Movie Awards 2020: Best Streaming Series

Ah, here we are in the tail-end of June 2020, and I’m only just getting back to my awards for 2019 movies… Look, it’s been a rough year for all of us, okay!

Anyway, with the advent of streaming services, the line between movies and television series has become thinner and thinner, with the streaming format allowing shows the gateway to tell stories much closer to their big screen kin than they could on the weekly schedule of television (admittedly, shows such as Twin Peaks and Arrested Development used a more cinematic  structure, but they were ahead of their time). Because of this – and also because I haven’t started talking about TV/streaming series in the same capacity as I do movies and video games just yet – I decided to lump an award for “Best Streaming Series” in with my movie awards this time around. I may even make this a Wizard Dojo tradition. Who knows?

At any rate, I’m not sure if there’ll be any other individual movie awards from me this year after this, and I may just do my top 10 favorite films of 2019 countdown, seeing as it’s taking me an eternity already. So I hope you enjoy this.

 

Winner: The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

It seems the streaming series that caught everyone’s attention in 2019 was Disney+’s The Mandalorian. While that show is great (and probably the only piece of Star Wars media that’s genuinely liked these days), it wasn’t the best streaming series of the year. That honor goes to The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance which, for my money, is the best cinematic fantasy epic since Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings for the big screen (I know some people would bring up Game of Thrones, but…no.).

Serving as a prequel to Jim Henson’s imaginative (if maybe unfocused) 1982 film The Dark Crystal, Age of Resistance far surpasses the original work, and gives Jim Henson’s world of Thra a story that’s worthy of its imaginative world.

Age of Resistance sets the gears in motion for the events of the movie, but not in such a way that would make it a chain of fan service events making callbacks to the original feature. This series tells a compelling story of its own, with its own cast of characters, as well as a few returning faces from the 1982 film. That these characters all happen to be puppets and costumes quickly becomes an afterthought as you get swept away in Age of Resistance’s unique fantasy world and rich storytelling.

Rumblings of a second season continue, though nothing official has been confirmed yet. Then again, it took the creators of the series years to complete the first season, so hopefully a potential second season is just a matter of time. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if the series eventually remade the events of the 1982 film as one of its seasons. This series is what Jim Henson’s passion project was always meant to be.

If a possible second season is as good as the first, it will be more than worth whatever the wait may be.

 

Runner-up: Stranger Things 3

Runner-up: The Mandalorian

Artemis Fowl Review

There’s a word for movies like Artemis Fowl, and that word is… “bad.”

Based on the series of books from the 2000s – a time chock full of novels about kids thrust into otherworldly adventures in the wake of Harry Potter – Artemis Fowl was released on Disney+ in June 2020, and became just the latest in a long line of live-action fantasy/sci-fi movies from Disney that ends up failing in execution.

I never read any of the Artemis Fowl books, so I can’t make any direct comparison to the source material. But general consensus seems to be that the film strays far from the books, which I think it’s safe to assume means the books are much better than this mess of a movie.

The story here is that Artemis Fowl II (Ferdia Shaw), son of filthy rich antique collector Artemis Fowl I (Colin Farrell), is a super genius. He even cloned a goat at age ten (why the film feels the need to point this out, I don’t know. Especially since the film fails at making the obvious gag of having the cloned goat be Artemis’s family pet). One day, Artemis’s father goes missing, and news breaks out that reveals the elder Fowl to be a world-class criminal mastermind, with many of his collected antiques and fortune being the product of several high profile heists.

“The faces I made when watching this movie.”

Oh, and also there’s an underground fairy world where Elves, Dwarves and Goblins live in secret. But Artemis’s father knew of this fairy world and stole several magic artifacts from their world so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands or something. And it turns out his kidnapper is a wanted fugitive in the fairy world, though this villain’s motives are some of the most vaguely defined I can recall in a movie.

I suppose that’s par for the course here, considering Artemis Fowl is barely defined himself. Despite being the film’s hero, his only real defining trait is his obnoxious arrogance (is it asking too much to see a humble genius in a movie for once?). Also his butler Dom (Nonso Anozie) doubles as a bodyguard. Also also, said butler’s niece Juliet (Tamara Smart) is Artemis’s best friend, but the film forgets about her for such long stretches of time that, on the rare occasion she does show up, the audience would be forgiven for not remembering she was ever a part of the proceedings. Then there’s an Elf girl named Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), whom Artemis ends up taking hostage in exchange for the Elves to procure some magic artifact that the bad guy wants so he can trade it for his father’s freedom.

What’s weird is that the majority of the film takes place in and around the Fowls’ mansion. Some early scenes deviate away to show us the underground fairy world, but once the important magic characters come to the surface, the movie is almost entirely centered around a single location. That in itself isn’t a terrible thing, but doesn’t this seem like the wrong kind of movie to do that with? Here’s a movie telling us that there’s a whole other world beneath the Earth, but almost all the action takes place at one building. Artemis Fowl kind of reminds me of Glass in that regard, a movie begging to stretch its legs but feels shackled to one confined space.

Among the film’s few highlights are the presence of Dame Judi Dench as the Elf commander Julius Root, and Josh Gad as an oversized Dwarf named Mulch Diggums. But both actors are wasted in this movie, and for some reason both of their characters tend to speak in gravely whispers (something which Gad’s character even makes a joke about). I did enjoy the joke about David Bowie being from the fairy world, though.

One of the biggest issues with Artemis Fowl is its overall structure and pacing. The best way I can describe Artemis Fowl is that it’s a movie that plays out like a clip show episode of a sitcom (where a half baked plot would segue into various clips of past episodes), but there’s not even a half baked story holding the clips together here, and the clips in question just exist in a vacuum so they just kind of happen. So we have a series of things being thrown at the screen that are only connected by the characters… characters that we never get to know anything about because the movie is already throwing something else at us before anything about them can be established.

Sadly, you can’t even say the film is salvaged on a visual level. Because, despite being visual effects heavy picture, Artemis Fowl is an ugly movie.

“Okay…what am I looking at, here?”

I’m not sure what it is exactly, but it seems whenever Disney attempts to make live-action fantasy or sci-fi epics, the results always blow up in Disney’s face. The only movie in this sub-category of Disney that I enjoyed in recent memory was Tomorrow Land, and even that had the same unappealing aesthetic as the rest of them (and was a notorious box office bomb). I don’t know how to explain it, but whenever Disney tries their hand at live-action fantasy or sci-fi, it just looks wrong.

The CG in Artemis Fowl looks well behind the times, with a rampaging troll looking especially 2001-esque. And the aesthetics as a whole just never look convincing. Artemis Fowl is aiming for something like Harry Potter, but looks more akin to The Santa Clause 2. The Elves look like they wear Party City versions of the Green Goblin’s costume from Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, Josh Gad’s character looks like he’s cosplaying in a homemade Hagrid costume, and the villain has their face shrouded in a hood, but brings to mind a Power Rangers villain of the week more so than Emperor Palpatine. At its best times, Artemis Fowl looks garish. At its worst, it’s just unpleasant to look at.

With the way the movie wraps up, you know Disney had hopes this would lead to a series of sequels and they’d have another money-making franchise on their hands. But Artemis Fowl ends up being a cinematic cacophony: it’s nonsensically structured, the characters are paper thin, all of its events just kind of stumble over each other, its a visual effects heavy movie that fails to deliver any memorable visual effects, and the crossover between criminal mastermind espionage and traditional fantasy never once meshes, instead feeling like two unrelated entities just collided headfirst into each other. So in the end, Artemis Fowl is an origin story that is destined to lead nowhere, making the film as a whole one of its own random clips pulled from a nonexistent show.

They may have spelled it differently, but “foul” is right.

 

2

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back Review

*Caution! This review contains spoilers for not only The Empire Strikes Back., but the entire original Star Wars trilogy. But seriously, if you don’t know the plot of Star Wars, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Of all the Star Wars films, none is more acclaimed or beloved than The Empire Strikes Back. While the original Star Wars (retroactively christened “A New Hope”) may have had the biggest cultural impact, it’s the immediate follow-up that many consider to be the heart and soul of the series.

At the time of its 1980 release, Empire was to be the sequel to the biggest film in history. Expectations were understandably high, and many wondered whether Star Wars could deliver the same magic in a second go around. It probably didn’t help ease concerns that series creator George Lucas stepped down from the director’s chair for this sequel, handing the reigns over to Irvin Kershner, who initially turned down the offer, believing a sequel could only be a rehash of the original.

Thankfully, Kershner was ultimately persuaded and, along with the creative direction of George Lucas and a more confident cast, The Empire Strikes Back exceeded all expectations. Not only was Empire widely deemed one of the few sequels at that point to match or surpass the original (something that’s a bit more commonplace today), but it’s still largely embraced as the best Star Wars film. And with good reason. The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film.

Fittingly set three years after A New Hope, Empire sees the heroic Rebellion finding a new base on the ice world of Hoth. Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) – obsessed with finding the Rebel who destroyed the Death Star, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – has commanded the evil Galactic Empire to dispatch a series of probe droids to find the Rebels’ new base.

Luke is investigating one of these droids in the barren wastelands of Hoth, when he is attacked by a yeti-like creature called a Wampa ice beast. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is about to leave the Rebellion behind to pay off his debts to gangster Jabba the Hutt, but postpones those plans when he gets word that Luke hasn’t returned, and leaves on the back of a creature called a Tauntaun in search of his friend, risking death in the freezing cold.

Luke manages to escape the clutches of the Wampa, and before succumbing to hypothermia, sees the ghost of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), who instructs Luke to go to the swamp planet of Degobah to seek out Yoda, the Jedi Master who “taught Obi-Wan” the ways of the Force (let’s forget that the prequels forgot this little detail), and with whom Luke can finish his training and become the last hope of the Jedi Knights.

Han finds Luke in the nick of time, and the two are rescued by a search party the next morning. Unfortunately, a probe droid has found the Rebel base, and the Empire unleashes a large-scale attack on the base. Though the Rebels put up a valiant effort (in one of the most famous sci-fi battle scenes in film history), the Empire gets the upper hand, and the Rebels are forced to evacuate the planet.

Han Solo, Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca the Wookie (Peter Mayhew) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) all escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, but when the ship’s hyperdrive malfunctions, the ragtag group are forced to make some detours to evade the Empire, which will eventually take them to the Cloud City on the planet Bespin, which is under the command of Han’s old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker – with R2-D2 in tow – heads to Degobah in search of the mysterious Yoda.

It’s a simple story, but Empire greatly benefits from that simplicity in plot, because it allows the characters to take center stage. While the original Star Wars will always be delightful, it was (quite intentionally) a really simple hero’s journey. The characters were more archetypes than they were three-dimensional figures. The real joy of A New Hope was how the imagination of its created world presented that journey. By focusing its narrative on who the characters in this intergalactic fairy tale are, Empire gave this imaginative universe a newfound depth.

Luke Skywalker is no longer the whiny farm boy he was in A New Hope, and has matured into a renowned hero in the Rebellion. Princess Leia has similarly become more battle hardened. And most notably, Han Solo – while still the same roguish scoundrel in many ways – has become more selfless and heroic (take, for example, the aforementioned moment when Han could have wiped away his debt with Jabba the Hutt for good, but changes course to search for Luke without hesitation).

The returning heroes have grown more complex, and Empire does what any great sequel should by also changing up the character relationships. Luke is far removed from his companions (save R2-D2) for most of the film, which immediately changes the character interactions from those of the first film.

“After watching Empire again for this review, I realized that the series really could have used more interactions between Han and C-3P0. It’s the funniest character relationship in the series.”

A romance begins to blossom between Han and Leia (which avoids falling into the cheesy realms of later Star Wars romances). Without his counterpart R2-D2 by his side, C-3P0 is left to annoy Han with his uptight paranoia, which leads to the funniest dynamic between characters in the entire Star Wars series (it’s a wonder why Han and C-3P0’s relationship doesn’t get more recognition). Even Chewbacca, who can only speak in roars, gets a bit more character to show, revealing more of his gentle giant nature as he cares for a damaged C-3P0.

“That’s good. Like that. Like that.”

Some new characters also add to the proceedings. Most notable of all is Yoda (performed and voiced by Frank Oz), the diminutive Jedi Master is probably the series’ most charming character, and most likely the best puppet character in movie history. Yoda’s wisdom gives the film much of its soul, and unlike subsequent appearances by the character, Yoda also provides some great comedy here.

Lando is another new character who adds more dimension to the world of Star Wars. Though many fans (unfairly) remember Lando for his eventual betrayal of Han Solo, they fail to remember his reasons for it. Lando is loyal to his friends, but given that his Cloud City has come under the occupation of the Empire, he isn’t left with much choice but to turn his friends in for fear of what would become of his people should he cross the Empire. In a series where good and evil are quite clearly defined, Lando provided a sense of gray morality to the proceedings.

“Awkwaaaaard.”

Unfortunately, not every new character introduced in Empire adds depth to the Star Wars universe. This is probably one of my most unpopular opinions, but the villainous bounty hunter Boba Fett feels like an entirely throwaway addition. I don’t necessarily dislike Boba Fett, but I feel he’s a character who never begins to reach his potential, something that would become a kind of trend with Star Wars villains. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man With No Name’ character, Boba Fett really doesn’t live up to his inspiration. Sure, he looks the part of a badass – with battle-weary armor and a mask that creates even more mystery than Vader’s – but he’s never really given the chance to do anything of note. Sure, he may be the bounty hunter cunning enough to track down Han, but that’s as far as the character goes. When push comes to shove, Boba Fett is never allowed to do anything to justify the character’s bafflingly immense popularity. On the flip-side of the coin is Imperial Admiral Piett (Kenneth Colley), a more understated villain who – despite his limited screen time – feels more like an integral foe.

“No flips. Just wisdom.”

Perhaps the most interesting “character” of all, however, is the Force itself. The Empire Strikes Back is the only Star Wars film to delve deeply into the philosophy of the Force and the Jedi (thanks in no small part to Yoda and Luke’s interactions). Because of this, there’s something more contemplative to the Star Wars universe presented in Empire. The Star Wars prequel and sequel trilogies would eventually turn the Force into little more than super powers, but in the original trilogy – and most especially Empire – the Force was something more meaningful. If A New Hope was the simple hero’s journey, and Return of the Jedi was the closure to the story, then The Empire Strikes Back is the entry that truly lets us know how the Star Wars universe works, what it’s all about, and what’s at stake.

This emphasis on the philosophy of the Force, as well as its added dimensions to the series’ key characters, is what makes The Empire Strikes Back the heart and soul of the Star Wars saga. What’s almost as impressive is how the film also distinguishes itself from its predecessor aesthetically.

I don’t know whether it was a conscious decision on the part of George Lucas and company, but setting the film’s first act in a frozen wasteland serves as an immediate contrast to the deserts of Tatooine from A New Hope. Then later we have the heavenly scenery of Cloud City and the murky swamps of Degobah, giving Empire the most varied locations of any Star Wars feature. Combine that with the amazing visual effects that still hold up forty years on, and the revolutionary puppetry of Yoda, and The Empire Strikes Back remains one of the most visually captivating films of all time.

Despite the original Star Wars picture having perhaps the most recognizable soundtrack in film history, this is another area in which Empire outshines its predecessor. John Williams outdid himself with his compositions here, with new tracks like Yoda’s Theme bringing new levels of emotion to the series. Perhaps most notably, it can be surprising to remember that The Imperial March was first heard here and not in the original film. It’s hard to imagine Star Wars without The Imperial March, because it’s become so strongly associated with not only Star Wars, the Empire and Darth Vader, but villainy in popular culture as a whole (remember when the classic episodes of The Simpsons used to segue into a Mr. Burns scene with the tune?). It might just be the most iconic musical addition a sequel has ever made.

The action scenes are as memorable as ever. The battle on Hoth – with those wonderfully impractical AT-ATs, is as iconic as the Death Star battle of the first film. And Luke Skywalker’s final confrontation with Darth Vader – which crescendos with that most famous of plot twists (so famous, in fact, that it’s hard to consider it a twist by this point) – sets an epic high for the swashbuckling of the series (even if I may be in the minority who thinks the rematch in Return of the Jedi is even better).

Miraculously, The Empire Strikes Back is also the Star Wars feature that has been the least affected by retroactive special effects. Whether this was due to George Lucas understanding the high regard Empire is held in, or by sheer happy coincidence, I can’t say, but The Empire Strikes Back has only seen minimal added effects throughout the years. There may be a few shots here and there that feature a tweak or two, but very few that stick out like a sore thumb.

The two notable changes didn’t even occur in the 1997 Special Editions (which began Lucas’s obsession with re-editing Han’s shootout with Greedo in A New Hope, and added that obnoxious musical number to Jedi), but in the 2004 DVD release.

The first of these alterations is somewhat understandable. When Empire was first released, Lucas was still unsure of who or what the Emperor was. So when Vader contacts his master in the film, the original version saw the Emperor’s holographic appearance as somewhat experimental and indecisive. So as time passed and Return of the Jedi had firmly established Ian McDiarmid’s interpretation of the character, the re-edits added McDiarmid to the scene. That’s fair and understandable, though I wish the newer version’s hologram of the Emperor weren’t so visually prominent (it’s pointlessly giant), as it kind of takes away the mystery surrounding the Emperor, which takes a little something away from his introduction in Return of the Jedi (similar to what happened to Jabba the Hutt with A New Hope’s re-edit, though this isn’t as bad, considering Vader’s interactions with the Emperor still give the character a sense of presence and mystique). I think keeping the Emperor’s hologram at a distance and slightly obscured (as it was in the original cut) would keep some of that mystery alive for new viewers.

The second such edit is less forgivable. Having Jango Fett’s actor from Attack of the Clones re-dub Boba Fett’s dialogue to keep continuity with how the prequels retconned Boba Fett to be a clone of his “father” just comes across as silly, and feels forced.

Still, none of the changes in Empire have the same kind of negative effect as those made to A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. It was the best Star Wars upon its original 1980 release, and it’s been the least tweaked and tainted since, essentially securing its sacrosanct status.

From its epic battles to its character-driven narrative, The Empire Strikes Back took Star Wars to all new heights. Heights which, sadly, the series never achieved again (Return of the Jedi is still an exceptional threequel, but has perhaps more content than it could juggle). Empire is Star Wars matured, while not losing its childlike sense of wonder. It’s darker without feeling edgy. And it’s deeper without losing the fun. As impactful and influential as A New Hope was (and is), it was but the learner. Now, The Empire Strikes Back is the master.

Impressive.

Most impressive.

 

9

Happy Star Wars Day 2020!

 

Happy Star Wars Day, everyone! Hope you’re enjoying binging Star Wars content on Disney+ as we’re all stuck inside our abodes.

I am currently trying to finish my review of The Empire Strikes Back as I write this now. So, to further celebrate Star Wars Day, why not read my past Star Wars movie reviews? I mean, you’re stuck inside, so why not?

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Star Wars: Episode IV – A new Hope

 

May the Fourth be with you, always!

Movie Awards 2020: The Inaugural “Dora” Award

Now that I’ve (finally) finished my annual video game awards, I figured it’s time to get to celebrating the movies of 2019. Now, I’m not sure if I’ll do a full list of categories like I did for video games this time around, but I definitely will do a top 10 list of my favorite films of 2019. There was, however, at least one other award I wanted to dish out this year (I may still do others, but it’s already April so we’re really grasping here).

This “Dora” award will go to a movie released in a given year that, by all rights, should have sucked, but didn’t. All marketing and expectations point towards a particular movie being, well, terrible. But against all odds, it didn’t.

Given that I’m calling this award “The Dora Award” it should be obvious what the inaugural recipient is…

 

Winner: Dora and the Lost City of Gold

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold should have sucked. It’s a live-action movie based on an educational cartoon aimed at small children! It’s Dora the Explorer!

But, lo’ and behold, it was a good movie. I mean, it’s not great or anything, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold is better than a live-action Dora the Explorer movie has any right to be.

It’s a fun movie for young audiences, and features just the right amount of self-awareness and smarminess that it should prove to be an entertaining time for some older crowds as well.

Normally, I hate to hear the words “I liked X-thing because it didn’t take itself seriously” (God forbid a movie cares about the story it’s telling). But Dora and the Lost City of Gold is the exception where the very nature of the movie couldn’t be taken seriously. So when the initial trailer showed up and seemed as though this movie wanted to be seen as a legitimate Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider Lite, it didn’t exactly win anyone over to the concept of live-action Dora the Explorer (myself included).

I only ended up seeing the movie because I got to see it for free, but I was pleasantly surprised. Again, it may not be anything special, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a good movie. It’s silly, lighthearted fun. And while it acknowledges the innate ridiculousness of itself, Dora and the Lost City of Gold never feels so tongue-in-cheek as though it’s talking down to its source material or its young fanbase.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold – against all expectations and reason – was a fun movie. Who knew?

Onward Review

Pixar’s Onward has one of the more unique premises in the animation studio’s history. While Pixar has proven to be one of the world’s most consistent sources of making excellent movies – animated or otherwise – most of their concepts can be summed up in one brief word: toys, cars, fish, etc. But in the case of Onward, we have a high fantasy world in the vein of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons, but placed in a contemporary suburban setting. With this concept, Onward takes the premise of a fantasy adventure, and turns it into a kind of road trip buddy movie. The end result is one of Pixar’s finer accomplishments of recent years. One that fits nicely into the studio’s acclaimed repertoire of entertaining and touching films.

The world of Onward is littered with the usual races of high fantasy: elves, goblins, trolls, dragons, and so on. But in this world’s history, as the art of magic proved hard to master, it eventually went by the wayside in favor of the accessibility of technology. So the present day of this world isn’t too dissimilar from our own, save for the fact that we have the aforementioned fantasy creatures in place of humans.

What once might have been brave warriors going into battle on their mighty steed are now your everyday, blue collar workers riding public transport. Magical creatures such as unicorns are now more akin to “pests” like raccoons or opossums, knocking over trash cans for food. And fearsome dragons are now common household pets.

It’s a fun premise that could have come off as a bit gimmicky under less capable hands. Thankfully, while certain other animation studios may have used the premise predominantly for gags and parody, Pixar has proven very reliable with keeping such things in check, and instead use their premises for the benefit of a story, as opposed to cheap laughs. And that’s as true here as ever.

The story revolves around two elf brothers: the younger brother Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is the shy, awkward type, while Barley is something of a fearless goofball, and is obsessed with the magical past of his world (and the tabletop games it inspired). Their father Wilden passed away when Barley was very young, shortly before Ian was born.

On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him with a surprise from his late father. This particular gift was to be given to both boys once they were both over sixteen, and not even Laurel is sure of what it is.

It turns out this gift is a wizard’s staff. Laurel mentions that when her husband grew ill, he “got into some strange things,” and it seems the old magic of the world happened to be among those things. Along with the staff is a spell, created by Wilden, which will allow him to be resurrected for a twenty-four hour time period, so that he may see who his sons grew up to be. As Barley notes, a spell that powerful would need a catalyst, which Wilden has included with the spell and staff in the form of a rare Phoenix Gem.

Barley tries for hours to get the spell to work, to no avail. Eventually, Ian – longing to meet the father he never knew – gives it a shot, and it begins to work. Slowly but surely, the spell is bringing Wilden back to the world of the living. Barley busts in and tries to help his brother, but the distraction, along with Ian’s lack of confidence, ends up making the spell go awry. The Phoenix Gem is destroyed before the spell can finish, leaving Wilden only half-resurrected. And by that I mean only his lower torso has returned to the realm of the living, which ends in a kind of blue vortex where his upper half should be connected.

Ian loses face, seemingly botching his one chance to meet his father. But Barley recalls a quest from one of his tabletop RPGs (which, in this fantasy world, are based on historical fact) that tells of a way to claim another Phoenix Gem. And so, following Barley’s knowledge of the adventure, the brothers – with Dad-legs in tow – set out in Barley’s van “Guinevere” on a quest to claim the Phoenix Gem so they can complete the spell before the twenty-four hours are up, so that they can see their father. Meanwhile, Laurel is on her sons’ trail, trying to keep them out of danger, where she is eventually allied by “Corey” the Manticore (Octavia Spencer).

It’s actually one of the more touching premises of the Pixar library (which is saying something), and again, under less capable hands this plot may have floundered. If one were to judge Onward from its marketing, after all, one wouldn’t be at fault to think – with the brothers disguising the living legs of their deceased father as a person – that it was some kind of kid-friendly version of Weekend at Bernie’s. Had this premise been under the umbrella of certain other CG animation studios, an emphasis on gags may have turned it into just that.

What makes Pixar stand out is that – despite their whimsical premises – they always try to put story and characters at the forefront. They don’t always succeed, mind you (The Good Dinosaur happened), but their track record is second only to Studio Ghibli in the world of animated features. And Onward is one of Pixar’s better films in recent years, if maybe not quite on the top echelon of the studio’s works.

The subplot with Laurel and the Manticore could have been given an extra scene or two, as it often seems forgotten for long stretches of time. But on the plus side, the main story is consistently delightful. The film does a great job at making both Ian and Barley into relatable, sympathetic characters. Perhaps this is giving me a bias in favor of the picture, but I couldn’t help but see parallels with me and my oldest brother with Ian and Barley (Though my  brother is much smarter than Barley, and I’m not nearly as competent as Ian). The story revolving around these brothers just wishing to spend a day with a deceased parent is quite touching. Pixar has a strong track record when it comes to making their stories feel personal, and Onward feels among the most personal of all of them.

As stated, the main plot successfully takes advantage of the film’s setting and premise by merging a fantasy adventure with a road trip buddy movie to surprising effect. It’s delightful to see how the filmmakers weave these two genres together. You get the feeling that the folks at Pixar must’ve had some fun figuring out how a fantastic journey translates with contemporary life. It’s a lot of fun.

The animation, as you would come to expect from Pixar, is top notch. The contemporary scenery like gas stations and freeways may seem to subdue the fantastic elements of the movie somewhat, but that’s kind of the point. This is a world where magic only just exists anymore, it makes sense for the fantasy element to be underplayed, visually speaking. Though with that said, I still hope Pixar delves deeper into a fantasy world for a feature down the road, since it allows for endless possibilities that aren’t attached to a specific motif (think of how limited the world of the Cars movies feels, because it’s a limiting premise. Going full fantasy would remove such shackles entirely and could set the animators’ imaginations loose).

Point being that Onward is a captivating film to look at, even if it may not reach the peak of the studio’s visual splendor (that honor still probably has to go to Inside Out which, no surprise, featured Pixar’s most abstract concept). I do wish the character designs for some of the background characters and creatures would have received a little more love however, as it seems the elves are the only prominent fantasy race Pixar managed to make their own. Though extra credit in character design has to go to the final obstacle of Ian and Barley’s quest which, without spoiling too much, is one of the more humorous giant monster battles in movies since the Ghostbusters faced off with the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.

Onward is a splendid film that further extends Pixar’s legacy of quality animated features. It tells a compelling story about brotherhood with its two memorable lead characters, and uses its unique premise to deliver both fun and emotion to great effect. Onward is another shining (Phoenix) gem in Pixar’s crown.

 

8

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020 Film) Review

We seem to have entered a new age of video game movie, one in which the sub-genre isn’t doomed to suck. Sure, we may still be waiting for a truly great video game movie, but considering the horribly misguided 1993 Super Mario Bros. film – despite its countless faults – remained one of the more enjoyable video game to movie adaptations out there for a good, long while speaks volumes to the low standards of the genre. But now, we’re seeing some real effort going into these video game movies, efforts that are beginning to pay off both for fans of the games and as movies themselves. 2019 saw the release of the charming Detective Pikachu, and now 2020 has seen the release of the surprisingly entertaining theatrical debut of Sonic the Hedgehog.

It’s impossible to talk about this Sonic the Hedgehog feature without bringing up the fact that the film is released in 2020 because it was delayed from its initially planned late-2019 release due to Sonic having to be redesigned and reanimated, after the film’s initial trailer lead to widespread criticism and potential horror with the film’s original depiction of Sega’s iconic blue hedgehog.

You often hear people say how special effects “can’t save a film,” and while that’s mostly true, Sonic the Hedgehog is proof that, sometimes, the special effects can save a movie in their own way. Had this film kept its original design for Sonic, the movie simply wouldn’t have worked. Its namesake mascot would have been an unnerving, cringe-worthy ghoul. The character design would have distracted from any benefits the film may have otherwise had.

While one could make the argument that fans and social media have too much of a say-so in creative works these days, this proved to be an instance where listening to the fans was unquestionably the right call. Because the film opted to make Sonic look more cartoony and closer to his video game self, this Sonic the Hedgehog film dodged a bullet. As such, we can appreciate the (surprising amount of) merits the film does have. Sonic the Hedgehog still has its share of faults, mind you, but it’s a consistently entertaining feature that should also leave fans of the series happy.

In this adaptation of the video game series, Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is from another world (which looks suspiciously like the Green Hill Zone from the first game in the series, though it isn’t directly referred to as such). Sonic was born with the ability to run at the speed of sound, and a tribe of echidnas were always after his power (foreshadowing a character likely to appear in a sequel). Sonic had a protector in the form of an owl named Longclaw, but she could only protect Sonic for so long. Sonic, heeding Longclaw’s advice, uses some magic rings to travel to another world in hopes of escaping danger and living a free life (the rings here in the film work like the portals to bonus stages from the games, as opposed to the collectible items).

The world Sonic arrives in is (surprise) Earth. More specifically, he lands in the state of Montana, in a small town called Green Hills (there it is!). There, Sonic lives in secret for the next ten years, getting to know the town inside and out while the townspeople remain none the wiser (save for a conspiracist dubbed “Crazy Carl,” who tries to spread word of a ‘blue devil’ in the town). Sonic’s favorite denizens of Green Hills are Sheriff Thomas Wachowski (James Marsden) and his wife, Maddie (Tika Sumpter), whom Sonic likes to secretly watch movies with during their movie nights (if we weren’t talking about a blue cartoon hedgehog here, that would be pretty creepy).

After years of being isolated from any social contact, Sonic falls into something of a depression. He manages to find ways to cope like playing a baseball game against himself (using his super speed to play the different positions in the game). One day, Sonic takes things a little too far, and his power ends up causing a blackout throughout the Pacific Northwest. The US government can’t figure out the source of the outage, so they enlist a super genius roboticist by the name of Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) to uncover the anomaly.

Sonic may be fast, but Robotnik proves too intelligent and crafty, and his machines are constantly on Sonic’s tail. Sonic takes refuge in Wachowski’s house, only to be discovered by Green Hills’ sheriff.  Unfortunately for Sonic, he startles Wachowski, who ends up tranquilizing the blue hedgehog, who then drops a ring that opens a portal to San Francisco (it’s a long story), and then accidentally drops the remainder of his rings into said portal before it closes.

With Robotnik’s machines tracking him down, and now absent of his rings to travel to a safer world, Sonic and Wachowski – and later Maddie – team up to try and stay one step ahead of Robotnik’s forces, get to San Francisco, and reclaim Sonic’s rings. All the while, Robotnik plans on capturing Sonic not so much for the government’s research so much as he wishes to use Sonic’s power to fuel his own machines.

The plot is appropriately simple, which was probably the best way to go. After all, it’s when the Sonic games began focusing more on storytelling that the series started to go off the rails. There are admittedly some flimsy elements to the plot, the most prominent of which being the film’s constant attempts to explain why Sonic needs help getting to San Francisco when he can run faster than any vehicle (“he doesn’t know the way,” “Thomas owes him for tranquilizing him” etc.).

The humor itself is admittedly where the older crowd might grow a bit weary. The film can at times be genuinely funny – particularly when Dr. Robotnik is on-screen, with Jim Carrey going “full 90s Jim Carrey” for the role – but other bits of humor in the film might fall flat on the adult crowd. Even some of the antics of Sonic himself might get a little tiresome. I get that he has endless energy, so Sonic’s constant commentary on every situation is perfectly in character, but I could live without Sonic doing the floss dance or a Sonic fart joke.

Sonic the Hedgehog is definitely a film aimed at younger audiences. That’s fine by me. Children deserve to have movies as much as anyone (if not more so), and again, Sonic was always at its best when it embraced its nature as a children’s series (notice the downward spiral the quality of games suffered once Shadow the Hedgehog showed up with his guns and swearing). Still, it would be nice if more of the humor of the film were a little less juvenile.

Otherwise, Sonic the Hedgehog is a consistently good time. Yes, a fully animated Sonic movie would be the ideal direction for the franchise, but considering how so many of these live-action adaptations of animated characters have turned out, it’s close to miraculous that Sonic the Hedgehog is as enjoyable as it is. James Marsden plays a good and charming straight man in contrast to Sonic’s antics, and it can’t be overstated how much of a highlight Jim Carrey’s take on Dr. Robotnik is (some fans may lament that for most of the film he simply looks like Jim Carrey with a mustache, but as the film goes on, he adopts more and more of his classic video game look).

Another aspect of the movie that I liked is that Sonic and Robotnik are the only characters from the games to be featured in the film. Again, the video game series was at its best when it kept things simple, so for the film to show restraint in its character inclusions (and exclusions) is admirable. After all, the very first Sonic game only featured Sonic and Robotnik as its primary cast, so it feels appropriate that they’re the only ones to make the jump to Sonic’s big screen debut. There are hints at Tails and Knuckles appearing in potential sequels (which seems likely now that the film is a success), but that feels like the right way to introduce them. Kind of funny how the Sonic the Hedgehog video games seem hellbent on adding more and more bloat with each new entry, while it’s the video game movie that gets it back on the right track.

Even with only two characters from the games, this Sonic the Hedgehog film still manages to squeeze in many a reference to the long-running series (and Sega in general). Whereas the 1993 Mario movie seemed to be Mario in name only, this very much feels like a love letter to the video game series on which it’s based. Perhaps the only downside in this area is that the only music from the games are a couple of remixes of the Green Hill Zone theme. It’s great to hear such a classic video game tune in a movie, but a few more tracks from the games really would have been icing on the cake (imagine Jim Carrey’s Dr. Robotnik descending in his hovercraft to the boss music from Sonic 1. That would have been delicious).

Maybe one day we’ll get a fully animated Sonic feature even while this series continues (after all, Spider-Man is currently in the MCU, his animated Spider-Verse version, and has spinoff characters like Venom getting their own separate movies. We live in a time when a movie franchise can be different series all at once). But again, as far as bringing an animated world into a live-action movie goes, Sonic the Hedgehog is definitely one of the best ones, and very likely the best video game movie made to date (that may not sound like much, but it’s intended as a compliment).

Between Sonic’s redesign, the profuse references to the video games, and Jim Carrey’s manic brilliance as Dr. Robotnik, Sonic the Hedgehog continues what Detective Pikachu started by crafting an enjoyable film that – unlike so many of history’s video game movies – doesn’t feel the slightest bit ashamed about its source material.

It may not be a great work of cinema, but I’m happy this Sonic the Hedgehog movie exists. Surely that counts for something?

 

7

Top 5 Sonic the Hedgehog Characters

After nearly three decades, Sonic the Hedgehog finally has his first outing on the big screen. To celebrate the occasion, I figured I’d write at least a few thing relating to the speedy blue hedgehog.

Let’s start with an obvious choice: the top 5 Sonic the Hedgehog characters! The Sonic series has introduced many, many characters over the years (too many), and while making a full-on top 10 list would have been nice, this is Sonic the Hedgehog we’re talking about. So let’s settle for five.

Keep in mind that, for my list, I’m only including characters from the games. While Sonic has branched off into other media which introduced characters of their own, I’m a bit of a purest when it comes to making lists like this. Since Sonic the Hedgehog is first and foremost a video game franchise, we’re only counting the video game characters.

Without further ado, let’s see who are the best of the best Sonic the Hedgehog characters!

Continue reading “Top 5 Sonic the Hedgehog Characters”

Weathering With You Review

Back in 2016, director Makoto Shinkai released Your Name, a film that ended up being more successful than anyone could have anticipated. Your Name became something of a pop culture phenomenon, not only was it the highest-grossing Japanese film of 2016, but it climbed the ranks of Japan’s box office to become the country’s fourth highest-grossing film of all time (keep in mind that Japan’s box office record holders don’t fluctuate year by year as they do in the west). Though it wasn’t Shinkai’s first feature, Your Name metaphorically strapped a rocket on the director’s back, suddenly ascending him to become one of Japan’s leading filmmakers.

The pressure was certainly on for whatever Shinkai decided to direct next. And in 2019, Shinkai followed-up his breakout Your Name with Weathering With You, which similarly captured audiences around the world. Like Your Name, Weathering With You became the highest-grossing Japanese film of the year, and climbed Japan’s all-time ranks (it currently sits at 12th place of all time, as of this writing). Though Weathering With You is a charming and sweet film in the same vein as Your Name – and is certainly visually captivating – it too often feels derivative of its predecessor, while never hitting the same emotional highs. Despite its merits, Weathering With You ultimately feels like a pale imitation of Your Name.

The story here centers around Hodaka Morishima, a high school student (this is anime, of course he’s a high school student) who has left his island home in search for a bigger, better life in Tokyo. Hodaka’s trip almost ends in tragedy as a storm thrashes the ferry he’s traveling on, nearly sending him plummeting to the sea below. Thankfully, he’s saved by a fellow passenger, Keisuke Suga, who gives Hodaka his business card in case he ever needs further help.

Hodaka doesn’t fare very well in Tokyo – which seems strangely trapped in a perpetual downpour – as he is unable to find work wherever he goes. The only solace Hodaka finds are in his encounters with a girl named Hina Amano, who works at a local McDonald’s.

“Natsumi is best girl. She should be in this movie more.”

It doesn’t take too long for Hodaka to take Suga up on his offer. Suga hires Hodaka as an assistant in his small publishing company, which also consists of Suga’s niece, Natsumi. Hodoka and Natsumi then begin investigating Tokyo’s unusually rainy weather, which leads to them discovering the legends of “Weather Maidens,” who are said to be able to manipulate the weather.

After Hodaka has another chance encounter with Hina and saves her from some lowlifes, she reveals to him that she is in fact a Weather Maiden, and can clear the skies by praying. Inspired by her abilities, Hodaka suggests they set up a business together, with Hina using her powers for people hoping for clear weather for special events. Together with Hina’s kid brother Nagi, they set up said business, and quickly find success through it. But Hina’s powers may come at a great price, which will also prove to test her and Hodaka’s relationship.

I really like the concept of Weathering With You. The idea of a girl being able to stop the rain by praying is both cute and intriguing. It’s just a shame that – whether by trying to repeat past success or being intimidated by it – Makoto Shinkai ends up turning the idea behind Weathering With You into a kind of Your Name Lite (or Diet Your Name, if you prefer). The supernatural setup may have changed – with the body-swapping of Your Name being replaced with the aforementioned Weather Maiden concept – but otherwise, Weathering With You seems to be repeating the same story beats as its predecessor.

Hodaka and Hina almost feel interchangeable with Your Name’s Taki and Mitsuha (who also have cameos in this film, further reminding you that this is Shinkai’s follow-up to his record-breaking picture). And the story doesn’t take too long before it starts treading the same ground as its predecessor. Young love is at the heart of the story. There’s a tragic element to the supernatural aspect that serves as the emotional crux in the two main characters’ relationship. Natural disasters ensue as a result of these happenings, and evoke the same real-world parallels that Japan faced in the early 2010s which Your Name also addressed (a perfectly reasonable allegory to make, but one that somehow just doesn’t work as well here).

Considering Your Name was a really good movie, Weathering With You’s similarities to it aren’t a horrible thing, but they do prevent it from becoming something greater than an echo of its predecessor. Certain characters are forgotten about for lengthy stretches of time, with Natsumi taking a backseat once Hodaka and Hina start their Weather Maiden business, while Nagi doesn’t seem to be of particular importance at all (his only real character trait being that he’s something of shameless flirt for his young age).

I’d like to reiterate that Weathering With You is a good movie, and a serviceable follow-up to Your Name. The problem is that Your Name was something special, so for Shinkai’s follow-up to merely be ‘serviceable’ is a bit of a letdown. Weathering With You may follow the same formula as Your Namebut somehow, it just doesn’t resonate in the same way.

Aesthetically, however, Weathering With You is every bit as beautiful as you would expect from one of Shinkai’s films. This is a film whose visuals you just wish you could soak in. There’s beauty and attention to detail oozing from every last frame. Weathering With You is a visually arresting work that is simply a joy just to look upon. And like previous Shinkai films, these outstanding visuals are complimented by a terrific musical score which helps elevate the emotion of the film (though admittedly I could have done without some of the vocal tracks, which seemed a tad distracting in certain key scenes).

Weathering With You is a good movie that I very much enjoyed while watching it, with its aesthetic pleasures particularly drawing me in. The issue I have though, is that it didn’t stick with me long afterwards like Your Name did just a few short years ago. It’s a good movie in the shadow of a great one, either too intimidated by that shadow or trying too hard to live up to it to find a voice of its own.

 

6

The Top 10 Characters of 2019

 

*Caution: Some implied spoilers ahead!*

I figured it was about time I did something a little different. So here’s something a little different!

2019 was an interesting year for movies, television and video games, to say the least. It provided some real winners in each of those areas, as well as more than a few duds. But with the good came some truly memorable characters, so I decided to compile a list of the ones I personally found to be the most memorable.

I have decided to simply acknowledge film, TV and video game characters into one list this time around. Because of that, this list also isn’t numbered. Instead, I’ll simply list these characters in alphabetical order. It is also for this reason that I’ll limit each individual work to one character (or two ‘tied’ characters if I feel said characters were of equal importance, and those ties will be listed by which character’s name comes first alphabetically).

Also, it’s important to note that characters are memorable for different reasons. Not every character has to be a deeply-written character. Their status in the public conscious and how well they played the roles they were made for often dictate how iconic a character is destined to become.

Because I am also busy compiling my lists of best films and video games of 2019, and planning my ‘Best of the Decade’ stuff, I will keep this short and sweet.

With that said, let’s move on to the top 10 characters of 2019!

Continue reading “The Top 10 Characters of 2019”