Movie Review ~ Lightyear

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While spending years attempting to return home, marooned Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear encounters an army of ruthless robots commanded by Zurg, who is trying to steal his fuel source.
Stars: Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Keke Palmer, Efren Ramirez, Peter Sohn, Dale Soules, Taika Waititi, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Director: Angus MacLane
Rated: PG
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review:  Strangely, in this age of audiences clamoring for the next installment of the big franchise film, the one studio that gets slapped on the hand for sequel-izing their big projects the most is PIXAR.  I don’t know why it happens, but I consistently see upturned noses at the landmark computer animation studio taking their established work and branching them off in different directions.  Heads were really spinning when Disney announced that PIXAR would be releasing Lightyear, a prequel (of sorts) to their first mega-hit Toy Story, which celebrates its 27th birthday in 2022.  Perhaps it was the still fresh bruise of the arrival of Toy Story 4 in 2019 after many fans thought Toy Story 3 ended the series so well, but the advance anticipation of a new chapter in this universe was grim.

With the full disclaimer broadcasting to you that I’m over the age limit for being able to honestly grade these movies (if the screenings weren’t so late at night, I could bring a few younger critics that would really give their opinions), I’m pleased to report that Lightyear is a zippy ride into pre-Toy Story lore and one that shouldn’t ruffle too many feathers in the fandom.  As the title card that preceded the film explains, Andy received his Buzz Lightyear action figure in the original Toy Story after he saw him in a movie.  Lightyear is that movie.  Wrap your head around that for a moment, adjust your bearings, and let’s move forward.

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans, Knives Out) is a headstrong Space Ranger on a mission with his fellow ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba, Miss Virginia) and a new rookie recruit (Bill Hader, IT: Chapter Two).  They’ve landed on a mysterious planet, but fall under attack before they can accomplish their task.  Buzz being Buzz, he tries to save the day but winds up stranding the three of them (as well as an entire crew back at the ship) on the desolate planet.  Working to find a way off the planet takes time, and when Buzz and Alisha finally figure out how to return home, it comes with time-altering consequences.  The more Buzz attempts the mission in space, the faster time moves back on the planet.  Everyone ages except for Buzz. 

As the years/missions pass, Buzz continues his trials, accompanied by SOX, a robot cat meant to stave off any psychological trauma of the time he’s losing but who winds up a valuable asset (to Buzz and the movie).  Just as he figures out a way home, the evil Zurg appears and threatens to destroy the colony that has been built to sustain life for the crew while they await their home trek.  Banding together with a multi-generational bunch of misfits, none of whom initially measure up to Space Ranger standard in the eyes of Buzz, the veteran ranger will need to trust his new team to have his back as he learns to let go and truly lead.  Yet there are still secrets to be revealed about the origin of Zurg and once unveiled, will it change the mission goal or push Buzz and his team to go beyond the limits of their strength?

Director Angus MacLane keeps the action fast and, more importantly, fun for audiences that were kids when the original film came out and are probably taking their children to this new adventure.  If I’m honest, the overall look of Lightyear comes off like a Disney+ film that tested well enough to get a theatrical run.  I can’t say why a more earnest effort like Turning Red would get shuffled off to the streaming service…but it shouldn’t deter you from giving this one a go.  It has a sizable amount of creative inspiration and inclusion (the mismatched gang Buzz has to lead is of varying ages and sizes), not to mention a fully formed same-sex relationship that isn’t the focus but isn’t pushed to the side as tokenism either.    

Movie Review ~ Turning Red

The Facts:

Synopsis: A 13-year-old girl named Mei Lee turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.
Stars: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Orion Lee, Wai Ching Ho, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Tristan Allerick Chen, Tyler, Addie Chandler, Jordan Fisher, Grayson Villanueva, Josh Levi, Topher Ngo, Finneas O’Connell, James Hong, Lori Tan Chinn, Lillian Lim, Mia Tagano, Sherry Cola, Sasha Roiz, Lily Sanfelippo
Director: Domee Shi
Rated: PG
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review:  Out of necessity in understanding the needs of their target audience during a national health crisis, Walt Disney Studios made a significant change to their release plans for their summer 2021 release Luca by offering it on their streaming service Disney+ instead of in theaters. This strategy allowed families to enjoy the film together at home rather than risk it at the cinema at a time when COVID was still holding the world in a tenuous position. While Disney was no stranger to releasing on this platform, having sent the live-action Mulan and Black Widow straight to streaming, both of those films carried a hefty price tag for the privilege. Luca would be free to subscribers; naturally, the film became a popular title when it came out, at least commercially.

Will anyone be talking about Luca a decade from now, ranking it the same way they do PIXAR’s roster of titles over the years? The pioneering animation studio’s releases used to be somewhat of an event, but with technology advancing, they’re able to turn over their projects much faster than ever. The result is still-gorgeous-looking movies that always retain that particular PIXAR taste but don’t maintain their flavor or shelf-life as long as the older products do. An early January announcement that PIXAR’s March release of Turning Red would also go straight to streaming raised a few eyebrows. Not the least of which because theaters mainly were open and welcoming better box office returns and also because this was one of the company’s first female-centered films in quite a while. And also one of their best.

California-made but Canadian at heart, Turning Red is PIXAR’s most lovingly genuine, funniest film in ages. Sure to hit home big time with mothers and daughters, there’s a timely message for all about being your own person. Directed by Academy Award winner Domee Shi (her short, Bao, won in 2018), who sets the film quite charmingly in 2002 Canada, it’s the story of teenager Mei (Rosalie Chiang) right on the edge of angst as she struggles to find her voice. A dutiful daughter to a quiet father (Orion Lee, Skyfall) and hover mother (Sandra Oh, Tammy), she largely lives to please both of them and stay out of trouble. Yet there’s this well of emotion inside her that seems to keep boiling up and over she frustratingly can’t control.

Adults watching Turning Red can instantly spot what this pre-pubescent teen is heading toward rapidly. We’ve all been there, and recent parents of these teenagers will recognize the signs of puberty rearing their ugly (white)heads before any of us do. Turning Red also acknowledges this fact of life, and while the PG-rated film doesn’t seek to educate wholly on the subject, parents may want to be prepared to answer some questions about a few words/phrases their kids may not be aware of yet. It’s gently delivered by Shi’s writing, so deft in the way it talks about it without actually talking about it that the message is received and understood for those who need it and could be missed for the rest that aren’t quite at that stage. Besides, before you know it, Mei’s feverish emotions have brought on the early appearance of the red panda that lives inside all of the women in her family.

Yes, when Mei cannot control her emotions, she turns into a towering red panda. While we could talk endlessly about the metaphors this signifies, Shi doesn’t linger too long in the symbolism and instead opts to have fun with colorful scenes featuring Mei as the panda finding newfound popularity with her classmates after discovering her secret. The crux of the plot involves Mei and her close friends (an excellent array of personalities) raising money off of Mei as the red panda to see their favorite boy band (4*Town, with five members) coming to the local arena. When the concert coincides with a ritual that could rid the red panda from Mei, she’ll need to choose if she wants to adhere to the expected formality from her family or embrace the duality in which she’s found a balance.

What keeps reinforcing the energy throughout Turning Red is Shi’s commitment to the perspective of this Chinese-Canadian 13-year-old and the feeling that the story is being told from her angle. It’s not overly simplified, nor is it outwardly so twee that it is cutesy. That’s saying a lot for a movie featuring a very smooshable red panda as a central character. The dynamic between Mei and her mom is richly developed, with both Chiang and especially Oh adding significantly to that success in helping audiences understand beyond the animated expressions why the mother may want the daughter to get the panda under control sooner than later. Finally, the three songs for 4*Town, written by Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell (Oscar-nominated this year for the theme song to No Time to Die), are more substantial than your average musical contributions. The melodies and winking lyrics fit nicely with Ludwig Göransson’s (Venom) first score for an animated feature.

I’m glad the immediate streaming release will get Turning Red in front of more people right away, but I honestly wish I had seen this one in theaters. Its overarching message of understanding the importance of individuality and finding satisfaction with yourself is so rich that delivery through a bigger medium would have been lovely to witness. Though I have heard it will get a theatrical release in a few locations, I can see why the studio felt like it might make sense for the more emotionally resonant movie to debut on Disney+. Big screen, tiny screen, computer screen, etc., whatever, Turning Red is one of the studio’s most consistently engaging movies.

Movie Review ~ Jungle Cruise

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A riverboat captain transports a British scientist and her brother on a mission down the Amazon to find the Tree of Life, believed to possess healing powers that could be of great benefit to modern medicine. Thrust on this epic quest together, the unlikely trio encounters innumerable dangers and supernatural forces, all lurking in the deceptive beauty of the lush rainforest.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Andy Nyman

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10) (11 AM)

Review: While most will instantly conjure thoughts of that ragamuffin Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when the topic of Disney turning their famously engineered rides into movies comes up, you actually have to go all the way back to 1997 for the very first one.  Based on the leave-your-stomach-in-your-tonsils Tower of Terror, the same-named TV-movie starred Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst and it’s perfectly fine that you forgot it.  Then came 2002’s The Country Bears, having their jamboree for not quite as many viewers in theaters that had seen them in the parks over the years, and the disappointing Eddie Murphy-led adaptation of The Haunted Mansion shrinking in the shadow of Black Pearl which had come out just four months earlier. 

Numerous Pirates sequels (all subpar) would slow the ride tide of movies coming out of the studio but all it took was one irresistible movie star to kick off another potential franchise starter.  After an extended delay due to the pandemic, audiences will finally get to hop on board this new attraction with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt for a breathless ride that hits the water at full speed and never looks back. 

It won’t take long to separate the sea captains from the landlubbers in Disney’s newest ride turned movie, Jungle Cruise.  If you don’t get that little tingle of excitement for what’s to come within the film’s opening introduction of both of our effortlessly charming leads, then this may not be the right journey for you to take.  That’s all fine and dandy, but you’ll be missing out on quite the adventure in the studio’s monster attraction for the summer, which was delayed an entire year in order to give audiences the best bang for their buck. It’s a sonic boom for every penny you’re spending in the theater or watching it at home. 

Enchanted since her youth by tales from her father of an ancient Amazonian tree with flowers that have the power to heal, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt, A Quiet Place) has spent much of her life trying to track down a missing arrowhead while she studied to become a plant scientist and prove herself among her male colleagues.  This arrowhead artifact is the final piece of a puzzle she needs to go along with a map of the Amazon jungle she has been studying that she believes will point her toward the location of the tree.  However, someone else is looking for that arrowhead as well. German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) has paid a handsome sum to the stodgy society of London antiquities that found it. The movie’s snappy prologue shows just how far both Lily and the Prince will go to get what they want…. but never underestimate the determination of a resourceful botanist who is aces at picking a lock and has a map of the antiquities shop drawn on her forearm.  With her prim brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall, The Nutcracker and the Five Realms) in tow and the arrowhead in her possession, Lily is ready to head to the Amazon…and all she needs is a boat captain when she gets there.

Anyone that’s been on the Jungle Cruise ride at any Disney theme park will recognize a number of the pun-ny jokes Johnson’s Frank Wolff is rambling off to his bored shipload of tourists when we first meet him.  Many taken right from the script of the long-running ride (side note…if you ever get a chance to ride it at night, do it!  It’s a totally different experience!), it’s the most assured nod screenwriters Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and Glenn Ficarra (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) & John Requa give directly to the attraction that inspired the film and it’s completely welcome.  Eagle-eyed viewers and true fans of Disney lore will spot many Easter eggs along the way, all in good fan service without pulling focus away from the actual story.

Yes, there actually is a story that unfolds, even if it at times feels like the three screenwriters take a little longer than necessary to get there and include one too many villains along the way.  Once Lily and MacGregor arrive at their jungle destination there are some shenanigans that stall for time until they team up with Frank, giving time for the extra obnoxious Paul Giamatti (Gunpowder Milkshake) to storm in for a not-brief-enough cameo (could Disney not afford to cast a real Italian person for this Italian character?) and add in more roadblocks for Frank to get Lily on her way.  Then it’s back to the river for meetups with an indigenous tribe led by Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón, The Forever Purge) supernatural Spanish conquistadors (including Edgar Ramírez, Point Break) resurrected with evil intentions, and an unexpected twist that comes halfway in that was a pleasant surprise. 

What I liked best about Jungle Cruise was its commitment to follow-through.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) allows the film to be 127 minutes of adventure and excitement and isn’t out to rush anything past us.  Sometimes on the ride itself it can be hard to look at both sides at the same time so you end up missing out and that also can happen in film if a director loses the focus of where the action is directed.  Instead of idling in one place and allowing our eyes to catch up, Collet-Serra just keeps things in constant motion and lets us be swept up in the action.  It’s often overwhelming and, thanks to some overdone CGI, can come off looking nearly like a totally animated film, but more often than not it is completely captivating.

Much of this is owed to Johnson (Skyscraper) and especially Blunt’s indefatigable charisma and, if not red-hot chemistry, then kindred spirit-ness.  A push toward romance feels terribly forced and especially considering how forward thinking the movie is by allowing MacGregor to not only have a full man-on-man convo with Frank where he says he’s gay without using the “g-word” and then going further into talking about acceptance and such, it’s odd to thrust romantic entanglement on our leading couple that haven’t completely sparked like that.  Any flames ignited are from their gentle baiting of one another, mostly friendly competitiveness at who is the stronger alpha of the boat. 

Scheduling the way it is and knowing that summer weather can often turn on a dime, I’ve been continuing to opt to watch a number of these movies at home. In hindsight, Jungle Cruise is one I would have loved to see on the big screen – and I could see myself buying a ticket to catch it again in theaters.  Learning afterward it’s being presented in 3D in some cinemas makes sense after noting how many extended shots of various objects coming directly toward the camera. I’d note that if you don’t like snakes, you should opt out of the multi-dimensional experience – lots of snapping jaws to contend with.  The movie will be big and satisfying no matter what size screen you see it on but with July drawing to a close and August signaling the end of a strange season at the movies, this should be the one you fork over some cash to see with the family on the largest screen you can manage.  It’s worth it.

Streaming Review ~ The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (Episode 1)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Following the events of ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ Sam Wilson/Falcon and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier team up in a global adventure that tests their abilities — and their patience

Stars: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Daniel Brühl, Emily VanCamp, Adepero Oduye, Wyatt Russell, Danny Ramirez, Miki Ishikawa, Desmond Chiam

Director: Kari Skogland

Running Length: 48 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With the release of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, a lot of loose ends were tied up for a number of our A-List stars that had reached the end of their contracts.  Namely, Robert Downey, Jr.’s power source as Iron Man finally ran out and Chris Evans as Captain America decided it was time to put down his shield and enjoy life, letting time take its turn with him.  Other stars are retreating back to their own established franchise films (Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, The Incredible Hulk) or starting their own (Black Widow) but what about the other Avengers that might be considered the ‘B’ team?  Well, there might not be a movie for them but there could be a Disney+ show that would work…

Viewers have already experienced WandaVision, the surprisingly winning nine-episode series that premiered in January on Disney’s subscription streaming service and became 2021’s first watercooler hit, attracting a diverse audience of established fans and newcomers lured in by the shows intriguing premise.  Less Marvel-ey, at least at first, than what many had come to expect, the series featured the bereaved Wanda Maximoff creating an insular world where her true love and sentient being Vision could remain alive.  Taking over an innocuous town and turning them into unwitting participants in an ever-changing world modeled after television sitcoms, Wanda can’t keep the outside world, or evil magic, out of her sphere for long.  Eventually drawing out her powers as the Scarlet Witch, the series would drop the clever in favor of clamor, drowning out what was interesting week-to-week with more standard efficiencies that were a means to an end for future Marvel properties.

Mere weeks after WandaVision wrapped up its run comes the premiere of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier on March 19 (the same weekend Zack Snyder’s Justice League comes out…oh, the timing!) and the first of its six episodes were screened for critics before the release.  If the first episode is any indication, there’s a new formula afoot in the Marvel Television Universe and it’s heavy on the emotional fallout experienced by the Avengers after they return to their “regular” lives.  While it starts with a thrilling action set piece that wouldn’t have been out of place (with a bit more polish in the effects and editing department) in a big-screen Avengers adventure, Episode 1 switches gears fairly rapidly and slows down the pace significantly for the remainder of the 40-minute run time.

The good news is that the Marvel group and experienced TV director Kari Skogland have assembled a cast that I think is going to be worth tuning in for every week.  Though in this first episode we don’t get to meet the full roster that’s credited in the well designed but gargantuanly long closing credits, we at least get our first introduction to Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave) as Falcon/Sam Wilson’s (Anthony Mackie, Love the Coopers) Louisiana-based sister Sarah.  Running the family fishing boat and trying to make ends meet, Sarah is a good reality check for Sam and I hope remains a key player over the next several episodes.  We also get a sense of where Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan, Endings, Beginnings) is, mentally, after returning from his exile and beginning to make amends to those he either hurt or empowered as a Hydra weapon.

I would have liked to see one more episode before making a full review call on this one because aside from a few hints at a possible anarchist enemy that may become a larger threat to the two men and a further challenge that hits closer to home for Sam, there’s not a lot of information given out in this first episode.  Like WandaVision, it’s slickly made and doesn’t feel like it’s a television show attempting to be something bigger but I do wonder what they’ll be able to accomplish with less episodes in which to tell their story and even more characters to introduce over the coming weeks.  Not that it matters…if fans went crazy for the quirkiness of WandaVision I think they’re going to find some comfort in the familiarity of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.

Movie Review ~ Raya and the Last Dragon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ancient evil has returned to the fantasy world of Kumandra and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.

Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler

Director: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It really is fascinating to see how far animation has come, specifically Disney animated features, over the last three decades.  As hand-drawn animation was being phased out in favor of the faster speed of computer rendered movies that could produce stunning life-like characters, Disney managed to have their cake and eat it too when they brought Pixar into the fold while maintaining their own feature animation department.  For a while, it was Pixar that ruled the roost and turned out motion pictures of high caliber that recalled that Disney renaissance of the late 80s/early 90s that all but saved the studio.  The hand-drawn side had measured success with strong films but it wasn’t until the one-two punch releases of Frozen in 2013 and Moana in 2016 that made it clear there was still life left in the format.

Evolving from simply bringing classic fairy tales to life, the studio has listened to their audiences around the globe and continued to create work that represents people from all walks of life from shore to shore.  Now, instead of asking “What bedtime story are they bringing to the screen” we ask “what country/culture are they using as an influence this time around?” and I think that aside from it being a necessary business move it shows a company changing with the times and leading the way, not struggling to catch up with their competitors.

That’s not to say each film is easy.  Take Raya and the Last Dragon for example.  This new feature went through some interesting press as it made its way to a release since first being announced back in 2018 thanks to a small bit of business regarding the voice casting of its lead female.  Though she had originally auditioned back in 2019, Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) was not cast as Raya, a young warrior princess on a quest to restore order to a divided land.  The original actress that was cast wound up not bringing the kind of maturity the filmmakers had wanted so they returned to Tran a year later and Tran re-recorded the role.  It’s not the first time Disney has done this (2015’s The Good Dinosaur was almost entirely scrapped after it was completed and redone from the beginning) but it was interesting that they could have had Tran all along but opted in another direction first.

Inspired by the culture and communities found in the Southeast Asian islands, Raya and the Last Dragon is an original story from your usual full table of writers that contributed bits and pieces and rewrites over the course of production, but it is surprisingly full in its mythology and storytelling.  Hold on tight because the opening narration from Raya swiftly relays via flashback the history of the land of Kumandra and how it became split into five separate tribes after evil spirts named the Druun ripped through the bountiful landscape.  This was a time of dragons that drew on their own magic to protect the people of Kumandra from being turned to stone by the Druun that continued to terrorize the land.  In doing so, they fell victim to the grasp of the evil entity and the magic was transferred to a single dragon that finally unleashed the might of the power and restored balance.  The people were saved but divided and the dragons were no more.  Only the power source of their magic remained, housed in a glowing orb held in a sacred temple by one tribe.

Continuing in flashback, we see how Raya’s father (a mother is never mentioned), the leader of the tribe and tasked with protecting the orb, only wishes to unite the five tribes again but his efforts fall on ears that won’t hear, bringing out the worst in the visiting leaders.  During this visit, young Raya bonds with Namaari, the daughter of another tribe leader but the friendly interaction turns unexpectedly sour.  True intentions are revealed and in doing so sets into motion a tidal wave of events that have long lasting repercussions for everyone, sending Raya on a quest to the ends of the mighty rivers in search of answers from a source only spoken about in legend.  By the time she’s found the right river’s end, she meets the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) that holds a key to uniting the tribes…but a familiar foe from her past has also been seeking the mythical creature and will stop at nothing to get what they want.

To summarize any fraction of the remaining plot of Raya and the Last Dragon would be impossible in the space I’ve allotted for myself here and would reveal too much of the unique characters of the real and imagined kind the Disney animators and directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall have in store for viewers.  It’s a more complicated plot than most and younger viewers may find it harder to follow from a story perspective, though I can imagine older adults will find the addition of a narrative that involves more political maneuvering and topical contemplations on community agreement that are strikingly reflective of our own current woes quite intriguing.  It also finds time to have the typical Disney humor and the laughs are welcome among some of the darker subject matter.

As expected, the animation work is stunning and not only is the amount of detail that can now be displayed totally mind-blowing, but some scenes look like an actual live-action film and I still am on the fence if it really wasn’t.  Was it?  With the story taking up our attention and the visuals leaning toward the overwhelming, it’s the voice work that tends to be a little lacking in this one.  That’s not faulting the actors in any way, but the focus just isn’t there as much as it has been in other films.  Tran has the right balance of passionate fight within her and sensitive care that she shares outwardly; clearly the filmmakers made the right choice to use her.   In smaller roles, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), Sandra Oh (Tammy), and Benedict Wong (The Martian) are pleasant but, again, never ‘pop’ like I’m used to voice talent doing in the past.  Only Awkwafina drums up some energy with her line readings and you can’t help but hear a little bit of Aladdin’s Genie in the performance…which is fine…but it’s definitely there.

Lacking the kind of big moment that were defining pieces of Frozen and Moana, I’m not sure where Raya and the Last Dragon will wind up within the Disney Animation roster when the rankings are reshuffled.  It has the prestige of a well-honed plot and is one of the classier screenplays Disney has produced in some time, but in other ways the film has a flatness to it that it can’t quite rise above.  It achieves a beautiful moment of harmony right at the end…but by that time we’ve waited nearly two hours for that tug at our hearts and for Disney, that may be too long of a wait.

 

If you catch Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters, you’ll also see Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first animated short in five years, Us Again.  For those watching the movie at home, Us Again will be available on Disney+ in June!  Check out my review of Us Again here.

Movie Review ~ Lady and the Tramp (2019)


The Facts
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Synopsis: American Cocker Spaniel named Lady lives with an upper-middle-class family and meets a mongrel known as the Tramp on the streets. They embark on a romantic journey and eventually fall in love.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Justin Theroux, Thomas Mann, Kiersey Clemons, Ashley Jensen, Benedict Wong, Sam Elliott, Janelle Monáe, Yvette Nicole Brown, Adrian Martinez, Arturo Castro, F. Murrary Abraham

Director: Charlie Bean

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Waking up on November 12 reminded me of one of those 80s John Hughes movies where the lead character lazily opens their eyes from slumber, blinks a few times, yawns, and then decides a few more minutes of sleep won’t do them any harm.  Then, with a jolt, their eyes snap open and they bolt upright because they’ve Just Remembered Something Important Is Happening Today.  It was on this Tuesday that I found myself acting out these same emotions/motions when I was reminded that the new streaming service Disney+ was launching and with it, a whole catalog of Disney titles and new original programming.  Long in the planning and constantly in the headlines leading up to its induction, this was a big deal and while I was definitely interested in the new movies and series, I was just eager to have easy access to titles that were harder to come by (Flight of the Navigator anyone?  Anyone?) and poured over the catalog with reckless abandon.

There was a new title I made sure to position near the top of my queue and it was the movie Disney+ had been showcasing as a big selling point for subscribing early to their service.  This would be the only place you could see the film as it hadn’t premiered first in a theater so if you wanted to watch, you had to sign up.  Originally conceived as a theatrical release, the live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp was refashioned as a cornerstone of the new Disney+ service and it largely succeeds on this smaller scale where the stakes aren’t quite as high.  Had it been, ahem, unleashed in cinemas it would likely have been held to more scrutiny from finicky nitpicks but it’s easy to slough off concerns when watching from the comfort of your own home.

Until I started doing some prep for this review, I never knew that Disney’s original 1955 animated film was based on a story first featured in a 1943 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine.  Though that classic film has never been too overplayed in my household, I do have several fond memories of it throughout the years but didn’t hold it so precious in my heart that the thought of a live-action remake made me recoil.  What did give me pause was the thought of another live-action remake in 2019 after the tepid receptions of Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King.  I wasn’t sure I could take another talking animal movie, especially when the bigger budgeted films failed to convince me the technology supported all the furry yapping.

At the turn of the century, young couple Jim Dear (Thomas Mann, Them That Follow) and Darling (Kiersey Clemons, Antebellum) welcome a charming Cocker Spaniel they name Lady into their home.  Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson, Creed) lives a life of luxury, slightly spoiled but not sour.  When not with her family, she visits with neighborhood canines Trusty (Sam Elliott, A Star is Born) and Jock (Ashley Jensen, The Pirates! Band of Misfits), sniffs out a corner of the elegantly trimmed back yard, or chases away a pesky rat that’s been hanging around her house.  In another part of town, mutt Tramp (Justin Theroux, Bumblebee) scrounges for scraps and avoids a determined dogcatcher (Adrian Martinez, Office Christmas Party) who is always in pursuit of any unlicensed animal.

When her young owners start a family and their new baby takes focus away from her, Lady begins to act out, not understanding why she’s the attention she once had is going in a newer, smaller, direction.  By the time Aunt Sarah (Yvette Nicole Brown, Avengers: Endgame) has brought her swaggering, troublemaking cats over for an afternoon that goes horribly wrong, Lady finds herself on the run and falls in with Tramp who takes her under his mangy paw.  Together, they embark on an adventure through town that opens Lady’s eyes to a world outside her block and brings the mismatched dogs closer together.  How long can this pampered dog and streetwise tail-wagger keep away from the dogcatcher, though, and what will happen to Tramp when Lady has to return home?

For what it’s worth, Lady and the Tramp is no dog and is often a downright delight.  Yes, the movie is schmaltzy in all the old-fashioned ways but so is the original film.  You can’t tell me you won’t watch the famous “Bella Notte” sequence (sung by Arturo Castro, Semper Fi and F. Murrary Abraham, The Grand Budapest Hotel) where the dogs share an Italian dinner under the stars and not get a little choked up out of nothing but happiness.  Director Charlie Bean (The Lego Batman Movie) works wonders with the largely CGI dogs to make you think they’re living and breathing hounds and even if the effect doesn’t always gel and the talking mouths look a tad creepy, the end result worked for me.  Though smaller in budget, I was surprised at how good the movie looked.  It’s 1909 setting was handsomely recreated and I appreciate the timeline wasn’t modernized, it helped keep things simple and focused squarely on our characters.

Creepy talking mouths aside, the voice acting in the movie is quite pleasant.  Theroux and Thompson bring a warmth to their roles, never making Tramp too sly or Lady too snooty.  They balance well with the supporting cast featuring Elliott matched with a dog that looks frighteningly like the actor himself as well as singer Janelle Monáe (Harriet) strutting around as a pound puppy who tells Lady all she needs to know about Tramp.  As for the human actors, I didn’t quite get why the screenplay had the dogcatcher pursuing the clever canine as if locked in a Javert/Valjean epic hunt but I suppose it all adds that extra oomph to an emotional resonant finale.

For the first movie Disney+ had waiting for viewers out of the gate, I’d say Lady and the Tramp scored as a a fine inaugural outing.  It’s about 10-15 minutes too long by my estimation and some trimming would have made the movie an easier sit for younger kids (and this older kid, too) but it’s filled with enough eye-catching moments to keep that interest going longer than you’d expect.  This remake has wisely done away with the outdated cultural stereotypes of Aunt Sarah’s cats, changing their breed and giving them a new song.  That’s going to please some and anger others.  Those upset are free to watch the original film, which is also available to add to your watchlist 🙂 With more live-action remakes heading our way and other feature films planned, I’m looking forward to seeing what quality future direct-to-Disney+ will be like.

Movie Review ~ Frozen II

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, Olaf and Sven leave Arendelle to travel to an ancient, autumn-bound forest of an enchanted land. They set out to find the origin of Elsa’s powers in order to save their kingdom.

Stars: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Evan Rachel Wood, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There are some reviews that you look back on and wonder if you just had an off day when you saw the movie or when you wrote the prose. Or maybe you were perhaps too effusive in praise of something that doesn’t hold up to a second (or third) watch.  Then there are the reviews that haunt you in the ensuing years, the ones you wince a little at when you realize how off the mark you were and wonder what you missed and why you missed it.  True, movies and criticism are subjective and that’s what makes this whole reviewing gig as fun as it is (no really, it’s fun…usually) but it’s hard not to beat yourself up a little when you were off target.

Though I wasn’t exactly hard on Frozen back in 2013, I do remember feeling so ho-hum about it and I was quoted as saying it “wasn’t destined to become a pivotal Disney classic”.  Ouch.  I’ve often thought about that phrase as I watched the power ballad “Let it Go” win an Oscar for Best Original Song and the movie win for Best Animated Feature.  The words floated through my brain while seated for the trimmed down theme park show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida and watching clips from the larger-scale production in California.  And I most definitely shook my head at my statement after I had traveled to Denver, CO and paid a good sum to see the pre-Broadway tryout of the big-budget stage musical based on the movie.  Frozen was a phenomenon and I had said in my review I found it less interesting than Tangled.  It’s enough to keep a guy up at night, I tell ya.

So you better believe I was ready when Frozen II was announced to listen a little more to my younger side this time around.  Announced soon after the first film was an unexpected box office smash (making over a billion dollars worldwide), it’s taken six long years for the sequel to materialize and that’s a hearty stretch of time for their target audience to wait.  Disney had to count that children who were the right age to appreciate the original movie would still be interested in the further adventures of Elsa and Anna, two royal sisters that found a deeper understanding of each other at the close of Frozen.  It was a wise bet that has paid off because with the bulk of the creative team reassembled, including the Oscar-winning songwriters, Frozen II confidently builds off its predecessor and delivers as a warm-hearted and surprisingly subtext-rich sequel.

Now that Elsa has come to terms with her icy powers and returned to reign as Queen of Arendelle, life has settled into an ordinary routine for her royal highness and those close to her.  Her sister Anna is clueless to beau Kristoff’s pending marriage proposal that keeps getting interrupted, sometimes by goofy snowman Olaf, who continues to pontificate about life with childish wonderment.  Even with everything running smoothly, Elsa feels unrest and that’s further complicated by a strange siren’s call that only she can hear and apparently tied to a legend her father told as a bedtime story when she was a child.  When Elsa replies to the call, it opens up a passage into an unknown area outside the realm of Arendelle that may hold the answers to her powers and also a dark part of her family history that she and Anna will need to resolve.

It’s a smart move for directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee to have the sisters join forces and make this trip to uncharted territory together. Of course, Kristoff, Olaf, and reindeer Sven are along for the journey too but aside from a few songs and bits of comedy, the latter half of the film is reserved for Elsa and Anna to sort things out for themselves.  The story trajectory takes some interesting turns and while some of the action may feel a bit like a rehash from the earlier film, all the forward motion feels fresh and hits a true chord of fun discovery.

While the screenwriters (aside from Buck/Lee there were three more) do their best to amp up Anna’s role, it’s hard to come away from Frozen II not feeling like Elsa was again the true star and with good reason.  Here’s a character that draws her power from within and doesn’t need any outside force or person to tell her how she should be using her strength.  Her lack of self-confidence is incredibly relatable, as is the way she comes to terms with the way she feels different than others.  It’s understandable that she’s become a bit of an icon for the LGBTQ community and even if it’s not expressly said, it’s difficult to bear witness to a big anthem like “Show Yourself” and not hear the underlying subtext and I found that incredibly moving.

It helps that “Show Yourself” is performed with gusto by Idina Menzel (Ralph Breaks the Internet) again voicing Elsa with a Broadway belt that could shatter ice.  I still feel Menzel’s voice doesn’t match with the animated character (Elsa’s lungs look to be the size of a thimble) and there’s a lot more big notes in Menzel’s songs this time around – the other big number, “Into the Unknown” comes early in the movie and has a earworm-y hook that had audience members singing it on the way out.  So parents…be prepared for another song to make you crazy.  I know that the Frozen II team is going to push “Into the Unknown” as their Oscar song but I find “Show Yourself” to be the one with more mileage in the long run…plus that one also features Evan Rachel Wood (Across the Universe) as Elsa’s mother in addition to Scandinavian singer AURORA as the voice of the siren.  The other numbers are all pleasant but don’t get their hooks into you the way those others do.  As Anna, Kristen Bell (Hit and Run) still has the sunniest singing voice you’ve ever heard while Jonathan Groff’s (American Sniper) Kristoff scores with his Peter Cetera-esqe anthem.  Returning to play Olaf make it official: Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer) should only appear as a voice in movies from now on.  In live action, he stinks.  As an animated character, he’s a winner.

Like the first film, this runs out of steam as it chugs toward the end and it could easily lose a solid ten minutes, likely lopped off at the beginning because there’s some good character-driven material we don’t often get in animated films around the end that I wouldn’t want to sacrifice.  It may lack some of the larger emotional beats Pixar is so curiously good at but Frozen II isn’t completely bereft of deeper feeling either.  I definitely found myself choked up a few times and even listening to the soundtrack after and hearing the words again I got all misty.

I’ve heard the phrase “cash grab” tossed around in relation to this film and I’m not sure how a film that took six years to get made could be considered a desperate attempt to squeeze money out of a product.  This is a bona fide cash machine and with two movies, a Broadway show going strong, a national touring company getting ready to roll out, and international companies planned, this machine is just getting started.  We should already be getting ready for Frozen III.  If the filmmakers and songwriters can keep finding the heart to these characters and giving them strong songs to express themselves with, I’m all for it.

 

 

Movie Review ~ Christopher Robin


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A working-class family man, Christopher Robin, encounters his childhood friend Winnie-the-Pooh, who helps him to rediscover the joys of life.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Chris O’Dowd, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: A year ago, this Winnie-the-Pooh fan was excited to learn of two upcoming projects. One promised to go deeper into the life of the author A.A. Milne and the other from Walt Disney Studios would bring the famous bear and his friends to life in a live-action/CGI hybrid. Both films had serious potential considering the beloved material and high nostalgia factor. Well…fool me once (Goodbye Christopher Robin), shame on you. Fool me twice (Christopher Robin), shame on me.

Whereas 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin was a manipulative mess of a biography, Christopher Robin is a dreary miss that clings too tightly to its wistful moments. The movie is constructed to have you biting your lip and furtively wiping away tears at very specific points but it tries too hard to get you to go that sad place. Maybe I’ve turned into a monster in my old age but I resisted and outright resented the way the film went about its business.

Opening with young Christopher Robin attending a going-away party in the Hundred Acre Wood thrown by his animal friends, we learn he’s off to boarding school and will be leaving his friends far behind. Thus begins a rather long prologue where the lad becomes a man (Ewan McGregor, Beauty and the Beast) and eventually a war veteran. He’s now working for a luggage manufacturer with a wife (Hayley Atwell, Cinderella) and young daughter (Bronte Carmichael, Darkest Hour) he rarely spends time with. It’s a familiar sketch of a child that grows up and forgets what it’s like to conjure the kind of make believe fun that fueled a rich imagination. I mean, we all saw Hook, right?

With his family away for a weekend, Christopher is supposed to be working through the logistics of making cost-saving budget cuts at his job when he meets up with Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh can’t find his friends but found his way through a magic door that connects the Hundred Acre Wood to the outside world. Christopher follows Pooh back through the door and begins a sentimental journey through his past that connects him back to the likes of Tigger, Piglet, and Eeyore.

Director Marc Forster has been hit or miss in my book for a while. I enjoyed World War Z, am slowly coming around to his James Bond entry Quantum of Solace, and last year’s All I See Is You was pretty underrated in my book. He’s had a diverse range of tones/genres which I respect but there’s this curious heaviness he adds to Christopher Robin that feels wrong. Even though it makes a last ditch effort to zing up the action in the last 20 minutes, the majority of the movie is too somber for young children and far too slow for older kids. Adults are advised to bring a pillow.

The marginal good news is the period film looks amazing and the characters (much closer in design to Milne’s vision) are brought to impressive life through CGI. Whatever crazy subliminal product messages Disney put in the film worked because I left wanting to get a set of the updated Pooh and co. for my very own. The action blends seamlessly with the live actors and McGregor gets a gold star for making me believe he’s interacting with a stuffed bear. The film doesn’t try to hide the fact these animals can talk, nicely avoiding at least one tired plot device hurdle of stories such as this.

With bits and pieces culled from better movies about growing up too soon (add Peter Pan and Mary Poppins to the list while you’re at it), Christopher Robin is a disappointing entry in Disney’s attempt at giving its characters a live-action treatment. The film scores high in production value and is often saved by its CGI creations but it’s too tangled in its gloomy plot and obvious attempts at wringing tears out of you to be more than a summer bummer misfire.

Movie Review ~ Incredibles 2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Everyone’s favorite family of superheroes is back but this time Helen is in the spotlight, leaving Bob at home with Violet and Dash to navigate the day-to-day heroics of “normal” life.

Stars: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Samuel L. Jackson, Huckleberry “Huck” Milner, Brad Bird, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Jonathan Banks, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini

Director: Brad Bird

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: In this age of fast turnaround, never-ending binge options, and instant gratification, audiences don’t usually have to wait very long to get more of what they love. When Pixar’s The Incredibles opened in 2004, it was right in the studio’s heyday where they couldn’t lose and the spy adventure was a bona fide winner. Boasting innovative computer animation and pitched at a breakneck pace, it signaled a shift in tone that felt like a steppingstone to another level of prestige. Though Pixar famously claimed an aversion to sequels in favor of original concepts, after winning the Best Animated Feature film Oscar, it seemed like a sure bet another Incredibles adventure would be in the cards.

Well here we are 14 long years later and the Parr family has finally returned to the big screen in Incredibles 2 and the wait was most definitely worth it. Though computer animation technology has advanced leaps and bounds in the decade since the original was released, Pixar has fashioned a sequel that sits side by side with its predecessor on a high shelf. Re-watching The Incredibles in preparation for the sequel, I was struck by how, uh, quaint the film looks after all these years. It was still an entertaining ride, don’t get me wrong, but what once looked shiny and new then seems positively retro now.

Right from the start, the film hits the ground running by literally picking up where the first movie left off.  It’s a very Back to the Future II way to go by having the two films overlap in this way, effectively joining two separate movies into potentially one uninterrupted spree.  Mom Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter, Copycat), Dad Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) and son Dash (Huck Milner) spring into action against the mole-like Underminer, who first appeared at the tail end of the original. Through a city wide chase that racks up some costly amounts of destruction, it isn’t long before the family runs afoul of the government so intent on keeping superheroes illegal. When a brother and sister team intending to champion the legalization of superheroes approaches Helen, Bob, and their friend Lucious/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight), the heroes in hiding see it as an opportunity to show the world there’s still a need for crime fighters and help heroes from around the globe can come out of the shadows. Needing someone to be the face of the campaign, Helen becomes the star of this show, only to be pursued by a mysterious villain known as The Screenslaver who has big plans for a gathering of international heroes at sea.

Meanwhile, back at home, Bob is in charge of the kids. Between helping Dash with his math homework, (he learns the perils of New Math) and giving the lovesick Violet some advice on boys, he fails to notice his younger son Jack-Jack starting to develop a whole host of strange powers of his own. Jack-Jack is unquestionably the main attraction in Incredibles 2 and with good reason, his scenes are silly yet hysterical that result in some astounding physical comedy sequences that are pretty dazzling. Like much of the film, Jack-Jack’s adventures with his super powers blaze across the screen with color and sound so quickly that I’m sure I didn’t catch all of the sight gags created by the Pixar gang.

I’d put this sequel on an equal plane with the first film, maybe slightly higher just due to its clever construct and entertainment factor. The voice work is consistently good and it’s nice to hear interesting casting choices like Bob Odenkirk (Nebraska) and Catherine Keener (Peace, Love & Misunderstanding) as the brother and sister duo, not to mention the grand return of fashion designer Edna Mode (voiced by writer/director Brad Bird, Tomorrowland).  It’s also extremely funny, producing several laugh out loud moments that often caught me off-guard.  It’s sometimes easy to get a kick out animated films but it’s rare for one to elicit a well earned guffaw…and Incredibles 2 has more than a few of these instances.

At 118 minutes, Incredibles 2 is the longest Pixar film to date but it moves so fast and furious that you’re likely to either skip looking at your watch completely or sneak a peek as the film nears its conclusion. Sure, there are some overstuffed bits but if you’re going to the movies and paying through the nose for tickets and concessions for the whole family, don’t you want to get your money’s worth? Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) knows how to give fans what they want, nicely continuing the tone of a kid-friendly Bond film that’s still a bit dark and definitely not for super young tykes. Parents, heed the PG rating because this one gets a bit intense and, coupled with Oscar-winner Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek) robust score, can be quite loud.

Special Note: Don’t be late!  The Pixar short shown before the movie, Bao, is another winner!

Movie Review ~ Bao


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman gets a second shot at motherhood when one of her handmade dumplings comes alive.

Director: Domee Shi

Running Length: 8 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Proving once again that there is no emotional well they can’t mine for a few surprising tears, Pixar’s latest animated short  (playing before Incredibles 2) falls right in line with some of their more plaintive fare.  Think UP territory kind of emotions.  Directed by Chinese Canadian illustrator Domee Shi, Bao is a tale of an empty nester that gets an eyeful just as she’s about to take a mouthful of her carefully prepared dumplings.  Over the course of eight minutes, Shi (the first female director of a Pixar short) takes us through a fast-tracked parental journey that culminates in a bit of a shock only to resolve itself in a most beautiful fashion.  Pixar would be wise to allow for a five minute “Call Your Mom And Tell Her You Love Her Break” after this one is over.