LION KING 2019 TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF LION KING 2019 TAKES ITS RIGHTFUL PLACE ON THE THRONE

SHORT TAKE:

Put this in the column of WELL done, and astonishingly realistic, live action remakes of a classic Disney animated movie.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Anyone – though, for a kid movie, the subjects of fratricide, murderous hyenas, and fights to the death might (and did in the showing I went to) upset the younger kids. That’s going to have to be a parental call on a kid by kid basis. There were certainly scenes in this one which were even harder to watch than in the animated movie because of the VERY life-like CGI.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS BUT ONLY FOR THOSE 3 OR 4 PEOPLE IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM OVER 10 WHO HAVE NOT SEEN THE ORIGINAL ANIMATED VERSION

Chalk another one up for The Mouse. Before I launch into my review, I’ll say it right now, the CGI IS ASTONISHING. It’s actually just a teensy bit frightening how authentically film makers can now manufacture real life. The animals seem very very life-like.

Aside from allowing the animals to speak, the director, Jon Favreau has had the animators keep the facial and body movement as close as possible to the authentic musculature of real animals, including, of course, their limitations. Real animals don’t smile. Real animals can’t manipulate things which require an opposable digit — unless they have an opposable digit. Real animals don’t dance or pull hula skirts out of thin air. Favreau’s team respects these natural and inherent limitations, bringing an added reality to the characters which was different from the animated version. Audiences generally allow an extra layer of suspension of disbelief not usually afforded a live action and Favreau’s team obviously kept that in mind – creatively working within those limits, making the almost athletically energetic vocals of the human actors all that more important to achieve. And achieve those goals they do.

Despite the early reviews which did not have a lot of love for the (then) upcoming 2019 Lion King, this one deserved all the (literal) applause it got during the credits. I’ll admit to some trepidation, as while Aladdin was well done, Dumbo was an overblown flop. And as Lion King is one of their most enduring and intelligently created stories, I had some reservations. But from the opening scenes I was enchanted.

The entire original animated story is there, as this live action tracks about 90% of the original animated version scene for scene and image for image, notable from the opening sequence as the animals gather to welcome the newly born Prince Simba. The only notable differences throughout the 2019 version were that some of the quips were missing and some of the more ridiculous slapstick was excised. For example, and in keeping with the aforementioned recognition of the natural limitations of real animals: Zazu was not left under a pile of rhinoceroses as cubs Simba and Nala escape his watchful eye, and Timon did not don a hula skirt as a distraction for the hyenas just before the climactic battle. (Do I know the original well? With 6 kids, I have probably seen this movie over a dozen times, so yes.)

Only one scene, in my analysis, suffered slightly from lack of (if you’ll excuse the pun) impact in a diversion from the original. When Rafiki counsels Simba to return to his pride, in the original animated version Rafiki whacks Simba on the head with his club to make the point that: Yes, some history is painful, but once endured, it is then in the past and must be overcome in order to move forward. I can think of some stupid PC reasons why they did not include this part of Rafiki’s argument, but maybe they had a legit plot consideration. In any event this scene is not used in Rafiki’s counsel to Simba in the 2019 version.

Along with why this scene and some of the more memorable quotes were not included, another thing the film makers do not explain is their casting choices. Of the main cast: James Earl Jones who majestically voiced Mufasa, Matthew Broderick who played Simba, Madge Sinclair who voiced Sarabi, Robert Guillame who charmingly gave life to Rafiki, Jeremy Irons who chillingly voiced Scar, Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, who stole every scene they were in as the comic duo of Timon and Pumbaa, Cheech Marin and Whoopi Goldberg who lent their comic talents to the hyenas, and Rowen Atkinson whose brilliant dry wit was conveyed into Zazu, Jones was the only actor asked back.

There was some ink spilled in the media effusing about how Jones links the movie back to the traditional version and I, personally, was delighted to have him revisit the voice of Mufasa. He has all the timbre of the majestic leader plus his age adds a wonderful, almost foreboding to his character. But I could find very little info on why they did not call the entire cast back. Aside from the tragic death of Guillame, taken by cancer in 2017, and Madge Sinclair who passed away from leukemia not long after The Lion King came out, all of the performers are not only still alive but still active and have ongoing projects. And, aside from the child actor voices from whom replacement by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph is understandable, as they now will obviously sound too old for those roles, when acting the adult characters, the ages are irrelevant since they are all doing vocal performances.

The only info I could get on the casting issue was in an interview with Jeremy Irons. When asked why he did not reprise his role as Scar in the new version all he could say was: They didn’t ask me. He then, graciously and diplomatically went on to praise the choice of Chiwetel Ejiofor .

There is NOTHING wrong with the performances in the movie, and had they been the first ones I heard doing these roles I could have been quite content. BUT having heard Broderick, Atkinson, Irons, etc in their respective roles, it was a constant distraction to actively miss the original cast, especially when Jones’ terrific performance was a continuous reminder that the others were not there.

But don’t let my complaints dissuade you from the movie. Despite the differences, I thought this a very well done version. I am merely expressing an, admitted, bias for the details about the one our kids grew up with. I understand some of the changes omitting the more obvious cartoonish slapstick but while I do not understand some of the other choices, can accept them as not being in this version’s vision.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (2012, Dr. Strange and Children of Men) takes on Scar. Donald Glover (The Martian, Solo and Spider-Man : Homecoming) takes over for Simba. John Oliver voices Zazu. Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, Captain America: Civil War) speaks for Sarabi. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner carry Pumbaa and Timon on their respective vocal backs, for which director Favreau wisely arranged for extended improv sessions, much like what was allowed for Lane and Sabella by directors Rogers Allers, and Rob Minkoff for the original, some of which lines were added to the final script.

The Lion King, is heavily influenced by the story of Hamlet. For those not familiar with that theatrical acme, Hamlet is a young prince who must overcome his own insecurities, immaturity and indecisiveness when faced with the prospect of leading his people, after his uncle secretly kills his father, making it appear to be an accident, and marries his mother. (Plug here: BEST Hamlet ever – and ONLY one, to date filmed in its entirety – best of my knowledge – is Branagh’s which you can buy or rent from Amazon – HERE.)

A couple of decisions brings the newer version closer to the 500 year old play. As an example, the original Lion King defined Uncle Scar as grasping only for the crown. This 2019 interpretation hits a bit closer to the Shakespearean home, referring to a past wherein  Scar fought to take Sarabi as his queen and lost to Mufasa. But, unlike Hamlet’s mother, Sarabi has a bit more sense and turns Scar down. This interaction adds more texture to the plot and depth to the character of Scar.

Jon Favreau takes on the daunting task of bringing to life a new version of a beloved classic. Favreau is a very gifted and talented film maker. Favreau is responsible as a director for Iron Man 1 and 2, Jungle Book live action 1 and (the future) 2, an Orville episode, Cowboys and Aliens, Chef, and Zathura: A Space Adventure. He was producer for, among others, Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War. And his long list of acting credits include: creating the adorable sidekick to Iron Man, Happy Hogan, whose character arc has matured with the Avengers movies, as well as playing the titular character in the movie he both wrote and directed in Chef.

As a short digression, and in a lovely taste of poetic symmetry, Favreau, as Happy Hogan, plays his own kind of Rafiki to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Far From Home, counseling the young “Prince” to assume the mantle left for him by his de facto father, Stark, just the way Rafiki counsels Simba in Lion King.

Hans Zimmer returns to refresh the soundtrack he composed for the original Lion King. There are also a couple of additional songs, one of which is performed by Beyonce (who voices Nala) called “Spirit”. While the Shakesperean influence in Lion King, as I have already explained,  is obvious, this 2019 versions also draws from the Biblical story of Moses, who went into exile, crossing the desert to spend years away, only to be called back to bring his people out of bondage. Similarly, Simba crosses the desert that separates his kingdom from the idyllic forest into which he is adopted, until, like Moses, upon his coming to maturity, is called to overcome his own fears and doubts and return – again back across the very Biblically symbolic desert – to free his people from the slavery of Scar and his hyenas. Emphasizing this connection is lyrics from Beyonce’s “Spirit” which includes the line: “So go into that far off land, and be one with the Great I Am, I Am….” The reference to God, the Great I Am, is unmistakably reverent to the Book of Genesis. This was an added depth to the story I hadn’t anticipated but admire about this new version very much.

So go see the new Lion King. But to be fair to this lovely outing, see it with the fresh eyes that Jon Favreau and company have given it.

 

THE CARPENTER – NEW DARK COMEDY OF ERRORS PREMIERING AT THE ALLEY THEATRE, HOUSTON, TX – COULD HAVE USED A BIT OF – RECONSTRUCTION

SHORT TAKE:

Clever, amusing and dark comedy of errors, Texas-style, which would have benefited from a couple more runs through the drafting process.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults ONLY for gratuitous profanities and bawdy behavior.

LONG TAKE:

 

The Carpenter, making its world premiere run now through February 10, 2019 at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas is a clever but flawed play. Written by Houston’s own Rob Askins as part of the Alley’s All New Festival in 2017, the play is a loose — a very VERY loose version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper – though that is only my observation. I did not see that reference in any of the interviews with the playwright.

 

First let me say that the Alley Theatre is a GORGEOUS venue where there are NO BAD SEATS! And I admire the Alley for staging and lending so much time and effort to new innovative plays. So kudos and plaudits to one and all involved with this production.

The story is about two half-brothers who meet for the first time as adults in a bar. The older brother, Gene, is a hard drinking, womanizing, bad-decision-making ne’er do well who introduces himself to the audience Our Town Stage Manager-style at the beginning of the play with a soliloquy espousing his own personal, somewhat profane, world view. The younger brother, Dan, is an up and coming programmer about to make the sale of his life. Despite never having met they bear a significant resemblance in the way they look and dress and their personal preferences in beer. Dan lets slip he is getting married that weekend and with vague promises of getting together again some time makes  a hasty retreat. Gene, slyly winking to the audience, justifies his ominously referenced future actions with an analogy about the envy one primitive must feel for his sibling who has learned to climb, being able to thereby achieve a spot closer to the sun.

Gene’s predictable and unwanted appearance at the pre-wedding festivities in Dan’s soon-to-be in-laws, very posh, Dallas, Highland Park home, is compounded by Dan’s humiliation-inspired fabrications about Gene being the Carpenter who will build for his bride, Terry, a gazebo for the wedding.

I won’t tell more above the SPOILER warning sign because I don’t want to ruin the fun for those who want to be surprised, but I suspect Mr. Askins, to his credit, was informed in his plot choices by many of Shakespeare’s comedies of error and mistaken identities.

Before I launch into a Cinema-Sins style critique let me advise that The Carpenter IS a lot of fun and I enjoyed the romp, but was frustrated by the fact it could have been so much better.

BEYOND HERE BE SPOILERS

I understand the desire modern playwrights have to make cheap emphasis with expletives and even bawdy sexual references, but the plethora of them in this play is not only lazy writing and off putting, but undermines those moments when a carefully chosen profanity or innuendo might have had the impact the author was looking for. But by the time those chosen moments arrive we are numb to any effect.

The stage was gorgeous. I was not privy to the script so do not know how much of the stage craft was dictated by the playwright’s instructions and how much was the director’s responsibility. On first glance it was stunning. A bright white, elegantly appointed living room with an embarrassment of evidence that a wedding was being planned in a wealthy Texan home: couple photos and balloons, a stuffed paper mache ostrich and a box of stuffed white doves, and a large framed photo of their (probably prize winning) horse Bodacious. Large cushioned foot rests by a large sofa would serve as a collection spot for the actors to lounge and play on. And right in the middle was a dazzling gold festooned curved staircase leading up to an ample second floor. Eight openings in the stage, up and down stairs and into the audience area, provided an enormous amount of flexibility for the performers, which served well as the action heated up and the exits and entrances became flights and chases.

The trouble is that the staircase blocked a lot of the action. Had it been far downstage it would have served the same purpose but not gotten in the way. There is nowhere in the audience where some of the action wasn’t obscured, no matter how clever the blocking for the actors.

SERIOUS SPOILER

The mood throughout the play is slapstick humorous with a teensy touch of the sinister while promising that all will be well in the end – sort of like Noises Off meets Two Gentlemen From Verona. But nowhere in the play does the author or director prepare you for the sharp left turn into film noir, Agatha Christie territory it takes in the last five minutes. To its credit there is a Thornton Wilder touch of moralizing, tying Gene’s speech in the beginning to a warning about the inevitability of fate that comes, in one form or another, to us all – that we must be prepared because it can come when we least expect it. But in a turn as twisty as the elegant stairs in the Alley Theater itself, but more fitting to the middle of Deathtrap than the much lighter play The Carpenter leads us to believe it is, we suddenly jumped to the end of a far darker story. Kind of like finding out the comedian who you thought was playing a heart attack for laughs really — died. (Which actually happened to Dick Shawn).

But even this would have worked had the denouement occurred in the middle of the play with time to incorporate the event into the warp and woof of the story OR had there been any indication that one or the other of the brothers had had a darker past than was inferred. I, frankly, fully expected one more twist to rectify this contradiction in mood before blackout, but none came. Instead it was a payoff without adequate set up.

When you call something The Carpenter, especially when the main character wags on in a homiletic fashion, it is not unreasonable to expect a few Christian themes or at least a nod in that direction, but despite the backdrop of a marriage there was none. Even the ceremony was thrown at the couple by the bride’s best friend during a particularly ridiculous action scene as a dressed up civil ceremony with delusions of New Age druidism.

Then there’s Terry, the rich and indulged but confused and sweet fiancée who really only wants to love and be loved by Dan. But in the play’s final minutes, and without sufficient justification or provocation Terry goes from being like the loveable but ding batty Gracie Allen to Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd.

The reaction of Venus, Gene’s stripper girlfriend, to the climactic scene is uncharacteristically, but plot conveniently, bland, exiting without real purpose, leaving us wonder where the firebrand we initially met went.

While perhaps Mr. Askins is suggesting that we all wear masks under which are monsters, the transformation is unexpected, under prepped and jarring.

If it was supposed to be a comedy, the characters should have all received a certain justice. If a tragedy, then they all get some kind of comeuppance, even if that is death. But there was only a little of both and not enough of either to be satisfying.

There are also a LOT of “in-jokes” about Google in particular, the tech world in general and the current political scene, which will age very poorly. Granted, this kind of nod to a contemporary audience dates from Greek plays (Aristophanes’ ribald Lysistrata was written as a protest against what he saw as the waste of life in the Peloponnesian War), to Groucho Marx (Animal Crackers – whose song “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” was titled as a lampoon of a notorious Hollywood coke dealer). But where those classics used such frippery as decoration, throw-away lines which a modern audience can ignore and still enjoy the play, Mr. Askins leans so heavily on current events that ticketholders 20 years from now may be scratching their heads in confusion at half of the jokes.

The acting was fun as Gene and Dan imitated the mannerisms and eccentricities of each other, first in jest and sarcasm and latter in more earnest. Everyone else was a broad caricature: Terry, the Texan equivalent of a Valley girl, Claire her promiscuous best friend decked out like a walking fashion extravaganza, Kip as Terry’s rich Texas father drunkenly shooting at the ceiling with his ever present oversized rifle, Steve as Dan’s best friend-promoter in his golf outfit-style mismatching clothes. They were funny and heroically gave it their all, but the script lent them insufficient material. (Upper left reading clockwise: Cass Morgan – Cheryl – Dan’s mom, Ken Wulf Clark – Dan, Wade McCollum – Gene, Jessica Savage – Claire, Buddy Haardt – Steve, T. Ryder Smith – Kip, Brooke Wilson – Venus, Valeri Mudel – Terry, Molly Carden – Dan’s down-to-Earth sister).

If I have mentioned a lot of other stories: Our Town, Noises Off, Sweeney Todd, Deathtrap, it is because this play feels more derivative that it should have. It is as though Mr. Askins did not have the courage of his fundamentally interesting convictions and hid behind a lot of references. That is a shame because I believe he had something fairly important to say – that life is short and death will one day come for all of us. But his heavy handed awkward treatment of this message got a bit ….. buried, if you’ll excuse the pun.

While I was glad I went and it IS worth the ticket price, I think Mr. Askins has promise but it was not completely …. nailed down… in The Carpenter.

LUTCHER THEATER – A FONT OF THEATRICAL TREASURES AND A REVIEW OF SOMETHING ROTTEN

SHORT TAKE:

Go to the Lutcher Theater in Orange, Texas to take advantage of all its theatrical delights.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone, depending on the age appropriateness of the play being offered.

LONG TAKE:

Something Rotten has come and gone from the Lutcher Theater, but more about that later.

My husband and I have been to this lovely performing arts venue, the Lutcher Theater, many times. They are nestled in Orange, Texas at 707 W. Main Ave. and their season never disappoints.  You can get tickets here for the shows remaining season and for information for seasons to come.  We highly recommend you frequent this treasure. From the well chosen plays to the building itself, where there are no bad seats, we suggest you discover for yourself the Lutcher Theater and all the theatrical magic it has to offer.

Recently we traveled to see Something Rotten. I mean, it isn’t rotten. Well, the play we saw IS Something Rotten, but it is not, in fact, ANY kind of rotten. It really is, actually, wonderful. Nominated for dozens of awards, the play garnered Christian Borle the 2015 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Cleverly conceived and amusingly told, Something Rotten’s title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s most well known play, Hamlet, when Marcellus, a soldier who has seen the ghost of their deceased king, warns that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” But the play Something Rotten is most definitely NOT – rotten.

Something Rotten musically tells the story of the two Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, who are rather good playwrights. However, they have the great misfortune of being contemporaries of, and therefore, competitors with — Shakespeare.

The tone is self-parody but the execution is erudite. While the whole thing is a hoot and laugh out loud funny in the witty lyrics and energetic pacing, it is steeped – DEEPLY – as you might expect, in Shakespearean language.

HOWEVER, EVEN if you’ve never heard a word of Hamlet, or Much Ado; if you think of Othello as only a board game and MacBeth may as well be in Swahili for all the sense it makes to you, you will still find Something Rotten very entertaining, but then you’ll miss the rich pudding of inside jokes. Almost every line, situation, and concept is referential to a Bardian play, and skewed by droll songs into a reflective parody. It’s comical and self-aware, often skating right up to that fourth wall but never quite breaking it.

And if that were not enough, there are homages to dozens and dozens of other Broadway shows. In the song, “A Musical,” for example, there are at least 20 allusions to other Broadway outings from Suessical to Sweeney Todd, from Annie to Evita. But you have to be quick to catch all the lines of lyric or iconic musical phrases.

And anachronisms abound. It’s a translation, if you will, of what the Renaissance might have been like in London, seen through modern eyes. Shakespeare is treated like a rock star, holding MTV-style stage performances of his sonnets and signing autographs on women’s bosoms. In “It’s Hard to be The Bard”  he moans of his own self-doubts in having to one-up himself with every play – a sentiment which I’m sure can be shared by every high performing actor and director in Hollywood. While the Bottom brothers moan their financial doldrums and the older brother loathes the far more successful Will Shakespeare in “I Hate Shakespeare,” his younger brother Nigel is a fan.  Frustrated and desperate, Nick seeks out the fortune teller, Nostradamus, who sings his predictions of the future, in “A Musical.”

Meanwhile, Nick’s wife, Portia, decides to dress up like a man and go out to earn some much needed rent money in “Right Hand Man,”and Puritans seek to close Nick down or have him beheaded. If the names and some of the situations ring a Shakespearean bell, that is because they are supposed to.

To get a delectable taste of the show watch here as the Broadway cast performs two songs on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

The costumes are period, the performers we saw were child-on-a-sugar-high, contagious level energetic. I do not know what troupe you might see but the musical lends itself to an upbeat, feel-good time for all.

But it is not FOR all audience members. The language can get rough and, while nothing is seen or done, the topics of conversation occasionally veer into the bawdy.

While no longer, at the moment, in Beaumont, you can catch this little gem on its tour around the country. And if you can’t catch up to it geographically, do not dismay. I predict that some day soon this will be transformed into a movie. It’s too delicious not — to be. (See what I did there?)

 

TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – ASTONISHING ACCOMPLISHMENT AND WELL WORTH THE TRIP TO CHARMING KILGORE, TEXAS

In Kenneth Branagh's brilliant comedy A Midwinter's Tale, about a disparate group of actors trying to put on Hamlet during the Christmas season in a very short period of time, Joe Harper pep talks to his discouraged cast: "In Shakespeare's theater, a six week season would have produced 35 performances of 17 different plays including, at times, four world premieres."

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Well, theTexas Shakespeare Festival, outdoes even the Bard in their 33rd season, managing the Herculean task of 47 performances of six plays in a scant four and one-half weeks, plus accomodating a guest company from China who does a 7th one-night-only show.

Graciously hosted by Raymond Caldwell, the Founder and Artistic Director, and John Dodd, the Managing Director, the TSF company started June 28 and closes July 29. They give nine performances each of two different Shakespearean plays, and three other classics, plus seven showings of a new children's show. This year they did a 1920's musical version of Shakespeare's romantic comedy Love's Labour's Lost about a King and three of his friends who forswear women for 3 years just before political circumstances require they meet with the lovely princess of France and her three equally lovely attendants. They also did the rarely seen Shakespeare play King John, covering this seminally incompetent and often cruel king in the best possible light Shakespeare could muster. The other classics were Moliere's Tartuffe, a comedy exposing the hazards of entertaining hypocricy, and, the musical version of the old classic serio-comic The Rain Maker, about a man who comes to a drought stricken town promising to change the weather, only to change the dynamics of the townspeople instead. They also did four performances of The Belle of Amherst about Emily Dickenson and 7 showings of the children's play The Lovely Stepsister.

While only the four major plays are left and then only this weekend, it is worth noting that the TSF is well worth the distance you might have to travel to get to this small, friendly, spotlessly clean, theater-geared and devoted Texas town. The food in the restaurants is varied and great, the hotels comfortable, plentiful and inexpensive. If you want to combine a theater vacation with an outdoorsy flavor you can also rent a cabin in nearby Tyler. The theater, itself, has stadium seating where there is no bad view.

The crew and staff at the Ann Dean Turk Center, where the festival resides, are extremely accomodating, resourceful, and very attentive to all the patrons' needs. Ice cream, snacks and coffee are available before the show and during intermission. The gift shop is small, quaint and stuffed with wonderful, high-quality memorabilia at reasonable prices. Blankets are provided for the more easily chilled visitors as the powerful air conditioning keeps the Texas summer heat forcefully at bay.

Along with the plays, the festival also features: live orchestral music, a talent showcase of the actors' musical and varied gifts, backstage tours, "open change-overs" where a docent explains the balletic process as the crew can transform the entire set from from a small country town to an 18th century parlor in under 90 minutes, panel discussions and more.

And if you want to audition – COME ONE COME ALL – as they make the rounds starting in the not too distant future, constantly looking forward to always making the next season better than the one before. You can come audition in person, catch the scouts as they tour the country or submit a video and resume. Get the details from their website: Texas Shakespeare Festival auditions.

I was privileged to be granted an interview with Briana (Bri) Thomas who played: a singing Jaquenetta in Love's Labour's Lost, Mariane, the put upon daughter of the foolish Orgon in Tartuffe, and the delightfully perky gal Snookie in 110 in the Shade. Her parents and grandparents came to celebrate and encourage her as she made her exciting and talented debut with the TSF. The beautiful and delightful Ms. Thomas graciously agreed to allow me to record our talk. Please enjoy the videos below.

 

So wherever you are coming from, it is worth the trip to attend the TEXAS SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL – and if not this year, clear your calendars to attend the 34th season starting in June 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SHERLOCK GNOMES – FUN TAKE OFF ON THE CLASSIC HOLMES MYSTERY

 

SHORT TAKE:

Sequel to Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes version of Toy Story, this time combined with a Sherlock Holmes mystery and a cautionary tale about keeping your loved ones a priority in your life.

WHO CAN SEE THIS:

Everybody.

LONG TAKE:

A long time ago in the previous millennium – literally as I was a kid in the early 1960's – there was a segment within the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle series called Mr. Peabody and Sherman. The segment was a very tongue in cheek look at history. Mr Peabody was a genius dog who wore glasses and walked upright and who had a "boy" named Sherman. They would travel back in time, ala Dr Who, in Mr Peabody’s "WABAC Machine," meeting historic (Florence Nightingale) and mythologic (King Arthur) figures, go famous places (Great Wall of China) and experience historic events (Charge of the Light Brigade) to find instances where history has gone wrong and fix them.

They take Gallileo out into space to prove to him he is not the center of the universe. They help Mark Twain find his "lucky" typewriter and so on. These shorts were great fun and a charming whimsical way to introduce children to history – both humanizing the figures in history books and taking gentle humorous pokes at grand historic figures in a way which actually taught children what they were famous for: Franklin’s lightning rod, taking a first train ride with George Stephenson, teaching Alexander Cartwright (the inventor of baseball) the importance of good sportsmanship.

I only mention all these details to note that there is nothing wrong with taking a respectfully affectionate jibe at history or classic literature if it helps children remember and later understand it better.

Such is the case here with the Gnome movies. The first one took a stab at Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, called, predictably Gnomeo and Juliet. A friend of mine, a teacher, thought it so effective that he used it for extra credit watching for his students, tasking them to find the similarities and differences between the original classic and the animated homage.

This time around they are after the inimitable Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Depp – Captain Jack in Pirates of the Carribbean, Gellert Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts, and Ed Wood) and Doctor Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor from 2012, Dr. Strange and The Martian) in (wait for it…you guessed it) Sherlock Gnomes.

The premise is that an entire culture of British Garden Gnomes live and function just outside of the sight of humans, utilizing similar rules to those that apply in Toy Story rules. When people are around they freeze. When out of the sight of humans they come alive and move freely but adhere to many of the same characteristics their inanimate versions have: just as Slinky the dog can stretch because his middle is a spring, garden gnomes can not drown but they can BREAK!

We begin the story with Holmes’ defeat of an evil gnome, Moriarty, who has kidnapped a dozen gnomes. Holmes turns Moriarty’s weapon against him who then appears to be crushed under his own device. We also note Sherlock has begun to take his friend Watson for granted.

(FYI This latter is a theme which has been explored in comedy films – Without a Clue, and mystery theater – Sherlock Holmes’ Last Case, but never before with garden gnomes!)

This is the point at which we pick up from the previous movie and follow Gnomeo (James McAvoy – the new Professor X, the newest super villain invented by M. Night Shyamalan and Mr. Tumnus from the Narnia series) and Juliet (Emily Blunt from Live, Die, Repeat) and their friends and family as they move, with their owners, to a new house in London. The young couple will be taking over the leadership of the garden as their respective mother and father retire, but Juliet then immediately begins to neglect her new husband for her budding leadership responsibilities. The movie also features the voice talents of such veteran actors as Dame Maggie Smith (Mrs. McGonagel from Harry Potter), Michael Caine/Sir Maurice Mickelwhite (Alfie, The Man Who Would be King, Alfred to Christian Bale’s Batman) and James Hong (Po's goose father in the Kung Fu Panda series).

Their worlds intersect when the garden gnomes all over the city begin disappearing, including the families of the bickering newlyweds.

For all of the silliness of the animated gnomes with oversized ears, or huge hats, the movie makes some relevant and timely points about how jobs and one’s quest for fame can distract you from what SHOULD be most important to us – our friends, our family and, by extension, our children. This is where the two stories truly start to intersect as we see Sherlock’s casual disregard of his friend reflected in Juliet as she allows her new job to take precedent over her husband.

Not only does the movie introduce a whole new generation to the classic Sherlock Holmes character in a way which is very child friendly but, like truly classic children tales, reminds the moms and dads who bring the little ones of some important lessons as well.

  There is no real violence, no bad language. The movie is played entirely against a background of cover and remix Elton John songs. Aside from a little bit of sly innuendo which will amuse the adults and go over the little kids’ heads, some fart jokes, a running gag about a gnome on a potty and an ugly male gnome in a body thong played for laughs, there is nothing even the youngest couldn’t see or hear. The most telling compliment was the fact that my two year old grandson walked into the theater grouchy but sat mesmerized through the entire movie.

So – well done. This time the game's a – ceramic – foot.