Tag Archives: animated movies

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

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.