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.