There's a New York City in the winter where a virtuous canine god looks like a horse and where the Devil and his servants walk the streets in corporeal form. An orphaned thief named Peter Lake grows up in a world like this in 2014's A Winter's Tale which, despite its dumb as rocks trailers, is a good fantasy film. Filled with crisp, pretty visuals and an engaging plot.
I had no desire to see the film. The trailers I'd seen made it look so intensely bad, like Notting Hill meets Love, Actually via Wayne Wang. And the reviews for the film seem to encourage the impression given by the trailer--it now holds a 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. I wouldn't have given the film a second thought--and considering it lost thirty million dollars at the box office, I guess most people didn't--until I read this blog entry by Neil Gaiman:
I really, really enjoyed it. Akiva took a huge, sprawling novel that spans over a hundred years and took the elements he needed from it to tell the story he had to tell. He made it small, of necessity. It's a fantasy movie, with demons and angels and a flying horse: it contains a noble burglar, a beautiful dying pianist, an absolutely terrifying Russell Crowe, Will Smith stealing scenes as Lucifer, and New York, New York all the way.
And Gaiman specifically mentions that the trailer gives the wrong impression of the film. So I felt sort of honour bound to see it and I'm glad I did.
First of all, I think most of the reviews were written after only a viewing of the trailer. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone calling the film "preposterous" is itself sort of preposterous. It's like giving a negative review to Lord of the Rings because Gandalf is shown using magic.
The movie is also not, as several reviews assert, incoherent. Peter (Colin Ferrell) is born to immigrant parents in 1916 who are denied entry into the United States due to their infectious disease. So, as they're departing Ellis Island, they place baby Peter in a small boat. He's discovered and raised by a demon named Pearly (Russell Crowe). Peter runs with Pearly's gang until he's a young man and he finds he doesn't have a taste for killing.
He's aided in his escape from the gang by the sudden appearance of a white horse who can sprout wings and fly when it wants to. It soon leads Peter to a beautiful young woman, dying of consumption. So far, pretty easy to comprehend, right?
I think maybe the trouble the movie's having is we don't see fantasy movies like this much anymore--movies with magic in contemporary settings. They were big in the 80s, when the book Winter's Tale is based on was published. Movies like Splash, Big, Gremlins, or to some extent The Neverending Story or Time Bandits. Nowadays, fantasy tends to be pretty sharply demarcated in the mainstream--if it's fantasy and not mediaeval, it'd better have a superhero in it. I would put this down to modern cynicism and it's partly why television is allowed to be more creative now than film. Certainly I doubt director Akiva Goldsman, for whom Winter's Tale was his début film, will have an easy time making a movie again.
The movie does have a line I heard in the trailer that I still think is stupid--when Peter, who becomes immortal for reasons made clear in the film (despite what some reviews say), meets Jennifer Connelly's character, he says, "I've had no memory for as long as I can remember." But that's not such a big crime, especially since the movie avoids so many familiar, modern beats. It feels like a genuine story, not something cobbled together in board meetings. A nice thing to get absorbed in on the couch with a hot drink.