Quick Movie Reviews (Fantasy Island & A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon)

Fantasy Island

In its desperation to revive every scrap of dormant IP, regardless of audience demand or interest, Hollywood has arrived at last to Fantasy Island. Maybe you remember Fantasy Island, though no one would blame you if you didn’t. Airing on ABC from 1977-1984, the series starred Ricardo Montalbán as the mysterious, white-clad overseer of an island that could magically grant visitors all the wildest fantasies that network Standards & Practices would allow. Despite a brief revival in 1998, the show hasn’t left much of a cultural footprint, which might explain how the fearless haunted-house estate keepers of Blumhouse got their hands on the title. The hook of this new big-screen version, teased by a poster that makes the titular getaway look like a screaming skull, is that the supernatural undertones have been twisted into something unambiguously sinister. Still, calling this Fantasy Island a “horror movie” is a bit of a stretch — as is calling it “coherent,” or “of any merit.” To invoke the horror genre would be to deny the out of place humor and melodrama fighting for real estate over a very long one-hundred-and-ten-minute runtime. It would also imply scares that stubbornly refuse to arrive, even once the island starts spitting out zombies, evil surgeons, and Michael Rooker.

The setup is as viewers might remember (or again, maybe not). Like any given episode of the series, Fantasy Island begins with a plane full of seemingly lucky guests touching down on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific. Here, they are greeted by their magnanimous host, Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña), who promises them all the impossible realization of their deepest desires. And as you might expect, leads it recipients into danger eventually. Blumhouse, whose output ranges from commercial and critical smashes like Get Out to disposable garbage like Sinister 2, specializes in economy fright fare. But the company’s projects rarely look as chintzy as this one, whose balmy luxury setting only underscores the transparent cheapness of its visual effects, photography, and production design. Big scares don’t require a big budget, but it’s a problem when your unstoppable bogeyman — a sadist in scrubs dubbed “Dr. Torture” — seems to have stumbled out of a Halloween funhouse attraction.

Image via Sony Pictures

Fantasy Island‘s plastic unreality extends past production values and into the performances, delivered by actors who seem to be negotiating, on a scene-by-scene basis, how much effort they have to put in to justify a vacation masquerading as a film shoot. What the movie fails most to convey is the actual fantasy of the premise — the wish-fulfillment of it all, which a better (or least naughtier) movie would plug the audience right into, and then nightmarishly subvert once the guests start wishing they’d been more careful about what they wished for. This Fantasy Island instead gets hung up on all the convoluted rules of its reality-bending locale and the entwined, soap-opera backstories of the guests, which leads to an idiotic twist that requires basically ignoring one character’s behavior up until the reveal. At least there are some solid unintentional laughs sprinkled among the failed stabs at intentional ones. Like, for example, the scene where a guest discovers that his fantasy has led him backward in time. The howler of a giveaway? Someone telling him that he “looks dazed and confused. You know, like the movie that came out last year.” Thriller framework aside, Fantasy Island probably works best as a comedy. At least when it’s no trying to be one.

Grade: D

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Aardman Animations’ stop-motion process is labor-intensive and rigid, requiring comprehensive planning and specificity of execution, so what’s perhaps most striking about their films is their freedom and playfulness. Their latest, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon required months of backbreaking frame-by-frame animation, but it has a freewheeling, improvisational spirit, a looseness that results in a giddy comic energy. Shaun’s first big-screen vehicle, the 2015 Shaun the Sheep Movie, was an inspired comic contraption, sending the good-hearted sheep and his flock on a big city adventure. In Farmageddon, the adventure comes to them, via an alien child who crashes near their farm, the conclusion of an accidental joy ride to earth. While Shaun attempts to help the alien “Lu-La” get home, Farmer John sees a moneymaking opportunity, and attempts to court the UFO tourist trade by turning his farm into a comically rinky-dink theme park.

If the setup sounds reminiscent of E.T., that’s purposeful; the directors Will Becher and Richard Phelan include numerous visual references to Spielberg’s classic. They also throw in winks in the directions of alien pop culture artifacts like The X-Files, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which will likely please sci-fi fans of all ages. But the most telling homage is a reference to Chaplin’s Modern Times, a reminder of Aardman’s true tradition. The Shaun the Sheep films are entirely free of dialogue — the animals don’t talk and the humans are only heard speaking gibberish — and in many ways these shorts and features are carrying the baton of classic comedy.

shaun the sheep
Image via Netflix

Shaun is a resourceful little guy in the tradition of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, and his adventures are similarly well-constructed machines of gags, foils, everyday foibles, and comic exaggerations. As with those silent classics, the Shaun the Sheep films boil down to their set pieces, and while none in this new film approach the Tati-esque perfection of the restaurant scene in Shaun the Sheep Movie, Farmageddon features plenty of inspired, boomeranging slapstick, executed with clockwork precision. Refreshingly cheerful, playful, and quick-witted, Aardman’s latest takes its titular silent film star and works farcical, dialogue-less magic.

Grade: B

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is available to stream now on Netflix (in the U.S.)

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