Back Row Thoughts – Blitz Catch-Up, Part 2

The official Blitz starts tomorrow with a breakdown of the Documentary Feature category. However, we still have a few more movies to watch to actually be able to complete coverage. A couple days ago I posted Part 1 of this nine film mini-marathon, and now it’s time for Part 2. Three more films to take a look at today, and just by happenstance, you could consider this the “Family Friendly” third of the equation, as all three movies are geared towards children. Let’s get to it.

Pinocchio

Directed by Matteo Garrone, this is the second adaptation of Pinocchio this century to feature past Oscar winner Roberto Benigni, though this version is a lot better than the universally-panned Razzie winner from 2002. Honestly, one of my biggest complaints is that in their quest to make the film as accessible to children as possible, they ended up overdubbing the dialogue in English rather than using subtitles. Federico Ielepi, who plays Pinocchio, dubbed his own voice, but everyone else used these weird sound-alike actors who used heavily exaggerated Italian accents. It was really off-putting.

The film is nominated in Costume Design and Makeup & Hairstyling, and the latter is certainly deserved. Using no CGI effects, Pinocchio’s makeup job is superb, with his face and hair looking genuinely wooden. It’s quite impressive. The costuming is okay, but outside of the title character’s bright red suit, it’s mostly just period appropriate garb.

The movie’s plot hews much closer to the page than the Disney adaptation from 1940 that we all know and love. Unfortunately, since we’re so used to that relatively light affair, it makes this two-hour film feel really plot heavy, incorporating many of the characters and adventures from Carlo Collodi’s original novel. It can even get frustrating at times, because Pinocchio gets sidetracked by basically anything shiny and ends up on his next tangent. Hardly any of it feels organic, as Pinocchio is alternately a disobedient little shit and other times just completely fucking stupid. The only consistency is that he has no impulse control. It’s annoying and can drag down what is otherwise a visually dazzling take on the classic tale.

Grade: B-

The One and Only Ivan

Available on Disney+ in lieu of a theatrical release (ostensibly because of COVID, but honestly after the box office poison that was the Robert Downey, Jr. Dolittle, it was probably a blessing in disguise), The One and Only Ivan is a light, charming bit of animal fun directed by Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) and written by Mike White, who is known for his appearances on CBS reality shows (The Amazing Race and Survivor) and penned the script for School of Rock among others, so he definitely knows how to appeal to young audiences.

Based on the real-life story of Ivan the Gorilla, who learned to paint in captivity, the movie stars Sam Rockwell as the titular ape opposite Bryan Cranston as his human trainer at a shopping mall-based circus attraction. The cast of animals includes Angelina Jolie (who also served as a producer), Chaka Khan, Helen Mirren, Danny DeVito, Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project, Ron Funches and Phillipa Soo.

The story is sweet, and a bit refreshing in that it is able to work in a bit of nuance amongst the treacle. As Mack, Cranston is loving and sympathetic, not abusive towards the animals at all. At the same time, the film shows through the dialogue and relationships between the animals that a mall is certainly not the appropriate environment for them. Advocating for animal rights without making a villain out of the main human is surprising indeed, and most welcome.

The film is up for Visual Effects, and I’ll admit they’re fairly strong. The animals look more realistic than they did in the horrible Lion King and Dumbo remakes at the very least, and they actually have facial movements that hint at a personality, something both of those previous films severely lacked. As simple kiddie fare, it works just fine, though I could do without Chaka Khan making a “chicken crossing the road” joke followed by a reference to “Ain’t Nobody” that no kids will get.

Grade: B

Mulan

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Disney’s remake of Mulan, all of which was predictable, and all of which would have prevented the film from even being made if Disney executives had an ounce of integrity, morality, or just simply a soul. From the lead actress (Yifei Liu) advocating for police brutality in Hong Kong, to filming miles away from a concentration camp, to bragging about an all-Asian cast while having an almost all-white production crew, to the litany of cultural flops so egregious that a young woman felt the need to create an entire YouTube channel just to rake it over the coals (you can watch the video here, and it’s brilliant), there was every reason not to make this movie, but Disney only cares about stealing money from gullible people, especially in China (which backfired here, as the scandals led to China banning all media coverage of the film), so all of that was ignored. But I’m not here to talk about all the crap on the margins, I’m here to talk about the substance of the film itself. And on those merits, this is probably the second best of the live action Disney remakes… by default.

Nominated for Costume Design and Visual Effects, both areas are kind of meh. They’re not bad, but they’re also nothing special, and some of them are just gratuitous. For example, there’s a scene of a new character, shapeshifting witch Xian Lang (played by Gong Li), transforming into her main identity after possessing a soldier, then taking two whole steps before transforming again into a bird and flying off. What the hell was the point of that? We’ve already seen that she can transform, so we didn’t need her to turn back into herself for one second to know it was her when she turned into the bird. That’s just the effects team trying to show off, and failing spectacularly.

I can give credit for the idea of making a more serious version of the “Mulan” story, but the execution is just horrid. No one shows any emotion whatsoever, and character motivations are sketchy at best. I appreciate not having Mushu for tonal reasons (though making a new version of him for Raya and the Last Dragon kind of muddies the message), and I’ll give points to any movie that doesn’t have Donny Osmond singing about how he’ll make a man out of me or Harvey Firestein singing about his dream girl, but those are minute improvements that are immediately nullified by copious amounts of bullshit, like having a Phoenix be the family symbol despite it being a Greek myth rather than a Chinese one. And yes, I’m aware of the Fenghuang, a mystical bird that is sometimes referred to as a “Chinese Phoenix” for the sake of simplicity, but the similarities between the two are superficial at best, and the Fenghuang doesn’t “rise from the ashes” as the Greek one does, and it’s that version that’s drilled into our skulls from the first few minutes. I’ll admit that some of the fight choreography is good, and a few of the wide shots of the environments are pretty freaking gorgeous, but that’s where the kudos end.

Where this film really falls short is in the characterization of Hua Mulan herself. I’ll concede that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the animated version either. It was alright, just not for me, and that’s okay. But even though I didn’t care for it all that much, I acknowledge what worked about it, and that was Mulan’s journey. You could buy into her story because she was unsure of her place in the world, but cared so deeply for her family that she took her father’s place, knowing she would almost certainly die, because she had no skills as a soldier. It was a deep, caring sacrifice she made, and because of that her progress is believable and we can root for her.

Here, that’s all gone. As we see in the film’s opening, she’s already a goddamn superhero at like, age four. We see her training in advanced baton techniques in a field, then she parkours up to the roof of her village chasing a chicken, and when she slips, she just jams a reed into a crevasse and floats down like a cheap ripoff of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. So why bother with anything after that? She’s invincible. There are no stakes in the movie from that point forward. And if there was going to be any chance of that, it was destroyed when the writers decided to take the concept of chi, life energy, and turn it into literal magic powers, which is some bullshit of the highest order. When you have a chick who can kick spears in midair from childhood, I’m not the least bit invested in watching her try to overcome made up obstacles, and it really pisses me off how logic is thrown out the window to use that to take out the villain at the end.

Yes, technically this is not the worst Disney remake. But that’s only because we have Aladdin, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, both Alice movies, both Maleficent movies, Lion King, and fucking Dumbo that are all abject failures. We’re still at the point where the Jungle Book remake is the only remotely passable one, but it’s not like that’ll change anything. Just like its live action heroines, Disney was born perfect, and therefore it doesn’t have to learn anything, not like it could.

Grade: D+

***

That’s it for this triad. Tomorrow the Blitz starts proper with Documentary Feature, and I’ll wrap up this little miniseries next weekend with the final three feature films of this year’s Oscar class. Keep it locked!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Did you enjoy them? Are you loyal, brave, and true, or any other synonyms for the FBI motto? Let me know!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s