The Croods Review

The Croods

The Croods is a more appealing movie than its bland title might suggest. But it also won’t be ranked alongside Dreamworks’ best work. It’s ambitious in scale and filled with colorful character designs, but it’s also restrained when it comes to narrative. The Croods is a solid entry in the Dreamworks canon, but one that won’t exactly win over those who claim they prefer style over substance.

The film stars a family of cavemen, the titular Croods. At the head of the family is the patriarch, Grug (Nicholas Cage), who dedicates himself to his family’s survival in the hostile prehistoric environment. He’s well-meaning enough, but a bit paranoid of the world, which leads him to often butt heads with his rebellious daughter Eep (Emma Stone), who wants nothing more than to go out and see the world. The rest of the family gets considerably less screen time, but they include the mother Ugga, the brother Thunk, and baby sister Sandy, as well as Grug’s mother-in-law Gran. They’re a fun lot of characters when they need to be, though they do feel a bit archetypal.

The CroodsEvery day is the same in the Crood household (cavehold?), they wake up, scavenge for food, and avoid being eaten by sabertoothed cats and other such creatures, only to return to the cave to hide until the next morning. But their world is turned upside down when Eep meets a guy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who informs her that the end of the world is coming, and that he’s heading for the land of “Tomorrow” which is safe from the impending apocalypse. It isn’t long before the Croods’ home is destroyed in the ensuing chaos, and they seek help from Guy to find a safe home in tomorrow. Along the way, the Croods (specifically Grug) may learn a thing or two about opening up to the world and having unique ideas outside the status quo.

It’s a simple enough story, livened up by some smart writing and humorous running gags, as well as some solid voice work. There is a bit of a downside in that the movie has more characters than it knows what to do with (you may wonder why the story even needed Eep’s siblings), and the story is a bit on the predictable side, with the messages – simple truths that they may be – feeling a tad ham-fisted.

The CroodsBut it’s all made more enjoyable by the film’s real highlight: The animation. The Croods showcases some of Dreamworks’ best visuals, with just about every scene being a display of color and detail. Best of all are the character designs for all the prehistoric beasts the Croods run across. The creatures in The Croods feel more inspired by prehistoric animals than based off them, which allowed Dreamworks to get creative with the character designs. Among these creatures are quadrupedal whales and swarms of piranha-birds. The strange creatures littered throughout The Croods help give the film some imaginative spark.

The animation and designs are where The Croods’ creativity shines. It’s just unfortunate that the story, while technically sound, is so much less creative. The characters and their relationships all fit neatly into the exact roles you expect them to, and it’s only in the last fifteen or so minutes that it gets any real emotional oomph.

It may not reinvent the wheel, but The Croods has a fun time with the tools it has at its disposal. If Dreamworks isn’t your cup of tea, The Croods isn’t about to change that. But for the initiated, it’s a fun, and ever so colorful ride.

 

6

Turbo Review

Turbo

It’s often said that Dreanworks has an inconsistent track record with their animated features. They’ll pop out some really good ones when they want to, but then they seem to toss in some less-than memorable ones in between. Some claim this inconsistency is due to Dreamworks trying too hard to one-up the competition, leaving them to often feel more excessive than genuine. While these complaints aren’t always warranted, consider Turbo to be one of the reasons they’re still brought up.

 

Turbo tells the story of a snail named Theo (Ryan Reynolds), who dreams of being a famous race car driver like the ones he watches on TV. His brother Chet (Paul Giamatti) tells him to get his head out of the clouds, but a freak accident ends up fusing Theo’s DNA with nitrous oxide, giving him super speed and car-like abilities, and he is renamed ‘Turbo’. This leads to a series of events that ultimately leads Theo and Chet in the company of a group of humans and a small parade of fellow snail characters, who help Turbo enter the Indy 500.

 

The preposterous premise helps make the film a little more entertaining than it might otherwise be. Unfortunately this premise seems like a very thin guise for Dreamworks to capitalize on the popularity of Pixar’s Cars franchise (the snail characters themselves might bring to mind Lightning McQueen and friends transformed into mollusks).

The story feels like your typical “follow your dreams” plotline that accompanies the majority of animated movies, with Turbo having little to no other defining character traits than his desire to be a racer. Chet is your atypical stick in the mud, while the other snails seem defined solely by their running gags, and the humans by their racial stereotypes.

TurboWhat gets these characters from point A to point B has a tendency to be exactly what you think it would be. The movie offers nothing in the realm of surprises, but at the very least, it does have some funny moments when it wants to (though an insistence on humor based around social media and autotuned remixes in the second half feels a bit cheap).

To its credit, Turbo does include a quality voice cast, with Reynolds and Giammatti being joined by a small army of celebrity voices that give the movie some energy as well as credibility. And it boasts some lively, colorful animation.

The problem is that Turbo’s tank is running on empty when it comes to storytelling. It follows just about every cliche in the book without a second thought. It’s telling when the movie’s very best moments feel like its siphoning the creative gases of other films, never bearing the same results as its inspirations.

It may have a fresh coat of paint, but there’s nothing under turbo’s hood.

 

4

Shrek Forever After Review

Shrek Forever After

When Shrek Forever After was released in 2010, it had two goals in mind: The first was to redeem the series after it lost its groove with Shrek the Third. The second was to bring the series to a close. The good news is that it partially succeeded in these goals. The bad news is that, in the end, it’s still in the shadows of the first two entries in the Shrek series.

Shrek Forever After sees Shrek in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Family life is stressful for the once-curmudgeonly ogre, and (in perhaps a bit of a commentary on the nature of the third film) his new celebrity status has made him feel less like the ogre he once was.

Shrek Forever AfterAfter a spat with his wife Fiona, Shrek stumbles upon one Rumplestiltskin, who makes a deal with Shrek to give him one day to feel like an ogre again, in exchange for one day from Shrek’s past. Rumplestiltskin, having evil motivation, takes away the day Shrek was born, which sends Shrek into a parallel universe where he never rescued Fiona, Donkey is a vagabond, Puss in Boots is overweight and Rumplestiltskin has taken over the kingdom of Far Far Away. Think of it as Shrek’s take on It’s a Wonderful Life.

The story may not stack up to those of the first two Shrek’s, but it is far more focused and better structured than the clunky, disjointed plots of Shrek the Third. And it has some honest goes at some emotion, which were also lacking from the third film.

It’s the writing and humor that aren’t up to par with Shrek or Shrek 2. The jokes here are less witty, sometimes relying on callbacks to the first two entries instead of springing the originality that made those films such a joy. There are still some fun jokes to be had, but they’re lightly spread out in between more bland and uninspired gags. Even Shrek himself seems a little worn out with all the fairy tale parodies and pop culture references.

Another downside is that Rumplestiltskin is the weakest villain of the series. He lacks the conniving charm of Lord Farquaad, and is never as entertaining as Fairy Godmother or Prince Charming. Audiences may even find they dislike him more for being annoying than for being a villain.

Shrek Forever AfterHowever, Shrek Forever After does benefit for keeping the story focused on Shrek and his journey to end Rumple’s curse and set things right. Some new characters – like a parade of ogre freedom fighters- are introduced, but the movie wisely keeps them in minor roles. Rumplestiltskin is the only major new player, otherwise it’s only the core Shrek characters who have major parts in the story. After Shrek the Third sidetracked with characters like Artie and Merlin (who, not surprisingly, don’t return here), this is all the more refreshing.

The voice work remains consistent, with Mike Meyers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas still giving the movie some energy, but the animation looks like it’s still running on Shrek 2’s character models, which is more than a little noticeable given the six-year gap between the two movies.

In some ways, Shrek Forever After has a lot going for it: It, unlike its predecessor, knows a thing or two about storytelling. It has good intentions and even a little bit of heart. But it’s also a movie that looks more dated than it should, and one that lacks the smarts and creativity in writing that its forebears exuded.

Shrek Forever After may not be the satisfying ending the series deserved, but it does get an A for effort. And effort is more than you could say about Shrek the Third.

 

5

Shrek the Third Review

Shrek the Third

If Shrek the Third proved anything when it arrived in 2007, it’s that sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing. Even a franchise as entertaining as Shrek could go wrong. And boy, did it go wrong.

 

The first Shrek is still one of Dreamworks’ best movies, and Shrek 2 isn’t too far behind, being one of the better sequels out there. But Shrek the Third is not only a disappointment in relation to its predecessors. It is, quite simply, a bad movie.

The first two Shrek’s were smart, well-written, and were built around the clever motif of turning the world of fairy tales on its head. That motif is still present in Shrek the Third. But the smarts, the writing, and the cleverness didn’t come with it.

Shrek the ThirdThe story – or more accurately, stories – lack any real focus, and the results feel more like a series of unconnected events loosely roped together than a proper story. The movie begins with Fiona’s father, the king of Far Far Away, dying. Shrek would then be the proper heir to the throne, but being an ogre is the furthest thing from royalty in Shrek’s eyes, and so he – along with Donkey and Puss in Boots – sets off to find Fiona’s cousin “Artie” who is next in line.

That setup alone is already pretty weak, which might explain why Dreamworks saw fit to toss in two other major plots: One of which, as it turns out, is that Fiona is pregnant, which gives Shrek something to think about while on his journey. Meanwhile, Prince Charming, still angry about the events that occurred in Shrek 2, seeks revenge on Far Far Away by recruiting a small army of fairy tale villains to siege an attack on the kingdom.

 

Admittedly, the plot with Prince Charming actually provides some fun. I’ve always enjoyed when a secondary villain gets promoted to big bad, and this particular instance gives us a few funny moments with the fairy tale villains, and it has an amusing resolution. But it never really meshes with the other plots, nor are those other plots particularly good on their own merits. It’s almost as though the three stories were all thrown around Dreamworks as pitches for a third Shrek film, and then the movie began production before any one of them were really decided on. But Dreamworks picked up the pieces anyway, slapped them together, and hoped for the best. It didn’t work.

The first Shrek was genius for making an ogre the hero in a fairy tale world, and for turning those fairy tales into a series of jokes for all ages. Shrek 2 was almost equally genius for showing us that even fairy tale couples can have marital issues after their happily ever afters. But Shrek the Third lacks anything near the levels of creativity of its predecessors. It really is little more than a cash-grab.

The animation remains more or less the same as Shrek 2. It doesn’t have the same leap as the second film had from the first, but there’s nothing particularly bad about it, either.

Shrek the ThirdEverything else, however, is either relying on recycled ideas that have run their course (Donkey and Puss’ comedic tandem feels like its out of steam), or are new additions that are poorly thought out and sloppily executed. Even the new characters introduced here aren’t memorable. Artie (or Arthur, as in “King Arthur”) is an annoying high school kid with very little to offer outside of that description, and only seems to serve as a means of getting Justin Timberlake into the franchise. Meanwhile, Merlin the wizard shows up (mainly for plot convenience), but his ‘crazy old man’ persona feels like a forced (and ineffective) source of humor.

The returning characters haven’t changed much, and their voice work is all good (Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas and Cameron Diaz all return), but even they seem like they’re just going through the motions. Shrek himself seems Shreked out.

 

Shrek the Third may promote itself as a comedy. But seeing Shrek fall this far from greatness, after he once boasted so much promise and exuded such entertainment, is nothing short of tragic.

 

3

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.

7

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

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