Moana – Review


Disney’s success in the film medium has come from a lot of factors, but one of the chief ones is their ability to fully reinvent themselves, even while still having a foothold in the past.  When you look over the whole of their film library, primarily among their animated canon, you see a lot of highs and lows in their history, with the high points standing out as the defining elements of their studio character.  While varied degrees of success have come their way, their primary expertise has always been fairy tales and legends.  It would make sense, since that’s how the Disney company started out in features, with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937.  Since then, any era of advancement in the Disney company usually is marked by the release of another fairy tale classic, like Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) in the Golden Era of the 50’s, or The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) in the Disney Renaissance, or even in the Digital Era with Frozen (2013).  Each of these successful fairy tale features also built up a lucrative brand for the company dedicated to the Disney Princesses.  The Princess line has allowed itself to be flexible, so that it could include characters outside of fairy tales to fall under the same branding, especially if they are representative of other cultures.  That’s why you see Pocahontas included as a Disney Princess as well as Mulan, despite the fact that neither are royalty in their selective films.  Even Pixar’s Merida from Brave (2012) gets lumped in.  Whatever the reasoning behind each one’s inclusion, Disney’s Princess brand is a powerful one and they are eager to keep it growing, and with the release of their new film Moana, they have added a rather unique newcomer to their club.

Moana tells an original story derived from various legends told in various Pacific Island cultures.  It’s not the first time the company has chosen a setting like this for a movie, or used Oceanic people for their main characters.  However, that earlier film was Lilo & Stitch (2002), a contemporary story about native Hawaiians encountering a rambunctious alien creature.  It was a movie respectful of Pacific Island culture and people, but it only looked briefly into the cultural heritage of it’s characters and instead firmly put them in a modern, homogenized setting.  Moana, on the other hand, puts the culture and legends of it’s setting front and center.  And one thing that is reassuring about Disney’s track record with depicting other world cultures is that they do their research thoroughly in order to capture some authenticity with their depiction.  Sure, Disney does soften cultural traits in order to suit their corporate image (a process dubbed Disney-fication), but they do make their best effort to try to give each cultural group or race a fair place in their overall community.  Moana allows for the many cultures of the Pacific Islands to have their story presented to the world in the spirited Disney way, and the project comes from some top tier talent at the company.  The directors are long time veterans John Musker and Ron Clements, a successful duo at Disney for over 30 years whose credits include hits like The Little MermaidAladdin (1992), Treasure Planet (2002) and The Princess and the Frog (2009).  Moana marks their first CGI feature, as well as their first in the Cinemascope format.  In addition to their legendary directors, Disney also tapped songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda to pen several new songs for the film, coming off recently from his mega hit Broadway show, Hamilton.  With strong names like these attached, you would expect that there are high hopes surrounding Moana.  But, is it another Disney classic, or not?

Moana sets itself on no specific island found in the Pacific Ocean, but instead portrays a portrait of traditional Islander life in a more classical age.  We meet Moana (voiced by Auli’l Cravalho) who is being prepped by her father, Chief Tui (voiced by Temuera Morrison), to be the next chieftain of their island village.  At the same time, Moana’s free-spirited grandmother Tala (voiced by Rachel House) indulges the girl’s desires to see what is beyond her island and gives her the knowledge of the histories and legends of her people.  Moana learns from her granny that many years ago, the Goddess of creation named Te Fiti had her heart stolen by a Demi God named Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).  Upon escaping the island home of Te Fiti, Maui encountered a demon formed out of lava named Te Ka, who fiercly attacks him and causes Maui to drop both the Heart of Te Fiti and his magical fish hook, the source of all his power.  Without her heart, Te Fiti drains the life out of Islands throughout the ocean, and the web of decay has now reached Moana’s Island, causing the crops to die.  Despite her father’s stern warnings, Moana sets off alone to find Maui and force him return the heart stone to it’s rightful place.  By her side is the rooster Hei Hei (voiced by Alan Tudyk), and the ocean itself, which has a mind of it’s own, helping Moana along the way after it has chosen her specifically for the task.  Once Maui is found, the two set off on the journey which includes encounters with the Kakamora (coconut bodied pirates) and a gluttonous giant crab named Tamatoa (voiced by Flight of the Conchord’s Jemaine Clement).  Though she has the ocean as her ally, Moana still has to learn to navigate across the vastness of it, and it’s a quest that will test every ounce of her being, as well as show her exactly the person she needs to be.

Moana is a very pleasurable adventure from Disney, and feels right at home with all of their other animated features.  It is beautiful to behold, and is entertaining from beginning to end.  The only thing that I would say that keeps it from achieving all time classic status as a Disney feature is the fact that the movie more or less is a tad too familiar.  It’s not poorly told, nor does it do anything out of line that sours a good narrative; it’s just that I feel that it could have been just a little better if it took some more unexpected routes in the story.  I think this movie has the disadvantage of following in the wake of Zootopia, Disney’s early Spring release, which was a much more risk-taking film, making it one of the studio’s best efforts in years.  Moana by comparison just plays to more of what you would expect from Disney, and while that’s acceptable, it’s not really revolutionary either.  And, it seems to me that the filmmakers knew that going in too.  There are several jabs at Disney Princess cliches thrown at us within the movie, and they can be quite refreshing.  A particularly funny one comes from Maui halfway through where he points out how Princesses always carry around an animal sidekick with them.  But, even though the movie pokes fun at the cliches, it only reinforces your awareness that they are there, and the movie isn’t daring enough to try to avoid them.  But, even still, this movie is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  I would even say among the Princess focused films, it’s the best we’ve seen from Disney since the Renaissance; yes even better than Frozen (which was just okay to me).  Cliched or no, you are not going to come away from this movie feeling like it’s a waste of your time.

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is it’s characters.  In particular, Moana herself.  She is one of the best written and performed heroines to be found in the whole Disney canon, and it’s her journey that makes the whole film worthwhile.  While the journey itself can sometimes be cliched, the growth of Moana’s character is not.  I love the fact that the story foregoes the necessity of making her gender a factor in this story.  Moana is not trying to prove her worth as a girl in society nor is she trying to prove herself as a leader.  Those things are already established for her at the start.  She’s already taking her place as the ruler of her people before her journey begins.  Her growth as a character is more of a personal one of enlightenment, allowing her to discover the person she really is  and help her lose all self doubt that could prevent her from becoming a better leader.  This personal journey is what makes Moana far more interesting than the usual Disney Princess, who tend to not have internal conflicts define their characters.  Auli’l Cravalho does a fantastic job of voicing the character, capturing the spunkiness of youth, but also the depth of a girl burdened by the responsibility that she holds for her people as well as for herself.  Like most other culturally based films in the Disney canon, I applaud them for filling the voice roles with actors representative of those cultures, and Moana is no different.  Multiple Pacific Island ethnicities are represented in the cast, including Cravalho who is Polynesian, Dwayne Johnson who is half-Samoan, and both Temuera Morrison and Jemaine Clement who have New Zealander Maori ancestry.  It all brings a nice authenticity to the voices of these characters.  And the cast is universally strong throughout the movie.  Dwayne Johnson’s on-screen charisma translates surprisingly well into the character of Maui too.  And I especially loved the tender quirkiness of Rachel House as Moana’s grandmother.  Overall, each helps to make this another great addition of characters to the ever growing Disney family.

One thing that I’m sure a lot of people are going to take away from this film more than anything is the music.  Disney of course has left a huge mark on the classic Hollywood musical tradition, and Moana hopes to add it’s own contribution to the great Disney Songbook.  In order to capture the sounds of the Pacific Islander cultures, it seems unusual that they would select a Puerto Rican-American for the job, but it’s understandable when that person is the award-winning Lin-Manuel Miranda.  After completing one of the biggest Broadway blockbusters in recent memory with Hamilton, the timing couldn’t be much better for Disney to have new songs written for their film by this superstar.  And the songs he has co-written with Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i have that nice mix of contemporary pop and authentic Oceanic cultural influence.  Thankfully, none of the songs here are going to be omnipresent earworms like Frozen’s “Let it Go,” but a few still stand out as catchy and memorable.  I think the real standout is “We Know the Way,” an epic centerpiece song about the history of the Oceanic wayfinders who founded so many of the cultures on the Islands of the Pacific, including Moana’s own.  It’s a song that evokes the same grandeur of a melody like The Lion King’s “Circle of Life,” and more than any other becomes the theme of the movie itself.  I also have a soft spot for the song “Shiny,” which is sung by Jemaine Clement’s Tamatoa.  It would have been a waste to not take advantage of combining the voice of the Flight of the Conchords with the writer of Hamilton, and thankfully Disney did not miss this opportunity.  It’s a great, gaudy tune that sounds like something Tim Curry would’ve performed in his Rocky Horror heyday, and it’s probably my favorite Disney Villain song in quite a long time.  Surprisingly enough, they managed to get Dwayne Johnson to sing in the movie, and while he’s a bit out of his league, I still give him credit for at least trying.  He’s more brave than I would’ve been.  Accompanied by a beautiful epic score by Mark Mancina, Moana‘s music does the Disney Songbook proud.

But apart from the cast and the music, the movie also has the benefit of looking absolutely gorgeous as well.  It’s a good thing this movie is being released in the wintertime, because audiences will feel like they’ve taken a refreshing summer vacation to the South Pacific after watching this film.  The movie puts so much rich detail into every shot of the movie, from the lush greens of Moana’s island, to the bright blues of the sun-drenched skies.  Character details are also pleasing to the eye.  I’m sure that many people are going to have fun examining all the different designs of Maui’s tattoos which cover his whole body, and which come to life through traditional hand drawn animation.  And while the recreation of life on the islands is richly detailed in itself, the movie also indulges in some eye-poppingly imaginative magical sights as well.  The Kakamoura pirates for example are a great, inspired creation; being both adorable and intimidating at the same time.  I also feel that their scene owes a lot of inspiration to George Miller’s Mad Max series; you’ll see why.  Also, the location of Tamatoa’s lair in Lalotai, the realm of monsters, gives the movie a nice surreal experience, where the production designers and animators clearly had a lot of fun coming up with a lot of out there visual ideas.  Apart from the visual design, the animation of the characters is also phenomenal, and shows just how comfortable Disney has gotten with the CGI medium.  Moana herself is elegantly designed, and full-figured which is a nice departure from the Barbie doll look of past Disney princesses.  There’s also some spectacular animation done on the demon Te Ka, making her feel like she’s authentically made out of molten lava.  Audiences will also be stunned by the beautiful way that the Ocean itself is brought to life, especially in an awe-inspiring introduction scene early in the movie, where a baby Moana walks among  ocean walls that have parted for her.  It’s a visual tour de force that lives up to the high Disney standard.

So, is Moana worth checking out this Thanksgiving weekend?  For any Disney fan or animation fan out there, it is absolutely worth seeing, and for the casual viewer, it will certainly be one of the best options out there too.  I do have minor misgivings about the overall story, but maybe it’s just my abnormally high standards with regards to Disney Animation.  It’s definitely on the higher end of the Disney canon, but just a hair short of being one of the all-time masterpieces.  Oddly enough, I think that Zootopia may have been the better Disney effort of the year, despite it’s less epic presentation.  It has to do more with how well the sum of every part works for each movie, and Zootopia just hit the mark more than Moana.  But, that’s not to say that Moana is a disappointment.  I had a good time watching the movie and was absorbed into the rich setting of it’s narrative.  It is spectacularly animated and full of rich characters.  I love the main heroes of Moana and Maui, both of whom will become favorite Disney characters for many fans young and old for years to come.  The songs in particular are what I consider the movie’s triumph; supportive of the story, but not overwhelming either.  I’ve had both “We Know the Way,” and “Shiny” stuck in my head for days now, so that’s a good indicator of how much an impression they’ll leave behind.  They also live up to the high standards of both Disney’s reputation and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s.  Anyone who is a fan of Hamilton owes it to themselves to hear Miranda’s work here as well.  This is also another strong addition to the legendary work of Musker and Clements, who have solidified their reputation as the Disney Studio’s most heralded film-making duo.  Hopefully it’s not their last collaboration, but if it is, then it’s a strong way to go out.  Despite feeling at times a tad too familiar, Moana is still a worthwhile animated feature and you’ll be well served finding your way to your local theater to see it.

Rating: 8/10


Focus on a Franchise – Harry Potter: Part Two


The one thing that most readers of the J.K. Rowling novels observed as the series went along was how the latter books took a considerable dark turn in the narrative.  Whatever the reason, Rowling’s novels dealt with heavier and heavier themes as it headed towards the homestretch, finding the titular boy hero in ever more dire situations.  The notion that this was children’s literature seemed to not apply anymore, and I’m sure that if you asked Rowling herself, she would probably say that she never intended these stories to be just for kids, and these later novels are proof of that.  Death, and the inevitability of it, became the overarching theme of the last four novels of the series, as well as the effect it has on Harry as a whole.  In the story, Harry has to face the deaths of loved ones, put himself and his friends in harms way, and come to the realization that in order to defeat his mortal enemy, Voldemort, he will have to either kill, or be killed (or perhaps both).  Safe to say, things get pretty dark on this side of the Potter franchise.  Gone is the joyful wonderment of the earlier stories, but it’s a maturity that needed to happen for the series to reach it’s full potential.  What many fans and critics all agree with is that Rowling concluded her epic series in a very satisfying fashion.  Harry’s journey does come full circle and little is left unresolved.  And while many of the more shocking moments from these latter novels did leave fans upset, I’m sure that no one would want to see the story done any other way.  Knowing how effective Rowling completed her epic story must have been a relief to those trusted with bringing the books to the big screen, but doing them justice, with all the darker themes involved proved to be a challenge in it’s own right.

The Harry Potter franchise went through something of a makeover in the third and fourth entries, Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) and Goblet of Fire (2005), and those two films would lay the groundwork for everything that followed after.  Just as I had in my first part of this retrospective (which you can read here), I will be examining the Potter franchise film by film, this time focusing on the final four.  Like before, I will avoid giving plot summaries and instead focus on the different highlights of each film, and how the series progressed with regards to it’s storytelling, the performances, and it’s realization of the wizarding world itself.  I will be discussing some spoilers as well, so be forewarned.  The interesting thing about the last half of the Potter franchise is that unlike the first four, which had a shifting number of directors at the helm, all of the remaining films were directed by one man; British filmmaker David Yates.  Yates was given the daunting task of steering this massive franchise home, and for someone with few credits outside of television at the time, he proved to be a surprisingly effective choice.  In fact, not only did he manage to close out the Potter franchise in a grand way, but he’s now the man in charge of shepherding J.K. Rowling’s new big screen franchise, the Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; having signed on to direct all five planned films in that series.  So, now that were ready, let us delve into the final four movies of this franchise and conclude this two part retrospective of the Harry Potter franchise.



After the shocking revelation of Voldemort’s rebirth, and the death of one of Hogwart’s students (Cedric Diggory) at the hands of the dark wizard in the previous film, the Wizarding World would never be the same afterwards.  Order of the Phoenix deals with the immediate aftermath of those events, putting Harry and his friends in a far more uncertain and paranoid time.  The titular Order, we learn, is an organization devoted to stopping the Dark Lord’s return, and it’s made up of the adult figures in Harry’s life, including his beloved godfather Sirius Black (with Gary Oldman returning for the role).  What is interesting about this particular film in the franchise is that it was an adaptation of the longest novel in Rowling’s series (a whopping 870 pages), and yet of the single book adaptations, it had the shortest run-time; about 139 minutes.  To do that, you can imagine that a lot of the book was cut down, but overall, I think it was something that had to be done.  Not to disparage Rowling as writer, but Order of the Phoenix was the book that suffered the most from unnecessary filler, and I commend the filmmakers for actually cutting the story down to it’s most essential elements.  And they did this mostly by finding the core of the story and focusing just on that, itself being Harry coming to terms with growing older and knowing that loss and suffering will be following him on his journey going forward.  In the books, Harry becomes a lot more moody and aggressive, which does come out a little bit in Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, but in a more subtle way.  The film does also deals with Harry’s maturity in an effective way, showing his talents as a teacher when he helps his fellow students learn essential spells for fighting the Dark Arts in secret, congregating in the Room of Requirement, which sees it’s first appearance in this movie.

Some new important characters get introduced in Order as well.  My favorite would have to be Luna Lovegood (played to absolute perfection by newcomer Evanna Lynch).  Perhaps of all the students at Hogwarts, Luna is the one I most identify with, just because I was also an oddball kid whose head was in the clouds most of the time, so I guess that’s what makes her one of my absolute favorite characters in the series, and it made me very happy to see her so perfectly realized here.  Also introduced were two of the most loathsome characters in the series overall.  The first is the unhinged and sadistic Bellatrix Lestrange, a witch with strong ties to Voldemort.  She’s played by Helena Bonham Carter, which seemed like appropriate casting considering Carter’s affinity for the gothic and bizarre, which has found it’s way into many of her performances, including this one, and she is very good in the role.  The other addition however probably stands as the most hated character in the series overall, that being Professor Dolores Umbridge.  Umbridge is a thoroughly unpleasant character, pretending to be wholesome and gentile, while at the same time taking delight in suppressing other people’s rights and even subjecting them to torture, like having students write with an ink quill that drains the writer of their own blood.  She is played by actress Imelda Staunton in a phenomenal performance.  You’ve got to give her credit for bringing so much into a character that’s so despised.  The movie also delivers an amazing set piece in the Ministry of Magic, the wizarding world’s center of government.  It’s also the setting for one of the series greatest moments, the showdown between Voldemort and Dumbledore, which does not disappoint in the movie.  Overall, Order of the Phoenix is the Potter franchise at it’s most efficient, knowing what to cut out and what to leave in, creating a well rounded movie in the process.



Released two years after Order of the Phoenix, the longest gap between any of the films in the franchise, we were treated with the sixth film in the franchise.  The Half-blood Prince picks up right after the events of Order, showing the aftermath of Voldemort’s attack on the Ministry, and Harry dealing with the loss of Sirius Black in the confrontation.  Like the previous film, this story is focused on one crucial thing, and that’s the relationship between Harry and Dumbledore, who spend far more time together here than in all the previous films.  This is a movie that focuses far more on filling out the gaps in the narrative, in particular regarding the backstory of Voldemort himself, as Harry and Dumbledore try to piece together exactly how the Dark Lord was able to cheat death.  We learn for the first time about Horcruxes, which we learn is what Voldemort has used to keep himself alive, having split his soul into seven different objects, all of which Harry will have to destroy in order to defeat him.  The film does an effective job of filling us in on how everything in the story now ties together and showing us what Harry must do to finally vanquish the enemy.  Unfortunately for the film, this is what also makes the story feel kind of weak here.  Of all the latter Harry Potter films, this one is sadly the weakest, and that’s mainly because it feels like the story has stalled a bit, in order to fill us in on all the details.  The presentation also feels a little more muted than usual, choosing a more languid pace than previous films, along with a sickly muted color palette (though beautifully shot by acclaimed cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel).  After the brisk pacing of Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, this movie really felt like the franchise slamming on the breaks, and it suffers as a result.

That’s not to say that everything in this movie is terrible.  There are some welcome highlights.  One is the addition of Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent to the cast as the delightful Professor Horace Slughorn.  The character is absent-minded and self-serving, but Broadbent brings a nice bit of congeniality to the character that helps to make him endearing.  There’s also a graciously hilarious sequence when Harry takes the “Liquid Luck” potion in order to effectively coax out information he needs from Professor Slughorn.  It’s a much need light moment in an otherwise dour film, and it also lets Daniel Radcliffe show off his comedic chops for once as Harry, something I’m sure that he’s wanted to do for a long time in the role.  Also, the relationship with Dumbledore is well developed here, and Radcliffe and Michael Gambon are superb in their scenes together, especially in the climatic and sometimes hard to watch scene where Harry has to force feed a poisonous potion to Dumbledore in order to find a Horcrux.  The backstory scenes are also incredibly moody too, especially one where Dumbledore meets Voldemort as a child (played by Ralph Finnes own nephew, Hero Finnes-Tiffin, who is excellent).  But, all the good elements can’t seem to help the movie as whole, which just feels off in it’s pacing.  Jokes that should have been hilarious fall flat and a lot of the joyfulness of previous films feels missing here.   Also, the film sadly misses the opportunity to go more in depth with the mystery of the title itself, the identity of the Half-Blood Prince.  Spoilers, it’s Professor Snape, who is absent for most of the movie, which seems like a waste.  I do however want to give some praise to actor Tom Felton here, who has played the sometimes one note Draco Malfoy throughout the series.  Here, he’s finally able to show some depth in the character and he at last gives a memorable performance, showing effectively the weight of his conflicting morals when he’s called upon to do the most evil of acts.  Half-Blood Prince is not the series worst, but it is an unfortunate bump in the road towards a satisfying conclusion.



Warner Brothers made the controversial decision with the last book in the series in choosing to split it up into two films.  The benefit is that they would gain another film for the series, extending it to eight instead of seven, but the downside was that the story might be stretched too thin in each film, making it less impactful than it should.  Still, for some, it’s a decision that makes sense, considering that The Deathly Hollows is a substantial book (at 759 pages) and that unlike Order of the Phoenix, you couldn’t cut a lot of it out without losing something valuable.  So, what we got was two movies devoted to depicting the final chapter of the Potter franchise, and for the most part, it’s a decision that works.  Sadly, this precident has become popular in Hollywood in general, and now it’s commonplace for major franchises to split their final chapters into two-parters, like the Twilight and Hunger Games series, and not all of them managed to do it as well as Potter did.  One thing that helps Harry’s final chapter is that it has a stronger break-off point to split the story up, giving each film a nice full narrative.  The first film, while maligned by some fans for having the same languid pacing as Half-Blood Prince, actually benefits the most from the split narrative.  Part 1 in fact may be my favorite of the latter Potter films, and third overall behind Goblet  and Azkaban.  I just found it a fascinating watch as an experiment.  Could you really make a Harry Potter film without Hogwarts in it.  This movie proves that you can, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione living on the run as fugitives, escaping Voldemort’s disciples The Death Eaters, who have taken over the Ministry and are hunting them down.  It’s that feeling of a world flipped upside down that really drives the narrative along and makes this movie a captivating watch.

What I particularly like about this movie is the way it delves deeper into the relationship between our three main heroes.  Ron and Hermione in particular are given much more depth here, and the growth of their characters is touching and heartbreaking as the story goes along.  Both Rupert Grint and Emma Watson deliver standout performances, and like with Daniel Radcliffe, it’s amazing to see how far they’ve matured as actors since they first showed up in The Sorcerers Stone nearly a decade earlier.  It’s clear in this film that they are no longer children, but full-fledged adults, who now have a sense of pain and loss weighing on their shoulders.  There is a fantastic scene halfway through the movie that really encompasses the growth these characters has gone through, and it’s after Ron has abandoned his friends after a fight.  Harry cheers up the grieving Hermione by leading her in a dance, which doesn’t seem all that important, but in the movie it is a brilliant character moment, and one that was not in the books.  There are other key elements introduced in the story, namely the titular Deathly Hallows.  In an amazing and beautiful animated sequence, we learn that the Hallows are three objects that are capable of cheating death, those being the all powerful Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone which brings life back to the dead, and as Harry soon realizes, the Cloak of Invisibility which he’s long had in his possession.  The film also brings back a long absent character, house elf Dobby, who is very much improved as a character here, both in terms of his construction as a CGI character as well as his personality.  His return is short-lived however, as he is slain while helping Harry and his friends escape the clutches of Bellatrix Lestrange at Malfoy Manor, giving this movie a poignant moment to close on.  All these elements make Part 1 of The Deathly Hallows one of the series best.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


It all comes down to this.  After a decade of build-up, with seven previous movies rounding out the story, we finally come to the final confrontation between good and evil in the Wizarding World.  Picking up right where Part 1 left off, Part 2 finds Harry and his friends at a bleak breaking point, and Voldemort in possession of the Elder Wand, which it turns out was being used by Dumbledore up until his death at the end of Half-Blood Prince.  After finding one more Horcrux in the vaults of Gringott’s Bank in London, Harry and his friends soon learn where they will find the remaining hidden Horcrux; in a room somewhere inside Hogwarts.  At that’s where the final battle commences.  Harry and his friends quickly dispose of Voldemort’s cronies at the school, which includes Snape, and those loyal to Harry including Professor McGonagall and the remaining Order of the Phoenix members help to prepare the castle for attack.  The movie on a whole is one big giant climatic battle, which is both the film’s strength and it’s weakness.  While it is a spectacular, epic showdown that is well-paced and captivating, it also has the disadvantage of making this singular film feel very one-note.  The movie feels less like a complete movie, and more like an extended final act; which to be fair, it does very well.  But even still, it makes it less watchable on it’s own than any previous Potter film, because it feels the most like part of a story rather than it’s own thing.  It’s the same problem that plagued the final Hobbit movie, where everything was more or less tied to wrapping things up rather than delivering a complete standalone narrative.  Even Part 1 felt more complete.  Still, despite it’s shortcomings, Part 2 is a satisfying conclusion to this series.

The final battle within Hogwarts is massive and full of eye-catching moments.  The film really shows how comfortable director David Yates had gotten with directing on a massive scale.  The performances are universally strong, especially Daniel Radcliffe and Ralph Finnes in their iconic roles.  To see these two facing off against each other finally is very satisfying, especially in seeing how much more confident Harry has become over the years, becoming fearless in the face of evil and certain death.  We also get to finally see the long awaited moment when Ron and Hermione kiss for the first time, bringing closure to this long developing romantic subplot.  But, the movie’s greatest triumph belongs to the absolutely brilliant segment in which we learn about Severus Snape’s full backstory.  Heavy spoilers ahead.  Harry is given Snape’s memories as the professor is dying from his wounds, and Harry is able to view them through the Pensieve dish in Dumbledore’s office, a plot device introduced in Goblet of Fire and featured heavily in Half-Blood Prince.  In those memories, both we and Harry learn that Snape and Harry’s mother Lily were childhood friends and that Snape was indeed protecting Harry out of his love for Lily, even beyond her death.  The scene is an emotional one, and proves once and for all that Snape was a true hero in the end.  Alan Rickman delivers some of his best work in this sequence, especially the moment when he’s clutching Lily’s body after her murder by Voldemort, utterly devastated.  And Rickman forever endeared himself to a whole generation of fans with one simple, perfectly delivered line; “always.”  The actor’s recent passing earlier this year only made this moment and line more poignant, and he deserves all of the praise he’s been given.  All of this makes Deathly Hallows Part 2 a very satisfactory end.

So, there you have it.  What seemed like a long shot at first ended up proving to be a masterstroke in the end.  In ten years and eight films, we managed to see J.K. Rowling’s grand vision come to life, and it became one of cinema’s greatest journeys as a result.  While not perfect all the way through, the series nevertheless feels very complete as a whole.  It’s especially fun watching it the whole way through and seeing the children grow up before your very eyes.  Considering the scale of the whole undertaking, it’s miraculous that they ever managed to make it through the entire series in one piece overall.  The franchise launched quite a few careers, as well as gave us some career defining work from some beloved veterans.  But, more than anything, it made Hogwarts and the wizarding world around it feel real.  All of us who watch the movies or read the books wishes that a place like that could exist in real life.  It’s probably why J.K. Rowling has expanded the lore of her novels and created things like the Pottermore website, which allows for the fan community to come together online, find out which house they belong to at Hogwarts, and feel like they are a part of this grand fantasy themselves.  Even today, five years after the conclusion of the series, do we still see the impact of the movies in pop culture and elsewhere.  Universal Studios theme parks have their own sections devoted to recreating landmarks from the films, including Hogwarts itself, which immerses the fan-base even further in the world.  But, what I think is the series greatest contribution is the near perfect way it captures the essence of what it’s like to grow up in school; as the innocence and optimism of youth shifts into a deeper understanding of the hardships that await us in adulthood.  Harry was the perfect surrogate for this kind of journey, and it’s great to see a movie franchise that brought his story so perfectly to life.  It cast it’s spell on us and we couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Finding the Good in the Bad – The Making of Great Movie Villains


They say that a hero is only as good as the challenges he faces, and every challenge in a great adventure usually has some form of antagonist behind it.  In storytelling, the conflict between a character and an adversary is universal for every type of story told.  And sometimes that adversary becomes a compelling character within their own right, maybe even more so than the hero they face.  The villain, while not essential for every story, is the unique character that embodies the struggle that every character must overcome, and depending on the struggle, that villainous character can be representative of many different things.  Sometimes the villain is a brute making trouble for the hero, or sometimes he is a mastermind that the hero must outsmart in order to save the day.  One popular trope in storytelling is to have the villain be the hero’s exact opposite in every way and in turn, makes him or her a competitor challenging the entire purpose of the hero’s existence.  Regardless of how they function in the story, the villain is the character that motivates everything else within the story, so it is a character that must be carefully developed.  And as we’ve seen, some villains have withstood the test of time and have become icons in their own right.  Whether they are monsters, murderers, schemers, or just the average bully, they all stand out and if developed well enough they’ll become the ones we love to hate.  Many great villains stand out in literature, but some of the most popular as of late have been the ones that have emerged out of Hollywood, which has developed it’s own way of popularizing the image of the villain in modern pop culture.

More so than any other form of entertainment, Hollywood is heavily reliant upon the presence of a villainous character in their stories.  Going all the way back to the silent era, Hollywood has developed it’s art-form around the basic conflict of a hero taking on a villain; whether it was cowboys hunting bandits, gangsters battling police, or a knight fighting a dragon, clear-cut good vs. evil storylines were the easiest to translate for a general audience during the medium’s infancy.  But, as the art-form advanced, and the stories became more complex, so did the characters themselves.  In the years since, we’ve seen many villains arrive on the big screen that were not only compelling, but relatable in many ways, allowing the audience to see just how fine a line between good and evil there is.  But, just as well as Hollywood can create a memorable and compelling villain, they are also very much susceptible to creating a boring, forgettable villain.  And usually, the weaker the villain, the weaker the story.  This is often a complaint that I hear leveled at comic book movies, which is an industry built around creating iconic heroes and villains.  The recent slate of Marvel movies in the last few years have seen this complaint in particular, as the complex universe they have created has been growing larger with so many expanded franchises.  And to keep these multiple franchises going, Marvel has had to dig deeper into their catalog to find new adversaries for their heroes, and not all of them are all that great.  Some work better than others, but when you’ve exhausted the cream of the crop, you are eventually having your hero face someone that the audience will remark, “who is that?”  Marvel is not alone when facing this problem and it leads us to wonder what indeed is the formula for creating the most memorable of villains.

The formula of a hero villain dynamic in movies is always dominated by certain factors.  For the most part, villains in movies have a distinction about them that sets them apart from other characters.  Using the visual medium for storytelling effect, a lot of movies are able to identify the villain in a story purely by the way they look, usually through color coding.  That’s why you have the sometimes overused trope of the villain being dressed all in black.  Secondly, the villain must always have a clear cut motive from the very beginning; something that immediately puts them in opposition with the rest of the characters.  A villain with no rhyme or reason for what they are doing will only make the overall story pointless, because the hero’s quest will prove pointless as a result.  It doesn’t matter if the villain’s plan is proven foolish or insane, as long as they drive the conflict, it will motivate the story.  Then there are the other factors that contribute to a villain’s purpose in a story, like how their personality drives their evil ends, and how it clashes with the hero.  Hollywood usually follows these factors, and for most of it’s history, they have developed some notable baddies for the cinema.  The one thing that helps with the formula is that easy distinction between good vs. evil.  For many early films, moral distinctions were very clear; with the hero always a pure individual and the villain a un-redeemable rogue.  The war years in particular gave Hollywood such a distinction, because the world itself was caught up in a conflict with such a definable line between good and evil.  You see it in films like Casablanca (1943), which gave the mantle of villainy not just to an individual but to an entire grouping of characters; namely the Nazi Army.  And because of this distinction, it also defined the quintessential Hollywood hero, like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, who defines the ideal of undeterred resolve in the face of tyranny.

But, with the war years over, Hollywood’s definition of heroism and villainy began to change as well.  Looking inward, Hollywood began to examine more domestic ideas of good and evil in society, and villainy began to take a new face.  Sometime a system itself would be the villainous obstacle for the hero; like Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch standing up to institutional racism in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  Also, villains with grand schemes were no longer the only types you would see on the big screen.  Sometimes it would be the average guy next door committing an unfathomable crime that would leave a mark in the audiences’ memory.  A perfect example of this would be Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho (1960).  While seemingly normal on the outside, we learn over the course of the movie that this sweet boy next door is in fact a serial killer by the end.  Moral ambiguity suddenly became the norm in cinema, as gray areas between good and evil in society began to form.  With politicians becoming less trustworthy, and institutions were propping up evil actions rather than taking them down, the old Hollywood formula began to change, with villains becoming the very institutions that would have been seen as heroic in earlier days.  And with establishments and people within the system filling the villainous roles, we began to see the rise of the anti-hero in cinema.  The Anti-hero was someone who usually would commit villainous acts, but towards a greater good.  You see these types of characters in many action films like Dirty Harry (1971), Cool Hand Luke (1967), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and Mad Max (1979); characters who in any other story would be the bad guy or a trouble maker, but end up looking heroic because they fight against a far more evil system.  It’s through these anti-heroes and the shift in morality that we see a whole different type of villain today than what was normal many decades earlier.

So, how do we get a great villain in film’s today.  For the most part it all comes down to personality.  A great villain needs to be either charismatic and hypnotic in their appeal, or loathsome beyond any redemption in order to stand out.  And, for the most part, the best villains come of the strength of the talents of the people that create them.  In recent years, I think that the filmmaker who has churned out consistently the most memorable screen villains is Quentin Tarantino.  Not only do his villainous characters stand out in easily definable ways, but they are always the most alluring characters in his movies as well.  Whether it is Death Proof‘s Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), Django Unchained‘s Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), or The Hateful Eight’s Dorothy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he always manages to create that villain that we all love to hate.  But, I think his masterpiece would be Colonel Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds (Christoph Waltz), just because of how well the villain adheres to the formula, and subverts it at the same time.  Being a Nazi is bad enough, but what makes Landa so scary is that his personality is so genial and pleasant, making his villainous acts all the more vile.  Finding the right actor for these roles is also a major factor in making the villain memorable in a movie.  Other great examples of memorable villains defined by their actors would be Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), or Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), or Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1989).  It’s hard to imagine anyone else portraying these select villains more vividly than them.  And it all comes down to giving a villain an amazing personality, one on which the audience will instantly latch on to.

But, not every villain leaves a mark, and it is sometimes the fault of Hollywood sticking too close to formula.  We know the villains that we love to hate, but who are the ones that are just hateable, and nothing else. One thing that I’ve noticed about the least successful villains is that they fall into certain types; namely authority figures, and it’s a trope that is often overused in movies.  How many movies do you know of where the villain is just a stubborn general who won’t stray from his battle plan, or a religious figure entrenched in his or her ways, or a corporate hot shot that keeps our hero down.  These characters are very overused in movies and often signify to me lazy writing.  A villain shouldn’t be an afterthought, but instead the greatest obstacle that the hero must have to face.  Even if your story is centered around these types of adversaries, try to find a new spin to make the villain more than just an archetype.  This is why some of the superhero movie villains tend to be a little weak, because more and more of them are mostly formulaic, or are never given a clear motivation the same way that the hero is.  This is primarily what made the movie Iron Man 3 (2013) a failure for me.  The movie pulled a bait and switch on us by making us think that this larger than life adversary called The Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley) was after our hero, but instead we learn that it was a shady corporate scientist overlord named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) that was really pulling the strings.  It was a lame trick because we were denied an iconic villain in favor of a generic one.  What I saw with this was Marvel trying to play it safe because they might of thought a villain called the Mandarin would be politically incorrect.  But, casting an actor like Kingsley would’ve remedied that, so I have no idea why they changed it.  Being politically incorrect with your villain may be risky, but not always unrewarding.  It all depends on how well the execution is.  A perfect example would be Amy Dunne from Gone Girl (2014), played vividly by Rosamund Pike.  A vindictive woman taking extreme measures to punish her sometimes abusive husband may not be a portrayal that would make feminists happy, but the extreme lengths she takes in the movie, including outright murder, turns her into one of the most memorable villains in recent memory.

I think that this is what usually defines a memorable villain in films today; their extreme natures.  Because the lines between good and evil are blurred, with perspective from the audience coming into play, the villain is much more defined not by just committing an evil act, but by how extreme they take their villainy to the next level.  This is true in stories where moral relativism comes into play.  Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the villain of the Godfather movies, but he lives in a world completely full or gangsters, crooks, and corrupt politicians.  It’s because he takes such extremes in securing his power that his actions make him more of a villain than the others.   Going to great extremes is also why larger than life villains leave such a mark.  No one has better defined the larger than life villain than Disney has.  For most of us, we are introduced to the concept of good vs. evil from Disney movies, and their villains are so ingrained in our childhood psyche, that they become the archetypes of evil that we see in everything else.  How many times have you heard the names of Cruella DeVil, Jafar, Ursula, Captain Hook, or Judge Frollo brought up when discussing a villain from another movie or even some real world figures in the news.  That’s the power of having a compelling villain at the forefront of your story.  In some cases, Disney villains become more popular than the movies they originated from, like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959) or Hades from Hercules (1997).  This is something that you should see more often from comic book movies, because like Disney films, they have a strong rogues gallery to pull from.  Surprisingly, only Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) has seemed to generate a following outside of the films he’s in within the Marvel universe.  What Disney and other iconic films have shown is that audiences will embrace the more extreme villains out there, so Marvel has no other excuse to indulge the dark side just a little more.

A great hero is always defined by a great villain, so if cinema wants to have heroes worth rooting for, they must not be afraid of making their villains compelling as well.  Sometimes playing by formula gives you the adversary you need, but as we’ve seen, the greater the threat, the grander the adventure.  Strangely enough, I see the perfect formula for finding great villains in a story through video games of all places.  What drives us to play a game and battle through the same kinds of obstacles over and over again?  It’s because of the allure of what waits for us at the end, when we come face to face with the “Final Boss.”  The greater the final showdown is, the more rewarding the experience.  Of course, not every movie needs to play out like a video game, but it gives us a good idea about how do we build up the threat of each villain in the hero’s story.  You don’t want to face the same obstacle as you have before; you want to face the worst of them all so that you can find out if your journey was worth it and that you’ve learned something through it all.  And of course, it helps if the villain is a compelling character in their own right.  The best thing to hope for is that the actors and filmmakers share the same kind of love and care for portraying their most loathsome creations as they would for the heroes.  The best villains in movie history are always carefully constructed and in many cases, are examples of where the filmmakers took chances and were unafraid of going to extremes.  Going outside of one’s comfort zone, whether it’s within the performance or in the writing, is the best way to make a memorable villain.  Tarantino has often said the best thing he’s ever written is the vile introduction speech by Hans Landa, where he discusses the method of hunting down Jews.  Sometimes a writer may hate every word they give to their villain, but done with enough panache, and you’ve got a villain that you can be proud of creating.  Evil is a powerful concept in the world, and the more compelling and vivid the villain who embodies it, the more eager we are to see it vanquished.  That’s the key role a villain must always fill.

Doctor Strange – Review


The fall movie season is well under way, but so far, the last few weeks have been pretty bare.  With only Clint Eastwood’s Sully being the one breakout hit since summer, movie audiences have been craving something big from Hollywood.  With Snowden, The Birth of a Nation, Inferno, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and The Girl on the Train all receiving tepid to outright terrible receptions, you have to wonder if it’s even worth it to release anything in the first couple months of Fall anymore.  At this point last year, we had already seen The Martian and Hotel Transylvania 2 hit big numbers, so you would think that now is a point this year that Hollywood is beginning to see some problems.  Thankfully, the second half of the Fall season is here and what better way to kick it off than a new film from the ever reliable Marvel Studios.  Marvel returns to the fall season for the first time since Thor: The Dark World (2013) with yet another film that seems like a big gamble for the studio.  After showcasing dynamic earthbound heroes with Captain America and Iron Man, as well as celestial heroes with Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel now brings us a different kind of flavor to their many interesting worlds, and that’s the realm of the mystical with their new movie, Doctor Strange.  Doctor Strange finally brings to the big screen a long time fan favorite in the comic book world and helps to place him within the larger Marvel stable that keeps growing larger every year.

Created by Steve Ditko in the 1960’s, Strange was definitely a product of his era.  Strange’s mastery of magic and the manipulation of the physical and metaphysical worlds fit well with the psychedelia of the time and made him an instant hit among comic book readers.  But, in the years since, Doctor Strange has been a hard character to sell to the public.  Because of his background in mystical arts, he didn’t quite fit in as a superhero worth investing in on the big screen, like say Superman or Batman, who better fit the action hero mold.  But fans of the comics long championed the character, and he has enjoyed a long history of popularity on the page, becoming a key member of Marvel’s Avengers line in the process.  With the creation of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU) in the last decade, it finally seemed like the right time to give Strange his time in the sun, but it would have to wait until Marvel’s Phase 3 to actually happen.  But, it’s here and now fans of the comics and casual viewers as well now have the opportunity to see if Doctor Strange is able to work on the big screen as well as his fellow heroes and if he’s another jewel in Marvel’s cinematic crown, or a serious misstep.  It all comes down to whether the character works off of the page and that largely is up to how well the character is cast and if the movie manages to convey the trippier aspects of his mystical realm; neither of which is an easy thing to pull off.  So, is Doctor Strange one more hit for the MCU or have they tampered with powers out of their control and fallen into a metaphysical spiral of their own making.

The movie introduces us to Doctor Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) a talented and successful surgeon from New York City, renowned for his steady hands that makes him exceptionally skilled with complex surgeries.  A car accident one night leaves him severely scarred and unable to use his hands the same way as before.  Seeing his livelihood disappearing before him, he seeks more experimental and unorthodox treatments to help restore his abilities and his search eventually brings him to a temple in Nepal where he has heard of miraculous healings being made.  There he meets a mysterious and powerful woman named The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who persuades the cynical Strange that the answers he seeks are not in traditional science, but in the art of the mystical.  Strange trains at the temple and learns how to use trans-dimensional magic to conjure up weapons for combat, open portals across great distances at will, and even manipulate the physical world around him.  He’s also given guidance by the loyal monk Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the resourceful librarian Wong (Benedict Wong).  But, as his training goes on, he discovers that dark zealots of the same mystical arts are seeking to destroy the Ancient One’s protective temples, hoping to open up a gate to a dark realm where they’ll find immortality.  Led by the sinister Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the zealots seek to destroy the Sanctums; sanctuaries built in great cities around the world to protect it from encroachment of the Dark Realm and it’s master Dormammu.  Strange soon learns that he is charged with protecting this realm and many others from total annihilation, and with powerful artifacts like the Cloak of Levitation and the time altering Eye of Agamotto, he soon learns that he just might have what it takes to become the Sorcerer Supreme.

The success of this film is by no means a certainty.  After many easy to comprehend heroes like Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Spider-Man, turning a Sorcerer who practices magic into a viable inclusion to this pantheon seems a little, well strange.  Luckily, Marvel has built up enough confidence through all of their big screen adaptations to try everything they can and thankfully it works spectacularly well here.  Doctor Strange is yet another solid effort by Marvel Studios, extending their winning streak even further.  What could have easily been a mismanaged translation from the page to the screen instead feels right in line with the rest of Marvel’s body of work.  And really, the biggest strength of the film is how well it introduces it’s concepts to the viewer.  Strange feels very fresh in the comic book genre of movies, because we have yet to see this kind of hero specifically carry his own film.  Instead of following the traditional urban action thrillers of the Avengers crew, or the space based adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy, we learn about magic spells and inter-dimensional travel and the different possibilities found within the universe itself, and we watch as our hero goes from ordinary to extraordinary in ways we’d never expect.  It’s more complex a world than what we’re used to in comic book movies, and yet, the movie never bogs itself down in the details.  Instead, it builds it’s world carefully, revealing itself through the eyes of Strange, as he goes from amateur to expert.  And while we’ve seen much of this hero-building before, it’s never been presented in this kind of fashion, with mysticism at the forefront.  It indeed shows that magic has it’s rightful place within the MCU, along with mutant powers, super suits, and mythological Gods.

Speaking of which, if this movie has a like-minded companion in the collection of Marvel films, it would be the equally fanciful Thor.  And like Thor, a large part of what helps to make the more mystical elements of the film more digestible for the casual viewer is the relatable-ness and likability of the characters.  The casting of Chris Hemsworth as Thor helped to make his film a success, because of how well he was a match for the character, and Benedict Cumberbatch is exactly the same in the role of Steven Strange.  In some ways, the casting seems unusual for Marvel.  Before, they seemed more intent on casting unknowns or unexpected choices in their roles, helping the actors get the boost they need for their careers and cementing their image as the character.  With Cumberbatch, he’s already had a successful career, both in popular franchises and elsewhere, so joining Marvel’s stable was not really anything he needed.  Also, gaining such a familiar face might hurt the chances of him effectively leaving an impression on the character for years to come.  And yet, I can think of no one who could have played the part better.  His performance is what really grounds this movie, making him incredibly magnetic and yet sympathetic throughout.  He starts off as a smartass (much like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark), but it never feels out of character, and it helps to humanize him too.  I also have to commend the make-up and costume departments for doing such a great job of recreating the iconic look of the character, even with such a distinctive face as Cumberbatch’s behind it all.  The other cast members such as Ejiofor, Swinton, and Mikkelsen are also great in the movie, and continue Marvel’s solid run of great casting choices.  The only one that gets short ended is Rachel McAdams as the, I guess love interest Christine.  She may have been pushed to the side for story purposes, and hopefully it’s something that is rectified in future sequels.  Also, the Cloak of Levitation itself becomes a character in the movie, and it amazes me how well Marvel can find personality in even a piece of clothing like it.

If the movie has any flaw, it would be in the story itself, which is more a less a bi-product of the unfortunate fact that this is yet another origin film.  We all know the routine by now; our hero is broken (either physically or mentally) and finds themselves at a crossroads, until they are suddenly granted new powers that enable them to extraordinary things, but are soon confronted by evil forces that challenge their strength and help our hero to learn that they must use their powers responsibly and for the good of the world.  I’ve just described for you pretty much the plot of 90% of all the Super hero origin films that have ever existed, and Doctor Strange is no different.  While it does do a fine job presenting the formula, it doesn’t add anything new to it either, and that unfortunately makes it feel all too familiar.  I could anticipate plot points in this movie before they even happened, like Strange’s crisis of faith towards the end of the second act, or the breakthrough moment he reaches at the end of the first.  The only subversion of the formula comes from the final act, when Strange is called upon to save the day.  I anticipated that he was going to win in the end, I just didn’t know how, and the way the movie resolved was blessfully surprising.  That’s not to say that you won’t be engaged in the story either.  The film is well paced and offers up plenty of clever plot threads here and there; the best coming from some of the clever action sequences.  But, because it plays it more safe with the formula, it becomes less interesting in the long run and prevents this from being one of Marvel’s absolute best, like the rule-breaking Guardians of the Galaxy.  But, it’s a flaw that doesn’t ruin the movie entirely and you’ll still enjoy it for the most part.  My hope is that with the origin out of the way, they can take more chances in the sequel.

One thing that I will praise highly of the film is the amazing visuals.  This may just well be the most visually impressive Marvel film to date, and that is saying something.  The magical spells are neat to look at enough, but it’s whenever the sorcerers begin to alter the physical realm around them, and turn the world itself on it’s head, that the movie really leave you with a sense of wonderment.  Think the movie Inception (2010), but done on a much more spectacular level.  The movie establishes the idea of a Mirror dimension, where the sorcerers can manipulate world physically without repercussion to the actual world, and that enables them to break the laws of physics in all sorts of ways.  There is a spectacular sequence halfway through the movie when Doctor Strange and Mordo are on the run from Kaecilius in the Mirror dimension, and the dark wizard hunts them down by warping the city of New York all around them, making skyscrapers bend and twist in all sorts of unnatural ways, creating a colossal kaleidoscope of the cityscape.  It’s a sequence that utilizes visual effects better than anything else I’ve seen this year, and really in a long while.  If this movie doesn’t walk away with an Oscar for it’s visual effects next year, I don’t know what will.  And yet, with all the trippy visuals on display, the movie never loses sight of the action.  There’s no Michael Bay level of chaos on display here; the action is as easy to follow as anything else, even with all the eye candy on display.  This is some of the best film-making I have seen from Marvel, and it shows that they still have some new tricks up their sleeve.  A lot of credit goes to director Scott Derrickson for managing such a complex presentation without losing focus on the characters and the story.  Believe me, a less assured director would have turned this into a complete mess.  Doctor Strange thankfully is neither a mess nor a failure.

So, it’s safe to say that Marvel has yet another solid effort to their credit, and Doctor Strange has earned a rightful place alongside his more well known peers on the big screen.  While the story feels a little too overly familiar, the movie does open up so many wonderful possibilities for the future.  An inevitable sequel will help solve some of the first film’s shortcomings, and I honestly can’t wait until Strange plays a larger part in the MCU going forward (by the way, stay during the credits for some extra scenes that tie into that).  It’s especially good to see someone of Benedict Cumberbatch’s talent and charisma within the role (and how well that could play out in the future with the character) and the amazing sense of scale that the filmmakers put into the film.  Visually, this is Marvel at it’s best, even if the plot itself is them on auto-pilot.  I also can’t ignore the complaints that this movie has garnered for the perceived white-washing of the character of the Ancient One.  While it’s a serious issue in Hollywood in general, I don’t think that this movie intentionally tried to change the character for that purpose.  While it’s an excuse that might not please every, the movie does address why the Ancient One is who she is, and it’s an explanation that, at least made sense to me.  Also, Tilda Swinton is such a great actress in the role, that it really doesn’t make you care too hard in the end.  I may not see the controversy in the same way, but it’s there nonetheless.  Hopefully, people will accept the choice for what it is and this controversy will not affect the movie in the long run.  Overall, it’s another great Marvel film, and a blockbuster that Hollywood desperately needs to get this Fall season back on the right foot.  It may not be perfect, but it does enough good stuff amazingly well, that it will leave your movie going experience quite magical in the end.

Rating: 8/10