Frozen II (C). I must say that this sequel to the Disney juggernaut Frozen left me cold <rimshot>. Maybe it’s because the first film really wasn’t set up for a sequel, but this one felt tacked on and arbitrary. Despite the previous film’s happy ending and Arendell’s apparent prosperity under Queen Elsa’s benevolent rule, the Queen is restless and unhappy, imagining that she hears a siren song calling her north. It turns out the royal family has a complicated backstory—as a boy, the girls’ father, King Agnarr, accompanied a mission to an enchanted forest in the north, and for some unknown reason hostilities broke out between the Arendellians and the locals. Agnarr was the only Arendellian to escape before a wall of mist (reinforced with a magical force field) sealed the forest off from the world. Now Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf (somewhat more amusing in this film) must somehow penetrate the mist (which they easily do by the simple expedient of having Elsa go first) and find out what’s going on inside. There’s a lot of running hither and yon, and lots of magical “explanations” that made no sense to me. Plenty of songs, most of which are OK.
The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones (2018). I saw a glowing review of this new book and promptly ordered it. It didn’t live up to the hype, but it’s fine. It’s a slightly oversized book that is full of reproductions of maps, both real maps from long-ago days and modern maps of fantastic places like Oz and Middle Earth. The illustrations are pretty cool. The book also contains lots of short essays by “a team of distinguished writers and illustrators” about how wonderful and inspirational maps are. I found the essays pretty forgettable, although I did like the one about Dungeons & Dragons by Lev Grossman.
The Mountain of Kept Memory, by Rachel Neumeier (2016). My cousin Rachel has written another winning fantasy novel. This one centers on a brother and sister, Gulien and Oressa Madalin. They are the children of Osir Madalin, the remote and ruthless king of Carastind. But the kingdom is beset by enemies, and it seems that Osir has lost the support of the Kieba—a mysterious sorceress who lives in a mountain far to the east and who formerly aided Carastind in times of need. Osir seems disinclined to try to heal the rift, so Gulien and Oressa—who are young adults but sheltered and inexperienced in the ways of the world—take it upon themselves to seek the Kieba’s aid. This is an exciting tale, and Neumeier keeps the reader guessing about some of the main characters’ true intentions and agendas. Highly recommended for lovers of fantasy and magic!
Moana (B). First we have a short–a cute little story that dramatizes the battle between an office drudge’s fearful brain on the one hand and his excitable heart and stomach on the other. It’s kind of like a radically shortened and simplified Inside Out. The main feature is set in a Polynesian South Seas-type milieu. Moana is the high-spirited daughter of an island chief, and she thrills to her grandmother’s ancient stories of Maui, a trickster demigod who stole a gemstone from an island goddess, only to lose it in a battle with a lava demon. Could the tales be true? Lo! The Ocean itself brings the gemstone to Moana, and she must go on a quest to find Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas) and force him to return the gemstone to its rightful place, lest a looming wave of darkness overwhelm her people. I give Moana high marks for beautiful visuals, enjoyable musical numbers in the early going, and an appealing heroine. The adventure plot is a little pedestrian, so I wouldn’t put this movie in the same category as first-tier Disney like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, or Zootopia. Nevertheless, it’s a solid, family-friendly effort.
Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson (2006). A friend recommended this fantasy novel to me, and I liked it. This fantasy world is a dismal place. Ash frequently rains from the sky, most people are serfs or slaves, and there’s a nasty Lord Ruler who has tyrannized the realm for like 1,000 years. But a few people still dare to plot his overthrow, and a resourceful young female thief named Vin gets pulled into their seemingly suicidal circle. The system of magic in this world is pretty complicated, and I didn’t really try to follow it all that closely. Only a relatively few people have magical powers, and to access them they have to ingest and “burn” various metals to achieve the particular metals’ magical effects. (One of the main magical effects these people can pull off is to manipulate metal a lot like Magneto from X-Men.) Anyway, I enjoyed it even without trying to remember what all the different metals can do. Apparently it is the first book in a substantial series, but it also works as a stand-alone tale.
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss (2007). A friend of mine from way back put me on the trail of this hefty (662 pages) fantasy novel. And it’s just the first in a series! I thought it was quite good. Dark forces seem to be stirring out in the wilderness near some remote village, and humble innkeeper Kote seems to have some unusual insight into what is going on. Turns out that Kote is more than a humble innkeeper, and then the great bulk of the novel turns into a big flashback as Kote relates the story of his life to a visiting scribe. So the book is mainly the story of Kote’s childhood and adolescence, and his early training as an “arcanist.” It’s a pretty gritty tale in places, but I didn’t think it ever crossed the line into cruelty for cruelty’s sake. And some might think Kote is just a little too precocious and brilliant to be believable, but Rothfuss makes sure he has a few character flaws to balance him out.
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015). I loved Ishiguro’s last novel, 2005’s Never Let Me Go. It haunted me for days. Then ten years slipped by, and then he finally published this new novel about a strange, magical England shortly after the departure of the Romans and the reign of King Arthur. I wasn’t too sure about it, based on the reviews, but I couldn’t resist. It’s a weird tale, and it’s not in the same league as Never Let Me Go, but it is not without its merits. A strange fog seems to lie over olde England, making people forget most or all of the past. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, decide to leave their little village and visit their son, whom they have not seen in many years. It’s a dangerous quest, and they aren’t sure where their son is or even why he left. They have adventures involving ogres, knights, and a mysterious dragon. It’s a melancholy tale of memory, forgetfulness, and loss. I kind of liked it. But Never Let Me Go is way better.
The Honorable Barbarian, by L. Sprague de Camp (1989). I thought that fantasy writer L. Sprague de Camp (1907–2000) wrote back in the 40’s and 50’s, so I was surprised to see that this yellowing paperback from the used-book store bore a 1989 copyright. Apparently it was one of the last books he wrote. I got a kick out of it. It’s about a young man named Kerin, who has to flee his home rather precipitously and who proceeds to get himself into all sorts of dungeons-and-dragonsy adventures. de Camp plainly has fun creating different cultures and political systems for Kerin to have to deal with. Of course, it’s not great literature; the characters are two-dimensional, and they are off-puttingly casual about rape. But if you can overlook that, it’s a breezy read and a good yarn.
Cinderella (B+). I managed to catch this latest live-action fairy tale before it disappeared from the theaters, and I’m glad I did. It was charming. But first I should mention that there’s a new Frozen animated short before the show. It was cute. Elsa (that’s the sister with the snow magic, right?) is trying to throw her red-headed sister the perfect birthday party–but she has a head cold that threatens to unleash all sorts of magical mayhem! Then there was the main feature. It felt very faithful to the animated original–so much so that summary is probably superfluous. Lily James (Wrath of the Titans) is a beautiful, kind, and humble Cinderella, and Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) is fine as the nasty stepmother. Helena Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows) makes for an eccentric fairy godmother. Of course, it’s a fairy tale, so the characters are a little two-dimensional. But director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) delivers lots of gorgeous visuals, and those plus James’s winning performance were enough to make the movie a winner in my book.
Downton Abbey‘s upstairs (Cousin Rose—Lily James in the title role) and downstairs (Daisy the kitchen maid—Sophie McShera as step-sister Drisella) meet in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action and somewhat diverse Cinderella. This visually stunning, mostly traditional telling of the classic fairy tale is a crowd pleaser for young and young at heart. Development of Ella’s back story adds substance to this Disney princess and explains her super power—kindness. Cate Blanchett is the only choice for the wicked step-mother and she delivers beautifully. The King (Derek Jacobi) gives Prince “Kit” Charming (Richard Madden—Game of Thrones) the go-ahead on his deathbed to follow his heart rather than marry for advantage. Helena Bonham Carter is the quintessential Fairy Godmother—if only she had a little more screen time. The Oscar for costume design is in the bag for Sandy Powell. The computer animated transformation of pumpkin and mice to horse-drawn carriage is captivating. The lizards turned footmen are particularly clever. The highly anticipated Frozen short before the movie will delight the Anna–Elsa fans.
Into the Woods (B-). I had never seen this musical before, and all I really knew about it was that it was some kind of mash-up of various fairy tales. The film version brought together a lot of talent–lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd), director Rob Marshall (Chicago), and actresses Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect). But the result was only a little better than mediocre, in my opinion. The plot blends four familiar fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella) with one original one involving a baker, his wife, and a witch’s curse. The performances were fine, and the musical numbers were fine but not particularly memorable. (One notable exception was a duet by two charming princes about the agony of love; that one was pretty entertaining. Chris Pine (Star Trek) made a fine comedic Prince Charming.) The main thing I liked about the movie was that it was unpredictable; it definitely kept me curious about what was going to happen next. Oh, and having Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) in the movie certainly didn’t hurt. I’d say it’s worth the price of a matinee. Note that it is rated PG for thematic elements (whatever those are), fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
The Movie Snob says Peter Jackson saved the best for last.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (B+). The movie review in the local newspaper criticized this final installment of the Hobbit trilogy for being non-stop action, with no time for personal moments. I have to disagree with my colleague on that point. Given the movie’s subtitle, obviously there is going to be plenty of action, but I thought there were enough quiet moments to give the film a little balance. The first order of business is to see what happens when Smaug the dragon (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) attacks the human settlement of Laketown. Then there’s a lull in the action while the forces of good and evil mass for the titular battle. There are plenty of heroics once the evil orcs, goblins, and giants attack the humans, elves, and dwarves assembled at the Lonely Mountain. I don’t think there’s really adequate justification for the decisions to shoehorn Legolas (Orlando Bloom, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) into a story in which he doesn’t belong, or to create lady elf warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker) out of whole cloth, but I guess they add a little sex appeal to a movie that would otherwise be largely without. And at only 144 minutes, it’s the trilogy’s shortest film to boot! I say check it out.
Maleficent (B+). I just caught this one at the dollar theater, and I was glad I did. It’s a new take on tale of Sleeping Beauty, basically retelling the story from the perspective of the wicked witch, Maleficent. Of course, she’s pretty much pure evil in the classic animated version of Sleeping Beauty, so they have to nip and tuck the story to make Maleficent a more relatable character. She has a painful backstory, see, that explains that her seeming wickedness comes from a place of hurt, not pure evil. Anyway, it worked for me, more so than the similarly themed Oz the Great and Powerful. Angelina Jolie (Salt) plays the title character and chews the scenery in an entertaining fashion. As Princess Aurora, the adorable Elle Fanning (Super 8) isn’t given much to do but smile and be adorable, but she does it well. Definitely worth a look.
If you are looking for a funny, uplifting, happy movie, don’t go to see this sequel. This movie takes place several years after the first How to Train Your Dragon, which I found quite charming and witty. While I still enjoyed many moments between Hiccup (now about 20 years old) and his loyal dragon, Toothless, and some other humorous moments, the movie moved slowly and, at times, purposelessly. I do not recommend this movie for very young children. Dragons aren’t always treated terribly well, and there are deaths in the movie that remind me of Bambi, which scarred me for life. I saw that movie once when I was very young in the theater, and left crying, and never saw it again. I could see young children having that kind of reaction to this movie too. I’d wait for the rental.
The first thing my 15-year-old daughter said when this movie ended was, “I loved that movie!” And I felt the same way. This movie is a retelling of the classic Sleeping Beauty from the vantage point of Maleficent, the fairy (though in the classic she is a witch) that casts the spell that sends Princess Aurora into a deep sleep. The story keeps many of the basic elements of the original, but the story overall is quite different. At 97 minutes, the story wastes no time and moves at a good pace. The special effects were outstanding and Angelia Jolie’s portrayal of Maleficent is excellent. It may have been a bit predictable, but even though you know how a rollercoaster comes to an end doesn’t mean you don’t enjoy the ride getting there–at least, not in this case. The film is rated PG. Although I think the film overall is good for children of most ages, very young children may be scared by some of the creatures. There is also one highly dramatic scene that I have since learned is supposed to be a metaphor for rape and plays a large role in the events thereafter. Though that concept was lost on me when I saw the film, reflecting back on the film now I am struck by how remarkably well Angelina Jolie and the writer captured the emotions of that scene and the events that followed. Definitely worth your hard-earned money to see this one in the theaters.
Big Trouble in Little China (B). I recently revisited this excellent (relatively speaking) B movie from the 80s. Kurt Russell (Escape From New York) delivers a great performance as Jack Burton, a clueless but hugely self-impressed truck driver who accidentally gets drawn into a buddy’s quest to rescue his fiancée from a 2,000-year-old evil Chinese sorcerer named Lo Pan (James Hong, Blade Runner). It’s full of ridiculous fight scenes, great-for-the-time special effects, and a breathy performance by a young Kim Cattrall (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Oh, and also Sex and the City.) I loved it when it was released back in 1986, and I still get a kick out of it today. The DVD also contains a commentary track by Kurt Russell and director John Carpenter (Halloween), and although it’s mostly them just reminiscing about old times and people they knew, it was still kind of entertaining.
Frozen (B+). Disney has scored another hit with this animated tale based on a story called The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. I was feeling sort of down and looking for a pick-me-up, and Frozen did the trick quite nicely. It’s the story of Elsa and Anna, sisters and princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle. Unknown to Anna, her older sister has a hard-to-control magical power that is more of a curse–the power to conjure ice and snow and freezing blasts out of thin air. When Elsa’s power is revealed and she runs away from Arendelle, the plucky Anna sets off on a quest to find her. Along the way, Anna teams up with a surly ice entrepreneur named Kristoff, his expressive reindeer Sven, and a live snowman named Olaf. Their adventures are suitably exciting, and many of the visuals are very cool. It’s not quite top-shelf Disney–the songs are cute enough but not all that memorable, and I would have traded goofy Olaf for good old Frosty the Snowman–but those are very small flaws. Kristin Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) voices Anna; I didn’t really know any of the voices behind the other main characters. Oh, there was a cartoon short involving Mickey and Minnie before the main feature, and I didn’t think it was particularly good. But it didn’t detract from Frozen.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (B). Well, I feel like I liked this movie better than I liked the first installment of The Hobbit, but I see now that I gave both movies a “B.” Of course, the movie is way too long, at 2 hours and 41 minutes, but the events and incidents seem weightier than the ones that crowded the first movie. Part of the padding is that Peter Jackson shows what happens when Gandalf (Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters) goes off alone to confront an evil sorcerer called “the Necromancer,” which as I recall happens entirely “off-stage” in the novel. But the main story is still about a small band of dwarves wanting to take their ancestral kingdom under The Lonely Mountain back from Smaug, the terrifying dragon that occupied it some decades ago. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The World’s End) proves himself invaluable as their hired thief. Smaug is a pretty impressive feat of CGI (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, 12 Years a Slave). And I have no quarrel with the casting of the lovely Evangeline Lilly (The Hurt Locker) as non-Tolkien character Tauriel the Elf Warrior. But the movie certainly could have been shorter.
Neverwhere, by Nail Gaiman (1996). I got this fantasy novel for The Borg Queen a long time ago without first having read it myself. The description on the back made it sound good–or at least I thought it did. It’s about an ordinary British guy who gets caught up into a dangerous world of magical beings that apparently exist alongside us in the real world without our ever perceiving them. But The Borg Queen didn’t get very far into it at all before deciding it wasn’t for her. So recently I gave it a try, and I too gave up, after maybe 60 pages or so. We both found it unnecessarily gruesome. Within the first few pages, we’re following a couple of bad guys through some dark tunnel, and suddenly one of them skewers a rat with his knife and eats it raw. How’s that for a pleasant image? There are plenty of dark images after that, too. Obviously fiction needs its bad guys, but I am not interested in reading scenes that are gross or gruesome just for gruesomeness’s sake. This Gaiman fellow also wrote the book Stardust, which I never read, but I saw the movie and liked it decently well, but it had a distinct streak of cruelty in it too, if I remember correctly. He kind of reminds me of Joss Whedon, another creative fellow who dials the cruelty and torture up just a couple of notches too high in his work. Anyway, this is another book I will never finish. Skip it.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (D). The previous entry in this series, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, was a box-office dud in America, and justifiably so. Unfortunately it did well enough overseas to beget this even duller and dudlier sequel. If you are new to the material, it’s easy enough to catch up: the Greek gods are real, they still enjoy romancing mortals, and when a deity has a child with a mortal, that half-blood child inherits some mythological powers and needs to go live at Hogwarts for demigod training and for protection from evil forces. But of course, they also occasionally leave their sanctuary to go on quests that are theoretically (but not actually) magical and exciting, or else there would be no movies. Here, our nominal hero, Percy (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), leads a small band on a quest to find the golden fleece. Lerman makes a bland and mopey hero, and the wall-to-wall CGI effects do nothing to add interest. Seriously, the 1963 stop-motion Jason and the Argonauts was way more exciting. A few brightish spots: I kind of enjoyed the scene with the ironclad Confederate warship and zombie crew. Nathan Fillion (Serenity) adds a splash of charisma as Hermes. And although I’m not sure she can act, Alexandra Daddario (The Lightning Thief), who plays Athena’s daughter Annabeth, is a total knockout.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (D). I deliberately waited until this one arrived in the dollar theaters, but I still got burned because it was showing in 3D, so it wound up setting me back $3.25. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans) star as the sibling pair of fairy-tale fame. Now they are all grown up and hire themselves out to kill pesky witches. It’s a grim, muddy, super-gory movie with no panache or sense of humor. Famke Janssen (X-Men: The Last Stand) plays the main evil witch, and IMDB.com reports that she has said she took the role only to pay off her mortgage. An attractive Finnish actress named Pihla Viitala somewhat relieves the drabness of the production in her couple of scenes. Rated R for “strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language.” That pretty well sums it up.
Oz the Great and Powerful (B-). I think it helped to go into this movie with low expectations. Sam Raimi of Spider-Man and Evil Dead fame directed this tale of how the Wizard of Oz actually arrived in that merry old land many years before Dorothy and Toto did. Oz (James Franco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is a small-time magician toiling away in a two-bit traveling carnival in nowhere Kansas. Serendipity and a massive cyclone whisk him off to Oz. It seems that Oz is plagued by a wicked witch (some things never change), and the people look to Oz to fulfill a prophecy that a great wizard will defeat the witch and return peace and prosperity to the land. Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Rachel Weisz (About a Boy), and Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn) add some interest as Oz’s three resident witches, but I thought the show was stolen by a sweet little china girl (that is, a live figurine made of china) that Oz repairs and becomes a kind of foster father to. Is it as magical as the original? Of course not. But it’s not a bad movie. The PG rating is for some potentially scary action sequences and a couple of uses of profanity, and that seems about right to me.
House of Shadows, by Rachel Neumeier (2012). Full disclosure if you’re new to The Movie Court—Rachel Neumeier is my cousin. That said, I would recommend her fiction to any lover of fantasy tales. Her Griffin Mage trilogy was superb. In this novel she leaves the world of griffins behind and introduces us to a whole new realm of swords and sorcery. The action takes place in the coastal city of Lonne, in the kingdom of Lirionne. A humble widower has died and left his eight daughters unprovided for. Bowing to financial necessity, two are sold off: one to be an apprentice to a wizard, and another to become a sort of geisha in the city’s Candlelight District. Broader geopolitical trouble is also brewing: the king of Lirionne has recently had to execute some of his sons for plotting against him, a fifteen-year truce between his kingdom and a neighboring kingdom is about to expire, and a mysterious foreigner is present in Lonne for possibly nefarious purposes. I thought it was an enjoyable story, and Rachel has a knack for drawing complex characters that seem one way at first and then quite different as you get to know them better. I assume there will be a sequel, and I am already looking forward to it.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part Two (F). As it turns out, “because it’s playing at the dollar theater” isn’t always a good enough reason to see a movie. I know I’m not the target demographic here, but surely even teen and tween girls were bored by this two-hour slab of amateurish dialogue and wooden acting. Anyway, I missed Part One, but I think I figured out that Edward (Robert Pattinson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and Bella (Kristen Stewart, Snow White and the Huntsman) got married and had a weird hybrid baby girl who grows up at a phenomenal rate and who is somehow “imprinted” on werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner, Valentine’s Day). They and Edward’s extended family are in danger because having a vampire baby really makes the bad vampires mad. (I think Brad Pitt broke a similar rule in Interview With a Vampire.) So that sets up a final showdown between the good vampires (and their werewolf allies) and the bad vampires. It’s long. It’s boring. The end. I hope.
On a frightening final note, I saw a trailer for an upcoming movie called The Host, based on some other novel by Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. It’s going to star Saoirse Ronan, the talented young star of Atonement and Hanna. I hope it is not as terrible as the Twilight movies and doesn’t destroy young Ronan’s career.
The Green Child, by Herbert Read (first published 1935). I read a favorable mention of this British novel a while back and made a note of it. Now I have read the actual book, and I have to say it is one weird tale. The story is told in three chapters. The first chapter introduces the title character: a mysterious woman who suddenly appeared in a small English village in about the year 1830. She appeared to be about four years old at the time, but she spoke no English, and her skin had a peculiar greenish tint. She was taken in by an old woman and raised to adulthood, and she stayed in the village her whole life. The action of the novel begins in 1861 or so, when a villager named Oliver who has long been away overseas finally returns and encounters the mysterious woman. Then chapter 2 is a big digression relating Oliver’s adventures overseas. And chapter 3 returns to the story of Oliver and the mysterious woman, with lots of meditations on philosophy and eternity and heavy stuff like that. As I say, it is a weird story, but I kind of enjoyed just seeing where it was going to go. And it’s only 194 pages, so it’s not a huge time commitment.