Archive for the Animation Category

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on December 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

An old English proverb states: “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.” After defeating a giant monster, Puss in Boots is unexpectedly crushed by a massive falling bell. The critter has been an active feline and has now exhausted eight of his nine lives. One more crazy adventure, and he is kaput. However, if he finds the legendary wishing star, he can restore his nine lives. And so begins his mystical quest aided by returning love interest Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and a therapy dog they name Perrito (Harvey Guillén)

Puss in Boots is a feline fugitive from the law but a hero of the town of San Ricardo, Spain. The character made his first appearance in Shrek 2 and is the current ongoing legacy of that franchise. This entry is technically a follow-up to Puss in Boots which came out in 2011 — over a decade ago. Most of that movie’s young fans are now adults. That’s ok because (1) this picture is so fun, a person of any age can enjoy it, and (2) it has little narrative connection to the original. This is the best kind of sequel, a standalone narrative, AND it improves upon its predecessor.

With all due respect to the celebrated voice of Mel Blanc, I’d suggest that Antonio Banderas is one of the greatest marriages of an actor to an animated character. He’s that effective in evoking a distinct persona. When he speaks, I feel connected to this personality. That goes a long way into making this a quest in which I am invested. A gang of new characters is introduced—some with fairy tale origins but with a twist. So we get Goldilocks (Florence Pugh) and the three bears (Ray Winstone, Olivia Colman & Samson Kayo) with cockney accents and an evil crime lord in the form of “Big” (formerly “Little”) Jack Horner (John Mulaney) as well as an elderly cat lady (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

The Last Wish is a pleasant swashbuckling diversion. The goal is stunning visuals and amusing jokes, and the production delivers both. The computer graphics are a vibrant display that occasionally relies on painterly designs that resemble storybook illustrations. The visual aesthetic is more influenced by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Akira than the realistic style used in the Shrek series. The gags aren’t all guffaws, but they are plentiful. If there’s a complaint, it’s that this saga is such a frenetic rendition of a simple tale. Watching our champion attempt to secure his objective by using an animated map while multiple antagonists try to stop him is not unlike a video game. But that can be a compliment too. The story moves, and it’s never dull.

12-19-22

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Posted in Animation, Drama, Family with tags on December 8, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Everyone is familiar with The Adventures of Pinocchio. Italian author Carlo Collodi wrote the children’s novel way back in 1883. Since then, the mischievous pursuits of a lively puppet have been fabricated and reassembled dozens of times. The most famous interpretation in 1940 by Walt Disney is rightfully considered one of the greatest animated films ever made.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is not the version you’re acquainted with. Given the number of adaptations, that’s a welcome thing. The director is known for dark and bizarre productions, and this gorgeous stop-motion animated production is no different. For one thing, it takes place in 1930s Fascist Italy when Benito Mussolini was the prime minister. The time period — set later than originally written — casts a sinister pall over the proceedings. The haunting mood gave me chills.

Del Toro describes his beliefs as falling somewhere between being an atheist and an agnostic. Pagan elements abound. The Wood Sprite brings Pinocchio to life, but our protagonist also meets her sister, Death, an even creepier figure that looks like a Chimera out of greek mythology. She’s flanked by black, skeletal bunnies playing poker. Nevertheless, the director’s Catholic upbringing infuses the happenings with religious iconography too. Geppetto, a good-hearted and faithful believer, is responsible for whittling a massive crucifix that sits above the altar in the local church. Pinocchio is fascinated by the wooden statue and awkwardly mimics how it hangs. The gesture is uncomfortable as it carefully teeters in the balance between innocence and blasphemy. “Everybody likes Him,” the little marionette naively observes. “He’s made of wood, too. Why do they like him and not me?”

Despite the heavy themes, this is a story to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. The chronicle still concerns a woodcarver named Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley), who chisels a puppet from pine and calls him Pinocchio (Gregory Mann). He does this after his human son dies from a bomb dropped in an air raid. The toy comes to life with help from a blue-glowing wood sprite (Tilda Swinton), and dreams of becoming a real boy. Ron Perlman voices a fascist official named Podesta, who turns Pinocchio into a soldier in a military camp for youth. Finn Wolfhard is Podestà’s son Candlewick, a bully, then a friend. Christoph Waltz is the aristocrat turned carnival master, and Ewan McGregor is his insect conscience Sebastian J Cricket.

Pinocchio is an eerie, animated fable of love and disobedience. I found the gloomy tone depressing at times, but it is also supremely touching. Composer Alexandre Desplat balances the macabre touches with a lush score appropriately performed using only wood instruments (violin, piano, harp). The saga is also a musical and offers a bevy of hauntingly beautiful tunes, the most memorable being “Ciao Papa.” Pinocchio sings the melancholic ode when bidding farewell to his father.

The animation is the best part. I was dazzled by the look of the world created here by Guillermo del Toro and veteran Mark Gustafson (animation supervisor of Fantastic Mr. Fox). Pinnochio looks like a figure carved from wood, but even the human characters have a sculpted quality that lends this picture a hand-crafted aesthetic. A host of producers are credited, including The Jim Henson Company. The look is reminiscent of the work of Tim Burton, like Corpse Bride, but also LAIKA Studios, who did Coraline and ParaNorman. It must be acknowledged somewhere that this is a colossal improvement over Robert Zemeckis’ live-action remake of the Disney classic earlier this year. Del Toro’s adaptation is ultimately an innovative and mesmerizing take on the quintessential tale.

Now playing in select theatres, Premieres on Netflix on Dec 9th.

11-27-22

DC League of Super-Pets

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Superhero with tags on July 30, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

You’ve enjoyed actors Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in Central Intelligence and been enchanted by their chemistry in not one but two Jumanji movies. Yet you’re aching for more. Perhaps you’d like to experience their personalities in an animated saga about furry superheroes? Today I bring you good news.

DC League of Super-Pets is little more than an animated yarn seemingly inspired by The Secret Life of Pets, but it’s a lively reinterpretation. The tale concerns beloved critters that obtain superhero powers after being exposed to orange kryptonite. So for the uninformed, green kryptonite is bad, but orange is good. The story stars Krypto (Dwayne Johnson) — Superman’s (John Krasinski) Labrador Retriever — who possesses the same special skills as his master. The villain is a guinea pig named Lulu (Kate McKinnon ), who belongs to Lex Luthor (Marc Maron). She’s patterned her entire life on the Brain, that megalomaniac mouse of the Animaniacs. Well no, not technically, but that’s the level of characterization going on here.

Lulu is currently confined to an animal shelter but is able to acquire a shard of orange kryptonite. The element gives her super abilities. The other creatures at the pound inadvertently get powers too. The coterie of individuals includes a boxer dog (Kevin Hart), a pig (Vanessa Bayer), a turtle (Natasha Lyonne), and a squirrel (Diego Luna). However, unlike Lulu, they embody a good-hearted temperament. Conversely, there is also a kitty named Whiskers (Winona Bradshaw) that is not so well-meaning. After the humans in the Justice League are defeated and imprisoned by Lulu, it’s up to this superpowered team of strays to save the day. The adventure may sound rather incomprehensible, but it makes sense while you’re watching.

The most poignant moment in the DC League of Super-Pets unexpectedly occurs in the middle of the chronicle. Ace (Kevin Hart), a stray Boxer, recounts his backstory. He once had an ideal life in the home of a loving family. Then one day, Ace witnessed their toddler teetering on the edge of a flight of stairs. To rescue her from falling, he grabs the baby with his mouth. The parents hear their infant crying and only observe the little teeth marks on their toddler’s arm. They mistakenly think their dog has bitten her. Ace is removed from the household and taken away. The moment arouses genuine pathos. That random aside holds the seed of a narrative more compelling than the one the writers decided to pursue. The rest of this chronicle is rather frivolous and forgettable. That’s ok. I still enjoyed this lighthearted diversion.

07-28-22

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on July 13, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Marcel is a one-inch-tall talking shell with a googly eye and a pair of pink footwear. He got his start in a 4-minute short that was a collaboration between director Dean Fleischer-Camp and writer/actress Jenny Slate. It went viral in 2010 and was followed by two equally concise sequels in 2011 and 2014. During that time, the couple would marry and later divorce. Yet Marcel remained. More than a decade after his debut, we are blessed with Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, an identically named feature. And it’s oh so charming.

The chronicle is built upon a foundation of the gentle warmth of a mood. Marcel lives with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini) in a standard-sized home. When Connie calls her grandson Marcello, the palpable love in her soft voice is genuinely touching. He spends life going about his business and gathering resources to live. The residence has been converted into Airbnb. Dean (playing himself) is the current guest.

When the documentarian discovers the little guy, he begins filming Marcel and asking him questions. Marcel attempts to interrogate him too, but Dean is less inclined to answer his queries. Gradually we learn that Marcel was part of a larger community that went missing. Their separation occurred sometime after the house’s previous owners, Mark (Thomas Mann) and Larissa (Rosa Salazar), had an argument and split up. The picture concerns Marcel’s quest to find his lost friends.

Slight doesn’t even begin to encapsulate this amiable wisp of an idea. Marcel’s fascination with the world and his insightful observations are the basis for the story. Jenny Slates’s endearing vocal performance is a raspy, childlike whisper that almost lulls you into a state of ease. It’s a soothing idea that intersperses little bon mots during its runtime. When Marcel appeals to the internet for help, the clip circulates quickly. While the comments are supportive, they aren’t beneficial. “It’s an audience, not a community,” he laments. Similar witticisms are sprinkled like powdered sugar on a stack of pancakes covered in syrup.

This warm hug of production is too genial and sweet to dislike. I’m always fascinated when a movie has near universal acclaim on an aggregate website like Rotten Tomatoes and manages to inspire one review that takes that near-perfect rating down to a 99%. I understand that lone voice of dissent. Context is everything. A full-length feature that appears to be assembled from lovingly created shorts strung together entertains more effectively in smaller doses. Even at a mere 90 minutes, the preciousness wears a bit thin. I see this as an ideal flick for streaming to be enjoyed at your leisure.

At one point, Marcel uses drops of honey on the soles of his sneakers to climb the sheer cliff of a wall to reach the mantel from the floor. The use of that viscous nectar got me thinking. A spoonful of honey spread on biscuits or infused in tea proportioned throughout the day is a sugary treat. Finishing off a 12-ounce squeeze bottle all in one sitting is less delightful.

07-12-22

Minions: The Rise of Gru

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on July 5, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Let’s be honest. It was never about the human characters in the Despicable Me films series. It’s the little yellow twinkie-shaped creatures that are the real stars.

The Minions movies take place before the proper franchise. The second prequel is subtitled The Rise of Gru and is set in 1976. Criminal mastermind Gru is an 11-year-old who desperately wants to join the Vicious 6, a criminal organization of six supervillains. They recently expelled one of their members, and now they’re auditioning for a new replacement. Gru applies, but when the group sees he’s just a kid, they reject him. To prove himself, he successfully steals a powerful amulet called the Zodiac Stone that the crew has newly acquired. He intends to give it back in hopes he will earn their respect. However, one of the Minions — I believe his name is Otto — trades the precious talisman for a pet rock. Now everyone is on the chase to reacquire the charm. Helping the Minions on their quest is Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh), an acupuncturist and Kung Fu fighter. There’s also a biker (RZA) that Otto befriends on his way to San Francisco.

Of course, the story is beside the point. The whole purpose of these movies is to highlight the silly, crazy antics of those lovable rapscallions. There is something so quixotically engaging about their behavior. At one point, three of them — Kevin, Stuart, and Bob — pose as two pilots and a flight attendant to sneak on board a plane so they can fly to San Francisco. It’s a hilarious display. The Minions have this certain indefinable “je ne sais quoi.” The Minions are the humor found in slipping on the peel of a banana — an English word often heard in their cryptic polyglot language. This is comedy at its most elemental. It is impossible to explain the joy of slapstick to the unconverted. Like trying to analyze why the goofy hijinks of The Three Stooges or Benny Hill are funny. You either get it, or you don’t. However, if you have young kids, they will definitely want to see this.

Quite honestly, there are enough gags for both children and adults to appreciate. Check out the starry ensemble that’s doing the voices of the Vicious 6. Taraji P. Henson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, Danny Trejo, and Alan Arkin all do an amusing riff on their personas for knowledgeable viewers that are in on the joke. Another gag highlights the time it takes to dial a number on a rotary phone. A child won’t even recognize what that object is. The soundtrack includes a hip cadre of indie stars doing covers of popular songs of the era. Delight to new versions of “Funkytown,” “Dance to the Music,” and “Fly Like an Eagle” that pop up at perfectly timed moments. At a funeral, the Minions sing the choir opening from “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones. Oh, I laughed…a lot. An affirmation of fun is precisely why Minions: The Rise of Gru entertains and ultimately satisfies as a piece of entertainment. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot famously mused, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” In the Minions case, it’s a banana, and the answer is most assuredly YES.

06-30-22

Lightyear

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on June 18, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Three sentences flash across the screen to set the stage. “In 1995 Andy got a toy. The toy was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” After it was over, I didn’t buy that assertion. Yeah, I know. It’s probably best not to question such things. This feature doesn’t hold up to that kind of scrutiny, but given that the most captivating character didn’t become a toy back then is a huge leap of faith. Sox the cat (Peter Sohn) is the breakout star and it’s not even close. Buzz Lightyear’s robotic feline companion is an absolute delight. Buzz Lightyear himself? Oh sure, he’s in the film too. Just not a particularly interesting personality. He’s kind of an oaf, a bit of a dullard too.

Lightyear concerns a human astronaut (Chris Evans) — er uh space ranger — who is responsible for marooning his crew of travelers on a hostile alien planet. You see he’s branded a failure at the outset. He even tries to quit the mission but his commanding officer and best friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) refuses to accept his resignation. So Buzz attempts to devise the perfect formula for a working hyperspeed crystal to get his crew off this foreign planet, thereby fixing his mistake and fulfilling his duty. Buzz undergoes a series of test flights to reach hyperspeed to bring everyone back home. Whenever Buzz zips away in his spacecraft for a few minutes, four years elapse for everyone else. He doesn’t age but everyone else does — rather quickly. Unfortunately, he isn’t successful for a very long time. Decades pass and the progression of time suggest the first 10 minutes of Up. Guess who finally comes up with the correct formula? Psst…See the first paragraph.

My encapsulation above may read like the complete saga, but it’s just a prelude. The setup seeks to establish the emotional basis for the formulaic drama that comprises the bulk of the picture. Lightyear and Sox have their moments interacting as a duo. That computerized feline saves his owner’s neck on more than one occasion. There is a refreshing simplicity to their relationship. Yet this chronicle doesn’t allow them to shine alone. The plot introduces a goofy collection of additional helpers. Three space-colony outcasts show up to assist Lightyear in his objective. Chief among this ragtag trio is Izzy Hawthorne (Keke Palmer), Alisha’s granddaughter. She’s flanked by Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) a naive and inexperienced recruit, and Darby Steel (Dale Soules) an elderly convict on parole.

This is where the moral comes through: “Collaborate as a team. Be less of a maverick.” The idea that cooperation is glorified as the ultimate goal is so ubiquitous in children’s entertainment these days that you accept it as standard-issue. I’d suggest that a great many intellectuals or innovators in the adult world are free-thinking radicals, and far from conformists, but perhaps that concept is a bit too revolutionary for Pixar. Anyway, the woebegone characters are uninteresting and detract from the narrative rather than add to it. The sad-sack troupe faces off against an invading force of robots led by the mysterious Emperor Zurg (James Brolin) — another callback to the original Toy Story.

Lightyear isn’t terrible. It’s nicely animated and features an adventure with some lively sequences. But bestowing your creation with that title incites the exalted history of the Toy Story franchise. The first two are widely considered Pixar’s best. This production is not even in the same cosmos. It’s a straightforward tale, painfully ordinary and utterly lacking in imagination or depth. The only remarkable individual is a mechanical cat. Meanwhile, the milieu is oppressive and dreary. The plot throws in generic developments. A time travel subplot yields a reveal that is a ho-hum of a surprise. This is not the awe-inspiring entertainment that you’d expect to become any child’s most treasured movie. Lightyear may take place on a different planet, but creatively it remains — earthbound.

06-16-22

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on May 23, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’m in shock. I can’t remember the last time a new release so thoroughly upended my low expectations. Chip ‘n Dale are an animated chipmunk duo first introduced in the 1943 cartoon short Private Pluto. I’m familiar with that iteration. However Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers the movie is based on a more recent 1990s version of a TV series that I have never seen. I was expecting a headache-inducing update aimed at young children. I got something far more clever.

The screenplay only takes inspiration from that TV program, then does something wholly unexpected. The story recasts the two chipmunks as cartoons existing within the real-life world of human people. Their shrill squeaks were only a pitch affected while acting. Here their articulations occupy a much lower register. John Mulaney is the voice of Chip who now works as an insurance salesman. Andy Samberg is vocalizing Dale. He’s undergone CGI surgery and is currently working conventions with other animated stars of the past.

Traditionally drawn cartoons are a big part of this world. Many are desperately trying to find work in an industry that increasingly prefers computer graphics. In one hilarious cutaway, Chip and Dale are spotted in the background on an episode of the TV show Full House. The plot is set in motion when their friend and detective teammate, Monterey Jack (voiced by Eric Bana), is kidnapped and risks possibly being subjected to the horror of video piracy. It’s up to Chip and Dale to save him.

Animation combined with live-action has existed since the very beginning of the film business. In 1988 Who Framed Roger Rabbit famously broke new ground and became the gold standard for this technique. That classic inspired a bevy of similar mash-ups attempting to replicate that success, always with diminishing results. Examples include Space Jam, and its sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy, Looney Tunes: Back In Action, and Tom & Jerry: The Movie. I could go on. I only list these examples to illustrate how none has ever approached the wit of Robert Zemeckis’ marvel. This production comes closer than anything in the 34 years since. In fact, Roger Rabbit unexpectedly pops up.

There are a ton of characters referenced within this environment. Many are now working different jobs. A lot of these intellectual properties aren’t even owned by Disney. These include random cameos from My Little Pony and South Park, as well as McGruff the Crime Dog, MC Skat Kat with Paula Abdul, and the ugly version of Sonic the Hedgehog before an internet outcry got him redesigned. There are many other personalities. Look fast for what’s on various billboards and landmarks. You’ll see Butthead is running for Senator and Chun-Li (of the Street Fighter video game) has a star on the Walk of Fame. You’ll need to watch the film more than once to catch them all or be prepared to hit that pause button.

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is the funniest movie of the year thus far. It’s also joyful, uplifting, and — most surprising — a sharp sendup of Hollywood. This is directed by Akiva Schaffer (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) who frequently collaborates with Andy Samberg (and Jorma Taccone) as part of the comedy trio The Lonely Island. The screenplay from Dan Gregor and Doug Mand (TV’s How I Met Your Mother, Dolittle) pokes fun at a lot of things. The obsession with remakes and reboots (Meryl Streep in Mr. Doubtfire), how ideas are recycled to make films (LEGO Miserables, Waze the Movie), or the way cartoons are superficially modernized using CGI and rap music. That’s ironic because it’s Disney’s reliance on those qualities that had me dismissing this reboot before I had even seen it. Color me surprised. I expected a silly cartoon but I got an intelligent satire.

05-20-22

The Bad Guys

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on May 5, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Overall ticket sales haven’t returned to robust pre-pandemic levels, but the box office is still full of success stories. The latest is this gem from DreamWorks Animation and distributed by Universal Pictures. Well-crafted family-friendly diversions have always been a safe bet. It may not equal the full auditory overload of Sing 2 (thank goodness), but this PG-rated treasure should dazzle the wee ones. At least until Pixar’s Toy Story spin-off Lightyear comes out on June 17.

The Bad Guys are a gang of anthropomorphic animals who walk and talk amongst humans. The coterie of creatures consists of a Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos). The group of five are so named because they’re career criminals. During their latest caper, they attempt to steal a humanitarian award at a large gala. The trophy is to be conferred upon a pompous guinea pig named Professor Rupert Marmalade IV (Richard Ayoade). The recipient happens to be a philanthropist. The villains are caught in the act. Normally they would be taken to jail. However, Mr. Wolf — the leader of the group — persuades the guinea pig to reform them instead. Little does Rupert know that the scoundrels plan to swipe the award again.

The adventure isn’t ambitious, yet I quite liked this rather unassuming film. The artwork captivates the eye. It’s set in Los Angeles and the illustrators insert recognizable landmarks into the background. The style uses computer graphics but is subverted with the hand-drawn illustrated look of a 2D format. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse famously used this technique, but so did The Mitchells vs. The Machines. It’s very effective. The story is captivating as well. Elsewhere this tale of various critters attempting a heist has been encapsulated as “Zootopia meets Ocean’s Eleven.” That’s an apt description. Even the screenplay acknowledges the similarities. When Mr. Wolf tries to charm the governor, Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz), Mr. Shark defines his conduct as “going full Clooney on her.”

The Bad Guys is a simplistic but pure joy. Granted the gags aren’t profound or innovative. My kingdom for modern children’s entertainment that doesn’t rely on fart jokes. As a missed payment affects a credit score, so does the stumble into toilet humor lower my rating. Nevertheless, the narrative is mostly clean and surprisingly coherent. The fact that the plot developments make sense impressed me. I’ve noticed as I get older, cartoons seem to grow more and more chaotic. Not sure whether I or the animation is the thing that’s changing. I suspect both, but this account is a bit more sensible. Humans and animals interacting together like people may be a silly idea, but the saga’s developments have a logical progression. The characters are clearly defined and elicit our sympathy. I enjoyed this and — more importantly — your kids should as well.

04-29-22

Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama with tags on April 14, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood is Richard Linklater’s warm reflection on growing up in 1969. 10 1/2-year-old Stanley (voiced by Milo Coy) is a boy living in Houston, Texas right before the Apollo 11 Moon landing. He’s the youngest of six children — three boys and three girls. So that would be “Bobby” if you’re a Brady Bunch fan. The saga includes a fanciful tale of a fourth-grader who imagines himself to be the first person to land on the Moon because the engineers accidentally made a capsule too small.

Apollo 10 1/2 is Linklater’s most accomplished delve into rotoscope animation yet. He utilized the technique before in both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. The style is used to create animated sequences by tracing over live-action footage frame by frame. The nostalgic trip through the late 1960s relies heavily on voice-over from past collaborator Jack Black (School of Rock, Bernie) as the adult Stanley. As the events of his childhood play out, his reflective narration recalls The Wonder Years. The nostalgia is heavy and deep.

Few people recreate an era like Richard Linklater. I’m talking about masterful movies like Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!! I have one brother. My household of four was a far less complicated structure than the family of eight depicted here. Additionally, Linklater’s birth predates my own by a decade. Nevertheless, his lovingly recreated memoir is realized with such authentic detail that I identified with his recollections in a uniquely personal way. From a father employed by NASA (My father worked for NASA Ames Research Center) to a mother who recycled paper bags from the grocery store as trash bags for the kitchen, I felt the parallels to my own suburban but frugal upbringing. Incidentally, our protagonist humorously notes that the last idea is a smart one so long as the garbage isn’t wet.

Apollo 10 1/2 depicts a simpler time. The minutia brought back a ton of memories, though the chronicle does tend to drift. It lacks the propulsive thrust of a strong narrative. The leisurely account should captivate adults more than kids. However, it emphasizes that a compelling depiction of our childhood need not incorporate the biggest news stories of the day. Sometimes it’s the vivid but inconsequential details that resonate. The best moments aren’t the events surrounding the moon landing itself, but when Linklater offers pop culture touchstones in this personal coming-of-age story. The mere listing of his favorite TV shows or the board games he enjoyed playing, will resound with anyone who lived back then. It was perhaps the last generation when parents let their offspring run wild and free throughout the neighborhood. No one thought twice if a group of kids should be traveling in the back flatbed of a pickup truck — sans seatbelts — or riding a bike without a helmet. It may not have been prudent, but we had a glorious time. Somehow we survived. I felt a connection to my own experience.

Streaming on Netflix since April 1.

04-10-22

Turning Red

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on March 14, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Right from the start, the protagonist at the center of Turning Red puts the word of God on blast — specifically, the fourth or fifth Commandment (depending on the biblical translation). “Honoring your parents sounds great”, she says, “but “if you take it too far, well you might forget to honor yourself. Luckily I don’t have that problem.” That’s Meilin Lee’s self-centered mantra in nutshell. She adheres to it like a religion. Yeah, she’s a confident adolescent, but at what cost?

I greet the release of a new Pixar movie as something of an event. Historically they’ve done some of my favorite animated movies: the Toy Story series, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, Inside Out. Coco is the last essential entry. Pixar’s ability to turn out one classic after another during their first two decades (1995 – 2015) was unprecedented. I still enjoy their output, but the bloom is off the rose. Sequelitis and imitation have typified the studio’s ideas as of late.

Turning Red is a tale set in 2002 about a 13-year old Chinese girl living in Toronto, Canada going through puberty. Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) — “Mei” for short — is experiencing some changes. Whenever she gets emotional, she turns into a big red panda. Initially, her mother (Sandra Oh) suspects something else. “Did the red peony bloom?” she asks. Later the mother embarrasses her daughter by driving up to her school classroom. With her teacher and entire class present, Mom openly screams “Mei-Mei! Tell him you forgot your pads!”

Formulas in Disney/Pixar movies evolve. The films that involve absentee or deceased parents (Snow White, Cinderella, The Jungle Book), and nurturing mothers (Bambi, Dumbo) have given way to the era of the domineering matriarch. As proof, I submit Tangled‘s villainous Mother Gothel, the abuelas in Encanto and Coco, Joe Gardner’s mom in Soul, and Queen Elinor in Brave — a mother that vexed her daughter so much that young Merida turned her into a bear.

The matriarch at the center of Turning Red is a tyrannical perfectionist. Incidentally, Father (Orion Lee) is inobtrusive. He acts more like an older brother. Jin Lee is rarely permitted to speak. When he does, he offers supportive words of encouragement. But this isn’t about him. Back to Ming Lee. She runs a temple in Toronto, leading visitors through tours of the ancestral family shrine. Instead of worshiping a god, they kneel before a portrait and idolize an ancestor named Sun Yee. That’s different. Sun Yee was granted the ability to transform into a red panda to protect her village from rampaging attackers. Unfortunately, this magical “blessing” was also bestowed upon every woman in the family when they come of age. Later they must perform a pagan ritual to contain the spirit of the beast within a talisman.

Mother’s controlling ways reach a disturbing zenith. Daughter Mei is consumed by raging hormones. Now the poor girl is dealing with the changes in her body. Mei has an innocent crush on a 17-year-old clerk at a local convenience store. He is unaware of her lust. Mei’s doodles in her notebook of him with muscles send Ming into a state of panic. Instead of addressing it with her daughter, she chastises the oblivious object of her desires down at the store. The customers look on in astonishment. The boy is understandably confused. The script also goes off on a detailed tangent about a teen boy band called 4★Town. Her mother fiercely disapproves of this quintet as well. “Why are they called 4★Town if there’s five of them?” Now THAT’S funny. Ming is not a fan of her friends either. She believes Miriam is a bad influence. Is there anyone this woman does like?

The personalities grow way past unpleasant to the point of offensive. Ming is an unyielding control freak with overbearing — borderline oppressive — demands. Mei regards Mom as an irritant in her life. When Ming refuses to let her go to a concert, it’s not a problem. Mei is a willful girl and will go anyway. Lying and hiding things from her parents is kind of her thing. Mei is committed to her ethnically diverse group of friends. Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) comprise the center of her life. Thoughts of her besties evoke serenity. She uses these feelings to calm her inner panda. Ok, let’s recap: Mother = bad. Friends = good. I get that might mirror the mindset of some teens, but it’s not a quality to champion, nor did it endear me to her personality.

There has never been a cartoon quite like Turning Red. When a politically-charged slogan is appropriated as “My Panda My Choice” you know this is not your father’s Pixar. It’s a definite shift for the studio. Art echoes the artist. Writer/director Domee Shi has created a deeply personal work. It tackles the biological changes of a girl becoming a woman head-on without flinching. Therein lies the innovation. It also reflects an ongoing push for more Asian Representation. The animation deserves mention. The dazzling style which draws on the traditions of anime is consistently impressive. The facial expressions are a particular standout. Yet the narrative is weak. After an interesting start, the story ultimately devolves into a pedestrian monster flick. The production lazily cribs from disparate sources like The Incredible Hulk and Teen Wolf to fashion an obvious metaphor for puberty. The chronicle occasionally loses focus. Did we need to learn the names and personalities of every boy band member? But most problematically, the main characters are supremely unlikeable. Ming is unhinged. Mei is egocentric. “I do what I want, say what I want, and I do not hesitate to do a spontaneous cartwheel if I feel so moved.” Hey, you do you girl but I’mma get going.

03-11-22