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

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part


Everything is still awesome…isn’t it?

(2019) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Jadon Sand, Brooklynn Prince, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, Jason Momoa, Cobie Smulders, Ralph Fiennes, Bruce Willis, Gary Payton, Sheryl Swoopes. Directed by Mike Mitchell

 

The 2014 hit The Lego Movie was a breath of fresh air in the animated feature universe, chock full of pop culture references but with enough whimsy and creativity to satisfy children and adults alike. After two spinoffs hit with a bang (The Lego Batman Movie) and a thud (The Lego Ninjago Movie), will the sequel recapture the magic of the original?

Well, no. In the new film, Emmet (Pratt) is building the dream home for himself and Lucy/Wyldstyle (Banks), complete with double decker porch swing. But all is not well in Bricksburg; Finn (Sand), the little boy whose imagination powered the first movie, is forced to play with his little sister (Prince) and her Duplos with catastrophic results. The town is a barren wasteland, populated by Duplo-built monsters. Everything is decidedly not awesome.

To make matters worse, Emmet’s friends have been kidnapped by General Mayhem (Beatriz) to attend the wedding of Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Haddish) and Batman (Arnett) is busy “on a standalone adventure” so it is up to Emmet to save the day, although Emmet who still retains his optimism despite the devastation, may not be up to the task.

The pop culture references are still plentiful, the oddball humor is still there, but it all feels really stale. There’s a feeling that this is geared towards even younger kids than the first, which isn’t necessarily good news for the parents roped into watching this alongside them. While Pratt, Arnett (who arrives late in the third act) and Haddish do their level best, they can’t overcome the sense that we’ve seen this before. I really enjoyed the closing credits, though; it is not a good sign when the best thing about a movie are the credits at the very end.

REASONS TO SEE: Pratt, Haddish and Arnett get the job done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not an improvement from the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and rude humor, as well as mild profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After the disappointing box office results for the film, Warner Brothers let the rights lapse; future Lego movies will be coming out on Universal, who snatched them up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Max,  Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews, Metacritic: 65/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
No Small Matter

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


A gathering of Spiders.

(2018) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Lily Tomlin, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine, Natalie Morales, Oscar Isaac, Jorma Taccone, Lake Bell. Directed by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman

Spider-Man has been perhaps the most popular character in the history of Marvel Comics. So much so that the hero has progressed beyond Peter Parker; there are a number of iterations of the character in the comics; some serious, some not.

Miles Morales (Moore) is one of those characters. A young, African-American/Hispanic teen, he likes hanging out with his Uncle Aaron (Ali), and less so with his cop father (Henry). He’s a very smart kid, but not so interested in school and a little on the timid side. When he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, he gets the powers of Spider-Man. He relies on the comic books to kind of guide him through.

But then the Kingpin (Schreiber), a corpulent villain, opens up gateways to a multitude of parallel universes, threatening all of them. Spider-men from all around the multiverse begin to flood in, including a tired and nearly broken Peter Parker (Johnson), an iteration in which Gwen Stacy (Steinfeld) becomes Spider-Gwen, a black and white character from the 30s called Spider-Noir (Cage), a porcine cartoon pig named Spider-Ham (Mulaney) and a sprightly teen from the future named Peni Parker (Glenn). Together they will have to face down against the Kingpin and his scientific advisor Doc Octopus (Hahn) if they are to save the multi-verse.

Visually, this is a striking film that is meant to look more like a comic book than conventional animated features. It is certainly meant to appeal to Spider-Fans, with lots of little in-jokes and Easter Eggs for those who follow the character in the comics, but even for those unfamiliar with the various Spider-Man characters, there is some clever dialogue to keep the story moving, even though at just a hair under two hours long it might be too much for the attention-challenged. Still, this was the Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards and quite honestly, it deserved to be.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful animation. Plenty of Easter Eggs for fans. Clever dialogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence, mild profanity and thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the original creators of the Spider-Man comic, passed away during production of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews, Metacritic: 87/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Hope Gap

Ralph Breaks the Internet


Welcome to the information superhighway.

(2018) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Taraji P. Henson, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Alfred Molina, Ed O’Neill, Sean Giambrone, Flula Borg, Timothy Simons, Ali Wong, Hamish Blake, GloZell Green, Horatio Sanz, Rebecca Wisocky, Sam Richardson, Jaboukie Young-White, Maurice LeMarche, Melissa Villaseñor. Directed by Phil Johnston and Rich Moore

 

When last we saw video game bad guy Wreck-It Ralph (Reilly) in the movie of the same name, he had reformed and become a good guy. He had also found a new bestie, Princess Vanellope van Schweetz (Silverman). Life for the 8-bit games in Litvak’s arcade is good.

Then Vanellope’s game breaks down and they need to find the spare part it needs or else Litvak (O’Neill) will pull the plug on the game permanently. Ralph and Vanellope utilize a new Wi-Fi connection to access the Internet and what a world wide web it is! They are like a couple of kids from a rural small town in West Virginia who had never left town their entire lives suddenly waking up in Tokyo.

The details of the plot really don’t matter here; this is actually a more visually brilliant film than the predecessor, and in many ways much more fun. Whereas adults were largely the only ones in on the jokes in the first film, much of the content here will sail over the heads of parents but Internet-savvy kids will get it.

One of the most fun things about the film is how it portrays the Disney princesses, nearly all of whom make at least an appearance. They’re bad to the bone and the kind of role models that are more fitting for modern girls than perhaps Snow White or Aurora might have been back in the day. They are absolutely delightful and to my surprise the best part of the movies. I had always seen them as the epitome of spoiled little girls – ask me about my “Eff you, I’m a Princess” story sometime – but when you really think about it, Princesses should be all about empowering little girls and here, they are.

While the movie at right about two hours drags quite a bit in the middle and Ralph typically makes a mess of things despite his best intentions but while maybe not quite as subversive as the first movie was, it retains much of its heart. This is definitely a bit of an improvement and is likely to be a staple of any video game-obsessed kid for the foreseeable future.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique and wonderful environment is created. The Disney Princesses are Da Bomb!!!
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags a bit in the middle with a few holes in logic confounding things.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of cartoon action as well as some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The only Princess not voiced by her original actress other than those that had passed away was Cinderella; Mary Costa was 88 years old and her voice not suitable to play a 16-year-old girl.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand,  AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tron
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Agatha and the Truth of Murder