Julie Walters

Justin and the Knights of Valour

justin and the knights of valour

There are many things to like about Justin and the Knights of Valour. The animation, while not groundbreaking, paints an imaginative world filled with vivid detail. Justin (Freddie Highmore), its star, is also a genial, idealistic youth. He’s kind and principled, which may explain why his father (Alfred Molina) thinks he should follow in his footsteps and study law. And though it’s not always a respected profession, it’s a secure one in the land of Gabylonia, where legalism rules the day. The kingdom is a place where statutes have worked their way into every detail of daily life. Anyone can be ticketed for shouting too loudly in the streets and strongmen will snatch cats from little girls who haven’t updated their kitty’s vaccination cards.

It’s easy to see why Justin would want to trade a bureaucratic future for a life of adventure, and he dreams of being a knight like his grandfather, the brave and of course valorous Sir Roland. But two things stand in his way – his father and the law. And his scrawny physique. Since the king’s death years ago, the grieving queen (Olivia Williams) has banished knights, whom she blames for her husband’s death. Justin remains undaunted, however, and sets off on a quest, with some nudging from his grandmother (Julie Walters), to reclaim his grandfather’s missing sword and to find courage within himself.

I should stop here before trying to further untangle the various plot and character threads because, despite a strong opening, the movie overreaches and Justin’s coming of age gets lost in a confusion of sub-plots and minor characters, all seemingly to make room for the film’s expansive, all-star voice cast. There are a few key figures who aid in Justin’s self-discovery. He meets Blucher (James Cosmo), a monk and former knight who was also Sir Roland’s best friend. A colorful and scrappy old guy, Blucher puts Justin through the ringer and dispenses sage advice. Talia (Saoirse Ronan), a fiery barmaid, eventually turns sidekick while Lara (Tamsin Egerton), a selfish rich girl, is the lady to whom Justin dedicates his quest. Looming in the background is Heraclio (Mark Strong), a fallen knight who wants to reclaim his place in Gabylonia.

This film is hardly this straightforward though. A full slate of sideshow distractions leaves you wondering about the movie’s focus, which seems to be concentrated more on star power than on story. Antonio Banderas voices Sir Clorex, a vain handyman who passes himself off as a knight, David Walliams portrays a soothsayer/wizard/nut who hangs out at Talia’s bar and dispenses fortunes and gobbledygook in equal measure, Rupert Everett plays a fashionable jester and/or knight in Heraclio’s service, and Charles Dance is the head monk whose purpose I don’t remember.

The characters certainly add some laughs, and kids might enjoy their distinctiveness, but none are particularly important to the story. Justin’s journey is not just about following his heart but also about his relationship with his father, who in turn remains very affected by the actions of his father. There is potential for some Pixar-level pulling of the heartstrings, but the film never capitalizes on these moments, making Justin and the Knights of Valour a not altogether successful quest.

“Heroes” by Rebecca Ferguson:

Released: 2013
Prod: Antonio Banderas, Marcelino Almansa, Kerry Fulton, Ralph Kamp
Dir: Manuel Sicilia
Writer: Matthew Jacobs, Manuel Sicilia
Cast: Freddie Highmore, James Cosmo, Mark Strong, Alfred Molina, Julie Walters, Saoirse Ronan, Tamsin Egerton, Antonio Banderas, David Walliams, Barry Humphries, Charles Dance, Rupert Everett, Olivia Williams
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: Spain
Reviewed: 2015

Mamma Mia!

mamma mia

Mamma Mia! is the cinematic equivalent of an exploding party supply store. It’s a chaotic, freewheeling mess of sequins, feather boas, and novelty beach props crashing into a dazzling slate of singing and dancing superstars. The spectacle is good, boozy fun if you’re not invested in plot and don’t need an excuse to break out in song.

Based on the stage production which is based on someone’s strained imagination, the movie takes place on a picturesque Greek island where Donna (Meryl Streep) owns a holiday villa. Her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is engaged to Sky (Dominic Cooper), and their wedding promises to be a grand affair. Guests begin to descend on the island, including her raucous friends and former bandmates, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). But unbeknownst to her, Sophie has also sent invitations to Donna’s former lovers, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), one of whom could be her biological father. With the nuptials less than 24 hours away, Sophie’s secret becomes too big to keep and threatens to ruin her big day.

Not to worry though – this is an ABBA extravaganza. A film whose musical lineup includes “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trooper,” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” can’t possibly end on a sour note. Just look at those exclamation marks. It’s the sheer exuberance of the song and dance numbers and the abandon with which the actors perform them that lessen the guilt of indulging in such shameless entertainment. The gaudy theatricality of the whole project works in its favor, demanding that viewers let loose a little. If James Bond doesn’t mind embarrassing himself in a polyester one piece, then surely the audience can forgive the below average singing voices and utter lack of character development.

It’s a mystery, for example, why Sophie is so desperate to have her father give her away when she’s had no contact with him her whole life or why all three men, who presumably had no more than a weekend fling with Donna, are so eager to scramble back to the tiny Greek village after twenty years. The sheer will with which Catherine Johnson, who penned the book and screenplay, corsets her story to give shape to the songs is impressive, even if the results are less so.

One reason is casting, which clearly didn’t take musical abilities into account. Seyfried holds herself well along with veteran Baranski and relative newcomer Cooper, but even the infallible Dame Meryl shows some strain. Still, she is better than any of her leading men, whose reedy warbles surely belong in some musical hall of infamy. At least they have their careers to fall back on.

“Dancing Queen” by Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters:

“Lay All Your Love On Me” by Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper:

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) by Amanda Seyfried:

“Voulez-Vous” by Mamma Mia! cast:

Released: 2008
Prod: Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
Dir: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Catherine Johnson
Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård; Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic Cooper
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

Gnomeo and Juliet

gnomeo and juliet

The beloved bard’s tales, forever ripe for reinvention, gets the animated treatment in this kid-friendly reimagining of Shakespeare’s popular play. We lay our scene in fair Verona, a pleasant English street, where two households both alike in dignity hate each other’s guts. Ms. Montague (Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson) are warring neighbors who have a penchant for lawn ornaments. Their ceramic gnomes and plastic animals spring to life and carry on the feud when their owners are not looking, marking one of the more creative use of garden decorations.

Montague’s blue gnomes are ruled by the matron Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith), whose nimble son Gnomeo (James McAvoy) engages in dangerous lawnmower races with Tybalt (Jason Statham) of Capulet’s red gnomes. They are led by Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), who keeps close watch over his daughter Juliet (Emily Blunt). The spirited heroine resents being literally put on a pedestal, which her father does in order to keep her from being smashed; it’s a dangerous life. One night, she sneaks out in disguise and bumps into a camouflaged Gnomeo. It’s love at first sight for the two, until they realize they have just cavorted with the enemy.

The films hews close to its source material but adds a few flourishes. Featherstone (Jim Cummings) is a lonely plastic flamingo, separated from his love when his owners divorced and divvied up the lawn ornaments. He warns the young couple that others’ hate can destroy their love. Gnomeo’s exile following Tybalt’s violent death by lawn mower crash leads him to a giant statue of Shakespeare (Patrick Stewart) in the park. He learns that similar stories have ended in tragedy, which he considers a load of rubbish.

The animation does not jump out – although the film was screened in 3D, but it is bright and cheerful. The gnomes surprisingly retain their gnomish figures. Juliet is a good deal frumpier than her animated counterparts. Meanwhile, Gnomeo is handsomely rotund and sporting a thin silver beard, as is the fashion. And though the movie is self-referential (I liked the Tempest Teapot truck), it manages to avoid tripping over too many pop culture references. Elton John, who supervised the music, provides the soundtrack, and we won’t count him as contemporary. The best part is the voice cast. It is a parade of Britishness, with a sparky Dolly Parton and growling Hulk Hogan thrown in.

“Crocodile Rock” performed by Nelly Furtado, featuring dancing gnomes:

“Hello Hello” performed by Elton John and Lady Gaga:

Released: 2011
Prod: Baker Bloodworth, David Furnish, Steve Hamilton Shaw
Dir: Kelly Asbury
Writer: John R. Smith, Rob Sprackling
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, Ozzy Osbourne, Jim Cummings, Hulk Hogan, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, Dolly Parton
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2014