Saturday, February 7, 2015
Fifty or sixty years ago, this movie would have featured the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhaussen. It would have been made with elegant sets made on a limited budget and it would feature actors not entirely familiar to American audiences. Times have clearly changed. This movie is packed with CGI creatures and sets, it has a cast headed by well known Academy Award winners and nominees. Marketing and production priorities have clearly evolved. There is one thing though that has not altered in all the time passed between "Jason and the Argonauts" and "Seventh Son", fantasy adventure movies still work based on simple story premises and the right attitude by the film makers. The people behind this movie have exactly the right attitude.
This film is a throwback to weekend afternoon matinees and more innocent adventure films of the past. This is not a reinvention of a well know story like "Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters" from a couple of years ago. That film turned CGI into the main reason for seeing a film. It was loaded with violent destruction and blood delivered in 3D. "Seventh Son" also features the destruction of witches, but not by decapitation or Rube Goldberg weapons. This is old fashioned hero magic against the dark forces of the world. With the exception of relatively mild conflagration of witches, the violence here is on the PG level. You could safely take a couple of bright eight to twelve year olds and not have to worry about nightmares or turning them into gore hounds.
I hope that doesn't sound like a knock on the movie because it is far from it. This is a recommendation for people who are looking for a movie with tradition adventure elements featuring monsters and brave men fighting the odds, but can do without the viscera flying off the screen in their faces. There are five or six witches featured in the story and they all turn into some kind of monster. All of those monsters are of the 50s flavor, they are inventive, dangerous and unlikely to rip people into small pieces just for fun. The sensibility of this picture is light and fun in spite of the dark themes and characters. Julianne Moore is a witch who turns into a dragon but was caged and banished for many years by a knight with special gifts. That knight must be the seventh son of a seventh son, who becomes what is referred to as a spook, a wandering hero who tames all sorts of dark magic and evil in the world. Jeff Bridges is Master Gregory, the knight who contained her and he is training an apprentice to take over his job. When she finally manages to escape, complications arise and we get a another young hero emerging from the shadow of an older master, the hero with a thousand faces has returned. The Lebowski reunion of Moore and Bridges has none of the knowing self satisfaction of that Coen classic. This movie plays all the characters straight.
When I first saw the teaser for this movie it was almost two years ago. Jeff Bridges had made a similar film that was pretty sad called R.I.P.D., where he is mentor to a dead Ryan Reynolds. I did not hold out much hope for this movie, it looked like just another CGI crapfest that would be as disposable as this morning's diapers. Imagine my surprise when it turns out to be a simple popcorn story with a fun sensibility that could have been written five decades ago. The look of the monsters is fun rather than gross and the story is pretty easy to follow and includes a little romance, a little revenge and a few secrets along the way.
The very first thing that grabbed my attention and made me have hope for the film was the score by Marco Beltrami. The sound is swashbuckling light at the start. It does not try to overwhelm us with brooding power. Instead it builds the characters and sets a tone that suggests something fun rather than something solemn. While there is a lot of CGI, it did not feel like it was constantly used just to make us gasp, rather it brings the world of the story to life but never ignores the characters. The work is also stylized enough to make it seem like a movie rather than absolutely real. That may sound like another criticism but fantasy films need to be a bit unreal at times to help us suspend our disbelief in the right way. There are nearly a billion people living in India, and from the credits, nearly half of them worked on the special effects for this movie.
If I have negatives they are limited. Bridges is channeling the same character voice he used in R.I.P.D and it sounds too garbled at times. Young star Ben Barnes has a haircut straight from 2015, which seems at odds with the dark ages settings and costumes. Other than those minor quibbles, I found this to be a delightful surprise. What could have been a total waste of time turned out to be a fun time at the movies. If your kids are too old for Sponge Bob, this is the one to take them to this month.