Tag Archives: animated movies

Days of Future Past

My Old School

by George Wolf

Brandon Lee was a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside the body of an awkward Scottish high schooler.

Or, maybe he was something else. My Old School revisits those teenage days for a light and entertaining look at a head-scratching scammer.

Brandon’s story was set to be told in a Mid-90s movie starring Alan Cumming. That project never got off the ground, but now Cumming finally gets his chance to play the part, lip-synching Brandon’s interview audio because the real guy won’t show his face.

And why is Brandon still hiding?

Well, that’s one of the mysteries writer/director Jono McLeod hopes to unravel.

Talking to Brandon’s former classmates and often re-creating their memories through animation, McLeod introduces us to the boy his peers first knew.

In 1993, Brandon enrolled as a 16 year-old at Bearsden Academy, a secondary school in an upper class section of Glasgow. His intelligence and behavior made him a favorite of the staff, but the kids found him weird.

Getting cast as Lt. Cable in the school’s production of South Pacific changed Brandon’s social status. And soon there were friends, holidays, brushes with the law, multiple passports and…oops.

Obviously, knowing as little as possible about this case benefits how the film will hit you, but even the biggest revelations don’t land quite as hard as McLoed seems to think they will. There are no jaw-on-the-floor twists on the order of 2012’s The Imposter, but some interesting questions are raised about selective memory and a belief in Jedi mind tricks.

An animation style that recalls MTV’s “Daria” and the laugh-it-off vibe of Brandon’s old classmates only fuels the feeling that the film is a little too forgiving of its subject.

Looking back, most everyone involved now admits that they should have looked closer at Brandon Lee. Entertaining a yarn as it may be, My Old School might have been more compelling by doing the same.

Milkbone of Blood

Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank

by Hope Madden

Who’s up for a perfectly harmless, slight, not especially funny cartoon? Well, depending on how hot it is outside and how bored your kids are, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank could be worse.

Hank (Michael Cera) dreams of being a samurai. Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais) dreams of ridding the land of this ugly little town that ruins the view from his palace. How about making Hank the samurai that protects that ugly village? Hank will be a terrible samurai! He’s a dog! Who ever heard of a dog samurai?

Well, who ever heard of a cat Western? But that’s what we essentially have here, because Hank has crossed many treacherous lands to find his way to the land of cats so he could fulfill his destiny, even if nobody there wants him. Like at all.

OK, maybe little Emiko (Kylie Kuioka), who also dreams of becoming a samurai. But definitely not Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson), the town drunk who used to be a samurai before shame led him to catnip.

It sounds like it should be funny. There’s also the supporting voice cast, if you need to be impressed: George Takei, Michelle Yeoh, Djimon Hounsou, Aasif Mandvi, Gabriel Iglesias, Mel Brooks.

Brooks also co-wrote the screenplay, which explains a lot. A dozen or so jokes littered throughout the film might have been funny 60 or so years before the target audience was born. Very few jokes connect to dogs, cats, samurai films, Westerns—anything in particular, but they lack that fun, random feel. A giant toilet figures prominently. There is flatulence.

Cera and Jackson definitely share an odd couple quality—enough that I’d love to see them do a live action film together. But Yeoh and Takei are wasted, and Gervais gets no good dialog to deliver (though he does a villain well). Hounsou’s fun.

The movie looks fine—not great, but fine. Its themes about acceptance are muddled and soft peddled, though—another victim of weak writing.

A profoundly odd short film called Bad Hamster precedes Paws of Fury, though. There’s that. Just depends how hot it is, I guess.

Lone Ranger

Lightyear

by George Wolf

Exploring new life in the Toy Story universe comes with benefits – and drawbacks.

Sure, you inherit the goodwill earned by four of Pixar’s best feature films. But then, those films cast a mighty long shadow.

Lightyear taps into the warm fuzzies early, by letting us know why Andy wanted a Buzz action figure so badly that Christmas back in ’95. It’s because he loved the movie so much. This movie.

But honestly, for the first sixty minutes, you can’t imagine why.

Space Ranger Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) blames himself for marooning his settlement on a distant planet. A return to hyperspeed could bring everyone home, so Buzz is determined to keep testing until he gets it right.

Trouble is, each test flight sends him into a time dialator where 4 minutes up in space turns into 4 years back at base. So before Buzz knows it decades have passed, and he must take an untested team (Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules) and a robotic cat (Peter Sohn) into battle against Emperor Zurg’s forces for control of the precious hyperspeed fuel source.

That’s all fine, but that’s all it is. Director and co-writer Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) can’t find any way to make the toy’s story come to life.

Until Buzz comes face to face with Zurg (James Brolin).

Zurg has a big surprise for all of us, one that might as well send the film into hyperspeed.

Almost in an instant, the cinematography from Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben adds depth and wonder (that spacewalk – goosebumps!), MacLane quickens the pace while recalling both 2001 and Aliens, and backstories from earlier in the film pay off with gentle lessons on bloodlines, destiny, and what makes a life’s mission matter.

Stay for the credits and beyond to get two bonus scenes that bring a chuckle or two. But just make sure you sit tight for the final half hour. That’s when Lightyear delivers the kind of action and pizazz that just might make a kid change his Christmas list.

Patty All the Time

The Bob’s Burgers Movie

by George Wolf

Some fifteen years ago (!), at a critics screening for the movie version of Strangers With Candy, I laughed early and often. I was a fan of the TV show and its particular brand of humor, and I thought the film was hilarious. And then I realized something.

I was the only one laughing.

At the recent critics screening for The Bob’s Burgers Movie, a similar thing happened. Only one person was laughing.

It wasn’t me.

Series creator Loren Bouchard brings his baby to the big screen as co-writer and co-director, and he promptly puts the Belcher burger joint in jeopardy.

The family has just seven days to make a loan payment to the bank, and business isn’t exactly booming. And that was before a big sinkhole formed directly outside the front entrance! Meanwhile, the Belcher kids stumble onto a mystery involving the obnoxiously rich Calvin and Felix Fischoeder (voiced by Kevin Kline and Zach Galifianakis) that could reveal a way out of the whole mess.

Bouchard and his regular cast of voice actors (including H. Jon Benjamin, Kristen Schaal, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman and John Roberts) have been at this for over a decade, and their move to the multiplex shows no signs of re-inventing a formula that has clearly worked for years.

It just doesn’t work for me.

The songs are spirited, the animation well-crafted, and the dialogue often rapid fire. But it leans on a style of humor that’s often obvious and repetitive, in a cartoon world where nearly every single business has to have a corny name like “It’s Your Funeral Home,” “Sprain Sprain Go Away” and “Weight Weight Don’t Tell Me.”

But to its credit, The Bob’s Burgers Movie is here to super serve the regulars. There may be too much fatty in the patty to attract many new converts, but if you’ve already memorized the specials, belly up for a deluxe portion.

My Panda, My Choice

Turning Red

by George Wolf

With baseball still on hold for this year, it’s safe to say the most impressive batting average out there still belongs to Pixar. Twenty-four films in, and seeing that name at the top of the poster still has me expecting excellence.

Turning Red – Pixar’s twenty-fifth – keeps the winning streak alive with a frisky, meaningful and culturally rich update of a well worn message.

Meilin Lee (voiced by the completely captivating Rosalie Chiang) is a 13 year-old honor student in Toronto circa 2002. She loves math, her besties (Miriam, Priya and Abby), and the 5 singers in “4-Town” (the boy band craze is the most likely reason for the early 2000’s time stamp).

But above all, Mei lives by one rule: honor your parents!

Yeah, um…that rule is going to get tested when 4-Town comes to Toronto just as Mei’s world turns completely upside down.

Mother Ming (Sandra Oh) has never disclosed the “quirk” in their family history, and now it’s staring back at Mei from the bathroom mirror. The mystical powers wielded by ancient ancestor Sun-Ye promised that one day Mei would awaken as a giant red panda. That day has come, and once Ming understands it’s not that other red visitor that has her daughter locking doors in panic, Mom explains.

Strong emotions will release Mei’s inner panda, so she must keep a calm demeanor until the family can gather and perform the ancient Chinese ritual that will banish that bear forever.

Stay calm? Now? The 4-Town show is coming up, and the girls have to score some tickets without helicopter Ming finding out! And there’s this bully at school that needs to be taught a lesson! Plus, that dreamy Devon at the Daisy Mart has Mei feeling some strange new feelings…

Sure, the panda is a cute metaphor for the raging hormones of puberty, but director Domee Shi (who also co-writes with Julia Cho) has much more to offer in her feature debut. Here, the often generic moral of “be true to yourself” plays out with stakes that will feel authentic to both kids and parents. Pixar has a long history of finding true poignancy amid big laughs, but Turning Red feels like a turning point.

Not only is it the first Pixar film with a female director, women are also in leadership roles throughout most areas of the production. The mission was clearly to begin speaking to a slightly older target, with a tender honesty that adolescents – girls especially – could appreciate.

Mei’s feelings of pressure and confusion are laughed with, not laughed at, and her first fantasies of physical romance are presented with a refreshing, relatable warmth.

There’s also fresh air blowing through the animation department, realizing Shi’s self-described “Asian ‘tween fever dream” with an aesthetic that yearns for the big screens the film is not getting. Mei’s world is alive with modern vibrancy, yet full of bursts that recall more classic animation styles, including hand-drawn and slo-motion sequences, as well as eyes and mouths that suddenly pop open wide with anime homages.

Effervescent pop songs by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (who also voices 4-Town’s Jesse) blend joyously alongside Ludwig Göransson’s more traditional score, completing the film’s perfect ecosystem of subtext.

Respect the past, but embrace the possibilities of the future. That future is going to include parts of your true self that are messy, and that’s okay. In fact, accepting those awkward, messy parts is the first step to being okay.

Really, the most disappointing thing about this film is that it’s going straight to Disney+. A theater experience might make the promise of mother-daughter bonding feel even more memorable, if not downright eventful (as the trips to see the first Toy Story were for my son and me).

But Turning Red finds Pixar with a healthy and welcome new approach to its lineup. So wherever it’s found, that’s more than okay.

Hearing Voices

Sing 2

by Hope Madden

Are you ever absolutely slain by the voice talent in a cartoon? I find this especially true of a middling animation like Sing, or more to the point, writer/director Garth Jennings’s sequel, Sing 2.

Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Edgerton, Bono, Nick Kroll, Bobby Cannavale, Pharrell Williams, Halsey, Letitia Wright, Eric Andre and Chelsea Paretti round out the set of vocal stylists bringing this animated animal talent show to the big screen. Was there any budget left for animators?

Well, sure. This is an Illumination animation—the good people behind the Minions and all that—and its visual style is bright, colorful and well suited to the animal antics afoot.

What antics, you ask? Well, big dreamer Buster Moon (a koala voiced by McConaughey) wants to take his enormously popular smalltown song and dance troupe to the big time! But are they ready? Will the man in charge of their destiny (a nasty wolf named Jimmy Crystal voiced by Cannavale) choose to murder Buster? And can they find the famous singer Clay Calloway (Bono) in time for the big show?

Who’s to say? What they won’t do is sing originals. Unlike your typical Disney musical, Sing 2 puts recognizable pop songs into characters’ mouths, so it plays a bit like one of those TV talent shows, except less annoying.

Halsey is memorable as spoiled Porsha, and Jennings himself shines voicing the character of theater assistant Miss Crawly.

Still, there’s not a lot new to see here—I think we’re all familiar with “the show must go on” stories. There’s even less new to hear. Characters are likable enough (aside from that wolf), and very solid lessons are learned and themes encouraged.

Plus, some fun song choices keep scenes lively and it is very hard to go wrong with this talent pool.

Not one memorable thing happens. Not one. But Sing 2 is light-hearted, good-natured fun while it lasts.  

Every Little Thing She Does

Encanto

by Hope Madden

No one wants to believe themselves ordinary. Not even calm, supportive Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz). But ordinariness happens to be her defining quality because she is the first Madrigal in three generations who has no magical gifts.

Her mother can heal with food. Her sister has super strength. Her cousin can shape shift. But when the day came for Mirabel to receive her magical gift, nothing happened. When the magic of the Madrigal family — magic that has kept the entire town of Encanto in peaceful enchantment for decades — starts to crack, is it all because of Mirabel?

One of many reasons that Disney’s 60th feature Encanto charms is that this unsure adolescent does not find out she’s secretly a princess. She has no makeover. It isn’t romance that helps her see her own specialness. Thank God.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music is another reason. Infectious, upbeat and surprisingly insightful, the songs in Encanto speak to individual insecurities in a way that hardly suggests the magical nature of the film. Lyrics illustrate sincere worries about letting people down, living up to expectations and other universal and yet intimate worries.

If you worry the film sounds a bit drab and reasonable, fear not because the vibrant color, lush landscapes, intricate interiors and clever, high-energy animation keep the magic popping. Set in Colombia, Encanto reflects the magical realism favored in the literature of the land and that, too, makes for a unique cartoon experience.

John Leguizamo and Maria Cecilia Botero join Beatriz in a voice cast that brims with pathos, love and energy, just like the family they depict. Much about the complex interactions within the family feels like honest if uncharted territory for a Disney outing — flawed heroes, loving villains, and the notion that selfishness and selflessness as equally problematic.

The flip side of that coin is that the world of Encanto doesn’t feel very big and the stakes don’t feel very high. If that were the only drawback to co-directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith’s approach it would hardly be worth mentioning. Unfortunately, they undermine the complexity they find in familial love with a too-tidy ending that robs Encanto and its inhabitants of some hard-won lessons.

Daughter of Darkness

The Addams Family 2

by George Wolf

Two years ago, The Addams Family returned to their cartoon roots with an animated feature that leaned heavily on little Wednesday Addams for its few sparks of macabre fun.

Despite turning to a more convoluted plot line, AF2 doesn’t do much to improve the family reputation.

Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) is still the standout here, putting the creepy and kooky in the 3rd grade science fair. She’s denied a prize thanks to a new “everybody wins” school policy, but her brilliance catches the eye of shady scientist Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader).

Worried she’s being dumbed down by the idiots around her, Wednesday rebuffs cheer up attempts from Dad Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Mom Morticia (Charlize Theron) when a pushy lawyer (Wallace Shawn) comes knocking with a bombshell.

His clients believe Wednesday may actually be their daughter and are requesting a DNA test. What else can Mom and Dad do except pack Wednesday, Pugsley (Javon “Wanna” Walton, stepping in for the now deeper voiced Finn Wolfhard), Fester (Nick Kroll) and Lurch (Conrad Vernon, who again co-directs with Greg Tiernan and newcomer Laura Brousseau) into the haunted camper for that fallback device for hastily-connected hi jinx, the road trip!

It’s a three week trek to (where else?) Death Valley and back, stopping in Miami, San Antonio, and the Grand Canyon long enough to catch up with more family (Snoop Dogg’s Cousin It) and try out some mildly amusing gags.

Only a precious few – like the guy who keeps trying to propose to his girlfriend and “Thing” trying to stay awake while driving – actually land, and it’s up to Moretz and her perfect deadpan (“I’ve been social distancing since birth”) to remind us of what makes this family dynamic.

The script from Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit veers off into wild Dr. Moreau territory, adding even more baggage to a film that would have been wise to pack lighter. Inspired soundtrack choices (from Gordon Lightfoot to Motorhead) give way to forced pop and hip-hop, and the film’s attempt at an “own who you are” message seems half-hearted at best.

But what’s really lost is the inherent fun The Addams Family brings to wherever they are. When the world goes light, they go dark. That’s a fun and funny idea ready to be exploited.

Once again, Wednesday’s just waiting for the rest of the gang to get back to the family business.

Ready Player Bron

Space Jam: A New Legacy

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

You think the GOAT debate about hoop gets heated? Just wait ’til your twitter thread blows up with hot takes on the thespian greatness of Jordan vs. LeBron!

Yeah, that’s not likely to happen.

I can tell you Don Cheadle is a great actor, and he’s clearly having a ball as the high-tech heavy in Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Cheadle is Al G. Rhythm, a (what else?) algorithm inside the Warner 3000 computer system that has designed a can’t miss WB idea for LeBron James. But LeBron is not impressed, so Al decides to get even by pitting LBJ against his own 12 year-old son, Dom (Cedric Joe).

Dom is actually more interested in video game design than basketball, but feels pressured by his superstar Dad to follow in the family business. Al seizes on this rift, pulling father and son into the virtual world, stealing Dom’s design for a basketball video game, and offering a deal.

You guessed it: classic Tunes (featuring Zendaya voicing Lola Bunny) vs. some brand new Goons (basketball superstars including Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and Diana Turasi). A win for the Tune Squad puts the James family back to normal, but a loss means they’ll stay in the “server-verse” forever.

Adding WNBA stars and a new look for Lola are just two of the ways director Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip, The Best Man franchise) and the writing team succeed with an updated premise required for new sensibilities. Sure, the resolution of the father-son tension is predictable, but it manages a schmaltzy level of resonance amid the cartoon nuttiness that we’re really here for.

The antics of your favorite Looney Tunes characters (aside from an ill-advised, rapping Porky Pig) are classically looney, but the script also scores with some topical, self-aware humor aimed at the digital age, a classic Dave Chappelle bit, and LeBron himself (Dom: “Did my Dad leave?” Al: “That’s what he does, isn’t it?”)

And while the original ’96 Space Jam always smacked of product placement marketing, A New Legacy ups that ante, dropping LBJ and friends into any number of Warner properties, from Casablanca to Rick & Morty. Shameless, yes. Fun? Also yes.

As for King James, he follows that standout cameo in Trainwreck with a lead performance that alternates between awkward and decent. He does bring more natural onscreen charisma than Jordan (there’s a reason MJ barely speaks in his TV ads), but I’m guessing the task of acting opposite cartoons didn’t help with James finding a comfort zone in his first lead role.

But LeBron sure looks at home on the court, and once everybody joins him (and I mean everybody – have fun scanning the crowd), Lee rolls out some frantically fun game action with plenty of visual pop. This Space Jam may follow some of the original’s playbook, but there’s enough “new” here to justify the title, and by the time the buckets and anvils start dropping, A New Legacy finds its own fun and satisfying groove.

Diaper Dandies

The Boss Baby: Family Business

by George Wolf

What happens when The Boss Baby we met in 2017 gets all grown up?

Well, when we catch up with Theodore “Ted” Templeton (voiced again by Alec Baldwin) in the Dreamworks sequel Family Business, he’s a hedge fund honcho who now has a statue in his honor at Baby Corp. But Ted works all the time, doesn’t see much of his family, and has a strained relationship with his brother Tim (James Marsden).

Tim and wife Carol (Eva Longoria) are parents of Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), a whip smart but increasingly distant second grader at the Acorn School, and Tina (Amy Sedaris), a new baby with a familiar secret.

Yep, Tina’s an agent from Baby Corp, and they need the Templeton boys to mend fences and work together. It seems Acorn headmaster Dr. Erwin Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum) is cooking up something nefarious at the school, so Ted and Tim need to drink the formula that will – to the tune of “Time Warp” – turn them back into a baby (Ted) and a schoolboy (Tim) for 48 hours. Then they must use that time to derail Dr. Armstrong’s plan for a baby revolution (“cake for everybody!”)

Director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers return from the first film, where they struggled to expand Marla Frazee’s book to feature length without leaning on excess filler.

But this new installment comes together as a more independent, fully formed adventure. The pace is buzzing with often frenetic activity that should keep the kids interested, and though the laughs aren’t hearty LOLs, McGrath and McCullers score with several well-placed and understated asides that parents will appreciate.

Baldwin’s buttery sarcasm is again perfect for the little bossman (“I have a beautiful voice!”), while Sedaris and Goldblum bring some zany Sedaris and Goldblum (both always welcome) to the voice ensemble.

Can the Templeton brothers form a new bond while thwarting Armstrong’s plan? Can Tim return to adult form in time to see Tabitha sing in the Holiday pageant (which also features a song about global warming called “We’re Doomed”)? Is the head on Ted’s statue big enough?

Yes, answering these questions does get both predictable and convoluted, but Family Business stocks just enough inspired nuttiness and warm fuzzies to finish in the black.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8BZfBxTukc