Shrek 2 Review

Shrek 2

Back in 2004, Shrek was all the rage. The first Shrek became one of the most beloved animated films of the time, so it was not too surprising when Dreamworks decided to make a sequel. Like the first Shrek, Shrek 2 proved to be an influential animated movie, with animated sequels now being common place due to the massive success of Shrek 2. And just like its predecessor, most of what was inspired in its wake may make Shrek 2’s influence a dubious honor, but Shrek 2 itself is still a very enjoyable film.

 

Most animated fairy tales end with a kiss, a marriage, and the promise of a happily ever after. Shrek 2 puts itself into a fun place where the happily ever after is the starting point. The fairy tale ending is replaced with the ups and downs of married life.

The movie begins with a montage of Shrek and Fiona’s honeymoon. It serves as a mostly-successful means to reintroduce us to the characters, though it also strangely feels as though Shrek himself became aware of his reputation in 2004. The opening moments of the film prove funny, but the heavier usage of parodies is a little foreshadowing to their stronger overall presence this time around.

The real story begins shortly after the honeymoon, and Princess Fiona’s parents invite her and her new husband – unaware that he’s an ogre – over to their castle for a visit and to receive the king’s royal blessing. So Shrek, Fiona and Donkey set off for the kingdom of Far, Far Away, unaware that a conniving Fairy Godmother and her son Prince Charming plan a takeover of the kingdom.

What’s interesting is that Dreamworks, rather than taking the “bigger” sequel route, actually went with a relatively smaller plot for this follow-up. Sure, the locations are bigger this time around and there are more characters, but the action set pieces are smaller, and the story less extravagant. Shrek went from rescuing a princess from a dragon to meeting his new in-laws.

Shrek 2But that’s exactly why Shrek 2 works. It isn’t just a sequel that relies on being a bigger spectacle than the original. Instead it shows us another side to the curmudgeonly ogre and his friends. The story allows for some added character moments, and the dialogue and writing are on par with the first film as Dreamworks’ most hilarious.

The animation also holds up better than the first film. Understandable, given the success of the original, Dreamworks’ now had more to work with, and could fine-tune their animation. It may not be the most eye-popping animated film around, but its colorful, full of energy, and the human characters look more believable than in its predecessor.

There are some drawbacks to Shrek 2, however, that prevent it from reaching the same heights as the first film in the series. The most notable being the overabundance of pop-culture gags and references. It’s not that they aren’t ever funny (some of them are hilarious), but too often they feel center-staged. The writing is still great, but sometimes it seems to take a backseat to the sight gags, which largely consist of modern references and parodies refitted for the fairy tale theme of the movie (the home video release regrettably features a post-credits American Idol tribute). They’re fun ideas a lot of the time, but it’s a bit much.

Shrek 2Another aspect working against Shrek 2 is that, although the story is smaller than the first film, it has a lot more characters to work with. Shrek, Fiona and Donkey return, and along with new characters in Fiona’s parents, the Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming, there’s also Puss in Boots. Puss works great in small doses as his own character, but pairing him up with Donkey as a comic duo can feel more like extra baggage (weren’t Shrek and Donkey already the comic duo?). Then consider that minor characters from the first movie like Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs, and the Gingerbread Man all get promoted to bigger roles, and it becomes clear that Shrek 2 is trying to please too many people, and it ends up with more pieces than its smaller plot knows what to do with.

Shrek 2 doesn’t quite match it’s predecessor then, but it’s a much closer call than anyone would have predicted in 2004. After all these years it’s still one of Dreamworks’ most hilarious and heartwarming films.

8

Advertisements

Shrek Review

Shrek

When it was released in 2001, Shrek was a revelation. An animated fairytale that was irreverent, sarcastic, and made just as much for the adult crowd as it was for kids (if not more so). It inspired countless other animated movies over the next decade that tried to replicate its style, none of which even began to approach the charm and wit of the originator. While these cheap imitators are (mercifully) falling out of favor, the original Shrek still holds up.

 

Shrek tells the story of its titular ogre Shrek (Mike Myers). Shrek prefers a life of solitude in his swamp, away from all the people who wish him ill for just being who he is. But Shrek’s world gets turned upside down when his swamp becomes overrun with fairy tale characters. It turns out, the fairy tale lot have been dumped in Shrek’s swamp by one Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). After Shrek ventures to meet Farquaad accompanied by a talking Donkey – aptly named Donkey (Eddie Murphy) – Farquaad agrees to give Shrek his swamp back, provided Shrek can rescue the fair Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from the clutches of a fire-breathing dragon.

So Shrek and Donkey set out to rescue the princess and get Shrek his swamp back. But along the way, Shrek realizes his swamp may not be the thing he needs most in his life.

What set Shrek apart from the crowd back in the day was its attitude. The 90s animated scene had been dominated by Disney musicals that largely followed the same formula. Audiences in the early 2000s wanted something different, and Shrek gave it to them.

ShrekIt’s still a fairy tale, like so many animated films, but Shrek is no Prince Charming. Shrek is large, cranky, and down-to-earth. He burps and scratches his rear whenever he feels the need to. And he’s immensely likable. Donkey may be an annoying sidekick, but he perfectly compliments (and irritates) the curmudgeonly hero. Princess Fiona similarly goes against many princess stereotypes. Lord Farquaad – while maybe deserving of a little more screen time – also proves to be a memorable and hilarious villain.

The main characters all went against the conventions Disney established into animated films, and they all became memorable, adult personalities. The overall flavor of the movie reflects this, with characters like Pinocchio, the Three Little Pigs and the Gingerbread Man (referred to here as ‘Gingy’) all being turned into hilarious parodies of themselves. There are plenty of innuendos, sight gags, and winks to the adult crowd that made Shrek feel far more grownup than the movies of Disney and their contemporaries at the time. Yet, Shrek was, and is, still very much a movie kids can enjoy.

ShrekThe film remains bright and colorful, though the character models are looking dated by today’s standards. It’s forgivable when one considers the animation was groundbreaking in its day, but perhaps the attempt at making more ‘realistic’ looking humans is what has aged. Comparing it to the more exaggerated character designs of some other early CG animations (including Toy Story, released six years prior to Shrek), you may find that the human characters in Shrek no longer look nearly as believable as they once did.

But again, that’s forgivable. The one aspect of Shrek that simply doesn’t hold up is the soundtrack. Shrek makes extensive use of licensed songs, and while some of them are appropriate for their respective scenes, I’m afraid nothing screams “this movie was made in 2001” quite like Smash Mouth. While the story and humor of Shrek hold up brightly, the soundtrack is the aspect of the film that feels dated.

It’s a small price to pay, however. While the movies it inspired may have lacked its heart, Shrek is still a great film. It’s smart, hilarious, and appeals to all ages. The years may have proven that Dreamworks couldn’t consistently replicate this winning formula (Shrek’s own sequels fall short, though Shrek 2 comes close), but Shrek still represents Dreamworks at their best.

 

8

Big Hero 6 Review

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is Disney’s first animated film “inspired” by a Marvel comic, though it’s probably more of a love letter to anime than it is to Disney’s superhero subsidiary. Set in the city of San Fransokyo, Big Hero 6 has the look and feel of the robot and superhero-fueled anime and manga from the 90s.

Big Hero 6 tells the story of Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a boy genius who spends his time winning money in unsanctioned “bot fights,” after having graduated high school at an early age. Hiro’s brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) tries to persuade his brother to attend his university, where Hiro’s robotic knowledge would be more than welcome. There Hiro meets Tadashi’s friends Gogo (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller). But most importantly, it’s where Hiro meets Baymax (Scott Adsit), Tadashi’s healthcare robot.

This being a Disney movie, Hiro’s happy family doesn’t last long, and soon tragedy strikes and Hiro loses his brother Tadashi. Hiro then isolates himself from his friends and family, but once Baymax comes back into Hiro’s life, it leads the two on an adventure involving the mystery of Tadashi’s death, a super villain who stole Hiro’s invention ‘Microbots’  and is using them for a villainous plot, and eventually sees them, as well as Gogo, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and Fred, become super heroes.

 

If the setup sounds a bit like your typical Marvel movie origin story, that’s because a good chunk of it is. Big Hero 6 is a tried and true super hero flick in a lot of ways, which does prevent it from reaching the heights of some of Disney’s recent filmography, but it feels more honest and genuine than most of its live-action superhero counterparts, which makes it feel much fresher than the majority of super hero movies we’re bombarded with these days.

 

Big Hero 6It’s that heart that keeps Big Hero 6 afloat. Hiro is a likable main character, and the story allows him to show a wider range of emotions than we see from most Disney heroes. Baymax is surely one of the most endearing of Disney characters, he provides humor not because he’s a character created solely for comic relief, but because he’s a robot, and he acts like a robot. Yet, because he’s a robot dedicated to helping others, he helps boost the film’s emotional center. The relationship between Hiro and Baymax is what gives Big Hero 6 its heart. Through Baymax Hiro is able to get a better understanding of his brother even after his passing. It’s a super hero movie about overcoming the loss of a loved one.

 

Big Hero 6But while Hiro and Baymax may provide character development and depth, the other four members of the titular Big Hero 6 are unfortunately less fleshed out: Gogo fits squarely into the hardcore tomboy archetype, Wasabi is uptight and prone to comical freakouts, Honey Lemon is the girly girl, and Fred is the laid back comic foil. While Hiro and Baymax are given the time and attention to win our affections and earn our sympathy, the rest of the group are exactly who their one-note introductions say they are.

Another unfortunate aspect is that some of the film’s more story focused moments seem to go by too quickly, possibly as a means to fit as many action sequences into its running time as possible. The action scenes in question are all excellently done, mind you, but perhaps with a little more time dedicated to the story the other characters could have ended up as memorable as Hiro and Baymax.

In terms of animation, it doesn’t get much better than Big Hero 6 as far as CG is concerned. There is a painstaking attention to detail at work in Big Hero 6, which makes San Fransokyo feel like a living, breathing city (and keep an eye out for slews of Disney and Marvel Easter Eggs). Additional visual treats are provided by Baymax – whose “non-threatening, huggable” appearance make him one of the most unique of movie robots – and the Microbots, which join together by the thousands to create various shapes. In terms of the film’s scope and all the visual pop within it, Big Hero 6 may be the biggest spectacle Disney has ever made.

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is a charming film, and a whole lot of fun. But I fear that comparison’s to Frozen (it’s immediate predecessor in the Disney canon) and The Incredibles (Disney’s “other” super hero flick) may effect it’s appeal. Those two films took their genres, and added deeper thematics and storytelling to them. By comparison, Big Hero 6 feels like a more tried and true super hero movie. A really good one, mind you. But it may end up in the shadows of the two aforementioned films for not going the extra distance. It even tries its hand at creating a twist on its villain scenario, but it’s a twist that feels immediately predictable. Compared to the surprises of Frozen and The Incredibles, Big Hero 6 falls short.

 

You can’t dismiss Big Hero 6 for not being as good as Disney’s best, though. There’s a whole lot to love about it: Marvel fans are given plenty of fan service (Stan Lee cameo and post-credits sequence included), it gives the Disney canon some diversity in style, and it’s a highly entertaining love letter to Japanese anime. It’s beautifully animated and features action scenes as good as any super movie movie. But best of all are Hiro and Baymax, who elevate Big Hero 6 to being one of the most endearing movies in Disney’s recent resurgence.

 

Big Hero 6

8

Why Today’s Disney Renaissance is Better than the 90s Disney Renaissance

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6, Disney’s most recent release, has kept the House of Mouse’s current hot streak alive. This hot streak, which began in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog, is often thought of as the “modern Disney Renaissance” in reference to the original Disney Renaissance that began after The Little Mermaid and continued throughout the 90s with such beloved films as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, ending with Tarzan.

A lot of Disney fans like to think of the 90s Renaissance to be something of Disney’s golden era, untouchable by any other generation of Disney films. But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that the current wave of Disney films not only stands up to the 90s Disney Renaissance, but betters it. Granted, the modern Disney flicks in question currently stand at six, compared to the original Renaissance’s ten films. But it terms of diversity, creativity and storytelling, these six films give the 90s Disney canon a run for their money.

 

Little MermaidOne of the main reasons the 90s Disney films were so successful, and yet so restrained, can be summed up with both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Both of which are charming movies (the former has aged in terms of its message, but the latter is still one of Disney’s finest), but Disney, looking to reclaim their former glory after their rather lackluster run in the 80s, was willing to play things safe. The Little Mermaid created the template for the generation of Disney films to follow, and Beauty and the Beast refined it. The rest, you could argue, simply replicated it. From character archetypes to story progression to the style of songs, the 90s Disney Renaissance, even with its best films, was largely unwilling to be different, or think outside of the box.

Hunchback of Notre DameArguably the sole exception to this was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I consider to be both one of Disney’s best and most underrated animated films). Hunchback of Notre Dame took the Disney template of the time, and wrapped it around a darker narrative and adult themes. The rest of the lot, even some of my favorites (Mulan, Hercules) wouldn’t have taken the creative risks that Hunchback did.

 

But that was one movie out of ten, whereas I think all six of the current Disney wave have far more distinct identities. Sure, Princess and the Frog and Tangled may fall under some of the same tropes as the 90s generation, but they at least cared to give their princesses personalities, and they as a whole have a stronger sense of characterization than the brunt of Disney’s films. Not to mention that both Tangled and The Princess and the Frog tried to add some twists to the formula, whereas the 90s films would have felt content sticking to the rulebook laid down by The Little Mermaid.

 

To top that off, the other modern Disney films include the charming Winnie the Pooh, a super hero movie in Big Hero 6, a video game love letter in Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, which may look like ‘another’ princess movie from the outside, but narratively and thematically, is in a league of its own in the Disney canon.

Anna and Elsa

Winnie the Pooh is as simple and cute as you would expect from the bear of very little brain, but it has a sense of innocents and peacefulness that most American animated features lack. Big Hero 6, while a by-the-books super hero film in some ways, is genuine and honest enough to give it more heart than its live-action super hero brethren. Wreck-It Ralph is a fun story with a memorable cast of characters, complimented by a constant sense of visual inventiveness. Finally, Frozen took what could have been another tried-and-true Disney musical, and turned it into something meaningful, with believable, even relatable characters, a story that took creative risks, and a level of depth that makes it one of the few Disney films I’ve seen analyzed and interpreted on an artistic level. When was the last time a Disney film had themes that could be interpreted in different ways?

 

I know what you’re probably asking by this point: “What about The Lion King? What about Aladdin?”

The Lion KingTruth be told, I find both The Lion King and Aladdin to be nothing special. That’s not to say I think they’re bad movies, but I certainly don’t think they’re worth the immense praise fans have given them. Nor do they really belong in arguments of great animated films. Aladdin is remembered for the iconic Genie, but take him out of the equation and everything else in the film is pretty forgettable. The Lion King, while good, is a pretty basic plot with an inconsistent tone (one minute Simba is crying over his father’s lifeless body, the next a warthog is singing about farting). And both still stuck true to the established formula. Again, they aren’t bad movies, but I don’t see them as a great argument in favor of the 90s Disney Renaissance.

 

I know, I am now the villain of every 90s kid. But I’m certainly not writing off the nostalgic favorites of the Disney Renaissance. I simply think that Disney’s recent output feels more free. Perhaps Disney doesn’t feel so desperate as to recycle the same formula now that they have the likes of Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars to fall back on, and so their own films are now allowed to be more creatively daring. But whatever the reason, I feel that these past six Disney animated features, while they may not be equal among each other (Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh are no Frozen or Wreck-It Ralph), do feel equally free to be themselves. The Princess and the Frog didn’t write a rulebook like The Little Mermaid did. But it did open the door for Disney movies to be more creative. I would say that’s all the more impressive.

The Lego Movie Review

The Lego Movie

With the Lego toy line now encompassing all sorts of media, from television to video games, it seemed only inevitable that a feature film would don the Lego name. But while The Lego Movie may boast the charming aesthetics of the toy line, it ends up being a largely inconsistent affair.

The Lego Movie tells the story of Emmet (Chris Pratt), an average, everyday construction worker in the city of Bricksburg. He doesn’t do or say much to stand out from the rest of the crowd, which makes it all the more surprising when he is revealed to be “The Special” a legendary figure proposed to save the world from Lord Business (Will Farrell).

Lord Business is hell-bent on bringing order to the world, and plans to freeze Bricksburg permanently into place with an item known as the Kragle (KRAzy GLuE). Emmet, along with sure-to-be romantic interest Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), the blind wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and Batman (Will Arnett), set out to put a stop to Lord Business’ plot.

The Lego MovieIt’s a silly storyline that plays off the usual tropes of action/adventure movies, it’s sometimes effective, but it often works against itself. The parodies are spot-on, and provide the occasional laugh. The problem is parodying these tropes doesn’t change the fact that The Lego Movie is still shackling itself to them. It’s a by-the-books adventure that believes itself better than by-the-books adventures. It becomes all the more magnified by the movie’s insistence on telling the audience to be creative, yet it doesn’t adhere to its own message.

Be grateful for the visuals then, as they are just about the only thing The Lego Movie can call its own. It’s a CG animation, but it mimics the look and feel of stop-motion, more than likely inspired by the countless Lego fan films found on YouTube. The characters look and move as you would expect  Lego figures would. The environments look like they were constructed by the colorful toy bricks (including water, which makes for the movie’s most fun visuals), and if you look closely, you’ll even see fingerprints on some of the characters.

So the visuals are nice, though the novelty only works for so long. You can only care so much about the lively visuals when the story doesn’t share in their inventiveness. The Lego Movie is always at the ready to mock the cliches of other movies, but is ignorant to the fact that it’s in the same boat. It’s the very thing it claims to be smarter than.

Younger audiences might not mind, they’ll probably just love it for being The Lego Movie. No doubt the presence of Batman, as well as cameos from Star Wars, Ninja Turtles and countless other franchises might even make older audiences giddy. But at the end of the day, the fun of The Lego Movie can only go so far. It can preach creativity all it wants, but if it itself feels like any other average animated movie, then there’s nothing “special” about it.

5

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 the sequel to Dreamworks’ acclaimed 2010 animated feature of a similar name (minus the 2). Dreamworks hasn’t had the most consistent track record when it comes to sequels – for every great Kung Fu Panda 2 there’s been a not-so-great Shrek the Third – but given the status of ‘Dragons’ among Dreamworks’ features, it seems the studio has made an honest effort to live up to the original with How to Train Your Dragon 2. But just how effective is that effort?

I have a bit of a confession to make. I found the original How to Train Your Dragon to be great when I first saw it. But I’m afraid it doesn’t hold up so well in repeated viewings. It’s a good film that tells a solid story (no tired pop-culture references), and it had some nice emotional touches, but it also lacked any real sense of inventiveness. There were no surprises, and the story could largely be figured out by the trailers alone. You could say that How to Train Your Dragon was good and pretty much everything it did, but everything it did was pretty much everything you expected it to do.

I think it’s safe to say Dragon 2 continues this trend. It’s solid, but nothing groundbreaking. Though that may be less forgivable the second time around.

The story takes place five years after the original film. Young viking Hiccup has done a lot of growing up (bringing peace between vikings and dragons will do that). His father, Stoic the Vast thinks it’s time Hiccup begins preparing for the day when he succeeds his old man as chief viking of Berk.

But all is not well in the world. An old enemy of Stoic’s, Drago Bludvist is training  dragons of his own, with the intent on creating a dragon army to take over the world! Hiccup, his dragon Toothless, his girlfriend Astrid, Stoic and the rest of the vikings are then dragged on an adventure that, among other things, leads to the discovery of Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka.How to Train Your Dragon 2

The story is tight enough, with some clever writing and good character development with Hiccup (his relationships with his parents being a highlight), and a good sense of humor to boot (one notable scene involves Astrid poking fun of Hiccup’s mannerisms, which seems like a sly joke by the filmmakers at the way they animated the main character). The downside is, with all the good, How to Train Your Dragon 2 still suffers the same shortcomings of its predecessor.

My primary gripe with the first Dragons was that the supporting cast was largely comprised of one-note characters, and that rings doubly true here. Stoic’s right-hand man Gobber is the essential goofball, while Hiccups friends fill a similar role, but even more condensed: Dragon 2Snotlout  and Fishlegs spend the entire movie swooning over Ruffnut , who in turn spends the entire movie swooning over someone else. Ruffnut’s twin brother Tuffnut gives a few obligatory one-liners during the film as to not be completely left out. Even Astrid feels like  forced ‘strong girl’ character, following the trend that a girl needs to act like a boy in order to prove she’s strong. It’s not that any of these characters are unlikable, but the fact that they feel defined by a singular joke or trait does make it feel like the Dragons series has a bit of an excess in supporting characters.

This goes double, however, for Drago Bludvist, who amounts to little more than the archetypal “the world shall soon be mine” kind of villain. And given that Bludvist has a considerably bigger role than the aforementioned characters, it only magnifies his one-note villainy.

Another problem is that much of what happens in the movie’s first half happens all to quickly. Perhaps Dragon 2 is trying to tell a story that’s too big for its own running time, but some of the earlier parts of the film feel like they’re cramming elements together to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Thankfully, the second half of the film smooths things out and finds a more consistent flow and steady pace.

If you loved How to Train Your Dragon, then you should love How to Train Your Dragon 2. It has all the pieces that made the original one of Dreamworks’ better animated films, but it also doesn’t exactly improve on its predecessor either. It’s a fun, beautifully animated ride, just like the original, but it’s also full of more elements than it knows what to do with, and aside from one big emotional moment, lacks any real surprises. Maybe it’s not the bigger and better sequel it wants to be, but if you’re a fan, you probably won’t care.

6