Tag: animation

The Addams Family


The Addams Family (2019)
★ / ★★★★

This adaptation of “The Addams Family” is dead in the water. Clearly lacking imagination, surprises, and energy, it appears that screenwriters Matt Lieberman and Pamela Pettler have little to no understanding of what makes the Addams special. (I’m not convinced they were aware that the source material was meant to be a satire because this movie seems reluctant to take risks.) Yes, every member of the clan is in fact a caricature, but each person is not given a brand of humor or even (a black) heart. Instead, the movie relies on puns throughout its entire ninety-minute duration and it is stuck regurgitating one expository sequence after another. Content-wise it is boring and so are its visuals.

The animation is truly ugly to look at—like some cheap knockoff Dreamworks animation. Take note of the Addams mansion: it looks just like any other abandoned haunted house in a generic animated film. Cue the dark clouds and thunderstorms. It is supposed to be big, palatial even, but we see no more than five rooms. And in each room there is nothing especially memorable—not one macabre figure or creepy painting. Instead, the film busies itself with delivering unfunny visuals that it forgets to establish a believable atmosphere.

Not even the character designs are inspired. You look at Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) or Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) and see animated models wearing clothes. Their eyes, postures, or the way they move command no personality. When in action—like Wednesday being whisked away by a tree branch or Pugsley maniacally throwing explosives at his father—observe how their expressions are devoid of even the slightest changes. It’s like watching mannequins… only mannequins appear to look creepier the longer one stares at them. These models look like first drafts that require further revisions in order to become alluring in a darkly comic way. I don’t think children would find the characters enticing in the least.

Its plot is also forgettable: Reality TV host Margaux Needler (voiced by Allison Janney) wishes to sell houses, but since the Addams mansion is such an eyesore (she prefers bright colors like pink and yellow), she takes it upon herself to remodel their gothic home free of charge. In order to be liked by their neighbors, Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) welcome the obnoxious homemaking guru into their home. In a nutshell, the movie attempts to impart lessons regarding acceptance—that it is all right to be weird or different. But it comes off as trite and disingenuous because the material fails to show examples of why negative stereotypes or prejudice can be harmful or flat out wrong. The movie offers not one heartfelt scene. It is because it possesses no emotional intelligence.

I think films like “The Addams Family,” directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, should not be shown to children because it has no entertainment value, just emptiness and noise in order to pass the time. Here is a strange family ostracized by their community. And the Addams are also guilty of self-isolation. Why not explore these ideas in meaningful ways? Aren’t the writers adults capable of complex thinking? Instead, the material inspires its viewers to watch passively. The bar for animated pictures has been raised considerably over the past two decades and what this work offers is simply not good enough.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World


How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite all the dragons, the Vikings, massive ships, and stealth rescue missions gone wrong, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” written and directed by Dean DeBlois, excels during wordless moments when entertainment is created only through stunning animation and carefully crafted music. These instances, like a dragon courting another or longtime friends coming to terms with the inevitable, are beautiful and moving, appealing to both children and adults who appreciate storytelling more than empty and busy action. Although a third installment in a trilogy, the film is not bereft of introducing ways to dazzle.

This time, the central conflict revolves around Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) learning to become an effective leader of a community of Vikings who have grown reliant on dragons—so reliant that their island has gotten overcrowded. Due to the minute details of animation, we recognize that something has got to give from the moment we lay eyes on their island home of Berk. It is admirable that the answer to the main question is not simply moving to bigger, newer lands offering fresh resources. The screenplay offers long-term solutions both in terms of the needs of humans and dragons. As a result, there is finality to the story and it feels right.

Moving on with life is a recurring theme and it is executed with wonderful perspicuity. I think most important is the fact that the material assumes children are smart. For instance, when Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon companion, comes across a female dragon of the same species, their connection is not reduced to a silly love story or romance. Sure, there are cute moments which involve Toothless’ many attempts to impress the white dragon (with whom Astrid, Hiccup’s betrothed, voiced by America Ferrera, refers to as “Light Fury”), but the point is to generate laughter and to communicate a creature’s sheer joy for having discovered he is not the only one in the world of his kind, rather than to simply introduce a limp romance that merely functions as padding to the story.

Observe closely during these sequences. It is stunning how much range of emotions is communicated through the dragons’ eyes, their body language, how fast or slowly they move, how their nostrils flare at moments of surprise or curiosity, how their limbs relax when they hover the air. One could watch Toothless and Light Fury on mute and yet not much would be taken out of the experience. It is that effective in delivering precise thoughts and emotions. It is here that it becomes readily apparent the film is superior than most animated movies, especially those that rely too much on noise and color to create junk entertainment.

The villain is formidable. Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) is a dragon hunter who takes pride in killing dragons, especially Night Furies. He does not hate these creatures, but he enjoys playing games with them before going for the kill. On more than one occasion, the character is shown to be intelligent, always one step ahead, and experienced in the art of the hunt. However, the final confrontation with Grimmel lacks a certain level of catharsis. For such a detestable character, it would have been preferred if Grimmel had gotten his comeuppance. At the same time, however, an argument can be made that taking on a more expected approach surrounding heroes and villains might have lessened the point that the story is trying to make. It is not about good versus evil.

Mirai


Mirai (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

“Mirai” proves to be the kind of picture that sneaks up on you. Its plot did not impress or surprise me in any way: A four-year-old (voiced by Jaden Waldman) is unhappy with the fact that his parents (John Cho, Rebecca Hall) must now divide their attention between him and his newborn sister. It is a template from hundreds of movies aimed at or for children; during the first twenty minutes or so, I questioned whether the material would be daring enough to veer off into a different, unexpected, or more interesting direction. Somehow, almost miraculously, it did—not just in one direction but many. The work is written and directed by Mamoru Hosoda with insight, empathy, and perspicuity. Here is an example of a story with a simple plot but the depth of what it is actually about is filled with great emotions and wonder.

The story unfolds in an episodic manner—appropriate because 1) it captures how we, as adults, tend to remember our childhood and 2) how children can relate most to overpowering emotions, even when they do not necessarily comprehend them, particularly when in conflict with siblings or parents. In a way, Kun’s journey toward becoming a more self-aware individual must be executed precisely as such because our lives are composed of fluctuating and colorful impressions. And although the storytelling unfolds this way, there is a distinct rhythm to it, the pacing is constant, tension builds, and the wisdom it imparts are precise but never preachy.

There is magic in the film which comes in the form of an oak tree in the backyard. It has the power to send people into the past, present, and future. It seems to be triggered by intense conflict among family members, particularly the boy’s relationship with his parents and baby sister. Ironically, however, this is the least extraordinary element. More astounding is, for instance, how simply going through a family album demands curiosity despite the medium being animation.

Patience is employed, combined with a relaxed energy, when we must observe characters remembering who they were or loved ones who have died. When someone points at a face on a photograph, we cannot help but wonder about him or her because each picture is vivid with both details and personality. Even when a group photograph is shown, notice how each expression is different even just slightly. It feels like going through an actual photo album. Kun’s family history feels vibrant, alive. There is a moving sequence when Kun meets his great-grandfather as a young man who loves horses and motorcycles.

Perhaps the most enchanting chapters involve the boy realizing that his parents were once young, too. They had lives before he was born, they had dreams, they nurtured hobbies, they grappled with failures and sadness. Kun throws temper tantrums when he does not get his way—but not always. The decision to write the character in an unpredictable fashion forces us to anticipate how he might react given a set of challenges. The sharp screenplay possesses subtle ways of reminding us of his growth—incremental most of the time but with occasional leaps forward. The boy keeps silent about having the chance to peer into his parents’ youth, but we recognize the exact moments when he begins to regard them differently.

Told at a child’s eye level, figuratively and at times literally, “Mirai” inspires us to love our loved ones a little more, to consider why they are the way they are at times. It is a work that can be enjoyed by the entire family. I think children would not only enjoy it, it might inspire them to look through photo albums and ask about each person’s story. The film is a celebration of life.

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.

Epic


Epic (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

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


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.

Coco


Coco (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

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!


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 Spearows 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.