Archive for the Family Category

Muppets Most Wanted

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Crime, Family with tags on March 18, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Muppets Most Wanted photo starrating-3stars.jpgHistory repeats itself. Much in the same way that The Muppets (2011) was a reboot of The Muppet Movie (1979) so too does Muppets Most Wanted (2014) follow in the burglar footsteps of The Great Muppet Caper (1981). The Muppets burst out singing in their opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel.“ In a nod that acknowledges a regrettable reality, they sing “And everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good.” I wish I could say the lyrics were just a lighthearted bit of self-depreciation but the acknowledgement is sadly prescient.

In this go-around the gang are led astray by a slick manager named Dominic Badguy. That’s pronounced “Bad-JEE” he says. “It’s French.“ That’s a well written line. He convinces the Muppets to take their act on a worldwide international tour. Kermit’s better judgment warns that renting out the largest theater in Berlin for their opening-night performance is probably not a smart idea. But strangely he turns out to be wrong and the show sells out. Dominic‘s increasingly outlandish ideas and ‘say yes to everything’ attitude secures favor in the group. As he gains their confidence, he secretly replaces Kermit with Constantine, the World’s Most Dangerous Frog. Save for a mole on his upper lip Constantine is a dead ringer for Kermit in appearance. His personality on the other hand, is quite different. Constantine and Dominic work together as a team although the evil frog’s song “I’m Number One” clearly delineates their relationship. Meanwhile Kermit is correspondingly mistook for the master criminal and thrown into a Russian Gulag.

Most of the ingredients are here to have another success. Director James Bobin is back as director. He also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller who returns as well. Bret McKenzie is doing the music again. The songs stand on their own, but are less essential to the narrative this time around. They’re often shoe-horned into a scene forcing the action to take an abrupt stop rather than truly adding to the mood.  Jemaine Clement, the other half of McKenzie’s comedic Flight of the Conchords duo, plays one of Kermit’s fellow inmates at the prison. Despite all the returning talent, this doesn’t have the sincerity or integrity of the previous entry. I have to wonder if the missing ingredient is Jason Segel. His presence is nowhere to be found.  He not only co-wrote The Muppets but he added a human element as an actor that gave the story a genuine warmth. I’ve already mentioned Ricky Gervais as the central villain. He‘s entertaining. Ty Burrell is an Inspector Clouseau type paired up with Sam the Eagle who plays his American counterpart at the CIA. The two are investigating a string of bank robberies. He is very amusing as French Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon. But Tina Fey is wasted as Nadya, a Russian prison guard that has the hots for Kermit. That’s a shame because her part is a sizeable chunk of the movie. Unfortunately she is given little to do other than affect an exaggerated accent and mug for the camera. It’s a poorly written role. None of her scenes are funny. Oh alright maybe one.

Muppets Most Wanted is a respectable entry. It’s impossible not to enjoy the return of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, et al. These characters are enduring personalities for a reason. It’s really a pleasure seeing the old gang reunited in anything at this point. The Muppets was a heartwarming confection. It mixed in a lot of sweetness amongst the self knowing cynical jokes to make it one of the best releases of 2011. It made my Top 10 of that year in fact. Muppets Most Wanted, in contrast, is a collection of scattershot humor that never quite gels into a cohesive whole. It has positive qualities, but much of the story is just a setup for gags. The story doesn’t really add up. Case in point: Dominic Badguy’s master plan, actually costs an insane amount of money to make it work. It also takes the entire film for Kermit’s lifelong friends (with the exception of Animal) to even notice his personality shift.  The fact is a little hard to swallow.  Constantine speaks with a bizarre Russian accent to boot so he doesn’t even sound like Kermit. I’m nitpicking. These issues are unimportant if the laughs are there. There are some sprinkled throughout but they are mild chuckles rather than actual knee-slappers. The picture’s funniest parts, like the “my badge is bigger than yours” bit, were shown in the trailer. The best production number hints at what could have been. When Miss Piggy turns to singer Celine Dion in a moment of crisis, the vocal pairing of the two divas is hilarious. As the two duet on “Something So Right”, the production hits a high note of lunacy that is truly inspired.

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 Princess Bride

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Family, Romance with tags on January 15, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Princess Bride photo starrating-5stars.jpgCinemark theaters’ Classic Series has become an easy way for people to see older films on the big screen. I recently watched 1987’s The Princess Bride. Rob Reiner’s glorious comedy adventure is a delightful tribute to vintage fairy tales of old. Almost 30 years later and the picture has lost none of its luster.

The production captures lightning in a bottle with each actor arguably giving the most memorable performance of their film careers. Mandy Patinkin deserves a lot of credit for his noble Spaniard out to avenge the death of his father. His famous oath: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” is the stuff of movie legend. Wallace Shawn is particularly funny as a delusional criminal genius. Joining the two is André the Giant perfectly cast as, what else, their giant friend Fezzik. The three of them form a wandering outlaw trio with camaraderie to spare. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright perfectly embody the quintessential romantic duo. Billy Crystal and Carol Kane are amusing as a forest dwelling troll doctor and his wife. “Have fun stormin’ da castle.”  Even Peter Falk as Grandpa who narrates and Fred Savage as his grandson provide a wonderful framing device through which the story is told. In this way, developments are halted at opportune times where jokes can be inserted for comic effect.

What makes The Princess Bride so enjoyable is Rob Reiner’s ability to send-up traditional fables without descending into acerbity. Novelist and screenwriter William Goldman brilliantly adapts his own 1973 novel of the same name. It gently pokes fun at the sentimentality of fairy tales while still genuinely capitalizing on their innocence. There’s a modern sensibility but it never threatens to contaminate the sincerity of the proceedings. Mandy Patinkin’s declaration is the most well known, but iconic dialogue abounds. “Inconceivable!” The Cliffs of Insanity, the Pit of Despair, the Fire Swamp where the Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.) dwell – each location highlights another hilarious set piece. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer, you’ll thrill to every recognizable line and action spectacle. Its one lone Oscar nomination for Best Original Song is a complete headscratcher today. Although it wasn’t a huge hit in its day ($61.9 million in today’s dollars), the film has since gone on to achieve classic status. I’ll choose long term longevity to instant gratification any day. “As you wish.”

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.

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.

The Croods

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 22, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Croods photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Croods are a family of Neanderthal cavemen. One day they are forced to leave the protective confines of their shelter when it’s destroyed.  Following an earthquake,  a falling stone is disrupted cleaving their cave in half. Now exposed out in the open they must contend with a strange unfamiliar world and its many inhabitants including a young nomadic cave boy.

Despite an opportunity to delve into some early primordial history given the ancient setting, the gags and attitudes are decidedly modern. The voice cast have conversations that would not be out of place for a family living in 2013. Father Grug (Nicolas Cage) and daughter Eep (Emma Stone) have district personalities, but the rest of the clan are nonentities. Grug hates his mother-in-law. Never saw that in a comedy. Even Guy, a Homo sapien, is like some teen dream out of a soap opera. Eep, the eldest daughter, is one of those stereotypical teens that butts heads with her overprotective father. She yearns to venture out and see the world. Get with the times, Dad! Or instead, why don’t you just, ya know, evolve! Indeed the tone of the script is that she is correct and that father Grug is reactionary and staid in his views. What the screenplay fails to acknowledge is that it’s those very ideals of his that have kept his family alive all these years while everyone else of their kind has been killed.

I couldn’t help but feel the moral of this comedy was a bit misguided. Surely it is ill-advised to encourage children to disregard their parent’s safety warnings, but that’s precisely this saga’s point of view. Your father is smothering you! Talk to strangers! Play in the street! I’m sure the script meant to inspire an adventurous spirit. Don’t be timid! Try new things! Seize the day! But that’s probably not what a 5 year old will understand. Especially when the father is a complete buffoon – an object of derision as he is consistently shown up by the more progressive and intelligent Guy. Ah but have no fear, parents. As expected, the father predictably redeems himself in the end. The Croods is acceptable. The animation is colorful, although the family is mildly grotesque. They are Neanderthals after all. There are some nice slapstick sequences that are enjoyable. There’s a variety of creatures that are nicely animated including a swarm of carnivorous birds that take only seconds to devour their prey, Guy’s pet sloth Belt is a really cute little creation given to singing “Da-da-daaaaaaaa!“ whenever he wants to stress impending doom. It’s funny every time he says it. Belt got the biggest laughs in the theater. While the jokes amuse, the story is primitive. The Croods is safe fun family entertainment with no surprises. It was pleasant. I guess for some that may be enough.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on March 10, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Oz the Great and Powerful photo starrating-3stars.jpgOscar Diggs, a magician/con man, leaves Kansas in a hot air balloon, gets sucked into a cyclone and winds up in the Land of Oz. Here he encounters various personalities, including Evanora who promises all the wealth of the king if he kills the Wicked Witch by destroying her wand, the source of her power. This sends our fearless hero on an odyssey where he meets a couple of characters who join him. The action is all well and good, but the plot merely apes the events of the Victor Fleming version with less inspired results.

L. Frank Baum’s introductory novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is also the basis for this unofficial prequel. However the 1939 landmark film feels more like the real inspiration than that book. Director Sam Raimi was legally prohibited from replicating certain elements (i.e. ruby slippers) but he clearly references the 1939 classic with deferential respect. Raimi goes from black and white to color to highlight the transition to Oz and simulates the same environment in many scenes incorporating Munchkinland, the yellow brick road, and The Emerald City. The Winkie guards, flying monkeys and The Scarecrow are also among the many allusions. These are welcome touches, but the duplicated story is where the similarities become more problematic.

Ultimately Oz The Great and Powerful suffers in comparison. The human people here lack that same mythic sense of wonder. When Mila Kunis as Theodora first arrives, her modern ensemble appears like she time traveled back from 2013. Her floppy wide brimmed hat looks like something J.Lo would wear. Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good Witch is pretty but bland. She lacks the otherworldly charm (and distinctive voice) that Billie Burke had when she played the part. Rachel Weisz fares better as Evanora but only because we never really knew her in The Wizard of Oz. As Oscar the con man, James Franco relies on the actor’s insincere demeanor to play the role.  His trademark smirk is more than adequate, but less than enchanting. He certainly disappointed me in one scene. There’s a moment where Munchkins start to sing and dance in a lively musical number that got my feet a-tapping. Just as it was hitting its stride, Oscar puts his hand up and tells them to stop.

Oz the Great and Powerful has its moments. Visually it is a delight. The set design is first class with color and special effects combining in attractive displays. The film was shot in 3D, but I hardly think it demands to be seen in that format. It doesn’t contribute much to the already impressive spectacle. The frame is packed with gorgeous visuals that incorporate magical plants and bizarre creatures. A little porcelain China doll is a fragile creature that walks and talks with a cracked, reflective body. These demonstrations incite our fascination. The ending is particularly engaging too. The wizard’s impressive appearance to the people recalls his physical manifestation in the classic work. Oscar’s resourcefulness genuinely gets our emotions. Too bad you must wait to the end to see it. We’re constantly reminded with hints of the infinitely superior original. For most the production, the script simply isn’t unique enough. The narrative rings hollow although the smoke and mirrors just might be enough to entertain.

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