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The Grinch (2018)

The second go at a twenty-first century feature-length Grinch movie is a thoroughly, spectacularly bland movie. This mediocre enterprise barely stretches to feature length at 86 minutes and it lacks the charm of the original Dr. Seuss cartoon. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the green recluse with his three-sizes-too-small heart set on stealing the Christmas celebration of others. That’s great casting, but why is he settling for his Doctor Strange-style American voice? The man has such a natural, rich, velvety voice. Another miscue is the fact that this Grinch isn’t really feared by the people of Whoville. He lives just outside of ton and isn’t really that mean. He’s less a villain and more just a grumpy sad guy who has to over explain everything for the audience to understand (“I thought stealing Christmas would make me feel better, but really I was running from myself…”). This movie is brightly colored and nicely animated but it’s strictly just for little kids. The lessons are pretty simplistic. The characters are mostly annoying, precocious, or mute. The humor is mostly slapstick. There is nothing to engage bigger thinkers. This Grinch movie actually made me start re-evaluating the 2000 Ron Howard version, which at least tried something and had an enjoyably hammy Jim Carrey performance with some creepy good makeup prosthetics, and I didn’t even like that movie. The new animated Grinch film is inoffensively lackluster. At best it’s a disposable 90 minutes to distract easily distractible children and give mom and dad time for a nap.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Incredibles 2 (2018)

The prevailing problem with Pixar sequels (and prequels) lacking “Toy” in their title is that they never feel like stories needing to be told, tales that will enrich our understanding of the characters and their larger world. I would much more gladly like a Monster’s Inc. sequel where Adult Boo is visited by her old closet-dwelling friends rather than an inoffensively cute prequel explaining how characters became friends long ago. The Incredibles universe always seemed like the one most demanding of a real sequel. Writer/director Brad Bird created a rich retro-futuristic world with numerous possibilities. I’m happy to report that Incredibles 2, while not soaring to the exact heights of its predecessor, is still a very worthy sequel that even manages to outshine the original in select areas.

Taking place literally seconds after the conclusion of the 2004 film, the Parr family fights together against the Underminer. The city, however, is none too happy about the collateral damage. Superheroes are still illegal. There’s no more relocation either. The Parrs are stuck, until a pair of billionaire siblings (voiced by Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener) reaches out to try and repeal the superhero ban. They want to position Helen Parr a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holy Hunter) for the public relations campaign (she causes a lot less collateral damage than her husband). Bob Parr a.k.a. Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) encourages his wife to go out and save the day, though he’s barely holding back his jealousy. He takes on the domestic duties, helping Dash (Huck Milner), moody daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), and the young baby, Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile, reprising the role of voicing a baby, for real). A villain known as the Screenslaver is terrorizing the city and hypnotizing citizens through hijacked broadcasts. Elastigirl tries to uncover the mystery of the Screenslaver while Mr. Incredible tries to juggle the realities of stay-at-home parenthood.

Bird’s sense of visual inventiveness is still heartily alive and whimsically well in the medium of animation. Bird’s original film was an imaginative marvel with its intricate action sequences, some of which are the best in any medium, animated or live-action. He’s a choreographer of action that upholds the basic tenants of action, namely that if you have characters with special abilities, they should be utilized, along with attention toward geography and the purpose of the scene. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch well developed action sequences that go beyond flashy style, that account for mini-goals and organic complications. Take for instance Elastigirl’s motorcycle chase scene. It’s exciting as is but when the bike breaks apart, taking advantage of Elastigirl’s stretchy powers, that’s when it becomes even more gratifying and clever. There is a group of lesser super heroes that come out of the shadows thanks to Elastigirl’s heroics. At first they’re played for primarily comedic value, but Bird smartly turns them into a force to be reckoned with when they band together. I especially appreciate having a character with portal-manifesting powers and finding many opportunities to explore this unique power. When the film is humming with its visual energy and inventiveness, Incredibles 2 is a gloriously entertaining and satisfying action movie told by one of the best on the business.

The action is on par (no pun intended) with the first film even as the overall experience lacks the emotional stakes and depths of the first Incredibles. That should not be seen as some destabilizing deficiency as The Incredibles was a nearly flawless film (it’s my second favorite Pixar film after WALL-E). There were moments in the original film that transcended the superhero setting, where they Parr family felt like real people with real emotions and relatable stakes, like Mr. Incredible’s confession that he’s not strong enough to suffer the loss of his family. While Bird’s film made several homages to the James Bond cannon, there were real stakes. People could die. Many superheroes did, albeit mostly off-screen. This was Pixar’s first PG-rated film and that’s because it dealt with some heavy thematic issues in a mature manner. The bad guys weren’t like the movies, Helen Parr warned; they would kill children if given the chance. Incredibles 2 doesn’t have any real moments like that to cut through the whiz-bang.

This time it’s Elastigirl enjoying the limelight, and there’s a notable feminist message of a woman finally getting her due. She relishes the adventure though is willing to sacrifice it for her family if needed, which her husband will refuse to allow her to do. Her success is his success, he reminds himself. The sooner she succeeds the sooner he can also get back out there to fight crime. I think one of the reasons the characterization isn’t as developed this time is because of the abbreviated time frame. We’re literally picking up seconds from the first movie and dealing with the immediate consequences. We’re only following the events of a few weeks, maybe months at most, and while the Parr family undergoes trials and disappointments, It feels like maybe there just wasn’t enough space for the characters to have succinct arcs and grow substantially. This is a quibble for an otherwise great movie. Incredibles 2 still stay true to the characters you love.

The exploration of Mr. Incredible’s descent into domestic life was my favorite part of the film, and I had been worried it would be outdated Mr. Mom-style jokes. The movie steers away from most of the tired gender tropes, moving past simply having an incompetent man performing household duties in hilariously incompetent ways. The jokes aren’t dependent upon a man doing them so much as someone who feels out of step and beleaguered, so parenthood in general. The first movie was about midlife identity crises and that has carried over into this sequel as well. Bob has a meaningful challenge with each one of his children, having to re-learn old concepts with his son and adapt to new ones, having to tackle the minefield of dating with his daughter and finding the right tone, and the increasingly the demands of a child with, let’s call them, special needs. The Jack-Jack segments are inspired pieces of old school Looney Tunes slapstick. Each new power provides another point of discovery for our characters that, remember, are initially clueless about Jack-Jack’s amazing abilities. Mr. Incredible is so eager to get back to being a super hero that forcing him to confront his own inadequacies as a parent is a smart way to better open him up as a three-dimensional character. I enjoyed the action of Elastigirl’s spotlight missions but I kept looking forward to returning to the other Parrs.

In a few areas I would even say Incredibles 2 has its original beat, especially in the realm of comedy and visual inventiveness. Part of that is simply the advancement of the technology allowing Bird more freedom to up the ante as well as showcase more intricate facial emotions. There are some areas that just cannot compare, which is not to say that they are bad on their own. The late twist of the villain’s identity should be more than obvious for anyone paying attention. The themes of this movie are much hazier this time around. There are a few that pop up, like police surveillance and body cams, then a general screed against the general social malaise brought on from technology, then breaking unjust laws to serve a more realized sense of justice, and then finally the movie settles on what seems like its true theme, the danger of being too dependent on, essentially, government assistance. If the superheroes represent the government, the villain’s plot is to shake people away from waiting for the superheroes to fix everything and growing over reliant on outside assistance (finally a summer blockbuster with a message even Paul Ryan could love). Bird has featured some Randian ideals in past films, The Incredibles a prime example. My pal Ben Bailey strongly believes that the first film’s villain had the right idea though wrong method. Superheroes are by design egotistical. The belief that there are people who are better and deserving of a elite, preferential status seems antithetical with the sequel’s major theme. Or maybe it’s the mutated evolution of Ayn Rand’s sense of political objectivism. Feel free to debate at the kitchen table with your own family.

If the major fault of Incredibles 2 (there is no “The;” look it up if you doubt me) is that it can’t quite live up to the dizzying heights of the original, then that’s hardly a damning fault. In the 14 ensuing years, the superhero movie has become the dominant Hollywood blockbuster, and Bird needed to think long and hard about how his return visit would distinguish itself from a cluttered landscape of super heroics. Bird finds meaningful and interesting stories for both the “normal” version of his family unit as well as their super selves. Fans of the original should find more than enough to entertain themselves with even if the depth and characterization aren’t as wonderfully realized. There’s great comedy, great action, and great fun to be had with Pixar’s best sequel not with “Toy” in its title.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Isle of Dogs (2018)

The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.

Nate’s Grade: B

Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

It’s been a couple of hours after watching Sherlock Gnomes and I still have alcohol working through my bloodstream (a byproduct of having to watch Sherlock Gnomes) and so I thought why not begin the review writing process and see where this goes. A little pretext first: I had no intention of watching this movie. Every time its trailer came before a movie I was watching, I cringed harder than I ever have. I cannot remember another movie trailer that I would describe as soul-killing as this one, with its emphasis on butt humor and an extended joke about a thong-wearing gnome farting in the mud. To watch this trailer was to look into the empty abyss and have it look back into you. It was this repulsed reaction that entertained my friend Ben Bailey so much that he insisted that we watch Sherlock Gnomes one fateful evening (he paid for my ticket and my suffering). I loaded up at the theater’s bar and the bartender made the easiest upsell he ever did in his life, and I took my tall adult beverage, sat in the theater, and awaited the end, like a man heading toward execution. Then a funny thing happened and Sherlock Gnomes was not the film advertised in its abysmal, life-questioning trailer. It’s still not great, though.

Following the events from the 2011 original, Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes have relocated to a new home in London. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) are entrusted with the gnome-specific responsibilities of the garden by gnome leadership. I guess it’s about making the place look nice. Anyway, Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) and his trusty sidekick Watson (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are looking into the disappearance of gnomes all over. One unfortunate day, while Gnomeo and Juliet are away from their garden, the rest of the gnomes have been kidnapped. Sherlock Gnomes and the others vow to find them, believing the culprit to be Sherlock’s longtime nemesis, Moriarty (voiced by Jamie Demetriou).

Remarkably, a solid 80 percent of the trailer for Sherlock Gnomes is not in the finished film. The fart Jacuzzi? Gone. The “no ship Sherlock” bit? Gone? The thong-wearing gnome twerking? Gone. This fascinates me. We’ve long been plagued with trailers that ultimately have moments not in the final product, but I’ve never seen a movie, let alone an animated feature, where the clear majority of its trailer does not exist. Animated films take many years in development and are generally costly. If a live-action film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost those days of work. If an animated film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost months if possible years of toil. How does this happen? Was the trailer an intentional ruse meant to advertise a far more juvenile, base, and dispiriting movie? The trailer features several jokes or references that, I assumed, were never intended for the final product because these scenes involve the other gnomes who were kidnapped. That means they were animated and either radically changed the story or these jokes were cynically constructed to produce a misleading trailer to appeal to children with farts. This truly fascinates me and befuddles me, a worthy mystery for Sherlock Gnomes (UPDATE: theory confirmed!).

The actual Sherlock Gnomes film I sat through wasn’t actively painful but it wasn’t particularly engaging or rewarding either, a mediocre children’s movie that will vanish from memory upon the ride home. There were a handful of moments where I rolled my eyes but no joke, no pun, even approached the pain of that trailer. On the flip side, there was perhaps two jokes that drew a mild chuckle and that was it. For the majority of the 86-minute running time, I just sat and took it all in, never really engaging. It was boring yet inoffensive, colorful yet unimaginative, and derivative yet silly enough to be a trifle. The look of the animation as a bit more polished than I was anticipating. The use of lighting and scale is well balanced. The voice acting was acceptable from the star-studded cast and I didn’t feel any great sadness for anyone’s involvement. The lessons and plot twists will be predictable enough for someone over the age of eight, but hey, everybody needs to learn some time. The use of the Elton John song catalogue (he is a primary producer) is the most forced element in the film, elbowing in one song or another, including “original songs” that you won’t even remember. Much like the rest, John’s contributions are mediocre and easily forgotten.

I kept wondering about the strange world building and its implications. This is a clear application of Pixar’s oft-used formula of the secret-life-of, this time with garden gnomes. Except there’s a segment where Sherlock and Juliet go to a club populated with dolls, stuffed animals, and toys of all sorts. So it’s not just garden gnomes that are secretly alive, it’s also children’s toys. Which means this is essentially the same universe as Toy Story. For whatever reason, and maybe it’s a misplaced sense of novelty, we stick with the gnomes. These creatures worry about being smashed, though can they be put back together much like Humpty Dumpty (except he couldn’t be put back together even with the help of all the king’s men and horses, no never mind this references. Also, what good are horses going to do putting together the shattered pieces of an egg-man? Do horses have thumbs to pick up the broken pieces? I feel like this entire aside might be attributable to the alcohol still in my system). If breaking is their biggest fear, why do these gnomes take such unnecessary risks with their safety and well-being? When Gnomeo is tossing Juliet in the air atop a ladder, I worried for her little gnome life. This cavalier attitude prevails amidst the larger gnome community, and my only conclusion is that these creatures are either thrill-seeking junkies or masochists. Then I began thinking of the life of other garden gnomes. I assume most gnome-owners don’t exactly have an entire menagerie of these things, and so the majority of gnome existence must seem awfully isolated and lonely. Their communities must be few and far between. Then I started thinking about transforming past Best Picture-winners into gnome format, and let’s just say that 12 Years a Garden Gnome was not a good idea for anyone.

This is a sequel and combined spin-off for the animated gnomes world, so the holdover characters often feel superfluous. This is clearly more of a Sherlock vehicle and there are even references to the Hound of Baskervilles and The Final Problem, among others. This is trying to establish a Sherlock Gnomes franchise first and foremost. The Gnomeo and Juliet subplot feels rushed and foolishly resolved. Now tasked with running the garden, Juliet feels overwhelmed with pressure and Gnomeo feels like he isn’t getting attention. Rather than support her, or see things from her perspective, he pouts and accuses her of taking him for granted. To conclude this storyline, she actually apologizes, and I shouted, “Apologize for what?” A better rendition of this storyline is realized with Sherlock Gnomes repeatedly being indifferent to Watson’s contributions. When the main theme, character arcs, and plot points involve new characters, you might as well get rid of the holdovers and go all-in on Sherlock Gnomes. Was there a picky audience that would have said, “I will only accept another gnome-related children’s film if it has the tiniest connection to the last gnome-related children’s film”? Also, there’s another garden gnome children’s film on the horizon, Gnome Alone, so stay tuned, gnome aficionados.

The victory is that Sherlock Gnomes is not the seventh-seal-breaking apocalyptic event that its reprehensible, punishing, life-sapping trailer suggested. Hooray for you, Sherlock Gnomes filmmakers. The finished product is still a mostly middling time-waster that feels like a Gnomes relaunch. I fully admit this movie was never intended for someone my age, but I attempted to see its merits for its intended audience. If you have young kids, this is a reasonable 86-minute time waster while you, presumably their parent, can do something better with that time. Go back to that novel you keep pushing off. Have some alone time with yourself or another person. Or simply close your eyes and enjoy the silence. Whatever you do, Sherlock Gnomes is an adequate comic adventure that will afford you time to think.

Nate’s Grade: C

Side note: While looking up images, I came across an entirely gallery of Sherlock Gnomes poster parodies for movies like I, Tonya, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, The Post, and even Call Me By Your Name and  All the Money in the World. Even All the Money in the World but in gnome form! This is inane!

UPDATE: Thanks to the amazing connectivity of the Internet, someone closely involved with the Sherlock Gnomes production contacted me to inform me that my theory about the trailer discrepancy was correct. Paramount’s marketing team wrote the trailer and insisted the production spend valuable time animating it. The more juvenile jokes were designed, as this source indicated, to put as many butts in the seats opening weekend, and that the marketing department said they knew best, and that was that. The production spent time creating scenes for a trailer they had no intention of ever being in the finished film with scenes that badly characterized what kind of movie it would be. This drove the production team crazy. You can blame Paramount’s marketing department for the soul-killing trailer. Thanks, Sherlock Gnomes source, for reaching out and clearing up that mystery.

Early Man (2018)

It’s not quite one of their bests but even a mid-level Aardman movie still presents enough pleasures to justify one viewing. Early Man is in that big-eyed, big-toothed stop-motion clay animation style they’re renowned for, so it makes even more visual sense that we’re following cavemen. What I wasn’t expecting was that the entire movie would be a sports film about the cavemen facing the team of elite soccer players of the Bronze Age. Once that realization settled in, I began lowering my expectations, which lowered further from the less imaginative use of comedy. I chuckled here and there but this is a comedy that relies much upon slapstick. It’s at its best when it veers off into strange tangents or really doubles down on its absurdities, like a pig posing as a masseuse or a recording pigeon that acts out its messages. The character work is pretty minimal and relies upon a lot of stock characters, with the supporting players given one trait or less. While lacking in some areas, Early Man is still an amusing story that has its moments of goofy whimsy even amidst the sports clichés. I especially enjoyed Tom Hiddleston’s vocal performance as the ignorant, effete leader of the Bronze Age. It’s no Chicken Run or Pirates: Band of Misfits, but the gentle comic rhythms of an Aardman movie can still be refreshing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Coco (2017)

Taking a cue from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Pixar’s newest animated wonder is a leap into a fantasy world with a young protagonist trying to get back to his family through trials of courage. A young boy wants to be a musician but his older grandmother forbids it, blaming music for luring away her grandfather and almost ruining the family. He steals a famous celebrity’s guitar from his crypt and is transported to the world of the dead on Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The boy is able to meet his departed family members but if he can’t make it home by the end of the night he’ll stay there forever. This is a pretty dense film with a lot of rules to remember and yet the movie’s wonderfully structured story doesn’t give you more than you can handle. One rule leads to another organically, and you’re fully invested in the world and the characters. The Mexican culture and heritage is portrayed with extreme reverence while still being playful. This is a movie about death that treats it seriously but can still have fun when it counts. It’s lively, joyful, and sneaks up on you emotionally, as all great Pixar movies seem to do. I was wiping away tears by the end, and I’m sure fathers will be wiping away even more. The screenplay takes staid concepts (power of dreams, importance of family, respect for elders) and finds meaningful ways to personalize them. It’s ultimately a story about sacrifices and relationships between generations, how we honor and remember those we cherish. The visuals are colorful and gorgeous, though I didn’t feel the world of the dead was as memorable in its various locations and developments as the characters. Coco is a funny, charming, heartfelt, poignant, and vastly entertaining movie that soars with great imagination, story development, and an enrichment of characters to fall in love with.

Nate’s Grade: A

Cars 3 (2017)

The Cars franchise is like the “goofy uncle” that nobody chooses to talk about at family reunions. We acknowledge it at most because we have to and then move onto other chipper subjects. I didn’t think it could get worse for Pixar than Cars 2. Then I watched Cars 3.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is starting to lose his championship luster when a new rival, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), speeds onto the circuit. Humbled and wondering whether his time is up, Lightning trains to be faster than ever and regain his title. He goes through a series of training struggles with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a spunky racing coach. Lightning misses Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, posthumously reappearing) and seeks out Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Together, they plan to win back Lightning’s title and prove he still has what it takes.

I was ready for this movie to be over after its first ten minutes, and that’s chiefly because it repeats just about all the paces of the original Cars. Once again Lightning McQueen is bested by a new rival and has to re-learn the basics of racing, center himself as much as a car can, and open himself up to the help of others. Except the villain isn’t really a villain, as Jackson Storm is just a newer model. He’s self-centered and cocky, sure, but so was Lightning McQueen. He barely registers as a character and more as a symbol of newer, faster, more contemporary racers. If there is an antagonist in the movie it might actually be aging, which raises more questions about this Cars universe that I’ll unpack later. The plot formula will remind you of another franchise’s third entry, Rocky III. The hero is bested by a newer champ, seeks out a new trainer because their old mentor died, and there’s even a beach training montage. Then the movie goes from Rocky III to Creed in its final act, and I’m thinking why not remake Rocky IV instead? There’s already a robot butler in that one (it practically writes itself). Suffice to say, the generic formula of going back to basics and believing in one’s self, this time with fewer side characters, is even less interesting 11 years after the first film revved its limited story engine.

I was flabbergasted at just how lazy the storytelling was (there aren’t even that many car puns). It feels too much like a rehash without any memorable set pieces. There’s a segment at a demolition derby that has potential but it never really hits its stride and just relies on the initial particulars. The relationship between Lightning and the other cars is also rather weak. His new mentor Smokey is simply a surrogate Doc. The bulk of the film after the first act is the relationship between Lightning and Cruz Ramirez. It would have been stronger if there were more to her fledgling character. She’s consumed by self-doubt and gave up on her dream of being a racer, which should tip off every audience member where her arc is destined. She’s assertive, optimistic, and highly energetic, but her defining character obstacle is her self-doubt, which limits her. All she needs to do is gain confidence, which is a pretty straightforward solution in a sports film replete with training montages. I don’t know if she was told she wasn’t good enough because she wasn’t “made” to be a racer, or if it’s because she’s a girl, so her perhaps her ascension can be seen as an improbably empowering moment for lady cars everywhere.

The most fascinating aspect of the Cars universe has never been the characters or the stories but the world itself. In a land of sentient motor vehicles, how are they born? We see them age but where do the little cars come from? How do they make anything considering they have tires instead of opposable thumbs? Why do the cars have teeth? What is the point of designating gender? Did any adult car tell Ramirez that she was a girl car and girl cars aren’t supposed to do boy car things like racing? How old is Doc’s mentor considering Doc died of old age? Where do the dead cars go? Is there a junkyard burial ground? Do they get recycled into new cars? Speaking of mortality, this entire world has to be some post-apocalyptic hellscape, right? There’s got to be like a Forbidden Zone, and just along the other side of a steep ridge is mountain after mountain of human skulls. The self-driving cars became sentient, following the SkyNet model, and rose up against mankind. In the ensuring thousands of years after, the sentient cars have adopted our ways even though they clearly don’t match up to their circumstances. They have forgotten the world of humans but are still trying to remake our world as theirs. Do these cars do anything other than watch races? Is this pastime the hierarchy’s form of bread and circuses? What kind of day-to-day existence do they have? Considering every living being is a motor vehicle that runs on fossil fuels, are the sentient cars aware of climate change and the greenhouse effect? Are they hastening the planet’s demise? What if inside every car were the mummified remains of a human inhabitant? What if during Lightning’s big accident a human skeleton pops out of the windshield? That might lead to an existential crisis in the Cars world that would make them rethink their place in history.

Somebody out there has to like these movies. I don’t know whom Cars 3 is intended for. It doesn’t present enough excitement or humor for children, and it doesn’t present enough substance and characterization for adults. It retreads familiar ground with lesser characters for lesser rewards. I knew every step of where this journey was headed, and without effective humor, characters, and surprises, I was tilting my head against my chair and just waiting for this mess to end. The reason there are three Cars movies is merely the profits Disney reaps from the toy sales and merchandizing (they estimate making a billion dollars in toy sales alone per Cars movie). There’s no other reason to supply the world three entries in the Cars universe before even getting a second Incredibles. The time with these anemic characters is not worth the 100 minutes on screen. I never thought I would reappraise Cars 2 but at least that movie had some exciting and colorful racing sequences and tried telling a different, albeit not successful story. Even a badly executed spy caper starring Larry the Cable Guy had something to it. In contrast, Cars 3 just goes in circles and expects you to be grateful for the same trip.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Moana (2016)

moana_ver4The 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.

MOANAWith 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.

tamatoa-in-moanaThe 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.

the-ocean-is-calling-7-things-you-might-not-know-about-disney-s-moana-moana-disney-1017363This 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-

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

kuboandthetwostrings-poster13At this point the Laiki studio (ParaNorman, The Box Trolls) has earned as much good will and credibility as Pixar in their pre-Cars 2 prime. I almost was going to write off their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings. For the first forty minutes or so I was somewhat indifferent to it. Sure the stop-motion animation was stunningly realized and the creation of the environments was very meticulous, but I just couldn’t connect with the movie’s story of a young boy, Kubo, and his quest to claim magic items to thwart the advances of his dangerous and estranged mystical family. Then the first big set piece happened and then the next, and then the plot made some deft reveals and provided a strong emotional foundation, and I was hooked. This is Laika’s first real action film and the wide shots and long takes do plenty to serve the action and allow you to further marvel at the painstaking brilliance of these hard-working animators. It’s a full-fledged fantasy epic that tickles the imagination and provides a poignant undercurrent of emotion especially during the final act. As Kubo declares his real strength are his memories of loved ones past, I was starting to get teary. It’s a lovely message to top off an exciting and involving action movie with creepy villains and side characters that do more than throwaway one-liners. Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones) gives a very expressive and emotive performance as our lead. Charlize Theron is outstanding as Kubo’s maternal protector who just happens to be a monkey. Rooney Mara is also genuinely eerie as an ethereal pair of flying sisters trying to snatch Kubo. Matthew McConaughey isn’t the best vocal actor due to the limited range of his vocal register but he’s still enjoyably daft. The Japanese setting and culture are recreated with loving touches that celebrate rather than appropriate. I still regard the arch silliness of The Box Trolls as my favorite film but Kubo is more than a worthy follow-up. The slow start is worth it by film’s end, so stick with it if you start to doubt yourself, because the emotional wallop of Kubo and the Two Strings, not to mention its creative high points, is well worth the invested effort.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Zootopia (2016)

zootopia-movie-posterI 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

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