Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)
★ / ★★★★
“Alice Through the Looking Glass,” based on the screenplay by Linda Woolverton and directed by James Bobin, is capable of faking everything else except the most important ingredient in a fantasy picture: real emotions. It boats special and visual effects that are nothing short of impressive, but if one were to peer a little closer, it actually offers nothing worth of value—deeply ironic because the story dares to preach about the importance of family.
Most awkward are the scenes involving human interactions. These should have been perfectly calibrated and executed given that the majority of the film is composed of computerized imagery to the degree that is dizzying and vomit-inducing. These ought to have functioned not only as a breath of fresh air but a chance to anchor the story on a human level despite the story taking place in a wonderland. Yet notice the exchanges between Alice (Mia Wasikowska) and Hatter (Johnny Depp)—the two characters who are dead center of the plot involving time travel—so wooden, forced, not at all intriguing or the least bit warm.
One gets the impression that an illusion were created. I questioned whether the actors were ever in the same room together, let alone have gotten a chance to see each other face-to-face. This is because is a constant disconnect between not only the words uttered but the overall emotions they attempt to convey. Although Hatter is supposed to be mad and Alice is a cheery figure by default, the script fails to underline enough commonalities between the characters. When interacting with someone in person, there is a baseline when it comes to the level of engagement. Here, there appears to be nothing at all.
Despite the pavonine special and visual effects, from the animated characters to Alice’s travels through time, they suffer from diminishing returns. This is due to the fact the material fails to engage the audience in an active manner, it seems too content to give the viewers eye candy and nothing else. It goes to show that you can have the most expensive, most dazzling effects in the world but if there is little to no meaning or heft that propel them, then what’s the point? Over time, I found the images so unrealistic—even for an adventure-fantasy film—that they end up merely serving as decorations.
Notice how I have not delved into the plot. This is because the plot is completely immaterial. The filmmakers did not concern themselves with plot or story because what they wished to make was a not a product that entertained or one that they wanted to be proud of. This is merely a fashion show of greed and ego, serving to cash in on its predecessor. And it shows.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tonari no Totoro” also known as “My Neighbor Totoro” has been on my Netflix queue for about six months so I was so happy when it finally arrived in the mail. It must be noted that this review is based on the dubbed version so some of the dialogue might have been lost in translation. Written and directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, the film had a very simple story with a big heart. It was about two sisters (Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning) who recently moved to the countryside with their father while their mother (Lea Salonga) stayed in the hospital due to an undisclosed illness. The girls, since they were still at a young age, could see dust sprites and spirits, one of which was Totoro, who was supposed to be a troll but he looked more like Snorlax to me (yes, the Pokémon) because of his lax nature but incredibly cute proclivities. The whole movie was basically how the sisters used their imagination as an escape from the ennui of the countryside and dealing with their mother’s illness. I enjoyed that it was simple because the sadness in the core’s story easily appealed to adults while the cuteness appealed to the kids. I’ve read some critiques saying that the movie was slow and aren’t as grand as other Miyazaki projects. In some ways, I agree but at the same time I think those people have missed the point. The movie was supposed to be from a child’s perspective. When you were a child, didn’t everything appear so simple? There’s no taxes to pay off, no job to go to, and no fear of taking an exam that can determine your future. It was all about running around in the outdoors and getting caught up in pretend play. I loved the fact that the younger sister’s qualities reflected real life; she constantly mimicked her older sister, was always in “me” mode and she didn’t quite yet grasp the idea of danger. Details like that elevated this film for me because it showed there was some thought under the sugary cuteness. However, there were some underdeveloped characters that I thought were interesting but were never really explored. For instance, the boy who seemed to like the older sister and the grandmother who once could see the spirits when she was a child. I especially wanted to know more about the latter because I felt like she had a lot of wondrous stories that she could potentially tell the girls (and to us). “My Neighbor Totoro” offers a healthy dose of great imagery (such as when Totoro stood in the rain with the girls) and is obviously inspired by “Alice in Wonderland.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was a masterpiece but I appreciated the innocent feel it had. Characters going on great adventures isn’t a must for animated films to be interesting. And that’s one of this picture’s important messages: adventures can happen right in your backyard.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
This enormously entertaining PG-rated children’s movie was about a small and skinny Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who had to capture a dragon and kill it so he could prove that he was a real Viking and make his father (Gerard Butler) proud. Well, he managed to accidentally capture one but he decided to train it instead because he saw a part of himself in the dragon’s eyes when it was scared and helpless. In general, what I love about most about children’s movies is their simplicity. But what I think makes a superior animated feature is how the movie can explore that simplicity and extract valuable lessons about life that even some adults haven’t quite grasped. I think “How to Train Your Dragon,” directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, managed to capture that essence so I was highly entertained. But I must warn others that this film was more about the story than the jokes. The humor was certainly there, especially the scenes that involved Hiccup and his rivals (America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig) fighting dragons, but the focus was on the bond between a boy and his pet dragon. I think it’s a great movie for children to watch because it’s highly energetic, colorful, and there were real moments of suspense (the impressive dragon nest scene and the final battle) and wonder. A main lesson that could be learned was acceptance: treating others with respect even though we don’t agree with their beliefs, putting our feet in someone else’s shoes in order to understand someone better, respecting animals and nature, and being comfortable with who we are even though we may not look or feel like the ideal at the moment. It’s funny because I think in some ways this was comparable to Tim Burton’s version of “Alice in Wonderland.” Both movies ask us to jump into a world where pretty much anything could exist. However, “How to Train Your Dragon” was a superior experience because it did not sacrifice its storytelling and character development for the sake of visual complexity (which was very strong but it was secondary compared to everything else). Moreover, “How to Train Your Dragon” was consistently amusing while “Alice in Wonderland,” lest we forget was also a PG-rated movie, left me somewhat confused and frustrated with how it wasted its potential. In a nutshell, “How to Train Your Dragon” was inspired–inspired to entertain and to just tell a story that was simple but highly involving. In the end, it made me want to have a dragon as a pet so I could train it just like in those very addictive Pokémon games.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Director Tim Burton who rarely fails to deliver cinematic magic in his work, whether the story takes place in a fantasy world (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) or the real world (“Ed Wood”), takes a step backward in a sort-of sequel of “Alice in Wonderland.” Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now ninteen years old and was asked by a pompous lord for her hand in marriage despite the fact that the proposal was simply driven by societal pressures and conveniences. Before making her decision, she ran as far away as she could only to end up falling in a hole that led to a world full of strange yet familiar creatures such as Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Red and White Queen (Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, respectively), twins with hydrocephalus (Matt Lucas), a smoking blue caterpillar (Alan Rickman), a cheshire cat (Stephen Fry), and many others. My biggest frustration with this film was that there were far too many cuts which led to scenes with no gravity or even amusement. I understand that it was rated PG and a huge portion of the picture was geared toward children. However, proven by Pixar’s range of fantastic work, the rating should not inhibit the film from engaging both children and adults. This could be done by instilling the audiences a sense wonder to the point where they forget they were watching a film for kids. My second biggest frustration was that I did not connect with any of the characters despite them being strange, which is very uncharacterstic in Burton’s work. The characters lacked heart so being strange was not enough if we were not able to root for them. I could not even root for Alice because she just unaware most of the time and she was not exactly the most courageous. I also understand that the characters were based on Lewis Carroll’s work but at the same time Burton is the kind of director that takes risks and he just failed to do that here. While the animation was nice because everything was bright and energetic, I did not feel that sense of wonder that the title had promised. Something I did not notice that a friend of mine pointed out was its lack of consistency, especially with Depp’s character. He claimed that Depp changed his accent from one scene to the next. While I did agree that the story was at times inconsistent, I would like to think the accent issue was intended because I think it worked with the character’s craziness. Depp has proven that he’s a great actor time and again and I think he made a concious choice of changing accents from one scene to another. I was disappointed with this film but I did not hate it because I saw potential–potential to be so much darker, funnier and more involving. I think if the writing had been stronger and had it not been limited by the PG rating, the movie would have been more enchanting and memorable.
Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this was going to be a light-hearted children’s movie but it turned out to be something more serious. Elle Fanning stars as Phoebe, a precocious 9-year-old girl who was chosen by her drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) to play Alice for the school play of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe was more at home on stage than she was in the classroom and with her family. She constantly got into trouble for spitting at other kids whenever she would feel like she was cornered and this alarmed the principal (Campbell Scott), a man who obviously had no idea how to communicate with kids and how to treat them. Felicity Huffman plays Phoebe’s mother, an author who felt trapped because she felt like she was incompetent when it came to raising her two daughters. At first, I thought this film was about a child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; whenever Phoebe wanted something so badly, she would wash her hands until they bled, walk in circles for hours on end, and go up and down the stairs for a certain number of times. But then somewhere in the middle, I thought that it was about childhood depression–that the reason why Phoebe was so engulfed in the play (and excelling at it) and why she saw the characters from “Alice in Wonderland” was because she wanted to escape the pressures of the classroom and the neglect she felt at home. Ultimately, her disorder was revealed at the end of the film and I was disappointed with myself because I should have seen the signs. Regardless, this movie kept me interested from beginning to end because it had a genuine drama in its core. Clarkson absolutely blew me away. I really felt like she cared for the kids by teaching them how to trust themselves, show initiative, and playing on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. The way she said her lines mesmerized me because her intonations provided real insight on how to live life without caring what other people might think. Her relationship with Phoebe was touching, especially when she consoled Phoebe that being different was perfectly okay, or even great: “At a certain part in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself, “But I am this person.” And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.” This film undeniably has its flaws, such as its pacing and scenes with the psychiatrist, but the positives far more than outweigh the negatives.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Even though this animated film is targeted toward children, what I love about it is that it’s not afraid to show menace in order to engage its older audiences. Written and directed by Henry Selick, “Coraline” reminded me of a blend among “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “The Orphanage” and “Alice in Wonderland.” Not only does it have many implications about growing up and dealing with the realities of life, it also has something to say about alternate realities and the power of imagination. I thought Dakota Fanning as Coraline is an excellent choice because Fanning has that certain edge that’s both friendly yet sarcastic at just the right moments. Teri Hatcher as Coraline’s mother and Other Mother is a good choice as well. Having seen Hatcher in “Desperate Housewives,” I thought she was more comedic more than anything so wasn’t sure that she was going to deliver. However, she proved me wrong. The stop-animation is absolutely stunning. Right from the first scene, you can easily tell that the filmmakers did the best they could to produce a work of art that deserves to be remembered for a very long time. I’m willing to bet that this film will be regarded as a classic, like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” in about a decade or two. Sure, it’s scarier than the films previously mentioned but that’s what makes it different from other children’s movies. This animated flick is not afraid to use certain adult language, show certain exaggerated body parts, and a story that can potentially drive children to their parents’ bedroom on the night after watching it. Even I got scared during the last thirty minutes because there are a lot at stake for Coraline. I believed that she truly was in danger and could get hurt by the malicious Other Mother. Some stand-out scenes include Coraline’s discovery of Wybie Lovat’s mouth being sewn open to produce a smile, the atmospheric second mission involving a theatre and dog-bat hybrids, and the last five minutes which involves a metallic hand and a reference to “The Ring.” All of the eye-popping (sometimes literally) adventures aside, this is a story about a person not being taken seriously and how that frustration gets the best of us. That frustration then drives us to turn toward the seemingly better alternative only to realize later on that we’ve had it so good all along.