One of a Kind: ‘He Named Me Malala’

Hollywood hype-masters use the word “inspiring” to sell movies to us all the time, but this new documentary from Davis Guggenheim trumps anything Hollywood could invent, because it focuses on a young woman who is genuinely inspiring. Now all of 18 years old, Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable human being: she survived a shooting by a Pakistani death squad but bears no grudge against her would-be assassins. She has become an outspoken advocate for education, especially for girls, around the world. She is about to enter college. And she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Guggenheim opens his film with an animated prologue that introduces us to her namesake; a celebrated Pakistani heroine led her loyal troops into battle in 1880. By giving her that name, Malala’s father Ziauddin set the bar high for his only daughter and she has exceeded his expectations with courage and conviction. But when we first meet her, she is teasing her two brothers, a reminder that even a girl who has achieved worldwide fame is still a teenager in the everyday world.

This portrait of Malala and her influential father skips back and forth in time, showing us what happened that fateful day in 2012 when assassins attacked her school bus and shot her, as well as two of her friends. We learn how her father trod his own path as a teacher and public speaker and passed along a love of learning to his daughter. And we travel around the globe with Malala as she speaks out on behalf of girls and women everywhere who deserve a decent education.

The filmmaker’s decision to use animation, designed by Jason Carpenter, pays off in a series of handsome sequences that fill in blanks where no footage could possibly exist.

Not many documentaries can boast a score by a composer as prominent as Thomas Newman, who takes his cues from the emotional triggers on screen. At 87 minutes the film never wears out its welcome, and Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman,makes no pretense of being objective or aloof about his subject here. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to be unmoved by Malala’s story, as well as her remarkable poise and eloquence. All of that is reflected in this straightforward and winning film.

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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July 2024