A Whisker Away – Netflix

Written by Mari Okada

Directed by Jun’ichi Satô & Tomotaka Shibayama

 Japan / 2020 / 104 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

leeping all day, prowling all night – the life of a cat seems a pretty sweet gig, right? No responsibilities, no commitments and all the glasses you can knock off the table. For Miyo Saski, being a cat means more, though: it’s the only way she can feel loved. Or at least, loved by someone specific. A schoolgirl, Miyo is smitten with classmate Hinode, and her over-zealous attempts to woo have failed. One night, a mysterious Mask Seller offers Miyo a Noh mask, with whiskers and pointed ears. By day, Miyo is a young girl who ‘masks’ her emotions and pain, by night she takes the form of Taro – a white cat, and goes on adventures.

Captivating as it is peculiar, there’s a mesmeric drive behind committing to Mari Okada’s film which will (assuredly) pay-off. Living up to western stereotypes of the genre, A Whisker Away plays into the hegemonic ideas of what anime ‘subscribes’ itself as – exaggerated, perplexing, and occasionally awkward to a western mindset. Yet, it has a droll charm, with a fascinating wit behind the storytelling and fantastical characterisations set against whimsical animation. 

Undoubtedly paying homage to the Cat Returns series from Studio Ghibli, A Whisker Away reinforces itself with European and American fantasy, notably Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaidand passing references to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Animation studios Toho, Colorido and Twin Engine design A Whisker Away with a soft palette of primarily pastel shades, solely utilising the intensity of colour for Taro’s eyes. Much of the backdrop fades into a watercolour, with a focus on characters, and occasionally allowing the scenery moment to shine.

Only when we enter the Island of Cats and find ourselves at the mercy of the omniscient Mask Seller does the tone shift to an intense blaze of lights, deep forests, and emeralds. Illustrated in a way to maximise how different this is to the human world, the Island reflects fantastical versions of bars, fountains, and parks, but with enough removal from reality to suggest an uneasy feeling.

A poignant symbol of folklore in Japanese culture, the antagonistic Mask Seller lurks not as a villain, but as a playful spirit akin to the Norse Loki or Shakespeare’s Puck. Sinisterly frolicsome, Kōichi Yamadera’s voice performance and Okada’s writing hint at a deeper, more enigmatic structure than a simple bizarre tale of cats and school children. Offering Miyo the opportunity to shed her human face and live the life of a cat, the Mask Seller allows the audience to reflect reality through the eyes of a troubled adolescent, whose home life and experiences belay a hidden truth she refrains from confronting.

Gradually, the narrative lets these truths unravel in a deceptively authentic manner, as revelations and troubles are suggested, hinted and then reinforced or discussed after a breaking point, rather than spouted as exposition. Mirai Shida captures boundless energy as Miyo, but when called upon switches her into a distressingly subdued shell of sentiment. Even her characterisation of Taro alters enough of the pace and pitch to compliment the feline aesthetics.

If you could buy into The Little Mermaid trading her soul for legs, then you can get behind a young girl trading her legs for a tail. A Whisker Away is as bemusing, absurd and enchanting as one would expect. Yet, it shocks in how surprisingly astute its portrayal of childhood emotions is, from undervaluing a parent’s struggles at keeping a steady home and grappling with divorce to the dangers of concealing emotions. Tapping into an intense, if bewildering imagination, A Whisker Away spins out a contemporary fairytale, with firm roots in Japanese lore and feline escapades. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/a-whisker-away/

A Whisker Away is available to stream on Netflix

The Willoughbys – Netflix

Based on the book by Lois Lowry

Written by Kris Pearn & Mark Stanleigh

Directed by Kris Pearn, Cory Evans & Rob Lodermeier

Rating: 4 out of 5.

At one point or another, we’ve all fallen out with our folks, maybe to the extent we wish we had been adopted but hopefully not to the extreme where we send them on a deadly holiday. The Willoughbys, however, are perhaps as dysfunctional as it is possible to be. As twisted as they are colourful, this update on A Series of Unfortunate Events focuses on the titular Willoughbys and their pursuit of a loving family. From the mind of author Lois Lowry, directors Kris Pearn and Mark Stanleigh have adapted the original book for Netflix in a bid to increase the platform’s original children’s content. 

Tim, Jane and the twins Barnaby A and B are frequently starved, left to sleep in the coal bin and generally made to feel like they are burdens on their mother and father. Their parents are neglectful, callous and, worst of all, can’t even grow a proper moustache. After encountering an orphan and sending it to live with Commander Melanoff, an eccentric candy factory owner, the children forge a relationship with their nanny, the cheapest one their parents could find. Animated with weaving motions, where the illustrations offer weight to the characters, much of the story focuses on physical humour and offers levity to the often macabre narrative.

Detaching themselves from the story (for the most part), The Willoughby’s narrator is a blue tabby cat, an otherwise unassuming character who provides off-the-cuff remarks with a voice courtesy of Ricky Gervais. While that may put some viewers off, it should be known that Gervais’ performance is limited and also one of the film’s better casting choices. His narcissistic tones suit the animation of the feline prowler, while his performance, as expected, is certainly the most recognisable and little is done to distinguish the fact it’s Gervais. Love him or loathe him, there’s an element of comedy brought to the performance, and a genuine sense of romanticism for traditional storytelling.

Of the four children, Tim and Jane are voiced by Will Forte and Alessia Cara respectively, and the twins by noted voice artist Seán Cullen. With this Cara’s first foray into the animation genre, the singer effortlessly captures an authentic sense of childlike innocence and thirst for adventure and contributes the film’s sole musical number – a touching song, with haunting edges contrasting against the bouncy nature of the score. Really, though, as one would naturally expect, Jane Krakowski and Martin Short catapult the film well above the heads of the kids and directly into the notorious realms of adult humour as Mother and Father. The pair are despicable and have a dimension of sliminess that just cannot be resisted.

The intention to maintain this bright, almost patchwork style of animation works marvels with the deceptive nature of characters. Craig Kellman’s character creations, recognisable from his work on Hotel Transylvania, avoid the pitfalls of visual bluntness. While animated films are notorious for drawing attention to antagonists with obvious designs, The Willoughbys staves off this idea for the most part. Our antagonists are evident from their actions, not their aspects, and our misunderstood supporting cast members are redeemed too with words and deed. It enables a more precise lesson for children, where a character’s motivation speaks louder than their image.

Across the board, fragmentation occurs when The Willoughbys is considered as a whole as opposed to scene-by-scene. Segments of the story are undeveloped, emphasising mundane details or characters, but these loose threads in an otherwise fantastical and inventive tapestry cannot detract from the overall aesthetic, which rivals any major feature churned out from juggernauts of the children’s media empire.

Marrying whimsy with the brutality of a classic Dahl tale, The Willoughbys may conjure perceptions of a flimsy (and perhaps cheap) children’s amusement tool, but Netflix stands toe-to-toe with the Mouse and the Moon and far outshines Illuminations with their recent addition to the animated library.

The Willoughbys is available to stream now on Netflix

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/the-willoughbys/

Extraction – Netflix

Directed by Sam Hargrave

Screenplay by Joe Russo

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Hiring an unsavoury sort of chap to secure to the safety of a loved one has seemingly grown into its own genre these days, hasn’t it? From director and stunt-coordinator Sam Hargrave, Netflix is looking to secure viewership with the draw of high-stakes action, visuals and the mighty shoulders of Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth stars as Tyler Rake, an air soldier-turned mercenary, tasked with securing the son of India’s largest drug-lord, who has been kidnapped by his competitor.

For the most part, banking on Hemsworth and Hargrave has served well for Netflix. What works in Extraction lies squarely on those concrete shoulders, a safe foundation. The audience is quick to side with Hemsworth’s role. It’s a magnetic performance, which draws us in both to the mystery of Rake’s previous actions and the ongoing mission, excessively bolstered by spectacular choreography and the attitude Hemsworth exudes, particularly through his interactions with old colleague Gaspar. 

These scenes are touching, character building and reinforce Netflix’s firm grip on their good luck charm David Harbour (who plays Gaspar), but they’re few and far between. They should be seen as anchors showing where Hemsworth’s character has grown across the film, but instead are moments of forced exposition to attribute ‘depth’ between body counts. It’s frustrating, as from a casting perspective, Hargrave and the Russo brothers lay superb foundations. Priyanshu Painyuli takes a turn as a sadistically narcissistic villain, while Golshifteh Farahani deserves a larger role as Rake’s mercenary partner who unequivocally steals the final moments of the film. Although it is young actor Suraj Rikame whose minimal screentime as Farhad makes a significant impact. A teen born into an internal drug war, Farhad is a harrowing reminder of the perversion of adolescence into soldiers.

At times, Hargrave mistakes excess for edginess, cluttering otherwise impressive one-take shots and stretching them beyond technical impressiveness into cartoonish violence. It’s staggeringly well-choreographed, as shots follows Hemsworth through buildings, switching points of view in seamless transitions over stairwells, through windows and flipping over shoulders. Fundamentally, the skill of this lies in stunt choreography, which is no shock, considering director Hargrave’s domination of stunt-coordination of mammoth Hollywood films.

This does raise questions regarding an infusion of choreography from a movement expert’s perspective, and from that of the cinematography. Despite managing to keep up with the pacing, this latter aspect isn’t framed particularly well throughout and tends to home in on Hemsworth’s mug, rather than the action at hand. Certainly dynamic in composition, but narratively successful? Dubious.

Any argument made of Extraction’s ‘awareness’ in its grotesquely unnecessary violence and quips is at fault. This springs from the unease of a director who seems unsure whether to push for a pastiche or to deploy a genuine bloodthirsty depiction of modern civilian warfare, landing somewhere in the middle and echoing an extended gaming cutscene. Occasionally, it works, showcasing the brutality of drug wars. The issue arises when Extraction steps beyond realism and makes obvious moves to intensify violence, which removes tension and strays into a fantasy level of conflict.

Extraction is already proving itself as a successful piece of Netflix’s arsenal, but when placing it on the table against similar in the genre, it’s vastly overcast by superior films. Hemsworth turns in a solid performance, but did Netflix necessarily intend to bank on another ‘white saviour’ narrative? Extraction isn’t bringing much to the table, but if this was all the film is guilty of, it’s safe to say Netflix is deploying all tactics and star power to stay above its growing competition – and for now, it’s working.

Extraction is available now on Netflix

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/extraction/