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An Olympian achievement
This is possibly my favorite Disney movie ever. With a razor-sharp wit, perfect comic timing and a fresh plot that transcends most other Disney fairy tales, this one's definitely a keeper.
You'll be enchanted right from the first number, in which the five Muses (from Greek mythology) set the stage of ancient Greece in a powerhouse gospel number which gives a whole new meaning to a Greek chorus. Recalling the three ladies in Little Shop of Horrors or Motown groups like the Supremes, the Muses appear randomly throughout the movie to narrate the story of Hercules with jazzy musical numbers that you'll be humming for days. The songs (by Alan Menken) are certainly a twist from the classic Disney musical, but there's enough variety to create a great, well-rounded musical. The writing is the wittiest in any Disney movie ever, with constant in-jokes and hilarious references to Greek mythology to reward the amateur scholar. The lyrics, too, are witty and full of tricky rhyme schemes that must have been a doozy to write but play out perfectly on screen. (You'll be flat-out awed by how many things rhyme with the phrase "gospel truth".)
Another of the highlights is the heroine, Megara or Meg. She's in no way a typical Disney princess. She's sassy, sexy, cynical and dangerous - and more winning by far than any warbling Cinderella or whiny little mermaid. The villain, Hades, is also a fun, witty character, although plenty dangerous in his own right.
Of course liberties have been taken with Greek mythology. The dysfunctional Olympian family has been cleaned up (No more Zeus having affairs or Hera trying to kill people) and the story has little in it of the original Greek legend. Instead, it's really an archetype, a modern retelling of all the Greek legends at once. Appearances are made by the Muses, the Hydra, satyrs, the Fates, Pegasus, the Titans, Narcissus, and of course all of the Olympian gods. Scholars may take offense, but since legends evolve and are to be taken with a grain of salt anyway, I didn't have a problem with it.
Yes, it's cheesy, just like other Disneys. But when nobody else is around, there's no resisting the corn. The third act is absolutely heart-wrenching, and even if it's over-the-top, it never truly goes over the top, and the constant bombarding of wit keeps things from getting too touchy-feely. Besides, tied together with a golden Disney score, who couldn't resist a dose of adventure, heartache, redeeming love, and most of all, heroism? Just let yourself be carried away to ancient Greece and you'll forget the movie's problems in a Pelyponnesian minute. As the Muses would say, that's the gospel truth.
Around the World in 80 Days (2004)
The quintessential adventure comedy
When I first saw the propaganda for this movie, I thought it was going to be a stupid Jackie Chan vehicle which slaughters the Jules Verne novel. I was surprised. Was it a Jackie Chan vehicle? Yes. Was it stupid? To a point, yes. Does it slaughter the book? Surprisingly, not at all.
Chan follows a screen tradition of Passepartouts doing their own spectacular stunts, started by the Spanish performer Cantinflas in the original film. Unlike in that film, the movie actually explains why Passepartout is obviously not French. And the liberties only start there - but many of them are improvements. Rather than a boring, uninspired soul, as in the book, Phileas Fogg, the hero of the movie, is an ambitious inventor with all brains and no heart - or so he thinks. His bizarre contraptions are wonderful eye candy and invoke Jules Verne's genre as a whole. The female lead, rather than an Indian princess, is Monique, a spirited young French artist. And the villain is not the bumbling Detective Fix (who appears as a minor character who's constantly getting hurt) but the villainous Lord Kelvin, in league with an obligatory Chinese warlord who can match karate-chops with Chan.
When you watch this movie, you have to be ready for stupidity. There are a handful of groan-worthy gags, some of which work fine as long as you don't mind slapstick, and a few plot holes. But woven among this are some incredibly funny lines, a reasonably clever storyline and Chan's brilliant choreography. The three main characters have great chemistry together. Steve Coogan brings out the dweeb in Phileas, clumsily bungling his increasingly frequent attempts at heroism, in contrast to Chan's perfect stunts. His capers are hilarious, but also help the Everyman relate to the story - Phileas is a very un-heroic person who is thrust into dangerous adventures. Chan, as always, is great. French actress Cecile DeFrance is also wonderful, with an adorable French accent, a luminous face and impeccable comic timing. And the Chinese villains are appropriately scary, especially the femme fatale General Feng.
All this is put together with a fun, energetic score (except for some dreadful pop songs during the end credits) and brilliant colors which imbue the film with the spirit of a travelogue. To go too far into just what goes wrong on the around-the-world trip, and whether or not they make it, would ruin the fun. And fun it is. If more movies could strike such a perfect balance of comedy, romance and adventure, then Hollywood would be a happy place. As it is, this film can stand up to repeat viewings, leaving you electrified every time.
a French dramedy with jazz
This thoughtful French film takes place in France in the 50's and centers around Hannah, a Jewish teenager just doesn't fit in. She aspires to be in her school's jazz band. In this school, the jazz band is like the football team - iconic, legendary, dripping with school spirit, and traditionally all-male. Hannah wails on the bass, and not surprisingly gets into the band - but there her troubles just begin.
At its heart the movie is a series of pranks exchanged by Hannah and the other boys in the band, but it weaves its main theme of discrimination in carefully. Like the best movies, you'll feel enlightened by a moral, but feel as though you figured it out for yourself. Anti-semitism is dealt with, but mostly Hannah is discriminated for being a girl. Also, the movie touches on the topic of homophobia - but lightly, and not nearly enough to have an opinion.
However, at it's heart the movie is a typical teen fitting-in story. The swing of the 50's adds a fun backdrop. Although Hannah does not go from pauper to princess, it is nice to watch her gradually make peace and overcome her sullen shyness to speak her mind and be heard. One of the nicest elements is the inclusion of Hannah's crazy family. She has two older sisters, both superficial French beauties who constantly chide her for overeating (French is, after all, a language where there's a verb meaning "to get fat".) Her mom is bustling and controlling, and her dad is a lovable hothead. At first she seems totally out of place in her family, but as the film goes on you start to see the thoughtful side of her sisters and the way her whole family sticks up for one another.
I usually don't like movies with subtitles, but the French is not too affecting for the average English speaker, and it just doesn't stop the film from being very entertaining. The subtitles work, and you can hear the character's emotions just fine even when you have no idea what they're saying. The contrast of Hannah's sullen, depressed voice and the silky French spoken by her sisters helps create their personalities right away. There are many good jokes, and a lot of them are situation comedy, so an English speaker can understand them. My only problem with the film is the lack of fireworks at the end. I won't give anything away, but I will say that I still wanted the members of the band to get it a lot worse before the reconciliations rolled around.
All in all, this is a fun movie that has a good balance of entertainment and intelligence. If you want a foreign film that will hold your interest as effortlessly as an English one will, you'll find it in this film.
It should be noted that a wee tad of graphic nudity ought to scare off the chilluns.