Archive for the Animation Category

The Boxtrolls

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on September 28, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Boxtrolls photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgOregon-based Laika Animated Studios is best known for the films Coraline and ParaNorman. Each one is an impressive feature that blends an engaging story with stop-motion artistry. Quite simply, they’re extraordinary works of entertainment. In fact, both were such successes they each made my Top 10 in the respective years they came out. Given that, The Boxtrolls was among my most eagerly anticipated releases of the year. It goes without saying that my expectations were very high. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to report that Laika’s latest offering is a crushing disappointment.

The Boxtrolls are a community of odd creatures that dwell underneath the cobblestone streets of Victorian era Cheesebridge. Legend has vilified them as evil bandits that prey on the town’s most precious resources: their cheeses and their children. The two things are not necessarily listed in order of importance. The Boxtrolls are a curious sort. They wear recycled cardboard boxes the way turtles inhabit their shells and have names designated by the cover of their box. Fish, Wheels, Bucket and Shoe are some examples. I’d be hard pressed to discern the personality of one from another. Their nonsensical babble-speak begs comparison to the Minions from Despicable Me. The Boxtrolls are a sharp contrast from those similar though much more successful critters. I mean those delightful little rapscallions are getting their own movie. One would think these oddballs were meant to be endearing given they inspired the title of this movie. However the Boxtrolls have been relegated to the sidelines in favor of two other human characters.

Laika’s latest is based on Alan Snow’s 2005 book “Here Be Monsters!” but the real protagonists of the film are two human children. Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is a boy that, was given to the Boxtrolls to raise. He’s later discovered by Winnie (Elle Fanning), an overbearing young girl that becomes Eggs’ first friend from up above. Apparently she is there to berate him that he’s a human boy and not a troll at all. Ok, you’re technically correct, but seriously, could you please just shut up?  She’s such a killjoy. Their shenanigans didn’t amuse or interest me in the slightest. On the baddie side we have Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) as the main antagonist. He’s also got three henchman Mr. Trout, Mr. Pickles and Mr. Gristle voiced by Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade and Tracy Morgan. They provide what little humor there is. Mr. Snatcher is out to exterminate every last Boxtroll so that he can become a member of the White Hats, an elite club of cheese aficionados that serve as Cheesebridge’s city council. Yes, he’s essentially advocating genocide with his bizarre Steampunk fashioned metal contraption. Heavy stuff that feels out of place. It’s important to infuse the macabre with some emotion. This doesn’t. Side note: his allergic skin reaction to his beloved cheese is pretty disgusting.

It pains me to say this, but The Boxtrolls is a charmless, tedious bore. The picture attempts to be something that it is not, an American attempt at British humor. Aardman Studios, excels at this. Remember Chicken Run? Of course you do because it was enjoyable fun. The Boxtrolls in contrast has a meandering plot largely devoid of laughs. It’s hampered by stock characters that fail to enchant. The story and the personalities are thoroughly uninvolving. Sadly generic to the core. Despite all that, the technique is gorgeous. Visually the production is a WOW. The beautifully rendered world with remarkable attention to detail, does captivate the senses. It’s easy to forget this is not computer assisted. These puppets have been painstakingly moved one frame at a time. Although the movement is so seamless, I can’t help but question whether some trickery is being employed. Regardless, it looks stunning. The hand drawn closing credits sequence which encapsulates the entire tale, is beautiful too. It’s even accompanied by a lovely cover version of the Pete Seeger hit “Little Boxes” by Portland band Loch Lomond. Additionally a brief post-credits scene highlights the painstaking process of stop motion animation. I suggest sticking around to enjoy it. It’s the most fascinating display in the whole film.

09-25-14

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

How to Train Your Dragon 2 photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA lot has changed in the 5 years since the Viking village of Berk made peace with the dragons. Thanks to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), he proved they could be our allies.  With all due respect to dogs, the reptiles have become man’s best friend in every way.  No longer feared, dragons are a part of everyday life. This includes the dizzying sport of dragon racing which opens the picture. Combatants compete atop dragons by scooping sheep and throwing them into nets. However our teen protagonist, the awkward yet sensitive Hiccup, is nowhere to be found. His father Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), wants his son to succeed him as chief of Berk. Hiccup is avoiding the issue. Instead he is hanging with “Toothless”, his Night Fury dragon. He and his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), come across a group of dragon trappers. They are in the service of a crazed madman out to conquer the world.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is that most rarest of sequels, one that not only feels like a necessary extension of the original but then improves upon it. Indeed the script admirably propels the story forward in a meaningful way. This is the legend of a Viking hero‘s progression from boy into manhood. Should I forgo the obligatory paragraph about how gorgeous the artwork is? That should be expected these days, right? We are spoiled in this area like never before. Yet even with my lofty expectations, there are still spectacles where I audibly gasped. Stunning exhibitions show off the breathtaking array of different dragon species out there. Like butterflies they swarm in displays too dazzling to describe. And I won’t even mention the impressive new Bewilderbeast, the biggest of all the dragons. A gargantuan spiky dragon with two big mammoth-like tusks – truly a sight to behold. Ok so I brought him up anyway. I couldn’t resist.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 represents a remarkable leap in narrative complexity. This is an epic that details the self discovery and personal revelations of an individual. Hiccup must contend with various personalities that enrich his own experience and ours. Figures that include Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou), a tyrannical leader that cannot be reasoned with or conversely, a more generous, nature-respecting type like Valka (Cate Blanchett). There is even a touching reunion that reconciles two people that have been apart for 20 years. But above all is the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless. They develop an understanding to which most live action films can only aspire. This is a sequel that has the audacity to just relax and take a breath. The saga frequently allows silence to convey a depth that most other cartoons cannot. Their colorful animations and jokey asides are no substitute for the sophistication presented here. Interestingly it’s the action sequences that open and close this production that are the least interesting parts. That misstep aside, please do note that the chronicle has the courage to trust in the power of emotion. This is a tale with so much heart it hurts. How could anyone hate something that elevates such goodness? I imagine there will be people that don’t like How to Train Your Dragon 2. I pray for their soul.

06-12-14

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 12, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Mr. Peabody & Sherman photo starrating-2stars.jpgIn both spirit and style, the feature film Mr. Peabody & Sherman bears little resemblance to the 5 minute cartoons on which it’s based. The brief segments called Peabody’s Improbable History, first aired during The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show in the 1960s. The rudimentary shorts were characterized by primitive artwork and hilarious puns. The writing was snarky and sarcastic. DreamWorks Animation has kept the same basic set-up, but not the tone. Mr. Peabody is a talking dog – athlete, inventor, scientist, and all around super-brain. He has a adopted a 7 year boy named Sherman as his son. The two time-travel back in time meeting famous figures of ancient times. There are a lot, but among those getting significant screen time are Marie Antoinette, Maximilien de Robespierre, King Tut, King Agamemnon, and Leonardo da Vinci. There’s also a subplot concerning an antagonistic school counselor named Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney) who doesn’t think a dog is a fitting guardian for a boy. These are welcome additions but the cast is populated with unwelcome personalities too. Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) is a female classmate of Sherman’s that acts as a bully turned friend. She’s thoroughly annoying and completely unnecessary.

What sets Mr. Peabody and Sherman apart is the anarchistic sense of humor, sexual innuendos only an adult would get, and some mild potty humor. And no, those distinctions are not an improvement.  A Trojan horse appears to be pooping when Greek soldiers exit its rear. “Well Sherman, it looks like we were the butt of that joke” says Mr. Peabody when they shoot out of the back end of the sphinx. Even Bill Clinton pops up to sheepishly admit “I did worse” referencing activities best not even alluded to in a children’s cartoon.  The script has regrettably jettisoned the sophisticated wit of the source material. That’s a shame because this could’ve been an irreverent but educational romp through history. The rather lowbrow take seen here is only tepidly amusing in parts. I suspect a child will respond more favorably to the colorful animation and poop jokes. As I sat watching the seemingly endless credits, I marveled at the sheer number of people involved to create such a derivative product. It’s visually pretty. I enjoyed the look of the action, but story wise it’s an uninspired trip thorough the past.  This has been done much more successfully before. The climax in particularly is obviously lifted by writers raised on 80s comedies. I liked Mr. Peabody & Sherman…………when it was called Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

The Lego Movie

Posted in Action, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on February 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Lego Movie photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLow expectations totally help The Lego Movie. We’ve seen other examples of films based on a specific brand name toy before with mixed results.  At least Transformers and G.I. Joe were box office successes if not critical ones, while Battleship was a failure by anyone’s measure. It’s hard not to be cynical at the title and greet this animated film as nothing more than a feature length commercial. While the production will undoubtedly sell a boatload of Lego, it’s surprising that there is a lot of creativity behind the marketing. The Lego Movie works on a meta level. We’re watching an advertisement for toys that warns us about a nefarious corporation that tries to sell us products: these include the TV show Where Are My Pants?, the ubiquitous hit song, “Everything is Awesome“, and designer coffee for $37.

The evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) wants to unleash the Kragle (a tube of Krazy Glue with some letters missing). It’s a superweapon that will leave the many various Lego worlds immobilized in perfect constructed harmony forever. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is completely average in every way. Nothing special. He helps build skyscrapers for the Octan Corporation. He’s one of the faceless Lego denizens at the construction site. One day after everyone has gone home, he accidentally stumbles into a pit and a red relic – “the Piece of Resistance” becomes fused to his back. Wyldstyle a tough fighter chick, and Vitruvius a blind wizard, now believe him to be the “Special” – the one the prophecy foretold would be sent to stop Lord Business.

The story is pure formula. Yes the plot admittedly bears more than a passing resemblance to The Matrix. However that implies The Matrix was an exclusively original concept.  It wasn’t. These ordinary heroes thrust in extraordinary circumstances have been an archetype dating back to ancient myths. Even side characters suggest earlier works. Lord Business’ lieutenant, the split personality Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), is reminiscent of the Mayor of Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Where the saga takes off is the utter senselessness of it all. Lego owns the rights to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, DC superheroes, so each of these figures can and do pop up. Some making only a very brief appearance.  The action moves at a speedy clip through different lands rarely stopping to take a breath. The Old West, Middle Zealand, Cloud Cuckoo Land are represented.  It combines these disparate inspirations and solidifies them into an entertaining amalgamation. It’s mostly computer animated, although the animation is purposefully done in a herky jerky style to resemble the way Lego bricks actually move. There are rapid fire bullets, frantic chases, and flying machines – all rendered in a kaleidoscopic spectacle bursting with colors. Sometimes it’s so chaotic it verges on distracting, but it’s impressive as well. I loved seeing Lego bricks forming puffs of smoke as they’re billowing out of a train stack or an explosion rendered as a series of colorful bricks.

This is pretty manic stuff.  For better or worse, the narrative is all over the place. Writers-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) are the minds behind all this lunacy. They manipulate the conventions of children’s entertainment and turn them right on their ear. They imbue the proceedings with a subversive bent. The importance of a coherent story is ridiculed. The prophecy of wizard Vitruvius (brilliantly voiced by Morgan Freeman) is not taken from some venerable sacred text. It’s something he just makes up on the spot. Emmet zones out when listening to Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) give exposition and all he (and the audience) hears is, “blah blah blah proper name place name back-story stuff.“ Wyldstyle desperately wants to be the “Special”. And why not? She’s infinitely more qualified because she is creative and brilliant, unlike Emmet who just follows the rules. The hero is in fact a zero. But believe in yourself and you can achieve anything, right?  The message is superficially cloying but there is a twist.  Without revealing anything important, the underlying recommendation is to NOT follow instructions. The “good guys encourage the workers to rise up against Lord Business. Imagination is a powerful thing. Freedom is better than conformity. However the script’s greatest inspiration lies in its ability to explicitly decry business while indirectly celebrating it. This is after all, an advertisement for Lego toys, right?

The Wind Rises

Posted in Animation, Drama, Foreign with tags on December 11, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Wind Rises photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgYoung Jiro fantasizes about being a pilot. But the boy’s nearsightedness makes that impossible. Instead he joins a major Japanese engineering company in 1927 and starts designing airplanes to satiate his desires. The Wind Rises is a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the Mitsubishi A5M and its famous successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Both fighter planes were used by Japan during World War II. When Jiro is focused on designing aircraft and pursuing his dreams, the movie is an uplifting portrait of a man with a purpose. Jiro is motivated by his idol, Italian aviation pioneer Giovanni Caproni who appears to him in hallucinations. These anecdotes help flesh out a character that remains somewhat enigmatic. The narrative later finds our protagonist consumed by his devotion for Naoko, the woman who would become his wife. Their relationship is less captivating. What starts as a fascinating chronicle of a visionary sort of falters in its gooey love story of a romance affected by the onset of tuberculosis. There are still many beautiful images that highlight this graceful presentation of flight.

Hayao Miyazaki has announced that this is his final film. The 72 year old director is a legend in the world of Japanese animation. He was largely unknown in the West until Princess Mononoke was released in 1999. Then came Spirited Away which won the Academy Award for Best Animated feature of 2002. Both were breathtaking fantasies filled with magic and mystical creatures. This is Miyazaki’s first to be inspired by an actual figure. Intertwined into the plot are historical events leading up to Japan’s entry into WWII. The Wind Rises is not dependent on supernatural elements like Hayao Miyazaki’s other works. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of gorgeous visuals. A simple sequence of Jiro contemplating the path of a paper plane as it takes to the sky is hypnotic. The spectacle of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is a stunning feat of both sight and sound. Throughout it all, Jiro remains the picture of a pacifist. History buffs might pause at the placid portrayal of the guy responsible for the very machines that kamikaze fighters would use to kill people. Although never really addressed, the depiction implies that his nonviolent passions were exploited by the military.

The Wind Rises is a fitting swan song for legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki. With its slow pace and developing love story, the drama almost comes across like a live action film. Despite some lighthearted vignettes, the tone is decidedly serious. In that respect, the production is not aimed at children. Its deliberate pace and extreme length do tend to tax viewers who are not already devotees of anime. However there is a lot to recommend about The Wind Rises. Its poetic style and luminous imagery are beyond compare. Additionally the careful attention to an authentic time and place makes this unique amongst the stridently hip, modern anachronisms found in most cartoons of today. I appreciated its history of real events like the Great Depression and the rise of fascism woven into a rosy reflection of an innovator captivated by airplanes and flight. It’s all gorgeously hand drawn in the anime style so fans of Studio Ghibli will most definitely be in heaven. The imaginative production is clearly the lovingly crafted work of a talented director driven by passion.

Frozen

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 28, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Frozen photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe 53rd animated film in the Walt Disney canon is a musical adventure celebrating the bond of sisterhood. The idyllic childhood of two princesses is disrupted when one little girl accidentally freezes her younger sister with her powers. Anna is cured, but Elsa subsequently isolates herself so as not to endanger her sibling again. After their parents are tragically killed at sea the elder Elsa becomes queen. On her coronation day, a disagreement between her sister causes Elsa to inadvertedly trap the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. She flees amidst accusations of sorcery. Anna sets out to find her sister the Snow Queen and seal the rift between them. Frozen has been molded very much in the same girl power attitude that has been a characteristic of every Disney princess since Beauty and the Beast in 1991. Both are feisty independent women that don’t need to rely on a man, thank you very much. This time the final resolution manages to tweak the formula in a way that gently affirms the importance of family.

Frozen has been promoted as based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen. They both share a snowbound location and have a queen, but the plot has a lot more in common with the storyline of the smash musical Wicked. The tale of two sisters, one incorrectly labeled as a monster when she’s simply just misunderstood, parallel each other. The voice cast even features the star of that production, Idina Menzel. That’s appropriate since Frozen has been fashioned as an old school musical. Menzel is Elsa, former princess now Snow Queen. Anna, the younger sister and also a princess is portrayed by another theater alum Kristen Bell (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Rounding out the primary cast are Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, and Josh Gad. Broadway stars all. Frozen’s transition from animated movie to the inevitable stage should be a smooth one.

Frozen is an enjoyable production. The picture favorably compares to recent hits like Tangled. The musical is highlighted by a few really good songs. “Let It Go” in particular is a first rate ditty that I was still singing as I left the theater. The anthem about looking forward to the future, is one of their best songs in years. The music is composed by the husband-and-wife songwriting team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. The latter of whom collaborated on the music & lyrics for Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. And while the complete score doesn’t approach the apex of composer Alan Menken in his prime, there are some standout tunes: “For the First Time in Forever”, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “Love is an Open Door” are among them.

As usual an anachronistic mentality plagues a Disney movie. It’s never clear why a tale set in 1845 in a Nordic setting, is beset with teen protagonists that talk like they’re from the San Fernando Valley. The pair of women parrot vocal inflections like they just stepped out of a rom com. In contrast, side characters like The Duke of Weselton and Wandering Oaken, the owner of a Trading Post (and Sauna), speak with accents germane to their respective origin. The physical details of the princesses is a bit of a snooze. Pretty, tall and slender with huge doe eyes, they sport virtually identical facial features down to their freckles. The main difference? Anna has red hair and Elsa has white hair. Once again, a supporting sidekick is the most memorable personality. Olaf the Snowman steals the show. His buck toothed expressions are amusing and provide the laughs, although his goofy shtick feels like it belongs in a completely different story. There are a group of Trolls that are entertaining as well.

Frozen is a visually spectacular tribute to sisterhood for the entire family. It’s a solid addition to their recent cannon. Granted Disney’s tendency to favor a modern sensibility pales to depicting the actual time period. The studio’s quest to subvert the traditional princess has been their ongoing mission for the last 20+ years so the way they tweak “formula” is nothing new. Its contemporary take on princesses is very much a product of our times. Idiomatic twenty-first century argot taints the proceedings. There are genuine moments of inspiration, however. One has Elsa, the Snow Queen building her snow castle using her own supernatural abilities. The sequence highlights the movie’s signature song “Let It Go” a soaring declaration that says goodbye to the past, rejoicing that she no longer has to hide her gift. With arms outstretched, Elsa builds an ice staircase as she simultaneously ascends up to the sky, Snow flurries abound. She stomps the ground and a fractal image of a snowflake grows from under the foot. Then she raises her hands and a glittering shiny ice castle of frozen spires appears from all around her. It’s a positively gorgeous spectacle, among the best of the year, and a joyous reminder of the heights to which music and images can combine in a Disney film. Not since Superman & his Fortress of Solitude has a home been made so beautifully in ice.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on September 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 photo starrating-3stars.jpgCloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a bright, enthusiastic follow-up to its predecessor. Like the first, the story is aimed mainly at pre-teens. Vibrant visuals and broad humor is the recipe. There’s an inanity that corrupts the proceedings. Nevertheless the production is so cheerfully goofy that after awhile it manages to still entertain.

Part 2 picks up right where the last picture ended. You might remember Flint Lockwood’s invention capable of converting water into food. Once it became self aware and evil, the invention was destroyed. But it miraculously survived. Known as the FLDSMDFR, it persevered on the mostly evacuated island of Swallow Falls where it continued to make more mutated food. It must be stopped again! They do a quick recap so it’s not necessary to have seen that movie. It does aid in appreciating the humans in the movie though.

Cloudy doesn’t bother with exposition for its large cast. The people in Flint’s life return: his girlfriend, his widowed father, Brent McHale, Officer Earl Devereaux, Manny, etc. The script depends on the fact that you’re already familiar with these people. Remember them? They’re back, is the understanding. No need to explain who they are or what makes them tick. Chester V (Will Forte) is one of the few new characters that is explained. He‘s a super-inventor and head of Live Corp. Overseeing the cleanup of the island, Chester has invited Flint to help . Chester is a most peculiar fellow, a tall skinny man with a round lightbulb shaped torso in an orange vest. He talks with calm reassurances of “Namaste” while moving his arms about like a voguing mime. He’s kind of hypnotic when he talks and I found him to be a welcome addition: equal parts disturbing and hilarious.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 isn’t the most original tale or even the funniest, but it is pleasant. The narrative ramps up the frivolity by extending the capabilities of the FLDSMDFR. It now creates bizarre living breathing food-animal hybrids or Foodimals. They’re the best thing about the story. Creatures called Hippotato, Shrimpanzee, Mosquitoast, and Tacodile Supreme are a pure delight. Their existence on the island is presented very much in the same vein as Jurassic Park. Strawberries have achieved an even more sentient personality. They speak in an affected baby talk like, well really like a little army of minions. The entertainment relies on the imaginative hybrid of Foodimals and not on an involving story. That’s not a problem in a silly cartoon, but that’s all this is, a silly cartoon. The lack of foundation keeps this from attaining the emotional depth of a Pixar film. It’s nonsensical fun, nothing more, and that’s okay.

Despicable Me 2

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Crime, Superhero with tags on July 3, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Despicable Me 2 photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgWhen we last saw Felonious Gru, former super-villain, he had adopted three adorable orphan girls: Margo, Edith, and Agnes. They’ve formed their own surrogate family as he’s settled into a life of blissful domesticity. However when a secret laboratory somewhere near the Arctic Circle, is lifted and taken by a large flying magnet, The Anti-Villain League (AVL) calls Gru out of retirement so he may help solve the case by thinking like a criminal. This is the basic outline of the tale, but Despicable Me 2 is a much more relaxed affair than its predecessor. The storytelling isn’t centered on advancing plot, but rather focused completely on earning laughs. It’s almost Zen-like in its approach to humor.

The voice actors give the cast vigor pushing this from the enjoyable to the revelatory. There’s a zippy exaggeration to their actions that make their performances even funnier. Steve Carell is once again, compelling as the lead. When Gru walks down the street with the confidence of a man in love, the musical interlude is as triumphant as John Travolta’s famous strut in Saturday Night Fever. Kristen Wiig is back, but this time as Lucy Wilde, an AVL agent. The actress’ real expressions and body movements can be seen in the animation. Every raised eyebrow, awkward statement, and nervous gesture is there. Watching her behave is an absolute delight. Her development from adversary to ally is bewitching. It’s unusual that while she is competent, she’s not particularly beautiful, a rarity in a cartoon love interest. The complete manifestation of the character is captivating. The head of the AVL, Silas Sheepsbutt, oops I mean, Ramsbottom is played by Steve Coogan. (That was their joke, by the way) He speaks with an affected sophistication. Ken Jeong as a wig store proprietor and Benjamin Bratt as the owner of a Mexican restaurant, are possible suspects in Gru’s search. They’re amusing editions that highlight great voice casting coupled with wonderful animation.

Where sequels often lazily retread Part 1, Despicable Me 2 aims higher. Gru is now an entrepreneur with a new line of jams, tapped to aid in the capture of a mysterious evildoer. In his personal life he’s attempting to meet someone special. The story unfolds with the focus of a gentle stroll and the production is the better for it. The chronicle builds upon Gru’s character from the original as it explores the possibility of a girlfriend for him. There’s a familiarity, a knowing sarcasm with the pitfalls of the dating world that infuses Gru’s journey. This is especially true concerning Shannon, a gum-chewing blonde bimbo he goes on a date with. She favors unnaturally orange tans and leopard print dresses. You could say she comes across as a tad superficial. “Your accent is so exotic” she says in her Valley Girl patois. “I know someone who can fix that for you.“

For all of Despicable Me 2’s speedy 98 minutes, it never ceases to be anything less than a snappy joy. It is gag filled fun fest. We hear a rumor that a past villain died while riding a shark into a volcano with 250 pounds of TNT strapped to his chest. Then they proceed to show you what that might look like. The atmosphere is steeped in the manic lunacy of animator Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons of the 40s and 50s. This brings me to Gru’s minions which take on an even more pivotal role this time around. Their nonsensical language is exploited for maximum giggles. I can’t over-emphasize how wonderful they are here. There’s a zaniness that children will adore, but there’s also an edge that adults will appreciate.

Monsters University

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 23, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Monsters University photo starrating-4stars.jpg3 of the last 4 Pixar movies have been sequels. On the surface that sounds like a depressing trend. But delve deeper and we find that one of those was Toy Story 3, a stunning work of art that stands tall amongst the very best of that studio. The original effort on the other hand, Brave, was actually pretty mediocre. Maybe sequels aren’t so bad, or if you want to be truly technical in this case, a prequel. That positive progression is supported by Pixar’s latest offering.

Monster’s University is an engaging entry in the Pixar cannon. Naturally there’s an unavoidable “haven’t we seen this all before?” feeling. By definition an air of familiarity will creep in any sequel. But the dueling fraternities in college also have more than a passing resemblance to the basic outline of Revenge of the Nerds. It’s the preppies (Roar Omega Roar) vs. the underdogs (Oozma Kappa). We also have Greeks made up of Goth chicks, jocks, & pink ladies that are competing as well. All teams are vying to be the ultimate winner in the annual “Scare Games.” While the picture may not qualify as a classic, it’s a captivating story I thoroughly enjoyed. Screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, & Dan Scanlon have fashioned a well written tale full of heart and emotion around characters we know and love.

Mike and Sulley are back and it’s like they never left. They’re just as warm and charming as ever. They join the same fraternity and become teammates. Except their reasons are completely out of necessity and not because they are friends. You see they don’t really get along. That was unexpected. There are other little developments in the story that aren’t predictable either. The script keeps you guessing. It even dares to consider that certain truths cannot be denied or changed. Hard work will only take you so far. To give an example of my own, short people are going to have a disadvantage in the NBA no matter how vigorously they train. The screenplay acknowledges differences can be strengths, but does it a way that doesn’t feel preachy.

Monster’s University is a vivid delight. The animation beautifully exploits lavish color and texture possibilities in animating the myriad of creatures contained within. We get some new creations that are welcome additions to the ensemble. The actors put in extraordinary voice performances here. The most noteworthy includes Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble, the headmistress. She’s flawless in conveying a strict authoritarian that should not be crossed. Charlie Day as Art, a goofy purple Oozma Kappa member that looks like the letter U upside down, is rather memorable as well. There are many more. The entire cast gives soul to a script that doesn’t fall victim to clichés the way other non-Pixar movies do. There’s some subtle life lessons that are more nuanced than many live action films. You kind of assume a happy ending, but it’s not really the one you’d expect.

Epic

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 4, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Epic photo starrating-2stars.jpgI have officially reached my limit of dull computer animated films. There needs to be more than just pretty CGI to hold my attention. Epic is the latest from the “creative” minds at Blue Sky Studios who brought us Ice Age.  A questionable achievement, but a downright masterpiece when compared to this utterly nondescript piece. The plot concerns an ordinary-size teen girl who is magically shrunken down into a secret world when she grabs a hold of a magical leaf pod. She’s subsequently thrust into an ongoing environmental conflict amongst various forest creatures who struggle to see who can become the most forgettable. Sorry sarcasm.

An hour after watching Epic, it was already fading from memory. The cast is made up of famous actors that turn in vapid voice work in exchange for a paycheck. Colin Farrell and Beyoncé Knowles are major stars. They charm in real life, but their voices are so bland here. The leader of the Leaf-Men and Queen of the Forest should be captivating, but their personalities only cause drowsiness. Don’t drive or operate heavy machinery under the effects of this movie. Aziz Ansari and Chris O’Dowd are a slug and snail respectively, but they should’ve been listed as hackneyed sidekick characters #1 and #2. They’re the comic relief but I didn’t hear a single child laugh in my theater. I suppose the script is the actual culprit.

This generic tale of good vs. evil  has been done countless times with more innovation and appeal. The story is lackluster in the extreme. Couldn’t the screenwriters have tried a little harder to come up with something interesting? The best lesson they can come up with is: “Many leaves, one tree; we’re all individuals, but we’re still connected.” Zzzzzzzz. It’s a shame because what the film does have going for it is gorgeous computer graphics. The animators have done a beautiful job giving zest to a script that has none. Epic won’t entertain adults and will leave kids wanting more. Children know a quality adventure when they see one and this ain’t it. You cannot foist a subpar saga on them and expect a hit. Not surprisingly, out of 8 productions, this became Blue Sky’s worst performing feature by a wide margin. It didn’t even recoup its $100M production budget in the U.S. Epic is neither majestic nor grand. It’s about as far from the word’s connotation as you can get. The most glaringly mistitled movie since The LAST Exorcism Part II.

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