Times of quarantine can benefit from a little elf help, as a major animated theatrical release careens quickly to the home screen with video-on-demand and Disney+ providing a safe social distanced landing. Dan Scanlon’s Onward (B-) is mid-tier Pixar, no doubt, filled with fanciful frames of kid-friendly highjinks before culminating in the emotional payoffs adults will dig. The medieval pixels are summoned for brotherly buddy comedy as two elf siblings in an alternate modern suburbia filled with formerly magical and mythological characters invoke an ancient spell and embark on a quest to bring back their deceased father for just one day. The story and script are a bit bland, the character renderings and landscapes a touch unappealing and the adventure pedestrian at best, but then every once in a while there’s magic in this gathering. A charming dance moment and a heartfelt hug just may touch the heart and tickle the tear ducts. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt perform the two main voice roles, and what they lack in interesting things to say is often eclipsed by solid enthusiasm. The half-dad effect, the elves themselves and a dragon-infused denouement all fail to impress, but even a sometimes lackluster lark can pass muster and time in a moment of uncertainty.
Disney’s Mouse House has found a way to corral more currency out of Casa Mufasa and despite critical carping blowing across the savanna will likely have hakuna mutata (no worries!) about doing so. Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King (C-) is a largely joyless and superfluous affair, replacing traditional line drawing with a photo-realistic nature documentary CGI animation style. Not one element improves on the original, even though most of the content about a lion’s exile and return to assume control of his kingdom is still there. Voice actors Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen make the most of their Timon and Pumba characters amidst the dirge-like proceedings, riffing with abandon amidst an otherwise overly reverential storytelling format. Some of the best sequences in the original still work once transmitted through the Favreau facsimile, while many other emotional moments are rendered toothless. Donald Glover and Beyoncé deliver more lemon than lemonade in the voice talent department with indifferent line readings. The cuddly animated Simba cub will sell a lot of plush toys. Nostalgia factor and escape from the summer heatwave will lure folks in to the multiplex, but those expecting to have their pride rocked may be better served with a viewing of the delightful original.
Welcome to playland purgatory as Woody and his island of misfit toys ponder the post-Andy afterlife. Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 (B+) explores what lies beyond for the playthings of yesteryear as their very reason for being – the owner who needed them for years – fades to a distant memory. The characters must heed their inner voices to summon what comes next. Told through the joint metaphors of a creepy antique store populated by capricious and dead-eyed vaudeville dummies who cling to the past and a kaleidoscopic carnival full of color, imagination and possibilities, there is more subtext afoot in the film than meets the very entertained eye. Lushly rendered and tenderly told, this tale takes a moment to gain momentum but ultimately delivers solidly. Although most of the usual ensemble members are sidelined so the cowboy protagonist can seek his fortune while playing guardian angel to the timid little girl Bonnie, mentor to her Gumby-esque arts and craft project Forky and potential love interest to Bo-Peep, the streamlined approach enlivens the quality of storytelling. Bunny and Ducky (played by Key & Peele) are hilarious additions as mischievous mavens of the midway. This is a splendid family film with messages at work for multiple generations about the stories we still have to tell, about trashing assumptions and treasuring the next chapter.
Constructing a clever comedy requires a lot of bright component parts, and I suppose even Henrik Ibsen would marvel at the master builders behind this month’s blockbuster sequel! Veteran animator Mike Mitchell’s The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (B+), wisely written by the original film’s writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is a deft deconstruction of the walls governing plot and pacing. The result is a madcap bricks-and-mortar tour de force filled with hilarious highjinks, industry in-jokes and winning life lessons to be enjoyed by all ages. Chris Pratt (two roles), Elizabeth Banks (heroine) and especially Tiffany Haddish (shape-shifting emerging villain) shine in voice roles as the heroes face “Ar-mom-ageddon,” basically becoming toys thrown in the storage bin. The film blasts its ensemble of heroes and superheroes from a Mad Max style dystopia to an outer space world, with time travel and live action thrown in for good measure. It’s a pretty great musical too, following up “Everything is Awesome” with a variety of enjoyable new tunes including an earworm called “Catchy Song.” Just when you think you know where the plot is going, the creators have a few more bricks up there sleeve. There are so many great throwaway lines and creative gags that this second part may require a second viewing.
Review of the original film here
There’s a whole new convention for comic book aficionados, and it arrives in the form of a brilliantly conceived and rendered animation style and congregation of fringe superheroes. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (B) is a triumph of visuals and tone, capturing comic book aesthetic and tongue in cheek escapism. The story sputters out a bit midway amidst the kaleidoscopic New York set pieces, layered characters with text bursts and eye-popping swirls and swatches of dimensional color. The inclusive film explores a multiverse of Spider-Man personas converging, which gives us a half African-American/half Puerto Rican protagonist, female fighter, film noir hero and anime Spidey in the mix for confrontation with audacious baddies. Shameik Moore, Jake Johnston, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Nicolas Cage are among the voice talents. It’s fun for both purists and first-timers to the arachni-phile adventurer pantheon with an awesome message true to the late Stan Lee’s vision that everyone can be a hero.
Life’s a glitch for the best friends from the ‘80s arcade as they venture out into the worldwide web in Rich Moore and Phil Johnston’s uneven computer generated sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet (C). The great leap from the first film’s nostalgia fueled highjinks into the swirl of modernity is fraught with glaring shifts in tone and tenor, with voice actors John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman doing their darndest to keep the joy elevated. The best bits involve a woke encounter on a Disney princess fan site and a musical number set in a dystopian urban racing game. The animation is above average, and some of the jokes land, but not enough. The final reel is so off the rails, a blue screen of death would be preferable.
Lee Unkrich’s animated Disney Pixar adventure Coco (B) is alive with vibrant detail in painting a compelling Día de Muertos fantasia of light, color and music. The story of a Mexican boy torn between heeding a duty to family and following his clarion call to become a mariachi musician, the film toggles between Lands of the Dead and the Living in which the young man’s ancestors, sometimes skeletal relatives, help guide him to his destiny. Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt are among the voice actors breathing life into wholly original characters. The story starts and ends strong with fun surprises around every turn, even though there’s a long portion in the film’s center that drags with too much exposition. It’s such a breakthrough to secure inclusion of so many specific Latin traditions that the film sometimes seems overstuffed in its own bounty, with superfluous characters and a few too many bells and whistles. Also for a film about music, there could have been more of it, and it could have been better. Ultimately it’s a thoughtful and positive entry into the Disney Pixar kingdom, and it could have only been accomplished via animation.
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.
Expanding on a grand tradition of animated animal allegories ranging from Animal Farm to Watership Down to Fritz the Cat, Byron Howard and Rich Moore’s Zootopia (B) depicts the unlikely collaboration between a rabbit police officer voiced by Gennifer Goodwin and a red fox con artist played by Jason Bateman to uncover a conspiracy that involves missing predator civilians in an urban melting pot menagerie. This sprawl of the wild is chock full of colorful contours and lively landscapes with the atmosphere alluded to in the title providing home to a fable reflecting mature viewpoints on race and law enforcement. With additional voice talents such as Idris Elba and J.K. Simmons, it’s all pretty cunning and complex for a cartoon, evoking the likes of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential as a new brand of colorful, kaleidoscopic film noir. Alas several subplots are labored, and the mix of zaniness and gravitas causes zigzags in tone. Overall it’s great fun in the Disney tradition with a charming central duo and a few morals wedged into the mayhem.
Pete Docter’s animated Inside Out (B) is like a really inventive improv skit that wears out its welcome. It plumbs the goings-on inside a tween’s mind through the antics and skulduggery of five personified interior monologues. Color coded to match the memory marbles that the protagonist is losing, these sensory sprites (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) must summon every trick in the book to help the young lady keep it all together when her family uproots from Middle America to the West Coast. TV comedy stars Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith shine brightest as polar opposites; others such as Mindy Kaling are a bit wasted in underwritten voice roles. The overall conceit is intellectually stimulating as the film ponders how life’s most profound memories graft a combination of laughter and tears. Therapists will have a field day with the insider cognitive references; the rest of us may struggle to remember if the film had any big laughs or payoffs aside from set pieces and set-ups that mildly amuse. There’s a fine line between tickle and treacle. Aside from some delightful sentiment conjured up by the hero’s childhood imaginary friend (Richard Kind), there wasn’t much of an emotional arc. And the characters in the brain are lost a bit too long in the poppy field of forgetfulness as they race to re-unite and provide mental balance for viewers to remember why we’re supposed to care. Disney has done this cranium command before, but Pixar has made proceedings a bit too clever by half. Overall it’s got lots of great qualities but doesn’t quite win best personality. [Note: The animated short Lava that appears before the film is an enchanting take about the ballad of a lonely volcano and made all the better with new immersive Dolby technologies in select theatres].
A Word About #DolbyCinema:
I had the good fortune of viewing Inside Out courtesy of friends at Dolby. My screening was held at the new Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime now open at AMC North Point Mall 12 in Atlanta.
Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime combines Dolby Atmos, the highest quality immersive sound system, with the dazzling, colorful images of Dolby Vision. Journalists who have been to early Dolby Cinema screenings are calling the experience revolutionary. Geoffrey Morrison of CNET called Dolby Cinema “a breathtaking cinema experience.” Ryan Waniata of Digital Trends said the combination of Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos is “mind-blowing.” This movie is one of the first titles shown in the Dolby Cinema format, so it’s a perfect way to be introduced to this revolutionary new movie experience. #DolbyCinema
Don Hall and Chris Williams’ animated adventure Big Hero 6 (B-) is a triumph of style over substance, with an amazing hybrid metropolis imagined as a cross between San Francisco and Tokyo and a Marvel comic inspired origin story about a sextet of superheroes. There’s an Iron Giant-style central relationship between boy and gentle robot that provides much of the film’s comic and emotional heft, and there’s a sinister scientific subplot that propels the rise of a super villain. The characters are out of central casting, and there’s no breakout voice talent, prompting the most joyous parts to be the chase sequences through the cool cityscapes. The story is rather routine, down to the training montages and climactic showdown. Really, this is all about the action and the visual spectacle, and those elements are grandiose. It’s startlingly original for a Disney film but not that trailblazing otherwise.
Chris Miller and Phil Lord’s The LEGO Movie (B) is a clever, comedic and crowd-pleasing animated romp that will appeal to both kids and adults. Chris Pratt is the heart of the film as the central character who must summon his spirit as a master builder in a conformist world. Filled with kaleidoscopic vistas, thrilling chases and surprising cameos, it was almost overstuffed at times. It was fun how it toggled from sleek sophisticated effects to clunky movements like it was filmed in someone’s basement or backyard. Nearly “everything is awesome.”