Movie Review ~ Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

The Facts:

Synopsis: A grumpy Grinch plots to ruin Christmas for the village of Whoville.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Keenan Thompson, Pharrell Williams, Angela Lansbury

Director: Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It’s probably wrong to admit it, but I went into the screening of The Grinch actively trying to dislike it.  I didn’t see the point of yet another retooling of the classic Dr. Seuss tale when there was already a perfectly wonderful book from 1957 and classic holiday special from 1966 that have stood the test of time.  Though Universal had already tried to bring The Grinch to life in 2000’s ghastly How the Grinch Stole Christmas featuring Jim Carrey as the green meanie, it didn’t weasel it’s way into the holiday canon and is widely regarded as a majorly misguided misfire.  18 years later they’ve teamed up with Illumination Entertainment (the animation group behind the Despicable Me and Minions movies) for a colorful retelling of the familiar tale and, as much as I wanted to dismiss it, I found myself succumbing to its charms.

It’s the week before Christmas and the tiny town of Whoville is getting ready for the big day. Houses are decorated, presents are bought, the holiday spirit radiates out of everyone.  Overlooking Whoville is Mount Crumpit, home to The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange) who can’t stand Christmas or the Whos.  As Christmas Day draws near, The Grinch comes up with a plan to steal Christmas from the Whos, hoping to prevent Christmas from coming.  Dressed up as Santa, The Grinch makes his way through Whoville on Christmas Eve robbing the sleeping Whos of every speck of yuletide garb and gifts, aiming to toss it off a cliff.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock and never allowed to watch television you know how it ends up, so it’s not a spoiler to say that eventually The Grinch welcomes not only Christmas into his heart but the Whos as well.

Screenwriters Michael LeSieur (Keeping Up with the Joneses) and Tommy Swerdlow have taken the original 69 page book by Dr. Seuss and expanded it to a 90 minute family friendly film that maintains the structure sourced from Seuss.  Most of the rhymes are still there in the narration from Pharrell Williams but the screenplay adds in extra material for The Grinch and especially Cindy Lou Who.  The 2000 script for the live action film was similarly overstuffed but it was in service to special effects and production design, not story.  Here it feels more organic and in line with giving the characters a more modern feel.  That may displease purists who appreciate the simple joys of the original Seuss tale and even though I’d count myself as one of them I didn’t really mind the updates.

More time is spent on carving out distinctive personalities for several of the Whos. Cindy Lou Who’s mom (Rashida Jones, Tag) is now an overworked single parent raising her daughter and twin boys and Bricklebaum (Keenan Thompson), the merriest Who of all, is all about having the best holiday decorations on display.  Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) is heard briefly as the mayor of Whoville ready to light their enormous tree and who tasks the Whos with making Christmas three times as big as last year.   Cindy Lou herself (Cameron Seely, The Greatest Showman, whose animated alter-ego looks strikingly like Amy Poehler) is a tom-boyish do-gooder that wants to forgo presents and ask Santa to help her mom out instead.  Her infamous meeting with The Grinch during his nighttime burglary is now orchestrated by her as a way to get some face time with the guy in the red suit.

As The Grinch, Cumberbatch has the unenviable task of following in the aural footsteps of Boris Karloff who voiced the green guy in 1966 and did the narration as well. His Grinch is more nasal and nerdish, less outright cruel but still just as unflinchingly mean.  It was wise for the writers to ease up a bit on his harsh-ness because sitting through even an hour of that would be something he could never bounce back from.  Time is spent exploring his history and explaining why he hates Christmas so much as well as providing moments of interplay with his faithful dog Max and a new character, a rotund reindeer named Fred.  I wish the filmmakers would have let Cumberbatch narrate the film as well in his deep accented voice, Pharrell’s reading just doesn’t land with any weight.

While the score from Danny Elfman (Dark Shadows) is a nice callback to the original tunes from 1966 there is a fairly awful reworking of ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ and a positively hideous closing number, both performed by Tyler, the Creator. Though the soundtrack is filled out with other holiday numbers, I was a bit taken a back that ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and the phrase “Remember Christ our Savior” was featured prominently in one comedic sequence.  In a film aimed at international audiences across all religious beliefs, it was an interesting inclusion on the part of the studio.

As we near our own holiday season there will be a host of movies out there for families to choose from and I’m pleased that for a second week in a row we have a movie that I’d feel comfortable suggesting as an all-ages option. The Grinch is rated PG for brief rude humor and honestly, I don’t even remember what that was.  It’s refreshingly free of fart jokes and bathroom yucks and, like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a movie parents will likely be as entertained with as their kids.  Please promise you’ll watch the 1966 version first, though!

 

Movie Review ~ Minions

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob are recruited by Scarlet Overkill, a super-villain who, alongside her inventor husband Herb, hatches a plot to take over the world.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Allison Janney, Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Saunders, Pierre Coffin, Steve Carell

Director: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  In my review of 2013’s Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that the filmmakers succeeded in making an enjoyable sequel because of their understanding of exactly what the audience wanted…more Minions.  After Despicable Me 2 broke big at the box office, a third film was set for release in 2017 but in the interim a spin-off animated adventure has been created that focuses solely on how the Minions came to serve their not-quite-so evil master Gru.  You’d think that the most enjoyable elements from the first two films would be a slam-dunk when given their own film…but it turns out that sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

Look, I loved the Minions in the first two films and laughed at their gibberish language and love of bananas as much as the next easily pleased adult in the audience.  Heck, I even waited in line for a considerable time in a light drizzle for a spot on the Minion Mayhem ride at Universal Studios in Florida.  It’s clear, though, that these were characters that worked better in their featured supporting roles and aren’t quite ready for headlining their own film.

The opening credits show the genesis of the Minions as they emerge from a prehistoric ocean and start their quest to serve the baddest of bad guys throughout time.  Their bumbling winds up offing their masters throughout history, though, from a T-Rex to Dracula to Napoleon and eventually they find themselves exiled into a cave frozen over with ice where they languish without a villainous boss to serve.  Not content with just lying around any longer, during the ‘60s the resourceful Kevin recruits two of his compatriots (Stuart and Bob) to venture out in search of an evil genius they can attend to.

Starting out in New York before heading to Florida and then England, the film follows the three pals as they become involved with the first female supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock, Gravity) as she plots to overthrow the British monarchy.  Owing a little bit of its plot to King Ralph, the final half of film has the Minions first trying to help Overkill steal The Crown Jewels and then staving her off as she goes mad with newfound power.

Like the previous two entries in the Despicable Me universe, Minions feels too long even at the relatively short 91 minutes.  I was checking my watch before it was half over, a bad omen for a film not lacking in color or 3D distraction. (Like its predecessors, this one is worth the 3D upcharge…but make sure to stay until the final credits have passed for some impressive 3D effects.)  Directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who also voices every last Minion…totaling almost 1,000!) seem to know they don’t have enough material for a full-length feature so there are more than a few pit stops along the way, such as Stuart leading some Royal Guards in a sing-a-long to, randomly, a selection from the musical Hair.

The voice talent also is disappointingly underwhelming.  I was looking forward to Bullock’s performance but didn’t get much from her.  Like Frozen, the voices never seemed to really match their animated counterparts so you have the voices of talented actors like Bullock, Michael Keaton (RoboCop), Allison Janney (The Way Way Back), Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm), and Steve Coogan (Philomena) coming awkwardly out of designs that don’t sound totally correct.

It’s in the final five minutes where the movie shows some signs of life, not surprisingly it’s the part that acts as a bridge between Minions and Despicable Me, by that time I was just ready to get up and go so it’s a credit to the film that it finished up strong.  Still, in a summer that’s shown that there’s a case to be made for successful sequels, Minions is an example of how a spin-off (even one with good intentions) isn’t always the wisest route to take.  I’m sure the film will rake in a buttload of cash, though, so I hope that Despicable Me 3 puts the Minions back to work at what they do best…support the action rather than lead it.

Movie Review ~ Despicable Me 2

despicable_me_two_ver7

The Facts:

Synopsis: Gru is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a powerful new super criminal.

Stars: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Cosgrove, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Ken Jeong, Benjamin Bratt

Director: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It’s unfortunate that every computer animated movie needs to be compared to a PIXAR film.  True, PIXAR is clearly the gold standard of CG animation with their endlessly inventive technique and knack for tapping into story and characters that stick with the audience.  Over the years numerous studios have tried and mostly failed to capture that same magic.

I remember going in 2010’s Despicable Me with a bit of a grumpy attitude – here was yet another animated 3D film with A-List voices that would probably wear out its welcome before the first reel was over.  So you’d imagine my surprise when I found myself engaging with the movie and enjoying every minute of it.  With its crisp animation and sprightly voice talent a delightfully entertaining movie emerged and though it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, its huge box-office take did allow Universal Studios and Illumination Entertainment (who also made the impressive Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax in 2012) to inch closer into PIXAR’s corner of the market.

Raking in millions pretty much guarantees a sequel for any movie released in this modern era so it’s not totally shocking that we find ourselves three years later with Despicable Me 2 and while it isn’t quite as on the button as its predecessor, it comes very close thanks to director Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin’s understanding of what the audience wants more of.

That would be The Minions.  The little yellow scamps that speak their own language and have a playful way of interacting pretty much steal the show…which is exactly what they were designed to do.  This being a sequel you have to give the audience something bigger and more substantial so the significance of these little imps has grown and they provide a large percentage of the laughs in a film that has plenty to spare.

Now the father to three orphaned girls, the one-time villain Gru (again voiced in a thick European accent by Steve Carrell, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and The Way Way Back) is settling into life as a single dad.  What I appreciated about the film is how it didn’t go the expected route and make the sequel all about the fatherhood angle but skillfully lets that part of Gru’s life continue to develop even as he’s called into action by the Anti-Villain League when a deadly formula is stolen from a top secret arctic research lab.

Going undercover at Paradise Mall (which looks like a snow globe and contains shops like Bake My Day) he’s teamed with a goofy agent voiced by Kristen Wiig (who, incidentally, voiced a different character in the first film) and they soon find themselves uncovering not only a plot to take over the world but a burgeoning romance of unrequited love.

It’s a fairly standard set-up that in lesser hands may have resulted in a movie that would soon take up space in the $5 bin at Target.  What keeps the  movie moving ever forward is it’s fast-paced jokes that give our stars nice room to flex their comic vocal chops and the animators room to be as creative as they want within the mall. Though the film does have a breakneck pace, I did find it a little long at 98 minutes – cutting out one or two extraneous subplots could have had this one clocking in about ten minutes shorter without losing any of the elements that work nicely.

Like the original, Despicable Me 2 is being released in 3D and there’s a case to be made of paying the up-charge to the 3D format.  Not only does the technology give the viewer more depth in some precisely designed scenes but the end-credits sequence has impressive effects that had young audience members (and at least one old one) reaching out to pop a bubble or dodge a flying object.

With its colorfully created world the movie will appeal to young children as much as its James Bond-y plot might speak to young teens and adults.  In a world of sequels that don’t measure up to the original, Despicable Me 2 is recommended as a worthy follow-up of solid entertainment.