FilmSpace: Hellboy (2019); Little; Wonder Park

Film critic Calum Cooper gives his verdict on three of this week’s releases, including the soulless and artistically repugnant reboot of Hellboy, the well-meaning but generic comedy Little, and the colourful yet unremarkable Wonder Park.

Hellboy (2019) – (👎 Zero Stars 👎)

There’s no nice way I can put this: the new Hellboy is a steaming pile of crap. It’s sadistic, disgusting, rambunctiously obnoxious, and displays completely shambolic filmmaking at its worst. I’ve seen student movies that are better made. There were several walk-outs in my midday showing, and titanic stubbornness was the one thing that kept me from joining them.

The plot makes no sense, but I’m bound in severity to try describe it as best I can. During Arthurian times, the Blood Queen Nimue (Milla Jovovich) attempted to plague Britain. Arthur and Merlin stopped her by dismembering her and scattering her limbs across the globe. In present day, we meet David Harbour as Hellboy, a humanoid demon superhero summoned from Hell to Earth. He now has to stop Nimue’s followers from re-assembling her, allowing her to continue what she started. He is helped by two annoying yet obligatory sidekicks, played by Sasha Lane and Daniel Day Kim, who both deserve so much better.

Studio interference is the main factor to blame for this mess. David Harbour does his best with the material, turning in the one redeeming performance, and Neil Marshall is a terrific director. Having helmed two colossal episodes of Game of Thrones (Blackwater and The Watchers on the Wall), he’s no stranger to size and scale. But the script gives him nothing to work with, and the studios’ apparent manhandling of Marshall’s choices meant that he couldn’t make the film he truly wanted to. It’s enraging to learn this, for if a director is hired then you must trust them with the material, otherwise you get whatever this is.

There’s nothing wrong with this movie that cutting the film reel down into ukulele picks can’t solve.

The film feels like it was made by a 14-year-old boy rather than a seasoned director. Story and character are entirely disregarded in favour of disproportionately needless swearing, obscene amounts of artless gore, and CGI graphics that look lifted from a PlayStation 2 game. The dialogue is an endlessly cringe-worthy stream of adolescent one liners and unfunny jokes, and the CGI doesn’t even look finished.

Yet it wouldn’t matter if the effects were on par with Mad Max: Fury Road, for the editing is some of the worst in recent memory. It’s so quick and fidgety, regardless of whether the scene is action or exposition-heavy, that you can barely follow anything that’s happening. There’s even a moment of a van overtaking which used three cuts, inciting a haunting flashback to Liam Neeson climbing a fence in Taken 3. It’s maddeningly dizzying in its ineptness.

But the worst thing about the film is this malignant air of arrogance it has about itself, as if it’s demanding that viewers admire how “cool” it is. It seems to think this way simply because of its 15 certificate. Adult certificates are not an indicator of quality and never have been. If Man of Steel learned the wrong lessons from The Dark Knight, then Hellboy learns the wrong lessons from Logan and Deadpool. The 15 ratings  weren’t what made those films work for so many. It was the overtones and style, which a 15 rating helped elevate. This film is a 15 purely because it can be, and not because it adds any kind of substance.

MORE FROM FILMSPACE: Missing Link; Shazam!

Frankly, I’m surprised this wasn’t an 18. The entire film seems to be a meagre excuse to display excessive gore. Again, this is for no reason other than because they can. Gore can be effective in films when used in small doses, upping the shock factor. Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Dario Argento’s Suspiria are two examples of gore done brilliantly. Here, they overglorify the gore on screen. It’s not here to intensify the action or meld into the non-existent themes. It’s done simply to disgust the viewer, producing such nauseating results that it borders on fetish. The film opens with a crow poking out an eyeball, and, during the third act, a shot chooses to focus not on London Bridge getting destroyed but on the two demons tearing a human in half, which it prioritises by ensuring it takes up the entire screen. Seemingly every other minute is taken up by an attempt to gross us out, none of which bear artistic style. If they’re going to go out of their way to make the audience sick, they can at least make the blood look convincing.

If there was a decent story and characters despite all of this, then I’d be a lot more lenient. But there aren’t. The story seems secondary to blockbuster tropes, and the appalling presentation of said tropes. The characters are not only flat and boring, but are immensely unlikeable as no one seems to have any particular attachment to each other. Ian McShane’s character finds out that good friends of his were murdered, and he brushes it off as collateral damage. Meanwhile Hellboy appears generally dismissive of those around him, only questioning himself when the script demands shoehorned conflict, and his sidekicks are mere vehicles for catchphrases and aggressive stances. They’re actively boring in terms of charisma, and indifferent to one another throughout the story. If they don’t care for what’s happening to each other, then why should the audience care either?

Hellboy is the worst superhero film since 2015’s disastrous Fant4stic. Aside from Harbour’s performance, there’s virtually no points of recommendation to be found. It’s a nasty, cynical, and artistically putrid endeavour of a reboot that isolates newcomers with its obnoxious arrogance, and embarrasses older fans by failing to capture any of the style or adrenaline that Guillermo Del Toro did with the older films. I have no idea what the studios were thinking with its baffling, and evidently counter-productive, choices, but I take comfort in knowing that both Harbour and Marshall will get past this horrific ordeal. After all, there’s nothing wrong with this movie that cutting the film reel down into ukulele picks can’t solve.

Little – ★★☆☆☆

The premise for Little is basic, but the way it was conceived is rather interesting. The film’s young star, Marsai Martin, while working on the set of Black-ish, came to creator Kenya Barris with an idea. That idea was a gender, age, and race reversed version of Big. Rather than a boy wishing to be an adult male and becoming one overnight, instead it is a woman being cursed to return to a 13-year-old body. As such, the film was made and Martin (currently aged 14) is officially the youngest person to have an executive producing credit on a Hollywood movie. As impressive as that feat is however, the movie itself is not as engaging as it should have been.

Regina Hall plays Jordan, the woman in question. As a child she was relentlessly bullied for her visionary ideas. After one particularly bad day, she decides to adopt a ruthless persona. Fast forward 25 years, and she now owns a major tech company, but keeps her employees at bay through fear and harassment, particularly towards her assistant April (Issa Rae). After hurling abuse at a young girl performing magic, that child wishes Jordan would be little. The very next day, Jordan awakes to find she has regressed back to her 13-year-old self (Martin). Confiding in only April, Jordan must navigate her past traumas by enrolling back in middle school, while simultaneously trying to run her company. Hijinks ensue.

In some ways, I admire what the film is setting out to do. Although it’s primarily a comedy, the central message is contemporary and intelligent. It argues that while bullying is a horrible thing to happen to anybody, it shouldn’t be something that shapes your identity. If you always see yourself as a victim, then you can subconsciously justify being terrible. In other words, the bullied becomes the bully by learning the wrong lessons from their own life experiences. One venture onto Twitter can show that mentality on a frequent basis.

There seems to be a distinct lack of focus. It’s so preoccupied with inane scenes of flat drama, both in and outside of its initial premise, that its genuinely appealing message isn’t fully nurtured.

But the story is far too bare-boned and redundant to give this idea its own space to blossom, and the characters aren’t great either. There’s a fascinating character in Jordan somewhere, but the film spends way too much time trying to show how unlikeable she’s become that she becomes precisely that. The narrative is filled to the brim with scenes we’ve seen in countless other comedies before, such as scenes of mass consumerism, out of nowhere dance and or sing-along scenes, and the always tedious third act rifts, because they needed additional conflicts outside of the main premise.

It’s a pity because there’s no shortage of things to like. The film can be funny, especially during the first twenty or so minutes, often from April’s patience being tested. The main trio of Hall, Rae and Martin is also strong, with Martin bearing genuine command and skilful comedic timing. She’s well on her way to becoming a superstar. But there seems to be a distinct lack of focus. It’s so preoccupied with inane scenes of flat drama, both in and outside of its initial premise, that its genuinely appealing message isn’t fully nurtured. When it is explored, it’s done in such an in-your-face manner that it loses a lot of its potential nuance and maturity, leaving us with an unfortunately standard affair.

Little has its moments, but your enjoyment will depend on your leniency towards its insistence on recycled plot points and characters. Credit where credit is due, as always, but when you break the film down to its core components, there sadly isn’t enough to indulge in.

Wonder Park – ★★☆☆☆

Wonder Park is what I like to call a background movie. It’s the kind of film that you see characters in other films watching in the background while the more serious conversation goes on in the other room.

The premise: June is a hyperactive young girl who dreams of opening a gigantic theme park called Wonderland (not Wonder Park for some reason, but I digress). Filled with all sorts of colourful animal characters and wild rides, helping her fulfil her dream is her mother, a woman so perfect that you know something awful will happen to her. And sure enough, she’s sent away to be treated for an undisclosed illness. Disheartened, June begins losing her imagination, one day running away from a school trip. She stumbles through the forest and comes across a theme park, more specifically her own theme park come to life. Only her imaginary friends are fleeing for their lives and the park has been decimated by something called The Darkness (how threatening).

As far as setups go this one is really skeletal, even for bog-standard children’s entertainment. Reviews like this are difficult to write because there’s nothing woefully incompetent about the film, as there is for the new Hellboy. The animation, while standard, is still lively and vibrant for its audience. The slapstick comedy and action are diverse enough, and the core theme, while hammered in and done to death, is still a moderately solid one.

Go see Missing Link instead.

But there’s nothing unique either. The characters are far too copy and pasted, the comedy, while diverse, isn’t that funny, and the story is as by the books as you can get. The best children’s films are often simple ideas, but they’re simple in ways that deepen children’s understandings of subjects or story – take the way Zootropolis uses its anthropomorphic mammals and food chains to showcase the evils of prejudice. Wonder Park doesn’t have any of that. It’s got a decent heart and, when the editing allows us to actually see what’s happening, it’s certainly energetic enough. But it doesn’t feel like anything more than a forgettable distraction for your youngster.

To make a long story short, it simply isn’t remarkable in the slightest. Normally I’d say it’s at least passable, but I found it pretty dull if I’m being honest. The excuse that “it’s only a children’s film” is one I really hate as it implies that A) children aren’t smart in their own ways, and B) that filmmakers have an excuse to be lazy when making a film. To me, making a children’s film is an incentive to try harder, not become indifferent. Wonder Park isn’t guilty of indifference, but it doesn’t attempt to be anything more than subpar in both its quality and its entertainment value.

Its production history does the film no favours either. Upon examining the credits for the film, I noticed that there appeared to be no director attached. As it turns out there was a director, but he was fired and uncredited after multiple complaints of “inappropriate and unwanted behaviour”. Rightfully so in fairness, but I find the choice to not bring in a replacement strange. With a different director, the film could’ve been taken in a new direction in order to create something truly compelling. Instead we have to settle with the mundanely drab, and kids deserve a lot better. Go see Missing Link instead.

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