Spirited Away’s 20th US Anniversary!

Yes, Spirited Away may have officially turned twenty last year (and I even wrote about that), but today marks the twentieth anniversary of when the film was released in the United States. And much like the SNES is my favorite console so I wrote a thirtieth anniversary post for both its Japanese and US anniversaries, Spirited Away is my favorite film, so I’m writing a second twentieth anniversary post in honor of its US release.

Now with all that unnecessary explanation out of the way…

It was twenty years ago today – September 20th 2002 – that Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, Spirited Away, was first released in US cinemas. A watershed moment in the history of animation and cinema, Spirited Away set a new benchmark for animation the world over. I honestly don’t think there’s been an animated film released since whose influence has been as far reaching.

Hayao Miyazaki’s name was still obscure in the US of A at the time Spirited Away was released stateside, with only three of his films having had official releases in the western world beforehand (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Princess Mononoke, if you were wondering). Though all three films received immense acclaim in America, they were still a bit under the radar, with both Totoro and Kiki being released straight to VHS, and Mononoke having such a quiet theatrical release, that calling it a ‘limited release’ would be underselling it.

Thankfully, Spirited Away had top names from Disney and Pixar backing it, which resulted in the film breaking barriers like never before, even winning an Academy Award in the process.

More important than any awards though, is the impact and influence Spirited Away continues to have in animation and cinema. Everything from live-action films, anime, the films of Tomm Moore, and even television shows like Gravity Falls have been influenced by it. It’s also no coincidence that Pixar’s films started becoming more artistically rich following Spirited Away’s release (there’s an argument to be made that Inside Out was basically an elaborate homage to Spirited Away. No wonder it’s the best Pixar movie).

Most important is how Spirited Away continues to touch the hearts and capture the imaginations of audiences the world over. Myself very much included.

Happy twentieth (US) anniversary, Spirited Away!

Thor: Love and Thunder Review

When the first Thor film was released in 2011, I don’t think many people would have guessed that it would be the first series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (outside of the Avengers movies) to reach a fourth entry. The 2011 film was decently fun, but was hardly as beloved as Iron Man. Meanwhile, the 2013 sequel Thor: The Dark World is widely considered one of the weakest MCU movies. But in 2017 the series headed in a new direction with its third installment, Thor: Ragnarok, with the Taika Waititi-directed film reinvigorating the series with a greater emphasis on humor and spectacle. With a newfound popularity for Thor, Marvel brought Waititi back for this fourth installment, Thor: Love and Thunder.

The good news is that if you loved Ragnarok, Love and Thunder provides a similarly good time, even if it may not be the breath of fresh air that Ragnarok was when it was released.

After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been travelling the cosmos with the Guardians of the Galaxy, helping them save various civilizations from evil threats (with Thor causing a bit of collateral damage along the way). However, a distress signal from an old friend has Thor travelling back to New Asgard, located on Earth after the events of Ragnarok.

A being known as Gorr (Christian Bale) has come into possession of an ancient weapon called the Necrosword, which grants him the ability to slay gods (at the expense of infecting Gorr mind, body and soul). Now known as Gorr the God Butcher, he has been slaying god after god across the universe, with the Asgardians being his next targets.

After Thor and company dispatch of Gorr’s monsters, they realize that the God Butcher has kidnapped the children of New Asgard. So Thor, alongside the new king of Asgard, Valkrie (Tessa Thompson) and his rock friend Korg (Taiki Waititi himself), sets off to find Gorr and rescue the children. But Thor has a new superpowered ally in his old girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who was last seen in The Dark World. Unbeknownst to Thor, Jane is dying of cancer, and with her treatments failing to improve her condition, she desperately turned to the Asgardian magic found in New Asgard for help. As fate would have it, Thor inadvertently placed a spell on his old hammer Mjolnir back when he and Jane were dating, a spell that dictates the hammer would always protect Jane. So in the present, the hammer’s shattered pieces reform, and deem Jane Foster worthy to wield the mighty Mjolnir, thus giving her the power of Thor. Though she gains the strength and ability equal to that of the god of thunder, the effects are only present when she wields the hammer. Without it, Jane’s health continues to decline.

That’s some pretty heavy stuff coming from the sequel to Thor: Ragnarok, and I’ve heard some people fault Love and Thunder for a perceived inconsistent tone. But I actually appreciate that Love and Thunder attempts to tackle some heavier material, instead of simply betting everything on the comedy that made Ragnarok work and have it overstay its welcome. The more serious elements are what set this film apart from its predecessor. It was admittedly a risky move to use something like cancer as a plot element in a Marvel movie, but the film ultimately handles the subject delicately.

Speaking of the film’s serious elements, Gorr the God Butcher provides Thor: Love and Thunder with one of the MCU’s most complex villains. After wandering the broken remains of his world with his daughter, praying to his god for help and safety, his daughter succumbs to the elements, and he’s left wandering alone. Feeling his prayers fell on deaf ears, Gorr is summoned by the Necrosword to meet his god, who callously ignores Gorr’s plight. Gorr then uses the sword to kill his god, but with the Necrosword’s influence, it begins to warp his mind and ambitions, as he now seeks to kill all gods.

In a way, Gorr kind of reminds me of Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2 in how the combination of personal tragedy and an object infecting his mind leads him down a path of villainy. Although I don’t think any on-screen Marvel villain has equaled Doc Ock, Gorr the God Butcher is probably in the top three villains of the MCU. He’s even a visually cool villain with the way he travels in and out of shadows, lurking towards the screen like some kind of Dark Souls boss. The MCU has often been criticized for a lack of compelling villains, but between Gorr the God Butcher and Wenwu from last year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it seems Marvel’s villain scenario is seeing some major improvements.

Before I start making Thor: Love and Thunder sound like it’s all serious subjects and dark and dreary villains, I do have to reiterate that the film retains the sense of humor and fun that audiences loved about Thor: Ragnarok. Granted, there are those who didn’t appreciate Ragnarok’s sense of humor and felt that it turned Thor into Guardians of the Galaxy. But I think the more serious aspects mixed into Love and Thunder may win over some of Ragnarok’s critics, while still providing plenty for returning fans of Ragnarok (special mention has to go to Russel Crowe as the Greek god Zeus, who might just steal the whole show). It’s one of the most fun MCU movies in quite some time.

Something else I can very much appreciate with Thor: Love and Thunder is that it (again, like Shang-Chi) is one of the increasingly rare MCU films that stands as its own movie, unburdened by excessive crossovers of other Marvel characters or having the overarching MCU story shoehorned into the proceedings. Even the mid and after-credits sequences still relate to Thor’s story, rather than tease someone else’s. Considering the recent Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sacrificed the setup the first Dr. Strange left open for the sequel in favor of catering to the bigger MCU plot, Love and Thunder’s insistence on just being a Thor movie is all the more commendable.

I do have to admit that even with all my praises, Thor: Love and Thunder doesn’t exactly bring new creative heights to the MCU. The more serious plot elements and its standout villain set Love and Thunder apart from its predecessor, but it still does follow much of the same MCU formula. It’s certainly a more solid MCU entry than we’ve been seeing as of late, but I don’t think it necessarily breathes new life into the mega-franchise either (something which you could argue Ragnarok did). But I think most audiences will be having too much fun to care about that (though they may be bummed that the Guardians of the Galaxy have a minimal role, despite the film’s marketing).

Thor: Love and Thunder is an undeniable good time that should leave any Marvel fan with a smile on their face. And for once, it may just tug at their heart a little bit too.

7

Minions: The Rise of Gru Review

Minions: The Rise of Gru is the fifth overall installment in Illumination’s Despicable Me franchise, and the second that shifts the focus away from Gru in favor of the ubiquitous Minions. Though, as the subtitle suggests, Gru has much more of a role here than he did in the first Minions movie (in which he appeared as a background Easter egg in one scene, and then had a speaking cameo at the end, which made the aforementioned background Easter egg kind of superfluous). Because of Gru’s more prominent role, you could argue that this seconds Minions movie is more of a Despicable Me prequel than it is a Minions spinoff. But that may be for the best, considering how the first Minions movie didn’t seem to know how to have its titular, Twinkie-shaped creatures carry the story on their own (its villain seemed to get more screentime than the Minions themselves). In that sense, Minions: The Rise of Gru is an improvement over its predecessor, but whether or not you enjoy it may depend on how well you can tolerate the Minions themselves.

Children (and Facebook moms) can’t seem to get enough of the Minions, while many other audiences find the antics and gibberish ramblings of the Minions irksome. I’m a bit indifferent to them, myself. I can understand why many find the Minions annoying, but I also know I’m not the target audience for the characters and find their antics harmless. Their worst crime is resurrecting the trend of animated sidekick characters purposefully upstaging the main characters. In short, I may not be a fan of the Minions, but I don’t hate them, either. If you’re someone who does enjoy the Minions, then you’ll probably get a kick out of Minions: The Rise of Gru, but if you aren’t a fan, then this movie certainly isn’t going to convert you.

The story here takes place in the 1970s. Gru (Steve Carell) is still just a kid with aspirations to become a great supervillain. Now that he has the Minions as his, well, minions, he’s a step closer to his goals. The Minions help Gru commit petty, bullyish crimes, like cutting in line at an ice cream shop, stealing some ice cream, and then eating said ice cream in front of a gym to taunt the people inside trying to burn calories. If the movie has one notable strength, it’s that this is the first time since the first Despicable Me that we’ve seen Gru actually be a villain. And isn’t that why people liked this series in the first place?

Anyway, the plot sees Gru invited to join his favorite supervillain team, the Vicious Six, after their former leader, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), is presumed dead (in reality, he was given the boot for being too old). The Vicious Six have recently stolen an ancient treasure, the Zodiac Stone (which is actually a medallion). When Gru is denied entry into the Vicious Six for being too young, he steals the Zodiac Stone from the villain group. The Vicious Six, lead by Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), then swear revenge against Gru. But before they can track Gru down, the aspiring villain is kidnapped by Wild Knuckles, who also wants the stone.

Unbeknownst to Wild Knuckles or the Vicious Six, one of Gru’s Minions, Otto (voiced by Pierre Coffin, as all the Minions are) has traded the stone for a Pet Rock with a neighborhood kid. Once Gru is kidnapped, three of his Minions, Kevin, Bob and Stuart set out to rescue their leader, while Otto goes to retrieve the Zodiac Stone. Meanwhile, Wild Knuckles starts to take a liking to Gru, who becomes the apprentice of the one-time Vicious Six leader.

To be honest, there’s not much more of a plot than that. A recurring issue with Illumination’s movies is that they feel less like animated films and more like episodes of a television cartoon stretched into a feature length. It’s no unforgiveable sin, and not every animated film has to be an emotional masterpiece, but after a while you start to wish that Illumination would at least aim for something more. Sadly, Minions: The Rise of Gru is another example of Illumination settling.

On the reverse side, if there’s one thing Illumination deserves credit for, it’s the quality of the animation itself. Illumination is known for making their films on a relatively smaller budget than other mainstream animation studios, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. Illumination’s films are always colorful and pop with a visual liveliness, and that’s very much the case here with this Minions sequel.

Minions: The Rise of Gru has something to offer fans of the series: there’s some genuinely funny moments, the animation is as eye-popping as ever, and it’s fun to see Gru go back to his cartoonishly villainous roots. There’s also a fun sub-plot where Kevin, Stuart and Bob study kung-fu from an acupuncturist named Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh). But again, this is a movie that isn’t going to win over those who aren’t already initiated into the material. The Minions are still very much the Minions, and the movie follows Illumination’s trend of being just entertaining enough to be adequate. It may provide some fun when watching it, but it leaves no lasting impression.

To many audiences, Minions: The Rise of Gru may be as bland as a potato. But for the young tykes who can’t get enough of the Minions, they may just go bananas.

5

Lightyear Review

With all due respect to Woody, I think it’s safe to say that Buzz Lightyear is the fan favorite Toy Story character. With his myriad of gadgets, lasers, the ability to fly (or fall with style), and combat skills with which he saves the galaxy, it’s absolutely no mystery why Buzz usurped Woody as Andy’s favorite toy. It really was only a matter of time before Buzz Lightyear got his own movie. After twenty-seven years since Toy Story first hit theaters, Pixar has finally given Buzz such a movie in the form of Lightyear, a sci-fi adventure that serves as the in-universe movie that inspired the toy.

It’s a very fun and creative idea for Pixar to make the Buzz Lightyear movie that made Andy from Toy Story such a fan in the first place. Although it has to be mentioned that the idea technically already happened with the Disney animated series Buzz Lightyear of Star Command in the early 2000s. But now the origin story can be told by Pixar themselves. And as the Disney+ series Monsters at Work proved, Pixar’s creations are best left in Pixar’s hands. Being Pixar’s own take on the in-universe Buzz Lightyear concept, Lightyear is the definitive origin story for the iconic Space Ranger.

Definitive though it may be, Lightyear – while ultimately a solid and entertaining science fiction film – may not be the kind of science fiction adventure you would expect from its namesake character.

The story begins with Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and the Space Rangers of Star Command – lead by Commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) – investigating an alien planet. They find that the planet provides the air and resources to make it habitable, but its monstrous creatures and plant life prove too dangerous, and Star Command issues an emergency retreat from the planet. Buzz takes control of Star Command’s ship, but a miscalculation during the escape leads to the Space Rangers being marooned on the planet.

Star Command makes the best of the situation and builds a colony on the planet over the next year. Buzz – taking responsibility for the current situation – volunteers to be the test pilot to see if he can make hyperspace, as Star Command’s primary ship won’t be able to leave the planet without it. Buzz doesn’t quite reach hyperspace, but finds that when he returns from his four minute flight that four years have passed on the planet’s surface.

Though Hawthorne objects to Buzz making any more flights, the Space Ranger is too determined to call it quits. With his robotic cat Sox (Peter Sohn) testing new formulas for fuel (using the method of “Crystallic Fusion” mentioned in Toy Story), Buzz continues flight after flight after flight, with roughly four years passing by with each unsuccessful test.

While Buzz has barely aged a day, his test flights have added up to him being gone a total of sixty-two years. During that time, Commander Hawthorne has passed away. Feeling he let his best friend down, Buzz is now more determined than ever, and with Sox perfecting his formula for hyperspace fuel over the past sixty-two years, Buzz finally makes a successful jump to hyperspeed. But in doing so, an additional twenty-two years have passed. In that time, the Star Command colony has been occupied by the robotic forces of a being known as “Zurg.”

Thankfully, a small band of ragtag, would-be Space Rangers have slipped away from Zurg’s occupation. This includes Hawthorne’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer), who hopes to live up to her grandmother’s legacy; Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi), a good-hearted but clumsy oaf; and Darby Steel (Dale Soules), an elderly convict trying to work off her sentence. Though this team may not seem cut out to be Space Rangers, Buzz will have to rely on them – as well as Sox – if they are to bring down Zurg’s robots and deliver the hyperspace fuel to Star Command.

I don’t want to say too much else as to avoid any major spoilers. But I have to admit that the setup to the plot as described above actually takes up a fair bit of the film’s runtime. And I imagine that may not exactly be to everyone’s liking. The whole ordeal of Buzz’s test flights provides some interesting storytelling, and is reminiscent of the recent Top Gun Maverick, with a little bit of Intersteller worked in there for good measure. It’s entertaining in its own way, but it’s probably a far cry from what you would expect from the Buzz Lightyear movie that supposedly inspired an eight-year-old’s obsession with the character.

That may be the biggest issue with Lightyear, although it’s ultimately a good movie, it seems to be the wrong kind of science-fiction story. Some might say that’s my own expectations getting in the way. But given all the information the Toy Story movies gave us on the Buzz Lightyear character and his world, I’d say Toy Story itself had those expectations. Given all the dialogue and bits of insight the Toy Story series gave us on Buzz Lightyear’s in-universe character, I think most people would probably expect a fantasy-adventure set in space, akin to Star Wars. So the more grounded science-fiction approach of Lightyear comes off as a bit jarring, even disappointing.

Yes, I understand that this movie and its characters are supposed to be separate from their Toy Story equivalents, but as is the case with many adaptations, you still expect a level of faithfulness to the source material. And bizarrely, Pixar’s own adaptation of a character they created feels strangely unfaithful to the world we’ve been teased with for nearly thirty years.

Buzz Lightyear the toy thought himself to be the actual character he was based on, and believed his undying heroism could do no wrong. So it’s kind of weird to see the “actual character” of Buzz Lightyear be depicted as he is here; making continuous shortsighted mistakes, rarely trusting others, being haunted by the past… It’s a more human Buzz Lightyear, but he seems far removed from the person that the toy Buzz Lightyear believed himself to be.

Without spoiling too much, there’s also a twist involving the villainous Zurg that I really think will prove divisive to longtime Toy Story fans. Sure, it’s a twist that makes thematic sense with the movie at hand, but it all goes back to the movie’s deviation of what Toy Story told us about these characters. It feels like a twist that belongs in a different movie, because the story itself often feels like it belongs in a separate movie. Though I didn’t predict the twist itself, I did predict that there was going to be a twist with Zurg quite a while ago, because there’s always a twist with villains these days. While I usually prefer deeper, more complex villains, I can’t help but feel Evil Emperor Zurg could have just been Evil Emperor Zurg and nobody would have had a problem with it. But evil emperors can’t just be evil emperors anymore, it seems.

That kind of sums up the issues Lightyear runs into. It wants to be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story, but simultaneously feels like it has its own sci-fi story it wants to tell that doesn’t really feel like it should be Buzz Lightyear’s origin story. Pixar is renowned for the maturity they impart in their animated features, but I feel like Lightyear should have been the one time Pixar went into full Saturday Morning Cartoon mode (albeit with the trademark Pixar heart at its core). Lightyear oddly feels like a more serious, grownup sci-fi movie that just happens to star Buzz Lightyear.

If you can get passed the misplaced tone of the film, Lightyear does have a lot to offer. As you would expect from Pixar, the animation quality is top-notch. While I would argue the film needed some more lively color, it still is interesting to see Pixar tackle a more conventional sci-fi aesthetic. The bulky armors, hefty machinery and insectoid aliens all evoke a loving tribute to classic science fiction, all brought to life with the studio’s impeccable attention to detail.

The film is also excellently cast. While Tim Allen is perfect for the often-delusional Buzz Lightyear toy, Chris Evans seems to be the perfect fit for the heroic “real” Buzz Lightyear. Evans somehow manages to capture the same bravado of Tim Allen’s Buzz, but in a younger, more serious way. The supporting characters are also well cast, with particular praise going to Pixar animator Peter Sohn as Sox, who gives the robotic cat a similar “innocent robot” appeal to Baymax from Big Hero 6 or Ron from Ron’s Gone Wrong.

Another fun highlight of Lightyear is the film’s references to Toy Story, with Buzz quoting his toy-self on a number of occasions, and other little callbacks sprinkled throughout. The film is never overburdened with the references, but it’s an appreciated way to keep the DNA of the Toy Story series intact.

Lightyear is ultimately an entertaining and thoughtful science fiction movie, but I don’t think it ranks among Pixar’s best largely because it seems to be emulating the wrong kinds of science-fiction stories, given the legacy of its titular character. It may not be the Buzz Lightyear movie we expected, but Lightyear proves to be another solid entry in the Pixar canon, even if it doesn’t soar to infinity and beyond.

6

Jurassic World Dominion Review

1993’s Jurassic Park remains one of the most revolutionary and innovative films ever made. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel pioneered visual effects in a way that continues to influence movies today, and it remains a captivating combination of adventure and horror to this day. It’s no surprise that it spawned an entire franchise.

A second Crichton novel was adapted into The Lost World: Jurassic Park, before the series ventured off on its own starting with Jurassic Park 3 and, after lying dormant for fourteen years, was revived with Jurassic World. Though Jurassic World couldn’t match the impact of the original, it did bring out the best entertainment in the series since the 1993 classic, and kickstarted a trilogy of its own.

Jurassic World Dominion is the final film in the Jurassic World trilogy, and seems to be aiming to wrap up the franchise as a whole (though much like the dinosaurs in the films, don’t be surprised if it’s eventually dug back up later). On the plus side, Dominion is a fun ride, and a marked improvement over its immediate predecessor, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. On the downside, Dominion doesn’t really seem to have any new tricks to help reinvigorate the series, and it even squanders some of the set-up of the previous Jurassic World films.

Dominion is set four years after Fallen Kingdom, whose ending saw a number of dinosaurs released into the wild. In those four years, the dinosaurs have repopulated the Earth (I don’t know how exactly, there were only so many that were released at the end of Fallen Kingdom, and even if I can suspend my disbelief that the flying pterosaurs bothered to fly across the world, it wouldn’t explain how the land dinosaurs have spread so far. Whatever). Humans now coexist with dinosaurs all across the globe, which I admit is a fun direction to take this series. Director Colin Trevorrow said he wanted to depict a world where seeing a dinosaur would be akin to a bear encounter. You probably won’t experience it, but it’s a possibility. Again, it’s a fun idea. Which makes it a shame that Jurassic World Dominion doesn’t fully commit to it.

Instead, the film quickly reveals that an extinct form of locust has also appeared, and are devouring crops at an unparalleled rate, threatening the food chain and life on Earth. These locusts eat all crops except those produced by the Biosyn corporation. Paleobotanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) suspect Biosyn has bioengineered the locusts to control the world’s food supply. So she recruits her former colleague and love interest, paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), to help her uncover the conspiracy. Their friend and fellow Jurassic Park survivor Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) is working for Biosyn, and can help get his friends into Biosyn’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, the Jurassic World mainstays, Owen Grady (Super Mario himself, Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are once again a couple, and are the adoptive parents of Maisie Lockwood (Isabella Sermon), who is a cloned human wanted by Biosyn for research. Maisie – along with a baby raptor – is eventually kidnapped by goons hired by Biosyn (for an evil corporation, they really don’t do a good job at hiding their shady dealings). Owen and Claire then set out to rescue Maisie, with the help of a pilot named Kayla Watts (DeWanda Wise). Naturally, this means that the Jurassic World and Jurassic Park characters inevitably cross paths in order to bring down Biosyn and it’s corrupt CEO, Lewis Dodgson (Campbell Scott). Yes, Dodgson. As in “Dodgson! Dodgson! We’ve got Dodgson here!” Man, I wish Wayne Knight could still be in these movies.

The film’s strengths lie in two areas: the first and most obvious being the dinosaurs themselves, which are once again brought to life with both CG and practical effects (reportedly, Dominion features more animatronic dinosaurs than ever before). The film’s second strength is the interactions between the characters of the Jurassic World trilogy and the stalwarts from the original Jurassic Park. This makes it unfortunate that the film really takes its sweet time for the new and classic casts to get together. But once they do, there’s fun to be had between the different generations of Jurassic Park casts. And even before they all meet up, there is a nostalgic glee in seeing the original Jurassic Park trio together for the first time since the original movie (many Star Wars fans critique the sequel trilogy for never having a reunion with Han, Luke and Leia, so thankfully Jurassic Park has avoided that pitfall).

Going back to the dinosaurs, Dominion has a lot of fun showing us dinosaurs that have thus far gone unrepresented in the series, most notably the giganotosaurus (which the film repeatedly reminds us is the “biggest land carnivore that ever lived”). Of course, series favorites like the tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptors also show up. Although no Jurassic sequel could hope to capture the same degree of majesty, thrills and horror with its creatures as the 1993 film, Dominion does a pretty good job at it and still brings its dinosaurs to captivating life with state-of-the-art visuals.

Had the film stuck with the idea of dinosaur encounters being an everyday possibility, and brought the characters together through means other than the locust conspiracy, Dominion would probably have been a much stronger, more imaginative movie. I can’t deny that I had a lot of fun while watching Jurassic World Dominion, but the addition of the locust plot feels forced onto the proceedings, and Maisie’s role in how it can be resolved feels contrived, like a means to justify why the character needed to be a clone. With that plot tacked on, the movie feels like it’s going through the motions for the series.

Not only does that plot detract from the dinosaurs (!?) and the set-up from the end of Fallen Kingdom, but it also seems to undo what the first Jurassic World set in motion. To clarify, Jurassic World brought back the character of Dr. Henry Wu (B.D. Wong), Jurassic Park’s primary geneticist. Interestingly, despite only appearing in a single scene in Jurassic Park, Jurassic World reintroduced Wu as the new trilogy’s overarching antagonist, as he was secretly working to weaponize the dinosaurs he created. It was a nice twist that plucked a character from obscurity and made him the villain. But fast-forward to Dominion, and Dr. Wu is now an apathetic sad sack who helped Dodgson create the locusts, and is now remorseful for his actions. It’s a redemption arc that has seemingly come out of nowhere. So did he just give up on the idea of weaponized dinosaurs? Or did the filmmakers forget about that storyline? Retconning Wu to be the ultimate villain of the series was one of my favorite aspects of Jurassic World, so it’s a shame to see that element basically be dropped unceremoniously. And it makes for a less cohesive trilogy to just change course with something like that.

While no follow-up was ever going to top the impact of the 1993 original Jurassic Park, it is unfortunate that the first Jurassic World was the only sequel that felt like a worthy successor. And it seems the Jurassic World trilogy has followed the same pattern as the original Jurassic Park trilogy of starting with a good movie, followed up by a bad movie, and ending with a so-so movie.

I have to reiterate that I did have a lot of fun while watching Jurassic Park Dominion. Having the original cast back and seeing them team up with the newer characters is the good kind of nostalgic fanservice, and the dinosaurs still bring the suspense and scares. But whereas Jurassic World was fun just thinking about it after the credits rolled, I feel like whatever fun Dominion has ends as soon as the credits begin (to say nothing of whenever the locust plot takes center stage). It’s a more fleeting fun, but fun nonetheless.

6

The Bob’s Burgers Movie Review

When Bob’s Burgers debuted on Fox in 2011, it was the latest in a long line of animated series that the network greenlit in hopes of finding another success that could be a mainstay for their animation block, alongside The Simpsons and *groan* Family Guy. While Bob’s Burgers initially had middling ratings and a lukewarm reception, it eventually grew into the critically acclaimed stalwart of Fox’s animation block, with many considering it the spiritual successor to King of the Hill. Like King of the Hill, Bob’s Burgers focuses on dry, character-based humor, as opposed to the increasing gimmicks of The Simpsons (which has long-since lost its luster) or the desperate shocks and humorless cutaways of Family Guy (which never had luster). The series has now been on the air for over eleven years and 200 episodes, more than earning the right to have its own feature film. After numerous delays, The Bob’s Burgers Movie is finally a reality, with the finished product being joyous fun, even if it feels more like an extended episode than a proper movie.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie sees the big screen debut of the Belcher family: father and restaurateur Bob (H. Jon Benjamin), his wife Linda (John Roberts), and their kids; awkward 13-year-old Tina (Dan Mintz), goofy 11-year-old Gene (Eugene Mirman), and spunky 9-year-old Louise (Kristen Schaal), who is always wearing her bunny eared cap. Joining them is dimwitted but goodhearted handyman (and regular customer) Teddy (Larry Murphy).

The story here is that Bob and Linda are turned down for a business loan and have only one week to make the month’s payment or face repossession of their restaurant equipment. Already a tough task, things are made more complicated when a sinkhole appears at the front of their restaurant, blocking access to customers. The city plans on filling in the sinkhole as soon as possible, until the skeleton of a missing carnival worker named Cotton Candy Dan is found in the hole, and it becomes a crime scene. Given the unique circumstances, Linda asks their eccentric landlord Calvin Fischoeder (Kevin Kline) and his brother Felix (Zack Galifianakis) if the Belchers can delay their month’s rent in order to make their loan payment. Calvin’s response is a resounding “maybe.”

Things get yet even more complicated when Calvin Fischoeder becomes the prime suspect in the murder of Cotton Candy Dan and is arrested. Desperate to save their business, Bob and Linda sell their burgers from a makeshift cart created by Teddy, despite not having a license to do so. Meanwhile, the Belcher kids try to clear Fischoeder’s name, so that he can help the family out by waving the month’s rent.

The plot is good, simple fun. But aside from the presence of a murder, it does feel like the same kind of plot you would see in an episode of the series. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given the quality of Bob’s Burgers, but you can’t help but wish the film would have aimed a bit higher. The Simpson’s Movie (which is somehow fifteen years old) almost went out of its way to have a bigger scope and scale in story than its series, to justify its movie-ness. I can’t help but feel that Bob’s Burgers missed the opportunity to do the same. Though to be fair, I’d rather have a good extended episode than a disappointing movie. And between the Bob’s Burgers and Simpsons movies, Bob’s Burgers is the one that falls into the former category.

A few elements are present that make The Bob’s Burgers Movie feel more cinematic. The most immediate being the animation itself, which is more fluid and detailed than ever. The characters look more three-dimensional than in the series, with a heavier focus on lighting and shading throughout. This higher quality animation even adds to the film’s humor. The characters of Bob’s Burgers always looked like something of a cross between classic Simpsons and the Muppets, and to see such goofy and endearing characters move with the fluidity of an animated feature is in itself funny.

The “movie quality” is really brought out during the film’s musical numbers, which are much bigger than they are in the series. The songs themselves are also surprisingly good (the opening number “Sunnyside Up Summer” deserves mention for Best Original Song awards come next award season, for its infectious melody and lighthearted humor). These songs are so catchy, in fact, that you can’t help but wish there were more of them. I feel like it may have been another missed opportunity by not making The Bob’s Burgers Movie a full-fledged musical.

Still, it’s easy to recommend The Bob’s Burgers Movie to fans, and it may even convert audiences who haven’t seen the series (despite the film’s many callbacks to past episodes, it still serves as a perfectly accessible entry point for first time viewers). The movie has the same irreverent yet wholesome humor of the show, and it gives its characters some good development (particularly Louise, who seems to be the de facto main character of the film, as she tries to prove herself capable of growing up). The voice work is as funny and quirky as ever, and the film on the whole is a lot of fun.

The Bob’s Burgers Movie maybe could have been a little more “movie.” But a little more Bob’s Burgers is always a good thing.

7

My Second Trip to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

“Yeah, I’m awkward when it comes to pictures. And also when it doesn’t come to pictures.”

I made my second trip to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on May 22nd, so it’s been a week ago now, but I still wanted to write about it. So sue me.

Unlike my first trip to the Academy Museum, where I tried to see as much as possible, this time I simply spent the day visiting the Hayao Miyazaki exhibit, since that’s sadly going to be leaving the museum in June. Goodness gracious, what a magical exhibit! Filled with so much artwork, sketches, character designs, even sculpted recreations of locations from Miyazaki’s films (the model of the house from My Neighbor Totoro even hides some Soot Sprites to find). They even have a little mock patch of grass that you can lay on to look up at some clouds (as characters in Miyazaki films often do)!

I’m really going to miss this exhibit when it goes. I mean I’m REALLY going to miss it. Like, the idea of going to the Academy Museum and that exhibit no longer being there makes me genuinely sad. Sure, there will still be other interesting exhibits. But sadly, the ‘magic’ will no longer be there.

I’ve often said Hayao Miyazaki is my favorite filmmaker, and that his films are my favorites. But really, that doesn’t even begin to do justice to what his films have meant to me. Now, I say this with all due respect to the many great filmmakers throughout history, but for me, none of them can even begin to compare to Miyazaki. I have a friend who claims that the original Star Wars (that is to say Episode IV – A New Hope) transcends all of their favorite films and is in a category all its own as a perfect film. And I guess for me, that’s what Miyazaki’s films are like (it’s also why I’m not satisfied with any of the reviews I’ve written for them and have thought about rewriting them in a way that differs from all my other reviews). Sure, not all of Miyazaki’s films are equals (though Howl’s Moving Castle is the only one that’s notably ‘weaker’ than the others), but his style, tone, voice and artistry are simply beyond anything else in movies. They really are magical.

In short, I’m really going to miss the Miyazaki exhibit, and so my entire second trip was spent revisiting it. I even went back into the exhibit around closing and had it practically to myself for a while. That was pretty darn cool.

Once again, they didn’t allow pictures within the exhibit itself (and boy, was it difficult to resist the urge to photograph everything). But I got some pictures of the outside of the exhibit again. This time with me in them!

What a magical experience it was to see this Hayao Miyazaki exhibit. Finally, a place here in the US for Studio Ghibli fans to appreciate (and maybe geek out) about the world’s greatest animation studio. From entering a woodland tunnel greeted by “The Path of the Wind” from My Neighbor Totoro, to seeing the Kodama from Princess Mononoke appear on the walls, to finally exiting via the tunnel from Spirited Away (complete with Stone Spirit guardian), I absorbed every last drop of that exhibit. The fact that I actually got to see original artwork and concept sketches from Miyazaki’s films firsthand… that’s something that will stick with me forever.

It’s going to be really sad to see the Miyazaki exhibit leave (though I don’t know why the museum can’t at least keep the merchandise in the gift shop), though I can’t blame Studio Ghibli if they want their stuff back in their native Japan. But what a delight it’s been to be able to experience it.

Also, a big shout out to the little girl waiting in line for the exhibit who freaked out with enthusiasm at the sight of Totoro and Ponyo. What a cool kid! Warms my heart to know that kids these days have that kind of adoration for Miyazaki’s films.

Thanks for the Miyazaki memories, Academy Museum! It was a magical experience.

“Me and my main man, Porco Rosso.”

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022) Review

*Review contains minor spoilers*

When Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released in 1988, it was a defining moment in animation history. Not only did the film meld live-action and animated characters so seamlessly it still hasn’t been matched since, but it also created renewed interest in animation itself. This renewed interest led to Disney’s ‘Renaissance’ era, in addition to inspiring other studios to throw their hat in the animation ring. Roger Rabbit’s meshing together of beloved animated characters has also had a reverberating effect, with films such as Wreck-It Ralph, its sequel and Space Jam: A New Legacy all trying something similar in more recent years. This influence even found its way into weekday and Saturday morning cartoons (remember those?), with Disney in particular creating a slew of animated programs in the late 80s and early 90s that repurposed their animated characters from yesteryear.

Goof Troop reimagined Goofy as a single father and Peg-Leg Pete as his nosey neighbor. TaleSpin featured characters from The Jungle Book in a period piece setting and focused on aviation. DuckTales – the most famous of the lot – saw Scrooge McDuck and his nephews on Indiana Jones-like adventures, much like Scrooge’s old comic books. And Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers saw the titular Chipmunks as detectives who, along with some new friends, would solve cases that were “too small” for the police to handle.

In this day and age where nostalgia (particularly for the 80s and 90s) has a strong influence on pop culture, it makes sense that we’re seeing these shows get resurrected in one way or another. DuckTales saw a successful reboot series that ran from 2017 to 2021, and now Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers has been given its own feature film on Disney+. Though it’s probably not the Rescue Rangers movie you would expect.

Rather than go for a straight feature film adaptation, this 2022 Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a satirical, meta live-action and animated hybrid movie that features many beloved characters from animation history… kind of like Roger Rabbit. So we’ve basically come full circle. The results are mostly enjoyable, even if the film ultimately can’t compete with the film that inspired it (or should I say ‘the film that inspired the show that inspired it?’).

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers chronicles how Disney’s chipmunk duo first met in early 80s (strangely ignoring the characters’ history in Disney shorts decades before then). Chip (John Mulaney) and Dale (Andy Samberg) became close friends and struggled in Hollywood until getting their big break with the aforementioned series. With Rescue Rangers a big success, Chip and Dale were finally living their dream. But Dale, tired of being looked at as the goofy sidekick, tried to branch out and get a show of his own, a Bond spoof called Double-O-Dale. But Dale’s conflicting roles lead to the cancellation of Rescue Rangers, and Double-O-Dale wasn’t even picked up as a series. The Rescue Rangers cancellation caused a riff between the chipmunks, with Chip leaving Hollywood behind to sell insurance. Dale, meanwhile, continues to milk his former glory, making appearances at fan conventions. He even went so far as to get “CGI surgery” in order to stay relevant in the changing world of animation.

Fast-forward to the present, and both Chip and Dale get separate calls from their former Rescue Rangers costar, Monterey Jack (Eric Bana). Monty needs Chip and Dale’s help, as his cheese addiction has landed him in hot water with a crime boss named ‘Sweet Pete.’ If Monty can’t pay back his debt, Pete will have Monty ‘bootlegged’ (a process that alters a character to avoid copyright laws, so they can be shipped overseas and make bootlegged versions of Hollywood movies). Chip and Dale promise to pay Monty’s debt, only for Monty to end up kidnapped that same night. The police, led by the claymation Captain Putty (J.K. Simmons), are looking into it, but have their hands tied with a series of other toon disappearances. So Chip and Dale begrudgingly set aside their differences to start an investigation of their own to find their missing friend with the help of human officer Ellie Steckler (KiKi Layne). All the while, Dale hopes the team-up leads to an eventual Rescue Rangers reboot.

The setup is a lot of fun. Using a real show from yesteryear as the backdrop for a Roger Rabbit-style comedy is a really entertaining idea. And the movie is clearly having a ball with all the characters, cameos and references it can cram in. One benefit this film has is that animation has changed a lot since Roger Rabbit hit theaters, so there’s a lot more types of humor and visual styles they can squeeze in.

Not only do we have toons interacting with humans, but the toons themselves (whether existing characters or ones made up for the film) come in a range of styles, from anime to stop-motion to Michael Bay’s Transformers to the 80s incarnation of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Sweet Pete’s gang even consists of “uncanny valley” CG characters like Bob the Viking Dwarf (Seth Rogen), who is based on the Polar Express/Beowulf era of motion-capture (complete with dead eyes and lifeless movements), and a polar bear based on the old Coca-Cola commercials. Perhaps best of all is that one of the minor characters in the film is none other than ‘Ugly Sonic‘ (Tim Robinson). That is to say, the original character design for Sonic the Hedgehog for the 2020 film that haunted that initial trailer, before internet backlash delayed the film for the redesign of the character. Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is full of visual surprises and variety that helps keep the film’s concept fresh throughout.

With that said, there is a bit of an asterisk to all this, since most of the characters are done with CG, even when they’re supposed to be traditionally animated or stop-motion characters. The most glaring examples being Chip, Monty and fellow Rescue Rangers characters Gadget (Tress MacNeille) and Zipper (Dennis Haysbert), who are obviously created with a cel-shaded CG meant to mimic the look of traditional animation. This not only feels like a shortcut was taken, but it also kind of deflates the whole joke that Dale had cosmetic surgery to become a CG character when the supposedly hand-drawn characters around him are also CG.

That’s not to say anything against CG, of course. All forms of animation can create things of beauty and wonder. But given the premise of the movie, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity that it didn’t go all out and capture the different characters with their appropriate medium (there are a few delightful exceptions, such as a quick cameo from Roger Rabbit himself. Because of course he’s in this movie).

While Rescue Rangers is often very funny – sometimes outright hilarious – it does admittedly have a few jokes that it doesn’t know when to let them go. Most notably are the constant remarks about reboots, which after a while may become as insistent as the reboots they’re commenting on. The humor can even feel a little bit smarmy at times, which is a trap the more earnest Who Framed Roger Rabbit never once fell into.

Something else I have mixed feelings about is the film’s villain, Sweet Pete. I guess this is something of a spoiler (though the trailers already blatantly revealed it, and the reveal happens somewhat early in the film), but Sweet Pete is revealed to be a fat, balding, middle-aged Peter Pan (Will Arnett). On one hand, the idea of a middle-aged Peter Pan and Arnett’s voice work are funny. But on the other hand, the idea of “evil Peter Pan” is becoming almost as cliche as the evil Superman trope. Plus, Sweet Pete’s motive is that he became bitter once he got older and Hollywood forgot him, which seems kind of weird since the Disney version of Peter Pan is still a decently popular character who shows up here and there (this origin story is made even weirder with how Peter Pan is inexplicably the only toon in the movie who has aged). It seems like Disney could have used a more genuinely forgotten character to go with the backstory, like McLeach from the Rescuers Down Under, or Gurgi from The Black Cauldron. But now I’m overthinking things.

None of these complaints are dealbreakers, however. Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is a fun and funny movie that should be doubly entertaining for fans of animation and the people who grew up during the time when shows like the original DuckTales and Rescue Rangers were still airing. It’s a film filled with visual delights and fun callbacks and references for fans. The smart-alecky attitude of the film holds back some of the humor, and no, it’s certainly no Roger Rabbit. But Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers is certainly one of the better Roger Rabbit imitators. And it may be the only time we ever get to see Ugly Sonic in a movie.

7

Happy Star Wars Day 2022 + The Avengers Turns 10!

Happy Star Wars Day, everyone! May the Fourth be with you and all that!

Yes, today (May 4th) is the fan holiday in which we celebrate all things Star Wars. The good, the bad, and the Jar-Jar.

Star Wars has seen a lot of ups and downs over the years, but its place in pop culture history has long-since been solidified. It’s the movie world’s most indelible mythology, and has won over our hearts so strongly that it endures even passed its most egregious mistakes (“Somehow Palpatine returned…“).

Happy Star Wars Day you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herders! May the Fourth be with you!

“The ultimate counterargument to people who say the prequels had the best fights. Ugh.”

Today also marks the ten-year anniversary of the release of Marvel’s The Avengers! Yes, much like Palpatine’s return, somehow it’s been a full decade since The Avengers was released. Man, I feel old…

Back in 2012, there had been no big superhero crossover movies. Marvel had been slowly building up to it since 2008, when Iron Man kicked off the MCU. We all take it for granted now (and perhaps even Marvel itself does), but in 2012, seeing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and the B-Team of Black Widow and Hawkeye come together for the first time was magical.

One could even argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe peaked with the first Avengers film. The “Battle for New York” is still probably the best battle sequence in the entire mega-franchise. While later Avengers movies would tread darker, more serious territory, 2012’s The Avengers was a pure fun delight that remains as entertaining now as it was ten years ago, long after the initial hype has died off (something not a lot of MCU films can boast).

I remember, on this day ten years ago, I actually saw The Avengers twice! I saw it at one theater with one group, and then immediately went to another theater and saw it with a different group. I can’t say I’ve done that with a whole lot of movies.

“Back when Loki was interesting. Man, this movie really is old!”

The Avengers also proved to be one of the most influential films of recent memory, with every studio under the sun trying to construct their own “Cinematic Universes” in an attempt to replicate what Marvel accomplished with The Avengers (though only Legendary’s Godzilla and Kong-fueled “MonsterVerse” has somewhat succeeded). It’s the kind of influence I’m sure James Cameron wished Avatar had.

The MCU has gone a lot of places in the past ten years, with bigger crossovers and larger storylines. But some of that “pure fun” of The Avengers has been lost along the way. Sure, the MCU films are still mostly good (Eternals was a glaring exception. And Loki was kind of a “jump the shark” moment for me). But as the MCU has grown bigger it’s also become a bit too in love with itself, and at times cynical (again, Loki basically said every MCU event before itself was meaningless. Way to pay off fan investment). And the standalone stories are kind of giving way to everything being about the overarching plot, as if Thanos never left.

But in 2012, it was just six super heroes banding together, in a movie that had all the unadulterated enthusiasm as a kid playing with their action figures. And it was good.

Happy tenth anniversary, Avengers! And one more time, May the Fourth be with you!

My Month in Movies: April 2022

I guess I have another “My Month in Movies” left in the tank. Despite my saying these things aren’t going to be monthly, I’ve ended up doing them almost every month since I started doing them last October (for movies I watched in September). The only exception was February. Seeing as Uncharted was the only movie I watched during that whole month, I guess it makes sense I skipped it.

Still, I don’t expect to continue to make these kinds of posts regularly (I say that now). I still have movies and games from last year I’ve been meaning to review but still haven’t. I should really get to those soon. But, this month had a bit of a theme going, so I figured I’d make another My Month in Movies for the occasion.

That theme was video game movies! Although I watched a few films outside of the category, I watched six video game movies in April, and I couldn’t resist writing about them.

In total, I watched nine movies in April of 2022. Again, movies marked with an asterisk are ones I watched for the very first time.

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Sonic the Hedgehog 2*

The Last Blockbuster

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore*

Double Dragon

The Bad Guys*

Mortal Kombat (1995)

Street Fighter

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

So again, you could say video game movies were the name of the… game! Ho ho! It’s just unfortunate that I didn’t get around to watching Mortal Kombat Annihilation or the 2021 Mortal Kombat reboot as I originally planned. Maybe I’ll do another video game movie-themed post in the near future as an excuse to watch them.

I know, I know, video game movies don’t exactly have the best reputation. But as I’ve stated in the past, the earlier entries in the sub-genre are like guilty pleasures. They tended to be dumb and goofy, but they were so bad they were entertaining. It was probably in the 2000s when video game movies became unspeakably bad. But, as I mentioned in my reviews for the Sonic movies and as I’ll soon mention here, video game movies have now found a way to be genuinely good.

My first movie this month was a re-watch of 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog, AKA the last big movie before the pandemic (seriously). I love this movie. It has its problems, but I kind of don’t really care. It’s a fun movie that pays respect to the video game series (something not a lot of video game movies have done), and it gives Jim Carrey an excuse to be the most manic he’s been since the 90s. And as Dr. Robotnik, one of my all-time favorite video game characters, no less!

Sure, the structure can be a little flimsy at times, and the movie really jumps through hoops to try to explain why Sonic needs help from his human friend Tom Wachowski (James Marsden). But again, if I’m watching a movie based on Sonic the Hedgehog and starring Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, I mostly care that the movie is fun. And 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog is just that, fun.

And let’s all be grateful that the filmmakers and studio decided to redesign Sonic after that horrifying first trailer. Otherwise the film wouldn’t have worked (can’t really make a kids’ movie based on a classic video game character if that character gave kids nightmares), and we probably wouldn’t have gotten its superior sequel without the change.

Also, something to note: in my original review for Sonic the Hedgehog, I mentioned the only piece of music from the games that made it into the film’s score were a few renditions of the iconic Green Hill Zone theme. But that’s inaccurate. There’s one other musical number lifted from the games, as the film begins with the opening theme from Sonic Mania! That’s a really nice touch!

My next movie was logically Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Boy, this film did not disappoint! It’s a bigger, better sequel, pays even more loving homage to the games, features Tails and Knuckles, and Jim Carrey looks like Robotnik this time around (minus the round belly. Though word is Jim Carrey has wanted to portray a game-accurate Robotnik since the first film. Maybe by the time Sonic 3 rolls around Jim Carrey will go full Eggman with a fat suit). Yes, it can get goofy at times, but that’s hardly an unforgivable sin.

The simple fact is that Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is some of the purest fun I’ve had in a movie in years. I think it’d be fun even if you didn’t know the games. But this is a movie that really cares about going the extra mile for the adults who grew up with Sonic the Hedgehog, and the kids who are growing up with Sonic the Hedgehog. Something like that is becoming pretty rare in this day and age.

Perhaps in retrospect my only real disappointment (besides the mid-credits tease) is that, unlike the first movie, I don’t think any of the music from the games made it into the film’s score. That’s doubly a bummer given how awesome that snippet of Emerald Hill Zone from the film’s teaser was.

Next up we take a break from video game movies and go into movie movies. Or movie documentaries. Or video rental documentaries. I’m talking about The Last Blockbuster, okay!

The Last Blockbuster was released in 2020, and chronicles how Blockbuster Video went from being a brand as big as McDonald’s to going broke and dwindling down to a single store (in Bend, Oregon). It’s a fun, nostalgic documentary that showcases some of the boneheaded business decisions Blockbuster made over the years (like not buying Netflix early on when they had the chance, and that illogical “no more late fees” thing). It really makes me miss the days of going to Blockbuster to rent a movie (or video game) every week. Hell, it makes me miss the days when I ordered movies in the mail from Netflix!

In the days before the internet, I discovered a number of games just by scrolling through Blockbuster shelves (I must have rented Brave Fencer Musashi at least a half dozen times before actually buying it). It’s kind of a shame we can’t have anything like that anymore. Damn internet.

The Last Blockbuster is definitely a fun watch, though I do wish it found a greater variety of film buffs to interview on the subject (a minute of Kevin Smith is too much Kevin Smith for me).

Going from Blockbuster and back into a movie theater, my next movie was Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. Boy, are the subtitles for this series goofy.

I’ve actually been meaning to review this one, so I won’t say too much here. In short, I think The Secrets of Dumbledore is an improvement over its predecessor The Crimes of Grindlewald (seriously, those titles!), but it still fails to capture the magic of the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore feels like a big dose of course correction after the bungling second installment, but hasn’t elevated Fantastic Beasts to where I think it could be. But maybe now that it’s been pointed in the right direction and with two installments to go, maybe it can find greatness before the end.

I then dipped my toes back into the video game movie pool with Double Dragon from 1994. It’s uhhh… It’s no Sonic the Hedgehog.

I didn’t put an asterisk next to Double Dragon at the beginning of this post because I have technically seen it once before. But this may as well have been the first time because the previous time I watched it was when it was in theaters, and I would have been five at the time, given the film’s late ’94 release. So this viewing was basically like watching Double Dragon for the first time, and is most likely the longest gap in between my first and second viewings of a movie (not that I, or anyone else, could keep track of such a statistic).

This is a bad movie. It has some ironic entertainment, but unlike the other video game movies I would watch later in the month, Double Dragon is more guilty than pleasure.

I admit, I don’t have the deepest history with the Double Dragon video games, but I seem to remember them taking place in essentially an 80s-style setting, filled with martial arts and street gangs of a Karate Kid fashion. I guess the movie has street gangs and an approximation of martial arts, but it also takes place in the “future” of 2007, where a massive earthquake has devastated Los Angeles, giving the film a kind of post-apocalyptic setting. Also the bad guy uses a machine to mutate the gang members working for him into grotesque monstrosities, with the character Abobo from the game being one such creature.

I admit I haven’t played all of the Double Dragon games, but were any of them like this?

Although Robert “The T-1000” Patrick has some fun as the villain, Double Dragon ultimately stumbles. It’s neither a good adaptation or a fun martial arts movie on its own.

Switching back to movie theaters, I saw Dreamworks Animation’s The Bad Guys. I already reviewed The Bad Guys, which was a lot of fun. Its story may not tread very original ground, but the animation is daring and creative. Definitely one to watch if you want something visually unique, or just a fun and humorous riff on gangster and heist movies.

For the final three movies of the month, we go back to the early days of video game adaptations. The first of these was Mortal Kombat from 1995.

Although video game movies have had a very rough history from the beginning, they had at least one gold nugget (okay, bronze) in their early years in the form of Mortal Kombat.

While Mortal Kombat may not be a technically great movie or anything, it was far ahead of other video game movies in that it gave fans want they came to see: this is very much a Mortal Kombat movie. And it’s fun.

All the characters from the original game make an appearance, and they fight. Like, a lot! Seriously, a good chunk of the middle act literally zips from one fight scene to the next. The fighting is cheesy and over-the-top, but in an entertaining way. Some fans lament that the violent “fatalities” weren’t present in the movie. But given how the series became too reliant on the violence later on, I feel like the movie’s relatively tame violence makes it stand out in the franchise. I also like how they decided to make Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning, the funny character of the film in addition to being the mentor.

The big complaint, of course, is how Mortal Kombat’s (incredibly abrupt) ending undoes the whole point of the movie. The whole premise is that the good guys have to win the Mortal Kombat tournament to prevent the emperor of Outworld from invading Earth. Spoiler alert (for a twenty-seven-year-old movie), the good guys win the tournament. But then the emperor comes through a portal to Earth in the last seconds of the film anyway. If you know the stories of the games, this does play into the sequel. But given that the emperor’s sudden appearance is unexplained in the movie, it comes across as a big middle finger to the plot. Yes, it’s eventually explained in Mortal Kombat Annihilation, but maybe the emperor’s emergence itself should have been saved for the sequel to give the first film a proper ending.

Mortal Kombat is a silly movie, but very much a Mortal Kombat movie. In a time when so many video game movies couldn’t even get that right, that was enough. And it’s still goofy fun.

“Unironically a magnificent final shot.”

Next up we have Street Fighter! Talk about a guilty pleasure! People use the term “so bad it’s good” a bit too liberally, but I think it’s a very apt description for the Street Fighter movie. It’s so bad, but so glorious.

Street Fighter is basically a cheesy military action movie combined with a cheesy martial arts movie, and it stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as Guile and the late Raul Julia as M. Bison.

The film has some notable deviations from the source material, such as Guile being the main character, while Ryu and Ken are bumbling comic relief. I don’t mind that too much, since they basically just swapped the generic guy wearing a gi as the main character in favor of the generic military character (personally, I always thought Chun-Li should have been the main character of the series since she stands out far more). There’s also the infamous change of Zangief being a bad guy (an idea that Wreck-It Ralph would unknowingly accept as fact), but he does go good by the end. But overall, it’s a decently faithful adaptation of Street Fighter II. Certainly a better adaptation than the anime movie, and more entertaining too.

Of course, you can’t talk about the Street Fighter movie without mentioning that it was one of Raul Julia’s last film roles. Sadly, Julia’s health had been in decline, and accepted the role of M. Bison because his kids were fans of Street Fighter and wanted to give them something to enjoy as one of his last roles (an incredibly classy act on his part). But his health rapidly declined after production began, which greatly affected the physical training for the actors (they often didn’t even get to practice for their fight scenes until right before they shot them), which probably explains why the fights are nothing special. Raul Julia would sadly pass away not long after the movie was complete, with the film dedicated to his memory.

Raul Julia really gave it his all though. He knew exactly what kind of movie he was in and made the absolute best of it, hamming M. Bisom up to high heaven and creating a gloriously cheesy villain.

The rest of the film is also cheesy fun, with Jean-Claude Van Damme being an ironic highlight (and Ming-Na Wen as Chun-Li being a more genuine one). Capcom themselves clearly thought the movie was entertaining, sneaking in sly references to the movie in some of their games (like Chun-Li being a news reporter in Mega Man 9). Hell, the film even gave Ken his last name, Masters.

Street Fighter was released in theaters less than two months after Double Dragon, so it must have been something like a palette cleanser to video game fans back in 1994. Today, if you want to indulge in some “so bad it’s good” fun, Street Fighter is one of the best options. As is my final movie of the month…

I ended the month with the video game movie that started it all, Super Mario Bros. from 1993. Like Street Fighter, I consider Super Mario Bros. to be one of my great guilty pleasures, and a movie that’s so bad it’s good. Although Street Fighter probably has more genuinely praise-worthy elements, I still put Super Mario Bros. in the same boat because it is such a weird, surreal movie that it really does have to be seen to be believed.

Again, the Super Mario Bros. movie is a bad movie, but it is fascinating to behold. You may honestly ask yourself “what the hell am I watching?” when viewing it.

The film’s first slip-up was, of course, the fact that it’s live-action. How anyone could look at the Super Mario Bros. games, and decide live-action made any kind of sense for the series, I will surely never know. It’s perhaps no surprise then, that the film’s second great mistake is that it has virtually nothing to do with the games other than some of the character names (the film uses the Super Mario Bros. theme music during the opening title in what may be the most cruel tease in cinema history).

Granted, I stand by my past claims that early video game movies have a pretty decent excuse for their less-than ideal quality in that the video games of the time were so different from movies that adapting them for the silver screen would be difficult. And Super Mario Bros. was the first theatrical video game movie adaptation (there was a straight-to-video Mario anime in Japan previously), so it’s understandable that sailing such uncharted waters would be a difficult task for the movie. Now, I’m not excusing the Super Mario Bros. movie of its faults, but at least given the circumstances of the time, they make sense.

Some people complain about casting the late, great British actor Bob Hoskins as Mario and the Colombian actor John Leguizamo as Luigi, since the Mario Brothers are, you know, Italian. But honestly, Mario is such a cartoony character that I hardly think it matters (I also don’t mind Chris Pratt voicing Mario in the upcoming animated film). I’m more offended by the fact that they didn’t give Luigi a mustache. Plus, I think both actors do a fine job despite the rest of the movie, with Bob Hoskins in particular doing a great job at portraying a more realistic take on Mario as a plumber from Brooklyn. Though the fact that the film focuses so intensely on Mario’s occupation – which is little more than a tidbit in the video games – is telling of how poorly the movie understood the material.

“Pictured: Bowser and some Goombas. No, seriously.”

Oh yeah, and the film’s version of Bowser is President Koopa, portrayed by Dennis Hopper. The Goombas are really tall guys with tiny lizard heads for some reason. The film also uses the name Daisy for the princess (Princess Daisy having only appeared in Super Mario Land at the time), I suppose because the name Peach (or Toadstool) wasn’t realistic enough in a movie as grounded in reality as this. By the way, did I mention that the premise of the film is that the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs actually created a parallel universe where the dinosaurs evolved into humanoid beings, and Koopa wants the missing piece of the meteorite to merge the dimensions? So that’s fine, but the name Princess Toadstool is going too far.

Perhaps the most hilarious changes from the games are the little things, like how the Mario Bros. wear special shoes to allow them to jump high (because that really needed an explanation) or how, instead of overalls, the brothers Mario wind up wearing jumpsuits with color patterns that approximate their famous attire. Like, why couldn’t they even get the overalls right?

Even if you can somehow ignore the absolute mishandling of the Mario franchise, this movie would still be a weird fever dream of cinema. And yet, I can’t look away…

Alright, I’ve rambled long enough. Let’s dish out the usual awards so I can move on to some proper reviews (and maybe watch Street Fighter again).

Best Movie I Watched All Month *And* Best Movie I Watched for the First Time This Month: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Go ahead and hate me, but I love these Sonic movies. The first one was a delightful surprise, being a legitimately good family movie that happens to star Sonic the Hedgehog. But the sequel is a full-fledged Sonic the Hedgehog movie, and the best video game movie yet made.

Obviously, Sonic 2 had a more difficult time winning over critics (but the reception was mostly positive). The fact the film is based on a video game probably had a lot of ‘professional’ critics making up their mind right off the bat, unfortunately. But for people who enjoy a little thing called “fun,” Sonic the Hedgehog 2 delivers that in droves.

Sonic 2 is terrific fun. Doubly so if you’re a fan of the source material (probably something else that turned most critics away. Can’t have fans being happy). It’s truer to the classic games than the Sonic games themselves have been in a very long time (with the exception of Sonic Mania). Who would have thought that the movie adaptations would be the best thing to happen to Sega’s flagship franchise in years?

Plus, it’s just nice to have this type of movie that has a tone, sense of humor and action scenes that don’t just ape the same stuff Marvel has been doing for a decade and a half (although the finale may come a bit close). And yes, I gave it a more glowing review than Spider-Man: No Way Home. I don’t regret that one bit.

Go ahead and hate me for praising this kids’ movie based on a video game. But it’s honest to goodness some of the most fun I’ve had with a movie in a long time.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Double Dragon

Whereas Sonic the Hedgehog 2 took video game movies to new heights, Double Dragon was something of an early low. It lacks the bungling insanity of Super Mario Bros. and doesn’t begin to compare to the glorious cheesiness of Street Fighter. So while those movies are the good kind of bad, Double Dragon isn’t so lucky.

I’ve seen worse movies (this is hardly even the worst movie to “win” in this category in the handful of months I’ve done these), and video game movies themselves would get much worse during the 2000s. But it’s safe to say that Double Dragon is pretty bad, and has less of the guilty pleasure factor of its contemporary video game movies.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Super Mario Bros. and/or Street Fighter

“This is actually a good movie poster.”

Super Mario Bros. is a hilarious disaster of a movie. As I said, being the first (Hollywood) movie to adapt a video game was already an uphill battle, but Super Mario Bros. also had a slew of other production problems besides that. It’s really no wonder it ended up a mess. The fact that it seemed to actively avoid any semblance of faithfulness to the games it was adapting only adds a slew of other issues.

And yet, the film is so bonkers I can’t help but get a kick out of it. There are so many bizarre details in this movie: Like when the cop in the dinosaur world is questioning the Mario brothers, there’s a woman rubbing her high heel on the cop’s shoulder the whole time. What the hell is that about? There’s also the running gag of Koopa waiting for a pizza he ordered, which ultimately has no payoff.

Some people try to claim that, if you removed the Super Mario name from the equation, that this wouldn’t be too bad of a movie. But I disagree. As a fan of the Super Mario series, I think the film’s utter ineptitude at capturing even the most basic elements of the games (again, the Mario brothers don’t even have overalls) gives the picture a kind of pitiable charm akin to The Room. It’s a bad movie, but you root for it nonetheless. Take away the “Mario” element and it’s simply a bad movie.

With that said, it is obvious why Nintendo was reluctant to let anyone make another movie based on their games for the longest time (though there was an Animal Crossing anime film in 2006 which has strangely never been released outside of Japan). Nintendo didn’t let Hollywood anywhere near their franchises until Detective Pikachu in 2019. And now we have a brand-new Super Mario Bros. movie finally on the way. Although the fact that it’s being made by Illumination has me skeptical (and I hate that Seth Rogen is Donkey Kong), I’m still excited for it. Here’s hoping it learns a thing or two from the Sonic movies (and that may be the only time Mario needs to learn anything from Sonic).

Finally, how can the Street Fighter movie not put a smile on someone’s face? It is the epitome of dumb fun.

The whole movie is one big, goofy ride. Littered with cheesy dialogue and cheesier action, not to mention Jean-Claude Van Damme struggling to deliver his lines. But it’s the efforts of Raul Julia that ascend Street Fighter to glorious ridiculousness.

Double Dragon may have been squeezed in the middle of them, but it really was fitting that Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter were among the earliest video game movies. It’s just appropriate that two games of such iconic stature would be adapted before any others. You can complain about their execution all you want, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way than have Mario and Street Fighter be the first video game movie adaptations.

These movies really are two sides of the same coin. Take that as you will.


That’s all folks!

I’ve rambled quite long enough (again). So let’s put this one in the books and call it a day. I don’t know if I’ll write another “My Month in Movies” soon. But I said that before and I’ve done a few since then, so I guess we’ll see. As always, I hope you had a fun read.

Take care!