It may seem an odd piece of critical feedback for a cartoon, but this one needed more character development. Although splendid to look at and deeply in command of its world-building in a mythical alternate Earth, Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Disney animated film Raya and the Last Dragon (B-) is missing foundational elements, namely clearer characterizations of Raya and the titular last dragon. It’s an extremely exposition-heavy tale with many quirky notions and fantastical details to recommend, but the sumptuous visuals overshadow a color-by-numbers plot line and two meh lead characters. The young heroine, skillfully voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, must travel to the five lands of her world to reclaim missing pieces of a gem that can bring harmony to the planet, and she’s accompanied by a water dragon, voiced by comedienne Awkwafina. From the character’s arrival on the scene, this tacky, talky blue dragon/narwhal/unicorn hybrid is a weak link and not quite as funny as a Disney sidekick should be. She’s the “friend like me” you kinda want to unfriend. The gamified story – spelled out in quite linear fashion – may keep youngsters’ attention on the screen, but it’s all not quite creative or original enough to break through as a classic for the studio. Without the characters breaking out into song, James Newton Howard’s score is nonetheless quite rousing. See it for some wondrous South Asian influenced imagery and enough flights of fancy to make the adventure nominally recommended, but know going in that you may wish upon a star that Raya and her last dragon are more interesting than they are.
A feel-good odyssey in the milieu of a Mark Twain tale, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s Peanut Butter Falcon (B+) wins over cynics with career-best performances from two young actors and an introduction to another indelible character plus an easygoing and authentic sense of human adventure. After escaping a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome (joyously played by Zack Gottsagen) befriends an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) who becomes his coach and ally. Dakota Johnson is the counselor on the hunt through North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the coastal castaways. Through boat chases and Baptisms, gun fights and hideaways, the human bonds become increasingly heartfelt. The final reel sputters a bit after already securing the glory of its fabulous fable. Familiar faces abound, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes in supporting roles. The film is sweet without becoming saccharine, and the characters stick to the roof of your soul.
A bit more subversive at times than expected while still fun for the family, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (B) is ostensibly a riff on The Breakfast Club if detention were actually a fantasy forest of video game characters and its ensemble of aimless teens transformed into avatars on a quest for their inner heroism. After a sluggish start, the film gains its footing once the characters start learning life lessons in and around thrilling action sequences involving animal stampedes, helicopter chases, encounters in exotic marketplaces and a subplot involving a stolen jewel. The film makes compelling use of its gaming conceits as characters discover their powers and vulnerabilities and preserve “lives” for the moments that matter. As far as characters go, Dwayne Johnson and Nick Jonas fare best with charisma in spades, and Jack Black sinks his teeth into the role of a female teen diva learning to care about others while adapting to her new male body functions. Kasdan finds the fables behind the fun and makes sure the escapism leaves everyone a wee bit wiser from the journey.
Co-directors John Clements and Ron Musker have animated quests with more Herculean tasks, drawn crooning crabs making a bigger undersea splash and created caves with greater wonders than the adventure afoot in Moana (C+), their mostly adrift Disney Polynesian epic wannabe. It’s quite enchanting to look at, at least for the first act; and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho brings lovely life to the brave and modern title character. Coupled with a goofy demigod convincingly acted and sung by Dwayne Johnson, the heroine embarks on an ill-conceived odyssey marked by listless villains, average banter and misbegotten mishaps. There’s one good song (of seven) played several times in the film, a propulsive anthem by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda called “How Far I’ll Go,” but alas its prescient title begs the answer “too far” or “not far enough.” The most inventive use of tattoos since Memento and a creative battalion of Mad Max style pirate ships cannot lift the story to the gravitas to which it sometimes aspires. Bogged down in bluster and with story conceits which fail to differentiate it in the Disney kingdom canon, the film is barely better than its makers’ Treasure Planet and The Great Mouse Detective. The co-directors have found unexpected box office success but might have been better off leaving this journey in the bottle.
A genre hopping film about being lost in the wilderness and summoning the courage that only a best friend can help you achieve, Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s Sundance discovery Swiss Army Man (A-) is the year’s cinematic curiosity as well as a mild revelation. Paul Dano turns in a superb performance as a young man seemingly stranded on an island until he is joined by a one-of-a-kind companion played by Daniel Radcliffe, who brings with him an unexpected sense of magic and utility. A dramedy filled from beginning to end with flights of fantasy and a dreamlike approach to storytelling, the film’s furtive lessons will reward adventurous moviegoers. Prepare to be startled and astonished in equal doses in this rather wondrous parable. The lively and affecting a capella score by Manchester Orchestra is nearly a character as well. Too much description of what goes on would be reductive; but suffice it to say you’ve seen nothing like it, and its filmmaking craft is nothing short of life affirming.
Given the amount of frustration most Americans have trying to function when they’ve lost a smartphone, it’s fascinating watching Matt Damon play an astronaut stranded on Mars having to go Full MacGyver, tapping into his brilliant scientific and survival skills to improvise in a world of limited food, oxygen, shelter, technology, human contact and rescue plans. In what is most certainly both Damon’s and director Ridley Scott’s best film in years, The Martian (A) excels as a saga of persistence and problem solving, including narrative flourishes to continually up the stakes in what could have otherwise felt like a long slog to resolution. Scott deftly marshals seamless effects and an impressive supporting cast of characters summoned to kick off global and interplanetary collaboration to bring the hero home. Some of the roles are cast too well given limited screen time (Do we really need Kristen Wiig as stern PR counsel or Sebastian Stan as a NASA scientist with collectively less than a dozen lines?) Damon brings effective swagger and likability to the central role, and the actor’s penchant for working with prestigious directors pays off big time here. Scott does both human drama and outer space adventures well, and this one is one of his best.
Related article: Learn PR tips inspired by Kristen Wiig’s character on the Cookerly PR blog.
The first act of director George Miller’s latest post-apocalyptic epic left me a bit mixed on Max, but as the propulsive parade of vehicular adventure progresses, it became clear that we do indeed need another hero. The adrenaline filled reboot Mad Max: Fury Road (B) is precision tuned in its breakneck stunt work, gloriously specific in its troupe of odd denizens aboard citadel towers and on monster trucks and near operatic in its pacing with few words punctuated by Junkie XL’s thrilling percussion and guitar. Ridin’ dirty in lead acting roles are Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron; and despite their character development coming a bit too little too late, they are strong physical actors for the journey. The film contains unexpected subtext about female empowerment as Theron’s character is delivering the villain’s wives to safe territory, and she is fierce in the role. Sequences with near-impossible odds, such as when Max is fighting with one arm chained to a car door and the other cuffed to a comatose man, showcase Miller’s strong action instincts in their rawest and most entertaining form. Hardy reclaims road warrior-dom from white collar execs and flexes uncanny instincts even when his character is going from one unpleasant challenge to another. Filmed in an orange hue that would make John Boehner envious, it’s a visceral ride into a thunderous domain.
There’s an intriguing story buried within the Lord of the Flies/Hunger Games/Prison Break mashup that is Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner (C-), but boy is the execution a tedious zig zag tracing some well-trod lines we have seen many times before! An all-teen-boys village of the future requires runners to scope out a maze each day in hopes of finding a pathway to escape (maybe they think there are girls on the other side?) There aren’t Minotaurs in the labyrinth but rather a selection of sinister electric spiders that attack at night if you get trapped in the maze’s doors that close at sunset. A preposterous young adult novel plot really needs an amazing lead actor to add gravitas to the proceedings, and alas the stoic Dylan O’Brien fails to fill the screen with charisma as the new man on campus. The entire ensemble, to be fair, is really quite dreadful in both talent and appearance, representing each cliche available for the dead sprinters’ society and clad in Gap outfits that don’t give one the sense that the costume department really thought out what the dystopian future really looks like. Where is the White Squall casting director when so desperately needed? When a female character (Kaya Scodelario) finally shows up to add some much-needed gender politics to the Katniss Ever-Peen mix, she’s as cardboard as the rest and gives the affair all the excitement Smurfette provides to a Peyo tale. To the film’s credit, there are several really heart-stopping action moments and a few elaborate set pieces of note, although nothing much better than you’d find on a typical episode of Lost. The doubting antagonists are insufferable, the Piggy-esque sidekick grating and the multiple trick endings stupefying. The final reel felt like a big set-up for a better sequel when the cast members have all completed their acting boot camp. There are endless possibilities about how this film could have been rendered with more panache.
A confusing title, the presence of the recently hit-or-miss Tom Cruise and a dark-looking paramilitary milieu are disguising what is actually one of the most clever films of the year, Doug Liman’s Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow (B). After a bit of a slow start in introducing a future in which warfare is being waged on the European front against squid-like aliens, the story injects a potent mixology of “mimic biology” and game mechanics to allow its reluctant hero to relentlessly reset his days to achieve victory over the earth’s invaders, even if it means dying again and again. Instead of playing his traditional alpha male role, Cruise gets to evolve into his heroism, and he does so with some deft comedy and bright, self-effacing acting choices. Emily Blunt is a fierce presence as the military might of the adventure and makes a sly foil and muse to Cruise. Video game players will relate to the idea of maneuvering scenarios until sequencing a path to success; and fans of the old choose-your-own-adventure books will relish the alternate realities afforded by the film’s central conceit. It’s a smart, action-packed spectacle; and while not as precise or enticing as an Inception, it holds its own in the category of sci-fi mind-benders.
An absentee wealthy father, three spinster sisters hawking wish fulfillment and blather, a conflicted surrogate aunt with mixed feelings about a visiting teenager and a 16-year-old with a strong attraction to a needle somehow manage to create a fairly inert melodrama in Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent (C), a revisionist Sleeping Beauty told through the perspective of Angelina Jolie’s fabulous costumes. As the object of audience ambivalence, Jolie does strike a mighty mean pose and has some deliciously nasty lines from time to time. She was most surprising when her sensitive side shines through opposite Elle Fanning as about-to-be-a-cutter Aurora. The effects and characters of the enchanted forest are truly laughable: some look like second unit rejects from the Captain EO creature shop; and even though the running time is brisk, the lopsided narrative withholds most of the intrigue for most of the film’s duration. For reclaiming a villain from history, it’s no Wicked. But in saving Jolie’s virtually hit-free career from continued box office poison, she may have just earned her wings.
Director Sam Raimi has built a palace on a poppy field with the visually resplendent, narratively inert box office hit Oz: The Great and Powerful (C-). Built around a conman protagonist played by James Franco and featuring the most star studded trio of witches since Disney’s similarly hideous Hocus Pocus, this tedious journey through predictable prequeldom is pretty much a mess from start to finish. Ah, but that beautiful spectacle – almost everything emerald or enchanting you could dream of painting on a green screen! Too bad there are only about two or three moments that make you care. When Disney further extends this yellow brick franchise, I suggest new screenwriters behind the curtain.