Dunkirk – Film Review

When director Leslie Norman completed and released his 1958, 135 minute epic war film, Dunkirk, the time from the actual event was a mere eighteen years. Most audiences in those British theatres were only too aware of the story’s time-frame, the causes, and the outcome. Many were even survivors of the horror, those who had actually waited there, on the beaches, wondering if they’d ever make it home, fearing for their lives. And worse, the war had hardly begun.

Audiences for Christopher Nolan’s 2017 considerably shorter 104 minute version will be different. Other than scholars of world wars and those with a keen interest in historical wartime events, most audiences, particularly American and those outside of European countries, will be aware of little. Other than having perhaps once heard of the French town, they’ll know nothing of Operation Dynamo, what it was, why it occurred, and why the Dunkirk evacuation was often called the Miracle of Dunkirk. It’s part of history, and a vastly important one, but it’s not their history. It would take a further fourteen months until the United States entered the war. After watching Nolan’s recreation of the drama, as far as the facts go, they’ll remain knowing little.

But 2017 audiences will have witnessed something uniquely different that the film in 1958 could never have presented. Nolan has little interest in delivering a story – facts, figures, times and dates have no part of this Dunkirk – rather, the writer/director has created something astonishingly visceral; how you react will be personal; no one else in the theatre will experience it in quite the way you will.

There’s no big picture, no time establishing introduction, and no perspective of where or at what point you are in the war. There are simply the events of those nine days that began on May 26 and ended June 4, 1940, seen almost exclusively from the point of view of the allied forces, the men stranded on the beaches and harbors of the French town, waiting for rescue while the enemy attacked and systematically picked them off as though they were target practice. When the film begins, four of those nine days may have already passed, but it’s difficult to tell, and Nolan is explaining nothing.

The film is told from three angles, and they come with chapter headings that will only make sense if you’re already aware. The first is 1. The Mole. One Week. It’s the point of view of the stranded infantry on the beach. The second is 2. The Sea. One Day. It’s the evacuation at sea where the Royal Navy on English shores commandeered civilian boats and small fishing vessels to assist in the channel crossing rescue. And the third is 3. The Air. One Hour. It’s above, among the clouds, where spitfires helped combat air attacks from German planes. The week, day and hour references indicate the length of time those events occurred, yet Nolan mixes them together in a fragmented time-line that jumps from moment to moment, and in no particular order other than to heighten dramatic events to their maximum potential. Events that occur in the daytime will intercut with those in the nighttime; things that happened within an hour begin and end at the same time as events that lasted a week.

After spending what must have felt like an eternity standing in orderly lines, there on the beaches, looking out across the English Channel, hoping to catch sight of a vessel coming to pick them up, enemy planes fly in from above, and fire. The men. mostly boys, scatter, diving for cover. “Where’s the bloody air-force?” demands one army soldier after wiping the sand from his face. It’s one of the first lines uttered in a film that has little dialog.

Other than brief conversations between officers, where Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton tells another office to think again about loading the wounded on boats – “One stretcher takes the space of seven standing men” – or when soldiers huddled together below deck in a beached trawler argue among themselves, dialog throughout is at a minimum. Instead, Nolan recreates events through action where an occurrence is witnessed from the point of view of the young men involved. A spitfire crashes onto the channel’s surface, and the impact is experienced in a way rarely, if ever, seen on film; we’re there, right there with the plane as it hits the water, and we grimace and brace ourselves in the same way the pilot does. When soldiers, covered in oil, swim for their lives, then are forced underwater while the channel above is set aflame, we’re with them, under the water, looking up, unable to surface.  The moment is one of absolute terror.

Nolan’s Dunkirk may not be the film you were expecting. Despite many extraordinary compositions and breathtaking character view points, courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema’s outstanding cinematography, the fractured story-telling style may still keep you at arm’s length, even though Nolan’s ultimate aim is for the fully, you-are-there, immersive approach. Up until now, his inspiration has mostly come from comic-book or sci-fi fantasy. Dunkirk is Nolan’s first, factual movie based on historical events, but while there are many remarkable and certainly inspirational moments, the film is not a complete success. It’s a cinematic jigsaw, full of startling, individual pieces that don’t always unite. Because of the altered time-line approach, many will be confused, often unnecessarily so.  It stops a good film from becoming what you hope will be a great one.

Audiences will have several different presentations of the film from which to choose. The majority can see Dunkirk as a widescreen feature in regular, digital theatres; then there’s the widescreen 70mm print which will have a special presentation in select city theatres capable of projecting real film with sprockets; and finally there’s IMAX, where the giant and practically squared screen will fill out to all corners. The choice of viewing is yours, depending on availability and personal budget. Mine would be in 70mm.

The press showing was in IMAX, and while the image is certainly crystal clear, the sound is ridiculously high. Nolan often engages in a soundtrack where the score swells to an overwhelming level, but here, composer Hans Zimmer’ s lengthy, sustained bass line is so powerful, with IMAX you feel it in your chest. Once again, even with the music, director Nolan goes for the visceral. But it presents a problem. Often, the sound is in danger of smothering what little dialog there is. Dunkirk deserves a second viewing, but once you’ve taken in the IMAX experience, it should be where the score enhances the visual rather than drowning it. A true appreciation can be difficult when the presentation is more a cinematic side-show than a performance; you’re too overwhelmed by an unrelenting surge of sight and sound to make an honest judgment.

In truth, Nolan’s Dunkirk is really an art-house film with a mainstream, tent-pole budget. There are amazing images – the sight of those small, civilian vessels and pleasure boats on the horizon can’t help but stir emotions and fill you with pride – but, despite the early talk of Oscars, not everyone will take to the style, or be satisfied.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 104 Minutes     Overall rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Film Review

Sci-fi fans have long suspected it was probably the French science fiction comic series, Valerian and Laureline that inspired Star Wars. At least, in part. The dates certainly suggests it could be so. The comics began in a magazine in 1967; more than enough time for a space opera to ferment before a fully-fledged Luke Skywalker took to the stars in 1977.

Whether the theory is fact is difficult to say, but in the new sci-fi action thriller, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, based on those same comics and graphic novels, director Luc Besson appears to have made his own Star Wars, complete with fantastic worlds, a Jabba the Hut-like villain, and a young hero and heroine who zip in and out of adventures at light speeds among the planets in some other galaxy far, far away. But there’s a difference. Imagine the whole film taking place within the Cantina bar with endless holographic possibilities and you get the idea. Valerian is a genuine space oddity, which is why hearing the David Bowie late sixties classic of the same name during the introductory moments may be more appropriate than Besson actually intended.

There’s a strong beginning. After a series of scenes that quickly, and humorously, reveal the development of the space race from 1975 to 2150, backed by a heavily re-cut version of the Bowie song – the lyrics and chorus are altered to accompany the beats of the visual edits – we’re off to somewhere idyllic.

The design of this peaceful, other worldly planet populated by scantily clad stick figures, is the kind you may have seen gracing the cover of an old fifties sci-fi magazine, or maybe an early Arthur C. Clarke novel. The tall, lean, alien race that lives this dreamy, peaceful existence, where clouds are a mixture of fluffy whites, soft pinks, and pastel blues, can’t know it but they are moments away from near obliteration. Explosive remnants of a raging space war fought above their planet will puncture through their atmosphere, crashing on the planet’s surface and destroying their world. What follows once the damage is done is hard to describe. How it read in Besson’s screenplay is unimaginable.

Though we’re never altogether clear of where or why things are happening, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are sent by their superiors on a hyperkinetic thrill ride throughout the galaxy, retrieving objects, battling a ceaseless array of aliens, and alternately rescuing each other every few minutes. Along the way they’ll exchange either conversation or gun fire with Rutger Hauer, making a brief appearance as the President of the World State Federation; musician Herbie Hancock as the Defense Minister; an almost unrecognizable Ethan Hawke hamming it up as Jolly the Pimp; plus singer Rihanna as an alien, blue, blob-like creature that shapeshifts while performing exclusively for men on stage. As with the overall design of the film itself, she looks great as her act creatively morphs from Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles into a series of stunning, sexy, female characters, eventually circling back to Bowles again, but an actress delivering convincing lines she is not.

Somehow, whatever it is Valerian and Laureline are doing has a connection with that earlier planet destruction opening, but with so much adrenaline-fueled, dazzling, busy business occurring, and at such a non-stop, frenetic pace, with a running time of 137 minutes, the whole thing is exhausting long before the grand finale arrives. It’s Besson’s The Fifth Element overstuffed and on speed, if you can picture such a thing.

Surprisingly, during the final fifteen minutes or so, events actually fall into place with an odd sense of clarity. The human villain may be Clive Owen as a ruthless military commander, but the source of his villainy turns out to be greed, capitalism, the economy, and the open market, all in keeping with the spirit of the source material where left-wing liberal ideas backed by a strongly humanist approach peppered those original comic-book stories.

The real problem, however, are those two leads. One is a major, the other a sergeant, and both suggest years of military experience, yet they look fifteen. They’re kids. The actors themselves are considerably older, but their appearance on-screen is one of high-schoolers playing with lasers, and it’s what’s there, up on screen that matters. Perhaps in comic-book form there was an easier level of character acceptability, making the fantasy of two youngster heroes in charge appear the norm, but what works in drawings doesn’t always work on film with actors, and it certainly doesn’t here.

Worse, DeHaan’s title character, who will later admit, “All I do is flirt and joke,” is a stiff. When the film focuses solely on him, with his cavalier attitude and those annoying, smart-aleck remarks, things are never that interesting. Fortunately, when events are centered more on Delevingne’s Laureline, the movie brightens. She may look like a tenth-grader lost in space, but her smart, level-headed, logical attitude, coupled with a little sass, makes the whole thing tick, and the English fashion model turned actress is good at it. Considering her Enchantress in Suicide Squad was such a dud, her space-age sergeant is quite the revelation. Given a sequel, you might be happy to follow the further adventures of Laureline in any galaxy, just as long as she leaves the stiff behind.

MPAA Rating:  PG-!3     Length: 137 Minutes    Overall rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

A Ghost Story – Film Review

Is there something there?

It’s the middle of the night. Seconds earlier, a young husband and his wife were lying peaceably in bed in their recently purchased ranch house. Then came the noise; a distinctly loud noise. It sounded as though the wires of the old piano in the living room were just slammed. Definitely the piano. The husband slowly, cautiously, explores. The wife remains back in the bedroom. After a few minutes, the husband returns. Nothing there. “Something must have fallen on the piano,” the husband says.

In writer/director David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, that one, conventional, scare-movie moment is perhaps the only scene that could be said conveys a traditional sense of what a mainstream audience expects in a film about a haunted house. But A Ghost Story is hardly traditional. There is a house, and it’s definitely haunted, but this is not a horror film, nor is it something that will shake your senses or give you sleepless nights. It’s not that kind of film.

The idea for A Ghost Story came to director Lowery after an argument with his wife. They were living in small town Texas when Hollywood beckoned. The issue they faced was should they remain in Texas or should they move to California where the work was? Lowery was directing the Disney remake Pete’s Dragon, and it seemed sensible to make the move. But Lowery didn’t want to go. He liked their house and he liked where he lived. He felt a connection. His wife didn’t understand, and they fought.

In A Ghost Story there are principally three characters; the husband, known only as C (Casey Affleck), the wife, known only as M (Rooney Mara), and the somewhat dilapidated ranch house in Texas. It looks a little rundown on the outside, a good paint job might work, but comfortable within. C likes the house and doesn’t want to move. M is the opposite and doesn’t understand her husband’s connection or his reluctance to leave.

Then the unthinkable happens. C is killed in a head-on collision just steps from his drive. We don’t see the accident or how it happened; it’s not required. We just see the end result. C dies at the wheel, shattered glass on the dashboard before him. But later, at the morgue, something odd happens, and it occurs minutes after M leaves the room, having just seen her husband’s face for one last time; the motionless body lying under the sheet suddenly sits up, still under the sheets.

The idea that when you die you step into whatever is waiting for you in the next spiritual realm is here shown as a brilliantly lighted doorway that opens up at the end of the morgue hallway. C, now clearly a ghost covered in that sheet with holes for eyes, stares at the inviting light, then decides not to go through it. Instead, he takes a left, leaves the building, walks miles across country land, and returns to his grieving wife and the ranch house that meant so much to him. And there he stays.

The connection to his wife, the house, and the space upon which that house was built is too strong for the husband’s spirit to release, so he remains, silently observing while time passes. He’s still there after his wife moves and new people move in. And he’s there when the house is bulldozed. He’s still there in that same space when a high-rise is built. And he waits. He even circles back in time to early American settler days when all that was there was the open land upon which the ranch house will eventually be built, and he’s there when he and his wife move in. And like the reflection of a mirror within a mirror, he sees himself as a white-sheeted ghost, observing everything he had previously seen.

There are so many ways you could explain what A Ghost Story is really about. It’s certainly about love, but it’s also about grief and yearning; space and time; and a connection to things we never realized meant so much. It could also be about a search for meaning when looking back on lives lost. It’s one of the saddest films you’ll ever see. But it’s not a haunted house movie, and it’s not conventional.

Interestingly, there’s another white-sheeted ghost seen through the window in the house next door. They wave at each other and even converse through subtitles. “I’m waiting for someone,” the ghost in the other house relates. “Who?” asks C. “I don’t remember,” comes the subtitled replay.

Filmed with a screen ratio of only 1:33 (the shape of early TV sets; practically a square), director Lowery uses rounded corners to soften the look. He holds moments for lengthy periods without dialog, movement, or cutting away. When M receives a homemade chocolate pie in a round, glass dish from a neighbor, she sits on the floor and takes a bite, then another, then another. The shot lasts for four minutes with M unable to stop eating while the ghostly white sheet with the two black holes for eyes stands motionless just a few feet away, observing.

Running at only 87 minutes, this atmospherically melancholy film is going to test the patience of many. Even those attuned to its style and find it an effective, singular way of exploring its many themes may occasionally squirm in their seat. Once the point appears to be made, all you feel you’re now doing is waiting for the scene that has lingered for so long in one, continuous shot to move on. There’s a lengthy moment when C hovers at a house party. One of the guests seated at a table in the kitchen (Will Oldham) waxes philosophically about life, death, the future, what the end of the world will bring, and Beethoven, while the ninth plays quietly underneath. His meandering though urgent sounding party talk seems to last as long as the symphony itself. After several minutes, you might wish the ghost had turned and eavesdropped on someone less verbose.

A Ghost Story may be a haunting exercise in observing, just as C’s white-sheeted ghost observes, but it’s demanding a lot, particularly when the apparition is not a faded spirit that passes through doors and walls, but rather a symbol, represented by a child’s comical Halloween costume. The audience will be limited. The film is the kind best appreciated by other filmmakers and students who’ll enjoy the post-film discussion. Even the art-house crowd will be divided.

MPAA Rating: R     Length: 87 Minutes     Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

War for the Planet of the Apes – Film Review

Despite the obvious technical advantages of computer imagery and its visual effects, up until now, the reboot Planet of the Apes series had yet to resonate in the way the 1968 original did. Certainly, the new films are popular. There wouldn’t be a third if they weren’t. But there’s a divided audience; those eager for more, and those indifferent. Maybe it’s because the first of the reboots, fun though it was, left little impact. And the second, as accomplished a sci-fi thriller that it proved to be, ultimately suffered a similar fate: nothing left once it was done.

But now there’s a third, and from Rise, then Dawn and now War for the Planet of the Apes, there’s a difference in the telling, and it makes for one intelligent, absorbing, and thoroughly entertaining movie. This is the one the series needed, and if as an audience member you were one among the indifferent, seeing War could change attitudes; the film engages from the start.

It’s two years since the last adventure. Having formed the basis of English in the first outing where he declared, “No!”, Caesar (Andy Serkis) can now converse in the language as well as any intelligent human. And that intelligence has spread among both his immediate family and his dedicated ape followers; their speaking abilities haven’t formed to the level of their revolutionary leader but their ability to understand has, and they communicate with grunts and sign-language.

The Simian Flu virus that accidentally spread around the planet has now divided camps. On one side are the apes, growing with intelligence, while on the other with what remains of the human population, the opposite is occurring. Those exposed to the virus will likely lose their ability to speak, then ultimately lose their ability to intelligent reason. In order to stem the tide of the effect and to restore leadership on the planet, soldiers are hunting apes and killing them.

In an attack that results with the death of his wife and one of his sons, lead by a man known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), Caesar sets out on a mission of revenge, accompanied by three of his faithful; the benevolent orangutan, Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal chimpanzee, Rocket (Terry Notary) and the trustworthy gorilla, Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). The ape has learned of the whereabouts of the Colonel’s campsite, and it’s Caesar’s intention to confront him.

But as the journey across a frozen landscape continues, conflicts among the journeying apes develop as personal truths and intentions are revealed. There’s never a time when your sympathies are with anyone other than the apes, particularly Caesar, who has gone through so much pain and heartache to become the character he is. Had the chimp been human, you would certainly feel that way. The fact that he’s an ape makes little difference, particularly when Caesar’s enemy, the Colonel, is portrayed as such a villainous nutcase with an unrelenting murderous nature against all apes.

When Caesar first encounters the Colonel, the man’s face is painted in black streaks, reminiscent of Brando’s Kurtz at his nuttiest, and like that demi-god with his terrifying vigilante code, this colonel possesses his own heart of darkness, one that for reasons later explained will never see the light.

If Apocalypse Now springs to mind, so too will The Great Escape. Culminating with an exciting rescue mission regarding an encampment of slave apes worked until they’re starved, and tunnels to aid in their release while Caesar confronts the Colonel, War for the Planet of the Apes ends on a nail-biter made all the more effective because of the time invested in caring for the outcome; and there’s no predicting how it will all end – there are twists in the telling – which makes the final battle, the war of the title, all the better.

A major strength of the film is that it doesn’t rush to action. After a violent, confrontational beginning, the bulk of the story unfolds less as an action/thriller and more as a drama, drawing you in, making you care about the outcome as those four apes journey on horseback in search of the Colonel’s concentration camp.

Along the way, two well drawn and likable characters will appear, adding an overall richness to what is happening. One is another talking and slightly off-center chimpanzee who lived in a zoo before the flu broke out, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn, delivering most of the film’s intentional humor), and a sweet young, mute orphan (Amiah Miller) to whom Maurice takes a parental, protective liking. He even dubs her Nova.

While the reboot bares little to almost no resemblance in both tone and look to the original series, there are knowing, respectful nods to characters from the sixties. Caesar the revolutionary was the name given to Roddy McDowall’s character in the latter two films that concluded the original story, while Cornelius, here the name given to one of Caesar’s two sons, was the doctor’s name McDowall played in the 1968 series opener. Maurice the orangutan is an acknowledgment to the original science minister orangutan Dr. Zaius played by actor Maurice Evans, and by naming the mute child Nova, you’re immediately reminded of the mute adult female of the same name in the original, played by Linda Harrison. Their reveals are more reverent than humorous. And there’s more if you look for them.

Caesar’s other young son, Blue Eyes, was the nickname given to Charlton Heston’s astronaut, plus, look for a poster that has the quote The Only Good Ape is a Dead Ape splashed across it; it’s a variation of a quote from the original sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, spoken by a gorilla general in a rousing speech, except there the references were to humans.

The original series began with a surprise and an impact that lasted, even if the subsequent sequels lacked with each new chapter. With the reboot, the new surprise is that the series appears to be heading in the other direction; film number three is by far the superior. Like Caesar’s knowledge of the English language, things are developing into something far more intelligent than expected.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 142 Minutes    Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Wish Upon – Film Review

It’s a variation of a good luck, Chinese Wish Pot, but with a major difference. Instead of writing your wishes on paper, then placing that wish within the pot, with this particular Chinese ornate box there’s no need for the written word. All you do is place your hands on the top then say what you want; it’ll happen. Guaranteed. But there’s a price, and by the time you realize what that price is you’ll wish you’d never found the box, but by then… well, you’ve got where this is going.

In the new teenage horror, Wish Upon, high-schooler from the poorer side of town, Clare Shannon (Joey King) is given what looks like a music box by her father (Ryan Phillipe). He’s clearing out the house, and that box with the ancient Chinese engravings is something he’s found up in the attic. At this point, neither he nor Clare know it, but it’s the box that made Clare’s mother take her life when Clare was just a little girl. But we know it because it all happened during the opening segment to the film. And now, years later, that box has passed on to the daughter, and history is about to repeat itself.

In the way that these things happen in teenage horror movies, when Clare first discovers the power of the box, it comes by accident. One of the mean girls at school with the cool clothes and the long blonde hair, Darcie Langford (Josephine Langford) continually berates, humiliates, and cyberbullies Clare. One evening, when the high-schooler just happens to have her hands on her new found antique, she states, “I wish… I wish, Darcie Chapman… I don’t know, but, like, just rots.” The following morning, poor Darcie wakes up with most of her legs and parts of her face eaten away.

Then there’s the second wish. “I wish Paul Middlebrook falls madly in love with me.” And again, as these things might happen if you have an ancient wish box in your possession, the next day at school, Paul (Mitchell Slagert) ignores his regular, gorgeous girlfriend (another of those mean girls) and instead leers suspiciously near Clare.

By the third wish, the one where Clare wishes she gets everything left in the will of a recently deceased, wealthy relative, and it happens, you’d think that by now she might be piecing things together. But what she doesn’t know is that the deadly payment collected for each of those wishes has also occurred, one involving Clare’s dog. Yes, the film commits the cardinal sin; the dog dies, and if by now you’re thinking you’ve read too many plot-spoilers, forget it. In a film that was probably pitched as Wishmaster meets Final Destination crossed with Mean Girls, you pretty much have the whole thing figured out long before Clare even has a clue. Don’t these teenagers ever go to the movies?

If you’re sensing a facetious tone to the review, trust your senses. It comes from exasperation. It’s not so much the obviousness of the plot – given its target audience, if the film succeeds at anything, it’s knowing what might make for a Friday night date at the multiplex on opening weekend before box-office suddenly plummets – it’s the total lack of anything even remotely connected to authentic, cinematic horror.

Sure, horrific things occur. Dog lovers might get upset, and wondering if nice neighbor, Mrs. Deluca (Sherilyn Fenn) will loose her fingers in the sink disposal unit, Final Destination style, makes for a brief, tense moment, but in Wish Upon there’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s not even a Boo moment, one of those sudden occurrences that make you jump. Nothing. It all feels like a tepid, by the numbers approach with its formula firmly intact, and outcomes and reveals you already know long before anyone on screen gets the idea. The closest to anything inventive that might have you guessing comes when the evil within the box has two victims from which to choose. Will it kill the girl trapped in the elevator or will it go for Clare’s dad while he changes a flat at the side of a dark road? You might hope for both, just to break the pattern and make things interesting, but convention dictates only one will get it.

Worse, when it suits the script, the film doesn’t even stick to its own rules. When Clare wishes that the whole of high-school adore her (she gets invited to the coolest parties, and everyone fawns over her, even the mean girl) her two best girlfriends, currently annoyed with her for ignoring them during her magically wish-fulfilled, new-found popularity, appear unaffected. They simply remain annoyed until Clare apologizes for her snotty behavior towards them. How did they get to escape the all-encompassing power of the box when everyone else at school around them fell under its spell?

And, yes, there’s even a coda, an extra scene at the end, separate from the overall plot, but included during the middle of the credits, suggesting the box will pass on to another owner, and the same story will be told all over again but with a new set of wishes and different victims. If there’s to be a number 2, let’s wish they try a little harder. At least the Final Destination series gave its audience a spectacular opening before all that the regular stuff kicked in.

MPAA Rating: PG-13    Length: 90 Minutes   Overall Rating: 3 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Little Mermaid – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

When temperatures are at their highest and Arizona records are broken daily, there’s nothing better than being seated in a comfortable, air-conditioned building while waiting for a show to begin. The feel of that cold, icy breeze during a Saturday matinee in any valley theater is so welcome. But at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert, on opening weekend, that welcome feeling is doubly-so. Walking past the lobby into the house is like stepping into a chilled, underwater grotto; the entry ways are decorated as though they’re pathways to life under the sea.

This is the setting for Hale Centre’s new production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, running now until August 19. As with all productions at Gilbert’s theatre-in-the-round, the house itself is designed to be part of the set. Both the east and west side walls display a centered projection screen, framed by driftwood and decorated with either strands of a fisherman’s net or colorful seaweed, and both are flanked by two strip paintings of scenes familiar in style and color from the 1989 animated film; King Triton’s underwater kingdom is on one side, while Prince Eric’s castle by the shore hangs on the other. Even the stage floor is part of the overall design; it’s painted in an inviting, Mediterranean blue, while house lights from above shine down and subtly reflect on the surface, creating a watery illusion of an ocean moving calmly in slo-mo.

Once the underperformed, original Broadway production of The Little Mermaid closed in 2009, the show was revamped and redesigned for future regional productions. Much was changed. Director Glenn Casale altered the order of the songs, removed one, then introduced another. The character of Prince Eric’s housekeeper, Carlotta, was cut while the majority of her lines were given to the prince’s guardian, Grimsby, expanding his role considerably. This re-imagined version is the one presented at Hale Centre under Cambrian James’ direction, and while it doesn’t reflect the extravagance of the Broadway production and (for obvious, logistical reasons) omits much that was in the film, audiences shouldn’t care; this Little Mermaid is a family-audience charmer, ablaze in color and clever, theatre-in-the-round invention. In showbiz, timing is everything, and staging this fairytale musical during the summer when school is out and temperatures are constantly in the triple digits, timing could not be better.

After a shaky start, where due to technical issues, Ariel (Caelan Creaser) could neither be heard singing the opening lines to The World Above nor immediately seen observing things from the shoreline rocks, the show quickly caught up with both the recorded music and its mic and lighting problems.

The story as we know it from the animated feature is essentially the same: Ariel, one of several troublesome, teenage daughters to King Triton (a muscular Ben Mason; no painted-on abs here) remains fascinated with life above the sea and wants so much to be a part of that world. After rescuing the dashing young Prince Eric (Matt Krantz) from a watery doom, and realizing that she’s falling in love with him, she makes a deal with the devil – in this case, her villainous Aunt Ursula (a deliciously evil Melissa VanSlyke) – and surrenders her voice in order to be human and live on the surface, but it all comes at an unforeseen cost.

Characters create the illusion of floating under the sea by gliding around on those Heelys, the brand of roller shoes that allows the wearer to either roll or walk, depending upon how you shift the weight of your feet. It’s an effective theatrical movement, though, admittedly, some cast members were better at it than others; often there was the appearance of a sudden trip when a character should still be gliding as the sound of a shoe accidentally touching the floor with an abrupt skid could be heard, but the overall illusion of characters floating remained largely efficient throughout.

Also effective was the speed with which scenes changed above the sea. Being a theatre in-the-round, there are no sets or painted flats, just props to suggest settings and a carefully designed, atmospheric lighting plan. Tables, chairs, and podiums slide on with great efficiency, rarely pausing the flow or the rhythm of locations changed. Even the deck of a ship, complete with rigging, was speedily assembled during a scene fade, then disassembled with remarkable efficiency as the story moved on.

Plus, the production scores with its voices. From the robust sound of sailors singing of Fathoms Below to each of the solos, without exception, all cast members brought the songs alive with a vitality that in some cases sounded as fresh as the original, admittedly, helped to some degree by the professionally recorded music track. Highlights from the newer materiel includes the opener to Act 2 where Scuttle (a playful Raymond Barcelo, faintly channeling Jack Black) and his chorus of bespectacled tap-dancing seagulls try to raise Ariel’s down-in-the-dumps spirits by performing Positoovity for her. With each of their round-framed Harry Potter glasses, it’s like watching the feathery seabird version of the secretarial pool dance sequence from Hale Centre’s earlier production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. There’s also a fun, sixties style song, She’s In Love performed by six of King Triton’s daughters, looking as though The Shirelles had reformed and added a couple of extra members, plus one male voice, Flounder the guppy (Brandon Brown).

But the standouts are the high-spirited Under The Sea and the tender Kiss The Girl, both presented with a kaleidoscopic array of color and creativity, and both lead by Sebastian, the Caribbean red crab (a hugely effective Vinny Chavez) where the undersea world joins the royal court composer in creating two of the most memorable production numbers you’re ever likely to see at Hale. With a collection of dancing jelly fish, guppies, dolphins, turtles, bouncing frogs, and more, both musical sequences quickly become reminiscent of Julie Taymor’s style of animal designs for The Lion King; the fluorescent, aquatic version.

New to Hale Centre’s stage is Matt Krantz as the dashing Prince Eric, whose new solos, Her Voice and One Step Closer, are both fine examples of songs well sung. But rather than playing a lead, with his clean-cut looks and that friendly guy-next-door persona, Krantz would be more effective when cast as a hero’s best friend. Here, he’s no more a teen idol type than Triton’s daughters are teenagers.

But once again, returning to Hale after an impressive debut in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caelan Creaser triumphs a second time in the way she did as that eager-to-please flapper back in March of this year, and for all the same reasons. With a clarity of voice and a natural, theatrical presence, her Ariel may appear just a few years older than a character that would suffer from ‘teenage hormones,’ as the wicked Ursula phrased it, but you can’t help but be drawn to her or her exuberance. Even though the show has her mute for a good chunk of the second half, the new score still gives her songs to be sung as though we’re hearing her thoughts, and that’s to the show and this production’s advantage.

Though perhaps the final word should be with Jason M. Hammond’s Grimsby. As mentioned earlier, now possessing lines that once belonged to Carlotta that resulted with a considerably expanded role, in a fairytale world where all characters are colorfully larger than life, Hammond has managed to make Grimsby surprisingly real. His concern for Ariel comes across as authentic, even touching, and while there are no life lessons of any serious nature intended to be learned from The Little Mermaid, when he states, “The secret to happiness, child; we shouldn’t wish for impossible things,” it comes across as a logical, unexpected truth; something to ponder as you head back out into the summer heat.

Pictures from Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

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