Mary and Max (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Mary (voiced by Toni Collette) was an earnest but unpopular eight-year-old girl living in Australia and Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a whimsical Jewish man with Asperger’s Syndrome living in New York City and the two became pen pals in the middle of the 1970s. Initially, the two seemed to not have much in common other than the fact that they both loved the same television show because of the vast age difference, but as years went by we learned that loneliness was only one of the many things that strengthened their friendship. What started off as a cute story of a little girl believing that she was found by her parents at the bottom of a beer mug turned into an insightful exercise in animation with lessons such as what it really means to love ourselves despite our flaws and eventually reach out to others who might be in a similar situation as us. Like the best animated films, we come to know Mary and Max not just as characters from colorful and black-and-white worlds, respectively, but as people who likely exist out there in the world. They openly shared their goals in life, their insecurities, and in what ways they believe their pasts have helped shaped who they were. I loved that the picture did not shy away from showcasing negative emotions such as disgust, jealousy, and greed. I enjoyed the movie from an entertainment angle because it was very funny due to its quirkiness but the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the script’s level of intelligence and the subtle ways the characters changed over their many years of often very touching correspondence. Even though the picture lost its way somewhere around the introduction of Damien (Eric Bana) as Mary’s love interest, the final few scenes moved me because certain events were handled with such beauty and maturity. Instead of emotionally cheating the audiences, what had transpired felt right and true to itself. Written and directed by Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” is an astute, dynamic and character-driven film that is appropriate for both children and adults. Despite some of the issues it tackled such as depression, addiction and losing faith to a higher power, there are important lessons to be learned from the movie (while some lessons were taken upside down for the sake of irony). Best of all, I admired the film for its honesty without sacrficing imaginative details that are worth exploring upon second viewing.
Despicable Me (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a supervillain resembling Penguin from Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” felt pressure to top Vector’s (Jason Segel) recent accomplishment–stealing a pyramid in Egypt. So Gru came up with a brilliant idea: steal the moon. Unfortunately, he did not have enough money to create a rocket that would launch him to outer space. An opportunity disguised as three orphans named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) knocked on Gru’s door and slowly he began to realize that perhaps having a family was more important than being known as the world’s most famous supervillain. Although “Despicable Me” did not have anything particularly new to offer to its genre, like most successful animated films, its simplicity worked to its advantage. The humor was obvious, we knew exactly where the story was going and it was easy to relate to it because it played on the inner child within all of us. It was the small details in animation referencing to pop culture not at all dissimilar to the “Austin Powers” franchise and tiny tweaks to the typical storyline that elevated this movie to the next level. Its cuteness was constantly on overdrive especially the scenes with Agnes’ big eyes combined with her hilarious one-liners and Gru’s sometimes unintelligible minions (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, Jemaine Clement). The action sequences were silly but inspired (my favorite was when Gru was finally successful at entering Vector’s lair), the psychological explanations involving Gru’s motivations brought a silly grin on my face, and even the will-he-or-will-he-not-make-it scene involving a ballet recital was strangely involving. What completely did not work for me, however, were the dance sequences. Those were unnecessary because they felt cheap, out-of-place and lame. Since the material was already over-the-top, being more over-the-top hindered its momentum and I would have preferred more jokes even if they involved a little bit of slapstick. “Despicable Me,” directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, is a harmless but entertaining movie full of charm and fiery creativity. The picture reached its peak when we were allowed to reenter a child’s sense of wonder–a quality that, unfortunately, most of us have lost. Gru may be a supervillain with a penchant for making kids happy one minute and then taking away their source of happiness the next, but he is far from despicable and definitely more lovable.
Astro Boy (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Based on a manga by Osamu Tezuka, “Astro Boy” told the story of a brilliant scientist (voiced by Nicolas Cage) specializing in robotics who recreated his son (Freddie Highmore)–physically with memories included–after the boy’s untimely death during a military testing led by a cruel president (Donald Sutherland). I thought the first third of this film was very strong. Although the look of the movie was crisp so it easily appealed to children, the story was almost a little too dark. I was impressed that it immediately tackled the idea of a parent’s debilitating grief and the effects of trying to replicate a child. It was like watching a version of Steven Spielberg’s underrated “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” but aimed toward children. And like that film, this animated movie also explored what it meant for the main character to be a human (initially), a robot (later on), and accepting the fact that having both characteristics wasn’t so bad. It was also interesting because the first half was set in a world where robots were passively enslaved to humans. In the second half, like David from Spielberg’s film, Astro left the shiny, floating city for the city below where robots were hunted and were forced to participate in a battle royale sort of event. Unfortunately, that part of the picture wasn’t as strong. In fact, it was unfocused. There were times when the attention wasn’t on Astro’s journey but instead on the side characters’. The darkness of the first thirty minutes were stripped away and the tone felt very uneven. The momentum was so slow to the point where I wondered whether it ran out of creative ideas to entertain. I haven’t read the manga but I think if David Bowers, the director, made this picture with edge from beginning to end, it would have been a lot stronger and more interesting to adults. The whole bad guys versus good guys toward the end was kind of typical–something that one can easily see in other animated movies designed for children such as the disappointingly mediocre (but very cute) “Monsters vs. Aliens.” I felt like this film had an innate capacity to be more introspective than other animated flicks and it’s a shame it didn’t take advantage of that. Other notable voices included Bill Nighy, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Bell, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane and Charlize Theron. “Astro Boy” was about a boy’s identity crisis but as a film it should have had a clearer picture about what it wanted to be. However, I did have a good time watching it because it had so much energy and some of the jokes were pretty amusing. Perhaps it’s a good rental if one could use a break from a series of serious movies like I did.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Eleven years after the fantastic adventure that was “Toy Story 2,” Pixar returns with “Toy Story 3” in which Andy (voiced by John Morris) was about to head to college and had to decide what to do with his toys: put them in the attic, throw them in the trash, donate them or take them to college with him. After a series of misunderstandings, Woody (Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang–Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris, respectively), Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)–arrived in a day care center in which the toys were led by a deceptively nice teddy bear who smelled like strawberries named Lotso (Ned Beatty). Andy’s toys had to then map out their escape from the day care center and back to Andy’s home.
Despite my highest expectations, “Toy Story 3” impressed me with its creativity, intelligence, heart and bona fide sense of humor. Even though our protagonists were inanimate objects, we couldn’t help but empathize with them because, like human beings, they feared being abandoned by someone who loved them and losing their purpose. That fear manifested in often hilarious ways reflected by the distinct personalities of Andy’s eccentric but lovable toys. The flashback scenes were effective because the first two “Toy Story” films were so embedded in pop culture and in our minds that it was very difficult to cut the bond between Andy and his toys. Although there were many scenes that moved me (especially toward the end when the gang accepted their fate and Andy’s final decision about what he was going to do with his toys), the one that almost moved me to tears was when Woody desperately tried to convince his friends that they should return to Andy’s home because them ending up in the day care center was all a big misunderstanding. That particular scene got it exactly right because the loyalty that Woody had for Andy was one of the main reasons why we fell in love with the franchise in the first place. Even though fifteen years had passed since the first installment, it was nice that Pixar and its writers did not lose track of the essence of friendship, its heart, despite having better means of animation due to recent advances technology at their disposal. Ultimately, the “Toy Story” franchise was consistent in comparison to other animated film series like the “Shrek” movies because the characters often had a clear and unified goal, the jokes were bound in its own universe, the script didn’t try too hard to be amusing and it proudly wore its heart on its sleeves.
For those who haven’t seen “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2,” I believe they can still enjoy the movie because there were enough new characters to keep everything fresh. I loved the “relationship” between Barbie (Jodi Benson) and Ken (Michael Keaton) and its implications about the latter character. Another character that stood out to me was Chatter Telephone (Teddy Newton) because he talked like those detectives in the 1940s noir pictures. Extra details like him appearing in the shadows and the timing in which he was introduced was icing on the cake for me. Lastly, with the way the story ended, there was a consensus between my friends that “Toy Story 3” was sad. I disagree; the events that transpired throughout the picture celebrated the idea of renewal, growth and unconditional acceptance. It was a poignant feeling–it made me think about my childhood when my biggest problem was my toys running out of batteries, my remaining days at home before leaving for college, and my friends who have been with me despite the challenges that tested our bonds (and our tempers). Just like the epic adventures of the first “Toy Story” films, “Toy Story 3” effortlessly delivered tension, laughter, tears and warmth. If Pixar decides to make “Toy Story 4,” I’m willing to wait another ten years as long as the quality remains strong, which I’m sure will be the case.
Planet 51 (2009)
★ / ★★★★
“Planet 51” was about an astronaut (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) who landed on a planet with green people living it what it seemed like 1950s suburbia. What was neat about it was that it captured the times because an extraterrestrial paranoia was in the air–aliens were in the movies, the comic books and daily conversations. Unfortunately, this animated film, directed by Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad and Marcos Martínez, only really had one joke and it wasn’t enough to sustain its campiness, vivaciousness and cuteness until the end. It was sad because the premise had so much potential and it had so many jokes it could have pulled from. Too bad it got stuck with the whole issue involving the astronaut needing to return to his ship with the help of green creatures named Lem (Justin Long), Neera (Jessica Biel) and Skiff (Seann William Scott). While it was colorful and there were a lot of action scenes, it lacked tension and I wasn’t convinced that children (especially those who have short attention spans) would be able sit through it. After the thirty-minute mark, I was bored and I kept wishing that the writer, Joe Stillman, would inject something new to the screen other than throwing random pop culture references such as iPods, Facebook, and the macarena. I did, however, enjoy the references to alien pictures such as “War of the Worlds,” “Aliens,” “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” and the like. I thought those references and the small jokes that came with them worked because they had something to do with the universe where this animated movie was taking place. What “Planet 51” desperately needed was that sense of real danger during the action scenes to keep its audiences invested. Pixar movies, especially in “The Incredibles,” were good templates because although their movies are designed for children, they are not afraid to hint at the darkness and really put their characters in peril. In this movie, this feeling of everyone turning out to be safe at the end of the day was way too obvious. Sidequests such as the romance between Neera and Lem was a distracting appendage that didn’t really need to be there. Maybe younger children such as five- or six-year-olds might enjoy this flick but definitely not nine- or ten-year-olds. I was very disappointed because the trailer looked very promising.
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.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the children’s book by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, was a visual treat for the whole family. A scientist named Flint (voiced by Bill Hader) had many inventions that led to disasters and over time lost the respect of his community. But when he accidentally sent a machine that had the ability make food from water to the sky, it began raining all sorts of delectable food. At first the citizens of the island enjoyed the strange weather patterns, covered by a colorful reporter (Anna Faris), but the food started to get bigger as time went on, it turned into a disaster flick with food as weapons of destruction. There were times when I thought the picture was trying too hard with the jokes. The slapstick irked me especially when the target of the joke was a smart (sometimes too smart) and awkward lead character. I wish the directors had toned down the physical comedy and really played more with the double meanings of certain words, phrases and puns. A lot of kids (even younger kids) out there do understand play on words which is not common knowledge. I also thought that the movie had a chance to really bring up and tackle social issues such as world hunger and obesity. There were some images thrown in here and there but such moments were too brief. With those criticisms aside, I really did enjoy this animated film because it was creative and imaginative. The surreal images it offered such as giant rolling doughnuts threatening to squash people like bugs, pasta tornados, and palace made entirely out of jello were definitely a sight to behold. It made me think about how magical the film would have been if it was live-action. The movie’s energy level was manic, everything was colorful and there were some really good jokes on the background. I also appreciated the fact that it had a plethora of film references from other disaster movies to strange sci-fi mysteries to dramatic space adventures. Even though the movie had so many random elements, I thought it worked because there was madness happening on screen. Lastly, I thought this was the kind of film that would have benefited with a longer running time. It tried to be so many things, including a bit about father-son relationships, but none of them were fully realized. “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” was a smogasbord of colorful delights and energy that never seems to run out when it really could have used more heart.