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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?

Matthew McConaughey gives voice to Buster Moon, a dreamer who thought he’d be much bigger in the theatrical world than he is. Put it this way: he’s no Ziegfeld. To save his theater he decides to mount a production that is guaranteed to pack the seats: a singing competition, to which all the friends and relatives of the entrants will come. Yep. It’s basically an extended animated animal version of The Voice or America’s Got Talent.

Failure hangs on Buster like a cheap suit, so he coaxes his friend Eddie (John C. Reilly), a sheep who isn’t afraid of going against the flock, to ask his retired legendary singing grandmother, Nana Noodleman (Jennifer Saunders), to sponsor the competition. She won’t do that, but she agrees to see a preview of the show. As in Nativity! disasters threaten to cancel the show, but hey, the show must go on, and it does.

A sequence that emulates a fast-moving drone camera introduces us to the contestants and prepares us for a narrative that will shift from character to character. Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is this film’s Miss Piggy, a housewife who has a brood of 25 piglets and a dream of making it in music; Johnny (Taron Egerton) is a gorilla whose criminal dad wants him to follow in his footsteps instead of pursuing a career in entertainment; Ash (Scarlett Johansson), is a porcupine rocker who splits with her boyfriend in order to prove she can do it on her own; Gunter (Nick Kroll) is a German piggy who seems trapped in the age of disco; Mike (Seth MacFarlane) is an old-school crooner of a mouse who plays guitar on the street for spare change; and Meena (Tori Kelly) is an extremely shy elephant who has more stage fright than talent, and her talent is considerable.

All of the characters are fun, but the scene-stealer is Buster’s elderly lizard assistant, Miss Crawly (“Has anyone seen my glass eye?”), voiced by the film’s writer-director, Garth Jennings. Miss Crawly’s eye plays a big role too, as it’s responsible for adding a few zeroes to the amount of prize money advertised on fliers—the main complicating factor in this otherwise thinly plotted film that’s really all about the performances.

Sing features snippets and extended renditions of 65 different songs, some of them performed by the actors, and the rest of the soundtracks covering a wide range of styles and talents, including Maino, Cat Stevens, Dave Brubeck, Crystal Stilts, Dennis de Laat, Ennio Morricone, Boomish, Carly Rae Jepsen, Major Lazer, Cyndi Lauper, Kanye West, Luciano Pavarotti, David Bowie & Queen, Katy Perry, Spencer Davis, Drake, Gipsy Kings, Wham!, Stevie Wonder, and Ariana Grande. The music is one reason this film works; animation is the other.

For decades Disney has been the absolute best at creating a world, but Illumination pays just as much attention to background details and small jokes and gets it right. They bring to life a world that gives pleasure just to look at it and to appreciate those details. If this were live-action, I think it would be a yawner. Even Glee had more plotting. But the animation sells it and makes it entertaining for all ages, despite the tired premise. And for children, the message is as hopeful as The Voice: if they can pursue their dreams, so can we!

Language: “fart” and “hell” are uttered, but that’s it
Sex: Except for a reference on “cheating,” nothing here
Violence: A building is demolished but there are no casualties; other than that, porcupine quills shoot people accidentally
Adult situations: Johnny is involved in robberies, his father is imprisoned, and Mike is pursued by bear gangsters
Takeaway: Time for Disney to blaze new trails, because Illumination Entertainment and other studios are starting to catch up

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.

Disney animators have a history of making subtle references to other House of Mouse films, but they do so more conspicuously in Moana. At one point, shape-shifting Maui goes through a series of animal transformations, and darned if one of them isn’t the reindeer Sven from Frozen. In another sequence, when Moana protests, “I am not a princess,” Maui deadpans, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” If you watch the end credits you’ll also see the giant scavenger crab Tamatoa saying, “If my name was Sebastian and I had a cool Jamaican accent, you’d totally help me.”

When you can allude to yourself you know you’re part of America’s cultural fabric. But the plot of this adventure will also remind indie film lovers of Whale Rider, the 2002 live-action story of a young Maori girl who takes to the sea to fulfill her destiny to become her people’s leader. Though being called by the Ocean to return a sacred relic isn’t exactly commonplace, young viewers—heck, all viewers—can certainly identify with a sense of purpose and the determination to accomplish a goal. Moana doesn’t leave home because she’s spiteful or rebellious. She does it for the greater good, and that kind of altruism is getting harder and harder to find.

Clements and Musker are Baby Boomers who grew up watching classic mythical adventures like Jason and the Argonauts, and Moana has that kind of feel. When Maui and Moana have to sail past the lava demon Te Kä they were obviously inspired by the scene in which Jason had to navigate past the Colossus of Rhodes—only they kicked it up about a hundred notches to make it much more exciting. But like Huck and Jim rafting down the Mississippi in Twain’s classic adventure, it’s what Moana and Maui learn interacting with each other during the journey that’s also a big part of the story.

Though the Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Opetaia Foa’i music helps elevate the film, the songs aren’t as singable and music takes a backseat to the visuals. It’s the first time that directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid) went with all-CGI animation, and the results are spectacular, with water taken to new heights and CGI animated figures looking less like 3D claymation models and more like 2D figures with incredible depth. I didn’t think it possible, but in terms of looks, Moana finds a comfortable middle ground between traditional animation and 3D CGI animation. It’s a style of animation that’s really engaging, with a story that features Disney’s strongest female hero to date.

Language: Nothing objectionable
Sex: n/a
Violence: One battle with coconut warriors and the big battle with the lava monster, who is so frightening your little ones may need to be hugged throughout the sequence–but no more frightening than the Maleficent dragon scene in the animated Sleeping Beauty
Adult situations: There is peril throughout in this journey, but comic relief courtesy of a stowaway chicken that provides plenty of LOL moments
Takeaway: Moana is a film that even boys will like, and a hero that proves, once and hopefully for all, that girls can succeed on their own.

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.

The naive little woodenhead ditches Jiminy and meets a fast-talking fox named Honest John and his cat-companion Gideon, who get him to join Stromboli’s puppet show. Virtually sold into servitude, Pinocchio is locked up and yet still doesn’t learn his lesson. Sold again by Honest John, he later goes with other boys to Pleasure Island, where delinquents can do any undisciplined thing they want—including vandalizing, drinking beer, gambling, smoking cigars, and playing pinocchioscreen2billiards, all of which Pinocchio does with a ne’er-do-well named Lampwick. The Pleasure Island sequence was originally much tamer, with junk food being the only real vice. Disney pushed his animators to up the ante, and while that sequence is perhaps the most memorable, the consequence of hellraising is still a pretty obvious lesson in morality. It’s almost a relief when the moralizing is put on pause after Pinocchio learns his father had set out to find him but was swallowed by a whale named Monstro, and we get the film’s big action sequence.

Remember, though, that because full-length feature animation was still new, Disney was pulling out all the stops to try to top what he had done in Snow White. Geppetto’s workshop is a wonderland of moving clocks, and a long sequence showcases what animators were able to do. Same with the underwater scenes, where all sorts of colorful corals and anemones are impressively rendered. Some of the animation—like the hot coals from the hearth—still seems rudimentary, but for the most part Pinocchio is Golden Age Disney at it’s best. It’s still a good choice for family movie night, but a word to the wise: don’t feel compelled to talk about the Pleasure Island sequence with your children so they don’t get the “wrong idea” about bad behavior. The moralizing will be painfully clear to them.

Pinocchio was first released on two-disc Blu-ray in 2009, but that release is long out of print. This new Walt Disney Signature Collection includes a Digital HD copy of the film—the first time that’s available to the public—as well as a very well done new feature on the Pleasure Island sequence in which we hear Disney’s own voice talking about the storyboard.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: The whale sequence can be briefly frightening for very young children, especially given a moment when we think one of the characters has died
Adult situations: Just the peril of the whale sequence and the Pleasure Island debauchery
Takeaways: We remember one song from this movie, but the others—“Little Wooden Head,” “Give a Little Whistle,” “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee,” and “I’ve Got No Strings”—are also quite good, and some of the animation is really ahead of its time

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.

Part of the problem is intended audience. While Disney aims for the child in everyone and with The Secret Life of Pets Universal set their sights on animal lovers and pet owners, Storks couldn’t seem to decide whether it’s a retro takeoff on American culture geared for a wink-wink audience in the know, or a silly-but-sweet story of the flapping-arms variety that’s typically for children. It seems mostly aimed at children, but do today’s youngsters even know about the clichéd euphemistic explanation of how babies come into the world?

storksscreenWe’re told that storks used to deliver babies from their base at Stork Mountain until the CEO of the operation, Hunter (Grammer), decided it was more profitable to deliver packages instead and discontinued the baby line. But one infant remained behind—kind of like Buddy in Elf—and Tulip (Katie Crown) grew up with the storks and now tries her darnedest to please. Inexplicably, a young boy in the human world finds an old brochure from Cornerstone baby delivery service and places an order . . . and in a fuzzy sequence Tulip and Junior discover a shut-down baby factory on the Cornerstone property that is somehow activated by the order that she had dropped into a chute. If you can accept any of that, what follows is an episodic account of how Tulip and Junior (Samberg), who as top delivery stork has the same swagger as Sully in Monsters, Inc., try to deliver that baby.

Thrown into the plot hamper is a side story about Junior being asked to fire Tulip because of her antics and inventions, and a subsequent need to board her flying machine because of his broken wing. Yet it all feels pretty standard except for a pack of wolves that, like nanobots, can transform themselves into such things as a suspension bridge and a submarine. That’s the most inventive aspect of the film, compared to an army of hostile penguins and a baby-making machine that runs out of control, all of which seem a little far-fetched and yet familiar. After that it gets even muddier and crazier—more uneven, too. The jokes seem less labored than in the early going, but the laughs are still too far apart. Meanwhile, it’s hard to shake an obnoxious little green bird who has a little too much gravel in his craw and keeps shouting. And Tulip, whose manic delivery and mannerisms might remind you of the younger sister in Frozen, often seems out-of-place in this labored animated comedy. It’s a kids’ movie trying to pass as family fun with the inclusion of a few caustic elements, when what would really make it suitable for the whole family was a more solid and inventive premise and plot.

Ultimately, this is a film that tries too hard. It seems forced, especially in the first half. That said, you should know that the public has been kinder to Storks than critics. Metacritic scored it a 5.6 out of 10, while more than 12,500 readers at the Internet Movie Database collectively rated it a 7 out of 10.

Language: Other than an out-of-place “suck it,” there’s nothing offensive at all
Sex: Again, nothing here
Violence: Wolves threaten and there’s also Three Stooges-style cartoon violence where a penguin uses a fork as a weapon
Adult situations: Nothing . . . unless the film prompts your kids to ask questions about where babies come from
Takeaway: Young family members will enjoy this more than the ones actually old enough to know where babies come from

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS (Blu-ray combo)

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secretlifeofpetscoverGrade: B/B+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 87 min., Color
Universal
Rated PG for action and some rude humor
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Atmos Dolby TrueHD
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

What is the highest grossing original animated film NOT produced by Pixar or Disney?

The Secret Life of Pets, which played theaters in 3D and grossed $872 million worldwide. The 2016 Illumination/Universal film offers offers a fun take on that age-old question pet owners ponder: What does the family cat, dog, or other pet do all day while the family is away at work or school? The opening sequences are so spot-on that every pet owner will smile in recognition, and the animation brings it all to life in fun fashion.

secretlifeofpetsscreen1But then someone at a storyboard session must have said, “Wait, we can’t just show a day of contained cuteness. We have to up the ante,” and that’s when a concept as original as Disney’s Inside Out quickly lapses into shrill familiarity. I don’t blame directors Yarrow Cheney and Chris Renaud for trying to add a dramatic plot element, because even the most easily charmed pet-lovers would start to wonder Is this it? if those opening sequences were to continue much longer. But I could have done without crazed former pets commandeering a bus or taxi (we don’t know how) and driving them (we still don’t know how) crazily across New York City, or an animal onslaught on the human world that’s about as over-the-top as it gets (more on that later).

Still, The Secret Life of Pets has a lot going for it, starting with the gorgeous animation and brightly colored backdrops of New York. It stars Louis C.K. as the voice of Max, a Jack Russell Terrier whose bond with his owner is threatened when she brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a huge, clumsy canine version of Sesame Street’s hairy Muppet, Snuffleupagus. Just when you think that faux sibling rivalry or secretlifeofpetsscreen3displacement anxiety will be the main driving force behind a so-far gentle plot, a dog-walker takes the apartment pooches to the park and gets distracted. Trying to ditch each other, Duke and Max venture off on their own, encounter a huge gang of alley cats, and are caught by animal control. But when a bulldog in that same wagon is “busted out” by a gang of abandoned former pets living in the sewers (apparently it’s not just alligators down there), that’s when it gets more crazy and less inspired. That’s when younger viewers will cheer and laugh and older ones may wish they had toned it down a bit.

We’ve seen a subterranean sewer world already in Flushed Away, but animators have made great strides since then and the water sequences especially are impressive in this film. The sewer characters, not so much. It’s more than a little jarring to have a tough-talking rabbit named Snowball lead the Flushed Pets gang that lives underground, and even more of a head-snapper when you consider that a giant snake (which eats rodents and rabbits) be under his command. Kevin Hart is his old manic self as the voice of the bunny, but his shrill craziness is met pound-for-pound by Jenny Slate, who gives voice to Gidget, a fluffy white Pomeranian who has a crush on Max and is determined to save him. Those two characters and a rooftop pet hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) are so familiar that it’s almost a relief to encounter Pops (Dana Carvey), an old basset hound whose gimpy hind legs are supported by wheels that help him to get around.

secretlifeofpetsscreen2Above ground there are enough characters here for everyone to have their favorites, whether it’s a fat cat named Chloe (Lake Bell), a dachshund that reminds you of a slinky (Hannibal Buress), a teeny-tiny parakeet named Sweetpea (Tara Strong), a perpetually lost guinea pig named Norman (Chris Renaud), a Chihuahua named Peanut (Brian T. Delaney), or Mel (Bobby Moynihan), the pug who’s so hyper that he keeps knocking things over.

Take away the over-the-top sequences and you’d probably have a tamer feature that wouldn’t engage the children as much; add them and the adults roll their eyes. But at least the adults can appreciate the superbly animated action sequences, along with those pet-owner touchstones. That makes it a satisfying movie for everyone and a good choice for family movie night, with plenty of replay potential.

If you have 3D capability, go for it, but know that there’s still plenty of pop and wow-factor in the standard 2D Blu-ray too, especially with a robust Atmos Dolby TrueHD rocking the house.

FINDING DORY (Blu-ray combo)

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findingdorycoverGrade: A
Entire family: Yes
2016, 97 min., Color
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Who says 13 is unlucky? Thirteen years after Pixar created Finding Nemo they struck underwater gold again with Finding Dory, a gorgeously animated sequel that flips the original premise and tosses in an endearing octopus for good measure.

In Finding Nemo it was the gimpy-flippered clownfish son of Marlin (Albert Brooks) who strayed into the open ocean and was captured by an Australian dentist-slash-aquarist, while a blue tang named Dory helped Marlin try to find and rescue Nemo (voiced in the original by Alexander Gould and in the sequel by Hayden Rolence).

Ellen DeGeneres was so hilarious and spontaneous as Dory, a fish with short-term memory loss, it’s no surprise Pixar decided to turn the spotlight on her. This time Dory’s the star, and she has just enough memory flashes to where she realizes she had parents and thinks she knows where those parents might be. Impulsively, she sets out to find them, and though it’s crazy for her and other reef fish like Marlin and Nemo to travel across the open ocean to California, what else can friends do but go with her to help and try to keep her from getting into too much trouble? The title is a pun, since Dory not only literally gets lost along the way, but has been lost, figuratively speaking, since she was separated from her parents. Will she find herself by finding her family? Every Disney-Pixar fan is betting on it!

findingdoryscreen1Along the way, Disney and Pixar do what they do way better than anyone else. They offer characters with such expressiveness that you fall in love with each and every one of them, and they create and animate an underwater world so lavish that your jaw drops with every new scene. Finding Dory is easily as good as Finding Nemo. If it doesn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, I’ll be shocked. This sequel was such an instant hit with audiences that it became only the second Pixar film to top $1 billion worldwide (Toy Story 3 was the first), and critics loved it so much that they gave it a 94 percent “fresh” rating at Rottentomatoes.com.

If Disney-Pixar decided to spotlight the most endearing supporting character in the first sequel, then you can bet that if the future holds another sequel it
will star Hank, a seven-legged octopus that is an expert in camouflage and Houdini-like escapes. Grouchily voiced by Ed O’Neill (Modern Family), Hank is another reversal of the original premise in that he wants to go to an aquarium in Cleveland rather than be rereleased into the ocean after he’s findingdoryscreen2rehabilitated at California’s Marine Life Institute (a fictionalized version of the Monterrey Bay Aquarium and various rescue centers). Dory is a strong character, but Hank tends to steal every scene he’s in. That said, young fish enthusiasts will delight in seeing how the Disney-Pixar crew has rendered such sea creatures as kelp bass, chicken fish, ocean sunfish, porcupine fish, damselfish, cleaner shrimp, and groupers, and a particularly hilarious scene involves a fish-eye view of a hands-on touch tank. There’s a lot here to spark wonder and delight.

Every member of our family chimed that they’d give it an A, because, honestly, there isn’t a scene that needs work or a concept that wasn’t sufficiently milked for laughs or another emotion.

If your family has a 3D set-up you should go for the 3D version, but this Blu-ray also has plenty of visual pop. In either case, a bonus feature tells how octopus Hank was the most technically challenging character that Pixar has ever animated, and you can see it. As he climbs his body conforms to his surroundings, and it’s the most accomplished bit of animation I’ve seen. In terms of settings, the kelp “forest” is pretty impressive, though children will no doubt be as seduced by the colorful coral reefs as they were with the undersea sequences in The Little Mermaid. It may be a cliché or overstatement to say so, but in this case it seems appropriate: Finding Dory is an instant classic.

Language: n/a
Sex: n/a
Violence: Nothing, really, though there are plenty of instances of peril
Adult situations: Finding Nemo and now Finding Dory are probably this younger generation’s Bambi, with traumatizing moments involving separation from a parent
Takeaway: Disney-Pixar is still the champ

KUNG FU PANDA 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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KungFuPanda3coverGrade: B-/C+
Entire family: Yes
2016, 95 min., Color
DreamWorks/20th Century Fox
Rated PG for martial arts action and some rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C+/B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

The Blu-ray box proclaims that Kung Fu Panda 3 is “Certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 6.8/10 and 126 critics giving it a “fresh” rating, while 20 pronounced it “rotten.”

Fresh, rotten. With this film it’s splitting hairs.

Tomatometer critics gave Kung Fu Panda 2 an average rating of 6.9, and the original Kung Fu Panda earned an average rating of 7.2. I thought both were better than that, but while I enjoyed and found myself instantly invested in them, that wasn’t the case with the third. In the early going I was squirming like a three year old, wondering when #3 was finally going to find it’s footing and engage the audience. That’s a shame, considering all the high-powered voice talents in this animated sequel— among them, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Wayne Knight.

The opening sequence is all action and no context, and the first 29 minutes are a narrative mish-mash. Only after Kung Fu Panda master Po (voiced by Jack Black) gets a surprise visit from his biological father (Bryan Cranston) does the film finally find its trajectory so you can finally KungFuPanda3screen1start to care. Apparently discovering in previous films that he’s the Dragon Warrior isn’t enough. In this animated adventure Po still has an identity crisis when Master Shifu (Hoffman) tells him there’s more to identity that Kung Fu. He has to learn who is IS. So when his real dad shows up and tells him he will teach him the secrets if he’ll return with him to the hidden village of the pandas (which Po thought were all dead), Master Shifu agrees, and Po’s adoptive duck father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), reluctantly consents.

The new bull villain is almost Marvelesque, but the villains in the first two movies made more sense. In Kung Fu Panda (2008), a former pupil of turtle Master Oogway who chose the dark side had escaped from prison and the powerful leopard was intent on taking his revenge out on the entire Valley of Peace. In Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), a prequel, an evil peacock named Lord Shen tried to exterminate the panda population in order to negate a prophecy that a panda warrior would be his undoing. Later Po and the Furious Five Kung Fu Masters set out to stop Lord Shen from unleashing a powerful weapon that would make him the new ruler of China.

KungFuPanda3screen2Both of those scenarios were more instantly understandable than what we’re given in the third installment. Kai is an old friend of Master Oogway, and together they apparently healed the secret village of pandas after it was attacked by Lord Shen. The pandas, in return, taught the two how to use Qi. Oogway apparently defeated Kai and banished him to the spirit realm, where, confusingly, a deceased Oogway also floats around among unanchored mountains and Monument Valley formations. Meanwhile, Kai escapes from the spirit world and, using Qi, defeats the Kung Fu masters one by one and obtains their essences, their Qi, which he hangs from his belt like shrunken heads that he then can unleash like super zombies of sorts to do his bidding.

Then we get a little Magnificent Seven as Po and his father and his stowaway adoptive father reach the secret valley and learn that Kai is headed there. In really short order—not much longer than the span of a montage—Po starts to teach the panda peasants how to be Kung Fu masters, and the great defense battle is on. How much you like Kung Fu Panda 3 will depend on how much you’re willing to overlook those first 29 minutes and just watch the film and not think too much about questions and explanations.

Typically it’s adults who want more logic and character development rather than simply colorful action, cutesy characters, and physical humor. As a result, though the first two Kung Fu Panda movies were bona fide family movie night options for the everyone, this one may appeal mostly to the kids, unless you just sit back and enjoy the animation and Blu-ray quality, which is superb. The Rotten Tomatoes critics gave Kung Fu Panda 3 a 6.8, which is just below B range. It’s a B-/C+ on the Family Home Theater scale, and whether you flip that or not, it’s still the weakest entry in the trilogy.

Language: n/a
Sex: Nothing except for an androgynous panda who may be a transvestite
Violence: Everybody was Kung Fu fighting
Adult situations: n/a
Takeaway: Funny how we have idioms to cover everything: third time’s the charm or three strikes and you’re out; after this third film, I’m just not seeing where this franchise could possibly go

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