Tag Archives: animation

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” a colorful comic book trip

Who can be a hero? That’s the central question of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” The ideal of the superhero seems so grand, so powerful, especially to a kid. When great power is thrust upon you, can you measure up?

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman and written by Phil Lord and Rothman, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is the story of Miles Morales (voice of Shameik Moore), a middle-school kid in Brooklyn who is struggling with his father (Brian Tyree Henry) and a new school. When he’s bit by a radioactive spider, he turns into the new Spider-Man just as the original Spider-Man (Chris Pine) is killed by Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). A transdimensional rift opens up from Kingpin’s latest venture, dragging in other Spider-Men and women from other dimensions, including Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), noir Spider-Man (Nicolas Cage) and another Peter Parker (Jake Johnson). For Miles, the responsibility of being a superhero is a tremendous burden, and he’ll need to overcome his fears to save his dimension.

The animation stands out as a highlight of the film. It somehow manages to blend 2D and 3D imagery, evoking comic book panels while also providing some depth. The colors are vibrant, especially the streaks of glossy red and yellow, incorporating a sense of graffiti.

Miles journey is not very original, a pretty typical coming-of-age story, but the film is important in that it features a young African-American becoming a superhero. His race is never made an issue throughout the film. He could be white, black, Latino or any other ethnicity. He’s treated as an equal amongst a very formidable lineup of superheroes. Gwen Stacy is an equal. Even the pig Spider-Man is an equal. For a generation of superhero fans who have been treated to irreversible lines of what is male and female, white and black, seeing all superheroes as equitable is welcome. The message of the film is that anyone can be Spider-Man, anyone can be a superhero. That’s a strong, resonant theme in today’s world.

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“Ralph Breaks the Internet” breaks from Disney’s tradition

The first “Wreck-It Ralph” film is an average story propped up by likeable characters. Its sequel, “Ralph Breaks the Internet”, is a subaverage story propped up by somewhat likable characters. So, in general, a stepdown.

Written by Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon and directed by Johnston and Rich Moore, the story picks up six years after the events of the first film. Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) are best friends growing distant. Vanellope wants to branch out and is bored by the repetitiveness of her game. Ralph tries to help her, but is stuck in his routine. When circumstances force them to venture into the internet, Vanellope wanders into Shank’s (Gal Gadot) game, finding a potential new home, while Ralph and Yesss (Taraji P. Henson) try to win money by getting likes online. Eventually, Ralph’s insecurities spiral and bring down the whole internet.

The first real test of a sequel is determining whether or not it’s necessary. Great sequels build on the original’s themes and characters and feel urgent and important. “The Empire Strikes Back” deepens the emotional involvement of Luke, Leia and Han. “The Godfather Part II” further illuminates the theme of power and the fall of Michael. Heck, even “22 Jump Street” deepens the connection of Schmidt and Jenko. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” doesn’t quite reach that standard of importance. Ralph and Vanellope go through some turbulent times together, but it doesn’t feel as weighty as the original’s quest for Ralph to find comfort in his identity. The original’s plot is not a master story to be sure, but it was charming and heartfelt and much of that heart is missing in this sequel. Learning to let go of Vanellope is an interesting side plot more than a main plot. Indeed, the film ends at a more interesting point than it begins; if Vanellope leaves Ralph, how does he cope? “Ralph Breaks the Internet” just doesn’t feel as relevant as it needs to be.

The new aspect of Ralph’s world is the venture into the internet. There are some interesting winks and nods towards certain services like eBay and a rather shameless Disney website promo. All in all, it feels rather pedestrian without much commentary. Is the Internet good? Is it bad? What does the film have to say about it? Not much. Some definitive moral themes about the net and its effect on us would have given greater depth to the story. And one can’t help but wonder with all the pop culture references if the film will have a short shelf life.

But in a way, it’s the strangeness of the film that leads to its entertainment. Ralph puts his face on a screaming goat. All the Disney princesses appear in their pjs complaining about men. Vanellope breaks into song about a game called “Slaughter Race” (penned by longtime Disney musicman Alan Menken). And the ending is so bizarre in its harkening to King Kong that it’s worth the price of admission itself. In a way, the Ralph franchise is Disney’s Deadpool: off the collar, parodical and distinctly unique in its irreverence. It’s entertaining to be sure, but far from a classic Disney outing.


“Isle of Dogs” a lot of fun

Wes Anderson makes the same movie again and again, just in a different format. For some filmmakers (Tim Burton), the formula has become stale and tedious. For Anderson, with his kinetic style and dry wit, it’s still fun for the time being.

“Isle of Dogs” tells the story of Atari (Koyu Rankin), a young boy and ward of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). After dogs are deemed a public health crisis after a string of diseases is associated with them, all dogs in Japan are shipped to a trash island far away. Atari runs away from his home, steals a plane and flies to the island to find his dog, Spots (Liev Shreiber). He befriends a group of dogs including Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), who agree to help him find Spots. Chief, the only stray of the group, is a reluctant ally and resents humans for what they’ve done, but as he grows to know Atari, his emotions change.

The film is a visual feast, with the swift camera pans accentuated by the vibrant colors and smooth animation. Anderson has always done a good job of focusing the viewer’s eye to his subject and exemplifying the film’s emotions through the actions on the screen. Whether it’s a closeup of a character’s eyes as they come to a realization or a chaotic zoom in to emphasize a shocking turn of events, he uses film composition to keep his stories interesting and heartfelt.

He also continues to display his unique wit and charm. The main characters have interesting personality quirks and story arcs and the script keeps the action going at a brisk, never-boring pace. Things move fast and the audience is rewarded for keeping up with his trademark jokes.

For Anderson though, his repetitive style is beginning to border on unoriginality. There are enough differentiations in theme and plot to keep his films interesting for the time being, but like many others before him, his movies are all starting to feel the same: dysfunctional family, long lost relatives, quirky side characters, prestige vs. instinct quarrels, blatant yet funny dialogue, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, F. Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum. There is a risk that he may soon seem to be parodying himself and that would demean his otherwise strong stories.

And a continuous problem with Anderson in all of his movies is his lack of female characters. Not only are they not protagonists, they are distinctly lacking everywhere onscreen. The vast majority of his characters are white males. And the women of the story serve mostly as companions or sex objects (not in an overt, callous way but in a matter-of-fact way). They are distant and detached or committed to a cause past thought of their own lives. It would be interesting for him to branch out not only in his style, but also his cast list. Many of the roles in his films could indeed be women characters, but he has trouble writing that way.

Ultimately, “Isle of Dogs” succeeds not only as another strong Anderson film that fits into his canon, but also because it mirrors current events. It’s a story about the outsider who benefits society, about government manipulation to find a common enemy to consolidate power, about abusing the environment and leaving our children messes and trash, about the importance of science and reason over preconceived biases and about our basic communication with nature, respecting and cultivating it. It’s a beautiful story that exemplifies what Anderson does best.

‘Despicable Me 3’ is harmlessly forgettable

The premise of the “Despicable Me” franchise is fairly straightforward: A supervillain adopts three girls and learns how to be a father. That is the first film, and the story is told very well. The problem for the franchise is how do you build upon that concept in successive films. And the filmmakers don’t really have an answer to that conundrum.

“Despicable Me 3” features a returning Gru (Steve Carell) discovering that he has a long-lost brother, Dru (also Steve Carell). When the newest villain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) appears on the scene, the two brothers work together to bring him down for different reasons. Also returning are Gru’s daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Nev Scharrel) as well as Gru’s wife, Lucy (Kristen Wiig).

The problem with the film is that it never endeavors to advance the characters in any meaningful way. Since Gru has become a father, he has never been tested internally. Dru is a pointless distraction to the supposed real heart of the franchise: Gru learning to be a father and part of a family.

With Lucy in the fold now, there are plenty of opportunities for storylines involving the family: Perhaps Margo is a teenager now and is tempted by the life of villainy her father aspired to and her mother despises. Maybe Edith gets into trouble at school and Gru has to help her confront her issues. Perhaps Agnes is kidnapped by an evil unicorn. The girls and their relationship with Gru are never really explored and that leaves Gru distant from the emotional stakes in the film. They should be at the heart of the story.

The minions, thankfully, are kept to a minimum in screentime and story purpose. After their awful standalone film, the filmmakers have realized that their appeal (what’s left of it) is best situated to short bursts (at least until their film has a sequel).

There are a few chuckles in the film, but nothing all that memorable, which can be said for everything as a whole. Balthazar adds some good bits and the film is lighthearted and endearing at moments, but the story and gags lack originality. This is the fourth go around for the franchise and things are stale. There are only so many minion jokes.

“Despicable Me 3” is by no means a terrible film. It’s just an unmemorable one. The filmmakers have worn out their original concept and don’t know where else to go with the franchise. In this case, perhaps that means moving on to a new story.

‘Zootopia’ a deeper Disney flick

The theme of just about every Disney movie is “follow your dreams.” It’s sweet, timeless and, by now, pretty boring. So it is great that with “Zootopia”, the filmmakers haven’t abandoned that concept but added a much-needed dose of reality and racial diversity into the equation.

“Zootopia” tells the story of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a young bunny who dreams of being a police officer in the sprawling city of Zootopia, a place where predator and prey live together in peace. There has never been a bunny cop before, and she faces all sorts of prejudice for being perceived as less than bigger animals. As she tries to prove herself, she meets a sly fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist she enlists to help her get to the bottom of a case of disappearing predator animals.

The story takes a film noir approach (with a child-appropriate tone) towards the investigation and examines some poignant race-relation issues in the world today. The discrimination of predator to prey and prey to predator imbues the story with a deeper level of meaning than that of a standard Disney film. The characters must work through their own prejudices of the world to gain true understanding.

Real time and energy went into making the film not only fun and entertaining, but also different and deeper. It’s great to see an animated film, especially from Disney, tackle some prominent modern-day issues.

“Zootopia” is one of the better films of the modern Disney era. It is fun, insightful, heartfelt and memorable.

‘Moana’ beautiful, fun

Boasting beautiful animation, an engaging (if familiar) story and strong musical numbers, Disney’s Moana is an enjoyable cinematic experience.

Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) is destined to lead her Polynesian island community, but the island’s resources are drying up. The sea calls to Moana, who must embark on a quest to return the heart of the goddess Te Whiti before the darkness overwhelms her home. She enlists the help of the demigod, Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson).

Directed by the duo of Ron Clements and John Musker (past credits include Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog among others), the film features several of the traditional Disney tropes: a princess, the bumbling sidekick, the quest, nature as a guide, the biased father-figure, the helpful grandmother. But while the story is rather so-so in terms of creativity, the songs and the visuals are great. The water in particular looks terrific and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tunes are sure to stick in your head for better or worse long afterwards.

The film does an excellent job of really utilizing its location to tell its story. You can practically smell the sea-breeze off the screen. It is to Musker and Clement’s credit that they imbue the film with such energy and really bring Polynesian culture to life.

When given the choice between the familiar told well or the unfamiliar told poorly, telling stories smartly always wins. While Moana is nothing that new, it is fun, it is enjoyable, and it is another strong Disney entry in its recent revival (started not-so-coincidentally when John Lasseter took over as head of Disney animation).

‘The Jungle Book’ gorgeous

Despite the fact that it is a nostalgia-driven marketing endeavor, Disney’s latest live-action foray based off one of their animated classics works because it is filled with heart and gorgeously animated.

Much like its predecessor, “The Jungle Book” focuses on the young boy Mowgli (Neel Sethi) raised by wolves. When the tiger Shere Khan (voice of Idris Elba) threatens to kill him, his panther guardian Bagheera (voice of Sir Ben Kingsley) leads him on a quest to the man village where he’ll be safe. Along the way, they meet the villainous Kaa (voice of Scarlett Johansson), the gigantic King Louie (voice of Christopher Walken) and the lovable Baloo (voice of Bill Murray).

Much of the plot remains intact from the animated film with one huge change near the film’s conclusion meant to make way for a sequel (it is not terrible, but not great either). The characters are magnificent CGI representations, full of identity, grace and beauty, and all of the voice actors are excellent (Idris Elba in particular).

The theme of man as a disease to nature works well and respect towards each other across species is a metaphor to our current culture. With a fully realized world in the Indian jungle, the film is engrossing, entertaining and full of Disney charm.

Two detriments to the story are inherent however. One is that the movie can not help but exist in the shadow of its predecessor. It tries to push out and be its own film at times, but with every rendition of “I Want to Be Like You” the film reminds viewers that it is essentially a remake. The film then works as a companion piece to the original, but one can’t help but wonder what the final product would have looked like if director Jon Favreau had been able to create Kipling’s tale independent of the animated film.

The other is the manner of the making of the film. There is no actual jungle at all. Everything was shot in a Los Angeles sound studio. Every creature, tree, mountain is all computer-animated. It is the height of hypocrisy for a film whose moral is the preservation of nature to not actually feature any real nature in it. The film lacks grit and a sense of reality because of it. It is a shame.

But overall, the film is enjoyable, well-made and strong. It is the best live action from animated film released by Disney and an argument can be made that it is even better than the original.