Classic Album Review: ‘Graceland’ by Paul Simon (1986)

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This is a review I’ve always wanted to write, but in a way felt scared to, because to me it just felt too ‘big’ to approach.  This is the first album that really introduced me to my all-time favourite songwriter.  And even as a 6 year old, I could tell this was something different; something that connected with me more than the other pop hits around.  Something that moved me, connected me with emotions I didn’t even know the names of yet.

 

Of course, this being the 80’s, I first heard this album on cassette tape; so it is also entwined with childhood memories of long car trips with my family; with adventure, especially in my mind and in my imagination.

 

Graceland is an album of juxtapositions.  What makes it so interesting is the contrast of the music and the lyrics.  The music is so happy, so full of joy and life.  But lyrically the world of Graceland is inhabited by the worst kind of soulless yuppie.  Its essentially an autobiography of Paul’s rejection of the music business and the kinds of people he left behind in New York, and the healing experience of discovering a new music and a different kind of life in Africa.

 

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Paul had not started off the decade well.  After the huge success of Still Crazy After All of These Years in 1975, Paul had reached the zenith of his early kind of introspective soulful folk/rock music and wanted to branch out into different avenues.  His experiments weren’t to be successful unfortunately.  He wrote and acted in a film for the first time (the rather underrated ‘One Trick Pony’) and flirted with new wave and electronica (the HUGELY underrated ‘Hearts and Bones’), but experienced the first true ‘flops’ of his career with both.  This, combined with a whirlwind marriage and divorce with Carrie Fisher led to Paul’s life “tail-spinning” into depression.  He needed time out.

 

Paul’s friend had given him a tape of unmarked South African music, and Paul became obsessed with the sounds he was hearing.  He asked his record label to track down the artists.  With nothing left to lose, Paul decided to take his friend and long time producer/collaborator Roy Halee (who had worked with Simon and Garfunkel and on most of Paul’s solo records) on a voyage of musical discovery to South Africa.  Two years later, Paul, an artist who had been resigned by most to the ‘where are they now’ pile, launched Graceland on the unsuspecting public…and the rest was history.

 

I thought I’d look through each song and write a bit about what it means to me musically and also how I interpret the lyrics.  All of it is of course open to individual interpretation, and each time I listen to the album, I hear and appreciate something new, even after all this time.

 

 

The Boy in the Bubble:

 

 

The album starts with a rhythmic declaration – almost like an orchestral hit.  This makes you sit up and take notice – this is going to be something different.

 

From here, Paul seems to me to be talking about the destruction of culture in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘colonisation;’ filtered through the metaphor of a terrorist bomb explosion.  The bomb, hidden in a baby’s pram, shatters through the town, causing devastation all around it.  The terror is encased in the innocence of a baby’s carriage; in the same way as colonisation comes to destroy a people’s way of life with a handshake and a smile.

 

Paul carries on this theme with the conversation between a woman crying over being forced to lose her culture, and the ‘civilised’ coloniser who is trying to tell her how ‘lucky she is’ and how she’s ‘never had it so good’ with the introduction of industry and technology; the “lasers in the jungle” is a particularly evocative image on this, especially when you think of how much destruction Western settlers have done to other places in the world like the Amazon Rain Forest, all in the desire of ‘progress.’

 

 

Graceland:

 

 

“She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow”

 

I’ve never liked the chorus of this song; it seems to be a celebration of Elvis (one of Paul’s main heroes), which kind of takes you out of the African journey slightly.  The verses however are some of Paul’s most emotional.  the lines above are heartbreaking, and show the helpless feeling that the breakup of love can bring.  The journey in the song seems more stateside; reminding me of the wonderful ‘America,’ which sees Paul and his partner of the time travelling across the country trying in vain to find ‘the American Dream,’ and finding himself spiritually lost along the way.  In the same way as he discovers his country isn’t what he thought it would be, Graceland the song finds Paul becoming disillusioned and lost at the end of a love affair (which we can only guess is his relationship with Carrie Fisher).  Perhaps visiting Graceland, the home of his childhood hero is a way for Simon to try and get some former meaning back to his life at a time when he feels at his most disheartened?

 

 

I Know What I Know:

 

 

Musically this is the most unfiltered African sound on the album, at least so far.  Lyrically it throws a humorously sceptical eye on the dating scene, as Paul’s character in the song meets a shrewd and sarcastic woman who mocks and teases him.  It’s a fun song, with Paul poking fun at his own inadequacy with women.

 

 

Gumboots:

 

 

The humour continues in Gumboots; which again sees a rather pathetic character trying to stumble his way through the dating scene with cheesy pick up lines as he tries to convince a women he is indeed still a ‘catch.’  ‘Believing I had supernatural powers, I slammed into a brick wall’ is probably my favourite line from this song, which sums up the awkwardness of trying to find love in your thirties.

 

 

Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes:

 

 

I’ve never realised before this analysis of the songs, but there are three in a row on a similar subject! Again the protagonist feels insecurity at being out of his depth with the woman that he loves.  It’s a similar theme to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl,’ which came out at the same sort of time (although musically it is of course very different).  It follows the insecurities of a boy who is poor and fancies a girl so rich and blase that she flaunts her riches in the most decadent of ways – wearing her diamonds on the souls of her shoes.  He is essentially ‘punching above his weight,’ trying to ‘compensate’ in whatever way he can and failing miserably.

 

In a similar way to ‘You Can Call Me Al,’ the music works against the anxiety and neurosis of the lyrics.  It is the most soft and breezy of the songs so far and is totally hypnotic throughout.

 

 

You Can Call Me Al: 

 

 

As the horns come in, we instantly know we’re into one of the catchiest and best known of Paul’s songs.  It is utterly pop, utterly 80’s, and yet imbibes all of the special African qualities on the rest of the album.

 

Lyrically it is actually quite a dark song; following Paul (or at least someone like him) through his very worst insecurities and anxieties.  The character is essentially having an existential crisis, and is reaching out to a partner to form some sort of a protective ‘pact’ to look after each other against all of their worst fears.  In a way, it’s almost his former song ‘Old Friends’ come to life, some 30 years early.  The older I get, the more I recognise what he’s talking about in this song.  As a man in your 30’s, you’re told you should have ‘made it,’ you should have a good job, a family and you should have reached your potential intellectually and professionally.  The truth however for most people is that they reach this age and realise none of this is true.  They discover all of their crippling limitations, their frailties and their incompetence.  In essence, they are not who they thought they would be.  These sorts of universal truths that none of us want to admit to, for fear that we are the only ones not succeeding in life, are exactly the sorts of lyrics that set Paul apart from the rest as being the spokesman for our innermost thoughts.

 

 

Under African Skies/Homeless:

 

 

Paul looks more outwardly in his next two songs; describing the pride and hardships of different African people he has met.  ‘Homeless’ is particularly heartbreaking, especially when combined with the aching beauty of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s singing.

 

 

Crazy Love, Volume II:

 

 

Here’s another of those ‘soulless yuppie’ characters – ‘Fat Charlie the Archangel;’ a man who has no strength of character or conviction and has no idea how he feels about anything; preferring to be swept along with the expectations of him.  The song is a discussion on the banality and de-individualisation of modern life.  It challenges us not to give in to apathy: ‘Someone could walk into this room and say your life is on fire, it’s all on the evening news.’

 

Musically I love how the music trips over itself in the most pleasant and entrancing of ways.

 

 

That was Your Mother:

 

 

Another ‘mid-life crisis’ song, about how fun life used to be, before kids came along and became ‘the burden of my generation.’  A bitter song, wrapped up in the most joyous of cajun music.

 

 

All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints:

 

 

Interestingly, for an album that was so against the normal curve of pop music at the time, this is the most unabashedly commercial sounding song; which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Hearts and Bones.  There’s no denying how funky and fun this song is though and is like a final celebration of what a great experience the album has been.

 

 

Well, there we are.  I feel like I’ve only touched the surface of this great album.  I have hardly talked about the incredibly musicians that play on it, the political and social questions it raises or how it has gone on to influence the rise of ‘world music’ etc..  But I hope this has at least given you an idea of what this album means to me, and thank you for reading. I’d love to hear what you think of this album, so leave your thoughts below.

 

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Third Time’s the Charm: Live with The Dying Lights! – 15.06.18

Well…that was fun!

I’ve recently joined the new band/project of my friend Derek Holmes; the Dying Lights on bass to record some tunes and play some gigs. I’ve really enjoyed getting back behind the ‘fat wires,’ and my love of the bass continues to grow and grow (I’ve always loved it, but playing in Brave New World and the Dying Lights has made me realise just how much!)

We were back at the Box in Crewe for what was ‘officially’ our third gig, after playing our debut AND second gig on the same night at the IPO Festival at the Cavern Pub and Club recently.

Pre-gig jamming and soundcheck

The Box has been through some really rough times lately, thanks to the desire of the local council to sacrifice yet another hub of local creativity for yet more faceless identikit housing projects or car parking.

But it appears it’s not going down without a fight, and whilst it’s future is still in the balance it has continued to put on sporadic, brilliant gigs through the passion, commitment and hard work of Glyn and Tess.

I was more than chuffed to be asked back to play, after playing the Box solo and with Brave New World. As much as anything, I’m a ‘sound nerd,’ and venues like the Box make me happy because they really care about the onstage sound the band can hear, as well as the sound up front.

The ‘fit’ Ampeg I got to play through on the night

I was giddy as a kid playing through the Ampeg back line, which really blew me away and was one of the heaviest and most prominent bass sounds I’ve ever heard on stage. Things like this can only add to the enjoyment of playing, and I have to say a combination of the sound and the top bunch of people who I was playing with made this one of the most fun gigs I’ve played in a long long time.

Big thanks to everyone who came down, the other bands who played and of course the rest of the Dying Lights!

Black Night Satelitte; one of the other great bands on tonight!

Live at The Electric Church! 02.06.18

I was back to the Electric Church Record Store in Winsford this evening, where I played my album launch back in October. I love this local record shop, which is a real labour of love, owned and operated by the brilliant Jimi Ray Coppack.

It was an early evening gig and the warm weather encouraged most of the audience to sit outside. This, combined with a lack of people who I’d been able to get down meant that it was a quiet affair. The audience built up gradually as the set went on and the response was ‘respectful,’ with a few nice comments afterwards, which is definitely the best you can ask for when playing original songs to people who don’t know you, or them.

It’s always an honour to be asked to play in such a unique and supportive place (the staff always welcome me by name, which is a bit different from most ‘big’ record shops for sure, and really personalises the experience).

I stayed around to listen to the always brilliant Kings Pistol, who raised the roof as they always do.

I played (not in this order):

• And into the Woods

• How the Other Half Lives

• Midnight Logic

• Sophie Draw

• Somehow

• I’m Just Gonna Be Me

• She’s a Drug

The Dying Lights: First Gig at the Famous ‘Cavern!’

Last night saw me treading both new ground and retreading old as I played my first gig with new band ‘The Dying Lights,’ and saw my old band ‘Brave New World‘ play for the first time since I hung up my bass last year.

 

 

Brave New World

 

 

It was an emotionally charged evening for me in many ways.

 

I’ve been feeling a lot of guilt (I’m an over sensitive Methodist boy, it’s what I excel in!) about how things have gone since leaving Brave New World. After 3 great years with the band, I decided to stop playing bass and focus on my own music. … It then didn’t really happen like that. Yes, I finished my new album, but I also took on the radio show, and within a year was back to playing bass in a band again.

 

I’m back to doing exactly what I said I was leaving the band to stop doing. I feel from the outside this could make me look rather two-faced and contradictory; even dishonest in some ways.

 

It’s all been purely by coincidence rather than design however. Whereas Brave New World was the first band I’d auditioned to play bass in (and one where I definitely cut my teeth as a bass player), The Dying Lights was something I kind of ‘fell into,’ (don’t get me wrong, I’m loving it!) from originally being asked to play guitar and bass on a couple of songs for Derek’s solo project; to being asked to play some gigs to promote the EP; to becoming a fully fledged band member.

 

It seems even though I was finished with the bass, it wasn’t finished with me!

 

To try and assuage my guilt about letting my old band down (as well as because I love the band and Chris’s songwriting) I’ve tried to support Brave New World as much as I can since I left; through inviting them on my show twice (they’ve been busy both times, but hopefully I’ll get lucky the third time round), trying to promote their EP on the show (it’s not ready for radio promotion and Chris says he doesn’t want it ‘over-saturated’ by being played on too many radio shows – the offer is still there Chris!).

 

Last night was made even more poignant because of the location and the occasion of our mutual shows; the famous Cavern Pub and Cavern Club (two different venues, across the road from each other) for two sets at the annual International Pop Overthrow Festival; the first and second time of which I’d played with Brave New World, and where The Dying Lights were to play our first (and second) gig as a new band.

 

Knowing that Brave New World were playing on the same night (twice, as seems to be  customary with the IPO festival), I wanted to make sure I was there to support them from the sidelines. Due to difficulties in getting to Liverpool, I missed their first set (through one thing and another it essentially took us four hours from the time I finished work at 5.45pm; only getting to the first venue just before we were due to go on!), but thankfully Brave New World were on for their second set just after we finished our first so I could catch it.

 

If I had any worries about how the old band would ‘cope’ after I’d left them in the lurch, they were thankfully soon eradicated when they started to play. Their new lineup is possibly the tightest I’ve seen them and I’m happy to say the new bass player was superb; much better than I was for sure! I was chuffed that some of the bass melodies/run ideas that I’d written for the songs had remained to a degree, but also that he’d taken the songs in different directions melodically too, vastly improving them from what I’d done before. Mike the drummer (who I always loved playing with and who played on my own album Hermit and the NotWe) was on fine form, as were Chris, Jen and their new guitarist Dave. It was also promising that my favourite song of the set was their newest one, ‘Save My Soul;’ a really strong piece of writing by Chris (as always) and one that I enthused about to the band afterwards (they tell me they are recording it soon, so I look forward to buying my copy!).

 

 

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Superb set from Brave New World, one of their best!

 

 

Anyway, all histrionics aside, I do feel bad about how the transition went, and I apologise to the band for letting them down at the time. I hope this explains things a bit better. They’ve never been anything but kind, friendly and supportive to me since I left the band, so all of this drama is most likely in my head (if I don’t have something to worry about, I’ll usually create it haha!).

 

I’m really chuffed to see them going from strength to strength and I hope I can continue to support them in whatever way I can.

 

Anyway, onto the Dying Lights; first gig!

 

 

The Dying Lights

 

 

Like I said before, I happily fell into being in a new band, thanks to the generosity of ‘project leader’ Derek Holmes’ offer to play on some tracks. I was unsure about joining another band but when he suggested I play guitar I was tempted (not having played guitar in a mate’s band since Frank is Dead in 2011). Due to difficulties in securing a regular bass player however I seemed the natural choice to step in; having played Derek’s songs when he was also in Brave New World.  It didn’t take long from starting to play bass again before I realised how much I had missed it.

 

 

The Dying Lights
The Dying Lights, doing our best ‘Moody Kerrang’ poses behind our practise place at Colossus Studios in Crewe.

 

 

The band is made up of different local musicians from different musical projects. Me and Derek from Brave New World, Sheena from Venus Rising, Glyn from Flux (and Colossus Studios) and charismatic singer and front man Paul.

 

From the inception of the band we had just 6 weeks to go before our first gig.  With the Cavern gig looming, we all worked super hard to learn the songs and get them ‘gig ready.’ But thankfully all the band are ‘natural’ and ‘intuitive’ musicians, having had so much experience with other bands before, so the songs came together pretty quickly. Even more importantly everyone is very easy to get along with, so forming a band was easy-going.

 

And so came the day!  We loaded up the van with our gear (which Sheena’s super-generous husband had let us borrow for the evening) and we were off on our first adventure!

 

We stopped off at ‘Big Dollar Studios‘ for a last minute run through the songs and it was sounding pretty good.  Paul forgot a couple of words and was beating himself up about it on the way to Liverpool (he hasn’t sung in a band for a few years so the gig meant more to him than any of us and he was putting a lot of pressure on himself to do a good job), but we reassured him it would all be great and he had nothing to worry about (he would go on to perform two blinding sets, as we all knew he would!).

 

 

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The calm before the storm! One last rehearsal at ‘Big Dollar’ Rehearsal rooms in Ellesmere Port.

 

We left Ellesmere Port feeling motivated, but the journey was far from over. A combination of traffic and closed Mersey Tunnels seemed destined to scupper our chances of getting to the venue on time.  However, after a couple more false starts we got there, just…in…time!

 

 

Set Number One – The Cavern PUB

 

 

Our first set was at the Cavern PUB.  We were pretty nervous and it took a while to get into the set, but we all relaxed and enjoyed it and settled into being an ‘onstage band’ (a very different set of skills to being the ‘rehearsal band’ we’d been so far).  My bass was an issue from the off unfortunately.  The amp I was playing through seemed to seriously distort the sound, which worked well for some songs but sounded awful for others, and in the end the sound guy came on stage and turned me down to an almost inaudible level.  I have to say I mimed the majority of the set from then on, as I couldn’t hear a thing, and if people out the front could hear me I can only apologise!  The set did its job however in getting rid of the nerves and proving to us that we could do it.  It was fun to be back, and to play a live set with people I’d only practised with.

 

 

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Obligatory Cavern Bass selfie Number 1!

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Next up were the mighty Brave New World – see above for my thoughts on how good their set was!

 

Alas because of all the difficulties in getting to the gig, me and Derek had yet to eat anything and it was getting on for 10.30pm, so we hotfooted it to the nearest chip shop (the glamorous life of rock n roll haha!) and scoffed down as much as we could before rushing back (giving the rest of our food to some poor homeless guys that were outside the venue) to catch the rest of BNW’s set.

 

We also just had chance to track down my mate Dave Coomer’s (him of the wonderful BlueYellows AND Venus Rising) old band ‘Zelda Plum,’ who have the honour of being one of the ‘brick bands’ carved into the bricks on the outside of the Cavern (the Liverpool equivalent of a Hollywood Star!).  After trying to find it on three separate occasions I finally managed it!!

 

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Set Number Two – The Cavern CLUB

 

 

Then it was straight over to the Cavern CLUB to prepare for our second set of the night.  Playing on such an iconic stage never loses it’s charm (it was Sheena and Paul’s first time and they were understandably very excited!) and we couldn’t wait to get on; having got rid of the nerves in our first set (I reckon all gigs should have a ‘warm up gig’ beforehand haha).  The next hurdle was Sheena’s guitar, which decided to break just before the set.  Thankfully Derek had brought a spare; a beautiful looking Fender Jazzmaster which actually ended up sounding even better on stage than Sheena’s telecaster had.  The band before us were a superb Americana style Swedish band called ‘Jengi,’ who blew the place apart, so the nerves did return slightly when we realised we’d have to follow them.

 

Once we got on that stage though we were like kids in a sweet shop.  That iconic backdrop, the drum riser, the wall of classic Vox amplifiers; musician heaven!  The sound on stage was also amazing; we could all hear each other, which made all the difference! Anyone who’s played any amount of gigs will know that the on-stage sound is often far inferior to what you hear in the audience, and it’s rare that you can properly hear everyone in the band.  Me and Glyn (on drums) were loud and pounding, meaning that the ‘groove’ of the whole set was greatly improved from the first set, and the band just had a party onstage.   We also got a good response from the crowd, who were dancing along and seemed to be really enjoying it.

 

It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed playing a gig like that, and I am really thankful to the rest of the band!

 

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Obligatory Cavern Bass Selfie Number 2!
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This band on before us were amazing, proper brilliant Americana sound, from a Swedish band! When I said how much I liked them they gave me a copy of their album on record…for free! Very kind! Definitely going to be playing this on my show!
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On the way home we popped to the only open off-license we could find (it was about 2am at this point!) and made up for our ‘sensible’ pre-gig abstinence by getting as blotto as we could as quickly as we could on the way home.

 

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I was a broken man this morning…but boy was it worth it!  Thanks to all the Brave New World gang, The Dying Lights gang and everyone who came to see us last night!

 

 

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My Thoughts on the Royal Wedding AND the Cup Final

My two cents.

Am I a fan of the monarchy?…no. I think it’s morally wrong for people to rule a country through no more right than hereditary power. It’s undemocratic, and it perpetuates the British class system. It also indirectly oppresses the poorest in society; who are ironically often the people who support it the most.

Am I a fan of the Windsors?…maybe. I love history, and have a nostalgic love for old Queenie, who’s a bit of a grumpy old woman, what’s not to love? She’s also sat on the throne through one of the most interesting times in the world’s history. I also kind of feel sorry for the royals. When you really think about it, it’s not such a great life after all. Everything you do is scripted and protected, love is a luxury rather than a human right, etc.. etc..

Am I a fan of Harry and Meghan?…kind of. I don’t really have a strong opinion either way. I felt sorry for the two boys when their mum died, and I’m happy to see they’ve both found happiness. I’d prefer it if the monarchy came to an end (in a peaceful way), but I’m not going to wish them anything but happiness on their wedding day.

Am I going to be watching the royal wedding?…no. I’m not going to be the annoying anti-royalist boyfriend and ruin the fun for my wife who loves it all (and there’s nothing wrong with that!). I’ve got a band practise. I ‘might’ve’ watched it had I been home, just to not be a stick-in-the-mud.

My feelings toward the cup final are much less conflicted…

Am I a football fan?…no

Will I be watching the final?…no

Do I have a problem with anyone else watching the final?…no

There we are, now don’t you feel enriched? 😝

Film Review: ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ (2017)

One thing to surely strike dread into any film fan is the term ‘reboot.’  The laziest of film-makers latch on to a successful idea and try to make their own, much paler facsimile.  At it’s best, this results in a forgettable attempt to capture the greatness of it’s predecessor.  At it’s worse it can even manage to put you off watching the original, for the damage that it’s clone has done by connection!

 

Thankfully this doesn’t seem to be the case with ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.’  22 years after the original Robin Williams film (1995), this story has enough distance and thematic difference to make it stand out on it’s own merits.

 

The major difference here is that the Jumanji ‘game’ of the original has now evolved into a ‘computer game,’ and the players are drawn inside the action, rather than the action leaking out into our world.  The characters are about as derivative as they could possibly be – ‘the nerdy shy boy and girl’ check, the ‘self-absorbed popular girl’ check, the ‘wise-cracking best friend’ check; but the humour/drama comes out of the fact that the characters all take on such wildly different avatars within the game; the ‘nerdy ones’ becomes the ‘buff leader’ and the ‘ass kicking heroine’ (played well by the instantly likeable Dwayne Johnson and Karen Gillan respectively) the ‘arrogant one’ becomes a middle-aged portly man (played to comic perfection by Jack Black).

 

Plot-wise, it’s all fairly well-trodden fare; with the main characters all learning about themselves through the challenges of the game and finding their own personal growth as a result.  The main idea of the ‘computer game that you get swallowed into‘ is given next to no back-story or rationalisation; but with the right amount of willing suspension of disbelief this just made it feel more like those wonderfully daft 80’s kid’s adventures I used to love when I was young enough to not care what the method behind the magic was.  The spoofing of computer game tropes is particularly well observed also, leading to a lot of enjoyable scenes throughout.

 

Overall, it’s not the most memorable or classic of children’s films.  But it’s humorous and quirky enough to make for great bank holiday fodder and a film that the whole family will enjoy.

 

3.5/5 Stars

 

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