Tag Archives: Children

Earwig and the Witch

[2.75 stars]

There’s 2/3’s of an entertaining movie here. Sadly, that last act is missing. Honestly, what you get is really just the first installment of a series…but there doesn’t seem to be another one in the works. And, besides, it’s a cheat to end mid-tale rather than to have a coda that can expand the story for later. In other words, every movie needs to stand on its own, even if it feeds into a bigger arc. Director Goro Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) knows this, so I don’t quite understand the choices, unless they were driven by cost or other factors.

Added to the challenge is that Studio Ghibli is clearly trying out new tech with this film. The result is very cold, losing all the warmth and subtle artistry the group is famous for. The look of the characters is very plastic-y and the lips don’t sync well at all. Some of that may have been the voice talent, but it was more noticeable than I’ve seen before in a Ghibli release.

And the voice direction was only middling. So much so that only a couple of the smaller characters really stood out. Neither of them were the women at the heart of the tale. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Dan Stevens (Colossal, Legion) were either given more leash or put in more effort, but it was their deliveries that were the most memorable.

Goro’s father, Hayao Miyazaki (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), apparently helped with the planning of this story. You can see his influence in some of the interesting flows and the general joy and humor of the film, but I can’t believe even he was happy with the ending.

Ultimately, assuming the story is continued, this will be an intriguing first installment. But if it ends up just standing on its own, it is somewhat pointless. Frankly, I’d hold off till there is the promise of more, or you’re either prepared to be left hanging, or know the original books enough to know what’s going on.

Earwig and the Witch Poster

The Witches

[3 stars]

Welcome to the weird and wonderfully dark work of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories. The Witches is cut from the same cloth as Charlie and the Chocolate factory, though without quite the same pizzazz. At least not in this incarnation.

Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis (Welcome to Marwen) certainly picked up the weird in this tale, but it has an uneasy truce with the wonderful. The production design nicely captures the dark and nasty side of Anne Hathaway’s (Becoming Jane) grand high witch and her twisted coven. Their costumes and prosthetics are delightfully creepy, but also probably a bit too scary for a really young audience.

And Octavia Spencer (Onward) provides an adult ally to the young Jahzir Bruno. Her warmth and parentship are solid, but it never feels entirely right. Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci (A Private War) and his cadre of hotel workers provide the broad humor and pratfalls attempting to keep the chaos and danger on the lighter side.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it’s well executed. Part of its struggle is that it is a story out of time. As told, it only really works set in the past, but it is also afraid to truly tackle that past as part of the story. Had Zemeckis and his co-writers, which included Guillermo del Toro (Tales of Arcadia), were happy to take the backdrop, but not confident enough to fully acknowledge the implications.

For a little light entertainment that is a few shades darker than treacle often offered young viewers, this may do. It is diverting and has its moments as the three adult leads certainly know how to deliver physical humor. It just doesn’t fully come together as a classic or even strongly rewatchable fare.

Roald Dahl's The Witches Poster

Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

Soul Poster

Wolfwalkers

[3.5 stars]

The living art approach that Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart awed audiences with in The Secret of Kells, and which continued in Song of the Sea, is embraced again in this latest offering of Wolfwalkers. The art aspect isn’t quite as dense as the previous movies, but the style and sensibility are unmistakable.

What hasn’t changed is the mining of the depths of old, primarily Celtic, myths to tell powerful stories of love and family with strong young women at the helm. And, making them more relevant, reflections on our own times unavoidable. This film, in particular, takes on gender roles, colonization, and nature conservancy. But the heavier themes are all in the background. The main focus is the struggle of two young girls and their relationships with their remaining parent.

There is some solid voice talent with the likes of Sean Bean (The Martian) and Simon McBurney (Carnival Row) bringing characters to life. However, it’s the two young women, Honor Kneafsey (The Bookshop) and Eva Whittaker who are the marrow of this story. It’s their joy and wonder, as well as longing and fear, that keep it energized.

Despite the heavy and dark aspects of the story, the tale is kept light and moving along through humor and sheer, wonderous beauty. The art style mirrors ancient tapestries with flat perspectives and illuminated frames. It isn’t quite as intricate as the previous films, but the result is still quite stunning.

If you like animation with more depth than just story or clever action and want to see it as both art and tale, this is one to queue up. And, if you haven’t seen their previous films, go dig them out give yourself a treat.

Wolfwalkers Poster

Over the Moon

[3 stars]

I don’t know a parent who hasn’t sweated the two really big conversations with their kids: sex and death. Over the moon takes on the latter in a very accessible and relatively honest way without losing the magic of the tale. The story, by the late Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give), doesn’t shy away from many of the issues and feelings while also not making it overly depressing; she was targeting tweens and younger. The result of this latest Netflix drop is definitely a movie for kids, but with a delightfully odd mix of story and craft that kept me interested.

On the craft side, it is an odd mix of high-end CGI and flat animation. And, generally, the flat animation is used for the fantasy side of the world rather than the Fei Fei, our intrepid and driven heroine’s world. It makes for an odd experience, but it somehow works.

The story, however, is probably the more interesting of the choices. It brings in science as a way to focus the action, but then leaps into fantasy without apology. It also tackles some real life challenges.

The voice talent is adequate, but nothing that really stands out, despite some recognizable names. And the music is good, but never quite finds a song that will stick in your head…it’s close, but just misses. I will, however, give them props for some of the lyrics and script being at least a bit honest about how complicated families and life can be.

Over the Moon is fun once for adults, if you like anime and particularly if you like seeing other myths than we’re used to catching in English. Kids will likely enjoy this more, and perhaps even more than once, though I’m not a great predictor when it comes to that. But it is certainly a solid achievement and a funny and poignant tale.

Over the Moon Poster

Sonic the Hedgehog

[3 stars]

Thanks to the pandemic, it’s taken ages to get my hands on a copy of this silly romp. Frankly, it was better than I expected; though far from a good film, it was entertaining for its intended audience.

And the intended audience is young. Fortunately, the cast truly committed to the story and, in context, it works just enough to let an adult get through it with a knowing smile. It doesn’t have the edge of Pokemon: Detective Pickachu, but it’s self-conscious enough that you don’t have to groan through it all.

James Marsden (The Female Brain) and Jim Carrey (Kick-Ass 2) really carry the story, though Ben Schwartz’s (Standing Up, Falling Down) Sonic knits it together nicely. Marsden actually outshines them both thanks to his guileless delivery and charisma. Despite the likes of Tika Sumpter (Old Man & the Gun) in the cast, women are notably absent in driving roles.

This is director Jeff Fowler’s first real foray directing. But when you realize he’s working with writing team Pat Casey and Josh Miller, best known for such tightly written gems like Transylmania and Golan, the Insatiable, you gotta cut the guy a break on what he could accomplish.

Basically, this is safe for kids and not boring for adults. It isn’t a great film, but it is a reasonable translation to screen for a game…but that isn’t too high a bar, is it?

Sonic the Hedgehog Poster

Cursed in Arcadia Ego

[4 stars (Tales of Arcadia) or 2.25 stars (Cursed)]

Two very different Netflix shows currently tackle the Arthurian myth. And, surprisingly, the children’s show does it better and more interestingly. Arthur is rich in myth and history with enough room in it to allow for many types of retellings. And these two shows couldn’t have done it more differently nor with such different levels of success.

Tales of Aradia was created by Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone), based on his co-written books. It’s an interconnected collection of series that began with Trollhunters. Then came 3Below, followed by the most recent: Wizards. But the threads that lead to Wizards begin in the first episode of Trollhunters. And, yes, these are really aimed at older kids and young teens, without question, particularly the first couple series. However, I jumped into Wizards without watching the others and it hooked me. It was inventive with the myth, stretching it like crazy, but not breaking it in a way that felt wrong. And while it was clear I didn’t know the backstories of a lot of characters, I was never entirely lost; a credit to the writing of the show.

When I went back to the beginning of the inter-connected series, I was surprised to find references to events I’d just witnessed, and which would have gone unanswered for viewers for three years. In other words, I don’t think it matters which end of the time stream you start, it all comes together in fun ways.

The show is loaded with voice talent, and won several Emmys as well. Most notably in the cast is Anton Yelchin (Thoroughbreds), who began as the lead, and stayed with it through his untimely death near the beginning of season 3. And then the series made some great choices to both continue, and to not dismiss his loss when they changed the character voice to Emile Hirsch (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood).

When you’re looking for some distraction, some fairly solid animation, and a clever tale, this set of shows will work for you. And, more importantly, they don’t insult your sense of the underlying material they plundered to create their world.

Now, on to Cursed

Where to start with where this series went wrong… How about the desire to rewrite the Arthurian tale rather than just do a true prequel? How about mucking up Roman/Britannia history so badly as to be embarrassing? How about having people make stupid choices and dialogue that was utterly painful at times? How about an unrelenting dirge of a tale with barely a respite? Well, it’s a start.

I will admit I soldiered on through to the end of this story, though I almost completely bailed about half-way through the second episode. It was close and I did turn it off at that point. But I came back to see if they could rescue it. They sort of did. Sort of. But I was still let cursing (appropriately) at my screen in the final 15 minutes of the series.

Aspects of the reimagining are clever…but they’re also contradictory in their set-up, implying it is way before Arthur’s time, when in fact is is contemporaneous with it. That just threw it all into disarray at the outset. And then there is the religious war aspect, which was half-true, though massively shifted time-wise to feed their hungry beast of a plot.

The cast does what it can with the painful scripts and choices, but they are left hanging on the screen, more often than not, looking less than comfortable with the results. Katherine Langford (Knives Out) and Devon Terrell (Ophelia) bumble around the countryside having to deliver mouthfuls of bad dialogue, and strained protestations of affection. And Gustaf Skarsgård (Vikings) has created an outrageous Merlin, that tries to resurrect Nicol Williamson’s unforgettable turn in Excalibur. And then there’s the sadly miscast Sebastian Armesto (Tulip Fever) as Uther Pendragon, whose been shrunk to a fool and wisp of a man. And that doesn’t even touch the psychotic nun, Emily Coates, who does OK, but who we never get enough about to understand what drives her. At least the young Billy Jenkins (Humans) gives us a full character, even without all the backstory.

Honestly, if we’re looking for strong, female-led tales of the time, and Arthur in particular, can’t we just finally adapt Mists of Avalon or Parke Godwin’s Firelord series? The characters are way more interesting, and the story much more credible and fascinating (and closer to true history and embraced myth).

The point is that if you’re going to do a re-imagining, do it with a purpose, not just changing things for shock value or convenience to muck with people’s expectations. Ultimately, that’s all Cursed does as it slogs through its torturous existence, and without even the courage to finish the story.

Farmaggedon

[3.5 stars]

Despite the foreboding title, this sequel to Shaun the Sheep is every bit as silly and sly as its predecessor, and with a bit more meat on its bones. It isn’t quite the depth of Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit but it has more going for it than Aardman Studio’s recent Early Man.

Part of what makes this serving of stop-motion animation so wonderful is the complete lack of dialogue, outsides of grunts, sighs, and expressions of surprise and delight. Even without spoken words, we get an entire story of surprising breadth and depth.

Now it may be an absurdist tale of sheep and aliens galavanting about the countryside, but it holds together and manages to cater to both kids and adults in its references and actions. And for their first feature out of the art room to direct, Will Becher and Richard Phelan did Aardman Studios proud pulling it all together.

When you’ve some time to spare and just want to sit back and laugh, with or without young viewers by your side, this is a nice distraction. And, of course, the animation is a delight all on its own.

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon Poster

Trolls World Tour

[3 stars]

Some silly escapist fun, with enough music and movie references to keep the adults mildly entertained. After an opening that rivals Moulin Rouge’s frenetic introduction, this settles back into a treacly distraction with a timely, if overly hammered, message. To its credit, it mostly manages to do so while also making fun of itself.

The story itself is a little more complex than the first installment. It also has a wider range of music, thanks to some serious retconning. And, of course, it picks up the fuzzy tension between Anna Kendrick (A Simple Favor) and Justin Timberlake’s (Wonder Wheel) characters. They’re joined by a host of recognizable singers and actors that fill out the story, most of which are best left to surprise you. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), however, leads that crowd and drives the new story. She’s amusing, but lacks the nuance to completely sell the transformation necessary.

I can’t say that either the story or the music were entirely engaging. The songs were all too short or medleys with small snippets of tunes that end up more of a tease than satisfying. But the animation was inventive and expanded the original design from the first movie.

All that aside, yeah, kids will love it and adults won’t feel twitchy every time their small charges turn it on. At least not quite as quickly as other children’s movies with longer musical sequences. For households without kids, it’s a very weak recommend.

Trolls World Tour Poster

Ne Zha (Ne Zha zhi mo tong jiang shi)

[3 stars]

This skews rather young, but with some good moments, some (though not all) incredible animation, and a truly not-American story. Which is part of both its interest and charm. It isn’t a simple tale nor one that follows the standard Hollywood tropes.  And, as a first feature by Yu Yang, it’s rather ambitious and delivers in a bit of an uneven way. But it kept me watching.

I also found little entertainment difference between the subtitled and dub versions. In fact, there is an interesting advantage to the dub. Even while watching the  dub version, I kept the English subtitles on as they were often quite different from the spoken dialogue. Not just subtle differences…plot differences. It all added a whole other layer of intrigue for me. The legends and culture upon which the story is based have no touchstone in Western myth. The conflict in translation is fascinating.

And, as it turns out, this is the first part of a longer story…the next piece gets laid out during the credits. I actually hope the other parts are forthcoming. I’m curious to see how they can keep it all going now that they’ve laid out their origin story.

Nezha Poster