Friday, November 02, 2007

Recent children's fantasy films - Stardust, The Seeker 

Fantasy movies can be difficult to get right, with far more unsuccessful than successful ones Though there have been a few good ones in the past, they mostly just end up being kind of B-grade. Fortunately, the genre is taken seriously these days, with better casting and acting and excellent possiblities due to digital effects (if used sensibly).

Here's a couple of current family fantasy films that I caught recently, both literary adaptations using the quest theme.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketStardust was a pleasant surprise in every respect - a fantasy film that actually managed to improve on the text of the book in a number of areas - who'd have thought that was possible?

The film isn't based on a graphic novel per se (as has been widely and incorrectly reported), but rather a text modern fairy tale by Neil Gaiman, sumptuously illustrated by Charles Vess. While there is a standard paperback (film tie-in) release everywhere at the moment, the magnificently Charles Vess illustrated edition (latest release ISBN 1-4012-1190-9) is the only version of this book to own, in my opinion - Vess' pictures bring out the characters in a complementary way with the narrative. I found the characterisation somewhat underdeveloped in the text alone, which is one reason the film benefited - being able to fill out those emotional depths and unseen character interactions (particularly the central romance). Actually, call me greedy, but I'd quite to see a full graphic novel rendering!

Set in an English village on the border of Faerie, this tale reminds me thematically of Lord Dunsany's (pre-Tolkien) lost classic The King of Elfland's Daughter, which is no bad thing! Tristan sets off into Faerie in search of a star for his aloof sweetheart Victoria, finding himself in a race that involves the royals, witches and pirates of this other world. Claire Danes is perfectly cast and the "name" actors are well-directed in performances that are campy, yet somewhat restrained, considering the material. It is (like the book) a little too gory for younger children, but otherwise well worth seeing on the big screen.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe week before we saw Stardust, we made sure we caught the first film adaptation of Susan Cooper's English children's classic, The Dark is Rising, adapted as a film under the title The Seeker: the Dark is Rising (an approach similar to that used with the "Narnia" movies).

This quintessentially British tale of past and present magic is bound to particular English landscapes, and historic and mythical traditions. Therefore I felt an initial sense of horror upon finding that the entire central cast, including Will, had been rewritten as Americans. The fact that they were good actors, who all performed well in their roles, never dispelled the glaring illogic of this decision. To further the literalism and misunderstanding of Cooper's work, there was an ungainly early sequence featuring security guards who literally transform into demons. Clearly, someone (in all probability, not the director) wanted to make a quite different film.

All in all, it's well directed and improves from there, and the always strong Christopher Eccleston puts in another fine performance as The Rider, but those early bad decisions hamstring what could have been a much more powerful fantasy film. A recut might improve it slightly, as apparently The Walker was filmed but left on the cutting room floor. As a "boy's own" mythic adventure with a straight ahead quest narrative, it works well enough, but my concern is that it will mean that another, more faithful film version of this book (or the rest of the series, for that matter) will never be made.

I'm not sure who the audience is for a Bowdlerised rendition of a well-loved book - a mistake Peter Jackson carefully avoided with his Lord of the Rings adaptations, walking a line between personal creative vision and fidelity to source.

Given the recent Earthsea miniseries and anime adaptation, perhaps Susan Cooper should get together with Ursula Le Guin to form a Society for Authors of Classic Children's Fantasy Whose Work is Always Screwed Up by Film Companies.

I've also recently seen a few musicals:

Hairspray - intermittently excellent but inconsistent
Across the Universe - amazingly good and definitely recommended, particularly for Beatles fans!

(I started this post a while ago and am posting it much later)

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I've seen Stardust, and I agree with you. Even though it isn't the sort of thing my husband is normally interested in, he really liked it as well.

I haven't seen the other yet, but I plan to when I have time and it's released on cable or dvd here, which should be soon. I haven't read the book, so I'll probably enjoy it more than you did. I rarely thoroughly enjoy a movie if I've read the book first and don't like the translation.

I loved the Lord of the Rings movies, I really did, but I have to say that I'm still disgruntled with the way Arwen was handled. She was barely a blip in the books. I understand why they made her a presence in the story, but it still bothered me. That being said, I own the trilogy.
Thanks, Aravis!

I think The Seeker: The Dark is Rising works okay as a straight head "boys own adventure" type movie, but the TransAtlantic stuff rings untrue, which is a major problem. Adventure-wise okay, but not a lot of magic is created, at least in terms of feel. One or two of the timeslip pieces work fairly well and the actors are good, if cast from the wrong country :).

The Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings films are fine works - they really are as good as they can be, which is a major achievement in itself! They clearly show how much Jackson and his cohorts love the books, without resorting to scene-by-scene literalism. There is stuff I don't like, particularly the relentless darkening of everything (such as Bree in the first film) - the books have more of a good/bad/good/bad rhythm that is lost.

I have a long history with the concept of a LotR movie, including bothering Rayner Unwin with my drawings when I was in High School (around 1978), but that's a whole other story :).

The lack of enough major female roles in the books is a problem, so I'm happy enough with what they did with Arwen. Glorfindel's an odd character and involves one of Tolkien's few actual narrative mistakes over his epics, given that he was killed by a Balrog in The Silmarillion. When confronted with this, Tolkien called it a "rare case of resurrection".

The total absence of female roles is a real problem in The Hobbit - I wonder how a movie would deal with that? One unfortunate truth is that girls will read books about male characters, but boys won't generally read about female protagonists - pathetic males - they miss out on some great books :).

I own the long version of Jackson's filmic trilogy. They're not exactly how I imagine the characters or settings, but they are so good, in so many ways. That's a real relief in itself, because it means some hack director shouldn't be able to get their hands on them in the near future!

The downside is that every undeserving third-rate piece of crap fantasy published in the last three decades may now get a chance at a big screen rendering, along with cranked out movie versions of the (far fewer) good ones.
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