The stop-motion animated musical fantasy Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (B+) co-directed by the titular moviemaking wunderkind and Mark Gustafson is not only a gorgeous creation to behold but deepens a timeless tale’s themes about the father-son bond. Set in 1930s Fascist Italy, the film’s every frame reflects meticulous craft and intrigue; and the sentimental story comes to life in unexpected and lyrical ways. The directors start pulling the heartstrings immediately in the prologue by depicting time spent between lonely woodcarver Gepetto and the son he lost before willing a merry marionette to life. David Bradley and Gregory Mann are solid in the father-son voiceover roles, and Ewan McGregor as a charming cricket is a spry standout in an ensemble including Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz. The movie takes viewers to some familiar and exotic locations, with just enough change of venue to keep an oft-told story fresh. Alexander Desplat’s score is quite lovely too except his full-out songs which are more wooden than the protagonist puppet. The fable outstays its welcome a bit, and the title character could have used a central nervous system stimulant; but it’s largely a technical marvel with solid heart.
Disney’s latest animated adventure is a triumph of representation and style, but the film’s storytelling barely scratches the surface. Don Hall’s Strange World (B-) follows a legendary explorer family who must set aside their differences as they embark on a journey to the center of the earth filled with surreal creatures to protect an agricultural power source. Clearly an homage to pulpy serialized sci-fi magazines, this tale examines a spectrum of masculinity as hunters and gatherers unite for common good. The land under Avalonia feels like Pandora Jr., and the rules of this subterranean world don’t reveal themselves soon enough. The bumper crop of voice talent – Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union and Jaboukie Young-White – add wonder and whimsy to the lush landscape and painterly palette seemingly inspired by popping boba pearls and squishy slime toys. The shape shifting sidekick Splat is fun and Henry Jackman’s music soaring, plus if Epcot’s Land Pavilion needs a fantastical farming voyage, it’s all right here. The movie is saved by some tender moments even though the action only dazzles in spurts. A film with characters devoted to their fortune seems destined for the animation studio’s second-tier shelf.
Maneuvering the manic minefield of the female Chinese-Canadian tween growing up in early aughts Toronto can be a lot to handle: from flip phones to flipping out, juggling pimpled cuties and temple duties, hoarding both Tamogotchis and tampons and in general trying to find one’s way while on the brink of something new. Domee Shi’s Turning Red (B) leverages a fusion of anime stylings and daydreams with dollops of photo-realistic Pixar aesthetics to craft an animated adventure. But why simply chronicle the protagonist’s amusing and illuminating semi-autobiographical coming of age story when you can also foist an extra forced metaphor of turning into a giant red panda when emotions get heavy? It’s a balancing act for the filmmaking team ultimately working out the story kinks. Glimpses into the bonds of female friendship and some fascinating Cantonese cultural cues enliven the sillier moments, and the film works best when pursuing the genuine embarrassments of adolescence as opposed to plumbing the land grabs for plush merchandise sales. Rosalie Chiang gives a spry central voice performance, and Sandra Oh is effective as her demanding mom who thankfully can relate to her daughter’s strife with more haste that a recently frustrating animated Colombian abuela. Although this film is not a musical, the score and songs by Ludwig Göransson plus Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, respectively, keep proceedings lively, especially in some amusing boy band parody sequences. No doubt this will be the latest Disney endeavor to play on repeat for a good part of the upcoming season, so thankfully it’s a ritual with rewards.
Imagine being super average in a pantheon of magical creations; yes, I’m referring to both the central character of Disney’s latest animated film as well as the movie itself. A Colombian girl faces the frustration of being the only member of her family without superpowers in Encanto (C+) co-directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith. Stephanie Beatriz is the tentative voice of protagonist Mirabel; and to her defense, she does ultimately get a better showcase after a spotty first act (even her “I want” number at the film’s opening is virtually indecipherable and atonal). The breakneck animation quality and the drudgery of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very subpar catalogue of B-sides don’t help matters as the plucky misfit pieces together a mystery causing a fission in her family’s fantastical abode. As the frosty Ambuela Alma, María Cecilia Botero gets a thankless role basically blaming the heroine for her every move; it’s quite tedious for a while and punctuated with more awkward folk hip hop. Neither John Leguizamo nor any of the sprawling cast really stand out or fare much better in the overly complex story. Then there are finally some decent emotional moments as the film reaches its crescendo, not really enough to recommend a watch.
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.