Extraordinarily Late: My Favorite Film of 2018

What better time to name my favorite film of 2018 than in the deep end of August 2019?

Okay, okay, you’re probably wondering “why even do this at this point?” and that’s fair. The reason I’m still bothering to write this is quite simple…

Because I want to.

You may now be wondering why I didn’t do it sooner, and the truth of the matter is, there is no particular reason other than I’ve just been busy (hence my slower updates over the last couple of months) and when I have had the chance to update this site, I’ve been preoccupied with other things, like reviews and such. And I would have got to this sooner, except there were still some 2018 films I had wanted to get around to seeing the past few months before I made anything “official” (at least, as official as things can be on a site where I can edit things later to reflect changing opinions). And well, it took me longer than expected.

While there are still a few 2018 movies on my list…I just really want to get this done. So, as of now, and after plenty of time for consideration, I now name my favorite film of 2018! Better late than never, eh? Continue reading “Extraordinarily Late: My Favorite Film of 2018”

Advertisements

The Lion King (2019) Review

I have a confession to make: I’m not that big of a Lion King fan.

Don’t get me wrong, Disney’s 1994 animated feature is a good movie, to be sure. But as a Disney fan, I never understood why it was held on a pedestal as one of the best films to come out of the studio. I would say Lion King fits somewhere in the high middle-tier of Disney’s animated feature canon. It showcases captivating animation and some truly emotional moments, but it also feels like it adheres too strongly to the studio’s conventions, as opposed to transcending them.

The characters fit squarely into Disney’s archetypes, with Simba being a cookie cutter main character (with Simba’s adult form being particularly boring thanks to Mathew Broderick’s phoned-in vocals), the comic relief characters can be a little too overbearing, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t particularly care for the songs, with the exception of Be Prepared (songwriter Elton John felt he had hit a career low when writing Hakuna Matata, and though he’s long-since change his mind, I’m inclined to agree with his original stance).

Despite my feelings of the original Lion King being “good but not great,” its overall reception has made a remake inevitable in this day and age where Disney is seemingly remaking their entire back catalogue of animated classics.

There’s only one issue: while most of Disney’s recent remakes have been live-action, The Lion King’s all animal cast makes that an impossibility (certain animals can be trained to act – such as dogs or apes – but I think it’s safe to say that meerkats and warthogs don’t share that emotional range). So the remake of The Lion King is, like the original, an animated film. Only this time around, the animals are animated through photorealistic CGI, which ultimately works against the movie’s favor, as it removes the majority of the charm, personality, and overall visual appeal of the story at hand.

“I have to admit I liked John Oliver as Zazu more than I thought I would…”

There was some semblance of hope going into The Lion King remake. After all, it’s directed by Jon Favreau, who previously directed Disney’s 2016 version of The Jungle Book, which seems to have the warmest reception of all Disney’s recent live-action remakes (though I thought the new Aladdin was just as good). But there are a few key differences between Favreau’s Jungle Book remake and his version of the Lion King that helped the former and hinder the latter.

The first is that, although the 2016 Jungle Book was also primarily created through CG, it had a human actor in the lead role of Mowgli, so the idea of photorealistic animals interacting with him made more sense. The other big difference is that, while the original Jungle Book contains a few songs, it would be hard to refer to it as a musical. The characters simply sang a number or two here and there, so the photorealistic animal characters in the remake could get away with being a bit expressionless when they were singing (Balloo simply sang Bare Necessities as if singing in the shower, and King Louie was voiced by Christopher Walken, so it was to be expected that he would more talk I wanna be Like You than sing it).

2019’s version of The Lion King doesn’t have such benefits. It’s an animated film that doesn’t want to be an animated film. So while the CG used to bring these animals to life may be impressive, the movie loses its soul in the translation.

Without a human to interact with, making the animals look realistic in an animated film comes across as pointless, as their limited expressions can’t convey the range of emotion that their personalities require, a feat which comes without any hiccups when making the animals look animated. And seeing as The Lion King is a full-fledged, Broadway-style musical in the same vein as the other 90s Disney films (and some of their modern ones), it really works against the film that the animal characters can barely emote. You can’t have a big musical number like those found in the original, and have realistic looking animals be the ones to sing it without it coming across as awkward and lifeless. It’s a case of having ones cake and eating it too.

Another issue is that 2019’s Lion King is a bit too similar to the 1994 original. Some have had similar complaints with Disney’s other recent remakes, but those films still featured changes that felt meaningful when they were present (the newer Aladdin, for example, gave Jasmine a much stronger character arc, complete with a badass new song). The new Lion King, on the other hand, is a whole half hour longer than the original, but I’m having trouble thinking of how that is, since it follows so closely to the original.

Yes, the story is as it always was, which is to say it’s pretty much Hamlet but with animals.

Simba (DJ McCrary) – a lion cub – is the prince of the Pride Lands, being born to King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard). This proves to be a deep cut for Mufasa’s younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was first in line for the throne.

Scar plans various means to retake his place as future ruler of the Pride Lands, manipulating young Simba’s ego so that the young prince – trying to prove his bravery – makes his way to an elephant graveyard, with his friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) in tow. Scar intentionally kept one important detail about the elephant graveyard from Simba: it’s home to an army of hyenas who have a vendetta against Mufasa. Simba and Nala avoid a gruesome fate when Zazu (John Oliver) – a hornbill and Mufasa’s majordomo – informs the king of Simba and Nala’s whereabouts. Mufasa fights off the hyenas, leading a disappointed Scar to concoct a new plan; kill Mufasa.

I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if I reveal that Scar’s plot to murder his brother succeeds (seriously, if you don’t know that by this point, where have you been for the past twenty-five years?). Scar, in collusion with the hyenas, orchestrates a stampede of wildebeests to kill Mufasa and Simba. Mufasa rescues his son and nearly escapes, before Scar personally throws his brother to the stampede below. Despite the remake’s issues, this iconic scene is still appropriately emotional.

A devastated Simba witnesses his father’s death (though not Scar’s involvement with it), with Scar planting the idea in Simba’s head that his father’s death was his fault. Simba runs away from the Pride Lands, falling under the care of Timon the meerkat (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa the warthog (Seth Rogen) two slackers who, while well-meaning, are basically negative influences when it comes to teaching responsibility. Meanwhile, with Mufasa gone and Simba presumed dead, Scar takes control of the Pride Lands with the aide of the hyenas, sending the kingdom into disarray.

Honestly, if you’re among those who absolutely adores the original Lion King, you may like this remake for its faithfulness to said original. Of course, I think fans of the 1994 feature are just as likely to wonder what the point of this remake is.

Again, Disney’s other remakes have played things close to their source material, often feeling like love letters to the originals as opposed to full-on remakes. But they still found time to make changes to set themselves apart. It seems like the only major change to The Lion King is that the hand-drawn, stylized animal characters bursting with personality have been replaced with realistic-looking animal characters who, by default, can’t showcase any of that personality they had in their more vibrantly-animated past lives.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes made, just none that really amount to anything. Shinzi (Florence Kasumba), a hyena who was part of a comedic, villainous trio in the original, has been promoted to the leader of the hyenas. Not that it ends up amounting to much, since the change doesn’t really affect the plot at all, and she doesn’t get much screen time anyway. The remaining members of said trio, Banzai and Ed, have been replaced by Kamari and Azizi (Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre), who are still kind of a comedic duo so I don’t really see the purpose of the change.

These changes are few and insignificant. Most of the dialogue, and even camera shots, seem barely altered from the original. Though I will admit, bringing back James Earl Jones as Mufasa is a respectable decision (it’s one of those roles that simply can’t be recast, like J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson). Though at least one other actor from the original should have reprised their role, as Jeremy Irons is sorely missed as Scar. Chiwetel Ejiofor does his best to make Scar menacing, but his performance lacks the elegance, regality and vanity of Irons’.

Speaking of Scar, here’s where we get to the remake’s one big change from the original’s soundtrack… Be Prepared has been butchered! The once iconic villain song has been reduced to a single verse, with Chiwetel Ejiofor talking  through most of it in place of singing. Rumors suggest that Jon Favreau wanted to cut the song altogether, before settling on “merely” gutting it. Of all the songs to cut/edit, why was Be Prepared the one considered for the chopping block? In the original film, it’s the song that best expresses the character singing it. Personally speaking, I would have labelled Hakuna Matata – the song in which a warthog sings about farting – as the one musical number most in need of reworking.

Other than that baffling change, most of the songwork is more or less the same as it was in the original, with the obvious difference of them being sung by their new actors. There is one new addition to the soundtrack during the course of the movie (plus one during the credits) in the form of “Spirit” by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. While the new musical addition to the live-action Aladdin, Speechless, was a real show-stealer (I would even say it’s my favorite Aladdin song, despite not being in the original), Spirit is kind of forgettable. And despite the fact that Beyoncé voices the adult version of Nala, Spirit is merely a background number, and not actually sung by the character (which always seems kind of underwhelming in a musical).

While the voice work is mostly solid (despite my complaints with Ejiofor’s Scar mentioned earlier, they are only relative to Jeremy Iron’s performance from the 1994 film), the film actually repeats one of the shortcomings from the original in that Simba’s adult self (voiced this time by Donald Glover) is the most boring performance in the film. Both versions of The Lion King are filled with so much great voice work, yet the main character (at least in his adult form) is the one who stands out as bland in both versions!

I will say, much to my surprise, that I really enjoyed Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa. Both actors reportedly ad-libbed many of their lines, and seem to be playing the characters in a way that suggests both Timon and Pumbaa are aware they’re in a remake (at least to some degree). The film also gives Timon and Pumbaa something of a nihilistic element, with their “life is a straight line” outlook directly clashing with the “Circle of Life” philosophy Mufasa taught Simba.

Normally, I’m dead against nihilism, but what worked here is that – while many works in this cynical time depict nihilistic concepts as some kind of profundity or intellectualism – Timon and Pumbaa’s new worldview is the butt of a joke, one that highlights the shallowness and simplemindedness of nihilism (in one particularly funny scene, a naive Pumbaa, after hearing how Simba was taught about the Circle of Life, retorts with something along the lines of “That’s nonsense! If everything I did affected that guy, and that guy, and that guy, our carefree, do-what-we-want lifestyle would be pretty selfish and terrible”).

2019’s Lion King definitely has its merits. But of all Disney’s recent remakes, it also feels like the most unnecessary. The other remakes were live-action tributes to their animated counterparts, maybe tweaking certain story elements here and there, adding new dimensions to characters, or simply finding meaningful ways to mix things up a little. But 2019’s Lion King is as close to simply giving the original a new coat of paint as Disney could have gotten. If you’re among those who adores the original Lion King, that might not be so bad. But it goes without saying that this is the inferior version of Disney’s beloved classic. Yes, the CG used to bring these animals to life is impressive, but in focusing too much in emulating real life, this Lion King remake misses the point of animated storytelling and – ironically enough – robs the story of life.

Some of the positive elements of the original still shine through, the voice work is mostly solid (Donald Glover and Beyoncé being the exceptions), and I might actually like Timon and Pumbaa more after this remake. But despite being a half hour longer than the 1994 film, it’s hard to say what exactly pads this 2019 version’s runtime, as the changes made seem so minimal.

If the original Lion King had a voice, Jon Favreau’s version is merely an echo.

 

5

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review

*Caution: This review contains major spoilers! Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I feel that the very nature of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and how its ending rewrites history, makes it an incredibly difficult film to discuss without talking about said ending. So again, big spoiler warning here!*

Quentin Tarantino has certainly earned his reputation as one of cinema’s premiere directors. His indelible vision is unique among his peers and contemporaries, with his excessive style feeling downright hyperactive when compared to pretty much anyone else in the industry. Tarantino is known for his unconventional narrative structures, over-the-top characters, and flamboyant aesthetics. But for all the wonder Tarantino’s style is capable of creating, it can also get the better of him at times. For every Tarantino film that is helped by his insistence on style, there’s one that’s hindered by it, with stories that feel disjointed as a consequence of putting said style over all else. Unfortunately, I believe Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s newest feature, falls into the lesser half of the Tarantino echelon for these very reasons.

Ten years ago, Quentin Tarantino released Inglourious Basterds, a film which rewrote history by means of ending WWII quite differently than how things went down in real life. Basterds received widespread acclaim, with many hailing it as Tarantino’s best film that isn’t Pulp Fiction.

Alas, this is where I must confess an unpopular opinion: Inglourious Basterds may very well be my least favorite Tarantino film up to this point (sure, Death Proof is usually considered the director’s weakest effort, but at least that film was supposed to be a cheesy B-movie). Despite the originality Basterds brought to the table thanks to its narrative structure and the fact that it, y’know, rewrote the final days of World War II, the film ended up suffering just as much (if not more) from it.

In its insistence on turning WWII into, well, a Tarantino film (excessive, stylized violence, an irreverent, smartass-y attitude, etc.), Inglourious Basterds ultimately felt like two different movies crashed into each other, and desperately scrambled to put all the pieces together into a singular film. The end result was a film that featured many scenes and characters who  felt pointless to the overall narrative (remember how Michael Fassbender’s character was introduced in one scene, only to be killed off in the next?), and two overarching storylines that felt more conflicting towards one another than anything.

Why am I going on about my unpopular opinion of a decade-old Tarantino film? Because the very things that made Ingloruous Basterds feel so clunky come back in full force in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like Basterds before it, Hollywood rewrites real world history. And also like BasterdsHollywood seems to have a difficult time staying focused on a particular scenario, and features a number of scenes and characters that feel pointless to the overall narrative. And both films also have Brad Pitt in a prominent role.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, in many ways, the spiritual sequel to Inglourious Basterds. Admittedly, Hollywood doesn’t feature the same Tarantino hallmarks of excessiveness in the same way Basterds did (this movie staves off the violence until the last few minutes of its nearly three hour runtime, though they’re also probably the most violent moments in any Tarantino flick). So even those who who loved Inglourious Basterds might get a wee bit antsy at times with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though personally, I might give Hollywood the slight edge over Basterds, for two simple reasons.

The first reason is that the main characters of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are much more interesting than those of Inglourious Basterds. Hollywood stars Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a once-prolific television actor who, in 1969, is struggling with his career when he tried to make the leap to the big screen, which resulted in the cancellation of his show in the process. Dalton is often accompanied by his former stuntman and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who keeps Dalton’s behavior in check amidst the actor’s emotional struggles.

The other reason I would bump this film slightly ahead of Inglourious Basterds in the Tarantino canon is that, while Basterds’ rewriting of history was a fun twist, it did come off as more of a stunt. An extension of Tarantino’s overall lavish stylization, if you will. It was a means for Tarantino to metaphorically jump out and say “Surprise!” to the audience. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino rewrites history in a way that he takes a horrific, tragic event that it’s clear the director has strong feelings about, and gives it a happy ending instead. A kind of ideal fantasy version of history that only the arts could make possible.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tackles the tragic 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate (portrayed in Hollywood by Margot Robbie), her unborn child (Tate was eight and a half months pregnant at the time), and four other adult visitors in Tate’s rented home at the hands of the Manson “family” cult, specifically members Tex Watson (portrayed by Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia Krenwinkle (Madisen Beaty).

Suffice to say, things play out a bit differently in Tarantino’s universe. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Rick Dalton happens to be Sharon Tate’s neighbor. Cliff Booth lives in a trailer with his pit bull, Brandy, but is just as often found hanging around at Dalton’s. In Tarantino’s universe, the Manson cult (fittingly portrayed as bumbling, incompetent dumbasses) run afoul of Dalton as they’re making their way to Tate’s house to commit the murders. The cult members are temporarily spooked off, until deciding to kill Dalton before moving on to Tate’s house. Once they break into Dalton’s place, however, the evil cult is greeted by Cliff and Brandy. Cliff is not only a stuntman (thus knowing how to take a hit), but also a war veteran, so he has  had more than a little combat experience. Though the Manson “family” members have murderous intent, they are ultimately a bunch of drugged-up cultists who probably wouldn’t stand a chance against a war veteran and his attack dog in a fight.

Spoiler alert: they don’t stand a chance.

Booth and Brandy violently kill Tex and Patricia with ease, while Susan Atkins (who, by accounts, is the one who personally took the life of Sharon Tate) is given a drawn-out, over-the-top death, with Dalton himself ultimately finishing her off with a flamethrower of all things. It’s a brutally violent sequence, but when you remember that the characters getting killed in the film are based on some of the evilest monsters in real history, it makes it a much easier pill to swallow.

Some critics have lambasted the final moments of the film for altering history with a “fairy tale ending” in which evil is vanquished and the innocent victims are allowed to live on and see a bright future. But the ending is possibly the film’s best aspect. It comes across as cathartic for Tarantino, to take a tragic event that affected an art form he’s loved his whole life, and to undo said tragedy entirely. The ending’s naysayers accuse it of being “wish-fulfillment,” but the way I see it, if it entails giving murder victims the chance to live full lives and for their murderers to get their comeuppance, that’s wish-fulfillment I can get behind.

More importantly, however, is that Sharon Tate’s surviving sister Debra – who for decades has been preventing Hollywood from exploiting her sister’s murder – approved the film, giving Tarantino her blessing upon reading the script. If someone so closely affected by such a tragedy can see the beauty in Tarantino’s “wish-fulfillment,” well I think that says it all.

I may be raving about the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – and while it’s great that the film goes out on a high note – I still ultimately feel that it fails to reach its full potential, because the road to get to that ending is so bumpy. It’s a great final act that seemingly comes out of nowhere, since so much of the film seems to forget what it’s all building up to (at its worst, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate – arguably the best character of the film – is largely forgotten for long stretches of time).

“OUaTiH’s depiction of Bruce Lee had me wondering what Lee could have done to sour Tarantino on him so greatly. Even if that wasn’t the intent, Lee’s depiction in the film has understandably fallen under scrutiny.”

There’s so much about the film that comes across as filler. One scene involving Cliff Booth having a confrontation with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) seems to serve no purpose other than to establish Cliff as a capable fighter as he one-ups Bruce Lee (though the film establishes Cliff’s toughness in other ways, making the scene in question seem all the more superfluous). The scene is also questionable for its depiction of Bruce Lee, who comes across as an arrogant hack who can’t back up any of the things he brags about. It just seems like a pointless defamation of Bruce Lee on Tarantino’s part.

You could argue that the film is more of a character study of both Dalton and Booth than it is focused on its rewriting of history, but that in itself creates a similar problem to Basterds in that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is torn between two different stories it wants to tell, with neither narrative interacting in any meaningful way. Dalton and Booth are never seen doing so much as conversing with Sharon Tate until the last frame of the film, and even then, the conversation is inaudible to the audience.

When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is working as a character study, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, both Dalton and Booth can be interesting characters, and the relationship between the two is pretty unique. At first it seems that the film is going for the deadbeat friend angle, with Booth holding Dalton’s career back, due to the stigma against Booth (there’s rumor that Booth murdered his wife, a rumor that the film neither confirms nor denies). No one but Dalton will dare hire Booth, initially leading the audience to believe it’s his presence that’s getting in the way of Dalton’s once-promising acting career. But it doesn’t take long to see that without Booth, Dalton would be even more of a wreck, with Booth preventing Dalton’s demons from getting the better of him (well, any more than they do) through his level-headedness and friendship.

Both main characters have the potential to be some of Tarantino’s all-time greats, due to a few great character moments sprinkled throughout the film, their unique friendship, and the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have surprisingly good chemistry. Unfortunately, because Hollywood gets so sidetracked so often, they don’t quite reach their full potential.

One of Tarantino’s trademarks may be sharp dialogue that’s often removed from the plot. But here, if the characters spout any “removed from the plot” dialogue, it’s only because the plot is so loose and shaky to begin with, as opposed to giving us a deeper insight into the characters’ personalities, lives and interests. Dalton and Booth get a few good moments, but not enough to make the loose narratives feel like a justified excuse for the film to focus solely on their personalities.

“You gotta love how Tarantino and company made movie posters for fictional movies that exist within this movie.”

The film also deals with the emergence of the “New Hollywood” era. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood simultaneously seems to celebrate the New Hollywood era for the autersmanship that came with it, and lamenting some of Hollywood’s more simplistic tendencies that may have been lost in the transition (as reflected in Dalton’s struggling career, with Dalton becoming typecast as one-off villains in TV series, repeatedly falling to the up-and-coming actors who portray the heroes). It’s an interesting take on one of cinema’s biggest revolutions, and it’s obvious Tarantino has a lot of strong feelings about the era. So the film has a very personal retrospective feel to it in this regard.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly a unique film, even by Tarantino’s standards, considering it keeps most of the director’s tendencies at bay until its final moments. I figure some of Tarantino’s fans will absolutely love it, and others (such as myself)… not so much. I still think it’s definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of Tarantino’s work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my mixed feelings towards it are reflected on a larger scale.

Suffice to say, I don’t think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is among Tarantino’s better films, as it has too many concepts it wants to tackle without having the ability to dedicate enough depth to enough of those concepts, despite being three hours long. And unlike a few other Tarantino films with long running times, Once Upon a Time definitely feels long.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood definitely has its merits and its moments (with particular praise going once again to Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate). But for every moment of Tarantino brilliance found in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there are more than a few that will try the patience for even the great director’s more diehard fans.

 

5

Spider-Man: Far From Home Review

*Caution: This review contains spoilers to Avengers: Endgame’s plot. Though the fates of certain characters from that film will be absent*

Avengers: Endgame may have concluded the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, but Spider-Man’s second MCU solo outing, Far From Home, serves as something of the epilogue to Marvel’s “Phase Three,” and everything in the MCU up to this point. Far From Home obviously doesn’t share the sense of finality that Endgame had, but the effects of Endgame reverberate throughout Far From Home, letting audiences know that the MCU will never quite be the same again.

This is admittedly a little bit of a doubled-edged sword for Far From Home. It’s certainly a capable sequel to 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, but with the exception of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) himself, no one in  Spider-Man’s corner of the world seems to acknowledge the severity of everything the world (let alone the universe) is recovering from post-Endgame. Far From Home is a good Spider-Man movie (though it’s no Spider-Man 2 or Into the Spider-Verse), but it can at times feel like its scrambling to remember its placement in the wider MCU.

While past MCU films have, for the most part, taken place in or around the year they were released, Spider-Man: Far From Home marks the beginning of a new trend, as the MCU timeline currently sits in the year 2023 post-Endgame. Thanos wiped out half of all life in the universe using the Infinity Stones in Infinity War, before the Hulk used the stones to bring back everyone snapped out of existence into the current day in Endgame.

Far From Home does have some good fun with the premise, with a school news reporter mentioning how he was among those snapped out of existence for half of a decade, while his younger brother remained during those five years and is now his older brother. Some of these jokes land, but it is a little off-putting that Thanos’ cosmically catastrophic actions are almost exclusively referenced in a comedic sense. In Endgame we saw the devastation and tragedy of it all, with many people (including Captain America) seeking counseling because of the continued grief the world was suffering.

On one hand, Spider-Man: Far From Home has a Get Out of Jail Free Card for the consequences of Infinity War and Endgame being brushed to the side: Peter Parker and his friends are still in high school. If anyone is going to shrug off the fact that half of the entire universe was turned to dust and subsequently resurrected five years later, while still worrying and prioritizing their daily drama, it’s high schoolers. So the film can be forgiven when Peter Parker’s friends still go about their usual routines despite the fact that they were among those snapped out of existence for five years by Thanos. Less forgivable, however, are when characters like Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) crack jokes about the whole situation at fundraiser events. Some lightheartedness following-up the drama of Endgame is fine, but if you get too jokey with it, you risk undermining the ongoing narratives of the MCU (no one in Star Wars, for example, cracked jokes about Alderaan getting blown up by the Death Star).

Even though Far From Home’s placement after Endgame could have been handled better, its placement as a sequel to Homecoming is much more successful.

Far From Home sees Peter Parker and his classmates heading on a two-week field trip of Europe, where Peter hopes to take a break from super hero-ing as Spider-Man and confess his feelings for MJ (Zendaya), his classmate and crush. But seeing as a movie solely about Peter Parker on a field trip would probably be a bit of an underwhelming Spider-Man feature, things naturally don’t go quite so smoothly.

Agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) of S.H.I.E.L.D. have been investigating the sudden emergence of Elementals – monsters who are, naturally, based on the elements of earth, fire, water and wind – who threaten the balance of Earth. Normally in a situation like this, Fury would call on the aide of the Avengers, but in this post-Endgame time, the Avengers aren’t so easy to call upon. While the answers to the whereabouts of each Avenger will probably be revealed in their upcoming sequels, the simple fact of the matter is they are outside of Fury’s contact. Spider-Man is the only available Avenger, and so Fury, using his influence, has pulled the strings to set up Parker’s field trip to Europe, where the Elementals are spawning.

“I’d make a joke about how Mysterio looks like the Duke of Zil from Felix the Cat: The Movie, but the fact that I just explained that proves that no one would get the reference…”

A super-powered man from another dimension named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), has fought the Elementals in his own world, and is determined to prevent the creatures from causing the same levels of mass destruction to this world as they did to his. Beck has been working with Fury, and needs help if he is to stop all of the elementals, hence the need for another hero like Spider-Man.

The film does a good job at dealing with Peter Parker’s double life, as any good Spider-Man film should. Sure, not all of the comedy works, and I still find this interpretation of MJ as well as Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) to be pretty annoying. But Tom Holland still makes for a great Peter Parker/Spider-Man, giving the character the right blend of humor and likability. Additionally, Jake Gyllenhaal’s presence enhances the film much in the same vein (but in a completely different way) that Michael Keaton did in Homecoming.

The story does have a few rough patches. Again, how Far From Home continues from where the MCU left off in Endgame could have been handled better. But as a Spider-Man sequel, Far From Home does another great job at telling entertaining, sometimes compelling stories through both of Peter Parker’s personas.

Spider-Man: Far From Home does feature a little bit of a twist involving Mysterio later in the film. Those who know about the character from the comics and other materials will definitely see it coming, but I can also imagine the nature of the twist might be divisive for some audiences. The MCU is no stranger to divisive plot twists, with Iron Man 3 in particular being a polarizing film due to its midway narrative shift. I can imagine some might feel Far From Home’s twist may bring that of Iron Man 3 to mind in some respects, though I believe the twist to be handled much better here, since it ultimately connects with established elements of the MCU and doesn’t undermine the themes the film had built up until that point like Iron Man 3 did.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is another solid installment in the unprecedented mega-franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The comedy might not always hit the mark, especially when it comes at the expense of the rather serious events of the past two Avengers films. But it makes for a worthy sequel to Homecoming. Far From Home is consistently entertaining, with great action set pieces for Spidey and some good character moments for Peter Parker. And while many MCU films can feel like their events are merely stepping stones on the way to the next big crossover, Far From Home tells a nice, self-contained story, and ends with a fun tease as to where Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s story will go next (with a mid-credits sequence that includes a cameo that I won’t dare spoil here, but that I will say is the single best piece of fanservice I think the MCU has provided so far).

The film may present Spider-Man as a smaller-scale super hero (which seems a little questionable by this point), but Far From Home is another testament that our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man may just be the heart of the Marvel Universe.

 

7

Toy Story 4 Review

When Toy Story 3 was released in 2010 (eleven years after Toy Story 2), it seemed to mark the end for the series that made Pixar Animation Studios famous. Toy Story 3 was a fitting, emotional end to the journeys of Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (the perennial John Ratzenberger), and the rest of the Toy Story gang. Their owner, Andy, was grown up and heading off to college, and the ending saw him passing down his beloved childhood toys to a young girl named Bonnie. Given the overall reception of all three Toy Story films, an argument could be made that it was the best trilogy in film history.

It was a bit concerning then, when Pixar eventually announced that they were creating a fourth Toy Story feature, especially since the studio has fallen under some criticisms for its reliance on sequels during the 2010s (though in all honesty, most of their sequels have retained the studio’s high quality). Considering how conclusive of an ending Toy Story 3 was, a continuation seemed entirely unnecessary. It was all too easy to get a bit cynical and assume that Pixar simply saw more dollar signs in the property and nothing more. Combine that with some notable production issues, and things were looking grim for the continuation of the Toy Story franchise.

Thankfully, not only does Toy Story 4 prove to be one of the few fourth entries in a series that can hold its own, but in doing so it beautifully puts that aforementioned cynicism in its place. Toy Story 4 is a delightful and entertaining film that retains the series’ emotional storytelling. Though with that said, Toy Story 4 does nonetheless fall short of all three of its predecessors.

While Toy Story 3 acknowledged the eleven year gap between it and the previous entry, Toy Story 4 – for the most part – takes place shortly after the events of Toy Story 3. The exception being the film’s opening, which takes place nine years in the past (which I guess would make it two or three years after Toy Story 2, depending on when exactly the rest of the film takes place). This opening explains why Bo Peep (Annie Potts) – the porcelain doll who served as Woody’s love interest in the first two films – was absent from the third entry.

After another daring rescue of one of their fellow toys, Bo Peep was packed in a box, and given away to a friend of Andy’s family. Woody briefly considers leaving with Bo Peep, before he remembers his loyalty as Andy’s toy, and the two are then separated (preventing a time paradox for Toy Story 3 in the process).

Fast-forward to the present, and the toys have found a new home as Bonnie’s toys. Though Woody has been having a harder time adjusting to the change than the rest of the gang, with Bonnie often leaving him in the closet while she plays with the other toys.

When Bonnie is frightened to start kindergarten, Woody – desperate to keep her happy – sneaks into Bonnie’s backpack to help cheer her up. When no one sits at Bonnie’s table for arts and crafts, Woody gathers a number of discarded items and sneaks them onto Bonnie’s table.

With a spork, pipe cleaner, popsicle sticks, glue and googley eyes, Bonnie creates Forky (Tony Hale), who quickly raises Bonnie’s spirits. Much to Woody’s surprise, Forky soon comes alive, much in the same vein as he and his fellow toys. Forky quickly becomes Bonnie’s favorite toy, but having been created from trash, Forky still believes himself to be trash, and is dead-set on throwing himself away. Determined to keep Bonnie happy, Woody spends day and night preventing the suicidal utensil from throwing himself away.

This proves especially difficult when Bonnie’s family takes a road trip, bringing her toys along for the ride (as kids do). During one especially tiresome night for Woody, Forky manages to jump out of the RV, leaving Woody to give chase.

Woody reunites with Forky, and manages to make the utensil understand his place as a toy. But getting back to Bonnie will prove to be a difficult task both physically and emotionally. Bonnie’s family is at an RV park sitting next to both an antique store that serves as the home of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) – a doll determined to steal Woody’s voice box at any cost – and a traveling carnival, where Woody is reunited with Bo Peep (who has become a lost toy), leaving him to question what he truly wants.

Considering how conclusively Toy Story 3 seemed to end the series, it’s actually a little surprising that Pixar managed to concoct a plot as strong as they did for Toy Story 4. It manages to be consistently entertaining and delivers some genuinely emotional moments. There are, however, a few cracks in the foundations of Toy Story 4’s plot.

The first issue is that – aside from Woody and Bo Peep – the returning characters have very little presence in the story. Even the heavily-marketed additions from Toy Story 3 get minimal screen time. The worst example of this is that Buzz Lightyear and Jessie have seemingly nothing to do throughout the film!

I understand that Woody is the main character of the series, but the original Toy Story presented both Woody and Buzz with equal prominence in the narrative, and Toy Story 2 beautifully continued that trend, with Buzz Lightyear reminding Woody the importance of being a toy, just as Woody had taught him in the first film. Toy Story 3 reduced Buzz Lightyear’s role to mere comic relief, which was one of my big complaints with the third installment. But instead of rectifying this gross misuse of one its best characters, Pixar has doubled down with the underutilization of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 4.

It would seem the filmmakers at Pixar have misjudged one of their greatest creations in Buzz Lightyear, focusing only on the comedic aspects he brought to the first two films, and associating the series’ heart with Woody alone (did they forget the “I Will Go Sailing No More” scene from the first movie?). The Toy Story films released in the 1990s starred Woody and Buzz Lightyear, but the latter half of the series has foolishly relegated its deuteragonist to a bit part.

“Visual dramatization of Pixar shoving Buzz and Jessie to the sidelines.”

And poor Jessie, whose introduction in Toy Story 2 brought a new emotional depth to the series, literally only has a single scene in which she does anything in this fourth installment. At what point, I have to wonder, did Pixar forget that the heart of the Toy Story films was shared between its main characters, and decided that only Woody boasted stories worth telling?

Buzz may have had a reduced role in Toy Story 3, but at least there, it didn’t have a direct affect on the story at play. But here, Buzz Lightyear’s minimal role prevents the film from resonating as much as it should. Without spoiling anything, the direction the plot takes in its third act really required the classic Toy Story characters (specifically the main ones like Buzz and Jessie) to have bigger roles in order to achieve its full impact. But because Pixar forgot how to properly implement them into the plot, the story at hand suffers a bit.

“Bo Peep gets her own sidekick in the form of Giggle McDimples (ally Maki), a Polly Pocket-esque police officer.”

Toy Story 4 seems to place a greater emphasis on its new characters, which includes not only Forky and Gabby Gabby, but also a duo of carnival plush toys Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), and Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves), a Canadian stuntman action figure whose over-the-top antics and boisterous personality often steal the show. I don’t have anything against the new characters (though at times, Bunny and Ducky can feel more like a means to get Key and Peele in the movie than they do genuine characters), but it’s a shame to see the old Toy Story cast get tossed aside.

Pixar has made a few sequels which focused on the secondary character of the original (Mike Wazowski in Monsters University, Dory in Finding Dory, and Helen Parr in Incredibles 2), which worked to great effect in adding to those characters and distinguishing the sequels from the originals. So it seems weird that Toy Story has failed to do something similar by its fourth entry. Especially when you remember just how great of characters Buzz Lightyear and Jessie are. Even if Woody were destined to be the main character once again, I do have to reiterate that Buzz and Jessie (and the returning characters in general) needed a bigger role in the story in order to really hit a homerun with the direction the story takes.

“Credit definitely has to go to Gabby Gabby’s character design which, depending on the situation, can be either sympathetically cute or creepy.”

Still, the new characters have their charms. Forky, Bunny and Ducky are all cute and add some good humor to the proceedings, and Duke Kaboom, again, is a highlight of the film. Perhaps most interesting of all is Gabby Gabby, whose own story arc may be more emotional than Woody’s this time around.

“It seems weird to suddenly put the relationship between Woody and Bo Peep at the forefront…”

The film also places a strong emphasis on its re-introduction of Bo Peep. Toy Story 4 can on occasion feel like it’s giving itself a pat on the back for Bo Peep’s newfound independence, and while it’s nice that Pixar decided to give its original female character an actual personality this time around, Pixar themselves seem strangely ignorant to the fact that they had already accomplished so much more through a female character in the form of Jessie. Why not promote the character Pixar got so, so right from the get-go, instead of bringing back a character who had so little presence in the series they were left out of the third film, and try to bring more out of them at the expense of the stronger characters? Again, it’s nice that Bo Peep has more to do this time, but because it comes at the expense of Jessie, it feels self-defeating.

This reflects what I think is the fundamental problem of Toy Story 4: with how Toy Story 3 ended, Woody’s story felt completed. He saw Andy grow up and move on, he faced his greatest fear of loss/abandonment, and found new purpose with Bonnie. It felt like it completed what the first two films started (the first film having Woody’s place as Andy’s favorite toy usurped by Buzz, and the second having him contemplate living in a museum forever instead of facing the pain of heartbreak as Andy grows up).

If Toy Story 4 had to exist, it should have been Buzz and Jessie’s movie.

I was at the D23 expo’s animation panel in 2015 when the basics of the plot were first announced. When they were first describing Toy Story 4, Pixar referred to it as a “standalone sequel.” That seemed to make sense. The overall arc of the first three movies had ended, but Toy Story 4 could be its own little adventure starring the beloved toy characters. Pixar then announced that the film would be “a love story…” which – given Buzz and Jessie’s budding romance in the previous two movies – briefly indicated that they might be the focus of Toy Story 4, which would have further justified the continuation of the series. But then I remember when the panelists continued with “the love story between Woody…and Bo Peep.”

“He’s the hero the franchise deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

I remember being somewhat baffled at that point. Didn’t Woody already get the spotlight to himself in Toy Story 3? And wasn’t Bo Peep left out of that installment entirely? Again, why take things in this direction when they already had a love story blooming on the side in the second and third films (a romance which, by the way, is never so much as brought up in Toy Story 4)?

Toy Story 4 doesn’t feel particularly “standalone” by the end of things, either, as it seems to find more ways to try to close the series as a whole. This also puts things in a weird spot. Toy Story 3 was a fitting end to the series, but a standalone sequel could justifiably stand on its own merits. But by trying to conclude the series again, it feels like the Toy Story saga has two different third acts (which kind of cheapens Toy Story 3, when you think about it).

By now I may be sounding a bit negative, but I have to emphasize that these complaints are all relative to the exceedingly high standards set by the Toy Story series. The first three films are all among Pixar’s best, which in itself is a hefty claim. Toy Story 2 in particular, is a perfect movie.

Toy Story 4 is still a well made feature with strong characters and storytelling, and it certainly does the best job it could with all the tools at its disposal. But it’s an undeniable sting to see so many of the classic Toy Story characters get the shaft, especially since a story focused on Buzz and Jessie would have justified this entry all the more. At the very least, giving them more to do would have made Woody’s latest story arc more meaningful.

To be the weakest of the four Toy Story movies isn’t too bad of a detriment, however. It just means that Toy Story 4 is a highly enjoyable movie whose older siblings happen to be all-time greats. I watched Toy Story 4 a few times in preparation for this review, and greatly enjoyed it every time I saw it. But it’s also the only Toy Story film that wasn’t constantly buzzing in my head afterwards. It makes for a wonderful viewing experience, but it somehow doesn’t resonate and stick with you like the preceding three films did (and still do).

Yes, Toy Story 4 is more than a good enough film that it should silence the hypocritically predictable cynics who cried fowl at its very existence (can we just admit that sequels can be art just as easily as original films now?). It tells a solid story that makes the best with what it has, and does so with some of the most colorful and vibrant animation yet seen in a Pixar film. But the fact that Pixar saw fit to stretch out Woody’s story arc while making the rest of the returning cast less important than ever doesn’t exactly justify the necessity of the series continuing past Toy Story 3’s conclusion.

While the Toy Story series is known for bringing adult audiences to tears, I feel that Toy Story 4 – though delivering on emotion – is only able to go so far with it. It creates something similar to what the other films did in regards to tugging at the heart strings, but only to an extent. We’ve seen Woody go through such existential crises before, so to see his inner turmoil boil back to the surface seems redundant, and somewhat undoes some of the development the preceding films gave him. Perhaps if Buzz or Jessie were given a chance in the spotlight, Toy Story 4 might have felt less like it’s treading familiar ground (even this entry’s Randy Newman song, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, seems like it’s going through the motions, and feels like the film rushes to get it out of the way early on).

Toy Story 4 is an interesting case. Yes, it is indeed a really good movie that I greatly enjoy. But it also seems like Pixar missed an opportunity here to delve deeper with the other Toy Story characters, which would have made the continuation of the series feel more earned. For all its merits, with the story Pixar chose to tell through Toy Story 4, it feels more like Toy Story 3-2. On its own, Toy Story 4 is a winner. But when you remember what it’s a following act to, it does fall short of its series’ exceedingly high standards.

 

7

The Dark Crystal Review

Jim’s Henson’s 1982 feature film, The Dark Crystal, was quite different from the beloved entertainer’s other creations. Though The Dark Crystal features a cast entirely comprised of puppets, costumes and animatronics, the film is notably darker in tone than what you would usually expect from the creator of the Muppets. Boasting a heavy dose of fantasy world-building and a genuinely imaginative mythology, The Dark Crystal can be wondrous to behold, and the film has gained a strong cult following in the decades since its release.

It’s a shame then, that the movie isn’t particularly good.

It’s an unpopular opinion to dare besmirch pretty much anything that has the name Jim Henson attached, but for all its imagination and visual splendor, The Dark Crystal has little to nothing to speak of in regards to character depth, with its main character in particular being arguably the most boring hero in any fantasy film.

Set in the world of Thra, the plot of The Dark Crystal takes place one-thousand years after a planet-altering event. The “Crystal of Truth” – a magic crystal of unspeakable power – was cracked, an event that brought forth two new races to the world of Thra. One of these races were the urRu (referred to in the film simply as “Mystics”), kind-hearted, sagely, four-armed beings which bear a passing resemblance to a combination of camels and turtles. The other race spawned from the Crystal cracking were the Skeksis, malevolent creatures which look like a humanoid cross of birds and lizards.

“The Dark Crystal is evidently one of the crystals from Crash Bandicoot.”

The pacifistic, somewhat-apathetic Mystics proved no match for the cunning and devious Skeksis, who banished the Mystics from the Crystal’s palace, learned how to harness the Crystal’s magic to gain power over the other races of Thra, and grant themselves immortality (though because the Skeksis share a life-bond with the Mystics as a result of their simultaneous “birth” from the Crystal, the Skeksis’ rituals have given the Mystics immortality as well). Under the command of the Skeksis, the Crystal of Truth became known as the Dark Crystal, which has allowed the Skeksis to rule over Thra in the thousand years since they came into being.

There is a sliver of hope for Thra, however, as one of the planet’s natural races – the elf-like Gelflings – have prophesied that one of their own will reunite the lost shard of the Dark Crystal to its rightful place, and bring an end to the Skeksis’ rule. Fearing this prophesy, the Skeksis sought to eradicate the Gelflings, wiping out all but (unbeknownst to the Skeksis) two of them.

One of these Gelflings is Jen (voiced by Stephen Garlick), who was taken in by the “wisest Mystic” after he was orphaned. The wisest Mystic believes Jen to be the Gelfling of prophesy, and is preparing the boy for the day he must set out on his journey to save Thra. But that day is fast-approaching, as the Crystal must be restored before the “Great Conjunction,” an event that occurs once every thousand years in which three suns are aligned and bring out the Crystal’s full power in a kind of planet-wide reset. If Jen fails to restore the Crystal in time, the Skeksis can use its power during the Great Conjunction to ensure they rule Thra forever.

That may be a lot of explanation, but on the bright side of things, the mythology of it all is incredibly imaginative, so the exposition remains interesting. Though The Dark Crystal ultimately stumbles as a film because it fails to make any of its characters as memorable as its mythology and the visuals used to bring it to life. The film even fails to properly communicate certain elements of its plot.

A prominent example of the latter issue is that the wisest Mystic sends Jen on the quest for the Crystal shard on his death bed, at the same time as the Skeksis emperor is dying. During the film, this comes off as a glaring plot hole. After all, the Skeksis use the Crystal’s power for immortality, which extends the life of their counterpart Mystics as well, so how could a member of either race be dying of old age?

It turns out there’s an explanation, though it was only brought up in the film’s novelization and other such “expanded reading” materials of the franchise. With the Great Conjunction drawing near, the wisest Mystic – knowing he shared his life-link with the Skeksis emperor – found a way to magically “will himself to death” in order to bring about the Emperor’s demise as well. The Mystic did this because the Skeksis Emperor had grown so great in power that his death was necessary to give Jen a fighting chance (way to believe in your hero).

It’s not the best explanation, but maybe it would seem a bit less flimsy if it were actually brought up in the movie!

Still, this scene in question does bring out one of The Dark Crystal’s few resonating moments. We get a clever contrast in the deaths of the two leaders: The wisest Mystic has a humble passing, vanishing into sparkling dust with only Jen present. Meanwhile, the Skeksis Emperor – defiantly clutching onto his power until he breaths his last breath – crumbles into dirt on his garishly-decorated deathbed as his subordinates anxiously wait for him to die, so they can decide which of them claims the throne.

Sadly, such moments truly are a rarity in The Dark Crystal, especially since Jen is as empty of a main character as the filmmakers could have concocted. I am dead serious when I say that Jen has no discernible character traits. He has no personality whatsoever. He’s just a blank figure wandering around the plot. Jen is so poorly thought out that when we actually get some moments alone with the character that could potentially give him some time to develop, all he does is blatantly ask stupid questions like “What is this shard for?” and “What do I do with it? Am I supposed to take it somewhere?” Thanks for reiterating the plot basics, Captain Obvious!

“Kill it with fire! And ice! And lightning!”

Another problem with Jen – and perhaps this is a petty complaint – is that he is the single ugliest creature in the film. The other living Gelfling, a female named Kira (voiced by Lisa Maxwell), serves as the film’s deuteragonist, and is only marginally less creepy. In a film filled with so many wondrous creatures, it’s baffling how the main characters ended up being the most unappealing, unintentionally frightening creatures in the film.

Nightmares induced by the Gelflings aside, The Dark Crystal is a visual treat, possibly one of the best special effects films from a purely visual standpoint. The puppets and costumes are on-par with those of Star Wars, and they still impress all these years later. The Skeksis, in particular, should rank highly on any list of the best practical effects in movie history.

It’s actually pretty tragic, that The Dark Crystal stumbles so drastically on the narrative front. If its characters were half as memorable as its visuals and mythology, it would be a real classic of fantasy cinema. Unfortunately, none of the characters seem to exist outside of where the plot needs them, with the only semblance of personalities being found – once again – in the character designs for the Skeksis. Unfortunately, the only Skeksis who gets a decent amount of screen time happens to be the Chamberlain, whose constant, high-pitched “Hmmmms” might get on some viewers’ nerves (though I personally find them hilarious). Other than what you can make out of the Skeksis’ personalities through their designs, however, The Dark Crystal has nothing to speak of in terms of characters.

“Hmmmm! Hmm! HMMMM!”

Perhaps The Dark Crystal would have been a better film if its narrative were told from the perspective of the Skeksis, despite their role as antagonists. As loathsome of creatures as they are, the Skeksis are fascinating to watch, infinitely more so than the boring and charmless Gelflings. That’s for damn sure.

The Dark Crystal exists in a weird place for me, one that’s inhabited by a very small handful of films. That is to say, it’s one of the few films that I simultaneously like and don’t like. It’s rich in imagination and visual splendor, making it recommended for fans of practical effects and fantasy lore. But if you’re viewing it as a movie (which, you know, it is), it leaves a lot to be desired.

As of this writing, Netflix will soon release a prequel series to The Dark Crystal. Here’s hoping that said series finally brings out a story and characters worthy of the imagination Jim Henson littered Thra with.

 

5

The Secret Life of Pets 2 Review

Illumination garners a lot of unwarranted hate. No, the Despicable Me studio hasn’t made an animated film I would call great, but they’ve never made a notably terrible movie, either. They may not hold a candle to the heavy hitters in animation like Disney and Pixar, but Illumination have consistently provided decent children’s entertainment, and nothing they’ve made has been as bad as the darker side of Dreamworks Animation (remember Shark Tale?) or Sony Pictures Animation (come on, before Spider-Verse, did they have a good movie to their name?).

It’s funny, when Despicable Me was first released, people seemed to love that it was a simple and harmless feature, and appreciated that it was a small-scale animated film that managed to find success. But I suppose it found too much success, because lord knows in this internet age, we can’t allow anything to become too popular/liked (the motto of millennials may as well be “we hate happiness”). Suddenly the perception of Illumination took a complete 180, and what was previously seen as simple became ‘stupid,’ and the Minions suddenly became the most annoying things on the planet (y’know, because popular with kids).

The truth though, is that Illumination makes decent kids movies, and they may crack a few laughs out of adults too. Illumination doesn’t make great animated films, but they make fun cartoons. Even their worst movie is harmless.

With that (largely unnecessary) defense of Illumination Studios out of the way, The Secret Life of Pets 2 – sequel to Illumination’s 2016 film – is among the weaker side of the studio’s spectrum. Again, that’s harmless. It’s simply a movie that will appeal to its intended audience (children), but maybe miss the mark with the older crowd. But hey, not every animated film can have the universal appeal of Pixar.

The story here takes place some years after the first Secret Life of Pets. Katie (Ellie Kemper), the owner of dogs Max (Patton Oswald) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet), falls in love, gets married, and has a baby named Liam. Though the dogs have apprehension about the baby at first, they quickly grow protective of him. This is especially true of Max, who sees the world in a whole new, dangerous light now that he’s concerned over the baby’s safety.

The film then diverges into three different plots: Story A sees Max and Duke go on a trip to Katie’s father-in-law’s farm, where Max’s bravery is tested by the farm’s sheepdog, Rooster (Harrison Ford). Story B involves Gidget (Jenny Slate) – the Pomeranian upstairs neighbor of Max and Duke who is infatuated with the former – trying to reclaim Max’s favorite toy from an old cat lady’s apartment after she was left in charge of said toy during Max’s trip. Finally, story C sees eccentric bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) – believing himself to be a superhero due to his owner’s playtime activities – try to rescue a white tiger from a cruel circus ringleader with the help of a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish).

If the three different plots sound largely disconnected, that’s because they are, until the finale scrambles to tie them all together in an attempt to justify this sequel’s status as a feature-length film as opposed to a series of short films. The episodic nature of the movie can lead to a manic pacing, which can make it feel like one of those kids movies that feels like it has to zoom through things in order to keep children’s attention. And it’s always unfortunate to see a children’s film that seems to think children aren’t capable of following a movie if it isn’t constantly moving.

Still, the individual bits and pieces have their charms. Snowball’s storyline brings out the best comedic bits in the movie. I like the character Rooster, whose overly practical and disinterested disposition seem to be a parody of Harrison Ford himself. And as is usually the case for Illumination, you would never guess that the studio makes its movies on a (relatively) small budget, as the animation is vibrant and boasts a cartoonish fluidity that adds to the physical comedy.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 is nothing special. It’s lack of focus means it’s not even as good as the first Secret Life of Pets. It does feel like a rushed, cash-in sequel. But y’know, as far as rushed, cash-in sequels go, at least The Secret Life of Pets 2 is cute.

No, Illumination may not yet have found the recipe to make great animated movies. But if my generation can adamantly defend the cheesy Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s  that were solely designed to sell toys (*Cough! Transformers! Cough!*), then I can defend Illumination’s okay movies for being, well, okay.

 

5