A rather warm but ultimately meandering tale of Michael Douglas as a college professor going through one crisis after another, Tobey Maguire as a creepy kid (again?!), and Robert Downey Jr. as an editor who seems to have a taste for transvestites. Though likable, Wonder Boys goes nowhere and nowhere slow. It carries the feel of a novel that was never intended to be brought onto the screen because of what it would lose in transition and it does. Douglas’ performance is sincere and syrupy but Wonder Boys is not a night out on the town.
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
This was another film that I was curious to revisit because I was wondering whether or not I would find more of value than when I was 17-years-old and seeing Wonder Boys at a rare promotional screening with my good pals Kevin Lowe and Natalia Riviera (I recall none of us being particularly taken with the movie). It’s based upon an acclaimed book by Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), starring the eventual first big screen Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the first Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), and Oscar-winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). It was director Curtis Hanson’s follow-up from his 1997 masterpiece, L.A. Confidential. The screenwriter, Steven Kloves, would go on to adapt every Harry Potter movie minus one. The studio even re-released the movie later in the fall of 2000 under new more ensemble-focused marketing to push for awards consideration (to my surprise, it was nominated for three Oscars: Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and winning Best Song for a craggy Bob Dylan tune). Maybe my indifferent review earlier was just a young man unable to connect with this brand of middle-class ennui. Now two decades later I can finally say… I still don’t connect with this ennui.
Wonder Boys is one of those shaggy dog stories where it’s not so much the destination but the journey, so you better enjoy the characters or else it will feel like a long ride. The problem with this story is that its protagonist feels so self-pitying and yet the universe seems designed to cheer him up. Grady Tripp (Douglas) is a celebrated creative writing professor just going through his days in a pot-fueled haze to dull the pressure of living up to his big breakout novel. It’s been over seven years and his next novel has no end in sight, already clocking over 2000 pages. Grady thinks he’s a has-been but every other character in this tiny bourgeois universe tells him how great he is. His publisher (Downey Jr.) is eager to peek at Grady’s next surefire literary hit. His students adore him and hang on his every word. He has multiple women throwing themselves at him, including McDormand, who wants to have his baby, and Holmes as his infatuated student/boarder. Everyone tells him how great he is as a writer. James Leer (Maguire) confesses that it was Grady’s book that inspired him to even be a writer, and he seems poised to become a great one. It’s exhausting for every other significant character to proclaim repeatedly how great our lead is and to have him repeatedly respond, “Yeah, but I just don’t know, you guys.”
Self-doubt is already relatable enough, on top of imposter syndrome for an artist or even just an adult, so the material is there for an introspective story about the struggles of creativity and responsibility, but that’s not what Wonder Boys presents as a movie. It’s filled with zany mishaps to fill up those meandering two hours. There’s Downey Jr. and his wandering eye, first with a trans women and then with James. There’s a man incorrectly labeled “Vernon” who stalks Grady demanding what he says is his car back. There’s also a dead dog that gets carried around for almost the entire movie, even though the plot covers days and it would seem like a very bad idea to continue hauling a decaying animal in one’s car. There’s no real reason why this dog’s corpse is even held onto. It belongs to Grady’s boss, the chair of the English department, and the husband to his mistress (McDormand). Why not dispose of the evidence especially with the personal connections? It’s yet one of several signs of the movie trying to be quirky and edgy over the consequences of character actions. Much of the plot beats follow retrieving a stolen coat once owned by Marilyn Monroe. Does the coat represent something of time gone by? A promise never fully able to be fulfilled? America’s innocence? Does it even matter? If Wonder Boys was going to explore the inner turpitude of Grady, why does the movie need so many dead ends and loping storylines as a means of distraction?
It’s not a terrible viewing experience but it feels like the movie is definitely missing material that made the book so effective. As I stated in my early and remarkably on-point review in 2000, it feels like a novel that would lose its appeal in translation and it has. The plot is treading water until Grady finally makes a big personal decision at the very end. He even gets a happy ending where his next great book is the recollections of the film’s events. The many supporting characters are not as interesting as the actors might make them appear. Even Maguire’s wonderkid writer, where the title is derived from, is a walking awkward quirk machine, an early representation of an autistic student before many of the characteristics were wider recognized. He provides a detached sense of comedy with his bluntly direct approach, like his encyclopedic knowledge of famous Hollywood suicides (fun fact: the home video versions edited out Alan Ladd’s name at request from his family estate). The problem with James as a character is he’s meant to represent promise to Grady, further compounding his sense of inadequacy. He’s the shiny new up-and-coming talent headed for great headlines, the kind Grady might have enjoyed but might now be too far in the rear view mirror. James has his own mini-arc of “cutting loose” but he wasn’t tightly wound from the start, just antisocial and aloof. He’s a symbol by design and an impenetrable autistic mumbly sidekick for offhand comedy observations, not so much a person.
Curtis Hanson’s direction is fine, the acting is fine, and even when relatively uninspired, the story is fine as it meanders and goes in self-defeating circles. It’s a movie that I think will be more remembered for weird little trivia, like a scene where future Iron Man and Spider-Man are in bed together. I don’t regret re-watching Wonder Boys but I didn’t get much more out of the experience than when I was 17. The main character is hard to fully embrace, especially his self-pitying problems of middle-class privilege, and the story is more a collection of chapter-based anecdotes and hasty character resolutions. Even if the two hours is amiable enough, it’s hard to connect with the characters and their conflicts, and it’s a prime example of an adaptation that can’t replicate its specific authorial charms. If I were 17 again, I’d make a pun on the word “wonder” but I’ll refrain. After all, I’ve grown.
Re-View Grade: C+
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) and his best pal Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman) must venture out of their arcade home once Vanellope’s game gets broken. She’s in danger of having her racing game shelved for good unless they can find a new steering wheel controller. Thanks to the installation of wi-fi, Ralph and Vanellope hop along the information super highway and visit an online metropolis bursting with life and possibility. It’s a world of advanced games, races, and interactivity and Vanellope might not want to go back to her old world, much to the chagrin of Ralph.
Fear not, this is not Disney’s rehash of The Emoji Movie, a slapdash gallivant through Internet culture, apps, and the most famous online brands. The first forty minutes or so of Ralph Breaks the Internet are silly and visually appealing as our familiar characters expand their horizons to the world of online gaming. Much like the first film, there are a lot of rules and mechanics to establish as a foundation before things can get too complicated. The first Wreck-It Ralph was a bit more structured and clean in this aspect whereas the sequel gets to feel a tad episodic. The Grand Theft Auto/Twisted Metal world of street racing provides a splendid contrast and plenty of satirical touches. It’s still amusing as Ralph and Vanellope discover the new worlds and we see how the filmmakers choose to depict their inner workings, like a concierge working a search bar or spammers as pushy street promoters. Although it also leads to some questions, like this world has Google but no YouTube, instead combining YouTube and Buzzfeed into one entity where hearts count as upvotes/likes. Is there a reason Disney might not want to have steered children to YouTube? Or is there something more corporate about promoting a rival media company when Disney is planning their own online streaming magical kingdom? It’s an entertaining beginning but I started to get worried about whether or not this was the extent of what we were going to get with a Ralph sequel. Is this really all going to be about raising money to buy an arcade controller wheel?
It’s about the forty-five minute mark where the film takes a welcomed turn, where it focuses far more on the character relationships between Ralph and Vanellope, and that’s when the film deepens into something much more special. The antics beforehand were colorful and amusing but too episodic, but once Ralph and Vanellope are split apart, now those same imaginative antics are used in the service of developing characters and exploring their inner conflicts. It’s like the movie went next level with its potential. Vannelope’s excursion into the Disney Corporate Realm leads to fun cameos (Groot), and newly sad cameos (Stan Lee, R.I.P.), but the meta interaction with the Disney princesses is a hoot. The film cleverly ribs the Disney traditions of old but, and this is the key part, finds ways to relate it back to character conflicts and assumptions. The Disney princesses lead Vanellope into a new soul-searching direction, which leads to an inspired musical number that’s filled with silly, ironic non-sequitors and a declaration of purpose, a wonderful melding of the Disney storytelling of old and new. From here, the movie gets better and better as Ralph goes to greater lengths to sabotage Vanellope’s plans to leave him for a new game. The final act grows from this misguided attempt to hold onto selfish needs and rebuke change, and it culminates in a climax that is built around the characters and what they’re willing to give up for one another. For a movie that starts with silly gags about eBay and Twitter, it grows into something that genuinely could bring some tears.
The overall message, that growing apart is okay and can be healthy, that friendships will inevitably change over time and to not stand in the way of change, is a lesson I was not anticipating from a “family film.” I was expecting Ralph Breaks the Internet to mostly cover the dark side of the Internet, in an albeit family-friendly manner, about the casual cruelty and lack of empathy that is magnified from the perceived anonymity. The movie does cover some of this material briefly when Ralph stumbles into a hall of mean-spirited comments (“First rule of the Internet: never read the comments”). I was expecting a more simplified and pat lesson about the evils of the Internet, but instead the filmmakers deliver something far more applicable and important for young people. They could have gone for easy life lessons about online behavior, and instead Ralph Breaks the Internet goes above and beyond to make its message more personal and sympathetic.
Reilly (Kong: Skull Island) provides a lot of heart to his doofus; enough to keep him grounded even when his character starts making bad decisions to keep the status quo. Silverman (Battle of the Sexes) has a harder time just because she’s asked to keep her voice at a childlike level, which can be grating at certain points. She is still able to convey an array of emotions. The relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is key to the series being more than the sum of its parts, and both actors help this through their sometimes warm, sometimes bickering interactions. The biggest new addition is Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) as Shank, the leader of a gang of car thieves. She’s a tough lady that takes an immediate shine to the attitude and gusto of Vanellope. The character and her world are more welcomed than Gadot as a vocal actor. She’s fairly limited in range. I did enjoy that they specifically animated Jason Mantzoukas (Netflix’s Big Mouth) as a nerdy question-asker and Oscar-nominee June Squibb (Nebraska) for five seconds each.
The Wreck-It Ralph franchise is another stellar plank in a growing armada of Disney animated franchises that could challenge Pixar for supremacy. Walking away from Ralph Breaks the Internet, I had to think it over but I concluded that I was more emotionally fulfilled and pleased than with Pixar’s Incredibles 2. I’m not going to argue that Ralph is the better of the two movies when it comes to storytelling, visual inventiveness, or action, but I was happier and more satisfied leaving Ralph. This is an imaginative, colorful, cheerful, and heartfelt movie with a valuable message and the understanding of narrative structure to see it through. I’m now thinking about a potential third Ralph movie (the director says there won’t be another, but let’s see what Disney says after those box-office grosses come in). We’ve gone to the realm of online gaming, so what’s next? Maybe Ralph’s game gets transferred to a collector’s home out of the country, like in Japan, and then it’s about Japanese gaming culture. Or my pal Ben Bailey suggested Ralph’s game gets relocated into a movie theater, one of the few places arcade machines are still present, and it’s Ralph in the world of the movies. The fact that I’m pitching sequels says something about the franchise’s potential and its accomplishment. Ralph Breaks the Internet is a worthy sequel with of equal parts compassion and wit.
Nate’s Grade: A-
In the opening text crawl for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, it says, “During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star.” Disney, in its infinite wisdom to cash in on every potential resource of its lucrative cash cow, has decided to devote a whole movie to that one sentence in that initial crawl. I can’t wait for each sentence to get its movie. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (in case you’d forget) is the first film outside of any of the trilogies and much is at stake. Not just for the rebels but for Disney shareholders. If a wild success, expect future tales coming from every undiscovered corner of the Star Wars universe. And if Rogue One is any indication, that’s exactly the kind of artistic freedom needed to blossom.
Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has plenty to rebel against. Her father (Mads Mikkelsen) was forced against his will by Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work on a fiendish death machine for the Empire. Jyn’s father is responsible for designing the Death Star. Jyn is broken out of imperial prison by Cassian (Diego Luna) for the Rebellion. They want her to track down her father, find out whatever she can about this new fangled Death Star, and if possible, retrieve the plans on how it might be stopped. Her mission will take her to the ends of the galaxy to reunite with her father and to provide hope to the Rebellion.
Finally after many films we finally get a war movie in a franchise called Star Wars, and it’s pretty much what I wanted: a Star Wars Dirty Dozen mission. It’s thrilling to go back to the height of the resistance against the Evil Empire and see things from a ground perspective with a skeleton crew working behind the scenes. We may know the future events of those Death Star plans but we don’t know what will befall all of these new characters. Who will make it out alive? The open-and-shut nature of this side story in the Star Wars universe brings a bit more satisfaction by telling a complete story. This film will not have to wait for two eventual sequels years down the road in order for an audience to form a comprehensive opinion. I welcome more side stories like Rogue One that expand upon the fringes of the established universe and timelines, that establish colorful new characters and tell their own stories and come to their own endings, and hopefully don’t feature any more Death Stars (more on this below). It seems like it was ages ago that major studio tentpoles just attempted to tell a single, focused story rather than set up an extended universe of other titles to nudge along their respective paths. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla) is less slavishly loyal to the mythos of the series than J.J. Abrams. His movie doesn’t feel like flattering imitation but its own artistic entry. The cinematography is often beautiful and the natural landscapes and sets provide so much tangible authenticity to this world. Edwards has a terrific big-screen feel for his shot compositions and achieving different moods with lighting. He knows how to make the big moments feel bigger without sacrificing the requisite popcorn thrills we desire.
Rogue One has to walk a fine line between fan service and its own needs. While it’s fun to see Darth Vader on screen again voiced by the irreplaceable James Earl Jones, it’s also a bit extraneous other than some admittedly cool fan service. We don’t need to see Vader clear out a hallway of Rebel soldiers but then again why not? It’s the same when it comes to the inclusion of cameos from the original trilogy. Some are minor and some are major, achieved through the uncanny valley of CGI reconstruction. Gene Kelly may have danced with a vacuum cleaner and Sir Lawrence Oliver and Marlon Brando both appeared as big floating heads after their deaths, but this feels like the next step beyond the grave. There’s a somewhat ghastly feel for watching a dead actor reanimated, so your sense of overall wonder may vary. The cameos are better integrated than the Ghosbusters ones.
There’s a great cinematic pleasure in putting together a team of rogues and rebels. The characters on board this mission have interesting aspects to them. Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) is a blind warrior and aspiring Jedi. He feels like he stepped out of a great samurai movie. He uses his connection with the Force to make up for his lack of visual awareness, and Chirrut demonstrates these abilities in several memorably fun instances. There’s a world of back-story with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a dotty wheezing warrior who is more machine than man at this point. Whitaker gives an unusual performance that reminded me of a kindlier version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The reprogrammed robot K-250 (vocal and motion-capture performance by Alan Tudyk) is a reliable source of catty comic relief and I looked forward to what he was going to say next. The first 40-minutes is mostly the formation of this group, and it’s after that where the movie starts to get hazy. We know how it’s all got to end but the ensuing action in Act Two feels a bit lost. This may have to due with the reportedly extensive reshoots that were done last summer to spice up the movie (much of the earliest teaser footage isn’t in the finished film). I’d be fascinated to discover what the original story was from Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and just what rewrites Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) performed so late into its life. For much of the second act, the characters feel a bit too subdued for the life-or-death stakes involved, and that translates over to the audience. We travel to different locations throughout the first two acts but I can’t tell you much about them other than some intriguing mountainous architecture. The plot is a bit too undercooked and still obtuse for far too long, requiring our team to bounce around locations to acquire this person or that piece of information. Rarely do the characters get chances to open up.
It all comes together in the final act for a 30-minute assault that makes everything matter. It’s a thrilling conclusion and the movie finds a way to keep escalating the stakes, bringing in powerful reinforcements that force our Rogue One crew to alter their plans and placement, while still clearly communicating the needs of each group and the geography as a whole of the multiple points on the battlefield. It’s what you want a climactic battle to be and feel like where each player matters. It’s also a welcome addition to the Star Wars cannon, as we’ve never seen a beach assault before. It feels like a new level that was unlocked in some video game, and that’s no detriment. The ending battle has different checkpoints and mini-goals, which allows for the audience to be involved from the get-go and for the film to jump around locations while still maintaining an effective level of suspense. Many of these characters make something of a last stand, and you feel the extent of their sacrifice. I read in another review that the reason Jyn and her rogues win is because they accept that they are replaceable, and Orson Krennic fails because he made the mistake of believing himself irreplaceable. I think that’s a nice summation about the nobility of sacrifice. I won’t get into specific spoilers but I was very pleased with the ending of the film even though it’s not exactly the happiest. It feels like a fitting ending for the darker, grittier Star Wars tale and it provides earned emotional resonance for the setup of A New Hope, which this movie literally rolls right into.
With as many fun and potentially interesting characters aboard for this suicide mission, it’s somewhat surprising that they are also the film’s weak point. Beyond simple plot machinations like Character A gets Character B here, I can’t tell you much more about these rogue yet noble folks other than their superficial differences. Take for instance the Empire turncoat, pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) What personality does he have? What defines him? What is his arc? What about Cassian? He’s supposed to secretly assassinate Jyn’s father if given the chance, but do we see any struggle over this choice? Does it shape him? Does his outlook define his choice? Can you describe his personality at all whatsoever? What about the villain, Krennic? Can you tell me anything about him beyond his arrogance? What about Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), who carries a big gun and is close friends with our blind wannabe Jedi. Can you tell me anything about this guy beyond that? Even our fearless leader, Jyn Eros, feels lacking in significant development. She wants to find her father, get vengeance, but then changes her mind about sacrificing for the greater cause of hope. Many of the character relationships jump ahead without the needed moments to explain the growth and change. The original trilogy was defined by engaging characters. When you have a ragtag crew of six of seven rogues, you better make sure each brings something important to the movie from a narrative perspective, and not just from a pieces-on-the-board positioning for action. Look at Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for tips. If this was going to be a powerful and emotionally involving war movie, the characters needed to be felt deeper. All too often they get lost amidst the Star Wars debris and then they become debris themselves. Ironically enough, Rogue One has the reverse problems of The Force Awakens, a movie that benefited from engaging characters but sapped from an overly familiar and cautious story. It’s telling when my favorite character, by far, is a sassy comic relief robot.
Let’s talk about the Death Star in the room, namely the fact that over the course of eight Star Wars movies there have been Death Stars, or the construction thereof, in five of them (63% rate of Death Star sighting). We need a break. You can cal it a Star Killer Base whatever in Force Awakens but it’s still a Death Star in everything but name. I can’t even put a number to the amount of money it cost the Empire/First Order to build these things, plus the review process to try and correct design flaws that never seem to get corrected. At this point it feels like this model just isn’t cost-efficient for its killing needs. What about a more mobile set of multiple mini-Death Stars? I hope that the filmmakers for the new trilogy (Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow) refrain from putting another similar planet-killing space station-type weapon into their movies as we’ve had enough. However, the use of the Death Star in Rogue One was perfectly acceptable because it already fit into the timeline of the first film. I also greatly appreciated the clever retcon as to why the Death Star had its fatal flaw. It took a bothersome plot cheat from 1977 and found a gratifying and credible excuse. Now when Luke blows up that sucker it’ll have even more resonance.
Rogue One is a Star Wars adventure that feels like its own thing, and that’s the biggest part of its success. By being a standalone story relatively unencumbered by the canonical needs of hypothetical sequels, the movie opens up smaller stories worth exploring and characters deserving a spotlight. This is an exciting and entertaining war movie, and the kind of film I want to see more of in this multi-cultural universe. It’s not a faultless production as the lackluster character development definitely hampers some audience investment. I wish more could have been done with them before they started being permanently taken off the board. While Rogue One is looking to the past of Star Wars it still makes its own independence known. I hope this is the start of a continuation into exploring more of that galaxy far far away without the required additions of every Skywalker and Solo in existence. It’s a far bigger universe and it needs its close-up.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Polynesian-based animated musical Moana is a throwback to the Disney formula of the 1990s that became so familiar and entrenched. The time away has made it a welcomed return, especially when executed to this magnificent magnitude. A formula by itself is not a problem, in theory. Many of our favorite movies follow storytelling paths that others have trod well before, but it’s all about the level of execution, building characters that an audience cares about, a conflict that feels involving and escalating, and payoffs that are naturally setup throughout the plotting. With a formula, it’s not the song it’s the singer, and Moana is a splendid and delightful animated movie that should enchant all ages with colorful characters, catchy songs, and the familiar formula of old given surprising and rewarding depths. It’s a lovingly made movie I fell in love with.
In ancient times among the Polynesian islands, the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole the literal heart of the goddess Te Fiti, a shining green emerald responsible for creating life. Many years later, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a teenage girl next n line to be the chief of her people. Much is expected of her for the betterment of the island but Moana would rather be out there on the water, a passion that her father forbids. Her island is in dire trouble when the food supplies are rotting or disappearing. Moana’s eccentric grandmother (voiced by Rachel House) tells her what must happen: she must venture out to sea, find Maui, retrieve his magic fishhook, and force Maui to return Te Fiti’s heart to the source. Moana sneaks away and embarks on a great adventure that will test her skills and her sense of who she is and what her calling should be.
With a few clever nods, Moana intimates to its audience that it knows what they expect and will be delivering the best of the old formula without being slavishly lockstep in its execution. The Disney formula of the hero or heroine yearning for something grander from their supposedly drab existence became a crutch after the apex of the Disney Renaissance in the mid 90s. The overprotective father who doesn’t want their daughter or son to break far from tradition will also be plenty familiar. With Moana, the masters who kickstarted that Renaissance, directors Ron Clements and John Musker, return to the formula but also know what to subvert, what to tweak, and what to dive right into. While it’s not as subversive as mildly revolutionary for a Disney movie as Frozen, this is still a movie that anticipates the connections an audience will make and knowingly tweaks them. On her island, Moana has a cute little pig sidekick who you expect to make the journey with her… except it doesn’t. Instead the brain-dead chicken, a reliable source of comic relief, is her traveling animal companion. Moana prickles at being called a princess; she’s the daughter of the chief and actually already functions in a ruling capacity. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he nonchalantly retorts. There’s also a lesson in what constitutes good and evil as all the villains and reprobates of legend are far more ambiguous. There’s also a refreshing lack of a central romance. We have a strong heroine whose goal is completely unrelated to romantic love. This girl has bigger things on her mind than boys.
This movie is primarily a two-hander as we witness Moana and Maui interact, grow, and change, much to our amusement. I can’t recall another Disney film that had such a small focus on a limited number of characters and this decision pays dividends. While only 103 minutes, we really get to understand these two people and what drives them and what fears keep them from accomplishing their goals. Moana is a terrific character. She’s pulled in different directions from her sense of duty and her own ambition to explore the world outside. She’s feisty but still clumsy, empowered but still filled with doubts, independent but considerate of others. After all, her plight is to save her people. Pairing this character with Maui provides plenty of narrative sparks, especially as Maui is forced against his will by the power of the ocean to assist in doing right with Moana. Newcomer Cravhalo makes quite a debut. Her singing voice is flawless but I was highly impressed with the emotion she was able to convey through her vocal performance. She makes you care deeply for her character because she brings such life to the lively Moana. Johnson’s boundless charisma is amazingly channeled into the character thanks to the animators. Johnson isn’t lazily sleepwalking in his performance like so many celebrity vocal actors. Moana and Maui both intrinsically have their identities tied up in their sense of obligation to others, and this provides a common area for them to bond and also to stretch as characters. Theirs is a dual journey of self-discovery and defining themselves on their own terms. The actions of others and their demands do not have to define you. The charged interplay between Moana and Maui, two characters at cross-purpose in their goals, is a scenario that places them in our focus and endears them to us as they deepen.
The fantasy setting also allows for plenty of fun and imaginative diversions and turns. The mingling of man and god with the whimsical and weird magical creatures made me think of the great Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) as a direct creative influence. There is a delightfully wonky sequence with a wild band of pirates that are best described as living coconuts from a Mad Max film. Their floating ships are patched together with ramshackle planks and pieces and a thunderous drumbeat for pacing. All that’s missing is a coconut with a flaming guitar. It’s such a visually delightful and daffy segment and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Maui’s living tattoos (traditional hand-drawn animation) provide further personality and serve as his conscience. The underwater land of monsters is also begging for further exploration. Maui’s shape-shifting powers are brought to the forefront during key battles with the giant lava monster Te Ka. Even when the movie isn’t dazzling you with a song or its character development it can pull off inventive and visually gorgeous world building that sucks you in.
While not hitting the earworm heights of Frozen’s best, the songs in Moana are uniformly good and, even better, advance the story and give additional light to characters. Lin Manuel-Miranda is still a musical genius and imbues the sounds of Moana with Polynesian culture and history, lots of powerful percussion and harmonies. Moana’s personal theme of “How Far I’ll Go” has some wonderful melodic turns especially as it builds, and it’s a fine musical throughline for her journey with each repetition building in emotion. I enjoyed the Hamilton-style rhyming flourishes as well as the extended rap interlude on The Rock’s jaunty signature song, “You’re Welcome.” That tune is quite playful with a strong hook and it boasts all Maui’s accomplishments and his hefty ego, but it also has a narrative purpose. Maui uses the song to distract Moana and steal her boat. My current favorite might actually be the outlier on the soundtrack; “Shiny” is an absurdly enjoyable Bowie-esque glam rock number from a giant crustacean admiring his fascination for all things shiny. Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows) superbly sinks his teeth into such a theatrical and comical villain. It’s a short scene but Clemente’s impression is irresistible. His song is also a strategy, allowing Maui to steal back his fishhook while the opportunity for gloating distracts the giant crab. The songs are a reflection of the characters singing them and serve narrative purpose, which is a rarity in big-screen musicals. The musical score by Mark Mancini beautifully matches Manuel-Miranda’s songwriting themes and provides a lush sonic backdrop.
This has been an absolute dream of a year for animated movies. From Zootopia to Kubo and the Two Strings to the heartwarming indie Life Animated, the movies have enchanted and entertained and also dared to challenge, uplift, and engage an audience. These are more than mere babysitting tools for exhausted parents to put on; these movies are some of the best of the year, animated or live-action. For my tastes, Moana is just a touch below Zootopia due to the latter’s complexly inventive world and articulate social commentary. However, Moana is a lavishly produced adventure with great characters, more than a few pleasant surprises, and an emotional core that becomes more evident as the two characters we’ve grown attached to come full circle. The visuals are lively and colorful, the plotting is carefully paced and comes to a meaty conclusion, and the emphasis is on the relationship of the two main characters and their function. There was nary a moment during Moana where I wasn’t smiling from ear to ear. Do yourself a favor and savor this second Disney Renaissance because since 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph the Mouse House has been on a near unprecedented creative tear. This is starting to get to peak Pixar levels, folks. What can I say except… you’re welcome?
Nate’s Grade: A-
I may be the last person on the planet to have finally watched Zootopia, Disney’s first quarter hit of the year, and I am very glad that I did. I was expecting something cute with the premise of a plucky rabbit (voiced winningly by Ginnfer Goodwin) joining forces with a wily grifter fox (Jason Bateman) in the sprawling animal metropolis, but what I wasn’t expecting was a fully thought out and stupendously imaginative world and a message that is just as thought out and pertinent. The anthropomorphic animal land is filled with colorful locations and plenty of amusing characters. It’s highly enjoyable just to sit back and watch. I knew I was in for something radically different and dare I say more ambitious when there was an N-word approximation joke within the first ten minutes. This was not a movie to be taken lying down. My attention was rewarded with an engaging relationship between the two leads, careful plotting, endlessly clever asides without relying upon an inordinate amount of pop-culture references, and ultimately a noble and relevant message about the power of inclusion, tolerance, and rejecting prejudice. The larger metaphor seems slightly muddied by the late reveal of who is behind the conspiracy to make the animals go feral, but I wouldn’t say it undercuts the film’s power. The characters charmed me and I was happy that each ecosystem factored into the story in fun and interesting ways. There are plenty of payoffs distributed throughout the movie to make it even more rewarding. Zootopia is a funny, entertaining, heartfelt, and immersive movie with great characters and a world I’d like to explore again. Given its billion-dollar success, I imagine a return trip will be in short order and we should all be thankful. Something this spry and creative needs to be appreciated.
Nate’s Grade: A
It’s called The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, though the trials appear more as “general struggles,” The Scorch appears as but a brief expanse of desert before the mountains, and then there’s the lack of any and all maze running (there is plenty of running, however). This sequel to the YA-inspired hit lives up to my biggest worry: the only thing interesting about this franchise was the maze, and now that’s gone. The mystery of the maze, and its cool factor, gave this story something memorable. Now it’s just generic YA pap. Beyond its boring protagonist, it would be a scorch trial for me to even assign description to these characters. They don’t even get one note to play; they have no notes. That’s because so much of this tedious and bloated sequel is our group of maze survivors running from one outpost to another, seemingly safe and then predictably not. It’s a plot routine that gets redundant quickly, and yet little else seems to occur. They go from stop to stop gaining characters but little else. The momentum feels stalled and there’s no sense of direction to guide the characters. It feels so aimless and dull and far too flimsy to justify even half of the movie’s 132 minutes. I just don’t care about these characters so I rooted for the bad guys. Weirdly enough, the bad guys use tasers and the good guys use bullets. There are some scant highpoints, namely the direction of Wes Ball, who finds ways to make the chase sequences visually stylish and fleetingly exciting, and a self-destruct sequence set to a Patsy Cline tune. There’s enough to get your hopes up before the grim reality of the overwhelming onslaught of YA tropes comes crashing down again. Can we stick these dumb kids back inside a maze already?
Nate’s Grade: C
Disney’s first adaptation of a Marvel property, it’s essentially a superhero origin tale mixed in with the “boy and his robot” formula borrowed from The Iron Giant. The story is fairly predictable but charming and unafraid to deal with loss and grief. The real star, though, is the inflatable robot Betamax (voiced by Scott Adsit), whose unfailingly optimistic and helpful nature is a loveable addition to a genre plagued with doom and brooding. The action sequences are colorful and well developed and paced. It’s an agreeable pilot film for a new animated franchise, and the characters are likeable and fun while still having enough emotional resonance to make the hard choices of sacrifice hit you in the gut. It’s a welcome change of pace to have a character interested, first and foremost, in the mental health of others. You just want to hug Betamax (parents, your children will be begging for the toys). The plot does follow many similar plot beats of the superior Iron Giant but this film is still enjoyable enough on its own terms.
Nate’s Grade: B
Enough time has passed that a revival of the 1990s Broadway formula that Disney stuck so aggressively to for so long is actually a welcome treat, especially when Frozen is this good of a movie. An extremely loose retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, we follow two sisters and princesses, one of whom, Elsa, is gifted with magic powers controlling ice. She’s lived a life of solitude out of fear and penance for endangering her sister when they were kids. Ana has no idea, having her memory wiped through magic, and so she desperately wonders why big sis gives her the cold shoulder. After another accident, Elsa lets her powers loose, refusing to try and fit into the confines of society no longer. Ana is the only one who can save her and the town. Did you read any mention of a man in that plot breakdown? While there are significant male characters, including romantic suitors, Frozen is the story of a different kind of love, a familial love between sisters. It also generously pokes fun at Disney’s admittedly spotty record of heroines giving up their dreams for the first man they meet. Even the comedic side characters work wonderfully. Josh Gad (Jobs) as a magic snowman had me cracking up throughout with his dopey line reading and enthusiastic inflections. Idina Menzel (Rent) as the voice of Elsa is enthralling, and she gets the film’s “Defying Gravity”-esque showstopper, “Let it Go.” Kristen Bell (TV’s Veronica Mars) is terrific as the voice of Ana, vulnerable, heartfelt, and a little bit goofy, and she sings great. All the actors sing great (look what happens when you hire musical theater alums). Even better, the songs are catchy, well composed, and critical to the plot, short of a silly troll tune that should have been cut. The movie also looks gorgeous, which is surprising considering I thought the color palate would be limited with the film mostly taking place in the snow. But what makes the movie truly enjoyable is how emotionally engaging it is, the somber opening twenty minutes setting up just how much tragedy and misunderstanding there is between Ana and Elsa (the melancholy end to their song killed me). Their eventual reconciliation and the selfless acts of bravery might just make you misty. Frozen is a holiday treat for families, animation aficionados, and those hoping Disney could make a film with positive messages for young girls. In a weak year for animation, this rockets to the top of 2013. Just make sure you get the Disney version for your family and not, you know, the horror movie of the same name about people stranded on a ski lift. Though that’s a pretty good survival thriller itself, so, your call.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Staid and square, a bit like its lead, 42 is a biopic on Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, and while it’s reverential to a fault, it could have used more life. As a character, Robinson is simply not terribly interesting because he’s being trapped within a limited prism of inaction. Robinson the man could be fascinating, but Robinson the character of this movie is a bit of a bore. That’s why the film is just as much about Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a far more colorful character that gets to chomp cigars and lecture people with countless speeches accompanied by heroic piano cues. 42 is crammed to the gills with messages but they’re so transparent and overdone, occasionally ham-fisted, where every important thought is spelled out and underlined and repeated for the audience. The corny sentimentality clashes with the danger and hostility Robinson bravely faced. We got stuff like a little kid praying to God that Robinson hits a homer to “show what we can do,” a white guy trots up to Robinson and he seems dangerous… only to want to wish him well, and then there’s all the white players learning lessons of tolerance, treating Robinson as if he’s some prop for their own self-actualization. The greatest acting in the movie, a bit that may take your breath away, is from Alan Tudyk who plays a competing team manager. He is like a racist Foghorn Leghorn and he just… keeps… going. This sequence is the film’s best because it feels earned, complete, and lastly emotionally resonant. 42 is an acceptable biopic, effectively triumphant where it counts, but it feels too dated, too safe, and overburdened with doling out a slew of messages rather than telling an engaging and difficult story.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Disney has taken plenty of drubbings with its non-Pixar animation output. They’ve all but abandoned traditional 2D animation, and the failure of The Princess and the Frog is unlikely to alter that decision-making. The Disney stand-alones have gotten better in quality; last year’s Tangled was well received and banked some nice dough. I expect Wreck-It Ralph to do even better. A film about the lives of video game characters seems ripe for a merchandizing bonanza, plus all the parents will need something to shut up their sweet little bundles of joy for two hours of relief.
Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of a classic arcade game. He climbs a condo building, Donkey Kong-style, and smashes windows. Felix (Jack McBrayer) is the handyman the player controls, hopping from ledge to ledge fixing what is broken with his magic hammer. But Ralph is tired of always being the bad guy, getting hurled off the roof at the end of every game by the residents. He’s labeled as a “bad guy” but he doesn’t believe he’s so bad. To convince the townspeople of his game of his worth, Ralph abandons his game to seek a medal like what Felix earns at the end of every game. He trounces around an assortment of games, including a space Marine shoot-em-up led by the no-nonsense Calhoun (Jane Lynch), before landing in Sugar Rush, a girlie version of Mario Kart. Here he meets the rascally girl Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She agrees to help Ralph get his medal if he’ll help her build a racing car and get her in the game. Vanellope lives on the run as a glitch in programming. The other game characters tell her she’s a mistake, but she knows she’s a racer at heart. Except without Ralph, Felix and the other game characters seem like they’re glitching. If they can’t get him back, they may lose their game and their home.
It’s essentially a Toy Story for gamers, discovering the hidden world of video games when nobody’s looking. There’s a great sense of fun and discovery learning about these characters and their worlds as well as what they do off the clock. I love the idea of a support group for video game villains coping with their lot in life. I feel like this could have been a movie unto itself and I would have been pleased. There are plenty of references to games from the 80s and 90s, before everything became an endless variation on first-person shoot and kill games of sport. Really the references are only going to work for former or current gamers in their 20s or 30s, maybe even 40s. Are teenagers even going to understand the famous Konami code or get the subway scrawl, “All your base are belong to us”? Heck, are teenagers even going to know what arcades are at this point? The cameos are kept to a minimum as we switch over to our main characters. Wreck-It Ralph isn’t as clever or groundbreaking as the Toy Story films, but it gets points for trying something different than most family films, which are content with the somehow irresistible combination of fart jokes and inappropriate pop-culture references. Even non-gamers will likely find something to enjoy with the movie. I’ve gone on record saying that there will likely never be a good video game movie. Allow me to amend that statement: there will never be a good movie BASED upon a video game.
Set in the world of video games is another matter. The animation style is very colorful and impressive, with some fun quirks to give the movie an extra dash of personality. I really enjoyed how the Weeble-like people in Ralph’s game move in staccato 8-bit style; a herky-jerky movement that left me smiling every time. The running jokes helped to turn a half-hearted gag into a thing of beauty, like Calhoun’s tragic bridal backstory. The antagonist of King Candy (voiced by an unrecognizable Alan Tudyk) proves to be more interesting than at first glance. The different game settings all have very different tones, allowing the movie to present a nice variety of visual imagery. Some of the more frenzied action of the “Hero’s Duty” game might scare young children. The animation looks wonderful and even the recreation of the graphically limited games is cause for some amusement. That’s probably the best word for Wreck-It Ralph; it’s routinely amusing and provides enough chuckles for me to mildly recommend to others. I would not, however, recommend seeing this movie in 3D. You would think a world of video games would be quite a boon in the extra dimension, but the 3D is hardly noticeable at all. This may be the worst 3D rendering of a major movie I’ve ever seen, and usually animated films are the best ones to see with 3D. Regardless, the substandard 3D won’t detract from what is an enjoyable theatrical experience.
What helps smooth over the film’s flaws is the presence of heart. Yes it too can get saccharine at turns, and that’s not a joke about Sugar Rush, but you’ll be surprised that by the end of the movie, you may actually be feeling things in your heart-space for these characters and their plights. Again, here is another 2012 movie that rips off the ending to the brilliant 1999 animated classic, The Iron Giant. Perhaps some of my emotional engagement is residual association from that masterpiece. If this is true, and Hollywood filmmakers have found the secret formula to make audiences feel emotions, then I await the onslaught of movies copying the ending to The Iron Giant (I won’t spoil it but for God’s sake, go out and see that movie). After about 30 minutes, the film really becomes a buddy picture between Ralph and Vanellope, outcasts from their games. Neither character is that deep, though perhaps that goes with the programming. They both are denied better lives because of others prejudices against them. When they join forces as a team to buck the establishment is when the movie finds a wealth of sweetness. While their character arcs will be completely predictable, from the misunderstanding and reconciliation, but that doesn’t mean it misses the mark. Their relationship, and the film’s simple goals, can get bogged down in the messy plot mechanics of the movie (there are a lot of rules to digest). The climax, though, is filled with all number of payoffs, some big some small, some you’d forgotten about; I’m genuinely impressed how smoothly the movie ties together storylines, finding a perfect return of the bad guy support group pledge to form an emotional peak.
There is a fun to be had and Wreck-It Ralph has enough colorful imagery to make your eyes glaze over. However, the story is a blend of familiar “be yourself” aphorisms given a retro polish. The motivation for Ralph, and Vanellope as well, is very flimsy, and the more time they repeat these miniscule goals (get a medal/compete in a race) the flimsier they become. Ralph is risking it all to get a medal because a shiny award is all it takes to convince the people in his game that he deserves better. The dubious logic seems pulled right out of a video game. There’s also a fair amount of messages about not being trapped by labels, breaking from the herd, believing in yourself, all those sorts of Disney beatitudes they’ve been dishing since the 90s. The plot also seems to fly well below its potential. We’re talking about a world of video games, and there’s a definite interest in seeing these realms mix and match. Unfortunately, the movie spends 2/3 of its running time in the candy-coated land of Sugar Rush. It’s here where Vanellope takes over the movie. Her relationship with Ralph works in fits and starts, and her annoyance level will vary sharply depending upon your tolerance index for Silverman’s baby-doll voice. Aside from a few retro cameos and puns, the humor is assuredly juvenile and filled with endless slapstick. Hope you like three minutes of “duty/doodie” jokes. You’re better than this, Wreck-It Ralph.
There’s one glaring plot hole that I feel deserves some deliberation. Throughout the film we glimpse Felix’s hammer magically fixing things that are broken. Just one whap and good as new. A late conflict arrives with the danger of the Sugar Rush game getting its plug pulled. The residents of the game could flee, but Vanellope would be stuck because she is a glitch, she cannot escape the game if it goes dead. Well couldn’t Felix use his hammer, tap Vanellope, and then “fix” her? To that end, what happens if the whole arcade goes out of business? We see the displaced game characters hang out at the surge protector, modeled like a train station. But what if that gets unhooked as well? How far can these guys run away to? They all seem inevitably doomed due to the dwindling business of arcades. Maybe somebody should start up a non-profit charity. Cue the Sarah McLachlan song (for just quarters a day, you can help a video game character in need…).
Colorful, vibrant, and occasionally witty, Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s latest animated film to succeed with a solid formula of heart, attitude, and with an extra dash of nostalgia. I did enjoy the film but I always kept thinking there were so many better movies ready to be made given this setup. It does seem a little confused about who its audience is. It’s a bit too childish for grown-ups and a bit too plot-heavy and full of nostalgia for little kids. It packs a lot of jokes and plot into 108 minutes, which feels draggy at turns but flies by with enough spirit and energy that it’s hard to complain. Wreck-It Ralph is a perfectly entertaining movie that fits the definition of cute. It manages to make you care about the characters, which is a small miracle when you’re dealing with characters named Vanellope. Now that they’ve established this universe, hopefully Disney and the writers can expand their storytelling and really have fun with the possibilities at play.
Oh, and the short before the movie about a couple looking to find one another in the big city is rather cute though I liked it better before it went overboard with the supernatural.
Nate’s Grade: B