The word on ‘Shazam!’
By: Matt Brunson
In the immortal words — make that word — of Gomer Pyle, USMC: Shazam! (two and a half out of four stars).
The second Captain Marvel movie to be released this spring (yup, this character was originally known by that name from his creation in 1939 until his rebranding in 1972), DC’s valiant effort doesn’t soar as high as its Marvel counterpart, though there’s still a hefty amount to enjoy in this thematically loose-limbed undertaking. Whereas the DCU has often been criticized for its why-so-serious approach to mythmaking, it’s obvious the suits have finally opted to take a hint, injecting a light amount of humor into Wonder Woman, a sizable amount of humor into Aquaman, and now a gargantuan amount of humor into Shazam! It’s an appreciated gesture in most circles, though I personally didn’t mind the darker underpinnings in past DC flicks (particularly Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy). At any rate, it’s not like DC is reinventing the wheel here, as even a cursory glance at Marvel opuses like, say, Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok can attest.
Djimon Hounsou, who’s been appearing in superhero sagas with almost as much regularity as Chris Evans (he previously popped up in Captain Marvel, Aquaman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even as the title hero in an animated Black Panther T.V. show), here sets the story in motion as an elderly wizard who needs to bestow his formidable powers onto someone worthy of them. He bypasses young Thaddeus Sivana back in the mid-70s and instead waits until now when he believes he has found a true champion in Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster boy who shares a home with disabled comic-book fan Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) and other good-hearted kids. Whenever he utters the word “Shazam,” Billy turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) whose formidable powers include, umm… Neither Billy nor Freddy are sure, so cue the amusing sequences in which the pair attempt to determine exactly what Shazam can do. (Turn invisible? Stop bullets? Leap tall buildings in a single bound?)
Meanwhile, the now adult Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has spent his life trying to attain the power that was within his grasp as a child, although he has no plans to use it for the betterment of mankind. To be fair, Billy isn’t exactly displaying heroic qualities, either, as he’s more interested in attaining fame and fortune — or at least ample YouTube hits and a few quarters tossed at his feet as he shows off his awesome super-tricks.
Shazam! is good for some laughs, but in an increasingly crowded landscape in which superheroes are allowed to be philosophical, guilt-ridden, godlike, and even meta (what up, Deadpool?), there’s something comparatively puny about this film. Its drama (particularly the familial material) feels warmed-over, its conflicts feel boilerplate, and the majority isn’t quite bright enough or inventive enough to overcome a third act free-for-all that involves numerous superbeings and demonic entities slugging it out in a repetitive CGI loop that neither illuminates nor entertains.
Shazam! is endearing enough to earn an ever-so-modest recommendation, but it’s hardly the final word in superhero splendor writ large.
There’s a humorous moment when the protagonist hears a tinkling sound from below and looks down, only to see a giant piano keyboard on the floor underneath their feet. It’s a clever homage to that classic scene from 1988’s Big, the Penny Marshall hit in which a little boy finds himself trapped in Tom Hanks’ adult body thanks to some vaguely supernatural shenanigans. It’s a scene that’s right at home in the new film Little (one and a half out of four stars) … only this scene actually isn’t in Little. Instead, it’s in Shazam!, another current film about mismatched bodies. Were that there were any moments of comparable wit and inventiveness in Little, a bland comedy whose moniker reflects its overarching puniness.
The manner in which folks switch bodies (Freaky Friday) or ages (13 Going on 30) or even gender (the recent What Men Want) is never the point in these types of films, but Little is particularly lazy in setting up its curse. Nevertheless, this is in line with the rest of the film, which is a surprisingly drab affair that never allows for more than an occasional fleeting smile (actual belly laughs are sadly MIA).
Regina Hall, coming off 2018, which saw her delivering an award-winning turn in Support the Girls and co-starring in the 10 Best-worthy The Hate U Give, is here in manic-Monday mode, cast as a woman who was bullied as a child and has grown up to now be the bully to everyone else. Her Jordan Sanders is a fire-breathing tyrant, a CEO with OCD (a deadly combo) who enjoys barking at those around her, particularly her mild-mannered assistant April (Issa Rae). But an encounter with a little girl with a toy wand results in a curse that finds Jordan waking up the next day back in the body of her younger, school-age self (played by 14-year-old Black-ish co-star Marsai Martin, who also serves as an executive producer — the youngest in history — on this film). With the reluctant aid of April, Jordan must find a way to reverse the curse — first, though, her diminutive body means that she has to return to the classroom, and again risk being bullied.
For those expecting to see a movie starring top-billed Regina Hall, the problem is that, by the very nature of the story, she’s only around at the beginning and at the end. To compensate with another grown-up, writer-director Tina Gordon Chism and co-scripter Tracy Oliver (working from an idea conceived by Martin when she was 10 years old) beef up the size of Rae’s role to the extent that April actually becomes the primary player. But who cares about her comparatively drab character when all the potentially interesting material involves Jordan in all her incarnations? The lack of a center affects all areas of the film, with half-baked romantic travails for both Jordan and April and lapses in logic when it comes to believable character transformations (a “Three Months Later” placard toward the end of the film skips over crucial scenes that would allow us to witness and understand all the changes).
If Little at least delivered on its comedic material or provided some sort of emotional resonance, much could be forgiven. But the laughs are largely lame and the pathos utterly nonexistent. Whereas Hanks’ Josh Baskin in Big sobbed deeply at the absolutely frightening prospect of being the wrong age in the wrong body, Little settles for the pint-sized version of Jordan making sexual passes at her hunky teacher (Justin Hartley). Even the anti-bullying angle fails to gain any traction — then again, that could simply be because viewers themselves will feel battered and beaten after sitting through the forceful blows delivered by this rampaging mediocrity.
It’s not like there wasn’t any room for improvement. The 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary can boast of countless fans, but there are just as many folks (myself included) who find it a crudely made concoction hampered by clumsy pacing and, aside from the magnificent Fred Gwynne, undercooked performances. This new edition, also named Pet Sematary (two out of four stars), seeks to correct those deficiencies with slicker production values, better emoting, and even a twist not found in either the novel or previous film.
As before, the Creeds – dad Louis (Jason Clarke), mom Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and young children Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (played by twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) — move to a small Maine town, where their new abode happens to rest on the edge of a highway that’s home to countless trucks that barrel through at all hours of the day and night. The Creeds meet across-the-street neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow, effective in a turn that’s less folksy and more gravelly than the one provided by Gwynne), who informs them of a pet cemetery that rests deep in the woods of their property. It’s only later that Jud alerts Louis to the fact that anything that is dead and subsequently buried beyond the cemetery, in-ground deemed “sour” by long-ago Native American inhabitants, will come back in an altered state.
The first stretch of this P.S. is more reputable than that of the junkier ’89 model, but it also isn’t much fun, hurriedly paying somber lip service to the conventions of the story rather than engaging viewers in its darker implications. But then the massive deviation from the original text occurs, and it promises to spin the tale off into a different and possibly more thought-provoking direction. (This twist also explains why Gage had been largely ignored in the early going, emerging less as a character and more as a background prop.) But while the initial scenes following this “gotcha!” pirouette manage to resonate, the juicier aspects soon fade into the background, and the picture devolves into a tiresome slasher flick. It all culminates with a brand new ending so useless and anticlimactic that it almost qualifies as a shaggy dog story — a mangy mutt that should be buried as quickly as humanly possible.