Abominable Review

In the early-to-mid 2000s, Dreamworks Animation was seen as Pixar’s big rival in the world of CG animated features. Though Dreamworks has had a number of animated hits, their habit of strictly following the template of animated features of their time (both in the 2000s and into the 2010s) combined with what seems to be a willingness to green light every last idea that enters their door (Boss Baby), made Pixar’s inevitable victory in this so-called “war” a foregone conclusion long ago. And with Disney rising to prominence in the CG animation front over the past several years, the idea of Dreamworks being a rival to either of the Mouse House’s two premiere animation brands seems all the more like a distant memory.

That’s not to say that Dreamworks has completely fallen off the map (I still quite enjoy the first two Shrek films and the Kung Fu Panda trilogy), and every now and again they still crank out a good movie.

Case in point: Abominable, a charming and heartfelt animated feature from Dreamworks Animation’s “Pearl Studio” division, a joint venture between Dreamworks and Chinese investment companies. Though even with its charms and emotional strengths, Abominable still ultimately falls short of its full potential by once again adhering too closely to Dreamworks’ rulebook.

Abominable tells the story of Yi (Chloe Bennet), a young Chinese girl who has recently lost her father. Living with her mother and grandmother, Yi has taken to performing odd jobs around town in order to save up money to go on the trip around Asia that her father had always wanted to go on, but died before he had the chance. But Yi’s world is thrown into disarray when she discovers a yeti living on top of her apartment building. Yi soon befriends the yeti, naming him ‘Everest’ (after his home), and is determined to keep him safe.

It turns out this yeti has escaped captivation from a wealthy man named Mr. Burnish (Eddie Izzard), who recently caught the creature on an expedition to Mount Everest, after having searched years for the creature following an encounter with it in his youth. Determined to prove the yeti’s existence after being called a liar his entire life, Mr. Burnish has recruited zoologist, Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson), as well as a small, private army, to help him reclaim the yeti.

Fearing for Everest, Yi sneaks the Yeti onto a departing ship, but in the spur of the moment, ends up accompanying Everest on his journey home. But Yi isn’t alone on her adventure to escort Everest back to…Everest. Caught in the middle of all the commotion are Yi’s friends from her apartment: Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), a self-absorbed pretty boy, and his younger brother Peng (Albert Tsai).

If it all sounds a bit familiar by now, that’s because, well, it is. Abominable is ultimately a good movie, as it tells its story well and by the film’s third act, it hits the right emotional beats. But Abominable is also a movie that can feel like it came off a conveyor belt, as the story it does tell is all too familiar for animated features of today. Granted, I would rather see a predictable good movie than an original bad one, but I can’t help but feel just a handful of tweaks to Abominable’s story structure could have ascended it from being simply a ‘good’ animated feature to a great one.

Again, there’s nothing inherently bad about Abominable. But from the main character’s story with a deceased parent, the friendly, misunderstood creature, the comic relief, and the overall pathway of the story, Abominable is very much following the proverbial animated movie guidebook. I suppose the film does attempt a bit of a twist with its villain scenario, but it seems like many animated films do that these days. And unlike in something like Frozen, where the villain twist had thematic depth that subverted Disney’s tropes, Abominable’s ‘twist’ just seems to kind of happen for the sake of it. Some might point out Yi’s lack of a romantic interest to be of note, but again, that’s become pretty commonplace for animated heroines over the past few years (and it’s something that, once again, Frozen did infinitely better).

It’s the over familiarity of it all which has plagued numerous Dreamworks animated films in the past. While Pixar – Dreamworks’s one-time rival – continue to take animated storytelling to new heights (even if they may not do so quite as consistently as they once did), Dreamworks often seems to simply make due with the status quo. Sure, not every movie can be a masterpiece, and sometimes a lighter, more familiar movie is perfectly fine (and it is here). But I worry that Dreamworks is too okay with ‘perfectly fine’ all too often, instead of aiming for something greater.

By now I’m probably sounding pretty negative about Abominable. But it should be noted that Abominable is a movie I feel bad saying anything bad about. Because it is a charming and heartwarming feature, despite its lack of originality. And I certainly found it a more enjoyable offering from Dreamworks than How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

While the third entry in the Dragon series felt overly cluttered with a small army of characters (most of whom felt pretty one-note even back in its first installment), Abominable keeps things simple and focused. We have a trio of heroes, a duo of primary villains, and a huggable yeti as the centerpiece. Yi is a likable heroine, and I applaud how the film at first presents Jin as a one-dimensional character who wouldn’t have felt out of place as a secondary character in the Dragons films, but goes through his own miniature story arc that makes him a much stronger character as the film goes on.

The film is also well animated, with memorable character designs and colorful scenery. And of course, every time the yeti uses its magic, the film provides plenty of visual splendor.

Abominable certainly has a lot going for it. Between its sharp animation, charming characters, and genuine heartfelt moments, Abominable should delight children as well as older audiences. But if you’ve seen pretty much any of the better half of Dreamworks’s animated output, you basically know everything you’re getting from Abominable, which ultimately prevents its many merits from shining as brightly as they should.

 

6

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Review

During a flashback sequence in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – the third and final entry in Dreamworks Animation’s critically-acclaimed trilogy – Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler) tells his young son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) that “Love comes with the great price of loss.” It’s a hefty message for a “kid’s movie,” one that treats its target audience with respect, and trusts that they’re mature enough for it. It’s also a fitting message, seeing as the How to Train Your Dragon series began at the dawn of the 2010s, the series now seems to be bookending the movie decade, with many of those who watched the original in theaters as children now adults themselves.

That’s why I wish I could say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World lived up to that message. The Hidden World may earn brownie points for never talking down to its young demographic, but like both of its predecessors, it ultimately plays things safe in terms of narrative structure. And what could have been a deep, melancholic change of pace for the franchise is unfortunately a missed opportunity in a rather by-the-books animated adventure.

That’s not to say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is bad by any means. But I’ve always felt that this franchise’s acclaim has been a little misplaced, with most of its praise stemming from the fact that it was a Dreamworks franchise not built on sarcasm (admittedly a novelty for the studio), as opposed to anything remotely resembling Pixar levels of storytelling and thematic invention. How to Train Your Dragon was always a good series, just not really special in the way its acclaim might have you believe. In that sense, The Hidden World lives up to its predecessors’ quality, but it’s a shame that this final entry couldn’t ascend into something more than the series’ “solid but safe” status.

Taking place one year after the defeat of Drago Bludvist and the death of Stoic the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hidden World sees Hiccup as the new chieftain 0f the vikings of Berk. And Hiccup’s pet dragon (a ‘Night Fury’ to be precise), Toothless, is the alpha dragon of Berk. With vikings and dragons finally coexisting in peace, Berk seems like a paradise.

Hiccup and his friends – including his now-girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) – have been freeing dragons from less open-minded vikings, and bringing them to Berk as a kind of dragon utopia. But this eventually riles the ire of several viking warlords, who recruit the infamous dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) – the man responsible for sending Night Furies to the brink of extinction – to hunt Toothless and claim Berk’s army of dragons.

Grimmel proves to be a cunning foe, and eludes Berk’s attempts to thwart him. Out of desperation, Hiccups commands the citizens and dragons of Berk to find a new home, on their journey to find the fabled “Hidden World” which can serve as a sanctuary for dragons, outside of human reach. But Grimmel has an ace up his sleeve, a female “Light Fury,” which he plans on using to lure Toothless out of hiding.

It’s a straightforward plot, but one that feels epic in buildup, but ultimately misses its potential in execution. The Hidden World retains the series’ standard hour and a half runtime, but the story at hand feels like it needs more. As a result of cramming in an epic scope into a shorter runtime, many key moments in the film fly by pretty quickly. When what I assumed to be another action set piece ended up being the climax of the film, it really became apparent how rushed the film can feel. It leaves both the big action scenarios and the key emotional moments feeling a tad underwhelming.

Another persistent issue with the franchise which is still at play here is that there are too many side characters. We have Hiccup and Astrid’s friends; Snotlout (Jonah Hill), twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristin Wiig and Justin Rupple), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), as well as Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), Berk’s resident blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and enemy-turned ally Eret (Kit Harington). This abundance of side characters may not have been an issue, if not for the fact that – aside from Valka and Eret – they are all played entirely for comic relief, which basically makes them interchangeable. Once again, if the film were given more time to develop these characters, they may have been a little more than their introductory punchlines. Yet here we are at the end of the series and that’s still where they are.

Of course, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is still sweet and memorable. Additionally, the relationship between Toothless and the Light Fury is a cute, Lady and the Tramp-style romantic subplot. And I do have to admit, Grimmel is a step up from Bludvist in the bad guy department.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World still showcases the strengths of the series: The animation is often stunningly beautiful, the various creature designs for the dragons are cute and charming, and the music is as gorgeous and epic as ever. Like its predecessors, the things that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does well, it does very well. But the disappointing thing is that, in terms of story, the franchise has done very little to stand out on a narrative or thematic level. And more so than the past two entries, The Hidden World suffers from its relatively short running time (plenty of animated films aimed at children reach the two hour mark these days. And when trying to tell a story on this scale, the extra time really could have helped).

The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy can at hold its head high knowing that all three of its acts are genuine efforts that are sure to please fans. But it is a bit of a shame that its storytelling capabilities never really evolved beyond tried-and-true animated conventions. Still, a consistent trilogy is hard to come by, and fans of How to Train Your Dragon will be happy to know that their series is one of the few to have pulled it off.

 

6

Bee Movie Review

2007 was an interesting year for animated features. This was a year that saw Pixar’s biggest winning streak kick off in the form of Ratatouille (which followed up the good but not-up-to-studio-standard Cars), as well as international critical darlings like Persepolis and Paprika. It was also the year that saw Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise fall from grace. Somewhere along the way Dreamworks released another animated feature in 2007 in the form of Bee Movie, a film that – despite some solid efforts at humor – feels decidedly bland and average. So much so that it’s only real legacy is that its entire script became an internet meme a decade after release.

Interestingly, Bee Movie was something of a pet project of one Jerry Seinfeld, who helped write its screenplay, served as producer, and starred as the voice of our bee hero, Barry B. Benson. It is Seinfeld’s comedic knowledge that provides the film’s few highlights, but it’s a real shame that he didn’t weave the same level of originality and wit into the overall screenplay that he did to his iconic (and brilliant) TV series.

The film begins the same as every single CG animated film that thinks they know the Pixar formula (but doesn’t): Barry B. Benson doesn’t quite fit in with the other bees in the hive, wanting to experience life to its fullest instead of being relegated to a single job for the entirety of his life. Of course, following the rulebook of CG animated films to a tee, Barry decides to venture outside the hive for a change of pace, and breaks ‘bee law’ by talking to humans, and soon becomes infatuated with a human flourist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). A human/bee romance is as weird as it sounds, but at least Barry is given actual human traits and a personality, so it’s still less awkward than The Shape of Water.

Anyway, Barry soon learns that food companies are selling and distributing honey, without permission from bees! And so Barry sets out to sue the human race so that bees can have full control over their product.

It’s a pretty strange plot, and though I do commend it from swerving away from the impossibly cliched “social misfit follows his dreams” story of CG animated films, the whole first act feels kind of pointless since that setup ultimately goes nowhere in favor of the honey-based plot.

There are other issues with the plot as well, including Vanessa’s human boyfriend , Ken (Patrick Warburton), who is treated as a moronic, villainous buffoon who is jealous of Barry, though he actually has some pretty justifiable reasoning that doesn’t mesh with his one-dimensional portrayal. When we’re first introduced to the character, he points out that he’s deathly allergic to bees. So while the movie treats the character like he just has some unfair prejudice against bees, I think the prospect of ‘not dying by bee sting’ more than justifies his reluctance to Barry. Before he even knows Barry can talk and tries to squish him (out of fear of, y’know, potentially dying), he is stopped by Vanessa, who then asks “why does his [Barry’s] life have any less value than yours?”

I’ll tell you why, Vanessa. Because Ken is a human, and Barry is a bee.

Am I getting sidetracked and overthinking things? Maybe, but I do think that just because a movie is aimed at children doesn’t mean it should talk down to its audience by not thinking through its finer details.

Even with the gaps in logic and awkward romance, there are still other elements holding Bee Movie back. Its character designs not only look basic and uninspired, but the animation itself looked well behind its time, being more akin to a late-90s CG animation than something that was released the same year as Ratatouille. And if the first act is largely forgotten with its original setup, then the third act is just downright confused as to where it’s going, including a completely unnecessary action sequence in which Barry and Vanessa have to land a plane after the pilots get knocked out.

The saving grace to Bee Movie, however, are a few moments where Seinfeld’s comedic genius shines through. Sporadic though they may be, the moments that hit the right comedic notes do so with a wit that is to be expected of Seinfeld and company. There are a lot of missed shots as well (the early moments in particular have a heavy emphasis on bee-based puns), but it sticks the landing when it comes to a few moments of more mature humor at the expense of things like lawyers and less-than-tolerant older generations (“your parents would kill you if you were dating a wasp”). We also get a fun but small role by John Goodman as the voice of the lawyer representing the humans. Goodman has one of those voices that just sounds perfect in animation, to the point that his presence is always a highlight.

Bee Movie is far from the worst animated film I’ve seen. In fact, it’s far from the worst Dreamworks animated film I’ve seen. But for those few brief moments that are worth the laughs, the movie just feels far too bland to truly stand out. The fact that many of the folks who worked on Seinfeld’s television series helped bring this film to life only hurts it all the more, since you know they were capable of doing so much more with it. Instead, they decided an animated film wasn’t worth their extra effort, I suppose. That’s a shame, because Bee Movie might have been more than an internet meme otherwise.

 

5

The Boss Baby Review

Dreamworks has always been an interesting presence in the world of animation. Though they were once the only studio that could compete with Pixar in the realms of CG animation, they’ve never had the same level of quality control that Pixar has boasted. While Pixar has popped out winner after winner for most of their existence (with a few exceptions), Dreamworks seemingly gives every idea that passes through the studio the green light, leading to a miss or two for every hit. They’ve never really learned their lesson, and fittingly for 2017, a year that was largely inconsistent for movies as a whole, Dreamworks released one of their more shaky pictures in the form of The Boss Baby.

The gist of the story is that a young boy named Tim (Miles Bakshi) gets a new baby brother. But this baby isn’t any ordinary baby. With his finely-tailored suit and business savvy, Tim’s new little brother is the “Boss Baby” (Alec Baldwin). Tim quickly grows resentful of the new baby as he receives all of his parents’ attention.

Things get a little more complicated, however. It turns out, this Boss Baby is a member of Baby Corp., a giant conglomerate run entirely by babies in a sort of ‘before-life.’ Babies are losing popularity to puppies, and the company that Tim’s parents work for, Puppy Co., is planning on releasing a new breed of puppy, one that could put Baby Corp out of business. So the Boss Baby has been sent to Tim’s household (via taxi cab) to try to get info on this new puppy.

It’s a weird movie.

The concept behind the story – of a kid learning how to live with a new baby brother – simple as it is, is actually a decent one for a kids’ movie. And turning the baby into a corporate suit is a humorous twist on the idea (albeit one which is probably better suited for a short format, as opposed to an entire feature). But the small concept is stretched far too thin with the “babies vs. puppies” subplot (not to mention, who am I supposed to root for in that scenario?). And it only gets spread thinner as the movie goes on, with the introduction of an unnecessary villain midway through, and a plot that makes less sense the more you think about it.

Although the film’s marketing may have already had you rolling your eyes at the movie (those adverts really liked that “cookies are for closers” line), the fact that the movie ultimately falls apart is actually a bit of a shame. Because in its early moments, The Boss Baby shows some promise in both its story and humor.

For example, the early moments of the film tell us that Tim has a very active imagination, leaving the audience to think that the baby talking, wearing a suit, and being ‘born’ via taxi are all just Tim’s childhood imagination running wild with interpreting the situation around him. But as the film goes on and the whole corporate rivalry thing gets going, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the case. Not only does this remove a lot of the film’s early charm, but it also ends up raising a lot more questions about the plot than answers (does Puppy Co. actually manufacture dogs like a product? Why are the parents oblivious to the fact that their son arrived to them via taxi cab?) If the film were presented as being told through Tim’s imagination, such questions wouldn’t matter, and the sheer absurdity of it all would actually be made more charming. Instead, The Boss Baby will have you scratching your head asking “wait, so did that really happen to them?” numerous times. Just to hit the point home, there are a few moments where Tim’s imagination does take over, separate from the rest of the goings-on around him and the Boss Baby, confirming that, no matter how bonkers the movie gets, the characters are actually going through all of it.

I certainly don’t have any qualms with the idea of The Boss Baby being more inline with fantasy, but the way it’s structured is off-putting. It goes from possibly being about a kid’s interpretation of life with his new baby brother to something a bit more…wacky.

Along with feeling structurally confused and over-bloated, the movie also can’t help but aim for some obvious potty humor. Some of it works, but just as often you’ll be sighing that the movie didn’t even try to aim higher (we get it, babies poop. What else ya got?).

On the bright side of things, those aforementioned early moments have their charms, and when the humor strays from the obvious, it can be pretty funny (some of the film’s best gags involve Tim talking to his totally-not-Gandalf alarm clock…which goes back to how the movie is at its best when it’s in Tim’s imagination).

Another highlight is the animation, with The Boss Baby boasting some of Dreamworks’ most fluid character movements. And fittingly for a movie about babies, the character designs are cute and charming (those eyes!).

The Boss Baby isn’t a total dud, then. But its concept quickly stretches too thin, when a smaller scale story would have benefitted it greatly, and all too often it aims too low when just the little extra effort could have gone a long way.

Maybe for its target audience, it may provide a good hour and a half of entertainment. But for the older crowd who is becoming more and more accustomed to kids’ movies also appealing to them, The Boss Baby ends up being a missed opportunity.

 

5

How to Train Your Dragon Review

During the 2000s, Dreamworks Animation was in something of a rivalry with industry giant, Pixar Animation Studios, as the two regularly competed for cinematic supremacy in the CG animation scene. Dreamworks and Pixar traded box office victories, but when it came to critical and audience approval, Pixar consistently came out on the winning end. Perhaps Dreamworks got too comfortable with their more snarky, parody-style that began with Shrek (an instance in which such a movie felt fresh and original), but the studio always came up short against Pixar’s more earnest storytelling. That seemingly changed in 2010, when Dreamworks released How to Train Your Dragon, which told a more direct narrative than Dreamworks’ usual fare and, perhaps because of that, reaped critical praise and started a franchise that boasts many diehard fans.

While How to Train Your Dragon did feel like a breath of fresh air from Dreamworks at the time, the years since have revealed that sense of newness to have been relative. Dragons – though containing a good deal of competence with its material – seems to be telling its story from a rulebook, as it contains a strong sense of “been there, done that” throughout.

How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Berk, where a tribe of vikings – lead by Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) – frequently have to do battle with dragons, who steal the vikings’ food and livestock at night. The vikings have been at war with dragons for generations, and see them as their mortal enemies.

There is one viking, however, who isn’t cut out for dragon-slaying. This viking is named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who happens to be the son of Stoick. Hiccup is something of a scrawny pushover, and has long-since been relegated to being the apprentice of the village blacksmith, Gobber (Craig Ferguson). But Hiccup longs to fight dragons, like the rest of the vikings, and invents machines in order to make up for his shortcomings. During a dragon attack one night, Hiccup decides to prove his mettle and tests one of his machines, successfully trapping a Night Fury, a dragon so fast that no viking has seen one up close.

Naturally, the other vikings don’t believe that Hiccup of all people could have been the first to down a Night Fury, so Hiccup sets out to find the trapped dragon, kill it, and prove his worth to the other vikings. But when Hiccup confronts the beast, he can’t bring himself to kill the dragon. Instead, Hiccup frees the Night Fury – whom he names Toothless – and begins to raise the injured dragon as a secret pet.

Hiccup soon learns how to tame dragons, as opposed to hunting them, and realizes that the vikings’ idea of dragons being mindless killing machines couldn’t be further from the truth. All the while, he tries to find a way to convince the other vikings – including his father Stoick and his would-be love interest Astrid (America Ferrera) – to see dragons in a different light.

Truth be told, the story is solid and well told, with some strong emotional bits and a good amount of entertainment throughout. Hiccup is a likable main character (even if Baruchel’s voice sounds a little older than the character should), Toothless is adorable, and the bond between the two makes for a heartwarming “boy and his dog” story…albeit the dog is a dragon.

How to Train Your Dragon tells its story with confidence, and there’s not a whole lot technically wrong with its narrative. The problem is that its narrative can feel like it came off a conveyor belt. Its setup of a misfit hero defying traditions, butting heads with ignorant adults, and befriending a creature once thought villainous, How to Train Your Dragon often brings to mind, well, pretty much every animated movie in history.

Again, that’s not to say that what is here is bad per se, as the storytelling at play is mostly solid, and the film does what it does better than many other animated features that did the same. It’s just that How to Train Your Dragon never once feels like it ventures off the beaten path. Both the story and the characters feel like they could have been pulled from an instruction manual on animated storytelling. It’s certainly an enjoyable and well put-together film, but I can’t help but wish How to Train Your Dragon had a little more creative spark in how it tells its story and the characters it chose to populate it with.

Though it may lack in imagination, How to Train Your Dragon does make for a fun viewing for audiences. Older crowds will appreciate the exquisite CG animation, dramatic musical score and thrilling flying sequences, while the younger lot will probably love the film for the various dragons that show up (each dragon looks and behaves differently, and have their own abilities, bringing a little Pokemon element into the mix).

Make no mistake about it, How to Train Your Dragon is a good movie. But it also seems to have become a bit overhyped. Often hailed as a modern animated classic, repeat viewings can make How to Train Your Dragon feel more like an entertaining but unremarkable animated adventure. It was great to see Dreamworks leave their comfort zone of more sarcastic animated features and make something more genuine (though I’d argue they also did that with Kung Fu Panda beforehand). But if one were to compare How to Train Your Dragon with many of the features Pixar was making at the time (and still is making on occasion), How to Train Your Dragon still feels like it’s in a comfort zone of its own. It’s thoroughly competent at what it does, but what it does is never really anything more than exactly what you’d expect of it.

 

6

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.

 

6

Kung Fu Panda 3 Review

Kung Fu Panda 3

Though the Shrek series was Dreamworks Animation’s most financially successful franchise, and the ongoing How to Train Your Dragon probably has the strongest fan devotion, I have always felt the Kung Fu Panda series was my favorite to come out of Dreamworks. So I’m happy to say that Kung Fu Panda 3 keeps the series undefeated in delivering good movies.

In an early scene of Kung Fu Panda 3, master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) teaches Po (Jack Black) the important elements of a dramatic entrance and a dramatic exit.

The original 2008 Kung Fu Panda was indeed a strong entrance for Po and the gang. It’s true that, much like the original How to Train Your Dragon, it was a bit formulaic (unlikely hero follows his dreams, learns to believe in himself, and saves the day), but Kung Fu Panda followed that rulebook with more personality than most (and I feel that, unlike How to Train Your Dragon, it holds up just as well with repeated viewings). It was made into something special by the fact that the film could have easily been a one-trick pony. After all, this was still in the years when the majority of Dreamworks features were sarcastic and cynical, and with a title like Kung Fu Panda, it was easy to imagine a one-joke parody being stretched for an hour and a half.

Instead, Dreamworks managed to produced an honest-to-goodness hero’s journey. So predictable though it may have been, it was undeniably charming, fun and good-natured.

The series started off on a strong note, and only got better with its sequels (another area I feel it triumphs Shrek and Dragons). Kung Fu Panda 2 added stronger narrative and character depth, and took what was simply an animated film with talking animals, and gave a sense of world-building and mythology to its world. Kung Fu Panda 3 continues this trend, and equals the series’ second installment in many ways. If Kung Fu Panda 3 serves as the last chapter in the series (which it may very well be), then it is a fittingly dramatic exit.

The story brings the series full circle, with much of its plot centered on the now-passed turtle Master Oogway, who was responsible for sending Po on his life’s journey in the first film. It turns out that centuries ago, Oogway’s dearest friend, a large yak called Kai (J.K. Simmons), discovered the power of Chi, and it gave him a lust for power that ultimately drove him mad, leading Oogway to banish his friend to the spirit realm.

Kung Fu Panda 3Fast-forward five-hundred years, and Kai has spent his afterlife capturing the Chi of other deceased kung fu masters, in the process making himself stronger and turning the fallen masters into zombies made of jade (or, as Po comes to call them, “Jombies”). Kai has finally become powerful enough to defeat Master Oogway, and manages to steal his former friend’s Chi, giving him enough power to open a path back to the mortal world, where he plans on destroying Oogway’s legacy (which, in Kung Fu Panda lore, means kung fu itself).

Meanwhile, a curveball is thrown at Po, as Master Shifu plans on retiring as the teacher of the Furious Five, and passing the mantle down to Po, who isn’t exactly up for the task. Further complications arise when Po’s biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) finds his long-lost son and invites him to come to a secret panda village. This causes tension with Po’s adoptive (goose) father, Mr. Ping (James Hong), but the pandas may just hold the secret to Chi and in defeating Kai.

Like its predecessors, Kung Fu Panda 3 is simply a lot of fun. Po is as likable as ever, Kai continues the series’ tradition of badass villains (he’s also the funniest antagonist, due in no small part to J.K. Simmons’ vocals), and the action scenes are some of the best in recent years, another trend for the series.

If Kung Fu Panda 3 has any real drawbacks, they are the same ones that have always been present in series. Namely, the Furious Five – Tigress, Monkey, Crane, Mantis and Viper (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Seth Rogen and Lucy Liu, respectively) – still don’t seem like important enough characters. They’re given a star voice cast, but they’re so underutilized you wonder why they needed the names. Throughout the series, Tigress has been the only one to show any kind of development, and even then it’s not much.

The only fault that is exclusively Kung Fu Panda 3’s is that the story can feel a little sidetracked in the comedic moments. As a whole, the film is just as enjoyable as Kung Fu Panda 2, though it may not be quite as well structured, since the comedy bits can sometimes feel a bit lengthy, leading to some story elements feeling introduced and/or resolved too quickly.

This might be especially true for Kai’s backstory. Though he is given an understandable motivation of feeling betrayed by his friend, the film’s backstory for the character tells the audience how he was once a selfless figure – carrying an injured Oogway for days to find help – without giving enough reason as to why he would suddenly become hellbent on obtaining power in the first place.

Kung Fu Panda 3With that said, these complaints are ultimately minor. As stated, Kung Fu Panda 3 is a good time through and through. The cute characters and humor will keep children entertained, while the story, beautiful animation, great voicework, and legitimately awesome fighting sequence can easily hold adult interest. Not to mention the terrific score by Hans Zimmer.

In many ways, Kung Fu Panda 3 works as a fitting final chapter for the series, but does so without feeling like a forced finale like so many others before it, leaving open the possibility for future installments. If this is the end of the series, then Kung Fu Panda has gone out on a high note, and can claim to be one of cinema’s few consistent trilogies. But if there were some kind of guarantee that the series’ quality could continue in future installments, I’m certainly not opposed to a Kung Fu Panda 4. Or at the very least a spinoff.

 

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