So I had the pleasure of attending a somewhat unexpected Hailee Steinfeld double bill of movies yesterday… After 2017’s Pitch Perfect 3 she’s becoming something of a Christmas tradition…
Playing out like a loose mashup of E.T / Short Circuit / Iron Giant (delete as appropriate, depending on your age) Bumblebee did wonders in washing out the abhorrent petrol urine taste of Bayformers out of my mouth. Being a prequel, it actually manages to deftly swerve a lot of the continuity established in the Bay series and forge its own identity.
We open with a frenetic battle on a fully-realised Cybertron, which quickly establishes the Autobot/Decepticon quarrel, and wastes no time in giving less-than-casual fans such as myself an optimum primer, but it gives the hardcore fans the characters they grew up with in all their bright and colourful glory. And thirdly it gives ambivalent Joe Public straight-up onscreen robot carnage, which it what audiences were ostensibly here for the last five films (a lazy cop-out that never really jived with me). It truly is a spectacular opener, and I was surprised that the movie was so candid and generous with it this early in. I thought we would open with 20 minutes of earthbound humans pratting about before we got to “the good stuff”.
Travis Knight has gone on record stating that he consciously went to great lengths to bring to the screen Transformer characters that can be identified by their silhouette and/or their colour pallette. This is something that’s irked me since the original 2007 movie, and I’m glad that they brought in a fresh creative visionary to remedy such a fundamental design aspect.
Not only have the filmmakers simplified the Transformer designs, but they’ve also managed to streamline the narrative. Clocking in at under two hours, the movie is briskly paced and not one scene feels superfluous and everything pays off neatly. It also caters for the current nostalgia generation being as it is a period piece; the movie is littered with music from the era — even the most casual of Transformers fans will be keeping their ears peeled for one particular song, and I’m happy to say that the movie doesn’t disappoint.
What makes a world of difference is that the movie is rated PG, not PG-13, and sweet Omnicron does this work in its favour. A couple of bloodless, but still-shocking deaths aside, this really is the kind of film you could take younger kids to. It really felt like a faithful throwback to not only the original cartoon, but it has all the whimsical makings of an early Spielbergian family adventure such as The Goonies or the aforementioned E.T., which I believe the 2007 film was first conceived as. Again, not to bash the Bayformers films too much (I’m sure they have their fans), but Bumblebee really cleans house in giving us a really likeable cast of human characters. Even our lead Charlie (Steinfeld) who on paper is something of a ‘80s cliche (stroppy teen with a dead parent) in lesser directorial hands could have so easily have been whiny brat comes across as an adorably scrappy greasemonkey, and you just want to see her win. It helps that Steinfeld is a really radiant presence and never goes overboard with the emo. Similarly, her family, while dysfunctional and bickery in that classic ‘80s way, are never obnoxious or crass. No puerile pot brownies or dog-humping shenanigans here, folks.
The reduction in the number of characters just makes everything so much more focused, and never feels overwrought or fatigue-inducing. Every scene advances the plot and/or character development, and everyone’s motivations are always clear. It sounds like a trite and obvious thing to say, but again, it’s a fundamental filmmaking aspect that I feel has been lacking for a lot of movies of late, particularly with the Bayformers series, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even the military faction of the human cast are a neat, easy-to-follow collection of boo-hiss authoritarians, and John Cena plays a great square-jawed, single-minded douche. And even he manages to have a decent arc.
So, one down, a quick trip out to refuel on pizza, and I was back in the cinema for movie number two…
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. My god, where do I even start with this? I had the good fortune this year of play the PS4 Spider-Man videogame to 100% completion, and what a hoot that was. It cherry picked from over 50 years of continuity some of the best elements of Ditko & Lee’s friendly neighbourhood webslinger and managed to create a magnificent tapestry which managed to hold its own as a standalone experience but had fanservice up the wallcrawling wazoo.
What Spider-Verse does is take this concept and crank up the concept to 11, by way of a bucket’s worth of LSD. Seriously, I think right from the off they need to come up with a whole new description for “this film contains flashing imagery. Sony have come up with a visual feast that takes elements from all aspects of animation, hand-drawn, traditional 2D comic book stylings, 3D CG modelling, graffiti art, anime, Tex Avery cartoons and chucks them all on like pizza toppings that somehow manages to never feel unwieldy or overwrought. When this movie was over I had to go and buy new shoes because the visuals blew my socks off.
The plot (and it’s a doozy) sees a gaggle of Spider-powered people from across multiple dimensions being brought together “WITH SCIENCE” by everyone’s favourite doughnut advocate, Wilson Fisk (a chameleonic Liev Shreiber). Amongst them, we have relatively new comic book character Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) going through the motions of gaining and having to not only come to grips with his Spider-powers, but also learning that… oh, you all know the saying by now. One of the things that movie does from the very beginning is poke fun at the colourful history of Spider-Man, in all of his various iterations and adaptations, rather like how Lego Batman did last year.
Along his journey, Miles is coached by a somewhat washed-up, reluctant variant on Peter Parker (voiced with aplomb by New Girl’s Jake Johnson). Joining in the fun are Spider-Man Noir, Peter Porker: Spider-Ham, the anime-infused, questionably-dubbed Peni Parker and of course mini-buzzcut-rocking Spider-Gwen (Steinfeld).
It did take a surprising amount of time for all the Spider-folk to assemble onscreen, but once they do, the movie never lets up and is an absolutel rollercoaster ride. Prior to this, the movie spends a healthy amount of time establishing Miles. Remember, this is a character who, outside of Marvel’s previous Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, the comics, and the 2018 game, might not be super familiar to Joe Public, outside of a few sensationalist troll-baiting headlines…
One of the best aspects to Spider-Man has always been the villains, and once again, like the game, this movie doesn’t disappoint. It cleverly uses just the right amount of multiple bad guys, but interweaves them so that they never feel forced or fanservicey. One particular fan favourite gets a new makeover and the reveal of who it was genuinely surprised me. It was a design that I’ve never seen before, and it made for some spectacular set pieces. My only slight niggle was the design of Kingpin. In still images, it kinda works, but I couldn’t keep shaking the notion, “how does he get in cars? How does he get through doors? Does he have a minion that wipes his bum for him?” We also get a screen version of The Prowler, a relatively obscure villain operating under the wing (well, it’s more of a nubbin) of Fisk, and it’s a pretty scary design/moveset he has. I did have to question at one point if this film would be suitable for the wee ones, and even at a PG-rating, there are some real moments of peril here.
Like Transformers, Spider-Verse struts in at a lean 116 minutes including credits (stay til the very end, natch), but manages to cram in no less than SIX origin stories, juggles multiple threads from multiple variations of a well-established superhero, and still manages to tell a brilliant, self-contained story, all the while looking like a “comic book come to life”, a phrase which this reviewer initially rolled their eyes at, but needless to say I washed down my pizza with a fair helping of hat – this really is one of the best-looking animated movies I’ve seen, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice to miss it on the big screen. It’s a concept which, on paper, could be an absolute unmitigated disaster, but thanks to a tight script, a genuine fondness for the half-century of source material, some wonderfully heartfelt performances (the dynamic between Miles and his family could have carried the entire movie on its own), and an aesthetic unlike any other, I can’t recommend Into the Spider-Verse more highly.