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Review of ONWARD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B+
Animation
Rated PG

So what happens to a “shire” when centuries of technology make magic obsolete, and the closest to it for modern-day elves and other residents in the city of New Mushroomton is some version of fantasy role-playing games? In Onward we find out, as a timid elf receives a time capsule present from his father, who apparently died of cancer years ago: a wizard staff.

Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) is unimpressed, but older obnoxious brother Barley (Chris Pratt), who’s totally into role-playing games, is delighted that his father was also into wizardry. Then they read a letter that was part of the parcel and discover a “visitation spell” that can bring their father back for one day, so Ian can meet him for the first time. But what happens when unconfident Ian botches the job and brings back only Dad’s bottom half? The elves have less than a day to find a gemstone that, added to the staff, will be powerful enough to bring back all of their father.

That’s the premise of Onward, which is directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), and I found myself thinking of Back to the Future and Marty’s limited time to set things right, or else his family, the top halves of which are slowly vanishing on a photo he frequently looks at, will cease to exist. And of course there’s been no shortage of wizard-quest films with a single high-stakes prize the goal and all manner of obstacles en route, so Onward feels a bit commonplace in its premise and plotting. More

Review of SPIES IN DISGUISE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Rated PG
Animation

Spies in Disguise is surprisingly entertaining . . . and surprisingly adult for an animated children’s feature that parents can also watch without being bored out of their skulls.

The bare rear end of a very large man is shown as he’s caught taking a bath. A man whose hand has shrunk because of a chemical transformation peeks inside his pants and screams. A man turned into a pigeon talks about #1 and #2 coming out of the same place. Characters sip martinis and champagne. And Yakuza down shots and take plenty of shots at heroes, with violence ramped up to take full advantage of the cover that animation provides. If this were live action it would easily merit a PG-13 rating.

Then again, if this were live action, it would be more of a challenge to tackle the main premise of Spies in Disguise: a nerdier version of “Q” (voiced by Tom Holland), mocked because of always wanting to invent “nice” devices for conflict resolution rather than the lethal ones his agency wants, is fired for slipping his “kitty glitter bomb” into the field kit of superspy Lance Sterling (Will Smith). When Sterling is framed and is deemed a rogue agent, he seeks Walter’s help to make him “disappear”—but the formula doesn’t make him invisible. It turns him into a pigeon.

Kids will take delight in the pigeon transformation and the rendering of birds in this 13th feature from Fox Animation Studios (Ice Age, Rio, The Peanuts Movie). And hey, so will adults. There’s a “cute” factor that this film has that works as a buffer for the violence and adult elements. More

Review of FLUSHED AWAY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Rated PG
Animation

It’s hard not to be bowled over by Flushed Away, an eccentric tale of a pampered upper-crust pet mouse who’s flushed down the toilet, only to discover a miniature city in the sewers underneath London. French Kung-fu frogs? Singing and screaming slugs? A mouse-granny obsessed with Tom Jones? A Bond-style villain who’s wanting to destroy an entire city? I’m not sure that an animated feature can have more organized chaos and still have such strong emotional content that you walk away from it feeling like you just watched a CGI and claymation Indiana Jones-style adventure.

This 2006 entry from Dreamworks (Shrek) and Aardman (Wallace & Gromit) is an unmistakable tip-of-the-hat to Romancing the Stone, and Flushed Away certainly has the same runaway-train pacing and playful male/female antagonism as that live-action adventure. Add similarities to The African Queen as well and you’ve got a cartoon journey that doesn’t drag, even during the occasional quiet moments.

Though it’s rated PG for “crude humor and some language,” nothing stands out as being really objectionable, and that includes what you’d expect to find floating in the sewers. Mostly, that’s because it all happens so quickly. The gags that do go the low-brow route are subtle or treated in an almost tasteful way. The grossest character is a sewer-rat named Sid (Shane Richie), who shoots up the drain from the underworld and flushes Roddy (Hugh Jackman) from his posh Kensington digs. Sid has the manners of a soccer hooligan, which is appropriate since World Cup Soccer is somehow involved in a destructive master plan by The Toad (Ian McKellen), a literal “underworld” boss. More

Review of PLAYMOBIL: THE MOVIE (DVD)

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Grade: C+/B-
Rated: PG
Animation

Given the success of the Lego movies, one thing that’s surprising about Playmobil going Hollywood is that it took them so long. The other thing is that there aren’t any Native Americans or knights in this film, and those were among the very first Playmobil sets.   But hey, Ancient Rome is here, and so are Playmobil pirates, cowboys, Vikings, spies, robots, a T-Rex, and a food truck operator.

Yep, it’s pretty random, and while the fun lies in seeing these Playmobil sets come alive on the big screen, Playmobil: The Movie can feel a bit like a screenwriter’s challenge: see how many different Playmobil sets you can jam into a single film. And while the Lego movies’ bread and butter was pop culture allusions and verbal humor, this Playmobil film relies more heavily on sight gags.

As a result, it can feel more like a film aimed at children than adults—but this film for children has secret agent Rex Dasher (Daniel Radcliffe) sipping a martini that’s shaken, not stirred. It also features people being drugged or roofied, a kick to the groin, bales of pink hay that feel like an allusion to marijuana bales. And there are battles where swordplay and fisticuffs and explosions up the ante from children’s typical pretend play of knocking figures down with rubber bands or Nerf guns. More

Review of NE ZHA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B/B-
Not Rated (would be PG-13)
Animated fantasy-adventure

The ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (light/dark, positive/negative) is at the heart of Ne Zha, an animated feature film from Chinese director Jiaozi that shuns the harsh angularity of anime in favor of the rounded contours that typically characterize western animation.

In fact, there are moments in this 3D computer animated fantasy when you might find yourself thinking of Disney’s more traditionally rendered Mulan, especially when a governor named Li Jing (Hao) is drawn in the same style as a younger version of Mulan’s father. The governor and Madam Yin (Qi) learn that the Primeval Lord of Heaven has decided that they will be the ones to raise one half two beings that came from the Heavenly Pearl. The other half is being raised and controlled by the Dragon King, who seems determined to prove that even the good offspring of the Primeval Lord of Heaven can be used for evil purposes.

But of the two, Nezha is the hellraiser. In fact, the full Chinese title of the film translates as “Birth of the demon child Nezha.” He’s like Dennis the Menace and Stitch rolled into one—a little fireball that his doting parents love, nonetheless, and want to protect. Because of his temperament and frankly evil laugh, he’s ostracized by his community, and probably justifiably so. I mean, he is prophesized to bring destruction to the world, so why would people cozy up to him? But eventually the community learns they have to count on him. More

Review of FROZEN II (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Rated: PG
Animation

Has there been a more anticipated Disney sequel than Frozen II?

Frozen was an instant classic, winning Oscars for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Song. Within the first few weeks of its debut, children young enough to have barely mastered sentences could be heard belting out “Let It Go” with the same intensity as Idina Menzel, the Broadway talent who sang it in the film.

Frozen was a tough act to follow, but Frozen II gives the 2013 original a run for its money.

For me, the differences can be summarized with a few simple observations. I thought Frozen was marred only by two songs that stood out because they were less successful than the rest: a goofy snowman song that seemed to run counter to the mood of the film, even for comic relief, and a troll song that could have been cut and no one would have cared. But overall, the film brought Broadway style to the fairytale format (a Disney specialty) and also embraced the “meet cute” formula of romantic comedies, with fun characters and interesting side plots and plot twists that were simple enough for even those budding young sopranos and tenors to understand.

Frozen II, meanwhile, comes closer to the operetta in its use of music, where songs are sometimes employed instead of dialogue to move the story forward, and those songs (as a result) seem to come at more frequent intervals. That’s not bad, mind you, just different. Still, it’s been three months since the film premiered, and I have yet to observe any youngster singing a song from the sequel. I also couldn’t pick out a favorite song the way I instantly could with Frozen—though “Into the Unknown” was nominated for an Academy Award and the Frozen II soundtrack reached #1 on the Billboard 200 Album chart. So it might take a second listen for those songs to kick in.  I also thought that Frozen II, a darker film in tone and subject matter, had a plot that was both more richly imagined and a little more contrived, and therefore a little harder for younger children to comprehend. Maybe that’s because Frozen steered fairly close to the shoreline of fairytale land, while Frozen II comes closer to fantasy. There are ghosts and spirits and people living in a netherworld. More

Review of THE ADDAMS FAMILY (2019) (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 87 min., Color
MGM / Universal
Rated PG for macabre and suggestive humor and some action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

I’ve been scratching my head over why The Addams Family 2019 animated feature film isn’t as entertaining as the original 1961 live-action television series.

Then again, there are probably better things I could do with my time. Feature films based on half-hour TV shows have a long history of limited success, with filmmakers either unable to capture the tone of the original or unable to expand the basic plot and premise to fill out the additional minutes. And films based on novelty sitcoms from the sixties have been particularly prone to bomb. I’m talking about feature-length versions of My Favorite Martian, The Jetsons, The Flintstones, Bewitched, The Beverly Hillbillies, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Underdog. Even slightly better ones like The Brady Bunch movies and George of the Jungle were a mixed bag, with only Get Smart coming close to matching the success of the original half-hour series.

Writers Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler took an immediate wrong turn with an opening pre-title sequence in The Addams Family that has more in common with the Frankenstein sagas than the popular TV series inspired by the Charles Addams New Yorker cartoons that began appearing in 1938. Addams’ famous understated tongue-in-cheek humor is supplanted by more over-the-top gags and characters, wrapped up in an overly familiar plot. Yet, none of these things is necessarily the kiss of death, and The Addams Family isn’t a BAD film. It’s just not a very good one. For the most part it’s dull, and there aren’t enough moments to delight. What’s more, the TV Addams family’s charming obliviousness to how different they are from everyone else is replaced by a monsters vs. humans and us vs. them dynamic that’s far too common and clichéd. More

Review of THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 97 min., Color
Sony / Columbia
Rated PG for rude humor and action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The Angry Birds Movie 2 (which should have been simply “Angry Birds 2”) is a colorfully manic CGI animated feature that’s full of feathery little fluffballs and cutesy antics that are obviously aimed like a big giant slingshot at young children, rather than gamers.

At one point a bird is reading Crazy Rich Avians, and there are enough smartly written lines and movie allusions to make it fairly painless, even amusing for older siblings and parents to watch along with youngsters. And that includes the curmudgeons who say they’ll only watch such films “when pigs fly” . . . because in this movie, they do. This time around, it’s a classic tale of enemies—pigs and birds—who put their prank war on hold so they can work together when an outside force threatens their separate island paradises. The same cast returns from the 2016 original, and if your family liked that one they’ll like this sequel. It’s a stronger film, and the feather and effects animation is noticeably superior.

Jason Sudeikis once again gives voice to Red, the hero of the first film who has since developed a bit of an arrogant “only I can do this” attitude. So while the two sides learn to work together, Red is relearning how to be humble and realizing, as well, that it takes teamwork to succeed. An all-star cast features the additional voice talents of Rachel Bloom, Leslie Jones, Josh Gad, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, Eugenio Derbez, Peter Dinklage, Nicki Minaj, Maya Rudolph, Tony Hale, and others.

The plot is set in motion when a large iceball falls out of the sky, swamping Piggy Island and leading the pigs to seek out a truce with their Bird Island counterparts. Pigs, birds, and viewers later learn that, like a James Bond villain, Zeta, the head of Eagle Island is launching iceballs from her volcano cannon in an all-out attack. Her plan? Tired of living on a frigid island, she wants to acquire warmer territory for herself and her army of Eagles. Meanwhile, in a cute-as-a-button side plot, three hatchling birds play with a mother’s eggs but end up watching them drift out to sea. How will they ever get them back? More

Review of TOY STORY 4 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
Animation
2019, 100 min., Color
Rated G
Pixar/Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

The buzz (no Lightyear pun intended) on Toy Story 4 was that it’s the saddest (translation: most poignant) entry yet, and that Pixar really fumbled the ball by naming a new character Forky when it’s so clearly a spork.

But if that’s your biggest complaint, you know Pixar/Disney has created another hit. In fact, if there’s a more critically successful film franchise, it’s not coming to mind. The first two Toy Story animated features earned a remarkable 100 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with audience ratings of 92 and 86 percent, respectively, while the third entry received a 98 from critics and 89 from the audience. Their latest exercise in animated wizardry merited a 97 from critics and a 94 from audiences. That’s amazingly consistent, given that there’s only so much you can do, plot-wise, with a family’s toys that come to life when no humans are looking.

This time western sheriff doll Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) is having an existential crisis. He’s spent three play days in a row left in the closet, wondering what his purpose is if it’s no longer to be played with by his special human. And in case you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, his special human Andy went off to college,” in Toy Story 4 Woody’s a hand-me-down that’s now in the possession of Andy’s little sister, Bonnie.

When Woody stows away in Bonnie’s backpack to make sure she has the comfort of a toy her first day of kindergarten orientation, he watches her make a new toy doll out of a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks. But Forky, as she calls him, is a kind of cheerful fatalist who keeps jumping into wastebaskets and trash receptacles and such because, well, that’s where plastic forks end up.

Pixar/Disney keeps the series fresh by rotating characters who get the spotlight, and this time Woody, Bo Peep (Annie Potts), Forky (Tony Hale), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and a fun new character, motorcycle stuntman Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), take center stage. The animators also moved up the ladder of progressive possibilities for toys that are no longer wanted. Having already explored the Goodwill option, the rabid collector option, and the donated-to-preschool option, they set this entry in an antique store where Bo ended up. More

Review of CURIOUS GEORGE: ROYAL MONKEY (DVD)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire Family: Yes, but…
2019, 87 min., Color
Children’s, Animation
Rated G
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Sheet of 15 stickers
Clip
Amazon link

Raise your hand if the Curious George picture books by Hans Agusto Rey, Margret Rey, and illustrator Alan J. Shalleck helped you learn how to read. If so, you’re not alone.

Since the little monkey first appeared in 1941 with his friend, The Man in the Yellow Hat, all seven original titles penned and inked by this trio have remained in print. They’re that popular. And 2006 was a big year for the tailless monkey. That year, an animated TV show was launched that would run for nine more years, and Universal bankrolled a big-screen feature starring big-name talent and costing $50 million to make.

Producer Ron Howard was involved with both projects. “A lot of animated films throw in adult jokes meant to go over the heads of kids. Curious George doesn’t,” Howard told an interviewer. George doesn’t speak in the books, and Howard said that giving him a voice was never an option. “But you know, there have been a lot of very funny characters going back to Harpo Marx that didn’t have much to say,” he said.

The big-screen version didn’t make as much at the box office as the studio had hoped, and since then the movies have been feature-length direct-to-home-videos. Usually that’s a bad thing, but not in this case. The smaller expectations have allowed Howard and co-producing partner Brian Glazer to focus on the audience that the books were intended to reach.

Though two 2009 films, Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey and Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas, were disappointments, the filmmakers found their groove with Curious George: A Halloween Boo Fest (2013) and Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle (2015). And I’m happy to report that Curious George: Royal Monkey keeps the winning streak alive. More

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