Onward (2020): Pixar’s exploration of Brothers and Family

Onward (2020) - IMDb

    “Onward” is Pixar that is on the level of “Monsters Inc.” and “Monsters University” as it primarily a relationship between two guys that drives the story. This story once again has the depth I’ve come to expect in Pixar in the relationships between the characters that are explored. I really wish we’d gotten more of that exploration as it would have pushed the film to great. Suffice to say, if you are a fan of Pixar, definitely check this film out. I rented it off Amazon.

The film was directed by Dan Scanlon who co-wrote the screenplay along with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin.

On Ian’s (Tom Holland) 16th birthday he and his brother Barley (Chris Pratt) receive a wizard staff that belonged to their father. From here they must find the Phoenix Gem to restore their father fully as on Ian’s initial attempt at summoning he only manages to summon his father’s legs. They have 24 hours before the spell ends.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

Modern Fantasy World – I’ve always been a fan of urban fantasy. Modern fantasy creatures put into the modern world leads to fun and interesting situations. In this this is best expressed in The Manticore who was an adventurer who ran a tavern but  turned it into a more Chuck E. Cheese type joint in order to survive. We also see how Unicorns dig through the trash and you have a Pixie motorcycle gang. This world is so much fun and I’m glad Pixar made this film, simply for the world alone.

The Manticore – The Manticore is the one who gives into the quest and is reborn in the brother’s quest for the Phoenix Gem to bring back their dad. She ends up raging and burning down her restaurant and teaming up with Laurel Lightfoot to get her sword back as we learn that the Phoenix Gem is tied to a curse and only the sword can destroy it. Octavia Spencer is absolutely fantastic in this role. By the end of the film her Tavern is more traditional and she is once again the storyteller recounting her past adventures.

Laurel Lightfoot – Julia Louis-Dreyfus does an amazing job as the mother of the brothers. Her quest to get to them is the B-plot and I really enjoy how we see her taking more control of the situation over time. In her we see both the improvisation to solve problems that Barley has and also her nervous and overthinking nature that her son Ian inherited. She is key to the final battle and I really liked how she plays off her sons and the Manticore.

The Lightfoot Brothers – The core relationship is that between Ian and Barley. Their arcs involve Ian developing courage and confidence in himself, and Barley taking responsibility and opening up about how he ran away from his dad on his death bed because he was so afraid. This arc ends with Barley finally getting to say good-bye to his dad and Ian getting his confidence and realizing it was from how his older brother Barley raised him that he found it. After this magic is back in the world and Ian is now a wizard as we see him use all the spells from Barley’s game…that are real life spells and not just cards.

Death and Saying Good-bye – Barley’s relationship to his dad is the heart of the story in that it is his trouble letting go that I think feeds off how he always trying to escape into games and getting into trouble. In the end he does get to say good-bye and we see how each of the family members are connected to their father in the final shots of the film. All the characters get to say good-bye in their own way as Ian is able to accept his dad’s death because his brother raised him in the ways he’d always wanted his dad to and like his dad he inherited his magic so part of him will always be carried on in Ian.

The Cons:

Action Over Character Moments – This is very action heavy film. This is largely due to it taking inspiration from a Dungeons and Dragons style quest. For this reason it never stops being fun but it also means that we don’t get to see the relationship between the brothers develop as much as it should. They have moments of conflict and opening up to one another, but the film needed more of that. This was a script where the action of the quest took precedent over the character moments at different points.

The Minor Characters – Besides the Manticore most of the minor characters aren’t very memorable. I didn’t care about the Pixie gang beyond them being antagonists. The cop characters are just kind of there, even though the Centaur is set-up to become the Lightfoot’s step-dad. This was a shame as we don’t really get any motivations of these characters. Another draft could have changed this and in turn brought the film to great.

This is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year, and I’m glad it rentable from home given all that is going on with Corvid-19. Please stay safe everyone. This film is about family and the relationships that define us. Hold those relationships close and know just how important you are to so many others both friends and family. If you get the chance definitely check out this film. I hope we see more original projects like this from Pixar in the future.

Final Score: 8.8 / 10 Really good due to the core Lightfoot Drama.

Missing Link (2019): Amazing Animation Can’t Save This Story

Image result for Missing Link poster

     “Missing Link” is a film that could have been so much more. One thing Laika Studios is quite good at doing is taking a novel concept and going deeper with it. We see this with “Kubo and the Two Strings” which takes your basic adventure story and makes it about working through grief and exploring familial bonds. This story is bland. The strongest part of the film are Zoe Saldaña’s performance as Adelina Fortnight and Hugh Jackman as Sir Lionel Frost. The problem is they are fully inhabiting tropes that they never grow beyond. This was sad as this story deserved so much better.

The film was directed and written by Chris Butler.

The film follows Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) who wants to join the “Society of Great Men,” who believes he finally has a chance to join the order when he receives a letter from the United States and meets Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis) the Sasquatch. The leader of the “Society of Great Men” Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry) sends a hunter (Timothy Olaphant) to stop him as Frost must call upon a former friend Adelina (Zoe Saldaña) to get Mr. Link back to his ancestors the Yeti, in the North.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Animation – Laika is a master of stop-motion animation. “Missing Link” continues that same quality. The levels of detail they put into the forest set, the Yeti Temple and the ship is just spectacular. This is Laika once again showing why they are famous for their animation.

Sir Lionel Frost – Sir Lionel is the only character with a real character arc. He goes from a sociopath who uses people for his own glory, to one who considers his friends family. We see this in how he cares for Adelina and Mr. Link/Susan and though it takes work for him to gain empathy, in the end he finally does. Hugh Jackman does a fantastic job in the role. He plays the stuffy English man stereotype but the film at least lets him grow beyond it. The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast and the boxes they are put into.

Adelina Fortnight – Zoe Saldaña’s character is good in that she grows beyond the death of her husband and becomes her own adventurer. The problem is the stereotype the film has given her. She is still one of the best characters in the film but she is the angry latina which is a problematic trope and I wish Laika had been better. I liked her character but that trope kept her from becoming more three-dimensional because she was playing a problematic trope that hurt what character had been formed.

The Yeti Elder – Emma Thompson does a great job as the leader of the Yeti’s in the Yeti Elder. They are a closed off community who imprison Lionel, Adelina and Mr. Link dubbing him a redneck and not one of them. She does a great job of showing why the warriors follow her and also the closed off nature of what her people have become. They are portrayed as a warrior civilization with her as the head with survival above all else. Which given their isolation, I can see but there was no nuance. The Yeti Elder showed as much. She was just as close minded as the English villain just not a sexist imperialist.

Okay:

The Villains – Lord Piggot-Dunceby is simply a sexist pig consumed by ego (he has a great design at least as he is the largest human in the film) while the hunter is just a western style cowboy who never feels threatening. The characters are one dimensional and they serve their purpose within the narrative but that is about it. I’m glad Stephen Fry at least hammed up Lord Piggot-Dunceby or he would have been a bore. So much more could have been to critique the British Empire and the era but Butler was really lazy in trying to delve deeply into any of these characters or ideas.

The Cons:

Mr Link/Susan – Zach Galifianakis was the wrong person for this role. Mr. Link needed to be played by more than a comedian as so much of what he says are meant to be jokes said by a comedian. This was a disservice for the literal mindset and childlike nature of Mr. Link. This is a character who doesn’t really grow. He eventually finds family in Adelina and Sir Lionel but that isn’t through his choice, it is through theirs. Throughout the story he is always rejected and a more nuanced actor and script could have made that mean something.

Colonial Tropes – The problematic colonialist tropes that stood out where how native cultures were treated as props. They were just there to get Sir Lionel to his next location and discovery was always seen as new. The power of the British Empire is never questioned even as the film tries to be progressive.

I didn’t like this film but I didn’t hate it either. This film was enjoyable and fine. I would also only recommend for people who are fans of Laika like myself and who want to keep the studio going. I don’t want stop-motion animation to become a thing of the past, and Laika Studios is still one of the best at it. I do wish this film had managed to stand more for something and hadn’t been problematic, but for a forgettable fun film, it was serviceable.

Final Score: 7 / 10

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) – The Best Spider-Man Film

       Sony has made so many crappy films recently. “The Emoji Movie,” the past “Amazing Spider-Man” films just got worse over time and felt like commercials for franchise management. The clips I’ve watched of “Venom” haven’t helped that as the writing I witnessed was just awful so I really don’t want to spend money to even rent that film, it makes “Suicide Squad” look like a work of amazing art. So Sony doesn’t have a good track record with Spider-Man outside of the first 2 Raimi films and their co-operation with Disney with “Homecoming,” until this film. This is my favorite Spider-Man film and easily one of my favorite films of the year, and is likely to end up in my Top 5 Films of 2018.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman who was one of the writers along with Phil Lord. Phil Lord is the writer behind “The Lego Movie” and he brings that same fun and surprising level of depth here.

The story follows Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) who is a young kid in Brooklyn is bit by a radioactive spider in an abandoned ally and witnesses Peter Parker facing off against foes. He soon realizes there are many other Spider-Men and must deal with the consequences of their plans as well as coming to terms with becoming Spider-Man himself.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is on it. It taps into the core emotions of Miles and the other characters and when they reach their highs it soars, and when there is a threat you can feel the tension eating at your skull. Daniel Pemberton did an amazing job. This music explores the full spectrum of what it means to live and is energizing at so many moments in the film. The impact of scenes would not have been the same without the power of this music.

The Animation -They started work on this film back in 2014, and I can see why. “Into the Spider-Verse” combines multiple animation styles (anime for Peni Parker, black and white for Spider-Noir, WB Cartoon for Spider-Ham and real life inspired for Gwen, Peter B. Parker, Peter Parker and Miles) and never stops being beautiful. From the Particle Accelerator being activated and the colliding of multiple dimensions, with the creation of a near black hole at the finale, to a forest with golden leaves contrasted with the red of Peter and Miles and the White of Gwen…this team knew how to use color and styles to make a seamless masterpiece. This film better win best animated when the Oscars role around.

The Villains – This is a film with some well designed and sometimes extremely compelling villains. I’ll cover 3 of them here. There is Liz Octavius who works for Kingpin and invented the Particle Accelerator that brought all the Spider-Men out of their universe in the first place. She is the passionate mad scientist and I love how she is never afraid of Kingpin even when we know he will kill anyone for failure.

Kingpin is the main baddie and his motivation is to bring back his wife Vanessa and their son as they died in a crash when he as about to kill Spider-Man years ago. You get his motivation as he is a man full of guilt who is ready to risk everything for another chance with the people he loves. This is no Netflix’s “Daredevil” Kingpin but he serves his purpose well. I wanted to see more of who he was and know more about his past, so he succeeded at keeping me interested.

Prowler is the best of the villains. Prowler we learn is Miles’s Uncle who has been supporting his art and is in deep with owing his life to the Kingpin. We see the threat of who he is as he helps Kingpin kill the original Peter Parker, but also his empathy as when he is given the choice to kill Miles, he saves him and admits he admires the person Miles is becoming. In the books Prowler is a black-mailing, gas-lighting bastard and inspires Miles to be better by how terrible he is. The complexity is still there, but I enjoyed this version so much more. Mahershala Ali is also one of my favorite actors and him voicing Prowler helped. I loved seeing his dynamic with Miles and that even though he was doing bad, he never stopped loving his nephew.

The Heroes – The heroes are easily the best part of this film and they do more in less time than Marvel’s MCU. Most of the characters of the MCU we love have had at least one film of development. These are character who don’t receive that but accomplish more, largely from the writing, acting and animation that is able to add a level of depth that is wholly unique to the film while still taking inspiration. If the Villains had been on this level chances are this film would be the best film of the year, they were great…but not as great as the heroes and I’m going to explore why.

Miles’s Parents are great in that his dad is a police officer who has so much suppressed masculinity he can’t talk to his own son and is showing him up early on until he is willing to open up after he is afraid he is going to what relationship he has.

Aunt May is the heart of the film as she is the one who is carrying on Peter Parker’s legacy after he is killed by Kingpin. She is the mentor figure for all the different Spider-People and can hold up her own. Lily Tomlin gives so much gravitas and empathy to the role. I loved every scene she was in as each time it revealed something more about whatever Spider-Person she was interacting with.

Peni, Spider-Ham and Spider-Noir are the support characters and play off the core leads of Gwen, Peter B. Parker and Miles really well. You have Peni who is the young sincere anime girl, Spider-Ham as the classic cartoon  pig who jokes but works with cartoon physics so is quite powerful and the grim and gritty Spider-Noir (voiced by Nicolas Cage) who is the edgy private eye who spends his time fighting Nazis in his universe. The way they play off the villains the heroes is a lot of fun and I’d watch films from all of their universes. Spider-Noir I especially found intriguing.

Gwen Stacey / Spider-Woman is one of the core leads of the film as she is one of Miles’s teachers and saves him and Peter B. Parker after they steal from Kingpin in order to stop his plan. I’ve read the first “Spider-Gwen” comic and I like the world. The righting for Volume 0 isn’t the best but I’m willing to read on because I love the character, the art and the world. This version is not quite that Gwen Stacey (this one dances) but takes inspiration from it, just as Miles takes inspiration from the “Ultimate” comics universe he was created in. She is a character alone until her friendships with the other Spider-People and seeing her open up is a really cool arc. Hailee Steinfeld is wonderful in the role. I hope they do some spin-offs in her universe as I think she is the best character in the movie outside of Miles Morales.

Peter B. Parker is from a world where Spider-Man’s personal life falls apart. In his world he buried Aunt May, he ends up getting divorced from Mary Jane and is wholly Spider-Man. He has no life outside the character so is a perpetual child. He takes up the mentor role when the machine pulls him into Miles’s world and it is from this he grows up, discovering that he even wants kids. His arc is really cool as he has a death wish for most of the film because of how miserable his life is and it is only through Miles showing him there is another way that he finds a reason to live again. Jake Johnson does a fantastic job in the role and gives the character a lot of depth.

Peter Parker is voiced by Chris Pine and exists in Miles Morales’s universe (like in the “Ultimate” comics). He rescues Miles but is killed by Kingpin before he can teach Miles how to be Spider-Man. It is a powerful death that you feel through the entire film. Mary Jane makes a speech on how Parker shows anyone can be Spider-Man and Stan Lee as a comic book owner says the same thing. This Spider-Man is very much the Parker from the comics but with inspiration from the Sam Raimi films and it is wonderful how they blend those elements together (Spider-Man has a flashback of him doing the dance from “Spider-Man 3”) and it is because this Peter is at the top of his game and still so young (having married Mary Jane pretty recently it seems) has his life together, only for Kingpin to take it all away. It is a tragedy that matters and he doesn’t come back. Death matters in this world and it means everyone we lose during the film is felt.

Miles Morales is the main character of the film and his arc is taking responsibility for the role that was thrust upon him. He is full of so much fear (new fancy school, new powers by accident) and that is a difficult path for him. What makes things complicated as well is his relationship with his dad, who is a cop who doesn’t let anyone close. It is only in the death of Prowler (when Prowler chooses not to kill Miles) that healing finally happens. Miles was always closest to his Uncle Aaron (Prowler) and his dad regrets the relationship he lost with his brother. This motivates both Miles and his dad to try and make a relationship happen. It is beautiful and organic and I can’t wait to see how things develop further. Miles is also the rookie out of all the Spider-People and none of them take him seriously except for Peter B. Parker so he has to not only prove that he can be a hero to himself, but to those already excelling in their roles as heroes. I loved how it was executed. Miles is one of my favorite characters and I highly recommend Bendis’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” run where Miles is introduced to anyone. This one has more heart than that run (Prowler is handled better) but both are amazing and if you loved Miles in this film, you will love him in the comics. Shameik Moore gives this character so much heart.

This was the perfect film and I hope it at least wins Best Animated Film at the Oscars. There is so much heart in all the characters who are each compelling, there is loss with the deaths our heroes experience and each action has consequences. This is a film that pays tribute to the creators (Ditko, Lee and Bendis) and truly shows that anyone can be a hero. If you enjoy great animation (seriously this is one of the most beautifully animated films I’ve ever watched) and amazing stories you owe it to yourself to see this film. Sony has put out a lot of crap and there hasn’t been a great Spider-Man film since “Spider-Man 2.” As a Spider-Man fan this was everything I could ever want in a film and I can’t wait to see it again.

Final Score: 10 / 10. Can’t wait to see what they do with the Spider-Verse in the future.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016) – An Enjoyable Animated Adventure in the 1960’s Batman Series

  Adam West is a man who has left quite a legacy on the world. I knew primarily as the neighbor of Quahog on “Family Guy,” but got an appreciation for him when I reviewed the film that came out of the  Batman 60’s TV show, which I’ll post later in the review. The longer I’ve been with dark and gritty Batman the more I’ve come to appreciate the anti-fascist Batman. The one who is a public servant and at the end of the day is honorable, rather than the sometime psychopath of the modern incarnation that has existed since at least Burton’s Batman. West is a man who is going to be missed and this review is in honor of him.

“Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders” was directed by Rick Morales and written by Michael Jelenic and James Tucker.

The story takes place within the same universe as the 1960’s tv show as Batman and Robin face off against Catwoman, The Riddler, Penguin and the Joker as they come up with a plan to turn Batman evil in order to pull of an devious heist and steal a powerful device.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Writing – The writing is clever, from Robin’s word play and the articulation of Adam West to the many visual and verbal puns that cover this film like music…I really enjoyed the dialogue in this film and it is a big part of what kept me watching.

Batman and Robin – The dynamic duo are the only competent ones in Gotham as the Police Chief and Commissioner Gordon don’t know how to do anything but call Batman and Robin for help. I really like the duo, they have a great mentor/student and father/son relationship that is only further developed over the course of the film such as when Robin has to save Batman and we see Batman take his crime fighting to a fascist degree after he gets infected by Catwoman’s concoction. West’s Batman is wonderful in this as he always appeals to the villains’ better natures before fighting them. Like how Superman once was in film, he appeals to the good in people and Robin is the one striving to do the same. This innocence and lack of cynicism really lends power, especially in all the crap going on currently.

A Stand Against Vigilantism and Fascism – When Batman gets infected her turns into a dictator and takes over every role in Gotham City with the Replicator gun. He arrests everyone or takes their jobs and makes everything about him and his great nobility. It is a great critique of the Batman who does this and is rewarded for it…the Nolan, Snyder and Burton Batmans at the end of the day are not public servants…they are vigilantes that have no regard for the law outside of what they get out of it. This makes Batman an anti-hero, which isn’t bad but I hardly consider him a hero anymore…even though he is one of my favorite comic book characters. This Batman is an actual hero and his corruption to becoming like modern day Batman illustrates the flaws in the ideology of the current incarnations of the Dark Knight.

Okay: The Villains and their Plan – The villains just want to steal art…that is it and there is Penguin creeping on Catwoman. They are okay in that Joker just wants to have a good laugh and the Riddler needs clever Riddlers but they never become more than the one note villains which was a waste. I enjoyed when other classic villains from the show face off against them (an early Mr. Freeze!) as they each had potentially a bit more going on, given they were working with Catwoman and Robin to defeat the evil Batmen.

The Cons: Catwoman and Sexism – Catwoman pretty much only uses her sex appeal and the heroes’ chivalry as a weapon. This was a shame as her master plan to turn Batman evil is successful though she switches sides after being betrayed and again randomly wants to kill Robin and run away with Batman, implying she never changed before killing one of her lives? She is the only woman in the film and she is entirely defined by the male gaze, whether it is Batman or Penguin. This was a damn shame given how central she is the story. I really was hoping for better from her character and it was this issue that kept the film from being good, even though I found it enjoyable.

The film was a lot of fun and a lot better than the 1960’s film, which in many ways had camp that didn’t quite work and was really unfocused (https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/batman-1966-fun-camp-that-doesnt-quite-work/). This one was self aware but wasn’t insulting as I could tell how much passion was put into this project. I really hope that “Batman: The Caped Crusaders vs. Two-Face” which has Shatner playing a 60’s Two-Face. I really enjoy this Batman now and plan on checking out the show as whole, knowing that I’ll probably being seeing more of the sexism in regards to Catwoman, but I’ll also see Eartha Kitt who is one of the people I highly admire and of course Adam West in one of his most iconic roles. R.I.P. Adam West, may the good always defeat evil.

Final Score: 7.5 / 10

 

Moana (2016): Honoring Polynesian Mythology and Culture in Disney’s “Princess Model” to Create a Classic

moana

  I really liked “Moana.” It was no “Kubo and the Two Strings” but besides “Up” and “Inside Out” not many can compare to that…but this is classic Disney as it’s best. This is Disney taking the “Princess Model” (Princess goes against status quo for family, tribe, etc. for greater good) and achieves final great ends while being helped along by animal and magical companions. This is the base of Moana that the director, writer and Lin-Manuel build upon. Suffice to say I have nothing but affection for this film as it captures both my love of history (paying tribute to the Polynesian tribes and their history of exploration) and culture (how they related to one another and others).

    The film was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, written by Jared Bush and produced by Osnat Shurer.

     The film involves Princess Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) dealing with the after affects of Maoi stealing the heart of Te Fiti as her Island slowly dies and her people become more isolated. Prompted by her Grandmother and her own desire for adventure seeks out Maoi (Dwayne Johnson) and the heart to restore peace in the world once more.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is awesome! Welcome to a world inspired by Polynesian mythology, with gods, demons  and islands connected by travel. This is a world that I only wanted to spend more time in and you should experience for yourself.

The History – The history is rich and tells a story that needs to be told. The early explorers and traders in the Americas were Polynesians but that is often ignored to history as horrible folks like Columbus get credit instead. This world recognizes what was long before Europeans came and congresses the thriving cultures that colonialism and in many ways destroyed, even though many histories and cultures still live on, as shown by this film.

The Animation – This it the best of Disney Animation and shows us a variety of animation types…from 3-D over 2-D and some fantastic visuals. The islands feel alive and real and honestly, besides “Wreck-It Ralph” this is the best animation so far.

The Soundtrack – It’s Lin-Manuel Miranda overseeing it and it shows! You’ve got musical, rap and power as just as he gave power to “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” each culture and history he touches is given his own take and with it passion and life.

The Characters – The characters drive the film and are really what make it stand out and put it above “Kung Fu Panda 3” and most Dreamworks films.

Grandma Tala – Grandma is the heart of the film. She motivates Moana’s desire to travel beyond the island her death incites Moana finally doing it. She is there for Moana through the best and worst times and her loss is felt once it happens.

Chief Tui – Chief Tui is traditional Disney Dad afraid of Daughter being free. This time it is given reason though as he lost a friend when he went beyond the reef. Sadly we don’t get more exploration though, everything he does is a reaction to Moana and it hurts his character development.

Maui – Dwayne Johnson is awesome! Maui hurts the Goddess by sealing her heart (Disney is clearly okay going there post “Maleficent”) and his arc is restoring the heart and apologizing for his wrong which was for his ego and for humanity, the people who abandoned him leaving the ocean and Gods to give him his power and turn him into a Demi-God. He is funny but can do drama too…seriously, “The Rock” is underrated as an actor.

Moana – Is the princess who drives the story as she and her animal sidekick try to save the world and find Maui in order to restore peace. She is awesome and I wish she’d found her power sooner as we see her being a fantastic Chief before her voyage beyond the reef. I felt for her, she lost and she gained and she discovered her own power.

A Story Not Told in the West – Polynesian culture has usually always been exoctized in the west and this was finally breaking free of that. Rather than being treated as a vacation spot where the people are a reward rather than a people. This film changes that which is a needed reaction to Disney’s past exocization of Hawaii and Polynesia. This can’t be stated enough and I hope those involved are aware of Disney’s own dark history.

Okay: The Disney Princess Model – Princess teams up with magical being (The Genie, Stich, Mushu, etc.) and an animal companion (s) (The Mice, The Horse in “Mulan” and “Tangled,” etc.) to defeat her family’s prejudice’s (“Frozen,” “Mulan,” etc.) and restore balance and peace. Disney has done this so many times and that is why I say it is okay. “Moana” doesn’t subvert anything like “Zootopia” or “Frozen” did.

The Cons: Tamatoa and Codedness – A villian coded as gay who is vain wants to eat the heroes! This isn’t new! (Prince John, Radcliff, Jafar, etc.) DIsney you are better than this. Though to be fair, even “Wreck-It Ralph” Sadly had this problem too. Feminine men need to stop being coded as bad.

The Mother as Plot Device – The mother helps Moana and tells the story of why her husband fears the sea…she is basically a plot device to motivate Moana to stay or leave, which is a shame as her helping Moana leave hinted at so much more.

Why Afraid to Take a Chance? – This movie took the safe route, Moana with her magic friend and animal side kick saves the world. Nothing is subverted when so much more could of. I like that he demon was the goddess  who needed balance again, which was Miyazi-esque but so much more could have been done. Why did she assume Maui could only save the day? She was the Chief to be, she was empowered, there was no reason to hand him the direction for the first half of the film.

   This is a film that I really liked and I consider a favorite. Now it probably won’t make my Top 5 of 2016 but that doesn’t change the fact that Polynesian culture and mythology have not been explored in the west beyond being exotcized. This changed that and gained so much power because of it. Yes it followed the “Princess Model” which is Disney’s take on the “Hero’s Journey” but it did it in such a powerful. This was Miyazaki levels of storytelling and “Hamilton” inspired music (Thanks Lin-Manuel Miranda). I can only recommend this film.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016): A Masterpiece of Animation With an Unforgettable Story

Kubo and the Two Strings

  “Kubo and the Two Strings” is my favorite movie of the year. Whether it was hold that place remains to be seen but thus far, it is the most perfect film I have watched this year. Not only is the stop-motion animation and soundtrack amazing but the story and characters kept me involved through the entire story, and the story starts out slow to let know become familiar with the world. You should see this film, I want more films like this to be made and it needs all the support it can get, given it is only Laika studios that is keeping this form of art alive.

   The film was directed by Travis Knight, who was also one of the producers, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler with the other producer being Marc Haimes.

    The story involves Kubo (Art Parkinson), whose eye was stolen by his grandfather the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and must not go out at night unless his grandfather finds him and takes his other eye. During the village’s festival he stays out too late and finds himself hunted by his two Aunts (Rooney Mara) who have come to take his other eye at his Grandfather’s behest. He must collect his father’s armor, sword and helmet in order to stop the Moon King and is helped by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a former samurai turned into Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) along the way.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is wonderful and full of amazing monsters! From a Garden of Eyes, Witches and Gods to a Ten Foot Skeleton…this is a world that is lived in and all the powerful for it as it embraces Japanese mythology while creating a mythology all it’s own.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is beautiful, Dario Marianelli manages to create a soundtrack infused with magic that is full of power in depth, where you feel each loss and the power behind each action or fight.

The Writing – Marc Haimes and Chris Butler did a fantastic job on the writing! There is powerful drama and humor that gives it a balance that doesn’t really exist in “Deadpool”(which is a favorite film). It is their mixture of humor and drama mixed with a powerful message and characters are what made it my favorite film this year thus far.

 The Animation – “Kubo and the Two Strings” is my first Laika film. Suffice to say after this I plan on watching the rest of the films they’ve made. Stop-motion animation is a lost art that they keep alive and continue to improve upon.

The Characters – The characters are extremely memorable! Each of them is an archetype to some degree, but also manage to get beyond those archetypes in how they are written. They have humanity and flaws and it makes them worth rooting for or makes them feel threatening.

Hosato – George Takei plays one of the people in the village who takes care of his daughter who is Kubo’s biggest fan. He’s a nice solid presence in the film and in a way reminds Kubo of the fact that he believes his father to be dead at the beginning of the story and his mom is only lucidly present of him…

Kameyo – Kameyo is the older woman who is a beggar in town and the soul of the town. She is a mother figure to Kubo a bit as she is one who looks out for him and helps him with his storytelling. Brenda Vaccaro is fantastic.

The Sisters – The Sisters, who are Kubo’s Aunts are amazing! Rooney Mara gives a haunting performance as these two mask wearing witches who are so powerful that they kill both Kubo’s mother and father. They are one of the best animated threats I’ve ever seen.

Beetle/Hanzo – McConaughey is wonderful in the role of Beetle, who we learn was turned into a Beetle by the Sisters and the Moon King to punish him for leading their sister out of immortality. He has a lot of humor to him and isn’t very bright but his heart is in the right spot and he has great humor. His death is powerful too as he risks his life to protect Monkey/his wife Sariatu.

Monkey/Sariatu – Theron plays my favorite character in the film. Monkey and her Sisters are the best parts of the film. In Monkey we get the strength of her personality and her love for her son and husband while as Sariatu she is a traumatized shell destroyed by her family being cared for by her son. The dichotomy is powerful and gives her humanity and depth. She was a God and gave it up to protect Hanzo from her family…She is the best part of this film.

Kubo – Kubo is a great protagonist who feels very much like Link a Zelda game but has so much more depth and layers to him as we see him finally allowed to be a kid after he leaves the village and is collecting his father’s sword and armor. Before that he is forced to be an adult caring for his mother and making money for food. He had no childhood until his life was at risk and seeing how they explore it is something you have to see for yourself.

Facing Loss – He loses both his mother and father twice, both times as they protect him and in the story we see him face that loss and remember the memories as well as honoring them with the lantern ceremony the village does as who they both are live on in him. The missing of another never goes away, but those we lose become a part of us like the strings on Kubo’s instrument.

The Power of Story – Story is a major theme as the Grandfather is trying to force his story upon his Grandson and make him like him, the village story of his Father’s past is never finished until he becomes a literal part of it when myth (his grandfather the Moon and his Aunts) hunt him and the stories of the dead are interwoven through the film. The self and it’s connection to story is powerful…how a story can change or be erased is captured in the story of his family as at different points they lose their story.

The Hero’s Journey – Kubo’s Hero’s journey is powerful as he discovers connections only to lose them and has to adapt to change all around him. From his mother becoming Monkey, his father being a live and Beetle…to losing them both and in the end having to care for his Grandfather who loses his memory as well. Even as he discovers joy and childhood circumstances force him to lose it and from it find himself.

Okay/Pro: Raiden the Moon King – Raiden has great minions in his daughters and I liked the fact that he is like a sympathetic old man until he turns into a monster…in the story it is left open too if he ascended to Godhood and was once human or was forced into humanity by Kubo…there is so much possibility in this character that I can’t just put him as okay as he is interesting in what they do with him.

    Minus the fact that Raiden is a bit underdeveloped (though still interesting)…this is  a film that I can’t really find any faults with. Kubo doesn’t really get his happy ending, his parents are dead and he has to face it. This is a film that is well worth your time and you should really see it if you have the chance. Give strength to these stories that don’t exist as franchises and are timeless and powerful. This is the best film of the year I have seen thus far and is well worth your time, it is in the timeless stories that we are reminded of our own and this story does it with unforgettable power and beauty.

Final Score: 10 / 10. First perfect film of the year.

The Secret Life of Pets (2016): Depends on the Cute Factor and the Story is Weak

The Secret Life of Pets poster

  When I review films I usually break it up into pros, cons and okay…this film there isn’t much to say on it so I’m going to write about it in a small essay form. The film isn’t bad, but it isn’t even close to good and was even boring at times, which is one thing no story should be. The idea of pets living another world when humans are away is intriguing, it just never gets all that complex the way other films of the same nature have done. The film did make me want to watch the “Despicable Me” films since I heard those were good, and they were from the same studio who did this film, so it has that going for it at least.

   The film was directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, written by Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and produced by Chris Meledandri and Janey Healey.

   The story involves Max (Louis C. K.) and life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) and how it changes when she adopts Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the pound leading to Max and Duke trying to kick each other out of the house leading to them getting lost and Max’s friends having to rescue them while Duke and Max must learn to get along.

    The story is a lot like “Toy Story,” with Max as Woody and Duke as Buzz, but unlike “Toy Story” the writing never rises that high. More often than not it depends on what we associate with animals (lazy cats, over excited dogs) to get the humor across while never rising up to deep characters like a Pixar film.

     This isn’t Pixar but I was hoping to actually care about the characters. Besides the ending when Max and Duke repair their issues with one another, I cared less about them. If there were good side characters this wouldn’t be so bad…

     There are two interesting side characters, Gidget who has a crush on Max and Snowball who is leading a rebellion against humanity with a bunch of abandoned pets. They are each interesting because they have personality traits that stand out. Gidget is obsessed with Max and extremely naive (talks to a hawk who wants to eat her) but can befriend anyone and Snowball is crazy but shows that he just wants to be cared about at the end of the day when a little girl adopts him. Seriously, these two could have carried the film and brought it up to maybe a 6 or 7, but we are left with the bland leads going through two folks learning to get along which we have seen in animation done better, and this time it isn’t even done in an interesting way.

     At the end of the day this was a predictable film that lacked in humor and and characters with depth. This is bad because if the leads can’t carry a film I need other characters who are around enough or comedic enough to keep me entertained. This film failed on this basic part and in the end wasn’t an enjoyable drama or comedy. The soundtrack like the characters didn’t stand out so I can’t really recommend that either.

    If you have kids and don’t want to see “Finding Dory” again I’d tentatively say you should see it. The kids may be entertained, but they deserve better. Take them to “Finding Dory” instead or show them one of the many amazing animated shows currently on television.

Final Score: 5.2 / 10