Verne, Baby, Verne
Ah, life is so much easier when you one doesn't have to search too hard for a spurious connection between the films under consideration. Well, actually, there's more than one - not only have the scriptwriters of both been cribbing to some degree or other from one of the masters of French SF, but they're both Summer movies from the States which have finally reached my drizzly and provincial north Atlantic backwater several months after their US release - one after tremendous popular and critical success, the other, er, not...
Something Fishy This Way Comes
Pixar Animation Studios continue to add to their formidable reputation as purveyors of top-quality family entertainment with Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich's Finding Nemo, a film which promises to do for the pilchard industry what Babe did for bacon sandwiches. In the tradition of the Toy Story films and Monsters Inc, this is a computer-animated adventure which really does have something for all the family (with the possible exception of very tiny infants, surly teenagers, and the senile).
Albert Brooks provides the voice of Marlin the clownfish, who is, well, a fish. He is not a happy fish, however: recently widowed in a freak barracuda-related accident, he finds himself the over-protective single parent of disabled baby fish Nemo (Alexander Gould). Honestly, this really is the plot. But Marlin's haddocks don't stop there, as Nemo is eager to see the world no matter how his father tries to protect him. (Marlin's total inability to tell a joke does not make life as a clownfish any easier, either.)
Disaster strikes when on a school trip1 to the edge of the reef where they live, Nemo swims out to a nearby boat and is promptly bagged by a passing diver. Marlin must overcome his natural timidity and rescue his son from the dentist's fish tank where he eventually ends up, helped and hindered by the flakey Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a - um - a blue fish of some kind. But the hapless duo soon discover that the open ocean can be a dangerous plaice...
There seems to me to be something a bit perverse about the way that nearly all the drollest, wittiest, most off-the-wall and just plain funniest scripts these days seem to be written for films aimed at people under the age of ten. Particular when, judging from the number of advertising tie-ins in the trailers preceding the film, Finding Nemo almost seems to have been designed as a merchandising opportunity first and a work of art second.
But it would be unfair if either of these concerns got in the way of the fact that Finding Nemo is a superbly crafted piece of entertainment. Admittedly, with its slightly predictable story of learning and growing, and declarations of 'I love you dad'/'I love you too, son', the plot seems to have been assembled using a spreadsheet, but there are some terrifically good jokes that work on all levels - slapstick, one-liners, sly film parodies, and just plain weird stuff (I particularly enjoyed the twelve-stepping members of Sharks Anonymous). There are loads of memorable characters, brought to life by the vocal talents of a stellar cast including Willem Dafoe (whose CV's gone a bit weird lately), Allison Janney, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana, and Geoffrey Rush.
For all the script's wit and verve, the really jaw-dropping element of this film is the animation, which is remarkable, seamlessly combining the cartoonishly anthropomorphic main characters (Marlin looks very faintly like Terry Jones in the opening sequence of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life) with, at times, almost photorealistic backgrounds. The ocean is brought to life with such skill, vividness and texture that at times I almost thought CGI fish were being matted onto film backgrounds. It is quite, quite beautiful and easily worth the price of admission by itself.
Comparisons are inevitably fatuous, but Finding Nemo is at least the equal of the Toy Story films, a very memorable experience and a prime piece of evidence for the 'traditional animation is dead, long live CGI' school of thought. Certainly it's difficult to conceive of a cel-painted film with such charm, energy, and depth. A film with genuine sole.
One League, Occasionally Under The Sea
For some reason, some writers meet more than their fair share of bad luck when it comes to adaptations of their work. Stephen King is legendarily unlucky in this department (although Shawshank Redemption's legion of admirers will point out than when one of his films works, it really works). And, to judge from the critical reception accorded to last year's From Hell and this summer's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, comics scribe Alan Moore seems to be acquiring a similar jinx.
I'm honestly not exaggerating much when I say that Alan Moore has a fair claim to the title of the greatest comic-book writer in history. The League (co-created with Kevin O'Neill) is one of his minor, more playful works, but still streets ahead of virtually everything else on the market, a winning mixture of superhero staples, steampunk imagery, black comedy and genuine erudition.
On the face of it, Stephen Norrington's adaptation sticks pretty close to the spirit of the original. In 1899, beastliness is afoot as a tank ram-raids the Bank of England, the German Zeppelin fleet is destroyed in its hangars, and all sorts of other caddish behaviour generally occurs. It soon becomes clear - an evil mastermind known as the Fantom is trying to start the First World War fifteen years early!
In Kenya, ageing adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) is recruited by a mysterious spymaster known only as M (Richard Roxburgh) to lead his new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and stop the Fantom - said League being a motley group comprising Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), Dr Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Dorian Grey (Stuart Townsend), Tom Sawyer (Shane West) and an Invisible Man (Tony Curran). If you don't know who all of these characters are, stop reading the review now and join a library. If you don't know who any of them are, just stop reading the review.
This is, to put it mildly, an incredibly goofy premise for any fictional work and it's to the credit of Norrington and screenwriter David Goyer (a comics writer of considerable skill himself) that it works as well as it does for the big screen (this kind of unlikely teaming-up happens all the time in comics - anyone remember the time Daredevil met Uri Geller? - which made it slightly easier for the book). The art direction is terrific, getting the balance between historical realism and steampunk excess just about right. The special effects are also never less than acceptable, and occasionally very impressive - one CGI brawl easily outpunches the closing battle in the rather bigger-budget Hulk.
Sean Connery's rather fraught relationship with the director has been well documented, and it's clear why the great man has virtually disowned the movie - for once Connery's presence doesn't swamp proceedings and everyone in the ensemble gets a chance to shine and do their thing. This is a bit of a mixed blessing, to be honest, as the script is nowhere near as subtle or as truthful to the source works as the comic (rather than the book's courteous and noble psychopath, the film's Nemo is a polite pirate/martial artist whose death-worship is rather glossed over), but it is exactly what the film needs and infinitely preferable to another film cruelly sacrificed on the altar of Connery's ego.
But the lack of subtlety and wit in the script is generally reflected in the quality of the performances. As usual, Stuart Townsend is a particular offender and Richard Roxburgh (soon to be seen embodying another iconic character from Victorian literature in next summer's Van Helsing) goes inexplicably and ridiculously Cockney near the end. Shane West makes zero impression as the parachuted-in Tom Sawyer, and were he appearing alongside any other actor than Sean Connery, their scenes together (which aspire to depict a warm, paternal relationship) would actually come across as slightly homo-erotic.
And, to be fair, there's a horrendous second act sag - once the League has been assembled, things grind to an utter standstill while characters are laboriously developed and crushingly unsubtle clues as to the identity of the villains are planted all over the place. And when things do get going again, they take the form of a rather dull and half-baked Venetian action sequence which very nearly scuttles the film for good. But it rallies strongly, with some good gags and a carefully constructed climax, and I came out feeling generally well-disposed towards the movie.
The Year of the Superhero has turned out to be a bit of a damp squib as far as our spandex-clad friends are concerned, with Daredevil and Hulk both proving disappointments and only X2 really delivering on all levels. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is inevitably a bit of a disappointment, given its pedigree, but, freed from the demands of summer-blockbusterdom by its delayed release, it's entertaining enough in its own way. Flawed, but fun.