Tag Archives: Children

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Series 3)

[3 stars]

OK, I honestly didn’t see myself writing about this reboot again. The first series was wonderfully surprising, but still aimed a bit young for my taste. The second series was middling and felt like it was simply pushed out too quickly.

This third installment, however, has a bit more subtlety to it. Lotor, the new evil, is actually a bit more real, a bit smarter, and a lot more intriguing…especially given our world today. He conquers with kindness, stealth, and power. It is a great evolution in how cartoon enemies are drawn for this kind of story and this audience. Shades of grey are always more interesting than simple black & white.

Frustratingly, despite the interesting start, the end of this series was rushed. The final episode is just a huge flashback explanation on the origins of the war and, as it happens, Voltron. The explanations are clever and made me appreciate the writers. But then, well, let’s just say they fell back on what they knew rather than continuing to go someplace more interesting. I have a sense where series 4 will go, but I do hate missed chances.

At least we don’t have long to wait to see what happens next. Series 4 arrives in October.

votron

The Boss Baby

The ideas behind this silly bit of fluff are wonderful: how does an older child deal with the arrival of new baby, particularly an older child with a rampant imagination. The execution, however, is mediocre. The issue is deep in the conceit of how the tale is told. What is fantasy and what is reality gets more than a little munged and, frankly, confusing.

The voice talent is solid, but nothing groundbreaking. It is a long comic stand-up routine that provides a lot of one-liners, but very little acting. For that purpose, they found the right talent. For emotion, it relies on cheap tricks, like singing Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird to pull the heart strings and giant anime eyes on everyone to pull out a physiological response.  If I sound a bit cranky on these subjects, I am. I prefer movies that earn their moments rather than manipulate their audience. And, honestly, a good part of the movie left me nonplussed as it focused on absurd aspects. And we shall not even discuss the climactic scene and results. It may well have been intended as all fantasy, but that isn’t how it was presented. We see the action from non-fantasy points of view at least a few times which means it has to be actual events, not just Tim’s imagination.

Writer Michael McCullers (Peabody & Sherman) had a clear blast slipping in all manner of old references, from music cues, to visuals, to puns. There is plenty of private joking going on for the adults, if they’re paying attention.  And, of course, there is a lot of cheap baby humor. Director Tom McGrath (Megamind, Madagascar 3) tackled this script relatively well on the voice side, but didn’t manage to overcome the oddities of the story telling. He should have committed to it being complete fabrication or complete reality. The in-between state appears to entertain, but also manages to confuse and leave it all incomplete. 

What you end up with is an entertaining mess, from a pure movie point of view. However from an entertainment perspective, it will connect with anyone who has had or taken care of a baby. I’m not entirely sure it connects on the sibling level the way it was intended, but perhaps that is because it took almost half the movie to focus on that in earnest. If you approach this as just a way to see a bunch of short, funny moments, with a thin thread of plot, you’ll have enough fun to make it through the 90+ minutes. But a classic this most definitely is not. 

The Boss Baby

The Lego Batman Movie

Yes, you probably saw this ages ago, but I wasn’t going to go pay for it in theaters. The Lego Movie was amusing, but not brilliant, at least for me. I am mainly writing this up as a measurement of my comedy preferences so you can judge my other recommendations.

My biggest question by the time I got to the end of this latest block adventure was: Why had they trusted such a lucrative franchise to the writer of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith and first-time feature director Chris McKay? Perhaps they thought the series was bullet-proof? It isn’t.

While it has a solid overall structure and story ideas, the result is uneven, at best, when it comes to flow and dialogue. It also lacks the layers that the original Lego had, trying instead to riff off of the absurd Batman character and relying on shots at Marvel and, even more often, DC and the overall history of Batman since the 60s in media. Cause, let’s face it, it has had quite the meandering road starting with Adam West and ending, for now, with Ben Affleck.

But it wasn’t just the execution and editing of the tale that was off, it was also the voices. They just didn’t quite ever feel right. This was especially true for Zach Galifianakis’s (Birdman) Joker for me, though many others didn’t quite fit either. The movie is loaded with voice talent…some surprising, but none brilliant. This really felt like a money grab by the studio and supported by the late night party game of a lot of actors who just did it for a lark. To be fair, Will Arnett, Michael Cera (Sausage Party), Rosario Dawson (Marvel’s Iron Fist), and Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) all did fine in the main roles, but not memorably so.

Basically, if you need a distraction, you could do worse than this mostly empty confection. But, that also means you could do way better.

The LEGO Batman Movie

Trolls

Sometimes an absurd premise can work. Trolls, those silly long-haired toys from the 60s, have been given an entertaining world and story that evokes the stop-action holiday specials of the same era, but with a bit of a nod and a wink.

Sure there is humor, often slapstick and non-organic to the story. Sure there is music, forced in by design and well executed, but you had better hope you love dance music. Anna Kendrick (The Hollars) and Justin Timberlake (Inside Llewyn Davis) do work well together. Though, I have to say, the story could have and should have made Kendrick a lot stronger. This story really fails the Bechdel test, sadly.

But as a bit of distraction and humor, it is perfectly entertaining and with a number of surprising voice talents lending their chords. It isn’t a film I need to see again, but parents roped into an endless loop won’t necessarily want to poke out their eyes if forced to hear and see it again. Faint and damning praise, I know, but what I’m trying to say is that there is more meat and adult humors in this than you’d expect.

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, this was part of a self-made double feature in my household with Nocturnal Animals. There were no young eyes to protect from the first film, but this certainly helped raise the mood and return some sunshine to the room after the darkness of the first. And, interestingly, it turns out they are thematically compatible. Both films are about finding and defining happiness. It was a mentally bruising pairing, but it was interesting to feel them play off one another in my head afterwards.

Trolls

Storks

Sure, why not? It ain’t great, but it was entertaining and with a surprising number of jokes slyly aimed at adults. Though far from a blockbuster, it was certainly better than many of the other animations out there last year (yes, I speak of you, Angry Birds). This, at least, was inventive and managed to have some amusing characters and emotion.

The story, well, yeah, it’s silly, but when you’ve got Key and Peele providing a chunk of the humor and some other solid talent driving the main tale, you are at least going to be entertained. For an open afternoon or evening, or if you need something for the whole family, it really will fit the bill.

My “Best of” 2016

I don’t usually do this, but too many folks have asked. So, I’ve gone back through my last year of films and tv (and it was a LOT). Here’s what I came up with out of about 280 posts which covered more than 300 films and TV shows over the last calendar year.

Film:
Not all of these are brilliant, but they are all good movies and often unique enough to make them worth the time. Most were released in 2016, but a few may have bridged across from 2015 (or earlier)… and a few have released that I’ve yet to see, but there is only so much time!

The best (in no particular order, but should be seen):

Kubo and the Two Strings
Arrival
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Moonlight
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Deadpool
Anomalisa
A Monster Calls
Marguerite

The rest (again, no order, but unique or well done and deserve a watch):

Sing Street
Remember
Hologram for the King
The Wave
Finding Vivian Maier
Eddie the Eagle
Fundamentals of Caring
Miss You Already
April and the Extraordinary World
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Sticky
Demolition
Therapy for a Vampire
Dressmaker
Swiss Army Man
The Nice Guys
Doctor Strange
Spectral
The BFG

TV:
There is a heck of a lot of good TV out there now, but these were the new ones that caught me off-guard.

This is Us
Class
Night Manager
Magicians
Stranger Things
The OA
Westworld

A Monster Calls

This isn’t a film that everyone will naturally flock to, but they should. It is dark and sad, but also magical. It dares to be honest amidst its subterfuge of humor and entertainment. It takes its time, so much so you aren’t even sure it is working for a long while… and then it just does. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end, but somehow you were thankful for that. This is a complex one… and one most folks are probably going to miss. It should have been released at a different time of the year. By releasing now, it is getting buried by all the other films running and unlikely to receive the recognition it should through awards season.

So, why, you ask, should you put yourself through a dark movie when all you’re looking to do is escape? Because, for all its weight, it doesn’t cling to you in a bad way to bring you down. It brings you to the other side of the emotions leaving it all bitter-sweet but completely acceptable. Basically, it earns its moments, all of them, and it leaves you more whole at the end for that.

The tale is told entirely, and bravely, through the eyes of the young Lewis MacDougall (Pan). It is one of the best conceits of the film. We only know what he knows, though there are, by necessity, a few visual points of view that aren’t his.

His mother is embodied by Felicty Jones (Rogue One), who brings on a powerful performance with little screen time. Toby Kebbell (Warcraft) has a subtle job that implies much as his father, but we are left wondering about him and his actions as much as his son is; given MacDougall’s point of view, that is entirely fair. Even Sigourney Weaver’s (Chappie) grandmother does much with little screen time, and little explanation. Sadly, her accent wavers, but her presence and emotions are solid.

And then there is Liam Neeson (Taken 3) as the gravelly voiced monster. It may not be him on screen, but the voice carries a performance that rides a difficult line between terrifying and humorous.

The overall combination of story telling and Neeson’s monster has echos of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Bridge to Terebithia, The Spiderwick Chronicles, or a much more twisted The BFG, if the BFG himself was more of Freudian analyst than a sweet sidekick. Monster Calls is still its own unique film, but there aren’t many movies that allow children to be the true leads of their stories and also remain truthful. It is in rarefied and good company.

Director Bayona (The Impossible) brings an incredible control to the movie. He allows for humanity without giving in to any one side or emotion. By bringing the audience along the high-wire above and through the middle of the action, he allows us to experience it all without cheapening the moments.

A good part of the success of this film is also down to the script. Writer Ness adapted his own challenging book as his first film script, bringing to it the same sensibility he also brought to the new Doctor Who spin-off, Class; treating young adults as people rather than children.

There were two niggling issues for me with this film. They alone brought it from near perfection to just really good. First, the animation near the end was just a little off… and, unfortunately, it was at a critical moment so it really hit me in the face. And second, the music over the credits was disturbingly upbeat like the film was trying to wash the sense of the film away or apologize for the journey. I didn’t want either from the filmmakers. I wanted to hang onto the sense of the world the final scenes left me with a bit longer.

Those small aspects aside, make time for this film, if not now, later. It is rather extraordinary. I also imagine it will offer different connections when rewatching it depending on where you are in your life, making it even more intriguing to me, and, I hope, others.

A Monster Calls

The BFG

A day after checking out the Pete’s Dragon remake and being less than enthused about the result, I curled up with this incredibly delightful and surprising film. To be fair, this movie reunited the creative crew that brought us E.T., so its bona fides are more than a step above, but the same challenges remained: creating a tale and tone that would engage both children and adults. In other words, a family movie versus just a flick for kids.

I am disappointed I didn’t see BFG on the big screen. Like many, I missed it in the theater because, well, I just didn’t know it and wasn’t sure what to expect. However Melissa Mathison’s (E.T., Black Stallion) script, adapted from the Roald Dahl book, is a magnificent piece of language, adventure, fun, and danger without ever being too terrifying. Having Steven Spielberg direct it didn’t hurt either. The result is probably the most unique and best piece of family-oriented magic, after Kubo and the Two Strings, for me this past year. Yes, there were many other children’s films, but they all lacked originality and surprise for me as an adult, and probably for a lot of the younger audience as well.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill, as Sofie delivers a brilliantly enthusiastic and strong performance alongside Mark Rylance’s (Bridge of Spies) decidedly sweet, if sometimes misguided giant. Their interaction is effortless. Even the animation is decidedly fudged to make movements look weightless and magical like the original drawings in Dahl’s books.

Penelope Wilton (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) was her typical and unmistakable riot (particularly if you watch Doctor Who or Downton Abbey). And Jermaine Clement (Moana) added just the right amount of menace and humor.

Definitely seek this one out, regardless of your age. Dahl is brilliant at bringing out the kid in everyone. His twisted sense of fantasy, be it chocolate factories, giant peaches, or man-eating giants is always wonderfully surprising and entertaining while remaining uplifting and full of great life lessons.

Pete’s Dragon

The original Pete’s Dragon was a silly, delightful memory for me. So much so I even have an original cell of Elliot on my wall. The 1977 movie had music, adventure, comedy, and, of course, Shelly Winters and a host of other great actors (not to mention Helen Reddy).

Remaking it for present day was always going to be a challenge because sensibilities have changed. At a basic level, the choice to change the underlying focus of the story to being an ecological one was clever and topical. However the overall story itself of a lost child raised by creatures was somewhat aced by Jungle Book in plot and crushed by the same film in terms of effects.

Additionally, writer/director David Lowery’s (Aint Them Bodies Saints) story result is muddled, particularly at the beginning. While I appreciated the choices, it was far too scary an opening for young kids and far too simple for older kids and adults. It also just never fully gels, though it finds its head of steam about half way through the plot.

But even more frustrating is that only one actor comes across as genuine and real: Robert Redford (The Walk). The rest of the cast, including Keith Urban (Star Trek Beyond), Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), and Wes Bentley (Welcome to Me), never felt true; they’re all play-acting a child’s story. That approach could have worked, but the sense of the tale, which is more naturalistic, didn’t support that approach either. There just isn’t enough adventure to make that choice feel fulfilling. I will give the two children some props however. Oakes Fegley (This is Where I Leave You) and Oona Laurence (Southpaw) work well together and found an approach that felt right for the audience and story: positive and possible but not necessarily without risk and cost.

The dragon himself, Elliot, is well done and not a bad interpolation of the original hand-drawn character. OK, yes, furry, but it works… mostly because he is clearly based on dog behavior (a wolf hound if I had to pick). But that had other knock-on issues. While the movement choices make him seem cuddly, it resonates oddly because he is so familiar that there is no sense of “otherness.” How to Train Your Dragon achieved that aspect by looking at more at feline behavior for its movement and attitude and it kept just enough of a sense of risk and miscommunication between the characters.

Children’s movies are never easy to do, admittedly. Finding the right tone to keep everyone’s attention is a huge challenge. This version of Pete’s rides a difficult line with very good intentions to deliver both a story and a message, not to mention a bit of magic, but doesn’t quite hold together, even if it manages to pay off at the end.

Pete 

Sing

I hate myself for liking this diversion; I feel a little dirty. But there it is… classic music, reasonably emotional tale, and lots of amusing animals made for a manipulative, entertaining distraction. What can you do? This is going to be the go-to family film for the holidays and it does entertain.

While it has some good moments, messages, and intention it isn’t perfect. Not by a long-shot. The pacing is uneven and the promise of some of the music from the trailers was false… yet the moments from the trailers were all there exactly as you’d predict (and damn, I hate them for that as it took away a huge portion of many possible surprises). The choice of music overall was uneven. Snatches of some songs didn’t last long enough, the use of Hallelujah may have finally ruined that brilliant piece of music for me permanently, and the finale song was a fairly weak choice in my opinion.

The voice cast is an impressive list and they all nailed their characters. However, a lot of them don’t appear to have sung their own music, which was a little disappointing given the plot. I could be wrong on that point, but the credits were rather squishy on the listings. I did also expect a bit more structure from writer Garth Jennings (Son of Rambow) but I imagine a good portion of the final story was by committee given the size of the release. Then again, both he and Lourdelet are fairly novice directors, so perhaps they just didn’t quite have the chops they needed to deliver this well.

OK, I’m done grousing. I like silly animation when it is done well and delivers. This was entertaining, but I have no need to see it again. Honestly, given the plot and intention, this should have been something I wanted to watch again and again. Perhaps that is why I’m so harsh on it; I see the potential, but it was just never realized. It will still do fairly well at the box, and the young kids in my audience seemed to enjoy it. You probably will too, but a classic it isn’t.