Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
Here's a feat: taking what is likely the oldest, most well-known story in the world, and making a retelling feel inventive. Over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Darren Aronofsky's Noah takes many forms — Tolkien-esque fantasy, trippy psychological thriller, merciless dissection of the dark points of abject faith — never feeling too rigidly confined to the parameters of the familiar tale that we've all experienced in the form of bedtime stories, religious education lessons, and vegetable-laden cartoons. As many forms as the parable has taken over the past few thousand years, Aronofsky manages to find a few new takes.
The director's thumbprint is branded boldly on Russell Crowe's Noah, a man who begins his journey as a simple pawn of God and evolves into a dimensional human as tortured as Natalie Portman's ballerina or Jared Leto's smack head. Noah's obsession and crisis: his faith. The peak of the righteous descendant of Seth (that's Adam and Eve's third son — the one who didn't die or bash his brother's head in with a rock), Noah is determined to carry out the heavenly mission imparted upon him via ambiguous, psychedelic visions. God wants him to do something — spoilers: build an ark — and he will do it. No matter what.
No matter what it means to his family, to his lineage, to his fellow man, to the world. He's going to do it. No matter what. The depths to which Aronofsky explores this simple concept — the nature of unmitigated devotion — makes what we all knew as a simplistic A-to-B children's story so gripping. While the throughline is not a far cry from the themes explored in his previous works, the application of his Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan ideas in this movie does not feel like a rehashing. Experiencing such modern, humane ideas in biblical epic is, in fact, a thrill-ride.
Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
Although Aronofsky accesses some highly guttural stuff inside of his title character, he lets whimsy and imagination take hold of the world outside of him. Jumping headfirst into the fantastical, the director lines his magical realm with rock monsters — "Watcher" angels encased in Earth-anchored prisons as punishment for their betrayal of God — and a variety of fauna that range in innovation from your traditional white dove to some kind of horned, scaled dog bastardization.
But the most winning elements of Noah, and easily the most surprising, come when Aronofsky goes cosmic. He jumps beyond the literal to send us coursing through eons to watch the creation of God's universe, matter exploding from oblivion, a line of creatures evolving (in earnest) into one another as the planet progresses to the point at which we meet our tortured seafarer. Aronofsky's imagination, his aptitude as a cinematic magician, peak (not just in terms of the film, but in terms of his career) in these scenes.
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With all this propped against the stark humanity of his story — not just in terms of Crowe's existential spiral, but in character beats like grandfather Methuselah's relationship with the youngsters, in little Ham's playful teasing of his new rock monster pet — Aronofsky manages something we never could have anticipated from Noah. It's scientific, cathartic, humane. Impressively, this age-old tale, here, is new. And beyond that feat, it's a pretty winning spin.
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For the bulk of every Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, moose and squirrel would engage in high concept escapades that satirized geopolitics, contemporary cinema, and the very fabrics of the human condition. With all of that to work with, there's no excuse for why the pair and their Soviet nemeses haven't gotten a decent movie adaptation. But the ingenious Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman are another story, intercut between Rocky and Bullwinkle segments to teach kids brief history lessons and toss in a nearly lethal dose of puns. Their stories and relationship were much simpler, which means that bringing their shtick to the big screen would entail a lot more invention — always risky when you're dealing with precious material.
For the most part, Mr. Peabody & Sherman handles the regeneration of its heroes aptly, allowing for emotionally substance in their unique father-son relationship and all the difficulties inherent therein. The story is no subtle metaphor for the difficulties surrounding gay adoption, with society decreeing that a dog, no matter how hyper-intelligent, cannot be a suitable father. The central plot has Peabody hosting a party for a disapproving child services agent and the parents of a young girl with whom 7-year-old Sherman had a schoolyard spat, all in order to prove himself a suitable dad. Of course, the WABAC comes into play when the tots take it for a spin, forcing Peabody to rush to their rescue.
Getting down to personals, we also see the left brain-heavy Peabody struggle with being father Sherman deserves. The bulk of the emotional marks are hit as we learn just how much Peabody cares for Sherman, and just how hard it has been to accept that his only family is growing up and changing.
But more successful than the new is the film's handling of the old — the material that Peabody and Sherman purists will adore. They travel back in time via the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War, and 18th Century France, explaining the cultural backdrop and historical significance of the settings and characters they happen upon, all with that irreverent (but no longer racist) flare that the old cartoons enjoyed. And oh... the puns.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a f**king treasure trove of some of the most amazingly bad puns in recent cinema. This effort alone will leave you in awe.
The film does unravel in its final act, bringing the science-fiction of time travel a little too close to the forefront and dropping the ball on a good deal of its emotional groundwork. What seemed to be substantial building blocks do not pay off in the way we might, as scholars of animated family cinema, have anticipated, leaving the movie with an unfinished feeling.
But all in all, it's a bright, compassionate, reasonably educational, and occasionally funny if not altogether worthy tribute to an old favorite. And since we don't have our own WABAC machine to return to a time of regularly scheduled Peabody and Sherman cartoons, this will do okay for now.
If nothing else, it's worth your time for the puns.
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Soon there may be more Star Wars movies than there are black holes near Kessel. On Feb. 5, Disney CEO Bob Iger confirmed what the company had already suggested back when it acquired Lucasfilm for $4.3 billion in October: that there will be more Star Wars movies than just Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, and these will be films that'll focus on George Lucas' beloved characters beyond the Skywalker family. Today, an unnamed source told EW that Lucasfilm is planning standalone movies about Boba Fett and the early days of Han Solo, respectively. The Boba Fett movie doesn't come as a shock, considering how beloved he is among the fans, but the Solo rumor is surprising given that it would require Lucasfilm to recast Harrison Ford's iconic role and also that the studio has been reluctant to explore younger versions of the character.
He was originally slated to appear as a 10-year-old in Revenge of the Sith, but that idea was nixed. Nor has he ever appeared on The Clone Wars TV series. Also, by default a "Young Han Solo" movie would be a prequel, and, well, we know some fans have strong feelings about anything related to that word.
The fact is, the news of a Young Han Solo movie is still just a rumor. Just like the Yoda movie. Just like the idea that Zack Snyder is directing a Star Wars remake of Seven Samurai. But that hasn't stopped us from imagining what exactly a flick about the smuggler's early days would look like.
So rather than just idly speculate, we turned to a guy who's had a lot of experience writing Han Solo: author Timothy Zahn, whose most recent novel, Star Wars: Scoundrels (out in hardcover), is an Ocean's 11-style heist thriller centered on the scruffy nerf herder himself.
What challenges would a new screenwriter face in trying to portray the Millennium Falcon's captain? What could we expect from a pre-A New Hope presentation of the character? For that matter, what's the difference between writing the Han of Scoundrels, set around the time of A New Hope, and the Han of Zahn's most famous books, the Thrawn Trilogy? And what other characters does Zahn hope will get the standalone Star Wars movie treatment? Here's what the author had to say.
Hollywood.com: First of all, none of this has been confirmed by Disney or Lucasfilm, and I’m not looking to you at all to confirm it. I’m just interested in your perspective as a Star Wars author, and even more importantly, as a Star Wars fan, on the rumor today that the first two standalone Star Wars movies will be about Young Han Solo and Boba Fett respectively.
Timothy Zahn: All of this is at the rumor stage of course, but, the fact is, I would like to see more Star Wars beyond the core saga. I’d like more Star Wars TV, and certainly more Star Wars books. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. The Galaxy Far, Far Away is impossibly huge with story ideas and possibilities.
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HW: If a Young Han Solo movie is ever made, what do you think is important to look for in whoever’s cast in the role?
TZ: I presume any actor who looks like a young Harrison Ford would get it as long as he gets the attitude correct. However, personally, I would look more for the attitude than how close he would look to a young Harrison Ford.
HW: That’s kind of like what Lucasfilm was thinking when they cast River Phoenix as a 13-year-old Indy in Last Crusade. I mean, he looks nothing like Harrison Ford, but he does have the attitude.
TZ: Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. I would probably go with what Lucas did originally. Maybe not pick complete unknowns for these movies but not cast anybody really well known either. Someone who has enough acting experience that you know going in he can pull off the role, but not somebody who is a big-name draw all by themselves.
HW: Not like, say, Daniel Craig as Boba Fett or whatever.
TZ: No. Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford had been in movies before Star Wars, but they weren’t all that well known yet. Bringing fresh faces to any of these big parts I think would be a good move. Those movies launched various careers.
The key for me is not so much getting the individual actor correct as getting the chemistry between the actors. That’s something Lucas did beautifully in the classic trilogy. Han, Luke, and Leia…the chemistry works perfectly. Roddenberry also pulled it off with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. That kind of casting is an art more than a science. And a lot more important than “Does this person look like a young Harrison Ford?"
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HW: What for you was the biggest challenge in writing Han Solo?
TZ: Just getting the attitude correct, depending on what era he’s in. He becomes a lot more responsible in the Expanded Universe stories after the events of Return of the Jedi. He was a little more self-centered before that, but with hints of the loyalty, the willingness to step up if the cause is right, the concern he has for the people he cares about, that we’ll see even more of later. But getting his attitude, his voice, his swagger correct on paper is tough.
With a lot of that, I think whoever plays young Han, if this actually happens, can get by just by watching Harrison Ford in the movies. How Ford speaks, the little smirks, the lopsided grin, the twinkle in his eye, the sense of humor, the feeling that he will do whatever it takes to get it done. Think about how Josh Brolin played young Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black III and absolutely nailed it perfectly: the gestures, the voice, everything. If you can find someone with that level of ability, you’ve got your young Han Solo.
HW: Is there a difference between the way you wrote Han in Scoundrels as opposed to the way you wrote him in the Thrawn Trilogy or Hand of Thrawn Duology?
TZ: Oh yeah, he’s much more mature in the later books. He’s taken on more responsibility. He still chafes at it at times. But he does the jobs that need to be done. He’s more aware of what’s at stake, what the consequences could be if he succeeds or fails. And that’s because he has a family at that point, which brings a whole new set of responsibilities with it.
In Scoundrels on the other hand, since that’s set right after A New Hope, he’s much more footloose and fancy free. But even then you can see that once he’s assembled the team he’s working with, he’s not going to abandon them. The seeds of “Responsible Han” are already there. But he would deny it probably. He would say, “I’m loyal to Chewie, and that’s it.” But his actions are leading toward the Han who will park the Millennium Falcon with its back to Yavin’s sun just in case he needs to step in and help Luke take on the Death Star. Just in case he’s needed.
He’s not going to stick his neck out…but if he’s needed, he’ll be there. So he’s much more the rogue, much more about looking out for No. 1 in the early books, but he’s certainly not an amoral, “me first and only” type. Which is why you care about him and want him to succeed.
HW: What other characters from the movies would you like to see get the movie spinoff treatment?
TZ: Lando is an obvious one. You could do a lot with Lando during the time leading up to The Empire Strikes Back. If we’re going post-Jedi era I would frankly like to see Wedge put together Rogue Squadron. I think you could have a whole series of Rogue Squadron movies that would be great. Wedge is peripheral, but he is very popular and rightfully so. Who else helps take out two Death Stars?
You could even do an X-Wing TV show focused on Rogue Squadron that, just like the books, would be peripheral to the main Skywalker-Solo saga. That means you could introduce a lot of new characters anchored by Wedge. You could make wonderful stuff out of the X-Wing books.
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HW: The X-Wing Series is a major favorite of mine. Speaking of casting, did you ever envision an actor playing Thrawn?
TZ: I get asked this a lot, but as with all of these casting questions I don’t see my characters in terms of what they look like as much as their attitude, their personality, their response to a given situation. So for Thrawn you’d have the dignity, the intelligence, the fairly unemotional personality. Get an actor who can do that, then with the blue makeup and red contact lenses, you'd probably have Thrawn. If I were casting I would watch expressions, listen to the voice, but not really care about what he looks like. I guess this means I’d be lousy in casting because they’d all look good to me.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credits: Lucasfilm, Random House]
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