Liam Neeson is that rare breed of actor who grows more badass with age who at the cusp of 60 appears quite credible besting men 30 years younger – or anyone else foolish enough to provoke him. In The Grey – a gripping but ponderous man-versus-wild epic directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team) – his foe is no less formidable than Mother Nature in all her fury. She has met her match.
Neeson plays Ottway a man whose sole job on an Alaskan oil rig consists of gunning down the occasional wolf that makes a run at an oilworker. (Fences apparently being in short supply in the Arctic.) Ottway is a hard stoic sort and one gets the strong sense that he tended toward irascibility even before his wife departed (for reasons not made clear till late in the film) taking with her his remaining purpose for living. He gains a new one appropriately enough when his flight home crashes down in the Alaskan wilderness killing all but a handful of its passengers. Ottway his survival skills honed in a previous life emerges as the only person capable of guiding them to salvation.
Carnahan surrounds Neeson with an ensemble of familiar types the most notable of which are Talget (Dermot Mulroney) the family man Henrick (Dallas Roberts) the conscience and Diaz (Frank Grillo) the jerk. They encounter the predictable male team-building hurdles puffing chests and locking horns before Ottway asserts himself as the Alpha Male. Figuring they’ll perish before salvation arrives they agree to make the perilous trek to the nearest human habitat braving any number of dangers the most fearsome of which are the ravenous “rogue wolves” that roam the landscape. (The film shot in British Columbia in conditions that were apparently every bit as brutal as they appear on-screen certainly looks authentic – both beautiful and ominous.)
When they aren’t battling the predatory lupine menace the men have time – far too much time – to reflect upon their plight and its existential implications. The Grey would have been perfectly enjoyable as a straightforward survival epic the “Liam punches wolves” movie promised by the trailer but Carnahan is intent on imbuing the film with a philosophical poignancy wholly unsuitable for a film featuring lines like “We’re in Fuck City population five and dwindling ” and “We’re gonna cook this son of a bitch!” – the latter uttered at the capture of one of the wolves. As a film Carnahan’s macho metaphysics leave The Grey feeling a bit overcooked.
In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
Happily N'Ever After centers on what would happen if the classic fairytales we all love didn’t have happy endings if the villains actually won out in the end. When the wizard (George Carlin)—who maintains the age-old balance between good and evil in Fairy Tale Land—goes on vacation his incompetent assistants (Andy Dick Wallace Shawn) make a mess of things opening up an opportunity for Cinderella’s evil stepmother Frieda (Sigourney Weaver) to take control and call in all the bad guys. Meanwhile Cinderella aka Ella (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tries to get her beloved Prince Charming (Patrick Warburton) to save the day—except he is a nincompoop too. Actually the real hero is the Prince’s dishwasher Rick (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who secretly loves Ella. Not too hard to figure out how this ever after will end. Gellar and Prinze Jr. are as bland in voice as they are on screen playing the two potential lovebirds with very little enthusiasm while the “hilarious sidekicks” Dick and Shawn totally overdo it as the bumbling wizard assistants even if Dick does have a few laugh-out-loud moments. Warburton does he’s usual dumb guy routine and Carlin is completely wasted. The only one who seems to tap into her character succinctly is Weaver as the wicked Frieda. Of course playing someone evil is always more fun—especially a fairytale villainess CGI-created as a cross between Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Madonna. Weaver certainly works the look. Last year’s Hoodwinked—which took the Little Red Riding Hood tale and turned it into a CSI meets Rashomon—tried to satirize and modernize the fairytale genre. Now we have Happily N'Ever After. While their premises are indeed clever and the CGI animation crisp they fail to deliver a strong story to back up the initial idea. Happily just feels slapped together for the kiddies’ sakes with a few dull attempts at adult references. It’s not a good sign when even your kid sitting next to you starts to zone out halfway through the movie. Also the fact there are about six different animation houses and production companies attached to the project doesn’t bode well. I think it’s probably just best to keep the fairy tale spoofs to the Shrek professionals.