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.”
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s animated Disney movie Frozen (B+) mixes up the princess formula with some unexpected twists and largely enchanting results. This Scandanavian storybook adventure is filled with fresh ice effects, compelling heroines, charming sidekicks and winning songs by Kristen and Bobby Lopez. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel’s power ballads and a snowman’s serenade to sunny climates – by Book of Mormon‘s Josh Gad – are among the highlights.
Rich Moore’s Wreck-It Ralph (B+) is a highly creative and charming CGI fantasy about an 8-bit ’80s arcade game character who must become a hero of a different kind in today’s virtual age. Waves of nostalgia, knowing in-jokes and clever hazards help this sometimes overlong film please audiences of all ages.
Basketball superstar Michael Jordan proves to be the ultimate good sport in his film debut opposite Bugs Bunny in Joe Pytka’s family adventure Space Jam (B-). This blend of live action and animation surrounding an intergalactic hoops game to solve a rivalry is mostly throwaway, but the charms of favorite Looney Tunes characters will keep kids and adults entertained throughout the cheery, self-effacing glee.
Co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker have successfully bottled a great formula for comedy thanks to Robin Williams’ contribution as the voice of the Genie in the fabulous and briskly paced animated Aladdin (A). Disney has finally found a voice to match its colorful, vivid animation; Williams’ manic characterization and hilarious anachronisms fill in the lines of an absorbing work of pure fantasy about a rugrat who gets three wishes and woos a princess. Composers Howard Ashman, Alan Menken and Tim Rice get high points with “Friend Like Me,” a great moment of razzmatazz, and “A Whole New World,” which evokes a Superman style flight aboard a magic carpet. It’s everything you could wish for in a family-friendly adventure.