Dreaming of ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’

Told like one of Georges Méliès’ féeries stories, “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” is a balancing act — a Jenga tower that could have easily toppled over.

On one hand, you see the romantic and tragic tale of “Romeo & Juliet.” On top of that, you see the quixotic influences of Miguel de Cervantes, the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali and the gothic characters often found in Tim Burton films.

The fragile balance is even more precarious when beautiful, almost life-like animation is interspersed with musical numbers in a steampunk world.

And then suddenly, Georges Méliès (Jean Rochefort, Stephane Cornicard) appears in an animated film he might have written, directed or invented once upon a time.

Written and directed by French author Mathias Malzieu based on his book and album, “La Mécanique du Cœur” (which translates to “Mechanics of the Heart”), “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” is a surrealist and dreamlike fairytale about another boy named Jack (Mathias Malzieu). This one didn’t nip at your nose, climb beanstalks or rip throats from prostitutes in London. This Jack was born in Edinburgh on a night so cold that his heart became encased in a block of ice.

Luckily, the witch doctor Madeleine (Marie Vincent, Emily Loizeau) was able to repair Jack’s frozen heart, replacing it with bits of gears and magic. Instead of a beating and bloody heart, Jack was given a cuckoo-clock, which chimed when it was startled and smoked when he felt any passion.

To protect his mechanical heart, Jack was given three rules to live by: 1. Never touch the hands of the clock; 2. Control his temper; and 3. Never fall in love. Naturally, he breaks the rules and becomes infatuated with a girl named Miss. Acacia (Olivia Ruiz, Samantha Barks).

Like Salvador Dali paintings, the film stretches time and probability. In one moment, you’re longboarding through desserts; in another, you’re climbing the sky — flying and falling through scenes filled with pop-up houses, bouquets of glasses, cats with elongated necks and smoke made out of paper.

Malzieu and his co-director Stéphane Berla present us a magic show walking the tightropes of a surrealist dream.

It isn’t a smooth walk. It floats and falls. Pushes and pulls. Flickers and stops in seemingly random bursts.

It’s a film full of contradictions filled with things that shouldn’t exist. A man with a spine of a xylophone. Humans with elephant ears. And a boy with the cuckoo-clock heart.

Yet somehow, all these pieces fit together like misfit toys — both ugly and beautiful, forgotten and loved.

“Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” was directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu based on Malzieu’s book and screenplay. The film contains original music from Malzieu’s band Dionysos.  

‘Cinderella’ retells the story we’ve all imagined

If our obsession with Will and Kate’s royal wedding was anything to go by, we love fairy tales! Which is why there’s much to love about a live-action revival of a 1950’s animated classic.

“Cinderella” screenwriter Chris Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh tastefully transform a tale as old as time into a magical 105-minute picture.

Part of “Cinderella’s” charm lies with its lead, a good and wholehearted heroine that we can emulate. Lily James’s very likable and animated as Ella. She has a happy childhood with her father (Ben Chaplin) and her mother (Hayley Atwell) until her parents pass away. But as the story goes, she’s mistreated by her cruel and jealous stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two gaudy stepsisters (played by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) while she bears a grin, talks to mice and lives by her mother’s maxim, “Have courage and be kind.”

Filmed by Haris Zambarloukos and edited by Martin Walsh, “Cinderella” is visually stunning and shows off Sandy Powell’s costume designs. There’s an ariel shot of Ella’s two stepsisters in bed surrounded by frumpy dresses. James looks gorgeous in blue — spinning in the prince’s arms. And Blanchett makes a pretty picture in a vibrant green dress that would make Scarlett O’Hara jealous (this one’s not made out of curtains).

Who wore it better: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara or Cate Blanchett as Cinderella's stepmother, the Lady Tremaine?

Who wore it better: Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara or Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s stepmother? 

Although Weitz and Branagh’s live-action version follows a safe and predictable script, it sweeps us off our feet in the same fashion as Kate Middleton’s real-life “Cinderella” story. 

Prince Charming goes by the name as Kit (Richard Madden), and pretends he’s an apprentice at the castle. Courtesy of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), Ella attends his ball dressed up as a princess. And they — like Prince William and Kate Middleton — lived happily ever after.

“Cinderella” was directed by Kenneth Branagh and written by Chris Weitz. 

‘Frozen Fever’ follows in footsteps of its predecessors

The Disney-Pixar merger’s become and more apparent with their last couple of theatrical releases. Pixar’s influence can be seen in recent animated shorts like Disney’s Oscar-winning short, “Feast” (which premiered before “Big Hero 6”), and “Frozen Fever” (which premieres before a live-action version of “Cinderella”).

Like “Frozen” and “Brave,” “Frozen Fever” focuses on a sweet familial love — in this case, the bond of sisters. The song, “Making Today A Perfect Day” (written by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck), is Elsa’s answer to Anna’s “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?”

In the short, all our favorite characters return to celebrate Princess Anna’s (Kristen Bell) birthday. Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Sven guard Olaf (Josh Gad) from eating the cake while Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) accidentally adorns an army of tiny adorable minion-like snowmen, whom Olaf takes under his wing.

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“We can’t all go as Elsa from Frozen.”

It’s a charming and irresistible and holds all the right notes, but it also smartly capitalizes on the “Frozen fever” we’ve experienced in supermarkets and toy shops. Even if our eight-year-old doesn’t want to see a live-action version of “Cinderella,” she’s going to want to see “Frozen Fever.”

“Frozen Fever” was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and written by Lee, Buck and Marc Smith. 

‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’: the tale of girlhood

Last month, Dr. Sharon Marcus and Dr. Anne Skomorowsky wrote a through-provoking piece examining Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film, “Boyhood.” Their Wall Street Journal article argued that “while boyhood is filled with possibility, girlhood is limiting.”

This is evident in Iso Takahata’s poignant hand-drawn animated Oscar contender “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” — a Studio Ghibli production produced over the past five years. While “Boyhood” feels very real, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a fabricated fable about a celestial being who came under the care of a couple of peasants — a bamboo-cutter named Okina (Takeo Chii) and his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto).

Okina thinks the tiny Thumbelina he found in a bamboo shoot is destined to be a princess, so he does everything in his power to raise her like a daughter and to give her a better life. This includes moving the “Princess” away from their rural village and into the city. Okina even hires a private tutor (Atsuko Takahata) to teach her.

Based on the Japanese folk tale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” Takahata’s film shows how a girl’s options are limited. “A noble princess does not frolic,” Kaguya’s tutor, Lady Sagami, tells her. A noble princess doesn’t open her mouth. She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even attend her own naming ceremony (that’s a three-night celebration for men like her adopted father — whom dictate her path).

“I might as well not be here,” Kaguya expresses.

Instead, a noble princess is expected to look beautiful and marry well. Her beauty attracts the attention of five noblemen, each asking for her hand.

This is very different from the choices “Boyhood’s” Mason is given. For him, the sky’s the limit. For her, her only decisions revolve around marriage.

Although Kaguya is a resourceful heroine, she confined as she grows up. Initially, we see a cherubic and carefree baby, amused by nature. She captures a frog. She befriends baby swine. She’s charmed by the wind blowing and the cherry blossoms. We even see her swinging on a vine with the rural neighborhood’s lost boys, led by their Peter Pan/Robin Hood, Sutemaru (Kengo Kora). But her laughter and smile disappears as she’s forced to adapt to humans’ inhumane definition of beauty.

That’s a beautiful and illuminating lesson — as hard to watch as Takahata’s 1988 WWII piece, “Grave of the Fireflies.” Bring the tissues.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” was written by Iso Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi and directed by Takahata. The film was nominated Best Animated Film in the 87th Academy Awards. 

Magnificent ‘Maleficent’

Fractured fairy tales often recycle the same tropes (look at “Frozen” or “Jack the Giant Slayer”), but Robert Stromberg’s “Maleficent” is a beautiful, new rendition of an age-old story.

Written by Linda Woolverton (who worked on half a dozen Disney movies including “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Alice In Wonderland”), “Maleficent” does with “Sleeping Beauty” what Gregory Maguire did with “The Wizard of Oz.” Woolverton re-imagines the story from the villain’s perspective.

Maleficent (played by Isobelle Molloy, Ella Purnell and the magnificent Angelina Jolie) is a good, peaceful fairy, who guards and protects the magical land of Moors. She falls in love with a human boy (Michael Higgins and Jackson Bews) who becomes a greedy man (Sharlto Copley) that rules the human kingdom.

King Stefan rapes Maleficent to earn his title. And thus, Maleficent becomes Charles Dickens’ Miss. Havisham from “Great Expectations” — the jilted old woman in her wedding dress. Her “Estella” on men is her magic. So she curses Stefan’s only daughter, Aurora (Elle Fanning), to an endless sleep upon her 16th birthday.

Stromberg — an Academy Award winning visual effects artist whose credits include  “The Hunger Games,“Life of Pi”, “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” — makes a stunning directorial debut with “Maleficent.” The scenes in the Moors are heavenly — full of vibrant colors and creatures. He (along with more than 500 visual effects artists) shows off Jolie’s high cheekbones, piercing eyes and plump lips.

Jolie, herself, is radiant in this role — vengeful and glowing with wicked glee as she gifts Princess Aurora. But this Maleficent is also forgiving and fierce; sweet and savage; motherly and mischievous. She saves a raven whom she turns into a man (Sam Riley). And she’s not too different from Khaleesi from George R.R. Martin’s epic “Game of Thrones” saga.

Though Maleficent’s certainly ethereal, she’s more humane than her human counterparts. Copley’s character longs for a seat on the Iron Throne; his obsession with the crown rivals those playing in the “Game of Thrones.” All would be well, of course, if he’d give Maleficent her dragons.

“Maleficent” was directed by Robert Stromberg and written by Linda Woolverton. The movies based on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant” and Jacob and Wilheim Grimm’s “La Briar Rose.”

Fractured fairy tales ‘Frozen’ in time

In case you’ve lived under a rock (or were locked in tower like “Tangled’s” frying pan-wielding, Tarzan-swinging Rapunzel) for the past three years, you might have noticed Disney’s re-branding — touting virtuous and brave princesses. Nowadays, their animated damsel in distresses resemble the three-dimensional, bow-and-arrow-wielding Meridas from Pixar’s “Brave.”

“Frozen” tries to be the franchise’s latest progressive, self-aware princess movie, featuring 3D technology and challenging its own tropes.

“Hang on, you mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” says Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) — the huntsman to Princess Anna’s Snow White — dismissing the Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories of another era.

“Foot size doesn’t matter,” responds Princess Anna (a zinger perhaps directed at Disney’s “Cinderella” and her man, Prince Charming).

But as much as Disney’s evolved over the years, the same fairy tale tropes are central to the formulaic “happily ever after” storyline — written by Chris Buck, Shane Morris and “Wreck It Ralph’s” Jennifer Lee.

Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) of Arendelle is another sheltered princess with big blue eyes and red hair, eager to be part of another world and dreaming of a love’s true kiss. “What if I meet the one?” she sings in “The First Time in Forever.”

Bubbling with optimism at the prospect of love, Anna resembles Amy Adams’ Giselle from “Enchanted,” Fiona from “Shrek,” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” (and like Ariel in the iconic “Kiss the Girl” scene, Anna also falls into a boat with a handsome prince).

Her counterpoint lies in her older sister, Elsa, a poised blond-haired, blue-eyed witch concealing volatile powers like Jack Frost’s. Voiced by Idina Menzel, known for her role as another misunderstood witch (Elphaba in the musical “Wicked”), Elsa’s like Jo Rowling, entertaining her younger sister with magic. In Rowling’s case, she created stories; Elsa animated goofy snowmen like Olaf (Josh Gad).

Elsa accidentally harms her sister during a bit of roughhousing; her parents order her to hide her powers from everyone, especially her sister. Her parents die (like all fairy tale parents do). But as much as Elsa’s a good girl, she can’t contain her magic forever. During her highly attended coronation years later, Elsa accidentally unleashes her magic, freezing Arendelle and becoming both the evil queen and the persecuted beast.

While “Frozen” bills itself as the “best film since ‘The Lion King,'” the movie’s appeal lies in the retelling of universal stories — a formula Disney has mastered. The beloved “Lion King” is, after all, an animated (pun intended) retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “Frozen’s” inspired from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

Buck, Morris and Lee drew from the Disney canon, amalgamating half a dozen fairy tale classics; composer Christophe Beck re-writes the musical medleys of yesteryear into ‘wicked’ soundtracks. (Menzel’s voice is chilling, isn’t it?)

The result is as expected: another satisfying crowd-pleaser guaranteed to melt any frozen heart.

“Frozen” was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and written by Lee, Buck and Shane Morris. It’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ falls short

Those hoping director Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer” would bring a fresh spin to the age-old fairy tale will be thoroughly disappointed. The film rehashes the same, familiar feudalism tropes that have existed since the Middle Ages.

Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a peasant farm-boy who has grown up with legends of giants and beanstalks, is at the town’s theater when he rescues the Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) from intimidating men. Though Jack is willing to accept this one-off encounter with the princess, he finds her on his doorstep at his farm while she is escaping from her impending marriage. Roderick (Stanley Tucci), her intended fiancé, is a greedy man who plots for world domination by releasing the giants onto mankind. When magic beans sprout into a giant beanstalk, taking the princess to the giants’ land, the king (Ian McShane) sends his guard Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and his best men up the beanstalk to rescue the princess. Naturally, Jack volunteers to go along with the chivalrous Elmont to rescue the damsel in distress.

It’s not hard to guess what happens from here. After all, all fairy tales end with their happily ever after, and screenplay writers Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney stick close to that idea, making the film quite bland. Though Lemke is also accredited on the writing team for “Shrek Forever After,” Fiona, the ogre princess, has more sass than Princess Isabelle ever did. “A princess is such a useless thing,” Isabelle even says at one point between her capture by giants and her rescue.

The script is predictable, fantastical and fundamentally flawed. The plot progresses at such breakneck speed that the actions seem as implausible as the condensed, three-day relationship between William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” If Jack is Romeo, Isabelle is Juliet. But rather than compare thee to the moon, Jack takes on a hoard of colossal CGI giants. For a farm-boy who’s afraid of heights, Jack gets over his fear and climbs that beanstalk awfully fast.

Hoult, known as the playboy Tony in the first two seasons of the British television show “Skins,” and McGregor, known for his award-winning performances in “Trainspotting” and “Moulin Rouge!,” are capable of giving more well-rounded performances, but the script holds them to these two-dimensional knight-in-shining-armor roles. The noble heroes lack development beyond their roles as good guys.

Lemke, McQuarrie and Studney’s script does provide context, which the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” lacked. “Jack the Giant Slayer” is about more than a thief who steals golden eggs. However, their retelling of this fractured fairy tale is not as memorable as the giants’ refrain: fe fi fo fum, a proper synonym for the film’s mediocrity.

‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ was written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney and directed by Bryan Singer. To view this post in The Ithacan, click here.

‘Bella Swan’ and the Huntsman

Although Robert Pattinson has made great strides to overcome his fame as the “Twilight” saga’s Edward Cullen (with leading roles in films such as “Remember Me” and “Water for Elephants”), it’s hard to see Pattinson’s “Twilight” and real life love-interest, Kristen Stewart, as anyone other than Stephanie Meyer’s heroine, Bella Swan. This is most apparent in her new movie “Snow White and the Huntsman,” where Stewart is typecast as another pale, damsel in distress.

This newest adaption of the classic Brothers Grimm tale has Stewart as the fair princess Snow White and Charlize Theron as the evil queen, Ravenna. After being told that the princess rivals the queen in beauty — and also that consuming Snow White’s heart will keep her youthful forever — Ravenna becomes keen on capturing and harnessing Snow White’s heart. However, although Snow White has been locked in the castle since her father’s death, she manages to escape into the dark forest after a blunder with the queen’s brother (Sam Spruell). Furious with the turn of events, the queen summons the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to apprehend the princess. However, once the Huntsman finds the princess, he decides to protect her journey her rather than arrest her for the queen.

Although the film is titled “Snow White and the Huntsman,” perhaps the movie should be called “The Queen and the Princess” (this movie trailer seems to agree, portraying Queen Ravenna as the lead and Snow White and the Huntsman as supporting characters). Theron carries the movie as Ravenna: a queen as cruel, vicious and human as Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the ice-cold blond queen from George R. R. Martin’s and HBO’s “Game of Thones” series. While Stewart’s performance as Snow White is lackluster, Theron as Ravenna is hateful. In one scene she is surrounded by dead bodies she just consumed. “I should have killed her when she was a child,” Theron confesses in one scene. “Where is she?” she demands madly in another. However, as much as you want to hate the Queen, you can’t help but feel empathy for her.

“I, too, lost my mother when I was a young girl,” Ravenna tells a young Snow White. “I can never take your mother’s place, ever.” Some of Ravenna’s late mother’s parting words: “You’re beauty is all that can save you, Ravenna. This spell will make your beauty your power and protection.”

With touching scenes like this, you almost feel sorry for the queen.

“I was ruined by a king like you once,” Ravenna tells the king right before she stabs him in bed on their honeymoon. “I replaced his queen, an old woman. And in time, I, too, would have been replaced. Men use women, they ruin us and when they are finished with us they throw us to their dogs like scraps.” (With King Robert’s favorite hobbies as whoring and hunting, I think wife Cersei Lannister would agree with these sentiments, don’t you?) If sympathy is not what you feel, at least you understand her motivations.

As much as the character of the queen is fully fleshed out, other pieces in the movie don’t add up. For example, the movie begins with a narration by Hemsworth the Huntsman, but doesn’t conclude with one. Instead, it concludes with Stewart’s awkward smile (smirk? grimace?) as she sits before her full court. It is also unclear how the relationship between Snow White and the Huntsman resolves — even though it’s the title (and therefore subject?) of the film. Most of all, however, it’s unclear why Stewart was cast in this film.

If not for the flattering statements and reactions from the cast supporting her, it would be hard to see Stewart’s “rare beauty” and “fairness.” Sure, Stewart has moments with children and forest animals (she growls at a monster, dances with a dwarf and pets a great white stag’s muzzle), but perhaps it’s too hard to see Stewart as the epitome of good (especially when it’s easier to see her smooching her vampire boyfriend). Instead, her pureness is suggested, coaxed and reinforced through words and repetition: “She is life itself,” says Muir, one of the dwarves. “… Where she leads, I follow.” After all, how would Stewart’s cry for blood and war be moving if not for the people (or dwarves) rallying in support of her? If not for the undying love of William (Sam Clafin), her childhood friend; and the Huntsman — who both kiss her, hoping to revive her from the queen’s poisoned apple? If not for the queen — who considers the princess to be her greatest adversary? Stewart’s acting seems stale as the apple she chokes on, but perhaps that’s because the viewer’s mind is poisoned by “Twilight.”

“Snow White and the Huntsman” was directed by Rupert Sanders; and written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini.