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The Magic Flute (Kenneth Branagh, 2006)
Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute comes on strong – maybe too strong - starting with an acrobatic faux tracking shot that uses CGI techniques to introduce us to the film’s fanciful, anachronistic setting. With much gusto, Branagh’s camera bobs and weaves throughout a World War I-era battlefield, swooping into the sky and into the trenches with equal ease. It’s a sequence that ignores any constraints that reality or practicality might have placed upon the filmmaker, using digital imagery with the kind of verve that has defined the newest films by such technically adept directors as David Fincher and Robert Zemeckis. Branagh’s not the likeliest candidate to deliver this sort of bravado start, but despite a bucketload of subpar effects (Branagh clearly doesn’t have the budget of a Fincher or Zemeckis film), it does effectively establish the outsized tone of what’s to follow.
What it is that does follow, however, is not quite as inspiring (or perhaps surprising is a better word…) as that opening shot. Though all of The Magic Flute has a certain degree of visual acuity guiding it, it never again bothers to shoot for greatness. Branagh has altered the setting of the Mozart’s work and has translated the book into English, but he stays pretty true to the opera’s story, relaying its relative blandness without enough of the energy that he had in the film’s opening. Obviously, the opera that serves as source material has stood the test of time, so my relative indifference toward it might put me in a minority opinion (I am fairly indifferent to Bergman’s filmed version as well). That being said, I don’t think anyone can deny that the opera suffers somewhat due to the relative tiresomeness of the leads. These two star-crossed lovers alternate between exploding with romantic rapture and wailing on the verge of suicide, with little shading in-between.
Mozart himself must have on some level suspected that his protagonists were sticks in the mud, because he counterpoints their romance with a second couple who serve as tongue-in-cheek comic relief. Branagh does a much better time in relaying their courtship, thanks to a strong comedic performance courtesy of Benjamin Jay Davis, who plays the bird loving Papageno. These funnier scenes more closely match the overdone candy color shadings that Branagh has chosen to employ, and, as a result, they become the film’s most emotionally interesting moments. These sequences rely on mugging for the camera (everyone still does stage acting, even though the film doesn’t feel especially stagy otherwise) and animal reaction shots for audience reaction, but at least they manage to stimulate audience reaction. The rest of it is somewhat inert, and never quite congeals into a cohesive vision. Branagh doesn’t ever quite justify the WWI backdrop, but in an entire film so weird and haphazard, that’s one of the smaller complaints.