Tag Archives: animated films

The Studio’s Apprentice

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

by Matt Weiner

There’s something about the helpless awkwardness of growing up that guarantees the enduring appeal of magic. Mary and the Witch’s Flower taps into that spirit with appealing grace. And it’s a promising first feature from Studio Ponoc, home to a Studio Ghibli diaspora that formed after the venerable Japanese animation studio announced a production break back in 2014.

When a walk in the woods leads to a chance encounter with special flowers, Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill in the English language version) gains temporary magical powers. Her broomstick whisks her away to the magical college Endor, which looks about like if Hogwarts put down stakes in Spirited Away.

Mistaken for a witch and propped up by the magical flowers (apparently the PEDs of the wizarding world), Mary is deemed a prodigy by the excited school faculty. She soon learns she’s not the only one interested in those flowers, and outsider or not it will be up to her to save magic for everyone.

Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Ghibli veteran and Oscar nominee for When Marnie Was There, keeps the visual charm turned up throughout the film—a good thing, given that his script (co-written by Riko Sakaguchi and based on a children’s novel by Mary Stewart) lacks the heft of a typical Ghibli film.

For adult viewers, Yonebayashi’s light touch can be a bit too light. Mary, with her wild hair and strong will, is a charming stand-in for kids, but her hero’s journey will be instantly familiar. Endor professors Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee (Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent) exude sinister charm, but the rest of the sparse supporting roles don’t have much to add beyond perfunctory plot points.

These are minor complaints though. And the animation, especially the magical set pieces that test Mary’s mettle, makes up the difference. The film offers up a fully-formed magical world with smart visual economy over exposition (cough Fantastic Beasts cough). Mary’s determination is contagious, and even if her saving the day is inevitable it’s impossible not to feel moved by the choices she makes to get there.

For all the magic that infuses Endor, Doctor Dee was on the right track when he told Mary that electricity is just another form of magic. If Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t always have the preternatural spirit that animates the best of Studio Ghibli, it’s a delightful visual successor even when it’s working a little harder to keep the spark alive.

Seeing Red


by Hope Madden

I’m thrilled to announce that Ferdinand, the new animated feature from Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age, Rio), did not ruin my childhood.


The story of a peaceful if enormous bull who’d far rather sniff flowers than fight matadors was my favorite book as a little kid, but to stretch these 32 or so sentences into a 90-minute feature-length film, there would have to be padding.

I worried about the padding.

Credit a team of six screenwriters for finding—for the most part—organic ways to develop the story. We meet Ferdinand as a young bull being raised with a handful of other bulls specifically to fight in the ring. Then we follow him on his adventure to freedom from the ring and back into the sights of the matador.

That doesn’t mean the film never feels padded. It definitely does. But a slew of vocal talents including John Cena, Bobby Cannavale and Kate McKinnon helps to keep the film afloat.

Rarely laugh-out-loud funny, a bit bloated and a tad dark at times, Ferdinand still manages to entertain. It looks good, bears a social conscience and remains more or less true to the simple “be who you are” core that made Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s picture book so lovely.

Glen Baby Glen Ross

The Boss Baby

by Hope Madden

Imaginative only child Tim (Miles Christopher Bakshi) loves his life. He loves to play with his mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Jimmy Kimmel), loves to have adventures, and loves to go to sleep after his three favorite stories, five hugs and one special song.

All that changes when his little brother (Alec Baldwin) arrives. Why can’t his parents see that this stranger in their home is all manner of wrong?

Tim’s right – there is something up with the wee one. Baldwin’s Baby has been sent to Tim’s house to infiltrate a pet company. Why? Because puppies are so darn cute, people might want to stop having babies and just get puppies.

Things get considerably more convoluted from there.

Marla Frazee’s children’s book The Boss Baby is a clever metaphor brought to life. There’s a new boss in the house, and he is a total baby. Cute.

It was Michael McCullers’s unfortunate task to turn Frazee’s couple dozen lines into a screenplay that would take up approximately 90 minutes. That leaves an awful, awful lot of space to fill with McCullers’s imagination, and that brain takes us in some weird directions.

The film’s foundation combines ideas from the recent animated mediocrity The Secret Life of Pets and Storks. Plus there’s a surprisingly good dose of The Office tossed in there, and, of course, some Glengarry Glen Ross.

But still, there is more time to kill.

How shall we fill it?

How about with Elvis impersonators? Lots of poop jokes? An evil Mrs. Doubtfire? Pacifier acid trip? Maybe a pot shot or two at designer puppies?

Why not?

As it turns out, The Baby Boss is a very strange and strangely subversive little cartoon.

Many of the jokes are aimed high above the average 3-foot-tall and under crowd, but honestly there’s not a great deal for the tykes to cling to. The story is far too complicated, and the dazzling array of bizarre ornamentation only further confounds viewers.

Maybe you have to settle for the little things. Does Tim learn that there is enough love to share with his baby brother? Does Alec Baldwin say, “cookies are for closers”?

Yes and yes.


Shell Shocked

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

by Hope Madden

Life, death, the natural world and the redemptive love of a redhead – all excellent topics, all simply but beautifully explored in the Oscar-nominated animated film The Red Turtle.

When Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit got word from Studio Ghibli that they wanted him to be the first foreign filmmaker to work with them, he agreed, even though it would mean leaving the world of short subjects behind in favor of something feature length.

The filmmaker, who’d been contentedly animating shorts since 1981 and directing his own work since ’92, took the next nine years to complete The Red Turtle.

Like his Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter, The Red Turtle boasts minimalistic visuals to convey solitude, longing and the harsh realities of nature. But the melancholy of the previous effort is missing, something more hopeful in its place.

We join a nameless man – survivor of a shipwreck now stranded on a deserted island – as he fights to save himself from his fate. With no company but the skittering beach crabs, he explores enough of the island to determine the best ways off.

But each raft he builds is destroyed from below by an unseen force.

Without the help of dialog, musical numbers or flashy visuals – indeed, the entire effort borders on the monochromatic – The Red Turtle becomes a hypnotic experience. De Wit asks you to wonder whether the extraordinary events are happening or are the hallucinations of a desperate man – perhaps even the visions of a man in the throes of death.

He doesn’t answer your questions, instead weaving a fable as easily taken for symbol as it is taken literally. Perhaps the man didn’t survive the shipwreck. Perhaps he did, and the inexplicable power and magic of the natural world convinced him to stop fighting and live the life he has.

Either way, this spare and often somber film, punctuated as it is with both joyous outbursts and peril, is a welcome piece of poetry in Oscar’s roster.


Abs-olutely Fabulous

The LEGO Batman Movie

by Christie Robb

This year’s spin-off of 2014’s The LEGO Movie centers on Batman—the brooding solitary vigilante with the wonderful toys and the nine-pack abs. We catch up with him doing the usual thing—saving Gotham City from a supervillain. But when he gets home after a long day, who does he have to share his life with? Just a judgey Alfred, Siri, and a microwaved plate full of lobster. Apparently Batman’s greatest fear is intimacy.

The Bat can’t even identify his “bad guy”—breaking Joker’s heart when he decides to “fight around.”

So when Barbara Gordon takes over as police commissioner amid plans to work more collaboratively with Batman, he gets the heebie jeebies. Discovering that he’s accidentally adopted an orphan doesn’t help. Nor does the Joker’s rounding up of all of Gotham’s villains and submitting a group resignation letter.

Faced with demands on his emotional intelligence and without purpose, Batman begins to crack. Sure that Joker is up to something, Batman refuses to work with Gordon and inadvertently places Joker in a position where he can destroy all of Gotham for good.

Only one thing can stop this nefarious plan…teamwork.

LEGO Batman is a PG-rated movie that is probably even more fun for adults than for kiddos. Those responsible for paying the tab will get to enjoy spotting the references to other Batman movies, identifying terrible Batman TV show villains (like the Condiment King), and wondering how the administrative folks at the studio acquired permission for all the outside intellectual property required for the climax.

The movie also has a remarkable depth of voice talent. Will Arnett handles the gravel-voiced protagonist, but Michael Cera steals scenes as the endearingly twee Robin. Not only do we get Rosario Dawson as Gordon, we get Ralph Fiennes as Alfred and Zach Galifianakis as the Joker. But even characters that have minute amounts of screen time get good coverage. Billy Dee Williams, for example, briefly reprises his 1989 role as Harvey Dent.

And, in the end, we learn everything is cool when you’re part of a team.




Yes, It’s a Weiner

Sausage Party

by Christie Robb

I was expecting to hate this movie. At worst I was anticipating a series of increasingly forced dick jokes and at best a munchie-induced fever dream. Instead, I gotta say, Sausage Party stands up with the South Park movie as a pretty offensively entertaining animated movie for adults.

The film is set in a Shopwell supermarket where every morning the products sing about their desire be chosen by “the gods”—those big things wheeling the carts—and travel to the Great Beyond (via a song composed by Alan Menken—the guy who co-created the songs from The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin).

Little do the foodstuffs know what terrors await them on the other side of the pneumatic doors. It’s not nirvana. The Gods fucking eat you.

As the Fourth of July approaches, Frank—a hot dog voiced by Seth Rogan—eagerly anticipates hooking up with his honey bun (Kristen Wiig) in the Great Beyond. But after they are chosen, they and a bunch of other products are separated from their packaging and fall to the supermarket floor.

Forced to traverse the enormous grocery, the fellowship has to navigate the aisles to get back to their packages, interacting with their fellow foodstuffs in various ethnic-food aisles, partying in the liquor aisle, and generally trying to evade the villain—a vampiric and increasingly unhinged literal douche.

The movie certainly employs a fair amount of wiener-based humor and a variety of food-centric ethnic stereotypes (for example, the sauerkraut jars are a bunch of fascists bent on exterminating “the juice”, the bagel’s voice is a Woody Allen impression, and a Peter Pan “Indian”-style pipe-smoking bottle of firewater dispenses wisdom), but the movie turns to a surprising exploration of faith vs. skepticism and the extent to which religious belief fosters divisions, hostility, and repressed sexuality.

Although the movie manages to provide enough offense to go around, the majority of the jokes are actually quite funny. The cast is certainly strong. Rogan and Wiig are joined by Nick Kroll, Salma Hayek, Michael Cera, James Franco, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Edward Norton, Craig Robinson, David Krumholtz, and Paul Rudd, and the sex-positive food porn scene exceeded my expectations of what was bound to happen once the wiener and the bun finally got together.

Seeing Sausage Party ain’t a bad way to pass the time. But, for the love of God, please don’t take your kids.



Dogs and Cats, Living Together… Mild Hysteria

The Secret Life of Pets

by Matt Weiner

For a madcap family movie, The Secret Life of Pets raises some deeply disturbing questions. How much libido could fuel a romantic subplot when the lovers have been neutered? Why does “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” cue up during a drive into Manhattan? And exactly where is the autonomic system located on a sausage?

Alas, The Secret Life of Pets, directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney (Despicable Me franchise veterans), answers none of these questions. Instead, the movie offers up a diverting animated comedy with plenty of action but little cohesion or earned emotion to back it up.

The plot, as much as it exists other than to fling a Bronx Zoo’s worth of animals across New York City set pieces, hints at a Toy Story-light conflict between earnest terrier Max (Louis C.K.) and the newly adopted Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a gruff Newfoundland with a sad past.

It’s fitting that Duke, a shaggy dog, gets the action going. Once he and Max find themselves captured by the only two animal control officers in a city of 8 million, the sole remaining tension is whether Max and Duke will learn to get along before or after a successful rescue effort, as led by Gidget the tougher-than-she-looks Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) and Chloe, a scene-stealing cat (Lake Bell).

The Secret Life of Pets features inspired physical comedy, in a Buster-Keaton-meets-future-theme-park-ride kind of way that turned the Minions into cash cows. But it’s Pixar without the pathos: the movie never misses a chance to ignore any avenue for genuine emotion, whether it’s Duke learning what happened to his former owner or the streetwise villain Snowball (Kevin Hart, playing to the back row) hinting at the dark desires that animals really harbor toward their fickle owners.

It’s the single-note drone of the movie’s action that makes the glimpses of what might have been all the more remarkable. An extended fantasy sequence in a Brooklyn sausage factory takes place for no reason other than setting up a song-and-dance number that’s a drugged-out tribute to edible body horror, complete with dancing hot dogs made rapturous by their imminent consumption. None of this advances the plot in any way, but it’s a rare delight in a movie mostly content to coast.

In the end, predators and prey make amends, Max and Duke are ready for a sequel and a reliable supporting cast have made their case for a spinoff. Not bad for a day’s work in New York. But the real secret is that our pets are very much like their human counterparts: they share our likes and dislikes, our strengths and our flaws, and — most of all — our willingness to settle for just good enough.





Pixar Just Keeps Swimming

Finding Dory

by Christie Robb

Thirteen years later and Finding Nemo has a sequel. Finding Dory takes place a year after father and son triumphantly reunite with the aid of memory-challenged Dory. Now Dory is feeling restless, gnawed at by flashes of the family she lost. She’s ready to take an apprehensive Marlin and an enthusiastic Nemo on a quest to find her parents that sends them across the Pacific Ocean to the Marine Life Institute—an aquarium specializing in the rehabilitation and release of a wide variety of adorable sea creatures.

Like Nemo, Dory is voiced by an incredible cast of actors: Ellen DeGeneres (Dory), Albert Brooks (Marlin), Ed O’Neill (Hank the curmudgeonly octopus), Kaitlin Olson (Destiny the nearsighted whale shark), Ty Burrell (Bailey, the beluga with confidence issues), Diane Keaton, and Eugene Levy (Dory’s parents). Other celebs provide cameos, including an amazing effort by Sigourney Weaver.

The movie is predictably beautiful, frenetic in pace, and often hilarious, but is also emotionally devastating. It hooks you right in the heartstrings from the moment child Dory asks her parents, “What if I forget you? What if you forget me?” This is followed by a montage of a lost, lonely baby asking strangers if they’ve seen her parents.

(As a mom of a 2-year-old too young to attend the screening, I had to claw my seat to avoid speeding home to envelop her in a bear hug.)

Having a few more ominous scenes than Finding Nemo, and a PG rating, take your little ones’ sensitivity to heart before heading into the theatre for this one.  But if you can handle the assault on the feels, rest assured that Pixar has, once again, delivered a whale of a tale. (And the preceding short, “Piper”, ain’t no slouch either.)





Boy Meets World

Boy and the World

by Hope Madden

Often a joyous riot of colors and sounds, and just as often a somber and spare smattering of dehumanizing imagery, Boy and the World poignantly encapsulates the clashing emotions and evolving comprehension of the human spirit.

Ale Abreu’s Oscar nominee for Best Animated Film offers deceptively simple animation to pull you into complex ideas. Boy – the wee, titular character who is about to start quite an adventure – sees a wondrous, kaleidoscopic world saturated with confusing but fascinating sounds and images, colors and experiences.

But as thrilling and vibrant as these early moments are, Abreu’s vision is edged with cynicism. It’s an idea that takes hold sporadically, when industrialization depletes the chaotic energy from the screen, when scores of stooped stick figures lose their meager jobs, when urban blight changes the tone from primary colors to smoky browns and greys, and finally when animation gives over to live action footage of deforestation.

Though the filmmaker’s themes are always evident – occasionally less subtle than they might be – the heartbeat of the story is that of the imaginative, innocent Boy. It gives the whole film a touch of sadness, but balances the anger with an optimism and innocence that’s often beguiling.

A contagious score from Ruben Feffer and Gustavo Kurlat emboldens Abreu’s pictures, emphasizing the vibrancy of the individual’s spirit as well as the celebration of human connection.

Boy’s journey is a circuitous one, a coming of age and acceptance informed by struggle and nostalgia but brightened with bursts of color.

There is something terribly lonesome but simultaneously jubilant about Boy and the World. It’s a heady mix from a confident new filmmaker, and a welcome addition to an entirely laudable set of animated Oscar contenders.


Walk the Dinosaur

The Good Dinosaur

by Hope Madden

Is there any name in filmmaking more reliable, any surer bet, than Pixar?

Maybe not.

The Good Dinosaur, as is always the way with a Pixar film, opens with a fascinating short. Longtime Pixar animator Sanjay Patel directs his first effort, and Sanjay’s Super Team defies expectations to tell a lovely, warm story of overcoming father/son barriers and, in doing so, opens larger doors for similar cross-cultural embracing.

The animation giants’ second feature in less than a year takes us back to a magical time when dinosaurs were farmers and cowboys. That meteor? It missed Earth, you see, so this is what might have happened had we evolved right alongside those majestic beasts.

Rather than relying on a star-laden vocal cast (although Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, and the unmistakable Sam Elliot do lend their talents), the bulk of the film features – almost solely – the work of 14-year-old Raymond Ochoa.

Ochoa plays Arlo, the runt of the dino litter who needs to battle his own insecurities to find a way to make his mark. He does so with the help of a feral whelp of a human called Spot.

Though the story borrows heavily from The Lion King, first time director Peter Sohn combines hyper-realistic scenery with very cartoony characters in a way that’s surprising and lovely. Punctuated frequently with silly humor, the mostly serious tale does not shy away from darker edges and a real sense of peril, eventually delivering a genuinely emotional punch.

Sohn is even craftier without the aid of dialog, as many of the funniest and most touching moments are delivered in silence or with grunts.

After producing arguably the best film of 2015, Pixar has the cajones to release a second feature this year. I guess when you’re the undisputed king of cartoons, that kind of swagger makes sense. And while The Good Dinosaur is no Inside Out (or Up or Toy Story, for that matter), it’s a worthy entry in their impressive canon.