Wish Dragon Review

Wish Dragon was released on Netflix in June of 2021, as the latest example in the recent trend of American-Chinese co-produced animated films. Some recent films of this burgeoning sub-genre include 2019’s Abominable and 2020’s Over the Moon, both by China’s Pearl Studio (with the former being co-produced by Dreamworks and the latter by Netflix itself). Wish Dragon, however, is a joint venture between Sony Pictures Animation and Beijing Sparkle Roll Media Corporation. Though Wish Dragon’s story and humor eventually pick up before the end, it lacks the heart of the aforementioned films, and it emulates Disney’s Aladdin so strongly it robs itself of some identity.

I suppose, to be fair, Over the Moon also had some overfamiliar narrative beats of its own. But that film made up for it by having some genuinely moving emotional moments, eye-popping visuals, and a terrific soundtrack. Wish Dragon doesn’t have those luxuries to wash away its shortcomings. And it isn’t simply overfamiliar in a general sense, but Wish Dragon’s overly similar elements to a specific movie are a bigger issue, as it makes comparisons to the movie it’s mimicking unavoidable.

Wish Dragon is basically Disney’s Aladdin, only set in modern day Shanghai instead of the Middle East of centuries past, and with a dragon in place of a genie. There’s even a scene where the dragon explains the shortlist of wishes that he isn’t allowed to grant, which feels dangerously close to what Robin Williams’ Genie told Aladdin back in 1992. I guess you could do worse than copying one of Disney’s most beloved animated films, but Wish Dragon doesn’t just wear its inspiration on its sleeve, it’s flaunting it on a bodysuit.

The main character here is Din (Jimmy Wong), a working class college student who lives in the same cramped apartment he grew up in with his mother (Constance Wu). When Din was younger, he was best friends with a girl named Li Na (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who moved away ten years ago once her father became a successful businessman, with Li Na now living a lavish life as a model. Din wants nothing more than to reunite with his childhood friend.

I have to admit, I actually find that character motivation to be something different. Din’s relationship with Li Na is only quasi-romantic at most, and it’s more about him wanting to reunite with his childhood friend than it is him wanting to “get the girl.” So that’s something original, at any rate.

Li Na’s birthday is coming up, and Din sees this as the opportunity to be reunited with her. He’s been skipping classes to work for a food delivery app, saving up money to buy a suit and gain access to her high class social event of a birthday party. One of Din’s customers turns out to be a strange old man living in a dilapidated house who claims to be a god (Ronny Chieng) . The old man tells Din that he is “pure of heart” and pays for his order with a jade teapot. That same night (the night before Li Na’s birthday), Din discovers that the teapot contains a magical wish dragon named Long (John Cho).

Long claims that Din is his tenth and final master, and after he grants the boy three wishes, he can finally ascend to heaven. But before Din can make a wish, a trio of hired goons – lead by a man called ‘Pockets’ (Aaron Yoo) – who have been hunting for the teapot, attempt to steal it from Din. Din inadvertently wishes that he could fight, which enables him to escape the bandits for the time being, as well as using his first wish.

From there, Din realizes that Long’s magic could be his ticket to reuniting him with Li Na, though he and the dragon have differing views as to how to go about that: Din thinks he needs to wish for just enough to gain access to Li Na’s party, while the dragon insists he do the same thing as his previous nine masters and just wish for unfathomable wealth. Here the human is more innocent while the dragon is cynical, so it’s like an inverse Raya and the Last Dragon dynamic.

The setup to the movie is fine, though I have to stress again that its similarities to Aladdin are so strong they can become distracting. You probably guessed already that Din’s second wish is the modern day equivalent of becoming a prince (a fancy suit instead of a princely robe, a hot car in place of an elephant, and Long disguises as a human chauffeur, as opposed to the grand marshal of a parade). But it can still be a fun ride, and the characters are likable enough.

On the downside of things, I think the animation of Wish Dragon is serviceable, but for a big budget, CG animated film, you’d certainly expect better. The art direction and character designs are nothing to write home about (I do like that they made the dragon pink, however. What other color could possibly standout as much?). Din in particular has an unfortunately bland character design. I get that maybe he’s not supposed to look like anyone special, to contrast with the beautiful Li Na, but it is possible to make a character look intentionally bland, but still have a memorable character design. And well, I don’t think Wish Dragon accomplished that with Din. Though I give the film credit for the fun idea of its villain Pockets who, true to his name, always has his hands in his pockets, and does everything with his feet instead (no matter how much it may defy physics).

The humor may try the patience of some older audiences. While Wish Dragon does have some jokes that land, most of them happen in the later parts of the movie. For much of the film leading up to that, the humor leans to the juvenile side of things, and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I suppose it’s better to end strong than it is to start strong and run out of steam. And by the end of things, Wish Dragon did win me over, both in humor and in story (I also feel that I’m appreciating the film more as I write this).

Wish Dragon isn’t going to go down as an animated classic, and making its inspiration from Disney’s Aladdin even a little less obvious would have benefitted it greatly. But hey, I started out rolling my eyes at the movie, only to find myself smiling because of it later on. That counts for something, right?


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Review

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is some kind of revelation. A western animated feature that creates a visual look that’s completely removed from the Pixar style that has remained the basis of the medium for over two decades and, even more notably, a super hero film that’s wildly original. Into the Spider-Verse is not only the best Spider-Man film since 2004’s Spider-Man 2, it’s one of the best Marvel movies period, and one of the best films of 2018.

The first thing audiences are bound to notice about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is its animation. Simply put, this is one of the most uniquely animated films ever made. It emulates the look of a comic book in a way no live-action film ever could. Although Spider-Verse is computer animated – as is the standard of today – it combines it with traditional hand-drawn techniques, and a unique cel shading to give it its aforementioned comic book vibe. It’s quite stunning to behold in motion.

Perhaps the best thing about Into the Spider-Verse is that its story nearly matches its visuals in the originality department.

Spider-Verse tells the story of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a teenager who, like the more widely known Peter Parker, is bitten by a radioactive spider, which grants him super human strength and agility, as well as a ‘spider sense’ that alerts him to danger. Sure, it doesn’t matter who is behind the Spider-Man mask, we all know the origin story so well any reminder of it comes across like a joke. And in fact, Into the Spider-Verse makes the origin story into its biggest running gag.

Yes, we do see how Miles Morales becomes the famous web-slinger, but the tale is given more than a few new spins. For starters, the Peter Parker Spider-Man (Chris Pine) already exists by the time Morales gets bit by the fateful arachnid. And soon after Morales gains his powers, he stumbles across an epic battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Live Schreiber), which include the Prowler and the Green Goblin (whom, in this highly stylized version, is an actual goblin-like monster). The plot gets an extra dose of originality by how Miles (and by extension, the audience) just kind of happen upon Kingpin’s evil plot as it’s unfolding, instead of having a good chunk of the first act dedicated to explaining Kingpin’s plans.

What Miles stumbles on, however, is Kingpin’s attempts at opening portals to other dimensions. Though the machine used to achieve these means collapses on itself – causing great damage to New York City and even wiping out some of Kingpin’s forces – it does succeed on a small scale, allowing the Spider-Man equivalent of five other dimensions to enter Miles’ world.

These ‘Spider-People’ include a cynical, down-on-his-luck Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), who is divorced from Mary Jane Watson and quite out-of-shape, and becomes a disinterested, reluctant mentor to Miles. There’s also Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), the Gwen Stacy from a separate dimension, who took up the Spider-Mantle in place of her friend Peter Parker, who was killed in her world. These two, along with Miles, make up the film’s primary characters. Though another trio of Spider-Men join the fray later on: Spider-Noir (Nicholas Cage), a gumshoe from a 1930s dimension; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), a Japanese female Peter Parker from an anime universe with a spider-mecha; and Peter Porker/Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a pig from a slapstick cartoon universe who, in contrast to the rest of the group, was originally a spider before being bitten by a radioactive pig. As you might expect, it becomes the mission of Miles and his newfound Spider-Friends to prevent Kingpin from reactivating his machine and completely destroying New York City.

Admittedly, it is a bit of a shame that the latter three characters don’t get nearly as much screen time, seeing as they bring out the most style in this most stylized film. But I suppose sequels and spinoffs are already in the tank, so here’s hoping Spider-Noir, Peni Parker and Peter Porker can all star in their own movie, which can take advantage of their wildly different styles. Though hoping that the secondary heroes can get their own sequel is hardly a complaint, and is more telling of just how wonderfully realized Into the Spider-Verse’s heroes are that even the supporting cast leaves such an impression.

If there is one element that is a little disappointing, it’s in the film’s villain scenario. Kingpin is actually given a pretty unique motivation for a super villain, but his story ends up suffering slightly as it never really evolves beyond its initial reveal. Perhaps an even bigger misstep is that many of Spider-Man’s best villains, like the aforementioned Green Goblin and even Doctor Octopus, really end up feeling shortchanged as mere henchmen of Kingpin. Spider-Verse has some unique ideas for these villains, but by giving them bit roles, they feel wasted. Spider-Verse has an ace up its sleeve in regards to sequels in that, by introducing alternate universes, this series can continually reinvent these villains and promote them to the primary antagonist role. Though you do have to worry that the filmmakers may not go that route since they already used said villains.

These are ultimately small prices to pay for an otherwise stellar movie. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse continuously finds new ways to reinvent not only Spider-Man, but the super hero movie genre as a whole. It’s briskly paced, throwing Miles Morales’ story into the grander plot without slowing down for the usual super hero expositions. And the film is a constant barrage of style and flashy visuals. There’s not a single moment in Into the Spider-Verse that doesn’t burn its way into your memory with its flashy colors, vibrant effects and fun character designs (Kingpin in particular, with his massive body and relatively small head, looks like he walked out of a Sylvain Chomet film). It’s the most uniquely animated film since The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

In this day and age, where super hero films are a dime a dozen, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse stands above its contemporaries by creating a super hero tale that looks and feels stunningly original. Into the Spider-Verse tells a story that makes one of pop culture’s most enduring heroes feel fresh all over again, and it does so with every last frame being drenched in style.



The Emoji Movie Review

*Though I usually try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, this one will contain some spoilers because, well, do you really care?*

“And Sir Patrick Stewart as Poop.”

Seeing those words on the end credits of The Emoji Movie is the best part of The Emoji Movie. When Sir Patrick Stewart was first announced to be voicing a sentient turd emoji, it seemed to (very temporarily) relieve some of the concerns audiences had regarding The Emoji Movie, since it seemed to hint that perhaps the film had some sense of creative fun about it, juvenile though it may have been. Sadly, the classy vocals of Sir Patrick Stewart emanating from Poop is the one tiny spark of inspiration that The Emoji Movie possesses, and even it is wasted, as the good Sir Poop only has a small handful of lines in the film’s entirety.

So the one promising thing The Emoji Movie had going for it is wasted, and everything else, well… it’s bad.

I went to see The Emoji Movie with two of my friends (I didn’t want to suffer alone), whose responses after the movie ranged from “that felt longer than Peter Jackson’s King Kong” to “I feel empty. Not angry, not sad. Just empty.” I found myself actually face-palming during many of the film’s cringe-worthy jokes, and trying my damnedest to not burst out with laughter at the film’s utterly dumbfounding resolution. This, my friends, is one of the worst animated movies ever made (with the only thing preventing me from hailing it as the worst being the fact that I’ve seen Food Fight!, so at the very least, The Emoji Movie has that going for it).

The Emoji Movie desperately – and I mean desperately – wants to be a Pixar-style film. The director, Tony Leondis, is a confessed fan of Pixar films (of course, saying one enjoys Pixar films is like saying you’re a carbon-based, oxygen-breathing life form). In fact, Leondis has admitted that the inspiration for the film stemmed from trying to come up with a modern-day equivalent to Toy Story at the same time he received a text message that featured an emoji.

That already seems like a pretty lazy “eureka” moment, but it also just isn’t an idea that can support an entire movie and have any kind of emotional resonance. Toy Story works because, as children, we love our toys. They help bring life to our imaginations, inspire creativity, and even introduce us to storytelling. Children form bonds with their toys that can sometimes be difficult for adults to remember; but something like Toy Story reminds us exactly why these little plastic objects once meant so much to us, while also telling stories that reflect human emotions even for us adults.

By contrast, emojis are little faces we put into text messages. That’s really it. They can be cute, sweet or funny in certain contexts, but I can safely say I’ve never felt emotionally attached to an emoji. If Leondis really wanted to find the more contemporary equivalent to toys, video games are kind of a thing these days. Though I suppose Wreck-It Ralph already beat him to the punch on that one.

I believe almost any concept can be made into a decent enough movie in the right hands. But there are certain concepts that I think can only be good under more specific circumstances. The Emoji Movie is one of those instances. If this were a parody of Toy Story and its ilk, The Emoji Movie may have been able to find some footing. But in seriously trying to turn a concept like emojis into something in the vein of Toy Story or Inside Out, it just comes off as bottom of the barrel material, and you can’t take it seriously.

Oh right, the plot. So The Emoji Movie primarily takes place in the world of Textopolis, a city inside of the smart phone of a teenage boy named Alex (Jake T. Austin). Here, every emoji only knows one thing: sad emojis are sad, angry emojis are angry, Christmas Tree emojis are festive, and poop emojis… apparently class up the place because they’re voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart.

Anyway, there’s one emoji who’s different from the rest, Gene (T.J. Miller), who is supposed to be a “meh” emoji, but finds himself being far more expressive, capable of showing more emotions than just “meh.” This proves problematic, because every emoji’s job is to stand in a box and make their one specific face when their user needs said emoji. On his first day on the job, Gene panics, and ends up making a weird face instead of the desired “meh,” and ends up being labelled a malfunction. Textopolis’ dictator-esque Smiler (Maya Rudolph), a smiling emoji, then demands that Gene be deleted from the phone.

“Aw sick! That thing has a face!”

Gene then becomes an outlaw, on the run from Smiler’s bots. It’s then that Gene befriends High-Five (James Corden), a disturbingly hand-shaped emoji who wishes to be popular again, after he’s seen less uses in text messages in favor of Fist-Bump. The duo plans to reprogram Gene with the help of an infamous hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris), who is secretly a princess emoji, and possibly the most obnoxiously shoehorned example of faux-feminism in recent movie history (complete with blue hair and lipstick, and a hipster beanie, because God forbid a woman be the slightest bit feminine).

No, seriously. This character really is terrible. In one instance she delivers a laughably forced bit of dialogue about trying to break stereotypes of female emojis only being able to be princesses and brides (despite the film already featuring many female emoji who do not fill those roles, including Smiler, the ruler of Textopolis). Besides, aren’t emoji just genderless faces anyway? If an emoji bride or princess looks feminine, that’s only because those are gender-specific positions that happen to be feminine, but the emojis themselves are, again, just stupid little faces. Do people actually worry about this stuff? Jailbreak also accuses Gene of trying to take credit for her ideas “like all men take credit for women’s ideas,” even though he’s simply acknowledging her idea in the scene in question. If acknowledging things were the same as taking credit for them, then I would be taking credit for every movie I’ve reviewed, including this one. And God knows I don’t want to take any credit for that.

Wow, I’m really getting sidetracked. I guess talking about pretty much anything is more fun than talking about the plot of The Emoji Movie. But one must finish what one started.

So anyway, the trio of Gene, High-Five and Jailbreak set out on an adventure through Alex’s phone, in hopes of breaking into “the Cloud,” where Jailbreak can reprogram Gene, and she can finally be free of the stereotypes of Textopolis. Along the way, they plug as many apps as possible; including Twitter, FaceBook, YouTube, Instagram, Candy Crush and Just Dance. Oh yeah, and a “piracy app” which Alex has on his phone for reasons the film conveniently ignores.

Meanwhile, Gene’s meh emoji parents Mel and Mary – whose names couldn’t even be spelled “Mehl” and “Mehry” because that would require some thought – set out on their own journey to find their son in an unnecessary subplot. There is yet another side story involving Alex himself, and his inability to communicate with his crush through emojis (if only there were some way for humans to communicate other than goofy faces on our phones).

Things grow ever urgent as the malfunction of Gene sends Alex’s phone into a fritz (I’m sure the piracy app has nothing to do with it), and Alex makes an appointment to have his phone wiped clean, which would erase all the inhabitant of his phone, emojis included. Why Alex doesn’t try resetting his phone or any other standard method before jumping right into having the whole thing erased, I’ll never know.

How does this all resolve, why, by Gene making a series of faces in a single text message sent to Alex’s crush’s phone which, according to said crush, proves that Alex has a way of expressing his feelings. The two end up together, and Alex decides not to have the content of his phone erased. Damn.

Under any other circumstance, I’d hate to give away any ending. But the resolution of The Emoji Movie is just so bad on so many levels that it would have to be seen to be believed, and I don’t want to put you through seeing this movie. So hopefully my explanation gives you enough of an idea. Again, the kid gets the girl in the end because of an emoji. It’s such a crap ending, it could be voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart.

Sony Pictures Animation doesn’t have the best track record for animated features, but most of their resume is inoffensively mediocre. But The Emoji Movie… this is just bad, bad, bad. Sony Pictures Animation still has the budget to provide clean, colorful animation and a talented (and wasted) voice cast. But not even the shiniest animation or the most acclaimed voice actors could save material like this. There’s not even a joke in the movie that works. Within five minutes we have an Australian-accented shrimp emoji show up who comments how he needs to “get on the barbie.” It never gets better from there.

To sum up The Emoji Movie… 

P.S. The poop is voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart.


Surf’s Up 2: Wavemania Review

Surf's Up 2

After watching Surf’s Up 2: Wavemania, I feel like I’ve seen everything. It’s one of those rare movies where it’s almost hard to believe it actually exists. Not because of any unbelievably exceptional or poor quality, but – like Digimon: The Movie – it’s hard to grasp how baffling the concept behind it is.

Surf’s Up 2: Wavemania is a 2017 straight-to-video sequel to 2007’s Surf’s Up. Now, there have been many straight-to-video sequels to popular animated movies in the past, and they all serve the same purpose: to make a quick buck. Disney tainted much of their beloved 90s features with home video exclusive sequels, and other studios followed suit. Disappointing cash-grabs though they may be, at least it makes sense for a cash-grab sequel to be rushed out to make that quick buck (hence the term “cash-grab”). But Surf’s Up 2 arrives a decade after the original which, while a good movie, wasn’t exactly the biggest animated blockbuster out there. So if this straight-to-video affair were going to happen, it seems well overdue.

Things get all the weirder, however, because while this is still a feature from Sony Pictures Animation (creators of the original film), it is also a joint-venture with WWE studios, and features new characters voiced by WWE wrestlers and personalities.

So to review all of this: Surf’s Up 2 is a straight-to-video sequel to a decently successful movie that was released a decade after said original, and features WWE wrestlers as animated characters. Again, it’s hard to believe such a thing actually exists.

While I’m not about to say Surf’s Up 2: Wavemania is anywhere near as good as the original, I will admit that it could be a whole hell of a lot worse, especially for a straight-to-video sequel. Though perhaps I’m just so giddy in amazement at the very fact that Surf’s Up 2: Wavemania is an actual thing that I’m seeing it a bit rose-tinted. Either way, Surf’s Up 2 isn’t what I would call a good movie, but I’ve seen much, much worse animated features. So I guess we can file it under the “guilty pleasures” category.

Anyway, Surf’s Up 2: Wavemania continues the story of surfing penguin Cody Maverick (Jeremy Shada, replacing Shia Labeouf, whom I presume was too busy yelling at walls). Cody is the current subject of an after-they-were-famous-style documentary, which showcases how he has gone on to work for a surfing school on Pen Gu Island, whereas his best friend Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) went on to fame and fortune after winning the Big Z Memorial surfing tournament (this serves as a nice way to continue the “mockumentary” style of the original film).

Cody is feeling down, wondering what his life might have been like had he won the Big Z Memorial. But Cody gets another shot at fame when a quintet of legendary surfers known as The Hang Five show up on Pen Gu island looking for proteges.

Surf's Up 2The Hang Five consist of J.C. (John Cena), a muscle-bound penguin, Hunter (Paule “Triple H” Levesque), a hard-edged penguin, Undertaker (Mark “The Undertaker” Calaway) a zombie-like penguin, Paige (Sara-Jade “Paige” Bevis), a sassy puffin, and Mr. McMahon (WWE chairman Vince McMahon), an otter who serves as The Hang Five’s leader.

The story goes that Mr. McMahon plans to retire from surfing, and the Hang Five will need a new member. After hearing about the great surfers that come from Pen Gu Island from Big Z (the character’s only real mention in the film as I presume Jeff Bridges was out of the budget), the Hang Five head to the island looking for a potential replacement.

Surf's Up 2So four of the Hang Five members select one of the main characters from the first film to be their apprentices in hopes of finding a new fifth member once Mr. McMahon calls it quits. J.C. selects Cody, while the Undertaker picks Chicken Joe. Meanwhile, Paige selects Lani (Melissa Sturm) – the level-headed female penguin from the original – as her protege. Finally, Hunter chooses to mentor Tank (Diedrich Bader), the buffoonish antagonist from the first film.

The group then heads out to find a legendary surf spot known only as “The Trenches” to see if the new recruits can handle the dangerous surf style of the Hang Five, and also to give Mr. McMahon one last surfing adventure.

To be honest, I’m actually a bit surprised there’s as much of a plot as there is, and that they actually came up with reason for the WWE personalities to be included in the story, instead of being there solely though contractual obligation (though a seagull voiced by WWE commentator Michael Cole just kind of shows up for the hell of it). And I don’t know if it’s because I’m a wrestling fan, or because I’ve managed to see this film for what it is, but I actually liked the voice work.

Jeremy Shada is a solid choice as the new voice for Cody Maverick, while Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader still bring the same humor they brought to the original. And the WWE voices, while maybe a little distracting at times, can actually be kind of fun (so sue me). Hearing Vince McMahon’s voice coming out of a surfing otter is just too ridiculous not to enjoy to some degree. And having the Undertaker voice a penguin-ified parody of the character he’s portrayed for over twenty-five years hits a few good comedic moments.

Less appreciated, however, are the film’s pacing and more juvenile humor when compared to the first film. While the original Surf’s Up had an appropriately laid-back, relaxed tone to it, Surf’s Up 2 instead sends our heroes in a frantic adventure with big action set pieces including hang-gliding over lava and traversing a boobytrap-filled tomb. And while some of the humor of the film works, other times the film employs more bathroom humor and slapstick, which feels pretty removed from the nature of the original film.

On the plus side, the film is pretty well animated, especially (once again) considering it’s a straight-to-video feature. It may not be anything to write home about, and not as visually captivating as the original, but the animation has a nice, colorful look to it. Surf’s Up 2 is a fun film to look at, if anything.

Surf's Up 2Look, I don’t know what else to say. I’m still a bit dumbfounded at this movie’s existence, even as I’m writing about it. Yes, it is a cash-grab, direct-to-video sequel, and not all of the wrestling stuff works (we hear the Undertaker’s theme music on not one, but two different occasions. The first of which is for a gag, which is fine, but the second instance is during a more dramatic moment, which is unintentionally hilarious). But all things considered, it’s far from the worst direct-to-video animated sequel I’ve seen.

So again, I can see this becoming something of a guilty pleasure. It doesn’t live up to the original Surf’s Up. But, y’know, it is what it is. And considering what it is, it could have been a lot worse.



Surf’s Up Review

Surf's Up

2007’s Surf’s Up is an often overlooked, though surprisingly unique animated feature. Though penguin movies were all the rage in the mid-to-late 2000s (March of the Penguins, Happy Feet), Surf’s Up managed to differentiate itself from the rest of the lot with a few fun storytelling quirks.

The most obvious of these quirks is that Surf’s Up is presented as a documentary. It seems like a simple change, but it really does add to the film’s sense of freshness, which is all the more apparent now since – in the decade since the film’s release – not many animated features have adopted the “mockumentary” style.

The story centers on Cody Maverick (Shia Labeauf), a macaroni penguin from Antarctica who is entering the tenth annual Big Z Memorial, a surfing competition dedicated to Cody’s hero, surfing legend Big Z.

This contest takes place in the tropical Pen Gu Island, where a documentary crew are filming the competition and interviewing the participants as part of their documentary on Big Z. Among the contestants are Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), a laid-back chicken, and Tank (Diedrich Bader), the muscle-bound penguin who defeated Big Z in his final race. Along the way, Cody befriends not only Chicken Joe, but also a penguin lifeguard named Lani (Zooey Deschanel), and Zeke (Jeff Brides), a surfing guru who becomes Cody’s mentor, and who may or may not actually be Big Z (not-so-spoiler alert, he is).

Surf's UpAdmittedly, the plot is nothing to write home about, with an underdog/follow your dreams setup that feels overly familiar in animated films. But the aforementioned mockumentary style, along with its surprisingly relaxed tone, do help it stand on its own two feet. And the characters, while simple, can be entertaining (Chicken Joe often ends up in life-or-death situations, but is completely ignorant to them, and Tank is narcissistic to a comedic level, for the best examples).

Perhaps the film’s biggest highlights are the visuals. Though I feel CG has only more recently captured a more timeless quality, Surf’s Up’s visuals hold up surprisingly well for a 2007 feature (particularly one not made by Pixar). The character designs are all fun and cartoonish, while the backgrounds are still impressively realistic. Between Cody’s home in Antarctica and the tropical islands of Pen Gu, Surf’s Up showcases some breathtakingly beautiful imagery with its settings. And, of course, the animation of the water (particularly the waves) are pretty stunning.

Surf’s Up may not exactly be an animated classic due to its overly familiar plot, and a pretty short running time that robs some of the characters of more screen time (oh, Chicken Joe, we hardly knew thee) But it still makes for an entertaining viewing due to its fun characters, gorgeous visuals and a good dose of originality in its style and tone.

Besides, it’s difficult not to enjoy a movie that features a surfing chicken.



Open Season Review

Open Season

When it comes to big CG animation studios, perhaps none has a rockier track record than Sony Pictures Animation. Though they’ve seen some modest box office success, the quality of their films has consistently lacked. Try as hard as they might, Sony Pictures Animation Studios has fallen considerably short of Blue Sky Studios, let alone the likes of Dreamworks or Pixar. Case in point, 2006’s Open Season was Sony Pictures Animation’s attempt at the animated buddy comedy, which had been popularized by the likes of Toy Story and Shrek, but ended up being an entirely forgettable feature.

Open Season tells the story of Boog (Martin Lawrence), a kind-hearted bear raised by a park ranger, and Elliot (Ashton Kutcher), a dimwitted dear, and the film’s token comedic buddy-sidekick.

Boog has been pampered by his lifestyle as a pet, and as you probably guessed, his life is turned topsy-turvy when he saves Elliot from the grill of a hunter’s truck. Elliot returns the favor by sneaking Boog into a grocery store, where the duo binge on junk food. After Boog gets drunk on junk food (yeah, seriously, he gets drunk from it), he continues to misbehave, leading the park ranger to place him into the wild.

Once in the forest, Boog reunites with Elliot. Unfortunately for them, they accidentally end up in the hunting grounds, just as open season is about to begin. What’s worse, the hunter who Elliot escaped from is determined to get the deer back, as well as the bear who rescued him. Yeah…

Okay, I’m not asking for every animated feature to be an animated masterpiece, and I’m perfectly fine with some cartoonish silliness. The problem with Open Season isn’t in its plot (or lack thereof), but in that its cartoonish silliness isn’t the slightest bit funny or original.

Open Season features countless bathroom jokes, and even throws a puke gag in for good measure. Some might argue that it’s a kids’ movie, but when kids’ movies have to constantly fall back on poop jokes, it only speaks down to its target audience. Kids deserve good storytelling and writing as much as anyone.

Any hope the story might have to stand on its own is all but eviscerated by how obscenely cliched it is. Boog and Elliot themselves are about as stock as it gets. Friendly big guy meets annoying sidekick was basically the foundation of every non-Pixar CG film during the mid-2000s, and the way the plot plays out is as textbook as it gets. Open Season even tries to throw in some emotional moments, but they only feel like they’re there because that’s what other animated features were doing. And considering the characters are little more than cardboard archetypes and poop jokes, it kind of makes it difficult for any emotion to resonate with these scenes.

To top it off, Open Season is just ugly to look at. The film is now ten-years old, but it looks more like twenty. CG animated films from years prior have held up better from a technical standpoint, but the uninspired character designs only reinforce the film’s unappealing visuals.

In a nutshell, Open Season is as cliched as they come, lacks character, the humor is dumb, and it’s just so ugly. Somehow, it’s still spawning direct-to-video sequels to this day. But if the original is this shallow, I’d hate to see what its sequels that couldn’t even make it to theaters have in store…