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Entries in Animated (19)

Friday
May242013

Epic

It’s really hard to hate animated movies, even bad ones. If nothing else, animated movies are typically filled with lush visuals and virtuous messages that children need to hear, even if they are a little too simple for adults. Such is the case with the inappropriately titled “Epic.” It’s certainly not an example of a good animated film, and considering that it’s coming from Blue Sky Studios whose best film is the mostly bland “Ice Age,” that’s no surprise, but it’s hardly a disaster and it sports some imaginative visuals, despite a story you can’t say the same for.

The film starts with Mary Katherine, who prefers to go by M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), a teenage girl whose father (Jason Sudeikis) hasn’t always been around for her. Despite this, she is making an attempt to connect with him and goes to visit him in his cabin in the woods. For years, he has been obsessed with a population of tiny creatures he believes to be living in the forest. Most people, including M.K., think he’s crazy, but little do they know he’s actually right. He just hasn’t found the proof yet. M.K. is about to realize this firsthand when she finds herself shrunk down to their size right after the queen of the forest, Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), gives her the chosen forest pod, which will save the forest from Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and the Boggans, the evil little creatures who want the forest to decay. That little pod is going to sprout that night and along with the Leafmen, the guardians of the forest led by rookie Nod (Josh Hutcherson) and Ronin (Colin Farrell), it’s up to her to ensure it sprouts in light and keeps the life of the forest intact.

As one might expect, the story is inconsequential and filled with messages about saving our forests and preserving the delicate ecosystem of life on our planet. It’s certainly a good message and it doesn’t beat you over the head with it like last year’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” but the problem comes when the question is inevitably asked: why save the forest? The answer boils down to an unconvincing “because it’s pretty.” The Boggans, as far as the movie explains, don’t want to destroy the forest because they hate the forest’s inhabitants, but rather because they enjoy living in rot. To them, it’s simply a matter of beauty vs. decay and they prefer decay. The battle to save the forest becomes one of aesthetic purposes rather than one of nobility. Although the decay of the forest would obviously lead to the destruction of its ecosystem, such a point is never made. There are plenty of reasons to save our forests and respect the life in it, but kids watching won’t walk away with that understanding due to a narrow thematic focus.

One must admit, however, that the visuals do indeed paint a forest that looks exquisite and feels alive, so perhaps the narrow focus will benefit those watching. Due to our advanced technology, it’s difficult to make a movie with a presumably large budget like this look bad, but that no less diminishes its beauty. The characters are also animated well and move gracefully through the forest, even during the surprisingly taut action scenes. Watching the film move is a real joy, even if where it’s moving to isn’t particularly interesting.

The story itself is emotionally distant and the characters are flatly written, usually succumbing to the archetypes modern moviegoers expect. Nod is the reckless free spirit with untapped potential while Ronin is the hardened general whose duties to the Queen and the forest are his only priorities. Naturally, Ronin cares for Nod and believes in him, despite his recklessness, and it’s a safe bet to assume that Nod will make him proud by the end of the movie. And you can’t have a movie with characters of the opposite sex without sparking a romance, this time between Nod and M.K., a romance that is never truly built or felt and is largely forgotten by the end, given that M.K. has to return to normal size while Nod must remain in his diminutive state.

“Epic” is nothing but underdeveloped stories that are masked by high flying action and solid voice performances from a talented cast (aside from Aziz Ansari as Mub the slug, who proves he can be just as annoying without having to look at him). It’s sure to delight children, though it won’t leave a lasting impression and the chance to provide them with some meaning is unfortunately passed by for simplicity’s sake. For similar concepts told in vastly different ways, you’re better off checking out Studio Ghibli’s wonderful “The Secret World of Arrietty,” which is far more interesting, beautiful and profound than anything shown here. “Epic” is anything but.

Epic receives 1.5/5

Friday
Nov022012

Wreck-It Ralph

People watch movies, indulge in television and play video games to be transported to another world for a brief period of time. Video games, in particular, seem to come more alive due to the fact that they allow you to live in that world and control the characters in it. While movies and television are a passive viewing experience, video games are active and give the illusion that what you’re doing matters, that your actions have a ripple effect on the digital world you’ve been placed in. But what if that wasn’t an illusion? What if, when the games were shut off and the players were elsewhere, the characters lived their own lives and experiences? That’s the premise of Wreck-It Ralph and it’s great, the first movie since Toy Story to truly tap into the imagination of what it’s like to be a kid, when everything you wanted to be real was if you believed it hard enough. Wreck-It Ralph strips away the cynicism of adulthood and it’s an utter delight, especially if you’re a gamer.

Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the “bad guy” of his arcade game, Fix-It Felix, Jr. His job is to destroy the building onscreen and prevent the hero, Fix-It Felix himself (Jack McBrayer), from fixing it and earning a medal. His code dictates his in-game actions and he is forced to be the bad guy, so he’s an outcast and sleeps at a nearby dump at night while the rest of the game characters live together in their cozy apartments. He’s tired of being the bad guy, though, and decides he wants to earn a medal himself, so he travels outside of his game to the central hub (the surge protector where all the arcade machine power cords meet). Once there, he stumbles his way into a couple other games, including “Sugar Rush,” a cute racing game that takes place in a world made of sweets. There he meets a glitch in the game named Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) who isn’t allowed to race in the game because if the gamers see her glitch, they may notify the arcade owner who will decide the game is broken and unplug it, putting all the inhabitants of the game homeless, except for Vanellope who, because glitches can’t leave their game, will die with it.

Though vibrant, colorful and targeted at kids, Wreck-It Ralph is just as accessible to the older crowds; more specifically, seasoned gamers. If you’re a child of the 80’s and grew up with Nintendo, you’ll adore the little touches that the filmmakers, who are all clearly avid gamers, threw in. Jumps are followed by a Super Mario-esque sound effect, 8-bit worlds are populated by trees that are little more than square blocks and the characters, at least the minor ones, are jaggedly animated due to their 8-bit limitations. These touches are brilliant and really bring these video game worlds to life.

Expectedly, video game references, both subtle and obvious, are thrown in the film for gamers to spot. An early scene where all the bad guys have gathered together to discuss their evilness is ripe with them. The group includes Bowser from the Super Mario series, Dr. Robotnik (or Eggman as I suppose he is now called) from the Sonic series, Zangief from Street Fighter, a Pac-Man ghost and even a character who looks suspiciously like Kano from Mortal Kombat, who proceeds to perform a Fatality onscreen and rip a nearby zombie's heart out. When this meeting is over and they head back out to the central hub after navigating their way out of the Pac-Man game—the meeting took place in the center rectangle where the ghosts originate from—they find the long forgotten Q*bert sitting outside begging for help with a sign that says "Game unplugged." Even Sonic's there doing his usual do-gooder shtick, performing what can only be described as a PSA for the rest of the video game characters, informing them that if they die outside their game, they die for good.

Eventually, Ralph makes his way to the bar to drown his sorrows. The bar, of course, is the classic arcade game Tapper and you get to watch as the bartender runs up and down sliding beverages to his quickly approaching patrons. On top of all this, you'll see references to Mario Kart, Metal Gear Solid and even the famous Konami code, which is guaranteed to impress the gamers in the audience. These references disappointingly dissipate as the film goes on, though it isn't necessarily a bad thing. The story is imaginative and warm and the characters are lovable thanks to some top notch voice acting from the game cast, particularly Silverman who once again proves how spot on her comedic timing is.

This is a good thing because it gives those who aren't gaming savvy something to latch onto. Not once will a viewer feel like they're being neglected or left in the dark because of their lack of gaming knowledge. Even with all the clever nods to some of gaming's most iconic franchises, the central story is the heart and soul of the movie and you'll be surprised by how invested you've become by the end. Whether you've played zero video games or thousands, Wreck-It Ralph is worth your time.

Wreck-It Ralph receives 4/5

Friday
Aug172012

ParaNorman

Animation is too often thought of as a children’s medium, which is an unfair classification. While it does tend to skew towards them, adults can be just as thrilled, delighted, scared and amused as any young kid. This week’s ParaNorman is evidence of that and it hits all of those emotions many times. This is the first film since 2009’s underrated gem 9 that feels more mature and more alive than most other conventional animated films. Despite its PG rating, it takes many risks in its sometimes unnerving tone, frightening visuals and boundary pushing jokes (let’s just say some parents won’t be pleased by a late movie character reveal) and it’s absolutely wonderful. This is not animation for kids. This is animation for everyone.

The film follows Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young boy who has a special gift: he can see and talk to the dead. The people of Blithe Hollow think he’s a freak, as they watch him walk down the street seemingly talking to the air. What they don’t realize is that the afterlife is indeed a real thing and Norman gets to watch as people journey through it. Perhaps appropriately, he’s a horror fan and stays up most nights watching scary movies on television. The walls of his rooms are lined with zombie posters, his slippers are zombie heads and his alarm clock is a tombstone with an arm sticking out of it and a big “RIP” on the front. Naturally, his odd behavior hasn’t landed him many friends, but he soon learns he’s more important than even he realized. His crazy uncle, whom he was told not to talk to and who happens to share Norman’s powers, suddenly dies. His spirit tells Norman that he must now keep an evil witch at bay. It’s approaching the 300 year anniversary since her death and he must read a book at her resting place before sundown or the dead will spring to life. Unfortunately, Norman is unsuccessful, so he’s forced to set out and correct his blunder.

ParaNorman feels like something “The Simpsons” writers would make if they went a bit darker and tried to tackle horror. It’s fearless, imaginative and incredibly clever. It has plenty of throwaway gags that are surprisingly effective if you catch them, including one billboard gag exclaiming that the local school would be hosting the “Spelling Bee next Wensday.” It’s moments like these that highlight how the filmmakers left no stone unturned. They packed as much as they could into a short 93 minute runtime and somehow pulled it off seamlessly. Gags like that are usually followed by a dramatic or scary scene, but the tone never falters. It never feels inconsistent, like they needed to pick one and stick to it. They take everything that’s great about laughing and crying and being scared and throw it together to form a magical piece of entertainment.

The fact that the animation is smooth and pretty should go without saying; it’s the film’s smarts that surprise the most. It references and spoofs a number of other horror movies, including Halloween, Friday the 13th and those classic Hammer horror films. The opening, in particular, is wonderfully reminiscent of a horror film double feature many would find playing at their local theaters back in the 70’s. It’s a love letter to the genre itself and the unique experience that genre delivers, and it continues this admiration throughout. It creates a voice of its own with a downright wonderful story that concludes in an incredible fashion that manages to be terrifying, sad and beautiful all in one sweep, but it never loses its respect for the genre it obviously endears.

In a strange way, ParaNorman is even a bit profound, finding an odd peace in death, though it’s not quite as involving as this year’s wonderful Studio Ghibli film, The Secret World of Arrietty, where the possibility of life after death was treated less factually, but it nevertheless remains interesting. In the movie, the characters must face their fears, so it’s only appropriate it doesn’t shy away from the reality of death, everyone’s biggest fear. By the time the end rolls around and Norman faces an enemy that is far different than what many will expect, the film has taken on a whole new meaning. ParaNorman wears many faces, both thematically and narratively, but they all combine to create something truly special.

ParaNorman receives 4.5/5

Friday
Mar022012

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from recent movies like Cars 2 and this week’s Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, it’s that creating an environmentally friendly message is very hard to do without coming off as preachy. If Cars 2 shoved its message down your throat, The Lorax beats you over the head with it. While there’s certainly something to be said about industrialization and its negative effects on the environment, The Lorax fails to bring it forth with resonance.

The film follows a young kid named Ted (voiced by Zac Efron) who lives in the town of Thneed-Ville. In his town, no living trees exist and to survive, air must be bought from business mogul and mayor, Mr. O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle). Ted has a crush on a pretty girl named Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift) who longs to get away from the artificiality of their town’s blow-up plants and see a real tree. Perhaps naively, Ted figures the only way he’ll get Audrey to reciprocate his feelings is to find one, so he ventures outside of his town, which has been closed off from the rest of the world. Out there, he finds nothing but environmental destruction and eventually runs into a man called the Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) who recounts his introduction to the guardian of the land, the Lorax (voiced by Danny DeVito), and how his invention began the destruction of what used to be a lively paradise.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax has good intentions, as most kids movies do. It tries to entertain the young ones in the audience with songs and colorful visuals while also, in its own goofy way, opening their eyes to the beauty of nature and the dangers of deforestation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and while I certainly don’t feel adamant enough about it to tell you not to take your child to see it, The Lorax over-emotionalizes its message to an intense degree. In an early scene, for example, after the Once-ler cuts down his first tree, the animals of the forest place symbolic mourning rocks around the tree and hold hands while slow, somber music begins to bellow from the speakers. Though it still would have been too much later in the film, it would have fit more appropriately after the full destruction of the forest. Its placement at such an early stage and after one tree is cut down is more comical than it is sad.

When not shamefully overstating the loss of a tree or laying on thick the destruction of a whole forest, The Lorax tries to be funny, but most of its humor consists of something or someone running into or hitting something or someone else. If you counted the number of times something like this happened to a character, be they human or animal, it would easily reach double digits by the halfway point, perhaps even sooner (much sooner) than that. Here is a movie that aims to tackle a real world problem, albeit in an emotionally over-the-top way, but then dumbs down everything surrounding the problem, essentially making a mockery of it. In simpler terms, the film’s message is too heavy while its humor is too light and those two extremes simply don’t work well together.

What really hurts the film, more than its stupid humor and overwrought themes, is its surprising lack of imagination, especially considering the name attached to it. For example, in the forest that is eventually destroyed, exactly three species of animals exist: geese, bears and fish. That’s it. All the wonderful creativity from other Dr. Seuss stories is missing here. The movie’s world isn’t vividly realized, the forest’s inhabitants are bland and the story, which consists mainly of flashback and little present day conflict, isn’t good enough to make up for it.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just an extremely bland one, which is sometimes worse. Some talent went into its making, for sure, but that same talent was put to better use in 2010’s Despicable Me. There’s no reason why that film should be more inventive than this (because, after all, who’s more inventive than Dr. Seuss?), but it lacks in all fields and its message, despite being the entire point of the movie, is misplaced. There’s nothing inappropriate about The Lorax, so if your child wants to see it, there’s no reason not to go. Just be prepared to sit through what it is rather than what it could (and should) be.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax receives 1.5/5

Friday
Feb172012

The Secret World of Arrietty

Studio Ghibli is the Pixar of Japan. Like Pixar (at least until Cars 2), they never put out a bad movie. Everything they release is full of incredible imagination, wit and heart. From My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away to 2008’s wondrous Ponyo, Studio Ghibli produces some of the best animated feature films to ever be released. If you haven’t seen any of their movies, there’s no better time to start then now with this week’s new release, The Secret World of Arrietty. While it doesn’t quite reach the brilliance of those aforementioned films, it lags not far behind. Young or old, The Secret World of Arrietty is magical and is not to be missed.

The film follows a sick young boy named Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) who is spending a week in the house his mother grew up in to rest before his upcoming heart operation. He used to hear stories of miniature people living under that house, but as most people would, he thought of them as nothing more than feel good tales, but his disbelief quickly vanishes when he arrives and spots Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) jumping from leaf to leaf in a nearby bush. Arrietty is what you would call a “borrower” and she, along with her father, Pod (voiced by Will Arnett) and mother, Homily (voiced by Amy Poehler), lives off the resources of the human beings living above her. Their existence is secret and they only sneak up when the coast is clear so they can grab what is essential to live. Past incidents have shown them that human beings aren’t to be trusted, but Shawn is different and Arrietty strikes up a friendship with him against her parents’ wishes.

There’s a lot to be said for computer animation. Computers can create images that hand drawings can’t. They can build realistic three dimensional worlds that are as detailed as if you went out with a camera and physically shot something yourself. But when every animated movie uses this format, it becomes stale. That’s one of the many reasons why Studio Ghibli is so great; their movies are hand drawn. Sure, some things are spruced up a bit with three dimensional renderings (most notably in Princess Mononoke), but their animation technique is one not seen much these days. The Secret World of Arrietty continues in the studio’s tradition of hand drawn animation and it’s arguably their most gorgeous one yet. With visuals reminiscent of a watercolor painting, it’s like watching an artist’s still canvas come to life. They’ve crafted a world that feels real, defying your adult brain that should know it’s not, and that’s a testament to the many talented people who have lovingly put this together. It’s a vivid world that will capture your imagination even if the story doesn’t.

Luckily, the chances of that happening are slim to none. It would be easy to brush The Secret World of Arrietty off as a children’s film, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although it’s accessible to children, it also takes a surprising look at mortality and the value of life, no matter how small. As previously mentioned, Shawn is deathly sick. His heart is not strong and he’s facing the harsh truth that, if his operation isn’t successful, he may only have a few days left to live. While certainly not an emotionally weak child, his eventual companionship with Arrietty makes him stronger and gives him optimism that the world will go on after his operation and he’ll still be there to partake in its pleasures.

Conversely, Shawn teaches Arrietty a thing or two. Because of her size and the impending danger that lurks around every corner, including a hungry bird and cat, Arrietty knows little about the outside world. She has never met another borrower, much less an actual full sized person, and she has been taught her entire life that humans are evil and to fear them. It’s all she knows, but when she meets Shawn, the kind and gentle soul he is, she learns that her fear is unwarranted. There may be some bad people out there, but Shawn isn’t one of them and gives her a new perspective on life.

It may seem crazy that a G-rated animated family film could be as deep and contemplative as this, but that’s the strength of Studio Ghibli (and Pixar for that matter). Their movies always have a tremendous amount of heart and brains. The Secret World of Arrietty is bright and colorful, yes, but it’s also awe inspiring and spiritual. It’s a wonderful adventure.

The Secret World of Arrietty receives 4.5/5