The Arts

Disney’s Moana is magnificent

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flicks-main-moana-poster-new

Moana the magnificent

****

Directors John Musker and Ron Clements, whose previous collaborations The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992) are widely regarded as classics, turn the hat trick with Moana, a beautifully rendered, CGI-animated fantasy in the grand tradition of the Disney greats.
The title character, voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, is very much the prototypical Disney hero – or heroine, in this case. She’s imaginative, willful, a little rebellious, but always respectful of her elders – particularly her father (voiced by Temuera Morrison) and her grandmother (voiced by Rachel House).
When the vegetation on their tropical island begins dying and the fish vanish from the sea, Moana is certain that the island has been cursed, and despite her father’s protestations but her grandmother’s encouragement, she is determined to restore her home to its previous beauty and bounty.
To this end, she embarks on a magical voyage filled with whimsy and wonder, aided – somewhat reluctantly – by Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), a beefy but incorrigible demigod whose earlier mischief caused the problem in the first place.
Like Robin Williams in Aladdin, Johnson serves as the story’s principal comic relief, pulls it off quite adroitly, and even carries a tune nicely. (That’s right, folks – The Rock sings.)
Moana celebrates the folklore and legends of its locale in dazzling, grand-scale fashion that is humorous but always sincere and respectful. Perhaps a few jokes fall flat, and there could have been more of the egotistical, villainous crab Tamatoa (voiced by Jemaine Clement) – whose musical number “Shiny” is a show-stopper – but these are complaints that fade when one considers the overall excellence.
Truly a delight for all ages, Moana is not only one of the season’s best and brightest offerings, it’s quite simply one of the year’s best films.

Magic in Manhattan

**½

Given how popular and profitable the Harry Potter series was, it was probably a foregone conclusion that a spin-off would be in the offing. Warner Bros. clearly thought so, having committed to a five-film franchise based on J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
With Rowling herself penning the screenplay and director David Yates (a four-film Potter veteran) at the helm, Fantastic Beasts (which is set several decades before the Potters) is a blockbuster made to order, a special-effects extravaganza laden with wizards, witches, magic wands, wicked doings and, yes, fantastic beasts.
Eddie Redmayne, appealing but trying a little too hard, plays the bumbling hero Newt Scamander, whose visit to 1920s New York City is complicated when some of his “fantastic beasts” escape from his patently defective suitcase.
There’s an entire magic underground movement already in America (housed in Woolworth’s, no less), and it soon becomes apparent that various factions, particularly those represented by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), have hidden agendas – which don’t include Newt or his new friends Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an equally bumbling human (“No-Maj”) baker, and sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol).
Rowling revels in the period atmosphere, incorporating and adapting familiar elements from the era. Scamander has more than a little Charlie Chaplin in him, and Jacob a bit of Oliver Hardy. With a little more sass, Waterston’s Tina could be a screwball heroine a la Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), Sudol’s Queenie is a quintessential ’20s flapper, and Samantha Morton’s hard-nosed anti-magic proponent Mary Lou Barebone is clearly modeled on the suffragette movement.
Not unlike the Potter films, some characters – and talented actors – get lost in the shuffle, including Morton, Jon Voight, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, Jenn Murray and Carmen Ejogo (who takes her role as Seraphina Picquery a little too seriously). Of course, these characters can return in subsequent installments, even those who seem to have met their demise. (After all, it’s magic – anything can happen.)
Never boring but frequently familiar, Fantastic Beasts moves inexorably toward an anti-climactic finale that recalls Ghostbusters (either version) and any number of effects-laden films already released this year (London Has Fallen, Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, et al). Seeing a major metropolis laid waste in massive CGI fashion simply doesn’t have the novelty it used to.

Santa slips in sequel

After a 13-year hiatus, Bad Santa 2 only serves to reinforce the old adage that sequels are rarely equal to the original – even if the original was no masterpiece to begin with.
Billy Bob Thornton jumps once more into the breach – and the Santa suit – as perennial loser Willie Soke, who reconnects with Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) to pull off a Christmas Eve heist in Chicago. The mastermind is none other than Willie’s long-estranged mother, the inaptly named Sunny Soke (Kathy Bates).
Also back is Brett Kelly, still trailing after Willie in clueless fashion as the adoring Thurman Merman. He still claims to see the good in Willie, despite Willie’s repeated attempts to ditch him.
The actors’ timing, delivery, and sheer zest are occasionally able to salvage, if only partially, some of the jokes. A few times Bad Santa 2 threatens to go on a roll, only to lapse back into repetitive insults and putdowns. The film’s funniest moments are those which usurp the traditional notion of Santa Claus, such as Willie’s brawl with a fellow sidewalk Santa (Mike Starr) or when children sit on his knee and tell him what they want for Christmas.
Original director Terry Zwigoff has been succeeded by Mark Waters and original screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Resqua by Johnny Rosenthal (his first) and Shauna Cross. Neither change has been for the good. The heist shtick feels as if it was lifted from the first film – including the ending – and despite that enthusiastic cast, which includes Christina Hendricks, Jenny Zigrino, Jeff Skowron and Octavia Spencer (in a rather embarrassing cameo), it’s uphill all the way.
The first Bad Santa was admittedly hit-and-miss, but some of the hits were truly inspired. Aside from a few intermittent laughs, Bad Santa 2 is more miss than hit. No-ho-ho.

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2016, Mark Burger

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