Title:The Unicorn Store
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Director: Brie Larson
Production Company: The District
This movie directed by and starring Brie Larson is about a girl named Kit who grows up enjoying princesses, fairies, and rainbows and yearns to be an artists. But when the professor at her art school disapproves her Lisa Frank-style painting, Kit flunks out of college and is forced to move back in with her parents. Suffering from depression Kit decides that she has to become a responsible adult and takes a temp job. Some of the funniest scenes are basically Kit cosplaying at adulthood, and finding the people in the office is are also neither mature nor have it all together. (And 20+ years after being a temp myself, I had to laugh that temps are still expected to make lots of photocopies, and are complimented for being good at it).
Kit receives strange invitations which lead her to The Store where The Salesman offers to fulfill her dream of owning a unicorn. The Salesman is played by Samuel L. Jackson (who had such great chemistry with Larson in Captain Marvel) who plays against his tough guy persona, but still manages to drop in some profanities. In order to earn the unicorn, Kit must provide her a home, food, and a loving environment (meaning she has to work out her diffrences with her parents).
Kit takes on the first task by hiring Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) from a local hardware store to build a unicorn house. Virgil is also in a low-level job for which he feels he has not talent and is uncertain about his future, and it appears he takes on the seemingly absurd task out of curiousity more than anything else. But Kit and Virgil form a bond and their friendship begins to help them grow and change. Kit also gets the opportunity from her creepy boss to work on an ad campaign, which gives her a chance to use her artistic talents.
The unicorn plot could’ve gone in some predictable ways. Either The Saleman could’ve been a scam artist or Kit could’ve been delusional. But I’m glad that the story went another way entirely. The premise of the movie is basically having the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope be the main character and then justifying her place as a real person. After all athletic boys are allowed to become jocks when their men even if they no longer play sports, and the itnerests of nerdy boys are well catered to for adult men, so why not make a space for women who still love unicorns and rainbows.
The cast in this film are great, especially Athie and Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford as Kit’s parents. Nevertheless, I felt the humor was just a bit off and the movie was less satisfying than it had the potential to be.
Title: Christopher Robin
Release Date: August 3, 2018
Director: Marc Forster
Production Company: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Out of a love of Pooh and a curious nature, I decided to watch Disney’s
latest cash grab loving live-action tribute to the classic animated Winnie the Pooh films. Here is a story of a beloved character from a children’s story growing up and finding himself so entangled in the adult responsibilities of work that he is unable to form a relationship with his child. That is, until the beloved – seemingly imaginary – characters of his childhood enter his real life and help him rediscover joy in life and connect with his own child. Yes, this is the plot of the 1991 blockbuster Hook.
To be fair, while I hated Hook, and it rankles me that the creators of Christopher Robin couldn’t come up with a different and better plot, I find it a relatively more enjoyable film. While Hook was abrasive in its winking references, Christophe Robin is sweet and gentle, as it should be. And to be fair to Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor), he’s working too hard not because he’s an egotistical workaholic but because his lazy, affluent boss (Mark Gattis, who seems to be typecast in these roles) will fire all the employees if Robin can’t find a way to balance the budget.
The movie’s tone is very melancholy, and even the color palette seems drained. The filmmakers even cast the great Hayley Atwell as Christopher’s wife and then hardly used her, which feels wasteful. Pooh and friends are the best part of the movie, and while this is “live-action,” they are animated with CGI. You wouldn’t know it though, as they look like they could be puppets right down to detail of their fuzzy fur (Owl & Rabbit, who are not based on toys, are depicted as anthropomorphic versions of a real owl and rabbit). McGregor plays the surreal scenes of interacting with toys and animals in the 100 Acres Wood well. And it’s cute that Pooh & Co. not only bring Robin closer his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), but they also solve his problem at work.
It’s just a shame that this slight, charming film couldn’t have been truer to the spirit of its source material. It could’ve been so much more.
Title: Russian Doll
Release Dates: 2019
Number of Episodes: 8
This clever tv show features the comedic talents of Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a woman who dies repeatedly and keeps returning to relive her 36th birthday party. The time loop concept is similar to Groundhog’s Day, a similarity the show doesn’t try to hide. I also felt it shared some qualities with Donnie Darko, and Run, Lola, Run, especially in that the show feels like a video game character that dies and always returns to the same starting point. Not coincidentally, Nadia is a software designer for a game company who created a particularly difficult game.
The twist here – and this is a SPOILER if you haven’t watched the show – comes in the third episode cliffhanger where Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett, who could easily be cast in an Alex Rodriguez biopic), a young man who is also repeatedly dying and coming back to life. While Nadia is struggling with her troubled childhood with her mentally ill mother (who died at the age of 36), Alan is challenged by being dumped by his long-time girlfriend on the night he planned to propose to her. The great thing about this show’s plot is not only to they have to come to terms with their problems in order to get on with their lives (literally here, but also metaphorically) but they also have to help one another to do so.
Russian Doll is by turns really dark, acerbically funny and very sweet.
Title: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 4, part 2
Number of Episodes: 6
The final six episodes of the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt are technically part of the 4th season, but tonaly are different from the six episodes released last summer. I was disappointed by the mediocrity of the first half of season 4, but the final 6 are something of a return to form. Perhaps it’s not as strong as the series was in its first three season, but they’ve avoided the unfunny mean-spiritedness that marred last summer’s episodes. A highlight of the season is an episode that parodies the movie Sliding Doors and shows all the characters’ alternate lives in a way that’s funny and actual develops the characters too. All in all, this is a satisfactory farewell to a great tv show that may have overstayed its welcome.
Title: Wreck-It Ralph
Release Date: November 2, 2012
Director: Rich Moore
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
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.
Release Date: November 21, 2008
Director: Chris Williams and Byron Howard
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
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.
Title: One Hundred and One Dalmatians
Release Date: January 25, 1961
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman, Hamilton Luske, and Clyde Geronimi
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
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.
Release Date: June 27, 1997
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney adapts ancient Greek mythology – albeit using the Roman name Hercules instead of the Greek Heracles – with a story of an idealistic hero’s journey mixed with an old-fashioned screwball comedy and a sports drama (a la Rocky). And it’s all scored with gospel music, which is a strange, even subversive, contrast to the story. The artistry of the movie draws on Greek art and architecture which is then punctured with visual puns and pop culture references effectively. But acting carries the movie. The slimy, villainous James Woods does a great job bringing to life the slimy, villainous Hades. Susan Egan channels the wise-cracking, world-weary female characters of the golden age of Hollywood into her peformance of Megara. And Danny Devito steals the show as the grumpy satyr who trains Hercules to be a hero. While I wouldn’t count on this movie to get you a good grade on your Classics course exam, it is an entertaining way to spend 90 minutes.
Title: The Emperor’s New Groove
Release Date: December 15, 2000
Director: Mark Dindal
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
The Emperor’s New Groove is the very strange story of an arrogant and selfish Incan emperor turned into a llama by his advisor and aided by a kindhearted peasant. Unlike any other Disney animated feature I’ve seen before, The Emperor’s New Groove is straight-up comedy akin to Looney Tunes rather than the typical Disney style. The movie is basically a long sequence of slapstick gags, many of which are funny, tied together with a thin plot. I particularly like a completely bonkers scene in which a squirrel creates a balloon animal and then pops it to wake a shadow of jaguars. (Note: if you’re like me and thought that squirrels were a North American animal, I verified that there are several species of squirrel indigenous to Peru).
Unfortunately, this movie was created in the 1990s and is incredibly dated by much of the edgy, irreverent humor style of that decade. The film also looks out of touch compared with more recent Disney films like Moana, where they made a conscientious effort to incorporate Polynesian culture into the story and cast voice actors with Polynesian heritage. The Emperor’s New Groove, by contrast, has no real reason to be a story about pre-Columbian Incans, and none of the main cast is South American, to my knowledge. The setting does supply a good excuse to animate some intricately animated Incan design elements and a funny llama, though.
David Spade stars as Kuzco, the emperor turned llama. Spade is the paragon of that edgy, irreverent 90’s humor style I referred to earlier, and he’s annoying in small doses, so it’s a challenge to sit through an entire feature film of his act. Thankfully the rest of the cast is excellent. John Goodman plays the kind peasant Pacha, and brings out the best of Spade in their scenes together, although its weird to hear Sulley’s voice coming from another character. Earth Kitt plays Yzma, the adviser Kuzco fires early in the film, and is drawn as kind of a manic combination of Cruella De Vil and a serpent. But the real scene stealer is Patrick Warburton as Yzma’s kind-hearted henchman Kronk, who is the real comedy MVP of this movie. Seriously, I like Kronk so much I’m considering watching the direct-to-video spinoff Kronk’s New Groove.
Title: Monsters University
Release Date: June 21, 2013
Director: Dan Scanlon
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
The prequel to the Pixar classic Monsters, Inc. shows how Mike and Sulley first meet as students in the prestigious Scarer Program at Monsters University. They start off hostile to one another as Mike has dedicated his life to learning the arts and sciences of scaring, but finds it impossible to actually be scary. Meanwhile, Sulley rests on his family’s reputation and is too lazy to apply himself at school. It’s an interesting, and subtle, critique on how privilege can often be a barometer of success than hard work.
Both Mike and Sulley get thrown out of the Scarer Program, and in order to prove themselves they join a fraternity of the school’s nerdiest monsters in order to participate as a team in the university’s “Scare Games.” The bulk of the movie is their Oozma Kappa team stumbling through the challenges and succeeding through teamwork, creativity, and less savory means. The improvements in CGI animation since Monsters, Inc. is on display with several stunning scenes of monsters set against the red-brick, leafy college campus, and one spectacular image of Mike and Sully silhouetted against a moonlit lake.
On the one hand, credit is due for taking a chance and making the story of Monsters University so totally different from Monsters, Inc. On the other hand, by adopting the tropes of academia comedy, the creators of Monsters University have failed to do anything approaching the creativity of its predecessor, and that’s a huge disappointent. I’m not quite sure who this movie is made for since children won’t relate to the nostalgia of the college days’ gags and adults will get a few chuckles but no real belly laughs. Still, the charm of Crystal, Goodman, & co. is enough to distract from the fact that this is a rehash of dozens of stories of ragtag bands of misfits using teamwork to win, and make this movie an entertaining diversion.