It’s a shame that this ambitious movie is a muddle, for director Ridley Scott has staged some of the most astonishing battle scenes ever put on film. Gigantic in scale and scope, they make the viewer feel like a participant, taking that overused word “immersive” to another level of meaning cinematically.

However, some of the dialogue is ludicrous and prompted (presumably) unintended laughter at the showing I attended and others I have heard about. Most of this has to do with his wooing of Josephine and dogged determination that she produce a male heir. We never understand the mutual attraction between Bonaparte and the alluring woman who is destined to become his wife.

That is just one of this vast movie’s failings. Any schoolchild could tell you that the legendary leader was short; there is even a “complex” that bears his name two hundred years after his demise. But you won’t find any reference to that in the screenplay credited to David Scarpa….and the actor in the leading role is of average height.

Napoleon has fascinated ordinary people, historians, and students of warfare for two centuries. Abel Gance directed a bravura, five-hour silent film epic about him in 1927 that is still thrilling to watch today, with a stalwart Albert Dieudonné in the title role. Charlie Chaplin once posed for a photograph in costume as the embattled Emperor but never came close to making a film about him. Nor did Stanley Kubrick, who invested the better part of a decade conducting research for an extravaganza that never came to fruition. (His research and plans are the subject of an epic Taschen book subtitled The Greatest Movie Never Made.)

French actor Philippe Torreton was a commanding presence in the little-seen 2003 film Monsieur N. (2003), which paints a vivid portrait of the great man in his final years as a prisoner on the island of St. Helena. Sad to say it is not available except in out-of-print DVD copies.

That brings us to Joaquin Phoenix, an actor of considerable talent who never shirks from a challenge. In this case he is, I fear, a victim of miscasting. Ideally, Napoleon should be French, but even suspending my disbelief I found it difficult to join Phoenix on this journey. Watching him deliver awkward, often risible dialogue only worsens the experience.

The most enjoyment I derived from Napoleon was seeing it in the ScreenX format, available here in Los Angeles at the CGV Theater in Koreatown. I enjoyed Avatar: The Way of Water in this squared-off variation of Cinerama last year, but the presentation of Napoleon is even better. Avatar extended the environment in key scenes, while Napoleon actually widens the already-exciting battle scenes to the side-wall panels. It is well worth checking out. To learn more, look for ScreenX on social media.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024