It’s All Fun and Games Until You Stare Into the Void

The Spine of Night

by Christie Robb

The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.

The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.

He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.

And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.

The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.

Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.

As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.

Off the Leash Again

The Secret Life of Pets 2

by Hope Madden

Illumination, the animation giant behind all things Minion, returns to their blandly entertaining dog franchise for the blandly entertaining sequel The Secret Life of Pets 2.

In the 2016 original, Louis C.K. voiced a neurotic terrier named Max who needed to loosen up a little once his beloved owner brought home a huge, lovable Newfie mix (in a NYC apartment?!). And while life lessons were the name of the game, the real gimmick was to take the Toy Story approach to house pets, giving us a glimpse into what they’re up to when we’re not around.

Because we really don’t want to associate him with children anymore, C.K.’s been replaced by Patton Oswalt, whose Max has all new reasons for anxiety. There’s a new baby, whose presence suddenly reinforces all those fears about the big, scary world.

In a move that’s as disjointed as it is interesting, returning writer Brian Lynch sends Max, Newfie Duke (Eric Stonestreet) and family on a trip to the country, creating one of three separate episodes that will eventually intersect. Well, crash into each other, anyway.

The  main story deals with trying to alpha Max up a bit with some problematically “masculine” training by way of farm dog Rooster (Harrison Ford), who, among other things, disregards therapy as weakness.

Basically, Lynch and director Chris Renaud think we’re all a little too precious (the clear message of the original) and what they’d like to do with their sequel is beat us about the head and neck with that idea.

Meanwhile, back in NYC, Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) and Chloe the cat (Lake Bell – the film’s deadpan bright spot) train to retrieve a chew toy from a crazy cat lady’s feline-overrun apartment. And separately, Snowball the bunny (Kevin Hart), believing himself to be a super hero, befriends Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish), and together they save a baby tiger from an evil Russian circus.

For real.

That last bit gets seriously weird, I have no idea what they feed this baby tiger the whole time, and on average, the actual lessons learned are troublingly old school (read: conservative).

Teaching boys that pretending they’re not afraid so they can take charge of every situation = literally every single problem on earth right now. So let’s stop doing that.

Otherwise, though, Illumination offers yet another blandly entertaining, cute time waster.

Holding Out for a Hero

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

by Hope Madden

Teen Titans was a beloved, fairly-serious, sometimes thematically challenging Cartoon Network program based on Glen Murakami’s comics.

Teen Titans Go! was Cartoon Network’s sillier spinoff show. Think Muppet Babies versus The Muppets: smaller, cuter, sillier and basically inferior in every way.

No, that’s too harsh. Teen Titans Go! to the Movies—the diminutive superheroes’ cinematic leap—is not without its share of charm. Directors Aaron Horvath and Peter Rida Michail (both from the TV series) bring the same zany, juvenile, self-aware sensibilities to the big screen that burst for years from the small one.

Robin, Cyborg, Raven, Beast Boy and Starfire aren’t being taken seriously by the superhero community. What they need is their own superhero movie! Everybody else has one! That’s how you know you’re really a hero, and not just a sidekick with a bunch of costumed goofball buddies.

What follows is a comment on the oversaturation of the superhero film punctuated by a lot of poop jokes.

The voice talent from the TV show (Scott Menville, Hynden Walch, Khary Payton, Greg Cipes and Tara Strong) is joined by big names (Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Will Arnett, Patton Oswalt, Jimmy Kimmell) in fun cameos.

The best, most on-the-nose cameo belongs to Stan Lee, who sends up his own omnipresence as well as the Marvel/DC conflict and general nerdom with a spry little number.

There are laughs—some of them tossed with a surprisingly flippant sense of the morbid—and energy galore, but it’s all a kind of sugar rush. It’s fun for about 22 minutes, but by minute 23, you’ll be checking your watch.

By minute 50, you will be squirming restlessly in your seat.

By minute 80 you may have that fidgety kid next to you in a headlock, but who’s to blame him for kicking and wriggling and causing a ruckus? He’s as bored as you are!

By the 93-minute mark, you may be rushing for the door, and that’s too bad, in a way, because the bittersweet stinger you’ll miss with your hasty exit only brings home how slight and silly a spinoff Teen Titans Go! really is.