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.
Croods, The (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 (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.
Boxtrolls, The (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 (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.
★★ / ★★★★
Just as the queen of the forest (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles) has chosen a bud that will ensure the survival of all, she is attacked by Boggans, led by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), a group of warriors who wish to create a desolate wasteland. MK (Amanda Seyfriend), a human visiting her father (Jason Sudeikis), happens to walk in the middle of the action and she is magically turned into pint-sized being. She is instructed to take care of the bud and deliver it to Nim Galuu, a caterpillar with access to sacred scrolls. Though MK gets help from some of the queen’s loyal friends, Mandrake and his army move ever closer.
Based on “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce, “Epic” is disappointing but passable, energetic but not thoroughly enjoyable. It is likely to entertain really young children but there is not much for adults who need something more than pretty colors and a few chuckle-inducing one-liners. The picture gets by most of the time but the deeper it gets into the conflict between good and evil, one cannot help but wonder who cares and how long until it is all over.
The main characters are not interesting. Initially, MK has an interesting backstory because her mother has just passed away and so a part of her hopes to reconnect with her father. However, she is not surprised that he is more into his work—proving that little people in the forest do exist—than forging a real relationship with his daughter. Meanwhile, Nod (Josh Hutcherson) is a Leaf Man who is having second thoughts about being one. His mentor, Ronin (Colin Farrel), thinks he lacks the drive and discipline to become an effective protector.
It is most awkward that the material forces MK and Nod to share a romantic connection. It simply does not make any sense—she being human and he being a creature of the forest. Taking a friendship route, helping each other recognize what they need to be able to flourish in their own worlds, might have been more effective. And given that the two of them being together is not off-putting, what they have is far from convincing. The dialogue between them is so cloying and trying too hard to be cute that I felt like I was watching a television show for pre-teens. Is their flirtation supposed to be appealing to kids?
The villains are bland as chalk. Their motivation does not make sense. They are a part of the forest as much as the good guys but they supposedly want to kill the environment. It is illogical because if they so happen to succeed, how will they be able to survive? Where will they get food, clean water, and proper shelter? Surely the screenwriters could have chosen a better motivation for the bad guys rather than just giving them a nonsensical reason to stir trouble. Even if the intention is to remain loyal to the source material, translating the work into film requires a level of complexity.
The animation is quite easy on the eyes but there is only two or three scenes that are impressive. Because the little forest creatures move so much faster than humans, the former perceive the latter in slow motion. A standout scene involves MK, Nod, and Ronin breaking into MK’s house and being found out by the three-legged dog and the enthusiastic researcher. The sequence is more visually stimulating than any of the action scenes between the Leaf Men and the Boggans combined.
Directed by Chris Wedge, “Epic” is not imaginative enough to live up to its title. Children deserve to experience something with more weight than good guys and bad guys running around. For instance, if Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s “The Lion King” were only about an evil lion who killed his younger brother to get the throne, it would not have been a classic. It is not too much to expect a bit more thought and meaning from the story being told.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
It is surprising that “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is based on a novel, “The Little Broomstick” authored by Mary Stewart, because it is neither character-driven nor does it offer a grand adventure that stretches the imagination. For the most part, it provides a tolerable experience with occasional eye-catching details, particularly magical creatures that would fit right alongside the best of Studio Ghibli works, but one yearns eventually for a more involving, emotional, or thoughtful experience, especially since part of the story unfolds in a magic school named Elder College, its existence dating back to the age of dragons.
The story begins with great potential as we come to learn about Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill) who is bored in the countryside while staying with her great aunt (Lynda Baron) because she arrived there a week early prior to the start of the new school year. No other kid appears to be around with the exception of a boy named Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) who not only teases Mary for her bushy red hair but one who is the opposite of how others perceive her to be. Peter is considered to be hardworking, responsible, and dependable.
Much of the amusement early on stems from Mary attempting to provide assistance to the adults around the estate but her good intentions almost always end up generating more problems. In a way, her own eagerness gets in her way. Because the material takes the time to show the girl’s tenacity for problem-solving and providing services, one suspects that this aspect is going to be the highlight of her adventure. One would be wrong.
The material meanders from one accident to another, whether it be taking a book of magical spells from Elder College’s headmistress (Kate Winslet) out of panic or ending up on an island that appears to be detached from the current timeline. On the surface, it provides an exuberantly lively adventure as it jumps from one setting to another, but more thoughtful viewers are certain to realize eventually that the experience is hollow and empty. As a result, Mary’s growth is most unconvincing; we do not believe by the end that she is a more mature person or someone who is more capable at controlling her emotions in order to accomplish a specific task. Comparing her evolution to Chihiro from “Spirited Away” is inaccurate, perhaps even misleading, because the latter’s evolution is thorough and compelling.
Its animation style is undeniably beautiful; I enjoyed it most when it focuses on the details of the blades of grass or how a cat moves its body as it attempts to communicate a highly specific line of thought. This is an example of a movie having the most stunning animation but the experience ending up substandard overall since the thesis of the story is not fully defined and fleshed out. Action happens simply because it must rather than building up to a climax outside of an action sequence.
Perhaps the film, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, might have been a more engrossing experience had its goals been simpler. For example, instead of taking down a pair of big-personality villains who brazenly throw ethics out the window in order to push the boundaries of their transformation experiments, why not take a more personal approach, certainly a quieter one, and allow Mary to get into situations that are specifically challenging for her, trials that push her to grow on her own terms? In the middle of the picture, I wondered why this story must be told through Mary’s perspective. The answer is it didn’t need to be.
★★★ / ★★★★
Pixar’s animation style is as beautiful as ever and “Coco” delivers the expected twists and turns as well as emotional highs and lows that have become the brand’s signature. It is interesting that this time around, however, the target audience skews away from six- to seven-year-olds and toward nine- to ten-year-olds—a correct decision because the story requires some understanding of death and what it might mean to be forgotten. In a way, Pixar takes a step toward a more mature subject. This comes at a cost.
Notice the middle section still involves chases and adventures within an unfamiliar or strange world. Upon closer inspection, these action sequences are not adrenaline-fueled with verbal and visual jokes firing on all cylinders. Also take note that these do not last more than a minute at a time. While this approach keeps us interested in the story, the picture is never becomes thrilling. Perhaps it is because this relaxed avenue is meant for us to take the in details of the land of the dead. For instance, as in life, the dead, too, have a class system. There is bureaucracy, reliance on technology, and celebrities being celebrated in gargantuan stadiums. Certainly there are amusing details to be appreciated, but the pacing takes a rather unhurried turn. This will test the patience of younger children and viewers who prefer not to think too much while watching an animated film.
I loved that Pixar takes a specific culture and treats a Mexican tradition with respect. Coming from another culture that also celebrates the dead annually, it is wonderful to see on screen the importance of such an event instead of serving merely as background of a Hollywood action film. While the plot revolves around an aspiring young musician named Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) standing up to his family of shoemakers, who just so happens to have banned all music because of a certain ancestor having committed an act of betrayal, it remains in touch with specific details such as what should be placed on the ground, and how, so spirits can find their way home during Día de Muertos, how cemeteries look like during the holiday, the overall mood of people partaking in the event. It is done well and with such class that I believe people not familiar with the concept will have a good, general understanding of what it is and why it is done.
My main criticism of the picture is its lack of characterization when it comes to the dead whose pictures are placed on the ofrenda, an altar where food, candles, religious items, and other memorabilia are placed. While we meet these characters when Miguel reaches the land of the dead, most of them are reduced to surface characteristics with one-dimensional personalities. For a film that touches upon the importance of remembering a person, presenting only his or her quirks is a mistake. Considering the talent of screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, I believe they could have found a way to incorporate these ancestors into the plot in a more meaningful and rewarding way. Perhaps providing them with more dialogue rather than quick reaction shots might have been a way to go.
“Coco,” directed by Lee Unkrich, is a step in the right direction for Pixar. It is amusing and heartfelt at all the right moments without sacrificing eye for detail. I hope that in the future the studio would remain willing to take inspiration from other cultures and tell interesting stories that could prove entertaining and educational.
Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
The parallel world of Pokémon that director Kunihiko Yuyama offers is as magical and vibrant as the anime and games, but it falls short from becoming a full-fledged picture worthy of a strong recommendation, especially toward those who may not consider themselves to be fans of the worldwide phenomenon, because the screenplay has structural problems significant enough to impede momentum, emotional depth, and catharsis. What results is a watchable quick tour of the series’ core: the importance of forging friendships, learning about one’s level of determination, and defying the odds (sometimes through sheer luck). But it is not a film that will win over new fans because it fails to offer anything particularly special.
Fan service comes hard and thick as it confidently presents opening scenes highly similar to the television show’s memorable and emotionally charged first episode. It sets a lightning fast pacing without losing track of the relationship between ten-year-old Ash Ketchum (voiced by Christa Lips) and his first Pokémon named Pikachu. Take any span of fifteen minutes and one will notice that the material manages to cover emotional highs and lows. Some may be more effective than others but at least the material avoids the doldrums of passivity that haunts TV shows receiving a chance to tell their story through film.
The animation is eye-catching particularly when various species of Pokémon appear in groups, whether it be with their trainers as they stand around in a plaza where a battle is unfolding or out in their natural habitats. The animators command control of the colors in order to highlight specific emotions. Notice which type of color is more dominant in scenes like Ash saying goodbye to Butterfree versus Ash begging Pikachu to enter his Pokéball as hordes of angry Spearow’s close in on them. There is almost always something to notice even when a shot is calm or still. It makes an active effort to involve the viewers.
But the key word is “effort.” There are occasions when filmmakers put so much effort that at times it creates most unnecessary distractions. Take the use of music as an example. During some of the more emotional moments, one can hear the crescendo of yearning through carefully orchestrated violins and pianos. Not dissimilar to unconfident movies in which score or soundtrack is utilized as a tool to pummel the audience into feeling a certain way, it is further proof that silence really is golden at times.
Perhaps most disappointing is the climax involving a mountain and the appearance of a legendary Pokemon. The battles that transpire there are loud and anticlimactic. With regards to some of its messages, I found them to be confusing. For example, the premise of Pokémon is that there is no such thing as “good” or “evil” Pokémon. Pokémon are the way they are either because of their trainers or they have experienced something in the wild that had made a lasting impression. And yet Mashadow is treated as if it were evil, more or less, the screenplay failing to offer specific details so that we understand its motivations.
There is one excellent sequence in “Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!” which involves Ash inhabiting a world without these trainable pocket monsters. As our protagonist stands on the top floor of his ordinary school, overlooking a vast environment, his universe feels empty somehow. Because Pokemon do not exist, ten-year-olds are left wondering in their ordinary lives what’s possibly out there in the world instead of actually discovering for themselves.
I found this to be such a moving and strong statement about the Pokémon series in general. I have been a huge fan since my father bought Pokemon Blue for me to play on my Gameboy that it is almost unthinkable for me to imagine an alternate reality without these lovable creatures. I think that if this film had taken inspiration from this idea, a must-see movie for fans and non-fans alike might have resulted.
Umi ga kikoeru (1993)
★★★ / ★★★★
The plot of the picture could have easily set the template for yet another typical romance between teenagers on the verge of adulthood, but “Ocean Waves,” based on the novel by Saeko Himuro, aspires to say something beyond love at first sight or romantic love. Instead, the material turns attention on events that unfold within and around the characters’ lives which then force them to undergo changes—even if, or especially when, they aren’t for ready these changes. The source of the story’s drama is so rooted in reality that this could have been made into a live-action film. But because the choice of medium is animation, it is elevated toward timelessness.
Notice that for the film’s entire duration, there is no sudden proclamation of love, no speech made in a public place, not one rose is handed out—not even cheap, bad-tasting chocolates because supposedly it’s the thought that counts. This is because the screenplay by Keiko Niwa had something else on its brain: how to make these animated characters feel as real as possible even though they are made up of lines and colors. The magic is in showing how an actual person might behave when confronted by her peers, when expectations do not meet reality, when he realizes that a male friend is more than “friend material” but a potential lifelong partner, a comrade, especially when life gets tough.
The push and pull of various challenges the characters face lead to unexpected solutions, at times lack thereof. More interesting is the latter circumstance. For instance, we get to a point in which we wonder whether a relationship can be mended. Suddenly the narration can be heard and the next scene denotes a passage of time. I admired that the film captures friendship, how fragile it really is even if for a time it feels unbreakable. The next thing you know, a year or two had passed since you’ve been on speaking terms and you’ve both grown, aware that what was can never be again.
There is something about Japanese animation that I find to be particularly brave. I know with certainty that there are certain subjects mainstream American animation will not dare mention, let alone touch. Here, characters are able to bring up that they are menstruating that day and that might explain the moodiness or that they are jealous of their best friend because he or she seems to have a better relationship with the opposite sex. These small, sometimes surprising, admissions or confessions add up and when the viewer looks back on the entire experience, these elements are loyal to the material’s overarching themes. They are not there simply for shock value or because it’s “daring.”
Also known as “I Can Hear the Sea,” “Umi ga kikoeru,” directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, features beautiful and highly expressive old-fashioned animation, and the material aims to respect young adults—its target audience—by consistently being true to what thoughtful teenagers care about when one belongs in that age group. It doesn’t manipulate the audience with plot points; the approach is gentle, honest, and understated. It inspires contemplation.
Ma vie de Courgette (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Claude Barras’ stop-motion animation “My Life as a Zucchini” manages to accomplish more in its breezy seventy-minute running time than most other pictures, animated or otherwise, with twice the amount of time to tell their stories. And despite its chosen medium, nearly every character comes across so human that we do not feel ready to leave them even though we know in our minds and hearts that it is time. I wish to know how these nine- and ten-year-old orphans would be like as teenagers, as young adults, and as grown individuals who’ve lived.
From its opening sequence, perceptive viewers will recognize that what is in store for us is no ordinary film for children. No, I’m not referring to the wicked sense of humor involving an accidental death. I refer to how, within a scope of seconds, we absorb, quite readily, the details of the Zucchini’s (voiced by Gaspard Schlatter) room, how his drawings look like they could be art of actual kids, the manner in how he handles and plays with his toys, how he turns objects that are not toys into playthings that could be a source of fun. Clearly, we are in the hands of capable, imaginative, and intelligent filmmakers. They understand how a child’s mind works and so they allow us to experience how a child may process the world. It is a deeply humanistic picture.
The conflict is deceptively minimal. One may call it a slice-of-life animated film and that person will not be wrong. We observe the orphans’ every day in the orphanage, how they relate to one another, to adults who work there, and those who visit. They talk about what’s important to them, their dreams, their hopes for the future, what friendship means to them. Sometimes they get into silly fights and other times they show surprising amount of maturity.
It is beautiful how each character is written. For example, I loved how Simon (Paulin Jaccoud) gives us the impression that he is going to be the archetypal bully but, within a few minutes, layers are added onto him—a delightful surprise because it is standard that either this type of character is given no dimension at all or he is given some heart, usually saccharine-flavored—halfway through or at the end of the picture. Credit to the screenwriters—Céline Sciamma, Claude Barras, Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro—for creating human characters that we can all relate with.
I can stare at its style of animation for ages because there is so much to appreciate. Notice how a character being solemn is not just expressed through silence but also in the way the eyelid falls just a little bit, one’s posture when sitting down, how the camera shows us the back of a character’s head and we are left to imagine its subject’s facial expressions. Details can be found in the orphans rooms, the articles of clothing they wear, how they sport their hair. So much effort is put into this project inside and out.
“Ma vie de Courgette,” based on the novel by Gilles Paris, is clearly cream of the crop and it deserves to be seen by many, across a spectrum of ages and level of maturity, because of its subtle lessons about empathy. In our current world where it is so easy to fear others, this film inspires us to talk to the person next to us and discover where they’re coming from, where they hope to go, and how they intend to get there.
Tortue rouge, La (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Perhaps the most beautiful element of “The Red Turtle,” directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit, is its lack of dialogue. Because there are no words, we rely on the images to formulate an interpretation and build upon it. Combined with our own cultural backgrounds and unique life experiences, I would interpret this film differently than, say, a person next to me, or someone else who lives on another continent. And yet the picture, miraculously, is universal because it tells the story of life itself. Sure, the premise involves a man who finds himself stuck on an island, but it proves to be so much more than a familiar template. This is a picture that will stand the test of time.
The opening minutes is a gargantuan curiosity. We wonder about the identity of the nameless man—from his age, where he’s from, to the circumstances surrounding how he ended up on the island. Why is it that each time he builds a raft and attempts to sail it across the ocean, the giant red turtle smashes it to smithereens? Why doesn’t his strategy change after facing one failure after another? It is always the same raft, made of the same materials, using the same path to the water. Why does that particular path matter so much despite the fact that all around the island there is only endless water? What are the writers, Michaël Dudok de Wit and Pascale Ferran, telling us about our protagonist? The material does not hold our hands.
Some are likely to dismiss the animation. It doesn’t look particularly realistic, heightened, or computerized in any way. The style of animation is unlike what animated movies offer these days. But that is exactly what I loved about it; the style, instead, matches the type of story being told, the mood, the energy, the feelings it invokes. It is like looking at a painting that just so happens to move. When you look at a painting—really look at a painting—it makes you feel or think about beyond what’s on the artwork. The animation here captures that idea perfectly.
While watching the film, I was caught off-guard in that I began to think about my parents. Specifically, the sacrifices they’ve made for me so that I could be where I am today. Through the nameless character, I wondered about my mother and father’s goals—as a couple and as individuals—and how they’ve decided, both wittingly and unwittingly, to set aside such goals to make room for someone else in their life as a unit. The picture offers such beautiful statements about how life just is. The messages are there should one is willing to take the time to feel and think about it. It is most appropriate that the material employs a deliberately unhurried pacing, to make room for daydream.
“La tortue rouge” embraces silence and meditation. Instead of words, we hear the sound of the waves, the cawing of the birds, the dancing of the trees. It made me want to go outside to touch plants, pick up rocks and discover what’s underneath them, breathe the air deeply, appreciate what’s around me. I wish more movies were like this.
Kimi no na wa (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a picture that takes the silly concept of “Freaky Friday”—two people waking up in one another’s bodies and hilarity ensues—and injects intelligence, creativity, and heart in what could have been stale, predictable material. Halfway through, I was convinced that writer-director Makoto Shinkai, the film based on his own novel, has created a work that will be remembered fondly decades from now because it presents thoughts and emotions that come across as genuine in a situation that requires a leap of imagination.
Notice how “Your Name.” takes its time to firmly establish the first act because the writer-director is aware that exposition and rising action must be as convincing and as enveloping as possible if the audience were to believe the eventual revelations and turn of events. For the most part, it involves day-to-day activities of Taki (voiced by Ryûnosuke Kamiki) and Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi), high school students who live in the busy-buzzing Tokyo and the peaceful village of Itomori, respectively. A few random days a week, the boy wakes up in the girl’s body, vice-versa, and the catch is once they eventually wake up in their own bodies, neither of them remembers what he or she has done during the switch. They believe this phenomenon is triggered by a comet that passes Earth every 1,200 years.
The animation is stunningly beautiful, life-like in the way it showcases every detail. The background is as alive as the foreground and that is exciting, almost begging to be seen multiple times in order for the work to be fully appreciated as a visual experience. For instance, pay attention to how the animation captures femininity when the girl wakes up in the boy’s body. If this were made in America or any other western country, very likely it would have been played only for cheap laughs, simplified, one-dimensional. Perhaps the emphasis would have been on the overall situation rather than a specific experience.
Here, the details are subtle: the angling of the arms relative to the wrists, how a character expresses awkwardness and embarrassment, how clothes are carried, one’s comportment. It’s almost like watching an actual actor performing. Meanwhile, it takes a couple of seconds in between events to show the open sky glittered with stars, the pensive body of water in a bowl of land, birds in search of food, vendors on the streets, trains slithering their way through tracks. Compare this to animation released in the Americas where many of them do not bother to spend even a second to let the material breathe, for the images to sink into our minds. There is poetry here that great animated films possess.
But the film, for me, feels somewhat rushed, almost incomplete. Once a critical information halfway through is revealed, the material becomes more complex, labyrinthine in its ambition especially since it deals with memory, time, and Japanese legends. I felt I needed more time to absorb and understand the intricate details of assumed rules. Perhaps if the film had been thirty minutes or even an hour longer, a steadier rhythm could have paved the way for in-depth understanding of the story’s universe. Still, I enjoyed the fact that I felt the need to catch up to it rather than me waiting when or if the picture would catch up to me.
Expect “Kimi no na wa” to receive a live-action, westernized version some time in the near future, possibly lead by a writer and/or director who does not fully grasp what makes this picture special. No, the story is not what makes the film stand out. I imagine that the subtler details mentioned above would be lost entirely. Details are what makes this story perfectly told through the medium of animation. Turning it into a live-action, ironically, would likely make it less life-like.
Angry Birds Movie, The (2016)
★ / ★★★★
In its desperate and intolerable attempt to appeal to as many people as possible, “The Angry Birds Movie” ends up becoming just another forgettable animated picture that is supposed to be entertaining solely because the birds look cute, the computer animation is consistently colorful, and the so-called jokes—which rarely land or do not even bother to have a punchline—are based on popular culture. Look closely and realize that what we have here is not bottom-of-the-barrel material. Rather, it offers rotten, ugly, insulting underneath-the-barrel detritus masquerading as an innocuous animated flick. Worse, it is targeted for children. Warning: They will lose brain cells.
The first hour drags because the screenplay by Jon Vitti lacks a sense of urgency. Countless times we are shown Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) exhibiting a short temper and prone to having fits of rage, but the emotion is not given complexity. As a result, each encounter Red has, even though it is with different characters, tends to deliver the same result. It is boring, uninspired, and one gets the feeling that those involved in writing and helming the script do not have grand imaginations or even exciting inspirations.
The voice cast offers nothing spectacular. Since the material is so bland, they all begin to sound the same eventually. The talents of Peter Dinklage, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Sean Penn are wasted for the most part. A standout, however, is Josh Gad, giving life to Chuck, the bird with a gift for speed. Although the character is almost always turned up to eleven, I enjoyed the way Gad is able to tap into different kinds and levels of excitement. His talent rises well above material that is essentially a waste of energy and time. I hope he was paid handsomely.
Perhaps the lowest point of the picture is what could have been the most compelling had intelligent, clever, humanistic writers were at the helm. It involves Red, along with Chuck and Bomb (Danny McBride), discovering that the figure that he and fellow flightless birds in the island looked up to as children, the Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage), is just another flawed, disappointing bird who had let himself go. There is a line in the script that is merely thrown away when it should have had genuine, powerful emotional impact. It involves the eagle being the only bird on the island that is able to fly but actually chooses not to.
So who is the “Angry Birds” for? It is not for children, despite it being superficially lively and colorful, because it does not challenge them intellectually or emotionally. On the contrary, one can construct an argument that it teaches them to fear the Other, given that the pigs are from another land and they only befriend the birds so they can steal and eat their eggs. But that aside, is it for adults? No, it is not because the entertainment value is so low, one would have to scrape the floor for morsels.
This film is for the movie studios simply wishing to capitalize on a brand. While the games are entertaining and require a bit of thinking in order to solve the puzzles, the movie is the exact opposite: stultifying in its dullness, stench, mediocrity, and lack of innovation. If you dare to turn an app into a full feature film, there better a good reason. The material here offers none.