Archive for the Animation Category

2021 Oscar Nominated Short Films (Part 2 of 3)

Posted in Animation, Awards, Shorts with tags on April 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

ShortsTV has made the Oscar-nominated short films (animated, live-action, documentary) available to audiences for over a decade. This year you can watch them online or via VOD or in a theater where they’ve been playing since April 2.

ANIMATION

I hate to be a gloomy Gus, but this year’s crop of animated films did not enchant me. Sadly Out, the man-dog body-swapping tale and Kapaemahu, the poetically beautiful Hawaiian folkloric tale didn’t even make the cut this year. With one notable exception, this animation program is not for kids. I’ve ranked these predominantly unlikable shorts in order of likability. It was hard.

BURROW
USA/6 MINS/2020
Director: MADELINE SHARAFIAN

A rabbit trying to dig herself an underground home keeps running into her neighbors. She’s confused. Her subterranean tunnels form a delightful labyrinth and the adorable critters are amusing. I get Wind in the Willows vibes. It’s a simple pleasure, but at least it’s pure and innocent. Burrow is from SparkShorts, a series produced by Pixar Animation Studios. It’s undeniably cute. What it lacks in innovation, it makes up for in feel-good spirit. Ironically that quality makes this entry unique by default this year. The rest of the submissions are dour, depressing and frankly a little twisted.

OPERA
SOUTH KOREA/USA/9 MINS/2020
Director: ERICK OH

This one grew on me upon closer study. A pyramidal diorama of a corrupt society is depicted in an overview of tiny figures before our eyes. The people on top have an effect on the humanity below. This would be impressive playing on a massive wall on a loop in a modern art gallery. It is impossible to grasp everything that is happening on screen, but upon further examination (I watched it more than once) a sense of purpose develops. Somewhat reminiscent of the work of Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch and his depictions of hell. This is an animated update for our modern times. It’s supremely unsettling but easily the most innovative of this year’s nominees. It begs your attention.

IF ANYTHING HAPPENS I LOVE YOU
USA/13 MINS/2020
Directors: MICHAEL GOVIER, WILL MCCORMACK

A husband and wife grieve the loss of their daughter — their only child — taken by a mass shooting. Minimalist, expressive black and white pencil sketches are a mediation on violence against children. The worst thing that any parent can possibly imagine is depicted for your entertainment in the form of a cartoon. There’s even a contemporary pop song “1950” by King Princess for your listening enjoyment. Clearly, their motives are pure. The filmmakers are opposed to school shootings which I think (I can safely say) is something everyone is against. The filmmakers worked closely with the American nonprofit organization Everytown for Gun Safety. I can’t see this not winning the Oscar as the filmmakers have literally done their homework with a sanctioned advocacy group.

GENIUS LOCI
FRANCE/16 MINS/2019
Director: ADRIEN MERIGEAU

In the polytheistic religion of ancient Rome, a “genius loci” was the protective spirit of a place. The longest at 16 minutes, this is extremely avant-garde. Reine is a young Black woman who ventures through the urban chaos of Paris. The people and places around her are an ever-shifting collage of surrealism. Is she on drugs? Is she mentally unstable? Are paranormal forces afoot? Who’s to say. One thing’s for sure. She is anxious and dissatisfied with life. Disconnected from her thoughts and body, she even becomes a canine at one point. The most experimental of the nominees which is a nice way of saying, I didn’t get it.

YES-PEOPLE
ICELAND/9 MINS/2020
Director: GÍSLI DARRI HALLDÓRSSON

A group of unsavory residents live in an apartment building. The characters with their exaggerated features are visually grotesque in this portrait of domesticity. Good luck divining a story in this narrative. Their nonverbal dialogue consists of grunts before culminating with moans and screams of ecstasy at the end. These (amusingly?) reverberate throughout the building when one couple decides to get intimate. How on earth is this up for an award? The worst of the lot.

03-28-21

Raya and the Last Dragon

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Family with tags on March 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

In the mythical land of Kumandra, there lived a fearless and bold warrior princess named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). And she is not going to be having any sort of a romantic relationship whatsoever, thank you very much. That’s not explicitly stated, but you can rest assured it’s a key part of her personality. Ever since Snow White first appeared in 1937, Disney has always adhered to a blueprint for their leading ladies. Sure it changes with time, but this is the current one. The stars of Frozen and Moana featured fiercely independent types where a romance wasn’t expressed as a desire and now Raya joins that club. That’s perfectly fine since the emphasis is on the adventure, but that trait is now an expected ingredient in the formula.

Formulaic is a good way to describe this convoluted tale. The kingdom of Kumandra is comprised of five tribes named after parts of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine. There was a time when a magical gem kept them safe. However, people coveted the object’s power. This further divided their individual societies. Raya’s dad, Chief Benja, (Daniel Dae Kim) guarded the orb. Believing that their warring tribes could still be united, Benja foolishly invites his mortal enemies over for a feast. They (predictably) start fighting over the valuable bauble. It is dropped and shatters into five fragments. The purple smoke-like Druun is unleashed and turns some people into stone. Members from each clan grab the individual pieces and take them back to their respective lands.

It is now six years later. Raya must travel to all 5 lands in Kumandra to retrieve the jewel to restore order. She rides around on her giant pet named Tuk Tuk. The animal functions like an off-road vehicle that looks like an armadillo crossed with a pill bug. Raya is gradually joined one by one “Wizard of Oz style” by a ragtag group of individuals to collect the scattered pieces of the stone. These entities include Sisu (Awkwafina) a goofy water dragon who is the last surviving member of her species, an annoying 10-year-old boy (Izaac Wang), a bulky warrior (Benedict Wong), and a baby thief (Thalia Tran) — who may or may not actually be an infant. I was unclear.

Raya and the Last Dragon may be extremely predictable, but it still curates an environment. Kumandra is a fictional place comprised of an amalgamation of references from different countries to form one monolithic culture. There’s no denying the production team did some homework. They sample from an array of various customs of Southeast Asia — but not solely from any one particular country. It’s sort of a blending of the Philippines, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore. The landscape, food, combat styles, greetings, and objects are fastidiously presented.

Nevertheless, all of the efforts to maintain some credible identity collapses under the A-List Asian cast sporting contemporary American accents. Hearing the hip sassy lingo of suburban teens is fitting on an episode of Modern Family or The Goldbergs, but it’s distracting in a historical period drama set in Southeast Asia. Queens native Awkwafina voices the dragon which is an incongruous creation. Sisu has shapeshifting properties but never manifests as how Westerners know dragons. Sisu is more of a large klutzy furry snake creature that can morph into a human. Her articulation is an amusing contradiction to be sure, but so was Eddie Murphy in Mulan. Regrettably, the voice acting totally takes you out of the atmosphere.

This cartoon is an interesting assortment of talent: written by Qui Nguyen (Netflix TV series The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and directed in an irregular pairing of Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) and Don Hall (Big Hero 6). Both directors have done better. I wasn’t particularly charmed by any of the generic situations or personalities. However, the animation is unquestionably stunning and it’s enough to carry you through some of the film’s more insipid passages.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a classic hero’s journey with a strange message. Raya goes on an adventure, is victorious in a crisis, and emerges transformed by the experience. What she learns is an odd lesson though. Her chief antagonist is Namaari (Gemma Chan). On the surface, Raya and Namaari are adversaries, although each woman is more driven by loyalty to their own people than direct hate of the other person. As children, the two were friends, but Namaari betrays Raya’s confidence when she gives her friend a peek at the gemstone. Namaari’s treachery sets the entire thrust of the plot in motion. Despite a history of deception, the movie ultimately pleads that a person should still put faith in their enemy. So if I understand correctly, the moral of the story is an update of a famous proverb. I’m paraphrasing but something along the lines of “Fool me once, fool me twice…it’s all good. I should keep trusting you anyway.” Sounds like dangerous advice.

03-09-21

Tom and Jerry

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family on March 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1 out of 5.

There are so many ways to approach a critique of Tom and Jerry. The picture is a complete failure on so many levels, but let’s consider it from the source material. Tom and Jerry originally starred in 114 theatrical shorts from 1940 to 1958 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The series centered on the rivalry between a cat named Tom and a mouse named Jerry. They were created in 1940 by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. In 1940 rap music wouldn’t exist for at least another thirty years. Even rock and roll wouldn’t emerge for another decade. Nevertheless, the chronicle opens with a trio of pigeons with a frontman — or front·bird — rapping to the tune “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest.

Hip hop music comprises the bulk of the soundtrack. I consider A Tribe Called Quest’s 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm to be one of the greatest rap debuts ever. Their follow-up The Low-End Theory was ever better. They were an influential rap group, pioneers of the jazz rap genre. Oh wait, I seem to have gone off on a tangent that has absolutely nothing to do with the film. Rather appropriate since this movie has little to do with the MGM cartoon. Tom and Jerry is a modern adventure set in Manhattan. The story relegates the titular duo to the sidelines. This is a tale about Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) who steals a candidate’s resume so she can surpass more qualified applicants. She gets a job as an event planner at a fancy hotel. While there she is put in charge of prepping an ostentatious wedding for two insufferable social media influencers named Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost).

This is a live-action film starring a bunch of humans where the cat and mouse have been demoted as side characters in a movie that bears their name. At the very minimum, the production effectively mixes live-action with animation. It’s competent on a technical level. Tom and Jerry don’t speak which wisely preserves something from the past at least. It’s just that this is all in service of a crude piece of entertainment. It is a cluttered pop culture mess that trashes 80 years of history for dog poop and fart jokes. Spike the bulldog does his business, loudly, during the climactic scene. There is humor derived from talking with a Mexican accent. Oh yes, the talented Michael Pena enunciates with such stereotypical pronunciation that it’s hard to believe this came out in 2021. I’ll acknowledge that I am not the target demographic for how they exploited this cartoon. Tom and Jerry was a success in theaters anyway. Audiences embraced this update, but as far as I’m concerned, this type of modernization is the enemy of the classics.

03-1-21

Soul

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on December 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The meaning of life is a pretty grandiose idea for any movie to tackle and perhaps even more uncommon for a cartoon. However if any studio could rise to the challenge, it’s Pixar. Every release is always highly anticipated. This one is decidedly different because it’s being made available on Disney+ as many theaters are closed. For those who wish to keep track, this is Pixar’s 23rd feature. It takes on some major subjects. This isn’t new for the animation company. Both Coco and Inside Out dealt with similar themes but I’d say that Soul attempts something much grander.

The legendary Pete Docter has yet to fail as a director: Monsters, Inc, Up, and Inside Out are all classics. Here he directs for the fourth time and co-writes the script (with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers). I’m happy to say Docter comes through again — so successfully that I’m willing to bet Soul will be a Best Picture nominee when the Oscars are announced on March 15, 2021. Only three animated films have ever been nominated for the highest honor: Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3 are the others.

Soul is fascinating because it deals with a lot of abstract beliefs. The saga concerns jazz musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who feels unfulfilled as a middle school music teacher. Then one day, a former student (Questlove) invites him to sit in on his jazz band led by respected saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). Unfortunately, while leaving the successful audition he’s so preoccupied with the opportunity that he falls down a manhole and slips into a coma. His lifeless body lays in a hospital room but his soul is taking an escalator ride upward toward the Great Beyond. However, since he just got his big break, he resists by running away in the opposite direction. Joe plunges to another region called the Great Before. Understandably Joe is confused. “Uh hey, is this heaven?” he asks. That is the first and only time the word is ever uttered. “This isn’t the Great Beyond” a counselor (Alice Braga) informs him. “It’s the Great Before” — a place where other souls currently exist before being conceived as human beings . This is where personalities and interests are assigned before going to Earth. Oh, they’re calling it the “You Seminar” now. Rebranding.

There is a lot to unpack here. The screenplay has a definite worldview that it’s promoting. The ancient Greeks and Islam maintain a pre-existence, but it is generally denied in Christianity. For the most part, the filmmakers portray the afterlife without referencing the theology of any denomination. For example, the concept of God is not mentioned. Neither is religion. This is understandable as the teachings have been workshopped to please as many viewers as possible. Instead, we meet counselors all named “Jerry” that manifest as shapeshifting entities. They appear like cubist doodles that Picasso might have drawn. It is here that Joe is paired up to mentor a disagreeable unborn soul named 22 (Tina Fey) who has never left the Great Before. Adults who have well-established convictions about what life after death means will easily acknowledge these designs as a construct. This tale will most definitely inspire questions about heaven in the very young. Parents can use this as a springboard for further discussion with their children.

Soul eventually bestows an admirable moral with universal appeal. The ultimate reveal is a warm fuzzy thought that everyone can enjoy. That universality is guaranteed not to offend. Nevertheless, it keeps the chronicle from offering anything particularly deep or controversial. What the narrative lacks in profundity, it more than makes up for in visual grandeur. When Joe descends into the Great Before, my heart leaped at the sensational marriage of sight and sound. The percolating synthesizer score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is supremely affecting. Pixar has pushed their artistry once again. Their efforts elevate this production in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to appreciate: Joe’s fingers as they grace a keyboard (playing compositions by bandleader Jon Batiste), the judgmental facial expressions of Dorothea Williams regarding a new addition to her musical combo or simply the physical realm of New York City rendered in breathtaking detail. Thematically it aims higher and so the bar is raised to a new level. Soul is an ambitious statement and it delivers some but not all of the spiritual enlightenment it initiates. The story is still endlessly compelling throughout and I enjoyed the film as a spectacle. It’s one of the best of the year.

12-25-20

Wolfwalkers

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Family, Fantasy with tags on December 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In mid 17th century Ireland, the town of Kilkenny is at war with wolves. The citizens are currently clearing space in the woods for farming under the direction of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney), but the beasts are getting in the way. They attack the townsfolk’s sheep as well. Legend has it these aren’t mere animals. They are led by a much stronger breed called wolfwalkers — individuals who are part human, part wolf — that control these canines. A hunter named Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been hired to help aid in the canines’ extinction. He also has a young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) who is eager to help out.

The Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon has a perfect record. They are now four for four in an extraordinary run of fantastic films beginning in 2009 with The Secret of Kells and continuing with Song of the Sea and The Breadwinner. Sure Disney and Pixar are far more prolific but with quantity comes mediocrity. Those studios achieve undeniable highs but the magical spirit of Cartoon Saloon is light years beyond releases like Chicken Little or Cars 3. This sumptuous, hand-drawn saga is an exquisite labor of love that touches the heart as it dazzles the eye. Every one of their movies has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. I do not doubt that this one will likewise get a nod. Perhaps 2021 could be their year. Wolfwalkers is that good.

This is a touching fable of friendship. Robyn encounters a wild bushy red-haired child. The little girl is named Mebh (Eva Whittaker). She is a human by day but can shape-shift into a wolf at night. As an apprentice hunter, Robyn has been instructed by her father to kill the last wolf pack. However, Mebh is a thoughtful soul who shares Robyn’s desire for freedom. Additionally, Mehb wants to be reunited with her mother (Maria Doyle Kennedy). There is a palpable connection — a sisterhood between the girls — that is most affecting. Robyn is conflicted.

If Wolfwalkers has a weakness it’s in the simplicity of the story. The developments have our protagonist encountering hostility for befriending a strange individual. Robyn and Mebh’s relationship is purely platonic, but it’s not embraced by her peers. That idea can be traced at least as far back as Romeo and Juliet. There are similarities to FernGully, Disney’s Pocahontas, Princess Mononoke, Avatar, and — wait for it — Dances with Wolves. There’s an overbearing tyrant who casts dispersions on the “others” as savages too. Yet I won’t hold familiarity against it. At this point, it would be like faulting a romantic comedy because it’s a “boy meets girl” tale.

Wolfwalkers is a beautiful achievement. I cannot emphasize how gorgeous these hand-drawn visuals look given our modern aesthetic of computer rendered images. It is so rare in fact that the mere presentation is stunning. The uniqueness is appreciated. The colors are bold and vibrant. There is an unfinished, rough quality to the artistry of the spectacle. Yes, traditional animation still exists. Anime from Japan and Warner Brothers’ direct to video superhero movies are notable exceptions. However with Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks’ domination of the market, CGI has been the norm.

Cartoon Saloon has been releasing works of art since 2009. Director Tomm Moore’s first two features were The Secret of Kells (2009), co-directed with Nora Twomey, and Song of the Sea (2014). He also did the segment “On Love” in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Now he has returned with Wolfwalkers, a collaborative effort with art director Ross Stewart who makes his directorial debut here. What I value most about this production — and everything Cartoon Saloon does — is their dedication to creating an authentic age. No jargon or references to things in 2020. Disney and Pixar make enjoyable pictures, but they’re usually very much of our time. Wolfwalkers is a journey into another era allowing the viewer to bask in an ethereal mood. I rarely experience that in contemporary films. That’s something to be treasured.

12-02-20

The Croods: A New Age

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on November 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I wasn’t especially fond of The Croods back in 2013 when I saw it. I railed against its modern attitude and the antagonistic relationship between father and daughter. I still gave it a passable review because it was mostly pleasant. Now I haven’t re-watched it since, so I’m not sure if I’ve changed or if The Croods: A New Age is indeed a better movie. Don’t get me wrong, this is not deep. It basically coasts on physical comedy. Nonetheless, it’s such a sunny upbeat delight that it was enough to charm me into believing this is an improvement.

It helps that the story is more elaborate than merely “daughter butts heads with an overprotective father.” Everyone in the Crood household is back including Guy (Ryan Reynolds) — the boyfriend of Eep (Emma Stone) — who now lives with the clan. This time the so-called “threat” is a seemingly innocent family who has advanced beyond the Croods in intelligence and evolution. They’re the Bettermans. Psst…..their name is allegorical. Get it? Actors Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann really bring their A-game in voicing these fussy characters. There’s something acutely absurd in the contrast. Grug (Nicolas Cage) and Ugga (Catherine Keener) Crood are so thoroughly unrefined while Phil and Hope Betterman are upscale types that act like they’re ready to lead a yoga class. They welcome the Croods into their beautiful home and Grug brings the havoc. Grug can’t seem to understand the concept of a wall.

This is a very funny movie. There are plenty of laughs to be mined simply in that dichotomy. Then the narrative develops a little further. The adventure revolves around the Betterman’s daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran) who is comparatively down to earth for a Betterman. She admires Eep and they forge a fast friendship. The fact that they aren’t depicted as rivals is a refreshing surprise. Also, the Bettermans already know Guy. That previous connection makes relationships a bit complicated. The New Age is still a slapstick affair at heart but the zaniness is intelligently introduced and then focused. There’s a glee here that recalls the work of animation legend Tex Avery for Warner Bros and MGM. For example, when Dawn’s hand is stung by a bee it swells to such a puffy cartoonish size it looks like an inflatable balloon. It’s not a profound film. I’ll probably forget the details in a week or two. However, I frequently laughed while watching this, and in 2020 that counts for a lot.

11-20-20

Over the Moon

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy with tags on November 5, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Over the Moon is an early frontrunner for Best Animated Feature at the 2021 Oscars. The hype doesn’t help. Unrealistic hope can affect your enjoyment and this set mine unnecessarily high. Netflix has made it a habit of buying up animated movies and releasing them as originals. Recent titles include The Little Prince, I Lost My Body, Klaus, The Willoughbys, Fearless, A Whisker Away, Animal Crackers, and Pets United. They run the gamut in quality, so I usually temper my expectations.

The production has a pedigree too. It’s co-directed by Glen Keane, the legendary Disney luminary who worked on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and many others. He won the Best Animated Short Film Oscar for the fawning Dear Basketball co-written and narrated by Kobe Bryant. This release is actually put out by Shanghai-based Pearl Studio who brought us Abominable in 2019. Given the talent involved and the positive buzz, I expected a lot more.

The story sounds culturally adventurous and otherworldly. The tale is adapted from a fable about the Chinese goddess of the Moon. It concerns a 14-year-old girl in China named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang). She believes in the Moon goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) because of stories her mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) told her. Unfortunately her mom is terminally ill. After Ma Ma passes on, Fei Fei yearns to travel to the heavens in a rocket ship and prove to everyone that Chang’e is not a myth and that she does truly exist.

Over the Moon is a mixed bag. On the plus side, this is a beautifully animated saga full of colorful designs and expressive creatures. The impressive spectacle is the production’s greatest asset. Fei Fei does indeed fly to the moon. There she meets a wacky world of alien critters. Yet their personalities would be more at home on an American sitcom. It heavily relies on successful works of the past too. There’s goofy sidekick Gobi (Ken Jeong) with the temperament of Olaf the snowman from Frozen. Meanwhile, the Moon goddess is revealed to be less of an ethereal being and more of a spoiled pop princess. Can you feel my disappointment?

The account begins as sensitive handling of death and remarriage, then presents an unrelated adventure that tidily resolves complicated emotional issues at the end. It’s not hard to see the DNA of other films. The aforementioned Frozen, but also Up, Alice in Wonderland, Mulan, the Pixar short Bao. Chinese culture has been superficially inserted as atmosphere to infuse a very bland and generic screenplay. I sound like a broken record because I made the same “Americanized” critique of Abominable. It’s worth noting the voice cast is Asian American. Representation in storytelling and casting is more important than ever. However, Mulan supported Asian actors (Ming-Na Wen, Lea Salonga, BD Wong, Pat Morita, James Hong, George Takei) way back in 1998 and still managed to promote unique and interesting characters as well. Mulan highlighted some very catchy songs to boot. I appreciate the effort it took to make this a musical. There is a smattering of tunes but nothing is memorable. This is a passable time-filler for adults and a 100-minute babysitter for young kids.

10-16-20

The Wolf House

Posted in Animation, Drama, Horror with tags on October 15, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Wolf House (La Casa Lobo) is like a fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm. The twisted fables collected by those German authors definitely had an edge. Yet this is even more unnerving. Striking! Innovative! Hypnotic! Bizarre! Mere adjectives aren’t enough to do it justice. If you’re familiar with the work of the Brothers Quay or Jan Švankmajer then you’ll have a reference point at least. For others, this will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Regardless, it will undoubtedly be the strangest movie you will see this year. This first premiered in February 2018 at the Berlin International Film Festival. Since then it has won a slew of awards and garnered widespread critical acclaim. It finally received a release in May 2020 in the U.S.

Maria (Amalia Kassai) is a young woman who escapes from a German community in the south of Chile. She takes refuge in a mysterious house in the woods. From that seed of an idea, emerges a stop motion animated tableau that is an unforgettable display of creative ingenuity. Her thoughts progressively infect the walls of the dwelling in which she lives. The surfaces come to life in a nightmarish vision. The Wolf House is a living, breathing physical room that is a painstakingly created tactile world. The art installation combines papier-mâché, puppets, sculptures, paintings, and other artistic methods to create scenes that were staged and photographed in various galleries throughout the world. This was accomplished over the course of several years in full view of the public. Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña are artists turned filmmakers with a series of shorts to their credit. This is their first feature and judging by the warm response, not their last.

This dark tale has its roots in a very sinister reality. Paul Schäfer was a Nazi sergeant that ultimately fled Germany after he was charged with pedophilia. He escaped to South America and it was there that he formed Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony), an isolated cult in the Andean foothills of eastern Chile. It was portrayed to the public as a bucolic agrarian utopia but was in fact closer to an authoritarian Nazi police state. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet used the colony as a detention camp to torture and execute political prisoners.

There are moments contained within this account I will never forget. Despite its disturbing inspiration, nothing presented is even remotely gory or violent. However, the eerie mood gradually works its way into your psyche and the effect can be unsettling. The narrative opens with an indoctrination video of an idyllic residence where the inhabitants live off the land in perfect harmony. The propaganda confers the settlement in a positive light. Supernatural developments ensue. Early on Maria finds two escaped pigs and she mothers them until they turn into human children. However, the ensuing production is not dependent on plot. Maria’s shoddy little shack is a constantly evolving nightmare of shapes and images. I sat there gobsmacked by the spectacle. During the chronicle, “the wolf” (Rainer Krause) is a foreboding presence that haunts Maria even after she escapes. His disembodied but seductive voice intones: “Maria…..Maria…..Maria.” He beckons her to return. It still gives me the chills.

09-03-20

The Willoughbys

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on April 23, 2020 by Mark Hobin

willoughbysSTARS3.5“If you love stories about families that stick together and love each other through thick and thin and it all ends happily ever after…this isn’t the film for you, okay?”

That’s how The Willoughbys (available on Netflix) begins.  A narrator introduces this witty riff on classic children tales by authors like Charles Dickens and P. L. Travers.   It turns out, the storyteller is actually a stray blue tabby cat who comments on everything he oversees.  He’s drolly voiced by comedian Ricky Gervais.  The parents (Martin Short & Jane Krakowski) are dysfunctional to say the least.  Apparently, mom and dad have so much affection for each other that they have nothing left to give to their kids.  Unfortunately, these adults don’t hide their lack of affection for their offspring.   There’s sensible eldest child Tim (Will Forte), cheerful middle child Jane (Alessia Cara), and creepy twin boys Barnaby and Barnaby.  Yes, the two were given the same name. Fed up with their parent’s distressing lack of parenting skills, the youngsters devise a plan  to make themselves orphans.  It’s not as gruesome as it sounds.  The kids simply entice their wicked parents to take a vacation that might prove hazardous to their health.  The moppets merely wish to experience their own happy ending.  Nothing wrong with that, right?!

If one word defines this work of fiction, it’s zany.  Director Kris Pearn also helmed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 in 2013, and this has the same goofy aesthetic.  More sober viewers may struggle to keep up with the account’s frantic pace.  As a matter of fact, I am talking about myself.  The dialogue (screenplay by Pearn and Mark Stanleigh) is rapid-fire and consists not so much of jokes, but a myriad of random plot developments.  One focuses on actor Terry Crews as Commander Melanoff — a merry owner of a candy factory.  Holy shades of Willy Wonka!  Later when the juveniles discover an abandoned baby, they leave the infant on his doorstep.  Another development highlights comedian Maya Rudolph as Linda — a kooky nanny.  She somewhat suggests Mary Poppins — that is if she were a disorderly mess.   In fact, the whole saga is the very definition of chaotic confusion.

I have always appreciated a distinct lack of saccharine in my children’s fables.  Novelist Roald Dahl is an enduring favorite of mine.  The Willoughbys is based on a 2008 novel by Lois Lowry (Number the Stars, The Giver).  This feature has been frequently compared in print to the work of Roald Dahl as well as Lemony Snicket.  Yes, I’ll admit those are valid comparisons.  Yet this is so much more hyper than the works inspired by those writers.  The production is defined by a frenetic narrative that rarely stops to take a pause.    I never developed an emotional attachment to these characters.  However, I did slowly warm up to the film’s wacky approach.  Perhaps I was worn down by the movie’s admitted — albeit relentless — charm.  The creative silliness ultimately won me over.

04-22-20

Trolls World Tour

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Family with tags on April 11, 2020 by Mark Hobin

trolls_two_ver23STARS3Ok, I’ll admit I saw Trolls in 2016 — at the theater no less — but I wasn’t a huge fan.  Oh don’t get me wrong, it was a lively diversion but it evaporated from memory soon after I saw it.  The prospect of watching a sequel didn’t excite me.  In the original plan Trolls World Tour would have opened against the 25th James Bond film.  No Time to Die was going to be one of the biggest releases of the year.  That’s what I was looking forward to.  Then “stay at home” orders were issued and cinemas across the U.S. were closed indefinitely.  New movie prospects suddenly changed.  Given that theaters are unlikely to reopen anytime soon, Universal Studios course-corrected immediately.  Trolls World Tour is the first major studio offering to bow out of its scheduled theatrical release and go directly to VOD since the Coronavirus outbreak.  That alone makes it noteworthy.

Trolls World Tour is essentially a 94-minute long music video but there is a loose thread of a story nonetheless.  Poppy (Anna Kendrick) has recently been anointed, Queen.  She’s a cutesy hot pink creature with an even darker pink whale spout of hair.  She desperately wants to be a good ruler.  Her intentions are good but her inability to listen to other people will lead to trouble.  One of those is her father King Peppy (Walt Dohrn). He informs the kingdom that other similar societies do in fact exist.  Trolls have always loved music.  However, disagreements in the distant past led to different factions going their separate ways.  They are the “Pop” troll clan. The rest of the tribes each took a magical harp string representing different genres: Pop, Rock, Country, Classical, Techno and Funk.

Each land is host to a slew of new characters in what is substantially a marketing tool for new dolls and toys.  There are far too many celebrities involved to list them all, but Kelly Clarkson, Sam Rockwell, Ozzy Osbourne, Anderson Paak, George Clinton and Mary J. Blige all make appearances.  I had some fun being able to identify their voices.  The proper plot begins when Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Rock Trolls invites everyone to a big event.  She sports a red mohawk and sings a medley of rock classics: “Rock You Like A Hurricane”, “Crazy Train”, and “Barracuda”.  King Peppy warns to “stay away” but newly-crowned Poppy wants to befriend the other groups in the spirit of peace and harmony.  Joining her is Branch (Justin Timberlake), her closest friend.  He secretly holds romantic feelings for Poppy.

Trolls World Tour is not so much a story as it is a glitter bomb of color and music.  It is a non-stop unending deluge of one melody after another.  In what I can only describe as an assault, its accompanying razzle-dazzle visuals are extremely aggressive.  The spectacle is an unquestionable delight of intensity, but it’s almost akin to eating Pixy Stix laced with Pop Rocks paired with a shot of Mountain Dew.  It gives new meaning to the phrase eye candy.  Young kids will unquestionably be enchanted so I’m not exactly knocking it.  This might be perfect for children craving new entertainment.  There are a few original ditties including “The Other Side”, but it’s the medleys/mash-ups of older tunes that I remember most.  The graphical displays that supplement the songs can be quite beautiful at times, but it’s a lot to process.  I’m just warning adults who prefer a less hyper experience because I’m one of those people as well.  Then again, criticizing a product like this is kind of silly.  It simply wasn’t made for me.

04-10-20