Simon Morris looks at childrens' movies Peter Rabbit and Sherlock Gnomes and the Amy Schumer comedy I Feel Pretty.
The rise of spectacular-looking recreations of children’s favourites like Peter Rabbit is entirely due to the advances in digital effects.
In the past, the watercolour world of author and illustrator Beatrix Potter could only be rendered in hand-sketched animation. Now everything can be photo-real – or as real as a rabbit and a fox wearing shirts and waistcoats can look.
The original story of Peter Rabbit was fairly minimal – and it’s dealt with here in the first 10 minutes.
Peter invades Old Man McGregor’s garden – Sam Neill behind alarming white whiskers – and comes off badly.
But that’s no way to make a family movie in 2018, so the plot continues, the cast expands enormously with outside Potter characters like Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs Tiggy-winkle, and we bring on a new, younger McGregor.
Sam Neill’s version dies suddenly and is replaced by Domnhall Gleason.
Also in the picture is Beatrix Potter herself, but not as we know her. She’s a modern, feisty, greenie type of Beatrix Potter who can be summed up in the words “call me Bea”.
Bea and Thomas McGregor flirt, Thomas pretends not to be a rabbitophobe and Peter Rabbit seethes with jealousy.
Jealousy over Beatrix Potter? These are clearly murky, psychological waters, but fortunately the pace picks up before anyone can get too creeped out. Suffice to say, it’s war.
The bad news – I’m not talking about the bad news for Beatrix Potter fans who are having the vapours over the crimes against Peter Rabbit – is the usual bad news in films like this.
Just as Hollywood hacks defend their output as “one film for them, one for me”, so family films say “one joke for the kids, one joke for us grownups.”
This leads to a certain smirky, sneery tone, winking over the heads of the small fry with jokes about old movies and TV shows.
And for me this is reinforced by the casting of talk-show host James Corden as the voice of Peter. I’m not sure why James Corden usually rubs me up the wrong way. But years of sucking up to celebrities have left him with a bumptious smugness that does the role of Peter Rabbit very few favours.
In fact the smaller roles of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are rather better served by, respectively, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki and Daisy Ridley. They manage to bring something appealing to the film, albeit in very brief snippets.
The rest of the film is a mad hotchpotch of other ones – Home Alone, Shrek, Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie, and of course lashings of Bugs Bunny.
On the plus side, the animation work is spectacularly good, even if we’re used to seeing that these days. And while the critics may carp and cavil, they’re not buying tickets.
The fact is the audience I saw Peter Rabbit with – card-carrying under-10s to a lady and gentleman – seemed to have a wonderful time.
The kids laughed at every pratfall, they thought Peter Rabbit was the greatest character in fiction and they had no problem with the barely coherent plot.
In the end the results came in – two enthusiastic, chocolate-covered thumbs up. It was very dispiriting.
When the animated feature called Gnomeo and Juliet came out, the prospects didn’t look good. It relied on the appeal of Shakespeare, garden gnomes and the back-catalogue of Elton John who produced the film.
But it was a palpable hit, and therefore worthy of a sequel - Sherlock Gnomes.
My heart started to sink a little here – dreading the onslaught of gnome puns. If David Bowie couldn’t pull them off in ‘The Laughing Gnome’, I think it’s safe to say they’re never going to fly.
In this iteration, Sherlock Gnomes – voiced almost unrecognisably by Johnny Depp – is the protector of gnomes all over London. He’s accompanied, as always, by a Dr Watson gnome – voiced by the even more unlikely Chewetel Ejiofor.
It opens on the first movie’s hero and heroine - the once star-crossed, now happily together, Gnomeo and Juliet.
Once again they’re voiced by James McAvoy – for some reason as a cockney – and Emily Blunt, as usual playing Emily Blunt.
All the gnomes – there are dozens - have been relocated to a new garden in London. Until one day they all vanish. Just like that.
Obviously this is a job for Sherlock Gnomes who duly arrives and starts throwing his weight around. And immediately he starts finding clues – clues that lead Sherlock, Watson, Gnomeo and Juliet to other clues.
Along the way there are bits of Sherlock Holmes trivia for any Conan Doyle fans who could tolerate being seen at a film called Sherlock Gnomes.
There’s the hat, the magnifying glass, and even an appearance by femme fatale Irene Adler, played by – who else? – R&B singer Mary J Blige.
Two things are abundantly clear at this stage - first, that producer Elton John has insisted on an all-Elton soundtrack, and second, that the cast-list has been plucked from Elton’s address-book.
Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Matt Lucas and towering over them all in the “surely not” department – Ozzy Osborne as a ceramic deer called Fawn.
To be fair, I’ve never seen a ceramic deer played better. Perhaps Ozzy may follow in the footsteps of Ringo Starr and become a beloved children’s entertainer.
Sherlock Gnomes is essentially a family film greatest-hits, even if both the plot and the dialogue have all the hallmarks of a bored writer’s room filling in any gaps.
In fact there are a dozen writers credited on the film – rarely a good sign – and most of their efforts seem to have been spent dreaming up “gnome” puns. And one Sherlock one.
But as yet another strained reference sailed, you’d think, over the heads of the tiny tots, I heard the undeniable sound of a bunch of 8-year-olds enjoying themselves enthusiastically.
Was it the bright, primary colours or the always appealing sight of adults behaving stupidly? Was it simply the fun of going to the cinema and tipping pop-corn over your family? Either way, a good time was had by most of the audience.
Ah well, there’s no accounting for taste. I mean, there’s gnome accounting for taste.
I Feel Pretty
Going into the new Amy Schumer comedy I Feel Pretty, I got into a conversation with a woman who told me just how refreshing it was to see a lead actress who wasn’t movie-star gorgeous, and not having a problem with it.
“It’s been so long coming,” she said, and she may be right.
Trainwreck star Amy Schumer is back with a feminist slant on the old Tom Hanks comedy Big.
I Feel Pretty is hardly a new idea - a blow on the head causing a massive personality change is one of the old movie staples.
And the “what if?” premise of Tom Hanks’ kid wishing to be big is not only used, but acknowledged, as we see the unhappy Renee with her own guilty wish.
But because the story is so easy to grasp – anyone who’s seen the trailer once can pretty much pick where this entire story is likely to go – I Feel Pretty puts in a little spadework establishing the characters.
Well, the main character. Renee’s friends and colleagues get pretty short shrift in this movie.
Renee works in a lowly position for a fashion and makeup chain, and her one dream is to be pretty enough to be a receptionist at head office. She regularly goes to the gym to achieve this miracle, which is where she meets Mallory - supermodel Emily Ratajkowski.
No sooner has she discovered that good looks may not solve every problem, Renee falls and bangs her head.
When she wakes up, she looks in the mirror and discovers the ugly duckling has turned into a gorgeous swan.
The gag is that she hasn’t changed at all, it’s all in her head, and so – the slightly facile script points out - maybe the whole beauty thing is in the eye of the beholder too?
Yes, thank you, I Feel Pretty, I did get that.
But first Renee has to learn this valuable lesson, by walking a mile or two in the high heels of the super-confident beauty queen. And to be fair, some of these scenes are funny.
Along the way she meets a nice, equally self-conscious chap called Ethan – TV actor Rory Scovel – who serves the same role as Chris O’Dowd did in the movie Bridesmaids – to humanise a potentially one-note lead character.
I have to confess I kept trying to think where I’d seen this story before. The answer of course was hundreds of places – The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Clueless, any Cinderella story – in fact any story with a makeover in it. There’s even a hint of Dumbo’s magic feather in the final resolution.
But being nothing new doesn’t mean it’s not groundbreaking. Because for once Amy Schumer is normal-looking not “movie star plain”.
In an industry in which Renee Zellweger, Sandra Bullock and – God help us – Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada have played ugly ducklings waiting to be transformed, this is certainly a step up.
Of course, what will really be a step up is when people actually queue up to see movie stars who are there because of their talent not their looks. Up to you, Joe and Joanne Public. What do you say?