Tag Archives: Animation

Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Rating: B/  I knew next to nothing about Kubo and the Two Strings going in, and I probably wouldn’t have even watched it at all had my dad not bought a copy for my sister on her 13th birthday. I had seen a few ads and knew it had a monkey in it, but overall my interest was minimal. While Kubo and the Two Strings’ plot structure is not the most original (it features a pretty standard heroes’ journey arc where Kubo picks up a couple of unlikely companions and moves from place to place trying to find items with magical properties that will help him fight an ancient evil,) it is visually astonishing and peppered with some entertaining characters and funny dialogue. Continue reading Movie Review: Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

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Movie Review: Zootopia (2016)

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Rating: A-/ So, I got to go see a movie in the cinema for the first time in ages the other day. My sister really wanted to see Zootopia and she was afraid her friends at school would spoil the ending for her before she got a chance to watch it. To be honest, I was pretty psyched to see it too, and my dad took us as a family to the movies (except for my mom, who wasn’t feeling well.) And I’ve got to say, Zootopia (or Zootropolis, as it is sometimes called) is a very cute family movie. But among the cuteness and the comedy and the talking animals, there’s a very good message and social commentary afoot. It’s not just a dumb kids film, there’s an emotional and socially conscious core that is rare to find in any family flick, except maybe those that happen to be made by Pixar studios. Continue reading Movie Review: Zootopia (2016)

Movie Review: Tangled (2010)

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Rating: A- / When Tangled first came out and the promos started pouring in, it really didn’t look like my cup of tea. It seemed to me like an attempt to replicate the success of Shrek and other hip, self-aware fairy tale satires. Frankly, I had had enough of Shrek and it’s sequels. Not only that, I had had enough of the whole screwball fairy tale reimagining genre. But Tangled wasn’t the movie I expected it to be. It was a take on fairy tales, in a sense; in particular one fairy tale (Rapunzel,) but it was also charming and sweet and featured one of Disney’s most eerily effective villains. Not only is Tangled a good movie for the kiddies, it might just win the hearts of the grown-ups in their lives too. Continue reading Movie Review: Tangled (2010)

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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    -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

Witches, wizards, magic, and wondrous happenings. Hayao Miyazaki has done it again. It took me a couple of viewings to really grasp the wonderful themes of Howl’s Moving Castle, based on a book for children by Diana Wynne Jones. I fancied it ‘confusing’ and ‘convoluted,’ and was all set to write a skeptical review when I saw it again,  open-minded and unpreoccupied. It was like a whole different experience. So if you’ve seen this movie and found it slightly underwhelming or overhyped, I urge you to watch it again. It’s a bit more complex than Miyazaki’s other movies. But that’s not in of itself a bad thing.

The heart of Howl’s Moving Castle lies in the character of Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer,) a shy young woman who works at a hat shop. Sophie starts out as a timid, self-effacing Mary Sue,  but when the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall) transforms her into an elderly woman Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) must grow some cajones and learn to look after herself; with a little help from a brooding and magnificently eccentric wizard named Howl (Christian Bale.) The Witch of the Waste resents Howl because he spurned her affections as a fickle young sorcerer, and a witch who holds high position in political power (Blythe Danner) wants to recruit him to use his abilities in a long, bloody civil war.

But Howl’s real concern lies in self interest; namely, recovering his heart, which was stolen from him as a boy. Can Sophie help Howl, even trapped in her hunched, geriatric form? Along their adventures, Howl and Sophie meet many interesting characters, including an animate scarecrow with the head of a turnip, The Witch of the Waste’s malevolent, amorphous henchmen, and a deeply odd but adorable little dog who makes a sound vaguely akin to a asthmatic rodent. Not least of all, the viewer is introduced to Howl’s titular ‘moving castle,’ which, like The Overlook in The Shining, really stands as a  character in it’s own right.

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The castle, a massive Hodge-podge of gears and piles of scrap metal, is kept fully functional by Calcifer (Billy Crystal,) a wise-cracking fire demon, and between Calcifer, Sophie, Howl, and the boy apprentice of magic, Markl (Josh Hutcherson), they make sort of an odd little family. It’s going to take loyalty, friendship, magic, and faith in each others abilities to survive this crazy war and Howl’s equally crazy personal demons. Howl’s Moving Castle is set in a colorful steampunk world which resembles early 20th-Century Britain, but includes creatures and spells the likes of which no person of our world has ever encountered. If you know Miyazaki, you know that every film of his is an intensely visual experience, and besides Billy Crystal (who’s not as funny as he thinks he is,) all the English dub actors are fine in their respective roles.

Sophie, like Chihiro in Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier effort Spirited Away,  grows incredibly as a character throughout the film, but rather than developing from  entitlement to self-possession and maturity, she becomes much more assertive and builds her self-esteem exponentially. Sophie is a good role model for young girls, because although she starts out very Mary Sue-ish and ineffectual, she gradually becomes a more powerful character and is certainly not the average damsel in distress. While Sophie develops as a person throughout, Howl stays much the same, existing as both a powerful wizard and an incurable dandy, throwing a temper tantrum when Sophie mixed up his hair dyes and made him tint his hair the wrong color.

The characters in this are quite magical, so it would be a shame for anyone with a taste for the colorful and imaginative to miss it. Although I like Spirited Away marginally better, and admire My Neighbor Totoro for it’s boisterous innocence, Howl’s Moving Castle comes as a close third, and should be viewed even by people without the most rudimentary understanding or experience with anime.

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

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  -Watched English-Dubbed Version-

  My Neighbor Totoro was the first Miyazaki film I ever saw. The thing is, I really didn’t want to watch it at first. I grew up thinking anime was ‘stupid’ and there was some whining and complaining on my part when my Grandad and his girlfriend Franny rented it from a really cool movie place across town and suggested we watch it. To this day, although I’m still not a huge Japanese animation enthusiast, I’m grateful to my grandfather and Franny for introducing me to a Miyazaki movie and taking me out of my comfort zone. His films are, in a word, magical, and led me to checking out some other worthy choices in the genre like the mind-blowing Paprika and the relentlessly sad Grave of the Fireflies.

The plot of My Neighbor Totoro is simple, but there’s a lot of crossover appeal between young children (who will adore it) and older people (who are likely to be enraptured in the film’s gorgeous hand-drawn animation and joyful, innocent storytelling.) My Neighbor Totoro explores that time in childhood where the possibilities seem endless and seemingly insignificant experiences seemed like tiny wonders; a fleeting period in youth when yours truly taped feathers to her arms and tried to fly, and made a mad-dash attempt to use a plastic bag as a parachute and launch herself off the hill outside my house.

The story follows two little girls Satsuki (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her little sister Mei (Elle Fanning,) as happy a two children as you’re ever likely to meet. But their life is not without troubles. The girls’ mother (Lea Salonga) has been in the hospital indefinitely with a vague but insistent illness, and their rather absent-minded father (Tim Daly) has moved them into a ramshackle house in the country and often outright forgets to look after them. Nevertheless, the sisters approach their new home with barely contained excitement and a genuine sense of wonder, and life gets a whole lot more exciting by the minute when they meet a friendly, cuddly forest spirit named Totoro.

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Dad seems utterly caviler about what appears to be wild flights of fancy on the girls’ part (most American parents would be sending their kids to the psychiatrist when their ‘delusions’ about giant forest spirits perseverate,) making me wonder if he believes in the existence of the creatures or if he’s just playing along for his daughters’ sake. Regardless, he’s a pretty cool dad, although his slips into inattention can be slightly worrying. The first thing you’ll notice about My Neighbor Totoro if you’re unfamiliar with Japanese anime is the unusual animation and the characters’ huge mouths- literally. The kid sister could stuff watermelons into that thing. I can be jarring at first, but My Neighbor Totoro‘s sweet-natured plot soon gets the better of you.

There’s not a whole lot of conflict on display here- a mild catastrophe takes place and Totoro and the relentlessly imaginative ‘cat-bus’ (half cat, half bus, with unbelievably awesome results) are there to save the day. The majority of the film, however, focuses on the Satsuki and Mei exploring their natural environment and discovering a wealth of benign mystical creatures like Totoro, the Cat-Bus, and the fearful ‘Soot Sprites,’ who flee from a room whenever you turn the lights on. There’s not a huge sense of danger or of trying to convince the parents of the creatures’ existence, the parents ‘get it,’ or are at least willing to play along.

Hayao Miyazaki’s lovely film is above all, a perfect embodiment of childhood, in an idyllic world where the child protagonists are able to fully explore their environment and traverse their surroundings without fear of unsavory adults or everyday terrors. Only at the very end do you get a hint of darkness, and it makes you consider that the dad probably should have gotten up from his papers and paid more attention to his kids. But All’s well that ends well, as Shakespeare says, and a series of magical, and occasionally frustrating and tense events lead to a heartwarming ending.

Like the best animated films, My Neighbor Totoro isn’t just for kids; it’s for everyone who remembers being a kid as well. It’s not fantasy on such an epic scale as some of Miyazaki’s later efforts, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s pure and innocent and true and charms the pants off of anyone who loves low-key, kind-natured movies that make you believe the best in humanity. Rent it for a son or daughter, a niece or nephew, or a film enthusiast grandkid (as my Grandad did)- just make sure you see it. It’s a wonderful and worthwhile experience.

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Home (2015)

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For lightweight, innocuous entertainment to put the kiddies in front of while you get some work done, look no farther than Home, Dreamworks’ latest star-studded offering. However, if you want something a bit more emotionally challenging and satisfying for adults as well as toddlers, then you might be better off looking for something in the annals of Pixar studios for while Home looks beautiful and is a harmless enough way to spend 90 minutes, it is ultimately like the film’s race of aliens that benignly attempt to invade earth- well-meaning, but silly, shallow, and happily average and unextraordinary.

The extraterrestrial Boov might not be the brightest lights to grace the galaxy, but they’re really good at one thing- skedaddling. In fact, the leader of the Boov, Captain Smek (voiced by Steve Martin) as made a special point out of running away from whatever scares him. They also have little use for individuality, though they do have a group of supposedly super-intellectual Boov with  giant-sized swollen heads whose job it is to come up with ideas in times of discord.

The Boov could use some ideas right about now. They’re escaping their mortal enemy, the Gorg, which brings them to earth, a baffling planet they benignly take over, benevolently colonizing and herding the humans onto a reservation-like floating island. Then there’s that Boov that nobody likes, the gregarious, overenthusiastic Oh (Jim Parsons.) Oh becomes a most wanted fugitive  when he accidentally sends a intergalactic housewarming party invitation  to the Gorg.

Oh narrowly escapes Boov capture and meets Tip (Rihanna,) a feisty human preteen and the single escapee of a mass earth-wide capture of humans. Tip wants nothing to do with Oh’s kind, being single-mindedly concerned with rescuing her mother (Jennifer Lopez) from the Boov’s incompetent clutches, but they predictably bond and go on the adventure of a lifetime while teaching each other pithy life lessons about tolerating those different from yourself and fighting for what you care about, all to a peppy Rhianna and Jennifer Lopez pop soundtrack.

Home has it’s charming moments, I’ll give it that. It looks good visually, has some good messages, and contains some cute humor regarding Boov’s use (or rather, misuse) of common household objects. I guess everyday life and culture would look baffling to an outsider. But the movie is also dominated by cliches, corny sentiment, and trademark Dreamworks crude humor that detracts more than it brings to the overall viewing experience (I am not a prude, however, I am also not three years old, which is why I was less than impressed with a gag about a an alien drinking restroom ‘lemonade.’)

Every cliche is here; the candid talks while looking out at the sunset, the unlikely friendship which grows from distaste to mutual respect, even the gotcha ‘I thought you were dead’ moment so ubiquitous in modern animated films. Dreamworks seems unwilling or unable to deal with risky emotion or pathos, instead speaking in platitudes and refusing to delve too deep,  which is why it will, always, always be behind Pixar in my opinion.

Pixar delves daringly into real-life issues. Up had the strength to deal with Ellie’s death head-on. Inside Out showed us the emotions of a prepubescent girl, and rang true to anyone who remembered being young. Home doesn’t really have a lot of humor that would tickle someone over twelve’s funny bone, and it really doesn’t have a lot going for it. I got occasional chuckles and an incessant pop soundtrack to punctuate the ‘aaww’ moments. It all rings a bit hollow, and even young kids who are older at heart might see right through it’s flimsy plot cliches and flat characterizations.

Now, I’ll give Home an utterly average rating, but I’m not going to try to dissuade you from watching it with your kids, who might find it perfectly delightful. It’s not a bad movie by any means (better by far than the studio’s 2013 effort The Croods,) just perfectly standard, without anything particularly new or innovative to offer. I just couldn’t bring myself to feel anything, least of all wonder, definitely not emotion. Neither terrible nor particularly worthy of anyone’s time or energy, Home is primarily a Rhianna vehicle (how strange to hear the adult singer voicing a eleven-year-old girl)-  and might serve as a pleasant diversion if you don’t bring up your expectations too much.

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Up (2009)

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Not only does Up hold a long-standing place in my heart as my favorite Pixar film, it just might be my favorite animated film, period. It might be a slightly prosaic choice (as a independent movie enthusiast and borderline film snob, shouldn’t I pick something more obscurely cutting edge, maybe a mind-blowing, little-known Asian Anime?) but frankly, I don’t give a crap. It’s just that good.

My advice to the uninitiated is this- if you haven’t seen “Up”, stop reading this review right now and rent it, stream it, splurge on a purchase if you have to. Take your kid, take a friend’s kid, take yourself. It isn’t just ‘another kids movie,’ it’s got a huge spectrum of emotions and it sports one of the most beautiful opening sequences in film, period.

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Laughter, feels, and tears are all on naked display in this testament to childhood dreams and adulthood regrets as we follow elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and chubby eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) on the adventure of a lifetime. Carl, age seventy-eight, is a man with a lifelong dream; to take his wife Ellie to the site of their childhood obsession, the exotic and magical Paradise Falls.

We see a sequence with Ellie and Carl as children discovering their mutual interest in visiting Paradise Falls followed by a beautiful montage of the couple growing old together, which ends, sadly and perhaps inevitably, in Ellie’s deterioration and death (gently but heartbreakingly portrayed in a few oblique scenes of a hospital stay and Carl sitting, alone and dejected, next to the casket after the funeral.)

An undetermined amount of time passes following Ellie’s death, and Carl has grown into the quintessential grumpy old man, still grieving for his wife and his own inability to take her to Paradise Falls. When a rage-fueled mishap lands Carl on the direct route to a nursing home, the retired balloon salesman ties thousands of colorful balloons to his quaint little house and- surprise!- sails away before the rest home attendants who have arrived to take him away’s very eyes.

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There’s one little problem… Russell, the Wilderness Explorer kid determined to get his final badge for assisting the elderly, who in the process of pestering Carl gets stuck on the front porch when the house sets sail. After landing (rather conveniently) in Paradise Falls, Carl and Russell encounter talking dogs, including the sweet but dim Retriever Dug (Bob Peterson,) a sexually ambiguous exotic bird, but also a maniacal villain (Christopher Plummer) intent on taking what he believes is rightfully his.

Along the way, the sheltered Russell traverses the wilderness for the first time in his life, but is is Carl who learns lessons about bravery, letting go, and moving on from unfathomable grief. The irresistible Dug offers plenty of comic relief, and an unbreakable bond is forged between man and boy, man and dog, triggering a significant change in Carl’s attitude toward himself and life in general.

You know the old adage, ‘it will make you laugh and cry?’ It’s a bit stereotypical, but “Up” is one of the few movies that actually lives up to that saying. It’s heartfelt, funny, and surprisingly deep for a kids movie. But that’s just the thing. It isn’t just for kids, it appeals to all ages with it’s genuinely emotive storytelling, bright and textured animation, and timeless story of hope and renewal triumphing over resignation and bitterness.

“Up” is cute and charming, as lovable as holding a squirming puppy in your arms, but it never stoops to kitsch or silliness, or God forbid, being TOO cute (like the maudlin “Precious Moments” statuettes that are ubiquitous on aging Mormons’ mantelpieces.) Instead of sinking to the level of Saturday-Morning cartoon slapstick, “Up” takes a real human story and infuses it with extraordinary elements (an airborne house, dogs with collars that cause them to speak and quip like human beings.)

The fact that it’s not the other way around (a fantastical story with realistic features slapped on as an afterthought) is a very important distinction to make. Only a viewer with a heart of solid granite could remain dry-eyed through this film’s heartrending first twenty minutes, but it is by no means a bleak film. It’s a celebration of life, and what all of us have to offer to  and beyond the point of old age. We recognize the characters not as cartoons, but as manifestations of our own longings and emotions; and that humanity- the kind of feeling that transcends the majority of animated films- is what makes “Up” so special.

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