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Wilmington on DVD: A Trip to the Moon, We Bought a Zoo, War Horse

A Trip to the Moon (Limited Edition) (A)
France: Georges Méliès, 1902, Flicker Alley

A Trip to the Moon was made by Georges Méliès in 1902 (just seven years after the Lumiere Brothers introduced the movies in Paris in 1895), and it was the first real masterpiece of the young art of the cinema. It's also a movie I love, and I'm not alone. Méliès' Trip is a scintillating gem of film fantasy and science fiction, of ingenious special effects and playful wit.

Méliès, a magician and theatrical impresario-creator who had been making little films, eventually in his own studio, since 1896, was inspired by the fictional lunar voyages of Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon) and H.G. Wells (The First Men in the Moon), and, his results were equally popular and entrancing. Like Avatar in our day, and like Star Wars in another, Méliès' Trip took us on a joyride into outer space that dissolved the boundaries of space and time -- and of plausibility and disbelief as well.

Méliès' great little show was first released in the black-and-white prints many of us know, but also in an original hand-tinted color version that was missing for nearly a century. That second version, discovered in a Spanish film library in 1995, has now been definitively restored -- in colors as radiant and luscious as ice cream melting in a silver tureen -- by Lobster Films, Groupana Gan Foundation and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage. It's distributed by Flicker Alley in a deluxe steelbox limited edition that no movie lover should pass by. Don't.

A Trip to the Moon, a generous 15 minutes long in an era when many movies barely lasted a minute, is a story told Melies-style -- theatrically, dreamily, energetically -- in a series of theatrical tableaux, statically shot but crammed with action, all conceived, designed, drawn, written, directed (and starred in) by the bald, bearded, many-faced Méliès himself.

The movie recounts the adventures of five brash, courageous and almost obnoxiously energetic French scientists, led by Méliès as the astronomical society president. The group agrees to the voyage, during a scientific colloquium that descends into a rowdy brawl. Later, after being garbed and sent on their way by a chorus line of beauteous lady manservants in tight pants, the quintet observe the making of a projectile being prepared on the rooftops of Paris, guided by more beauteous servants (now in short-shorts). Eventually, they're popped into the projectile -- without oxygen, without space suits, without apparently any cosmonautical training, and in natty outfits that seem more appropriate for a stroll in the Bois de Boulogne. That bevy of French beauties then loads the huge gun and shoots it (and them) at the moon -- where the ship famously hits the man in the moon's eye, and triggers a gush of liquid: blood red in the restoration.

Our dapper heroes emerge, and breathing in the moon's atmosphere with no difficulty, they camp out under the stars (and the star-sirens), then wake up to explore a cavern of mysterious umbrella-mushrooms and later engage in a battle with the space aliens they suddenly discover: impudent back-flipping moon men or "selenites": acrobatic beings (in real life, played by entertainers from the Folies Bergères) who keep somersaulting and vanishing in puffs of (now colored) smoke.

The war is on! The intrepid men of science, staving off hordes of back-flipping selenites, push their trusty space ship off a cliff into space and return to Earth in triumph, crashing into the ocean and rising again, meeting the lady manservants again for a truly gala celebration.

All this in only fifteen breathless minutes! Méliès, a genius of titanic whimsy, struck a vein of purest magic in A Trip to the Moon -- and the new release of the original color version is something to behold. The film was deteriorating in Spain, when it was discovered in 1995 and an exchange was arranged. For years too fragile for normal restoration, the work of making it watchable again started in 2010, and the restoration was premiered at Cannes in 2011. Silent, with English intertites, or English narration and original music score by Air.

(Extras: A beautiful print of the black-and-white A Trip to the Moon, with three different sound tracks: an orchestral accompaniment composed and conducted by Robert Israel, with Méliès' original English-language narration; a dramatized version, with voice actors dubbing the onscreen players, produced by Russell Merritt, with a piano score by Frederick Hodges; a silent version, with Hodges' music. Plus two other Méliès films in a lunar mood: the nightmarish fancy The Astronomer's Dream (1898) and the delightfully risque comedy of the mating of the sun and moon, The Eclipse (1904). Also included: The Extraordinary Voyage, a documentary on the history of A Trip to the Moon and its color restoration, The Extraordinary Voyage; and, an interview with Air, on their score.)

We Bought a Zoo (B-)
U.S.: Cameron Crowe, 2011, 20th Century Fox

In Cameron Crowe's We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon -- using every ounce of nice-guy vibes at his disposal -- plays an idealistic, likable L.A. Times writer, widower and dad named Benjamin Mee, who moves his family into a country house that comes with an animal park attached (complete with lions, and tigers and bears and snakes) -- and then finds he has to fight to keep the animal park going and all its employees (including Scarlett Johansson, Patrick Fugit and Angus Macfadyen) employed, and all its animals happy and photogenic.

The movie is based on real life -- though it's a reality that's been pretty thoroughly changed and movie-ized. The original Benjamin Mee was a Britisher who had his park/home in Dartmoor. His wife died months after he moved to the Zoological Park. And the movie's writers (Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, of The Devil Wears Prada) have concocted two romances -- between Benjamin and the adorable zoo manager Kelly Foster (Johansson at her sparkliest) and between Ben's bad-tempered delinquent teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and teen belle Lily Miska (Elle Fanning, at her most fetching) -- that seem about as real as a couple of teddy bears thrown casually on a pillow-pile.

So do all the transparently phony deadlines and animal escapes and unlocked cages and various other crises -- including checkups by the skeptical zoo certifier, Ferris, as played by John Michael Higgins -- that deluge Benjamin and his brood. The most notable is 7-year-old scene-swiper Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).

Benjamin also has a brother, Duncan the accountant, a mensch who tries to get him to make more prudent investments, and drops funny lines -- though not as many as he's capable of, considering that he's played by the very funny Thomas Haden Church.

Though I'm a big fan of zoos myself (especially the giraffe and bear enclosures at the Lincoln Park Zoo) and though this is a likable movie, full of likable people, and likable animals, and though star Matt Damon is a very paragon of likeability, the movie just vanishes out of your mind after it's over.

War Horse (A)
U.S.: Steven Spielberg, 2011, Touchstone/Disney

Steven Spielberg's War Horse -- adapted from the children's book by Michael Morpurgo and from the play by Nick Stafford -- invites sarcasm, before it sets out successfully to dismantle it. The movie, about the adventures, misadventures and hard bloody times of a beautiful Devon farm horse, recruited for the cavalry in World War I, is a mixture of dark and ironic World War I tragedy and a warmly crowd-pleasing smart-faithful-animal story. It's a movie that's done with all the skill and enchantment Spielberg and his usual team -- including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams -- can muster.

Spielberg may be drawing from the past here, but so was Michel Hazanavicius in The Artist, a film that critics almost universally loved. So was Scorsese in the generally admired Hugo. In the right hands, the past can be a great place: Could Spielberg's movie really be made any better, on any level, than it was? I'd be unhappy with a cinema world that didn't have space for either the nightmares of Paths of Glory or the wondrous optimism of Lassie Come Home, much less a film that somehow crossbreeds them. And Spielberg, who gets some of his crowd-pleasing storytelling savvy from Walt Disney and a lot of his impeccable, broad epic style from David Lean, is just the artist for that kind of job.

The script of War Horse, a heart-crusher, is rife with coincidence, pulsing with melodrama. Violence and tragedy are often close to overwhelming it. But it's also a good story, an often gripping one. Morpurgo and Spielberg show the young man farm boy protagonist, Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) meeting the great horse Joey (played by various equine stars) and bonding with him after Albert's drunken, impetuous dad Ted (the sometimes great Peter Mullan of My Name is Joe), outbids his own landlord, Mr. Lyons (the sometimes great David Thewlis of Naked) for Joey at an auction. The improvident Ted finds himself up against it, alienating his landlord, exasperating his long-suffering wife Rose (Emily Watson), and unable to pay the hard-hearted Lyons the rent, unless Joey can learn to be a farm horse and plough a huge rocky field in time for a turnip crop. Lyons laughs, and sneers, at the thought. So might we, if we were worse people.

But Joey is a noble steed with a huge heart, and the scenes of the field-ploughing, kibitzed by what seems the whole town, remind you of John Ford's great Irish-set The Quiet Man. Albert and Joey almost pull it off -- before World War I intervenes, and Joey has to be sold to the Army for cavalry duty, and a kindhearted captain (and artist) named Nicholls (Benedict Cumberbatch of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) buys Joey and promises Albert to take care of him and bring him back when the war is over.

War is hell, and we better not forget it. (The movie never does.) In France, Captain Nicholls is killed in his first charge riding Joey, and the horse falls into the hands of two animal-loving young German soldier/deserters, Gunther and Michael (David Kress and Leonhard Carow), who are caught and shot -- and then into the hands of the same actor (Niels Arestrup) who played the similar kindly, earthy French farmer who rescued Sarah in Sarah's Key, along with his game but fragile little daughter Emilie (Celine Buckens) -- and then into the hands of the German army again, which yokes Joey and his new horse friend Topthorn to huge armaments wagons, as haulers -- a bone-crushing task that will probably break and kill them both before their time. Meanwhile, Albert, too young to legally enlist, finds a way over there anyway. He keeps searching for Joey.

It's a Spielberg type of story. From the very beginning of his career, he's been fond of yarns in which humans (often children), commune with or chase or try to rescue something non-human (sharks, animals, robots, or extraterrestrials) or in which often childlike or boylike protagonists are thrown into historical incidents or dangerous adventures. From that angle, War Horse is one of his most typical films, and, also one of his best-executed, most ambitious and finally, most moving.

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