Tag Archives: Mae Whitman

The DUFF

The DUFF is exactly what you’re expecting, but it also has charm, wit, and a killer lead performance from Mae Whitman.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the duffThe DUFF follows Bianca (Mae Whitman), a high school senior who has two hot popular best friends (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) and wants to fit in but who’s very much an outcast due to her alternately snarky and awkward attitude, love of cult horror cinema, and not being a complete hottie that lecherous boys can drool over.  One night at a party, perpetual frenemy and next door neighbour Wes (Robbie Amell) informs Bianca that she is The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) of her friends which crushes Bianca and the resultant paranoia leads to her breaking up with her friends.  Enlisting Wes’ help, as he’s the only one who told her about it, she sets about trying to un-DUFF herself and maybe even ask out hunky dreamboat guitar player Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman).

…so how many spots on your “Teen Comedy Bingo Card” are currently filled in?  I think I’ve got a full house on mine, just need a bitchy popular girl who makes it her life’s mission to bring misery to everyone and especially our protagonist (Bella Thorne) and a soundtrack of hip pop music… oh!  Oh, I have bingo!  I have bingo!  Flippancy aside, The DUFF really is exactly the movie you’re expecting it to be from the premise, trailer, poster, name, hell, even an out-of-context screenshot.  Will Bianca realise that labels are utterly meaningless unless you prescribe meaning to them?  Will she realise that everyone is a DUFF to someone?  Will Wes and Bianca seem to bond real close-like during their escapades?  Will she make peace with her friends?  Will she eventually “own” being the DUFF at the Homecoming dance?  If you have ever seen a teen comedy before, you already know every single one of these answers.

That said, I don’t mean this as a dismissive insult towards The DUFF.  Originality may be a valued commodity in filmmaking for us critics, in all honesty this film’s lack of it is why I’m not about to bust out the five-star rave review quotes, but it’s not the be-all-end-all of a film’s qualities.  For example, I could predict every last beat of The DUFF almost down to the second as I was watching it – including the moment where the slightly self-absorbed mother (Allison Janney who makes the most of what she’s got) would finally offer up some real advice for Bianca – but I still enjoyed the heck out of this movie.  Seriously, I’m sat here typing up this review with a tangible bound in my being, the kind that I can only get from seeing a particularly good movie on a nice day.

So why does The DUFF work?  Well, there are three particular reasons.  The first is that it’s really charming.  Visually, director Ari Sandel enjoys deploying social media aesthetics in order to help convey information and such – the opening of the film introduces each of our main cast of characters with little hashtag-accompanied montages to get us up to speed on them, and is incidentally the sole time in the history of mankind where I have and will laugh at the word “amazeballs” – which undoubtedly is going to date the crap out of this film in a few years, but does give it a nice distinct feel of its own instead of just trying to be Mean Girls 2.0 or whatever.

That charm also manifests itself in the script, too.  The characters do mostly fulfil the expected archetypes, but they’re still incredibly well-drawn and likeable.  The DUFF very smartly casts Bianca’s friends, Jess and Casey, as her real genuine friends with Bianca’s breaking up with them coming purely from her paranoia instead of anything they did.  After all, pretty much everybody wants some kind of companionship and the concept of The DUFF – the approachable one who makes their other friends look hotter by comparison, not necessarily fat or ugly – combined with the social pressure cooker that is high school, is just the kind of thing that can cause somebody to misguidedly eject those closest to them from their lives out of paranoia.  A lesser film would have made Jess and Casey exactly what Bianca fears them to be, but The DUFF portrays them as genuine friends and that sort of sincerity is manifested in most every character.  Hence: charm.

(Incidentally, and I feel I need to mention this before we go further: The DUFF does not condone the idea of The DUFF or that Bianca herself is in any way super ugly or fat.  At least to me, anyway.  The film very much paints her struggle with DUFF as her own self-esteem issues and fear of not being accepted rather than her becoming more socially acceptable and such.  It also never asks you to see her as ugly or in any way undesirable, helped by it making most of the guys who subscribe to that line of thinking as lecherous jackasses whose behaviour is Not OK.  That’s my take, at least – others may feel differently and may even be correct since I’m probably the last person who should speak authoritatively on this.)

The script also provides reason number 2 why The DUFF works: wit.  Whilst not a gut-buster of a film, and filled with material that again will date this thing substantially in a few years’ time – this is the kind of movie where teenagers are able to make the requisite cyber-bullying video go viral by saying out loud to each other if they want it to “Go viral” before sending it off – this is still a very funny movie, one that roots the majority of its jokes in character work and teenage behaviour at this moment in time.  It’s the kind of film that throws around constant references to various social media and teenage aspirations – Bella Thorne’s character’s dream goal in life is to be a reality TV star – but at no point caused me to cringe horrifically at their mentioning because the film doesn’t loudly judge these things or just name-drop in an attempt to be hip.  It all feels somewhat natural, even the inevitable “older characters reminiscing about non-technology days” tangent.

There’s a similar naturalness to the jokes.  Because it’s not aiming for giant major laughs, the film manages to get a good flow going rarely stopping for an extended sequence of beating a joke into the ground – although there are one or two and they are still rather funny thanks to the third reason that we’re about to get to.  This is not really a setpiece comedy movie which means that there are no major laughs, but instead comes with the vastly preferred trade-off of having consistently funny material excellently delivered by a great cast headed up by…

The third and final reason why The DUFF really works: Mae frickin’ Whitman.  Now, full disclosure, I adore Mae Whitman and have done for ages.  Her resume is the kind that most actresses would kill to have, she does a tonne of voice acting, and she is an extremely talented and relentlessly charming performer.  Hell, I was alerted to and excited for this film by the fact that her name was in the lead role and I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with the opportunity to headline a film.  Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t waste this chance.  Hell, that’s an understatement; she absolutely kills it, she’s phenomenal here!

Whitman, you see, commits.  She commits.  No matter what the script asks her to do – whether that be snark her way through the requisite voice over, or believably-without-overdoing-it convey Bianca’s emotional upset over social rejection, or spend several minutes strutting about in ill-suited makeover clothes whilst sexually coming onto mannequins in a sequence that should not be anywhere near as funny as it is – she’s there leading the charge, throwing herself into it with palpable gleeful abandon.  That natural likeability practically becomes a weapon, actively challenging the viewer not to fall for and root for Bianca, and her comic talents, especially her way with facial expressions, are given ample room to work their magic.  In a just world, this would be the performance that launches her into the big time if she wanted it to.  Seriously, she friggin’ kills it.

Admittedly, I have seen The DUFF multiple times before, under different names and usually much better than it’s done here.  However, I still don’t consider that much of a knock.  I have a soft spot for a good charming teen comedy, which is very much what The DUFF is.  It has a charm to it that makes the aesthetics, if not the underlying mechanics that power the thing, feel like its own thing, it’s got an enjoyable wit to it that got me laughing at various levels throughout most all of its 101 minutes, and it has a powerhouse Mae Whitman performance backed up by strong supporting work – particularly by Alison Janney, Bella Thorne, and Robbie Amell.  I went in wanting pretty much all of that and got almost precisely that.  It’s fun, it’s sweet, it’s a teen comedy, and when those are good they can be really good.

Or to put it another way, it’s a film that makes prominent usage of the song “#selfie” and the rest of the film is so good and so enjoyable that I didn’t immediately want to barge into the projector room and set the place ablaze.  I very much class The DUFF as a win, in my book.

Callum Petch has got muscle, he is tough.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

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Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy. That’s right.

tinkerbell-the-pirate-fairy-03-636-380Although it’s not bad, Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy is dull, forgettable and soulless.

by Callum Petch

I should preface this review with two disclaimers.  1] I am not familiar with the Tinker Bell series of, predominately, straight-to-DVD mini-features starring the voice of Mae Whitman (Suzie from Johnny Bravo, Ann “Her?” Veal from Arrested Development and Katara from Avatar: The Last Airbender NO, THE OTHER, GOOD AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER) as Tinker Bell that Disney’s DisneyToons arm has been steadily pumping out since 2008.  Well, I mean, I am now but that’s because I’m doing basic factual research to help with this review.  Going in, beforehand, I knew zippo and if it weren’t for my continuing mission to absorb all of the animation as it happens, I likely wouldn’t have turned up because… 2] This film, like the rest of the series, is going straight-to-DVD in America which is always a good sign (and those who wonder precisely why should go and stomach as much of So Undercover, a Miley Cyrus fronted “comedy” that underwent the same release plan as this film has, and consider their question answered).

Nevertheless, I wanted to like Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy.  Hell, I wanted to like it more so than I normally want to like films that I go and see.  After all, the series is predominately for little girls and god knows they deserve a higher calibre of animated fare aimed at them than there is currently available.  Just over a year ago, now, I allowed My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic to surprise the living hell out of me and there needs to be more like that littering the animation landscape.  Tinker Bell has been running for over half a decade, so it must be doing something right.  But, most importantly, I gave Mr. Peabody & Sherman a shot and that somehow knocked it out of the park.  I mean, if DreamWorks Animation, who I have nearly always despised, can get close to a home run, then surely DisneyToons, whose priors include this series and the abominable Planes, can turn in a decent 78 minutes, right?

To be fair, Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy is not a bad way to pass the time.  It is seven hundred million miles better than anything the Barbie franchise is churning out, which I guess already puts it in the higher echelons of entertainment primarily made for little girls by default, and the kids in my packed showing (I had to move seats thrice before the film started and, being the only one there without a kid or a parent, several guardians looked like they were within spitting distance of calling the police on me) seemed enthralled by it.  The problem is that “It’s not particularly bad” is really the only thing this film has going for it.  The direct-to-DVD origins are abundantly obvious in almost every aspect, from the run time (which is barely a hair over 70 minutes before the credits kick in, I spent more time on the bus ride back home than I did in the theatre and that includes previews and ads), to the budget animation, to the compressed plot, to the lack of imagination in the action sequences, to the side-lining of a tonne of its cast…  If this was just a straight-to-DVD release, I may have been tempted to give it a full-on pass.  But, much like with Planes, this is a cinema release and, as such, means that, however implicitly, it wants to be judged on the same level as The Lego Movie or Mr. Peabody & Sherman or Frozen.  And judge it I shall!  Right now, in fact.

The animation seems as good a place to start talking as any.  Although, unlike Planes, it’s not bad, it’s not particularly good, either (which, by the way, is a phrase that can be applied to just about every facet of the film).  There’s a lack of dynamism throughout.  By which I mean: there are several setpieces involving characters flying about whilst the camera tries to keep track, but it often just looks like the characters are stuck still whilst the environment contorts itself to make it seem like they’re moving.  Ever been on one of those virtual-reality rollercoaster rides?  The kind that purport to take you through mystical lands on a whirlwind ride where in reality you’re just watching a video screen whilst the seat you’re sitting in shakes back and forth in random directions?  Yeah, it’s a lot like that and it’s pretty noticeable.  It never feels like the fairies are chasing after things, trying to avoid danger or are, in fact, in much of any danger at all.

Then there’s the lack of detail in just about every area.  There are many segments set at night or involving the manipulation of light, but they lack “wow”, they lack the wonder of seeing dots of light illuminating the dark, it just feels like a blob of a brighter shade of colour has been dabbed into a shot (although credit is due for resisting a garish, primary-colour only colour scheme).  A short sequence involving the fairies sliding through a foliage next to a waterfall seems to lack running water, although it’s mostly hidden by shaking the camera around to near-disorientating levels.  Water in general, meanwhile, is at about Finding Nemo levels.  That’s circa 2003 for those keeping track at home, so it’s passable but it’s not, say, Frozen.  The production values in general are just slightly above the fare you’d find on Disney Junior today which, again, would be understandable for a film sent straight-to-DVD but instead look downright embarrassing when sat right next to, say, The Lego Movie as it quite literally was (The Lego Movie was actually playing in the cinema screen next to me as I left).

Oh, also, though I’d leave this part under subjective “newcomer to the franchise” opinion as criticising a series’ character design and art style six films in is kinda pointless, I’m not fully sold on the art style.  It sits at some kinda very uncomfortable halfway house between outwardly cartoony, mid-budget CGI Disney Channel series and the “we’re not even going to hide the fact that our toys come first and foremost” plastic lifelessness of what I have seen of third-generation Barbie films and its lack of commitment to either side creates character designs, and especially faces, that are distractingly weird in motion, up-close and in motion up-close.  The film has one successful character design; the one that commits to a singular style and that’s a baby crocodile that’s designed in what I am quite certain is technically known as OH MY GODS, HE IS SSSSSOOOOOOO CUUUUUUUTTTEEEEE!!!  I must, however, give props to the character designers for designing the pixies with a range of body types, notably mainly going for a fuller look instead of a parade of hourglass figures.  Seriously, this kind of variety in kids’ programming counts and we should encourage it when possible.

If this is your first Tinker Bell adventure, and I have a feeling that there are very few people who will have taken a look at this film and decided that now of all times was the time to get on the bandwagon but in any case, I’d recommend watching some other ones beforehand because the film seems to assume that this isn’t your first rodeo with the series and explains very little.  So, naturally, I was completely lost as to who these other fairies following Tinker Bell around were and how their talents related to each other.  In fact, one of the main conflicts of the film, that each fairy ends up having their specialised talents switched with one another (which, thanks to animation lead times, does sound a lot like the “Magical Mystery Cure” episode of Friendship Is Magic, now that you mention it), carries little weight because, err, I had no idea what their talents were in the first place.

Not that prior knowledge would help much, mind, as all of Tinker Bell’s fairies and even Tink herself are relegated to the side-lines for large chunks of this very short story.  The film seems more content to focus on said pirate fairy, newcomer to the series Zarina (voiced by Christina Hendricks, who seems to be making a habit of popping up in cartoons and stuff in general that I am interested in and/or like), and her number two in the crew, human pirate James (voiced by, of all people, Tom freakin’ Hiddleston); so much so that it might as well have been called Zarina’s Middle-Sized Adventure, With Those Other Fairies Too, I Guess.  The story begins with a good 10 minute prelude sequence (which, again, is 1/7 of the film) designed solely to introduce her and the things that make her tick, before she’s ostracised for causing an accident.  Tink and her friends, who pretty much have interchangeable personalities in this outing (excluding one who seems to like fashion and hate gross things despite being a flower fairy), are relegated to basically turning Zarina back to the good side and nothing else.  Maybe a longer runtime would have solved this; I’m struggling to think of stuff in Zarina’s arc that could have been cut to make room for scenes with the other half of the titular characters but I’m drawing a blank.

In addition, the ruthless efficiency in getting from A to B and out the door thank you very much for coming buy our merchandise in all good stores, means that there’s a lack of heart powering the whole thing.  Yes, a lot of time is fostered on Zarina, but the inevitable outcome of her adventure rang hollow for me.  It hits all of the heart-warming and feel-good beats without ever really feeling committed to it.  More cynical audience members or, say, anyone over the age of 8 will instead see it as their cue to start getting together their stuff for leaving.  I just didn’t really care about any of these characters and I got the feeling that the film didn’t either.  Nobody is ever in any real danger, nobody is particularly endearing, everybody except for The Fairy That Is Either Kristen Chenoweth Or A Scarily Good Kristen Chenoweth Impersonator (which of the two it is depends on which corner of the Internet you look and, no, I don’t make notes during a film screening), Zarina (because she’s the focus of the film), James (for reasons that are decent enough for me to decide to not spoil) and Tinker Bell (for obvious reasons), I couldn’t tell you a single thing about any of these characters and game performances by every single cast member can’t elevate substandard material.

Look, I’m sounding really down on Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy.  This review has been nothing but negativity from almost the word go and I didn’t really mean for it to be.  It’s just that listing a film’s various problems is far more interesting and readable material than, “Meh.  It was OK whilst it lasted.  Nothing special, nothing dreadful.”  It’s reasonably engaging, very sporadically amusing and should probably be commended for sticking to its adventure premise throughout and not backing out from a sword-fight finale for stereotypical girly non-sequiturs, like fashion modelling sequences (of which there are none).  It’s the kind of thing you put on to amuse your kids whilst you do the ironing in the same room: not so bad that its continued existence drives you insane, but not so good that you become distracted by it and end up burning a hole in your clothes or something (full disclosure: I have no idea how ironing works).

In other words: acceptable direct-to-DVD stuff that kids will probably love whilst it lasts and then completely forget about 10 minutes later.  But you wanna know something?  Straight fter seeing this, I indulged myself and went straight into a screening of Frozen (which I’d already seen and which was almost nearly as packed as Tinker Bell, despite now being nearly four months old) and all I wanted to do after coming out of the cinema two hours later was talk about Frozen, or buy the Frozen soundtrack, or book tickets to a sing-along screening of Frozen, or, quite frankly, just keep thinking about Frozen.  By contrast, after seeing Tinker Bell, all I wanted to do was see Frozen and file this review so that I could go back to ruminating on Frozen when I left the Frozen cinema screen.  Point is: kids’ films can do better and kids deserve better and even attempting to insinuate that Tinker Bell is anywhere close to the levels that other kids’ films can, have and are achieving is laughable.

I dunno, maybe this series really is something excellent.  Maybe The Pirate Fairy is a lower-tier entry in the franchise.  Maybe some of the other ones, the ones that were released direct-to-DVD, are more than just inoffensive background noise.  Maybe I should cut it some more slack because it’s a film for little girls that doesn’t patronise and insult them in every other frame.  Maybe I should lay off because it’s more than decent for something that’s supposed to be direct-to-DVD.  Maybe I should, but I know that this medium can do better.  My Little Pony: Equestria Girls is coming to cinemas in a limited engagement in two weeks.  That’s also a direct-to-DVD film primarily aimed at little girls that doesn’t talk down to or patronise them; it’s also a million times better than this one by virtue of not being the film equivalent of white noise.  If you have to take your kids to one direct-to-DVD-made little girls’ cinema-release movie, you’d be better off with that one and to wait for Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy to hit the bargain bins, where its incessant mediocrity will be less of an issue.

Then again: the kids in my screen seemed to like it and I’m a 19 year-old man who seriously just wrote 3 and a half A4 pages about the worth of a film aimed at little girls to sell toys.  So, you know, take that for what it’s worth.

Callum Petch is living in a compromise.  He normally writes movie reviews and box office reports for Screened.com.  Follow him on the Twitters: @CallumPetch