Tag: animation

Missing Link


Missing Link (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Laika’s latest outing “Missing Link” has nearly all the elements to make a wonderful adventure film for the whole family. Technically, it is a marvel. As a whole, however, the picture is a disappointment because it fails to grab the viewers on an emotional, gut level. It is strange because the story’s theme is belongingness. We follow two outcasts—an explorer and a mythical beast who are strangers initially—who travel across the globe with the goal of finding a place or group of likeminded individuals who will accept them for who they are. The story’s trajectory is familiar and so the details that compose of that path must be special in order for the work to stand out from its contemporaries—animated film or otherwise.

I enjoyed the film for its seemingly insignificant details. Notice when a character is recalling either a painful or cherished memory, the listener, human or non-human, reacts—a small smile, for instance, that forms suddenly from a neutral expression or how one’s head tilts at a precise moment of surprise or concern which confirms that he or she is indeed interested in what is being shared. These animated figures are made to embody the body language of actual people and so it does not at all require effort to relate to the characters’ personalities, motivations, purpose, or hopes for the future.

More generic animated movies are more concerned about delivering kaleidoscopic colors and busy action. While the film, written and directed by Chris Butler, delivers on those fronts—perhaps most impressive a scene where our protagonists are being hunted by a bounty hunter aboard a ship that undergoes various acrobatics due to a storm—colors and action almost always have clear context behind them. Sure, there are silly pun-filled jokes, but remove such one-liners altogether and meat remains on screen. In other words, the filmmakers are not simply interested in providing sensory, shallow entertainment. It enjoys getting us to think or consider once a while and that is invaluable.

The voice work by Hugh Jackman, as the British explorer Sir Lionel Frost who specializes in providing proof of mythical creatures’ existence, and Zach Galifianakis, as a Sasquatch capable of speaking English despite living in isolation out in the wilderness, is top-notch. In the middle of the movie, I became convinced that the two must have provided their lines in the same room, facing each other. Emotions behind the words command force, jokes land more often than not—which requires precise delivery especially when the point is to underline culture clash, and a convincing sense of camaraderie gets stronger as the work moves forward. If the voice actors actually recorded at different times, I would be even more impressed.

But the work did not move me emotionally—at least not on the level the screenwriter intended to move the viewer. I think it is due to a character I found to be completely unnecessary. Ms. Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), Sir Frost’s romantic interest, appears to be around only to deliver sassy comments and explain or highlight the life lessons that Sir Frost and Mr. Link (the Sasquatch) are supposed to be learning about themselves. By vocalizing the insights that should naturally come about throughout the duo’s journey, it cheapens the material. On this level, it assumes that viewers—especially children—are lacking self-awareness, a critical miscalculation that leaves a sour lasting impression.

A Letter to Momo


A Letter to Momo (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Momo (voiced by Amanda Pace) and her mother, Ikuko (Stephanie Sheh), move from Tokyo to Shio Island to try to grasp at a life of normalcy after a tragic death in their family. Momo is not keen on the idea of being an “island girl” but her mother insists that she tries because Shio Island is their new home.

While Ikuko is away, Momo, to her horror, discovers three goblins living in her attic—creatures from Above assigned to protect the mother and daughter for a given amount of time. These goblins (Fred Tatasciore, Dana Snyder, Bob Bergen), however, don’t know a thing about what it means to be good guardians and consistently put their stomachs ahead of the girl’s safety.

Based on the screenplay and directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, “A Letter to Momo” boasts beautiful hand-drawn animation which is most appropriate because life in Shio Island appears to be simple and down-to-earth. What prevents it from becoming a great movie is its inappropriate insistence on injecting supernatural elements when the story requires that it focus on the personal and emotional challenges the mother and daughter are going through. It gives the impression that the magical elements are purely there to capture the audience’s attention while failing to engage fully.

The animation takes its time to show details of a lifestyle in a particular place. I caught myself fascinated with the kinds of faces and body types of people who live on the island. My eyes looked for the kinds of work people do to make a living. Are they smiling, frowning, or indifferent? I evaluated the age groups walking in the streets, the types of clothes they wear, and wondered if they liked living on an island.

Although the film has the kind of score that tugs at the heartstrings, it knows when to employ silence to highlight certain conversations that may sound ordinary to us but are important for the characters. Communication, or lack thereof, between mother and daughter is one of the themes of the material and it is appropriate that the filmmakers know how to control dialogue and music in order to prevent the material from becoming overbearing or forced.

But more than half of the picture involves the three goblins. For the lack of a better description, I found them to be annoying. They need not be cute—they are mythical creatures typically feared, after all—but never do we feel like they care or have grown to care for the shy eleven-year-old who deeply regrets her final words to her father. There are scenes that show her wanting to be comforted by these creatures but they do not connect with human emotions. Some will undoubtedly enjoy this element but it did not work for me.

If these mythical creatures are there to serve a purpose, it is for comic relief. At times I was amused by their blind cravings to eat whatever food is available within the vicinity. They like to steal fruits and vegetables but are also willing to steal baby hogs. Strictly based on comedic effect, Iwa, Kawa, and Mame, are necessary characters. However, the dramatic elements which directly involve them do not work. Since they cannot relate to human emotions, we, too, cannot relate to how they think, act, or feel—at least not completely. The disconnect is staggering at times because the script demands that we come to love them.

“Momo e no tatami” is technically beautiful but there is not much to it in terms of emotions and circumstances that come across completely genuine. I tolerated the goblins’ antics but they distract from the core of the film: a girl who has a very difficult time relating with others because she remains in deep regret and mourning.

Ice Age: Continental Drift


Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

In his never-ending quest to secure the perfect acorn, Scrat (voiced by Chris Wedge in the cutest grunts and various expressions of surprise) manages to fall into the Earth’s core and accidentally triggers extremely fast tectonic shifts that eventually leads to the formation of the seven continents. The sudden movement of land masses separates Manny (Ray Romano) from his family, Ellie (Queen Latifah) and Peaches (Keke Palmer), and the only way for them to reunite is to catch a specific current. However, the mission is made more difficult when Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), a power-hungry ape, and his motley crew seize Manny and his friends to try to force them to join piracy.

Based on the screenplay by Michael Berg and Jason Fuchs, credit must be given to “Ice Age: Continental Drift” for still trying to be creative with its images and dialogue despite being the fourth film of the series. It provides a fun, harmless adventure for children and kids-at-heart who like to watch extinct animals interact and get into all sorts of trouble.

The picture balances slapstick humor with lines of dialogue propelled by great delivery. Although the characters we are more familiar with do not break any new ground, so to speak, the new ones are welcome additions because each has a distinct personality coupled with jokes specific to their species and why they did not survive over time such as anatomical structures that simply do not match the changing environment. The voices behind the animation are present and excited even if they are playing a villain. There is often a danger of being one-note from wanting to be taken seriously. Instead, there is an equal mix of menace and joy so it is enjoyable to hear all of the characters speak.

The images grab our attention especially during its action sequences. As an alternative from showing us a pirate vessel that we come to expect, Captain Gutt’s ship is a huge chunk of ice. It looks sturdier than a typical ship with rotting insides, masts, and sails. Meanwhile, the battle scenes between the good guys and bad guys are allowed to unfold with feverish energy. I highly enjoyed looking at the weapons utilized by the pirates. For example, since they are pirates, most of us expect them to use arrows and swords. They do not. When the weapons make contact with wood or ice, the camera lingers for a second at what has just been thrown or swung and we are reminded of how much our brains rely on archetypes.

What works less effectively is Peaches’ struggle to be accepted by a crew of mammoths, one of which is her crush. The lesson about friendship and staying true to oneself are not only preachy, they lack any special dramatic gravity because such scenes are inconveniently inserted between Manny and the pirates. When it comes to the pirates, Shira (Jennifer Lopez), a sabertooth, is predictably played as the eventual romantic interest of Diego (Denis Leary). Their subplot traverses similar elements from the first film about belonging to a pack versus a herd. Whenever Peaches and Shira are front and center, the story feels slow and the immediacy of the action is lessened, respectively.

It is easy to feel cynical toward “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” directed by Steve Martino and Mike Thurmeier, because one might think a fourth entry is tantamount to cashing in. On the contrary, the images are more alive than ever even though select aspects of its story could have been sharpened or given more originality.

The Croods


The Croods (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

The Croods is a family of survivors. As a unit, they have managed to avoid getting trampled on, eaten, poisoned, or falling to their deaths. Having an intact family is a great feat considering what had happened to their previous cavemen neighbors.

However, times are changing. Tectonic plates are on the move yet the patriarch, Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), insists that they continue hiding in a cave. After all, staying away from danger has worked in the past. But when Grug’s curious daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), meets Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a young man who has advance knowledge, like how to make fire, her new friend just might be the key to prevent their extinction.

“The Croods,” directed and based on the screenplay by Kirk De Micco and Chris Sanders, surprised me because although I expected to be entertained, I did not anticipate to be moved. An early scene shows how the family hunts for food through an energetic and beautifully animated chase sequence involving an egg. When such an approach is utilized, something in the back of my brain begins to have a sneaky suspicion that the material starts on a high note because once the dust settles, the screenplay will drag. This is a happy exception.

It has a bona fide sense of humor—appropriate for children, adults, and kid-at-heart. A few of the jokes might sound a bit corny in retrospect but they do not upon delivery. But one of the main reasons why it can be enjoyed on another layer is because we get a sense of what it is like for the Croods to be a family. They do not always get along, especially the father and daughter, because, though some of them may not be aware of it, their life is slowly rotting from the inside out due to a constant fear of getting hurt or something not going exactly as planned.

Grug’s motto is “Never not be afraid.” One of the best scenes involves Grug being put into a situation where he has no choice but to move forward and take a risk. The writer-directors do a good job just showing us an image of his helplessness. There is no need to use words because we see that he is crippled by a fear he—for the most part—has created for himself. With most animated movies, filmmakers tend to think it is necessary to explain the significance of the scene that just came before. I appreciated that this one avoids that cliché.

As previously mentioned, the animation has a pleasing aesthetic. Because it has so much going on at once, it makes the eyes dance. Admittedly, I have a weakness for strange-looking creatures—animated or otherwise. Most of the creatures found here are not based on actual extinct living things but I enjoyed admiring them nonetheless. One cannot help but notice, for example, the texture of a feline’s fur, how a carnivorous flower undulates in a non-threatening manner just before the kill, or the manner by which an animal is at times given human-like emotions or responses through their eyes.

“The Croods” provides an alternative. Instead of being about the importance of friendship or being true to ourselves, it turns its attention on why it is necessary that we take a risk sometimes so that we can get somewhere we want to be—and hopefully one that is worth it. Though it does not delve too deeply within that subject matter, at least it traverses a less traveled avenue.

Toy Story 4


Toy Story 4 (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Pixar proves yet again that they understand their audience. Sure, the computer animation is more spectacular than ever. No detail is considered as too small or insignificant even during a most exciting chase or action sequence. The score is consistently on point: carefully calibrated depending on specific emotions being conveyed at a particular moment. But when it all comes down to it, notice that the standout works from this superlative studio are those that possess the most humanity; the medium just so happens to be animation. And “Toy Story 4,” written by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton, is one of Pixar’s most entertaining works, a welcome installment to an illustrious series.

The screenwriters make the intelligent choice not to tell just another adventure story that unfolds throughout a road trip. Instead, it focuses on an existential note that harkens all the way back to the original “Toy Story”: what happens when a toy is no longer needed, or wanted, by its owner? (What happens when parents recognize that their children no longer needs them?) College-bound Andy handed over Woody (voiced by the inimitable Tom Hanks) and the rest of the gang to Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) at the end of the previous film and this next chapter proves interested in exploring—not just showing—what happens next. The masterstroke, I think, is that although the gang has found another home, not all of them feels at home. This is when the drama comes in.

Respect is given to longtime fans by not showing a strong bond between Bonnie and Woody. Although Bonnie’s name is written on the underside of Woody’s boots, we all know his heart will forever belong to Andy. This can be a complicated concept, both for young children and those who are new to the series, but I admired that the writing is sharp and patient enough to provide morsels of how important it is for every toy—not just Woody—to find a place where they feel like they are loved. And these universal examples are applied to the cowboy character’s psychology. It is clear that the writing strives to provide more than just surface entertainment. It is so refreshing given the poor caliber of animated movies aimed at children that release annually.

But what about those who are interested in surface entertainment? (There is nothing wrong with that.) Well, the movie has that covered, too. Its type of humor will appeal to the young, old, and everyone in between. The reason is because most jokes are kid-at-heart. They are creative and often delivered with such vivacity that even when an attempt at humor is not that funny, you find yourself laughing anyway. It is a movie filled to the brim with smiles.

There is not one joke involving poop, fart, or pee but there are jokes about body parts of specific toys—how they react, for example, after seeing another toy with a similar body composition having been cut in half. We get the impression that the filmmakers had put in the time to observe each character’s physicality and find ways to make us laugh out loud—or giggle at the very least. Notice that many jokes presented here cannot be used in other generic animated movies. Conversely, jokes involving bodily functions are all the same when used in said films. It goes to show that specificity goes a long way.

“Toy Story 4,” directed by Josh Cooley, provides a most joyous and emotional experience—a wonderful summer movie when children are out of school and have all the time in the world to play with their toys, to pretend like cowboys, princesses, monsters, gooey invaders from another planet. And for those of us who are grown, well, for about a hundred minutes the picture makes us feel like we are kids again. That’s indispensable.

The Boxtrolls


The Boxtrolls (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Right after the kidnapping of the Trubshaw baby, the leader of Cheesebridge, Lord Portley-Rind (voiced by Jared Harris), makes a deal with a social-climbing exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), to rid the town of the so-called boxtrolls, pests who come out of hiding from underground to steal trash, valuables, and other knickknacks. As a reward, Snatcher would receive a white hat—a symbol of privilege, prestige, and position—as well as the most delectable types of cheese, strictly reserved for the upperclass. The hunt for the boxtrolls is seemingly coming to a close a decade after the baby was taken from his father.

“The Boxtrolls,” based on “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow, is an entertaining animated picture that is willing to take risks. Be warned, however, that it is not for all children because the characters are not what one might consider to be typically pretty or cute or beautiful. This is exactly the reason why I enjoyed it: We are asked to look beyond the grotesque faces—whether the character is a human or a troll—and consider the story for what it is or what it aspires to be. There are claims that the material makes more than a handful of references to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. There is evidence behind these claims, but it does not mean that it cannot be enjoyed purely as a movie about a boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) who grew up around trolls.

The villain is surprisingly effective. Although what Snatcher does is evil, there are a few instances where the screenplay allows us to feel his pain and so we come to understand what drives his actions. One of the most memorable scenes involves the character eating cheese in front of his henchmen (Nick Frost, Richard Ayaoade, Tracy Morgan) despite the fact that he is extremely allergic to it. His desperation to belong in a world that does not want him is communicated via grotesque humor of body parts swelling up. I loved that the scene takes its time to unfold, almost on a Hitchcock-ian level of patience.

A bit of development between Eggs and Winnie (Elle Fanning), Lord Portley-Rind’s daughter, might have improved the picture. We appreciate that they share a partnership because they aim toward a common goal eventually, but we never get the sense that they become friends over the course of the story. I did, however, enjoy that Winnie is so fascinated by the idea of blood and guts given that she grew up around horror stories involving boxtrolls and what they supposedly do to children. It is a welcome change from young female animated characters who wear pretty clothes and yearning for a boy or man to regale her.

Snatcher’s henchman, too, do have distinct, memorable personalities. Usually, henchmen are only supposed to do what they are told. Here, they have a few self-aware lines about the duality of good and evil, whether their actions can still be considered to be heroic. Although their work starts off with the premise of saving the townsfolk, especially infants and children, from being taken by the creatures in the sewers, over time they realize that maybe the trolls they are hunting are not so bad, that maybe these creatures are simply misunderstood.

Directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, “The Boxtrolls” is unusual and proud of it. I admired that the writers, Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, and filmmakers choose not to compromise their vision in order to create a more mainstream, typically sweet and pretty animated film. I hope the stop-motion animation studio Laika keeps making movies like this—an alternative choice from Disney and Pixar efforts both in look and feel of their wonderful works.

Isle of Dogs


Isle of Dogs (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

As a visual exercise, it cannot be denied that “Isle of Dogs” excels. Its stop-motion animation is a dream to observe even without sound, the dogs are aww-shucks adorable (even the ones that bite), images unique to Japanese culture inspire curiosity, and there is courage in employing different styles of animation when, for example, we are watching something through a television or looking into someone’s memory. And yet, like a typical Wes Anderson film, the technical excellence is unable to overshadow the fact that it left me cold emotionally. While not an intolerable experience, I was not invested in its core story.

The picture is supposed to be a love letter to dogs, why dogs are a man’s best friend. In a world where all dogs are exiled to a place called Trash Island after an outbreak of canine flu, it is bizarre that the material offers minimal emotion. Dogs and people shed tears during would-be moving situations but instead we end up studying how the tears look rather than actually feeling the moment. This cerebral approach might have worked given a sharper a screenplay with something important to say about humans’ relationship not just with domesticated dogs but all animals that we must share the planet with. The elements are there: bureaucracy, the media, politics, science, and rebellion. But they are not put together in a way that tells a grander story of why there is a natural bond between man and dog.

The voice cast is impeccable. Particularly enjoyable are the dogs that Atari (voiced by Koyu Rankin) meets when he crash-lands his plane onto Trash Island in the attempt to locate and rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). It is led by Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray dog who does not trust humans. Cranston plays the role not as a voice but as a consciousness, so to speak. I felt he really embodies the sadness and loneliness of a dog who survived in the streets following a tragic incident with his former owners. Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum round up the ragtag team who end up aiding in the boy’s mission.

Most distracting is a near pointless subplot involving a girl from Ohio named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) who is compelled to expose Mayor Kobayashi’s devious plan (Kunichi Nomura) in order to get re-elected. I found the girl’s look to be odd and unpleasant. Perhaps the point is for the American exchange student from Ohio to stand out visually, but I felt her extreme look neither fits nor complements her surroundings. Her headstrong personality matches her extreme looks, but nearly every time the attention is on her and away from the dogs, the material verges on boredom. This character is classic Anderson: it must exist simply because it is quirky without necessarily being of service to the story. Take away Tracy’s scenes and recognize we can get to the same destination.

I give credit to the writer-director for creating a work that I know he is happy with. Sometimes you just feel that a filmmaker loves his project, and I feel it is the case here. Visually, there are hundreds of details worth putting a magnifying glass over, studying, and appreciating. Many filmmakers of poorer caliber settle for skeletal details—even within the realm of animation. For me, however, I require another level of quality. In this case, it is the emotional kind because the point is to tell a story of man’s relationship with dogs. Predictably, because I am familiar with Anderson’s oeuvre, it is most frustrating that his latest work is so unfeeling still.