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Friday, 13 December 2019

Dick Whittington and his Cat (Hackney Empire) - Review

Image result for hackney empire panto 2019

When Is It On?

This production of Dick Whittington and his Cat is running at the Hackney Empire until January 5th

Who Made It?

This production was written and directed by Susie McKenna, who has been behind every Hackney Empire pantomime since 1998. She is assisted by several regular collaborators, including songwriter Steven Edis, musical director Mark Dickman and designer Lotte Collett.

What’s it About?

In the aftermath of World War 2, the Empire Windrush arrives in London full of immigrants seeking a new life in the city. One of these is Dick Whittington (played by Tarinn Callender). He reunited with his mother, Dame Sarah (played by Clive Rowe) and finds a job in a shop ran by Alderman Firzwarren (played by Tony Whittle) and his feisty daughter Alice (played by Christina Tedders). Our hero is aided by the Fairy Bowbells (played by Sue Kelvin), who supports in in various ways, including turning his pet cat into an energetic half-human, half-feline called Uncle Vincent (played by Kat B).Unfortunately for Dick, he also attracts the unwanted attention of the villainous Queen Rat (played by Annette McLaughlin), who cooks up several schemes to ensure Dick won’t foil her plans to take over London.


(Note: This review contains spoilers. The formulaic nature of pantomimes (or pantos for short)  is part of their appeal, but the reveal of key comedy and action scenes could be seen as spoilerific for those who want to see these fresh)

Since 1998, the Hackney Empire pantomime has become a major Christmas event in London’s East End. The prolific writer/director Susie McKenna has consistently produced pantomimes which combine the traditional wacky formula of songs and slapstick with creative updates and strong messages. Her latest production is a new take on the classic British panto Dick Whittington, which turns the real life story of a medieval London mayor into a fairytale about a young man who finds fame, fortune and love in the city. McKenna puts a unique spin on the familiar story, following most of the traditional beats whilst keeping things fresh, engaging and comedic. The 2019 production of Dick Whittington and his Cat represents another excellent pantomime from McKenna and her team.

No-one goes to a panto for the story, but there is just enough to provide focus and coherence here. The big selling point of this production is the Post-War setting, with Dick being one of the Carribean immigrants who arrived in Britain on the Windrush after the war. According to the programs, this twist was inspired by the story of Sam King, a Windrush immigrant who eventually became Lord Mayor Of Southwark. However, anyone who wants a detailed exploration should expect disappointment, as the history of the era is handled in a simplistic fashion. The broad basics of Post-War life are acknowledged, such as the rationing, the racial prejudice against black and Irish people, and the need to rebuild after the war, but otherwise there is little for historians. That said, this is not the production for these people. Covering the history in too much detail would case the production to become a play rather than a pantomime, and where's the fun in that? There are also some amusing allusions to the real Whittington and even a reference to the hospital in Highgate named after him. No-one goes to a pantomime to learn, but if any children are inspired to examine the history of Hackney, Dick Whittington and the Windrush immigrants, that will always be a good thing.

However, pantos are always about style over substance, with music, comedy and action allowing the Hackney pantomime team to turn a 20 minute story into a 2 hours plus extravaganza. As usual, the panto is crammed with familiar songs (old and new) which are somewhat connected to the story. Dame Sarah belts out "And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going" and "Good as Hell", Fairy Bowbells sings classic Motown songs, whilst Queen Rat has a villain song which mashes up elements of "7 Rings" and "Bad Guy", and also covers "Sweet but Psycho". Some of the musical choices are genuinely inspired. An early song is based on "London Is The Place To Be", the calypso anthem featured in the Paddington films (another brightly coloured celebration of immigrants in Britain). Meanwhile, the use of "Rewrite the Stars" as Dick and Alice's love song highlights the parallels between their experience and Phillip and Anne's star-crossed romance in that film. These numbers provide a bit more depth and substance than you would expect in the pantomime genre, whilst keeping the basic sense of fun created by talented actors singing familiar songs.

The best thing about this production is the cast. All the lead stars have extensive stage experience, and it shows throughout. As Dick, Tarinn Callender is a likeable hero, and his recurring cover of "The Impossible Dream" brings heart to the human element of the story. The Irish-accented plays a feisty take on Alice Fitzwarren, a more active character who wants to see the world. Her voice is the weakest of the cast, but her cover of  "Higher Love" late in the first act proves strong. Annette McLaughlin chews the scenery as Queen Rat whilst Sue Kelvin is a pleasingly flamboyant Fairy Bowbells. Both have no trouble speaking their lines in Verse and are really enjoying themselves on stage. Meanwhile, Hackney panto regular Kat B is excellent as Uncle Vincent the Cat, even if the character is a lot less active in the story than cats should be in Dick Whittington retellings, he is a consistently lively and performer. His highlight is an impressive cover of the Disney classic "Everybody Wants to Be A Cat", where he replicates the jazzy growl of original singer Scatman Crothers whilst also providing something unique However, the one actor who truly makes the production worth seeing is resident Dame Clive Rowe, appearing in his 13th Hackney panto. It’s not hard to see why Rowe is one of Britain’s most iconic dames. Outside panto, Rowe often plays imposing characters (he played the sinister Papa Ge in the West End version of Once On This Island and McKenna's 2009 revival), so it’s a real treat to see him go “all buns glazing” into the role of uninhibited baker Dame Sarah, providing sweets to the audience and having a chat with a random theategoer in the stalls. The real test of a Panto is whether it can keep the audience engaged throughout, and the cast all succeed in keeping our attention.

The sets and visuals are strong throughout the production. The first act takes place in London and replicates the drab, bombed out colours of the era whilst keeping the set warm and inviting. For the second half of the show, things take a more fantastical turn as our five leads go under the sea and help a mermaid find an extremely valuable shell. This cause the Post-War theme to be dropped almost entirely (which is a shame), but has positive side effects. Mermaid Maia (played by Jemma Geanaus) is a lively and spirited princess, and a creative update of the Sultan who usually seeks Dick's help in the second half of Dick Whittington pantomimes. She combines a desire to look after her domain with an unlikely romance with Uncle Vincent. The underwater and tropical island imagery used in these scenes is lovely and surprisingly atmospheric.

The show also features some impressive special effects. The quick change used to turn an ordinary but large cat into Uncle Vincent is pretty impressive, and the shipwreck which ends act one adds enough danger to keep us invested in the story (there is never any genuine danger in pantomimes, but there should be just enough to leave audiences wondering how the show will get to its happy ending). The wire work used for Maia the Mermaid and Fairy Bowbells is effectively fluid, and there is a memorable action scene where a cute baby gorilla is turned into a giant monster for Dick and his friends to fight. However, the most memorable is a simple but impressive effect which opens wash act, as the screen turns translucent to reveal the characters behind it. It’s pretty simple, but communicates the fairytale tone with wonderful efficiency - it really creates the sense that this is a fantasy world. The costumes are pretty grand as well, with Dick and Alice getting pleasingly authentic 1940s fashions, whilst Vincent the Cat  has a fishy tie to accompany his cat tail and ears. To the surprise of no one, Dame Sarah has all the grandest costumes, shifting from giant yellow and green dresses to purple outfits, Carmen Miranda-inspired tropical headdresses and a grand wedding dress inspired by the pearly kings and queens of the East End. The fairy tale designs in panto are merely a coat hanger for all the music and comedy, but the are pretty effective in this regard, supporting the tone whilst providing the magic and wonder that could also work in a more serious production.

Despite the old fashioned setting, the humour is often very modern, with intentionally anachronistic jokes about Just Eat adverts, Primark and Fleabag. There is also a healthy streak of political humour, fitting given the fact the show premiered in the midst of the British general election campaign. Queen Rat has a henchman called Boris (played by Tom Lloyd), and this leads to several digs at notoriously self-serving Conservative British prime minister Boris Johnson (As Queen Rat tells him “If you lie often enough, some people will believe anything you say”). Johnson’s recent resounding win in this election will probably lead to this satire gaining a more vicious edge, but it still stays within the gentle and upbeat tone of the show. However, whilst the political jokes are amusing in their way, the most powerful messages come at the end, as the cast instructs the audience to “listen to the children” and improve the world by “speaking out wherever you go”. With its celebration of immigrants, and messages about challenging discrimination and looking after the natural world, Dick Whittington and his Cat communicates a strongly progressive set of politics, but it is never preachy, with things staying broad enough to please audiences regardless of political persuasion.

Aside from the story and messages, there is plenty of silly jokes and broad farce which can appeal to all ages. Sarah and Uncle Vincent throw cream pies at Alderman Fitzwarren, Alice tries disguising herself as a man in order to go sailing, and the characters always remain a few steps behind the audience. There are several lines which adults have heard a few times before, but are still funny (“I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens") We also her a few saucy innuendos around Dick’s name, but these are tame compared to the filth Julian Clary provides in the London Palladium pantos, and kids won't have a problem with them. As you may expect, plenty of jokes will cause more serious viewers to groan with embarrassment, but the sheer energy and enthusiasm makes this a pretty amusing production. 

In the grand panto tradition, the entertainment goes on for a bit beyond the inevitable happy ending. We are treated to an interactive cat song called "Cool Cat Chat", a sequence where Dame Sarah reads our birthday notices and thanks the band for their hard work, and a grand wedding for all three of the romantic couples. If things drag a bit at this point, the energetic concluding cover of Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" makes it all worthwhile. It is pointless to judge Panto by the standards of more traditional storytelling, but Dick Whittington and his Cat succeeds as pure entertainment. The lack of story can cause things to drag at times, but there are always impressive songs, amusing jokes and impressive effects just around the corner. It is certainly the escapist entertainment which the British public require right now. 


The Hackney Empire production of Dick Whittington and his Cat provides all the family friendly fun you would expect from a panto, with a charming and charismatic cast providing plenty of amusing comedy and catchy songs.  Even if the production could have done more with its Post-War setting, it still has interesting themes and ideas, and a magical atmosphere which make it satisfying for those who prefer more conventional forms of theatre. Dick Whittington and his Cat is definitely worth seeing, whether you are a keen pantomime geek or totally unfamiliar with the genre. 

Monday, 2 December 2019

Frozen II - Review

Frozen 2 poster.jpg

Who Made Frozen II?

Frozen II was directed and written by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, who directed the original Frozen. Alison Schroeder assisted in writing the script, along with a large story team. 

What's It About?

Three years after the events of the original film, Queen Elsa (Voiced by idina Menzel) is fully accepted as Queen of Arendelle, with her sister Anna (Voiced by Kristen Bell) by her side. However, she is bothered by a mysterious voice, and when she goes to follow it, she ends up accidentally unleashing a set of magical spirits which wreck havoc in Arendelle. In order to fix it, Anna, Elsa and their sidekicks - Anna's boyfriend Kristoff (Voiced by Johnathan Groff), childlike talking Snowman Olaf (Voiced by Josh Gad) and Kristoff's reindeer Sven - head to a magical forest which has been closed off from the rest of the world for decades. When they enter, they find a mysterious tribe (the Northuldra) a group of Arendelle soldiers trapped for decades, several mysterious creatures, and some disturbing secrets about their own family....


(Note: this review contains spoilers. Most key secrets go unrevealed, but a lot of elements are discussed and hinted at, so tread carefully if you want to avoid surprises....)

The unprecedented success of Disney's 2013 animated smash Frozen set an impossibly high bar for Frozen II. Whilst the original film was full of flaws, its memorable characters, timeless but relevant story, big themes and brilliant songs ensured that it captured the imaginations of millions of viewers all over the globe. Was Frozen II able to replicate the magic of the film whose success was a happy accident? Well, Yes and No. The story is a bit of a mess, but the characters, visuals and songs remain strong and the big important themes ensure that it enjoys a substantial fraction of the original's resonance.

The primary problem of Frozen II is that it tries to do too much and lacks the originals simplicity. When you strip away all the treacherous princes and kooky trolls, the first Frozen had a simple story not far removed from other revisionist fairytale films such as Shrek and The Princess Bride. Anna goes on an epic journey, she goes back, there are obstacles both ways, she gets a happy ending. However, Frozen II tries to tell a far larger and more complex story in approximately the same runtime, and this turns out to be a major fault. Pretty much EVERY character from the original appears at some point, and there is a large cast of new additions when Anna and Elsa reach the enchanted forest. These characters, including Northuldra Chief Yelena (Voiced by Martha Plimton), teenage tribespeople Ryder (Voiced by Jason Ritter) and Honeymaren (Voiced by Rachel Matthews) and former Arendelle soldier Lt.. Mattias (Voiced by Sterling K. Brown) are likeable and have enough unique features to be memorable, but are absent for long stretches. Elsa and Honeymaren have a couple of lovely interactions, but a few more scenes if them together would have strengthened their bond and satisfied the fans clamouring for Elsa to get a girlfriend (a full-blown same-sex romance would have been too much for this film, but the fan demands could have been acknowledged more). Mathias and Yelena share some good chemistry as they go from enemies to allies and advance the anti-prejudice message, but a lack of screentime prevents their arc from getting the development it deserves. There are numerous similarities to Moana (Our leads have to go on a journey to right a wrong done to nature in order to save their kingdom, and are helped and hindered by various nature spirits along the way) but whilst that film could be pretty messy too, it had a much clearer structure which essentially consisted of two humans and a very dumb chicken on a raft. Frozen II has double the number of protagonists and double the number of nature spirits. This means that it rushes through its story quite a bit, which is a mistake in an age where we expect greater character development and less of the plot holes and unanswered questions which frequently appear in traditional fairy tales. Ultimately, it is hard to deny that trimming the character count would have made the story tighter and more efficient.

However, the focus should not be on the supporting characters, but the "Frozen Family". Fortunately, our leads are generally depicted  effectively. Elsa gets a larger role, and her signature anxiety is mixed with greater level of confidence in her powers. The woman who spent the first film running away from her problems is now running towards them, and this is great to watch. Anna is a more serious character this time, although still prone to the odd silly moment. She and Elsa get to interact far more often than they did in the first film, and their love for each other is front and centre of the film. Of the leads, Kristoff probably fares the worst. The film mostly focuses on his attempts to propose to Anna, and her misunderstanding his awkward attempts at getting to the point. Whilst he gets some amusing lines, this feels a bit one-note, and he vanishes during the third quarter of the film, like most of the supporting cast. However, Olaf cements his status as a star character, and is probably even funnier than he was in the original film. Although the streak of dark humour from the first Frozen has mostly gone (Olaf is no longer at risk of melting), his wacky eccentric person personality generates plenty of laughs. His thirst for knowledge and refusal to shut up are very relatable for parents, and his uniquely over the top summary of the first Frozen is far and away the comedic highlight of the film. Anna and Elsa's parents have an expanded role, with new voice actors. Evan Rachel Wood gets to showcase her singing ability as Queen Iduna, and we learn more about how she ended up Queen of Arendelle. Whilst the casting of Alfred Molina as King Agnarr raises a few eyebrows (was he hired for his considerable talent and experience or his very close friendship with director Jennifer Lee?), he brings warmth and gravitas to his short appearance. People who love the original Frozen for Anna and Elsa's sibling bind will find plenty to enjoy here, and the numerous revelations about their past provide the extra layers to fans to analyse with their usual zeal.

There are plenty of impressive action sequences, but several feel a little rushed. The devastation of Arendelle could have been truly powerful and disturbing with more screentime, and a scene where Elsa battles a magical fire should have been expanded on too. However, the action scenes get stronger as the film progresses . Elsa's full battle with the Nokk is even more impressive than it was in the spectacular trailers, and the climax is full of wonderful imagery as Elsa's powers are showcased in a variety of ways. There are also plenty of creative visuals, with the Autumn scenery of the forest providing a more diverse colour scheme than the original film, and some icy imagery late in which makes the iconic Ice Palace from the first film seem tiny in comparison. There is also some effective camera work, with the camera following autumn leaves and providing some creative shots as the characters undertake their journey. Overall, Frozen II lives up to the epic experience promised by the trailers and promotional material.

For all of Frozen II's flaws, it improves rapidly during the second half, where the gentle and relaxed tone of the early scenes is replaced by something deeper, darker and more impressive. In particular, we are treated to an incredible scene where Elsa discovers the secret of her powers and family history. She ends up in an icy world of memories where she meets a few old friends and enemies, before fans are treated to a moment where her father explains he is reading a book by "some Danish author" (guess who?). However, the scene turns from joyous to horrifying as Elsa learns about the crime which led to the disappearance of the enchanted forest. Frozen II doesn't really have a villain to drive the conflict, but the sins of the past provide a level of drama and urgency which make the second half more focused and engaging. 

The songs are good on their own terms - they may not be as "special" as "Let It Go" was, but they are catchy enough to stick in the memory and are good enough to be listened to again and again after seeing the film. However, one weakness is the fact that many of them don't advance the story in the way that Frozen's best songs did. "Lost In The Woods" is a fun pastiche of cheesy 80s rock ballads (the sort you would associate with Chicago or Meat Loaf) , but it is so focused on emulating their music videos that it doesn't really add to the story. Olaf's "When I'm Older" has the sound and feel of a song from a 60s Disney Film, and is charmingly whimsical. "Some Things Never Change" has a more modern pop sound, and like "For the First Time in Forever", effectively contrasts Anna's happiness with Elsa's more serious view on life.

Whilst these songs are fun, the soundtrack features a greater volume of serious songs, and these are the best ones in the lineup. The opening song is an atmospheric folk ballad called "All Is Found" which is effectively repeated across the film. Elsa's first big songs, "Into the Unknown" is closest in sound to the songs from the original, with its piano hook and soaring chorus, but her other big power ballad "Show Yourself" is even more impressive. Frozen II's soundtrack concludes with a big eleven o'clock song for Anna called "The Next Right Thing", which starts with heartbreaking depression and grief, but has a powerful and hopeful finish as Anna resolves to set things right by herself. Whilst the more commercially minded "Into the Unknown" is the flagship song, it is the last two songs which are the best of a lineup that is a worthy successor to the Frozen soundtrack. 

One of Frozen II's specific strengths is the more detailed discussion of its environmental themes. The nature spirits are more developed than they were in Moana, actively leading Anna and Elsa to the truth in a variety of ways. The magical creatures in the forest, including the imposing earth Giants, the mysterious water horse the Nokk and the cute but firey salamander Bruni, all contribute effectively to this journey, and Anna and Elsa's growing connection with nature is as important as the human relarionships showcased throughout the film. In an age where environmental issues are becoming increasingly important, Frozen II's depiction of the value of nature and the consequences of disrespecting it feels powerfully resonant. It's not hard to see contemporary relevance in Olaf reacting to freak weather phenomenons by saying "This is fine" and pointing out "advancing technology is our saviour and our doom". Elsewhere, the ecological threats which Arendelle faces strike close to the bone in an age of floods and hurricanes.  However, as dark as things get in the second half, we can expect our two sisters to put things right in spectacular fashion - It is a Disney film, after all. 

Ultimately, Frozen II often represents an example of "what could have been" - there are so many good ideas and interesting premises that a lot of the fun for fans and viewers comes from trying to make a more adult and focused film (or TV series) out of these pieces. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the same is also true of Disney favourites such as The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the original Frozen. However, Frozen II's messier story prevents it from reaching the heights of the best Disney films. If the quality of Frozen II's last half had been spread across the whole film, then it would be one of the all-time Disney greats. In its current form, Frozen II is in the "good but not great" category. It is superior to Ralph Breaks the Internet, their last overstuffed sequel, but demonstrates that Disney Animation need to return to a simpler and smaller approach if they want to reach the heights of their classic output. However, even second-tier Disney is worth watching, and Frozen II has enough merit to ensure that it will gain plenty of fans. 


Like the first Frozen, Frozen II brings new meaning to the term "refrigerator movie" - the story doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, but the visuals, songs and characters are strong enough to paper over the flaws and provide an enjoyable film with plenty for Frozen fans and casual viewers. Frozen II often bites off more than it can chew, but maintains the bold and modern spirit of the original film, and there are plenty of incredible moments which make the film worth sticking with. Frozen II is worthy family viewing, and will stand the test if time reasonably well. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Once On This Island at the Southwark Playhouse - Review

Who Made It?

Once On This Island was created in 1990 by the duo Lynn Ahrens (who wrote the book and lyrics) and Steven Flaherty (who composed the score). It is based on the novella 'My Love, My Love' by Rosa Guy, which was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s classic The Little Mermaid. This production has been produced and created by the British Theatre Academy, with Lee Proud directing it

Once On This Island is being performed at the Southwark Playhouse, a small theatre in South London. It officially opens tonight and runs until 31st August.

What’s It About?

Once On This Island tells the story of Ti Moune (played by Chrissie Bhima), an orphaned peasant girl living on an island in the French Antilles. The peasants there are often at the mercy of the unpredictable weather brought about by four gods – Asaka, the Mother of the Earth (played by Johnathan Chen), Agwe the God of Water (played by Kyle Birch), Ezrule the Goddess of Love (played by Aviva Tulley) , and Papa Ge, the God of Death (played by Martin Cush).  Meanwhile, the Island elite, the grand hommes, live a life of luxury in grand hotels and apartments. When Daniel Beauxhomme (played by Sam Tutty), son of the most powerful grand hommes, crashes his car during a thunderstorm unleashed by Agwe, Ti Moune rescues him and nurses him back to health. In order to ensure his survival, she offers her soul to the Papa Ge. When Daniel is returned to his home, Ti Moune soon sets off on a grand quest to find him again, aided by Asaka and Ezrulie. However, Daniel may not be able to return Ti Moune’s love, and she finds herself having to face the consequences of her deal with Papa Ge…


(Note: This Review Contains Spoilers) 

The Southwark Playhouse production of Once On This Island is the third production of this musical to be staged in London. The first took place in 1994 at the Royalty Theatre (later replaced by the Peacock Theatre) and won an Oliver Award for Best New Musical. The second was staged at the Hackney Empire in 2009. This revival is the smallest of the three, taking place in a 300 seat auditorium with a cast consisting of performers from the British Theatre Academy. However, it still manages to be a creative and colourful production, making a convincing case that Once On This Island should be revived more often in the UK.. 

Once On This Island returned to prominence in late 2017 as the result of an innovative Broadway revival which won a Tony Award. The version was notable for its “in the round staging”, and the Southwark Playhouse emulates this to brilliant effect.  When you walk into the auditorium, you cross the front of the stage and pass the actors as you get to your seats. There are washing lines surrounding the auditorium and tyres and boxes everywhere. As in Broadway, this immersive staging makes it feel like you have been taken to a world far removed from the grey tedium of the city outside the theatre.  The staging of that version is not the only thing copied here. Asaka (played by the legendary Sharon D Clarke in both previous London versions) is now played by a heavyset actor in drag, and the action is implied to specifically take place in Haiti (the map on the floor has Haiti illuminated). The recycled costumes form the basis for the masks used by the four gods.

However, the production (designed by Simon Wells) has some unique visual flourishes of its own. Daniel's car is depicted in impressively minimalistic fashion, and a small stepladder is used in several creative ways. The climactic effect, involving a very special tree, feels truly grand and impressive in the confined space. The production also features some incredible lighting (provided by Andrew Exeter), with intense changes in colour which really convey the mood of each scene and smoky light that really make you feel the heat and humidity of the setting. Audiences rarely give much though to the lighting, so it’s great to see so much effort put into this aspect of the production. Whilst this version is not as grand as the one on Broadway (there are no live chickens or goats here!) it is still pretty impressive on its own terms.

The director and choreographer is Lee Proud, who worked as an assistant choreographer on the long running West End adaptation of Billy Eliot and has directed other Southwark Playhouse productions . He does a solid job in this production. The ensemble give excellent performances, with the dancing being timed excellently and the effects being performed smoothly. During Ezrule's song 'The Human Heart', the ensemble all carry small jars of lights, enhancing the emotional power of the number. Given that the musical is approximately 85% music and 10% narration, the songs are the main attraction, and need to be really impressive. Fortunately, the performances have a real electric energy that makes the musical compelling to watch. In this context, the confined space is a real advantage, as it ensures that the power of the songs remains consistent throughout. The perfrmances could have fallen flat on a larger stage, but here, every member of the audience gets to fully appreciate the power of the instrumentals and the energy of the performaners.

As the performance is being given by youth actors from the British Theatre Academy, it is unfair to compare them to veterans like Lea Salonga, Clive Rowe and Sharon D. Clarke, who have appeared in previous productions of Once On This Island. However, there are times when their lack of experience is distracting. During big songs like "Waiting For Life" and "Mama Will Provide" they sometimes get drowned out by the loud backing band, although they generally recover and finish impressively. In addition, the gods and Ti Moune’s adoptive parents are best portrayed by older actors, as they provide the gravitas necessary for these characters to have full impact. However, the performers are all likeable and charismatic, and three of the were especially impressive. As Ezrule, Aviva Tulley initially seems to be overshadowed by the other gods, but her subtle performance conveys wisdom and compassion . As the sinister Papa Ge - the most antagonistic of the gods - Martin Cush has the wiry intensity required for the role, but has a couple of comic and even tender moments which he handles well. However, the best performance is from Chrissie Bhima as Ti Moune - she dominates the story. Though most of the musical is sung, Ti Moune gets the majority of dialogue, and proves excellent at conveying emotion during the darker and more dramatic moments. These three have the talent and ability to be headlining major musicals in the near future.

For all the great aspects of this production, it also reveals the main flaw with Once On This Island, which have prevented it reaching the status of better known musicals. The story and characterisation are relatively simplistic, probably due to the short 85 minute runtime and large amount of songs. The most significant addition to The Little Mermaid template is the "love defeats prejudice" message, but it feels a bit underdeveloped. The "Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes" , which explains why the grand hommes are fated to always reject the peasants, is played for comedy as much as tragedy, which is an unwise idea given the bleak and unpleasant reality of this subject matter (The Grand Hommes are descended from a slaveowner who cursed them after being booted off the Island during the a Revolution) Daniel’s shameful heritage puts a disturbing new angle in his reluctance to follow his heart, but this isn't explored. In fact, the only song to really exploit the prejudice angle is "Gossip", where the grand hommes voice their suspicions about Ti Moune. It is one of the strongest songs, and more of the numbers should have examined the hostility she faces. 

The focus on style over substance also means that the characters are a bit flat. Ti Moune is a very fiesty and single minded character, but it's hard to warm to a lead willing to risk her life for a guy who doesn't really know her. Daniel is a relatively two-dimensional male lead, and his song "Some Girls" is one of the weaker numbers, but he's well meaning enough to ensure that he remains somewhat likeable despite his bad decisions (the fact that Sam Tutty never buttons his shirt helps as well) The Gods have probably the most interesting arc, as Ti Moune's tenacity inspires them to show kindness and compassion, but they are absent for long stretches, especially during the middle.

However, fairy tales are not meant to be sophisticated explorations of human growth and complexity. Productions such as Once On This Island should primarily be judged on their ability to provide emotion, and this version resoundingly succeeds in that regard. The production generally remains upbeat and positive, but the sadder and more serious aspects are handled carefully and honestly. In the best The Little Mermaid tradition, the ending is both heartbreaking and heartwarming, and the concluding song, "Why We Tell The Story" is truly joyous. As great as the other songs are, "Why We Tell the Story" is the real stand out, with its catchy call-and-response hook and its inspirational but also thought provoking lyrics. Like the best fairy tales, its story is simple but its messages are deep. For all the catchy music and colourful visuals, Once On This Island powerfully demonstrates that one tenacious girl can overturn an entire unfair system.


The Southwark Playhouse production of Once On This Island is an excellent treat for those willing to look past the West End and watch something smaller and more creative, The production highlights some of the limitations of the source material, but it also showcases its strengths. The soundtrack is excellent, the staging is unique and creative the main messages are valuable and relevant, even if they could have been emphasised more. This production is a wonderful burst of escapism and  we will hopefully get to see more productions of Once On This Island in London in the future.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Disney Now Owns These Films

Last Week, Disney completed its high-profile deal with 21st Century Fox after 15 months of intense meetings and negotiations. For the eye-watering sum of $71.3 billion, it has acquired the 20th Century Fox film studio and its offshoots (including Fox Searchlight and Fox 2000), the FX and National Geographic Channels, and a controlling stake in the streaming service Hulu. Most importantly, it now owns all of the movies and TV shows produced by the studio over the years. These will be added to Disney’s forthcoming streaming service Disney+, demonstrating their focus on providing a rival to Netflix and allowing the company to be stronger and more successful than ever in an era of immense change for the movie industry.

There are numerous reasons to be suspicious about Disney’s big spending. In an age where we are becoming increasingly wary of the excessive power enjoyed by big corporations, seeing one of the most powerful film conglomerates in the world gain acquire even more properties can leave a rather sour taste in the mouth. In the last two decades, Disney’s acquisition of Luscasfilm and Marvel Films allowed them control over two of the most successful movie franchises in the world, and the studio has assets worth almost $100 billion. The purchase of Fox adds an extra $30 billion, and ensures that Disney’s share of the US cinematic market rises from 26% to around 36- 38% . In addition, Disney’s reputation for being safe and bland has generated fears that they will meddle in any film produced by Fox or Fox Searchlight, and rumours that Disney heads Alan Horn and Bob Iger will have plenty of creative control are understandably worrying in this context.

However, the move makes plenty of sense for Disney. For instance, it allows them to enter the adult film market. Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures, which used to be Disney’s divisions for distributing more adult films, both fell into dormancy during the 2000s and Disney can use 20th Century Fox to replace them and produce blockbusters aimed at an older audience. In addition, its ownership of Fox Searchlight allows Disney to compete in the Oscar race. The studio have done this before (They owned Miramax for 17 years) but their control of Fox Searchlight represents a way of gaining the critical legitimacy and respect they have often lacked. Disney’s reliance on a handful of expensive big name blockbusters has been incredibly limiting from a creative perspective, and the numerous mid-budget and low-budget films from the Fox production arms can allow Disney to diversify their output. Media coverage has focused on the fact that Disney now have ownership of the Marvel heroes not owned by Marvel Studios (X Men, Fantastic Four and Deadpool), The Simpsons and Avatar. However, it also owns a wide range of movies which were produced and distributed by various parts of the 20th Century Fox Company over the years. As a result, these movies are now technically part of the Disney library. In around 84 years of existence, Fox has been responsible for releasing over 4,000 films. Listed below are 15 Fox films which are now owned by Disney and eligible for a place on Disney+ or Hulu. Some of them fit the studio perfectly, whilst others are ludicrously inappropriate for the House of Mouse…

Fairy Tales

Disney’s reliance on fairy tale films, and their popularity and influence means that they have defined the form during the last century. The acquisition of Fox strengthens Disney’s claim to dominate the American fairy tale genre, as they now own three of the most unique and creative fairy tale films to be released by Hollywood…

After the acclaimed Pans Labyrinth and the cult favourite Crimson Peak, Guillermo Del Toro cemented his status as “king of the adult fairy tale” with the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. Set at an unspecified time in the 1960s, it tells the story of a mute cleaner who works night shifts in a mysterious scientific facility. When she comes across a mysterious fish-like creature being imprisoned there, she begins to form a connection with it, and soon breaks it out of the facility and hides it in her apartment. Del Toro’s film possesses a wonderfully beguiling atmosphere, with the dark blues and greens of the cinematography highlighting the watery feel of the story and adding to the intrigue. Although the protagonist Elisa and her water-dwelling new friend are unable to speak, they are a compelling central couple, and the fairy tale feel of the story gives their relationship additional power. In addition, The Shape of Water makes some effective observations about the prejudice in America at this time. Elisa’s friends include an African-American woman, a closeted gay neighbour and a Russian double agent, whose outcast status plays a key role in their decision to protect the creature. In contrast, the fanatical villain Strickland is the epitome of the American Alpha male. Making progressive political points whilst providing a uniquely escapist work, Del Toro effectively highlighted the power of fairy tales to provide both a release from the world and a greater understanding of it – The Shape of Water definitely deserved its Best Picture win.

In many ways, The Shape of Water is a typical Beauty and the Beast story, but its adult elements are present immediately - Most fairy tale films don’t begin with the protagonist pleasuring themselves in the bath. There are also some pretty disturbing moments of violence, and that’s without mentioning the infamous underwater sex scene. Despite this, The Shape of Water is certainly not an example of cheap sensation, as the more controversial elements advancing the story and developing the characters. When Disney created a special banner to advertise their new acquisitions, they used the poster of this movie to represent the Fox Searchlight production arm. This confirmed its status as one of the most iconic fairy tale films of recent years, but also demonstrates how far removed it is from the traditional Disney formula.

Before directing Disney’s billion-dollar live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland (and their new version of Dumbo) Tim Burton established himself as one of the quirkiest and most interesting directors in Hollywood, with the 1990 film Edward Scissorhands cementing his status as a major name. The premise is a variation on Pinocchio and Frankenstein, as a mad scientist creates a an extremely lifelike robot from scrap metal, but dies before he can provide it with a proper pair of hands, leaving it with giant scissor blades instead. Edward is discovered by a saleswoman and taken to her home in the suburbs, where his ability to cut hair and create impressive ice sculptures wins the attention of the snobby locals. However, as the dire side effects of having blades for hands become clear, Edward becomes increasingly isolated by the community.

Burton’s followup to his blockbuster adaptation of Batman, Edward Scissorhands is one of the purest expressions of his iconic style. The clash between the gothic and mundane is on show throughout, whilst Burton’s idol Vincent Price has a short but memorable role as Edward’s creator. However, the film has a tragic dimension which most of Burton’s work lacks, as Edward’s deadly hands prevent him expressing his love for (played by Winona Ryder) and lead to him being cast out of his new world. These two paragraphs alone contain more words than Edward speaks in the entire movie, but Johnny Depp does an excellent job of using his unique body language to bring the character to life. Another highlight is Danny Elfman’s enthralling score, which perfectly captures the feel of a fairytale where most of the action takes place around Christmas time. Edward Scissorhands has earned its reputation as one of Burton’s finest films, and it is a worthy addition to the Disney library.

With iconic catchphrases such “Inconceivable!” “As You Wish.”  And “My Name is Inigo Montoya. You Killed My Father. Prepare to Die.” The Princess Bride has become one of the most quoted fairy tale films of all time. It’s not hard to see why this movie is now a genre classic. Written by the legendary screenwriter William Goldman and based off his own novel, The Princess Bride tells the story of the relationship between Princess Buttercup and her farmhand Westley. When Westley vanishes, Buttercup is forced into an arranged marriage with the slimy Prince Humperdinck, but Westley soon returns to win her back. The story is framed as a fairy tale being told by a grandfather to his poorly grandson, and the grandson’s growing interest in what he initially dismisses as a “kissing book” reflects the growing engagement of the wider audience.

Except for the first two Shrek movies, few non-Disney fairytales have enjoyed such an impact on popular culture. Whilst Westley and Buttercup are likeable leads, the best characters are in the supporting cast. Inigo Montoya and Fezzik are initially hired by Humperdinck to kidnap Buttercup, but soon befriend Westley and join his mission, proving to be invaluable allies. In addition, Wallace Shawn, Mel Smith, Peter Cook, Peter Falk and Billy Crystal make memorable cameos – who can forget the pompous and hot-tempered Vizzini, or the ancient and talkative Miracle Max and his wife?. Disney have been trying to develop a stage adaptation of The Princess Bride for several years, but the fact that they now own the original is definitive proof of how far it has crossed into the mainstream.


Whereas Disney are kings of the animated musical, Fox are the studio most associated with their live-action counterparts. Oklahoma, The King & I, Moulin Rouge, and The Sound of Music are just some of the iconic musicals produced and distributed by the studio, but the three below represent particularly interesting additions to the Disney library…

Disney have acquired ownership of all of Fox’s animated properties, including The Simpsons and the Ice Age franchise. They have also gained this 1997 hit, which once represented a formidable challenger to the Magic Kingdom. This film was based on the premise that Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, survived the Russian Revolution to end up in Paris with no memory of her past. In real life, she died a horrible death along with the rest of her family, but no-one expects historical accuracy from a film where Rasputin is portrayed as a demon sorcerer responsible for the demise of the monarchy. Anastasia teams up with two conmen to find the last remaining members of her family, but Rasputin is following in a bid to finish off the Romanov dynasty once and for all…

Released as the Disney Renaissance was slowing down, Anastasia had the feisty princesses, nasty villain, colourful sidekicks and memorable music associated with Disney’s recent hits but provided its own unique spin. Animation icon Don Bluth, who had been Disney’s primary challenger in the 1980s (he directed the brilliant An American Tail and The Secret of NIMH) directed and produced this film, providing a more detailed and epic variation on his signature style. A modest hit in its initial release, it appeared to signal Bluth’s return to form after several years of mediocre and childish movies, but the failure of his followup Titan AE and the wider demise of hand-drawn animation led to Bluth fading back into obscurity. The movie has been immensely popular with millennials and was eventually adapted into a stage musical, which eliminated the supernatural elements from the story. It is just about to conclude a 2 year run on Broadway, and has demonstrated that Anastasia has enjoyed the same enduring impact as Disney’s animated hits. Its new status as part of the Disney library allows fans to put Anastasia along with the other Disney princesses, but her movie still remains a unique alternative to the antics of Ariel, Belle and Pocahontas…

There are few musicals like 1974’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A cinematic adaptation of Richard O’ Brien’s underground stage musical The Rocky Horror Show, it follows the classic B movie storyline of a couple getting lost and ending up in a sinister castle, but with numerous changes to the formula for the era of sexual revolution and liberation. Here, the stereotypically wholesome Brad and Janet end up in a mysterious mansion populated by numerous odd characters, most notably the cross dressing mad scientist Dr Frank N Furter and his blond beefcake creation, the titular Rocky Horror. These eccentric inhabitants leave Brad and Janet questioning the sexual certainties of their suburban world, and in the words of the narrator, they will have “a night to remember for a very long time”.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show introduced the world to the reliably entertaining Tim Curry, who is deliciously camp as Dr Furter, and featured early roles for Susan Sarandon and Meat Loaf. The atmosphere is wonderfully over the top and ridiculous but still faithful to the dark spirit of classic horror, whilst the songs blend lurid and witty lyrics with catchy instrumentals. Unsurprisingly, this genre and gender defying film was not a hit at first, but when New York cinemas began to show it as a “midnight movie”, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became one of the definitive cult classics, amassing a devoted fandom which endures today. Screenings of the movie often utilise audience participation, including ringing bells and throwing toilet paper in the air – it is certainly a long way from the traditional sing-along showings. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has inspired numerous outlandish and subversive musicals in the decades since, but the likes of “Sweet Transvestite” remain as fresh and entertaining today as they were when this film was first released.

The Greatest Showman is one of the most unlikely hit films of the last decade. A passion project for X Men icon Hugh Jackman, it is based on the life of the infamous circus empresario P.T. Barnum, a tireless self-publicist whose ability at creating and promoting sensationalistic entertainment made him a major figure in 19th century America. The film depicts Barnum as a family man who establishes an unusual circus show for “human oddities” that catapults him to fame. Historical accuracy is discarded in favour of the Barnum myth, with an all-star cast (including Michelle Williams and Zac Efron) and plenty of flashy cinematography providing the sense that it is more focused on applying Barnum’s showmanship to his life story rather than providing an actual examination of his work and impact.  Initial reviews of The Greatest Showman were rather hostile, with many criticizing it for its attempts to whitewash the story of Barnum and the inherently exploitative nature of the “freak shows” which he pioneered. However, just as Barnum and his stars overcome the snobby critics to win over the general public, the movie did the same in real life. Over Christmas 2017, it became an unexpected sleeper smash. It made $175 million in America (despite the fact it made less than $9 million in its opening weekend) and earned over $400 million worldwide.

There is one major reason for the success of The Greatest Showman - the incredible soundtrack. Blending intense rock and even hip-hop inspired tunes, sombre power ballads and upbeat inspirational anthems, it sounded nothing like the music of Barnum’s day, and was all the better for it. The Greatest Showman soundtrack proved to be that winning blend of modern and timeless, eventually becoming one of the biggest selling compilations ever created. The likes of “This is Me” and “A Million Dreams” have captured the imagination of girls all over the world in the same way as “Let It Go” and “Do You Want To Build A Snowman” did five years ago, and it is likely that they will remain staples of the musical genre for decades to come.  

Strong Women

Disney have spent the last three decades creating a formidable line up of strong and relatable female leads. The addition of the Fox library adds numerous female-centred films to this lineup. These three films contain memorable and compelling female leads who represent excellent sources of inspiration for Disney’s future heroines.

Disney’s recent hits Tangled, Frozen and Moana all follow a similar pattern. They concern a feisty yet naïve young woman who leaves her sheltered world behind to go on an incredible adventure with a grizzled male hero. The heroine becomes stronger, the male becomes kinder and there are plenty of meta jokes and references to familiar adventure tropes. It is not hard to see why this formula works so well, and it has played a huge role in Disney’s recent success. However, before Disney entered their revival, this basic approach was successfully used by the 1984 adventure comedy Romancing the Stone. The film tells the story of Joan Wilder (played by Kathleen Turner), who writes trashy romantic melodramas in her New York apartment. When her sister is kidnapped in Colombia by crooks (one of whom is played by Danny DeVito) seeking a precious diamond, Joan sets off to find her, but gets lost in the South American jungle. In order to rescue her sister and avoid an even more vicious villain also after the gem, Wilder must team up with mercenary Jack T. Colton (played by Michael Douglas). Needless to say, life soon begins to imitate art, and Wilder soon finds herself in the adventure that can only end with her defeating the villains and finding true love…

Although Joan and Jack’s adventures are a bit more violent and raunchy compared to those of Anna and Kristoff or Rapunzel and Flynn Rider, it is pretty clear that Romancing the Stone shares plenty of DNA with Disney’s hits from the last decade. It was somewhat ahead of its time in being a jungle adventure film clearly centred on its female protagonist, with Turner ditching her femme fatale image to play the ordinary but unexpectedly brave heroine. She was aided by a lively script written by waitress Diane Thomas, who famously pitched it to Douglas at a café. The movie had a turbulent journey to the screen, with numerous stars turning down the role of Jack T. Colton and several reshoots and rewrites taking place. However, it was all worth it in the end -The film was a hit, Turner won a Golden Globe for her performance as Wilder, and director Robert Zemeckis gained the credibility needed to make his pet project Back to the Future. The sequel Jewel of the Nile quickly followed but proved to be a critical and commercial disappointment (it didn’t help that the film turned Joan into a more generic love interest), although it did feature the wonderfully entertaining Billy Ocean hit “When the Going Gets Tough” on its soundtrack. There have been numerous attempts to revive Wilder and Colton for sequels and TV series, but these have all fallen through. Hopefully, Disney will be able to bring the two back into the spotlight.

The last queen of Egypt, Cleopatra is one of history’s most famous and tragic female rulers. This powerful and ambiguous leader is an odd inclusion to the line-up of Disney princesses, but she now qualifies for this group due to Disney’s acquisition of this 1963 epic. Iconic diva Elizabeth Taylor played the ill-fated Egyptian monarch, with Richard Burton as her love interest Mark Anthony (Burton and Taylor’s infamous on-off relationship begun during the making of this film) Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar and Roddy McDowall as Anthony’s enemy Octavian. “Swords and sandals” epics such as Cleopatra were to the 1950s and 1960s what superhero movies and live—action remakes are to the modern cinematic landscape, and this movie is a defining example of this grandiose old genre.  

The making of Cleopatra is even more fascinating and incredible than the film itself. Originally intended to be two three hour movies, Cleopatra was edited into a single epic over four hours long. Shooting was delayed numerous times, and a range of illnesses and scandals forced the filming to be moved from Britain to Italy. Over 79 sets and 26,000 costumes were used, and the sheer scale of the production led to shortages of building materials across Italy. Cleopatra was one of the highest-grossing movies of the 1960s, yet was still considered a colossal flop due to its exorbitant budget – The $44 million spent on making it is worth around $250 million in today’s money. Cleopatra is a useful addition to the Disney library - Its fate at the box office provides the newly inflated studio with a stark warning of what happens if they allow hubris to take over and let their blockbusters to get too big.

Among Disney’s acquisitions is Fox 2000, which specializes in mid-budget productions often aimed at a teenage audience. One of most recent and interesting movies from the studio is The Hate U Give, based on Angie Green’s hit YA novel. The book follows Starr, an African-American girl from a deprived Californian neighbourhood who goes to an affluent and predominantly white school. When she witnesses a childhood friend getting shot by a cop, Starr’s life is thrown into chaos, as she tries to work up the courage to speak at the trial whilst coming to terms with the everyday racism around her.

Played by Amandla Stenberg, Starr is a compelling and relatable protagonist, and it is easy to invest in her struggle to balance her black identity with the need to conform to a “white” standard of behaviour at her high school. The hot topics of police brutality, rioting, crime and racial prejudice are handled excellently. The anger at the injustices and dangers which affect young African Americans is clear throughout the story, but the film also includes flashes of hope and humour which make the subject matter palatable. Although its box office earning were unexceptional and it got no awards recognition, The Hate U Give is one of the most interesting films in the YA genre, and is a must-watch for those who want to see films of this kind directly tackle contemporary social issues. Sadly, Fox 2000 is going to be closed down by Disney, but only after completing the films which it has in the pipeline, including an adaptation of Thomas’ follow-up novel On The Come Up and the recent YA phenomenon Children of Blood and Bone. It would be great to see these get released, and hopefully Disney will allow Fox 2000 to do them justice before they retire the studio.

Adults Only

There are numerous films in the Fox Library that Disney would never contemplate producing or distributing. However through the magic of corporate deals, these are now technically Disney films. Whether ultra-gory revenge stories, satanic horrors or tasteless comedies, these are as distant from the world of Micky Mouse and Queen Elsa as it is possible for any film to be…


Theatre director Julia Taymor became a household name with her innovative stage adaptation of Disney’s classic The Lion King. Over two decades after it premiered, it is still one of the highest-earning productions on Broadway, comfortably out-grossing Disney’s other stage musicals every single week. The success of The Lion King gave Taymor the freedom to do anything she wanted, and she really took advantage of it.  Her first project after The Lion King? A film where the signature scene features a character unknowingly eating a pie containing the remains of her two sons…

Titus is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus, an immensely violent tale of revenge set in ancient Rome. Though incredibly popular in the 1590s, it has been overshadowed by Shakespeare’s later, more nuanced tragedies such as Hamlet and Macbeth. Anthony Hopkins is the intense and sinister Roman general driven to madness by the death of his children, whilst Jessica Lange plays his nemesis Tamora. However, the highlight of the film is Taymor’s production design, which is full of detailed and impressive symbolism. Harsh colours were used to convey the brutality of the story, and the look of the production combined ancient Rome and modern Italy, with characters driving both cars and chariots, and wearing both business suits and suits of armour. This epitomized both the universal dominance of war throughout the ages and the specific ideas and values which the characters are associated with. Titus will remain an acquired taste compared to other Shakespeare films, but it is an impressively nasty showcase for Taymor’s creative vision, and a strong contrast with her more family-friendly work.

Disney owe a lot of their success and popularity to their focus on children, who are often ignored as most film studios chase the fabled 18-35 demographic.  However, the 1976 horror hit The Omen takes the opposite approach, featuring one of the most infamous evil children in cinema history. It follows Robert Thorn, an ambassador who secretly adopts a baby after his son dies in the womb. But a series of suspicious incidents start to happen and Robert begins to realize there is something odd about the new child. The 666 etched on Damien’s scalp and the inability to find his birth mother lead to a startling conclusion – Damien is the son of Satan himself, and Robert will have to kill him in order to prevent him from becoming the Antichrist.

The Omen combines a heavy religious atmosphere (including the eerie Oscar-nominated score) with numerous grisly “accidents” that affect any priest or family member who begins to get suspicious of Damien. The blend of sophisticated and gory meant that the film was more downmarket than predecessors such as The Exorcist, but far superior to the numerous cheap horrors which followed in its wake. The cast is especially impressive for a movie of this genre, with the legendary Gregory Peck playing Robert Thorn and the likes of David Warner, Billie Whitelaw and Patrick Troughton also having key roles in the narrative.  There was plenty of interest in satanic goings-on during the 1970s, and production of The Omen was noted for several misfortunes which allegedly affected the cast and crew of the movie, adding further creepiness to its story-line. The Omen provide to be a box office hit and generated a minor franchise, with three sequels and a remake (released on 6th June 2006). Despite its status as one of the most notable horror movies of the 1970s, don’t expect Disney to bring Damien back in the near future…

Borat (AKA Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan)

Fox have produced numerous lowbrow comedy hits, including Dodgeball and There’s Something About Mary, but none are as shocking and transgressive as Borat, a politically incorrect comedy centred on the character created by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen for Da Ali G Show. Borat Sagdiev is a misogynist, anti-Semitic and Anti-Ziganist (yet oddly lovable) reporter from Kazakhstan, who heads on a road trip across America with his sidekick Azmat. In the USA, Borat encounters car salesmen, college kids, humour experts and politicians, before his journey culminates in an attempt to kidnap Pamela Anderson and make her his bride.

Needless to say, Borat (which possesses the unwieldly and poorly translated full title Borat: Cultral Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) is not for the easily offended. Highlights include Borat’s overjoyed reaction after hearing about the death of his wife, a sequence where a stay at a bed and breakfast is ruined when Borat realises that the couple running it are Jewish, and a scene where he and Azmat fight in public whilst totally naked. If you prefer child-friendly types of comedy, then you will probably find Borat totally unwatchable. However, there is method behind the madness, as Baron Cohen improvised most of his scenes, interacting with people who had no idea that Borat was a fictional character. Sometimes, their reactions to Borat’s inappropriate behaviour can be amusing, but they can also be disturbing, as they accept or even endorse his awful comments. The social satire can be clever, but there is one thing which really makes Borat stand out - it is as funny as hell. After Borat premiered in 2006, it became a bonafide cultural phenomenon, with viewers dressing in Borat’s Mankini and repeating his “Is Nice” catchphrase. Baron Cohen was never able to emulate its success, but Borat secured his place in comedy history.

Male Stories

Blood, sweat and testosterone are rarely present in the world of Disney, but Fox have made numerous films aimed at male audiences which showcase the masculine imagery and belief systems rarely seen in Princess films. Of the three works listed below, one celebrates macho masculinity, one satirises it and one showcases the violent world where it was necessary for survival. However, all three are far removed from the prettiness and cleanliness one associates with Disney…

Fight Club

David Fincher is one director who is definitely not likely of working with Disney in the future, as his most popular films blend dark moody visuals and frequently sociopathic characters with a pessimistic (and borderline nihilistic) view of the world. Having previously worked with Fox on his ill-fated directorial debut Alien3, Fincher returned to the studio for his 1999 film Fight Club, which became one of his signature hits. It tells the story of an insomniac who attends emotional support meetings for cancer patients in order to find a release from the monotony of his life. He eventually comes across Tyler Durden, a mysterious macho figure who possesses the confidence and charisma our unnamed protagonist lacks. They two create the titular bare knuckle brawling club, and soon find much more extreme ways of venting their frustration at the society surrounding them…

Based on a novel by Chuck Panihuk, Fight Club provides an excellent project for Fincher’s cold but immersive directorial style, with Edward Norton playing the narrator, Helena Bonham Carter as a fellow support-group voyeur and Brad Pitt ruthlessly subverting his pretty-boy image as Durden. Critics were unsure whether the film satirised or celebrated the unsavoury characters at the centre, and it initially flopped at the box office. However, it soon gained a passionate fanbase due to its memorable visuals, big ideas and intricate twists, eventually becoming one of the Top 10 highest rated films on IMDB. Although it was created to react to a specifically late 90’s state of malaise, Fight Club feels uncomfortably timely in an age of incels and political division (in fact, “snowflake” – the disparaging term for those opposed to the offensive worldviews of others - originated from the novel). With brutal violence, soap bars made from human fat and scathing commentary on consumerism and capitalism, it could not be any less appropriate for Disney, which is what makes it such a perfect inclusion here.

The Revenant

18 years after he was first nominated for Best Actor in Titanic, Leonardo Dicaprio finally won the accolade for his role in The Revenant, a brutal drama set in the American West during the 1820s. DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who gets badly wounded in a bear attack. When the head of his hunting team abandons him for dead and kills his son, Glass has to use every survival skill he knows to carry out his revenge on the rest of the group.  The Revenant is based on a true story, but is considerably more violent, with a lot more murder than Glass’s real-life odyssey. Through its focus on an inhospitable winter landscape, The Revenant provides the brutality and moral ambiguity associated with revisionist westerns, but its depiction of a man trying to survive in a cold and harsh environment makes it a unique spin on the subgenre.

Director Alexander Gonzalez  Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki were the duo behind 2014 Best Picture winner Birdman, and The Revenant represented a gruesome and atmospheric follow up that allowed the two to further showcase their skills. Almost all of the movie was shot with completely natural light, and the numerous long takes highlight the brutality of the violence and the desperation which fuels Glass throughout the movie. For the majority of the 156 minute film, he is alone on screen, willing to do anything to survive long enough to carry out his mission, including cauterise his wounds with gunpowder, eat raw meat and hide inside animal carcasses to keep warm. DiCaprio keeps us invested in Glass during this harrowing journey, and his awards recognition was richly deserved. Despite going considerably over budget, the film became a pretty huge box office hit, making over $500 million worldwide.

Bulging biceps and machine guns are the last things you would expect to see in a Disney movie. However, Fox have produced several lurid action movies, including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1985 hit Commando, which embodies the mindless formula which was so dominant in the mid-80’s. There is a story – Arnold plays a former colonel who has to rescue his daughter from hoodlums trying to involve him in an assassination plot – but it is little more than a pretext for all the ridiculous stunts and slaughter, as the professional bodybuilder fights his way through a plane, a shopping mall and a Caribbean island, shooting, punching and impaling any villain foolish enough to stand in his way. Put bluntly, there is no nuance, complexity or character development, but there is plenty of OTT action, and the movie succeeds on its own ludicrous “shoot-em-up” terms.

Arnold was already a star by this point due to the two Conan movies and The Terminator, but Commando was the film which cemented the Arnold Schwarzenegger formula - Lots of guns, lashings of violence and ludicrously terrible one liners.  Over the next 2 decades, Schwarzenegger would star in numerous films of this variety, ranging from the enjoyable to the terrible. As a result, the image of the muscle-bound, superhuman action hero went on to define the genre for much of the 1980s, and the likes of Chuck Norris and Steven Segal tried to cash in on Arnold’s winning formula. However, the “Austrian Oak” surpassed his rivals became one of the biggest names in America. For all the flaws of Arnold and his films, their trashy appeal is pretty obvious, and it is pretty amusing that Disney now has ownership of Commando – it represents quite a counterpoint to the usual singing princesses and cute animal sidekicks…