Sunday, 20 December 2015

Movie Review: Mr. Holmes/Snoopy And Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie (2015)



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Time to look at another legendary British character that, for one reason or another, has taken a stronghold in the cultural mindset. Sure, he may not be as influential as the tuxedoed ladykiller 007, but put on a deerstalker, a pipe and say the word “elementary” and you’ll doubtless find someone who will immediately point to the Baker Street resident Sherlock Holmes. However, instead of all of the elements attached to a character like James Bond, Holmes only has a few specific calling cards to his name: His connection to his dear Watson (god, Tumblr has given that phrase a whole meaning since Moffatt took over), the Baker Street Irregulars that serve as his eyes and ears and, of course, his coldly analytical approach that has given him a reputation for being one of the more intelligent fictional minds. Well, time to see if he is still just as entertaining when that same brilliant mind has been dulled by the effects of ageing. This is Mr. Holmes.

The plot: Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) retired years earlier, having taken to a simpler existence tending his bees as his memory continues to ebb away from him. However, after taking umbrage with how Watson (Colin Starkey) depicted his final case, he decides to write down the events as they truly happened… that is, if he can actually recall them.  As he grows closer to young Roger (Milo Parker), the son of his caretaker Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), he starts to recollect what took place and, ultimately, what made him decide to retire in the first place.

Portraying a character renowned for his mental dexterity as an old man going senile is an exceptionally tricky move. You could run the risk of demeaning the character and losing grip with what made him so iconic in the first place, turning Britain’s greatest detective into another rendition of the fun grandpa. Thankfully, this film shows a ton of respect for both its literary origins and the character’s integrity. A large contributor to how well this turns out is Ian McKellen, who does a tremendous service with his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. He still maintains the hyper-analytical nature of his younger counterparts, knowing full character profiles at a single glance, but balances that out with him trying to turn that same attitude towards the growing mystery that is his own recollections of his past. Not only is does he look more than capable of still being that intellectually sharp, given how wizened he looks, he also pulls off the dramatic moments with serious intensity; it’s like machine-gun tears with how well he does in the heavier scenes.

The core mystery, both in flashback and with Holmes sorting through his own memories, isn’t the kind of brain-crappingly clever progression that the franchise is best known for. Instead, it aims more for pathos through its more personal look at Holmes, the people involved in the case and how it all plays into his interactions with Roger and his mother. This is a bit off-putting at first, as the way Holmes goes about investigating Ann shows a pretty evident lack of subtlety. It’s at the point where his age isn’t a sufficient enough reason for why he is employing tactics usually used by high-schoolers spying on their crush to learn more about them. However, this is very much a case of substance over style, as what this lacks in swishy finesse, it makes up for a deft hand at emotion. Through both McKellen’s performance and Jeffrey Hatcher’s script, we feel the desperation on Holmes’ part to remember what happened that would make him give up the job he was clearly born to do. Not only that, Ann’s despair is portrayed in a very unflinching way that just grips the heart for dear life, Roger’s connection with Holmes shows more maturity than the usual stories that involve a kinship between a kid and a senior citizen and Mrs. Munro, while a bit harsh in her attitudes towards Holmes, gets a decent arc progression that makes it all worth sitting through.

Given the numerous incarnations the character has gone through over the last several decades, going the Old Man Holmes direction seems like a natural step to take. Then you take into account the two most recent iterations of the character: Both of them in the modern day and, to varying degrees, focus on rather photogenic casting. Now, I have admittedly only seen one of the two TV iterations of the character currently running: Sherlock is easily one of my favourite TV shows of all time and Elementary… yeah, I have never and will never be able to trust the U.S. adapting primarily and proudly British characters; as such, I’ve never watched it. This film takes a metafictional look at the character’s legacy through Holmes reacting to the novels Watson wrote of their adventures and the subsequent adaptations that have been made of them. Probably the funniest moment of the entire film is watching Sherlock Holmes watch Sherlock Holmes at a movie theatre, in an awesome send-up of the cheesy 30’s-40’s movies. Bonus points for having the actor portraying Sherlock in the film-within-a-film be Nicholas Rowe, who also portrayed Young Sherlock Holmes in the titular film. Through the liberties that Watson took with the actual events, like the hat and pipe that people keep expecting him to have, we see Holmes have a rather bizarre disconnect from himself in the eyes of the general public while also having that disconnect because he can’t even remember the details of the original cases.

With these remarkably clever touches, we get a refreshing look at the idea of legacy characters and how the general idea of showing an older and frailer detective shouldn’t be shied away from. I would normally file this along with other films that spend more time than they need to justifying their own existence, except there is legitimate reason to do so especially in today’s cinematic landscape. One of the big problems that comes up when people generally watch a remake/reboot/follow-up/rip-off/re-imagining/whatever other buzz word is suitable of a property that they like is that it almost has to be compared to the original. However, a lot of those same people get hung up on the fact that the new film is different from the character that they are familiar, rather than how well it’s carried out. I remember back when the most recent Fantastic Four film was in the marketing stage and everyone was losing their minds over how the Human Torch was being played by a black guy. Of course, once it came out, audiences quickly realized everything else that was wrong with it, but that was a legitimate issue for some people. As much as they hated the Tim Story films, they were still attached to the idea of someone like Chris Evans playing the character and weren’t willing to let another ethnicity try it.

Here, we see that even with all the changes that may come, and the utter crap that come out of it, none of it changes what the character is. It’s like the regenerations in Doctor Who: Different look, shifted priorities, but still the same person underneath. Am I saying that people don’t have a right to feel betrayed when a character gets misrepresented? Hell no! I’m still pissed at how Deadpool was mistreated in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and am so happy that we’re getting a real depiction of the character in his film soon. I’m just saying that we should reserve our hate for when people get the idea dead wrong, not just because they did it differently. The film’s overall sentiment about adaptations and literary continuations is very admirable, which is surprising given how this is the same director who gave us both parts of Twilight: Breaking Dawn.

All in all, this is a highly effective take on the character, aided by outstanding acting and surprisingly deft direction at the hands of Bill Condon. It takes an overall look at Holmes, his legacy, his previous incarnations and just what it would take to affect him as much as we find in this film. Ian McKellen adds another notch to his belt with his amazing turn as the titular character and, somehow, I find myself actively looking forward to his upcoming take on Beauty & The Beast based on how this great this turned out. It’s better than Avengers: Age Of Ultron, as this doesn’t feel like a let-down to his predecessors and instead builds on them to make it work. However, as much as I love the metafiction aspect, the humour and kinetic action scenes in Spy rank it just above this.

 
Is there a single character in the entirety of fiction that better represents childhood depression more than Charlie Brown? Seriously, he’s the on-again-off-again punching bag of all his peers, he is the product of a society where the children act far more like adults than the actual adults do and, for whatever reason, life as a whole seems to take great pleasure in taking a massive dump on his day for its own amusement. That skit from Family Guy where Charlie ends up as a thuggish stoner might be an optimistic expectation, all things considered. Still, even with all that baggage, he and the rest of the Peanuts canon are yet another staple of pop culture. Most of it came out before I was even born and, without seeing any of it for myself, elements of it are just that pervasive that they have always stuck with me: Charlie’s aforementioned emotional scars, the football gag, “You blockhead!”, Patty and Marcie’s ‘relationship’, the cripplingly sad songs that would show up in the TV specials and movies, “No dogs allowed!”; the list goes on. So, even though I am going into this with little to no prior experience with the series, it would be nearly impossible to go into this film completely blind. This is Snoopy And Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie.

The plot: When a new Red-Haired Girl joins his class, Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) immediately develops a crush for her. However, because of his string of bad luck and shyness around her, he fears that he may never get a chance to get to know her. With the help of his faithful dog Snoopy, he partakes in a number of activities in the hopes of making a good impression; given how he is viewed as a joke by the rest of the school, it may be the only chance he’ll have to find someone.

The animation is done in a style that is meant to pay tribute to the franchise’s hand-drawn origins. Usually, 3D that is done to emulate 2D doesn’t end up looking right and will just bring up that age-old question of “Why didn’t you just do it with line drawings to begin with?” However, the CGI here looks really good as it doesn’t necessarily keep the flat style but rather uses the round character designs and simple facial expressions to make for a decent update to the series’ visual aesthetic. Of course, since it’s set mostly around a schoolboy and his social misadventures, the film doesn’t feature a lot of visually intense sequences. That is, until Snoopy’s fantasy world kicks in. Throughout the film, there’s a running sub-plot about Snoopy writing a story about himself as a WWII ace fighter pilot, complete with depictions of the events of the story. Here, between the sleek movements and the appropriately detailed designs, it manages to deliver probably the best animation Blue Sky Studios have ever been involved with. Sure, that may seem like damming with faint praise, since these are the same people who brought us the Ice Age and Rio films, but this shows a definite sign of good things to come… hopefully. Judging by how bizarre the Scrat short before this film was, I’m guessing that “good things to come” isn’t going to count the next Ice Age film, but I’ll leave that for its own inevitable review.

Ordinarily, me calling a film “inoffensive” or “harmless” would be as an insult to said film. Media should be at least a little abrasive and challenging, otherwise there isn’t much point in it existing. In this case, I use both of them entirely as complements; it’s rare that a film that is this warm and likeable is released without some kind of self-sabotage being involved to water it down. I don’t want to make any misinformed statements about how respectful it is to the Peanuts franchise, given my admitted unfamiliarity with it, but judging by how the film is co-written by both the son and grandson of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, I’m willing to bet that that is indeed the case. The humour on display is the kind that adds to just how long the name Charlie Brown has been in public knowledge, comprised of self-contained character humour and good-natured slapstick. This is definitely helped by how a lot of the series’ eccentricities, like how overly mature the children think and how foghorn the adults sound (credit to Trombone Shorty for his work on their voices), are presented in the best way possible. Unless told otherwise, apart from a couple of moments, this doesn’t feel like the latest and relatively faithful addition of a franchise that is over 60 years old. Even how much Charlie Brown gets thrown around physically and mentally, while still being true to his classic ‘breakdown waiting to happen’ persona, his actions and reactions are all strangely relatable. That is quite impressive, considering this film features him being able to read and critically analyse Tolstoy’s War And Peace over a single weekend. Then again, this is a guy trying to ingest and understand media far above his own intelligence; I don’t want to come across as too hypocritical.

All in all, if you want feels this holiday season, this is where you’ll find them. The acting hits all the right notes, the animation is better than ever could have been expected from Blue Sky, the sense of humour is ideal for both kids and adults and the writing overall continues with the kind of timeless sentiment that has allowed Peanuts to carry on for as long as it has. It may not be the most thought-provoking child-friendly film in the world but, after seeing just how bad family fare can get this year alone, actually being funny and charming is still worth being celebrated. It’s better than Citizenfour as, in comparison to what is more useful, I’d rather feel justifiably good than feel unnecessarily paranoid about the world around me. However, even with its occasion moments of pretence, Paper Towns is more effective because of its more relatable characters. As nicely written as they are, the adult speak loses in the comparison.

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