The Story of My Life

Flee

by George Wolf

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Director and co-writer Jonas Poher Rasmussen identifies the man as Amin Nawabi. Amin’s on the verge on marriage, a life change that seems to compel him to reveal the secrets of his life story for the very first time. Despite happy plans for the future, the fact that the name Amin Nawabi is a pseudonym comes as a bittersweet reminder of how the past continues to haunt this soul’s present.

Amin’s earliest memories are of his native Kabul in the early 1980s when the Mujahideen took charge in Afghanistan and the dangers began. Amin’s father was deemed a “threat” and arrested. While his older brother was able to escape the bloody battles with U.S. troops, Amin and the rest of his family begin years of attempts to flee the country.

But even under such a harrowing veil, Rasmussen finds a sweet innocence to propel Amin’s coming-of-age story. Bedroom posters of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris wink back at the young Amin, as his gentle adult voice recounts an ever-present realization that he was attracted to men, and that he had one more reason to always be on guard.

A successful cross into Russia only changes the specifics of oppression, leaving Amin under constant threat of discovery, deportation and corrupt police. (One incident where Amin manages to escape their greed leaves a lasting scar on him, and on us.)

The animated wartime recollections — punctuated with scattershot live action moments — do bring the Oscar-nominated Waltz with Bashir to mind, but Rasmussen may well have preferred a completely live action narrative if he did not have an identity to protect. Using Amin’s actual voice in their conversations adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

And after all that Amin endures, as the horrors in his story gradually diminish and we see his fiancé Kaspar gently nudging Amin to accept the peace in the next stage of their lives, the full weight of the struggle emerges.

We yearn for Amin to let go of the past even as we know it is what defines him. He lives each day as a testament to those whose sacrifices enabled him to finally find something that feels like home.

What’s left is a hope that giving voice to his burdens may finally set him free, and lead to a greater understanding of the many voices yet unheard.

We Fought a Zoo

Cryptozoo

by Matt Weiner

Harder even than finding a cryptid these days might be getting to see a new animated feature meant for adults. Cryptozoo, the latest from comic book artist Dash Shaw and animator Jane Samborski, is compelling proof of how vital it is that we still do—rare as these sightings get.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the many excellent animated options we do get, all with the requisite PG+ jokes to keep parents occupied and weepy climaxes that make you realize a matinee out with the family has turned into at least three future therapy sessions for a child 20 years into the future. But it’s refreshing to get a chance to see lushly textured, hand-drawn animal work go toward interrogating society just a little more than something like “stereotypes are bad.”

Cryptozoo kicks off as an Indiana Jones-style adventure with a mythical twist. Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), trained veterinarian and globetrotting cryptid hunter, tracks down these strange creatures and offers them a place in a protected zoo where they can safely interact with the public as well as their own kind.

Not all cryptids are humanoid, though—you try explaining “Jurassic Park but with sasquatch” to a kraken—and so the zoo’s population is a mix of humanely captured exhibits and fully sentient magical creatures who just want to live and love and go about their daily lives without fear of persecution or worse from their human neighbors.

The “worse” comes in the form of Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mercenary ex-military tracker who hunts down cryptids to sell to governments as living weapons. When Nicholas and Lauren go after the same beast (a dream-eating baku), Lauren must partner up with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), whose point of view on coexistence as a gorgon leads Lauren to slowly question her lifelong pursuit and recoil from the stinging indictment of liberalism and capitalism.

If that sounds like a drag, Shaw’s script—and especially the meticulous drawings and whimsical details on each cryptid—keep it buoyant. The result is an ambitious animated feature where the medium fits the message. This is a bestiary with real bite, mapping out a world where good intentions can still come to a bad end, and that can be the most important moral to learn.

Goodness and Lightsabers

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special

by George Wolf

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the comedy stylings of…Emperor Palpatine!

If you’re not applauding now, you will be…you will be…as the wrinkly-faced baddie becomes the surprise standout of The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special, a fast moving and often hilarious brick by brick homage to the entire franchise.

With narration from Master Yoda himself, the special is set around the festivities for “Life Day.” Rey and Finn have plans to attend the big celebration at Chewie’s place, but Rey is distracted.

She’s been trying to mentor Finn as a Jedi, but things aren’t going smoothly. Why can’t she train him?

Rey thinks the answers can be found with the Key to Galaxy’s Past, a tool that will let her travel across space and time and observe the training methods of previous Jedi masters. So with a promise to get back to Chewie’s as soon as possible, Rey and BB-8 take off to drop in on plenty of LEGO-fied moments from Star Wars history and gain a better understanding of the Force.

Once the time-hopping starts, director Ken Cunningham and writer David Shayne (both LEGO film veterans) unleash a barrage of wink-wink fun, highlighted by those priceless barbs from Palpatine.

This Emperor quickly becomes Darth Not-So-Serious, and no one – not Kylo Ren (“Put a shirt on!”) or anyone else (“Less talky-talky, more fighty-fighty!”) – is safe. The true power of the Dark Side? Mockery.

Featuring a smattering of voices from the original cast (Billy Dee Williams, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels), the film threads our love of Star Wars through the spirit of some classic Christmas specials past for an irresistible family treat.

And with more lockdowns looming this Holiday season, it’s 44-minutes of smiles tailor made for repeated helpings.

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special debuts Nov. 17th on Disney+

Magic the Birthday Gathering

Onward

by Hope Madden

Dan Scanlon’s been kicking around Pixar for a while. He’s been part of the “Senior Creative Team” for some of the greatest animated films of the last decade: Toy Story 4, Coco, Inside Out.

He also wrote and directed Monsters University—his only w/d credits with the animation giant—and that movie is one of Pixar’s rare missteps. Can he right his footing with a fraternal quest, a hero’s journey, a nerdy road trip?

Not quite.

Onward, Scanlon’s first directing effort since that monstrous 2013 Revenge of the Nerds riff, opens where many a hero’s journey begins: a birthday. Shy elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is turning 16. He’s a little awkward, and maybe even slightly embarrassed by his magic and folklore obsessed older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt).

Ian never met his dad, but his mom’s been saving a gift for just this occasion. It will set a series of actions in motion that will show the town how cool (and destructive) magic can be. But will it turn meek Ian into a hero?

Scanlon sets up a funny if slight near-satire of the mythical hero’s quest, and the most enjoyable sight gags in the film come from his eye for other (better) films in this vein: all things Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones. There’s even a bit of Guardians of the Galaxy (which feels a little too on-the-nose) and maybe just a touch of Weekend at Bernie’s.

Plus feral unicorns.

I will be honest, he had me at feral unicorns. And it is these little flourishes that Onward gets right, but that’s just not enough to carry the film.

Pratt and especially Holland – who continues a run of solid voice work (even if no one saw Dolittle or Spies in Disguise) – both find a rapport that feels honest enough to give the emotional climax a little punch.

But there’s just nothing particularly magical about this movie. The core story is paint by numbers obvious and the nods to other epic adventures become so frequent and so brazen that it’s hard to find a single inspired or original thought in the entire film.

It’s nice. It garners an amused chuckle or too, maybe even a sniffle, but you’ll be hard pressed to remember anything about it besides those unicorns, and there was no real point to those.

Sinter

Klaus

by Hope Madden

Be honest, when you saw the list of Oscar nominated animated films, did you wonder whether Klaus was somehow the international title for Frozen 2?

I have excellent news! It is not. Instead, it’s a clever, not-too-sentimental Hatfields v McCoys take on the legend of Santa Claus.

Co-directors Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez Lopez develop the story of a coddled would-be mailman named Jesper (Jason Schwartzman, perfect). His Postmaster General father tires of Jesper’s spoiled ways and sends him on a make-or-break assignment to the nether reaches of the north, Smeerensburg.

All Jesper has to do is collect and deliver 6000 parcels this year and he can go back to his warm, self-indulgent, cushy little home.

Naturally, there are obstacles. There’s a decades-long feud, for one. It’s so bad the school teacher has turned her school house into a fish market (parents won’t send their kids anywhere they might have to fraternize with the other clan). And then there’s that creepy, disproportionately large, old woodsman.

At times, the twisty tale threatens to collapse under its own weight, but it does not. Instead, it takes risks you don’t often see in family films and those risks mainly pay off. For a Christmas film, the movie manages to mainly avoid schmaltz. It offers clever explanations as to how many of the Santa Claus myths are born, affects just enough of a sense of wonder, and entertains from start to finish.

The vocal talent certainly helps. Flanking Schwartzman are the always welcome JK Simmons as the big guy himself, as well as Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack and Norm MacDonald as a smarmy boatman.

The animation itself is beautiful, but not especially showy. The images won’t disappoint, but they won’t make your jaw drop, either. Instead, Klaus relies on the perfect blend of sentimentality and wit to delight children and entertain their parents.

Do You Want to Pet a Snowman?

Abominable

by Rachel Willis

Writer/director Jill Culton has crafted a sweet, magical children’s tale with Abominable.

The film opens with a man-sized yeti escaping from a laboratory at the sinister Burnish Industries. While being hunted through the streets of a big city in China, the yeti is injured. He hides on the roof of a building and seems to be safe – for the time being.

The opening scene is dark and a little scary, which explains the film’s PG-rating. This is fare for older children, which isn’t a knock on the film, but it isn’t the cute romp one might expect for the 3 – 6-year-old crowd. The opening hints at more terrifying moments to come as Burnish Industries is not willing to let its latest discovery go without a fight.

The film switches gears, and we’re introduced to Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet), a teenage girl who rushes through life doing odd jobs to make money. She’s estranged from her mother and grandmother, who don’t understand her attitude. As we follow Yi through a typical day, we are given small pieces of information to help us understand who she is. Not only is she distant from her family, she is mocked by her peers, and her only friend is a younger boy named Peng (Albert Tsai).

On the roof of her apartment complex, Yi has a hideaway where she stows a map of China, an old violin, and a dream of visiting several places across the country. It’s here that she discovers the hidden yeti.

Reminiscent of How to Train Your Dragon (another DreamWorks production), Yi slowly forms a bond with the beast she names Everest. While the development of the bond between Toothless and Hiccup in HTTYD is a slow process, the connection between Yi and Everest feels rushed. And like Toothless, Everest has behaviors similar to a cat or dog as he navigates this new world.    

The few minor similarities aside, Culton manages to craft a film of her own that explores the value of friendships, family, and the beauty of the natural world. It’s a lot to explore in a children’s film and while some of it is handled well—particularly the friendships between Yi, Everest, and her friends—other aspects are neglected.  

The film drags a bit during the second act. As Yi, Peng, and Peng’s cousin, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) try to keep Everest out of the clutches of Burnish Industries, there are a few montage moments that slow the film’s pace and will have even the most devoted viewer twiddling their thumbs waiting for the action to resume.

However, Abominable is a film that, while predictable, has a few good laughs and plenty of heart.

Nightmare Fuel

Ruben Brandt, Collector

by George Wolf

When is a collector not just a collector?

When he, or she, is a thief.

Not just a smash-and-grab hack, either, but the leader of four notoriously slippery bandits specializing in priceless works of art. All are patients of psychotherapist Ruben Brandt (voiced by Ivan Kamaris), and each offers their talents in his time of need.

Ruben is suffering from violent nightmares inspired by legendary works of art from masters such as Manet and Hopper. Ruben comes to believe possessing these works is his only hope for relief, and his thieving patients believe they can help with that.

As the art world is shaken by the brazen thefts, the identity of the ringleader dubbed “The Collector” remains a mystery.

In his feature debut, writer/director Milorad Krstic displays a wonderful eye and a frisky wit, filling his film with the familiar fun of a big screen heist, unexpectedly winning soundtrack choices and a rich, textured animation style worthy of the high art setting.

The caper itself is a wry, understated hoot, with intellectual asides to subliminal psychology and plenty of homages to iconic artworks. But, as only seems fitting, the constantly engaging animation is the true centerpiece here.

From the shadows that follow a thief along his clandestine wall climb, to the uneasy confines of a van struggling to navigate some dangerous curves, Krstic’s animation fills nearly every scene with rewards for close inspection, and a promise of more frivolity to any willing accomplices.

Like a pop-up book full of highbrow surprises, Ruben Brandt, Collector is never less than delightful.





I Can Has Sequel?

Ralph Breaks the Internet

by Christie Robb

Movies with an abundance of pop-culture references run the risk of dating themselves well before they’re released. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) from 2012’s Wreck-It-Ralph stride directly into that potential minefield.

The film opens as playable racer Princess Vanellope von Schweetz has an existential crisis wondering if there is more to life than looping the same levels of her game, Sugar Rush, every day and drinking root beers with Ralph at Tappers every night. When her hero inadvertently breaks her game, the duo head off into the internet in search of the part they need to fix Sugar Rush and secure Vanellope’s monotonous future at the Litwack Family Fun Center & Arcade.

And, it’s…fine, I guess.

Flocks of blue Twitter birds soar over Google’s skyscraper and Amazon’s distribution center. Folks with signs pop up, baiting others to click on their content. There’s a search bar that’s kind of an actual bar, and there’s a whole Snapchat area off in the distance. But the film has none of the bonkers creativity of Sausage Fest’s imagined grocery store and more or less comes off as designed by an intercompany team of Silicon Valley marketing executives.

A fundamental misunderstanding about how eBay works results in Ralph and Vanellope needing to come up with $27,001 for the part they need. Now it’s a question of how they get rich quick on the Internet.

This leads to Vanellope’s discovery of Slaughter Race, a gritty, open world driving game a la Grand Theft Auto that becomes her happy place. And Ralph becomes needy, clingy, and self-destructive, refusing to let his best friend move on as he hustles for cash by making viral videos on a site called BuzzTube. This part drags as it trots out references to past time wasters like Chewbacca Mom, hot pepper challenges, and screaming goats.

Honestly, easily the best part of the movie is when Vanellope wanders over to the Disney website and hobnobs with the princesses while evading some Stormtroopers. It’s 10 minutes of Disney patting itself on the back for its ownership of a ludicrous amount of intellectual property. But it’s fun, creative, and silly in a way the rest of Ralph Breaks the Internet is not.

There’s a much better movie here that I hope is in the works.

What we get with Ralph is a pretty movie with some great voice acting that’s got enough detail in the background to make you smile. But it’s the kind of amusement you’ll probably forget about soon enough, like planking, Keyboard Cat, or Doge memes.

 

 





I’m On a Boat

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

by Rachel Willis

These days, whenever an animated movie is released, it’s a near guarantee it will become a franchise. A few of these sequels are as good or better than the originals that spawned them, but most of them aren’t.

There’s nothing inherently problematic with milking successful movies for more material, provided the new stories are able to stand alone. Hotel Transylvania 3 manages to do so, but there are areas of the film that suffer from the same problems as other sequels.

The latest installment in the Hotel Transylvania series introduces us to the centuries-long feud between Dracula and the Van Helsing family. A brief montage shows the audience Abraham Van Helsing’s many failed attempts to destroy Dracula. When it finally seems Van Helsing will no longer be a threat, we’re brought to the present day Hotel Transylvania to catch up with Dracula, his daughter Mavis and their clan of family and friends.

Deciding her dad needs his own vacation based on his more-spastic-than-usual behavior, Mavis books a family trip on a monster cruise. Along for the ride are a number of characters from the previous films, but the new film would have been better served if they’d been left behind in favor of fleshing out the new faces. Aside from Mavis and Dracula, none of the previous films’ characters seem to have been given much thought.

As Dracula, Adam Sandler brings a new aspect to a centuries-old character. Instead of menacing, Dracula is a spaz. While trying to woo the captain of the monster cruise, Ericka, he’s a nervous wreck. It’s an interpretation that serves the franchise well as it provides moments of humor for both children and adults.

Kathryn Hahn as Ericka is a good addition to the series, though her character’s animation is reminiscent of Tweety Bird. She’s a humorous character, and her scenes are among the movie’s best. Hahn plays well against Sandler, and together, they’re the glue that binds the film.

Director Genndy Tartakovsky has helmed all three films in the Hotel Transylvania series, and he’s done well with the material. The latest film will likely appeal to children of all ages, though their parents may surreptitiously check their phones once or twice.





Soccer Buddies

Early Man

by Hope Madden

There is something adorably British about Nick Parks’s latest plasticine adventure, Early Man.

No I am not being condescending. It’s animated. It’s supposed to be adorable.

This Aardman export—the Brit animation studio responsible for the Wallace & Gromit classics, among others—pits dunder-headed but lovable cave dwellers against greedy Bronze Age Euro-trash as it spoofs sports flicks.

We open at the dawn of time, when dinosaurs and cave men and giant, toothy mallards roamed the earth outside Manchester, England. Around lunchtime.

It’s silly. And sweet. And basically a 90-minute mash note to Manchester United.

When those posh bullies from the Bronze Age (led by Tom Hiddleston’s Lord Nooth) push Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his nincompoopy cavemen friends out of their fertile valley, Dug devises a challenge to regain his beloved home.

Like all great sports films, Early Man pushes the underdog narrative to epitomize more than simple foot-to-ball competition. Plus, you really do want these earnest faces, overbites and all, to learn to believe in themselves.

And why can’t a pig play soccer?

Dug’s quick trip into town square offers opportunities for the Aardman Easter eggs—be sure to scan the vendor booths for hilarious names. With voice talent to spare (Timothy Spall and Rob Brydon are among those with smaller roles), you’re assured the intentionally silly jokes are delivered expertly.

The problem is that Early Man would have made for a really hilarious short.

The story doesn’t benefit from a 90-minute stretch. The setting—mainly an imposing landscape littered with enormous rib bones—doesn’t offer enough opportunity for visual distraction and the characters are not memorable enough to keep your attention for the full run time.

Expect much of the familiar: googly eyes, enormous teeth, simple characters and kind-hearted laughter. CGI mixes with the stop-action to rob the film of some character, but Early Man has charm to spare.