Coco (2017)


Life’s a long song.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Adrian Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renée Victor, Jaime Camil, Alfonso Arau, Herbert Siguenza, Gabriel Iglesias, Lombardo Boyar, Ana Ofelia Murgula, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Selene Luna, Edward James Olmos, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger, Luis Valdez, Carla Medina. Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina

 

There was a point in time when I could confidently state that each and every movie that Pixar put out was of the highest quality and were all amazing in their own right. That is no longer possible; there have been some less-than-stellar sequels and even a few new movies that haven’t exactly been critical successes. The latest Pixar effort could consider the cold streak – or it could be a return to the legacy that they’ve been building.

Manuel (Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to sing and play music but he has the sad misfortune of being part of, as he grouses early on, the only family in Mexico that hates music. That’s because years early, his great-grandmother (Victor) had been deserted by her husband who left to go become a musician and had never returned. The experience had scarred her and ever since her decree that there would be no music in the house had been continued by the matriarchs that followed – Manuel’s mother (Ubach) being the most recent one.

But Manuel’s hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt) who has long since passed on urges him from old movies not to give up and follow his dream. However as the family prepares for the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, Manuel and his mother have a confrontation, smashing his guitar which Manuel absolutely needs to compete in a musical competition that might be the first step on the road to attaining his dreams. Desperate, he decides to take the guitar hanging in the crypt of Ernesto de la Cruz. When Manuel strums the guitar to make sure it’s in tune, he is magically transported to the Land of the Dead.

It is a place where Manuel definitely doesn’t belong and the longer he stays, the more likely it is he will never leave. He needs a relative’s blessing to send him home but his great-grandmother won’t give it unless he promises to renounce music, which is the same as renouncing himself as far as Manuel is concerned. Then, to Manuel’s amazement, signs point to the identity of his true father – Ernesto de la Cruz himself.  Getting to see the great star in the afterlife is no easier than getting to see him was in life so Manuel enlists the aid of Héctor (Garcia) who claims to know him which Héctor agrees to give provided that Manuel makes sure that Hector is remembered by the living which keeps his skeletal spirit from drifting away (which is what happens to his pal Chicharrón (Olmos) in one of the most emotional scenes in the film).

But there are no easy paths to one’s dream and especially, no easy paths to the Land of the Living. The fall-out of a crime that happened decades earlier begins to take possession of the narrative and Manuel wonders if he is not learning the value of family too late for him to practice it in the Land of the Living. And the most intriguing question of all is to be answered – why is this movie named Coco?

This is absolutely a return to form for Pixar, one of their best ever and certainly their best in at least five or ten years. Unkrich and Molina have crafted a vibrant world that is both fascinating and fun. Kids will love the bright colors, the spirit guide animals and the goofy Tim Burton-esque skeletons, while adults will be partial to the family-friendly message, the genuinely moving scenes (particularly in the last act) and some of the beautiful images such as the flower-strewn bridge from the Land of the Living to the Land of the Dead.

The movie is inevitably going to be compared to Fox’s similarly-themed Book of Life and there is some justification to that. The Fox film had the benefit of the participation of Guillermo del Toro as a producer; some say that his input made that film just a little bit more magical and perhaps that’s true but to be honest I’m not certain how much input he had into the creative aspect of the film. I’m not saying he didn’t have any, I’m just saying I don’t know how much involvement he had in it. The music of Coco has also been unfavorably to that of Book of Life which is absolute malarkey. The Fox film used mariachi versions of American pop hits; Pixar opted to go with original music written in the Ranchera style. The exception is the execrable hit “Remember Me,” which was written by the Frozen team; the rest of the music is absolutely amazing and enjoyable.

Pixar’s animators took a lot of time watching guitar virtuosos play the music that was actually used in the film; therefore the fingering that is onscreen is the correct fingering for that song. Nobody does the details quite like Pixar does and you might think “what does it matter?” Trust me, it matters.

There are a couple of things that stand out as unusual for modern animated features. First off, we have a plucky young boy in the lead. Disney tends to prefer their princesses to their pirates when it comes to animation; it is refreshing to see a young lad getting to shine in an animated feature. On a second and far more important note, the movie is culturally sensitive to the point it has resonated not only with Hispanics here in the United States but it has been a massive hit in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Not only is that a smart financial move on Disney’s part but it’s the right thing to do at a time when our President has characterized the people of our neighbor to the South as rapists and thieves who live in a s***hole country. I’m all for teaching our kids tolerance and acceptance of different cultures.

One part of the Mexican culture that every other culture can relate to is the importance of family and that lesson is brought home in a heartwarming but not too sweet way. I was misty-eyed at various points of the film but particularly near its conclusion. I genuinely cared about the characters and about what they meant to each other. I’m generally not one for purchasing Disney films for our digital video library – my wife is the Disneyphile in our family – but this one I’m going to insist we get.

The only quibbles are that Gonzalez is a little bland and unremarkable as Manuel and some of the plot is absolutely predictable although to be fair there are some really good twists that come along – like for example why the film is named Coco in the first place. I have to say that this is my favorite Pixar film since Up and although not quite up to that standard completely, it comes quite close and may over time usurp that film’s position as my favorite Pixar film ever.

REASONS TO GO: The music and songs are outstanding. Beautiful, colorful backgrounds make this a visual treat. A genuinely heartwarming film, especially near the end.
REASONS TO STAY: Gonzalez is a bit nondescript.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some cartoon violence and a few serious thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Coco is currently the highest grossing film in Mexican box office history, surpassing The Avengers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 00/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Cars 3


A couple of rivals get personal.

(2017) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Ray Magliozzi, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Lea DeLaria, Kerry Washington, Bob Costas, Margo Martindale, Darrell Waltrip, Paul Newman, Isiah Whitlock Jr., John Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin, Katherine Helmond, Paul Dooley, Jenifer Lewis. Directed by Brian Fee

 

It’s generally agreed that the Cars franchise is the weakest in the Pixar line-up, especially after the godawful sequel Cars 2. That film seemed to exist mainly to sell merchandise and indeed the Cars franchise has consistently been one of the top merchandise sellers for the Mouse House over the decade plus since the first film debuted. It is also, not uncoincidentally, one of the few franchises in the Disney animated firmament that seems deliberately targeted at young boys rather than the princess-wannabe crowd.

The new film is absolutely a big step up from the first sequel, leaving the incomprehensible spy movie elements behind and concentrating on the things that did work in the first film; the clever and engaging world of the anthropomorphic autos, the clear love for Americana and of course, Paul Newman. In many ways, the movie exists as a tribute to the late icon and he figures heavily in the plot; in fact, Newman’s voice is featured in the film utilizing stories Newman told that were recorded in between takes of the original Cars as well as unused dialogue. Newman’s fans will get a kick out of hearing his voice one last time.

The plot seems heavily influenced by Talladega Nights as well as other racing movies with the hero Lightning McQueen (Wilson) who played the young upstart in the first film being overtaken by younger, faster cars in this one. His rival is an arrogant high-tech machine who reminded me a great deal of the Sacha Baron Cohen character in the Ferrell film only without the European accent and gay overtones. The ending is heartwarming but a bit on the “really?” side.

Like the other Cars films, I got the sense that the really young children (particularly the boys) were much more into it than their parents were. As an adult, I generally don’t have a problem with Pixar films who have something for everybody which further distinguishes them from their animated competition; however, I could see why a lot of parents in the audience had a glazed over expression on their face. Maybe if we were a little more in touch with our inner toddler we might have appreciated it more but all in all this is definitely a big improvement over the last one.

REASONS TO GO: You really can’t complain about a love letter to Paul Newman. The world created here continues to be clever and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: While the really wee kids were digging this, their parents were less entertained. Some of the plot elements seemed to have been lifted from Talladega Nights.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is completely suitable for family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three Cars films were released the same year as a Pirates of the Caribbean film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonderstruck

Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story


John Paul DeJoria did well so he could do good.

(2016) Documentary (Paladin) John Paul DeJoria, Dan Aykroyd, Danny Trejo, Arianna Huffington, Cheech Marin, Robert Kennedy, Ron White, John Capra, Michelle Phillips, Pierce Brosnan, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Lou Jacobellis, Michaeline DeJoria, Goose, Pam Peplow, Angus Mitchell, Paul Watson, Alexis DeJoria, Julia Povost, Joyce Campbell, Mara Goudrine, Ilana Edelstein. Directed by Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Harrell Tickell

 

“Success that is not shared is failure” according to billionaire John Paul DeJoria. It’s an attitude that is refreshing in an era where the top 1% of our wealthiest citizens are viewed with distrust if not outright hostility and for good reason. Our wealthy have acted in a manner befitting the “Let them eat cake” crowd in an orgy of conspicuous consumption and overall lack of care for the planet and the people on it. The arrogance and utter blind disregard that they have shown to everyone and everything else that doesn’t immediately affect their bank accounts positively is absolutely deplorable.

DeJoria is different. He came from a background that these days isn’t uncommon, but back in the 40s and 50s was certainly not the norm. His father left when John Paul, or JP as most of his friends call him, was two years old. Raised by a single mom – an immigrant from Greece – in East Los Angeles, he and his brother were poor but never really knew that they were. His mother instilled in them a respect for others and a desire to help those who were worse off than themselves, making JP and his brother put a dime in the Salvation Army bucket at Christmas even though they were living hand to mouth but even then she felt the urge to do good. DeJoria justifiably has been close to his mom ever since.

After a stint in the U.S. Navy where he learned the value of hard work and teamwork, he set out to make something of himself. He discovered an affinity for sales and was successful selling encyclopedias door to door as well as a short but successful career selling life insurance. After being introduced to the hair care industry working for Redken (a company my own father worked for decades earlier) he met hairstylist Paul Mitchell in 1971 and together they formed John Paul Mitchell Systems, a hair care line sold exclusively through salons. After a rocky and precarious start, the partners were rewarded when the 80s, perhaps the most hair-conscious era in history, helped their sales explode..

After Mitchell’s death in 1986 from pancreatic cancer, DeJoria became the sole owner of the company and continued to run it in the manner he always had; with an eye towards the environment and with respect and care for the people who worked for him. He had come a long way from living out of his car on two separate occasions (including once while he was getting John Paul Mitchell Systems up and running), from being in a biker gang (after graduating high school) and from two failed marriages.

He would use his millions to start several ventures, including the House of Blues and Absolut Vodka (not touched upon in the film) and more importantly, Patron Tequila which is covered extensively in the movie. He married a third time and found love; he has been a doting father to his blended family with children from both his previous marriages and from his new one, as well as her children from before her marriage to John Paul. One of his children is Alexis DeJoria, a funny car driver who owns the world record.

Ever since the Salvation Army incident in his youth, JP has had almost an obsession with giving back. He supports something like 250 different charities not only with financial contributions but also with his rather precious time. He is shown here spending time with Chrysalis, a Los Angeles-based charity that gets homeless people aid in getting back into the workforce, and Sea Shepard, dedicated to stopping illegal poaching of marine life (such as blue whales and bluefin tuna, both nearly extinct). Not shown in the film is his devotion to Food4Africa which has provided something like 400,000 meals to starving children in Africa since their inception. Not touched upon in the film was his contribution to Ted Cruz’ campaign which seems at odds with his world view of protecting the planet. I’d love to know why he would donate to someone who has voted consistently against climate change and environmental protection but that’s just me.

The husband/wife team of Joshua and Rebecca Tickell has some pretty serious films to their credit and to their credit they do portray their subject as distinctly non-saintly although there is a steady stream of praise coming from such celebrities as Cheech Marin, Ariana Huffington, Pierce Brosnan, Ron White, Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Danny Trejo and Michelle Phillips – the latter two friends since childhood.

I get the sense that DeJoria is much too humble to want to be the subject of a fawn-a-thon. What my guess is that he did this picture for was to inspire those who are down and out to go out and chase their dream anyway. He certainly did and through hard work and determination became wealthy beyond his wildest imagining. Not everyone is going to achieve that kind of success but certainly people willing to do their best are likely to at least improve their situation in life.

DeJoria is an inspiring person whose commitment to the environment, to the betterment of humanity and to the inspiration of others is worthy of emulation. I wish that more of the 1% would adopt his attitude and some have to be fair – I see you, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates – although not enough to rehabilitate the reputation of the rich and shameless.

DeJoria is also an engaging, charismatic individual and that makes the film a lot easier to enjoy. Not only are you rooting for him throughout the film but you want to hang out with him – and one gets the sense that he would love for you to hang out with him, too. People like DeJoria are rare commodities these days and if anyone deserves a documentary of their own, it’s them. I’m glad that DeJoria got his.

REASONS TO GO: The subject is quite inspiring. DeJoria himself is an engaging personality.
REASONS TO STAY: The film occasionally is too fawning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of DeJoria’s children work for him at Paul Mitchell Systems.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Becoming Warren Buffett
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown

The Perfect Game


Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

Jake Austin is still unsure what to do with the round thing while Clifton Collins Jr. looks on in frustration.

(2010) Sports Drama (Image) Clifton Collins Jr., Cheech Marin, Louis Gossett Jr., Emilie de Ravin, Bruce McGill, Patricia Manterola, David Koechner, Frances Fisher, Tracey Walter, Jansen Panettiere, Jake Austin, Moises Arias, Ryan Ochoa, Julieta Ortiz. Directed by William Dear

The mightiest heroes can sometimes come from the unlikeliest of places. You never know where inspiration is going to come from. You never know how.

Monterrey, Mexico is as impoverished as it gets in 1957. It’s an industrial community, dirt-poor and with few amenities. The kids of Monterrey don’t have a lot to do, so local priest Padre Estaban (Marin) encourages them to start playing baseball. When he discovers former major league prospect Cesar Faz (Collins) has returned home after leaving the St. Louis Cardinals organization, he enlists him to be their coach.

In fact, the only job Cesar could get with the Cardinals was  as a janitor but still he hoped he could get into their organization but soon it became clear that the ghost of Babe Ruth himself could have proclaimed him a surefire star and the Cardinals still would have turned the other way. Maybe he should have swept the floor for the Dodgers instead.

In any case, he soon realizes that Angel Macias (Austin) has an enormous amount of potential as a pitcher and he takes him under his wing. Under Cesar’s hard but compassionate coaching the Monterrey youngsters soon learn to play as a team and they begin winning. And winning. And winning some more. Soon, they qualify for the Little League World Series.

But the obstacles are many. To get to Williamsport they will need money and there isn’t a lot of that in Monterrey. Besides that even if they get there no team outside the United States had ever won the Little League World Series. How could they even hope to compete with America in their own national pastime?

Because you’ve seen this kind of movie many times before and once you figure out that this is based on a true story (more on that later), you know that Monterrey is going to overcome all those obstacles. Even though you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat for a foregone conclusion, still you will catch plenty of that feel-good effect that so many sports underdog films bring out in you.

This is based on a true story – not the actual story itself. It is fiction, based on fact. That’s something to keep in mind. Those who want to know the real story behind the team will need to look up Los pequenos gigantes, a 1960 documentary made about that team. It’s in English, but it is extremely hard to find.

There is a bit of Bad News Bears here as well as a bit of Miracle. I don’t think there is anything here that really sets this apart from other similarly-themed movies other than that the heroes are Mexican and much of the movie is set there, and shows some of the poverty that was and continues to be an everyday reality there.

The actors playing the kids on the team do all right but they are basically given one-note characters who exist to fulfill a function either within the plot or on the field. Austin’s Angel Macias is at the heart of the film from the kid’s aspect and he does pretty well. Macias is coping with a father who is disinterested in baseball and whose harsh, critical eye drive the young boy to tears sometimes. Fathers can do that when they see their children only as they want them to be rather than as they are.

Collins does a pretty good job as Cesar who has secrets of his own to hide. Marin, who those who loved him in his heyday will have a hard time seeing him as a priest, makes for a decent one. De Ravin plays a cub reporter looking for a big story and finds one, gets a part that seems to have been lifted from a screwball comedy and transplanted here. She’s pretty and sexy in the role, but that doesn’t go well with the rest of the movie – which is a problem with the script more than with her.

Those who love those sports underdog movies will like this a lot. Those who are sick of them should probably steer clear. This is inspiring sure but not as much as the real Monterrey team whose story is Hollywoodized here.

WHY RENT THIS: Has plenty of heart.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Can be overbearing with its message in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic elements might be a bit over the head of the younger crowd.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Real members of both the Monterrey and La Mesa little league teams who played in that championship game can be seen in the stands as fans during the championship game sequence.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a kind of music video (really just a montage of clips from the movie set to music) in both Spanish and English.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.9M on an unreported production budget; it’s likely that the production made money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Miracle Match

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Shrink

Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil


Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil

Hell’s Granny comes to town.

 

(2011) Animated Feature (Weinstein) Starring the voices of Hayden Panettiere, Glenn Close, Joan Cusack, David Ogden Stiers, Patrick Warburton, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, David Allen Grier, Andy Dick, Martin Short, Brad Garrett, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong. Directed by Mike Disa

 

There seems to be a reigning strategy in Hollywood that a successful original movie’s sequel can be made even more successful by adding 3D. This is of course regardless of whether 3D is necessary or annoying by its presence. It’s all just cash registers ringing up a higher sale.

The Happily Ever After Agency is back to business as usual. Nicky Flippers (Stiers), the froggy head of the agency, is doing without Red (Panettiere, taking over for Anne Hathaway) his best agency who is away for further training from the Sisters of the Hood, who achieve better Kung Fu thru baking. In order to get through them, though, she’s first got to best a somewhat arrogant troll (Grier).

Her partner Wolf (Warburton) and sidekick Twitchy the Squirrel are accompanying Granny (Close) on a rescue mission to retrieve Hansel (Hader) and Gretel (Poehler) from the clutches of the witch Verushka (Cusack). However, due to the incompetence of Wolf, the rescue goes sideways and Verushka escapes not only with her hostages but with Granny as well.

Red in the meantime discovers that the Sisters have created a recipe for a truffle that bestows ultimate power on the person who devours it. Only Granny knows the secret ingredient that makes the powers work, which was why she was kidnapped – Verushka, like Granny, having been a part of the sisterhood at one time. Red must forego further training and rescue Granny before she is forced to bake the unthinkable.

The first Hoodwinked was a surprise hit back in 2005 and a sequel was inevitable. While original director Cory Edwards remains on board, it is only as a producer, co-writer and the voice of Twitchy. In the director’s chair is Disa, a longtime animator getting his feature debut nod.

The animation is in many ways better – it is certainly brighter. Disa shows some imagination, particularly in the backgrounds of the fairy tale city. However, the whole fairy tale spoof thing that the first movie had in common with the Shrek franchise is wearing a little thin here. In all honesty we’ve seen it done elsewhere and better.

The main issue here is the 3D. It’s unnecessary most of the time – 3D tricks for their own sake – and frankly some of it is a little nausea-inducing. Obviously on a home video system, all of the 3D is lost unless you have a TV and Blu-Ray player with 3D capability and so it further illustrates some of the film’s deficiencies. I’m not a big fan of 3D for its own sake.

Still, some of the goofiness from the original is retained and the cast tries hard to maintain the mood -particularly Warburton, whose work as a voice actor (on TV shows like “The Tick” and “Family Guy”) have made him one of the best in the business, I think. Unfortunately, he’s not given a lot to do but to act kind of demented and stupid but Warburton makes a game effort of it.

This is a movie that could have used a bit more cleverness and a bit less pizzazz. Sure, it’s going to keep kids reasonably entertained but discerning kids are going to watch this once and likely not turn back again while their parents are going to flee the room as soon as their rugrats are plopped down in front of the TV. It may make for a decent enough rental but as a purchase it probably isn’t the kind of investment that Jim Cramer would recommend.

WHY RENT THIS: Just enough goofiness to make this worthwhile.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Relies far too much on 3D effects that are lost if you don’t have a 3D system.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some mildly rude humor and a bit of cartoon action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s release was delayed more than a year while Weinstein resolved a lawsuit brought on by the production company. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a trio of music videos.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.0M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a box office failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happily N’Ever After

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Chernobyl Diaries

Tales From Earthsea (Gedo senki)


 

Tales From Earthsea

Have fun storming the castle!

(2006) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, Matt Levin, Blaire Restaneo, Kat Cressida, Suzanne Blakeslee, Pat Fraley, Jessica Gee-George, Tara Platt, Liam O’Brien, Terrence Stone, Karen Strassman. Directed by Goro Miyazaki

 

We are often driven by forces within us that we ourselves don’t understand. When asked why we do the things we do, sometimes all we can shrug and say “I dunno.” Usually, that’s not a sufficient answer.

Arren (Levin) is a prince of the realm in the world known as Earthsea. His father is a well-beloved king who is preparing Arren for a reign of his own but one dark night in the castle, Arren cold-bloodedly murders his father and steals his enchanted sword, fleeing into the night and away into the most distant lands of the realm.

Arren himself doesn’t understand why he killed his own father – he loved him. He is being pursued by a strange shadowy figure who frightens Arren although the prince should be paying more attention to the wolves who gather around him. It looks like Arren will receive karmic justice but he is rescued at the last moment by a sorcerer named Sparrowhawk (Dalton).

It turns out that Sparrowhawk is one of the greatest mages in the land. He seeks to return balance to his world, which of late has been beset by dragons. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly unexpected since dragons were thought to have left the world. At one time dragons and humans lived in harmony together but those days are long gone.

Into this mix comes Cob (Dafoe), another sorcerer albeit one whose intentions are far less benign than Sparrowhawk’s. Cob means to find immortality and doesn’t care if he has to blast Earthsea into nothingness in order to do it. The key to his immortality rests with Arren. Sparrowhawk knows that he must protect Arren from Cob at all costs and is joined by ex-priestess Tenar (Hargitay) and her disfigured teenage ward Therru (Restaneo) to help defeat Cob and restore Earthsea into harmony.

Although released in Japan in 2006, the movie didn’t make it to American shores until 2010. Much of that had to do with rights issues – the movie is based on the work of American author Ursula K. LeGuin (and mostly on the third book of her Earthsea saga, The Farthest Shore). Much has been made about the movie’s PG-13 rating, which is the second film from Studio Ghibli to receive such a rating (The Princess Mononoke was the first) and the first animated feature from Disney to get that particular rating. It certainly isn’t for small children.

The animation is gorgeous for the most part, not unlike a watercolor come to life. The dragons are nicely realized and there are some very nice bits of business here. However, this isn’t Hayao Miyazaki in the director’s chair, it’s his son Goro and the younger Miyazaki’s inexperience shows in places. The pacing can be downright slow (a crucial mistake in an animated feature) and the characterization is pretty shallow. For some reason, the decision was made to make Cob look a bit like David Bowie in his more androgynous phase and give him Willem Dafoe’s raspy voice. The combination is jarring to say the least.

LeGuin’s source material is rich in background and while she has disassociated herself from the movie, at least the palate that the filmmakers and writers drew from is vibrant. This feels like a lived-in world, for better or for ill.

This isn’t an easy property to bring to the screen, considering the hero commits patricide in the first few minutes of the film. You are left wondering if he is the villain from that point (if you’re not familiar with LeGuin’s work) and it takes a good long time to get behind Arren as the hero. Dalton, as Sparrowhawk, gives great depth and color to his character, projecting the gentle nature of the archmage as well as his infinite patience (Arren isn’t always the easiest companion to hang around with). Of all the characters in the movie, it is Sparrowhawk who remained with me the longest.

Even LeGuin admitted this isn’t a bad movie – in fact it’s a pretty damn good one, despite the fan base that decries it (both that of LeGuin and Studio Ghibli). It isn’t an easy movie to get behind in all instances but if you don’t give up on it, you might find yourself warming up to it as I did. This is far from the best film to come from the studio but it isn’t the worst either. Faint praise, I know – but believe me, this is a very good movie, worth looking up however you get your home video.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous animation. Dalton does a fine job vocally. LeGuin’s world is very much worth exploring, even if it isn’t exactly the way she wrote it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film lacks spark and passion. It also drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images are fairly graphic and violent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki originally petitioned author Ursula K. LeGuin to direct the movie but she was unfamiliar with his work and turned down his request. After she saw My Neighbor Tortoro she was sufficiently impressed and changed her mind; however by that time he was too deep into making Howl’s Moving Castle to direct himself and as a result his son Goro made this his feature film debut. LeGuin was seriously disappointed with the final results and said so on her website.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interactive map and trivia game for previous Studio Ghibli features.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.7M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Separation

Cars 2


Cars 2

Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen, together again.

(2011) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Jason Isaacs, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Brent Musburger, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Kretschmann, Peter Jacobson, Bonnie Hunt, Darrell Waltrip, Franco Nero, Tony Shalhoub, Jeff Garlin, Bruce Campbell, Sig Hansen, Vanessa Redgrave, John Ratzenberger, Cheech Marin, Paul Dooley. Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Pixar has become a brand name in the same way Lexus and Rolex are. It has become a symbol of prestige, the very best in their industry. Of course, no human institution can operate at peak ability every time out.

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) makes a triumphant return home after winning his fourth Piston Cup, marking him as one of the all-time NASCAR greats. He is happy to hang out with his best friend Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Hunt) when he receives word that a former oil billionaire gone alternative fuel-happy, Sir Miles Axelrod (Izzard) is putting together a World Grand Prix, a series of three races around the world (two of them in Europe, one in Asia – none in North America which seemed to be bending a bit backwards not to make this one as overly American as the first Cars) showcasing his new alternative fuel Alinol.

Lightning is a bit reluctant to go but after smug, arrogant Formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (Turturro) – a clever reference to the principle of fluid dynamics which is part of what makes the modern automobile engine work – insults Lightning, its game on.

In the meantime, British spy Finn McMissile (Caine) discovers a plot led by the renegade scientist Professor Zundapp (Kretschmann) to ignite the Alinol fuel with a burst of microwaves, leading the public to believe that the fuel is unsafe and forcing them to buy their crude oil – the professor and his group happen to own the world’s largest fuel reserve.

The overall leader of the plot is unknown but an American agent has a photo of him. Finn and his compatriot, inexperienced tech agent Holly Shiftwell (Mortimer) are supposed to pick up the film at the party for the World Grand Prix, but the agent is spotted and in desperation, attaches the film to Mater, who has been embarrassing Lightning with his ignorant antics. Mistaking Mater for the spy, Finn and Holly team up with Mater who must discover who’s behind the plot (which turn out to be a consortium of lemons, cars like Pacers, Yugos and Gremlins, all of which have been written off as bad cars), a mission that becomes more urgent when it is revealed that Lightning is the next target for destruction.

By now, most people are well-aware that this may well be the weakest movie in the Pixar filmography. In terms of storyline, this is certainly true – the plot is quite a bit of fluff, disposable and not particularly original. When compared to such work as Up, Wall-E and Toy Story, it certainly doesn’t hold up well.

However from an entertainment point of view, it isn’t a bad choice for a summer afternoon. The movie has a breakneck pace that keeps it from being boring at any given time. Like all Pixar films, it is a work of outstanding visual achievement – the details of the world are absolutely amazing, and often clever. Keep an eye out for a number of Pixar in-jokes, from director John Lasseter’s name appearing in a clever way on the London speedway track to the name of a movie at the local Radiator Springs drive-in resembling that of a Pixar classic. There are also nice little cultural references, such as Sig Hansen of “Deadliest Catch” fame voicing a Cars-world version of the F.V. Northwestern, the vessel that Sig captains both on the show and in real life.

Whereas the original Cars tried to re-create a 50s Route 66 American Southwest vibe, this is a full-on 1960s British spy caper feel. Everything from the supercool Finn McMissile to the gadgets to the music makes those of us old enough to remember them (or those willing to have checked them out on Netflix or cable TV) the spy movies of Caine, James Bond or James Coburn, among others. There are homages to these films scattered throughout, sometimes subtly and occasionally not so much.

This is a movie which is more about entertaining the audience than it is about blowing them out of their seats. It isn’t a bad thing to be entertained; it’s just that the bar has been set so high by previous Pixar films that it’s almost impossible for any movie to measure up. I suppose it’s not a bad thing for a film company to be victims of their own high standards – and this movie certainly is. It’s not a bad movie, it’s just not a great movie and I guess that’s enough to upset some people in the critical community. I can recommend it without a second thought, just don’t go in expecting too much other than mindless good fun and you’ll enjoy it purely on that level.

REASONS TO GO: Your kids will want to see it. Visually delightful.

REASONS TO STAY: Not on par with Pixar’s other films. Mostly fluffy, could easily have been a direct-to-cable film from a story standpoint.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfect for family viewing, as you’d expect.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Luigi visits Lightning to visit his Uncle Topolino. Topolino is the Italian name of Mickey Mouse.

HOME OR THEATER: This is going to seem sacrilegious, but I think it’s going to look just as great at home as it does in a movie theater.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: La Mission