Not expecting much of the film, I was rather taken by surprise to read all the glowing reviews of the film, calling it the most mature and one the best incarnations of the story yet seen. So I gave it a whirl. There to my surprise was one of the most disarming and shining adaptations from a children's story I had ever seen. I, too, felt like I was flying for the entire duration. The story is sharp, cunning, shrewd, and - most of all - quietly, effectively sensual. Yes, sensual. There are bits of imagery and dialogue, glances cast in the most unusual ways, and smirks to fill a psychology textbook. I think the biggest reason I enjoyed the film is [i]because[/i] its more subtle subtleties will probably go over most of the kids' heads. However, even were they to miss the mature tension and intellectual insight bestowed by the film, there is still much else to marvel.
Jason Isaacs has what [i]should[/i] be a career-launching role(s), one that starts to earn him some real accolades and terrific parts. He's just outstanding, perfectly suited for this world. Newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood charms the hearts of the audience with nearly effortless gentility and presence. Jeremy Sumpter, though, clearly has a difficult time holding the screen with these other two, and his performance is the only one that can't keep up. However, he's still perfectly suitable and actually works well when he's not saying anything at all. The rest of the cast fill out their admittedly thin roles with gusto and glee.
Donald McAlpine shamelessly daubs the screen with color and light, beauty magnificent and majestic enough to inspire nightmarishly ebullient dreams. His work is tonally appropriate and sets up the film with exactly the right feel, down to the last snowflake, the last exotic flower, and the last glowing bit of faerie dust. The art direction is excellent, though it doesn't have much to work with except a ship, a jungle, and an England so crisp it elicits chills. James Newton Howard's score hits a few curious notes (ones that sound almost dated on first listen), but the bulk of his work soars above the characters with style and spirit.
The story is obviously quite thin on the outside, though it knows just the right elements to emphasize and spotlight. The film progresses quickly, rushing us headlong into the depth and meaning of its characters, guided continuously by a warm and pleasing narration. The film is a first-rate children's movie, though it has enough brains and heart to allow older folks to watch it and just have fun. I couldn't keep myself from smiling. There's just too much to enjoy here. If filmmakers made more movies like this, I dare say we would have a hard time of growing up. We would never want to leave the rich tapestry of worlds like this, full of meaning and beauty and joy and even great sadness. True knowledge of the world will always set some people free, while it will only weigh others down further.
I haven't seen as many Jacques Tourneur films as I would have liked, but I've seen a handful, and I dig the way he's able to pull a thrilling, frightening, beautiful film out of a collection of could-have-been-bad acting and scenes. C[i]at People[/i] (1942) is one that I had always heard of, and wanted to see badly. It's an excellent film not because the moments of horror are genuinely horrifying, but rather because it offers much more than that. The story [that some might find perfunctory] isn't just window dressing for the spooks, but rather interesting, engaging and thoughtful. Granted, the performances feel dated today (the husband seems to cluck the wife on the chin a lot, all the while saying things like "oh you crazy little thing, you"), and the movie is short and fast. Some might feel the film wears its sexual symbolism and meaning on its sleeve a little too heavily (when, oh when will she let that panther out of its cage!?), but I found it all works rather well in the end. Given time to set up and lay the groundwork only amplifies the terrific scares, of which there are surprisingly few. They work like lightning though, illuminating the thougtful and clever interior.
Tom Cruise and Edward Zwick clearly had honorable intentions to treat the material and the story right here. You can feel that. There's a spirit of appreciation and wonderment on screen. They wanted to do this up right. Unfortunately, in their minds, "doing it up right" apparently meant watering down themes, simplifying characters and plot points, mythologizing chaotically, and repeatedly stating the already-obvious. Zwick has the audience [b]so[/b] tightly in his hand, leading them along at every single step, you start to feel sore.
The film is far too preachy and condescending to let the audience make up its own mind about damn near anything. Timothy Spall, a fine actor, has the ridiculous role of a man named "Exposition," or thereabouts, given his penchant for rote voiceovers and "tell me again" lines of dialogue. Cruise himself acquits himself about as well as he can, and he pulls off a few game moments, though the rest of his performance rings rather hollow AND rather showy, a feat indeed worthy of his stature..
The film is never anything less than gorgeous to look at and listen to, given John Toll's always-enjoyable cinematography, excellent art direction and costume design, and Zimmer's unusual score. Other than the expected technical burnish, what else is left? Well, Ken Watanabe shoves Cruise off the scene with a mere raise of the eyebrow. He's outstanding in a sticky role. The requisite romance, stunningly enough, is outstanding. Nary a moment of overt action is to be had, intead relying on those furtive slips of the eyes and wary dialogue. I wish the rest of the film was as subtle about things as it was with the central romance. Alas, it just ain't.
There are moments of stunning audacity. The already infamous scene where Cruise fights a samurai with a practice-stick, gets knocked on his tufted ass, and then repeats ad infinitum is just stunning in its temerity to ask for our obliging support of Cruise's "indefatigable" character. We are meant to boo-hiss the samurai for his savageness, though he was completely in the right. The movie is full of these moments. Little spots where the director sticks his giant head straight into the room, slaps you across the face, and shouts out the motivation and reactions that he expects from his audience.
Still, you can see from the rating that this is a POSITIVE review. Funny, huh? I suppose there's enough here for me to recommend it, but by the skin of its freaking teeth.
P.S. Oh by the way, during the climax, there is (nearly literally) an uninterrupted scene of slow motion that lasts for about ten minutes. If you need a nap, take one. When you wake up, the horses will still be charging and the samurai will still be screaming. No big loss.
Even though I caught this much later than I wanted to, I was still enamored with the delicacy and warmth of this film. The three leads have a whimsical, small-town triangular relationship that grows in surprisingly effective ways throughout the film. There is unusually confident and unassuming humor in the film, and Peter Dinklage truly shines as the quiet, wearied loner who inherits a train depot. Patricia Clarkson continues to deliver exceptional indie work as a mother coping with loss and divorce. Bobby Cannavale steals nearly every scene he's in as the overzealous, sweet-natured fast-food vendor.
Though the film owns up to its own formula roots (brooding loner learns to lower his guard in order to establish friendships with others), it succeeds through expertly acted and directed character work and superb storytelling. However, there is a certain lack of focus and coherence that makes the film seem rather arbitrary and nebulous. Though it doesn't degrade the film to any significant degree, it does give the audience a rather hazy vision, enough so that the film feels disjointed at times. Certainly not a scarring fault, it keeps the film from securing complete pleasure and wonderment.