Somewhere jammed between “all the feels” and “being very satisfied with itself,” this jazzy riff on purpose is semi scat-tat-tacular. No, it doesn’t explain the meaning of the universe per se, but Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ cerebral entry in the Pixar pantheon, Soul (B), is often illuminating in its exploration of the ways of the world, its presentation of an iconic Black acting ensemble and its depiction of the magical and musical syncopation of Manhattan life. This animated opus told in a minor key keeps a tight grip on its voice cast, with Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey in prime positions as band teacher Joe and surly spirit 22, respectively. They’re both serviceable in rather ho-hum parts. When Joe experiences a freak accident whisking him into an overly complicated purgatory, he soon returns to NYC to hone his mentorship skills and be reminded of the sensory and interpersonal elements of city life that matter most. The real revelation here is not the complex universe the film paints nor the rote race against time propelling its winsome plot but rather the quality of the earthbound animation, what with the natural lighting and lens flairs adding sparks to bustling urban streets, brotherly barber shops and intimate music dens. Characters honestly get short shrift compared to the artisan craft at work here; and if it all falls a little short of the franchise’s best, it still finds ways to tickle some idiosyncratic ivories.
Despite being overstuffed and overproduced, Emma Watson is by far the best special effect in Bill Condon’s live action Beauty & the Beast (B-) as the luminous leading lady who enlivens the fairy tale proceedings with enchanting radiance. Attempts to color outside the lines of the 1991 animated musical’s story and to lovingly re-create iconic classic sequences are both a mixed bag: the opulent “I want” song called “Belle” is simply smashing, awash with propulsive joy and resplendent color, but by the time an awkwardly unappetizing “Be Our Guest” is served up by curiously stilted anthropomorphic antiques, it’s more of a test of endurance than the whimsical showstopper that played out as a cartoon. A star-studded cast is squandered; set pieces seem limited to one village, one castle and one CGI forest; and the awkwardness of an inter-species romance feels a little strange when everyone isn’t rendered in line art. Luke Evans is quite good as Gaston, and there’s some new back story that provides intrigue for those concerned this will simply be a shot for shot remake. It’s good source material, so the original Alan Menken/Howard Ashman tunes are a delight (the new Alan Menken/Tim Rice song snippets aren’t as good). See it mainly for Watson’s game take on a Disney heroine (better still, see this actress in Perks of Being a Wallflower). Otherwise, there’s not much here that wasn’t there before.
Despite clear technical craft in creating simulated forests and talking (sometimes singing) animals, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (C) is dramatically inert. Swinging wildly in tone and staking the weight of its storyline on a pint-sized protagonist of limited range, the film falls flat in moving emotions while it swirls episodically through remake facsimiles of Disney’s own animated feature. It squanders most of its visual effects wizardry in the beastly congregations of the first reel only to be followed by a long wasteland of coasting on mildly amusing Bill Murray voice-over work as a lazy bear. I’m sure there will be a man cub fan club for the action of this Kipling claptrap, but it fell staggeringly short of surprises and wonder in my book.
Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps (D) joins this summer’s Pixels in a series of kids’ films that value effects over imagination. Jack Black plays R.L. Stine, reclusive author of the titular young adult book series. With a vaguely academic accent and face frozen on “concerned,” Black provides a performance only slightly more irritating than Slappy the vaudeville dummy, the worst doll antagonist since the last installment of Child’s Play. Teen actor Dylan Minnette is slightly more expressive and makes the film’s first thirty minutes a bit charming before he accidentally unleashes a potpourri of blandly designed CGI monsters trapped in books. The filmmakers cynically leverage a popular kid lit franchise to lure a big crowd to the box office, but it’s all an auto pilot triumph over creative inspiration.
There’s lots of inspired stuff in a movie about a 1982 time capsule that prompts modern-day extraterrestrials to co-opt nostalgic video game iconography to attack the planet, but director Chris Columbus and an Adam Sandler-led comedic ensemble drain Pixels (D-) of any sense of wit or charm. The filmmakers barely summon hand-eye coordination in mishandling a story about how a rag-tag group of misfits conjure their inner joysticks and roller controllers to topple Galaga, Centipede, Pac-Man and a gaggle of galactic meanies. When a film employs intentionally dated graphics and an absurd premise, it requires credible acting and a logical thematic through-line; that’s why Ghostbusters worked so brilliantly. Alas the game is over long before it starts for Pixels, with everything from Tom Arnold playing the U.S. President as Sandler’s best friend and Michelle Monaghan as Sadler’s love interest being but two of the plot points catalogued in the not-credible category. As Sandler and Josh Gad exert their action antics and moribund comedy to a not-at-all thrilling conclusion, one simply wonders what would have happened had the studio chosen a different adventure with better talent to tell this tale. For a better foray into the 8-bit heyday, I recommend the documentary King of Kong.
Disney’s history of imagination is unparalleled, but the studio’s shaky track record of sci-fi is paved with the likes of The Black Hole, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes and Tron Legacy. So the squandered opportunity for redemption is mighty in Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland (C-), an ambitious film that is full of ideas but misses the mark on executing most of them. The vapid protagonist played by Britt Robertson speaks mainly in cliches, and when she partners with George Clooney in what is basically an extended cameo, he doesn’t add much either to the proceedings aside from faux Han Solo gruffness. There’s lots of overreach about saving mankind from its own destiny, but Bird doesn’t do a good job outlining the plot to properly take audiences along for the ride. What’s left are a few lovely nostalgia scenes, some half-sketched visions of the future, some awkward robots (TV’s Small Wonder was more believable) and an underdeveloped sense of majesty. The film, overstuffed with good intention, is mostly a bloated bore.
Paul King’s British live action/animated comedy Paddington (A) is quite simply one of the most consistently satisfying family films ever made, following each instinct of visual whim and whimsy with clever and entertaining results. The film chronicles a polite young marmalade-obsessed bear’s journey from the jungles of Peru to the heart of modern-day London as he is taken in by a kindly family (charmingly headlined by Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville) and embarks on a series of madcap adventures. The art direction and production design are exquisite and would leave Wes Anderson slackjawed with its artisan detail. The family home rendered as a dollhouse, the city archives like a scene out of Brazil, the menacing Natural History Museum populated by juicy taxidermist villain (a delightful Nicole Kidman) and the colorful streets filled with antiquities and street music troubadours dot the movie with resplendent visuals which are a wonder to behold. There is also genuine menace in some of the action sequences and an affecting level of sentimentality that never crosses into preciousness. The crafty screenplay is full of double entendres and fun asides that deliver a droll and altogether unexpected joy that adults can appreciate as much as kids. It’s brisk, funny and memorable and joins films such as Babe, The Muppet Movie and Willy Wonka as family classics.
When film industry legend John Huston made the durable 1982 adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie, he was accused of making a bit too literal and lumbering an entertainment, but fans should likely accept Huston’s creation or Rob Marshall’s 1999 TV re-do as an authoritative version. Will Gluck’s 2014 remake of Annie (C-) starring Quvenzhané Wallis is a beast of a wild card, a modern-day remix of the former Depression-era tale told to an auto-tuned pop beat with basically the same structure as past incarnations but very little of the faithfulness to legitimate song and dance craft. The model here is strictly in the High School Musical quality zone; and only because of the paucity of films in the musical genre is it worth an analysis. Writer/director Gluck, who made the amusing Easy A, isn’t without talent in terms of comedy and sentimentality, but he throws in too many zany elements from smart-home technology to convoluted subplots and too much flash and half-baked jokes when he should really be tightening a bloated story and giving some of those musical numbers a bit more buoyancy. A few mild gross-out gags and inconsistent characters distract from the moments that do actually spark. As the millionaire who takes in the plucky foster child, Jamie Foxx improves in his performance as the film rolls on, ultimately finding some soul in the role. Ditto for Cameron Diaz, whose acting at first seems from another planet: she too gets better as her boozy Miss Hannigan finds her way through the uneven film’s labyrinth. Wallis is largely charming and even gets her own new song, “Opportunity” by pop writer Sia, that adds to chestnuts such as “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life.” The lip-synching and dancing are sloppy and the pace sometimes lugubrious, but overall the positive family vibe eclipses the misfire moments. For every dreadful performance (Bobby Cannavale), there’s a good one (Rose Byrne). For every montage miss, there’s a stirring song. It’s equal parts ashtrays and art, but in a world with few joyful enterprises, perhaps this new deal for Christmas that marches to its own drummer can also pass for an adaptation of this family favorite.
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.”
Despite access to a treasure box of imagination in the wildly popular source material, Chris Columbus’ tale of a boy wizard going to school, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (C+), rarely takes flight. Filmed in dim halls and corridors and employing too frequent a use of clumsy CGI effects, the film maps out an interesting world but is uneven in inhabiting it. The kid actors led by plucky Daniel Radcliffe are fine and often given gravitas by a slew of veterans (Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and nearly every employable British actor). This is the film that sets the template for a franchise that ups the stakes considerably. There are some funny and enchanting moments and some nice action set-pieces, but this rather creaky movie should have been an absolute spectacular. In and of itself, this first film in the series is only beginning to understand its powers.
Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson’s endlessly imaginative animated tale Shrek (B+) tells the tale of an ogre (voiced by Mike Myers), a donkey (Eddie Murphy) and a princess (Cameron Diaz) on an adventurous journey in a far-away fractured fairy tale land. The in-jokes are inventive and will keep parents in stitches while kids enjoy the lovable characters in hilarious pratfalls. This whole subversive DreamWorks Animation enterprise pokes gentle fun at the Disney kingdom and gets great laughs from a supporting cast of misfit characters such as its own version of Pinocchio and The Three Little Pigs. John Lithgow is also great as the diminutive villain. Fun and frantically paced, it’s a delightful modern classic.
Caroline Thompson’s family drama Buddy (C-) chronicles the tale of an ecentric woman (Rene Russo) and her live-in animal companions. There may be a gorilla in her midst, but the story has a few missing links, to say the least. The telling of this true tale seems more like a chore than an opportunity for entertainment. Elaborate animatronics from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop can’t seem to animate the belle of the ball of the wild at the film’s hollow center.