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With the holidays just around the corner, the selection of films to stream is becoming that little bit more festive, as family-aimed gems new and old begin to land.
Most prominent among these offerings is the marvellous latest feature from Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, Wolfwalkers – a gorgeous hand-drawn fantasy fable that mixes the styles and thematics of Studio Ghibli with a revisionist history of the English subjugation of Ireland.
Perhaps a little more festive is the arrive of Greta Gerwig’s second feature as director Little Women, a canny adaptation of the children’s novel that decides to differentiate itself by telling the story in a non-linear fashion, an inventive approach to a work that could feel stolid in the wrong hands.
Elsewhere, Netflix gears up for the release of its feature film adaptation of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, with another August Wilson film: the documentary Giving Voice, which interrogates the act of adapting Wilson’s plays and their continuing cultural impact through the observation of an annual competition for young actors, tasked with performing a monologue from his work.
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Wolfwalkers - Apple TV+
The latest feature from the folks at Cartoon Saloon, director Tomm Moore and Ross Stewarts’ Wolfwalkers is an enrapturing coming-of-age fantasy as well as fierce environmentalist, anti-colonialist screed, revising the history of the British Isles (and deservedly humiliating a cartoon Oliver Cromwell) in its battle between ‘civilisation’ and the wild. The film is from the perspective of Robyn, a young girl who moves to Kilkenny, Ireland (where Cartoon Saloon is based) with her father, who is tasked with hunting local wolves and taming the land. When venturing outside the castle walls against her father’s wishes, Robyn meets a wild and free-spirited girl named Mebh, and their burgeoning friendship leads her to discover the world of the Wolfwalkers – people who can leave their bodies and become a wolf – and transform her into the very thing her father is tasked to destroy.
Watch a trailer for Wolfwalkers
As with the studio’s other films, it’s astonishingly well-made, taking plenty of inspiration from their finest contemporaries – Studio Ghibli being an oft-cited influence – and making these methods their own, with an art style that smartly contrasts the flowing lines of the wild with the rigid, angular woodcut style of the town. When in the natural world, directors Moore and Stewart present the film with the grace and fluidity of classic Disney animation but with more modern flair, as all of its fascinating parts come together to make an even greater whole.
In short, it’s some of the finest Western animation in years.
Also on Apple TV+: Mariah Carey’s Magical Christmas Special
Little Women - NOW TV (on Sky Cinema and the Sky Cinema Pass)
Hot off the critical success of her debut feature Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s second feature as director Little Women, smartly adapts of Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel, differentiating itself by telling the story in a non-linear fashion, an inventive approach to a work that could feel stolid in the wrong hands. From the visuals alone it’s plain to see how it asserts itself as a revitalisation of the material, directly contrasting the warm glow of the past with the much colder light of the present day.
Gerwig’s scripting and visual sensibilities are practically impeccable, though the film perhaps gets a little too cute by the end with an extended meta-joke about authorial intent and the legitimacy of the book’s original ending (with its autobiographical nature in mind) – but the point behind it is smart, and the rest of the film is lovely, modest and incredibly moving, held together by a sterling cast (mostly) on top of their game. And what more could you want from a film in the holiday season?
Also on Now TV: Love Sarah
Giving Voice - Netflix
Co-directed by Fernando Villena and James D. Stern, the broad but engaging doc Giving Voice deftly handles a number of interlocking subjects via its documentation of the US’s nationwide August Wilson monologue competition, examining the influence of August Wilson’s iconic work and the different stigmas that the participating theatre kids experienced on their way to this point. The competition itself offers the chance to visit and to perform on Broadway, something particularly major for a lot of the kids taking part due to their locations in communities where access to theatre isn’t limited.
In terms of its subject, Villena and Stern wrangle some pretty solid access – speaking with stars like Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, themselves having lead film adaptations of Wilson plays, as well as Wilson’s own widow (and costume designer for his plays), the testimonials intercut with footage from the competition as well as clips from an interview with Wilson from 2005, the year of his passing. But most fascinating here are the individuals they seek out throughout the competition, gently discovering their motivations and how they got started in theatre, how they interact with it.
Each story differs greatly, whether that’s because of coming from poor and working class backgrounds, or even moving past anxiety about not living up to some kind of purported image of Blackness, that theatre acting doesn’t gel with that image. One participant is even revealed to have made it into theatre despite their school not even having the funding for arts programmes – coincidentally, in a 99% Black area – abandoned by the government.
All in all, its a solid and fascinating doc about people finding salvation in the arts, but in a way that feels honest rather than self-congratulatory.
Bumblebee - Netflix
A Transformers movie probably feels as drastically opposite to a documentary depicting the craft of August Wilson as you can get, known for that vulgar Mountain Dew-fuelled, aesthetic known as ‘Bayhem’, and all the cheap but expensive crassness that entails. Now that my view of the franchise is clear, hopefully that lends some weight to my saying that Bumblebee is a pretty great time.
Director Travis Knight (son of the Nike dynasty and founder of Laika Studios) hones in on the toy box appeal that made the Transformers popular in the first place, and marries it to a tale of girl-meets-strange robot car that takes plenty of Spielbergian influence in set-up and tone. Throw in a reliably amusing supporting turn from John Cena and action that actually makes visual sense, and you’ve got a winner of a casual weekend watch.
Watch: The cast of Bumblebee talk to Yahoo
Also on Netflix: Welcome to Marwen