Archive for the Family Category

Kubo and the Two Strings

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

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

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

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

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

08-23-16

Pete’s Dragon

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on August 17, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo petes_dragon_ver2_zpsi7ubdra4.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgPete’s Dragon is a difficult movie to review for me. On the one hand, it’s sweet and pleasant and the kind of wholesome entertainment that you can bring the whole family to see. What makes this a bit of an anomaly is that it’s live action and rated PG. All too often pictures classified as such, are solely cartoons. Pete’s Dragon is refreshing.  It satisfies a niche that often goes unfulfilled in today’s marketplace. The Jungle Book and The BFG were other films that came out this year that also fell into this category. I enjoyed them both equally. Which is to say, they’re fine, but they didn’t wow me. The big reason being that there just isn’t much story to captivate the mind. Interestingly enough, the same issue plagues Pete’s Dragon as well.

Pete’s Dragon is actually a remake of the heretofore forgotten 1977 Disney musical that starred an animated beast. I only mention the original because the filmmakers have chosen to bestow this movie with the same title. Despite the fact that the chronicle concerns the friendship between a child and a dragon, the two have very little in common. In contrast to the previous 70s musical incarnation, the current reimaging of the tale is a dark, almost moody piece about a sullen youngster who loses his parents in a car crash in the thick of the woods of the Pacific Northwest. That child is 10-year-old Pete and he’s played by Oakes Fegley. Pete is a curious personality. Nat King Cole once sang “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…” and he is indeed something of a nature boy, having to fend for himself amidst the forest environment. It is there he meets Elliot. This is the name he gives the dragon that lives there. They become close friends.

Pete’s Dragon develops into a sentimental bit of fluff. It certainly helps that young actor Oakes Fegley is extremely natural and the CGI creature is realistic as well. Elliot is not your typical dragon. Instead of scales he has fur. He can even disappear when he deems it necessary to hide from danger. He’s also exceptionally loving and protective. Their relationship is not unlike that of a boy and his dog. It’s this bond that forms the foundation of the drama. The two unquestionably have a warm rapport but it’s a wispy premise on which to build an entire production. Oh sure once other humans discover Elliot, they threaten his safety, but you knew that was going to happen 20 minutes into this fantasy. Everything unfolds in a predictable fashion. This “boy meets pet” fable was released to near universal acclaim. I expected a saga with a much higher level of creativity.  I liked Pete’s Dragon, but I didn’t love it. I really wanted to love it.

08/16/16

The Secret Life Of Pets

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

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

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

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

07-07-16

The BFG

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on July 2, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo bfg_ver2_zps109o0kyc.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgSophie is an unhappy girl who lives in an orphanage. One night she sees a giant walking about carrying what looks like a large trumpet. He spies her as well. In an effort to keep his existence a secret, he reaches in and snatches the young girl from her bed. Back to his place he takes her. While he may appear to be big and scary, his true nature is quickly revealed. For you see, the BFG stands for “Big Friendly Giant”. The two develop a fast friendship.

With Steven Spielberg directing and Melissa Mathison penning the script, expectations are high. The two have only worked together twice before: Twilight Zone: The Movie and more spectacularly, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The latter hit still remains the 4th highest grossing film of all time (when adjusting for inflation). So chances are you’re aware of its legendary status. The BFG pales in comparison.

Mark Rylance and Ruby Barnhill are certainly up to the task. Their portrayals are wonderful. Rylance fresh from his supporting part in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, shows that his Academy Award was no fluke. He embodies the titular creature with a twinkle in his eye and palpable warmth . His mixed up vocabulary is kind of cute too. The giant is manifested through a liberal use of CGI mixed with Rylance’s motion capture performance. The visual effect doesn’t look real, but it does feel magical.

The problem is that The BFG is an awfully slight adventure. The fantasy is adapted from a 1982 novel by Roald Dahl. The book is barely 200 pages, so a 2 hour drama is really pushing things. For almost 90 minutes, The BFG is just a “hang out” movie. Little Sophie and the BFG merely get to know each other for the major part of the narrative. He reads her a book, she falls asleep. Then he gives her a dream. Instead of eating humans, he cooks up snozzcumbers which are these repugnant vegetables. The word suggests a portmanteau of snot and cucumbers. Oh he also drinks a carbonated beverage called frobscottle where the bubbles go down rather than up. That’s how the gas is emitted from the body as well. In place of burps we get what the BFG calls “whiz-poppers”. This information laying the groundwork for the most protracted setup to a fart joke I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty amusing I’ll sheepishly admit. It includes a couple of corgis.

Roald Dahl is the same author of classics like James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches. An undercurrent of evil is usually a common theme in his stores. The potential for death is a most definite possibility. In The BFG we’re told hideous giants are responsible for the disappearance of children. They regularly raid the cities under the cover of night to eat “human beans”. The BFG would rather spend his time on other things. Sophie follows him on one of his runs to harvest dreams. He then gives the good ones to children with the aid of his trumpet. This talent is later utilized in a section involving Queen Elizabeth II. This is where story developments finally take place, but they form the last 30 minutes of the plot. For most of the chronicle we have essentially watched these two make small talk and chill. The lack of action plainly begs for a musical number or two at the very least. A bit of judicious editing would have helped tighten the tale’s languid rhythms. I can’t recommended this to everyone but I will to a select few. The BFG is a cult film – a production whose leisurely charms will undeniably delight a passionate, though very small, audience.

06-30-16

Finding Dory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06-16-16

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy with tags on May 28, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo alice_through_the_looking_glass_ver8_zpsia3k2lst.jpg photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgHow to explain when a movie goes from being merely bad, to an out-and-out assault on the senses. That is the conundrum I’m faced with trying to make sense of Alice Through the Looking Glass. This is the followup to Tim Burton’s wildly successful hit that came out in the spring of 2010. Alice in Wonderland remarkably made $334 million in the U.S. alone. It was the 2nd biggest hit of that year (behind Toy Story 3), so you knew it was only a matter of time before they would make a sequel. Why it took more than half a decade is a question for Tim Burton. Highly successful screenwriter for Disney, Linda Wolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), is back, however Tim Burton is only a producer this time around. Apparently he really didn’t want to helm another one. The director’s job has been delegated to James Bobin (The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted). On paper, that sounds promising. I mildly enjoyed the original and was at least prepared to delight in the artistry of a sequel.

Flamboyance is the recipe again but magnified to the tenth power. That’s hard to imagine. The first was hardly a model of restraint, but it still had some semblance of a story. Although Alice in Wonderland threw out the plot of the book, it kept the characters and amped up the crazy. What it lacked in dramatic coherence it made up for in visual spectacle. So what exactly is the plot in the current installment? That’s a very good question. I still don’t have a good answer. Lewis Carroll’s book dealt with Alice’s attempts to become a Queen. His novel exploited the game of chess as a metaphor for the lack of control she had over the direction of her own life. An overriding theme concerned the feeling of loneliness as one grows older.

Linda Woolverton’s screenplay for Alice Through the Looking Glass has nothing to do with any of that. Ok fine, but what does it concern? The action inexplicably starts out on a ship in the ocean with Alice as the captain trying to outrun a trio of pirates. It’s a loud, chaotic beginning that feels like the climax of a completely different film. Then on to some nonsense regarding her ex-fiancé, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), and an exchange of that ship for her home. What does it all mean? Doesn’t really matter because everything is thrown aside when she walks through a mirror and ends up in Wonderland. The Mad Matter’s family is missing and Alice agrees to help. From what I can glean, this is the true thrust of the narrative. First, she visits a character called Time. He’s some bizarre demigod played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the only performance that manages to gain a modicum of our interest. He relishes the part and his commitment is palpable. Next Alice steals the Chronosphere and promptly travels back in time to change the past right after being told that is forbidden. Here the developments resemble Muppet Babies as we get junior versions of the Red Queen, the White Queen and the Mad Hatter. More stuff happens involving their childhood. The Jabberwocky appears. Alice wakes up in a mental hospital, diagnosed with female hysteria.  That’s not how it ends.  She goes back to Wonderland.  Yup again.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a wackadoodle free-for-all with a CGI budget that’s roughly the GDP of an island nation. Every scene of this haphazardly plotted film bursts with more computer generated imagery than the human eye can even absorb. Each display vies for the viewer’s attention as effect is heaped upon effect. One exhibition competes with the next for space within the frame. There is little relief from the uninterrupted excess. The crowded extravaganza is so staggeringly overindulgent, it’s vulgar. I’ve played with kaleidoscopes that had a more coherent narrative. Meanwhile Johnny Depp minces with abandon as the Mad Hatter, lisping all the while in another fey performance so cloying it inspired me to brush my teeth afterward for fear I might get cavities. Helena Bonham Carter, so wonderful as the Red Queen in the last film, bickers with her sister to the point of annoyance. Her decades old hate for her sibling, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), revealed as having originated as a lie to the question “Who ate these tarts?”  There is little story. Just effects. Alice Through The Looking Glass is stridently obscene in its desire to distract and confuse. The production is focused on satiating the basest component of visual desire and nothing more. It’s offensive.

05-26-16

The Jungle Book

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy on April 18, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo jungle_book_ver6_zpsanfpdshe.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgBy now, Disney’s live action remakes of their classics have become so familiar, they constitute their own genre. There are at least 15 currently in the development stage. We’ve already seen Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella. Say hello to their latest: The Jungle Book. When adjusted for inflation, the original remains their 5th highest grossing animated film of all time following Snow White, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King and Fantasia. The 1967 film has the legacy of a beloved treasure. This new version is fun too, a vivid spectacle for modern viewers.

What The Jungle Book gets right is in the construction. It’s gorgeous. The production places the viewer right in the forests of India. The cinematic display of flora and fauna is rather breathtaking at times. The visual tableau is a optical wonder to experience. This accomplishment makes the ultimate realization that everything was actually filmed on a Los Angeles sound stage,  fairly shocking. In fact, save for young actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli, there is little if anything organic on screen. This is a high-tech CGI curiosity to be sure in 2016.  What truly makes the 1967 cartoon endure is that emotional component.  This prodcution is fastiduously composed but it’s missing that spark.

This is essentially a CGI copy of their hand drawn gem. Baloo (Bill Murray), Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Shere Khan (Idris Elba), Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) and King Louie (Christopher Walken) are all here. Like the animated film, the animals talk. They even sing. “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” both make an appearance. “Trust in Me” plays over the closing credits. There are adjustments, however. The animals have a decidedly more noble quality that sets them apart from the lighthearted buffoonery of the cartoon. Here King Louie is the much larger Gigantopithecus, a species now extinct, instead of an orangutan. Please! Those are not native to India, thank you very much. Kaa, formerly male, is now voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Sterling Holloway was a memorable Kaa, but I dare say Johansson makes the character her own. Her seductive voice is positively hypnotizing. When she tells Mowgli a story, I was captivated. I wanted to hear more.

The Jungle Book is hampered by a narrative that can be reduced to “boy outwits tiger”. Rudyard Kipling’s book was a collection of tales in fact, as opposed to a sustained novel. Both the animated and live-action versions adhere to a series of vignettes where Mowgli interacts with various characters. While the cartoon was quite whimsical, with a referential eye toward the pop culture of its era, this adaptation is more realistic. Well except that the animals speak, obviously. But the intensity level is heightened. Mowgli is placed in more peril as the ferocity of Shere Khan is intensified. Buoyancy is replaced by darkness. These tweaks serve to distinguish this from the original, but the largely cosmetic changes don’t really elevate the production. They merely “correct” it. As such, The Jungle Book is indeed a technological marvel of our time. It’s a stunningly realized environment for families to appreciate and enjoy. Most assuredly an impressive accomplishment for today’s audiences. But will it achieve immortality as a classic 50 years from now? I have my doubts.

04-14-16

Zootopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03-04-16

The Good Dinosaur

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

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

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

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

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

11-24-15

The Peanuts Movie

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

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

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

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

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

11-07-15