Cinema has finally delivered a winning movie based on a video game — or in the case of Disney’s animated treat — based on numerous video games. The filmmakers take a risk in combining various styles of video game graphics to render characters we can thoroughly enjoy. The risk pays off. Surprisingly, “Wreck-It Ralph” is a mixed-medium animated delight.
John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman put so much expression into the voices of their comic avatars (Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz) that you can’t help but fall under their spell. For their part, the film’s army of animation artists create a bold scale, and a clever color-pallet that functions precisely inside the well-written narrative by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee.
Ralph is sick of being the bad guy in the video game where he’s worked for 30 years. Fix-It Felix is the “good guy” to Ralph’s “bad guy” stereotype. When Ralph isn’t on the guest list for a penthouse party where Fix-It Felix receives a medal, Ralph abandons ship to take the place of a soldier in a war derby game called “Hero’s Duty” — think “Halo.” Ralph gets more than just a medal before landing in a girls’ game called “Sugar Rush Speedway.” There, Ralph befriends Vanellope, a quirky “glitch”-character living in a candy-covered racecar kingdom a la “Mario Kart.”
Amusing verbal interplay feeds the heartfelt friendship that develops between Ralph and Vanellope. Fresh, witty repartee keeps the fast-paced comedy accessible to adult audiences without taking anything away from its kid-friendly storyline. “Wreck-It Ralph” is one of the best animated movies of 2012 — alongside Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.”
Rated PG. 92 mins. (A-) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Inspired by the '60s British television series "Thunderbirds," Matt Stone and Trey Parker use Jerry Bruckheimer's action movie plot template to parody American militarism with one-third-scale puppets that give new meaning to the term "wooden acting." The ridicule hits a fever pitch anytime the comic duo's brilliantly phrased songs modify the puppet action sequences (you'll be chanting "Team America, F**k Yeah" for days). Kim Jong II exploits the Film Actors Guild (including Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Samuel Jackson, and Sean Penn) to carry out his evil schemes while the Team America World Police recruit a Broadway actor to infiltrate an Iraqi terror cell.
This all-out adult satire pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. The greatest gift that Stone and Parker possess is their inexhaustibly brash approach to big issues. Although they’ve said in interviews that “Team America: World Police” mocks terrorists rather than the war on terror, the film ends up—and correctly--ridiculing George W. Bush’s fantasy-branded “war on terror.”
The movie slyly acknowledges multinational global corporate oppression — that there can be no such thing as a war on terror, just as there can be no war on the desperation that drives marginalized people from committing acts of abysmal anxiety. When our puppet commandos kick off "Team America" by killing a group of Muslim terrorists in Paris, they consequently destroy the Louvre Museum and kill many French civilians as a consequence. It’s no accident that the French are the first to suffer at the hand of America’s fraternity minded group of mercenary champions with ammo belts hung across their chests to preclude any confusion about their heroes’ agenda.
Liberal doses of crude vulgarity that Stone and Parker smear over everything are keen equalizers that go deeper than party lines or class striations. The purely filthy satire enters your central nervous system in coded systems of pop culture references that expand in your subconscious. It’s a thoroughly integrated brand of intoxicating anti-propaganda that sparks from everything you already know on an intrinsic level. Think of it as comedy by osmosis.
No quarter is given to corporate shills like George W. Bush or John Kerry, or to puppet enemies like Bin Laden or Hussein. Instead the filmmakers go right for the jugular of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il as a lonely dictator baddie who feeds UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix to a shark. That scene won’t stick in your memory as much as the much-debated hilarious puppet sex scene, but the film’s final explanation of the world’s problems as based on assh*les, puss**s, and di*ks, surely will.
Tim Burton’s 3D stop-motion animated reductionist homage to the Golden Era of horror films — namely the Universal films of the ‘30s — is beautiful thing. If that means including a few nods to Japan’s “Godzilla” films of the ‘50s so much the better to charm baby boomers who share Burton’s fond childhood memories of good old fashioned monster movies. The sound effects alone are a study in polished perfection. Every squeak, thunderbolt strike, and dog bark rings like a perfectly tuned bell. As with all of Tim Burton’s films, his painstaking attention to every detail of narrative and visual realization is always present. Based on a live-action half-hour short film Burton made in 1984, there’s an extra amount of filmmaking-love on display in “Frankenweenie” that makes the experience of watching it a truly special treat for the viewer.
The film’s shimmering black-and-white rendering is so immaculate and crisp that it takes your breath away. Burton pokes fun at his own mastery of stop-motion animation with an intro film-within-a-film that announces his young gothic protagonist Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) as a budding filmmaker of horror movies. Victor screens his Godzilla-inspired home movie for his ‘50s era parents in the family living room. To his folk’s delight, Victor’s dog Sparky has a prominent role as the hero that destroys a winged monster that attacks the film’s cardboard town. At the end, the 8mm film stock burns against the projector lens. No worries; Victor can “fix” it.
Some woolly dinner table “advice” from Victor’s well-meaning dad (voiced by Martin Short) regarding Victor’s solitary habits leads the scrawny tow-headed lad to play baseball on a neighborhood team. Surprisingly, Victor has some power in his bat. Yet the glory of his first would-be homerun is ruined by the untimely death of Sparky who gets hit by a car after running for the ball.
At school, Victor’s Vincent Price-lookalike science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (wonderfully voiced by Martin Landau) gives the class a lesson in the power of electric current to animate a dead frog. Predisposed to scientific experimentation, Victor takes the cue to dig up Sparky and attempt to reanimate his pointy-nosed bull terrier with the use of some kites on a stormy night from the comfort of his attic laboratory. Victor can’t keep Sparky’s sudden return to the land of the living a secret from his nosey classmate Edgar, who promptly spills the beans to a couple of other copycat pals determined to ignite life in a their own deceased, or at least inanimate, creatures. A bag of “Sea-Monkeys” explodes into an army of especially creepy little villains after coming to life in a swimming pool. Among the pandemonium that ensues is the comical transformation of a black female poodle into a bride-of-Frankenstein-styled pup after she and the appropriately named Sparky rub noses.
Looking back at Burton’s flawed 1984 version of “Frankenweenie” is informative for the many layers of corrective narrative tissue the auteur has added with the help of his longtime script collaborator John August (“Big Fish” - 2003). Burton tosses in subtle references from his own filmography. A dash of “Corpse Bride” here, a pinch of “Edward Scissorhands” there, and a dose of “Mars Attacks!” gels neatly with details drawn from James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein." Tim Burton seems to be actively inviting adolescent audience members to pursue their own imaginative filmmaking projects. There’s a lot to appreciate in this tastefully punchy animated horror comedy. Repeated viewings are in order. “Frankenweenie” is poised to be the next best Halloween classic for kids.
Rated PG. 87 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
If you are looking to stream movies online then why not look into great services such as Netflix and LOVEFiLM. These allow you to stream through a range of devices including games consoles and the iPad. There is a range of categories to pick from including lots of animated movies which are suitable for both the kids and adults.
Sin City - CLASSIC FILM PICK
Director Robert Rodriquez collaborates with Quentin Tarantino to create a personalized format of dark animated expression. They use negative imagery with accents of color (especially blood-red) to emphasize character traits, and show the cartoon action exactly as Miller originally drew it.
Frank Miller’s participation with Robert Rodriquez in the film’s production speaks to the clarity of vision on display. The filmmakers’ dynamic use of green-screen technology to flesh out the story’s urban terrain is stunning. Black-and-white characters bleed bright white blood from black bullet wounds. This really is eye-candy.
Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Clive Owen, and Jessica Alba pop from the screen as iconic black-and-white characters of a fetishized criminal underworld. The vice-riddled narrative weaves together three Frank Miller stories ("The Big Fat Kill," "The Hard Goodbye," and "That Yellow Bastard"). The ink-black shadows that splay across the screen corroborate its characters’ cruel and kind intentions.
Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is a honest cop who does eight-years of hard time for a crime he didn't commit in order to protect a little girl named Nancy after she's kidnapped by the serial-rapist son (Nick Stahl) of the town's corrupt Senator (Powers Boothe). Corruption drips from every lamppost.
Mickey Rourke steals the show as Marv, a virtually indestructible hulk addicted to violence, booze, and pills. "Marv was born in the wrong century. He belongs on some ancient battlefield, swinging an ax into somebody's face." Marv's taste for blood is piqued after the murder of a hooker named Goldie (Jamie King) who showed him one "night of kindness." Marv sets off on an ass-kicking investigation that finds him torturing guys, like the man Marv drags facedown on the street as he speeds along in his car with the door open. Once Marv locates his serial-killer prey (played by one very tweaky Elijah Wood), it's all about amputation and decapitation.
Clive Owen is the most normal of the baddies on display as Dwight, an all around badass who gets caught in an apocalyptic battle between the cops and the mob as the result of a mistaken cop murder performed by the gun-and-sword wielding prostitutes of Old Town. Girly fetish fantasy goes softcore with the sizzling BDSM gear Rosario Dawson wears with pride.
"You've got to prove to your friends you're worth a damn. Sometimes it means dying. Sometimes it means killing a whole lotta people." That's how Dwight explains his philosophy. It's a sentiment that provides a common bond between Hartigan, Marv, and Dwight, while imparting a rough-edged view of the nocturnal world of Frank Miller's deadly protagonists. “Sin City” lives on in your memory like a fantasy nightmare where living people morph into super-action visions of beguiling brutality.Tweet
Partying with Dracula and his crew of monsters isn’t as enjoyable as you might imagine in this animated misfire. A threadbare script sets an oversimplified plot adrift. Adam Sandler does a half-decent vampire voice as Dracula, an overprotective single father to his 118-year-old daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez). In human years, Mavis is just college-age. Good ole Dracula has built a secret monster resort hotel. Humans are not allowed. Dracula has gone so far as to build a phony human town in order to convince Mavis not to stray beyond their castle walls. Enter American back-backer Jonathan (voiced by Andy Samberg), who wanders into Dracula’s sacred hotel and sets romantic eyes on Mavis. She returns the gesture. Mindless monster mayhem abounds as the rudderless story chases its tail toward a predictably anticipated ending.
Once again, Hollywood dips its toe into 3D waters without fully committing. There is nothing in the 3D effects on display to say that any value is added by its presence. “Hotel Transylvania” is a lethargic animated comedy with nothing at stake — not even any vampires.
Rated PG. 91 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Finding Nemo 3D
VIDEO ESSAYS: FINDING NEMO 3D — LIBERAL ARTS — ARBITRAGE — CLASSIC - THE BAD NEWS BEARS
Disney/Pixar’s 3D upgrade of its classic animated children’s movie — using an expensive new 3D format called Xpand 3D— has the dual effect of darkening the film’s vibrant colors while adding considerable depth to the screen. Still, don’t look for Nemo to come swimming out into the audience. This isn’t that kind of 3D experience. Following on the heels of its 3D re-release of “The Lion King,” “Finding Nemo 3D” seems more likely to introduce the film to new audiences, if only because the remastered film’s underwater color palate is so bold.
Clownfish Nemo (voiced by Andrew Gold) is a mere egg when an attack by a barracuda in their home in Australia's Great Barrier Reef leaves him in the singular care of his overprotective dad Marlin (Albert Brooks). Nemo isn’t the best of swimmers owing to his undersized fin. On his first day of school, Nemo and his class go on a field trip to the reef’s drop-off. Against his dad’s commands to return to the safety of the reef, the curious Nemo swims out toward a lingering boat only to be scooped up by a diver. The boat takes off with Nemo onboard, and Marlin follows suit in a desperate effort to get back his son.
Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a Regal Blue Tang fish suffering from short-term memory loss, teams up with Marlin to help track down Nemo to Sydney. Unbeknownst to Marlin and Dory, Nemo has been added to a dentist’s salt-water aquarium there.
“Finding Nemo” stands up as one of the most engaging animated children’s films of all time. If you’ve never seen it before, you’re in for a real treat. If you have, you’ll love this version more than ever.
Rated G. 101 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Ice Age: Continental Drift
The “Ice Age” franchise runs out of steam with a narratively inert example of animated fluff. Young audiences won’t know the difference, but adult family members will be sorely disappointed with what co-writers Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs attempt to pawn off as enjoyable family entertainment.
Sticking closely to the storyline of “Happy Feet Two,” the filmmakers go through the motions of creating a yarn centered on the catastrophic moment in the prehistoric era when the Earth’s continents violently split apart. Wolly mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) gets stuck on an ice floe with Sid-the-sloth (John Leguizamo), saber-toothed Diego (Dennis Leary), and crazy-eyed-sloth Granny (Wanda Sykes). Manny’s wife Ellie (Queen Latifah), and daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer), are stranded on a remote piece of unknown ground that the others must get back to.
Peter Dinklage delivers some energetic speeches as Captain Gutt, a wily pirate in charge of a crew that includes Shira (Jennifer Lopez), a slinky silver saber-toothed tigress built to give Diego a run for his money. Yet, the romance is ill conceived. For all the testy repartee that passes between them, Diego and Shira don’t share enough compatibility to make their problematic union much fun for the audience. The film’s pirate-themed sub-plot plays as a narrative false bottom.
Scrat — the acorn-crazed saber-toothed squirrel whose doomed adventures have bookended past films in the franchise — takes on a bigger role this time around. Scrat’s predictably disaster-prone episodes upstage everything else in the movie.
The movie’s 3D effects are sub-standard. How long will it take before the big studios to start making 3D movies that “break the window” from start to finish? I just hope someone in production at 20th Century Fox reads this review. If you don’t plan on breaking the window, don’t bother making your movie in 3D. The action must float in front of the audience’s face or there’s just no point.
Rated PG. 94 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Pixar’s latest contribution to the sparsely populated arena of PG-rated animated children’s fare is a droll fairytale built of ancient Celtic myths. 10th century Scotland’s rugged highlands provide the lush setting where an independently minded girl, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), comes face to face with her destiny. The princess-to-be is daughter of King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Tradition demands that a competition be held to decide which of the amusingly grotesque local men Merida will marry. Redheaded Merida will have none of this nonsense. The headstrong lass uses her masterful archery skills to tilt the games in her favor. A rift with her mother follows that sends Merida searching for a magical remedy to her problems. While the film’s 3D effects are extraneous at best, the animation is top notch. The ever-reliable Kelly Macdonald gives her spritely young character plenty of gutsy Scottish charm in this cautionary tale about a child’s relationship with his or her parents. An eloquent aspect of the tale shows that the lesson works in both directions.
Rated PG. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
It took three directors to make the third installment in the “Madagascar” franchise, yet the compound collaboration has resulted in an impressive animated comedy. Noah Baumbach’s screenwriting contributions, alongside franchise regular co-writer/director Eric Darnell, are in evidence.
Audience chuckles and belly laughs come at regular intervals. The level of visual and narrative sophistication on display is astonishing. There are no fart jokes to distract from the fun-loving animal characters that have become like family members to a generation of young moviegoers. The filmmakers pull off a neat trick by continuously raising the stakes for audience expectations before paying off on gently implied promises with breathtaking virtuosic sequences. An eye-popping chase scene across the rooftops of Monte Carlo’s skyline hits the mark. In addition, the film’s explosion of color during a circus-themed third act climax is an over-the-top expression of dynamic animation at its finest. The filmmakers’ obvious Cirque du Soliel-inspiration for the denouement takes delightful three-dimensional flight at just the right moment.
A surrealistic black-and-white dream sequence opens the movie as a tip-off to adult spectators that the movie will also address their intellects. Returning voice-actors Ben Stiller (as Alex the lion), Chris Rock (as Marty the zebra), Jada Pinkett Smith (as Gloria the hippo), and David Schwimmer (as Melman the giraffe), all deliver knockout performances. A clever editorial choice to give a circus bear named Sonya the mute trait of an actual bear, brings the animated animal world one step closer to reality. Sonya’s inability to talk hardly stops Cedric the Entertainer’s aye-aye creature Maurice from falling for her hairy charms. Maurice has a fetish he’s none too embarrassed about expressing when opportunity presents itself.
The plot couldn’t be simpler. Our familiar animal buddies are trying to leave Madagascar and return to their previous home, the New York City zoo. A brief layover in Monte Carlo brings them to the attention of Capitaine Chantel DuBois (amazingly voiced in a biting French accent by Frances McDormand). DuBois is “part bloodhound and part Cruella DeVil — with a little Edith Piaf thrown in for good measure.” There’s no telling if McDormand herself performed the French song DuBois belts out in a surprising bit of chanteuse inspiration, but the musical diversion arrives with an ear-pleasingly authentic Gallic slap and tickle.
DuBois wants the severed heads of Alex, Marty, Gloria, and Melman hanging on her trophy wall. Our motley crew finds refuge in the company of a train-travelling circus with its own host of kooky animal personalities. Jessica Chastain’s slinky jaguar Gia holds romantic promise for Alex if he can just figure out how to come up with a circus act impressive enough to gain the sponsorship of a London promoter.
It took the orchestrated efforts of roughly 200 highly skilled artists to make “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted.” So, it’s all the more rewarding when such a high-wire act of ensemble inspiration comes together to form a movie overflowing with hilarious surprises. For once, even the 3D aspects of an animated movie are calculated to make the audience duck in their seats a few times as objects seem to fly from the screen. “Madagascar 3” is a winner no matter how you slice it.
Rated PG. 99 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Renewing their iconic brand of stop-motion animation (see “Chicken Run”), the peerless team at Aardman once again proves the dynamic power of their painstaking techniques to create a family-friendly cinema full of pure joy. That the boisterous comedy is his honed to a fine narrative polish comes with the territory. The film’s extraneous 3D effects get lost in the shuffle of an ambitious pirate-ship captain’s last-ditch attempt to stake his place in history.
Hugh Grant voices the energetic Pirate Captain who, after loosing a Pirate-of-the-Year competition to the salty lot of Black Bellamy (Jeremy Pivan), Cutlass Liz (Selma Hayek), and Peg Leg Hastings (Lenny Henry), discovers no small amount of prestigious promise in the guise of his cherished “big-boned” pet bird Polly. The brash Pirate Captain meets up with a love-struck Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant) who identifies Polly not to be a parrot, but rather the last dodo bird known to man. Hoping to win the heart of the notorious pirate-hating Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), young Darwin leads the Captain and his crew of scalawags to London for a scientific contest for which the rare dodo is sure to secure the main prize.
A jocular but dry British sense of droll humor matches Aardman’s signature attention to detail as shepherded by co-directors Peter Lord and Jeff Newitt. Sly jokes come as fast and furious as the imaginative visuals that overflow like an exploding booty of goofy action. Every nook and cranny of the movie seeps with humorous purpose.
Rated PG. 87 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Dr. Seuss' The Lorax
Save the Trees
Ecology Politics For Kids
By Cole Smithey
Pro-ecology agitprop has rarely if ever been so eloquently expressed as in Dr. Seuss’ 1971 story. Funnyman Danny DeVito is the voice of a mystical orange creature called the Lorax from Dr. Seuss’ popular children’s book. The Lorax is the protector of the “Truffula Trees” that once populated a lush countryside teeming with wildlife. Inspired by the wishes of a cute girl named Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift), 12-year-old Ted (Zac Efron) goes off in search for a “real, living tree." Yes, a tree. It seems that the town where Ted lives has forgotten all about nature. You won’t find a spot of soil anywhere. Only a strange hermit called the Once-ler living beyond the city limits can help Ted restore trees to his all-fake town. Delivering one of the Lorax’s special trees might just be what it takes to win Audrey’s heart.
Beautifully animated and performed, “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” fulfills yet another pitch-perfect filmic rendering of a children’s classic by the late Theodor Geisel—one of the most prolific and gifted authors of children’s stories. While the film’s 3D effects are largely extraneous, the movie breezes along like a Swiss watch with a sweeping second hand. Most significantly, the apocalyptic tale makes a point of inspiring young people to take an interest in protecting trees and planting more. This is call-to-arms-cinema at its best. The logging industry won’t find much funny about this terrific children’s movie, but kids will enjoy it immensely. It’s refreshing to see such an exquisitely devised piece of anti-commercial, anti-capitalist narrative put forth in the interest of a humanitarian ideal. This is healthy animated cinema for children.
The film has caught flack from rightwing pundits such as Lou Dobbs who damns the movie—and de facto Geisel’s 30-year-old-book—as “leftist propaganda” meant to indoctrinate young people into becoming eco-terrorists. Forget about the fact that nearly all children’s books are geared toward teachable lessons children can interpret for their own good. It’s fascinating that any kind of responsible ethical stance toward ecological issues is branded as a “leftist” ideal. If that’s the case, then so be it—the 99% of Americans who think it better to have forests than desolate miles of scorched earth are “leftist” humanitarians. They’re certainly not the greedy selfish carpet-bagging industrialists represented by the Once-ler in “The Lorax.”
Personally, I’d much sooner align myself with a genius like Theodor Geisel. It’s just funny that Dr. Seuss’ clearly stated theme that trees are good and blind industrialism is bad is considered a controversial idea in 2012. I suppose Dr. Seuss really was ahead of his time.
Rated PG. 94 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Secret World of Arrietty
Meshing Japanese animation styles with Mary Morton’s beloved 1952 children’s novel “The Borrowers,” animator-cum-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and co-director Gary Rydstrom create a delightful adaptation. Tokyo’s famed animation production house Studio Ghibli (“Spirited Away”) provides ample resources that the filmmakers utilize in setting their version apart from British and American television and theatrical renderings.
With a delicate script tailored by Studio Ghibli’s most famous director Miyazaki Hayao (“Princess Mononke”), this beautifully animated film revels in deep-focus compositions of detailed dark and bright images.
This is a fairytale is about a tiny family of three “borrowers” living beneath the floorboards of a suburban Tokyo home. Light and perspective are put to dynamic use in emphasizing the scale of 13-year-old Arrietty’s miniature world she shares with her stoic father Pod (voiced by Will Arnett) and worrywart mother (voiced by Amy Poehler).
The historic family home sits in a secluded setting teeming with foliage, birds, and insects. A powerful sequence of violent spectacle involves a crow getting stuck in a window screen. Black feathers fly with a fury that matches the trapped bird’s desperate shrieks. The animators lean more toward realism than not. A cantankerous plump cat roams the grounds with a particular curiosity about the borrowers he instinctually senses are lurking about. Unbeknownst to the small family, a young human boy named Shawn (David Henry) arrives to stay at his grandmother’s house in preparation for an operation. Shawn’s days could be numbered. During Arrietty’s maiden borrowing expedition with her dad—to obtain a cube of sugar and piece of tissue paper—Shawn sees her, as he lies wide-eyed in his bed. The house-climbing escapade allows the animators to demonstrate some vibrant flourishes of action, as when Arrietty boldly fends off a cockroach bigger than she is. The animators’ cinematic approach expands on Morton’s source material with captivating results.
“Once a borrower has been seen, the human's curiosity can't be stopped.” Pod’s ominous warning to Arrietty doesn’t prevent her from entering into a courtly friendship with the mild mannered Shawn. The film’s primary source of suspense comes from housekeeper Hara (wonderfully voiced by Carol Burnett). Meddlesome Hara has heard stories of the borrowers from the family whose passing generations have occupied the home. She conducts an intrusive quest to prove her belief once and for all.
From a thematic viewpoint the story is about the ability of second-class citizens to squeak out a living under the noses of the very wealthy. When the affluent have so much that removing something so small as a sugar cube hardly constitutes stealing, it raises questions about the responsibility of the upper class to support those less fortunate. Arrietty’s condition as an only child leaves her vulnerable to needing interaction with another child, however temporary that encounter might be. When she finally meets a borrower boy—named Spiller—he is an inarticulate primitive. Arrietty’s worthy aspirations to rise above her social class are clearly founded on her ability to connect with the human world that the benevolent Shawn navigates with difficulty due to his own physical limitations.
“The Secret World of Arrietty” is a well-balanced children’s fairytale that gains from its multicultural influences. Cecile Corbel’s contributions of nuanced harp-and-vocal renditions of poems written by the director add layers of musical texture filled with passion. Prepare to be charmed.
Rated G. 94 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Beauty and the Beast 3D
Disney’s gorgeous 1991 animated version of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” gets the same 3D treatment that was recently given to “The Lion King.” The effect is extraneous to an already impressive use of animation, but that’s hardly the point of Disney’s excuse to rerelease the film. Belle (voiced by Paige O'Hara) offers to take the place of her imprisoned father in a giant mysterious castle occupied by a princely Beast (voiced by Robby Benson) living under a terrible curse that only Belle’s love can reverse. His unusual staff of servants includes a talking candleholder and a mother-and-son teapot set. “The most beautiful love story ever told” is about how true beauty comes from the inside. The Beast might be a big and hairy ogre with a temper but he is a gentleman at heart. Wooing Belle provides some important lessons. The musical story is told in memorable songs that range from orchestral to pop rock music.
Rated G. 84 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
It sounds like a big deal when the folks at Aardman switch from their incomparable stop-motion animation of "Wallace & Gromit" and team up with Sony Pictures Animation to apply computer generated graphics to their storytelling. Yet the proof in the pudding of “Arthur Christmas” is a big let-down. Aardman’s fuzzy attempt at 3D animation, over a less-than-impressive script, suggests that the company should stick to what it does best.
Debut director/co-writer Sarah Smith struggles to maintain an atmosphere of holiday generosity amid three generations of Santas who are at turns egotistical, lazy, filled with militaristic testosterone, and just plain geeky. Family dysfunction is the hook the narrative hangs its Santa hat on. Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) still wants the glory and the credit of being Santa even though he’s been long retired. Grandsanta goes to great lengths to get a photo of himself on his sleigh when the opportunity arises. Poppa Santa (Jim Broadbent) is ready to hand over the reins of his annual duty to his son Steve (Hugh Laurie), a muscle-bound Marine type who acts more like a schoolyard bully than the happy-go-lucky guy in a red suit dropping presents down chimneys. That leaves Arthur (James McAvoy), a genuinely sweet kid who loves everything about Christmas. Odd looking Christmas sweaters are his specialty. Steve does the Christmas deliveries with a giant spacecraft, but he skips one little girl who wants a bicycle. Arthur appropriately takes the matter seriously. With Grandsanta’s help the youngest member of the Claus family rousts the old team of reindeer and hooks them up the famous sleigh. Almost all of the reindeer get lost along the way. It’s just one of the dangling subplots the filmmakers lose track of in a disappointing Christmas movie that never quite comes together. There just isn’t enough Christmas cheer.
Rated R. 114 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Happy Feet Two
The 2011 holiday season is proving to be a field day for PG-rated kids’ movies, with a thick line being drawn between the good and the less than inspired. It comes as no surprise that Steven Spielberg (“The Adventures of Tintin”) and Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”) contribute refined family movies that will stand the test of time. Movies like “Happy Feet Two” and “Arthur Christmas” fall on the weak side of the tracks.
The first Happy Feet film (2006) took its que from the documentary “March of the Penguins” to craft a cogent story about two Emperor Penguins who find their ideal mate in one another to produce a son named Mumble. Even if Mumble couldn’t sing a note, the little guy could dance. In “Happy Feet Two,” Mumble (voiced again by Elijah Wood) has a shy son named Erik (Ava Acres) trying to establish his personality in a sea of dancing-and-singing penguins in Antarctica. A boisterous opening song-and-dance number slips into uncomfortable song-choice territory with “Bring Sexy Back.” The thematic misstep is compounded later when a hummed version of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” gets smuggled into the score ostensibly to give adults something to chuckle at behind their kids’ back. Music editor Thomas A. Carlson was obviously not the right choice for the job.
However, “Happy Feet Two” has far bigger problems than song choices. A running theme of pending ecological disaster is diminished with a solution that involves a massive group of animals dancing hard enough to move a mountain of ice. After Mumble chases his run-away son, an ice-shelf breaks off stranding many thousand penguins from being able to procure food. Hank Azaria voices the Mighty Sven, a Swedish puffin disguised as a flying penguin, who helps rescue the stranded penguins.
A throw-away subplot involving two Antarctic krill named Will and Bill (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon), who break away from their swarm, weighs on the story with monotonous scenes that contribute little to the overall plot. While the film’s 3D animation is pretty enough to look at in its large-scale aspect, it does little to distract from a meandering story with very little substance.
Rated PG. 99 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Puss in Boots
Spun off from the finally-adjourned Shrek franchise, "Puss in Boots" is a well crafted DreamWorks animated movie that succeeds in spite of, rather than with the aid of its extraneous 3D treatment. Silver-tongued Antonio Banderas once again voices the Zorro-like swaggering orange tabby whose lack of eye-whiskers does little to diminish his self confidence. With a bounty on his head, our boot-footed feline outlaw is intent on stealing three magic green beans from Jack and Jill. Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris give voice to the fabled couple who went up the hill for “a pail of water.” Here, Jack and Jill are a couple of ill-mannered criminals who plan on having a baby after they make their fortune planting a bean stalk that will transport them to the castle of the Golden Goose in the sky. The couple have clear designs on the goose's fabled golden eggs, if not the goose itself.
Screenwriter Tom Wheeler deftly blends together nursery rhyme elements--Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) plays an important role—toward a comical fantasy that includes an enjoyable dose of cute animal realism. Puss may be a slick customer, but he isn't above chasing a moving light beam or resorting to purring when the circumstance demands. Hissing is in his repertoire as well. During an attempt at stealing the beans, Puss discovers some competition in a masked kitty cat rival thief who leads him on a rooftop chase sequence that climaxes with a dance competition witnessed by a group of hep cats. Puss's challenger is a feisty little cat thief named Kitty Softpaws (voiced perfectly by Salma Hayek)--so named because she has no claws. Kitty gets the best of Puss during the dance-off after he resorts to hitting her on the head with a guitar--an incident he spends much time making up for with romantic compensation.
A tidy bit of orphanage backstory connects Puss to his former best friend Humpty Dumpty who ruined Puss’s status as a hero in the small Spanish town of San Ricardo by tricking him into executing a bank heist. Puss once saved the town comandante's little-old-lady mom from an escaped bull. Director Guillermo del Toro performs a nice cameo as the comandante. Humpty’s contrite attempts to get back in Puss’s good graces by helping him steal the golden-egg-laying-goose draws Kitty into a heist that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Although the story hits a few thematic snags in the area of Kitty’s questionable loyalty to Puss, its adult-directed jokes are sufficiently masked to make for comfortable family viewing. Puss carries a bag of catnip around with him for his "glaucoma." Visually, the animation on display is top drawer. Thankfully absent is the fart-humor that has plagued so many animated kids' movies. You don’t have to be a “cat-person” to get the most out of “Puss in Boots,” but it helps.
Rated PG. 90 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Lion King 3D
You can hardly blame Disney for imbuing its most recently minted animated classic with the 3D treatment in order to introduce "The Lion King" to new audiences. If only it weren't for the inflated ticket price that comes with it, "The Lion King 3D" would represent a welcome revival of a kids movie that combines a strong story with memorable songs and lush use of animation and color that is nothing short of stunning. For audiences unfamiliar with the story, it follows the adventures of a young lion cub named Simba (voiced wonderfully by Matthew Broderick). As the only son of regional African lion King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), Simba is just beginning to learn important life lessons from his imperious father when Mufasa's jealous brother Scar (Jeremy Irons) carries out a coup d’état that leaves Simba without a home and stripped of his birthright to the throne of the African plain known as Pride Rock. In exile Simba makes friends with an unlikely couple of jungle-dwellers. A meerkat named Timon (Nathan Lane) and a warthog known as Pumbaa (Ernie Sabella) teach Simba the pleasures an insect-based diet while he grows to adulthood. A reunion of sorts with his childhood girlfriend Nala inspires Simba to return to his homeland and claim his magisterial title. Although too frightening for younger audiences to support its G-rating, “The Lion King” is a children’s movie that holds up over time.
Rated PG. 87 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Winnie the Pooh
One of the most deservedly beloved children's stories of all time gets an affectionate filmic rendering notable for its delicate sense of restraint. Executed in the same elegant hand-drawn style of Disney's '60s and '70s era Pooh films, "Winnie the Pooh" retains an innocence of style and substance. Winnie (impeccably voiced by Jim Cummings, who also performs the voice of Tigger) interacts with pastel-colored storybook pages to bring the book's literal text to life with an appreciation for the words Pooh speaks. Still, "long words bother" him. Based on the fifth chapter from A. A. Milne's second Winnie the Pooh book "The House at Pooh Corner," the story involves the stuffed little honey-loving bear Pooh and his pals--Owl, Tigger, Piglet, Rabbit, Roo, and Eeyore--out on a journey to find, or at least replace, Eeyore's missing tail. Perhaps an umbrella, a balloon, or a chalk board will do. The gang also attempt to capture an invented monster known as a "Backson"--the result of a misspelled note left behind by Christopher Robin in which he meant to be back soon.
From an educational perspective, the lighthearted story places gentle importance on things like the value of proper spelling and putting friends and family first. The animals represent various character archetypes that range from slothful--Eeyore--to impossibly energetic--Tigger. Piglet is the well-meaning youngest member, while Owl possesses an overblown sense of ego and wisdom. The otherwise inanimate toys need their boyhood master Christopher Robin to guide them into action. >br> The filmmakers do an admirable job of making a palpable connection between Christopher Robin's stuffed animal collection to the imagined "Hundred Acre Wood" where his motley animal friends frolic. The closing title sequence reflects on the adventure with the stuffed toys placed as a child would play with them.
Gentle musical contributions hit a perfect pitch in line with the film's truly gifted vocal cast that includes John Cleese (the narrator), Craig Ferguson (the voice of Owl), and Jack Boulter (as the voice of Christopher Robin). The actors are clearly doing their best impressions of the franchise's iconic voices created by the likes of Sterling Holloway, Paul Winchell, and Sebastian Cabot. Zooey Deschanel's delightful singing on the theme song "So Long" is sweet enough to make you want to go back for more.
At just over an hour long, including an opening short cartoon "The Legend of Nessie," "Winnie the Pooh" is an ideal movie for the under ten set. This "Winnie the Pooh" is an instant classic.
Rated G. 63 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Exceptionally colorful and bright animation mingles with a multi-layered storyline that bogs down around the lowbrow humor of Larry the Cable Guy. Larry's television-promoted white trash shtick is a crucial aspect of his rusty tow-truck character Tow Mater--possibly a reference to the vegetable properly referred to as a "tomato." Buck-toothed Mater is the reliably idiotic best friend to Owen Wilson's little red race car champion Lightning McQueen. A televised announcement about the World Grand Prix, an upcoming three-city race in Tokyo, Porto Corsa, and London, inspires McQueen to bring along his underprivileged tow-truck pal overseas where, unbeknownst to them, a spy plot is unfolding. Finn McMissile (splendidly voiced by Michael Caine) is a James Bond-styled sports car loaded with plenty of gadgets. Finn can climb buildings and motor underwater as a submarine. Finn's sleek assistant is a little purple British number named Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Alternative-fuel mastermind Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard) provides the ecological premise for the big race wherein all the competing cars will run on his "Allinol" biofuel to prove to Big Oil that their days are over.
The movie works best during its many race and chase scenes. John Turturro has a ball as McQueen's Italian rival, an open-wheeled racecar named Francesco Bernoulli. The writers come up with some unexpected, if overleveraged, plot revelations that come at the end. The detailed animated renderings of exotic locations are positively beautiful. However, the film's over-emphasis on the doofus tow truck character Mater lets the air out of its comic tires. Mojo Nixon would have been a much smarter casting choice for a hick character whose potential for adaptation needed to by much stronger. Owen Wilson's would-be protagonist just gets lost in the shuffle.
Rated G. 107 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Kung Fu Panda 2
Grand scale animated spectacle set amidst China's natural beauty is part and parcel to DreamWorks Animation's winning sequel to the 2008 original—a work so widely acclaimed that the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek devoted pages in his latest book to it. Though the filmmakers only make full use of the film's 3D aspect once—when Jack Black's panda character Po discharges dumplings through the fourth wall—the animation is gorgeous. Now that Po has mastered the art of Kung Fu, he must learn inner peace. So advises his Kung Fu master Shifu (once again voiced by Dustin Hoffman). Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, David Cross, and Lucy Liu also return from the first installment to reprise their roles as the "Furious Five," creatures that represent different styles of Kung Fu. Since we saw him last Po has graduated to the title of Dragon Warrior. He believes his Kung Fu is invincible. That is until he encounters the soldiers of an evil albino peacock, Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman). On a mission to destroy Kung Fu and conquer all of China, Lord Shen is on a rampage to pillage metal from every regional community in order to build an arsenal of powerful cannons. A well-executed optical illusion causes Po to lose an important battle after a symbol on his rival's uniform brings back long-forgotten memories about his past as an abandoned baby. Po sets about on a journey of self discovery to find the identity of his real father. His bumpy path to achieving inner peace runs alongside his unrelenting efforts to defeat Lord Shen. The cartoon martial arts violence approaches an extreme level of exaggeration. Whether or not that's a good thing is a question parents—and Slovenian philosophers—will have to grapple with.
Rated PG. 90 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Underdeveloped to a fault, "Hop" is a throwaway live-action animated comedy that tries to equate the Easter Bunny with Santa Claus. James Marsden shamelessly mugs his way through the film as he pretends to relate to E.B., the wayward talking-rabbit son of the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Laurie). E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand) is a teenaged bunny who dreams of playing drums in a rock band rather than inheriting the family business. He's got a knack for drumming. E.B. leave his Easter Island home for Hollywood, which necessarily involves an audition with one very over-the-hill David Hasselhoff. Sub-plots dangle like so many undiscovered eggs as the story lurches toward an ending that involves a chick inexplicably morphing into a half-rabbit mutation during a malicious power grab at the Easter Egg candy factory. If anyone needed a reason to boycott Easter, this it.
Rated PG. 95 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)