Wonder Park


Welcome to Jurassic – I mean, Wonder – Park.

(2019) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Brianna Denski, Jennifer Garner, Ken Hudson Campbell, Kenan Thompson, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Norbert Leo Butz, Matthew Broderick, Sofia Mali, Oev Michael Urbas, Kate McGregor-Stewart, Kevin Chamberlin, Kath Soucie. Directed by Dylan Brown, Clare Kilner, Robert Iscove and David Feiss

A nice concept is torpedoed by weak execution in this troubled production that comes to us via Paramount’s subsidy Nickelodeon Films. June (Denski) is a wildly creative and smart 10-year-old who for years has along with her mother (Garner) worked on creating a fantastic theme park with improbable rides and stuffed animals come to life running the place. Then, mom gets a serious illness and has to go away for treatment, while Dad (Broderick) ships her off to math camp. Worried that her Dad won’t be able to fend for himself, June runs away from camp and finds in the surrounding woods an overgrown, derelict version of the park she and her mom created. The animals – now life-sized and able to talk – are trying to fend off a horde of zombie stuffed animal monkeys and a mysterious storm that threatens to destroy the park completely. June will need to find a way to prevent that.

The design of the park, with delightful Rube Goldberg-esque rides, is actually mesmerizing and the bright colors make for some serious eye candy. Unfortunately, the attempts to bring in serious subjects – in particular dealing with the potential loss of a parent – aren’t handled very well and end up being disconnected with the issues facing the park. Add to this one-dimensional characters who aren’t given a whole lot to do and you end up with a truly disappointing kid’s film that could have been so much more.

REASONS TO SEE: The design of the park itself is splendiferous.
REASONS TO AVOID: A cliché plot with no memorable characters to rescue it.
FAMILY VALUES There are some mild thematic elements that might be too much for the smaller set.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Brown was removed as director following accusations of sexual misconduct near the end of production. Although uncredited, Kilner, Iscove and Feiss oversaw the remainder of the production. None of the directors are given screen credit, something that the Directors Guild of America almost never allows.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews; Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Neverending Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Autumn Road

The Monkey King: Reborn


A pig, a monkey and a monster walk into a bar…

(2021) Animated Feature (Well Go USA) Starring the voices of Bian Jiang, Cai Haiting, Su Shangqing, Lin Qiang, Zhang He, Zhang Lei, Qiang Lin, Wang Chenguang, Song Ming, Feng Sheng, Zhang Yaohan, Bai Xuecen, Qiu Qiu, He Zhang, Zhongyang Baomu, Tu-Te-Ha-Meng. Directed by Yunfei Wang

 

One of the iconic characters in Chinese folklore is that of the Monkey King, a.k.a. Sun Wukong (Jiang). Best-known for his appearance in the 16th century novel Journey to the West (although the character is based on an amalgam of far older myths and legends), he is a trickster prone to quick anger and powerful. Taking offense easily, he is a disciple of the Taoist monk Tang Sanzang (Shangqing).

While on a journey, Sanzang, and Wukong along with the Monkey King’s fellow disciples the pig-like Zhu Baije (He) and the monstrous Sha Wujing (Qiang) come to a shrine where the magic Tree of Life is tended to. The perpetually hungry Baije prevails upon Wukong to steal some fruit from the tree, which he does. The obnoxious caretakers not only blame Wukong for his theft, but also for the theft of fruit which the caretakers themselves stole. This sends Wukong into a mindless rage and in his fury, he destroys the tree.

That proves to be a really bad idea. The tree was the seal keeping the Demon King Yuandi (Lei) imprisoned. Freed, he kidnaps the pious Sanzang and will in three days regain his full power, at which time he will destroy the monk. Wukong, recognizing his complicity in the matter, goes on a quest to rescue his mentor, aided by his two fellow disciples and Fruity (Haiting), a cute-as-a-button gi spirit that sprang up out of the tree and which Wukong initially mistook for a fruit spirit. But the way is long and dangerous, and the foes powerful, particularly the Demon King who even the powerful Wukong may not be able to defeat.

While the movie utilizes elements of the 100 chapter-long Journey to the West, this is a fresh take on the subject, although how fresh can it be considering that in Asia there are over seventeen thousand versions of the Monkey King’s story (which is about how many MCU movies there are, right?). The story is a pretty simple one, although Western audiences might find the Buddhist and Taoist philosophies espoused in the movie to be different and refreshing.

The animation is the star here, with some absolutely beautiful landscapes and a good deal of detail which is lovingly rendered. The battle sequences are absolutely spectacular, particularly the climactic battle between the Demon King and Wukong. Animation fans, particularly those of Asian animation, are going to love this.

Cinema buffs looking for something refined will probably not love this quite as much. The plot is simplistic and the dialogue often redundant. Those with minimal knowledge of the Monkey King’s background will probably find themselves somewhat lost, although children may well not find that to be much of a problem. However, parents should be warned that the fight scenes can be brutal and bloody, and there is a lot of swearing (Wukong is often referred to as “that shitty monkey” by various characters throughout the film) and although it’s not implicitly stated, the film really isn’t appropriate for younger children. It seems to be aimed more at teens and adults, although the made-to-be-a-mascot Fruity seems to be there to appeal to younger audiences. While it might feel like they didn’t have a handle on what kind of audience they were directing the film towards, one has to allow for the cultural differences as way of explanation.

This is a gorgeous film to look at, but the paper-thin plot and sometimes unnecessary dialogue might put some off. My advice is just to watch it and get into the moment, rather than think about things too hard. It’s a movie meant to be experienced rather than analyzed.

By-the-by, the movie is available in two forms – subtitled, and dubbed into English. I saw the subtitled version and the vocal performances are a bit over-the-top, as they tend to be in that part of the world; if you have a preference, be sure that the version you are getting is the one you want. Most of the streaming services carry only the dubbed version.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is lush and richly detailed.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too childish for adults and too extreme for kids.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the third in a series of animated features released by Well Go and based on Chinese folk tales and myths under the umbrella Fengshen Cinematic Universe. This film is unrelated to the first two, Ne Zha (2019) and Jiang Ziya (2020).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Monkey King: Hero is Back
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Novice

Luca


Where’s Aquaman?

(2021) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saiverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Marco Barricelli, Jim Gaffigan, Peter Sohn, Lorenzo Crisci, Marina Massironi, Gino La Monica, Sandy Martin, Giacomo Gianniotti, Elisa Gabrielli, Mimi Maynard, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jonathan Nichols, Francesca Fanti. Directed by Enrico Casarosa

 
Different scares us. Different makes us suspicious. Human beings don’t handle “different” very well. We never have.

They don’t get much more different than Luca (Tremblay). You see, Luca is actually a sea monster, living in the Mediterranean just off the coast of Italy. But he’s not exactly thrilled about it; he finds life under the sea repetitive and boring (I’m sure most human kids his age would snort “join the club”). He longs for a different kind of existence and when he asks where boats come from, his overprotective Mom (Rudolph) and Dad (Gaffigan) try to deflect his interest in another direction.

But like most boys, Luca has a curiosity that just won’t take no for an answer. When he meets fellow sea monster Alberto (Grazer), a much more free-spirited sort than Luca, he learns that once their kind leaves the water they magically transform into human beings. It’s only when they become wet that their true nature is revealed.

At Alberto’s urging, the two boys decide to investigate the coastal fishing village of Portorosso (Miyazaki fans will appreciate the reference) where they meet Giulia (Berman), a young girl who is also high-spirited, and dreams of winning an annual competition in which a *gasp* Vespa is the top prize, but local bully Ercole (Raimondo) who has a shiny Vespa of his own stands in her way. She dreams of winning the Vespa and the boys know that the iconic Italian scooter is their ticket to exploring this great big new world they’ve discovered. However, they have to be very careful not to reveal their secret to the townspeople who are superstitious and frightened of the “monsters” and would be very happy to put a harpoon into the both of them if they ever found out the truth.

This is another movie that was meant to be released theatrically but the privations of the pandemic exiled it to a streaming service instead, and in some ways that’s a shame because the animation here is absolutely gorgeous and would look OUTSTANDING on a big theater screen.

The problem is that the story really feels like it’s been done before – and to be honest, it has. Honestly, I could hear Ariel bursting into “Part of Their World” at various times during the movie. That’s not the only thing that brings a sense of Déjà vu though; the characters look a bit like the stop-motion characters in Aardman films (except for Massimo who’s a dead ringer for the Dad in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs), and the detailed background art? Pure Miyazaki.

I can see the anti-Italian defamation league (assuming there is one) getting hot under the collar here; almost all of the male Italian characters have some sort of bushy moustache (not unlike a cartoon pizzeria owner) including the cat Machiavelli. The villagers or Porto Rossi subsist on a diet of pasta, gelato and perhaps fish. All they were missing was a Mafia turf war.

That’s not to say there isn’t some worthwhile stuff here; the movie has a few genuine moments here and there and if the humor is a bit infantile, I get the sense the movie was also meant for a younger audience than other Pixar classics. Still in all, this was a Pixar effort that didn’t quite hit all the notes that they usually do. It’s not quite as bad as anthropomorphic automobiles, but it’s not one of their prouder moments either

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful animation, as we have come to expect from Pixar.
REASONS TO AVOID: A pedestrian story and characters who are overly familiar.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor, mild profanity, some cartoon violence and mature themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Portorosso is based on Cinque Terre, where director Enrico Casarosa spent his summers as a boy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Little Mermaid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Settlers

The Mitchells vs. the Machines


Cellphone armageddon.

(2021) Animated Feature (Netflix/Columbia) Starring the voices of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André, Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, Chrissy Teigan, John Legend, Charlyne Yi, Blake Griffin, Conan O’Brien, Doug the Pug, Jay Pharaoh, Melissa Sturm, Doug Nicholas, Jeff Rowe, Madeleine McGraw, Ellen Wightman, Sasheer Zarmata. Directed by Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe

 
We have let the tech genii out of the bottle, like it or not. The generations that have grown up with in the digital age are more comfortable looking at a smartphone screen than they are into the eyes of another human being. I suppose that might be perceived as a knock, but at the risk of being offensive, it’s just an expression of the way things are. Whether you think that’s a good thing, a bad thing or not a thing at all, it is the way it is.

Katie (Jacobson) is a proud online card-carrying member of the smartphone generation. An aspiring filmmaker, her joy comes from making short comedy films starring the family pug (Romé lives!) which eventually gets her accepted into the filmmaking school at CalArts (not for nothing, but that is the alma mater of many of the heavyweights in modern computer animation, as well as my own sister who is a graphic designer).

Predictably, her pragmatic father (McBride) doesn’t understand her – “You can make a living at that?” he asks incredulously when informed of his daughter’s intended major – which his wife (Rudolph) gently (or maybe not so gently) nudges him in the direction of spending time with his daughter before losing her forever. His solution is to drive his little girl to college as a family road trip, which he doesn’t realize is stressing her out because she will lose time getting oriented with her new tribe with whom she has already connected with online.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley where the chips always land where they may, PAL CEO Mark (André) is unveiling a new AI replacing the old one (Colman) who doesn’t take kindly to being cast aside. She decides to take matters into her own non-existant hands and reprograms a fleet of service robots to capture humans and imprison them in “fun pods,” conquering the Earth in the name of Big Tech. I imagine a few QAnon believers might think this could actually happen.

The family is blissfully unaware of all that is happening until they see fleets of robots kidnapping humans and realize that the apocalypse isn’t going to be brought about by zombies, but by robots. That’s right, pop culture fans – Robert Kirkman lied to you. Get over it. As it turns out that they become one of the last few families that hasn’t been captured and of course, one of mankind’s last remaining hopes when Katie figures out a kill code that could shut down the technology overthrow. But can they input it into the system in time?

It is perhaps ironic that a movie exhibiting a healthy distrust of technology is told in computer animataion on an online streaming platform. To be fair, the movie was meant to come out in theaters, but the coronavirus ad other plans. After a couple of delays and title changes, the movie was finally sold to Netflix and released online this past April (assuming you’re reading this before March 31, 2022). However, that might be fitting in that the clear target audience for the movie is the ones who feel more comfortable streaming movies at home rather than actually going to a movie theater.

The movie is full of pop culture references ranging from Furbies to Star Wars to Greta Gerwig to SNL. Although PAL is meant to be an amalgam of Apple and Amazon (a terrifying thought if ever there was one). It also has fanboy cred in that is produced by the white hot duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller who neither wrote nor directed this, although their influence on the film is as plain as the nose on my face.

The main drawback here is that other than Colman, who seems to be having the time of her life as the homicidal AI, most of the voice cast is oddly subdued and bland which considering the kind of cast they have is mystifying. There are some real laugh-out-loud funny moments but other okes may leave you flat. They are exploring a real disconnect between generations, and things that millennials and younger viewers will get may fly over the heads of older viewers and vice versa. And perhaps that is part of the movie’s overall point.

I have to admit I was left a little bit cold by all of this, although I grant you that perhaps I was not in the right space to watch this movie. It HAS been a big critical success, although the numbers released by Netflix don’t have it necessarily up there with some of the other would-be theatrical releases that were forced into streaming platforms when it became clear that it would not be getting a favorable release date anytime soon, and a movie like this has a definite shelf life – many of the references and depictions here will be archaic by the time 2022 comes along and I won’t even consider how dated it will seem in five years. But that’s just the nature of the world we live in now.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: The voice cast is surprisingly lackluster.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of kidflick action and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alex Hirsch, creator of Gravity Falls, was a story consultant for the film. Rowe and Rianda both directed for the series.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Honey

Cryptozoo


Giant snakes always make a movie better.

(2021) Animated Feature (Magnolia) Starring the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Emily Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, Angeliki Papoulia, Thomas Jay Ryan, Peter Stormare, Grace Zabriskie. Directed by Dash Shaw

 

Some readers may be old enough to remember the underground comics of the 1960s and 1970s in which artists such as R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Trina Robbins made comic strips distinctly aimed at adults, laden with sex, drugs and what have you. A kind of counterculture acid trip made printable, these comics enjoyed a brief heyday and their influence can be felt today in online comic strips, from which sprang Dash Shaw (My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea).

His latest has the look and feel of those halcyon works of art with a touch of 70s tarot cards mixed in. The visual style has a reason; the movie is set in an alternate version of the Sixties. Hippies Amber (Krause) and Matthew (Cera) wander into the woods near San Francisco to get stoned and have sex. Naked in the afterglow and not having come down from their high quite yet, they decide to go exploring and run into an impossibly high fence. Matthew immediately wants to see what’s behind it whereas Amber is a bit more cautious. When Matthew spies a castle (“Walt Disney must live there” he exclaims), Amber reluctantly follows. The two then see something even more incredible; a unicorn, but when Matthew stumbles and falls when trying to touch the creature, the animal gets spooked leading to tragedy.

The unicorn is one of hundreds of mythological creatures from all over the world called cryptids who have been gathered in this preserve as a means of protecting them and educating the public about them. They have been gathered in this enclosure, called the Cryptozoo, by Joan (Zabriskie), an elderly wealthy philanthropist. Her right hand is Lauren Gray (Bell), who as an army brat in Okinawa encountered a baku, a Japanese creature resembling a pig/baby elephant hybrid, that eats bad dreams. Since then, she has tracked down legendary creatures and brought them to this place, a kind of Jurassic Park for mythical creatures. She is on the lookout for the baku but then again, so is the U.S. military in the form of Nicholas (Ryan) who seeks to weaponize the cryptids ad put an end to any discussion of any military supremacy other than American. Lauren is aided by Phoebe (Papoulia), a gorgon (don’t call her Medusa) who longs to fit in to society with a normal husband and a normal life.

However, bad things are happening at the Cryptozoo and things have been loosed that shouldn’t ever have been confined. Will Joan’s dream of integrating the cryptids into society be destroyed, or should the cryptids be free to live as they choose – even if they must remain hidden?

There’s a lot going on in this movie – maybe a little too much. There are some of the obvious subtexts – wariness of the military-industrial complex, respect the environment and ecology, zoos and other places where wildlife are kept for public display are inherently bad places, and the like. It’s a lot to pack in to an hour and a half and at times the movie seems lost in its own maze of subtexts.

What works here is the animation; it is inventive (as is the story itself) and most of the time, gorgeous to look at. Clearly a lot of imagination went into this and you see all of it on the screen. While the drawings themselves aren’t super-detailed (this is hand drawn 2D rather than CGI) the viewer is allowed to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations. I find that’s the sign of a director who trusts his audience.

My main objection is that the story can be hard to follow at times; there is a fragmentation that occurs because I think Shaw and his wife and creative partner Jane Samborski (who supervised the animation) had so much to say that they could have easily fit it in to several films. I imagine when you are doing something as labor-intensive as an animated feature, there is a tendency to want to fit as much in as possible, but in this case it hurt the movie a little bit.

The film continues to play the Florida Film Festival the rest of the week and Florida residents still can purchase a virtual copy, although they are going fast. If you’re not able to do so, the movie will be released theatrically in August and it might be better seen on the big screen anyway. Animation this gorgeous deserves the best possible presentation.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully inventive and gorgeous animation.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story is a bit disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, violence and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema (through April 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews; Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Unicorn
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
After Antarctica

Lava


Big trees invite big snakes.

(2019) Animated Feature (Rock Salt) Starring the voices of Janeane Garofalo, Martin Piroyaski, Daisy Hamilton-Risher. Directed by Ayar Blasco

 

Not everyone sees things the same way. For example, we can all look at a painting by Salvador Dali. We can be mesmerized by the image. We can be repulsed by the subject matter. But we will all see it and interpret it through our own lens, through our own experiences. And what we ourselves see isn’t necessarily what everyone else sees.

Debora (Garofalo) is a tattoo artist who is currently single, although her roommate – who is deliriously in love – wants to set her up with a friend, who is quite taken with her. Debora is less enthusiastic, but is open to the idea. The four of them settle down to watch a bootlegged version of the hit fantasy series – all of them being proud flag-waving nerds – Gain of Clones. That’s when things go weird. All their broadcast media – the TV, the radio, their phones, go haywire. Anything with a display is broadcasting strange images. One of them enters a trance-like state. Then as abruptly as it began, they regain their normal signals.

But nothing is normal. Giant cats prowl the rooftops. Giant snakes are eating people. A giant witch terrorizes the town. It’s an alien invasion, and the one person who can stop it might be Debora. If she wants to, that is.

The plot – such as it is – is deceptively simple, but I’m leaving a lot out; not just because it would spoil the viewing of it (although it might) but mainly because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you put it down on paper…err, a digital screen. But the animation is definitely simplistic, a throwback to Nicktoons and Adult Swim animation. This isn’t anime by any stretch of the imagination.

But speaking of imagination, there’s plenty of that here. This movie is so far out of the box that the box has ceased to be a reference point. This movie just is and that’s really all it needs to be. There’s no real explaining it; it has to be experienced.

But that said, this isn’t for everybody. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s for a narrow range of film buffs who grew up in the 90s, have a certain simpatico for sci-fi and fantasy, don’t mind a little romance, and prefer their movies to be as completely whacko as they possibly can be – the less mainstream, the better. If 2020 had been a normal year, this might have done some serious damage on the festival circuit and perhaps it still will, but for those Jonesing for a virtual film festival of their own to curate might do well to add this to their list. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the weird part.

REASONS TO SEE: Studiously weird, but imaginative.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story jumps around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, sexual references and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original Spanish-language version, acclaimed Argentine actress Sofia Gala Castiglione voices the role of Debora.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, MUBI, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: >em>No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extraterrestrial
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Courier

Earwig and the Witch (Âya to majo)


Which is the witch?

(2020) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Dan Stevens, Richard E. Grant, Taylor Henderson, Vanessa Marshall, Kacey Musgraves, Logan Hannan, Pandora Colin, JB Blanc, Thomas Bromhead, Alex Cartañá, Summer Jenkins, Eva Kaminski, Sherina Munafu, Vivienne Richardson. Directed by Gorô Miyazaki

 

For anime fans, Studio Ghibli is the apex predator, much in the same way Pixar was to computer animation early on (and, some would argue, still is). But while Pixar has specialized in computer generated animation, Studio Ghibli was strictly hand-drawn. That is, until this made-for-TV entry by founder Hayao Miyazaki’s son, based on a posthumously-published novel by Howl’s Moving Castle author Diane Wynne Jones.

A baby is dropped off at St. Morwad’s orphanage by a red-haired witch (Musgraves) who leaves a note that she is being chased by 12 witches and will be back to pick up her child once she shakes off the pursuit, which, she warns, may take years. That baby grows up to be Earwig (Henderson), a somewhat manipulative and not always lovable tyke who has the orphanage running to her specifications and is in no hurry to leave it. She tells fellow orphan Custard (Hannan) as much, shortly before being adopted by Bella Yaga (Marshall), a corpulent blue-haired witch and her domestic partner, the demonic Mandrake (Grant) who is quick to anger and, she is warned, will do awful things if not left alone.

Bella Yaga isn’t looking for a daughter so much as she’s looking for an assistant – slave labor would be more like it – and Earwig balks at the idea of giving away her work for nothing. HOWEVER…if Bella Yaga is willing to teach her spellcraft, things might just work out after all. In any case, Earwig wants to control her new “parents” the same way she controlled the orphanage – only this will take some real magic. When Bella Yaga proves to be less than forthcoming in terms of lessons, Earwig teaches herself, aided by the feline familiar Thomas (Stevens).

Earwig isn’t one of Wynne Jones’ better novels and whereas pappy Hayao fleshed out Howl’s Moving Castle with his own personality and feeling, scion Goro doesn’t really do the same here. There are a few scenes giving Earwig’s mother some back story, but other than that, things are mainly as written. The computer animation, mostly farmed out to contractors around the world, is mainly uneven despite an opening sequence of Earwig’s mom being chased on a motorcycle through traffic that is absolutely brilliant. After that, this turns out more like direct-to-video CGI complete with plastic skin tones, stiff facial expressions and robot-like movement.

While there are some moments of whimsy and humor that are the trademark of Ghibli productions, the main issue here is Earwig herself. She’s not very likable. She’s controlling, selfish, uber-manipulative and often sneers at the adults she has under her thumb behind their backs. It makes for not a very attractive character and it makes it hard for viewers to like her and root for her.

Still, as a Studio Ghibli production, there is quality here, albeit not as much as you’re used to seeing in the course of most of their other productions. One gets the sense that Goro is trying to impress or perhaps outdo his father by taking on productions that are similar thematically to those his father was famous for, but he doesn’t seem to have a knack for it. Perhaps Goro would be wiser to try making features that please himself first and worry about dear old dad afterwards. It’s perhaps not fair to compare him to his father, who is essentially the Walt Disney of Japanese animation, but Goro invites those comparisons by doing projects like this one. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad production – it really is meant for a younger audience than most Studio Ghibli films – but compared to their high standards it doesn’t quite reach the bar.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of that sly Studio Ghibli humor.
REASONS TO AVOID: Surprisingly uneven and Earwig is far too annoying to be relatable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film from Studio Ghibli to be completely computer animated.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Witches
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blithe Spirit (2021)

Soul


There’s no doubt that Jamie Foxx has soul.

(2020) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, Angela Bassett, Cora Champommier, Margo Hall, Daveed Diggs, Rhodessa Jones, Wes Studi, Sakina Jaffrey, Fortune Feimster, June Squibb, John Ratzenberger, Peggy Flood. Directed by Pete Docter and Kemp Powers

 

Since its inception, Pixar has consistently turned out some of the most thought-provoking and imaginative animated features in history, winning multiple Oscars and changing the game forever. Once known for being one of the original computer-generated animation studios, they have completely redefined storytelling in the animated medium.

Not all of their films have been home runs, of course – no studio that has been around for nearly 30 years can be expected to be perfect every time out, but they have very few movies in their library that aren’t at least entertaining at worst and thought-provoking. Whether it is on the nature of toys and their relationship with our memories, to the emotions and how all of them are important to who we are, and including stories about a rat who longs to be a famous French chef and anthropomorphic cars, Pixar has something for everybody. Therefore, it is really saying something when I lead off a review of one of their pictures by saying it might be the best they’ve ever made.

 

Joe Gardner (Foxx) wants to be a jazz pianist with all his heart and soul. He has never gotten the big break he needs, though, and so has had to make ends meet by teaching music at a New York City high school. His mother (Rashad) wants him to give up on his dreams and deal with the reality that he needs to earn a living, and it looks like he might be doing that as his part-time gig at the school is aout to be turned full-time and permanent, complete with benefits and a pension, which is exactly what his mom wants for him.

But fate isn’t done with Joe. He gets and nails an audition with legendary saxophone player Dorothea Williams (Bassett). Finally, the big break he’s been praying for. As he makes an excited call home, he doesn’t notice the manhole cover that is ide open and falls in.

He hovers between life and death and his soul heads for the great beyond, but before he can head to his final destination, incensed at the thought of dying before he can make it, which he considers to be his destiny, he escapes the conveyer belt taking him to the great light and ends up in the great before – where souls go before they are born to adqure the personality traits that will stick with them after birth. Joe is given the stubborn soul-let 22 (Fey) to mentor. She is missing the spark that will fill out her check boxes and send her to Earth to become a person. The trouble is, 22 doesn’t want to leave. And Joe doesn’t want to stay – he needs to get back into his body before he misses the gig that he has been waiting his whole life to play.

As you can see, there are some pretty heavy concepts going on here. How do we become who we are? What happens to us when we die? Not exactly typical subjects for a kid flick, but Pixar regular Pete Docter (along with Kemp Powers, who wrote the acclaimed One Night in Miami which is just about to be released on Amazon Prime as I write this) makes it not only thought-provoking, but fun as well. In the Great Before, there are beings all named Jerry (voiced, by among others, by Rachel House, Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade) that resemble concept drawings in Picasso’s sketchbook; one of the mentors there calls human beings “meat suits.”

This is a gorgeously rendered film, as nearly all Pixar films are. The New York City here is so real you can almost smell the garbage; a rat hauls away a slice of pizza with the grease glistening on the pepperoni. It’s the details that make the film; the jazz tunes are written by John Batiste whose performance on the keyboard was filmed so that the animators could match Joe’s fingering to that of Batiste exactly.

Speaking of music, the score – by Oscar-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – is lustrous and mind-bending, in my opinion one of the best scores ever to grace an animated feature. The movie also celebrates African-American culture without pandering, which Hollywood productions sometimes do.

Foxx, an Oscar winner himself, is simply outstanding as Joe. His performance is full of pathos and humor as he gives Joe a unique personality; stubborn and at the same time, giving. You root for Joe without thinking he’s too good to be true; there are definitely warts there, but Foxx makes him all too relatable. Perhaps his experience bringing Ray Charles to the screen stood him in good stead here. In any case, it should rank among Foxx’s best performances ever, which is something to crow about.

In a year that has tested all of us, this is a lovely reward for making it this far. It is the kind of movie that we can watch together as a family, whether we are actual relations or not. It is a movie that explores what it is to be human, and what it is to be more than human – to explore the nature of what a soul is. It’s a brilliant work and one of the year’s best fims, if not THE best.

REASONS TO SEE: Wildly inventive and one of Pixar’s all-time best. The score is the best ever for an animated feature. Foxx is absolutely awesome. Doesn’t overdo the sentimentality. Takes on some very difficult subjects without talking down.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Pixar film to feature an African-American as the lead character.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Disney Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISONSHOPPING: Inside Out
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Queer Japan

To Your Lasts Death


Someone give this guy a hand.

(2020) Animated Feature (Quiver) Starring the voices of Morena Baccarin, Ray Wise, William Shatner, Bill Moseley, Dani Lennon, Damien C. Haas, Benjamin Siemon, Bill Millsap, Florence Hartigan, Tom Lommel, Steve Geiger, Tanya C. Klein, Jim Cirile, Ruairi Douglas, Charles Wyman, Jason Axinn, Paige Barnett. Directed by Jason Axinn

 

Animated features tend to be fantasy or science-fiction oriented. There are dramas and comedies, to be sure (particularly from Europe), but for the most part there are elements of either one of those genres involved. It makes sense that the horror genre would also be fertile ground for animation, but surprisingly, very few animated features have gone that route.

In this opus, Miriam DeKalb (Lennon) has survived an unthinkable ordeal that has seen all of her siblings killed. Suspected of involvement in the grisly demise of her family, Miriam has been held in the prison wing of the hospital as interrogations by the police have illustrated their disbelief in her story. Then, she is visited by the Gamemaster (Baccarin), an alien being who is able to control time and puts on entertainments in which high-end clients bet on the outcomes. Miriam is given the opportunity to go back 24 hours, armed with the foreknowledge of what is going to happen, and attempt to save her sister and brothers. Should she choose not to, it is likely she will never know freedom again.

24 hours earlier, her father Cyrus (Wise) had gathered them together – sister Kelsey (Hartigan), and brothers Ethan (Haas) and Collin (Siemon) to inform them that he is dying. But rather than using the opportunity to draw the family closer together, their deranged old man – a wealthy arms manufacturer whose run for vice-president of the United States was torpedoed by his children when they informed the press of his many moral failings – chooses to take his revenge for that indiscretion and kill all his children. Sounds kind of medieval (or at least Biblical) to me.

He has locked up the office building and staffed it full of gunmen and set up lethal traps tailored to the weaknesses of each of his children. Miriam tries desperately to tell her siblings what is coming, but that only makes them suspicious that she’s in collusion with Cyrus. To make matters worse, the Gamemaster is changing the rules by changing events from how Miriam remembers them. There are no guarantees that she herself will survive, let alone save her brothers and sister from the maniacal machinations of their father.

Axinn spares no bloodshed and why should he? It’s not like he has to pay for additional fake blood. The problem here is that the various scenarios for each sibling comes off as kind of a lame retread of the Saw series, only much more heavy-handed. Considering that the sky is the limit when it comes to animation, it’s a bit of a drag that Axinn didn’t go more over-the-top here. It feels like a failure of the imagination.

Shatner guest stars as the narrator here and his dialogue is truly cringeworthy. You may be forgiven if you give in to the urge to fast-forward through his narration. It’s not Shatner’s fault; it’s just florid writing. Even Meryl Streep would have a tough time making the narration sound any better than Shatner does.

There’s still plenty of gore to delight the most exacting of horror lovers, and certainly if on the one hand one wishes for a little more originality, the execution of the various torture porn scenes are right on the money and at least as well done as any in that genre. I suspect that most hardcore horror fans and Adult Swim fans are going to find this delightful. It certainly is an idea whose time has come. I just wish the writers would have taken a little more care to utilize the medium to their advantage better.

REASONS TO SEE: Gloriously violent and gory.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story lacks ingenuity.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of bloody violence and gore, rape, nudity and more profanity than you know what to do with.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The animation was hand-drawn and took five years to complete. The filmmakers used Archer and Metaloccalypse as inspirations for the animation style.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saw Franchise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Estate

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


A dragon and his boy.

(2019) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harrington, Justin Rupple, Robin Atkin Downes, Kieron Elliott, Julia Emelin, Ashley Jensen, AJ Kane, Olafur Darri Ólafsson, James Sie, David Tennant. Directed by Dean DeBlois

 

The DreamWorks animated franchise, based on the children’s books of Cressida Cowell, is neatly wrapped up with a big red bow in a satisfying if unoriginal conclusion. Hiccup (Baruchel) has turned Berk into a kind of sanctuary for dragons, who continue to be hunted down in the rest of the world, but the nefarious Grimmel (Abraham) is out to capture Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon and the alpha male of Berk.

=After a vicious attack brings the island village to its knees, Hiccup – now the leader of his incomprehensibly Scottish Vikings – decides the only way to truly protect the dragons is to lead them to The Hidden World, the place from which all dragon-kind has sprung. With Grimmel hot on their trail, they really have no choice if they are to save the dragons. Nobody’s ever actually been there and most consider it a fairy tale, but hey, this is a cartoon, no?

DeBlois does manage to go out with a bang, as the animation here puts nearly every other animated film to shame. Some of the sequences are actually moving (in a variety of ways) from scenes of sorrow to scenes of intense beauty and everywhere in between. Even jaded parents may well find themselves ooh-ing and ah-ing at the visuals here.

But the movie’s downside is essentially the same issue that has plagued the series from the beginning; a kind of standard plot of Hiccup lacking self-confidence when faced with a big challenge/major baddie and getting the confidence he needs from his buddy Toothless. Hiccup was never really a well-developed character to begin with; he’s fairly one-note and that makes the movie drag somewhat.

Nevertheless, it is gorgeous enough to be worth a family movie night. I’m not a huge fan of the franchise, but I will admit that if you’re going to bring a trilogy to a conclusion, this is the way to do it.

REASONS TO SEE: The strongest animation of the series by far.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is mild rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The three movies in the trilogy were each distributed by different studios; the first one by Paramount, the second by Fox, this one by Universal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Days of the Whale