Big Hero 6 (PG)

10 Stars

I’ve debated this rating for a week.

The reader may find it trivial, but the temptation to give it 9 stars is strong.

As great as Big Hero 6 is, it’s not as good as Frozen, Brave or Wreck-It-Ralph.

This is a subjective distinction, however. It’s a top-notch animated flick.

The animated short preceding, Feast, is a heartwarming delight.

Which is particularly suited to the full-length BH6, this year’s best animated feature. Unless this reviewer’s unaware of another cartoon slated for release, here’s the final list.

Top Five Animated Films of 2014
1. Big Hero 6
2. The Book of Life
3. Mr. Peabody & Sherman
4. The Lego Movie
5. How to Train Your Dragon 2

I attended the movie with three friends, all in our mid-twenties. Three males and one female; illustrating thorough enjoyment across the board.

Leading to the conclusion that everyone will enjoy Disney’s latest.

Plus, the group’s in agreement on seeing it in 3D; it only adds to the experience.

The story encompasses a number of elements from science fiction, and tackles the three major themes. Every cinematic trope resonates with classic films.

Theme 1) Robotics

There weren’t any cyborgs, but everything else is heavily scrutinized. Nanobots, artificial intelligence, computerized medical systems, digitized armor, rocket propulsion, etc.

Baymax is a cuddly Terminator, an anthropomorphic medical bed from Elysium.

Theme 2) Space Travel

There’s no alien life or venturing free of the Earth’s atmosphere (so specifically no outer space travel) or even time manipulation. But interdimensional exploration and wormholes are utilized.

You folks have heard of Interstellar, right? How about Event Horizon, in which a man-made portal between dimensions is constructed?

Anybody remember the in-between realm of Pacific Rim?

Theme 3) Superhumanity

Don’t expect any mutation or the development of superhuman abilities, but a completely grounded story of superheroes.

Big Hero 6 derives its greatest strength by constructing a superhero universe, bound by the dictates of humanity’s current understanding of reality.

There are no aliens, because we have yet to prove their existence. There are no superpowers, because no evidence suggests humans have a biological capability for their development.

One scene pays homage to The Hulk and the protagonist’s name, Hiro, seems like a tip-of-the-cap to the TV series Heroes.

In honor of cinematic themes in 2014, the film even features a time-lapse of Hiro innovating in a manner akin to Tony Stark. A digitally animated time-lapse is thought-provoking, at the very least.

People use the word ‘Disnified’ as if it’s a bad thing. The connotation is that something has been purified of all negative emotion, thereby creating an unrealistic product.

The irony in this is laughable.

Disney constructs a highly educated story while exemplifying a preference towards optimism.

Which equates to one of two criticisms.

The action is a little light.

The budget for this movie is $165M, so I was hoping for more elaborate fight sequences.

A final criticism is odd.

In my review of last year’s Frozen, I mention the helpfulness of a non-specific trailer.

The teaser featured dialogue-less frozen pond antics between Olaf (the snowman) and a moose (who never shows up in the actual movie). Therefore the viewer learns nothing specific regarding plot details.

Big Hero 6’s trailer spoils several beats and somehow I failed to avoid another important detail in the first sentence of somebody’s review.

Therefore, let’s chalk up the slightly underwhelmed feeling to the unripe ideas.

After all, the humor is solid and consistent. The characters are likable and original.

Especially T.J. Miller as Fred, the comic book enthusiast.

Unlike all characters from other superhero team-ups, Fred embraces their engagement with the lifestyle choice. Therefore, he’s a satirical narrator who highlights all of the important moments during Big Hero 6’s origin story.

It’s impossible to dislike Aunt Cass, voiced by Maya Rudolph.

A sequel is sure to follow. Personally I can’t wait for Big Hero 7, or better yet, Small Villain 5.

Imagine that. A supervillain team-up prequel might be the best way to go.

Although I wouldn’t mind the introduction of a ‘Green Ranger’ trope. Wink.

Overall, Big Hero 6 is really great.

It distills the complexities of helping a loved one after a tragic loss. It takes a grounded look at the far future, and illustrates the true potential for superheroism.

Expect minor weeping, especially if you’re a softy like me.

Stick around for a number of intriguing bits during the rolling credits. Comic fans, particularly, don’t miss the stinger that follows.

Once again, thanks to Disney, I can add a pleasant memory to the list.

The Book of Life (PG)

9 Stars

If you’ve seen the trailer, the animation looks sketchy.

Cheech Marin covering Biz Markie certainly doesn’t help.

You’re not tantalized, and who can blame you?

Neither was I.

But guess which tops the list of Best Animated Features released in 2014?

1. The Book of Life
2. Mr. Peabody & Sherman
3. The Lego Movie
4. How to Train Your Dragon 2
5. The Boxtrolls

That’s right, folks. The BOL is pretty great.

The animation isn’t sketchy. Cheech’s solo isn’t hokey.

The visuals are wondrous in fact. The animation is multi-layered, lending the fabric of cartoon reality a wood grain texture.

Manolo’s hometown is beautiful; like an Hispanic Mont Saint-Michel. The other world he passes through is gorgeously rendered as well.

The humor is solid and consistent. The characters are compelling oddities.

The narrative is heart-warming and educational.

I worry because annually, the average moviegoer probably scrutinizes (at the most) two animated flicks via big screen.

Frozen is such a hit from 2013, I’d imagine most viewers anticipate the November 7th release of Big Hero 6.

Apparently everyone (and their mother) went to see The Lego Movie; and loved it so much a Lego Batman spinoff’s greenlit.

Therefore, most have hit their animated quota. Perhaps reconsider making an exception.

This reviewer attended Book of Life with his mother, and enjoyed it thoroughly.

‘Dia de los Muertos’; ever heard of it?

That’s Spaniard for ‘Day of the Dead.’

The Skeleton Twins, a dusty quirkedy released in September, touched on the same theme.

BOL’s tone is a bit more light-hearted.

Cheech isn’t the only one singing, either.

Diego Luna as the voice of the protagonist, Manolo, strums and clucks a number of ballads. Expect minor swooning.

Perhaps he’s not perfect in the musical realm, but Luna does a bang-up job. He’s more soft-spoken than your average hero, but that’s what makes his character endearing.

Channing Tatum is quickly becoming my favorite actor. Love that dude.

In the past two years he’s been fantastic in 22 Jump StreetSide Effects and G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Plus he did three cameos: Two live-action in Don Jon and This is the End and one voice-acting as Lego Green Lantern.

Speaking of street-jumping, Ice Cube plays the voice of the Candle Maker. His character is very similar to the caterpillar from Epic.

In other odd news, the Candle Maker is arguably the most Caucasian character in the entire cast. Which is similar to Tracy Morgan’s performance in The Boxtrolls; he too voices a white guy.

Ice Cube’s great. He never mails in a performance, and seems like a real stand-up guy. Keep it up, Cube!

Another favorite, Zoe Saldana, enchants as the voice of Maria. This science-fiction titan plays major roles in the Star Trek and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises.

Maria is a lovable delight.

Which comes as no surprise when dealing with Ms. Saldana.

Finally, perhaps the most praise should go to Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo, the voices of Xibalba and La Muerte.

They play the two most interesting characters, and are perfectly suited to the task. They’re the only ones that have to perform two separate voice roles, because their characters undergo a transformation.

Del Castillo navigates a particularly difficult role. At one point she must do an extended scream and gracefully pulls it off.

Which can’t be easy!

All in all, The Book of Life is a great addition to 2014’s animated canon.

We’ll see who tops the leaderboard, come November 7.

Frozen (PG)

10 Stars

Ah. The fjords.

Frozen is #8 on my top films of 2013 list. Besides World War Z, it’s the only film I’ve seen twice in full from the past year.

The mission? Keep the review beneath 1000 words. So I’ll be brief and swift.

Speaking of, the animated short shown previous to the ice-harvest open, Get a Horse is a brilliant piece of animation. I love seeing something completely original, smart and thought provoking. It lost the academy award, but can’t comment because I haven’t seen the winner, Mr. Hublot, yet.

The trailer; saw it way, way ahead of time when it was first released. Wasn’t all that pumped for the movie because the short’s devoid of narrative content. The reindeer and the snowman fight over the carrot nose on a frozen pond, and antics ensue. It wasn’t boring, but not overwhelmingly great either.

I liked the no-spoiler trailer.

So I think the lesson to take away, yet again, is know as little as possible about the plot previous to seeing the film.

Why’s director and writer Jennifer Lee’s name got the ‘(XXX)’ after it? Was that ‘pre Vin Diesel,’ or ‘post Ice Cube?’

Is she the thirtieth? Is that even possible? She can’t be an ex porn-star, can she? I didn’t know women had suffixes, let alone such a gigantic one. And I’ve never heard of a man being anything above a VII.

Based on the story “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen, Frozen’s the newest addition to a list of Classic Disney Animated Features spanning back to the debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Disney animation, but you’ll hear me groaning the loudest if I see that trailer for Planes 2 ever again. The Planes franchise is an inconsistency in life I’ll never get a grasp on. I highly admire the Walt Disney Company but have no respect for their misleading me into the clutches of Planes. It’s a horrendous movie, and has been falsely marketed as an outgrowth of the Cars universe.

There’s this weird market for horrifically bad animated stories. I think it’s intended for kids in kindergarten and below. Because Planes is such a considerable downgrade in narrative and animation from Frozen I’m surprised they’re still peddling this boring crop-dusting crew.

I was purposefully duped into spending six dollars on the rental. I understand their desire for the alternative source of income, but this misleading marketing campaign is deceitful.

But we’re talking about chilly Frozen, with icy Elsa and Anna, the coolest narrative since Tangled.

And now we’re sidetracking to the classics of recent years.

2012 saw the release of two five-star Disney Animated Features: Brave (produced under the Pixar name) and Wreck-It Ralph. Two other movies deserving of a near perfect score were released in 2010: Toy Story 3 (which was darn close to five stars) and Tangled (which exceeds five stars.)

2011 wasn’t the best.

But my point is Disney’s on a hot streak. Hopefully they keep up the same quality for decades to come.

Okay, I promise, the rest is about Frozen.

It’s fantastic. That’s all you need for now.

If you haven’t seen it, do so. The less you know the better so beware the spoilers below.

Do you know who’s great?

Kristen Bell.

I just love that little starry eyed delight.

Her breakout performance is hilariously understated in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, she plays a funny cameo in the old Starz comedy series Party Down starring Adam Scott, and the compelling role she played in the western HBO series Deadwood goes tragically unmentioned. I’ve been eying that Veronica Mars movie for days.

I really enjoyed Anna, the character Kristen does the voice for. Let’s hope K-Bell stays prolific.

Idina Menzel does the voice of Elsa, and I must admit I’m more partial towards her character than her little sibling. This cold dame wears a gown made of ice. The fabric billows like it’s malleable. I’m not positive one could weave ice fibers into a fabric, even with sorcery at immediate disposal.

She must be a master on that ice-loom. I’m not trying to be snarky, the physics of Elsa’s magic didn’t concern me in the slightest during the movie. The ice gown exemplifies the beauty of animated films. A wonderful sort of idea is created that can’t be captured in any other medium. If Frozen were live-action, we’d be much less inclined to buy the idea of a flexible sheet of solid ice.

Now, on to nuance. One of the best tricks in the Disney feature handbook, is the inhuman sidekick. For Wall-E it’s the cockroach, Rapunzel’s is a chameleon named Pascal, Pinocchio’s got Jiminy Cricket, and so on.

My girl, Jen Lee the Thirtieth, who also wrote Wreck-It-Ralph, spins a similar sidekick song with Olaf the snowman. The alternative groove is he’s a sentient snow golem summoned through Elsa’s sorcery.

Olaf’s voiced by the promising young talent, Josh Gad. You know him as one of the original costars of The Book of Mormon. He’s also the funniest part of NBC’s 1600 Penn, an underrated comedy and solid show.

I bet we’ll see him popping up in all sorts of comedic antics from now on.

I remember hearing on a podcast that J. Lee Turkey (that’s a bowling reference, running out of Triple X jokes here)  aims to invert classic Disney motifs. So, for example, the ‘princess’ element to the story is a small and almost insignificant point in Wreck-It-Reezy.

With Frozen, Jennifer Strikeout takes these inversions several steps further, and it’s an enormous benefit to the plot. The original conflict and its innovative resolution revolves around a pair of sisters, which isn’t something we’ve seen before, and just a ton of fun along the way.

Soon after the movie’s open, there’s a heart wrenching scene with Anna singing about building a snowman, as she grows older through the years without her sister.

Fiddlesticks; that scene just rips me to pieces.

That poor little girl just wants to play in the snow with her sister…

So my basic point is, there’s some crying that occurs near the beginning of the film. I can’t remember another Disney movie like that, except The Fox and the Hound perhaps. Hunchback of Notre Dame’s another; I can’t stand to see Quasimodo pelted with that rotten produce.

And there’s some crying towards the end of the film. It’s a moving little cartoon, friends, and I think you’ll love it as much as me.

But anyway, it’s tough to keep these things under 1000 words, let me tell you. Barely missed it by 135.

Quickest wrap-up ever –

Completely original storytelling, moving conflicts, lovable characters, beautiful animation, educational, compelling, fun, melodic and heartwarming.

Disney as per the usual.

Good on ya Jenny Three Kiss.

Keep up the good work!

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (PG)

8 Stars

This is better than The Lego Movie.

That get your attention?

Hear me out.

Everybody (the critics, your Aunt Ruth and the kitchen sink) went nuts over The Lego Movie. But it arose amidst a sea of shadow, Proverbial Audience.

It’s literally the first solid movie released in theaters this year.

I think Lego’s good. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is great. The difference shines through in the pacing.

More specifically, it’s the humor. Less objectively, it’s the captivation.

A superior adhesive glues my eyes to the screen during Mr. Pea & Sherm.

Both movies are smart for different reasons. But Lego relies on a particular reveal; a moment of structural expansion which makes the narrative shimmer. And the laughs are regular but spaced out; some fall flat and it’s never uproarious.

It’s slower and the good stuff is more sporadic.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman hits home on more jokes of a higher caliber. Whether you dig the puns or not, it’s definitely funnier.

The story itself is also superior. It explores time travel in unique ways, distills historical legends and navigates a complex array of ideas.

Strangely it seems easier to connect with the characters on a humanistic level. I’m not sure if it’s because of their biological makeup (the fact that they don’t exist in a Lego universe,) or just the tilted scales of investment.

Anyway, that’s my contrast. Got a problem with it? Let me know!

Here’s a bit more of what does and doesn’t work in Mr. Perman.

The central metaphor of the film tackles the inherent inconsistency of the original animated television series.

A dog can’t possibly be a sufficient parent, right?

If he’s a talking prodigy, perhaps, yes!

What about a time-traveling one? With all the fundamental risk?

Well, is he invincible?

Technically the answer’s yes, but that’s obvious to anyone attending an animated feature.

And yet they are smart enough to take things a step further, and not jam the obvious ‘go-to’ narrative down our throats.

The details of Mr. Peabody’s gaining the legal rights to adopt Sherman are quickly glossed over in less than twenty seconds. It reminds me of Kung Fu Panda 2, when Mr. Ping explains the story of finding Po in the radish basket. That scene can get quite dusty.

The film’s about common mistakes in traditional legends from history. Mr. Peabody warps them back to the distorted historical context, and illustrates to Sherman where the misconceptions arise.

Then Sherman screws something up, and Mr. Peabody inevitably saves them through unbelievable circumstances. Sherman will inevitably ruin the impromptu remedy through extreme stupidity. Then the dog will, again, craft a split-second plan through means of ingenuity. And sometimes a third solution will be required before they end up safe in the WABAC.

This formula’s fine. It just drives me nuts after awhile.

Eventually the question becomes: How’s Sherman going to screw this up further? He nearly kills Peabody at one point!

I always enjoy the ‘mental schematic’ editing technique. A similar effect is achieved in the Sherlock Holmes films (starring Robert Downey Jr.) in combat preparation, and to illustrate the calculative mind of Russell Crowe’s character (John Forbes Nash Jr.) in A Beautiful Mind.

As a final high note, I really like the relationship between the protagonist (Sherman, voiced by Max Charles, a mostly unknown child actor) and the antagonist (Penny Peterson) voiced by Ariel Winter.

Penny’s particularly great in the antagonistic role, because she’s a female who physically bullies Sherman.

But conversely, she’s also his love interest. Which is different because she’s taller than him.

My sole criticism is I never really feel the stakes are high. And therefore, the central conflict is difficult to hone in on.

Sherman’s potentially going to be taken away by child services. Peabody may be dead at one point. Sherman’s being forced to spend time with a girl who publicly humiliates him, and wrestling with the notion of loving a dog as a father figure. Who knows if we even like Penny yet? And all three of them are lost in the throes of time travel!

It’s tough to feel tension from any one particular direction.

Then again, I really enjoy Mr. Peabody & Sherman and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun and chucklesome ninety-minute ride.

Don’t wait for a scene after the credits, though.

Sadly there isn’t one.

The omission is, by far, this film’s greatest weakness.

The Lego Movie (PG)

7 Stars

I don’t like to brag but…

I’m a bit of an animation aficionado.

2013 was a spectacular year for animated films.

Shame on Oscar and the Globes for not nominating all five of these: Frozen, The Croods, Monsters University, Turbo and Despicable Me 2.

But, smart as it is, The Lego Movie falls short of this pantheon.

I enjoy TLM (although I don’t appreciate the title), and you probably will too. Perhaps a bit more than I did.

For all the fun character cameos, the original smart writing and Lego fight fireworks; the pacing slackens in the middle.

It’s a good family movie that’s mildly humorous, with the creative cuts and camera transitions that come along with animation. The style’s laid on thick, but it works, and the story is a good one.

Lego’s got a solid voice cast to back it up, lead by Chris Pratt, and my girl, Elizabeth Banks.

But seriously, the fights are sick, and there’s a lot of death in this film (if you think about it.) I know that sounds creepy, but I’d argue it’s imperative to an animated film nowadays. Otherwise how’s an adult audience going to feel there’s anything at stake?

Anyway, if you don’t want to see any spoilers, cease reading now.

Here’s my existential quandary: I simply don’t know how to properly review a film like this. The effort and correct ingredients went into the moviemaking cauldron and all that came out was a less than spectacular film.

My major problem with it is the pacing. It slows down immensely, once the cloud world is destroyed and they escape in a submarine. They hit the water and I’m wondering how many minutes remain.

As I said before, the humor is mild at best. There are a couple good laughs, but there are also some jokes that fall flat.

One of the funnier parts of the movie is the relationship between Superman and Green Lantern, voiced by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. These two are becoming quite the comedic team.

Will Arnett as Batman is also very funny.

Morgan Freeman, as the prophet Vitruvius, is one of my favorite parts. Not only is he particularly chucklesome, but his character distorts the structure of traditional narrative storytelling. For example, he ‘makes up’ the prophecy.

I read Harrison Ford was too busy to record the lines for Lego Han Solo, but they managed to get Billy Dee Williams (as Lando Calrissian) and Anthony Daniels (as C-3PO). I hate to be overly critical, but I’m pretty sure it takes two hours in a recording studio for small voice parts like Lego Han Solo’s.

Harrison, what gives buddy?

And finally, how could I forget Liam Neeson? He did two separate voices as Good Cop/Bad Cop. I like that Liam fellow, he’s got talent.

Now, there are two parts of this movie that are particularly smart. The reveal of the live action context (in which the Lego universe exists) rounds off the ending in a more than satisfactory way. I’ll add this is the second time that Will Ferrell’s physical appearance is revealed in a movie (the first is Wedding Crashers.)

Themes like conformity and creativity, the imaginary and concrete, physical skill and intellectual knowledge, etc. resound throughout the film.

The basic point of The Lego Movie is that life can work both ways. You can follow every instruction manual to the letter, or be the total opposite, a complete freethinker who just powers ahead and doesn’t get caught up in the minutia of perfectionism. Life will probably work out regardless, but perhaps we shouldn’t grow too rigid, and remained shackled (or ‘Kragled’) to our own ways of navigating the world.

I like The Lego Movie.

I just wish the pacing and humor could keep up with the storytelling.

Maleficent (PG)

7 Stars

What is the best feature from the list of Disney Animated Classics?

It’s an old conundrum.

All nostalgia aside, the answer is a five-way tie: Sleeping Beauty (1959), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and Tangled (2009).

Because of the similarities between Sleeping Beauty and some of the other greats, like Cinderella (whose got a great publicist) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (another damsel cursedly dozing), Princess Aurora’s misadventure is often forgotten.

But hers is a compelling plot; for males and females alike. And it contains one of the most heartwarming notions of the entire Disney canon:

Briar Rose (a.k.a. Aurora) and Prince Phillip first meet and fall in love waltzing in a dream.

Sleeping Beauty has many additional strengths but one is its antagonist.

Maleficent is one of the most compelling villains in the history of animated cinema.

Her character is an artistic masterpiece. She is technically, “The Mistress of All Evil.” More specifically, she’s a dark sorceress and an organic incarnation of chaos.

She’s fundamentally inhuman, you see. Which brings us to a general grievance regarding the live-action reworking of the animated classic.

To allow Maleficent a moral dimension is to undermine the fundamental principle driving the original story.

But, in the end, this is neither here nor there.

I quite enjoy Maleficent.

First of all, let’s talk a little Angelina Jolie.

She’s great as the lead; the acting doesn’t slip for a minute. Even during the most difficult parts, she’s mysterious and menacing. The strains of battle and conducting sorcery oftentimes require wailing in a manner that needs to sound believable. But she delivers every time.

Jolie deserves even more rigorous applause because of her role as an executive producer. A live-action retelling of a Disney Animated Classic is exactly the type of movie I’d encourage producers to champion.

Good on you, Angelina. Combine this with the achievements of Salt, and we’ve got an all-star actress in the making.

Because of the PG rating, the stakes can only be so high. The filmmakers do an excellent job of hiding that fact.

There are several epic battles involving fantastic elements, and they’re a sight to behold. Seriously. The fights feel real and devoid of cheese.

Unfortunately, the weakest parts of this film fall on the acting performances from the rest of the cast.

Elle Fanning’s performance as Aurora is not bad; it’s just not compelling. Frankly, other than the color of her hair, skin and eyes she doesn’t resemble the original character from the animated feature.

Sharlto Copley, who I like a lot in Elysium, is a disappointment here as King Stefan.

The fairies are humorless and a severe downgrade from the delightful characters in Sleeping Beauty. They’re animated in a strikingly human fashion, and it’s more off-putting than humanizing.

Anyway. Maleficent is a very good movie, that’s safe enough for kids.

Go out and enjoy while you still can!

If you haven’t seen it, stop reading here because some spoilers follow.

The visuals are excellent; the special effects are sharp and realistic. I love the scene with the dragon.

But why do Maleficent’s wings suddenly fight to break free of their glass-enclosed prison, seemingly of their own accord?

In terms of plot resolutions involving kissing, my count is five: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Frozen, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Maleficent. Aurora’s princely catalyst is just a better version of Snow’s.

But in Frozen it’s Elsa, the loving sister, whose kiss breaks the spell. In Snow White and the Huntsman, it’s a different man; the caress of the Huntsman’s lips does the trick. And in Maleficent it’s the ‘Mother’s Kiss’ which breaks the curse.

This is strikingly similar to the ‘Daughter’s Hug’ which Merida uses to save her mother in Brave. As well as Anna’s saving grace from Frozen; they just use a different female from the protagonist’s immediate family.

Finally, Stefan’s death is choreographed in a similar manner to that of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.


Feel free to let me know what you think.