Strange World Review

Say what you want about Disney’s overall slate of live-action remakes and an over-reliance on Marvel and Star Wars in recent years, but the Walt Disney Company’s animated output has never been better than in has over the last thirteen years. Starting with the Princess and the Frog in 2009, Walt Disney Animation Studios seemed to find their groove again, often rivaling and occasionally surpassing sister animation studio Pixar. The past decade-plus has seen Disney Animation release worldwide phenomenons like Frozen and Encanto, and additional acclaimed hits like Moana, Zootopia and Wreck-It Ralph. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ output has never been more consistent and varied. The animation giant’s sixty-first feature film, Strange World, adds another notch in Disney’s recent versatility in storytelling by hearkening back to pulp fiction adventures of the mid-20th century. Unfortunately, while Strange World continues Disney Animation’s recent winning ways in terms of versatility, it doesn’t match up to the same consistent quality as its recent predecessors. It doesn’t fall so short as to make me think the studio’s hot streak is broken, but Strange World does leave me wondering if said hot streak is winding down.

Strange World takes place in the land of Avalonia, a kind of Jules Verne world of flying machines, adventurers and retro futurism. Avalonia is surrounded by mountain ranges so large that even their most advanced airships can’t get past them. One notable Avalonian adventurer is Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid), who is so tough he shaves with a piranha. Jaeger is joined on his adventures by his much less brave son, Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jaeger has conquered seemingly everything Avalonia has to offer, with the sole exception being the discovery of what lies beyond the mountains of Avalonia, which is to be his life’s accomplishment. During the Clades’ expedition of the mountains, Searcher discovers a new type of plant that gives off energy. With the mountains proving too treacherous to conquer, Searcher and the rest of the crew suggest that the new plant (which they dub ‘Pando’) is world-changing enough of a discovery, and decide to return to Avalonia. Jaeger, hellbent on accomplishing his goal, abandons his son and continues onward through the mountains.

Fast-forward twenty-five years, and Pando has indeed changed Avalonia by becoming the land’s power source. Searcher is seen as Avalonia’s new hero for his discovery (he has a statue right next to his father’s), and he has since become a farmer of Pando along with his wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) and their son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Jaeger, meanwhile, is long-since presumed dead.

All is not well in Avalonia, however, as Pando crops are dying at an alarming rate. The leader of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) – who was with Jaeger and Searcher on their mountain expedition all those years ago – shows up at Searcher’s house to recruit him on a new expedition. Massive roots of Pando have been discovered in a sinkhole to the north, and Callisto believes these roots lead to the source of Pando’s power (the “Heart of Pando”), and that finding the source may help them solve the issue of Pando’s rapid decay. Searcher is reluctant, but having more knowledge of Pando than anyone else, agrees to embark on the adventure. Unbeknownst to him, Ethan stows away on Callisto’s ship (he’s always dreamed of going on adventures like his grandfather), with Meridian following in pursuit of her son

Unfortunately for the crew, the sinkhole not only leads underground, but into an entrance way to a whole other world beneath their own (the titular Strange World) and their ship crashes. This Strange World is a land filled with dangerous creatures and terrain, so Ethan and the rest of the crew will have to survive this Strange World if they hope to save Pando and return to Avalonia. But they’ll have some additional help in the form of Jaeger, who had fallen into the Strange World long ago, and has survived by building a flamethrower and feasting on the smaller creatures of Strange World (I don’t consider Jaeger’s survival a spoiler. It was shown in the trailers, and even if it wasn’t, these kinds of films always have this kind of character to guide our heroes on their adventure).

Again, the film has a very strong throwback vibe, hearkening back to the days of pulp magazines and movie serials, and unabashedly flaunts the expected tropes of such genres. On one hand, such sincerity in genre filmmaking is hard to come by these days, and has a certain innocent appeal to it. But it also means that Strange World doesn’t have a whole lot of surprises in store. Still, even a cliched story can be made special by its execution, and I’d rather have a good predictable movie than a bad movie that features twists just for the heck of it. Though I must admit it’s in that execution that Strange World becomes a bit of a mixed bag.

I think my main issue is that the action of Strange World is serviceable, but unmemorable. Considering the film is aiming for that ‘BANG ZOOM’ action of yesteryear, the action scenes should be one of the film’s highlights. Instead, Strange World simply seems to make due with its action scenes. Disney Animation hasn’t had the strongest history with action films, but they did do it right recently with Raya and the Last Dragon, so it’s a shame that didn’t translate here when it would have been even more beneficial. Strange World could have brought the action of movie serials up to date and, with the benefit of animation, gotten really imaginative with it. Unfortunately, the action scenes here are decently entertaining but overly familiar.

Where the film shines, however, is in its animation. The titular Strange World is a sight to behold, with its sharp reds, magentas and oranges making everything pop. Better still are the creatures that inhabit it, many of which are faceless blobs of varying shapes and sizes (one of which, dubbed Splat, is rightfully the film’s mascot). Others are stone-like brontosauruses that shed pollen from their backs and have legs as thin as pipe cleaners with feet like giant mushroom caps. I’m always a sucker for creature designs, and I get the impression the Disney animators had a lot of fun coming up with the creatures of Strange World. Even the world of Avalonia, the supposed ‘normal’ world of the film, is a joy to look at with its combination of history and fantasy.

The film also deserves credit for injecting a bit of heart into an otherwise by-the-books action-adventure, tying in a generational trauma theme seemingly carried over by Encanto, with the three generations of Clades (Jaeger, Searcher and Ethan) often butting heads with their worldviews. It doesn’t tug at the heart in the same way as other recent Disney animated flicks, but an action-adventure doesn’t really need to. Of course, with the action failing to lift Strange World up to greater heights, perhaps a little more effort trying to reach the same emotional heights of a Frozen or an Encanto may have been the key to making Strange World something special.

Strange World is a solid entry in the Disney Animation Studios canon. But in a time when Disney’s animated storytelling has never been stronger, simply being ‘solid’ does mean that Strange World is in the shadows of the studio’s other recent films. It isn’t that Strange World is bad, just that – much like the characters in the film – it often feels lost and stumbling amidst a land of giants.

6

Wreck-It Ralph Turns 10!

Yep, another anniversary post at the Dojo. This time for something that’s only kind of/sort of related to Super Mario. We’re talking about the Disney animated film Wreck-It Ralph, which is somehow ten years old today!

Yes, another thing to make me feel so old. Wreck-It Ralph was released on November 2nd 2012. It’s become something of a semi-classic in the Disney canon, but it still probably ranks in my top 10 favorite Disney animated films, to add some personal perspective.

Wreck-It Ralph tells the story of an old arcade video game villain (the titular Ralph), as he grows tired of the stigma that comes with his job as a gaming baddie, and sets off to prove himself a hero. Admittedly, the premise does seem to echo previous animated films such as Shrek, Despicable Me and Mega Mind, but Ralph is the best film of that lot (sorry, Shrek fans). And it has more than enough charm and visual inventiveness to stand on its own.

Ralph was one of the earlier entries in Disney Animation’s ongoing resurgence, which began with either The Princess and the Frog or Tangled (or Bolt, depending on who you ask). And while Disney Animation is still going strong, the early 2010s were particularly great thanks to the likes of Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen the next year. Interestingly, both films were also accompanied by fantastic short films (Paperman in the case of Ralph, and the best Mickey Mouse short, “Get a Horse” ahead of Frozen). Disney was really at the top of their game at that point!

Wreck-It Ralph is definitely worth a look for fans of Disney, animation and video games, and people who simply like a charming story. It’s 2018 sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, is almost just as good. I honestly wouldn’t mind a third entry.

Happy Tenth Anniversary, Wreck-It Ralph and Paperman!

Also, as a bonus, yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of Super Mario Galaxy’s release in Japan (you had to know we’d get back to Mario). Since I missed out on writing a proper post for the occasion (I also missed out on my Halloween post, sadly), I will be sure to write something on the fifteenth anniversary of Super Mario Galaxy’s US release a little later this month. As well as some actual reviews and such.

Happy (belated) fifteen, Super Mario Galaxy!

Spirited Away’s 20th US Anniversary!

Yes, Spirited Away may have officially turned twenty last year (and I even wrote about that), but today marks the twentieth anniversary of when the film was released in the United States. And much like the SNES is my favorite console so I wrote a thirtieth anniversary post for both its Japanese and US anniversaries, Spirited Away is my favorite film, so I’m writing a second twentieth anniversary post in honor of its US release.

Now with all that unnecessary explanation out of the way…

It was twenty years ago today – September 20th 2002 – that Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, Spirited Away, was first released in US cinemas. A watershed moment in the history of animation and cinema, Spirited Away set a new benchmark for animation the world over. I honestly don’t think there’s been an animated film released since whose influence has been as far reaching.

Hayao Miyazaki’s name was still obscure in the US of A at the time Spirited Away was released stateside, with only three of his films having had official releases in the western world beforehand (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, if you were wondering). Though all three films received immense acclaim in America, they were still a bit under the radar, with both Totoro and Kiki being released straight to VHS, and Mononoke having such a quiet theatrical release, that calling it a ‘limited release’ would be an understatement.

Thankfully, Spirited Away had top names from Disney and Pixar backing it, which resulted in the film breaking barriers like never before, even winning an Academy Award in the process.

More important than any awards though, is the impact and influence Spirited Away continues to have in animation and cinema. Everything from live-action films, anime, Disney, the films of Tomm Moore, even television shows like Gravity Falls have been influenced by it, and everything in between. It’s also no coincidence that Pixar’s films started becoming more artistically rich following Spirited Away’s release (there’s an argument to be made that Inside Out was basically an elaborate homage to Spirited Away. No wonder it’s the best Pixar movie).

Most important is how Spirited Away continues to touch the hearts and capture the imaginations of audiences the world over. Myself very much included.

Happy twentieth (US) anniversary, Spirited Away!

Minions: The Rise of Gru Review

Minions: The Rise of Gru is the fifth overall installment in Illumination’s Despicable Me franchise, and the second that shifts the focus away from Gru in favor of the ubiquitous Minions. Though, as the subtitle suggests, Gru has much more of a role here than he did in the first Minions movie (in which he appeared as a background Easter egg in one scene, and then had a speaking cameo at the end, which made the aforementioned background Easter egg kind of superfluous). Because of Gru’s more prominent role, you could argue that this seconds Minions movie is more of a Despicable Me prequel than it is a Minions spinoff. But that may be for the best, considering how the first Minions movie didn’t seem to know how to have its titular, Twinkie-shaped creatures carry the story on their own (its villain seemed to get more screentime than the Minions themselves). In that sense, Minions: The Rise of Gru is an improvement over its predecessor, but whether or not you enjoy it may depend on how well you can tolerate the Minions themselves.

Children (and Facebook moms) can’t seem to get enough of the Minions, while many other audiences find the antics and gibberish ramblings of the Minions irksome. I’m a bit indifferent to them, myself. I can understand why many find the Minions annoying, but I also know I’m not the target audience for the characters and find their antics harmless. Their worst crime is resurrecting the trend of animated sidekick characters purposefully upstaging the main characters. In short, I may not be a fan of the Minions, but I don’t hate them, either. If you’re someone who does enjoy the Minions, then you’ll probably get a kick out of Minions: The Rise of Gru, but if you aren’t a fan, then this movie certainly isn’t going to convert you.

The story here takes place in the 1970s. Gru (Steve Carell) is still just a kid with aspirations to become a great supervillain. Now that he has the Minions as his, well, minions, he’s a step closer to his goals. The Minions help Gru commit petty, bullyish crimes, like cutting in line at an ice cream shop, stealing some ice cream, and then eating said ice cream in front of a gym to taunt the people inside trying to burn calories. If the movie has one notable strength, it’s that this is the first time since the first Despicable Me that we’ve seen Gru actually be a villain. And isn’t that why people liked this series in the first place?

Anyway, the plot sees Gru invited to join his favorite supervillain team, the Vicious Six, after their former leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), is presumed dead (in reality, he was given the boot for being too old). The Vicious Six have recently stolen an ancient treasure, the Zodiac Stone (which is actually a medallion). When Gru is denied entry into the Vicious Six for being too young, he steals the Zodiac Stone from the villain group. The Vicious Six, lead by Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), then swear revenge against Gru. But before they can track Gru down, the aspiring villain is kidnapped by Wild Knuckles, who also wants the stone.

Unbeknownst to Wild Knuckles or the Vicious Six, one of Gru’s Minions, Otto (voiced by Pierre Coffin, as all the Minions are) has traded the stone for a Pet Rock with a neighborhood kid. Once Gru is kidnapped, three of his Minions, Kevin, Bob and Stuart set out to rescue their leader, while Otto goes to retrieve the Zodiac Stone. Meanwhile, Wild Knuckles starts to take a liking to Gru, who becomes the apprentice of the one-time Vicious Six leader.

To be honest, there’s not much more of a plot than that. A recurring issue with Illumination’s movies is that they feel less like animated films and more like episodes of a television cartoon stretched into a feature length. It’s no unforgiveable sin, and not every animated film has to be an emotional masterpiece, but after a while you start to wish that Illumination would at least aim for something more. Sadly, Minions: The Rise of Gru is another example of Illumination settling.

On the reverse side, if there’s one thing Illumination deserves credit for, it’s the quality of the animation itself. Illumination is known for making their films on a relatively smaller budget than other mainstream animation studios, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Illumination’s films are always colorful and pop with a visual liveliness, and that’s very much the case here with this Minions sequel.

Minions: The Rise of Gru has something to offer fans of the series: there’s some genuinely funny moments, the animation is as eye-popping as ever, and it’s fun to see Gru go back to his cartoonishly villainous roots. There’s also a fun sub-plot where Kevin, Stuart and Bob study kung-fu from an acupuncturist named Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh). But again, this is a movie that isn’t going to win over those who aren’t already initiated into the material. The Minions are still very much the Minions, and the movie follows Illumination’s trend of being just entertaining enough to be adequate. It may provide some fun when watching it, but it leaves no lasting impression.

To many audiences, Minions: The Rise of Gru may be as bland as a potato. But for the young tykes who can’t get enough of the Minions, they may just go bananas.

5

Lightyear Review

With all due respect to Woody, I think it’s safe to say that Buzz Lightyear is the fan favorite Toy Story character. With his myriad of gadgets, lasers, the ability to fly (or fall with style), and combat skills with which he saves the galaxy, it’s absolutely no mystery why Buzz usurped Woody as Andy’s favorite toy. It really was only a matter of time before Buzz Lightyear got his own movie. After twenty-seven years since Toy Story first hit theaters, Pixar has finally given Buzz such a movie in the form of Lightyear, a sci-fi adventure that serves as the in-universe movie that inspired the toy.

It’s a very fun and creative idea for Pixar to make the Buzz Lightyear movie that made Andy from Toy Story such a fan in the first place. Although it has to be mentioned that the idea technically already happened with the Disney animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command in the early 2000s. But now the origin story can be told by Pixar themselves. And as the Disney+ series Monsters at Work proved, Pixar’s creations are best left in Pixar’s hands. Being Pixar’s own take on the in-universe Buzz Lightyear concept, Lightyear is the definitive origin story for the iconic Space Ranger.

Definitive though it may be, Lightyear – while ultimately a solid and entertaining science fiction film – may not be the kind of science fiction adventure you would expect from its namesake character.

The story begins with Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and the Space Rangers of Star Command – lead by Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) – investigating an alien planet. They find that the planet provides the air and resources to make it habitable, but its monstrous creatures and plant life prove too dangerous, and Star Command issues an emergency retreat from the planet. Buzz takes control of Star Command’s ship, but a miscalculation during the escape leads to the Space Rangers being marooned on the planet.

Star Command makes the best of the situation and builds a colony on the planet over the next year. Buzz – taking responsibility for the current situation – volunteers to be the test pilot to see if he can make hyperspace, as Star Command’s primary ship won’t be able to leave the planet without it. Buzz doesn’t quite reach hyperspace, but finds that when he returns from his four minute flight that four years have passed on the planet’s surface.

Though Hawthorne objects to Buzz making any more flights, the Space Ranger is too determined to call it quits. With his robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn) testing new formulas for fuel (using the method of “Crystallic Fusion” mentioned in Toy Story), Buzz continues flight after flight after flight, with roughly four years passing by with each unsuccessful test.

While Buzz has barely aged a day, his test flights have added up to him being gone a total of sixty-two years. During that time, Commander Hawthorne has passed away. Feeling he let his best friend down, Buzz is now more determined than ever, and with Sox perfecting his formula for hyperspace fuel over the past sixty-two years, Buzz finally makes a successful jump to hyperspeed. But in doing so, an additional twenty-two years have passed. In that time, the Star Command colony has been occupied by the robotic forces of a being known as “Zurg.”

Thankfully, a small band of ragtag, would-be Space Rangers have slipped away from Zurg’s occupation. This includes Hawthorne’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), who hopes to live up to her grandmother’s legacy; Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), a good-hearted but clumsy oaf; and Darby Steel (Dale Soules), an elderly convict trying to work off her sentence. Though this team may not seem cut out to be Space Rangers, Buzz will have to rely on them – as well as Sox – if they are to bring down Zurg’s robots and deliver the hyperspace fuel to Star Command.

I don’t want to say too much else as to avoid any major spoilers. But I have to admit that the setup to the plot as described above actually takes up a fair bit of the film’s runtime. And I imagine that may not exactly be to everyone’s liking. The whole ordeal of Buzz’s test flights provides some interesting storytelling, and is reminiscent of the recent Top Gun Maverick, with a little bit of Intersteller worked in there for good measure. It’s entertaining in its own way, but it’s probably a far cry from what you would expect from the Buzz Lightyear movie that supposedly inspired an eight-year-old’s obsession with the character.

That may be the biggest issue with Lightyear, although it’s ultimately a good movie, it seems to be the wrong kind of science-fiction story. Some might say that’s my own expectations getting in the way. But given all the information the Toy Story movies gave us on the Buzz Lightyear character and his world, I’d say Toy Story itself had those expectations. Given all the dialogue and bits of insight the Toy Story series gave us on Buzz Lightyear’s in-universe character, I think most people would probably expect a fantasy-adventure set in space, akin to Star Wars. So the more grounded science-fiction approach of Lightyear comes off as a bit jarring, even disappointing.

Yes, I understand that this movie and its characters are supposed to be separate from their Toy Story equivalents, but as is the case with many adaptations, you still expect a level of faithfulness to the source material. And bizarrely, Pixar’s own adaptation of a character they created feels strangely unfaithful to the world we’ve been teased with for nearly thirty years.

Buzz Lightyear the toy thought himself to be the actual character he was based on, and believed his undying heroism could do no wrong. So it’s kind of weird to see the “actual character” of Buzz Lightyear be depicted as he is here; making continuous shortsighted mistakes, rarely trusting others, being haunted by the past… It’s a more human Buzz Lightyear, but he seems far removed from the person that the toy Buzz Lightyear believed himself to be.

Without spoiling too much, there’s also a twist involving the villainous Zurg that I really think will prove divisive to longtime Toy Story fans. Sure, it’s a twist that makes thematic sense with the movie at hand, but it all goes back to the movie’s deviation of what Toy Story told us about these characters. It feels like a twist that belongs in a different movie, because the story itself often feels like it belongs in a separate movie. Though I didn’t predict the twist itself, I did predict that there was going to be a twist with Zurg quite a while ago, because there’s always a twist with villains these days. While I usually prefer deeper, more complex villains, I can’t help but feel Evil Emperor Zurg could have just been Evil Emperor Zurg and nobody would have had a problem with it. But evil emperors can’t just be evil emperors anymore, it seems.

That kind of sums up the issues Lightyear runs into. It wants to be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story, but simultaneously feels like it has its own sci-fi story it wants to tell that doesn’t really feel like it should be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story. Pixar is renowned for the maturity they impart in their animated features, but I feel like Lightyear should have been the one time Pixar went into full Saturday Morning Cartoon mode (albeit with the trademark Pixar heart at its core). Lightyear oddly feels like a more serious, grownup sci-fi movie that just happens to star Buzz Lightyear.

If you can get passed the misplaced tone of the film, Lightyear does have a lot to offer. As you would expect from Pixar, the animation quality is top-notch. While I would argue the film needed some more lively color, it still is interesting to see Pixar tackle a more conventional sci-fi aesthetic. The bulky armors, hefty machinery and insectoid aliens all evoke a loving tribute to classic science fiction, all brought to life with the studio’s impeccable attention to detail.

The film is also excellently cast. While Tim Allen is perfect for the often-delusional Buzz Lightyear toy, Chris Evans seems to be the perfect fit for the heroic “real” Buzz Lightyear. Evans somehow manages to capture the same bravado of Tim Allen’s Buzz, but in a younger, more serious way. The supporting characters are also well cast, with particular praise going to Pixar animator Peter Sohn as Sox, who gives the robotic cat a similar “innocent robot” appeal to Baymax from Big Hero 6 or Ron from Ron’s Gone Wrong.

Another fun highlight of Lightyear is the film’s references to Toy Story, with Buzz quoting his toy-self on a number of occasions, and other little callbacks sprinkled throughout. The film is never overburdened with the references, but it’s an appreciated way to keep the DNA of the Toy Story series intact.

Lightyear is ultimately an entertaining and thoughtful science fiction movie, but I don’t think it ranks among Pixar’s best largely because it seems to be emulating the wrong kinds of science-fiction stories, given the legacy of its titular character. It may not be the Buzz Lightyear movie we expected, but Lightyear proves to be another solid entry in the Pixar canon, even if it doesn’t soar to infinity and beyond.

6

The Bob’s Burgers Movie Review

When Bob’s Burgers debuted on Fox in 2011, it was the latest in a long line of animated series that the network greenlit in hopes of finding another success that could be a mainstay for their animation block, alongside The Simpsons and *groan* Family Guy. While Bob’s Burgers initially had middling ratings and a lukewarm reception, it eventually grew into the critically acclaimed stalwart of Fox’s animation block, with many considering it the spiritual successor to King of the Hill. Like King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers focuses on dry, character-based humor, as opposed to the increasing gimmicks of The Simpsons (which has long-since lost its luster) or the desperate shocks and humorless cutaways of Family Guy (which never had luster). The series has now been on the air for over eleven years and 200 episodes, more than earning the right to have its own feature film. After numerous delays, The Bob’s Burgers Movie is finally a reality, with the finished product being joyous fun, even if it feels more like an extended episode than a proper movie.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie sees the big screen debut of the Belcher family: father and restaurateur Bob (H. Jon Benjamin), his wife Linda (John Roberts), and their kids; awkward 13-year-old Tina (Dan Mintz), goofy 11-year-old Gene (Eugene Mirman), and spunky 9-year-old Louise (Kristen Schaal), who is always wearing her bunny eared cap. Joining them is dimwitted but goodhearted handyman (and regular customer) Teddy (Larry Murphy).

The story here is that Bob and Linda are turned down for a business loan and have only one week to make the month’s payment or face repossession of their restaurant equipment. Already a tough task, things are made more complicated when a sinkhole appears at the front of their restaurant, blocking access to customers. The city plans on filling in the sinkhole as soon as possible, until the skeleton of a missing carnival worker named Cotton Candy Dan is found in the hole, and it becomes a crime scene. Given the unique circumstances, Linda asks their eccentric landlord Calvin Fischoeder (Kevin Kline) and his brother Felix (Zack Galifianakis) if the Belchers can delay their month’s rent in order to make their loan payment. Calvin’s response is a resounding “maybe.”

Things get yet even more complicated when Calvin Fischoeder becomes the prime suspect in the murder of Cotton Candy Dan and is arrested. Desperate to save their business, Bob and Linda sell their burgers from a makeshift cart created by Teddy, despite not having a license to do so. Meanwhile, the Belcher kids try to clear Fischoeder’s name, so that he can help the family out by waving the month’s rent.

The plot is good, simple fun. But aside from the presence of a murder, it does feel like the same kind of plot you would see in an episode of the series. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given the quality of Bob’s Burgers, but you can’t help but wish the film would have aimed a bit higher. The Simpson’s Movie (which is somehow fifteen years old) almost went out of its way to have a bigger scope and scale in story than its series, to justify its movie-ness. I can’t help but feel that Bob’s Burgers missed the opportunity to do the same. Though to be fair, I’d rather have a good extended episode than a disappointing movie. And between the Bob’s Burgers and Simpsons movies, Bob’s Burgers is the one that falls into the former category.

A few elements are present that make The Bob’s Burgers Movie feel more cinematic. The most immediate being the animation itself, which is more fluid and detailed than ever. The characters look more three-dimensional than in the series, with a heavier focus on lighting and shading throughout. This higher quality animation even adds to the film’s humor. The characters of Bob’s Burgers always looked like something of a cross between classic Simpsons and the Muppets, and to see such goofy and endearing characters move with the fluidity of an animated feature is in itself funny.

The “movie quality” is really brought out during the film’s musical numbers, which are much bigger than they are in the series. The songs themselves are also surprisingly good (the opening number “Sunnyside Up Summer” deserves mention for Best Original Song awards come next award season, for its infectious melody and lighthearted humor). These songs are so catchy, in fact, that you can’t help but wish there were more of them. I feel like it may have been another missed opportunity by not making The Bob’s Burgers Movie a full-fledged musical.

Still, it’s easy to recommend The Bob’s Burgers Movie to fans, and it may even convert audiences who haven’t seen the series (despite the film’s many callbacks to past episodes, it still serves as a perfectly accessible entry point for first time viewers). The movie has the same irreverent yet wholesome humor of the show, and it gives its characters some good development (particularly Louise, who seems to be the de facto main character of the film, as she tries to prove herself capable of growing up). The voice work is as funny and quirky as ever, and the film on the whole is a lot of fun.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie maybe could have been a little more “movie.” But a little more Bob’s Burgers is always a good thing.

7

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022) Review

*Review contains minor spoilers*

When Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released in 1988, it was a defining moment in animation history. Not only did the film meld live-action and animated characters so seamlessly it still hasn’t been matched since, but it also created renewed interest in animation itself. This renewed interest led to Disney’s ‘Renaissance’ era, in addition to inspiring other studios to throw their hat in the animation ring. Roger Rabbit’s meshing together of beloved animated characters has also had a reverberating effect, with films such as Wreck-It Ralph, its sequel and Space Jam: A New Legacy all trying something similar in more recent years. This influence even found its way into weekday and Saturday morning cartoons (remember those?), with Disney in particular creating a slew of animated programs in the late 80s and early 90s that repurposed their animated characters from yesteryear.

Goof Troop reimagined Goofy as a single father and Peg-Leg Pete as his nosey neighbor. TaleSpin featured characters from The Jungle Book in a period piece setting and focused on aviation. DuckTales – the most famous of the lot – saw Scrooge McDuck and his nephews on Indiana Jones-like adventures, much like Scrooge’s old comic books. And Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers saw the titular Chipmunks as detectives who, along with some new friends, would solve cases that were “too small” for the police to handle.

In this day and age where nostalgia (particularly for the 80s and 90s) has a strong influence on pop culture, it makes sense that we’re seeing these shows get resurrected in one way or another. DuckTales saw a successful reboot series that ran from 2017 to 2021, and now Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers has been given its own feature film on Disney+. Though it’s probably not the Rescue Rangers movie you would expect.

Rather than go for a straight feature film adaptation, this 2022 Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a satirical, meta live-action and animated hybrid movie that features many beloved characters from animation history… kind of like Roger Rabbit. So we’ve basically come full circle. The results are mostly enjoyable, even if the film ultimately can’t compete with the film that inspired it (or should I say ‘the film that inspired the show that inspired it?’).

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers chronicles how Disney’s chipmunk duo first met in early 80s (strangely ignoring the characters’ history in Disney shorts decades before then). Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) became close friends and struggled in Hollywood until getting their big break with the aforementioned series. With Rescue Rangers a big success, Chip and Dale were finally living their dream. But Dale, tired of being looked at as the goofy sidekick, tried to branch out and get a show of his own, a Bond spoof called Double-O-Dale. But Dale’s conflicting roles lead to the cancellation of Rescue Rangers, and Double-O-Dale wasn’t even picked up as a series. The Rescue Rangers cancellation caused a riff between the chipmunks, with Chip leaving Hollywood behind to sell insurance. Dale, meanwhile, continues to milk his former glory, making appearances at fan conventions. He even went so far as to get “CGI surgery” in order to stay relevant in the changing world of animation.

Fast-forward to the present, and both Chip and Dale get separate calls from their former Rescue Rangers costar, Monterey Jack (Eric Bana). Monty needs Chip and Dale’s help, as his cheese addiction has landed him in hot water with a crime boss named ‘Sweet Pete.’ If Monty can’t pay back his debt, Pete will have Monty ‘bootlegged’ (a process that alters a character to avoid copyright laws, so they can be shipped overseas and make bootlegged versions of Hollywood movies). Chip and Dale promise to pay Monty’s debt, only for Monty to end up kidnapped that same night. The police, led by the claymation Captain Putty (J.K. Simmons), are looking into it, but have their hands tied with a series of other toon disappearances. So Chip and Dale begrudgingly set aside their differences to start an investigation of their own to find their missing friend with the help of human officer Ellie Steckler (KiKi Layne). All the while, Dale hopes the team-up leads to an eventual Rescue Rangers reboot.

The setup is a lot of fun. Using a real show from yesteryear as the backdrop for a Roger Rabbit-style comedy is a really entertaining idea. And the movie is clearly having a ball with all the characters, cameos and references it can cram in. One benefit this film has is that animation has changed a lot since Roger Rabbit hit theaters, so there’s a lot more types of humor and visual styles they can squeeze in.

Not only do we have toons interacting with humans, but the toons themselves (whether existing characters or ones made up for the film) come in a range of styles, from anime to stop-motion to Michael Bay’s Transformers to the 80s incarnation of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Sweet Pete’s gang even consists of “uncanny valley” CG characters like Bob the Viking Dwarf (Seth Rogen), who is based on the Polar Express/Beowulf era of motion-capture (complete with dead eyes and lifeless movements), and a polar bear based on the old Coca-Cola commercials. Perhaps best of all is that one of the minor characters in the film is none other than ‘Ugly Sonic‘ (Tim Robinson). That is to say, the original character design for Sonic the Hedgehog for the 2020 film that haunted that initial trailer, before internet backlash delayed the film for the redesign of the character. Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is full of visual surprises and variety that helps keep the film’s concept fresh throughout.

With that said, there is a bit of an asterisk to all this, since most of the characters are done with CG, even when they’re supposed to be traditionally animated or stop-motion characters. The most glaring examples being Chip, Monty and fellow Rescue Rangers characters Gadget (Tress MacNeille) and Zipper (Dennis Haysbert), who are obviously created with a cel-shaded CG meant to mimic the look of traditional animation. This not only feels like a shortcut was taken, but it also kind of deflates the whole joke that Dale had cosmetic surgery to become a CG character when the supposedly hand-drawn characters around him are also CG.

That’s not to say anything against CG, of course. All forms of animation can create things of beauty and wonder. But given the premise of the movie, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity that it didn’t go all out and capture the different characters with their appropriate medium (there are a few delightful exceptions, such as a quick cameo from Roger Rabbit himself. Because of course he’s in this movie).

While Rescue Rangers is often very funny – sometimes outright hilarious – it does admittedly have a few jokes that it doesn’t know when to let them go. Most notably are the constant remarks about reboots, which after a while may become as insistent as the reboots they’re commenting on. The humor can even feel a little bit smarmy at times, which is a trap the more earnest Who Framed Roger Rabbit never once fell into.

Something else I have mixed feelings about is the film’s villain, Sweet Pete. I guess this is something of a spoiler (though the trailers already blatantly revealed it, and the reveal happens somewhat early in the film), but Sweet Pete is revealed to be a fat, balding, middle-aged Peter Pan (Will Arnett). On one hand, the idea of a middle-aged Peter Pan and Arnett’s voice work are funny. But on the other hand, the idea of “evil Peter Pan” is becoming almost as cliche as the evil Superman trope. Plus, Sweet Pete’s motive is that he became bitter once he got older and Hollywood forgot him, which seems kind of weird since the Disney version of Peter Pan is still a decently popular character who shows up here and there (this origin story is made even weirder with how Peter Pan is inexplicably the only toon in the movie who has aged). It seems like Disney could have used a more genuinely forgotten character to go with the backstory, like McLeach from the Rescuers Down Under, or Gurgi from The Black Cauldron. But now I’m overthinking things.

None of these complaints are dealbreakers, however. Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a fun and funny movie that should be doubly entertaining for fans of animation and the people who grew up during the time when shows like the original DuckTales and Rescue Rangers were still airing. It’s a film filled with visual delights and fun callbacks and references for fans. The smart-alecky attitude of the film holds back some of the humor, and no, it’s certainly no Roger Rabbit. But Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is certainly one of the better Roger Rabbit imitators. And it may be the only time we ever get to see Ugly Sonic in a movie.

7

The Bad Guys Review

The Bad Guys is the latest film from Dreamworks Animation, based on a series of children’s graphic novels by Australian author Aaron Blabey. While Dreamworks Animation has a tendency to greenlight seemingly any idea that enters their doorway just to see what sticks, the good thing is that every now and again one does stick. The Bad Guys is thankfully one of those ones that sticks! Though the story is nothing groundbreaking for animated features, its terrific animation and art direction, and zany sense of humor elevate it.

The Bad Guys tells the story of a group of, well, bad guys: Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson) and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), a band of thieves who continue to pull off big heists and elude the authorities.

When new governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) insults the Bad Guys on the local news, Wolf decides to pull their biggest heist to cement their legacy. A local philanthropist, a guinea pig named Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade), is going to be awarded the Golden Dolphin for his countless charitable deeds. So Wolf and the gang plan to sneak into the gala and steal the Dolphin as their biggest score to date.

During the heist, Wolf inadvertently saves an old woman from falling down some stairs (he was trying to grab her purse), with the woman’s praises thereafter warming Wolf’s heart. Distracted, Wolf accidently blows the operation, and the Bad Guys are finally caught. But Wolf manages to charm his way out of jail time by appealing to Professor Marmalade’s good nature, with Governor Foxington agreeing to let Marmalade train the Bad Guys to become “the Good Guys.” Wolf explains to the gang that it’s all part of the ultimate con, to pretend to go good as a cover as to remain bad and steal the Dolphin, much to the delight of the rest of the group (except Snake, the “baddest” of the bunch, who is hesitant with the idea). But remembering how good he felt when helping the old woman, Wolf begins to wonder if a life of bad is the life he actually wants.

Although the story has its charms, it does kind of feel like we’ve gone through a time machine back to the early 2010s, when the idea of “bad guys going good” was pretty common in animated features. Despicable Me, Wreck-It Ralph and Dreamworks’ own Megamind were all variations on the premise (Wreck-It Ralph being the one that’s stood tall against the test of time). Heck, you could even argue that Shrek kind of had a similar setup all the way back in 2001. Point being, The Bad Guys’s plot isn’t exactly sailing uncharted waters, but it makes up for a lack of originality in its story in other areas.

First and foremost is the animation. Rather than going the traditional route of CG animation or Dreamworks’ usual character designs, The Bad Guys merges CG characters with hand-drawn sensibilities (a trait also recently seen in Pixar’s Turning Red) and seems to be drawing from a wide range of influences. There’s obviously a very cartoony, Looney Tunes vibe, but also with a dash of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball or Dr. Slump. It’s a terrific film to look at, with a fluidity and zaniness to the character’s movements that evokes the best slapstick animation. I especially like the human police chief Misty Luggins (Alex Borstein), who kind of looks like Wreck-It Ralph, and stomps and punches around the place as she pursues the Bad Guys.

Another highlight is the film’s sense of humor. Not only does The Bad Guys boast some great cartoonish antics and gags, but also some fun spoofs on gangster and heist films. Nothing too upfront (thankfully), but there’s some fun homages that are subtle enough to make them cleverer than if they did the Shrek approach of obvious parody (Tarantino’s filmography and the Oceans films seem like favorite targets for the film). What’s impressive is that The Bad Guys never feels like a kids’ movie trying to win over the older crowd. It simply delivers the humor inherent in its story and characters, which should appeal to audiences of any age. It feels natural and works seamlessly.

There are admittedly some pacing issues in the film’s middle act, with some major aspects of the plot kind of rushing by in order for the film to make another twist or turn in the story. In all honesty, these twists are mostly fun, though the biggest ones are probably also the most obvious. It would be nice if the film had a slightly longer running time, so that these twists didn’t come at the expense of what was previously being built up. But it’s ultimately a small price to pay for how entertaining The Bad Guys otherwise is.

The Bad Guys is the kind of movie that I think any audience will have fun with. It’s exciting, funny, action-packed, well-acted and visually inspired. It may not be among the deeper animated films of recent memory, and it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of, say, a Pixar movie. But not every animated film has to. Sometimes a fun, entertaining movie is more than enough. And The Bad Guys delivers just that.

7

Turning Red Review

Turning Red is a Pixar movie quite unlike any other that has come before it. The feature film debut for director Domee Shi (who previously directed the 2018 short “Bao”), Turning Red takes the emotional core of Pixar films, and combines it with a coming-of-age story about puberty, culture clash, and a love letter to the early 2000s. The end result at once feels like a personal story on Shi’s part, as well as Pixar’s funniest and weirdest film to date.

Uniquely set during 2002, Turning Red tells the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl living in Toronto, Canada. Mei is obsessed with the boy band 4Town, an obsession she shares with her friends, Miriam (Ava Morse), Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Abby (Hyein Park). But Mei is rarely able to see her friends anymore, as she helps her strict mother, Ming (Sandra Oh), in running the family temple. That is when she isn’t working hard to get straight As to keep her mother happy. The fact that Ming disapproves of Mei’s friends and musical interests makes things all the more difficult, to say nothing of Mei’s growing interest in boys.

Ming discovers that Mei has developed a crush on an older boy, leading to a particularly embarrassing situation for Mei. This proves too much for her to handle, and the next morning, Mei awakes to find she has transformed into a giant red panda! Calming her emotions transforms her back into her human self (now sporting red hair), but whenever Mei gets too excited, she transforms back into the red panda.

It turns out that Mei’s family has a spiritual connection to red pandas, and every female member of her family goes through the transformation when they reach a certain age. There is a ritual that can be performed to seal away the red panda spirit, but it can only be done during a Red Moon, the next of which is still a month away. In the meantime, Mei will have to try to keep her emotions in check if she doesn’t want to unleash the panda and cause a ruckus. But that’s much easier said than done when going through puberty and always trying to be perfect for an overbearing mother. To further complicate things, 4Town will be having a concert in Toronto a week before the ritual!

The plot may sound silly, but it’s in the best way possible. Turning Red has a lot of fun not just in the scenario of Mei’s transformation, but also in its setting. I think this is the first Pixar film to directly mention its time period (The Incredibles was vaguely set in the 1960s, while some others were in the non-specific present day of their release). And boy, does Turning Red love to flaunt its love of the early 2000s! Not only is its depiction of boy band culture equal parts homage and spoof, but Mei also carries a Tamagotchi, we get glimpses of VHS tapes and DVDs, and we even get to hear a snippet of The Cha Cha Slide by DJ Casper. Suffice to say Turning Red has a lot of fun reveling in its nostalgia for the time. It’s so 2002 that the only things missing are references to Playstation 2 and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.

Something else you’ve probably deduced from the plot synopsis is that Mei’s transformation occurring the same time she’s hitting puberty is certainly no coincidence. In fact, the first time Mei transforms into the panda she hides from her parents, who mistakenly believe Mei has just had her first period. The film is wonderfully honest and unapologetic with such subjects. It’s as much about Mei’s body changing in a natural way as it is about her changing in a supernatural way. And it works so effortlessly you wonder why past children’s films have been so skittish to tackle such subjects (it should be noted that Turning Red never actually uses words such as “period” while still making the subject overt which, as Seinfeld taught us, makes things all the funnier).

It’s also fun to see a Pixar movie focus on a clash of cultures. Mei is fully respectful to her Chinese heritage and traditions, but her love of boy bands and the youth culture of Toronto baffles her mother, creating a bigger rift between the two.

I’ve heard some people say these elements “don’t feel like a Pixar movie.” But that’s exactly what I love about Turning Red. It feels so different from anything else Pixar has made while (crucially) still retaining the heart and emotion the studio’s storytelling is known for. If anything, the differences Turning Red makes to Pixar’s norms is the greatest testament to the quality of Pixar movies that we’ve seen in quite some time. Turning Red is proud to be a Pixar film, but it’s also rebellious and unafraid to do its own thing within the Pixar canon.

This is seen in the animation itself. Turning Red retains the top-notch computer animation of Pixar but fuses it with anime influences and additional hand-drawn effects to make it look unique among its Pixar peers. Pixar’s characters have never been more exaggerated or expressive than they are in Turning Red, which leads to some great visual comedy. The character designs themselves are simple, but fun and memorable. The whole movie just pops with color. It’s a constant visual delight.

Turning Red is the most fun and original Pixar movie in quite some time. Domee Shi seems to have infused the film with her own personal experiences and humor, which gives the film a unique tone and overall feel among Pixar features. This is, after all, the only Pixar film in which The Simpsons is referenced, and in which the characters say words like “crap.” Where it falls in the echelon of Pixar greats is beside the point, because Turning Red is so busy doing its own thing that it’s basically in its own, separate category.

I was gutted when Disney announced Turning Red would be the third Pixar film in a row to be skipping theaters and heading straight to Disney+. I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen. On the plus side, being on Disney’s streaming service will make repeat viewings that much easier. And this is the kind of movie you’ll want to watch over and over again.

Turning Red is sweet, emotional, hilarious (I’ve never laughed harder at a Pixar movie), sometimes surreal and always charming. It’s Pixar’s best film of the last few years. It’s so much fun.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Turns 30!

Goodness gracious, what’s with November and making us feel old?! Xbox and GameCube turned twenty, the Wii turned 15, the Super Nintendo turned 31 just yesterday, and now, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast turns the big 3-0! Beauty and the Beast was released thirty years ago today, on November 22nd 1991.

Beauty and the Beast was the second proper film of the “Disney Renaissance” era, after The Little Mermaid (The Rescuers Down Under doesn’t count). The Little Mermaid may have kickstarted the Broadway musical-style of Disney film, but Beauty and the Beast took it to new heights, and ensured it was here to stay (well, there was that period in the 2000s when Disney left the musical behind, and perhaps not coincidentally it was considered another dark age for the studio).

Although the earliest Disney films were (and are) praised by film buffs and historians, Beauty and the Beast was really the first “prestige” animated film in that it broke a number of barriers for the medium’s recognition. Notably, it became the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, in addition to four other nominations. Though there are a few caveats to these in that three of those nominations were for Best Song (a credit to the film’s stellar song work, but it shows that the Academy refuses to nominate animated films in other categories). The fact that only two additional animated features have been nominated for Best Picture since, and the creation of the Best Animated Feature Oscar ten years later is more damning evidence that the Academy was never going to give animation a fair chance. And suffice to say, Beauty and the Beast didn’t actually win Best Picture. But at the time, this was a huge deal, and those caveats apply to the Academy Awards, not the film itself. Because Beauty and the Beast really is a great movie.

Beauty and the Beast appropriately became the first Disney film to have a Broadway musical adaptation, which ran until 2007. The film also saw a tenth anniversary release in select theaters in 2001, which even incorporated a previously deleted scene/song. It was then given a modestly successful 3D re-release in 2012 during Disney’s brief “re-release our classics in 3D” phase of the early 2010s. Perhaps we should look back at that time more fondly, since a few years later, Disney would begin full-on remaking all their animated classics into live-action movies, with Beauty and the Beast receiving this treatment in 2017. To be fair, it was one of Disney’s better live-action remakes, only really suffering by having the wildly miscast Emma Watson (who was autotuned to high heaven) in the leading role of Belle. The rest of it wasn’t so bad though.

“It just doesn’t have the same charm, does it?”

While some of Beauty and the Beast’s standing as one of the best animated films has been muted somewhat with the rise of Pixar and more awareness to Studio Ghibli, it doesn’t take away from what a delightful film Beauty and the Beast still is. The story and characters are still among Disney’s best, and the same can be said of the film’s animation and those ever-so catchy songs. Simply put, Beauty and the Beast remains one of Disney Animation’s greatest achievements (I personally would consider it Disney’s best animated feature up until Frozen’s release in 2013). It’s a true Disney classic!

Happy 30th anniversary, Beauty and the Beast!

Now I’m off to listen to that soundtrack again…