Raptors with Cameras – Jurassic World (2015) Review

Jurassic World posterWhen did we start letting blockbusters off the hook so easily? When did we start expecting so little of them that we allowed studios to churn out generic sequel after generic sequel? When did we become so content as to replace enjoyment from originality with enjoyment from references to an older, better film? If one thing defines our cinematic era it is the power of nostalgia and our willingness as audiences to give into it with each passing franchise iteration. This power is rampant in Jurassic World, a gigantic and spectacular beast that worships at the altar of its first ancestor with an unsettling post-modern grin.

Mere seconds after practically breaking the fourth wall with her welcome to this new dino-park, confident operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) strides purposefully towards the camera, investors in tow, and states that “no-one is excited about dinosaurs any more”. This typifies the blatant self-awareness that pervades Jurassic World, emerging as the fourth film in a series that has failed to dazzle audiences since its first outing way back in 1993. It’s a film that’s all too knowing of what it is; as a sequel, as a summer blockbuster, and as a money-making product. It’s also acutely aware of the problems it faces with its apparently jaded audience; going so far as to use them to set up the thin narrative and state them in dialogue time and again. But for all this seeming intelligence Jurassic World is surprisingly dumb, opting for more as the answer under the misapprehension that it equates to better. Someone forgot to tell the writers that you can’t just wink and state the problem – you have to come up with a creative solution.

As is clear from the title, things have moved on in the twenty-two years since the grand failure of the original attraction as a viable business. The ‘Park’ is now a ‘World’, jam-packed with visitors, rides, and more dinosaurs than you can shake a flare at. Plus a monorail, an aquatic section, a pyramid, and probably fifty separate Starbucks and McDonalds establishments (somewhere off-screen no doubt). But audiences are bored to death of de-extinction and want something new, so not-a-mad-scientist Dr. Wu (B. D. Wong) cooks up the Indominus Rex using a ludicrously dangerous cocktail of DNA that gives it all the tools required to be the perfect prehistoric killing machine – adaptive camouflage, anyone? All the park staff, except the sage yet stoic Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), think this is a cracking idea and completely safe. Verizon even sponsor and present the I-Rex. But tradition must be adhered to and things go pear-shaped quicker than you can say “hubris” and we’re along for another prehistoric rampage.

Contrary to Claire’s earlier statement, the most exciting parts of Jurassic World are when the reptiles break free and stomp around devouring the guests. Where the original film built suspense this one barrels ahead with fast-paced action and whilst entertaining at times it subsequently fails to capture much of that unique blend of wonder and dread. Director Colin Trevorrow – with no more than one indie film under his belt – ably handles the carnage and it’s still fun to see dinosaurs chomping people (even if one character does meet with an uncomfortably drawn-out demise), but these highs are not lasting and seldom inspire awe, even when Giacchino kicks the John Williams score up to eleven and the camera sweeps elegantly across the vast expanse of the attraction.

Moments like these expose Jurassic World as a messy but safe creation, hamstrung by the considerable history behind it, never able to tell a convincing story because it’s too busy nodding at the previous films. The characters – once so strong with the likes of Malcolm, Sattler, and Grant – are barely given enough attention for us to root for them. In fact, in this outing the dinosaurs are given as much depth as the humans, severely reducing the fear factor they once possessed. Case in point – Owen’s pack of raptors with which he somehow communicates using plain old English and a clicking device, able to placate them with an outstretched palm.

The more one thinks about this and the rest of the film as a whole, the sillier and crucially duller it becomes – using dinosaurs for military applications has to be the height of ridiculousness, and don’t get me started on the out-of-the-blue conclusion. The film-makers have set about the task of reinvigorating the franchise with their pieced-together script in one hand and a giant Jurassic checklist in the other, and have judged the latter to be far more important than anything resembling narrative. So in the end that’s what we get with Jurassic World, a handsomely made pile of references that’s just bigger and more on the surface. There’s still raptors, but this time they’re tame…and they’ve got cameras.

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Life’s a treat with… – Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) Review

Shaun the Sheep Movie poster“He doesn’t miss a trick or ever lose a beat”

This line, spoken of Shaun the sheep in the theme song to his highly popular kids TV show, could easily be spoken of Aardman Animations (albeit with a few grammatical alterations). Since Chicken Run back at the start of the millennium, the studio has had hit after hit on the big screen, even with the less critically well-received Flushed Away. They have a knack for crafting endearing adventures that delight audiences young and old and their latest effort continues that stellar run of form.

In all honesty, even as an ardent Aardman fan, I had some doubts whether a TV show pitched at younger viewers could make the transition to the cinema. Each episode contains a short story resolved by the closing credits and runs for 7 minutes – twelve times shorter than the 85 minute feature length stated on IMDB. Does the concept still entertain with an extended runtime? Of course it does, and with such aplomb that I’m ashamed I even entertained those concerns in the first place.

The setup is brilliantly straight-forward. Desiring a day off from the same schedule, Shaun hatches a plan to distract The Farmer, but the ploy goes awry and it’s up to Shaun and his flock to locate their master in the big city and bring him home. Whilst it may not have the narrative depth of Curse of the Were-Rabbit for instance, it’s so jam-packed with fun moments that it turns into an hilarious adventure. This, in no small part, is down to the collective talents of all those working at Aardman and their fine-tuned understanding of visual comedy.

Shaun the Sheep Movie flock

As viewers of the TV show will already know, Shaun the Sheep – like its stop-motion compatriot Pingu – contains no dialogue at all. The closest it gets are the mumblings of The Farmer which are indistinguishable as spoken words.Therefore all the comedy must come through expressions, actions, and the careful arrangement of objects within the frame; exactly the same rules that governed the great silent comedies of Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton. It’s a visual language that’s difficult to get right, but one that allows so many opportunities for laughs to be packed into a widescreen space. Suffice to say that the creators have a fluency perhaps only matched nowadays in the work of Edgar Wright.

Diversity is also key to the success of the humour because while the film is squarely aimed at children, it contains a range of sophistication to the jokes that will also appeal to adults, such as the sprinkling of clever pop-culture references which are sure to please seasoned cinephiles. This is arguably the best measure of a kids film, in that it isn’t a film solely for kids. It’s an utter delight for those of all ages.

Leaving the rib-ticklingly universal humour aside in closing, Shaun the Sheep Movie is also full to the brim with joy and warmth. I believe this is due to medium of claymation which has a wonderfully tactile quality that is always evident, even thought it’s easy to forget about it when caught up in the adorable character design. You’ll know what I mean when you see baby Shaun. I don’t have much more to say other than it’s a lovely movie. Get out there and see it. And bring as many family members and friends along so you can all share in its warm and fuzzy feeling.