Tag Archives: Fantasy

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.

The Secret Life of Pets 2

[3 stars]

When a sequel can’t even be bothered to come up with a cleverer title than “2” you have a sense of the effort they put in. The movie isn’t awful, it just isn’t anything new compared to the first one. In fact, in many ways, it is less interesting than the first because the whole sense of reality of that “secret life” wasn’t a part of this movie. It was all crazy impossibility, often right in front of the humans.

I will admit that there are just enough clever moments (and one brilliant one) to keep it all going, but the truth is that this just isn’t a required story. Young kids who loved the first would probably be thrilled there was more to see, but not much more than that. Even the addition of Harrison Ford (Blade Runner 2049) only barely elevated a section of the tale.

For a throw-away, popcorn evening that you will likely soon forget, it will work fine. If you want something new and memorable, look elsewhere.

Aladdin (2019)

[3 stars]

Guy Ritchie (Robin Hood) may have rehabbed his reputation in the industry with this remake of the beloved animation classic, but I can’t say he did much for me. I will grant him, and co-writer John August (Frankenweenie), a nod for their re-negotiating the end of the story. But it was otherwise a fairly unmagical journey.

Part of the challenge was that the two leads, Mena Massoud (Jack Ryan) and Naomi Scott (Power Rangers) felt out of place in Agrabah. Their accents are flat American against a rich backdrop. And while Scott has some levels to her, Massoud is fairly empty despite some complex plotting around him. Added to this was the choice for Jafar. Marwan Kenzari (Murder on the Orient Express) is too young and, oddly, not manipulative enough to be believable for me. Jafar should drip smarm so that you understand how he rose to and kept his position of power. That is what makes him so dangerous.

And, of course, there is Will Smith (Gemini Man) stepping into the shoes of the late and glorious Robin Williams. Smith made the part his own, but it still fell short of equalling the iconic performance built out of the storm that was Williams’s brain. But, like many, I don’t think I ever expected him too, and he was smart to not try.

There is something about the escape of animation that allows the fantastical to take on life. Adapting it to live action, even with the tech we have today, is a dangerous leap. In this case, I think misstep. Sure it was pretty, but even the biggest numbers couldn’t match the frenetic insanity and overload of the animation. The result was that they came across as less impressive in this incarnation; exactly the opposite reaction you’d want from an audience. And even some of the character CGI fell short. While the parrot Iago looked relatively real, Abu the monkey looked a tad plastic to me, which kept dropping me out of the moment.

Generally, the entire movie felt like a paint-by-numbers rehash. The new music was also glaringly out of place in feel. I liked the idea, but it didn’t fall seamlessly into the score. For kids who never saw the original, this is probably a magical journey. I wonder what they’d think of the animation that spawned it…would they be as unimpressed with the drawn characters as I am with the live? I don’t honestly know, but I’d hope they’d see the magic of it, even if it wasn’t in the latest on-screen formats. Certainly the original has more humor to keep them entertained.

Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

[4 stars]

This series, a prequel to the classic and beloved movie, fully captures the sense and production design of the original. That is both its blessing and its curse. But that said, this story grew on me as it played out, unlike the same-day-launched Amazon fantasy Carnival Row, which diminished over time for me.

Let me get the “curse” comment out of the way. Having just rewatched the original flick, I was looking forward to some significant updating of the approach, particularly the Gelfling designs to make their mouths move more naturally. I can see the bind the producers were in…update a classic and risk the wrath of fans, or cleave closely to the original and risk a more dated feel. Definitely no-win. But there were subtle updates, especially to the Skeksis, whose tongues were truly a thing of creepy beauty.

Also, in order to provide a launching pad for the series, they twisted the known facts a little. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry about it. If you have, you’ll need to be more than a little patient to accept the setup and await it all to make sense. Of course the big question is how long before the movie does this series take place? No one seems to know or want to commit. My best guess was about 100 years or so, though it could be longer. The studio was purposefully vague and won’t pin it down.

The voice talent is an astounding list of folks; far too long to enumerate here. The puppeteering is top notch. The production design clever enough to link to the movie but still make it their own. The world of Thra is expanded and gorgeously designed. There are familiar characters and new ones to enjoy. The story is richly complex, despite its clear aim to pull in a younger audience as well as adults. And this installment of the story finally plumbs some of the dark depths the original movie touched on but wasn’t willing to dive into. In fact, the writers and director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) helped marry the tale to current times in wonderful ways.

They also left plenty of room for more stories and a whispered about second season, but not in an unsatisfying way…well, at least if you know the movie. However, if you’ve not found the movie yet, wait to see where the series goes and then get to the end of the story.

As both a revival and a continuation of the tale, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a winner for me. There is something about the craft of bringing these inanimate creatures to life that sparks the imagination in ways CGI, or even most stop-action animation just can’t touch. Here’s hoping they get to continue the story and fully complete the sequence.

Carnival Row

[3 stars]

If Ripper Street and Copper had a magical baby, this is pretty much what you’d get. For me, however, the poor child took on the worse qualities of both parents. A shame as it had the potential to tackle the current issues of immigration and xenophobia sweeping a good part of the globe.

In the end, Carnival Row is a marginally thought-through bit of genre, full of strife and demons (personal as well as real). It is a by-the-numbers fantasy with few surprises and cliche characters; the pacing commensurate with its genre, which is to say: slow.

The show isn’t helped by its female lead in Cara Delevingne (Tulip Fever), who has the look of a Fae, but the emotional credibility of cardboard. Despite Orlando Bloom’s (S.M.A.R.T. Chase) backing her, and with some interesting tension between them, she just never became real for me. Even the host of solid supporting actors are generally forced into tiny boxes of behavior, by script and directing, that does little to show off their talents.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure if I enjoyed this first season or not. It is clear that the it was built around the first episode and final moments in the last…with a whole bunch of stretched out filler in-between. It is, in fact, more of a prologue or setup for a story to come. You may find it more engaging than I did, but despite the grand production values, I found myself frustrated far too often to settle into the tale and become a fan.

Fast Color

[3 stars]

If you like social science fiction, like I Think We’re Alone Now meets The Endless, over effects-laden romps, this movie is for you. While it is a fantasy/suspense film, Fast Color is definitely more contemplative than explosive. Which isn’t to say things don’t get tense or happen, but Julia Hart (Miss Stevens) has created a sort of Daughters of the Dust vibe in this movie as we get to meet and learn about three generations of women with a secret to protect.

And the women are far from perfect. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (A Wrinkle in Time), in particular, has personal demons and a past to overcome. Lorraine Toussaint (Into the Badlands) and Saniyya Sidney (Hidden Figures) also struggle in their own ways to find the right path. With a bit of help from David Strathairn (Godzilla: King of Monsters), the women work to find a resolution.  Each gets to explore and explain their character in ways that reach us and continually have us re-evaluate our assessments of them.

The weakest performance in the movie is from Christopher Denham (The Bay). But he is at the apex of an aspect of the tale that is the least well thought through. In a world that is slowly falling apart, there is a group of men arrayed against the women for reasons that are either cliche or completely undefined. And this is unabashedly a movie about the women; the men are mostly ciphers.

With the complex character set-up and the mostly unexplored world and dangers, it isn’t a surprise that is also soon to be a streaming series on Amazon. With that kind of space, we should get a lot more of what is going on. While this movie wasn’t intended as, and doesn’t feel, like a pilot, it certainly makes a solid version of one. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can create from this intriguing beginning.

I have to admit I wanted to like this film more than I did. The performances and direction are emotionally satisfying. I just wanted a little more meat on the bones of the male characters and the purpose of the “bad guys.” It would have made the world and situation more complete and less of an excuse against which to tell the story Hart and her co-writer, Jordan Horowitz, wanted to tell.

High Life

[2 stars]

I don’t mind mixing science and the metaphysical, but I do need some credibility under it all to hold the story and message together. High Life misses on almost all counts. The crux of the tale is, frankly, absurd and such a bad science fiction premise that I had to force myself to continue with the story. In addition, the emotional and metaphysical aspects of the story are, at turns, trite and, at turns, so self-referential as to be completely obfuscated.

Director and co-writer Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In ) is no stranger to mixing narrative with metaphor. Perhaps there was a bigger point here she was trying to make, but it missed me almost entirely. Certainly there is commentary on love, sex, parenthood, and redemption. But there isn’t a clear through-line that knits it together into a whole. We end up with something more like Dark Star meets Sunshine, but with all the negatives of both and few of the positives of either.

Honestly, I can’t recommend this, even with Robert Pattinson’s (Maps to the Stars) subtle performance and Juliette  Binoche’s (Summer Hours) rather frentic, untethered one. There are definitely better ways to spend a couple hours of your life than trying to pick apart this confused, philosophical mess.

Another Life

[3 stars]

Imagine Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Nightflyers all melded into one. In many ways, this is what Nighflyers wanted to be, but missed on so many levels. But Another Life is much more space opera than it is science fiction. Science is, at best, a convenient idea to be used or changed as needed (yes, even worse than Star Trek because it feels more like science fiction). Knowing that going in, despite the trappings of the show, will keep you from getting agitated later (assuming you care about such things).

Katee Sackhoff  (2036: Origin Unknown) delivers a complex and strong female leader. Admittedly, the script has her doing some stupid things at times, but her emotional core is solid. The rest of the shipboard cast, with two exceptions, do well too. Samuel Anderson (Doctor Who, DCI Banks) navigates a difficult road to sentience…your mileage may vary on the results, but it is still a complicated performance. Likewise Blu Hunt, A.J. Rivera, Alex Ozerov (Cardinal), and JayR Tinaco created shipboard life that is at once interesting and, in some ways, ridiculous. But that is more a problem of the Space Opera approach than it is the actors.

Unfortunately, there were also some weaker, or at least uneven performances as well. Top among those were Jake Abel (Love & Mercy) and Jessica Camacho (The Flash). Neither had a subtle bone in their body and, in the case of Abel especially, no presence whatsoever. Back on Earth, Selma Blair (Anger Management), who I normally enjoy, was just as imprecise and unreal in her pivotal role, which was a shame.

The other main Earth-locked cast was fairly solid. Justin Chatwin (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and the young Lina Renna make a great anchor for Sackhoff’s character.

Creator Aaron Martin has a diverse writing background on shows from Degrassi: The Next Generation, to Being Erica, and SyFy romp Killjoys. He isn’t afraid to push limits or relationships and it shows. This series takes a very matter-of-fact approach to the broad spectrum of sexuality that only Sense8 has really challenged in the genre so far. This isn’t the driver for the action, but it certainly adds some nice aspects to the characters and story.

The story also attempts, rather ham-handedly to be honest, to raise the challenge of understanding an alien mind. How much human psychology can you assign to actions and questions an alien raises? How closely will AI evolve to be like or dislike its creators?

I can’t say I ever was sure of the title: Another Life. It has interesting resonance throughout the story, changing as it goes. By the end of this first series I was still unsure of the intention, but had flipped through various options. Perhaps that was the point, but it never felt reflected in the characters.

This show is also a great example of being better streaming than it would have been on broadcast. The story is relentless, ending episodes on intriguing points or cliffhangers and starting off, often, with new situations. In other words, it pulls you along nicely for a binge. If, however, it had been released on a 1-a-week schedule, it would never have hooked in a audience because of that rhythm.

For some interesting distraction, this is a fun series. I’m hoping that it not only gets a second round, but that they learn from this first and take the scripts up a notch. It wouldn’t take much to take it to a higher level and really build out a franchise.