SMALLFOOT – CLEVER AND SWEET WITH A SURPRISINGLY THOUGHTFUL UNDERLYING MESSAGE

SHORT TAKE:

Clean, genuinely funny, very kid-friendly movie about the sequence of events which results when a village of yetis is revealed to a "smallfoot"/human.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anybody can go but be advised, at 96 minutes, it is about 20 minutes too long for the average pre-kindergartner.

LONG TAKE:

Fides et Ratio was an encyclical by Saint Pope John Paul II in 1998. Translated, the title means "Faith and Reason". In it, then Pope, now Saint John Paul II explains that faith without reason leads to superstition and reason without faith leads to nihilism and relativism. Smallfoot, surprisingly, tackles the former of these heady, complex philosophical musings.

While I do not normally like to lead with a lot of spoilers, when analysing for a movie whose demographic is young children, as a parent, I would want full disclosure before bringing MY smallfoot, so I offer the same to you readers.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

This children's tale begins with a colony of yetis who live high up on a mountain, cut off visually from the rest of the world by a constant ring of clouds. Our protagonist is a good natured, happy-go-lucky yeti named Migo (Channing Tatum) whose personality almost exactly parallels that of Chris Pratt's eternally optimistic Emmett from The Lego Movie. You almost expect him to burst out with "Everything is Awesome" as he strolls through the yeti village. This is not meant as a criticism. It's actually quite cute as he observes the seemingly pointless Rube Goldberg occupations to which everyone is assigned, but which are explained later.

The songs are, BTW, quite catchy and one in particular, sung by the female protagonist and Migo's love interest, Meechee (Zendaya from The Greatest Showman), "Wonderful Life", features some thoughtful lyrics:

Take a look around
And see the world we think we know
Then look closer
There's more to life than meets the eye
A beauty to behold
It's all much bigger than we know.

She sings this as she shows things to Migo he never noticed, like a small butterfly crystalized in a frozen stalactite, and the details in a snowflake. Beautiful imagery for a lovely idea: that the more we see, the more we realize the grandeur in Creation.

Their belief system, literally written in stone, is a seemingly random collection of unquestioned statements, including the command that if you feel the urge to question one of the stones you should "push it down" and not think about it. The stones describe strange and mythical beasts which must be fed or cooled or tended to in odd ways. One stone commands an absolute dismissal of the possibility that there could be anything below the cloudline. The stones are worn like scale armour by the tribal leader, Stonekeeper, (Lonnie Rashid Lynn aka the rapper Common). Migo, the son of Gorgle, the Gong Ringer (Danny DeVito) is one of the biggest stone-trusting advocates in the village, until one day Migo, by chance, observes a plane crash and the ejection of a smallfoot from this flying metal object. Problem is: the existence of smallfoot is absolutely denied by one of the earliest stones. No one will believe Migo as the evidence is quickly blown off the mountain.

Meanwhile, Percy, James Corden (voice of Peter Rabbit and guest companion in a couple of Matt Smith Dr. Who's) is the host of an animal show which is on the decline. The ejected pilot happens upon Percy with his story of sighting a yeti, and before Percy, desperate for ratings, can take advantage of this knowledge, Migo appears, looking for the pilot and proof of his smallfoot story. Their first contact is cute and clever and takes full advantage of their inability to immediately communicate.

Tatum and Corden do a wonderful job of voicing the life into their respective characters and the writers do an excellent job with the miscommunications which arise from their inability to understand each other.

The movie is occasionally laugh out loud funny. It is completely clean – no bad language and, a rarity, totally innuendo free.

As the plot progresses it is revealed that the Stonekeeper is wearing a set of lies, deliberately created to protect the village because of previous lethal encounters with humans, generations ago. The stones' commands all begin to form a pattern: If smallfoot does not exist then there's no reason to go look for them. The ring of clouds is manufactured for camouflage by the steam generating machine deep within the mountain which the ice ball production and turning gears on the surface facilitates. The other stones which describe a sky snail and mammoths under the clouds which are cooled by the ice balls all were made up and commanded to be accepted without question to protect the villagers from leaving and revealing their village.

There are plot points in Smallfoot which harken back to other movies, certainly: the hidden city of Wakanda in Black Panther, and a concept accepted without question which keeps two potentially friendly but very dissimilar groups apart, but which is a complete lie, as in Monsters, Inc. for example, that children are dangerously toxic. (I won't even discuss The Village because Smallfoot is a much better movie). But Smallfoot is not a derivative of any of them.

If I make the movie sound like it is heavily philosophical, it is not. The movie plays out like any normal child friendly film with lots of slap stick, goofy looking characters, Bugs Bunny-level pratfalls, bright colors, and non-lethal force. (Exs: an angry mama bear appears to be attacking, but when translated is just loudly chiding Migo for disturbing her family from their hibernation when it took her WEEKS to get her cubs to sleep. A crashing helicopter's propellors are caught in trees spinning the body of the copter and the pilot emerges unscathed but incredibly dizzy.)

But it is the thoughtful story and clever characters that put Smallfoot above the general mishmash of kid movies which usually populate the screen. Inevitably the yetis' faith without reason in the commands on the stones, about which Saint Pope John Paul II cautioned, breeds a mindless superstition requiring blind belief, and when challenged by truth, falls apart. It is only when reason and faith come together – when truth is combined with some earned trust between Migo and Percy, that a peaceful diplomatic solution is possible.

I liked Smallfoot. It has all the charm of a harmless silly kid movie, adds sly but innocent humor for the adults, and has an intelligent underlying theme. The characters are well fleshed out for the cast of an elementary school level movie. Plus the songs are catchy and cute without being heavy handed and are sparingly used. And best of ALL – it did NOT go for the STUPID, almost UBIQUITOUS "female empowerment" message with which we are regularly bludgeoned and which has ruined entire franchises (I'd sneeze the words Star Wars if I was standing right in front of you to make the point, but I'm not so you'll just have to imagine that.)

My only real complaint is that it was a bit too long, by about 20 minutes, for the primary school demographic to which the producers were aiming. My two year old grandson loved it and was mesmerized until the last bit and wanted to walk around while watching the denouement. At 96 minutes it really should have gone through one more trimming. 

Aside from that very small criticism, Smallfoot is a delightful film with a bit more meat on its bones than you might expect or is carried on your average kid movie. It will entertain even the littlest kids, but still provide mom and dad with something worthwhile to mull over with even the oldest.Arguably the best kid movie I've since in 2018 yet(i)…..sorry couldn't resist.

BLACK PANTHER – GOOD BUT FLAWED

 

SHORT TAKE

A solid entry to the Avengers universe and enhanced by the sterling performance of Chad Boseman as Black Panther, though handicapped by mistakes made by other sci-fi franchises.

WHO SHOULD GO: Family friendly with cartoon violence, no sexual activity, a few minor profanities, but has very loud music and special effects sounds.

CHECK OUT DETAILED AND SPECIFIC CONTENT STATISTICS AT SCREENIT.COM.

LONG TAKE

It is unfortunate that there has been SO much hype leading up to the release of Black Panther. For one thing there is no way any movie could possibly live up to everyone's world wide expectations. For another it leaves no room for analysis. Before anyone gets their panties in a wad, let me go on record as saying I liked Black Panther. I have been a big fan and advocate of Chad Boseman since I saw him in Marshall and I think the Black Panther character will be an excellent addition to the Avengers franchise.

That being said let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a British  actress comedian named Jennifer Saunders. She and Dawn French were staple comedians in the 1980's and by 1992 Saunders and the replacement co-star for French, Joanna Lumley, were able to parley a 14 minute1990 skit into a 6 year BBC show called Absolutely Fabulous. However, as my son has pointed out about the Roman Empire, in her victory was her downfall. By the early 2000's she had become so popular no one wanted to criticize her and her comedy had become so strident, bitter and redundant she lost  the audience she had worked so hard to gain. But during this fall she had so much clout no one had the nerve to tell her she was making mistakes. So the Emperor – or the Empress in this case – continued to wear "invisible" clothes and no one dared say she was naked.

Raise your hand if anyone reading this has even heard of Jennifer Saunders. Point made. Saunders became so successful that everyone thought it prudent to keep what should have been helpful and constructive criticism to themselves.

And so, I fear, it could go with Black Panther if reviewers are not honest and thoughtful. There has been so much wildly anticipated excitement about the “first” black super hero – everyone seeming to forget collectively the awesome Idris Elba’s Heimdall from the Thor franchise – that no one wants to take an objective look at it.

Don’t get me wrong – it is a welcome addition into the superhero universe, but it isn’t perfect. While there is much to commend it, it suffers from weaknesses other similar movies have had.

SPOILER WARNING

I want to lead this review by saying that the plot was very good. When contemplating the premise – that Wakanda is a secret kingdom flourishing in impoverished Africa – one might reasonably wonder why the beneficent leaders did not work to improve the plight of their desperately poor and suffering countrymen over the last several hundred years. The compelling theme of Black Panther examines why clandestine African Wakanda withholds aid from other Africans while the rest of the world donates billions in food and medical supplies? FYI the pictures of suffering Africa are not from the movie but real photos.

Does one keep such high tech secrets from the rest of the world or risk exposure and possible plunder in an effort to bring aid to others? And if one DOES decide to reveal the Wakandan advancements to the outside world should it be under the flag of conquest or compassion? Do the Wakandans emerge into the rest of the universe as prideful aggressors or humble aid workers?

This is the struggle which is personified  between T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) the rightful king successor to his father, murdered during Captain America: Civil War, who longs for peace, and his opponent/cousin Eric Killmonger (Michael Jordan) who hungers, like the Biblical Ishmael, to use these wonders to make war against the entire world.

And it would make an interesting sequel to explore the fall out from the Wakandan neighbors when it is discovered that much of the death, disease and starvation of their fellow Africans could have been ameliorated by a watching but silent Wakanda.

I think Chad Boseman is great. He is a joy to watch and can effortlessly generate chemistry with any actor he works with whether he is King of a futuristic African nation or a cortexaphan subject with powers to control energy in Fringe or Thurgood Marshall. Not bad for a fellow southerner. (Boseman is from South Carolina.) Like Michael Caine, Meryl Streep or Bruce Willis he brings a natural ease to his characters which makes him likeable and three dimensional. And yes, I know – Willis is not in the same league as Caine or Streep. Willis is a one note actor who plays the same person in every movie he is in with variations. But it’s easy to enjoy that one character and Willis does it extremely well. In addition, Willis creates that wonderfully comfortable ebb and flow with his fellow performers which Caine and Streep also manage that make it fun to watch them in whatever they are in. You don’t have to be a brilliant actor to be one who can create good chemistry with their fellow actors. And by the other side of the same coin, even some brilliant actors can not manage it – like Lawrence Olivier who was gifted but stiff…….but I digress.

 I want Black Panther with Boseman to be a successful franchise. And when the dust has settled down from the novelty of this movie there needs to be some close examination of its flaws if it is to do better than the first stabs at Spiderman or Hulk.

First  – if you have to do five minutes of blunt exposition just to bring your audience up to speed before the first scene of the movie, then you’re not being very clever with your story telling. This is the same weakness in Thor: The Dark World. Lengthy exposition marred the beginning of Dark World and helped relegate it to the weakest of the Thor outings and Black Panther makes the same mistake.

Second –  it is about 45 minutes too long. Some of that is due to the excessive emphasis on showcasing Wakanda and the tribal costumes, dances, accessories and artifacts. One is reminded of the first Star Trek movie where there were nerdgasms over the extensively long and loving fly over of the Enterprise  as well as extremely long sequences of the planet-sized V’ger. In an effort to overwhelm the audience with the splendor of both the flagshp and the opposing mechanical nemesis, the result, in 1979's Star Trek,  was ultimately the opposite and did not age well, weighing that first Star Trek movie down to one of the lesser ranked installments. There is only so much build up and pay off of the same material you can sit through until, like surfing a wave which eventually crests, after a while you wonder when the ride will be over.

Similarly, there is too much dependence on the “wow” effect of Wakanda and repeated recurrences of the character-citizens commenting about how beautiful it is, how much they longed for another view of it, how much they missed it – all followed up by multiple extended views of it.

    The presentation of the African color and lore and costumes, tatoos and plates in distended lips, ancient impractical traditional garb and spirit walks get to be so much that after a while it becomes at risk of being a parody of itself. It is understandable that the film makers wanted to take full effect of their first opportunity to demonstrate and showcase this new universe, but, as Donald O’Conner once said – you should always leave the audience wanting more. Instead the writers of Black Panther went at the movie like an excited child who tries to tell of an adventure in one breath as though afraid people will stop paying attention before he gets to the end.

Another problem with the length is the same flaw found in the Man of Steel – too much fighting. There are two lengthy hand to hand combat scenes, one very exciting car chase, as well as battles royale (literally) between the two princes, along with various and sundry skirmishes, an aerial combat and the final confrontation between the two opponents on a magnetic monorail. There are high tech spaceships shooting tasers and cables, power staffs, Bullet/ French Connection quality car chases, Spiderman quality leaping and jumping during the car chases, photon firing artificial arms, and – I kid you not – vibranium armoured rhinoceroses. While all super cool it was just…too…much for one movie. 

The writer and director should have had the confidence in their story to not bury it under so much of what Bishop Barron refers to as “whiz bang”.

Third – there were unnecessary incongruities in the Wakandan kingdom. While their labs, travel modes and medical facilities would rival those at Star Bases, their exchange of goods took place routinely in outdoor marketplaces wound through with dusty dirty streets. This didn’t make sense.

And the uniforms of the Amazonian guardswomen were too culturally reflective of Africa to be practical. All this high tech and the best they could do was sticks with a sonic boom effect? Now to be fair the island from which Wonder Woman emerged was similar in its cultural armament impracticalities and Asgard of the Thor franchise also had an odd juxtaposition of high tech and ancient (in that case medieval) trappings. But both Wonder Woman and Asgard were alien cultures, and both based in familiar Earth mythologies, so can be given a wider range in suspension of belief and peculiar behaviors and traditions. But Africa in general and Wakanda in particular are right here on Earth so can’t get that much leeway.

Fourth – Thor, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, for example are based respectively on established: Norse myth, the Greek Amazons and the Roman god of the sea Poseidon, all of which date back thousands of years and are part of the shared cultural background noise. So when origin stories are concocted using them as foundations it is an easy bridge into that world. There is no corresponding panther myth that I could find in Africa outside of the Black Panther comics which came upon the scene only about 50 years ago in 1966. The only established mythology I could find in Africa revolved around reptiles. So unless you are a serious comic book afficiando you wouldn't have known what they were talking about in Black Panther without exposition. But the writer, instead of weaving the background into the warp and woof of the story inelegantly chose to dump the entire story on the audience's head like — well — Thor's Hammer.

All that being said Black Panther is a fun though flawed adventure. I look forward to future installments and hope the film makers will gain confidence from the warm open armed reception they have received from the wider movie going audience and do a better job with the next one. Otherwise Black Panther will not age well or inspire longevity for the franchise – and that would be a shame.

MARSHALL – WELL DONE STEP BACK INTO HISTORY

SHORT TAKE:

Fascinating re-creation of one of Justice Thurgood Marshall's early cases and brilliant home runs for both Chadwick Boseman "Black Panther" (the superhero, not the violent political group) as Marshall and Josh Gad as his reluctant Jewish co-counsel.

LONG TAKE:

When you make a movie about a figure as historically significant as Thurgood Marshall (the first black United States Supreme Court Justice), it is tempting for the filmmakers to want to cover his entire life story. The creators of Marshall, however, wisely and cleverly instead, focus on one of his early cases, The State of Connecticutt vs. Joseph Spell, and use it as a microcosm of Justice Marshall’s life’s work and legal career.

The story which plays out during the course of the movie like an episode of Perry Mason, is the little known but real case of Eleanor Strubing who accused her back chauffeur Joseph Spell of raping, binding, then throwing her in the reservoir. Spell claimed he was innocent.

Chadwick (Black Panther) Boseman steps into the shoes of the young Thurgood Marshall with the self confidence that makes him believable portraying both the man who would eventually be appointed as a Justice to the United States Supreme Court as well as leader of the Black Panther Clan and King of Wakanda in the upcoming Black Panther franchise.

And in a surprise turn Josh (Murder on the Orient Express) Gad hits his second homerun as Sam Friedman, a Jewish lawyer, familiar with being the target of bigotry himself, who normally only did insurance civil cases but was dragged into this controversy magnet legal team with extreme reluctance by the necessity to have a local co-counsel for Marshall, the unwanted and out of state lawyer.

The story examines the bigotry and prejudice in the high society and northern judicial system rampant in Connecticut, which institutional racism was not only aimed at blacks but also towards the tragically frightened Jews of the pre-World War II community who are just beginning to hear the horror stories coming out of Germany.

Kate (Goldie Hawn’s daughter, Nine, Raising Helen, You, Me & Dupree) Hudson plays Eleanor Strubing, the socialite ice queen around whom the turmoil spins. Dan (Beauty and the Beast, Night at the Museum) Stevens is Loren Willis, the aristocratic, well connected prosecuting attorney. And James (Babe, I Robot) Cromwell presides as Judge Foster, a man not a stranger to expressing racism himself.

Gad and Boseman hit all the marks of good chemistry, bringing a comfortable and occasionally humorous friendly-antagonistic buddy movie element to the story, as well as embody the rich history of those who were not respected in the autocratic northern communities. Bonded by the common state of being accomplished men who were nonetheless outcasts, they begin from polar opposite goals – Friedman from a desire initially to keep his head down and not connected to this highly charged case, and Marshall who seeks to frankly use Spell to further the "greater good" goals of the fledgling N.A.A.C.P. Boseman and Friedman inform each other during the course of the movie into operating outside of their normal comfort zones, and the result is a team I would enjoy seeing work together again.

There is much more food for fodder in the life of Justice Marshall and it would be interesting to see it played out if done as well as this first installment.

There are adult themes in Marshall, involving sexuality both visually and discussed, including some graphic but necessary courtroom descriptions. There are demonstrations of institutionalized racism, some profanity and some violence. But the value of the story for older teens and up is well worth the discussions which will inevitably arise from the watching of this movie, especially between parents and children.