Category Archives: Animated Films

Pokemon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown Review

This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but Pokemon 3: The Movie felt like the end of an era. Now, Pokemon’s popularity hasn’t exactly waned at all in the years since the film’s 2001 release (it’s still the biggest merchandise seller of any franchise in any medium, and the games remain best-sellers to this day), but this seemed to mark the end of the world’s initial Pokemania, when Pokemon was an inescapable phenomenon. This was the last Pokemon movie to have a wide theatrical release in the United States (subsequent Pokemon features were relegated to select theaters, before receiving the straight-to-video treatment), and it also seemed to be the point when “pet monster” anime was dying down a bit (even Digimon – the closest thing Pokemon had to a rival – fell off the radar with its third season). Pokemon’s fading omnipresence could be seen in Pokemon 3: The Movie itself, as it wasn’t anywhere near the box-office success of its predecessors. Maybe parents were tired of taking their kids to see Pokemon movies, or perhaps the dwindling box-office returns had something to do with the lack of new Pokemon in the movie, and kids didn’t have as much interest (it would be another two years before the third generation of Pokemon hit stateside). But Pokemon 3: The Movie’s relative unpopularity is a shame, as it might actually be the best of the three original Pokemon features, with strong themes and surprising emotional depth.

Although the hero of the film remains Ash Ketchum, it’s hard to refer to him as the main character this time around. The young Pokemon trainer, along with his friends Pikachu, Misty and a returning Brock may be the stars returning from the show, but Pokemon 3: The Movie primarily focuses on a new character, a young girl named Molly, for its emotional core.

Molly is the five-year old daughter of a research scientist named Spencer Hale, who conducts research on legendary Pokemon. During an expedition to study the mysterious, inter-dimensional Pokemon Unown, Professor Hale is spirited away to another world by the Unown. Molly’s mother has long-since disappeared (the movie never really mentions what happened to her), and now with her father gone, Molly is overwrought with grief. Her father’s assistant brings Molly an ancient, puzzle-like artifact as a memento from her father’s expedition. After tinkering around with the puzzle, Molly unleashes the Unown, who begin using their psychic abilities to bring Molly’s dreams to life.

The Unown’s powers begin to meld with Molly’s grief, and soon she begins to alter reality to make her happy. The Unown turn her hometown into a crystalline palace, she can become a young woman at will, and most importantly, her father returns to her in the form of Entei, Molly’s favorite Pokemon. Within this illusionary dream world, Molly becomes delusional and reclusive, preferring the happiness of the Unown’s illusions to the sadness of her real life.

One thing is still missing from Molly’s life, however; a mother. So Molly sends Entei to find a surrogate mother for her, which happens to be Ash Ketchum’s mother (Molly’s family are long-distance friends of the Ketchums). So Ash and friends journey to Molly’s manor-turned-fairy tale castle to rescue Mrs. Kethum and, hopefully, to help Molly out as well.

It’s a pretty simple plot, but it differentiates itself from its two predecessors by making the stakes more personal (saving Ash’s mom, as opposed to saving the planet from Mewtwo or nature falling out of balance), and with its emphasis on Molly, who is uniquely both the film’s protagonist and antagonist (okay, Ash is technically the protagonist, but this is Molly’s story more than it is Ash’s), it stands out a little more. Not to mention with its themes of loss, loneliness and grief, it’s perhaps the most emotional and deep of the original Pokemon trilogy. I mean, when the central dilemma of a film is a small child’s grieving, it’s hard not to get emotional.

The focus on a new character is a little bit of a double-edged sword, however, seeing as Ash and the other returning characters don’t get nearly as much character development as they did in the second film. I suppose by the third entry you need a bit of a change of pace, but it should say something that Meowth makes a fourth-wall-breaking joke about Team Rocket’s minimized role in this film compared to the second feature.

More on the bright side of things, the popular-for-their-time pop tunes that littered the first movie and had a presence in the second are nowhere to be found. On the downside, that may have been another indicator of the franchise leaving the public eye a bit at the time (having a popular band attached to Pokemon was great promotion back then). But I’d much rather here the cheesy-yet-indelible original songs of Pokemon than hear a distinctly yesteryear pop tune shoehorn its way in.

Following in the footsteps of Pokemon: The Movie 2000, Pokemon 3 has a surprisingly strong original score. I’m not sure if any one track reaches the heights of “Lugia’s Song” from the second film, but its still an effective and memorable score nonetheless.

Once again, the animation takes a step up from the TV show to better fit its presence as a movie. The characters move more fluidly than the TV show to be sure, though it does seem a little inconsistent within itself (sometimes the animation looks like a remarkable improvement, other times, merely an improvement). And like the second feature, we get some fun and varied locations to see, with the sometimes surreal world of Molly’s fantasies being a highlight, and making the first film’s focus on Mewtwo’s labs look even more bland in retrospect.

Pokemon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown may not be a cinematic classic by any means – its structure is sometimes lacking, and certain plot elements feel rushed together – but it is a great reminder that Pokemon can be (and often is) more than the simple money-printing franchise it also very much is. I mean, how many more “legitimate” movie franchises have an entire feature about grieving, and trust that its young audience is wise enough to understand such a heavy concept?

It’s a shame Pokemon 3: The Movie came at the end of Pokemania’s initial run. Despite its (sometimes quite obvious) flaws, its heart is in the right place. And if any of the subsequent Pokemon features shared its heart, then it’s all the more disappointing to see them relegated to the straight-to-video section.

 

7.5

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Pokemon: The Movie 2000 Review

In the year 2000, Pokemon was at the height of its popularity. With the second installments – the now-beloved Gold and Silver versions – on the way later in the year, and after the box office success of Pokemon: The First Movie in 1999, Pokemon: The Movie 2000 was sure to be a hit, especially with its emphasis on some of the new Gold and Silver Pokemon. Pokemon: The Movie 2000 didn’t quite reach the ticket sales of its predecessor –  though it is the only anime film that comes close to it in the US box office – it is actually a better movie, with improved character development and a bit of a stronger story.

Pokemon the Movie 2000 sees Pokemon trainer Ash Ketchum, his friends Misty and Tracey, and, of course, the adorable Pokemon Pikachu on an adventure that takes them to Shamouti Island, after a massive storm sends them on a little detour from Ash’s usual Pokemon journeys. The group soon learns that the people of the island are in the middle of a festival, celebrating an ancient prophecy based around the mythical Pokemon Lugia and the three legendary birds; Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres.

The prophecy states that the elemental birds of ice (Articuno), lightning (Zapdos) and fire (Moltres) will lose their balance over the world’s climate, and their ensuing war amongst each other will awaken Lugia, the guardian of the sea, to try to ease the warring birds and bring balance back to nature. But Lugia will need help from a chosen hero and a special song.

A young girl named Melody is the festival’s maiden, and selects Ash to be the “chosen one” of the festival. As the chosen one, Ash is to retrieve three crystal orbs from the islands of the legendary birds, take them to Shamouti’s Shrine (located in the middle of the three islands), where Melody is to play Lugia’s Song.

This turns out to be more than a ceremonial ritual, however, as an obsessed Pokemon collector named Lawrence III seeks to bring the prophecy to fruition – by means of capturing the legendary birds with his immense, flying fortress – in order to awaken Lugia, which Lawrence believes to be his ultimate prize.

Suffice to say Ash’s role as the chosen one ends up being more vital than simply being part of a festival, and due to Lawrence III’s actions Ash’s duties hold the fate of the planet in the balance.

The plot may be a bit simple, and storylines being built around prophecies are always a bit of a tightrope to walk (more often than not, they tell you exactly where the story is going). But Pokemon has that innocent charm about it that makes it hard to resist, and with Lugia’s presence as a mythological creature, it’s a fitting story.

What gives Pokemon the Movie 2000 extra points in the story department, however, is its improved character development. While the first film focused more on Mewtwo’s backstory, 2000 gives Ash the chance to show a more heroic and selfless side, as if his actions towards the end of the first movie carried over and continued for the entirety of the sequel. Misty – though perhaps needing of some more screen time – is also given time to grow as a character.

Perhaps most notably is how this sequel actually gives Team Rocket something important to do, and gives them new dimensions. While they primarily served as bumbling, villainous comic relief in the series (and still do a bit here), Team Rocket’s Jessie, James and Meowth end up playing an integral role in the plot. It’s a shame that the series would more or less retcon all these character changes away, but hey, they’re still enjoyable to watch during the movie.

As is often the case with Pokemon, 2000 has a go at some emotional moments, and is surprisingly effective with them. Look, it’s obviously not Pixar levels of making audiences cry, but its heart is in the right place, and the emotion resonates more than you’d expect from a movie based on a TV show based on a video game.

Much like the first movie, Pokemon the Movie 2000 has improved animation over the TV series. Though it isn’t without some notable limitations, the jump to the big screen gave Pokemon a new visual life. Plus, the island setting and environmental changes (not to mention Lawrence III’s fortress) gives audiences a wider variety of scenery than the first movie’s focus on Mewtwo’s labs.

An even bigger improvement over the show and the previous film is the musical score. While the English version still contains some pop music of the time, they’re mostly saved for the end credits (and hey, we get a Weird Al Yankovic song out of it, so I can’t complain too much). But the original score of Pokemon: the Movie 2000 is surprisingly good, with “Lugia’s Song” in particular being a standout, and seems to have more than a little bit of inspiration from Princess Mononoke.

Pokemon: the Movie 2000 still suffers from some obvious shortcomings; the plot is nothing special, the animation – though improved – still can’t stack up to other anime features of the time, and its villain needed a bit more time on screen for his motivation to resonate.

But y’know, when you get to see Ash Ketchum, Pikachu and Team Rocket traversing a frozen ocean while Lugia has an elemental battle in the sky against three magic birds, it’s all too easy to look past Pokemon the Movie 2000’s flaws as a film and just enjoy it for what it is. It may not be great cinema, but Pokemon: the Movie 2000 is a good Pokemon movie. It got its fanbase hyped for Pokemon Gold and Silver back in the day, especially with its emphasis on Silver’s mascot Pokemon Lugia (who remains my personal favorite legendary Pokemon to this day). Better still, if you’re a Pokemon fan, Pokemon the Movie 2000 is still worth the occasional revisit for its improved characters and overall sense of charm and fun. Plus, Lugia is just so cool.

 

7.0

Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strike’s Back Review

Go back to 1999. Pokemon dominated the Earth. The monster collecting video game franchise got its start in Japan in 1996, but by the time it made its way to the western world in 1998, the games had a wildly successful anime and a trading card game to go with them. And they all hit stateside at the same time, creating a pop culture phenomenon that I don’t think has been equaled in my lifetime.

It’s not hard to see what made Pokemon popular: It’s ever-increasing roster of Pokemon give it a seemingly endless supply of cute and cool characters, its emphasis on collecting, trading and sharing makes it engaging, and its kid-friendly exterior hides a deceptively deep set of rules and mechanics, whether its in its original video game form or the other media that have spawned from it.

Despite being a marketing goldmine (its merchandise sales exceed that of Star Wars even today), Pokemon was always more than that. As stated, the games were (and are) much deeper than they let on, and the TV series – though often lacking in structure, heavy on repetition, and having its share of cheesy moments – similarly made the effort to be something more. It’s shortcomings were still there, of course, but the Pokemon anime made many attempts at pulling at the heartstrings with its themes of friendship, love, and even loss. It wasn’t simply a fun little franchise, but something that really resonated with its target audience.

A Pokemon movie was inevitable, and it arrived sooner than anyone could have guessed. Going back to 1999, a mere year after Pokemon made its way westward, the Pokemon generation was elated to see their beloved franchise make its way to the big screen.

Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back was a big deal in its day (it remains the highest-grossing anime film in North America, with only its immediate sequel coming close), and it remains a nostalgic treat for those like me who were at the center of Pokemania in 1999. Although I wouldn’t classify Pokemon: The First Movie as a great film by any means, I would still label it as something more than a mere guilty pleasure, seeing as it – much like the TV show – made the effort to be something more than the cash-grab cinematic transition it also very much was.

As the title makes quite clear, Pokemon: The First Movie centers around Mewtwo, the legendary Pokemon who was – at the time – the most powerful Pokemon of all. While most Pokemon are like animals, and the other legendary Pokemon are akin to mythological creatures, Mewtwo was engineered by humans in a laboratory, by means of cloning the “first” Pokemon, the legendary Mew.

In the film, Mewtwo’s creation was commissioned by Giovanni, the mysterious leader of the villainous Team Rocket organization. Giovanni manipulates Mewtwo to be his own personal weapon, but as Mewtwo gains greater sentience and begins pondering his existence, he abandons Giovanni in hopes of making a greater purpose for himself. Mewtwo plans on creating his own cloned Pokemon to inhabit the Earth, after he rids it of humans and the Pokemon of the natural world (beginning with a massive storm that Mewtwo is creating using his psychic powers).

It’s a pretty heavy story for Pokemon, with the point being hit home when Mewtwo destroys the lab that created him (killing all the scientists therein) within the first few minutes. No one died in the TV series up to this point, so that shift in subject matter definitely made this feel like Pokemon the movie.

Mewtwo decides to prove the worth of his clone Pokemon by posing as “the world’s greatest Pokemon master,” inviting trainers over to New Island to do battle. Among these trainers are the series’ original heroes Ash Ketchum, Brock and Misty. The trio – like the other trainers invited to New Island – are unaware of Mewtwo’s identity and of his clone Pokemon, and are only looking to test their Pokemon battle skills. When the trainers arrive and discover Mewtwo’s intentions, they find themselves trying to stop the legendary Pokemon’s plot.

It’s not exactly anything Earth-shatteringly new, but as stated, it certainly made Pokemon feel more dire than it did on the small screen. On the downside of things, the English version of the movie shoehorned a “fighting is wrong” message into the film, which is repeated ad nauseam in a single scene towards the end. Given the nature of the Pokemon franchise, with trainers battling each other with their Pokemon, it’s kind of hard for an anti-fighting message to resonate very strongly. Sure, the point the movie tries to make is that the fighting caused by Mewtwo is something truly brutal, as opposed to the competitive skirmishes of Pokemon battles, but all the movie does to make that point is say “Pokemon aren’t supposed to fight… not like this.” Granted, I understood that even as a kid, but I was familiar with Pokemon. I can’t imagine the parents who took their kids to see this movie in 1999 could understand the difference between a Pokemon battle and what the movie refers to as “fighting.”

It’s simply a forced message that doesn’t really work with the movie that’s presenting it, and it’s made all the less impactful due to the climactic battle between Pokemon and clones being accompanied by a pop tune that’s only included for the sake of a pop tune, which only clashes with the movie.

The Japanese version of Mewtwo Strikes Back better emphasizes the message of man playing God and its consequences, what with Mewtwo’s search for a purpose and all that. The English version may have benefitted both narratively and (perhaps) critically if it focused on that message instead of one that clashes with the nature of the franchise.

There are also some notable flaws with the translated version, with at least three Pokemon being referred to by the wrong name (confusing Pidgeot for Pidgeotto and Sandslash for Sandshrew are at least understandable, but when Team Rocket refers to a Syther as an Alakazam, it’s a hilariously glaring error to any Pokemon fan). Though at the very least I suppose there’s a bit of nostalgic irony to be had with these mistakes, but you do have to wonder if the translators had any reference material to avoid such errors.

In terms of animation, Pokemon: The First Movie is of course an improvement over the TV series, with more fluid character movements and more detailed backgrounds. Granted, it still has its visual limitations, but in its stronger moments, Pokemon: The First Movie has that distinct “90s anime” look that has held up pretty well. And excluding the shoehorned inclusions of 90s bands such as *NSYNC, the music is actually not bad, and hearing that original Pokemon theme brought up to scale for a movie still gives me goosebumps.

Pokemon: The First Movie suffers from some obvious flaws and shortcomings (including a brief running time, with the film’s theatrical release being accompanied by a Pokemon short film to add an extra 20 minutes). But what elevates it to being something more than a mere guilty pleasure of nostalgia for me are its attempts at emotional moments, some of which are actually quite successful. One scene towards the end in particular, is surprisingly effective. Hey, when Pikachu is crying, it’s hard to not get a little misty-eyed.

In the end, Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back is far from a great movie (its sequels – though flawed in their own right – were improvements), but it makes enough worthwhile attempts to be something more that it still provides some entertainment. Despite all the blemishes, Pokemon: The First Movie is still a nostalgia trip that I don’t feel guilty about taking from time to time.

 

6.5

Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You Shows the Good in Nostalgia

I can be pretty harsh on nostalgia. With how often I deride Nintendo 64 games, and lambast many 90s kids favorite animated films, I often feel like I’m bullying my own childhood. But I never say anything I don’t mean, and am just trying to be honest. So if something hasn’t aged well, I gotta give my two cents on it. But nostalgia itself isn’t a bad thing, it only becomes bad when people allow it to blind them. Nostalgia itself, however, can be beautiful, as I just witnessed after viewing Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this – the twentieth such Pokemon movie – isn’t a masterpiece or anything. But I will indeed go so far as to say it was one of my better movie-going experiences this year. Of course the Pokemon movies are all an extension of the TV show and, by further extension, the greater Pokemon franchise. They basically print money. But as I’ve stated in the past, I abide by the Andy Warhol approach, and believe that just because something is created with intentions of monetary gain, doesn’t mean they can’t also be more. And the Pokemon series and movies – though boasting more than their share of flaws – always tried to be something more, featuring some genuinely touching story elements from time to time.

I’ll save most of my praises and critiques of I Choose You for a more proper review (I plan on reviewing it, and the first few Pokemon movies, in the coming weeks). But in short, I Choose You is a retelling of the first saga of the Pokemon anime, and reimagines Ash’s iconic meeting with Pikachu, their early adventures, and their encounter with the legendary Pokemon Ho-Oh. It makes some changes to these stories (some work, others not so much). We get some new characters in place of some fan favorites, and Pokemon from the current generations of games are prominent. But for the most part, I Choose You recreates many of the show’s most iconic and heartfelt moments in a way that feels earnest. It serves as both a fitting introduction to the series for younger audiences, while those of us who are old enough to remember Ash and Pikachu’s early adventures will be taken back to their own childhoods.

It’s a fine line to walk, really. Playing up the nostalgia card can potentially be a manipulative move. But as stated, I Choose You recreates the nostalgic bits in meaningful ways, playing as something of a heartfelt gift to the series and those who grew up with it. Plus it throws in enough new and different elements to give it its own identity. Sure, not all of it works (more on that in my later review), but in a time when media and entertainment is so quick to fallback on nostalgia, Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You was one of the few examples in recent years in which the nostalgia had an emotional effect on me.

Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You probably won’t win over anyone who somehow isn’t familiar with the franchise to some degree. But in its own little way, Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You is a thing of beauty, and reminded me of the days when watching Ash and Pikachu’s adventures was at the top of my priorities list, and that there’s a bit more to Pokemon than simply catching them all.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta get back to thrashing some N64 games.

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

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