The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

A director couldn’t ask for a much more successful debut feature than the one Joe Cornish had with Attack the Block in 2011. Produced by nerd mascot Edgar Wright and introducing the world to future Star Wars lead John Boyega as a baby-faced teen, that small-budget creature feature has gradually transformed into a cult classic over the last eight years, drumming up a lot of anticipation for Cornish’s much-delayed follow-up. Of course, that kind of early success is a blessing and a curse, as it put a lot of pressure on Cornish’s sophomore effort to deliver something remarkable – an expectation it never truly lives up to. There’s nothing especially horrendous about Joe Cornish’s King Arthur modernization The Kid Who Would Be King. It’s occasionally charming & overall harmless, but also overlong & minor in a way that undercuts its potential. The excellence of Attack the Block weighs heavily on it in terms of expectation & anticipation, but also in highlighting how The Kid Who Would Be King underutilizes its urban London setting. We’ve seen Cornish stage an excellent modern fantasy horror in city streets before, so it’s hard to reconcile why he fails to repeat the formula on this second round.

Story-wise, there isn’t much deviation from the traditional Arthurian legend here besides the modern setting & the age of the players. After an opening illustration of the Arthurian template as told in a child’s picture book, we meet a pair of young, bullied kids who feel the weight of an increasingly grim world but are helpless against it. Newspapers declare “GLOOM,” “WAR,” “FEAR,” and “CRISIS” in bold headlines, and schoolyard bullies shake them down for chump change, recalling the curse of modern negativity that sets the table for Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Sensing that the world has become leaderless, heartless, and unprincipled, King Arthur’s long-dormant half-dragon/half-sister Morgana wakes from her underground brooding hole to attack London with her flaming skeleton army. It’s up to the bullied, gloomy kids (led by Andy Serkis’s offspring, Louis Ashbourne Serkis) to save London from serving Morgana as slaves in Hell, a destiny triggered by the discovery of a sword in a stone at a nearby construction site. A shapeshifting Merlin soon arrives to provide guidance & (much-needed) comic relief and the rest of the story essentially tells itself. The humor is cute but not hilarious. The action is decent but not spectacular. The modernization of Arthurian lore is consistent but not adventurous. The entire exercise is pleasantly executed, but not distinct enough to justify the effort of its sprawling runtime.

The inconsistency of The Kid Who Would be King’s success depends entirely on when it fully utilizes its urban London surroundings and when it gets lost in the rural wilderness. In the film’s best moments, kids slay demons on horseback in city streets & middle school hallways – action set pieces that fully realize the modernized Arthurian lore promised in the premise. The problem is that a large portion of the film wanders far away from the city and often feels like any other fantasy epic from the last forty years of cinema – just one with a modern budget & kids’ film sensibilities. Patrick Stewart is even featured in a recurring cameo as one of Merlin’s many forms, directly referencing the 1981 feature Excalibur, a cornerstone of the genre. The Kid Who Would Be King also shoots itself in the foot by namechecking the protagonists of more successful modernized fantasy genre exercises like Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson (or, in the bullies’ parlance and one of the film’s only successful one-liners, Percy Jockstrap), each of which did a much more convincing job bringing ancient fantasy elements to the city streets instead of the other way around. That’s not even to mention the more low-budget, artsy-fartsy examples the film could have emulated like A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, and appropriately enough, Attack the Block. Too much of The Kid Who Would Be King loses sight of the modern, urban allure of its premise and drifts hundreds of miles away from London streets – and every minute wasted in that wilderness is a bore.

I can’t come down on this movie too harshly. There’s plenty of minor pleasures to enjoy throughout, even if those flashes of joy are buried under a lumbering runtime. Angus Imrie is adorable as the teenage version of Merlin and feels like the arrival of a fresh comic presence. The synthy score provided by Electric Wave Bureau recalls the golden age of 80s fantasy cheese of films like Ladyhawke & Legend in just the right way. I’ll even admit that the inherent Britishness of Arthurian lore and the unfair expectation set by the excellence of Attack the Block might have been preventing me from enjoying what’s ultimately a harmless, competently staged children’s adventure film. Still, I was outright bored by any sequence that took place outside the streets of London, which made up for an alarming portion of a film that did not need to be two hours long to begin with. The benefit of retelling stories like The King Arthur legend is that audiences are already familiar with the template, which frees you up to play with the details. If you only modernize the story halfway, you can only expect the result to be halfway interesting, and we’ve already seen Joe Cornish achieve something much more substantial than that with a comparable setting & budget.

-Brandon Ledet

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Show Dogs (2018)

Show Dogs is the most bizarrely problematic talking animal film I’ve seen in theaters since the Kevin Spacey talking cat pic Nine Lives two summers ago. It’s so problematic, in fact, that its own studio has since censored scenes of the film deemed dangerous for children’s well-being, something I learned was going to happen a mere hour after I left the cinema. Dangerous, censored, transgressive art is far from the first descriptor that leaps to mind when you set expectations for a children’s movie starting Ludacris as a rapping Rottweiler, but the original unedited version of Show Dogs is now effectively a renegade, outlawed production officially deemed morally unfit for public consumption. Its uncensored form, which screened in theaters nationwide only for the span of a week, has been orphaned as a lost art scene moment, a cinematic event. Banishing its real-world evil back into the pits of Hell was a necessary action Global Road Entertainment should be proud of taking, as the message its deleted footage was sending kids was genuinely risking their safety. Its deletion is also beneficial to adults looking to the ill-advised production for a stray whiff of absurdism, raising the film’s value from sub-Air Bud atrocity to a The Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail. Show Dogs is now one of the premier cinematic events of 2018, if not only for what footage it’s lost.

The rapping Rottweiler voiced by Ludacris is an undercover cop from a confusing universe where animals can talk, but humans don’t understand them. Their flapping CGI mouths form full sentences and they hold real jobs in offices and everything, but humans just hear barks & meows and so on. At one point a dog even complains, “Why can’t people understand what dogs say?” I don’t know; you tell us. It’s your confusing universe. Anyway, the toughest cop on the force is assigned to go undercover as a show dog (Hey, that’s the name of the show) in a heist plot to rescue a stolen, abused baby panda from underground dealers of rare & exotic animals. Keeping with the tropes of every buddy cop movie ever, he’s teamed up with another hard-ass hothead (Will Arnett in full TMNT mode), a human partner who must learn to collaborate with the canine cop & trust his instincts. The reluctant partners build a heist team meant to prepare the undercover pup for passing as a primped & groomed show dog, most notably including Natasha Lyonne as a pet stylist (with an incredible sense of style of her own; she looks fantastic here) & Stanley Tucci as a former Best in Show champion chihuahua with a snotty French sensibility. The team pull through to save the day, never discovered as frauds, and return the stolen baby panda back to its family (in captivity, weirdly). They even learn a few life lessons (and scar a few thousand children who caught the film early enough in its run) along the way.

The thread that has been removed from Show Dogs is one about grooming, but not the kind you might expect given the film’s setting. One of the cop-dog’s biggest hurdles in remaining undercover as a show dog is the Judge’s Inspection segment of the competition, in which dog show panelists must physically handle the dogs’ genitals. A street-tough police dog, Ludacris’s canine lead Max struggles to endure this indignity without instinctively turning around to bite the person invading his privacy. He’s coached out of this instinct by Arnett & Tucci, who train him to “go to his happy place,” mentally dissociating while his “private parts” are being handled without his consent. The climactic triumph of the film is a sequence in which he mentally transports to a psychedelic Eden where Arnett & Lyonne tell him he’s a good boy and reenact the climax of Dirty Dancing with him against a background of kaleidoscopic fireworks . . . all while his genitals are being inspected by a stranger. Can you see why this might be a dangerous life lesson to teach impressionable children? It wasn’t lost on the concerned parents of the mommy blogosphere. One (rightfully) alarmist piece written by Terina Maldonado of East Mesa Macaroni Kid gained enough traction to have Global Road Entertainment pull the footage from the film. The “happy place” tactic is explained in that piece to be a very real method that real-life child molesters use to “groom” their young victims into unquestioning compliance, a factoid I can’t believe I typed without vomiting. Maldonado’s account of Show Dogs is extremely (and understandably) fixated on this aspect of the film’s plot, making me assume it was going to be a consistent throughline throughout the film. Instead, it is (or was) contained to a single training montage & a climactic exchange with the dog show judge. At first, the limited amount of “private parts inspection” footage made me question just how potentially impactful the film’s grooming message really was. When the judge’s inspection is met with a dead-silent horror atmosphere where the soundtrack is overwhelmed by the dog’s pounding heartbeat, however, there’s nothing you can qualify the exchange as but a rape scene. In a kids’ movie. About talking animals. Evil, but also incredible that it ever screened at all.

The dark truth about Show Dogs is that even with the genital molestation/”happy place” narrative thread removed, the film is still deeply flawed on a moral level. At its heart, this is a film about toxic masculinity (You thought it was about adorable talking animals? Fool!), but it’s also a perpetuator of toxic masculinity. Max is “a street dog with a temper” that has to learn life lessons like “Maybe it’s not the worst idea to get some help,” which is a much more adorable sentiment to convey to kids than the one that’s been censored into oblivion. What’s uncomfortable about his gradual change of heart is the way this “alpha” dog (speaking of canine terms that have evil cultural contexts elsewhere) is characterized in opposition to the implied frivolity & vanity of the show dog world, something more femme than his masc sensibilities can handle without embarrassment. It’s weird enough that other dogs allude to the size of Max’s dick, that a lady-pigeon (voiced by Kate Micucci) fawns over his gruff masculinity in lines like “He can flip this bird any day,” and that he’s taught humility in a scene where Arnette & Lyonne wax his anus (again, without consent). What’s really fucked is where he & Arnett finally bond when the owner chooses to not force him to breed against his will with an over-the-top flamboyant pup voiced by RuPaul. Now, in-film, RuPaul’s character is gendered as a female dog, but the gag plays as bizarrely homophobic anyway, as his over-the-top vocal performance (which includes a number of Drag Race catchphrases) disgusts Max in a way that reads distinctly as gay panic humor. Like with all of Show Dog’s sins against good taste & morality, its homophobia & toxic masculinity are bizarrely complex to the point of absurdity.

There are plenty of standard, cheap camp thrills to be found in Show Dogs’s minor joys as a 2010s, theatrically released talking-dog movie, a leftover relic from another time. I could try to sell this movie to you as an absurdist joy for watching Ludacris’s talking cop-dog perform impossible acrobatic maneuvers through cheap CGI or deliver hacky one-liners like “This is ludicrous!” or “I’m about to take a bite out of crime.” The truth is, though, that minor pleasures like Shaq voicing a Zen sheepdog named Doggy Lama or CGI dogs dabbing are just background noise for the film’s main draw: its propensity for real-world evil. Even with its “private parts inspection” narrative rightly removed, Show Dogs still has a genuinely menacing, toxic undertone that’s impressive in both its audacity & its cluelessness. Although its absurdist joys are minor, it’s a movie that must be seen to be believed (especially its original, intact “grooming” cut), as it’s tough to fathom how this many people, from the executives at Global Road down to the on-set catering crew, allowed it to happen. It’s more of a man-made disaster than a feature film in that way and all we can do as audiences is rubberneck at the wreckage. Don’t allow children to gaze at this atrocity, however; what they see could be scarring.

-Brandon Ledet

Magic in the Mirror (1996), Prehysteria! (1993), and the Half-Hearted Spectacle of the Moonbeam Fantasy Picture

While discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1996 children’s fantasy picture Magic in the Mirror, a recurring theme in our conversation was the film’s blatant frugality. Magic in the Mirror was a kind of recycled production made from the scraps of a never-completed project titled Mirrorworld. In its same year of release, notoriously frugal producer Charles Band managed to squeeze a direct to video sequel from its leftovers, titled Fowl Play. Boomer noted in our initial conversation that part of Magic in the Mirror’s charm was that its rushed, amateur quality makes it feel as if anyone could have made it, including the audience at home. That charm extends to Charles Bands’ Full Moon Entertainment brand at large, which has a subpar batting average of great-to-terrible releases, but is admirable in its financial scrappiness and ability to stay afloat in an ever-shrinking indie movie market. Full Moon was likely at its height as a force in indie film production in the home movie market era of the early to mid-90s, which emboldened Band to extend his brand into several sublabels. This included both two softcore pornography branches and a children’s entertainment wing: Moonbeam Entertainment, which produced Magic in the Mirror. Full Moon features have always felt a little like children’s movies that happened to depict R-rated sex & gore, so in a way a Moonbeam Entertainment children’s fantasy wing was a totally natural progression for Band. The cheap, amateur delights of Magic in the Mirror seem to be typical of the sub-brand’s offerings, even if some of its earlier projects were better funded and of a higher profile. For instance, the premiere Moonbeam Entertainment release, Prehysteria!, should theoretically be of an entirely different class than Magic in the Mirror, but is more or less mired in the same concerns of amateurish craft & militant frugality. It’s the Charles Band way.

I can’t pretend to know the difference in budget between Magic in the Mirror and Prehysteria! (Magic in the Mirror is our first Movie of the Month selection without a corresponding Wikipedia page), but it’s easy to tell from context clues which was the more prestigious Moonbeam Entertainment release. The very first production of the Moonbeam sub-brand, Prehsyteria! is both the more prestigious and the more successful picture. Prehysteria! was directed by Charles Band and his father Albert Band (who also helmed my beloved Ghoulies II) themselves, while Magic in the Mirror was left in the hands of small time Full Moon player Ted Nicolaou (who, to be fair, also directed one of Full Moon’s best offerings in TerrorVision). Magic in the Mirror was sparse with special effects, leaving most of its visual spectacle to the over the top costuming of its killer duck-people and fairy queen. By contrast, Prehysteria! is practically a special effects showcase (by Charles Band standards, anyway). Its miniature dinosaur creations are achieved with a mixture of stop motion animation and animatronic puppetry, which is seemingly where all the film’s effort & financing was sunk. Charles Band’s dream for Moonbeam was to create a sublabel of children’s sci-fi & fantasy films with “no hard edge” and it’s something he intended to achieve on the back of Prehysteria!’s success. The gamble paid off (for a while), resulting in two direct-to-video sequels and keeping Moonbeam afloat for half a decade. It’s an effort that required the same frugality that resulted in Magic in the Mirror, though. Band pushed the allure of owning VHS copies of the film by including a behind-the-scenes “Moonbeam VideoZone” featurette after the credits. That featurette reveals that the reason the film required co-directors was so that two units could shoot separate scenes simultaneously, wasting no production time. It was rushed to market in 1993 in the first place to ween off the anticipation for Spielberg’s dino spectacle in Jurassic Park. Artistically, it didn’t have much on it its mind beyond getting dinos on the screen in front of kids as quickly as possible because of that deadline. Prehysteria! may have been more of a top priority for Charles Band in building the Moonbeam brand than scraping together Mirrorworld’s leftovers into an afterthought feature in Magic in the Mirror, but the two films share his remarkably frugal thumbprint all the same.

In the tradition of the drive-in exploitation era, most Charles Band productions don’t feel the need to accomplish much beyond selling the premise of what’s on the poster. Magic in the Mirror promises a magical land of evil duck-people on the opposite side of a child’s mirror and once it gets there the film is content to remain inert. Prehysteria! is much the same in its own promise of a miniature Jurassic Park. The special effects behind the tiny dinos on the poster receive most of the film’s care and attention. The dinosaurs are given pop star names (Elvis, Madonna, Hammer, Paula) and are featured dancing to rock n’ roll. Although they could conceivably fuck you up even at the size of toy chihuahuas, they’re instead made to be as cuddly as Gizmo. They’re undeniably cute and that’s all most children are likely to care about when watching the film. Charles Band knows this and makes no effort to fill out the world around them. The kids onscreen who adopt the dinos (including The Last Action Hero’s Austin O’Brien among them) are bratty siblings with an archeologist dad. The dino eggs wind up in their possession because of an unintended cooler-swap, which angers the colonizing asshole (Stephen Lee doing his best Wayne Knight) who cruelly stole them from South American tribesmen. The villain wants “his” dinos backs. The kids want to hide them from the rest of the world. This conflict is established early in the first act and doesn’t change much form there, leaving everything outside how cute the dinos are in a state of stasis. The villain gets in exactly one campily amusing line: “I’m getting prehysterical over here!” The children, for their part, are only interesting in how queasy their relationship with their father’s sexuality can feel at times; they openly mention his desperate horniness as a single man, complete with his potential girlfriends for his affections and, worst yet, refer to him as “daddy” in prepubescent squeaks. Terrifying. Charles Band may not have invested as much characterization into the children as he puts into the dinos, but his inability to grasp the difference between a childlike & an adult tone occasionally makes for an interesting moment, if not only for the cringe factor.

If there’s anything that distinguishes Prehyteria! from the majority of the Moonbeam Entertainment output, it’s that it appears to have been an intensely personal project for Charles Band. He not only chose this film to launch Full Moon’s child-friendly sublabel and co-directed it with his own father, but the movie also reflects the one subject that could be said to be an auteurist preoccupation for the VHS era schlockmeister: miniature bullshit. From Puppet Master to Dollman to Demonic Toys to Evil Bong and beyond, Charles Band has basically built a career around stop motion and puppetry visualizations of (often evil) tiny beings in action. Prehysteria! isn’t one of the more exceptional specimens in that catalog in terms of filmmaking craft, but it is interesting to see his usual fixations filtered through a children’s entertainment lens (as opposed to his R-rated horror productions that just feel like children’s films). It’s the distilled ideal of a Moonbeam Entertainment production it that way. Still, for all the film’s special care and attention from the top man in the company, Prehysteira! largely feels on par with the half-assed, good-enough-to-print spectacle of Magic in the Mirror. Oddly, Magic in the Mirror feels like a more special picture than Prehysteria! because of that lack of attention. The animation & puppetry behind the dinos in Prehysteria! are impressive, but they raise questions in contrast to the rest of the picture on why none of that energy was matched elsewhere. Magic in the Mirror’s own scrappiness is noticably thorough by contrast. Its humanoid duck costumes are obviously handmade & amateurish, but there’s a sinister quality to their design anyway and the rest of the film matches that off-putting, off-brand, off energy in a way that feels more consistent than Prehysteria!’s super cute dinos dancing in a charisma void. Prehysteria! is the higher profile picture that’s likely to be more fondly remembered (i.e. remembered at all), but Magic in the Mirror is a much more honest, ugly picture of what Moonbeam’s commitment to frugality truly looked like. It wasn’t pretty, but it was bizarrely fascinating.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its direct-to-video sequel Fowl Play.

-Brandon Ledet

The Fowl Stench of Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play (1996)

The most immediate, visceral reaction I had to our current Movie of the Month, the 1996 children’s fantasy nightmare Magic in the Mirror, is that it’s an absurd abomination that should not exist. While the movie makes some strides to justify its hideous existence though a half-hearted allegory about how imaginative kids are overlooked & undervalued, that well-intentioned narrative is just a thin sheen on the unintended horror of the film’s villains: “The Drakes.” For a kids’ movie about humanoid ducks who boil people alive to make tea because they enjoy the way it tastes, Magic in the Mirror can be surprisingly sinister. There have been plenty low-budget rehashings of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland over the decades, so the film doesn’t particularly stand out in its fairy tale premise of a young girl learning the ways of the adult world by traveling into an alternate magic realm through an antique mirror. The bargain basement, Howard the Duck-looking freaks that await her there do tend to linger with you in their own nightmarish way, however, and are the only pressing reason for thrill-seekers to dig the film back up from its VHS-era gravesite. If the largely forgotten, viscerally upsetting Magic in the Mirror shouldn’t exist, the existence of it dirt cheap, Drake-focused sequel is even more of an affront to humanity and all that is good in the world.

Like all schlock peddlers, producer Charles Band has hinged his entire career on aggressive frugality. Years after the abandoned production of a fantasy film titled Mirrorworld shut down, Band’s children-friendly Full Moon Entertainment sublabel Moonbeam Entertainment recycled materials from the unfinished work to create the horror that is Magic in the Mirror. Band’s frugality knows no bounds, though, and he managed to squeeze two productions out of Mirrorworlds’ discarded scraps. There isn’t much extratextual info available about Magic in the Mirror (this may be our first Movie of the Month selection without a standalone Wikipedia page), but it appears the film earned minor theatrical distribution through Paramount Pictures. A straight-to-VHS sequel to the film was produced simultaneously with the original, though, and both releases reached US audiences in 1996. It should be a smooth transition between the two pictures then, as if they were one 3-hour movie with a credits sequence intermission. Many of the potential pitfalls of cheap kids’ movie sequels should be avoided in a back-to-back production like this: the main kid shouldn’t have time to age out of their role and the shared cast & crew should ensure some level of consistence in overall quality. Somehow, the quality drop between Magic in the Mirror & Fowl Play was still notably drastic. Even as ill-conceived & glaringly cheap as the original Magic in the Mirror feels, it’s apparently the Citizen Kane of tea-drinking duck people fantasy cinema.

Magic in the Mirror: Fowl Play is at least promising in its basic premise. After a quick (and necessary) recap montage detailing the events of the first film, Fowl Play reverses the original dynamic by having the terrifying duck people invade our world through the magic mirror for a change. I’m always down for a fun suburban invasion premise (which is why The Lost World is my favorite Jurassic Park movie, don’t @ me), but this dirt cheap, sub-Full Moon Production doesn’t follow through on the premise in any significant way. Instead of filming the humanoid duck tea-enthusiasts as they terrorize & boil alive the people of a small American city, the film frugally confines most of its runtime to a single living room. The evil mirror realm duck people merely mix in with guests at a lame, daytime costume party in a cheap living room setting, threatening menace in plain sight, but never delivering. What initially seems like a great premise for a Magic in the Mirror sequel eventually reveals itself to be another shrewd financial choice among many. The Drakes don’t invade our world through the mirror to open up the possibilities of the plot; they do it because the sets were even cheaper to maintain than the leftover scraps of Mirrorworld. It’d be impressive how this movie was pulled out of thin air if it weren’t so frustrating to watch as an audience.

From the cheap sets to the comic misunderstanding plot, Fowl Play feels like the pilot for a syndicated Magic in the Mirror TV show more than a proper sequel (I’m specifically thinking of the deservedly forgotten Honey I Shrunk the Kids TV series). The movie even ends with the protagonist from the first film making her first human friend, as if their weekly adventures were going to continue into perpetuity. Alarming details, like lipstick on a duck bill or carefully-prepared murder tea, carry over form the first film, but in smaller, cheaper doses. While Magic in the Mirror makes motions to justify its mallardian horrors with an overarching theme of childhood isolation, Fowl Play doesn’t bother. Its only narrative conflict is whether or not an already awkward costume party might become more of a disaster as it goes along, which I’m pretty sure has been the plot of many sitcom episodes. Magic in the Mirror was cheap, but at least it was somewhat ambitious. Fowl Play looks like it was scraped together in a panic as production on its predecessor was being shut down (which might actually be the case). The only scenario I could imagine where someone is really into it would be if they saw it before the first film and were caught off-guard by the ghastly visage of the Drakes. Even then, they’re given less screentime & less to do here, even though they’re referenced in the awfowl pun title.

For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Full Moon Entertainment fantasy piece Magic in the Mirror, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

The popular myth about A Wrinkle in Time is that it’s an “unfilmable” novel, but there have certainly been more out-there, ethereal works of fiction adapted to the big screen with great success, so I don’t necessarily buy that. Ava DuVernay’s recent big screen adaptation of the children’s fantasy novel is being lumped in with past failed attempts, including a horrendous-looking made-for-TV monstrosity from 2003 that’s way beneath its pedigree as a big budget Disney release. I don’t think that comparison is giving DuVernay’s ambitious, bravely earnest self-empowerment fantasy enough credit for the admirably bizarre (even if frequently minor) successes it pulls from its loose-logic source material. I think the problem might largely be viewers’ emotional attachment to a novel that meant a lot to them as kids, but must be streamlined & reshaped to be presentable in a feature length movie format. The best novels leave a lot of mental space for readers to fill in the details, which is a luxury the visual medium of filmmaking cannot afford, so the difference between a reader’s mental picture & what ends up on the screen is always going to be a little jarring. While watching A Wrinkle in Time I thought a lot about Boomer’s review of Annihilation, which he called an “A+ science fiction that also happens to be a D+ translation of the source material, if your qualifications for a good adaptation revolve solely around how closely the film version adheres to the novel.” To me, that A+ means the adaptation was a total success, faithfulness to the source material be damned. I’d more likely call A Wrinkle in Time a C+ fantasy picture, as I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about it as I am about Annihilation, but in being even a passably enjoyable film that could’ve been improved upon, it still defies the idea that its inspiring novel is “unfilmable.”

Oddly enough, its adventurousness as an adaptation is not the only facet of A Wrinkle in Time that reminded me of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Josh Larsen of Filmspotting has already expanded upon the surprising similarities between their dual mind-bending trips into alien landscapes (The Camazotz & The Shimmer, respectively) elsewhere, but what’s fascinating to me is the way A Wrinkle in Time makes Annihilation’s brand of sci-fi psychedelia palatable to children by softening it with Oprah-flavored self-empowerment & Disney Channel precociousness. Oprah Winfrey herself appears in A Wrinkle in Time as a godlike figure in outer space drag makeup. She & her lesser eternal-being underlings (Reese Witherspoon & Mindy Kaling) relieve a depressed young nerd from grief over her NASA scientist father’s disappearance by offering her a chance to miraculously travel through space & time to rescue him from a realm ruled by Fear & dark thoughts. Backed by a queasily earnest inspo-pop soundtrack and blown up to almost kaiju-sized proportions, Oprah is in her element here. The movie is built around her career-long self-help messaging about overcoming fear & self-doubt. This advice & reinforcement is doled out to our troubled protagonist in encouraging slogans: “You have no idea how incredible you are,” “Be a warrior,” “You have such beautiful faults,” “We can’t take any credit for our talents; it’s how you use them that counts,” etc. The middle school drama she suffers enough to need this New Age inspo encouragement has a distinct Disney Channel vibe to it that will directly appeal to children, whereas adults are likely to see cheese. Oprah & her magical space crew can only prepare this child so much for the psychedelic darkness that will greet her (along with history’s most annoyingly shrill adopted brother & a blank page love interest) as she enters the nightmare landscape of The Camazotz to rescue her father, much like Natalie Portman’s complete lack of preparedness at the edge of the big evil soap bubble in Annihilation. The surprises and challenges that await her there are genuinely odd, distributing stuff and make any of the awkward precociousness of the build-up worthwhile for the emotional payoff.

Everyone seems to have an opinion on how A Wrinkle in Time could have been improved as an adaptation, so I might as well offer mine here: this film should’ve been animated. As a modern, Disney brand exercise in CG spectacle, the film is already in a way a live-action/animation hybrid. Oprah’s five-point star silhouette & 50ft stature already make her resemble a Hayao Miyazaki character. Reese Witherspoon briefly transforms into a flying lettuce dragon that would have been a lot easier to stomach in a 2D animation context. The literalized encroachment of an evil Darkness poisoning the Universe with fear & self-destructive thoughts works a lot better in the proto Disney-Miyazaki collaboration Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland. There’s a lot of reverence for flight & Nature in the film that feels familiar to Studio Ghibli territory (not to mention the studio’s tendency to adapt female-penned fantasy novels); the recent animated release Mary and the Witch’s Flower telegraphed its melding of science & magic; last year’s Your Name. laid out a lot of solid groundwork for how its more intangible, psychedelic impulses could’ve been represented onscreen in expressive, illogical indulgences in traditional animation. God help me, I think I’m saying I would have enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more if it were a modern anime, the last major refuge for traditional, hand-animated cinema. As someone who doesn’t watch nearly enough anime to be considered even slightly informed on the subject and hasn’t read the film’s source material in at least two decades, my take on how to successfully adapt A Wrinkle in Time to the screen should be treated as highly suspect. I do think the logical freedom of animation could do this book wonders, though.

As a sucker for wide-eyed earnestness & soft psychedelia in children’s work, I enjoyed A Wrinkle in Time more than I found fault in it. The larger critical community’s dismissal of better works like Tomorrowland & Wonderstruck that operate within a similar tone means this movie never really had a chance for anything near universal appeal. That’s purely a matter of taste, though. What really bugs me is the idea that the movie was mediocre because its source material is “unfilmable.” In every other way Ava DuVernay’s Oprah-worshipping Annihilation Jr. psychedelia might have been only a mild success, but it’s in itself proof that an affecting, engaging adaptation of the novel can be (and now has been) done. There’s also huge chance that the film’s Disney-level distribution will get it in the hands of the people who need it most: depressed, unsociable middle school nerds who could use a 50ft Oprah-sized ego boost. I imagine those kids will then be led to the novel and form their own ideas about what is and what isn’t “filmable.” Those are the takes we should probably trust the most; feel free to ignore mine in the meantime.

-Brandon Ledet

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

Much like the NFL, WWE, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, Disney has always had a knack for obsessively promoting & examining its own legacy. It wasn’t until the past few years that the insanely massive media conglomerate owned every single major player intellectual property imaginable, but judging by the way the company has publicly patted itself on the back since its inception, you’d think that was the case for decades. One of the more amusingly tacky ways this self-celebration has manifested itself is in Disney pop culture media’s synergy with the brand’s amusement parks – Disneyland, Disney World, and beyond. I totally understand the appeal, both for creator & consumer, of turning Disney’s most popular properties into theme park rides fans can physically visit & interact with. By the late 90s, though, that wasn’t enough for Disney’s insatiable need to publicly glorify itself. In the last two decades the company has begun to make movies based on its theme park rides in an an absurd act of reverse engineering. This started small enough with a Disney Channel made-for-TV original starring a late-in-his-career Steve Guttenberg, but eventually ballooned into a five feature film series starring one of the world’s most famous (and most despicable) movie stars, Johnny Depp. The Pirates of the Caribbean series has been the biggest financial payoff in Disney’s gamble to market its theme park attractions on the big screen (recent diminished returns notwithstanding) and there have been a couple great Disney Ride films accidentally made along the way (Tower of Terror & Tomorrowland, namely), but for the most part people (mainly critics) have not been buying what Disney had been selling in those films: itself.

The first few attempts to adapt a Disney park theme ride for the big screen were meek acts of testing the waters. The 1997 Tower of Terror film was made for broadcast television. The 2000 space adventure Mission to Mars somehow nabbed a big name director (Brian De Palma, of all people) and went into wide theatrical release, but was based on a long-forgotten ride that had closed almost a decade before the film’s release. The ill-conceived (but oddly fascinating) 2002 Country Bears movie was marketed only for the smallest of children, to whom we shovel irredeemable garbage on an annual basis (i.e. Minions, The Emoji Movie, etc.). It wasn’t until the 2003 Eddie Murphy horror comedy The Haunted Mansion that Disney released a major motion picture meant to appeal to the entire family that was based on one of its currently visitable theme park attractions. The Haunted Mansion was an interesting experiment in the way it asked loyal fans of the Disney brand to fall in love with a feature-length advertisement for its own product: a haunted house “dark ride” you could visit at any one of its major theme parks. The experiment succeeded commercially, (rightfully) failed critically, and openly participated in the dual nature of Art & Commerce that always plagues the movie industry, although typically in a more hushed tone. Directed by nobody workman Rob Minkoff, who also helmed The Lion King & Stuart Little with an equal absence of passion, The Haunted Mansion is no more vibrantly alive than any of the CG spectres that torment Murphy’s family in its haunted house plot. The movie plays like a series of boardroom decisions that spiraled out of control into a family-friendly horror comedy that is neither funny nor scary and feels about as genuine in its genre nerdery as The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Just about the only interesting thing about The Haunted Mansion is its pioneering nature as a feature-length advertisement of a currently-operational Disney Park ride, the lowest of artistic ambitions.

Eddie Murphy stars as a money-obsessed Business Dad who spends too much time trying to grow his real estate business and too little effort connecting with his wife & kids. This stock Kids’ Movie Conflict is complicated when he interrupts his family’s vacation to check out a potential property purchase, the titular haunted mansion. The plot doesn’t develop much from there, besides the gradual reveals of every inhabitant of the home being a ghost with unfinished business who failed to cross over to the other side. The ghostly lord of the home mistakes Murphy’s wife for a long-lost love of his own, who can be seen in various oil paintings throughout the mansion, another Stock Movie Conflict employed by countless vampire & ghost pictures. Given that the ghostly home owner & his various ghost servants are white people from a bygone century, this interracial romance angle raises a few interesting questions about the racial dynamics of the house’s past, questions the movie isn’t interested in exploring. Instead, Murphy has to hurry to both prevent the most handsome, wealthy ghost from “getting jiggy with” his wife (kill me) and to save his kids from the other supernatural threats crawling all over the home: spiders, skeletons, a surprisingly effective Terrence Stamp. The rest of the ghostly cast is rounded out by the comic relief of the always-welcome Wallace Shawn & a Jambi-type performance from Jennifer Tilly. Will Eddie Murphy have time to save both of his children’s lives and prevent his wife from getting sexually assaulted by a handsome ghost? My guess is that you already know the answer, but are coming up short with a reason to care, which is more than fair.

Plot is not nearly as significant here as recreating the holographic ghosts & ghouls of the Disney theme park ride source material, which the movie actually does fairly well. The introductory title cards feel like a haunted house initiation, warning “Welcome, foolish mortals . . .” before recreating the ballroom of dancing ghosts that constitute the theme park ride’s centerpiece. Besides the CG ghosts that recall the live action Casper movie in tone, The Haunted Mansion also employs special effects master Rick Baker to provide some tangible atmosphere. A Harryhausen skeleton army & swarms of threatening spiders look especially great, with other haunted house effects like Videodrome-esque breathing walls, a Billy Bones-style zombie, and visual references to suicide by hanging tilting the story towards genuine horror. Singing barber shop quartet statue busts (an integral part of the ride) and a musical instrument seance straight out of an Ed Wood film (Night of the Ghouls, to be specific) are much more in line with a cutesy, safe-feeling horror comedy vibe, which is totally fine given the film’s nature as a cynically commercial Disney property. Terrence Stamp’s presence as an evil, ghostly butler cuts to the core of what’s wrong with the film at large. He’s genuinely creepy on a scene to scene basis, but often has to pause his schtick to deal with Eddie Murphy, who aims to annoy at every possible turn. At one point, Stamp even bellows, “If I have to listen to another word from that insufferable fool, I believe I’m going to burst,” which was the one line that got a legitimate laugh out of me. Listening to Murphy run lame bits about whacking spiders with magazines & ghosts “getting jiggy with” his wife into the ground for minutes at a time completely poisons any atmospheric mood or comedic ambition built by Baker, Shawn, Tilly, or Stamp. Murphy simply isn’t funny, which is a major problem considering how much screen time he’s allowed to devour.

Guillermo del Toro has stated publicly that he’d love to remake this film without the Eddie Murphy angle and, after Crimson Peak, it feels as if he already did. It’s easy to see what the director may have connected with on its basic level of being a haunted house dark ride attraction adapted into a feature. The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite Disney World rides, but I have no real problems or reservations with the way it’s been adapted to the screen, personally. How could I? The idea of believing your own hype so completely that you think your theme park attractions deserve a The Movie! version is so absurd that it’s kind of a miracle every single one of these Disney Ride movies isn’t as much of an artistic failure as The Haunted Mansion turned out to be. If it weren’t for the success of the Pirates debut just a few months later this could’ve been the end of the Disney Ride movie as we know it today, a fate that would’ve been very much deserved.

-Brandon Ledet

Tower of Terror (1997)

Expectations can make or break a movie-watching experience if you allow them too much headspace. I try to approach every film with an entirely blank slate, but it can be difficult to achieve that intellectual distance. For instance, watching a mid-90s Steve Guttenberg helm a made-for-TV kids’ movie based on a Disney World theme park attraction comes with its own expectation baggage that’s difficult to leave at the door. To be crassly honest, I expected a pile of shit. 1997’s Tower of Terror movie is a thoroughly pleasant surprise, then, shirking the stench of its compromised pedigree in nearly every scene. Even as a cheaply made VHS era kids’ horror starring The Gutte, the film is a massive improvement over Disney’s other haunted house amusement park ride adaptation, the miserable Eddie Murphy comedy The Haunted Mansion. It’s a charmingly silly, mildly spooky comedy that delivers just as much genuine entertainment as it does unintentional camp. I can’t parse out how much of my enjoyment was a surprise result of setting my expectations low, but that ultimately does not matter. What matters is that, against all odds, Tower of Terror is a good movie.

Steve Guttenberg stars as a sleazy photojournalist for a National Enquirer type publication, where he publishes hoax stories of alien autopsies & ghostly apparitions. Child actor (turned indie darling) Kirsten Dunst co-leads as his accomplice & niece, helping The Gutte fulfill his obvious destiny as a Goofy Uncle archetype. The pair get in over their heads when a mysterious old woman rope them into investigating a real life paranormal mystery, a 1939 incident at the infamous Hollywood Hotel that occurred on Halloween night. That evening, during a glamorous Halloween party (complete with big band swing music) a Shirley Temple/Baby Jane Hudson archetype mysteriously disappeared along with her drunk parents, her nanny, and a bellhop when the elevator car was struck by magic lightning. The answer to the mystery of what caused this supernatural event is explained upfront with the old lady’s tales of evil witchcraft and a Book of Souls MacGuffin. As Dunst & The Gutte search for this all-powerful talisman in the haunted hotel, however, the source of that witchcraft is called into question and the ghosts of the missing weigh in on what really happened that Halloween night. It all has very little to do with the actual Tower of Terror ride, but as a What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? by way of Hocus Pocus or Jumanji plot, it all works out as a perfectly entertaining children’s creepshow.

The actual Tower of Terror at the Disney amusement park is also shaped like a 1930s hotel and was actually utilized for the film’s frequent exterior shots to establish setting & mood. The ride is Twilight Zone-themed, however, which is a licensing choice this made-for-TV venture couldn’t afford to make. Instead, the hotel is utilized as a kind of standard issue haunted house contraption where headless figures brandishing meat cleavers, singing child ghosts dressed like the twins from The Shining, and elevators full of hellfire pop up from around corners to startle the audience. Instead of treating the film like a single trip through this haunted space like an amusement park ride, however, its ghostly mystery & fascination with witchcraft is spread over several days. This allows for long, bizarre speeches about “banishing children to the underworld” and how the lightning “half-zapped” everyone in the elevator, trapping them in limbo. Director D.J. MacHale doesn’t have many credits to his name, except that he helmed twenty episodes of the Nickelodeon horror anthology Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which almost makes him overqualified for the task. For better or for worse, the movie plays like a feature length episode of that show that just happens to star two recognizable faces (along with exciting bit players like Melora Hardin & John Franklin) and is based off an amusement park ride (complete with mimicking the ride’s elevator drops at its climax, naturally). Expectations aside, it’s a form of entertainment I’ve been trained to appreciate for nearly my entire life.

Somewhere around 2015, as with all Disney properties (including The Haunted Mansion, somehow), there were talks of remaking Tower of Terror as a new, presumably better-funded feature. You can easily see how the studio would find easy potential in that idea, even if they nuke this original version out of existence & return to the property’s Twilight Zone roots. If that idea is dying along with the theme park attraction (which is gradually being replaced with some kind of Guardians of the Galaxy ride), however, the original will still persist as a perfectly entertaining, family-friendly haunted house tour starring Dunst & The Gutte. Even that kind of a modest success exceeds expectation, which is as good of a litmus test for a movie’s worth as anything, I suppose.

-Brandon Ledet

Paddington 2 (2018)

“If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.”

I stubbornly ignored all recommendations for the first Paddington film for a solid two years, mostly out of disgust & disinterest inspired by its advertising. The CGI design of the titular bear was especially a huge turn-off, giving off the feeling of a computer-animated Charmin commercial flavored with a pinch of British whimsy. When the unanimous praise for Paddington 2 started rolling in recently, I finally decided to give the first one a shot (it was lurking on Netflix, after all). The experience turned out much better than other recent experiments where I allowed critical praise to bully me into watching children’s films I had zero interest in (Moana and Coco both come to mind), but I still couldn’t quite match the consensus enthusiasm. Paddington is a decent, occasionally clever children’s film about an undeniably lovable bear. Paddington 2, it turns out, is a massive improvement on that initial outing: a total, absurdly wholesome joy. Where the first film only got past my heartless cynic defenses enough to elicit a few chuckles & “awwwww”s, the sequel made me cry for the last five minutes solid, both out of grief & out of elation. Paddington 2 reminds me of the trajectory of the Babe series, where the first film is a simple, adorable portrait of a wholesome talking animal and the second, Pig in the City, is a feverishly ambitious work of fine art that contrasts that lovable animal against a harshly cruel world that does not deserve them. Like Babe, Paddington makes everything he touches better through pure, unashamed kindness, so it only makes sense that his own film franchise would only get better the more time it spends with him.

I suspect this is a holdover from the Paddington storybooks, but the real crux of this series is its function as an allegory about modern immigration. An orphaned bear “from deepest, darkest Peru,” Paddington is a sweetly polite, courteous cub who is shunned on sight by most strangers he greets in London. Peter Capadli is the most flagrant racist in Paddington’s life, referring to the bear as “an undesirable” and forming a “community defense force” to keep an eye on his potentially criminal behavior. The first Paddington film profiles a white, affluent London family (featuring Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville & The Shape of Water’s Sally Hawkins) as they grow to love the bear for the kindness inside him, despite their initial prejudices. Paddington 2 finds their neighborhood transformed into a harmonious cultural tapestry where people of widely varied backgrounds coexist in functional peace, thanks largely to Paddington’ s bottomless aptitude for kindness & politeness. We then see how grim the world becomes without the impossibly wholesome influence of this Peruvian bear. While merely attempting to purchase a birthday present for his aunt, Paddington is framed for a white man’s crime and leveled with a ten-year prison sentence, thanks largely to old-fashioned racial profiling. Of course, he makes the best of this situation as he can, transforming his Dickensian hellhole of a prison into something resembling a Wes Anderson confectionary or a live-action adaptation of Animal Crossing. It’s still a difficult-to-stomach injustice, though, one that leads to a speeding train conclusion more befitting of an action thriller than a children’s movie. I don’t want to spoil any of the weird, emotionally traumatic places the movie goes as its story flies off the rails in a delightfully excessive climax, but I will say this: when Paddington does finally get his aunt a birthday present, I cried like an idiot baby. I’m having a difficult time just writing about it without crying; it’s that goddamn wholesome.

Besides its heartwarming empathy for immigration narratives and general, genuine sweetness, the Paddington franchise also impress as a visual achievement. The dollhouse miniatures of the first film were an excellent start for an aesthetic perfected in the second. Paddington 2 is a multimedia sensory experience, mixing in 2-D pencil-sketch animation, pop-up book landscapes, and even more complex miniatures to convincingly capture a sense of childlike wonder. There has always been dissent against the wholesome tweeness of visual artists like Michel Gondry & Wes Anderson (whose Grand Budapest Hotel feels like an especially strong influence here), but those naysayers typically don’t give full credit to the deeply devastating sadness that lurks just under their works’ meticulously manicured surfaces. Paddington 2 nails both sides of that divide – the visually precious and the emotionally fragile – while teaching kids an important lesson about applying simple concepts like politeness & manners to their interactions with social & cultural outsiders. It also backs up its precious visual indulgences with an informed, classic sense of physical comedy, directly influenced by silent era legends like Charlie Chaplin & Buster Keaton. I could see an outsider being turned off by the promised whimsy of the film’s steampunk circus backdrop, treasure map side plot, and cutesy pop-up book illustration asides, but director Paul King carefully arranges all these visual influences & aesthetic touches with such a careful sense of craft that it’s near impossible not to be won over by them in the moment. We always say we wish more children’s films were ambitious in their craft & purposeful in their thematic messaging; Paddington 2 wholly satisfies both demands.

I don’t want to suggest that watching the first Paddington movie was a waste of time or a total letdown. If nothing else, it functions as a kind of superhero origin story (if kindness & politeness can be understood as superpowers), laying a lot of the visual & metaphorical groundwork for what’s accomplished in its magnificent sequel. It’s worth watching just to get accustomed to Paddington’s world, as everyone from the director to single-scene side characters returned for the second go. Everything about Paddington 2 is an improvement on its predecessor, though. The physical comedy is funnier. The visual craft is more inspired. The villain is more entertaining & complex (I swear Hugh Grant is channeling Theatre of Blood-era Vincent Price here). Even Paddington’s impossibly sweet selflessness in the face of prejudice – as he sacrifices his freedom to improve someone else’s birthday – comes across more clearly. Paddington 2 is the perfect, heartwarmingly empathetic children’s film confectionary everyone’s been trying to sell me with the first movie for the last two years. Now it’s my turn to be an annoyance and hyperbolically promote this picture to people who have zero interest in watching it.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2018)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the exact kind of movie that’s destined to be undervalued & taken for granted on sight. The first picture from the Studio Ghibli spinoff production company Studio Ponoc, it’s automatically going to suffer many unflattering comparisons to classic Hayao Miyazaki works like Kiki’s Delivery Service & Spirited Away. Adapted from the 1971 fantasy novel The Little Broomstick, which heavily features a school for witches & wizards, the film is also likely to be compared unfavorably to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (which likely borrowed just as much from its source material as it did elsewhere; Rowling’s work is practically a pastiche). Instant familiarity is destined to temper a lot of enthusiasm for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but that kind of dismissive ungratefulness doesn’t consider just how rare of a treat this kind of thoughtful, traditionally animated work actually is on the modern children’s film cinema landscape. Given how much of a sucker I was for the goofy magic of The Worst Witch (speaking of works that likely heavily inspired Harry Potter) and the anime-lite tones of Little Nemo’s Adventures in Slumberland at the time, I’m convinced this would have been my favorite movie as a kid, were it released in the early 1990s. Anime has gradually become the last refuge for thematically thoughtful, intricately crafted traditional 2D animation. It’s worth celebrating a new studio’s arrival as a contributor to keeping that tradition alive instead of brushing them off for feeling like they’ve always been around. Besides, as a subject, witchcraft is just inherently badass.

The titular Mary is a bored preteen wasting away the final scraps of her summer in her great-aunt’s gorgeous country home. This idleness inspires her to follow a couple mischievous kittens into the woods in a down-the-rabbit-hole experience that lands her in a magical realm of witchy universities, mad scientists, and wild hybrid beasts that resemble psychedelic Pokémon. She accidentally stumbles into a Chosen One plot arc in this new world thanks to a magical flower & a sassy broomstick that temporarily grant her extraordinary witch powers. From there, it’s a race against the clock for Mary to save a damsel in distress Anime Boy from the clutches of the evil schoolmarm & her side kick scientist and to put a stop to put their cruel animal experiments before she’s found out to not be the Chosen One at all, but rather an intruder & a fraud. The story Mary and the Witch’s Flower tells isn’t nearly as complex thematically as it is impressive visually. The lessons learned here are, again, familiar to classic children’s media narratives: learning to be confident in your own abilities and accepting the things you cannot change about yourself (especially your physical attributes). The movie is much more interesting in the way it wakes its young audience up the magic of the mundane. Simple, everyday activity like the pleasure of gardening and the science of electricity is framed as a kind of real-world witchcraft, enticing children to find interest in both magic & science and the grey area between them. It may not be a mind-blowing feat in intricate storytelling, but it is adorably animated and easy to love. This is the exact kind of immersive comfort food I would have ground into dust, were it released in the days of obsessively repeated VHS viewings.

Instead of focusing on how Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t quite as intricately animated as Ghibli classics or as immersive in its books-long world-building as the Harry Potter series, I was swept away by its warm, familiar charm. It’s an increasingly rare treat to see traditional animation on the big screen in recent years, anime or otherwise, and I greatly appreciate the arrival of Studio Ponoc (and the surprisingly trustworthy distribution company GKIDS) for keeping the experience alive. The onscreen witchcraft was dazzling. The glockenspiel-heavy score occasionally felt like a G-rated Suspiria. The world it created was a fantasy space I’d love to mentally dwell in for a magical eternity. The only real bummer for me was that the theater was sparsely attended by appreciative cinema & anime nerds instead of being packed with wide-eyed, witchy children. I would have loved for Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s easy familiarity to have been a result of it always being in my life the way titles like Little Nemo & The Worst Witch have; I hope it finds the right kids at the right time so they can have that experience in my place.

-Brandon Ledet

Coco (2017)

Whenever reviewing modern CG-animated kids’ movies, I try to make a point of announcing up front that they’re never really my thing, Pixar properties included. I admit this as a way of softening, if not invalidating my opinion on the topic at hand (right before I say something unpopular). For instance, I didn’t even have the energy to properly review Moana, a movie seemingly everyone loves but I had no business watching, so I just wrote an article detailing the few isolated things I appreciated about it instead. My status as a Pixar heretic should probably exclude me from reviewing the Día de los Muertos adventure epic Coco as well, but I was attracted to the film by its visual allure and overwhelming critical praise anyway. Oddly, my general disappointment with Coco wasn’t tied to its surface level Pixar-ness, though. I was impressed with the film as a vibrantly colorful visual piece, something I don’t typically experience with CG animation. It was also refreshing to see Pixar move past its usual “What if toys/cars/feelings/dinosaurs could talk?” creative rut to walk kids through Mexican cultural immersion and healthy attitudes about the inevitability of death. What bothered me about the film was more to do with how it functions as a message piece, a morality tale with a concrete lesson for kids to learn: that loyalty to your family is more important than your own mental or emotional health. Fuck that.

Miguel is a young Mexican boy who dreams of one day becoming a musician, despite his family’s ancestral ban on all music in his household. Over the course of the film, Miguel goes on a transdimensional journey to the ghost-populated Land of the Dead, thanks to the bridge between worlds offered by annual Día de los Muertos rituals, to learn that his “selfish” dream of pursuing art is destructive to the values of community & tradition that guide his life. This “Nothing is more important that Family” life lesson is softened when his elders & ancestors eventually buckle to accept how much music means to him, but that change of heart only occurs once they personally see value in the art themselves. If you apply that same dynamic to something that doesn’t universally affect people the way music does (for instance, if Miguel had discovered a sexual orientation or gender identity they didn’t approve of), the message is much more clearly toxic. “The only family in Mexico who doesn’t love music” is cruelly dismissive, even outright abusive to Miguel, driving him to hide his passion in cramped attic spaces & smashing his only guitar in front of him before he even gets to fully explain himself. Teaching kids to feel obligated to put up with that kind of abuse merely because of biological bonds just in case your bullies might one day changer their minds is a grotesque life lesson. There’s nothing wrong with the message that community & family are more important than the individual self, especially since in this case the lesson is embedded in the culture depicted, but you should also leave it open for kids to know that their community is optional and cruelty isn’t okay just because you’re related to your abusers.

My unwillingness to forgive Miguel’s elders & long-dead ancestors aside, I did appreciate the way his adventures in The Land of the Dead offered a colorful, but also horrific version of a modern kids’ movie. Most of the jokes landed flat with me and I wish the film were screened in Spanish instead of English, but I still appreciated its family-friendly, culturally-specific immersion in a world of friendly ghosts & skeletons. You can find that same kind of kid-friendly adventure epic that healthily explores the topic of death & memory in Kubo & the Two Strings, though, with the bonus of also exploring how families can be complicated & even destructive instead of drawing a hard line that says you should always bend to their will. I’d be a liar if I said individual family-dynamic moments didn’t pull my heartstrings by the film’s ending, but I was still largely negative on Coco as an overall messaging piece. As soon as Miguel’s first guitar was smashed in front of his crying face, he should have boarded on a bus out of town to find a new, less cruel community elsewhere. The clear dichotomy the movie establishes between either a) the virtue of staying with your family no matter how shitty they are to you or b) “selfishly” branching out on your own to find a more hospitable environment sat with me in the wrong way. It was a thematic hurdle that all the pretty colors, goofy skeletons, and super cute canine sidekicks in the world couldn’t help me clear.

-Brandon Ledet