Wintertime has arrived. I’ve already experienced three snowfalls, as befits someone who was actually excited to leave the West Coast and return, if only for a bit, to the nosebitingly cold East Coast. I miss my palm trees, yes, but my chin has finally thawed from this morning’s excursion and there’s nothing like sitting inside with a mug of tea and fuzzy slippers while the snow falls down outside…although the nature of qualia are that they are not like anything other than themselves. There’s nothing quite like accidentally spilling boiling tea over your left thumb either (she says from rueful experience).
Winter has many features in my life; one of the odd ones is that its the only time of year I really bother to see movies. Disney movies tend to come out during the winter, as do Peter Jackson’s walking tours of New Zealand and I will go and see those no matter what. I’m three for four in terms of this year’s crop of movies; the fourth is not really out yet, but I’m sure I’ll be seeing it soon. The four movies of this season are, in order of release:
Thor 2: The Dark World
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Saving Mr. Banks
I am more than willing to admit that I lack “sophisticated” tastes in film. If the acting is good and the story holds together, my requirements have been met. What I care about is whether the story can draw me in and win me over. (This is actually not much of a surprise; my current research is on how forms of New Media affect us emotionally and create connections between work and reader/viewer/user/player. Of course I care about movies that emotionally affect me.) Beautiful visuals are a plus. So, with that in mind, I present Liz’s well thought-out and most definitely not off the top of her head thoughts on the three films she has already seen. Conveniently, one of them exactly met her expectations, one fell short and one completely surpassed them. As a note, I will consign all spoilers to the footnotes. And I’m assuming that you’ve read the Hobbit and Anderson’s “The Snow Queen” at some point and that content that appears in there does not count as spoilable.
Thor 2 – this movie was exactly what it said on the tin. Assuming the tin said “Superhero movie with snarkiness provided by Tom Hiddleston”. I enjoy the kind of superhero movies that Marvel has been producing recently precisely because they are unabashedly superhero movies. They’re a bit over the top and occasionally absurd, but that’s the nature of the genre. Superheroes are supposed to be larger than life and the Thor movies capture that exceedingly well. There have been some interesting conversations online about why we’ve reached an era of superhero movies right now (which assumes that a) they’re not a cinematic constant and b) Disney backing Marvel isn’t a good enough reason). The one I enjoy the most is the argument that superheroes are the incarnations of myths and gods in our age, the archetypal stories that get rewrapped in the clothing of their times. They as resonant as ever and we enjoy watching the epic battle of good versus evil play out every time we see it. The mark of our age is that we have a tendency to destroy Manhattan, L.A. or London in the process. Usually Manhattan.
Speaking of the epic battle between good and evil, let’s move to the film that disappointed me. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was a perfectly fine movie, but I’m used to being blown away by the Lord of the Rings movies (can we agree to call all 6 films Lord of the Rings Movies because “The Middle Earth Hexology” sounds like the wizard’s guide to spell-casting?) and I just wasn’t this time. It might have been that Peter Jackson has finally discovered the point past which I will no longer tolerate deviations from the original text and sped on past that point with impunity. On that note, he might have surpassed the number of times I will tolerate elves turning up to save the day. This movie is about dwarves. They’re not perfect dwarves, but it is their story and they should have been the heroes more often. This was the first of the LOTR movies that requires the qualification “very loosely based on JRR Tolkien”. The first Hobbit was expanded beyond the original source material to incorporate Peter Jackson’s interpretations of the appendices, but the story itself remained more or less unchanged. There were extra orcs, yes. And the fact that I’m defending the authenticity of the first movie should tell you just how far off this one was. So, yes, the fact that this movie didn’t feel like a visual dramatization of Tolkien’s world was jarring.
It wasn’t a bad movie. But it was a movie whose value exists almost entirely in the excellence of the cast. I love Martin Freeman as Bilbo; his ability to be awkwardly expressive is one of the most adorable and wonderful features of both films. And Richard Armitage still does a great Thorin Oakenshield. Honestly, all the dwarves were excellent. They each have personality and the movie would feel poorer without each one. I was less impressed with the elves (except Lee Pace’s Thranduil, which was entirely over-the-top and perfectly right in being so), but I’m not sure whether that’s because Legolas has exactly two facial expressions or because all he is allowed to do is stand still and kill things.* And Smaug was a sight to behold.
My favorite scene was probably the escape from Thranduil’s halls in the barrels. That was amazing and was one of the few scenes (along with the unexpected dinner party in the first movie) that really captured the tone and feeling of the book. And many of Jackson’s alterations really work.** But it was, as my sister pointed out, mostly filler and so much of it was just unnecessary. Jackson hasn’t successfully convinced me that this needed to be three movies yet.
But onto happier things. Frozen was amazing. After first seeing it, I had decided it was good, albeit a bit flawed, but the more time I spend thinking about it, the less I see the flaws as flaws or even see them at all. Josh and I were discussing how we felt about Frozen and one of the issues that came up was how every movie currently made felt the need to be a little bit meta, a little fourth-wall-breaking. We can no longer be earnest in cinema (cue Oscar Wilde joke). We have to have moments when we are explicitly reminded that what we are watching is a performance and is in dialogue with previous performances of a similar kind. Frozen does something of this sort in that it reminds you that you’re in a fairy tale by pointing out or even slyly mocking fairy tale tropes. This bothered me far less the second time around (did I mention that I saw it again?) because disconcerting breaks lose their force via repetition. When you know a character is about to do or say something that does not quite fit with the very well developed fairy tale world, it’s no longer jarring. (I realize this makes me Queen of Pedantville, but one of the songs mentions fractals and, based on the clothing and weaponry in the movie, the idea of fractals had yet to be discovered. It bothered Josh as well, which I suppose makes him the King) So, on the second viewing, the film’s earnestness rang truer for me and I loved it more.
I was also a bit disappointed at first that it was less like 1990s style musical (and, thus, in the style of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast) and more like a 2010s style musical. I held out for about 12 hours before buying the soundtrack and have since listened to it…oh, about 15 times. The songs were even better than I’d realized. Unlike Enchanted, this film does not waste Idina Menzel’s talent.
The flip-side of Frozen’s slightly meta approach is that it’s actually possible to spoil this movie. I cannot remember the last time a Disney movie had a substantive and unpredictable plot.*** But this movie is great and it lets Disney address some of the critiques that have been leveled at it over the years. They get a lot of things right, especially with their portrayal of female characters.****
It’s not Lion King, as my mother pointed out. Few things are. But if Disney meets this standard for its next few releases, I will be absolutely thrilled.
So there you have it – three movies, three different reactions. And while I think that verbalizing my reactions goes some way towards explaining why I feel the way I feel about these movies, I wish I knew whether my original emotional responses were actually based in the reasons I list above. Was I just unconsciously aware of these critical interpretations and my emotions were ahead of my abilities to cogitate about them? Or am I inventing connections between how I felt then and what I’m thinking now? How I feel about them now is certainly influenced by this post, but were my earlier emotions equally based in these ideas I had yet to articulate?
(Oh, yes. That reminds me. Neil Gaiman dressed up as Charles Dickens and performing a live reading of “A Christmas Carol” out of Dickens’ own prompt copy of the book was amazing! I may even be able to call it research.)
* I was fine with the elves turning up to scare away the giant spiders and I was even okay when they hunted down the orcs during the barrel riding scene. Their third appearance in Laketown was just absurd. And the Kili/Tauriel thing was cute (and a nice presage for Gimli’s massive crush on Galadriel), but is there a reason that Bofur couldn’t have saved Kili? I mean, really? Aren’t the dwarves allowed to do anything themselves? Because the constant reintroduction of elves saving the day makes it look like the dwarves are completely incompetent. Which is unfortunate, because they really are the better characters (and, in my opinion, better actors).
**The thing with the arrow and giant bow, for example, is a far neater way of handling Smaug’s future death than having the thrush report an overheard conversation to Bard, who can inexplicably understand it.
***Prince Hans? Seriously? Well played, Disney. Also, whoever was in charge of the marketing fell down seriously on selling this movie, but the way that they use Hans to make it look like a double romance on the posters was genius.
****Elsa ends the movie in full control of her powers without losing either her magic or her sense of self. She basically learns that bottling up her emotions and pretending nothing hurts is unhealthy and that she’s supposed to show her feelings and embrace them. And no one ever has any problem with her being Queen even after accidentally freezing the kingdom. And she even gets to keep her new dress and hairstyle. Rather than Brave’s ending, which shows a kind of compromise between Elinor and Merida, Elsa does not need to change anything about who she is. For all that she suffers during the movie, the only characters who try to punish her for being powerful are the villains. And then there’s Anna. While Elsa was probably my favorite character (or possibly tied with Sven the reindeer), Anna was also amazing. She saves herself! She actually gets to perform the act of true love that saves her and it’s sisterly affection rather than a true love’s kiss. God, I’ve been waiting for years for Disney to do something like this!