Archive for the Animation Category

Christopher Robin

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

christopher_robin_ver3STARS3Christopher Robin is the latest live-action re-imagining of a Disney studios’ previously animated work.  A tradition that can at least be traced back to the 1994 version of The Jungle Book starring Jason Scott Lee.  This approach has yielded some major hits for the studio over the past two decades. The biggest being Beauty and the Beast in 2017. There’s usually a twist to these adaptations though. Christopher Robin is decidedly different. This is not an upbeat audience-pleasing romp, but rather a melancholy rumination on growing up.

Our story concerns the titular character mostly as an adult.  So you see it’s more of an extension of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and its followup The House at Pooh Corner. At the open, however, he is a young boy.  Christopher is leaving for boarding school. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, Owl, and Rabbit are all there to bid him farewell with a party in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Many years pass and eventually he meets architect Evelyn (Hayley Atwell).  They get married and have a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael).  He goes to work as an efficiency expert for Winslow Luggage.  Without getting into details, his job places demands on him that comes at the expense of a good relationship with his family.  Meanwhile, Pooh awakens one day unable to find his friends.  He travels through a door in the tree and finds himself in London where he meets his companion from the past now all grown up.

The drama is pitched in a minor key, a quiet meditation on what’s important in life. Christopher Robin is working to support his family. Nothing wrong with that, but it goes deeper. He has been tasked with reducing costs which means he will likely have to lay off his friends.  The proposal must be put together during a weekend he had promised to spend with his wife and daughter.  The idea is that this man has lost more than the time. It’s his very soul that is at stake and it’s up to Pooh to help him remember to recapture it again.  In this way, the stuffed bear is not unlike a wise sage with philosophical guidance. Pooh is an uplifting presence, although his personality is fairly subdued.

Christopher Robin is surprisingly somber for a children’s movie.  This is about a man dragged down by existential despair.  The production design utilizes a muted color palette for both the workaday world in London as well as that of the Hundred Acre Wood.  Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang have the look of beloved stuffed animals that are showing signs of wear.  All of this makes for odd stylistic choices but it does give the production a stimulative dose of reality. I did welcome the reflective mood. Not a whole lot happens and intellectually it doesn’t all make sense. Let’s not delve too deeply into the schizophrenic resolution. A denouement that ultimately acknowledges the importance of capitalism after it has been railing against it for most of the movie. Oh bother!  I simply appreciate Christopher Robin because it’s a poetic reminder to cherish your loved ones.  The film is gentle and sweet.

08-02-18

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Incredibles 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Drama, Superhero with tags on June 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

incredibles_two_ver11STARS4As far as this animation fan is concerned, The Incredibles is still the greatest Pixar movie ever made. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say it’s perhaps the greatest superhero movie ever made as well. I mention this because it helps to appreciate my mindset as I entered the theater to watch Incredibles 2. This was 14 years in the making. I had high expectations and I greeted this sequel with breathless anticipation. Did it deliver?

In a word, yes. It’s an absolute joy. The kid in me was delighted. It’s entertaining and colorful and funny and all the things that a good feature should be. The action embodies the peaks of Whiz! Bang! Pow! spectacle. The score by returning composer Michael Giacchino is profoundly compelling. I highly recommend this to anyone that wants to see a good film. That’s everyone obviously. However, and this is why I opened my review with where my head was at, this doesn’t even come close to the heartfelt emotion of the previous story. Part of that lies in the inherent qualities of original vs. sequel. The first was blessed with the grace of purity. The Parr family was realizing their abilities right before our eyes and the mere exploration of that was a simple pleasure. In a follow-up, that novelty is gone. Now there is an expectation to expand upon the world and deepen our understanding.

As such, this is a more complicated production. The chronicle picks up where The Incredibles ended. After failing to stop the Underminer from robbing the bank with his massive drill, the authorities are worried. The destruction caused to the city has forced the Incredibles and other “supers” to retire from duty for the moment. I initially thought of the Sokovia Accords that regulated superhero powers in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. Although Pixar was first. The theme of assimilating powerful individuals into normal society was present in the studio’s 2004 entry as well.  Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who leads DEVTECH, a telecommunications company, with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener).  She is voiced with the world-weary sarcastic knowingness of Catherine Keener sporting a cartoon face that looks hyperrealistic — especially when compared to her brother’s ridiculously long face.  Winston is a fan and wishes to reignite public support for “supers”.  Since Winston deems Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to be the least destructive, he advises her to fight crime as part of a publicity stunt.  It is during this period we are introduced to a new villain, Screenslaver, a baddie who hijacks screens by flashing hypnotic images that brainwash civilians.

With Elastigirl out fighting crime, the adventure reverses the traditional gender roles of mom and dad.  Thanks to DEVTECH corporation’s plan, Elastigirl is now the public face of superheroes while Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) stays home to take care of the kids. It’s not easy for him.  We’re so far past thinking this notion is a revolutionary concept that it’s positively quaint when the screenplay presents the idea as if it’s treading new ground. Look! Women can go to work.  Men can take care of their own children.  The basis for the plot is positively retro like a sitcom still firmly rooted in another era.  Even the obstacles with which Mr. Incredible must contend while being a stay-at-home dad seem like issues out of the past. While assisting his son with his arithmetic, he exasperatedly exclaims in frustration “This is Math! Why would they change Math?” There’s even a part where the Incredibles are given a space aged home filled with technological advances. I was reminded of the 60s cartoon The Jetsons. I wouldn’t be surprised if they struggled with similar issues.

I’m nitpicking mind you. Despite its inferiority to the original, Incredibles 2 is still the second best “Part 2” that Pixar has ever put out. The best sequel being Toy Story 2. We love this family. Their wholesome relationship is just as captivating as before. Older sister Violet (Sarah Vowell) and her brother Dash (Huck Milner) complete the family dynamic.  Bob’s best friend Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is back too.  Fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird) is wisely inserted into the drama again but she doesn’t overstay her welcome. The revelation of each unique personality is gone, but it’s nice to see everyone return nonetheless.

The character that really gets his due is Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). The baby has an entire cadre of various superhero powers and much of the fun/laughs is discovering what this tiny tot will do next. His fight with a raccoon is a specular tableau, one of several in this film.  Writer/ director Brad Bird really knows how to frame an action set piece and there are many to dazzle you here. Once again, an Incredibles film out marvels Marvel. Amazingly this particular one all takes place within the confines of the backyard of their home. It’s telling that simplicity is its strongest asset. It’s that restraint that is missing from a somewhat more cluttered narrative.  The motivation for the villain is a bit convoluted too.  This doesn’t achieve the sheer feeling of Pixar’s very best works.  Instead, I will remember Incredibles 2 mainly for the spectacular action, music and style….but oh what style!

06-14-18

Paddington 2

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on January 26, 2018 by Mark Hobin

paddington_twoSTARS4Was it really necessary to make a sequel to Paddington, the 2014 movie about a cute bear featured in a series of children’s fiction by Michael Bond? Yes, as evidenced by this effervescent piece of joy. Paddington 2 is the continuing adventures of a Spectacled bear from Peru after he comes to live with the Brown family in England. His Aunt sent him off on a train before she departed for the Home for Retired Bears. It’s now her 100th birthday and this duffle-coat-wearing star would like to get her a nice gift. There’s a unique pop-up book that he wants to purchase at a London boutique. Paddington saves up some money from performing odd jobs and subsequently goes down to the store buy it. Coincidentally at that very moment, the publication is stolen by a thief who believes the edition contains clues to a secret treasure. Unfortunately, Paddington is mistakenly identified as the culprit and sent off to jail.

Paddington’s life inside the prison is an entertaining diversion. His personality is infectious and even a group of hardened criminals is no match for the charismatic bear. Once again actor Ben Whishaw lends his voice. His delivery is still the perfect balance between an adult who’s unfailingly polite and a child who is a charming innocent. He ultimately wins over their (and our) hearts. Paddington’s recipe for marmalade sandwiches definitely comes in handy when influencing Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the cook at the penitentiary.  The production is cleverly filmed with delicate attention. At one point, Paddington inadvertently leaves a red sock in a laundry load of black and white uniforms. Uh-oh! The vision of a group of rugged hoodlums in pink prison uniforms is an amusing sight. Stylistic cinematography presents the decorative spectacle like a deliberately arranged painting of misfits. Never underestimate how much a decorative flourish can artfully elevate an otherwise cornball scene. Paddington 2 is an episodic tale but it’s so stylishly presented you’ll cheer every carefully manipulated twist that captures the eye.

Paddington 2 benefits from an ensemble of veteran actors, many of whom return from the first movie. Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back as Paddington’s adoptive parents, along with Julie Walters as their serious but sweet housekeeper. Jim Broadbent is the antique shop owner. Peter Capaldi reprises his role as Mr. Curry, the next door neighbor. You may recall Nicole Kidman as the villain in the last entry. She’s gone but fulfilling the same archetype is new-to-the-cast Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, a selfish cad of an actor. He alternately dresses as a nun, a knight, and a canine for his work.  His comical disguises will provide laughs to both young and old alike. This prodcution is a worthy follow-up to the enchanting original that came out in 2015 in the U.S.  The chronicle is made with the same attention to detail as other great British-y themed and youth-oriented stories like Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. Like those classics, it never feels like the narrative has been dumbed down for little minds. It remains steadfastly sophisticated, intelligent and witty. Paddington 2 is an absolute delight for adults…and also for the children that inevitably brought them.

1-25-18

Coco

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 27, 2017 by Mark Hobin

coco_ver7STARS4.5Pixar has a knack for extracting emotion. Do you recall the first 10 minutes in Up that depicted the married life of Carl and Ellie? Yeah, it had me bawling like a baby too. Ditto when WALL-E doesn’t recognize Eve or when Andy gives his toys away in Toy Story 3. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Coco strums the heartstrings as well as any Pixar film has ever done.

In fact, Coco is one of the most touching odes to family that I have ever seen. I don’t bestow such high praise lightly. There’s an undeniable joy in discovering the sentimental depth of this drama. I’ll describe the chronicle at its most basic so as not to ruin the joyous revelation of what happens. Our saga concerns Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez), a 12-year-old aspiring musician. He plays the guitar and serenades like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous Mexican star of 1930s/40s cinema. Ernesto is somewhat reminiscent of actual stars like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete. Unfortunately, Miguel’s late great-great-grandmother and matriarch of the Rivera family, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) had long ago banned music for future generations. You see her husband left her to pursue a music career. That also included their daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía). His face has been removed from the family photo that is displayed during the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead also known as Día de Muertos. When living grandmother Elena (Renée Victor) destroys Miguel’s guitar, he journeys off to find another instrument so he can enter a talent show.

The voice cast includes stars Benjamin Bratt and Gael García Bernal. Bratt’s voicing of Ernesto de la Cruz makes the singing idol a commanding presence. Even more affecting is a comical trickster named Héctor (Bernal) that little Miguel meets on his pilgrimage. He is a poor soul that is in danger of being forgotten — a personality full of humor and charm. I really enjoyed him. I didn’t realize that both Bratt and Bernal could sing, like really well in fact. They’re equally good at voicing their characters. Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez is suitably moving as the star, Miguel Rivera.  Melodies are an essential part of this feature. As such, this is the closest Pixar has ever come to making a full-on musical. Song selections infuse the narrative. “Un Poco Loco” and “Proud Corazón” are two highlights but the likely Oscar nominee is “Remember Me” which shows up in several renditions. The one sung as a lullaby near the end is the version that made me cry.

The importance of honoring your loved ones that have passed on encompasses The Day of the Dead, a celebration that forms the central focus of Coco. The idea that we are connected to our family members of the past and how present generations commemorate their memory is an integral component of the plot. Veteran Pixar director Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3) upholds an emotionally complex chronicle while still keeping things refreshingly simple in the way the account unfolds. That’s not easy to do. The screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich elevates feeling over plot details. There is a supernatural element when Miguel penetrates the “other side.” This would be a bit bewildering for me to explain how it occurs and what actually happens in this odyssey, but it’s simple as it plays out.  If I had a criticism, it would be that Pixar has an issue with extended final acts where the narrative contains elements that aren’t quite as magical as the stuff before it. We see it in great movies like Wall-E and Up. The concluding act in Coco is somewhat weakened by multiple endings. I started to think I was watching Return of the King. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed this segment. It’s a minor quibble in an overall stunning achievement.

On the surface, Coco is a simple tale of a little boy that wants to play the guitar. This is a return to the greatness of Pixar. Inside Out was pretty remarkable too, but Coco tops it for emotional intensity. Not since Toy Story 3 has a Pixar flick touched my heart so profoundly. I know we’re always praising the visuals in a Pixar movie, but this just might be one of their most beautifully animated films. The Land of the Dead is an underworld in which the spirits of the deceased meet their final destination. The manifestation of this realm is stunningly gorgeous as a multi-tiered city of buildings, bright lights, and colors. Bridges extend from out of the city onto which the deceased can travel. In this way, souls may return to the Land of the Living to see their relatives once again. The Day of the Dead is a vivid holiday. The animators have deftly celebrated its tradition in the best possible way for this movie. A non-stop party of lively (not frightening) skeletons dancing to music is a glorious sight to behold. The animators magnificently give life to lovable skeletons —  characters that are inherently scary. I liked seeing the comparison between their current existence as a silhouette of bones and their past life as a human being. I was astonished at how this stirred me so deeply. There was one plot twist that in retrospect I probably should have been able to predict but I was so hypnotized by what I saw, that I didn’t see it coming. Coco made me lose myself in the celebration of a young boy’s odyssey. The humanity completely overwhelmed me. Coco is full of heart and when I left the theater my heart was full.

11-23-17

Despicable Me 3

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family on July 1, 2017 by Mark Hobin

despicable_me_three_ver3STARS1.5Well, It took seven years, but Illumination Entertainment finally delivered The Despicable Me movie its detractors have accused them of making all along. Tedious, frantic, disjointed, shallow, dull, dumb. Despicable Me 3 is an insufferable mess of a film. It doesn’t have a focus so much as disparate interludes that have been randomly thrown together with no regard for the components needed to create an intelligible story. It’s up for discussion, but I think I counted at least four different story threads. These have then been haphazardly assembled to justify a 90 minute runtime. I’m not even sure I can even coherently outline the action, but I’ll try.

The alpha plotline begins when Gru (Steve Carell), former evildoer now an agent for the Anti-Villain League, is fired from the group because of his inability to apprehend criminal Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). He’s the worst excuse for a villain, but I’ll get back to him. Plot B details when Gru discovers he has a twin brother named Dru. The whole family – which includes wife Lucy and adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) – are invited to go hang out at his estate in Freedonia. The Duck Soup reference is cute. Then more developments: Mother Lucy (Kristen Wiig) is worried about being a good step-mom to the little girls, Edith and Agnes try to find a real unicorn, and Margo is almost married off to a little boy in a cheese ceremony. Meanwhile in Plot C, Gru is still preoccupied with retrieving the world’s biggest diamond from Balthazar Bratt. By accomplishing this, he hopes to get his old job back at the AVL. Oh and I almost forgot the Minions who are treated like an afterthought here. Plot D has the little yellow creatures upset that Gru is no longer interested in villainy. They leave but are promptly arrested and thrown in jail after trespassing at a talent show. Seriously if you’ve always hated the Minions, then this is the picture for you.

The narrative couldn’t even offer compelling supporting personalities this time around. Steve Carell also voices Dru, Gru’s long-lost twin brother. He’s a billionaire, has a higher pitched voice, and is flamboyantly carefree but he’s essentially the exact same person – just with a mane of blonde hair. We’re supposed to care about this familial reunion but their relationship is given short shrift. There’s simply too much going on to even care.

Now about that villain. A chronicle fixated on an antagonist is only as good as that personality. Balthazar Bratt is a lackadaisical suggestion of a individual. A former child star of a tacky 80s TV series called “Evil Bratt”, he found his popularity wane after entering puberty. Now an adult, he’s bent on world domination. Why? Good question. The writers aren’t concerned with such exposition, but I’m thinking it’s a case of “Waaaaah! You better notice me!” We’re never given an explanation as to why he is doing what he is doing.  Dressed in a purple jumpsuit with outrageous shoulder pads and parachute pants. He sports a droopy mustache and a black mullet with an extreme hi-top fade. He plays the keytar which gives the soundtrack an excuse to flood our senses with lots of late 80s hits (“Bad”, “Sussudio”, “Money For Nothing”, “99 Luftballons”, etc.) at every juncture. Their ostensible purpose? To elicit the reaction “Hey I recognize that song!” He’s merely a visual/auditory joke and nothing more. He’s easily the most lazily created villain of this franchise.

I’ve enjoyed the wacky playful antics of this series. Despicable Me and Despicable Me 2 were well-crafted exercises that combined fun with feeling. Even the underappreciated Minions had enough laughs to support its existence. They had the zany joy of those classic Warner Bros. Cartoons. They were goofy, sure, but they had a sense of purpose in the pursuit of an actual story. This time the scattershot atmosphere yields boredom. It’s a sloppy, commercially focused, Hollywood product that inspires nothing but pure unadulterated apathy. It lacks everything – wit, heart, joy – that made the first two installments great. It’s so empty that the experience was soul crushing for this self-avowed fan. As expected, Despicable Me 3 ends with a set-up to yet another one of these films. No thanks, I’ve had sufficient. I’ve stood by this franchise long after my peers abandoned it but here’s where I’m jumping ship too.

06-29-17

Cars 3

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family, Fantasy on June 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

cars_three_ver3STARS3Cars is officially a trilogy so we must now discuss it as we would the original Star Wars, Godfather and Lord of the Rings sagas.  All joking aside, there’s something almost comforting about the Cars movies.  They sort of offer proof that even the almighty Pixar is imperfect.  None of these films are terrible, mind you.   However, they aren’t particularly meaningful either.  Especially when you compare it to the high standard at which Pixar has always operated.  Given the setting, an automotive analogy is appropriate.  For Pixar, this what shifting into neutral and just coasting looks like.  These pictures are solid entertainment in the moment but don’t expect a timeless classic.

Cars 3 is a return to form, but let me reiterate.  I’m talking about a return to the quality of Cars, not the best Pixar movies. After Cars 2 shook things up by fixating on tow truck Mater over racecar Lightning McQueen, the franchise gets back to the basics of the original.  Here we revisit the focus on the joys of racing and not on an action-packed spy movie.  Cars 3 feels more like a sequel to the first Cars. Even Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in previously recorded snippets) pops up in flashback offering wisdom from beyond the grave. It’s almost as if Cars 2 never happened.

The drama concerns the current season of racing at the Piston Cup competition. Older racers Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Bobby Swift (Angel Oquendo) and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty) find themselves surpassed by a much more technologically advanced upstart named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). It’s clear the senior guys can no longer compete at the same level.  A fresh generation is taking over.  One by one the seasoned racers throw in the towel and retire, but Lightning refuses to quit.  That’s a good thing, right?  Not so fast.  A desperate attempt to push himself to the same speed as Jackson Storm leads to a disastrous accident for Lightning.  He decides to regroup.  Lightning heads off to the Rust-eze Racing Center where he meets the new owner named Sterling (Nathan Fillion).  Sterling is a big fan of Lightning McQueen and wants to see him succeed.  Sterling introduces him to his young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (comedian Cristela Alonzo). As the narrative progresses, Cruz becomes a notable addition to the cast.

Now you might think that this is all leading to a feel-good tale where Lighting learns how to retrain, be the best again and triumph over adversity.  Nope.  Sorry. Not even close.  The events are actually rather subversive and it’s that unpredictability that beckons the viewer to keep following.  There’s a lot of entertainment value in the capricious developments of the story.  It’s never boring.  However every time the drama seems to be pushing toward a particular moral, certain plot contrivances flip the script in a different direction.  We’re misled a few times and the results can be a bit unfulfilling.  It’s like we’re noshing on several appetizers instead of feasting on one entree.  Ultimately the climax can best be described as poignant.  Hint: We do age and there will always be a younger generation to take our place.  That can be seen as both depressing and uplifting.  In the end, Cars 3 is a pleasant diversion. Perhaps more importantly for the studio, it will sell a ton of new toys. Now the real question is, will your kids want to play with Cruz Ramirez or Jackson Storm?

06-15-17

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Posted in Action, Animation, Comedy on June 14, 2017 by Mark Hobin

captain_underpantsSTARS3George and Harold are two mischievous 4th graders that enjoy playing practical jokes because they cheer the students up at their miserable school.  They also write comic books in their spare time. Their latest superhero creation is Captain Underpants, a literary work that is ripped up by their ill-tempered principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms).  Despite the fact he doesn’t have proof, Mr. Krupp knows they are behind the practical jokes on the teachers at their elementary school. At the Invention Convention, the boys tamper with a fellow classmates’ entry called the Turbo Toilet so that it shoots toilet paper rolls at the audience. However this time, Mr. Krupp has video evidence of their shenanigans. He threatens to end the kids’ alliance by splitting them up into different classes. Before this can happen, the kids put him in a trance using a Hypno-Ring they got out of a cereal box. They make him act like a chicken, then a monkey, until finally…Captain Underpants. Hilarity ensues.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is based on an extremely successful 10-part series of children’s fiction by author and illustrator Dav Pilkey.  The saga revolves around George and Harold, two imaginative but disobedient fourth graders.  The youngsters defy authority and are prone to pranks. The massive popularity of the books, particularly with children ages 6–8 has garnered much attention since they were first published in 1997.

The boys’ playful disrespect for authority has garnered some controversy. The series surprisingly topped the list of the most banned books in America in 2012, beating out the much more controversial Fifty Shades of Grey. These novels were never part of my upbringing.  I was a wee bit older than 8 in 1997. I haven’t read any of them, but I can affirm there’s nothing in this kid-friendly movie that would offend even the most delicate sensibilities. Yes the main protagonist does wear tighty whities but let’s face it, if the sight of a cartoon wearing underpants is offensive to you, then you probably shouldn’t be watching films made after 1968 anyway.

The humor is rather innocent, but it certainly doesn’t reach sophisticated highs either. The potty jokes are mild but they’re constant. I suppose gags about poop and other bodily functions carry a certain charm – for budding minds anyway.  If you still think a planet with the name Uranus is hilarious, then calling it a “gas giant” should have you rolling with laughter.  That experience is what originally unites these two friends.  The taunts don’t get any more vulgar that “weirdo,” “stupid,” and “suck up”. Although some parents may bristle at one of the film’s subtle underlying messages.  The kids’ decision to tinker with a classmate’s science project is partially based on the fact that he enjoys learning and is excited about going to the science fair.  Since Melvin is socially awkward, he is apparently deserving of their ridicule.

The movie is colorful and should appeal to the young and young at heart. Where the production excels is in the bright and lively animation. When Professor P ( Nick Kroll) attacks the school, it’s presented as slapstick.  The action for the climatic big battle switches from the 3D computer graphics to the style of a flip-book. It’s such an amusing way to lighten the mood while lending interest to the scene. The voice actors are all well cast.  The two main 4th grade protagonists are especially good.  George is portrayed by well-known comedian Kevin Hart.  His best friend Harold is voiced by lesser known actor, Thomas Middleditch (TV series Silicon Valley).  The uplifting takeaway amongst all the poo poo and pee pee jokes is the unshakable bond of true friendship. George and Harold’s loyalty to one another is something to admire and emulate. Nonetheless, potty humor is still low comedy. Not objectionable in this case, just naive, simplistic and childish.  The film is a trifle. The main antagonist introduces himself as Professor P but the boys later discover the P stands for Poopypants. If that reveal causes you to burst out giggling, then I highly recommend this.  5 years olds will totally dig it. Some adults will too.  You know who you are.

06-07-17

Your Name

Posted in Animation, Drama, Fantasy with tags on April 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

Your_NameSTARS3Take a body switching fantasy, add a young adult romance, mix in a sci-fi time travel twist and throw in a natural disaster for good measure. Your Name is like a cross between Freaky Friday and Deep Impact. To be fair, that is overly simplifying things. Your Name is nothing if not ambitious. Ever since legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki announced his (temporary) retirement after The Wind Rises, thoughts over which filmmaker(s) would become his successor have inspired much speculation. Director Makoto Shinkai is definitely a possibility. Already a massive hit in its native Japan, Your Name is the first anime not directed by Hayao Miyazaki to earn more than $100 million at the Japanese box office. The film has now been released in the U.S. to critical acclaim.

Taki is a high school boy who lives in Tokyo. Mitsuha is a teenaged country girl living in Itomori, a rural Japanese village. Their lives become intertwined one day after they inexplicably swap bodies when they awake one morning. At first, it isn’t clear what’s exactly happening. We do know that Mitsuha isn’t happy with her homemaking duties. “Please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life!” she calls out at an early point. An approaching comet might have something to do with it too. At first, it appears they’re just dreaming. That’s how our lead characters assess what has occurred. But their friends’ reactions let them soon realize this has indeed physically transpired. The body exchange phenomenon continues to take place at random intervals for brief periods. They start leaving notes for the other so that when they change back they can ease the transition and not disrupt the other’s life. Taki allows Mitsuha to become more popular with her classmates. Conversely Taki’s new personality catches the eye of Ms. Okudera, his female boss. The idea that Okudera is more attracted to the transposed Mitsuha is a subversive contemplation that is brought up but never resolved. Ditto Taki’s male pal who thought he was cute the other day.

Anime or Japanese animation is an acquired taste. One has to be conditioned to understand its rhythms and idiosyncrasies The accounts are often so fanciful or overly convoluted as to render them almost incomprehensible to viewers expecting an accessible plot. Those not already accustomed to the offbeat style of anime may find this perpetually morphing narrative a bit puzzling.  I mean I was down for the “traditional” body switching story but when it was further shuffled with time-shifting events that led to a transmigration of souls across the astral plane, I was less engaged. Let’s not forget there’s also an impending comet that promises a monumental act of God. Whew!

I find if you tinker with a narrative too much, you lose the audience’s commitment to the drama. Your Name is more comprehensible than some anime, but it’s still pretty packed with plot machinations. At one point you realize our protagonists are not even existing in the same time frame anymore. Taki drinks something called kuchikamizake, which is essentially fermented rice that Mitsuha chewed up and spit into a jug years ago.  This somehow allows Taki to have some control over his ability to swap bodies with Mitsuha in another dimension. One leap of faith and I’m still invested. Three or four and I’m reduced to a shrug.  I lose interest. I appreciate the desire to creatively tell a story, but there’s beauty in a straightforward tale of boy meets girl.  Simply put: less is more. The visuals are crisp. When the comet finally arrives it’s beautifully revealed. Your Name’s mainstream teen saga of young love is further emphasized with a modern sensibility. An emo pop soundtrack by Japanese rock band RADWIMPS underlines the production. For Western audiences, think of the pop/punk melding of Fall Out Boy. The cheesily upbeat tunes nicely complement the teenybopper romance. It’s a bit cloying, but I was rooting for these two to finally meet. Your Name is highly watchable. I was entertained, but regrettably I wasn’t moved.

I saw it in the original Japanese with English subtitles. There is also an English dub.

04-09-17

My Life as a Zucchini

Posted in Animation, Comedy with tags on March 22, 2017 by Mark Hobin

ma_vie_de_courgette_ver2STARS4Quirky, dark and charming. These are the three words that immediately spring to mind when I think of My Life as a Zucchini (also titled My Life as a Courgette). Icare (Erick Abbate), or Zucchini as he likes to be called, is a 9-year old boy who lives with his single mother. An only child, he’s a lonely lad seemingly without any playmates. His mother spends her days watching TV and drinking beer, as evinced by all the aluminum cans lying around the house. He passes time playing up in the attic and flying his kite adorned with a drawing of his father as a superhero. The dad is MIA by the way – whereabouts unknown. One day, little Zucchini is playing up in his room while his inebriated mom is downstairs. He has collected her discarded beer cans and is stacking them to build a tower. Most kids would use blocks but you use what’s available right? One thing leads to another and suddenly Zucchini is facing the unexpected death of his mother. I told you it was dark.

The animation is a painstakingly rendered stop-motion charmer. The plasticine people have big heads and large eyes like a Margaret Keane painting. Their faces are not as expressive as the cartoons with which we are familiar, but that almost gives these characters a sense of mystery underneath their pleasant facades.  My Life as a Zucchini is French-Swiss director Claude Barras’  first full-length feature. It’s an adaptation of Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette.  Barras receives an able assist from a screenplay co-written by Céline Sciamma (Girlhood).   The intelligent writing details how resilient children truly are.  Despite the medium, this material isn’t meant for young children, hence the PG-13. Although most pre-adolescents age 10 and up should be fine, the subject matter might disturb kids of Zucchini’s age or younger.

Zucchini is taken to an orphanage by a friendly policeman named Raymond (Nick Offerman). There he meets 5 others like him without parents already living there.  They’re a ragtag group. Amazingly the screenplay takes the time to develop a nuanced personality for each waif. Red haired Simon (Romy Beckman) is “the boss”. Alluring Kafka-reading Camille (Ness Krell), who arrives later, turns his head.  This enchanting stop-motion cartoon was originally presented in French, but the English language dub features actors Will Forte, Nick Offerman, Ellen Page and Amy Sedaris. I found their work engaging.  For the most part, Zucchini’s encounters are positive experiences.  It’s refreshing that a state-run institution is actually presented as a place of kindness rather than terror. The boys have a hilarious conversation about the birds and the bees and it captures the spotty understanding that a group of 10-year-olds would have. We love these kids

My Life as a Zucchini flies by in a scant 70 minutes but mines more depth of emotion than a drama twice its length. The nature of the production allows the disturbing script to deal with sensitive problems that might be off-putting in a live action movie. As performed with stop motion puppets the weighty issues take on a poignant charm.  Sometimes children find themselves without a mom or a dad. The circumstances are many: some have passed on, others arrested, deported, or maybe they have just simply abandoned them.  It’s a heartwarming tale that doesn’t sugarcoat the toughest thing a youngster may ever have to face. Yet somehow kids manage to weather the tribulations that life throws at them.  The narrative delves into the need for a child, and anyone really, to feel loved. My Life As A Zucchini received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film well before it was even available in theaters. Now it has been officially released and it’s still pretty hard to find. I suspect most people will have to discover this lovingly crafted gem once it’s available to rent. And please do seek it out. It’s an unconventional delight.

03-19-17

2017 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 1 of 2)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Shorts with tags on February 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

For the past decade, ShortsHD has made all three of the Oscar-nominated short film programs (animated, live action, documentary) available to audiences around the world.

Animation

The animated compilation was released to theaters on February 10th, giving the public the opportunity to see the nominated entries before the Oscar Awards ceremony on February 26th.

In addition to the theatrical release, the nominated live-action and animated shorts will also be accessible online ( iTunes, Amazon Instant Video) and on VOD/Pay-per-view Platforms (AT&T, Comcast, DIRECTV, etc) starting February 21st.

The animated segment is often my favorite of the shorts programs because they are the most succinct.  They elicit both joy and sadness, sometimes in the span of 5 minutes.

I’ve ranked them in the order from best to worst.

[Side Note: How Disney’s delightful Inner Workings got snubbed is beyond me.  The animated short aired theatrically before Moana so millions saw it.  Perhaps it was too thematically similar to Pixar’s 2015 feature Inside Out.]

 

Piper
USA/6MINS/2016
Director: Alan Barillaro
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Piper was released alongside Pixar’s Finding Dory last year. Given that it made $486 million, chances are you’ve seen this one already.

Not much story to speak of. A baby sandpiper learns to overcome her fear of water. So why is this my favorite short?  1), The photo realism is rendered so perfectly that it transcends current animation. Director Alan Barillaro utilizes new technology to advance the medium forward with visuals we haven’t seen before. 2.) Its buoyant atmosphere stands out in this mostly downbeat collection of nominees.  Piper is uplifting and it made me feel better than anything in this largely depressing lot.

 

Pearl
USA/6MINS/2016
Director: Patrick Osborne
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A father and his daughter travel across the country in their beat up broken down hatchback affectionally known as Pearl. He’s a musician and the story follows the pair through the years as they grow older. A reflection on how our lives change and the way our talents are learned from those that mold us. A poignant tale.

Director Patrick Osborne took home the 2015 Oscar for Best Animated Short with Feast.

 

Blind Vaysha
CANADA/8MINS/2016
Director: Theodore Ushev
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Vasyha is born with one green eye and one brown eye. That’s harmless enough but it gets worse. A terrible curse prevents the girl from living in the present. Her left eye sees only the past. Her right, only the future. Grim fable has a clear moral. Savor the present moment! The fantasy is captivatingly odd but bleak.

 

Pear Cider and Cigarettes
CANADA & UK/35MINS/2016
Director: Robert Valley
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This nihilistic tale concerns a hard-living man named Techno Stypes. He starts out as a golden boy athlete but wastes his life away as a rabid alcoholic. Techno’s behavior soon demands he must get a liver transplant. Vancouver animator Robert Valley narrates the autobiographical tale about his childhood buddy.  

The short has the feel of a graphic novel and embraces a decidedly rock-and-roll vibe. Lots of music is played throughout. It all make sense when you learn that Valley is known for his work on the Gorillaz music videos.  Style to spare, but the story left me cold.

 

Borrowed Time
USA/7MINS/2015
Directors: Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj
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An old Sheriff returns to the scene of an accident that has haunted him his entire life. Directors Lou Hamou-Lhadj and Andrew Coats have both worked together at Pixar so you can best believe the animation looks good.  However, this is far darker than anything that studio has ever produced. 7 minutes really isn’t enough time to properly convey the emotional depth of this grave tale.

Points for the score by Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain) though.