Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater


Strange World (PG)

Directed by: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
November 2022

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

“To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations.”

That was always my favorite part of the opening narration from the original
Star Trek TV series.

It seems clear that the new Disney animated sci-fi film,
Strange World, derives its name from the above quote.

Star Trek this ain’t.

The film opens with a back story involving a group of explorers ascending an icy peak. The headstrong leader of the expedition, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), is adamant about searching beyond the mountains. His son, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal), wants to return home to study a plant he found that gives off energy. Jaeger strikes out on his own, leaving his son behind with the rest of the team.

25 years later: Searcher is hailed as the discoverer of pando, the “power plant” that provides electricity for the entire city of Avalonia. But when the energy-producing green pods on the pando plant start dying, Searcher is enlisted to join a team that will determine the root of the problem deep below the planet’s surface. When their ship arrives at a strange new world, Searcher and his fellow explorers, including his son Ethan Clade (Jaboukie Young-White) and wife Meridian Clade (Gabrielle Union), encounter an array of bizarre creatures—some benign and others hostile.

You guessed it;
Strange World is riddled with clichés and references to classic adventure yarns of yore.

When the ship descends through a giant hole and enters the bowels of the planet, we’re reminded of
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959, 2008). When the explorers fight their way through gross creatures, we’re reminded of King Kong (particularly the disgusting giant insect scenes in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake). When Searcher and Ethan learn that the island (eye-land) they live on is really a gigantic life form, they realize the creatures inside its body are merely red blood cells and antibodies; navigating the ship through these microorganisms to the being’s giant heart is reminiscent of Fantastic Voyage (1966).

Strange World weaves the theme of yet another classic novel into its story: Moby Dick. Jaeger’s obsessive quest to reach the other side of the mountain causes him to abandon his wife, son and the rest of his team. This Captain Ahab style character flaw was also present in the title character of this year’s Pixar release, Lightyear. Perhaps Disney/Pixar should give this particular literary allusion a rest for a while.

The movie’s creativity is one of its bright spots. Though the overall aesthetic is decidedly Seussian, some of the creatures in the strange land are cleverly and beautifully realized. This is particularly true of the blue, stretchy blob that Ethan names Splat (yep, a toy version of the creature has been mass produced by Disney in anticipation of the holidays).

What’s disappointing, though, is that the movie doesn’t take the time to properly showcase its many inventive invertebrates. Writer/Director, Qui Nguyen, must have ADD, because he rushes from one bizarre creature to the next without giving us a chance to really enjoy the teeming life or immersive environment of the imaginary world. Despite its cornucopia of colorful creatures, the movie fails to awe…which is a prerequisite when constructing a strange new world.

The movie also shortchanges the dramatic potential of having three generations of men as its central characters. Yes, there are a few meaningful moments, like when Jaeger teaches Searcher how to throw and Ethan how to use a flamethrower, but the movie’s attempt at establishing generational reconciliation as a theme falls flat. At different points in the movie, Searcher calls Jaeger a bad dad and Ethan says the same to Searcher, despite the fact that Searcher has spent his entire life trying to be the opposite of Jaeger. It’s ironic how we often become that which we despise.

The closest we get to a warm fuzzy ending is when Jaeger tells Searcher, “My legacy isn’t those mountains, it’s you.” Since Jaeger never made an attempt to return to his wife and son during his 25 year absence, that sentiment seems hollow and too little too late. Ultimately, the movie doesn’t deliver that one satisfying moment to button up the story and leave us with a smile on our face as we exit the theater.

The ending isn’t the only area of the movie that wasn’t satisfying.

Personal confession: there are few things in life that infuriate me more than adult advocates forcing their politics and worldview onto kids by using an animated movie as a vehicle. Such an approach is pathological. Sadly, it’s nothing new.

Perhaps you’ll recall
FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), an animated movie that glorifies magical fairies who live in a forest, and vilifies humans who are polluting the environment and cutting down trees with a “monster” bulldozer.

Happy Feet (2006), Mumble’s (Elijah Wood) inability to sing, and ability to tap-dance, makes him a deviant among fellow penguins…a thinly-veiled reference to homosexuality. Also, the movie casts humans in the role of the antagonists both when human researchers invade the penguin’s island and imprison Mumble in an arctic exhibit, and when overfishing practices in the Antarctic are called into question.

What marred those earlier animated films also afflicts
Strange World. In fact, my harsh critique of Happy Feet also applies to this film. In my review I wrote:

“…the movie’s political slant is so transparent and so in-your-face, it’s almost nauseating. How cowardly of leftist Hollywood and environmentalist wackos to use an animated film to espouse, disseminate and otherwise foist their alarmist and fear-mongering doctrine upon audiences; offending many adults and unduly influencing the minds of future generations with a ‘green’ theology.”

My, how I miss that fiery young man!

(Note: Spoilers in this section). So how does
Strange World seek to corrupt the minds of youngsters? In a very crafty way.

As the source of all power in Avalonia, harvesting pando is vital for the society to function. When the characters learn that their civilization has been built upon a living being, they’re faced with a fateful decision: in order to save the creature, they must destroy the pando roots that are killing the creature’s heart.

The movie ends one year after the pando roots have been eradicated. A voiceover narration praises people for their ability to be resourceful in the face of hardships. Everyone lights a candle and the entire village has a Kumbaya moment, happy in the knowledge that their sacrifice has saved their planet.

To the discerning eye, the analogy here is plain: pando = petroleum/oil/fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, the movie (and liberals) argue, is killing our planet (Mother Earth/Gaia). The only way to save our planet, then, is to go back to the way things were before we started using fossil fuels, or to embrace Green sources of energy.

Aside from the fact that the science behind Green energy (wind turbines, electric vehicles, etc.) hasn’t been satisfactorily explained or verified, most conservative estimates suggest it will take us at least 20-30 years to fully switch over to Green energy.

But the movie paints a very different picture. It suggests that we should just turn off the electricity and light a candle—the transition from fossil fuel-based energy to Green energy is just the easy. The movie’s conviction that a shift from one form of energy to another can be accomplished in just a year without any major complications (such as a breakdown in society that can lead to a violent upheaval) isn’t just egregiously disingenuous, it’s downright dangerous.

But don’t just take my word for it. Director Nguyen says, “Two things that are always a battle are the conveniences of today versus the need for tomorrow. If we lost certain energy sources, it would make things harder, but ultimately might be better for the world and make the future last.” There you have it; the movie is conditioning our children to prepare for less convenience and more hardship in the future.

No matter which side of the debate you fall on, you have to admit that this underhanded dig at fossil fuels is done in a deceptive manner, and is propagated for the sole purpose of indoctrinating young viewers. The movie is trying to convince them that to save the planet, we must end fossil fuels and adopt Green energy. Anyone who disagrees with that agenda is complicit in dooming the planet. You can see how this flawed ideology can create a militant activism in today’s kids/tomorrow’s leaders.

This begs the question: why is such a controversial subject being broached in an animated movie? Also, is it fair to take sides on an issue that kids should be given the right to choose on their own, preferably when they’re older? The way this film seeks to indoctrinate young members of the audience is downright malicious.

At the risk of overstating my central thesis, I’d like to share another tidbit from my
Happy Feet review, which is also germane to this film: “…it’s really children who are losing out the most here; for their sake, why can’t Hollywood check its politics at the door and let kids make up their own minds about where they stand on environmental issues…when they’re old enough to do so?” Of course, this argument also applies to the film’s (and our government and education system’s) aggressive push to hypersexualize young people and make alternative lifestyles attractive to kids who are still learning their multiplication tables.

Despite its innocent trappings, this film is the Green New Deal writ large. By packaging its blatant, heavy-handed message into a disarming, cutesy kid’s story, the studio has made its mission clear: to indoctrinate the next generation with a pro-homosexual, pro-Green energy agenda. It’s insidious!

In the end, the only thing strange about
Strange World is its twisted, perverse and overly-ideological worldview.

A more fitting title would’ve been
Woke World.

Last Item: The new “Disney 100” opening animation is beautiful and magical; a jaw-dropping sequence that would make Walt proud. But the way his studio is propagandizing innocent, young kids is surely causing poor ole Walt to roll over in his grave.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Lightyear (PG)

Directed by: Angus MacLane
Starring: Chris Evans
June 2022

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans), Commander Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) and Rookie Featheringhamstan (Bill Hader) explore an unknown planet, but are forced to make a hasty departure when they’re attacked by vine creatures. Buzz can’t quite steer the ship over the top of a jagged peak and the vessel crash lands on the inhospitable world.

One year later, a small base has sprung up around the ship, constructed by the ship’s crew who’ve been roused from their suspended animation naps. These industrious colonizers also have designed an experimental spaceplane that might be able to achieve hyperspeed, which will allow Buzz to bring his crew home and complete his mission.

With each unsuccessful mission, Buzz returns to the base to find that everyone has grown older. When Buzz finally achieves hyperspeed, he comes home, not to pomp and circumstance, but to the grim reality that the descendants of his original crew have been wiped out by an army of malevolent robots.

Does that synopsis make
Lightyear sound kinda’ ho-hum and hard to follow for a kid’s movie? It is.

If you find the story difficult to track, try to understand the reasoning behind the movie’s “meta” introduction, which tells us that young Andy from
Toy Story (1995) first idolized his favorite toy (Buzz, not Woody apparently) by watching a movie starring the Space Ranger, and that “This is that story.” So, just to be clear, we’re watching an animated movie about an action hero that a kid in another animated movie once watched; and his toy, based on that action hero, becomes the co-star of four films. Somebody pass the Advil.

The opening sequence of
Toy Story 2 (1999) features a brief episode where Buzz takes out an army of robots and encounters the villainous Zurg. The action-packed sequence cleverly sets up the climactic confrontation and starts the movie off with a bang.

As exhilarating as the pulse-pounding preamble is in
Toy Story 2, I couldn’t have handled an entire movie in the same format and style. Though the story here isn’t nearly as pedestrian as the breakneck pace of the dramatized video game in Toy Story 2, there’s an overall campiness the film’s handful of decent character moments can’t quite overcome.

Lightyear serves as an origin story for Buzz Lightyear and a loose prequel to the Toy Story movies. It gives us more details about the way Star Command and its Space Rangers operate. However, despite some nifty weapons, like the laser blade, and sweet-looking ships, like the XL-15, much of the movie is a pastiche of other sci-fi franchises, particularly Star Wars and Star Trek.

Buzz’ mission logs are an obvious rip-off of the captain’s log in
Star Trek. Also, the visuals when the XL spaceship attempts to slingshot around a sun are remarkably similar to the slingshot sequences in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

Other than their bright yellow paint-job, the hulking Zyclops robots bear more than a passing resemblance to the super battle droids in the
Star Wars prequels. The capital ship Zurg commands is reminiscent of an Imperial Star Destroyer (the Arquitens Class command cruiser in particular). Buzz and his team come up with a plan to destroy the mother ship, which will deactivate all the robots. This plan is virtually identical to the one hatched by the Gungans and the Naboo to destroy the Trade Federation ship, which deactivates all the battle droids in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).

Aside from leaning on well-worn sci-fi tropes, the movie attempts to explore some adult themes, with varying degrees of success. The challenges inherent in colonizing an alien planet are addressed obliquely and the dome-like protection, called “Laser Shield,” prevents a lot of dramatic tension and potential action scenes.

Adding some literary heft, the movie weaves an allusion to
Moby Dick into its plot. After repeated failed attempts to reach hyperspeed, Buzz realizes his friends are getting older and are having kids and grandkids. At some point you’d think Buzz would stop, turn the mission over to a younger pilot and spend some quality time with his aging friends. But no, Buzz’ pride won’t allow that.

Breaking the hyperspeed barrier in his spacecraft is Buzz’ white whale. He risks everything to reach that goal. In the end, his obsession blinds him to what’s most important in his life.

Sadly, Buzz never gets to say goodbye to Hawthorne and his other friends because he’s off flying a mission when they pass away. It’s a poignant moment for the audience, as we place ourselves in Buzz’ boots and consider the brevity of life—if the movie has an emotional core, this is it.

Other than the secondary themes of obsession and growing old, the movie’s main theme, which is hammered home over and over again in the dialog, is Buzz’ independence.

Buzz isn’t very likable at the beginning of the film. He’s arrogant, controlling (he resists turning things over to an autopilot) and overconfident (Buzz’ overestimation of his piloting abilities is what causes the ship to crash, which is the inciting incident for the movie’s many complications). He makes condescending remarks about the rookie and ignores the young man’s frequent offers to lend a hand. In essence, Buzz is John Wayne in space.

Buzz’ narcissism is on full display when he makes mission logs. Dictated like a dramatic reading, these oft-embellished recordings are just to make him look good in the eyes of his superiors. Hawthorne calls out Buzz’ compulsion to record their missions and refers to his habit as “narrating” (not to be confused with “monologuing” in
The Incredibles). The fact that Hawthorne tells him no one listens to his recordings fails to dissuade Buzz from making log entries throughout the rest of the movie. Add stubbornness to Buzz’ list of negative character traits.

As was mentioned earlier, the movie’s writers work overtime to highlight Buzz’ independent nature. At one point, Buzz says, “I’m better off doing the job by myself.” Later, he says, “I’m always sure.”

Fortunately, Buzz comes to see the value of team. He gradually abandons his desire to control everything. He learns to accept the ideas of others and even delegates responsibilities he’d normally shoulder himself. Buzz’ loner leader turned team player story arc culminates with this admission, “I can’t do it alone. I need help.” Buzz’ transformative realization is also germane for the audience; we all need others in our life.

Lightyear is a disappointment on many levels. It contains the merest fraction of the movie magic that made the Toy Story franchise so wildly popular with kids, parents and critics alike.

Thematically, the movie is very adult; aesthetically, it’s very dark. There’s little levity, and only a few funny lines, in the movie. Plus, the hero isn’t very heroic for the first half of the film.

Though the production elements are top-notch, the story is lacking. I expect much more from Pixar (the quality of their movies has steadily declined since Disney bought the animation studio).

Lightyear is educational. It teaches us the proper way to make a meat sandwich. It references some real science too, like relative velocity and time dilation…pretty ambitious for a kid’s movie.

It also leaves us pondering the big questions about life and the universe.

Like, what’s beyond infinity?

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4

Toy Story 4 (G)

Directed by: Josh Cooley
Starring: Tom Hanks
June 2019

Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Toy Story 4 ends the long string of Disney/Pixar films that have opened with an adorable, often Academy Award-winning, animated short. Unfortunately, this sour note sets the tone even before the movie begins.

From the outset,
TS4 feels like it’s desperately trying to recapture the magic of the earlier films in the series. It spends the first ten minutes recalling a rainy-night misadventure that took place nine years earlier, when Woody (Tom Hanks) was still Andy’s favorite toy. Eventually, the story brings us back to the present, when Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) plays with Jessie (Joan Cusack), but leaves the stalwart sheriff in the closet.

In search of something to move the story along, the writers decide to take us to kindergarten orientation day. The only bright spot in Bonnie’s awkward, disappointing day is during crafts period when she cobbles together bits of trash to create Forky (Tony Hale). Serving as a type of security blanket, Forky becomes the center of Bonnie’s world, much to the dismay of the other toys, particularly increasingly irrelevant Woody.

When the story hits another lull, Bonnie’s family decides to take a road trip—one last hurrah before the school year begins. It isn’t until the family pulls over at a RV park to take a rest that some semblance of a plot finally coalesces. In rapid succession, Woody encounters an old friend and a new nemesis, and we’re off on another wild romp in the wonderful world of toys.

If that synopsis sounds paint-by-numbers, it’s because the movie’s plot is too. Though it’s sad to say, the franchise has finally experienced fatigue with this fourth film.

The story has some salience, though. Aside from showing the difficulties of a child adjusting to school (a major plot point of
Inside Out), the movie has many themes including: you can’t grow by standing still, loyalty can be a crutch, friends sacrifice for each other, trash can have value and nothing is nobler for a toy than being there for a child and belonging to a child.

One element present in every Pixar film is nostalgia. Here, Woody can’t move on with his life because he’s tied to the past…the good ole days in Andy’s room. The antique store is a locus of nostalgia since it’s brimming with novelties and collectibles from bygone eras. Audience members of all ages may also experience nostalgia every time they see a
Toy Story character or movie. In fact, many parents taking their kids to this movie were kids themselves back in 1995, when the first film was released.

Though most of the original characters are sidelined here—surprisingly, even Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen)—several new characters add color and humor to the movie, including: Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key), Bunny (Jordan Peele), Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), Giggle McDimples (Ally Maki) and Evel Knievel knockoff, Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).

In the final analysis,
TS4 is a mild disappointment. Though arguably the nadir of the series, it’s still a charming tale of courage, loyalty and belonging that’s a cut above the typical animated feature. The movie boasts some frenetic and fun-filled action sequences and a handful of magical moments, like the ending scene at the carnival. Be sure to stay through the end credits to see a clever twist on the Pixar intro.

Rating: 3 out of 4

Coco (PG)

Directed by: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez
November 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

For their latest animated adventure, Disney/Pixar has selected main characters of a different kind.  Instead of focusing on toys, cars, fish, robots or insects, they’ve returned to the world of people.  However, not all of these people are alive.  No, the animation studios haven’t gone all zombie on us (although, how cool would that be?).  Focusing on the Mexican people and their Day of the Dead holiday (Nov. 1&2 annually), the studios have given us a glimpse of what life is like in the Land of the Dead.  The story focuses on Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young boy who wants to be an entertainer like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).  Performing at the local talent show can help launch Miguel’s career, but first, he must borrow a guitar.  But not just any guitar…the signature guitar that Ernesto played during his heyday, before the bell tolled and he met an early demise.  Since he must ask for permission to play Ernesto’s guitar, Miguel embarks on a journey to the other side.  Once Miguel has crossed the petal covered bridge that connects both worlds, he sets out to find Ernesto among the teeming masses of the macabre metropolis.  As he navigates the Land of the Dead, Miguel encounters Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a lanky, fun-loving skeleton man who serves as both humorous sidekick and voice of reason for Miguel.  Despite his seemingly silly persona, Hector holds a secret that literally busts open the story like a smashed piñata.  Coco’s explosion of color rivals the visual vibrancy of the Finding films.  Though certainly a marvel in its own right, Coco’s prismatic palette pales in comparison to its brilliant plot, which is chock-full of colorful characters and meaningful moments.  This is the studios’ first attempt at spotlighting the customs and values of a minority culture.  Director Lee Unkrich and his team of writers wisely avoided populating the story with clichéd characters and worn-out stereotypes.  This is a deep dive into the hearts and minds of a people devoted to artistic expression, exuberant celebrations, fervent spirituality and, above all, the love of family.  We’re treated to some traditional and modern Latin music including “Remember Me,” a top-tier, tear-jerker that should be a shoo-in for Oscar’s Best Song.  Despite the fact that most of the movie works like magic, Coco has a fatal flaw—it borrows too heavily from other sources.  The film mirrors Back to the Future in several key areas.  Like Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), Miguel wants to be a famous guitar player.  Another point of comparison is that Marty and Miguel both travel through time (actually, the Land of the Dead probably exists outside of time, but close enough).  Also, Marty and Miguel frequently reference family photos to learn clues about their family history and identity…and very existence.  Ironically, the most obvious instance of plot theft in the story involves another Pixar movie.  The trajectory of this film’s villain is so similar to that of Up’s Muntz, the only word that comes to mind is derivative, which I never thought I’d use to describe a Pixar movie.  The film has problems with its premise too. For instance, is it really necessary to travel to the world beyond just to borrow a guitar?  Admittedly, these are minor grievances in a movie that thoroughly entertains.  The film subtly tempers its follow-your-dreams theme with a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of hero worship.  Unkrich does a remarkable job of making morbid subject matter relatable and even, at times, humorous (e.g. the nude skeleton portrait scene).  In the final analysis, Coco is rich in culture and character, sight and sound.  It’s also a heartwarming tale of multigenerational connection between a young boy and his grandparents.  Coco delivers an emotional wallop at the end, just to remain consistent with Pixar’s MO of leaving its audience in tears.  But this time they’re tears of joy. Over a family reunion.  Over fulfilled dreams.  And over a young boy returning home…to the Land of the Living.

Cars 3 (G)

Directed by: Brian Fee
Starring: Owen Wilson
June 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The first Cars (2006) won over audiences with its charm, palpable nostalgia and pulse-pounding action. Cars appropriated the talking toys concept from Toy Story (1995) and built an entire world out of vehicles, including: semi trucks, helicopters, buttes that resemble vintage cars, tiny VW Bug flies and cow tractors (who could forget the “tractor tipping” scene?). The sequel, Cars 2 (2011), was an ambitious but ultimately disappointing effort that took the action overseas to Europe and featured a story that was overstuffed with the exploits of superspy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and an international scheme to rid the world of old or lemon cars—a subplot that was a little too on the bumper. Fortunately, the franchise is once again in pole position thanks to writer/director Brian Fee’s high octane and heartwarming story, which has returned the series to what made it such an enjoyable romp to begin with…meaningful themes couched in good old-fashioned fun. Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career has come full circle: in the first film he was a self-centered rookie, but now the veteran racer is one loss away from forced retirement, which will doom him to pitching mud flaps for the rest of his rusty existence. When McQueen suffers a catastrophic accident, his future in the sport is placed in serious jeopardy. This tragedy recalls Doc Hudson’s (Paul Newman) similar career ending crash in the original Cars. How McQueen reacts to his situation will determine his fate: will he retire, as Doc did, or will he get back into shape and acquire the eye of the tiger? Yes, that was a Rocky reference. And yes, Cars 3 is replete with Rocky allusions, like the beach race between trainer and trainee as seen in Rocky III (1982). Also, there’s a conspicuous evocation of Rocky IV (1985) in the way upstart rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) uses the latest virtual technology to train while McQueen, under the tutelage of Doc’s former trainer Smokey (Chris Cooper), gets back to the basics by driving on dirt tracks and practicing “sneak through the window” agility tests, which require him to weave in and out of a herd of meandering cow tractors on a highway. Fortunately, this subplot is skillfully and judiciously woven into the narrative so as to avoid being a blatant rip-off of Rocky. Another carefully measured story element is McQueen’s yellow training car Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Even though Cruz, the only female lead (Bonnie Hunt’s Sally only appears when McQueen needs a pep talk or swift kick in the fender), isn’t introduced until about halfway through the film, she has the most compelling story arc. Insidiously, Pixar tricks us into thinking the movie’s main character is McQueen when it’s really Cruz. Did I say insidious? I meant ingenious. While most of the characters from the earlier films have bit parts here, there are a few new side characters worth mentioning, including: Nathan Fillion as duplicitous tycoon Sterling, Kerry Washington as overconfident sports commentator Natalie Certain and Lea DeLaria as terrifying, bull-like school bus Miss Fritter. Aside from all of its kid-friendly silliness, i.e., the demolition derby at the Thunder Hollow speedway, there’s also plenty here for adults, particularly for those who have entered middle age or have felt the sting of being replaced by a young, ambitious hotshot at work. On the bright side, this film is a beautiful example of how a torch passed from generation to generation (Smokey to Doc to McQueen to Cruz) can pave the way to a lasting legacy far more lustrous than a showcase full of Piston Cup trophies. It’s like the “circle of life” with cars and trucks instead of lions and warthogs. So where does the series go from here? Can one-note Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a doting McQueen sustain another movie? Is it time to turn things over to Cruz and a younger generation of race cars (which will inspire a whole new line of toy cars for kids to blow their allowance money on)? Regardless of whether it takes another lap or makes a permanent pit stop, the Cars series has been one wild ride.

Finding Dory (PG)

Directed by: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane
Starring: Ellen DeGeneres
June 2016

The below comments (in Black) were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appear @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation (in Red). For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Finding Dory
The animated short #Piper is equal parts cute and brilliant.
“I suffer from short term memory loss.” Admitting it is the first step.
“What if I forget you?” One minute in and I’m already tearing up.
Is that #VWBug on the ocean floor #Herbie?
#StingrayMigration Gorgeous animation. #Pixar
“Go for distance.” Hilarious!
“I’m okay with crazy.” Dory’s been there and back a few times.
“No memories no problems.” But no meaning either.
“What would Dory do?” #WWDD
“Follow the shells.” An underwater version of Follow the Yellow Brick Road.
“Your orange friends are on their way to Cleveland.” They must be #Browns.
All shells lead to home.
“You remembered.” Heartwarming scene.
“There are no walls in the ocean.” #
FreeWilly moment.
“The best things happen by chance.” Dory’s guiding philosophy.
“Unforgettable.” Just like the movie.
Final analysis: just as enjoyable as the first film but for completely different reasons.
3 out of 4. Though not as mesmerizing as the #FindingNemo, #Dory has even more heart. Superb sequel.

During the twenty-one years since Pixar released its first animated feature, Toy Story (1995), the animation studio has cranked out one hit after the next in an unparalleled feat of commercial and creative dominance. The studio’s highest grossing film (adjusted for inflation) is Finding Nemo (2003); the film was directed by Andrew Stanton and featured the voice talents of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. That formidable team has reunited in the sequel, Finding Dory, which has been thirteen years in the making. So let’s address the nagging question in everyone’s mind: is Dory as good as Nemo? Short answer…no. In some ways such a comparison is unfair since one of the main objectives in producing the first film was to prove that underwater (the most difficult of all environments to animate) sequences could be done, and done well, with CGI. The vibrant colors, virtual encyclopedia of fish species and gorgeous photo-realistic underwater environments made for an immersive viewing experience nearly unparalleled in cinema history (Nemo stands as the finest 3D film that isn’t). Whereas, the animation in Dory is still exceptional, the palette isn’t nearly as expansive, nor does it need to be since it’s a more intimate lost-and-found tale. So where did Dory go wrong? Unfortunately, it took a page out of parent company Disney’s book and followed the formula established in last year’s Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens, a virtual rewrite of Star Wars (1977), with a dash of Empire (1980) and Jedi (1983) thrown in for good measure. Likewise, Dory is a virtual reworking of Nemo, but in reverse: clown fish Marlin (Brooks) and son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) are searching for missing Dory (DeGeneres) who, in turn, is searching for her parents Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton). Many characters from Nemo appear here, like manta ray school teacher Mr. Ray (Bob Peterson) and laid back turtle Crush (Stanton), and show up in sequences that are so similar to the ones in the original film they may cause feelings of déjà vu. This sameness is this film’s Achilles’ heel and recalls the foisted, perfunctory Radiator Springs scenes in Cars 2 (2011), which, despite offering ample contextualization and that warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia, ultimately created boredom from familiarity. Fortunately, most of Dory’s story redundancies take place early in the film. Some of the passages near the middle of the movie, like Marlin and Nemo’s various pratfalls as they make their way through the Marine Life Institute in search of Dory, are a tad pedestrian—even by animated movie standards—and just feel like filler until the movie’s two major reunions take place. But all is not lost as there are many things that recommend this film as a worthy follow-up to Nemo. Many of the new characters are welcome additions to the aquatic menagerie, particularly: Hank the curmudgeonly octopus (Ed O’Neill), Destiny the myopic whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), Bailey the concussed beluga whale (Ty Burrell) and Fluke the territorial sea lion (Idris Elba). The action-packed climax, where Dory and friends must rescue Marlin and Nemo from a Cleveland-bound semi truck is uproariously funny and recalls the frenetic action in the similarly-themed airport rescue at the end of Toy Story 2 (1999). Of course, as has become standard in Pixar movies, Dory contains plenty of hard-hitting emotional scenes, which, like the opening moments of Up (2009), will have grown men (like this one) tearing up all over the theater. Indeed, has there ever been a more pathos-inducing animated character than a tiny fish with short-term memory problems alone and lost in a gigantic ocean? The scene where tiny Dory, with her cute, quavering little voice, frets over forgetting her parents is absolutely heart-rending. The implications of this scene won’t be lost on parents of special needs children or on adults grappling with memory loss in their aging parents. However, there’s an even broader message here about the nature of memories and how vital they are in shaping our identity and reality. Deep subject matter for an animated film, but this is just proof positive that Pixar films are really made for adults, with just enough action and humor to keep the kiddies interested. In the final analysis, Nemo may be the finer film, but Dory has more heart. The sequel is truly A-Dory-ble! Here’s a thought to ponder: if the next film in the series takes another thirteen years to produce, the storyline may feature Nemo and Dory searching for Nemo’s dementia-stricken father in Finding Marlin. Poor taste since I’m writing this review on Father’s Day?

Inside Out (PG)

Directed by: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Starring: Amy Poehler
June 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Inside Out
A high bar, to be sure, but this is certainly among the very best.

“I Lava You.” A sweet animated short. #Lava
At first I was dubious as to where this cartoon was going, because of the singsong nature of its narrative, but in the end this is a memorable, heartwarming short.

Joy meets Sadness. Don’t see them becoming friends.
Sometimes I’m just dead wrong.

“Family Island is amazing!” #CoreMemories
This concept is utterly fascinating and illustrates the importance of the major events and experiences in our lives and how they can shape who we are…positively and negatively.

“I’m starting to envy the dead mouse.” #NewDigs
It’s always difficult to start over in a new area, especially if it’s radically different from what you’re used to. The movie ably captures the feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and loss that can occur during these times of transition.

“Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza!” #BroccoliTopping
A really funny scene, made even funnier by Anger’s brusqueness.

#MindManuals #LightReading

Train of Thought. Clever!
Even though it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, this is a fun concept.

“Can I say the curse word now?” Ha!
Ironic that anger is often the movie’s primary source of comic relief.

Dad’s #BrainOnHockey scene is frighteningly accurate.
And utterly hilarious! Zoning out while watching sports is an innate ability possessed by most men. Some men have even perfected it into an art.

“We’re deconstructing!” Brilliant visuals.
A very clever scene with some mind-blowing animation.

“There’s Déjà Vu. There’s Critical Thinking. There’s Déjà Vu.”
I think they just wanted to see if the audience was paying attention. Paying attention.

“Take her to the moon for me.” Bing Bong’s sacrifice is moving beyond words.
Grab the tissue box…this is a rough scene.

“For Riley!” Hilarious.

Sadness saves the day!
You just knew it would happen this way. A predictable, yet satisfying, ending all at the same time. Hooray for the underdogs!

What’s poo-berty?

Final analysis: an absolutely brilliant premise that’s executed to near perfection.
In fact, I honestly feel this is the most ingenious concept Pixar’s ever devised…and that’s really saying something.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. A thought-provoking, tender years tale that hits all of the right emotional notes.

Ever looked at someone and wondered, “What’s going through their mind right now?” The creative minds at Pixar Studios took that thought and turned it into an animated feature called Inside Out. The movie focuses on a young girl named Riley and her emotional and mental processes as she deals with a cross-country move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Instead of merely showing us Riley’s emotional struggles externally, director Pete Docter (Up) gives us a glimpse into the girl’s mind in order to observe, firsthand, the full spectrum of feelings she experiences. Riley’s individual emotions are personified by Joy, Sadness, Anger and others. Each of the emotions has a matching personality, i.e.: Joy is infectiously ebullient; Anger is violently explosive, etc. It’s been noted by some leading doctors and psychiatrists that the brain is the executive control center of the entire body. Pixar artists have cannily appropriated that factoid for their story by creating a central control panel inside Riley’s brain…the main operations center where the assorted emotions call the shots for Riley’s every thought, mood and behavior. But Riley isn’t merely an automaton, or a marionette whose strings are pulled by the tiny characters inside her brain. What’s really fascinating about the story is that Riley has volition apart from her own emotions, which is true-to-life since cogitations and cold hard logic can occasionally win out over emotions. The fact that Riley’s choices can override what’s going on inside her brain infuses the story with a great deal of anxiety and mystery since we, along with Riley’s emotions, often have no idea of what’s coming next. In these instances, Riley’s emotions must react to an unforeseen event, like when a life experience creates a core memory. The reverse also holds true as Riley is often deeply affected by her emotions and seems utterly powerless to regulate them. Some of the best twists in the movie occur when our young heroine is overcome by a particular emotion, like when Sadness does a number on Riley during her first day at the new school. This story device, where the action intercuts between Riley’s brain and what’s happening in the real world, generates tension throughout the film and effectively illustrates the disconnect between thoughts and feelings that we each must learn to reconcile. The world Pixar creates to represent the inside of Riley’s brain is truly astounding. The architecture of the mind is based on real science but is organized and visualized in a manner that reflects the thought process of an 11-year-old girl. The different sections of Riley’s personality, as well as the way memories are created, stored and discarded are brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. But not everything in the film is based on real world science. Some story elements, like the Train of Thought, are just there for fun. This film, which reveals a great deal about the human condition by examining the thoughts and feelings of an angst-ridden preteen girl, will go down as one of Pixar’s finest…which is no small claim when considering the studio’s back catalog of superlative animated films. Inside delivers an emotional wallop that’s rivaled only by the end of WALL-E (2008) and the beginning of Up (2009). The abounding movie magic contained within its narrative, along with its clever conceit, touching story and universal appeal, has insured that Inside will be enjoyed for generations to come. This 15th Pixar film has it all and is a shoo-in for Best Animated Feature and, perhaps, even for Oscar’s top prize. For a movie that’s all about the brain, Inside Out has a tremendous amount of heart.

Home (PG)

Directed by: Tim Johnson
Starring: Jim Parsons
March 2015

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The best species at running away. The Boov will move.
And their new home world looks a lot like Earth.

Welcome to Happy Humantown. A nice place if you’re into relocation.
For some reason the word “forced” was erased before I hit the Tweet button. I meant to say “forced relocation,” i.e., a human reservation.

Send vs Send All button. #BadDesign
Isn’t it nice to know that it’s not just us humans who hate this potentially catastrophic email option?

Antarctica...the only place on Earth with no Boovs.
Probably has something to do with their skimpy outfits.

Love the Slushious machine.
Nice mash-up of the words slushy and luscious.

“We are definitely not doomed.” Uh, yeah you are.
Politicians, who put on a brave face so as to not create a panic among the populace, often say the exact opposite of the truth. I guess exposing kids to this reality right off the bat is a wise move.

The party evite is humorous. #ThirdRockFromTheSun
The line in the movie is “third planet from the sun,” but it seemed appropriate to throw out a hashtag for John Lithgow’s TV comedy of an alien family conducting cultural observation on our planet. #SimilarTheme

Boov turns car into a slush-mobile. A thousand bubbles per pint.
For some reason this modified vehicle, though radically different in body style and technological capabilities, reminds me of the flying car concept in The Absent Minded Professor (1961).

“Every time you lie you turn green.” That’s what happens when you drink too much #BustaLime.
A Boov tell. Maybe we can win the planet back with a well played hand of poker.

Boov rhymes with groove.
And with all of those appendages, Oh proves to be a natural at cutting a rug.

Sad-mad. “Humans are more complicated than it said in the pamphlet.”
Don’t worry, Oh, we human males can’t figure out the females of our species either.

Nine mistakes and you’re out. Oh has made 62 mistakes. He’s the #JarJar of the Boov.
This character trait—error-prone—is a bit too telegraphed in the story and is a clear rip off of Star Wars’ JarJar Binks.

Oh cancels his evite just in the nick of time.
And with the crisis averted, the movie ends right here. Not quite.

“Curse you and your tippy toe tallness.”
Though not quite Yoda-esque, the Boov’s assimilation of English has some curious, linguistic aberrations.

Bubble car chase is a lot of fun.
This sequence is the visual zenith of the movie. It’s a frenetic, fun-filled chase scene that’s right up there with the best efforts of Lucas and Spielberg.

The only thing that can halt the Gorg advance is a #BurritoTorpedo.
I think I ordered that at Taco Bell once. Didn’t agree with me.

“He runs toward the danger?” Oh learned that from a humans person.
Must’ve been a soldier or fire fighter.

Captain Oh is given the Shusher. The Boov celebrate their new leader.
Now shush so I can think!

The mother/daughter reunion scene is special. Anyone have a tissue?

“You were scared? I almost made a Number Three!” Hilarious!
The funniest line in the movie, tentacles down.

The real identity of the Gorg is a nice twist. A riff on #
StarTrek’s #Balok.
From the original Star Trek series’ episode “The Corbomite Maneuver,” for all you diehard Trekkers out there. Yes, I am part of the body. Additionally, the subplot involving the Gorg (similar in sound to Gorn, right?) being the last of its kind is similar to the creatures in “The Man Trap” and “The Devil in the Dark.” Also, the repository of Gorg offspring inside the rock is similar to the chamber of silicon nodules in “The Devil in the Dark.” Queen to queen’s level three?

“Every day is best day ever!”
Unless you’re having a bad day.

Final analysis: an alien invasion story with some good laughs and a heartwarming finale.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Fairly pedestrian at times but rallies for a resolution that’s straight from the heart.

The alien invasion premise has been done ad nauseam in films (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien Nation) and TV (V, Earth: Final Conflict) over the years and has become an unofficial sci-fi sub-genre. Unfortunately, the variation on the theme featured in Home isn’t groundbreaking in either its conception or execution. On the run from the dreaded Gorg, the Boov invade Earth and relocate the entire human population to a carnival style reservation area, and no one protests their captivity since they now have an amusement park existence—go with it, it’s a kid’s movie. A young girl, Gratuity “Tip” Tucci (Rihanna), hiding out inside Boov inhabited territory encounters Oh (Jim Parsons), a mistake prone purple skinned alien whose bad decisions and clumsy pratfalls drives the plot. Whereas the standard issue story is the film’s greatest detriment, the unlikely friendship that blooms between Oh and Tip is what makes the film fly. Also, the finale, though certainly not original, is a genuine tear-jerker that should leave most adults in the audience feeling satisfied with the end result; kids will probably love this movie no matter what, thanks to its explosion of colors, sleek technology and fast paced plot. That model—entertaining the kids while servicing the adults with meaningful storylines—was pioneered by Disney and perfected by Pixar. Indeed, for the better part of two decades now, Pixar has been the undisputed leader in producing animated films that succeed at captivating the young minds in the audience while simultaneously engaging adult viewers on a deep emotional level (reference WALL-E and Up). Up until the last few years, most animated films were only able to achieve the former, but now the other major animation houses have begun to adopt Pixar’s adult-centric formula…with great success. Home is certainly an exemplar of that strategy, especially during its surprisingly powerful resolution. In some key ways the ending here reminds me of the one in Disney’s Mars Needs Moms (2011), another animated film that stages a tearful reunion between mother and child during the movie’s climactic passage. In the end, Home isn’t Earth-shattering, but it is a heartwarming tale of courage, compassion and companionship. Above all, the film shows us, in stark contrast to Boov mores and mannerisms, what it really means to be human. They say that home is where the heart is. If true, it shouldn’t be too hard to find room in your heart for Home.

Big Hero 6 (PG)

Directed by: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Starring: Ryan Potter
November 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Big Hero 6

#Feast is a truly moving animated short.
Just the latest evidence that Disney is rapidly approaching Pixar’s level of quality. Of course, executive producer John Lasseter, who oversees projects for both animation houses, has much to do with this parity.

David vs. Goliath style RC bot battle. Don’t judge a bot by its appearance, though.
Yeah, I wouldn’t dare pick a fight with R2.

“Welcome to the Nerd Lab.”
One suspects that this vibe is similar to the one you’d get in an animation studio, so these scenes are a bit self-reflexive.

Micro-bot exhibition is quite impressive. So long Lego bricks.
It’s amazing how innocent a new technology starts out…and just how quickly its altruistic vision can be perverted.

“Diagnosis: puberty.” Someone should pitch that to #abcfamily.

Fist bump scene is humorous.
This gag pays off dividends throughout the movie.

“There are no red lights in a car chase.” Ha!
This is a thinly veiled reference to Tom Hanks’ oft-quoted remark (“There’s no crying in baseball!”) in A League of Their Own (1992).

The inclusion of #StanLee in the family portrait is clever.
The first successful Marvel integration into a Disney movie. This Easter egg isn’t here by accident…but you’ll have to stick around through the end credits to learn its significance.

The flight scene is exhilarating but recalls similar ones in the #HowToTrainYourDragon movies.

Project Silent Sparrow looks an awful lot like #StargateSG1.
Besides the extra gate, the master shot looks like it was lifted right out of an episode of this long running sci-fi series.

Cool watercolor universe.
Or is it tie-dye? Or is it lava lamp? No I’m not tripping, but the animators sure were.

Nice title reveal in the last scene of the movie.

Final analysis: a high spirited, heartwarming tale of a cuddly robot, a young inventor and a group of nerds.
These nerds fulfill a vital role in the film as comic relief, especially Fred (T.J. Miller), and solid support for the hero.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. A sequel seems all but assured. Be sure to stay through the end credits.

Based on the comic book series (from Marvel, of course) of the same name created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, BH6 tells a very human tale in the midst of a protracted struggle to control a powerful new technology. The movie sets up in a similar manner to Meet the Robinsons (2007), also a Disney animated effort, in the way a science fair/expo experiment is stolen and used to devastating effect by a misguided villain. The exploited technology in this case is millions of tiny microbots, which, when controlled by a person’s thoughts via a headband (similar to the Bowler Hat Guy’s high-tech headgear in Robinsons), can construct a myriad objects, shapes, weapons, etc. Though quite a bit larger, these microbots remind me of the insidiously relentless nanites in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The way the villain uses the microbots as a mobile dais is the kind of spine-tingling image you’d expect to see in a live action superhero film intended for a much older audience. Even though the movie’s main character is young tech geek Hiro (Ryan Potter), the focal point of the film is undeniably the rotund robot, Baymax (voiced with absolutely perfect inflections by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit). The love child of the Michelin Man and EVE from WALL-E (2008), Baymax (this is one silly name…it sounds like Betamax, a technology that didn’t fare too well) is a lovable sidekick with a central processor of gold and a unique skill set…he provides portable medical services. Upon hearing that universal sound of distress, “Ouch!,” Baymax inflates, initiates its programming and launches into triage mode (this brand of activation reminds me of the way the holographic doctor appeared when summoned in Star Trek: Voyager, “Please state the nature of the medical emergency.”). Though Baymax’ skills and enhancements are impressive, as well as a whole lot of fun to watch in action, it’s his compassion and empathy that make his character so appealing. Hiro’s journey is an emotional one and Baymax’ ministrations (mostly psychological) are a salve for the young boy’s tragic loss early in the film. The loss of loved ones lies at the heart of the film and, ironically, provides motivation for the protagonist and antagonist. Even though the film deals with some fairly heavy issues, it is, after all, a Disney movie, and that means the story must have a happy ending. To whit, the hero comes to terms with his loss and the villain is redeemed, to an extent, and they all live... In the end, the story is moving and exhilarating, and you can bet that a sequel will soon be in the works. This is definitely a movie where you feel better walking out than when you walked into the theater. So now the only question that remains is, “Are you satisfied with your care?”

Rio 2 (G)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg
April 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Rio 2

Nice tropical sounds added to the 20th Century Fox fanfare.
The percussive rhythms of Carnival.

A blue feather is found in the Amazon.
Right next to the nest of raptor eggs.

Nice tour of Brazil in a storybook montage.
The bird’s-eye vantages of the major cities really help to capture the flavor of this diverse country.

Kristin Chenoweth voices the poisonous frog. Call it a significant career change.
Just further proof that there isn’t anything she can’t do in the biz.

The blue community’s celebration song is brilliantly animated and choreographed.
A visual treat that recalls other such elaborately produced numbers in the first film.

The jungle talent auditions are hilarious.
The male black panther singing high soprano is particularly humorous.

Blue insults the Red leader. This means war.
Insulted Red Leader? Who does he think he is, Luke Skywalker? Correction: Blu.

Fanny Pack single-wingdedly looses the war.

Final analysis: a respectable sequel with some new characters and challenges thrown into the mix.
While some original characters, like George Lopez’ Rafael, are sidelined for much of the movie.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. So will the sequel be called Rio 3 or Amazon 2? I’m so confused.

Such confusion stems from the fact that the majority of the film takes place in the Amazon—only about the first fifteen minutes of the story transpires in the birds’ native haunts in Rio. Whereas it was the right decision to move some of the action away from the familiar settings established in the first film, the sequel spends too much time away from the titular city and should’ve returned there if only for a closing number to provide an adequate bookend for the film. Indeed, one of the subplots (the proposed talent show) would’ve been a natural, logical way to close out the film…but that plot thread is left dangling in the tropical breeze. The familial aspects work really well here, but the writers work overtime at turning Blu into an avian version of Ben Stiller’s character in the Meet the Parents movies. Seeing the blue bird bumble and stumble through every situation grows tedious after a while and the way his one heroic act at the end rectifies all the damage he’s done all movie long is extremely contrived. And speaking of Blu’s defining moment of valor, does anyone else see the connective tissue between clumsy Jar-Jar leading the Gungan attack against the Battle Droid army in Star Wars-Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Blu leading the charge against the humans and their bulldozers here? This heavy-handed means of vilifying humans is old hat. Though conducted on a much smaller scale, this nature-revolts-against-humans finale is virtually identical to the one in FernGully…The Last Rainforest (1992). Whereas I’m certainly not a supporter of deforestation or any other means by which humanity destroys nature, I’m even less sanguine when Hollywood indoctrinates impressionable minds with its diatribes of evil humans and their careless stewardship over the planet (see my review of “Happy Feet” for a rant on the subject). This “humans bad, nature good” final conflict was the only sour note in an otherwise mellifluous animated romp in the jungle. So the question remains: how much of Rio will we get to see in Rio 3?

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (PG)

Directed by: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel
June 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Dragon race has a literal black sheep.
Doesn’t this competition remind you of a Quidditch match, only with dragons subbing in for brooms?

Free falling sequence is breathtaking.

A new page for the map, an encounter with some unsavory trappers and rumors of war.
Oh my!

“Men who kill without reason cannot be reasoned with.”
A tad platitudinous, but essentially true.

Dragon aviary is a spectacular visual.
The swarm of dragons, comprised of a myriad shapes, sizes and colors, is easily the visual highlight of the film.

Dragon traps...clever.

The alphas lock tusks...the battle of the leviathans.
Doesn’t this scene look like it belongs in Pacific Rim or a Godzilla movie, though?

Toothless flies blind. A matter of trust.
This sequence presents a nitpick, however. Is the Alpha’s mind control only effective when visual contact is established? The eye gate should be irrelevant if the Alpha is engaging in true mind control and not just some hypnotic suggestion. Too technical for a kids movie? Probably.

A new alpha and a new chief. And they all lived...

Final analysis: a logical extension of the first film with many new dragons and a new villain.
And some truly dynamic family moments that serve as the heart of the film. However, the sudden entrance of one family member and the rapid departure of another are extremely contrived narrative choices.

However, the premise takes too long to materialize and the story lacks the magic of the original.
The teen angst angle worked like a charm in the first film, but Hiccup has finally come into his own here, making him a far less compelling character in this movie.

2 1/2 out of 4. Don’t be surprised if Toothless finds a mate in the sequel. Too obvious.

As sequels go this certainly isn’t a jeer-worthy entertainment, and yet it fails to measure up to the first film in several key areas. First of all, the writers expect us to remember all of the characters despite that fact that the original film was released four years ago. Except for the kids in the audience, who’ve seen the first film dozens of times on Blu-ray at home, a refresher as to who’s who would’ve been nice for the rest of us one-timers. The main thing I missed in the sequel is the lore and mythology that enriched the first film. The writers, mistakenly, assume that we’re all experts on Viking customs and have the dragon bestiary memorized by now, but some new cultural tidbits to draw us into the milieu would’ve further enhanced this film. Also, a large part of the fun in the first film involved the training sessions for how to fight and ride various types of dragons. Everyone’s a proficient “pilot” in this movie, and only the bumpy flight on the dragon babies adds any kind of drama to the lives of these experienced dragon riders. Lest we forget, the word “train” appears in the title, so the movie missed the mark by failing to tap into what worked in the first film. Though the CG animation is top shelf, some of the melees are staged and choreographed just like a LOTR film—the epic battle formula is getting old by now. All in all, this is a spirited animated adventure that’s sure to thrill its target audience…if only the adults were equally serviced by this sophomore, and sometimes sophomoric, effort. Final thought: now that the main character has become a man and taken his father’s mantle, can we get a name change already? One thing that should never be uttered in the next movie is Chief Hiccup.

The Lego Movie (PG)

Directed by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Starring: Will Arnett
February 2014

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

The Lego Movie
Everything is already done for you…which some would say is the downfall of movies.

LOTR style opening. A wizard recounts a rhyme.

Everything is awesome...until Emmett tries following a woman into a construction site.
Many men have rushed headlong into destruction while pursuing a woman, so it’s not just a Lego thing. Correction: Emmet.

Wild Style and The Special land in the Old West.
Nope, there’s no time for them to say howdy to Rango. Correction: Wyldstyle.

The meeting of master builders is attended by many familiar figures, including the wizard Double Door.
A really funny play on words. The assembly is chockfull of familiar faces from many different franchises.

The double-decker couch actually serves a purpose.

Batman hitches a ride on the Millennium Falcon. Funny scene.
In what other movie can you find such a scene? The “They’re all guys” bit is a hoot.

The Bat pun is humorous.
The deadpan delivery by Will Arnett, who actually does a respectable job of voicing the Caped Crusader, is absolutely perfect.

Will Farrell meets his alter ego. Results in a touching scene.

Final analysis: some funny moments along with the pedestrian ones. A nice emotional payoff at the end.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not hard to see this becoming a franchise with the myriad sets to choose from.

The animated films that tend to endure are those that work on two levels: cute and funny for the kids, witty and emotionally complex for adults. Pixar has long been the exemplar for how to simultaneously cater to kids and adults in the same movie, but other animation studios have gradually found their own way in achieving this multidimensional storytelling method. The Lego Movie does an excellent job of servicing the different generations in the audience with whip smart humor and pulse-pounding action sequences. Many of the “adult” jokes, some of which contain biting political commentary, will fly right over the heads of younger viewers. That’s okay, because there’s plenty for the youngsters to enjoy here, not the least of which is seeing many of their favorite heroes hanging out together on the big screen. Characters from the Batman, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises all peacefully coexist in this mash-up mayhem, but a pair of original characters, Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), drive the story’s action. And then there’s schizoid Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), who steals the show with his mercurial moods and vacillating voices. The voice cast is beyond stellar, including Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Cobie Smulders, to name just a few. It’s an added treat to hear actors voicing their original characters like Billy Dee Williams as Lando and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. The final ten minutes close out the movie with a heartwarming resolution, which, for this adult, tied things up with satisfactory emotional closure. There are myriad creative avenues for the writers to explore in the inevitable sequel. We’ll just have to wait and see what new adventure they come up with…or, if we don’t want to wait that long, we can create our own sequel with the Legos we have hidden in the shoebox in the corner of the closet. I won’t tell if you won’t.

Frozen (PG)

Directed by: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring: Kristen Bell
November 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


Love the part writing on the opening choral number.

Gorgeous animation on the ice breaking scene.
This sequence harkens back to diminutive laborers swinging pickaxes in a diamond mine in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)…but without all the “Heigh-Hos.”

The king seeks aid from rolling rocks.
There’s a really good rock ‘n’ roll joke in there somewhere, but chances are it’ll end in a groan. And neither of us wants that.

“Do you want to build a snowman?” Wow, what an emotionally charged back story.
This heart-rending sequence approaches the master level storytelling exhibited in the opening montage of Up (2009). Boy does it hit the mark.

Water fountain ice sculpture and walk across the lake are brilliant.
There’s some superb animation in this section of the film.

My God, the “frozen fractals” CGI is utterly jaw-dropping.
Ditto to the previous remark times a million.

Olaf dreams of summer. Funny how we always long for what we can never have or will lead to our destruction.
Just human, or snowman, nature I suppose.

The duet by the sisters reminds me of the “Defying Gravity” song in Wicked.
Fitting since one of the singers in that song also lends her voice here, Idina Menzel.

Ice queen gives her sister a snow lock like Simon in #TheDragonboneChair.
This book, the first in a trilogy written by Tad Williams, should be essential reading for fantasy lovers.

“My own personal flurry.” Hilarious!
Unlike many of the cutesy sidekicks in the 90s and 00s Disney movies, Olaf doesn’t work too hard to be funny…he just is. He’s also charming, which is more than I can say for many of the “comic relief” characters from the period in question.

Final analysis: a beautifully rendered animated film that features some funny and touching moments.

This film is the perfect marriage between classical Disney magic and Pixar’s storytelling brilliance.
If Disney wants to regain its dominance in the industry, this film should serve as a template.

3 1/2 out of 4 stars. Pure animation excellence and well deserving of its Oscars.

Of course, it’s easy to gush in retrospect, but this film certainly deserved the Oscars it won back in March, including the coveted Best Animated Feature Film. Thanks in large part to the creative guidance of John Lasseter, the gap between Disney and Pixar animated films has significantly narrowed. More homogeneity exists between both animation houses at present than ever before and it just makes sense that Disney/Pixar films should possess the same level of quality and creative consistency across the brand…the results have been largely lopsided until now. Besides the eye-popping CGI, there are also plenty of other things to celebrate in the film, not the least of which is co-director Jennifer Lee’s screenplay based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” There are many classical Disney flourishes in the film along with some fresh elements too, like the clever twist on the hackneyed story device where a character can only be reanimated by “true love’s kiss.” The movie boasts the finest musical numbers in any Disney movie since Beauty and the Beast (1991). There isn’t a wasted word or note in any of the songs and “Let It Go,” performed by Menzel, justly deserved the Oscar win for Best Original Song. As incredulous as it seems, this is the first Best Animated Film Oscar bestowed upon the Mouse House: since its inception in 2002, the category has been dominated by Pixar. In truth, I’m much more of a Pixar fan than a Disney fan, but I must admit to being completely won over by the film’s charm, heart and visual grandeur. There can be no doubt that Frozen is a giant step in the right direction for Disney. Hopefully, like iron sharpening iron, the two studios will push each other to greater artistic and dramatic achievements in the future. A little sibling (studio) rivalry never hurt anything, right?

Despicable Me 2 (PG)

Directed by: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Starring: Steve Carell
July 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pasted Graphic

Horseshoe-shaped super magnet appears in the Arctic. A slick sci-fi teaser.

In a jam, Gru considers a new profession.
But before he can make that decision, he lands in a sticky situation. C’mon, that’s better than half the lines in the movie.

The last thing I wanted to see in this family film was a minion in the buff. Eww.

Bad date leads to a better prospect.

Chip hat...fashionable and delectable.
But how often do you need to purchase a new one?

Shouldn’t the mutant minions be able to chew through the cages?
A bit of a spoiler, but a question that exposes this contrived plot point.

Minion mock music videos are exceedingly silly.
But it made the kids laugh, so mission accomplished I suppose.

Final analysis: too many pratfalls by minions and too shallow a plot to be fully enjoyed.
All of the best scenes were spoiled in the trailer.

Too much time was spent in the mall, which is a hackneyed locus for action.

2 out of 4 stars. Unremarkable sequel lacks the heart of the original. A Gru-some experience.

With the runaway success of the first film, it was a foregone conclusion that a Despicable sequel would ensue. That effort ended up being pretty safe by trying to turn former super villain Gru into a nice guy (which is far less compelling), adding a possible love interest for Gru (contrived and mushy for a kiddy pic) and amping up the minion mischief (a gimmick to garner more laughs from the target audience). Those preteen spectators won’t notice the decline in story quality, but everyone else in the audience will chalk this one up as mildly disappointing. And annoying: bee-doh, bee-doh, bee-doh…

Epic (PG)

Directed by: Chris Wedge
Starring: Amanda Seyfried
May 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pasted Graphic 19

Termites holding hands...funny line.

What happens when a three-legged dog stops to scratch?
Depends on how fast it can scratch I suppose, but gravity can be so unforgiving.

The clash of Leafmen and Boggans is an exciting, creative fracas.

“Many leaves, one tree.”
Kinda’ New Agey. Have we slipped back into FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)?

Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Seems to be the movie’s mantra.

Fruit fly bit is hilarious!
The funniest gag in the movie.

Jedi-like jumping ability would come in handy.

Boggan fortress has a decided
LOTR look to it.

Moon bloom forestalled.

Final analysis: An imaginative animated fantasy that succeeds despite heavily borrowing from
Arrietty, LOTR & Avatar.
The scene where the scientist finally sees the little people is also reminiscent of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Despite not living up to its name, Epic is a fun-filled family film.

The movie has some decent moments, but the pastiche plot elements really detract from its potential. The animation is solid, but the story is sub-Pixar, which means it will appeal to its target audience but may be found wanting by adult audience members.

Monsters University (G)

Directed by: Dan Scanlon
Starring: Billy Crystal
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pasted Graphic 6

Starry-eyed Mike on a field trip. A monster is created.

I sense trouble with Mile’s roommate.
Correction: Mike’s roommate…who seems a bit shifty.

Mike and Sulley meet.
A meet-cute of monstrous proportions. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

The dean is fittingly frightening.

What to do when dreams are dashed? Join OK.

Winners of the Scare Games get a Piston Cup?
The Games are the coolest part of the movie. The scene in the library is an instant classic.

Another field trip to the Big Leagues.

Don’s mustache is the Batman symbol.
A tip of the hat to the Caped Crusader by the Pixar artists?

Final analysis: doesn’t posses the unbridled creativity or emotional resonance of the original.
Nor the topical relevance of the original—the power shortages of the early 2000s.

First half is extremely gimmicky, but the plot settles in once the Games begin.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

Disney’s sequelitis is beginning to infect Pixar, which is a profound tragedy.

Still, when rival DreamWorks can only muster up
Turbo, Pixar is in no danger of being dethroned.

This prequel idea seemed better suited for a straight-to-DVD release rather than a theatrical one. Remember the frenetic sequence inside the factory in the first film, where rows of doors on an assembly line sail by with characters jumping on and through them? Nothing in the sequel even comes close to that level of sheer exhilaration. True, there are a few memorable and heartwarming scenes and it’s mildly entertaining seeing younger versions of Mike and Sulley, but this is a mostly mediocre movie. With Cars 2 and now Monster’s University, Pixar’s quality has clearly suffered at the hands of it’s Disney benefactors who will milk a property until the cows come home rather than producing riskier, original material…you know, the kind of stories that made Pixar great in the first place. It was bound to happen, I suppose, but it’s still sad to see.

Brave (PG)

Directed by: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Starring: Kelly Macdonald
June 2012

Pixar’s thirteenth film,
Brave, is a bold departure from the studio’s last couple of releases, both of which were sequels and featured the exploits of toys and cars, respectively. Brave has pioneered a few firsts for the stalwart studio: somewhat surprisingly, this is the first period piece produced by the studio. The movie is set several centuries ago in the Scottish Highlands. Brave is also Pixar’s first fairy tale, told in a conspicuously classic Disney manner. Brenda Chapman is the first female director of a Pixar film. Most importantly for those who’ve been critical of the studio’s purportedly misogynistic or chauvinistic tendencies, the film features the first female title character in any Pixar film.

Some will argue that
Brave is Pixar’s answer to DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon (2010), but the two animated films are vastly different. For starters, there aren’t any colossal, reptilian fire-breathers in Brave. Secondly, in Dragon young lad Berk seeks approval from his father while Brave’s Merida pulls out her long, thick, red hair in defiance of her overbearing mother’s insistence on her adherence to decorum and tradition. Ultimately, Brave has more in common with early Disney animated movies than it does with DreamWorks’ foray into Medieval times, particularly any Disney classic that features an old, wart-nosed, spell-casting witch.

Less obvious is
Brave’s commonality with Disney’s Brother Bear (2003), specifically in the way the spell transforms effected characters. Another element borrowed from the Disney back catalog is the archery contest first seen in Robin Hood (1973). In that movie, archers competed for a kiss from the fair Maid Marian, but in Brave, contestants are vying for Merida’s hand in marriage (until Merida pulls out her bow and shows them all how it’s done). Of course, a young lass with a bow and arrow isn’t exactly original either…Susan was a fair shot in the Narnia films and, more recently, Katniss was deadly accurate in The Hunger Games (2012). Although Merida and her mother don’t switch bodies, the way the women eventually come around to the other’s point of view definitely has shades of Freaky Friday (1976, 2003). You could also say that firelocks and the three little bears steal the show at the end, yet another allusion to a literary antecedent.

All of this to say that
Brave certainly isn’t the most original of the Pixar films. However, the studio’s ability to weave these familiar story threads into an intricate tapestry of high-spirited, hilarious and heartfelt moments is really quite astounding…you might even say uncanny. And there can be no doubt that like the many early Disney animated features it emulates, Brave is brimming with that elusive quotient called movie magic.

Other than the witch’s spell, the most magical element in the movie is the tiny blue sprites called
wisps. Besides looking and sounding cool, wisps are like mini spirit guides that lay out a course for the characters to follow, much like breadcrumbs in the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale. The tribute to Steve Jobs, as his wisp ascends heavenward, during the end credits is a class move by the studio who owes the departed visionary a huge debt, both creatively and financially.

Brave probably won’t go down as essential Pixar viewing, it succeeds on its own right and has blazed new trails for the studio. Whether or not Brave is your cauldron of brew, you’re sure to find it a significant improvement over last year’s stuck-in-neutral Cars 2. The studio is back on track.

Rating: 3

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (PG)

Directed by: Peter Lord, Jeff Newitt
Starring: Hugh Grant
April 2012

If there’s an under-appreciated segment of the animated film industry it’s claymation, and when we use that word we’re talking about the undisputed masters of the form, Aardman Animations. Previous efforts have met with varied success:
Chicken Run (2000) was fairly well received while Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) was a runaway hit (judging from the movie’s overwhelming positive reception by audiences, critics and some golden guy named Oscar).

This time around, we’re taken along for a high-spirited adventure on the high seas, where the good guys are nineteenth century pirates and the bad guy is…Queen Victoria? Loosely based on the book by Gideon Defoe,
Band of Misfits features the ne’er-do-well exploits of the Pirate Captain (yep, that’s his name) and his scurvy afflicted lot of loyal lads. Despite numerous entries, the Pirate Captain has never won the coveted Pirate of the Year award (much like Kevin Kline’s constantly overlooked Inspector Dreyfus in 2006s The Pink Panther). The Pirate Captain’s reckless pursuit of the prize becomes both premise and plot for the movie and, of course, we can’t make achieving his goal an easy one can we?

Having a fearsome disposition certainly helps, but ultimately the award will go to the pirate with the most booty…gold coins, not the snack. And so the Pirate Captain sets out to board every hapless vessel he encounters on the open sea, but comes up empty-handed when those vessels contain valueless cargos and equally worthless crews (comprised of plague victims, kids on a field trip, naturists and ghosts). But the plot thickens when the pirates board a vessel with an odd scientist named Charles Darwin, who takes an interest in the Pirate Captain’s plump parrot pet.

So how does
Band of Misfits rank among the Aardman back catalog? The film is probably on even footing with Chicken Run, but certainly isn’t as refined or rousing as Wallace & Gromit. In Band of Misfits, the jokes don’t land with the precision of the latter and the action never quite reaches the frenetic pace of the former. Then there’s the story’s milieu; what it gains in familiarity it looses in originality.

Though these critiques may seem backhanded, the film is still a lot of fun and effectively combines clever and offbeat dialog (like when the captain avers that the best part of being a pirate is Ham Night) with outrageously creative visuals (like when dreaded Peg Leg Hastings arrives at the pirate gathering inside a whale’s mouth…the giant fish’s tongue rolls out like a red carpet).

The sheer logistics of producing one of these films is mind-boggling and it doesn’t seem quite fair that an achievement in claymation should be lumped together with traditionally drawn or computer generated animated films. Be that as it may,
Band of Misfits probably won’t stand a chance against Pixar’s Brave of the raft of animated features coming out later in the year. Though Band of Misfits isn’t a top tier animated film, it’s certainly a voyage worth taking. Aye, matey!

Rating: 2 1/2

The Secret World of Arrietty (G)

Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Starring: Bridgit Mendler
February 2012

The latest animated delight from Studio Ghibli is based on
The Borrowers, the children’s book series written by English author Mary Norton. While long-standing fans of visionary director Hayao Miyazaki may experience initial dismay over the fact that the director didn’t…well, direct this film, they’ll be relieved to know that he serves as a co-screenwriter and one of the executive producers of the film. In his stead, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi does an admirable job of filling in for the master with a film that’s nearly as technically and artistically proficient as any of Miyazaki’s earlier films. However, Arrietty doesn’t possess the unfettered creativity of Spirited Away (2001) nor the wonder and whimsy of Ponyo (2008).

Although it would be tempting to blame
Arrietty’s noticeable decline in storytelling magic on Miyazaki’s absence from the director’s chair, such an argument just wouldn’t be fair. So what prevents Arrietty from being a great Ghibli film? It certainly isn’t the Ghibli artists because the movie’s lushly mounted animation stands up to any other outing by the studio. It isn’t the stellar voice cast, headlined by Will Arnett, Amy Poehler and the timeless Carol Burnett. One could make an argument that the movie’s biggest debit is the adapted screenplay, that creativity is constrained by the pre-existing characters and narrative, even though slavish adherence to the source material doesn’t seem to be a problem here.

Although a story preoccupied with terminal illness and familial dislocation isn’t standard animated film fare, can we really blame the film’s creative letdown on these downer story elements? In the end, it may be impossible to determine why
Arrietty isn’t an instant classic like the other Ghibli films. But who knows, as time passes, this film might go down as the greatest Ghibili film ever, making my argument here as moot as dial-up internet or pocket pagers.

Rating: 3

The Adventures of Tintin (PG)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell
December 2011

Upon discovering a clue inside a model ship in a bottle, young reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell), Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and sidekick dog Snowy set out on a globetrotting journey to find a sunken ship named the Unicorn; one of Haddock’s ancestors was skipper of the boat. Of course, the adventurers have no interest in the actual ship…only the treasure contained inside its decomposing hull. As usually happens when treasure is involved, opposing forces are soon drawn to the search and here the villain is nefarious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). The race is on, but which group will be the first to find the Unicorn and lay claim to its bountiful riches?

Based on the series of comic books written and drawn by Belgium artist Herge in the 30s and 40s,
The Adventures of Tintin is the new CGI/motion capture extravaganza envisioned and produced by two of cinema’s finest action/adventure directors: Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park). In various interviews, both auteurs have expressed their immense affection for the source material. That profound reverence is abundantly evident in the loving detail lavished upon every frame of the film. Adapted from three Tintin stories, The Crab with the Golden Claws (1941), The Secret of the Unicorn (1943) and Red Rackham’s Treasure (1944), The Adventures of Tintin is the perfect marriage of the Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones franchises.

The opening credits sequence, which features a traditional animation aesthetic with an infectious jazz score by the inestimable John Williams, is an amusing and stylish montage of action vignettes that sets the tone for the film. The snappy opening recalls similar sequences in the
Pink Panther movies, Casino Royale (2006) and Catch Me If You Can (2002), which was also scored by Williams.

When the film begins, the cutting-edge alchemy of mocap and startlingly photorealistic CGI backgrounds overwhelms the eyes with its mesmerizing brilliance. Indeed, it takes a moment for the brain to adjust to the fact that what you’re seeing isn’t real but, as Miracle Max from
The Princess Bride (1987) would say, only “mostly” real. Or maybe we should use the word partially real to describe how staggeringly real-to-life the mocap images appear in the film, courtesy of Jackson’s team of FX wizards at Weta Digital.

One of the issues Pixar ran into while producing
The Incredibles was that the CG humans were so lifelike that test audiences reacted negatively toward the pixilated people. Apparently there’s such a thing as designing CG characters that look too real. Pixar’s solution was to redesign their character templates with less detail while adopting facial features more in step with traditionally hand drawn cartoon characters. Judging from the film’s runaway success, it seems that Pixar made the right call.

That said, if there’s a tolerable range for how realistic CG characters can appear (without producing mental revulsion),
Tintin definitely pushes the boundaries with its startlingly photorealistic people, places and things. Though some of the movie’s characters look more cartoony than others, detective duo Thomson (Nick Frost) and Thompson (Simon Pegg) for instance, others, like the eponymous character, are astoundingly realistic in appearance—especially around the eyes. Tintin’s trusty companion, a scrappy dog named Snowy, is rendered in CG but has more of a traditional 2D appearance, with matted fur rather than the poofy pelt boasted by Sully in the Monsters Inc. films.

While the
Lord of the Rings trilogy cracked open the door for motion capture performances, Avatar (2009) kicked the door down with its breathtaking blend of mocap and CGI. The mocap employed here is the next iteration of the process and it only seems fitting that Jackson would return to his go-to guy for one of this film’s mocap characters. Having already brought Gollum and King Kong to life, the brilliant Andy Serkis was the perfect (only?) choice to play Captain Haddock. Serkis turns the boozy bearded one into a fully realized character, filled with fears and foibles. It’s doubtful that anyone else could’ve pulled off the character quite the way Serkis does. Jamie Bell, likewise, wholly inhabits the title role and imbues the character with a degree of exuberance and wide-eyed wonder befitting the young adventurer…such emotions are perfectly conveyed by Bell’s facials, body language and movements. Tintin’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge in pursuit of a good story is infections and makes Bell’s captivating performance a joy to watch.

As for the movie’s action, and there’s plenty of it, there can be no doubt as to Spielberg’s involvement with the storyboards as his signature is evident in each frame of the movie’s many action scenes. Few would argue that the makeshift zip-line course in Morocco is the finest action scene in the film. The sequence is an exhilarating series of close shaves and gravity defying stunts which is immersive to the degree that you feel like you’re on a roller coaster ride. Although a completely different setting and scenario, this sequence is reminiscent of the frenetic, high-throttle mining cart pursuit in
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). What I like most about the sequence is that it actually allows your eyes to adjust to each movement or course correction, unlike the majority of action films these days which use a blurry handheld camera in capturing chase/fight scenes. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg, for bringing back the sheer visceral elation of a well choreographed, judiciously filmed action sequence.

Tintin is a rollicking, rousing good time with memorable characters, dazzling action sequences, stellar direction and a bracing mystery all rolled into an intensely fun and frenetic action/adventure yarn told with classic Hollywood flair. When Jackson and Spielberg first met to discuss bringing Tintin to the big screen, they agreed to do two movies and that they would each direct one of the films. Looks like it’s Jackson’s turn to step up to the wicket. We’ll see if he brings a darker sensibility to the sequel: Tintin and the Marauders of Mordor.

Rating: 3

Cars 2 (G)

Directed by: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Starring: Owen Wilson
June 2011

Celebrating 25 years of animation excellence, Pixar Studios has never released a dud—a truly astounding achievement. In fact, the closest they’ve ever come to producing a flop was the commercially successful but critically tepid
Cars (2005). So then, why would the studio green-light a sequel to the worst received film in its catalog rather than its most successful—you know, the one with the clown fish?

The easy answer is marketing—
Cars merchandise is everywhere…on clothing and pillow cases, on cracker boxes and soup labels and especially on shelves in the toy aisle. Cars paraphernalia is ubiquitous and the drop in sales since the first film exited theaters is negligible to the point of imperceptibility. Sad to say, but as long as the marketing machine is at full throttle, even mediocre box office returns from any future sequels will still be considered a success.

So with nothing to loose and bank to make, Lasseter and Co. have reunited us with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and a host of new and returning characters (all of which, you can bet, will have at least one toy car manufactured in their likeness) in
Cars 2. Leaving behind the cozy confines of Radiator Springs, the story soon takes us on a globetrotting adventure that’s part racing film and part Bond-esque spy thriller where Mater is mistaken for an undercover agent (huh?). The action kicks into high gear when the characters are whisked away on a foreign tour for the World Grand Prix.

The film’s premise seems like a sure-fire winner, but large sections of the film just feel off—like the timing of a car in desperate need of a tune-up. One key contributor to this cinematic vapor lock is the inner-cutting between the race and espionage subplot. The actual race is upstaged and overshadowed by the international intrigue for most of the film, making it difficult to actually enjoy or even care about the race itself, which becomes ancillary to the spy action sequences. This narrative tug o’ war is tiring and jarring. Further, McQueen plays second horn to Mater for most of the movie (notice that Larry has top billing over Owen in the end credits).

The espionage plot itself is intended as a nod to the
James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises, but unwittingly degenerates into a derivative spoof. Michael Caine is predictably masterful as mega-spy Finn McMissile and probably should’ve had his own film. In the same way that the spy plot dominates the racing plot, McMissile is more of a hero in the film than McQueen. Has the “Mc” mantle been passed on for the next, inevitable sequel?

The movie’s commentary on oil vs. a fuel alternative (Allinol) is by turns heavy-handed and OPEC, I mean opaque, and ultimately fails to say anything meaningful on the subject.
Monsters Inc. subtly addressed the energy crisis of the early 2000s while WALL-E harrowingly forecasted the dangers of consumerism run amok. By contrast, Cars 2 breaches the topic of our dependency on fossil fuels and then quickly abandons it, hit-and-run style.

Equally irritating is the film’s vacillation with respect to lemon cars—one minute we’re supposed to pity them, like Mater’s rust bucket fan, Otis, and the next we’re supposed to despise them, like the nefarious henchmen who “kill” cars because they’re rich and famous. Even when confronted with the error of their ways, the Lemon Mafia refuses to change, much to their demise. Unrepentant evil is pretty rare in Pixar movies (Syndrome is one notable exception), and sets a poor example and precedent, especially since the plight of lemon cars could’ve set up a heartfelt moral—you know, the kind Pixar normally capitalizes on for maximum emotional effect. The only meaningful moment here is the analogy between dents and momentous events of the past, a very understated theme that Lasseter should’ve gotten more dramatic mileage out of.

So, has
Cars 2 broken Pixar’s perfect track record? Opinions will vary, but there can be no doubt that if fails to measure up to the studio’s stellar back catalog. The movie mishandles nearly every narrative turn and takes the original conceit of talking cars (and now ships, jets, trains, etc) to absurd extents. As such, the film has effectively scrapped credibility while abandoning the heartwarming character moments that aided in our suspension of disbelief during the first outing.

In one of the movie’s rare racing scenes, McQueen moves outside and allows chief rival Francesco Bernoulli to take the inside track to victory. In the same way,
Cars 2 has pulled over onto the shoulder, allowing any other decent animated film the chance to play spoiler in this year’s race for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. There’s always the Piston Cup as a consolation prize, I suppose. As painful as it is to admit, Pixar has fallen off the pace.

Rating: 2

Kung Fu Panda 2 (PG)

Directed by: Jennifer Yuh
Starring: Jack Black
May 2011

Black is back as panda Po, but does the sequel have the same disarming charm or killer action sequences as the original?

All-Star Cast: Voice talents abound in the Panda sequel. Notable returning characters are: Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Mr. Ping (James Hong). New characters include: Shen (Gary Oldman), Soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh), Wolf Boss (Danny McBride), Master Ox (Dennis Haysbert), Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Master Rhino (Victor Garber).

Family Matters: The narrated prologue sets up one of the movie’s major plots…the mystery surrounding the fate of Po’s parents. Midway through the film, Po confesses to Tigress his surprise over discovering that his father, a goose, isn’t his “real” father. The hilarity of the scene soon turns to a serious, heart-rending plea to know “Who am I?” Po gradually learns the answer to his question during intermittent flashbacks throughout the movie and during the climactic confrontation with the new villain.

Artful Art: Speaking of the flashback sequences, the use of various animation styles makes for a very effective means of storytelling. The opening sequence, which tells the back story of how peacock Shen turns bad, is a superbly crafted teaser that’s animated in the style of a Chinese shadow puppet show. That style is repeated later in the film, but most of the remaining flashback scenes employ traditional animation and one flashback is rendered in CGI.

Irrational Fears: One of the movie’s plot elements involves the impending demise of kung fu at the hands of a new mystery weapon. We’ve seen this scenario played out many, many times in cinema history, ranging from the emergence of the Gatling gun threatening to put gunfighters out of business in John Wayne’s The War Wagon (1967) to the very same weapon making swords, guns and martial arts obsolete in Shanghai Knights (2003) and putting samurai warriors out of business in The Last Samurai (2003). What makes this fear an irrational one, and therefore a flawed plot device, is that kung fu, as a mode of hand-to-hand combat, serves an entirely different function than that of a weapon of mass destruction. In other words, someone with no fighting skills can wreak havoc by pulling a trigger, but that same person would get his butt kicked by someone trained in physical combat. Therefore, a WMD threatening a form of martial arts is a wholly fallacious premise.

Inner Peace: Po, who tends to be uncoordinated, unfocused and undisciplined, is given a new challenge this outing, finding inner peace amid the swirling maelstrom of random thoughts and nagging questions in his mind. Master Shifu, the series’ version of Yoda or Miyagi, appears just long enough to give Po his assignment but, disappointingly, doesn’t really factor into the story except for a deus ex machina appearance during the climactic melee. Though this theme is a bit force-fed, inner peace ties in nicely with Po’s struggle to learn his true identity and is also critical in Po’s efforts to turn the tide against the advancing evil at movie’s end.

So is the sequel as good as the original? Not quite. The
Panda sequel only possesses half the charm and half the heart as the original. Other than panda protagonist and peacock antagonist, none of the other critters get much character development, if any at all. Oh, and speaking of the villain…a peacock? Really? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to make the one-eyed wolf the villain? Just saying. The action sequences are well-executed, but offer little innovation from the dynamic fight scenes featured in the first film. Still, some things do work well in the sequel, like the humorous “stealth mode” and “dragon costume” sequences, the heart-warming scenes between Po and his adopted father and Po’s refusal to allow his painful past to dictate his present and future. So, will we see Po and co. again in the near future? The movie’s clever coda should leave no doubt.

Rating: 2 1/2

Rango (PG)

Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Johnny Depp
March 2011

With the creative vision of director Gore Verbinski (
The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and the hard-hitting prose of screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator), you’d expect a stylish, edgy and pulse-pounding adventure for Nickelodeon’s new animated foray into the Old West, Rango. As is the case with many movies these days, what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate successfully onscreen. Even though Rango is far from being a bomb it doesn’t exactly hit the target either. It’s diverting without necessarily being inspiring or entertaining.

Everything is going swimmingly for the titular chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp), who’s enjoying some RNR in the back of his owner’s car. As fate would have it, Rango’s glass habitat slips though a car window and he soon finds himself alone and lost in the middle of a desert. As a pampered house pet, Rango must now learn how to survive in the wild with very few life skills to draw upon.

This setup is similar to the opening act of Pixar’s
Cars, when hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) wakes up in the middle of the desert and stumbles into sleepy burg, Radiator Springs. Here, Rango ends up in the Wild West town of Dirt, and it just so happens that the citizens are looking for a new sheriff. Hesitant at first, Rango eventually accedes to the demands of the townsfolk when the chance to be a hero becomes too great an enticement to resist.

Rango is a pastiche of many different films, it has a heavy quotation of Chinatown, which becomes blatantly obvious from the midway point on through to movie’s contrived resolution. At the very least, Logan should’ve selected some other element than water to have a shortage of since H2O was such a central commodity in Roman Polanski’s landmark film. In addition to being a Chinatown retread, the movie also features characters from other movies, like the off kilter cameo of a rugged figure called the Spirit of the West (voiced by Timothy Olyphant), a clear-cut analog of Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” from the Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy. The spirit of Eastwood gives the chameleon hero some words of advice while sweeping the desert floor with a metal detector. It’s a strange flourish that one would expect to see in a movie helmed by Depp’s other director friend, Tim Burton.

Despite it’s best efforts at being topical, by tapping into recession fears,
Rango falls short of being relevant due to the story’s pervasive silliness. Still, there are some mildly amusing scenes and a few creative embellishments, like the rattlesnake with a semi-automatic gun in its tail, that make the movie a worthwhile entertainment. The movie’s underlying message, that anyone can be a hero if they try hard enough, is a bit overdetermined, but is heartwarming just the same. After all, don’t we all secretly wish we could be a hero?

Rating: 2 1/2

Up (PG)

Directed by: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Starring: Edward Asner
May 2009

“Up Through the Atmosphere, Up Where the Air is Clear…”

I always find it amusing when a movie title unwittingly becomes the description of its story, theme or overall effectiveness. For instance, the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty and two Matthew McConaughey movies, Failure to Launch and Fool’s Gold, each embody the refined essence of their appellations. Whereas those movies accidentally stumbled into titular irony, Up clearly intended its prepositional title to describe not only the story’s frequent trajectory, but also its charming, heartwarming and…well, uplifting themes. And I’m sure Disney/Pixar hopes box office rankings and financial earnings will swiftly and exponentially head in the direction indicated in the title.

At some point in their story lines, each Pixar movie features a stirring or sentimental scene which effectively becomes the heart of the film. These infusions of emotion are often administered in a sequence of shots with a tear-jerking song performed by a big-name artist: Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me” in
Toy Story 2 and James Taylor’s “Our Town” in Cars, for instance. In Up, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson hit you with a heart-rending haymaker even before you’ve had a chance to settle into your seat or scoop your first handful of popcorn.

The introductory montage succinctly and skillfully distills the entire life of Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) into just over four minutes of screen time. The sequence is an efficient and effective series of images which encapsulates Carl’s experiences from when he was a young boy all the way up to the present, where Carl is a cantankerous old man. Highlighting key events—like Carl and Ellie’s wedding, the young couple buying and fixing up a house, learning that Ellie can’t bear children and growing old together—the montage conveys a lifetime of milestones and memories without a single line of dialog. The concise sequence enables spectators to immediately identify with Carl’s plight and sympathize with his present despair. As a microcosm of life’s most meaningful moments, the opening montage in
Up stands out as one of the finest examples of time compressed storytelling ever to have graced the silver screen.

Having already emotionally climaxed over the beautiful, wistful opening, I could’ve left the theater completely satisfied at that moment. Part of me wishes I had. Though the brilliant opening rapidly rockets the story to its affective and creative zenith, the balance of the film, including the high-flying finale, fails to reach the same elevation achieved in the first act. I guess it’s true what they say…what goes up must come down!

Ironically, the story starts to deflate once Carl and stowaway adventure scout, Russell, reach South America, roughly a third of the way into the movie. I use the word ironic because the balloons that keep the house aloft start popping about this time. The symbolism here is apropos since the story, just like Carl’s house, looses altitude and starts to sag in the middle of the film.

Carl’s house is a central focus of the film. The house is the means of transportation to South America, is present with Carl during the octogenarian’s journey through the jungle and represents a lifetime of memories which anchor, indeed shackle, Carl to the past which he must let go of before he can have the adventure of a lifetime. In order to fulfill his promise to his departed sweetheart, Carl uses a garden hose to pull his hovering house through the jungle toward its intended resting place near Paradise Falls. After a series of misadventures, which see the house being heavily damaged, set on fire and gorged of its furniture in order to assist the slowly deflating helium balloons in lifting the house, Carl is faced with the fateful decision to either save his life, and the lives of his newfound friends, or save his house.

Such instances of adult jeopardy can make you forget you’re watching an animated feature. Another mature moment occurs when Russell opens up and shares his story with Carl, who’s viewed the youth as an inconvenient nuisance up to this point. Russell recalls a curb where he and his absentee father used to sit on while eating ice cream and watching cars cruise by on lazy summer afternoons. The boy expresses fondness for a particular period of his past when his father was still a part of his life. From this moment on there’s a noticeable shift in the way Carl treats Russell. Carl’s wife is gone and so is Russell’s father; the two of them, along with talking dog Dug and sweet tooth snipe Kevin, become a surrogate family. As an antithesis to the healthy, nuclear family showcased in
The Incredibles, Pixar features a hurting, non-traditional familial unit in Up. In this way, Pixar has acknowledged the disparate realities and fractured identities of the postmodern family.

Heady material for a kids’ movie, to be sure, but have no fear, there’s more to this movie than sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya. Soon enough we’re introduced to the movie’s villain, Muntz (Christopher Plummer), and his evil canines. The action reaches its apex during a climactic midair skirmish: the battle gives new meaning to the word dogfight since the pilots of the enemy planes are…dogs. Though the frenetic sequence is a ton of fun, it borrows heavily from any number of war movies with an occasional reference to action film franchises such as
Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Up is a rousing and inspiring journey that fails to reach the lofty dimension suggested in the title due to an uneven narrative and overly pedestrian story elements (I’m talking to you, Kevin). In the end, the film is a mild disappointment because it never quite gains enough altitude to lift its story back up to the level of its brilliant opening. The montage, by itself, is finer than any other Pixar film in its entirety. It’s just too bad the rest of the movie failed to achieve such stratospheric heights.

Rating: 3

The Tale of Despereaux (G)

Directed by: Sam Fell, Robert Stevenhagen
Starring: Matthew Broderick
December 2008

“Non-Pixar Animated Flick Has Lots of Heart but Little Magic”

If they had extreme sports for mice, giant-eared Despereaux would own every record. Despereaux leaps through the air and steals a piece of cheese from a mouse trap without even breaking a sweat. His friends watch in amazement. None of them would ever attempt such a circus act…not even for fresh cheese.

Despereaux fails to cower when his teacher shows him a picture of a cat. To make matters worse, he doesn’t recoil when he’s shown a picture of a needle. Filled with amazement, Despereaux reverently asks, “Is that a sword?” Despereaux’s teacher calls an emergency conference with his parents; something has to be done about the misfit mouse. Like many of us, Despereaux just isn’t quite normal.

Based on the Newbery Award-winning children’s book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo,
The Tale of Despereaux, judging from its marketing campaign, seemed poised to be the family film of the holiday season. Armed with a built-in audience, one of the most adorable animated creatures to grace the big screen in years and a fairytale story brimming with adventure and romance, it’s inconceivable that such a sure-fire crowd-pleaser could be a disappointment. And yet it is.

So what went wrong with
Despereaux? Was it the selection of vocal talent? Definitely not! The movie boasts an impressive array of A-list luminaries, all of whom perfectly match the character they’re voicing. If you want to make great soup you need the right ingredients and any producer would kill to have names like Matthew Broderick, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Watson, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Klein, William H. Macy, Stanley Tucci, Ciaran Hinds, Robbie Coltrane, Frank Langella, Christopher Lloyd and Sigourney Weaver stirred into their story stock.

Was it the animation? Doubtful. Although the film’s palette and aesthetic is measurably more earth-tone and moderate than most animated forays these days,
Despereaux is beautifully drawn; one of the movie’s greatest advantages is that it doesn’t try to emulate Pixar’s plush look. My only gripes with the animation are that the humans look like they’ve had their heads pinched in a vise and that the underground scenes are far too drab, especially for the impressionable kiddies in the audience.

Was it the story? Most likely. Will McRobb’s adaptation of DiCamillo’s story, though ambitious, resembles a ball of yarn that’s been pawed at and kicked around the room all day; you can discern the story’s overall core, but many plot strings lay strewn over the surface of the patchwork plot. The first major problem with the story is its perpetual POV shift between Despereaux (Broderick), rat-looking mouse Roscuro (Hoffman), Princess Pea (Watson) and the plump maid, Miggery Sow (Ullman). As the story bounces back and forth, it’s easy to loose the through line and difficult to discern an overarching theme or moral. Even though all of the plot threads eventually join to form a taut braid by the end, the main story—the tale of Dexperaux—is often subordinated by the movie’s riveting (Roscuro’s desperate attempts to break away from a hoard of nefarious rats), terrifying (the princess is kidnapped by the same rodent throng) and heartwarming (Miggery and her long-lost father are reunited) subplots.

The biggest narrative failing is the persistent, heavy-handed narration that not only spells out everything in the story, but also tells us how we should feel about it. Sigourney Weaver’s melodious intonations fit well with the movie’s storybook mood, but the narrated segments impede the flow of the story; serving, in essence, as filmic speed bumps. The movie’s slow pacing is directly attributable to its excessive exposition, which comes from the desire to be as faithful to the source material as possible; an honorable intention yet detrimental inhibition where the plot is concerned.

In the final analysis, the movie’s mixed results simply may be due to the fact that it wasn’t made by Pixar. However unfair that statement may be,
The Tale of Despereaux is still an above average animated tale; and at the end of the day, most kids won’t discriminate too much over which studio produced it. The movie deals with many themes such as standing up to evil, breaking the chains of hurt and extending forgiveness to others, but it doesn’t possess that one crystal-clear concept that drives home a movie’s message. Such streamlined storytelling catapulted each of the Pixar films into the A tier of animated films. Despereaux will have to settle for B tier status, but there are much worse fates…it might not be WALL-E, but at least it isn’t Fly Me to the Moon.

Rating: 2 1/2

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (PG)

Directed by: Dave Filoni
Starring: Matt Lanter
August 2008

“First Wars Animated Feature Ironically Feels Like a Clone”

In the final frontier, the good ship Enterprise is ever ready to respond to one intergalactic crisis or another and, conveniently, always seems to be the closest ship to a cosmic conflagration. Panning over to the galaxy far, far away, of all the Jedi Knights in the Old Republic—and there were myriad during the Clone War epoch—Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker always seem to be right in the middle of some uprising involving the Separatists and their droid armies, or engaging Count Dooku and his assassin apprentice Asajj Ventress in lightsaber duels, or avoiding the traps set by evil mastermind Chancellor Palpatine/Lord Sidious. Indeed, at the outset of the first full-length animated feature in the Star Wars stable, simply titled The Clone Wars, diminutive, inverted-speaking Jedi Master Yoda affirms that among the teeming ranks of Jedi Knights only two Jedi are available to rescue Jabba the Hutt’s kidnapped son…you guessed it, Obi-wan and Anakin.

To say that the film’s intro represents a catastrophic tremor in the Force for
Wars fans is a galactic understatement. There’s no Fox fanfare (the movie is being distributed by Warner Bros.), no opening crawl of expository back-story and in place of the familiar, rousing score we’re served a bastardized version of John Williams’ legendary Main Title that goes down like flat 7up. From the outset, this new film feels like a cheaply made knockoff of creator George Lucas’ space saga rather than an official chapter.

The movie opens with a futuristic news reel which focuses on the aftermath of
Star Wars: Episode I and II (in case spectators missed the prequels and stumbled into the theater by accident). The first half hour is one continuous battle; essentially a cut and paste job of various action sequences from Episode II and the brilliant animated shorts by director Genndy Tartakovsky, as shown on the Cartoon Network between 2003 and 2005—an animated series based on this film, which serves as a pilot of sorts, will air on the same network this fall.

During a break in the action, reinforcements arrive and we’re introduced to Anakin’s new Padawan, Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein); a plucky motor-mouth who’s a thorn in her master’s side just like Anakin was with Obi-wan. Ahsoka, who’s amusing for about fifteen minutes, becomes an obnoxious know-it-all by movie’s end. Still, the red-skinned youth is the only fresh element in the movie and her incessant bantering with Anakin is the movie’s only saving grace.

After the video game opening plays out, the second half of the film stumbles into something that resembles a story. Several of the subplots had the potential to develop into something substantive, namely the rescue of Jabba’s son, Kenobi’s lightsaber duel with Ventress, Anakin’s lightsaber confrontation with Dooku, Dooku’s plot to implicate the Jedi in the kidnapping of Jabba’s son and Amidala’s failed negotiations with Jabba’s uncle, Ziro the Hutt. Unfortunately, it’s all wasted effort because none of these narrative threads are given a chance to develop independently from melees, explosions and every other action element that fills twelve-year old boys with awe and excitement.

The main problem here isn’t the insipid plot, stiff animation, beaten-to-death conventions, or playground dialog. It isn’t even the fact that the only original actors to lend their voices are Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, Christopher Lee as Dooku and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO. The biggest drawback to
The Clone Wars is that it’s little more than a publicity stunt. As the lead-in to the upcoming animated series, the movie feels like a glorified cartoon; and since each of the main subplots resolve right around the thirty minute mark, the movie can be cut into three episodes and rebroadcasted on TV with little effort. What sours the blue milk here is the knowledge that Lucas green-lit the project solely to promote the new series. Does Lucas even care if the movie makes a profit? It seems like he just wants exposure for the series, which is yet another sneaky way of marketing his brainchild…something he mastered long, long ago.

The Clone Wars, however visually stimulating, is a dreadfully remedial tale that maneuvers the saga dangerously close to self parody. With two mediocre efforts turned in this summer (Indy IV), Lucas’ name on the street is about as good as M. Night Shyamalan’s. If Lucas isn’t careful, he’s going to alienate the remnant of die-hard fans; and when that happens, his fire will have gone out of the universe. All of a sudden, The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) and the two Ewok TV movies don’t look so bad.

Rating: 2


Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Ben Burtt
June 2008

“Animated Triumph Takes Us to Infinity and Beyond”

The latest feature film from Disney/Pixar may be an animated movie, but it certainly isn’t a kid’s movie. That’s not to say that kids won’t enjoy it or that it’s inappropriate for children, because that certainly isn’t the case. What I mean is that Pixar has delivered its most adult film to date; a hauntingly beautiful, elegantly whimsical and poignantly instructional CGI tour de force.

WALL-E tells the story of the last “living thing” on earth (other than cockroaches, of course) after humans abandoned their trashed and thrashed home world in search of greener pastures in the heavens. WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth), the eternally curious, binocular-eyed robot, has been assigned the unenviable task of cleaning up the desolated surface of our planet all by himself. WALL-E’s existence is fairly routine—gathering trash, compacting refuse into waste cubes and constructing veritable mountains out of the cubes—until a mysterious ship literally lands on top of him. The alien vessel dispatches a probe and quickly shoots back into space.

WALL-E is immediately stricken by the alabaster, egg-shaped probe, whom he soon learns is named EVE (WALL-E pronounces her name “Eva”). EVE barely acknowledges WALL-E’s existence until, in a desperate act to impress the mission-minded probe, WALL-E presents EVE with a gift—the solitary shoot of a plant potted inside an old boot. EVE snatches the plant, stores it inside one of her compartments and immediately shuts down. Try as he might, WALL-E fails to snap EVE out of her self-imposed trance; EVE is completely lifeless, save for a green flower symbol flashing on her sleek surface. Once again, WALL-E is relegated to a life of loneliness.

From that brief synopsis of the movie’s opening act, many would perceive WALL-E to be a dark, dismal, despondent, dystopian yarn, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I know this is quite a boast, but WALL-E has more heart than any previous Pixar picture, which is ironic since it prominently features emotionless, whirring robots as its main characters. Some humans appear in the story, but they certainly don’t resemble our race at present, although the story is clearly warning us against becoming the shallow, convenience and consumer-driven society portrayed in the film.
WALL-E, set 700 years in the future, is clearly a cautionary tale, but instead of simply leaving humans to wallow in the slough of our own making, the film illustrates the indomitable spirit of our race; the film powerfully illustrates humanity’s ability to adapt and aspire. Of the few lines of dialog in the film, the best one comes from the captain of the space cruise liner, Axiom. Once his eyes are opened to how life was on Earth, pre-apocalypse, the captain exclaims, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!”

At the heart of the film is the improbable, unconventional, yet deeply moving romance between WALL-E and EVE. Built upon sacrifice and simple acts of kindness, their artificial relationship is more emotionally resonant than the majority of human love affairs that populate modern cinema. I never thought I’d tear up at an animated film, especially one centered on two lovebird robots, but at times I couldn’t help it. So great is Pixar’s mastery of narrative, and anthropomorphized characters, that it can seemingly control a spectator’s emotions at whim. Pixar artisans are truly digital alchemists.

It almost goes without saying that the movie’s animation is stellar, but Pixar has taken CGI to new heights in
WALL-E, especially during the beautifully choreographed fire extinguisher in space sequence. Pseudo-documentary quick zooms infuse the prologue with some energy and the Chaplin-esque physical humor, along with Ben Burtt’s inspired vocalizations, makes for some captivating and amusing vignettes, like when a confused WALL-E places a spork in-between his spoon and fork collections.

From the movie’s lyrical opening to its unconventional resolution,
WALL-E is an instant masterpiece and a triumph in feature length animation. What started out as the most dubious Pixar film, judging from the film’s insular trailer, has turned out to be the studio’s most ambitious effort with the biggest payoff; the film is, hands down, the most profound animated movie ever made and very nearly qualifies as the Citizen Kane of its form. Though unabashedly bleak in spots, WALL-E is an affirmation and celebration of life in any form, even the most inconsequential. Hand over the Oscar for Best Animated Movie. WALL-E is out of this world!

Rating: 3 1/2

Horton Hears a Who! (G)

Directed by: Jimmy Hayward, Steve Martino
Starring: Jim Carrey
March 2008

“Horton Hears a Heavy-handed Whovie”

Somewhere along the way we stopped requiring movie stars to play characters and simply allowed them to play themselves. Here we have two comedy czars, Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, voicing characters that are so distinctly them; they’ve given typecasting a bad name. The detrimental drawback to this star-centric model is that it prevents the audience from discovering the characters on their own. Here we have Horton the elephant (Carrey), who finds a speck containing a diminutive civilization of Whos, and the mayor (Carell) of that tiny village known as Whoville (not to be confused with the other Whoville in How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Despite the fact that we never see the actors’ faces, Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! is nothing more than The Carrey and Carell Show—very little originality gets past their blockade of manic antics and slapstick silliness.

The story is well-known from Seuss’ children’s book and the 1970 animated TV special narrated by Hans Conried. With its homily on the dangers of intolerance, personified by a rigid, rule-enforcing kangaroo (voiced with great effect by Carol Burnett), the story is more timely and relevant than ever. It’s also more politically charged than ever thanks to growing unrest and increasing polarization in our country. But should politics be mentioned in the same breath as an animated kids flick?

In the movie, the citizens of Whoville undergo radical climate shifts as Horton transports them to their new home; a secluded cave atop a nearby mountain. There, the Whos will be safe for all time…or at least until the bear returns for hibernation. There’s a thinly veiled reference to global warming (now known as “climate change” since the Earth is currently experiencing a cooling trend) in reverse when morning frost on the speck turns Whoville into an arctic waste. It’s profoundly unfortunate that this feel-good family film was ruined by insidious agendas from environmental alarmists and social nannyists. Granted, there’s a positive message in the movie’s most memorable mantra, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” but it’s just so much stilted sermonizing made all the more unpalatable by force-fed moralizing and in-your-face patronizing.

The CGI is startlingly photo-realistic and the overall aesthetic is vintage Seuss, but the movie’s creative elements are overshadowed by its heavy-handed plot in much the same way that the story is held hostage by its larger-than-life stars. In the end, this isn’t a terrible film, but it isn’t the royal treatment that Seuss’ timeless tale deserves. But kids will love it, and when all is said and done that’s all that really matters.

Rating: 2 1/2

Ratatouille (G)

Directed by: Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava
Starring: Patton Oswalt
June 2007

“Anyone Can Cook…An Average Meal”

I’m a hypocrite! That’s the only possible explanation for my tepid reaction to Disney/Pixar’s new animated repast, Ratatouille. Even with rats overrunning the kitchen, the feast served up by director Brad Bird and his team of digital sorcerers has all the right ingredients, and yet, there’s one fundamental story element that stands out like a fly doing the backstroke in a bowl of soup.

The previous Pixar film,
Cars, anthropomorphized automobiles in a way that was charming and disarming, even for someone like me—a guy so ignorant about cars I once paid a mechanic to change my air filter. How talking autos became so popular and endearing is anyone’s guess, but no one can deny that Cars has memorable characters, hysterical and heartwarming scenes and what every feature hopes to capture like lightning in a bottle…movie magic.

So why am I a hypocrite? I can suspend my disbelief for conversing cars, but I just can’t bring myself to believe in a gifted rat who teaches a numbskull human how to create gourmet meals that can make even the most jaded food critic gush forth praises like a Parisian fountain. If this were merely a throwaway subplot, I could have abided the preposterous story element for the sake of an otherwise delightful tale of friendship, teamwork and dogged persistence in pursuing a dream. Unfortunately, the relationship between rodent Remy (Patton Oswalt) and clumsy trash boy turned overnight cooking sensation, Linguini (Lou Romano), is the cornerstone of the movie. If, like me, you just can’t buy into the trans-species partnership, it won’t take long for you to detect this tenuous plot device, which continues crumbling throughout the movie like bleu cheese over a tossed salad.

However, there are some great sequences in the movie, such as; rifle-packing granny making Swiss cheese out of her house while trying to blast the vermin in her attic, the montage of shots that show Remy teaching Linguini how to cook by tugging on tufts of the boy’s red hair and the climactic scene when Remy enlists a legion of his friends to help save the day…and Linguini’s reputation. What’s refreshing here is that just beneath all the frenetic fun and frivolity, discerning viewers will find additional layers of meaning and salience. Themes such as confronting fear, leaving home, falling in love, overcoming prejudice and forging an unlikely friendship all find poignant expression in the film and are handled with the skill and artistry of a world-renowned chef.

It almost goes without saying that the film’s CG animation is amazing—each new Pixar film raises the standard for the rest of the animation industry. The first Pixar film to feature mice and men,
Ratatouille has a unique palette which perfectly captures the mood and styles of Paris—the night skyline, complete with the majestic Eiffel Tower, is so sweeping and breathtaking it makes you want to rush right out and book a flight to France.

The animation is undeniably the movie’s piece de résistance, but the stellar vocal talents serve as the perfect garnish to this savory dish. Oswalt endues Remy with just the right mixture of wit, angst and pluck. Romano deftly performs hapless, clueless Linguini, but it’s Peter O’Toole, as cantankerous food critic Anton Ego, who steals the show with his rich, refined and resonant baritone. Other voices are provided by Brian Dennehey as Remy’s father, Janeane Garofalo as Linguini’s crush, Collette, Ian Holm as Skinner and Brad Garrett as Remy’s idol and mentor, Gusteau.

The more I reflect upon
Ratatouille, the more I realize my judgments will seem too harsh, but, for the reasons stated above, I can’t give the movie the glowing recommendation it clearly deserves. Ratatouille has the same heart as the other Pixar animated releases, but doesn’t have the same magic. However, the movie still exemplifies quality, family entertainment and, undoubtedly, will find universal appeal and acceptance from critics and audiences alike. This is the first Pixar movie that failed to meet my expectations…but at the end of the day, an average movie from Pixar is still better than the finest work from any other animation studio. I’d gladly pass up their filet mignon for a bowl of Pixar’s peasant soup any day!

Rating: 2 1/2

Shrek the Third (PG)

Directed by: Chris Miller, Raman Hui
Starring: Mike Myers
May 2007

“The Ogre Who Wouldn’t Be King”

There’s a scene toward the beginning of Shrek the Third where the not-so-jolly green ogre grabs a wine bottle and tosses it against the stern of a departing ship; to honor the long-standing, sea-faring tradition of christening a ship on its maiden voyage. The force of his throw, however, shatters a section the wooden hull and water immediately begins flooding the lower decks of the ship. In a matter of seconds the vessel is completely submerged, leaving nothing but bubble streams rising to the surface and stunned expressions on the faces of those gathered to see the ship off.

The scene is a microcosm of the perils facing this movie in particular and the series in general. With the arrival of the third
Shrek film, it has become painfully obvious that the ship is sinking…rapidly.

All of the familiar voices are back: Mike Myers as Shrek, Cameron Diaz as Fiona, Eddie Murphy as Donkey, Antonio Banderas as Puss in Boots, Rupert Everett as Prince Charming, John Cleese as King Harold and Julie Andrews as Queen Lillian. The latest legendary figure to be added to Shrek’s mythical mélange is King Arthur (are you ready for this…Justin Timberlake), who’s painted here as an ungainly, wussy-boy named Artie. Artie is reticent to assume the title and responsibilities of being king, a role that is being forcefully foisted upon him by the true heir to the throne, Shrek.

Does anyone else find this kind of revisionist history hard to swallow, or outright offensive? Riddled by other such discrepancies and inanities, the movie’s plot would make a nursery rhyme read like Shakespeare. Besides the aimless storyline, recycled gags, Dick and Jane dialogue and snail-like pacing, the movie fails to entertain because the once-charming premise of fairy tale potpourri has grown so tired that Rumpelstiltskin would be considered an insomniac by comparison.

It’s clear that Shrek’s producers are content to milk the cash cow for as long as they can—in other words, for as long as we keep feeding it the green. So I say, let’s boycott future
Shrek films (number four is already in the works), until the powers that be bring back the fun-filled frivolity that first made us fall in love with the magical, whimsical land Far, Far Away and its colorful characters. That may seem a bit extreme, but the alternative is to sit back and hope that Shrek the Fourth is better than Shrek the Third; a brand of wishful thinking that borders on the naive.

Some have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. If that statement is anywhere close to being true, the
Shrek series is already well on its way to the funny farm.

Rating: 1 1/2

Meet the Robinsons (G)

Directed by: Stephen J. Anderson
Starring: Daniel Hansen
March 2007

“Light-years Ahead of Other Animated Family Films”

The latest animated offering from Walt Disney Studios, Meet the Robinsons, presents a story of friendship, courage and the importance of family. Directed and co-written by Stephen J. Anderson (who also provides three voices in the movie), this time travel tale, based on William Joyce’s children’s book, A Day with Wilbur Robinson, features the vocal talents of Angela Bassett, Adam West and Tom Selleck.

As an infant, Lewis was abandoned by his mother on the doorstep of an orphanage…now a precocious twelve-year-old, Lewis just wants to know what it’s like to have a family. A science geek by nature, Lewis makes a memory scanner out of a toaster, a safari hat, rubber bands and anything else he can get his hands on—MacGyver should be so lucky!

Unfortunately, it’s Lewis’ inventions that have sabotaged all 124 of his adoption interviews. Seizing the opportunity to display his work to prospective parents, Lewis proudly shows off his contraptions…which always seem to malfunction in spectacular fashion, sending everyone in the room ducking for cover and leaving Lewis feeling unworthy and unwanted. Lewis’ adoption agent tries to pep him up, pointing out his brilliant future as an inventor. Disheartened by constant rejection, Lewis replies, “I have no future. Even my mom didn’t want me.” Just when Lewis abandons all hope of being adopted, he makes the acquaintance of Wilbur Robinson—a self-professed “time cop”—at his school’s science fair. Wilbur shoves Lewis into his invisible time car and the two boys soon embark on an amazing journey into the future, where Lewis meets Wilbur’s eccentric, freethinking family and encounters the evil Bowler Hat Guy.

Though the first half is slow to develop, there’s just enough action in the movie—like the savage T-Rex attack—to keep most kids actively engaged. However, evaluating the movie from a kid’s perspective reveals a few potential areas of concern for parents. The evil Bowler Hat Guy is pretty silly throughout the movie, but without warning and at random times, he transforms into a darker, more sinister figure. The lanky antagonist often speaks of crushing Lewis’ dreams and ruining his life, but the biggest red flag comes when the villain admonishes Lewis’ roommate to let his anger fester and to “let hate be your ally.” Though the statement is later redeemed, the nuance of the scene may be lost on many younger viewers, some of whom might take the statement as permission to act upon what they’ve heard. There’s also an alternate future which paints dark images of a world overrun by electronic hats with spider-like appendages; an adolescent rendering of
The Terminator’s Skylab, the scene may be too frightening for younger kids.

On balance, the movie reinforces such virtues as working hard and pursuing a dream, and contains more than just a few heartwarming moments. Many of the Robinson’s mannerisms seem strange to Lewis, but he finds their kindness, encouragement and non-judgmental approach to life to be a welcomed change to his rigidly regulated existence at the orphanage. When another of Lewis’ inventions goes haywire in the future, the entire Robinson family celebrates his blunder; “From failing, you learn!” they excitedly exclaim. Such unconditional acceptance prompts Lewis’ statement, “If I had a family I would want them to be just like you.”

Despite a few minor defects,
Meet the Robinsons is a valiant attempt at restoring Disney animation to its former glory while ushering in a bold, new era of high-quality CGI films. The movie concludes with an inspirational quote from Uncle Walt himself, “Keep moving forward!” There have been some flops over the years, but I’m sure Walt would agree that Meet the Robinsons is a step in the right direction.

Rating: 3

Happy Feet (PG)

Directed by: George Miller, Warren Coleman
Starring: Elijah Wood
November 2006

“Heavy-Handed Politics Leaves ‘Feet’ Flatfooted”

The last time I saw an animated movie this political was FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992). An indoctrination session for the New Age movement, the movie extols the mystical energies that govern the “circle of life,” while vilifying the humans responsible for deforestation and upsetting nature’s delicate balance. On the face of it, Happy Feet is a seemingly innocent, completely innocuous animated film, whose only apparent pretension is that it comes too soon on the heels of 2005’s surprise hit documentary, March of the Penguins—but as we all know, appearances can be deceiving. For anyone who’s seen March of the Penguins, the opening chapter of Happy Feet will feel like a prolonged bought of déjà vu, complete with plagiarized narrations and scenes that look like they were lifted right out of the documentary.

Early on, the movie focuses on Mumble’s (Elijah Wood) desperate attempts to fit in with his peers; Mumble can tap-dance like Fred Astaire, but his singing resembles a blaring foghorn. One adult penguin, who looks down on the misfit youth, charges, “A penguin without a heart song is no penguin at all.” Excluded from many normal activities—much like that famous reindeer we’ve all sung about—Mumble often steals away to a nearby glacier and tap-dances by himself, away from disapproving eyes.

Somewhere along the way, the movie’s depiction of an outsider with abnormal development becomes a thinly veiled reference to homosexuality. The scene where this becomes painfully obvious is when Mumble teaches his peers how to tap-dance; the old guard vehemently opposes the new form of artistry, viewing it as an uprising, an aberration and a pagan display. When Mumble’s father implores his son to desist with his peculiar dancing, Mumble replies, “Don’t ask me to change, pa’, because I can’t.” With that, Mumble is banished from the penguin community.

A short time later, mumble is befriended by a quintet of diminutive, Latin-speaking penguins; awed by Mumble’s skillful dancing they welcome him into their group with open flippers. (As a pertinent aside, George Lucas was widely criticized for creating aliens with Asian accents in
Star Wars: Episode I, but in Happy Feet, where ethnic speech stands out like Mumble’s blue eyes, no one, especially the liberal left—to whom the film heavily panders, has said a word about the obvious racial stereotyping.) Mumble and the Latin penguin entourage team up with Lovelace (Robin Williams), a kind of charismatic prophet who wears a plastic six-pack holder as a necklace.

As the ragtag group goes in search of “aliens”—the mysterious beings who gave Lovelace his necklace—they soon discover huge warehouses, docks, heavy equipment and colossal fishing boats. It’s at this point when humans are revealed as not only the aliens, but also as the villains of the movie; apparently humans have been stealing scores of fish from local waters and leaving the penguins with empty stomachs. Captured and imprisoned in an arctic exhibit, Mumble makes repeated attempts at communicating with his human captors, but his animal vocalizations fall on uncomprehending ears, “Why are you taking our fish? You’re kind of killing us out there!”

In order to keep from going crazy, Mumble learns to entertain spectators with his fancy footwork, which immediately draws the attention of the scientific community. Mumble is implanted with a tracking device and released from captivity: A film crew follows Mumble back to his home and captures footage of the penguins dancing in Mumble’s soulful style. Once assembled and released, the documentary creates a political and public outcry which leads to a moratorium being placed on fishing in the waters near Mumble’s glacier. The movie’s final shot tracks a penguin feather as it’s carried along by the wind in a gliding, meandering course, much like Robert Zemeckis’ free-flowing feather at the conclusion of
Forrest Gump. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

Forrest Gump is existential, Happy Feet is environmental. In fact, the movie’s political slant is so transparent and so in-your-face, it’s almost nauseating. How cowardly of leftist Hollywood and environmentalist wackos to use an animated film to espouse, disseminate and otherwise foist their alarmist and fear-mongering doctrine upon audiences; offending many adults and unduly influencing the minds of future generations with a “green” theology.

The localized and oversimplified climax is utterly laughable…one dancing penguin can save the planet? One colony of dancing penguins can change international policy? I’m sure even older children can discern that they’re being sold a load of penguin droppings. And it’s really children who are loosing out the most here; for their sake, why can’t Hollywood check its politics at the door and let kids make up their own minds about where they stand on environmental issues…when they’re old enough to do so?

The real tragedy with
Happy Feet is that, politics aside, the film is a visual marvel—the next evolutionary leap in CGI. The leopard seal chase is an exhilarating thrill ride of evasive maneuvers and narrow escapes and the killer whale sequences are absolutely breathtaking. Also, the movie’s vocal talents are stellar, though it seems as if every other character is voiced by Robin Williams, and that gets a tad tedious.

Happy Feet would’ve been so much better had it simply concentrated on being an animated kid’s film and not on being a stilted soapbox lecture on global correctness; the heavy-handed sermonizing severely detracts from what otherwise would have been a highly entertaining family film. So, as Mumble would say, I appeal to Hollywood’s better nature and officially request that they refrain from producing films, especially animated ones, which are nothing more than a political platform for some special interest group to use in propagating their misguided message to a mass audience. Just as there’s a separation of church and state, I propose a separation of politics and media. It probably would never work, but what the heck, we might just get objective news out of the deal.

Rating: 2

Flushed Away (PG)

Directed by: David Bowers, Sam Fell
Starring: Hugh Jackman
November 2006

“Take the Plunge…It’s Tons of Fun”

From Aardman Animations (producers of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) and DreamWorks Studios comes Flushed Away, a high-spirited romp that transports spectators from London’s upper-crust suburbs to its slug-infested sewers. A modern twist on The Prince and the Pauper, Flushed Away features jaw-dropping animation (this is the studio’s first entirely CG film) and upholds the tradition of excellence established in Aardman’s finely crafted Claymation films.

As a well-mannered, well-cultured and well-groomed house rat, Roddy (Hugh Jackman) has it all; he can cruise around in a R.C. car with a beautiful blonde doll, play a one-sided tennis match with inanimate players and create imaginary conversations with action figures in a play set café. As a pampered pet in an uptown flat, Roddy has the freedom to do whatever he wants, but his existence is a shallow one because there’s no one with whom he can share his staged and synthetic adventures. Capping off another hollow day, Roddy tucks himself into a dollhouse bed and wonders what it would be like to have a real family and friends. As loneliness consumes him, Roddy hears a noise down the hall and gets up to investigate; he discovers Sid (Shane Richie), an obese, ill-mannered sewer rat who makes himself at home in Roddy’s immaculate penthouse apartment. Roddy’s attempt at tricking street-smart Sid into returning to the sewer backfires when Sid shoves Roddy into the “jacuzzi” and pulls the lever.

When Roddy hits the bottom, he discovers a whole new world, but it’s nothing like the one Jasmine sings about in
Aladdin; prim and proper Roddy gets a taste of how the other half live when he enters a sludge-filled sewer. Roddy soon stumbles into a subterranean city, dubbed Ratropolice, which is managed and inhabited entirely by sewer rats. As he embarks on a homeward journey, Roddy encounters Rita (Kate Winslet), captain of the scavenger vessel Jammy Dodger and the rat-loathing villain named The Toad (Sir Ian McKellen). Before he can return to the comfortable, sanitary, yet lonely environs of his owner’s mansion, Roddy must survive hair-raising pursuits through sewer passageways, evade Le Frog (Jean Reno), the French assassin and his ninja frog cronies, and foil The Toad’s plans to turn Ratropolice into a giant deep freeze.

Each of these Aardman movies has a “pandemonium sequence” (PS), which usually kicks in toward the end when forces collide and the action is ratcheted up to breakneck pace. In Chicken Run, the PS comes when the collective fowl desperately try to lift-off in their makeshift plane, and in Wallace and Gromit, the PS occurs when the true identity of the Were-Rabbit is revealed and everyone tries to capture him/it. Though Roddy and Rita’s climactic showdown with The Toad and his two rodent lackeys (Bill Nighy and Andy Serkis, who deliver pitch-perfect vocal performances) is exciting, the action never quite approaches the heights of frantic insanity achieved during the pandemonium sequences in those other two Aardman films.

Despite the tepid climax, there are some great moments in the movie, like Roddy’s introduction to Rita’s Brady-Bunch-on-speed family at their shifty, wave-tossed house or the high-speed chase where French frogs pursue the Dodger on cake mixers, or the intermittent comic relief provided by the show-stealing, serenading sewer slugs? Though it tells a touching tale about the necessity of friendship, the movie is noticeably more remedial than Aardman’s previous efforts; however, since the movie’s target audience is kids, that’s not such a bad thing and there are plenty of elements in the film that adults will enjoy as well. In the end, the movie is heartwarming and highly entertaining, but not necessarily award winning. Some may smell a rat here, but I still maintain that
Flushed Away is a family friendly, fun-filled caper that should give us all a newfound respect for sewer workers.

Rating: 2 1/2

Cars (G)

Directed by: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft
Starring: Owen Wilson
June 2006

“High-Octane Joyride Leaves Other Animated Films in the Dust”

I have to admit it…I’m one of those rare guys who just isn’t into cars. I know how to change an air filter, but that’s the extent of my automotive prowess. My windshield wipers need to be replaced, but I keep procrastinating; putting it off for a rainy day. The NASCAR gene skipped me and went to my older brother, Mike. Growing up, I remember particular Sundays when Mike would sit on the couch all afternoon and watch an entire three hour motor-fest (more times than not, he’d drift off to sleep midway through the race). It fascinated me to no end that a person could be perpetually entertained by different colored cars going in circles for hours on end; then again, I’ve been known to spend the same amount of time watching twenty-two players fighting over an elliptical leather ball.

The newest animated foray by Pixar is simply titled
Cars. Celebrating twenty years of excellence in animated entertainment, Pixar knows how to appeal to a mass audience. Their last outing, The Incredibles, was right up my alley, but many people aren’t into the whole superhero thing. Even so, they still turned out in droves to see the only Pixar presentation to date that features humans. I firmly believe that Pixar can take any topic or genre and find a way to make it appealing to a demographic wider than Elastigirl’s reach. And with Cars, you don’t have to know the difference between a lug nut and a corn nut to appreciate the amazing animation, colorful characters and exhilarating story.

The movie begins with a high-octane race known as the Piston Cup, which results in an unprecedented three-way tie between retiring veteran, The King (voiced by race legend, Richard Petty), aggressive upstart Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton, fresh off his turn in car-centric
Herbie: Full Throttle) and hot-shot rookie, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). In one week, the three cars will go head-to-head in a tie-breaker in L.A. to determine, once and for all, the Piston Cup champion.

McQueen, a self-professed “one man show,” fires his pit chief and refuses to give up a lead in order to change tires. A bona fide prima Donna, McQueen hogs the camera every chance he gets, but is chagrined each time he does an advertisement for his small-fry sponsor, Rust-eze. McQueen’s dream is to be endorsed by mega-sponsor, Dinoco, but his repeated attempts to woo the company are to no avail.

On the way to the big race, McQueen falls asleep at the wheel and wakes up in the middle of the desert. The cherry-red race car soon drifts into Radiator Springs, the quintessential town that time forgot. An eccentric burg stuck in neutral by small-town mentality, Radiator Springs is chock-full of dented fenders, rusted frames and faded neon signs. As McQueen desperately attempts to escape “hillbilly hell” and get to California in time for the big race, he gradually begins to understand the townsfolk and their struggle to matter in a world that’s passed them by.

Though it takes a while to rev up its narrative engine (the first half of the movie doesn’t have near the same horsepower as Pixar’s previous outings), the film is a rollicking good time once it gets up to speed. The movie is brimming with memorable characters like Doc Hudson (a.k.a. The Hudson Hornet, three time Piston Cup winner), voiced by screen giant Paul Newman, McQueen’s romantic interest, Sally, voiced by Bonnie Hunt, and the dumb-as-a-post rust-bucket named Tow Mater, brought to life by Larry the Cable Guy. Mater, who claims to be the world’s best backward driver, steals the show with his dim-witted antics. The scene where Mater shows McQueen the finer points of Tractor Tipping (“Tractors is so dumb,” he informs McQueen), is one of the most memorable moments in the movie. Mater’s life-long wish is to take a helicopter ride, and when his dream comes true at movie’s end, his line, “I’m happier than a tornado in a trailer park,” is the funniest I’ve heard this year.

Beyond all the flashy cars, inside gags, creative flourishes and eye-popping CGI, there are several wonderfully tender and powerfully poignant messages in the movie, one of which finds expression in James Taylor’s wistful song “Our Town.” Themes such as learning to rely on others, the fear of becoming obsolete and the need to slow down and enjoy life are all subtly woven into a tale that would have broken down after a few laps had it solely focused on spark plugs and fan belts. No Mater what, Pixar is still the undisputed king of genuine human storytelling with anthropomorphized characters.

Rating: 3

Over the Hedge (PG)

Directed by: Tim Johnson, Karey Kirkpatrick
Starring: Bruce Willis
May 2006

“Great Characters/Plot Put ‘Hedge’ Over the Top”

RJ (Bruce Willis) is a self-assured raccoon who makes the costly mistake of lifting food from the cave of a hibernating bear. When the bear is awakened by the racket it accosts the jittery raccoon and RJ accidentally nudges the brimming shopping cart over the side of the mountain. The cart crashes onto a highway where traffic makes short work of the food, scattering it all over the road. Vincent the bear (Nick Nolte) threatens to do bodily harm to RJ if the raccoon is unable to replace all of the stolen food within one week’s time.

And thus begins the lighthearted tale of RJ and the community of animals that befriend him—and unwittingly aid him in settling his debt with the bear. When the animals come out of hibernation, they’re startled by the formidable presence of a gigantic green wall which has sprung to life while they were sleeping. The adorable little squirrel, Hammy (Steve Carell), calls the green barrier “Steve” for lack of a better appellation. All of the animals, including the skunk couple, Lou (Eugene Levy) and Stella (Wanda Sykes), father and daughter possums, Ozzie (William Shatner) and Heather (Avril Lavigne), and the reticent half shell leader, Vern (Garry Shandling), stand in awe of the massive hedge. It’s not long before one of the animals ventures through the thicket and emerges into a strange new world known as suburbia.

RJ has already been over the hedge and serves as tour guide to his dumbstruck companions; RJ’s commentary on the oddities of human behavior is simultaneously amusing and indicting. Observing the animals as they interact with our world is the engine that makes the movie run…along with the laugh-a-minute gags and memorable one-liners.

Each member of the star-studded cast does a superb job, but the decision to utilize Shatner’s over-the-top delivery for the demonstrative possum was a stroke of genius. The tip of the hat to
Citizen Kane—Ozzie dramatically delivers the word “Rosebud” before passing out onto the blacktop—is a priceless moment. Instructing his daughter in the way of the possum, Ozzie later tells Heather, “We die…so that we can live!”

The old adage, “Everything that’s old will be new again” is especially true of Stella’s transformation from skunk to cat, which pays fitting homage to Warner Bros. classic Pepe Le Pew shorts. After undergoing some cursory cosmetic surgery, Stella is dispatched to a rich woman’s backyard to distract the family cat, while the rest of the animals sneak inside and raid the kitchen.

My pick for funniest scene is where Hammy chugs a sugary soda and charges across the woman’s lawn; freely moving through a motionless world in a
Matrix-style slow-motion run. Though the young skunks are clearly patterned after the Madagascar penguins, the scene where they work together to drive the SUV is also uproariously funny.

Over the Hedge is a crowd-pleasing, family promoting film that employs colorful characters in a heartwarming story. In an era where animated movies have oversaturated the market, Over the Hedge stands out as an above-average effort that is certainly worthy of Oscar consideration for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year.

Rating: 3

Ice Age: The Meltdown (PG)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha
Starring: Ray Romano
March 2006

“Frigid Sequel Lacks the Warmth of the Original”

As if Al Gore’s treatise on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, wasn’t sufficient enough, the much publicized, highly controversial topic is now the centerpiece of an animated film; namely the sequel to Ice Age, subtitled The Meltdown. The movie, presumably, takes place a short time after the events of the first film and furthers the misadventures of Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano) and Diego the saber tooth tiger (Denis Leary). Oh, and of course we can’t forget Skrit or his eternal quest to possess that one elusive acorn in the ever amusing series of silly sidebars.

As the title would suggest, the first movie dealt with prehistoric animals migrating at the onset of the ice age. This time around the ecological calamity is a melting glacier, which floods the ice plain and drives the creatures from their homes. While doomsayers sway susceptible dinos with apocalyptic warnings that the end of the world is at hand, hucksters like Fast Tony (Jay Leno) use such alarmist propaganda as a means of turning a profit; as one of the more interesting new characters, it’s too bad we didn’t see more of Fast Tony in the movie.

In a feeble attempt at expanding our knowledge of the prehistoric trio, the writers have introduced new challenges for each of the main characters to overcome. For Sid, the issue is his need for respect. Sid never receives any respect from his companions but he finally finds some when he encounters a tribe of mini-sloths, who abduct Sid and reverently dub him “Fire King.” Sid basks in their adulation until they attempt to sacrifice him over a pit of molten lava. No respect there! Sid must be the distant ancestor of Rodney Dangerfield.

Diego faces his greatest fear when the glacier starts melting; swallowing up the last patches of dry land, the encroaching water makes Diego’s passage to the other side of the valley a hair-raising one. In jest, Sid gives Diego this tip, “Land safe, water not safe.”

Manny’s plight is the most desperate; all evidence points to Manny being the last living mammoth. Manny is crestfallen over that grim reality until the company encounters Ellie (Queen Latifah), a female mammoth who hangs with two dimwitted, thrill seeking possum sidekicks, Eddie (Josh Peck) and Crash (Seann William Scott). Headstrong Ellie refuses to accept that she’s a mammoth (having been raised by possums, Ellie believes she is one), and challenges Manny’s asserted leadership at every turn. This might explain why mammoths are extinct.

The real trouble here, besides the contrived, gift-wrapped resolution, is that the movie has no antagonist. To be sure, there are several internal struggles which sustain viewer interest for a time, but the convenient climax effectively lifts the pressure cooker lid and releases any steam the movie’s been building. Other than the titular thaw, the only story element that ratchets up the tension is the intermittent danger presented by two deepwater creatures (the alligator-like reptiles may be a little too frightening for younger children).

The CG animation, which shows a vast improvement in quality over the first film, is the only element that’s superior in this appropriately dubbed sequel. The characters aren’t as fun or funny here, and even Skrit’s gags seem recycled. With the series already growing tired, one can only hope that 20
th Century Fox will deep freeze the series until the studio can commission a script that will better service the characters and the audience. The last thing we need is for the once charming Ice Age to devolve into The Land Before Time.

Rating: 2

Curious George (G)

Directed by: Matthew O’Callaghan
Starring: Will Ferrell
February 2006

“Curiosity Killed the Cat…But Not This Silly Simian”

First introduced in the 1941 illustrated children’s book by authors H.A. and Margaret Rey, Curious George is a simple character in a simple story from a simpler period of American history—a throwback to a more innocent age. What’s refreshing about George is that he doesn’t speak (unlike Disney’s vociferous menagerie); conveying emotions through gestures and facial expressions, he’s a more realistic and captivating alternative to the cutesy animated animals we’ve been subjected to in recent years. The movie remains faithful to the books, though some modifications have been made; the most notable change is that The Man in the Yellow Hat has been given a name...Ted.

Ted (Will Ferrell) works at a museum owned by Mr. Bloomsberry (Dick Van Dyke), a doting curator who favors Ted over his real son, Jr. (David Cross). With the museum in financial trouble and in desperate need of a new exhibition, Ted volunteers to join an expedition to retrieve the mythical idol at the Lost Shrine of Zagawa in Africa. Ted first encounters George when the monkey grabs his yellow hat, mistaking it for a banana. After Ted finds the idol and returns to the ship, George stows away and follows Ted all the way back to his NYC apartment. George immediately complicates Ted’s life by hand painting a neighbor’s flat, which results in man and monkey being evicted from the building. Matters go from bad to worse when Ted arrives at the museum to find a massive platform that’s been custom-built for the reportedly giant-sized idol (the actual idol fits firmly inside the palm of his hand). As restless patrons clamor to see the opening of the exhibit, Ted must enlist the help of an eccentric scientist, Clovis (Eugene Levy), and an attractive teacher, Maggie Dunlop (Drew Barrymore), to fend off Jr.’s efforts to discredit him, discover the “real” idol and somehow prevent George from destroying everything in sight before the museum is forced to close for good.

An element that really stands out in the movie (other than Jack Johnson’s cookie-cutter songs) is the vibrancy of the pastel palette employed by the artists and the ethereal rays that bathe the characters wherever sunlight is present. This warm glow, in tandem with the minimalist animation style, produces a serene mood that works in perfect harmony with the lithe and blithe storyline.

Though clearly geared toward pre-teens, there’s plenty here for adults to enjoy as well: take the jaded cabbie, for instance, who takes a cue from Tom Hanks in
A League of Their Own when he yells, “There’s no screaming in cabs!” The shifty clerks who sell Ted a yellow outfit are also amusing; needing to clear out their inventory they claim that “yellow is the new khaki.” Though the blissful balloon rescue is a highlight in the movie, it’s really the trouble-making monkey’s boyish innocence that makes the movie soar.

Rating: 2 1/2

Wallace and Gromit: The Cruse of the Were-Rabbit (G)

Directed by: Steve Box, Nick Park
Starring: Peter Sallis
October 2005

“An Overripe, yet Nutrient-Rich, Veggie Tale”

From Nick Park and Steve Box, the visionary directors who brought us Chicken Run, comes the first feature-length film based on their signature characters—Wallace and Gromit. Based on a series of Claymation shorts of the same name, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a raucous romp that wholly entertains and presents a few unexpected turns along the way.

Inventor Wallace (who certainly must be the distant cousin of Inspector Gadget) and his mute dog, Gromit, own a critter control company called Antipesto and are esteemed as local heroes by all who have required their services. The annual vegetable growing contest brings with it a heightened need for pest protection and Antipesto is up to the challenge, or so they think. One fateful night, Wallace, who moonlights as a mad scientist, experiments on a rabbit, mutating the poor little fur ball into an abominable creature. Soon, there are too many calls for Antipesto to keep up with, and so many gardens ravaged that the contest is in danger of being cancelled. As the raids increase, Wallace begins exhibiting strange behaviors, leading Gromit to wonder if the real threat is somewhere closer to home.

The Curse of the Were-Rabbit could be summed up in one word it would be “witty” (what else would you expect from the unrelenting barrage of British humor?). The jokes and gags are both obvious and hidden (the radio buttons in Wallace’s vehicle spell M-U-T-T), but it’s really the twist near the mid-point that gives the movie some much-needed dramatic focus, which nicely counterbalances the film’s wanton whimsy.

Peter Sallis is spot-on as Wallace, as is Ralph Fiennes as the braggadocios hunter, Vincent Quartermaine—both characters become involved in a ménage trios with affluent horticulturist, Lady Campanula (Helena Bonham Carter), which is quite an amusing sidebar, especially when Quartermaine is sucked up into Wallace’s bunny extractor.

Though a bit on the pedestrian side, the movie is nothing if not clever; the were-rabbit’s fall from lofty heights is clearly a tip of the hat to
King Kong (who will be brought back to the big screen by Peter Jackson in December). The transformation scene is a bit of a reach, but it’s all in good fun (like the rest of the movie) and decisively proves that Wallace and Gromit live in some very bizarre alternate reality.

In the final analysis, The
Curse of the Were-Rabbit is every bit as good as Chicken Run and perhaps a hare better…it’s a hopping good time that will delight kids and engage adults. The only downer here is that the warehouse containing much of the work for this and earlier W&G projects burnt down a short time after the movie’s release.

Rating: 2 1/2

Madagascar (PG)

Directed by: Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath
Starring: Chris Rock
May 2005

“Animated Zoo Animals on the Lame”

Star Wars has its clone wars, but Madagascar is a clone. Virtually identical to every other CG animated film that’s come along in recent years, Madagascar is just a poor excuse to thrust a handful of cute, cuddly animals into situations already experienced by toys, monsters, fish, robots, etc. in the hopes of achieving box office success. This time it’s a zebra, not a donkey, who longs for adventure and companion-ship, but the striped quadruped’s repetitive shtick, delivered by Chris Rock futilely attempting to channel Eddie Murphy, will quickly annoy any audience member older than ten.

Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), the prima donna of the Central Park Zoo, gives pal, Marty the zebra, a birthday present—a new “Alex” snow globe from the zoo’s gift shop. When Marty blows out the candles on his cake, he wishes he could take a trip into The Wild. Worrywart giraffe, Melman (David Schwimmer), coaxes Marty into revealing his wish, which proves to be bad luck when Marty disappears the next morning.

An ill-fated attempt at rescuing Marty results in the animals being captured and shipped off to a foreign zoo, but fortunately, four stowaway penguins shanghai the cargo vessel and steer it toward warmer environs. While arguing inside their cargo boxes, Alex and company fall overboard and wash up on the paradise island of Madagascar—they think they’re in San Diego. Marty is high on his new-found freedom, but Alex, accustomed to being pampered by zoo workers, instantly loathes his new home.

The most amusing scene in the movie is when Melman and hip hippo, Gloria (Jada Pinkett-Smith), defect to the “fun side” of the island, where Marty has constructed a swinging cabaña complete with saltwater drinks, leaving sourpuss, Alex, to stew in his own misery. Ultimately, Alex comes around, but not before his predatory instincts kick in and he finds his jaws around Marty’s hindquarters. Fate smiles upon the Central Park quartet—and a grateful audience—when the four penguins show up with the ship at the hour and a half mark to rescue their friends from savages, and us from acute boredom.

Madagascar hinges on the friendship between Alex and Marty, but their interactions are so similar to the ones between Shrek and Donkey, that the story never really has a chance to stretch its legs. The through line is straighter than an arrow shot by Legolas and the movie’s only twist, Alex’s primal regression, is resolved far too quickly and with little panache (save for his kaleidoscopic hallucinations of juicy steaks). The only character that’s halfway interesting is hypochondriac Melman—the scene where Alex tries freeing the giraffe from his cargo container is humorous.

Though rife with messages of friendship, freedom and the need for flexibility,
Madagascar is overly simplistic and overtly formulaic—certainly not an effort worth taking pride in.

Rating: 2

Robots (PG)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha, Chris Wedge
Starring: Ewan McGregor
March 2005

“Serviceable Story That Makes A Lot Out of Junk”

Robots is an astonishing clinic in computer-generated animation, the sleek vision of a fully realized synthetic world. This newest—and seemingly inevitable—iteration in CGI is crisper in its clarity and more vibrant in its palette than anything previously seen in the genre and has, effectively, risen the bar that much higher for Shrek 3 and other future movies of the same ilk. It’s evident that director, Chris Wedge (Ice Age), and crew were on a creative high assembling the nuts and bolts of the story, and though the flick is chock-full of dizzying action sequences, narrow escapes and drops and turns that make you feel like you’re on a roller coaster, the plot consistently lags behind the movie’s runaway pacing.

Rodney Copperbottom (voice of Ewan McGregor) heeds the call of the big city, leaving his parents and rural Rivet City behind to pursue his dreams of becoming an inventor in Robot City. Rodney immediately encounters Fender (Robin Williams, whose repertoire is getting repetitious), a vociferous misfit who falls to pieces any time the story calls for a laugh. Rodney’s first attempt at showing his invention to his boyhood hero, altruistic uber-inventor, Big Weld (Mel Brooks), is nearly disastrous as he narrowly escapes the clutches of greedy egotist, Ratchet (Greg Kinnear). Rodney learns, almost too late, that Ratchet supplanted Big Weld in a recent coup and has launched a campaign to beautify all of robotkind (and make millions in the process). Rodney’s ability to fix broken down robots transforms the small town droid into an urban legend, however, Rodney’s newfound fame poses a serious threat to Ratchet, who plans to destroy every spare part in the city, thereby forcing older models to get an upgrade. The climax pits Rodney and his army of rickety robots against Ratchet and his newer, larger, more powerful battle ‘bots. The ending ceremony is an emotional flourish—warm fuzzies soar like ticker tape—but the ensuing celebration is reminiscent of the one seen in
Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace.

I mention
Star Wars, because there are countless tips of the hat to (or blatant rip offs of) Lucas’ space saga, which surface at various times throughout the movie—the downtrodden underdogs marching against the evil overlords brings to mind Episode I and VI’s Gungans and Ewoks, respectively, and even Ratchet’s new robot sweepers look virtually identical to Episode I’s Trade Federation MTTs (battle droid carriers). Aside from Star Wars, Robots owes its metallurgical existence to The Wizard of Oz; motifs and archetypes from the perennial classic run rampant though the picture.

If there’s a rusty side to the seemingly chrome-plated screenplay, it’s the gimmicky manner in which the tale is told—much of the story is programmed with standard gags and slapstick silliness, especially Fender’s shtick.
Robots, however, does have a salient moral: the conflict between the outmodes and the upgrades is a new spin on the old topic of intolerance—the devaluing of anyone or anything that doesn’t measure up to an imposed standard. In our nip-tuck, Botox-injected society, Robots reveals an insightful—even insidious—look at our own vanity and a sneak peek at where that brand of narcissism can take us. What a bold statement from an animated movie made in Hollywood!

Robots isn’t as funny as billed, but it’s a diverting romp with memorable characters and a positive message. Now we’ll have to see if there are enough spare parts to make a sequel.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Polar Express (G)

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Tom Hanks
November 2004

“Warm at the Core…Icy Around the Edges”

Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks are back together again, changing venues from a deserted Pacific island to the frozen wasteland of the North Pole. Based on the Caldecott award-winning children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, The Polar Express is an uplifting tale about a magical train that whisks selected children off to the North Pole for a visit with Jolly Ole Saint Nick.

Even from the jaw-dropping trailer, it was clear that
The Polar Express would be the next iteration in computer-animated films. The movie is visually stunning (especially in IMAX 3-D), more so for virtual landscapes and breakneck action sequences than for the waxwork visages that make the characters appear too perfect.

Tom Hanks, again, asserts his range by playing/voicing five different characters in the film. Even with so much involvement, however, he’s still upstaged by the arduous and twist-riddled journey and by the train itself—the unsung hero of the movie.

The Polar Express, a feel-good story of friendship and courage, where warm fuzzies fly like arctic snowflakes, will undoubtedly be ushered into the halls of modern Holiday classics, but despite the enormous positive energy that surrounds it (almost like a cosmic aura), the film fails in several key areas.

The most obvious detractor is the simplicity of the plot and the straightforward manner in which the story is presented (granted the source material is a picture book for kids). I’m not spoiling anything when I say the majority of the movie takes place on the train; either going to or returning from the North Pole. Besides a wisp of character development here or there, the only element that lends the movie any kind of synergy is a series of adventures the train passengers have along the way. These mishaps, though engaging and exhilarating, are the only thing that holds the plot together.

Take, for instance, the young girl’s lost ticket that quickly becomes a silent seminar in Murphy’s Law. Although not nearly as exhausting as the sports almanac gimmick in
Back to the Future 2 (also helmed by Zemeckis), the ticket’s flight and plight is still far-fetched and overplayed. If deja vu sets in while watching the dizzying POV sequence, it’s because you have, indeed, seen it before—not with a ticket, but with a feather (Forrest Gump—yup, Zemeckis again).

Is anyone else bothered by the fact that none of the characters have hot breath billowing out of their mouths? Or that the children, seemingly unaffected by the gelid night air, walk around in their pajamas and never once shiver? These trifling details, however, are small grievances next to the movie’s insidious ability to pull at the heartstrings with a well-worded phrase or a well-timed song. Though finely-crafted, the movie’s songs were strategically placed to produce the maximum number of tears, but the foisted emotions quickly fade when the final image of the nearly-deified, silver sleigh bell fades to black.

The Polar Express has some magical moments, but, if you’re unaffected by its unbridled emotionalism, it’ll leave you out in the cold. Some will feel richer for having completed the journey; others will feel like they’ve been taken for a ride.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Incredibles (PG)

Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson
November 2004

“Supercharged Thrill-ride That Lives Up to Its Name”

Finally…a movie that lives up to its boastful title! The Incredibles is the first Pixar animated feature to focus on “real” people; straying from toys, monsters and fish, the company took a huge risk, and delivered in a BIG way.

At first glance, a family that refuses to use their superpowers for fear of public scorn sets up a dubious premise, but fortunately, near the movie’s mid-point, Pixar’s renowned penchant for fun, frivolity and frenetically fast-paced action sequences kicks into high gear. Forced back into service by the dastardly deeds of Syndrome (Jason Lee), techno-villain and former fan boy who was jilted by Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) years earlier, the family of four (and a half) lands in the middle of one misadventure after the next. Saving dad is the first order of business and the second is stopping Syndrome and his colossal beach ball shaped robot tanks from wreaking havoc on the city (a la
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and seemingly every other serial tale or comic book ever written).

The word that best describes
The Incredibles is “creative,” and two factors that have forged the movie into an instant classic are: 1. As we’ve discovered in recent years, it’s all about strong narrative and fully realized characters, not eye-popping special effects (although, effects can be a valuable aid as long as they don’t supplant the story, i.e.: The Lord of the Rings trilogy). The humanity of the characters and their “abnormal” challenges makes for entertaining family fare: the fight at the dinner table is a hoot. Talk about dysfunctional! 2. Like any good piece of music, the movie has dynamics. It doesn’t peak too soon, but is paced to perfection, gradually building in suspense, peril and guffaws.

The Incredibles isn’t an outright comedy, but the situations the Parr family finds themselves in are absolutely hilarious. My personal favorites: Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) reconfigures herself into a rubber raft, while son (and Flash rip-off), Dash (Spencer Fox) becomes an off-board motor, and the sequence where Elastigirl is pinched into four different sections by two closed doors. The more the Incredibles discover new applications for their superpowers, individually and collectively, the more amusing the movie becomes and, ironically (or by design), the more power they exert over us. Case in point: Iceman wannabe, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), whose name alone made me chuckle for five minutes straight.

Lampooning superhero stereotypes isn’t the only thing
The Incredibles does well (the cape gag was uproariously funny); family matters are at the core of the story, which drives home teamwork, courage, loyalty and the importance of having a great outfit designer.

The only downside to
The Incredibles is that it runs ten minutes too long—this has to be the first two-hour animated feature (including the brilliant Jackalope short). The Incredibles is admittedly campy, but it’s also an exhilarating romp. One could even say it’s in…

Parting thought: With a similar array of superpowers, has this movie stolen any thunder from next summer’s
The Fantastic Four?

Rating: 3

Shrek 2 (PG)

Directed by: Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon
Starring: Mike Myers
May 2004

“Not as Original as the Original”

Shrek 2 picks up where the first movie left off, more or less. The video portion of the 3-D ride at Universal Studios (which has now been released on DVD, complete with 3-D glasses) serves as an unofficial Shrek 1.5.

All the regulars are back from the original movie; Mike Myers as the abrasive ogre, Shrek, Eddie Murphy as the vociferous Donkey and Cameron Diaz as the model turned
ogrette, Princess Fiona. Some new faces—and accompanying voice talents—also grace the jolly green sequel, like Antonio Banderas as Puss In Boots, Jennifer Saunders as the Fairy Godmother, Rupert Everett as Prince Charming, comedian John Cleese as Fiona’s father and the incomparable Julie Andrews as Fiona’s mother.

The movie opens with the long, exhausting journey to the land Far, Far Away, which turns out to be a fairy tale version of Hollywood (wait a minute, Hollywood is a fairy tale!). The king and queen, along with the rest of the kingdom, go into collective shock when the ogre couple jumps out of the onion carriage. One of the highlights of the movie is the ensuing dinner at the royal table, where insults and belches abound in one of the most unique “meet the parents” sequences ever committed to film. Later that night, the king plots to have Shrek assassinated by Puss In Boots. His evil scheme expands when he arranges a wedding between the reverted Fiona (a potion belonging to the Fairy Godmother changes her back to a beautiful princess) and Prince Charming. Of course, the King’s plans are foiled and they all live happily ever after, but some hilarious misadventures take place before the storybook closes.

The double entendres have been toned down from the first picture, but inside gags and tips of the hat to other movies or TV shows are ubiquitous…in fact, you can make a game out of who can find the most references. Here are just a few: as they ride into Far, Far, Away, you can see a sign that reads “Farbucks Coffee.” Rolling up the hill, Donkey says, “Swimming pools and movie stars” (
Beverly Hillbillies). Later still, Puss In Boots pops out of a guard’s breastplate (Alien).

But even with new characters, situations and gags,
Shrek 2 still doesn’t live up to the quality of its predecessor. There’s something missing from the movie, but it isn’t easy to determine what that absent something is. Maybe it’s that the newness has worn off or that Shrek 2 doesn’t have the same “movie magic” that the original had in spades. Either way, Shrek 2 is a winner, as sequels go, but is still inferior to the original. Oh, and one more thing, make sure you sit through the end credits…there are some additional scenes that are hilarious, but just plain wrong.

Rating: 2 1/2

Brother Bear (G)

Directed by: Aaron Blaise, Robert Walker
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix
November 2003

“Hackneyed, but Still Heartwarming”

I’ve never been a big fan of talking animal pictures, but Disney has an uncanny knack for making such films not only palatable, but also feasible in most respects. The moment I learned Disney’s Dinosaur (2000) was going to feature talking prehistoric creatures, I thought for sure it would be a flop…I was wrong. Though produced by a different studio, Ice Age, also featuring talking animals from the distant past, surpassed my expectations as well.

So along traipses
Brother Bear, an unassuming animal animated feature, which has been reported as the final traditionally hand-drawn animated feature film for Disney (is this true?). Though a bit heavy on the “ancestral spirits,” Brother Bear is heartwarming and has a good message.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, long before Europeans settled in the Americas,
Brother Bear is the story of three brothers: Sitka (oldest), Denahi and Kenai (voiced by Joaquin Phoenix). Kenai needs to fulfill a ritual in order to become a man—his totem is the bear of love (a particularly prissy symbol for a young man, which Denahi immediately and mercilessly ridicules him for). One day, while the three brothers are out in the wilderness, a bear shows up, and in a sacrificial act, Sitka draws the bear away from his brothers and plunges to his death. Enraged at his loss, Kenai hunts down the bear and kills it. In that moment, the spirit of Sitka turns Kenai into a bear. After the initial shock, Kenai begrudgingly befriends a cub named Koda. Two twists occur near the end of the film: a vengeful Denahi (who thinks he’s lost two brothers) is stalking Kenai, and Kenai discovers that he was the one who orphaned Koda when he killed the young bear’s mother.

There’s enough Disney magic here to qualify
Brother Bear as a success, but it doesn’t hold a paw to Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King. Here are a few reasons why Brother Bear will never be labeled a Disney classic: 1. There are way too many recycled gags from other Disney films, especially Finding Nemo (the “I Spy” game, for instance), 2. The movie is laced with token Phil Collins tunes that contain solid lyrics, but unfortunately lend the feeling that this has all been done before…and it has, 3. Plot devices are hackneyed in Brother Bear. We’ve seen a beast become a man (the order is reversed here). We’ve had a “rite of passage” film with a lion before. We’ve had an overabundance of hilarious sidekicks. The list goes on and on, ad nauseam.

On the positive side, the animation, which at times resembles an oil painting, is really quite good; I especially liked the gimmicks they did inside the glacier and the colorful aurora that had ancestral spirits swimming around in it. The most memorable element of the movie, undoubtedly, is the pair of moose (not meece). Voiced by
Strange Brew companions, Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, the moose brothers are downright hilarious and lend the movie some much-needed comic relief. Without the two moose, the movie might have been unbearable.

Rating: 2 1/2

Finding Nemo (G)

Directed by: Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
Starring: Albert Brooks
May 2003

“Disney/Pixar Goes ‘Down Under’ the Sea”

Disney’s stalwart animation studio, Pixar, is back in Finding Nemo, and this time they venture under the sea (sorry, no Sebastian this time). As would be expected, the computer-generated effects are jaw dropping and the detail and movement of the underwater creatures is really quite astonishing. The most striking element of Finding Nemo is the vibrant, almost three-dimensional colors that explode from every corner of the screen, like an underwater kaleidoscope.

Finding Nemo begins with a prologue section, which serves as a back-story and sets up the look and theme of the movie. Nemo (Alexander Gould) was the only surviving child of a barracuda raid, which took the life of his mother and turned his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), into a paranoid and overprotective parent. Flash forward: Nemo, now in his formative, fish years, has none of his father’s hyper-cautious hang-ups and one day strays out too far from the reef. He is immediately captured by a diver and is later set free inside a dentist’s aquarium in Sydney.

Meanwhile, Marlin meets Dory (Ellen Degeneres), who suffers from an insufferable case of short-term memory, and the pair set out on a ponderous, arduous and dangerous journey to find Nemo. Back in the aquarium, Nemo makes some new friends and meets Gill (Willem Dafoe), who’s nearly died several times trying to escape the tank. Nemo is much smaller, however; and manages to stop up the water purifier and affect his escape (through a toilet bowl, of course). By now, the whole ocean knows of Marlin’s plight, and as soon as Nemo hits the open water, it’s only a matter of time before father and son are reunited.

The story is pretty standard fare for Disney, but what distinguishes
Finding Nemo is its imagination; like the Sharks Anonymous club, or the minefield of jellyfish, or the copasetic turtles surfing along the East Australian Current. In Finding Nemo, the fish are humanized and the humans are drawn in bland hues with very little detail—there’s no doubting who the stars of the movie are.

Finding Nemo ends a bit abruptly and doesn’t deliver the big climax you would expect (imagine this: a school of barracudas show up right after the reunion and things look hopeless until the three sharks arrive and save the day), but it does leave you with the warm fuzzies. Though it flounders at times, Finding Nemo is a good family picture and should take a bite out of its competition (Sinbad) this summer.

Rating: 2 1/2

Treasure Planet (PG)

Directed by: Ron Clements, John Musker
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
November 2002

Treasure Planet
follows Stevenson’s classic fairly closely, but I found the infusing of this pirate epic into a sci-fi universe to be a little hard to take. The movie does have some memorable characters and some thrilling action sequences, but in the end, my opinion resembles the sounds of those speaking Flatula.

Rating: 2

Lilo & Stitch (PG)

Directed by: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Starring: Daveigh Chase
June 2002

Lilo & Stitch
is at its best when dealing with friendship and family and at its worst when it tries to be funny and when it tries parodying Men in Black. Lilo & Stitch isn’t Disney's finest, but it’s entertaining just the same.

Rating: 2 1/2

Ice Age (PG)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha, Chris Wedge
Starring: Ray Romano
March 2002

Once again proving that computer-generated tales are consistently the best movies out there (
Final Fantasy excluded), Ice Age has mammoth-sized gags, a touching story and a theme of redemption that brings a tear to the eye.

Rating: 3

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (PG-13)

Directed by: Hironobu Sakaguchi, Motonori Sakakibara
Starring: Ming-Na Wen
July 2001

The subtitle, The Spirits Within, says it all. Gia (Mother Earth) and the eight living spirits? What kind of New Age schlock is this? Maybe it's fitting that this flick marks an "evolutionary" leap in computer-generated movies.

Rating: 1 1/2

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (PG)

Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Starring: Michael J. Fox
June 2001

Sharp animation, good voice talents and memorable characters almost make me give
Atlantis a solid recommendation. Thinly-veiled New Age philosophies and violence (people actually die in this Disney movie) make me think twice about doing so.

Rating: 2 1/2

Shrek (PG)

Directed by: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson
Starring: Mike Myers
May 2001

A genuinely hilarious adventure,
Shrek is a fairy tale that delivers. Great voice talents, amazing CGI and a heart-warming plot make Shrek the feel-good movie of the summer.

Rating: 3

Dinosaur (PG)

Directed by: Eric Leighton, Ralph Zondag
Starring: D.B. Sweeney
May 2000

I was blown away by the trailer but was less impressed with the actual movie. The latest in a long line of “mass exodus at the onset of the ice age” dino. movies,
Dinosaur has a run of the mill story, but boasts startling, photo-realistic animation. D.B. Sweeny voices lead character, Aladar the Iguanodon, and Della Reese takes a memorable turn as a matronly Styrachosaur. Kids will love it…adults, maybe not so much.

Rating: 2 1/2

Chicken Run (G)

Directed by: Peter Lord, Nick Park
Starring: Mel Gibson
June 2000

From the director of the Oscar-winning shorts, Wallace & Gromit (Nick Park), comes
Chicken Run, a claymation extravaganza starring the voices of Julia Sawahla, Miranda Richardson and Mel Gibson as an American chicken trapped in a British farmyard. Part Animal Farm, part The Great Escape, Chicken Run is full-on comedy that follows the madcap misadventures of Rocky (Gibson) and a group of aimless chickens as they hatch one hardboiled escape plan after the next. The heckling weasels are hilarious as is the flight training sequence, but the laughs really start rolling when the potpie machine becomes operational and when the chickens make a final, frenzied flight to freedom. Chicken Run is clever and witty…perhaps too slick for its own good. Some of the British humor goes right over the heads of American audiences and the uninterrupted torrent of jokes and gags actually detracts from the movie’s overall impact…every once in a while we need a breather. Chicken Run is a bit of a conundrum: it’s wildly entertaining, yet instantly forgettable.

Rating: 2 1/2

Titan A.E. (PG)

Director: Don Bluth
Starring: Matt Damon
June 2000

The science is appalling in this animated sci-fi flick, but the creativity is quite high—I especially liked the planet with hydrogen trees and the chase through the ice field. Ultimately,
Titan A.E. fails to entertain even with the aid of stellar voice talents like Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, Drew Barrymore and Nathan Lane.

Rating: 2