The Rabbi’s Cat (2011): A Critique and Bringing Together of Religions and Cultures

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     This review is going to be a little different from the ones I do before as it was one that my friend Matthew and I discussed doing, that each of would review a film in each other’s style. Matthew is a writer at “The 10th Man.” He’s really good and writes about a diverse range of topics, primarily focused on media. Here is the link to his website:  https://the10thman.wordpress.com/.

    He has already reviewed “The Rabbi’s Cat” in a style inspired by mine, so now I am going to do the same.

  “The Rabbi’s Cat,” was directed by Joann Sfar (who also wrote the comic, screenplay and was one of the producers) and Antoine Delesvaux and based on the comic book of the same title. It is beautiful animated (with the exception of the strange style changes at different parts that make it more cartoony) but the film largely works because of the themes it explores which are ones of how cultures and religions clash and the ways they and people can come to understandings, as well as critiquing the different religions and cultures too, through the eyes of the Rabbi’s Cat. The film also explores what it means to be an individual in a group and what makes a good person.

     We see the exploration of culture from the beginning when the Rabbi’s Cat gets the ability to speak after eating the Rabbi’s Parrot and after wants to become Jewish because it is the only way the Rabbi will let him spend time with his daughter. We see the Rabbi change though as the more extreme Rabbi once the cat killed for claiming to be God and questioning everything. Algerian Jewish culture is explored through the Rabbi as well as Russian culture through the explorer and the Russian painter and through the Sufi Sheikh we get to explore the many African cultures as they are following the painters dream to find Jerusalem, which to them is a nation of Black Jews where there is no racism and intolerance. It’s a beautiful exploration that is done and you can tell that those involved did their research on all the different groups explored in the story.

     There is also a critique of culture that we see as well. This movie is not Morally Relative, which I liked. At one point a desert tribe the Sheikh knows helps them heal the Rabbi’s cat. But things soon turn to violence as the youngest one was itching for a fight and we soon see how superior they act and feel, much like the French and in Algeria in relationship to the Jews like the Rabbi. In both cases this dehumanizing of the other leads to violence as the Russian explorer gets killed by the tribe and we see how outsiders are treated like their women. If you’re not in the group, you are out of sight and out of mind. We also see the critique of Conservative Jewish culture through the cat who uses Science to question the Torah, and through the Rabbi’s daughter, who just wants choice in her life. This narrative continues throughout the entire film.

    The third theme is that of what identity means and what it means to be a good person. I think the Sufi Sheikh sums it up best in relationship to God. “I just imagine that God is a decent person and live from that.” It is this that helps the Rabbi become comfortable in giving the African barmaid and the Russian Painter a Jewish wedding even though she doesn’t believe in God and the Russian isn’t a practicing Jew. This core decency and respect of others is how the Rabbi’s cat change too. The cat starts out as a liar but in the end is looking out for the others and is quiet when he needs to be so his friends don’t get in trouble. The cat learns empathy just like the Rabbi and together they become more like each other in realizing they don’t know who God is or what it means to be Jewish, or a talking cat, but that won’t stop them from caring for people or living a good life.

      There really is only one scene that was troubling and that was when they find the Jewish Ethiopian Kingdom and things get overly cartoony. The tribe is presented as savage giants and it becomes a whole slapstick event that clashes with everything prior. This is still a favorite film, but that whole sequence really took away from everything that had occurred up to that moment. The cat was comedic relief again, the tribesmen were presented as idiots and it’s only purpose was to show that the idealized Jerusalem would be one they would have to create for themselves. That’s a great message, but because of how it’s presented the message feels a little cheapened. If you are looking for an amazing, French, surreal, animated film with a point you should check this one out. There is far more to like in this film than not, and it is a favorite for a reason.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10.

Persepolis (2007): A Masterpiece on Revolution, Family and Identity

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“Persepolis” is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. It captures Marjane Satrapi’s experiences of the Revolution in Iran and growing up abroad so powerfully while at the same time remaining a powerful story. The film is not as good as the graphic novel, which might have been due to time constraints, but it does captures the essence and the major arcs really well, as well as the important characters who were a part of Marjane’s life. Suffice to say, I really liked this film and will explain in more detail further down. The film itself is a French-Iranian animated film that takes inspiration and story from the Graphic Novel of the same name.

“Persepolis” was directed by Marjane Satrapi who also co-wrote the screenplay and of course the original novel. The other director was Vincent Parannaud who also co-wrote the screenplay. The producers were Xavier Rigault, Marc-Antione Robert and Kathleen Kennedy.

The story begins with an older Marjane waiting at the airport and remembering her childhood in Iran.  From here we have a flashback and see young Marjane’s childhood as the Revolution is occurring in Iran to overthrow the Shah. From here the story unfolds as her family is filled with hope and promise that soon turns to fear when the religious take over and begin instituting harsh laws. The story follows the rebellious Marjane and her story in Iran and her reasons for leaving and later returning. r

The Pros: The Premise – Marjane’s story is fascinating at it covers a country in transition (Iran during the Shah and after under the Ayatollah) and it’s from the perspective of a little girl all the way to adulthood. From this we get the experience of a new view of the west from her time in Austria and also of Iran after she returns as an adult. There is so much here that is amazing, just like the graphic novel and most of it exists in the premise, her story and autobiography.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is minimalist and is all the stronger for it as emotions are conveyed in perfect timing as the music matches up with the animation. Olivier Bernet is fantastic!

The Animation – The animation is all hand drawn and is some of the best animation I have ever seen. It looks like the graphic novel while still holding a unique style all it’s own. Even if the story wasn’t as great as it is, I would recommend this movie for the soundtrack and art alone.  Je Suis Bein Content, Pumpkin 3D and what they created in Perseprod Studio, who was behind the animation.

Revolution – We see prisoners freed at the fall of the Shah and the hope for a new tomorrow, and also the rise of the Ayatollah and how the revolution is lost in how a new oppressive regime arises. It’s powerfully executed through Marjane and her family’s eyes.

The Iran-Iraq War – We see the cost of war in this as Marjane returns to her old home and sees a hand of a person crushed beneath and building, the building her parents could have been in. The human cost is a constant reminder in this, from a childhood friend who lost the use of his arm and leg, to the fear of trying to change the current regime because the country is tired of war and fighting. War breaks people and nations. We also see the corruption of the Western nations who funded both sides in the conflict.

The Characters – Most of the named characters, especially Marjane’s family members have fascinating back-stories and characterizations. I’ll get into the reasons why next.

God – The best minor character who isn’t a family member is God who is portrayed as a great bearded man who talks to Marjane as Marjane is his prophet. He is a very Deistic God as he points out that the sufferings that were caused were humanity and not him. In that way he is there to comfort but never to do anything, beyond sending Marjane back from depression to face the world.

Uncle Anouche – Uncle Anouche is the communist who was arrested by the Shah when he tried to return to see his family again after hiding in the Soviet Union. He was in prison and tortured for 9 years and after being freed connects with Marjane and gives her hope of the world that could be. He’s the idealist which makes the rise of the Ayatollah and loss of an actual Republic all the sadder as he tries to justify it as “The common folk need religion, they’ll come around, this regime won’t be corrupt.” Only to find himself executed later. He represents the loss of freedom best as he was the one who was always struggling for it. Iggy Pop played him in the English version of the film and did a good job in the role. In the story he is the reminder of the work still to be done and the willingness to stand up to tyranny for liberty and freedom, which Marjane does on a few occasions.

Father – Sean Penn voices the Father, who at the core is the man also hoping for a brighter future, but also aware of the past and how his ancestor was executed for being a rival to the Shah before the British put the Shah in power. The Father is aware of both his own nation’s corruption and how the west has been a part of it…whether providing weapons to Iran and Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War or hoisting up the Shah. It is thanks to him that Marjane has skepticism in Europe, which is healthy. One of the themes is to always doubt and question.

Mother – Mother is voiced by Catherine Deneuve and is the voice of practicality. For her there isn’t’ time to resist oppression. The most a person can do is put their head down and get out if they can and have a chance to live elsewhere. She doesn’t like the status quo but feels powerless to stop it as she has lost family to both the Shah and the Ayatollah. This keeps her with so much sadness and why at the end she asks Marjane to leave Iran and never return until they are free. Her story is one of tragedy that she never truly gets to be with her daughter for any extended period of time, thanks to the oppression that she experiences.

Grandmother – Grandmother is one of the best characters in the film. She’s been divorced and remarried and expresses her perspective no matter who it may turn others off. She calls out Marjane for throwing a stranger under the bus so the police wouldn’t do anything to her, she reminds Marjane to stay true to herself and to live with integrity and she supports Marjane’s childhood dream of being a Prophet of God. She is one of the most revolutionary characters because she lost her husband to the Shah and about as far from Fundamentalist Muslim as you can get. She drinks, she has fun and she speaks truth to power. I completely get why Marjane idealizes her and I think she is a character worthy of that. The film ends with her death, again showing the tragedy and how oppression kept her from her hero and that in Grandmother’s lifetime she was never able to live in a free country. Gena Rowlands is fantastic!

Marjane – This is Marjane’s story and it is powerful as it explores all of her struggles. From her experiencing the Iran-Iraq War and the fall of the Shah, to the rise of the Ayatollah’s fundamentalist religious regime and all the religious laws that were brought about to her experience in Europe where she lost her homes because of how she resisted and because of how lost she was in trying to find her identity as an Iranian and also as someone who had spent so much time growing up outside of Iran without her parents. “Persepolis” is her answer to that and in it we see first hand her finding and accepting all the different parts of her identity and in turn becoming whole even after losing her home (Iran), family and husband in a divorce. She is able to accept herself and grow and the film shows this beautifully. Chiara Mastroianni does a wonderful job as grown up Marjane while Amethyste Frezignac does a great job as her childhood self.

The Messages – The Messages are powerful in this film, just like the Graphic novel, with the strongest being “Be true to yourself.” There are also the themes of “Remember where you came from,” and that oppression everywhere is unjust.

Marjane leaves Iran again because Iran is not free and her parents are still trapped there at the end, but want her to go after everyone she has lost to the oppressive regime. This sadness is a call for reform…the ending has a broken people waiting for change who are tired of the fighting after the Iran-Iraq war and all the political dissidents the Ayatollah’s Regime has killed. No excuses are made for tyranny ever…whether it’s the Shah or the Ayatollah, the forms of oppression as witnessed through Marjane’s eyes are obvious and stark. Another theme is to always doubt and questions which Uncle Anouche died doing until the end.

This ties into the theme of resistance which we see Marjane do on multiple occasions…from the Hijab being a double standard since guys can where whatever they want, to the nuns who got on her case for eating alone or her European classmates gossiping about her behind her back and her calling them out. Resistance is a huge theme of this film.

Okay: The Punks – They are all nihilists and we don’t get to know them like we do in the graphic novel. One of them was also from the Middle East and she never made an appearance leaving only the Western Punks who just hang around and are there to show that apathy is pointless since that is all they are.

The Boyfriends and Husband – The boyfriends and husbands don’t really get explored. They are moments pretty much but we mostly see her reaction to things not working, we don’t get to know them as characters like in the novel.

The Cons: Things Left Out and New Additions – Biggest issue was how some character stories were left out and some reactions to breakups went on a little long.

The animation style is beautiful and dreamlike and the soundtrack contributes to that. I completely get why it was nominated for an Academy Award. This is a film that is timeless and shows such a rich perspective on identity, integrity, justice, war, oppression and family. All these are a part of Marjane and her experiences and she tells her story so beautifully here, even if it isn’t done as well as the Graphic Novel, which you should read by the way. Also, see this film too. Chances are you will learn so much watching this and experience a beautiful story with some of the best music and animation in any film.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10. Not perfect but a favorite by far.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003): An Amazing Tale of Love Among the Outcasts

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      “Tokyo Godfathers” is one of the two films I’ll be reviewing with a holiday theme related to love and family and the different forms those take. It’s a rich tale and I was glad it was requested. The animation style and the soundtrack are beautiful, and every single character who has dialogue is complicated on some level, making for a rich narrative as the story unfolds. The fact that one of the scriptwriter behind one of my favorite animes “Cowboy Bebop” was a part of this I think lended to the overall quality of the production. Keiko Nobumoto is one of the best anime writers out there.

      The film was directed by Satoshi Con who was also the one who wrote the story and was one of the writer’s of the screenplay, the other director was Shogo Furuya and the other screenplay writer was Keiko Nobumoto.

       The story revolves around three homeless people The runaway girl Miyuki, the alcoholic gambler Gin and the trans woman and former drag queen Hana. Their lives transform when they discover an abandoned baby and begin the search for it’s parents as they soon realize how connected they are to one another, the people around them and those connected to the baby. From here the story unfolds as each reveals the reason they are homeless and their scars they carry. The story itself takes place over Christmas Eve.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – The soundtrack has jazz as well as a french feel to it that give it a life and charm that simply adds to scenes, whether characters are running or bearing their hearts Keiichi Suzuki made a great soundtrack.

The Cinematography – The animation of this film is fantastic. Whether it is the details of faces or the brilliance of the landscape of a city, or the nitty gritty of the alleyways and dark sides of town, you feel like you are living in this place. Katsutoshi Sugai did an amazing job.

The Script – The script is gold. Everything we are told is minimum and only when needed, and the characters are three dimensional and their struggles are compelling. The animation could have been terrible but the script alone could have carried this movie. Only issue is narrative chopyness because of all the coincidences.

The Characters – The characters in this film are complex, and through their struggles we really get an idea of the theme, which I’ll get into later. Suffice to say, of the main cast ther was not a single character I didn’t like.

Gin – Gin is a liar, drunk and debtor and the one who finds redemption in caring for the lost baby and in his love for his lover Hana and the runaway Miyuki. We see his relationship with them grow, especially after he meets his biological daughter and she forgives him. It is then he learned how deeply he was loved and feels shame. You get the feeling after that he builds the relationship with her and he’s finally learned to value the relationships in life and himself after he nearly dies in the hospital. Toru Emori is great as the grizzled man who has stopped believing in himself or anything and learns to care and love again.

Miyuki – Miyuki takes the approach of someone who doesn’t care about anything. We soon see she does care though when she goes from not caring about the baby to reading books on how to care for it. The next step for her is when she opens up about hurting her father and finds acceptance and love from Hana and Gin. This leads to her later being in the place where after they save the baby, she can finally accept love from her father.  Aya Okamoto does a wonderful job in the role.

Hana – Yoshiaki Umegaki plays my favorite character in the film. She is a trans woman who left her drag bar after she attacks a man for insulting her. She later finds out her adopted mother accepts her though and saw the incident as small and is just happy she is alive. Given how fatalistic Hana is this is just what she needs to stand up to Gin and tell him the truth which leads to their relationship and love. She is the mother of the group and takes care of the baby that was left in the dumpster, that they later make their mission to get back to the parents. She is a hero but can be cruel and feel strongly about everything. This makes her compelling and her arc is learning that her life is worth living and that she doesn’t have to leave the ones she cares about behind, because they want her in their life.

The Message – The biggest message is that you are loved and that there are those who care about you. We see this when Hana visits her foster mom and her foster mom forgives her for attacking the client who had insulted her and tells her it was no big deal, in the moment when Gin’s daughter forgives him for being away and said that she just wanted to be with him again…and at the end when Miyuki’s father sees her and there is only acceptance and surprise there…as well as what all of them do to save the baby and get the baby back to it’s parents. The theme of love is strong and that we get trapped in thinking far less of ourselves than the ones who love us do and that they are there to support us if we just reach out. I loved this message as it showed hope and that as long as you are connected to others, you will find the help you need to heal.

       We also see the message of acceptance and love as Hana is never discriminated against for being a drag queen or trans and that Gin in facts loves her and she loves him. For Miyuki it was never an issue, they were the parents she chose when she lived on the street and she loves them both deeply.

The Ending – The message of acceptance and love is there at the end when the three of them are made Godfathers by the baby’s parents and in the implied reunion of Miyuki and her father. I really liked it given all the suffering it took for our characters to get there and how much they grew. They learned how to love others and in turn accepting themselves.

The Cons: Choppy Narrative – The premise of the story was a bunch of coincidences happening all at once, and it achieves that but ends up coming off as contrived at times. In many ways it distracted from the message more as side characters appear and disappear and we are given no reason to care about them. For this reason I have to put the narrative structure as a con. Way too choppy at times.

      This was a film I’d highly recommend. The story and message are timeless and powerful, we see human connections, growth and it is executed beautifully in the cinematography, writing and music.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. Definitely a favorite film.

The Lego Movie (2014): The Connection in Fun

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This movie was really good. I wouldn’t consider it a favorite, but as a story and comedy there was so much that is great here, this film would be impossible for me to dislike. There are lots of reasons for this but some of the major ones are the creativity of how it was done, the message and the fantastic cast of characters and the actors behind them. Which is saying a lot for a movie that arose out of a toy property.

“The Lego Movie,” was directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who also wrote the screenplay and were two of the writers for the story. It was produced by Dan Lin and Roy Lee and the last two writers of the story were Kevin and Dan Hageman.

The premise begins with Lord Business (Will Ferrell) seeking the “Kragle” which is being protected by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). He is defeated by Lord Business but makes a prophecy that “the Special” will find the Piece of Resistance that can stop “the Kragle” and save the Lego Universe. From here we pick up with our everyday guy Emmet (Chris Pratt) who stumbles on the Piece of Resistance and finds Lord Business and his men hunting him down. It is up to Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and others to protect him and try to stop Lord Business from destroying them all by using the “Kragle.” From here the story unfolds.

SPOILERS ahead.

Here is the assessment of the story:

The Pros: The World – The world is wonderful and extremely meta. It is akin to the word of Toy Story where the legos exist in two worlds. The world where they were made by “The Man Upstairs” and the world where they move and interact and are much more than toys. It is here that the reality of “The Man” and his child that leads to what makes the world real. There is also a richness in the sheer variety of universes, from the main one, to Lord Businesses Tower, to the Old West and many more. What can you make with legos? That is the essence of this universe and “The Builders” are leaders within it because of their creativity.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack reminded me a lot of “Wreck-it-Ralph” in how it was a mixture of electronic and orchestra. The theme song “Everything is Awesome” is one of the best illustrations of this. It fits with the childish theme and epicness of creating your own adventure with toys. Mark Mothersbaugh did great.

The Characters – The main cast has some pretty interesting characters, some of whom have some great arcs. I’ll give them both an individual section why, at least the ones I consider pros.

Vitruvius – Morgan Freeman plays the lead wizard who sacrifices himself to try and stop Lord Business. He invents the prophecy to show that the power and being a “Special” is in everyone. He doesn’t really have an arc, but it’s Morgan Freeman and he clearly had a lot of fun playing this mentor role for Wyldstyle and Emmet.

Batman – Batman is Wyldstyle’s boyfriend and his arc is growing to respect Emmet who sees as boring and stupid. He’s an interesting character who is extremely self involved (goes to party during a crisis) but has a good heart as he supports Emmet and Wyldstyle and appreciates Emmet’s arc.

Good Cop/Bad Cop – Liam Neeson plays a cop with two personalities who serves Lord Business. At one point his good half is erased by Lord Business and he is nothing but a cruel weapon against the heroes…but he comes around after Lord Business turns on him and draws “Good Cop” back on his face so he is once more back to balance. His story is that quest for balance and I wish we’d had more character moments with him.

Lord Business – Lord Business is creative and an inventor who doesn’t feel appreciated so he wants everyone to be in order and keep things as they should be. This leads to him using the “Kragle” to freeze people in place and using his robots to set people up how he wants them. He is a clear bad guy but Emmet changes him when he recognizes him for his creativity in mirror of the son recognizing the dad’s creativity too. It’s a great scene and he becomes a good guy in the end. I didn’t mind this as he was cartoony so could go either way at the end. Will Ferrell does fantastic.

80’s Astronaut – Charlie Day is a wonderful actor! The first time I saw him was in “Pacific Rim” and in this his character brings the energy up to 11. He wants to build a spaceship and keeps getting shutdown but when he has the chance too he helps save the day and builds an awesome ship as well as hacking into Lord Businesses system since it’s 80’s technology.

Wyldstyle/Lucy – Elizabeth Banks plays a pretty cool character who is doing everything to be different but learns in the end that you don’t have to be different to be a hero. We see her recognize that after Emmet’s sacrifice and how she inspires the normal folks to rise up and fight against Lord Business. I liked her character except she never broke things off with Batman before almost sharing a moment with Emmet. That is one thing I would have changed. Though that defined their relationship pretty well, neither really listened to each other they just liked doing cool action adventures together.

Emmet – Emmet is the everyday guy who can build a Bunk-Couch for his friends. Chris Pratt was perfect for this role as he plays the overly excited nice guy really well. His arc is finding that who he is is okay and that he is special and everyone is special. This leads to his sacrifice, meeting the humans and saving their relationship in his action to save his world. It was done really well, though I wish his character had more depth. Lucy is probably the deepest character in the film. Emmet sort of becomes deep after but that is largely because he becomes active in his own life and no longer passive.

The Message – The message was great, there is beauty in chaos and sometimes it is important to follow directions…but most of all it’s in having fun with others that we make connections that count. Will Ferrell is a collector and businessman and when his son is playing with the toys he is the one using the “Kragle” to glue them into place. It is his son who is freeing them. In the end it is Emmet moving in reality that sparks the change and the father finally relates and begins to play with his son when he realizes how important imagination is and how distant he’s been. It’s a beautiful scene and great acting on Ferrell’s part.

Okay: Side characters – Most of the side characters are just gag characters. Whether it’s Metal Beard, the Green Lantern and Superman joke where Superman keeps trying to avoid Green Lantern while Lantern thinks he his best friend as well as the wizards like Dumbledore and Gandalf. They function more as pop culture references and in-jokes more than anything else.

The Cons: Nothing at Stake – My biggest issue is when it goes meta it feels like nothing is at stake. A father and son are playing with toys so in the end they can reset the world if they want too in the end making all of our characters’ sacrifices nothing. This is my biggest issue with the movie. The meta moments were sweet but they did cost the stakes.

Tone – The tone is kind of all over the place. At times it is funny and making fun of itself, other times it is serious and dramatic. This is another reason I can’t consider it a favorite film. It feels like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be beyond a child playing with toys.

This film is worth checking out! It isn’t a favorite film and it isn’t a “Wreck-it Ralph” or “How to Train Your Dragon,” but for the sheer fun of it all and the great message it brings…it’s something you don’t see everyday. I’d watch it again and I’m curious if that if a sequel is made if it will become a favorite. Until then, this is really good as it is.

Final Score: 8.4 / 10

Penguins of Madagascar (2014): A Dumb Fun Satire of Spy Films

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     I have never been a fan of the “Madagascar” series. It struck me as suffering from the Dreamworks winking at the audience and being far too aware of whatever it was it was trying to satire, as well as being way to clued into popular culture, which in the end takes away from the jokes. Again, this isn’t a series I hate but I’ve never sought out this series and will be surprised if I ever do. What lead to me watching “Penguins of Madagascar” than? I have younger kids in the family over Thanksgiving and I’m not someone to miss out on a chance to spend more time with family or to miss the chance to see a film…even if it’s one I probably won’t like.

This film, like the first “Madagascar” movie wasn’t bad. It was really stupid but it had some funny moments so it wasn’t bad. There was a lot it could have done better, but I think it set out to accomplish what it wanted to…afterall the Penguins are spin-off characters in the same line as Puss in Boots and the Minions who also got or are getting films. They exist as attempts to make money off the legacy of the larger films they come from…usually because they are the characters who became popular because of original said film series. But, enough on that. Let’s get to the film!

“The film was directed by Simon J. Smith and Eric Darnell, produced by Mark Swift, Lara Breay and Tripp Hudson, and written by John Aboud, Michael Colton, Brandon Sawyer, Tom McGrath and Eric Darnell once more.

The premise is that three penguins break away from being followers unlike all other penguins when they see an egg blown from the snow. It is here the three penguins (Skipper, Kowalski and Rico) save the egg from Leopard seals and begin the adventure with the newest member of their group, Private. From here the story unfolds as all Private wants is to truly be a part of the team as everyone else is specialized in some way but can’t as he is not taken seriously because he is cute.  All that soon changes as an evil Octopus names Dave plots to destroy the Penguins forcing them to work an elite force who is called the North Wind. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Penguins – The Penguins have a great dynamic and are fun to watch. Private is a bit idiotic at times but thinks well in a jam, Skipper is adaptable and good at getting out of tight spots, Rico is unhinged and deadly and able to take on most threats and Kowalski is able to assess threats. They do a fantastic job in this and minus the changing of Private back to normal were very fun to watch in their interaction with others. They take themselves so seriously, which is the best joke through it all. They are also contractions which makes their debates with others good. Tom McGrath is the most distinct as he voices Skipper the leader, Kowalski is voiced by Chris Miller, Rico mostly growls but is voiced by Conrad Vernon and Private is voiced by Christopher Knights. The Penguins basic arc is learning to accept help from other and admit when they’re wrong and to value Private beyond his cuteness and accept as a member of the team.

Okay: Dave – John Malkovich does a good job as the baddie and gets some good laughs and actually has a good reason for his motivation as he was forced into smaller and smaller tanks everytime the penguins were at his zoos. This leads to him making them ugly monsters, which he actually succeeds in before Private’s cuteness powers his ray puts everything back to normal for the most part. This also leads to Dave’s defeat as he is shrunk and made cute. He was a creepy character but also sympathetic at times which shows that, that at least was done well.

North Wind – The North Wind was okay but not super memorable. I get they were meant to satire the technological badasses in spy films and it does satire this when their plan falls apart and they make not of why you should look back after you’ve exploded something…but they were mostly Skipper’s team’s foil and I didn’t get much character from them. I put them as okay because Cumberbatch’s Classified at least had personality and a character where he grew to respect the penguins, which is more than can be said for the rest of the team.

The Cons: Too Many Puns – I like puns, I make puns all the time…this movie had too many. Most were related to the names of Octopus who were given celebrity names like Hugh Jack man, etc. The puns were pretty weak and I tired of them quickly.

Madagascar References – It starts with the “I like to Move It” song and even the Penguins point out how tired they are of that song…and also the King Julien is able to use his cute assistant to change Private back to normal which completely removes Private’s sacrifice. I’d have preferred they kept him purple, spotted and horned. It would have been a thing for the team and him to adapt to and show the consequences of his sacrifice.

No Consequences – Private being retconned was lazy because they probably knew him remaining a monster wouldn’t sell toys. So not very impressed that they changed him back, even if it was predictable.

This was a fun stupid film that succeeded sometimes at the satire, and other times had jokes lag on for way too long. Also most of the minor characters didn’t feel like characters and functioned mostly as plot devices which just didn’t lend itself well to giving the story consequences. This is a shame but I also don’t expect great out of “Madagascar” as a series. It is stupid fun first and foremost…just doesn’t take any risks within that. The Penguins are great as characters but not anyone else. Little kids will probably like this film but this is no “Wreck-It-Ralph,” or “How to Train Your Dragon.”

Final Score: 7 / 10. Wouldn’t see it again but it was stupid fun.

Big Hero 6 (2014): To Heal From Trauma and When Minor Characters Are the Most Interesting

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       Walt Disney Animated Studios is back being great again. “Wreck-It-Ralph,” “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.” Let’s see if they can continue this going forward. Suffice to say this film was awesome! It had consequences, a good message and had some of the best minor characters I’ve seen come out of this studio. I’ll explain more of what I mean in the assessment, but there is very little wrong I can say about this film.

      “Big Hero 6” is loosely based off of the Marvel Comics of the same name (which was inspired by Japanese anime and manga) which were created by Man of Action and was directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, written by Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson and Jordan Roberts and produced by Roy Conli and John Lasseter. Essentially a lot of people made this possible and it’s surprising that it all came together so well given when there are this many people on board if often leads to “Too many cooks in the kitchen,” and becomes a mess.

Spoilers ahead…

     The premise is Hiro (Ryan Potter) is the main character living in the future city of Sanfransokyo where he takes part in Bot Fighting until his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) inspires him to go to college. After tragedy occurs during the event that Hiro makes it in it is up to his brother’s healing robot Baymax (Scott Adsit) to help him heal which leads them to discover the fire wasn’t an accident as  mysterious villain named Yokai is using the the nanobots that Hero created as a weapon and for a mysterious purpose. From here the story unfolds as Hero deals with the loss of Tadashi and facing this new threat. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The World – The world of Sanfransoyko is awesome! It reminds me of a city out of “Akira” or “Ghost in the Shell” and is the perfect mixture of our modern world with future tech. For example the Bot Fights that are underground but also the fact that everyone drives cars and Hiro’s Aunt’s cafe is a major area where characters go too besides the high tech. University. I wanted to visit this future world since it captured my love of robots and tech. so well…you can tell at least someone in this project has a passion for this stuff too.

The Soundtrack – Henry Jackman is amazing! This score incorporates techno-electronic with soaring orchestra pieces to capture our characters highest and lowest moments. My favorite ones were a few of the running sequences where the electronic was blended in so seamlessly it made the future world real as well as capturing the threat of Yokai.

Tadashi – Daniel Henney does a great job as Hiro’s older brother who sets him on the path to greatness. We see his awkward charm as he’s building Baymax and also his care for his Aunt and brother as he rescues Hiro from a dangerous situation after the Bot Fight and goes into to rescue his mentor Professor Callahan which leads to his death. Only issue is I would have liked to see more flaws in his character…but his death, I haven’t felt something like that in a Disney film that wasn’t made by Pixar since the death of Mufasa. They nailed the loss of him to his friends at the University and Hiro…

Hiro – Hiro is a positive but I’ll be going into some of the cons of the film later which are entirely Hiro-centric for the most part. But, he is one of the first animated heroes of Japanese origin in the United States and he has a good arc as he goes from an arrogant guy who can’t see beyond himself to someone willing to risk and be a part of a team. He really cares about the group in the end as well as Baymax and becomes the character willing to risk it all even if it means risking his own life…given he does this when we learn about why the villain is doing what he is doing.

Baymax – Baymax is a great robot! He doesn’t really have a soul the way Wall-E does (he follows his programming and doesn’t make any choices…he does what he’s told and was programmed to do by Tadashi. This makes me think he may have an arc where he gets an emotion chip later akin to Data as at one point his care program is replaced by destruction program when Hiro wants him to kill Yokai…it take all Hiro’s friends to stop him and he protects his care program more deeply after that. He is very much out Aaisimovesque in he follows the Laws of Robotics in that he programmed not to harm people and clearly regrets his program being overrun after. Great robot and curious to see where the most likely sequels will take him.

Fred – Fred is the joke character who provides the headquarters for the team. He is the mascot at the college and obsessed with comic books. It is at his home when they are hiding from Yokai that Hiro gets the idea of turning them into Super Heroes. It is done really well and is all showing and not telling for the most part. I liked his character and I am curious to see where he goes from here as he is given purpose in becoming a super hero. T.J. Miller nailed this character.

Honey Lemon – This is a character I would have liked to see more of even though she isn’t one of my favorite characters in the film. She is bubbly, smart and loves pink. She breaks your stereotypes. She uses chemicals to break down metals and is the one who takes immediately to Hiro and is the most supportive of the group towards him. She doesn’t really have an arc which is a shame, but she’s a great character. Genesis Rodriguez is wonderful in the role.

GoGo – GoGo like Honey Lemon doesn’t really have a character arc but she is one of my favorite characters. She is an extreme sports enthusiast who designs her own vehicles  and is the on who puts up with the least crap from Hiro and Tadashi…which I wish she’d called out Hiro more. We see much more of her warmer side in this movie and she rocks in the last battle and saves them all on multiple occasions. Also I really like her for this line alone, “Women up.” to Tadashi in regards to be tough and fight on. Jamie Chung is fantastic as this character.

Wasabi – Wasabi is the one support character on the team who actually has a character arc! The guy is a neat freak and obsessed with order but Hiro throws all that into wack and he’s forced to face his fear of heights and not being clean throughout the story. This gives him a lot of depth. He’s smart and when it comes to the challenges he faces his fears and rises each time. He is the voice of reason and shines through and besides GoGo he is my favorite character. Damon Wayans Jr. did amazingly.

Teen Titans Similarities – This team reminded me of “Teen Titans” and I’m putting that as a plus. Fred was like Beast Boy, Hiro and Tadashi were akin to Robin, GoGo was Raven, Honey Lemon was Starfire and it rose beyond that analogue with Wasabi and Baymax being their own characters that aren’t really similar to Cyborg.

The Message – The message is forgiveness and growing beyond trauma and it is done really well. At one point Hiro uses Baymax as a weapon and we see his hate of Yokai has consumed him to the point of revenge above all else and as a way to not face his loss of Tadashi. Baymax shows him the video of Tadashi building him and Hiro is finally able to heal and accept the love from his friends. This takes time and it is a believable process and one of the things I appreciated most about the film.

Okay: Aunt Cass – She is supportive but a one note character…we don’t really get her motivation beyond caring for Tadashi and Hiro since their parents are dead. She isn’t a bad character, just flat.

Alister Krei – This guy is set up to be the big baddie as he offers to buy Hiro’s Nanobots which Hiro refuses…and the fire happens soon after. He isn’t guilty which is a nice touch but we don’t get the motivation behind his business…he is just corrupt and rather one note. Alan Tudyk does a good job with what he’s given at least.

Professor Callaghan / Yokai – James Cromwell does a good job playing the threat of Yokai when he appears as Yokai (the villain the the kabuki mask using Nanobots like tentacles) but as Callaghan he’s not fully fleshed out. We learn he wants revenge on Krei  for an experiment that lead to as far as he knows…the death of his daughter, so he starts the fire to steal Hiro’s Nanobots to use as a weapon. He never takes accountability for anything and at one point is near the University he was teaching at before he faked his own death in the fire. We see regret after Hiro saves his daughter for the life he’ll never have, but he still wasn’t great.  I would’ve liked to see more of his motivation.

The Cons: Hiro and Accountability – None of Hiro’s friends hold him accountable, even after he puts them at risk when he makes Baymax go all Terminator and overrides his programs to try and kill Yokai. This bothered me since he’s a teen and that doesn’t mean he should get away with crap, his friend are all in college and should know better. Especially GoGo who like Tadashi held him accountable for calling the school the Nerd School and motivating him to get into it. After Act 1 the only accountability is Baymax helping him heal. Which is good in a way, but Hiro still missed a major lesson.

Not Enough Time with the Team – Honey Lemon, GoGo, and even Wasabi to a degree never get the character exploration they deserve. They are all more fascinating than Hiro but we don’t get their backstory and motivations…I look forward to sequels to see this happen though as this seemed to be Hiro’s origin story primarily.

    This is a movie I’d highly recommend. It is one of the best animated films I’ve seen that has come out recently and really is a Gold Standard. If you like a great music, interesting world, coherent plot and characters who actually change and grow…you will probably like this film. So, check it out if you are looking for something that has loss and a message that is always worth remembering.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 Would be higher if the minor characters had been explored more and Hiro had been more accountable.

The Book of Life (2014): An Exploration and Celebration of Family and Love

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         “The Book of Life” impressed me, and I wasn’t the only one. After the show the halfway empty theatre erupted into applause and for good reason. A lot of films just have a good time with fun characters and leave it that, but this one actually managed to have some pretty amazing points beyond just general points and messages. It truly got into the motivations of it’s characters and what defined them and critiqued and celebrated the culture that inspired it. I wish there were more children’s films like this. I’ll get into the details of what I mean in the assessment.

      This film follows both the Halloween theme (spirits and the dead) while also celebrating another culture and holiday in that it is inspired by the myths and legends around the Day of the Dead.

    “The Book of Life” was written by Jorge Gutierrez and Doug Langdale, directed by Jorge Gutierrez and produced by Aaron Berger, Brad Booker, Carina Schulze and Guillermo del Toro whose name is the first thing you see when the show begins. His vision is a large part of what made this film possible. Which is great since he’s one of my favorite directors.

       The premise of the film begins with troubled kids from detention taking a tour of the Mexican Cultural Museum where a mysterious lady who is their tour guide shows them the “Book of Life” and tells the stories of the characters after laying out the world where the afterlife has “The Remembered” in constant celebration ruled by their God La Muerta and “The Forgotten” who have been forgotten and are ruled by the God Xibalba. It begins on the Day of the Dead where three best friends have a wager put upon them by La Muerta and Xibalba on who will win the hand of Maria. Xibabla chooses the fighter and warrior Jaoquin to win her hand and La Muerta chooses Manolo, the muscian from a line of Bull Fighters. From here the story unfolds as family obligation is put on the characters, forcing Maria abroad to Spain for school, Jaoquin as a soldier for Maria’s father the General and Manolo as the Bull Fighter to win her hand. These are the main stories that unfold as the God’s act on the events around them.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The World – The world, especially when the tour lady starts the story is fantastic! Most of it takes place in the small town of San Angel, and when it isn’t there we travel between the Land of the Remembered and Forgotten. My only issue is I wish we had seen conflict in the other worlds but that might have been the point. The conflict is among the living and among the living we see drama between lovers, family and bandits. The colors are dark and stark so when there is color it is beautiful! Every scene is rich with detail that helps give us the worlds and minds of the characters.

La Muerta – She was my favorite character in this and the one who seems to have wisdom even if she quickly will give it up for a bet. This need to take risks and bet adds dimension to her as a God especially in her relationship to Xibalba as all she wants is honesty from him and true sorrow for the things he’s done. For this reason her making Manolo her champion makes sense since he speaks the most genuine and honestly and isn’t bound by social pressure the way Maria and Jaoquin often are by their father’s legacies. He has enough will from the beginning to break that, much like La Muerta with breaking the rules so that Day of the Dead can occur and families can reunite for a time. That is her doing and there is a reason she is loved. She also has a great character design with a flowing red dress, skeleton face and candles on her hat and dress. Kate del Castillo does a great job bringing gravitas to the part.

Xibalba – Ron Perlman plays a very crafty role, which is great to see. His character reminded me a lot of Hades from Disney’s “Hercules” except that he deep down did just want love. This drives his character to strive for power as he feels slighted and jealous at everything La Muerta does and hates that he is watching over a world that is dying with people forgotten, for he feels forgotten. This drives his recklessness and makes him compelling. He doesn’t want to be alone and left out and that makes him sympathetic even as he does some pretty bad things to the human pawns in the bets (poisoning Maria and tricking Manolo into giving up his heart). He also has a great design that looks like acid and tar, which at the beginning is what he’s described of being made of.

The Sanchez Family and Manolo – The Sanchez family is fascinating, we see the legacy of bull fighting and “Being a man” a huge part which Manolo turns on it’s head by being a musician. Much of the story is his father coming to terms with that choice and Manolo’s inability to kill. It brings great drama and it is this dichotomy between tradition and doing what’s right (not to kill) that leads Maria to falling in love with him. Manolo thinks outside of himself while his family is largely obsessed with legacy. His mother doesn’t agree with legacy and shows how complex their family is in the Land of the Remembered as they had ancestors who fought in the revolution and that at the core it is character and integrity that matters, which Manolo has. He discovers all this when he meets his mother and dead ancestors in the Land of the Remembered and his mother and grandfather help him reach La Muerta who has been forsaken to the Land of the Forgotten because of Manolo’s death by Xibalba’s snake. We see him change the family legacy as it comes to a head when Xibalba will grant him life if he can defeat all past bulls killed by the Sanchez family, which he does in an epic battle that ends in a song for forgiveness for what his family has done. In the end they all grow through Manolo’s actions.

Of Jaoquin’s Hyper Masculinity – Jaoquin is obsessed with fighting and being tough above all else and this is celebrated by the culture as seen by the Sanchez all being bull fighters. His father was a hero and when he saves the General who is the mayor of the town and Maria’s father he is taken under his wing. This shapes his tendencies in viewing people as serving him rather than the other way around that when Maria returns he can’t see past himself and only wants to talk about his medals. It takes his talisman that makes him invulnerable being taken and Manolo dying for him to rethink his priorities and to stop trying to be the hyper warrior his father was. He also stops assuming what Maria wants and in the process the competition ends between the friends as they both truly act from love. His arc is growing out of his hyper masculinity and finding tenderness and balance. Malono goes through this too but much faster as for him it’s the simple choice of not to kill the bull.

Maria – Maria is an interesting character. She functions as a plot device for the boys to get out of their families shadows and become their own people, but she also is her own person too. She’d marry Jaoquin if he’d stay to protect the town from the bandits but if that isn’t an issue and if Manolo loves her, she’d choose him. She’s educated and smart and she calls on the town to fight back against the bandit invasion. I kind of wish La Muerta had chosen her as her champion. Zoe Zaldana is wonderful in this role.

Relationship Healing – Xibalba realizes how selfish he was and in the end he rules together with La Muerta again, it’s implied as they change from their human disguises (museum guard was Xibalba, tour guide was La Muerta) and they kiss. Manolo and his father make peace, Manolo and Jaoquin make peace, Maria and her father are on the same page and the town fights off the bandits. The arcs get completed and it’s all the rich for it. “Write your own story.” As the Candle Maker (the 3rd Death God) reminds us at the end.

Okay/Cons: The Kids – The kids in detention are there giving commentary like the grandson in “The Princess Bride,” and like him they are pretty forgettable. I get that they are standins for us, but they aren’t really needed. The story is rich and I cared more about the final reveal of Xibalba and La Muerta than about them.

The Music – Most are mariachi inspired covers of popular songs…this film would have worked better with an original soundtrack given it is an original world without pop culture references besides the songs. The songs kind of took me out of it for that reason.

The Beginning – Things start out really slow, both with the kids in modern day (never really cared about them) and when our heroes are children. I get why it’s important as it establishes their motivations (Maria to prevent killing and her hatred of it, Manolo and his music and bull fighting dichotomy and Jaoquin haunted by his father’s martyr legacy). But it could have been done faster. The best parts of the early scenes are when La Muerta and Xibalba interact.

The Candle Maker – Ice Cube plays a God who is kind of like Robin William’s Genie and just as annoying. I couldn’t stand how annoying this guy could get which is a shame since the Candle Maker as the neutral party is an interesting concept. He isn’t bad and has some great wisdom, but in the end is merely a somewhat annoying plot device.

       This was a really good film. I don’t know if I’d call it great because the things that are okay are at many points cons through the film. The kids are super annoying at the beginning and the slow start makes it hard initially to get invested in the characters until we see them again when they are older and active agents in their own lives. We just didn’t get enough time with the Gods in the beginning and had too much time with characters who were children. Still a fantastic film that I’d recommend. If you like animated films that have their own style and a good message, this is your film.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10, really good and a favorite.

Wreck-It Ralph (2012): The Story of Outcasts, Healing and Purpose

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Talk about nostalgia, as a gamer the references to specific games and types of games alone was enough to find joy in this film, and to top it all off it had a great story. Before I go into more detail though, the film is “Wreck-It Ralph.” As a kid who used to love arcades and a person who still loves arcades this film captured part of what makes arcades and gaming as a whole so wonderful.

“Wreck-It Ralph” was directed by Rich Moore, who was also one of the story writers. It was produced by Clark Spencer and the screenplay was by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston, with the story by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston and Jim Reardon. As can be seen, there is a lot of overlap on folks who helped make this movie happen which is why I think the world and story were so solid going in. It looks like a collaboration.

The story of “Wreck-It Ralph” is that Wreck-It Ralph is tired of being the bad guy and outcast in his game and when he’s told by the townsfolk he’ll be accepted if he gets a medal he jumps games in the arcade and goes Turbo, from here the story unfolds as he shakes things up in the worlds between the arcades and Fix-It Felix is sent to bring him back.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The animation – The animation is amazing. It flows, it captures retro games when it needs too and the characters in 3-D look great (Sonic, Bowser, Pac-Man Ghost, etc.) it is a beautiful film to look at, especially the dark world and shooter of Hero’s Duty and the whimsical color of Sugar Rush.

the Music – The music has electronic feel to it and is memorable and fun. I loved the soundtrack, Henry Jackman was good at integrating video game music throughout which further enriched the world that had been created.

The World – All video games are connected and the characters interact when the arcade is shut down. It is kind of “Toy Story”like that way. There is interaction between characters and you understand people’s fear of getting shut down as they are left homeless or destroyed as what happened when Turbo tried to hijack a new racing game and what he does later.

Sergeant Tamora – A character designed with a traumatic backstory who over the course of the film deals with the loss of her husband on their wedding day. She actually reminds me a lot The Bride from the “Kill Bill” films. Jane Lynch is fantastic and she has to be one of my favorite characters in the film. She is the one who teaches us about the threat of the Cy-Bugs (bugs that adapt by becoming whatever they eat and who are programmed to expand like a virus). She is a wonderful character, though her romance with Fix-It Felix was kind of unnecessary.

Vanellope – Is a glitch in sugar rush who is persecuted because she is different. The Candy King sees her as the biggest threat and she is the rebel who helps Ralph find his heart. She reminds him of something more to fight for and is the one who is willing to risk for others in the end too. She is the most selfish initially outside of Ralph, but both of hteir arcs involve finding each other and caring for everyone else when they find they are or were alone. Sarah Silverman was not annoying and did the kid sister role really well.

Fix-It Felix – He doesn’t really have an arc beyond getting awareness outside of himself (a theme of this film) but he still doe a good job. He eventually gets beyond his privilege and peer pressure from the townsfolk’s tower he always fixes when Ralph wrecks it in the game. I think Tamora helps him realize this when he sees just how lucky he’s had it when her back-story is referenced. He has funny expressions in his speech that make him adorable and he is a kind guy.

Wreck-It Ralph – Ralph reminds me a lot of the character of Shrek, except without all the cynicism, he genuinely wants acceptance and will go to any lengths to get it. It makes him interesting as he isn’t the guy who doesn’t care, he cares but goes about it the wrong way as well as having his code against him in regards to his awkward size that destroys things. When he finds his heart at the end it is fantastic as he puts himself at risk for Van and she does the same for him. He finds community in the end and it is done in a believable way. John Reilly was perfect for this role, though at times i thought it was very John Goodman like too.

The Themes – The themes of the outcasts finding acceptance and love is beautiful and done really well. There weren’t any characters I didn’t like and it was good at showing how wanting to be accepted and fit in can lead to selfish and selfless actions.

The Final Fight – Cy-Bugs, Van glitching to save Ralph has he activates the Mentos volcano.

Okay: Candy King/Turbo – He was an okay bad guy, I don’t get why he wanted to go Turbo and conquer all the games given he had things pretty good in the Candy Kingdom. His issue with Van I didn’t understand either. Did he expect to always win? He wasn’t a horrible villain but I wouldn’t call him great either. There hasn’t been a good one of those that wasn’t Pixar and from Disney though since…since Disney did 2D animation. None of their 3D villains really stand out if they aren’t made by Pixar. Cool design after he absorbs the bugs (how did he absorb the Cy-Bugs?) for the final is cool though and he does feel like a real threat in the film for what it’s worth. I wish Alan Tudyk had been given more to work with.

Cons: Some of the puns – Some of the food puns got a little out of hand…again this is from a guy who makes tons of puns and generally likes puns. At times this movie made too many.

I got to say, I loved this film. The characters were fantastic, even if the villain wasn’t great…the world and music were amazing…if you’ve ever played video games you’ll find a lot to love about this film. It’s not as great as “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” but still a favorite nostalgic film after today. I highly recommend it.

Final Score 9 / 10. Solidly great.

Rise of the Guardians (2012): The Power of Fun

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“Rise of the Guardians,” is a concept that was similar to one that my brother and I had as a child…though instead of Classic Fairy Tale Characters, ours were from children’s literature and some Disney films. So coming into this film, I was intrigued. A few days ago was my second time watching it, the first was on a flight and it impressed me. How did it fair with a second viewing? I’ll go into that with the assessment. The film was created by Dreamworks studios and was directed by Peter Ramsey while also being inspired by “The Guardians of Childhood,” book series by William Joyce.

The premise of “Rise of the Guardians,” is that the Man in the Moon chooses people to become Guardians to safeguard the children of the world from fear. The latest person the Man in the Moon chose is Jack Frost who is seeking his origins as well as working in a group, since he likes being alone and causing playful trouble. The arrival of the Boogeyman Man Pitch Black changes things as all of them are sustained by belief and he wishes to destroy the belief in the Guardians through his power of fear and nightmares. From here the story unfolds as Jack wrestles with himself, his role in the world and his relationship to the Guardians.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The idea – The idea is wonderful, again it was like what my little brother and I did when we were children and it’s what I’ve done with some of my themed Holiday stories that I’ve written. Seeing it through the eyes of a new Guardian in Jack Frost is brilliant too, given the others are already so well established (Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Sandman and Tooth Fairy).

Santa Claus – I love this character and Alec Baldwin does a good job with the Russian accent he makes for the guy. We see Santa Claus as the unofficial leader given it is his world device that first shows him Pitch Black is free. He also has an army of yetis who make toys and elves who are there mostly for comedic relief and so he can make them feel important. He is the most fun loving character besides Jack Frost in this and is the biggest mentor for Jack outside of his anti-mentor Pitch.

The Easter Bunny – This role would have been easy to mess up, but it plays on him being a bunny originally at one point and the fact that he is kangaroo size now and has an Australian accent. He is the but of most of the jokes but when it comes down to helping he is great, taking the heroes to his warren after Pitch’s attack on the Tooth Fairy’s kingdom. He has large eggs that protect the little eggs and the making of the eggs sentient fit the theme of the Tooth Fairy’s hummingbird fairies and Santa’s elves.

The World – The world in this fantastic! It starts out kind of dark with Jack drowning to death and being resurrected by the Man in the Moon. Yep, it starts with killing a teenager. We see how powerful the Guardians are through and why they need Jack when Pitch Black arrives given they’ve become complacent and outside of Sandman, never go out in the field, having their underlings do most of it.

Pitch Black – I almost put him as okay, but if a sequel happens he may be worthy of this spot again. Suffice to say the Man in the Moon messed up giving this guy power. Here is someone who is alone and wants to make everyone afraid and alone. We see him turning Sandman’s dreams into Nightmares and he even manages to destroy the Sandman, nearly destroy the Tooth Fairy, and stops Easter. My only issue with this character is we don’t get motivation. Was he good at one point? Fear doesn’t have to be a bad thing, a little caution can help. I like his attempts to corrupt Jack too since Jack Frost is already a pretty selfish character. Jude Law’s voice is what really does it. He feels it with such emotion that the character elicits sympathy…until he does horrible things.

Jack Frost – Jack Frost is the main protagonist and is played by Chris Pine. This is probably Pine’s least dickish character, even though Jack is always starting play fights and harassing the Guardians until he becomes part of the team and has to protect them. We see how he used fun to save his little sister and in the process drowned because of it. He uses this same tactic to defeat Pitch, giving children laughter and energy to fight the fear and darkness of Pitch. I liked his character arc, I just wish it hadn’t taken away from the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and Pitch’s development as much as it did.

Okay/Good:  The animation – There are moments where the animation doesn’t look quite right…like you have super detail and after it looks like you can see clearly that it is computer animated. This is contrasted with the fact that there are some beautifully animated scenes too, such as the two resurrections and time in The Warren, North Pole and Tooth Fairy Kingdom.

Okay: The Tooth Fairy – She is energetic and obsessed with teeth, and probably has a crush on Jack like the rest of her fairies. I like her but she’s more defined by her relationship to the protagonist and her job…not like Bunny and Claus, who do a lot of action based on their personalities. We learn later she collects teeth because they hold childhood memories…but this is never used in regards to her. Who was she before she was the Tooth Fairy? What does she see in Jack? These were the questions I had.

The Sandman – It is is creative in that they made it gender neutral as a character and it talks through making symbols with sand, but Sandman has Tooth Fairy’s problem. Why does it give children dreams? Does it know the Guardians need the belief so it is giving them an energy source? How is he tied to Nightmares? Because Nightmares destroy him, but children’s laughter resurrects him. Again, I like the character, but can’t really list as a pro, though I’d like to. There isn’t enough there to like. The Sandman is a force of nature like the Man in the Moon almost. When everyone is strong, he is strong and can one-shot Pitch, when everyone is weak, Pitch can absorb him into his Nightmares.

The Final Fight – Pitch isn’t really a threat in the end, which is a fitting way to tackle nightmares, but we never see why the Man in the Moon created him or why he is suddenly so weak after owning nearly all the world but this one child. I think it falls a little into the savior trope with the kid and Jack Frost…which is a shame since when they fight him it is as a team with all the Guardians with a resurrected Sandman present. Pitch threatens to come back, but he is no longer a threat…I wish he’d still felt like one. Fears don’t just go away, and I’d expect a bit more out of the living embodiment of fear.

The Writing – The writing isn’t the best. It is no Pixar, it is alright, just isn’t great. It kind of falls into the comic book writing trap where it becomes cliche…but the voice actors and animators are able to elevate it thankfully.

In the end, “Rise of the Guardians,” was really good, but not great with a second watch. It doesn’t have the depth of the “How to Train Your Dragon” Franchise but is still one of Dreamworks better films. Jack is a good protagonist, even though he takes away from time with the rest of the Guardians…and his arc is a little predictable, but it is fun. His power and center of fun is really the theme of this movie and it achieves that. This film was a lot of fun, and I definitely recommend it. It was a pleasure to watch it again with a bunch of friends.

Final Score is 8.5 / 10

Fist of the North Star (1986): Heads will Explode and a Hero’s Journey

Fist of the North Star (1986)

“Fist of the North Star,” is a film based off the manga series by Buronson and drawn by Tetsuo Hara. It was made into two anime series (from 1984-1988) in the middle of which this movie came out in 1986. There is also an American live action film of the same title too. This film was directed by Toyoo Ashida.

The story takes place on Apocalyptic Earth after nuclear weapons have destroyed everything and only the strongest survive. The main drama revolves around Ken known as the Fist of the North Star. The action takes off after the introduction of the world when his fiancee Yuria is taken by his former friend Shin. Ken is left for dead and cast off a mountain by his brother Raoh who wished to take his place in being the Fist of the North Star. From here the story unfolds from there.

Here is the assessment of the film:

Pros: The idea – Post apocalyptic or apocalyptic worlds have given rise to some of the greatest stories, especially in animation…from “Evangelion,” to “Akira,” and to many others I have yet to see. This is a world of mutants and magic fist attacks with some characters larger than life. It is an excellent idea that we are given to kick things off.

The Animation – The animation is fantastic! The characters are drawn with elongated style making their bodies and faces able to express a lot. Most have large muscles too, which fits the desert landscape of where it all takes place.

The Action – The movie is amazing with it’s action. It uses animation to push the boundaries as Ken’s attacks cause people’s heads to literally explode and body parts and blood are flying in most scenes…not to mention it kicks off a person melting in an atomic blast. It keeps that level of action through the movie.

Rei – Rei is a more feminine looking Hero and one of the more interesting characters in the movie. He teams up with Ken after Ken had saved some children and a village before as he was searching for the him…it turns out the man who had kidnapped his sister was Jagi who had taken Ken’s identity. His attack is cool is he creates chi energy that allows him to cut through limbs. He takes care of the kids that Ken saves. He also stands up to Raoh to save Yuria. He sees the big picture too and begs Ken not to fight Raoh so that the children and Julia can live.

Ragi – He’s insane and you can see that Ken letting him live in the past made him worse. His head is boiling and he breathes like Darth Vader. He fights to the end against Ken which is more than be said for Shin.

Raoh – Raoh the Conqueror is great, he shows that Shin is a nobody and manages to best Rei. His goal is stability through fear and his capture of Yuria is only to bring about Ken to defeat him. He is the brother with ambition and I wish the movie had given us more time with him and his conquest. We see him take out a nameless clan easily, but he is largely out of the picture until the last 30 minutes. He also killed his, Ragi’s and Ken’s father.

The Ending – It turns out that the children, specifically Lin becomes the hope for the future. Raoh ends the fight in order for her to be protected by Ken resolving the struggle between the brothers.  I liked that Raoh realized his pride and arrogance were destroying any chance of a future. It ends with the seeds growing and life returning to the dead world. Ken also find an Oasis where he finally can be with Yuria.

Okay: Ken – He is generic hero out to save his fiance. Nothing unique here…at least his design is a little interesting. He looks like Bruce Lee and he screams when he does his super fast multi-punch. Rei is much more interesting than him though, even though he doesn’t have the personal connection to the antagonists.

Shin – He has more depth than Ken in that he tries to win Yuria’s heart after he takes her from Ken, but he doesn’t do anything. He is there purely as a personal connection and motivation for the hero. Jagi was more interesting.

The Kids – Lin and Bat are pretty one dimensional. They play their role as the soul of humanity and human ingenuity though as Bat’s car saves Rei and Ken on a few occasions and Lin is the one who stops Raoh.

Cons: The Presentation of Women – There are a few good examples of them being given agency (the little girl Lin fighting back and helping Rei’s sister Airi find a reason to live) but more often than not they are victims or damsels. Isn’t the world ending supposed to give everyone a reason to fight? This was the most annoying thing about the film.

The Intro. Music – Is way too happy and idyllic given the world that this takes place and the actions that unfold…I don’t think it was meant ironically since this film doesn’t do irony.

The Final Fight – Raoh vs. Ken went on way too long. They destroy the city in the process and just doesn’t feel rewarding at all.

This was a pretty good anime film. I wouldn’t call it great because the protagonist just isn’t that interesting and it doesn’t do anything new with the tropes it uses. Also the overuse of damsels in distress doesn’t help…though Lin stopping Raoh is perfect to at least partially counter this. If you like classic anime or Kung Fu type films you will enjoy this. It has a pretty solid Heroes Journey and some great antagonists.

My final score for this film is 8.4 / 10. Pretty good, but not great.