Tag Archives: animated movies

Raya and the Last Dragon

Once upon a time, in a kingdom called Kumandra, people lived peacefully alongside dragons, who brought them water and protected them. But when a sinister plague known as Druun threatened the land, turning its people to stone, the dragons pooled their power, sacrificing themselves to save humanity, leaving behind only a gem to represent their faith and trust in the people they’d saved.

500 years later, the realm of Kumandra is no more. This last drop of dragon magic proved too tempting, and factions broke off, each desperate to hold the gem themselves. An attempt to steal it breaks the gem into pieces, unleashing the Druun plague monster once again. Raya, a young warrior, goes on an adventure to retrieve the broken pieces of the gem and resurrect the last dragon. It’s going to take more than just magic to heal the world, but trust and cooperation might be even harder to come by.

This is Disney’s latest animated offering, available to stream (at a premium) on Disney+, and if Raya is their most recent addition to the Disney Princess lineup, she’s a good one. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is courageous, and adventurous. She plots to save herself, and her people. Sisu (Awkwafina) the dragon also has beautiful female energy, more giving and trusting than Raya, who, though brave, is also flawed, making for a far more interesting protagonist and princess.

The realm of Kumandra may be fictional, but Disney animators were inspired by Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos when establishing its unique culture and aesthetic. The film looks stunning, proving that Disney animation is back on top, with or without Pixar. The stellar voice cast includes Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, and Alan Tudyk, but the greatest interplay is between Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina, who share a wonderful, warm chemistry, emphasizing the film’s respect for female friendship.

The best part of Raya and The Last Dragon may be its subtle but timely message. Raya is a strong and skillful warrior, full of conviction and a sometimes impetuous desire to run straight into battle. Success in her mission, however, will depend more on conflict resolution; people who have long considered themselves enemies will have to put aside their differences in service of the goal they all have in common. Someone will need to be the first to cross partisan lines because the real threat is never the outside force, it’s the cracks sown between the people within. Raya’s fighting style is based on the Filipino martial art Kali but victory won’t require her weapons, she’ll need to arm herself with empathy and diplomacy instead.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run

The film opens with a David Attenborough nature documentary-style narration as we swim through the reef toward Bikini Bottom, where our protagonist resides. It’s a nice touch though possibly lost on a lot of kids, and unfortunately, pretty much the highlight of the entire movie.

In today’s extended episode, Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) decides that his longtime rival Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) is not the true bane of his existence; it’s his devoted employee SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) who seems to thwart all his nefarious plans. And so Plankton hatches yet another nefarious plan, this time to rid Bikini Bottom of SpongeBob by kidnapping his beloved pet snail, Gary. Gary winds up in the hands of King Poseidon (Matt Berry), ruler of The Lost City of Atlantic City, who’s just a little bit obsessed with youth (and snail slime, or snail mucin, an even worse word, is an actual, legitimate ingredient in a lot of skin care products). So SpongeBob, his best friend Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), and their robotic chauffeur Otto (Awkwafina) will embark on a road trip adventure that will take them across the sea and even on land in search of said Lost City. On the way they’ll find a sage named Sage (Keanu Reeves) and be guided spiritually if not geographically by him in their quest to bring Gary home.

Sean and I are not fans of SpongeBob generally, and without prior attachment to these characters, this movie isn’t exactly spectacular. Longtime fans might be quite happy to find out how young, cute SpongeBob, Patrick, and Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence) first met, but for the rest of us it feels suspiciously like padding for an extremely thin concept.

Not to mention you REALLY can’t get nitpick this show. You have to accept that they live under the sea AND their glasses can still be only half full AND there can still be puddles on the ground AND they can light grills and keep burgers from getting soggy etc etc. It’s a cartoon so I’m going to work on letting this shit go but just know that I’m on to you, Nickelodeon.

Sponge On The Run isn’t really meant for non-fans, and possibly not for adult fans either. Its simple story is constantly interrupted and sidetracked, with so many distractions no one would blame you for losing track of the plot. The stars of the show are upstaged by a tumbleweed and the truth is you’re just not going to be blown away by this film. There’s a slim chance you might be entertained by it though, at least mildly-to-moderately, especially if you care for these characters and wouldn’t mind paying them a socially-distanced visit.

Tom and Jerry

Did you ever wonder how Tom met Jerry, and why it was hate at first sight? Well too bad, this movie’s going to tell you anyway.

Jerry is a mouse, newly arrived in Manhattan, and while apartment hunting he comes across a blind, keyboard-playing cat busking in Central Park. Only the cat isn’t really blind, and of course Jerry finds time in his busy schedule to provoke him just before disappearing into his new digs, the fabulous Royal Gate Hotel. Between its floorboards he sets up a little rodent bachelor pad, and he sets out to sample all of the hotel’s fine amenities. The hotel’s manager is none too pleased to have vermin in his prestigious hotel, particularly before the year’s grandest event – the wedding of Preeta and Ben, set to take place in his hotel ballroom in just a few days. Event planner Terence (Michael Pena) needs help, and Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz) needs a job, so she fudges her qualifications and through the magic of live action-animated children’s movies, Kayla has herself a job.

Kayla’s first task is of course ridding the hotel of its mouse infestation, and what better way to get rid of a mouse than to hire a cat to do the job. Enter Tom, who we know already has a beef with Jerry due to their earlier altercation in the park. True to their heritage, Tom and Jerry will get up to their same old antics, the same old back and forth, cat and mouse, push and pull of destruction that they’ve been getting up to since the dawn of time (well, since 1940, which is pretty much the same thing). Director Tim Story doesn’t have much of a modern twist to add to the proceedings, nor does he have much respect for his young audience.

Inserting Tom and Jerry into an uninspired live action scenario is not the best use of these vintage television characters. It won’t please older fans, nostalgic for the cat and mouse of their childhood, nor is it likely to impress young audiences meeting Tom and Jerry for the first time. Terence and Kayla are helping to plan the wedding of the century. Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost) are getting married in the most over the top, larger than life way you can imagine; obviously this leaves lots of room for hijinks and lots of opportunity for trouble. The problem is, the hijinks are kind of played out, like, last century. I can’t really guess who this movie is made for, but I do know it wasn’t me and it definitely wasn’t Sean. Will it be you? Probably not. But if you’re willing to find out, wait until the movie doesn’t cost $25 to rent anymore. Even if you don’t hate it, there’s definitely not 25 bucks worth of movie in here and you’ll end up hating yourself, and possibly an age-old rivalry between a cat and a mouse.

Bigfoot Family

New on Netflix this weekend, Bigfoot Family is the sequel to 2017’s Son of Bigfoot (but don’t worry, if you missed the first one, I’m confident you’ll still be able to navigate the plot of the second).

In the first film, teenage Adam went on a quest to find his long-lost father and found him hiding out in the woods. After a science experiment gone wrong mutated his DNA and turned him into Bigfoot, a pharmaceutical company got wind of things and Adam’s dad felt the only way to protect himself and his family was to go into hiding.

In the sequel, Adam’s father is technically back home but rarely there because his Bigfoot status has accorded him some fame. Adam has learned that he, too, is a Bigfoot – aside from the really big feet, he can heal himself and talk to animals, which is a good thing because several of his father’s four-legged forest friends have since moved in with them, including Wilbur the bear and Trapper the raccoon. Adam’s dad has decided to use his fame in a positive way, lending his celebrity to a village in Alaska concerned that a power company claiming to be 100% clean is actually damaging their ecosystem in secret. But when Adam’s dad goes out there to help out, he quickly disappears. Adam, his mom, plus Wilbur and Trapper, pile into a camper and drive up to Alaska to save their dad, and hopefully also stop the Big Bad Oil Company from doing their thing.

While there’s nothing really wrong about this movie, there’s also nothing very right, or very memorable. There are no big names lending their voices, there are no energetic pop songs, and the plot’s details are going to be a little frustrating to anyone above the age of 5. If you have kids under the age of 5, this might be an okay watch for them, as long as you don’t have to be in the same room. Otherwise this is an unfortunate skip, even knowing how much we need family-friendly fare right now.

Sundance 2021: Cryptozoo

Film festivals like Sundance draw top tier directors and the finest actors, but they’re also a great space for branching out of your comfort zone and trying something different. Cryptozoo is going to be so different, apparently, that the programmer compliments us on our “adventurous taste” before we’ve even seen the film.

Writer-director Dash Shaw impressed Matt at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2016 with his entry, My Entire High School Is Sinking Into The Sea. This year I’m just grateful he’s given us a shorter title to remember.

Cryptozoo is a strange beast, which is funny considering it’s literally about mythical hybrid creatures whose existence is disputed or unsubstantiated. Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell) doesn’t just believe in them, she collects them, having dedicated her life to rescuing them and sheltering them in a zoo she hopes will challenge public perception and move the dial toward acceptance once it’s open. For years she’s been pursing a Baku, a dream-eating creature that looks like a cross between a baby elephant and the neon-painted spirit animals from Coco. Of course, lots of Lauren’s work is battling the other factions who would also like to get their hands on these creatures, for exploitation or worse.

Hand drawn (translation: wonky boobs) and distinctively animated, Cryptozoo isn’t just populated with gorgeous, fantastical beasts and imaginative hybrid humans, it’s got people at the heart of its story, people with good intentions who will debate the merits of displaying these mythical creatures versus helping them to remain hidden and unknown.

This animated film for adults takes on the complexities of utopian visions and explores them in a very spirited and penetrating manner, with a visual style that is vibrant and unusual. A strong voice cast including Jason Schwartzman, Michael Cera, Grace Zabriskie, Peter Stomare, Zoe Kazan, Louisa Krause, and Angeliki Papoulia, breathe life into an epic fantasy world that starts with sex and unicorns and ends in a place much more wondrous. If you yourself are strange and unusual, Cryptozoo is not to be missed.

Sundance 2021: Flee

Amin is a successful academic on the verge of doing the whole house and marriage thing, but he’s been hiding a secret for more than 20 years, and a secret with roots that deep can threaten even the most stable life. So for the first time, Amin sits down to share his story with an old friend.

Amin and writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen have known each other since high school, when Amin arrived in Denmark from Afghanistan as an unaccompanied minor alone in the world, having fled the country of his birth by himself. His back story was shadowy and thus often the subject of gossip, but Amin kept his story to himself, and only now, in this animated documentary, is he choosing to unravel it for the first time, an attempt to reconcile himself with the past, perhaps, and an act of hope toward his future.

A powerful testament to the refugee experience, this animated documentary is unbound from the usual confines of story-telling and benefits from a multi-layered approach to truth and identity. Amin’s story is complicated, and it is sometimes contradictory. He’s had to hide the truth for fear of persecution, for fear of discovery, but he’s also hidden it from himself, a common coping mechanism. Thus his story is not just one man’s account of fleeing the Taliban, but an exploration of trauma and its far-reaching ramifications. And for dessert, an accidental treatise on unreliable narrators, truth distorted by perception and time. Even the animation itself serves as a filter, obscuring us further from a subject whom we never properly meet.

Shame and guilt are the salt and pepper to Amin’s narrative, seasoning wounds that are already festering quite nicely without help. We can only hope that the process has been cathartic for Amin, and grateful for the intimacy and trust implicit in this act of sharing. Rasmussen’s familiarity and friendship with his subject is a gift and a curse. Certainly his gentle coaxing elicits a fuller story that we might otherwise have heard, but Rasmussen sometimes forgets we don’t know Amin as well as he does. We might have enjoyed an introduction. And Rasmussen’s wish to grant his friend a happy ending is admirable, but as a film maker, it’s a little easy, a little pat. And yet, over the course of our 83 minutes together, we want the best for him too. Amin doesn’t owe us his story. His sharing is a gift, and if Rasmussen is tempted to wrap it up in a bow, who can blame him?

Executive produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Flee premiered on opening night at the Sundance Film Festival and was so well-received that NEON snapped it up, the first acquisition of Sundance 2021, before I could even post this review.

Charming

So let me tell you about a movie that never should have been made. I might sometimes admit that certain bad movies have a right to exist, but this particular movie should be wiped off the face of the earth just to preserve human dignity.

Three decades elapsed between Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989), three pivotal decades during which feminism swelled and laid the groundwork toward a sexual revolution and a women’s liberation movement. When Disney eventually went back to the princess well, it knew that passive, unconscious princesses were passé, and Ariel, the feisty, rebellious teenager was born. She is problematic in her own ways of course, but she was the first step on a path toward more progressive princesses like Anna and Elsa. Disney didn’t get there overnight. According to Charming (which I must stress, is NOT a Disney property), they needn’t have bothered. Though this 21st century film just got its North American release in 2021, it seems determined to set feminism back by about nineteen decades or so.

Need I say: written and directed by a man (Ross Venokur), this animated film has somehow decided to revisit those first three passive princesses, and stomp them further into the ground. According to the premise, Snow White (Avril Lavigne), Cinderella (Ashley Tisdale), and Aurora (G.E.M.) find themselves all simultaneously engaged to the same man, Prince Charming (Wilmer Valderrama). Although still very much leading them on, he plans to marry none of them. He’s not in love, he’s just cursed with being excessively charming. So gold-diggers like these princesses are actually planning their weddings and he can’t be bothered to let them know he’s just not that into them.

Note: though the princes in these first 3 Disney princess films don’t get elaborate back stories, they are three different and distinct princes. Only Cinderella’s prince is referred to as Charming; Aurora’s prince is named Phillip, though Snow’s is only ever called The Prince. And as for gold-digging, that’s not coming from me (Aurora and Snow are already princesses in their own right, and Cindy’s got some legit hustle), it’s actually the subject of an entire song called ‘Trophy Boy,’ inexplicably written by Fallout Boy’s Patrick Stump, with lyrics like “I want that ring on my finger like I want that crown” and “I don’t even care if he ever makes a sound just as long as when you see me, he’s around, and he’s bound to me.” Dear god.

Anyway, part of Charming’s charmed curse is that he has to find a true love before his 21st birthday or his kingdom will be doomed to live without love for all eternity. With his birthday just days away, King Charming sends him to run a gauntlet, a series of macho challenges designed to make him a man (raise your hand if you just vomited in your mouth a little) which somehow should help him find his true love. Don’t look at me, I didn’t write this stuff. Apparently neither Charming is confident in Junior’s ability, so they hire a guide, Lenny, to help him through. Only Lenny is actually – gasp! – a woman, Lenore (Demi Lovato), in disguise. And by disguise I of course mean a fake mustache. Lenore is a thief and is only interested in Charming’s money – that is, until she too falls victim to his inimitable charms.

This movie is an entire dumpster’s worth of sexist trash and my only hope is that this review symbolically lights it on fire. Watching it burn would be the only entertainment derived from this film, which is also incredibly miscast, extremely dull, and has mediocre animation at best. Nothing about this film works. It’s baffling that a movie can be this bad. If Venokur was gunning for ironic rather than moronic, he needed the help of a better writer and a more intentional director. Instead he puts his own curse on the film, and believe me, excessive charm is NOT its problem. I feel bad for the innocent victims caught up in its clutches: John Cleese, for example, who voices the Fairygodmother, and Sia and Steve Aoki, who also contribute songs.

Whatever you do, do not put scorch marks on your 2021 this early on in the year by accidentally watching a movie that will infuriate you. Protect your children from it. Hide the ashes of this review underneath the nearest rug. Let’s pretend it never happened. Ptooey (that’s the sound of me spitting on the embers). Peace out.

The Croods: A New Age

So the last time we met the Croods, back in 2013, Grug (Nicolas Cage), the overprotective patriarch of a caveman family, was struggling to adapt to his teenage daughter Eep’s (Emma Stone) new modern friend Guy (Ryan Reynolds). Guy has new ideas, new inventions, and Grug senses that his position as leader of the hunt is threatened by this little punk. But out of pure necessity they agreed to work together, Grug searching for safety for his pack, and Guy seeking the ever elusive “tomorrow.” Eventually Grug is forced to admit that Guy’s modern thinking is in fact better for their survival, and he must have been right because the family’s still intact for a sequel.

They’re all still following the light toward “tomorrow,” but Eep and Guy are starting to think of starting their own pack, which Grug takes rather hard. Any plans for splitting up are put on hold when it seems they may have found tomorrow: huzzah! In fact, it’s a gated community, a lush oasis, an exotic land of safety and plenty. Its inhabitants, and in fact creators, are Hope (Leslie Mann) and Phil (Peter Dinklage) Betterman, and their teenage daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), who are actually family friends from Guy’s childhood. The Bettermans are beyond ecstatic to be reunited with Guy, who would make the perfect mate for their daughter (not that there are any other options), and to show off their better way of living. Indeed, their treehouse is the absolute zenith in modern living, with every convenience, every comfort, and best of all, loads of food. Grug doesn’t necessarily appreciate its “privacy” or Phil’s emphasis on individualism, but wife Ugga (Catherine Keener) and the rest of the family seem awfully keen – even Eep, who is rather happy to have her first female friend, at least until she starts to see Dawn as competition for the one and only teenage boy in the vicinity. And after all, Guy is a modern human like them; what could he see in a cavegirl like her?

There’s lots of adventure to be had in A New Age, new lands to discover, new characters to sneer at, and plenty of wacky, zany stuff, like land sharks and punch monkeys, which may make tough critics like my nephews, who will not appreciate the teenage romance aspects, feel a little more forgiving. And while parents won’t be as keen to watch this as, say, Soul, which is hardly fair comparison, I’m sure we can all relate to fearing change, especially when it comes to family. There is a balance between the modern and the traditional that every generation must find for itself, and according to Dreamworks, that’s been true since before humans walked fully upright.

Soul

Joe (Jamie Foxx) has jazz music in his soul and zero dollars in his bank account. His mother likes to brutally remind him of this little fact, and push him toward accepting a permanent position as a middle school music teacher. Just as he’s about to capitulate, an old student calls to offer him a wildly exciting opportunity to play with the wonderful Dorothea Williams. Ms. Williams (Angela Bassett) is impressed with his jazzing, and he’s engaged to play with her later that evening. But he doesn’t make it to later that evening; he dies on his way home.

Understandably, his soul panics on the way to heaven, and he decides to buck the system, running away from heaven or the great beyond or whatever you want to call it, but unable to get back to Earth/life. He hides out in a mentorship program instead, posing as a mentor soul assigned to help new souls find their spark. Soul #22 (Tina Fey) has been mentored by the very best for eons but has yet to find her spark. In fact, she expects that life is kind of a buzzkill, and she’s actively resisting it. Joe runs through all the obvious things like music and food, but it’s not until they sneak back down to Earth that things really start to gel for her. Of course, it probably helps that she can finally experience things in a human body, one that moves to music and tastes food and is delighted by the strange wonders of the human world. One small hiccup: in the melee, 22 took over Joe’s body, and Joe’s soul…ended up in a cat. Joe is desperate to make the Dorothea gig, but what use is it if he’s a cat? And 22 is deeply distracted by pretty much every single thing she encounters. She’s finally found her spark, but the problem is, she kind of promised it to Joe. You need a spark to get to Earth permanently, and taking 22’s is Joe’s only option. And until very recently, 22 had no use for a spark and no interest in life. She promised it freely. But now…well, what if 22 wants it too?

This movie is beautiful and tragic because life is beautiful and tragic. It is everything you want from a movie and nothing you expect from a cartoon – except it’s Pixar, so you dare to hope. They’ve done it before. They’ve done it again.

In talking about death, Soul is actually discussing how to live. Joe believes that his life will be fulfilled by achieving his dream of performing jazz, but 22 teaches him there’s plenty of pleasure and wonder to be found in simply living, in taking the time to look, listen, and learn. 22’s naivety and newness to the world inspires Joe to slow down and take a look around as well.

Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers are not afraid to embrace the surreal and the intangible when examining the life well-lived, or to ask children to engage in a little introspection. A simple premise allows for a wonderful complexity of ideas embodying Joe’s existential crisis – which may be putting it mildly considering he’s dead and doesn’t want to be. But this spiritual scrutiny is able to include both the joy and the sadness, the fear, regret, obsession, insecurity, and the inspiration, ambition, passion, and life-affirming facets of personal philosophy because Pixar’s trademark playfulness makes it all feel non-threatening and really rather fun.

The voices are well-cast, the entities are well-designed, the movie looks amazing, but most important, it just feels good. It feels right, it feels warm, it feels like a hug from your past self to your future self, and I can’t think of a more perfect (cinematic) way to end the year.

Angela’s Christmas Wish

Two years after we first met her, little Angela, an Irish lass living in the very early 20th century, is still known in her little town for having stolen the baby Jesus from the church’s nativity scene. It was pretty innocent, as far as thefts go; she only thought he looked cold lying there in his manger, and took him home to make him warm and cozy.

Nowadays the baby Jesus has a very nice knit sweater to keep him warm, but Angela still visits him in the church to pray and ask for help. With Christmas fast approaching, Angela has her eye on a fancy dolly in the storefront window, but her family is still largely impoverished despite her father having left for work in Australia over two years ago. Setting aside their own interests, Angela and brother Pat decide to use their Christmas wish to bring their father home – or rather, to go and get him. When digging to Australia doesn’t work, they start busking for a train ticket. Their plan is not the most efficient, but their hearts are in the right place.

Is there any chance that Angela’s family will find happiness this holiday? You’ll have to watch to find out. The characters are based on the writing of Frank McCourt. The animation is as sweet as it sounds. And at just 47 minutes, it’s a great little watch for a special pre-bedtime treat with the kids.