Movie Review: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)


Title: April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde truqué)
Release Date: November 4, 2015
Director: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci
Production Company: Arte France (and numerous others)
Summary/Review:

This imaginative animated film created by a team of French, Belgian, and Canadian filmmakers presents an alternative history of the world with a steampunk vibe.  The prologue of the film shows scientist Gustave Franklin working on a serum to create invulnerable soldiers for Emperor Napoleon III in 1870.  Angered that Franklin has only been able to create talking monitor lizards, the Emperor has a fit that inadvertently causes an explosion killing them both. In this alternate history, the young Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty to avoid the Franco-Prussian War thus maintaining the French empire in Europe.

A montage zips the story forward to 1931, during the interim the world’s great scientists are kidnapped retarding technological development. Relying on steam technology, the French Empire uses up all the coal in the world and then denudes Europe of trees for the wood.  This alternate past depicts a gray world devoid of vegetation and full of polluted air, but filled with fantastical steam-powered vehicles and devices. In 1931, Franklin’s son Prosper “Pops” Franklin, grandson Paul, granddaughter-in-law Annette and great-granddaughter April continue to work in secret on the serum, achieving success, but interrupted by both the French Imperial police and then a mysterious black cloud shooting lightning bolts.  Pops is separated, and Paul and Annette appear dead, leaving April alone with their talking cat Darwin (by far, my favorite character) and the serum hidden in a snow globe.

Whew, that’s a lot of setup in basically the first 15 minutes of the movie, because now the film zips forward again to 1941 for the main story.  April, now a young adult, continues to work in secret on the serum.  Disgraced inspector  Gaspar Pizoni – a kind of bumbling version of Javert – continues to try to track down the Franklins, and blackmails young petty criminal Julius to work for him.  Julius saves and then befriends April and Darwin, ultimately having mixed feelings about helping Pizoni.  They are reunited with Pops kicking off an adventure that reveals the secret plans of the French Empire and the mysterious forces that have kidnapped the world’s scientists.

This is imaginative story which also works as an environmental fable.  It’s also interesting that this alternate history depicts 1941 as a time when Europe is dominated by a French totalitarian government where in reality France was under the thumb of Nazi Germany at the time.  It’s imaginatively animated and a clever story.  The one flaw is that the voice acting feels stilted. If I watch this again, I’d like to find the original French cast instead of the dubbed version, because I think that would work better.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Title: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Director:  Bob Persichetti | Peter Ramsey | Rodney Rothman
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Marvel Entertainment
Summary/Review:

There has been a glut of Spider-Man movies the past 17 years or so, but this one has the most spider-people of all!  This animated feature focuses on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Lation teen from Brooklyn in a universe where Spider-Man comic books relate the adventures of the real life hero, Peter Parker (Chris Pine).  Miles, like Peter before him, is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains super-powers.  Peter offers to train Miles to use his powers, but dies attempting to shutdown the Super-Collider built by the villain, The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).

The Super-Collider opens up other dimensions and pulls other people with spider powers into Miles’ universe.  All of these characters are from various Marvel comics series, but if you’re not a comics reader (like me) they have a nice running gag where each of the heroes quickly goes through their back story. They include Peter B. Parker, an older and out of shape version of Spider-Man who Miles refers to as “the janky old, broke, hobo Spider-Man,” and Gwen Stacy, who is the teenage Spider-Woman in her universe.  Three more spider-beings play supporting roles, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a Looney Toons style cartoon spider-pig; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-style character in a biomechanical spider suit; and Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), who is a 1930s gumshoe.

This movie has a lot going for it.  First of all, the animation is terrific, emulating the pages of comic books and multiple animation styles, with terrific colors, imagery, and flow.  Second, it is very funny, not taking the premise of the Spider-Verse too seriously and having fun with the conflicts and meta moments.  Finally, it is very sweet, working as a symbolic coming-of-age story for a teenager grappling with new responsibilities and changes in family relationships, as well as a fun adventure.

The ending indicates future movies in the Spider-Verse, and I for one would like to see the addition of the newspaper comics Peter Parker (who frequently yells at the television) and the pantomime Spider-Man from the 1970s children’s show The Electric Company.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)


Title: Ralph Breaks the Internet
Release Date: November 21, 2018
Director: Rich Moore | Phil Johnston
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

The sequel to Wreck-It Ralph picks up the story 6 years later with Ralph content living his days predictably with his friend Vanellope, while Vanellope yearns to break the routine. When the steering wheel breaks on the Sugar Rush machine and the arcade owner decides that its too expensive to replace because the company that made it is defunct. So Ralph and Vanellope head into the newly installed wifi router to purchase a replacement wheel on eBay.  That is the first of many prominent product placements in the movie.

In order to pay for the new wheel, they take up jobs from spammers and Ralph becomes an online influencer by making lots of meme videos for likes.  Vanellope also spends sometime at the Disney social media website, visiting with her fellow Disney Princesses, a hillarious bit of self-satire.  The pair also enter a Grand Theft Auto-type game which terrifies Ralph but excites Vanellope with its unpredictable driving.  Vanellope wishes to stay leading Ralph to be insecure and possessive, and ultimate manifest as a Ralph-virus that is the nightmare fodder for the film.  Obviously, they work things out by the end, with some important messages about friendship.

A lot of the gags and satire of the internet are funny, but this movie is not going to make much sense outside of historical research in a few years.  Even a year after release, a lot of the gags seem dated.  The focus of the film isn’t very strong either as it seems mostly a plot to link together the various internet-related gags.  It’s entertaining but I don’t think it stands up as well as its predecessor.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Tuca & Bertie (2019)


Title: Tuca & Bertie
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 10
Summary/Review:

This new animated comedy from Netflix has a lot in common with one of my favorite shows, BoJack Horseman.  For one thing, Tuca & Bertie‘s creator, Lisa Hanawalt, served as production designer and producer for BoJack Horseman.  For another, Tuca & Bertie are anthropomorphized birds living in a city of anthropomorphized animals and even anthropomorphized plants (they’re so cool!).

Nevertheless, Tuca & Bertie isn’t a spinoff of Bojack, nor is it even the same universe.  Tuca & Bertie has a brighter color pallette and, for lack of a better word, a “bouncier” animation style that frequently veers into surreality.  That is an even more surreal than a world with talking bird people.  Also, BoJack is a show that keeps returning to the inevability of misery and that other people will disappoint you.  Tuca & Bertie is more positive and shares its belief that one can count on the people you love to get you through troubled times.

Despite it’s wacky humor, Tuca & Bertie reveals more serious undertones over the course of the season.  Tuca is an outgoing toucan and free spirit who has no filter between her brain and mouth.  It’s established early in the season that she’s alcoholic and six months into living sober, and confronting supressed anxieties for the first time.  Bertie is a songbird with more open anxiety issues and people pleaser. She struggles at work with men speaking over her and sexual harrassment.  Yet we see her assert herself to get a new position as senior operations analyst at her publishing firm and explore a second career as a baker. The two characters are rightly depicted as a yin-yang late in the season because they complement each other so well.

This is a bright and heartwarming show, and just delightfully weird.  I especially like the music – both the electronic dance background music and the fact that characters narrate their life in song.  If you decide to watch it and it doesn’t work for you at first, give it a few episodes to sink in.

 

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (1991)


Title: Beauty and the Beast
Release Date: November 22, 1991
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

After our visit to Walt Disney World, my daughter said she wanted to watch Beauty and the Beast, although she left the room for the scary parts.  My son also watched parts of the film because he enjoyed mocking how everyone kept singing.  So there’s something for everyone!

This was my first time watching the movie in 25+ odd years and its held up well.  It is definitely the most Broadway of all the Disney animated films.  The best musical number is “Be Our Guest” which seamlessly blends the animation style of the Disney golden era with new digital effects that still can wow almost 30 years later. “Gaston” is also a great musical number because it is stupid funny.

Belle is a well-developed character and perhaps the most interesting Disney heroine (well, at least until Moana).  The shift in feelings between Belle and the Beast feel rushed, but I guess that padding the film wouldn’t make it any more believable.  And I may be in the minority here, but I think the Beast is more handsome than his human prince form.

Rating: ****

As an added bonus, here’s a short video of Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle, dancing with the handsome Beast on Valentine’s Day.

Walt Disney Animated Features


With plans to visit Walt Disney World for winter break, I decided to see how many Walt Disney theatrical animated features I could watch that I hadn’t seen before.  I made a list which included every movie from the Walt Disney Animation Studios from 1937 to present, as well as every Pixar Animation Studios movie from 1995 to present.  I did not include Disneytoons (mostly direct-to-video sequels but also some theatrical releases), films co-produced with other studios (like Studio Ghibli and Tim Burton), and hybrid live-action/animated films (such as Song of the South, Mary Poppins, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?).

My list is below, with movies I’ve seen at least once in bold, and if I’ve written a review for this blog, I’ve included a link and a star rating. One day I will complete this list, but I’m going to take a breather for now.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Pinocchio ***1/2
Fantasia
Dumbo – ***
Bambi – ***1/2
Saludos Amigos
The Three Caballeros
Make Mine Music
Fun and Fancy Free
Melody Time
The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Cinderella
Alice in Wonderland – **
Peter Pan
Lady and the Tramp – ***
Sleeping Beauty
One Hundred and One Dalmatians – ****1/2
The Sword in the Stone
The Jungle Book
The Aristocats
Robin Hood – **
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
The Rescuers – ****
The Fox and the Hound ****
The Black Cauldron
The Great Mouse Detective
Oliver & Company
The Little Mermaid
The Rescuers Down Under – **1/2
Beauty and the Beast ****
Aladdin
The Lion King
Pocahontas – **
Toy Story
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hercules – ***
Mulan – ***
A Bug’s Life
Tarzan – ***
Toy Story 2
Fantasia 2000
Dinosaur
The Emperor’s New Groove**1/2
Atlantis: The Lost Empire**
Monsters, Inc. – *****
Lilo & Stitch ****1/2
Treasure Planet
Finding Nemo – *****
Brother Bear
Home on the Range
The Incredibles – ****
Chicken Little
Cars
Meet the Robinsons
Ratatouille – ****
WALL-E ****
Bolt***1/2
Up – *****
The Princess and the Frog – ***
Toy Story 3
Tangled – ****
Cars 2 **1/2
Winnie the Pooh – ***1/2
Brave – ****1/2
Wreck-It Ralph***1/2
Monsters University – **1/2
Frozen – ****
Big Hero 6 – ****
Inside Out – ****
The Good Dinosaur
Zootopia – ****
Finding Dory
Moana – ****
Cars 3
Coco – ****
Incredibles 2 – ***
Ralph Breaks the Internet

Movie Review: The Rescuers Down Under (1990)


TitleThe Rescuers Down Under
Release Date: November 16, 1990
Director:  Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

There are a lot of interesting facts about The Rescuers Down Under:

  • it’s the first animated theatrical film sequel produced by Disney
  • it was released right in the midst of the Disney Renaissance but harkens back to the previous era
  • it was the first Disney film to be completed completely digitally without using a camera
  • part of the digital effects involved bringing Pixar, the first time Pixar and Disney collaborated

Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly engaging movie and doesn’t stand up well next to The Rescuers.  The animation is distinctly different and one of the movie’s strongest points, especially the opening tracking shot and the scenes of Cody flying on the back of Marahuté. Cody is kind of an Australian Christopher Robin who can organize groups of animals but isn’t a particularly compelling character.  The villainous poacher McLeach is another over-the-top Disney villain whose role is to be the scapegoat for humanity’s villainy in the film’s environmental message.  At least his pet monitor lizard Joanna is funny and entertaining.

There isn’t much story here and the movie goes off on odd tangents.  John Candy’s albatross character Wilbur is featured in a lengthy scene where is he trapped in a hospital run by mice who want to perform surgery on him without consent.  It’s a weird and annoying scene.  Another long scene shows Cody leading a team of imprisoned animals to get the keys to their escape, but this scene goes nowhere, and then we never see the other animals again (it feels like a later scene must’ve been cut).

The biggest flaw is that we just don’t get to spend much time with Bernard and Miss Bianca.  The scenes where they are onscreen are the strongest, with Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor showing great chemistry, but these scenes are few and far between.

Rating: **1/2

 

Movie Review: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)


TitleWreck-It Ralph
Release Date: November 2, 2012
DirectorRich Moore
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Wreck-It Ralph does for video games what Toy Story did for toys, depicting the life of what arcade game characters do when no one is playing.  Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is a character modeled on Donkey Kong, except he’s a big human rather than a big gorilla, who smashes things up until the hero, Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer), comes to save the day.  Feeling slighted that he’s not invited to Felix’s party for the 30th anniversary of the game, Ralph leaves the game to seek a medal that shows he can be a hero too.

Ralph ends up in a hyper-violent first-person shooter game called Hero’s Duty, where he’s able to get a medal, but also picks up a dangerous Cy-Bug.  Entering an escape pod, Ralph and the Cy-Bug are launched into another game, Sugar Rush, a go-kart race game set in a land of candy.  There Ralph meets Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), a character who is an outsider in Sugar Rush due to glitches that make her teleport.  At first adversarial, Ralph and Vanellope team up and become friends, working together so that they can each find acceptance in their games.  Reilly and Silverman (and the animators) deserve a lot of credit for making the scenes between the two so heart-wrenching.

While not a particularly original story, Wreck-It Ralph has strong characters, brilliant visuals, and a lot of heart.  There are also a lot of gags and cameos that should be a treat for long-time gamers. There’s also some nice touches in giving the characters from older games some 8-bit flourishes even in the CGI animation. There’s also a scene of body horror featuring King Candy (Alan Tudyk, channelling Ed Wynn as the Mad Hatter) that challenges Judge Doom falling into the vat of dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for Disney-induced nightmare fodder, so be warned.  Overall, Wreck-It Ralph is another quality family film from Disney.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Bolt (2008)


Title: Bolt
Release Date: November 21, 2008
Director: Chris Williams and Byron Howard
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Bolt is a unapreciated gem from the Walt Disney Animation Studios.  The story is about Bolt, a German Shepherd (voiced by John Travolta), who stars in an action-adventure tv series as a bioengineered dog working with his teenaged owner, Penny (voiced by Miley Cyrus, and by the way, nice trick of getting teen idols of different eras working together).  The conceit of the movie is that the entire production crew treat Bolt as if he is a dog with super powers in order to get the most natural performance from him. In this sense, it’s basically a doggy version of The Truman Show.

When Bolt escapes from his trailer in Hollywood and accidentally mailed to New York City he must find his way back home.  Helping him in this The Incredible Journey type of story is a cynical but tender-hearted alley cat, Mittens (Susie Essman), and the energetic hamster, Rhino (Mark Walton), who recognizes and reveres Bolt as a superdog from watching the tv show.  Along the journey, Mittens has to convince Bolt that he’s an ordinary dog – reminiscent of Woody convincing Buzz that he’s a toy – but with heartwarming scenes of Mittens teaching Bolt to enjoy regular dog things.

I’ve pointed out some similarities that Bolt shares with other movies, but even where Bolt feels familiar, it pieces these elements together in a fresh way.  It’s also a very funny movie, I particularly like the recurring pigeon characters.  In many ways it feels more like a Pixar film of that era (it came out not too long after Ratatouille), than a Disney Animation film of that same period, and perhaps would’ve been better received if it was released as a Pixar movie.  Perhaps not surprisingly this is also the first movie developed after former Pixar chief John Lasseter had control over all of Disney’s animation studios.  And it can’t be denied that Lasseter had good judgement in making movies, even if he is a lousy person who sexually violated his employees (good riddance!).

If you like funny and heartwarming family films, and you like heroic dogs, you can’t go wrong with Bolt.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)


TitleOne Hundred and One Dalmatians
Release Date: January 25, 1961
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske,  and Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

One Hundred and One Dalmatians was one of the few Disney movies I actually saw as a child. I remember liking it at the time but didn’t know if it would hold to watching it as an adult.  I was wrong.  After rewatching One Hundred and One Dalmatians, I think it’s one of my favorite Disney animated films of all time.

The movie starts off awkwardly as Pongo the Dalmatian examines women to determine which one is attractive enough to pair off with his “pet” Roger.  He then arranges a meet cute with Anita and her Dalmatian Perdita, and they all settle into a happy domesticity.  These bits and some casual sexism throughout the movie are really the only places it loses points.  The rest is creative, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable.

After Perdita gives birth to 15 puppies, Cruella De Vil storms in and tries to buy them, and when refused by Roger, has them abducted.  I’ve written about how some Disney villains are too one-dimensional and over the top, but if you’re going to take that approach, you do it like Cruella.  She’s just so ridiculously evil and singularly focused on killing puppies to make dog skin coats, that it just works.

A part of the movie that I remember from when I was a child is the twilight bark.  It actually takes up a significant portion of the middle part of the movie, and I don’t think they’d spend that much time on it in a modern-day movie.  But I’m glad they did as it sets up a transition from the domestic scenes to the comedy crime caper portion.  Pongo and Perdita walk from London to Suffolk (that’s 100 miles, I checked on Google Maps) to find their lost puppies and then find 84 more!  Hijinks ensue, and even my preteen boy was laughing and said “this is awesome” under his breath.

Everything just seems to click in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and I said before it’s among the Walt Disney company’s best work.

Some other thoughts:

  • I like how the characters spend so much time watching television, especially since the tv shows tell hilarious stories in their own right.  The puppies watch a Western show about a heroic sheriff dog and the dog-napping henchman what a game show called “What’s My Crime.”
  • Near the end of the movie Roger’s song about Cruella De Vil is playing on the radio, perhaps the first wide release of a diss track.
  • There’s a cow named Princess.  She should be included with the other Disney Princesses, henceforth!
  • In a movie about dogs, Sergeant Tibbs the tabby cat is the real MVP.

Rating: ****1/2