The Dark Crystal Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmmmm! Hmm! HMMMM!”

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

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

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

 

5

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The Secret Life of Pets 2 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5

X-Men: Dark Phoenix Review

Before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, before there was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, before even Sam Raimi brought Spider-Man to the big screen, there was X-Men. When the first X-Men film was released in 2000, super hero movies weren’t nearly as commonplace as they are now. Sure, Superman and Batman had successful cinematic runs from time to time, but it was when X-Men hit theaters that the genre really started to pick up, with the aforementioned likes of Spider-Man, the Dark Knight Trilogy, and most prominently the MCU coming into existence in its wake. The super hero genre is now the movie genre, with this success being traced back to X-Men. But now, after almost twenty years, the X-Men film series – in its current state – comes to an end.

Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox means it’s only a matter of time before the X-Men get rebooted and integrated into the MCU in some capacity. But if recent claims by Marvel and Disney hold true, that won’t be any time soon. That’s probably for the best, however. After almost twenty years of X-Men movies of wildly varying quality, and multiple timelines that have made less sense with every installment, the franchise is a bit exhausted. And its final proper entry, Dark Phoenix – quite ironically given its title – feels burnt out. It has its moments of promise, and it’s certainly not the worst X-Men movie, but Dark Phoenix suffers from simply not being good enough. It fizzles out this decades-long movie franchise instead of giving it a satisfying conclusion, and isn’t strong enough to make you forget about what a bumpy road it’s been to get here.

The creative burnout of the franchise is perhaps most evident by the fact that Dark Phoenix is treading familiar territory. This is a film that adapts the famous Dark Phoenix story arc from the comics, in which psychic mutant  Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) gains insurmountable power from a cosmic force, which turns the once-friendly X-Woman into a deadly super being. This storyline was already adapted back in 2006 with X-Men: The Last Stand (the final installment of the original trilogy of films). The only real difference here is that it features the younger cast first established in X-Men: First Class (2011), who have somehow been featured in more films in the series than Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (who portrayed Charles Xavier and Magneto in the opening trilogy and Days of Future Past, and were perfectly cast in their roles, even if the films themselves were never worthy of those great casting choices). I can’t think of another instance of a movie franchise that adapted the same storyline twice without being properly rebooted first. So I guess that tells you where the X-Men movie franchise is at as it breaths its last.

Jean Grey is at the center of this story. The film begins with her as a young child in 1975, and how her psychic abilities inadvertently caused the car accident that killed her parents (while protecting herself from damage). She was then taken in by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), so that her abilities could be nurtured and grow into something positive. But Xavier, being a psychic himself, tampered with Jean’s more tragic memories, making her forget that she accidentally caused her parents’ deaths and that her father, fearing mutants, never loved her.

Fast-forward to 1992, Apocalypse has been defeated, the events of Days of Future Past happened…sometime, and human-mutant relations are at an all-time high. Charles Xavier (who looks exactly the same – sans the hair – even though he should look like Patrick Stewart in only eight-years time) now has a direct hotline to the White House, as the X-Men are now trusted with aiding the US government during times of crisis (is it just me, or does answering to the government because you were born with unique abilities actually sound like a bad thing?).

The film wastes no time in finding such a crisis, as a “solar flare” has critically damaged a space shuttle in orbit. As one would do in such a situation, the president calls a professor to send his students into space to fix the problem. Xavier chooses Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kofi Smit-McPhee), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and of course Jean Grey (who doesn’t get a cool nickname), to save the stranded astronauts from the doomed shuttle.

Using their different powers (Nightcrawler’s teleportation seems particularly handy), the X-Men manage to save the astronauts by bringing them aboard the X-Jet. But when rescuing the final astronaut, Jean gets stranded in the shuttle just as the solar flair breaks through. The flare rips apart the rocket, and travels inside of Jean’s body, saving her from certain death in the void of space. Nightcrawler manages to rescue Jean, and the X-Men return to Earth with the astronauts.

As you might expect, having a mysterious cosmic force bury itself in your body comes with a few side effects, and it isn’t long before Jean’s psychic abilities begin to amp up considerably, and she even gains newfound abilities like flight and energy projection. She also starts having severe mood swings, and begins remembering the events of her past that Charles Xavier once made her forget. With these repressed memories coming back to haunt her, in addition to gaining a power she can’t control, Jean is quickly becoming a dangerous force that threatens the X-Men themselves.

As it turns out, this “solar flare” wasn’t a solar flare at all, but the Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity of unimaginable power. Hot on the Phoenix Force’s tail are a race of shapeshifting aliens called the D’Bari, who infiltrate the Earth looking for a way to use Jean’s newfound power to help them turn Earth into their new home world.

The plot may be a bit closer to the original comics than The Last Stand was, but many of its elements still feel overly familiar, and those that are new here aren’t very compelling. The D’Bari are entirely forgettable villains, with their only named character, Vuk (Jessica Chastain), being a lackluster big bad trying to manipulate Jean Grey for her power.

Other elements simply feel rushed, such as how Magneto (Michael Fassbender) gets thrust into the proceedings, and his motivation for the rest of the film feels flimsy. So many scenes zoom on by, and though the action scenes can be fun, they feel strangely crammed together. The final  set piece personifies this, as I didn’t even realize it was the finale until it was almost done. It provides some fun action and visuals, but it never feels like the climactic battle it should be.

It all goes back to the film simply being “not good enough.” The majority of the cast is comprised of good actors, but aside from McAvoy and Turner, most of them come across as disinterested. The film even includes a notable character death in the first act (which the trailers infamously spoiled), but instead of feeling like a well-earned emotional moment, it comes across more that the actor in question just wanted out of their contract.

Another problem I’ve had with these X-Men films is how the makeup effects haven’t evolved since the first movie was released nearly two decades ago. The actors may have changed with First Class, but the effects used to bring the more fantastic-looking mutants (read: the blue ones) to life look outdated. The makeup for Beast remains as it was in the 2006 film, while Mystique’s hasn’t been altered since 2000. Some might say the filmmakers are aiming for continuity between the films, but seeing as the X-Men movies have retconned, reset and flat-out ignored so many established character and story elements in the past, clearly continuity isn’t at the forefront for this franchise. Save the continuity for the storytelling, people. If the makeup effects look outdated, change them up a bit.

I’m sounding incredibly negative towards the film, but I admit it’s not a total lost cause. There are moments of fun to be had in Dark Phoenix, but again, nothing that feels like anything more than your run-of-the-mill superhero fare. And considering this conclusion to the X-Men comes relatively shortly after the MCU’s decade-long payoff with the exceptional Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix feels all the more underwhelming.

I don’t think Dark Phoenix is on the same level of franchise ruination as say, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald. But seeing as it was destined to be the final installment in this nearly twenty-year old X-Men movie franchise once Disney started eyeing Fox, Dark Phoenix is a big letdown of a sendoff.

 

4

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Review

Shared “Cinematic Universes” are all the rage these days, after Marvel did an unprecedented job at tying together so many different franchises sharing connected narratives. While other studios are trying – and failing – to play catch-up with Marvel’s accomplishments, there is one other Cinematic Universe that is actually working: Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.’s “MonsterVerse,” which seeks to reunite the worlds of Toho’s Godzilla monsters with those of King Kong.

There are a few key reasons why this MonsterVerse is succeeding where so many other Cinematic Universes introduced in Marvel’s wake have failed. The first is that Toho established shared universes with their characters some time ago, with iconic monsters like Mothra and Rodan having their own features before they went toe-to-toe with Godzilla. The other reason is that the MonsterVerse has thus far not aimed any higher than it needs to. Whereas the DC Extended Universe tried to catch up with Marvel all at once and predictably failed because of it, and Universal’s ill-fated “Dark Universe” collapsed before it could even begin, the MonsterVerse isn’t biting off more than it can chew.

So far, the MonsterVerse has kept things simple. Godzilla over here, King Kong over there, with the two set to clash in the follow-up to King of the Monsters, and any future films being dealt with one at a time. Its simple, short-term goals have helped the MonsterVerse stay afloat, instead of crumbling like one of the buildings Godzilla is bound to come into contact with in an attempt to replicate the MCU.

While the overall franchise is the only other working cinematic universe of today, the individual pieces of the MonsterVerse unfortunately can’t claim to be as well made as those Marvel provides. 2014’s Godzilla – in an attempt to take things seriously – focused far too much of its time on the human drama, to the point that its titular lizard only had a handful of minutes on screen. 2017’s Kong: Skull Island poised a reverse dilemma, with fun creature combat but flat human characters. Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the third film in the MonsterVerse, suffers from similar faults as Skull Island, and even doubles down on them. It’s because of the weak human characters and their flimsy narratives that I can’t say that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a good movie in the traditional sense. But because of how generous the film is with its giant monster action and spectacle – not to mention the fanservice for long-time Godzilla fans such as myself – it’s an undeniable fun time.

Appropriately taking place five years after the previous Godzilla, King of the Monsters has seen the giant, atomic reptile go into hiding after his grudge match with the duo of “MUTOs” in the previous film leveled San Francisco. During the gargantuan scuffle, a married couple of scientists, Mark and Emma Russel (Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga) lost their son. The couple drifted apart after that, with their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) living with Emma, who became a researcher for Monarch (the government organization who has secretly been studying “Titans” such as Godzilla and King Kong for decades), while Mark’s grief lead him to alcohol for a time, before he picked himself up and continued his research studying animals.

Emma is currently studying one of the seventeen-plus hibernating Titans discovered after the events of the first film. This particular Titan is Mothra, who soon hatches into its larval form, which makes for the perfect opportunity for Emma to test her “ORCA” device, which can emit frequencies that can alter a Titan’s behavior. Just as Emma activates ORCA and soothes the rampaging Mothra, a group of eco-terrorists – lead by Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) – invade the facility, kill the scientists, take Emma and Madison hostage, and take the ORCA with them.

With his family hostage, Mark is recruited by Monarch scientists – including Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), returning from the 2014 film – to track down Jonah, save Mark’s family, and prevent Jonah from awakening any more Titans with the ORCA. Things become more complicated, however, when Jonah uses the ORCA (and a good deal of explosives) to free a particularly powerful Titan frozen in Antarctica. This Titan is King Ghidorah, the three-headed, lightning-spewing golden dragon who – in any Godzilla continuity – has served as Godzilla’s archnemesis. But King Ghidorah soon proves to be a greater cataclysm than even Jonah had imagined, as it uses its immense power to begin awakening the rest of the world’s Titans all at once (including Rodan, the secondary antagonist monster of the film). With Ghidorah threatening the entire planet, Monarch looks for a way to aide Godzilla (Ghidorah’s natural enemy) in defeating the dragon in a desperate attempt to save the Earth.

As I said, the plot is incredibly silly. The artfulness of the 2014 film is thrown out the window in favor of all-out monster action. That’s perfectly fine in most respects, as I believe a Godzilla film can do just fine prioritizing the giant reptiles kicking each other’s ass. With that said, there are certain elements of the plot that do unfortunately play out as more stupid than silly.

First and foremost, the human villain’s plot seems shaky at best. I can understand that he’s an environmental extremist who’s trying to destroy human influence to let nature take over. But unleashing ancient, atomic giants seems like the opposite of helping the planet. I suppose I can write off Jonah as a crazy old man on a suicide mission of sorts, but a less forgivable element in the villain scenario takes place with a twist at the end of the film’s first act, when (without spoiling too much) it’s revealed that Jonah has an accomplice. This accomplice is presented as the more “human” of the villains, but in trying to bring out sympathy in their bonkers plan, it just makes the character feel like a directionless mess. It may have been easier to stick with the crazy old guy and the gold dragon, as far as villains are concerned (and my boy Rodan, of course).

Another disappointment comes in the form of the main human hero. Though Kyle Chandler works in the role of Mark Russel, the role doesn’t have a whole lot to work with. The way the film ties his backstory into the events of the 2014 film is interesting, but as a character, he doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. Despite the advertisements presenting Millie Bobby Brown as the human star of the film, the Madison character seems strangely underutilized.

This has actually been a weird trend with this MonsterVerse. Bryan Cranston was made out to be the star of the 2014 film, but he was killed off before Godzilla even found his way into the picture. In Kong: Skull Island, John Goodman only lasted until about the halfway point. Now here in King of the Monsters, the character who feels like they should be the main character has more of a bit part, while the actual main character isn’t particularly memorable.

I think there are just too many human characters all around, to be honest. On top of all the ones I’ve already mentioned, there are others still, such as Dr. Rick Stanton (Bradley Whitford), a scientist who’s supposed to provide comic relief, but just kind of seems to be there. Again, this film doesn’t spend as much time on the humans as the 2014 film, yet it features considerably more of them. With so many humans and so little time dedicated to them, most of them come across as paper thin. Hopefully future films in this crossover franchise will hold back on the number of human characters a little bit, so that we can have a couple of memorable human characters coexisting with the giant monsters we all came to see (and just make Millie Bobby Brown the main character).

With all these complaints though, I’d be an absolute liar if I said I wasn’t grinning ear-to-ear several times during the movie. Because if you have a soft spot for giant monsters duking it out, Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivers just that, and in spades. While the 2014 film had a slow burn leading up to Godzilla (which is fine), and then often cut away just as he was about to fight the other monsters as a means to tease the audience (not so fine), King of the Monsters doesn’t waste any time with reintroducing us to Godzilla and Mothra. And when Ghidorah and Rodan come into the picture, the movie delivers plenty of them as well. With most of Toho’s mainstay monsters in the film (sans MechaGodzilla and Gigan), the film lavishes the opportunity to utilize them at every turn, with each subsequent clash between monsters outdoing the last.

King Ghidorah, it should be noted, gets extra special treatment. Mothra is almost always depicted as “the good monster,” while Rodan has set aside its differences with Godzilla to help fight other monsters like Ghidorah on a few occasions. King Ghidorah, on the other hand, has always been Godzilla’s ultimate foe. And King of the Monsters presents Ghidorah as just that. It never fails to hype up the three-headed dragon as nothing short of the ultimate evil that all other monsters fear. The film pays such great respects to Godzilla’s nemesis, that you wonder if he was director Michael Dougherty’s favorite monster growing up, and now is all too happy to fanboy out about him within his own movie (and I mean this in the best way).

As someone who absolutely loved Godzilla as a kid, I was pleasantly surprised with how much earnest fanservice King of the Monsters provides. While the 2014 film tried to be as grounded as this material could possibly be (which is an interesting take in and of itself), King of the Monsters fully embraces the more ludicrous aspects of the franchise, never once feeling embarrassed by its source material. We get subtle nods to past Godzilla films (Monarch classifies Ghidorah as “Monster Zero,” just as he was labeled in the original continuity, with Godzilla himself being “Monster Zero-One,” and Rodan “Monster Zero-Two”), as well as direct adaptations of Godzilla lore that the 2014 film may have avoided (yes, King Ghidorah is from outer space). We get plenty of references to Skull Island and King Kong himself, to remind audiences of his impending clash with Godzilla. And perhaps best of all, we actually get the Godzilla theme music!

The special effects used to bring these monsters to life is impressive, but its how much King of the Monsters relishes in the opportunity to have them duke it out, destroying entire cities in the process, that truly delight (in an unnecessary but much appreciated detail, the film makes a point that the cities have been evacuated before the monsters make their way to them, so it thankfully doesn’t relish in the casualties of it all in the way films like Man of Steel did).

Not too long ago, Avengers: Endgame showed the world that you can have deep, complex characters amidst fantastic action and franchise fanservice. So it may be disappointing that in this day and age when the MCU set the standard for blockbusters, that the MonsterVerse still hasn’t been able to weave strong characters into the spectacle of it all. King of the Monsters may not be the thoughtful and poignant franchise blockbuster that Endgame was by any stretch of the imagination. But damn it all if it isn’t a whole lot of fun.

 

6

Aladdin (2019) Review

There’s a famous scene in the beloved television series Friends in which Rachel tries to make an English Trifle for dessert, but inadvertently mixes up the recipe with that of Sheppard’s pie, resulting in a horrible mix of flavors. “It tastes like feet!” exclaims Ross. Meanwhile, the simple-minded, food-loving Joey continues to eat the ill-prepared dessert with delight. “What’s not to like?” says Joey, not minding the clashing tastes. “Custard, good! Jam, good! Meat, good!”

I bring up this random scene of television because I feel like, when it comes to Disney’s recent live-action remakes of their animated back catalogue, I’m totally Joey. While much of the internet seems to be the Ross of this scenario, bemoaning the very existence of these live-action remakes for “ruining their childhood,” I think it’s important to view and critique these remakes for what they are. And while some claim that Disney is undermining their animated films by attempting to ‘legitimize’ them through live-action, I don’t believe that’s the reason for these remakes. As an immense fan of animation, I would be among the first to cry foul if I thought Disney’s reasoning for these remakes was because they thought the animated versions weren’t valid stories and need to be live-action in order to attain that validation.

It’s true that, because Disney’s animated films tend to be timeless classics, they don’t necessarily need to be remade. But these live-action remakes are here to stay for a while, so why not view them for what they are? And what they are are more homages to Disney’s animated films than they are replacements. They’re here to provide nostalgia and fanservice for fans of the original animated versions, and to entertain.

Admittedly, the quality of these live-action remakes has varied – with the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent being particularly forgettable, while The Jungle Book was the one example that was as good or better than the 1967 original – which makes them the attempted English trifle in the aforementioned Friends metaphor. The right bits and pieces are often there, but the results may very. Still, you can’t disregard these live-action Disney remakes just because they exist, and you do have to view them as the homages that they are, and how well they may or may not pull that off.

In short: “Jungle Book, good. Dumbo, good. Beauty and the Beast, good.”

So where does Aladdin fall into this equation? I’m happy to say I think it’s the best of these remakes since The Jungle Book. But at the same time, much of the reason for that is because of how closely it follows the template of the beloved animated original from 1992, which surely won’t help justifying the necessity of these remakes to the naysayers.

The story here is more or less the same as in the 1992 film. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a thief living on the streets in the kingdom of Agrabah, whose only friend is his pet monkey, Abu. Though Aladdin is a thief, he only steals to survive, and is otherwise a selfless individual. Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is the daughter of the Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban), though she rarely leaves the palace due to her father’s strict rules. One day, Princess Jasmine sneaks out of the palace in disguise and meets Aladdin, and the two instantly have a connection. But Aladdin, unaware of her true identity but knowing she’s from the palace, believes someone like him is unworthy of her attention.

“Even Jafar’s parrot sidekick Iago returns, this time voiced by Alan Tudyk (because this is a modern Disney movie, so of course it’s Alan Tudyk).”

Meanwhile, the Sultan’s grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), tired of playing second fiddle and always wanting more power, seeks to overthrow the Sultan. Jafar plans to do so by claiming a magic oil lamp from the Cave of Wonders, with which he can have anything he desires. But only a chosen one can enter the Cave of Wonders ,and Jafar – being a sensible bad guy –  has been goading others to retrieve the lamp for him for some time, though all of his patsies have met an untimely end at the entrance of the cave. But when Jafar stumbles across Aladdin, he’s found his diamond in the rough. Revealing Aladdin’s dream girl as the princess of Agrabah, Jafar promises Aladdin the riches he would need to be worthy of a princess if he retrieves the mystic lamp. But Jafar betrays Aladdin, and the latter ends up with the lamp in his own possession, and with it summon the all-powerful Genie (Will Smith), who will grant Aladdin three wishes, thus setting off a fun and comedic adventure that sees Aladdin try to win Jasmine’s heart with the aide of the Genie.

The story is admittedly very familiar, with Aladdin playing closer to its animated original perhaps more so than any of the other live-action Disney remakes of recent years. On one hand, that should make the movie an easy win for fans of the original who don’t think the movie’s existence threatens their nostalgic memories. On the other hand, it also means that – as previously stated – this film won’t change the minds of those who don’t see a reason for these remakes. But if you view 2019’s Aladdin for what it is – a loving tribute to the 1992 original – there’s an entertaining movie to be had here.

That’s not to say that this Aladdin doesn’t make any changes, just that it probably could have made a few other tweaks to better justify itself and these continuing remakes as a whole. Perhaps the two biggest character differences are Princess Jasmine’s more fleshed-out character arc, and Jafar’s newly-introduced backstory.

Though I strongly disagree with the criticisms that are often aimed at Disney Princesses, it is true that Disney has made a lot of progress in creating more fleshed-out characters within the archetype in recent years. And in this day and age of Frozens and Moanas, a direct adaptation of 1992’s Princess Jasmine may have felt too simple. The new film does a good job at detailing her story and motivation, as she doesn’t simply not want to marry a prince this time around, but refuses to do so because she honestly feels she would be a better heir to her kingdom than anyone else. Meanwhile, Jafar’s new backstory gives the character a little extra dimension as to why he’s never satisfied with the power he already has, and why he always seeks more.

Most of the songs from the animated film are recreated here (with the unfortunate omission of Jafar’s reprise of ‘Prince Ali‘). But there’s one new addition in the form of Speachless, a new belter by Naomi Scott’s Jasmine that more than holds its own among such classics as Friend Like Me and A Whole New World, and actually puts up an argument to being my favorite, non-Frozen Disney song in recent years.

Another small addition comes in the form of a comedic scene in which the Genie tries to help Aladdin win over Jasmine through dancing. But seeing as Aladdin can’t dance, the Genie magically controls Aladdin like a puppet to bust out the dance moves. This scene is pretty funny, and exclusive to this version, making you wish there could have been a few more scenes like this one added into the mix.

The cast is also enjoyable, with Massoud and Scott giving memorable performances as Aladdin and Jasmine. Though Kenzari’s Jafar may take a while longer to get used to. His performance is solid in a number of ways, but Kenzari is too soft-spoken in the role. When you remember this is the same character who in 1992 had a distinct regality in his voice which could quickly melt away into a howling cackle courtesy of Jonathan Freeman, the new Jafar seems nonthreatening by comparison (which may explain the absence of Jafar’s musical bit from the original).

Of course, the big question is how good is Will Smith’s Genie? While no one could ever replace Robin Williams (whose vocal performance as the Genie in the 1992 film is one of the great voice-over performances in cinema), I’m happy to say Will Smith makes for an entertaining alternative. Smith’s performance of the Genie often pays homage to Williams, without being derivative of it. As was the case with the original film, the Genie is far and away the standout character, and Will Smith does his own thing as the Genie that does justice to the role that Williams’ made so iconic.

If you’re one of those people who disregards Disney’s recent remakes by default, well then I pity you for not giving things a proper chance. Aladdin certainly won’t sway those who are dead-set against the mere existence of these remakes, and the film’s over familiarity might not win over the more reasonable detractors, either. But if you’re just looking for a fun Disney movie, the 2019 Aladdin delivers just that, with plenty of spectacle and great musical numbers. Fans of the 1992 original willing to give this remake a chance might even have the most fun with it, given that the film often plays more like a loving tribute to the original than a remake trying to better its source material.

In short: “Aladdin, good!”

 

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Pokemon Detective Pikachu Review

At long last, the video game movie curse is lifted!

Ever since the 1993 Super Mario Bros. live-action film introduced the world to cinematic video game adaptations, the genre has – somewhat uniquely – never really been any good. At least the earlier adaptations had something of an excuse, as they were trying to figure out a way to take video games, (which by nature are quite different than movies) and translate them to movie audiences. As the years went on and video game movies never got any better (and in fact, often got worse), it seemed like game-to-movie adaptations were nothing but a failed novelty. Sure, there were a few video game movies here and there that perhaps appealed to the fans of the games (Mortal Kombat comes to mind), but it would be difficult to call them good movies unless you fit snuggly into the franchise’s established fanbase. But now, we have Pokemon Detective Pikachu, the first honest-to-goodness video game movie I would call a ‘good movie.’

Obviously, this live-action/CG hybrid is based on Nintendo’s beloved Pokemon franchise. While plenty of animated Pokemon films have been released over the years, they have all been direct continuations of the TV series (even if they don’t always share the same continuity). Pokemon Detective Pikachu, however, is not only the first live-action Pokemon movie, but the first one to be directly adapted from one of the games (interestingly, the film is based on a relatively obscure spinoff title in the franchise, the Nintendo 3DS’s Detective Pikachu).

What makes Detective Pikachu work so well may sound obvious, but it’s something that has eluded Hollywood’s video game adaptations for decades: It embraces and respects its source material, while telling a cinematic story set in that world. Because of this, Detective Pikachu  will delight fans of its franchise, and should even win over audiences who may not be overly familiar with the games or TV series, because it tells a good story.

So many video game movies come across as being embarrassed that they’re based on video games, and don’t seem to give much effort into being good movies, either. Pokemon Detective Pikachu feels tremendously refreshing with how it delights in indulging the world of the Pokemon series.

The story centers around Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a young insurance salesman with previous dreams of becoming a Pokemon trainer. Tim has an estranged relationship with his father Harry – a famous detective of Ryme City – due to what Tim perceives as his father’s preference for work over his son, particularly after his mother passed away while Tim was still young. But one day, Tim gets a distressing call. His father, it seems, has perished in a car accident while in the midst of a case.

Tim travels to Ryme City to gather his father’s belongings, but while there, he stumbles across a most peculiar character: a Pikachu capable of speaking human language, though only Tim is able to hear him (everyone else hears the iconic squeaks of “Pika Pika Pi!”). This is Detective Pikachu (Ryan Renolds), the Pokemon belonging to Tim’s father.

Detective Pikachu was involved in the crash that supposedly claimed the life of Tim’s father, and is suffering from amnesia because of it. Despite his busted memory, Detective Pikachu remembers one important detail; Tim’s father is alive. After a bit of convincing, Detective Pikachu manages to sway Tim into helping him discover the mystery of what happened to Harry, and to solve whatever case he was working on at the time of the crash. The duo soon becomes a trio, as they are joined by Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) a plucky junior reporter trying to become a serious journalist, as well as her Pokemon partner, a Psyduck (so I guess it’s a quartet).

It’s a simple detective mystery plot, but it makes for a good story thanks to the likable characters (particularly Pikachu himself, with Ryan Renolds giving a terrific vocal performance as the iconic character), as well as its embracing of the Pokemon license as a whole. Indelible elements of Pokemon lore find their way into the plot, with the film both paying respects to its license and also utilizing it for the benefit of its writing (the film finds plenty of ways to bring out humor in its creatures). Pokemon Detective Pikachu is a charming film for established fans and newcomers alike.

It’s hard to believe the original reveals for the various CG designs of the Pokemon were met with backlash, because honestly, they’re really faithful recreations. Pikachu looks like Pikachu, Charizard looks like Charizard, Psyduck looks like Psyduck. The CGI of the film is impressive, and the fact that they stayed true to the character designs of the games is admirable (ain’t that right, Sonic?). Perhaps the only one that still throws me off is Jigglypuff, who is given fur in the film, but I always figured had more of a balloon-like quality. But that’s not much of an issue, especially since Jigglypuff only shows up for its expected joke (singing karaoke at a bar, and putting the patrons to sleep). One mixed visual element may be Ryme City itself, which may look a little too dark at times – leaning into its Film Noir aspect perhaps a little too much – but the many different Pokemon keep the cute and colorful aspects of the franchise well intact.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu admittedly has its faults, with the most notable being its somewhat fragmented structure. While the film is always charming, it can feel tonally episodic. The film’s elements of action, emotion, comedy and mystery seem separated into their own scenes (“this scene’s a funny moment!” “This part’s an action scene!” “This scene has emotion and drama!”). It’s never bad, but you do kind of wish Pokemon Detective Pikachu could better blend its different elements together (Pixar comes to mind) instead of feeling so fragmented. Still, that’s ultimately a small price to pay when you remember that – by God! -Detective Pikachu is a video game movie that’s actually good.

It’s not just that it breaks the video game movie jinx that makes Pokemon Detective Pikachu stand out, but also in the possibilities it opens up for franchise filmmaking. Back in 2017, The Lego Batman Movie accomplished something similar, showcasing a Batman feature that could take its franchise in a brand new direction without affecting the integrity of the license itself. And I think Pokemon Detective Pikachu accomplishes something similar.

A sequel has already been confirmed, but I hope that Detective Pikachu begins a new trend of Pokemon movies altogether. Some Pokemon movies can be sequels and share continuities, while others could be standalone features with their own styles and tones. The only common link would be that they use the overarching Pokemon mythology as a backdrop. Why not have a Rocky-style feature about an up-and-coming fighter and his Machamp? It really is a franchise that can have so many different creative voices.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu is a cute and charming family feature, one that brings a merciful end to the video game movie curse, while also (hopefully) acting as the start of a new sub-genre of franchise filmmaking.

 

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Avengers: Endgame Review

*Caution: though this review only contains minor spoilers in regards to Endgame’s plot, it does consist of major spoilers to the ending of its predecessor, Avengers: Infinity War*

It’s rare that I see a movie that I feel won’t be replicated. But Avengers: Endgame is one such film. After eleven years and twenty-one previous features, Endgame brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it to a grand, satisfying close.

Yes, there will be plenty more super hero films in the future, and yes, the MCU will very much continue on. But I honestly can’t see another movie series – even the future MCU itself – managing to pull off an overarching storyline that lasts longer than a decade and culminates after this many films. Endgame marks the conclusion to an unprecedented achievement in filmmaking, one that I simply can’t see happening again on this scale.

Endgame begins a few weeks after the events of Infinity War. The evil Thanos (Josh Brolin) has succeeded in his perceived destiny. He collected every Infinity Stone, and with their limitless power, wiped out half of all life in the universe with a snap of his fingers. The Avengers failed, with half of the super heroes being turned to dust along with half of the rest of the universe. The heroes lost, Thanos won.

As you can probably guess, Endgame takes a more somber tone than the past Avengers films for this reason. While in the past, the Avengers movies served as the means to wrap up collective chapters for their heroes, Endgame is instead largely based on how the surviving heroes cope with the fact that their failure lead to such devastation.

The remaining Avengers (and Guardians of the Galaxy) include Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Okoye (Danial Gurira). Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) also returns to action, after his family is among those turned to dust by Thanos. And Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) shows up whenever she deems it convenient for herself.

I won’t divulge too much of the plot in detail, because Endgame takes so many bonkers twists and turns that going into any specifics beyond the first few minutes would feel like a spoiler. Suffice to say, however, that the Avengers look for a means to undo the catastrophic damage Thanos has done to the universe, and just might find a way once Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from the Quantum Realm, which he’s been trapped in since the mid-credits sequence of Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Despite having missed out on the events of Infinity War, Scott Lang was only in the Quantum Realm for a brief time by his perspective, leading him to believe the Avengers may be able to find a means to manipulate the Quantum Realm to go back in time to gather the Infinity Stones themselves and save the people Thanos wiped out. Not-so-spoiler alert: The Avengers find a way to time travel using the Quantum Realm.

Before you ask the obvious questions that may come to mind when the good guys build a time machine to stop the bad guy, it should be stressed that Endgame makes a point that its concept of time travel works very differently than what we’re used to seeing in movies. And while its idea of time traveling doesn’t always make sense (why is it only Back to the Future got it right?), it does ultimately work for the story that’s being told here.

Time travel is admittedly a risky move on any franchise, as it has often been used as a cliche that’s employed at the point when filmmakers “jump the shark.” But in the case of Avengers: Endgame, it works wonderfully. As the culmination of a decade-long, twenty-two film story arc, Endgame has earned the right to dive headfirst into whatever insane direction it pleases. And I’m happy to say that Endgame is the most flat-out insane feature in the entire MCU.

“Welcome back, Hawkeye.”

With such a varied cast of characters now having the ability to go back in time, Endgame uses the premise to not only bring out the best comedic aspects of its heroes’ personalities, but also to create a story that simply couldn’t have existed in any other movie. Endgame makes various callbacks and recreations of the past films in the MCU (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively), and finds ways to remix and recycle elements from the mega-franchise’s history all while telling a story of its own. It’s a beautiful example of a story actually benefitting from fanservice, with every callback to the Marvel films of yesteryear not only providing a nostalgic glee, but also serving as a piece to the overall puzzle that is Endgame’s storytelling.

Like the preceding Avengers films, Endgame is an exceptional action feature, with every set piece and battle sequence delivering on their staggering promise. The final battle specifically – without giving too much away – is the most ludicrous, ridiculous and fanservice-heavy battle scene I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderful.

Endgame can be a really funny movie at times. Just because the film takes place after the doom and gloom finale of Infinity War doesn’t mean Marvel has lost its sense of humor (especially where Tony Stark and Scott Lang are concerned). But Endgame is ultimately (and appropriately) the saddest and most emotional film in the MCU. It’s everything you love about the Avengers, now with the heart of a Pixar movie.

It is only fitting that, as the series has moved forward, it has also matured and become more serious. Yes, there’s still plenty of action, humor and fanservice to be had in Endgame. But it also has a poignancy about it that makes it feel unique among all the MCU films, which only adds to its status as a fitting finale.

How often is it that we can say a movie franchise has a satisfying conclusion, anyway? It seems like most trilogies lose their footing when it comes to the third entry, and the franchises that go further than that still falter around the same point. But here we have a twenty-two film series, and its grand finale is more than likely the best film of the entire lot. It delivers on all the entertaining aspects of its many predecessors (oftentimes outdoing them), while adding a new sense of emotional weight and depth to the series. Endgame proves to be a surprisingly melancholic and reflective story.

While Endgame may feel like a perfect conclusion to the MCU (so far), it isn’t quite a perfect movie, with at least two elements that feel…off.

The first is that Thanos’s role has been largely reduced. It’s not a total loss considering Josh Brolin had his chance to shine as the character in Infinity War, which was the ‘Thanos movie.’ Much like how the first Avengers film reused Thor‘s Loki to fill the antagonist role as to keep its focus on the heroes coming together, Endgame pulls off something similar by reducing Thanos’s screen time now that we’ve gotten to understand the character. But without spoiling anything specific, I can’t help but feel the means in which Endgame removes Thanos from much of the plot, and how he finds himself back into the proceedings in the third act might feel a bit cheap to some audiences.

Again, that’s forgivable. And depending on who you ask, they may not mind that Thanos has taken a bit of a backseat. Less forgivable, however, is the character of Captain Marvel. One could say she’s this Avengers film’s token “short end of the stick” character (similar to Hawkeye in the original, or Vision in Infinity War), given that she does very little in the movie despite Infinity War’s post-credits scene hyping her up. But unlike the less fortunate characters of past Avengers movies, I’m actually glad Captain Marvel has such a limited presence in the film, because she’s far and away the most unlikable character in the entire MCU.

Between her obnoxious arrogance and her eye-rolling ability to basically do anything, the film gives audiences absolute zero reason to care about the character. The filmmakers of the MCU have – in a shoehorned attempt to capitalize on social movements – backed Captain Marvel into a corner. Either her presence undermines every threat the Avengers face since she can just overpower anyone, or her absence makes her seem like the single most selfish person in the universe, given that she’s supposed to be helping the Avengers save the universe. Essentially, in going overboard and forcing Captain Marvel to be a strong female hero (something the MCU already accomplished – and infinitely more organically – with the likes of Black Widow and Scarlett Witch), they’ve instead turned Captain Marvel into an entirely unrelatable deus ex machina. But again, at least she’s barely in the movie.

Aside from Thanos’s questionable means of entering and exiting the story when necessary, and the utter unlikability of Captain Marvel, pretty much everything else about Avengers: Endgame is top notch. It brings out the best of so many aspects of the MCU, and ties it all together with a stronger emotional weight than ever before.

Yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will continue. But I honestly can’t imagine it recreating what has been done here in Avengers: Endgame. The fact that Marvel managed to successfully string together twenty-two movies over eleven years, and bring it all to such a satisfying conclusion is nothing short of a miracle in movie making. There will surely be more Thanos-level baddies whose story arcs will branch across the MCU. But I can’t imagine Marvel (or anyone else) replicating things to this scale again.

For those who have watched the MCU since its humble beginnings with Iron Man in 2008, you’d be hard-pressed to ask for more from a grand finale than what you get here. And for those who yearn for the more innocent early years of the MCU like Iron Man, I imagine that’s what we’ll be going back to for a while as the series rebuilds itself after this most fitting end.

The MCU has grown up alongside its fans, and seeing it reach its apex is a bittersweet rollercoaster. Avengers: Endgame is not only the ending we all hoped it could be, given its unprecedented build-up, but it should also rank as one of the best blockbusters of all time.

 

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