Category Archives: Film

The Dressmaker: Everything Wrong with Australian Films

The Dressmaker is one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in the cinema.  It’s rare that a movie makes me this fundamentally outraged. It may be a critical and financial success but for me, The Dressmaker is an example of everything wrong with the Australian film industry. I know I’m in a minority here. I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this. And that’s fine, everyone likes different things. It’s not about whether you like or dislike a movie/TV show/anything. What matters is how well you can explain your reasons.

Based on the popular 2000 novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker tells the story of Tilly Dunnage, a talented dressmaker who returns to her childhood town to care for her mentally unstable mother. However, at the age of 10, Tilly was accused of murdering a local boy and was sent away. For some reason, Tilly can’t remember anything about the alleged incident and seeks both answers and revenge.
It’s one of the most successful Australian films. But that does not a good movie make. At least for my taste. It’s not like there’s an abundance of Australian films to begin with, and even less that are actually good. The only Australian films I like are The Castle, The Black Balloon, Gallipoli and Strictly Ballroom. Harsh? Maybe, but I can’t force myself to like something, and as a critic, I certainly can’t overlook such glaring flaws.

Rest assured, I am going to add as many spoilers as humanly possible. Fair warning to those who want to see it. And if you think the movie is a masterpiece, I advise you to stop reading. I don’t want to ruin anything for you. Also, I’m going on record here by saying I have not read the original novel. I didn’t even know it was a novel. It’s quite rare for me to see a movie without having read the book, but here we are. Frankly, I’m going to make sure I don’t read the book. That’s how much I disliked the movie.
I could write an essay here, but to spare my sanity and yours, here’s 4 reasons why I don’t like The Dressmaker.

checklist

Hollywood has checklists for cliches. I can have them too.

1. It’s miserable and unpleasant

What could be more uplifting than a false accusation of murder, rape, infidelity, abuse and revenge?
As I said, it’s a revenge film (poorly executed, but I’ll get to that later). The problem is that it’s in the guise of a comedy, and there is little comedy in this. This is a thoroughly unpleasant, depressing, mean-spirited movie.
From the minute Tilly enters, she’s hated by the town, and it seems like that was the case her whole life. Her mother isn’t exactly a bundle of joy either. Tilly was subjected to terrible bullying as a child from both school and adults alike. She was sent away, she’s treated with suspicion and nobody is interested in her side of the story. And just when it seems like something nice might FINALLY happen to our main character, the movie douses it with petrol and sets it alight while cackling madly. She just never gets a break. It’s exhausting, depressing and downright nasty. The movie was hell bent on making Tilly suffer as much as possible.
To give a better idea of what I’m talking about,  let’s look at another “classic” Australian film. Muriel’s Wedding.

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Take off the rose tinted glasses for a minute and hear me out.

Muriel’s Wedding is touted as a ‘feel-good’ movie.

How?!?

When, at any point in the movie, is this a ‘feel-good’ flick? Point to me that moment. Is it when Muriel is arrested on a false accusation someone made out of spite? Is it when she steals money from her family and goes on holiday to Bali? Then runs away? When her ‘friends’ disown her? How about her abusive father telling his family they’re all useless? Oh, I know. It must be when her best friend gets cancer and loses the ability to walk. Or when her dad has an affair and drives their browbeaten mother to suicide!
You beginning to see what I mean here? Adding all this violence (physical, emotional etc) is not going to make us feel more sympathy for the main character. Especially if, like Muriel’s Wedding, the main character is a pretty horrible person herself. Muriel lies, steals, manipulates and abandons people just to get what she wants. Sure, she’s horribly abused by people but that doesn’t give her the right to behave the way she does. There’s far better ways of dealing with things like this.
So right from the outset, we have a movie that delights in suffering, for the pleasure of the audience and other characters. That’s such a great foundation to lay a film on.

 

2. It makes no sense

What was the focus of this movie? What was the driving point? The love story? The truth about this murder? Revenge? Dressmaking? Small towns? The relationship between Tilly and her mother? How much I’m supposed to hate these characters?
Why can’t Tilly remember what really happened when Stewart Pettyman died? Who forgets the circumstances of a death which you’re accused of being responsible for?!?!?
How had Stewart Pettyman’s mother never heard that Tilly was supposedly the one who killed her son???? If the town is so malicious, why is Tilly’s mother Molly still there? And that deus ex machina plot point about Teddy’s mentally unstable brother somehow being a witness to the death but nobody ever mentioned it? He never said anything? And once he is revealed as an eyewitness and the other witness was lying, they do precisely NOTHING with this information. They don’t tell anyone, it’s never resolved, she’s never exonerated, nothing. Just a completely stupid sex scene. There was also no reason to kill off Teddy. Or Tilly’s mother for that matter. It was just more ways to ensure Tilly was downtrodden even further.
By the way, if Teddy was so smart, who jumps into a silo after a delivery? Stupid thing to do.
Whoever wrote this needs a high five. In the face. With a crowbar.

3. The characters are terrible

It’s bad enough that the story is sheer misery. They didn’t need to go so far as to make characters with no personality outside of being the worst human beings in the world. This was a who’s who of great Australian talent and none were utilised to their full potential.
With the exception of Tilly (mainly due to Kate Winslet’s performance), I hated these characters. They had little to no redeeming qualities and other than that were cliched as hell.
You have Gertrude Pratt, the town’s ugly duckling who is in love with someone who’s way out of her league. Sheesh, haven’t seen that in a zillion other movies and TV shows.

She gets the cliche of having a makeover, suddenly becomes the belle of the ball, is immediately engaged to him and with no transition whatsoever, becomes a complete and utter stuck up maniac. She had no transition and the flimsiest of excuses for existing in the first place.
Then you have the great Barry Otto as the loathsome chemist. He’s cruel to Tilly as a child and behaves in a downright sadistic manner while Molly dies in pain from a stroke.  And technically, Tilly is responsible for him drowning. Great. We’re supposed to think she’s innocent and mistreated but there you go. There’s no reason for this chemist to exist apart from being another despicable character.
Hugo Weaving is having a lot of fun as the cross dressing sergeant, but what cop could be bribed with a damn feather boa to reveal secret witness statements???
Evan Pettyman is probably the character I despised the most in the entire mess however. Shane Bourne gives a good performance but this character was just so thoroughly unlikeable he was DOA. This is a man who sleeps with every woman he sees, while drugging his wife Marigold and raping her while she’s unconscious. He’s also suddenly revealed as Tilly’s father. Ugh.
Of course, Marigold eventually discovers her husband’s affairs thanks to Tilly. What follows is a horrifying scene where she slices his Achilles’ tendons with a butcher knife and leaves him to bleed to death. This disturbing act is portrayed as both triumphant and somewhat comedic. And I am absolutely not ok with that.
Both genders were given a disservice here. The men were cheating scumbags and the women were gold-digging harpies. Teddy was the only character with a likeable personality but let’s face it, he was just eye candy and because they killed him off, anything remotely pleasant vanished from the movie.

4. There’s no message or reason for it to exist

As I said before, this is an incredibly dark movie. And on the surface, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with dark themes. Australian theatre is full of them. Look at The Boys by Gordon Graham. If you don’t know, it’s a highly fictionalised play about the brutal 1986 murder of Sydney nurse Anita Cobby. The Boys is hard hitting, raw and violent, but it’s all done through the writing and characters. No crime is committed on stage. But the reason The Boys works is because there is a definite message. It’s anti-violence, and explores the reasons behind crimes and mob mentality. Because the play is told through the eyes of the women (the mother and girlfriends of the boys), the audience is pulled into the drama and urgency, leaving with deep questions about violence and the cause of anger and hate. Blackrock, also about the real life murder of teenager Leigh Leigh, ponders the responsibility of a community and the reactions to a crime. Radiance talks about rejection, history and family. Look at international works such as Spring Awakening. That deals with rape, homosexuality, abortion, death, suicide, teenage self-discovery, sado-masochism and all to show the consequences of improper communication and not being honest with teens about sex. None of these plays, and a list of others, are sunshine and roses. But again, the darkness has purpose. The violence and confronting themes are to make a point. To say something worthwhile. The Dressmaker does not do this. There was no message here. No attempt to make this a better world. The movie is essentially saying that revenge is the way to handle things. That murder and arson are completely justified if you feel so inclined. That is where I draw the line.
Allow me to use a line from Batman Begins.

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Because Batman is awesome

“Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about making yourself feel better,”

Tilly’s revenge solved nothing. It just created a whole world of anger and suffering. Like the movie did to me!

I know a lot of people like this movie but I’m sorry. I just think it’s horrendous. As an artist, I am mortified that this is the calibre of films Australia continues to produce.
The reason films like Gallipoli, The Castle and The Black Balloon are good films is because they’re about real people and real issues. The Kerrigans in The Castle are a loving family, though slightly off-beat, and they’re fighting for their home. Gallipoli shows the tragedy of WWI by making us connect to these characters as real humans. The Black Balloon touches on the rarely explored issue of mental disabilities and the effects on people.
Instead of being an interesting story of discovering the truth and righting what is wrong, The Dressmaker just shows that violence is justified if people wrong you. The characters are stereotypes and like I said, it’s surprisingly unfocused and mean spirited. I give the actors credit for their performances but it felt like their talent was going to waste.
This could have been a good movie. This could have been a unique and touching film about a young woman reconnecting with her mother after a troubled childhood. But it was a bloody mess.

This is what’s wrong with Australian film. There are few outlets for artists to utilise their abilities effectively. There’s very little funding or resources and as a result, our film industry is almost non-existent, and the quality of movies are nowhere near the quality they could be. Most movies are stereotypes, unsavoury and not very well written. But because they’re Australian, we’re expected to love them no matter their flaws.

The Australian film industry deserves so much more. But as long as the funding is locked away and talented filmmakers are denied resources in favour of movies like The Dressmaker, it will continue to suffer.

Into the Woods: From Stage to Screen

Into the Woods is without doubt my favourite musical of all time. I consider it a masterpiece of story telling. The characters are wonderful, the score is flawless, there’s a perfect blend of comedy and drama and the story is beyond ingenious. It’s also pretty much the only time I will ever admit to being an original cast snob. The DVD recording of the original Broadway cast remains one of my most beloved possessions.

The movie was stuck in development hell for years, but when it was finally announced for a 2014 release, I had mixed feelings. On one hand I was excited at the thought of seeing this show being immortalised in cinematic form. On the other hand, I was apprehensive. With a show this good, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Plus, this is a very hard adaptation to pull of since the musical is so theatrical, and has the advantage of an intermission.

However, the movie had a stellar cast (so I thought) and the director of Chicago at the helm, so I put any preconceived notions behind, and went to see the movie. And what did I get? A mixed bag. There were some elements that were done perfectly, and other elements that didn’t even make it up to bat. It’s definitely not the best musical movie but there was still so much the filmmakers got right. And overall, I quite liked it. So what worked? What didn’t? Let’s take a look.

Oh, by the way, spoilers ahead.

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It’s your last warning!

Into the Woods, for those of you who don’t know, is based on the 1987 Tony Award winning musical composed by the legendary Stephen Sondheim. Into the Woods cleverly interweaves the classic tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel alongside an original story about a childless Baker and his wife. When a Witch reveals she cursed the pair to infertility in vengeance against his father, the Baker and his wife are tasked with finding four magical ingredients. The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. As you can imagine, the characters all cross paths as they go to get their wishes granted, and everything ends happily….for the first act. The second act goes into detail about what happens after ‘happily ever after’ as the characters are forced to face the consequences of their actions in Act One.
This was one of the first examples of twisted fairytales. It brings the stories into the world of reality, by showing how life doesn’t always have a happy ending and what you want isn’t necessarily what’s best for you. It’s really the ultimate ‘be careful what you wish for’ message.
All the characters, main or supporting, have beautifully defined personalities that go beyond the fairytale archetypes. This is a true ensemble piece, and everyone has a realistic and developed character arc.
This story could have been a cluttered mess, and granted it is a rather dense plot, but it’s told in a way that never leaves you confused or lost. The pacing is excellent, and you have an even distribution of comedy and drama. They aren’t afraid to make you laugh and they don’t shy away from raw emotional scenes either. There’s a lot of very clever fourth wall jokes, the best one being the characters feeding the narrator to the Giant in Act 2. The score is absolutely brilliant (come on, it’s Sondheim!) with sweeping instrumentals and clever lyrics that only Sondheim in all his genius can supply.
It’s about as perfect a musical I can think of. If I had to nitpick anything, and I mean really scraping the bottom of the barrel, the ending does drag on just a little bit too long. But that’s honestly the only thing I can think of.

Ok, ok, I’ve sung the show’s praises. Time to compare.

The original cast starred Bernadette Peters (The Witch), Joanna Gleason (Baker’s Wife), Chip Zien (Baker), Danielle Ferland (Little Red), Ben Wright (Jack) and Kim Crosby (Cinderella).
In the film we had Meryl Streep (Witch) James Corden (Baker), Emily Blunt (Baker’s Wife), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince), Lilla Crawford (Little Red), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), and Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel). Generally speaking, this is solid casting, with most of these actors being good choices for the roles and many turning in strong performances. James Corden and Emily Blunt carry the film exceptionally well as two ordinary homemakers thrust into a world they don’t understand. Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, though both too young for the roles imbibe them with youthfulness and energy. None of the supporting cast (Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Johnny Depp, etc) stand out in negative ways, but the actress who really blew me away was Mackenzie Mauzy. Rapunzel isn’t a giant role in the musical and considering how much of her story was cut (which will be discussed later) she created something truly heartfelt and mesmerising.
However, this cast was not without weak links. As I said, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone , while doing a good job, were both too young. Personally, I think Jack comes across as more comical when played older (around 18-20), considering the dynamics with his mother. As for Little Red, she’s always played by an adult who looks young (20-25 or so) for reasons that become dazzlingly clear as soon as the Wolf appears. The sexual tension in that scene just becomes creepy otherwise. I rolled my eyes when the Wolf opened his jacket, revealing an array of lollies. Subtlety? What’s that?
As for Anna Kendrick, her singing sounded lovely (possible autotune?) but her acting was…lacking. Granted, Cinderella is probably the hardest character to play in Into the Woods, but it can definitely be done. Kim Crosby turned this role into something quirky, funny and strong willed. Anna Kendrick let so many lines fall flat and missed a lot of opportunities for comedy and real drama. I don’t know if it was the character choices or the director, but her Cinderella came off as bland and not very interesting.
Then we have Meryl Streep. When I heard she was cast as the Witch, I was hyped. She seemed the perfect choice, no question. So we have the legendary actress of our time…in one of the most confusing performances I’ve ever seen. Every time I watch her, I shake my head and have less idea what she was trying to accomplish. She’s so over the top, but with no focus or reason. She adds all this weird physicality; it’s like she’s incapable of being still. I don’t know what went wrong here. It’s like she was afraid to be grounded and commanding and thought the safest option was to ham it up to 11. To be fair though, her singing has improved miles since Mamma Mia (which I am NOT planning to review any time soon, by the way) and her crowning moment was during Stay With Me. It’s not a bad performance per se, but it’s certainly not what I wanted or thought I was going to see from such talent. And in such an iconic musical theatre role. Bring on Bernadette Peters any day.
The music, however, is the star of the film, and it sounds magnificent with that orchestra. It sounds lush, epic, and majestically carries the plot forward. The staging of the songs is at times extremely clever, such as On the Steps of the Palace freezing time or the visuals in I Know Things Now. My favourite number by far was Agony, which was absolutely perfect. It’s one of the few male duets in modern musical theatre, and one of the funniest. Both Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen work off each other fantastically and the rivalry dynamic works a charm. The waterfall was a creative setting too (actually, the movie was visually stunning and didn’t rely on it either!). I do wish the reprise had been included, but you can’t have everything you want.
The only song I really missed in the film was No More, which is actually my favourite song from the musical. I can kind of see why it was cut though. Without the Mysterious Man, and therefore very little of the Baker’s Father, the song may have felt shoehorned in. But this also created a world of problems. Without the song, the Baker didn’t have much reason to return. His father’s speech made little impact. There was no decision made about whether to keep fighting on. The Baker just walks away, cries for less than ten seconds and suddenly he’s ok. Sense! Please make it!

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There weren’t all that many changes to the story, and most of the changes I can understand and even like, because hey, it’s a movie, not a stage show. Having the Baker narrate the show was an inspired move, although I did miss the Mysterious Man. I’ll also admit I laughed out loud when the Baker’s Wife became pregnant in a microsecond. At least they had the smarts to actually make a joke about it.
But I do have one problem with the movie, and unfortunately it’s kind of a big one.

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Great, good, meh, awkward, good, good, …what?, good, good, hilarious

In my humble opinion, the biggest mistake the movie made was not killing off Rapunzel. Why? Because it pulls the entire second act apart. In the stage show, Rapunzel suffers from Post traumatic stress disorder and post natal depression from her treatment at the hands of the Witch. The Giant’s wife climbs down the second beanstalk looking for revenge on Jack for killing her husband and stealing their things. Fair enough.  In the initial confrontation, the Narrator is fed to the Giant, Jack’s Mother is accidentally killed by the Prince’s Steward, and Rapunzel is trampled to death. The Witch sings Lament over her adoptive daughter’s fate, and spends the rest of the show trying to give Jack over to the Giant in revenge.

In the movie, Rapunzel simply tells the Witch she wants nothing to do with her anymore and rides off with her Prince. And that’s it. We never see her again.

This plot change was revealed prior to release, but the producers assured us that Rapunzel would still have a tragic ending. But this is far from a tragic ending. The Witch singing Lament, while still a beautiful song, has much less impact when sung about a person who has simply released a toxic person from their life. Additionally, because Rapunzel doesn’t die, the Witch has zero motivation to go after Jack. She has no reason to want the Giant dead. This also waters down the Last Midnight, as the Witch’s role as the ironic voice of reason is lessened since she has nothing at stake.

I realise the producers probably didn’t want to upset the kids in the audience by killing off Rapunzel. But here’s my argument: just who do they think this story is aimed at? It is not a children’s story. There’s a number of reasons why there’s a junior version of Into the Woods. Fairytales were originally dark and gruesome. They were cautionary tales. Killing off Rapunzel is one of the many brave choices James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim made in the original. None of the characters are in the right. The things they wished for didn’t bring them true happiness. There have been serious consequences, including death. In most fairytales, the Witch would be the villain, but as I said above, here she’s the voice of reason. The writers of the musical were not afraid of these changes in the pursuit of the message and story they were telling. The movie is another example of Hollywood being terrified of giving audiences the truth.

But at the end of the day, this is still a good film of a very difficult adaptation and it’s not getting out of here without a recommendation. Still, I would also highly recommend checking out the original Broadway cast DVD. Whichever way you choose, Into the Woods is musical theatre at its finest.

Inside Out: A lesson in good family films

Over the last month in my Seuss on Screen series, I’ve ripped apart the terrible Dr Seuss films one by one. Complaining about everything from lazy writing to deviation from the source material, I haven’t left a single fibre intact.

However, the time has come for some positive words. To shower praise on a film that deserves to be placed on a pedestal. Pixar’s Inside Out. I’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t seen this movie yet, but I’m sure there’s people who haven’t, so a warning. Spoilers ahead.

My favourite Pixar film is Up, and anyone who’s seen it will know why. I’d heard Inside Out was good, and the concept seemed creative, so I was pretty excited. Once I found out that Pete Docter was at the helm (director and writer of Up), I was sold. I simply had to go. I went and saw the film on my 23rd birthday this year, because I’m an adult. My partner and friends and I, all in our twenties and thirties, crowded into the theatre. And let me tell you now, this film did not disappoint. I think we enjoyed it more than anyone else in the theatre. Including the kids. Inside Out is everything I was told it is, and more.

First, the story for the two of you who don’t know it. Inside Out takes place inside the head of an 11 year old girl named Riley. Her five emotions are manifested in Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Riley has recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco and is struggling with the adjustment. Through an accident, Joy and Sadness are sucked out of headquarters into the rest of Riley’s mind, leaving Anger, Fear and Disgust to run the show. It’s up to Joy and Sadness to return the core memories back to Headquarters and make Riley happy again.

See, Riley’s mind runs on her emotions and memories, which are coloured according to what emotion she was feeling at the time. Most are stored away in Long Term Memory Storage, but there’s 5 core memories, which come from a vital moment in Riley’s life. Each core memory powers the Islands of Personality (Hockey Island, Honesty Island, Friendship Island, Family Island and Goofball Island). With no core memories, the Islands are shut down. Riley can’t show emotion at all.

Throughout the entire introduction I was going “Brilliant. Brilliant”. It was just ingenious. There’s so much potential for creativity and imagination with this set up and believe me, the movie takes full advantage of it. From Riley’s dreams being made on Dream Productions movie sets to a hilarious running gag that explains why you can’t get that catchy song out of your head, the world of Riley’s mind is wildly creative and fun. Imagination Land, French Fry Forest, Cloudtown, all these places made me feel like a child again. Every second of commentary on the mind (“These facts and opinions look so similar!” “There’s conductive reasoning, there’s deja vu, there’s language processing, there’s deja vu, there’s critical thinking, there’s deja vu…”) rings true. There’s a joke about ice-cream related brain freeze, they talk about memories fading, they’ve really explored all the possibilities with how the human brain and emotions function.

There’s so much comedy in this, but the best thing about the comedy is that it all comes from the concept, not a reliance on pop culture references. In fact, in terms of the pop culture nods, I counted four. (I swear I was the only one laughing at the Chinatown reference!) The comedy comes from the world, and the characters.

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Anger, Fear, Disgust, Joy and Sadness are such wonderful personalities and they’re so much fun to watch. They’re more than just stereotypes, and this comes across strongly in the voice acting. What perfect casting. Amy Poehler as Joy is a smiley faced optimist with the most infectious energy, Mindy Kahling is a riot as the sassy Disgust, Bill Hader is hilarious as a hysterical Fear and Phyllis Smith hits every note as Sadness. But the one who steals the show, for me at least, is comedian Lewis Black as Anger. His biting delivery and dry humour is beyond pitch perfect.

These emotions work off each other brilliantly and their character arcs are rock solid. The Emotions go beyond simply being scared or happy. Fear is“really good at keeping Riley safe”. Disgust “keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially,” and Anger “cares very deeply about things being fair,” And when Riley is unable to show any emotion, it’s a true representation of depression. Depression goes beyond being sad. It’s having nothing. I’ve heard the filmmakers consulted heavily with psychologists during production and my hats off to them. The way emotions and feelings and their relationship with what’s happening around you is so well represented in a way children can understand and identify with. Psychologists now are actually using the film to treat children and help them process their feelings, and you can see why.

Despite the charming humour, they also know the power of silence and visuals. There’s a number of moments in the film that give the characters and the audience a chance to draw breath. Look at Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend. He’s one of the funniest characters in the movie, but he isn’t always the life of the party. He has several crying moments, such as when his rocket is sent to the dump. That moment sets up the character/story arc with Joy and Sadness later without rubbing your face in it. This, any horrible family film who happens to be reading this, is how you create pacing and foreshadowing correctly.

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Are you listening?

And now it’s time to talk about my absolute favourite aspect of the film. The moral.

Joy has to learn the importance of Sadness, and so does the audience. In the end, Fear, Disgust, Joy and Anger are all powerless to stop Riley running away. Only Sadness can get the idea out of her head. Only Sadness can make Riley feel anything again. Only Sadness can signal to the parents that Riley isn’t ok. And it’s without doubt one of the greatest scenes in cinema history. It shows the power of all emotions, and the importance of not masking your feelings. It humanises the parents, and shows the connection Riley has with them.

But after all that, Riley doesn’t have her typical happy ending, where she gets to go home. She learns to live in San Francisco. Just how it would play in real life. And this is a story about real life. When Bing Bong sacrifices himself for Riley and Joy, he doesn’t miraculously return. He stays forgotten. And it’s tragic, but it’s also real life. I know a lot people were very touched by that moment, because it brought back memories for them. I remembered my imaginary friend Michelle at that moment, and it was bittersweet. This is a film that is not afraid of the truth, and is not afraid of reality.

In today’s world, with the explosion of technology and social media, depression and feelings of inadequacy are rampant. With sites such as Facebook and Instagram, we can choose the persona we present to the world, and in desperation to feel like we have it all together, we often present the highlights and exaggerate how perfect life is. But the truth is that nobody’s life is perfect, and it’s ok to admit that not everything is bunnies and rainbows. Inside Out knows this, and I can only give it a standing ovation.

It’s rare that I say this, but this is about the most perfect movie you can imagine. Everything about this movie is the pinnacle of quality entertainment. And the best thing about it? It’s not just for kids. This movie has a message that is vital for every human being to know, especially in the 21st century.

I am so grateful a movie like Inside Out exists. It has everything. Wonderful characters, great acting, brilliant writing, creativity, originality, beautiful animation and a moral which is desperately needed.

For all these reasons and more, Inside Out has found a very special place in my heart. It’s a movie I can proclaim as a masterpiece of animation. An instant classic. Like everyone else, I simply love this movie and I’ll gush over it til the day I die. If you haven’t seen it, get that DVD, stat.

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You’ll never be forgotten by me 😥

 

Seuss on Screen Part 4: The Lorax

A 12-year-old boy searches for the one thing that will enable him to win the affection of the girl of his dreams. To find it, he must discover the story of the Lorax, the grumpy yet charming forest creature who fights to protect his world,”

Ladies and gentlemen, those few above words
Make my ears scream in agony from what they’ve just heard.
The Lorax, a Seuss adaptation of late,
Brings no other emotion inside me but hate
Hate for this film and for what they have done,
But people still watched it, and it cashed in a ton.
Without further ado and no minimus morax,
My name is AbStar. And this is The Lorax

What you read above is the description on the DVD of 2012’s The Lorax. Produced and distributed by Illumination Entertainment and Universal, The Lorax was a huge financial success, raking in $348 million at the box office. It’s the second of the full-length animated feature films based on Ted Geisel’s work and the fourth film overall. The financial success led to announcements of future animated films of The Grinch and Cat in the Hat. It also led to myself and other Seuss devotees cringing in fear as to what new level of insult these movies could set to such a great writer’s work. But for now, I’m ripping apart The Lorax.

Before launching into this rant of epic proportions, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. The Lorax is NOT the worst of the Seuss films. Cat in the Hat wins that trophy hands down. The Lorax has some elements that almost work, and I’ll get to those. But it’s easily the Seuss movie I have the harshest feelings towards, and it’s the one that makes me the saddest. Why is this? Let’s look at the source material.

the-lorax
The Lorax was written in 1971 and is easily the darkest of Dr Seuss’ books. There’s little if any of his trademark whimsical humour and bright colours. In the book, a young nameless boy living in a polluted city visits the Once-ler, a mysterious reclusive creature who knows the story of the Lorax, and the mystery of why there are no trees in the town. The Once-ler reveals he chopped down the Truffula trees years ago in order to make Thneeds, an absurdly versatile invention. All the while, the Once-ler is at odds with the Lorax, who tries to warn him of the dangers.
Interestingly, the book is told through two narrators. The beginning and ending of the book is the second person, making the reader the nameless child, which creates a very powerful image, especially in the conclusion. Again, this will be important later. The majority of the story is narrated by the Once-ler in first person, essentially making the antagonist the protagonist like the Grinch.
The Lorax was Dr Seuss’ personal favourite of his books. “The Lorax,” he said “came out of my being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.”
Like many others, I believe The Lorax is one of the best children’s books ever written. It’s engaging, uncompromisingly grim and very adult in theme. As usual with Seuss’ writing, it never panders to the children. But what I love most about the book is how it DOESN’T knock you over the head with an environmental message. It doesn’t paint black and white extremes. It’s simply a cautionary tale about greed, both corporate and personal. It’s not my all-time favourite Seuss book (nothing will ever beat Oh! The Places You’ll Go!) but it’s definitely in my top 3.

Unlike other books, The Lorax actually does lend itself to a movie. It’s very story driven, it has great characters in the Once-ler and the Lorax, there’s so much subtlety and weight to the message. And yes, there is a good animated special from 1972 with a teleplay and lyrics by Seuss himself, who also produced. The animated special goes more in depth of the Once-ler debating himself about the pollution his factory is causing and shows the argument of economics and employment. Sure, it’s a bit dated now, but it still holds up as a much better adaptation than the….thing I’m about to review.

Actually, it’s not so much a review as opposed to a beatdown. Rather than simply going beginning to end, I’m instead going to look at the elements of the movie and compare to both the book and the animated special. Is this unfair, especially considering my mantra that changes are necessary in adaptation to new mediums? Well, no. Because I can tolerate changes and even like them if they serve the base story and respect the source material. The changes made here are an abomination. There’s not one shred of respect to Seuss’ writing or to the target audience.

Comparison #1: Setting and new characters.

The problems in the movie become dazzlingly clear from the very beginning. In the film, the book’s nameless boy becomes 12 year old Ted (get it? That’s Dr Seuss’ real name!) and he lives in a town called Thneedville. Very clever. Allow me to give you a visual comparison of these settings. This is what the town in the book looks like.

town

This is what Thneedville looks like in the film.

thneedville

You starting to see the problem here?

As opposed to the desolate wasteland in the book, Ted is living in a plastic paradise. Everything is artificial and there are no trees. They literally sing an upbeat tune about how much they love living this way.

‘In Thneedville we love living this way/It’s like living in paradise/It’s perfect and that’s how it will stay/Here in love-the-life-we-leadville’.

I can’t type out any more lyrics. It’s all in the same vein and it just hurts. This is where the message starts getting skewed. By putting Ted in this place, the movie removes all weight of the consequences of the Once-ler, because there are none to begin with. There’s no urgency, no darkness, and no reason for anybody to want to change things. Humans are very happy to live like this, buying fresh air and running fake trees on battery power. Ugh.
Yes, I know they’re being ironic and this could potentially be the forerunner to a big character arc but it’s not. And it’s going to come back and bite them later in the movie.

Ted, by the way, is voiced by Zac Efron. That’s right, a 26 year old man is voicing a 12 year old. It’s about as lazy and out of place as you can imagine. This, sadly, is only the first in a long line up of bad voice acting.

So, with absolutely no reason whatsoever for Ted to go search for the Once-ler, again sucking out the impact of a boy going of his own volition, the movie instead gives him the most selfish motivation you could possibly give a character. See, there’s a pretty girl next door named Audrey (named after Seuss’ still-living widow) who loves to paint, and wishes to see a real tree for her birthday.

tedandaudrey.jpg

Meet Bland and Blander.

Yes, you read that correctly. Ted goes in search of a tree to basically get in a girl’s pants. Not to make the world better. So faithful to the original story!

Like Ted, Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) was born without a personality. They’re about the most boring characters you can imagine, lazily written to the extreme, which is not helped by the bad voice acting. It’s obvious they were picked for the names and not for the credibility of their performances. They’re given nothing to work with either. Their “relationship” and “romance” is not interesting or fun, and you don’t care about them.

But maybe the side characters can be fun. How do the rest of Thneedville pan out?
Ted’s mother is even less interesting than the mother in Cat and the Hat, the townspeople make no impact whatsoever and only feature in the stupid musical numbers. And what was with that delivery guy’s voice? A big tough masculine man with a high pitched tenor? It’s the most jarring one heard in the film.

Then we have Ted’s Grammy Norma (Betty White, who adds some form of dignity despite the script) who advises Ted to go find the Once-ler.

This is a hugely missed opportunity. Grammy Norma could have been a serene figure who nurtured Ted’s curiosity. She could have been the only one in town to remember trees (apparently she is, but it’s only revealed in a single line. At the end of the movie). She doesn’t even need to necessarily be alive. Maybe Ted could have grown up hearing her stories. Maybe he’s just remembering her. Maybe he finally found the guts to go find the Once-ler himself, having seen the destruction of Thneedville. It practically writes itself. But no, she’s just an energetic, snowboarding senior citizen who is happy to sit around smiling as Aloysius “Did-I-Mention-I’m-The-Antagonist” O’Hare takes over the town.

O'hare1

“I’m Frankenstein’s head on a spider’s body! I’m also a complete and utter waste of animation,”

You’ve never heard of Aloysius O’Hare, you say? Well, nobody has because he was completely made up for the movie. And he’s easily the worst character added. Aside from poor Rob Riggle being forced to make something of a completely one-dimensional character, he has a stupid design ripped off from Shrek and The Incredibles, and no redeeming features whatsoever. He’s just the evil head of the evil corporation that runs the town, selling oxygen to people since the air is too polluted (by the way, where is the oxygen coming from if there are no trees? They never answer that). He apparently monitors the town constantly. There is no reason for this. Nobody is interested in trees aside from Audrey.
O’Hare hates trees because they make oxygen for free. That’s his motivation. Money, money, money. Much like the producers of this film. He never seems the least bit threatening as an antagonist. And what’s more, Dr Seuss deliberately avoided this type of character in his book. Why? Because the idea behind The Lorax is that there is no villain. Speaking of which, the Once-ler is due to appear any minute. This is by far the most depressing aspect of the movie. The story of The Lorax is treated as a mere annoyance. The movie is way more interested in Thneedville than, you know, the actual plot, and it’s as boring as you can imagine. It goes beyond mere laziness. It’s actually sickening. Don’t believe me? They directly mock and alter Dr Seuss’ writing. Not once, but TWICE.

The first such occurrence comes when Audrey is describing Truffula trees to Ted. The original text is provided for purposes of sticking it to the writers in every way possible. (Warning: this is really going to hurt)

EXHIBIT A
Original text
But those trees! Those trees!
Those Truffula Trees!
All my life I’d been searching for trees such as these.
The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk
And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk

Movie dialogue
Audrey: And they even smelled like butterfly milk.
Ted: Wow….what does that even mean?
Audrey: I know, right?

No, dear reader. That is not a joke. They literally just mocked the writing of the author they claim to fight so hard for. This is a new low for these movies to sink.

EXHIBIT B
Original text

At the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows
And the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows
And no birds ever sing excepting old crows
Is the street of the Lifted Lorax

Movie dialogue
Grammy Norma: Far outside of town where the grass never grows

What, may I ask, is wrong with Grickle-grass, writers? It’s not copyrighted, you’re making a movie. And for the record, the grass doesn’t grow in Thneedville anyway. What’s the difference of grass not growing outside town?!?

When Ted shows up at the Once-ler’s Lerkim, the Once-ler isn’t interested in telling the story, even though Ted has the correct payment, like in the book. You had to bring 15 cents, a nail, and the shell of a great-great-great grandfather snail. If Ted didn’t bring these items, it would make sense that the Once-ler would tell him to beat it. But he did, so telling Ted to buzz off doesn’t make sense.

Ok, ok, that’s a serious nitpick. Moving on. Let’s look at the Once-ler himself.

Comparison #2: Characterisation and story arc

In the book and the animated special, this is all you ever see of the Once-ler.

good onceler

Right

In the movie, we get…. *sigh* this.

badonceler

No

He has a face. And I don’t like it.
What’s wrong with giving the Once-ler a face, I hear you ask?
Because it goes against everything the character represents. Take the book, for example.

You won’t see the Once-ler
Don’t knock at his door
He stays in his Lerkim on top of his store
He lurks in his Lerkim, cold under the roof
Where he makes his own clothes out of miff-muffered moof.

Did you spot the incredibly subtle and nuanced detail there, movie? YOU WON’T. SEE. THE ONCE-LER. The whole idea behind the Once-ler is that he could be anyone. This reinforces the message of personal choices affecting the environment. Why you felt the need to give him a face is beyond me. Was it just too difficult to think how to hide him? You realise you could have saved a lot of paper and animation costs by not giving him a face, right? And even if the Once-ler did reveal his face in the book, would you imagine he’d look anything like that?
And then just to be completely insufferable they make him an idiot with an electric guitar. He’s no longer a single-minded sombre businessman, he’s comic relief in a film that is nothing BUT comic relief. And he doesn’t become consumed by productivity through his own choices, his evil family goes all Lady Macbeth and forces him to cut down the trees. Oh, and he previously promised the Lorax no more trees would be cut down.

I need a bucket. This is making me nauseous.

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Definitely my facial expression

And now it’s time to talk about the Lorax. To his credit, Danny Devito is pretty much the perfect choice for the Lorax. He’s the only good voice acting for the movie, but that still comes with a price. The Lorax, again, is turned into a joke we’re supposed to laugh at. He’s given a ridiculously over the top entrance as he emerges from the tree stump. We’re talking thunder and lightning Thor-style. Movie, you do realise that the Lorax was literally the first thing we saw, right?
Anyway, from the second he appears on screen, the Lorax is played entirely for cheap and insulting laughs. He’s not dignified, he’s not wise. Danny Devito is actually perfect for this role, and we know he’s a good actor, but they’re afraid to let him do his thing.
You can pretty much sum up the Lorax’s true character from his first line in the book

Mister,” he said with a sawdusty sneeze
I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.
I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,”

It’s just a few words and a simple concept, but Dr Seuss creates more depth in that one line than the entire film.
To be fair, there are one or two moments with the in the movie where Danny Devito really gets to inhabit the Lorax, namely when the final Truffula tree is chopped down. And there’s a very touching moment when all the forest creatures come to mourn the loss of the first tree. If the whole movie had been in this vein, it would have been brilliant. Sadly this scene is undone a few minutes later as the Lorax and his friends toss the sleeping Once-ler into the river, nearly drowning him. Terrific.

I haven’t mentioned the forest creatures yet, trying to delay it as long as possible. Why? Because they are some of the most hateful side characters ever put in a family picture. The Bar-ba-loots are greedy and stupid, the Swomee Swans don’t sing, the Humming fish are annoying….actually, all these characters were insanely annoying. And you know why? Because they’re scrounged from the Minions’ table scraps. I shouldn’t be surprised, considering it’s the same studio and director behind Despicable Me, but damn it, it’s still horrible. Ripping off the Minions only proves the hypocritical corporate greed behind this picture. These characters are just here to market toys. You want to know what Dr Seuss thought about pointless marketing? He went out of his way to avoid it his whole life. A toy company once sent him a box of badly made toys of his characters, and he responded by throwing them into a swimming pool.

By the way, for all their spewing of evil big business, the evil big business responsible for this waste of time managed to collect 70 product tie ins for the movie. 70 product tie-ins. Are you kidding me?!?

Making the forest animals completely moronic and essentially one big toy ad didn’t make me feel emotion for them And it didn’t make me sympathise with their plight. I honestly didn’t care when they are forced to leave. This is partially due to them being constantly infuriating with their antics, but we don’t spend much time with any of these characters and therefore don’t really care about them. Not to mention the important parts of the story are pretty much glanced over.
The Bar-ba-loots, Swomee Swans and Humming Fish are all sent off at once, unlike the book which sends them off one by one and the Once-ler feels pangs of his conscience. What, are we trying to create build up here?
In this 90 minute film, the entire story of The Lorax book, is only told in a 3 minute musical number. That’s right. It’s not even a good song, either. The Once-ler just prances around singing “How bad can I be?” Sounds like the movie producers, actually.
The most important part of The Lorax is the effect of the trees being cut down, and it’s crushed into a bite sized musical montage that again, we’re supposed to find funny rather than disturbing. Let’s ignore the real message. Let’s pad the damn thing out with car chases and zany antics. Oh yes, there’s a car chase in the movie. It goes on for about ten minutes too.

Comparison #3: Climax
At the end of the book, there’s an extremely powerful and poignant climax with the Once-ler handing the boy (essentially, the reader!) the last Truffula seed, and urges them to plant it in the hopes that the Lorax and all of his friends will return.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
So….CATCH!”
Calls the Once-ler
He lets something fall.
It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back,”

It’s not a happy ending. It’s not a sad ending. It’s a hopeful ending which leaves the reader with the choice to make this a better world. So, do we get this beautifully ambiguous ending in the movie?
HAHAHA, NO! Not a chance. That would be the adult route. Nope, Ted takes the seed and comes home to find O’Hare waiting for him, gives him the slip and asks Audrey to help him plant the seed in the middle of town so everyone can see, and they spend the next ten minutes being pursued by O’Hare and his minions to stop them planting the tree.

So….what’s at stake here?

Think about it. I’ve heard a few critics say there’s nothing at stake in the climax, and they’re right. If Ted and Audrey don’t grow the seed, so what? Humanity isn’t going to be destroyed. Nobody will die. Nothing will go wrong. Things will just be the way they always were. And humanity is happy with the way things are. Ted and Audrey will apparently be together regardless. So….what’s the problem?

It’s never once insinuated that the oxygen levels are running out, or the town is in danger of being overrun by the destruction outside. They don’t even know about it. And it’s not going to affect them either way. There is nothing on the line here. No reason what so ever for this ridiculous “climax”.
Oh, and the townspeople need about two minutes to completely change their minds and decide that trees are awesome. Much like how the Once-ler turned into a douchebag after one song.

And the absolute worst part about this ending? The Lorax comes back.

That is not a joke.

Dearest cinema gods of heaven and hell, did the writers even read the book?!?

Why did you want to bring him back? Oh that’s right, kids can’t handle a not-so-happy ending. You just had to make everything sunshine and roses, ignoring the sugar-free source material. And even after all this, they STILL can’t go all the way with a soft moment. The Lorax is back, it’s pleasant enough, the music is nice, but nope, then we’re back to making us laugh and ignoring what SHOULD be a huge moment, if it even needed to exist at all. AND IT DIDN’T.

It may not be the worst of the Seuss movies, and the animation is immaculate, but the reason The Lorax makes me the saddest is because this was the book which had the potential to be the easiest and best adaptation of Dr Seuss’ work. Everything was there. The story arc, the potential to expand, the characters, the tone, the world. And they were STILL too scared to trust the source material!

See, The Lorax suffers from the same problems as Horton Hears a Who. It doesn’t believe in its own message and doesn’t want to give the kids a split second of silence in case they high tail it out of the theatre. I am so incredibly sick of seeing these movies that are afraid of atmospheric moments! And again, they spoon feed the comedy in endless, stupid and completely pointless slapstick. If I wanted to see good slapstick, I’d go watch Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes.

They twisted this into a pandering comedy with stupid characters and bad voice acting. They were afraid that a ‘simple kid’s book’ wasn’t enough to tell a good story. They were afraid of their target audience. They didn’t trust in the intelligence of children. They were afraid to give us anything memorable. They were afraid of the truth.
Instead, we got a movie that is brightly coloured junk food for the mind. And that’s the last thing Dr Seuss wanted. Kids are not going to come away from this thinking anything meaningful about nature or the duty we have to this planet. They aren’t going to see the consequences of misplaced priorities or greed. They’re only going to think “Oh, look at the pretty colours and funny bears,” It’s the equivalent of waving keys in their faces.

Dr Seuss’ books are loved for both the writing and his iconic drawings. But you could take out the drawings and STILL have a brilliant book because his writing didn’t depend on pretty colours to distract the children. That’s not what he stood for, and I don’t think anyone else should either.
I’m not going to pretend everything Seuss wrote was perfect. There are books of his that I think are merely ok, or just a fun little romp. But for crying out loud, he always managed to get SOME form of entertainment out of what he did. My only hope is that people actually went and read the damn thing afterwards.

Seuss’ books don’t need to be fixed. They don’t need to be modernised. They don’t necessarily need to be adapted. And especially not like this. Please, for the love of good literature, don’t show your children The Lorax. Don’t expose them to this cash-in. It might seem cute, but that’s not enough.

If you think this movie is poison, like me,
Don’t watch this movie, go plant a tree.
Read the book, watch the special, put your time to good use
My name is AbStar, and I speak for the Seuss.

(Here, I’ll even provide the link. You can thank me later.)

Audio book https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKmbSJjXzFk

1972 version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8V06ZOQuo0k

Seuss on Screen Part 3: The Cat in the Hat

Wind back the clock, if you will, to late 2002. At the time, I’m ten years old. I’m in the movie theatre foyer and I can’t remember what we were going to see. Now, I’m looking around at all the posters advertising new movies, when a giant cardboard cut out made me jump in terror.

The cut out? The Cat in the Hat. You could only see a tiny bit of the Cat, but it gave me chills. This should have been my first sign of impending doom.

It wasn’t.

After my heart stilled, I began to smile at the thought of a Cat in the Hat movie. I loved the book. I loved the sequel. Mike Myers was going to be the Cat? Sure, he was funny. After The Grinch, what could be better? Oh, how wrong I was.

To say this movie failed hard would be one of the biggest understatements ever made. It’s not just bad, it’s horrifying. I still feel unclean for having seen it. It’s not only the worst of the Seuss movies, up against some pretty stiff competition, it’s one of the worst book-to-film re-imaginings in the history of mankind. It’s so famously awful, it prompted Dr Seuss’ widow to ban all live action adaptations of her husband’s work.

cat-in-the-hat.jpg

As always, let’s begin with the source material. The Cat in the Hat was written in 1957 in response to America’s crippling illiteracy rate among children, and their learn-to-read books known as ‘primers’. Dr Seuss believed children were not reading because their books such as the Dick and Jane series, were dead boring. The characters and stories were unnaturally perfect, therefore not interesting or relatable.
Author William Spaulding invited Seuss to dinner in 1955 and presented him with a challenge: write a book kids couldn’t put down. He gave Seuss a list of 348 words every child should know (Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat using 236 words). Seuss conceived of the idea for the story by scanning the list he had been given and chose the first two words that rhymed. Cat and hat were the winners.

Overall, Cat in the Hat is a fun little book. It’s not particularly story driven (therefore not the best choice for a movie, but I’ll get to that) but the characters are great, the power struggle between the Fish and the Cat is enjoyable, and the children are normal children. Most children would read this and probably not realise they were learning new words, which is the whole point. And the message? “It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how,” In other words, fun is not a bad thing. A little mischief is fine, as long as it doesn’t goes too far and you can clean up at the end. And that’s the beauty of Seuss’ writing. He even reportedly said to his first wife Helen “What’s wrong with kids having fun reading without being preached at?”

Like I said above, Cat in the Hat is one of the hardest adaptations to pull off than something like The Grinch or The Lorax, but it’s not impossible. Think of all the possibilities with the Cat and the potential for wild, imaginative scenarios. I keep hearing there’s going to be an animated remake of the movie at some point and while my hopes are not high, I’d like to believe it could be better than…this.

mikemyers.jpg

What were they thinking?

Let’s get this over with.

Mike Myers plays the Cat in a phenomenally failed performance. He is horribly miscast, although to be fair I don’t think ANY actor could have made this script work. Same goes for the other actors in this movie. Spencer Breslin and Dakota Fanning as Conrad and Sally are blander than rice cakes, Kelly Preston is more fragile than a porcelain doll and Alec Baldwin is so cartoonishly evil I’m surprised he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl.
I’m not necessarily blaming the cast for their performances; like I said, the script is atrocious. This movie is a failure on everyone’s part, especially the studio behind it. Whoever wrote this needs a smack in the face with a brick and a lesson on writing good scripts. These characters are just so terribly developed. Sally and Conrad? Good grief, they’re both walking stereotypes. The kids in the book were just normal children. That’s why the moral about a little mischief being okay is still balanced out with responsibility. Here, Conrad’s out of control, though it’s never explained why, and Sally’s only interested in bossing everyone around (again, never explained why). Stereotypes are not a good starting point for character arcs!
The mother? Total wet wipe. She’s dull as a bucket of rocks and a complete idiot for not seeing Alec Baldwin’s lies. Who lets their boyfriend talk them into considering military school? That doesn’t even make any sense!
Speaking of Alec Baldwin, talk about weak characterisation. He might as well be wearing a sign saying I AM THE ANTAGONIST. And while I’m on the subject, why does this movie even NEED an antagonist? If you’re going to add one in, at least make them interesting! This one is completely one note. He has the flimsiest of excuses for existing in the first place, and don’t even bother with motivations for getting rid of the children. The writers forgot to give him one. He apparently just doesn’t like kids. Big deal. So why would he even want to marry a woman with two kids?

The Fish is completely shoved to the side in favour of the Cat’s zany antics, and you can forget about his established existence as the voice of reason. He’s just a nervous nelly played entirely for laughs and only appearing when the plot remembers he’s supposed to be there. The babysitter who slips into a coma five minutes in? Completely pointless. There’s really nothing to even say about her.

And now, let’s get to the Cat himself.
I get that the Cat is the Seuss mascot, and the book is very simply written. But there’s expanding on a character and there’s making him a total raving maniac. You’d never read the book and think the Cat was a sociopath like he is in the movie. The Cat is meant to be fun and mischievous, not spouting R-rated jokes and running around laughing like an axe murderer. That’s not what the Cat is about.

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An adaptation done right

If you want to an example of expanding on a character while still being true to the source material, look at the 1971 animated special. To be fair, Dr Seuss wrote the teleplay for this one, so it would make sense that all changes work well. But let’s put that aside and look at the Cat.
He comes in, the fish panics and tells him to go. The Cat leaves, then charges back in saying he’s lost his moss-covered three-handled family gradunza and asks the kids to help him find it, therefore tricking them into making a mess.
The best comparison I can draw to the Cat in this is perhaps Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. Remember how he was whimsical, elegant and fun, but also had a slightly diabolical edge? You didn’t know what he was thinking, but you did know he’d already planned out every step of the journey. And that’s the sense you get with the 1971 Cat. Voice actor Allan Sherman really does a great job, giving the perfect blend of delightfully wicked and whimsy. You never get the sense that he’s straight up evil though. Unlike Myers, who’s more interested in making terrible jokes and grinning at the audience. Plus, the stuff he gets into is just way too crazy and mean! It goes beyond the realm of harmless fun and straight into borderline criminal activity. I don’t know who came up with this, but I’m prepared to bet they were dropped.

I should point out that the director of the movie is Bo Welch, a production designer who’s worked on a lot of Tim Burton films. And I will say, the sets in the movie do look very nice. The costuming and makeup? Designed with an Etch-A-Sketch and fed through a threshing machine. That’s the nicest possible way I can put it.
At least in The Grinch the makeup looked like the character. I had no trouble believing it was the Grinch on screen. And also, as I said in my last review Jim Carrey was able to physically and facially work with the restrictions of the makeup and costume.
As for Cat in the Hat, while the production design might have been nice, the costuming and makeup were not, and this is reflected in the performances. Mike Myers simply didn’t have the physical or expressive ability to make that costume work. And there’s a special place in movie hell for the people who designed that makeup/suit, because it’s the stuff nightmares are made of.
By the way, you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Thing One and Thing Two. And there’s a reason for that. I won’t sleep for weeks if I lay eyes on them again.

burn it

BURN IT! SEND IT TO HELL! KILL IT BEFORE IT DIES!!!

Poor characters and terrifying visuals, how is the story itself?
You’ll be sorry you asked.
To say they deviated from the source material would be like calling a tornado a ‘slight breeze’. Even as an eleven year old in the theatre watching this train wreck I distinctly remember thinking it was being pretty unfaithful to the book. I didn’t even think they could pull of a sequel because they used the entire driving plot point of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. After the movie I said to my brother it was 2% accurate to the original. And if an eleven year old can pick that up, you are in trouble, movie.

Instead of being about kids learning to have fun in a healthy manner, there’s forced social commentary which has no development or is even that interesting. There’s very little rhyming which, hello, is what Dr Seuss is best remembered for. We don’t care about the characters, so nobody is concerned how they solve what little problems they have. The Cat is too scary to look at, no human could sleep like that babysitter does and there’s no point in having the box be a gateway into another world. And let’s be honest, that plot thread was only there to make that truly horrific advertisement for Universal Studios.

you'redeadtome

You are dead to me, movie

Directly advertising, holding up brouchures and saying “Cha-ching”? That is hitting a new low. It’s the single biggest sell-out ever put on screen. And that includes the product placement in Man of Steel.
Don’t even get me started on the adult ‘humour’. Honestly, what was the point of the sexual innuendo and bad language in a freaking Dr. Seuss movie? There is no point, and no way to make it work.
The blatant disrespect shown in the movie only proves that the filmmakers don’t understand the source material. They see it as a ‘simple kid’s book’, so it’s not like they actually have to try. How could a ‘simple kid’s book’ possibly say anything deep or meaningful?

Well, I have news for you, movie. A lot of junior reading material is not only deep, it can also be far deeper than a lot of adult writing. Dr Seuss understood this and he treated children as thinking human beings. One of my favourite Seuss quotes? “Adults are just obsolete children and to hell with them,”  
Seeing this movie makes me understand what he means. Adults often forget what it’s like to be a child and therefore underestimate them. Underestimate their intelligence. Their understanding. Their capacity to learn. I guarantee Seuss would be saying the same thing today about this movie and the people who made it so poorly.

Normally, I will at least attempt to see the good in something. The only good thing in this movie? The production design. That’s it. It fails on every other level, and I almost reached my breaking point while suffering through it.
You can argue that The Grinch wasn’t faithful to the original story. But for all it’s flaws, The Grinch is still its own universe and creation. It’s not a money-grabbing corporation shill. There’s still a moral and at the very, very least, an attempt to tell a story.
Cat in the Hat doesn’t just disrespect Dr. Seuss, it is straight up spitting on his grave. I cannot even comprehend the mindset of the people responsible for it. Even taking out the fact that it’s insulting to Seuss’ work, it’s still the cheapest and most obnoxious of corporate cash ins ever committed to celluloid. There is no respect for the source material, the audience, the message or anything. It’s just there to suck out everything that’s good and pure and decent about humanity.

I don’t even know what else there is to say about it. If I could, I would personally hunt down every copy of this…thing, shatter them with a moss-covered three-handled family gradunza and set them alight.
But I can’t. So all I can do is say avoid this movie like the freaking plague. For crying out loud, do NOT expose yourselves or vulnerable children to it. Read the book, watch the animated special, go to the Seuss land at Universal Studios for all I care. Just stay the heck away from Cat in the Hat. Stay. Away.

Next week: The Lorax

Seuss on Screen Part 2: The Grinch

Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot
But the Grinch who lived just north of Whoville did not”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas directed by Ron Howard, was one of the biggest hits of 2000. And while audiences loved it at the time, critical reaction was lukewarm. The general critical consensus seemed to be that Jim Carrey was entertaining in the title role, but it didn’t meet the standard of Chuck Jones’ famous cartoon from 1966. Or the book, for that matter.

I was only eight years old when the movie first came out, and I didn’t see it, because I’d heard my younger cousin was terrified of the film and therefore thought it would be scary. But a few months later, I was home from school, incredibly sick, and my Mum rented the VHS (remember those days?) thinking it would give me a laugh. And by Seuss, I fell in love with the movie. I laughed myself better. Thank you for that, movie.
After watching it over and over for a few years, I put the movie aside, and just before Christmas 2014, I watched it again. Without the nostalgia goggles on, I was able to see the flaws of the film. But I still found myself enjoying it quite a bit.

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But first, the source material. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is Ted Geisel’s 1957 book about an odd grouchy creature who despises Christmas, and the Whos in Whoville who adore the season. He decides enough is enough and vows to stop the holiday from coming. The Grinch dresses as Santa Claus and steals the presents, food and decorations from the town, only to find that the Whos are still happy to celebrate Christmas without the material objects. He realises where the true meaning of Christmas lies, and returns everything to the town’s welcoming arms and even joins in the festivities. It’s a very iconic story, and the Grinch has been cemented in pop culture as one of the great villains of Christmas.

Interestingly enough, the Grinch character was based on….well, Dr Seuss himself! Realising he was becoming a bit of a Grinch, he wrote the book to see if he could rediscover the magic of the holiday. The only clue to this connection in the book is the Grinch saying “Why, fifty three years I’ve put up with it now!” and Seuss was 53 when the book was published. He even drove a car with GRINCH number plates.

As a whole, The Grinch is one of the most story-driven of Seuss’ books, far more so than something like Cat in the Hat. The strength of the story comes from the moral, and the main character. Seuss’ bold choice to have the villain of the piece also be the protagonist makes for a very fun journey as he finds his redemption alongside the readers. The message is very anti-consumerism, and reminds all who read it that the true spirit of Christmas comes from love and togetherness.

Therefore, The Grinch is one of the easiest to adapt to screen. The 1966 special was the first animated adaptation of Seuss’ works. Seuss himself was very involved in the making of the piece, not only producing but also writing the lyrics for the songs. The cartoon was decently received upon premiere, but has since gone on to be recognised as a classic of the genre.

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Definitely not for his charming good looks

Again, it probably wasn’t necessary to remake this, but to Ron Howard’s credit, he said he wouldn’t even try to retell the animated short, since it was already perfect. And for what the movie is, it’s actually ok. At least for my taste. Sure, there’s a lot of choices that are questionable, but I still like the film. What do I mean? Let’s take a look.

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First, I’ll take the elephant out of the room by saying I really like Jim Carrey as the Grinch. It’s not a perfect performance (what is) but he gives it his all, as usual. Carrey has said in interviews that the makeup was “horrifying” and he was taught torture resistant techniques by the CIA to endure filming. To his everlasting credit, you’d never be able to tell. Jim Carrey’s famously expressive face was able to work through all that makeup (by the way, the makeup in the film is incredible!) and physically, he owns that costume and works with it. Seriously, go watch the movie again and see how effortlessly he acts as the Grinch. It never appears uncomfortable or awkward, though it must have been a nightmare. Kudos to Carrey for being so professional. 6-year-old Taylor Momsen, carries the role of Cindy Lou with a lot of charm and the rest of the cast are fun and quirky in their own way. So, I have nothing against the acting.

Now, the writing. Most criticism aimed at The Grinch comes from the expansion of the story. Before I go in too deep, there’s two things I should note. Number one, it’s a feature length film. It’s a different medium and someone with a different vision at the helm. Changes to books aren’t just inevitable, they are necessary. Number two, changes are fine as long as they serve the story or at least respect the basic source material. And while some choices here may be misguided, they’re still understandable.

In the film, the Whos are more developed. As well as being obsessed by the holiday, they are materialistic and competitive. Some might disagree with this choice, as the Whos seem a bit unsavoury and mean, but this change gives them a story arc alongside the Grinch.

The Grinch is given a backstory which explains why he hates Christmas. He was mocked at school during a Christmas gift exchange, and that was that. Whether or not that makes sense is up for debate, but it’s still a reason. Of course, his heart is two sizes too small, but having another explanation makes him more three dimensional in the world of the movie.

I will say this, though. Despite being a clever idea for a character arc, the Whos can be quite mean-spirited, especially at the Whobiliation Christmas party, and therefore are hard to sympathise with. So for the movie, perhaps an alternative could have been the Grinch needing to realise people can change as they grow up, and the Whos needing to realise the pain they had caused him. But I’m just speculating.

As for Cindy Lou, her role is hugely expanded. In the book, she only appears once while the Grinch steals the Christmas tree. In the film, Cindy Lou is the only one who senses that Christmas is more than just gifts and lights. She is also the only one willing to see The Grinch as…..for lack of a better term, a person, the only one brave enough to talk to him, and the only one willing to give him a chance and include him. Her spirit encourages the town to a new way of thinking and essentially brings the Grinch around. In this way, she’s given a lot of respect by the writers. It just goes to show Seuss’ belief that children are just as smart as adults.

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The first two acts of The Grinch focus on Cindy Lou trying to convince the Grinch to come down from Mount Crumpit and urging Whoville to accept him. None of that is in the book, but it allows for character development and the audience can become immersed in this world. The third act is practically identical to the book, and narration by the legendary Anthony Hopkins throughout the whole thing ties it all together nicely. I might add, the narration is almost verbatim.

All that being said, how does the film hold up after 15 years? Well, it does and it doesn’t. The film’s main shortcomings are in the design department and the characterisation of the Whos, to a degree. Whoville isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as it could be. Visually, the colours are too muted and there’s a lot going on so it all becomes a bit crowded. I’m not personally put off by the Whos’ heavy makeup but I can certainly see why others would be. And like I said, some of the Whos, like the Mayor, are too nasty to be likeable.

Even after all these years, I find The Grinch to be a very funny movie, no small thanks to Jim Carrey. I like the characters, I like the atmosphere and I like the comedy. This isn’t a corporate cash-grab at all. Some of the story choices are a little misguided but I believe they are done with the purest of intentions. The movie seems to be its own creation, and still has a moral. Every change made to the story still matches the vision and tone of the film, and at least goes all the way.

Is the film perfect? No.
Are there elements that don’t work? Absolutely.
As a Seuss purist, I probably shouldn’t like The Grinch, since it isn’t 100% faithful to the book. But this doesn’t make it a bad movie. Sure, it’s got it’s major problems, but I think you can call it my guilty pleasure, and it will always make me laugh. Take my thoughts for what it’s worth and draw your own conclusion.

Next week: The Cat in the Hat

Seuss on Screen Part 1: Horton Hears a Who

Is everyone happy now? I caved. I watched Horton Hears a Who. The one Dr Seuss movie I was yet to see. I bought it from Kmart for $9, I sat down with an open mind and pressed play.

Is it good? No. Is it bad? Well…..it’s certainly not horrible. It’s probably the least awful of the Seuss adaptations. But that doesn’t make it a good movie.

Dr Seuss’ work has not been treated kindly by the film industry, with a total of 4 feature length movies based incredibly loosely on his works. The movies began with The Grinch in 2000, The Cat in the Hat infamously portrayed by Mike Myers in 2003, 2008’s Horton Hears a Who and most recently, The Lorax in 2012. Why do these movies, for the most part, fail so spectacularly in bringing the world of Seuss to life?

As a die-hard Seussian, I’m determined to find out. This is my Seuss on Screen series, starting with Horton Hears a Who.

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First, let’s look at the source material. Published in 1954, Horton Hears a Who was actually the second appearance of the titular character, having already starred in 1940’s Horton Hatches the Egg. Horton Hears a Who follows Horton the elephant as he hears the tiny planet of Whoville on a speck of dust. Horton is the only animal in the Jungle of Nool able to hear the Whos. Wishing to protect this tiny population, Horton places the dust speck on a clover, despite the Sour Kangaroo and the Jungle of Nool believing Horton to be out of his mind. Horton stands by his mantra “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” and eventually the Whos are able to prove their existence before being destroyed.

After the success of Horton Hatches the Egg, the sequel came about when Seuss visited Japan post WWII. Having drawn multitudes of political cartoons during the war, Seuss was quite anti-Japanese, but visiting Hiroshima changed his mind dramatically, and he wrote the book as an allegory to how the Japanese were treated in the post-war years. It was even dedicated to a Japanese friend.

It’s a common misconception that the story is a comment on abortion, and several pro-life groups have used the famous line “a person’s a person no matter how small” much to Seuss’ anger. If there’s one thing he hated, it was people twisting his words and stories for their own ends. I shudder to think what he’d do if he saw some of these films…..

The themes of Horton Hears a Who are pretty straightforward. It’s a simple message of looking out for the little guy and opening your mind to believing in something you can’t always see. Easy enough. There’s a fair bit of drama, with the Wickersham brothers and Vlad Vlad-i-koff forcing Horton to search for the clover in a giant field of identical flowers, then the Sour Kangaroo trying to boil the speck in a vat of beezlenut oil. The villains get their redemption, and they’re still not evil. You can definitely see their point of view. The Whos are a creative concept, they’re relateable as the underdogs, and Horton teaches kids to stand by their convictions even if no-one else supports you.

Making a movie out of this doesn’t seem necessary, but there’s still potential in it to be a fun little family film. Sadly, what we got doesn’t meet the mark in all areas.

A major issue I have with the film is the message is totally glanced over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still there, and that’s great, but it’s constantly shoved aside to make the kids laugh. And nowhere is this more obvious than the characterisation of Horton himself.

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Look at that grin. Kill me now.

In the books, Horton is, at the core, a simple elephant of principle. He’s gentle, kind, loyal and a good role model. He’s engaging and admirable, and both his stories form the basis for the musical Seussical. He is the only one who can hear the Whos, and even at first he’s not sure he did. But on the off chance that there is someone, he does a noble thing and protects the dust speck. Everyone says he’s insane, but he keeps with the clover. In Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton agrees to sit on Mayzie’s egg for a day, but she doesn’t come back. He sticks with the egg for 51 lonely weeks, is laughed at, and gets sold to a circus. But he doesn’t give up, constantly saying “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent,” What wonderful messages to teach kids, and adults too!

In the film, Horton is voiced by Jim Carrey. And heavens alive, is he miscast. I’ve loved Jim Carrey in other projects, but he’s just not right for Horton, or at least, the correct character of Horton. In the film, Horton is made into something of a hyperactive eccentric, and it’s incredibly distracting. I have no problem with the writers giving Horton a bit of a quirky edge to make him more interesting, or give the jungle creatures a reason to mistrust him, but this is downright silly. I imagine they’re trying to do what Carrey did with the Grinch, which worked ok. The Grinch is a grouchy social recluse, so it makes sense that he would be strange. Whereas Horton isn’t meant to be crazy and weird, he’s just a normal elephant. If that makes sense. I mean, I don’t know many elephants personally so I can’t……but I’m sure most elephants are…..

THE POINT IS that making Horton a nutjob is going against what he is. And they’ve done exactly the same thing with the Mayor of Whoville. Steve Carrell, who actually does a pretty good job, is also an knucklehead mcspazatron. Sure, he has a few moments of substance when he isn’t spouting tell-don’t-show dialogue, but he’s clumsy, odd and constantly battling with the evil government who just doesn’t want to believe him about Horton.

Quite honestly, the idea that the Who’s also are skeptical about being a dust speck is a pretty clever idea. It’s what Dr Seuss added to the animated Chuck Jones special back in 1970. But did we really need the big bad establishment? Isn’t a skeptical population enough? Apparently not.

I think of all the voice acting and characters, the best choice by far was Carol Burnett as the Sour Kangaroo. She’s easily the most faithful to the book. The other characters are far too wacky to be relateable, and because they’re constantly played for cheap laughs, the seriousness of the story is severely watered down.

And the pacing. Oh, the pacing.

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To the film’s credit, visually, the book comes to life. Animation is a much more suitable medium for Dr Seuss’ work than live action, and they take full advantage of it. The film looks great, especially the world created for Whoville.  However, I fear that this made the filmmakers panic, and worried about how to best engage the children for eighty minutes. So do they really explore the idea of opening your eyes to what isn’t obvious? No. Ok, do they go into depth on the world of Whoville and make us really connect with these tiny people so we care about them? No. Do we see Horton struggle with being shunned? Nope. We get a bunch of zany antics and cheesy slapstick from beginning to end. I’m serious. I couldn’t count one quiet moment in the film. Animation may give you more freedom to make bold choices, but it isn’t a license to give us all seizures. Horton is crazy. The Mayor is crazy. The Whos are all crazy. The Jungle of Nool is crazy. It’s constant movement, noise, and action for the sake of having things flying by on screen. And the anime references? Why? I just straight up don’t get the purpose of that sequence. It made no sense and the film grounded to a halt! And you know why the movie is loud and borderline obnoxious?

Because the movie is afraid that if they pause for a microsecond the kids will fall asleep.

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Where were the Wickershams?

There’s a widespread belief that children’s entertainment needs to be constantly loud and energetic because kids have short attention spans. And they do, but this approach is completely counterproductive. This is such a dumb concept I don’t even know where to begin saying what’s wrong with it. It’s not only okay to have quiet moments in children’s entertainment, it’s actually important. Children need it to teach them patience and how to appreciate atmosphere. Look at the scene in Mary Poppins where Mr Banks walks down the streets of London. No dialogue, no singing, just some incredible shots of the city and a beautiful instrumental underscore of Feed the Birds. It’s one of the most heavy and adult scenes in a family picture, and it’s one of the most beloved movies of all time.

There was a glimmer of hope at the very end when the Sour Kangaroo realises what she’s done and Horton very graciously forgives her. Finally, it appears we can have a moment! No words necessary, all done through visuals and music and…..nope, Vlad Vlad-i-koff has to loudly point out that this is a touching moment and starts crying in the most obnoxious fashion imaginable. That’s the entire summation of where Horton Hears a Who falls flat as a picture. It is afraid of it’s own message. It shoves it to the side so the kids can keep giggling at the slapstick. The comedy is spoon fed to the audience. There’s a few clever moments, but for the most part I could predict the punchline to almost every joke. The characters are all in the same vein so there’s no variety. The tone is constantly loud and bizarre which sucks out the weight of the message. They’re afraid to see the target audience as thinking human beings who deserve to be treated as such.

It’s definitely not a terrible movie and I don’t think I’d encourage people to boycott the film. It’s relatively harmless. I disagree with the overall tone, but it probably is the closest to Seuss’ world being realised on film as we’re likely to get. But it’s worth remembering what Dr Seuss’ mindset was about children:

I write for myself. Children are just as smart as you are. The main difference is they don’t know so many words. If your story is simple, you can tell it just as if you’re telling it to adults,”

Horton may have been a critical and financial success, but as for me, I will always revere the book on my shelf.

Next week: The Grinch!