I just finished Ben Fritz’s book “The Big Picture,” in which he explains how the movie business has changed in recent years, and how the big studios have forsaken middle-budget comedies and dramas aimed at adults in favor of the big blockbusters that will bring in a wider audience, particularly overseas. That’s because they’ve discovered that the big-budget movies, when they succeed, create a lot more profit than the projects that cost a lot less but won’t help the corporate bottom line. In the end, they’ve decided, building a brand is the most important business they can be in.
One of his examples is Disney, which — since scooping up Marvel, Pixar, and LucasFilm — has focused almost exclusively on making franchise movies from those divisions. All three of them make more than just motion pictures; they also guarantee the sale of lots of toys and related merchandise, which you’ll never get from a Duplass Brothers feature with a $5 million budget. So, Fritz expounds, Disney now produces lots of superhero and special effects extravaganzas, along with an occasional original idea from its own animation division (e.g. “Frozen”), and the result is a huge amount of money for the studio.
The latest from the Disney franchise/brand/marketing factory is “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which tells us the origin of Harrison Ford’s character, played as a young man by Alden Ehrenreich. He’s a charming actor, but not as charismatic as the role requires, and the script sells him short by not giving him nearly enough snark to remind us that he will grow up to be the rascal Ford played. Fortunately, there’s a good supporting cast, including “Game Of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra, Han’s love interest on his home planet who gets separated from him but returns to the story after missing much of the middle.
Donald Glover has a breakout performance as Lando Calrissian, played memorably by Billy Dee Williams in two of the original three “Star Wars” movies. Glover is so good, and has been on such a roll lately, he’s sure to get more big movie parts. Woody Harrelson’s on board, too, as criminal mastermind Beckett. It would be too laborious to explain the plot points involving that character, but suffice it to say that Han and Beckett and the others cross paths (and each other) more than once along the way. The rest of the cast includes Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Joonas Suotamo in the Chewbacca costume, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a new female droid named L3, who has some of the best lines in the movie.
Like all “Star Wars” movies, the special-effects in “Solo” are state-of-the-art, although some of the CGI aliens look like retreads from the original cantina scene. Also, the first 30 minutes or so of the movie are dark — not in tone, but visually, as if they were under-lit. That makes it hard to understand what’s happening, especially when an alien named Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt, and looking like a much larger version of the character Kim Basinger carried in her purse in “My Stepmother Is An Alien”) emerges from a pool of water to discipline Han for a task he didn’t complete.
This installment in the saga was directed by Ron Howard, who took over from Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Lego Movie”) well into the production cycle. It’s impossible to know how much of what made the final cut was retained from their version, but having the new director at the helm meant it was only a matter of time before his brother, Clint Howard, showed up on screen. Sure enough, there he is about halfway through. He’s in alien makeup, but I recognized him as soon as I heard his voice.
The script is credited to Lawrence Kasdan, who is certainly familiar with “Star Wars” lore, since he wrote “Empire Strikes Back,” “Return Of The Jedi,” and “The Force Awakens” (as well as such non-space-opera classics as “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” “The Big Chill,” and “Silverado”). You could say Kasdan has had more to do with the path of the series than George Lucas. If only he’d given the young Han Solo some better dialogue.
Here’s the bottom line on this and all “Star Wars” movies. If you’re a fan of the series, you’re gonna go see it. If you’re not, there’s nothing that makes it worth your interest. Either way, it’s gonna do hundreds of millions of dollars in box office receipts here and around the world, not to mention all the Millenium Falcon toys and other accessories that will sell in large quantities, too.
As a movie, I give “Solo: A Star Wars Story” a 5 out of 10, but as a perfect example of what Ben Fritz wrote about, it’s a 10.