ONWARD (animated, 2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. No studio has ever had a 25 year run like Pixar. This is their 22nd feature film over that span and every single one lands somewhere in the range of brilliant/instant classic to watchable/re-watchable. Though this latest may not reach instant classic level, it does stick to the Pixar standard template of highly entertaining while delivering a life lesson. This is the first time in the Pixar director’s chair for Dan Scanlon since MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013). It’s also the first original Pixar since COCO (2017) … and note, it’s rated PG.

The film opens with a “history” lesson detailing how the world was once populated by enchanted creatures like elves, unicorns, wizards, mermaids, fairies and sprites. Science and technology created shortcuts and soon the world’s “magic” had disappeared, relegating these creatures to life in the suburbs. We pick up the story on Ian Lightfoot’s 16th birthday. Ian is part of an elf family that includes his older brother Barley and their widowed mother Laurel. While Barley is a loud and rambunctious type who is obsessed with the Quest of Yore game and mythology (think Dungeons & Dragons), Ian is a more pensive type who still mourns the late father he never met. Both brothers are surprised when their mother presents a “gift” from their dad – one he left instructions to be held until Ian turned 16. The gift is a magical wizard staff that, with the included precious stone, can bring dad back to life for 24 hours.

Barley’s knowledge of the magical spells combined with Ian’s lack of self-confidence ends up botching things to the point that only half of dad is brought back – the bottom half. Under a tight deadline and in need of a replacement gem to bring dad back for a much desired final conversation, the brothers take off on an adventure that turns pretty wild. Their quest leads them to cross paths with many of the previously enchanted creatures, including the fabulous Manticore, and mom’s boyfriend, Officer Colt Bronco.

We have come to expect ‘magic’ from Pixar with every movie, and this one doesn’t disappoint. It may not be quite as awe-inspiring as some of their best work, but it’s still a terrific suburban fantasy adventure filled with comedy and life lessons … the most crucial of which is: being happy with what you have is more crucial to your inner-peace than getting what you hope for.

As always, the voice acting is top notch. Tom Holland (SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING) delivers the goods as Ian, and Chris Pratt (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) brings the necessary wonder and excitement to brother Barley. Julia Louis-Dreyfus never really gets to shine as their mother, but then this story is focused on the boys. Octavia Spencer has fun as Manticore (we needed more Manticore!), Mel Rodriguez is a hoot as Officer Colt Bronco, and yes of course, John Ratzenberger sneaks in – he’s now voiced a character in all 22 Pixar films.

This is the first Pixar film to be totally free of input from ousted President John Lasseter, and it’s one of the very few to be released outside of the summer or awards season. The likely reason is that the studio has a second original film being released this June. SOUL will be directed by Pete Docter and is viewed as a companion piece to the already classic INSIDE OUT (2015). Given the time of year, it could be easy to overlook ONWARD, but it nails the Pixar trademark emotional finale … delivering a sentimental scene likely to stick with you. I have praised Pixar many times over the years as their creative teams really seem to “get it”. Regardless of the month, ONWARD will cast a spell.

watch the trailer:


FROZEN II (2019)

November 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Let it go. Forget the sisterly issues of the Oscar winning original from 6 years ago. Arendelle is now doing just fine under “Ice” Queen Elsa and Princess Anna. Well, at least until Elsa is beckoned to the foggy, off-limits Enchanted Forest by an ethereal voice that only she can hear. We know this probably isn’t good since the movie kicks off with a flashback to when the sisters were very young and their parents (voiced by Alfred Molina and Evan Rachel Wood) told them a historically significant story of the forest – a story with a vital missing piece.

Joining Elsa (voiced again by the wonderful Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) on this journey to the forest and a discovery of the past are more familiar faces from the first movie: woodsman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, who also plays Holden Ford in the excellent TV series “Mindhunter”), Kristoff’s loyal reindeer Sven, and everybody’s favorite huggable, philosophizing snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad back for an expanded role that provides more laughs).

Co-directors and co-writers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee return for the sequel and their script, co-written with Marc Smith, features the familiarity that we’d expect from such a successful original, but it adds pieces that will likely be too confusing for younger viewers. Trying to recapture the magic of their Oscar winning song “Let it Go”, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez seem to have a singing interlude approximately every 8 minutes or so. Olaf gets a cute song, and this time, even Kristoff has his musical moment with “Lost in the Woods” (Jonathan Groff is a Broadway veteran). Of course, it’s Elsa/Idina Menzel who provides two impressive power vocals. It appears “Into the Unknown” is getting the PR push, but personally I preferred “Show Yourself”.

Don’t think it’s all about the songs. There is an odd storyline that seems a bit preachy about making amends to past sins (politically and personally), and just how devastating it can be to discover that one’s family tree has some rotten branches. Whether kids “get” that nature’s balance must be restored, they will surely appreciate the two sisters: Anna’s inner-strength and determination matching Elsa’s magical powers. And all ages will enjoy Olaf’s comical fast-talking recap of the first movie – a scene itself worthy of admission.

While the songs might fall short this time around, and the story might be a bit more convoluted, there is no arguing that this sequel looks fantastic. The enhanced animation is quite stunning at times. As opposed to the blue and white color scheme of the first movie, this sequel features a palette that draws from Martha Stewart’s Thanksgiving table setting – the autumn colors are vibrant and gorgeous.

FROZEN II will have a bit more Oscar competition in the animated category than what its predecessor faced, as it will be going up against instant classic TOY STORY 4. The filmmakers are to be commended for bringing attention to natural elements of air, water, fire, and earth; however, a couple of the extended sequences will likely prove too intense for younger viewers. “Do the next right thing” may be the new Disney Golden Rule, but it’s difficult to imagine a non-talking gecko or terrifying Earth Giants will emerge as a new favorite toy. Parents should know going in that by the end, Elsa sports a new dress and hairdo, conflicting with an early song “Some Things Never Change”. And when parents realize a third “Frozen” movie is in the works, they should know that warm hugs help. Let’s just hope the next one isn’t called “Ice Cubed”.

watch the trailer:


THE LION KING (2019)

July 16, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have come here to read yet another take on how this next-gen remake of a beloved film doesn’t bring anything new to the story, you’ve come to the wrong place. I love cinema as an art form, and when analyzing a movie, I typically look for the good and enjoyable, rather than focusing on every element I might be able to criticize … never forgetting that the on screen presentation is the culmination of work performed by many dedicated people so that I might sit back in a comfy seat within the confines of an air-conditioned theatre and be entertained for a couple of hours. And entertained I was.

It only takes a few moments for the awe to set in. The look is at times so realistic that kids may actually believe animals can talk. More than once the fur of an animal or the splash of the river reminded of a National Geographic program with ultra-High Definition photography. So let’s clear up something right now. This has been labeled as a “live action” remake of the animated classic from 1994. You should know, even if your eyes tell you otherwise, that there is nothing “live” in the film. Instead, everything you see on screen is computer-animated/generated. No, the lions and elephants aren’t real and neither are the trees or distant mountains. The look of the film is as revolutionary as when the first TOY STORY stunned us in 1995. We had never seen animation like that then, and we’ve never before seen computer effects like this. What is familiar are two early songs, “The Circle of Life” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”.

Of course, neo-realism can be admired only as a technical achievement when we are discussing a movie in which lions talk and warthogs sing. So while we marvel at the technical achievement, let’s not lose sight of the story … what made the original so popular and beloved 25 years ago. Although it’s approximately a half-hour longer than the original, this one is exceedingly close to a scene-for-scene remake. Only minor tweaks will be noticed, mostly in the demeanor of Scar and the banter between Pumbaa and Timon – each actually improving on the first film. What remains is the coming-of-age story that will now touch many new hearts and minds.

Kids will be immediately entranced with the cubs, Simba and Nala, voiced by JD McCrary and Shahadi Wright Joseph (the daughter in Jordan Peele’s US), and with Zazu (voiced by John Oliver), the goofy and comical bird tasked with keeping an eye on the two adventurous youngsters as they get themselves into trouble. James Earl Jones (now 88 years old) reprises his iconic voice role as the wise Mufasa, and Alfre Woodard voices Sarabi, the pride’s leading female. Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as the bitter Shakespearian villain Scar, but I couldn’t help but wish Jeremy Irons had returned for this interpretation of the jealous and power-hungry brother of Mufasa.

The energy level jumps once Simba meets Pumbaa the warthog and Timba the meerkat. Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner take the comedy routine to a new place, and we can only assume much of their banter is off-script. Kids may not get every joke, but they are sure to respond to this odd couple. Donald Glover and Beyonce voice the grown Simba and Nala, and both are outstanding – especially with their singing (no surprise there). Nala’s role is expanded a bit … as expected when you cast Queen Bey. Her original song “Spirit” is included but it’s her duet with Glover on “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” that is a real musical standout.

Director Jon Favreau has been in the chair for such hits as IRON MAN 2 (2010), IRON MAN (2008), and ELF (2003), and he was also behind Disney’s live-action remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016). The writing credits belong to Jeff Nathansan (CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, 2002) for the screenplay, Oscar winner Brenda Chapman (BRAVE, 2012) for the story, and Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton for the characters. The latter three were among the 28 writers credited for the 1994 version. Also back is composer Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar for his 1994 score, and songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, also Oscar winners for their 1994 song, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”.

The beloved 1994 version didn’t win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature film because the award didn’t exist until 2002; however, it did spawn the 1997 Broadway smash musical. This more realistic version is rightly rated PG rather than G, as some of the scenes are likely to be a bit intense for younger viewers. And it’s important to remember that this version is meant to bring Simba’s story to a whole new generation – it’s not meant to replace the 1994 version for those who were kids when it came out so many years ago. The story and characters, while familiar to those age 30 and up, will be a whole new viewing experience for today’s kids. So while we may prefer the 1994 animated version, kids today will likely be enthralled by this updated look. And we all better get used to it, because Disney has 18 more “live action” remakes in the works (some of which will actually be “live” action).

watch the trailer:


TOY STORY 4 (2019)

June 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Yes, it’s another instant classic from Pixar. No, we shouldn’t be surprised. Their track record is beyond compare. But I can’t help it. How the heck do they do it time after time, movie after movie? We have known (most of) the characters for 25 years now, and this fourth entry seems every bit as fresh and creative as the first one. We like these characters, and it doesn’t matter that they are animated. We laugh and cry and worry about them as if they are our friends.

Tom Hanks returns as our favorite cowboy Woody (yes, he still has a snake in his boot), and Tim Allen is back as Buzz Lightyear (still unable to grasp that he’s not a real space ranger). Also returning is Annie Potts as Bo Peep, now a strong, independent “lost” toy with excellent survival and scavenging skills. Some new toys and voices inject real pizazz to the adventures. Christina Hendricks charms as Gabby Gabby, a doll quite desperate for her own kid; Keanu Reeves shines as Duke Caboom, a showboating motorcycle stunt rider who may not be as daring as his big talk; and Tony Hale turns Forky into a lovable little cockeyed spork-toy. Also bringing fun and a new comedic element are the hilarious team of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key as Bunny and Ducky, respectively.

The opening sequence takes place 9 years ago, and we see how Bo Peep became separated from the others, and how the toys transitioned to Bonnie and how Bonnie transitioned to Kindergarten, and how Forky transitioned from trash to toy. And fear not, the old favorite toys are all here: Wallace Shawn as Rex, Joan Cusack as Jessie (I expected a bigger role for her), Timothy Dalton as Mr. Pricklepants, Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger as Hamm, Blake Clark as Slinky Dog, and courtesy of archival recordings, two posthumous appearances by Don Rickles as Mr. Potato Head, and Bud Luckey as Chuckles the Clown.

With his first feature film as director, Josh Cooley follows up his screenplay for the brilliant INSIDE OUT with a touching and superbly funny film. The screenplay comes from Andrew Stanton (2 time Oscar winner, FINDING NEMO, WALL-E) and Stephany Folsom, while the original story credits are many, including John Lasseter in his last project with Pixar. Even though the film is Rated G, it should be noted that it’s a pretty complex story for youngsters, and the Charlie McCarthy dolls are kind of terrifying – at least to me and Forky. TOY STORY (1995), TOY STORY 2 (1998), TOY STORY 3 (2010) get the send-off they deserve, so “move your plush” and go see it! Randy Newman is back with a new song, as well as the familiar melody and lyrics from his Oscar nominated “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” … a friend indeed.

watch the trailer:


Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 2019

February 22, 2019

Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts 2019

The difference in production value is quite evident in the animated shorts category, as not all filmmakers are backed by the resources of Pixar or Disney. What really stands out here is the strength of the stories and how they play on our real life emotions and memories. Below you will find these listed in order of my preference. Just a reminder, these are not Oscar predictions, just personal opinion.

 

 WEEKENDS (USA) 16 minutes

Familiarity, in fact, all-too-familiar, may be the difference for this story from Trevor Jimenez. A young son gets bounced back and forth between the homes of his divorced parents. Initially the mother keeps things simple, with an emphasis on love. In contrast, trips to dad’s place include scary movies, video games, fast food and plenty of hands-on play time (with weapons and costumes!).

Fittingly, dad’s car radio is on an endless stream of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, while the other times are covered by the familiar and recognizable chords of Satie. The boy is caught between the two adults trying to put their own lives back together, and some amazing animation takes us through the boy’s imaginative dream and nightmare sequences.

While at Pixar, Mr. Jimenez worked on FINDING DORY and COCO, and this one seems to carry personal memories for him.

 

 ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR (Canada) 14 minutes

The husband and wife animation team of David Fine and Alison Snowden (two very real, not animated creators) won an Oscar in this category in 1995 for their short BOB’S BIRTHDAY, which was then turned into a TV series “Bob and Margaret”. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the animators have hopes for the same path for their latest.

We enter a group therapy session for an unusual collection of critters, including: a praying mantis, a leech, a bird, and a pig.  The session is led by a dog, and is soon crashed by a newcomer – a boisterous gorilla. The gag here – beyond the obvious – is that each of these critters is dealing with normal traits for their species, though they sound particularly bothersome when stated aloud. Kids are not the target market here given all the talk about sex (stay away from the praying mantis) and orifices. Creativity is on display here, and don’t be surprised if some mutation of this ends up on TV.

 

 ONE SMALL STEP (USA, China) 8 minutes

Former Disney animators Andrew Chesworth (animator on MOANA and FROZEN) and Bobby Pontillas co-direct a script co-written with Taiko Studios founder Shaofu Zhang. It’s a story of a single father and his Chinese-American daughter Luna, and takes us through her early childhood dreams of walking on the moon to her college years taking astrophysics classes.

The devoted father is there to encourage his young daughter’s dreams, and later to quietly support her with meals and shoe repair. It’s yet another reminder of how the efforts of parents sometimes go unappreciated, but the commitment never fades. The ending here is predictable, yet no less powerful and emotional.

 

 

 BAO – Pixar (USA) 8 minutes

It should come as no surprise that Pixar has a nomination in this category. The premier animation studio employees some immensely talented folks, including Domee Shi (previously a storyboard artist on INCREDIBLES 2), who becomes the first woman to direct a Pixar short film.

As with many Pixar projects, this one will likely resonate with parents as much, if not more, than with kids. Of course there are some exceptional visuals; however, it’s more poignantly a look at the stages of life … especially the trials and tribulations of parenthood (especially the overprotective type). This one is far and away the most viewed entry since it ran before theatrical showings of INCREDIBLES 2, which itself is Oscar nominated for Best Animated Feature.

Some may struggle a bit with the idea of a homemade dumpling coming to life and being raised as a growing kid, but the ending will likely hit home with most every parent.

 

 LATE AFTERNOON (Ireland) 10 minutes

Louise Bagnall previously worked as an animator on the Oscar nominated SONG OF THE SEA, but this one is all hers. These days there is no shortage of projects putting dementia front and center, and we quickly realize the elderly Emily (voiced by the great Fionnula Flanagan) suffers from this dreaded affliction.

The fantastical dreamlike sequences carry us away in Emily’s memories of life. These snippets of her childhood and adult life tell us much about the woman who now finds happiness in a biscuit with her tea. The past and present are often a jumbled mess for Emily, and although her caretaker’s identity is no real mystery, it is still a wonderful moment when it clicks for Emily … even if we know it’s only for a short while.

 


MARY POPPINS RETURNS (2018)

December 17, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The 1964 classic Disney film MARY POPPINS is much beloved and has been shared across generations for more than 50 years. It won 5 Oscars on 13 nominations, and shifted Julie Andrews from a Broadway star to an international movie star, as she won the Oscar for Best Actress while becoming the ideal nanny for most every boy and girl. Rarely do reboots, remakes, or sequels to the classics make much of a dent with the movie-going public, but it’s likely director Rob Marshall’s (CHICAGO, INTO THE WOODS) film will be an exception. Marshall balances nostalgia with contemporary, and benefits from a marvelous successor to the Mary Poppins role … Emily Blunt.

The film opens in low-key fashion as we follow Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) through town as he performs his lamplighting duties singing the melancholic “Underneath the Lovely London Sky”. It’s actually a bit of a dry opening that may have some impatient kids wondering why their parents dragged them to see this. Soon after, we are at the familiar 17 Cherry Tree Lane – the Banks’ home – easily recognizable from the original film. We meet grown up siblings Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer). Jane is a labor organizer following in her mom’s footsteps, and Michael is a struggling artist and widower raising 3 kids. He has taken a teller job at the Fidelity Fiduciary Bank where his dad (now deceased) worked, but mostly he’s an emotional wreck. In fact, the only way to save the family home from foreclosure is with proof of his father’s bank shares … something the evil new Bank President, William Weatherall Wilkins (Colin Firth), conspires to prevent.

It’s at this point that the kids’ popcorn should just about be gone, so it’s fortunate that our beloved nanny makes her timely appearance … literally floating (with practically perfect posture) into the park where Georgie (an adorable Joel Dawson) and lamplighter Jack are flying a very recognizable kite. Jack, having been an apprentice under Bert the Chimney Sweep, is quite familiar with the significance of Mary Poppins’ arrival. Back on Cherry Tree Lane, Michael and Jane are shocked to see their childhood nanny back in the house, and Michael’s two spunky twins Anabel (Pixie Davies) and John (Nathanael Saleh) aren’t sure what to make of this mysterious visitor.

Director Marshall wisely utilizes the template from the original film, so many of the subsequent sequences have a familiar and cozy feel to them. Mary Poppins’ “Off we go” kicks off a fantastical bathtub adventure and leads to the first of many smile-inducing, visually spectacular moments. A broken porcelain bowl guides us to a beautiful hand-drawn animation (from Walt Disney Studios) sequence with horse-drawn carriage, penguins, and more. Meryl Streep performs “Turning Turtle” in her topsy-turvy studio, and there is an extended (perhaps a bit too long) dance sequence featuring Jack and the other lamplighters singing “Trip a Little Light Fantastic”.

Julie Walters appears as the Banks’ housekeeper and David Warner is Admiral Boom, the Banks’ canon-firing neighbor; however it’s two cameos that will really hit home with the older viewers: Angela Landsbury (not in the original) is the balloon lady singing “Nowhere to Go but Up”, and the remarkable Dick Van Dyke (a huge part of the original) plays an elderly Mr. Dawes Jr from the bank – and even performs a dance routine atop a desk. All of the actors perform admirably, yet this is clearly Emily Blunt’s movie. She shines as the practically perfect nanny, whether debating with her umbrella, digging in her mystical baggage, filling heads with ‘stuff and nonsense’, teaching life lessons to those in need, or singing solo and with others. It’s a wonderful performance and she becomes Mary Poppins for a new generation.

Director Marshall co-wrote the story and screenplay with David Magee and John DeLuca, and they have created a worthy sequel (a quite high standard) from P.L. Travers’ original books that is delightful and a joy to watch. The group of original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman serve the story fine, but the one downside to the film is that none of the new songs are as catchy or memorable as those of the Sherman Brothers (Richard and Robert) from 54 years ago. They won Oscars for Best Score and Song (“Chim Chim Che-ree”), and left us singing others such as “Spoon Full of Sugar”, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and of course, “Supercalifragilistic”. These new songs including “Can You Imagine That”, “The Place Where Lost Things Go”, “A Cover is not the Book”, “Nowhere to Go but Up” all contribute to the story and to the viewer’s enjoyment, but none leave us singing or humming as we depart the theatre.

This is film where those behind-the-scenes are crucial to its success. Oscar winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA) and Editor Wyatt Smith both are at the top of their game, and Costume Designer Sandy Powell delivers stunners, not just for the singing nanny, but for all characters. The core of the story remains rediscovering the magic in life, and finding joy in each other – and this sequel also provides the adventures to match the original. It’s simultaneously familiar and fresh, which is key to a successful follow up to a beloved classic. Director Marshall has signed on to Disney’s live action THE LITTLE MERMAID, but it’s with MARY POPPINS RETURNS where he has delivered a film that is practically perfect in every way.

watch the trailer:


MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

December 6, 2018

 Greetings from the darkness. If your idea of “The Jungle Book” is Phil Harris’ Baloo singing a bouncy and memorable rendition of “The Bare Necessities” in 1967, or Christopher Walken voicing a giant orangutan in 2016, then be forewarned about this latest version of Rudyard Kipling’s classic stories … it’s dark and, at times, terrifying. It’s rated PG-13 to keep young kids away, so please keep your young kids away! One additional warning: this version is spectacular to look at and listen to.

Of course the story is quite familiar to most, but two things really stand out here: the amazing voice acting of the world class cast, and the look of the lush jungle with its vivid colors and textures. Director Andy Serkis is renowned for his stunning motion-capture work in such franchises as PLANET OF THE APES, LORD OF THE RINGS, and Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) … along with many others … and for this project, he combines his motion-capture Baloo with top notch CGI, and the live performance of young Rohan Chand (THE HUNDRED FOOT JOURNEY) as Mowgli, the man cub.

The voice acting is worth raving about. We first hear Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the ancient python, and within the first two minutes of the opening, we are captivated. Other standouts include an unnerving and intimidating Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan, the always-threatening Tiger, Christian Bale (periodically lapsing into Batman voice) as the growling black panther Bagheera, Naomie Harris as Nisha the mother wolf, and a terrific Peter Mullan as lead wolf Akela. The deep cast also includes the voices of Jack Reynor, Eddie Marsan and Tom Hollander, while Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) appears as the hired tiger hunter, and Freida Pinto (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) appears as Mowgli’s caretaker in the man village.

Many scenes are particularly captivating – some are exciting, while others quite scary. The “no rules” monkeys are comedic relief … right up until they kick off one of the darkest segments of the film. And there is an ongoing theme of the fine line between being ‘special’, ‘different’, or a ‘freak’, and the lessons learned here would be valuable for kids … if this were a kids’ movie … which it’s NOT! Although it’s difficult to discern the intended audience for this film, it’s quite a visual spectacle and entertaining from beginning to end.

watch the trailer: