Movie Review ~ Wish

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the Kingdom of Rosas, a 17-year-old girl makes a passionate plea to the stars in a moment of need when she senses a darkness that no one else does.
Stars: Ariana DeBose, Chris Pine, Alan Tudyk, Angelique Cabral, Victor Garber, Natasha Rothwell, Evan Peters, Harvey Guillén, Ramy Youssef, Jon Rudnitsky, Jennifer Kumiyama
Director: Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn
Rated: PG
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: This is a big year for The Walt Disney Company. On October 16th, the legendary studio celebrated its 100th anniversary, looking back on a century of entertainment that has pushed boundaries, asked viewers to imagine the impossible, and created dreams for multiple generations. There is hardly a place in the world that hasn’t been touched by Disney in some form or knows a character that the studio created. The legacy lives on in theme parks, merchandise, television shows, live-action movies, and animated feature films that have come to define its brand.

For the 62nd film to come out of Walt Disney Animated Studios, the company has gifted audiences with Wish, a fantastic blend of nostalgia for the classic storybook tales that formed the bedrock of the studio and contemporary musicality that gives it a beautiful, winning heart. The watercolor-like animation is gorgeous, the humor bright, and the songs from Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice are complex and soar right off the screen. Disney has taken confident steps forward by looking back with an eye for what has kept their early work so enduring.

Eagle eye Disney fans will immediately recognize the font that opens the film and will likely know what’s coming next, as star Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) narrates a gilded book that unlocks to reveal the first pages of our story. On a secluded Mediterranean island, an idealistic ruler builds his kingdom with the promise of safety and prosperity away from the harsher realities of the mainland. Teaching himself magic, the King harnesses the power of wishes, taking the greatest wish of each adult citizen and storing it away to be granted later. Once a wish is given, the owner forgets about their dream, freeing them to live a peaceful life, but deep down, there’s a nagging sense of unfulfillment.

The day of her grandfather’s 100th birthday coincides with Asha’s (DeBose) interview to become an apprentice to the King. Thinking that this interview would be a prime time to request for her beloved grandfather to have his wish granted, the question exposes the King’s vulnerability and opens Asha’s eyes to his genuine need for control. Her discouragement fuels a new wish within her, powerful enough to snag a mischievous star (one of the grandest non-verbal creations Disney animators have created in eons) to come down and change Asha’s world and the Kingdom of Rosas forever. However, the power-hungry King recognizes the threat to him from the supernova and Asha’s growing strength. Vowing to stop both, he begins crushing any dream he can along the way.

In casting Oscar-winner DeBose as Asha, Disney has a legitimate superstar talent, the rare actor that can deliver a complete performance simply using the power of their voice. DeBose not only imbues Asha with a formidable strength that comes across as confidently age-appropriate and a strong model for young girls, but she sings with a passion so present it’s like she’s standing in front of you. The Michaels and Rice songs aren’t all rangy showstoppers, but they show what DeBose and the other vocal talent (emphasis on talent) can do with songs that are trickier than we’ve seen in a while.

Along with DeBose, Chris Pine (People Like Us) sounds like he’s having a grand time as King Magnifico. He shares an early duet with DeBose that’s downright lovely and then circles back later with a crazed new take on the “I Want” song. Disney stalwart Alan Tudyk (Peter Pan & Wendy) adds another memorable character, talking goat Valentino, to his stable. Jennifer Kumiyama’s (The Sessions) warm tones as Dahlia, Asha’s best friend, are also welcome. I appreciate that Disney continues to be inclusive, presenting Dahlia as walking with a crutch but normalizing it by not addressing it. 

Directed by Chris Buck & Fawn Veerasunthorn, I can see Wish being a terrific family movie choice for those who only make it out to the theater a few times a year. Though trim at 92 minutes, it doesn’t stay in one place too long, preferring to keep the story moving and the adventure going strong. While one could argue that there are a few too many supporting characters (human and otherwise), I was completely delighted throughout. For me, it was simple. Wish is one of the most pound-for-pound enjoyable animated films I’ve seen in a while. As a bonus, it has a rewarding finale that hints at Disney having more up its sleeve than may meet the eye and a celebratory credit sequence aimed squarely at Disneyholics.

Movie Review ~ Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain

The Facts:

Synopsis: Three deadbeat co-workers fend off hairless bears, desperate park rangers, and a hypocritical cult leader while searching for a priceless treasure.
Stars: Martin Herlihy, John Higgins, Ben Marshall, Bowen Yang, Meg Stalter, X Mayo, Nichole Sakura, Cedric Yarbrough, Sunita Mani, Conan O’Brien
Director: Paul Briganti
Rated: R
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Having climbed down the other side of (The Treasure of) Foggy Mountain, I can safely admit that I didn’t go into it with the highest expectations.  While I have been slowly warming up to the trio of young comics that make up the comedy group Please Don’t Destroy, I was dubious about any attempt to stretch their brand of humor for anything longer than their allotted five-minute absurdist videos shown weekly on Saturday Night Live.  What started as fitfully funny frolicking in the halls of 30 Rock has evolved into an often dependably humorous effort by rising stars that clearly know their target audience.

I’m not their target demographic, by the way, but even so, I was surprised at how entertaining, engaging, and clever their first film was.  Not only that, but it’s also far better assembled and performed than it has any right to be.  With more technical polish and jokes landed per minute than your average SNL upstarts, Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Froggy Mountain eschews any feeling of playing like an extended sketch.  Instead, director Pete Briganti teams with stars/writers Martin Herlihy, John Higgins, and Ben Marshall to sand off any rough edges, revealing a potential late-night snack you can watch at home that I’m guessing will pair well with fast food and an adult beverage (or edible) of your choosing.

Best friends Ben, Martin, and John have been inseparable since a grade-school talent show where budding magician John (John Higgins) had an unfortunate accident with a fire trick gone awry.  Now they all work at Trout Plus, an outdoor supply store owned by Ben’s (Marshall) dad (Conan O’Brien, The Mitchells vs the Machines), who dreams of his son taking over the business but can’t trust him yet with the responsibility.  As Martin (Herilhy) prepares for an adult baptism to please his religious girlfriend, they suddenly realize they’ve gotten stuck in an old routine that hasn’t allowed them to grow.

Then John remembers an old compass they found near Foggy Mountain when they were children and learns that it may hold the key to finding a lost treasure (a bust of Marie Antoinette) worth a bundle and thought lost forever.  If they can locate the item, it would solve many of their current issues related to money, family, and plans for the future.  The only problem is that the men are little more than boys and have yet to face any real challenges in the world.  Entering an unknown wilderness puts them up against a mysterious guru (Bowen Yang, Dicks: The Musical) and his bizarre cult, two park rangers (Meg Stalter, Hacks and X Mayo, The Blackening) with their own interest in the treasure, rogue wildlife, and their own insecurities of falling short of their potential.

Narrated by a self-aware John Goodman (10 Cloverfield Lane), the script is filled with several clunkers and off-color lines that will have you rolling your eyes at their bad taste.  Thankfully, there are far more jokes that land dead-center bullseyes and grand visual gags, often at the extreme expense of one or more of the leads (usually Higgins).  Never veering too far into gross-out humor, most of the laughs come from genuine one-liners and not from the more insipid asides that could have threatened to cheapen the movie had they gone on longer.

For once, having Judd Apatow (Trainwreck) on board as a producer helps move things in the right direction.  Apatow has shepherded many young talents forward in this industry and works with this trio to extract the best moments.  Yes, it does start to drag near the end when Yang gets more slack than is necessary, but up until then, it’s a brisk walk in the woods with a charismatic crew.  Add in Stalter and X Mayo, who bring in a boisterous edge vastly different from what the men are putting out, and you have an array of comedy styles to choose from.

I was surprised to read that the initial script for the film was written and sold before Please Don’t Destroy was hired onto SNL (Herilhy and Higgins are sons of former SNL producers/writers…so that had to have helped) because this feels like a project that would have been greenlit based on their increasing popularity.  That a studio and Apatow saw something special in this before any of the SNL hoopla had hit speaks volumes to the quality of the first pass and the subsequent revision of the script and performances low on the obnoxious meter have given Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain a leg up on similar SNL features. 

Movie Review ~ Dashing Through the Snow

The Facts:

Synopsis: An Atlanta social worker takes an unexpected Christmas Eve journey with his estranged daughter to help him remember the joy and magic of the holidays.
Stars: Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Teyonah Parris, Madison Skye Validum, Lil Rel Howery, Oscar Nuñez, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Ravi V. Patel, Gina Brillon, Kevin Connolly, Zulay Henao
Director: Tim Story
Rated: PG
Running Length: 90 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  ‘Tis the season for every cable/streaming service to release a Christmas film. Some, like the Hallmark Channel, don’t know when to hit the stop button, so the movies keep churning out with little quality control, while others, like AppleTV’s scant offerings, make you yearn for more festive fare like they had with 2022’s Spirited. Then you get to one still finding its feet in original feature-length programming like Disney+, and it gets trickier. While Disney+ has achieved inroads to Christmas cheer with original scripted serialized programming like the continuation of The Santa Clause movies with Tim Allen, actual movies are as rare as a reindeer’s red nose.

Director Tim Story (The Blackening) and producer Will Packer hope to change that with Dashing Through the Snow, premiering with a prime release date directly before Thanksgiving.   A bauble of a Santa story from screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (Con Air, Venom, and the Jumanji films from 2017 and 2019), the script is rudimentary paint-by-the-numbers stuff. It feels like it’s been around for a few decades but fits right into the programming Disney+ could use now. Moreover, it’s deceptively entertaining and splendidly plays into the talents of its two appealing leads, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Lil Rel Howery. 

Ever since he was disillusioned with Christmas as a child, Eddie Garrick (Bridges, Fast X) has tried to avoid celebrating the holiday at all costs. Now a social worker who has a knack for spotting the good in people, Eddie has a rare day off on Christmas Eve and is asked by his estranged wife (Teyonah Parris, The Marvels) to watch their 9-year-old daughter Charlotte (Madison Skye Validum). An innocent trip to the neighbor’s next door puts Eddie face to face with Nick (Howery, The Mill), a jolly man with a taste for cookies that sweats glitter, passes cinnamon-infused gas, and is having trouble finding his transportation. 

Nick is also pursued by three dopes working on behalf of a crooked politician (Oscar Nuñez, Disenchanted). At first, they think he’s made off with essential information that could implicate their boss in a crime. However, eventually, when it’s clear that Nick is the Santa Claus he claims to be and has confused their naughty list with his nice list, they spend most of the movie attempting to regain it while Eddie and Charlotte almost unknowingly keep Nick out of harm’s way. There’s more trouble to worry about: the longer that Eddie doesn’t believe in Nick or his powers, the harder it is for Nick to find a way to continue making his important deliveries worldwide.

We’ve seen this type of film countless times. Person claims they are someone that others struggle to believe, and most of the run time is spent on said person trying to convince the doubters who must be touched on a personal level to have their eyes and hearts opened. So, it’s not precisely a spoiler to say that Rosenberg is plowing no new terrain with Dashing Through the Snow. What sets this one above the cookie-cutter others is the energy Bridges and Howery bring to the screen, playing off one another while creating memorable moments for themselves within their own lanes. After countless Fast & Furious films, Bridges is used to playing with a team, and Howery’s a seasoned pro at spinning the most mundane phrase into a golden laugh line.

If there’s something to complain about here, it’s that Story doesn’t do much creatively aside from getting Bridges and Howery together on screen. There’s a laziness to the filmmaking that feels like resting on laurels when we know that everyone behind the camera can push themselves to do more. The effects are often sloppy, and aside from Validum’s sweet turn as Bridges’ inquisitive daughter and an underused but still welcome Parris, the supporting cast fades quickly. Even Nuñez misses the mark on several easy laughs. I would rather see head goon Mary Lynn Rajskub (The Tomorrow War) switch roles with Nuñez because the dry Rajskub has better instincts regarding snarky comic asides.

Audiences are coming to Dashing Through the Snow for holiday happiness, though, and I think they’ll get a healthy dose of it courtesy of Bridges and Howery, who make an excellent team. This could quickly spawn a sequel (or two) and be a good gig for all involved. Harmless entertainment can co-exist with serious blockbusters, and while this sincere family comedy would never have worked as a theatrical release for a Disney+ exclusive, it would make a funny and appropriately joyful addition to your watchlist.