Artemis Fowl (2020)

artemis fowl poster

Artemis Fowl (Ferdia Shaw) is a 12-year-old genius, who’s about to find out that his father (Colin Farrell) might not be all that he seems. Can he use his over-sized brain to rescue Fowl senior when he’s kidnapped? More to the point, can he do so when it turns out dad’s stories of fairy folk and magic aren’t exactly stories…

I’ve read a couple of the Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer, and found them entertaining enough. That I’m not a huge fan of the books might have allowed me to enjoy this lacklustre adaptation a little more than I might otherwise, but it’s still got more flaws than not.

Where to begin? Production values were obviously high from the House of Mouse, so it does look pretty good – Fowl Manor is a house to drool after. The fairy world isn’t quite as impressive, and we spend so little time there that if you haven’t read any of the books it all might feel a bit baffling.

And yet, if you have read the books then I suspect you’re going to be either disappointed or just a bit perplexed at some of the translations on screen. We are pointedly told that Artemis is a genius, but very little of that comes through in his behaviour, and absolutely none of the ‘criminal mastermind’ that the books and movie poster led you to expect. Dom Butler doesn’t get enough backstory, but then again, neither do any of the other characters.

I’m not sure any of it quite hit the mark. Things are just so bland, poorly introduced, and never quite capturing a sense of why I should really care. None of the cast stood out well, but Dame Judi Dench has an awful ‘Oirish brogue’ and the huge misstep of actually, pointlessly, announcing “Tawp o tha murnin'” for absolute cringe value.

It’s not unwatchable, but it is a large amount of “couldn’t you have done any better with the material?” and overall felt largely pointless and oddly dull. Shame – and, advice is to swerve.

Released: 12th June 2020 (streaming)
Viewed: 12th June 2020
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 4/10

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

princess of mars cover

“I am a very old man; how old I do not know.”

I have mixed feelings about classic sci-fi. It’s good to know the roots of your favourite genre, but it doesn’t always age so well. The Barsoom books, however, can be taken more as adventure stories that happen to be set on a fantasy version of Mars that might as well be Narnia. There’s an indulgence to stories from what seems like a simpler time, maybe a slightly patronising tone to the reading that lets you nod and play along and just enjoy the lack of complication.

John Carter is a Virginian gentleman and veteran of the American Civil War, who stumbles into a mysterious cave and wakes up on another planet. He’s promptly captured by the warmongering Tharks, the so-called ‘green men of Mars’. To say there’s a large amount of the Mary Sue to Carter would be an understatement. The lower planetary gravity gives him super strength and he easily beats many of the larger warriors, earning himself a stay of execution. He then picks up the language in about twenty minutes flat, before falling in love with a captured princess from the other of Mars’ main species, the ‘reds’.

The pace of this story is lightning. There’s little dwelling on anything, and big events happen in a sentence. That’s part of the appeal, really: it’s simple but it keeps moving so fast that if you can let go it provides a light distraction. Alas, it can also seem a little unsatisfying for the same reasons, plus the fact that you just know (the other) JC can never really lose…

Except, there’s a framing tale. Carter is telling his story – perhaps it’d be nice to think of them as an old man’s tall tales? – and not quite everything goes to plan. That’s why there are ten sequels, I suppose 😉

I’m glad I read this. It doesn’t feel like high literature, but it is one of the classics from its time, and despite its many flaws for a modern audience there’s a lot to like here. Definitely not sci-fi, but as a boys’ own kind of adventure, it’s quite fun.

As a final note, if – like me – your main knowledge of this comes from the somewhat disappointing movie, John Carter (2012), it’s clear to see both how much they had to leave out, and how much better the story is with just that bit more meat and context.

eBook: 202 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 1912
Series: Barsoom book 1
Read from 12th April -10th May 2020

My rating: 7/10

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

sonic the hedgehog poster

Adaptations of video games rarely go well, and even less so when the game itself didn’t really have a plot to speak of. Still, I have fond memories of my Sonic-playing days, and if nothing else, the disastrous first attempt at a look for the blue speedster piqued my interest.

So, in need of something fun and lighthearted as lockdown (and everything else) started to get to me a bit this weekend, it seemed like just the moment for this kind of fluff. Fluff that begins by telling the story of a young hedgehog who for some reason is under attack (I might have blinked a bit at the beginning) and escapes via magical portal rings to Earth, where he is living a life of painful isolation and solitude. Ah, nuts!

It gets more fun, as a Sonic-induced power outage attracts the attention of the government and psychotic scientist Doctor Robotnik. This is the main reason to watch this movie: Jim Carrey having an absolute, scenery-chewing blast. It’s been a while since we got to see the man on screen and it almost – almost – makes the movie worth watching.

Elsewhere, I didn’t mind the new CGI for the blue hedgehog, and James Marsden tries his best, poor sod. The other characters are totally flat and purely there to fill in scenery, really.

Plot-wise, it’s just a standard chase movie, with Robotnik willing to destroy anything to get his hands on Sonic. There are some ‘nice’ nods to the games, I think especially the ‘boss fight’ being unexpectedly close to what I remember and didn’t think they’d be able to actually make work. Not sure the big to-do on ‘how Sonic gets his red sneakers’ added much, right enough.

So… yeah, not so much. It wasn’t awful, I don’t regret choosing to see it, but it offers next to nothing on any level.

Released: 14th February 2020
Viewed: 16th May 2020
Running time: 99 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10 – it’s not awful, but…

Onward (2020)

onward poster

Once upon a time, there was magic in the world, a world populated by elves and pixies, mantacores and unicorns. But magic was hard, and folk found a way to make things easier – things like electricity, and the combustion engine.

On Ian’s (Tom Holland) 16th birthday, his mother (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt), a gift from their late father: a genuine magic staff. Knowing he was ill and dying, he wrote a spell that would allow him one last day with his sons, to see what kind of young men they’d grow into. When the spell goes a little awry, Ian and Barley set out on a quest that will test them both…

A Pixar movie is still an event worth seeing, and the added world building here really appealed to me – feral unicorns! Angry sprites! The whole fantasy-meets-reality element worked really well for me throughout, and allows for a gorgeous colour palette and plenty of whimsy.

The main strength, however, is the brotherly relationship between Ian and Barley (or, Spider-Man and Starlord…!). As the pair race to complete the spell in time to talk to their father, the emotion that both bring to the bond is hugely touching.

It’s a bit less ‘ta da!’ than say, Toy Story or Wall-e, all in all a rather more gentle kind of tale. But it has a great deal of heart, looks just lovely, and I’d say is well worth a look for children and grown ups alike.

Released: 6th March 2020
Viewed: 29th February 2020 (special previews)
Running time: 102 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 8/10

The Call of the Wild (2020)

call of the wild poster

Based on the classic novel (which I’ve not read – yet!) by Jack London, The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a pampered pooch who is kidnapped and sold into a sled team in the frozen wilds of the Yukon in the late 1800s. The book gives us Buck’s voice and viewpoint, but the film merely follows this intrepid pup through several adventures, instead giving us a voiceover from human co-star, Harrison Ford.

This is another movie that wasn’t really on my radar to go and see, but this time I ended up pleasantly surprised. I was quite worried about the CGI dog – how was that going to not be awful?! But animating the dogs allows for a great deal more facial expression, as well as danger and nuance. Yes, the former is ever so slightly cartoonish, but kudos to the animators, it never strays into the ‘uncanny valley’. Buck is never ‘humanised’, he remains very dog-like, and thus it all seems to work.

I wasn’t familiar with the story, but I can see why it’s a classic boys-own kind of adventure. The wilderness of gold rush Canada is exquisite, wild and empty and free, and the perfect setting for the twin stories of Buck and John, the human he forms a bond with, seeking his own very different kind of freedom.

I was impressed with the human cast, acting against presumably nothing or at least nothing completely dog-like. Harrison Ford is Harrison Ford, but I might be alone in quite enjoying Dan Stevens’ pantomime baddy, and got a bit of an ‘oh’ when I finally recognised Karen Gillan (she was neither blue nor Scottish, so I think I can be forgiven ;)). Omar Sy’s character was a nice ray of positivity in Buck’s otherwise tough life.

Overall, it’s an adventure tale that has stood the test of time, and made for a lovely evening’s viewing.

Released: 19th February 2020
Viewed: 21st February 2020
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7.5/10

Dolittle (2020)

dolittle poster

Following the death of his beloved wife, Dr John Dolittle has no heart left in him to continue treating the animals to which he can speak. Locked away in his home-come-nature reserve, surrounded by animal friends, what will it take to bring Dolittle back into the world?

I had very little interest in seeing this movie, to be honest, but it was a bit of a group compromise. And hey, Robert Downey Jr. And some excellent special effects with talking animals, all voiced very well by a starry cast that includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, and Tom Holland. And, urm… yeah, no, it did nothing for me.

Where to begin? Most of all, I just didn’t really care – not for the lead, nor the youthful hangers on, or even much for the animals (!) somehow (the squirrel lost me as soon as it opened its mouth). I most identified with the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), stroppy and not wanting to be part of things.

Visually it all looks pretty great, sure. And yet I never had a real ‘wow’ moment. Tonally, throwing in something utterly fantastical kind of felt for the sake of it, than part of the plot. And don’t get me started on the ‘exotic’ island ruled by pirates.

The voice actors and RDJ – although not his ‘hmm’ Welsh accent, that to my ears wasn’t just off (and frequently slipping) but sapped a lot of performance oomph – can probably walk away okay, but I’d suggest the rest of the human cast, including Jessie Buckley, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Sheen hamming it up to heaven, possibly just omit this one from their CVs.

I dunno. Maybe the kids will love it. Personally, while it wasn’t (as half-expected, utterly) awful – in fact, after a tough day, I did sort of appreciate the sweetness and a few of the attempts at humour – I can only suggest that you don’t bother. Overall: meh.

Released: 7th February 2020
Viewed: 14th February 2020
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

rise of skywalker poster

Here we are. 42 years since Star Wars (aka Episode 4, A New Hope) hit the big screen and created a cultural phenomenon. Now we finally reach the ‘end’, of the so-called Skywalker saga, at any rate, with Episode 9.

It’s been a rocky path. Few people loved the prequel trilogy, and this final trilogy seemed to enrage the fans. Personally, I rather enjoyed my rewatch of episodes 7 and 8 this week, although I can see why they were disappointing if you were more invested in the universe than I’ve ever managed. And so I went into this fully expecting another slice of entertainment.

Aaand… even I, not a rabid fan, came away just a bit disappointed. Oh, it looks glorious. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is great as a strong, conflicted new Jedi. Kylo Ren has managed to become more interesting than the stroppy teen from Ep7. Poe (Oscar Isaac) gets to smoulder and flirt with everything and anything. And then there’s the cameos, the old familiar faces, some new faces, the pulling together of threads from 8 other movies, the quest to find the thing that’ll let them find the other thing, the psychological stuff, Finn’s sudden Force-ish awareness, battles, morals, sand, space, more sand, and the resurrection of an old enemy.

Phew o.O

Which is to say that it feels like they threw in everything bar the kitchen sink (although I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in the background somewhere as some kind of easter egg) and managed to make rather a glorious mess.

Oh, it’s not awful. But I hoped for more. Instead it’s trying too hard on pretty much every level. There are fan nods and nostalgia things, some of which work more than others. There are also a raft of new characters and as many new planets as they could squeeze in, but there’s no time for half of it. And with so many threads to tie up, some aren’t really done justice – character development in particular goes out of the window, sometimes clashing with the previous movie(s).

I think my main complaint is that it all feels rather disjointed. Both in-movie, and in-series; I don’t think they’ve picked the right elements to focus on, or brought back things to make for the most satisfying story. And yet, the main stories, for the main characters, those are mostly dealt with. Perhaps it was just always going to be too much, tying together this universe. I highly doubt it’s the last we see of it, right enough.

Released: 19th December 2019
Viewed: 29th December 2019
Running time: 142 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10 – not awful, not amazing, bonus mark for looking amazing

Clone Wars (season 1)

clone wars s1 poster

George Lucas’s prequel trilogy to Star Wars received mixed reviews. Dealing more with politics than space battles, there’s a lot of ‘history’ and story to pack into three movies. With so much left off-screen, there’s ample room for a series or seven to fill in – enter Clone Wars, the animated series set between episodes 2 and 3.

Episode II aka Attack of the Clones shows the events leading up to the Clone Wars. The Galactic Republic, newly endowed with a somewhat mysterious clone army, is battling the droid army of the Separatists. At this point there’s no confusion between good and bad, with the Jedi and the Senate up against Sith Lords such as Count Dooku, and any number of unpleasant dark allies.

There’s a lot to like about this series, especially for those who found the prequel trilogy a bit dull. It’s high on Saturday morning cartoon adventures, complete with a cheesy announcer at the start of each episode, given us a recap of where the overarching story is up to. Not that it matters too much, with each episode being a fairly self-contained mini-mission.

It all very definitely adds to the film series, giving us more time with characters that are perhaps not given quite enough development otherwise. In particular, we get to see Anakin Skywalker as a Jedi hero, glimpses of what we know is ahead but still very much a good guy, albeit impetuous. His relationship with Padme is allowed more space, too, taking away a bit of the creepy factor from the swift presentation of meeting-as-a-child, unwelcome declaration of love, through to sudden marriage.

We also get to see a lot more of Obi-Wan Kenobi, again as a Jedi general in his prime, as well as many other familiar faces, including Mace Windu, Yoda, and Jar Jar Binks. And it’s hugely interesting to see the Clones as individuals, not just the faceless Stormtroopers we’ll become more familiar with.

Each episode is just the right length to tell a sliver of story, and the animation is pretty good, highly stylised but fitting the material. In tone it’s far more like the original trilogy (so, eps 4-6) than the more po-faced 1-3 or dark angst of 7-9 (I assume, haven’t seen the last one yet!), full of joy of just telling pew pew stories across a galaxy full of different species and mechs and all sorts of things more interesting than trade blockades or emo bad guys. Ymmv, but I’m all for the fun 🙂

First broadcast: 2008
Series: 7
Episodes: 22 @ ~23 mins each

My rating: 7.5/10

The Trials of Morrigan Crow – Jessica Townsend

Trials of Morrigan Crow cover

“The journalists arrived before the coffin did.”

Morrigan Crow has a miserable childhood. She’s a ‘cursed child’, doomed to die on her eleventh birthday and bringing dreadful luck to those around her until that day. Her family keep their distance, leaving her feeling more than a little unloved.

Events transpire, however, to save her – hardly a spoiler, that the main character doesn’t die at the start, even if we do begin with a funeral! – and she finds herself in the strange land of Nevermoor. She’s entered into the annual competition to join the Wundrous Society – except, the lucky few must pass four trials, the last of which is to display a ‘knack’, a gift better than anyone else’s. And Morrigan does not have a knack…

I know I’m older than the target audience for this book, and yet it perfectly hits the sweet spot of whimsical but not talking down to the audience, making it perfect for grown ups, too. In fact, I loved it. There are nods to all sorts of possible inspirations – from Narnia to Doctor Who – but it’s brought together very nicely. Nevermoor is somewhere I’d like to visit, and sign me up for a room that alters itself to match moods.

The story of Morrigan’s trials (not quite Hunger Games level, don’t worry!) is perhaps less original than it could be, but again it’s told well. The mystery of her missing ‘knack’ is maintained throughout, keeping you guessing. The rivalry with the nasty girl is a bit of a cliche, but y’know what? It’s overall sweet and uplifting and entertaining, and well worth the read by kids of any age!

NetGalley eARC: 513 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Nevermoor book 1
Read from 17th-26th August 2019

My rating: 9/10

The Scarlet Pimpernel – Emmuska Orczy

scarlet pimpernel cover

“A surging, seething, murmuring crowd, of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.”

During the French revolution, c1792, a band of English noblemen make daring raids across the channel to save French aristocrats from Madame la Guillotine. This group is led by the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, so known from the picture of the small, wayside flower symbol his communications are signed with.

When Marguerite Blakeney, a French actress recently married to Sir Percy Blakeney, is approached by the Revolutionist, Chauvelin, her quiet life of parties and spending money is thrown upside down. For, Chauvelin has proof that her beloved brother, Armand, is in league with the Pimpernel. And so Marguerite is tasked with aiding in the unmasking of France’s great enemy, or her brother will meet Mme la Guillotine instead!

The author’s title, Baroness Orczy, is a good clue that her sympathies lie with the aristocrats and not (see the opening line) the plebian pursuit of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’.

My own interest comes from the 1982 movie, staring Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour, which I absolutely loved as a kid. It’s hard not to make comparisons: indeed, from what I can remember the stories are very similar. However, while the movie focuses on the action and daring of the Pimpernel more, the book is told largely from the point of view of Marguerite. Although dragged into the plots, she’s still more of a bystander, and the action levels suffer for that.

Instead, this book is a romance with a bit of adventure thrown in. That’s not awful, but I think I mostly enjoyed picturing the actors and remembering scenes from the movie, more than the actual read. And, I’m very glad that the absolutely awful anti-semitism towards the end was left out of the movie!

As a story, there’s a lot here to like – as well as a lot that requires eye-rolling suspension of disbelief – but I have to suggest that the original text maybe didn’t tell it quite at its best. SerialReader was an excellent way to make it more palatable, though, and I rather enjoyed my daily chapters. I could quite fancy digging out a copy of the film version now… !

SerialReader: 321 pages / 31 chapters
First published: 1905
Series: Scarlet Pimpernel book 1
Read from 10th July – 10th August 2019

My rating: 6/10