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Kung Fu Panda 2

It has been an underwhelming year so far at the movies. By this time last year, I had given out a good number of perfect or near perfect scores, but 2011 has disappointed me. Films like Rango and Source Code have stood proud as the best this year has offered, yet neither of them were truly great. I’ve been waiting many months for a movie to come along and really impress me, something that can make me laugh, cry and excite me all at the same time. That movie has finally come in the form of Kung Fu Panda 2. It’s a tour de force, a real achievement in not just animation, but filmmaking in general and it proves once and for all that animation can be just as funny, unique and emotionally gripping as live action cinema. Let’s just put it this way. If this were released last year, Toy Story 3 would have had a run for its money.

When we last saw Po (Jack Black), he was learning to be a kung fu master. He was inexplicably deemed the Dragon Warrior and was tasked with the responsibility of defeating an impending evil heading his way. Because of his large stature and clumsy mannerisms, he was ridiculed by the Furious Five, who refused to believe he held the power to protect their people. They were wrong, of course, and now Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu) have accepted them into their clan. But a kung fu warrior’s work is never done and a new evil has emerged in the form of Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a peacock determined to take over China.

It must be said that Kung Fu Panda 2 is a sequel of the “if it ain’t broke…” variety. The original film was a solid piece of work in itself and it would be foolish to mess with the formula too much. However, just because something isn’t broke doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked and made better and that’s precisely what was done here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is funnier and more exciting than the original and its heart seems to have grown tenfold.

Throughout this film’s brief hour and a half runtime, Po goes on a journey of self discovery that is more profound than anything presented in the first movie. As he ventures into battle, he begins to have visions of his family, giving him a desire to learn who he is and where he came from. His discoveries aren’t always pleasant, however, which gives the film an unexpected darker tone than its predecessor. It deals with the idea of making the right choice, even if it’s not the easy one. To elaborate would constitute spoilers, but you will undoubtedly feel sadness for Po as he learns the inescapable truth of his past.

That’s not to say Kung Fu Panda 2 is all dark. It still retains the playful exuberance that made the first movie so darn enjoyable. Also returning is the vibrant and distinctive animation (even when obfuscated by the 3D glasses) that seamlessly transitions from lush computer animation to hand drawn sequences that appropriately elicit the feeling of Chinese shadow puppetry. Perhaps best of all is that the characters are just as charming as you remember. Po is still the awkward, hunger fueled jokester you remember him as. He’s just a little more agile and skilled than before. He also shows more confidence, having been accepted as a legitimate kung fu master, and isn’t afraid to spout off one-liners that are hilariously used to parody various action movie clichés.

The Furious Five that accompany Po are better handled as well. Rather than endlessly make fun of him as they did in the first film, they now see him as a part of their family. It creates a sense of camaraderie among the crew and gives them more sympathetic personalities. The most surprising character, however, comes in the form of Lord Shen, who at first glance is too graceful to be threatening—after all, a peacock isn’t the most ferocious animal on the planet—but looks can be deceiving. He may not have the physical presence of the last film’s antagonist, but he is nevertheless ruthless and destructive. He delights in chaos and will stop at nothing to get what he wants. It’s a cold, calculated approach to villainy, just one of many aspects the filmmakers have carefully thought through.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a wonderful movie. It works on so many different levels, from the pleasing aesthetics to the unbelievable action, that it’s practically guaranteed to please everybody who watches it. While the children they bring will surely enjoy it, adults in the audience may find something deeper hidden in what looks like an otherwise simple tale. To summarize this review, Kung Fu Panda 2 is flat out amazing.

Kung Fu Panda 2 receives 5/5



Fair or not, I set a high standard for animated films because I adore animation. The format has given me some of my most memorable and magical trips to the cinema—Pixar, Studio Ghibli, DreamWorks, all have given me enough reasons to hold onto the child within me with their fantastical tales of adventure and wonder—so when I sit down to watch one, I expect something great. Unfortunately, not all movies are worth writing home about (including a few of the aforementioned DreamWorks films). Rio is one of those movies. If the audience reaction at my screening is indicative of how it is going to be received, Rio will be a smash hit at the box office, but for my money, it’s not quite worth the price of admission.

As the film begins, a baby Blue Macaw is being taken from its natural habitat in Brazil and shipped overseas to be sold in an American pet shop. However, its cage falls out of the truck it is riding in before reaching the shop and is picked up by Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann). She imaginatively names him Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) and they spend the next 15 years living happily together. However, she soon finds out that Blu could very well be the last male of his species and to keep the Blue Macaw from going extinct, she is forced to take him back to his original home in Rio de Janeiro to mate with the last known female, Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway).

Of course, things don’t go as planned. The two birds naturally don’t like each other, but are forced to work together when they are birdnapped and chained by the feet by a man who plans to sell them for loads of money. Naturally, they escape and begin to find a fancy for each other as they go along their adventure. That’s obvious and shouldn’t be regarded as a spoiler. What matters in this case is whether or not it’s funny and, as sad as it is to say, it’s mostly not. Aside from a handful of passable chuckles, the jokes fall into one of two categories (and sometimes both). They’re either simpleminded (monkeys texting each other “Ooh ooh ahh ahh!” is far too easy) or they’re unoriginal. You’ve heard these jokes, or at least variations of them, before. Many, many times. It's so derivative, in fact, that it even replicates a joke from last week’s abysmal R rated stoner comedy, Your Highness, which itself had been used previously in many other earlier films. The joke in question is a person singing badly out of tune. It wasn’t funny in Your Highness (although to be fair, nothing was funny in Your Highness) and it’s not funny here either.

If there’s anything to squeeze out of the jokes, it’s the delivery. The voice actors do a relatively good job of bringing forth some enthusiasm, especially Jamie Foxx and, who play two birds who just love to break out into song at every chance possible. The complication, however, is that the voices are so recognizable it becomes distracting. On top of those already mentioned, there’s Wanda Sykes, Jane Lynch, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan and more. All, especially Lopez and Morgan, are so familiar that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the characters from the voices behind them.

As should be expected at this point, Rio is in 3D, which only serves to detract from the experience even more. A few weeks ago, Rango, the first non-3D animated movie to come along in quite some time, proved once and for all that the extra dimension isn't needed. It was a wonderful movie, one of the best of the year so far actually, and it worked without resorting to the overused gimmick. Even when 3D works as intended by extending the depth of field, it comes at a price and dims the visuals due to the tinted glasses. And in a film about colorful animals set in as lively a place as the tropical Rio de Janeiro, stripping the brightness is the last thing you want to do. Usually, 3D is merely an annoyance, but in Rio, it’s a serious and unforgivable problem.

Still, I suppose the animation is good, but that’s hardly a compliment anymore given how much computer animation technology has progressed. Even smaller animation studios have to try pretty hard to look ugly. To put it simply, Rio is merely average, but if that must be noted, it should also be noted that it’s completely harmless. But consider this, if you will. The funniest part of this experience is the Ice Age short that comes before called Scrat’s Continental Crack-up (and it was even funnier the first time I saw it in front of last year’s Gulliver’s Travels). If the unrelated short at the beginning is more enjoyable than the feature length film that comes after, can Rio really be considered a success?

Rio receives 2.5/5



If you’ve ever heard me talk about animation, you know I’m at the forefront of the “Animation is not just for children!” movement. Opponents of that train of thought are, quite simply, daft. Just because children can find enjoyment in a particular animated movie does not mean adults can’t, or even that it was meant for them. Accessibility does not equate to target audience. While it's true that movies like Planet 51 are strictly for kids, films like How to Train Your Dragon, Tangled and many more have proven that animation can delight the young ones in the audience while also sparking the long lost imagination of the older crowd. Well, you can now add Rango, a downright delightful animated Western that ranks among the best non-Pixar offerings in recent memory, to that ever growing list.

As the film begins, we meet a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) trapped inside of a glass cage as he rides with his family across the Nevada desert. After the car swerves due to an animal in the road, his cage falls out of the window and smashes, leaving him stranded and alone. However, he soon meets Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) an iguana who is on her way to Dirt, a town inhabited by animals whose only resource is precious water. When he arrives, he creates a rough and tough identity for himself, calling himself Rango and boasting of violent scuffles that never happened. Impressed by his words, the townsfolk make him sheriff. And he couldn’t have come at a better time because the water is drying up and they hope he will be able to find out why.

If you’ve seen the trailers for Rango, you may be aware of the unique filming style. Although animated, the actors voicing the roles physically acted out the performance. It wasn't motion capture, however. As Depp put it, it was “emotion capture.” This technique allowed the performers to interact with each other (as opposed to the usual solitary voice recordings most other films use) and be as silly as possible while cameras filmed their every move, footage that was later used as reference in the animation process. The approach worked because the fun they undoubtedly had creating the movie flows through the screen like no other film in recent memory.

While much of that is due to the terrific script and the funny delivery by the voice actors, it is also due to the beautiful and vibrant animation that is (shockingly) not hampered by the dimming glasses of 3D. The choice to not put Rango in 3D is a wise one and it shows just how much livelier your film can be with every bright color in its palette popping off the screen. In addition, the attention to detail is astonishing. Some are merely nice touches, like the inclusion of mustache-esque scales on Rattlesnake Jake (voiced by Bill Nighy), but others add to the realism of the unforgiving desert, like backgrounds that look like they’re moving because of the scorching humidity.

Rango may not have the heart of a Pixar film (though it tries), but it has fun, particularly with old Western tropes like horseback riding and standoffs, by putting its own little spin on them and crafting some clever jokes at their expense. It has everything that makes a great Western, only exaggerated and manic to properly fit with the animation style and it works. With the exception of True Grit, Rango is the best example of the genre to come along in years. All things considered, that’s pretty impressive.

Rango receives 4/5


Gnomeo & Juliet

How many times can you tell a story and keep it fresh? That’s a question with no definitive answer, but it’s one that needs to be asked. After countless adaptations of Romeo & Juliet across film, television and theater, is there a point when we can officially retire it and say that enough is enough? It has been performed, written out and translated to screens big and small so many times that I’m not sure much else can be done with it. The newest, kid centric adaptation of the popular story, Gnomeo & Juliet, takes the two star-crossed lovers and makes them garden gnomes—a novel concept, if not exactly sustainable.

To its credit, Gnomeo & Juliet doesn’t try to pretend like it’s completely original. In fact, before the story even starts, a random gnome steps onscreen, addresses the audiences and tells us we've already heard this story—“a lot.” It’s a great beginning, humorous and appealing, and it sets the lighthearted tone for the rest of the film. It begins with feuding neighbors, Montague and Capulet (a nice touch) who believe the other is sabotaging their garden. The truth is that when they aren’t around, their gardens come to life. The red hatted gnomes, known simply as “the Reds,” and the blue hatted gnomes, “the Blues,” have been at war for an unspecified amount of time. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy), a fighter for the Blues, hates the Reds, but ends up falling in love with one of them, Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt). Her reciprocation delights Gnomeo, but they must keep their love a secret because their respective families would not approve.

Essentially, this is Romeo & Juliet to a tee, except cuter, brighter, funnier and with a key plot point changed to appease the young ones in the audience (and given the age demographic of the film, the change shouldn’t be difficult to figure out). That’s not necessarily a bad thing because the story of Romeo & Juliet is a great one, but by toning it down for children, it loses much of its appeal. The drama lands like a thud because that is not its focus, a clear separation from the source material.

Instead, Gnomeo & Juliet works the comedy over hard, rarely pausing to allow the theoretical emotion to seep through. At its worst, the jokes come off as childish, but at its best, it’s laugh out loud funny thanks to some incredibly clever adult references and top notch voice acting. The voices behind the characters in this thing work like a Pixar movie in that you aren’t always aware of who is actually speaking and if you are, as is the case with Jason Statham in his first animated role (unless you count Crank), they’re so good it doesn’t matter. Some of the funniest moments, however, come from the talented animation team (the same one behind the beautifully macabre 9). Even though only one visual gag works for every three or four you see, they come at such a rapid pace that the misses in between the hits are forgivable.

Still, Gnomeo & Juliet is primarily a kids movie and although it will certainly work for them, after a while the adult brains in the crowd are going to begin wishing they were being worked a bit more. It’s a pleasant diversion, if insubstantial, and yes, that’s good enough to recommend.

Gnomeo & Juliet receives 2.5/5


Yogi Bear

I liked “Yogi Bear” growing up. I liked the quick slapstick humor and found it funny that Yogi and Boo Boo were always looking to steal a pic-a-nic basket. Of course, I liked a lot of crap growing up and now that I’ve seen the Yogi Bear motion picture, I wonder why I was ever amused with the character.

The story should be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the Hanna-Barbera cartoon growing up. Yogi (Dan Aykroyd) is a talking bear who, along with his sidekick Boo Boo (Justin Timberlake), roams around Jellystone National Park and snatches picnic baskets from unsuspecting visitors. In a failed attempt to give it a little more substance, the film adds a corrupt mayor who is going to close down the park and rezone it for his own gain. However, if Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh) and his understudy, Ranger Jones (T.J. Miller), can raise close to $40,000 dollars by the end of the week, they can save the park. So they arrange a 100 year anniversary party that they hope will bring tourists from all around, but Yogi, failing to heed Ranger Smith’s warning to stay away, could end up wrecking the entire thing.

Also making an appearance is Anna Faris as Rachel, a filmmaker who wants to make a nature documentary. Early in the movie, she places a small, unnoticeable camera on Boo Boo’s tie, which plays a major part in the big finale that only the dumbest of viewers (or very small children) won’t see coming. Rachel also sparks an interest in Ranger Smith and so begins one of the biggest eye rolling romances of the year.

Maybe it’s because I was a child when I watched the cartoon and didn’t notice it, but I’ve suddenly noticed that Yogi Bear promotes thievery. I came to the realization as I watched film, seeing as how the word “steal,” or a variation of it, is used countless times. I’m almost embarrassed it took this long for me to see. Yogi’s whole existence centers on stealing things that are not his, yet he is idolized and his theft is shown as fun. I’m not necessarily insinuating that kids shouldn’t see this—besides, I watched the show as a child and I’ve never stolen anything in my life—but it strikes me as curiously questionable.

What’s more offensive than the idea that children may be getting the wrong idea from the Yogi character is how one-note he is. A central character whose only activity is stealing picnic baskets doesn’t leave much room for deviation. How many times must we see him rig up some contraption that will end in him being thrown somewhere or getting hit by something? The slapstick hijinks may work for the toddlers, but they’ll quickly tire the adult eyes in the audience.

It’s true that 3D is shaping up to be the new bane on contemporary filmmaking, but most criticism towards the format is when a movie is haphazardly up converted from 2D filming. If shot in 3D, the effect is usually better, but Yogi Bear proves that just because you go the smarter route, it doesn’t mean your product is going to look good. The 3D in Yogi Bear is awful, an unnecessary element to a film that is already wholly irrelevant. One of its few positives would have been the colorful visuals, but the tinted glasses made the whole affair extremely dark, effectively negating it.

In a sea of vapid idiocy, there is one shining element in Yogi Bear: Justin Timberlake. The man simply can do no wrong. He was beneficial to the best movie of the year, The Social Network, and he manages to impress even in this disaster, nailing Boo Boo’s voice perfectly. He is the sole reason Yogi Bear isn’t making it on my worst of the year list. Yogi may claim to be “smarter than the average bear,” but his movie is dumber than a rock.

Yogi Bear receives 0.5/5