Fans of Aardman’s handcrafted style of animation will find much to enjoy in this wonderfully stylized stop-motion comedy-horror-thriller about a little boy named Norman who sees dead people, or at least their ghosts. Co-director/writer Chris Butler (storyboard artist for “Corpse Bride” and “Caroline”) teams up with Sam Fell (director of “Flushed Away”). The result is a detail-rich kids’ monster movie that strikes a fine balance between comedy, suspense, and goofy horror. You know you’re in good hands in the first minute.
Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) likes to watch gross-out B-horror movies on television while talking to the ghost of his dead grandmother (voiced by the inimitable Elaine Stritch). The movie opens with a televised grindhouse horror-movie parody — complete with scratched up film stock — that delights Norman. Neon-green goopy brain matter comes with the territory. The film’s zippy production design (courtesy of Laika production house in Oregon) and off-kilter humor is a riot. The clever intro makes you wish they’d turn the short into its own feature-length movie.
Norman’s parents worry about him — dad (Jeff Garlin) more so than mom (Leslie Mann). Everywhere Norman goes in his small New England town of Blithe Hollow, he sees and talks to the ghosts of deceased citizens. Echoes of the 17th century Salem witch trials reverberate. Norman gets bullied at school for his weird behavior, and also due to his unusual appearance that includes hair that sticks straight up in the air. They call him “Ab-Norman.” Funny stuff. A rehearsal for a Halloween school play that Norman is in, gives rise to a scene-stealing instructional line reading from Norman’s teacher (voiced by Alex Borstein).
His uncle’s guffaw-inducing death enables the freshly minted ghost to give Norman his marching orders to eradicate an annual curse by a witch’s ghost that promises to bring on a plague of zombies. Norman’s ability to talk to the dead isn’t such a bad thing after all. Good thing Norman has his chubby pal Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) to come along for the ride. Anna Kendrick wangs it up as Norman’s self-obsessed teen sister Courtney. Painting her toenails and dreaming about the ab muscles on her buff classmate Mitch (Casey Affleck) keep Courtney occupied until. Mitch’s participation in the story as Neil’s older brother holds a not-so-subtle (read adult oriented) character revelation that sends a witty punch line late the story.
“ParaNorman” has its share of jaunty chase sequences to keep kids on the edge of their seats. No matter how many pieces the encroaching zombies break into, their body parts keep on attacking. Expert camera work from cinematographer Tristan Oliver (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) gives the movie plenty of lively movement. An over-the-top climax explodes into a surreal universe of cosmic horror that borders on science fiction. Visually, the movie is a treat. The story is a little lightweight and muddled, but you shouldn't hold that against it. If you liked “Caroline” (2009), the animation here is even better.
Rated PG. 93 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)
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)
Nanny McPhee Returns
Who the hell is Cole Smithey? First rotten review for Toy Story 3 ...
Why Toy Story 3 isn't as Good as 1 or 2
By Cole Smithey
Once you get past paying the inflated price for an animated "3-D" movie where the 3-D feels like an afterthought and nothing floats in front of your eyes as with quality 3-D films, the story that unfolds is more sad than joyful. It's also mean spirited in a divisive way that pits toys against toys in a war-like mentality not so far removed from captured prisoners in an occupied country.
As well, the inappropriately cruel and drawn out climax sequence is too intense for younger children who will be lured into the "G-rated" film. The filmmakers go so far into Michael Bay territory that I shudder to think what the unformed mind of a five-year-old would make of such contrived suspense tactics as are employed here. When the toys travel down a long conveyer belt toward a fiery death, the filmmakers milk the sequence for all the suspense and panic they can muster. It might be right for a Transformers movie, but it's all wrong for "Toy Story."
"Toy Story 3" is about neglect, betrayal, and the planned obsolescence of plastic toys that end up as so much toxic landfill. So it's got all that going for it.
As the story goes, human boy Andy (voiced by John Morris) is off to college, and must finally put away childish things--something most boys do before junior high. Talk about arrested development--this kid isn't getting any dates.
Andy chooses to take his favorite toy, cowboy Woody (well voiced by Tom Hanks) with him to college, and pack away in his attic the rest of the toy gang that include Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack), and his Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head dolls (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris). Andy's careless mom--whose sense of parental responsibility is nonexistent, "accidentally" tosses out the trash bag filled with Woody's pals on the curb. Soon the gang of outcast toys--abandonment is a distressing theme smuggled into the story--are being abused by little kids at "Sunnyside" preschool where they end up.
It becomes cowpoke Woody's mission to rescue his fellow toys who are being kept as prisoners by the school's head honcho stuffed animal "Lots-o'-Huggin" Bear (Ned Beatty). Beatty's wolf-in-sheep's-clothing character poses the film's most egregious example of rendering a two-faced character who charms the new toys before showing his determinedly dastardly intentions against Buzz Lightyear after buttering up the sometimes heroic astronaut.
The story devolves into a prison escape plot where the toys break character as much as they get their plastic hearts damaged at the cruelty of their treatment by the preschool's other toys. If you're looking for an instructional movie on how to make your kids act like they're bi-polar, this is it.
Buzz Lightyear spends part of the story as a "sir-yes-sir" product of brainwashed military training while Barbie's new heart-throb Ken turns out to be one duplicitous little eunuch. Again, we have yet another two-faced character who represents all the trustworthy qualities of a Wall Street banker. Wrongheaded and overly mature for young audiences, "Toy Story 3" sends some pretty dark messages for little ones to digest. And when I say dark, I mean bordering on sociopathic. A PG-rating would have been more appropriate for a film that definitely sends all the wrong messages, even to kids over ten.
Looking at all three “Toy Story” films reveals a similar trajectory to the “Spider-Man” franchise. In both series, the second movie is unmistakably the strongest of both trilogies. The first “Toy Story” couches Woody as a jealous and somewhat vengeful cowboy. Characters are repeatedly told to “shut up.” Most questionable is the film’s ground-rule-breaking climax where the toys cross an established line of not being animated in the presence of humans. When the toys confront Sid, the evil child antagonist, it taints the climax with a flawed deus ex machina device that reveals weaknesses in the writing. As well, the thematically overstated closing line, “We toys can see everything, so play nice,” hits too much on the nose.
By the time they made “Toy Story 2,” returning writer Peter Docter (writer on “WALL-E” and “UP”) and director John Lasseter (“A Bug’s Life”) had honed the franchise's tone to a finely pitched spectrum of musically nuanced, and visually lush, design to support its nostalgic underpinnings. Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” theme is thoughtfully repeated. Jesse’s song, about being “lonely and forgotten,” arrives in an autumnal setting that’s emotionally evocative as it is gorgeous. The filmmakers hit it rich with Woody’s discovery of his “Woody’s Roundup” television series origins. The introduction of cowgirl Jesse, the trusty horse “Bullseye,” and unreliable prospector Stinky Pete gives Woody an historical context and familial connection that anchors his character in a sophisticated way. Even the outtake scenes that play over the ending credits reinforce a reliability of narrative purpose that is sublimely humorous.
An obvious split between the accomplished progression of first two movies and the inferior last installment is the departure of the enormously talented writer Peter Docter from the franchise. John Lasseter’s demotion from director of TS1 and TS2 in favor of the lesser skilled writer/director Lee Unkrich (co-director on “Finding Nemo”) undoubtedly contributes to the lack of cohesion. Gone is the meticulous attention to color, and the glorious expressiveness of cultural touchstones expressed in “Toy Story 2.”
"TS3" is not as good as either of its two predacessors. That this fact slipped past nearly every other film critic in the world, will be chewed over in the pages of history for a very long time.
Rated G. 103 mins. (C+) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Shrek Forever After
Bourgeoisie Critics are Opposed
By Cole Smithey
The fourth installment in the animated Shrek franchise is the most polished example of the series. There's a dearth of children's films to which parents can take their little ones before repeatedly watching the DVD until the kids incorporate every line of dialogue into their daily speech patterns. Fortunately, "Shrek Forever After" is on target, filling the void. Even audiences new to the franchise will enjoy the slapstick tone and comic timing of these easily likable characters. The premise is simple enough. Finally and happily settled down with his ogre wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and their three babies, Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) starts to yearn for his bachelor days, when every person and animal in the community feared his brutish gaze and stone-rattling roar. Shrek's ennui presents a perfect opportunity for Rumpelstiltskin (wonderfully voiced by Walt Dohrn), the kooky little fantasy–maker and con man. Mr. R convinces Shrek to sign away a day of his childhood in exchange for living a day free of all familial constraints. Naturally, the deal is a dirty trick played by the conniving Rumpelstiltskin, who plots to take over as king of the Far Far Away kingdom forever after. The film's theme--appreciating what you have while you have it--is supported, if only half-knowingly, by Shrek's loyal pals Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and a considerably chubbier Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas). Although the film's 3D effects seem extraneous, the spunky vocal characterizations are enjoyably spot-on and the jokes funny enough to elicit laughs from kids of all ages.
There's a tendency among elitist film critics to pooh-pooh the Shrek franchise based on its longevity. They're ready to put the final nail in the coffin of a successful children's series ostensibly because they're embarrassed to have loved it so much when they were younger, and now feel obliged to distance themselves from it.
Shrek's status as a workaday dad who pines for his more vigorous youth must surely signal a disconnect between the filmmakers and the young souls these kind of movies typically cater to. It's an instance where post-modern meets retro reality. There's a supreme satisfaction in hearing the returning cast members' voices. Mike Myers underplays his current incarnation of Shrek, while Eddie Murphy lets loose at every opportunity. Cameron Diaz gives a more throaty delivery, and Antonio Banderas injects little comic touches into every word that Puss speaks.
It's possible that co-screenwriters Josh Klausner (writer on "Shrek the Third") and Darren Lemke have elevated the franchise into a territory of maturity beyond a threshold that bourgeoisie critics can stand. "Unnecessary" is a word used to describe a children's movie that by definition is quite necessary if you, well, have children. Which brings us to the film's broader appeal. Here is a Shrek movie with barely a fart or poop joke that speaks to a universal theme of appreciating the friends and family you have. When Shrek convinces the oblivious Donkey that he's his best friend, we feel recognized in the same way. When the fat little Puss drags sideways down his scratching post to greet Shrek, it's all the more funny because we know he's showing off for his pal. And when Fiona drops her she-warrior act long enough to allow a kiss from the ogre she was destined to be with forever after, we get that special kind of romantic charge that reminds us about why and how intimate relationships are important.
Rated PG. 95 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Where the Wild Things AreJonze Does Sendak a Solid
Popular Kids' Book Connects on the Big Screen
By Cole Smithey
With the blessing of "Where the Wild Things Are" author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, director Spike Jonze sincerely adapts Sendak's popular 1963 children's book to the big screen. Dave Eggers's co-writing screenplay credit speaks for the narrative amendments made in fleshing out the minimalist source material to fill up a feature film. Deploying a well-applied use of scale, Jonze creates the imaginary island world to which nine-year-old Max (Max Records) escapes when life with his divorced-and-dating mom (Catherine Keener) and distracted big sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) becomes too much for him. Dressed in a gray wolf pajama-styled costume, Max sets sail in a small sail boat and eventually arrives at the wooded home of a community of giant oddly shaped creatures. James Gandolfini (who played Tony Soprano in the popular HBO series) is the voice of Carol, a beast whose uncontrollable temper takes a toll on the stick-made huts that the group use for shelter, and serves as a refracted mirror of Max's behavior. In order to convince the beasts not to eat him, Max introduces himself as an explorer king and is accepted as such by the likes of woolly "KW" (Lauren Ambrose), a bird-like creature named Douglas (Chris Cooper), and Catherine O'Hara as naysayer Judith. Max has a hard time keeping the wild things happy, and learns some valuable lessons about communicating and thinking about the consequences of his actions. Spike Jonze's no-nonsense movie expands gently on Sendak's elegant 20-page kids' book to address children, acknowledging their primal impulses —which they must eventually control. While not an "instant classic," "Where the Wild Things Are" does what it sets out to achieve as a literal but also embellished translation of a literary classic.
Invented plot points and character traits (courtesy of Eggers and Jonze), like the mom's divorce-prompted circumstances, lends an undercurrent of misplaced anger that Max acts out with temper fits that include primal yells. Having Max only wear his favorite animal costume was Sendak's masterstroke of magical realism to support the duality of nature in a tangible way. Like the "animals" that Max befriends, the Lord of the Flies-styled leader wears a costume, or disguise, that carries all sorts of implications about how Max views himself and the world around him, before and after his adventure.
The filmmaker's embrace the minimalism of Sendak's graphic vision and respond with a lush natural atmosphere of imagination that's brought into perspective by the varying size ratio of the Wild Things opposed to that of the very small Max. In this area, the movie is very inviting. The famously expensive film gets its value from invisible special effects that animate the creatures with a curious brand of free association. There are moody design elements to savor--witness the giant fort that Max commands be built by his unpredictable subjects of another species. Here again, Jonze uses scale define the utopic community that Sendak created.
The book's way of saying everything by saying very little comes across in a fantasy story that's carefully balanced between the free expression of its child protagonist, and the gently-touched didacticism of Sendak's thematic message. The film rests on Max Records's shoulders, and the young actor is persuasive every step of the way. The ensemble cast of voice actors all hit their intended register perfectly without every distracting from the illusion of Max's dream. To experience the fantasy world of Maurice Sendak with such reverence to his subtle commentary on society and the confusions of being a child, is an enjoyable and enlightening experience.
(Warner Bros). Rated PG. 108 mins. (B-)