Movie Review: Babe (1995)


TitleBabe
Release Date: August 4, 1995
Director: Chris Noonan
Production Company: Kennedy Miller Productions
Summary/Review:

There must be kinder dispositions in far-off gentler lands.

For a gentle barnyard comedy about a piglet who learns to herd sheep, Babe goes to some dark places and can be quite subversive.  The movie begins in a factory farm and make no bones about pigs be raised without sunshine and separated from their mothers at a young age.  This is a family film, nonetheless, but one that doesn’t condescend to children or avoid situations and words that they may not initially understand. I was surprised that Babe was written and produced by George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max series, but upon this rewatch I realize that there’s a tenderness at the heart of the darkness of Babe that’s not all that different from Mad Max: Fury Road, despite Babe’s more idyllic setting.

Babe (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh and played by 46 different piglets and an animatronic created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) is the runt of the litter at a factory farm randomly chosen for a “Guess the Weight” contest at an agricultural fair.  Babe ends up on the farm of Arthur Hoggett (James Cromwell) presumably to be fattened for Christmas dinner.  But Babe forms a bond with the sheepdog Fly (voiced by Miriam Margolyes) who becomes his surrogate mother after her own puppies are adopted away.  As a result, Babe becomes a sheep-herding pig, and one who does his job with kindness rather than asserting authority. This talent is soon recognized by the quirky Farmer Hoggett.  Hijinks ensue.

The movie is beautifully filmed, soaking in the lush Australian landscape (albeit people have American accents and drive on the right side of the road, so this could be anywhere).  Credit must be given to Magda Szubanski as Arthur’s wife Esme Hoggett and Russi Taylor as Duchess, “the bad cat bearing a grudge,” for being the MVPs of dialogue deliver in limited screen time.  And if you can watch Cromwell’s delivery of the line “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” without weeping, you’re made of stronger stuff than me.

This is a classic movie that just seems to get better each time I watch it.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Lightyear (2022)


Title: Lightyear
Release Date: June 17, 2022
Director: Angus MacLane
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Lightyear is a spinoff that likely didn’t need to exist, but as a fan of Pixar animation and the Toy Story movies in particular, I feel duty-bound to watch it.  Personally, I’d rather see a movie about the lives of the puppets on the 1950s Sheriff Woody TV show.  At any rate, Lightyear offers nods to what we know about the toy Buzz Lightyear, but the action-movie character Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) has a story that’s largely unique.  In fact, the movie Buzz Lightyear’s story is so unique it’s hard to believe the premise that this was the movie that Andy watched in 1995.  This is a small thing though, because the movie with 2022 sensibilities is more interesting than if they tried to make it a retro-1995 type of media.

The story focuses on Lightyear serving as a Space Ranger on a exploration vehicle that due to his own error gets stranded on an inhospitable planet.  Lightyear serves as a test pilot for a new hyperdrive but due to time dilation when he returns from every one of his four minute flights, four years have passed for his companions on the planet.  Buzz sees his commander and close friend Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) age, marry, have children and grandchildren, and ultimately die.  Upon returning from his final, successful test flight he finds the planet under attack by robots, and must team up with a ragtag crew including Alisha’s granddaughter Izze (Keke Palmer), the cowardly Mo (Taika Waititi), the elderly convict Darby (Dale Soules), and his delightful robotic cat companion Sox (Peter Sohn) to defeat the evil robots.

Lightyear is charming, funny, action-filled, and has a certain weirdness that justifies its existence as a movie.  On the other hand, it suffers in comparison to the Toy Story series.  It feels like a cash grab and yet it probably would’ve done better artistically and commercially as its own original story as opposed to being a spinoff to something else.  All that being said, this is a fine film and I’m sure many families and children will enjoy it.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Whale Rider (2002)


Title: Whale Rider
Release Date: 11 September 2002
Director: Niki Caro
Production Company: South Pacific Pictures | ApolloMedia | Pandora Film | New Zealand Film Production Fund | New Zealand Film Commission | NZ On Air | Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen
Summary/Review:

Paikea “Pai” Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a twelve-year-old Māori girl in modern New Zealand, a descendant of the legendary ancestor Paikea, who in Māori mythology was the first to arrive in New Zealand on the back of a whale.  Pai’s mother and twin brother died in childbirth, and her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) holds her responsible for breaking the patrilineal line. Since Koro believes that the next chief should be male, he begins training a group of young boy.  Pai observes from afar, learning the traditions with the tacit approval of her Nanny (Vicky Haughton) and Uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa).

The heart of this movie is resolving the conflict between Pai and Paikea, and it is terrifically acted, especially the nuanced performance of Castle-Hughes.  It also a movie about keeping traditions alive in modern times.  But those traditions can be changed such as allowing women and girls leadership roles.  Oh, and the scenes with the whales in this movie are magnificent!

Rating: ****1/2

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

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: *****

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: ****

Movie Review: Cinderella (1950)


Title: Cinderella
Release Date: March 4, 1950
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, & Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

Well, I’ve gone and done it!  I’ve watched every single Walt Disney and Pixar animated feature film.  I saved one of the most famous for last. Cinderella essentially made the Walt Disney Company as we know it today (or as we’ve known it for most of the past 70 years because the company has changed considerably in just the past decade) inaugurating a new golden age of animated films, ventures into television, and ultimately theme parks.  Cinderella Castle towers over the Magic Kingdom in Florida to remind you of the film’s importance.

Cinderella may also be one of the best known fairy tales outside of the movies, so I figured I knew the basic plot.  What surprised me in the Disney version is that the movie is told largely from the perspective of two mice, Jaq and Gus.  The first 20 minutes of the movie is almost all about the exploits of the household mice with Cinderella as an incidental background character.  It’s both a daring storytelling choice but ultimately a bit off-putting.  I just kind of wanted the Cinderella’s story to get started already.

While I had no idea the movie so prominently featured mice, I was well aware of the Fairy Godmother and her famous song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”.  So I was surprised that the Fairy Godmother literally appears in just one scene and there’s really no explanation for her existence other than to get Cinderella to the ball.

The movie is well animated and the music is solid and the mice are cute, but something about Cinderella just feels off.  I think Sleeping Beauty, a movie considered less successful than Cinderella, did a much better job with mixing story, character, humor, and drama.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Lion King (1994)


Title: The Lion King
Release Date: June 24, 1994
Director: Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I first saw The Lion King in the movie theaters with a group of college friends and we all had an enjoyable time and loved the movie.  Oddly, I didn’t see another Disney animated film in the theaters until Moana 22 years later (although I did see plenty of Pixar films).

The Lion King draws upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet (and possibly a Japanese anime series) for inspiration, but this is the first Disney animated feature that’s not an adaptation of another work and I think it was very freeing for the creators.  They were able to create a universe within the wilderness of Africa to tell a story of love, betrayal, and redemption.  And I think this may also be the first Disney movie with no human characters.

The opening scene with Simba’s presentation is perhaps the most awe-inspiring animation Disney has ever created. And having it all end with a dramatic sting and the movie’s title is a bold choice before beginning the movie proper.  The Lion King strikes the right balance of humor, drama, romance, and adventure.  And the music drawing on African traditions is amazing.  Elton John as composer was an odd choice (and the beginning of a trend of pop artists composing soundtracks for animated movies), but even if his songs do get a little cheezy at times they are definitely memorable.

The Lion King is a great film that I believe will continue to reward viewings for quite some time.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Aladdin (1992)


Title: Aladdin
Release Date: November 25, 1992
Director: John Musker & Ron Clements
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation
Summary/Review:

I missed Beauty and the Beast when it came out and didn’t see it until years later, but I have good memories of seeing this movie in the theater with my sister.  The big attraction for Aladdin was Robin Williams as Genie.  Even kids who had no idea who Ed Sullivan and Senor Wences were enjoyed Williams many celebrity impersonations and overall manic performance.  It was the first time a big-name movie star voiced a character in a Disney movie and it would not be the last.  I suspect the animators had a lot of fun animating Williams’ bits especially the constant flow of gags in the songs “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali.”

Speaking of songs, the movies of the Disney Renaissance were known for their great music, and The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast sold a lot of soundtracks and earned Oscars and Grammies.  But it was Aladdin that made a full assault on the music charts.  If you were not around in 1992-1993, I can’t begin to explain the inescapability of the movie’s love song, “A Whole New World,” in the aural soundscape of the time.  Perhaps only “Let It Go” from Frozen could compete with the utter ubiquity of a Disney movie song.

I hadn’t watched Aladdin in a long time, and mostly only remembered the Genie parts.  I was impressed that overall the movie is very funny and clever.  Aladdin (Scott Weinger) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin) are well-characterized and likable characters and while their romance may be swift it is believable. The themes of being true to oneself and escaping imprisonment (real and metaphorical) are well-done. Even Gilbert Gottfried – who usually annoys me – is pretty funny as the sardonic parrot Iago.

If there’s a downside to Aladdin it is that it relies on some tired stereotypes of Arabic people.  Also, the casting of Aladdin and Jasmine makes them sound like white teenagers from an American suburb rather than from the Middle East. To its credit, the Disney company has gotten better about cultural sensitivity and representative casting in recent years in movies like Moana. But it would’ve been revolutionary if they’d offered more positive representation of Arabic people and culture in 1992, especially so soon after the Persian Gulf War.

Rating: ****