Normally I don’t see live-action family movies unless the renown for it catches my eye. In the last three months, there were two that caught my eye: Paddington and Cinderella. I’m glad I had the chance to see them.
For the first time, Paddington Bear comes to the big screen. And in live-action format rather than animation. However this did involve taking some chances. The first chance was making a movie that could entertain today’s children. The second was not having to mess with the Paddington Bear people know and love.
The film does a good job of keeping many aspects of Paddington such as his love of all things British, especially marmalade. The film also does a decent job of not trying to resort to too many cheap laughs like one would come to expect in today’s children’s films. It’s not to say there were some questionable moments, like the scene where Paddington thinks the toothbrushes are ‘earbrushes.’ The film also does a good job in presenting Paddington in today’s world and meeting the Brown family who are actually reluctant to adopt at first.
I give kudos to director/writer Paul King and co-writer Hamish McColl for coming up with a very good adaptation of Paddington Bear into a feature-length film. It was no easy task to make such a film especially when Paddington has resorted to being simple children’s books since the 1950’s. The plot where Paddington boats from Peru to London only to find a cold country, a reluctance to adopt from the Brown family and being pursued by the daughter of a poacher whose goal was to make him hers to kill and stuff worked well to entertain crowds. The inclusion of the effects in the film couldn’t be avoided as nowadays family movies have to have some special effects to win crowds. Even though Paddington wouldn’t be the type of movie for a lot of visual effects, the effects included did things right without messing with the story.
I also give them credit for not messing with the spirit of Paddington whose sweet charm is the reason why he has become one of the most beloved children’s book characters in recent decades. He’s even so beloved in England to the point there’s a bronze statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station where he got his name from. I also give them kudos for adding character to the Brown family. They may not be much like the Browns in the Paddington books but the character of the Browns do fit well in the movie.
Just as much deserving of respect are the performances of the actors. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins did a very good job playing the Brown parents. Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin also did well as playing the Brown children. They both played their roles well without being too overly-cutesy. Julie Walters succeeded in stealing scenes as the wise Mrs. Bird. Nicole Kidman also did a good job of playing the evil Millicent Clyde without becoming too hateable. Actually Millicent Clyde was rather entertaining as a villain. Finally Ben Whishaw did a very good voice-over as the voice of Paddington. Paddington needed a sweetness in order to make the story work and Whishaw was the right fit.
Paddington is now out on DVD and BluRay. For those that didn’t see it in theatres, it’s worth seeing. I don’t know if it’s the type of family movie one won’t need to see with a family of their own but it is entertaining and very good quality entertainment.
If you think making a film about Paddington Bear is difficult, try making a live-action version of Cinderella. And knowing that it will be Disney doing the work, you can understand they’d be under a lot of pressure. We’re talking about the film company that made their 1950 animated version a staple into many people’s hearts. So it would not be surprising that there would be a lot of questions surrounding the make of the new live action version. Will it have the same Disney spirit? Will it stray too much from the animated version that lives on in the hearts of millions? Or even the book? How will the sets and costumes be done? And will it entertain crowds of today?
There’s no question that making a live-action version of a fairy tale can be expensive in production. Cinderella wasn’t too expensive to make but $95 million is expensive enough. For a film like Cinderella to work, there’s no question that one of the top aspects to focus on would be the technical areas like set design and costuming. Dante Ferretti was a top choice for set design. We’re talking about a set designer whose works have earned him nine Oscar nominations and three wins for The Aviator, Sweeney Todd and Hugo. Ferretti did not let anyone down. In fact his set designs in all scenes worked perfectly for the movie. It was hard to notice a glitch.
Costumer Sandy Powell was another top pick with loads of cred including ten Oscar nominations and three wins. Here she again adds to the reputation by making costumes perfect not only for Cinderella but for all characters in the movie. My favorite costumes were actually the bratty looking outfits for Drisella and Anastasia. It fit their brattiness perfectly. However Cinderella’s glass slippers really caught my eye. They looked more like crystal slippers. The visual effects team also did a top job in adding the necessary visual effects for the film and giving them the magic that will remind people of the magic Disney movies are famous for. They even succeed in making the mice and lizards human enough without being too ridiculously cartoonish.
Credit should also be given to director Kenneth Branagh and writer Chris Weitz. People easily forget that Branagh is as much of a director as he is an actor directing films from Shakespeare (Henry V) to comedy (Love’s Labor’s Lost) to superhero action flicks (Thor). Now he ventures into the territory of fantasy films. The result is excellent. Just as excellent is the writing from scriptwriter from Chris Weitz. He does a very good adaptation by retaining the spirit of Disney and even including some aspects not included in the original. Actually his writing makes you forget he wrote American Pie!
Despite all those efforts, the success of the movie would have to bow down to the roles being done right. The inclusion of the king, the prince’s father, added to the story as did the appearances of Cinderella’s parents. The characterizations of the mice and lizards were well done and didn’t go over the top or even cheesy. The characters of the two stepsisters were very good depictions. They were nasty and bratty but you’ll actually find yourself laughing at how stupid they are rather than hating them. If there’s one character you will hate, it’s the stepmother Lady Tremaine. Cate Blanchett did an excellent job of depicting Lady Tremaine as both cruel and hurting on the inside to the point she feels she should hurt Cinderella. Her depiction also fits within the common Disney theme of featuring a female villain who’s beautiful rather than ugly. Blanchett’s depiction actually seems more like the queen from Snow White rather than the stepmother of the animated version.
There were some radical choices for character depictions in the movie. The first was the prince as being more of an awkward young adult rather than the flawless Prince Charming we come to expect. Even referring to himself as ‘an apprentice’ during the casual contact with Cinderella is something no one would have expected. The most radical of character depictions has to be Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. I found it very different to have a clumsy fairy godmother this time around. I wasn’t expecting another fairy godmother that sang ‘Bibbity Bobbity Boo’ but this was way different from what I expected.
Finally I focus on the character of Cinderella. Lily James did a very good job as Ella. She’s already an experienced actress in her native England and she does a very good portrayal here. She portrays Ella as a young woman who doesn’t make having an imagination look like a weakness. We shouldn’t forget her imagination has kept her holding her head high during the toughest of times such as the deaths of her parents and keeps her going strong with her stepmother and stepsisters whom even her father described as ‘trying.’ Hah, ‘trying’ is an understatement! However she does not come across as naive as most would come to expect of her or anyone with an active imagination. In fact it’s the scene where she says to her stepmother: “You were never my mother and you never will be.” shows Cinderella to have more inner strength than most thought.
Focusing on Cinderella lastly seems appropriate because she is essentially the epitome of the theme of the movie. The movie showed two people who had a lot of tragedy in their lives: Cinderella and Lady Tremaine. One was bitter about it. The other did what her mother said: “Have courage and be kind.” Cinderella’s courageous positivity upset Lady Tremaine to the point she had to hurt her however she can. Cinderella stayed strong. There were some points where her courage was tested but she still stayed strong. I guess that’s what this version of Cinderella was trying to say. That staying positive is not being oblivious. That having an imagination is not a weakness. That’s what was not only shown in Cinderella but almost every Disney movie.
Both movies have had their own box office success stories. Cinderella has grossed $197 million in North America and over $500 million worldwide. Paddington was not as big of a hit but it did have its own success with $76 million in North America and $259 million Worldwide. Impressive since it was done with a $55 million budget. The marketers of Paddington did a common job but a smart job in releasing it in most of Europe, South America and Asia first during the latter weeks of 2014 before releasing it in the US on January 16th. That’s a common technique used to plug movies with characters common in European pop culture. They did that with Tintin back in 2012.
Paddington and Cinderella are two family movies that have pleased the critics and will also please audiences alike. Both have what it takes to entertain children but they both also have elements that will please adults.
Into The Woods is the latest Broadway musical to hit the big screen. The question is does it entertain and charm well enough for moviegoers?
The film begins just as the fairy tales do so: Little Red Riding Hood is about to go to grandma’s with her basket, Jack has to sell the cow as she’s getting old, Cinderella is being mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, a lonely couple want a child, and Rapunzel is imprisoned in a castle by the Witch. The Witch puts a request on the couple. You first thing it’s just Rapunzel’s hair but she also asks for a red cape, a white cow and a golden slipper.
As they search the stories proceed: Riding Hood is lured off the path by a wolf, Jack goers to market but will only accept an offer that would mean the return of his cow, Cinderella arrives at the ball. However the couple find their way into the story or pass by it: Jack receives magic beans from the husband, the wife tries to swipe Cinderella’s slipper off her feet after running from the ball, the husband passes the tower Rapunzel is kept captive in, and both notice Riding Hood’s cape.
After a series of misadventures, the couple has all the items needed to produce the spell to receive their baby, all the fairy tale characters have their expected happy endings and the witch is able to regain her beauty with the potion. However the ‘Happily ever after’ endings don’t end up being so happy after all. The Baker worries he might end up being a poor father to his son just like his own father, Cinderella loses her charm for prince charming and the lavish life with it, Rapunzel is scared by the outside world, the witch loses her powers with her returned youth and Jack is pursued by the giant’s wife –ahem, widow– who came down to earth via a second beanstalk and demands Jack or she will destroy the village and its inhabitants.
Soon everything goes opposite to what’s planned. Casualties include the Baker’s wife who fell for Prince Charming before her accidental death, Rapunzel as she ran off forever with her prince, Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother, and Jack’s mother. The latter three killed in the Giant’s Wife’s rampage. On top of it, Cinderella and Prince Charming part ways. At first those still standing–the Baker, Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood– think that Jack should be offered back only for them to blame each other. Nevertheless they do work things out, defend against the Giant and there’s the genesis of a new fairy tale the Baker reads to his son.
I have to say as a musical, Into The Woods was probably not the first time fairy tales have been mixed together to surround a main plot. It’s not even the first in motion pictures. Remember Shrek? What it needed to do was stay true to the fables while mixing the story of the baker and his wife as well as the haunting of the Witch during the first half and then allow for a believable twist to the fables we all know to occur in the second half. Even though the twist occurred starting with the giant’s wife appearing, all the twists of the stories had to appear sensible and pertinent to the original story. Some of the twists were very surprising and even tragic but it did come together in the end. That’s how the stage musical of Into The Woods worked.
The next trick was to bring Sondheim’s musical to the screen. Putting a stage musical to screen is a very difficult thing. There’s a lot of decision-making on what from the stage play to leave in and what to leave out. That would fall into the hands of director Rob Marshall and scriptwriter James Lapine who wrote the original Broadway version. However when it’s Disney that buys the rights, you think it would be a big break but there was an added challenge. Naturally with this being a musical about a mish mash of fairy tales, Disney would want to make this a family film and that could be intrusive to the control Sondheim and Lapine have over the play. This was not the case as both Sondheim and Lapine insisted to Disney that any changes would have to be approved by them. Even then, they would have to work within time constraints and keep it to a respectable running length.
In the end, Sondheim, Marshall, Lapine and the production company were able to create a finished adaptation 125 minutes in length that brings the musical to a big screen audience with big-name stars and additional musical talents. I myself cannot compare the film to the stage version since I’ve never seen the stage version. I will start by saying it doesn’t surprise me that Disney acquired the rights to adapting the musical to film as Disney is world famous for bringing fairy tales to life. I will say that one can do a good job differentiating the actors who know how to do musical acting and those who don’t. You just know it. There were some like Chris Pine and Mackenzie Mauzy who struggled, there were some like Billy Magnussen and James Corden who could have done a better job, there are some like Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford and Tracey Ullman who know how to deliver both singing and acting and then there are actors like Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep who are able to deliver a performance in a musical. Meryl was especially excellent as she had the role that would hold the film all together. Musical film is another genre she can add to her list of accomplishments.
I will say that the film adaptation did very well in terms of special effects and set design to give the fell like there really was one terrain in the world where all the original stories happen at once. Colleen Atwood once again knows how to create the right costumes for the movie. The music was not a problem at all as the songs were well-sung and fit the scenes well. The film also did a good job of handling the story where all the fables get their twist in the end. However the film does leave some noticeable things out. There are some times where it felt the story had key scenes left out like the big bad wolf living in the tree about to eat Red or Jack in the giant’s house or Cinderella’s fairy godmother creating her clothes for the ball. There were even some times when one could easily forget that this is a musical and it would take a song some time later to remind you. There were even a couple of scenes that made you wonder if it should have been kept in. I can’t think of a better way to do it but I’m sure there are areas that could have been done better. Rob Marshall did a very good job of directing. It’s fair to say this is his best work since Chicago but there are some areas I feel he could have been better, like not having us forget this is a musical in some areas. It may not completely be his fault as the script was written by James Lepine. Lepine may be an accomplished scriptwriter and director in musical theatre and this may be Lepine’s best musical ever but somehow he could have done a better job at a stage-to-screen adaptation.
The film adaptation of Into The Woods has been long awaited. Now that it’s here, it’s imperfect but very enjoyable and entertaining.