Fantasy

GOOD OMENS: THE NICE AND ACCURATE PROPHECIES OF AGNES NUTTER, WITCH by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman –and– “GOOD OMENS” (2019)

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When the Anti-Christ arrives in the unassuming Oxfordshire village of Tadfield, and the countdown to the apocalypse begins. Although most of the Earth’s inhabitants are unaware of the Anti-Christ’s presence, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley are more than a little unhappy that the Earth will be ending so soon. After 6,000 years or so, they’ve gotten attached to certain Earthly comforts and the humans they live with. And although they’d never admit it to their respective Head Offices, they’ve gotten more than a little attached to each other as well. So they decide to do what they can to influence the Anti-Christ’s upbringing and avert the apocalypse altogether. But due to a mix-up, partly due to chance, and partly the incompetence of certain Satanic nuns in the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, the Anti-Christ does not end up in the family of an American diplomat as Satan intended, but rather grows up in a typical English family in Tadfield. Of course all of this was predicted by Agnes Nutter, witch, centuries ago, before she exploded at the stake, and her own ancestor, Anathema Device, is searching for the Anti-Christ as well. With the end of days only days away, Aziraphale, Crowley, Anathema, and a couple of barely-competent witch-finders scramble to find the boy who may be bringing about the end of the world.

If you’re a Pratchett or Gaiman fan, you’ve probably already read this one, and you know it is a hilarious, witty, occasionally poignant work of pure genius. I am reviewing it now due to the recent Amazon mini-series adaptation. Could it possibly be as good as the book, you ask? Yes. Incredibly, yes. I did not like the adaptation of Stardust nearly as much as the book, but somehow with this quirky, insane, erratic novel, Neil Gaiman has produced an equally brilliant screen adaptation. Through use of a narrator, it mimics the style of the book beautifully. The characters are perfectly cast, the dialogue in most cases taken directly from the text to preserve each character’s personality. The somewhat scattered writing style in the book actually works perfectly for cross-cut scenes in the series.  Obviously some changes are made to bring the book into the 21st century. Added characters (such as Jon Hamm’s Gabriel) and added scenes tracking Aziraphale and Crowley through the centuries are incorporated so authentically that they merely enhance the satire of the celestial war and the characterization of Aziraphale and Crowley.

In short, the screen adaptation is as perfect as the book. Loved it!

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

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I rarely blog sequels, but since I defended Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit installment, I feel obligated to comment on the second part of The Hobbit.  Or whatever it is you want to call that ridiculous thing I watched yesterday…

The Good:
The dragon animation was awesome.  Also, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is simultaneously sexy and soul-crushingly terrifying.

The Bad:
Pretty much everything else.

Naively, I defended part one of The Hobbit trilogy.  “It’s not an adaptation of The Hobbit,” I thought.  “It’s a prequel to LOTR, bringing in material from the Appendices and The Fellowship and the Sillmarillion!”  And for part one this was true.

But wiser people said “What will they do in Part 2 and 3?  Where will they get the content?”

Naively, I thought, “Maybe their adventures in Mirkwood will lead us to a new understanding of the elves with bits of the elf history that was alluded to in the LOTR films but much more detailed in Tolkien’s writings.  Maybe we’ll see Aragorn kidnap Gollum, or form the Rangers, or just generally do all of the awesome stuff he does before the start of the Fellowship.  Or maybe we’ll get to see the start of Aragorn and Arwen’s relationship and finally come to understand why on Middle Earth he would prefer her over Eowyn!”

But no.

Instead we get 2 hrs of stuff that was not even alluded to in the books with maybe 30 minutes of content that was loosely based on events from the book.  Very loosely.

And here’s the kicker it wasn’t even a good film.  Maybe I can accept that it was a terrible adaptation (although really, I can’t, because the LOTR films were such good adaptations and should have been much, much more difficult to get right). But it was also completely useless as a stand-alone film.  There was absolutely no story arc.  The company traveled several miles, fighting orcs pretty much non-stop; they got to the mountain and fought the dragon for a bit; and then the movie ended.  There was a lot of action, but nothing was achieved and no characters were developed–except for some minor characters who were barely mentioned in the books or completely made up for the film.  

And it kills me because I know that Peter Jackson can do story arc.  I think the adaptation of The Two Towers was brilliant.  He took a book which has no real climax, consisting as it does of two largely unrelated adventures told in separate halves of the book (no offense to Tolkien–his story arc is really more in the entire three book work as a whole).  But by entwining the stories together, Jackson created a powerful story arc.  He even helped assuage the utter, agonizing, boringness of two hobbits hiking across Middle Earth for hundreds of pages (at least a little).  Another great example of his good story arc sense in the LOTR films is his choice to end The Fellowship with Boromir’s death and Frodo and Sam striking off on their own while the rest of the company follows the trail of the kidnapped Merry and Pippin.  Tolkien splits this content between the end of the Fellowship and beginning of the Two Towers–he doesn’t care about the story arc in the individual books and instead lets them run together.  Peter Jackson saw the superior breaking point, completing the collapse of the Fellowship in film one and setting us up for the new quests in film two.

And as for character development, look what Jackson did with Aragorn in the LOTR films.  In the books, most of Aragorn’s development as a character has occurred prior to the start of the plot.  He comes into the Fellowship holding the sword of Elendil proudly and takes command of the quest.  He goes into every battle confident of victory, and he always wins.  He is the triumphant battlelord/king of Medieval lore.  But Jackson makes some bold changes in his adaptation.  He takes away Aragorn’s sword, makes him self-conscious, full of guilt, and reluctant to command.  Jackson gives charge of the quest to Gandalf, even giving the wizard a bunch of Aragorn’s lines (notably, it is Gandalf, not Gimli who wishes to travel through Mordor and Aragorn who cautions against it and predicts Gandalf’s death).  But gradually, Aragorn gains confidence.  The battle of Helm’s Deep is not just a pit stop on the road to victory, but the turning of the tide when King Aragorn comes into his own.  These are pretty big changes, but they are purposeful.  They create a story that is a little bit different from Tolkien’s, but powerful and more accessible and inspiring to a modern film audience.

So I ask you, Peter Jackson, where was all of this brainpower when you were doing The Hobbit?  Here was a chance to create an awesome prequel trilogy for your Academy Award dominating masterworks and instead we experience Star Wars prequel-esque let-down.

At least the CGI dragon was cool. . .

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)

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Director: Rich Moore
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 101 min.

As I was blogging Frozen (2013), I realized I never blogged Wreck-It Ralph!

In the arcade game Fix-It Felix, Jr., Felix is always fixing things, getting medals, and partying it up with the rest of the game’s characters in his penthouse.  Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, lives by himself in a pile of garbage—literally.  In their support group meetings after the arcade closes, the bad guys from other games are always encouraging Ralph to embrace his badness and be happy with who he is.  But on the 30th anniversary of his game, Ralph decides that he can’t take being the bad guy anymore.  He is determined to win a shiny gold medal so that the other characters in his game will be forced to accept him.  So Ralph infiltrates the science fiction war game Hero’s Duty in an attempt to win a medal for defeating the evil Cybugs.  But when his plan goes wrong, he and a rogue Cybug wind up in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game, and Ralph’s only hope to win his medal back is to help a sarcastic young Vanellope—a “glitch” in the game—to sneak herself into the race against King Candy’s orders.  Meanwhile, Felix and the Hero’s Duty commander, Calhoun, have followed him into the candy world to get Ralph back and exterminate the rogue Cybug before both of the games are declared Out of Order.

Wreck-It Ralph was definitely one of my favorite things that Disney has done lately.  First, it has the “Toy Story” appeal factor—how fun to imagine what arcade game characters do when the arcade closes!  Second, the animation was really cool.  The style of the characters varied depending on the era and animation of their video game.  Third, this movie is hilarious for kids and for grown-ups.  Bad guys anonymous? Homeless Q*bert?  Obscure reference to the Konami Code?  There is a lot for adults to love.  Add to that a great cast of voice actors and a solid message about being yourself and true friendship, and you have a great family film!  I highly recommend it!

FROZEN (2013)

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Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time 102 min.

Princess Anna loves playing with her big sister Elsa, especially when Elsa uses her magic powers over ice and snow to transform the Great Hall into a winter wonderland.  But one night when the sisters are playing, Elsa accidentally hits Anna with her icy powers.  Their parents rush Anna to the magic trolls, but in order to save her life, the trolls must remove all of Anna’s memories of her sister’s power.  The king and queen decide that to prevent future accidents, they will shut their family off in the castle while Elsa grows to control her powers.  And so Elsa and Anna grow up isolated from everyone else—and from each other.

After a shipwreck claims the lives of both King and Queen, the time comes for Elsa to ascend to the throne.  Anna, who has grown up very cheerful and idealistic, is thrilled for the opening of the palace gates and the chance to finally meet some new people—maybe even her True Love.  Elsa, on the other hand, is terrified that she will not be able to control her powers.  Sure enough, in the middle of the Coronation Day ball, when Anna announces that she intends to marry a prince that she just met, Elsa loses control and reveals her icy secret.  Decried as a witch, Elsa flees into the mountains, accidentally plunging the land into an eternal winter.  Determined to save her sister and the kingdom, Anna hires a slightly grumpy ice salesman, Kristoff, and his reindeer to take her on an adventure to find Elsa.

I enjoyed this film a lot; it was funny, and the music was great (Idina Menzel does Elsa’s voice!).  But I don’t think it was as good as Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph, largely because of the pacing.  The opening was great with their childhood and growing up apart—very powerful storytelling that brought tears to my eyes. But once the actual adventure started, everything felt very rushed.  I think part of the problem was that the “eternal winter” lasted like one day… And although a major theme in the film is that “love at first sight” is not as genuine and powerful as slowly-grown relationships, the Anna-Kristoff relationship develops over one night—not much better than Anna and Prince Hans.  And they spend most of their time together frantically driving from one point to the next: from Arendelle to Elsa’s castle, away from Elsa’s castle, to the trolls, back to Arendelle, away from Arendelle again–there’s a lot of motion crammed in there, making everything seem rushed.  So again, I enjoyed the movie, laughed a lot, and have had the songs stuck in my head for a week now, but I don’t think the storytelling was as solid as the Disney greats like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King—or even the more recent Tangled. 

I would definitely point out, however, that this is a much better movie for the easily frightened child than many Disney films.  There is briefly an abominable snowman, but otherwise no really scary monsters/villains.

STARDUST (2007)

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Director: Matthew Vaughn
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 127 min.

When Tristan Thorn promises a pretty girl that he will bring her a falling star, he returns to the magical land of his birth to begin his quest.  But he soon discovers that the star is actually a living girl and bringing her back to his home will be much more difficult than he imagined—especially since a witch and a ruthless prince also seek the star to gain immortality.

It is always necessary to make changes in a film adaptation.  The plot structures that work well in a book do not work the same way in a film.  Sometimes, film adaptations can be quite different from the book on which they were based, but still awesome in their own right—for example, The Princess Bride.  Unfortunately, the Stardust movie was no Princess Bride. 

Cuts were obviously necessary for a book as rich in detail as Stardust to become a two hour film.  But as often happens in film adaptions, they cut more than necessary and added things that–instead of telling the same story more efficiently ,as do truly good adaptations like Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility–fundamentally changed the thematic framework of the film.  For example, the 20-30 minutes of action added at the end made it so that neither the witch queen nor Septimus were ironically defeated by their own pride—as was so brilliant in the book—and instead were defeated by violence, heroism, etc., etc.  I figured they would probably change this, since in general, filmmakers don’t usually like to put the major action sequence in the middle, but it really did change the film and the nature of Tristan/Tristran’s heroism.

In addition, the nature of the magic in the film was a little bit different from the book.  There less of the give and take—a kind deed is rewarded with a piece of knowledge, the chains can only be broken when the poetic conditions are met, servitude requires payment, a curse requires a sacrifice, etc.  The witch still sacrificed youth and beauty each time she used her magic, but her magic consisted of pointing at things and shooting green light out of her finger instead of the real work of magic that we saw in the book.  And so my favorite things about Stardust the book—the ironic endings, the quiet and noble heroism of the Fellowship of the Castle, and the adherence to the conventions of traditional faerie lore—were absent from the film.

Overall, an entertaining film, fun to watch, but lacking the depth and brilliance of the book.

If you liked Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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I’m still working my way through Gone with the Wind (which is excellent, but long), so in lieu of a review, today I’ve posted a recommendation list.

Whether you like the Game of Thrones books or the miniseries (or both!), check out some of these books, movies, and miniseries you may enjoy.

 

 

OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

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Director: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 130 minutes

Trying to escape a prairie town after a bad show, con-artist/magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs gets his hot air balloon sucked into a tornado.  He lands in an alternate dimension called (coincidentally) Oz, and he quickly learns that the inhabitants believe him to be the wizard foretold in an ancient prophesy. Seeing an opportunity to make some money, Oz decides to play along. But when he finds out that in order to inherit the wizard’s fortune, he must first kill the wicked witch, he’s not sure he can go through with it. Even worse, he soon discovers that the “wicked witch” might not be who she seems. With the help of his new friends Finley the Flying Monkey and the little China Girl, Oz must figure out who the real wicked witch is and save the Land of Oz from her tyranny.

This movie was decidedly mediocre. It had a few good lines and some interesting ideas but was crippled by poor writing: unnatural dialogue, poor pacing, and underdeveloped characters. Watching it on a plane, I found it entertaining enough to pass the time. But I would not recommend seeking it out or paying for it. There are better uses for your time and money.