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Entries in Animated (19)

Wednesday
Dec212011

The Adventures of Tintin

Motion capture animation is a tough thing to pull off. Even when it’s done well, the result in the past has been weird and even kind of frightening. From The Polar Express to Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol, people have complained that the animation creates an eerie effect, at that odd stage where you can tell it’s fake, but it’s close to looking real. Well, never has this method been put to better use than Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. It’s the most realistic (and least creepy) use of the technology yet. Its visuals are stunning and they only compliment an already imaginative and very fun story. War Horse may be Spielberg’s attempt at Oscar glory, but this is the one worth seeing.

The story follows a young investigative journalist named Tintin (Jamie Bell) who one days buys a sculpture of a boat for cheap. As it turns out, that boat has a hidden scroll in it with directions to a hidden treasure. However, that scroll is only one of three and the evil Ivanovich (Daniel Craig) is planning on getting them all. Although he’s not searching for a story, Tintin has just been thrust into one and he’s the main subject.

The Adventures of Tintin is certainly not a great movie, but it’s a great experience. It’s something that you’ll have lots of fun watching even though you’ll still acknowledge its flaws. There’s a kindred spirit to the film, one that can be enjoyed by both kids and adults alike. If even a smidgen of your childhood is still left in your body, you’ll feel a joyful exuberance, that tiny puerile part of your sensibilities blossoming. It’s not an easy feeling to explain, but it’s one I wish I could share with those around me. Of course, if you’re being critical, the film’s imagination only goes so far. Its story and the various locales it visits along the way are more akin to a video game with a very loose narrative, which is probably appropriate given its look, but it’s a fun watch nonetheless.

In a sense, it’s an animated Indiana Jones, unsurprising given the director. Its story is over-the-top and most certainly not plausible, but its humor is affecting and its action is unbelievable. The characters aren’t always tied to Earthbound physics, which allows for high flying fun, the type of action that wouldn’t be possible in a similar, more traditional movie. It takes its film noir-ish premise and escalates it to fit its video game-esque world, but it’s never violent or scary. It’s perfect for families.

That is if you can disregard the way alcohol is treated. In the film, it’s used as a joke, which is a dangerous thing considering its PG rating, Nickelodeon affiliation and target audience. But more offensive than that, however, is the obligatory, and once again useless, use of 3D. Very few people can make the format work (Martin Scorsese being the only recent example with Hugo) and Spielberg simply fails here. There’s no sense of space to make the 3D pop and, as is to be expected at this point, much of the movie can be watched even without the glasses, the effect not even utilized in many of its shots.

Still, in 3D or not, The Adventures of Tintin is worth seeing. As is often the case, the B story, this time involving a pickpocket and two bumbling cops, isn’t as interesting as the main adventure and most of the time spent with it is little more than mildly pleasant filler, but even that mildly pleasant side story manages to do more than many full length movies this year. Though not an amazing film and probably not worthy of any awards, The Adventures of Tintin is pretty darn fantastic all the same.

The Adventures of Tintin receives 4/5

Wednesday
Nov232011

Arthur Christmas

When was the last time we saw a Christmas movie that became an instant classic and promised to be essential viewing during the holiday season? Love Actually? If so, it’s been a good eight years. If you ask me, though, you’d have to go all the way back to 1983’s A Christmas Story. Not since then has there been a Christmas movie so good, a year just seemed too long to wait for an appropriate time to watch it again. Based on what I’ve just seen with the pleasant, but all around mediocre Arthur Christmas, I don’t expect that to change.

The film follows the son of Santa Claus named Arthur Christmas (shouldn’t his last name be Claus?), voiced by James McAvoy. He works at the North Pole as the letter writer, answering the millions of letters Santa receives every year. He loves Christmas and revels in the joy it brings children the world over. This year, however, a child has been forgotten. A single young girl named Gwen is not going to be getting anything from Santa, though not if Arthur has anything to say about it. Determined to get that little girl her gift, he hops on the sleigh with his old, crazy grandfather (annoyingly referred to as “Grandsanta”), voiced by Bill Nighy, and sets out to make things right.

Arthur Christmas is not a game changer—few will argue it is—but it’s not easy to criticize. It has its heart in the right place and promises to be an enchanting view for the young tykes in the audience. In the film, Santa is as real as the air we breathe. There isn’t any doubt about his existence and nobody questions it. It’s fact. It’s like the movie exists within the head of a young child who struggles to stay up every year so they can catch a glimpse of the jolly fat man, always to no avail. The magic of the holiday is cherished and, at the very least, the film will allow the older folks to remember what it felt like when they woke up on Christmas morning and saw Santa’s gifts resting under the tree.

The problem is that the film just isn’t very funny, but it’s not particularly unfunny either. It rests in that strange middle ground (as so many British comedies do) where you can acknowledge its cleverness, but your amusement never evolves beyond a grin. The voice acting is splendid and the holiday-centric plays on words are fun for a bit, but there needed to be something more. The aforementioned magic never transcends the inherent magic of the holiday; the film itself is rather bland.

Nevertheless, the characters are likable, even when they’re not exactly living up the spirit of the holiday they help create. Arthur, in particular, is selfless and loving. When he embarks on his adventure, it’s not for a thrill or for fame. On the contrary, he’s rather scared. He is afraid of heights and knows that hopping in that sleigh is going to test his courage, but he does it anyway. His desire to get that child her gift trumps his phobias. It’s that love for children and the magic of Christmas that eventually forces the other more narcissistic characters to realize that Christmas isn’t about them. It’s about the unbridled joy a child feels when he or she finally reveals the mystery behind the wrapping paper.

Still, its mediocrity can’t be overstated. It’s a pleasant enough film to watch, but it’s missing that extra spark. Children will have fun and adults won’t be upset they had to sit through it—it’s as harmless as can be—but after a few years, it will fade into oblivion while the true Christmas classics live on.

Arthur Christmas receives 3/5

Friday
Nov182011

Happy Feet Two

The original Happy Feet is a movie that people will forever watch and wonder why it received as much praise as it did. While certainly not a bad movie, the title of “Best Animated Feature” seems a bit of a stretch. But one need only look at its competition from 2006’s Oscar season (Cars and Monster House) to realize it was merely the best of what appeared to be a disappointing year for animation. Those why say Happy Feet Two is better or worse than the original are fooling themselves. It’s just as charming, energetic, fluffy and, ultimately, forgettable.

Mumble (Elijah Wood), the poor penguin from the first film who was constantly harassed for his inability to sing and willingness to dance instead, has now been accepted into the pack. His heroic efforts from his last adventure did not go unnoticed, but his odd genetics have now produced a baby penguin named Erik (Ava Acres) who is just as awkward and clumsy and is, like his father back in the day, being ridiculed by those around him. In his dismay, he runs off and meets a flying penguin named The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria) who tells him anything is possible if he puts his mind to it. Eventually, Mumble finds him, but a terrible surface collapse back home has left the rest of his penguin herd stranded with no escape. Now they must combine their talents and save those they love before it’s too late.

Happy Feet Two begins with a flurry of popular songs, a medley that includes “Mama Said Knock You Out” and a cleaned up version of “SexyBack.” Right out of the gate, it bursts with vivacious, catchy, toe tapping fun. It’s a high energy the movie unfortunately isn’t able to maintain thanks to unimpressive original numbers and laughable plot turns, but they say first impressions mean everything and this thing grabs you from the get go.

This sequel follows the same trajectory of the original and utilizes the same basic narrative mechanics. The first film was about expressing yourself and using your God given talents to help others any way you can. The second is about, well, exactly the same thing. The cute little Mumble is now replaced by the cute little Erik. The first had the penguins facing starvation from a lack of fish. The second has them facing it again, though this time it’s because they’re stranded rather than due to human fishing. Also, as with the original, the penguins enlist the help of the humans to rescue them from their dire situation.

Happy Feet Two doesn’t even attempt to differentiate itself from its predecessor, but it’s easy to see why. That film made the viewer feel warm inside, despite whatever faults it may have had. It was a crowd pleaser that was guaranteed to leave a smile on family members young and old who went to see it. Why change the formula? Still, it’s this rigid hold on the original’s structure that keeps it from taking off and its faults are the same. The live action footage once again doesn’t symphonize with the colorful and vibrant animation—the dreary look of those scenes takes away from the beautiful look of the rest of the movie—and the one-with-the-animals mindset is silly at best, especially when you consider the laughable musical connection between the humans and penguins.

Where the sequel differs the most from its predecessor is in its B story. Whereas the original focused almost entirely on Mumble, Happy Feet Two constantly moves to other territories, interjecting footage of two krill named Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon). Their journey together to the top of the food chain is hands down the funniest and most delightful aspect of the entire film. It’s extremely clever and the dialogue is spoken with comedic vigor and spot-on timing, though it’s more or less inconsequential to the main narrative. The two stories cross paths, but are only connected by the flimsiest of means. It’s such a shame because both tales, though still entertaining apart, would have stood side by side in harmony. Still, Happy Feet Two is entertaining and it will teach kids in the audience to believe in themselves. This may not be a truly great movie, but that has to count for something.

Happy Feet Two receives 3.5/5

Friday
Jul152011

Winnie the Pooh

Most of the time, new movies succeed or fail on their own. Viewers have no bias because they have no previous experience with what they’re seeing. But every so often, a movie comes along that the viewer will have fond memories of and a feeling of nostalgia will kick in, negating any type of critical reaction he or she may have otherwise had. For a child of the 80’s like me, it may be something like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but for practically anyone currently alive, it could be something like Winnie the Pooh. The character that was first born in 1926 is back on the big screens this week in a new movie called, well, Winnie the Pooh, and it, for better or worse, captures the essence of the characters that so many have come to love and cherish. For those people, young and old, Winnie the Pooh will be a delight, but for those who never liked the honey-sucking bear and his dopey pals, it feels a bit pointless.

I suppose I should say I’m in that latter group, but spewing venomous words at the film is hard to do because it’s as light and harmless as can be. It’s one of the kindest, gentlest movies I’ve ever seen and it, for a brief time, made equals of the children and adults in the audience, the former most likely experiencing Pooh and his pals for the first time while the latter happily relived the days when they were as carefree as their children they brought to the theater. For those people, I am happy, but I cannot, as a critic, recommend a movie I didn’t like, even if it worked for those around me.

Growing up in my family, there were two distinct trains of thoughts when it came to Winnie the Pooh. My mother and sister loved him while my father and I hated him. Even as a child, I failed to see what was so interesting about a simple-minded (possibly learning disabled) bear who ate honey. He seemed to do nothing more than trot around the Hundred Acre Wood, chatting with his equally uninteresting friends (including Eeyore, the ever depressed donkey who would be on suicide watch if he were a real person) about inconsequential drivel. In what must be at least a 15 year gap since I’ve watched anything involving Pooh, little has changed.

Some might think my perspective on what happens in these stories as “inconsequential drivel” is merely strong hyperbole, but it’s not. There isn’t a more appropriate word to describe this movie than “inconsequential,” in fact. Take away its credits and the short film that precedes it and Winnie the Pooh isn’t even an hour long. And within that short runtime, the filmmakers have neglected to place a story. It has a beginning, middle and end, sure, but it’s missing one thing any good story needs: conflict. At one point in the film, Christopher Robin goes away and leaves a note saying he’ll “be back soon.” The gang, however, incorrectly reads that he was kidnapped by a “backson.” So they go on their way setting up traps to capture the backson and get Robin back, but because the backson isn’t real, there’s no threat, nothing to create any type of narrative arc. There are no internal conflicts either because the characters in the wood community all get along. Things happen, of course, but I’m not sure what happens can be considered a story.

It’s easy to say these things, especially given that Pooh and friends are the products of little Robin’s imagination (what a dull head he must live in), but I almost feel bad for doing so. It has crisp, clean, colorful and bright 2D animation that works as a throwback to Disney days of old when everything was innocent and simpler. It’s good, goofy fun if you’re a kid or liked Pooh as one, but I’m not and I didn’t. I find him and his pals boring and lacking interesting personalities. So while I admire it for its traditional look and good intentions, I just can’t justify recommending it.

Winnie the Pooh receives 2.5/5

Friday
Jun242011

Cars 2

Throughout the years, Pixar has come to be the most reliable production studio in Hollywood. Their movies have been so good, the fact that they’re animated has meant little. Animated or otherwise, Pixar films rank among the top movies of the last 16 years (going all the way back to 1995’s Toy Story). They have had a perfect track record, eleven for eleven (or more if you include their wonderful short films), but it seems that record is now tainted. I never thought I’d see the day, but it has come. Pixar has made a bad movie and its name is Cars 2.

The film takes place a few years after Cars. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has just returned to Radiator Springs after winning his 4th Piston Cup. His best friend, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), is ecstatic that he’s home and has big plans for his buddy. However, they soon hear of the first ever World Grand Prix, a race that is going to be done exclusively with Allinol, an alternative fuel source being promoted by the World Grand Prix founder, Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), and head off to compete in that instead. Little do they know, an evil organization of clunkers, fearful of becoming obsolete, is out to destroy the cars during the race in an attempt to delegitimize Allinol. In a series of mix-ups, Mater finds himself participating in a mission of international espionage with secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who are trying to find and stop the evil mastermind behind the sabotage before it’s too late.

Except for perhaps A Bug’s Life, the original Cars is Pixar’s worst film because it is largely for children. The thematic complexity of many of their other films was all but missing. Nevertheless, it was still a good movie with a heartfelt, if overdone, message about figuring out what’s really important and finding your bliss. In that film, Lightning grew as a character and learned that there was more to life than winning races and awards. Cars 2 has nothing like that. The deepest it goes is “be nice to your friends,” which may be great for the little ones in the audience, but won’t do much for anyone who has already hit puberty. In some ways, it’s commendable to see Pixar put out a wholesome, inoffensive film solely for children—there aren’t too many of those these days—but it’s also extremely disappointing because they’re capable of so much more. In the last few years, we’ve gazed in awe at the wonders that were Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3, Pixar’s three most mature films to date. To see them take such a puerile leap backwards is disheartening to say the least.

Even with those problems in consideration, Cars 2 has a lazy, poorly developed story and an out-of-place eco-friendly message. Its call for a renewable fuel resource, however admirable it may be, will undoubtedly go over children’s heads and come off as preachy and unnecessary to the adults. Had the story been fleshed out more than what is presented, perhaps the message could have worked, but it’s not. Essentially, Cars 2 is a James Bond film with automobiles, but the problem is simply putting cars into a Bond-like scenario is not enough. Something must be done with it to make it memorable, but there’s no parody of action movie clichés (something that the excellent Kung Fu Panda 2 nailed several times), no homage to Bond elements (aside from a few character names like the aforementioned Holly Shiftwell) and no unique twist to the already worn down spy story.

As with the first film, Larry the Cable Guy is the best part of Cars 2. He puts real effort into his performance as opposed to Owen Wilson who sounds like he’s just taken a heavy dose of Nyquil and is delivering his lines only minutes before falling asleep. However, a little goes a long way and, like Ken Jeong in The Hangover Part II, his expanded part grows a bit wearisome. In this installment, Mater is the central character and his Southern ignorance becomes less and less charming as time goes on.

As should be evident by now, even the film’s positives are hampered by their own distinct negatives. The 3D, for instance, isn’t as obtrusive as other movies thanks to Cars 2’s bright and colorful nature, but it’s still unnecessary and produces more noticeable double vision than most other films in recent memory. Simply put, Pixar dropped the ball on this one. Cars 2 is hands down and by a wide margin the worst, most inaccessible Pixar film to date. And as much as I hate to say it, it’s also the first one that is not worth seeing.

Cars 2 receives 1.5/5