Tag Archive: Children’s Movies


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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Paranorman1

(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

 

TitanAE1

As a child, it’s possible that I was exposed more to Don Bluth films than I was to traditional Disney animation. I know for certain that I enjoyed movies like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail more than most of the Disney output of the 90s (The Lion King and Aladdin two massive exceptions). Even as a kid, I think I recognized the darker and more subversive undertones in Bluth films (though certainly his powerful storytelling and richly drawn characters had more to do with it then) compared to their Disney counterparts. An American Tail was a heartbreaking and terrifying tale of childhood abandonment mixed in the Russian Jewish immigrant experience in the United States in the 1910s. No company would try that today. 2000’s Titan A.E. was the last Bluth film to make it to theatres. It was a massive flop at the box office, and along with Treasure Planet, it sort of killed traditional hand-drawn Western animation. Thankfully, a cult audience has formed around this film in the last decade.

Although, in many ways, Titan A.E. isn’t as great as Bluth’s output of the late 80s and early 90s. I would go so far as to simply say it isn’t a great film, though it was a very good one. Part of the problem is that this was one of the rare Bluth films where Bluth wasn’t the sole director. It was also directed by Gary Goldman, who (with the exception of All Dogs Go to Heaven) was mostly involved in a lot of the less than stellar Bluth films of the 90s. The movie was in production for a long, long time and many writers were involved with the project, and a lack of a cohesive vision for the film is painfully apparent. The movie does have a lot going for it. The Titan A.E.-universe is very appealing, and thanks to Joss Whedon’s work on the script, the characters are great. It is also arguably one of the darkest and most violent children’s films I’ve ever seen. I just wish the story held together better and that there was a more unified vision for the film.

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Titan A.E. is the definition of a cult children’s film so I won’t be surprised if most of my reader’s haven’t seen it. In the 31st century, Cale (Good Will Hunting‘s Matt Damon) was orphaned as a child when an alien species made of pure energy, the Dredge, destroyed the planet Earth and his father escaped on the ship Titan with an undisclosed mission that could be the hope to save humanity. 15 years later, Cale is a brash young man with no human identity doing repair work on a remote mining station with only his alien mentor for company or friendship. That all changes when Captain Corso (Torchwood: Miracle Day‘s Bill Pullman) arrives informing Cale that he, not his father, is now humanity’s last hope. A ring given to Cale by his father right before the destruction of Earth is a map to the location of the Titan ship, and Cale must answer the call to find his destiny and save the human race.

And, thus, Cale is whisked away (not without a dramatic and violent escape from the mining station) by Corso to his ship where Cale meets Corso’s eccentric and border-line insane crew. The obligatory (and sort of terribly developed in terms of their romance) love interest is the human colonist Akima (Irreconcilable Differences‘ Drew Barrymore). You also have Preed (Nathan Lane), the lascivious dog alien with a less than subtle attraction to Akima (or any female it would appear). Grune (Romeo + Juliet‘s John Leguizamo) is the ship’s turtle/E.T. looking scientist with a strange, almost sexual reaction to the gadgetry and scientific mysteries of the film. And lastly, you have Stith (Reality Bites‘s Janeane Garofalo), the beleaguered ship’s weapon specialist, who mostly likes to complain about the fact that she has too many degrees to be doing the work on the ship she does.

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As you can tell, Titan A.E. has a refreshingly quirky cast that generally doesn’t fit into the “quirky” archetypes of your average kid’s movie. And with the notable exception of Drew Barrymore (because when has she ever given a good performance), the voice-acting is great across the board. Obviously, Matt Damon’s Cale isn’t as demanding a part as Good Will Hunting or The Departed but it’s a kid’s movie for fuck’s sake. The two best voice-over performances are Bill Pullman’s Corso as a wonderful gruff mentor figure who shows some remarkable range in his performance (that I can’t get too far into without spoiling a late game plot twist) and John Leguizamo’s Grune just for the sheer oddity of his takes on an almost literal mad scientist. Most of the laughs from the film (cause it’s mostly dramatic) come from Grune.

And, as I said, the universe of Titan A.E. is consistently welcoming. As I watched the film, I pretty much constantly wanted to know more about the world our heroes were exploring. Part of that can be attributed to the film’s wonderful art-style. There’s a section on a planet of bat-like aliens that is just stunningly gorgeous. But, and this is the film’s biggest problem, the story seems to run purely on getting from one crazy scrape to the next. And, the individual set-pieces are awesome and endlessly inventive, but the plotting of the film borders on patchwork at best and totally illogical at its worst. For example, at one point, the Dredge are holding Cale captive and he breaks out of their prison in the most insultingly simple way imaginable. Also, at one point, Cale and Corso survive being exposed to Outer Space in just their regular clothes by holding their breath. That…. is not how that works. They would have frozen to death. Of course, I know I’m putting too much thought into a sci-fi film where there is an alien species made of pure energy.

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I’m going to draw this review to a close. I wound up sleeping like 15 hours last night which means I probably haven’t eaten in like 19 hours. And I am huuuuungry. I also want to watch Twin Peaks even though this season seems to have more twists per episode than most shows have over the course of an entire season. Season 2 of Twin Peaks is crazy y’all. I may not have fallen in love with Titan A.E. as much as I did The Land Before Time or Bluth’s other best works, but it was an enjoyable ride for the 90 minutes it lasted. The only other substantive complaint one could make about this film is that it is in no way, shape, or form suitable for children. It is violent. And, not in some surface way. It is just super violent. A character gets his neck snapped, one character is shot and explodes into green goo, blood is seemingly omni-present. It’s just violent. But, if you’re older and have fond memories of Bluth, this is a fun way to pass an evening.

Final Score: B+

 

SnowWhiteAndTheSevenDwarfs1

The day that I get too old to enjoy children’s movies will be the day that my heart stops being capable of having simple, innocent fun. Anyone who’s read my reviews of Toy Story 3, The Iron Giant, or Howl’s Moving Castle know the fondness I hold in my heart for great children’s film-making, and when Pixar or Studio Ghibli are involved, we’re living through a family film renaissance. But, the mark of a great children’s movie is how much the adults in the audience can appreciate it, and though 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a remarkable technical achievement as the world’s first full-length animated film, sitting through it’s actual story was an absolute, almost unbearable bore.

When I was watching the Blu-Ray re-release of Snow White (which impressively decided to not futz with the original film’s 4:3 aspect ratio by not awkwardly forcing a 16:9 schematic into the film), I was bowled over by the film’s artist attention to detail and the sheer scope and gamble that movie surely represented for the Disney studios. No one else had done anything like it before. Cartoons were meant for shorts, not movies, but Walt Disney wrung 90 minutes out of an animated story. And, the backgrounds and characters (except for the hideously drawn Snow White herself) are exquisite and well-crafted in a way that Disney rarely does anymore. Sadly, that didn’t make the actual plot of the film itself any more enjoyable.

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If you are somehow unfamiliar with the plot of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you’re either an amnesia just waking from a decades long coma or you’re an alien intent on infiltrating the human race. But, here goes. Snow White is a beautiful princess whose evil stepmother, the Queen, fears her stepdaughter’s beauty. With a magic mirror constantly telling her that she’s the most fairest woman in the land, the Queen is content to make her daughter’s life hell and to dress her as a hideous maid until one day the mirror changes its tune and tells the Queen that Snow White is now the fairest of them all.

The Queen, being the psychotic narcissist that she is, doesn’t take the news well. She orders the royal huntsman to escort the young Snow White off to the woods and then to kill her and remove her heart as a trophy. But, when the time comes, the huntsman can not do it and shows mercy on the young Snow White. Snow White is forced to flee into the woods away from the watchful eyes of her evil Stepmother, and in those woods, she stumbles upon the company of seven strange but lovable dwarfs who vow to keep her safe. But, the Queen’s vengeance knows no limits and she devises a plan with a poisoned apple to end Snow White’s life once and for all.

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Words can not properly describe how irritating Adriana Caselotti’s voice is. That’s the woman who voiced Snow White, and it’s like if they took everything that made Judy Garland’s voice so iconic and wonderful and then made it grating like Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain. She thankfully doesn’t talk all that much, but by the end of the film, I was cheering for the Evil Queen to feed her the poisoned apple because I didn’t want to hear her treacly sweet voice ever again. Her singing voice is alright, but most of the enjoyable musical numbers from the film were performed by the dwarfs anyway, but more on them in a second.

The movie’s story is so broad, the characterizations so thin, and the innocence of it so frustrating that it’s difficult for anyone bred on the Disney films of the 90s (like me) to be able to sit through the simplicity of this film’s tale. Until the dwarfs arrive, it lacks much of the trademark humor of a Disney film, and it’s painfully obvious that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was made for young girls and absolutely no one else was likely intended to enjoy it. Alongside the film’s artistic craftsmanship, the dwarfs are the only consistently enjoyable part of the film, and they add a much needed levity to the whole affair. There’s a reason why “Hi Ho” is still a classic of the children’s genre.

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As dull and uninteresting as I found most of the film, I was able to sit through this thankfully brief film because of how gorgeous the artwork is. For what was the very first full-length animated feature, Disney already knew what they were doing, and their dedication to getting things right in an age before computers is incredible. I can’t even imagine the man hours that went into making this movie. So, although I have no intention of watching this film ever again (unless I have a daughter someday who forces me to), I can appreciate the momentous undertaking that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs represented for Disney. And it’s that ambition that keeps this score from being even lower than it alraedy is.

Final Score: B-

 

AliceInWonderland1951-1

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-

 

Occasionally, a movie will come along where the trailers simply did not represent what the film was really about. The marketing department will emphasize the most accessible aspects of a film (action, romance, comedy) while leaving out whatever the real film may be. Some of the most egregious examples I can think of was Pan’s Labyrinth‘s publicity when it came out as a family friendly fantasy adventure (ummm… definitely not family friendly whatsoever unless you want your child having nightmares for the rest of their life, the original marketing for Sweeney Todd only highlighted the traditional Tim Burton aspects of the film and not the fact that it’s a Stephen Sondheim penned musical, and Watchmen‘s trailers made everyone who hadn’t read the comics expect that there would be significantly more action in the film than there really was. Martin Scorsese’s newest film (which picked up 5 Oscars at this year’s ceremony), Hugo, can be added to this list because I clearly remember the trailers portraying this as some sort of steampunk children’s adventure when in reality it is a quiet and often contemplative ode to the pioneers of silent cinema and finding your purpose in life. I’m glad the film is the latter because much like 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are, I suspect that this is a children’s film that will be far more enjoyed by its adult audience than the children who will likely not appreciate the subtleties of its themes and may become bored by the deliberate pacing of the story.

In the 1930’s, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is an orphan living behind the walls of a Parisian train station. When his father (Jude Law) died in a fire, Hugo was sent to live with his alcoholic uncle who fixes the clocks at the station. When the uncle abandons Hugo, he’s left to fend for himself, maintaining the clocks and stealing food to survive while trying to avoid the watchful eye of the station’s Inspector General (Borat‘s Sascha Baron Cohen). The only item that Hugo has to remind him of his father is a robot called an “automaton” that Hugo’s father believed would write a message when fixed, but he died before he can fix it. Hugo regularly pilfers broken toys for parts from the toy store of Georges (Ben Kingsley), an elderly man who becomes very upset when he sees Hugo’s notebook which has drawings/blueprints of the automaton. Hugo befriends Georges’ granddaughter Isabella (Let Me In‘s Chloe Grace Moretz) and the duo quickly discover that Isabella’s Papa Georges is in fact legendary French filmmaker George Melie whose 1902 classic, La Voyage Dans Le Lune, remains one of the most celebrated science fiction films of all time.

Martin Scorsese has certainly stepped outside his wheelhouse for this film, and while it has certain flaws that could have been avoided (a significant amount of padding, a very slow beginning that does little to supplement the major themes of the film), it is as much a success as his other non-crime related films have been such as The Aviator, Raging Bull, or After Hours (it has never ceased to strike me as odd that After Hours is Scorsese). While there are certain elements of children’s cinema at play here (children protagonists, light action/thrills, 3D effects that contribute little to the overall film), this movie is too mature (intellectually not sexually or in terms of language) and metatextual to really be effective for children. I can picture kids watching this film and often being bored out of their gourds because there isn’t much in the way of humor (except for Sascha Baron Cohen) and the movie is fairly sad and subdued til the end when the inevitable happy endings finally arrive. It is filled to the brim with allusions to classic moments in silent movies, and the film will often go extended lengths without any dialogue (and just the superlative score. How did it not win Best Original Score at the Oscars) to capture that classic feel. Much like Cinema Paradiso (if not quite as magical), this is a film about loving movies and the way they can change our lives, and that message will likely be lost on younger audiences who wouldn’t know who Buster Keaton was let alone a French filmmaker like Georges Melies.

Asa Butterfield only has three or four features to his name, but he has the potential to join co-star Chloe Grace Moretz as one of the emerging child talents. With such knowing and piercing blue eyes that he recalls a similarly young Elijah Wood (in The Good Son), I haven’t seen a child actor evoke such intense feelings of hurt, abandonment, and loneliness in ages, but he’s also able to show a playful side as well. Chloe Grace Moretz is the next Dakota Fannining (but more talented), and ever since she uttered the word “c*nt” in Kick-Ass, she’s been on the tips of everyone’s tongue, and now that she’s worked with Martin Scorsese, what else is there for her to do except try and get an Oscar nomination like Abigail Breslin received for Little Miss Sunshine. She hasn’t done anything on that caliber yet (though she was great in Let Me In, Kodi Schmitt-McPhee actually outshined her [which is the reverse of my feelings about the stars of the original Swedish film]), but I think with time, she can establish herself as the premier child actress and I have little trouble believing she’ll continue to have a career as she grows older. Ben Kingsley remains one of the all-time acting greats, and while his performance as Melies wasn’t among his career’s best, it was still an effecting portrait of old age, regret, and hope.

This film is not really what it was advertised to be, and my recommendation that all Martin Scorsese fans (and all pure cinephiles) should view it is not the same as a commendation that Hugo is prime viewing material for younger audiences because I honestly don’t think they’d be able to appreciate it. However, for everyone that loves films that capture the innocence of childhood but don’t insult your intelligence as an adult, Hugo is a beautiful and breathtaking achievement, and it’s gorgeous cinematography captures the dreamlike state of the best of Melies’ work. I wish that its opening moments had the same nostalgic magic as the rest of the film because I actually fell asleep the first time I tried to watch the beginning of this movie which was a shame because immediately thereafter, the film picked up and sucked me in with its visual poetry. Scorsese is 70 years old this year, and he can’t have many films left to make (though I pray that isn’t the case). If Hugo proves to be one of Scorsese’s final films, it will be a remarkable tribute to the forerunners that allowed him to become the icon he is today.

Final Score: A-

I have a million little questions that I tend to ask people that are, in fact, secret tests of their character, taste, and intelligence. Who is your favorite character on Seinfeld (any answer is fine except for Kramer)? Who is your favorite Beatle (George or John)? The Red Sox or the Yankees (Boston)? Sony or Nintendo (Sony)? Well, one of my key ways to determine if you have good taste in children’s movie is your opinion of the original Fantasia film. It is easily one of my favorite films from my child hood and if someone doesn’t like Fantasia, I have to question their entire taste in cinema. Well, I finally got around (11 years later) to watching its long-awaited sequel Fantasia 2000 and while it isn’t quite as magical as the original, it’s still quite a gamble in high-brow children’s animation.

Fantasia 2000 follows the same basic set-up of the original film by setting different animated “stories” against a back drop of classical music (although this one also includes a wonderful jazz number). The film has many new vignettes as well as bringing back the classic “The Sorceror’s Apprentice”. However, unlike the original, where the conductor managed most of the transitions between scenes, this one brings in a large cast of familiar faces to add humor to the transition scenes, like Steve Martin, Penn and Teller, Angela Lansbury, and James Earl Jones.

There were two numbers in this film that I would put as being on par with some of the stuff from the original film, and while the others were good, they weren’t as great as the two I’m about to mention. Obviously, “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” isn’t counted in all this since it was in the original as well. They do an absolutely A+ stellar job with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” both through the perfect choice of song and then through the beautiful art deco animation and Great Depression era storytelling that follows. “Rhapsody in Blue” was my favorite part of the whole film. Also, much like “Night on Bald Mountain/ Ave Maria” from the first film, “Firebird Suite” beautifully mixes an earthly sense of wonder, beauty, and creation with  a sense of danger and death. “Night on Bald Mountain” gave me terrible nightmares as a child because of Chernobog and I could see “Firebird Suite” doing something similar for children today.

This film isn’t as groundbreaking or innovative as the original Fantasia was nearly 70 years ago, but that’s ok. It’s still the kind of big gamble that you’d think Disney had stopped making a long time ago. I would give the original Fantasia one of my very rare A+’s for it’s total score, and while I can’t do that for Fantasia 2000, that doesn’t stop it from still being a great fun, family film. When I get older and if I ever have any kids of my own, I know that the Fantasia films will play a very special role in their cinematic lives.

Final Score: A-