My colleague, Joshua Blevins Peck, coined the acronym USM, or Uplifting Sports Movie, to describe that genre of films represented by the feel good types of Rocky, Remember the Titans or Field of Dreams. It's not a genre I'm particularly enamored with.
Usually, my favorite sports movies are always about the dark underside of competition. North Dallas Forty, or better yet Slapshot were always favorites of mine simply because they defied the conventions of what a USM is supposed to be. They were unflattering and downright raunchy, while humanizing players who are, all too often, canonized by their fans.
While Invictus most definitely falls into the traditional USM category, the fact is most sports don't unite a nation--literally. That lends Clint Eastwood's telling of the alliance between Nelson Mandela and South Africa's national rugby team an emotional weight that transcends your standard "the underdog wins in an upset" cliché.
A brief history lesson (don't groan, I'll make it quick): In the early '60s Nelson Mandela became the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress, a South African political party that was created to advocate against racial discrimination. The ruling National Party had instituted a form of segregation known as apartheid, and Mandela began leading sabotage campaigns against it after years of non-violent resistance.
Mandela was arrested, put on trial and wound up spending 27 years in prison. Racial violence escalated as the minority white government tightened its grip on power. Eventually, but not solely due to international pressure, apartheid began to crumble until it was finally abolished. In 1990, Mandela was released from prison and a few years later ran for, and won, the office of President of South Africa, the first black man to do so.
Invictus picks up just as Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) assumes office in an air of tension. The staff of the outgoing president wonders if they'll all be sent packing, and the white minority population at large seems equally disconcerted about the same prospect.
Knowing that the divisive scars still run deep, Mandela realizes he must calm the fears of the whites, while assuaging the resentments of the blacks and unify them as simply South Africans. Theorizing that the nations losing rugby team, the Springboks, might be a good catalyst to give both sides a national identity, Mandela meets with the team's captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and proposes an alliance.
That might not sound like a practical way to unify a nation, but it does have logic.
The black population despises the Springboks because they represent the last vestige of white rule, so they always root for the opposing team. Of course, this ire's the white fans and generally isn't conducive to national solidarity, peace, love and understanding. By making a show of backing the Springboks, Mandela hoped to influence his people to warm to the ideas of reconciliation and unification he preached while defying white fears.
Added to this whole pot, South Africa was to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup--a further encouragement for the population to stand as one. The only problem? The Springboks kind of suck. As you might imagine, this is where the USM moniker comes into play.
Directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by Anthony Peckham (based on a novel by John Carlin), Invictus bristles with the energy of an important story that's extremely well told. It is almost unbelievable that the events depicted here actually happened, and in Eastwood's no-nonsense hands, the excitement of that time and place in history is solidly rendered.
The well constructed script uses the thrills on the field as a framework to tell the deeper story of Mandela and his incredible influence, painted with subtle details that never bog down the narrative's pace. Eastwood generally lets the story and his actors do most of the heavy lifting, only occasionally erring with some overly emotive musical cues. Overall, I've always liked Eastwood's no-frills directorial style, and that's what you get here.
While he'll probably never be considered a master, the fact is he's been doing this for so long, and it's such a part of his DNA, that he blurs the definition of that word.
But he's not the star of the film. That honor belongs to Mandela himself, and Morgan Freeman's career defining portrayal of the still living freedom fighter.
Adopting Mandela's accent, mannerisms and fly Madiba shirts, Freeman never really pushes his performance into all out mimicry, instead letting all those subtle inflections color the empathy and wisdom he brings to the role. It's as consummate a performance as I've seen from him and is clearly deserving of Oscar accolades. It's a bizarre thing to recognize a milestone performance as it plays out before your eyes, especially coming from a long-known and well-loved veteran actor. From here on, Freeman will no longer be remembered only for The Shawshank Redemption.
Matt Damon uses some of his Bourne Identity tested physicality to make a convincing rugby player. He also convincingly adopts an Afrikaner accent to portray the Springboks team captain, Francois Pienaar. Damon turns up his trademark affable boyish charm and ably conveys his character's amazement and trepidation--that his success might be so integral to changing the fabric of the place he calls home.
Damon is maturing as an actor and turns in a fine performance here, though I couldn't help but think that in a film loaded with unknown actors, if Invictus might have been better served by not casting one of the world's biggest movie stars in its key supporting role.
Still, Invictus does not suffer terribly from its few missteps and as far as Uplifting Sports Movies go, it's carved a niche for itself that defies easy classification by giving audiences so many reasons to cheer.
Back to Basics
In 2004, Disney released its last official hand-animated film Home on the Range, not long before giving up on its own attempts to break into feature-length CGI animated films (Dinosaur). Instead, the company just bought Pixar--a wise move on their part in a business and artistic sense.
Since then Pixar has regaled audiences with top-notch animated cinema, but there was a void left by the absence of traditionally drawn animation that all the pixels and processers in Emeryville were unable to fill.
The Princess and the Frog represents something more than an updated re-working of the Brothers Grimm's The Frog Prince. It's also the Mouse House's first hand drawn theatrical release in half a decade.
Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) has dreamed since childhood of owning her own restaurant. Growing up in early 1900s New Orleans, her life was full of love and friendship but not much money.
Her late father, James (Terrence Howard), instilled in her a devotion to work hard, always telling her she could get whatever she wants if only she works for it diligently enough.
Becoming a young woman, she clearly had never forgotten that lesson. So, Tiana works two waitress jobs ceaselessly and saves her meager tips to buy an abandoned factory that will one day be the home of her dream restaurant.
Her well-to-do best friend, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), doesn't have a similar sense of perseverance and dreams only of marrying a handsome prince who will love her and care for her.
They meet such a catch, who conveniently arrives off a boat, in the form of Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Bruno Campos), a young, handsome, yet sheltered doofus who's been cut off from the family fortune.
Along with his corpulent, disgruntled chaperone Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), the pair are quickly caught in a voodoo-inspired extortion plot hatched by The Shadow Man (Keith David), a French Quarter magician who tricks the prince into becoming a literal frog (albeit a talking one).
The Shadow Man uses Naveen's blood to fuel a voodoo talisman that has the power to turn Naveen's bloated sidekick, Lawrence, into the spitting image of the prince himself. The plan? Marry him off to Tiana's friend Charlotte and, in return, Lawrence will split his newfound fortune with The Shadow Man.
Tiana, with grudging eyes for Naveen herself, finds disappointment when, at Charlotte's costume ball, she sees her friend being wooed by the new prince in town. Wishing upon a star only earns her a visit from a frog that claims to be Naveen. After her initial freak out at the concept of talking wildlife, the frog convinces Tiana to kiss him, so that he might return to human form. Things don't quite go as planned and anthropomorphic hi-jinks set to musical merriment ensue.
The Princess and the Frog is not directed at me, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt. Fact is, I found a bit to like about it, but as an animated musical/comedy the jokes are meant for people that aren't old enough to have experienced much comedy.
Once you get into talking animal territory, it's clear that the laughs are in the broadest sense of humor relying on the over-emotive cuteness Disney is so known for.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (from a script by Clements), all the themes you'd expect to find--the importance of love, family, self-reliance and being OK with yourself--are hammered into the audience with all the subtlety of a hurricane.
Like I said, though, I did find some things to like about The Princess and the Frog. The design and animation are a lovely throwback to classic Disney style, invoking memories of personal favorites like Lady and the Tramp. Tiana and Naveen's adventures through the swamp, in particular, were beautifully realized and animated, soaked in rich colors and inventive details with enchanting plays of light in the swamp's dark nightlife that were painstakingly drawn.
Whatever else The Princess and the Frog might be, it's easy on the eyes and it does tell an actual story. That's something that can't be said for much of the pabulum that passes for children's entertainment.
Randy Newman's score was probably the highlight for me since this movie is loaded with musical numbers, which could have easily been torturous had they been penned by someone like Phil Collins. Newman draws on the musical styles of the time to produce songs ranging in genre from rag-time jazz, gospel and zydeco that are all well written and never annoy.
I'm not a huge Newman fan, but I appreciated his skill and talent as the music could have easily been the most agonizing element of the film. The soundtrack probably won't find its way into my CD player but it was enjoyable, nonetheless.
As of this writing The Princess and the Frog appears to be the top grossing film of the past weekend, so I'm guessing that criticism of it is an exercise in futility. With that in mind I'll just say if you are looking for more high-minded kid fare go catch Fantastic Mr. Fox--if you can still find it.
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