★★★ / ★★★★
A pregnant queen was terminally ill and the only thing that could cure her was a magical flower. But Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), obsessed with reclaiming her youth, kept the flower for herself because it only gave back her good looks for a short time. When the royal soldiers found the flower, the queen was cured and she successfully delivered a baby girl. Villainous Gothel snuck into the castle, discovered that the child absorbed the fantastic properties of the flower, kidnapped her, raised her as her own child, and kept her in a tower for eighteen years. Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) yearned to experience life outside of her home but couldn’t find it to do so because her so-called mother convinced her that the world was dark, selfish, and cruel. Based on the fairy tale of Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, “Tangled” was a joy to watch because it radiated positivity but wasn’t afraid to take a dark turn when it needed to. There was a good amount of humor for both kids and adults. I laughed at Flynn Rider’s (Zachary Levi) vanity, Rapunzel’s purloiner of a prince charming/wanted man. I liked him because he was a different kind of lover that a girl ended up with in most Disney movies. He was modern, almost a parody, but he had good qualities that convinced us that he was a great fit for a girl like Rapunzel. I also enjoyed the chameleon, Rapunzel’s pet and only friend, and the horse determined to catch Rider and his thieving ways. The chameleon and the horse were more than just animals for us to think of as cute. They had human qualities. They were capable of giving begrudging looks, had the tendency to be bossy, and were capable of being sweet. They couldn’t speak, unlike Sebastian the crab in Ron Clements and John Musker’s “The Little Mermaid,” but they didn’t need to. Their facial expressions and body languages said it all. The songs were catchy and they always related to the story. I particularly enjoyed two songs: the time Rapunzel cleaned her house and the visit in the pub full of ruffians. Listen to the lyrics and there was a wink or two aimed directly at our pop culture. The style of animation kept my eyes fixated on the screen. I especially admired the scene in which the characters had to run away from the powerful water after the dam had collapsed. I felt like I was with Rapunzel and Rider when the camera showed the raging water in the background as the duo ran toward us. I mentioned the film having a dark side. It showed Gothel holding a knife. The manner in which she held it with malice suggested murder. There was even a scene in which someone was stabbed in the back. I’m glad that the filmmakers were brave enough to show them. With all kinds of violence featured on television, I think kids of all ages should be able to handle it. “Tangled” wasn’t very deep but it didn’t need to. It just needed to feel magical.
The Illusionist (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
A French magician (voiced by Jean-Claude Donda) made a living by playing in small pubs, basements, and coffee shops. If he was lucky enough, he was allowed to perform in a music hall after a big band with a whole lot of screaming and giggling admirers. He loved his craft but the magic of illusion was waning. It probably had something to do with the lack of variety in his tricks. But when he met a girl named Alice (Eilidh Rankin) who believed that the magician possessed real powers, he invited her on a trip to the capital of Scotland. They lived together and he gave her wonderful gifts. However, he knew that it was only a matter of time until he had to inform her that he was just an ordinary man. Directed by Sylvain Chomet, “The Illusionist” was a touching film because it captured the many complex emotions the magician felt as he went on stage and saw that not many people were interested in his art. It was personal for him because he defined himself as his art. If his art was forgotten or ignored, so was he. During his performances, the applause were very scattered; the awkwardness was so pronounced, I wished I heard no applause at all. I was impressed with the hand-drawn animation. It was easy to notice the attention to detail. When the magician was on stage, there were moments when the director showed us the audiences’ expressions. Some were hopelessly bored, others were slightly amused, and a few didn’t want to be there at all. I found it important that their expressions told me a story. For instance, those who didn’t enjoy the tricks probably felt obligated to stay because they paid a good sum of money to see a performance. Maybe some were simply too tired to get up from their seats because the last performance took a lot out of them. What I found fascinating was its lack of dialogue. Some French and English words were occasionally thrown under surreptitious whispers and exasperated groans but the recognizable words didn’t mean anything. The meaning was in the body language, the facial expressions, and the way a light of a certain color hit a character’s face. (Even the rabbit the magician used had a personality.) The insignificance of language was highlighted when we watched the characters converse behind windows. We heard no sound. The images didn’t have to mean anything. It was up to us to think and interpret what we thought the characters were feeling or thinking when they were admiring an article of clothing or just standing in the rain and not really looking at anything. The strength of “L’illusionniste” was its willingness to take risks. As a society, we’re so dependent on language to tell us what is that we often forget that sometimes the more important things are discreetly embedded in the unsaid. The careful musings supported by delicate music felt very zen. Despite the story’s medium being animation, it worked as a slice-of-life picture.
Puss in Boots (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
There was word going around that Jack (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sedaris), outlaws and lovers, had three magical beans in their possession. If planted in the right spot at the right time, they were to grow for miles and lead to a giant’s castle where a giant goose laid golden eggs. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) figured that if he were to purloin the eggs and donate them to the small town where he was raised in an orphanage, he would no longer be a wanted cat. Despite his reluctance, Puss eventually teamed up with Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), the sword, the skill, and the brain of the mission, respectively. “Puss in Boots,” directed by Chris Miller, was a thoroughly enjoyable animated film because the fairy tales in question were incorporated in such a way that the filmmakers were able to add their unique spin yet keep the essence of what made them such memorable fables. For example, instead of Jack and Jill being portrayed as cute kids, they were shown as corpulent, greedy adults with pigs as children. Despite their unexpected appearance, there were some funny bits taken from the nursery rhyme which were convincing enough for us to believe that the two of them were the Jack and Jill who tumbled down the hill. The picture had a lot of energy especially in executing its action sequences. The battle between Jack and Jill and Puss, Kitty, and Humpty in the desert was intense and exciting. Although the road was extremely windy, the battle sequence was flawlessly edited. We knew exactly what was happening and why; the crafty twists and jokes that surrounded that chase made the experience all the more fun. Although I enjoyed the animation in general, with its variegation in style that consistently complemented specific environs, I feel that I have to single out Humpty Dumpty. I never thought an egg could amuse me so much. Although the character had wicked sense of humor (he was deathly unable to jump off small steps), I was regaled by his movements: the way he walked, wobbled, and rolled down a hill. His facial expressions were, at times, slightly creepy, but I can’t imagine anyone not being tickled at the sight of Humpty being caught up in all sorts of trouble balancing while in the middle of high-stakes chases. I wished, however, the movie had less scenes of Puss and Kitty dancing. I understood that the two cats had to flirt for the sake of cute puns, but whenever they had to dance, whether it was for fun or competition, it felt like filler. A twenty-second dance sequence would have more than sufficed. A total of five- to ten-minute montage tested my patience. I rather would have watched a longer flashback of Puss and Humpty’s experiences as children in the orphanage led by Imelda (Constance Marie), their mother figure. Based on the screenplay by Tom Wheeler, “Puss in Boots,” despite its inconsistencies, like the golden eggs’ density, very difficult to move from one scene, easily lifted the next, was entertaining because it prevented shoving pop culture references in our faces. It simply told a story where most of its jokes worked due to right timing combined with contagious, effervescent energy.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a spirit that guarded the forest had turned into a demon, in a form of a giant boar, threatened to attack a small village, Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) killed the suffering spirit. But Ashitaka did not leave the battle unscathed. The demon managed to touch his arm and put a curse on him. One of the wise men from the tribe claimed that there could be a possible cure out in the West. However, if Ashitaka left the village, he could never return. “Princess Mononoke,” written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was branded by fans and critics as a classic. I don’t believe it was as strong as it should have been. While I admired that it used animation not just as a medium to entertain younger children, personified by gory beheadings and limbs cut into pieces, its pacing felt uneven and the way story unfolded eventually became redundant. There was a war between guardians of the forest, led by a giant white wolf named Moro (Gillian Anderson), and humans, led by the cunning Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). The spirits were angry because men cut off trees and killed animals for the sake of excavating valuable iron. If the forest died, the spirits, too, would perish. Ashitaka’s stance was the middle, the one who we were supposed to relate to, and it was up to him to try to bring the two sides together. While I appreciated that there was an absence of a typical villain because the characters’ motivations were complex, there were far too many grand speeches about man’s place in the world versus man’s right to do whatever it took for the sake of progress. As the spirits and humans went to war, the story also focused on the budding romance between Ashitaka and San (Claire Danes), a human that Moro brought up as a wolf. It was an unnecessary appendage because the romantic angle took away the epic feel of the battle sequences. Just when a battle reached a high point, it would cut to Ashitaka wanting to prove his love for the wolf-girl he barely knew. The high point, instead of reaching a peak, became an emotional and visual plateau. It wasn’t clear to me why Ashitaka would fall for someone like San, who was essentially a savage being, who claimed that she hated humans, and who considered herself to be a wolf. There was a painful lack of evolution in their relationship. Did San eventually feel like she was more human than animal after spending more time with the cursed Ashitaka? What was more important to our protagonist: being with the girl he loved or the lifting off the curse so that he could continue to live? The deeper questions weren’t answered. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t deny that “Mononoke-hime” maintained a high level of imagination throughout. I especially enjoyed the adorable kodamas, spirits that lived in the oldest trees, with their rotating heads and confused expressions. If it had found a way to focus more on the big picture, without sacrificing details and actually offered us answers, it would have been a timeless work.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Shen, a peacock, was supposed to lead Gongmen City when he grew up. But when Soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh), a goat, predicted that someone in black and white was going to thwart his thirst for power, Shen (Gary Oldman) decided to kill pandas all over China. When he returned home, his parents banished him from the city. Years later, bitter Shen reappeared, equipped with newfangled metallic weapons and ravenous but dim-witted wolves, to take back the city, eliminate kung fu, and gain control of China. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, was a hasty but scrumptious sequel filled with non-stop action, cuddly rabbits, funny jokes about the anthropomorphic characters, and gorgeous animation. With a relatively simple storyline, the film wasted no time in sending Po (Jack Black), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross) to release Gongmen City from the evil peacock with feathers as knives. But it was far from an easy task. Each successive action sequence became increasingly difficult for our heroes which meant more complex plans of attack and trickier camera angles. It also meant more scenes where Po had to clandestinely blend into the environment to no avail. I loved the aerial shots especially when the Dragon Warrior and his friends attempted to sneak into the city while in a dancing dragon costume. Looking down, it looked like a helpless caterpillar desperately trying to find its way out of a labyrinth while avoiding nasty predators. I also enjoyed the scene in which our protagonists had to run to the tip of a building as it slowly collapsed. There was a real sense of peril as Po and company were thrown around like rag dolls. Since Shen wielded a myriad cannons, the city was eventually thrown in a state of calamity, its residents dispersing like flies. Although potentially too violent for kids, the filmmakers found a way to hide certain realities. For example, someone who was hit by a cannonball was almost always immediately shown as only slightly wounded but ultimately safe. There was an interesting subplot involving Po’s origins. Po finally realized that Mr. Ping (James Hong), a duck, wasn’t his biological father. Mr. Ping was heartbroken from the prospect of Po treating him differently other than the father who found him in a box, raised, and fed him tons of radishes when he was a baby panda. Fragments of memories began to manifest themselves and they caused turmoil in Po’s mind. It proved to be inconvenient because the only way he could learn a special kung fu move, with the aid of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), was to find inner peace. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” directed by Jennifer Yuh, was surprisingly fresher than newly dug radishes. It is a product of synergy among comedic asides, kinetic martial arts, and the more sentimental scenes between Po and his dad. Most of all, it is a testament that sequels need not rely on typicalities to duplicate the successes of its predecessor. Its ambition and execution make it a solid companion piece.
Winnie the Pooh (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
When Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings) woke up, his stomach grumbled with great hunger. He knew the perfect cure: delicious, gooey honey. But when he got to the kitchen, all the honey jars were empty. He thought he’d ask his friends if they had some to spare. In the forest, he stumbled upon Eeyore (Bud Luckey) who claimed that his tail was missing. Concerned about their friend, Christopher Robin (Jack Boulter), Owl (Craig Ferguson), Piglet (Travis Oates), Tigger (Cummings), Rabbit (Tom Kenny), Kanga (Kristen Anderson-Lopez), and Roo (Wyatt Dean Hall) held a contest: whoever could find an object that would best replace Eeyore’s tail would win a jar of honey. “Winnie the Pooh,” based on the works by A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard, brought out the inner child in me. Granted, it isn’t particularly difficult because I’m easily amused by corny childish jokes and puns but the film was on a constant creative overdrive. Coming into it, I hadn’t seen a single episode of the television show nor have I sat through prior Pooh features. (I’ve read a picture book or two.) It really surprised me because the dialogue and the images rapidly reached an effortless comedic synergy. An image could be as simple as Pooh staring at a pinecone and weighing the reasons how or how it couldn’t work as Eeyore’s tail and I would catch myself smiling at how adorable it was. I loved the film because the characters reminded me of my friends and I. Each had a distinct personality and I was glad all of them were given a chance to shine. My favorite scene was when Owl suggested that whoever acquired the best tail replacement ought to receive some sort of remuneration for his or her trouble. Meanwhile, Pooh leaned into Piglet and whispered, “What are we supposed to renumber?” It caught me off-guard with how ingenious it was. There I was watching, essentially, a children’s movie but I lost track of that fact. That moment nudged me, without feeling distracted or detached, of its nature. Most kids (and, I reckon, most adults) won’t know the meaning of “remuneration.” They defined it but it didn’t feel like being in a classroom and learning words because the joke’s punchline came before the definition. The picture also had a great lesson about friendship. Eventually, the animals ended up in a big hole with no means of escape. Piglet was the only one who could rescue them. That scene could easily have been annoying or unnecessary. After all, Owl had the ability to fly. The writers ignored Owl’s innate ability because there was a lesson about patience. In meaningful friendships, when a friend messes up or does things that make no sense, it’s important that we don’t make them feel less than. I think it’s a great message for kids (for everyone, really) not to say things like, “You’re so dumb!” or “You’re so stupid!” As someone who’s worked with children, such put-downs, harmless as they may seem at the time, do germinate anger and self-loathing. Directed by Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall, “Winnie the Pooh” was a delightful animated film. It’s one of those movies I can show my future kids and I wouldn’t mind watching it with them.
Cars 2 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Secret agent Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) was tracking a group of vehicular criminals, seemingly led by Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann), conspiring to persuade the public that Allinol, an alternative fuel to gasoline, was bad. When his identity was compromised, he had no choice but to send the inexperienced but charming Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) out in the field. Meanwhile, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) was invited to participate in the first World Grand Prix and he decided to take Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), his best friend, with him. While in Japan, Mater was mistaken as an American spy by Holley. Based on the screenplay by Ben Queen, “Cars 2” was an improvement from John Lasseter and Joe Ranft’s “Cars” in terms of pacing. Still, it left much to be desired. From the first scene, I felt myself detached. Watching a car fling itself from one side of the ship to another like Spider-man had a certain bubbly creative energy, but it didn’t draw me into getting to know that character. The animation, as usual, was well-done. Vibrant colors were abound and it made my eyes want to linger on certain images even if the images were moving so quickly. The vroom-vroom sounds in the foreground and the background chatter and screams of fans complemented each other so they created an exciting mood prior to the race. The colors and sounds matched the country the cars were in. For example, while in Japan, indoor neon lights were prevalent, but while in Italy, outdoor natural light took center stage. I wish the friendship between Mater and Lightning McQueen was taken on a new level. They essentially learned the same lesson in the first film which made the entire oeuvre a bit déjà vu, stale, lacking genuine tension. When the duo got into a disagreement in Japan, it was too early in the picture and it didn’t help that they spent most of the time apart before and after that point. The decision of making Mater the center of the story was not entirely a good one. He was amusing to watch because he was a clown, a stereotypical hillbilly American who hadn’t experienced city life. I loved the scene where he thought that the wasabi was free ice cream. The server put a little dot on his plate. Mater, unimpressed, insisted that the server added more because it was free anyway. Things didn’t go well for the tow truck when he put a plateful of wasabi in his mouth. But the same type of joke was recycled over and over: Mater put himself in an awkward situation and he made a complete fool of himself. I wanted different types and more sources of comedy. What about Lightning McQueen and his rivalry with the vain Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), both on and off the race track? It would have been great if Sally (Bonnie Hunt) was forced to choose between the two celebrities. After all, there was a theme about home life versus life in the fast lane. “Cars 2,” directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis, was an unnecessary sequel to a barely mediocre first outing. In the middle of all the car crashes and gasoline versus alternative fuel debates, I started to wonder about the money it took to create the sequel and how that money could’ve been used to make an entirely new Pixar movie with a genuinely moving story and lovable characters.