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Review of POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation-Live Action-Adventure
Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos TrueHD
Bonus features: B
Trailer
Amazon link

My son was into Pokémon when he was younger; my daughter, not at all. From talking with other parents that seems to be fairly common. There are video games and collectors’ cards that can be used to play games and battles and powers and all manner of things that my son could rattle off as if it were all quite elementary. He told me it was like chess: as complicated or as simple as you wanted to make it.

Detective Pikachu, the first live-action film based on the Pokémon franchise, seems to have been made to work on multiple levels as well. There are allusions and references to Pokémon powers and battles that those unfamiliar with the Pokémon universe will choose to ignore, while others will have their heads spinning with recognition. On it’s simplest level, Pokémon are creatures with various powers, and those creatures are pursued by humans that call each other “Pokémon trainers,” because they then battle their Pokémon against those of other trainers for sport.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) gave up Pokémon training after his mother died and his father remained absent in his life. Instead, the 21 year old joined the work world. One day he’s told that his father, a detective, was apparently killed in a car crash, and Tim travels to Ryme City—a utopian city where Pokémon and humans live in harmony and equality—in order to meet with the police officer in charge and collect his father’s personal effects. More

Review of WILD KRATTS CREEPY CREATURES! (DVD)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: No (ages 3-8)
2011, 2015, 75 min. (2 episodes), Color
Not Rated (would be TV-G)
PBS
Aspect ratio: 16×9
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: D
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s not exactly family movie night material, but episodes of Wild Kratts—a half-animated, half-live nature show featuring the brothers who gave us Zoboomafoo—will entertain and inform children ages 3-8.

Chris and Martin Kratt’s series, which airs on PBS KIDS GO, is a hybrid that combines the brothers’ nature show activities with a cartoon segment that feels like a cross between The Magic School Bus and a Disney animated series like Kim Possible or Phineas and Ferb.

Each episode of Wild Kratts: Wildest Animal Adventures begins with the real-life brothers in the wild, pointing out an animal with a curious trait—say, for example, the Basilisk lizard that can walk and run on water—and then the brothers morph into cartoon versions of themselves in order to explore the animal’s “powers” and, with the help of a suit that looks a little like a cousin to Iron Man’s, acquire that animal power. It all happens within the animated framework of a story that often involves saving a particular animal from human encroachment, a world problem, or even a Disney-style villain. Though the characters seem unnecessary, there’s also a crew at the computer center in Tortuga helping the brothers once they’ve transformed or are on their way in various animal-shaped vehicles to get a better look. It’s clearly a way to include children of both genders in the show, but they really feel like window dressing, and some children will prefer more nature footage to the Tortuga gang “interruptions.”

The brothers say they got into animation because it gave them a chance to feed their (and children’s) imaginations and project what it might be like to have the ability to fly, swim, leap, see at night, or any of the other animal “superpowers.” And it is kind of fun. Again, I’m not sure that the show needed villains—especially ones that remind you of standard cartoon bad guys—but obviously the brothers thought that it might be yet another “hook” to get kids less innately fascinated by nature into the show. My son would have loved this show if it were around when he was younger, but as a nature guy he would have preferred more live footage than the intro-outro we get for each episode. More

Review of MISSING LINK (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+/A-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 94 min., Color
Animation
Laika / 20th Century Fox
Rated PG for action peril and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

In announcing Missing Link at Cannes in 2018, the Laika animation CEO crowed, “Missing Link is an artistic and technical wonder. Led by our visionary director Chris Butler, Laika has once again blended fine art, craftsmanship, and cutting-edge technology to achieve something we’ve never tried before: a raucous comedy entwined with a swashbuckling epic, underscoring the universal need to find belonging.”

And for a change, it wasn’t just typical Hollywood hype. Missing Link is both visually stunning and richly imagined, and the quirky plot is powered by a blend of physical humor that children will appreciate, as well as allusions and verbal gags that are meant for the adults. But it’s also warm-hearted, with some positive messages embedded in the story. In other words, this a perfect choice for family home movie night—if, that is, your family likes stop-motion animation and the distinctively rendered characters, some of which have harsh angular or pointy features.

I’ll confess to not being a fan of stop-motion animation (often called “Claymation”), but the Laika group has created a film that’s as fluid looking as traditional animation. Producer Arianne Sutner (Kubo and the Two Strings) said in the 2018 announcement that they “created 110 sets with 65 unique locations to achieve the film’s scale, majesty, and geographic beauty.” And again, I couldn’t have described it better. The film includes their inventive takes on Victorian England, the American Old West, Old World Spain, the Tibetan Himalayas, and incredible variations of the natural world that lie in between. Missing Link is one of those films that just leaves you smiling or awestruck every time there’s a set change.

And that’s just the art design and animation. The plot itself may sound far-fetched, but you’re almost immediately sucked into the premise and the film quickly feels like a Crosby-Hope-Lamour road picture adventure, with flashback similarities to the animated Road to El Dorado, and Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Up. It’s a classic pursuit tale where the pursuers are also being pursued.  More

Review of UGLYDOLLS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: C+/B-
Entire family: Yes (but older kids will be bored)
2019, 88 min., Color
Animation
STX / Universal
Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

UglyDolls only received a 4.6 out of 10 rating at the Internet Movie Database and didn’t even merit a notice at Rotten Tomatoes, it was apparently that rotten. But come on, people. There’s a difference between family films (ones aimed at adults that children can also enjoy) and films that are just for kids. Ugly Dolls is the latter, and you can’t fault them for not trying to be something they’re not. Which, coincidentally, is one of this animated film’s themes.

Critics have complained that it’s one long commercial for the Hasbro UglyDolls, with a new line of movie-related characters added to those that debuted in 2001. But so many films have product placement these days that it’s almost an unfair charge. It seems more appropriate to talk about the film’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strength #1: The Themes
Yes, there are other movies that are better at celebrating individuality and people with imperfections, but it’s hard to find fault with an animated film about a bunch of plush toys who, instead of being sent along the assembly line to their eventual “homes” in the world with children, get chuted down to Uglyville, a subterranean city full of misfit toys. And one of those rejects, Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson), celebrates how great Uglyville is but still dreams of one day leaving for an even better world she believes exists, a world where toys become beloved companions and possessions of children. Love who you are: You’re not ugly, you’re distinctive, is one of the film’s big themes, and one that children can’t hear too much these days when everyone it seems is calling names or finding fault. Cooperation, teamwork, loyalty, and inclusion are other obvious themes as Moxy’s friends accompany her up the chute to explore that other world.  More

Review of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2019, 104 min., Color
Animation
DreamWorks/Universal
Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Trailer
Amazon link

How to Train Your Dragon is that rare animated trilogy that critics and audiences have pronounced consistently entertaining. The first installment, released in 2010, garnered a 99 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes with 91 percent of the general public applauding. But the second and third installments weren’t far off, with 92/91 percent critic ratings and 89/87 popular scores. The only surprise for fans, really, was that it took three years longer for the trilogy “capper” to be released.

But there’s a simple explanation for that: DreamWorks, an independent animation studio whose titles were first self-distributed, then released through Paramount Pictures and later 20th Century Fox, was acquired by Comcast/NBC Universal. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was the first Universal release of a DreamWorks title, and presumably that positions the How to Train Your Dragon franchise to become a “world” at Universal theme parks.

The action takes place a year after the end of the second film, when Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) was made leader of his people. Hiccup and his patched-up dragon, Toothless, have continued their dragon rescue operation, but by bringing them back to their dragon-friendly island of Berk they have also created an overpopulation problem. The solution? Hiccup recalls a “hidden world” for dragons that his deceased father had told him about, so when an all-out confrontation with the dragon-trapping Grimmel the Grisly and his warlords leaves their village in shambles, Hiccup and the rest set out to find that dragon utopia. More

Review of THE ROAD TO EL DORADO (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Entire family: Yes
2000, 89 min., Color
Animation adventure-comedy
DreamWorks
Rated PG for mild thematic material and language
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

It’s hard to believe that it took almost 19 years for The Road to El Dorado to be released on Blu-ray, because it’s one of the best non-Disney animated films made during that period. With original songs by Elton John and solid direction from Bibo Bergeron (Shark Tale) and Don Paul (visual effects supervisor on Disney’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Pocohontas), it’s a sure-footed adventure comedy that sure should have made more money at the box office than it did.

Kids will be taken in by the colors, the music, the action, and the humor, yet there’s enough here that will go over their heads and straight to the adults who are familiar with the classic Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour “road” pictures. The Road to El Dorado is as wonderful a homage to those classic comedies as Ishtar (with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as the adventurers) was an insult.

Set in 1519 Spain, The Road to El Dorado begins as many of the old road pictures did: showing the two men (in this case, Kevin Kline as Tulio and Kenneth Branagh as Miguel) doing what they do best, and that’s trying to work a con but narrowly escaping an angry mob. If the banter and the guarded closeness isn’t a tip-off that we’ve entered Hope and Crosby land, then the gambit they use (a pretend fight, ending with both of them punching out the man who’s threatening them) ought to jog a few memories.

After they’re caught cheating at dice and end up hiding in barrels that get hoisted into the cargo hold of Cortes’ ship, they escape in a rowboat with a little help from Cortes’ horse, Altivo. Armed with a treasure map that they “won” in the dice game, they realize that they’ve landed at the starting point leading to El Dorado, the fabled city of gold that Cortes also seeks. More

Review of SMALLFOOT (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: B
Entire family: Yes
2018, 96 min., Color
Animation
Warner Bros.
Rated PG for some action, rude humor, and thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

You’d think that with Expedition Everest in play, Disney would have been the ones to create a movie about Yetis. But this 2018 animated feature comes from Warner Bros.

Smallfoot may have been inspired by the children’s book Yeti Tracks, by Sergio Pablos—creator of the Despicable Me stories—but writer-director Karey Kirkpatrick also owes a debt to the original Planet of the Apes movie.

Just as the leaders of the ape society preached that men were dumb animals that had not evolved yet, hiding the truth that man had been a highly advanced creature that had destroyed their society and were a threat to ape existence, the Stonekeeper of a Yeti village high above the clouds in the Himalayas preaches that humans (or “smallfeet”) are legendary, not factual creatures. All of the Yeti laws are written on small stone tablets that are worn by the Stonekeeper, who hides the fact that humans, thinking the Yetis monsters, had tried to kill and destroy them, driving them high up in the mountains where they found refuge. And the cloud layer that hides the top of the mountain where the Yetis live? It’s generated by a giant machine that is Yeti-powered, allowing the Stonekeeper to preach that there is nothing underneath those clouds.

Ignorance is bliss and curiosity is the enemy, the Stonekeeper of this religion-based society maintains—all in a patriarchal effort to protect the Yetis from the outside world. His own daughter, though, cannot stifle her curiosity, and Meechee (Zendaya) starts the secretive Smallfoot Evidentiary Society.

Smallfoot’s message will sail right over the heads of young viewers, who will be swept away by the music and visuals. There are some pretty catchy tunes here, and this Blu-ray comes with a “Yeti Set Go Sing-Along” way to watch the film. Musically, Smallfoot gets an A-, and it’s pretty hard to find fault with the animation as well. It’s when we get into the concept and story that a few negatives seep in. Then again, your age will determine whether you see those as negatives or positives. More

Review of PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION: VOL. 3 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2012-18, 76 min. (13 shorts), Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 to 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: C (introductions, mostly)
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Although many of the Pixar short films appear as bonus features on various Disney-Pixar releases, it’s still nice to have them all on one disc, and the Pixar Short Films Collection: Volume 3 is as varied and high quality as the previous volumes.

There’s a nice blend, too, of high-profile shorts that are related to Disney-Pixar films and more distinctive (and quirky/artsy) personal projects that were labors of love for the directors and animators. Of the 13 short films, seven are connected to fan-favorite films.

From the Toy Story films there’s “Partysaurus Rex,” a fun, thumping disco bath story where (T-)Rex goes from party pooper to a partysaurus who helps bath toys get their groove on. It’s an upbeat frolic that fans of the Toy Story films especially will enjoy.

From Inside Out there’s a sequel of sorts where Riley is a teenager and we see “Riley’s First Date” from the inside-out emotional control rooms of her trying-to-be-cool mother, her scowling and disapproving father, and even the young man who dares to date their daughter. A twist ending provides a nice payoff. More

Review of INCREDIBLES 2 (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-/B+
Entire family: Yes
2018, 118 min., Color
Animation
Disney-Pixar
Rated PG for action sequences and some brief mild language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code
Trailer
Amazon link

Our family was split over Incredibles 2—but it was more like splitting hairs. My wife and children thought it was every bit as good as the The Incredibles (2004), if not better; I thought it was almost as good. Curiously, that split matched the numbers at Rotten Tomatoes, where critics rated the original 97 percent “fresh” and the sequel 94 percent “fresh”; audiences, meanwhile, gave the original a 75 percent “fresh” rating and the sequel an 87 percent “fresh” rating.

As I said, curious, isn’t it? Could it be because critics place more weight on originality?

Whatever the reason, the big takeaway here is that if you liked The Incredibles you won’t be disappointed by the sequel.

In the original film, “Supers” had been sued so much for collateral damage caused by their heroics that the government developed a Superhero Relocation Program to set them up with mundane new lives and identities. But Bob (aka Mr. Incredible) gets an anonymous tip about an invasive robot, and he secretly breaks the rules by battling it on a remote island. That exhilarates him, but when he goes to a superhero costumer to get his suit, the costumer makes suits for the whole family. As the plot unfolds, his wife Helen (Elastigirl) gets in on the action and they eventually battle the villain Syndrome—a former fan Mr. Incredible had refused to make his sidekick. More

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. More

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