‘Anna and the Apocalypse’ (2017) | Fantastic Fest Review

Look, I would be an absolute monster to think a zombie Christmas musical comedy would be a bad idea. I am a big proponent of more musicals being written for the screen, as there is still so much untapped potential in bringing that form to this medium, particularly with the evolution of modern filmmaking. Here’s the thing, though. You have to take the form seriously and understand why the musical is the best way to tell your story. Now, when I say “seriously,” I don’t mean not making a comedy or anything like that. I mean you can’t just put some songs in your film because it would be a lark. You need to believe there is no other way this story could be told but through music. Anna and the Apocalypse never showcases why this film needed to be told this way and more often than not just feels like the filmmakers thought the mixing of all those elements I mentioned in the first sentence would be enough without actually doing anything interesting with them.

Anna (Ella Hunt) is making her way through her final year of secondary school, being raised by her widowed father (Mark Benton). She wants to get out of her small Scottish town and see the world, most notably Australia. She’s dealing with all the normal high school stuff: a guy best friend (Malcolm Cumming) who is clearly in love with her, a fascistic headmaster (Paul Kaye), etc. Then… the zombie apocalypse happens. Then it pretty much goes exactly how all these movies go but, you know, with songs.

The music is the largest issue with the film. Musical storytelling allows you a huge pallet to play with. Finding a character’s voice and matching it to different kinds of melodies and tones is exciting. Anna and the Apocalypse opts to not really explore any of that. It is filled with middle of the road pop tunes with no subtlety, false rhymes (e.g. believe/breathe, voice/noise, time/mind), and more interest in trying to find a hummable tune rather than telling a story. The most egregious example is the number at the start of the zombie uprising, which solely exists to serve as a peppy tune to juxtapose against violent zombie attacks. The song only has the vaguest of pop star emotional content. It’s as if the filmmakers thought, “Well, they’ll only be paying attention to the zombie killing, so we don’t really need to put the work in on this song.” Pile on top of that the scene is essentially just a new version of Shaun unaware of the zombie killings happening around him in Shaun of the Dead, and it’s a double punch in the face.

The heavily produced soundtrack does not help its cause either. The spontaneity of a character beginning to sing serves an important role in telling the audience this is where the truth of the story lays. Unfortunately, the production on the music here only distances the characters’ emotions rather than heightens them. Everything sounds so digitally polished I can’t buy into each person’s true emotional reality. Even if the actor’s face is telling me to buy into something, the squeaky, flattened vocals tell me otherwise. Obviously, the best solution would be to perform the music live, but even still, there have been plenty of movie musicals where lip-syncing is perfectly believable. Those recordings still sounded like an organic expression. Anna and the Apocalypse sounds entirely artificial.

Director John McPhail does not have a strong sense of how to stage musical sequences either. Big numbers look underrehearsed, statically shot, and awkwardly cut, and the smaller moments never find an interesting way to show somebody just sitting and singing. The non-musical sequences are exactly the same way. Action beats are muddled and emotional, character moments feel unearned. The film has two or three comedy moments that land, but for the most part, they don’t work, as a consistent comedic voice is never really found.

Anna and the Apocalypse is a feature adaptation of late Internet star Ryan McHenry‘s short Zombie Musical. As an Internet short, this does work better as a fairly cute few minutes created for optimum viral status. It’s all built on the single joke of, “Wouldn’t it be funny to have zombies and singing together?” You can get away with that for 15 minutes, though even the short stretches it. For a feature, Anna and the Apocalypse feels like an incredible waste of time, never wanting to truly explore all the facets of what the premise allows for them to do. Musicals are difficult, and going into one where the creators don’t fully know why a story needs to be a musical is extremely frustrating. I know many will see this, walk out humming a few of the tunes, and think that is what a good musical should be. There’s just so much more the form can do that shoving it to the side does a disservice to something I hold close to my heart. I was game to love the zombie Christmas musical comedy. If only they knew the true potential in that description.

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