Movie Review ~ Strange World

The Facts:

Synopsis: A legendary family of explorers attempts to navigate an uncharted, treacherous land alongside a motley crew that includes a mischievous blob, a three-legged dog, and a slew of ravenous creatures.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Director: Don Hall Co-Director: Qui Nguyen
Rated: PG
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  Before PIXAR became the new gold standard for animation, the artists at Disney had the market nicely cornered on creating magical adventures inspired by works of the fairy tales we grew up with. Original storylines were few and far between because the story department never seemed to be coming up empty for inspiration. However, as children’s tastes (and attention spans) changed and the way they absorbed media shifted, so did the origins of ideas for animated features. Seen as the yearly jewels in the Disney crown, it became more difficult to predict a year (or more) in advance when production began what would still work when the film was released. By the mid-2000s, when Home on the Range and, ooof, Chicken Little arrived in theaters, rumors that Walt Disney Animation Studios might shutter were becoming more than flimsy gossip.

Thankfully, new leadership guided this specialized branch of the filmmaking wing of Disney in the right direction, and soon hits like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana were raking in big bucks and new fans. In 2021, Raya and the Last Dragon was terrific but opened softer than it should have, while Encanto came in at the end of the year with a brilliant strategy. It would open in November around Thanksgiving to attract family audiences’ home for the holidays, then be available on the streaming service Disney+ by Christmas when everyone has time off.   

For Walt Disney Pictures’ 61st animated film, Strange World, the studio is trying to recapture Encanto’s success by launching it a few days before Turkey Day with rumors that it will turn up on Disney+ so viewers can flip it on after opening their holiday gifts. That shortens the theatrical window for Strange World and might weaken its overall box office, but it didn’t stop Encanto from being a more massive hit at home. Then again, Encanto was a different beast to manage entirely. While both admirably deal with varying predicaments of family, it’s Strange World that ultimately feels like it could benefit from the most attention it can receive.

Drawing inspiration from dime-store pulp magazines that send their iconic heroes on sensational adventures, screenwriter (and co-director) Qui Nguyen imagines a father-son team of explorers who are separated while trying to find sustainable resources for Avalonia, the land they call home. Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid, Blue Miracle) is your dictionary definition of an alpha male, from his burly physique to his bushy mustache. He’s a dive-in-first, ask questions of the sharks that may be in the sea later kind of guy, but his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal, The Guilty) is a little more calculated than his dad. Searcher, brave in his own way, is the brains to Jaeger’s brawn. When a disagreement sends the two in opposite directions, it leads to Jaeger disappearing on his leg of the mission for 25 years.

Searcher tries to walk in his father’s giant footsteps during this time but still creates his own path. Now married to Meridian (Gabrielle Union, Breaking In) with a 16-year-old son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White, C’mon, C’mon), Searcher is a farmer of Pando. This crop looks like a bunch of grapes but is the power source for all of Avalonia’s resources. It was an argument over investigating this plant further which drove the rift between the older Clade men. Still, the Pando is suffering from decay, threatening the entire community. 

Recruited by Avalonian leader Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu, Charlie’s Angels) because of his knowledge of the power of Pando, Searcher is taken along on a new journey to discover the origin of the disease that is killing off this resource. Traveling further than he’s ever gone from home but closer to where the mystery of his father’s whereabouts might be solved, Searcher will get assistance from his own family and a host of unusual discoveries in this strange world the crew finds themselves in. Once they discover the truth, they’ll have to decide what’s worth saving. Does a legacy outweigh (or outlive) the daily ups and downs of being a part of a family?

The buzz surrounding Strange World has to do with Ethan being the first fully “out” Disney character but, honestly, why the buzz? The normalcy on display here is so admirable. While I kept holding my breath for “The Discussion” (all LGBTQ+ people know what I’m referring to), that Nguyen handles all of these moments so smoothly and truthfully was impressive. In the past, Disney has made a big stink about debuting gay characters, only to have them be nothing more than a raised eyebrow or two shoulders brushing together to indicate deep passion. There’s no need to define anyone here because all those conversations have happened before we’ve stopped by – we’re meeting a happy family that’s been there, done that, and worked that out on their own.   

The look of the film is highly pleasing; it’s all so rounded and soft. To borrow from Frozen, it’s Hygge through and through. From Avalonia’s lush landscapes to the marshmallow squishiness of the world being explored, the whole film has the calming visual effect of an ASMR bedtime session.   I can’t say too much more about things in the latter half of Strange World without giving a left-field twist away, but a hint I’ll pass on is that one of the voice actors in the film has been in a movie from the ’80s with a similar sci-fi/fantasy storyline. (Another hint: Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot Center had a ride that also reminded me of it.)

As someone anxiously waiting for the next Indiana Jones movie and who never passes up a similarly-themed globe-trotting adventure, I found Strange World right up my alley. That it features such positive representation of not just LGBTQ+ youth but of allyship in their family/friends is the cherry on top. Henry Jackman’s (Cherry) score gives you John Williams vibes, and I think that’s entirely the point, so this is targeted at a more specific group. Like previous films released by Walt Disney Animation Studios, I’m hoping that a release focused on a particular group will find mass appeal in others that see similarities within. 

Movie Review ~ Us Again

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in a vibrant city pulsating with rhythm and movement, an elderly man and his young-at-heart wife rekindle their youthful passion for life and each other on one magical night.

Director: Zach Parrish

Rated: G

Running Length: 7 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Now that we watch so many movies from home, I’ve been missing not just the previews (yes, I still occasionally do watch the previews) but the short cartoons that would often play before the feature length animated movies.  Actually, calling them cartoons suggests they are pitched strictly toward younger children when over the past two decades they’ve evolved into mini masterpieces that speak, somehow, to all ages.  Pixar is the crown jewel for making these and have multiple Oscars for Best Animated Short to prove it but Walt Disney Animation is no slouch either.  There’s a wide array of these, along with their SparkShorts series available on Disney+ but it’s been over five years since Walt Disney Animation premiered one of their own shorts in front of one of their films.

The release of Raya and the Last Dragon brings about the debut of Us Again, a colorful dialogue-free tale that spends the majority of its time coasting by on warm smiles from the audience.  It’s only in the last minute or so that it pulls out the heart that we’ve been waiting for and, by and large, it’s worth it.  The story is paper thin: old man prefers to stay indoors while his wife wants to get out and embrace every day with joy.  Obviously at an impasse and wondering how to find the magic they once had, a rain shower transforms them into their younger selves while under its droplets.  Through this transfigurative gift, they dance throughout the groovy city and remember how music and movement united them.  It can’t rain forever though, so what happens after?  It may meander a tad but it winds up with a poignant message we can all learn something from.  Plus, the animation is glorious and director Zach Parrish (moving up the ranks after serving as an animator for Frozen II and Big Hero 6) doesn’t overstuff the tiny tale with excess business so the storytelling doesn’t need words to convey the emotion.

Us Again is playing before Raya and the Last Dragon now if you see it in theaters but not through the Premier Access on Disney+ if you’re paying to watch Raya at home.  If you can wait until June, it will be available for free on Disney+

Movie Review ~ Ralph Breaks the Internet


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Six years after the events of “Wreck-It Ralph”, Ralph and Vanellope, now friends, discover a wi-fi router in their arcade, leading them into a new adventure.

Stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer, Taraji P. Henson, Gal Gadot

Director: Phil Johnston, Rich Moore

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I have to be honest and say that I wasn’t a ride or die fan of Wreck-It-Ralph when it first was released.  It took me a while to find my way to the movie in theaters and though as a child of the ‘80s I appreciated the nostalgia its 8-bit arcade game lead character stirred within me it doesn’t sit high on my list of favorite Disney films.  Though the sequel was hotly anticipated I didn’t even take the time to re-watch the original before taking in this colorful follow-up that I wound up having fun at.  This one seemed to push the envelope more than its predecessor and was stuffed with enough rapid fire jokes to keep your head spinning.  There are a plethora of Easter eggs to be found, especially for those that remember the early days of the World Wide Web and recall the way you would hold your breath when AOL would attempt to connect.

John C. Reilly (Holmes & Watson) and Sarah Silverman (A Millon Ways to Die in the West) are back to voice our two lead characters with Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) joining the cast as an ally to Silverman’s character. I also got a huge kick out of two scenes featuring every Disney princess that has appeared on film, most voiced by the same women that originally brought them to life.  Slyly commenting on their storybook lives in this #TimesUp brave new world we’re living in, they were the highlight of the film.  While the animation is wonderfully eye-popping I don’t feel the movie sticks in your brain like the best of the Disney animated films do.

Movie Review ~ Zootopia

3

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a city of anthropomorphic animals, a fugitive con artist fox and a rookie bunny cop must work together to uncover a conspiracy.

Stars: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Idris Elba, Alan Tudyk, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Jenny Slate, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, Don Lake, Raymond Persi

Director:  Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Here we are in the first week of March and I think I’ve found the first truly delightful film of the year. We’ve just emerged from a season of heavy dramas and a start of the year that featured a seemingly endless supply of disappointments and cheap cash grabs. So to find a film as breezy and bright as Zootopia is most welcome, it’s a place you’ll want to visit more than once.

Young Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is an idealistic young bunny rabbit that stands up to bullies and dreams of moving from her country life to Zootopia, an animal metropolis where predator and prey live in perfect harmony. With her sights set on becoming the first rabbit police officer, she overcomes the adversity of being 10 times smaller than her fellow police academy trainees and lands a job in the heart of the city. Relegated to the safety of being a meter maid, Hopps longs for more than just issuing parking tickets, though, and in short order gets involved with a plot to disrupt the peace between species.

It’s a surprisingly complex plot that’s dreamed up here, giving Disney Animation the opportunity to explore a world of anthropomorphic animals with no human presence. It’s also the longest fully animated film produced by Disney since Fantasia in 1940 and carries an earned PG rating for some scary moments. The length and rating may give parents cause for pause but I’d encourage families to get out and see this one because not only does it have a typically Disneyfied message of being true to oneself and kind to others it’s wonderfully animated and, at times, hysterically funny.

I like to laugh but don’t find myself often truly breaking down in movies so I have to admit that Zootopia hit my funny bone on several occasions. From a delightfully droll spoof of The Godfather to hilarious trip to the sloth-run DMV there are also references to Breaking Bad and a visit to an animal spa that really left me rolling. That the humor feels so genuine is a tribute to the script from eight screenwriters (the film went through some tweaking/reworking several times during production) .

It’s such a sunny romp that when there are dark turns, they land with the right amount of nuance instead of stinking of a laboriously false tonal shift. Zootopia is divided into several different sections meant to recreate the inhabitant’s native habitat. The city center is your typical city setting while there are occasional detours to a rainforest, desert, and frozen tundra. Each world is designed to look and feel different and Disney animators have gone all out with fine details that keep each section separate yet still related to the others.

The voice talent used here is also one of the most enjoyable casts that Disney has put together in quite some time. Goodwin is a bundle of joyous energy as Judy, as is Jason Bateman (Bad Words) as a sly fox who teams up with Judy in her investigation. Idris Elba (Prometheus) is commanding as Judy’s superior officer and J.K. Simmons (Terminator Genisys) pairs nicely with Jenny Slate (The Lorax) as Zootopia’s lion leader and his lamb second in command. And any chance to hear Bonnie Hunt (Monsters University) onscreen is welcome in my book.

Zootopia is being released in IMAX and 3D and while I normally go for the biggest and best presentation I can find, this is one that won’t suffer from a traditional viewing and in fact may be preferred as the 3D doesn’t have the same impact as other films of its kind.

Movie Review ~ Big Hero 6

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The special bond that develops between plus-sized inflatable robot Baymax, and prodigy Hiro Hamada, who team up with a group of friends to form a band of high-tech heroes.

Stars: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Daniel Henney

Director: Don Hall, Chris Williams

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When Disney agreed to buy Marvel Entertainment for the cool sum of 4.64 million dollars they not only started to churn out live-action superhero movies by the truckload (just do an internet search for the multi-year slate of films recently announced) but they began to develop future animated collaborations with Marvel based on their comic book properties.  The first production of this union is Big Hero 6 and if this high energy, vibrantly colored adventure is any indication of what’s to come, both Disney and Marvel execs can start looking at purchasing those beach houses in the Hamptons and 40 foot yachts they’ve been holding off on.

In the city of San Fransokyo, young Hiro (Ryan Potter) is headed down the wrong path, wasting his tech-savy gifts on secret behind closed doors robot battles that may pad his pockets but gets him into hot water with thugs and his watchful brother. A chance visit to his brother’s elite school harnessing the best ideas from the brightest minds gets Hiro interested in following his brother’s footsteps. When tragedy strikes, Hiro must work with a rag-tag group of awkwardly diverse geniuses and one puffy vinyl nurse-like robot to save the world.

With characters first introduced in 1998, Big Hero 6 is an interesting concoction of East meets West styles and the classic origin story that all films of this type need at their genesis.  It plays very much like Guardians of the Galaxy, Disney’s surprise hit from August that slipped in at the last minute to be the most enjoyably film of a rather blah summer.  Even with echoes of Guardians of the Galaxy dancing in your head, Big Hero 6 emerges as its own entity with a fair share of honestly funny moments and the kind of every color of the rainbow animation that practically leaps off the screen.

It’s a rollicking good time and a better film that I thought it would (or could) be.  I laughed a lot and even felt some pangs of sadness, another example of the harmony that exists between the comic-book world of Marvel and the wise minds/hearts of the animators at Disney.

A winning film for parents with kids that too young for Iron Man and too old for Frozen, Big Hero 6 is clearly the start of a beautiful animated partnership.

The Silver Bullet ~ Big Hero 6

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Synopsis: The special bond that develops between plus-sized inflatable robot Baymax, and prodigy Hiro Hamada, who team up with a group of friends to form a band of high-tech heroes.

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: Representing the first animated collaboration between Walt Disney Animation Studios and Marvel, Big Hero 6 has the potential to show off the best of what two proven franchise starters can do when they put their creative talents together. Based on a comic book of the same name, it’s interesting that you can clearly see the Disney influence reflected in the look of the film and also a clear indication that this is a Marvel adventure through and through. I’ve had zero exposure to the source material so I can’t tell you how much of a fan base this is coming in with…but Disney had a whopper of a hit last year in the same time period (Frozen) and Marvel hasn’t stumbled yet. Expect big things for this big hero.