Moana

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Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jared Bush

Directed by: Ron Clements; John Musker; Don Hall; Chris Williams

Moana might just be Frozen‘s spiritual, tropical sequel. But to be honest, I’m only just guessing that — I never saw Frozen. Couldn’t stand the hype. When hype for a film made by a film company I generally do not care for reaches Frozen levels, I tend to break out in hives. So I, you know, let it go.

I was similarly skeptical of Moana but eventually was won over by the casting of The Rock as a demigod named Maui, a boastful but affable caricature of the man himself who plays a major role in Moana (newcomer Auli’i Carvalho)’s voyage. Turns out, Carvalho and Dwayne Johnson go together like peanut butter and jelly. These two are wonderful together and they make a thoroughly clichéd adventure more palatable. (Plus Maui sports tattoos that come to life and with which he frequently interacts. Such was the novelty of the concept I was left wondering what Mike Tyson’s face tattoo would say or do.)

Moana is a film about empowerment and finding your higher calling in life — not exactly a first for Disney. But their latest finds separation by not only introducing a confident young woman but through an exploration of a culture that is woefully underrepresented in modern cinema. The Mouse House has often gotten by with formulaic storytelling dressed up in different outfits, and in Moana we don the cloth of a deeply spiritual Polynesian tribe. Our heroine, in a time-honored tradition, must confront her own limitations by putting herself through a series of physical and often emotional tests that will determine not only her future but that of her own people, a once-proud band of intrepid voyagers who have come to settle on the island of Monutui.

Moana, heiress to and the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and Sina (Nicole Scherzinger), has a great fondness for the ocean. She’s captivated by its beauty and its infiniteness. Constantly drawn to the water’s edge as a child, she one day discovers a gem stone in the shallows, which happens to be the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti. The stone was stolen by the demigod Maui in his attempt to gift humanity with the power of life and in a resulting fight it was lost to the depths. Now the ocean has seemingly chosen Moana as the one to restore it and to rid the Pacific islands of the darkness that has slowly been spreading ever since, a darkness that eventually hits Monutui.

When vegetation on the island starts dying off and fish become scarce, Moana suggests venturing beyond the reefs to search for what they need. Her father angrily rebuffs her, reminding her that her place in society is not on the ocean, but rather on land to take care of her people. With the encouragement of her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) who shows her a secret cave in which a fleet of boats have been permanently stored away — proof positive of her people’s history — Moana sets out on the open water, along with a mentally defective rooster named Heihei, to find Maui and to restore Te Fiti’s heart. When she finally encounters the demigod she starts to gain an understanding of what she has gotten herself into.

You see, Maui has lost his hook. And no that’s not a euphemism for him going insane. Although he is a bit kooky. Wouldn’t you be, though, if you had been stranded on a desert isle for an unspecified amount of time? Look what happened to Tom Hanks. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment; it has turned a pro wrestler into a legitimate American Idol contestant. That’s right: The Rock can sing. And he can sing well. His moment comes in the form of ‘You’re Welcome,’ an upbeat little diddy that, resist as you might, will get your toes tapping. In it, he regales us with tales of badassery and tattooery. He’s “a hero of men.” But he’s lost his hook, the thing that gives him power to physically transform, to the monsters dwelling in the black depths of the Pacific.

Thus we get yet another one of those “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” subplots that Disney Animation animated films are so fond of, but rather than pad the run time the journey to the briny bottom gives us more insight into the mystical qualities of this universe. Down there we also get to meet Jemaine Clement‘s vainglorious crab Tamatoa. He gets a musical number of his own, also fun. Maybe now is a good time to point out how neither of these songs quite measure up to that of Carvalho’s ‘How Far I’ll Go.’ In fact ‘Shiny’ feels tedious when compared. Carvalho is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Her singing only serves to reinforce her character’s mental tenacity. It’s actually pretty inspiring. And every bit as empowering.

Moana is 100% devoted to character. The adventure itself not only builds it, but the film centers around a strong, likable young female. Not a damsel in distress. Not a drama queen. A real human being with hopes and aspirations, quirks and flaws. Apparently there were efforts made by the filmmakers to reduce the role gender would play in the narrative. A first draft, written by Taika Waititi, identified Moana as the only daughter in a family of five or six brothers, a detail that was later changed to her being an only child so greater emphasis could be placed on her journey of self-discovery. Despite those efforts Moana has a distinctly feminist lean. Many female characters play a crucial role in the film, be they the village crazy, a giant Monterey or an angry deity. Best of all, Moana’s success or failure isn’t measured based on her ability to attract a love interest. There’s nary a romantic subplot at all, for that matter. That feels more refreshing even than a splash in the ocean on a hot sunny day.

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4-0Recommendation: Fun, lively, visually spectacular, and boasting some great (original) music, Moana is a great one for the whole family. Even when I don’t typically go for Disney Animated Studios stuff, I had a blast with this one. I’ll thank Dwayne Johnson and a fun supporting cast for that. The film also serves as an impressive calling card for the Hawaiian newcomer. Highly recommended. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “If I was called Sebastian and had a Jamaican accent, you’d help me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Kubo and the Two Strings

'Kubo and the Two Strings' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Marc Haimes; Chris Butler; Shannon Tindle

Directed by: Travis Knight

Kudos to Kubo for being a wee bit different. I mean, generally speaking his story isn’t one you haven’t seen before — unless of course you’ve had since your diaper days an elaborate scheme for avoiding all things Disney for the rest of your life, which just seems . . . excessive. The latest from Laika Entertainment does, however, carry with it an air of sophistication and maturity absent in many of its competitors’ products.

Travis Knight, in his directorial debut, paints an emotionally resonant portrait of a family plagued by wickedness in ancient Japan, a family represented by the young Kubo (Art Parkinson) and his mother Sariatu (Charlize Theron) who we see at the beginning of the film barely escaping with their lives from an unseen confrontation with her evil Sisters (both voiced by Rooney Mara) and Kubo’s grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), who took one of Kubo’s eyes in an attempt to blind him to the world, a punishment that probably carries   with it some sort of metaphorical meaning that I just can’t be bothered to delve into here (either that, or it’s just . . . I guess, glaringly obvious).

Anyhoo, Kubo now lives in a cave atop a big mountain just outside a village, to which he travels daily to put on shows for the locals. He tells tales of a brave samurai who has to defend himself against monsters, stories based on what he has heard from his mother about his missing father Hanzo, a legendary warrior. Kubo attracts large crowds with his showmanship, his ability to manipulate colored pieces of paper into ornate origami figures with his shamisen (a three-string guitar) as impressive as it is perplexing. If only he could just come up with a conclusion to the tale. Each evening he returns to the cave where his mother, who has fallen into a trance-like state, awaits. Most of the time she remains frozen in place like a statue. When she does speak she reminds her son to never stay out after dark as that is when her wicked Sisters and other evil spirits cast by the Moon King prowl, awaiting the chance to take Kubo’s other eye.

One evening Kubo attends an Obon ceremony, a Buddhist ritual in which the living are able to communicate with and celebrate the spirits of their deceased loved ones. Observed for over 500 years, it has evolved into a kind of family reunion tradition. In a display of visual grandeur that rivals anything Pixar has created in its 17-film history, we watch the screen burst into plumes of orange, red and yellow, the spirits rising from glowing lanterns to greet a sky filled with stars. It’s got my vote as one of the most spectacular scenes in any movie this year. A moment of pure wonderment swiftly transitions into one of terror as day turns to night and, sure enough, Kubo is confronted by those vicious aunts of his, determined to permanently blind him. Again, both literally and metaphorically. Mother intervenes, imbuing her son with some of her own magical power before making the film’s obvious Big Sacrifice.

The narrative promptly shifts gears and finds us deep into a blizzard, waking up next to a living version of his monkey trinket, also voiced by Theron. The two form an awkward, tough-love kind of bond and soon they set out across the desolate landscape, Kubo in search of three pieces of armor that will protect him against the evil spirits. They’re led by “Little Hanzo,” an origami man modeled after his father. Little Hanzo leads them to Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a warrior who was cursed into taking the form of an insect and who has no memory of his past. He learns quickly Kubo is actually the son of his master which obliges him to help Kubo in his quest to defeat evil.

Only after this shift does it become obvious how deliberately Knight has been setting up the story proper. We’re halfway into the movie before what we’ve actually come for gets underway. (The argument could be made the incredible blend of stop-motion animation with creative applications of magic, like Kubo’s origami ship and origami birds, justifies the price of admission.) At the heart of the film lies the familial conflict, a fairly standard clash of good and evil that forces a frightened but resourceful youngster into making big decisions and taking on forces much greater than himself. Guiding him along the way are his newfound friends, friends that ultimately prove they have much more to offer Kubo than moral support.

It takes time for all the pieces to fall into place. Significant world-building must happen before we get into the nitty gritty. It’s not just the elaborate staging of the saga that almost feels obsessive. If the thematic elements Kubo trades in are steeped in the beauty and mythology of Japanese tradition, artistic expression is driven by the pursuit of perfection. The level of detail in the visual aesthetic evokes the pride and passion of creators over at the prestigious Studio Ghibli. Such comparisons might seem extreme, but they’re not without caveats. Kubo is so intensely visual it’s as though nothing else matters.

Some things certainly do seem to matter more to the filmmakers than others as we work our way through this dark and dangerous journey. Not all aspects are created equal; the villains feel like a significant comedown from the stratospheric heights reached by Laika’s graphic artists. Reputable thespians like Mara and Fiennes don’t quite sell the evil convincingly. Even still, and despite a climactic showdown between Kubo and the Moon King ending the film on a whimper rather than a bang, this is still a story well worth investing time in, especially with your little ones. In the end though, you’ll probably leave the theater just like them: all googoo-gaga over some of the most sumptuous visuals you have ever seen.

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Recommendation: Fairly heavy for a children’s movie as death lurks around every corner and reincarnation manifests as a prominent theme, but undeniably a quality experience for the whole family to share in, Kubo and the Two Strings rises above a few notable flaws thanks to an incredible animated style that gives rich texture to its culturally significant roots. The story falters towards the end but apparently never enough to divert attention to the fact this movie really should have featured Japanese dialogue if it was going for the whole ‘authenticity’ thing. Names like McConaughey, Theron, Fiennes and Mara actually become both enticing and distracting. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “I encourage you not to die.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.cartoonbrew.com

The BFG

'The BFG' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Great Gallywampers and fiddly tweezlesticks, I is very pleased indeed that Steven Spielberg has delivered the goodles in his very first venture into Roald Dahl‘s brilliant imagurnation. The BFG is breathtaker beautiful, and not just thanks to its scrumptioutious imagery, neither. It recalls the warminess and serenity of Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 animated adventure and ‘n fact it mighty jus’ be more endearin’ because of the live-action interplayery.

No, don’t worry, I’m not gonna speak in Dahlian tongues for the entire review. That’s just my overly dramatic way of expressing relief that The BFG turns out to be the real deal, rather than a pale imitator. The story is clumsier than you might expect with a Spielbergian production — we find as many lulls in the story as we do frobscottle-induced farts (excuse me, whizzpoppers) — but that’s merely the product of a director’s faithfulness to the source material. Spielberg otherwise hits every major note with an assured and playful touch, his knack for conjuring powerful feelings of wonder and awe giving this sweet summer diversion a personality all its own.

Indeed, The BFG is mostly a success in that it doesn’t create any new problems. It merely inherits those of its ancestor — namely, the aforementioned inconsistent and at-times sluggish pace and a few leaps of faith in logic in service of a narrative that just may well be Dahl’s strangest and most fanciful. Story concerns a young girl named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who is whisked away one night from Mrs. Clonkers’ Orphanage by a huge, hooded creature and to Giant Country, a wondrous place filled with beauty. Do I smell a Best Visual Effects nomination? I do, as a matter of fact: that sequence in Dream Country by the dream tree is simply mesmeric.

But Giant Country isn’t total paradise, it’s fraught with danger as well. The other giants among whom the BFG ekes out a quiet existence as a Dream Blower are much larger, meaner and they eat human beings (or, beans, rather). After learning she’s not leaving Giant Country anytime soon, Sophie encourages her big friendly giant to stand up for himself and to rid the land of these brutes, led by Jemaine Clement‘s Fleshlumpeater, once and for all. The pair seek the help of the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and her Royal Army back in the real world to do just that.

As is the case with a great many Dahl adaptations, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite and that ability serves viewers well here, especially as the fearless Sophie encourages the two worlds to collide. The performances anchoring the film are so good they allow us to overlook many a flawed concept. And there are more than a few. Spielberg’s potential new muse in Mark Rylance loses himself in the role as the titular giant and very well might have upstaged David Jason’s original voice performance that made the larger-than-life being an unforgettable creation. His spoonerisms and awkward turns of phrase were a highlight of that original as they are here as well, and once again it’s a joy watching ten-year-old Sophie trying to update and expand his childlike vocabulary.

Rylance doesn’t do it alone, though. He gets tremendous support from the young Barnhill who embraces Sophie’s wide-eyed curiosity about the strange world surrounding her with real gusto. She’s also brilliant at balancing the heartbreak of growing up without parents with a sense of maturity that makes her as well-rounded a character as you’re likely going to find with a child actor. All those years ago Sophie had already been made a strong character thanks to Amanda Root’s precociousness and intellectual curiosity, and those qualities are only bolstered by Barnhill’s live-action incarnation. Most importantly, the quasi-parental bond between the two isn’t lost in translation. The problem of loneliness is resolved with respect for Dahl’s affinity for the weird very much intact come the tear-jerking conclusion.

One of the challenges Spielberg is up against with his take on a Dahlian classic is finding an audience outside of those loyal readers and those who keep the 1989 made-for-British-television special close to their heart. The BFG is certifiably obscure material but perhaps with names attached like Spielberg and Rylance it can reach for broader audiences. This uplifting, sweet tale of bravery and dream-making certainly deserves them.

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Recommendation: The BFG, as I have suspected since the announcement was first made, represents an ideal union of director and material. The world created by Roald Dahl is practically tailor-made for one of the world’s best when it comes to imaginative, inspiring filmmaking and the end product, while not perfect, is about as good as could be expected. The performances are wonderful and if you’re tired of the summer blockbuster trend, I have to recommend The BFG. Like, immediatarily. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Why did you take me?” / “Because I hears your lonely heart, ‘n all the secret whisperings of the world.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com

Genre Grandeur – The BFG (1989) – Digital Shortbread

 

Hey everyone, I participated once again in MovieRob’s monthly Genre Grandeur. This month’s selection was a pretty easy one for me as some of my favorite films are Adventure films, and I went with something a *little* more off the beaten path with the animated original version of The B.F.G. Check it out!

MovieRob

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For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Adventure Films, here’s a review of The BFG (1989) by Tom of Digital Shortbread

Thanks again to Damien of Riley on Film for choosing this month’s genre.

Next month’s Genre has been chosen by Summer of Serendipitous Anachronisms. She has chosen quite a unique genre and we will be reviewing our favorite Derivative Work Movies.

Here’s Summer to explain her choice:

Basically it is anything based or inspired by pre-existing source

for example:

Amelie takes its relationships from the Luncheon of the Boating Party

The Magnificent Seven is borrowed from the Seven Samurai

Sunday in the Park with George is based on painting by George Seurat

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is loosely based on Hamlet

My Own Private Idaho borrows from Henry the IV

Cosi is about a director directing the musical Cosi Fan Tutti

Pride Prejudice and Zombies borrows…

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The Jungle Book

'The Jungle Book' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 15, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Justin Marks

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Forgetting about your worries and your strife is pretty easy to do when Jon Favreau’s bold decision to remake the Disney animated classic all but steals you away to a wonderful world filled with adventure, danger and English-speaking animals.

It’s actually quite amazing how talented a director Favreau (yes, as in Tony Stark’s favorite body guard, Happy) is as his latest passion project showcases a knack for both interpretation and reinvention, borrowing that which made the 1967 animation a timeless adventure while modifying certain elements with an even more intimate examination of life in this complex jungle, first envisioned by 19th Century poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling. Though it’s not the first time the actor/director has offered up a heaping helping of popcorn-munching entertainment, The Jungle Book could well be his most complete and emotionally satisfying piece. And it has just one human actor in it.

The Jungle Book, first and foremost, is the epitome of a Disney production. It’s wholesome, family friendly and heartwarming. Our capacity for empathy is a testament to the effectiveness of the digitally-rendered characters; by all accounts this is the film we remember, only it’s not animated. Bathed in the same effervescence of innocence and self-discovery that defines Disney’s animated offerings, Favreau’s interpretation gains strength as playfulness and good spirits eventually give way to danger and darkness as the story we fell in love with so long ago is played out once more but on a much more visceral level.

That the film actually benefits from treading familiar ground is also a testament to the strength of Favreau’s convictions that this is a story worthy of the live-action treatment. More importantly, The Jungle Book hits all the beats we expect it to, even finding time to add new dimensions to the many character interactions we’ve held so dear for nearly half a century. A fixation on the harsh realities of surviving in this tropical environment also helps steer the production away from utter predictability, even though the showdowns that threaten the very fiber of the MPAA’s standards for what makes a PG-rated film are expected from the very beginning.

Favreau (yes, as in the guy whom Paul Rudd puked all over in I Love You, Man)’s wisest decision was to place emphasis on characters, letting the nature-versus-nurture debate at the heart of this tale of survival manifest naturally. As Mowgli learns the kinds of things he’s capable of — he’s quite handy when it comes to building things — is he doomed to repeat the actions of his elders? Can he be taught to be different, to not abuse the power of fire?

Mowgli (introducing Neel Sethi) first comes flying into the frame with wolves in hot pursuit, an apparent training exercise designed by his panther protector Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to help the man-cub outlast predators. We get a deeper sense of his adoptive family unit as we’re introduced to the wolf pack clan gathering at the edge of a rocky precipice, preparing for the rains that are soon to come, soon to summon animals of all kinds to a nearby watering hole. Life seems pretty swell as a member of the pack, especially if you call the honorable Akela (Giancarlo Esposito) dad and the warm, fiercely protective Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o) mom.

But then there are threats to such peace, like the prowling beast Shere Khan, a villain made viable on the virtue of Idris Elba’s deep, booming voice alone — a monster of a tiger whose facial scars are inextricably linked to Mowgli’s past. This isn’t, however, a villain introduced for the sake of it. Khan’s concern is actually one shared by all sorts of animals, including the wolf pack: that the man-cub will one day be a grown man and, based on experiences, fully grown men bring nothing but death and destruction to the jungle. Animals greatly fear their “red flower;” fire, the ultimate villain, plays just as dramatic a role here as it did in the 1967 version.

Mowgli’s fate, with one or two wrinkles thrown in, is the same as before: his future is largely unknown. Bagheera and Akela agree that he’d be safer with his own kind, and Bagheera sets off on a journey with the boy that will expose the pair to intermittent treachery and silliness, including, but not limited to, seductive snakes (Scarlett Johansson as Kaa is genius casting, even if she’s underused), oafish bears desperate for honey (Bill Murray is, and probably to no one’s surprise, the pinnacle of excellence here, making for an arguably better Baloo than Phil Harris) and one gigantic ape with delusions of grandeur. (On that note, Christopher Walken unfortunately shares Johansson’s plight of being stuck with an underserved subplot; it’s basically a cameo.)

You can’t really overstate the impact an A-list cast has on a movie like this; personalities fit the wild animals to a T and all signs point to everyone involved taking this project extremely seriously . . . even Emjay Anthony, who Favreau liked enough in the making of Chef to give him a small part as one of the wolf cubs. And the knock-on effect: we, the paying customers, get to kick back and enjoy the simple bare necessities of escaping from reality and into the visual wonderland and heightened sense of humanity only anthropomorphic animals who have a tendency to break out into song and dance can provide.

The Jungle Book is many things: it’s one of the year’s biggest surprises, an achievement in CGI rendering, and a new standard to which all upcoming family outings must rise this year. Above all, it’s an immensely enjoyable blockbuster-type release. It is that way from beginning to end. Even though a few scenes expose the more obligatory side of Favreau’s directorial style — King Louie really needed a longer introduction and a less rushed exit, as did Kaa — there’s more than enough here to proclaim 2016 as the year in which Kipling’s visionary tale about man and animal coexisting became immortalized.

Recommendation: The Jungle Book is proof that sometimes, just sometimes, with great risk comes even greater reward. Jon Favreau rewards audiences with a remake that stays true to not only the characters, but the emotional challenges and even a few of the songs that popularized the original animated version. Fans of the original, it’s time to let out that sigh of relief. Favreau and his excellent cast have truly outdone themselves. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “No matter where you go or what they may call you, you will always be my son.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Good Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur movie poster

Release: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Meg LeFauve

Directed by: Peter Sohn

Life’s pretty good if you’re a Pixar film. Contrary to the fact the ambitious animation studio is consistently held to a higher standard than the likes of DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Fox and Warner Bros. (to name a few), such an impressive track record has earned it the luxury of being able to crank out the occasional less-ambitious production without fearing a major media storm in which words like “disaster,” “major setback” or “uninspired” could comprise the headlines of the day.

Since introducing Woody and friends in the mid-90s the studio has essentially controlled its own destiny. So why shouldn’t it be allowed to conjure something that, narratively speaking, doesn’t aspire to classic status? I haven’t seen everything the studio has put out, not even close, but I feel comfortable suggesting that Cars 2 looks forward to greater replay value than, say, Hotel Transylvania 2. After all, the one constant that can be found in these films is the visual grandeur. In fact Hayao Miyazaki’s team of impossibly talented artists over at Studio Ghibli seem to be the only ones interested in giving Pixar a legitimate run for its money.

I don’t mean to suggest Pixar should ever become complacent though. With its latest adventure, The Good Dinosaur, a charming tale focusing on a family of green apatosauruses, there is an undeniable emphasis on graphics rendering over narrative construction. It tells of Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an unconfident and wobbly-kneed youngster trying to make his way back home after falling in a river in his attempts to fend off an intruder in the form of feral child Spot (aw, how cute! — no, wait; he’s going to eat these dinosaurs out of house and home . . . not cute).

The Good Dinosaur theorizes something pretty radical: what if the meteor that wiped out these prehistoric beasts never actually hit Earth? In this scenario, millions of years on, dinosaurs not only still exist but dominate the landscape, and have developed to the point of being able to articulate their thoughts and verbally communicate with one another. Arlo’s family happen to be efficient farmers. They place high value on working hard and loving one another, with Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) encouraging their three offspring to make their mark — a literal mud-print on the side of their stone silo — by doing something for the family and not just themselves.

Inevitably Arlo and Spot become reluctant traveling companions as Arlo starts to realize his enemy might actually be of help in getting back home. In practical terms, he recalls the advice of his father: as long as he follows the river he’ll find his way, but in this harsh, unpredictable and ultimately impossibly beautiful environment Arlo could use the company. He often benefits from Spot’s defensive nature and knack for finding sustenance. In a brilliantly crafted scene that sees the pair mourning — with almost no dialogue — their respective home lives, Arlo learns the little boy is also desperate for companionship.

The Good Dinosaur boils down to a generally well-intentioned though considerably flawed protagonist having to confront his deepest fears and ultimately overcome them. As the film expands, the meteor strike that never was turns out to be a footnote rather than a headline. It’s nothing if not a convoluted way to justify talking dinos and the role reversal between humans and prehistoric reptiles.

We get the requisite subplot that obliges Arlo to put others’ needs in front of his own (just as Poppa had encouraged him to do). A trio of Tyrannosaurus Rex, led by Sam Elliot’s intrepid Butch, ends up rescuing the pair from some insane pterodactyls. Arlo pays it forward by helping them recover a herd of long-horned bison they had lost track of. In the process, he gets one step closer to being back in familiar territory.

As an audience we never truly leave familiar territory behind. We’ve seen this story replayed dozens of times before, and within the Pixar universe. Thankfully, the photorealistic backdrop goes a long way in compensating. As per usual, the world is fully realized and completely immersive. Throughout our journey we come across creatures both friend and foe, bare witness to spectacular sunrises that crest the jagged peaks of Teton-esque mountain ranges, and weather severe storms that manifest as some of the film’s most unforgiving antagonists.

In keeping with tradition, almost everything you see on screen is a character unto itself, with some becoming far more memorable than others. Arlo comes in a close second behind the curious little Spot, who is very difficult not to fall in love with come the tear-jerking conclusion. I’m willing to forgive the film it’s few shortcomings because, and I reiterate, this isn’t proof of Pixar forgetting how to tell sophisticated stories. This is proof the studio knows there are different ways to express sophistication.

umm. . .yeah, supposedly this is an animated film

Recommendation: This isn’t a film that satisfies both halves of its audience in equal measure. Adults aren’t going to share in their children’s giddiness in the same way they did with Pixar’s earlier 2015 offering but there’s more than enough here for those with more matured palettes to feel comfortable kicking back and basking in the technical achievements made possible by the advent of superior graphics rendering software. And while the story isn’t the most ambitious, The Good Dinosaur is still a beautiful film in more ways than one.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “The storm provides!” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Toy Story (1995)

new tbt logo

Given that today is a holiday I don’t really celebrate being British and all, I figured now would be as good a time as any to go back and visit an absolute classic from the mid-90s. Upon reading up on the film I realized it is also the 20th anniversary of the release, which by all accounts made feel quite old. It’s also surprising to me that it has taken me until now to feature 

Today’s food for thought: Toy Story.

Buzz Lightyear

Toying with our emotions since: November 22, 1995

[VHS]

One of the great tragedies of life is that it always changes. Nothing stays the same. The notion of a child’s toy collection having lives of their own, getting into trouble and having adventures in clandestinity (i.e. when no human is around or paying much attention) is the epitome of creative filmmaking, but it wouldn’t be nearly as memorable without its poignant commentary on the nature of change and how people — in this case, toys — adapt to and more often than not benefit from it.

Tom Hanks’ Woody finds his little cowboy boots turned inside out when a new toy arrives in Andy’s room in the form of Tim Allen’s sophisticated, tech-savvy, Star Command-loyalist Buzz Lightyear. Worried that Andy’s attention is, at the very least, going to be henceforth split between his old buddy and a new shiny ‘play thing,’ Woody goes on the defense, making sure Andy’s room and all that it contains doesn’t make him very welcome. It’s a fruitless effort, because in a matter of minutes Buzz manages to win everyone over with his flying abilities and his voice-activated thing-a-ma-jigs.

This film, the simplest of the three, rarely leaves the confines of Andy’s room, much less the house, and when it does, the world feels massive: massively unexplored and massively intimidating. When Woody accidentally knocks Buzz out of the window and inadvertently turns the rest of the toys against him, he is chosen reluctantly by Andy as the single toy he gets to take to a family outing at Pizza Planet. Buzz soon confronts Woody about the situation, and just when their future looks as uncertain as it could possibly become, they fall into the clutches of the evil Sid when Buzz mistakes a rocket-shaped arcade game for the genuine article. Potentially damned to a life of destruction, the odd couple must resolve their differences and find a way back into the loving arms of Andy.

Yet there are issues further complicating the end game. Buzz still thinks he’s a legitimate space ranger and Woody is still hated by the rest of the toys, who believe he intentionally eliminated Buzz out of jealousy. The pair may be imprisoned, but ultimately they’re within reach of all that was once familiar — they can even communicate with the other toys through open windows — but at this point in the story the two groups may as well be on opposite sides of the planet. And not even Slinky believes Woody is a good guy anymore.

Changed environments and slowly changing perspectives force a contrived, but nonetheless effective, reconciliation between a psychologically weakened Buzz who, after a bit of plastic brainwashing, is convinced he is now Mrs. Nesbitt, and a cowboy who recognizes phrases like “Somebody’s poisoned the water hole!” indeed have a shelf life. (Of course, Woody is more concerned with the literal sense of that term, not wanting to end up on a dusty shelf for the rest of his life.)

Toy Story, the first in a long line of incredibly successful Pixar campaigns, became so influential it spawned a trilogy of adventures featuring the jealous pull-string cowboy and his former intergalactic rival. And for once, the universe within which these adventures were first created seemed spacious enough to warrant further exploration. Toy Story is one of few sagas that actually builds naturally upon what came before, satiating audiences who fell in love with the original with grander aspirations and more complex schemes that would take the toys right out of the toy chest and confront them with the harsh realities of “real world” environments. In some senses, these movies are almost too good for children. It’s like handing them a piece of German chocolate and expecting them to know the difference between that and a Hershey bar.

As a child I don’t think I ever ‘got’ what was going on in the lives of these once-fictitious toys in a larger sense; it certainly never occurred to me that there would come a day when Bo Peep, Slinky, Rex, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, the Etch-a-Sketch, the barrel of monkeys, Mr. Spell and an infantry of green plastic soldiers would be faced with an existential crisis: the proposition of being sold off to someone not named Andy. Similarly, as a child, I didn’t quite understand that life would perpetually get more difficult with each passing year and eventual decade. I always thought the bubble would never pop. In fact I couldn’t even tell I was floating in a bubble.

This animated classic set the bar for a studio that would go on to create an unprecedented run of high-quality cinematic releases but for some reason I care much less about what came after as I do about this mid-90s release. Make no mistake, though: I loved Inside Out and in all likelihood I’m going to greatly enjoy The Good Dinosaur. I skipped out on Cars, Planes, Monsters Inc., Up and Brave. In essence, Toy Story is virtually all I know about the world’s most successful animation studio. I’m scared of and don’t welcome all that easily the concept of things changing. But maybe it’s time to start embracing it.

ToyStory069

Recommendation: One of this blogger’s very favorite movies, Toy Story just gets things right on every level: characters, visual presentation, story, music, the comedy, and profound themes like accepting and embracing change and making new friends. As one of the very first movies I saw in theaters, I have to say I had no idea then how good this movie really was and still is. This is such a memorable experience that I love revisiting time and again.

Rated: G

Running Time: 81 mins.

TBTrivia: Jeffrey Katzenberg often gave notes that he wanted more edge. Pixar presented an early draft of the film to Disney on November 19, 1993. The result was disastrous. The film was deemed unwatchable and John Lasseter recalls simply hanging his head in shame. It presented Woody as a “sarcastic jerk” who was constantly insulting the other toys. Katzenberg took Walt Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider in[to] the hall after the screening and asked him why it was bad; Schneider responded that it “wasn’t theirs anymore.” Disney immediately shut down production pending a new script. The story team spent a week on a new script to make Woody a more likable character, instead of the “sarcastic jerk” he had been.

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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.blogs.disney.com 

The Peanuts Movie

'The Peanuts Movie' movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Shulz; Craig Shulz; Cornelius Uliano

Directed by: Steve Martino

In The Peanuts Movie, Charlie Brown is still (mostly) the center of attention and adults remain out of sight, except for the few who lend their voices to the tune of a muffled, and possibly mangled, kazoo.

Here is a movie of extraordinarily simple pleasures, about a boy who crushes hard on the new redheaded girl at school and whose dog writes a compelling bit of fiction that details his most recent clash with the Red Barron. There is absolutely nothing here that you haven’t seen before, be it in previous incarnations of ‘Peanuts’ in celluloid form, in the comic strip or in any middling bit of entertainment aimed towards children 6-12. Surprisingly, in the comfortable and safe confines of unremarkable direction familiarity does not breed contempt. It breeds deep pangs of nostalgia.

I can’t even remember the last time I watched or so much as looked at anything ‘Peanuts’-related. It has to be at least a decade since, not counting, of course, the teaser posters that were unveiled last year for this film. Three years ago this project was announced, but I don’t know where I was. Sleeping on top of a doghouse, perhaps? (I have always considered myself more of a Snoopy than a Charlie Brown.) This November marks the 65th anniversary of the comic strip’s debut, and the 50th anniversary since the first TV movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas. The strip itself ran for half a century, debuting in 1950 and ending in 2000. Of course, its beloved creator, Charles M. Shulz, passed away the day before his final Sunday strip ran in the papers.

As any ‘Peanuts’ fan knows the strip wasn’t destined for continuation as the Shulz family felt strongly about Charles remaining its first and only drawer. That might partially explain why we don’t get anything even close to original in The Peanuts Movie, a product now 15 years removed from the end of a significant era. Shulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan drafted a production that honors the legacy without stepping on any hand-drawn toes.

The formula requires introducing Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) to a “new” obstacle. Yes, he’s still having major issues with getting his kite to fly but when a new girl moves in next door, he finds himself with bigger fish to fry. Smitten by The Redheaded Girl, he remains paralyzed with fear when it comes to walking up to her and introducing himself. The conflict manifests as an amalgam of many smaller social anxieties good old Chuck has had in the past, be it overcoming Lucy’s bullying or avoiding Peppermint Patty’s advances: “You kind of like me, don’t you Chuck?” Charlie’s often been involved in love drama and that’s not the only thing that hasn’t changed here.

In the movie he must overcome his pessimism, and prove himself worthy of The Redheaded Girl’s affections.

In the movie he struggles, as he always has, to understand his place in the bigger picture when he aces a test and suddenly becomes popular.

In the movie he muffs the punt on the football, because Lucy is still a jerk.

The movie isn’t all about Charlie Brown, though. You guessed correctly. Snoopy, along with his trusted ally Woodstock (both of whom are given life thanks to archived recordings of Bill Melendez), dreams — writes, even — of the moment he rescues his own damsel in distress in the form of an exciting aerial adventure. The Red Barron, curse him, will stop at nothing to ensure Snoopy doesn’t succeed. A subplot as whimsical as it is perfunctory.

Here’s a production that manages to extend the legacy without expanding much of its horizon. It’s a win-win: we reap the benefits of being reunited with some of our favorite comic strip characters; the Shulz family will undoubtedly reap the financial benefits of the big screen treatment.

Charlie, Snoopy and Woodstock Got Talent

Recommendation: Good grief this is a nostalgic movie. Fans of ‘Peanuts’ should and probably will see this regardless of anything I write. I think it’s kind of telling that this is the first G-rated film I have reviewed on the blog. I just couldn’t resist diving back into this world, even if it is exactly the same as when I last left it.

Rated: G

Running Time: 88 mins.

Quoted: “You say you’ll hold it, but what you really mean is you’ll pull it away and I’ll land flat on my back and I’ll kill myself.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Goosebumps

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Darren Lemke; Scott Alexander; Larry Karaszewski

Directed by: Rob Letterman

If anyone asked me what got me into writing, I would tell them it was R.L. Stine. I wanted to be like him so much I came up with my own ghost stories as a kid; I even started mimicking the artwork that made his books unique . . .

.  . . and so, in 2015, they decided to make a Goosebumps movie. Not that I asked for it, or expected it to come now, some 20 years removed from the peak of Stine’s popularity (to give that time frame some context, this was the era of the flat-top haircut, Walkmans and quality children’s programming on Nickelodeon).

But of course it would happen — how could a book series that became so endeared to millions of impressionable pre-pubescent minds not get picked up by a studio and be given a new lease on life? How is Goosebumps anything other than an inevitability? The good news is that the film is actually worth seeing; this is as good as inevitable gets. Forget the fact you and Jack Black may not get along; forget your inner child wanting to rebel against the cinematic treatment, for you’d be lying to yourself that the only place Stine’s monstrous creations should live are in the pages of the books or in your memory. Getting to see the Abominable Snowman on screen is a kind of privilege. Better yet, seeing (and hearing) Slappy the dummy physically make threats is believing.

Everyone knows the series wasn’t exactly substantive nor inventive. Categorically predictable and breezy reads, they were defined more by the creatures that inhabited the pages, many a variation on ghostlike presences but sometimes branching out to include more obscure objects — who remembers ‘Why I’m Afraid of Bees’ or ‘The Cuckoo Clock of Doom?’ That their intellectual value was the equivalent of nutrient-deprived cereals like Captain Crunch’s Oops All Berries didn’t mean they were devoid of value completely, and on the basis of sheer volume — the original series which lasted from ’92 to ’97 included 62 titles — you couldn’t find many more book series geared towards children that were quite so exhaustive. Their longevity is owed to the fact Stine never tried to do anything fancy with them. The set-up was simple: stage a beginning, establish a middle section and cap it off with a twist ending.

Naturally, a film dealing with these very creatures and the author who dreamed them up, if it had any interest in reconnecting with a by-now fully-grown and steadily more jaded audience, would find formulaic storytelling appealing. What Rob Letterman has come up with is safe, harmless, occasionally eye-roll-worthy. What it’s not is scary. More importantly, it’s not a disaster.

Zach (Dylan Minnette) and his mom (the increasingly busy Amy Ryan) have just moved to Nowheresville, Delaware (the town is actually called Madison, but it’s the same thing) after the passing of Zach’s father. Zach makes a friend almost immediately in his next door neighbor, Hannah (Odeya Rush), but is just as quickly intimidated by her creepy father, who introduces himself as Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) — but we all know that’s a front. Even the 11-year-olds in attendance can see through that, what with his exceedingly thick wire-framed glasses and generally strange demeanor. The new-kid-in-town premise is, yes, exceedingly dull, particularly when it feels obliged to deal in a few fairly annoying characters who help expand the environment beyond Zach’s new home.

So far, so ‘Goosebumps.’ The stories never compelled on the virtues of their human characters. It’s not until Zach invades Hannah’s home (the fine for breaking and entering doesn’t faze this kid) upon hearing screams coming from her room that he discovers a small library filled with old ‘Goosebumps’ manuscripts. When he opens up a book, the fun begins. A monster is unleashed upon them and it’s up to Hannah to try and contain the chaos before her possibly psycho-father finds out. Unfortunately it’s not just the one creature they have to worry about. Soon every book starts unleashing their contents upon the small community and wreaking all kinds of PG-rated havoc, a development that’s better left unspoiled.

It’s up to Zach, his newfound friend Champ (Ryan Lee, who falls decidedly into the ‘fairly annoying’ category), Hannah and the loner author himself to save Madison from being overrun by a combination of lawn gnomes, giant mutant praying mantises and monster blood. It helps to think of Goosebumps as a ‘Best of’ Stine’s monstrous creations; few creatures truly stand out (save for everyone’s favorite talking dummy, voiced by Black) but what it lacks in quality it compensates in quantity. Once again mirroring its source material, the film benefits from sheer volume of creative CGI and lavish costume design rather than going into detail on any one thing.

It should go without saying such genericness will hardly compel viewers to champion its award potential. In fact, if you’re expecting quality of any kind outside of how strongly the film tugs on the strings of nostalgia, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Don’t expect any goosebumps to form on your skin come the frantic, rushed conclusion.

Recommendation: Very much a pleasant surprise in terms of the memories it brings back and the entertainment value provided by a game cast, Goosebumps‘ cinematic presentation won’t linger very long in the mind, but luckily enough it won’t have to as a sequel is all but a sure thing. With any luck that will also become a fun trip down memory lane. Anyone who read at least a few of these books should find this a perfectly acceptable rental night at home with the kids. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins

Quoted: “All the monsters I’ve ever created are locked inside these books. But when they open . . . “

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Pan

Release: Friday, October 9, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jason Fuchs

Directed by: Joe Wright

We’re off to Never, Neverland, but unfortunately not quite like in Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman.’

No, Joe Wright’s reboot of a Disney classic is a lot more subdued. This spirited adventure is, at best, an acoustic interpretation of that song and, come to think of it, why didn’t they use that as one of the crazy chants Blackbeard’s band of lunatic pirates sang with all their hearts in the beginning of the movie? Rather than going with a more overt but potentially hilarious modern metal classic they went with Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and The Ramone’s ‘Blitzkrieg Bop.’

Oh no, it’s another The Great Gatsby — all flash and flesh but no heart or soul; production value worth millions but a story that’s worth a dime a dozen. While Baz Luhrmann’s stylistic flourishes served at least some purpose — the life and times of not only the great Jay Gatsby but the indomitable spirit of the roaring twenties coincided beautifully with his lavish and dynamic directorial style — the excess of excess here in Pan more often than not distracts from a story that has very little new to say, despite being an origins story.

Pan begins in literal darkness, in a London orphanage where young boys just like Peter (Levi Miller) have been dropped off at the stoop and bid adieu by their parents for various reasons. Bomber planes are attacking the city during the height of World War II but amidst all the aerial chaos there swoops and dives, glides and gallivants a flying pirate ship in search of more boys to abduct. The orphanage turns out to be the last stop for these poor boys in this world as they are systematically turned over to the evil Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) who then transports them to Neverland, a mystical realm he rules over with a mischievous grin and magnificent wig.

Eventually Peter is snatched up as well and taken to this land beyond space and time, but when he gets there seemingly nothing exists beyond the vast expanse of mines and misery as Blackbeard is still searching for more fairy dust, the only thing that will allow him to live forever youthful. After only a single day in the mines, Peter proves himself a rebellious tyke as he gets into a confrontation with several of Blackbeard’s minions over who was the one to find the most recent chunk of fairy dust. When he fails to convince anyone that it was in fact him, he’s forced to walk the plank. Instead of dying immediately upon impact, Peter finds out at the least ideal time possible — right before he hits — that he can fly. (Aren’t movies great?)

Blackbeard, meanwhile, is convinced this is the moment he feared: when the prophecy of the son of a human female and a male fairy returns to Neverland to kill him is fulfilled. The relationship between Blackbeard and Pan is tabled in favor of the gravitational pull Peter feels towards his mother whom he’s never had the chance to know. I suppose that makes sense given where we are on the Peter Pan timeline, but the former relationship would’ve been so much more interesting to explore. Striking a deal with fellow miner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), Peter says that as long as Hook helps him find his mother he will help Hook and his goofy accomplice Smee (Adeel Akhtar) escape Neverland for good.

That’s before they get lost in the surrounding jungle and find themselves at the mercy of Rooney Mara’s Tiger Lily, who’s unfortunately become the bane of many critics’ experiences, and her clan of untrusting Piccaninnies, all donned in garb that wouldn’t look so out of place in an old-fashioned Gatsby get-together. Mara, while remaining a likable enough presence, absolutely does not justify the film’s awkward quota of white women as her emotive power becomes reduced to flat and uninspired line readings. And while this radical bit of casting does stick out, it’s not as offensive as Pan failing to justify itself as anything more than another cash-in on the current trend of remaking classic animated films as live-action spectacles.

Pan, despite its visual wonder — the exploration of the Fairy Kingdom ought to earn the film at least an Oscar nod for Best Production Design — is a chore to sit through, frequently lapsing into giddy fits of excitement or faux-terror that are aimed squarely at the little ones while willfully ignoring the grown ups in attendance. Its many characters come across as stenciled cut-outs of virtually every children’s movie version of the good guys and bad guys. Children probably won’t recognize their genericness, but their parents should. The parents who thought Pan could actually massage their initial hesitation into bittersweet nostalgia.

The child inside me thought it could work. The child inside me is a little disappointed. At least Jackman and Miller fare pretty well. The former is suitably sleazy while the latter is an inspired choice to play the titular character. Hopefully we’ll see him in the sequel(s). Considering how poorly Wright’s reimagining has already performed, I’m not sure how long the wait will be for future installments but something tells me it could be longer than a single night’s sleep.

Recommendation: Pan‘s a film for kids of this generation but unfortunately not for those growing up with Peter Pan. A loud, colorful and rushed production filled with silliness but lacking in heart or originality. I’m starting to think that while Peter himself may never age, remaking and rebooting his story has had its time. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Have you come to kill me, Peter?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com