Disney’s centennial emerges as its animation division experiences an awkward crossroads. Do animators lean into princesses, swashbucklers or steampunk? Do they focus on hand-drawn or computer generated animation? Tried and true Menkens and Mirandas or other new voices? Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn’s Wish (C+) is evidence of creative inertia, compromise and the wrong kind of recycling as its makers craft measures of vintage atmosphere but draw too heavily on fan service origin stories over forging interesting new paths. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you: that’s actually a mixture of watercolor and CG, a literal tug-of-war for tone in cartoon compositions before you even fixate on the film’s undercooked but byzantine story. It’s all a mallet to the palette. The plot focuses on Asha (voiced by a spirited Ariana DeBose), who makes a passionate plea to the stars after sensing a darkness in her kingdom led by Magnifico (Chris Pine, all snark and bark). The so-so music by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice (frequent Selena Gomez collaborators) is a nod to contemporary sensibilities but feels overwrought against the frilly imagery; they feel like stand-ins for something more hummable. There are indeed some creative flourishes: the notion that the deepest wishes of a country’s citizenry live inside precious bubbles within a royal repository and must be rescued and returned to their rightful owners feels like the stuff of Pixar pop psychology fusing into Disney proper. Buck and Veerasunthorn have delivered a pleasant enough fairy tale with heart, but it’s not quite emotional or funny enough to score classic status. They don’t even score with funny sidekicks. For all the building blocks assembled in the service of a Disney formula, it rarely reaches its higher yearning.
Making a comic film with perpetual double dares to its audience to not be shocked by its master-crass of gags is a delicate art, and these filmmakers are too loosey goosey in their dirty ditty-filled romp to consistently nail their themes or targets. Director Larry Charles delivers the mixed bag of Dicks: The Musical (C) based on work by Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp who reprise off-Broadway roles as sort-of adult identical twins who meet through business and try, Parent Trap style, to cajole their single parents, played by Megan Mullally (funny but with a ridiculous accent) and Nathan Lane (funny but not much to do here), into one big happy reunited family. A sassy Bowen Yang is fine as the wry omniscient narrator, but Megan Thee Stallion is the sublime surprise as the corporate boss with a women-rule-the-world song for the ages in one of the few sequences fully realized (gay clubs will have this on loop for eternity). There are also some creative puppets standing in as allegories and private parts amidst a bunch of hit or miss songs. The costumes, choreography and production design are generally a hoot, but the scattershot story rarely gets liftoff and the takeaways from the twisted morality tale are murky at best. The South Park movie and Book of Mormon stage show were much more successful in the mature musical milieu. As actors and writers, Jackson and Sharp seem to be laughing their way through the whole enterprise, but they’ve only reached a semi.
John Carney’s music-infused films – Once, Begin Again and Sing Street– chronicle lost souls tuning into one another via the art of song, and his latest, Flora and Son (B), sticks close to his finely tuned formula. Eve Hewson and newcomer Orén Kinlan are fabulous as the titular characters, a single mother and a troubled teenager looking for meaning in hardscrabble Dublin. Flora, estranged from her bassist husband (Jack Reynor’s charm makes him hard to hate) and in search of a higher calling, finds a California-based virtual guitar teacher, the roguish and rhythmic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and soon the central quartet of characters gets its groove back through common craft. Despite the strength of the performances, the story and song quality aren’t quite up to the Carney measure of excellence, and the brisk tale somehow feels awkwardly truncated. Still, the way these characters connect has mountains of magic in it. Full of acerbic wit and Irish sting, Hewson is singular in her role and quite irresistible. She and Gordon-Levitt have undeniable chemistry. It’s now abundantly clear what to expect from a Carney film, and fans of the auteur should have plenty of humor and harmony to enjoy. (Sept. 29 on Apple TV streaming service)
The luminescent cinematography within Benjamin Millepied’s peculiar adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (D) is inversely proportional to the film’s startling lack of competent plotting, passable dialogue, inspiring acting or cogent dance moves. Strangely, Millepied was the ballet choreographer behind Black Swan, and yet the movement aesthetic in this work flutters on the wobbly wings of a damp duck. Stunning Melissa Barrera in the title role as a woman on the run at the Mexican border and dashing Paul Mescal portraying a former Marine at a crossroads possess a staggering lack of chemistry. At the heart of what’s supposed to be a tragic romance, the acclaimed actor is particularly adrift and appears to wish he were elsewhere. There are some pretty poses afoot here but very little beneath the surface. Kudos to director of photography Jörg Widmer for finding an artful canvas within this wasteland, especially with Fellini-esque performer Rossy de Palma in a hint of a supporting part. Composer Nicholas Britell manages some grace notes with his original score, an alternate take on the story’s operatic roots. Ultimately this is a languid and joyless affair failing at both song and dance and social commentary. The only thing star crossed in this unsteady romance is its inability to transcend its own pretentiousness.
The overlong runtime could make one think this Charles Dickens adaptation is more inspired by the author’s prolific publishing house word counts (£400+ for just a few more pages of script?) than the bones of his novella A Christmas Carol, but while stuffed like plump holiday poultry, Sean Anders’s Spirited (B-) is largely a lovable lark. This holiday comedy centers on Will Ferrell as a wide-eyed Ghost of Christmas Present who works in a league of modern-day “spirits as a service” opposite Ryan Reynolds as a cynical earthbound purveyor of humbugs and shady public relations campaigns. Both comic actors shine in their tailor-made roles and prove their musical chops since the film possesses a new songbook by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Octavia Spencer is also a solid songstress and contributor to the fantastical proceedings, along with Broadway journeymen such as Patrick Page and Joe Tippett. Many of the musical acts are rousing and fun, especially a throwback to 1800s England. The first act gets bogged down in procedure and unsure meta jokes plus a little Cop Rock deja vu, but once the emphasis lands squarely on how Ferrell and Reynolds flip the script on the classic story and start to rehabilitate each other, a litany of laughs and deserved emotion come center stage. It’s not a perfect addition to the holiday movie oeuvre but often a fun sprinkling of confetti from the Christmas canon. The hearty let’s-put-on-a-show vibe pairs well with the film’s trippy troupe and could very well propel this into the Yuletide movie pantheon.
Welcome to the game of poems as Peter Dinklage spryly assumes the titular character of Joe Wright’s unusual romantic comedy musical adaptation of Cyrano (B-). To assess this Sicily-set film’s patchwork charms, one has to separate the generally high quality of the story and production values from the confounding and often distracting music and dance choices. Dinklage is quite charismatic and empathetic as the misfit linguist and warrior, and Haley Bennett is a luminous and appealing Roxane in a classic tale of seemingly unrequited love. Surprisingly for a film so steeped in words, the lyrics of the songs by members of the band the National are pretty consistently banal. Dinklage and co-stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as dashing Christian and Ben Mendelsohn as diabolical De Guiche display a bit of a “gargling with razor blades” vocal quality. Thankfully Bennett is in lovely voice as the lone member of the ensemble who doesn’t sound like she’s singing in the shower. Like its lead character, the film has a sly and scrappy approach, and there are mercifully a total of three music sequences that work at least on some levels. Expect to be slackjawed at times and bowled over at others as the film struggles mightily with its sense of time and place and its curious sonic structure. It’s a scruffy, uneven mess with occasional madcap moments of blissful romance. The movie is recommended for viewers who would naturally find this kind of lavish, cerebral content alluring and not so much for others.
Adapting Shakespeare is a delicate art, making that plot and poetry resonate as a stage and movie musical even more of a deft craft and remaking a classic an act of delirious derring-do, so it’s no small feat that Steven Spielberg’s carefully considered revival of West Side Story (A-) is very often a resplendent triumph. This dramatic song and dance retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story circa 1950s New York City as star-crossed lovers yearn for a safe haven amidst a concrete landscape of rival gang feuds is a veritable cauldron of social issues, and Spielberg’s frequent screenwriter Tony Kushner further modernizes and recontextualizes many of the happenings to heighten the work’s modern resonance. Spielberg’s instincts for musical sequences are impeccable, and he has in Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler a magnetic pair in fine voice; their immediate romantic attraction is palpable and they are both wonderful in iconic roles. Supporting characters are roundly commendable as well, especially Mike Faist and David Alvarez as the charismatic gang leaders and Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno as supportive confidantes, the latter adding soothing resonance in the fabric of the extended WSS universe. The handsome production design and dreamlike cinematography are impressive; the dancing kinetic and the fighting muscular. Spielberg’s spellbinding mastery of the creative form is almost a character in itself; he makes clever go for broke choices and is clearly in an element he’s envisioned for decades. Ultimately the original source material is the only thing holding this enterprise back, what with the text stimulating both expectations and limitations. Spielberg’s production doesn’t completely answer the question as to why a re-telling needs to exist, but it nonetheless pulses with vitality and verve as its own singular entity. Around each street corner and sumptuous sequence, he demonstrates something’s coming indeed, something quite good.
Imagine being super average in a pantheon of magical creations; yes, I’m referring to both the central character of Disney’s latest animated film as well as the movie itself. A Colombian girl faces the frustration of being the only member of her family without superpowers in Encanto (C+) co-directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith. Stephanie Beatriz is the tentative voice of protagonist Mirabel; and to her defense, she does ultimately get a better showcase after a spotty first act (even her “I want” number at the film’s opening is virtually indecipherable and atonal). The breakneck animation quality and the drudgery of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very subpar catalogue of B-sides don’t help matters as the plucky misfit pieces together a mystery causing a fission in her family’s fantastical abode. As the frosty Ambuela Alma, María Cecilia Botero gets a thankless role basically blaming the heroine for her every move; it’s quite tedious for a while and punctuated with more awkward folk hip hop. Neither John Leguizamo nor any of the sprawling cast really stand out or fare much better in the overly complex story. Then there are finally some decent emotional moments as the film reaches its crescendo, not really enough to recommend a watch.
There aren’t too many movies about writers creating new work in the musical theatre idiom, although All That Jazz and De Lovely come to mind, but the autobiographical show about rejection, healing and the creative process authored by Rent creator Jonathan Larson is intriguing fodder for a feature film. Under the first-time directorial helm of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tick…Tick…Boom! (B+) casts Andrew Garfield as Larson on the verge of age 30, living in 1990 New York, waiting tables and hoping desperately the workshop of his futuristic musical Superbia will put him on the proverbial map and somehow rescue him from the punishing grind. Garfield’s characterization is wild-eyed and eccentric, like a mad scientist with dulcet voice at the keyboard; despite spending a full movie with him, the character still feels a bit at arm’s length. The show-within-a-show structure complicates matters a bit too; and Miranda’s scrapbook meets memory play presentation of it all overstuffs a little too much peripheral detail into the mix to prove his savant-like knowledge of the composer’s career. But there are large parts of the film that really resonate, especially fantasy sequences such as a tuxedo and tap style number introducing high-class living, a diner transforming into performance art and an 11 o’clock duet number blending criss-crossing female voices like a cosmic moment in time. Amidst a whole bunch of Broadway cameos, Robin de Jesus and Laura Benanti shine in sterling supporting moments. Alexandra Shipp is a powerhouse and Vanessa Hudgins a delight in underdeveloped and bifurcated roles. Garfield largely succeeds in carrying most of the momentum on his shoulders and acquits himself nicely with some soaring final act ballads. It all feels a bit like a less urgent prequel to Rent, what with the starving artists, bohemian living and battle against AIDS tropes, but theatre lovers and those working to create their own opus will find much here with which to relate. Even when the behind the music motifs seem strangely surface, watching Garfield’s Larson is still a wunderkind to behold.
Tunefully tackling mental health, cancel culture and the nature of truth in the Internet age – and none of these topics with much dexterity – Stephen Chbosky’s mixed bag musical movie of Dear Evan Hansen (B-) nonetheless provides an absorbing showcase for an ensemble of female actress/singers who wave into a window of emotions more authentic than that of the film’s male lead. Call it Medicated High School Musical, and call it like it is that Ben Platt’s character translates awkwardly from the Great White Way to the silver screen. Platt is mostly crooning to the mezzanine balconies while Chbosky lenses the actor’s histrionics in awkward close-ups which reveal he is powdered in age-reducing prosthetics to reprise the lauded teenage performance he created nearly a decade ago on stage. The cinema canvas also surfaces flaws in the Broadway source material, namely that the audience is meant to sympathize with a character whose mounting lies prove to undermine his perceived good intentions. The characters breaking out into song isn’t really explained or consistent and can be confusing when one of them actually plays guitar as a plot device; and since emotion is already heightened, there’s often not much higher to go in some pedestrian presentational soliloquies. Were the YouTube fans meant to like the speech or the song? One must suspend a good bit of disbelief. However, let’s get to the good stuff, because there are many highlights in this overlong but often moving enterprise. First, the music is flawless, including two solid new songs to add to favorites such as “You Will Be Found.” The film is chock full of stunning female talent: Amandla Stenberg as an activist classmate whose tune “The Anonymous Ones” is a highlight, Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever as a mother and daughter recoiling from tragedy in earnest songs such as “Requiem” and “Only Us,” and Julianne Moore whose final reel “So Big/So Small” is a heartbreaker. Platt does indeed shine in many of his scenes of comedy and intense singing, even though the director should have reigned him in and clarified many aspects of the character. And Colton Ryan as a troubled classmate is so captivating in his two major sequences that it’s surprising he didn’t nab the lead role. Still, the parts of this story that work and surprise have the capacity to genuinely touch hearts and minds about the tug of war of man versus his worst instincts in a quest to belong. The film and its protagonist are often a tangled mess, but musical fans will likely grant Chbosky, Platt and company a full pardon for some of their missteps in bringing such an emotional wallop to the screen.
Cue the catchy overtures, swirling footlights and confetti cannons because the unhinged and hilarious musical movie event of the year is hoofing its way into the streaming services of Middle America. Down-on-their-luck Broadway stars shake up a small Indiana town as they rally behind a teen who wants to attend the high school dance with her girlfriend in director Ryan Murphy’s joyous musical The Prom (A-). Luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is the friend of Dorothy at the film’s center whose big-hearted journey down the mellow brick road to the year’s big party involves larger-than-life troubadours who imbue the townsfolk with star quality, bravery, tolerance and a beguiling Bob Fosse tinged talent called “zazz.” Casting for the ensemble is simply inspired, including delicious diva Meryl Streep, foppish godmother James Corden, oblivious blowhard Andrew Rannells and spunky day-drinking chorus girl Nicole Kidman. Murphy deftly balances a tender central tale with acerbic showbiz insider antics for a film entertaining, uplifting and heartbreaking in equal doses. If anything this celebrity goodie bag may be overstuffed with too much, but it’s hard to resist a singing and dancing variety show packed with ample doses of genuine homespun love. The themes of acceptance and reconciliation are a well timed clarion call to the better angels of our national consciousness, and it’s all gift wrapped in glitter for the age of Twitter. The glorious music, clever lyrics and fabulous choreography come together with precision especially in the youthquake euphoria of tunes such as “You Happened,” “Time to Dance,” and “Unruly Heart.” Keegan-Michael Key as the high school principal gets a lovely grace note in an ode to theatre called “We Look to You,” earning the first of many tear-jerking vignettes. For musical lovers, this Prom is a punch bowl of sweet and tart ingredients sure to rouse, stupefy and please.
Available on Netflix.
After all the accolades afforded Lin-Manuel Miranda’s late 1700s historical hip hopera, its stage director and now movie helmer Thomas Kail scores the mic drop of best filmed play as well. If Disney’s Hall of the Presidents pulled a Night at the Museum, springing to multiethnic sung-through life on a spare set with a turntable, you’d have a beginning approximation of the experience that is Hamilton (A). This political pageant with shades of Jesus Christ Superstar and a mixtape of modern music genres depicts a new American nation engaged in a battle for its soul with its titular renaissance man (played by Miranda) making unexpected impact on the laws, lifestyle and legacy of tender through-composed territory. Themes such as the duel between independence and interdependence and the multidimensionality of a man give the proceeding a glorious gravitas. Kail’s multi-camera presentation of the live performance plunges viewers right into the ensemble, dotted with audience reactions and even a one-minute intermission helping punctuate some theatrical conventions such as Act 2 double castings. All the creative moments – from the graceful choreography to cabinet meetings staged as rap battles to fancy flashbacks with the exceptional Renée Elise Goldsberry and show stoppers like Leslie Odom Jr’s “The Room Where it Happens” roundly resonate in close-up. It’s as exciting as a document of a sassily syncopated staged play can be on screen. Plus it’s a satisfying document of a highly resonant work made even more profound as a nation still grapples with identity and destiny.