Archive for the Animation Category

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Science Fiction with tags on March 28, 2020 by Mark Hobin

shaun_the_sheep_movie_farmageddon_ver3STARS3.5Aardman Animations is one of those hallowed traditions in the grand cinema of the UK that includes Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, kitchen sink realism, James Bond, Monty Python, and Agatha Christie adaptations.  A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon was released to UK theaters on October 18th, 2019.  In the U.S. Netflix bought the distribution rights and released it to the streaming platform on Valentine’s Day the following February.  This is ostensibly a sequel to the Shaun the Sheep Movie from 2015 but honestly, if you haven’t seen that, it wouldn’t matter.  No prior knowledge is necessary.  This captivating tale stands on its own.

This amalgamation of sci-fi and comedy is such sweet, funny, innocent fun.  A reliable narrative holds few surprises.   If you’ve seen other releases from Aardman Animations, then you know exactly what you’re getting — a lighthearted, stop-motion animated, romp.  They came out of the gate with the huge boffo worldwide success of Chicken Run in 2000.  Since then each subsequent release has earned a little less than the one before.  Yet the quality of their output has always remained high and meaningful nonetheless.

This account concerns what happens when a UFO landing occurs near Mossy Bottom Farm.  Shaun (Justin Fletcher ) immediately gets involved to help an impish alien named Lu-La (Amalia Vitale), from the planet To-Pa, get back home.  I feel like I already lost a few readers.  Yes, it’s silly.  “Farmageddon” is actually the name of the alien-based theme park that Farmer John (Chris Morrell) creates to exploit the situation to make money.  His dependable and sensible sheepdog Bitzer (John Sparkes) is thankfully back as well.

The adherence to no-dialogue still holds.  Communication relies merely on grunts and shrugs, not intelligible conversation.  Instead, the story is advanced through pantomime and visual cues to propel the plot.  It’s all about the sight gag.  Legendary silent-movie star Buster Keaton built an entire career in the 1920s on the comedic style and this production ably honors that tradition in a contemporary era.  There’s a toe-tapping soundtrack too.  The Chemical Brothers and Kylie Minogue (with English indie rock band, The Vaccines) make appearances that underscore delightful vignettes.

Farmageddon is worth your time, but it isn’t for all tastes.  The chronicle depends on a certain oft kilter sensibility that not all viewers will possess.   Perhaps children may comprehend this more than adults as they admirably have the right mindset for a carefree and nonsensical storyline.  I guess I’m a child at heart because I adored this film.  The slender suggestion of a screenplay is essentially an excuse for manic sequences.  There’s an inherent purity in such simple ambition.  Now, who can’t appreciate that in these troubled times?  Shaun the Sheep is a welcome break from our current reality.

03-19-20

Onward

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on March 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

onward_ver11STARS3.5When I hear the name Pixar I think of some of the best animated films ever made.  Few will deny the entertainment value of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up or Inside Out for example.  So the announcement of a new release from that subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios will always be something that I greet with joyous anticipation.  I’ll admit they’re not all classics.  The Cars trilogy, Monsters University, and Brave would land near the bottom in my estimation.  Nevertheless, I have never given a Pixar movie a negative review.  That hasn’t changed with this effort.

Onward is about two brothers who happen to be elves.  They’re the Lightfoot brothers.  Younger teenaged Ian is a dead ringer for Alfredo Linguini in Ratatouille.  Remember how Disney recycled the character design of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book (1967) for Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) or how about Penny in The Rescuers (1977) from Mowgli in The Jungle Book?   I’m ok with it.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Ian is articulated by Tom Holland who is fresh from another voice starring appearance in the feature-length cartoon Spies in Disguise from Blue Sky Studios.  Barley (Chris Pratt) is Ian’s stocky older teenaged brother who acts as a mentor.  He’s also partial to fantasy role-playing games.  Together they set out on an epic quest to find a jewel that will allow them to see their long-deceased father.

Ok, so I was worried. Onward didn’t grab me right away.  For the first 20-30 minutes or so I wasn’t feeling this movie.  It simply felt like a present-day sitcom superficially dressed up with fantastical elements.  The individuals may look like magical figures but they act like contemporary people.  There’s a centaur, a cyclops, pixies, elves, and other assorted creatures.  The animation is bright and colorful but it’s hard not to feel like the fanciful critters are frivolously employed to obscure a very pedestrian plot.  Then they go on a road trip and they meet a manticore who owns a restaurant and she’s vocalized by Octavia Spencer.  There’s a joy to the animation and the voice acting with her character that kind of jump-starts this drama.  From then on it gets better.  There a lot of jokes obtained from this fictional world.  Let me tell you, there’s is a depth to the creativity of this world-building that definitely raises the bar.

Pixar is famous for being able to extract emotion. Onward didn’t make me cry.  Although it certainly tries.  Most of the adventure is fine but it’s in the resolution where I was converted into a fan.  During the climax, the chronicle smartly recalls previous events that occurred throughout the saga.  Those episodes didn’t seem so important at the time but the story connects the dots and recontextualizes them.  This touching through-line elevates the denouement into an emotionally resonant finale.   It’s a savvy manipulation.  Director Dan Scanlon – who also helmed Monsters University – wrote the film with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.  They essentially redeem the entire narrative within the final 15 minutes.  It reconsiders everything that we have seen before.  Onward isn’t anywhere near as affecting or innovative as the studio’s best work but it is pleasant enough.  It just goes to prove that even a minor Pixar release is still pretty enjoyable.

2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Drama, Sports with tags on February 6, 2020 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV continues to make all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences around the world. To find out where you can watch this year’s Oscar-Nominated Short Films, visit their Theatrical Release and On Demand pages.

Animation

Regardless of how expected the rest of the Oscar races are, the shorts programs have always been the most difficult category in which to predict a winner.  They make forecasting interesting.

With the exception of Kitbull, this year’s selections all have to do with familial relationships but even that short is essentially about the connection that forms a family. They have all been carefully constructed to make you tear up — with either joy or sadness — in some way.

As I do every year, I’ve reviewed and ranked them from my preferred champion to my least favorite.  The results will be announced at the Academy Awards on February 9th.

 

Hair Love
USA/7 MINS/2019
Directors: Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., Bruce W. Smith
hair love
A young black girl is desperately trying to style her hair for a special occasion. She consults an online tutorial video for help but is unsuccessful. She then asks her father for help. This warm depiction highlights a loving bond between father and daughter. But where is the mother? That’s the poignant ending to this heartfelt account.

 

Kitbull
USA/9 MINS/2019
Director: Rosana Sullivan
kitbull
Appealing feature about a cat and a pit bull and the unlikely attachment that develops between them. This was produced by Pixar Animation Studios under their SparkShorts umbrella which gives employees the autonomy to create their own independent films. The characters are quite simply drawn, almost abstract, but the movement is spot on. The way the kitten moves is surprisingly realistic. The story adds depressing elements but it’s quite engaging.

 

Sister
CHINA-USA/8 MINS/2018
Director: Siqi Song
sister-oscar-nominated-animated-short-film
A man reflects back on his childhood memories of growing up with his little sister in China in the 1990s.  She is a constant annoyance to him.  This stop motion entry (there’s 3 this year) appears to be a rather simplistic tale at first.  A haunting reveal ends things on a very serious note.  It has a point and it effectively makes it.  This stayed with me.

 

Mémorable
FRANCE/12 MINS/2019
Director: Bruno Collet
image-louis-alzeimer_court-metrage-animation-memorable-bruno-collet-vivement-lundi_le-blog-de-cheeky
A painterly representation of one man’s descent into dementia.  The stop motion is an artistic manipulation of post-impressionism.  The characters look like living portraits by Van Gogh, Picasso, and other masters.  It holds an undeniably hypnotic quality that verges on calculated preciousness.  Alzheimer’s disease was the theme of last year’s Late Afternoon.  Do I sense the beginning of a trend?

 

Daughter
CZECHIA/15 MINS/2019
Director: Daria Kashcheeva
Daughter_Daria_Kashcheeva
This wordless recollection details the strained relationship between a young woman and her father.   The abundance of silence doesn’t help this obtuse chronicle.  The animation is stop-motion but then a handheld camera is used to heighten the movement so hey that’s different.  However, the pointless grudge this woman held her entire life could have been easily solved with a simple conversation.  Try talking to your father.  Narratively frustrating.

01-24-20

Frozen 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on November 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

frozen_two_ver8STARS3.5Truth be told, I enjoyed Frozen just fine in 2013, but I didn’t think it was the be all and end all of animated cinema.  I was in the minority because somehow it ended up making $1.2 billion worldwide and winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.  I was rooting for Despicable Me 2 that year incidentally and yes I’m 100% serious.  Now we have Frozen 2, a sequel to the Disney megahit.  Coming on the heels of Ralph Breaks the Internet, I suspect that Disney is in the early stages of producing many followups to their successful properties.  Pixar has been doing this for years.  I could be snarky and say you could almost throw anything up there on the screen and it would be a hit but the filmmakers didn’t play it safe.  They have put in considerable work to deepen the drama with a complicated backstory.  I appreciate the attempt, but it’s an effort that feels unnecessary.

Before we get to the adventure, however, let’s starts with the basics.  It’s not hard to see how Frozen 2 checks off the ingredients in a recipe: bring back familiar personalities we know, introduce new characters which can be marketed as great toys, pre-package girl power messaging and highlight a musical with original show tunes.  Not a problem.  I was prepared for that.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) return.   A magic water horse called the Nokk, a cute salamander named Bruni and a family of giant rock monsters are newly added merchandising opportunities.  It also grants us an entire soundtrack of new songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.  There seems to be some debate, but I contend that “Show Yourself” is the one designed to mimic “Let it Go” musically and visually in the film.  “Into the Unknown” is the ballad they’re pushing as the hit though.  The best ditty, however, is not when the soundtrack is trying to rewrite the melodies from the previous chapter.   It happens when our expectations are subverted.  Kristoff’s (Jonathan Groff) 80s influenced “Lost in the Woods” is the greatest power pop ballad that REO Speedwagon never sang.

More isn’t always better.  The story presented here proves that.  Sometimes more is just more.  The chronicle is a needlessly convoluted fantasy with more subplots.  It offers answers for questions you never thought to ask but are going to receive anyway.  Some people will adore that level of mythology.  Are you one of those people?  You have to ask yourself this question: What do you require of a cartoon?  If simplicity and clarity are what you crave, you are likely to be a bit perplexed by the elaborate exposition.  However, if you prefer more legends and fabrications, then your curiosity will be satiated.  You’re going to get a lot of expounding.  For example, the narrative will produce explanations as to why Elsa has magical abilities, and what happened to her and Anna’s parents.  I didn’t need that level of detail, but thanks for the info…I guess.  Still, it’s enjoyable enough.  The production is beautifully animated and features some nice music.  It’s a formula but it’s a formula that works.  Frozen 2 did $127 million in the U.S. during its opening weekend so be ready to take your children to a movie they will beg you to see.  That is if you haven’t seen it already.

11-21-19

The Addams Family

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 12, 2019 by Mark Hobin

addams_familySTARS3The characters who first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker, in 1938, wouldn’t be christened “The Addams Family” until the 1964 TV series.  Charles Addams’ comic strip also spawned wildly successful movies in the 1990s.  Given the passage of time, these are probably how most people know these individuals today.  Incidentally, there was a Broadway show back in 2010 as well.  The execution of this current animated film is actually the closest rendering to the cartoonist’s original creation.  It acts as a nice introduction for kids to the ghoulish clan.

Our tale begins in the past with the marriage of Gomez and Morticia voiced by Oscar Isaac Charlize Theron.  Flash forward to the present where they move to New Jersey, in a particularly amusing gag.  There are a few plot threads.  An oppressive neighborhood busybody and reality TV host named Margeaux Needler (Allison Janney) threatens to make the Addams’ life miserable.  More on her later.  Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) prepares for a coming of age ritual involving swordplay.  Finally, their daughter, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) is curious about life outside her home and so she enrolls herself in junior high school.  There she befriends a girl named Parker (Elsie Fisher), who happens to be Margaux’s daughter.

The Addams Family isn’t an expensive effort and picky animation fans raised on Pixar and Disney may balk at the modest appearance of the production.  This cost a mere $24 million to make.  Compare that to Toy Story 4 which had a budget of $200 million.  However, this uncluttered simplicity is part of its charm.  Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan brought us the raunchy R rated Sausage Party back in 2016.  This bears absolutely no resemblance to that endeavor.  Depending on your point of view that could either be a good thing or a bad thing.  (Personally, I was pleased.)

First the bad news: The Addams Family won’t win any awards.  As a stroy it’s kind of a scattershot affair that keeps hammering the same lesson– it’s OK to be different.  Promoting the virtues of uniformity is Home And Garden (HAG) TV maven Margeaux.  She’s building a planned community known as Assimilation near the Addams’ mansion.  She has this ridiculously large bouffant of blonde hair.  It looks like a gigantic plastic headpiece.  She’s the villain obviously and she’s hilarious.  The moral is heavy-handed but its heart is in the right place.

That’s the good news: As a piece of animated entertainment, it’s a pleasant diversion that stays true to the spirit of Charles Addams’ cartoon strip.  The artwork and his quirky sense of humor are intact.  These folks remain the appealingly oddball personalities that we know and love.  They’re all here: Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) Grandmama (Bette Midler), Wednesday, Pugsley, their butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon), Cousin Itt (Snoop Dogg) and Thing, a disembodied hand.  Their eccentricities are on full display and they provide laughs aplenty for children and adults alike.  Monochromatic Wednesday Addams and her school chum Parker (Elsie Fisher) are talking about which Instagram filter to use for their photo and Wednesday dismisses making a choice. “I still appear black and white in all of them.”  It’s these little throwaway comments that made me chuckle.  The Addams Family is a spirited bit of fluff with inspired atmospheric touches.

10-10-19

Abominable

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on October 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

abominable_ver4STARS3This site is called “Fast” Film Reviews so I’ll get right to the point.  I’m giving Abominable a marginal pass because it’s vivid entertainment that will undoubtedly charm 8 years olds and under who haven’t been corrupted by as many movies as I.  My mind, however, went to a lot of other flicks while watching this tried and true tale.   It suffers by comparison.  The adventure is about a Yeti.  It begins in Shanghai, China.  One day a girl discovers a cute roly-poly creature with a loving disposition on her rooftop.  He has escaped from his holding cell in a laboratory at the sinister Burnish Industries.  The two bond and she names him Everest.  She vows to bring him back to that highest mountain on earth where he lives.  The problem is that they’re pursued by authorities who want to apprehend him.  With her basketball-loving friend Peng (Albert Tsai) and his selfie-obsessed cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), the four individuals undertake an epic journey.

Despite the setting, the experience succumbs to an Americanized milieu.  This is a joint effort by DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio.  With the exception of her diminutive grandmother Nai Nai (Tsai Chin), the entire cast sounds as if they were assembled from a Hollywood casting call of local talent.  The central character is a teenaged girl named Yi.  Given the flat tonal quality of her voice, she recalls Miley Cyrus (Bolt) to this untrained ear.  I checked the credits and saw it was in fact actress Chloe Bennet (Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).  Yi plays the violin which allows for a few expressive pieces that genuinely enhance the soundtrack.  However, hearing London based Coldplay’s song “Fix You” takes you right out of that atmosphere.  A pop ditty entitled “Beautiful Life” by Brooklyn born Bebe Rexha doesn’t add to the mood either.  English Eddie Izzard and American Sarah Paulson voice the antagonists.   Ok so the visual backgrounds are culled from Far East locations but there’s nothing about this production that would have substantially changed if it had been set in a large American city like New York.  In a year where The Farewell truly presented Chinese culture with depth and nuance, you’re going to have to do better than simply having your characters eat a few pork buns.  Abominable was also released with a far more evocative Mandarin-language translation for Chinese-speaking moviegoers.  Personally, I would’ve appreciated that version, with English subtitles of course.

Abominable meets the acceptable standard of children’s entertainment.  It’s pleasant enough. The visuals are indeed colorful and the saving grace of this picture.  A highlight occurs when huge blueberries rain down a hill toward our protagonists in a tsunami.  Vast sweeping fields of canola flowers are appropriately stunning.  Shanghai is a glowing neon metropolis, the Gobi desert is pretty and the giant mountainside Buddha in Leshan is an impressively rendered landmark.  The principal critter is a smartly designed plump ball of fur.  He doesn’t resemble an abominable snowman but as a stuffed animal to be manufactured and produced for the masses, he’s adorable.  The animation is adventurous.  The screenplay by writer-director Jill Culton is not.

The “girl makes an unlikely friend” chronicle is stridently average.  Substitute Everest for an alien or pet or dragon and you have the blueprint of countless (better) tales that have come before.  Additionally, the pacing is unbearably slow.  There is surprisingly very little humor to break up the monotony.  A full third of the drama must elapse before they even begin their journey, which is the main thrust of the narrative.  The final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy came out just 7 months ago.  That far superior release was also from DreamWorks, so the company is actually offering pale imitations of their own movies now.  This story is rote and unoriginal.  The noteworthy thing about Abominable is that it’s is the 7th movie from Universal to top the box office weekend in the U.S. this year (8 if you include Downton Abbey).  The studio has the most #1 films in 2019.  At a time where Disney’s dominance over the market is unprecedented, I love to root for the underdog.  Kudos to Universal for still being a competitor.  I just wish it could do so with a less conventional product.

10-01-19

The Lion King

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on July 21, 2019 by Mark Hobin

lion_king_ver2STARS3If you’ve never seen The Lion King, the animated feature from 1994, you can add an additional star to my review.  You’re really going to enjoy this version.  Also, welcome to planet earth.  If you have seen it – (which applies to most of us) – then this variant gets a little harder to recommend.  Over the 25 years since its release, the original has become one of Disney’s most beloved pictures.  Obviously remaking a hallowed “masterpiece” is going to incur the wrath of movie lovers who think classic films are sacrosanct and shouldn’t be redone.  I can appreciate that mentality.  I also understand that movies, like songs, can be “covered” and that’s the approach to take with this new rendition.

The Lion King (1994) is a refreshingly simple story full of captivating characters and deep emotion.  Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton, this current adaptation has been ever so slightly updated by Jeff Nathanson.  It’s not hard to take this material and make an enchanting movie.  For the most part, screenwriter Nathanson and director Jon Favreau have chosen to make a film that is largely a shot-for-shot recreation of the original with minimal changes.  The justification for this reinterpretation has been that this is a “live-action” portrayal.  But that description is not entirely accurate.  This is in truth another animated interpretation using CGI to render the animals as faithful versions of their previously hand-drawn selves.  However, the beasts of this vast African savanna still talk and occasionally burst into song.  So the realism is kind of an odd blend of nature mixed with the former musical.  The presentation is not unlike the CGI tools that director Jon Favreau utilized on his critically and monetarily successful adaptation of The Jungle Book in 2016.  This live-action depiction has been greeted with a lot less critical enthusiasm and I’m somewhat perplexed.  The visuals here are even more extraordinary looking.  In contrast, the public at large seems to agree as this has been enthusiastically greeted by audiences.

The Lion King is a breathtaking wonder and as a photographic work of art, it is astonishing.   The animators have realistically rendered these creatures down to every last hair on their furry bodies.   Mammals communicate in a variety of ways.  The illustrators preserve the way an animal emotes and reacts which is quite different from the earlier film where the expressions were more energetic.  The artists have to convey these feelings through a heightened stance or the kinds of facial responses you’d expect of an animal in order to uphold that illusion.  Sympathy is often derived from the situation in which a creature is placed.  For example, the fate of Mufasa endures as a powerful moment because we feel sorrow when harm comes to a living thing.  It’s almost akin to watching a nature documentary at times.

The Lion King is entertaining.  As a technological marvel, it’s a miracle to behold.  The beasts are unbelievably lifelike.  However, these mammals do talk and sing.  That certainly adds an extra element of relatability.  However, this remake doesn’t top the 1994 version, nor does it add anything new or innovative to the story.  There’s more flatulence.  I’ll give it that.  The cast also boasts a list of famous performers: Beyoncé, Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner.  With the exception of James Earl Jones who reprises his role as Mufasa, the vocal performances are less affecting this time around.  The visuals partially make up for that deficiency.  Contemplating such natural renditions of these characters while they sing and dance is rather strange but oddly fascinating.  Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) were cute cuddly creatures in the previous film.  Here they are decidedly less so.  Yet I can’t help but admire the movie’s adherence to true to life detail.  The pair get the most comedic bits.  Some are self-aware meta moments.  They acknowledge how Simba ages during the passage of time montage in the “Hakuna Matata” song.  They also sing a few bars of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. These added details are pretty rare though.  At best this is a gorgeous evocation of the superior original.  At worst, it’s an unnecessary update.

07-18-19

Toy Story 4

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on June 24, 2019 by Mark Hobin

toy_story_four_ver8STARS4Let’s face it.  Toy Story 4 doesn’t need to exist.  Toy Story 3 was a flawless finish to a brilliant trilogy.  Everything had been resolved.  You may recall that Andy the human child had grown up.  At the end, he donated his playthings to a little girl named Bonnie.  She was a preschooler at Sunnyside Daycare.  If you don’t remember this, who could blame you?  2010 was almost a decade ago.  However, it’s an important detail in order to understand the journey of these beloved characters.  Toy Story 4 becomes a necessary addition to this series.  The filmmakers have done something quite radical.  They have in essence rebooted the franchise by highlighting a new ensemble while drastically reducing the screen time of most of the original cast, even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).  Woody (Tom Hanks) is a notable exception who still plays a major part.  He now finds himself neglected by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  He may have been Andy’s favorite, but Bonnie is a completely different individual altogether.  Meet Forky (Tony Hale).  Bonnie has created a primitive toy as a craft project in her kindergarten class.  She loves him as much, if not more than, any store bought toy.

Director Josh Cooley along with writers Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, have come up with chronicle where an individual considers whether their life has meaning.  Forky has been fashioned from a plastic spork, pipe cleaners and googly eyes.  He becomes a sentient being.  He is not a “toy” in the classic sense and deep down the neurotic entity knows it.  He is constantly trying to throw himself into the trash.  Yet Bonnie’s love has brought him to life.  Her devotion is as real to this curio as any of her branded toys.  Woody understands this.  He unfailingly rescues the plastic thingamabob from trying to end its own life.  It’s an existential crisis that would make Ingmar Bergman proud.

The narrative introduces several characters and each one is a uniquely inspired creation of anxiety.  Forky is merely one soul in a detailed rumination on why toys exist and what gives a life fulfillment and value.  Also making a strong impression are Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), a pair of carnival prizes who simply want to be won.  The stitched together plush animals provide some of the biggest laughs of 2019.  There’s also Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), a 1950s pull-string doll that is perfectly preserved, except for one thing.  She has a broken voice box.  If that defect is repaired, she reasons, then someone will want her.  She is attended to by a collection of identical looking ventriloquist dummies named Benson that serve as her minions.  The fact they don’t speak is such an intelligent decision.  They are truly terrifying.  There’s also Duke Caboom, a square-jawed Canadian daredevil voiced by Keanu Reeves.  Given his well-received appearances in John Wick: Chapter 3 and Always Be My Maybe, 2019 is definitely his year.  He looks just like the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle I treasured in the 1970s.  Nevertheless, he suffers from low self-esteem because he is unable to perform the stunts his commercial ads promised.  This is pretty heady stuff.  I suspect most youngsters will appreciate all this angst as simply the basic need to be loved.

Toy Story 4 may be billed as a sequel to part 3 but it’s really a new beginning.  Most of the original characters have been sidelined in favor of a fresh cast and amended outlook.  Toy Story 4 profoundly flips the script in finding a sense of purpose.  Enter Bo Peep (Annie Potts) who is a much different personality in this narrative.  She was a porcelain figurine on a lamp in the first two entries.  Woody and she had a flirtatious crush on one another.  She is only briefly referenced in the third so her reemergence here as a major player is unexpected.  Her story opens the movie as a brief intro that begins 9 years prior, where she is unceremoniously given away to a mysterious man.  Part Annie Oakley, part Imperator Furiosa (Mad Max: Fury Road) — she is a galvanizing presence with a revolutionary perspective.

Toy Story 4 justifies its existence.  The storytelling is a bit messier than its predecessors.  The plot is an ungainly merging of various plot threads which juggle the various motivations of a large cast.  There are some risky leaps.  There is an emphasis on jokes. The humor is zany.  Although the script truly has something to say.  I will never doubt Pixar’s ability to reinvent itself.  Once you consider a fourth entry, you expect the quality to drop. You’d be forgiven for being skeptical.  The fourth installment has often been the death knell for a film series.  Batman & Robin (1997), Scream 4 (2011) and (perhaps too soon) Men in Black: International (2019) were each the final movie in their respective franchises.  The title is the only predictable component in this production.  This is a visionary dream.  As far as I’m concerned, Pixar could now put out Toy Story 5 & 6 and I’d greet their existence with joy.

06-20-19

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on June 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

secret_life_of_pets_twoSTARS2From a narrative standpoint, The Secret Life of Pets 2 has no reason to exist.  From a business angle, it would be to make money.  Given my sparsely attended theater on opening night, it’s a mere shadow of its predecessor in that department as well.  The first movie wasn’t great art but it had a zany quality that ultimately endeared itself to the audience.  There was a lot of animal personalities crammed into the plot but none stood out more than Kevin Hart as a white bunny named Snowball.  He’s back again but no longer a villain. The attitude that made his character a surprise in the original is gone.

The rest of the cast is back with one major exception.  Max, a Jack Russell Terrier, is now voiced by Patton Oswalt in this go-around taking over for Louis CK who was not rehired due to accusations of sexual harassment.  Oswalt voiced Remy the rat in Pixar’s Ratatouille so he’s no stranger to voice acting.  Duke (Eric Stonestreet) is back as the large, brown, shaggy Newfoundland mix who lives with Max.  If I had to award an MVP in the cast it would be to Lake Bell who returns as Chloe, a blue tabby cat.  Her sarcastic indifference perfectly matched my mood while watching this.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is even more chaotic, more freeform and less focused than its forebear.  30 minutes into the film and I still couldn’t discern a plot.  If you’re looking for a sampling of gags stuffed into an admittedly brief 86 minute saga (that includes the credits) then I suppose it fitfully entertains.  There are three storylines going on simultaneously.  The screenplay keeps them coherently discernible from one another like a banana, a mango and a peach in a fruit smoothie after they’ve been liquified in a blender.  The difference?  This experience isn’t tasty.

Max and Duke’s human owner Katie has married and now has a child.  The family all take a trip to visit a farm as a way to relax.  There Max meets Rooster (Harrison Ford), an alpha farm dog who watches Fox News and stans for Donald Trump.  I’m kidding but watch the movie and then tell me I’m wrong.  Meanwhile, Pomeranian Gidget ( Jenny Slate) accidentally loses Max’s favorite chew toy (a busy bee) to a bunch of cats in the apartment below hers.  She needs to get it back.  Finally, Snowball (Kevin Hart) and a Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), a Shih Tzu, must rescue a white tiger from a Russian circus run by a heavily accented stereotype named Sergei (Nick Kroll).   In these highly sensitive times, making fun of Eastern Europeans and the way they talk is apparently still OK.

Thankfully, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is short but it still feels long because it’s so meandering.  The story is essentially three cartoon shorts along with various subplots and vignettes cobbled together to make a theatrical feature.  None of them are particularly captivating.  It’s fleeting and ephemeral.  I can barely remember what I watched and I just saw it.  Perhaps this would be more comprehensible edited down and promoted as 3 half-hour TV episodes.  The screenplay doesn’t bother to expand on our understanding of these characters.  Nor does it offer anything in the way of wit.   If toilet humor is your thing, there are poop jokes and fart jokes.  The ending credits presents an America’s Funniest Home Videos-style montage of kids with their pets.  It made me laugh more than anything in the film.  At best this works as an 86-minute babysitter for your kids and at worst it’s an unpleasant time waster.

06-06-19

Missing Link

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on April 15, 2019 by Mark Hobin

missing_linkSTARS3Laika needs help.  The studio specializes in fastidiously mounted, exquisitely produced stop-motion animated features.  They receive critical raves but are increasingly ignored at the box office.  Their latest effort debuted at $5.9 million which set a record for the lowest total ever for a film to open on more than 3,200+ screens.  It helps that Laika is owned by Nike founder Phil Knight who has the power to subsidize their efforts.  Knight’s son Travis is President and CEO.  To be fair, their movies have never been huge money makers, but they can turn a profit.  The darkly twisted yet lovely Coraline made a substantial $75 million at the box office in 2009.  Their stop motion technique is liberally enhanced using computer-generated effects and 3D printing.  Some critics have blamed a lack of audience interest on Laika’s approach, but that doesn’t ring true.  The finished product is not dissimilar to Pixar’s or Disney’s computer-animated style.  I admire the meticulous craft that goes into making Laika’s art even when the production doesn’t charm me (The Boxtrolls).  I really want Laika to succeed because they make gorgeous looking pictures.  Missing Link likewise is visually stunning, but overall a relatively low point in their filmography.

The story concerns Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), a self-absorbed trailblazer that sets off on a trek of the Pacific Northwest.  He seeks to prove the existence of a legendary primitive man creature.  By doing this he hopes to secure admission into London’s Optimates Club, a group of narrow-minded explorers headed up by the insufferable Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry).  Why Frost so desperately wants to belong to an organization of arrogant snobs is rather baffling.  At any rate, he meets the Sasquatch rather quickly in the forest.  Turns out “Mr. Link” (Zach Galifianakis) as Frost dubs him, is a gentle giant who can talk.  Incidentally, with his tiny beady eyes and large pig nose, the design of the titular beast isn’t appealing.  Honestly, he’s downright ugly.  My unsolicited advice: if your main protagonist is furry and virtuous, make him adorable so kids will want the stuffed animal version.   The two set out to find Mr. Link’s long-lost relatives in the fabled valley of Shangri-La in the Himalayas.  Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Frost’s former girlfriend joins the two on their journey.  Her look may mimic the style of the “Gibson Girl” but her contemptuous personality isn’t cute.  Meanwhile, they are pursed by Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant) a bounty hunter on a mission to kill Frost.  Apparently, Piggot-Dunceby wants Frost dead so he has no chance of ever joining their group.  I still can’t get past the idea that Frost craves this guy’s acceptance.

Missing Link has its charms but they’re mostly visual.  The adventure has no momentum.  Just a meandering saga highlighting beautifully executed stop motion skills.  The chronicle is lacking a spark of inspiration to bring it to life.  Coraline and ParaNorman both had this audacious quality that entertained through sheer eccentricity.  But Missing Link is much saner and safer.  Frost’s whole purpose to gain admission into this highfalutin society of people who are beneath contempt is just misguided and sad.  The prim Victorian era setting isn’t an atmosphere that’s ripe for laughs.  Unless of course, you find colonialism and stuffy tradition, inherently funny.  Most of the stodgy repartee doesn’t land.  Emma Thompson, as the Yeti Elder Queen gets in a few laconic quips.  ‘Throw them in the Pit of Misery and Perpetual Disappointment!’ and “Shangri-La means, Keep out. We hate you,” are droll lines.  An adult fan of sarcasm might chuckle but it’s not banter that would delight a young child.   Ads for the movie clearly mismarketed this to children when this really should’ve been targeted at teens and adults.  However, the climactic action scene is a real cliffhanger – literally.  It entertains all ages.  The moment energizes with inspired loopiness.  That zany joy is sadly absent from most of the film.  It was a wacky jolt from a tale in desperate need of it.

04-11-19