Born in China (B-). I don’t think I have seen one of these “Disneynature” Earth Day releases in a while. This one focuses on several species indigenous to China. Cranes and a certain kind of antelope get brief coverage, but the movie focuses on the giant panda, the snow leopard, and some kind of snub-nosed monkey I had never heard of before. The photography is exceptionally good, as you would expect, but the narration (provided by John Krasinski, Leatherheads) is way too sentimentalized and occasionally downright goofy. There’s very little gore, but there is still a death that might trouble the little ones and the exceptionally tenderhearted. Personally, based on the previews, I’m hoping for more from Disneynature’s 2018 release Dolphins.
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!
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 Music Man (B). Greetings, loyal readers, and my apologies for the long delay since my last post. Alas, this new review does not involve a new movie. Last week I saw the movie of The Music Man for the first time, and I thought it was very nice. Shirley Jones (Oklahoma!) is just beautiful as Marian the librarian. Robert Preston (How the West Was Won) was previously unknown to me, but I thought he turned in a fine performance. As you probably already know, the story is about a con man whose scam is to blow into a small town, puff up excitement for a new boys’ marching band, sell everyone uniforms and musical instruments, and then skip town without teaching any of the kids to play a note. The Simpsons once did an homage to The Music Man in which the great Phil Hartman voiced a con artist whose racket was to sell monorail systems to towns that didn’t need them. But I digress. I liked The Music Man a lot, but it could have been improved; 2 1/2 hours is way too long, and a few of the songs are so corny that they would not be missed. Still, I enjoyed it.