With the kids being out of school we’re faced with the usual bombardment of family-friendly films and it can be hard to know what the best choice can be. With the price of cinema admission being so high, and with so many kids films being pretty ropey, it’s probably tempting to think of avoiding the cinema altogether. What follows are a few short reviews of the options for this half term, which might hopefully provide some guidance.
The Princess And The Frog
A fair amount of fuss has been made about this being the first hand-drawn animation from Disney in almost a decade, and that it sees the return of the writing/directing team of Ron Clement and John Musker, the men behind Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, which were key films in the previous Disney renaissance in the late 80s/early 90s (although they also made the not so fondly remembered Treasure Planet). Additionally, with it being fair to say that the future of traditional animation at Disney rests on the reception of this film, expectations for it are understandably high.
So it’s a pleasure to report that the film is pretty much a success, although it doesn’t really rival the output of the late 80s/early 90s in terms of quality, but it is similar in style and makes for a worthy successor to them. It’s actually a delight to have this style of film back – in particular the broad, caricatured style of 2d drawing makes for a refreshing change after numerous increasingly life-like but often charmless CG animations, not including the consistently brilliant work of Pixar of course.
The film is keen to remind viewers of past Disney animation’s rich heritage so it includes a lot of nods to past Disney successes, such as Aladdin and The Jungle Book, which long-term fans will delight in trying to spot, and follows many of the conventions of the Disney fairytale style, unfortunately a little too closely in places – the soundtrack, by old-hand Randy Newman, contains the usual couple of good songs and a lot of sappy filler. While mentioning the weak points of the film the central character of Tiana should be included as, although it is great that Disney are breaking new ground by featuring their first black lead, the pressure on the filmmakers to make her inspirational, strong-willed and ultimately inoffensive means that she isn’t that much fun. But the rest of the film’s cast are a pleasure to spend time with including the usual fun animal sidekicks such as the jazz playing Gator Louis (the Cajun fireflies are, to be fair, more love them or hate them characters), Tiana’s spoilt rich friend who is obsessed with finding a Prince of her very own, and the frog of the title who makes for a hilariously slimy (or as he would prefer mucous-y) leading man. The film also gets a delightfully creepy voodoo-practicing villain, in fact he’s so diabolical that some small children might find him a little overwhelming, but the film doesn’t rival Pinocchio or Bambi in the ability to traumatise children and in fact the mild scares will probably make ‘tweens enjoy the film all the more.
The demise of Disney’s hand-drawn animation wing did have one positive effect which was that the works of Hayao Miyazaki were introduced to a wider audience in order to fill the gap. So it’s interesting that The Princess And The Frog is competing with the latest film by Miyazaki, even more so when considering the fact that he was inspired by Clement and Musker’s The Little Mermaid to make this film, which tells the story of a magical fish who longs to become human after she is rescued by Sosuke, a five-year old boy.
Considering the excellence of his body of work, it has to be said that Ponyo is only minor level Miyazaki – it’s not even a Howl’s Moving Castle, let alone a Spirited Away or My Neighbour Totoro. Also the script is rather inelegant as, like many English dubs of Japanese films the dialogue can come across as both a bit unnatural and rushed, and in having to tell such a bizarre story a lot of exposition is needed. However, despite this Ponyo still manages to be a delightful film with much to recommend it. Nobody can rival Miyazaki for capturing the innocent wonder of childhood, and he does it again here, from the opening shots of Plankton onwards the world he creates is incredibly rich and detailed and there are many fantastic artistic touches such as Hokusai’s famous print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa re-imagined as a shoal of gigantic fish. There is also something quite enjoyably old-fashioned about the story – despite a catastrophic environmental threat from beneath the seas, most of the film is very gentle and with the exception of spiky senior Toki (nicely voiced by Lily Tomlin) and the undersea wizard Fumiko, the characters that Sosuke and Ponyo meet along the way are all warm and friendly. This is definitely an excellent choice to take younger children to, although it would be best if you left at the start of the end credits before the chirpy title song is replaced by an ill-advised, and irritating rap remix.
Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief
Percy Jackson is the latest in the long line of fantasy books given film adaptations in order to find the new Harry Potter – this one even comes from one of the same producers and has been directed by Chris Columbus, the man behind the first two films in that series. The twist this time is that instead of a very British tale of wizards and jolly fun at a boarding school, here the gods of Ancient Greek myth exist, they live in America and have half-human children. One of whom is Percy, the film’s Harry Potter figure, a typically photogenic and snarky Hollywood-style teenager. Partner him with a stereotypical black sidekick who is meant to be sassy and ‘urban’, which mainly involves making unfunny wisecracks and chasing after women, and a supposedly sexy warrior chick with no personality, and that might give a good indication for just how depressing an experience this film is. Honestly the level of the CGI in the film isn’t an improvement on that found in the first Harry Potter film, and it’s unforgiveable that some of the greatest, most imaginative and iconic creatures in mythology are rendered in such an uninspired manner. To top that off, the only way in which we are meant to be able to tell that the gods are powerful, authoritative beings (apart from in the awful dialogue where every little part of the plot has to be spelled out for the audience) is that they all speak with British accents. The whole film reeks of a sense of ‘will this do’ and quite frankly, no it won’t. The only actor who puts any effort in is Uma Thurman as Medusa who plays the part as an exotic dominatrix, and while there are a handful of amusing updates of the original myths such as Hermes’ winged shoes now being pair of Converse trainers (the product placement in the film is incredibly intrusive, Apple clearly invested heavily in it), and the land of the Lotus-Eaters being rewritten as a Vegas Casino, these are far outnumbered by the amount of missed opportunities. Hopefully the forthcoming Clash Of The Titans remake will manage to portray the Greek gods in a more interesting way than just as an excuse for the lead character’s angst and daddy issues.