The bond between a father and his daughter is one of the deepest wells when it comes to storytelling. It’s been at the forefront of some of the best movies and TV shows in history. Hell, in the case of The Simpsons, it’s been the one enduring facet of the program that has never truly wavered. Bart’s antics got a lot of people to tune in, but it was the dynamic between Homer and Lisa – two diametrically opposed personalities who love each other unconditionally in spite of it all – that kept us watching for more than three decades.
So it’s with that in mind that we go into this latest edition of “DownStream.” Unfortunately, in the case of the three movies I’m going to go over today, the core thematic relationship that ties all three together (I could have even included Hustle in this, but then it would have been two in the previous column and four in this one) is arguably the weakest part of all three entries. At minimum, there are some truly unsatisfying bits that link back to this most lovely of rapports. Even sadder, only one of these movies really has anything to offer a general audience. Keep that in mind as I try to power through this.
The Sea Beast – Netflix
A co-production of Sony and Netflix, The Sea Beast has gotten wide praise from critics and audiences, who consider it a touching story of adventure, understanding, and originality. I agree with two thirds of that statement. This is not an original story. This is Moby-Dick meets How to Train Your Dragon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s just be honest with ourselves here.
The film takes place in a world where sailors hunt gigantic sea monsters, using their horns as bounty. It’s in this respect that we meet Jacob Holland (voiced by Karl Urban), who was rescued as a child by Captain James Crow (Jared Harris) when sea monsters scuttled his parents’ ship. Jacob, being the sole survivor, was taken in by Crow and the crew of The Inevitable, where he’s risen to the rank of First Mate. As Crow has no sons of his own, he has decided that Jacob will inherit the ship once Crow has taken down his “White Whale,” a leviathan called the Red Bluster, which is the highest bounty in the land, and has taken down dozens of ships over the years (including the one Jacob was on as a kid). It is written about in legends and storybooks as the ultimate prize for the Hunters.
Meanwhile, a young orphan named Maisie (voiced by Zaris-Angel Hator, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Quvenzhané Wallis based on the character design and vocal tones) has modeled her life on the ambition of joining the Hunters, like her late parents, who “died heroes” during a particularly disastrous hunt. Precocious as all get out, the child tries to convince Jacob to let her join the crew, as she’s the same age he was when he starting hunting. He of course refuses, and she of course stows away anyway.
What follows begins as an interesting tale of adventure with some amazing animation, particularly in the water effects and the designs of the sea creatures. There’s even a sneakily poignant moral about obsolescence and the manipulations of the ruling class, as the kingdom’s royalty wants to retire Captain Crow in favor of a nobleman admiral with a fancier but far less practical vessel.
All that intrigue is abandoned after a battle with the Red Bluster that sees Jacob and Maisie swallowed, Monstro-style, though of course this being a kids movie they’re just being transported inside the creature’s mouth. Crow goes full Ahab in trying to hunt the Bluster down for revenge, while the Bluster shows Jacob and Maisie its home island, where they discover that the sea creatures are actually quite docile until provoked. Naturally, because we are literally not allowed to have a young girl in a children’s movie not be pre-packaged perfection, Maisie develops an instant connection with the Bluster, who she simply deems “Red,” and figures out how to communicate with it. She also adopts an adorable little merchandising opportunity in the form of a gelatinous infant creature (that looks like a cross between a tadpole, a lanternfish, and a Pikmin) that she dubs “Blue.” Guess what color he is. Oh yeah, Maisie, and also intuits gender on all the monsters as well, because why not, assertively declaring that Red is female and Blue is male.
This wouldn’t be so bad if we hadn’t already seen it 100 times over the last decade. The idea of two orphans from different backgrounds coming to an understanding is a great idea, but instead of that, we just get a parade of scenes where Maisie automatically outsmarts Jacob and his old fuddy-duddy ways based on absolutely nothing. The film forces the pair into a surrogate father-daughter relationship, but outright refuses to let Jacob impart any wisdom to his newfound ward. Any chance at mutual growth is stamped out at every turn, as Maisie meets Jacobs attempts to keep her alive with the 18th century naval equivalent of “Okay, Boomer.”
Because of this, Maisie herself is not really allowed to learn anything, which renders the main story as little more than a series of plot beats waiting to happen. Sure, she figures out the secret behind the society of Hunters through sheer contrivance (the books with all the answers literally fall open in front of her), but that’s in no way satisfying. The movie needs her to be right, so they make her right in all things, even when it beggars any sort of belief. By extension, the young audience isn’t allowed to learn anything valuable, except the oh-so-crucial lesson that they’re already perfect just the way they are, and have no reason to gain any different perspective.
All that aside, this is still a fun movie, with some decent humor, and as I said, absolutely gorgeous animation. I wish there had been more focus on the adventure without the entry-level moralizing, and I wish Maisie got to be an actual character who develops. But I understand the formula, and despite my best efforts to convince people otherwise, it continues to succeed. You take the bad with the good, and modern girl power tropes aside, the movie is quite good.
The Princess – Hulu
This was my selection for the “Redemption Reel” honors in this July’s edition of “This Film is Not Yet Watchable.” I love Joey King (I just wish she got better material outside of The Act), the idea of a medieval girl in a dress going medieval on some castle goons was intriguing, not to mention potentially hilarious in a sort of Your Highness-style spoof, and from the shots I saw in the trailer, it looked like we might get some top level cinematography and editing for the action scenes.
We got… none of those things. And this is why TFINYW is never an exact science. When I lampoon or praise a trailer, I’m assessing the sales pitch given to us from the studios. It’s also why I laugh my ass off when I do the video breakdown for “The Worst Trailer in the World… This Month” on YouTube, because on two separate occasions I’ve gotten comments from people telling me that I’m giving a misinformed “review” of the movie, thereby completely missing the point. Tons of blogs and channels analyze the finished product (as do I right here), but the whole purpose of the video series and TFINYW is to dive into the trailer as a piece of advertising. The studio wants our money (or in streaming cases, our eyeballs and playthrough time for their algorithm), so this is how they’re selling the movie. All I’m doing is giving my opinion – laced with what I hope are half-decent jokes – about how I react to that salesmanship. There have been movies I thought would be shit based on the trailer that turned out to be really good (Maverick being the most recent high point), and sometimes, like in the case of Army of the Dead, the trailer can look totally kickass, but that turns out to be a lie, hyping up a version of the movie that doesn’t exist. It goes both ways.
The Princess is definitely one of the latter examples. I didn’t think it was going to be some kind of masterpiece by any means, but the trailer showed me something that I thought would be at least mildly entertaining and potentially hilarious through a subversion of old themes and some innovative fight choreography. It wasn’t even that. If anything, the humor comes from how chintzy the whole production is, to the point that this utter failure of a movie occasionally reaches “so bad it’s good” territory like The Room.
Joey King stars in the title role, and literally the title IS her role. She doesn’t have a name. She wakes up one morning in her bedroom at the top of a castle tower, as two henchmen come to check in on her. She’s been chained to her bed after refusing to marry a man named Julius (Dominic Cooper), the son of a diplomat. The King and Queen (Ed Stoppard and Alex Reid, respectively) had no male heirs, so they intended to marry their daughter to Julius as a way to unite two kingdoms. But in true Disney fashion (which may explain why it’s on Hulu; why couldn’t we have subverted this tired routine?), the Princess declared that she is not property to be sold (I can still hear Jasmine screaming, “I am NOT a prize to be won!”), and Julius uses the perceived slight as an excuse to usurp the peaceful kingdom, taking the royal family hostage (including younger sister Violet, played by Katelyn Rose Downey; her role becomes super creepy by proxy later on) in an attempt to force the union before killing the King. He accomplishes this with the aid of his lover, Moira (Olga Kurylenko, aka Taskmaster from Black Widow, since we’re all going for top quality here), who is literally a leather-clad whipmaster. Is this an action movie or a porn set?
Anyway, as the Princess dispatches the first pair of thugs, one of them scoffs, “Good luck getting to the bottom” just before he’s kicked out of the tower window to his death. At that moment, you can feel the movie itself declaring, “Challenge Accepted!” as it spirals down to the depths of cheese.
The movie essentially plays as a video game, with Joey King using combat skills no human could ever have in her quest to descend the tower and free her family, even her ignorant father who wouldn’t deign to let her become a knight or assume the throne because she’s a woman. There is basically no plot to speak of, and hardly any real dialogue. It’s just one action set piece after another, with waves upon waves of new and stronger enemies to defeat, broken up occasionally by a cutscene where we flash back to the Princess training to be a badass in secret with the help of the totally not racist martial arts duo of Linh (Veronica Ngo) and her sagely uncle Khai (Kristofer Kamiyasu). And just for good measure, there’s a fat soldier in Julius’ employ (Todor Kirilov, literally credited as “Heavy Merc”) who exists solely to be told to scale all the stairs in the castle to check in on the Princess, so we can laugh at a guy not being in shape. Fuck you.
Every scene tries to outdo the previous one in terms of sheer cringe. The fight choreography, which looked good in the trailer, is utterly absurd, as hulking stuntmen essentially stand in place waiting for Joey King to kill them via Quick Time Event. And even then, the editing is so choppy, with dozens of cuts for something as simple as punches and kicks, that I’m pretty sure the MCU editors are jizzing themselves. There’s basically no continuity from scene to scene, as the Princess often gets wet or tears her dress, only for the next sequence to show her bone dry with no noticeable rips in the fabric. Literally every good guy who fights gets stabbed at one point, and yet they all turn out fine, robbing each scene of anything remotely resembling stakes. The swords are so obviously made of plastic that you can see the lines and seams during closeup shots. There’s even a scene where Joey King sets an armored foe on fire with the most silly, cartoon-esque flames I’ve ever seen. It’s like they forgot to render the effect it’s so bad. I’d almost be impressed if it wasn’t so lazy.
The only way this film can be enjoyed is ironically, and if you do, there are some moments of pure comedy from just how awful this is. Sometimes that almost feels refreshing, but it doesn’t stop this from being abject shit.
Don’t Make Me Go – Amazon
“You won’t like how this story ends, but you might like the story,” narrates Mia Isaac as Wally, one half of the main pair from Don’t Make Me Go, which debuted on Amazon last week after its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. My friends at “No Rest for the Weekend” got to cover the red carpet for the festival this year, and I was hoping to personally watch and rate this film during the event, but unfortunately work got in the way. Still, I was super excited for this to come out, as it stars one of my favorite actors – John Cho – and the script was included in the 2012 Black List, an annual collection of what are considered the best unproduced screenplays floating around the Hollywood system.
After seeing the film, I can safely say that Wally was half right. I did hate the ending, but I also hated the rest of the story. What starts as a potentially tragic bit of melodrama centered around the desire for a parent to do right by their child quickly becomes little more than a cliché road trip movie featuring one of the most unlikeable characters of the year, capped off by an ending so terrible that I’m severely tempted to just spoil it in order to spare you the two wasted hours of your life.
I won’t do that because John Cho is enough of a saving grace to warrant a look if you’re so inclined. He plays Max, a single father to the teenage Wally. He’s been raising her alone since she was an infant, when his ex-wife Nicole (Jen Van Epps) left him for his friend Dale from college (played by Jemaine Clement, I’m guessing because the movie was largely filmed in New Zealand, because nothing else would possibly explain him going to college in Louisiana). He has difficulty relating to Wally, who is going through her rebellious phase, including dating a fuckboy (Otis Dhanji), and Max himself has emotional issues, trying to decide if he wants a legitimate relationship with his regular booty call, Annie (Kaya Scodelario).
Things change, however, when Max gets devastating news. Going to the doctor after a series of headaches, he learns that he has a malignant bone tumor at the base of his skull. Surgery is an option, but it has an 80% mortality rate. If he does nothing, he’ll likely die within a year. As such, being a pragmatist, Max decides to let himself go, opting to spend as much quality time with Wally as he can in the time he has left. When his upcoming college reunion offers the opportunity to reunite Wally with the mother she never knew, he decides to take her along with him from California to Louisiana (and eventually Florida), because Wally will need someone to look after her when he’s gone, as Max has no other living family. Along the way, he plans to impart as much fatherly life advice as possible.
Now, this might be all well and good except for one glaring problem. Wally, it has to be said, is just the worst kind of brat. Every teenager goes through a spell where they disobey their parents and do what they want, regardless of consequences. That’s fine. But Wally here takes it to levels that no actual person would, and if they did, any reasonable parent would HAVE to lay down the law. Case in point: when the duo gets to Texas, Wally is having doubts about her quasi-boyfriend back home. Meanwhile, the desk clerk at the motel, Rusty (Mitchell Hope), is super cute. So what does Wally do? After Max goes to sleep, she sees Rusty and his friends hanging out in the parking lot, and decides to join them for a night of underage drinking in the middle of nowhere capped off with an attempt to make out with Rusty (who himself has a serious girlfriend) on top of a water tower, eventually falling asleep there until the next morning, when Max has to track her down with the aid of law enforcement and emergency services.
I’m sorry, at that point, I’ve completely written you off. There’s teenage rebellion, and there’s outright criminality. This is the latter, and Wally treats it like it’s somehow Max’s fault for dragging her on the trip in the first place. What person, what actual person anywhere in this world, goes on a cross-country trip only to abandon their parents for a stranger due to a momentary lady boner? No. Just no! It doesn’t happen. It wouldn’t happen. And if it did happen, Max would be well within his rights to lay the figurative smackdown on her until she’s 30. And it’s just used for a cheap moment of forced conflict that goes nowhere. Literally everything about that entire sequence I utterly despise.
I get that teens don’t see eye to eye with their parents, but there’s a limit. At every turn Wally reveals herself to be conceited, ungrateful, ignorant, and entitled. And before anyone jumps down my throat, this has nothing to do with age, gender, or any other demographics. If I pulled even 1/10 of the crap Wally does to Max with my own mother, I wouldn’t even be here writing this, because she’d have had me arrested where I stood. And she’d have been right to do so. Here, Wally only ever gets a semi-stern lecture, and even then it’s portrayed like she’s the one being wronged. FAIL!
When Max takes her to a casino to demonstrate how far against you the odds are in certain situations – a crucial life lesson – Wally takes it to mean that we should all just gamble everything away. On their last bet, they end up hitting the number on the roulette wheel, and Wally wants to let it ride, at least the profits, because it’s “fun” to take risks. In her mind, life isn’t worth living without risk, and there’s a microscopic kernel of wisdom in that, because every aspect of life involves some degree of chance. But rather than learn to take that in stride and make calculated decisions based on the known factors within your control, she would rather throw all caution to the wind, because she has no concept of consequences. In a later scene, she literally tries to guilt trip Max for giving up on his dreams of being a professional musician in order to give her a stable home. He tells her the objective truth that at least 90% of people who try to make it as entertainers don’t succeed, but all she wants to focus on is the infinitesimal possibility that they’d be millionaires living in a mansion, and spin that as a failure of character on his part. It got to the point that I honestly hoped Max would opt for surgery just so he’d die on the table and leave this clueless waste of space to fend for herself for once. I don’t even necessarily blame Mia Isaac for this, because she gives a fair enough performance for the material. It’s just utterly, horribly shitty material, and as an actress she suffers by extension from it.
Thankfully, Cho does elevate the proceedings from the basement through sheer force of will. There are genuinely affecting moments here and there where he’s trying to get Wally to understand his intentions before he actually has to tell her he’s dying. There are scenes where Max’s love, regret, and unfathomable sadness are conveyed simply through a knowing glance from Cho’s eyes and a delicately forced smile. It wasn’t until films like Searching came along that he really got to show the world how great of an actor he is, and it’s those all too brief human moments that let him shine.
That said, there’s really no saving this movie, especially when we get to the third act, and a twist ending so horribly tone deaf that it all but destroys any goodwill Cho or Isaac could have lent it. With one solitary plot decision, literally every previous moment is rendered meaningless, and even worse, it’s in service of this completely insipid thematic arc of living life to the fullest by taking risks without paying any mind to the consequences. It’s contrived, it’s completely out of left field, and it’s insulting to our intelligence to spend 90 minutes trying to get us invested in these characters only to pull the rug out from under us. Seriously, how on Earth did this make the Black List?
Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen any of these films? What sort of relationship do you have with your children and/or parents? Would Maisie be able to name any monsters if she was colorblind? Let me know!