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Kenneth Branagh

THE ROAD TO EL DORADO: fun but erratic animation lost to the ages (2000 In Film #13)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of March 31st, DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado

Though containing all of the elements you would imagine might make a rip-roaring, animated comedy adventure, The Road to El Dorado was, surprisingly, one of the biggest initial box office failures of the year 2000.

DreamWorks Pictures, founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, as an arm of his own Amblin studio, had up to this point been on something of an animated roll. Antz did well in the animated battle with the similar A Bug’s Life, from their rivals Pixar. The Prince of Egypt was a prestige animated picture, with a star cast and a blend of animation and musical picture elements in working to recapture the scale of The Ten Commandments for new audience. The Road to El Dorado was very much designed to follow suit in Katzenberg’s eyes – a sizeable rival to Pixar’s almost immediate, revolutionary skill with Toy Story, and part of a challenge to Disney’s long-held animated dominance.

For whatever reason, it didn’t happen, despite the alchemy that one would consider a recipe for success. Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, both talented comedic and dramatic actors, voicing the lead characters; a clear and recognisable legend and setting with the 15th century and the lost city of gold; and even songs from Elton John & Tim Rice, who helped define 90’s Disney animation with their music for The Lion King. A sure-fire hit would almost certainly be a safe bet and while The Road to El Dorado opened fairly well, second on it’s debut weekend ahead of Nick Hornby adaptation High Fidelity while in the slipstream of the rampant Erin Brockovich, it soon plummeted to a worldwide gross twenty million under it’s hefty, near $100 million budget.

This is probably the main reason The Road to El Dorado has ended up forgotten in the annals of recent animated cinema: nobody went to see it.

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Mission Impossible III (2006)

Mission Impossible III may not be the strongest outing in the franchise, but it may be the most human.

Surprisingly, this works as both a strength and to the film’s detriment in the eyes of many. For everyone who considers Mission Impossible II the weakest episode of the saga, which you can find my thoughts on here, not far behind will be a detractor of JJ Abrams’ sequel to John Woo’s own take on Bruce Geller’s kitsch 1960’s series. This, to me, is hard to fathom, and not simply as a big fan of Abrams and the dominance his works have achieved on pop culture, both in television and cinema.

The reason this revisionist disdain for MI:3 is strange to me is because Abrams’ movie arguably saved the franchise, and allowed Tom Cruise to not just reinvent his character Ethan Hunt but position Mission Impossible as a series which blended fantasy escapism with a relatable heart and soul.

Murder on the Orient Express: Poirot’s Humanity, History, and his Eggs

Murder on the Orient Express isn’t just a remake, or another adaptation of a classic text, it’s also undoubtedly an attempt to contemporise an incredibly well known piece of work, in this case Agatha Christie’s legendary 1934 detective novel featuring her most famed, irrepressible character: Inspector Hercule Poirot. Don’t get me wrong, the piece remains set in the mid-1930’s, with period production values and Kenneth Branagh’s protagonist sporting the most daring, rakish moustache you could imagine, but everything about Branagh’s new take on the material is concerned with highlighting the simmering, modern day issues which Michael Green’s screenplay picks out of this hugely popular piece of detective fiction.

Christie’s original story sees Poirot seeking a holiday, following a case in the Middle East, but upon being recalled back to London to consult on a case, he boards the Orient Express in Istanbul with an eclectic group of passengers from all corners of the world, one of whom in short order ends up dead as the train is stalled by an avalanche while travelling through the mountains. Cue the inspector attempting to put the pieces together in true sleuth fashion, negotiating the myriad egos and personalities of everything from middle-aged American lushes to aged Russian princesses. Well known for its ultimate twist (one I didn’t infact know, nor which I will spoil), Poirot’s ultimate detection leads him to multiple realisations, both literal and emotional.

Dunkirk (2017)

Audiences are quite understandably going to consider Dunkirk a war film, quite possibly one of the great war films of our age. Christopher Nolan’s tenth picture is possibly an even better survival horror movie, given it takes a well-known piece of 20th century history and pitches the story as a desperate battle for survival against a powerful, largely unseen and intractable foe.

From the very first frame, of isolated and beaten British troops walking down a deserted Dunkirk street as flyers depicting the German advance on their position rain down on them in almost endless supply, a terrifying pallor of dread and ominous doom casts its shadow over Nolan’s picture. This is a war the ‘good guys’ are losing, in terms of France one they have already lost, and all they can do now is run from the darkness that is pursuing and engulfing them. Nolan’s film, on the whole, couldn’t be less jingoistic; the British and their allies are terrified, broken and in a desperate situation.

Though far from being a film which wears any kind of political or social polemic on its sleeve, you’d be hard-pressed to not consider Nolan a pacifist after watching Dunkirk. Not perhaps since Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998, and rarely in all of cinema with its legion and entire sub-genre of war movies, has any director portrayed the senseless horror and brutality of World War Two with such visceral, haunting power. Nolan’s world here isn’t one without hope but it’s absolutely a war where good guys are complicated, and heroes don’t necessarily carry guns.