A Reindeer’s Journey (Aïlo: Une odyssée en Laponie)


They don’t get much cuter than baby reindeer.

(2018) Nature Documentary (Screen MediaDonald Sutherland (narrator). Directed by Guillaume Maidatchevsky

 

After viewing the watershed nature documentary March of the Penguins, a colleague of mine opined that what she took out of the film most of all was “it sucks to be a penguin.” Well, when she sees this one she’s going to add reindeer to that list.

Reindeer are native to Lapland, a region above the Arctic Circle straddling Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia. The climate is harsh in winter and they have a fair share of predators that cause them difficulties. Climate change has only made the weather worse and worse still, has played havoc with their traditional migration routes – as have loggers who have displaced wolves from their habitat, sending them into places where reindeer once were relatively safe.

This film captures the first year of life for Aȉlo. Donald Sutherland intones that Laplanders have a saying that reindeer get five minutes to learn to stand, five more minutes to learn to walk, then five minutes to learn to run and swim. That’s how dangerous the climate and predator situation is in Lapland.

Like many nature documentaries, Aȉlo is anthropomorphized to a large extent. Sutherland – who does excellent work here, lending much needed gravitas – imbuing him with human qualities and human thought processes. Chances are, Aȉlo and others of his species don’t spend a lot of time ruminating on how tough life is in the Arctic Circle. Most animals function primarily on instinct and experience.

That isn’t to say there aren’t moments that are captivating, such as when Aȉlo mimics a rabbit and later on, a stoat. There’s no doubt that Aȉlo is insanely adorable and kids are going to be absolutely enchanted with him (and a lot of adults too). To add to the plus column, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking – even the scenes of winter are refined with varying shades of white and blue, all filmed in the low light of perpetual Arctic twilight.

To a large extent, this isn’t as educational as it could be although Sutherland does his best. Labeling lemmings the “chicken nuggets of the North” is kind of amusing, but it oversimplifies their place in the food chain. I do give the filmmakers points for not shying away from the effects that climate change is having on these animals.

All in all, this is a solid although not remarkable documentary. Those of you who have children who really love animals and are captivated by the DisneyNature series of documentaries will no doubt find this right in their wheelhouse. The film doesn’t turn away either from the grim reality of life in a harsh environment (reindeer die, although never on-camera). While the movie is making a brief theatrical run in New York City, it is available on VOD on basically every major streaming service and likely a few of the minor ones as well. It also is or will be available on DVD/Blu-Ray just in time for the holidays and makes an awesome stocking stuffer for the animal lover in your family.

REASONS TO SEE: Aȉlo is insanely cute.
REASONS TO AVOID: Fairly standard nature doc.
FAMILY VALUES: This is extremely kid-friendly.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a French/Finnish co-production.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu,
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frozen Planet
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Shock and Awe

The Secret Life of Pets


Just one big happy family.

Just one big happy family.

(2016) Animated Feature (Universal/Illumination) Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Chris Renaud, Steve Coogan, Michael Beattie, Sandra Echeverria, Jaime Camel, Kiely Renaud, Jim Cummings, Laraine Newman, Tara Strong. Directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney

 

We all lead busy lives. We spend most of our waking hours at work or school, hanging out with friends, being everywhere but at home. Those of us who own pets know that one of the best things about leaving the house is coming back home to our beloved fur babies (and scale babies and feather babies). Dogs, with their over-the-top “I thought I was never going to see you again” greetings, cats with their indifference – it doesn’t matter. We are always happy to see our pets. But have you ever wondered what your pets are up to while you’re out earning a living?

Wonder no more. The filmmakers behind the Despicable Me franchise have figured it out for you. Max (C.K.) is a pampered terrier living in a New York apartment with his sweet owner Katie (Kemper) to whom he is absolutely devoted as only a dog can be. Elsewhere in the apartment complex are a menagerie of pets – a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (Slate) who has a major crush on Max, the good-hearted but not-bright bulldog Mel (Moynihan), the punk poodle Buddy (Buress), Chloe (Bell), a cat with the kind of appetite that would put a competitive eater to shame and Norman (C. Renaud), a guinea pig lost in the air ducts for two weeks.

Max’s world is turned upside down though when Katie brings home Duke (Stonestreet), a shaggy bear of a dog who is a rescue pet. She introduces him as his new brother, but Max isn’t so sure. The ginormous Duke quickly takes over all of Max’s creature comforts from his plush doggie bed to his bowl of kibble. For his part, Duke sees Max as a rival for Katie’s affection who needs to be put in his place. The two begin to conspire against each other, which leads to the two of them after a somewhat unlikely series of events being stranded outside of the apartment.

Chased by animal control and a group of pets who had been abandoned or flushed out into the sewers, led by a manic bunny named Snowball (Hart) who has a thing against pampered pets, the two flee through the streets of Brooklyn, trying to find their way back home to Katie. Forced to work together, they develop a grudging respect for one another. However, Gidget isn’t letting Max down; she organizes the rest of the pets into a rescue team. Aided by Tiberius (Brooks), a hawk who is trying to keep his appetite under control, and Pops (Carvey), a partially paralyzed beagle who has “connections,” will they find their friends before one of the two groups chasing them do, or will Max and Duke make it home on their own? Or will everyone fail, leaving the two “brothers” at the mercy of animal control or the homicidal bunny?

I was a little bit disappointed by the movie. The animation is top notch and is definitely a love letter to New York, which is rendered with charming detail. It’s the idealized New York of Gershwin and dozens of sitcoms since, and it works as a believable environment for the characters. The cast of some of the best comedians working in the business today deliver their lines with snap and patter and there are plenty of moments that are laugh-out-loud funny for both parents and their kids.

The problems are however that you feel that you’re watching a bunch of other movies. There are a ton of references to other films, stylistically, subtly, sometimes in your face and through little Easter Eggs. It’s the kind of pop culture deluge that made some of the later Shrek films kind of a slog. While I liked the concept just fine, the execution was where it fell down. The middle third – which commences once Max and Duke leave the apartment – goes at a bit of a crawl. Yes, the animation is wonderful but I found it a bit of a bore to be brutally honest.

In a summer where it seems family movies are king, The Secret Life of Pets has been a blockbuster and a sequel has already been greenlit. I don’t know that I liked this as much as some of the other animated features I’ve seen this year – to be honest few of them have really been better than average – but there is enough to satisfy the target audience nicely and not be too difficult for a parent to sit through multiple times. I certainly have no difficulty imagining that this will be a regular request for kids once it hits the home video market. Still, I would have liked it to be a bit less pop culture-oriented and a bit more timeless, like some of the films it paid homage to. The Secret Life of Pets had all the ingredients it needed to be a classic and at the end of the day, it’s just a decent kid-flick. That’s not nearly good enough given what it could have been.

REASONS TO GO: There are some really funny sequences here. The animation is superb.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags quite a bit over the middle third. It’s a little too derivative for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of rude humor and cartoon action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film to gross over $100 million in it’s opening weekend that isn’t a sequel or based on previously released material.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Equals