Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Rey & Rose: Chaos Walking & Raya and the Last Dragon

No idea why getting this written has taken so long - some combination of just not feeling writing at the moment, daylight savings throwing me off just enough to over-caffeinate, and going down crossword rabbit holes, I guess. Fortunately, it's not like the stuff in theaters is turning over much right now, and with the recent announcement that Disney has pushed a bunch of movies back again, that's not changing any time soon.

Which makes the fact that these two movies were released the same day even more peculiar! Is the first full week of March when schools outside of New England have spring break, compared to President's and Patriot's Day weeks? Did the studios in question both decide not to mess around with more places reopening that week? It's genuinely peculiar, and the local AMCs with two premium screens have been doing odd timeshares, tweaking it week to week, trying to guess how it's going to go with Raya available for purchase on Disney+ and Chaos not being very good. I almost wondered if Disney and Lionsgate coordinated in so that someone could low-key do double feature built around the actresses from the latest Star Wars trilogy without either undercutting the other.

At any rate, since I've found myself much more comfortable in the Imax room than the Dolby one during All Of This - maybe it's partly the way that the smaller number of larger seats looks on the AMC Stubs app, but the Dolby Room just feels small - so I bought my tickets in such a way as to see them both in the larger room, reserving the same seat for both shows. The order was good, since it meant the day started with the Cruella trailer - the one that makes me wonder why the movie wasn't nixed at every single stage of the process, from someone at Disney noting which characters to which they have rights to after the last pixel of visual effects was rendered - and built to Raya, which had me grinning in delight at every inventive moment. Heck, I may have cheered a little when Raya did the vovinam thing where a fighter jumps, gets legs around the opponent, and flips them over by twisting in midair, which has kind of been dropping my jaw since seeing Veronica Ngo do it in The Rebel.

My nieces may not like Raya as much as they do Frozen, which is unambiguously about sisters as opposed to two girls who could be best friends if they weren't so angry at something, but it sure feels like the sort of thing they could enjoy. I certainly dig it and hope that it comes out in 3D somewhere in the world, especially since I'll likely have access to the 4K version on Disney+ once it gets out of the pay tier.

Chaos Walking

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded digital)

I don't know that Lionsgate has been chasing "the next Hunger Games" that much harder than other studios; but since so much of a hypothetical LG+ service would be built on those series of young-adult adaptations, each obvious Part One that is never going to get a sequel looks like an even bigger misfire. So it is with Chaos Rising, which has enough interesting ideas and talent involved that one could see it evolving into something compelling but is not nearly good enough as a movie for one to want more.

Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is the youngest man in the Prentisstown colony on New World, which makes him the youngest person there; all the women were killed in an attack he's not old enough to remember. He appears to be something of an outcast because he has a hard time controlling his "Noise", a projection of the thoughts in his head that afflicts all males on the planet (both human and the native species). A scout vessel from the ship carrying the second wave of colonists doesn't expect this, and the crash leaves only one survivor, Viola (Daisy Ridley). One would think that the colonists from Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) to Preacher Aaron (David Oyelowo) would be thrilled at the prospect of their community dwindling and dying until only Todd is left, but they regard Viola with suspicion and hostility, leading her to flee. Todd's fathers (Demián Bichir & Kurt Sutter) say that there may be a radio that can reach Viola's ship at Farbranch - and it's news to Todd that Prentisstown isn't the only settlement.

Putting all that in a row, it's not hard to see why various producers spent a decade trying to make the movie after Patrick Ness's novel The Knife of Never Letting Go was published and then another couple trying to fix it up when what they shot in 2017 wasn't working: It's got adventure on a new planet on one side and a powerful idea that strikes right at the heart of what teenagers, especially young women, are discovering about the dangers of the world around them and how their parents have sugar-coated it. It winds up being too much for a mainstream two-hour movie meant to start a trilogy in a couple of ways: It's okay that there's not much time to explore how New World has a history and geography that stretches well beyond the horizon of Prentisstown; that can be saved for later films, although the planet's native life is too close by for that logic. Having only passing reference to the world Viola does the film no favors, especially when you combine it with how the filmmakers always skitter away from the most potentially obvious and hard-hitting idea around The Noise, that men are constantly projecting their desires while women must work around it and hold their reactions close. The story is inextricably tied up with men playing the oppressed even as the aggressors, but the people making the movie seemingly can't bring themselves to just say that, and as a result the film is all about Todd and how he feels about Viola but seldom casts its eyes in the other direction. Viola often just has a thing she has to do.

Even once you get past the filmmakers not seeming to have the courage to dive into their big ideas - and it's worth noting that saying "the filmmakers" should not necessarily be an indictment of credited director Doug Liman and screenwriters Ness and Christopher Ford because a movie like this has passed through a lot of uncredited hands working at the behest of producers and executives trying to create the version that will be the easiest sale - it's a bland film. New World seldom has a chance to establish itself as anything other than a random dead-ringer-for-Canadian-woods planet the team would visit on Stargate SG-1, and the CGI fauna just heightens that impression rather than making it feel more alien. The production designers have clearly spent some time imagining how the planet was colonized and how the advanced technology that got humans there exists in the middle of agrarian communities with little infrastructure to manufacture more, but the script does quite connect that to Todd and the others.

The film is also frustratingly scripted at a nuts-and-bolts level, though sometimes in a way that makes one wonder whether a lot of the nuances of The Noise would have been given some explanation in the books but were cut as boring exposition here. It's noteworthy that nobody aside from Todd seems to have the level of trouble controlling their Noise as he does, and his dials back when Liman et al need a scene with few distractions, to the point where even fairly passive viewers are going to think that the filmmakers are cheating a bit. When it's revealed that there are things he doesn't know about Prentisstown, it's not unreasonable to ask both how and why - not only is the whole point of the movie that this all-male community can't help but put what they're thinking out there, but what's the point of the secret and the chase that ensues? What's the Mayor's line of thinking? It would be okay for it to be kind of irrational - people hide things for dumb reasons all the time, and the dumbest secrets can be the most closely-guarded - but the pointlessness of it all should be part of the story, not an inconvenient issue with the plot.

In some ways, the film is extremely lucky to have Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, though the film loses a fair amount by aging Todd and Viola to their late teens or early twenties rather than their early teens (as they were in the book) - Todd especially seems a little more off the further he is from feeling like an adolescent. Holland's not bad at all - truth be told, not many actors could sell the line "Spacegirl!" or all the variations on "ugh, stop thinking that!" as often as he does within two hours - and Ridley does good work giving Viola some personality despite not appearing to have as much on the page or all the assistance the male cast members get. As little as she gets, the rest of the cast gets less, despite being a very solid group.

Between the delays, people aging out, the pandemic, and the film just not being very good, the odds of this doing well enough for The Ask and the Answer to be adapted any time soon or with this group must be very low indeed. That's probably a good thing; between the pieces that probably make this a better book than movie and the specific decisions that didn't work, it seems like a fool's errand. The filmmakers and cast do hit on something that works often enough to make one wonder if they might do better with a second shot, but then again, there are enough of these series out there that the producers might as well start from scratch.

Also at eFilmCritic

"Us Again"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded digital)

I was kind of surprised not to see a choreographer's name featured prominently in the credits for "Us Again"; the short has everybody dancing throughout basically every scene, and you'd think this would be a great high-profile gig and that Disney would want to splash such a name around. But, then, the movie isn't exactly about the dancing so much as it's a cheery way to make a story that could have just been talking about something entirely visual.

And it's great at that; though only seven minutes long including credits, it does so much - establishes how the not-quite-real world works, does nifty character animation for its senior citizen characters, and hits on two or three different ideas, from how decreased mobility can just be crushing for someone defined in large part by their physicality to how (literally) chasing one's youth can be tempting but futile. It's all tied together naturally but not so tight that a viewer feels they have to examine every frame or motion. It's terrifically easy to get caught up in what's going on, and while this isn't the sort of short where you don't realize filmmaker Zach Parrish is telling a story until he's done - the intent is always clear - it feels loose and unfettered as it makes its way to its end.

Which is more or less what one wants an animated short of this type to do. A lot of Disney's showcase shorts (for lack of a better term for the ones attached to features) do this, and fairly well, but this one seems just a notch better than usual.

Raya and the Last Dragon

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 March 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded digital)

As Disney cranks out two or three live-action remakes of their animated per year, they will inevitably catch up to the point where they started this practice, and I wonder if that ever crossed the minds of those making Raya and the Last Dragon. It is, maybe not coincidentally, the sort of grand and fantastic adventure that only animation can manage right now - and genuinely terrific at being that - but where one can maybe see a slightly older-skewing version that surrounds actors with more photorealistic CGI coming in ten years. It won't be necessary or a likely upgrade, even if it is inevitable.

One would be surprised if the filmmakers weren't aware of the possibility, considering the wink with which Raya's opening narration notes that the lone swordswoman crossing a desolate land on a quest is a possible too-familiar setting. After a flashback to seven years earlier to see how the world as she knew it ended - we get back to the business of Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) trying to find the last dragon in Kumandra, since the dragons were the ones who stopped the Druun when they first appeared hundreds of years ago, though at great cost. She does awaken Sisu (voice of Awkwafina), only to discover that said dragon is far less powerful and more down-to-earth than expected, and though she gains powers when exposed to fragments of the shattered Dragon Stone. Each is hidden within one of Kumandra's five city-states, all dangerous in this post-apocalyptic world, even without Raya's nemesis Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan) looking to settle a score.

Raya may talk about this as being standard adventure-story material, but it's not the sort that's typically been the fodder for kids' adventure movies, though it's nothing new to kids who have grown up on Adventure Time and the like. It's impressive how well the large creative team lays out a fair amount of lore across multiple eras without it taking up too much story time, especially since the film doesn't switch things up for songs the way that many of Disney's movies do. It's at times a little odd that the language often feels more Twenty-first Century than fantasy-world, but it keeps things moving smoothly.

It also means that the filmmakers are free to pack the movie with eye-popping visuals and impressive action, taking not just visual cues from Southeast Asia but also the action; when Raya, Namaari, and others have to fight, martial-arts enthusiasts will see bits of muay thai, silat, and vovinam, not exactly athletic in an animated feature but certainly giving the animators a chance to have people moving in fun and sometimes new ways. They also get a chance to do nifty things with the fantastic elements, from the whimsy of Raya's giant pillbug Tuk Tuk (who sometimes feels like both a sci-fi mutant and a cheerfully larger-than-life bit of fantasy) to the almost completely abstract Druun. It's especially fun to see what they do with Sisu's design when she gains the ability to shapeshift; both dragon and human forms have a messy look that matches Awkwafina's vocal performance well, but the latter fits while sort of looking off-model, not looking wrong but also not entirely blending in.

The fact that the Druun are inhuman forces of nature lets the filmmakers mostly dispense with conventional villains in a way that a lot of family-friendly movies try to do but can't quite manage. Raya and Namaari are fierce rivals in a way that can be more harsh than typical in part because the film doesn't have to back down and explain why someone isn't really bad, and it's impressive how the animators and voice actors Kelly Marie Tran & Gemma Chan echo each other in how both are confident and capable until they have to deal with each other, which brings a lot of tension to both voice and body language. The pairings of Raya with both Sisu and Namaari are good enough that it's clear that the fairly sizable supporting cast doesn't have nearly the same amount of attention lavished on them; and it's a lot of sidekicks when the movie needs more equals.

It's only a slight unbalance compared to the string of sheer fun and creative adventure that the bulk of the film represents. It's a big, grand, clever adventure with the sort of constant invention that animation does better than anything else right now. Maybe there will be another iteration (though it's kind of strange to start speculating on that already, even if that may be where Disney seems to be heading), but in the meantime, it's one of the most exciting and adventurous things that their feature division has done in a while.

Also at eFilmCritic

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