The bar is set low for movies based on video games, and Rob Letterman’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu (D+) lurks right below that threshold. Justice Smith is a bit adrift as an insurance agent who lost his estranged father in a mysterious accident near a lab on the outskirts of a utopia where humans and Pokémon (plural!) live mostly in harmony (like humans and toons in Roger Rabbit‘s milieu). Smith’s reluctant hero is joined by the spry voice of Ryan Reynolds as the titular adorable yellow creature at the heart of the story. The film fails to take full advantage of its film noir set-up nor does it add many compelling layers to chase and action sequences, so it basically isn’t interesting, funny or exciting enough to justify all the average special effects bouncing around its screen. Because Pikachu’s dialogue can only be heard by his human friend, there could have been something wry or subversive here, but alas it’s all aimed at a very young audience. And to that end, it doesn’t really set much of a life lesson or warm the heart either. Perhaps there’s a demographic to whom this will have exact appeal, but Letterman and his intrepid detectives didn’t make the case to many new fans with this one.
A fun hybrid of Big and The Goonies, the DC Universe gets a lively dose of life and levity with the introduction of David Sandberg’s Shazam! (B). The film’s teen protagonist is grappling with new powers which cause him to toggle back and forth between awkward adolescence and transforming into a full-fledged adult superhero just as he joins a foster family with a bunch of precocious step-siblings. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are superb and funny as the boy and his adult alter ego, respectively, and the film’s family includes Jack Dylan Graser as a cunning sidekick and Cooper Andrews as a lovable lug of a foster dad. The movie is aimed squarely at a family audience, despite a few early scares courtesy of Mark Strong’s viciously one-note villain and a bunch of beguiling CGI monsters. It’s a touch overlong, but the comedy, action and surprises pile high with fairly consistent success, and there are even a few moments of genuinely moving domestic drama. The movie creates characters for whom the audience can truly cheer in an environment largely well imagined. Expect the origin stories explored here to bring further marvels to DC.
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
For a physical production practically perfect as Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns (C+), its makers should have spent some tuppence on the sequel’s songs and screenwriting and provided its glum protagonist with a jolly holiday from all the topsy turvy plot contrivances. The lavish set design, resplendent costumes and meticulous vintage Disney animation are all in fine form, and the movie opens and closes very, very well. There’s just a lot of filler material that’s super- califragilstic- expiali- average in between. Emily Blunt’s taciturn take on London’s cloud nanny gets a bit eclipsed in all the madcappery, and Marshall’s tenuous grasp of tone does few favors for Ben Whishaw, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep or Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latter projecting for the balcony seats even though he’s on the Cherry Tree Lane where it happens. While passive protagonist MP tries to save two generations of Banks children from eviction and from their own imaginative inertia, it’s unclear for whom the audience is even supposed to cheer. Plus the youngest kids (the true heart of the film) frankly seem pretty well adjusted at the beginning of the movie. Marshall brings little dazzle dazzle in the form of fresh choreography, aside from a song trying to make fetch happen for lamp lighters (was that a skateboard ramp at one point?) And oh, don’t name check the bird lady just to wing-flap out of another plot hole. Despite the lovely craft, the art of the film’s storytelling is lacking. The fact that there’s not one single element this belated sequel improves on over the original shouldn’t sway families from seeing it, and there are indeed some tender and nostalgic moments; but this spoonful of chutzpah proves mild tonic.
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.
This mystical journey of meditation qualifies as a downward-facing dog. Despite tinges of uplift, Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time (D+) is a folly from the get-go, an interminable bore of pretentious drivel wrapped in a semi-shimmery package. Featuring bland line delivery rivaling George Lucas’s intergalactic prequels, inconsistent effects that miss the mark of even sub-Krull intentions and a meandering plot overestimating the cinematic drawing power of mathematical mind tricks, this sci-fi fantasy makes Disney’s similarly askew Tomorrowland look like a real people mover. Out-of-her-depth child actress Storm Reid can take no shelter or solace in the company of her adult co-stars as she is visited by three spirit guides (Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, each vying for “most cloying”) to help rescue her astrophysicist dad (Chris Pine, stripped of his usual charm) from interplanetary exile. Only child actor Deric McCabe shows some signs of life as a strange and sometimes sassy li’l bro, and frankly a little of him goes a long way. This film is ultimately a chore of the first order, tripping over its own tesseracts and leaning into a laborious labyrinth with very few joys aside from occasional Sade music. Substituting new-age banter for action or substance, the film feels like a fever dream by Enya, and I just wanted to sail away. Bottom line: Know that you’re special, and you had the power in you all along; and you can spend two hours saving your world in a different way.
Paul King’s Paddington 2 (B+) is charming family entertainment but with a marmalade tart wit and whimsy exceeding its simple premise. Voice actor Ben Whishaw and delightful actors such as Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are back from the original film, joined by Hugh Grant in an unexpected tour de force as an unscrupulous out of work thespian who cheats the titular talking bear out of an antique book with clues to buried treasure. Much of the film takes place with wrongly imprisoned Paddington cheering up inmates while Grant’s nefarious villain tries on myriad disguises in an attempt to claim outrageous fortune. The film soars especially in moments with splendid flourishes when least anticipated and in tender and droll subplots which transcend the spectacle. Blending live action, CGI animation and a pop-up art vision of London, the film is a first class caper. Although not quite as crisp as the first film, it’s a boon companion.
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.
Although a perfectly acceptable way to kill time with your kids and an occasionally sweet tale, David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon remake (C-) adds very little to the Disney canon or to movies about kids and their is-he-or-isn’t-he-real fantasy friends. Shucking the musical sequences and cornball whimsy and melodrama of the 1977 original (not to mention the charming Don Bluth animation), the new Pete’s plunges its titular protagonist into a straight drama about a boy whose parents die in a car wreck in the Pacific Northwest, leaving him to be befriended and raised by the reclusive mythical dragon Elliot with neon green fur. A kindly forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers and helps the orphan boy while an opportunist lumberjack played by Karl Urban tries to hunt and exploit the creature. Child actor Oakes Fegley does his best with an underwritten and moptopped role. From Howard’s glassy eyed acting, it would appear she was trained aboard The Polar Express. Even the dragon is only passable, a distant cousin of Falkor from The Neverending Story. The slight script, the dank film quality and the predictability of virtually every sequence don’t help matters. File this with the Jungle Book remake and BFG as family films that are a bit of an insufferable slog.
Steven Spielberg earns a C+ for The BFG (aka The Big Friendly Giant), and this family film is decidedly a GNAS (grower, not a shower), largely languid for nearly two thirds of its length and then unexpectedly rising like a wonder of Gulliver’s wanderlust to its rather lively and even mildly emotional climax. Child actor Ruby Barnhill is charming as a plucky orphan whose awkward custodial Brexit leads her into the hands of the titular tall man, a vegetarian loner charmingly played in unnecessary motion capture by Mark Rylance. Together their friendship blossoms and adventures ensue, complete with Roald Dahl-isms of gobbledegook dialogue that are alternatively delightful and laborious. After some tedious battles with nine unsavory carnivore giant villains and the dreariest depiction of dream-catching imaginable this side of James Cameron’s Pandora, the filmmakers endeavor to discover their stride late in the narrative. The bloated balloon of hideous production design, awkward effects and gloomy atmosphere is finally punctured in a comparatively brisk finale that almost redeems the film. There’s a really imaginative moment when the title character mixes up a dream from his nocturnal cannery, and the way it comes to life would make an inspired short film. This enterprise is closer to the Hook and Tintin side of Spielberg’s unusually uneven family film oeuvre, and one can’t help but remember that he and late screenwriter Melissa Mathison peaked in this genre 34 years ago with their collaboration on E.T. Unfortunately, despite flashes of grandeur, this lugubrious lark is far from his towering achievements.
Andrew Stanton’s animated aquatic sequel Finding Dory (B-) succeeds as a message movie about inclusion of characters with disabilities – showcasing a fish with short-term memory loss overcoming the odds – but stumbles in terms of its only mildly engaging protagonist, its flagging adherence to its own intrinsic logic and the lack of originality of its storyline. The film strives to deepen the Finding Nemo saga with Godfather II style flashbacks to back story while Dory searches for her parents but ends up closer to Evan Almighty territory with a minor character inexplicably nudged to the forefront. Despite noted objections, there are still imaginative touches involving the intricacies of a marine life refuge and an amputee octopus with clever camouflaging effects. We know we’re working in a talking animal universe, but there’s a jump-the-shark moment that might be termed invertebrate on the interstate or the mollusk motorcade and simply gets sloppy. Nemo and his dad are rendered rather ineffectual sidekicks while Ellen DeGeneres does what she can to squeeze out the waterworks of the film’s few poignant moments. The first film felt effortlessly entertaining, and this one more of a chore.
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.