The Addams Family (2019) Review

When it comes to the Great War – and by ‘the Great War’ I am of course referring to the age-old Addams Family vs. Munsters debate – I usually find myself ultimately siding with the Munsters. That’s not to say that I dislike the Addams Family, and I certainly appreciate the (surprisingly large) influence they’ve had on American pop culture from their inception in comic strips over eight decades ago. But in regards to the comparisons between the two franchises, the concept of the Munsters just makes more sense to me.

The Munsters were a traditional American family, immigrating from “the old country” to America. It just so happened that the Munster family was an assortment of classic movie monster archetypes. It was a fish-out-of-water scenario, with the Munsters being completely naive to the fact that the average person wasn’t a vampire or a Frankenstein’s monster, which of course lead to many a misunderstanding and unintentional frights, which toyed with the idea that the “normal” people around them were much weirder than the Munsters themselves.

The Addams Family, by comparison, is much less defined. They’re macabre, and they frequently boast some dark humor. But they’re also a bit inconsistent. Some of them are undead, some of them are oddities (like the hairy “Cousin Itt”) and some are just…weird people, I guess. That’s all well and fine, but they kind of lose some of their charm when their personalities become as all over the place as their family tree.

“The reference to Stephen King’s It is fun. Too bad it was spoiled in all the trailers.”

A good example of what I mean happens in this 2019 animated feature adaptation: Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz), daughter of Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia Addams (Charlize Theron), is looking to displease her mother. Not out of teenage rebellion, but because the Addamses are weird and opposite of everyone else. Wednesday hopes to upset her mother by changing her physical appearance (by wearing bright pink colors, skirts and hairbands, of course). But when her mother disapproves, Wednesday decides to run away from home to escape her overbearing mother. So which is it? Do the Addamses indulge in negativity and conflict or do they have more relatable human wants and desires, and just happen to be weird? It’s a case of having one’s cake and eating it too.

It’s these weird inconsistencies with the characters that can, in certain adaptations, make it hard to empathize with the Addams Family. Sadly, I think this movie is an example of just that. It can’t seem to decide if the Addamses are simply misunderstood (which seems to be what it’s trying to do thematically) or if they actually work on some bizarro, backwards logic and morality.

Along with the plot of Wednesday and Morticia butting heads, there are two additional main plot lines, which prove to be spread too thin for a movie that barely misses the hour and a half mark in its runtime.

The other family-based dynamic is between Gomez and his son, Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). Pugsly has come of age to perform a “Sabre Mazurka,” a kind of right of passage for Addams boys to become Addams men. Pugsley is disinterested in learning sword fighting, being far more occupied with explosives. This leaves Gomez fearing that Pugsley will embarrass himself on his big day. This, of course, leads to another family conflict.

It may have been better had the film settled on the two parent/child plots, since they’re narratively and thematically similar, and focus on the core group of characters, with Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) in the mix for good measure. But the third aforementioned plotline involves the swampland surrounding the Addamses’ hilltop home being replaced by a planned community. This not only means multitudes of ‘regular’ human beings now live just under the hill, but because the swamps are gone, the fog blocking the Addamses’ house from view has disappeared. This means that the Addamses now have to socialize with the world around them which, as you probably guess, doesn’t tend to go too well.

This is especially true in the case of Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), a reality TV show host and homemaker, who sees the Addamses as a disturbance to her budding neighborhood. Needler then makes it her mission to run the Addamses out of town to maintain a “perfect neighborhood” image.

Honestly, it’s this third plot that drags the story down. The other two storylines at least mirror each other in a way that makes sense. But this story with Needler’s disdain for the Addamses feels like a different movie, and yet, it’s probably the plotline that gets the most attention.

The Addams Family can be a funny movie at times. I think I even let out an audible laugh on a couple of occasions. The film is admittedly at its best when it’s acting more like a gag real, with the titular family’s oddball, macabre nature provided some good laughs. Take, for example, how the film introduces the Addams family’s butler Lurch into the picture. In the movie’s opening moments, when Gomez and Morticia are moving to New Jersey, they hit an escaped asylum inmate (Lurch) with their car, and see the asylum on a nearby hill, which they then decide will make a perfect home to raise their family. They then just kind of pick Lurch up and he becomes their butler on the spot, no questions asked.

It’s the silly little moments of dark humor such as that when The Addams Family is at its best. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be quite enough of it weaved into the main plots, so when they do show up, they feel separated from everything else going on. As you can imagine, with three main plots in a movie that’s slightly under an hour and a half, and various series of gags that seem removed from those plots, The Addams Family really feels stretched thin and episodic.

That’s not to say that there’s anything innately horrible with The Addams Family, just that there’s nothing particularly special about it, and none of its elements feel like they click together to form a proper movie.

The animation can also be a bit of a mixed bag. As you could tell from a glance, the animation is cartoonishly exaggerated to the nth degree. That can be fine in some cases, and it’s certainly not nearly as over-animated as the Hotel Transylvania movies, but something about the visual look of The Addams Family just didn’t quite work for me. I like the character designs for the Addamses themselves. Wednesday’s braids ending in nooses is a particularly nice touch, and Uncle Fester’s bulbous head leads to some fun physical comedy. But the designs for the ‘regular’ humans leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe that was the point, like the ‘normal’ people are the real weirdos, but they don’t look weird in an interesting or appealing way that catches the eye. They look more akin to the kind of animated characters you’d see in a straight-to-video movie from the late 2000s, than from a theatrically released feature at the tail-end of the 2010s.

I also enjoyed the voice cast for the film, with particular highlights being Isaac, Theron and Moretz. It’s just a shame that such a spot-on cast doesn’t have a better film to showcase their vocal talents.

I admit I had fun at times watching The Addams Family. It has its charms, but the film’s inability to find a cohesive flow between its elements, combined with the inconsistent personalities and motivations of the Addamses themselves, make it a hard movie to recommend.

Or maybe I’m just an angry Munsters fanboy.

 

4

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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

You’re Wrong, Scorsese. Marvel Movies ARE Cinema

*Alternative title: Go Home, Scorsese. You’re Drunk*

Martin Scorsese is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in history, and one of Hollywood’s ‘sacred cows.’ But recently, he made a statement which  – in its blanketed ignorance – paints him as part of the problem with the world of cinema.

The basis of Scorsese’s claims is that Marvel movies “aren’t cinema,” and that they are more akin to “theme parks.” This, of course, just comes off as the latest in the never-ending examples of the overblown egos and self-importance of Hollywood and its “serious” filmmakers and critics. It’s a display of the utter contempt they have for the average moviegoer, and the films that don’t directly pander to themselves, that makes so many in the industry so very hard to like.

Here is Mr. Scorsese’s exact statement in regards to Marvel movies.

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

The statement is profusely arrogant and condescending on Scorsese’s part.  Granted, not every type of movie is for everyone. But Scorsese’s comments aren’t a display of a personal disinterest. Rather, the things Scorsese is saying are entirely dismissive to everyone who works in front of and behind the cameras on Marvel movies, and insulting to the audiences that continue to see them (which, by the way, are in far greater numbers than the audience for any Scorsese film).

Scorsese briefly tries to save face by throwing in the words “as well made as they are” in regards to Marvel movies. But it means very little to say that they’re “well made” while simultaneously stating that they don’t qualify as cinema, and that the actors could only ever possibly “do the best they can under the circumstances” if they’re cast in a superhero film. Way to dismiss any and all acting performances that go into these movies just because they’re in a genre you have a blatant bias against. Hey, at least when these Marvel movies re-use actors, they’re playing the same characters and furthering their stories, as opposed to casting Robert De Niro as different sociopath archetypes who may as well be the same character in the same story. But I digress.

When I first read Scorsese’s statements on Marvel movies, it reminded me of something else the famed director said way back in 2004. After The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King achieved the biggest clean sweep in Oscar history, complete with a Best Picture win (a rare instance when the Academy actually knew what they were doing), Scorsese was asked if he’d ever be interested in making fantasy movies. Scorsese’s response…

Real movies with real people.” 

It’s a predictably ego-centric answer from a director who has long-since been made out to be a Hollywood deity, though one I’m sure he himself though sounded profound. If he’s not interested in making fantasy movies, that’s fine. But again, his response was both dismissive and condescending.

“I don’t know, I find the likes of Captain America and Gandalf to be closer to “real people” than violent psychopaths like Travis Bickle.”

Fantasy movies, whether they be sword and sorcery or super heroes or what have you, are fully capable of delivering deep stories that connect with human emotion and psychology. They’re merely different methods of doing so.

Believe it or not, Mr. Scorsese, but films don’t have to follow your rulebook in order to qualify as films. There are these wonderful things called “styles,” “genres” and “mediums.” There are different kinds of artists with all kinds of different voices and tastes. They may not all be good, but just because their path doesn’t directly follow yours doesn’t mean their works should be disqualified, or that they “don’t count.” Maybe you don’t care for a specific genre of movie. Okay, that’s fine. But saying that it’s “not cinema” and just waving off their very existence is profoundly arrogant.

By now, I’m sure the film buffs who would rally to Scorsese’s defense and jump at any opportunity to lambast super hero films and the like would assume I’m just a rambling Marvel fanboy, or that I’m trying to be cool and edgy by talking bad about one of cinema’s most acclaimed directors. But I’d like to point out that I can’t remember the last time I read a Marvel comic book, nor have I enjoyed every MCU film (Iron Man 2, Incredible Hulk and Captain Marvel were pretty mediocre, and the less said of Iron Man 3, the better). Nor do I hate Scorsese’s body of work, some of it (like Goodfellas) I’ve quite enjoyed, though I admit I find Raging Bull to be an overrated bore.

I’m merely writing this because Scorsese’s comments relished in their own ignorance. And it’s mindsets like those represented in Scorsese’s comments that are holding the world of cinema back in many ways. Both those in Hollywood and film buffs put themselves on a pedestal, and treat themselves like they’re part of an elite club. And the common moviegoer, or those “lesser” filmmakers who make films audiences actually want to see aren’t allowed to join. It’s a level of pretentiousness that seems to constantly ooze out of Hollywood types, who in turn act completely dumbfounded as to why they get such a bad reputation. Scorsese may be a great filmmaker in many respects, but with statements like these, he proves he’s part of Hollywood’s problem.

For all the open-mindedness Hollywood likes to give itself a pat on the back for, they sure do have a pretty closed mind when it comes to their own  mediums. It’s like they want to punish movies for making money, or being crowd-pleasers, or if they’re rooted in fantasy or created with animation, etc. If Hollywood were half as open-minded as they bragged themselves up to be, they’d have no qualms with putting such films on equal levels with their preferred style. They should judge every film by how good they are individually, as opposed to considering certain types of films to be innately superior or inferior to others.

Though the world of video games has issues of its own, this “country club” mentality of those within its industry certainly isn’t one of them. In these regards, the video game industry has been completely open-minded as to what constitutes a great work in their medium. There’s never been a differentiating between where or how a game was made in terms of the quality of the end product. There’s never been a stigma against genres or franchises or commercially successful works. Sure, the self-righteous hipster types like Ben Croshaw tried their damndest to replicate the ignorances of the movie world and integrate it into the world of video games during the early 2010s. But thankfully, those clowns ultimately lost their battle, and no one in their right mind has adopted their self-indulgent contempt against popular works.

So while “serious” filmmakers may ridicule popular movies as “not being cinema,” the video game world happily embraces such popular works. I think it’s safe to say the Super Mario franchise has produced many of the most acclaimed video games ever made, while also being extremely cartoonish in nature and having mass commercial appeal, not to mention numerous sequels and countless spinoffs. Not every game with the name ‘Super Mario’ in the title may be an all-time great, but there’s no built in stigma against it for its tone, success, or commercial standing that prevents the Mario games that deserve such praise from earning it.

The world of movies, and the likes of Martin Scorsese, could certainly learn a thing or two about broadening their outlook on their own medium. Perhaps the best retort to Scorsese’s indulgently ignorant claims comes from Samuel L. Jackson, who of course has portrayed Agent Nick Fury in more than a few of the MCU films.

Mr. Jackson’s response went as follows…

“I mean that’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either. Everybody’s got an opinion, so I mean it’s okay,” Jackson continued. “Ain’t going to stop nobody from making movies.”

Essentially, Jackson found a polite way to say “everyone has their own taste, but don’t be a pompous ass and disregard the hard work that goes into things that don’t fit your niche, as well as their audience.” Well said, Mr. Jackson.

So Mr. Scorsese, the point is it’s okay if real people enjoy watching Marvel movies. While no category of movie will ever be absolutely good, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has provided mostly good movies so far. They may not be your kind of movies, but they are still very much cinema.

As for Mr. Scorsese using “theme parks” as a derogatory terminology, well, if I had the choice to ride Space Mountain or sit through an overly-long character study about a wife-beating, sociopathic boxer, the theme park wins. Hands down.

The Peanut Butter Falcon Review

The Peanut Butter Falcon – despite its seemingly random title – is a pretty sweet film. It tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a twenty-two year old man with Down syndrome. Zak’s family abandoned him, and as such, he has become a ward of the state of North Carolina, resulting in him living in a retirement home with senior citizens.

Zak is a fan of professional wrestling, and watches old VHS tapes of his idol, professional wrestler “The Salt Water Redneck” (Thomas Hayden Church), a kind of (salt)watered down parody of Stone Cold Steve Austin. These VHS tapes advertise Saltwater Redneck’s professional wrestling school, which Zak hopes to one day attend to live his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Zak lives under the watchful eye of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), who is kind to him, but overprotective. One night, Zak’s elderly roommate Carl (Bruce Dern), who’s supportive of Zak’s dream, provides Zak the opportunity to slip out of the retirement home, and run away to pursue his dream. With Zak missing, Eleanor is sent to retrieve him, as the retirement home doesn’t wish to report to the state that they’ve lost a resident.

During his excursions, Zak happens upon Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a fisherman-turned-thief. Tyler has recently hit hard times. No longer having his fisherman’s license and resorting to stealing crabs, Tyler runs afoul of a group of crabbers, which results in escalating confrontations between them, culminating with Tyler setting the crabbers’ equipment on fire.

Tyler is on the run from the crabbers when he bumps into Zak. Though their interactions are at first rocky, Zak and Tyler soon form a fast friendship. Tyler is on his way to Florida, where he hopes to start a new life, and after learning of Zak’s dream to attend Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school, decides to take Zak to his destination on his way to Florida. They are eventually joined by Eleanor, who agrees to take Zak to the wrestling school, on the condition she can take him back to the retirement home afterwards. Meanwhile, the crabbers remain on Tyler’s trail throughout.

The Peanut Butter Falcon definitely deserves heaps of praise for how confidently it puts Zack Gottsagen in the driver’s seat throughout the movie. Most movies would probably try to cast an established actor in a “disabled” role for the sake of Oscar-bait, but directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz deserve credit for actually casting an actor with Down syndrome in the film’s lead role, which is not only pleasant move in itself, but also reinforces the main theme of the movie. Eleanor may be overprotective of Zak, and others either lack confidence in his abilities or outright make fun of him, but Zak – much like the actor who portrays him – is capable of more than people give him credit for. The film as a whole has a nice message of how having disabilities doesn’t mean you’re any less than anyone else. Oftentimes, all anyone needs is one person to believe in them (in Zak’s case, it’s Tyler) in order for them to reach their potential, and that can often overcome any supposed shortcomings.

And credit where it’s due, Shia LaBeouf also gives a noteworthy performance, which seems like such a weird thing to say in 2019. LaBeouf has been in so many stinkers and had such an odd public persona for so long that you almost forget the better performances he had given in the earlier years of his career. And The Peanut Butter Falcon is definitely the best “Shia LaBeouf movie” since those early days.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Peanut Butter Falcon and its feel-good nature, which feels increasingly rare in this day and age when we seem to glorify cynicism. The movie is definitely going for a modern day “Mark Twain” vibe, which it mostly nails. But the film would probably stick the landing in that regard all the more if Shia LaBeouf’s character didn’t outright compare his and Zak’s situation to a Mark Twain story (it’s fine to make your influences obvious, but if you’re going to be overt with your inspirations, it’s probably best not to bluntly name-drop them in dialogue. The audience can catch on without needing to have it spelled out for them).

I also have to admit it’s nice to see a movie depict professional wrestling in a mostly positive light, which is the second such 2019 film to do so (after Fighting with my Family), which has to be some kind of record. The Peanut Butter Falcon even includes cameos from real-life, old-time pro wrestlers Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Mick Foley (the latter of which seems to be the go-to wrestler cameo for movies).

There are, unfortunately, a few aspects that prevented me from liking The Peanut Butter Falcon even more than I did. The first is that the film features a few “twists” that I think are meant to surprise the audience as unexpected, but that really end up feeling like the kind of obvious turns pretty much any indie flick would make. It’s not that I necessarily dislike the directions the story takes in these regards, just that they’re so predictable for an indie film that I feel they should be called out as cliched. After all, a big-budget blockbuster would receive insurmountable flack from professional critics if it featured such obvious tropes of its category on display as prominently as The Peanut Butter Falcon does. I see no reason why indie films should so easily get out of Dodge for adhering so closely to their rulebook.

Additionally, I don’t think the continued role of the antagonists (the crabbers) felt necessary. It’s fine at first when it gives Tyler a reason to be on the run, but after that, I don’t really feel like the idea of bad guys being in pursuit of the main characters the whole time really fits in with the rest of the movie. This ties into my other big complaint with the movie: the ending.

Without spoiling anything, the film ends rather abruptly, with the closing minutes unceremoniously skipping over the fates of the villainous crabbers.  With the way the film ends, the different narratives of the film just seem to come to a screeching halt, and not in a way that satisfyingly ties them all together. They just kind of end, and happen to end concurrently, but individually. Granted, I’m a fan of movies leaving some questions unanswered, but in a film that prides itself so much on its feel good nature, wouldn’t the icing on the cake be for something like Zak and his hero, the Salt Water Redneck, to subdue the baddies with some wrestling moves? That might be a little too entertaining, I suppose.

Still, The Peanut Butter Falcon definitely deserves an ‘A’ for effort. Though it doesn’t reach its full potential, the film succeeds in creating a heartwarming and genuine feel good story that is solidly entertaining. And with so many indie films being so hellbent on telling me how bad people are and showcasing political sad sack-ery, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a definite breath of fresh air.

 

6

How 2019 is a One of a Kind Movie Year

This is something I brought up in my 800th blog back in the day, but I thought it was interesting enough to point out again (plus, heaven knows I could really use with more updates as of late). And this something is the simple fact that I think 2019 is shaping up to be a one of a kind year for movies.

“How so?” you may be asking. The reason is that 2019 is (quite obviously) the last year of the decade, but in an instance of “stars aligning,” many of the films being released in 2019 are appropriately bringing a close to this decade in cinema.

Take for example Avengers: Endgame, the biggest film of the year (and all time, boy does it feel good to say that). Though the first two Marvel Cinematic Universe films were released in 2008, the majority of the MCU has been the dominant force in movies of the 2010s. Year after year this decade, Marvel has released blockbuster after blockbuster in their colossal crossover mega-franchise. And though the MCU is scheduled to continue, Endgame brought everything in the MCU thus far to a grand, satisfying close. More than twenty MCU films were released during the 2010s, and fittingly, the MCU’s grand finale (up to this point) was released in the last year of the 2010s.

Similarly, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, which began with The Force Awakens in 2015, will come to its conclusion in 2019 with Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Star Wars movies never were good with titles). This will make it the only Star Wars trilogy to be a part of a single decade. The original Star Wars trilogy began in 1977, with the two subsequent installments being released in the 1980s. While the Star Wars prequel trilogy began in 1999, and continued into the 2000s. But the Star Wars sequel trilogy is uniquely tied to a singular decade which, in a weird way, I think makes it the most decade-defining trilogy in the franchise.

On a much smaller note, the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, which began in 2010 at the very start of this decade, saw its third and final installment hit theaters this year, meaning Dreamworks’s trilogy bookended the movie decade. Hell, even the Stephen King “It” duology released its second half in 2019, after the first half became one of the most unexpected success stories of the movie decade.

Speaking of unexpected success stories, that brings us to Disney’s Frozen, which I think is safe to say was the movie surprise of the 2010s. Sure, you expect Disney animated films to be successful, but Frozen was on a whole other level, and with relatively little fanfare in the buildup to its 2013 release. Not only was Frozen Disney’s most iconic animated feature in decades, it became one of the biggest pop culture phenomenons in history. Fittingly enough Frozen – the biggest movie/franchise to originate in this decade – will see the release of its long-awaited sequel towards the end of 2019. And though there’s nothing definitively “final” about Frozen II (that we know of yet) like there is for The Rise of Skywalker or Endgame, the fact that this decade’s biggest contribution to pop culture will be getting a sequel as the decade comes to a close just feels fitting.

While the final year of any decade has film buffs reflecting on the past ten years of cinema and trying to compile their favorites from within that time, I don’t think there’s been another instance of another ‘last year of the decade’ where the finality of it was reflected so strongly in its films. Again, I feel it’s a “stars aligning” situation, where so many individual elements just came together. Perhaps some of these “endings” to the movies of the 2010s were intentionally released at the decade’s end. But the fact that so many of them fell so neatly into place seems like an unprecedented occurrence in the movie world. I’m happy to be experiencing such a unique year in film.

Musings of the Dojo: Dora the Explorer Vs. Quentin Tarantino

*Welcome to Musings of the Dojo! Here, I plan to reflect on certain things I’ve recently talked about here at the Dojo. Perhaps this will become a recurring thing here on my site. Or maybe I’ll completely forget about it after this one time…*

 

 

For those following my site, you’ve probably noticed that among my recent movie reviews are Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer. In my reviews, I graded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a 5/10, but gave Dora a 7/10. Could this possibly imply that I actually thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than a Quentin Tarantino film?

I’m not implying anything, let me say it outright: I thought a movie based on Dora the Explorer was better than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. And I don’t feel bad even in the slightest for saying that.

I don’t say this for the sake of contrarianism. Lord knows there are few things I distaste more than contrarians. And the world of independent internet critics has more than enough of those anyway (newsflash: conforming to non-conformity is still conformity). I say this as a Quentin Tarantino fan, I didn’t care for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s not a horrible movie (again, I rated it 5/10. For me, it’s when things get to 3/10 and lower when they’re in the “avoid at all costs” range), but it does feel like a product of complacency on Tarantino’s part.

Quentin Tarantino isn’t a stranger to rewriting history with his films, as he did just that ten years ago with Inglourious Basterds. So for Tarantino to make a movie in which the Manson murders are undone – and instead it’s the members of the Charles Manson cult who carried out the murder of Sharon Tate who instead end up dead by means of a stuntman, his dog, and a flamethrower – it just makes sense for the famed director. And the ending in which this rewriting of history takes place is the best part of the film. There’s something bizarrely wonderful about Tarantino using his trademark style and gratuitous violence to rectify a historical tragedy. The problem I have with Hollywood is that Tarantino seemed to have come up with a great ending, but couldn’t think of a path for the rest of the movie to take to justifiably earn that ending.

Tarantino spends too much of the film either indulging in some of his tropes (such as a disjointed narrative, with the stories of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters stories really having nothing to do with Sharon Tate), while staving off others (the director’s stylistic violence really only shows up at the end of the film). But the different storylines never mesh together in any seamless or meaningful way. Again, there’s something that feels complacent about it, like Tarantino was so confident in the ending and in his style that the actual story at hand, and how to tie everything together, were such afterthoughts that he forgot about them altogether.

I hope I don’t sound like I’m just ragging on Tarantino. Again, I’m a fan of his, I’d place him on my list of top 10 filmmakers. And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a total bust. It has moments that showcase the director’s brilliance. But that’s just the thing, it’s only in moments of Hollywood that we get glimpses of what Tarantino is really capable of. As a whole, however, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just never comes together. It’s too fragmented – both in story and tone – for its own good.

Meanwhile, Dora and the Lost City of Gold – while perhaps not a great movie – was nonetheless better than it seemed to have any right to be. Yes, it’s a kids’ movie, and a bit silly. But it was a well made silly kids’ movie. It was fun, funny, didn’t feel like it talked down to its young audience, nor was it ashamed of its source material. And I feel it had a nice message for kids about being comfortable with who you are, even if you may be on the socially awkward side.

Essentially, I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold did a better job at being a Dora the Explorer movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did at being a Tarantino film. Yes, I understand this is comparing apples to oranges, so why bother doing it?

Simple, because I think as far as professional film critics, and even most self-proclaimed cinephiles go, this very idea would be considered some kind of blasphemy. Critics and film buffs too often like to put themselves on a pedestal for their perceived superior intellect to the average moviegoer, and their supposed open-mindedness. But frankly, they could definitely benefit from branching out a bit. As much as they like to brag themselves up, critics and film buffs too often have a very narrow view of what constitutes a good movie, and have a very strict ruleset placed on themselves that makes their often arrogant attitudes that much more unfounded.

Basically, any such critic or cinephile would scoff or outright belittle my stance that I found a Dora the Explorer movie to have more merit than Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, because that would go against their definition of what’s good, and would defy their rules. Thinking a Tarantino film failed to deliver while thinking a silly kids’ movie was effective would probably be enough for many critics – both professional and independent – to grab their torches and pitchforks and form a mob against me (or anyone who shares similar opinions).

Now, I certainly hope I don’t sound like I’m patting myself on the back. There are many instances where I agree with critics and film buffs (again, I usually think Tarantino is quite good). The last thing I want to do is put myself on a a pedestal similar to the people I’m commenting on. I’m merely trying to state that I think there’s a problem within the world of cinema that, like these critics and cinephiles, seems shackled to a very specific idea of how to appreciate movies. Just look at most critics’ lists of best films of any given year, and you’ll notice the same types of movies – usually those that pander directly to critics – dominate pretty much all of them. Sure, you might see a mainstream movie and an animated feature thrown in for the “audience cred” every so often, but such selections usually come across as mere tokens (especially seeing as so few critics would ever seem to consider placing such films on the upper half of their lists).

I really think this close-mindedness of “serious” film critics and fans has become a major problem. If you need some damning evidence, the Academy Awards nearly created a “Best Popular Film” category, as a means to throw a bone to the common moviegoer, only to retract the concept of the award soon thereafter, as it was basically an admittance to their insistence that only “their movies” are worthy of Best Picture.

The world of cinema would do itself a lot of good if those with voices in the medium would shed a good deal of their pretensions and lighten up a bit. Someone like me shouldn’t have to feel hesitant to state that they enjoyed a Dora the Explorer movie more than a Tarantino film. But that’s exactly the kind of atmosphere that critics and cinephiles have created around the movie world. You can’t be considered a serious lover of cinema unless you fall in line. And that’s a problem.

Okay, now I’m really getting sidetracked. I was initially just writing this as a means to express my preference to Dora and the Lost City of Gold over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But I repeat that I was hesitant to do so, because of the stigma it might put on me, my site, and my overall views of movies by the aforementioned “serious” film buffs. Granted, I don’t exactly have a large following (to put it lightly), so it’s not as if I expected backlash per se. Just that it’s kind of sad that you could pretty much picture the exact reaction a more pretentious movie type would have should they read that someone actually thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold was a better movie than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Simply put, I think the movie world would benefit if, instead of adhering to a very, very specific idea of what constitutes good films, the more critical side of cinema followed the open-mindedness they like to preach, and judge films based on how successfully they accomplishes what they set out to do.

Of course we’re all going to have our preferences (and I am no exception), but critics and “serious” movie fans too often seem to surrender to some kind of hive mind with their preferences (“independent movie = automatically good.” “The more popular a movie, the dumber it must be.”). Again, we all have our preferences, but it’s important to bring individuality into critiquing. Movie buffs and critics frequently seem to lump things together with preconceived notions, instead of viewing a film for its individual merit.  And again, their preferences don’t even seem to be based on their own individuality, but a preconceived idea of what they’re supposed to like.

I again have to stretch that I am, in no way, shape or form, promoting contrarianism. Disliking things for the reasons that they are popular or acclaimed is every bit as toxic as critics’ “follow the leader” method I’m talking about. I stress that my point is critiquing any form of art should come from a place of individualism, both of one’s self and of the work you’re critiquing. You don’t want to cave into some preconceived hive mind, but you also have to be able to appreciate things even if they don’t fall squarely into your preferences. You, as an individual, should be critiquing things based on their merits as an individual work.

The cinephiles and critics expect Quentin Tarantino to make great movies, so surely Once Upon a Time in Hollywood must be a masterpiece. It was decided ahead of time. But a Dora the Explorer movie sounds like a stupid idea for the kiddies. Even though the latter did defy expectations and received a surprisingly warm reception, it of course is only allowed to go so far. And claiming it could possibly, under any circumstance, be better than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly going too far.

Well, as a Tarantino fan, I expected a good movie out of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Instead I ended up bored and anxious with it, like Milhouse waiting for Itchy and Scratchy to get to the fireworks factory. Meanwhile, I didn’t’t have expectations for Dora, but I ended up having fun.

In short, I thought Dora the Explorer kicked Quentin Tarantino’s ass. And I don’t feel bad about it.

 

Dora and the Lost City of Gold Review

Nobody ever likes to be wrong. Especially in this day and age of the internet, when we can anonymously spout our views as condescendingly as possible, we don’t want to end up with egg on our face later.

But, y’know, being wrong can be a blessing at times. Case in point: I thought Dora and the Lost City of Gold – a live-action film adaptation of Dora the Explorer – looked like the stupidest movie ever based on its initial trailer. But lo and behold, it’s actually a good movie. I don’t say that ironically, either.

In my defense, what kind of expectations was I supposed to have about a live-action Dora the Explorer movie? That first trailer really didn’t do it any favors, either. It looked like a watered down Tomb Raider (it in itself a watered down version of a watered down Indiana Jones) that just used the Dora the Explorer franchise to draw in a younger crowd. But when the second trailer presented that “Can you say ‘delicioso?'” gag – in which a young Dora talks to the audience like in the series, only for Dora’s parents to look around dumbfounded as to who their daughter was talking to – it got my attention. Then when the film was released and began getting a warm reception, I thought I’d give Dora and the Lost City of Gold a look. I’m glad I did, because it is actually an entertaining and often very funny movie.

The movie begins by explaining away how the edutainment/kid-friendly series can be translated into a live-action film. As it turns out, the reason why Dora had so many adventures with animals in the jungle and other exotic locations during her childhood is because she’s homeschooled by her parents, who are professors traveling the world. Dora’s anthropomorphic backpack and map were simply products of her imagination, and her sidekick Boots is just a wild monkey that Dora liked to dress up. Humorously, Swiper – the mildly antagonistic fox from the series – isn’t explained away as part of Dora’s childhood imagination, but is indeed an actual talking, mask-wearing fox (comically voiced in the film by Benicio del Toro). The fact that certain aspects of the series are given explanation, but Swiper is as real as Dora and her parents, sets the mood for the silly nature of the movie ahead.

The majority of the film takes place a decade after Dora had her many adventures. Now 16-years old, Dora (Isabela Moner) is still traversing jungles, making discoveries, and yes, still talking to the audience (which she does via live-streaming in her teenage years, though the film still finds plenty of humor in the idea of Dora talking to the audience and breaking the fourth wall). But Dora’s parents, father Cole (Michael Peña) and mother Elena (Eva Longoria) think it’s time Dora took a break from dangerous jungle life, and to finally socialize with people her age. Dora is more than a little bummed, especially because her parents have deciphered the location of the legendary city of gold, Parapata.

Dora is sent to Los Angeles to stay with family and live a normal high schooler’s life. She is reunited with her cousin, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) who has grown up to be a jaded teenager who’s embarrassed by his cousin’s highly optimistic and adventurous personality. I find this humorous just by the nature of it. Diego was the star of the spinoff series to Dora the Explorer, “Go, Diego, Go!,” so he was expendable in the sense that the film has no qualms with turning him into a stereotypical teenager, while Dora remains her happy-go-lucky, children’s television character self.

Naturally, Dora is a bit socially awkward, and quickly becomes the butt of jokes of the students around the school. She inadvertently makes a ‘frenemy’ in the form of the school’s know-it-all, Sammy (Madeleine Madden), and befriends Randy (Nicholas Coombe), the punching bag of the school bullies.

One thing I really liked about Dora and the Lost City of Gold is that it never feels the need to go down the “makeover” story arc in order for Dora to learn to accept herself. A lot of family movies have a “be true to yourself” message, but usually only get there by the end, with the hero (usually heroine in this scenario) needing to at first change themselves before they realize that doing so for the sake of others isn’t worth it.

Here, Diego tells Dora that her optimistic attitude, nerdy disposition, and childlike enthusiasm make her a target for the rest of the school. But Dora – rather than coming to some realization of the nature of the people around her and deciding to go the aforementioned “makeover” route – simply responds that she knows what people are saying behind her back, and that they’re laughing at her. She just doesn’t care because she can only be who she is. There’s something really refreshing about Dora’s confidence, and how a kids’ movie has a main character who is awkward and may not fit in, but who also doesn’t care about that and is comfortable in their own skin.

After adjusting to school life for a time, Dora suddenly loses contact with her parents just as they were getting close to finding the city of Parapata. Dora soon finds out why when – during a school field trip – she, along with Diego, Sammy and Randy, end up captured by treasure hunting mercenaries and wind up in Peru.

It turns out Dora’s parents have gone missing, and the mercenaries are looking for them in hopes of claiming Parapata’s treasures. The mercenaries now hope Dora can track her parents so they can find the lost city, before an old friend of Dora’s parents named Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), rescues Dora and her friends from the mercenaries’ clutches. It then becomes a race between Dora and her companions against the mercenaries – who have recruited none other than Swiper – to find Dora’s parents and uncover the secret of Parapata.

You probably want to laugh when you read such a synopsis, what with Dora taking on mercenaries and going on an Indiana Jones style adventure to a lost city. But Dora and the Lost City of Gold wants to laugh right alongside you. The film is very self-aware and often tongue-in-cheek, but not in a way that feels insulting to its source material. Yes, this is very much a kids’ movie, but it’s one that seems to be made for both young children who are being introduced to Dora the Explorer, and for the adults and teenagers who grew up watching Dora the Explorer. This is a movie that seems fueled by the very same ‘young children’s television logic’ of the series, but presents it with a coy wink and smile to the older audience. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, with said fish-out-of-water just so happening to be Dora the Explorer.

In that regard, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is actually a very smart movie. It’s easy to imagine in this day and age that a movie could have the gimmicky premise of a children’s TV character adjusting to the ‘real’ world (though in most cases these days, they would probably aim for a ‘hard R’ rating with such a concept, because Hollywood still hasn’t realized that taking cute things and making them “edgy and raunchy” is the most overplayed joke ever). But because this film actually uses an existing children’s franchise – and one as popular as Dora the Explorer no less – for such a premise, it melts away the ‘gimmicky’ aspect of it, and in turn the film is both a parody and loving homage to its source material. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is all the more entertaining for it.

I will happily admit to laughing out loud numerous times during the movie. It’s silly and fun, and in a way that doesn’t talk down to young audiences. Sure, the film may have a little more bathroom humor than I’d like, but I’m also not part of the film’s primary demographic. So if children think it’s funny, then job well done.

With that said, the film does find ways to make even that bathroom humor work within the context of Dora the Explorer. When one of Dora’s friends has to “go number two” in the middle of the jungle, the punchline isn’t so much the bathroom situation itself, so much as Dora’s attempt to make it “less awkward” by singing a song about digging a hole for her friend to use as a toilet. As you might expect, the song doesn’t exactly make Dora’s friend feel more comfortable about the situation. It’s obviously not high-brow humor, but I admit I laughed.

Admittedly, not everything in the film works. The special effects of the film – particularly the CGI used to bring Boots and Swiper to life – definitely look outdated. I get this isn’t a movie with an Avengers-level budget, but it’s always a bit of a shame how kids’ movies get shortchanged with such things, as if they don’t deserve the extra effort. Another issue is that the film’s third act might teeter a little too much into Indiana Jones territory, with booby traps and ‘jungle puzzles’ perhaps taking a little too much center stage over the humor and overall “Dora the Explorer-ness” that gives the film as a whole its charm.

I suppose some audiences might also get annoyed with how little Dora’s companions seem to contribute to the adventure. But I think Dora and the Lost City of Gold actually justifies having a main character who seems to be the only useful member of their group for two reasons: The first reason is based in the film’s logic. As the movie points out, Dora grew up in the jungle, while her friends have believed high school was as harsh as their lives could get, and have just been thrust into the jungle. So Dora, most appropriately, is serving an educational role for her team.

The other reason is more thematic. In the world of high school, Dora is a socially awkward misfit because of her adventurous attitude and profuse friendliness. But once everyone is in the jungle, the same things that Dora is mocked for in high school end up showing their many merits. While the film might at first seem like it’s laughing at Dora for her precocious nature and social naiveté, it doesn’t take too long to realize the film is actually saying that Dora’s spirit and enthusiasm – even with its basis in children’s television logic – is more genuine than the ‘real’ people of high school.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold may have a few hiccups here and there, but it’s also – beyond all expectation – a much better film than you’d think it has any right to be. It’s consistently funny and entertaining in a way that should satisfy children, their parents, and those who grew up watching Dora the Explorer and shows of its ilk. It’s humorous while also being respectful to both its target audience and source material. Special mention also has to go to Isabela Moner’s performance as Dora, which captures both the essence of the television character, while also bringing out the charisma and humor needed to make such a character work in a movie.

While Dora and the Lost City of Gold may not exactly boast the educational merits of the TV series it’s based on, I think it still has an important lesson to teach youngsters. Be nice to those who are socially awkward, and if you happen to be among them, take pride in who you are. Because if you and your friends end up lost in a jungle, we all know who everyone is going to have to rely on.

 

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