By Preston Wilder
Films based on videogames are never any good, but Assassin’s Creed has ideas above its station. It has Oscar-winning actors spouting lines like “Prepare the Animus!”. It has grave pronouncements on freedom of thought and human nature. Alas, it’s quite boring, so I’ve decided to humiliate this $125 million behemoth by reviewing it alongside a French-made cartoon for little girls. And the cartoon for little girls is better.
Creed is from the team behind the recent version of Macbeth: director Justin Kurzel, director of photography Adam Arkapaw – the film looks great, in a moody ‘people silhouetted against pure white light while a flying-bird pattern flickers on the ceiling’ kind of way – Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Fass is a convicted killer, saved from lethal injection by a mysterious institute run by Cotillard and her dad Jeremy Irons. Turns out he’s a direct descendant of a 15th-century Spanish rebel – an Assassin – who went looking for “the mythical Apple of Eden” (anyone who points out that something ‘mythical’ doesn’t exist by definition so there’s no point looking for it, go to the back of the class). Marion’s trying to find the Apple so she plugs our hero into the aforementioned Animus, a kind of time machine allowing him to tap into his ancestor’s memories and move in sync with him, like a gamer steering his avatar in a virtual-reality game.
It’s not clear if Fass is actually guiding the Assassin (i.e. changing the past) or merely re-living the other man’s life so as to find the Apple – quite an important distinction, then again it’s hard to care either way when Assassin’s Creed is so empty. The film is all pomp and circumstance, framed like a superhero origin-story but lacking even generic Marvel beats, let alone a solid plot. It cuts between the present, with Fass prowling like a caged tiger (“We’re feeding the beast!” warns a henchman), and the days of the Spanish Inquisition, pausing for expensive action scenes. A chase through the streets of old Granada is potentially great but actually muddled, partly because everyone involved is wearing black – and cutaways to our hero in the Animus, gamely running and punching along with his ancestors, are more hilarious than thrilling.
Worst of all, Assassin’s Creed wants to be serious, as befits a big-name creative project. Charlotte Rampling turns up to skewer modern consumerism. Irons is allied with the Knights Templar, who want the Apple in order to control freedom of thought (the artefact contains the seeds of Man’s disobedience, Adam and Eve having been the first rebels); on the other side are the Assassins, natural killers born with “a predisposition to violence”. The implication that violence is linked to free will – that indeed it may be part of human nature – is provocative, but the film cops out at the end, and pretensions to moral philosophy are a bit offensive when the rest is so ramshackle anyway. An Assassin’s creed is pure anarchy: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted”. Assassin’s Creed is just boring.
Ballerina isn’t boring, which I admit took me by surprise. Yes, this is a cartoon about a little French orphan girl (voiced by Elle Fanning) who wants to be a ballerina. It’s also a cartoon with a slight identity crisis, wanting to be cooler than it is. There’s a dance-off in the style of Step Up, and a touch of the TV reality show with one little pupil cast out of the ballet class every day. The film isn’t even called Ballerina anymore, being released in the US under the more dynamic (and hopefully cooler) title Leap!. I assume you have to be a little girl with a love of ballet to really get the most out of this movie – yet I found it charming, endearingly goofy and even quite expressive.
One external factor may be muddying the waters here: I’m usually forced to preview cartoons in a dubbed-into-Greek version – but this, being a smaller non-Hollywood cartoon, isn’t showing in a dubbed version, which is quite a blessing. Dubbing cripples films, even animated ones; I watched ‘You’re Welcome’ from Disney’s Moana on YouTube recently and was startled to find how much wittier it sounds in the original. Maybe Moana would be just as endearing as this film, viewed properly – then again, Moana also typifies another problem, the pious Disney message-mongering which Ballerina (Leap!, whatever) avoids so nimbly.
This is such a fun, generous movie. There are no major villains, except one girl’s mum who makes her practise too much. There’s an arrogant Russian boy who’d surely get his comeuppance in a Disney film – the better to make some worthy point about female empowerment – but here he’s just an idiot, and it’s all played for laughs. 19th-century Paris is a lively place, with noisy Breton bars where 11-year-olds can hang out till all hours. The Statue of Liberty turns up in a cameo, happily mis-identified as the “Statue of Puberty”. The film is airy, like ballet itself. “You have the lightness of a depressed elephant,” our heroine is scathingly informed – but in fact Ballerina is light, a cartoon equivalent of the ‘Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy’. Assassin’s Creed is just boring.
ASSASSIN’S CREED *
DIRECTED BY Justin Kurzel
STARRING Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons
UK/France/USA 2016 115 mins.
Includes some dialogue in Spanish, with Greek subtitles.
DIRECTED BY Eric Summer & Eric Warin
WITH THE VOICES OF Elle Fanning, Dane DeHaan, Carly Rae Jepsen
France 2016 89 mins.