TURNING RED (2022)

March 10, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If only the transformation brought on by puberty were half as soft and cuddly as the giant Red Panda in this latest from Pixar, imagine the reduction in slammed doors and the increase in dinner table conversations between parents and young teenagers. Writer-director Domee Shi won an Oscar for her excellent animated short film BAO (2018), and has collaborated with co-writer Julia Cho for the director’s first feature. It seems reasonable to assume that much of what we see on screen is taken from their own adolescent experiences, as well as those of countless others.

Meilin (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old 8th grader who fancies herself as a free-spirited teenager basking in her independence. However, the real story is that she’s a straight-A student obediently following the highly structured life constructed by her mother. Mei’s responsibilities include helping her mother clean the temple the family manages … the oldest temple in Toronto. It not only serves the local Chinese community by paying homage to the Gods, but it also holds a sacred place for Mei’s ancestors. Mei’s mother keeps her so duty-bound, that she’s unable to find time to karaoke with her friends.

One morning, after a particularly vivid and emotional dream, Mei is transformed into a giant Red Panda … well she pops in and out of Panda state. Her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) quickly reacts assuming her daughter’s “change” is the beginning of a menstrual cycle. But things change drastically when Ming finds out about the Red Panda. Her family has considered this a spell from the Gods, one that has followed the women for multiple generations. Mei discovers this when her grandmother and a slew of Aunts show up for the Red Moon ritual – the only way to rid Mei of the Red Panda.

Mei soon realizes her emotional outbursts are what cause the transformation. When she’s overly excited or agitated, the Red Panda appears. It’s mostly when she’s calm and at ease around her friends that she’s her ‘normal’ self. In fact, the friendships are the key to this story. Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), and Abby (Hyein Park) immediately rally to Mei’s defense and accept these startling changes. They even find a way to use it to their advantage, focusing on an upcoming concert by 4-Town, a 5 member (yep) boy band that the girls are gaga about. The music for 4-Town is co-written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, and is humorously in line with what we’d expect (and remember) from a 2002 boy band.

We watch as Mei struggles with the emotional rollercoaster that brings out the Red Panda. It’s refreshing to see such a portrait of friendship, and also acknowledge that overbearing parents can cause stress, no matter how caring they might be. Mei learns that by letting go of the perfect kid syndrome and wallowing in her messy self, she can truly discover who she is as a young person. It’s a Pixar movie, so we fully expect life lessons and psychology to play a role. And that’s also part of the problem here. Being a Pixar film means you get compared to other Pixar films, and that’s a crazy high standard. This one doesn’t come close to the best work from the studio, although we welcome the rare look at female adolescence and friendship, as well as the impact a mother-daughter relationship can have on multiple generations.

Available exclusively on Disney+ beginning March 11, 2022

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HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA: TRANSFORMANIA (2022, animation)

January 13, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. There is nothing wrong with delivering exactly what’s expected for kids’ movies. It’s a bit bewildering that so many fall short. This is the fourth (and final) film in the hugely successful “Transylvania” animated movie franchise, although it’s the first not directed by Genndy Tartakovsky (credited here as co-writer and Executive Producer). Also missing this time are Adam Sandler and Kevin James, who previously voiced Dracula and Frankenstein, respectively. The character voices have been replaced by Brian Hull and Brad Abrell, and rest assured, the vast majority of young fans will never notice. The film is co-directed by Derek Drymon (one of the creative forces behind the ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ franchise – including video games and movies) and Jennifer Kluska (the main director in the ‘Wild Kratts’ series). What they’ve done is deliver exactly what’s expected … a fun time for kids.

It’s been 10 years since the first HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (2012) and nearly four years since the most recent, HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 3: SUMMER VACATION (2018). As this one begins, Dracula is throwing a party to celebrate the hotel’s 125th anniversary. It opens with Dracula and his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) dancing to “Just the Two of Us”. The sweet moment soon morphs into “Just the Three of Us” as her husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) joins in. This is the first, but certainly not the last, transformation – as you’ve probably guessed by the title.

The characters and visuals are the key elements for most kids, and ‘Transylvania’ is here to serve. What’s interesting this time is that Johnny and Mavis are the key players. Thanks to a special ray gun that transforms (there’s that word again) humans to monsters and monsters to humans, the big kick here is that Johnny is zapped and becomes a colorful and zany dragon that is sure to generate laughs. Cellar-bound Van Helsing (a returning Jim Gaffigan) is the developer of the ray gun. After a series of mishaps result with the party punch turning most of the monsters into human form, the whole crew sets off on a South American adventure to locate a replacement crystal so the ray gun can return them to their natural monster state.

Since most kids’ movies include a life lesson or moral, you can probably guess what happens to the characters on that journey. Being transformed gives them a different perspective and appreciation of the “other” side. That said, the comedy here leans towards the slapstick and pratfalls of classic cartoons, especially Looney Toons. Kids are sure to enjoy the ‘physical’ comedy, in particular that of Johnny as an eager-to-please dragon.

Many of the voices are returning actors, and include Fran Drescher (Eunice, the Bride of Frankenstein), Steve Buscemi (Wayne the Werewolf), David Spade (Griffin the Invisible Man), and Keegan-Michael Key (Murray the Mummy). There is a humorous recurring gag for grown-ups with Frankenstein and how much he admires his human looks, a startling visual of BB the guinea pig, and a reminder of why momma always told you to keep an eye on your drink at parties. Those familiar with the Transylvania franchise should be satisfied, and any new viewers should be entertained … exactly what’s expected.

Premieres on Amazon Prime Video this Friday, January 14, 2022

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ENCANTO (2021, animation)

January 5, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Well we knew this day would come – an animated film that eclipses Pixar’s COCO (2017) in vibrant colors and stunning animation. The opening credits celebrate this as Disney’s official 60th animated feature film, and it’s truly prismatic and a glorious visual treat. The trio of directors include ZOOTOPIA (2016) collaborators Jared Bush and Byron Howard, as well as first time director Charise Castro Smith.

The story is set in Columbia, continuing the current trend of global trekking in animated films like LUCA, MOANA, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, and the aforementioned COCO. It’s also in keeping with Disney’s feel-good approach to a kinder, gentler world where there are no real villains, and most of our protagonists discover their inner-strength. This story revolves around the Madrigal family, who live in a magical house that takes strength from a magical candle, and all of the family members possess their own special power. Well, all of them except for Mirabel (voiced exceptionally well by Stephanie Beatriz, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). Mirabel’s special night fell flat and she’s the only one in the family lacking a “gift” … and her judgmental Abuela Alma (voice by Maria Cecilia Botera, singing by Olga Merediz) never lets her forget. Of course what we notice, and no one else seems to, is that Mirabel is a caring, loving, soul, and we know a payoff is coming.

The songs are from the talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the bloodlines connected to his IN THE HEIGHTS movie are readily apparent. It’s likely a few of the songs will stick with kids, not the least of which is, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”. What won’t be as popular with kids is a story over-crowded with characters and a backstory seemingly inserted to ensure the film slides into the modern day political climate. There are simply too many characters (and too many powers) for young kids to keep track of – not to mention the two factions within the family (Julieta’s side and Pepa’s side). There is a flashback to the family’s history and how they came to live in the magical house, and it’s a story that mirrors the journey of many immigrants.

The voice acting and singing are all superb, and mostly stay consistent to the Columbian story line. And Mirabel is certainly a character we expect kids to take a shine to. She’s kind and friendly and has a loving heart. Pixar tends to offer up stories that are perfectly structured, while Disney has always known how to tug on the heartstrings.

Now streaming on Disney+

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SING 2 (2021, animation)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. When an animated movie for kids banks over $600 million at the box office, we wouldn’t expect 5 years to pass before the sequel appears. But that’s exactly what has occurred with writer-director Garth Jennings’ follow-up to his hugely popular 2016 original featuring a troupe of anthropomorphic animals singing and dancing. This franchise doesn’t belong to Pixar or Disney, but rather Illumination, the studio behind the DESPICABLE ME films.

As one would expect, the sequel includes a return of the favorite characters (and voices), including koala Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), mama pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), rockin’ porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), and sensitive gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton). The stakes are higher for our warbling friends this time. The film opens with our furry friends performing an “Alice in Wonderland” production that features the Prince song, “Let’s Go Crazy”. Additionally, our retinas are scorched with every color known to mankind, reminding us of the land Oz … fitting because song #2 is Elton John’s “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”. The latter works because Buster has just been informed by talent scout Suki (Chelsea Peretti) that his team is ‘cute’, but “not good enough”. See, Buster’s dream is to introduce the act on a global scale.

Most of the rest of the movie involves: Buster dodging threats from evil tycoon Mr. Crystal (Bobby Cannavale). Crystal is a wolf (of course) and is a powerful presence in a Las Vegas-style city built for entertainment. The other key element here is Buster’s promise to Crystal to deliver Clay Callaway (U2’s Bono) to the new production. Callaway, a lion, has been a reclusive rock star ever since a personal tragedy robbed him of his desire to participate in society. The bonding between Ash and Callaway is probably the best part of the story, and this occurs after Ash (Ms. Johansson) makes her point about equal pay (imitating real life) just after jamming to a Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs’ song.

In a move that makes little sense, Mr. Jennings has crafted a more complex story than what we saw in the first movie. This one will be difficult for many kids to follow, and involves the power and ego of Crystal, as well as nepotism with his entitled daughter (voiced beautifully by Halsey). But why complicate something that doesn’t need to be more complicated?  Most kids just want to watch the animals on stage, singing and dancing and doing goofy things. The sci-fi stage production “Out of this World” finds Meena teamed with a preening partner voiced by Eric Andre, while she dreams of connecting with the ice cream elephant voiced by Pharell Williams. Ash and Callaway are at the climax of the show with a version of Bono’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. Also included are many familiar tunes by such artists as Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Billie Eilish, and The Weeknd. Many life lessons are served up here, including the importance of following your dream, but at one hour and fifty-two minutes, it’s easily 20 to 25 minutes longer than most kids will likely sit. While we can admire Mr. Jennings’ desire to deliver a sequel with value, we do question the wisdom in revising the template.

Opens in theaters on December 22, 2021

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THE MITCHELLS VS THE MACHINES (2021, animated)

December 11, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What would happen if human survival depended on the Griswolds (from the VACATION movies) battling the rogue robots programmed to take over the planet? Filmmakers Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe answer to that scenario is hyper-active, frenetic, overly-busy visual chaos that attempts to blend apocalyptic science fiction, extreme action sequences, and dysfunctional family comedy-drama. It’s a lot to tackle, and for the most part, it works.

Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) is preparing to head to film school. Her nature-loving dad, Rick (Danny McBride) is concerned about how he and Katie have drifted apart over the years, and he’s also worried that her educational choice could lead to disappointment. Katie’s mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph) is mostly supportive and upbeat, and yet a bit saddened that the once close father-daughter duo no longer speak the same language. Youngest son Aaron (voiced by co-director Rianda) and family dog Monchi have their moments, and mostly this is a fairly typical dysfunctional family. In fact, dysfunctional family seems to be a misnomer since it describes most families, even the highly organized one that seemingly have their act together … represented here by the Poseys (Chrissy Teigen and John Legend).

Katie’s generation’s adoption and dependency on technology has widened the gap in connection with the previous generation … specifically the bond between father and daughter that was so strong when she was young, and now barely hangs on by thread. Dad is the generation of the supreme screwdriver, while Katie is all about creating memes and videos. He fixes things, while she creates things. Dad decides a family road trip to drop Katie at college is the solution to fixing the frayed relationship. This happens on the same day that mega-Tech guru Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) is introducing his next-gen PAL robot, which is smart technology on steroids. However, it turns out, software has feelings too, and the original PAL (Olivia Colman) seeks revenge for being replaced. An army of robots is sent to capture the entire human race.

A couple of quirky things leave the Mitchell family as our final hope against the robots, and as you might expect, saving the world can lead to reparations in the father-daughter relationship. Dad gains an appreciation for the creative skills of Katie, while she learns of his great personal sacrifice for family. It’s an unusual blend of two distinct stories, but mostly we are left exhausted after a nearly two hour run time. The screen is often cluttered and overloaded with distractions (including old school Furbys with a twist), and although there is a cool throwback look to some of the animation, it’s simply too much of a good thing. Younger kids may be mesmerized by the frantic action, but the story lines are not likely to be followed by most under 10 or so. This one has garnered a great deal of Oscar buzz, which makes sense as adults decide such things.

Streaming on Netflix

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BACK TO THE OUTBACK (2021, animation)

December 7, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Capturing a kid’s attention is difficult enough, but these days, it’s a real challenge to hold that attention for 90 minutes. You best offer something extremely entertaining, which is exactly what first time (co-) directors Harry Cripps and Clare Knight have done. Ms. Knight previously worked as the Editor on the MADIGASCAR and KUNG FU PANDA movies, and is married to actor Wayne Knight (Newman from “Seinfeld”). Mr. Cripps previously wrote the screenplay to THE DRY (2020) and here he co-wrote the script with producer Gregory Lessans. Of course making animals the center of a kids’ story is nothing new, and neither are the central topics of respect and family, yet this is quite an entertaining way to do so.

While watching the film with a four and five year old, I was able to witness first-hand the reactions and whether or not attention lapsed (theirs, not mine). The film opens at Australian Wildlife Park where Chaz Hunt (voiced by Eric Bana) is a Steve Irwin-type trainer who entertains the crowds and his son Jessie (Diesel La Torraca) with personal adventure stories that may or may not have a sprinkle of truth. But it’s the animals who are the main attractions here. The park features the world-famous cutest animal, Pretty Boy (Tim Minchin), a Koala who excels at posing for pictures. In contrast, the “ugly” ones, or the deadliest ones, include Nigel the neurotic scorpion (Angus Imrie), Zoe the wise-cracking thorny devil lizard (Miranda Tapsell), Frank the funnel web spider who breaks out in dance when attraction strikes (Guy Pearce), and the newest addition, Maddie a taipan snake (Isla Fisher). Acting as a mother-figure to these creatures is Jackie the crocodile (Jackie Weaver).

After a dangerous event caused panic and misunderstanding, Jackie is shipped off away from the park. The other “ugly” animals decide to escape and head home (check the title). Pretty Boy accidentally gets caught up in the escape, and he ends up being quite obnoxious – in constant need of catering and compliments. This stands in stark contrast to the other animals who are quite likable and charming. That’s the gag here, as well as our lesson in ‘beauty is on the inside’.  The road trip through the city and into the desert and mountains is quite an adventure and filled with things that don’t go quite right for this band of misfits. Along the way, they learn of the U.S.S. – the Ugly Secret Society, which is a rescue operation run by animals for other animals that aren’t lovable pets. They even have a funny catchphrase/password! Two of the most fun sequences involve Tasmanian Devils and a couple of toads named Doug and Dorene, who sing “When a Man Loves a Woman”.

The film is obviously aimed at kids who are fascinated with animals, and it’s charming and funny and entertaining for both kids and adults – exactly what you hope for with animated movies. The morals of the story about not judging a book by its cover, and the importance of family, are always good lessons to reinforce for kids. We should all be this ugly.

Available December 10, 2021 on Netflix

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SPIRIT UNTAMED (2021, animated)

June 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Any kids that watched Dreamworks’ original SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON (2002) are now at least in their mid-20s and many likely have kids of their own. That original film featured old school animation, and provides a nice comparison for today’s computerized “drawing”. However, from a story and character perspective this is less a sequel to that film, and more a spinoff of the original Netflix series, of which there have been more than 50 episodes.

Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced, Dora in DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD, 2019) is a rambunctious youngster being attended to by her Aunt Cora (Oscar winner Julianne Moore) at the home of Lucky’s wealthy and now candidate-for-Governor grandfather. With no time for her shenanigans, grandpa ships off Lucky and Cora to be reunited with Lucky’s father, Jim Prescott (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two haven’t seen each other since Lucky’s mother died tragically ten years ago. On the train ride to Miradero, Lucky has a connection with a beautiful wild stallion she names Spirit. The two share a bond of wildness and independence, though soon enough Spirit is being held captive by mean-spirited horse wranglers.

Lucky and her father have an awkward reunion as he tries to keep her safe, unwilling to admit the free-spirited nature she shares with her mother, who once rode with the Los Caballeros, a local trick-riding team. Her mother’s clothes, boots, and posters open Lucky’s eyes to a world that feels like home. She befriends not just Spirit, but also a couple of local girls, Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace), who are drawn to Lucky’s energy, but also recognize the danger she’s in going up against the evil wrangler (Walton Goggins).

What follows is an adventure with terrific visuals and enough action to keep the three and five year olds that I watched the film with glued to the screen. Heck Mountain and the Ridge of Regret seemed to be especially exciting for them, and I personally got a kick out of the importance of math (a word problem) in keeping Lucky on track. The film clocks in under 90 minutes, which is just right for most kids. The songs (Taylor Swift sings the trailer song) didn’t seem to make much impression, but the kid characters did. From a grown-up perspective, it’s hard to miss the fact that the adult males aren’t the best role models, and even Abigail’s young brother Snips (Lucian Perez) spends most of his time wreaking mischievous trouble. However, the lack of other political messages was a relief, and female empowerment in youngsters is always a welcome story line.

The film is co-directed by Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torreson. Writing credits go to John Fusco (the original Spirit film), Aury Wallington (the TV series) and Kristin Hahn and Katherine Nolfi. The all-star voice cast is a nice complement to the visuals (especially the mountains and clouds), and the message about independence and finding one’s own way in life. It should also be noted that the film is rated PG, not G.

Opens in theaters on Friday June 4, 2021

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SOUL (2020)

December 30, 2020

Greetings again from the darkness. With their first 22 feature films, Pixar excelled at balancing the eye candy and action kids favor with the second level intellect needed to simultaneously keep adults entertained. As proof, one need only think of such classics as TOY STORY, CARS, and THE INCREDIBLES. Surprisingly, film number 23 is the first Pixar film aimed directly at adults. It’s a marvelous companion piece to the brilliant INSIDE OUT (2015), but be forewarned, there is simply nothing, or at least very little, for kids to latch onto.

The film is co-directed by 2 time Oscar winner Pete Docter (INSIDE OUT 2015, UP 2009) and Kemp Powers (the screenplay and stage production of ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, 2020), and they were joined on the screenplay by Mike Jones. And yes, it’s a brilliant script to go along with the always stunning Pixar visuals and effects. Brace yourself for a metaphysical exploration of the meaning of life and finding one’s purpose. As we’ve come to expect on Pixar projects, the voice cast is deep and filled with well-known folks such as Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Questlove, Daveed Diggs, Wes Studi, and June Squibb. Leading the way is the dynamic duo of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.

Mr. Foxx plays Joe, a junior high band teacher still chasing his dream of performing jazz and experiencing the feeling that only music can provide … “the zone”. Instead, the school offers him a full-time teaching job, and his mother demands he seize the stability (and insurance) and give up his silly dream of jazz. As seen in the preview, shortly after an audition lands him his dream jazz gig, a freak accident occurs and Joe finds himself in “The Great Beyond”, where a conveyor belt takes those souls whose time has come to that giant bug zapper in the sky. Joe’s not willing to accept his plight and finagles his way into being a mentor for Soul 22 (Tina Fey) in “The Great Before” where unborn souls search for their “spark”. It’s all very existential.

After a look back at his life, Joe takes 22 to “The Hall of Everything”, which is the one segment in the film which felt underplayed … much could have been done with 22 looking for a reason to live. Instead, it’s a few great punchlines, including a Knicks gag that will surely play well among basketball fans. We learn of the fine line separating “lost souls” from those “in the zone”, and mostly we take in the banter between Joe and 22, as purpose and passion become the subjects of chatter.

As with most Pixar movies, multiple viewings are required to catch all the sight-gags, one-liners, and Easter eggs, however, the first viewing is like unwrapping a giant Christmas present. The opening Disney theme is hilariously played by a junior high school band, and the score is courtesy of Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 2010). Director Docter claims Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger makes a vocal appearance, but I didn’t catch it. The film leaves us with the message that the meaning of life is simply living life … and keep on jazzing.

Available on Disney+

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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.

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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: