We Bought a Zoo (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) was able to make a living as an adventure addict and a writer. But when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), passed away six months ago, he was forced to reassess his exciting career because of his children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). While Rosie seemed to be adapting to the new structure of the household, Dylan had just been expelled from school, the fourth strike involved an inappropriate mural of a beheaded man, a hint of the teen’s possible mental state. Benjamin figured his family needed a change. After visiting several houses, the one that ended up exactly as he envisioned for his family happened to be a part of a crumbling zoo. To say that “We Bought a Zoo,” based on the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, was obvious would not be considered as misleading. After all, there was a clear parallel between the struggling family eventually finding a proper footing in order to move on from grief and the zoo’s staff desperately putting together the necessary pieces in order to pass an inspection test and be open for business by summer. For every victory, there was another roadblock but the characters somehow found solutions through external resources and personal courage to overcome such challenges. While the picture had a certain level of predictability, I enjoyed it nonetheless because most of the emotions felt true. Although the story took place in a rundown zoo, it was about the people who inhabited the space instead of the cute and ferocious animals. I was particularly interested in the relationship between father and son. There was a lot of tension that accumulated between them because they found it difficult to communicate with one another even though they wanted to. When the inevitable screaming match finally arrived, I found myself very moved because it reminded of a time when my relationship with my parents wasn’t so good. They didn’t yell at each other to be cruel. It simply had to be done so the relationship could have a chance to start anew. For me, that scene was an excellent reminder that a family is really a wonderful treasure to have. You can scream at each other like there’s no tomorrow but at the end of the day, the voice living in the basement of your brain knows that all of you will be okay. Like Dylan, I was–or still am–a secretive person with a lot of thoughts but prone to compartmentalizing especially when a situation is far from the ideal. Dylan was not happy about the move but he knew it wasn’t his place to say something to his dad. Despite the picture’s consistent portrayal of the teenager as sensitive and moody, since it was based on a true story, I think the real Dylan knew the crux of what his father was attempting to accomplish. On that level, I wish the film had given him more depth. Furthermore, while the scenes between Benjamin and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the zookeeper, were cute, it felt slightly underdeveloped. I didn’t need to see them go out on a date because a mutual understanding was established between them, but the later scenes relied too much on clichés to generate a reaction from the audience. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee and directed by Cameron Crowe, “We Bought a Zoo” needed less cloying flashbacks designed to show us how happy the family was before Katherine passed away. I found it superfluous because we already had an idea about how happy they were before the death through the grief they wrestled. Nevertheless, I found its honesty and simplicity delightful.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
★★★ / ★★★★
A girl named Sheeta (voiced by Anna Paquin) looked pensively out the window aboard a flying ship. She was being held by a spy for the government (Mark Hamill) and men from the military. They wanted something from her although at first it wasn’t clear what. Pirates, led by an old but very energetic lady named Dola (Cloris Leachman), attacked the ship. Out of panic, Sheeta climbed outside the window, slipped, and was in free fall toward the Earth. “Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta,” also known as “Castle in the Sky,” was a thrilling animated film which balanced adventure and heart with ease. It offered breathtaking images from grand ships maneuvering themselves in and out of danger to the small details of the mining town where Pazu (James Van Der Beek), Sheeta’s greatest ally, lived and dreamed of fantastic journeys. The chase scenes were exciting to watch not just because guns and explosions were involved but due to the fact that there were times when the laws of Physics were completely ignored (especially in the mine cart tracks) and I was completely caught by surprise. Just when we thought we had idea where one’s loyalty belonged, enemies found a commonality which allowed them to work together and maybe even learn from each other. In a way, the action sequences were just as interesting as the characters who all shared a common goal: reaching the evasive floating castle called Laputa. The spy wanted the knowledge and the technology buried deep within, the military and the pirates wanted the treasures, Pazu wanted to find closure regarding his father’s death, and Sheeta simply wanted to protect it. There were also some messages concerning the environment and perhaps a budding romance between Pazu and Sheeta but I liked the fact that such topics were purposely underplayed. It was nice to see other angles from the core story so it didn’t at all feel one-dimensional. However, I do have the admit that I felt as though the picture ran for about thirty minutes too long. I think the film spent too much time focusing on the characters aboard the mysterious castle. I began to feel restless. Personally, I would have enjoyed it more if the characters did not spend too much time there (or if none of them reached it). By doing so, it remains as a symbol or a metaphor for things that were important to the characters. To me, it really wasn’t about reaching the castle but the measures the characters would go to get there. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Castle in the Sky” was magical, involving, and suitable for all ages. It made me think of the time when my dream was to become pilot.
The Secret of Kells (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) had been living within the fortified walls of a medieval outpost all his life in which his uncle Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) was the no-nonsense leader. Brother Aidan (Mick Lally), with a mysterious but incomplete book in hand, successfully escaped from the Vikings’ invasion of his home island and seeked refuge in the outpost. In order to complete the book, he gave Brendan a mission to collect berry-like fruits in which emerald-colored ink could be extracted. The problem was such berries could only be found outside of the walls and in the dangerous forest where dark creatures lived. “The Secret of Kells” had to really earn my attention and keep my interest. After watching so many computer-generated animation, I’m willing to admit that watching an old-fashioned style of animation can be a bit of a struggle. Another factor in the struggle was the fact that I was not familiar with the Celtic culture and traditions so I was initially confused about what was happening and why certain artifacts were important to the characters. However, thirty minutes into the film, I found myself completely engrossed because it told its story in a refreshing way. The images were deceptively simple. Its lack of depth and dimension actually added to the magic because there were times when it created illusions. But there were times when the images were almost abstract, it was hard what to make of them. I did not find it to be a negative quality because my eyes were always busy. I would gloss over an image, fixate on something else for a second, then it occured to me that something I just saw did not make particular sense, and I found myself needing to look back on the initial image. It may sound exhausting but it was actually a fun experience. The strange images aided by various types of animation highlighted the picture’s folk stories and sense of wonder. The story and the dialogue were relatively simple so kids would be able to follow the storytelling with ease. Time was constantly against the characters because they had to finish the book before the Vikings’ invasion. Without the book, knowledge would be lost and their traditions would not be passed to future generations. There was also enough danger and scary imagery, such as when Brendan was attacked by wolves and had to obtain an eye from a mythical serpent, to keep the adults curious and entertained. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nota Twomey, “The Secrets of Kells” had a rich and colorful imagination with an inspired execution. For a children’s movie, I find it strange that I couldn’t help but think about the images and the meaning the behind the images for hours afterward.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Thomas Balmes took Alain Chabat’s idea of filming babies from four different corners of the world and documenting their journey from inside the womb up until they learned how to walk: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan and Hattie from the United States. What I first noticed about this impressive documentary was its lack of narration. Balmes’ decision to not explain why parents were doing or not doing certain things for their children made us active participants because we had to come up with our own conclusions. The picture having no subtitles to translate the foreign languages was quite bold because then we feel like the child in its very early years–unable to discern what the parents were saying exactly so we rely on the tones of their voices to guess what kind of expression they wanted to portray toward their child. While the movie was undoubtedly cute (I love the scenes when the children would interact with animals, especially when Bayar was petting his cat), it went far beyond, “Aww, how cute!” Since I had a bit of experience studying child development and psychology, it was so much fun applying what I learned toward something I’m actually seeing. We literally see these children grow before our eyes as they change from being entertained solely by toys (or random things in the dirt if they didn’t have any toys) that made strange noises, to learning via simple imitation, to having a sense of self when they realized that their bodies can have a direct effect onto the world. We even had a chance to observe how the children attempted to talk via babbling and say their first word. Furthermore, the film wasn’t just about the babies. Secondary to the subjects were the parents’ child-rearing practices. Since I live in America, I’m used to seeing parents coddling their babies as often as they could. So, initially, I found it surprising that parents in Africa and Mongolia allow, if not highly encourage, to let their child roam in the dirt and explore his and her surroundings. They even let animals like goats, dogs and chickens get near their babies without worry. I guess what the director wanted to tell us was the fact that babies have high resilience physically and psychologically. They have the need to explore the world and experience a spectrum of emotions which includes pain, frustration and anger. What Balmes managed to capture on film was magic. I admired the way it was able to condense over a year of life into a breezy eighty minutes yet successfully highlight the most important elements.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Ponyo” (also known as “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”) tells the story of a princess goldfish (Noah Cyrus) who truly wants to become human. After escaping from her father (Liam Neeson) whose job is to maintain balance in the natural world, she meets a five-year-old boy named Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and instantly falls for him. Although I very much enjoyed this latest film from Miyazaki, I don’t think it’s his finest work. The story is beyond cute, the characters’ motivations are easy to understand, the world has a sense of wonder, and the situations the characters are put in have enough danger in them to make the audiences want to root for the characters to succeed. In a nutshell, it’s the perfect movie for kids and adults because it’s highly entertaining. However, I wasn’t as emotionally invested in it as I was when I saw “Spirited Away” for the first time. It must be noted that I saw the dubbed version of this animated picture in theaters so perhaps some of the dialogue was lost in translation. But I wanted a more insightful story regarding the characters. Earlier in the film, there was this tension between Sosuke’s mother (Tina Fey) and father (Matt Damon) because his father was always away at sea. There was a certain innocence and genuine comedy when the mother and father were trying to communicate in morse code by using lights. I wanted more of those situational family moments because then the film becomes that much more personal. What I really liked was that the message about the environment and how we must do our best to take care of it but it the message was never heavy-handed. Such messages were simply shown on the screen as tons of garbage were being collected from the ocean floor and ocean creatures were suffering in more ways imaginable (including the title character). Despite some of the very small negatives I mentioned, I still think this is a very strong film about a creature who tried her best to reach her dreams. “The Little Mermaid” comparisons are justified because of the premise but one shouldn’t imply that it doesn’t rise above the template. In fact, Miyazaki’s signature style of being unbound by realism was constantly at the forefront here. Therefore, every image we get (and the emotions that come with them) is very inspired and it’s very difficult to resist its charm.