Film #119: The Lego Movie (2014)

film 119 the lego movie

Rating: 4/5

“Everything is awesome!!!!”

Despite the fact that this film is the most blatant and shameless example of product placement, it’s a lot of fun. It’s also probably the only time we’ll ever get an ensemble cast quite as epic: Gandalf, Batman, Abraham Lincoln, Wonderwoman, Han Solo, and half of the LA Lakers together? When Wreck-It Ralph promised to feature all the classic video game characters in one movie, the results were crushingly inadequate. Here, The Lego Movie delivers, and the interactions between the various cameos – no matter how brief – are very entertaining. It’s the cameo characters that have some of the best running jokes in the movie – poor loser Green Lantern, for example, or 1950’s Space Man Benny desperately trying to build a spaceship. The voice cast is excellent too – kudos to Liam Neeson in particular, sending himself up as split personality Good Cop/ Bad Cop, one of the best characters in the movie.

As well as a seemingly endless number of super-awesome cameos to keep an eye out for, the movie itself is jam-packed. Visually it’s a treat – not quite as puntastic as Aardman’s stop-motion, but just as eye-catching. It’s like a regular movie that’s eaten six bags of sugar in under thirty seconds, washed down with five energy drinks: it’s chaotic, manic, delirious. The pace is non-stop and, quite brilliantly, acknowledged as being such – it’s revealed that the action is apparently playing out in real time. Jack Bauer would be proud (or green with envy at these characters’ productivity). It’s also truly vast in scope, with the action racing from a perfectly ordered city, to the wild west (complete with beautiful panoramic views), to the high seas and beyond. I wonder if the writers had watched A Town Called Panic for inspiration – the films share more than a passing resemblance. Both feature crazy stop motion, non-stop action, hugely ambitious landscapes, and a barely contained insanity. I have to admit, however, A Town Called Panic is the better film. I don’t mind the product placement in The Lego Movie (although it becomes a bit too explicit towards the end) – the biggest issue I have is its confused message about the product placement. Poor Lego seems very muddled about what its purpose and appeal is, and the attempts to unite the sentiment of the product with the most effective marketing ploys don’t really work.

The film itself focuses on Emmet, a generic construction worker who has boundless energy and optimism, but no friends. He likes to conform, to fit in – everything has its place and thinking outside the box is definitely a bad thing. Yet Emmet’s structured life leaves him feeling isolated and unfulfilled until one day, when everything changes. Accidentally becoming the fabled “Special” – the only person who can stop evil Lord Business’ dastardly plans for Taco Tuesday, whatever that is, Emmet finds himself working with a band of “master builders” – an assortment of characters, including Batman, love interest Wyld Style, and Morgan Freeman (sorry, Vitruvius, played by Morgan Freeman), who can create anything in seconds using the Lego pieces around them. The message is clear: conformity bad, creativity good. The structured world preferred by Lord Business is perfect, perfectly ordered, and perfectly boring. In contrast, Cloud Cuckoo Land, a place where imagination runs wild, is a veritable utopia. Meanwhile, Emmet has to unlock his imagination to become the “Special” and save the world. The potential for invention is endless, and the movie makes it very clear that this is the “right” way of thinking about Lego. This is great, and seems to really embody the original concept of Lego, which came in buckets or could be bought like bags of pick ‘n’ mix. It’s a wonderful idea: let your imagination run wild, using simple blocks of plastic that can become whatever you want – cities, animals, whole worlds, anything. Problem is, however, that Lego now comes in pre-packaged assembly kits. Do you want a pirate boat? Buy the pirate boat kit. Want a race-car, a farm, a house, a spaceship? Buy the kit. Most depressing about this whole situation is that now you can even buy kits for the creatures and objects made by the master builders in the movie – the things that work precisely because they don’t conform. Hell, you can buy a Cloud Cuckoo landscape and a Unikitty.

It’s this kind of basic inner conflict that makes The Lego Movie such a problematic product and, no matter how fun and entertaining it is – and it is, absolutely – I can’t help but feel that the creators have really proved how troubled the whole Lego world really is now. There’s another movie planned, of course, but it’s unclear what direction a sequel can really go in. This film loses momentum as it reaches its conclusion: there are hints throughout as to how it’s going to end, but the sudden shift from hyped-up craziness to solemn sentimentality is underwhelming. Yet until this point, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just a shame that the product itself seems to be having a complete identity crisis.

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Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

Film #87: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)

film 87 power rangers the movie

Rating: 2/5

“You egg-sucking purple pinhead! The Rangers are going after the Great Power! I thought you said this guy was the master of disaster. He’s nothing but a slime-infested jelly donut!”

It’s nostalgia time! Much like Masters of the Universe, Power Rangers: The Movie holds little appeal for anyone who didn’t make the mighty morphin’ teenagers a part of their youth. Watching this on old, secondhand (or thirdhand, or fourthhand) VHS, with the sound fading in and out on a regular basis, I was transported back to the mid-90s, when everyone wore colour-coordinated crop tops (including the guys), roller-blading was the coolest thing ever, and all dialogue had to be heavily punctuated by emphatic ninja-esque hand gestures. Yes, the Power Rangers were camp and daft, but they were hugely successful – over the years there have been many new incarnations (with the show still airing on television), but the movie charts the latest exploits of the original, and best, bunch.

Power Rangers: The Movie has the standard, generic plot of most childhood movies: our heroes’ lives are suddenly thrown into turmoil with the reawakening of Ivan Ooze (Paul Freeman), a fiendish villain who had been trapped in a giant buried egg full of gunk for the last six thousand years. Finally freed, he quickly traps the television show’s resident baddies Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, trashes the Rangers’ command center and leaves their leader, Zordon, for dead. Summoning the last bit of power available, loyal C-3P0 rip-off robot Alpha 5 pauses in her constant flapping to beam the Rangers off to a remote planet in search for the Great Power, which may restore Zordon and stop the nefarious Ooze from taking over the world.

While most of the staple characters and locations from the television show are acknowledged, this makes pains to distinguish itself as something new (and bigger), and it doesn’t always work. Angel Grove’s resident bullies Bulk and Skull get a few cursory scenes, which seem particularly out of place if you’re not familiar with the tv series. Although it appears that none of the Rangers have parents, the adult population of the fictional town are given some more screentime, becoming oozified zombies thanks to Ooze’s ooze (yes, really) – luckily he still cares about health and safety and gives them all matching outfits and hardhats while they dig up the giant Ectomorphicon Titans (the film’s full of this kind of pseudo-scientific dialogue) that will help him conquer Earth. The titans, when they are finally unveiled, turn out to be giant, shiny, metallic, and supremely dodgy early CGI creations.

The CGI doesn’t stop there, and nor do the alterations. Most disappointingly, the Power Rangers, stripped of their powers early on in the film, never get a chance to fight with their established Zords (the big robots they call from afar to help them fight their battles). In the series, each Ranger would call its Zord, which were cool creatures like Sabretooth tigers, Tyrannosaurus Rexes, and Mastodons, at which point the stock footage from another Japanese show would kick in. Here, on the distant planet Phaedos, the kids are given new animal guides, and the film’s final set piece back on Earth sees them fighting with these new Zords – Crane, Ape, Bear, Falcon, Wolf and… Frog. Even the most ferocious of these is no match for the much cooler prehistoric Zords they’d started of with, and the lack of familiarity is disappointing. The CGI doesn’t help – the fight scenes are a jumble of shoddy effects and rushed imagery, revealing the film’s age more than even the naffest of 90s tropes.

And what of the Rangers themselves? Like He-Man in Masters of the Universe they are the blandest bunch of teens imaginable and, despite being the film’s protagonists, have a mere handful of lines and no character development whatsoever. Tommy, the former brainwashed Green Ranger-turned White Ranger and leader of the gang, and Kimberly (the hot Pink Ranger) at least seem to be vaguely human; the rest interchangeable, distinguished (and characterised) solely by the colour of their outfits, and are only relevant when fighting the latest group of bad guy minions. While the film takes great pains to show the reactions of each individual Ranger at all times, as a group they are utterly devoid of personality. As usual, it’s their evil nemesis who brings some theatricality to the story; Ooze is flamboyant and wicked, generic but a perfectly acceptable (and expected) kind of villain for a family-friendly kids movie of this kind. It’s just a shame that Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd are so quickly consigned to miniature form and sidelined – each individually easily matches Ooze’s camp personality.

Despite the various problems and, it must be said, disappointments that come along with the film, Power Rangers: The Movie races along – there’s plenty of action to make up for the lack of personality, and the soundtrack in particular really works to convince the viewer that what they’re watching is impressive and important. The pacing is brisk and the various set pieces offer some new (generally mediocre) spectacle to distract from the fact that the story is ridiculous, the acting is sub-par, and the effects are fairly terrible. Admittedly, it’s not actually as camp and fun (in a badfilm sense) as Masters of the Universe, but the nostalgia value was high (this was the very first movie I saw at the cinema without my parents – probably because they’d have done anything to avoid having to sit through it) and, for that reason at least, I left my cynicism (and criticism) at the door and enjoyed the stupidity.

Films #67 & 68: Marnie (1964) & Masters of the Universe (1987)

film 67 68 masters of the universe

Ratings: Marnie, n/a; Masters of the Universe, 2/5

“Stay where you are, He-Man! One more move and your friends will not live to see another day! I give you a choice. Return with me to Eternia as my slave and save their miserable lives, or perish with them on this primitive and tasteless planet. Surrender your sword!”

This may seem like rather a strange double bill, and indeed it would have been, were it not for the fact that, as it turned out, the video case for Marnie was empty. So, for the first (and hopefully last) time, a film has been retired from Movie Lottery, on the basis that it has disappeared. It’s a shame, really, because Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a nasty, though very interesting film; the same can not be said for Masters of the Universe, a camp, ridiculous, 80s kids film that I watched last night for the first time, with little to no knowledge of He-Man. Perhaps the film would mean something more had I the benefit of childhood nostalgia, though I must admit to have rather enjoyed it regardless.

I missed the first few minutes, due to being filled in on some of the history behind these ludicrous characters, but the general gist of the film is this: He-Man is good, and likes wearing nothing but a harness and pants. Skeletor is bad, and you can tell because he wants to control the universe, wears a lot of black, spouts a lot of rhetoric, and has a skull for a face. There’s a device called a Cosmic Key, built by an irritating goblin-dwarf creature, and even though he already has one of his own, Skeletor wants it. Unfortunately for him, his minions (who look exactly like Darth Vader) are pretty useless, and He-Man, two of his friends, and Gwildor (the goblin) escape with the Cosmic Key and land rather unceremoniously on Earth, where they join up with two teenagers and try to stop a galactic war from breaking out. Or something.

Although it seems like Masters of the Universe is a sequel – it throws you into the action immediately, and Skeletor has already taken over Castle Greyskull on the planet Eternia – but in fact it is the first and only film of what was most likely intended to become a franchise. Released in 1987, just following the peak of the toys’ and cartoon’s popularity, it was a flop on release, not even recouping its $22 million budget in the US. This is no real surprise – there are few (if any?) films inspired by toys that have been truly successful (yes, I realise Transformers has done rather well commercially, but critically? Well, I’m sure you know yourselves). Masters of the Universe is particularly shoddy; as a badfilm fan I appreciated its stupidity, but I wonder would even a child have been convinced by any of it?

The story itself is completely generic, and is marginally better once He-Man and his cohorts arrive on Earth, where they are disgusted by people’s meat-eating habits, quickly upgrade a car’s engine (because they care about the environment, obviously), and do not once consider wearing “human” clothes so they blend in a bit more. Luckily they arrive in America, and the native language on Eternia is English, so that’s one problem they don’t have to worry about. Even more fortunately, they meet orphan Julie (Courtney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill), who very quickly accept all the unbelievable stuff going on around them. Having mistaken the Cosmic Key for a newfangled synthesiser from Japan, Kevin and Julie become instrumental (ha!) in helping good defeat evil.

The fairly big core cast is necessary, because He-Man himself is quite possibly the dullest hero ever conceived. Even his name is dull: He-Man. Man-Man? That’s almost as bad as the literal translation of Manos: The Hands of Fate, or Ro-Man from Planet Ro-Man! Unlike Ro-Man, however, He-Man has absolutely no personality whatsoever – although, I should say, Dolph Lundgren does look exactly like an action figure. It’s truly uncanny. Luckily, there are plenty of other people (and creatures) to distract from our hero’s inanity. Frank Langella should particularly be commended for his role as Skeletor – despite being entirely covered by a cloak and mask, he chews the scenery in every scene, overemphasising everything and making the most evil of villains both pompously theatrical and, at times, even genuinely sinister (albeit in a camp kind of way.)

Despite the film being a fairly long (for a kid’s movie) 100 minutes, there’s non stop action to keep sugar-filled children entertained. Most, but not all, of this takes place in Julie’s hometown, where apparently every single other inhabitant goes to bed at 8pm and therefore remains happily oblivious to the aliens, portals, giant hovercrafts, and full-scale war going on in the streets. It doesn’t make any sense, of course, and the action is frequently poorly choreographed, overly dependent on psychedelic, epilepsy-inducing light shows, or pathetically harmless (the bad guys are particularly poor shots), but somehow Masters of the Universe is actually quite entertaining to watch. It races along, and when viewed today is on a par with Flash Gordon for dodgy effects and silly, overwrought concepts – but would I watch it again? Well… possibly.

Film #45: Thirteen (2003)

film 45 thirteen

Rating: 4/5

“The itsy-bitsy spider dropped acid at the park…”

Growing up is hard, but Thirteen suggests that, despite the chaos and angst, it will eventually get better. What’s refreshing about it is that, while it addresses the many issues that affect teens attempting to prove themselves as young adults, it never really sensationalises them. There are no overly melodramatic twists – no pregnancies, overdoses, or drug-induced rapes to really hammer home the message – and, consequently, Thirteen is powerfully realistic and, despite the rapidity with which Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) succumbs to rebellion, teenhood, and all that that entails, is wholly believable.

Co-written by then-thirteen year old Nikki Reed (who also stars as Tracy’s troubled best friend Evie) and director Catherine Hardwicke, Thirteen‘s semi-biographical nature emphasises its authenticity. The delirious hyperactivity of young teens exploring their blossoming sexuality, discovering boys, petty crime, drugs, and the seemingly limitless excitement that comes with suddenly realising you don’t have to be a child any more contrasts well against the emotional impact this new lifestyle has – this new-found freedom is not without consequence. While their actions may seem self-assured, the reality is that Tracy and Evie are still kids, first and foremost. They might play at being adults, but they are still fragile and, in the case of these two teens, both already damaged. The film is, at its heart, a cry for help – on screen both Tracy and Evie are the ones screaming out, living without fear of consequence, deliberately rebelling against their home life, trying to find their own place in the world, while off camera, Nikki Reed based the story on her own experiences after Hardwicke suggested it could be a way of working through problems.

The collaboration between Hardwicke and Reed works perfectly, and the insight provided by Hardwicke as an adult is reflected in the relationship between Tracy and her recovering alcoholic mother Mel (Helen Hunt). This is as much a film about a mother and daughter as it is about two young friends; Evie might be the catalyst, kick-starting Tracy’s new lifestyle, but one gets the distinct feeling that Tracy was looking for any kind of outlet for her inner conflict. Hunt, nominated for an Oscar for her role here, is utterly believable as Mel, a mother who means well but is out of her depth, who can’t help but make her own mistakes, and who struggles as she watches her daughter transform from a quiet, well behaved child, to an angry, explosive teen. Mel lacks the self-awareness to recognise that Tracy’s actions are more than just her developing into an adult; they are her way of expressing her desperation, misery, and anger at the world and, more specifically, her home life. In the film’s final moments, the attention refocuses on their relationship – the friendship between Tracy and Evie may have been intense, but it’s the mother-daughter bond that survives.

Hardwicke does an excellent job of bringing out natural performances from her cast – Evan Rachel Wood is perfect as Tracy. Her explosive outbursts and angst-ridden, attention-seeking ways could easily become irritating and/or laughable, but she plays her role with an unexpected restraint, never slipping into overacting despite her swear-filled ranting and outlandish behaviour. Reed too embodies her role as seemingly mature Evie; her apparently self-assured nature and overt sexuality masks a troubled young girl, whose compulsive lying and flippant attitude barely conceals her internal damage. Yet this is not all grim and miserable – there are plenty of times when the girls share in the joys of new experiences that, while not necessarily healthy, are arguably just marginally more extreme examples of the experiences most teens have on their path to adulthood. Hardwicke captures these moments beautifully, the hand-held camerawork and heady, delirious style dreamily reflecting Evie and Tracy’s happiness during their moments of pure escapism.

Hardwicke’s style is evident throughout and, while it’s not always subtle, it works well. The blue, muted colours that perfectly captured Bella and Edward’s angsty inner turmoil in Twilight are present here, with the film becoming increasingly gritty and washed out as Tracy slips even further into the murky world she’s chosen to inhabit. Less obvious is the gradual defacement of an advertisement that pops up throughout the film; seemingly promoting some kind of high-end beauty product, the image becomes distorted and ugly through graffiti and damage. Yet these stylistic choices are always secondary to the performances within the film; Hardwicke evidently shares some sort of empathy and tolerance that allows her young actors to flourish and, in this and in Twilight, the director embraces the naturally angst-ridden story and creates something that manages to be sympathetic rather than irksome.

Film #20: High School Musical 3: Senior Year

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 3: SENIOR YEAR

Rating: 3/5

“Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat!”

It’s quite fitting that, as Vanessa Hudgens attempts to destroy her clean-cut Disney image in Springbreakers and Ashley Tisdale commits career suicide in Scary Movie 5, our Movie Lottery draw selected High School Musical 3: Senior Year. The trilogy put both these actresses on the map, propelling them to stardom alongside Zac Efron; technically the ensemble cast focuses on six kids, but the franchise quickly became an Efron-Hudgens vehicle and, of the bunch, it is these two who have proved the most successful since it finished in 2008.

The third and final film follows the same format as the former two, but is bigger in both budget and scale due to its cinematic release – parts one and two are among the many made-for-television movies Disney churn out. If you’re curious (or worried), the only others to feature in our collection are Camp Rock 2: Final Jam and, for some reason I’ve since forgotten, Princess Protection Program. None matched the success and popularity of High School Musical however; it even beat Mama Mia!‘s opening weekend.

Senior Year is rather self-explanatory; basketball star/singing sensation Troy Bolton (Zac Efron), his high school sweetheart Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens), friends Chad and Taylor, and their frenemies Sharpay and Ryan Evans are all entering the final months of school. While they attempt to make the best school musical ever – the story of their own experiences – they are all dealing with the knowledge that soon they will be growing up, leaving school, and entering the adult world. Can their friendships and relationships survive? I don’t want to give anything away, but it is a Disney movie, after all.

Featuring over fifty minutes of song and dance numbers – more than half the film’s running time – this is easily the best of the franchise. The songs are infectious, catchy, memorable pop tunes, while the official musical running parallel to their lives allows for some impressive set pieces that pay direct homage to the glory days of the Hollywood musical. Cancan girls, bright lights, stage props and rapid costume changes all feature and, even if the idea of a wholesome, tween-centric musical extravaganza makes your ears bleed, I challenge you to not get at least a little bit caught up in the delightful innocence that runs throughout.

Efron and Hudgens are the glue that holds the trilogy together – they are the best actors of the group (Gabriella’s friend Taylor is horribly affected, while Chad is non-descript as Troy’s bland best buddy; though Lucas Grabeel deserves a mention for his portrayal of flamboyant, camp Ryan) and, particularly in scenes together, are warm and engaging. Their romance, developing over the course of three films, is an idealistic fairytale, but there’s nothing wrong with leaving adult cynicism at the door for an hour and a half.

Naturally, it is twee, overly optimistic, bubblegum bright and absolutely preposterous; everyone is super talented and suspiciously nice, disagreements are mild and quickly replaced by unanimous understanding and support, couples are still content to simply hold hands after three years together, nasty girls learn lessons without complaining and reform instantly (or at least until the next movie), and there’s not even the slightest hint at underage drinking at a house party. Yet it is precisely because of these things that High School Musical is such a joy. In a cinematic world where darker is apparently always better, it’s quite refreshing to see a pure, untainted vision of high school utopia – and, honestly, the songs really are quite good.