Tag Archives: Animation

The Brave Little Toaster Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

6.5

An American Tail Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5.0

Top 10 Films of 2016

Yes, I am extremely late in writing this. You may think “why bother making a top 10 films of 2016 list by this point? We’re more than five months into 2017 now!” Well, this is my site and I can do what I want on it. That’s reason enough for me.

In all serious though, I intended to write this some time ago, but there were a number of 2016 films that I had wanted to see that I didn’t get around to until much later. Now that I’ve seen them, I can write this with a deeper knowledge of 2016 films.

Of course, keep in mind that this is my own personal list. Ergo, my personal taste will probably make this look wildly different than many other lists. For example, I like movies that actually gain an audience and make money  a lot more than professional award committees seem to. Sure, I’m open to liking any movie if I think it’s good (hell, sometimes I like movies that I know are bad, if they provide enough entertainment). But I’m not going to place some critically acclaimed, artsy films just to make me look more “legit.” I like what I like, so that’s what’s going to be here.

As a whole, I don’t think 2016 was as good of a year for movies as 2015, but it still provided some gems. These are said gems that I really liked.

But first, I’d like to give a shoutout to both Dr. Strange and The Founder, both of which I greatly enjoyed and wish I could place on here as well. But top 10 is the tradition, and it’s a perfect number that appeases my OCD. So they have to settle for runners-up spots. Still, one’s a great superhero movie that changes things up by actually including magic (instead of skipping around it like Thor) held together by Benedict Cumberbatch and Mads Mikkelsen. The other is a surprisingly engaging look into the origins of the McDonald’s fast-food restaurant chain, lead by a great performance by Michael Keaton.

Okay, now onto the top 10.

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Your Name Review

Your Name is the 2016 anime film by Makoto Shinkai that took the world by storm. Shinkai’s previous films were successful, but Your Name was on another level entirely, becoming the highest-grossing anime film worldwide, and the fourth highest-grossing film in Japanese history, behind only Disney’s Frozen, James Cameron’s Titanic, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. The great news is that Your Name is that rare kind of film whose quality actually warrants it’s rabid success.

The film tells the story of two Japanese high school students: Mitsuha Miyazumi and Taki Tachibana. Taki is a boy living in Tokyo who works at an Italian restaurant. He’s polite and kind-hearted, but has trouble expressing himself. Mitsuha is a small-town girl, the daughter of the mayor, who is tired of both her small-town life and being in her father’s shadow.

As the movie begins, however, neither Mitsuha or Taki are themselves, as they’ve each awakened in the other’s body.

At first, neither Taki nor Mitsuha know what to do in the situation, and think it’s some kind of dream. But as the day goes on, they manage to grow more accustomed to the bizarre situation, and even begin to enjoy it. The next day, both teenagers return to their respective bodies, but the strange phenomenon continues to happen every so often (a few days a week, they mention in one scene).

From here, Taki and Mitsuha – who were previously unaware of each other’s existence – begin to learn more about each other. They each manage to get a hold of the other’s cellphone number, with which they inform each other of their respective schedules, and set a list of guidelines for how to interact with their respective friends and family (which becomes increasingly important, as their memories of the other begin to disappear once they return to their own bodies).

Some liberties are taken by the two, of course, with Mitsuha improving Taki’s social life and setting up a date with his crush, while Taki turns Mitsuha into the most popular girl in her school.

Things aren’t all fun and games, however, as a revelation of an impending natural disaster threatens Mitsuha’s entire town, leaving the two high schoolers to try and figure out a means to utilize their unique situation to save the town and everyone in it.

What’s really striking about this story is that, although it does follow a number of traditions and obvious cliches of anime and high school dramas, it manages to make it all feel original and fresh thanks to its creative setup (which is something of a cross between Groundhog Day and Freaky Friday) as well as its well-written characters.

The fact that each of the two leading characters are often each other means we get to know one character through the other, which makes the relationship between the two something truly unique. By the end of it all, Taki and Mitsuha become two of the most believable and likable characters in animation.

Your Name also boasts a refreshing combination of genres, the type of which usually only seems to happen in smart animated features like this. It can get serious and dramatic, and is a fun high school movie in its own right. But it’s also strangely and beautifully romantic, and can be incredibly funny (the first two things Taki notices when he inhabits Mitsuha’s body are the exact two things a young man would notice if he switched bodies with a young woman).

What really surprised me about Your Name is how well it captures all these various emotions. Anime films are frequently interesting, but often at the expense of emotional resonance. A lot of anime films introduce audiences to intriguing worlds, and their efforts at more philosophical storytelling definitely feel different than what we usually see in western animation. But the world-building is often convoluted, and the philosophical elements can feel forced, which gets in the way of the story and characters resonating with their audiences. It seems only Studio Ghibli consistently finds the right balance of these elements.

Thankfully, Your Name gets it right! I’d even say that it successfully evokes its emotion better than any anime film outside of Studio Ghibli that I’ve ever seen. It’s sweet, fun, funny, sad and touching.

Another aspect of Your Name that I really appreciated is that the film never feels the need to explain why any of the body-switching is happening. There are a few hinted possibilities (a passing meteorite, a cultural ritual Mitsuha partakes in), but nothing that overtly explains it. Your Name wisely trusts its audience to be able to enjoy the story without needing to have the finer details spoon-fed to them.

Your Name is also a strikingly beautiful film, with some of the most outstanding animation I’ve ever seen. The character designs aren’t the most original out there, but their movements are as fluid and believable as any animated character. The backgrounds are stunning, and there’s a wonderful sense of detail in everything going on on-screen. The visuals are complimented by a similarly beautiful soundtrack, which captures the range of emotions of the film, without ever becoming overbearing.

The entire picture is just an aesthetic wonder. It’s a film you can’t help but be absorbed in, with its visual and audio beauty ultimately only complimenting what is a really heartfelt story.

2016 was a great year for animated features: Disney had the one-two punch of Zootopia and Moana, Pixar’s Finding Dory was a surprisingly good sequel, and Kubo and the Two Strings was a stop-motion wonder from Laika. Yet even with all that competition, Your Name ultimately comes out on top as the best animated feature 2016 had to offer.

I went into Your Name knowing of the success it’s had, and tried to keep my expectations at bay as to not end up disappointed. But Your Name ended up being that rare kind of feature that – once the last credit rolled and I could only then get out of my seat – left me feeling overjoyed and grateful for having seen it.

Your Name is simply a wonderful film.

 

9.5

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs Review

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs has been something of a guilty pleasure of mine since its release in 2009. It’s no great film by any stretch of the imagination, but why would it be? It was the third entry in a franchise that was only ever decent to begin with. On the plus side, it seems like Blue Sky Studios was aware that this was never a series that would rival the likes of  Toy Story in terms of emotional depth, so they just went in the “fun” direction. Though it’s a flawed film,  Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs does succeed in being an enjoyable romp, and certainly a step up from the largely forgettable second entry in the series.

From the get-go, it’s obvious that Blue Sky Studios had stopped trying to make the Ice Age films into animated classics and doubled down on cartoonish silliness. This time, the animal heroes find themselves on an adventure through a subterranean realm where the dinosaurs never went extinct.

The film begins when Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) finds three giant eggs in an underground cavern. Thinking the eggs were abandoned, Sid decides to take them as his own. It turns out these are tyrannosaurus eggs, and once they hatch, the babies start running amok among all the ice age creatures. That is until their mother shows up and takes the babies back to the underground dinosaur world. But the babies have grown fond of Sid, so the tyrannosaurus mother reluctantly takes him along as well. Sid’s mammoth friends Manny (Ray Ramano) and Ellie (Queen Latifah), along with Diego the sabertooth tiger (Denis Leary), and Ellie’s opossum brothers Crash and Eddie (Sean William Scott and Josh Peck), set out on a rescue mission to bring Sid home.

It’s as simple of a plot as it gets, but there are token attempts at bringing some added drama to the mix. Manny and Ellie are expecting a baby, Diego fears he’s lost his edge as a hunter, and of course Sid’s relationship with the baby dinosaurs. It’s silly and simple, and little more than a means to dress up what is a tried-and-true adventure story, but it’s fun.

As is the case with every Ice Age installment, there’s a running side story in the film about Scrat the squirrel chasing an ever-elusive acorn. Only this time, Scrat has some competition in the form of a female flying squirrel named Scratte, with the rivalry between the two squirrels developing into a romance.

The best part of the film, however, is a weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg), whose years spent in the dinosaur realm have left him a little cooky, and who serves as the groups’ escort in the dangerous dinosaur world.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs also has appropriately fun animation to compliment it all. It’s not among the most visually striking animated features, but the character designs are fun, with the dinosaurs in particular adding more variety and color into the mix, and the change in setting helping the film stand out among the other installments in the ongoing series.

It’s true, many of the problems with the series are still in full force here. Primarily, there are just too many characters for the short running time to know what to do with, and many of the character arcs feel tacked on and rushed because of it (this is especially true for Diego). But y’know, this is a movie about a couple of mammoths, a sabertooth tiger and a weasel trying to save a sloth from dinosaurs, with a squirrel romance thrown into the mix. It’s not exactly trying to tell a groundbreaking story.

In the end, Ice Age 3 is definitely Ice Age 3. But hey, it has fun action scenes, solid animation, is actually pretty funny at times, and is a pretty fun ride. If you’re looking for something more, look elsewhere. Though honestly, you could do a whole lot worse than Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.

 

6.5

Megamind Review

Dreamworks Animation has an odd track record, to say the least. For every Shrek, there’s a Shark Tale. For every Kung Fu Panda, a Turbo. Suffice to say, Dreamworks seems to greenlight any idea that passes through their studio to see what works. Sometimes Dreamworks’ better movies find the success they deserve, and sometimes they don’t. Sadly, Megamind falls into the latter category, as it was a fun and humorous reverse-super hero romp that seems largely forgotten, due in no small part to bad timing.

Megamind had some good writing and a decent amount of originality at its disposal, but it was released in 2010, a pretty strong year for animated films that saw the likes of Toy Story 3 and Dreamworks’ own How to Train Your Dragon hit theaters. Perhaps most notably of all, 2010 was also the year that saw the release of Despicable Me, a film that shared a similar concept to Mega Mind. And seeing as Despicable Me will soon see the release of its third entry, and even had a spinoff film that grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, it’s safe to say which of these villain-turned-hero movies won the war.

Perhaps another aspect that held Megamind back from reaching its potential success was its setup. While Despicable Me starred a cartoonish parody of a James Bond-style villain, Megamind focuses on a more comic book-styled super villain. Seeing as the superhero genre was oversaturated even back in 2010, the idea of a super hero parody didn’t exactly stand out (even the “proper” super hero films often find the time to parody themselves by this point).

Suffice to say, Megamind came and went, and that’s a bit of a shame. Because while it may not be an animated classic by any means, Megamind does provide a good time, and manages to sprinkle in a surprising amount of character development along the way.

The titular Megamind (Will Ferrell) is an alien from a far off planet. In a spoof on Superman’s origin story, Megamind was sent to Earth during his planet’s destruction, while a family on a neighboring planet (also in the destruction process) has the same idea. The two alien babies’ space pods collide on their way to Earth. While one baby lands into a loving, privileged family and grows up to become Metro Man (Brad Pitt), Metro City’s super powered savior, the other baby ends up being raised by inmates, and eventually becomes the evil genius Megamind.

Over the years, Megamind and Metro Man have had countless battles, with the villain often kidnapping news reporter Roxanne Richie (Tina Fey) or threatening the city, and Metro Man always stopping him. One day, Megamind seems to accomplish the impossible, and seemingly kills Metro Man during one of his attempted rescues of Roxanne.

With Metro Man out of the picture, Mega Mind takes control of the city, though he doesn’t really know what to do with it. Megamind was only ever thrown into the role of villain out of circumstance, and never knew what to do if he got what he thought he wanted. Without a hero to fight, Megamind loses his purpose in life, and begins to have an identity crises.

During his downward spiral, Megamind, along with his aptly-named henchman, Minion (David Cross), concoct a plan to create a new hero for Metro City. Using some of Metro Man’s DNA, the duo plan to use Roxie’s cameraman Hal Stewart (Jonah Hill) as their subject. But the plan backfires when Hal turns out to be a selfish, irresponsible jerk, using his powers to become the new villain of the city, leaving Megamind with a huge dilemma on his shoulders.

It’s a fun and simple setup. Placing the super villain in the central role of a super hero parody may not sound entirely original, but the film does a great job at delivering comedy out of its premise, as well as making Megamind a surprisingly sympathetic character.

The film has a lot of fun playing up super hero tropes, while also having some good fun with Megamind’s alien ways (one of the film’s best running gags is Megamind’s constant mispronunciations). But it also does a great job at giving its titular blue villain a pretty heartfelt story arch. Though the other characters aren’t nearly as well fleshed-out, they still prove memorable in their own right (Hal is probably a more properly hatable villain than most of those found in the recent Marvel films).

Megamind also boasts some great visuals, with the caricatured character designs holding up a bit better than the Dreamworks features that try a more realistic approach. Metro City is also impressively realized, boasting a scope and set pieces that rival those found in live-action super hero films.

Admittedly, their aren’t a whole lot of major complaints to be had with the film. Primarily, it’s a bit on the predictable side, and as stated, even a parody of the super hero genre doesn’t change things from being another entry in such an exhausted genre, and the film lacks enough newness to elevate it beyond that.

One character complaint to be had is with Metro Man himself. The film does a great job at making him a showman who enjoys his place in the spotlight and schmoozing the crowds. But – without spoiling any specifics – the film later robs him of the more heroic attributes he does have after certain story revelations. Under certain circumstances it might work, but the film fails to make a compelling reason for us to still care about the character, despite an attempt at explaining his actions.

On the whole, Megamind is a very fun movie, and certainly better than its reputation suggests. It treads a lot of familiar ground, but its sharp writing and well-developed main character put it on the better end of the Dreamworks Animation scale.

 

7.0

Lady and the Tramp Review

Lady and the Tramp has to be one of the most iconic of Disney films. Though the 1955 feature may not be among the best features from the House of Mouse, it has enough charm to it to warrant its iconic status.

Lady and the Tramp tells the story of two dogs: Lady, a Cocker Spaniel who lives a ritzy life with an upper-middle-class family (whom she refers to as “Jim Dear” and “Darling,” after the pet names the couple call each other), and the Tramp, a stray mutt just trying to get by.

After Lady’s owners have a new baby, life begins to change for the pampered pup, as she begins to realize she’s getting less attention than she once did, though she loves her family, and the new baby. Lady’s life gets turned upside down, however, when Jim Dear and Darling take a trip, leaving Lady and the baby in the care of “Aunt Sarah,” a ghastly crone with a disdain for dogs.

Not only is Aunt Sarah trouble, but so are her two Siamese cats, who tear up the place and blame it on Lady. Aunt Sarah goes to a pet shop to get Lady a muzzle, which results in the family’s beloved dog running away. After getting lost, Lady becomes acquainted with the Tramp, who helps her get by in life without humans, and the two begin an adventurous romance. All the while, Lady hopes to find a way back home.

It’s simple stuff, but like most Disney movies, the animal characters are cute and easily win the audience over, and it’s a charming enough story to delight both children and adults. It’s true that Disney movies reached a whole new level of entertainment value during their “Renaissance” era of the 1990s, and its only been in recent years that the non-Pixar animated features from Disney have reached a greater level of sophistication in their storytelling. So Lady and the Tramp falls under the umbrella of simplicity that was Disney’s 1950’s output, but again, it has the right amount of charm to bring smiles to faces (especially if you’re a dog lover like myself, though this makes the dog pound scene twice as heartbreaking).

The film is well animated, as you would expect from Disney, though their are some notably choppy moments in editing. But the animals all have a fluidity to their movements, and like most Disney features, the animators gave them as much personality in their appearance as the actors did in their voices.

Lady and the Tramp is also notable for including some of the most iconic scenes in not only Disney’s library, but in all of American cinema. The famous spaghetti scene has been paid homage and parodied countless times through the decades, to the point that younger audiences may not realize that it originated here.

Lady and the Tramp is too simple to be ranked among the absolute best Disney animated features, but it’s filled with so many delightful little moments and cute animal characters that it hardly matters. It’s a sweet, innocently romantic movie that remains heartwarming even today.

 

7.5