Four couples sort out their romantic entanglements in Shakespeare’s most magical love story. Hermia and Lysander love each other, but her father wants her to marry Demetrius. Demetrius loves Hermia, but is loved by her friend Helena. When Hermia and Lysander run off together, Helena tells Demetrius, and he chases after them, with Helena chasing him. Meanwhile, as the four lovers wander in an enchanted forest, the fairy queen and king argue over custody of a changeling child. The local Duke prepares for his marriage to a woman who seems not entirely sure she wants to marry him, and a group of workmen rehearse a play to perform at the wedding celebration.
With the help of his mischevious companion, the fairy king obtains the juice of a magical flower that causes people to fall in love with whomever they first see after they wake up to his queen and to Lysander and Demetrius. The queen falls in love with a man who has a donkey’s head. Lysander and Demetrius both fall in love with the neglected Helena, forgetting all about Hermia. But by morning, everything is sorted out, and the wedding festivities end with the workmen’s remarkable play.
Filmed several times before, most famously with James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as the Puck, this sumptuous version manages to be both earthy and enchanted. The cast includes Hollywood royalty (Michelle Pfeiffer as Fairy Queen Titania, theater-trained performers (including Ally McBeal’s Calista Flockhart and and Kevin Kline, magnificent as Bottom the would-be actor), international stars Sophie Marceau and Rupert Everett, and “new vaudevillian” and MacArthur genius grant award-winner Bill Irwin. The resulting mix of acting styles clashes at times, as does the mix of music and the switch of setting from ancient Athens to 19th century Tuscany, arias and all. Ultimately, though, it is charming, an accessible introduction to the works of that guy in the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow.
Parents should know that there is some earthiness (including an inexplicit scene of Puck relieving himself, some brief nudity, and Hermia’s firm resolve not to have sex with Lysander until they are married).
Kids will enjoy the movie more if they have some basic introduction to the plot. They may want to talk about an era in which a father could order his child to marry the person he chose, about “the course of true love,” and how people work out the problems in relationships. Older kids may like to talk about the metaphor of an enchanted forest as a place to find self-knowledge and to resolve issues.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton version of “Taming of the Shrew” and the Franco Zeffirelli version of “Romeo and Juliet.”