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.

The Boxtrolls (PG)

6 Stars

I’m rooting for the underdog.

Not to win or place.

Not necessarily to show, either.

The Boxtrolls is not terrific.

It’s good, but pick the superior visual treat.

The Book of Life is the movie for in-theater oggling, not The Boxtrolls.

There, I said it!

The Academy nominates three to five pictures for Best Animated Feature. In the annual race to qualify, wouldn’t we prefer to have six to eight competing for a slot?

The quality consistence crown goes to Walt Disney Animation. Pure and simple.

Dreamworks follows admirably in second place, pumping out solid cartoons on the reg.

The remaining horses compete for the remaining places, but would it be terrible to keep Laika in the running?

Despite numerous positive recommendations, Corpse Bride (2005) and Coraline (2009) still elude this reviewer.

On the contrary, Paranorman received a nomination for Best Animated Feature in 2012, and deservedly so.

Therefore Laika, LLC., the American stop-motion animation studio, earns their jockey.

Ultimately, The Boxtrolls lack enrapture; for adults mainly.

I disdain marginalizing age groups in terms of film taste.

Frozen, Despicable Me 2 and Tangled are examples of fantastic ‘animated movies.’

Let’s not call them ‘kid’s movies.’

Because tonally, The Boxtrolls is childish.

Lord Portley-Rind’s cheese humor and Lady Frou Frou’s cross-dressing opera number are funny, but a bit mundane. Perhaps immature, no?

There’s some good plot development; a number of high points, in fact.

The self-aware jokes are chucklesome, the unusual characters are compelling.

Tracy Morgan is the voice of a bespectacled Caucasian, and I fantasize a world where he wasn’t informed ahead of time.

The mid-credits sequence is the best I have ever seen.

The existentialist thugs explain stop-motion through time-lapse camera footage of their animator.

It’s an exceptional artistic snippet.

Nab the rental if you’re keen on the new stop-motion feature. You won’t hate it.

The reality is: If you’re like most people, you won’t make time for two animated flicks in the near future.

Plus, you may wish to avoid a similar in-theater experience.

It’s rated PG, but the 3D adult ticket costs $12.50.

Doofy Dad in the back makes no effort to silence the adolescent drumming legs and flapping gums.

Surely he notices the debonair twenty-something reposition mere minutes into the feature?

This parental treasure is prompting his four children whenever the Protagonist’s name (Eggs) shows up on-screen.

“Eggs!” he cries with delight.

“Eggs!” the quartet giggles.

I can clearly see several mothers working hard to keep their collective units at a low volume.

But Doof doesn’t seem to notice. Or care. Or learn. Or grow.

Because, hey, it’s just a kid’s movie, right?

Monsters University (G)

9 Stars

Due to the lack of press, I bet most think this prequel panned.

Well, it made $268.5 million at the box office.

And deservedly so, if you ask me. Monsters University is very good!

They rereleased Monsters Inc. in theaters over the summer, so I saw it for the second time since its original release. I mentioned afterward that it isn’t nearly as funny as I’d remembered.

My older sister and younger cousins all agreed; the humor’s not up to snuff in Monsters, Inc.

Three months later I watched the prequel with my sister and brother-in-law. We all agree this is quite a bit funnier.

Perhaps Monsters U. isn’t the universe creator that is its predecessor. But the smart writing comes out in different sorts of ways.

The connections drawn between athleticism and scaring ability are at the forefront of this narrative, and I really, really appreciate the ending. (Yes, two really’s.)

They hired an excellent cast of voices. Helen Mirren is the voice of a quietly great antagonist, Dean Hardscrabble, who is a creepy centipede dragon. Of course, Billy Crystal and John Goodman return as the voices of Mike and Sully. Steve Buscemi returns as Randy the chameleon, and the rest of the scare squad from the original film cameo as members of Omicron Kappa (Mike and Sully’s fraternity and teammates in the scare games).

Lot of Greek life humor in this movie. But it’s all in good fun, and never cringeworthy, like you might imagine it to be. The story unfolds in the college campus context, but the jokes never get hokey enough to be painful.

There are two major aspects of this movie I find intriguing. So watch out if you’re overly sensitive to spoilers.

First of all, the animation is so incredibly clear in the scene set in the human world, it really blows me away. Now I’m discussing it, might as well mention I find the scene on the moonlit lakeside rather moving.

But the backdrop is incredibly realistic. It gives me a sort of mysterious feeling.

I find the resolution of the following conflict nothing short of brilliant. They find themselves in seemingly insurmountable circumstances, and manage to pull it off. It ties together a number of themes and subtleties in an excellent fashion.

The second thing I want to mention is the video game quality of the plot. This is something I’ve been noticing in a lot of films lately and think it’s worthy of note.

When movies take on the video game format, where there are ‘levels’ and ‘bosses’ (so to speak) I rather enjoy them. I’ve only heard that After Earth has this quality. I’ve also heard The Matrix Reloaded discussed in a similar manner. Surprisingly, Despicable Me 2 incorporates a touch of this, as well. Perhaps The Hunger Games: Catching Fire utilizes it, but I haven’t thought it through yet.

I’m not certain how to illustrate this concept further. But I’ve heard it talked about in a dismissive manner, when I think it’s noteworthy. There’s something I find appealing about this sort of ‘leveling up toward achievement.’

When I can better articulate this, I will elaborate more.

If you’re looking for a good family movie, with an intriguing plot and some solid humor, Monsters University will do the trick.

But I’d suggest you check out Frozen, Despicable Me 2, or The Croods first.

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.