Movie Review: The Personal History Of David Copperfield

Of all the things that I miss about life in the before times, I was missing my weekly trips to the multiplex the most. I miss brunch, and bars and going out dancing, and hugging my friends.

But I missed the movies so much, that I actually danced for joy when Governor Phil Murphy announced that the state of NJ was going to allow 40% capacity in movie theaters starting on September 4th.

I was at the shore when I found out and sitting out on a patio drinking Chardonnay with some family friends, one of them asked me what the first movie I would go see was.

I exhaled. I’d given it some thought. I miss superheros so I was psyched for New Mutants, and it’s always exciting to see what’s going on in Christopher Nolan’s weird brain, so Tenet was also in the mix. But honestly? Bookending my COVID based cinema gap with interesting and exciting adaptations of classic novels seemed correct.

So I went to go see David Copperfield, which, if you read everything I’ve ever written you might remember is a novel I did not care for, despite usually liking Charles Dickens quite a bit. (Part of that is finding David himself insufferably virtuous.) I did however really enjoy this movie. My issue with the narrator was solved by him being played by the impossible not to love Dev Patel. And my issues with the narrative, that it leans into the worst of Dickens’s quirks with coincidence and black and white elements of virtue, vice, reward and punishment, are solved by the sharp and cynical eyes of it’s co writer and director Armondo Ianucci.

There was no way that the man behind Veep was going to fall into the sinking pit of melancoly and sentimentality that is so easy to fall into with David Copperfield. And indeed he did not.

I am here for this new trend where we adapt classic novels and actually lean into their comedy. I was cackling at the performances in this movie, Darren Boyd and Gwedolyn Christie play the wicked Murdstone siblings that sweeping ghosts. The flight but loving Micawbers are magically and affectionally played by Peter Capaldi & Bronagh Gallagher (A Doctor and a Commitment? DELIGHTFUL) but the true triump are Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton as David’s loving a loving but eccentric relations. (Ben Winshaw is also great as sleazy and villainous Uriah Heap)

What’s most fascinating about the film, to me though, is how it feels like play. Most of the characters have only one costume, the performances and broad and straight faced, and with the exception of Jairaj Varsani as young David, no one is aged, despite the story taking place over a lifetime.

Overall, I was extremely impressed and I think I made the right choice for my triumphant return to seeing movies out in the world.

Magical Movies Tour: Winnie The Pooh

Literally the only thing I remembered about this Winnie The Pooh movie was that it was released the same weekend as Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part II, and the marketing campaign was therefore highly engaged in the concept of holding on to childhood as counterprogramming to Deathly Hallows, “And now childhood ends,” approach, and I thought that was absolutely genius at the time. Still do, in fact.

That said, I think the reason that I didn’t particularly remember this one is that it isn’t particularly memorable.

It’s a nice little Hundred Acre Wood story, where Christopher Robin arranges a contest to get Eeyore a new tail, the prize being a pot of honey. Pooh Bear needs that honey, obviously, though he doesn’t win initially, he does in the end. There’s also a digression where the animals fuss over Christopher Robin being kidnapped when he was just off at school for the day, which is terribly sweet.

But it’s also just, there’s so much of this movie that is absolutely trapped in 2011. (The songs are sung by She & Him, for example!) That it loses the timeless quality that makes Winnie The Pooh and his group of friends really special. I do like the animation, which is strong and pretty, but strays too much from the classic feel, without reinventing enough.

I was just underwhelmed by the movie in general, I guess? It wasn’t charming enough and didn’t get the emotional moments right at all, even if all the delightful child logic of this world was on full display.

Next time, we go turbo with Wreck-It Ralph. 

Magical Movies Tour: Tangled

I fell in love with Tangled before I saw it.

I was watching the Oscars and Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi were performing, “I See The Light,” and I gasped. The song was wonderful, and so touchingly and lightly performed by these two actors.

Then I watched the movie, and I fell head over heels for it. I loved Rapunzel’s characterization, I loved Donna Murphy’s brilliant voice performance as Mother Gothel, and my god, Levi has never been better than he was as Flynn Ryder.

This was also the return of Alan Menken to the Disney fold, working this time with , and it’s some fine work, some of my favorite that’s not with Howard Ashman. I mentioned, “I See The Light,” but “When Will My Life Begin” is such a wonderful bit of ingenue introduction, and I mentioned Donna Murphy, yeah? “Mother Knows Best” is perfection in a villain song. It’s so full of gaslighting and abuse, and the melody is bouncy and menacing and I love it so much.

The other thing that Tangled has going for it, is that it is funny. It’s really, and honestly a great road trip comedy with fairy tale trappings, aided by Moore and Levi and of course the animators making Rapunzel and Flynn so very loveable and fun to follow.

I also love Rapunzel’s chameleon buddy Pascal, and Maximus a palace horse who acts like a bloodhound for some reason. I’ve never been sure why, but it’s a delightful gag.

Next time we’re back to that Silly Old Bear, and check out Winnie The Pooh. 

Magical Movies Tour: The Princess And The Frog

Isn’t it nice when the stars align and an important movie is also a good one?

The Princess And The Frog earns the first distinction, “important,” by being the last hand drawn animated feature from Walt Disney Animation and for it’s black, working class leading lady. Tiana is a waitress for New Orleans, who after being raised by a bus driver and seamstress, has worked her whole life to open her own restaurant.

She crosses paths with Prince Naveen who is transformed by the wicked Dr. Faccillier into a frog and then because they didn’t follow the rules explicitly (Tiana is not a princess) she turns into a frog rather than him turning back into a man.

It’s, more than a little convoluted when you write it out, but presented visually, Tiana and Naveen’s journey through 1920’s Louisiana is a delightful rom-com, opposites attract romp, punctuated by super fun character designs, and some catchy tunes by Randy Newman.

I really love this movie, and every time I watch it I’m only more enamored. There’s some stuff that I think could have used another pass. (There’s no real connection between Tiana and Dr. Facillier, for example, this feels like an odd error.) And as I get older and more interested in social justice narratives in popular culture, I am in awe of the decisions made with this film. Tiana is in complete control of her destiny from minute one, but this doesn’t prevent conflict or growth. There’s a variety of black faces and bodies on display, the music, that slow New Orleans style jazz is so much fun.

I’m generally on board with The Princess And The Frog getting more attention whenever possible, and am thus super excited for the upcoming retheme of Splash Mountain to a Princess And The Frog ride. I think it’s a brilliant decision that also means we’re going to get Louis Audio Animatronic, which I think fits into Imagineering’s sweet spot perfectly. Also, replacing an attraction based around something super racist, with something based around a strong and exciting Black female protagonist sends the right message.

Next time we continue down the path of magical princesses ,and see the light with Tangled. 

 

Magical Movies Tour: Bolt

Full disclosure, I watched Bolt with a pretty open heart, since it comes from a storytelling tradition I like out of Disney, and the lead is voiced by John Travolta and I watched it the day after Kelly Preston died, so I was disposed to treat him kindly.

That said, Bolt is a sweet little flick in the tradition of Lady And The Tramp, 101 Dalmations and Oliver And Company. It isn’t as good as those, by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t disgrace the tropes either.

Bolt is an adorable doggie actor, the star of his own TV show and he’s spent his whole life being trained to believe he’s the character he plays on TV is who he really is, and his co-star, a child actor named Olivia, is actually Penny, his owner on the show. (She’s also voiced by Miley Cyrus, and they sing a duet together, and I just thought, “MAN, it’s nice that those two charismatic dummies with excellent singing voices got to sing a song together.” I have opinions.)

They’re separated due to shenanigans and Bolt races across the country to get back to his human, while Olivia worries about him and the grown ups around her pressure her to accept his replacement.

On his cross country journey, Bolt makes a reluctant ally in Mittens, an abandoned cat and Rhino, a stuck in his ball hamster who ADORES the show. There are running gags about pigeons as regional locals, which hit the nail in the perfect way.

The jump animation-wise between Meet The Robinsons and this is exceptional, the hair on the animals is well animated, and the character expressions more nuanced. It’s impressive. The movie isn’t as good, but it’s worth a watch if you want something cute. I wish it were a bit more of tear jerker, frankly.

It is an interesting thing that happens sometimes in Disney Movies, where they criticize a major portion of their bussiness model. It is made clear that being a child star sucks, Olivia is miserable. As Miley herself has talked about a lot as she’s become an adult, she hated being Hannah Montana, really hated it.

Next time the new era of greatness truly begins, it’s time head down to New Orleans with The Princess And The Frog

Magical Movies Tour: Meet The Robinsons

I was so excited to watch Meet The Robinsons again. A movie I saw in movie theaters several times. (I went to the movies a lot in college, and this played for a while.)

There’s just so much that I love wrapped up in this movie. Retro-futurism. Time Travel. Eccentric Wealthy Family Shenanigans. A dinosaur. Conflict Solved Through Compassion. Utter Silliness. Lounge Singing Frogs.

I just love it so much. The animation is still a little wonky, but it’s leaps and bounds better than Chicken Little, and the environments are clever and the characters are distinct and well performed, and there’s no atrocious Spice Girls Covers.

Plus the Bowler Hat Man/Goob is one of the most brilliant comedic villains ever.

I could also quote this movie all day long.

“Everyone will tell you to let it go! DON’T LET IT GO!”

“I have a big head, and little arms. I don’t think this plan was very well thought out, Master.”

“You think I’m crazy, too!”

“Hey Goob, cool binder!” “Want to come over to my house today Goob?” “They all hated me.”

There’s also just a ton of delightful comedic anarchy in this movie and heaping ton of heart. I spend a lot of time thinking about this movie, and how much fun it is and how underrated. Silly doesn’t get enough credit in this world, and it’s a damn shame, because silliness is sublime when applied correctly. (Later this week, we shall dive deeper into this, when I finally get around to writing about my new favorite show, Star Trek: Lower Decks)

And Meet The Robinsons applies that silliness almost perfectly. It also has a classic, almost out of nowhere Disney Scary Scene, where Doris, the evil Bowler hat. (seriously this movie is the best) creates a bowler hat centric apocalypse where humans are slaves to her whims.

Orphaned Lewis and his future son Wilbur Robinson are also delightful kid protagonists, all full of energy and brightness, not whiny or too cool for school, and behave like young teens. (This has become a new hill to die on for me, kids that are written age appropriate. They are often written to old or too young.)

There’s also just the whole retro-future design of the thing, which I don’t know enough about, but I just absolutely love to look at. And there’s the fact that the whole ethos of the movie, “Keep Moving Forward” is an actual Walt Disney quote and the general idea behind Imagineering.

Next time we re-enter a secret animal world with Bolt, which is another new one for me.

Magical Movie Tour: Chicken Little

I went into Chicken Little with the confidence that it would at least be better than Home On The Range.

It is not.

Like Home On The Range this is Disney animation attempting something that they are not particularly adept at. (This time, a Dreamworks style “all ages” cartoon, with modern reference humor and pop soundtrack) Unlike Home On The Range, it is also really ugly to look at and has a convoluted alien invasion plot that’s almost impossible to follow.

hated this movie. If I had watched it previous to this project, I probably would have just skipped it.

It is terrible. It’s not funny, the voice performances are lazy, the music choices are cliche and grating. Even the original song, “One Little Slip” by The Barenaked Ladies, a band I often defend (I have a soft spot for 90’s pop rock) is an atrociously lazy effort that I thought before the singing started was their seminal masterpiece, “It’s All Been Done.”

But the crummy animation, there’s just no excuse. None. It’s the first fully computer animated flick from the studio, and it is clunky and ugly and the idea that this movie came out in 2005, when Pixar had been doing their thing for nearly a decade at this point, there’s no excuse for the awfulness. I can usually get past bad animation if there’s something else to hold onto in the story, but there’s nothing, just nothing redeeming in Chicken Little.

Well, that’s not true, the credits have a fun cover of “Shake Your Tail Feather” by The Cheetah Girls, but that’s one of those perfect songs and it would be exceptionally difficult for a group of talented vocalists like those ladies to screw that up.

Next time, I revisit the truly delightful, Meet The Robinsons. 

Magical Movies Tour: Home On The Range

If The Emperor’s New Groove is what happens when Disney attempts a Looney Toons style sense of humor and exceeds beyond anyone’s expectations, Home On The Range is what happens when they miss the mark by quite a bit.

There are elements of Home On The Range that work. I’ve actually always liked the music which pops up on Disney playlists from time to time, so there’s that. “A Little Patch Of Heaven” performed by K.D. Lang is in particular a charming little ditty. There are a few gags that work. The voice performances are pretty good, there are some super fun but wasted cameos. (Patrick Wharburton is back as a particularly dense horse!)

Just in general it doesn’t gel, and the plot is too simple to engage without some great gags and the gags are not particularly great.

I also, just really don’t like Roseanne Barr, and her voice is super grating, though suited to the role that she’s playing here. Just in general this movie is so deeply unmemorable. I haven’t been this blah about any of these since Dumbo, and that at least left some impact via the music.

This is just, not good. And it was a turning point for the studio as well. While there were a few movies in development that got finished, this is clearly the place where the decision was made to get back to basics.

First though, we power through some odd ducks, or in the case of our next entry, Chicken Little. 

Magical Movies Tour: Brother Bear

I’m really enjoying finding favorites in the eras I don’t know as well, and I was ready for Brother Bear to skate by as kind of mediocre.

Brother Bear is wonderful and people should talk about how wonderful it is far more often. I love the animation and the story is lovely little myth. The main characters, Kenia, an impulsive and angry Inuit boy on a spirit quest that turns him into a bear, and baby bear cub, Koda (the most adorable Disney baby animal this side of Bambi) 

We’ve got another Phil Collins soundtrack, which isn’t as strong as Tarzan’s but the movie around it is much stronger. It’s a story about found family, and connection to nature, and finding who you really are, and those are themes that you really can’t go wrong with in my book.

But mostly, I was just enamored of the motormouthed Koda. What a lovely character! Jeremy Suarez voices him with a level of little kid enthusiasm that’s infectious and buoying. Joaquin Phoenix is no slouch with Kenia either, and something tells me a story about losing your way when you lose your brother is something that probably resonated with him. (If you are unfamiliar with Phoenix’s thoughts on his brother, you can check out his Oscar speech from earlier this year. Also if you don’t know River Phoenix’s story, it is a heartbreaking one.)

All of that has little bearing on how much I enjoyed Brother Bear, but it’s a really good movie, that I will be watching again.

Next week it’s home, Home On The Range, which I have never watched and I know nothing about.