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Review of THE STEAM ENGINES OF OZ (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C-/?
Entire family: No
2018, 75 min., Color
Animation
Not rated (would be PG for violence)
Cinedigm
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: n/a
Trailer
Amazon link

The Steam Engines of Oz is billed as a “steampunk” version of the L. Frank Baum classic, making it one of the more interesting revisionist updates to come out since The Wiz. But what is “steampunk,” and how does it play out in an adaptation of a beloved film classic?

As a subgenre of science fiction, “steampunk” is a blend of technology and Victorian images that fuses a cyberpunk sensibility with a celebration of vintage Industrial Age images and plots. After that, it’s anybody’s guess, as the term has morphed into a confusing number of mutations. But the bottom line is that it’s all about gears and goggles.

The bigger question is, Who is the audience for a steampunk version of The Wizard of Oz?

Since Oz is run by a sinister Tin Man, the lions are anything but cowardly, the munchkins look like Uzi-toting bikers, and at least one of the main characters from the children’s book has limbs cut off, it’s not exactly for small children.

Yet, small children would be the most forgiving of an animated style that’s inconsistently disappointing. Sometimes the animation flattens out into 2D, other times it has the same 3D CGI look of the Barbie franchise films, and still other times the action looks like a phone app version of a video game. The latter is the style that’s predominant throughout this wacky 79-minute animated adventure, which seems longer than that—never a good sign.

Call it The Wizard of Oz meets Mad Max and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, only instead of a naïve Dorothy visiting Oz it’s an underground dweller named Victoria who is tasked with keeping the underground machinery running that powers Oz. But this Oz is no Technicolor paradise. It has more factions than a political party, and Victoria (voiced by Julianne Hough) is recruited to help stop the Tin Man from destroying all the natural resources in his pursuit of profit and expansion. Yes, you can read this as an indictment of whatever government fits the bill, but it’s a film that needs a tighter focus and more quality control over the animation. What’s more, the narrative is as uneven as the animation.

Sometimes the film seems plodding, while at other times the action is quick-cut so that it takes a while to figure things out. Why, for example, are some of the lions walking on four legs and others dressed and walking on two? And what’s the deal with the Tin Man’s heart? Mostly, though, while other animated features hold viewers’ attention during such confusing periods because of the artwork and animation, there’s nothing here to visually delight. It’s all pretty mundane, and pretty crudely and cheaply done. Ron Perlman and William Shatner also provide voices, but they’re not given much to work with.

Though The Steam Engines of Oz isn’t rated, it would probably merit a PG for the adult elements I’ve mentioned. But fans of the original Wizard of Oz won’t find this as interesting as it sounds. In fact, it’s a little sad that what might have been a fun steampunk version turns out to be more pedestrianpunk . . . unless you’re high and making jokes as you watch this in a group. And let’s hope there aren’t a whole lot of families that fit that category.

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Review of PADDINGTON 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes!
2017, 103 min., Color
Animation-Live Action Adventure Comedy
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

I did not see Paddington when it was released in 2014. I simply couldn’t bear it, since the track record for films featuring CGI animals in a world of accepting humans hasn’t exactly been the stuff of NASCAR.

Movies like these are always aimed at children rather than whole families, and even the ones that stretch their audiences—films like The Muppets 2011 reboot featuring Amy Adams and Jason Segel—still seem to suffer from an acute case of the cutsies. But the trailer for Paddington 2 intrigued me. Innocent little Peruvian bear Paddington, who lives in London with a human family, somehow runs afoul of the law and ends up wearing prison pinstripes and escaping with other cons? What’s cute about that?

Nothing, and that’s what interested me. I wondered, could this finally be the furry fish-out-of-water story that parents could also enjoy with their small children? Happily, the answer is an emphatic yes—which is no doubt why Paddington received a passing grade of 7.1 out of 10, while this clever, tongue-in-cheek sequel elicited an 8/10 at the Internet Movie Database with close to 25,000 moviegoers voting. It’s better than any of the Alvin and the Chipmunks, Stuart Little, or newer Muppet movies.

What makes it work is that writer-director Paul King and his co-writers plant their tongues in cheek and include lines and details that will make anyone over three feet tall smile—even laugh out loud in spots. The filmmakers tap into the long tradition of the Hollywood naïves thrust into situations that are emphatically beyond their understanding or capabilities, whether we’re talking about Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Ma and Pa Kettle, or such later unlikely explorers in strange lands as Forrest Gump and the perpetually clueless Jack Sparrow. Paddington isn’t cute. He’s Austin Powers without the randiness, the straight man in a comic duo, but a ball of fur so innocent that children will still see him as adorable.

In this film at least, Paddington comes to us the latest in a long tradition of benevolent helpers whose very presence changes the lives of those around them in very positive ways. Like Mary Poppins or Pollyanna, his cheerful can-do optimism lifts people up and yields only momentarily enough to Eeyore-like depression for the plot to take a second-act nosedive before flying high again in the third act—quite literally, actually. More

Review of COCO (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family:  Yes
2017, 105 min., Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s almost as if the Pixar gang took inspiration out of failure and gave themselves a challenge: to make a successful animated feature about the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead, even though Fox tried in 2014 with The Book of Life and failed to connect with audiences or earn an Oscar nomination. But Pixar pulled it off, doing what Disney-Pixar does best: infusing the film with a strong story and characters, catchy music, comic relief, and most importantly, emotion.

You also get the feeling that Coco was a bounceback film for Pixar, if there is such a thing. Although Pixar’s last three features were ignored by the Oscar nominating committee, Coco not only got the nod, but after winning the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature it’s also favored to win that category at the Oscars tomorrow night.

Coco is a bit of a trailblazer, too, as it’s the first film with a nine-figure budget to feature an all-Latin cast—if you don’t count Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger, who also makes an appearance. Well received south of the border, it’s become the all-time highest grossing film in Mexico and has earned a worldwide box office approximately three times its budget. Critics have hailed its animation, its original music, and its emotional storyline about the importance of family and never forgetting deceased relatives.

If your little ones are creeped out by skeletons, you should know that most of the film’s 105-minute runtime is spent in the Land of the Dead, where everyone but one little boy and his dog is a walking, talking bundle of bones. But Pixar does a nice job of giving those skeletons personality and making them non-menacing and not all that creepy. They’re also humanized because the land of the dead is portrayed as a futuristic city, only one coincidentally inhabited by skeletons. More

Review of THE STAR (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
2017, 86 min., Color
Animation
Columbia/Sony
Rated PG for some thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Though there have been exceptions, big studios have mainly steered clear of Bible stories in recent years, leaving it to the low-budget indie filmmakers to tackle projects that were consistent with their beliefs. In their hands, however, the films were too often overly preachy or poorly written and acted.

So imagine my delight when our family watched this Dove-approved PG-rated animated film and actually saw wonderfully colorful and accomplished animation and backgrounds, as well as an all-star cast of voice talents having fun with their roles in  a biblical tale that was fully reimagined to fit today’s modes of creative storytelling. The Star wasn’t preachy, it wasn’t austere, it wasn’t boring, and it didn’t feel like a sit-still-and-listen Bible lesson. But it also wasn’t your typical Bible story. It’s structured more like any number of popular animated features, with an entertaining blend of music, comedy, talking animals, action (yes, action) and inspirational drama.

Mary looked and acted a bit like the younger sister from Frozen, while Joseph had his own “Wait, what?” moments facing off against a donkey that Mary decided to adopt and name Boaz—Bo, for short.

As we read in the end credits that probably should have been inserted as a pre-title sequence head’s up, “While having fun and taking some adventurous artistic license to tell this story, the filmmakers strived to remain true to the values and essence of the greatest story ever told.”

That’s a good way to describe this film, which is not nearly close enough to The Bible to be considered an adaptation, or even earn a “based on” label. The Star is so “adventurous” in its liberties that it can only be said to have been “loosely inspired by” the nativity story. More

Review of DUCKTALES: WOO-OO! (DVD)

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Grade: B
2017, 21 min., Color
Children’s, Animation
Disney
Rated TV-G
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Trailer
Amazon link

It would be tempting to say that the 2017 reincarnation of the popular ‘80s animated TV series DuckTales pales by comparison, but that would be like trying to tell people who grew up with Roger Moore that Sean Connery is the better Bond.

A whole new generation is being introduced to the new DuckTales, and they have never seen the more traditionally animated ‘80s version. As a result, they also have no idea that the earlier TV series had more color and fuller animation, with characters rendered to reflect what viewers had seen in the last remnants of Disney comic books and voices that still matched what families saw on Disney’s Sunday television programs. Watching the new DuckTales, this new group of viewers has no idea that Donald Duck’s nephews—Huey, Dewey, and Louie—are drawn more with more rounded heads and barely formed beaks to distinguish them from Donald and his trillionaire uncle, Scrooge McDuck, or that their voices are more contemporary.

Just as they’re too young to know the difference, they’re also too young to think it matters. All they care about is if it’s fun to watch, and DuckTales: Woo-oo! is probably as good as any non-educational cartoons currently being produced for children.

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

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Grade: B-
2017, 101 min., Color
Animation
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.4:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B-/C+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Lego my Ninjago?

Maybe it’s the law of diminishing returns, or maybe the charm of seeing the Lego world come to life is starting to wear off. Whatever the case, though The Lego Ninjago Movie is entertaining enough, it really didn’t delight my son or me as much as The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017). It wasn’t as original, as sharp, or as sophisticated.

Maybe it’s because a large number of gags and verbal jokes seemed to be aimed at a high-school age audience—viewers who have outgrown Legos but whose fond memories of playing with them are still vivid and fresh—as well as those who still put Legos on their Christmas lists.

The Lego Batman Movie was far more successfully satirical in its takeoff on the Batman saga and movies, with a heck of a lot more sophisticated wink-wink jokes and more sight gags going on in the background—all of which added to its broader appeal.

Maybe The Lego Ninjago Movie ended up being something that mostly children and younger teens will appreciate because if riffs not on adult live-action films but on the Danish TV series Lego Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu and related Lego toys. Or maybe it’s because three talents (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan) new to directing animated features teamed up on this one, or that the story and screenplay were the result of a fairly large committee of 13 writers—often a red flag.

Even headliner Jackie Chan, who gives voice to Master Wu/Mr. Liu, doesn’t have the same crackling energy as he has had in previous films. But mostly I suspect the film isn’t as crisp and fresh as the first two because we’ve seen too many aspects of this plot before: the young teen (Dave Franco as Lloyd Garmadon) who is a social pariah because he’s the son of a villain—in this case, Lord Garmadon, who looks a bit like Zurg and regularly attacks the Lego city of Ninjago. At some point Garmadon starts to feel like Gargamel—just another cartoon nemesis for another group of cartoon people.

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Review of DESPICABLE ME 3 (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B
2017, 90 min., Color
Animation
Universal
Rated PG for action and rude humor
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Trailer
Amazon link

Although Readers at IMDB.com and the critics at Rotten Tomatoes thought otherwise, Despicable Me 3 is just as entertaining as the first sequel to Despicable Me (2010)—the animated feature from Universal that introduced us to the carrot-nosed Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a villain who was softened up by three orphaned girls.

By the third installment, Gru has gone straight and has been working for the Anti-Villain League with his partner/wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig). Because they failed to capture or eliminate Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a maligned child actor who, as a resentful adult, is driven to become the world’s biggest villain, Gru and Lucy find themselves kicked out of the League. But of course that doesn’t stop them from tangling with Bratt (aka Bad Boy Bod) again and somehow managing to save the day. That’s no spoiler: it’s what superheroes and crimefighters do.

How much you enjoy Despicable Me 3 may depend on how much you like Gru’s “minions”—those capsule-shaped little yellow guys in blue overalls that speak in their own gibberish language. This outing the minions aren’t integral to the plot and only seem deployed in several overly cute (and overly long) sequences designed to satisfy those who do love the little guys, and, of course, to keep those Minion toys and product tie-ins flying off the shelves. They mattered much more in the first two films. Here, they’re as gratuitous as nudity in a teen slasher movie. Also marginalized this film are the three orphaned girls that Gru adopted in the first film, so if you thought Mr. Despicable’s interaction with those girls a strength, you’ll be disappointed to find them underused in Despicable Me 3.

Dominating this entry are Gru’s interactions with the villain and a twin brother he never knew he had until recently. Carell also gives voice to Dru, the seemingly perfect (and fabulously wealthy and successful) twin from whom he was separated at birth. Reminiscent of the 1988 comedy Twins, in which the genetically perfect Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, the twin made from DNA leftovers, discover each other, Despicable Me 3 features one twin who is predominantly evil and the other predominantly good. The complication, we learn, is that the successful twin was as much of a disappointment to the villainous-at-heart father who raised him as Gru was to his goody-goody mother. How the brothers learn to cope with who they are and how they were raised, and how they learn to deal with their “Other” gets the lion’s share of narrative attention. And frankly, the twin brother angle probably rescues the third installment from a familiarity that can make sequels seem tedious.

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