Jock's Back: Jock of the Bushveld ***
This animated version of Jock of the Bushveld, the colonial classic written in 1907 by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, is not as good as it should be but it's also not quite as bad as some reviewers seem to think it is.
It is a tale that was previously told in 1992 by director Gray Hofmeyr and screenwriter Duncan MacNeillie, with the late Jonathan Rands in the lead role. It was a charmer and did well at the box office.
Now, 19 years later, it is back in an animated version, with music and songs put together by resonant names in the music business - Johnny Clegg, Tim Rice and Bryan Adams - but sadly all that star power has little impact and the film falls far short of its ambitions.
There are two major obstacles for me. The first is the shift in the story structure. The film is seen not through the eyes of the human characters, but through the eyes of the dog. The entire focus of the film is on the animals.
Fitzpatrick, who in real life was the central character of the book, is now a minor character who is often absent from the film for so long that you almost forget he is there. That sentimental but sturdy narrative structure that was built around the familiar "man and his dog" theme was what carried the story along.
In this version, the story is told from the point of view of the puppy, Jock.
That shift in focus makes a drastic change to the film. Instead of the evolution of the relationship between the man and the dog, we just have the puppy, Jock, racing round the veld, discovering strange new creatures, most of them comic and light-hearted, although there are also a couple of more perilous moments.
The point is that we never get to feel a sense of peril. These pretty creatures and colourful situations dilute the story and even the nasty animal characters are not really very sinister. It's all lightened up and sanitised, and the songs that waft in and out of the action are pretty enough but they don't add a single thing to the film. There's not one song in this film that can match Johnny Clegg's Spirit of the Great Heart, and that is true for the movie as well.
The other major issue in this film is the animation technique. It was always going to be a huge challenge because the latest animation movies are dazzling and exquisite. There has been a huge surge in animation technology and, sadly, McNeillie and his team just could not match it. The problem is, they tried too hard. The opening sequences with soaring shots over the landscape and later of Jock racing through the veld (in 3D!) look as if it came out of a Hollywood animation studio 10 years ago.
With all due respect to the creative team, they might have been looking at what the new animation looks like, but they did not have the technical resources to make it work. They sort of got by with the animals and pretty landscapes, but the human characters elude them.
There is hardly any animation or emotional shading in these faces and they move in a fairly stilted way. It's neither successful nor attractive and somehow the colours seemed to be pale and tired, and the arrival of a flirtatious French poodle so kitschy that you can hardly bear to look at her.
For me the real cop-out is that Jock does not die. The film stops after he has won a battle and then we leave them to continue with what comes to next.
I don't think you can do that sort of thing with literary classics. Who would leave Hamlet, alive and well, and preparing for a trip to Italy? A Jock who is well and happy at the end of the film messes with a classic.
Close Up: As the American summer blockbusters slow down, all eyes are on Jon Favreau's Cowboys and Aliens. It is set in Arizona in 1873 in a windswept town called Absolution, which is attacked by alien space invaders.
It's a wild idea that led Favreau to a weird casting choice. He contacted the agent of Harrison Ford and waited to hear his response.
In an interview Ford said: "I got the script from my agent. I read 30 pages and threw it across the room. I told my agent: 'I don't get it. There's nothing in this for me. Why did you even send it to me?'"
His agent persisted and said: 'Just read it all and meet Jon Favreau and tell him how you feel about it.'"
That's exactly what Ford did. He had two big issues: he did not want to be in a 3D movie, and he wanted to know that there was a credible human element to the story, no matter how big the fantasy became.
"Films have to work to a human scale," said Ford. "For a film to succeed, the (audience) cannot just be passive observers. They must be participants. Audiences need to link into the experience of the on-screen characters and to react to their emotions."
Another important issue for Ford was that the sets for a period Western town had to be accurate: "Everything had to be within the context of a 1850s cowboy movie, the language and style and the look. When the alien intrusion occurs, the responses must keep the story real. It's the difference between experiencing a film or just witnessing it."
Ever the detail freak, he chose his own cowboy hat, so it did not look like an Indiana Jones left-over. He also chose his own gun and the horse that he rides in the film. When the film was over, he bought it and took it back to his ranch.
So, for the cowboy side of Cowboys and Aliens, every detail is exact.
But what do the aliens look like? So far, that's being kept under wraps.
- Cowboys and Aliens opens on August 19
Short Takes: Super 8 ****
This superb sci-fi adventure is thrilling in its own right, but director JJ Abrams does something unique. He makes the film a graceful homage to the sci-fi movies of Steven Spielberg. There are echoes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET that resonate with wit and style, as Abrams creates his own "creature feature". The film is set in 1979. A bunch of school kids, all horror-movie junkies, are making their own creepy movie on a Super 8 camera. While they are filming, they witness a terrifying train crash, and film part of it. They realise there is something on that train that the US army wants to conceal and, as the chaos widens, the mystery goes deeper. Abrams balances clever storylines about the rivalry of two fathers who have a grudge to settle, and their kids, who don't know exactly what is happening, but do know enough to believe the army is creating a cover-up.
Larry Crowne ***
Dexterity, charm and mellow star appeal are the hallmarks of this delicate comedy. It is an off-beat tale of people who have had to start from scratch to recover their authentic selves. Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) works in a big warehouse store. His wife has divorced him. Her alimony demands are sucking him dry and he is fired from his job because he is "too old". Mercedes (Julia Roberts) is a teacher in a community college. She is married to a loser who spends his time watching porn. She makes the money, but he spends it and in a rage she throws him out. They meet when Larry joins her class. It's the simplest of romance stories, but the expertise of the actors makes it warm and true.