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

Toy Story 2


Mesmerized by the boob tube.

Mesmerized by the boob tube.

(1999) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, Wayne Knight, John Morris, Laurie Metcalf, Estelle Harris, R. Lee Ermey, Jodi Benson, Jonathan Harris, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, Jeff Pidgeon, Sheryl Bernstein. Directed by John Lasseter and Ash Brannon

It’s not often that a sequel turns out to be better than the original, but Pixar’s computer-animated Toy Story 2 definitely fits into the exception category.

Woody (Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Allen) and all the gang are back with a few charming new additions. Woody is kidnapped by a dastardly toy collector (Knight) to complete a group of “collectables” (remember when they were just plain ol’ toys for playing with?) that he intends to sell to a Japanese toy museum. His pals, of course, take a little trip out into the world beyond Andy’s room, once again, to rescue their friend.

Except that Woody isn’t sure he wants to be rescued. See, he’s discovered that he used to be a BIG star – his own television show and a pretty impressive array of merchandising (remember when we used to call it toys?) – Yo-yos, lunchboxes and, of course, the precursors to action figures, or what used to be called “dolls.”

The other three figures in the set – Stinky Pete the prospector (Grammer), the hyperactive bronco-bustin’ cowgirl Jesse (Cusack) and the faithful steed Bullseye – have been languishing in storage waiting for their set to be completed. They are initially chagrined that Woody wants to return to his owner. A particularly poignant song, “When She Loved Me,” illustrates the lot of toys (and makes me wish I’d treated my own better) and leads into an examination of the nature of love, disguised as the relationship between kids and their toys. It is thought-provoking scenes and songs such as this that elevate this film above the average kid movie.

Eventually, Woody chooses to go back to Andy but to get there he must surmount the Evil Emperor Zurg (don’t ask), another Buzz (again, don’t ask) and a traitor amongst his friends (gasp!). Woody’s sentiment – “I know he’ll grow up,” says Woody in a moment that really defines the movie, “and I want to be there for every minute of it” – turns out to be a metaphor for parenting in general. Who knew?

There are a lot of great gags that will be appreciated by kids of all ages. Kids will dig seeing their heroes in action again, and parents won’t be bored with much of the action taking place at a level that reaches the young and old alike. Da Queen and I took our then ten-year-old son with us to the theater back in the day and I’m pretty sure we enjoyed it at least as much as he did, if not more.

Toy Story 2 requires a few leaps of faith in its own internal logic, and there are a few in-jokes that may sail over the heads of the terminally unhip, but beyond that it’s nearly perfect entertainment for the entire family. Unlike some of the other big kidflicks from roughly the same era, parents can actually enjoy this together with their kids, instead of having to go in knowing they’ll be subjected to ultra-violence, dumbed down to the lowest common denominator and made with the express purpose of making money off of spoiled kids and their parents determined to demonstrate their love by how much they spend. Ain’t that a poke in the eye?

Here is a win-win situation for families who want to head to share a movie night as a unit. Heck, you’ll enjoy it even if you don’t have kids.

WHY RENT THIS: Something both kids and parents alike will love. Sophisticated, layered story that respects kids. Chances are you’ll want to own this one, especially if there are kids in the house.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few minor lapses in the movie’s internal logic.

FAMILY MATTERS: A couple of scenes of toy peril but otherwise suitable for the entire family.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The address of Al’s Toy Barn in the movie is the same as Pixar’s animation studio at the time in Richmond, California.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 3-Disc Ultimate Toy Box edition from 2000 that combined both Toy Story films at the time includes the outtakes shown at the end of the movie and the classic Pixar short Luxo, Jr. The 2-Disc Special Edition includes these as well as an introduction by co-director and Pixar chief Lasseter, an excerpt from the Japanese game show Ponkickies involving Woody, a music medley, some interviews from the film’s 1999 release and a couple of games. The Blu-Ray edition includes all of this as well as some features on Pixar and the late Joe Ranft, a preview of Toy Story 3 and a look at Buzz Lightyear on the International Space Station.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $485.0M on a $90M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Truth About Romance

Punisher: War Zone


Punisher: War Zone

The Punisher takes aim at the critics.

(Lionsgate) Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Wayne Knight, Dash Mihok, Julie Benz, Stephanie Janusauskas, Mark Camacho. Directed by Lexi Alexander

When you seek vengeance, there is almost always some kind of collateral damage. How much that damage is depends on how far you’re willing to go to get vengeance – and whether or not you’re interested in justice at all.

Frank Castle (Stevenson) watched as his family was massacred by mobsters after they witnessed a mob execution while picnicking in the park. Since then, he’s been on a rampage in his new identity as the Punisher, executing anyone having to do with organized crime while the police turn a blind eye to the whole she-bang.

When he accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent while going after the gang of Billy Russoti (West), Castle undergoes a crisis of conscience. He begins to wonder for the first time if what he’s doing is crossing the line. In the meantime, Russoti – who was horribly disfigured by the Punisher and now goes by the name of Jigsaw – wants to find the money that was last seen in the hands of the FBI Agent and turns his attention to his pretty wife Angela (Benz) and daughter (Janusauskas).

With the Russian mob moving a bio-weapon into New York with the aid of Jigsaw (which is why he needs the money so badly) and the FBI sending agent Paul Budianski (Salmon) to take down the Punisher, things are getting complicated. Castle knows he can’t turn his back on the widow or her daughter with Jigsaw after them; he turns to his friend Microchip (Knight) to arm him for one last battle. Unknown to the Punisher, Jigsaw has liberated his insane and ultra-violent brother Loony Bin Jim (Hutchison) from prison and the two are taking aim on Angela, the Punisher and everyone they care about.

While the plot here is paper-thin, it doesn’t really need to be much more than that. In a movie about the Punisher, what you really need is an excuse for blazing guns and body counts. Director Alexander realizes that and gives us all the action we can handle.

In a sense, that’s what separates this from the 2004 filmed version with Thomas Jane in the lead role. While that was more of a straight revenge movie, this one finds the Punisher well along the path of being a crazed killer, the actual killers of his family having long been put in their graves. Now, all he lives for is taking down organized crime. The point becomes when does it stop being vengeance and start becoming bloodlust?

There are no easy answers to that nor should there be. Stevenson could have easily played Castle as a one-dimensional lunatic whose only focus is on dispensing punishment. Instead, he is a living, breathing tormented soul who misses his family terribly and can’t stand to see the helpless being victimized. In that sense, he finds justification for all the carnage he delivers in his quest to protect people like Angela and her daughter.

Alexander really seems to get the comic book and its spirit – in fact, this movie is closest to the spirit of the books than any of the three film adaptations that have been made of the character. There is plenty of action and spent cartridges, but there is a sense of humor involved as well, particularly among the villains who are so out-of-control that control isn’t even in the rear-view mirror anymore. West and Hutchison take bite after bite of the scenery and find it finger-lickin’ good but that’s really what you want in a comic book villain.

While not for the faint of heart, the Punisher satisfies on a visceral level and certainly fans of the comic are going to want to beat the drum for this. Not since Death Wish or Rambo have we had movies that so effectively utilize violence in a vigilante setting.

WHY RENT THIS: Stevenson does a credible job as Frank Castle. The action is virtually non-stop; this is certainly a movie that captures the spirit of the comic book title.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: While the acting needs to be over-the-top, it exceeds the bounds of reason in some places.

FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of violence ranging from the comic book to the excessively brutal, along with some drug use and some foul language. Definitely not for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title role was originally offered to Thomas Jane, who played the part in the 2004 film. However, while Jane was interested in doing the character again, he wanted a grittier, more realistic film instead of the more comic book film that War Zone was becoming and so he passed, leaving the role open for Stevenson.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Whip It