Category Archives: Animated Films

The Emoji Movie Review

*Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, this one will contain some spoilers because, well, do you really care?*

“And Sir Patrick Stewart as Poop.”

Seeing those words on the end credits of The Emoji Movie is the best part of The Emoji Movie. When Sir Patrick Stewart was first announced to be voicing a sentient turd emoji, it seemed to (very temporarily) relieve some of the concerns audiences had regarding The Emoji Movie, since it seemed to hint that perhaps the film had some sense of creative fun about it, juvenile though it may have been. Sadly, the classy vocals of Sir Patrick Stewart emanating from Poop is the one tiny spark of inspiration that The Emoji Movie possesses, and even it is wasted, as the good Sir Poop only has a small handful of lines in the film’s entirety.

So the one promising thing The Emoji Movie had going for it is wasted, and everything else, well… it’s bad.

I went to see The Emoji Movie with two of my friends (I didn’t want to suffer alone), whose responses after the movie ranged from “that felt longer than Peter Jackson’s King Kong” to “I feel empty. Not angry, not sad. Just empty.” I found myself actually face-palming during many of the film’s cringe-worthy jokes, and trying my damnedest to not burst out with laughter at the film’s utterly dumbfounding resolution. This, my friends, is one of the worst animated movies ever made (with the only thing preventing me from hailing it as the worst being the fact that I’ve seen Food Fight!, so at the very least, The Emoji Movie has that going for it).

The Emoji Movie desperately – and I mean desperately – wants to be a Pixar-style film. The director, Tony Leondis, is a confessed fan of Pixar films (of course, saying one enjoys Pixar films is like saying you’re a carbon-based, oxygen-breathing life form). In fact, Leondis has admitted that the inspiration for the film stemmed from trying to come up with a modern-day equivalent to Toy Story at the same time he received a text message that featured an emoji.

That already seems like a pretty lazy “eureka” moment, but it also just isn’t an idea that can support an entire movie and have any kind of emotional resonance. Toy Story works because, as children, we love our toys. They help bring life to our imaginations, inspire creativity, and even introduce us to storytelling. Children form bonds with their toys that can sometimes be difficult for adults to remember; but something like Toy Story reminds us exactly why these little plastic objects once meant so much to us, while also telling stories that reflect human emotions even for us adults.

By contrast, emojis are little faces we put into text messages. That’s really it. They can be cute, sweet or funny in certain contexts, but I can safely say I’ve never felt emotionally attached to an emoji. If Leondis really wanted to find the more contemporary equivalent to toys, video games are kind of a thing these days. Though I suppose Wreck-It Ralph already beat him to the punch on that one.

I believe almost any concept can be made into a decent enough movie in the right hands. But there are certain concepts that I think can only be good under more specific circumstances. The Emoji Movie is one of those instances. If this were a parody of Toy Story and its ilk, The Emoji Movie may have been able to find some footing. But in seriously trying to turn a concept like emojis into something in the vein of Toy Story or Inside Out, it just comes off as bottom of the barrel material, and you can’t take it seriously.

Oh right, the plot. So The Emoji Movie primarily takes place in the world of Textopolis, a city inside of the smart phone of a teenage boy named Alex (Jake T. Austin). Here, every emoji only knows one thing: sad emojis are sad, angry emojis are angry, Christmas Tree emojis are festive, and poop emojis… apparently class up the place because they’re voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart.

Anyway, there’s one emoji who’s different from the rest, Gene (T.J. Miller), who is supposed to be a “meh” emoji, but finds himself being far more expressive, capable of showing more emotions than just “meh.” This proves problematic, because every emoji’s job is to stand in a box and make their one specific face when their user needs said emoji. On his first day on the job, Gene panics, and ends up making a weird face instead of the desired “meh,” and ends up being labelled a malfunction. Textopolis’ dictator-esque Smiler (Maya Rudolph), a smiling emoji, then demands that Gene be deleted from the phone.

“Aw sick! That thing has a face!”

Gene then becomes an outlaw, on the run from Smiler’s bots. It’s then that Gene befriends High-Five (James Corden), a disturbingly hand-shaped emoji who wishes to be popular again, after he’s seen less uses in text messages in favor of Fist-Bump. The duo plans to reprogram Gene with the help of an infamous hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris), who is secretly a princess emoji, and possibly the most obnoxiously shoehorned example of faux-feminism in recent movie history (complete with blue hair and lipstick, and a hipster beanie, because God forbid a woman be the slightest bit feminine).

No, seriously. This character really is terrible. In one instance she delivers a laughably forced bit of dialogue about trying to break stereotypes of female emojis only being able to be princesses and brides (despite the film already featuring many female emoji who do not fill those roles, including Smiler, the ruler of Textopolis). Besides, aren’t emoji just genderless faces anyway? If an emoji bride or princess looks feminine, that’s only because those are gender-specific positions that happen to be feminine, but the emojis themselves are, again, just stupid little faces. Do people actually worry about this stuff? Jailbreak also accuses Gene of trying to take credit for her ideas “like all men take credit for women’s ideas,” even though he’s simply acknowledging her idea in the scene in question. If acknowledging things were the same as taking credit for them, then I would be taking credit for every movie I’ve reviewed, including this one. And God knows I don’t want to take any credit for that.

Wow, I’m really getting sidetracked. I guess talking about pretty much anything is more fun than talking about the plot of The Emoji Movie. But one must finish what one started.

So anyway, the trio of Gene, High-Five and Jailbreak set out on an adventure through Alex’s phone, in hopes of breaking into “the Cloud,” where Jailbreak can reprogram Gene, and she can finally be free of the stereotypes of Textopolis. Along the way, they plug as many apps as possible; including Twitter, FaceBook, YouTube, Instagram, Candy Crush and Just Dance. Oh yeah, and a “piracy app” which Alex has on his phone for reasons the film conveniently ignores.

Meanwhile, Gene’s meh emoji parents Mel and Mary – whose names couldn’t even be spelled “Mehl” and “Mehry” because that would require some thought – set out on their own journey to find their son in an unnecessary subplot. There is yet another side story involving Alex himself, and his inability to communicate with his crush through emojis (if only there were some way for humans to communicate other than goofy faces on our phones).

Things grow ever urgent as the malfunction of Gene sends Alex’s phone into a fritz (I’m sure the piracy app has nothing to do with it), and Alex makes an appointment to have his phone wiped clean, which would erase all the inhabitant of his phone, emojis included. Why Alex doesn’t try resetting his phone or any other standard method before jumping right into having the whole thing erased, I’ll never know.

How does this all resolve, why, by Gene making a series of faces in a single text message sent to Alex’s crush’s phone which, according to said crush, proves that Alex has a way of expressing his feelings. The two end up together, and Alex decides not to have the content of his phone erased. Damn.

Under any other circumstance, I’d hate to give away any ending. But the resolution of The Emoji Movie is just so bad on so many levels that it would have to be seen to be believed, and I don’t want to put you through seeing this movie. So hopefully my explanation gives you enough of an idea. Again, the kid gets the girl in the end because of an emoji. It’s such a crap ending, it could be voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart.

Sony Pictures Animation doesn’t have the best track record for animated features, but most of their resume is inoffensively mediocre. But The Emoji Movie… this is just bad, bad, bad. Sony Pictures Animation still has the budget to provide clean, colorful animation and a talented (and wasted) voice cast. But not even the shiniest animation or the most acclaimed voice actors could save material like this. There’s not even a joke in the movie that works. Within five minutes we have an Australian-accented shrimp emoji show up who comments how he needs to “get on the barbie.” It never gets better from there.

To sum up The Emoji Movie… 

 

P.S. The poop is voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart.

 

1

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Despicable Me 3 Review

The Despicable Me series may not consist of any animated masterpieces, but it has been consistently entertaining with its first two entries. Though its 2015 spinoff film, Minions, never quite hit the right notes, the third proper entry in the Despicable Me franchise serves as a return to form for the series.

Like its predecessors, Despicable Me 3 isn’t aiming to be an animated classic, but it does succeed in being a fun, colorful ride that – despite an overstuffed plot – is every bit as funny and entertaining as it’s ever been.

In Despicable Me 3, former villain Gru (Steve Carell) and his new wife Lucy (Kristen Wiig) have become leading agents of the Anti-Villain League, though a persistent villain named Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) – a former child-star of the 1980s who went mad after his series was cancelled once he hit puberty – has proven to be a continuous thorn in Gru and Lucy’s side. After Bratt makes another cunning escape from Gru and Lucy, the Anti-Villain League’s new management fires the married agents.

Gru is downtrodden at the loss of his and his wife’s jobs, and seeks revenge on Bratt. But things get all the more complicated when Gru learns he has a long-lost twin brother named Dru (also Steve Carell). So Gru and Lucy; along with their adopted daughters Margo, Edith and Agnes, pack up their bags to go and meet Gru’s brother.

If this scenario sounds like two very different plots, that’s because, well, it kind of is. Despicable Me 3 suffers from a similar problem to the second installment in that it just has way too much going on. Not only do we have two different main storylines, but also a few too many sub-plots: All but two of the Minions quit working for Gru after learning he won’t be returning to villainy after being fired from the AVL, Lucy is still trying to fit into her role as a mother, and Agnes is preoccupied with finding a real-life unicorn.

It’s all a bit overstuffed, to the point that many of the series’ characters don’t have a lot to do amidst it all (even with Agnes’ side story, Gru’s daughters have a largely reduced role; and Gru’s loyal inventor Dr. Nefario has been written out of the plot entirely – albeit by the comical means of accidentally freezing himself in carbonite). And frankly, the plot involving Gru’s relationship with his brother feels a bit half-baked, with the goings-on between Gru and Balthazar being far more entertaining.

So there’s a lot going on, and many aspects of the film feel underdeveloped due to it. We’ve got that covered. However, like its predecessors, Despicable Me 3 is ultimately good fun due to its sense of humor and wildly stylized animation.

Illumination Entertainment never seems to be trying to compete with the likes of Pixar in terms of storytelling, and their films are more akin to Saturday morning cartoons than the more sophisticated animated fare of today (which is why the cluttered plot is a little more forgivable here than it would be elsewhere). Their animation style has always been distinctly exaggerated, what with Gru’s hunched back, goblin nose, and non-existent neck. And Illumination’s stories have always been more focused on the gags than the stories themselves.

That’s all as true here as it’s ever been. The animation is beautifully constructed, but the characters are a wide assortment of the cutesy and the quirky, and the more cartoonish tone means that the character’s can move in such exaggerated ways that it’s often hilarious just to see them in motion.

While the plot may stumble, it’s filled with many elements that, on their own, are quite entertaining. The Minions’ misadventures away from Gru, while maybe a bit sidetracking, provides some good laughs. And Balthazar Bratt has become my favorite character in the franchise, with his indelible 80s gimmick that’s present in both his appearance and actions – from playing iconic 80s tunes to accompany his crimes to feeling the need to spout his cheesy catchphrase every time he’s pulled off a heist (“I’ve been a bad boy!”) – the mullet-adorned villain is a constant show-stealer.

If you liked either of the previous Despicable Me movies, then no doubt you’ll enjoy Despicable Me 3. If you’re craving a more intellectually or emotionally stimulating animated feature, you’d best look elsewhere. But if you just want to soak in some colorful,  cartoonish silliness, then Gru and company once again succeed in providing the laughs.

 

7.0

Cars 3 Review

Pixar’s resume has built such a prestige over the years, that the release of a new film from the studio is often cause for celebration. Though it was a little harder to get too excited for Cars 3. While 2006’s Cars was a good enough movie, it was far from Pixar’s best. Its 2011 sequel, Cars 2, broke Pixar’s then-undefeated streak of quality films, and was the first flat-out bad Pixar movie. But the Cars franchise remains Pixar’s biggest merchandise seller, so here we are with a third entry in the series.

I tend to favor the Andy Warhol outlook in believing that, just because something is made with commercial intentions, it doesn’t automatically disqualify it as art. And Cars 3 ended up being a good example of just that. While it certainly won’t be in discussions of Pixar’s finest achievements, Cars 3 manages to avoid the pitfalls of its immediate predecessor and delivers a heartfelt (if familiar) tale that justifies the series’ continuation.

First thing’s first, Cars 3, in many ways, seems like an apology to audiences for Cars 2. None of the original characters from the second film return (which is a little bit of a shame, as I actually enjoyed Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer’s characters, despite the film they were stuck in). Perhaps even more notably, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the comic foil of the first film who was the miscast star of the second, has a completely minimized role; only appearing in a small number of scenes and with few spoken lines of dialogue. The role of comic relief is mostly passed on to series mainstays Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni), as well as newcomer Cruz Remirez (Cristela Alonzo), who serves as Lightning McQueen’s new trainer.

Speaking of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the red race car is back to where he belongs as the central character in the film. Taking place a good deal of time after the events of the second film, Lightning McQueen is now a veteran racer, and he’s beginning to be upstaged by younger, newer racers who are changing the game to such an extent that many of Lightning’s old friends and rivals on the racetrack are heading for retirement. One newcomer in particular, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), is proving to be a thorn in Lightning’s side.

During one such race, Lightning – desperate to beat Storm and prove he’s not ready to hang it up – overdoes himself and ends up in a terrible crash. Lightning fears he may end up like his mentor, Doc Hudson, and be forced into retirement without getting the chance to show what he has left. From there, Lightning’s sponsors sell their company to billionaire Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who plans to put Lightning through vigorous new training techniques to get him back on the winning side.

When it looks as though Lightning is too old to handle these new training methods, Sterling wishes to send Lightning into a quiet retirement, and continue his legacy through branding. Lightning, wanting to decide for himself when he’s done, makes a bet with Sterling. If Lightning can win one more big race, then he gets to continue to race for as long as he sees fit. But if Lightning doesn’t win, he will agree to retirement. Sterling assigns Cruz Ramirez to help train McQueen who – along with Luigi and Guido – are ready to do whatever they need to make sure Lightning continues racing.

It’s a simple enough premise, and echoes the 2006 original in a number of scenes (I suppose playing it safe to what worked just fine is better than whatever happened with Cars 2). But Cars 3 has enough heart to hold its own as a film.

The Doc Hudson character (voiced by Paul Newman in the original Cars) was the heart and soul of the first film. When Paul Newman passed away in between the first two films, the character was written out of the sequel. An understandable choice on the part of the filmmakers, but no doubt the absence of the first film’s best character was one of the many aspects that left the second film feeling so empty. Cars 3 finds a way to keep the character’s presence intact in a way that’s still respectful to Newman, with flashbacks involving both returning dialogue from the first film, as well as unused lines recorded by Newman. It also helps this threequel that Doc Hudson’s passing is actually used as a thematic point, and not just present in a throwaway line like in Cars 2.

The film as a whole has a nice message about growing older and continuing what you love, even if the world may suggest you’re passed your prime. And the presence of Doc Hudson brings back the heart the second film so sorely lacked. But it’s Cruz Ramirez who gives Cars 3 an identity separate from the first film, with her relationship and interactions with Lightning McQueen standing out as high points for the entire Cars series. And she even proves to be effective comic relief.

Cars 3 is also a beautifully animated film. Though it uses many of the same characters and assets as the other films in the series, Cars 3 looks sleeker and more eye-popping than ever. The racing and action scenes in particular, are quite stunning to behold.

If there’s any fault to be had with Cars 3, it’s simply that it is unambitious. Perhaps it has its reasons for playing things safe after Cars 2, but the similarities to the first film in Cars 3’s narrative are more than a few. And as unfair of a complaint as this may sound, the concept behind the Cars movies has always been far more creatively limited than Pixar’s other works. There’s only so much that can be done with talking cars both in terms of  their movements in animation and the stories they can tell. Cars 3 does the best with what it has, and is certainly a worthwhile rectification for the Cars series, but if one were to compare it with Pixar films such as Inside Out, The Incredibles or Wall-E, then Cars 3 falls drastically short.

With all that said, Cars 3 is a fun movie from start to finish. Its fast-paced action, coupled with its exquisite animation and charming characters (also including Doc Hudson’s former crew chief Smokey, voiced by Chris Cooper) make for a film that children can easily love, and one that may prove surprisingly entertaining for adults.

 

7.5

The Brave Little Toaster Review

1987’s The Brave Little Toaster is a curious piece of nostalgia. Its theatrical release was practically non-existent, but it became a favorite among many children of my generation on home video. Though The Brave Little Toaster does have some heart to it, its lacking production values have become apparent with age, and some of the film’s darker content seems to greatly contrast with an otherwise kid-friendly tone.

The Brave Little Toaster tells the story of five household appliances: the titular Toaster (Deanna Oliver); Blanky (Timothy E. Day), an electric blanket with a childlike personality; Lampy (Tim Stack), a worry-wart lamp; Kirby (Thurl Ravenscroft), a cantankerous vacuum cleaner; and Radio (Jon Lovitz), who talks in a voice similar to radio broadcasters.

These appliances are at the Summer cabin, with their “master” Rob (Wayne Kaatz) not having visited in some time. The appliances fear they’ve been abandoned, except for Toaster and Blanky, who try to keep hope alive. When the appliances find out the cabin is being sold, they decide to go out on an adventure to find their master.

It’s a really simple story that certainly feels like a precursor to the Toy Story films (many of the leading members of Pixar, including John Lasseter, were among the film’s staff). Though the idea of living appliances just doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as living toys (which do you have fonder memories of; your favorite childhood toy, or your first toaster?). Speaking of toys, it seems kind of odd that the appliances remember Rob playing with them when “the master” was a young boy, as though they fill the role of toys. Why the hell was this kid playing around with toasters?

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. The Brave Little Toaster does have good messages about friendship, sacrifice and hope that help keep the film afloat even in its mirkier moments (such as the sporadic musical numbers, which aren’t particularly memorable).

The adventure the appliances go on is filled with many different characters, both human and inanimate object (the best of which being an old TV, who isn’t simply a television set with knobs for eyes, but actually communicates through a commercial character on the screen). Some of these characters are humorous (such as an air conditioner with the voice of Phil Hartman, doing a Jack Nicholson impression), but the adventure also goes into some darker territory.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a children’s film venturing into darker subject matter (Disney films often feature death, after all), but there’s just something about some of the events of The Brave Little Toaster that greatly clash with the film’s attempted childlike appeal. This is a movie about talking toasters and blankets going on an adventure, after all. But it’s also a film in which the appliances watch as a helpless blender is ripped apart for its batteries.

“It’s just a blender” You might be thinking. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be an issue. But within the context of the film, these appliances are living people, and the way the scene plays out is something of an homage to horror films. For a film that’s definitely aiming at a very young demographic, it’s surprisingly violent in such scenes. Even more notably, the appliances eventually find their way into a junk yard, where they hope to escape before they are crushed to death by a mechanical crusher, all while a bunch of living cars are getting crushed to death, and singing about how worthless their lives were while it’s happening. 

Scenes like this really detract from the film’s charms. Again, I’m all for animated films venturing into more mature elements and subject matter, but The Brave Little Toaster goes from cute and appealing to grizzly and depressing to such a degree that it feels like two different movies.

The 2011 Pixar film Cars 2 suffered a similar problem, catering to a younger crowd, while also including a scene in which one of the cars gets tortured to death. What is it with talking cars and brutality? I have a feeling the filmmakers believe that because the characters are based on inanimate objects, that it doesn’t count. But again, there’s context to be considered. After all, we’re supposed to identify and resonate with these toaster and vacuum characters just like any others, we can’t suddenly think of them as machines when it’s convenient.

It should also be noted that The Brave Little Toaster was made on a limited budget, and it can show in the animation. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the animation bad, but I don’t think I would go further than calling it adequate. The animators definitely made the best with what they had, but that can’t completely excuse that there were so many other animated films during the same timespan that were far more visually appealing.

With all this said, I hope I don’t sound entirely dismissive towards The Brave Little Toaster. It does have its charms, the main characters are cute and likable, and it does have good messages for kids (the Toaster is of course the antithesis of everything the nihilistic cars sing about). But the production values show their age and limitations, and I think younger audiences might want to watch a different movie during Toaster’s darker moments.

The Brave Little Toaster is an interesting, nostalgic treat if you grew up with it, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t plenty of better options available in the genre.

 

6.5

Some Scoring Changes (Hopefully for the Last Time)

Being an independent blogger/critic has its ups and downs. On the plus side, you are more freely allowed to tweak your ratings to reflect your changing opinions. On the downside, doing just that risks making your ratings look fickle and wishy-washy.

I personally don’t like changing my ratings, but sometimes (more often than I’d like to admit), I find that in order to keep a level of consistency with my definitions of each score, I have to make exceptions and alter a score for better or worse.

Now is another one of those times, as I’ve changed the scores for a handful of games. Though, hopefully, this will be the last time I make such alterations (though I don’t want to make an absolute statement on that, since I still could make an exception or two).

Keep in mind that if I lower the score for a game or movie, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve grown to dislike the game more (or like it less), but that, upon further evaluation, I think my sentiments and complaints in regards to it are better suited to a different score.

Here are the game’s whose scores I’ve just changed, and my reasons for them.

  • Donkey Kong Country and Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble have swapped scores. DKC now ranks at an 8.5, while DKC3 stands at 9.0. When I originally reviewed them, the scores were reversed, but upon thinking more and more about it, DKC3 is the deeper platformer (though my complaints about the music being a massive downgrade for the series still stand). DKC2 still ranks at a perfect 10, however. And that won’t change.
  • Tetris Attack has been lowered from a 9.0 to an 8.5. Again, it’s not that I think any less of it, but I weighed it against another block falling puzzle game that I awarded a 9.0 (Tetris Battle Gaiden), and came to the conclusion that Tetris Attack, while great, is probably better represented as an 8.5 in the falling block puzzle game department.
  • Yooka-Laylee, which I originally gave a score of 8.5, has been slightly lowered to an 8.0. Again, I haven’t suddenly decided that Yooka-Laylee isn’t as good as I initially thought, just that I think – after re-reading my review and assessing my complaints – it fits more into the 8.0 range.
  • Star Fox Zero has been (further) lowered to a 6.5, because of those damn controls.
  • Perhaps most notably of all, Super Mario Maker has gone from a massive 9.5 to a (still fantastic) 9.0. Once again, it’s not that my opinion on the game has changed, I still think Super Mario Maker is, in a lot of ways, one of the best things Nintendo has ever made. If anything, I made this change to further boost what the 9.0 score means. After all, a 9.0 is the third-highest score on my system, and has been represented by such great games as Mega Man 3, Shovel Knight, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Overwatch. That’s a hefty lineup of games right there. Super Mario Maker also perhaps had a few more flaws pointed out in my review than most 9.5s. Though some of these issues have been addressed by Nintendo in patch updates, I still feel changing the score for SMM was the right call. Again, not that I think any less of the game, but if I want to be consistent with my scoring, I felt the change was necessary (I must also repeat that I feel this boosts the prestige of the 9.0 score).
  • I have also changed the scores for two animated films, Finding Dory and Wreck-It Ralph. Both of which were originally given 9.0s, but that I feel are better suited in the 8.5 level (an 8.5 is a great score, so please don’t think that I think any less of these movies).

Well, that’s all the changes I’ve recently made. Now I’m going to try my best to really evaluate if my words and feelings for a game (or movie) are best justified by the score I end up giving it. I don’t like changing my scores, and don’t want to have to change any of them again. So I want to make sure I get it all right the first time. This will be doubly true for games (and movies) rated 9.0 or higher.

In order to help me maintain this consistency, I soon plan to overhaul my Scoring System page, giving more detailed descriptions for each score, and even giving some prime examples of each score for both games and movies (Overwatch and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, for example, seem to be my measuring sticks for the 9.0 score for games). Since I have actually used every rating in my system for games (including one 0/10), I will probably update the page with the video game examples first, with the movie examples following not far behind.

Anyway, sorry for this rant. Hopefully you don’t think any less of my scoring system for my fluctuating feelings, and hopefully I can be more consistent in the future.

An American Tail Review

Back in the 1980s and even into the 1990s, American animated cinema was almost exclusively Disney, with only a handful of smaller features here and there. During this time, however, was one consistent alternative in the form of the films of Don Bluth, which became great successes in their own right. Oftentimes, Don Bluth’s films rivaled – and sometimes surpassed – the success of Disney’s features of the time. Today, Don Bluth’s films hold a strong nostalgic value for many, and among the directors most famous features is An American Tail. On the downside of things, Don Bluth’s movies do not possess the same timeless qualities as the Disney features, and American Tail is no exception.

An American Tail tells the story of the Mousekewitzes, a family of Russian-Jewish mice who plan to immigrate to America after their home is destroyed in an arson attack by the Cossacks and their cats (“there are no cats in America” say the immigrant mice, apparently unaware that they’re the second most-popular pet in the country). Tragedy strikes aboard the boat to America, however, as the Mousekewitz’s young son, Fievel, ends up going overboard during a terrible storm.

Fievel manages to survive, but is orphaned from his family. Unbeknownst to both parties, they both find their way to New York City, with Fievel’s sister still believing him to be alive, despite her parents’ losing hope, and little Fievel trying to reunite with his family. All this while trying to avoid the cats that lurk the streets of New York.

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. This is a movie intended for young kids, and within the first few minutes, we have a family’s house being burned to the ground, a kid being orphaned while his family believes him to be dead, and they’re all trying to avoid being eaten. Geez, what a downer. I certainly have nothing against sadness being present in children’s films, especially since the best such films are those that don’t talk down to their target audience and show children that, sometimes, the world is dark and scary and sad. But An American Tail just feels like it’s stacking tragedy after tragedy on top of each other to manipulate pathos from the audience.

Another issue with An American Tail is that there’s really nothing to its characters. Sure, Fievel is cute and all, but that’s about all there is to say about him. And many of the side characters, like the villainous Warren T. Rat (a cat in disguise as a rat) and Tony Toponi (a streetwise mouse who befriends Fievel) are either completely forgettable or just come off as annoying. One of the few exceptions is Tiger, a kindly fat cat who speaks in the voice of Dom DeLuise who serves as the film’s (much needed) comic relief.

Sure, some would argue that An American Tail is a children’s film, and that you shouldn’t expect more fleshed-out characters, but that kind of argument seems like a defeatist cop-out. There are plenty of children’s films that have enough confidence in their target audience to understand deeper characterization. It’s true that many animated films of the 1980s had a similar approach, and were incredibly simplistic. But just because this issue wasn’t exclusive to An American Tail doesn’t take away its accountability for it.

The sad thing is, this seems to be a recurring issue when revisiting Don Bluth movies. Bluth may have made a number of films that many of us look back on fondly, but their lack of depth and substance only becomes apparent with age. Bluth definitely understood how to direct the animators in creating the visuals for his films, as they tend to be on par with Disney’s animated features of the time in regards to visuals. But Don Bluth’s films don’t seem to understand how to develop characters, and instead just throw a bunch of sad events around cookie cutter characters in an attempt to make us care.

I know, I’m now the villain of many an 80s and 90s kid. Though being born in 1989, I fit right into this same crowd. I myself grew up watching An American Tail, and have many fond memories of it. But An American Tail, like a number of Don Bluth’s other features, seems as underdeveloped in story and characters as it is pretty to look at. I’m afraid nostalgia can’t improve storytelling.

An American Tail is not a bad movie. It’s just a generic and uneventful one. The animation is well made, with the characters moving fluidly and the scenery boasting many intricate details. But the story and characters lack substance (made all the more notable by how the film quickly chickens out of the tragic Jewish parable it hints at in the opening). While I’m a proud US citizen and can greatly appreciate the film’s sense of American optimism, that can’t make up for the pandering sentiment. The songs aren’t particularly memorable, either.

Again, An American Tail could be a whole lot worse. But for a film that so many people swear to be “better than Disney,” there’s really not a whole lot to it. It may be a nostalgic treat for many. Though aside from the animation itself, that might be all it is.

 

5.0

TMNT (2007) Review

TMNT – the strangely titled fourth feature film in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise – is kind of the odd duck in the series. It’s the only fully animated film in the entire TMNT franchise, was produced by the now-defunct Imagi Animation Studios, and is ambiguous as to whether or not it keeps continuity with the three live-action films of the 1990s (there are hints and Easter eggs that imply it does follow those films, with contradictory elements leaving that connection in question). TMNT often seems forgotten in the Ninja Turtles movie lineage – despite just recently becoming a decade old – which is both understandable and a shame.

This is understandable because, despite a genuine effort by Imagi Animation Studios, TMNT is largely forgettable in plot. But it’s a shame because, when it works, TMNT hints that a bright future may have been in store for animated Ninja Turtles films, if such films were allowed to continue.

The story here is that, 3,000 years ago, a warlord named Yeotl discovered a portal to another dimension. The portal granted Yeotl immortality, but at a price: his four generals, whom he loved like brothers, were turned to stone, and thirteen immortal monsters were released from the portal, who proceeded to destroy his army.

Fast-forward to present day New York City, and Yeotl has taken up a new name, Max Winters (Patrick Stewart), a wealthy businessman seeking to undo his immortality, as he’s spent centuries tormented by what his actions did to his friends and his army.

To accomplish this, Winters needs to capture the thirteen monsters who escaped from the portal, and send them back through. There’s an impending alignment of the planets that will allow him to reopen the portal to send the monsters back.

Anyway, Winters has hired April O’Neil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) – who now owns a company that locates relics for collectors – to retrieve four statues for him; with these statues being his petrified generals from the past. Meanwhile, Winters has also secretly recruited the remnants of the Foot Clan, now lead by the mysterious Karai (Zhang Ziyi), to retrieve the monsters.

All the while, the Ninja Turtles have gone their separate ways in life: Leonardo (James Arnold Taylor) has been sent to South America as some kind of vaguely detailed training, where he stops bandits and saves villages. Donatello (Mitchell Whitfield) is now an IT operator. Michelangelo (Michael Kelly) is an entertainer at children’s parties (“Cowabunga Carl”). And Raphael (Nolan North) stalks the streets of New York at night as the vigilante “the Nightwatcher.

As you might suspect, the Turtles become involved with all the goings-on with Max Winters’ scheme, though they also have to deal with familial issues, as their separate paths have caused a divide in their brotherhood.

Geez, you think that’s enough build-up?

There are two main issues with the plot: The first, as you’ve probably guessed, is that it’s just too convoluted. There are just too many characters and elements at work for the short running time to know what to do with. In fact, there’s so much going on with the dilemma between the Turtles and Max Winters’ plot, that they barely cross paths until the third act, almost making things feel like two different movies collided with each other.

The other problem is that, because there’s so much going on and not enough time for it all, a number of elements feel underdeveloped or poorly thought-out. It’s one of those movies that will have you asking yourself questions about the film’s finer details as you’re watching it.

One of the big lingering questions is why the thirteen immortal monsters are all suddenly showing up at once in New York City. Perhaps it has something to do with the planets aligning, but that’s never explicitly said. Just what were these monsters doing for three-thousand years?

Another question arrises once Winters reanimates his stone generals. At first they seem like mindless zombies who follow Winters’ orders, in which case it makes sense that he’s still trying to break the curse on them. But later it’s revealed that they can indeed think independently. So does Winters really need to proceed with his plan, seeing as he now has his lost friends, albeit they are now made of stone instead of flesh and blood? Hey, if I waited three-thousand years to see my friends again, I wouldn’t mind too much if they just so happened to be made of stone. Take what you can get.

Okay, so the plot is gobbledygook. That seems to be par for the course with Ninja Turtles films. But TMNT is considerably more serious in tone than the 90s live-action movies, so the nonsense of the plot rings all the louder.

With all of this said, TMNT still has some positives going for it. Though the animation is certainly not on par with the films from bigger studios like Disney and Pixar of the time, it still boasts a stylized look that worked for the material. The voice acting is also pretty solid; and includes Captain America himself, Chris Evans, as Casey Jones, and the late Mako Iwamatsu as Master Splinter in his last film role.

On top of that, the action scenes are well made, with a duel between Leonardo and Raphael being a particular highlight. Though maybe the film should have cut back the number of monsters, since most of them are dealt with via montage, and only a few allow for any full-on fight scenes.

TMNT may not have been the full-blown franchise revival it was hoping to be (as evidenced by the fact that it never got a sequel, and another live-action reboot happened seven years later), but it has enough Ninja Turtle-ness that may make it worth a look for fans (the action scenes are an improvement over the 90s films, and it’s fun to see the Easter eggs that allude to the original trilogy). And unlike Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, the original villains introduced here at least feel like they fit in with the franchise.

For fans of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, TMNT can provide some fun. But its murky plot certainly holds it back as a movie in its own right, and unlike the first two 90s films, it lacks the campiness to make it a guilty pleasure.

If nothing else, TMNT is an interesting piece of Turtles history.

 

5.5