Film of the Week: An inferior chip off the old block
Playmobil: The Movie (G, 99mins)
Often derided as Lego's knock-off competitor, Playmobil has been going since the mid-70s and is a big deal in continental Europe. Invented by a German called Hans Beck, the oddly expressionless 7cm figurines have got into all sorts of adventure-themed scrapes over the years, from grocery shopping (which doesn't sound too exciting) to exploring the Arctic, jousting as knights, battling across the wild west and recreating a mini Roman Empire. Now they have their own film, and if accusations of imitating their blocky Lego cousins are inevitable, they're also entirely justified.
While The Lego Movie ended in the real world, Playmobil: The Movie starts in it. Anya Taylor-Joy is Marla, a spirited teenager who's about to travel the world when she finds out that her parents have been killed in a car crash. Bummer, especially for Marla, who must put aside her globe-trotting plans and look after her little brother, Charlie (Gabriel Bateman). Fast forward five years and Marla seems like a put-upon single mom, while Charlie has grown rebellious.
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When she puts her foot down and tells him he can't go to a massive toy fair in Manhattan, Charlie sneaks out and goes downtown anyway. Marla follows him using GPS, and confronts him in the middle of a huge Playmobil exhibit. While they bicker, something magic happens (there's a bright light, some spinning - I'm unclear on the details), and the siblings wake to discover they've been transformed into Playmobil figures themselves.
Charlie is pretty pleased about the fact that he's now a fearsome Viking knight, but his celebrations are short-lived as he's captured by an enemy and sold into Playmobil slavery. The toy world appears to be divided into themed kingdoms, and when Marla finds out that Charlie's been taken to 'Ancient Rome', she sets out to rescue him with the help of a reluctant ally.
Del (Jim Gaffigan) is a food truck driver who's always dreaming of the next big wheeze. Though he makes several attempts to ditch her, he will be Marla's guide through the not very terrifying dangers in Playmobil world, while Charlie proves a big hit among the gladiators preparing to entertain Emperor Maximus (Adam Lambert) and his bloodthirsty subjects. Rescuing him won't be easy and even if she succeeds, Marla will then have to figure out a way of getting them back to the real world.
A recurring joke, in a film rather short on them, revolves around Rex Dasher (nicely voiced by Daniel Radcliffe), a hopelessly smug and conceited Bond-like secret agent who expects and gets a standing ovation every time he shows up. He's a master of disguise, but that wouldn't be hard in Playmobil land because, as in life, all the figurines have identical faces and expressions. Strip away the togas or battle armour or Hawaiian shirts or what have you and you wouldn't be able to tell them apart: they're even gender neutral, which is very of-the-moment, I suppose.
Playmobil: The Movie is decently animated for the most part, and its problems stem not from technical deficiencies, but from the lack of a clear overarching concept. The brief to director Lino DiSalvo and his writers seems to have been 'make us a witty franchise animation - you know, like the Lego ones'. But it blandly copies the theme of rediscovering the fun in play from the first Lego movie without adding many clever or original touches of its own.
When Marla and Charlie arrive in Playmobil land, the themed kingdoms they visit only seem to have been chosen because Playmobil do toys based on these scenarios: sometimes, as in the wild west sequence, they are passed through virtually without comment. And for all the talk of play, there's not much playfulness to this enterprise overall, which goes about its business with brisk, dead-eyed efficiency. There's no two ways about it: this film would not exist if the Lego movies hadn't been made, and makes little attempt to hide its crassly commercial agenda.
It's not awful, but it's an oddly joyless little animation, and flashes of humour from Lambert's cheerfully deranged Emperor Maximus offer glimpses of what might have been possible if the makers of Playmobil: The Movie had sat down and thought about what they were at before they started shooting it.
Blinded By The Light (12A, 117mins) ***
Co-written by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Gurinder Chadha's slight but charming comic drama is set in Luton in 1987, where teenager Javed (Viveik Kalra) is having an existential crisis. Oppressed by his Pakistani father's rigid conservatism, depressed by the wintry greyness of his hometown, he has a eureka moment when a school-friend lends him Bruce Springteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town. It teaches Javed to dream, and pretty soon he's writing poems and falling in love. Springsteen's rousing anthems are juxtaposed with the drabness of 1980s suburbia, and while Chadha's film is rough around the edges, it has charm.
Gaza (12A, 92mins) ****
A seven-mile-wide, 25-mile-long strip of land squashed between the borders of Israel and Egypt, Gaza is home to almost two million Palestinians, victims of an economic blockage, who find themselves caught in the crossfire of a simmering war. Somehow these people survive, laugh and play and live in the shadow of constant uncertainty, and their plight is movingly evoked in Andrew McConnell and Gary Keane's lyrical documentary. Kids from refugee camps take to the Mediterranean to swim, while a talkative Gaza City taxi driver entertains his weary passengers. It's beautifully filmed, shot through with quiet anger.
Animals (16, 109mins) ****
Have we reached peak galpal? Messy, imperfect female friendships are a big cinematic staple these days, but Animals offers something different and more nuanced than usual. Laura (Holliday Grainger) and Tyler (Alia Shawkat) rip a swathe through modern day Dublin, getting drunk, stoned and laid. Theirs is an undying sort of platonic romance until one of them meets a sensible lad with a view to settling down. Naturally, their toxic co-dependency starts to falter. Some of the magic of Emma Jane Unsworth's gloriously meaty book gets lost in translation, but Animals is still cool, energetic and charming.
Films coming soon
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino); Good Boys (Jacob Tremblay, Will Forte); Dora And The Lost City Of Gold (Isabela Moner)