Category: Family Comedy


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If ever a film represented the fine line between “kids’ movie that adults can also enjoy” and “adult movie that kids may enjoy,” it’s Wes Anderson’s debut animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Iron Giant might have dealt with the Red Scare and McCarthyism but it’s a children’s tale in the E.T. vein at heart. Up dealt with old age and the death of our loved ones, but it was also a children’s adventure tale to its core. On the opposite side of that spectrum, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are was a film about childhood specifically directed at adults, and I can’t imagine any children enjoying it. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox constantly straddles the line between children’s aesthetics and adult content, and it makes for one of the most magical animated films of the aughts.

My relationship with Wes Anderson films is complicated at best. While I consider Rushmore to be one of the defining comedies of the 90s and think The Royal Tenenbaums is a lesser but still great film, I often find his works wearisome. Anderson plays hopscotch with the line between endearingly eccentric and obnoxiously artificial like a teenaged hipster on PCP. Moonrise Kingdom was a surprisingly powerful meditation on young love and the essential loneliness of childhood, but the general aesthetics of the film almost felt like a parody of the increasingly 50s pastiche aesthetic that has come to define Anderon’s career. But in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s general taste for the zany and outre hits the nail right on the head.

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Crafted in gorgeous stop-motion animation (ala Paranorman), Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name (with many liberties taken with the story). The titular Mr. Fox (The Descendants‘ George Clooney) is a retired chicken thief. Leaving his job as a professional burglar when his wife (One True Thing‘s Meryl Streep) becomes pregnant with their first child (Jason Schwartzman), the film picks up 12 fox-years later with Mr. Fox as a newspaperman struggling with the doldrums of his day-to-day life. Mr. Fox has a happy and loving wife, and his son, Ash, is a basically good kid even if he’s no athlete and a little bit “different” (read: homosexual). Also, his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them. As a last ditch effort to feel alive while he still can, Mr. Fox buys a new home, and it nearly spells the destruction of his entire family.

The tree is near three different produce farms: a chicken farm, a cider factory, and a turkey farm. And being that close to a treasure trove of seemingly easily stolen goods is more temptation than Mr. Fox can resist. With the help of his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox begins stealing en masse from the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one of which is Harry Potter‘s Michael Gambon). And although Mr. Fox and Kylie are successful at first, their thievery quickly attracts the attention of the vicious and cruel (but rightly angered) humans who threaten the ecosystem of the entire animal kingdom in order to hunt Mr. Fox down.

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If all of that plot description seems much darker than your average children’s movie, that’s because it is. Fantastic Mr. Fox is PG and earns every last inch of that rating. Alcohol is explicitly referred to as such; violence isn’t implied. It’s shown; characters curse frequently but say “cuss” instead of the actual curse word; the main character is an unrepentant thief; guns are fired with reckless abandon. In an age where so many children’s movies are neutered and focus-driven to blandness (how I felt about much of Frozen), Fantastic Mr. Fox aims for the older kids in the audiences and isn’t afraid to offend a few stuffier parents in the process, and thank god for it.

But, beyond its willingness to play with slightly darker material, Fantastic Mr. Fox has a distinct visual style all its own. While many elements of the film are clearly drawn from Wes Anderson’s wheelhouse (the yellow colors, the title cards, the general 1950s feel), most stop-motion films don’t look like this. Although the humans have the typical Wallace & Gromit claymation feel, all of the animals in the film are gorgeously constructed. Because of the film’s stop-motion style, you are constantly aware of the endless little details that go into each character, and it becomes a fun game watching Mr. Fox’s fur shift around as he’s moved between shots. Also, because Anderson used actual figures instead of CGI, there’s a tactile sense that the film’s world is lived in and it allows Anderson’s camera to really explore the film’s spaces.

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And to top it all off, Fantastic Mr. Fox has an absurdly deep ensemble cast. In addition to the stars already mentioned, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Adrien Brody all make appearances. The two standout performances in the cast though are George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, which is basically an exaggerated spin on the typical Clooney charmer but with just the right amount of insanity to be an Anderson character, and Jason Schwartzman as Ash, the neurotic and self-conscious teenage son. Ash actually holds much of the emotional weight of the film, even when he’s being an asshole, and Jason Schwartzman gives one of his best performances since Rushmore in the pivotal role.

Fantastic Mr. Fox may be too weird for some. There are moments of total absurdist genius in the film (a deliciously anti-climactic pay-off to a series of jokes about wolves in the film springs immediately to mind), and that willingness to deal in surrealism may alienate viewers more accustomed to the more typically market-driven, focus-tested children’s fare. But for anyone with a taste for the truly original, Wes Anderson crafted a love letter to heist films, classic animation, and the genuine magic of childhood wonder in what is surely one of the best films of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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TheIncredibles1

(A quick aside before I start my actual review. I am on a comically absurd amount of cold medicine at the moment and “high as a kite” is the best description of my state of mind. So, this review may be bad. My apologies.)

Occasionally, I will tell people that I think The Incredibles is the greatest superhero film of all time; they think I’m crazy. And when I say that the film adaptation of Watchmen is the only one that comes even close, they start looking for mental institutions to house me in. But, I also believe those two statements whole-heartedly, but having not seen The Incredibles since high school, I was worried that the film wouldn’t have aged as well as my exceptionally fond memories. Thankfully, it’s like fine wine. It’s only gotten better. With a dark and mature thematic complexity that manages to exceed even director Brad Bird’s earlier masterpiece, The Iron Giant. Though the film doesn’t reduce me to a sobbing, blubbering mess like Up and Toy Story 3, this earlier Pixar entry marked the beginning of the peak of Pixar’s new Golden Age and represents one of the finest children’s films of the 2000s.

More than any traditional comic book superhero film (even the best ones like The Avengers or Spiderman 2), The Incredibles not only captures the spirit of modern heroic storytelling and the grandiose mythology inherent therein, it becomes a meta-commentary on superheroes in general and both deconstructs and then reconstructs society’s need for heroes and those who are truly exceptional. With an explicit as well as implied body count that rivals Titan A.E., Brad Bird doesn’t shy away from examining the consequences of one of the most sadistic and evil villains in the Disney or Pixar canon. It creates a thrilling story that offers a lesson on the nature of truly being special without talking down to the audience or offering artificial, feel-good plaudits. The Incredibles succeeds as a spectacle-fueled children’s adventure tale as well as a philosophical examination of family and potential for the older members of the audience.

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In a situation not entirely dissimilar to Watchmen, The Incredibles takes place in a world where all superheroes have been forced to retire by a government and public distrustful of their powers and their place above them in society. Before he was forced into retirement, Bob Parr (Poltergeist‘s Craig T. Nelson) was the super-strong Mr. Incredible but now his job entails him being the opposite of hero, working as an insurance claims adjuster where he’s yelled at by his boss (My Dinner with Andre‘s Wally Shawn) for not screwing over their customers as much as humanly possible. Before Bob retired, he married fellow super, Helen/Elastigirl (Raising Arizona‘s Holly Hunter), and post-retirement the pair are not-so-happily married with three children, the ultra-fast Dash, the shy Violet (with Sue Storm’s powers from the Incredibles), and the seemingly non-super-powered infant Jack.

Bob does not adjust well to civilian life and whether he hates himself for his job or is simply bored sitting in his cramped car on his commute to work. And though Helen has come to terms with her new life, it’s clear that the life of a stay at home mom isn’t for her either and forcing her children to hide their superpowers is causing tensions at home as Dash acts out in class cause he has no way to vent his energy. Bob has even taken to, in a story meant to parallel marital infidelity, sneaking out with an old friend from his superhero days, Frozone (Django Unchained‘s Samuel L. Jackson), to fight crime while telling his wife he’s out bowling. But, when Bob gets an offer to break out of the doldrums of retirement, it’s not long til he discovers it’s a trap from a mistake from his past that has now put him and his entire family in danger.

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The voice performances from all of the principal leads are all (lame pun incoming) incredible. Craig T. Nelson’s career has been, to put it gently, non-existent since Coach got off television with only some small bit parts here and there, and it’s probably not much of a stretch to call Mr. Incredible the role of his career. He captures the frustration and ennui of an exceptional man forced into a life of mediocrity. Holly Hunter is an excellent and accomplished actress in her own right so clearly Elastigirl isn’t The Piano or Raising Arizona but she too finds herself railing against her domesticated lifestyle. And there are great supporting turns from Jason Lee as the villain of the piece and Sam Jackson as Frozone. Though, let’s face it, is it ever possible to hear Sam Jackson’s voice and not get excited?

Alright, you know what. I’m too buzzed on cold medicine to do this review justice right now. I thnk I’ve been working on it for like two and a half hours now and I’ve only written 800 words. I would usually have written two reviews of comparable length in that time. Needless to say, The Incredibles is not just one of the best children’s films of the last ten years but arguably of all time and few superhero movies get superhero storytelling as well as it does (if any). The movie is unremittingly dark for a Disney film and when many of its sugar-coated peers will start to fade into the mist of memory, The Incredibles will be around for a long, long time. I just wish I’d had the chance to review it when I was capable of stringing more than two coherent sentences together without subsequently staring at the ceiling for about five minutes in a medicinally-induced haze.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review. I watched this movie a week and a half ago. I’ll let that sink in for a second. It’s been like ten days since I watched this film. So, there is an unusually healthy chance that this particular review will be awful. I wouldn’t usually let that happen but there’s this national campus film festival that’s at WVU this week and I decided to compete in it, and I’ve spent the last two weeks working on my entry into the competition. And, I specifically spent last week doing principal photography and post-production for my short film which was due Monday. Throw in the fact that Grand Theft Auto V came out Tuesday and it’s any wonder that I found time to do this particular review right now. So, I apologize if this review sucks)

Had 2012’s Academy Award-nominated children’s film Paranorman came out when I was a child, it seems apparent to me that I would have adored this film beyond almost all others. That’s not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it as a grown-up (I did), but it’s stop-motion animation, macabre aesthetic, and general quirkiness would have made it fit right in with many of my favorite pieces from my childhoodAnd that fact becomes bizarre upon further introspection because it is abundantly clear to me that this eccentric gem seems designed primarily to appeal to older children at my most generous interpretation or teenagers and young adults at my most honest. Despite it’s consistently mature sense of humor and storytelling (relative for a nominal children’s film), Paranorman only fails to reach the pantheon of the greatest of children’s film because of a lack of the cathartic emotional payoff that defines classics like Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant.

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Which is not to say that Paranorman suffers from the thematic staleness of the most recent Best Animated Feature winners, Rango or Brave. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Paranorman tackles heavy and often disturbing subject matter head-on. That statement about the cathartic pay-off of my favorite children’s films refers to their ability to leave me a sobbing, inconsolable wreck by film’s end despite the fact that I’m less than six months shy of being 25 years old. At no point in Paranorman was I over-run with uncontrollable emotion though I also doubt that was ever director Chris Butler’s intention. So, thankfully, Paranorman mostly made up for its lack of any sort of satisfying emotional pay-off with what is, once you dig beneath the surface, one of the darker children’s films of recent memory, dealing explicitly with bullying, loneliness, social alienation, and persecution.

Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a pre-teen loner who spends his days watching old B-zombie movies. He has no friends and everybody at school thinks he’s weird because Norman has a special power that is a non-secret in town even if no one actually thinks it’s true. Norman can see and speak to dead people. He is constantly berated by his own father for Norman being able to speak with his dead grandmother and Norman’s father doesn’t believe him. What his family believes to be Norman’s delusion also runs in Norman’s family and he has an uncle (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) who can also speak to the dead. And Norman’s uncle believes that Norman is the town of Blithe Hollow’s only chance to be protected against a centuries old curse from a witch who was burnt at the stake and cursed the town with the threat of raising the dead before she died.

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And I’ll leave it at that for fear of ruining the fun path this film takes over the course of its 90 minute running time. Though the film goes plenty of the places you’d expect, it also tends to at least momentarily subvert those expectations in ways that are as brutal as humanly imaginable. In much the same vein as The Iron Giant, Paranorman becomes a commentary on group hysteria and paranoia and who you think are the bad guys is twisted and warped until clear moral lines can’t actually be drawn. In this film, the line between good guy and bad guy is more ambiguously drawn than many films for grown-ups and Paranorman could serve as a suitable parable on the dangers of revenge and misunderstanding for children for years and years to come.

I’m going to draw this review to a close just because it’s been so long since I’ve actually watched it and I’m actually starting to not feel very well today. Clearly though, I could write so much more about this truly excellent children’s film. It’s visual aesthetic is perfect. It’s cut from the same cloth as children classics like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline and is wrapped in countless shout-outs to classic horror films for the adults (i.e. Norman’s cellphone has the Halloween theme as its ringtone). Though I’m not sure if this film is particularly well-known at the moment, you have my personal guarantee that over the next ten years, an intense cult fandom will develop around this movie and all of the hip parents will be showing it to their soon to be hip children.

Final Score: A-

 

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Besides the moments where I watch true cinematic masterpieces for this blog (Annie Hall, Chinatown, The Tree of Life), it may be true that the best moments on this blog where I watch a film that isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. That may seem like a sad statement, but when you’re expecting to loathe a film, and it turns out to be at least a little enjoyable, that’s a victory. It’s the opposite of that terrible feeling when you know a movie is going to be awful (The Help) and it stays awful (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). I’ve got a pretty set view now (after having reviewed 400 odd films for this blog) of what I like and I don’t like, and it’s gotten easier and easier for me to tell when a movie will be something I will like or not. 2011’s Puss in Boots (a spin-off of the Shrek franchise) seemed like it would be torturous, but it was, thankfully, a pleasantly surprisingly enjoyable children’s film.

For those unfamiliar with the Puss in Boots character (Antonio Banderas) from the Shrek films, he is a suave, womanizing feline thief that is the cat embodiment of the smoldering Latin lover archetype (one of many areas in which this film scores some decent jokes for the grown-ups). In his own self-contained story, Puss is his nation’s most-wanted outlaw and its most notorious lover and thief. At a bar (where he orders “leche”), Puss hears about magic beans being held by grotesque spin on Jack & Jill which are the key to a giant’s kingdom in the sky with a goose that lays golden eggs. Puss makes it his mission to steal these beans when he encounters Kitty Soft-Paws (The Faculty‘s Salma Hayek), a female cat who is an even better thief than him. Kitty is working with Humpty-Dumpty (The Hangover‘s Zach Galifianakis), a friend of Puss’s from his childhood in the orphanage but now there’s bad blood between the two and Humpty may turn out to be (awful pun incoming) a bad egg.

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Antonio Banderas is essentially playing an exaggerated version of his typical film persona (that of the smolderingly sexy Latin lover) so it shouldn’t be surprising that he voices Puss well. Puss’s addition to Shrek 2 was generally considered one of the high points of that particular film, and although I’m not sure if he deserved his own spin-off film, Banderas’s deliciously hyperbolic performance and the writing’s sense of the character give him enough presence to hold the attention for the whole film. Salma Hayek is thoroughly unremarkable as Kitty, but she’s mostly a thoroughly unremarkable actress (her talents as an actress. not her physical looks which are god damned perfect). Zach Galifianakis has the chance to show off a more low-key performance for him as Humpty and he makes the parts work.

What’s most surprising about Puss in Boots is that it is a legitimately, no qualms in saying this very funny film. From the opening sequence where the film doesn’t even attempt to subtly imply that Puss just had a one night stand with a female cat, Puss in Boots blends typical children’s slapstick humor with plenty of tongue-in-cheek pop culture references and almost outright adult humor for the parents. That seems to be Dreamwork’s thing since both Shrek and Rango utilized that same set-up (Puss in Boots falls somewhere between Shrek and Rango in terms of overall quality). And sometimes, it isn’t even the biggest jokes that worked the most for me. Sometimes, it was the tiny little visual gags hidden in a scene. Particularly, Humpty’s map to the giant’s kingdom looks like a children’s map. The gorgeously animated film is full of those little touches.

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I’m going to keep this review short. Puss in Boots lacks the emotional context or thematic richness of Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant, but I had a good time for the 90 minutes I spent in its world. Much like last year’s Oscar-winning Brave, this particular Oscar-nominated children’s film is not going to wind up part of the required canon of modern animated cinema in the way that Up and other children’s classics are. You don’t need to go out of your way to watch this film if you don’t have kids. But if you have children or nieces and nephews or a young sibling and are looking for an entertaining way to pass the time with them, Puss in the Boots will get the job done and you won’t be miserable while it happens.

Final Score: B

 

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After the somewhat disappointing Brave and (though I haven’t seen it) the considerable critical displeasure directed towards Cars 2, many had begun to worry that perhaps Pixar had lost its way. The same magical company that gave us the heartwrenching tale of lost love and a squandered life in Up or the tale of maturation and leaving behind childhood in Toy Story 3 or the brilliant modern superhero story of The Incredibles had seemingly lost its inspiration and ability to tell character-driven stories that appeal to both the young and old. Thankfully, I can report that Pixar has found its magic touch again with the highly enjoyable Monsters University, the long-awaited sequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc.

Though Monsters University may not reach the same emotional heights of Up, the Toy Story franchise, or The Incredibles, it makes up for it by being arguably one of the funniest films that Pixar has done in years and years. Continuing Pixar’s trend (one that I’m perfectly fine with) of making their sequels a meta-commentary for the children who grew up with these films in the first place, the team at Pixar turns Monsters University into a spoof of classic college films like Revenge of the Nerds, Animal House, and others in such a way that I legitimately wonder if kids will even be able to get many of the jokes. But as one of the kids who can remember watching the first film in theaters 12 years ago (when I was myself 12), it’s great to return to this world.

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After visiting the Monsters Inc. scare factory (where the screams of human children are converted into the energy that powers Monstropolis) as a child, Mike Lazowski (Billy Crystal) makes it his life-long dream to become a professional scarer. Considering that he’s a tiny circular green ball with a massive eye, that’s easier said than done since Mike can be better described as “cute” or “cuddly” than “horrific.” But Mike refuses to let that stop him, and thanks to the inspiration given to him by one of the scarers he meets as a child, Mike knows that there’s no better place to learn how to scare than at the prestigious Monsters University.

But, arriving at Monsters University is an immediate reminder to Mike that he’s going to have to work harder than anyone else if he wants to earn his place in the ranks of Scare Majors. Led by the stern and imposing Dean Hardscrabble (The Queen‘s Helen Mirren), the candidates to be scarers face a rigorous curriculum that only the toughest can hope to survive. And early on, the studious but ultimately unscary Mike bumps head with the ferocious but lazy Sully (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) as the two compete to be the best in their class. But when the Greek Scare games arrive, the two must find a way to work together in order to stay in the Scare program.

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One of the biggest compliments that I could give Brave (when I wasn’t thinking about the many things I felt the film was missing) was that it was undeniably a beautiful looking film. Pixar had completely redesigned their graphics engine for that film, and the level of detail and artistry showed. That same absurdly high caliber of detail continues over to Monsters University. Just click on the pixar above of Mike and Scully for the full-size image and see just how insanely detailed the texture work on Sully is. It’s like they individually modeled almost every single hair on his super fuzzy body. And, though Monsters University may be more cartoonishly stylized than Brave, that almost allows the directors to go even more wild with their imagination in crafting fantastic creatures. Monsters University is a visual delight.

Though neither of them have played the part in over ten years now, Billy Crystal and John Goodman slipped comfortably back into these roles that brought so much joy to children so long ago now. I’m sort of sad that Billy Crystal has dropped off the pop culture radar over the last decade (other than the odd Oscars hosting gig here and there) because he picked up the slack of neurotic, nebbish leading men that Woody Allen left off when Woody primarily disappeared behind the camera. And I firmly believe that John Goodman is the best supporting comedic talent of the last twenty-five to thirty years.

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Though the film starts off just a wee bit slow, it allows the film to fill in some of the emotional blanks that make the rest of the film pay off. But, once the laughs come, they hit hard and often til the final credits roll. Of course, I’m 24 and was watching this film in an audience full of little kids (I worry that my 19 year old sister and I were the only non-parent adults in the theater), and I was laughing at all of the moments that the kids weren’t. There’s a scene before their finals where a multiple-limbed monstrosity is downing coffee and twitching like a crackhead that had me laughing hysterically and it was just a little sight gag. But, the film is overflowing with jokes that will more likely appeal to the older people in the crowd than the kids watching with their parents.

I’ve reviewed two movies today. I want to watch the season 1 finale of Twin Peaks as well as an episode of Game of Thrones (which I have to catch up on because I didn’t get to watch this season when it aired) and I want to watch a movie on my Netflix Instant queue before it disappears in two days so I’ll draw this review to a close. Monsters University may not have made me bawl like a baby like Toy Story 3 or Up, but it certainly wasn’t lacking in an emotional pay-off. The film may not be the height of children’s entertainment, but as a nostalgic throwback to the heroes of my youth, Monsters University was a great way to spend an evening.

Final Score: B+

 

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It is one of the great tragedies of the modern age that an entire generation of children will grow up with their primary knowledge of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass coming from the abysmal Tim Burton adaptation from 2010. That film fails to capture, even for a second, the wit, magic, and surrealism that has made Alice in Wonderland one of the most enduring children’s tales of all time. And while nothing will ever quite compare to the original source novel, Disney’s 1951 musical adaptation of the two books remains one of the most simply enjoyable films of Disney’s Golden age, and even as a 24 year old man, slipping back into this magical world and it’s colorful cast of characters was an undeniable delight.

I find it almost astounding that this film predates the psychedelic movement and isn’t, instead, a product of a bunch of completely stoned animators. The hippie movement, and especially the acid-fueled subset of that group, took so many of the symbols and motifs of the book and film and incorporated them into the hippie iconography, and it’s not difficult to see why. There’s a moment early in the film where Alice is falling down the proverbial rabbit-hole where, for no discernible reason, the screen swiftly changes tints and hues in total disorientation. Grace Slick directly quotes the film in “White Rabbit” which is one of the most beloved songs of the psychedelic era. Though it makes sense within the context of the film, Alice in Wonderland‘s dedication to absurdity and constantly surreal overtones is present in every scene, and it’s easy to see why the “heads” of the 60s and 70s loved this movie so much.

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For those who have somehow never seen the film or read the book, Alice in Wonderland is the story of the adventures of young Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) and her journey into the insane, magical, incomprehensible Wonderland. After growing bored with her studies, Alice spies a talking White Rabbit muttering about being late and follows him into a rabbit hole where she falls down to Wonderland. And there, she stumbles upon an increasingly bizarre cast of characters ranging from the homicidal Queen of Hearts, the positively insane Mad Hatter and March Hare, and the obfuscating Cheshire Cat. And, she finds herself in one misadventure after another usually involving food that makes her grow or shrink depending on the side she eats, and before long, it’s clear that all Alice wants to do is get home.

The animation in Alice in Wonderland is truly superb, and although I love pretty much the entirety of the Pixar canon (there are one or two exceptions), I do find myself missing the type of hand-drawn cartoons that I grew up on, and part of me thinks that’s one of the reasons why I enjoy anime so much. Alice in Wonderland is just stunning to look at from beginning to end, and it’s sad that movies that look like this are almost never made anymore. From the way that the film regularly plays with perspective to the imaginative creatures that inhabit Wonderland (such as a rocking horse fly and a dandelion that is half lion and many others) to constant kinetic action and animations, Alice in Wonderland is one of the Golden age animated films that should set the standard for what hand-drawn animation should look like .

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Not only is this film the introduction many kids my age (and for the thirty eight years before I was born) had to post-modernism, it was also likely our first introduction to weird, antiquated political satire that we were too young to understand (and are now too far removed from the people and figures being satirized to comprehend as adults either). It pokes fun at the comedy of manners and class snobbery (the scenes with the flowers) but it also pokes fun at the political establishment and the futility of certain promises of political elites (the moments with the Dodo where they all run in circles) and also how the rich exploit the poor (the Walrus and the Carpenter). Those aren’t the types of things that kids watching the movie would notice (or even enjoy) but it adds another layer to what was already one of Disney’s best films.

If there’s any legitimate complaint to make about Alice in Wonderland, it’s that the musical numbers aren’t up to the par set by the Tim Rice era of the late 80s and early 90s, but let’s face it, Tim Rice is in a class all his own as a songwriter for children’s movies. The songs aren’t bad (and a couple are memorable enough), but as a musical, it lacks a stand-out hit tune. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise timeless Disney classic. If I ever have children some day (which seems unlikely cause I don’t like kids), it is a certainty that this will be one of the films from my childhood that I foist upon them, and it is my sincerest hope that there’s never a day where this movie isn’t considered a wonderful delight.

Final Score: A

I am way too excited about the upcoming days to really do any more meaningful writing this week. Every time I’ve sat down to the typewriter for the last week (I don’t know why I said typewriter there since I use my computer and its keyboards) I’ve been distracted by thoughts of Bonnaroo. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to churn out any meaningful reviews. I leave tomorrow (around 11 AM) to head down to Tennessee and I am excited beyond words about the possibilities of my exciting adventure to the coolest music festival (after Coachella anyways) this year. This will be my last movie review until at least a week from now. I might get one more review of a TV series done. That depends on whether or not I decide to watch another episode of Mad Men tonight and at a reasonable enough hour that I have the energy to review the first disc of the show before I go to bed. Considering the fact that my Mad Men reviews have started to get as in-depth as my Game of Thrones reviews, I don’t see that happening just because I don’t want to make that mental commitment. There’s going to at least (with certainty) be one more Song of the Day post before I go, and then this blog is going on a week long hiatus. I’m going to write an official hiatus post later though. Anyways, I just finished watching Shrek and while I didn’t really enjoy it as much as when I was a kid (though I certainly caught more of the dirtier jokes this time around), it was still a fun children’s movie which has earned its place in cinematic history as being the first kid’s movie to win the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards.

Based off of William Steig’s children’s book (though the film franchise will be remembered far longer than its source material), Shrek is an affectionate parody of nearly all of the children films to come before it. Shrek (Austin Powers‘ Mike Myers) is a solitary and irritable ogre living by himself in the swamps surrounding the kingdom of Duloc. When the evil Lord Farquaad (Dexter‘s John Lithgow) of Duloc relocates all of the fantasy creatures in the kingdom onto Shrek’s swamp, the stolid but basically decent ogre sets off on a quest to get his swamp back for just himself. Reluctantly dragging along the talking donkey, named Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Shrek agrees to rescue the Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a treacherous and dragon-guarded castle for Lord Farquaad in exchange for getting his land back. After Shrek and Donkey rescue the beautiful and feisty Princess Fiona, it’s only a matter of time before Fiona and Shrek begin to bond, and we learn that ogres aren’t the only ones like onions (i.e. they have layers. That joke only worked if you’ve seen the movie), and that Princess Fiona may have some secrets of her own.

I have complicated feelings about Shrek. I’m not going to lie. I remember this movie being so much funnier when I was little. Unlike say Up or Toy Story 3, I don’t feel like this film aged as well as I did. You can put in the best Pixar movies, and they’re going to turn me into an emotional wreck by the end of the film regardless of how old I am. Seriously, if you play that opening montage of Up at any point in the rest of my life, I will cry like a baby without fail. I understand that Shrek was meant to be more of a comedy than a serious film, and while I picked up on a lot more of the jokes directed to the grown-ups during this particular sitting (there was a lot of sex and penis jokes in this movie. Like wow.), I didn’t necessarily think all of them were that clever. Most of the adult-themed humor in the film was as broad and obvious as the jokes geared towards the kids. There were some subtle pop-culture nods here and there that I thought were fairly clever. But, if I want to watch a Shrek film with an endless stream of pop-culture allusions, I can put Shrek 2 in. Still, perhaps as a film meant to be enjoyed by children, my memories of how funny I thought it was as a kid are more than enough to recommend showing it to a whole new generation of children.

The film’s animation though has aged much better than I expected. While all of the people look like plasticine dolls ripped out of the in-game engine of a particularly mediocre current-gen videogame, everything else about the film dripped with style. Shrek is an intentionally ugly world, yet there was a surprising amount of beauty in the landscape work as well as some really exceptional particle effects during important scenes. Much like Rango (though ultimately a far better film), Shrek revels in perverting (in a fun way) and subverting all of the standards of children’s animation. That to me will always be the film’s ultimate legacy. It has become one of the most influential children’s films of the last twenty years simply thanks to its art style alone (well also its occasionally adult sense of humor). Shrek and Donkey were especially well-animated and while the script certainly gave the pair plenty of life and character, the animation team must be given an extraordinary amount of credit for their iconic status in the animated pantheon. Many films have aped Shrek‘s style but few have come close to matching its original magic.

One last comment before I draw this to a close (and do my song of the day post). With the exception of the original Beverly Hills Cop, this was probably the best comedic performance of Eddie Murphy’s career. He was the only part of the movie that was still able to consistently make me laugh and his non-stop zingers, non-sequitors, and neurotic ramblings were always able to keep me in stitches. If you’re a young adult like myself and considering re-watching Shrek for the first time in years, it’s still an enjoyable film even if the years might tarnish your cherished memories of this movie. My sister and I still somehow managed to know all of the words to the movie and were calling them out as the film was happening like we were watching Rocky Horror Picture Show. It definitely has the best soundtrack of pop and rock music in any kids movie I can think of whose name isn’t Fantastic Mr. Fox. This was the film that introduced me to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (though it’s performed by Rufus Wainwright in the film and my favorite version is Jeff Buckley). And if you’re thinking about showing it to your kids for the first time, you have my whole hearted approval. Just come up with a clever distraction if they ever ask you to explain some of the dirtier jokes.

Final Score: B+

There’s nothing more disappointing than when a film has a ton of individual pieces that seem like a recipe for success but it turns out to be a near total dud instead. 2011’s Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski (which should have been the warning sign that it wasn’t going to be very good), seemed like a surefire success. It was a big budget animated feature from Dreamworks Studios (the studio behind Shrek when they were still a subversive and cutting-edge take on the animated film and not a formulaic cash cow franchise) that won the Best Animated Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. It starred Johnny Depp (who had worked with Gore Verbinski when creating arguably his most iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates of the Caribbean). It was a children’s take on the Western genre. It has an astonishingly original art style and looks amazing despite the intentional ugliness of the characters. Yet, despite all of this, the plot and humor in Rango often falls unfortunately flat, and in the wake of the mature and deep characterization offered in Pixar films like Toy Story 3 and Up, Rangois far too shallow to be the most celebrated animated film of 2011.

Rango (Johnny Depp) lives a perfectly “ordinary life” as a lizard inside his terrarium. Along with the props in his homes, he explores his desire to be an actor by putting on low-rate theatrical productions that even he realizes are crap. His life is turned upside down though when his terrarium is accidentally jettisoned out of the car it was traveling in and he finds himself without food, water, or shelter in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s not long before he winds up meeting Beans (The Wedding Crashers’ Isla Fisher), another lizard, who drops him off in the ironically named town of Dirt. Dirt is suffering from a water shortage though the shady Mayor (Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty) claims to have everything under control. When his manhood is questioned at the bar, Rango constructs a series of elaborate lies to embellish his image (and to practice his acting), and after he accidentally saves the town from a murderous hawk, his legend only grows and the Mayor makes Rango the sheriff. It’s not long before Rango finds himself drawn into the investigation of where the town’s water has gone and into an adventure well beyond his control.

Let’s start with the good. The art style makes for one of the best looking and most intriguing (artistically) CGI films ever made. I love the Pixar films, but everything (and everyone) in their films has to be cute. Even Monsters Inc. was full of adorable and huggable “monsters.” Rango isn’t afraid to make its characters a little more stylized and ultimately more distinct. A lot of the characters are downright ugly, but the attention to detail (and the obvious western stereotypes they were drawing on) makes the character art seem much more lively than your average homogenized children’s fare. The characters are animal versions of iconic roles from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and more modern fare likeDeadwood, and if I forced myself to forget about the film’s forgettable story and characters (in terms of their personalities), I could just bask in how well done the film’s visuals were. There are also several explosive action sequences, and Gore Verbinski’s experience directing live-action epics really shows in how thrilling and well-choreographed those scenes were.

The voice acting is also top-notch. Johnny Depp is great in every film of his I’ve seen (except for The Nightmare on Elm Street but that was his debut and doesn’t really count. It wasn’t really a demanding role), and while his interpretation of Rango could get a little too kiddy for me at times (his voice took on the annoying high-pitched trait that I associate with poor English dubs of anime on some occasions), he was able to infuse the film’s rare dramatic moments with considerable heft. Johnny Deppy is very much a physical actor in the vein of Dustin Hoffman, but it still impresses how much he can accomplish with his voice alone. Ned Beatty made as a particularly sinister villain (and Bill Nighy disguised his voice supremely well as one of the smaller antagonists). However, the really shocking voice-acting discovery of the film was Timothy Olyphant. He essentially played Clint Eastwood’s character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and I actually thought it was Clint Eastwood voicing the character for a minute before I realized I was hearing Raylen Givens. Who knew that Timothy Olyphant could do such a pitch-perfect Clint Eastwood impersonation?

Unfortunately, the film’s story and characters were utterly predictable and completely forgettable. Outside of Depp’s Rango, none of the animal’s made enough of an impact to be remembered as anything other than “the cat,” or “the dog,” or “the mouse.” Maybe, I’m expecting too much from a children’s film but the main cast of Toy Story 3 felt very well-fleshed out (and not just because there were two films preceding it to craft their backstories). By the film’s end, you were taken on a very specific (but still plot-driven) emotional journey that left me in tears. Similarly, think about how much character-based storytelling was accomplished in the first twenty minutes of Up when there were hardly any words spoken? Rango may serve as a passable children’s adventure and comedy (though most of the jokes for the kids fell flat), but in two or three years, no one will be speaking about this film again except perhaps to mention its dazzling artwork. In actuality, the only jokes in the film that really found their marks were meta-textual references to Johnny Depp’s career (and other Western in-jokes) such as Rango flying into the windshield of a car that was obviously being drive by a Raoul Duke stand-in from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Even with my weighty complaints, Rango still has its moments, and its surrealistic art style was a revelation. I don’t think I’ve seen a children’s film loaded with more pop culture references since Shrek 2 blew my “freshman in high school” mind with its never-ending stream of meta jokes. Still, in this Pixar age, I expect more from my children’s films especially one that is deemed the best animated film of the year by the Academy Awards. I’m a Western film fanatic, and I still couldn’t invest myself in the bare-bones plot in Rango. This film has generated a very polarizing response among audiences, and at the end of the day, I have to throw my hat in with its critics. Still, it showed a remarkable amount of potential, and I hope that it’s team of animators go on to do great things in the future. They just need a better script to truly fashion a classic.

Final Score: B-

 

The very first movie I ever saw in theater’s was The Muppets Christmas Carol. Between that holiday classic and The Great Muppet Caper, I can easily say I drove my parents Muppet crazy in the process of wearing out our VHS copies of those films. The antics of Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and (for young Don Saas) especially Gonzo kept me entertained for countless hours. While my tastes have certainly evolved since the days where Mary Martin’s Peter Pan and Fantasia accompanied the Muppets as the height of personal entertainment, I’ve never completely outgrown my love of Jim Henson’s most long lasting creation. For a franchise that introduced me to Michael Caine, fourth wall breaking comedy, the perils of being green, and of course the heckling of Waldorf and Statler, it’s long lasting effect on my appreciation for both absurd and sardonic humor can’t be overstated. While the series last entry (nearly a decade ago), Muppets in Space, isn’t quite as memorable as the earlier films and the television show, it is with great joy that I can report the newly released, The Muppets, is a resounding success that combines the wonderful nostalgia of a franchise that’s nearly 30 years old with fresh jokes that will have you rolling in the aisles.

The film centers on brother’s Walter (Muppet) and Gary (Jason Segal). Walter and Gary have been life-long fans of the Muppets, especially Walter who sees kindred spirits in these puppet celebrities. Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) plan a romantic getaway to Los Angeles to celebrate their 10 year anniversary as a couple, and they bring Walter with them so he can visit the fabled Muppet studios. When they arrive in LA, the trio discovers that Muppet Theatre is a ramshackle shell of its former self, and it hasn’t been used in years. After slipping away to explore Kermit’s abandoned office, Walter stumbles upon a plot by oil baron Tex Richman (Oscar winner Chris Cooper) to purchase the abandoned lot to tear it down and drill for oil. Now, it’s up to Walter and Gary to round up all of the Muppets for one last show to raise $10 million in order to save the studio. With cameos from Jack Black, Jim Parsons, Neil Patrick Harris, Alan Arkin, and many others, you get a star studded comedy musical that’s as much fun for the adults as the kids.

This film elicited tears on two separate occasions. Once, I was crying simply because I was laughing so hard. Without wanting to ruin the joke, the series manages to incorporate two songs in a row from sources that may seem as incompatible with children’s humor as Tupac or Biggie. When the first song began, it took me nearly a minute for the first song to register but when it finally did, the laughter didn’t die down until the second song was over. As to the second time I cried, it was related to the emotional depth the film portrayed. While I would never put the dramatic storytelling in this film on the same level as recent classics such as Up or Toy Story 3, I certainly found myself quite attached to series newbie Walter, even more than I cared about some of the B-List Muppets in this film like Rolf, Animal, or Scooter. Similarly, Kermit’s emotional journey throughout the film was as genuinely compelling as you could hope to get from a children’s movie, and while it wasn’t the most complex tale, I found myself legitimately involved in the Muppets triumphs and tragedies.

The film’s original musical numbers were a little more hit and miss than the jokes and characterization. I sincerely enjoyed some (especially the wonderful cameo by Jim Parsons as Gary and Walter sing about whether they are men or Muppets) and the pleasure of seeing the whole crew do the opening number for the Muppets TV show was great. However, too many songs just seemed like an opportunity for Amy Adams to show off her admittedly beautiful voice and didn’t contribute enough to the actual action on screen. Kermit sings a number at his house though as he ponders the lonely state he’s found himself in the last couple of decades that is just heartbreaking. This can be an incredibly sad children’s movie. I saw this with my little sister and I lost track of how many times one of us would turn to the other and say how depressing any given scene had become. That’s part of what makes it great though. Rather than insult children’s intelligence like so much of what is fed to them these days, The Muppets provides sincere emotion and life lessons along with the outrageous humor.

For anyone who prides themselves not necessarily on being a kid at heart but at least still being able to enjoy the childlike sense of wonder and innocence when you watch something like The Iron Giant or Where the Wild Things Are, then The Muppets is the first top rate children’s movie to come along since Toy Story 3. It’s not perfect, and at no point did I find myself completely wrecked with convulsive sobbing as I do every time I watch Up‘s prologue or Toy Story 3‘s final moments, but this is still the Muppets franchise at its best in decades. The absurd and often surreal humor that are the series hallmarks are on full display, and I’m almost willing to say that this movie will be even more enjoyable for the parents in the audience than their children. I found myself magically transported back to the little child who knew every scene from The Great Muppet Caper by heart, but with a new found respect for the clever puns, parodies, and sight gags on display in nearly every second of this film. Young or old, Muppet fanatic or neophyte, this film deserves your attention.

Final Score: A-

One of the first things I was forced to learn as a film critic was that I had to distance the quality of any single performance in a movie from the over all quality of the film. A show-stopping Daniel Day Lewis caliber role has to be seen as only one of many parts in the total value of a picture. David Lynch’s direction in Inland Empire was inspiring and Laura Dern inhabited her character in terrifying ways, but there’s almost no denying that the script itself was fairly outrageous and practically impossible to follow (though that was also Lynch’s intention). Take away Will Smith’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Pursuit of Happyness and you are left with a terribly conventional Horatio Alger tale of rags to riches. Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson’s incendiary comic (and eventually for MacLaine, heart-wrenchingly dramatic) performances saved Terms of Endearment from being complete and utter melodramatic drivel. I recently finished the 1956 film, The Court Jester, and while Danny Kaye’s comedic and musical chops are unquestionable, the actual  film faltered on a basic inability to decide what kind of film it wished to be and delivered the promised laughs far too rarely.

A spoof of Errol Flynn swashbuckling hero films (most specifically Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), the movie spins the tale of a fictional king in medieval England and the band of outlaws trying to restore justice. King Roderick (Cecil Parker) usurped the throne from the true heir, an infant with a purple pimpernel birthmark on his behind. Ferried away from the castle by loyalists to the true royal family, the heir is now in the protection of an outlaw band led by the Robin Hood stand-in, the Black Fox (Edward Ashley). Employed by the outlaws as both the heir’s nanny as well as entertainment for the band, Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye) is a bumbling carnival performer who quickly finds himself swept up in the final plot to dethrone the pretender King Roderick. Along with the help of the beautiful but deadly Maid Jean (Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins), the Black Fox’s chief lieutenant, Hawkins infiltrates the castle posing as the new Court Jester, Giacomo the Incomparable, and gets caught up in assassination conspiracies, the hypnotic schemings of a witch, and more medieval action scenarios than you can shake a stick at.

Danny Kaye is possibly the very definition of comic energy. Able to quickly morph from a riveting musical number with a troupe of dwarves to Gilbert & Sullivan style tongue twisters to a variety of distinct characters all with their own unique humor and identity to a pitch perfect parody of the Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks heroes of old, he is an absolute marvel to watch. With a beautiful voice and a natural charisma and humor, Danny Kaye was the film’s distinct (though not necessarily sole) saving grace. Basil Rathbone was deliciously villainous as the duplicitous Sir Ravenhurst, and his fencing scenes with Danny Kaye towards the film’s climax were among the only highlights of the action oriented moments of the film. Glynis Johns (who I instantly recognized as the mother from Mary Poppins) was a surprisingly tough and action oriented heroine for a movie from the 1950’s, and it was a refreshing sight from an age where most female characters were more akin to Angela Lansbury’s (Beauty and the Beast) Princess Gwendolyn.

The film’s Achilles heel however is its basic inability to determine what tone and style it wants to project. At one moment, it’s a children’s musical with Danny Kaye periodically breaking out into song even when it isn’t necessarily appropriate to the story. The next scene it could be a nearly perfect satire of the swashbuckler subgenre. Later, it will want to be a more wordplay and rapid-fire pun style of comedy. Then to top it all off, there are moments where it just wants to be the kind of movies it’s nominally parodying without actually attempting any humor. The writing for the film wasn’t nearly sharp enough to afford them this lack of focus, and I found myself going vast periods of time without laughing at a single gag (when the film took the effort to even make any). Similarly, the ending seems to drag towards eternity, at least until its riotous final moments. While not every comedy needs to be chock full of laugh out loud moments (Sideways or The Savages show that a comedy can be extremely dramatic), when the drama is as uninteresting and stale as what’s presented in The Court Jester, the lack of laughs is potentially unforgivable.

For movie fans who yearn for a more innocent day and simpler storytelling, you may find more mileage from this cult classic than myself, but for everyone else, it may seem to quaint and antiquated to remain truly entertaining 55 years later. It certainly had its moments; the “vessel with the pestle” scene as well as the first musical number involving the dwarves were quite original and energetic, but mostly the film teased you with a potential for hysterical parody of the swashbuckling epics of yesteryear but chose intsead to simply make a less entertaining version of those very films. Danny Kaye deserves every bit of praise that has been lavished on him over the years, but even he is unable to save this film from its weakest elements.

Final Score: B-