Thursday 25 February 2010

Leap Year (The List, Issue 650)

Imagine the classic 1934 Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert road movie romance It Happened One Night with all the wit, spontaneity and charm sucked out of it. That’s Leap Year. Director Anand Tucker (Red Riding: 1983, And When Did You Last See Your Father?) should be weeping into his Guinness over this joyless, laugh-free embarrassment of a movie.

Leap Year smacks of Hollywood desperation from the outset, hanging on the purportedly well-known Irish tradition that a woman is allowed to propose to her man on the 29th February. After Anna’s (Amy Adams) boyfriend misses a tailor-made opportunity to propose then heads off to the Emerald Isle on business, she decides to follow him there and do the deed herself. But bad weather foils Anna’s carefully-laid travel plans, leaving her stranded at the wrong end of the country with no choice but to accept a lift from a grumpy yet ruggedly handsome local (Matthew Goode).

There are comparably bad recent rom-coms – the execrable 27 Dresses springs to mind – but the thing that particularly grates about Leap Year (after Devon-born Goode’s horrific Irish accent) is the soulless, machine-like construction of it all.


General release from Fri 26 Feb. This review was first published in The List magazine.

Monday 15 February 2010


The new animated fairytale from Hayao Miyazaki is just as wonderful and imaginative as one would expect from the man behind Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, and yet somehow Ponyo scales greater heights of joyous fantasy than even Miyazaki’s previous films.

Taking Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid story and adding his own child’s-eye spin, Miyazaki introduces us to Sosuke, a 5-year old boy who finds and rescues what he thinks is a goldfish on the shore. He names it Ponyo, intending to keep her as a pet, but Ponyo turns out to be a magical sea creature of considerable power, who sets her heart on becoming human with Sosuke. But Ponyo’s undersea father Fujimoto isn’t happy, knowing that there are rules that divide the ocean and human worlds, and Ponyo’s magic begins to have drastic consequences for the whole planet.

Ponyo has a dramatic and fantastical storyline, but even its most intense moments are shot through with optimism. The characters who seem bad turn out to have good motives, and the main authority figure – Sosuke’s mother Lisa – doesn’t bat an eyelid even when the mighty sea itself appears to be bearing down on her. Miyazaki fills the whole film with a spirit of childlike hope, and it resonates in each aspect of the movie, from the gloriously alive hand-drawn animation to the vibrant colour palette.

The script is funny and light-hearted, and the American voice cast, including Tina Fey, Liam Neeson and Matt Damon, are great – even if Neeson has a lot of unnecessary exposition to speak aloud to no-one but the fishes. But the film's best moments are when no characters are speaking, and it is left to the images and the classical score to drive the story forward, as in the beautiful and otherworldly opening sequence in which Ponyo first ventures to the surface.


Wednesday 3 February 2010

Astro Boy (

Loosely rooted in a classic Japanese comics series, Astro Boy is an animated tale set in that future that currently seems to be the only conceivable one for filmmakers, in which earth’s environment has been destroyed and humans have set up a new society; in this case a city that hovers miles above the abandoned surface. The film’s stylized opening lays out the rules of this robot-assisted world, but while it’s a cute little sequence you may find yourself zoning out before the story proper has even begun, as the set-up is so clearly a primary-coloured version of a scenario we’ve seen many times over the last decade in everything from I, Robot to WALL-E.

The boy of the title is a supercharged version of the service robots that populate this world, created by the government’s chief weapons and robots specialist, Dr Tenma (voiced by Nicolas Cage). Tenma builds Astro Boy (Freddie Highmore) as a robotic replacement for his son Toby, who is tragically killed after sneaking into one of Tenma’s weapons testing experiments. The inventor soon realises that the robot can’t replace his son though, and kicks Astro Boy out of his house. Meanwhile, war-crazy President Stone (Donald Sutherland) wants to get his hands on Astro Boy’s uniquely powered robot heart to bring a massive weapon called The Peace Keeper to life. Astro Boy finds his way down to earth’s surface and joins up with a band of resourceful orphans, hoping to find his place in the world and stay out of Stone’s clutches.

It’s ironic that Astro Boy’s story is rooted in the concept of uniqueness and invention, as director David Bowers (Flushed Away) has failed to come up with a single original idea in his telling of it. Instead, he steals visual and thematic concepts from wherever he chooses and piles them up with no foundation, leaving his film with zero integrity. The basic story is obviously reminiscent of Pinocchio and Speilberg’s A.I, but these two films come with serious philosophical baggage that Bowers simply attempts to ignore, unsuccessfully. You can’t introduce a robot character in the image of a dead human and just assume that the audience is immediately going to love and root for it. Pinocchio wanted to be a real live boy, so that’s an easy motivation to root for. But Astro Boy wants to be loved, and Bowers gives us no good reason to love him. He’s just a hunk of metal, and I’m still mourning the poor dead kid from the beginning! Maybe Bowers watched WALL-E and was fooled by how easily Andrew Stanton seemed to transfer human emotions and soul-searching to a robot character. If anything, Astro Boy proves that’s much harder than it looks.

The same is true in the action stakes; all the big action beats in Astro Boy are direct rip-offs of the huge fight sequences from Iron Man and the Transformers movies, and have none of the wit or visual invention of Monsters vs. Aliens, last year’s Dreamworks hit that perhaps represents the kind of tone Bowers was actually going for. What he ended up with was a hugely problematic mess.

The script, by Bowers and Timothy Harris (who in a previous life was a co-writer on 80s comedy classic Trading Places) is dire, peppered with weak political jokes that kids won’t get and adults will find patronising. The writers' only conclusion appears to be that violence solves everything, and arms that can turn into cannons are way cool!

To top it all off, the film contains the least convincing voice acting I have ever heard, with Cage in particular sounding like he’s been recorded at a script read-through, prior to being given any direction.

The swelling of the nominees list from three to five for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar confirms the level of quality that animated filmmaking has hit in the past year. Astro Boy has no place in a movie landscape that is producing genuine classics like Up and Coraline, as well as lower budgeted gems like The Secret of Kells. Its poor showing at the American box office last year shows that audiences know it too, and demand better.


Astro Boy is out in the UK on 5th February. This review is also on