★★★ / ★★★★
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.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” an unextraordinary young woman named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) with a low self-esteem and a penchant for dressing like an old woman was cursed by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Being in a body of an old woman, Grandma Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) decided to go into the mountains to find another witch or wizard who could reverse her condition. In the unforgiving cold mountains, she stumbled upon a castle with legs owned by the mysterious and slightly vain Howl (Christian Bale). Out of all Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” contained my favorite group of characters. Each of them had a defined personality from the sarcastic fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a young magician (Josh Hutcherson) who yearned for an adult figure, to characters who did not say a word like loving Turnip-Head and Heen, an old dog with only one facial expression. There was something unexpected revealed about each of them, particularly the villainous witch who cruelly casted a spell on our protagonist. All of the core characters shared one similarity so they had a reason to keep walking forward together. They were all caught up in a senseless war. Since it wasn’t explained to us why a war was happening or which side was fighting for what reason, the violence, burning homes, and people attempting to escape with their lives were that much more compelling. In some ways, the magical world that these characters inhabited served as an escape from the harsh realities of war. With the help of the castle, they had a chance to escape and hide but only temporarily. Eventually, they would step out on a once peaceful landscape and were confronted with flying ships used to drop bombs in beautiful cities by the sea. Unfortunately, when the picture decided to focus on the romantic bond between Sophie and Howl, I began to lose interest. They did have their cheesy moments, but I was more concerned about what Sophie saw in Howl and vice-versa. Sophie claimed to love Howl but for what reason? Did she love him because of his looks? It certainly wasn’t because of his maturity because he threw tantrums like a child. Was their so-called love pre-ordained? There was an evidence of time-travel toward the end of the story. Nevertheless, I could also argue that the heart of the film wasn’t about the romance between Howl and Sophie. The friendship between humans and magical creatures and the sacrifices they made for each other during a time of need would probably make more sense. “Hauru no ugoku shiro” teemed with great detail and imagination but the story always came first. Quirky, funny, adventurous, with just the right amount of dark undertones, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, will enchant both young and old.
A Town Called Panic (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“Panique au village,” written and directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar, was an oddball of an animated film. The characters in the film were toys but they didn’t necessarily play the role of the figure they inhabited. Humans and horses were equal beings, horses could play the piano, while cows were used as either food or weapons against intruders. When Indian (voiced by Bruce Ellison) and Cowboy (Stéphane Aubier) had forgotten that it was Horse’s (Vincent Patar) birthday, they panicked and tried to brainstorm for a gift. They figured it would be a nice if they built a barbecue set for Horse before he returned home from picking up the neighbor’s kids, but they accidentally ordered millions of bricks instead of the fifty they had in mind. The delivery of the bricks was a catalyst for an adventure that awaited the three friends which led them to the center of the earth, a land of ice, and an underwater dwelling. As much as I enjoyed the protagonists’ dizzying energy, I think the picture would have been better off as a short film. The first twenty minutes was spot-on; it reminded me of the simple days back when I would just sit in front of a TV and watch Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner’s formula of the former setting a trap in which he was convinced would work without a glitch and the latter escaping and not breaking a sweat. This animated picture had an easy formula to follow, too. A tragic thing would happen, like a house being demolished, and the characters would rebuild from the ground up without making a big deal out of the situation. This was highlighted when one of the characters stated, “There’s always tomorrow.” In a series of simple scenes and without saying the actual words, it was able to highlight that hard work, perseverance, and forgiveness were important aspects of a successful life and maintaining meaningful friendships. Although unconventional, I thought the movie was beautifully shot. Close-ups revealed the flaw of the animation so the majority of the scenes were shot from afar. To recompense, there was always something happening on the background particularly when such a shot was indoors. One should take notice of the amusing details during Horse’s birthday celebration when everybody was dancing like it was high school prom or disco in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the sudden change of pace near the middle made the film feel highly uneven. I felt like it eventually ran out of creative ideas to keep us entertained. The toys were more than plastic things in “A Town Called Panic.” They might not have felt pain when landing from a hundred-foot fall but people who love the idea of just being alive will love these toys and find this bizarre film fun and zany.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
A girl named Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin) looked pensively out the window aboard a flying ship. She was being held by a spy for the government (Mark Hamill) and men from the military. They wanted something from her although at first it wasn’t clear what. Pirates, led by an old but very energetic lady named Dola (Cloris Leachman), attacked the ship. Out of panic, Sheeta climbed outside the window, slipped, and was in free fall toward the Earth. “Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta,” also known as “Castle in the Sky,” was a thrilling animated film which balanced adventure and heart with ease. It offered breathtaking images from grand ships maneuvering themselves in and out of danger to the small details of the mining town where Pazu (James Van Der Beek), Sheeta’s greatest ally, lived and dreamed of fantastic journeys. The chase scenes were exciting to watch not just because guns and explosions were involved but due to the fact that there were times when the laws of Physics were completely ignored (especially in the mine cart tracks) and I was completely caught by surprise. Just when we thought we had idea where one’s loyalty belonged, enemies found a commonality which allowed them to work together and maybe even learn from each other. In a way, the action sequences were just as interesting as the characters who all shared a common goal: reaching the evasive floating castle called Laputa. The spy wanted the knowledge and the technology buried deep within, the military and the pirates wanted the treasures, Pazu wanted to find closure regarding his father’s death, and Sheeta simply wanted to protect it. There were also some messages concerning the environment and perhaps a budding romance between Pazu and Sheeta but I liked the fact that such topics were purposely underplayed. It was nice to see other angles from the core story so it didn’t at all feel one-dimensional. However, I do have the admit that I felt as though the picture ran for about thirty minutes too long. I think the film spent too much time focusing on the characters aboard the mysterious castle. I began to feel restless. Personally, I would have enjoyed it more if the characters did not spend too much time there (or if none of them reached it). By doing so, it remains as a symbol or a metaphor for things that were important to the characters. To me, it really wasn’t about reaching the castle but the measures the characters would go to get there. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Castle in the Sky” was magical, involving, and suitable for all ages. It made me think of the time when my dream was to become pilot.
Shrek Forever After (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Lovable ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) was going through a midlife crisis. He missed his old life in the swamp when he was able to do whatever he wanted whenever he pleased. Gone were the times when people would see him and scatter about in fear. After storming out of a party and having an argument with his wife Fiona (Cameron Diaz), Shrek ran across the devious Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn) who was too conveniently trapped under a carriage. Supposedly grateful for being rescued, Rumpelstiltskin, experienced in dark magic, offered Shrek a proposition: Shrek could spend 24 hours in the past if the magician could take any day from Shrek’s life. Before he knew it, the green ogre’s new world was entirely different. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) was no longer his best friend and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) was now a fat cat who could not even lick himself. While I do think that the fourth installment was the best since the first in the series, I failed to see anything special about it. I could feel the voice actors being enthusiastic in playing their roles, which was great, but I didn’t think the jokes were fresh enough to keep me constantly entertained. The familiar characters being completely different in the alternate universe became a running gag that grew tired quickly. I wanted the script to poke fun of Shrek’s so-called midlife crisis more consistently. I almost missed the random pop culture references because even though they came out of the blue, they managed to surprised me. Everything in here felt like a rehash of the first three “Shrek” pictures driven by the concept of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It didn’t take enough risks so the experience was far from rewarding. The subject of alternate universe had been explored so many times that we’ve grown tired of the formula. The “Shrek” franchise, being a satirical jab at fairy tales and pop culture, could have challenged that familiar formula and invigorated the story. Sadly, despite the swashbuckling adventures on screen, the storytelling was too safe, even predictable. Half-way through the picture, I thought it needed an inspiration to keep going. Even the big lesson that Shrek learned in end could be seen from very far, far away. Directed by Mike Mitchell, “Shrek Forever After” was completely breathless as it reached the finish line. The actors and the filmmakers assured that this was the last picture of the series. Unless the writers have truly creative ideas for a fifth movie, I suggest it remains in a deep slumber.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) had been living within the fortified walls of a medieval outpost all his life in which his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) was the no-nonsense leader. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), with a mysterious but incomplete book in hand, successfully escaped from the Vikings’ invasion of his home island and seeked refuge in the outpost. In order to complete the book, he gave Brendan a mission to collect berry-like fruits in which emerald-colored ink could be extracted. The problem was such berries could only be found outside of the walls and in the dangerous forest where dark creatures lived. “The Secret of Kells” had to really earn my attention and keep my interest. After watching so many computer-generated animation, I’m willing to admit that watching an old-fashioned style of animation can be a bit of a struggle. Another factor in the struggle was the fact that I was not familiar with the Celtic culture and traditions so I was initially confused about what was happening and why certain artifacts were important to the characters. However, thirty minutes into the film, I found myself completely engrossed because it told its story in a refreshing way. The images were deceptively simple. Its lack of depth and dimension actually added to the magic because there were times when it created illusions. But there were times when the images were almost abstract, it was hard what to make of them. I did not find it to be a negative quality because my eyes were always busy. I would gloss over an image, fixate on something else for a second, then it occured to me that something I just saw did not make particular sense, and I found myself needing to look back on the initial image. It may sound exhausting but it was actually a fun experience. The strange images aided by various types of animation highlighted the picture’s folk stories and sense of wonder. The story and the dialogue were relatively simple so kids would be able to follow the storytelling with ease. Time was constantly against the characters because they had to finish the book before the Vikings’ invasion. Without the book, knowledge would be lost and their traditions would not be passed to future generations. There was also enough danger and scary imagery, such as when Brendan was attacked by wolves and had to obtain an eye from a mythical serpent, to keep the adults curious and entertained. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nota Twomey, “The Secrets of Kells” had a rich and colorful imagination with an inspired execution. For a children’s movie, I find it strange that I couldn’t help but think about the images and the meaning the behind the images for hours afterward.
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
I grew up on Disney’s late 1980s to mid-1990s animated movies like Ron Clements and John Musker’s “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel’s lesser-known “The Rescuers Down Under,” and Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s “The Lion King,” but I don’t know much about the history of the team behind such hits so I just had to watch this film. With their successes, it’s difficult to imagine, let alone appreciate, the hardships the artists went through to release commercially-pleasing projects and at the same time ward off their competitors (Steven Spielberg, working for a different company at the time, was actually one of them). And that’s exactly what this film was about: To tell the story of the behind-the-scenes struggles the writers, artists, and leaders in the company who had no choice but to live up to Walt Disney’s many profound accomplishments. I thought it was fascinating in the way it explored the collision of vastly different ideas in how to launch a story and how those ideas cost millions of dollars, while only a minute amount ended up on screen. When the documentary showed us how much of the sketches ended up in recycling, the voice inside my head couldn’t help but yell out a resounding, “No! Don’t throw all of that hard work in the trash!” I learned a whole lot from the film and, in a way, it changed the way I saw the animated movies I cherished as a child. I didn’t know that “The Rescuers Down Under” (a box-office flop upon its release and, to this day, highly underrated) was Disney’s first ever animated film made digitally. I thought that each frame was drawn by hand but looking back on it, the images looked sharper and more defined than its predecessors. I almost wanted to see the movie again so I could observe the risks that the animators took in order to release movies at a much faster rate. The documentary also tackled the issue of the workers’ debilitating health. Since the animation studios’ projects were hit-and-miss, at some point the workers were not properly compensated; they had to draw all night and come to work in the morning with uncontrollable shaking of the hands, while some suffered long-term carpal tunnel syndrome. I thought the company’s goal of releasing one Disney movie per year was unrealistic considering the amount work the team had to inject in each project. “Waking Sleeping Beauty,” directed by Don Hahn, is a required viewing for those who love classic Disney animated films and are children at heart. There were some fun and touching appearances from Tim Burton, Howard Ashman, and John Lasseter, but watching it should make us appreciate the talent behind the art we feel like we have a deep connection with.
Grave of the Firelies (1988)
★★★★ / ★★★★
The opening scene depicted the death of Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) when Japan finally surrendered at the end of World War II. His story of struggle with his little sister (Ayano Shiraishi) was elegantly told in flashback. They tried to survive by themselves because their father was in the Navy, their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) passed away because a fire-bombing raid, and their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) outwardly expressed that the two of them were a burden since they did not do their share in providing for the household. “Hotaru no haka” is a sublime example of anime transcending animated stories told in a fantastic scope and science fiction. It was able to tell a human story that was very real, tragic and heartbreaking as Seita did his best to keep his sister away from truths that were difficult to digest. Of course, he ended up unsuccessful in the end but the heart of the film was his attempt to construct distractions so that his sister would not think about their parents and the prospect that they, too, could die. Although we saw planes bombing Japanese towns, I liked that the siblings’ main source of struggle was their relationship with other Japanese people. Since everything was rationed, mostly everyone was out for themselves and their own families. Food and shelter were rare and money became irrelevant. Bartering drove the economy which was a problem because the two kids had barely anything to barter with in the first place. There was a complexity in their society’s situation. I did not necessarily see them as “bad people” because I probably would have done the same thing if I was in their shoes. I also admired the fact that Isao Takahata, the director, did not shy away from showing dead, mangled, and rotten bodies. When I saw this film in high school, I remember being shocked at the images because at the time I had not seen an animated movie that mirrored reality so closely. One of the most resonant scenes for me was when Seita glanced over at his mother’s badly burned body. His facial and body expression suggested that he did not at all recognized his mother but deep inside he felt that it was her and she was soon going to die. Just as quickly, he realized he had no choice but to be strong for his sister until their father came for them. “Grave of the Firelies,” based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, had power that made me feel so sad even after a few days since I’ve seen it. I was haunted with what Seita and his sister had been through but at the same time I was thankful that I did not live through those times. Even more impressive, the movie was a war film that did not place blame on any one nation but instead highlighted individual responsiblity in times of war.