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

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation


Don’t you want to take me on a sea cruise?

(2018) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Mel Brooks, Fran Drescher, Molly Shannon, Keegan-Michael Key, Jim Gaffigan, Kathryn Hahn, Joe Jonas, Chrissy Teigen, Tara Strong, Chris Parnell, Asher Blinkoff, Genndy Tartakovsky, Aaron LaPlante, Michelle Murdocca. Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky

 

The Cartoon Network has done the world a disservice. Yes, some of the things that they have put out are actually pretty good, but the majority of their output is poorly animated and dumbed down, treating kids like easily distracted morons rather than actual people. Sadly, that tendency has begun to filter into major studio animated features as well as studios are looking for franchises that they can market and merchandise out the yin-yang.

Dracula (Sandler), proprietor of the monsters’ resort Hotel Transylvania is lonely and tired. His beloved daughter Mavis (Gomez) notices and decides to book a family vacation on a monster cruise ship. There Drac finds love with Ericka (Hahn), captain of the vessel but she is hiding a secret that might just destroy Dracula once and for all. Never mind that; at least the gang is all there with him for the fun.

The animation here is much improved over the first two films in the franchise; it is certainly the best of the series so far. Sadly, the script doesn’t keep pace; it is just as predictable and lowbrow as other kid flicks that have dominated the big screen of late. The sad fact is that Pixar and Illumination have shown that animated features can appeal to both adults and kids. Most adults will probably be better off finding something else to distract them while the kids are watching this.

There is an air of finality about this one; I think that it was initially intended to be the last in the series but Sony has scheduled a fourth installment for December 2021. I hope that the animation is as good or better as this one but that they put a little more effort into writing a script that has a bit more heart and a bit less fart jokes.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is better-than-average.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kids will love this; parents, not so much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the names of the ships in the Bermuda Triangle sequence are the names of ships that reportedly disappeared there in reality.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mad Monster Party
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Slender Man

Klaus


This is not your daddy’s Santa Claus.

(2019) Animated Feature (Netflix) Starring the voices of Jason Schwartzmann, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Norm McDonald, Joan Cusack, Will Sasso, Sergio Pablos, Mila Brener, Neda Margrethe Labba, Sydney Brower, Teddy Blum, Emma Shannon, Kendall Joy Hall, Julian Zane, Amanda Philipson, Finn Carr, Tucker Meek, Hailey Hermida, Jaeden Bettencourt. Directed by Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez López

 

We’ve all seen origin stories of the big guy in Red before. No, I’m not talking about Shazam! I’m talking about the real big guy. Santa. Claus, even.

This delightful animated feature has the distinction of being the first animated feature to be distributed by streaming giant Netflix (after a brief theatrical run) and it will have the added bonus of making animated feature aficionados wish that Netflix would have made it more widely available in theaters, because the animation is that gorgeous, with a hand-painted look that hasn’t been seen since the halcyon days of Disney, which is where director Sergio Pablos cut his teeth, by the by.

The film is about Jesper (Schwartzmann), the indolent scion of a politically connected and wealthy family. Jesper, the son of a Central European country’s postmaster general, is coasting his way through life, shirking work whenever possible and looking forward to using his family’s political connections to maintain his lifestyle of personal butlers, espressos on demand and silk sheets. However, his father has different ideas. He exiles his son to Smeerensburg (which is based on a Finnish town that no longer exists), a town above the Arctic circle where no letters have been mailed in years.

It turns out there’s a reason for that. The town is run by two families that have been feuding for centuries, the Krum family whose matriarch (Cusack) absolutely hates the patriarch (Sasso) of the Ellingboe family. The two family heads have recruited the children into a vicious cycle of hate and pranks which gives the film a kind of Looney Tunes feel and also a kind of warped satisfaction as the lazy Jesper is often the butt of the children’s tricks.

Through a convoluted set of circumstances, Jesper meets Klaus (Simmons), a lonely and isolated woodsman who has deliberately isolated himself for reasons that are made clear later. He has a gift for wood carving and eventually delivers a toy to a young child whose melancholy drawing touched his heart. Jesper, recognizing a scam when he sees one, induces the kids to write letters to Klaus to get him to send them toys; he just needs six thousand of them to be released from his exile. He utilizes Alva (Jones), a teacher who came to a town where none of the kids attend school, to teach the kids to write letters. She has resorted to converting the school to a fish market in order to make ends meet and save up enough to get out of that crazy town. But as the kindness of Klaus begins to affect the children, Mrs. Krum and Mr. Ellingboe begin to plot to end this change which threatens the status quo.

The movie starts out a bit slowly and the early Looney Tunes section might pale in comparison with classic cartoons, but it picks up steam as it goes along and never fails to charm. Kids will be entranced with the lovely images and adults will find the movie heart-tugging – the ending in fact is likely to generate more than a few tears from sensitive viewers. I, myself, loved it.

As Christmas films go, this one is certainly superior to the glut of direct-to-home video projects that make up the bulk of what’s available at this time of year. Klaus is the kind of movie you and your kids will want to see again and again, year after year. That’s the kind of Christmas gift that keeps on giving.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is magical. The film is charming throughout, with the ending being absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog during the first third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor as well as mild animated action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first hand-drawn animated film to make use of CGI lighting techniques to give it almost a 3D feel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Santa Claus is Coming to Town
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy, The Dog and The Clown

Leo Da Vinci: Mission Mona Lisa


Leo and Lorenzo are sky high.

(2018) Animated Feature (Ammo Content) Starring the voices of Johnny Bosch, Cherami Leigh, Bryce Papenbrook, Faith Graham, Landen Beattie, Michael Sorich, Keith Silverstein, Jamieson Price, Darrel Guilbeau, Tom Fahn, Kyle McCarley, Tony Azzolino, Katie McGovern. Directed by Sergio Manfio

 

From a video content standpoint, we live in an age of too many choices and things are only going to get worse in that regard. With literally dozens of streaming outlets all clamoring for content with more and more being added all the time, it leads to an embarrassment of riches when you think about the wonderful movies and shows that are available these days but that also means, conversely, that there is also an awful lot of dreck out there.

This Italian CGI film, which is a fictionalized account of a young Leonardo da Vinci as his restless intellect and imagination are leading to some fantastic and sometimes bizarre inventions, falls somewhere in between wonderful and awful. Leo (Bosch) lives in a small village in the 15th century as Europe is moving out of the Dark Ages and into the light of the Renaissance. He hangs out with his pal Lorenzo (Papenbrook) and Lisa (Leigh) whom he has a secret crush on – one that everybody knows about.

While showing off his latest inventions – a vehicle called the Barrel that is a combination roadster, paddlewheel boat and ornithopter as well as a prototype diving suit – Lisa’s farm burns down, leaving her father (Sorich) in a precarious financial position. In fact, if something isn’t done, Lisa will be forced to marry the foppish and despicable son of the landowner whom Lisa’s father rents his land from. Determined to not let that happen, Leo heads off to Florence with Lisa and Lorenzo – only Lorenzo doesn’t show. He has a really good excuse, though – he’s been kidnapped by pirates.

Once in Florence, Leo learns of the location of a lost treasure. Aided by little pickpocket Agnes (Graham), who refers to herself in the third person, and the extremely polite little inventor Niccolo (Beattie), Leo and Lisa locate the treasure. However, they are unaware that there are pirates seeking the same treasure and who will stop at nothing to get it.

This is very definitely meant to be a video babysitter for your young ‘uns, particularly those in the six to eight-year-old range. The colors are bright and cheerful, there is no objectionable content here and while the history might be fudged somewhat as well as little details – Lisa is depicted as wearing a kind of yoga pants and while very modern, back in the 15th century it was considered a sin for women to wear trousers so it would have been skirts for Lisa. Children might also be distracted (if they bother to notice) that the dialogue doesn’t match the movement of the character’s mouths but this was originally in Italian.

The story is full of adventure and intrigue and even a little science (Niccolò explains how eclipses work). There are also some godawful songs that even the kids won’t sing. It’s kind of bizarre hearing a 15th century character singing about bicycles and mobile phones, things not available back then. There are some friendly dolphins and a trio of sharks straight out of Finding Nemo. There’s even some references to the real Da Vinci’s later work. And did I mention pirates? To quote Fred Savage from The Princess Bride, “Pirates are good.” Even the ones with excessive blue eye shadow.

REASONS TO SEE: The backgrounds are lush and beautiful.
REASONS TO AVOID: The human characters are a bit wooden and expressionless.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of rude humor and situations of peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on an Italian animated television series on da Vinci.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aladdin
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Fyre

The Incredibles 2


The Incredibles live in a bubble.

(2018) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Vowell, Huckleberry Milner, Catherine Keener, Eli Fucile, Bob Odenkirk, Michael Bird, Sophia Bush, Brad Bird, Phil LaMarr, Isabella Rossellini, Jonathan Banks, Barry Bostwick, Adam Gates, John Ratzenberger, Bill Wise, Kimberly Adair Clark. Directed by Brad Bird

 

Pixar’s 2004 animated superhero movie The Incredibles is for many fans of comic books their favorite offering from the computer animated giant. After 14 years, director Brad Bird has finally found a story to tell that he thinks is worthy of the franchise, but is it?

Well, nearly. A telecommunications mogul (Odenkirk) and his whiz-kid sister (Keener) want very much to lift the superhero ban that has hamstrung the caped heroes of old but rather than choosing Mr. Incredible (Nelson) as their poster boy, instead they select his wife Elasti-Girl (Hunter) who is far less destructive and a role model for women. With new superheroes coming out of the woodwork, Mr. Incredible becomes something of a house-husband taking care of angsty teenager Violet (Vowell), hyperactive kid Dash (Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Fucile) who is developing some destructive powers of his own. However, there’s a villain (LaMarr) out there who is hypnotizing people through their computer/smartphone/tablet screens into acts of violence. Can Elasti-Girl stop the carnage?

Maybe it’s just the glut of superhero films talking but this feels kind of tired and old hat. The technical end is, as we’ve come to expect from Pixar, dazzling and the superhero battles (including one between Jack-Jack and a persistent raccoon) rival anything Marvel or DC have done. Hunter does a great job carrying the film largely but as with most team superhero movies, there are too many characters and that means many of them get little sunlight. Overall, the movie feels aimed more at a younger audience (despite the subtext that those devices that connect us to the Internet fail to connect us to life) but at just about two hours in running length, it seems a bit much to ask most kids to sit still for that much time.

REASONS TO SEE: The superhero battles are nicely done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very formulaic and predictable; it feels like it was aimed at a much younger audience than the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some comic book action violence and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dash is shown eating Sugar Bombs, the chocolate frosted version of which is the favorite cereal of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/14/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fantastic Four
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Destination Dewsbury

Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer


When the Reindeer Games become more like the Hunger Games.

(2018) Animated Feature (Screen Media)  Starring the voices of Josh Hutcherson, Samantha Bee, Morena Baccarin, Martin Short, John Cleese, Christopher Jacot, Rob Tinkler, George Buza, Jeff Dunham, Jean Yoon, Julie Lemieux, Carlos Bustamante, Scott Farley, Steph Lynn Robinson, Darren Frost, Angela Fusco, Quancetia Hamilton, Carly Heffernan. Directed by Jennifer Westcott

 

Every year at this time we get a glut of Christmas-themed animated movies and TV shows, all looking to take their place among the perennials that get watched over and over again year after year. Elliot: The Littlest Reindeer has the ingredients to join that rarefied company but it won’t be an easy hike to get there.

In a world (and what critic hasn’t dreamed of starting a review off with those three words) where Santa (Buza) is real and everyone knows it, he is struggling to keep up with increasing demand as the world’s population explodes. His original team of reindeer are shrinking with one going to an ashram to find himself, another defecting to Russia for a romance, and most recently Vixen (Hamilton) leaving for the Florida Keys to open up a juice bar – three days before Christmas.

This leads to a frantic try-out competition for the coveted position on Santa’s team but his right-hand elf Lemondrop (Short) is no fan of reindeer and he has a point; reindeer have become arrogant, egotistical and overbearing and the elves loathe them. Santa keeps them on as a kind of nod to tradition.

There are reindeer trainers all over the world and as word gets out about the tryouts, Walter (Tinkler) – the owner of a slowly failing petting zoo – is counting on DJ (Jacot) to be his meal ticket. He has already sold off the animals in the petting zoo including pony (“MINIATURE HORSE!”) Elliot (Hutcherson) and Elliot’s omnivorous friend Hazel the goat (Bee). Elliot has long had the goal of being part of Santa’s team but it’s a reindeer-only club. Nonetheless he and supportive Hazel stow away on a rocket sleigh (all the trainers have them although Walter’s is in line with his status falling apart) and swaggers his way into the tryout with the help of fake antlers.

The rest of the plot is fairly formulaic; the buyer of the farm animals turns out to be a producer of exotic jerky meat, there is a conspiracy in Santa’s village to force the reindeer out and convert to rocket sleighs, and saving the lives of his farm friends as well as saving Christmas itself will eventually rest on the broad miniature shoulders of Elliot.

The animation here is mostly nondescript, although some of the Santa’s village and arena scenes are pretty imaginative and for once the characters have expressive faces rather than robotic ones. While he only appears in two scenes as Santa’s haughty reindeer Donner, John Cleese is always a pleasure. Something tells me that if filmmaker Jennifer Westcott had let Short, Cleese and Dunham improvise a bit, it might have benefited her film a lot.

Some critics have latched onto a subplot involving magic cookies which make the reindeer fly (as well as any other animal that eats them) and some unscrupulous reindeer taking more of them than they’re allowed, some even suggesting it promotes performance enhancing drug use. Sorry colleagues; sometimes a magic cookie is just a magic cookie.

For that reason the film feels more than a little bit formulaic which hurts its chances of ascending the heights as does the overbearing soundtrack which sounds like what you might have heard in a cartoon circa 1975. However, there’s still a chance for plucky Elliot to become a seasonal favorite. Many of the movies and TV shows that we consider to be classics really aren’t all that good; they resonate with us because we saw them over and over again as children. And I will say given the avalanche of product that comes out each year, this is head and shoulders above the rest which is mostly mindless soulless dreck. I don’t know that I’d want to revisit this year after year but there are children seeing it this year for whom this will become a treasured childhood memory. One certainly can’t argue with that.

REASONS TO GO: This has the makings of a Christmas perennial. The voice work is splendid and any chance to hear John Cleese at work is worth it.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is annoying. There are a few too many clichés in the script.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude and mildly suggestive humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to a very small limited release as well as a VOD release, the film has a one day special screening on December 1 at about 100 additional theaters across the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews: Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Family in Transition

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero


A future warrior at play as a child.

(2015) Animated Feature (Vertical) Starring the voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia K. McWilliams, Jacob Latimore, Fred Tatasciore, Jon Curry, Mick Wingert, Dave B. Mitchell, Al Rodrigo, Andre Robinson, Sage Ryan, Quinton Flynn, Mark Rolston, John Eric Bentley, Keythe Farley, Sherrie Jackson. Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal

 

Dubai’s first foray into animated feature films is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it boasts some truly glorious animation. On the other hand, the human characters are almost without expression throughout. It also focuses on a character from the very early days of the Islamic faith, of a figure who was part of the Prophet’s inner circle, although that is only tangentially referred to in the film and of course Muhammad isn’t depicted at all in keeping with their faith.

The movie is (very) loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a 7th century African man who in childhood was taken as a slave and became one of the first followers of the prophet Muhammad. He is in Islamic culture credited with being the first muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer reputedly because of his beautiful voice.

In the film, we see Bilal (Robinson) and his sister Shufaira (Robinson) watch horrified from a closet as their mother is murdered. The two children are taken as slaves and sold to the cruel idol-seller Umayya (McShane) whose son Safwan (Ryan) may be just a little bit crueler than his dad, although more cowardly.

Bilal grows into a man (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is prized for his singing voice by his master. Run-ins with Safwan to protect his sister has left Bilal discouraged and essentially accepting his fate as a slave, flying in the face of the wisdom his mother taught him as a child. However, there are others in Mecca who disagree with the idol-worshiping money-grubbing slave-oriented economy and atmosphere of the city. Hamza (Mitchell), a noted warrior and the Master of the Market (Gross) both see greatness in Bilal and gradually win him over to monotheism and freedom. However, despite Bilal leaning towards pacifism, they will have to fight for that freedom – in a place called Badr.

This is a very different kettle of fish for animated features. For one thing, it is a story of a Muslim hero and portrays the religion in a very different light than it is generally portrayed in the West. Few will remember this from their history but at one time the Muslims accepted Jewish refugees driven out of Europe and under Arabic rule they thrived and often worked in the great centers of learning established in the Arabic world.

Sadly, a lot of American viewers won’t be able to look past the rhetoric and will see this as Muslim propaganda and while it certainly leans towards a positive vision of Islam, it is no more propaganda than Christian faith-based stories and animations. Americans are sadly notorious for turning away from the unfamiliar.

As mentioned earlier, the animation is a bit uneven but when it’s good, it’s really good. Strangely though, there is an awful lot of violence and cruelty depicted in the film, much more so than in the average children’s animated film which might give some parents pause. However, those parents who wish to teach tolerance as a lesson should certainly high-tail it to their local VOD site of choice or their local DVD/Blu-Ray dealer because that lesson is certainly honed in on. Sure, the dialogue is a bit clunky (the characters rarely use contractions and end up all sounding like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and full of aphorisms which may drive the average adult batty but it is meant sincerely. I also question the title a little bit; how is a 7th century figure a “new” breed of hero?

The movie got a brief theatrical release in February, more than three years after it had been released elsewhere globally. Likewise, it is only now showing up on home video. This is a pretty solid animated feature which although flawed shows some potential for the studio that the directors established in order to make this film. Although perhaps Americans may continue to resist features that give the colorful and often brilliant history of the Islamic faith, I hope the studio continues to produce them. Learning more about the culture of Islam is the first step in learning not to fear it but rather coexist with it.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is occasionally breathtaking. The story is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: This is much too long for younger kids. The English dialogue is a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some surprisingly intense violence, child peril, some disturbing images as well as thematic issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the depiction of the Battle of Badr, animators brought to life 5,000 human characters and 1,000 horses – more than took place at the actual battle which involved 1,300 warriors and 270 horses.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up and Away
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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