Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted


Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Children, if you learn one less from this movie, remember this – Monte Carlo is relatively easy to invade by sea.

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Frances McDormand, Jessica Chastain, Martin Short, Bryan Cranston, Vinnie Jones, Paz Vega. Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon

 

I think it’s relatively easy to entertain kids, from the standpoint of animation. I mean, just look at most of the programming on the Cartoon Network; the animation is godawful, the humor gross, and little to recommend it other than it gets kids out of their parents hair for a little while. If my parents had gotten a gander at “The Regular Show” and some of the other more popular shows on the network, they would have chucked the TV out the window but since we lived in a ranch house, my Dad probably just would have taken an axe to the damn thing instead.

While there are some really good animated movies out there (thanks, Pixar) that both parents and children can watch together, there is also a lot of crap as well. For a long time, I put the first to movies of the Madagascar franchise in that category so to say the least, I wasn’t looking forward to the third installment in the series. Boy was I pleasantly surprised.

The renegade zoo animals from the Central Park Zoo – Alex the Lion (Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Rock), Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Smith) – are where we left them at the conclusion of Madagascar: Escape2Africa; stuck in the savannah with the natives while the Penguins have flown the monkey-powered super-plane to Monte Carlo to raise enough cash to get them back to New York. Alex in particular is suffering from homesickness. Even a birthday gift of a mud brick model of the Big Apple doesn’t seem to help.

The four friends decide that the penguins have had long enough to complete their mission and decide that they’ll go to Monte Carlo themselves to find the penguins and take the super-plane back to New York. How did they get to Europe from the African savannah? They walked (presumably) to the coast and then they swam. Snorkeled, actually. No, don’t question it. You’ll only get a headache. Just go with it. Tagging along are King Julian (Cohen), Maurice (Cedric) and Mort (Richter) who are now joined at the hip with the New Yorkers.

Anyway, things go horribly wrong and the appearance of a lion, a zebra, a hippo and a giraffe inside a posh casino causes a bit of a stir. This sets the French animal control expert Captain DuBois (McDormand) – the principality apparently having no animal control of their own that they have to import it from another country – on the case. DuBois has always wanted to mount the head of a lion on her wall to join the other creatures that have crossed her path to complete her collection and she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants, including singing Edith Piaf standards. Yes I know- it’s horrible.

The animals, having hooked up with the penguins and the monkeys, manage to escape the clutches of DuBois but crash the super-plane in the process. Fleeing for their very lives, they manage to sneak aboard a circus train to blend in; Vitaly the Tiger (Cranston), the leader of the circus animals, is reluctant to let them aboard but after Gia the Leopard (Chastain) convinces him that the refugees are indeed circus animals themselves, bolstered by the less-than-smart seal Stefano (Short). The circus has a shot at an American tour if they can impress a promoter in London to finance it. However, the circus has fallen upon hard times the only way to get the animals to New York is to buy the circus from the owner, which the penguins do using their ill-gotten gains at the casino. However, it’s going to take a lot of work to get this circus back in shape. It might be more than even Alex’ can-do attitude can accomplish.

Some of the elements that had left me cold about the first two movies remain – most glaringly, the animation. While I don’t think every CGI animated feature needs to attempt to be photorealistic, this is just plain badly animated. If you think mid-90s videogame style works in the second decade of the 21st century, we really need to have a talk. The animals have few expressions and this looks decidedly dumbed down for the Cartoon Network crowd.

Considering the star power here, the voice acting is fairly by the numbers. Short is a bit over-the-top as Stefano but actually injects a little emotion where it is sorely needed; likewise for Chastain who is a little more subtle than the Canadian comic. It all comes together in the circus sequences which are dream-like, brightly colored, and entertaining (not to mention fun). They are frankly the most enjoyment I’ve gotten in this series, which has been not high on my list of animated features to be honest.

However, the story is a vast improvement over the first two. It gives us a recognizable villain and some conflict. There is also a bit of emotional resonance that was lacking in the first movie. Yes I know kids will be thrilled by the bright colors and blank faces of the talking animals, but for once adults who have to go see it with their progeny won’t be squirming in their seats and checking their watches.

REASONS TO GO: So far, the best of the series. Circus sequences genuinely fun and colorful.

REASONS TO STAY: Animation is still clunky compared to other major franchises.

FAMILY VALUES: While there’s a bit of rude humor and some fairly tame action sequences, otherwise this is plenty fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The style of the animal-led circus echoes that of Cirque du Soleil, which features no animals whatsoever.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are mixed but mostly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Greatest Show on Earth

EDITH PIAF LOVERS: One of her most beloved songs, “Non, je ne regrette rien” is sung by Captain DuBois to her injured men during the hospital scene, the power of the music healing them of their wounds. It is listed on the official soundtrack as being sung by Frances McDormand but it sounds suspiciously like Piaf singing it.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: JCVD

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G-Force


G-Force

All things considered, maybe lab testing comestics wouldn't have been so bad.

(Disney) Zach Galifianakis, Nicolas Cage (voice), Bill Nighy, Sam Rockwell (voice), Penelope Cruz (voice), Will Arnett, Jon Favreau (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), Tracy Morgan (voice), Kelli Garner. Directed by Hoyt Yeatman

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer can be counted upon for loud, action-laden movies with plenty of special effects. So how would he fare with a kid’s movie?

The G-Force is comprised of leader Darwin (Rockwell), commandos Blaster (Morgan) and Juarez (Cruz), computer expert Speckles (Cage) and surveillance expert Mooch. The difference is, not a one of them is a human being; the first three are guinea pigs (and please don’t refer to them as hamsters, it offends them), Speckles is a mole and Mooch is a housefly.

They are the result of a government experiment by FBI nerd Ben (Galifianakis) who has given them the means to communicate with humans. Outfitting them with all sorts of high tech gear, they break into the house of billionaire appliance maker Leonard Saber (Nighy) to find some evidence of nefarious criminal activity.

When all they find is the blueprint for a new coffeemaker, straight-arrow Agent Killian (Arnett) shuts down the team and the animals are dispersed to a pet store. However, Darwin is certain that Saber is up to no good and he knows there is a 48 hour deadline before something really, really bad happens. His mission is to break out of the pet store with new flatulent friend Hurley (Favreau) with the help of psychotic part-ferret Bucky (Buscemi), find out what Saber is up to and save the day. He’ll have to avoid the FBI and their humorless agents who are chasing them, but they have turbocharged hamster balls (of the sort that Rhino used in Bolt) to elude their pursuers.

This is all in silly fun, and those who come to the theater looking for logic and plot or going to be tearing out their hair. Director Yeatman has a couple of visual effects Oscars to his name (one for technical achievement) and does a pretty decent job here, pacing the thing like you’d expect for a Bruckheimer movie – non-stop action with little pause for gathering ones wits.

The voice acting is credible, although Cage goes for the silly voice award of 2009. His nasal, Midwestern-accented take for Speckles is hysterical. Cruz goes for a bit of sex appeal and elevates her character above the typical Latina marine we’ve seen in cliché after cliché since Aliens. Tracy Morgan goes the ghetto route and comes off as kind of a cut-rate Chris Rock.

The live characters are pretty good, too – Nighy is always interesting, even when doing characters that are essentially boring and Arnett plays up the ramrod-stiff Killian to the point of ridiculousness which was certainly his intention.

The filmmakers are shooting for a pre-teen demographic, so there is a surfeit of fart jokes and robots – the global “threat” turns out to be giant robots made up of household appliances that apparently plan to stomp the human race out of existence. Me, I’d just wait ‘em out until their warranties expire.

Still, this is essentially safe and harmless fun that will keep most of your kids more than happy. The younger ones will coo over the lovable furry critters while the older ones will ooh and ahh over the cool robots that are a bit of a sly jab at the Transformers. There is certainly a dumb factor here – those who appreciate kids movies that don’t talk down to kids and treat them like they actually have brains are going to be sorely disappointed in G-Force but those who are looking just for something to keep their kids occupied and out of their hair for an hour or two will be quite satisfied.

Hmm, a kid’s movie that doesn’t pander to kids and treats them with intelligence. Locating a movie like that might be a job that even the G-Force can’t handle.

WHY RENT THIS: Harmless, mindless family film fun.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not what you’d call snappy dialogue or smart plotting. The preposterous meter is off the scale.

FAMILY VALUES: G-Force is suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Ferris wheel shown in the film is located on the island of Okinawa in Japan in a shopping and entertainment district called American Village.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a notable featurettes on super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and also an interesting feature on how the germination for the idea behind G-Force came from director Yeatman’s pre-teen son.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Pontypool

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Fantastic Mr. Fox

A Fox family portrait.

(Fox Searchlight) Starring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Michael Gambon, Wally Wolodarsky, Eric Anderson, Willem Dafoe, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker, Brian Cox. Directed by Wes Anderson

One thing is true of all of God’s critters, two-legged and four-legged alike and that is that we must all be true to our own natures. If that nature invites danger and disaster, can we but follow the path presented to us or can we diverge into safety and security?

Mr. Fox (Clooney) is a chicken thief, and like all successful thieves he survives by being quick-witted and adaptive. His wife Mrs. Fox (Streep) doesn’t really approve of his line of work, but when they nearly get caught she forces a promise from him that he will find a different career path. He chooses the one that may be of all jobs even less reputable than chicken thievery – journalism.

Years have gone by and Mr. Fox continues to live in poverty in a comfortable hole with his family. He has gone straight but only on the surface; in his heart he is a clever chicken thief liberating poultry from farmers who are unwise enough to allow them to be liberated. Despite his lack of financial wherewithal Mr. Fox decides to buy a home above ground in a beautiful tree overlooking the farms of the three men who control the valley they live in (and three of the meanest men you’ll ever meet). While Mr. Fox’s lawyer Badger (Murray) cautions against it, Mr. Fox goes through with his plan to buy the house anyway even though it will put his family in the line of fire. That family is going through enough as it is with the arrival of cousin Kristofferson (Anderson) which further antagonizes Mr. Fox’s teenage son Ash (Schwartzmann) who has a bit of an inferiority complex to begin with.

In order to pay for his new mansion, Mr. Fox supplements his ink-stained wretch salary with a little thieving on the side, along with the help of his friend and general handy-man Kylie (Wolodarsky) who is prone to spacing out at odd intervals. This incurs the wrath of the farmers, led by the rail-thin chain smoker Mr. Bean (Gambon) who has nothing to do with the Rowan Atkinson character of the same name. They declare war on the fox responsible for the filching of their hard-earned wares, forcing the animals to tunnel for their lives. Can Mr. Fox devise a clever enough plan to save the animals and make everything fantastic again?

I want to make it clear from the beginning that I’ve always blown hot and cold when it comes to director Wes Anderson. While his best moments from movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou are arguably as good as any being produced today, he can also turn the quirk factor from charming to overbearing in a heartbeat. He is most definitely an acquired taste and one that I haven’t yet acquired.

However, to my mind this is the best work he’s done yet. The sight gags are often hysterically funny and the tone of the movie is just off-beat enough to be interesting. I suspect that Anderson may have dialed down things a bit in deference to the audience which is bound to include children (the source material is, after all, a classic children’s book penned by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). In toning things down and making the movie a bit more accessible, he makes the quirky elements all the more effective.

It helps that he has a great voice cast. Clooney is sly, witty and charming in a Danny Ocean vein, with a heaping helping of Everett (the lovable ne’er do well from O Brother Where Art Thou?) thrown in for good measure. Streep is solid as the very much long-suffering Mrs. Fox and Gambon throws the right amount of hissable evil to his villainous Mr. Bean. Most of the others read their lines in a deadpan monotone which makes the humor a bit dry but emphasizes the irony much better. Those who don’t appreciate that sort of humor will probably find this movie frustrating.

I have to make it known that while this is ostensibly a children’s movie, I think adults may wind up finding it more appealing than the wee ones. Kids are not known for being terribly accepting of things that are different than what they’re used to, and some may find the tone strange or the overall humor a bit boring. There are some over-the-top physical gags that will keep ‘em happy but by and large adults will get this a little more than the Nickelodeon set will.

The animation is stop-motion and highly textured, with the fur of the animals rippling in unseen breezes along with the grass. Trees bend in unison like an arboreal chorus line, and tunnels are filled with dirt, rocks and roots. It is not specifically realistic, more like hyper-realistic (if you take for granted that foxes walk upright, wear tailored clothes and speak with more intelligence than the average human). Animator Harry Selick, the man who did The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach was originally slated to animate this movie before delays caused schedule conflicts and Selick would go on to do Coraline. Instead Anderson hired Mark Gustafson who did the California Raisins commercials back in the day. Good choice, that.

Pleasant surprises make going to the movies a pleasure. I hadn’t been particularly looking forward to this movie but there’s a good chance this will wind up in our home video collection (which will likely be Blu-Ray by the time it gets out in that format). It isn’t often that I can say an animated feature will be appreciated more by adults than by children, but I think that I can say that with confidence here. Certainly there is that sense of magic and enchantment that is necessary in any animated feature, but with a tone and intelligence that is more adult. In other words, this is a movie that doesn’t talk down to children which is a good thing in my book. Next to Up, this is the best animated feature I’ve seen this year.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of great sight gags and a snappy off-kilter tone make this appealing to fans of indie films and Wes Anderson. Quirky without being overbearing. There are some nice vocal performances, particularly from Clooney and Gambon.

REASONS TO STAY: Although based on a children’s book and marketed to kids to a certain extent, this really isn’t a traditional children’s movie and if your tyke isn’t open to new things, they might find this strange or boring.

FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly salty humor but really suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tree the Fox family lives in is based on a beech tree on the property of original book author Roald Dahl, and Mr. Fox’s study is a near-perfect recreation of Dahl’s own study in his garden hut where he did most of his writing.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will work just as well on a home screen but I kinda liked it on the big screen. You make the call.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: MirrorMask