I love urban fantasy. I mean, I love fantasy in general, but there’s something especially fun about throwing the monsters and magic of a fairytale into a normal 21st-century environment and watching how regular people handle them. It’s a genre that hasn’t gotten as much mainstream attention as I think it deserves, so I was rather pleased when I saw the Netflix advertisements for this film.

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Director: David Ayer
Writer: Max Landis
Starring: Will Smith and Joel Edgerton
Music by: David Sardy
Rated TV-MA

The story takes place in an alternate version of modern Los Angeles that is mainly populated by three species: elves, humans, and orcs, listed in order of their social standing. Daryl Ward is a human cop who is reluctantly partnered with Nick Jakoby, the only orc officer on the force. When the movie begins, Ward is returning to work after recovering from being shot, and he’s a wee bit upset with his partner for letting the culprit (another orc) get away. But the pair soon have bigger problems to worry about after they stumble across a magic wand–a powerful weapon that can only be wielded by someone born with magical abilities, called a Bright. Hunted by a corrupt police force, power-hungry gangsters, and an evil elvish cult, Ward and Jakoby have to keep the wand out of the wrong hands while protecting the runaway elf who guards it.

Despite its fantastical trappings, this movie is filmed very much like a gritty cop drama, complete with boatloads of profanity, several bloody shoot-outs, and some utterly gratuitous shots in a strip club. Personally, I could have done with a lot less grit, but there are times when the “urban” and “fantasy” sides of the equation complement each other quite well. It’s clear the filmmakers put a lot of work into creating their world, a version of modern America where fantasy creatures have always existed alongside humans. Elves and orcs even get their own languages, and there are references to what sounds like a fascinating alternate world history. This movie introduces so many interesting ideas, in fact, that I almost feel it would work better as a TV series. Two hours just isn’t enough time to fully explore the concept on which it’s built (although a sequel does appear to be in the works).

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I need to know more about how elves got so scary.

Also, Bright has some…problems. Some of the attempts at humour are cringeworthy (“Fairy lives don’t matter today!”), and some of the musical choices are even more cringeworthy. Ward is such a jerk for most of the movie that it can be hard to sympathise with him. And I found a few plot developments towards the end to be extremely predictable.

Still, taking one thing with another, I’d say there’s more good about this movie than bad. Even if it does feel like it would be better suited to a show, the sheer amount of worldbuilding here is impressive for a stand-alone movie, and it’s even accomplished without too much awkward exposition. The relationship between the two cops, as they start to overcome their distrust and prejudice, and eventually form a kind of friendship, is very believable and leads to some heartwarming moments. That’s largely thanks to the acting skills of Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, who play off each other excellently. Also, I found Jakoby to be a very endearing character in general. As an orc who’s seen as a traitor by his own race and a monster by humans, he’s clearly had a lot of crap thrown his way throughout his life, but he’s still an optimist who just wants to make the world a better place for humans and orcs alike. He more than makes up for his partner’s jerkishness.

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He’s just a big ol’ sweetheart.

Obviously, the fantastic race relations in this movie are meant to mirror real-world ones. Elves are the privileged elite, with all the nice clothes and cars and control over the government. They’ve even got police checkpoints outside their gated communities to keep out the riffraff. Orcs are the oppressed minority group, brutalised by police and feared by civilians, often turning to a life of crime because it’s their only option. It’s not subtle, and it hits many of the same beats Zootopia did a couple years ago. Still, in this day and age, it’s hard to dislike a heartfelt story about two people from very different cultures working together and finding common ground. “Don’t hate people just because they’re different” may not exactly be a revolutionary message to see in a movie, but it’s still a worthy one, and the friendship that forms the heart of this film makes it seem all the more sincere.

Bright definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  If you don’t like urban fantasy and/or aren’t familiar with it, the cop drama/fairytale mash-up could come across as too weird or silly to stomach. As a fan of urban fantasy, but not such a big fan of cop dramas, I found some of the violence (and the aforementioned gratuitous strip club scenes) rather off-putting. But in the end, the movie’s imaginative world and the relationship between the two central characters saved it for me. I enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its flaws.

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“We’re not in a prophecy, alright? We’re in a stolen Toyota Corolla.”

But as a fantasy fan, I’m still holding out for a good Netflix adaptation of The Dresden Files.

Grade: B-



Pan’s Labyrinth

So you know the Disney versions of fairytales we all grew up watching? With the singing animals and the pretty princes and the happy endings? Yeah, this movie is the opposite of that.

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Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Laberinto del Fauno)
Writer and Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu, Sergi Lopez
Music by: Javier Navarrete
Released: 2006
Rated R

Pan’s Labyrinth is a faerie tale about a young girl named Ofelia, who has the misfortune to be growing up in 1940s, Fascist-controlled Spain. In a bit of a twist on the traditional faerie tale set-up, she has an evil step-father, a sadistic army officer who has just summoned her and her heavily pregnant mother to come and live with him. Despite the cruel realities surrounding her, Ofelia still believes in magic and faeries. So she’s delighted when she enters the titular stone Labyrinth on her step-father’s property and meets an ancient Faun. The Faun tells her she is the reincarnation of a lost faerie princess (named Moanna–don’t laugh, this was years before the Disney version), and that her true parents have been searching for her. But in order to prove she is the real princess, she must perform three difficult and frightening tasks before the rise of the full moon.

I enjoy a good dark faerie tale every now and then. And there really aren’t enough of them in movies–not the grim, bloody, Grimm-style ones, full of child-eating monsters and morally ambiguous Fae. When this movie is a fantasy, it’s exactly that type of fantasy, and it’s fantastic. The creature designs–largely created through costumes and prosthetics, not CGI–are some of the most imaginatively creepifying things I’ve ever seen. Extra points for creepiness go to The Pale Man (the aforementioned child-eating monster), of course, but everything else about the magical realm is mysterious and oddly beautiful, too, from the tiny, insectoid, shape-shifting faeries to the majestic Faun. All it takes is a haunting soundtrack and some gorgeous underground scenery to complete the atmosphere.

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Shaking hands with him is awkward.

But Pan’s Labyrinth spends about as much time being a war movie as it does being a fantasy movie, and as scary as some of the supernatural monsters may be, they’re nothing compared to the human ones. Ofelia’s step-father, Captain Vidal, is one of the more irredeemably evil characters I’ve seen in a movie. One of his first acts onscreen is to viciously stab a young man to death in front of his father because he thinks he might be a Communist. And he only gets worse from there. Thanks in large part to him, the movie is almost unbearably bleak and sad at times. This is not the kind of story where the villain is defeated easily, or without causing the heroes a lot of misery along the way.

But fortunately, it does have its fair share of heroes. Ofelia may make one or two of those idiotic choices that seem to be required of all faerie tale protagonists, but she also shows constant courage, resilience and selflessness even as tragedies pile up around her. Ofelia’s only ally in the mortal world, a maid named Mercedes, is also worth cheering for as she secretly helps a band of resistance fighters behind the Captain’s back.  Ditto for Mercedes’ friend and fellow conspirator, Doctor Ferreiro. Throughout the movie we constantly see people rebelling against evil authorities (whether human or Fae) in order to do the right thing, regardless of consequences. And the bleak circumstances just make these heroic moments stand out all the more.

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“But captain, to obey, just like that, for obedience’s sake… without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.”

I found the theme of disobedience particularly interesting, because a lot of faerie tales are all about how important it is to obey the rules: “Don’t touch that spindle,” “Don’t eat that food,” “Don’t go into the woods alone.” And there are moments like that in this movie, but the problem is that almost all the people making up those rules are either evil or under the sway of evil. So the only way to be a hero is to disobey. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a good moral to teach kids, but in case it wasn’t clear enough, this movie is not suited for kids in any way, shape, or form. And the importance of disobeying evil authorities, even when it could cost you your life, is an excellent moral to each adults…especially if they happen to be living under a fascist regime.

My only real problem with this movie is that its fantasy elements all but disappear for most of the third act, leaving us with just the war elements. I was hoping for more fantasy lore and prosthetic monsters. But that’s a personal preference on my part. Both halves of the story are told equally well, and neither would work without the other.

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“I’ve had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce.”

Some other thoughts: 1. The English title is a misnomer. The god Pan neither appears nor is mentioned at any time in this movie, and the Labyrinth is never said to belong to him. The Spanish title, “The Labyrinth of the Faun,” is much more accurate. 2. This is the first foreign-language movie I’ve watched in which I could actually understand the foreign language (most of the time). So that was fun. I now have the words for “faerie” (hada) and quite a few expletives added to my Spanish vocabulary. 3. Some might say the ending to this movie is ambiguous, but they are wrong. It’s a faerie tale ending, plain and simple.

I don’t think everyone would enjoy Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a little on the odd side and very much on the tragic side. There’s quite a lot of gore and at least one scary monster (possibly more, if you’re not into the Faun’s design), and if you go in expecting a more Disney-esque fairytale, you’re going to be very disappointed. And probably traumatised. But the movie’s been out long enough that I think most people know what to expect, and for me it delivered exactly what I was hoping for: a dark, tragic, visually stunning fantasy with enough layered symbolism and references to a history that I (sadly) know little about to make it worth further unpacking.

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Now that I think about it, this movie has a lot of Alice in Wonderland vibes, along with the whole faerie tale thing.

So even though it didn’t spend quite as much time with the magical creatures as I would have liked, this is still a movie I could see myself watching over again. Like all great fantasy, it immersed me in a creative magical world without ever letting me forget what the real one is like.  And despite its deep darkness, it ultimately tells a rather hopeful story: one in which wonder, courage, and innocence are glorified while arrogance and cruelty are condemned.

Man, I wish Del Toro had directed the Hobbit movies…

Grade: A-