Movie Review: Luca (2021)


TitleLuca
Release Date: June 18, 2021
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Pixar’s latest release is part Pixar formula, part innovation.  The story is a coming-of-age comedy mixed with fantasy elements that is similar to other Pixar films.  The animation veers away from the more photo-realistic style of recent Pixar releases with more cartoonish character designs and a fairy tale rendering of the Italian Riveria.  The biggest disappointment is that Disney chose not to give this movie a wide theatrical release because I expect it looks amazing on the big screen.

The story centers on Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a young teenaged sea monster who is curious about the human “land monsters” and their artifacts that fall into the sea, but his strict parents warn him to keep away.  Before he can get all moody and start singing “Part of Your World,” he is accidentally scooped up onto land by Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), an older teenage sea monster who has made a home for himself in an abandoned tower. The sea monsters take human form on dry land, the transformations being a great visual effect used throughout the movie.

The boys bond in friendship, and dreaming of exploring the world on a Vespa, they go to the local town.  They meet Giulia (Emma Berman), an adventurous teenaged girl and misfit, and the trio work together to earn prize money in a triathlon of swimming, past eating, and bicycling.  The movie tells a story of young people forming friendships and finding a place where they feel like where they belong, while dealing with bullying and prejudice.  As you can expect from Pixar, there’s a lot of humor, charm, wonder, and tear-inducing heartfelt moments.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020)


TitleStar Trek: Lower Decks
Release Date: 2020
Creator: Mike McMahan
Season: 1
Episodes:10
Production Company: CBS Eye Animation Productions | Secret Hideout | Important Science | Roddenberry Entertainment | Titmouse, Inc.
Summary/Review:

Starfleet:  they’re just like us!  The animated comedy series Star Trek: Lower Decks shows the perspective of low-ranking crew members aboard the starship U.S.S. Cerritos. The four main characters included Beckett Mariner (Tawny Newsome) a wise-cracking rule-breaker who is the captain’s daughter, although neither of them publicly acknowledge their relationship. Mariner befriends the nerdy but ambitious Brad Boimler (Jack Quaid) who is a stickler for the rules.  The cast is rounded out with D’Vana Tendi (Noël Wells), an Orion medical ensign who is very enthusiastic about everything Starfleet, and  Sam Rutherford (Eugene Cordero), an engineering ensign adjusting to a new cyborg implant.

This show isn’t breaking any ground as joking about the tropes and conventions of Star Trek go back a long way. The adult animation style and humor are also nothing new as it’s pretty similar to your run-of-the-mill animated shows on The Cartoon Network/Adult Swim.  And yet, I found the show had a goofy charm I enjoyed.  Maybe Discovery and Picard set me up to have low expectations for the Paramount+ Star Trek Universe.  I definitely felt this show improved vastly as the season went along and I would be happy to watch more when season 2 is released.

 

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Movie Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)


Title: Isle of Dogs
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Studio Babelsberg | Indian Paintbrush | American Empirical Pictures
Summary/Review:

Wes Anderson’s second animated feature has a lot of the sames going for it as Fantastic Mr. Fox. It has stop-motion animation that is visually stunning.  It has clever storytelling.  It has a good mix of humor and adventure. It has a massive cast of celebrity voices.  It has dogs!

But for some reason I don’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor.  Perhaps because it is to long and has way to many subplots (they could’ve left out the Tracy Walker stuff and just focused on the dogs, for starters).  There has been some criticism of the film for cultural appropriation and stereotypes of Japanese people.  It felt more like a respectful homage to Japanese films to me but still, something felt off.

I’m not here to trash the film though.  I did enjoy it, just somewhat less than I had hoped.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)


Title: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Release Date: November 13, 2009
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Indian Paintbrush | Regency Enterprises | American Empirical Pictures
Summary/Review:

Have you ever wanted to see animals stare deadpan into the camera while reciting quirky dialogue?  Wes Anderson’s brilliant stop-motion animation comedy/adventure fill will do that for you.

The titular Mr. Fox is a newspaper columnist who has adopted a suburban dad life after promising his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) to give up stealing poultry when their son was born.  A few years later he’s yearning to get back into thievery and plots a heist of three farms on three nights with his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky).  The farmers respond with an all out war on the Fox family which puts all the local fauna under siege.  In a subplot, the Fox’s awkward son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, of course) forms a rivalry with his cool and athletically-gifted visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).

This is an enjoyable family film with a lot of visual treats in the animation, some clever gags, and maybe a few moments that might be scary for the kids.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Wolfwalkers (2020) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter W

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

I couldn’t find a “W” movie to watch from these lists so I’m watching a highly-regarded recent release instead.

Title:Wolfwalkers 
Release Date: December 2, 2020
Director: Tomm Moore | Ross Stewart
Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Mélusine
Summary/Review:

Kilkenny, Ireland – 1650.  The town faces the threat of a pack of wolves outside its walls, and the draconian rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) within.  Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) is an English hunter charged with eliminating the wolf problem while raising and protecting his adventurous young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey).  Naturally, Robyn makes her way into the forest where she discovers the secret of the wolfwalkers, people who are human when they are awake and wolves when they are asleep, living among the wolfpack.

Robyn befriends the young Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whitaker) and they join together to try and find Mebh’s missing mother and help save the wolf pack.  It’s a wonderful adventure full of great imagination, action, and camaraderie. The animation is absolutely beautiful and effortlessly melds together the historical with the fantastical.  Computer-animated films are getting better and better, but it is also really lovely to see a traditionally animated film like this one again.

Tomm Moore also directed The Secret of Kells which I also loved so now I need to seek out the rest of his films.  In the meantime, I highly recommend this as a great film for the whole family.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Grave of the Fireflies (1988) #atozchallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter G

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Today’s film is not on any of these lists, but it is highly regarded and in my opinion is an all-time classic film.

Title: Grave of the Fireflies
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Director: Isao Takahata
Production Company: Studio Ghibli
Summary/Review:

I have very limited experience watching anime and associate the genre with fantasy film so was surprised to learn that Grave of the Fireflies is an historical drama set in Kobe, Japan in the final months of World War II.  It tells the story of two children struggling to survive on their own after their mother is killed in by American firebombing raid and their father is away serving in the Japanese Navy.  Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) is a young teenager who takes on the responsibility of raising his four-year-old sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi).  The film depicts him as hard-working and devoted but nevertheless still a child himself and limited in what he can do.  Setsuko is the sweetest and an accurate depiction of a very young child.

The movie is both heartwarming and heartbreaking.  Heartwarming in that is a love story between the siblings who care for one another when there is no one else to do so.  Heartbreaking in that it depicts the suffering and poverty of child refugees that is a constant outcome of war.  This film could easily be updated today and be set in Syria, Yemen, or Myanmar, and that’s terrible.  The movie is also beautiful with the bucolic setting of their pondside shelter and a trip to the beach contrasted with the devastation of war.  It’s clearly a deliberate choice by the filmmakers to draw the titular fireflies in the same style as the incendiary devices falling from American bombers.

Grave of the Fireflies is among the saddest films I’ve ever watched but it’s also one of the best.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)


Title: Raya and the Last Dragon
Release Date: March 5, 2021
Director: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Kumandra is an imaginary world based in Southeast Asian mythology and iconography, where humans are protected by dragons. Centuries prior to the events of the film, Kumandra is beset by the Druun, a kind of malevolent virus that turns people and dragons to stone.  The dragons put all their magic into a gem to help defeat the Druun and unfreeze the people, but the dragons remain frozen.  The people fight over the gem and form five warring nations named for parts of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Tail, and Talon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is raised by her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of Heart, to protect the dragon gem.  Benja also dreams of reuniting Kumandra and hosts a summit of all five tribes in Heart.  Raya befriends the daughter of the Fang chief, Namaari (Gemma Chan), but is betrayed as Namaari only sought to gain her trust to gain access to the gem.  In the tussle over the gem, it breaks into five pieces and the Druun reemerge, turning many people to stone, including Benja.

It is up to Raya to find the last dragon and reunite the five pieces of the gem. She finds the dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), early on in the film, who ends up being goofier and perhaps not quite as heroic as than the legends written about her.  Along their journey through the five lands, Raya and Sisu pick up a crew of misfits from each tribe, who work together to find all the pieces.  I’m particularly fond of Little Noi, the con baby (Thalia Tran).

The movie strikes a good balance of humor, drama, and action. Unlike many Walt Disney Animation Studios productions, Raya and the Last Dragon is neither a musical, nor a romance (although if anyone is writing Raya/Namaari fan fiction right now, they would have a good basis to do so).  I think this is the studio’s first attempt at High Fantasy since The Black Cauldron, and much better executed. If the tropes of High Fantasy are familiar and predictable, they are at least deployed in an interesting way. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and the imagination that goes into the world-building and creatures is terrific.  The message of learning to trust others can get heavy-handed at times, but also something we all need to be reminded of.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy addition to the Disney animation canon.

Rating: ****

Every Walt Disney and Pixar Animated Feature Film, Ranked


The past three years I’ve been working to watch every animated feature film released by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.  With that project complete as of December, I have now put together a ranking of these movies for your review.

This list includes all 58 animated films from Walt Disney Animation Studios and all 23 animated films from Pixar Animation Studios released theatrically to date.  It does not include:

  • animated shorts
  • live-action films
  • hybrid live-action and animation (ex. Mary Poppins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit)
  •  animated features made as partnerships with other studios (ex. The Nightmare Before Christmas, Studio Ghibli films)
  • direct-to-video/direct-to-streaming/tv movies (ex. Disneytoon Studios productions)

This list is certain to court controversy, so share your feelings (politely) in the comments.  If your favorite movie appears to be ranked too low for your tastes, keep in mind that I’d recommend any of the top 70 movies as being worth watching, and at least the top 50 movies can be considered classics.  So there’s a lot of quality here, despite the rankings.

Here’s the ranking.  The title of each movie will link to my review.

82. Peter Pan

81. Make Mine Music 

80. A Bug’s Life

79. Chicken Little

78. Fantasia 2000

77. Fun and Fancy Free

76. Home on the Range

75. Meet the Robinsons

74. The Good Dinosaur

73. Atlantis: The Lost Empire

72. Pocahontas

71. Robin Hood

70. The Three Caballeros

69. Cars 2

68. Alice in Wonderland

67. The Emperor’s New Groove

66. Treasure Planet

65. The Black Cauldron

64. Monsters University

63. The Aristocats

62. The Rescuers Down Under

61. Oliver & Company

60. Ralph Breaks the Internet

59. Melody Time

58. Dinosaur

57. Tarzan

56. Cars 3

55. Saludos Amigos

54. Incredibles 2 

53. Cars

52. Lady and the Tramp 

51. Dumbo 

50. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

49. The Great Mouse Detective

48. The Sword in the Stone 

47. Sleeping Beauty

46. Hercules

45. Toy Story 2

44. Cinderella

43. Mulan

42. The Princess and the Frog

41. Toy Story 4

40. Finding Dory

39. Frozen 2 

38. Winnie the Pooh

37. Bolt

36. Brother Bear

35. The Hunchback of Notre Dame

34. Pinocchio

33. The Jungle Book

32. Wreck-It Ralph

31. Bambi 

30. Onward 

29. Soul

28. Big Hero 6

27. The Fox and the Hound

26. Raya and the Last Dragon

25. The Incredibles

24. Coco 

23. Fantasia

22. Tangled 

21. The Rescuers

20. Aladdin

19. Beauty and the Beast

18.WALL-E 

17. Moana

16. Zootopia

15. Ratatouille

14. Frozen

13. Brave

12. Toy Story 3

11. Inside Out

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

9. The Little Mermaid

8. One Hundred and One Dalmatians

7. Lilo & Stitch

6. The Lion King

5. Finding Nemo

4. Monsters, Inc.

3. Up

2. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

1. Toy Story

So what are YOUR favorite Disney/Pixar animated features? Let me know in the comments.

Recent Movie Marathon: Soul


Title: Soul
Release Date: December 25, 2020
Director: Pete Docter & Kemp Powers
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

The latest film from Pixar continues the studio’s exploration of the liminal space between life and other planes of existence begun in Coco and Onward. The movie is the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a jazz musician who works as a high school band teacher in New York City to pay the bills until he gets his big break. On the very day that break comes, the opportunity to back jazz star Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) at a gig, he falls to his death. Finding himself as a soul heading up on an escalator to “the great beyond,” he runs away and ends up in “the great before,” where souls are prepared for their life on earth.

Through a series of misadventures, Joe ends up as a mentor for the recalcitrant Soul 22 (Tina Fey). Further misadventures result in Joe and Soul 22 on Earth, although not in the way they expected. This portion of the film has some hilarious hijinks but also the opportunity for Joe and Soul 22 to teach one another about the meaning of life. As you might expect from a Pixar film, the finale is tear-inducing in its honesty and beauty.

The movie has been criticized for its depiction of Black man not actually inhabiting his body for most of the movie (and that a white woman occupies that Black body for a good portion of the film). This criticism should not be overlooked especially considering that this is the first Pixar film ever with a Black lead character, but it also does not mean that one cannot enjoy this movie. Soul is a thoughtful, funny, and inspirational film that is a small story on the surface but it resonates deeply.

Rating: ****

Holiday Movie Marathon: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)


Title: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Release Date: December 9, 1965
Director: Bill Melendez
Production Company: Lee Mendelson Films
Summary/Review:

It’s not the nostalgia talking, this show is really just great. This groundbreaking tv special deals with seasonal depression, crass consumerism, and even made aluminum Christmas trees go out of style. Add to that a banging jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. And it does all this in a story about kids putting on a Christmas play in limited animation by the Graphic Blandishment team.

Rating: *****