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

The Call of the Wild (PG)

Directed by: Chris Sanders
Starring: Harrison Ford
February 2020

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!

Based on the Jack London novel of the same name, The Call of the Wild feels like a Disney movie, but isn’t (the movie was produced by 20th Century Studios).

Harrison Ford cuts a rugged figure as old-timer John Thornton. Ford certainly looks the part; he grew a bushy prospector’s beard in three and a half months. Ford’s performance is predictably strong as a man with vastly different priorities than most of his contemporaries. Unlike everyone else headed “North to Alaska,” Thornton’s goal isn’t gold nuggets, only solitude.

Ford anchors a cast that features oddly checkered acting. Bradley Whitford is solid in his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as Buck’s (Terry Notary) former, forbearing owner. Buck’s dogsled masters, played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee, are superb in physically demanding roles. It’s fitting that Sy and Gee’s characters deliver the mail since they deliver strong supporting performances that keep the story zipping along during the film’s early passages.

Ironically, the weakest performance comes from one of the finest actors in the cast…Dan Stevens. The one-note heavy Stevens portrays makes a Disney villain seem complex by comparison. Witness Stevens’ face when he enters Thornton’s cabin. His maniacal mask is so inhumanly contorted that I actually thought the movie had switched to an animated feature for a few beats.

This kind of melodramatic and megalomaniacal part is a tremendous disservice to Stevens, who, in other contexts (
Downton Abbey), has proven himself to be a fine actor. Here, he plays a greedy, cruel (especially to animals), unreasonable opportunist who wouldn’t last five minutes out in the wild.

Set in the Yukon in the 1890s, the locations (many of which were filmed in British Colombia and Yukon, Canada) are mind-blowingly frigid (winter) and lush (summer). While director Chris Sanders (
How to Train Your Dragon) does a fine job of creating the look and feel of London’s pioneer world, it’s Janusz Kaminski’s (Schindler’s List) cinematography that helps capture the alternatingly breathtaking and terrifying majesty of the Great White North.

The only knock on the visuals is that the saturation is really augmented during the summer sequences and the aurora borealis shots were quite obviously created with CGI. While on the subject, why was it necessary to CG animate Buck, the St. Bernard/Scotch Shepherd mix? Sure, the process of filming a live animal can be a bear (especially when it is one), but there’s just no replacing the genuine article.

Having a human inside a mo-cap suit mimicking the motions of a dog is preposterous (as it must’ve seemed to Ford when he had to pet Notary’s head). Although the final result isn’t embarrassing, there are moments when we can see right through the CG veneer, especially when, in an anthropomorphic display, Buck tosses Thornton a sideways glance. My preference would’ve been for real, rather than mo-cap and CG, animals in the movie. Featuring the latter was a major impediment to my enjoyment of the film.

In the end,
The Call of the Wild is a crowd-pleasing retelling of London’s classic adventure yarn. Excellent production values and gorgeous locations greatly add to this family-friendly tale of adventure and companionship between a man and his dog. For better or worse, the movie is exactly what you expect it to be.

So, will you answer the call?

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

Overcomer (PG)

Directed by: Alex Kendrick
Starring: Alex Kendrick
August 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!

The Kendrick Brothers (Alex and Stephen) have delivered a string of family-friendly, faith-affirming films over the years, including: Fireproof (2008), Courageous (2011) and War Room (2015). As with many of the Kendrick’s earlier movies, Overcomer uses sports as a vehicle for telling a tale of hope, faith and courage.

As the story opens, successful high school basketball coach John Harrison (Alex Kendrick) learns that the town’s manufacturing plant has closed its doors. John’s hopes of winning a state championship are dashed when many of his players are forced to move away with their families. Pressed into service as a long-distance running coach, John’s team consists of one runner, Hannah Scott (Aryn Wright-Thompson). In a cruel twist of fate, Hannah has asthma.

Through pure coincidence (or a Godincidence), John meets Thomas Hill (Cameron Arnett) when visiting someone else at a hospital. After striking up a conversation with the blind, bedridden man, John discovers that Thomas is Hannah’s long-lost father. The family drama heats up when Hannah meets Thomas for the first time and when her guardian grandmother (Denise Armstrong), who has intentionally kept Hannah from learning about her former drug addict father, finds out that Hannah’s been sneaking out to meet with Thomas.

Overcomer sets up in a similar manner to Disney’s McFarland, USA (2015), which chronicles the true story of high school track coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), who relocates to the titular town to become a cross-country coach. In this film, John doesn’t have to move, but the school’s principal (Priscilla Shirer) coaxes him into coaching a sport he knows next to nothing about. In both movies, unlikely athletes make it to the state championship, which results in a highly improbable, yet wholly satisfying story payoff.

Admittedly, the plot is oversimplified and idealistic to the extreme. Though the film has many saccharine moments, and even a few unnecessary scenes (the knee-slapping drama auditions, for instance), it has several salient themes, like: finding redemption, making amends (the movie cleverly avoids sermonizing by resolving the kleptomania subplot with a montage) and learning how to forgive.

Another theme that’s subtly woven into the fabric of the film is the discovery of identity. In a world where identity is confusing, complex and constantly in flux,
Overcomer presents an extremely simple definition of identity that’s as counter-cultural as you’re likely to find. The movie’s core audience will embrace this interpretation of identity, but will it make an impact on the broader populace?

The film contains a number of nitpicks. For instance, in real life, people (especially non-relatives) wouldn’t be allowed to just stroll into a hospital (without visitor’s tags, no less) whenever they feel like it. Also, a cross-country team consists of seven runners, so Hannah wouldn’t be allowed to race by herself. Fortunately, these peccadilloes don’t significantly detract from the movie’s overall message or entertainment value.

In the final analysis,
Overcomer is an inspirational story with heartfelt performances and pulse-pounding race scenes. Are you an Overcomer?

Rating: 3 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

Incredibles 2 (PG)

Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson
June 2018

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!

While waiting to watch Incredibles 2, I detected an insidious pattern in the previews. For The Lego Movie 2, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) admits that she almost singlehandedly saved the world in the first movie, but that Emmet (Chris Pratt) took all the credit. The next trailer was for Wreck-It Ralph 2. In a telling scene, Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) stumbles into a room full of Disney princesses who initially question her right to join them until they identify with her plight; people always assume that all of Vanellope’s problems will be solved as soon as a big, strong man shows up. When the feature presentation finally started, I thought for sure the anti-male bias was over—surely Pixar wouldn’t stoop to such shameless sexism, right? Wrong. It would appear that the sentiments behind the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have now infiltrated kids’ movies…and that makes me mad. For a detailed diatribe of my stance against movies that seek to indoctrinate children with partisan political views, read my review of Happy Feet. Suffice it to say, unhealthy stereotypes of men are everywhere now, even in typically high-quality, high class Pixar pics. Case in point is Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). If we thought Bob was emasculated at the beginning of first film as the deskbound, pencil pushing cube dweller, imagine how worthless he feels when his wife Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) gets a crime fighting gig and he’s left at home to raise the kids Mr. Mom style. When Bob’s efforts to take care of his three kids go up in smoke (as a former accountant, he can’t even teach his son math because it’s “new math”), he reaches out to friend Frozone (Samuel L Jackson) for advice and prevails upon costume designer Edna (Brad Bird) to babysit Jack-Jack. Particularly disturbing is the cost analysis scene, which flags Mr. Incredible as an extreme insurance risk. The analytics reveal that Elastigirl (woman) completes her missions without bending a blade of grass, while Mr. Incredible (man) inflicts massive damage while attempting to defeat villains. Men are characterized as blundering buffoons who just can’t help but destroy everything in their path (much like Wreck-It Ralph or Hulk). So then, if Bob is a failure as a father and a superhero, what good is he? The last player in the NFL draft is referred to as Mr. Irrelevant. In I2, Bob Parr isn’t Mr. Incredible, he’s Mr. Irrelevant. Bob is the exemplar of the scores of men who’ve been sidelined and debased. Will it get to the point where men are nothing more than laborers and lovers in a matriarchal society, as was depicted in Gene Roddenberry’s Planet Earth (1974)? Time and societal evolution will tell, but as for now, we’re on the verge of the systematic censure, deconstruction and endangerment of the male of the species. Aside from gender roles, the movie also gets political when it deals with the integration of the Supers back into society; a topic that could relate to refugees from the Middle East, illegals pouring over the border from Mexico or even the way the LGBT community is being assimilated into the broader populace. The movie also makes thinly-veiled commentary about our growing screen obsession. Staring at one of villain Screenslaver’s hypnotic patterns can override a person’s will and make them highly susceptible to committing evil acts. Walk into any public place and you’ll see people with their faces buried in screens, in essence hypnotized by onscreen content and completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. The parallel is obvious; the solution isn’t. It’s ironic that this problem was in its initial stages when The Incredibles was released in 2004. Despite its broad spectrum of commentary, the film does have some fun, although not nearly as much as the original. Even though the scenes with Jack-Jack are the highlight of the film, the tyke is given far too many superpowers and the various applications of those powers are way overplayed, usually to generate laughs. Syndrome (Jason Lee) is a far superior antagonist to Screenslaver, whose identity is obvious from the start. There are several new characters here including: salesman Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), inventor Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), Voyd (Sophia Bush), Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), Reflux (Paul Eiding), Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) and Ambassador (Isabella Rosellini). As with the first movie, Brad Bird wrote and directed I2. So is I2 worth the wait (14 years)? It pains me to say that I2 fails to capture the first film’s unbridled creativity and off-the-wall exhilaration…and fun. Though I2 is entertaining, it certainly isn’t incredible.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

Show Dogs (PG)

Directed by: Raja Gosnell
Starring: Will Arnett
May 2018

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!

The Premise:

In order to track down a gang of animal smugglers, a macho police dog must go undercover as a contestant in a prestigious dog show.

The Evaluation:

The movie opens in NYC, as police dog Max (voiced by rapper Ludacris) prepares to pounce on some animal thieves and rescue a caged panda. A FBI agent named Frank (Will Arnett), who is also working on the case, accidentally thwarts Max’ plan, which allows the criminals to escape. After the botched bust, Max and Frank get thrown together
Turner & Hooch (1989) style and are tasked with tracking down the robbers and rescuing the panda. Turning rough-and-tumble Max into a well-groomed, well-mannered canine is just one of the many challenges this unlikely duo must face as they attempt to take a bite out of crime. If the plot sounds familiar, it is. Show Dogs is, at its core, a talking animal version of the Sandra Bullock vehicle, Miss Congeniality (2000). However, whereas Congeniality was a crowd-pleasing romp, Dogs is a witless dud…and that’s putting it mildly. Somewhere along the way, writers started working adult jokes into kids’ movies in order to hold the attention of the parents in the audience. Their justification for employing these guised gags is that they sail right over the heads of younger viewers. This deplorable strategy is a gross underestimation of the impressionable and increasingly savvy children in our society. The truth is, young people are assimilating these crude references whether they completely understand them or not. So here we have a litany of adult jokes shrouded in seemingly innocuous moments of levity. Though subtly delivered in most cases, the movie is filled with double entendres. The movie is also inundated with potty humor, suggestive dialog and even hints of bestiality (Frank engages in a ballroom dance with Max, who stands on his hind legs, and sleeps on the same bed with Max and a Papillon, who remarks that it’s “what nature intended.”) A whole section of the film deals with preparing Max for when the judge will inspect his private areas. As would be expected, this part of the movie generates many unnecessary comments, especially during the bikini wax sequence. And who decided to set this supposedly family film in Las Vegas? Is there a more family unfriendly location the writers could’ve chosen? One character observes that Vegas is marked by luxury and excess, which would seem to indicate how unsuitable it is as the location for a kids’ movie. As the main character, Max is a terrible role model. A fellow contestant sums up the Rottweiler perfectly by stating that Max is cynical, overbearing, can’t work in a team and doesn’t trust anyone. Max’ dialog consists of rude one-liners and inappropriate comments like: “You run like a wiener dog” and “Ah, grow some balls.” Hopefully these examples will serve as a deterrent for those considering this film for their next family night. Parents are strongly cautioned to steer their kids away from this movie and toward more wholesome entertainment. Don’t let anyone fool you…Dogs isn’t a family film.

The Breakdown:

Directing- The movie’s director, Raja Gosnell, is no stranger to the genre (or canines), having helmed Scooby-Doo, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. The style and lowbrow fare on display here is pretty much the same as in Gosnell’s earlier flicks.

Acting- Despite its pedestrian plot, the film has attracted an array of top-tier talent. In addition to human characters like Mattie (perfectly played by Natasha Lyonne from Orange is the New Black), the movie’s various talking animals are voiced by notables from a number of different entertainment segments, including: actors (Alan Cumming and Stanley Tucci), athletes (Shaquille O’Neal), singers (Jordin Sparks), comedians (Gabriel Iglesias) and reality TV show hosts (RuPaul).

Story- The screenplay, written by Max Botkin and Marc Hyman (not to be confused with wellness physician, Mark Hyman), is mind-numbingly inane, even by talking animal movie standards. The story is merely a loose assemblage of cheesy one-liners (“I knew I smelled bad attitude.”), hyperreal high jinks (like Max bending his way around a moving car Matrix style) and disgusting images (like the spinach, egg shells and whole raw fish smoothie) held together by a contrived plot. From one set of credits to the other, there’s no stoppage of dialog. These characters (mostly animal) just never shut up. Sadly, much of what they say is offensive and doesn’t have any substance whatsoever.

Costumes/Make-up- The NYC and Vegas costumes are appropriate to their settings. Thankfully, dancers and other Vegas performers are adequately clothed in most scenes. The animal costumes, which are difficult to tailor, are also well crafted.

Cinematography- One of the brighter spots in the film is David Mackie’s camera work. The action sequences are well filmed and the pageant scenes, though indebted to the brilliant competition scenes in Best in Show (2000), are enjoyable and lend the movie a measure of reality. Kudos to Mackie for his extensive work with the movie’s many animals, which are never easy to film.

Music- The movie doesn’t really have a score, at least not in the traditional sense—just a lot of up-tempo beats and rap music for the action sequences.

Visual FX- Mostly CGI of dogs talking, making faces and doing unrealistic feats. Nothing groundbreaking.

Production Values- For a supposed kids’ movie, the film has surprisingly high production values. The film makes good use of its locations and appears, in most respects, to be a major studio film even though it was produced by Global Road Entertainment.

Movie Magic- Unless you’re a 6-year-old, you’ll probably find this film unbearably silly.

Rating: 1 ½ out of 4 stars

The Miracle Season (PG)

Directed by: Sean McNamara
Starring: Helen Hunt
April 2018

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!

The Premise:

A high school volleyball team must overcome the loss of their team captain in order to repeat as state champions.

The Evaluation:

“Have you ever met someone who could make anything into an adventure?”

The movie’s opening line is the perfect introduction to its central character, the vivacious captain of a women’s high school volleyball team, Caroline “Line” Found (Danika Yarosh). Caroline’s ebullient personality is infectious; she makes friends with everyone she meets, even players on opposing teams. Coming off an emotional state championship win the year before, Caroline and her teammates have aspirations of repeating. After rolling past their first opponent, another championship seems all but assured. Then comes the tragic night when the news of Caroline’s fatal driving accident sweeps through the community like wildfire. The grief-stricken volleyball team’s hopeful quest for a second state championship comes to a devastating standstill. But with motivation from their inspiring coach and a resolve born out of their desire to honor their fallen friend, the players channel their anger and guilt into one all-consuming goal: “Win for Line.” Based on the true account of how the Iowa City West High School women’s volleyball team won the state championship against all odds in 2011,
The Miracle Season is a strong character piece that also features some pulse-pounding action during several volleyball tournaments. Season is a deeply moving story about finding the courage to carry on after a tragic loss. Despite its similar theme to We Are Marshall (2006) and similar plot to Hoosiers (1986), Season is an inspirational sports movie where the miracle on the court pales in comparison to the one that takes place inside the hearts of the grieving players and community.

The Breakdown:

Directing- The man responsible for keeping the character moments meaningful and the volleyball game sequences taut with excitement is director Sean McNamara, who also helmed the tragedy-turned-victory sports film Soul Surfer (2011).

Acting- The cast is an eclectic mix of established and new actors. Big screen notables like Helen Hunt (who also starred in Surfer) and William Hurt are joined by some truly fine young actors like Yarosh (Heroes Reborn) and Erin Moriarty (Jessica Jones). Jason Gray-Stanford (Monk) also delivers a memorable performance as assistant coach, Scott Sanders.

Story- Ensuring that the sports elements didn’t run away with the story are screenwriters David Aaron Cohen and Elissa Matsueda. Cohen was already familiar with the genre, having co-written Friday Night Lights (2004).

Costumes/Make-up- Standard, skimpy volleyball outfits, but the rest of the movie’s wardrobe is appropriate.

Cinematography- The locations surprisingly resemble the Iowan countryside even though the movie was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. These locations add a great deal to the team’s road trips, especially during the snow angel scene.

Music- The evocative trumpet arrangement in Roque Banos’ score perfectly captures the film’s bittersweet aspects. The crowd singing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at the end of the movie is a nice touch.

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- The various production elements are respectable, especially when considering the movie’s modest budget. The school/gym interiors are authentic and the Found’s house and barn sets are functional and homey.

Movie Magic- If you enjoy high-energy sports flicks with quick cuts that amp up the action, this movie is for you. Although the story does get a tad Hallmark-y at times, it’s a clean, inspirational film that spotlights one of the more remarkable stories to have come out of the world of high school sports in recent years.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

I Can Only Imagine (PG)

Directed by: The Erwin Brothers
Starring: Dennis Quaid
March 2018

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!

The Premise

While dealing with his traumatic past, a young man pursues his dream of becoming a professional singer.

The Evaluation:

Based on the life of Bart Millard (J. Michael Finley), lead singer of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) group MercyMe,
I Can Only Imagine tells its story by time-shifting between Bart’s abusive childhood and his turbulent journey to becoming a professional singer. Bart’s estranged relationship with his short-fused father, Arthur (Dennis Quaid), begins to change when Arthur is diagnosed with cancer. Bart and Arthur are able to repair some of their emotional and relational damage during the brief time Arthur has left. After Arthur’s passing, Bart doubles down on establishing his career and meets a talent agent named Brickell (Trace Adkins), who introduces him to two superstar CCM artists: Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort) and Michael W. Smith (Jake B. Miller). Amy is blown away by Bart’s heartfelt song (dedicated to his departed dad) and makes a deal to record it on her next album. But as Amy prepares to world premiere the song, something remarkable happens that has huge ramifications for Bart’s future. It’s a tearjerker ending that’s just as inspirational as the titular song.

The Breakdown:

Directing- The Erwin Brothers (Woodlawn) do a fine job of establishing the correct tone and evoking the right emotions from the actors, especially during the well-handled redemption scenes between Bart and Arthur. The film’s editing is exceptional—the constant jumping back and forth in time could’ve become tedious and confusing in less skillful hands.

Acting- Finley turns in an impressive and spirited performance in his film debut. He deftly layers on the pathos and carefully avoids any hint of schmaltz. As would be expected, Quaid turns in a consummate performance. He expertly modulates between abusive father and proud dad with a new perspective on life due to a terminal illness. Adkins is sheer perfection as the gruff agent with a big heart and delivers some of the funniest lines in the movie. Whereas DuPort favors Amy Grant (and has a strikingly similar smile), Miller looks nothing like Michael W. Smith. Though her scenes are few, the legendary Cloris Leachman adds some additional star power to the film as Bart’s Memaw.

Story- Even though the story by Alex Cramer, Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle, based on Bart’s memoir, is an accurate account of Bart’s life, the script does take a few liberties with actual events to make them work for the big screen. For instance, the jeep that Bart works on with his dad in the movie was a truck in real life. Also, according to the book, Arthur attended Bart’s “Oklahoma!” performance, but in the movie, Arthur doesn’t even know Bart is in the play until he sees a handbill while eating at a local diner. Despite other minor variations such as these, the movie is a faithful portrait of Bart’s life.

Costumes/Make-up- Authentic to the period.

Cinematography- The location work, shot almost exclusively in Oklahoma, gives the movie a sense of grounding—Bart’s roots come into sharp focus during the Texas farm scenes.

Music- McCorkle’s soundtrack is bolstered by several source tunes, including U2s “Into the Heart.”

Visual FX- NA

Production Values- Though a fairly low budget film, Imagine never comes off as cheaply made. Aside from last year’s The Case for Christ, Imagine is one of the finest Christian movies ever made.

Movie Magic- Although the domestic abuse elements may be difficult to watch for some audience members, the movie’s themes of relational reconciliation, emotional healing and succeeding against long odds make Imagine a winning, faith affirming film. It’s a heartfelt true story that reveals the beauty that can come from tragedy. Imagine that.

Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

A Wrinkle in Time (PG)

Directed by: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Storm Reid
March 2018

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!

The Premise:

With the assistance of three mystical women, a teenage girl embarks on a dangerous journey through time and space to rescue her father from an evil entity.

The Evaluation:

Having recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal winning book,
A Wrinkle in Time, I watched the film with a wary eye toward any divergences from page to screen. Though remaining faithful to the source material in most respects, the movie has made some modifications, and in each instance those changes were poorly considered and executed. From a diversity standpoint, the film is an unqualified success. Director Ava DuVernay is an African American woman—double diversity points. The cast of characters from the book has undergone a significant shakeup in the movie, which was to be expected since the world today is much different than it was when Mrs. L’Engle wrote the book in 1962. Half of the characters have switched races and one (Zach Galifianakis’ Happy Medium) has changed genders. Though it’s clear that Disney was out to make a statement with this affirmative action character mash-up, the diversity here seems like a political and media stunt. After all, it’s one thing to create diversity naturally and quite another to go about things in such an obvious and overdetermined manner that your political bias bleeds though the onscreen action like a copyright watermark. Though the casting was excellent for all of the young actors, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and Calvin (Levi Miller) come off far better than Meg (Storm Reid). Overall, Meg is much more brooding and contrary here than in the book, which is a tremendous letdown since she’s the main character. Even though all of the magical “Mrs.” are well cast, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) is too annoying, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) is too esoteric and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) is too…big. The image of the colossal Mrs. Which is preposterous, but her immense size can be taken as a clever metaphor for the status of the actor portraying her—Oprah is, unquestionably, a media giant. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell starts out well by hewing closely to the book’s plot and dialog, while updating it to reflect the sensibilities of kids in a modern school. Everything is smooth sailing until the kids Tesser (beaming through space/time at warp speed, to employ Star Trek parlance). The planet concept for Uriel is far too grandiose; it takes the book’s description of a verdant paradise and turns it into a CG video game landscape. The scene where Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) transforms herself into a giant flying leaf is unexpected, yet utterly ridiculous. Though exhilarating, the ensuing magic carpet ride sequence is gimmicky and seems like it was included just to give the leisurely story a much needed adrenalin boost. The whole sequence is oversaturated and overblown and looks like the trailer for Avatar 2. The kids’ arrival on dark world Camazotz (dumb name that’s hard to pronounce), cues another action sequence that wasn’t in the book—the cracking landscape and violent windstorm sequence is just another whiz-bang action scene that adds absolutely nothing to the movie. The suburban cul-de-sac scene, where kids bounce red balls in perfect unison, is one of the creepier visuals in the movie and is well executed. The rest of the movie is pretty much a disaster. We never get to see the business district on Camazotz, nor the CENTRAL Central Intelligence Building. Disney should’ve spent less of its budget on meaningless action scenes and more on decent sets for the back half of the movie. Although the invisible architecture superimposed over the bright, sleek antechamber walls (which requires Mrs. Who’s glasses to see) is cleverly realized, the interior of Mr. Murry’s (Chris Pine) prison chamber is something out of a 60s drug trip and isn’t utilitarian in the least (it has no bed, sink, etc). The entire section of the book where Meg convalesces under the magical ministrations of aliens with tentacles doesn’t appear in the film—a significant loss. The final confrontation with IT has overwrought FX and is storyboarded like one of the protracted battles in the LOTR films. And speaking of protracted, the movie’s denouement is painfully long. The book ends before the characters return home, which was a wise choice. In the movie, Mr. Murry apologizes to Meg for putting his career before her; it’s a sequence that feels forced and unfounded and is made worse by Pine’s awkward acting. The many reunions and embraces at the end of the movie are overboard and uber-schmaltzy. The movie wraps up just as a Hallmark movie would—happy ending writ large. Bottom line: Disney’s Wrinkle freelances when it shouldn’t and skips some key material from the book. This big screen treatment of L’Engle’s book goes too big in many places and fails to capture the tangible magic and unbridled creativity that permeates every page of the book. L’Engle’s masterwork deserved a far better fate than this uninspired effort. Though it pains me to say, Disney’s Wrinkle is a miss…so miss it.

The Breakdown:

Directing- It’s bitterly ironic that DuVernay, a female director, consistently eschewed character development in favor of big budget action sequences that amount to little more than visual fluff. The emotions at the end of the movie are downright mawkish. A disappointing effort.

Acting- Due to the writing, most of the characters are cardboard cutouts of living, breathing characters. This is particularly true of Witherspoon’s portrayal of Whatsit, which blends her characters from Legally Blonde and Big Little Lies into an overly perky, yet ultra-critical, caricature. I would’ve expected Pine to bring more to his role; his performance is off-kilter and cursory. Surprisingly, the kid actors deliver better performances than the film’s many seasoned stars.

Story- The story has too many action scenes, too few character scenes and the ending is a maudlin mess. The film’s lack of magic starts with the script. It baffles the mind, and breaks the heart, to consider how Disney has perverted L’Engle’s timeless fantasy tale into pedestrian drivel with scant imagination and magic.

Costumes/Make-up- The outfits for the three “Mrs.” are well done, especially Whatsit’s flowing gowns.

Cinematography- The gorgeous framing on Uriel is the movie’s high point visually; everything else is fairly standard.

Music- One of the highlights of the movie is Ramin Djawadi’s fanciful and cheery score. The gorgeous orchestrations with accompanying choir during the Uriel scenes add immeasurably to the magic of this section of the film.

Visual FX- Top dollar, but overdone. See review.

Production Values- A lavish Disney production, but too much of its budget was spent on eye-candy visuals rather than on convincing sets. See review.

Movie Magic- Depends. Young kids, 10 and under, may enjoy the movie. However, judging from the reaction of the teens in the theater I attended, they thought it was pretty lame. With tenuous characterizations and oversimplified situations rife with teen peril, adults will probably find the film insufferable—even those who grew up reading the book, which is a real shame. An even bigger shame is that the movie focuses too much of its attention on jaw-dropping visuals rather than on human qualities like courage, faith and love. As such, the film will have no relevance or staying power.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars

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.

Wonder Woman (PG-13)

Directed by: Patty Jenkins
Starring: Gal Gadot
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!

Let’s face it, the best part of last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was the arrival of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) during the epic confrontation. Providing some much needed vitality and panache to a mostly ponderous and lackluster film, Wonder Woman’s presence served the dual function of saving one film and instilling confidence in her ability to carry another. As it turns out, that confidence was well-placed since Wonder Woman is a far better film than that other one where the two squabbling male heroes needed the feminine touch to avert Doomsday. The first film to feature a female superhero opens with an elegant back story that gives us a glimpse into the early years of clay-made Diana (Lilly Aspell), who is raised on a paradise island among Amazon women—governed by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. We’re treated to a montage of well-choreographed training scenes, and then, quicker than you can yell “Princess of Themyscira,” Diana (Gadot) has transformed into an adult. Diana’s tranquil, idyllic life is suddenly disrupted by the arrival of a German plane that crashes into the ocean inside the protective dome created by Zeus (isn’t it supposed to be impenetrable?). Diana rescues the pilot, Captain Steve Trevor (not James Kirk), who is played by Chris Pine. Steve, a British spy who speaks with an American accent, is in possession of information that could prove instrumental in ending the war. Diana is also invested in the cessation of hostilities and assigns herself the task of destroying Ares, the god of war. But will their opposing views on how to stop the bloodshed create its own conflict between Diana and Steve? Set during WWI, WW is a curious cross-universe twin of Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), which took place during World War II and also featured a super-strong hero armed with an impervious, circular shield and an unerring moral compass. Was setting WW in 1918 instead of the post-Doomsday present a misstep? Hard to say, but the film’s quality certainly doesn’t suffer from the decision over its milieu. Gadot and Pine have excellent chemistry together and the other performers offer stellar support, especially Danny Huston and David Thewlis. WW contains the optimal balance of story to action…let’s hope the upcoming Justice League follows that same formula. And why no Superman in JL? Wasn’t DC’s long game with Man of Steel (2013) and BVS to have Henry Cavill, along with Ben Affleck and Gadot, headline JL—a strategy filched wholesale from rival Marvel, which set up The Avengers franchise with its raft of stand-alone superhero showcases? Superman’s conspicuous absence from JL not only squanders Cavill’s talents, but also sidelines one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world from anchoring a film that’s been in the planning stages for years. Well, at least Wonder Woman will appear in JL. She’s proven herself to be a solid reliever as well as a dependable starter. WW is the best DC movie since Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Will wonders never cease?

The BFG (PG)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Mark Rylance
July 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!

Sophie is right, the #WitchingHour is 3 AM.
Sophie is breaking all of her “Never” rules.
“That’s where you is, in Giant Country.” #GiantCountry
A collection of #DreamJars.
“I catch dreams.” Interesting occupation.
Beware of #SleepingGiants.
“All the secret whisperings of the world.” Welcome to #DreamCountry.
A Golden #FizzWizard. Like a non-corporeal #Tinkerbell.
#Togglehumper. Bad dream.
Never knew that dreams entered through the mouth.
“Naked at my wedding.” Interesting dream. #DreamJar
“Not in a month of Mondays.” #GiantSpeak
“I am your humbug servant.” Ha!
The #BFG doesn’t like coffee. #PinkiesUp
“I believe in the BFG.”
Sophie holds the #BFGs pinky. Sweet scene.
The bad giants get dropped off at #LukeSkywalker’s island.
Final analysis: a charming adaptation of #RoaldDahl’s story with a tremendous mo-cap performance by Rylance.
2 1/2 out of 4. Spielberg’s first film for #Disney is a magical adventure suitable for the whole family.

Every time I see the title of this film the first thing that pops into my mind is “Big F*!@ing Giant.” As you might guess, that inappropriate moniker, despite being an accurate description of the titular titan’s size, isn’t even close to the proper designation for this family film. And not just any family film, mind you, but one based on the children’s book of the same name by Roald Dahl (best known for writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), produced by Walt Disney Pictures and directed by Steven Spielberg—his first stint for the Mouse House. So what does BFG really stand for? Big Friendly Giant, but you already knew that. The BFG (Mark Rylance in an astoundingly lifelike motion capture performance) is so christened by a young orphan named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), who catches a glimpse of the giant one night during her witching hour vigil…she suffers from insomnia. In order to preserve his anonymity, the BFG scoops up Sophie and whisks her away to giant country. As she adjusts to her new surroundings, Sophie must feel as if she were zapped by Professor Szalinski’s diminution ray from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) since everything inside the BFG’s cave dwelling is enormous to her—to aid in the visualization of such disparate proportions, Sophie can fit inside half of a snozzcumber, a slimy, bumpy version of a cucumber. Despite his fuddy-duddy mannerisms, Sophie quickly determines that the BFG is friendly, hence the name. However, she also learns that the other giants in the region are not so friendly because: 1. They’re “bean” eaters (giant speak for “beings” i.e. “human beings”) and 2. The BFG is only about half the size of the aggressive giants, which makes him a rather dubious protector for tiny Sophie. If this all sounds a bit overblown and silly, it is…what else would you expect from a kids’ flick with a giant in it? Though scenes featuring the brutish behemoths may be a tad frightening for the wee ones, most of the movie will appeal to preteens—anyone older may struggle to enjoy the film due to its dearth of character complexity, genuine jeopardy and realistic action. Some scenes, like when Queen Victoria (Penelope Wilton), her retinue and two canines create a carminative chorus during a breakfast banquet, will only elicit laughter from youngsters. Even sequences like when the bullying giants shove the BFG on top of a car and send him hurdling down a slope on a collision course with a vehicle descending the opposing hillside—essentially a giant-sized game of chicken—seem utterly inane and fail to generate any suspense since we know the BFG, as the literal title character, will find a way out of his predicament. The climactic confrontation, where military officers on British choppers capture and transport the man-eating giants to a secluded island, is daffy to the extreme—the giants don’t even put up a fight because any kind of graphic violence could tip the rating from PG to PG-13…and, poof, there goes half the audience. There’s a colossal disparity, in content and quality, between this film and the other Disney (Pixar) movie that’s out in theaters right now. Though Finding Dory is an animated film made for kids, it has many adult story elements. BFG, by contrast, is a live action (with CGI) movie that caters almost exclusively to kids. All of this to say that the movie’s target audience will surely embrace BFG while adults may derive more entertainment from counting the theater’s ceiling tiles than enduring the onscreen frivolity. None of these statements are meant to disparage the film’s creative vision. To be sure, there’s some real movie magic here—the sequence involving the Dream Tree is beautifully ethereal—and the direction, cinematography and production elements are all top-notch. However, despite its charm, whimsy and neck-craning, jaw-dropping scale, BFG will fail to service many adult spectators. So it turns out BFG does have an alternate meaning after all...Boring For Grownups.

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?

Alice Through the Looking Glass (PG-13)

Directed by: James Bobin
Starring: Mia Wasikowska
May 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!

Alice Through the Looking Glass
Wait a minute, is this the Alice sequel or the next #PiratesOfTheCaribbean movie?
“Time is a thief...and a villain.” #CaptainAlice
Wow, that’s quite a dress...looks like a butterfly threw up all over it.
Do six impossible things before breakfast. Alice is quite the overachiever.
The Matter of the Hatter. Subtitle.
The Hatter throws Alice out of his house. #DarkMatterHatter
#Unpossible. Similar to an #Unbirthday I guess.
“I am time.” Nice stache.
Time to go further #BackInTime.
“Hatting is a serious business.” #MadHatter
The #RedQueen kisses the #Jabberwocky’s leg. Ick!
A big kiss for the little Hatters.
The de-rusting FX are top-notch.
Final analysis: a mediocre follow-up to the uninspired original. Lacks Burton’s direction and Carroll’s vision.
2 out of 4. Some decent creativity, but the plot falls down a rabbit hole into a rote, ridiculous realm.

This return to Wonderland, entitled Alice Through the Looking Glass, has all the regulars back from the first film—Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway as her sister the White Queen, the late Alan Rickman as the blue butterfly Absolem, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Matt Lucas as Tweedledee and Tweedledum—along with some notable newcomers like Sacha Baron Cohen as Time, Rhys Ifans as Zanik Hightopp and Hobbit alum Richard Armitage as King Oleron. The conspicuous name missing from the movie’s headliners is director Tim Burton, who merely serves as a producer on this film. The director this time around is James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014), and while it’s clear that the creativity doesn’t suffer from the change at the helm, the wit and whimsy so evident in many of Burton’s films is largely missing in Bobin’s trip to Wonderland. If you’re expecting this movie to closely follow Lewis Carroll’s book of the same name (technically Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There), you’ll be sorely disappointed. Just as the first film, Alice in Wonderland (2010), mashed up story elements from Carroll’s works, so too does the sequel. A prime example of this book-to-movie aberration is the Jabberwocky, which made its first appearance in the second Alice book but was introduced during the climactic confrontation in the first film. This brand of fairy tale pastiche, which serves as the movie’s narrative, blends original elements from the source material with made-up events, characters and situations in order to flesh out the plot and provide enough story sinew to hold together the many action sequences. The resultant tale is an uneven, tenuous and convoluted mess that has Alice jumping backwards and forwards through time, like a Victorian Sam Beckett, attempting to remedy events that threaten to destroy time itself…literally. The main plot points here are the search for the Mad Hatter’s family and the reconciliation between royal sisters, the Red and White Queens, and, as would be expected, both storylines are resolved with a cloying display of sentimentality. As for the movie’s creative elements, the Chronosphere is a nifty time travel apparatus but is just a fancier version of the titular time machine in H. G. Wells’ sci-fi classic. The expansive rooms containing the massive cogs that keep time running are appropriately gigantic, but are reminiscent of colossal clockwork structures in dozens of movies ranging from The Great Mouse Detective (1986) to Shanghai Knights (2003). Though the hodgepodge assemblages of spare parts that serve as Time’s assistants are clever contraptions, they certainly aren’t original (perhaps you remember the metallic sidekick Tik-Tok in Disney’s Return to Oz (1985) or the eponymous robot in Hugo (2011), which, incidentally, also co-stars Baron Cohen). These kinds of expedient, cut and paste production elements are the very epitome of what makes this film such a waste of talent and resources…it’s derivative and hollow (like so many other summer tentpole pictures). If there’s a silver lining here it’s that Depp’s creepy, walleyed Hatter is only in about half of the film and isn’t nearly as obnoxious as he was in the first film. Well, there you have it…Looking Glass is a mediocre sequel to an uninspired original. I’ve done my best to dissuade you from stepping through the movie’s magic mirror which will rob you of your hard-earned cash and extract two hours from your life that you’ll never get back.

The Jungle Book (PG)

Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Neel Sethi
April 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!

The Jungle Book
The opening reminds me of the #JungleCruise ride at #Disneyland.
“Wolves don’t hide in trees.” Good to know.
Nice #TimeLapse photography of the canyon transitioning into its dry season.
“In some packs the runt gets eaten.” Survival of the fittest.
The animals give Khan a wide berth. Not the one from #
StarTrek. #ShirKhan. #WaterTruce
“You will always be my son.” #WolfHug
I love seeing the respect for #Elephants. Magnificent creatures.
#BlackPanther vs #Tiger. Which will win? #Catfight
That molting is as big as a tent. #Kaa is near.
Beware the #RedFlower.
“Trust in me.” When someone says that you normally can’t.
“That’s not a song, that’s propaganda.” Ha!
#ShereKhan’s object lesson of the deceptive #CuckooBird is quite the traumatizing #BedtimeStory.
One of #MowglisTricks saves a young elephant. Touching scene.
#KingLouie really knows how to bring the house down.
#Bear vs #Tiger. Now we’ve got a fight. #ShereKhan #Baloo
#ShereKhan is engulfed by the #RedFlower. Good riddance.
Final analysis: a modern take on #Kipling’s classic with superb voice performances and jaw-dropping #CGI.
A decent family film that sadly lacks the charm of the 1967 cartoon and the magic of the 1942 #Sabu classic.
2 1/2 out of 4. The target audience won’t be disappointed but adults may find fewer pros than Khans.

Director Jon Favreau’s (Iron Man) reverent riff on Rudyard Kipling’s adventure classic The Jungle Book is a virtual remake of Disney’s 1967 kiddie feature only with blended live action and computer effects standing in for animated characters and locations. Though this film isn’t the sing-along sensation that the cartoon version is, a couple of the original songs can be heard here (“The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You,” which is sung by Christopher Walken). However, the musical element is toned down and the action is ratcheted up in this particular Kipling outing. The film is also noticeably more adult than its pedestrian predecessor: both Shere Khan (Idris Elba) and King Louie (Walken) are far more menacing here. Although much of this film’s storyline was lifted right out of the 60’s flick, some story elements have been altered and/or new ones added to stretch out the action to a full-length feature. To whit, the Red Flower line in the “I Wan’na Be Like You” lyric is expanded into an entire subplot in this movie. Another new passage is where Baloo (Bill Murray) convinces Mowgli (Neel Sethi, who not only looks the part but delivers a pitch-perfect performance) into knocking down some large honeycombs to sate the bear’s enormous appetite. It’s an amusing sidebar, but is a poor substitute for the scenes where Baloo teaches Mowgli how to spar and when the two new friends float down the lazy river in the original. Those scenes were charming; the ones in this film are merely amusing. While contrasting the films, there’s no doubt that the gold star for visual splendor and pulse pounding action scenes goes to this film, due in large part to the eye-popping computerized renderings of the menagerie of jungle creatures. The catfight between Shere Khan and Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) is appropriately feral and frenetic and the scenes with giant python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson) are effectively hair-raising. Sequences like the water buffalo stampede couldn’t have been achieved with such proficiency even a few years ago, much less with hand drawn animation techniques from the 60s. However, the superior visuals actually invite a possible criticism of this film. Since its narrative is so similar to the 60s animated feature, one wonders if this release was just an excuse to showcase the latest CGI—essentially a technical vehicle for the film’s FX. We’ve seen how green lighting a movie for the sole purpose of showcasing the latest visual effects has produced uneven or outright awful results, a la Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999). This movie certainly isn’t that bad, but it is a tad perfunctory, what with its stock characters and connect-the-dots plot. The finest aspect of the film is its ending, which is a radical departure from the 60s movie and actually has more in common with the 1942 Sabu classic since animals must flee the devastating advance of the Red Flower in both versions. Unfortunately, the new nail biting climax can’t remedy this rote remake. All of this analysis is moot, of course, since the movie’s target audience will embrace the film regardless of the fact that it can’t stand up to the quality of its forebears. And is that such a bad thing? This film has updated the brand and introduced this timeless tale to a whole new generation of potential fans. There’s no downside there. Hardened critics and Baudrillard can go take a hike…or get lost on a jungle cruise.

The Young Messiah (PG-13)

Directed by: Cyrus Nowrasteh
Starring: Adam Greaves-Neal
March 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!

The Young Messiah
How to draw a camel in the sand.
Death by apple.
Early miracle. #BirdResurrection
“Cavemen in Britain.” Was Britain even around back then?
“Destined to wander.” Israel has a history of wandering.
“How do you explain God to his own son?” #Dilemma
“Next time there will be no mercy.” True. #Crucifixion
Dreams run in the family. Keen observation.
“The boy must die.” Good luck with that...he dies at 33.
“He is not just a child.” Amen.
A glimpse of the future. #CrucifixionRoad
“The Romans fear the young.” With good reason.
“I like this child.” Me too.
The #AngelChild tells #Satan to keep his hands to himself.
Don’t say the word rain around #Jesus or it’ll start raining.
“She’s just a woman.” Show more respect for Mary.
Romans in the temple. Oh my!
“God is your father.” A big question is answered for #Jesus.
Final analysis: a unique telling of #Jesus’ early years with some beautiful locations and a solid cast.
2 1/2 out of 4. Perfect casting of the central role infuses the film with joy and compassion.

A host of films have focused on the life of Jesus, and the vast majority of those have included the same basic story elements, i.e.,: his birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, etc. Since the entire film focuses on the titular savior at age seven (even though the temple scene actually took place when he was twelve), The Young Messiah is an exception to the typical theological presentation. But with little to no Biblical backing for many of the events in the film, what Messiah gains in originality it loses in authenticity. Taking its cue from the recent Roman soldier spotlight film Risen, Messiah applies the 80/20 Rule to its narrative structure, with 80% of the story extrapolated from recorded history and dramatized for a mass audience and only 20% coming directly from passages in the Bible. The most noticeable deviation from the holy text is when young Jesus (Adam Greaves-Neal) performs miracles while he’s a boy living in Egypt. There’s no scriptural support for this plot point, and to the contrary, the Bible records Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) when he was thirty. Be that as it may, the young lad having to conceal or constrain his supernatural powers is an interesting plot point that’s analogous to many comic book yarns where the hero tries to hide his abilities in order to blend in with the general populace (Superman being chief among these archetypes since, as many have noted, the Man of Steel’s messianic origin story and miracle working abilities directly parallel Christ’s). However non-canonical this subplot is, it does create tension and intrigue, especially in the early passages of the film (although I could’ve done without the gimmicky bird resuscitation scene). Also, like in Risen, Messiah features several new story elements that work quite well, including: Sean Bean as Roman centurion Severus, a conflicted soldier who is tasked with killing the young healer, and the Spartacus (1960) style Roman road flanked with crucified Jews. I was hoping that young Jesus would look up and knowingly stare at a cross…a foreshadowing of his impending demise. But alas, this is just one of many examples in the film of how an opportunity to create art was passed over (pun intended), which might speak to a lack of vision on the part of director Cyrus Nowrasteh or a shortage of shekels which shackled the production. All is not lost artistically though, since there’s a really nice aerial shot of Jesus’ family traversing the serpentine road lined with crosses at the end of the sequence. Despite period appropriate costumes and a handful of decent location shots, the film has a decidedly cash-strapped appearance. Sometimes acting can help elevate a budget-challenged picture (like Ben Kingsley in Walking with the Enemy), but such is not the case here. Other than Greaves-Neal, Bean and Sara Lazzaro (who plays Jesus’ mother, Mary), the rest of the cast members deliver par or subpar performances. All things considered, this was a valiant attempt at focusing on a brief chapter in Christ’s early years, but the writing, acting, directing and overall production didn’t support its vision or potential. Ironically, Messiah will go down as just another average Bible film that failed to inspire its audience.

Risen (PG-13)

Directed by: Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Joseph Fiennes
February 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!

Rolling stones used in combat. Symbolic of the big one later in the story. #RollingStones
“Until then...” #RomanBrutality
“Order...order.” I got it the first time. #BreathMint
Unusual for a #Bible movie to begin with the crucifixion.
“Never killed a king before.” Not just a king. #KingOfKings
“It’s as if he wanted to be sacrificed.” Like a lamb to the slaughter. #NoGreaterLove
“A day without death.” Great dialog during the pool scene.
“We must find a body.” Let the investigation begin. #CSIJerusalem
“Wait ‘till you see combat.” Ha!
“Some say he has risen.”
The scene where #Clavius asks which of his men knows #MaryMagdalene is hilarious.
“This is what you missed.” #RomanNail #Crucifixion
“They’re everywhere!” #Bartholomew is a great character who provides some much needed #ComicRelief. #12Disciples
The sword slips through #Clavius’ fingers. Seeing #Yeshua is a disarming experience.
“No one dies today.” The pursuit by the #Roman soldiers is an exciting sequence.
#CliffCurtis is very good in his portrayal of #Jesus.
The healing of the leper gave me #Goosebumps.
The #Ascension is spectacular!
“I doubt we’ll ever hear from them again.” Wrong!
Final analysis: the #Resurrection story told from a unique POV. Benefits from solid acting and gorgeous locations.
3 out of 4. An original yet reverent #Bible epic with one of the finest #Redemption stories ever told.

Some years ago, back when I had aspirations of plying my acting skills (such as they are) into a career, I had the lead part in an Easter cantata entitled Bow the Knee.  The story focuses on a Roman centurion who has a crisis of conscience regarding the teacher named Jesus.  The play presented a unique story told from the POV of an original character and echoed similar conceits in films like Ben Hur (1959) and Barabbas (1961).  Like in Bow the Knee, Risen narrates the Passion of Christ through the eyes of a Roman soldier, but the twist here is that most of the story takes place after the crucifixion (which occurs early in the film).  The action kicks into high gear when Jesus’ tomb is found empty and Roman Tribune Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) is put in charge of the investigation to find the body.  This procedural element keeps the story rolling along until Clavius has a life changing encounter with the subject of his pursuit midway through the movie.  Clavius falls in with the disciples and, by proxy, takes us on a spiritual journey which is punctuated by several key events from Jesus’ post-resurrection ministry. The 80/20 rule applies to this movie, with roughly 20% of the tale actually based on scripture and 80% extrapolated from the inspired text and presented for dramatic effect.  The end result here is seeker sensitive and palatable for those with an open mind, but will probably frustrate those fundamentalist theologians who maintain that a Biblical epic must be chapter and verse (and has there ever been such a film since none of us where there 2,000 years ago to determine the story’s authenticity?).  One of the most exciting elements in the story is how it weaves in and out of the official New Testament narrative, which provides freshness for those familiar with the actual events from the Bible. Some of those vignettes, extracted directly from the holy book, are extremely well executed, such as: the crucifixion, the fish bounty, the healing of the leper and the ascension. Other sequences, like when Roman soldiers pursue the disciples through tussocks of grass and winding canyons, are nowhere to be found in the Bible, but are visually exciting and help maintain audience interest throughout the story.  Aside from its pioneering plot, the acting is also a boon to the film.  Fiennes is superb in the lead role and plays his character’s gradual shift in loyalties to perfection.  Peter Firth is exceptional as Pontius Pilate, portraying the Roman official as a flesh and blood character rather than an egomaniacal caricature.  Tom Felton is effective as ambitious Roman soldier Lucius and Cliff Curtis (Fear the Walking Dead) delivers an understated, yet deeply affecting, performance as Jesus.  In addition to the movie’s fine production elements, the locations have greatly contributed to the visual veracity of the film.  Shot in Spain and Malta, these exteriors have helped the story come to life by accurately depicting the Holy Land during the First Century.  In the end, this is a compelling story of personal redemption that just happens to be based on the Bible, and as such, should have appeal far beyond the religious set. 

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.

Tomorrowland (PG)

Directed by: Brad Bird
Starring: George Clooney
May 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!

Whereas Country Bears (2002), The Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and The Haunted Mansion (2003) were all based on Disney attractions, this film is named after an entire section of the park.

Nice Tomorrowland alterations to the standard Cinderella’s castle Disney opener.
The fanfare sequence gets a futuristic upgrade. A creative flourish that recalls the Paramount peak morphing in the Indiana Jones films.

“The future is scary.”
Actually, the future is the future; it’s our perception of it that colors our emotions, one way or the other. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Clooney’s foreboding statement is Dr. Brown’s encouraging affirmation in Back to the Future III (1990), “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a great one.”

The scene where the kid tests his jet pack is reminiscent of #TheRocketeer.
Skidding to a halt in the middle of a fallow field is a common denominator between both movies, but this film’s sequence is set during the day while The Rocketeer’s (1991) was filmed at night…and involved a statue rather than a real person.

It’s a Small World After All. The ride within a ride. Very cool.
This sequence is a lot of fun. It really taps into the excitement and mystique associated with the secret passageway fantasy trope, a la the magical coat closet in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005).

A thumbs up from the fixit robot.

“It’s hard to have ideas.” #HumanLimitation
Especially in postmodern times, when there seems to be a paucity of new thought.

The Tale of Two Wolves. Which one will you feed?
This motivational anecdote has been done to death in recent films. Since the moral of the story actually factors into this film’s climax, we’ll let it slide this once.

The Tomorrowland pin is like the #OneRing.
Bilbo and Frodo could see a metaphysical dimension atop the physical one by using the One Ring in The Hobbit and LOTR. The Tomorrowland pin functions in a similar manner, with the notable exception being that its user can’t see both dimensions simultaneously—only the futuristic environs. This causes obvious problems since the traveler is completely blind to objects and boundaries in the physical world as they move through the future city, which leads us to…

Trip down the stairs. A creative way to layer the Tomorrowland world over ours. #FindAField #HolodeckTech
I’m glad Casey took my advice and found a wide open space with which to explore Tomorrowland. Less contusions and concussions that way.

#BlackHole comic book. #BlastToThePast
Of course, The Black Hole (1979) was produced by Disney. Trivia: TBH was the studio’s first PG rated film.

Time Bomb. Cool concept/visual.
Although it does have a Clockstoppers (2002) freeze-frame vibe to it.

Last pin. New wrinkle.

“We are the future.”
“We are the world, we are the children.”

Holo-dog. Clever idea.
Don’t worry; his bark is way worse than his bite.

Wonder if Disneyland will make a Bathtub Ride based on this movie.
They have a teacup ride, right? Why not a Bathtub Ride? They’d have to design it as a water ride, though. Towel not provided. You can purchase one at the line entrance for $20.

“It’s not personal, it’s programing.”
Whenever someone says it’s not personal it always is. Correction: programming. Darn Twitter didn’t underline it as being misspelled.

“Well zippity doo for you.” Ha!
Another Disney inside gag.

The Eiffel Tower splits in half to become a rocket platform. Getting a bit #FarFetched.
My suspension of disbelief was completely obliterated by this scene. Some might find this launch sequence to be a unique way of utilizing the famous Parisian building, but I thought it was exceedingly daft and contrived beyond belief. There are a million other places on the planet to hide a space rocket, and the majority of them would’ve made more sense.

Flashes of the future. Hold on to your hat.
You’d think that if she saw it coming she would put her hand on the cap to keep it firmly in place. Casey either has poor judgment or slow reaction time.

“You want to sink.” Though overly doom and gloom, this is one of the better villain monologues ever.
Remember when Syndrome catches himself monologuing during a climactic scene in The Incredibles (2004), an animated smash hit helmed by this movie’s director, Brad Bird? Since Bird was so openly critical of villain monologues in that earlier film, you just knew he’d take painstaking efforts to insure that Nix’ sermonizing speech was incredible…and it is.

Kids walk through a stargate to recruit the citizenry of the new Tomorrowland. I want one.
A pin, that is. The teens hand them out at random like Golden Tickets in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Final analysis: contains imagination and creativity but never quite achieves the state of awe it strives for.

2 1/2 out of 4. There’s plenty of movie magic here, but the pedestrian plot is a major drawback.

Despite its apparent surfeit of creativity, Disney’s Tomorrowland is simply a smoke-and-mirrors production that’s every bit as sleek, superficial and soulless as its titular city. Though saturated with technological wonders and mind-blowing visuals that pop out at us from every square inch of the screen, the futuristic metropolis is little more than empty artifice. It’s a cold, mechanical world where a bright future is subverted by a sinister all-seeing orb…this movie’s answer to Sauron’s baleful eye in LOTR. The trouble here is that instead of taking the time to craft a world that’s genuinely groundbreaking in conception and application, the “creative” minds at Disney Studios have merely settled for a pastiche approach, and the resultant movie suffers dearly for that decision. The first story derivation involves a flashback to George Clooney’s character as a boy. Young Frank Walker excitedly demonstrates the capabilities of his homemade jet pack at a science fair and is rejected out of hand by the movie’s antagonist, Nix (Hugh Laurie). By now, this science fair opener has been done to death in Disney films (reference Meet the Robinsons (2007) and last year’s Big Hero 6). Additionally, the jet pack was used extensively in The Rocketeer (1991). The Tomorrowland pin allows a person to walk around the futuristic city, but real world boundaries still exist, which limit the extent of a person’s movements in the alternate realm. This is an extremely clever concept (and it’s executed very adeptly in the movie), but it also hearkens back to Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck. During the movie’s climactic events, characters use an energy portal to travel back and forth between present reality and the future dystopia, and it functions in a similar manner to ST:TOS’ Guardian of Forever (“The City on the Edge of Forever”) and the eponymous apparatus in the three Stargate TV series’. These are just a few examples of how the movie’s writers have borrowed liberally from other sci-fi/fantasy films. And then there’s the shameful product placement in the comic book shop, which features merchandise from Disney, Marvel and Lucasfilm (all owned by Disney), to the exclusion of the many other brands and products you’d find in a real comic shop. And then there’s the Eiffel Tower as rocket launch pad sequence which, despite earning points for its ingenuity and attempt at providing a history lesson, is utterly ridiculous…one of the dopiest plot devices/set pieces I’ve witnessed on the big screen in a great while. And then there’s the dubious decision to feature George Clooney as an action hero (his Batman days are long gone). Laurie is serviceable as the movie’s brooding antagonist, but his participation would’ve been more effective had he been cast against type—his part is painfully predictable. Casey’s (Britt Robertson from TV’s Under the Dome) enthusiasm and optimism is really what saves the day, both for the characters onscreen and the movie as a whole. Unfortunately, the bulk of her dialog and the simplistic, straightforward story (free from any emotional complexity or genuine jeopardy) render the whole proceedings as a kind of lavishly produced Disney Channel movie of the week. As such, the preteen set will probably embrace the film, while the rest of the audience will more than likely feel tepid toward the final product. So, will this film inspire a sequel? Tomorrow will tell.

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?

Muppets Most Wanted (PG)

Directed by: James Bobin
Starring: Ricky Gervais
March 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!

Muppets Most Wanted
Guess I should show more respect for the little green guy. After all, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I know ‘cause I’ve seen it.

Really amusing
Monsters University short.

Clever opening number about sequels. Did anyone catch
The Seventh Seal reference?
One of the lines suggests that this is the seventh film since the original movie. My higher math tells me that there are now eight films in the Muppets series. Certainly a respectable franchise, although it has a long way to go to catch up to James Bond.

Badguy proposes a world tour. What could possibly go wrong?

“Drum solo!” Animal is a crackup.
Don’t worry; he eventually gets his solo…which lasts two hours. Thank God for editing.

Christophe Waltz dances the waltz. Doesn’t get any more tongue-in-cheek than that.
Correction: No “e” in Christoph.

Kermit receives a spork crown at the gulag.
Some people wait their whole lives for such an honor.

Liotta and Trejo doing dance moves is a bigger gas than Chris Cooper doing rap in the last film.

Kermit must direct a prison review or be stuck to “the wall.”

The prison ballet scene is just plain wrong.

These Cabbage Patch Muppets are creepy looking.
They look like Chucky’s illegitimate children.

Piggy sees double at her wedding.
The doppelgänger subplot is older than dirt, but keeps finding its way into movies.

Final analysis: just what you’d expect from a
Muppets movie...lots of gags, pratfalls and inside jokes.
With puns and one-liners to spare.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars. Not as heartfelt as the previous film, but just as entertaining.

The previous film in the series, The Muppets (2011), was a valentine to the fans and franchise. The movie was delivered with undeniable reverence and passion by co-star/co-writer Jason Segel (TVs How I Met Your Mother), who is a lifelong Muppet lover. The new Muppet introduced in that movie, Walter, was clearly envisioned as a Muppet version of Segel’s younger fan boy self. Though Walter also appears in this film, his involvement is in more of an ancillary capacity. Even though it’s just as amusing, this movie isn’t as from-the-heart as its predecessor. But that isn’t to say it’s without entertainment value. Fey, Gervais, Ty Burrell and a slew of high caliber performers in cameos infuse the movie with sufficient star power and the laughs keep coming at a steady clip throughout the movie. The Spartacus inspired scene near the end of the movie, where all of the Muppets offer themselves up for imprisonment so that they won’t be separated from Kermit, is definitely an emotional high point. All in all, this movie is diverting, family friendly fare that should fill the bill if this is the kind of entertainment you’re in the mood for. In the end, Muppets Most Wanted is exactly what you’d expect it to be. And in this instance, that’s not such a bad thing.

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!

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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!

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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!

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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

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (PG)

Directed by: Brad Peyton
Starring: Josh Hutcherson
February 2012

The follow-up to Brendan Fraser’s
Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), Journey 2: The Mysterious Island extends the franchise which delves into the mythology, creatures and worlds of wonder created by early sci-fi writer Jules Verne. This time around, however, Fraser is out and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is in. Josh Hutcherson returns as young adventurer Sean Anderson. Sean’s friction with step-dad Johnson comprises most of the film’s character moments along with the handful of scenes Sean shares with his long-lost grandfather (Michael Caine), his new crush (Vanessa Hudgens) and her father, the skittish pilot (Luis Guzman). Rounding out the cast is Kristin Davis in an itty-bitty bit part as Sean’s mother.

From the title you would assume that the film would be based on Verne’s book of the same name, but you would only be 1/3 accurate. The movie’s narrative is ostensibly based on three literary classics: Verne’s
Mysterious Island, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The common denominator of each tale (besides rip-roaring, old-tyme adventure) is the prominent showcasing of an island as the central locale. Averring that the island in each of these classics is one and the same is a clever and bold conceit, one that keeps the plot wheels steadily churning along through muddy musings and soft-core familial strife in the movie’s early goings.

However, the mash-up premise is quickly jettisoned just about the time Guzman steers his wing-and-a-prayer chopper into, not away from, a violently swirling waterspout. In all fairness, we do get to see a miniature pachyderm
a la the Lilliputians as well as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, but where does the movie borrow from Treasure Island…a gold-spewing volcano? More to the point, what if screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn (no relation to Ben I’m sure) had capitalized on the original premise by weaving a tapestry rife with allusions and events from the three books instead of merely teasing the concept?

As a quote unquote family film, the movie tries to make object lessons out of wrong choices made by the characters, particularly Guzman’s greedy, gold-luster—he’s drawn to the mountain of gold like a giant bird to a giant bee (oops, one paragraph too early to use that analogy). The story also makes occasional, most often feeble, attempts at foregrounding modern parenting. Guzman wants to send his daughter to college so he goes in search of a bolder-sized gold nugget…with the way inflation is escalating, he might need two. Johnson desperately tires to connect with Hutcherson, but the best advice he can offer the teen is to woo young hotties with Johnson’s patented “pec pop.” Consider this scene the film’s nadir.

The zenith of the film, despite its utter absurdity, is the rapturous flight of the bumblebee’s sequence. The story really takes flight when the adventurers ride giant bees like airborne steeds, and the action kicks into high gear when the bees are stalked by even bigger birds of prey. Honorable mention goes to the sequences involving the sleek (but too small?)
Nautilus, although restarting the engines with the charge from an electric eel is a bit farfetched even by this movie’s whimsical standards.

Where the acting is concerned, a more eclectic cast you’re not likely to find and they all turn in serviceable, if not award-winning, performances. Even though all of Johnson’s roles aren’t exactly the same he plays them all as such. On some future film the director will figure out that it’s more cost effective to replace Johnson with a cardboard standup of the actor with looped lines…the result would be no different than his performance here or in any of his other films.

Although the inestimable Caine never misfires, his character, as written, isn’t as enjoyable as would be expected. In fact, it’s hard to remember a Caine character that’s this unlikeable…he needlessly bickers with Johnson’s character and the constant cavalcade of condescension is off-putting. I certainly don’t fault the actor; I fault the Gunn’s for failing to give his character any redeeming characteristics.

In the end, though no better or worse than its predecessor,
Journey 2 squandered a golden opportunity to creatively integrate exciting elements from the three literary classics it references into its yarn. Instead, the story defaults to simply serving up a reheated version of last summer’s action flick. Maybe for the next film, the writers can emphasize a solid plot with fleshed-out characters over SFX and action sequences…in other words, the polar opposite of this Journey.

Rating: 2 1/2

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

The Adjustment Bureau (PG-13)

Directed by: George Nolfi
Starring: Matt Damon
March 2011

The Adjustment Bureau presents an intriguing premise: what if agents from a secret organization aggressively enforced the rigid adherence to the master plan set forth for a person’s life? This Matt Damon vehicle is a high concept thriller that successfully synthesizes elements from an action flick and a love story, while also traversing some heady, philosophical terrain.

Novel Fact: Adjustment is the latest in the decades-spanning string of movies based upon Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi stories (Blade Runner, Minority Report, etc).

Genre Blender: Though containing elements of a romance, drama, thriller, action and sci-fi film, Adjustment stubbornly resists genre classification, and represents the best parts of each in its mash-up mélange of narrative flavors.

Pervasive Paranoia: Harking back to the widespread suspicion of men in gray flannel suits (think Gregory Peck) during the early stages of the Cold War, Adjustment keenly displaces onto its gray-suited Bureau agents the current and widespread anxieties over lost freedoms (the Patriot Act) and growing distrust of the system (corporate and political corruption). The more things change…

Chemistry: Damon, by now, is unquestionably a bona fide Hollywood leading man. Blunt has spent her career as a sidekick in supporting roles. On paper, Damon and Blunt seem mismatched. Onscreen, the chemistry between the two actors is debatable and, as such, Blunt’s casting is dubious when considering the wealth of A-tier actresses who could’ve, perhaps should’ve, taken her place. One thing’s for sure, the Damon/Blunt pairing doesn’t hold a Bic lighter to the enduring flame of classic romantic couples like Bogart/Bacall and Tracy/Hepburn.

Philosophy: The philosophical topic of fate/chance is broached with conspicuous frequency in the film. The story also grapples with the theological debate over predestination vs. free will. The cerebral lectures on fate are less intriguing here than the gut-wrenching ramifications of making the wrong decision when the future is on the line. What if your action, or inaction, holds negative outcomes for your future self (we saw this illustrated ad nauseam in the Back to the Future trilogy)? Even worse, what if your decision creates catastrophic repercussions for someone you love? Could you set aside your love for that person if it meant ensuring his/her well being, which would otherwise be jeopardized? It’s all hypothetical when couched in a two hour entertainment, but it’s still fun to noodle over.

Digging Deeper: The movie contains some breathtaking views of NYC’s skyscrapers, especially the monolithic corporate buildings, which are artfully framed in the downtown scenes. Also, the film makes effective use of expansive rooms (lobbies, libraries, etc), which, by comparison, make its inhabitants appear like a jellyfish in a gigantic ocean. And speaking of oceans, there’s a fascinating connection between this film and Titanic. In Titanic, good things generally happen at the front of the ship, while bad things usually happen at the back of the ship. Here, large rooms (e.g., empty warehouses) are bad and small rooms (e.g., bathrooms) are good. Another point to consider: the one young black man in the Bureau is characterized as open-minded, flexible and a Good Samaritan, while the numerous old Caucasian men are drawn as rigid, unimaginative enforcers of policies even they question at times. What does this say about the ethnic diversity among the leaders of the emerging global economy? Is the movie prefiguring the impending extinction of the old guard of corporate America? Also, why does the movie succumb to the prevalent “boy’s club” mentality? The Bureau consists entirely of men.

Though the movie attempts to tackle some weighty aspects of our existence, are the excessive references to free will a bit overdetermined? If so, is the conclusion too preachy? Is the existential dénouement a cop out (i.e.,
Back to the Future IIIs sage advice from Dr. Brown, “Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one…”)? Even though it’s currently in fashion (especially on TV), did we really need Damon’s voiceover narration to help us interpret his character’s thoughts and feelings?

In the final analysis,
Adjustment is a cinematic double-edged sword. Those hoping to see an all-out action, or drama, or romance, or sci-fi film are sure to be disappointed. Still, since it offers something for everyone, Adjustment is sure to reach a wider audience than if it had focused on just one specific genre. Either way, if the film makes people ponder its themes and messages past the exit sign, it will have accomplished it purpose.

Rating: 3

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (PG)

Directed by: Michael Apted
Starring: Ben Barnes
December 2010

“Third Journey to Narnia Fails to Showcase the Book’s Unbridled Creativity”

I know I’m not alone in my conviction that the third book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is the finest in the seven book fantasy cycle. I temper my less than flattering comments about the movie adaptation of Lewis’ novel, directed by Michael Apted (Amazing Grace), with the knowledge that my expectations of the film were, admittedly, far too lofty. That said, Dawn Treader is a remarkably, inexplicably un-magical journey into Lewis’ enchanted realm. Although each book bursts with charm and imagination, it can be argued that Dawn Treader represents a high watermark for Lewis, who had clearly hit his creative stride at this point in the Narnia series.

Opinions may vary as to what went wrong with the movie, but for my money the film suffers from a tension between narrative polarities; the story hews too closely to the original source material in some instances and takes too many liberties with original story details and structure in others. Most noticeable to viewers who’ve read the book is the movie’s juggling act with major events in the story—the encounter with the Dufflepuds comes much earlier and Eustace’s (the perfectly cast Will Poulter) transformation into a dragon comes much later in the film version. The natural byproduct of this scrambled structure, besides overriding the author’s original intentions for the story, is an uneven narrative that feels more like choppy waters than smooth sailing.

While the Dufflepuds, disappointingly, only appear for about two minutes in the film (the single element I most wanted to see in the movie), Eustace, who remains a dragon much longer in the film version, factors more significantly into the story’s climax. Although some story alterations work better than others (Good: collecting the seven swords from the seven lords, Bad: a thought-generated sea serpent that looks like it was borrowed from the
Pirates of the Caribbean franchise), such embellishments, like the extraneous It’s a Wonderful Life styled scene with Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Peter (William Moseley) and Susan (Anna Popplewell), weren’t the movie’s biggest creative liability. Ultimately, what draws the Dawn Treader off course, as ironic as it sounds, is pacing. Apted and company bring so much admiration and zeal to the project that their enthusiasm creates the narrative equivalent of a runaway train. And we all know the demise of runaway trains.

So, now that the
Narnia books featuring the Pevensie children have found their way to the big screen, will we see the final four books in Lewis’ series (which largely exclude the Pevensie’s) adapted for the big screen? I supposed the better question is whether or not this effort has warranted the production of future films in the series. Unlike the hugely successful Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fantasy franchises, the quality of the Narnia film series has decreased with each new release.

As such, it now seems doubtful that
The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew or The Last Battle will ever be translated into motion pictures. As for The Horse and His Boy, whether or not we ever get to see it realized as a feature film, at least we have Albert Lamorisse’s brilliant White Mane (1953) to fill that cinematic niche. Though only forty minutes in length, Lamorisse’s touching tale of a special and sacrificial friendship between a boy and his horse has more magic than Dawn Treader has in its entirety. Worth a watch!

Rating: 2 1/2

Alice in Wonderland (PG-13)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp
March 2010

“Burton’s Timing and Creative Vision are Off in Wonderland

Alice is in the most unenviable position imaginable…she’s at her own engagement party and has a revulsion to her husband-to-be. A crowd has assembled to witness the momentous occasion and, much to Alice’s horror, her homely suitor drops to one knee and pops the question. Feeling the radiant heat of a hundred expectant gazes burning holes into her face, Alice does what any sane person would do—she flees the vicinity; leaving her would-be fiancé and accompanying crowd in a stupefied trance.

While pouting near a hollowed out tree, Alice hears noises from inside the tree and bends over to take a look. The ground gives way and Alice falls, falls, falls down a surreal tunnel filled with obstacles like chairs, pictures and a grand piano. Once through a magical door, Alice finds herself in Wonderland, but after taking one look at the dismal and drab alternate realm, I’m sure the blonde debutante is prepared to accept her fate and take her chances topside with rodent boy.

And so begins Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), based on Lewis Carroll’s children’s masterpieces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which is utterly uninteresting, as incredulous as that sounds. Despite its surfeit of vision, Wonderland is disappointingly bereft of heart. Johnny Depp’s performance as the walleyed Mad Hatter is unsettlingly askew, though not nearly as creepy as his portrayal of Willy Wonka in Burton’s other film about the chocolate factory. Helena Bonham Carter’s turn as the Red Queen is serviceable though not nearly as blood-chilling as it could or should have been. Newcomer Mia Wasikowska is acceptable as Alice, but Ann Hathaway is horrendous as the White Queen: Hathaway tries too hard to appear regal and glides along with her hands in the air as if in a perpetual waltz.

However, what debilitates this iteration of Wonderland isn’t the acting or directing or even the sometimes bearable other times insufferable special effects, but that most capricious of commodities…timing. If Wonderland had been released six months ago it would’ve blended in seamlessly with the concurrent sci-fi/fantasy films and Burton would’ve received well-deserved kudos for yet another frenetic and fantastical fiat of fractured-reality filmmaking. As things stand, Wonderland is the first in what is certain to be a long succession of CGI films that will fail to measure up to James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and will be harshly, perhaps unfairly in some instances, judged for their technological shortcomings. When compared to Avatar’s special effects, Wonderland’s CGI is like a secondhand account of a rumor based on yesterday’s news. That is to say, due to the painfully obvious disparity in CGI quality between both films, Wonderland looks like it predates Avatar by at least a year even though it’s the newer film.

In reality, it might be a while, perhaps a year or more, before the average effects picture reaches the technological proficiency achieved by
Avatar. Armed with that knowledge, why did Burton opt for a mixture of live action and CG characters instead of an all-out F/X film? Burton’s choice, in twenty-twenty retrospect, would appear to be ill-advised since the resultant mixture of live-action and CGI is strangely uneven and ineffably odd, but not the kind of odd you’d normally associate with Carroll’s classic or Burton’s oft-deranged sensibilities.

The full-on CGI rendering of The Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) works quite nicely in the film, especially when the teleporting feline de- and re-materializes with enough frequency to give spectators a mild whiplash. In contrast, the bulbous heads of the Red Queen, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), which look like they were achieved by shooting into one of those silly carnival mirrors, are bizarre even by Burton’s standards. One wonders if Cameron’s mocap wouldn’t have been a better option for the queen and her two tweedles.

Borrowing from Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” poem in
Through the Looking-Glass, Alice, in order to fulfill a prophecy, must slay the dreaded Jabberwocky…which turns out to be your standard-issue dragon. The Jabberwocky (voiced with the appropriate degree of malevolence by Christopher Lee) appears to be a repainted and rescaled version of the barely adequate fire-breather at the end of Enchanted, another fantasy-themed Disney film released in 2007. Instead of looking to Enchanted for inspiration, Burton’s F/X team should’ve used the impressively rendered dragon in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) as their touchstone. Believe me, when I say the Jabberwocky is a sorry excuse for a dragon I’m not just blowing smoke.

The climactic battle between the Red Queen’s life-size metallic playing card soldiers and the White Queen’s chess piece army is conspicuously brief for a presumably epic confrontation and is frequently upstaged by Alice’s crenellation-hopping duel with the Jabberwocky. The battle, which is visually interesting only because it takes place on a gigantic chessboard, tries to recreate the feverish, pulse-pounding, armor-clanging melees which were executed with preponderant verve, artistry and lyricism in
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but ends up looking like a cheap knockoff of a Chronicles of Narnia film. Ultimately, the final confrontation’s brevity is a blessing in disguise…the CG veneer is stripped bare long before the Hatter launches into his inane victory jig.

The three fantasy franchises referenced above (
Rings, Potter and Narnia) clearly illustrate another instance of Wonderland’s poor timing. Though fantasy films have managed to retain their commercial viability over the past decade, genre conventions and iconography have been so well-established by now that all but the most superlative examples of the form are exposed as reheated epics or, worse still, derivative remakes. Having borrowed so liberally from other fantasy series’, Wonderland comes off as routine and safe…like most adapted screenplays in Hollywood these days.

So where’s the wonder in this
Wonderland? The curiosity? The levity? Burton’s conception of the titular destination, perhaps not surprisingly, is a dystopian wasteland—a post-apocalyptic acid trip that stands in stark opposition to Carroll’s whimsical, joyful fantasy land. In light of the current global recession, Burton’s timing would seem to be off yet again: right now we need ennobling, encouraging, reassuring fare not yet another bleak and vapid depiction of fractured identities in the postmodern era. It’s too bad Burton didn’t listen to his White Rabbit: the frenzied, furry fellow was trying to tell him all along that he was too late.

Rating: 2 1/2

Marley & Me (PG)

Directed by: David Frankel
Starring: Owen Wilson
December 2008

“Heartwarming, Tear-jerking Dramedy is a Doggone Good Time”

John Grogan (Owen Wilson) is wading through the deep stuff. His wife, Jenny (Jennifer Aniston) wants to have a baby. John turns to his friend, Sebastian (Eric Dane), for advice and is told that the best way to slow down Jenny's biological clock is to sidetrack her with a puppy.

For her birthday, John buys Jenny a puppy...the cheapest of the litter, which should automatically raise a caution flag in one's mind. Of course, as the story would require, the little mutt grows at an alarming rate and soon takes to ransacking the Grogan house and generally making its owners’ lives a living nightmare. And of course, it's not too long before Jenny gets pregnant, leaving John to wonder where his well-calculated plan went so awry.

Marley & Me, based on the experiences of the real-life Grogan family, is fairly believable, but there are a few moments of hyper-reality. Thankfully, these requisite mishaps involving the calamitous canine don't degenerate into the kind of improbable silliness that reigned supreme in the Beethoven movies. Such paint-spilling, car-denting, villain-foiling antics would have killed this movie as sure as rabies killed Old Yeller.

There can be no doubt that the star of the movie is the dog; however, the human performances aren't anything to howl at, especially the leads. It's no secret that Jennifer Aniston is a capable actress; since her days on
Friends, Aniston has made a respectable career out of mostly comedic, sometimes-dramatic movies as the leading lady in mostly successful films. The big shocker here is Owen Wilson's multi-faceted performance...perhaps the first for the towheaded funny-man. I think it's safe to say that Wilson has graduated before our very eyes, playing a man who's desperately trying to balance the rigors of family life with his career, all while maintaining a good sense of humor and positive outlook on life. Wilson probably won't be hefting an Oscar any time soon, but he actually shows some range here, which is a refreshing change from his patented, daffy shtick. Apparently he can be serious. Who knew?

Alan Arkin, in yet another Oscar-worthy supporting performance, mesmerizes as John's unflappable, unemotional editor. Much like Tommy Lee Jones' Marshal Gerard in
The Fugitive (1993), Arkin feigns an uncaring attitude, but is deeply concerned with the lives of those around him. If ever discovered to have a heart, Arkin’s editor would surely echo Gerard’s image-preserving request at the end of The Fugitive, "Don't tell anybody, OK?"

It's contestable whether or not Marley & Me is a family film. Certain situations and some language would probably be enough for concerned parents to keep their kids away from seeing the film. Then there's the ending. Some—anticipating a happy ending—will be broadsided by the movie's tragic climax. If your children bawled for a week after viewing Old Yeller (1957), you might consider leaving the kids home and reserving Marley & Me for a date night. Truth be told, it’s more of a date movie than a family film anyway, so word to the wise.

Though shamelessly sentimental in spots, Marley & Me is as heartwarming as they come…a popcorn movie in the truest sense. With ticket prices skyrocketing, it’s satisfying when you actually get your money’s worth at the Cineplex and the Wilson/Aniston vehicle is worth every penny. Cute, cuddly and crowd-pleasing, Marley & Me is an early Christmas present that will give you all the warm fuzzies of actually owning a dog without having to clean up the mess!

Rating: 3

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (PG)

Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe
July 2009

“New Potion Discovered: Potter Six Found to Cure Insomnia”

Only sparks emanate from the spell casting sticks at the Hogwarts School of Magic these days. Perhaps Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine (Emma Watson), need to replace the batteries in their wands. I hear Energizer batteries keep going and going…

Unfortunately, so does the successful movie series based on the wildly successful series of novels penned by J.K. Rowling. What’s unfortunate is that the wide-eyed wonder and boundless creativity that were hallmarks of the first few films has all but vanished in the more recent entries in the series. I guess it’s natural that as the plots have become increasingly darker and grimmer, the enjoyment factor has exponentially diminished to follow suit. To make matters worse, the latter plots have become increasingly formulaic and just aren’t as fanciful or fun as earlier efforts.

The penultimate tale,
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, though shrouded with spells of concealment, is ultimately ineffective in hiding its aging formula, brought on by series fatigue. Harry, as well as the story itself, is chiefly concerned with revelations pertaining to Tom Riddle and a mysterious textbook that use to belong to someone who signed the book Half-blood Prince, hence the title. While Harry is consumed with such weighty and worrisome issues, Ron is preoccupied with being a Quidditch champion and agonizing over which of two female companions he should commit to, one of which is Hermoine…awkward!

At this point in the series, the plots are predetermined to the point of being perfunctory: in each movie there has to be a Quidditch match, various classes at Hogwarts where revelations are made, a central mystery, friction between the triad of main characters, etc. Such cookie cutter plots might be exciting for those diehard fans who are delirious with excitement each time a new
Potter book or movie is released, but as for this Muggle, I’d like to see more progression in the story arcs and, dare I be so bold in requesting, some character complexity to these increasingly threadbare fantasy tapestries. When variations on the theme become the theme, then the stories have become a caricature of themselves, not to be taken seriously. This film is the biggest disappointment in the series to date because it merely riffs on what’s been done before while marking time until the finale arrives in the series capper.

Still, for all of its inherent flaws, and there are many, the
Half-Blood Prince has a handful of redeeming story elements. The movie’s action sequences, though few in number, are well executed and brilliantly visualized. The barn burning sequence, in particular, is well staged and adds some urgency and synergy to the doughy middle of the story. Also adding immeasurably to the story, and it’s truly impossible to overestimate the value of his presence or performance in the movie, is Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, the new professor of potions. Broadbent brings charm and whimsy to his role, which serves as one of the only bright spots in an otherwise dreary film. Another plot element that works well is the intrigue surrounding the assassination attempts made against everyone’s favorite wizard, Gandalf, …er, Dumbledore. This subplot is one of the only story elements to generate any degree of nail-biting suspense in the movie.

In the end, the
Half-Blood Prince is an unsatisfactory chapter in Rowling’s enduringly popular fantasy saga and does little to move the meta-plot forward but insists on using repetitious story lines as filler with as little original material as possible to flesh out the movie. The table has been set for a rousing finale to the series. Hopefully Harry’s swan song will be a marked improvement over this half-hearted effort.

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

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (PG)

Directed by: Shawn Levy
Starring: Ben Stiller
May 2009

“Silly Sequel to Amusing Original Fails to Take Flight”

In the original series Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action,” the natural evolution of a race is tampered with when a space vessel crash lands on a planet where the imitative populace bases their society on a book they find in the wreckage. By the end of the episode, Captain Kirk and crew set the alien civilization back on a healthy course, but Dr. McCoy accidentally leaves behind his communicator, which will be pulled apart by the inquisitive species and will most likely produce a premature technological leap…and thus the cultural contamination is further perpetuated.

A strange way to start a review of the second
Night at the Museum movie, entitled Battle for the Smithsonian, right? Not at all. An ancillary subplot in the film involves the former museum security guard and now ostensibly successful inventor, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) accidentally leaving his cell phone in a ticker tape, Times Square celebration post-WWII, via a living picture, which serves as a portal to the past. Unfortunately, this minor, yet significant, plot element is never resolved by movie’s end. What were the writers hoping to accomplish with this dangling plot thread? A sequel perhaps? Like the mechanical arm left behind in Terminator II which just begged another, though long delayed, film? Regrettably, the most interesting and promising aspect of the Museum sequel is this misplaced cell phone and not the many artifacts, antiquities, animals and historical figures that come to life after dark in the New York Museum of Natural History and now the Smithsonian Institution.

As for the museum denizens, many of the side characters have returned from the first film, including: Owen Wilson’s Jedediah, Robin William’s Teddy Roosevelt, Steve Coogan’s Octavius and Mizuo Peck’s Sacajawea. Some notorious or nefarious characters have joined the museum mishmash, including: evil Pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal). The finest new addition to the cast is Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart. Her pluck, charm and tenacity in the face of danger are infectious; Adam’s portrayal of this icon of American aviation is the only element that lifts the leaden plot off the tarmac. And the formfitting flight pants certainly don’t detract from her character’s overall appeal.

The movie’s MacGuffin that everyone wants to get their hands on is the Tablet of Ahkmenrah, a powerful artifact that allows the museum’s exhibits to come to life after-hours. Kahmunrah and his minions vie with Alexander and Ivan for possession of the tablet, but before long a new group is added to the mix…mobsters from the early 20
th century (in one of the movie’s only clever moves, Capone and his cronies appear in black and white). The climactic confrontation takes place in the aviation wing of the museum and you just know Earhart’s piloting abilities will be called upon to save the day. A plot device doesn’t come any more telegraphed than this.

As with the first film, the rampant and widespread destruction of the museum must be resolved and rectified by dawn’s early light so that staff and patrons will have no idea that such calamitous events have transpired inside the exhibits overnight. It’s a similar plot device to the one used in Pixar’s
Toy Story films where the animated toys can have all manner of adventures while people aren’t looking, but must return to their previous spots and act dead when humans come into the room. It sure eradicates a lot of the suspense when the audience knows that no matter what happens—even if a bomb is dropped on the museum!—everything will be back to normal in the morning. In that sense, nothing ever really happens in these Museum movies since the majority of the plot and all of the action is wiped out by a narrative reset button. Sure, the audience remembers what happened, but is any of it really worth remembering?

So, will there be a third film or will
Museum become an extinct franchise? Who knows, just like Back to the Future II had its Café 80s, maybe someday in the distant future we’ll have a Night at the Museum museum.

Rating: 1 1/2

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


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

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (PG)

Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Starring: Ben Barnes
May 2008

“Magical Sequel Takes Us Beyond the Book”

To be honest, the second book in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, Prince Caspian, was never a favorite of mine. So the fact that the film version has an identical rating to the first movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, means director Andrew Adamson did a phenomenal job of preserving what worked in the book while broadening the scope and depth of the story. Having just reread the book a month before the movie’s release, I’m fairly aware of Adamson’s adaptations to the story—most additions are minor with the main change being more political intrigue among King Miraz and his traitorous lords. Unfortunately, expanding Miraz’ back story only adds to the confusion over Caspian’s role in the whole mess and still does little to elevate Miraz from misguided opportunist to malevolent villain, which is what the film really needed.

As the movie opens, Miraz’ wife delivers a son; the arrival of an heir to the throne places Miraz’ nephew, Caspian, in great danger. Fleeing the castle, Caspian stumbles upon some woodland creatures who tell him they are “original” Narnians. This comes as a surprise to Caspian, for when his people, the Telmarines, arrived in Narnia they drove out all of its native inhabitants (talking animals, dwarves, fauns, etc.), or so they thought. Caspian agrees to help the creatures reclaim their land by overthrowing his tyrannical uncle. When the battle goes ill, Caspian blows Susan’s magical horn and the four Pevensie children from the first story are magically transported back to the enchanted realm of Narnia—though it’s only been a year since their first visit, 1,300 years have passed in Narnia.

The four former kings and queens of Narnia—Peter (William Moseley), Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley)—are joined by Caspian (Ben Barnes), Trumpkin (Peter Dinklage) and Nikabrik (Warwick Davis) in their campaign against Miraz (Sergio Castellitto). Other CG companions among the multi-species army are: Trufflehunter the badger (voiced by Ken Stott), Reepicheep the valiant mouse (Eddie Izzard), Aslan the majestic lion (Liam Neeson) and Patterwig the Squirrel (voiced by and the movie’s composer, Harry Gregson-Williams).

The battle scenes have been expanded from Lewis’ scanty skirmishes, and though they couldn’t hope to compete with
LOTR’s epic sequences, Caspian’s are well-executed, especially the night raid on Miraz’ castle where griffins are used as drop ships to sneak in Caspian’s strike team. Several other nifty effects are: Narnians creating a cave-in underneath Miraz’ army, marching trees lassoing enemy soldiers with their tentacle-like roots and a river king who breaks the bridge and drowns Miraz’ troops. The trouble with all of these sequences is that they’ve already been done in LOTR. Granted, there are very few things that haven’t been done, and done better, by LOTR in the fantasy arena, but some originality would’ve been welcome.

If Medieval battles aren’t your thing, there’s plenty else to enjoy here; like lovely Lucy’s steadfast belief in Aslan, Edmund’s newfound belief in Lucy and Caspian’s fateful decision to turn his back on his own people. There’s some timely symbolism in the way the creatures and trees reclaim their land from the evil Telmarines (a lost tribe of humans). The passage of time in Narnia and the visible deterioration of once-great fortresses is a disheartening reality for the children and factors into the movie’s narrative in unexpected ways. The cinematography of devastated castle Cair Paravel and its surrounding mountains is absolutely breathtaking: New Zealand has become to fantasy flicks what the Midwest is to westerns.

The addition of new companions, like Trumpkin, Reepicheep and the centaur Glenstorm (John Cornell), keeps things fresh and lively and Adamson’s conscious decision to omit some of the book’s more kiddie names, like giant Wimbleweather, was a prudent one (in fact, he defaults to D.L.F. “Dear Little Friend” for Trumpkin, who, admittedly has a pretty hokey name himself). The only things I didn’t like in the film were Peter’s parochial attitude and bullying ways throughout the tale, the overlong sword fight between Peter and Miraz and the overly contrived scene where Lucy rides into the wood to find Aslan.

Though not as magical as
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian is remarkable because it achieves nearly as much with less engaging source material. Now, on to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my favorite Narnia story! Can’t wait to see what Adamson does with the pool at Deathwater.

Rating: 3

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

The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (PG)

Directed by: Jay Russell
Starring: Emily Watson
December 2007

“A Water Horse and His Boy”

From Disney and Walden Media, who brought us The Chronicles of Narnia, comes The Water Horse, a heart-warming origins tale of how the Loch Ness Monster—or water horse—came into being and why all knowledge of this mythical sea creature has been lost. The film is based on Dick King-Smith’s children’s novel of the same name.

The movie opens in a Scottish pub where an old man (Brian Cox) tells a young couple the “true” story of the water horse. His tale begins with young Angus MacMorrow (Alex Etel) discovering a watermelon-shaped egg on a shell-hunting expedition in the loch near his family’s manor. The egg soon hatches and produces a baby water horse (if you’ve ever studied dinosaurs, the little beastie looks similar to the plesiosaur). Angus does his best to raise the affable animal, which he nicknames Crusoe, but it becomes evident within a matter of days that the toilet bowl, bathtub and outdoor fountain won’t be able to contain the rapidly growing creature for much longer. This, of course, presents a big problem for Angus, who wants to keep Crusoe as a pet but finds it increasingly difficult to hide the water horse from his mother.

The Water Horse offers quite a bit more than what it revealed in its family friendly trailer, which painted the film in pre-teen hues. There’s a subplot involving a Scottish regiment setting up a base of operations near the loch. Besides providing a context for the film (1942 in war-torn Britain), this story element balances the more pedestrian moments with mature themes like war and death, topics Alex is confronted with every day as he awaits his father’s return from the front lines. Another adult storyline focuses on mysterious handyman, Mowbray (Ben Chaplin), who haplessly stumbles into a love triangle with Angus’ widowed mother, Anne (Emily Watson) and the starchy Capt. Thomas Hamilton (David Morrissey).

The film’s cinematography is superb; effectively incorporating backgrounds from the extensive on-location shoots in New Zealand and Scotland, the movie boasts spectacular panoramic views of the loch and its surrounding mountains. The CG rendering of the creature—forged in
LOTR’s Weta Workshop—is first-rate. The water horse-back riding scene, where Angus is forced to confront his fear of water, is the creative and emotional apex of the film and is sure to thrill audience members of all ages.

Despite borrowing liberally from movies like
E.T., Free Willy and Eragon, The Water Horse is a charming tale of courage, compassion and friendship. The concluding scene opens the door for a possible sequel, but whether or not a follow-up is forthcoming, The Water Horse has already proven that it’s much more than just a one trick pony.

Rating: 3

The Golden Compass (PG-13)

Directed by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Nicole Kidman
December 2007

“Gobblers and Witches and Bears…Oh, My!”

So what’s the big deal? Where’s the justification for all of the controversy? After hearing, ad nauseum, about the purportedly anti-God, anti-Catholic church themes in Philip Pullman’s novel-turned-movie the last few months, I just don’t see it. Sure there’s the whole communicating with spirits thing…and I suppose it doesn’t help that those animal companions are called daemons. Then there’s the Magisterium, the controlling body of monks, friars and priests, some of whom conspire in dark shadows like the Cigarette Man and his gang in the X-Files; but this certainly isn’t the first secret society ever to plot and scheme in the shady corner of a big screen, and just because many of them carry on like Jesuits doesn’t actually mean they are. After all, this is a fantasy world so we can suspend our disbelief, right?

The Golden Compass, the first book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, features children far less adept at magic than those in the Harry Potter movies and a storyline far less epic than the one employed in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s commonly accepted that every fantasy story written since The Lord of the Rings trilogy has implemented, to some degree or dimension, J.R.R. Tolkien’s tropes, themes and iconography—the foundational elements for what we now refer to as fantasy fiction. Although certainly no exception to this assertion, Compass has blended the notable works of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and other celebrated fantasy scribes into a rich and intricate tapestry that challenges, if not utterly defies, genre conventions. Pullman’s pastiche includes a talking bear (Lewis), children attending a magical school (Rowling) and an epic battle between two massive armies on an arctic plain (Tolkien). The comparisons go on and on, but suffice it to say, the freshness here comes from the selective appropriation and clever cobbling together of story elements that originated inside the fertile imaginations of the aforementioned authors.

Early in the film, Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) witnesses the abductions of her friends and her mission—and thereby the plot itself—becomes the attempt at locating and rescuing her companions from the lair of the nefarious Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman). Along the way, Lyra encounters her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), an armored bear that can talk (voiced by the wizard from that other fantasy franchise, Ian McKellen) and airship captain Lee Scoresby (oh he of the mighty mustache, Sam Elliott). Other notable names appear here, such as: Christopher Lee, Kristin Scott Thomas and the voice talents of Ian McShane, Freddie Highmore and Kathy Bates. Rounding out the forces of good are a flying witch named Serafina (Eva Green) and nomadic pirates dubbed (goofy name alert) Gyptians. The parade of sympathetic characters that progressively accompany Lyra on her way to the arctic academy is reminiscent of the way Dorothy collects her motley crew of allies on her way to the Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s
The Wizard of Oz.

As for Mrs. Coulter (no relation to Ann, I’m sure), she’s an icy queen resplendent in her malevolence. Very few actresses could’ve played the part of the requisite “evil queen” with the appropriate degree outward control and inner fury that Kidman possesses—she attenuates between these emotional poles with a precision quite rare in a genre replete with over-the-top villainesses. Coulter charges her Gobblers to abduct young children in a similar manner to how the Wicked Witch of the West dispatches her flying monkeys to kidnap Dorothy in
The Wizard of Oz (1939). The Gobblers have more than a passing resemblance (in function, not form) to LOTR’s Ringwraiths and Potter’s Death Eaters as evil underlings tasked with doing their overlord’s dirty work.

Director Chris Weitz does a masterful job of balancing the movie’s character scenes with the FX, which could’ve easily overwhelmed the story since the visual elements are so intrinsic to the movie’s success. Indeed, the exceedingly high quality special effects are one of the distinguishing factors between this film and every other fantasy clone that’s come along since the
LOTR trilogy. Aside from the FX, many other visual elements have conspired to create the marvelously diverse world that is Compass, not the least of which are the highly stylized and imaginative artifacts, costumes and vehicles. Although the film’s architectural aesthetic often resembles a futuristic version of Victorian England, there are many other sets and locations that have a uniquely immersive quality about them, most notably the otherworldly ice plain.

In the end, whether you subscribe to the controversial criticisms that have been leveled at the film or not,
Compass will guide you on a spectacular journey through the vast expanses of Pullman’s unique fantasy world if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride. It remains to be seen if this film will earn enough money warrant the production of the next book in the series, but I suppose now is as good a time as any to assess the state of book-to-movie fantasy features. Are we starting to experience fantasy fatigue? If so, at least this effort will have done the genre proud. And you don’t need an alethiometer to determine the veracity of that statement.

Rating: 3

Enchanted (PG)

Directed by: Kevin Lima
Starring: Amy Adams
November 2007

“Melodious and Magical, Enchanted is Spellbinding”

Everything is perfect in Andalasia, an animated fairytale land where helpful animals assist with chores, a prince can meet and marry his princess in the same afternoon and where, to quote Etta James’ At Last, “life is like a song.” But lest we forget, every Eden has its serpent and in Andalasia that serpent is the evil queen (Susan Sarandon), whose stepson, Prince Edward (James Marsden), is to marry peasant girl Giselle (Amy Adams). The queen won’t stand for this as she’ll lose the throne, and we all know how controlling villainesses hate to relinquish their authority in Disney movies.

Posing as an old woman (who looks like a witch, which would naturally set off alarms in one’s head), the queen pushes Giselle into a bottomless well. When Giselle comes to, she finds herself in our world—specifically Times Square—and the movie switches to live action. Lost and disoriented, Giselle seeks admittance back into the magical kingdom by pounding on the palace doors emblazoned on a billboard. Robert (Patrick Dempsey) heroically rescues Giselle and puts her up in his flat for the night.

The story’s fish-out-of-water element, where Giselle is introduced to the often cold and harsh realities of our world, is a large part of the film’s success. The other major contributor is the memorable musical numbers composed by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Catchy show tunes pop up all over the film—like the “Happy Working Song,” where small animals under the spell of Giselle’s melodious voice assist her in cleaning up Robert’s apartment. Besides their entertainment value, the songs are also a lot of fun and respectfully poke fun at Disney’s bright and cheery song catalog.

The leads are fabulous…Adams is an ebullient delight as Giselle and Marsden is an absolute hoot as melodramatic Prince Edward—Marsden steals the show with his dramatic flourishes and storybook simplicity. Dempsey is a bit muted in his portrayal of the divorce attorney, but plays the perfect counterpoint to the ever-cheerful Giselle. “It’s like you escaped from a Hallmark card,” he tells her.

I enjoyed Pip, the loyal chipmunk, and the handful of scenes that blended animated characters with live action ones,
a la Roger Rabbit. I even liked the ménage trios, which skillfully keeps the audience guessing which beau Giselle will choose until the very end. What I couldn’t abide was the cheesy dragon, which shows up at movie’s end. As strange as it sounds, the scaly beast took me out of the reality of the movie.

Enchanted is a solid effort that satirizes many of the conventions employed in earlier Disney fairytales. It’s all in good fun though, and actually, that’s probably the most accurate word one could use to describe Enchanted, fun. As a sequel seems all but assured, let’s hope it contains the same magic that enchants this film.

Rating: 2 1/2

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (G)

Directed by: Zach Helm
Starring: Dustin Hoffman
November 2007

“Forced Smiles with Foisted Fun for All”

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, written and directed by Zach Helm, is the story of a magical toy store and its peculiar, titular owner. The store, squeezed between two tall buildings, looks exactly as it should—Elizabethan façade painted in gaudy colors on the outside, with a Wonka-esque toy store on the inside. The store houses a wide array of unique treasures, including: live fish mobiles, rollicking balsa wood T-Rex’ and bouncing balls that try to escape the store by jumping into customers’ shopping bags.

In preparation for retirement, Magorium (Dustin Hoffman) hires accountant Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) to set his affairs in order before handing over the store to his protégé, Molly (Natalie Portman). I always worry about revealing too much in a synopsis, but in this case, spilling the beans is unavoidable. I’ve already divulged the entire plot…sorry. With its paper-thin premise, saccharine sentimentality and an utter lack of conflict, the film offers very little else to discuss.

That’s not to say that
Magorium doesn’t have its fair share of heart-warming moments. An adorable little boy named Eric (Zach Mills, who also serves as the movie’s narrator) brings whimsy and wide-eyed amazement to the film and is, sadly, and ironically in Magorium’s case, the only character to do so. There’s an amusing little scene where Eric tries making friends with Henry; Eric writes notes on a dry erase board and lifts it up to the window separating the two. “Want to play checkers when you stop working?” Henry replies with a handwritten message on a legal pad: “I never stop working.” Eric responds with a frowny-face. There’s also a cute little stuffed monkey that reaches out to hug Henry, but the harried accountant hurriedly and heedlessly walks by, producing an “aww” of sympathy from the audience. It’s a moment.

Hoffman’s performance falls woefully short of what it should have been, especially when considering the actor’s immeasurable range. Hoffman was brilliant as the bumbling Mumbles in
Dick Tracy (1990), but here the veteran actor tries too hard to be likable and ends up making Magorium an eccentric busybody, complete with Lyle Lovett coiffure and a faux lisp so annoying it would make fingernails-on-a-chalkboard sound like the Hallelujah Chorus. Why would such a decorated actor select such a pedestrian role with such little charm and imagination? Portman tries her hardest to make Molly a complex character, but save for the subplot involving Molly’s ambivalence over wanting to be a concert pianist and feeling honor bound to take over the toy store, there’s very little for her to do…besides stew over Magorium’s departure or believe in a mystical block of wood that holds the secret to the store’s magic.

And speaking of magic; it’s one of the movie’s buzzwords. As such, it’s utterly ironic that a movie so preoccupied with magic should have so little movie magic. Any amazement the movie provides is foisted upon the spectator like a Jedi knight waving his hand and mentally suggesting, “You will gasp in astonishment at this scene. You will think this movie is magical.” It’s a shame that the creative minds behind the movie felt they had to assert the store’s magical qualities instead of simply showing them.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium will surely captivate pre-teens with its semblance of magic, but anyone else, especially today’s savvy teens, will see right through the movie’s veneer of colorful sets and props and realize that more fun could be had at the local arcade than in Magorium’s gimmicky emporium. This Wonka wannabe might be full of wonder, but it certainly isn’t wonderful.

Rating: 2

Martian Child (PG)

Directed by: Menno Meyjes
Starring: John Cusack
November 2007

“Boys to Men…Martian Style”

Martian Child is the story of a troubled young boy, Dennis (Bobby Coleman), who believes he’s from another planet and the sci-fi novelist, David (John Cusack), who adopts him. Pale-skinned Dennis (who has an aversion to sunrays) is socially maladjusted, has bouts of kleptomania and only eats Lucky Charms. On balance, Dennis is exceptionally bright, has an insatiable curiosity about science and boasts extraordinary abilities—he claims that he can taste colors. Dennis’ mission, purportedly assigned by leaders on his home world, is to learn what it’s like to be part of a human family.

David doesn’t know the first thing about parenting and Dennis proves to be much more difficult to manage than the average 6-year-old kid. Their unusual, familial dynamic, which creates a variety of situations ranging from the comedic to the dramatic, forms the foundation of the story written by Seth Bass and Jonathan Tolins, based on the novel by
Star Trek scribe, David Gerrold.

When Dennis says something bizarre—like when he calls the family dog a flomar, which means “warm, furry friend” in Martian—David exasperatedly replies, “I deserve you.” The beauty of the story is that David and Dennis both deserve, and need, each other. David is mourning the recent loss of his wife and Dennis is angry and confused about being abandoned by his parents at birth: both must learn to rely on the other in order to move forward in life.

Coleman is simply adorable in the film: the precocious actor imbues Dennis with the perfect blend of angst and child-like innocence. Cusack anchors the movie with his exceptional performance; he infuses David with the appropriate amount of humanity and vulnerability in a role that properly showcases his expansive range. In a serendipitous bit of casting, Cusack’s real life sister, Joan, plays his onscreen sister. Other key, supporting performances are turned in by Amanda Peet as David’s longtime friend, Oliver Platt as David’s off-kilter publicist, Anjelica Huston as a high-powered editor, Sophie Okonedo as an adoption agent and Richard Schiff as the child services watchdog.

Martian Child feels familiar somehow, it’s because the movie shares story elements with such films as Powder (1995) and K-PAX (2001). However, despite its derivative storyline, Martian Child is a heart-warming exploration of the human condition as seen through the eyes of a misfit child. The film is also a clinical examination of our deep-seeded need for love, acceptance and security, and as Dennis establishes in the film, these are basic, human needs…even on Mars.

Rating: 2 1/2

Mr. Bean’s Holiday (PG)

Directed by: Steve Bendelack
Starring: Rowan Atkinson
August 2007

“That’s One Big Step for Stupid-kind”

Like an ill wind, Bean is back! Rowan Atkinson’s quirky alter ego has returned to the big screen in Mr. Bean’s Holiday, director Steve Bendelack’s opus for the inane.

Winning a trip to France in a raffle, Bean is off on a journey of random events and slapstick silliness. Apart from the traditional points of interest in Paris, Bean’s main objective is to visit the world-famous beach at Cannes. As the plot unfolds, however, circumstances go from bad to worse, effectively maneuvering Bean farther and farther from his goal. Along the way, Bean looses all of his personal effects, save for his prized camcorder which contains a visual travelogue of his many misadventures—shot in a predictably haphazard style.

After nearly an hour of brain-shrinking idiocy, the movie stumbles into something that resembles a plot. Having been subjected to every one of Murphy’s Laws, Bean is forced to walk back to Paris on foot. Things heat up when Bean happens onto a movie set and ends up in the background as an extra. The Nazi-themed short is being helmed by Carson Clay (Willem Dafoe) an intense visionary who epitomizes art film directors; boundless energy and creativity with enough of a capricious streak to keep everyone on set on edge. After a long day of acting, Bean hitches a ride from an attractive young woman who is conveniently en route to Cannes; the film festival, not the beach, much to Bean’s disappointment. Bean’s luck finally takes an upswing when he preempts Carson’s self-aggrandizing indie film with his camcorder video and unwittingly becomes the highlight of the festival. But the overwhelming praise for his work, which has inspired a new movement in film, is lost upon a man who simply wants to get to the beach.

The movie is essentially a series of sight gags with some physical comedy sprinkled in, all of it done in Atkinson’s patented style which was made famous in his BBC TV show,
Mr. Bean. This is the second Bean film released in the US, and although it’s charming, the tenuous screenplay relegates the film to a level of mediocrity that would leave the typically speechless Bean cursing a blue string.

Mr. Bean’s Holiday is about as silly as they come, but it accomplishes its purpose and showcases some truly breathtaking snapshots of the French countryside. This isn’t cinematic high art…it’s a popcorn flick, and as such, is a great way to escape into a mind-numbing delirium for two hours. There are worse ways to waste time. Whether or not this movie warrants another installment in the slapstick series, one thing’s for sure…Bean is a dip!

Rating: 2

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (PG-13)

Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe
July 2007

“Dark and Dreary is the Order of the Day”

The last Harry Potter movie, The Goblet of Fire, was darker than the opening trilogy but retained much of the whimsy and magical energy that permeated the earlier movies, based upon J.K. Rowling’s mega-blockbuster fantasy series. The fifth Potter film, The Order of the Phoenix, is even darker than the previous entry. But is it too dark?

Some would argue that this is the most character-driven film in the series—brimming with revelatory moments of shadowy pasts and meaningful vignettes where honesty and vulnerability bubble to the surface in the seething cauldron of false accusations, social stigma and detrimental denial—and they would probably be right. But what the movie gains in dramatic capital it looses in slow pacing, drab sets, standard special effects, low creativity and, when compared to the other films, a veritable absence of action scenes. Since characters are crucial to the plot, it’s wholly appropriate to present a brief character study of the main players and the new challenges they face.

Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is a pariah in the film; despised and distrusted by adults and contemporaries alike, he’s seen as a kind of Chicken Little where the imminent return of the evil lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned. As the film progresses Harry becomes increasingly angry,
a la Anakin Skywalker, and distances himself from his diminishing circle of friends which are little more than glorified extras here, especially Hermione (Emma Watson). To make matters worse, Voldemort makes repeated attempts at getting inside Harry’s head and the lad seems to be on trial for one Hogwarts violation or another for at least half the film. Oh, and Harry’s most ardent defender, wizard Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), all but ignores Harry in the film. Even though a plausible explanation is given for his odd behavior, the sullen headmaster seems out of sorts and out of character for most of the movie…a little disappointing.

Harry’s godfather, Sirius (Gary Oldman), fittingly, has risen up from the embers to join the Order of the Phoenix—Sirius holds out hope to the movie’s oppressive darkness. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t return the favor. Furry fan-favorite, Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), appears in the film for about ten minutes, delivers about as many lines and then exits stage right. This is unacceptable treatment for such a beloved character. Adding insult to injury is the subplot with Hagrid’s giant half-brother; the silly and superfluous scenes could have been cut from the movie with little consequence.

Token scenes are doled out to the majority of peripheral characters, like Alan Rickman’s ever-dour Professor Snape. Though Rickman’s scenes are inexcusably few, his character is party to some of the meatiest moments in the movie; like when Snape forces his way into Harry’s mind to help the lad build up defenses against Voldemort’s mental assaults…and when Harry, in the process of shoving back, learns a shocking and ironic fact from the brooding teacher’s past.

If there’s one area of the movie that works like magic, it’s new headmaster, Miss Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), a condescending snoot who’s actually a more effective antagonist than Voldemort. A good villain makes you want to take off your shoe and chuck it at the screen; Umbridge comes close to evoking that kind of unbridled hostility in spectators with her simpering smile and prim and proper schoolmarm rigidity. Hogwarts experiences its darkest days under Miss Umbridge’s tyrannical rule: again, is there a hint of felicity or optimism anywhere in the movie? Not to this muggle’s eye.

As with the other Potter films, the technical and artistic elements in
Order are impervious to criticism, but no amount of special effects or artistic embellishments can rectify a dismal screenplay. The word from avid Rowling’s readers and Hollywood insiders is that the next book, The Half-Blood Prince, is even darker than Order. That doesn’t bode well as this installment was already too dark for my liking. What happened to the levity? What happened to the innocence and excitement at discovering new worlds, peoples, creatures and cultures? What happened to walking out of a Potter movie feeling exhilarated instead of feeling like you just left a wake? Hopefully number six will shed some light on these questions. Expecto patronum!

Rating: 3

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

Evan Almighty (PG)

Directed by: Tom Shadyac
Starring: Steve Carell
June 2007

“A Flood of Levity with a Sprinkle of Morality”

The follow-up to the divine comedy Bruce Almighty (2003), which starred Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman, Evan Almighty features Steve Carrell as a modern-day Noah who’s been instructed to build an ark by God—once again personified by Freeman.

Evan Baxter (Carrell) was a curious choice for lead character since he was Bruce’s rival in the earlier film. The transition from antagonist to protagonist (and anchorman to congressman) might be too much of a stretch for some viewers; such an obvious contrivance challenges the movie’s credibility right out of the gate. Carrell’s usual antics are toned down here a bit, but the role consistently defaults to the comedic rather than the dramatic and crosses the border of silliness on a fairly regular basis; like when Evan tries to keep up with his rapidly growing beard or when a veritable zoo follows him around town and even accompanies him to congressional meetings.

Among the notable cast members are: John Goodman as a shady politician, Lauren Graham as Evan’s exasperated wife and Wanda Sykes as Evan’s quick-witted secretary. Save for Carrell and Freeman, the movie’s performances are as wooden as the ark but this is mindless comedy, not Shakespeare (thank goodness; Carrell is a far cry from Olivier).

Joel Cohen’s script is considerably tamer than the brazenly irreverent
Bruce Almighty and, for better or worse, the movie will be classified as a family film. From a moral or religious standpoint, there’s absolutely nothing objectionable in the film and some of the inside gags—Evan’s alarm clock rouses him at exactly 6:14 and his new license plates read GEN 6:14, the Bible verse that commanded Noah to “Make thee an ark of gopher wood”—are quite amusing. Even though the plot is flaccid in spots, credit Cohen for taking the movie in a different, if less interesting, direction than the first film.

Evan Almighty is good, clean fun that features a diverting premise and a positive moral: you can change the world “one act of random kindness at a time.” It’s an oversimplified maxim that’s made palatable only because Freeman delivers it—after all, he, not Bruce or Evan, is the Almighty.

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

Bridge to Terabithia (PG)

Directed by: Gabor Csupo
Starring: Josh Hutcherson
February 2007

“The Best Family Fantasy Film This Side of Narnia”

This is one of those extremely rare instances where the movie is actually better than the book. Bridge to Terabithia, the John Newberry Medal-winning children’s novel by Katherine Paterson, which tells the story of two pre-teens that forge an unlikely friendship and discover an enchanted realm in the forest just behind their neighboring houses, has been brought to magical life by Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media.

In C.S. Lewis’
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (also produced by Walden), the magical land of Narnia is accessed by walking though a long-abandoned wardrobe; here the children enter the imaginary realm of Terabithia by swinging across a gully into a dense forest. The main difference between Narnia and Terabithia (which may have derived its name from Lewis’ island of Terebinthia in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”) is that Narnia is a fully realized magical land, while Terabithia is wholly imagined by Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) and Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb).

Jess, a budding artist, dreams about being the fastest kid in the sixth grade. Leslie, the new girl in school, has her free-thinking, book writing parents to thank for her overactive imagination. Despite a mild setback when Leslie outpaces Jess in a race and embarrasses him in front of his entire class, the two become fast friends. When Leslie conjures up the magical kingdom in a nearby wood, Jess sketches it on paper and the world of Terabitha begins to take shape. (Paterson’s tale of two prepubescent friends forging an imaginary world deeply resonates with me: I had similar experiences growing up, but most of my adventures with friend, Dan, took place in the various mainstream sci-fi universes of the late 70’s and early 80’s at a variety of locations around town.)

As was mentioned earlier, the movie surpasses the book in a few key areas: First, there are several logical extensions of scenes or new tidbits of character development that serve as embellishments to Paterson’s original text. One example is the scene where Jess, having worn holes in his own sneakers, takes a black marker to his sister’s old, pink tennis shoes to make them passably respectable for the race at school. Unfortunately, the marker wears off by the time the recess bell rings and Jess has to run the race in pink sneakers. The second area where improvements were made is in the area of visual effects. In Paterson’s story, Terabithia is frequently referenced and visited by the children, but the enchanted land is never fleshed out in any detail. Now, thanks to the vision of director Gabor Csupo and the innovative wizardry of those at Weta Digital, Terabithia has come to life in a breathtaking ways, specifically with the addition of a tree house fortress, skrogers (squirrel ogres), dragonfly warriors, swooping eagles, a giant troll and a jaw-dropping celebration sequence where the various denizens of the kingdom assemble to applaud the arrival of the new princess.

The third element that sets the movie apart is the excellent actors that breathe life into their respective characters: Hutcherson and Robb are joined by Robert Patrick as Jess’ dad and Zooey Deschanel as the kids’ music teacher, Ms. Edmonds. Each member of the cast does an excellent job, but it’s really Robb’s winsome performance that steals the show. Robb is a genuine cinematic treasure and one can only hope she doesn’t turn into the next Lindsey Lohan.

Even though
Bridge to Terabithia will find itself comfortably perched atop family film top ten lists for some time to come, many will feel shortchanged by a tween-aged drama that merely flirts with fantasy rather than fully immersing itself in a mythical world, like in the case of Narnia. Others will criticize the movie for its thematic similarities to The Yearling and My Girl. Even so, the movie is highly entertaining, and for many, Bridge to Terabithia will serve as a portal to a simpler, more whimsical period in life when swinging with your head back really did feel like flying. In this age of perpetual busyness we could all learn to slow down, take a deep breath and follow Leslie’s RX for happiness, “Close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open.”

Rating: 2 1/2

Night at the Museum (PG)

Directed by: Shawn Levy
Starring: Ben Stiller
December 2006

“One of Our T-Rex’ is Missing”

All too frequently these days, movies are ruined by comprehensive trailers. Serving as a visual Cliff Notes version of the film, said trailers spell out the plot and leave little to the imagination…and little reason to shell out a ten spot to see the picture. Of the recent movie-spoiling trailers, the Ben Stiller vehicle, Night at the Museum, is the worst offender of all, revealing nearly every major plot point in the preview. As egregious as that is, it’s an even greater tragedy that the movie fails to build on what, at first glance, appeared to be a highly entertaining, crowd-pleasing comedy/adventure.

The movie’s premise is elementary, much like the plot: Divorced dad, Larry (Stiller), keeps moving laterally from one dead-end job to another and has more money-making schemes than Ralph Kramden. Despite his best efforts to be a hero to his preteen son, Nikki (Jake Cherry) he always comes off looking like a schmuck. Desperate for employment, Larry takes a night security position at the Museum of Natural History in NYC to appease his landlord and ex-wife (
24’s Kim Raver). In an unpopular move made by management, Larry is replacing three dotting guards: Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Gus (Mickey Rooney), and Reginald (Bill Cobbs). Before cleaning out his locker, Cecil gives Larry this piece of advice, “Don’t let anything in or out!”

Larry’s first night on the job is uneventful until he notices the vacated T-Rex dais. A tour around the labyrinthine hallways confirms his worst fears…everything in the museum is alive! The chaos that ensues is tantamount to
Jumanji in a museum. I mention Jumanji here because of its thematic and structural similarities to Night at the Museum and because its star, Robin Williams, appears here as Theodore Roosevelt, the person Larry turns to for wisdom and assistance when all Valhalla breaks loose.

After five minutes of mischievous monkeys, aggressive lions, defiant pygmies, talking sculptures and belligerent Huns, I had climaxed on the menagerie mayhem conceit and was ready to see something, anything else. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie, save one twist near the end, focuses solely on the enchanted museum and the anarchy that exists from midnight to dawn…at which time everything in the museum magically “resets.”

Character development is exceedingly tenuous and the story written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (based on the book by Milan Trenc), is so pedestrian that it sabotages any possibility for enjoyment. Stiller’s shtick is growing more tedious by the movie and Williams fails to salvage the film with his heartfelt turn as Roosevelt; perhaps because the erstwhile prez makes too many sermonizing speeches and has voyeuristic tendencies where Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck) is concerned.

As the movie closes, Larry supervises a wild party in the main lobby; the museum denizens have finally learned how to peacefully co-exist. Such movie-ending revelry worked like a charm in
Shrek, but here the celebration seems contrived and more than just a little bizarre. It’s a shame that the word bizarre has to be applied to a movie that seemed primed to become the newest sensation to sweep the comedy genre. Guess it just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover…or a movie by its trailer.

At one point, while dealing with escaped animals and blood-thirsty natives, Larry remarks, “This is so not worth $11.50 an hour.” Neither is forking out $9.50 for two hours of this!

Rating: 2

Charlotte’s Web (G)

Directed by: Gary Winick
Starring: Dakota Fanning
December 2006

“Delightful Tale Affirms the Miracle of Friendship”

According to Greek mythology, King Midas could transform anything into gold simply by touching it. Precocious twelve-year old actress, Dakota Fanning can do the same with movies. Don’t believe it? Name one Fanning film that was a flop. It certainly isn’t her latest project, the wistfully dreamy live-action version of E.B. White’s classic children’s book, Charlotte’s Web.

In the movie Fanning plays Fern, a prepubescent powerhouse whose deep personal convictions drives her to defend a runty pig from being slaughtered. Raising the pig on her own, Fern names the undersized porker Wilbur (voiced with the perfect degree of childlike innocence by
Minority Report’s Dominic Scott Kay). Fern and Wilbur are inseparable during the long, lazy summer months, but with the onset of fall, Fern is forced to sell the pig to the neighbors after an ill-fated attempt to conceal the pig in her school desk lands her in trouble with teacher and parents.

The neighbor’s barn is filled with talking animals whose personalities are as diverse and colorful as a rainbow. Separated from Fern, Wilbur tries making friends with his stall mates; the leader of three aimless sheep (John Cleese), two quarreling geese (Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer), a pair of gossipy cows (Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire), two cowardly crows (Thomas Hayden Church and Andre Benjamin, who provide intermittent comic relief a la Skrit in
Ice Age), a skittish horse (Robert Redford) and a selfish, hoarding rat named Templeton (Steve Buscemi), but none of the animals seem overly eager to make Wilbur’s acquaintance. In the throes of loneliness, Wilbur finally finds a friend; gracefully descending from a silken thread, the wise and compassionate arachnid, Charlotte, introduces herself to the pig. When the other animals taunt Wilbur, calling him a “future football,” Charlotte promises the innocent spring pig that he’ll live long enough to see winter’s first snow. How Charlotte and the other animals accomplish that feat is, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

I’m ashamed to admit that I never read
Charlotte’s Web as a youth and only remember snippets of the animated film released in 1973. Expecting something far more pedestrian, I was pleasantly surprised by a genuinely human story that reinforces the immutable virtues of friendship, courage and selflessness.

Fanning’s contribution to the film cannot be overstated, but equally vital are the pitch-perfect vocal deliveries by the entire cast, with highlights provided by Kay, Buscemi and Roberts. Roberts brings elegance and compassion to, arguably, the most loathed creature on the planet; Charlotte’s appeal is further enhanced by the CGI artists who make Charlotte’s face appear more sympathetic and less sinister than a real-world spider. Though Wilbur is the central character, the story
is called Charlotte’s Web, and a large part of the movie’s success is due to Roberts’ affectionately soothing vocal performance that puts the spot in spot-on.

Charlotte’s Web is some movie; a delightful escape to a younger, simpler age, when summers were eternal and having adventures in a nearby wood was a full-time job. Director Gary Winick has paid faithful tribute to E.B. White’s book, while also delivering one fine piece of cinema. From the casting to the acting and from the talent in front of the camera to the wizards frantically working behind the scenes (especially on the breathtaking web-weaving sequences), every element of Charlotte’s Web is painstakingly and lovingly crafted...passion for the project and reverence for the source material is evident in every frame. This is one humble pig that deserves to take a bow.

Rating: 3

Deck the Halls (PG)

Directed by: John Whitesell
Starring: Matthew Broderick
November 2006

“Fa, la, la, la, la…ha, ha, ha, ha!”

Holiday movies focusing on feuding families/neighbors are a dime a dozen and are generally worth about the same amount. These films usually fall into one of two categories: 1. Neighbors attempt to outdo each other in decorating their houses, or 2. Visiting relatives disrupt the status quo, putting family members at each other’s throats until someone shouts above the din and reminds everyone about the true meaning of Christmas. Although Deck the Halls, starring Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick, has elements of both scenarios, the movie contains just enough originality to break free from the cookie-cutter rigidity of such Holiday rejects as Jingle All the Way and the Home Alone sequels.

Steve Finch (Broderick), a mild-mannered optometrist, is the Winter Fest coordinator and is known about town as “Mr. Christmas.” His title and reputation are immediately challenged when Buddy Hall (DeVito) makes a late night move into the house across the street (“Who moves in the middle of the night,” Steve asks his barely conscious wife, “a meth lab?”). Buddy, a struggling car salesman who rapidly looses interest in any new experience, has fallen into the pattern of moving from place to place, job to job and obsession to obsession. Despite Buddy’s repeated attempts at finding a lasting happiness, fulfillment in life continues to elude him. Buddy confesses to his wife that he’s always wanted to “do something big…something monumental.” Buddy’s impetus comes when his two Barbie doll daughters introduce him to a computer program that can pinpoint every house on the planet from space…every house, of course, except for theirs. Buddy’s new ambition is to make his house bright enough to be seen from outer space.

Threatened by Buddy’s instant popularity (people are coming from miles around to see Buddy’s extravagant light show), Steve does everything in his power to prevent Buddy from seeing his dream come to fruition, including sabotaging Buddy’s display by throwing a snowball at the exterior circuit panel. However, Steve fails to account for Buddy’s backup generator, which kicks in a short time later and brings the thousands of scintillating light bulbs back to life. When Buddy discovers Steve’s perfectly placed snowball and when Steve discovers that Buddy has been stealing power from his house, the gloves come off and both men engage in a war of subversion and chicanery. Fed up with Steve and Buddy’s petty rivalry, Steve’s wife Kelly (Kristin Davis) and Buddy’s wife Tia (Kristin Chenoweth) both pack up and head for a hotel. Faced with a life-altering decision, Steve and Buddy must either choose to sober up and make amends or continue with their childish quarreling and risk loosing everything they hold dear.

A cursory character study reveals Steve as a tradition-bound stiff who just wants peace and quiet, and Buddy as a conniving, obnoxious glory-hog who just wants to be noticed. Together, the characters, and the actors who portray them, create a unique brand of contentiousness that recalls, but certainly doesn’t supersede, Matthau and Lemmon’s incisive bickering in such movies as
Grumpy Old Men. The leads have excellent chemistry together; DeVito is his usual zany self, but Broderick’s dead-pan delivery is sidesplittingly hilarious. Both Kristin’s do excellent work as the disgruntled wives, and I’m gratified that director, John Whitesell, put Chenoweth’s considerable vocal talents to good use on “Oh, Holy Night.”

Though it’s not as humorous as
A Christmas Story or as heart-warming as Miracle on 34th Street, Deck the Halls is a diverting popcorn flick and is a worthy entry into the vast catalog of feel-good Holiday treats. With this, yet another film that was named after a Christmas song, one wonders when we’ll see the movie version of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

Rating: 2

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

The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (G)

Directed by: Michael Lembeck
Starring: Tim Allen
November 2006

“Third Time Isn’t the Charm for This Freezer Burned Sequel”

I didn’t much care for The Santa Clause, starring Tim Allen, and skipped the sequel on purpose. I was willing to give this new film, entitled The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, a fair shake, mostly because of Martin Short’s inclusion in the cast. Going in with a reasonably open mind, I was sorely disappointed in a comedy that not only lacked humor, but also featured an insufferably childish storyline.

As the movie opens, we learn that Scott Calvin/Santa’s (Allen) wife, Carol Calvin/Mrs. Clause (Elizabeth Mitchell), is pregnant. Carol wants her family by her side during the delivery, but the Clause’s can’t exactly reveal their true identities or the secret location of the North Pole. Someone (probably that chunky Spencer Breslin kid who seems to find his way into every Tim Allen movie these days) comes up with the idea of passing off the North Pole as a Canadian village simply by changing the signage and closing off top-secret areas. The Sandman (Michael Dorn) puts Santa’s in-laws, Bud (Alan Arkin) and Sylvia (Ann-Margret), to sleep and Santa ferries them to “Canada” in his renowned sleigh.

Meanwhile, Jack Frost (Short) is brought before the Council of Legendary Figures and is sentenced to manual labor in Santa’s workshop for his crimes (not legendary for their wisdom, it would seem): predictably, Frost wastes no time in sabotaging the factory. Frost’s end game is to steal Santa’s special snow globe and trick him into saying, “I wish I wasn’t Santa,” which is the extent of the Escape Clause. After accomplishing his task, Frost grabs Santa’s coat and becomes the new Santa. Before you can say “Blitzen” Frost converts the North Pole into a Vegas-style resort where myriad vacationers swarm to shops, shows and restaurants, fighting over merchandise and steamrolling anyone who gets in their way. Scott, the deposed Santa, must beat Frost at his own game to retain the mantle of Santa and restore Christmas to its former glory.

This was the point in the film where I actually felt like it had the potential to go somewhere, but almost before the problem is presented, it’s elegantly resolved by a plan the audience can see coming a mile away: Scott’s telegraphed solution is packaged, wrapped and tied up with a pretty little bow. How convenient. How contrived.

As poor as the script is, the movie’s biggest tragedy is how such a decorated cast could be relegated to acting in such pedestrian fare. However, if there’s one aspect of the movie that shines like Rudolph’s nose, it’s the highly creative, finely-detailed set pieces that festoon the various incarnations of the North Pole. In many ways, the sets are reminiscent of those crafted for
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, sans Seuss’ skewed visual style.

Disney forbid there should be a
Santa Clause 4, but if another sequel should slide down the Hollywood chimney in the near future, one can only hope that the script shows a marked improvement over the one presented here—that would be the best gift of all.

Rating: 1 1/2

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

Akeelah and the Bee (PG)

Directed by: Doug Atchison
Starring: Keke Palmer
April 2006

“This Bee Might Not Sting, but It Sure Inspires”

In many ways, young Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer), eleven year old African American student at south LA’s Crenshaw Middle School, is a living, breathing indictment against our education system. Brilliance so often goes unnoticed in overcrowded classrooms with beleaguered teachers destined to languish in a system that frequently fails to cultivate genuine talent, but rather, funnels students into the same general education model that’s endured for centuries.

Perpetually feeling out of place, Akeelah is bored to tears at school—she only turns in half of her assignments. For extra credit, Akeelah enters the school’s spelling bee and draws the attention of her principal and Dr. Joshua Larabee (Laurence Fishburne). Impressed by her raw talent, both men encourage Akeelah to enter the regional spelling bee. Akeelah initially resists, but after some minor cajoling from her elders she accedes and shows both her inexperience and potential at the competition.

Soon after, Larabee (can writer/director Doug Atchison’s play on words
bee any more obvious?) becomes Akeelah’s coach and he immediately establishes some ground rules: jive talk is out; learning the roots and origins of words is in. Among the many challenges the word wizard faces is Akeelah’s toe-in-the-dirt demeanor, which comes complete with poor eye contact and church mouse decibel speech. Larabee instructs the youth, “You can’t be a shrinking violet.”

As Larabee continues broadening Akeelah’s understanding of the power of language, Akeelah’s overprotective mother (played to perfection by Angela Bassett) catches wind of her daughter’s extracurricular activities and forbids Akeelah’s participation. This subplot reminds me of a similar scenario in
Sister Act II when Lauryn Hill’s controlling mother prohibits her from singing. Fortunately, the story doesn’t get bogged down over this plot point but focuses more on the stimulating practice sessions and nail-biting competitions. Though much of the narrative is predictable up until the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the finale showcases some excellent acting and an unpredictable, wholly satisfying surprise ending.

In its broad strokes,
Akeelah reminds me of the similarly themed family film Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). Both movies feature a prodigious youth attempting to advance amid fierce competition, a tough yet caring tutor, a heart-stopping finale and a memorable supporting performance by some guy named Fishburne. The young phenoms in both movies also exhibit humility and good sportsmanship…refreshing qualities to see in young people even if they are merely projections on a screen.

Akeelah is the first movie co-produced by Starbuck’s Entertainment…yep, the coffee juggernaut isn’t satisfied with simply serving millions of lattes and getting filthy rich off of people’s hijacked taste buds. Now they must make movies too…so that people have something to do while drinking more of their product. Oh, I know a word for that: I-N-S-I-D-I-O-U-S.

Despite its dubious production company,
Akeelah is an inspirational movie for all ages and subtly drives home the importance of community, friendship and perseverance. Akeelah is a feel-good, follow-your-dreams film that manages to keep the schmaltz factor to a minimum while delivering a heartfelt message one carefully chosen word at a time. So, if you have a penchant for hearing preternatural preteens promulgating pulchritudinous profundities, Akeelah is the movie for you. Word!

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

The Shaggy Dog (PG)

Directed by: Brian Robbins
Starring: Tim Allen
March 2006

“Sophomoric Silliness Abounds in Canine Resurrection”

If ever there was an ill-advised remake, The Shaggy Dog is it—actually the story has been rehashed so many times now, they need to put the poor old dog to rest once and for all. The original, released in 1959 and starring Fred MacMurray, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello, was a light, whimsical tale of a boy who could transform into a sheepdog by chanting an ancient spell. It was campy and had Disney’s family-friendly cheese slathered all over it, but the comedy fit the period and the story worked as an endearing testament to bravery and self-discovery.

Today’s audience, however, is much more sophisticated than that of decades past, and the new film, though star-studded (Tim Allen, Kristin Davis and Robert Downey, Jr.), lacks the insouciant charm of the original. In this version, Deputy D.A. Dave Douglas (Allen), is bitten by a 300 year old dog and transforms into a canine at Pavlovian intervals. As a dog, Dave gains a different perspective on himself (specifically his selfish and neglectful tendencies), his family and the world around him. Dave begins exhibiting strange behaviors, such as lapping up his cereal and growling in the courtroom. As silly as those moments are the parent/teacher scene, where Dave runs outside to tree a cat, and the scene where he steamrolls an old lady while pursuing another cat, are the height (or, more appropriately, depth) of inanity.

Davis (
Sex and the City) is mere set-dressing in the movie. She just seems to stand around and scratch her head at her husband’s bizarre transformations; an egregious waste for such a skilled actress. Downey, Jr. plays a mad scientist who seeks to discover and patent the fountain of youth; capturing the ancient dog gives him the means to accomplish this lofty goal, but what could have been a meaty turn as a nefarious antagonist is reduced to a series of courtroom antics tantamount to Allen’s high jinks. Danny Glover and Jane Curtain are also among the cast—the D.A. and judge, respectively—but their considerable talents are wasted by director Brian Robbins and the wafer-thin screenplay which was, ironically, churned out by a team of eight writers.

Allen’s performance here has redefined the word “stereotypical.” This is the same old shtick he’s been getting by with for years, and if anything, it’s more obnoxious and less enjoyable than before. In the movie, Dave has a heightened sense of smell and the ability to converse with animals; too bad the actor playing him wasn’t perceptive enough to recognize an embarrassing role replete with remedial gags and cheap laughs.

The end result of
The Shaggy Dog is similar to taking a poodle in for grooming—you don’t leave with very much. If the movie has a saving grace, it’s that it doesn’t overstay its welcome; kids will love it, but most adults will be glad when it’s Rover.

Rating: 1 1/2

Eight Below (PG)

Directed by: Frank Marshall
Starring: Paul Walker
February 2006

“Standard Arctic Survival Tale Will Leave You Cold”

Most desktop publishing applications for computers come with templates or wizards—quick helps that allow the user to customize pre-existing models, often in order to save time and effort. When it comes to storytelling, there are a limited number of plots (templates), but what makes each story unique is the location, the execution of the plot, the different types of characters and how those characters interact with each other.

In the case of Disney’s new “based on a true story” family film,
Eight Below, the writers and producers—in what they probably thought was a low-risk, high-profit move—have simply given us the template itself. Arctic (or Antarctic) survival stories have been done so many times that anyone attempting such a project should approach it with a great deal of caution and trepidation…and more than just a few original ideas. Unfortunately for Eight Below (which is really a misnomer—eight refers to the number of sled dogs, but the temperature dips well below minus fifty degrees in the movie), it offers nothing new, but banks on cute dogs and maudlin moments to bail out the unoriginal screenplay and uninspired performances.

Jerry Shepard (Paul Walker) and his colorful companions, motor-mouth, Charlie Cooper (
American Pie’s Jason Biggs) and Native American hottie, Katie (Moon Bloodgood), work at a base at “the bottom of the world.” Jerry, an experienced survival guide, begrudgingly transports American geologist Davis McClaren (Bruce Greenwood) to nearby Mt. Melbourne, where meteorites from Mercury have reportedly landed. Along with his team of well-groomed, well-trained dogs, Jerry totes McClaren and his equipment across the frozen, Antarctic plain, which is filled with bottomless crevasses, patches of thin ice and frightening leopard seals. The expedition is cut short when a massive snow storm moves in; the race home nearly costs McClaren his life (I wish I had a dollar for every time he falls in the movie) and Jerry’s fingers to frostbite. The base is evacuated and the dogs are left behind with the intention of immediately returning for them, but the severity of the blizzard prohibits any flights from returning to the base until the next spring. What ensues is tantamount to The Incredible Journey as the dogs break free from their chains, work together as a team, and feast on seagulls and a beached killer whale (the best visual in the movie) until they’re rescued by Jerry and his reassembled team…some 180 days after being stranded.

Director Frank Marshall does an adequate job with mediocre material; a script suggested by the real life Japanese expedition to Antarctica in 1957. Unfortunately, Marshall doesn’t receive any assistance from his gelid, no-name cast, and in the end, it’s only the sled dogs that are remotely memorable (Mya in particular). Some would argue that this formula still works, judging from the sniffles heard among the audience at tear-inducing moments, but this brand of sentimental survival tale reached its height somewhere in the late 70’s with the Robert Logan pictures. Suggested improvements for the sequel: have the dogs deliver the lines and let the leopard seal eat McClaren.

Rating: 2

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (PG)

Directed by: Andrew Adamson
Starring: Tilda Swinton
December 2005

“Enchanting and Spellbinding with Nary a Muggle or Hobbit”

C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series (seven books) is as well-know and well-loved as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Lewis and Tolkien were contemporaries: both belonged to a writing think-tank in England called the Inklings), but Lewis’ books are much more kid-friendly than Tolkien’s darker, edgier and more violent epic masterpiece. The most popular Narnia novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was the first book I read multiple times as a child. Beyond the magical features and mythical creatures, I was captivated by the story’s universal themes, colorful characters, heart-stopping action and streamlined pacing—Lewis gradually introduces the reader to the alternate world of Narnia by ushering one, two and finally, all four of the Pevensie children into his enchanted realm. Every element in the story, which is essentially a classic fairy tale in fantasy trappings, is designed to transport the reader into Lewis’ fully-realized world, which is exceedingly easy to get lost in…especially for a ten year old boy.

Writing a review for the movie adaptation of the cherished book
is like summing up all of one’s favorite childhood Christmas moments in a thousand words or less…the abbreviated piece of prose would never do the memories justice. And just as my perceptions of Christmas have changed as I’ve grown older, so have my recollections of the book—some elements I thought were in the book were only products of my youthful imagination. This phenomenon isn’t lost upon director, Andrew Adamson, who commissioned the screenwriters to forge a script based not on Lewis’ masterwork, but on his own childhood memories of the book. The resultant script presents several creative deviations but remains faithful to the source material—Lewis’ novel is a wildly imaginative and magical work of art and, thankfully, so is Adamson’s movie.

The timeless tale begins in blitzkrieg-devastated London during WWII, where the four Pevensie children—Lucy (Georgie Henley), Edmund (Skandar Keynes), Susan (Anna Popplewell) and Peter (William Moseley)—are sent by train to a provincial estate owned by the mysterious professor (Jim Broadbent in a predestined role). The children set out to explore the sprawling mansion, and on one rainy afternoon, decide to play hide-and-seek. In a last-ditch effort to avoid being discovered by Peter, Lucy enters a spare room containing only one piece of furniture…an ornate, freestanding wardrobe. Seeking refuge inside the wardrobe, Lucy walks deeper in—toward the back of the wardrobe—where she soon discovers that the arms of fur coats have transformed into the branches of fir trees. Lucy turns in wide-eyed amazement to see a snow-covered forest and a pristine path leading to a lonely lamppost.

Such begins the amazing journey into the spellbound land of Narnia, where the children encounter a faun, a beaver family, a pack of vicious wolves, centaurs, a magnificent lion, and a blood-chilling witch. At its reality-meets-fantasy core,
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic confrontation between good and evil, where good is represented by Aslan the lion (voiced by Liam Neeson) and evil is personified in Jadis, the White Witch (Tilda Swinton at her malevolent best), with Edmund the traitor trapped between these terrifyingly preponderant forces.

As was mentioned earlier, the story closely adheres to Lewis’ original written page, but there are a few notable exceptions. The war is only mentioned on page one of the book, but Adamson has created a slick opening sequence with German bombers making Swiss cheese out of London streets and forcing many families, like the Pevensie’s, into bomb shelters. In the book, the beavers are much more austere than their movie counterparts, who, with all of their bickering, have become the animal kingdom’s version of Edith and Archie and the movie’s only comic relief. Susan and Lucy’s involvement in the battle (Lewis’ version held that “…battles are ugly when women fight.”) is an effort to curtail sexist or derogatory language while keeping in step with the times. Two insightful omissions from the movie are talking giant Rumblebuffin and Aslan’s flying leap into the witch’s castle…they worked well in the book but would have tanked in the movie.

Every creative and visual aspect of the movie is first-rate: from the costumes, sets and make-up to the breathtaking cinematography (all locations were filmed in New Zealand) and the jaw-dropping, eye-popping special effects (Aslan is a CG marvel), the movie should be well-stocked with technical nominations come Oscar season. Harry Gregson-Williams’ sweeping, transporting and magical score—blending orchestral movements with Celtic-flavored cues (much like Howard Shore’s
L.O.T.R. scores)—is one of the finest I’ve heard this year and is certainly worthy of Oscar consideration.

The creative and financial wizards behind Narnia took several considerable risks in making a movie that, for decades, had been tossed from studio to studio like a hot potato, the first of which was using small-time studio, Walden Media (
Holes), to produce the film. The second was securing New Zealand native, Andrew Adamson (who co-directed both Shrek installments), to helm the film…his first attempt at live-action. The third and potentially most dangerous risk was tapping four unknown British kids to play the Pevensie children unaltered from the book, meaning no modern wardrobe or dialogue; a move that could alienate younger viewers rather than attract them (an unnecessary fear…the children are brilliant, especially the sweetly innocent Henley).

In addition to the movie’s many risks is the well-documented “controversy” over Lewis’ story: some see it as classic fantasy, while others see it as religious allegory. Adamson has his own philosophy about the story, “I read the books before I even knew what allegory meant, and I enjoyed them purely as an adventure. That’s how the film should be able to be enjoyed, too.”

Though Lewis was openly disparaging of motion pictures, claiming that he was “rather allergic to films,” I’m sure he would be proud of Adamson’s efforts and agree that this adaptation of his beloved children’s tale is nothing to sneeze at.

Rating: 3

Yours, Mine and Ours (PG-13)

Directed by: Raja Gosnell
Starring: Dennis Quaid
November 2005

“Underachieving Retread of ‘Opposites Attract’ Classic”

As a rule, remakes never live up to the original: that axiom certainly holds true with the new Yours, Mine & Ours. The original movie, based on the real-life experiences of Helen Eileen Beardsley, was released in 1968 and starred Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda. Touted as one of the best family films of the 60s, the original far surpasses this flaccid update—we can thank a snake-bitten Hollywood (still reeling from the ’05 box-office bust) for playing it safe and green-lighting such a mediocre affair.

The percussive opening is one of the only highlights in the movie, but, unfortunately, the rest of the score is standard fare. As the story unfolds, we are introduced to starched and pressed Admiral Frank Beardsley (Dennis Quaid) and his eight kids and free-spirit purse designer, Helen North (Rene Russo) and her ten kids (six were adopted, but who’s counting?). Frank and Helen run into each other at a restaurant and the old flame is rekindled (they were high school sweethearts). While catching up on old times, Frank and Helen learn that they’ve both been widowed, and anyone who hasn’t fallen asleep at this point can figure out where the plot is headed. Frank and Helen are married a short time later and then the real fun begins…integrating the two households. Frank’s rank and file kids immediately clash with Helen’s spontaneous children, who are used to free expression. The blended family moves into an old lighthouse and must work together to refurbish it, while adhering to a rigid bathroom schedule and the admiral’s “house rules.” The Beardsley’s and the North’s bicker, fight and prank each other until they wise up and unite against a greater enemy—their parents.

What could have been witty and charming is witless and alarming in the hands of director Raja Gosnell (
Mrs. Doubtfire). A tried and true story was in place and two A-list leads were on tap, but Gosnell clumsily mismanaged everything at his disposal…the end result is a movie that desperately tries, yet utterly fails, to entertain.

Quaid has become the consummate bipolar thespian…we’ve seen him in far meatier roles (
Far From Heaven), but here he’s simply hitting his marks and collecting a paycheck—his entire performance is delivered on cruise control. Besides sibling rivalry, the one thing that does work in the movie is the chemistry between the leads—Quaid and Russo have some great scenes together where they grapple with their extreme personalities: Helen calls Frank a military robot, and Frank refers to Helen as a “free to be you and me flake.” What Helen calls decorations, Frank calls vandalism. Helen tells Frank, “A house if for free expression not for good impressions,” a philosophy that flies in the face of everything he believes in. These scenes had the potential for some meaningful character interplay, but the script dumbs down the drama and settles for the quick laugh/fix instead of anything that remotely resembles genuine human emotion.

What ails the film is familiarity...we’ve seen all of this before in such TV series as
The Brady Bunch and Eight is Enough. There’s very little originality here and the tenuous plot is predictable at every turn. Yours, Mine & Ours, familial anarchy presented in a series of pedestrian gags, is far from shipshape and is one movie you must not watch. That’s an order!

Rating: 2

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (PG-13)

Directed by: Mike Newell
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe
November 2005

“Darker, Edgier and Hotter than the Other Potter’s”

The fourth Harry Potter movie has been adapted from the fourth novel in J.K. Rowling’s blockbuster book series and, fittingly, shares the same name as its literary progenitor. It’s clear from the outset—when evil spirits swoop in to disrupt the finals of the Quidditch World Cup—that Goblet will be a darker film than the oft-frivolous and pedestrian adventures embarked upon in the earlier trilogy. It’s time for Harry to put on his big boy pants.

Spoiler alert: A highlight of the film for many viewers (or perhaps just for this fantasy prone reviewer) is sure to be the Tri-Wizard Tournament with its various events specifically designed to test the contestant’s fortitude of body, character, mind and will. Harry’s run-in with the dragon is a mesmerizing series of narrow escapes and hair-raising, hair singing scrapes. The CG detailing on the fire-breathing behemoth is absolutely astounding, so kudos to the movie’s FX wizards (the muggle variety). The underwater test of ingenuity and integrity features a highly imaginative setting and boasts an incredibly intense action sequence…you can almost visualize the storyboards in your mind as the scenes play out one pulse-pounding shot after the next. Harry’s clever breathing apparatus and daring rescue mission are highlights of the hair-raising spectacle and serve to further affirm Harry’s heroic status. The final challenge—the race through a hedge maze (on loan from Labyrinth) to the Goblet of Fire—tests Harry’s mettle around every turn, where various pitfalls have been carefully arranged to waylay Harry’s advance toward the coveted cup.

Before the action has completely abated, Harry is visited by a shadowy form—yep, that’s a damp chill languidly writhing its way up your spine. Even though I haven’t read the novels, I’d be willing to bet that Harry’s encounter with the evil presence at movie’s end will figure prominently into future events. I know, the most conservative bet in history, but there can be no doubt that from here on out Harry will need to watch his back and rely more heavily on his circle of loyal friends.

Though carrying itself more seriously than the previous films,
Goblet is still an intensely fun romp through Rowling’s magical world. Director Mike Newell manages the actors and action well, but if ever there was an argument against the auteur theory, the Potter series would provide a strong case. After all, does it really matter who the director is on these Potter films? It seems like the machine is so well-oiled at this point (owing largely to the strength of the source material, the spot-on performances and exceedingly high production values) that no matter who’s at the helm the results will be…magical. One thing’s for sure; Goblet is the creative zenith for the movie series thus far.

Since the Rowling’s plots seem to be getting bleaker by the book, it’s safe to assume that the next film,
The Order of the Phoenix, will also be a few shades darker than Goblet. For better or worse, that young, innocent boy who first stepped foot in Hogwarts a few years ago is growing up…along with the legions of fans who devour his books and turn out in droves to enjoy his exploits on the big screen. You might say that his fans have an inextinguishable fire.

Rating: 3 1/2

Zathura (PG)

Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Josh Hutcherson
November 2005

“A Galaxy of Fun Awaits Those Who Can Pronounce It”

The name is Zathura…not Zanthura (as was incorrectly pronounced by blonde bombshell Jennifer M. on Apprentice 4). Based on the children’s book of the same name by author Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji), Zathura is a lot better than it looks at first glance (the trailer doesn’t do the movie justice by a light year). Once you throw the laws of physics out the airlock—like director Jon Favreau does with great dispatch early on in the film—Zathura is a fun-filled romp through outer space and a meaningful tale of reconciliation between two quarreling brothers.

Zathura’s plot is virtually identical to Jumanji’s…kids are left home alone and they stumble upon an old board game; curiosity gets the best of them and they start playing, learning very quickly that their hasty decision might lead to their demise. Both books/movies focus on a series of turns—which become more disastrous with each successive round—where the players desperately attempt to set things back to normal while evading destructive forces or aggressive enemies that seem to materialize out of thin air. Where Jumanji featured jungle animals (including a heard of rhinos, which wreaked havoc while charging down the middle of town), Zathura offers up a universe of hazards, most notably a rogue robot that needs to be reprogrammed and the croc-like Zorgons (not to be confused with the Vorlons from Babylon 5 or the Vogons from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Each turn raises the stakes and when things look like they couldn’t possibly get any worse, the game ends and the pieces reset, but not before lives are changed and lessons are learned.

Though Tim Robbins’ presence—as a beleaguered father and sport car designer, recently separated from his wife—is barely felt in the movie, he turns in his normal, polished performance (it would have been nice to see him again at the end, however). Of Robbins’ three screen kids, teen daughter, Lisa (Kristen Stewart), is the most oblivious and superfluous character in the movie…she’s really only here for comic relief (Lisa is cryogenically frozen in her bathroom) and as an object for teenage boys to ogle at.

The two boy leads, Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson), anchor the movie, especially Danny, whose wide-eyed amazement at the wonders of the universe is the movie’s most-endearing feature. The visual of the house drifting in space is memorable, and the twist involving the astronaut is finely executed.

Zathura is much more than a glorified sci-fi role-playing game; it’s a charming and clever story that dispenses a good moral about sibling rivalry and is a fun way to get lost in space for two hours.

Rating: 2 1/2

Dreamer: Inspired By a True Story (PG)

Directed by: John Gatins
Starring: Kurt Russell
October 2005

“Emotional and Inspirational Horse Tale”

If watching a movie could be like slipping on a pair of worn-in boots, Dreamer would definitely be that movie. You already know the ending when you see the trailer (movie, not horse), but there’s still something reassuring, comforting and inspiring about a story where someone dreams big and wins, especially if it’s based on a true story. Especially if it features Hollywood’s youngest starlet, Dakota Fanning (who, according to a recent EW article, has outperformed every other adult female actor—including Julia Roberts—at the box-office this year).

Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) is a weather-worn horse trainer who struggles to connect with his distant daughter, Cale (Fanning), beleaguered wife, Lilly (Elizabeth Shue) and estranged father (Kris Kristofferson), while contending with his racist boss (David Morse), who fires Ben and gives him a Philly with a broken leg as severance pay. Ben nurses Sonador (Spanish for Dreamer) back to health—with the additional aid of Cale, who sneaks out of the house late at night and feeds the horse popsicles—and the horse is soon racing along the countryside. Ben sees the horse’s breeding potential, but Cale steadfastly holds to the silly notion that Sonador will race again and begs dad to let her keep the horse.

Cale is given ownership of the horse and after winning a few small-time races, she sets her sights on the Breeder’s Cup. Everyone thinks Cale is overly idealistic, but when Sonador clinches the final spot on the Breeder’s Cup roster, the family is faced with the next colossal challenge—coming up with the formidable entry fee. Beyond that seemingly insurmountable obstacle is the unsettling knowledge that Sonador has never been in a race this big and is predicted to finish last (lingering concerns as to stability of Sonador’s leg also throws a pal over the horse’s chances of finishing favorably). In this seething cauldron of doubt and dream-shattering circumstances, Cale’s courage primes the pump of the impossible; not just reconciliation between Ben and his family, but also a goose-bump raising finale that rivals
Seabiscuit’s harrowing climactic race.

The lines on Russell’s face are showing through the make-up more these days, but like fine wine, his performances are improving with age (
Miracle). There’s a bit of dream casting in the movie; Russell and Kristofferson look like real-life father and son, and the interplay between these big-screen veterans is a real treat. Superlatives always seem to fail when describing cherubic Fanning, and frantically flipping through a thesaurus to find that choice adjective seldom works either. Suffice it to say, Fanning has turned in another precocious performance here and is rapidly becoming the queen of the silver screen…at age ten.

From the opening sequence to Bethany Dillon’s uplifting, tear-jerking song accompanying the end credits,
Dreamer is one hundred percent inspiration—a family-friendly, fun-filled tale that reminds us to pay heed to the dreamer inside.

Rating: 3

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

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (PG-13)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp
July 2005

“Depp’s Wonka Will Give You the Willies”

As everyone on the planet knows by now, this movie is a remake of the 70’s classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Narratively, the story strays little from the original, but creatively, a whole new world bursts forth thanks to updated special effects (a catchphrase used too often for remakes) and Tim Burton’s skewed sensibilities.

The film’s opening is an instant masterpiece—Charlie Bucket’s (Freddie Highmore) colorful family, including dirt-poor parents and feisty grandparents (both sets sleep on either end of the same bed), really strikes the right chord of likeability and pathos with witty banter, amusing anecdotes and familial harmony amid abject poverty. Charlie’s Grandpa Joe (David Kelly) is a hoot—besides Charlie, he’s the most enjoyable character to watch, especially when he does his little jig after Charlie brings home the magical Golden Ticket from the ultra-rare Wonka Bar.

When the five children and their adult escorts enter the factory, two changes occur simultaneously: 1. creativity and color increase, and 2. intimacy and warmth decrease. Most of the gags inside the factory are virtually identical to the ones in the original, i.e. fatso getting sucked up into a tube and bratty bubble gum champ turning into a giant blueberry (the TV room scene is also here, with updated special effects, of course). Though amusing and well choreographed, I could have done with one less Oompa Loompa (Deep Roy) number (we get the point, already!). However, Roy’s cut and paste performance is truly remarkable.

The dénouement is a departure from the original, but isn’t necessarily unwelcome—Wonka makes amends with his estranged, molar-retentive father (Christopher Lee), and Charlie’s relatives become a surrogate family for the eccentric inventor of all things sweet—Wonka has selected Charlie to be his protégé and eventual heir apparent.

The movie owes its success to Burton’s singular vision and Highmore’s accessible, sometimes-good-guys-do-finish-first performance. However, it’s the cinematic irony of the new millennium that this Johnny Depp vehicle picture was almost sabotaged by Depp himself. To be sure, Depp always turns in quirky, multi-layered performances, and his version of Wonka is no different. Here, however, the character he’s been given to portray is downright creepy—the way Wonka is drawn, wearing silk gloves and face covered in ashen make-up, might be considered poor taste in the wake of the Michael Jackson trial. Besides the obvious Jackson caricature, the character has none of the charm Gene Wilder imbued his Wonka with, and the way Depp condescends the children (especially the “mumbler”) is utterly distasteful. The film succeeds despite Depp’s effeminate Wonka, but how much more enjoyable would the movie have been if Wonka was actually likeable?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a visual delight—during the early stages of the movie, Burton films buildings and people at wildly slanted angles and the Bucket home—complete with a depressed chimney that sags like a greasy French fry—looks like something right out of Dr. Seuss. There’s no doubt that movie magic resides here, perhaps to an even greater degree than the original, and yet, this take on Roald Dahl’s timeless children’s book is tainted by Depp’s quirky protagonist. In the movie’s climax, the glass elevator crashes through the factory roof and seems poised to sail clear up into space…what brings it, and the movie, back down to earth is a Wonka that we merely tolerate for Charlie’s sake.

Rating: 3

The Perfect Man (PG)

Directed by: Mark Rosman
Starring: Hilary Duff
June 2005

“Average Love Tale is Anything But Perfect”

The normal response to a breakup is a desperate rebound or a period of profound depression. An extreme or dysfunctional reaction to a severed relationship is when you pack up your troubles and move to a new town. Such is the repeated and unhealthy pattern of Jean Hamilton’s (Heather Locklear) tumultuous love life. After the latest in a long line of failed relationships, Jean uproots her family, again, and moves them to Brooklyn. Jean’s teenage daughter, Holly (Hillary Duff), has a personal website that lampoons her family—on it she grouses about her transitory life and her mom’s predilection for botching relationships and, indeed, choosing losers in the first place.

It’s not long before Jean attracts a well-leavened doughboy at the bakery where she works—a needy, heart-on-the-sleeve type named Lenny (Mike O’Malley), who employs such lines as, “Where did you buy those pants…” Eventually, Lenny wears Jean down and takes her to a Styx concert—he cries nostalgic tears through the entire performance and uses her sleeve as a handkerchief. Jean is so desperate for the perfect man—or any man, for that matter—that she looks past Lenny’s neurotic behaviors and seriously considers saying yes when he serenades her from the fire escape and proffers her an engagement ring.

Holly detests Lenny and goes into emergency split up mode, especially when she meets her new girlfriend’s uncle Ben (no pun intended, I’m sure). In Holly’s mind, Ben (Chris Noth) is
the perfect man, but if her mom ever meets him, she’ll find a way to sabotage the relationship—as she always does—and Holly and her younger sister will be forced to move again. Holly begins sending letters and emails to her mom as Ben and begs Adam (Ben Feldman), her high school crush, to call her mom posing as Ben. Jean admits that Ben sounds like the perfect man, but Holly’s plan backfires when Jean wants to meet him. “Ben is a beautiful idea, but you can grow old with an idea,” Jean reasons.

Though Holly consistently displays more common sense than her mother in the movie, the writers involve her in some silly matchmaking scenes like the orchid delivery or the mishap at the restaurant where she sets off the fire suppression system to prevent her mom from encountering Ben—these sequences attempt to generate peril and move the slogging plot along, but to no avail. As the script would demand, Jean and Ben finally meet at the movie’s gloaming, but the casual manner in which they speak to each other tells us what we’ve known all along…there’s no guess work here, no mystique, no panache, only a foregone conclusion.

The movie’s entire premise is a sick one—an abnormal scenario that should repulse most viewers.
The Perfect Man is contrived, formulaic and predictable at every turn, with a hurried and unsatisfactory ending and performances that match the mediocre script. It’s never explained why Jean keeps relocating her family every time a relationship ends; did her father abandon her when she was young? Did Jean’s mother also run away every time her heart was broken? A much better story would have been: Jean and Ben hook-up earlier in the movie but Jean panics the first time their relationship hits a speed bump and falls back into the old pattern of wanting to run away. Ben confronts Jean and opens her eyes to her insecurities; they work through her issues and then they live happily ever after. Though such a dramatic tangent would dull some of the chick-flick edge, at least it would lend the movie some semblance of a plot.

Romance movies are among the hardest to pull off on the big screen and
The Perfect Man is the perfect example; the movie plummets even with the two cuties (Locklear and Duff) and debonair Noth. Just as it was kismet that Jean and Ben would meet at the end, it was also destiny that the film would fail to meet our expectations.

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

Because of Winn Dixie (PG)

Directed by: Wayne Wang
Starring: AnnaSophia Robb
February 2005

“Simple, but Touching Family Film”

A star is born! If you were to look up the word “adorable” in the dictionary, next to the definition would be a picture of AnnaSophia Robb in all of her angelic innocence. As indicated in the title, the movie (based on a Newbery award-winning kid’s book by Kate DiCamillo) is about Winn Dixie, the smiling mutt that exhibits more personality than the average canine, but it’s really Robb’s winsome purity that steals the show.

Robb’s character, India “Opal” Buloni (name change, please!) is introduced to the stray in—of all places—a Winn Dixie market, where the shaggy dog is demolishing end caps while evading capture. Amused by the comical pursuit, Opal, in a snap decision, claims ownership of the dog when it’s finally cornered. Opal’s father, Pastor Buloni (whose sermons are full of it), is less than thrilled when Opal brings the mangy mutt into their trailer. “The Preacher” (Jeff Daniels) ultimately gives in to Opal’s pouting—besides making a face no one could refuse, she plays the, “But I have no friends!” card and wins.

The Buloni’s are new to fictitious Naomi, FL, a sleepy Southern burg complete with a rustic library, a closed-down candy factory and nary a stop light—the preacher’s congregation meets in an old convenience store. Father and daughter tote around sacks filled with sorrow—Opal’s mother left them when she was only three—but Winn Dixie is the catalyst for open communication between the two (the “ten things about mom” scene is endearing and deeply moving).

As Opal explores the new town, she makes friends with the spinster librarian, Miss Franny (played by the ever-charming Eva Marie Saint), who regales glorious stories of the past, and Gloria Dump (Cicily Tyson), a near-blind, recovering alcoholic who teaches Opal how to see others with her heart. She also encounters the stubble-faced drifter, Otis (Dave Matthews, in his big screen debut), the interim manager of a pet shop, who offers Opal a part-time job and plays his guitar to soothe the animals.

There are plenty of funny scenes in the film, like when Winn Dixie recklessly pursues a church mouse, providing the parishioners with more entertainment and joy than any sermon in recent history. However, it’s the subtler moments that have more lasting impact; like the Litmus Lozenge tale or Mrs. Dump’s explanation of the “failure tree” and her admonition to “hold on to love while you have it.” Embedded in the movie’s overarching silliness are themes of forgiveness, hope and the need for community.

What easily could have degenerated into another
Beethoven cheese-fest, is actually a funny, feel-good, family film…and it’s all because of Winn Dixie! By the way, isn’t it poor form to start a title with “because”? Woof!

Rating: 2 1/2

Finding Neverland (PG)

Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Johnny Depp
November 2004

“Magical Retelling of Tired Tale”

Based on the real life trials and successes of playwright, J.M. Barrie, the visionary who brought us Peter Pan, Finding Neverland is a moving film, rich in character and imagination. Finding Neverland is pure drama, so viewers looking for anything else will be sorely disappointed (like those two, giggly teenage girls who sat right behind me). The movie really delivers emotionally, revealing the human condition at its best and worst—its brightest and darkest.

Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) is brilliant as Barrie and pulls off a surprisingly authentic Scottish brogue. Showcasing his expansive range, Depp masterfully reveals just how adept he is at being serious or silly and how skillfully he can morph from one into the other.

In the midst of a failing marriage, mediocre theater attendance and scathing reviews for his plays, Barrie escaped into the realms of his fertile imagination and created Neverland, a magical world, but what’s more, a guiding philosophy for his life. It’s this philosophy of optimism that anchors Barrie during the storms that incessantly assail him…the theater owner (a very un-Hook-like Dustin Hoffman) is pressuring him to produce a hit, his wife leaves him for another man, rumors of inappropriate activity surround his friendship with the newly widowed Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons (two of them named Michael and Peter), the palpable disdain and disapproval he receives from Sylvia’s controlling mother (Julie Christy) and Sylvia’s untimely death from an unknown disease.

Winslet plays the beleaguered-but-not-showing-it single mother to the hilt; Barrie is a breath of fresh air to her lonely life, a touch of freedom and spontaneity to banish the doldrums of her regulated existence. The Davies children were excellently cast; their appearance, accents and attitudes are appropriate to the milieu and add to the movie’s emotional impact in small, but crucial ways…especially tenderhearted, teary-eyed Peter.

Dustin Hoffman’s appearances are infrequent, but his portrayal of the laconic theater owner is touching in an impersonal way—he genuinely believes in Barrie’s talent and is willing to put his money, reputation and career on the line for the young playwright. Together, they’re a potent team: one has the vision to fill theater seats and the other has a driving passion to fill people’s hearts with adventure and wonderment.

This account depicts Barrie as the quintessential gentleman, and the movie, itself, is a gentle thunder that doesn’t “wow” you, but has a lingering quality that lasts long after you’ve left the theater.
Finding Neverland is magical cinema that transports the viewer to a place of hope and beauty that resides somewhere between our hearts and the second star to the right.

Rating: 3

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

Miracle (PG)

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Kurt Russell
February 2004

“Real Story with Real Heart”

This is a defining role in Kurt Russell’s career—ironic since he got his start doing cornball movies for Disney in the sixties. Russell’s portrayal of coach Herb Brooks is natural and believable, especially his Minnesotan accent. Brooks was equal parts coach, motivational speaker and psychologist and Russell melds all three seamlessly. Patricia Clarkson (Far From Heaven) plays Brooks’ wife, a woman who grapples with her distant husband’s other love—hockey. In the end she decides to stand by her man through the stormy moments of their marriage—something that happened far more frequently in 1980 than in the present day. Noah Emmerich (Frequency) is Brooks’ loyal assistant coach, an underserved character that has more whistle blows than lines in the movie.

Nice checkered wool pants!

Miracle is based upon the true story of the gold-medal winning U.S. Hockey team at the 1980 Olympic winter games in Lake Placid, N.Y. A total David and Goliath scenario: a newly assembled American team of young college players defeats a veteran Soviet Union team which had won every gold medal in their event for the last twenty years. There’s no surprise ending here—the story of this “miracle” team and its exploits have been touted as one of the greatest moments in amateur sports for the last twenty-four years. What makes Miracle worth seeing is not so much the end result as the journey that got them there. Brooks’ unorthodox coaching strategies and the personal stories of the young men on the team create the backbone of the story—without these ingredients, the movie would be little more than a glorified sports documentary. And speaking of documentary, the historical footage that peppers the new scenes really gives the movie a proper sense of context and provides a great deal of authenticity.

Final Analysis:
Miracle is an inspirational movie the whole family can enjoy and imparts a sense of pride and patriotism. The movie is a testament to the fact that miracles can still happen with focus, determination, teamwork and good old-fashioned hard work—an important reminder to a generation that has faced very little adversity…lest we forget.

Rating: 3

Big Fish (PG-13)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Ewan McGregor
January 2004

“Fanciful Tale that Flounders at Times”

Bizarre. It’s the only word that seems to fit this lavishly mounted, finely crafted, yet strangely avant-garde effort.
Touted as Tim Burton’s masterpiece and a modern
Wizard of Oz, and seemingly falling short on both counts, Big Fish is, however, a wildly imaginative romp through the mind and memories of Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney), a man of unique vision and singular purpose.

Through a series of flashbacks—which contain elements of truth but come off like tall tales—the aged Edward regales stories of love and war, mysteries and misadventures to his estranged son, Will (Billy Crudup). Giving color to the vignettes is a diminutive circus master who becomes a wolf at night (Danny DeVito), a poet turned bank robber (Steve Buscemi), and a beautiful young blonde (Helena Bonham-Carter), who also appears as a frightening witch; if you stare into her blind eye, you will see the moment of your death.

For all of its strangeness, however, there’s an underlying humanity that shines through and anchors the more whimsical elements of the film. The movie finally finds its voice near the end when Will, normally embarrassed by his father’s flamboyant stories, comes to understand their purpose and honors Edward with an embellished version of his father’s final moments. It’s at this point that you realize the movie hasn’t been about far-fetched tales at all, but about the characters in the story. This is nowhere more vividly displayed than at Edward’s funeral; all of the fanciful figures in his stories are in attendance—though far less outlandish in real life.

Due to its excessive ambiguity and multi-faceted storyline, there are many philosophical nuggets to be unearthed here—some of which are buried quite deep. There’s a parallel between the pristine town of Spectre and the U.S. in the 50s: the supposed Golden Age of American history. When Edward returns to the little slice of paradise later in his life, he is shocked to find the burg in shambles. This might be a representation of present day (or post 9-11) America. Of course, this is one possible interpretation of the movie, and that’s what makes
Big Fish so intriguing and endearing. What is the truth and what does it mean in a subjective sense?

Big Fish asks more questions than it answers, but it does entertain and features fine performances by McGregor and Finney. In the end, it remains somewhat of an oddity, but it’s certainly a better catch than the normal fish story.

Rating: 2 1/2

Peter Pan (PG)

Directed by: P.J. Hogan
Starring: Jeremy Sumpter
December 2003

“Return to a Dry Well”

This new, live-action spin on J.M. Barrie’s classic tale,
Peter Pan boasts a solid cast of virtually unknown actors. Two performances stand out above the others; Jeremy Sumpter, who plays the title role and Jason Isaacs, whose dual role as Mr. Darling and Captain Hook is one of the few highlights of the movie. From a dramatic standpoint, this new movie features the best version of Hook ever committed to film—Isaacs’ portrayal of the sinister pirate captain is darker and subtler than any previous attempt, but the petulant Hook in Disney’s animated Peter Pan and Dustin Hoffman’s scheming and foreboding figure in Hook were both more amusing and more memorable than this year’s model.

Who the heck is P.J. Hogan?

The big question is, “Why do we need another remake of this story?” We have the aforementioned Disney’s
Peter Pan and Hook, and the recent straight-to-video flop, “Return to Neverland,” plus a cartoon series in the early nineties and a slew of story variations on stage. Truth is, it’s been done before and it’s been done better. There are only a few story elements that don’t come off like stale toast (or crumpets). There’s a nice touch at the beginning of the movie when Mr. Darling tries to impress his boss and bumbles all over himself—quite amusing. The reunion of the Darling children with their mother at the end of the movie packs a surprisingly emotional punch and is probably the most touching dénouement of any Peter Pan.

Special Effects:
There’s a very creative scene where Peter and the Darling children are spying on the Jolly Roger from up in the clouds and the pirate ship starts firing cannon balls through the clouds—great visual. The worst effect in the film is Hook’s bane; the crocodile’s movements look extremely unbelievable and unnatural in this shoddy piece of CGI. The best, and most beautiful, effect in the movie is in the forest, where an entire community of ferries dance and flit about like fireflies against the night sky.

Final Analysis:
If we ever return to Neverland, it will be far too soon.

Rating: 2

The Haunted Mansion (PG)

Directed by: Rob Minkoff
Starring: Eddie Murphy
November 2003

“Too Scary, Not Very Funny”

Based on the classic ride at Disneyland, The Haunted Mansion is a scare-fest that feels more like a glorified attraction than a movie. The scenes, symbols and inside gags from the ride are all here, but The Haunted Mansion seems more like a caricature of itself than a living, breathing entity.

The movie opens with overachieving real estate agent, Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) visiting a mansion with his wife and two kids. They are met at the front door by a creepy butler named Ramsley, who promptly and unceremoniously escorts the family through the dusty, cobweb-ridden halls to meet his master. Master Gracey is a tortured soul, a shadowy figure who pines over the loss of his wife, Elizabeth, a woman who had a striking resemblance to Evers’ wife.

Things go south when Evers discovers Ramsley’s plot to unite Gracey and Evers’ wife in matrimony in order to break an age-old curse. Evers must brave flying instruments, a haunted graveyard and many other frightening things before he can attempt to thwart the butler’s sinister plan.

The Haunted Mansion is the third movie based on a Disneyland attraction, and is arguably the biggest disappointment of the lot. The trailer promises a light and comical joyride, but the actual movie is much darker in tone and isn’t all that funny. When it comes to jokes and humorous dialogue, there’s nothing fresh in Murphy’s repertoire; in fact, his one-liners come off like the donkey gags in Shrek.

The acting is appropriate in
The Haunted Mansion, especially the ubiquitous and nefarious Ramsley (Terence Stamp), and the pathos-inducing Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker). The face in the crystal ball, Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly), offers some much needed comic relief and she and Murphy’s character play off of each other quite well.

The special effects are top-notch—as would be expected from Disney—but they overshadow the story, stifle character development and suppress any human element in the story, save for the
Beauty and the Beast style storybook ending. In the final analysis, The Haunted Mansion is nothing more than a two-hour, live-action version of the Disneyland ride. In fact, the movie resembles the attraction so closely that after you leave the theater, you realize the thrills, chills and spills have been grossly artificial and that you’ve been taken for a ride.

Rating: 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

Secondhand Lions (PG)

Directed by: Tim McCanlies
Starring: Haley Joel Osment
September 2003

“Come See This Comely Coming-of-Age Tale Firsthand”

Secondhand Lions, a lighthearted tale of self-discovery, focuses on prepubescent Walter (Haley Joel Osment) and his two eccentric uncles, Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall).

The movie opens with Walter’s promiscuous mom (Kyra Sedgewick) dumping him off at his uncles’ farm for the summer while she goes off to “get a job” (translation: have a wild time) in Vegas. Garth and Hub’s daily routine involves sitting on a porch swing with rifles and taking potshots at any salesperson bold or foolish enough to approach their farmhouse. Appalled by their declared open season on salesmen, Walter challenges his uncles to find out what the peddlers are selling before filling their britches with buckshot and to spend some of their rusting fortune on items of interest.

Taking Walter’s advice, Garth and Hub purchase a secondhand lion, which they intend to hunt in a nearby cornfield. When the lion arrives, however, they discover that this king of beasts is docile and has one paw in the grave. Dispirited, the aging men feel even more obsolete than before; hunting a lion would have transported them back to the glories of their youth when they fought in wars and lived life on the edge. By summer’s end, Walter’s uncles teach him how to become a man and Walter teaches his uncles how to enjoy life again by being more spontaneous.

Caine and Duvall deliver superlative performances and Osment continues to amaze with the depth and maturity of his craft for one so young. Though Josh Lucas, as the adult Walter, looks nothing like Osment, the movie’s wrap-up is heartwarming and has an excellent payoff.
Secondhand Lions is a family-friendly drama that deals with coming-of-age and old age in a meaningful, yet whimsical, manner. It’ll probably fly under the radar, but this is one film that shouldn’t be missed.

Rating: 2 1/2

Freaky Friday (PG)

Directed by: Mark Waters
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis
August 2003

“Modern Remake Lacks Heart”

As far as remakes go, this was an entertaining, if uninspired, effort. The main question that preoccupies the film isn’t whether or not Freaky Friday is better than the original, but why it was necessary to update it at all. The first Freaky Friday, with Barbara Harris and Jodi Foster was wildly entertaining and deserved the right to become a stand-alone classic. Music/hair/clothing styles have all changed over the years, but other than modern trappings, this new movie is virtually identical to its “groovy” predecessor.

The movie opens with the classic mother vs. daughter battle, which escalates at a Chinese restaurant. The Asian proprietor slips the arguing pair two fortune cookies, which magically switches the mother’s soul into the daughter’s body, and vice versa.

A lot of gags ensue the next day as the two women try to switch back (by running and slamming into each other), and when Annabel’s mother, Ellen, goes to school while Annabel embarks on a shopping spree with her mother’s credit cards. These fish-out-of-water scenes (like when Ellen dresses like her daughter and hitches a ride on a motorcycle, or when Annabel destroys the psyches of her mom’s mental patients), become the meat of the story, but it’s not until the two women make peace and show respect to each other that the farcial curse is finally broken and the film comes to a heart-warming climax.

There’s a lovely scene at the end of the film where Annabel thinks of Ellen’s happiness before her own, and gives her blessing to her mother’s union to her new stepfather (Mark Harmon). It’s the only point in the film that I emotionally connected with the characters and thought that, just perhaps, there really was a story amid the flowing fountain of fluff.

The acting in the movie was solid enough; Jamie Lee Curtis was convincing as the uptight, killjoy, Ellen, and Lindsey Lohan (
The Parent Trap) was pitch-perfect in her portrayal of a modern teenage girl who wages an emotional tug-of-war with her overbearing mother.

There’s no doubting that this new
Freaky Friday is a load of good, clean fun, which will introduce a new generation to this “trading places” tale. But, in the final analysis, the original had more charm than this modern update.

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

Holes (PG)

Directed by: Andrew Davis
Starring: Shia LaBeouf
April 2003

“Disney Digs up a Gem”

Every once in a while, Disney produces an entertaining, clean, live-action film that makes a hole in one. Though dissimilar in theme, last year’s, The Rookie, would certainly fit into this traditional, inspiration movie mold. This year’s model, Holes, is definitely something new under the sun; and in a summer swarming with sequels, it’s nice to see something fresh and innovative.

Based on the teen novel by Louis Sachar, Holes features an array of new talent, most notably, Shia LaBeouf as Stanley Yelnats and Khleo Thomas as Zero. There are also some other, more recognizable names here, like Sigourney Weaver as the camp warden and Jon Voight as the trigger-happy, sunflower seed gulping, Mr. Sir. The film is also bolstered by a solid screenplay and deft direction by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive).

Men in the Yelnats (Stanley spelled backwards) family have endured a curse for several generations. Young Stanley is in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up a Camp Greenlake, a juvenile detention facility. To build character, these young men must dig holes all day in the oppressive desert heat, while avoiding snakes, scorpions and the deadly yellow-spotted lizard.

While digging, Stanley discovers an artifact that has an intricate and sordid past—a past that is fleshed out in several historical vignettes that occur at irregular intervals during the middle of the story and serve as an intriguing subplot. Stanley must unravel the mysteries of the past in order to break the familial curse and clear his name.

Holes doesn’t take itself too seriously, and yet, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief to dizzying heights in order for the fictional elements to make sense or feel like they fit in with the overall plot. The movie has a surprisingly solid storyline, and for a movie geared for teens, has far fewer plot holes than most adult movies.

Holes is as refreshing as a rain shower on a hot summer afternoon—an image not lost on the movie—and is a feel-good family flick that anyone can easily dig.

Rating: 3

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

Reign of Fire (PG-13)

Directed by: Rob Bowman
Starring: Christian Bale
July 2002

Reign of Fire
is the quintessential B movie. Big names like Bale and McConaughey couldn’t salvage the banal and dragging storyline. The characters make leaps in logic that are there only to service the plot…if you can call it that.

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

The Rookie (G)

Directed by: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Dennis Quaid
March 2002

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in an audience that clapped at the end of the movie. It’s been a longer time since I’ve cried while watching a movie.
The Rookie is simply the most inspiring movie I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

Rating: 3

Clockstoppers (PG)

Directed by: Jonathan Frakes
Starring: Jesse Bradford
March 2002

A little on the pedestrian side,
Clockstoppers succeeds at being a first-rate teen movie that never takes itself seriously and has a lot of fun—if not campy—moments along the way. There’s nothing Oscar-worthy here, just a fun, family flick.

Rating: 2

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial - 20th Anniversary Edition (PG)

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Henry Thomas

March 2002

How could I not give this movie a multitude of stars? The new scenes, though few, are nifty, and it was nice to see an innocent Drew Barrymore again; but truthfully, E.T. never did anything for me emotionally. Perhaps it’s because I first saw it when I was 29 (I know, I was born under a rock).

Rating: 3 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

Cats & Dogs (PG)

Directed by: Lawrence Guterman
Starring: Jeff Goldblum
July 2001

After suspending my disbelief, I found this to be a rather humorous look at the age-old battle for supremacy between felines and canines; kicked up a notch. A talking animal picture that entertains and bolsters family values is okay by me.

Rating: 2