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

Sleeps with the Fishes

Luca

by Hope Madden

It’s summertime. Who doesn’t want to look out on the bluest water as little boats rock in the breeze and kids cavort in a tiny seaside villa on the Italian Riviera? Awash in the wonder of childhood, the latest adventure from Pixar follows someone from under the sea who’s lured to dry land—against their parents’ wishes—and finds a whole new world.

Wait, that last phrase evokes a different movie, but Luca – a Disney + release that doesn’t require the Premier Access fee – does share a winking resemblance to Disney’s most famous fish out of water story. Young sea monster Luca (Jacob Tremblay) finds the idea of the world above sea level equally forbidding and fascinating. He discovers, with the assistance of another young sea monster named Alberto (It’s Jack Dylan Grazier), that as long as he stays dry, he can pass for human.

Good thing, since the whole villa where they hide from Luca’s parents (Maya Rudolph and Jim Gaffigan) is obsessed with finding and killing the elusive sea monsters of lore.

Writers Jesse Andrews (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Mike Jones (who co-wrote last year’s Oscar winner for Pixar, Soul) essentially turned The Little Mermaid into a buddy comedy. Rather than digging into a lot of angst, self-sacrifice or villainy, director Enrico Casarosa— longtime animator and writer/director of Pixar’s lovely 2011 short La Luna—keeps things light and harmless.

The water here is shallow but bubbling with activity. Luca and Alberto make a friend in the feisty Giulia (Emma Berman), make an enemy of the conniving Ercole (Saverio Visconti), learn a trade, discover a love of pasta, develop a longing to learn, and take part in an Italian triathlon (the middle leg is pasta eating) so they can win enough money to buy a Vespa and see the world.

It’s busy. It looks pretty. The message – embrace who you are – is worthy, but there’s just not much in the delivery for the film to call its own. From any other animation studio, Luca would be a solid summer release, but for Pixar, it’s a middling effort on par with Onward or Finding Dory. It’s a forgettable if lovely time waster.

Just Add Warrior

Raya and the Last Dragon

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Disney was looking to do something different.

Well, it’s still a princess, unfortunately, so not that different. But Raya and the Last Dragon marks an impressive step forward in a number of ways.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) opens the film Mad Max style, riding some alien vehicle through a post-apocalyptic landscape, her face covered, her eyes darting to and fro in search of something–predator? Prey?

The apocalypse itself happened just six years earlier, and Raya had a hand in the world’s undoing. Now here she is, at the beginning of the journey that could put the pieces back together.

Tran delivers a heroine you can genuinely understand. She is logical, and when she tends to lean toward head and away from heart to make decisions, it’s hard to fault her.

Her sidekick, in grand Disney fashion, is the shapeshifting but fantastically colorful dragon Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina. The comic’s brand of endearingly self-effacing humor punctures the film’s preciousness at all the right moments.

There is a central emotion, a powerfully executed conflict in Raya and the Last Dragon that never feels as if it’s been watered down or softened for younger viewers. The conflict speaks of the courage to believe in people even when they have proven themselves untrustworthy.

It’s a notion that flies in the face of logic, really, but the point of the film—and possibly of life—is that you cannot build a whole community if all you have are fractured segments unwilling to take that leap.

There’s just so much stuff here.

The film runs a full two hours, and you feel it. The first twenty minutes is burdened with piles of exposition, and the mostly magical second act journey is overstuffed as well. Too many characters to keep track of, let along get attached to, muddy the overall picture. Losing maybe half a dozen characters and trimming 20 minutes from the film would have done wonders for it.

There are problems with the execution, but not with the animation. Raya and the Last Dragon is breathtaking, its world building as gorgeous as it is meticulous. Animators deliver each South Asian-inspired community with its own unique look and feel—from a glinting desert wasteland to a torchlit floating city to a lushly forested community and more. The film is simply stunning and should be viewed on the biggest screen available.

But for all the Raya puts in the win column, it can’t shake the feeling that all four directors and the team of ten (10!) that built its script and story were culling from plenty of pre-owned parts. The Disney formula still has princesses, they’re just warrior princesses now.

That evolution may have been overdue, but it’s already starting to show some age.

Not Itchy and Scratchy

Tom and Jerry

by Hope Madden

Scooby-Doo is having a moment. The franchise got its first wide release feature film last year, and the brains of the Mystery, Inc. outfit, Velma, just nabbed her own spin off show. Why not dig deep and reintroduce us to other cartoon favorites?

Tom and Jerry make their case for relevance with a live action/animation hybrid by director Tim Story (Ride Along, Barbershop). The film sees the squabbling cat and mouse team relocating to New York City, where Tom hopes (presumably – he doesn’t talk so it’s hard to say definitely) to become a musician.

Jerry just wants to keep being a jerk.

Is it me, or is Jerry really the villain in this twosome?

They run afoul of Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz, who needs to fire her agent because she should definitely be getting better movies than this).

Kayla requires a new job after some insane, hand-drawn cat knocks her off her bike, ruining her delivery. She cons her way onto a hotel staff. Now if she can just prove that she is good enough and keep the guests’ (Pallavi Sharda and Colin Jost) wedding-of-the-century on the rails, she’ll be fine.

Or will there be animated chaos?

Trying to make old school ‘toons fresh and interesting for a modern audience does not always work. Even Scoob from 2020 was a miss, but Tom and Jerry’s failure to entertain lands closer to the colossal disappointment of Garfield (a film so bad Bill Murray apologized for it in a death scene in an entirely different movie).

The animation sequences are hand drawn, so that’s a great change of pace from the lifeless CGI churned out in films like Earwig and the Witch. Too bad Story doesn’t know how to blend them with live action in a way that feels at all engaging.

T&J is long. The story, by Brigsby Bear writer Kevin Costello, is over-stuffed and under-enjoyable. He mistakes idiocy for lunacy, busy for kinetic. A lot happens, none of it interesting, none of it funny, all of it surrounded by a bombastic soundtrack. Surprisingly little of the adventure really has to do with the ‘toons, either.

There are long stretches of Kayla learning valuable lessons and Michael Peña affecting some kind of unplaceably bizarre accent.

When your funniest joke is about scooping animated dog poop, no one is enjoying themselves.

Search for Tomorrow

The Croods: A New Age

by George Wolf

At least two things have happened since we met The Croods seven years ago. One, we’ve forgotten about the Croods, and two, Dreamworks has plotted their return.

A New Age gets the caveman clan back together with some talented new voices and a hipper approach for a sequel that easily ups the fun factor from part one.

The orphaned Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) has become part of pack Crood, which is fine with everyone except papa Grug (Nicolas Cage), who isn’t wild about the teen hormones raging between Guy and Eep (Emma Stone).

The nomadic gang is continuing their search for the elusive “tomorrow” when they stumble onto the Stone Age paradise of Phil and Hope Betterman (Peter Dinklage and Leslie Mann, both priceless). The Betterman’s lifestyle puts the “New Age” in this tale, and they hatch a plan to send the barbaric Croods on their way while keeping Guy for their daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran).

But a funny thing happens along the way. Check that, many things happen, and plenty of them funny, in a film that nearly gets derailed by the sheer number of characters and convolutions it throws at us.

The new writing team of Kevin Hageman, Dan Hageman and Paul Fisher keeps the adventure consistently madcap with some frequent LOLs (those Punch Monkeys are a riot) and even topical lessons on conservation, individuality and girl power.

Or maybe that should read Granny Power, since it is Gran’s (Cloris Leachman) warrior past that inspires the ladies to don facepaint, take nicknames and crank up a theme song from Haim as they take a stand against some imposing marauders.

Director Joel Crawford – an animation vet – keeps his feature debut fast moving and stylish, drawing performances from his talented cast (which also includes Catherine Keener and Clark Duke) that consistently remind you how important the “acting” can be in voice acting.

By the time Tenacious D drops in to see what condition the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You” is in, the whole affair starts to feel like some sort of animated head trip.

Yeah, a little sharper focus wouldn’t hurt, but A New Age delivers the good time you forgot to remember to wonder where it’s been.

Origami Original

Attack of the Demons

by Cat McAlpine

Quick! Where were you in 1994? Were you listening to your Walkman and attending local shows? Maybe you were trying to catch classic films at your movie theatre. Or, could you have been haunting the arcade machine at the local diner? No matter where you were, you probably weren’t protecting your small town from a wave of horrific, mutating demons.

Natalie (Katie Maguire), Jeff (Andreas Petersen) and Kevin (Thomas Petersen) suddenly find themselves tasked with just that in Attack of the Demons.

The visual style of Attack of the Demons is undoubtably its greatest strength. Editor, cinematographer and director Eric Power defines his unique style with his second paper cut animated film. While comparisons to South Park are easy to make, what Powers does is way beyond that, with much more layered and complicated vignettes. The details are what really help Attack of the Demons pop, from arcade games to shadows.

Where low-budget indie horror often struggles, Power excels, thanks to his stylistic choices. Monsters and their grotesque transformations don’t look cheesy because they are done so consistently and well within the film’s aesthetic.

With low-budget often comes new talent, and Power’s vision is hampered by weak voice acting and recording quality from a host of new names. But it’s easy to let the cast’s uneasy delivery become a part of Attack of the Demons’ hand-done charm.

There are other weaknesses. Written by Andreas Peterson, the film struggles a bit with pacing, in both story and style. The script itself is a bit cheesy, with weak dialogue and a bevy of characters. If anything, though, this little piece of horror is simply subject to the same shortcomings as other bigger-budgeted films in the genre.

Overall, Attack of the Demons is fun and unlike anything I’ve quite seen. With grunge bands, arcade games, local diners, and a town carnival, it stands on its own while being an homage to all the nostalgia of horror.

If you’re not ready to let spooky season go, Attack of the Demons has a new look for familiar story beats and is sure to scratch your itch.

Strings Attached

Trolls World Tour

by George Wolf

They may sing songs we already know in a sequel that’s often thematically simple, but to quarantined families longing for an escape from re-runs, these new Trolls will feel like a cool blast of freedom.

Just as Branch (Justin Timberlake) is working up the courage to break out of the friend zone with Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick), trouble invades the Pop Troll world of endless singing, dancing and regular hug appointments.

Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) of the Rock Trolls, daughter of King Thrash (Ozzy Osbourne!), has set out on a Mad Max-style rampage through Troll Kingdom, collecting the magic strings from each of 6 different musical villages in a quest to make everyone bow to power chords and devil horns.

Poppy makes a pinky promise (a pinky promise!) not to let that happen, so she heads out with Branch and Biggie (James Corden) on a shuffle through the Troll playlist.

Like the first film, World Tour brings exuberant splashes of sound, color and enthusiasm. But while this latest adventure salutes more types of music, it somehow makes all them feel more bland on the way to its evergreen moral of appreciating differences.

What elevates these Trolls, though, is their funny bone. One of the directors and two of the writers return from part one, but this film is much funnier, especially for the parents sitting down for movie night.

From the struggle to grasp “Hammer time” to the deviousness of yodeling and the futility of fighting smooth jazz, this script-by-committee lands several solid gags. A new group of all star voices (especially a scene-stealing Sam Rockwell as Hickory the cowboy) helps, too.

And really, where else are you gonna hear Ozzy mumble through “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun?”