Song of the Sea Review

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea is a beautiful film. Its simple and charming character designs compliment its fluid animation to make a visually captivating motion picture. Best of all, it tells a sweet, endearing story that matches up to, if not betters its predecessor, The Secret of Kells.

Song of the Sea tells the story of a boy named Ben (David Rawle). When his mother was pregnant with his soon-to-be sister, Ben makes a promise to his mom. That promise is that he will be the best big brother ever. But tragedy strikes, and Ben’s mother dies during childbirth. Ben blames his sister Saoirse for the loss of his mother, and he grows to resent her.

Song of the SeaSaoirse is a mute, having not uttered a single word by age six. She also holds a secret passed down from her mother. It turns out Saoirse, like her mother, is a Selkie, a mermaid-like creature that lives mostly as a human, but can also take the form of a seal. Ben’s mother often told him bedtime stories of Selkies and other such wonderful creatures, and those stories turn out to be true, but in order for this other world to stay alive, the Selkie must sing a magic song.

Ben and Saoirse’s father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) wishes for the past to remain buried, blaming the responsibilities of Selkies for the loss of his wife. When he learns his daughter has inherited her mother’s abilities, he sends both of his children to live with their grandmother to prevent history from repeating itself.

Song of the SeaWhat then ensues is an adventure as sincere as it is fantastic. Ben and Saoirse must work together to find their way back home, and to prevent the magical worlds of their mother’s stories from fading away. Saoirse must find her voice, and Ben must finally live up to the promise he made to his mother.

This is a magical movie. Much like Secret of Kells, it is steeped in Irish folklore, but it is also enriched with great storytelling and striking imagination, making it feel both universal and timeless. The film evokes a similar sense of magic and wonder to that of a Miyazaki film. The animation is simpler, but it has a similar heart to those of the Studio Ghibli films.

Song of the SeaSong of the Sea deals with strong thematics such as loss while also being perfectly accessible to children with its messages of kindness and staying true to one’s promises. While many animated features feel the need to give sly winks to the adult crowd in order to win them over to a “kids’ movie,” Song of the Sea is one of those rare animated films that – like the Ghibli features – needs only to rely on the sincerity and depth of its storytelling to captivate audiences of all ages.

Song of the Sea is a little bit sad and bitterweet. It’s also a little mystifying and bewildering. It’s heartfelt, emotional, and brimming with imagination. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a lullaby, and it’s an absolute delight.

 

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Kirby and the Rainbow Curse Review

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is the spiritual sequel to Kirby: Canvas Curse, released on the Nintendo DS back in 2005. Canvas Curse was arguably the DS’ first definitive game, as it used the stylus and touchscreen so effectively and uniquely that it remained one of the DS’ best games throughout the handheld’s entire run. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse replicates a number of Canvas Curse’s elements, this time on the Wii U. Though this time around, Kirby’s bag of tricks isn’t quite as consistent.

Much like the DS original, Rainbow Curse sees Kirby transformed into a ball, and the player uses the Gamepad’s touchscreen to draw rainbow ropes in order to move Kirby around, with quick taps on Kirby himself giving him a little boost. You only have a limited supply of ink to create these rainbow ropes at a time, but it quickly replenishes.

Kirby and the Rainbow CurseBeing only the second game in the series to use this style of gameplay (and being ten years after the first), it all still feels fresh and unique. Unfortunately, Rainbow Curse doesn’t quite do as much with its gameplay as its predecessor did. Kirby’s trademarks copy ability was left intact in Canvas Curse, which gave the gameplay some added variety. Strangely, Kirby cannot copy enemy powers in Rainbow Curse, but some transformations do occur on a handful of stages.

At certain points in the game Kirby can transform into a tank, a submarine and a rocket, with each one being far more destructive than Kirby is in his natural state. The levels involving the transformations provide a nice change of pace from the standard levels, but they are ultimately too few in number. The transformation levels also rely too much on repeating gimmicks, leaving players to wish that there were more to them.

The gameplay remains solid, but it lacks the finer details of its DS predecessor. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is brought to life, however, for its unique visual style and its exceptional soundtrack.

Rainbow Curse mimics the look of claymation, with the characters and locations all giving the impression that Aardman had a go at a Nintendo title. The game looks absolutely beautiful, and it’s swimming in details (when Kirby is closer to the screen you can make out tiny fingerprints on his character model). The clay visual style is so wonderfully realized that you can’t imagine it would look much better if it were actually made with claymation.

There is one downside to this. With the game’s focus on the Gamepad, the player’s eyes will be more drawn to the touchscreen than what’s presented on the TV. Given that the Gamepad’s screen presents everything in standard definition, as opposed to the high definition of the Wii U itself, you may actually need to watch someone else play to fully soak in the game’s visual beauty.

In terms of music, Rainbow Curse boasts one of the best soundtracks in the series’ history, and Kirby has always been a series of consistently catchy music. The soundtrack pays homage to the 16-bit era of video games, with the musical styles sounding like SNES and Genesis tunes brought up to date. The game also includes a sound test, where players can listen to any music they’ve unlocked. It should be noted that the game’s soundtrack is so hefty that there are a number of remixes from past Kirby titles that only appear in the sound test (giving players all the more reason to find the hidden tracks).Kirby and the Rainbow Curse

There are a few bonus features in Rainbow Curse, most of which are unlocked by playing through the game’s story mode. The aforementioned music tracks, as well as character models and biographies, are found in hidden chests strewn about each level. Challenges are unlocked by completing certain stages, and there’s a charming (if not entirely useful) storybook that can be found – piece by piece – in a roulette wheel at the end of every stage. Aside from the music, the additional content doesn’t pack a whole lot of punch, but it should catch the eyes of completionists.

One thing to note is that Rainbow Curse is one of the more difficult Kirby games in recent memory. It’s never Tropical Freeze difficult, but you will find a number of instances where Kirby comes face-to-face with one-hit kill obstacles, and moments where the player must react quickly with the stylus to prevent Kirby from falling into a bottomless pit. Again, it’s nothing intensely difficult, but it is more challenging than its adorable exterior might suggest.

One aspect that could have used a little more variety are the boss battles. Between the game’s seven worlds, there are only four bosses among them. The first three bosses are each recycled for another round, with little to differentiate the fights other than a color swap.Kirby and the Rainbow Curse

Multiplayer is an option, with additional players taking on the roles of multicolored Waddle Dees who use more traditional platforming controls to aid Kirby. It’s not the Wii U’s best local co-op, but it is nice to have as an option should others want to join in the fun.

Kirby and the Rainbow Curse may not rank among the best Kirby games, as it falls short of its predecessor and some gameplay aspects are underdeveloped, but it is nonetheless a fun and different take on the world of Dreamland that, above all else, is an audiovisual delight.

 

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Frozen Fever Mini-Review

Frozen Fever

Frozen Fever, the seven-minute short film that accompanies Disney’s new live-action Cinderella, is an absolute delight. It returns audiences to the world of Frozen for a brief, but incredibly fun little ride through the kingdom of Arendelle.

The story is appropriately simple for its short running time, but nonetheless sweet. It’s Princess Anna’s (Kristen Bell) birthday, and her sister Queen Elsa (Idena Menzel) wants to make it the best birthday ever, to compensate for all the birthdays lost when she shut herself away from her sister. The problem is that Elsa is feeling under the weather, and her illness is making her ice magic run amok.

Frozen FeverObviously, this simple plot and short running time mean that Frozen Fever doesn’t share the more complex character elements of the feature length original, but it still manages to produce some sweet moments between the sisters. But Frozen Fever is aiming more for fun anyway, and it succeeds greatly at just that.

A new song “Making Today a Perfect Day” is as fun as it is catchy, and the short is filled with good humor and plenty of fan service (as Elsa begins to catch the sniffles she proclaims “a cold never bothered me anyway”), there’s even a quick nod to a running gag from the Back to the Future sequels.

Frozen FeverIt’s a testament to how immensely likable the Frozen characters are that at a mere seven minutes, this short film is more charming and fun than the feature film that follows it. Frozen Fever only gives audiences a quick taste of a Frozen follow-up, but there’s so much fun to be had that you’ll savor every minute of it.

Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition Review

Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition

Given how far the 3DS has come, and how impressive its library has grown, it can be hard to remember that during the system’s first few months on the market, its sole highlight was a port of Super Street Fighter IV. It had to satisfy 3DS owners while they waited for Super Mario 3D Land and Pokemon. Thankfully, Super Street Fighter IV is a hefty enough game to have helped the 3DS in its bleak beginnings. Unfortunately, hindsight also shows that this 3D Edition is probably the title’s weakest iteration.

 

The fighting mechanics don’t always translate well on the handheld. The joystick and button layout all work well enough, but pulling off some of the more advanced combos can be a little more difficult than they should be. The characters don’t move as fluidly with the control stick as they do in the game’s home console counterparts, which makes chaining together button presses and movements feel less responsive.

Super Street Fighter IV 3D EditionCapcom seemed to address this by adding buttons on the touchscreen which perform characters’ special moves without the need to perform more extravagant combos. This comes as a bit of a double-edged sword, however. While the touch screen specials do make the game more accessible on the 3DS, they are also easily exploited, leaving many multiplayer matches to feel one-sided in favor of whoever hits the first move. Perhaps brief cool down times on the touch screen could have prevented this move-spamming.

Visually, the game still holds up. 3D Edition looks nearly as impressive as its HD home console counterparts. Better still, the 3D effects, while among the first to hit the 3DS, are still impressive. The 3D is especially noticeable during the character’s more extravagant animations in their special moves.

Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition is still a solid gameplay experience, but some of the game’s finer aspects were a little lost in the transition to its handheld form. You can still find a complex fighter if you dig deep enough, but some of the tweaks that attempt accessibility only end up making 3D Edition feel considerably more hollow than its refined home console editions.

 

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Why Frozen 2 Must Deliver the Goods

*Caution: Some spoilers ahead!*

Frozen

Frozen 2 has officially been announced to be in the early planning stages by Walt Disney Animation Studios. While animated sequels come in by the droves these days, this is one animated sequel whose announcement comes as a huge deal for a number of reasons.

The most obvious of such reasons being that Frozen is the most successful animated film of all time, yet it’s taken well over a year for this sequel to be announced (compare that to other animated films of today, where multiple sequels are announced after the opening weekend). Another reason this is interesting is that it’s a sequel to a Disney animated film. Sure, the 90s Disney films were tainted with straight-to-video sequels, but Disney was well aware of their “less-than favorable” quality. Not only has Disney long-since discontinued the entire concept of straight-to-video sequels, but those that they made are not counted as official movies in the Disney canon. The only ‘true’ Disney sequels are The Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000 and Winnie the Pooh, the latter two of which aren’t necessarily continuations of their predecessors, either. Pixar and Dreamworks seem to have a heyday with sequels these days, but a true Disney sequel is a rarity.

So while it may seem obvious that a film as successful as Frozen would get a sequel, the circumstances of time and its lineage are something to note.

But one thing is certain: Frozen 2 must deliver.

On a personal level, Frozen is my favorite Disney movie of all time. I had gotten to a point where I still enjoyed Disney films, but thought that the studio was merely capable of making entertaining movies, not artistic ones. Then Frozen came along and was not only the most fun Disney movie I’d seen (and I’ve seen every Disney animated film), but also one that, finally, had deeper meanings, thematics and character development to it (a trait that carried over, to a lesser degree, to Big Hero 6). It proved me wrong so beautifully and I enjoyed it so immensely that I’m not afraid to admit it’s one of my favorite films, animated or otherwise.

Outside of personal interest, Frozen is also the animated film that has seemingly taken over the world. It’s not simply a movie that made a lot of money, it’s a genuinely beloved phenomenon. Yes, I will even say it’s on Star Wars levels of movie mania, and it has gained an international appeal that few movies can claim (it ranks as the third highest grossing film in Japan, where it topped the box office for sixteen straight weeks).

Suffice to say, there are a lot of people who will want this sequel to deliver. And deliver it must.

Frozen

First and foremost, Frozen 2 must tell a story as meaningful as the first, but it shouldn’t simply rehash the same themes. It can expand on them and introduce new thematics, but simply having Elsa become fearful again would only feel like someone hit a reset button. It would undo Frozen’s ending, and that’s a no no.

Then there’s the villain scenario. Simply having Prince Hans return for revenge would be too simple. Hans can still make an appearance, but he’s served his thematic purposes, and no longer needs to be the villain. Either introduce a new villain who can also serve a purpose for the movie’s themes, or just leave out the villain concept altogether and center the story’s conflicts around the heroes (which Frozen also did to great success).

Introducing new characters almost seems inevitable, and that’s fine, provided they don’t take the spotlight away from the main characters. Olaf and Sven don’t need a third member of their comedic troupe, and Elsa most certainly doesn’t need a romantic interest (a large part of the character’s appeal has been her independence). Frozen strayed from Disney norms by focusing its primary relationship on sisterhood, putting romance in the background when it wasn’t tossing it aside entirely. Frozen 2 would be wise to do the same. It can’t be just another Disney movie. It has to live up to the uniqueness of the original.

Given Frozen’s predominantly girl power attitude, it wouldn’t be too surprising if a third female character is introduced. Once again, this is fine, so long as any such character doesn’t overshadow Anna and Elsa, or get shoehorned into the plot (no long-lost third sister, please).

Then there’s the songs. Good heavens, how does one follow-up Let It Go? But they’re going to have to give it a try. With how wonderfully infectious the songs in Frozen were, the sequel can’t have anything less than that. These songs must etch their way into my brain and – ironically enough – never let go. Frozen

 

Of course, I have great faith in Frozen 2. Disney has not set a release date, meaning they’ve more or less given the filmmakers the time they need to get it right. Disney has also given the filmmakers full creative control, another great sign. Best of all, those filmmakers are Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, who masterminded the original Frozen and shaped what was originally going to be another Disney princess movie into something truly special.

So I do have faith in Frozen 2 (more so than I do Toy Story 4 or Finding Dory). I believe Disney knows they have awoken a sleeping giant with Frozen, and they’ll want to make sure the sequel to their most popular movie isn’t just a mere cash-in (this isn’t the Michael Eisner era anymore). But Frozen 2 must be a sequel of Toy Story 2-like quality. One that takes what you loved about the original, and adds to it while also creating an identity of its own. Frozen 2 is already guaranteed to win over the box office. But if it wants to live up to the original Frozen, it must win over our hearts as well. I think it can do just that.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D Review

DKCR3D

Donkey Kong Country Returns was one of the best games to grace the Wii’s library. The platforming was great, the visuals and music were pleasing to the eyes and ears, it had some of the best level design in years, and it was tough as nails. If there were any notable faults to be had, it was that the Wii version kind of shoehorned some motion-controls to certain game mechanics (rolling, ground-slapping, and the admittedly superfluous blowing mechanics), and they didn’t mesh into the rest of the game.

Luckily, that’s no longer a problem on the 3DS port, as any previously motion-controlled actions are now dictated by the X and Y buttons on the handheld (along with the appropriate directional presses on the control pad), which better translates with the rest of the gameplay.

The 3DS version of DKCR is, for the most part, a faithful recreation of the Wii original, but it does have some new features to boast of its own. The game now includes a “New Mode,” which is essentially an easy mode for those who would find the original version of the game too difficult. The levels retain their edge, but the player is given a few additional means to help them progress through the levels easier.

DKCR3DIn New Mode, Donkey Kong and Diddy both have an additional heart than in the original mode. Cranky Kong also supplies new items in his shop to give players a little boost: Green Balloons can bring DK back from a fall into a bottomless pit, DK Barrels allow Donkey Kong to summon Diddy at any time (even on levels where he normally doesn’t appear), and the Crash Guard grants a limited-use shield in the mine cart and rocket barrel stages. Additionally, DK can bring up to three of Cranky’s items into a level at a time, as opposed to the one item per level nature of the original mode.

The New Mode will certainly come recommended to those who may not have the best platforming skills, but the original mode still gets my vote as the better way to play the game.

Another new addition in this 3DS version are eight brand new secret levels that can be played in either the original or new mode of the game. These new levels keep true to the spirit of the original game and bring their own inventive challenges to the mix.

DKCR3DOne unfortunate setback of the 3DS version are the visuals. While the environments and animations are still vibrant, at times (primarily when DK is further in the background), the game can get a little blurry, which makes things a little more difficult than they need to be. The 3D effects also seem to be a little bit of a missed opportunity. DKCR had a strong emphasis on the depth of the foregrounds and backgrounds back on the Wii, but that never seems to reflect in any additional way in the 3D capabilities of the 3DS.

The minor gripes of the original remain: The bonus stages are a bit too repetitive, Rambi the rhinoceros is an underutilized gameplay element, and the music, while solid, is a bit of a disappointment given the precedent of the series. The soundtrack relies too heavily on remixes from the original Donkey Kong Country, and the remixes don’t match up to the originals.

With this said, Donkey Kong Country Returns is still one of the most fun sidescrollers in years. It has since been bettered by its successor, Tropical Freeze, but Donkey Kong Country Returns still boasts some ingenious level design, fun gameplay and a strong challenge. Donkey Kong Country Returns was one of the best games on the Wii, and despite a few elements being lost in translation in the jump to a handheld console, it can boast a similar claim for the 3DS.

 

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The Boxtrolls Review

The Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is another offbeat stop-motion endeavor from Laika Studios, who previously created Coraline and ParaNorman. Boxtrolls is a bit more charming and less dark than its predecessors, but it retains their expert craftsmanship.

In case the title of “The Boxtrolls” wasn’t offbeat enough, the hero of the movie is named Eggs. Eggs is a human boy raised by the Boxtrolls after he was orphaned. The Boxtrolls are strange little creatures that take up names based on the cardboard boxes they wear (Eggs wears a box labeled ‘eggs’ hence his name). They sleep underground during the day, and dig through garbage for metal trinkets at night. They are harmless creatures, and too cowardly to fight back should anyone try to do them harm (hiding in their boxes is their only method of self-defense).

Despite their simple nature, the people of the town of Cheesebridge all fear Boxtrolls, believing that they kidnapped and ate the orphaned boy years earlier. A ruthless exterminator, Archibald Snatcher, claims that he can rid the town of the creatures. In return, Snatcher wishes for the town’s mayor to grant him membership into the White Hats, the town’s council of aristocratic cheese connoisseurs (despite Snatcher having a cheese allergy). One by one Snatcher and his team of thugs begin to exterminate the Boxtrolls, until only a few of them (and Eggs) remain. It’s then up to Eggs and the mayor’s daughter Winnie to find a way to save the defenseless creatures.

The BoxtrollsIt’s a simple storyline that packs a fair bit of charm due to its sillier aspects and some fun humor (the scenes where Eggs attempts to fit into human society – only for his trollish upbringing to get in the way – are among the film’s highlights), but it’s the animation that’s the real star.

The character models are wonderfully realized caricatures, and they move with a liveliness to match that of a CG animation. Oftentimes there’s so much going on all at once that you really do wonder how the film was made. Stop-motion animation is always a work of painstaking patience and attention to detail, and The Boxtrolls is one of the best examples of how well it can all payoff.

Unfortunately, The Boxtrolls isn’t always so wonderful as its animation. Too often it falls back on gross-out gags (namely those relating to Snatcher’s cheese allergy), which never mesh with the movie’s otherwise good nature. And as has been the case with Laika’s past films, the message, while telling simple truths, becomes a bit loud. Being kind and understanding to those who are different than oneself is definitely a good message, but it’s also recycled from ParaNorman, and both films seem to have a need to bluntly reinforce it, which can make things feel a tad contrived at times.

The BoxtrollsStill, the good ultimately outweighs the bad, and it would be hard for someone to be completely bored with a movie that looks so alive. The Boxtrolls boasts some of the most detailed stop-motion I’ve seen, and makes it look effortless. And when it’s wise enough to  leave the gross-outs behind it, it can be a funny and smartly-written film (another highlight are snatcher’s minions, a group of simpletons who think they’re doing the right thing, but slowly begin to realize they are little more than evil henchmen).

The Boxtrolls may not always work, but it would be impossible to not be won over to some degree by the work that went into it.

 

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