding scene from Ghost and the attempt to get rid of a bomb ripped straight from Batman: The Movie. Often references like this can feel out of place, like an attempt to capitalise on what’s popular, but that isn’t the case here. They come across as fun Easter Eggs for the viewer instead of stand-out declarations that they know about that thing you like.

This would not be the duo’s final outing. They appeared in educational TV Show Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention (which demonstrates exactly what the title suggests), the Telltale video game series Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Adventures, and have made the jump to VR with Wallace and Gromit: The Big Fix-Up. However, if more shorts are made, this would be the last to feature Peter Sallis who passed away in 2017. That alone makes A Matter of Loaf and Death special. Voice actor Ben Whitehead has taken over the role of Wallace, filling the character with as much charm and joy as ever, and future shorts are a possibility according to Nick Park. If 4 was it, that would be a shame, but it wouldn’t be a tragedy.

Wallace, Gromit, and all their pals are a lot like The Muppets – individuals with their own lives. What we see is just what happens when the cameras are rolling and something is comforting about that.

Signed Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Jackass Forever

A lot has changed in the last 12 years. Since 2010, diversity has become a cornerstone of entertainment, YouTube has fundamentally changed the way it runs and some world leaders have been replaced at least twice. When Jackass 3 was released in Autumn of that year, it was heralded as the final outing for the outrageous franchise which had launched as a TV series in 2000, It was followed by Jackass 3.5; a film comprised of deleted stunts from Jackass 3, and Bad Grandpa; a film centered around the escapades of Johnny Knoxville’s character Irving Zisman but that was it. The crew remained hopeful that a fourth installment would be made, even after the passing of founding crewmember Ryan Dunn in 200, and in December of 2019, they got their wish.

Jackass Forever (stylised with a love heart for the “o”) finally entered the world in 2022, serving as a reminder that comedy can still be found even in the bleakest of times. As with every other installment, the film follows the cast and crew as they play elaborate, dangerous pranks on each other and perform equally elaborate dangerous stunts. Any fears that the original cast and crew have matured over the last 12 years are quickly squandered by the cinematic opening which features a male appendage painted to look like Godzilla, causing havoc on a model town, cut with live-action footage to look like an actual movie of course. The stunts/pranks that follow are less disgusting than in previous years, with feces only making a couple of appearances (once in the opening and then again by accident later) but they are no less dangerous. Blood is drawn, bones are cracked, animals are constantly present and Knoxville once again suffers a concussion. The only prank this time around that caused any genuine squirms feature a box of bees and a very naked Steve-O (who’s in great shape, as is Knoxville).

This is likely the last time that the original crew will do a film like this, given their advancing age and numerous previous injuries. Indeed, they aren’t performing a majority of the truly dangerous stunts here, opting instead to quite literally draw some fresh blood. This includes cameos from some famous faces like Machine Gun Kelly, Eric Andre, and Tyler the Creator but there’s a whole new cast of dedicated performers being put through their paces here. They do the Jackass brand proud and, if a fifth installment ever was to manifest, it would be a delight to watch them again with the original crew taking another step back. Yes, a large amount of the charm of Jackass comes from the presence of those original cast members and their interactions. Knoxville, Steve-o, Dunn, and even Bam Magera (absent here due to personal issues) are Jackass for so many people. For two decades, they have put their health on the line for our entertainment, and I have a large amount of respect for them for that, so they’ve definitely earned an out if they want it.

There’s a large amount of nostalgia embedded in Jackass Forever. The heart for an o, the reminiscing, the recreation of older stunts, and even the title make it clear that this will likely be it. Part of the joy of this series has been hunting down the stunts on their own online, but those stunts just don’t align with the internet as it exists today. I, and many others, discovered Jackass through clips on YouTube in the early hours of the morning but, thanks to the Adpocolypse, those original clips likely won’t survive unless behind an age barrier. Sure, Jackass could adapt and tone themselves down, but then it wouldn’t really be Jackass. Regardless of what the future holds, their legacy will carry on.

The Jackass crew were here. They destroyed themselves for our entertainment. Their latest installment may not be the best but, given the circumstances, it may be the most necessary. 

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Home Alone 3

Franchises should take risks. The inevitability of mediocrity looms large, and every franchise ever created is an example of how to keep audiences engaged. The Fast and Furious films pivoted from being serious and character-driven to over-the-top heist movies. Doctor Who recasts the show, including production teams, every few years. So how do sequels the beloved Christmas classic Home Alone go about this? The original, about young Kevin McCallister protecting his house from 2 bumbling criminals, is small-scale whilst the sequel, Lost in New York, turns the tables by having them face off again in a larger location that neither side know well. The third installment… is a James Bond film.

Home Alone 3 had initially been pitched as a direct successor to Lost in New York and was due to be produced at the same time, however, this idea never came to fruition. A second pitch was concocted in the mid-1990s and would see a teenage Kevin once again defending his home from Harry and Marv but Macauly Culkin had retired from acting after 1994’s Richie Rich. This was, in large part, due to issues surrounding his family, career, and earnings. His father had been abusive, forcing Macauly into acting at a young age and, although he found himself enjoying it, he soon grew tired of it. On top of this, he was being kept from his financial earnings, although that was easily rectified with Macauly removing his parents’ names from his Trust Fund and hiring an executor. Simultaneously, a court battle was taking place between the Culkin parents, who had never married, over the custody of their children. None of this would prevent 20th Century Fox from plowing ahead with the Home Alone 3 which was finally released in 1997.

The story follows 8-year-old Alex Pruitt who is left home by himself with chickenpox while his siblings go to school and his parents work. He finds himself in possession of a remote-controlled car that contains a $10 million military missile-cloaking microchip which is being hunted down by an infamous terrorist organisation. 4 members in particular conspicuously move into Alex’s street to systematically check each house on the block, however, Alex keeps track of them and is constantly calling the police. At its centre, this is a spin on The Boy Who Cried Wolf but it never fully follows through on this premise, with Alex eventually catching the criminals and being hailed as a hero.

What’s interesting is this film’s relationship with the original Home Alone as it’s left unclear as to whether or not this takes place in the same continuity. The previous events and characters are never mentioned but the Pruitt’s house is in the same Chicago suburbs as the McCallisters. It’s a clever way of handling continuity as it allows for the film to be totally ignored by those who hate it and provide a smooth transition to those who like it. That said, home Alone 3 is noticeably similar to the original. Both feature an 8-year-old with a lovable, smartass personality whilst being a little wiser than their years. However, whilst Kevin has an adorable charm, Alex comes across as slightly obnoxious. On top of this, they are each part of a family that doesn’t treat them well. Whilst Kevin is in a house with 13 other people, almost being ignored and struggling to make his voice heard, Alex has 2 siblings who treat him like garbage with parents who allow that behavior but don’t participate in it. The elderly neighbour also makes an appearance in the form of the crotchety Mrs. Hess who can’t hold a candle to Old Man Murphy. She isn’t a bad character, she’s an utter delight when she’s on-screen, but she doesn’t really go through an arc or add to the plot in any meaningful way like Murphy did.

The major difference is the villains. Harry and Marv are a classic slapstick duo who only interact with Kevin and provide a minor threat. Home Alone 3 has 4 terrorists who are a global threat and are implied to be ready to murder this child. Their comeuppance is fun, but it sets the stakes way too high and requires a much larger suspension of disbelief than 2 bumbling burglars. These are professional villains, yet they are easily bested by an 8-year-old who has an evening to prepare. The traps themselves are highly creative, close to lethal at times, especially the lawnmower which is a neat holdover from the novelisation of Lost in New York. Perhaps the largest issue is how cartoonish they are, which was a large complaint with Lost in New York, and which is amplified here.

The cartoonish aspects are what keep Home Alone 3 an entertaining film, as opposed to less than average. The plot is oversized and features over-the-top acting which makes for the weakest installment so far but it still amuses the audience for an hour and a half. There was definitely a capacity for it to over-rely on nostalgia but with new characters and a fresh score, it’s clear this wasn’t the direction the studio wanted to go down.

At least, not yet.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer

The Grinch (2018)

With Benedict Cumberbatch voicing The Grinch in his attempts to ruin festivities for the Who’s of Whoville, this story is an amalgamation of all that came before, with a couple of new ideas sprinkled in. Much like the 2000 adaptation, this Grinch has a tragic backstory, however instead of being raised by lesbians and hating Christmas from the start, he was an orphan whose orphanage stopped celebrating the holiday. Whilst the former opts to keep his Christmas hatred a mystery, amplified by a traumatic childhood event, the latter robs him of mystery entirely. He doesn’t hate Christmas, really, he hates being alone. It robs him of that unfathomable maliciousness that makes the character so great. It isn’t helped by the narration keeping the classic line “The Grinch hated Christmas, The whole Christmas season. Now please, don’t ask why, No-one quite knows the reason.”

His overall attitude is softer too. Near the beginning of the film, he ventures into town to stock up on food and whilst there is treated by the script and the Who’s as a grumpy old curmudgeon. He does some mean things, like knocking over a child’s snowman, but the child merely seems disgruntled, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. In previous iterations, the Grinch either hasn’t met the Who’s (1996) or has his name mentioned in hushed whispers (20000) but here, he seems fairly well known and not disliked. His neighbour Mr Bicklebaum always greets him with a smile and an attempted hug. He’s less of a villain and more of a Town Kook. He also treats his dog Max with much more respect, as a best friend rather than an overly-faithful companion. The plot adds a subplot where The Grinch finds a reindeer named Fred to pull his sleigh and allows him to stay with them. This is clearly meant to set up a rivalry between Fred and Max (a la Feathers and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers) but the Grinch never acts like he has any intention to replace his friend. He continues to use Max as his assistant regardless with the only real moment of tension being Fred making The Grinch’s morning coffee. Fred leaves shortly before the big heist so that Max still has to pull the sleigh, but returns at the film’s end to help prevent the sleigh from plummeting over the top of Mount Crumpitt.

The other big change is Cindy Lou Who, who used to be no older than two. Here she is 5 or 6 years old, like her live-action counterpart, and one of 3 children, like both her previous iterations. However, she is now the child of a single mother and wants to capture Santa to ask for his help in making her mother’s life easier. It’s a cute subplot but often feels like it distracts from the main plot. In The Grinch (2000), Cindy Lou is researching The Grinch’s past to solve her own ‘yuletide doubts’ (in her own words), thus acting as both an insight into his character and into the mentality of the Whos. Here, she is on her own journey, completely separate from The Grinch, with the meeting of the two coming across as more of a coincidence. It’s not that her plot is irrelevant, it’s actually perfectly in keeping with the morals of Dr. Seuss, rather that it pads out an already padded movie. It feels like there are two films here, but neither one is being given the time that they deserve.

The final act of padding comes in the form of narration from musician Tyler, The Creator. Being based on a short children’s book, and given previous adaptations of said books, it makes sense that there would be narration. However, instead of using all the lines from the original source material, the script adapts them and adds to them. Both previous adaptations had used every word, so to replace them here feels utterly absurd. Seuss’ work survives, in part because his writing’s so tight and to change even a single line feels close to sacrilege. Then there’s the remix of You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch, which provides an update to something classic despite it not needing updated, as well as being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film.

The main issue The Grinch (2018) has is that it is the third adaptation of this tale but that it doesn’t add anything to the mythos. The original 1966 adaptation brought in music and colour whilst the 2000 adaptation was a misinterpreted mockery of capitalism and send-up to classic action movies. The 2019 adaptation seeks only to entertain, which it does but is ultimately inferior when compared to its predecessors. This comparison is the root issue that any adaptation will have to overcome and it’s not something that the Illumination team was able to overcome.

The message of the original (that Christmas is about being with the people we love) is there, and rises to the surface regardless of what gets thrown on top of it., but this feels like it only happens because that original message is so strong. The Grinch is like any other Illumination picture in that it’s very pretty to look at but therein lies perhaps the biggest problem. This is just like any Illumination film and The Grinch shouldn’t be done that way. If you’re looking for a child-friendly take on this story then the old adage is true:

There’s nothing like the original.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer

The French Dispatch

*Dedicated to my Grandad. My first favourite storyteller, whose legacy I could only ever dream of living up to*

The written word is one of humanity’s finest achievements. It allows stories, both fictional and otherwise, to persevere in a more concrete form than by word of mouth alone. A story passed through dialogue alone is prone to embellishment but once written it is frozen in time, like a work of art. Indeed the written word is in itself a form of art, though few works ever reach the same recognition as a painting like the Mona Lisa. JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George Orwells 1984 are both well-revered, but this doesn’t mean that lesser-known works are without their own merit.

Wes Anderson’s latest production The French Dispatch is a love letter to those lesser-known forms. An anthology of stories set in the fictional French town of Ennui for its equally fictional magazine The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun perfectly demonstrates the best of journalism.

The Cycling Reporter is an account of a day in the life of an Ennui resident, centered around the quirks of the town and its people. It is factual, expelling statistics like the average snowfall and amount of bodies found in the river per year, but is more concerned with showing the town through the eyes of the people. Without inhabitants, a city is just an amalgamation of empty buildings. It’s the people who make this town come to life, and every walk of life is fairly represented from the mischievous schoolboys to the under-achieving elderly population. It romanticises the town, giving it all the warmth that nostalgia has to offer.

The Concrete Masterpiece is a historical account of an artist painting his magnum opus from inside an insane asylum. It seeks to answer the question “is this man insane, or insanely gifted, or could he be both?” whilst leaving it open to interpretation. It’s a provocative piece that adds humanity to a character who would otherwise be a series of facts. Historical figures are interesting in that you can learn all the details of their life, like their age when they died and who they married, but you’ll never truly know them. Nobody will ever truly know their personal opinions or what they daydreamed about. It creates an odd parasocial bond. A good historian gets all the facts right but a great historian imbues those facts with life.

Revisions to a Manifesto reports on a student uprising and is a testament to the role of journalism in political movements. Journalists, like documentary film crews, are supposed to be there only to observe – but to what extent can that rule be pushed? When should journalists be active participants and what kind of responses would they receive? The piece never truly answers these questions, nor should it. There are certain biases inherent in everything a journalist writes, whether or not they are aware of it, but under certain circumstances, those biases should be allowed prevalence.

The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner is a journalist’s recollection of a particularly intense dinner that consists of a kidnapping, a stand-off, and a car chase. The most interesting aspect is the reporter: a gay man of colour whose first article for The French Dispatch was written from inside a jail cell. It demonstrates the faith that the magazines’ editor was willing to place in his writers, cultivating talent wherever he saw it. Indeed, art can come from anywhere but it is through encouragement and opportunity that it can become great.

The epilogue tells of the end of The French Dispatch after the sudden passing of its creator. As each of the journalists mourn their loss, they begin writing his obituary. There is a sense of obligation, of course, but also one of camaraderie. This is writings greatest gift: the gift of expression. A great deal of emotion can be poured into a written piece, and it can help to deal with those emotions. This too is something that The French Dispatch accomplishes, at least for me.

I’ve often been told that I see media in a way that others around me do not. I approach it out of positivity and am driven by the emotion and artistry in a piece. It sets me apart, I’m told. I’ve also been told that my work is well researched and this sentiment particularly means a great deal to me. More than can ever be conveyed in words.

My writing is my escape. Thank you for indulging me.

Signed: Your grateful neighbourhood queer

Ant-Man and the Wasp

It’s amazing the difference a cohesive film production can make. 2015s Ant-Man went through several script rewrites and directors which resulted in an entertaining film that fell short of being truly great. Meanwhile, its sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp had one creative team throughout which resulted in one of the funniest, most heartfelt tales in the MCU. It takes all the aspects that made its predecessor good and refines them to amplify their greatness.

The film centers on former cat burglar Scott Lang, in the final days of his house arrest following the events of Captain America: Civil War, as he attempts to help Hank and Hope Pym without alerting the FBI or his family. As they build a machine capable of rescuing Hank’s wife Janet from the Quantum Realm, they must keep it out of the hands of black market dealer Sonny Burch and the mysterious Ava Starr/Ghost who can phase through objects.

The brilliance of the film’s title is that it refers to the two stories at play. The first is on the new Ant-Man, Scott, and his Wasp, Hope, as they learn to trust each other again so that they can fight side-by-side effectively. The second is on the original Ant-Man, Hank, and his Wasp, Janet, as they try desperately to reunite after 30 years apart. These relationships are the core of the story and are impactful even without the context of their previous appearances. Scott and Hope are clearly in love despite Hope’s pain at Scott’s betrayal whilst Hank and Janet clearly adore each other even when they aren’t on screen together. The highlight of these relationships, aside from their resolution, is when Hank, Hope, and Scott are pinpointing Janet’s location in the Quantum Realm. Janets consciousness inhabits Scott’s body and, for a brief moment, it allows her to interact with Hank and Hope. Actor Paul Rudd simply melts into this performance allowing the moment to come across as sincere whilst Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly give equally emotionally charged emotionally performances.

The final relationship that allows Ant-Man and the Wasp to stand out is that between Scott and his 10-year-old daughter Cassie. It was a highlight of Ant-Man and it’s just as impactful here. The screen lights up whenever they share a scene and Cassies desire to be a hero like her dad will pull at even the hardest of heartstrings. Their interactions are all bittersweet with the knowledge that this is the last time Scott will see her at this age. The gag about Scott being the World’s Greatest Grandma is equal parts funny and relatable. Actress Abby Ryder Fortson has really knocked this role out of the park so is definitely one to keep an eye on.

With a new film comes new characters and Ant-Man and the Wasp has some delights. FBI Agent Jimmy Woo is instantly likable with his childlike innocence and adorable interactions with Cassie which have rightfully made him a fan favourite. Sonny Burch is a slimy weasel in all the best ways with his easygoing personality and punchable demeanor. Ava Starr is an interesting villain with one of the more tragic backstories, making her actions understandable without being reasonable. Lastly, Janet is a superb addition to the cast. It’s always good to have more female role models and with her intelligence, as well as her warmth, she is certainly that. Ant-Man and the Wasp also sees the return of comedic trio Luis, Dave, and Kurt who could easily be annoying but are never given enough screentime to be so. Actor Michael Peña is marvelous at delivering Luis’ speedy monologues, which have become a highlight for this franchise.

The action scenes are some of the most creative that the MCU has to offer. The ability to shrink and grow makes both Ant-Man and the Wasp a formidle foe for enemies but it’s when that technology is used on objects that the fun really begins. There’s some superb use of shrinking when it comes to modes of transportation and living spaces with spledid use of expansion when it comes to Pez despensers. It also provides some excellent tension as the film nears its conclusion and it seems as if Scott’s luck evading the FBI has run out.

When it comes to post-credits scenes, those attached to Ant-Man and the Wasp are perfect. The first sees Scott becoming trapped in the Quantum Realm as the Pyms are turned to dust whilst the second shows several dead quiet locations. With this film being released in between Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, the post-credits scenes make sense as well as bringing Scott’s timeline up to date. However, placing this film before Infinity War chronologically allows for the perfect lead-in. It serves as a spoiler for that films ending but, in doing so, paints The Avengers’ actions as pointless. In a world where the films were released chronologically, the Pyms are dusted and nobody knows why. For 6 months, the audience sits on this information until Infinity War comes out. This Thanos guy talks about eradicating half of the universe, leading to 3 hours of utter despair at the knowledge that this is what happened to the Pyms. It would have been utterly devastating but, as it is, Ant-Man and the Wasp is already a heartfelt and funny tale.

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer