As a change of pace, this week I’d like to offer three shorter reviews of 2016 films I’ve seen but haven’t had the opportunity to talk about yet. It’s sheer coincidence that I haven’t a great deal of enthusiasm for any of them, I assure you.
Kasper Barfoed’s dramatisation of the Denmark’s men’s national football team’s unlikely victory at the 1992 European Championships was a 2015 release in the land of the Vikings, but was only recently made available to stream, via Netflix on the western side of Europe.
As long time readers will know, I’m a sucker for sports movies, provided they stick to the golden rule of the genre: they can’t actually be about the sport. Sommeren ’92 tiptoes on the line in that regard, focusing primarily on coach Richard Moller Neilson, who finds himself leading the national team he has struggled to form into anything cohesive towards a championships they had previously failed to qualify for, only allowed in thanks to the disintegration of Yugoslavia that occured just before the finals began.
But while there is something slightly endearing about Neilson, and how he attempts to turn his home-spun uninspiring attitude into something his players will actually follow, there isn’t much else about Sommeren ’92 to catch the eye. It’s marketed as a comedy, but is never especially funny, which might be a problem with the bog standard translation efforts, which are likely not injecting the Danish language with the right kind of comedic timing. The attempts at humour are undercut severely by occasional jaunts into truly maudlin territory, mostly involving the terminally ill daughter of one of Denmark’s stars.
Neilson, played by Ulrich Thomason, is such a low-volume monotone figure that it’s hard to really make anything of him, and without the right kind of cultural appreciation, it’s nigh impossible to become connected. I can well imagine a Danish blogger saying the same thing about a film focusing on Jack Charlton in 1990: Sommeren ’92 is the kind of film that seems tailor made to appeal to little more than a Danish audience, with the translation requirement and rote nature of the story severely preventing it from attracting viewers from beyond Copenhagen.
I mean, for one thing, the Danish victory at Euro 92, while unlikely, is not quite the miracle it’s made out to be. The Danes were a decent team at the time, with starts like Peter Schmeichel in goal (just sort of there in this film) and Brian Laudrup (given a weirdly underwhelming angle) upfront. The competition only had eight teams back in those days, and only five games to victory. While the Danes struggled at times in that period, they weren’t exactly Leicester City in terms of sporting upsets: a film about Greece in 2004 might be better if you’re going for the true underdog angle.
Shot in a pedestrian manner and severely by the numbers in terms of the usual beats the sports movie goes through, there is really little in Sommeren ’92 to recommend. The devout football fan will be well aware of the Danish story, and will need something with a bit more verve and excitement to captivate their attention. For everyone else, there are far better football movies out there.
Pixar appears, on the basis of last years double success with Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, to have righted a ship that was in serious danger of floundering in the aftermath of the Disney takeover. Que some hand wringing from myself when I discovered that the next project was a sequel, one that screamed “unnecessary” at the top of its lungs (or gills).
It isn’t that there isn’t something to be found in Dory’s search for the parents she lost years ago, or in Marlin and Nemo’s efforts to help her do this. It isn’t that there isn’t something to enjoy with the trip to the American West Coast. It isn’t that there isn’t something to enjoy in having another 90 minutes with a group of characters that so wonderfully captured our hearts back all the way back in 2003. It’s that, as is sadly the case with Pixar’s new sequels – all made under the Disney banner – there is an overwhelming and suffocating sense of sameness to everything,that only occasionally manages to be lifted by the merits of the material.
I think the primary problems, at least for the older viewer, is that Dory’s short-term memory loss, used rather excellently as an recurring joke in Finding Nemo, is now up front and center as the primary avenue of entertainment, and that gets remarkably boring by the time you get to the third act. It’s difficult enough to mine such a debilitating mental condition for jokes, and so much harder when that character is the main focus: Dory jumps back and forth between maudlin and jokey so fast that it can be hard to stay with whatever mood Andrew Stanton and Angus McLane are trying to instill.
Dory is perhaps better enjoyed by focusing your attention on the numerous side characters who pop up, who have a much easier time making you laugh, be they returnees like the laid back turtle convoy, or new arrivals like Ed O’ Neill’s octopus trying to pull a great escape or Idris Elba’s wonderful sea lion, forever defending his little rock from the attentions of dopey rivals. The humor comes rapid fire, be it scripted, visual or just basic yucks: Ty Burrell imitating the sonar noise of a beluga whale is one of the funniest things that Pixar has come up with in a while.
But the film can’t get away from that central problem. Ellen Degeneres is giving it socks, and the combination of Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy are doing decent work as her long-lost parents, but the drama at the heard of Dory is just so much string-tugging that lacks a crucial depth or genuineness to it, that Nemo certainly did have. The film is always a little bit better when Dory, Marlin and Nemo are sharing the screen together: it’s the quieter moments between those three that reach far higher than any of the chicanery that occurs otherwise.
Visually of course, the film is an impressive achivement, if just a little bit drabber than 2003. But that actually sort of fits: the film is largely an exploration of Dory’s murky past, and the dank surrounding of the quasi-Sea World, in stark contrast to the artificially bright and clean interior, really does stand out. Hank the Octopus is remarkably well created, the production team taking every opportunity to utilize him to the full for acrobatic stunt work or just visual laughs, including a rather extreme sequence at the finale. And Pixar continues to excel musically, with Thomas Newman bringing back many of the common heart-warming themes of Nemo while adding some new stuff to delight to ears.
Dory isn’t a shameless cash grab masquerading as a movie. Pixar and Disney appears to have learned that lesson with Cars 2. An effort is made here at least, even if the effort is a faltering one. I can appreciate both that, if not Pixar’s upcoming raft of franchise continuations that are on the cards: efforts like the upcoming Coco seem far more likely to became part of Pixar’s iconic roster of animated giants than Cars 3 or even The Incredibles 2.
The Little Prince
Being woefully ignorant of both Antoine de Saint-Exupéry novel and its surprisingly varied animated adaptations (musicals, anime, even a multi season French TV show), I was able to come at Netflix’s latest original movie with something resembling fresh and unbiased eyes, and what I found really wasn’t as enrapturing or as impressive as the rather well put together trailer made it out to be.
The Little Prince takes what is not an uncommon approach to filmed adaptations of literature, that of the framing story (one can’t help but think Peter Falk and Fred Savage in The Princess Bride), with Rachel McAdams and Mackenzie Foy as a mother and daughter pair, the mother a workaholic who has her daughters’ entire education and life mapped out to the minute – literally – and the daughter acquiescing, before the chance for something deeper and more meaningful comes along in the form of a cootish next door neighbor, who regales the daughter with his tales of a strange boy he met one day after crash-landing his plane in the desert. The core of the novel compromises only these portions of The Little Prince, little more than brief flashbacks, while the framing story gradually becomes simply the story, with a third act entirely of the production teams invention.
That isn’t an inherently bad thing, but the problem with The Little Prince, in both the “modern day” tale of the little girl and in the flashbacks surrounding the titular character, are so weighted down with allegory and symbolism, that it approaches ridiculousness rather than wonderment, and I believe that the Prince’s adventures with a host of stereotypical characters representing the perils of the modern age is actually a scaled back version of what was in the book. Sure, the appearances from well-regarded actors like Paul Giamatti (rather great as a stern headmaster early on) and comedians I actually dislike personally like Ricky Gervais (playing the same character he seems to always play, the sad sack buffoon) keep you on your toes, and the VA generally is of a very high standard (Paul Rudd a surprisingly great stand-out late-on). But everything here is so dense and packed with double and triple meanings that it can be hard to get engaged: you spend so long trying to figure out what it all represents, rather than enjoying proceedings. The overall message seems to be a rather stinging critique of modern-day capitalism and quest for “essentialness” in the workplace, that I’m sure will appeal to the Bernie Sanders in all of us, without ever being really clever enough to land as well as it ought.
Which is a shame, because there is a lot to enjoy here, not least the visuals and the music. Director Mark Osbournewith cinematographers Adel Abada and Kris Kapp, have clearly been envisioning what to do with this book for a long time, and the result is a really beautiful looking piece, that jumps from modern day CGI for the framing story, and old-school stop-motion for the flashbacks, that imbue their respective sections with just the right kind of ambiance. Osbourne’s vision of The Little Prince is awash with colors and neat moments: the old man’s clapped together aeroplane, the life plan board the mother so carefully configures down to the minute, the planets and moons that the Prince visits, and the often grotesque caricatures that he meets with on them. Accompanying all of that is the score of Hanz Zimmer and the music of Camille. Zimmer is the kind of composer who has long since carved out a legacy for himself, while occasionally not trying too hard with some of his more recent efforts, but he’s on top form here, with a European-esque jaunt in nearly every tune, and some stirring notes when the moment calls for them. But it wouldn’t be much without the vocal talents of Camille, who is pitch perfect for the kind of story Osbourne is trying to tell, in some imaginative and catchy jingles throughout the picture.
The visual direction and the music are probably worth it alone, and make up for whatever deficiencies that the actual story has. I’m not sure if the purists will appreciate Osbourne’s The Little Prince much, as it appears to cut, change and add plenty, in a manner that would make even the most strident defender of The Hobbit trilogy blush, but there is something in here for everyone, whether you want to appreciate the allegory, the animation or the aural side of things. Beyond anything else, The Little Prince is a unique and interesting project, in an era and in a genre that has gotten too used to the mundane and uninspiring, and I can only hope that Netflix continues to back such projects.
(All images are copyright of Film i Väst, Meta Film, PeaPie Films , Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures and Netflix).