20 posts categorized "Children"

August 28, 2012


ParaNormanStop-Motion Spooky
Laika Cuts Pixar Down to Size
By Cole Smithey

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)

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June 09, 2012


Madagascar_three_ver3Third Time’s a Charm
Familiar Zoo Escapees Make Circus Antics a Smash

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-traveling 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)

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July 11, 2011


Winnie_the_poohOne 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.

Winnie the Pooh (2011) - IMDb

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 energeticTigger. 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. 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.

4 Stars


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