Our current Movie of the Month, 1968’s Oliver!, is an adorable movie-musical adaptation of the classic Dickens novel Oliver Twist. It sweetens the bitterness of the original text as best as it can with big-budget, song-and-dance movie magic, but it never fully breaks away from the brutality of its source material. Oliver! is an extravagant Technicolor spectacle composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, stuck halfway between a feel-good crowd-pleaser and a heartbreaking tale of systemic child abuse. I cannot tell if it’s wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s one of the two.
There have been dozens of Oliver Twist adaptations produced in the past century, so there’s plenty more Orphan Oliver cinema to explore after checking out the wonderfully grueling musical. Oliver! has a more distinct angle in its approach to Dickens’s novel than faithful adaptations like David Lean’s 1948 version, though. Proper pairings for Oliver! should all attempt a similar stand-out gimmick or interpretative device beyond dramatically illustrating the source material, especially since there isn’t much value to watching the same story repeated over & over again without that variety in form. To that end, here are a few recommended titles if you enjoyed our Movie of the Month and want to see more Oliver Twist adaptations that attempt to make the old text feel new again, often through extreme means.
Oliver Twist (2005)
Because there are so many Oliver Twist adaptations out there, Hanna got her titles confused and we ended up watching a modern version directed by Roman Polanski by mistake before meeting a second time to watch the musical. We likely should’ve questioned the programming choice when she referenced the 2005 film as a “childhood favorite” (ouch), but it wasn’t until about 20 minutes into the runtime when Hanna realized the mistake, as it was clear there wasn’t going to be any singing or dancing in Polanski’s adaptation. We finished the movie anyway (which is likely more time & attention than that decrepit rapist deserves) and found it to be a lot more entertaining than initially expected (which is definitely more praise than he deserves).
The Polanski adaptation of Oliver Twist is stubbornly faithful to the events of the source material, so much so that it’s the clearest outlier on this list of Oliver! pairings. Except, the director clearly bristled at the lighter, sweeter interpretations of the novel that have become standard in the years since Oliver!. Polanski’s Oliver Twist is absurdly grotesque, often laughably so. The cruelty, grime, and hopelessness of 19th Century London is pitched so far over the top that you cannot help but find it comedic. Every character wants to see the sweet, young orphan Oliver hang for the crime of existing in their eyesight. Meanwhile, if they just wait long enough, he’d likely die naturally of starvation or infection from touching London’s shit-smeared streets with his bare, wounded feet. It dives so far into the muck & misery of the text that it can only be viewed as a pointed rejection of the movie-musical revisions meant to brighten its narrative with a little song-and-dance sunshine – mainly Oliver!.
Thankfully, you don’t have to watch a Roman Polanski movie if you’re looking for an appropriately grim adaptation of Dickens’s story. The 1996 low-budget indie Twisted offers “a retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, set in a New York City contemporary underground populated by drag queens, drug abuse, and prostitution.” Its determination to make a dark & twizted update to Oliver Twist is likely overkill, since the source material is already plenty grim as is. Still, it’s the only adaptation I’ve seen that goes out of its way to make the text too bitter to stomach – changing the orphan boys’ criminal enterprise from petty thievery to child prostitution and skipping the happy ending for Oliver entirely. Twisted is impressively fucked up, stylish, and chaotic enough to make me nostalgic for the true independent filmmaking of 90s festival programs. It also includes one-of-a-kind performances from William Hickey (as a Lynchian take on Fagin) and Billy Porter (as a transgender take on Bet), which you would think would raise its profile in pop culture nerd circles.
The 2003 film Twist also gritties up the Dickens story in a world of drug addicts and gay hustlers (that time set in Toronto), but it’s hard to imagine there was any novelty left in that approach after Twisted beat it to the punch. Twisted‘s version of grimy NYC street life is illustrated with music video production values, to the point where you halfway expect the camera to pan past Michael Jackson dance-smashing an abandoned car. Whereas Nancy is only implied to be a prostitute in every other version of the story—including the novel—Twisted explicitly opens with her surrogate in the act of hooking. Then there’s the deeply upsetting decision to maintain Oliver’s age as a young minor, while aging up everyone else around him to lecherous adults, grooming the sweethearted orphan for a life of prostitution. The backwards-letters typeface of Twisted‘s opening credits announces that it’s not your grandpappy’s Oliver Twist, and the movie delivers on that promised shock value every chance it gets. It also features Billy Porter quipping that his barroom buddies look “as nervous as a drag queen in a shoe store,” though, so it’s not all grim, grim grime. Just mostly.
Oliver and Company (1988)
Obviously, if you’re the world’s #1 Oliver! fan, it’s unlikely that grimness & cruelty are your top concerns in your Oliver Twist adaptations. If you’re looking for a version of Dickens’s novel that’s even cheerier & schmaltzier than the movie musical, Disney is of course your savior. The 1988 cartoon Oliver and Company arrived just before the Disney Renaissance, at a time when the company was still in heated competition with idealist defector Don Bluth (who beat the film at the box office with The Land Before Time). It’s just as toothless of an Oliver Twist adaptation as you’d expect from Disney, featuring talking kittens and dogs dancing to a cornball pop soundtrack, as well as the decision to play Fagin as a desperate sweetheart voiced by Dom DeLuise. And yet the current state of talking-animal CG animation for kids is so dire that Oliver and Company feels like a timeless masterpiece in comparison. Call it a mehsterpiece. It’s a sweet mediocrity from a lost era of superior visual craft, putting thoughtful care into its detailed animation even while evaporating all of the thought & care out of its literary source material.
In this version, Oliver is an unadopted kitten abandoned on the streets of New York, populated entirely by faceless archetypes who yell “Hey, I’m walking here!” and “Come and get your hotdogs!” He’s taken under the wing of a streetwise dog named Dodger (Billy Joel, who fortunately only has one song on the soundtrack) and taught how to pretend to get hit by cars to steal from distraught drivers (a solid grift!). Voice performances from a villainous Robert Loggia and a fabulous Bette Midler (who unfortunately only has one song as well) threaten to add some substantive, mature themes to the proceedings, but the movie is pure Disney schmaltz through & through. It’s really only worth seeking out if you wished Oliver! was even sweeter or if, like me, you’re nostalgic for a time when even the most disposable kids’ media looked nice in its visual craft, regardless of its thematic ambitions.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Brandon, Boomer, and Britneewatch Oliver! (1968).
Hanna: My Movie of the Month pick began with a grave mistake. My intention was to introduce the crew to one of the first musicals I ever watched, which held a prized position in my family’s VHS collection: Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968), the film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s serialized novel Oliver Twist. I’ve probably seen it at least five times, although not since I was 10 or 11. Roman Polanski made his own Oliver Twist adaptation in 2005, and for some ungodly reason, I somehow melded his version with the Reed musical; I proceeded to tell many people (including the Swampflix crew) that Polanski’s version was one of my childhood favorites. I finally picked it for the Movie of the Month, so James, Brandon, Britnee and I settled in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday to dive into Oliver. After puzzling over basic elements of the film (including the lack of musical numbers, the jarring difference in tone, the striking unfamiliarity of the lead actors, and the realization that I was only 12 when the Polanski version came out), I got the sneaking suspicion that I had picked the wrong movie; after the first fifteen minutes passed without a single song, I was finally able to admit my mistake, but everyone agreed to finish the film anyway. Two days later we settled in for Oliver!, which I (thankfully) found to be just as delightful as I remembered. I’m honored to have undergone this Oliver journey with those that accept me in spite of my absolutely awful memory and sense of time.
The musical basically follows Dickens’s serialized story, which brings the viewers on a tour of the various social classes in early 19th century England. We start off at a workhouse, where Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a waifish orphan boy with a voice like a velvety little petal, is ousted from a workhouse after meekly requesting more gruel at dinner. The owner of the workhouse, Mr. Bumble, auctions Oliver off as an apprentice to the lowest bidder, who happens to be an undertaker. Oliver eventually escapes to London, where he immediately falls in with a dashing young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild); his crew of cheerful thief children; and their adult ringleader, Fagin (Ron Moody). The child thieves have a rickety old hideout in the upper levels of an abandoned building, but their den is downright cozy; Fagin puts Oliver to bed in a torn-up basket and a couple of ratty blankets, which looked extremely inviting all things considered. It would be a child’s paradise if not for the looming presence of Bill Sikes, a horrific character played by an (unfortunately) extremely hot Oliver Reed. Bill is accompanied by the kind, ill-fated Nancy (Shani Wallis), who is responsible for 50% of my interest in this movie as a child. The bulk of the film’s tension rests on who is in possession of Oliver, and whether he’ll finally get the chance to join a happy household. At various points throughout the movie he’s sold, arrested, adopted, kidnapped, forced into burglary, and kidnapped again; apart from the stolen fineries of wealthy Londoners, he’s the hottest commodity in the film while doing basically nothing that isn’t at the behest of someone else’s will.
I think this is a great musical! The sets are big and beautiful, and a few numbers (namely “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?”) have that old Hollywood scale of extras that makes you think, “This scene was expensive!” The majority of the songs are absolute bangers; they wormed themselves into my brain many years ago and, like little sleeper agents, unfurled themselves effortlessly as the film went on. I think the thing that struck me the most was that this film makes poverty-stricken 1820s London seem like an absolute ball; I really wanted Fagin to be my grandfather and live a little life of crime when I saw this as a child. It’s especially striking after seeing the Polanski adaptation, which is absolutely mired in the muck of that period. Police dutifully trot around the city; little chimney sweeps burn their sweet little trousers; life is pure joy! Nancy’s relationship with Bill is probably the harshest aspect of the musical, and it’s also my absolute least favorite part to watch. Brandon, do you think the cheer of the musical takes away from the point of the film? Should Reed have made me feel worse for these little orphans, or do you think the musical had a balance of glee and gruel?
Brandon: I don’t have any especially strong opinions about Oliver!‘s duty to maintain the grueling tone of the Dickens source material, but I get the sense that Polanski does. His 2005 adaptation is not only more faithful to the narrative beats of the novel, it’s also a deliberate corrective to its feel-good interpretations like Oliver! and Oliver & Company. If Polanski has a discernible “take” on Oliver Twist, it’s that audiences need to be reminded of how brutal the original story was, despite its recent cheery revisionism. As a result, the 2005 version is absurdly grotesque, almost laughably so. Every single image is aimed to discomfort & disgust, to the point where it’s just as difficult to take seriously as the song & dance numbers in the family-friendly adaptations he was bucking against. The conflict between form & content in the 1968 musical is much more genuinely engaging. The circumstances of orphan life in 19th Century London are just as brutal, but the song & dance numbers are a pure delight, and there’s something oddly charming about Fagin yelling “Shut up and drink your gin!” at a room full of pipsqueak children, when that should register as a horrifying act of abuse. What’s hilarious about Polanski being bothered by that cheery incongruity is that Oliver Twist already had at least two dark & gritty updates in 1996’s Twisted and 2003’s Twist, so his 40-year-old grudge against the musical just feels like another old man complaining about nothing. And since anything that irks that particular old man is a cosmic good, I almost wish that Oliver! was even more saccharine just to irritate him further.
I am not sure if Oliver! is wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s certainly one of the two. There’s something perverse about a big-budget Technicolor spectacle being composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, as if the form and the narrative are too directly opposed for the movie to function in any sincere way. When orphans sing about starving on a pure-gruel diet, or when their caretakers sing about selling those orphans away for a pittance (so as not to waste more money on precious gruel), it’s hard to resist chuckling at its self-conflicted tone, even though what you’re watching is objectively depressing. However, as Hanna already noted, the scale of its musical set pieces is massive. It may all be a swirl of slightly varied browns, but there are often hundreds of performers filling that sooty frame, singing & dancing their workhouse lungs out. It’s not at all skimpy when doling out its extravagant song & dance numbers either (unlike how the orphanage doles out its servings of gruel). The first hour is practically a sung-through musical, offering very few words of spoken dialogue between the show-stopping musical numbers before it settles into a more traditional movie-musical rhythm. Britnee, did you have any particular favorite songs or musical moments buried in that extensive songbook? Were you at all disappointed when the movie dropped its sung-through format to include traditional spoken dialogue between those songs?
Britnee: Our accidental watch of Polanski’s Oliver Twist had me a bit concerned about watching Oliver! a few days later. How could such a grim story be converted into an enjoyable musical? Would the songs be just as dull as the setting? I was put at ease when the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” kicked the film off. All those dirty little paupers lining up for gruel in the most Broadway way possible? I was immediately hooked! It was so catchy and so much fun, and thankfully, the other musical numbers followed suit. I truly enjoyed each and every one of them, but my favorites are “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” and “Who Will Buy?”.
The catchiness and quirkiness of “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” was such a good time, and it made me really enjoy Fagin’s character. Fagin in Polanski’s Oliver Twist was horrible. He was cruel and easy to dislike, but dancing, singing Fagin was the life of the party. As for “Who Will Buy?”, that was a damn masterpiece. It almost felt like a movie within a movie, and it had me so invested in all the happenings of that neighborhood. Right when I thought the scene was wrapping up, another singing group would come in and add another layer into the number. And most importantly, as the youth would say, the song slaps.
I think there was just the right number of songs peppered throughout. Not one segment of the film was more song heavy than others, which kept me excited and really held my attention. This is the sooty brown musical of my dreams! Something else worth mentioning is the beautiful set design. How the dirty London streets and filth surrounding the characters could look so gorgeous boggled my mind. Boomer, what are your thoughts on the set design? Were you as fascinated with it as I was, or did it seem too Broadway for a film?
Boomer: I might be the worst person to ask if something is “too Broadway,” because as someone who generally hates traditional musicals, I’m usually the first person to want to skedaddle the moment a half-pint starts warbling in a soprano—it’s been ten years since this happened, which is long enough that I’ll admit it, but I once left a live stage production of South Pacific during intermission despite being there in a professional capacity. I’ve professed before that I dislike musicals in general and often in principle as well, but that non-traditional musicals sometimes manage to pierce that veil (as demonstrated by my previous MotM nominations London Road and True Stories) in addition to a couple of traditional musicals that somehow manage to warm the cockles of my cold, dead heart. I think that this one manages to slip in under the radar a little for me for several reasons. Firstly, the music is actually pretty good, and I don’t feel secondhand embarrassment for the lyricist with regards to their being forced to craft dialog and exposition into certain meter and rhyme scheme; I was surprised to discover that “I’d Do Anything” came from Oliver!, as I’d always assumed it was just an old standard, but it’s actually rather lovely in this context. Secondly, it’s very evocative of two traditional screen musicals that I actually do enjoy: 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1967’s Doctor Doolittle, both of which I loved as a child. For the former, it’s mostly that era of musical-making, where there’s a huge budget and the effects are largely practical, plus the similarity in musical styles overall; for the latter, it’s the staging. It might be a stretch to call a film that casts Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit “traditional,” but other than the presence of Muppet actors, the film takes itself fairly seriously, and that’s evident in the set design there just as it is in this movie, so I guess my answer must be “yes.” There might be something Pavlovian about my unconscious mental arithmetic of Dickens + musical = a good time because of the sheer number of times I’ve seen Michael Caine go flying through the air with Gonzo and Rizzo attached to his housecoat, but I actually enjoyed this one, and it kept my attention for almost all of its prolonged runtime.
I was not party to the fateful viewing of Polanski’s adaptation, and I won’t defend him, but I will say that I can see why there would be a desire to push back against the lyrical good times being had in this film. I’ve softened over the years with regards to my need for historical accuracy (I’d probably be more forgiving of, for instance, the Converse high tops in Marie Antoinette in 2022 than I was in 2008), but there is something to be said about the necessity of historical veracity. The thing is, Industrial Era London was horrible, possibly one of the worst times to be alive in human history outside of being directly involved in war. Poverty was rampant, the streets ran brown with human waste, sovereignty was presumed divine, and the gentry was landed. Dickens’s novels and writings were actually fundamental to encouraging empathy for the downtrodden and encouraging philanthropy in the same way that Sinclair’s The Jungle was a foundational text in the actualization of food safety (although that was not the latter author’s goal), and I can understand being annoyed at this film, which depicts chimney sweeps as just silly little dudes as opposed to children performing dangerous labor. When white supremacists prattle on about the treatment of the Irish when trying to invoke whataboutism with regards to historical injustices that continue into the present day, the inhumane circumstances of Victorian England are rarely discussed, but only because white supremacy as it exists in the contemporary United States actually exists to reinscribe current systems of power between labor and aristocracy that aren’t terribly different from their own goals (as seen by state-level Republican-led efforts to rebrand child labor as “employment of minors” and damage the laws that prevent kids from being taken advantage of by employers). When I was first reading everyone’s thoughts prior to meditating on my own response, my knee-jerk response was “Actually, depicting this with the brutal reality of that era would be the correct choice,” but the longer I sat with that idea, the more I kept thinking about “Oom-Pah-Pah” until music filled my mind so that it blotted out everything else. So for once, I’ll just enjoy the party and not be a pooper (until you get to the Lagniappe section below, I suppose).
Boomer: For my money, the best version of “I’d Do Anything” is this one by Fall On Your Sword, the same folks behind “Shatner Of The Mount.”
I’ll also add that Oliver! is no Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind when it comes to whitewashing historical atrocities for the sake of storytelling, since not even the worst elements of life under Victorian aristocracy compare to chattel slavery, but I’ll end with a reminder that we can’t get too comfortable about such things and should always inspect them. Birth and Gone are products of their time, but we are never free of that kind of historical revisionism and it’s vital that we never get too comfortable with it, now more than ever. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice initiative is a great place to start, as it calls out lies in children’s literature, like Henry Cole’s Unspoken and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The minimization of historical sins, like characterizing “Harriet Tubman [as] a very strong woman who left her farm without permission,” are part of the fascism playbook. Oliver! might get a pass, but there’s still work to be done.
Brandon: This was an educational experience in several ways, but the factoid from my Oliver! research that’s haunted me most was learning it was one of Michael Jackson’s pet obsessions. Apparently, Jackson befriended Oliver!‘s Mark Lester when they were both child-stars of the late-1960s, which led to persistent tabloid rumors that Lester was the sperm-donor biological father to Jackson’s children. A rumor that Lester himself has confirmed in interviews! It almost sounds too weird to be true, until you remember that Jackson was also so obsessed with the David Lynch film The Elephant Man that he attempted to purchase the real-life John Merick’s bones for his private collection (a bizarre venture that The London Hospital Medical College thankfully did not indulge). These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.
Britnee: Swampflix needs to declare the first week of March as Oliver Twist Week, committing to watch a different version of Oliver Twist every year to commemorate the occasion. There’s a buttload of Oliver Twist movies out there, so we could keep it going forever!
Hanna: Taking the Oliver! of my childhood and Polanski’s faithful adaptation into consideration, I’m really drawn to and impressed by the longevity of Dickens’s original story of innocence attempting to navigate a filthy, horrifying world. I didn’t even realize how many Oliver Twist interpretations there were until Brandon kindly brought them to my attention. So, cast my vote in favor of Oliver Week so we can delve into all its many permutations. I’m glad that the Swampflix crew enjoyed meeting this sweet little orphan.
While he’s only credited as the film’s screenwriter, it’s tempting to frame Joko Anwar as the auteurist voice behind The Queen of Black Magic, given how snugly it falls in line with his recent work. The Queen of Black Magic repeats the returning-to-a-rural-home supernatural folktale horror of Anwar’s recent creep-out Impetigore. It also repeats the reinvention of an 80s Indonesian cult classic that he experimented with in 2017’s Satan’s Slaves. Unfortunately, director Kino Stamboel can’t match the pristine visual artistry or icy tension of either of those recent Joko Anwar knockouts, which holds The Queen of Black Magic back from achieving their must-see horror nerd prestige. Still, Anwar’s storytelling & stylistic influence is blatant throughout, and the two collaborators build to a spectacularly upsetting climax together within the framework of the backseat auteur’s previous triumphs.
The Queen of Black Magic doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a premise. For most of its runtime, it’s a gory ghost story about a haunted orphanage infested with CGI centipedes. Then, it climaxes with the intrusion of the titular black magic queen, who exponentially escalates the scale of the mayhem in a deliberate attempt to create Hell on earth. Adult alumni of the rural orphanage return to their collective home with their Big City wives & children in tow as a kind of unconventional family reunion. Once home, they’re reminded of a supernatural menace that underscored their childhood memories, which they’ve since passed off as the product of their overactive imaginations. Except, the supernatural threat returns to their lives as soon as they return to the orphanage, and it’s explicitly linked to long-buried abuses against the other children there – an evil they unknowingly participated in and must be punished for. Once the supernatural avenger of these abuses shows herself in the third act and her centipede army grows by the ton, it becomes clear that no one will be spared her vengeful chaos, not even the men’s own innocent children.
Story-wise, this film is stubbornly unrushed & conventional. The backstory that provides purpose for its ghostly, centipedal gross-outs is mostly told through purely expositional flashbacks, all shot with the limited scope & unembarrassed cheese of a soap opera broadcast. Meanwhile, the dozen or so characters who’ve gathered at the haunted orphanage more or less just hang around, waiting for something spooky to happen. The atmosphere is effectively eerie, but the events it serves are oddly inert . . . until Hell is fully unleashed. The third-act payoffs to this film’s traditional haunted-house plotting are gloriously fucked up. Its skincrawl moments fearlessly go for the jugular, making it clear that no guilty party nor innocent bystander is safe from centipedal gore or possessed self-mutilation. The inciting child abuse against helpless orphans isn’t avenged with any kind of targeted fury, but rather a burn-it-all-down anger against the entire world for allowing such cruelty to happen. No one is spared; ignorance is complicity; everyone deserves Hell for living in such a callous world.
After the hideous spectacle of its Hell-on-Earth climax, The Queen of Black Magic concludes with stills of the 1981 original it’s supposedly remaking. Just from that slideshow, you can tell the original film was a lot lighter & less traumatizing, presumably with an entirely different premise than this “remake.” Between this film & Satan’s Slaves, Joko Anwar is acting as a kind of cultural ambassador for the merits of cult-classic Indonesian horrors – both reviving the titles of the films that spooked & delighted him as a kid and using them as templates to spook & delight a modern audience in kind. I can’t claim this effort is as satisfying as the previous two films that he directed himself, but it’s still effectively upsetting as a haunted-house genre film, one that’s done a great job of further piquing my curiosity in Indonesian horror classics.
After watching Pearl Chang direct herself in two traditional, psychedelic wuxia revenge tales, it was nice to see her totally cut loose in her third feature. That’s not to say Wolf Devil Woman or Matching Escort are humorless slogs, but more that The Dark Lady of Kung Fu just out-goofs them both by a large margin. The Dark Lady of Kung Fu feels more like a condensed season of a children’s Saturday Morning TV comedy than it does a wuxia epic; it’s just one that happens to feature occasional outbursts of martial arts wirework, gore, and gender ambiguity. It’s decidedly inessential when compared to Chang’s previous accomplishments, but it’s wildly, endearingly playful in a way that rewards completionists.
Pearl Chang stars in dual roles as The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King, two separate heroes to local street orphans. The Monkey King provides a makeshift home for the orphans as their figurehead, teaching them how to survive as Dickensian pickpockets. The Butterfly Bandit is a Robin Hood type superhero who showers the orphans & other impoverished citizens with stolen gold, costumed in a winged Zorro costume with a purple Mardi Gras mask. Both characters are referred to by “he/him” pronouns despite identifying as women, and a third character in their orbit is eventually revealed to be intersex in a major, clumsy plot twist. Despite both being played by Chang, the movie never confirms that The Butterfly Bandit & The Monkey King are indeed the same person. The masked superhero’s true identity is instead allowed to remain an ambiguous secret, so they can continue to live on as a mysterious hero to poor children everywhere.
The Dark Lady of Kung Fu is missing some of the Peal Chang touchstones that made Wolf Devil Woman & Matching Escort so fun as low-budget wuxia novelties. Mainly, her rapidfire psychedelic editing style & lengthy martial arts battles are greatly minimized here, allowing more room for the day-to-day hijinks of the street orphans instead of the superheroics of their idols. Still, the film is incredibly playful in its intensely colorful imagery, including shots of Chang enjoying a bubble bath in a giant clamshell, performing as a human Whack-a-Mole for busking tips, and allowing her flock to play Hungry Hungry Hippos with her stolen loot. The usual ultraviolence is also present throughout, featuring chopped limbs, rivers of stage blood, and flashes of horrific self-surgery. Besides its laid-back pacing, the only thing that really holds The Dark Lady of Kung Fu back from greatness is the cloying Comedy Hijinks of its English language dub. It’s yet another argument for Pearl Chang’s work being rescued & properly restored for modern audiences; they’d all make excellent Midnight Movies with a proper clean-up, and this one is no exception.
I remember watching Edgar Wright’s video game breakup comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in the theater and finding it charmingly cute, certainly better than its box office & immediate critical reception implied. As its then-teenage cast has grown into mid-level fame and its then-teenage audience has grown to become the critical establishment in the decade since, Scott Pilgrim‘s underdog status has long faded away. If anything, praise for its 8-bit video game nostalgia and self-critical, anti-romantic twee sentiments is absurdly overstated by now, and what was once a low-key charmer has become overloaded with unsustainably hyperbolic accolades as a modern classic – at least in online Film Nerd circles. Nothing has made that gradual canonization more absurd to me than catching up with the recent coming-of-age comedy We Are Little Zombies, which pushes the same twee video game nostalgia aesthetics everyone drools over in Scott Pilgrim to much more consistently exciting, surprising extremes at every turn. We Are Little Zombies is one of those over-achieving stylistic showcases where every single in-the-moment comedic gag & tangential flight of whimsy makes you shout, “That’s so cool!” at the screen; it’s just absolutely overflowing with creativity. I now understand where the Scott Pilgrim die-hards are coming from, because I’ve seen that movie’s stylistic flourishes exploded into a vibrant, over-the-top spectacle much more suited to my own maximalist tastes.
Like most twee fantasy pieces and whimsical coming-of-age stories, We Are Little Zombies’s flashy sense of style mostly just functions to obscure the deep well of pain flowing just below its manicured surface. The plot is simple; four freshly orphaned children meet at their parents’ simultaneous funerals and run away to form a surprisingly successful (but ultimately doomed) pop punk band. The pint-sized lineup of Little Zombies are all emotionally numb to their grief, so they write vibrant pop songs about their apathy as a form of art therapy. Most of the structural conflict in the film is typical to a rise-to-fame rock band narrative, deriving from evil record company executives converting their art into capital. However, from scene to scene their journey is guided strictly by video game logic, wherein their instruments must be acquired like digital armor and the record execs are level bosses who must be defeated. The vibrant colors, rapid cuts, 8-bit score, and continually surprising shot choices that power-boost this video game surface aesthetic feel like they belong to a kinetic live-action cartoon populated by hyperactive kids in constant search of their next sugar rush. Instead, the Little Zombies are decidedly anti-emotional as a band, despondently stumbling through their shitty little lives in the exact way their collective name implies. The only time they appear to be having as much fun as first-time director Makoto Nagahisa is having behind the camera is when they’re playing their candy-coated pop punk tunes, and there’s a genuine tragedy to how easily that collective art therapy is corrupted for a one-hit-wonder cash-in.
In terms of its mind-melting, genre-defying maximalism, there are a ton of psychedelic Japanese freak-outs I’d compare We Are Little Zombies to before citing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: Suicide Club, Hausu,Funeral Parade of Roses, Wild Zero, etc. Still, the two films’ overlap of pop punk soundtrack cues, twee heartbreak, and video game surface aesthetics make the comparison unignorable. We Are Little Zombies amplifies the little touches that make Scott Pilgrim charming into an explosively entertaining video game dreamscape that much more clearly, consistently registers as Something Special to my eyes. It’s apparently now my turn to overhype an underseen, underloved video game fantasy piece until people are sick of hearing about how great it is. Hopefully, I’ve got at least a decade until the tides turn against it.
This stop motion animation gem was nominated for a Best Animated Feature award last Oscars season, but is still making its way through rounds of slow trickle American distribution. Don’t it let slip by you. A French language black comedy written by Céline Sciamma, director of Girlhood& Tomboy, My Life as a Zucchini is more spiritually aligned with the quiet comedic gloom of Mary and Max than the kid-friendly antics of more traditional stop motion works like Shaun the Sheep & A Town Called Panic. Its plot is quietly simple. Its animation style is similarly unambitious. However, its empathetic portrait of young, lonely kids in search of a family to call their own is rawly authentic and had me crying like an idiot baby throughout. The good news is that even in its lowest moments of real world gloom and heart-heavy reflections on the lingering effects of abuse and abandonment, My Life as a Zucchini knows how to make a good joke land just when it’s needed most and there are just as many opportunities for a laugh as there are to reach for a handkerchief.
The titular Zucchini in the film is actually a human boy whose mother happened to nickname after the vegetable. With the sunken eyes & oversized head of Anna and the Moods, Zucchini looks like what would happen if Tim Burton attempted to draw Milhouse Van Houten without the glasses. Newly orphaned after a freak accident, Zucchini arrives at a group home where other children await adoptions that are likely never to come. These kids have been through Hell: physical abuse, neglect by way of addiction or mental illness, being left stranded by an uncaring immigration system. My Life as a Zucchini will coldly let their naked pain sink in with a quiet patience too. The kids will complain, “There’s nobody left to love us,” or openly gawk at other kids who do have traditional families while the movie chooses to linger on the raw nerve of the moment, allowing its brutal honesty to sink in. Even when they’re joking around or staving off boredom in the group home’s playground, these haunting moments find their way to the surface, openly daring any eyes focused on the screen to remain dry. It’s not easy.
My Life as a Zucchini isn’t overly maudlin or emotionally manipulative. It’s just honest. One of my favorite aspects of the film is that (with very few exceptions) there are no real enemies driving its central conflicts. Life is just difficult. The foster system cares about these kids dearly, but they’re a little older than whom most families would be looking to adopt (Zucchini starts the film at age 9). There’s an older, would-be bully at the home who would serve as the antagonist in most versions of this story, but his transgressions don’t amount to much more than light ribbing (he calls Zucchini “Potato”) and he actually has more empathetic wisdom than most of the kids about how the system works & how they can best look after each other. Even when Zucchini looks back at living alone with his alcoholic, possibly violent mother, he reflects, “She drank a lot of beer, but she made good mashed potatoes and sometimes we had a lot of fun.” As dark as some of these kids’ backstories can be, My Life as a Zucchini often focuses on the “sometimes we had a lot of fun” end of that recollection and the movie balances out its real life gloom by celebrating the small victories and moments of levity that cut through its pint-sized characters’ emotional pain.
All things considered, this is a fairly traditional coming of age story, one that’s stop motion medium has a sort of twee sweetness to it that recalls things like the animated sequences of Taika Waititi’s debut Eagle vs. Shark. The orphans who populate the film indulge in small acts of vandalism, frequently erupt into juvenile sexual humor, cut loose at adorably safe-feeling late night dance parties, and navigate their first experiences with things like romantic crushes & hand holding. The movie itself can be adorable in the same way, whether depicting precious carnival ride miniatures & tiny crayon drawings or piles of empty beer cans complete with their own generic labels. For all of My Life as a Zucchini‘s instant appeal as an adorable object and a sweetly empathetic coming of age narrative, though, the movie often distinguishes itself in how it builds these charms on a foundation of real life emotional pain. When the inevitable sadness & boredom of life at this stop motion animated orphanage disrupts the playtime fantasy of the kids who populate it, the movie always chooses to slow down and let the ugly truth of that moment linger. It’s not always a pleasant experience, but it is a deeply rewarding one.