Just because a story is comedic, doesn’t mean it can’t be impactful. Such is the case withIrish film Sunlight, from director Claire Dix, which held its world premiere at this year’s GFF. The story follows recovered drug-addict Leon as he spends a final day with his friend/mentor Ivor, who has decided to end his own life after a lengthy illness. The comedy is present in the banter between the two, as well as with Ivor’s nurse Maria and the friends they meet on their outing, but it never squashes the tragic event at the film’s core.
Leon isn’t willing to let go. He’s been caring for Ivor since the illness set in but has done so with the belief that he will eventually pull through. His foolhardy attempt to take Ivor to their local haunts feels desperate, and becomes more so as it becomes clear just how bad Ivors illness actually is. The beauty of this tale is in Ivor, who knows what Leon is trying to do and, though begrudgingly at first, allows him to do it. He is forcibly being gifted one last good day.
Author John Green wrote in his novel The Fault in Our Stars “There’s no way of knowing that your last good day is Your Last Good Day. At the time it is just another good day.” This is presumably true for Ivor until Leon provides him with One Last Good Day. Much of the story focuses on Leon and how this loss will affect him but there’s an extra plot thread asking a seemingly simple question. If you could knowingly choose to have a Last Good Day, would you? And would you do it for yourself or for those you leave behind? Leon tells Ivor that “folks will be glad they saw you…you know…after” and, though it’s a line that’s delivered casually, it hits hard. Everyone has that person they wish they’d seen one last time.
Sunlight is shot as beautifully as it’s told. Almost as if to live up to the title, it is filled with the warmest colours and brightest rays of sun that Ireland can provide. When films are described as heartwarming, it’s often in reference to the story, but the cinematography and colour palette here take this word to another level. Watching shots of the landscapes, streets, and pubs feels homely. It’s like returning to a place you love. The occasionally jaunty, often melancholic, score matches that too. There’s sadness but in a way that echoes contentment.Letting go is hard. Knowing that you’ll have to do so ahead of time makes it even more so. Sunlight doesn’t provide a definitive answer because there isn’t one. Everyone grieves differently. What it does is demonstrate that there is a way through, even if you want to fight it.
Life is an adventure worth sharing. That’s the very human message at the heart of French film L’astronaute, which had its UK premiere at this year’s GFF. It’s also about following your dreams in the face of adversity and the risks taken in such an endeavor. Despite being a French picture, the themes are entirely universal, which made it an excellent nominee for the Audience Award.
The story follows aerospace engineer Jim in the weeks leading up to the launch of his homemade rocket. Having failed to land a job as an astronaut 8 years prior, he has spent his time siphoning supplies from work, in the hopes of becoming the first amateur spaceman. Though his intention is to go it alone, so he can state that he did it all himself, he slowly gathers a group to assist him in his mission which is something he initially struggles to reconcile with. The homemade rocket fuel (dubbed BX3) is provided by his friend Andre, he gets advice and training from former astronaut Alexandre, and finds a statistician in the form of brutally honest teen Izumi, on top of the initial support from his grandmother. Each new addition to the team is a point of frustration for Jim, especially Izumi, but they all refuse to back down despite knowing that launching a homemade rocket into space is illegal. They’re willing to risk it all for Jim’s safety and for his dream.
The threat of arrest looms over the group, with several outsiders seeming as if they might turn them over to the authorities. It could be Jim’s father, who disapproves of this unsafe venture, or Jims boss, from whom he has been stealing for 8 years. That’s what makes this small band of rebels so close in the end…they’re there for Jim. The division or conflict that arises is often as a result of relationships rather than the project itself, although there are a couple of minor setbacks.. When Izumi points out the statistical likelihood that they’ll succeed, Jim isn’t mad that she did, he’s mad because she did so in front of his worrisome grandmother without warning him. This group excels when they are transparent with each other and keep an honest/open line of communication. It’s important on a project like this, with a man’s life on the line, but it’s applicable to non-life-threatening group tasks too.
On top of this, The Astronaut is beautifully crafted.. The cinematography, score and visual effects elevate a great story to an emotional one that sticks with you. There’s a gorgeous running thread about Jim’s deceased grandfather, who himself was an avid space lover, who continues to fuel Jim’s passion. The ultimate payoff is sure to bring warmth into even the coldest of hearts. This film is an exceptional reminder of the wonders of home and an example of why we look to the stars.
Films are like jigsaws, with the picture being constructed from many different pieces. Framing, colour, sound and subtext all spring to mind but there are a host of other elements that shape the final product. Most movies will find one way to use each of these and stick with it but The Ordinaries plays with them like an inquisitive child figuring out a new toy. The result is a visually interesting, character-driven, heartwarming, metatextual commentary.
Set in a society where people are divided by character type, we follow Paula – a supporting character who aims to become a main character. Along the way she becomes embroiled in the struggles of background characters who have been confined to a lum and are aiming to make their voices heard. It’s practically dripping in social commentary with the Main Characters and Background Characters reflective of the Upper and Lower classes respectively. The former are either ignorant or unaware of how the latter are treated, with there being conflicting reports of ann event dubbed The Massacre by both groups. It appears to have been some kind of war that shaped their society into where it now stands but as Paula discovers more about herself she discovers the truth behind this tragedy. Who fought, who died, why it happened, and the consequences it had on all classes.
This is also a story of self-discovery and finding your place in the world. Paula wants eagerly to be a main character, to the extent that she is attending a main character school with her best friend Hannah, who comes from a family of Main characters. She does it largely to live up to her main character father (who died during the massacre) and to please her supporting character mother who could never live this life herself. The more she discovers about the treatment of background characters, the less certain she becomes about the world around her and her place in it. The desire to become a main character remains but her motives for doing so shift slightly. It’s no longer just about her and her mother, but about giving a voice to the voiceless, in a development that can only be described as revolutionary.
The way the story is told is just as interesting as the story itself. That aforementioned playfulness is constantly present in aspects like the score, which can be heard in-universe, and the character designs, which feature characters from deleted scenes who flicker in and out of existence. The editing is also impressive, with cuts being used to excellently dramatic effect on more than one occasion.
In both story and execution, The Ordinaries is thoroughly interesting. It has plenty to say about class struggle and individuality, which it does with an impressive amount of creativity. Nominated for the Audience Award for good reason.
Adapting Broadway musicals for film is no easy task. For every West Side Story (1961) or West Side Story (2021), there as a Dear Evan Hansen or Cats (2019). There are several key aspect to musicals that make them work and need to be carried over if a film adaptation is to stand the test of time. The songs need to serve the story/characters, the choreography needs to match the songs being sung and the story being told needs to fit the medium its being told by. A lot can be discarded through adaptation but the trick is to only cut moments that don’t massively impact proceedings. Matilda: The Musical, is an example of adaptation done right.
Based on the beloved book by Roald Dahl, it follows Matilda as she escapes the horrors of her un-adoring parents for a school run by a tyrant of a headmistress. Adding some sweetness to the pot is her equally book-loving teacher Miss Honey, who hides her own sad backstory. In a change from the original source material, Matilda is an only child who frequently visits a mobile library run by Mrs. Phelps who has no idea of her home circumstances. It adds an extra layer of tragedy to an already tragic character. Perhaps the biggest change, aside from the addition of Tim Minchin’s magnificent musical numbers, are the characterisations. The Broadway musical, upon which this film is sourced, is noticeably different to the book’s 1996 film adaptation by Danny Devito. That take had more rounded edges compared to this one which has a little more bite. It had whimsy and darkness but a wholly book-like feel whereas this film is often more upsetting. Matilda’s rage and grief feel more visceral here and her parents more disparaging. Meanwhile, the Trunchbull is slightly more militaristic with a more crazed look behind her eyes. Emma Thompson captures her loss of sanity in a more manic way than the great Pam Ferris.
The look of the film is different too. Adapting a Broadway musical means deciding whether or not to adapt the staging too, which was handled differently by both sides of West Side Story. The 1961 version chose matte painted backgrounds and minimalistic sets to closely replicate the fell of the stage while the 2021 version chose to shoot primarily on location in New York and replicating the real world settings. Both films, as a result, feel totally distinct. Matilda: The Musical manages to find a happy medium between the two. A tiny slice of Matilda’s suburb, Crunchem Hall, Jenny’s hut and several outdoor locations are all that are seen but never much of what surrounds them. The suburbs is more of a street, Crunchem Hall is located in a vast field and all the outdoor locations are…well…outdoors. It feels like a more minimalist (more timeless) design choice but the sets themselves are bold and extravagant. The suburbs are bright and neon, like the colour pallet of an early 70s show whilst Crunchem Hall feels like the stoniest prison imaginable where nobody is safe.
The cherry on top of this delicious chocolate cake of a production are the musical numbers. Not all of them made it in (Telly is a minor miss) and the opening number is reduced for time but they are all marvellously choreographed. When on stage, it’s a general rule to use the space provided unless otherwise required, and the screen should have the same applied rule. From the opening number, it’s clear that Matilda understands this perfectly, whisking us through hospital halls before dissaassembling the set before our eyes for a classic tiered dance. This continues throughout particularly in songs taking place at the school. Not only is the space used, but it’s never just walked through. The ensemble are dancing constantly in choreography that reminds us how important choreography is to detailing the excitement of these numbers.
The biggest flaw is that not all of the Broadway material is present. Several songs have been cut for time and the Wormwood parents feel like strangers. Brilliantly dislikable strangers. This change is understandable, given how often people have complained about the growing length of films but if all 3 hours were adapted, there would be no complaints here. There’s nothing revolting about this musical adaptation.
Franchise fatigue is nothing new. Everyone is talking about the countless Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe projects, but Home Alone was ahead of the game. The first one is a beloved Christmas Classic, the second is a worthy (if not overly familiar) follow-up and the third is the last one that most people are aware of. At the very least, Home Alone 3 is the last one that people are willing to talk about. That’s because, those who have seen Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House, usually have nothing good to say about it…which isn’t a surprise.
The story serves as a direct sequel to the original, despite the 4 in the title, lack of anybody involved with the original and, continuity errors it causes if Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is still canon. 9-year old Kevin McAllister is spending Christmas with his newly divorced father and his soon-to-be wife, who are barely in the house, as well as their staff – Mr. Prescott the butler and Molly the maid. When the house-owners are out during the day, Kevin fends off previous foe Harry and his new wife Vera, who have a secret accomplice working in the house. This was made specifically for TV, the first of the franchise to be so, and it feels like it. Barring the character names and concept of “hijinks to protect the house” there is very little to connect it to the IP. It was designed as a backdoor pilot for ABC, with the intention being that it would get picked up for a full series but this never happened and means that it feels like a Children’s TV show from the ABC network in the early 2000s.
There’s snappy editing galore and enough screen-wipes to make George Lucas proud, but it’s the pacing and script that do the most damage. Whilst the former installments took their time, allowing the audience to get familiar with the characters and their surroundings, this one just throws you into it. News of the divorce is shoehorned into dialogue within the first five minutes and the scenes rarely take place far from Mr. McAllister’s glorious mansion. Gone too are the softer lighting and barrage of Christmas colours, replaced with harsh studio-esque lighting and barely any decorations save for the tree. Then there’s the score. John Williams is a titan of the music industry and, even if he only composed for the original two, his influence can be felt in Nick Glennie-Smiths score for the third installment. Teddy Castellucci was brought in for Taking Back the House and he does a decent job for the task he was assigned but it doesn’t really hold a candle to previous installments.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing of value. Acting veterans Erick Avari and Barbara Babcock turn in solid performances as Prescott and Molly while Actor French Stewart takes over the role of Marv from Daniel Stern with as much energy as when he took over as Inspector Gadget from Matthew Broderick. It’s a zany, over-the-top performance but it fits the tone of the film and often provides a giggle. The dynamic he has with his wife Vera is also quite nice and it is funny watching him banter with Kevin like they’re old friends. Had this been a stand-alone film I doubt anyone really would have given it much notice but it does carry the Home Alone name. More than that, it features the original characters (for the most part, two of the McAllister children have vanished). As an early 2000s ABC production, it’s allowed to be tolerable but as a Home Alone film it needs to be more than that. The original is a Christmas classic alongside the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life and How The Grinch Stole Christmas despite being several decades newer than them. It has an inviting vibe and is simply drenched in the feelings of the season. The sequel managed to feel festive too and even the third one is an acceptably goofy comedy that appeals more to children than family’s. Taking Back the House feel corporate. It feels like a cash-grab designed to appeal to peoples nostalgia, without understanding why the IP works so well.
The film would fail to provide that TV series that the creative team hoped it would and it would take another decade before ABC would try again. That’s a pretty damning critique in itself and it’s hard not to agree with the sentiment. Honestly, trying to find the good in this film was difficult and it’s only a film that should be recommended to Home Alone completionists but that’s what we do here. No film is without merit, even if you have to dig deep to find it.
Besides, it doesn’t hurt to be a little kind at this time of year.
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!
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.
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.
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  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.
*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.