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Review of LIGHTYEAR (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+
Animation
Rated PG

Sometimes you can’t help but hear the buzz about certain films, and I heard two main complaints about Lightyear (2022): that the character wasn’ta toy at all or acting very Buzz-like, and that Disney made a lesbian movie (gasp). And that kind of response slowed down this film at the box office.

Come on, people.  In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear was an action figure programmed to speak a limited number of sentences, like the old Chatty Cathy dolls. That it came to life when people weren’t around was pure fantasy, and the toy Buzz, upon learning he’s not the real space ranger Buzz Lightyear, spent the rest of the moving dealing with a Pinocchio complex (“I wanna be a real boy”). Meanwhile, Lightyear states its basic premise on a pre-title sequence card that’s onscreen long enough for even slow readers to process:  “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a toy from his favorite movie. This is that movie.”

In other words, this animated Buzz is the living human film character that inspired the action figure seen in the Toy Story movies. People complained, Why isn’t Tim Allen the voice? Uh, because Tim Allen voiced a toy; the real Buzz is a different character, voiced here by Chris Evans—who knows a thing or two about playing a superhero. Later critics who gave Disney credit for the cleverness of the idea complained that Disney settled for making a typical origin story, but that also kind of misses the point. To inspire action figures and all sorts of merch, it takes a by-the-numbers blockbuster, and that’s what we get in Lightyear.

As for the lesbianism, I’m guessing that the people who are now losing their minds over a black mermaid are the same ones who bashed this film because it “exposed” children to gay characters. If you haven’t seen the film, you should know that the sexual orientation of Buzz’s best friend and fellow Space Ranger Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) is introduced in innocent, matter-of-fact fashion. When she tells Buzz she got engaged, Buzz responds with the delight of any best friend and tells her how wonderful it is, adding, “Who is she?” Meaning, he’s already known about her orientation and accepts it as another fact of life, like hair color or temperament. So should moviegoers. And it’s treated so subtly here that many children won’t even notice. There are brief touchstone visuals and references to the married couple later parenting a child, and yes, there’s a kiss—but it’s the same kiss of greeting children receive from relatives of all genders. Same-sex marriage is such a blip on the screen that it’s a shame so many people are talking about that instead of the film.

If people have to rip on something (and finding fault with Disney pictures seems to be a national pastime, like Wordle or Sudoku), I’m surprised they haven’t attacked the logic behind the film’s main situational premise.

Buzz, best friend Alisha, and a rookie (Bill Hader) carry out an exploration mission on the planet T’Kani Prime. Quickly they (and we) learn the planet is populated by tentacled life forms, and after their ship is destroyed Buzz declares that they’re marooned. But fast-forward a year later and there’s a full-blown space colony with all kinds of people and the capacity to engineer, build, and operate high-tech buildings and vehicles. And they’re still trying to figure out how to repair or replace the hyperspace fuel crystal that will allow them to return home? Meanwhile, the commander and the rest of the colony (where’d they come from?) decide they want to stay on the planet, so they construct a biodome to protect them from hostile indigenous life forms.

Even small children may wonder about the effectiveness of a dome when the tentacled creatures seem to come from underground, but logic and action movies don’t exactly go hand in hand. And Lightyear is an action movie—a slam-bang ride that abandons warp speed only a handful of times so everyone can catch their breaths and also process poignant Up-style montages that explain why Buzz’s new right-hand ranger has to be Alisha’s space-phobic granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer). Lightyear also alludes to and ramps up elements found in previous slower-paced space films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (instead of H.A.L. we get I.V.A.N.) and Interstellar (a fearful space glide especially stands out). Adults have all the allusions, and the kids will hone in on the action (when the bugs start getting zapped, older youths might have Starship Troopers flashbacks) and the characters—young Izzy, especially.

In Disney movies, animal friends aren’t just foils for characters or a source of comic relief. They’re minor characters who have the potential to steal scenes, and that certainly happens with Sox (Peter Sohn), a robotic cat assigned to be Buzz’s “personal companion robot” to ease his emotional transition after he had been on a long solo mission to retrieve a crystal. Also engaging are the ranger trainees that Buzz ends up with after his return:  Izzy, Mo (Taika Waititi), and the gravel-voiced Darby (Dale Soules), who all find themselves facing and fighting a robot invasion coordinated by . . . yep, Zurg (James Brolin), who is shot at times to make viewers think of that late, great space villain Darth Vader.

Viewers are either going to love all the Star Wars references and consider them clever allusions, or they’re going to hate them and think they’re lazy or unimaginative rip-offs. But they’re present in force, and you’ve been warned. I personally think they add a referential element that feeds into the whole idea of a space blockbuster and shows that director Angus MacLane and his cast and crew were trying to have some fun with this film. Ultimately, that’s what it is:  a fun animated film that’s nota prequel, not a sequel, and not an origin film. It’s a related film that helps to add depth and breadth to the Toy Story universe. Just don’t expect Woody or any of the other toys to show up.

Lightyear is streaming now on Disney+, but decent bonus features on the Blu-ray and repeat-play potential also make this worth adding to your Disney-Pixar home movie collection so you can play it even after it disappears from the online menus. And you know it will. Disney has that habit of returning titles rather quickly to the “vault.” The 7.1 DTS-HDMA soundtrack also has a commanding presence, and I’m not sure that’s the case with the streamed version.

Entire family:  Yes
Run time:  105 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features:  C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
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Trailer
Rated PG for action and peril

Language:  1/10—Aside from a few euphemistic versions of swearwords that I can’t even recall, this is one squeaky clean galaxy

Sex:  0/10—Nothing at all, unless the mere mention of progeny somehow offends you

Violence:  4/10—Mostly it’s peril, because the violence itself is pretty tame, with the tentacled creatures losing a few here and there; when Zurg’s robot army appears, children who’ve been on the Buzz Lightyear theme park ride will get the same shooting gallery sensation watching this film, even down to the sounds

Adult situations:  2/10—A character has to deal with feelings of loss and displacement

Takeaway:  Disney-Pixar still has a friend in me, as long as they keep producing high-quality films like this one that continue to reflect the studio’s commitment to creativity and excellence

Review of TURNING RED (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Animation
Rated PG

Turning Red is film that can seem uncharacteristically strident for Disney-Pixar. You’ve already heard the complaints: it deals with a young girl’s first menstruation, it “glorifies” juvenile disobedience, and the main character can be a bit much to take.

The first period criticism is way overblown, because it’s really just a mother’s assumption that briefly pops up. When Meilin “Mei” Lee is embarrassed, she does what many kids do:  she turns red. But her red is a giant version of the red panda.  It confuses her. It frightens her. She tries to hide it, especially from her over-protective and aggressive mom. That’s when Ming assumes her daughter is having her first period, but quickly learns it’s an animal transformation instead. 

So the “period” thing is nothing more than a brief blip on the radar screen. Parents worried about young children “getting an education” prematurely can relax. It’s subtle enough that the very young ones won’t even pick up on what’s happening, and those old enough to perceive what Meilin’s mother is talking about are old enough to ask their parents about it. Or maybe the parents would prefer to do things the old-fashioned American way and refrain from talking about something until it actually happens? You know, like Stephen King’s Carrie in the shower, who loses her mind thinking she’s dying?

I personally think any film that give families the chance to talk about important life changes and events is a good thing, and that includes the minutiae. In Turning Red, for example, Meilin has a crush on a boy, and that might be a conversation-starter for parents to talk to their children about crushes.

As for glorifying juvenile disobedience, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Meilin isn’t the first adolescent to sneak out of the house. I mean, even Disney’s Pollyanna did that, and her name is always equated with a goody-goody attitude.

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Review of LUCA (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Since Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006, the look and sensibility of the studio’s films have changed to the point where you have to read the credits to tell if it’s a Pixar or Disney film. Cases in point? Brave had all the earmarks of a Disney princess film set in Ireland, but it was produced by Pixar.  Coco (2017) and Encanto look like they were cut from the same cloth, but Pixar did the scissoring on the former title and Disney the latter. Wreck-It Ralph (2012) felt like a Pixar film, but it came out of Disney animation studios. 

Now we get Luca, a 2021 film that, under the direction of Enrico Casarosa, does for the Italian Riviera what Pixar’s Ratatouille did for Paris:  it celebrates the landscape and the culture in a loving tribute, while focusing on a duo that hides a secret and goes against the social grain. Fans of the 1984 live-action Splash—starring Tom Hanks as a young man who has a close encounter with mermaid Daryl Hannah—might also see a few similarities.

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Review of ENCANTO (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

While most of the country was complaining about COVID, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton) had an amazing 2021. He directed the bio-musical tick, tick . . . BOOM!, co-wrote the screenplay for the film version of his college project In the Heights, and composed the music for Netflix’s Vivo and Disney’s Encanto. It’s the big-production soundtrack, songs, and visuals that wow you immediately in Disney’s 60th full-length feature. Awash with bright colors and vibrant music, Encanto is a celebration for the eyes and ears.

Maybe that’s why I felt the plot by comparison was less striking. It’s almost a Hollywood convention that something has to be done or the magic will be lost, whether it’s a teenage boy going Back to the Future to fix things or Encanto’s Mirabel needing to trust her premonition that the magic of the candle that created their living house that bestows special gifts on the Madrigal family will be lost unless she can follow her instincts to save the Casita.

Set in Colombia—home of Nobel Prize-winning magical realist writer Gabriel García Márquez—Encanto is the first Disney animated feature to spotlight a Latinx family and hero. Stephanie Beatriz gives voice to 15-year-old Mirabel, who is cheerful and upbeat despite being the only family member not to have received a special power from the house. It’s a mystery to everyone—especially Mirabel’s grandma/abuela Alma (Maria Cecilia Botero)—why the house didn’t bestow a gift on her, but they choose to forget about it. Mirabel goes about her business despite not having superhuman strength like older sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow), or the ability to make flowers out of nowhere like oldest sister Isabela. Aside from Mirabel, everyone in the family has a special gift that enriches the community, which honors and celebrates the family as a result.

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Review of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-/B+
Animation
Rated PG

Some twelve weeks after its theatrical debut, Raya and the Last Dragon is the third highest grossing film in the U.S., behind Spiral and Wrath of Man. With a domestic box office of $49.3 million and another $60.6 million international box office revenue, it’s exceeding expectations, and I’d like to suggest one reason why:  Disney animators always seem to up their game, and they did so again with Raya.

The martial arts swordfights in this 59th full-length feature from Disney are the most accomplished I’ve seen so far in the world of animation—presented at a speed you’d normally encounter in the best Ip Man, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan movies. Combine that with gorgeous backgrounds and character animations, and Raya and the Last Dragon is another solid effort from the House of Mouse—though the plot itself can seem a bit familiar.

Set in a dystopian fantasy world, Raya and the Last Dragon begins with the backstory of a fictional land (Kumandra) where dragons and people once thrived together until evil spirits (that look a bit like the smoke monster on Lost)terrorized the land and turned dragons and people to stone—except for some people and one dragon, who focused the magic she and other dragons had on a single gem. But you do the math: one gem and five tribes? Of course they fight over it, and the pieces are eventually scattered among those tribes. Hundreds of years later, the Druun return and wreak havoc on the now-separate sections of what was once Kumandra. Raya is the daughter of Chief Benja of the Heart tribe, while her once friend and now rival, Namaari, is the princess of the Fang tribe. But like any fantasy, the story itself seems more complicated than the visual action. Relax and enjoy this simple quest story, as Raya tries to find the last dragon, recover the jewel pieces, and defeat the Druun once and for all. Unless Namaari beats her to it.

Give Disney credit, though, for creating strong female characters without drawing attention to it, without adding a Prince or love interest, and for not making a big deal out of adding two more princesses to the merchandising Pantheon. Give them credit, too, for giving Asians and Asian Americans feisty princesses that look like them—even if Disney took a little flak (what else is new?) for not featuring enough South Asian actors among the voice talents.

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Review of THE CROODS: A NEW AGE (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B-/C+
Animation
Rated PG

They say you’re only tall or short compared to who’s standing alongside you, and the Croods seem a little cruder in The Croods: A New Age.

When this prehistoric family meets the Bettermans, who live a better existence that feels like a cross between the Garden of Eden and The Flintstones’ Bedrock, the Croods’ lack of couth really stands out. Kind of like the Clampetts in swanky Beverly Hills. In fact, what could have been a clever commentary on evolution instead becomes more of a familiar poor/rich, rural/urban comedy.

DreamWorks animators have produced another visual feast, with typically stellar animation. But, as is often the case with full-length features that come from big studios who don’t have a mouse and a history of animation evolution that traces back to the beginning of cartoon time, there’s something just slightly off.

It’s not a bad movie, mind you, and the kids actually will love this one because of the bright colors, the crazy characters, and the manic antics that tend to dominate. There are some fun creatures and thrill-ride sequences. But adults may find themselves trying to put their finger on what’s missing—what keeps this okay-to-good movie from being a truly good one.

Endearing characters? Maybe. I don’t know if it’s the way they’re drawn, the dialogue, or the way the actors were directed, but everyone seems to be overwrought this outing and there’s as much constant jabbering and conflict as there is in a typical Real Housewives episode.

Heart? Possibly. There’s a touching family-first love-who-you-are message embedded here, but sometimes the decision to DO EVERYTHING BIG AND LOUD AND MANIC short circuits the feelings that those messages are intended to create. The warm-and-fuzzy moment feels tacked on when everything else is 50 Shades of Crazy. More

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

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