Category Archives: Animated Films

Spark: A Space Tail Review

Animated movies are more successful now than they’ve ever been, which means more and more animated features are being produced than ever before, whether they come from big studios, are international darlings, or smaller films. On the plus side, this means that we see a greater variety in animated storytelling now than ever, with more and more people accepting animation as the unique storytelling method that it is, and its ability to resonate with all audiences, no longer being seen as mere “children’s fare” as it once was. On the downside, this newfound abundance of animation also means that the number of misfires is also increasing. Enter Spark: A Space Tail.

Spark premiered at some animation festivals during 2016, but it was more officially released in theaters during the earlier months of 2017, where it bombed spectacularly. Frankly, it isn’t too hard to see why. Spark: A Space Tail is one of those movies where I would say it’s so incompetent you wonder if the filmmakers had ever seen a movie before, but the fact of the matter is that it’s so generic that it’s more like the filmmakers have seen some movies, but only a small handful of them, and not particularly good ones. The sad truth is Spark: A Space Tail barely seems to even try.

The story is your average sci-fi setup, with a peaceful planet that’s been taken over by an evil overlord, and an unlikely hero who is destined to restore peace to said planet. The (marginal) difference here is that the characters aren’t humans and aliens, but animals. Obviously, animal characters in an animated film is nothing new, but I suppose at the very least, combining animal characters with a sci-fi setting is the kind of idea you don’t see too frequently in animation anymore, seeing as most filmmakers just want to copy Pixar and come up with a single “theme” to set the movie. So I guess you could say, bland as it may be, at least Spark: A Space Tail isn’t about emojis.

Anyway, the aforementioned peaceful planet is Bana, and most of its inhabitants are monkeys (Bana, get it? Like banana!). The evil overlord is General Zhong (Alan C. Peterson), who conquered the planet by means of luring a “Space Kraken” to Bana. The Space Kraken’s can excrete black holes in their ink in what is quite frequently name-dropped as a “Kraken Slick,” which is admittedly the film’s one interesting idea.

So the Space Kraken unleashed a large enough Kraken Slick to tear Bana apart, with half of the planet breaking into “shards,” and many of those shards disappearing in black holes. Zhong takes control of what’s left of the planet itself, while some refugees go into hiding on the remaining shards. The queen of Bana (Hilary Swank) sends her baby son to the furthest shard, so that he can one day return to overthrow Zhong.

Thirteen years later, that baby is known as Spark (Jace Norman), who is under the watchful eye of two former royal guards: a fox named Vix (Jessica Biel) and a hog named Chunk (Rob DeLeeuw), as well as a robot nanny named Bananny (Susan Sarandon).

Look, do I really need to explain anymore of the plot? I’m sure from what I’ve explained already, you can figure out exactly where the movie goes. Do you think Spark realizes he’s the long-lost prince? Well, of course you do, because it’s such an obvious setup (so obvious, in fact, that the trailers blatantly spoiled the “big reveal”). Do you think Zhong plans on unleashing the Space Kraken on another planet? Of course, what else would he do?

To say Spark: A Space Tail is by-the-books is an understatement. This is a movie that takes the book on animated movie basics, and turns it into a Dick and Jane. It never even makes a token attempt to be even the slightest bit more than exactly what you’d expect. To make matters worse, there are some story elements that are grossly underdeveloped, such as the birthmark on Spark’s hand which is apparently a mark of the royal family which bestows them with some totally-not-the-Force powers, but this birthmark isn’t brought up until the very scene where Spark learns of his heritage. Shouldn’t the setup of a plot element happen before said plot element, and not at the same time? And that’s just one of many examples of Spark’s rushed storytelling.

Then there’s the animation. Now, this is a smaller animated release, so I wouldn’t expect Pixar or Dreamworks quality animation, but even with its limitations its underwhelming. The character designs are unmemorable, and everything looks all clumped together (there seems to be no definition between the texture of one of the animal character’s fur and the clothes they’re wearing). On a somewhat related note, there are numerous scenes in which the characters are seen breathing in space, which I don’t think is so much an instance of cartoon logic, so much as the film trying to avoid animating the characters with helmets or spacesuits.

Spark: A Space Tail is just a lazy film. From its storytelling and animation to its uninspired jokes and sporadic uses of pop tunes, Spark just feels like a haphazard attempt at every turn. When the film’s two most recurring running gags are Spark repeatedly stating how being thirteen years old is akin to being “100 in roach years” and a Patrick Stewart voiced monkey sailor being struck by lightning, the lack of effort begins to scream at the viewer. It’s one of the laziest animated movies I’ve seen.

 

2.0

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The Lego Ninjago Movie Review

The Lego Movies have to be one of the more interesting movie franchises of today, for the simple reason that it’s become more of a style of movie in and of itself, as opposed to a series that leads from one traditional sequel to the next. The 2014 original was based on the Lego brand itself, and took advantage of the toy line’s connections with various other media franchises to squeeze in as many cameos and references as they could. The second installment; The Lego Batman Movie, was released earlier in 2017, and took things to the next level by actually being an entry in one of the world’s most established pop culture franchises, while simultaneously paying homage and parody to said franchise. Now we have the franchise’s third outing, The Lego Ninjago Movie which – although perhaps a step backward from Lego Batman in concept – nonetheless delivers on the laughs and energy this series has become known for.

I say The Lego Ninjago Movie is a step back in concept simply because, well, Lego Ninjago is a ninja-themed line of Lego toys. The Lego Batman Movie’s greatest joy was that it was very much a Batman movie, but one where the characters could openly reference the different cinematic continuities of the franchise, have some fun at the expense of the 60s TV series, and in which the Joker could ally with Sauron from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium. By simply reverting to a specific line of the Lego toys, the allure of seeing one of the most iconic pop culture franchises turned on its head is no longer present. Lego Ninjago is still a good time, and at times quite hilarious, but it does lack that extra punch that stemmed from established characters like Batman and Joker acting so out-of-character.

One major difference between The Lego Ninjago Movie and its two predecessors is that it begins with a live-action sequence, in which a young boy walks into a Chinese antique shop, where the shop’s owner (Jackie Chan) tells the story of the rest of the film, which is presented in animated, Lego form.

The rest of the movie takes place in the land of Ninjago, which is something of a parody of franchises such as Power Rangers, where modern cities are frequently attacked by megalomaniacs in giant mechs, which are then consistently defeated by a team of heroic ninjas, who pilot their own, animal-shaped mechs.

The villain here is Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux), who dreams of conquering the world of Ninjago. He is constantly thwarted, however, by the efforts of a group of young ninjas, lead by the wise Master Wu (also Jackie Chan). These ninjas are all assigned a different color and element: Kai (Michael Pena) is the red ninja of fire. Jay (Kamail Nanjiani) is the blue ninja of lightning. Nya (Abbi Jacobson) is the silver ninja of water. Cole (Fred Armisen) is the black ninja of Earth. Zane (Zach Woods) is the white ninja of ice… and also a robot. Finally, the hero of the story is Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), the green ninja of…green (his lack of a proper element is a running gag in the film), and is also Lord Garmadon’s estranged son.

That relationship between Lloyd and his super villain father is at the heart of the movie, with Lloyd being shunned in his personal life due to his dad “ruining everything,” and hating that battling his own father on a daily basis has become his job. After Lord Garmadon creates a mech that’s too powerful for the ninjas to take down, Lloyd attempts to defeat Lord Garmadon once and for all by using “the Ultimate Weapon,” which only makes matters worse for Ninjago by inadvertently releasing a monster on the city. Garmadon finally succeeds in conquering Ninjago (by means of climbing the tallest building and putting a flag on top of it), and soon finds out that the green ninja is his son Lloyd. The ninjas set out on an adventure to find the “Ultimate Ultimate Weapon” which can defeat the monster, and Garmadon, not wanting the monster to destroy the city he tried so hard to conquer, decides to join the ninjas on their quest (he may also want to get to know the son he abandoned, but is so caught up in his cartoonish villainy that he doesn’t realize it himself).

The premise is pretty simple, and even evokes The Lego Batman Movie’s key relationship between hero and villain, albeit depicting them as father and son, as opposed to two friends having a spat. The adventure at hand is a lot of fun, and the humor is as strong as ever (I laughed out loud on more than one occasion). The main plot may be simple stuff, but the moment-to-moment punchlines and gags help elevate it into a satisfying piece of family entertainment. Lord Garmadon, in particular, is one of the best characters in any of these Lego movies so far.

The animation also remains pleasing to look at, with the mock-stop-motion visuals still being as lively than ever, even if the novelty of its look has worn off a bit by this point.

If The Lego Ninjago Movie has any notable drawbacks, it’s that it lacks the inventiveness of its predecessor. As consistently funny as it is, Lego Ninjago never pulls off the surprising gags, references and wit that Lego Batman delivered at pretty much every turn. And when the film comes to its “emotional” finale, well, it’s so similar to the finales of both of its preceding Lego Movies, that it gets to the point of detracting a little bit from it.

While The Lego Ninjago Movie is a lot of fun on its own merits, it lacks that little something extra that made The Lego Batman Movie one of my favorite films of 2017. Ironically enough, by having its own original characters instead of beloved franchise icons, it actually feels more restrained creatively. It isn’t able to tinker around with decades worth of source material in order to create something fresh and new like its predecessor did.

These Lego Movies have a lot going for them, with their ability to capitalize off so many series and brand names to shed new light on familiar faces. This series has provided an appropriately similar sense of fun to playing with toys to create stories, and it seems like there’s a lot that can be done with it before it starts showing signs of fatigue. It’s a little underwhelming then, that Lego Ninjago will be followed by a more direct sequel to the original Lego Movie (though hopefully it can find ways to branch out and separate from its predecessor). The Lego Ninjago Movie is another fun trip to the toy chest. But here’s hoping that soon enough, the series will once again dig as deep into that toy chest as they did with Lego Batman, and recreate that joy we all once had of playing with toys of our favorite characters to tell stories that, frankly, had no right having those characters be a part of them.

 

7.Arm Ripped Off*

*7.0

Leap! Review

If one were to judge Leap! by it’s marketing, you would probably assume it’s a run-of-the-mill animated feature with a “follow your dreams” premise. After seeing Leap!, I can confirm that it is indeed a run-of-the-mill animated feature with a “follow your dreams” premise. But hidden beneath the movie’s more lackluster qualities does lie a beating heart. So while I can’t flat-out recommend Leap! due to its shortcomings, I did find myself wanting to like it while I was watching it, and that’s an achievement in and of itself.

Perhaps it’s the fact that – not so long ago – The Emoji Movie was released, that I feel a bit more forgiving of Leap!’s missteps than I otherwise might. The Emoji Movie, after all, was so bottom-of-the-barrel in concept, and so incompetent in execution, that it can be seen as a new low standard for animated storytelling. By comparison, Leap!’s simple story of an orphan girl wanting to become a ballerina felt very refreshing. It may be standard animated fare, but I’ll take it over the desperation that spawned The Emoji Movie any day.

The plot really is little more than a young orphan girl, Félicie (Elle Fanning) escaping from an orphanage with a young boy named Victor (Nat Wolff), who make their way to Paris, where Félicie hopes to become a ballerina, and Victor looks to become an inventor. It’s simple stuff, but it’s made a bit more lively due to the period setting. Taking place in the 1880s, the Paris in Leap! still sees the Eiffel Tower under construction (as well as the Statue of Liberty, which is mistakenly already given its greenish color in the film).

There are of course bumps in the road for the two orphans, with Félicie quickly finding a rival in Camille (Maddie Ziegler), who is dedicated to learning ballet due to the demands of her overbearing mother, Regine (Kate McKinnon). After Camille proves to be a bit of a brat, Félicie ends up stealing Camille’s admittance letter for the ballet, and begins posing as Camille in order to live her dream, with the only people knowing of her real identity being Victor and Regine’s cleaning lady, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen), who ends up being Félicie’s dance teacher via Karate Kid-style training techniques.

The premise on its own is fine. It’s safe and predictable, to be sure, but it has good intentions. Problems with the film arise, however, with some questionable pacing. Too many plot points – particularly those early on in the movie – come across as incredibly rushed, and don’t feel properly developed. And sadly, by the end of it, Regine goes from a cold-hearted woman to an outright cartoonish villain, chasing Félicie with a mallet in an entirely unnecessary action set piece that takes place on the aforementioned Statue of Liberty. And I kid you not, the villainess even makes an MC Hammer reference during these events. So while the majority of the movie, even when it feels rushed and obvious, still boasts some heart and charm, that ending set piece definitely comes off as a jumping the shark/nuking the fridge moment. There are also some pop songs featured in the background at times which feel almost as out-of-place as the MC Hammer reference, seeing as this is a film taking place in 1880s France.

Well, after seeing Leap! I decided to do some research on it, and there might be something to these misplaced elements. While I was aware going into the movie that it was a French-Canadian production originally released under the more appropriate title of Ballerina, it was only after seeing it that I discovered this American version actually made some notable changes to the film, which differ from the already-English language version of the film released elsewhere, and have even lead to vastly different critical receptions between versions.

While Elle Fanning and Maddie Ziegler’s vocals remain unchanged, Nat Wolff and Kate McKinnon replace the original voices for their characters, and additional bits of dialogue and other edits have been added for inexplicable reasons. I may have to check out the alternate English version of the film, which I have a sneaking suspicion is absent of the MC Hammer line, and maybe even the pop tunes. I’m not sure if the pacing would be any better though.

This is all a crying shame, because while the film may lack in originality in many respects, I still found a lot of promise in Leap!. The animation may not be remarkable, but it looks a lot better than many other CG animated films that don’t come from the big studios, and the dancing sequences are beautifully and elegantly animated. I also liked the two main characters, as well as Elle Fanning’s and Maddie Ziegler’s voice work. And even with its predictability, it still has enough heart to make it a mostly worthwhile viewing for its target audience (again, we live in a post-Emoji Movie world, we should be thankful that an animated film about an ambitious young girl even exists right now). I don’t think it would be a great film under different circumstances (the ending set piece would still be there, and it would still be a pretty by-the-books animated feature), but I can imagine Leap! might live up to its promise a whole lot more without lines like “it’s hammer time!” tossed in it. That line wasn’t even funny in Ninja Turtles III, back when kids would actually get the reference.

Though I’m going to rate Leap! on the lower half of my rating scale, I actually do so with a bit of disappointment. I didn’t go in to Leap! with any real expectations, but when I did enjoy it, it was quite charming. It’s just a shame the elements that do drag it down prevent the better pieces from coming together to make the movie they should.

But hey, at least the plot doesn’t resolve itself due to a text message. I can certainly appreciate Leap! for that.

 

5.5

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

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