Epic


Another oblivious, bumbling dad stumbling in just in time for Father's Day.

Another oblivious, bumbling dad stumbling in just in time for Father’s Day.

(2013) Animated Feature (20th Century Fox) Starring the voices of Amanda Seyfried, Colin Farrell, Josh Hutcherson, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Aziz Ansari, Steven Tyler, Beyonce Knowles, Pitbull, Blake Anderson, Judah Friedlander, Chris O’Dowd, Dan Green, Allison Bills, John DiMaggio, Troy Evans, Kelly Keaton, Malikha Mallette. Directed by Chris Wedge

The natural world is nothing like what we think it is. Yes, there are flora and fauna, rocks and trees and water but there are also tiny little creatures who are waging a war for the very survival of the forest. Don’t believe me?

Dr. Bomba (Sudeikis) does. He’s been searching the forest outside his home for years, convinced that these creatures exist. He’s managed to find some artifacts of them but thus far, no concrete proof of their existence. His obsession cost him his standing in the scientific community and eventually, his family.

His ex-wife has recently passed away and his estranged daughter Mary Katherine (Seyfried) has come to live with him. She’s a rebellious teen now however, mourning her mother and wishing to go by the name MK. As in MK Ultra, maybe. Anywho, she trusts her distracted dad about as far as she could throw him – although he’s kind of scrawny and she’s kind of tough sot that could be a considerable distance.

When she arrives she’s not sure of what’s going to happen but the worst essentially does – she discovers dear old dad hasn’t changed any and the same craziness that drove her mother out is still present and accounted for, thank you. She desperately needs to talk things out with him but every time she tries to get him to sit down, one of his camera sensors starts beeping and off he goes, with an outlandish helmet that Wayne Szalinski of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids would probably find stylish.

She means to leave and make her own way but on her way out the door her dad’s (and her childhood pet) Ozzie, a three legged dog, gets out and MK goes out into the woods to find him. What she finds is something else entirely.

You see, her dad was right – there are tiny little creatures battling it out in the woods. On the side of good are the Leaf Men, valiant and noble warriors who ride hummingbirds, are able to leap tremendous distances and insure the safety and tranquility of the woods. They are ruled over (and are charged to protect) Queen Tara (Knowles) who that very day as it so happens is partaking in a ceremony that will transfer her powers to a new heir who is yet to be chosen.

The evil Boggans don’t want that to happen. They are ruled over by the nefarious Mandrake (Waltz) whose minions are charged with spreading rot and decay, destroying the green woods forever. Tara keeps them at bay, able to regenerate any damage they do. However, Mandrake has figured out a plan to stop her from passing on her powers, which would allow he and his Boggans to take things over and turn the woods into a lovely dead stretch of rotted vegetation.

Tara seems to think there isn’t much of a threat, much to the consternation of Ronin (Farrell), her captain of the guards, or leader of the Leaf Men. He’s in charge of her security and he knows the Boggans are up to something. Of course nobody listens to him, particularly Nod (Hutcherson), the reckless young man who is the son of Ronin’s best friend who was killed in battle. Ronin has raised Nod as his own, which clearly shows it must suck to be his kid. In any case, Nod chafes under Ronin’s rough discipline and takes a powder, leaving the Leaf Men.

They should have listened. The Boggans interrupt the ceremony and send everyone scurrying in all directions. Tara, alone and desperate, is forced to transfer all her powers into a seed pod as she lays dying on the forest floor. MK (remember her?), wandering out on the forest looking for Ozzie, stumbles onto the dying Tara instead. Tara hands her the pod which magically shrinks MK down to Leaf Man size. Before the Boggans can get there, Ronin arrives in time for the Queen to die in his arms, turning into mulch and scattering to the four winds as she passes. At least, it would be mulch if mulch was sparkly.

This is a lot of plot to take in and we’re talking only the first 20 minutes or so here. The rest of the movie is spent with the small group of Leaf Men – Ronin, MK, Nod and the caretakers of the pod – slug Mub (Ansari) and snail Grub (O’Dowd) – and their attempts to get the pod from point A to point B so it can be in the proper place when the moon is at its height and, well, yadda yadda yadda. Mub and Grub provide comic relief – Mub a kind of ladies man slug, and Grub who desperately yearns to be a Leaf Man. They are neither cute enough to be kiddy favorites. I don’t care how funny the voice actors are, kids are just not going to warm up to slugs and snails. Are you listening, makers of Turbo?

Wedge, who had a hand in Ice Age and Robots, is given a beautiful palette to work with. The animated forest is realistic and beautiful. However, the trailer made the place look incredible, with small cities and fairy-like creatures turning up under every flower and twig. The finished film shows some of that but those scenes are few and far between. The sense of wonder that the trailer had is missing from the final film and how ironic is that?

Kids aren’t going to care much that there are huge lapses in internal logic. For example, the Leaf Men and Boggans are said to be too small for the human eye to see but they are large enough to ride hummingbirds and bats. They are also moving too fast for us to see or hear but what happens when they’re sleeping?

This is the kind of movie that tries to look superficially green without offending conservative families. The message is at least on the surface about being a caretaker to the planet which is admirable but then the buck is passed. It’s not OUR responsibility to care for the planet – it’s these little Leaf Men. Carry on with your carbon footprint kiddies, you’re off the hook (and by the way, the rot that the Leaf Men are so afraid of is actually beneficial for the forest, acting as fertilizer, mulch and clearing space to allow things to grow). At least The Lorax sent a message that it is our personal responsibility to take charge of our own behavior in regards to the environment.

This is a movie trying to offend nobody and winds up being offensive because of it. I wish the filmmakers had the courage of their convictions but I can’t imagine Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, sending out an eco-friendly kid-film under any circumstances so perhaps we can’t blame them overly much. We can blame them for a convoluted plot, however and an over-abundance of characters who flit in and out of the movie, many of which without any real need to be there.

The movie liberally borrows from too many other movies. There’s a bit of Neverending Story here, a bit of The Secret of NIMH there, a little more The Secret World of Arrietty over there. There’s even a bit of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (there are pod races and a bullfrog with more than a little resemblance to Jabba the Hut). This is a mish mash that will probably do good business (at least until Monsters University opens) but is a big disappointing. The very young might be enchanted by some of the beautiful visuals but they aren’t sustained long and it turns into more fluff than substance. Even a kid can recognize a bad movie when they see it.

REASONS TO GO: Some lush animation. Farrell’s Ronin is terrific.

REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing overall; lacks a sense of wonder. Suffers from Green Hippie disease.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a couple of watered down action sequences which shouldn’t be too much for the kiddies, mild bad language and a scary image or two.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film produced by Blue Sky Animation Studios to feature a female protagonist and the first animated feature overall from Fox to do so since Anastasia in 1997.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100; I’d call them mildly positive reviews overall.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Secret of NIMH

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Scream 3

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The Polar Express


THe Polar Express

All aboard the Polar Express!

(Columbia) Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Michael Jeter, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler, Phil Fondacaro, Daryl Sabara. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

There comes a time in all our lives, it is said, that we must put aside childish things. That is the first step in becoming an adult. There are those who say that it is the first step in losing something irreplacable and vital, something that makes us better people.

Hero Boy (Hanks, voiced by Sabara) is at that time. He has begun to question his childhood faith in the existence of Santa Claus as fact after overwhelming fact begins to dispute that such a person ever existed. It is bedtime on Christmas Eve and he is listening intently for the bells of Santa’s sleigh, certain that he will never hear them.

Suddenly the room begins to rumble and shake then is filled with a great light. Startled, Hero Boy runs outside in his bathrobe to see a mighty train waiting there for him. A conductor (Hanks) cries “Alllllll aboooooooard” and after some hesitation, Hero Boy takes him up on it. This is, after all, the Polar Express, headed straight to the North Pole where one of the lucky children on board will be the recipient of the first present of Christmas, given to them by Santa himself.

On board is a Know It All (Deezen) and a quiet young Girl (Gaye), as well as a Lonely Boy (Scolari) who comes on board last and sits by himself in the last car. While a group of Dancing Waiters serve up piping hot chocolate to the kids in the passenger car, the Girl sets a cup aside for the Lonely Boy. As she and the Conductor take the steaming beverage back to the Lonely Boy, the Hero Boy notices that the Girl has left her unpunched ticket on her seat. As he steps outside to cross to the back car to give her the ticket, it flies out of his hand, apparently lost. The stern conductor orders the Girl to come with him.

The Hero Boy finds the ticket, which wasn’t lost after all, and runs to the back car to take it to her, fearful that she will be thrown off the train, but neither the conductor nor the Girl are there. The Lonely Boy tells him that they are on the top of the train headed toward the front. The Hero Boy decides to follow them and climbs to the top of the train. There, he meets the Hobo (Hanks) who questions the Hero Boy on his stance vis-à-vis the existence of Santa but nonetheless helps him reach the Engine car where he finds, to his surprise, the Girl driving the train while the engineers, Smoker and Steamer (both played by the late Michael Jeter, for whom this was his last movie before his death) changing a light bulb on the front of the train.

They brake just in time to avoid running into a gigantic herd of caribou, which brings the Conductor forward to scold them. The caribou are at length moved out of the way so the Express can continue on its way to the North Pole, but the train runs into some iced over tracks, barely able to navigate back onto the tracks while the ice cracks beneath them.

Eventually they reach the North Pole and the three friends manage to get lost in the vast city of Santa’s workshop, but they nevertheless make it to the town square just in time for the festivities to begin. But is there a Santa? What will it take for the Hero Boy to believe?

This was the first movie to be filmed entirely in motion capture technology (Zemeckis’ own Beowulf and Disney’s A Christmas Carol were also filmed in this way) and looks dazzling. While it is essentially an animated feature, the use of live actors to perform give the human and elf characters more life than a simple CGI feature can generate. It looks realistic, despite the fantasy setting.

Hanks gives a marvelous performance in multiple roles, including that of Santa and the Hero Boy’s father. Each character sounds, looks and acts differently as Hanks gives each its own unique look and facial expressions. It is compelling work.

The heart of the movie, however, is the story about the role of belief in our lives. Author Chris Van Allsburg has written a classic Christmas tale, perhaps the best since The Night Before Christmas or even since Dickens, and the story makes excellent cinema. I was completely entranced by the movie, even down to the songs (Josh Groban’s Believe is one of the best new Christmas songs of the last decade) which is unusual for me.

This is in every sense of the word a Christmas classic, one which I have no trouble watching every year at Christmas time. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. If you have, I hope you see it again – I discover something new about it every time I see it. That’s my definition of a classic.

WHY RENT THIS: This is the best Christmas movie to come along in 50 years. Believe is one of the better Christmas songs to come along the pike in ages. Hanks gives some terrific performances in multiple roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some find the story a bit treacly. The technology may soon become outdated as Avatar sets the bar higher but it was still ahead of its time when released.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The address called out by the Conductor near the end of the film of “11344 Edbrooke” is the address of director Zemeckis’ childhood home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some games and a clip of Josh Groban performing at the Greek Theater in the kid-centric DVD edition. The best feature is the one on author Chris Van Allsburg, who penned the children’s story this is based on. There is also a 3D edition (that comes with glasses) and a Blu-Ray edition that has more extra features than the DVD.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes