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.