Tag Archives: Fantasy

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.

Mysterious Witchers Lost in Space

Each of these streamers deserves to be seen and to have their own write up. But that felt like overkill and, I suspect, many folks will have been ahead of me already. However, all are enjoyable, intelligent, and all are very different.

Witcher

Henry Cavill (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) was a perfect choice for the lead in this entertaining, if not brilliant, series. He captures the sarcasm and dry wit of the game character, not to mention he is the physical emodiment of Geralt of Rivia. He’s backed up nicely by Joey Batey and Anya Chalotra. There are other, more recognizable faces, such as MyAnna Buring (In the Dark) and Anna-Louise Plowman, but it is generally a lot of semi-familiar and unknown faces.

The series is challenging thanks to its narrative form (which is part of the secret of the first season, so I really can’t discuss it here). I think it could have been handled more clearly, but it ultimatley comes together in interesting ways and I appreciate that they didn’t treat their audience like idiots. Much like Watchmen, it lends itself to rewatching once you understand it all. I’m definitely on board for the next season, but that isn’t coming till 2021, so you’ve plenty of time to watch the series and/or play the games if you want beforehand.

Lost in Space 2

The first season reboot of this show surprised me completely. Netflix transformed the silly Saturday morning show into something richer and darker, if still with a child’s sensibility of adventure. And if you thought Dr. Smith was complex and dark in the first series, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Parker Posey (Cafe Society) has definitely found a role she’ll be remembered for.

This season is incredibly well constructed, even if some of the writing still takes too many character and plot short-cuts. Still, I admire the risks they were willing to take even if getting there has some flaws. And every major character gets their moment to grow and expand in some very nice ways. The new season pulls you along with barely a chance to breathe, making it a great binge show, but also means it is over too soon. Series 3 isn’t officially confirmed, but expect it to take another year, if for no other reason to complete all the f/x needed for the show.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

This wonderfully self-aware reconception of the cartoon classic is more Buffy than kid’s show. Conceived as a complete 2-season arc, and loaded with adult nods and layers of mystery, it is both wonderful nostaligia and entertaining distraction in 20-minute bites. It’s also loaded with surprise voice talent in major roles and guest roles. Give it a shot, you’ll know in a few minutes if it is for you or not.

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.

Jumanji: The Next Chapter

[3.5 stars]

Is it ever really possbile to match the excitement and surprise of first movie with a sequel? Admittedly, rarely, though this manages to come close.

The previous installment in this series was itself a sequel, though so far removed from the original that it’s hard to think of them as part of the same series. This latest installment is a direct follow-on of the previous and is, indeed, a solid, new story, but a lot of the surprise is gone. It’s in the title “The Next Chapter.” While this stands mostly alone, it is very much a continuation. To the movie’s creidt, the characters we knew got older and were affected by their previous experience, as well as having acquired some new aspects to their personalities and lives.

In fact our intrepid foursome, Alex Wolff (A Birder’s Guide to Everything), Madison Iseman (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween), Morgan Turner (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle), and  Ser’Darius Blain (Charmed) have not only grown up, but got better at their craft. Even the core avatars are even better at making it clear they are inhabited by the players in this new story. Kevin Hart (The Upside) in particular does much better this round than he did the first. But Dwayne Johnson (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw), Karen Gillan (Avengers: Endgame), and Jack Black (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) also have improved this subtle part of the challenge, helping to sell both the story and the humor.

The additions of Danny Devito (Dumbo), Danny Glover (The Last Black Man in San Francisco ), and Awkwafina (The Farewell) were a good choice for the expansion, and Awkawafina just adds to her growing  cv of fun performances over the past year. And then there is the gift of Rory McCann (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) who does nothing new in this very stock character, but who is always imposing on screen, little or large.

Basically, this is a simple, fun flick that is safe for families while having enough for adults to chew on. It has a lot of humor and, even when it is predictable, it’s executed in a way that makes you smile for the success rather than be disappointed with getting ahead of it all.  A lot of the credit for that goes to returning director Jake Kasdan and his work with returning writing duo Jeff Pinker and Scott Rosenberg. That they couldn’t resist setting up the next film, well, I can’t say I was surprised nor was I disappointed. And it looks like the third, which I’m fairly confident will get made, takes it full circle to the original movie that started it all. For some popcorn and holiday distraction that doesn’t come from the Mouse House, you won’t go wrong seeing this one.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

[3 stars]

OK, I am NOT the audience for this movie, but I was still impressed with the adaptation. Converting an educational children’s cartoon into a live action adventure was never going to be easy. But, with the name cachet and potential, it was inevitable someone would try.

Getting someone like director James Bobin (Alice Through the Looking GlassMuppets Most Wanted) to take it on was a smart choice. He not only found a tone to sell it, he was able to maintain the tone without blinking through to the end.

Bobin also cast it well. Isabela Moner (aka Isabela Merced) (Instant Family) is a perfect Dora. She is positive, open, guileless, fearless, resourceful, and still admits to her emotions and being aware of what others think of her oddities. She is a wonderful proxy for pre-teens about to head out more into the world on their own.

Dora, of course, has to have her posse. Jeff Whalberg (Don’t Come Back from the Moon) as Diego was an interesting choice and good foil for Moner. Madeleine Madden (Tomorrow When the War Began) and Nicholas Coombe fill out the group providing appropriate comic relief and questions.

The adults are all very broad and silly. Eva Longoria, Michael Peña (Extinction), and Eugenio Derbez (How to be a Latin Lover) are consistent, but not really believable. But, then again, the audience is kids, not adults. The adult influence in this story is decidedly in the background and they are there to be saved by the kid’s ingenuity. For that purpose they work, even if it narrows the appeal of the movie overall.

The biggest mistake, to my mind, was the inclusion of the CG characters Boots and Swiper (voiced by Danny Trejo and Benicio Del Toro, respectively). I understand they’re iconic, but it constantly broke the fragile reality of the adventure. Absent them, or had they been dealt with differently, the movie would have moved up a couple notches in my opinon. Honestly, neither character needed to be in the tale, which made their inclusion even more distracting.

To watch with young kids, this would probably been an enjoyable afternoon. As adult fare, it is a bit of a struggle, but the full commit of the entire production made it watchable, if not one I’d recommend generally. Frankly, I was just curious to see what they’d done with it, so I made the trek into the jungle for my own reasons.

The Lion King (2019)

[3 stars]

The Disney march to create live action analogs of their animated hits continues. We could ask why, but c’mon, we know it’s solely for the money.

Honestly (and however heretical), I can’t say I was overly impressed or pulled in by the result of this movie. Jeff Nathanson’s (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) script adaptation of the original skips along time-wise jarringly. There is little or no chance to feel connected to any character or situation, absent a couple solidly scary moments. And Rafiki, the baboon has no real meaning or place in this version of the tale. Without knowledge of the earlier animation it would have made no sense at all. Also, which animals can talk and which can’t is a bit problematic and subtly judgemental.

Coming of age stories are a staple with Disney. And using animals as a distancing way to approach those subjects for younger viewers is also well established. This movie echos all the back to Bambi. There is also an environmentalist overlay to Simba’s world, but that subplot is neither fully realized nor resolved. When the comic relief in the form of Timon (Billy Eichner), Pumba (Seth Rogen – The Disaster Artist), and Zazu (John Oliver – Wonder Park) are the highlight of the movie, you know something went wrong–that’s would be like Martin Freeman being the best part of Black Panther.

What I can say about this movie is that the technology Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home) ushered in to film the tale is astounding. However, much like other films that were in the vanguard of new tech, the result is a little mixed making it the source of much of my frustration.

Most impactfully, I found the photo-realism itself challenging. The animation was restricted to, well, reality. The voices never quite matched the mouth movements nor the characters. The experience felt like some odd, non-ironic verion of What’s Up Tiger Lily. Purely cartoon animation allows for some adjustment to faces that help us accept and connect to the characters. The animals don’t move or act 100% naturally, but they allow us to anthropromorphize them better.

Ultimately, this film is a bit of a victim of the perils of technology. As a first use, the results of the cinematography are astounding. But the distance it creates is exacerbated by the script. In the end, this is a pretty ride, but not a euphoric one nor, at least for me, a memorable one. However, the type of filming it has championed is going to affect the industry for a long time.

Shadow (Ying)

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Yimou Zhang (The Great Wall) brings his sense of production and action to this court intrigue with umbrellas. That isn’t, “he does it with umbrellas,” but rather that it is a “court intrigue with umbrellas.” Really, that will make more sense when you see it.

Chao Deng (Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame) does an amazing job of playing the two roles of a man and his double. The distinction between the two is complete, though admittedly helped by the forced nature of one of them. Li Sun and Xiaotong Guan provide Deng a nice backdrop along with the slightly extreme Ryan Zheng (The Great Wall). But the story is more subtle than you expect, especially by the end. While the characters are in some ways fairly stock, each has layers and moments that break those boundaries.

Shadow isn’t brilliant, but it is gorgeous and intriguing. It keeps your interest and continually surprises both in plot and visually. If you enjoy Chinese cinema, and Yimou’s work in particular, it is a nice addition to his opus.