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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

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

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