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Review of SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: No (for a young audience)
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy-adventure
Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Sony/Columbia Pictures
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD, coupons
Trailer
Amazon link

Smurf happens.

That’s a flippant way to begin, but accurate, I think, because lately the films in this franchise really haven’t done much with the evil would-be mad scientist Gargamel and those famously blue Smurfs he chased with delicious futility in the 1980s TV series—a pairing that had the same kind of appeal as Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner, or Tom & Jerry. Lately, characterization and that fun battle of wits have been overshadowed by fathomless action. In Smurfs: The Lost Village, the Smurfs encounter kissing plants and a green rabbit that looks radioactive. They’re swept along a river at breakneck speed. They are attacked by a big bird. You know. Constant action. Smurf happens.

But one scene in this new movie reminds you how much more interesting the Smurfs were with that good and evil back-and-forth: As a small group of Smurfs, en route to try to discover if there’s Smurf life beyond their tiny village, encounters Gargamel on the rapids of a river and he starts to drown, the Smurfs go back to save him. “We’re Smurfs,” they say. “It’s what we do.” After they reel him in, he reminds them that he’s evil and “This is what I do.” He knocks them off their raft and cackles his evil laugh as they head for the falls.

Parents who watched those Smurfy Hanna-Barbera cartoons on NBC Saturday mornings instead of Scooby-Doo! on rival network ABC will wish that the filmmakers had featured more Gargamel and less Smurfette. Without that perpetual Coyote/Roadrunner interplay, Smurfs: The Lost Village feels like any other children’s animated film that basically straps characters into the seat of a roller coaster and sends them on a ride. The Lost Village has none of the wink-wink over-their-heads humor that would entice adults and older children to watch. It is what it is. Smurf happens.

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Review of THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2017, 104 min., Color
Animated action-comedy
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.41:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos True HD
Bonus features: B- (four shorts, 6 short features, 4 deleted scenes)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

I’m curious: Is there a kid in America who hasn’t played with Legos? Since 1949 the Danish company has cranked out those distinctive, colorful plastic building blocks that really took off as a kid craze when the company began producing theme sets tied to history (knights, pirates, robots, Vikings, cowboys, dinosaurs, etc.) and movies (Batman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.). Lego stores are everywhere. At Downtown Disney in Orlando a giant Lego dragon rises up out of a manmade lake, while in a downtown Chicago Lego store an elaborate model of a downtown city block is on display. And some airports and trains have dedicated Lego sections where children can play. With Legos so culturally huge, the stage was set for The Lego Movie (2014) to do for Lego lovers what Wreck-It Ralph did for video-game lovers—and it didn’t disappoint.

In that first film, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) was surrounded by a bevy of characters from other theme sets, though another figure was the unlikely hero. In The Lego Batman Movie the focus is totally on the Batman-Superman DC world, with guest villains popping up from other pockets of pop culture (say that three times fast). The result is dazzling, and the second film is easily as good as the first—possibly better.

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Review of ROCK DOG (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2017, 90 min., Color
Animated comedy
Rated PG for action and language
Summit Entertainment
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Preferred audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Rock Dog, a Chinese-American collaboration, is a better-than-you’d-think animated feature. It’s a true family movie with the potential to appeal to a wide range of ages. The characters are engaging, the animation is top-notch, and the story . . . well, if it worked in Kung Fu Panda, why wouldn’t it here?

Rather than a Panda who hears a different drummer, this time it’s a Tibetan mastiff that can’t quite bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps as a guard dog of a village of sheep up on Snow Mountain. With a gang of hungry and opportunistic wolves ready to attack, a single dog following his ancestral tradition isn’t enough. The father (J.K. Simmons) needs his son, and he also needs “scarecrows”—a bunch of sheep dressed to look like mastiffs from a distance—in order to keep the wolves at bay.

Bodi (Luke Wilson) would rather play music, but since music was banned because it was a distraction, he defiantly breaks into the “hold” where confiscated instruments are stored and begins teaching himself how to play a traditional stringed instrument. But when a radio falls from the sky and Bodi discovers the delights of rock music, he modifies that instrument to create his own six-string acoustic guitar and finally gets his father’s reluctant blessing to head to the city to follow his dream of becoming a musician.

We’re not supposed to question why we’re unable to get radio reception driving on some roads, but high in the Himalayas everything comes in crystal clear. And we’re not supposed to wonder why character actor Sam Elliott was chosen to play the narrator Fleetwood Yak, since this is set in Asia and Elliott’s unmistakable Western drawl situates us immediately in the American West. Above all, we’re not supposed to question mastiff’s “Iron Paw” defense—a laser-cannon blast of energy that emits from the mastiff’s paws—and later, young Bodi’s musical variation of it. Director Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) knows that if the writing and story are strong enough and the characters are strong enough, audiences will relax and just enjoy the movie.

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Review of SING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 108 min., Color
Animated musical-comedy
Rated PG for some rude humor and mild peril
Universal
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: ATMOS Dolby True HD
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

When I saw the trailer for Sing I thought, Could there possibly be a less imaginative premise than to build a film around a concert? Whether it’s original oldies like the Broadway Melody films and White Christmas or more recent variations, the concept has been done so many times you pretty much have to watch for the performances. Any plot will be just enough to string those tunes together.

That’s what viewers get in Sing, a film from Illumination Entertainment (The Secret Life of Pets). But here’s the crazy thing: somehow the film holds your attention and works as family viewing. The difference, I think, is in the animation. The art form allows filmmakers to be more playful in the build-up and in the details as they bridge those musical numbers. Though Sing is still no Pitch Perfect, it also helps to have a cartoon koala as the lead “actor.” Cute, right?

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Review of MOANA (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A/A-
Entire family: Yes
2016, 107 min., Color
Animated adventure
Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements
Disney
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Moana was an Academy Award nominee (Best Animated Feature, Best Song) that also made waves because of Disney’s depiction of tattoos that some said were culturally insensitive. I won’t wade into those waters, because, typical of Disney, this full-length animated feature reflects the studio’s good intentions through otherwise careful research and, with the exception of Dwayne Johnson, the casting of Pacific islanders in lead roles. Ultimately, Moana is more celebratory of a culture and its people than it is exploitive. But let me say right away, lest the boys in your family think this is another cookie-cutter princess movie, far from it: Moana is an adventure film, and for the first time in forever there’s no inkling the princess actually cares that the opposite sex exists.

The culture is Ancient Polynesia, and the treatment recalls a number of Disney films. When Moana’s father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), keeps her from going out into the water that surrounds their island, it’s hard not to think of Ariel and the strict father who forbade her to leave her watery world to explore the land of humans. When Gramma Tala (Rachel House) coaxes her to follow her destiny to find the demigod Maui (Johnson) and sail with him to return a mystical relic, it’s hard not to think of the grandmother in Mulan or Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas. Given that Maui’s tattoos come alive and help with the narration, it’s also hard not to think of that other Disneyfied demigod, Hercules, and the artwork on the classical vase that functioned the same way. Then too, Disney just acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise, and there’s a little Yoda in Gramma Tala and a lot of Empire Strikes Back in a scene when Moana is advised to go deep inside a cave to discover who she really is.

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PINOCCHIO (1940) (Signature Collection Blu-ray)

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pinocchiocoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
1940, 88 min., Color
Disney
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Pinocchio is both a classic and underrated Disney film, if that’s possible. The follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took animation down new paths, but was a box office disappointment and somehow never had the same appeal for successive generations as the princess and animal movies. Maybe it was because Walt Disney pushed his animators to create something a little darker in his second full-length animated feature. Or maybe this cautionary tale about what happens if a boy misbehaves was just a little too obvious. “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face,” the Blue Fairy says, and of course everyone’s familiar with the wooden nose that gets longer with every fib.

pinocchioscreenBased on the 1883 children’s novel by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio is nothing more than an extended fable about behaving well or else turning into a jackass (literally). In this story, old world woodcarver Geppetto sees a wishing star and wishes for his carved marionette to become a real boy. Enter the Blue Fairy, who waves her wand and brings Pinocchio to life, but tells him he will remain wooden until he proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish. “Now remember,” she tells him, “be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide.”

Disney’s 1940 version is as episodic as the original book, with the first 24 minutes devoted to introducing Geppetto, his cat Figaro, goldfish Cleo, and a vagabond cricket named Jiminy who is given the job of being Pinocchio’s conscience. Jiminy is a great little singer. Voiced by a popular ukulele strummer named Cliff Edwards, the little cricket gets to warble the song that will become the Disney theme: “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Jiminy isn’t much of a conscience, but if he had done a better job there would be no story to tell.

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STORKS (Blu-ray combo)

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storkscoverGrade: C+/C
Entire family: Yes
2016, 87 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for mild action and some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

When an animated feature’s main weakness is the premise or basic plot, I can’t help but wonder, Who in the world green-lit this project?

Storks has a decent cast of voice talents, including Andy Samberg, Ty Burrell, Jennifer Aniston, Key & Peele, Danny Trejo, and Kelsey Grammer. The characters are drawn and animated in accomplished fashion. Yet, while the birds in the film take flight, the film itself never really gets too high off the ground.

Storks received a 63 percent “fresh” rating at RottenTomatoes.com, meaning 63 out of 100 critics liked it enough to give it an average score of 6 out of 10. Forty-two percent pronounced it rotten, and I’m inclined to side with that group—though I’d use the word “disappointing” instead of “rotten.” I’m always leery when the writer and director are the same person, and writer-director Nicholas Stoller has had his share of hits (The Muppets) and misses (Gulliver’s Travels, Zoolander 2). Storks isn’t a complete miss, but it’s not a hit either. It’s a little too manic and shrill too much of the time, without nearly enough spaces to absorb or appreciate what’s going on.

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