Earth to Echo ***
The House of Magic ***
Myth and truth do battle in Hercules (12A), which stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as the demi-god son of Zeus who achieved immortality by completing 12 impossible labours. Brent Ratner’s swords-’n’-sandals epic opens with Hercules’ legend firmly established, although we quickly learn that many of the hero’s miraculous exploits can be explained by the fact that he has gathered around him a team of fellow mercenaries, including Amipharus (Ian McShane) and Autolycus (Rufus Sewell).
Commissioned by Lord Cotys of Thrace (John Hurt) to rid his kingdom of the evil warmonger Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann), Hercules leads his band of warriors into battle, only to discover that his legend is no protection against a foe who does not believe in gods and monsters. Johnson is in impressive form as Hercules, a self-deprecating gentle giant who can turn berserk in the heat of battle. However, haunted by his own demons — Hercules’ mythology begins with his savage murder of his wife and children — the muscle-bound hero is a surprisingly complex and vulnerable man. This re-imagining of the character extends to Hercules’ relationship with his comrades, who laud his achievements in public but mercilessly mock his legendary persona in private. The banter and frequently jocular tone contribute to a rewriting of the myth, emphasising Hercules’ mortality and undermining the portentous tone we tend to associate with swords-’n’-sandals tales. It’s a fascinating gambit, and one given a fabulous backdrop with the savagely beautiful landscapes that serve as depictions of pre-historical Greece. Oddly, it’s in the rather run-of-the-mill battle scenes that the story tends to flag, as the scarcely believable brilliance of the mostly untouchable warriors appears to be divinely inspired rather than the work of mere mortals. All told, it’s a solidly constructed reworking of one of the great Greek myths.
The gravitational pull of home lies at the heart of Earth to Echo (PG), which opens with a community being ripped apart to make way for a new motorway. Three teenage boys — Alex (Teo Halm), Tuck (Brian Astro Bradley) and Munch (Reese Hartwig) — decide to embark on one last adventure on the night before they must separate forever, cycling their bikes out into the desert and following some very strange messages arriving on their smart-phones. There they discover Echo, a badly wounded extra-terrestrial creature who needs the boys’ help if he is to escape from Earth and make his way back home. Dave Green’s movie owes a considerable debt to ET, but it’s one that he is happy to acknowledge — indeed, the story is also indebted to movies such as The Goonies and Super 8, a Spielbergian teenage adventure filmed almost entirely on hand-held cameras and smart-phone video. The deliberately amateurish filming is a neat conceit, as the shaky visuals, rough jump-cuts and claustrophobic world-view give us a sense of the confusion the boys are experiencing as they try to come to terms with beginning a new life. All three actors contribute likeably energetic performances as they bicker and bond, but the character of Echo — a kind of miniature robot — lacks any kind of personality we might be able to empathise with, which leaves a void at the heart of the story.
Aimed at a much younger audience, The House of Magic (G) is an endearing tale of an abandoned young cat, Thunder (voiced by Murray Blue), who seeks refuge in a crumbling old mansion belonging to Lawrence (Eugene Levy), a magician whose home teems with assorted pets and a host of fantastical clockwork creations. Thunder finds himself at odds with Jack Rabbit (George Babbit) and Maggie Mouse (Shanelle Grey), but soon the real animals are joining forces with the small army of mechanical gizmos to repel a common enemy when they discover that Lawrence’s nephew, Daniel (Grant George), is scheming to sell his uncle’s house and shunt Lawrence off to an old folks’ home. While the story appears to be roughly modelled on the original Toy Story plot, The House of Magic is delivered via quaintly retro animation that seems a deliberate throwback to the period before Pixar and Dreamworks came to dominate the animated children’s film. There is a charming, homely quality to this story.
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