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 Boss Baby


Alec Baldwin’s agent gets an earful from his client.

(2017) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Tobey Maguire, Miles Bakshi, James McGrath, Conrad Vernon, ViviAnn Yee, Eric Bell Jr., David Soren, Edie Mirman, James Ryan, Walt Dohrn, Jules Winter, Nina Bakshi, Tom McGrath, Brian Hopkins, Glenn Harmon, Joseph Izzo, Chris Miller, Andrea Knoll. Directed by Tom McGrath

 

Any new parent will tell you that they are no longer in charge of their households once they bring the newborn bundle of joy home – the baby is always the boss. Every schedule is run according to the needs of the baby and sleep? HA!! Here is an animated feature that takes that idea a bit more literally than you and I might imagine.

Tim Templeton (M. Bakshi) has an ideal relationship with his parents. Both employed by PuppyCo and it’s somewhat neurotic CEO Francis Frances (Buscemi), Dad (Kimmel) plays with his boy while Mom (Kudrow) beams beatifically. They are the perfect family unit. Until, that is, the parents bring a new addition to the family – a brand new baby (Baldwin).

But this is no ordinary newborn. For one thing, he carries a briefcase and wears a business suit onesie. Tim finds that a little weird but his parents think it’s adorable. And this is a baby with an agenda; it turns out he is a representative from Babycorp who is out to put the kibosh on a new puppy product his parents’ firm is putting out that is threatening to turn all attention away from babies. “This is war,” the boss baby informs a meeting of the local diaper-wearing set, “And the puppies are winning.” Oh if only it were true. A sibling rivalry ensues but is put aside for the brothers to work together to carry out the Babycorp directive which will get the boss baby sent back up to a corner office in corporate and give Tim his family back.

This is based on a 32-page illustrated book by Marla Frazee which basically focuses on how the baby changes the dynamic of a marriage; the character of Tim isn’t even in it. Critics have most often compared the movie to Storks, the 2016 animated feature which had similar elements but in all honesty I thought it more like the two Cats and Dogs movies which turned into a gadget-oriented superspy kidflick which in many ways is superior to this one.

In fact, I thought The Boss Baby was at its best when it concentrated on family dynamics, the original theme of the book. It goes off the rails in the third act when it goes all James Bond on us. Still, Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast here recalling characters from 30 Rock and Glengarry Glen Ross which is even slyly referenced in a “cookies are for closers” line. This is very definitely Baldwin’s movie and he does a fine job as a corporate shill – nobody is better in that sort of role.

I generally have a fairly high tolerance for toilet humor but the movie goes overboard with it. That will certainly delight kids barely out of diapers themselves but older kids and parents will certainly begin to cringe after the fifth or sixth potty joke. There are some pretty decent moments and some cleverness is exhibited but the movie feels padded out with unnecessary plot contrivances. This is an animated feature fit only for the very non-discerning.

REASONS TO GO: There are some clever bits of business. Nobody does smarmy corporate types better than Baldwin.
REASONS TO STAY: The potty humor quotient is on the uncomfortably high side. The movie is on the gimmicky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some humor that is mildly rude but otherwise suitable for general family audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tim has a Gandalf-themed alarm clock; in reality, Ralph Bakshi – Miles’ grandfather – directed the first The Lord of the Rings animated feature back in 1978.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cats and Dogs
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
War for the Planet of the Apes

Kung Fu Panda 3


Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

Pandas and rabbits and pigs, oh my!!!

(2016) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, J.K. Simmons, Lucy Liu, Kate Hudson, Randall Duk Kim, Steele Gagnon, Liam Knight, Wayne Knight, Al Roker, Barbara Dirickson, Willie Geist, Fred Tatasciore, Ming Tsai, April Hong. Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Allesandro Carloni

Know thyself is a long-standing axiom, but it is hard to know who you are when you don’t know where you come from, or from who. It can leave us with a sense of feeling lost, floundering in a dark sea without any reference points.

You would think Po (Black) has at least some sense of who he is. After all, he is the Dragon Warrior. But he’s also an orphan, raised by Mr. Ping (Hong), the noodle vendor – who happens to be a duck to Po’s panda. Po has just figured that he was the only one.

But there is trouble brewing. In the spirit world, renegade General Kai (Simmons) has been stealing the chi (lifeforce) of all the great masters in the afterlife, which seems problematic at best considering they’re all dead. He’s even managed to grab the chi of Master Oogway (Kim). However, Oogway has a trick up his sleeve, one that is not revealed until later.

The addition of Master Oogway’s chi has given Kai enough power to return to the mortal world where he plans on gathering up all the chi of all the kung fu masters on the planet, culminating with the Dragon Warrior’s. The Dragon Warrior however is very much distracted. Master Shifu (Hoffman) is retiring and he wants Po to take over training the Furious Five, which is disastrous. The appearance of Li (Cranston), who turns out to be Po’s long-lost dad, leads Po and his adopted father Ping to the farthest reaches of China to the secret village of the pandas, where he meets all his long lost relatives.

Po is ecstatic and happy having found not just his people but himself but still has been unable to master chi, something that the pandas were reputed to be masters of. When the news arrives that Kai has beaten the Furious Five save for Tigress (Jolie) and he is on his way to the hidden panda village, Po realizes that there is no way he can beat Kai by himself. He is going to need an army – of pandas. But how to make these lazy, dumpling-eating, hill rolling creatures, as gentle as can be, an army?

The third installment in the KFP franchise has done pretty well at the box office despite its January release date and competition from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, of the three films in the trilogy (and this is supposedly the last one as the studio has revealed no further plans to continue the franchise at present, although the success of this movie leads me to think that DreamWorks might be reconsidering that decision) this is the weakest to my eye.

Many of the characters who made the series a success are limited to essentially cameo roles. Hoffman as Master Shifu is limited to maybe a couple of dozen lines after being essentially a main character for the first two films and the Furious Five are mainly an afterthought, appearing together in just one scene. While there are plenty of new characters to make an impression here (including Hudson as a seductive ribbon dancing panda), Kai as a villain seems no different than either of the first two villains, supernatural origin or no.

Black is earnest enough as Po and continues to center the franchise as a character who is slowly learning to believe in himself, which also is getting a bit tired but I suppose if you’re going to be child-oriented as an animated feature, a simple lesson in self-belief or being who you want to be needs to be front and center. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, only that there is nothing here that really stands out from any other animated feature out there.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood for a kidflick, particularly in an auditorium full of noxious little brats who were plainly too young or too undisciplined to be in a movie theater but this one left me pretty flat. In many ways this is not quite as good as the second film which got a similar rating, but I didn’t see enough wrong with this one to go down a notch. I got the sense the kids enjoyed the movie (particularly the little boys) and that the parents were more or less happy that their tykes weren’t at home driving them crazy. And that’s not really what I’d consider reason enough to see a film with the kids, animated or not.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of fun new characters.
REASONS TO STAY: Left me feeling pretty “meh.”
FAMILY VALUES: Some animated martial arts action and slightly rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Has the longest time between sequels for any DreamWorks Animation film with five years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tigger Movie
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Witch

Penguins of Madagascar


Skipper and company, sneakin' around.

Skipper and company, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Sean Charmatz, Werner Herzog, Stephen Kearin, Nicholas Guest, Angie Wu, Ava Acres. Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith

There seems to be a trend in animated features these days to put in a group of support characters that are almost more popular than the main characters. You’ve got Skrat in the Ice Age series, the Minions in Despicable Me and the slugs in Flushed Away. In the Madagascar series, there are the Penguins.

The four feathered friends have been popular enough to spin off a successful animated TV series of their own. It has allowed further development of the characters who while funny were always a bit lacking in the personality department. Now we have a good idea of who they are. Thanks to this movie, we’ll have a better idea of where they came from.

Out in the Antarctic, the penguins are marching. A documentary film crew led by an unscrupulous director (Herzog) is filming. However, three penguins aren’t like the others. They march to their own tune. One is loquacious, one is voracious and one is sagacious. Skipper (McGrath) is their leader, who believes in a military-like precision. Kowalski (Miller) is the brains of the outfit, Rico (Vernon) the demolition expert who uses his stomach as a storage locker. The three of them chase after an egg that has gotten loose and is rolling away. The other penguins refuse to go after it because, after all, they’re marching. Skipper and cohorts chase after it and in doing so are put in a situation where they are separated from the others permanently on a floating iceberg. The egg hatches, revealing the terminally cute Private (Knights).

Years go by. The Penguins become mainstays at zoos around the world but they’re more about escaping and going on missions. However, those missions can be dangerous. As it turns out, there’s a megalomaniac out there trying to kill them – Dr. Octavius Brine (Malkovich) who has a personal axe to grind with them. The Penguins fall under the protection of the North Wind, an elite fighting force dedicated to saving defenseless animals. They are led by Classified (Cumberbatch), a wolf. The rest of his team includes Corporal (Stormare), a bear; Eva (Mahendru), an owl and Short Fuse (Jeong), a puffin.

However, Dr. Brine has some very nefarious plans for the Penguins. Skipper doesn’t tend to work well with authority figures and the North Wind in turn disdain the Penguins as rank amateurs, although to be honest Kowalski thinks the gadgets the North Wind employs are pretty cool and let’s face it, he has a bit of a crush on Eva while Corporal thinks Private is the cutest thing ever. Can the two work together to stop the maniacal Dr. Brine?

I think it’s fair to say that the Madagascar series hasn’t really impressed me much to date. However, the penguins were always a highlight of their movies. I confess I haven’t seen the TV show but then again, I’m not a big fan of modern animated kids shows. Based on the trailers and my enjoyment of the Penguins in the Madagascar movies I was hopeful that this would be that rare spin-off that improves on the original.

To a degree, it is. Spy spoofs when done right can be way fun. Kids seem to appreciate that genre given the Spy Kids movies and the Bond elements in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Kids, apparently, love spies and why not? They can be tons of fun when they’re done right.

Most animated features are intended for the entertainment of children and most critics, myself included, have a hard time getting into the right mindset. Children, after all, have a different set of standards than most adults. Therefore I tend to write my reviews for the parents who will inevitably accompany the kids to the multiplex. Kids will generally have a good time as long as the movie isn’t boring and keeps on moving at an appropriate pace because kids, as those of us who have them or have been around them for any length of time, have virtually no attention span whatsoever.

Adults require a little bit more than that and for the most part, Penguins of Madagascar delivers. There are some genuinely funny moments and a few that will fly over the heads of the wee ones in the audience. There are also a few groaners which aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. The movie does drag a little bit in a few places but for the most part maintains a pretty good pace.

Other than Malkovich and Cumberbatch (which sounds like a European law firm) there isn’t a lot of star power here which is unusual for studio animated features these days which seem to rely on celebrity voice work more and more. That can sometimes be distracting when you hear a distinctive voice coming out of a cartoon character’s mouth.

Still in all, this is solid entertainment for all ages and in a year that has been a box office disappointment for family films – and this one hasn’t been pulling particularly high numbers – it stands out somewhat amid a fairly unspectacular bunch.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places. A decent enough spy spoof.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit lackluster in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of rude humor and some mild action scenes; acceptable essentially for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In both the previous Madagascar films and in the television series John DiMaggio voiced Rico. This movie, with Conrad Vernon voicing the role, is the first appearance of Rico with a different actor voicing him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Theory of Everything

How to Train Your Dragon 2


Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

Hiccup and Toothless are flaming mad.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrara, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kit Harrington, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Djimon Hounsou, Kieron Elliott, Philip McGrade, Andrew Ableson, Gideon Emery, Simon Kassianides, Randy Thom. Directed by Dean DeBlois

Becoming who we are is no easy proposition. It’s a search of discovery and the answers can be elusive, particularly when we’re not especially sure who we want to be.

The movie takes place five years after the first one. Hiccup (Baruchel) has been successful in integrating dragons into the daily life of Berk which has become a much happier place as Vikings and Dragons are living in harmony. Dragon riders show their stuff in highly contested dragon races (a kind of combination between Quidditch and Rollerball). While his father Stoick (Butler) is eager for his son to take over the family business and become chief, Hiccup spends much of his time making maps of the surrounding islands, expanding the world the Vikings have lived in into a much larger place. He is also continuing to invent things, in this case a flying suit so that he can soar with his best friend Toothless (Thom) as they explore.

Unfortunately, finding out what else is out there in that wider world can be a good and bad thing. For Hiccup, the good is in finding a Dragon Rider whose ice-riddled island hides many secrets including more dragons than anyone has ever seen in one place – and their human protector, Valka (Blanchett) who turns out to be Hiccup’s mother. This is something of a surprise since Hiccup had heard all his life that Valka had died protecting him from dragons when he was a baby but it turns out that Valka, who had always defended dragons to a Stoick who was deaf to her pleas had left in order to protect her family from the dragons – and vice versa.

On the bad side, Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid (Ferrara) as well as their buddies Snotlout (Hill), Fishlegs (Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (Miller) and Ruffnut (Wiig) have also discovered a tracker named Erit (Harrington) who captures dragons for the villainous Drago (Hounsou) who wishes to create a powerful dragon army under the control of his gigantic Leviathan dragon who can control the dragons – and whom Drago controls through torture and violence. This is a challenge the likes of which Hiccup has never had to face and when a tragedy strikes Hiccup closer than he could have possibly imagined, he will have to find the strength to lead his people to overcome this threat – or else lose their dragons and their freedom forever.

In many ways, this isn’t a typical summer animated feature, although it appears to be the most likely to be the kidflick hit of the summer at first glance. The tone here is much darker with a main character being killed and the abuse of animals being a central theme. That may have made some parents wary to bring their kids to the multiplex for this one, which has underperformed at the box office although it seems likely to be profitable enough to warrant further sequels. I’m sure DreamWorks Animation executives were expecting windfall profits considering that there would be no animation competition this summer essentially other than from the sequel to Disney’s Planes which although a surprise hit didn’t look especially promising as a blockbuster.

Baruchel’s nasal, deadpan delivery is perfect for the character of Hiccup and while he isn’t nearly as awkward as he was in the first movie, continues to have a kind of gawky, outsider quality that is endearing. Butler endows Stoick with plenty of proud papa and – when he discovers that Valka is alive after all – tender love and caring. Craig Ferguson also returns as Gobber, mainly as comic relief.

While I thought the first film was really meant for smaller kids, this one isn’t so much. I get the sense that they wanted to grow up along with their core audience and while younger kids will still be delighted with the variety of dragons and their often goofy behavior as well as the cartoonish depiction of humans (this isn’t photorealistic CGI animation by any stretch), the kids who fell in love with the original will have matured some and the movie gives them credit for that and treats them accordingly. That’s a pretty refreshing point of view for a genre which often reads as a giant advertisement for toys and merchandise geared at kids.

I’m giving this a rating just a smidge under the first film because I think that parents may want to be wary about letting the more sensitive and immature young ‘uns in their brood see this – at least one little tyke at the screening we went to had a very adverse reaction to one of the darker scenes in the movie. I also thought the plot could have used a little more originality but essentially those who really like the first one will really like this one and those who didn’t care for the original will feel the same about the sequel. They’re essentially interchangeable in many ways but I will admit that I am much more intrigued to see How to Train Your Dragon 3 than I was to see this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some really beautiful moments.  Treats kids with respect.

REASONS TO STAY: The dragons are often too cartoonish. May be too dark for the impressionable.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of animated cartoon action and some rude (but not offensively so) humor. There is a moment in which a young man deals with an event that might be upsetting for really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: DeBlois, who co-directed the original, accepted the sequel on the condition that he be allowed to direct a third film to make up a trilogy. The third film is already scheduled for June 17, 2016.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle for Terra

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Mr. Peabody and Sherman


Every dog should have a boy.

Every dog should have a boy.

(2013) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Alison Janney, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Lake Bell, Zach Callison, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Colbert, Lauri Fraser, Steve Valentine, Guillaume Aretos, Karan Brar, Joshua Rush, Mel Brooks, Thomas Lennon, Tom McGrath, Leila Birch. Directed by Rob Minkoff

Those of a certain age group (i.e. my own) will remember with great fondness the Jay Ward cartoons on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, from Fractured Fairy Tales to my own personal favorite, Peabody’s Improbable History. They were subversive for their time, with humor that sailed above my innocent yet pointy little child head but still the cartoons managed to educate about history almost despite themselves. When you compare them to the drekk that passes for animation on the Cartoon Network, it’s clear that modern animators think that modern kids are dumber than a sackful of dead cats.

In this 3D updating of the Jay Ward cartoon, Mr. Peabody (Burrell) – a brilliant beagle who also is able to talk – is the adoptive father of Sherman (Charles), a none-too-bright but full of heart kid who has trouble making friends at school. Mr. Peabody has invented a time machine called the WABAC to help teach Sherman about history.

When the gentle Sherman gets into a fight with the overbearing Penny (Winter) at school, Mr. Peabody realizes that something is wrong. Peabody is summoned to the principal’s office where he is confronted by Ms. Grunion (Janney), a social worker who thinks that dogs are not fit parents and threatens to take Sherman away if an upcoming visit to Peabody’s apartment turns up any irregularities. Peabody also takes the opportunity to invite Penny’s family – parents Paul (Colbert) and Patty (Mann) – to dinner.

At first things go swimmingly well as Peabody charms both the parents. However, Penny is a tougher nut to crack and when Sherman accidentally lets slip that there is a time machine in the house, he is forced to prove it to her when she calls him a liar. Of course,  the spoiled little princess finds herself in ancient Egypt as the bride of Tutankhamen (Callison) and looking forward to a life of indolent pleasure, not wanting to return back with Sherman.

In desperation, he gets his father to intervene. Mr. Peabody must drag the unwilling brat back to the present so that he can keep the nosy Ms. Grunion from finding an excuse to take Sherman away and while he’s at it repair a disturbance in the space-time continuum. It’s a dog’s life indeed.

Burrell, the star of Modern Family is the perfect choice to replace the late Bill Scott as the voice of Peabody. He captures the dog’s supercilious demeanor and urbane charm but adds a little bit of beagle warmth to the mix. He gets the inflections and tone Scott used down perfectly. It can safely be said that Burrell carries the film and should a sequel be made (and it looks like that’s a distinct possibility judging on the box office) could be a lucrative sidelight for the actor.

While there are a few brief celebrity cameos (Brooks as a kvetching Einstein is the best), the movie doesn’t stoop to being a cameo-fest as some other DreamWorks films have tended to do. There are also fewer pop culture references than a lot of the movies from the DreamWorks studio, although there are enough of them to be pleasing when they arrive but not so many as to be overbearing.

The animation is cool looking enough, particularly the WABAC which going from the clunky 60s version is a kind of red orb looking not unlike Spock’s spaceship on the reboot of Star Trek. There are plenty of nods to the original series (such as the street sweeper who ended every five minute MP&S cartoon in the 60s making an appearance in the end credits) but has enough cool credibility to keep most young ‘uns (particularly the boy types) delighted, which has to make every mom smile. And most moms and dads, who grew up on this stuff, will have enough here to feel a pleasant wave of nostalgia break over them like a tropical beach. All in all as far as this film is concerned I’d say “Mission Accomplished” – and not in a George W. Bush manner either.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming. Some nice animated effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the sophistication of the original cartoon. Dumbed down a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some mild peril and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A sketch of Bullwinkle hangs in Peabody’s apartment over his yoga mat.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters vs. Aliens

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: 300: Rise of an Empire

Turbo


Snail fail.

Snail fail.

(2013) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzman, Bill Hader, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Mario Andretti, Michael Patrick Bell, Aidan Andrews, Paul Dooley, Latifa Ouaou. Directed by David Soren

If you must dream, dream big. It’s easy to dream of getting an ice cream cone – after all, that’s something nearly everyone can achieve. But for a snail to dream of winning the Indianapolis 500…

But that’s just what Theo (Reynolds) a.k.a. Turbo does. He dreams of being fast, to race alongside his idol Guy Gagne (Hader), a French Canadian who has won four Indies and is the most loved race car driver in the world. However, the reality is that for all of Theo’s dreams, he’s still a snail. His delusions make him the target of a lot of abuse, much to the chagrin of his brother Chet (Giamatti).

When a mistake on Theo’s part leads to a disaster at the tomato plant in which he works, his brother and Theo are both fired. Disconsolate, Theo goes to an overpass to watch traffic pass by…fast. However a chance truck sends him over the side and onto the hood of a street racing vehicle. When Theo is sucked into the manifold and it is flooded with nitrous oxide, Theo attains super-speed that allow him to go Indie car speeds. Barry Allen, take note.

Theo – make that Turbo – then chases down a crow that has taken Chet and rescues him. The two are then captured by Tito (Pena), the dreamer brother of a taco stand owner (Guzman) in a dilapidated strip mall and entered in snail races which of course Turbo dominates. Tito – with an assist from Turbo – then determines to enter his unique snail in the Indy 500. Tito’s snail pit crew of Whiplash (Jackson), Smoove Move (Dogg), Burn (Rudolph), Skidmark (Schwartz) and the White Shadow (Bell) are very much supportive; Chet, not so much.

However, things take on a life of their own and Turbo becomes the big story at Indy, bringing in record crowds and viewing numbers. This doesn’t sit well with Gagne who doesn’t relish being beaten by a snail. It will take every ounce of courage and fortitude for Turbo to achieve his unlikely but now well within his reach dreams.

I have to admit, auto racing does nothing for me so the subject of the movie left me underwhelmed. That’s a personal bias more than an indictment of the plot here. While I will admit that the snails make fascinating animation subjects, they are kind of limited as one-joke subjects; they’re slow, we get that. There’ s the slime trail and then…nothing. That means it was always an uphill climb for the writers and filmmakers to make these characters interesting and I will give ’em props for managing to do it more or less; sadly they were less successful with the human characters.

Although bashing Reynolds has become a popular critical pastime, you won’t find me joining in. His voice is expressive and he gives Turbo a heroic yet nebbish personality. One of the movie’s funnier sequences has Turbo getting pie faced by rotten tomatoes (it’s his job to dispose of them at the plant) which pretty much sums up the critical reaction to the film.

Yeah, there are a lot of pretty colors and kids are going to love it along with all the merchandising that is sure to follow. I will say that overall that the filmmakers purloined so many elements from so many films from the TRON-like neon trail that Turbo leaves when he’s in turbo mode to the Big Wheel-riding shell crusher kid who brings to mind Sid from Toy Story that a savvy moviegoer might be more entertained by spotting the rip-offs than actually watching the movie.

It’s been a pretty subpar year for animated features and this one isn’t going to redeem it any. By any measure, this is fairly bland entertainment for kid and parent alike. That doesn’t mean it won’t keep your kids happy and content in the theater which for a frazzled parent who’s had to deal with amped up kids all summer long is all the blessing you need.

REASONS TO GO: A bit better than you’d expect.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really into snails or race cars. Very derivative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of cartoon violence and action as well as some thematic elements that might be a bit more than the very wee tots can handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Gagne” means “to win” in French.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100; the reviews are pretty mixed thus far.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ratatouille

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Wolverine

The Croods


Eep reaches for her dreams.

Eep reaches for her dreams.

(2013) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Catherine Keener, Clark Duke, Cloris Leachman, Chris Sanders, Randy Thom. Directed by Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco

At the dawn of time, everything was new. Even change was new. Survival was the only motivator for anything and those who were able to change, survived.

Eep (Stone) is a young cave girl whose father Grug (Cage) has lived life by a strict rule; fear everything. Grug has depended on brute strength and caution to keep his family alive, including his wife Ugga (Keener), son Thunk (Duke), feral baby Sandy (Thom) and his mother-in-law Gran (Leachman), the latter of which he wouldn’t mind seeing violate a few of his rules. Eep chafes at the restrictions placed upon her, longing to see the world outside the cave but there are too many dangers in the prehistoric world for her to do that on her own.

Then one night she sees a light outside the cave. What was the sun doing out at this hour? But it wasn’t daylight. She must investigate! She follows the light and runs into Guy (Reynolds), a step up on the evolutionary ladder. He has invented fire and is running around the countryside with it. After some time, she gets that he has a lot of interesting ideas and might be a valuable addition to the family (most of their neighbors have fallen to pestilence and predators). He also has a cute little mammal named Belt (Sanders) who provides quite a few functions, not the least of which is providing appropriately dramatic musical accompaniment.

However, Guy has a warning; the world is changing and tearing itself apart. They’ll need to get to high ground in order to survive. Grug pooh-poohs the idea; they can ride anything out in the safety and security of their cave. However, when the cave is destroyed, Grug has to rethink his position (and believe me, that’s quite an accomplishment for Grug). The family will have to make its way through an increasingly hostile landscape facing all sorts of bizarre and fearsome threats before they reach safety.

I have to admit, my expectations weren’t very high for this one. It seems that of late there’s been a surfeit of mediocre animated features (some very successful I might add) that really seem to be little more than an attempt to create characters that can be marketed as toys, happy meals, TV shows and whatever money-generating idea the studios can think of. And I don’t doubt that there is some of that involved here too

But still this one has plenty of heart. Yes, the message seems to be “try bold new things” which is something most kids have trouble doing. However, the filmmakers borrow liberally from such things as the old Looney Toons Roadrunner cartoons. Some critics have complained about it; either because it’s ripping off a classic or because the classic is so violent and outrageous to begin with. However, as one who grew up on them, I can say that you couldn’t pick a better source to rip off from. And homage is the sincerest form of flattery is it not?

The voice cast is pretty small for one of these things which works out nicely. Cage, normally an actor who can lose it in an instant, plays the dad with comparative restraint. He actually has some very nice scenes with the spunky Stone as their fractured parental bond is repaired in the crisis. Da Queen shed more than a few tears and I have to admit to being misty eyed myself. That was completely unexpected.

It was also nice to hear Leachman, who last year attended the Florida Film Festival and then tended bar at the Eden into the wee hours of the morning, doing her thing. She announces with that tone that tells you she knows how irritated Grug is with the fact that she’s still alive that she is indeed, still alive. It’s Cage however who gets the best line of the film: “Release the baby!!” You had to be there I guess.

Funny and endearing, this is the kind of animated feature that the kids will love and their parents won’t mind. In fact their parents might end up liking it more than the kids, which doesn’t happen often. The Croods relies on slapstick humor, a bit of pathos and a can-do attitude to be successful, tuning out the cheap potty humor which seems to be creeping into kid flicks more and more these days (and how did I start sounding like my Dad?) which is appreciated. The first major animated feature of the year (not counting Escape From Planet Earth which I haven’t seen yet but admittedly it comes fro a mid-major) may turn out to be the most surprising – and one of the best. Who’da Thunk?

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly moving and well-animated. Fun for the whole family. Road Runner-esque.

REASONS TO STAY: Nothing particularly new or daring.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the scenes in the film depict some peril that might be a bit too scary for the really young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After a long run with Paramount, this is the first DreamWorks Animation film to be distributed by 20th Century Fox.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; the reviews were pretty mediocre trending towards the negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Red Planet

Prince of Egypt


Parting the Red Sea as a theme park event.

Parting the Red Sea as a theme park event.

(1998) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jeff Goldblum, Sandra Bullock, Patrick Stewart, Danny Glover, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Mel Brooks, Phillip Ingram, Amick Byram, Aria Noelle Curzon. Directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells

I was surprised to discover that when I reviewed this back in 1998 for the Triviana website, I wrote “As the stranglehold on quality animated features once held by Disney has weakened, we can expect a glut of animated movies to hit the local multiplexes, since they are extremely profitable to the studios when marketed correctly. Every parent will have, somewhere in the recesses of their home, a toy of the cartoon-du-jour picked up from one fast-food place or another.” And wow, that actually came to pass. I had to take that opportunity to pat myself on the back.

Prince of Egypt came from the nascent DreamWorks animation studio which hoped to cut into the Disney pie and wound up cutting the largest wedge, if you please. Featuring a stellar cast of vocal talent, Prince of Egypt retells the story of Exodus. Those familiar with the Bible (or, at least, who have viewed The Ten Commandments any number of times) will know the story: A fearful mother, watching the children of Israel being slaughtered at Pharaoh’s command, puts her son into the waters of the Nile to escape the sword.

Plucked out of the Nile by Pharaohs’ wife, young Moses (Kilmer) grows up to be a bit of a hellion, a constant rival to the Pharaoh’s legitimate son and heir Ramses (Fiennes). The two, however, have developed a bond that, while tested occasionally, proves strong. Tzipporah (Pfeiffer), a high-spirited slave from Midian proves to be the undoing of the Prince as he allows her to escape, then attempts to follow her, only to run into his actual brother Aaron (Goldblum) and sister (Bullock), who tell him who he really is. Confused, Moses finds his erstwhile father Seti (Stewart), who confirms his heritage, and the terrible act that brought Moses to him. Horrified, Moses flees Egypt and makes his way to Midian.

Jethro, the Sheikh of Midian (Glover) takes the young man into his home and his heart. Eventually, Moses marries Jethro’s daughter Tzipporah (surprising how convenient these Bible epics can be). However, Moses destiny is changed forever when he encounters a burning bush while chasing a lost goat. The bush is the manifestation of the Almighty, who directs Moses to return to Egypt and free the Israelites. Most people should know how the story ends.

A great deal of dramatic license is taken here, although to be fair they do warn you at the beginning of the movie, and to the credit of the filmmakers they do refer you to Biblical sources for the lowdown. Still, it’s disconcerting to see figures such as Yeshua and others written out or reduced to minor roles.

The animation is gorgeous. The special effects of the Parting of the Red Sea, the Pillar of Fire and the multiple plagues are breathtaking. The songs are a bit treacly and I can do without hearing that diva duet between Whitney and Mariah ever again – have two more overrated performers ever shared the same soundstage? All in all, this is one animated movie that is not going to put either restless kiddies or their long-suffering parents to sleep.

It’s nice when a kidflick comes out with at least a worthwhile message and some intrinsic value beyond its marketing scheme. While watching The Prince of Egypt is no substitute for reading Exodus directly, it does make for a worthy introduction to the story for those who may be a bit young for direct Bible reading.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous animation. Stellar vocal cast. Nice introduction to Biblical story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kinda rewrites the Bible a bit much for my liking. Definitely more kid-friendly than adult.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the scenes might be a bit intense for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Val Kilmer also provides the voice of God so that when God speaks to Moses, he’s literally talking to himself.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a really interesting featurette on how the feature was translated into many different languages and how they had to find voice actors whose voices were close enough to the original. They then play a single sequence, the “When You Believe” song, in many different languages. Very impressive. There’s also a look at the chariot race sequence that opens the film and how that was created.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $218.6M on a $70M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Wizard of Oz

Rise of the Guardians


Rise of the Guardians

Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream…

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Isla Fisher, Hugh Jackman, Jude Law, Dakota Goyo, Khamani Griffin, Kamil McFadden, Dominique Grund, Georgie Grieve, Emily Nordwind, Jacob Bertrand, Olivia Mattingly, April Lawrence. Directed by Peter Ramsey

 

Certain figures hold a kind of reverence in all of our childhoods; the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and of course Santa Claus. They are symbols of various aspects of our youth and remind us that who we are now is informed by who we were then. These figures are venerated because of their association with children. They are protectors of their innocence. They are guardians.

Jack Frost (Pine) is a mischievous sort, the sort who brings snow and ice to cold climates and provides children everywhere with snow days. When you’re hit in the face with a stray snowball that nobody can remember throwing, he’s likely to be the culprit. Nobody can see him, after all because nobody really believes in him. This depresses him somewhat.

But he has been chosen to be the newest Guardian by the enigmatic Man in the Moon (who never speaks). The current Guardians – Santa Claus (Baldwin), a buff Russian accented behemoth who answers to North and carries swords as well as candy canes, The Easter Bunny (Jackman) who speaks with an Australian lilt, tosses boomerangs and exploding eggs in battle and travels by magical portals through the underground; the Sandman, a pint-sized sleepy sort who visualizes his thoughts through sand and uses sandy whips to create creams, and the Tooth Fairy (Fisher) who commands an army of little hummingbird-like fairies that collect teeth in which childhood memories are stored – are aware that one of their own, the Boogie Man who also is known as Pitch (Law) who has spent centuries preparing for his own moment – to use the Sandman’s ability to create good dreams and perverting it to cause nightmares and fear. And as the kids of the world lose faith in their Guardians, the Guardians begin to disappear and lose their powers.

The lynchpin is Jack Frost, but he may not be up to the task. How can someone nobody believes in become a hero?

I kind of like the concept here, although I do admit that it likely posed all sorts of problems not only for the filmmaker but for William Joyce, the author of the children’s books that this movie was (loosely) based on. Creating characters that not only contain the traits that kids know and love about these legends but also are believable as a superhero team is a bit of a tricky prospect.

It doesn’t always work. Think of Super Friends with better animation, a reference which probably flies over the head of most kids whom this is aimed at and that’s just as well. The target audience has barely lived long enough to be in kindergarten.

There is plenty of color here and some truly magical moments, most of which have to do with visiting the homes of these characters. Santa’s workshop, for example, is staffed by Yeti toymakers (who look like the lovechildren of Bigfoot and Wilford Brimley) and elves who might remind some of the Minions of Despicable Me. The Easter Bunny’s warren has Pacific Island-looking stone heads, trees that dispense little eggs with legs that walk through a Willy Wonka-looking contraption that paints them. The Tooth Fairy’s castle is a cross between a Disney princess abode, a dentist’s office and Hogwarts’ Castle.

I’m not sure why Baldwin picked a Russian/Slavic accent for Santa – if he wanted to be a bit more accurate he might have gone Germanic with it but I suppose it might be a bit too easy to characterize Santa as a Nazi had he done that. In fact, most of the vocal work is pretty adequate and I do like some of the characterizations (like the flirtatious Tooth Fairy who has a thing for Jack’s teeth). The Easter Bunny is a bit impatient and trades barbs with Jack who is on the Bunny’s poo list for causing a blizzard a few Easters back.

Da Queen liked this a lot better than I did. She commented afterwards on the messages of working as a team, putting the greater good ahead of your own personal needs and the need for sacrifice – and it’s rare I admit that you see that sort of pointing towards selflessness in modern animated features which more often stress being true to yourself than being true to the world.

Still, I had trouble with the rather predictable story and it’s overuse of Jack’s angst as a plot point. There were also several superhero poses that were a bit incongruous – you know, the crouch with arms outstretched, staffs and swords pointed in aggressive poses. I suppose that the message that problems need to be solved with violence is also kind of ingrained in this – no attempt is ever made to negotiate with Pitch and his own issues, which get revealed late in the film, seem to be made light of because, by nature, Pitch is Bad which means that some people are naturally Bad and should be dealt with violently which I kind of had issues with. Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you will.

Even so this is solid entertainment that small kids will adore and their parents won’t feel is a burden for them to watch with their progeny. Be advised that although Santa is being marketed as a central character (which he is), this isn’t strictly speaking a Christmas movie so if you’re expecting one, you might leave disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Kind of fun to see all those characters together. Visually inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Story is much too predictable.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes and some of the action sequences might be a little scary for the wee ones, especially if they’re impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the last DreamWorks Animation film to be distributed by Paramount. The company has signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox that begins in 2013.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100. The reviews are pretty decent.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Incredibles

EASTER LOVERS: .Part of the film takes place during the spring holiday, and we get a nice look at the Easter Bunny’s castle.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jolene