Archive for the Animation Category

Kubo and the Two Strings

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 24, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo kubo_and_the_two_strings_ver13_zpstii1y4fz.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgA new production from Laika Entertainment is something to celebrate. They’re the creators behind the Oscar-nominated features Coraline and ParaNorman, animated films I adored. Unlike rivals Pixar or Walt Disney, the studio specializes in stop-motion animation in which an actual object is physically manipulated one frame at a time to create a moving image. The advent of computer animation has currently replaced the once ubiquitous traditional hand-drawn approach. Their technique is a unique and specialized art. Characters have the look of moving puppets. When it’s done well, it’s transcendent. Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, is a welcome addition to Laika’s growing oeveure.

The animated tale takes place in ancient Japan. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy who lives with his single mother. She has taken ill. At night, when she becomes active, Kubo attends to and cares for her. By day, he journeys to the local village square where he plays his beloved shamisen, a Japanese three string guitar. His performances magically summon origami creatures to life as they act out the legend of his father, Hanzo, a great warrior who died while protecting him. Unfortunately shadowy figures from his past, Kubo’s witch-like aunts (both Rooney Mara), discover his whereabouts and he is separated from his mother (Charlize Theron). He is offered help from Monkey (also Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), a samurai with the appearance of a beetle-like man. Together they must find the three components of his father’s armor to use as protection from his evil grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

“If you must blink, do it now,” warns Kubo in the very first line of spoken dialogue. And indeed there is so much to appreciate visually. The spectacle positively dazzles the eye. Each acquisition in their quest is a marvel to witness. The extraction of The Sword Unbreakable from a humongous skeleton, The Armor Impenetrable, a breastplate, hidden below the sea in the Garden of Eyes, and the of the location of The Helmet Invulnerable revealed in a dream. That last revelation leads to the climatic showdown.

Kubo and the Two Strings has all the attributes of classic folklore – an account that has been passed down from one generation to the next. But don’t go looking for this fantasy in some sacred text. The original screenplay was written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, with a “Story By” credit for Shannon Tindle. Given the contemporary origins of the saga, I suppose I can forgive the Hollywood movie star voices in the place of actors that could have better conveyed the authenticity of feudal Japan. Despite the somewhat generic “hero’s journey” trappings of the adventure, the drama touches upon some weighty themes. You have to admire a cartoon that challenges younger viewers to consider the nature of humanity. Is death really the end of someone’s life when one is still held in the hearts of those that loved them?  Along the way, the chronicle never ceases to be anything less than captivating. The style is so crisp, colorful and vibrant, that it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the craft. This picture is simply a joy to behold.


Sausage Party

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on August 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sausage_party_zps9nxxlrpb.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgThe R-rated Sausage Party is an ugly computer animated film – a putrid, gross-out, lowbrow spoof of the kind of quality cartoon features that Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks usually put out. There are so many levels on which to trash Sausage Party. But I’ll start with the most basic. It’s supposed to be a comedy and it simply isn’t funny.

The setting is Shopwell’s, a grocery store where various fruits, vegetables and other assorted products await their time to be purchased. They sing about “The Great Beyond” a wonderful place where they ultimately end up once the “gods” (shoppers) select them. Can we start with the fact that the lyrics to this song are really hard to understand? I don’t know if it was the sound mix or just the singers’ failure to enunciate clearly, but most of the words were unintelligible. I got the gist of it though. “The Great Beyond” is a magnificent place where all food aspires to go. It’s kind of like the afterlife if you haven’t picked up on the not-so-subtle metaphor. The star is Frank (Seth Rogen) a wiener that wants to be paired up with his girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig), a hot dog bun.

Then one day a jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) is returned to Shopwell’s with news of his experience.  Once you leave the store, he says, the gods will eat you and your life is over. That’s it. Nothing more. “The Great Beyond” is a lie. After being chosen once again by a different shopper, Honey Mustard, attempts to leap off the cart. Frank tries to save him. This sets off a chain of events where several other products fall off the cart. Besides Frank and Brenda, there’s Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz), a flatbread, Sammy Bagel Jr.(Edward Norton), a bagel who does a Woody Allen impression circa 1973, and a Douche (Nick Kroll) who appropriately enough, acts like an obnoxious bro. The display of causalities is like a scene out of Saving Private Ryan.  It’s the sole amusing moment in the entire picture.

Sausage Party is a movie in which the filmmakers seemingly started out with a question, Wouldn’t it be amusing if cute animated characters dropped a lot of F-bombs?  Then proceeded to beat the idea into the ground. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s 2016. If this is your interpretation of pushing the boundaries of comedy, you haven’t watched a film in the past 50 years.  The joy of hearing the F word coming out of the mouths of cuddly figures is already pretty debatable.  For me, it lost its luster when I graduated from the 4th grade, but hey – to each his own. Great writers can make anything humorous, even a cartoon tangentially about atheism. Sausage party is co-written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and like all their works (Pineapple Express, The Interview, The Night Before), their drug-addled mentality is probably funnier if you’re already half baked. Me? I was stone cold sober and apparently so was the entire audience I saw this with. You could’ve heard a pin drop at any time throughout its running time. That is until the very end when a food orgy did elicit some guffaws from a few theater patrons.

This production presents the skimpy plot of an 8 minute short, not an 88-minute feature. The screenwriters toss in some jokes along the way – mostly ethnic stereotypes. Let’s see, a German tub of sauerkraut with a Hitler ‘stache wants to exterminate the “juice”. The lavash and the bagel are mortal enemies who bicker over their occupied territory in the grocery aisle. Craig Robinson plays a jive talking box of grits who’s got a problem with crackers. A lot of weak gags, but there’s little story.  Just a lot of bickering: “Things get better!” vs. “No they don’t!”  As short as it is, I was squirming in my seat for it to be over. If bad words still make you giggle, you’ll be in heaven with this script. If you want witty food-related puns, then go watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. There’s a better party than a sausage party ’cause this Sausage Party do stop.


The Secret Life Of Pets

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on July 9, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo secret_life_of_pets_ver2_zpsst2sqnzq.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Secret Life of Pets promises to show you what domesticated animals are really like when people aren’t around. In set-up, it’s a spiritual cousin to Toy Story. But here the mood is defined by a cursory depth and a far zanier mentality.  The narrative structure is loose and free-form. Pets seems inspired by the cartoons of the 1940s & 50s from Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Character development is minimized in exchange for the almighty gag. It’s a hodgepodge of routines but if you’re looking to laugh, it does the job.

The production is overflowing with a huge cadre of personalities, an odd assortment of mostly cats and dogs given life by celebrity voices. They’re an amusing variety of individuals. At first it’s unclear which animal will be the center of attention. There are so many. However we come to understand that Max (Louis C.K.) a Jack Russell Terrier, is the star. He’s a good natured doggie, but grows rather jealous when his owner (Ellie Kemper) adopts another pet in Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a big shaggy Newfoundland. The two dogs are soon thrust into an odyssey on the streets of New York. There they meet up with a cult that promotes “The Flushed Pets” movement. They want to overthrow the humans. Meanwhile Gidget (Jenny Slate), a Pomeranian, rounds up Max’s friends in an effort to find him. Pops (Dana Carvey) stands out as an elderly basset hound with paralyzed back legs. Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a menacing red-tailed hawk is an unexpected addition. There’s a tattooed pig (Michael Beattie), a parakeet (Tara Strong) and a guinea pig (Chris Renaud) as well. However none stand out as much as Snowball, a white rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart. His manic charisma stole every scene he was in. He is hilarious.

The Secret Life of Pets is largely a joy that beguiles almost as easily as it evaporates from the mind. That’s actually part of the script’s ephemeral appeal. The cartoon is brought to you by Illumination Entertainment, the highly successful film production company that brought you the Despicable Me movies. This flick wants to charm us with unfettered antics. There is a purity to that.  You’d have to have the cold heart of a grinch to not at least chuckle at some of the random absurdities. At one point a bizarre hallucination sequence in a sausage factory involves a Busby Berkeley number of dancing wieners clad in hula skirts. As their heads are bitten off, they gleefully sing “We Go Together” from Grease. The eclectic soundtrack also includes selections from artists as disparate as Taylor Swift, System of a Down, Queen, Nappy Roots, Ringworm, Beastie Boys, Bill Withers, Andrew W.K. and N-Trance with their the 1995 remake of “Stayin’ Alive”. Sadly, a compilation of all this diverse music has not been released but you can download the selections individually I suppose. Humor targets run the gamut from behavioral shenanigans to poop jokes. And yes there are one too many of the latter. The Secret Life of Pets is a chaotic tornado of random bits & characters. There is very little sense to this. At times, I struggled to discern the focus of the story. And yet it pops up every now and then when it needs to make an appearance or simply make us laugh. I was entertained.


Finding Dory

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on June 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo finding_dory_ver6_zpsvkailyui.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt’s been 13 years. How do you follow up Pixar’s highest grossing (when adjusting for inflation) film ever? Why you release a sequel that goes bigger.  Add more characters, more zaniness and even better animation, but don’t stray too far from what worked before. A tragic backstory that leads to a great adventure is nearly identical in nature. The dramatic beats are kind of samey too. Instead of a frightening encounter with a giant shark we get one with an enormous squid. It’s a bit of a rough watch in the beginning. I was worried. It does takes awhile for Finding Dory to find its footing and form a distinct identity from the original, but I’m happy to say it ultimately does. The story doesn’t take chances but rather goes for audience pleasing entertainment. It may be pure formula but hey it’s also pure fun.

You may remember (pun not intended) that Dory, the blue tang, is forgetful. She suffers from short term memory loss. In flashback, we see her as a tiny fish with her parents. “Stay away from the undertow!”, they say. Father Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Mother Jenny (Diane Keaton) resort to repetitive learning techniques using rhymes to impress upon her. Any parent of a child with special needs will surely relate. The scenes encourage understanding for those who are unfamiliar with how difficult it can be. Despite their due diligence, Dory becomes separated from her parents anyway.

The years pass. Dory (voiced as an adult by Ellen DeGeneres) continues to solicit help from other fish in finding her family. This leads to the events depicted in the first film when she meets Marlin (Albert Brooks) looking for his lost son Nemo. Now flash forward to a year after Nemo was found. While on a field trip with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) a long forgotten memory is triggered while watching a stingray migration. Dory hears the word “undertow”. She recalls bits and pieces. She was looking for her parents. She realizes she must travel from the Great Barrier Reef to California – specifically “The Jewel of Morro Bay.” – in order to find them. And so begins our adventure.

Most of the activity takes place in California at a state of the art “rescue, rehabilitate, release” aquarium called the Marine Life Institute modeled after the impressive one in Monterey*. During production, the setting was changed from a SeaWorld type facility. This was as a result of the backlash caused by the 2013 documentary Blackfish. Sigourney Weaver’s voice is overheard in pre-recorded announcements at the exhibits in the park like the voice of God. It was at that moment, I knew everything was going to be OK. She never appears in physical form, but we know it’s her because she introduces herself by name over and over. We’re reminded that it’s her speaking so many times, it becomes a running joke.

Finding Dory adds a dizzying array of new characters. Clownfish Nemo and his father Marlin are back aiding Dory in her quest. It piles on the cutes too. In the early scenes baby Dory (Sloane Murray and Lucia Geddes) has eyes as big as her body. Just the sight of her will make your heart melt. They’re still the characters we know and love, but I’d argue a new character tops them all — Ed O’Neill as Hank The octopus. Ok so actually he’s a septopus — he lost a tentacle. Hank is a wondrous creation that seems the next likely candidate to get his own movie. An irascible sort, he surprisingly prefers an aquarium in Cleveland to the open wild of the Ocean. He slings himself from one room to another with elastic ease, using adaptive camouflage to blend in with whatever background he chooses. He’s almost human the way he ambles about. There’s no natural explanation why a cephalopod should behave this way, but I loved every second of him. Other denizens of the Marine Life Institute include a clumsy whale shark with poor eyesight named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), a neurotic beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell), a pair of territorial sea lions named Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West), and an awkward loon named Becky. She doesn’t speak, but her frazzled personality shines through.

Finding Dory is a lot of fun by amping up the craziness. After Dory is captured by two aquarium employees, the primary setting shifts to the Marine Life Institute. It might seem odd that the majority of action takes place on dry land. After all Dory is a blue tang who needs water to, ya know, like swim. This is one of the constructs that is most unexpected. The journey is not without its challenges. The Kid Zone touch pool scene is an absolute nightmare of grabby hands from the perspective of the aquatic life within. Nevertheless, Dory is able to navigate the outside world with surprising ease. She leaps from one tank to another. Fish move distances using the spouting geysers of a fountain. Others travel in a bucket of water grasped by Becky the loon and carried in a coffee pot by Hank the Octopus. You might think that that’s stretching things. Wait until you see the car chase.

Finding Dory doesn’t top Finding Nemo. It’s sillier and more frivolous than its predecessor. Although there’s some consideration for mental illness and the importance of family, it doesn’t attempt the emotional depth. No I didn’t cry.  Pixar is usually so good at that.  Although there is a poignant moment that certainly tries. However, the movie does goes off in a bizarre, completely zany direction, and forges its own identity that way. Once it does, it’s a warm, good–natured, non-stop hilarious, gag-filled joy of a film.

*[Side note: The script mentions the coastal city of Morro Bay which is about 125 miles south of Monterey, but the aquarium in that city is most definitely not the the same place depicted here].



Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Uncategorized on March 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo zootopia_ver3_zpsel0s8nq8.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgDisney has long been a force to be reckoned with – a studio with a laudable history that invented the idea of a full length animated film. I am a fan. A career resurgence began in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid and continued on through the ensuing decade. Since 2000, the Mouse House has released respectable work of various highs (Big Hero 6) and crushing lows (Chicken Little) but nothing that has really pushed the medium to the next level. As great as beloved titles like Tangled and Frozen were, they were still a reworking of traditional princess fairy tales. Since 1995, Pixar has taken on the mantle of raising the bar. Now with Disney’s 55th animated feature film, they have done something innovative. They’ve brilliantly captured the political zeitgeist and manipulated it into an entertaining adventure involving the police, race relations, and diversity. A lot of people contributed to Zootopia. Jared Bush and Phil Johnston wrote the screenplay but a jaw dropping group of eight writers receive story credit. That’s usually cause for alarm, but their vision remains surprisingly focused. That the achievement feels effortless and light is an amazing balancing act that deserves kudos.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is one message, but the narrative is rather astonishing in its ability to a tackle a seemingly simple moral with utter depth. It’s the tale of an anthropomorphized animal kingdom starring one “dumb bunny” Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) and one “sly fox” Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman). But those nicknames aren’t who they really are. This concerns how each must transcend the stereotypes that they are beset with. Predator vs. prey is the line that divides them, but this is a new age. In Zootopia, predator and prey exist side by side. They have learned to set aside their differences and co-exist in peace. The smartly crafted story has a distinct moral. This thriving metropolis separated into distinct communities. Like New York City, Zootopia is a dazzling municipality divided into boroughs.

The filmmakers have fun with these settings. The fantastic world designed is a character in and of itself. The breathtaking depth to which they have created a fully realized world is impressive. The districts feel like living breathing environments. Each habitat sustains the climate required by the animals that live within. There’s Little Rodentia, a neighborhood that caters to mostly tiny rodents. Polar bears live in freezing Tundratown. Desert mammals like camels exist in hot Sahara Square. Jaguars, otters and sloths live in Rain Forest District and then there’s Savanna Central which is the downtown central hub where everyone converges.

According to Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons), “In Zootopia, anyone can be anything.” The cast is a splendid collection of characters each imbued with a captivating personality that uniquely enhance their visual design. Particularly memorable are Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) as the blustery head of the Zootopia Police Department (ZPD) and Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate) a sweet sheep, sympathetic to Judy Hopps plight. Judy wants to be a cop but no rabbit has ever done that line of work. The ZPD is run by large mammals, such as rhinos, elephants and hippos, and lions. Through sheer determination and an assist by the diversity program Judy achieves her dream. There’s a lot jokes that use scale as a way to highlight how challenging it is for these various animals to co-exist in the same world. When Judy Hopps became the first rabbit on the police force, you truly appreciate why her accomplishment is so commendable. Conversely watching Judy pursue a suspect around Little Rodentia, it gives you an appreciation for how tiny this district really is. She’s initially assigned parking detail but soon circumstances intervene and she’s on a real case to help Mrs. Otterton locate her missing husband.

The fun is in the way Disney employs the DNA of pop culture to produce this massive homage. Inside jokes abound that will require multiple viewing to catch them all. Previous Disney films that appropriate animals with human qualities are inspirations. The Jungle Book and Robin Hood are obvious influences. Nick Wilde could be Robin Hood’s fox twin. Like that feature, the animals are completely anthropomorphic. They walk upright, wear clothes, drives cars and converse with one another exactly like people, yet still keeping their bestial behaviors – like a twitching nose – intact. Some individuals recall other cartoons as well. Officer Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), a police dispatcher, is a cheetah that suggests Snagglepuss’ upbeat temperament. I was getting Pete Puma vibes from a laid back yak named Yax (Tommy Cong). His scruffy mane covers his eyes while flies buzz around his head. Far out man. But the pop culture allusions don’t stop with animated titles. Some personalities even cite live action. A diminutive mole Mr. Big is a mob boss straight out of The Godfather. A drug operation is run by two rams named Walter and Jesse. Even some adults will miss that as a Breaking Bad reference.

Zootopia manages to address racism, the crack epidemic and how authorities use scapegoating to supplement their power by instilling fear of marginalized groups.  Whew!  No it’s not subtle, but it isn’t heavy-handed either. What makes the lesson so palatable is in the details. Visually it’s a marvel and if it my review were based solely on spectacle, it would be enough. Zootopia goes deeper by catapulting the ongoing discussion of prejudice to the front and center of a Disney cartoon. There’s so much subversive wit. Calling a bunny “cute” is not acceptable, unless it’s coming from another bunny. Judy finds Nick “articulate” but he finds the remark more condescending than complimentary. A characters can’t refrain from touching the woolly sheep’s hair. The way the observances are manipulated into the animal world is funny and incisive. It’s difficult to be both.

For all its ability to undermine established stereotypes, the film isn’t above exploiting them as well. There’s good natured ribbing at the expense of clichés of the zoological kingdom. Faraway rural Bunnyburrow is affected by a wildly expanding population. Wolves can’t resist baying at the moon the second someone howls first. The sloths are slow and work at the DMV (Department of Mammal Vehicles). The “sly”fox is indeed a con man. Oh but he wasn’t always this way. He transcended that stereotype as a child but ultimately succumbed to it thanks to overwhelming societal pressure to be anything more. Disney’s most politically motivated movie ever is a trenchant reflection on diversity. No the predator vs. prey allegory doesn’t stand up under intense scrutiny. What then do the carnivores eat if not other animals? That is never addressed. It’s easy to get bogged down in how the symbolism to our world doesn’t hold up. The fable is better appreciated as a morality tale that addresses topics very much in the zeitgeist. Living in harmony is possible. Our strengths and weaknesses can complement each other. The takeaway is – respect your fellow man.


2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Shorts with tags on February 3, 2016 by Mark Hobin

In honor of the Academy Awards, ShortsHD has once again made all three (animated, live action, documentary) of the the Oscar Nominated Short Film programs available to audiences around the world.


Along with the animated program, the live action collection was released to theaters on January 29th, a month before the Oscars presentation on February 28th.

In addition to the theatrical schedule, the nominated live action and animated shorts will also be accessible online and on VOD/pay-per-view platforms.

Where the animated segment encompasses the gamut of emotion – joy to sorrow, the live action segment is much more mired in misery. This category is arguably the hardest of all the Oscar categories to call. None of the shorts star famous people, as in previous years’ winners like The Phone Call (Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent) or The Shore (Ciarán Hinds). This makes forecasting the winner even more difficult.

I’ve ranked the shorts in order of best to worst in terms of my own personal taste. However I’ll attempt to predict the prizewinner too.


Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)
Director, Writer & Producer: Patrick Vollrath
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The uncharacteristically upbeat title belies a heartbreaking tale. A divorced father picks up his eight-year-old daughter, Lea, for a day of fun. They spend every second weekend together, but after awhile she senses a change in the mood that signifies this outing is different.

I love films where the audience slowly develops an understanding of the situation. The story just pulls you in. It’s rather simple in scope, but it extracts emotion even better than a production that is four times as long. My absolute favorite of the bunch, which means it has absolutely zero chance of winning. (10/10)


Director: Benjamin Cleary
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Greenwood (Matthew Needham) is a shy typographer with a severe speech impediment but a passionate spirit. His internet relationship with a woman named Ellie (Chloe Pirrie) has progressed nicely. After six months of online chatting, she is ready to meet face to face, but he is loath to reveal the truth about himself. He worries whether she will lose interest.

Irish director Benjamin Cleary recounts a succinct and well crafted fable about self doubt. Who can’t identify on some level with that dilemma? Scores extra points for taking the least amount of time to tell a sweet story. Ends on a clever note that makes everything worthwhile. A real charmer. (9/10)


Day One
Director: Henry Hughes
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American woman who has joined the United States military as an interpreter is on her first mission in Afghanistan. However she’ll be asked to do a lot more than just translate before the day is over.

Director Henry Hughes spent five years as a paratrooper conducting two combat tours in Afghanistan. This film was based on an experience with his own female interpreter. The way gender and religion must dictate behavior in Muslim culture, is addressed. The first hand approach is uniquely told from an insider’s perspective. (7/10)


Shok (Friend)
Director & Writer: Jamie Donoughue
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The place is war torn Kosovo in 1998. The friendship of two children, Petrit and Oki, is tested when one enters into a dangerous business relationship with enemy Serbian soldiers who now occupy the territory.

Every year it seems there is at least one entry where war and children are united in a depressing narrative. Shok satisfies that niche which is why I’m predicting it will take the award. The drama is competent, but predictably dismal up to and including the extreme “shock” ending. (6/10)


Ave Maria
Director: Basil Khalil
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A family of religious Israeli settlers has their car break down in a rural area of the West Bank. They seek the assistance of five nuns in a convent in the middle of the Palestinian territories. The nuns have taken a vow of silence. The Jewish family are forbidden to even use a phone on the sabbath. Culture clash comedy mines humor out of their difficulty to communicate.

Not bad, but it’s essentially a one-note joke built around a convoluted setup. My least favorite which makes it ironic that most prognosticators have selected as the odds on favorite to win. It’s a bit more lighthearted in tone which I suppose makes it stand apart from the more intense stories. (6/10)


2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Shorts with tags on January 31, 2016 by Mark Hobin

In honor of the Academy Awards, ShortsHD has once again made all three of the Oscar nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world.


The animated compilation was released to theaters on January 29th, giving the public the opportunity to see the nominated entries before the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 28th.

In addition to the theatrical release, the nominated live action and animated shorts will also be accessible online and on VOD/Pay Per View Platforms.

The animated segment is often my favorite of the three shorts programs because they illicit the most diverse array of feelings – ranging from joy to sadness, sometimes within the same vignette.

I’ve ranked them in the order from best to worst. Also included in the theatrical program are a few honorable mentions including Cordell Barker’s If I Was God. All things considered, it’s a shame this didn’t earn a nomination.


World of Tomorrow
Director & Writer: Don Hertzfeldt
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An adorable stick figure toddler is visited by her future self, a 3rd generation clone designed to live forever. She imparts wisdom and the script is literally one brilliant piece of wisdom after another. “I am very proud of my sadness because it means I am more alive.” The contrast between her happy but oblivious younger self and her melancholy older reproduction is heartbreaking.

American Don Hertzfeldt’s animated films (It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Rejected) have made him a bit of cult figure in this field. World of Tomorrow only adds to his mystique. (10/10)


Sanjay’s Super Team
Director: Sanjay Patel
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A young Indian boy wants to watch superheroes on TV while his religious father is trying to mediate. After being forced to join him in prayer, the boy uses his imagination to envision Hindu gods combating in superhero adventures. Deeply personal tale obviously influenced by director Sanjay Patel’s real life relationship with his own father. Actual photos of the animator and his dad at the end complete the touching story arc.

This is from Pixar studios. Their entry originally ran before The Good Dinosaur so this is the most widely seen and the heavy favorite. (8/10)


We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
Director & Writer: Konstantin Bronzit
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Tale concerning two friends since childhood who go through the training program to become cosmonauts. The cartoon is from Russia so I’m making an attempt to use the correct terminology. Starts out lighthearted and silly and ends up rather sad and poignant. It isn’t particularly innovative, but it’s refreshing to see a short where the narrative takes precedence over the visuals. (7/10)


Bear Story
Director: Gabriel Osorio
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Lonely bear who presents a mechanical theater of windup toys contained within a musical diorama . Passersby may peer inside for the price of a coin. The somber, dialogue-free story about animals captured to perform in the circus may or may not actually mirror the history of his own family. You decide. Just kidding. There’s nothing to decide. That’s exactly what it is. Cute. (6/10)


Director: Richard Williams
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Hand drawn Spartan and Athenian soldiers rendered in charcoal, engage in an extreme battle to the death. Here’s where you should escort the little ones out of the theater and get a snack. There’s nudity and lots of blood. A warrior is brutally stabbed in the groin. The animation is hypnotic but after it’s over, you’ll be scratching your head. What was the point? Well named because it feels like the beginning of something unfinished. (4/10)



Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama with tags on December 23, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo anomalisa_ver2_zpses0g7amc.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgAnomalisa is unlike any animated movie I’ve ever seen. Past the muddled din of inane chatter, the picture opens to a cloud bank. A plane is flying through the sky. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is traveling to Cincinnati. A successful writer, he’s going there to give a motivational speech on customer service. It’s not immediately apparent at first but something is amiss. Right from the get-go we’re confronted with an angry letter from what appears to be an ex-girlfriend. As he reads the note we hear the words in voiceover from a male speaker (Tom Noonan). It’s an bitter missive full of expletives. The F-word repeatedly used over and over. Once on land, he picks up his iPod and plays the “Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé. Observant viewers will notice the portable player says sung by Dame Joan Sutherland, but it’s clearly not her. That man’s voice again, overdubbed several times, intones the melody. It doesn’t end there. Every articulation is an exact duplicate of the next. The passenger on the plane, his cab driver, the desk clerk at the hotel, the waitress in the lounge. After awhile we figure out it’s not just auditory. Although people appear as male and female individuals of various shapes and sizes, they all have identical faces too. Every last one.

Tom is not well – mentally, that is. By the time he calls his wife, we realize he’s a supremely unhappy man. She wants to put their son on the phone and he greets the prospect like he’s about to undergo a root canal. Life around him is ugly. He looks out the window and spies a man in the building across the way at a computer touching himself. Then he walks past a couple locked in a heated argument in the hallway. More F-words echo down the corridor behind him. All of this informs the misanthropic outlook of his own reality. Then while staring at his own visage in the bathroom mirror, he suddenly hears a different voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh) coming though the walls of his hotel room.

The writing is exceptionally smart. I’d expect nothing less from the writer/director of Synecdoche, New York who drew thematic parallels between a figure of speech and the city of Schenectady. Our protagonist is utterly lonely. He talks with a world weariness that is more palpable than the emotion I’ve felt from some live actors. Michael is the author of “How May I Help You Help Them?” and he’s oh-so-much smarter than the philistines around him. Little jokes abound. When he whistles part of the opera Lakmé, the taxi driver “educates” him that it’s the British Airways ad. He checks into the Hotel Fregoli – that’s Fregoli as in the delusional belief that everyone is somehow the same person. He turns on the TV in his hotel room and catches a glimpse of the 1936 classic My Man Godfrey. His date sings “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, first in English, then an Italian version by Sarah Brightman. There’s no such thing….right?

Michael Stone is a miserable person. He’s emotionally disabled from connecting with another human being. That is until he meets Lisa, a woman who may or may not be the love of his life. She is an exception – an anomaly, if you will. She looks and sounds different. However she’s downright clumsy, tripping and literally falling flat on her face at one point. She’s also a bit of a rube. Upon entering his hotel room, she marvels at the way he has prepared his sheets and slippers for bed, only to learn of “turndown service” for the first time. Then she recites the lyrics of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, like it’s her highest aspiration. “I wanna be the one to walk in the sun,” she coos. It’s never quite evident whether her ignorance is supposed to be legitimately charming or if Michael has achieved some level of humanity by being able to look past her provincial charm and see the real beauty within. Regardless he falls in love with her. Then they have sex in an unforgettable scene I cannot even begin to describe. The less said, the better.

On one level it’s impossible not to admire the remarkable craft that went into making this production. The detailed sets create an environment that feels lived in and substantive. Charlie Kaufman has created an extraordinarily realistic setting. The characters inhabit this environment in such a human way that it’s easy to forget we’re watching animation.  His existential ennui is handled in a pretty adult way, but Anomalisa is about routine. Tom has an abnormally misanthropic worldview. He’s bored with life and the public at large. Everyone has the same face. Everyone has the same voice. Their upbeat monotone is pleasant but insincere. Michael doesn’t connect with any of these drones, except one.  Even the object of his affection is intentionally imbued with a two dimensional personality.  The mundanity of his existence is manifested in the banality of the narrative. The abrupt non-ending leaves an unsatisfying finish. An unresolved narrative that is all foreplay, no climax. A spiritual malaise hangs heavy over the film. Michael’s total apathy becomes our boredom too and the experience is disheartening.


The Good Dinosaur

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on November 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo good_dinosaur_ver3_zpsykoytrdq.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt would be easy to dismiss The Good Dinosaur‘s simple narrative as minor Pixar. The tale’s themes touch upon the importance of family and finding your place in this world. These lessons have certainly been done before. But delve deeper and what the studio has done here is no less magical than some of their very best. In many ways, the blend of ideas is one of their most subversive. To begin with, it relies on less dialogue than virtually all of their productions. They explored this abstraction in the first half of Wall-E then abandoned it in the second. A cursory look at production stills show a little boy and his dinosaur, a seemingly clichéd set-up that suggests that the dinosaur is a substitute for the boy’s proverbial dog. Leave it to Pixar to flip the script.

The saga begins with a vignette that might not even register if you’ve managed to avoid press materials for this picture. An asteroid flies overhead. Dinosaurs look up. Go back to eating. What the visual tableau is hypothesizing without words is, what if the theoretical asteroid that was supposed to hit earth rendering dinosaurs extinct, never did. How would they evolve, and even more intriguingly, how would they interact with humans? The answer is one of Pixar’s most radical concepts. Naturally the dinosaurs talk. Animals do that in animated films all the time.  But Pixar takes the conceit one step further. They’re now highly evolved creatures, developing a sophisticated ecosystem. They grow crops, store grain in a silo and raise what appears to be dino-chickens in a coop.

Pixar has designed a fully realized world that pushes graphic technology to the next level. The plot concerns an Apatosaurus family. There’s Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand) who witness the birth of their three children at the outset: Libby (Maleah Padilla), Buck (Marcus Scribner) and runt of the litter, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa). Though the main character is cute and cartoonish, the environment created is not. To say this is the studio’s most visually impressive movie, is an accomplishment that should not be taken lightly or negated. Some of these awe-inspiring landscapes are photo realistic achievements that dazzle the eye. This isn’t a film, it’s an experience. You can get lost in the mood, particularly during the wordless spectacles. After a not so spectacular intro, something tragic happens (Pixar is known for this) and young Arlo is separated from his family. He meets a caveboy named Spot (Jack Bright). Spot is an unexpected individual full of facial expressions and body language. His dirty mangled hair, fair skin, slightly red from the sun and piercing green eyes embody a mesmerizing soul that captivates with tangible cues. In one episode he forages for food and offers some to Arlo. The moment manages to be funny, gross and tender in mere moments. The charm slowly sneaks up on you. I fell in love with this kid.

The Good Dinosaur is a deceptively slight narrative that belies a philosophical exploration of humanity. Is it about a spirit journey? Is it a coming-of-age movie? Is it a western? Pay attention, because there is a lot being covered. Much of the drama evolves like seeds that grow in the mind well after the film is over. It stays with you. Let’s start with the notion that fear is something you learn to live with, not conquer. That’s pretty “out of the box” thinking for a children’s story. Oh but there’s so much more. On the surface, you might not even realize what’s being promoted here because it’s never expressly stated. The evolutionary relationship between Arlo and Spot is a completely subversive idea that caught me quite by surprise. Pixar has drawn inspiration from classics of the past. The close alliance between two species has been explored before. There are many examples but perhaps never done better than in something like The Black Stallion. The Good Dinosaur ranks up there in tender sophistication. When Arlo and Spot “discuss” their families, the communication is a pantomime where sticks are used. Their interaction presents a harsh reality in such a refreshingly simple way, it’s profound. The scene is heartbreaking. I’ll admit I teared up. Ok Pixar, you win again.


The Peanuts Movie

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 9, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Peanuts Movie photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Peanuts characters have been animated before, but never quite like this. Charles Schultz’ creations debuted as a comic strip way back in 1950 and ran for 50 years until 2000. It continued on in reruns. During those years Peanuts expanded on its success with television specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are so iconic, they’re still run today. In addition 4 feature films were released between 1969 and 1980. Each relied on traditional hand-drawn techniques. The comics were pitched at adults but the cartoons had a childlike mentality with a nod to adults who might be watching as well. That’s likewise the sensibility of The Peanuts Movie.

The animation comes courtesy of Blue Sky Studios, the CGI team behind those barely tolerable Ice Age flicks. The artists have done a beautiful job at portraying the gang in this medium. The characters look exactly like you’d expect if they were magically made whole and became 3D designs. There’s a visual depth to these renderings. For example Frieda’s naturally curly red hair and Pig Pen’s dust cloud are so vivid you see distinct strands and dirt particles. It’s the originals you know, only to the second power. Director Steve Martino has had experience turning illustrations into cinematic sagas. He helmed Horton Hears a Who! in 2008. Charles Schulz’s son Craig, his grandson Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano, co-write the screenplay.

Honoring a 2D property and modernizing it as a computer animated feature, in 3D no less, is a difficult balancing act. This nostalgia connects people across generational lines. Peanuts have seemingly been around forever so virtually everyone has at least some connection to these kids. Mess with the memory, you mess with our childhood. Despite the visually modern update, the account is a slavishly faithful manifestation of previous incarnations. That’s good news and bad. The positive is the story doesn’t taint the dignity of Charles Schultz’ beloved work. These are the same cherished icons dealing with identical conundrums. Now the dilemma.

The Peanuts Movie is amiable, but if you’re looking for creativity or imagination, you’re watching the wrong movie. The plot is merely a compendium of replicated gags. Charlie Brown develops a crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl who moves in next door. He wants to make a good first impression. Meanwhile Ace pilot Snoopy writes a novel where he faces his arch nemesis, the Red Baron. He’s supported by Woodstock. The rest of the gang says and does things you remember from past iterations. Lucy dispenses psychiatric advice. Schroeder plays the piano. Marcie calls Peppermint Patty “sir”. Sally pines for her sweet baboo, Linus, who clutches a security blanket, and so forth. They go ice skating and play hockey. There’s a talent show and a dance. Its warm nostalgia and it’s pleasant. The nicest thing I can say is that it honors the source. Yet there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Peanuts is a “greatest hits” of recycled vignettes. Its gentle pabulum is guaranteed not to upset the status quo. I was hoping for more.