Monsters University (C). I only dimly remember the 2001 animated film Monsters, Inc., and I think I liked it OK. Twelve years later, Pixar came out with this prequel, which I just saw. The little green one-eyed monster Mike (voice of Billy Crystal, The Princess Bride) has the ambition to be a “scarer” when he grows up, and he gets into Scare School at Monsters University. There he quickly gets crossways with another freshman, a big, blue, natural-born scarer called Sully (voice of John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane). And then it gets very predictable: opposites Mike and Sully are both kicked out of the program. Desperate to get back in, they team up, join the lamest fraternity on campus, and try to carry their fraternity to an underdog victory in the Scare Games in hopes of being let back into Scare School. Lots of vocal talent, including Steve Buscemi (Fargo), Nathan Fillion (Serenity), and the formidable Helen Mirren (The Queen) as the crusty old Dean Hardscrabble, can’t lift this overly long (104 minutes) movie above mediocrity.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians (C). I think this was the first time I had ever seen this old Disney classic, and I doubt I will ever revisit it. You probably already know the story. A nice London couple has a pair of dalmatians, Pongo and Perdita, and they have a litter of 15 pups. The wicked Cruella De Vil wants a dalmatian fur coat, so she hires two dim-witted thugs to steal the pups and stash them in Cruella’s crumbling country mansion—along with 84 other dalmatian pups she apparently got from pet stores. Pongo and Perdita have to rescue the puppies, with some timely assists from other animal friends. Even though it’s only 79 minutes long, it felt padded out, and the whole enterprise was only middlingly entertaining. I note that the movie is based on a novel by Dodie Smith, who also wrote the novel that I Capture the Castle was based on. That 2003 movie is well worth checking out.
Smallfoot (C). This animated feature has some things going for it. It’s a reverse-perspective story about a community of yetis who live high in the Himalayas and view humans (“smallfeet”) as legends. Then, one day, an ordinary yeti named Migo (voice of Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street) actually encounters a human (a crashed airplane pilot), leading him to begin questioning the village’s quasi-religious origin story and other odd traditions. In a nice touch, the “villains” are not thoroughly villainous. For example, there’s a (human) nature-TV star who’s losing his integrity because old-fashioned shows like his can’t compete with modern reality TV, and the pope-like yeti village leader actually has a reasonable motive for preserving the yetis’ ignorance of the real world. And yet . . . the execution is off, somehow. Few of the jokes really landed, and I didn’t think the handful of songs were very good. In sum, a pretty bland experience.
Spies in Disguise (B+). This Christmas 2019 animated feature totally slipped under my radar, but I saw it on “streaming” or something last weekend, and I was astonished at how funny it was. Will Smith (Hitch) voices Lance Sterling, an ace secret agent in the mold of James Bond turned up to 11. Tom Holland (Captain America: Civil War) voices Walter, a young nerd in the spy gadgets section of Lance’s agency. After Lance gets framed for stealing some top-secret something-or-other, he turns to Walter for help—and accidentally gets turned into a pigeon. (The movie was apparently inspired by a short called “Pigeon: Impossible.”) So Walter and pigeon Lance go chasing after the bad guy, while the agency is chasing them. I laughed out loud several times at the many James Bondian references and other random funny stuff (like a girl pigeon who falls in love with pigeon Lance and helps take out bad guys while actually intending to target the agency gal who’s leading the hunt for Lance).
Onward (B). I don’t know if you have be a Dungeons & Dragons player to appreciate this recent Pixar offering, but it certainly can’t hurt. In the world of Onward, magic is real, as are lots of mythical creatures like unicorns, elves (who look more like trolls than like Legolas), centaurs, and manticores. But the creatures have given up magic in favor of technology, which is much more reliable, and now they live in a modern suburban society just like ours. Nevertheless, through a series of unlikely events, two very dissimilar elvish brothers, Ian (voice of Tom Holland, How I Live Now) and Barley (voice of Chris Pratt, Passengers), embark on a quest to find a magical jewel that will allow them to reincarnate their long-deceased father for one day. Will they succeed? Will their quest bring them closer together or tear them apart forever? The story is decent, but I mostly enjoyed the D&D tropes. The brothers’ encounter with a gelatinous cube deep in the bowels of a trap-filled dungeon is a highlight. (And if you don’t know what a gelatinous cube is, google it and click on “Images”!)
Frozen II (C). I must say that this sequel to the Disney juggernaut Frozen left me cold <rimshot>. Maybe it’s because the first film really wasn’t set up for a sequel, but this one felt tacked on and arbitrary. Despite the previous film’s happy ending and Arendell’s apparent prosperity under Queen Elsa’s benevolent rule, the Queen is restless and unhappy, imagining that she hears a siren song calling her north. It turns out the royal family has a complicated backstory—as a boy, the girls’ father, King Agnarr, accompanied a mission to an enchanted forest in the north, and for some unknown reason hostilities broke out between the Arendellians and the locals. Agnarr was the only Arendellian to escape before a wall of mist (reinforced with a magical force field) sealed the forest off from the world. Now Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf (somewhat more amusing in this film) must somehow penetrate the mist (which they easily do by the simple expedient of having Elsa go first) and find out what’s going on inside. There’s a lot of running hither and yon, and lots of magical “explanations” that made no sense to me. Plenty of songs, most of which are OK.
Ralph Breaks the Internet (B). I remember enjoying Wreck-It Ralph and thinking it had a surprisingly sweet story about friendship at its core. In this sequel, video-game characters Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly, Talladega Nights) and Vanellope (voice of Sarah Silverman, School of Rock) leave the video arcade behind and enter the worldwide web on a quest to find a replacement part for Vanellope’s arcade game. The visualization of the internet is a highlight of the movie, as little avatars of the human users scuttle around from eBay to YouTube (or a lookalike) to everything else. Vanellope falls in love with a Grand Theft Auto-inspired neighborhood ruled by a tough gal called Shank (voice of Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman). In the most inspired part of the movie, she finds herself in Disney’s sector, which is populated by Star Wars characters, Marvel characters, and, of course, Disney princesses (many voiced by their original actresses). The movie starts to drag by the end (an hour and 52 minutes? really?), but it is still definitely worth a look.
Big Hero 6 (B). I finally saw this Disney film the other night, and I thought it was good. The Borg Queen took me to task for not giving it an A grade of some kind, but there’s no way it compares with Disney’s greatest films. (A few examples: The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Zootopia, and even Moana, which has risen considerably in my estimation since I reviewed it in these pages.) Also, I suspect Big Hero 6 would play better on the big screen; its futuristic setting was pretty but not immersive on the TV. Anyhoo, this is basically a superhero origin story. Teenaged Hiro is a genius at robots but really comes into his own only after his older brother dies in a mysterious fire and a shadowy villain starts stalking the streets of San Fransokyo. Hiro teams up with his brother’s nerdy science friends and with Baymax, a big balloony robot that Hiro’s brother had been working on when he died. With a few modifications, Baymax goes from cuddly nurse robot to high-flying action hero, and eventually it’s time for a showdown with the big bad. I was entertained. If you like superhero movies, Big Hero 6 is worth your time.
Coco (C+). This new Pixar feature is getting a lot of critical acclaim, but I must say it left me fairly cold. The setting is interesting: Mexico on the Day of the Dead. A boy named Miguel comes from a long line of successful shoemakers, but he yearns to become a musician. Unfortunately, his great-great-grandpa was a musician who walked out on his wife and small daughter to pursue his dream, and the family has banned all music ever since. But Miguel persists in pursing his dream on the sly, and through a series of unlikely events he gets catapulted into the land of the dead. He then rushes from place to place, meeting various deceased ancestors and trying to get back to the real world before the sun rises again. The visuals are pretty cool, but I thought the songs were unmemorable and the plot was tiresome. I didn’t recognize any of the voice actors, but they included Gael García Bernal (Letters to Juliet) and Edward James Olmos (Blade Runner 2049).
The LEGO® Batman Movie (C). I thought The LEGO Movie was kind of cute, but this sequel really didn’t do it for me. The animation was kind of cool, but as usual in modern action movies everything moved so fast during the action sequences that I couldn’t even keep up with what was happening, much less appreciate the artistry. The movie was crammed with references to all the previous incarnations of Batman, including the campy Adam West TV series, and I have to admit I did laugh out loud a few times at some of the off-the-wall references. And it was kind of fun when the Joker managed to unleash a vast array of bad guys from The Phantom Zone, including Godzilla, King Kong, The Wicked Witch of the West, Voldemort, and even Sauron himself. But the movie felt overly long, and the plot about Batman’s learning to work with others and to open himself up to a new family was pedestrian. There was plenty of star power behind the voicework, though: Will Arnett (Blades of Glory) as Batman, Michael Cera (This Is the End) as Robin, Rosario Dawson (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) as Commissioner Gordon, Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I) as Alfred the Butler (rather than Voldemort, for some reason), Siri herself as the computer, and Zach Galifianakis (Birdman) as The Joker, just to name the main ones.
Moana (B). First we have a short–a cute little story that dramatizes the battle between an office drudge’s fearful brain on the one hand and his excitable heart and stomach on the other. It’s kind of like a radically shortened and simplified Inside Out. The main feature is set in a Polynesian South Seas-type milieu. Moana is the high-spirited daughter of an island chief, and she thrills to her grandmother’s ancient stories of Maui, a trickster demigod who stole a gemstone from an island goddess, only to lose it in a battle with a lava demon. Could the tales be true? Lo! The Ocean itself brings the gemstone to Moana, and she must go on a quest to find Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas) and force him to return the gemstone to its rightful place, lest a looming wave of darkness overwhelm her people. I give Moana high marks for beautiful visuals, enjoyable musical numbers in the early going, and an appealing heroine. The adventure plot is a little pedestrian, so I wouldn’t put this movie in the same category as first-tier Disney like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, or Zootopia. Nevertheless, it’s a solid, family-friendly effort.
Zootopia (A-). The latest animated offering from Disney is a delight. In a world with no humans, all the other mammals have evolved a technological (and very human-seeming) civilization. Miraculously, predators and prey now live together in peace and harmony. But species-based stereotyping is still a problem, and when rabbit Judy Hopps decides that she wants to become the first rabbit police officer in the great city of Zootopia, she sends cultural shockwaves throughout the department. The visuals of the city and its many citizens are great, and Judy herself is completely adorable. Outstanding voicework by Ginnifer Goodwin (He’s Just Not That Into You) as Judy and by Jason Bateman (Couples Retreat) as a shifty fox on the make also contribute greatly to the success of the movie. Plenty of other celebrities also contribute vocals, including Idris Elba (Thor) and Shakira. Check it out!
Anomalisa (B). This is a strange movie—but it was written by Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), so it could hardly be otherwise. It’s a stop-motion animated movie made with felt puppets, rather like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But it’s justifiably rated R for “strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and language,” so on the other hand it’s really not like Rudolph at all. The main character is Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I), a middle-aged guy who is deep in the grip of the existential blues as he lands in a rainy Cincinnati on a quick, banal business trip. But Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Spectacular Now), a nice young woman with self-esteem problems, rather steals the show. Anyway, the movie is a pretty effective portrayal of the loneliness, angst, and boredom of life. Is it more than that? Hard to say. But it kept my interest, and that counts for something.
The Peanuts Movie (B-). I have liked Charlie Brown ever since I was a kid. Not just the Charlie Brown Christmas TV special, which I have seen a million times, or the less-seen Halloween and Thanksgiving TV specials, but also many of the old collections of old Charlie Brown comic strips. But I was surprised to hear that they were making a movie about good ol’ Charlie Brown, and I was even more surprised to hear that it was generally getting good reviews and doing pretty good box office. I guess I just didn’t think the Peanuts gang would translate well onto the big screen. Well, I saw it today, and I really didn’t think it was any great shakes. Pleasant enough, for sure, and suitable for the whole family. But I have to think quite a few youngsters out there would find it a little bit boring. The main plot involves Charlie Brown’s crush on the little red-haired girl, who moves in across the street from him and of course ends up in his class at school. So for the next several months, he tries to impress her so that she will like him. How well does that go? Well, he is Charlie Brown after all. The main subplot is the saga of Snoopy versus the Red Baron. It’s all fine enough, and there are plenty of nods to the old TV specials and comic strips. They did a great job finding voice-over artists who sound just like the voices in the old TV specials. And there’s a nice moral of the story. But somehow, unlike Snoopy’s doghouse, it just didn’t take off for me. Good grief!
Inside Out (B+). Pixar has created another winner. First, there’s a cute short about a lonely volcano out in the middle of the ocean who just wants someone to lava. <Ba-dum, ching!> Then there’s the main event. It’s a simple story about a 12-year-old girl named Riley who is unhappy because her loving parents have moved the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. But it’s not so simple at all, because we spend most of the movie inside Riley’s head, where her personified emotions run the Riley show–Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust work at headquarters and do most of the heavy lifting, but in the course of the movie we see that Riley’s psyche is a complex place, with discrete geographic areas for long-term memory, imagination, abstract thought, and her subconscious. The visuals are a treat, but then we have come to expect that from Pixar. Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory) is spot on as somewhat-manic Joy, and Phyllis Smith and Mindy Kaling from TV’s The Office voice Sadness and Disgust, respectively. The liberal-arts major in me wants to critique the film’s psychology–what is the significance of the fact that we have five emotions competing to run Riley’s operating system, with reason nowhere to be seen?–but mostly I was happy to go along for a fun and thought-provoking ride.
The Book of Life (B-). When I saw in the opening credits that this animated film was produced by Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), I figured (correctly) that I was in for a wild ride. It’s a story within a story; a small group of ill-mannered school children go on a field trip to a museum, where a saucy tour guide soon has them spellbound with a tale about Old Mexico. That tale is the wild part. It involves a love triangle in which Manolo (voice of Diego Luna, Y Tu Mamá También) and Joaquin (voice of Channing Tatum, 22 Jump Street) vie for the hand of their childhood friend Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana, Star Trek). It also involves a wager on the love triangle by two magical beings who rule over the realms of the dead. And an effusive magical candlemaker (voice of Ice Cube, 21 Jump Street). And a wicked bandit named Chakal, and a bullfighter voiced by opera superstar Plácido Domingo. Anyway, it’s an undeniably creative movie. The animation is entertainingly off-kilter in a Tim Burton-ish sort of way, and snippets of pop songs from Elvis Presley to Mumford and Sons crop up unexpectedly, but somehow the whole seemed like less than the sum of its parts. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. Still, I’d have to say it’s worth a look if you have an hour and a half to kill.
If you are looking for a funny, uplifting, happy movie, don’t go to see this sequel. This movie takes place several years after the first How to Train Your Dragon, which I found quite charming and witty. While I still enjoyed many moments between Hiccup (now about 20 years old) and his loyal dragon, Toothless, and some other humorous moments, the movie moved slowly and, at times, purposelessly. I do not recommend this movie for very young children. Dragons aren’t always treated terribly well, and there are deaths in the movie that remind me of Bambi, which scarred me for life. I saw that movie once when I was very young in the theater, and left crying, and never saw it again. I could see young children having that kind of reaction to this movie too. I’d wait for the rental.
The Movie Snob finally makes it back to the movies.
The Lego Movie (B-). This movie is getting high marks from the critics, but I just can’t go better than “pretty good.” It’s an animated film about a world made of Legos—a world of bland conformity ruled by the Big Brother-like President Business (voice of Will Ferrell, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby). But there is a prophecy that an ordinary Lego person will rise up and break Business’s stranglehold on Legoland, and it looks like The Chosen One may be an ordinary construction worker named Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt, her). His potential chosenness is discovered by a nonconformist chick named Wyldstyle (voice of Elizabeth Banks, Definitely, Maybe), who recruits him to join some sort of rebellion against Business and his main henchman, Bad Cop (voice of Liam Neeson, The Phantom Menace). The movie has plenty of pluses. The animation can be very striking, some of the humor is pretty good, and it is fun to pick out all the famous vocal talent at work, including Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption), Will Arnett (TV’s Arrested Development), Jonah Hill (This Is the End), Alison Brie (TV’s Community), and many more. On the down side, as in many regular action movies, many of the action scenes moved so fast in places that I just gave up trying to figure out what was going on. It started to feel a little long after a while, and I didn’t think the climactic ending was all that great. Still, I give the film makers credit for trying something reasonably fresh and original. Oh, and the theme song “Everything Is Awesome” really is kind of awesome.
Frozen (B+). Disney has scored another hit with this animated tale based on a story called The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. I was feeling sort of down and looking for a pick-me-up, and Frozen did the trick quite nicely. It’s the story of Elsa and Anna, sisters and princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle. Unknown to Anna, her older sister has a hard-to-control magical power that is more of a curse–the power to conjure ice and snow and freezing blasts out of thin air. When Elsa’s power is revealed and she runs away from Arendelle, the plucky Anna sets off on a quest to find her. Along the way, Anna teams up with a surly ice entrepreneur named Kristoff, his expressive reindeer Sven, and a live snowman named Olaf. Their adventures are suitably exciting, and many of the visuals are very cool. It’s not quite top-shelf Disney–the songs are cute enough but not all that memorable, and I would have traded goofy Olaf for good old Frosty the Snowman–but those are very small flaws. Kristin Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) voices Anna; I didn’t really know any of the voices behind the other main characters. Oh, there was a cartoon short involving Mickey and Minnie before the main feature, and I didn’t think it was particularly good. But it didn’t detract from Frozen.
The AristoCats (C+). This was my first time to see this 1970 Disney movie. It was a decent way to pass the time, but it certainly doesn’t measure up to Disney greats like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, or The Lion King. The plot was very similar to that of Lady & the Tramp. Lady cat Duchess (voice of Eva Gabor, TV’s Green Acres) and her three kittens are the pampered pets of a wealthy but elderly Parisian woman. When Madame draws up a will leaving her whole estate to her pets for their lifetimes and only after that to her faithful butler Edgar, Edgar decides to accelerate the process by dumping the cats in the French countryside far from Paris. A good-natured alley cat named Thomas O’Malley takes it upon himself to help them get home. There are a few unmemorable songs along the way. But this is probably a good one for younger kids; there are no very scary scenes, parental deaths, or anything like that.
Not sure what to say here. I have a four year old and an eight year old. If it is a cartoon and it is released to a movie theater, we must go see it. The best compliment I can give this movie is that it was not terrible. My children loved it. I kid you not. My daughter cried at one point during the movie because she was so moved by the cataclysmic events occurring to this cave dwelling group of Neanderthals, and she cheered as all ended up happily ever after. The plot – the Croods have survived a nasty, brutish world by living in a cave, but they are forced to venture out as the world around them starts to change – not too complicated. It has some humor. It is a little long (the kids did not notice or care). I give a “B.” It could have been worse.
Wreck-It Ralph (B+). I managed to catch this Oscar-nominated animated feature before it disappeared from the dollar movie theater, and I was glad I did. The premise of the movie is that all those characters in video-arcade games–Pac Man, Mario, and the rest–are actually alive, and they can hang out and mingle with each other when the arcade is closed down. Wreck-It Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly, Walk Hard) is a big mean guy in a Donkey-Kong-like game called Fix-It Felix. Ralph gets tired of being the villain and heads off to try to become a hero in a sci-fi shoot-em-up game, but he winds up in a cutesy go-cart racing game called Sugar Rush, where he reluctantly befriends a sassy little ragamuffin named Vanellope von Schweets (voice of Sarah Silverman, School of Rock). The incomparable Jane Lynch (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) voices the tough-as-nails sci-fi battle commander. The plot is overly complicated, but it was a pretty clever movie with a couple of touching moments. Also, there was a decent short before the feature about a guy trying to find a girl that he met cute on a subway platform and then let get away.
Frankenweenie (B-). The latest film from the twisted mind of director Tim Burton (Dark Shadows) is a relatively low-key animated “horror” movie. In the town of New Holland, young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan, I Am Legend) is a budding film director with only one real friend, his dog Sparky. When Sparky is killed in an accident, Victor decides to put the science he has been learning at school into practice. His experiment is a success, but when his efforts to keep his discovery a secret fail, disaster threatens to strike! I give Burton credit for trying to come up with a fresh story to tell, and I enjoyed the mash-up of so many old-timey horror-movie conventions. Martin Landau (City of Ember) voices the weird, Vincent-Price-looking science teacher; Catherine O’Hara (Waiting for Guffman) voices Victor’s mom, and Winona Ryder (Star Trek) voices Victor’s sad next-door neighbor Elsa Van Helsing. The film has an interestingly creepy look, being done in black and white stop-motion. On the minus side, I didn’t think the story made a whole lot of sense. Still, I appreciated the effort to make an original story, and I think this film is mild enough for all but the littlest children this Halloween.
ParaNorman (C-). The trailers for this animated film piqued my curiosity a little bit. It appeared to be about a little kid named Norman who, like a kid in a certain blockbuster movie some years ago, possesses the “gift” of being able to see and talk to ghosts that are invisible to everybody else. His paranormal talent makes him a social misfit, even within his own family, but it may help him save the day when something happens and the dead begin to rise from their graves. Plus, the trailers used that groovy old Donovan song “Season of the Witch.” Anyhoo, the movie turns out to be a pretty bland affair–not very funny, not very creepy, not really much of anything. It kind of reminded me of that movie from some years ago called Monster House, in that the moviemakers seem to try really hard to come up with a fresh, original “scary story,” but the story just isn’t that involving. I will concede that the climactic scene was fairly satisfying, but that little victory was offset by a couple of totally unnecessary sexual references. I didn’t recognize many of the voices, but Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air) voices Norman’s annoying older sister, and John Goodman (O Brother Where Art Thou) voices his weird uncle Prenderghast.
Toys in the Attic (D). This is one weird movie. I gather it was made in the Czech Republic a few years ago and then somehow this dubbed English version got made. Some beat-up old toys are moldering away in some Czech attic somewhere. Woody and Buzz Lightyear they ain’t; there’s a patched-up old teddy bear (voice of Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland), a freaky Don Quixote-like marionette called Sir Handsome (voice of Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride), a grotesque little dude made of clay called Laurent, and a nice doll named Buttercup who makes cakes for the other three. It turns out that there’s a land of evil toys somewhere nearby, and they kidnap Buttercup while the other three are off at work. For the rest of the movie (which feels long even though the whole thing is only 80 minutes), the good toys (aided in particular by a toy mouse called Madam Curie and voiced by Joan Cusack, School of Rock) try to rescue Buttercup. The stop-motion animation and the visuals in general are nothing short of psychedelic. Nothing makes sense, and every other scene comes out of left field. The evil toys in particular give off a pretty creepy vibe, and this is definitely not a movie for kids. I’m not sure who it is for, really. I do give it some cleverness points for having Cary Elwes voice a character who’s on a quest to rescue someone named Buttercup, and I was startled to discover that Buttercup was voiced, and the English-language version of the film was co-directed by, Vivian Schilling of MST3K fame (Soultaker, to be specific). That said, I cannot recommend that you actually go watch this movie. It’s just too bizarre.