Mortal Kombat (2021) review

For F*** Magazine


Director: Simon McQuoid
Cast : Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Sisi Stringer
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 110 min
Opens : 8 April 2021
Rating : M18

In 1992, the arcade game Mortal Kombat, created by Ed Boon and John Tobias, became a defining entry in the fighting game genre. The franchise has courted controversy and had a presence in every conceivable form of media, including two theatrically released movies in the 90s. Mortal Kombat returns to the big screen in this reboot.

MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) bears a mysterious dragon-shaped birthmark, indicating that he is descended from a line of legendary fighters. Cole is targeted by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), the demon sorcerer of Outworld, who has sent Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) in pursuit of Cole. Bi-Han/Sub-Zero, who can control ice, has a long-running rivalry with Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), whom he apparently killed centuries earlier. After he is discovered by Special Forces operatives Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Cole is transported to Lord Raiden’s (Tadanobu Asano) temple. Training alongside Shaolin warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang) and the loose cannon mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson), Cole prepares to represent Earthrealm against combatants from Outworld in a mythical tournament – a tournament called Mortal Kombat.

The people who made this movie seem to have a handle on what the fans want. They might not exactly get there, but there is an eagerness to please that is evident in the film. The iconography associated with the games and the characters is treated with a degree of reverence, even as the movie never takes itself too seriously, despite initial concerns to the contrary. Even the most devoted Mortal Kombat fans are hard-pressed to deny that there is a lot of campiness and silliness in the source material, and the movie is often entertainingly silly. The Benjamin Wallfisch score includes variations of the iconic original “Techno Syndrome” theme by Oliver Adams; Wallfisch’s reworking of the theme was reportedly used by director Simon McQuoid to recruit his cast.

The stunt team, led by supervising stunt coordinator Kyle Gardiner, stunt coordinator Jade Amantea and fight coordinator Chan Griffin, assemble action sequences that are plentiful and generally well executed. Many of the actors involved have a martial arts background, which helps. Unlike the two 90s films, this Mortal Kombat movie has an R (M18 in Singapore) rating, meaning it can revel in the grisly violence that is the games’ trademark. The fatalities are graphic, but probably what long-time fans of the game would consider tame. Still, we go to a Mortal Kombat movie for the fighting scenes, and there are lots of those.

Making a coherent narrative feature film that makes good use of the expected Mortal Kombat roster was always going to be a challenge. Unfortunately, this movie is sometimes stuck in a no man’s land – neophytes might feel kept at arm’s length by the unwieldy exposition and certain preposterous elements that fans will accept, while hardcore fans might feel that something’s missing. This is tricky to calibrate for any movie based on an existing property. McQuoid tosses in Easter Eggs, and the movie seems to fall back on “look, there’s that thing you like!” a little too often.

Mortal Kombat wants to be epic, and it often falls short. While the fights do look good, the movie overall lacks the visual grandeur and spectacle associated with the settings of the games. We never really get a good sense of the stakes, and for a story in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance, things often feel too casual. There are times when the movie feels like a weird underdog sports story, with the team of screw-ups trying to take down the reigning champs. The B-movie feel of Mortal Kombat works against it almost as often as it works for it.

Most of the casting works well, with Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada being the highlights. Taslim, best known for The Raid and who crossed over into Hollywood with Fast and Furious 6 and Star Trek Beyond, lends Sub-Zero an icy resolve. Sanada always has gravitas to spare and imbues Scorpion with power and grief.

The Cole character is the source of many Mortal Kombat fans’ reservations going into this. Cole is clearly meant to be an entry point for those unfamiliar with the franchise and very much is a bland, standard issue ‘chosen one’ protagonist who can feel like a fan fiction self-insert character. While Lewis Tan is an adept martial artist and is very handsome, he doesn’t have a lot of screen presence.

Jessica McNamee makes for a good Sonya Blade, essaying the right amount of toughness without it crossing over into parody. Josh Lawson’s Kano is the designated comic relief, and Lawson seems to be having a lot of fun in the role, making multiple pop culture references (but only to Warner Bros-owned properties). The character does border on grating, though.

Ludi Lin’s turn as Liu Kang is almost too earnest at first, but he ably captures the archetypical martial arts movie hero nature of the character. Max Huang’s Kung Lao is a lot of fun, and there are some fun gags involving his metal hat. Tadanobu Asano’s Raiden is disappointing, as he lacks both the sense of authority and dash of mischief that is crucial to the character.

Aside from Sub-Zero, the Outworld characters are a bit underwhelming. Chin Han’s Shang Tsung skulks around and glowers a lot and gives supervillain speeches but is rarely ever genuinely menacing.

Summary: Video game movies have had a spotty track record, and while Mortal Kombat is far from the worst of the bunch, it’s also not the saviour of the genre some might have hoped it to be. There’s a lot to like, some of the casting is amazing and it’s filled with watchable fights, but the movie feels fragmented and struggles to build its sprawling world. Imagine Scorpion’s kunai, stopping a good distance short of its target.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Raya and the Last Dragon review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Cast : Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 114 min
Opens : 5 March 2021
Rating : PG

Disney Animation has drawn on stories from various regions as the basis for their films. With Raya and the Last Dragon, the House of Mouse goes a little mousedeer, telling a story inspired by the mythology of Southeast Asia.  

Dragons were the protectors of the mythical land of Kumandra, sacrificing themselves to save humanity when monsters called the Druun attacked, petrifying all in their path. Kumandra is divided into Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine and Tail, each land named for a different part of the dragon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a warrior princess from the Heart kingdom, whose father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is training her to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. Chief Benja attempts to broker peace between the disparate lands, but the Druun return and the conflict continues. As an adult, Raya finds and revives Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. Raya and Sisu must unite the fractured pieces of the Dragon Gem to bring back all who were lost to the Druun. Along the way, Raya must face off with a figure from her past: the equally formidable Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of the Fang Kingdom.  

Raya and the Last Dragon is gorgeously animated and the world of Kumandra is a visually captivating one. The details in the costumes and architecture are plentiful, and the effects animation, especially on the angry black mist that is the Druun, is exceptional. The hand-to-hand fight sequences are well choreographed and there is a genuine sense of thrilling adventure to the story.

The voice cast is also excellent, with Kelly Marie Tran bringing both steeliness and warmth to the part of Raya. Awkwafina’s rasp works well as the voice of an animated character and she plays the fish-out-of-water aspect of Sisu entertainingly. Daniel Dae Kim effortlessly essays calm authority, while Benedict Wong seems to be having the best time as Tong, a boisterous gentle (?) giant type. Boun (Izaac Wang), a kid entrepreneur who runs a shrimp congee restaurant out of a boat, is also a fun, likeable road movie side character.

The most interesting part of the film is the rivalry between Raya and Namaari, and the possibility that they might still find common ground with each other. Namaari is sufficiently different from your standard snarling Disney villain, and this reviewer feels not enough of the movie is about this relationship.

While watching Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s evident that there is a tension between making this something fresh and innovative, while also honouring the storied legacy of Disney animation, and fulfilling expectations associated with its most successful films. As such, Raya and the Last Dragon can sometimes feel tied down to Disney animated movie formula. There’s a plucky princess raised by a single father, and she goes on a quest accompanied by a comic relief sidekick (or two or three). Sticking to a formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Raya breaks from formula in certain significant ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is still constrained by certain expectations associated with Disney animated movies.   

Tonally, there are moments that don’t quite work. This is a movie about a world and its inhabitants dealing with trauma and loss. However, it also wants to be light-hearted and appealing to children – hence characters like an adorable half-armadillo-half-pillbug named Tuk-Tuk (Alan Tudyk) who clearly exists to sell toys – not that we don’t want a Tuk-Tuk plushie.

Like the Dragon Gem, the story sometimes seems fragmented, and feels episodic the way many movies with a road trip structure do. Some of the dialogue is clunky, and several of the anachronistic jokes don’t work, including a moment when Raya proclaims, “bling’s my thing”. Several of Sisu’s jokes sound like improvisational riffs that Awkwafina came up with in the booth, and can be a little grating, but Sisu is generally likeable. Unfortunately, Sisu’s character design sticks out – typically, East Asian and Southeast Asian dragons are depicted with a maned head and a scaly body, but Sisu is entirely furry and doesn’t seem like she belongs stylistically.

Kumandra incorporates facets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos. For Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney assembled the Southeast Asia Story Trust comprised of experts in various fields, including an Indonesian linguist, a textile expert from the USC Pacific Asia Museum and a visual anthropologist. Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn is an artist of Thai descent, while co-writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim are of Vietnamese and Malaysian Chinese descent, respectively.

There is a desire here to tell a story that has a degree of authenticity, but “authenticity” is something that’s hard to measure empirically. As Moana did with Polynesian countries, Raya and the Last Dragon amalgamates and mashes up Southeast Asian countries to create the fictional Kumandra. While there is an overlap in the cultural traditions and mythologies of many Southeast Asian countries, residents of said countries would also generally prefer for others not to get one country confused with the other, and that creates a kind of paradox in telling a story that is inspired by a blend of cultures.

Watching Raya, it’s also hard not to think of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and the follow-up The Legend of Korra, which have thus far been western animation’s most successful attempts at creating fantasy worlds inspired by disparate Asian cultures. The world-building of Avatar seems more thought out than it is in Raya, but then of course the animated series had a lot more time to spend on that.

Summary: Raya and the Last Dragon sometimes struggles with telling a story that is authentic to the region from which it draws inspiration while also delivering what audiences expect from a Disney animated adventure, but it mostly succeeds in pulling off this balance. It may not be as revolutionary as Disney had hoped, but it is still a largely entertaining adventure that draws on rich storytelling traditions. Hopefully, filmmakers from varied backgrounds will continue getting the support they need in Hollywood to tell more stories from more places.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Soul review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Pete Docter
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 25 December 2020
Rating : PG

Of the mainstream animated studios out there, Pixar has a reputation for generally making more sophisticated fare than its competitors. With Soul, Pixar tackles a question no loftier than “what makes you who you are?”

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring jazz pianist. Just when he’s about to get his big break performing with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) quartet, he falls down a manhole and goes into a coma. Joe’s soul, bound for The Great Beyond, escapes to the You Seminar, formerly known as “The Great Before”. This is where souls live and gain defining characteristics before they enter corporeal bodies on earth. Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent thousands of years evading becoming human. As Joe fights to return to his body on earth, 22 gains an unexpected understanding of, and perhaps an appreciation for, the life she has been trying so hard to avoid.

Soul is hugely ambitious, a metaphysical, existential odyssey that is challenging and sometimes satisfying to embark upon. It is a lively, funny creation; obviously the effort of artists and technicians who have poured their hearts and, well, souls into their work. Director Pete Docter, who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, gives Soul a poignancy that is difficult to describe.

Soul also faces the immense challenge of creating a view of the afterlife (and the ‘afore-life’) that is compatible with multiple belief systems. Great care was taken in shaping the world of the film, with the filmmakers consulting with various religious and cultural experts. The result is something vaguely new-agey and spiritual, but never explicitly religious.

Soul’s design is also often eye-catching, with some clever ideas at play. To convey the ephemeral, intangible nature of a soul, the designers were inspired by the low-density material aerogel. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it immensely clever. Soul is, naturally, an intensely emotional film that left this reviewer in tears. It is especially resonant for anyone who’s tried to make a living doing anything creative.

Soul does not seem like a movie made primarily for children and might be Pixar’s least accessible film yet. It is perhaps more difficult to get into than Inside Out, Docter’s previous Pixar film. This does not mean that it doesn’t have elements in it that children will enjoy, but it is going to be difficult for parents to explain what the movie is about. Soul also feels like a movie that is often in search of itself, which befits its themes, but also means it sometimes goes off in many directions. This is a film that demands to be engaged with, but its take on heady philosophical matters can seem a little simplistic or reductive at times.

There are few things as universally moving as music, so it is a canny move to centre the movie on a musician. Soul’s soundscape is a richly textured one, with jazz at its core. Co-writer Powers is, like the protagonist Joe, a Black man from New York in his mid-40s and was a journalist and music critic. Jon Batiste wrote and performed the original jazz tracks in the score, in addition to providing the animators reference for Joe’s piano playing. There is great attention paid to the cultural significance of jazz, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock and anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole being two of the consultants on board. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, known for scoring David Fincher films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, seem like unlikely candidates to score a Pixar film, but they deliver moving, uncharacteristically gentle work that is still the right amount of haunting.

Pixar’s films are generally cast well, and Soul is no exception. Jamie Foxx effortlessly essays passion and earnestness, while Tina Fey is endearing as the cynical 22, world-weary despite having never lived. Fey contributed to her character’s dialogue; 22 makes a great throwaway dig at the New York Knicks. Phylicia Rashad breathes life into the relatively small role of Joe’s stern yet loving mother and Angela Bassett is as commanding a presence as ever, voicing a legendary saxophonist. Talk show host Graham Norton brings a friendly quirkiness to hippie sign-twirler Moonwind and Rachel House is funny as the tightly-wound bureaucrat Terry, a soul-counter.

Summary: Made with an abundance of sensitivity and intelligence, Soul artfully tackles some gigantic questions in a resonant manner. Its thematic maturity means that parents will have their work cut out for them in explaining the movie to younger children, but this is a wholly rewarding experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Monster Hunter review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast : Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, Cliff “T.I.” Harris Jr, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, Josh Helman, Jin Au-Yeung, Hirona Yamazaki
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 min
Opens : 24 December 2020
Rating : PG13

Paul W.S. Anderson, best known for the Resident Evil films, tackles another videogame adaptation, bringing Capcom’s Monster Hunter to the big screen.

Captain Natalie Artemis (Milla Jovovich), whose squadron includes Link (T.I.), Dash (Meagan Good), Marshall (Diego Boneta), Steeler (Josh Helman) and Axe (Jin Au-Yeung), is a U.S. Army Ranger. A freak electrical storm suddenly whisks Artemis and her team into a mysterious realm dominated by other-worldly monsters. Artemis meets the Hunter (Tony Jaa), who has spent his life fighting the monsters, including the Black Diablos and the Nerscylla. Despite initially being antagonistic to each other, Artemis and Hunter must overcome their differences to help each other survive, and so that Artemis can find a way home.

Monster Hunter is not as bad as many of the Resident Evil films and is often entertaining. One would be hard-pressed to call it “good”, but there are a few enjoyable sequences, and some of the monsters are rendered well.

Milla Jovovich may have limited range as an actor, but she is very good at playing tough characters, and the Artemis character caters to all her strengths. The best parts of the film are not the monster fight sequences, though there are plenty of those – the best parts of the movie are the scenes that Jovovich and Jaa share.

Jaa is immensely charismatic, a winsome movie star through and through. There is not much in the way of characterisation for Hunter, let alone any of the other characters who aren’t him or Artemis, but Jaa makes the most of what he’s given. The movie also isn’t as bloated as it could’ve been, given the amount of lore in the game series.

This is a movie that evaporates almost as soon as it’s over. There’s just not a lot here, and it is frustrating because there are interesting textural elements, and there are things about the movie one wishes Anderson had focused on more. Perhaps this is due in part to the appearance of his oft-collaborator Ron Perlman, but this reviewer spent most of Monster Hunter imagining what a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro could have done with this material. The games are action role-playing games and are not primarily story-driven, which means there was room to create a story here, and it’s just threadbare.

The entire aspect of a human military unit entering the world of Monster Hunter is not taken from the games. Anderson was inspired by a one-off crossover event in the 2010 game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, in which a military squad briefly fought monsters from the Monster Hunter series. This means that, just like in the Resident Evil films, Milla Jovovich is playing a character who was created from whole cloth for the movies and is not present in the games on which they are based. As such, Artemis feels like an avatar, it feels like there’s basically nothing to her, and that Hunter is a much more interesting character by comparison. Anderson also probably thinks it’s quite clever that the character is named after the Ancient Greek goddess of the hunt. Elements from Mad Max: Fury Road, the live-action Transformers movies and Stargate feel grafted onto the movie.

The supporting characters are mostly non-entities. This renders the controversy surrounding one line that was meant to be throwaway banter, that resulted in the movie being pulled from Chinese cinemas, and which has now been deleted from the film, all the more pointless.

A problem that has plagued many of Anderson’s films is also evident here: hyperactive editing. Hand-to-hand combat scenes are rendered essentially incomprehensible, which is even more of a shame considering that a martial artist of Tony Jaa’s calibre is the second lead.

The selling point of the movie is the monsters, which were designed with the input of game director Kaname Fujioka and producer Ryozo Tsujimoto. Some of the monsters are better-executed than others – the fire-breathing Rathalos is a good movie dragon and the climactic battle is one of the film’s more exciting moments. Unfortunately, the spider-like Nerscylla often feel artificial when they should be scary and unsettling. Overall, the monsters can’t help but feel generic and lacking in character, even if some are integrated well into the live-action footage.

Summary: Monster Hunter is a passable diversion, but it’s hard to connect to much in the movie at all. Sporadically entertaining but ultimately flimsy, this video game adaptation doesn’t seem interested in exploring the world of the source material. It is a lot more watchable than many of the same director’s Resident Evil films though, and Tony Jaa is a significant bright spot.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wonder Woman 1984 review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Patty Jenkins
Cast : Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Lily Aspell, Amr Waked
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 151 min
Opens : 17 December 2020
Rating : PG

In 2017, the first Wonder Woman movie finally brought the iconic superheroine to the big screen. The film broke ground and was a critical and financial success, meaning everyone would watch director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot closely to see where the sequel would go.

66 years after the events of the first film, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) lives in Washington, DC and works as an archaeologist and anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute. Her new colleague Dr Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a gemologist, is meek, nerdy, and often ignored, and wishes to be like Diana. A mysterious artifact with unfathomable power that Diana has recovered begins to change the life of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a grifter who projects an image of wealth but whose multi-level marketing oil business is floundering. Things start to change for Diana too, as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed his life in the First World War, magically returns. As things begin spinning out of control, Diana must discover the source of these seemingly mystical transformations and set things right.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a corny movie, but corny in a good way. This is an earnest, sincere and ultimately hopeful film that is completely unconcerned with looking or seeming cool. As such, it will probably have its detractors, but there’s something about it that is very appealing. It almost has an Amblin movie’s soul, befitting the 80s setting. There is something Spielbergian to its earnestness, and one gets the sense that Jenkins and the other filmmakers wholeheartedly believe in what the movie is saying.

Gal Gadot continues to own the Wonder Woman role with poise, sensitivity and strength, the proportions of each component finely calibrated. She essays the quiet sadness of someone who has never gotten over losing the love of her life, while having many more facets to her than just that. There are moments when one can see the years in her eyes, and this wiser, more mature but still compassionate and good-hearted Diana is a fully fleshed-out character.

The movie also finds clever ways to reference iconic attributes of the character from the comics, some of which would be considered too cheesy to translate to live-action.

The movie feels shorter than its 151 minutes but is still too long. It certainly doesn’t feel as fresh as the first go-round, but that is par for the course with sequels. The message at the heart of the movie is straightforward to the point of being simplistic. The “be careful what you wish for” strain allows Wonder Woman 1984 to explore certain themes but can sometimes come off as shallow. The movie wants to say that everyone should be content with what they have and not fixate on wanting too much more, which is not a bad message, but that might hit differently in a year in which so much has been taken away from so many. The action set-pieces are largely unmemorable, with the best sequence being the prologue, which depicts the Themysciran Contest. A major climactic duel takes place in darkness, is shot mostly in close-ups and is choppily edited, such that it is challenging to follow.

Wonder Woman 1984 revels in its 80s setting, with production designer Aline Bonetto and costume designer Lindy Hemming creating a thoroughly convincing milieu. Diana rocks some very stylish 80s fashion (just look at those lapels!) and Barbara’s makeover from dowdy to glam is fun to watch. The movie also references geopolitical tensions at the time and comments on rampant consumerism. The 80s in America were very much about being defined by what one bought and owned – Wonder Woman is a character who is so innately good, she seems naturally at odds with greed and superficiality.

Gadot and Pine continue to share crackling chemistry, even if the reason behind Steve’s resurrection might be contrived for some. The fish-out-of-water stuff with Steve discovering life in the 80s is endearing. Diana and Steve share a beautiful moment that seems deliberately evocative of the “Can You Read My Mind” flight in the 1978 Superman movie.

Pedro Pascal is wonderfully cast as Maxwell Lord. Imagine if the fake wealth gurus who show up in unskippable YouTube ads suddenly had all the power in the world. It’s a frightening thought, and one that the film fully exploits. Pascal has said his performance was inspired by Nicolas Cage, which is evident at certain points.

Kristen Wiig is not an obvious choice to play a supervillain, which is precisely why she works in the role. Barbara’s arc is one we’ve seen in many comic book movies, with characters like the Riddler in Batman Forever and Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 bearing similar traits. However, Wiig brings a humanity and tenderness to the character, keeping her sympathetic even as she becomes increasingly vicious.

It may not have everything everyone is looking for in a comic book movie but Wonder Woman 1984 is confident about what it is.

Summary: Earnest and heartfelt, Wonder Woman 1984’s innate sweetness and optimism is hard to resist, even if its action sequences are disappointing. Stay for a crowd-pleasing stinger scene during the end credits.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review

For F*** Magazine

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 22 mins
Opens : 19 December 2019
Rating : PG13

42 years after the original Star Wars movie redefined cinema and started an enduring worldwide phenomenon, J.J. Abrams rings the curtain down on the Skywalker Saga with this film. While this certainly will not be the last piece of Star Wars media or indeed the last Star Wars movie ever, it’s still momentous that this marks the conclusion of the overarching core story of a galaxy far, far away.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), the heroes of the Resistance, are flung together for a high-stakes mission with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, as it always seems to. Under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), the Resistance continues its fight against the First Order, led by her son, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The resurgence of the ancient evil known as the Sith, locked in a never-ending conflict with the Jedi, unearths long-buried secrets as foes and allies both old and new are drawn into the fray. Rey’s struggle to find her place in the galaxy and Kylo Ren’s own long-standing inner conflict take both characters to places they never imagined they would go.

You know the Aesop’s Fable about the man, the young boy and the donkey? The one about how you can’t please everyone? One imagines director/co-writer J.J. Abrams as the man in that story. There is no denying that making The Rise of Skywalker was a daunting undertaking, overwhelming in breadth (if perhaps not depth) as a story that must function as the conclusion to not just one trilogy, but three. Taking this into consideration, there is a lot in this film to enjoy.

From the word ‘go’, The Rise of Skywalker is unrelenting, and it is this propulsive kinetic energy that keeps the movie going and going and going, making its 142-minute runtime zip by. Our characters jump from set-piece to set-piece, planet to planet, taking the audience along with them. There are several involving action sequences and the lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren on a barge in a roiling sea is among the best in the whole series.

Rey, Finn and Poe spent most of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi apart, and The Rise of Skywalker makes it a point to have these three characters share multiple scenes. We see how each of these characters has grown and evolved and how the events of the past two films have shaped them. The interplay between them, especially between Finn and Poe, is often entertaining. The resolution of the struggle between Rey and Kylo Ren will not please everyone, but there is an elegance in its execution, and it winds up being satisfying while also being unsatisfying, which seems like the intention.

There is a palpa…ble affection for the movies that came before, and as a result one can sense how hard Abrams, co-writer Chris Terrio and crew were trying to create something that honours the films of the past while also not directly contradicting what has been established earlier, which is easier said than done. This is, if nothing else, a big “points for trying” scenario.

The aforementioned Aesop’s Fable ends with the man and his son, carrying the donkey suspended by a pole on their shoulders, falling off a bridge into the river below and drowning. It sometimes feels like The Rise of Skywalker is doing just this. In nostalgia-driven franchises, fans are especially wary of “fan-service” – moments geared to elicit a positive reaction simply by reminding said fans of something they like. The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed with these moments. As a Star Wars fan, this reviewer did enjoy many of them, but after a while, it can get a bit tiresome when one realises this might be getting in the way of the storytelling. It’s like eating dessert for dinner: it’s fun at first, but by the end it’s too much of a good thing.

Much was made about how The Rise of Skywalker would apparently ‘retcon’ the events of The Last Jedi. While on the surface it seems like nothing here contradicts the events and the revelations of that film, one can tell that the vocal backlash against it did affect this movie – one would argue negatively. For all The Last Jedi’s perceived flaws, it was at the very least interesting. It was challenging in the way The Rise of Skywalker never is. Whatever was interesting about The Last Jedi feels flattened here.

Perhaps The Rise of Skywalker just doesn’t need to be challenging and people actually prefer it this way, but as the Skywalker Saga bounds to the finish line, it feels like narratively, the series as a whole has taken a step backwards. The film was originally set to be directed by Colin Trevorrow, and Trevorrow still receives a “story by” credit alongside Derek Connolly, Abrams and Terrio. Perhaps it was in the reworking of Trevorrow and Connolly’s original script that things got messy.

The breakneck pacing means that the movie is never boring, but there sometimes is the sense that it serves to paper over the cracks and stop audiences from pausing to look around them. The film’s haste also means that several important revelations and developments just whiz by without a chance to meaningfully explore them.

There is a sentimentality to The Rise of Skywalker, but it can be argued that the stories that have endured through the ages are often sentimental. Much of that sentimentality arises from seeing familiar faces, including C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), on new adventures that contextualise their relationships to the other characters. The two main new characters introduced here, the warrior Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and the helmeted spice runner Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), both feel very Star Wars-y.

Considering how poorly a section of Star Wars fans have conducted themselves and how they have expressed their vitriol over certain instalments of the series, making hating something a core part of their personality, there is a comfort in seeing the characters embrace and express their affection for each other. Many elements of The Rise of Skywalker might seem overly engineered, but the positivity and the message of people uniting to defend what they hold dear is sincere.

The film’s greatest accomplishment is in bringing Carrie Fisher’s Leia to the screen one last time. Through an ingenious and nigh-seamless combination of unused footage from The Force Awakens, body doubles, compositing and possibly a soundalike voice actor, the late Fisher delivers a stirring, dignified and supremely moving final performance. This is, after all, the conclusion to the Skywalker saga and this movie does place the family, the surviving members of whom are Leia and Kylo Ren, front and centre. There is a reverence which makes The Rise of Skywalker sometimes trip over itself, but the Skywalkers are given their due and then some here.

The Rise of Skywalker has myriad flaws, but it closes out the nine-film cycle in grand fashion. In straining to please fans, the film will probably end up divisive, just in a different way from The Last Jedi. Regardless, The Rise of Skywalker is still an achievement and it might not be the conclusion to the saga that this reviewer was hoping for, but we’re not quite sure how else we would have done this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Rocketman review

ROCKETMAN

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Cast : Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Gemma Jones, Charlie Rowe, Steven Mackintosh
Genre : Biography/Fantasy/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 1 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : R21

           After Bohemian Rhapsody took home multiple Oscars, including one for Best Picture, all eyes were on the next high-profile rock star biopic on the slate, Rocketman. The film tells the story of one Sir Elton John, offering up a flight of fancy rather than a grounded documentary-style take, and is all the better for it.

Elton John (Taron Egerton, Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley at different ages), born Reginald Dwight, was raised in suburban 1950s England by his indifferent mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his kindly grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). Reggie, as he is known, doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), who serves in the Royal Air Force.

The film tracks young Reggie’s journey from his time as a student in the Royal Academy of Music to his gigs playing in a backing band for touring American jazz musicians. Reggie changes his name to ‘Elton John’, and is signed on to a music publishing company as a songwriter. Soon afterwards, he is introduced to lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who will go on to become a long-time collaborator. Elton attains stratospheric success after a stunning American debut, but his personal life is in shambles. He is approached by music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) who pursues a relationship with him, but Elton finds little fulfilment, eventually becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs. It is up to Elton and those who care for him to turn his life around and ensure his talent doesn’t go to waste.

The rock star redemption tale told in Rocketman is a familiar one, and it hits all the beats one would expect: the initial struggle to get noticed, the breakthrough, a rocky personal life with relationship problems and substance abuse, and then a triumphant comeback. However, Rocketman turns this sense of familiarity into a strength, and benefits from its fantastical approach. Instead of being a staid biopic, the film is punctuated with fantasy sequences and musical numbers, and that’s where it’s able to become more than the sum of its parts.

While there are moments of Rocketman that are necessarily dark, director Dexter Fletcher infuses the whole movie with an unmistakable, almost childlike joy. Fletcher took over from Bryan Singer as director of Bohemian Rhapsody and being able to see the development of Rocketman from the ground up allows him to put more of his stamp on this movie. The film’s use of music and its placement of songs is impeccable. Because of the fantasy element, it’s not tied down to a strict timeline, allowing songs that were written later to appear earlier in the story. For example, “I Want Love” becomes a song about Elton’s childhood, and the yearnings of each member of his family.

Elton John is known for being outlandish and over the top, and the film embraces that while always emphasising his humanity. The film is produced by John himself and his husband David Furnish, and there was every danger that it could feel like a self-aggrandizing vanity project, but it’s clear that Elton John has a sense of humour. The film is an invitation to look at his life through his eyes, and while artistic license has been taken, there’s a moving honesty that flows through the movie.

At one point, Justin Timberlake was rumoured to be the frontrunner for the lead role, with Tom Hardy later attached to the part. Taron Egerton more than proves he was the right choice for the role. The Kingsman star showcases an impressive singing voice and inhabiting both the swagger and the secret insecurity that is key to bringing a part like this to life. In both his singing and mannerisms, Egerton doesn’t do a mere imitation of John and constantly seems dedicated to portraying all the facets of the singer, beyond the ones the public is familiar with.

Some of the film’s best moments are in its depiction of the friendship between John and Bernie Taupin. Jamie Bell’s portrayal of Taupin is sweet, earnest and withdrawn: John is the one in the limelight, with Taupin remaining behind the scenes, but there’s no denying the significance of his contribution to John’s music. The scene in which the two first meet and bond over their love of the country song “Streets of Laredo” is genuinely heart-warming, and the depiction of their major falling out is equally heart-breaking. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is reimagined as a duet between John and Taupin and is one of the film’s most effective emotional beats.

Rocketman doesn’t purport to be a balanced take on events, it purports to be John’s take on them. As such, several characters are portrayed as one-dimensionally nasty. Both of his parents come out of this looking bad, and Bryce Dallas Howard has fun with the role of John’s uncaring mother. One almost wants to reach into the screen and shake her, yelling “your son deserves your love!”

Richard Madden is supremely slimy as John Reid, who is depicted as heartless, manipulative and promiscuous. The same character also appeared in Bohemian Rhapsody, played in that film by Aidan Gillen. It is in the portrayal of Reid as an outright cartoon supervillain that Rocketman runs the risk of having its credibility questioned, but the movie has a built-in defence of all this being from John’s point of view.

Rocketman ends relatively early in John’s career, so events like John’s friendship with Princess Diana and his writing music for The Lion King are not shown – perhaps there might be room for a sequel. There are moments of Rocketman that are awkward and cheesy, but thanks to Fletcher’s palpable love for John’s music and Egerton’s stirring performance, its charm is irresistible. It’s a movie that tells John’s truth in the purest way, cheesiness and all.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Aladdin (2019) movie review

ALADDIN (2019)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Frank Welker, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 23 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The Disney live-action remake train keeps chugging along with Aladdin, based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name. Next stop: Agrabah.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin eking out a hardscrabble existence as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. He meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess of Agrabah, in the market, and immediately falls for her. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier, tasks Aladdin with entering the mythical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a lamp for him – only a “diamond in the rough” will be allowed passage into the cave.

The lamp contains the Genie (Will Smith), a magical being who will grant whoever is in possession of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin transforms into Prince Ali in a bid to win Jasmine’s affection, as the law demands that she only marry a prince. Aladdin and the Genie are caught in Jafar’s scheme to usurp the throne from the Sultan (Navid Negahban), with the future of Agrabah in the hands of a humble ‘street rat’.

There seems to be a general backlash against Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of their animated movies, not because the movies are all that bad, but that they’re unnecessary. A change in context or setting can sometimes justify a remake – this reviewer feels the 2016 Pete’s Dragon movie is an underrated gem. A shift in genre sometimes makes the remake worthwhile – the 2016 Jungle Book movie played up the action and adventure elements and played down the ‘50s variety show’ feel of the 1967 film.

However, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a remake that was driven purely by nostalgia – while generally competent in and of itself, it didn’t add anything significant to the animated film on which is was based, and was a movie that spent most of its time glancing at the floor, trying to hit its marks.

Aladdin has many of the problems that the Beauty and the Beast remake had, with some new ones too. First off, Guy Ritchie seems like a curious choice to helm a fantasy musical, since he is best known for his street-level crime comedies. It’s hard to know how much of the blame to assign to Ritchie, because Aladdin is a movie that feels made by committee. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it is obligated to hit its marks and deliver the imagery that audiences remember from the animated film.

As a result, Aladdin often feels weirdly stilted. There is beauty to the design elements in the film, with the Palace of Agrabah looking like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Alcázar of Seville in Spain. Unfortunately, Agrabah never registers as a living breathing place. Instead of a movie that’s vibrant, energetic and spilling off the screen, Aladdin feels flat. Agrabah is reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot theme park – this is most obvious during the “Prince Ali” number, which despite containing a thousand extras, is markedly underwhelming. While Aladdin serves up several grand tableaus, nothing is truly awe-inspiring. “A Whole New World” lacks the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” that the lyrics promise.

There is still a fair amount to appreciate: the photo-realistic CGI incarnations of Abu, Rajah, and Iago (voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) all work well, and Alan Menken’s songs continue to be magical. Plenty of the jokes land, and the film benefits from its humour being less self-referential and pop culture-centric than that of the animated film.

Integral to Aladdin’s appeal is the Genie, Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character being inextricably linked with the animated film. Williams’ genie was mercurial, manifesting in multiple forms and being a showcase for Williams’ skills as an impressionist.

The problem with getting a big name like Will Smith in a live-action movie is that Will Smith has to be recognisable as himself. In blue CGI form, the Genie looks like Will Smith, but just a little off such that it seems not quite right. The Genie’s penchant for changing forms is heavily downplayed, and while Smith is typically charming and charismatic as the Genie, the movie practically forces audiences to compare him to the animated incarnation. In the stage musical adaptation, the Genie is reimagined as a gadabout lounge singer-type, which fits the medium of a stage musical. There isn’t enough done conceptually to optimise Will Smith’s Genie for the medium of a live-action film, but the movie’s emphasis on the Genie’s desire not just to be free but to become mortal has the beginnings of an interesting idea.

Mena Massoud does fine work as Aladdin – he has a winsome smile and projects the innate decency that is key to the character. Aladdin is a good person who has been forced into difficult circumstances, and Massoud gives the character a good mix of sweetness and street smarts. Aladdin also does lots and lots of parkour; it’s clear that these scenes are much more in Ritchie’s wheelhouse than the musical numbers are.

Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is defiant but far from petulant, and the film places more emphasis on Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan herself and reshape Agrabah for its citizens. The changes to the Jasmine character to make her more of a leader are interesting, but not fully explored. Jasmine gets the film’s one new song “Speechless” – while Scott’s singing voice is impressive, the song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the music and isn’t as good as “These Palace Walls” from the musical, which fulfils a similar purpose.

Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is markedly disappointing. The film plays up Jafar’s hawkish interventionist tendencies; he is pushing the Sultan to declare war on neighbouring kingdoms. Jafar is a one-dimensional villain in the animated film, but Kenzari seems a little too restrained, never visibly taking pleasure in playing a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. Jafar as a politicking manipulator is an idea that’s touched on but never actually developed – he still becomes a cackling sorcerer at the end of the film, but Kenzari never revels in the evil.

Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much more dignified than the bumbling, easily misled old man of the cartoon. Nasim Pedrad handily steals the show as Dalia, a new character created for this version. One of the film’s funniest moments is when Pedrad exclaims “spoons!” Her interactions with the Genie seem more compelling than the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Billy Magnussen also plays a new character, Prince Anders from Skånland. He’s merely there as an example of what Aladdin is up against in vying for Jasmine’s hand in marriage and is a largely superfluous character, but his presence does establish Agrabah as being part of a much larger world.

Aladdin is stuck being a live-action remake that serves mostly to remind viewers of its animated forebear. Especially when the source material is as popular as the 1992 Aladdin film, a remake actively invites comparisons. The film doesn’t adapt the source material well-enough to fit the different medium. While some might involuntarily gravitate towards the film’s packaged nostalgia, Aladdin cannot rise above being a shadow of the animated film.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu review

POKÉMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Director: Rob Letterman
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Rita Ora
Genre : Adventure/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 45 mins
Opens : 9 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The hugely popular Pokémon multimedia franchise gets its first live-action movie in the form of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, based on the 2016 spin-off video game.

The story follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who has abandoned his childhood dreams of becoming a Pokémon trainer to work in an insurance firm. After the disappearance of his father, a police detective in Ryme City, Tim meets the Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who once belonged to his father. Together with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an intern at a news network, Tim and Detective Pikachu attempt to solve the mystery of Harry’s disappearance.

They uncover a conspiracy that seems to implicate the wealthy Clifford family – Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) is the benevolent visionary who built Ryme City, while his son Roger (Chris Geere) has wrested control of Clifford Enterprises from his father. Also figuring into the mystery is a serum that turns normally-friendly Pokémon into savage monsters. Tim, Detective Pikachu, Lucy and her Psyduck must prevent the enactment of a dastardly scheme that endangers the human and Pokémon residents of Ryme City alike.

There’s a fair amount of risk in making a movie like Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – video game movies haven’t exactly had the best track record, and Pokémon is such a sprawling, beloved franchise that a poorly-received live-action movie would be a significant misstep. The momentum behind this movie getting made owes mostly to the Pokémon Go augmented reality mobile game, which held the world in its thrall.

It’s a clever move to make a live-action movie based on one of the more obscure entries in the Pokémon oeuvre as opposed to making a movie about the characters featured in the Pokémon anime series. There’s a bit more room to experiment, and while Detective Pikachu does have an experimental feel to it, it also can’t help but feel like a corporate product. Director Rob Letterman, whose background is in animation, and who also directed Goosebumps, handles the integration of live-action and animated characters well.

The film’s plot is straightforward, its underlying mystery not exactly involving, and it often feels derivative of many movies that came before it. However, it’s also a movie that’s clearly made by people who care about and love the Pokémon franchise. The movie brims with texture and seems designed for audiences to point excitedly at the screen as they recognise various types of Pokémon. The film’s design is its strong suit: Ryme City feels like a hybrid of London and Tokyo, with a dash of Blade Runner neon-noir to its aesthetic. Some of the Pokémon redesigns work better than others. While plenty are still cute, Mewtwo suffers from what seems like a lack of texture, thus feeling more like a video game character than the other Pokémon who populate the film.

There’s a delightful incongruity in hearing Ryan Reynolds’ voice emanate from an exceedingly cuddly Pikachu. The character animation on the titular character is marvellous, incorporating some motion capture performed by Reynolds. While the Detective Pikachu of the video game had a gruff voice, Ryan Reynolds sounds like Ryan Reynolds, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a mix of optimism and mischief that the character animation in combination with Reynolds’ voice work captures. There’s also the great device of giving Detective Pikachu an extreme fondness for coffee, as kind of a replacement for the cigarettes which detectives in noir movies would chain-smoke.

There is not very much to the human characters, but Justice Smith gives this his best shot. The character has left behind the dreams of his youth and has accepted a dreary existence, with the sudden entry of Detective Pikachu into his life reigniting his imagination. The Tim character is a cipher for viewers who grew up with Pokémon but may have moved on from the games, toys and cartoons as they’ve entered adulthood.

Kathryn Newton’s Lucy character is every bit the intrepid reporter archetype, combined with the giddy energy of a girlish anime protagonist. Her character is more heightened than Tim, and Newton and Smith don’t have great chemistry, but thankfully the film does not focus on a romantic subplot.

Ken Watanabe turns in a respectable supporting turn as Ryme City Police Lieutenant Hideo Yoshida, Harry’s boss, but the show is stolen by Bill Nighy. Nighy is a distinguished actor who has been in a fair number of silly movies but hearing him utter words like “Pokémon” and “Mewtwo” with a straight face is a thing of sheer joy.

Grading on the curve of video game movies, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is an achievement. It does sometimes feel like a corporate, impersonal product, made to further expand an already-big brand, but there’s also an earnestness to it and a level of craftsmanship behind it that keep it a safe distance from being wholly soulless. There’s a cheery nostalgia that underpins this and a welcome familiarity to the elements that hark back to 80s movies. It’s not the most ground-breaking example of what it could’ve been, but there’s still plenty to like about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong