Tag Archives: Children

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

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

[3 stars]

While this Studio Ghibli film has echos of Spirited Away, it has neither the richness of animation nor the depth of story to compare. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does shift the audience to be decidedly younger. And, for a younger audience, it is likely quite magical and engaging; especially for girls since the main character is a young girl who gets to save the day.

Director and co-writer Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) knows the language of children, their sense of wonder, and their unrelenting drive. He captures that aspect well. But without more meat, like his previous When Marnie Was There, it is really just a pleasant distraction and long-form cartoon rather than a movie.

If you like Ghibli’s catalog, particularly the stories intended for their newest enthusiasts in your household, this is a great choice. It has just enough adventure and danger to keep it feeling exciting for them, but nothing permanently bad happens, making it safe. For adults, it will depend on your tolerance for the sillier aspects and overly-simplified plot in exchange for some of the more creative efforts.

Mary and the Witch's Flower

Onward

[3 stars]

I was both touched and frustrated with this latest fantasy from animation powerhouse Pixar. At its core there is a wonderful tale of a young man trying to resolve the loss of a parent that he never met, not to mention trying to navigate becoming an adult. Tom Holland (Spies in Disguise) is suitably naive and intelligent for the role. And Chris Pratt (Avengers: Endgame, Passengers) as his older brother is well paired. Even Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said) makes a wonderful mom to the two, with her own minor plot running in parallel, with Octavia Spencer (Luce) at her side.

The story is, mostly, predictable and full of the Pixar-ish moments you expect. You’ll be charmed, laugh, and yes, weep. Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) knew how to use the templates and talent to get where he wanted.

So why, you may ask, am I not rating it higher? Well, frankly, it met the bare minimum on all those counts above, it didn’t exceed them. And while the animation is, as you’d expect, well done, the design was mediocre at best. Unlike, say, Zootopia, there was no thought put into how a world that had these kinds of creatures in them would actually look and work. The fact that cars don’t fit centaurs may be amusing to watch, doesn’t mean it makes any sense in a world where centaurs are common, if you follow. The concept behind a world that lost magic because it got lazy is just fine…that that world has to utterly mirror ours to make a point is just lacking in creativity. Also, how certain things worked (like when and how their father was aware and could function) was less than consistent. And, finally, that it was so lacking in female leads was a bit disappointing. Not that Dreyfus and Spencer weren’t tough characters in their way, but they were only bit players.

What I will grant Scanlon, and his fellow writers, is that they didn’t go for the easy ending. They, instead, took the more interesting route and in the process also utilized all the bits and pieces they had set up during the quest.

While Onward isn’t Pixar’s best creatively, it is effective and poignant. It may never live among its more successful cousins (and COVID-19 certainly didn’t help on that point) but it’s not a waste of light and magic. It’s just not what it could have been with a bit more critical thinking going on in the writer’s room.

Klaus

[4.5 stars]

Honestly, I wouldn’t have bothered with this if it weren’t for the fact that it won the Annies for best feature this year. I mean, seriously, a Christmas cartoon? As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and I’m even thinking it has a good shot at the Oscar.

It has been years since anyone has produced a holiday-themed animation that has risen to an annual must-see the way some of the old stop-motion animations of the 60s/70s did. But Klaus may have just changed the tide on that. It isn’t a musical bit of treacle like Santa Claus is Coming to Town. And it is more Hogfather in its sensibility and view of life than you’d expect. But it also tackles the season of retail and human nature in a beautifully honest way and weaves it into the story you expect…in ways that you really wouldn’t have predicted even as you see them becoming inevitable. But for all the intelligence and themes, it remains a children’s tale in the best of ways: it doesn’t talk down to them.

Sergio Pablos (who has spent years in animation and who previously helped write Smallfoot and Despicable Me) chose this as his first project where he was both writing and directing, and I can see why. It is a delicate balance of satire and sweetness that would have been hard to trust to someone other than the person who conceived it. Given that it took the top prize at the Annies this year, and it’s up for an Oscar, I’d say he was spot on.

Jason Schwartzman (Golden Exits) leads the cast with just the right amount of sarcasm and genunie feeling. He’s backed up by Rashida Jones (Spies in Disguise) and JK Simmons (Veronica Mars) with Joan Cusack (Welcome to Me) in a nice bit role. While the story is certainly an overblown fable, they all keep it grounded nicely. Simmons, in particular, has a slow evolution through the art and voice that is great to watch.

Klaus isn’t perfect. It is a bit rushed and hand-wavy in some of the story details. It has some inconsistencies. And, ultimately, it wraps up in a way that is heart-warming but, I felt, a slight cheat given the rest of the story you traverse getting there; but the story is what it is, so I just had to shrug and accept it (though honestly, seeing Klaus as a mildly schizophrenic widower was really fun for a while). Those are the reasons for dinging it just a bit on the rating. However, I can see rewatching this annually (along with Hog Father and Rare Exports, which are more to my holiday sensibilities) because it has a lot of great humor and it reminds you (with a soft hammer) what friends, family, and society can be if we just let them.

Bottom line: If you’ve avoided this because you thought it was just empty kid’s fare and not worth your time…rethink that opinion sometime soon.

Klaus

The Addams Family (2019)

[3 stars]

The first 10 minutes of this remake do a wonderful job setting up the tone, humor, and new origin story of the creepy, kooky, ooky family we’ve known for so long. And while there remains, peppered throughout, a number of wonderful moments, the inventiveness pretty much ends there.

This latest iteration of the Addams Family tells the same story we’ve seen for decades: people fear them, then hate them, then apologize to them. And, if you’re going to remake it, at least bring it into today (it was somewhat stuck in the 50s in style if not in fact) and give me a new challenge. I will admit that they do tackle some topical aspects of today and manage to make it a mostly woman-powered plot. The men are generally treated as jokes…effective and useful, but not particularly bright.

While there is a lot of top-shelf voice talent, Charlize Theron (Bombshell) as Morticia and Chloë Grace Mortez (Greta) as Wednesday are the real standouts, delivering lines with dry aplomb. The rest of the cast is servicable, though nothing particularly brilliant, though Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) takes a good run at her role to make it more than a cookie-cutter middle schooler.

Generally, this is a diverting, but not fabulous, animation. There are clever bits and, perhaps, if it hadn’t arrived on my doorstep with decades of baggage, it may even have seemed inventive. But in trying to reboot it all, I can’t help but compare it to the past and judge its lack of originality. Heck, at the end they literally recreate the opening of the TV show, so how do you not consider that as part of your viewing? But, if you don’t have that nostaligia, or aren’t as attached to the original comics and other iterations, it may impress more. IOW, YMMV.

The Addams Family

Dolittle

[2.75 stars]

Director/writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) wouldn’t seem a likely choice for this classic children’s fare. You’d be right. While he brought an interesting darkness to the tale, he and the various co-writers couldn’t quite pull it all together into a movie.

What you get, instead, is a collection of moments. Many of them are really quite fun and/or funny. Enough so, in fact, that many kids may not mind the breezy plot that blows all those bits mostly in one direction. What’s a shame was the waste of talent in the main roles that give it what life it has.

Obviously Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers) toplines the flick. He’s amusing, but it is an odd and empty performance. He’s all show and little heart despite the big machinations going on. The comic timing is fine, but there is no foundation supporting it all. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) and Anotonio Banderas (Life Itself) each have pivotal roles to play, though only Banderas has any dimensionality to him. Sheen is just bluster and exageration. He’s not scary enough for adults and probably a bit too mean for young children.

There are many throw-aways as well, like Jessie Buckley (Judy) and Jim Broadbent (Le Week-End) not to mention a slew of voice talent too long to list, but it includes a fun scene with Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van) worth calling out. You may have noticed how many of these names are either up for awards or have received them in the past. Like I said, a lot of wasted talent.

I feel the worst for the two child actors, Harry Collett (Casualty) and Carmel Laniado (A Christmas Carol) who should have had this as a strong springboard for their careers, and instead are stuck with some nice reel footage and being associated with a financial bomb.

All that said, I did laugh a lot and enjoyed myself, but that was because I had set the bar very low going in. I recognized how weak the story was going to be and just went with it. Kids will find plenty to enjoy. Parents will probably split on the experience from beign slightly diverting to really disappointing. While it’s definitely filmed for the big screen, you can probably wait on this one if you’d rather not spend the time or dollars at the theater.

Dolittle

The Angry Birds Movie 2

[3 stars]

OK, let’s be honest, the first Angry Birds movie was awful. I only came back for the sequel because there was something about the trailer that gave me some hope. And it wasn’t unwarranted, though it wasn’t fully rewarded either.

The first movie tried to leverage the game that spawned the characters far too much. It was a confrontational movie between birds and pigs, and creepy and unsatisfying on many levels (not to mention a really bad script). But they learned from those errors.

This sequel is more about “pranks” between the birds and pigs (rather than omnivorous emnity). The plot requires them to work together. The humor has a lot of levels, from the slapstick to the more subtle. And the main characters have some arc to them.

Don’t misunderstand, this is still children’s fare to be ingested with lots of sweets or popcorn, but it isn’t a painful affair to spend time with. It’s simply a silly distraction stacked with an impressive voice cast list (though nothing worth calling out). Up to you if you want to spend time with it or simply need to distract some youngsters while you do something else. Either way, it was nice to see that they learned from their errors and put more creativity into this sequel.

Toy Story 4

[4 stars]

The first Toy Story had surprise going for it, both technologically and in the script. But I never found the series all that gripping or effective. However, this installment and (one hopes) resolution to the tale of motley toys is the best all around. Like the previous movies, it takes on adult themes beneath the surface of the silliness, but this script is richer and more subtle as it tackles growing up on several fronts.

It’s an even more impressive feat when you realize that it’s director Josh Cooley’s first feature and that the script and story had 9 different sets of hands stirring the pot. For a cohesive and interesting story to come out of that stew of sensibilities is pretty amazing, even if several had been involved in the series over the years.

There is also a huge list of voice talent involved. Many retuning voices will be familiar, as well as some new ones as guests. I’m not going to laundry list them all and, frankly, no one really stood out as brilliant. They all serve their purpose, which is the most important point.

This is the first of the series I actually recommend whole heartedly. It is certainly in contention for awards this year, including the yet to be announced Oscars. And, for a change, I agree it should be.

Abominable

[3.5 stars]

While I fully admit this is a children’s animation, it’s a cut above most of those I’ve seen this past year for a number of reasons that let me recommend it.

First, it is set in China without explanation or apology. It simply is, and allows (generally) the story to be driven culturally from there. It is certainly Westernized, but it is also suprising and unique for that, and remains so despite echoing Missing Link in few places. Second, it has humor that isn’t entirely juvenile…at least not without purpose. It manages to surprise, even amidst the predictable. And, finally, because it’s production design is clever and well thought through.

Jill Culton co-directed with her Open Season co-directorTodd Wilderman. She also wrote the script, no doubt leveraging her story experience from Monsters, Inc. to create relatable characters and a child’s sense of wonder and adventure. The result is pretty to watch and entertaining. Brilliant? No, not really, but it feels different and certainly was better than I anticipated. Give it shot if you’ve got a youngster to share it with. It isn’t really for most adults without that incentive.

Spies in Disguise

[3.5 stars]

OK, this isn’t a Pixar masterpiece…it’s simply a Blue Sky (Ice Age) silly tale filled with humor and a relatively tight script (with more than a few shortcuts to be sure). The point is, it is entertaining for adults and kids, even while being as subtle as a sledgehammer in its message.

Will Smith (Aladdin) and Tom Holland (The Current War) play well together as the brawn and brains for the good guys. The two work through their own individual issues as well as those between them while being pursued on two fronts.

Rashida Jones and her team, which includes an amusing Karen Gillan (Jumanji: The Next Chapter) among others, are one of the teams. In their various altercations, you’ll recognize several James Bond films in nice light touches as well a few other action movies.

My only real gripe with this silly jaunt was Ben Mendelsohn’s (Captain Marvel) voice for the villain on the other team. It just didn’t work for me. Part of that was that it didn’t match the visual, but it also was just a bit too flat and forced, not to mention inconsistently executed by Mendelsohn. Fortunately, he doesn’t talk much.

For a first directing job by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, both of whom are normally behind the camera in the animation shop, it’s a very credible result. Kids are sure to like it, while the adults in the audience will not get bored as they pick up jokes intended just for them. Assuming this does as well as it has started, you can also be sure to see this expand as a francise in future.