The Grinch Review

Of the many works of Dr. Seuss, the most iconic has to be How the Grinch Stole Christmas (sorry, Cat in the Hat). Not only is it the most famous of Dr. Seuss’ books, but in American culture it has become synonymous with the Christmas holiday. Its 1966 television adaptation has become a tradition of the holiday season, and the titular character – despite being a curmudgeon who disdains the merry holiday – has become almost as associated with Christmas as Santa Claus himself. This 2018 animated film by Illumination is the second feature length, theatrical adaptation of the classic tale, following the 2000 live-action film starring Jim Carrey (which, despite its muddy critical reception, has become a nostalgic favorite for many, myself included). How well does Illumination’s take on Dr. Seuss’ classic stack up against its predecessors?

Well, in short, it’s a pretty good adaptation. But it’s also an incredibly safe one, as it doesn’t really add anything new to the timeless tale. The key ingredients remain the same: The Grinch is a lonesome creature who despises Christmas. He lives on Mt. Crumpit with the only creature who could love a curmudgeon like himself, his dog. The Grinch’s ire for Christmas is magnified by the fact that his mountain home looks down on Whoville, a happy town obsessed with Christmas. Tired of hearing the joy of others below him, the Grinch sets out to ‘steal Christmas’ by dressing as jolly old Saint Nick and stealing every last present and decoration in Whoville.

The plot is simple and timeless, so a direct retelling isn’t any unforgivable sin, but it does mean that Illumination’s film does suffer a bit from a lack of its own identity. There is, however, one notable change that clashes with the message of the story.

In Dr. Seuss’ original book and the TV special, the Grinch is simply a cold-hearted individual, unable to love anything but his dog. His reasons for hating Christmas never needed a backstory, but it’s implied that he sees Christmas as a shallow celebration of gifts and loud noise. But the Illumination film, like the 2000 live-action Jim Carrey vehicle, gives the Grinch a backstory to justify his grouchy disposition. It’s understandable that the filmmakers would want to flesh out the story a bit to justify its presence as a feature film, but there’s something about this Grinch origin story that feels misplaced.

In the 2000 film, it was being bullied by the kids of Whoville that lead to the Grinch’s self-imposed exile. And since Whoville loved Christmas, he loathed it. Although its execution didn’t always work (he’s upset because kids made fun of him for cutting himself shaving? Really?), it still made sense given the narrative was that his anger and disdain were misplaced by being targeted at Christmas. But here in the Illumination film, the Grinch (voiced brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch) was an orphan who grew up alone. His loneliness is no fault of his own in this depiction, and so his anger and frustration with the Whos and Christmas comes across as more of inner confusion and insecurity than it does a man who has grown bitter. So this version of the Grinch doesn’t really seem to have a heart that’s two sizes too small (even though that iconic element remains). He’s more sad and in need of a hug than he is bitter and in need of a change of heart.

So the Grinch’s backstory is a little misplaced, given the message of the original story that carries over here. Still, the film is a lot of fun. Illumination has never been a heavy hitter with animated storytelling in the ways that Pixar or Disney are, but they do excel and delivering high energy cartoon antics. And that’s as true here as ever.

The many gadgets and gizmos the Grinch utilizes to carry out his Christmas-stealing schemes are fun to see in action, and the characters frequently lead to some zany comedy. And in typical Illumination fashion, the animation is colorful and lively. For an animation studio that’s known for making ‘smaller’ films in terms of budget and recourses when compared to other animation studios, you’d never know it with how fun their films are to look at. The Grinch just oozes a visual charm that captures the Dr. Seuss look in a way the live-action film simply couldn’t.

Like in the live-action feature, Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) is promoted to a main character, who is determined to ‘trap’ Santa so she can ask him for something too important to be written in a letter, to help her mom be happy. And Whoville now houses a man named Bricklebaum (Kenan Thompson), who is not only the antithesis of the Grinch (always jolly, loves Christmas), but also the closest thing the Grinch has to a neighbor, as his house sits at the foot of Mt. Crumpit. Cindy Lou helps add a bit of heart to the film, while Bricklebaum provides some of the biggest laughs.

One of the film’s biggest highlights is Benedict Cumberbatch’s aforementioned voice work as the Grinch. Big name celebrities often phone-in vocal work for animation, and seem like little more than a means to help advertise the film. But Benedict Cumberbatch goes all out by creating a ‘Grinch voice’ that’s unrecognizable as the actor. To have a big name actor care that much for voiceover work is always welcome.

Illumination’s The Grinch may not quite capture the purity of Dr. Seuss’ original book or the classic TV special, and the Grinch’s new backstory may somewhat contradict his supposed status as a curmudgeon, but it’s still a fun take on the iconic tale that should delight younger audiences, and maybe even some older ones as well.

 

6

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review

In more recent years, with what was previously deemed as the “nerd side” of popular culture more or less becoming one with pop culture itself, it seems more and more properties are putting a higher emphasis on world-building, in the vein of Tolkien or George Lucas. On one hand, this is a great thing, as it’s always enjoyable to see a fantasy world create a backstory for itself and its characters. But I have recently began to worry that too many works are prioritizing world-building over actual storytelling. One reason I love the Star Wars sequel trilogy is that it bucks this trend, introducing elements such as The First Order in passing without detailing how and why they came to power, and letting the story at hand take center stage. By contrast, it seems that the Harry Potter prequel franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them, goes in the exact opposite direction of the Star Wars sequels, with its own narrative being drowned in backstories and lore. While the first Fantastic Beasts at least introduced us to some potentially charming franchise players, its sequel – the bizarrely titled The Crimes of Grindelwald – feels like it completely surrenders its own identity for the sake of world-building.

Like the first film, the screenplay is written by J.K. Rowling herself. Though Rowling seems to handle the material as if she’s writing the appendices of one of her books, as opposed to a screenplay. This is a film that squanders so much potential with its characters, as it feels so much more inclined to explain elements of the Wizarding World than it does in following its lead cast. It does this to such an extent that it really feels like very little actually happens within the film’s plot.

“Sexy Dumbledore.”

The (supposed) story still follows magi-zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his American friends; Wizarding sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), and the muggle/no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). They are all caught in the middle of a crises in the Wizarding World, as the evil wizard Grendalwald (Johnny Depp) has escaped custody, and is rallying more and more wizards to his cause of “wizard supremacy” (that is to say, wizards being superior by nature to non-magic beings). While Scamander would rather not be involved in any greater conflict and just resume his studies of magical creatures, he is persuaded by one Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to aide the future Hogwarts Headmaster’s personal attempts to weaken Grindelwald’s efforts.

That may sound like a brief summary to avoid spoilers, but the fact of the matter is the story never really evolves from that setup. To make matters worse, elements of the first Fantastic Beast film’s ending are entirely retconned for seemingly no reason other than that they allow for more convenient progression to future sequels.

Kowalski – along with other non-magic folk in New York City – had his memory of the magic world wiped clean in the first film’s finale, which served as its most emotional moment. But apparently he still remembers everything just fine, because only “bad memories” were erased, and his were mostly good. Way to undermine the first film’s emotional crescendo…

Now, it’s safe to say we all assumed Kowalski would be getting his memories back, but to more or less brush aside an important part of its predecessor’s ending so nonchalantly just demeans the franchise itself. Ironically, The Crimes of Grindelwald would have probably been a better movie if getting Kowalski’s memories of wizards and magic back were a key plot point. At the very least, the plot would have actually been about the main characters in such a scenario.

“Unless you’re the most diehard Potterhead, this may be your reaction to all the mythology babble.”

Instead, we have a plot centered around Dumbledore and Grindelwald attempting to sway Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller) – the disturbed wizard with a demonic parasite who seemingly died in the first movie – to their respective sides of the struggle. Poor Newt doesn’t even feel like the hero of his own story, rather, just a figure passing through it. That’s a real shame, because Newt – as well as Kowalski, and Tina and Queenie – were characters who were distinct from the existing heroes of the Harry Potter series (particularly Kowalski, as his status as a non-magical being wandering the Wizarding World with childlike glee makes him one of the most unique characters in Rowling’s mega-franchise). But here we are, only in the second installment of this five-part series, and already the main cast feels like an afterthought to all the other goings-on. Heaven forbid the main characters get in the way of extended monologues of events the side characters went through.

All of this could have been made more forgivable if it only started out this way. Because in all honesty, there actually is some charm left in this Wizarding World as the film opens. The first few tidbits of lore and “for hardcore fans only” dialogue are fine, since they’re setting things up. But the film only builds on these overly descriptive elements more and more as the film goes on. I wish I were joking when I say the third act of the film comes to a dead stop as one character gives an overly long monologue on some backstory, before another character butts in and delves into their own overly long monologue on some backstory. What’s worse is that certain revelations that are made with the main characters feel completely rushed and meaningless because of this (one major ‘twist’ in particular comes across as utterly lifeless, as it seemingly comes out of nowhere). Maybe Rowling should have spent a little more time writing her main characters and less on…everything else possible?

There are some redeeming qualities to the film. The costume designs and special effects still impress, and despite their tragically limited presence, the primary quartet of characters still feel like a refreshing change of pace from Harry, Ron and Hermione. The acting is also pretty solid, with Jude Law and (I hate to admit it) Johnny Depp making the most of their limited screen time (seeing Grindelwald wave his magic wand like a conductor’s baton as he burns his enemies in blue flames is a memorable visual that feels overdue for the franchise, as it’s a moment that more or less defines the nature of its villain in one visual). The titular Fantastic Beasts that show up are still memorable (even if they only really show up in an attempt to justify this series’ ongoing title), and I like that we finally get to meet Nicolas Flamel (Brontis jodorowsky), the immortal alchemist first mentioned in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, who has become so old that a small handshake nearly breaks his fingers, but still possesses strength in magic.

There are small doses of memorability in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald then. But they are too few and far between the constant cascades of exposition and sequel-hyping. There are still three entries left for the Fantastic Beasts series to live up to its potential (and Crimes of Grindelwald certainly lets you know more films are coming). But in order to make a great franchise, each individual installment has to be able to stand on its own two feet in addition to building the greater mythology. J. K. Rowling’s script for Crimes of Grindelwald is so deeply preoccupied with world-building that it forgets to be a movie in its own right.

 

4

Venom Review

Venom is the kind of movie I wish I could say I liked more than I did. The idea of a Marvel film based around a villain/anti-hero certainly stands out in this day and age when several films based around Marvel heroes are released every year. But while the concept of Venom has some promise, and some strong performances, it ultimately feels indecisive with what kind of film in wants to be, which continuously halts any momentum it gains.

Venom of course tells the origin story of its titular anti-hero, a hotshot reporter named Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) who, after raising suspicions of illegal activity with Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) – the billionaire head of Life Foundation, a scientific research organization – loses his career and credibility, as well as his fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). It turns out (of course) that Drake really is committing heinous crimes, having homeless people kidnapped and experimented on under the guise of medical tests. In truth, the Life Foundation has come into possession of blob-like alien lifeforms called Symbiotes, which can’t survive on Earth for long without latching onto (or, more accurately, into) a host. Drake is using his victims as guinea pigs for the Symbiotes, but if the host isn’t a perfect match, the connection between them and the Symbiode will quickly kill the host.

Luckily for Eddie Brock, at least one of Drake’s scientist actually has a conscience, and she seeks him out so he can expose Drake’s crimes (the cops are a no-go due to Drake’s threats, which I guess also include any official press, so Eddie – being fired and all – is her go-to I suppose). She sneaks Eddie into the facility, and during his escapades he accidentally releases a Symbiote, which then uses him as its host. Thankfully for both Eddie and the Symbiote, they are a perfect match for each other. Not that the film gives much detail as to what that means. Are they a biological match? The Symbiote also affects his mind, so does it feed off his emotions? The former is probably what the film intends, though the latter scenario seems like it makes for a more interesting character.

With the Symbiote in his body and mind, Eddie Brock is able to become the creature Venom, who can manipulate its liquid-like body in a variety of ways, in addition to possessing superhuman strength and agility. Although a decent stretch of the film is dedicated to Brock getting used to a life shared with an alien parasite, it eventually becomes your standard superhero fare, with Venom destined to stop Drake’s evil plots involving the other Symbiotes.

The film is at its best when it focuses on Eddie and his struggles with the Symbiote. Tom Hardy’s performances as both Eddie Brock and the voice of Venom are the film’s biggest highlights. Hardy gives both characters a sense of complexity that you wish were present in the rest of the film. Not that Venom is ever truly terrible (I’ve seen many worse superhero films), just that it can’t seem to decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It’s edgy and serious one minute, then tries to pull a Deadpool-esque joke between Brock and the Symbiote the next. It can, at times, be effective with being serious or comical, but it never finds a way to make them mesh together cohesively. So when we do get to the ‘funny bits’ after so much angst, it can come off as more awkward than funny.

Sadly, the characters outside of Eddie/Venom just come off as stock superhero movie stereotypes. Although Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed put in the effort, the characters they have to work with are just kind of flat and boring. This is particularly true of Carlton Drake, who falls squarely into the most cliched of super villain roles: the evil billionaire. I suppose it’s an easy archetype to work with (give a bad guy unfathomable wealth and it gives a good excuse why he can afford to act out evil schemes), but it doesn’t exactly change the fact that we’ve seen the evil billionaire super villain a thousand times before. On the plus side of things, the mandatory mid-credits sequence does give us insight as to who the villain in the next film will be, and given the character (and the actor they nabbed to portray him), that raises hopes for the sequel.

Without a more interesting villain here though, Venom suffers. Again, the film is at its best when it’s dealing with Eddie Brock’s struggles with the Symbiote. The film may have greatly benefitted if those struggles in themselves were the primary conflict of the movie, as opposed to the stock villain. Take a note from the Dark Knight films, with the first movie focused on its protagonist’s origin story, then deliver the big villain in the sequel. Venom got the second part right, at least.

As much as I appreciate the concept of a standalone superhero film these days (though I’m sure Sony will make sure Venom doesn’t stay that way), I can’t help but think Venom also suffers from existing in its own bubble without the Spider-Man aspects of the mythology. I understand that Sony has ‘lent’ Spidey to Marvel Studios, but I’m not saying this film needed to have ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s an animated Spider-Man film on the horizon with no connections to the MCU, so why not at least mention that the world of Venom has its own Spider-Man? After all, part of what makes the Venom character stand out is his contrast to Spider-Man. Spidey is the altruistic hero who’s willing to forgive even his greatest foes, while Venom is the more tormented soul who may have morality to him… but only to an extent, having no qualms with biting the head off someone more wicked than himself. With Spider-Man seemingly non-existent in this film universe, there’s no ‘greater good’ to compare Venom’s conflicting good and evil traits to, which ultimately makes him feel not all that different from any other super hero (sans for the head biting).

I don’t want to write off Venom completely. As stated, Tom Hardy’s performance does help elevate the film, and there are some fun moments and exciting action sequences. But by the time the credits start rolling, you won’t feel like you just watched a film that did anything for the superhero genre that you haven’t seen already. But at least when that aforementioned mid-credits sequence happens, you may feel that, next time, you just might.

 

5

Reservoir Dogs Review

1992’s Reservoir Dogs was a landmark in the history of independent cinema. The first film directed by Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs broke the mold with its nonlinear deconstruction of cinematic narrative, and set the tone for Tarantino’s films to come; with violence, profanity, and pop-culture references abound.

One could sum up the uniqueness of Reservoir Dogs with one simple factoid: it’s a heist film in which we never actually see the heist, only the events leading up to it, and its consequences. Summing up Reservoir Dogs as such wouldn’t quite do it justice, but it is a good starting point in describing its unique style.

Reservoir Dogs centers around a band of criminals, each of which have been given nicknames: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker), and Mr. Brown (portrayed by Quentin Tarantino himself). These six men are strangers to each other, but are acquaintances of mob boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). Joe and his son “Nice Guy” Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn) have recruited the six men to steal a fortune in diamonds.

Things go awry, however, and the heist goes disastrously wrong. Mr. Blonde, a violent psychopath, starts shooting civilians, Mr. Orange takes a bullet in the stomach, and cops were ready and prepared at the scene, leading the criminals to grow suspicious that one of them is an undercover cop, and that the whole thing was a setup. Mr. Pink is the only member of the gang to have absconded with diamonds, which he has hidden as he rendezvous with Mr. White and Mr. Orange – who is slowly bleeding to death – at a warehouse where they wait for any other survivors to show up.

Reservoir Dogs set the stage for Tarantino’s nonlinear storytelling. While most of the film takes place in the warehouse in the aftermath of the botched heist, there are three different ‘chapters’ spread throughout that showcase one of the characters in the events leading up to the formation of the planned heist. Before the opening credits, we see the criminals enjoying breakfast at a diner, which gives us a little insight to some of their personalities by means of Tarantino’s trademark ‘removed-from-the-plot’ dialogue. One conversation revolving around Mr. Pink’s vehement aversion to tipping being a particular example at just how entertaining Tarantino’s dialogue can be.

If there’s any notable drawback to Reservoir Dogs, it’s that there isn’t quite enough of that kind of dialogue and other such trademarks that define Tarantino’s works. That’s certainly not to say that there’s anything wrong with the writing at any point in the film, but seeing as the majority of Reservoir Dogs takes place after a horrific shootout, that is understandably the focal point of most of the film’s dialogue. Again, the writing is excellent throughout, but with the writing being so scenario-focused for most of the film’s running time, there’s not as much character to Reservoir Dogs as there is in most of Tarantino’s later work (you may even wonder why Mr. Blue even needed to exist in this movie given his minuscule amount of screen time). You could say the director’s hallmarks are present, but being Tarantino’s first film, they still had yet to grow. It would be with his second film, the masterful Pulp Fiction, that Tarantino’s trademarks were set loose to wreak havoc on conventional movie storytelling.

Still, that’s only a relative complaint. It makes sense that a director’s first film would be a little rough around the edges. And when you consider the limited budget and recourses Tarantino had to work with here (reportedly, some of the suits worn by the cast were owned by their respective actors, as the film’s budget could only afford so many costumes), then the achievements that Reservoir Dogs does make seem all the more impressive, making the shortcomings of both the film’s personality and some of the characters a bit easier to forgive.

Of course, this being a Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs doesn’t hold back on violent imagery. Mr. Orange spends most of the film writhing in a pool of his own blood, and the film’s most infamous moment sees the deranged Mr. Blonde torture a kidnapped police officer while listening to the Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You. Per the norm, the violence is all part of the style and craft of Tarantino’s work, though some audiences may understandably find the torture scene hard to watch (even if it isn’t as graphic as a lot of movie’s you see these days). So a small warning for sensitive audiences, but Reservoir Dogs’ merits certainly outweigh any moments that may make you wince.

Reservoir Dogs remains an immensely entertaining and captivating film even today. It can feel a bit like an unpolished diamond when compared to later Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and the under appreciated Jackie Brown, but it’s a diamond nonetheless. One worth absconding with.

 

8

Ponyo Review

Ponyo (or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, as it’s known in Japan) has always been Hayao Miyazaki’s most misunderstood feature. Though it received strong reviews from critics, fans of the famed Japanese animator often referred to it as Miyazaki’s “weakest film,” due to it being aimed at a younger audience (apparently these people forgot that Miyazaki made his name with films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service). It was even more bizarrely the only Miyazaki-directed feature not to receive a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards since that category’s introduction. Ten years later, and Ponyo is only now being more widely recognized for its merits. And while Ponyo may not be as synonymous with Miyazaki’s name in the same way Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro are, it is the strongest of the director’s trilogy of ‘post-Spirited Away’ features.

On paper, Ponyo may sound like Hayao Miyazaki’s most straightforward film: it tells the tale of a young boy named Sosuke, who finds a magical goldfish whom he names Ponyo (her ‘real name’ being Brunhilde). The two form a bond, with Ponyo defying her wizard father Fujimoto and transforming into a human girl to be with Sosuke.

A synopsis such as that might imply that Ponyo is simply a Japanese version of The Little Mermaid, but its execution makes it something more complex: Ponyo is described as a goldfish, but has a human-like face and a dress-like tail fin, and she becomes human after tasting Sosuke’s blood (by licking a cut on his finger to heal it) and tampering with one of her father’s magic wells. We also learn that, by becoming human, Ponyo breaks the laws of nature, and her transformation sends reality out of whack. The moon falls closer to Earth, leading the ocean to rise and satellites to fall from the skies, ancient fish come back to life, and tsunamis turn Sosuke’s world upside down. This all leads to a series of adventures between Ponyo, Sosuke, and Sosuke’s mother Lisa. All the while, Fujimoto – the closest thing the film has to an antagonist – tries to separate Ponyo from Sosuke to set things back to the way they were, while Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of the seas, more calmly tries to find a way to fix nature while not interfering with Ponyo and Sosuke’s relationship.

It is undoubtedly Miyazaki’s weirdest film, but it’s impossibly charming and sweet, and its imagination is seemingly infinite. While its immediate predecessor Howl’s Moving Castle’s weirdness often came at the expense of a consistently solid narrative, Ponyo’s story benefits from its surrealism and absurdities. Howl featured a strange tonal shift midway through, surrendering its fairy tale plot in favor of an anti-war narrative, ultimately feeling like two different, clashing stories. Meanwhile, Ponyo is a children’s adventure, and is running on “child logic.” As delightfully weird and surreal as Ponyo gets, it all feels like one cohesive whole with its imagination. The weirdness enhances the flow of the story, as opposed to clashing with it in the way Howl did.

It’s that childlike wonderment that is Ponyo’s biggest strength. It is impossible not to smile when watching the film. Like Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s a gentleness and sensitivity to Ponyo that’s unique to Miyazaki’s features. While many animated films feature one scene of hustle and bustle after another to hold the attention of younger audiences, Ponyo trusts that children are capable of following a less hectic plot and can appreciate a good story. And though Ponyo’s story is smaller than something like Princess Mononoke, it shares a similar scope to Miyazaki’s more dramatic works, making for an interesting combination of simplicity and complexity.

The characters here are among Miyazaki’s most memorable: Ponyo’s naivety makes her as humorous as she is cute, and Sosuke’s determination makes him an easy hero to root for. Lisa is head-strong and independent, and Fujimoto is an eccentric who looks suspiciously like David Bowie. They may not be Miyazaki’s most complex characters (though Fujimoto continues the rich Miyazaki archetype of a “villain who isn’t really a villain”), but they’re possibly his most charming sans Totoro.

Speaking of My Neighbor Totoro, that is the comparison people always seem to make with Ponyo and Miyazaki’s older catalogue, since both share a  more childlike narrative. And I suppose if there is one area in which Ponyo does fall relatively short, it’s that it doesn’t quite match up to its inevitable comparison. For all its charm and lovability (Ponyo equals Totoro in those departments) it doesn’t match its predecessor’s depth. The drama of Ponyo is almost exclusively fantasy, whereas Totoro’s dilemmas evoke a sense of relatability that is almost unheard of in fantasy films.

Still, if the big issue with Ponyo is simply that it isn’t quite as good as arguably Miyazaki’s most cherished film – which it shares elements with – I’d say that doesn’t exactly equate to a major flaw. If Ponyo served as a return to form for Miyazaki after the confused Howl’s Moving Castle, is it really much of a complaint if it isn’t quite Totoro or Spirited Away?

“Ponyo’s insatiable love of ham is a recurring dose of adorableness.”

While Ponyo may not match the depth of Miyazaki’s best work, it is among the acclaimed director’s most entertaining features. Its utter adorableness should have you smiling from ear to ear, and as mentioned, the weirdness adds a good dose of comedy to the equation, and packs on to the film’s charm. The story unfolds both beautifully and uniquely.

Disney was once again responsible for the dubbing, as they had been for most Miyazaki features to this point, and the dub of Ponyo is another winner, perhaps surprisingly so. While Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas – younger siblings of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers – may have seemed like gimmicky casting as Ponyo and Sosuke on Disney’s part (given the dub was released in 2009, when Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers were still a thing), their voices ended up fitting the characters nicely. Tina Fey served as the English voice of Lisa, while Liam Neeson voiced Fujimoto and Cate Blanchett voiced Ponyo’s mother Gran Mamare. Getting such actors not only showed how much care Disney put into the dubbing, but their performances have helped the dub age gracefully. Perhaps the only downside is that the adorable end-credits song has a pop-y remixed second verse, which seems really out of place.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films are known for their stunning animation, and Ponyo is certainly no exception. In fact, in many ways, it may be Miyazaki’s most visually ambitious film. There’s a fluidity of movement at play that is close to unrivaled in hand-drawn features. Also of note is that the film seems to occasionally simplify its art direction, while never sacrificing the hard work and effort that went into the animation itself. Ponyo subtly changes its style from time to time, and combined with its settings both on land and the world under the sea, as well as its penchant of characters rapidly changing shapes, Ponyo is an absolute marvel of visuals. Fittingly, it was probably the most impressive hand-drawn animation since Spirited Away.

Complimenting these visuals is one of the best musical scores of any Miyazaki feature. Per the norm for the director, Ponyo’s score was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who created one of his strongest soundtracks here. The music of Ponyo captures an ethereal quality similar to that of the visuals, which perfectly compliments the story at play. Ponyo, almost secretly, boasted one of the best musical scores of any animated film of its time.

Sadly, that “secret” quality seems to speak for Ponyo as a whole. Despite its many merits and acclaim, Ponyo never quite reached the same heights in legacy as many of the Miyazaki-directed films that preceded it. Only now, a decade after its initial release, is Ponyo starting to get its due. Admittedly, Miyazaki’s resume does feature some giants of the animation medium that are hard to live up to, but Ponyo always did live up to that legacy, albeit a bit differently than you’d expect. It may not have attempted the same thematic depth of some of the director’s films, but it was something of an avant garde for animation, presenting a narrative that seems comprised of one idea after another that could only exist in its medium. And it does it all while being as fun and adorable as it can be.

Ponyo has lived in the shadows of Miyazaki’s other films for far too long. While it may not be the director’s best work, it has always, in its own way, deserved to sit right alongside them.

 

9

Christopher Robin Review

Of all the casts of Disney characters, the most likable has to be that of Winnie the Pooh. Sure, Mickey Mouse and company may be the figureheads of Disney, but the adaptations of A.A. Milne’s characters are Disney’s most endearing and charming consistencies. And while Disney’s recent trend of turning their beloved animated films into live-action retreads has been a bit of a mixed bag (for every Jungle Book there was a Maleficent), the idea of a Winnie the Pooh addition to this sub-genre of Disney films was promising. Thankfully, Christopher Robin ultimately delivers on the fun and charm one would expect from a film starring the bear of very little brain, though it does take a while to get there.

“Hello there!”

Christopher Robin begins where the original Disney film ended, with a young Christopher Robin ready to leave the Hundred Acre Wood to begin school and, subsequently, grow up. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger (both voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (Brad Garret), Piglet (Nick Mohammed), and the rest of the Hundred Acre Wood gang throw a going away party for Christopher Robin. And though Pooh and friends don’t forget about Christopher, as he grows older (becoming Ewan McGregor in the process), he forgets them.

We get brief glimpses of Christopher’s adult life from there: Meeting and marrying a woman named Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), fighting for the British forces in World War II, and having a daughter named Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). After returning home, he finds a job as an efficiency expert at the Winslow Luggage Company, where he slowly but surely begins dedicating more and more of his time.

Admittedly, this is where the film starts to teeter both into overly familiar and slow moving territory. A movie about the importance of family over work – while always a well-meaning message – is a bit formulaic, and it’s here where the film maybe slows down a little too much. However, once Winnie the Pooh and company come back into the picture to help Christopher Robin remember his more carefree days, things pick back up and start building more steam. Not to mention heaps of charm.

Of course this is a movie about rediscovering childhood wonderment. Of course it’s about not being a slave to your work and the importance of, as Pooh puts it, “doing nothing.” But it works because it’s told well, acted well and, perhaps most importantly, because it’s impossible for Winnie the Pooh to ever come across as anything other than lovable.

The movie is naturally at its best whenever Pooh and friends are on-screen, with their childlike simplicity and humor being all too easy to win us over with. But Christopher Robin also manages to find some good footing in the live-action department due to the performance of Ewan McGregor as its titular character as well as that of Hayley Atwell.

I’ve already seen some comments regarding that the film is “confusing” in regards to the relationships between the human and stuffed animal characters. Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and company are possibly created from Christopher Robin’s imagination as a child, yet other humans are able to see and hear them. And Pooh even manages to accomplish teleportation by means of entering a tree in the Hundred Acre Wood and finding London on the other side. But this is one of those movies where you really don’t need a logical explanation for things. When Christopher Robin questions his sanity when Pooh comes back into his life via the aforementioned tree, he claims Pooh’s explanation of the tree “being wherever it needs to be” to be silly, to which Pooh responds with “why thank you,” which delightfully sums up the nature of the movie.

It should be noted that although the film is (of course) the definition of child-friendly, I actually think it’s geared more for the adult crowd who grew up with these characters. This is, after all, a film about a grown-up Christopher Robin. It doesn’t bask in childhood like the animated Pooh movies, but rather expresses a melancholic yearning to recreate childhood. Younger kids may even get a bit antsy in the film’s slower moments, but adults may appreciated the film’s (very, very relative) more mature tone and pace.

“Could they be any cuter?!”

The CG used to bring Winnie the Pooh and his friends to life is, as you might expect with a Disney budget, top notch. It may not quite reach the levels of The Jungle Book in terms of realism, but the characters here don’t really require it. They mesh well with the live actors, and the character designs are adorable (especially that of Pooh himself).

Christopher Robin is a fun movie with a lot of heart, only held down by a sloggish start and some overly formulaic material (Christopher Robin even has a snobbish hire-up at the workplace who seems far too much like a Hollywood product for a Winnie the Pooh feature). But the flaws are easy to look past for the sheer warmth that radiates from the film. Though there’s nothing innately wrong with more hectic and serious family fare, it’s rare that you get to see a film aimed at a family audience that isn’t afraid to quiet down a bit.

Winnie the Pooh has always provided winning material by extolling simplicity and even passing on a good dose of wisdom (“They say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing everyday.” Explains Pooh). Christopher Robin follows suit with this tradition, and provides a film that, despite its early missteps, has a heart that continues to grow as it moves along.

 

7

The Times They are a (Really) Changin’!

Wizard Dojo Digivolve to! ….. Still Wizard Dojo, but different!

“Wizard Dojo’s change is not THIS drastic…”

That’s right, I’ve finally changed things up here at the Dojo, you’ve probably noticed the site has a new overall look. Though admittedly, I’m not sure this is the look I want to stick with since I can’t seem to have the site’s different pages right at the top of the homepage like I did before (the links to them are still intact on the right side, however). But I figured the changes I’ve made deserved a fresh coat of paint.

Now it’s time for the big change… I’ve actually revamped my rating system to include only whole numbers, 1-10.

*Before I continue, I’d like to emphasize that this only affects my reviews. AfterStory can continue using the .5 system if he so desires, or can follow suit if he so desires. That’s entirely up to him.

In a way, things have come full circle, since whole number scales are what I once utilized way back before the Dojo existed. When I launched Wizard Dojo, I used the .5 system for two main reasons: to start fresh and differentiate what I did before, and to build the prestige of the “near perfect” score of 9.5. I feel I was decently effective in both respects, but over time, it became apparent how that system was only being partly utilized.

What I mean is that there may have been a clear-cut difference between a 9.0 and a 9.5, and even between 8.0s and 8.5s, but when you get lower and lower on the spectrum, the .5 scores seem superfluous. Does anyone care about the difference between a 3.0 and a 3.5?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed using the .5 system, but when a good number of the scores seemed to have no concrete difference from each other, I felt a change was in order.

Does this mean I’m going to be a softer grader now that I’ve effectively pulled a Thanos and eliminated half my scoring system? No sir! I’m going to do my best so that each number actually means something, and isn’t just a number. If you want more information, you can check out my updated scoring system page.

And yes, I did go back and rescore every single one of my reviews, both video game and movie, to reflect my new standing (boy did that take some time). While many of my reviews still retained a similar score (some 6.5s became 6s, and so on), others were more notably changed.

For example, to still keep the prestige of the “near-perfect” score, what I once gave a 9.5 is now the standard for the ‘9’ score. Most of what I rated a 9.0 in the past are now in the 8 (great) range, with only the 9.0s where I seriously considered a 9.5 keeping their nine-dom (Mega Man 3, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Overwatch, Shovel Knight, and so on). The rest of the former-9.0s are now 8s. Not as punishment, but to give the 8 score more prestige of its own.

This has had no effect on my perfect 10s, however. In fact, I purposefully reviewed my most recent 10, Dark Souls, right before I made this change to hit the point home. The 10s are 10s. Dark Souls was the bridge from the old rating system to the new one, showcasing that the best of the best are still the best under any criteria. …What the hell am I talking about?

There were, however, a number of games that dropped in scoring. Perhaps the most notable being The Last of Us, which I originally scored a 9.0 back in the day, before lowering it to an 8.5. But it now sits at a 7, to reflect some of my changing thoughts on the game that have occurred over the years. I still ultimately think it’s a good game, but one that stumbles a lot more than it itself realizes. And I have altered/added text to the review to reflect that. Other games to drop include Cuphead and Dragon Ball FighterZ, which now sit at 7 as well.

Going forward, I’m going to do my best to make sure these number grades more effectively represent my standings. But as always, read the whole review to get the meat of my thoughts!

Now, join me on embarking on this new chapter of Wizard Dojo. Because numbers!