Friday, November 28, 2014

Big Hero 6 Review

Disney's latest animated feature film is the first one I can think of that features super heroes. I suppose this shouldn't be much of a surprise, since Disney bought Marvel back in 2009 and has been making tons of money with their Marvel Super Hero/Avengers movies. They have been championing Big Hero 6 (2014) as being from the creators of Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, and those are some pretty good titles to compare to their new release. Does their first animated Marvel super hero feature hold up?
Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a fourteen-year-old robotics genius who lives in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo, and spends his time participating in back-alley robot fights. Hiro is learning to harness his genius, thanks to his brilliant brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) and his like-minded friends; adrenaline junkie Go Go Tamago (Jamie Chung), neatnik Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and fanboy Fred (T.J. Miller). When a devastating turn of events catapults them into the midst of a dangerous plot unfolding in the streets of San Fransokyo, Hiro turns to his closest companion, a medical robot prototype created by Tadashi called Baymax (Scott Adsit). Hiro transforms the group into a band of high-tech heroes determined to solve the mystery.
I didn't know it at the time I saw the previews, but after Big Hero 6 hit theaters everyone started talking about how it's based on a Marvel miniseries. The team of heroes called Big Hero 6 are fairly obscure within the Marvel universe, but have had their own miniseries of comics. Spider-Man has called upon Big Hero 6 to help him fight Doctor Octopus, and for a time Wolverine's enemy, the Silver Samurai, was a member of Big Hero 6. Since this is technically a Marvel movie, you should stick around for a traditional post-credits scene, and watch for the king of cameos to make an appearance.
The characters in Big Hero 6 were adorable to say the least. I have no idea how they measure up to original comics, but I like the ones that were depicted in the movie. I said in my Real Steel review that child prodigy characters are very unrealistic and often indicators of bad writing. Hiro occasionally pushes credibility here, but he is still a kid; he's got the attention span, emotional maturity, inflated confidence, and insecurities of any adolescent, and these are incorporated into his character beautifully. Sure he's got a well-above-average skills with robotics, but he's still just a kid and the movie doesn't forget that.
Tadashi acts as more of a role model for Hiro than an actual mentor. Hiro has to learn some pretty tough lessons on his own. At one point, Hiro's desire for justice goes overboard and he makes some very serious mistakes, but he still didn't have a mentor to teach him what to learn from his mistake. I thought this was a particularly interesting bit of character development since Hiro had no one to help him figure out what to do with the experiences, and yet we still see him learn and mature as a young man and as a hero.
The other major character is Baymax. There is nothing about this character that isn't superbly lovable. The way he moves, talks, and interacts with the world around him is absolutely adorable. He resembles a semi-inflated balloon and looks so huggable. There were several clusters of small kids in the theater when I saw Big Hero 6, and nearly every time Baymax did anything at all there was an eruption of giggles from them. Baymax offers a compassionate and healing voice for those suffering, and a hug that can be felt through the screen. He sells the movie; it wouldn't have been nearly as fun without this irresistible blob of a roly-poly robot charisma. 
Big Hero 6 is a PG animated Disney movie and was chockfull of physical gags, funny characters, and silly jokes. There's also a lot of exciting super hero action and villain combat. There are also lots of hugs and love. It also features the kind of stellar animation we've come to expect from Disney. Big Hero 6 combines Disney wonder and charm with Marvel awe and action to deliver a movie that exhibits the best of both studios. While the action is good, it's the central character's heart that is the real appeal. Big Hero 6 has got something for everyone; there's a lot to enjoy in this movie. Kids will love the fun characters and silly stunts, older viewers will appreciate the action and animation, and everyone will love the heartfelt, genuine emotion these characters exude. I recommend seeing Big Hero 6 in theaters if you can. It's worth the ticket price. It's also worth getting a copy of on Blu-Ray when it becomes available.

Here's the trailer so you can get a feel for how Baymax was animated:

So, what do you think about Disney's first animated Marvel movie? I think it's good, but out of sorts with Disney's usual fare. Comment below and tell me what you think!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Interstellar Review

In late 2013 we saw teasers for Christopher Nolan's latest film, Interstellar. Throughout 2014 it was among the most anticipated films of the year. So many people were predicting Interstellar to be the 2001: A Space Odyssey this century. That's a bold expectation and is no doubt a high complement to Nolan's movie directing skills. While Interstellar is an intriguing film, it's less "2001: A Space Odyssey" and more "2014: A Space Exposition."
In the near future, the entire Earth has been devastated by drought and famine, causing scarcity in food and extreme changes in climate. When humanity is facing extinction, a mysterious rip in the space-time continuum is discovered, giving mankind the opportunity to widen its lifespan. A group of explorers use this wormhole to travel far beyond our solar system in search of a planet that can sustain life. The crew of The Endurance is required to think bigger and go further than any human in history as they embark on an interstellar voyage into the unknown. Pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is torn between seeing his children again and the future of the human race. He reluctantly joins biologist Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gayasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and robots TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (voiced by Josh Stewart) as they search for a new home for humanity.
Christopher Nolan has earned the respect of audiences with some outstanding films such as Inception,  The Dark Knight trilogy, Memento, and others. His stories generally revolve around a character who has been wronged and wants to make it right, forcing him to fights against a universe that insists that things must ramain as they are. That makes for some fascinating stories and dynamic, interesting characters. In Interstellar, the universe dictates that mankind has reached the end of its existence. However, there are a handful who refuse to accept that fate, and they fight against the literal universe so that mankind can continue to thrive and exist. This had a lot of potential to get into some deep philosophical concepts and show us some fascinating struggles.
There are some complex struggles that the characters are faced with, but they aren't as deep as they could have been. Most of the problems that the characters in space are faced with involve managing time and resources. Einstein's theories of relativity are incorporated in Interstellar in ways that most sci-fi stories gloss over. There's still some aspects of "fantasy" science, but a lot of it is based on hard science. At one point they must decide whether or not to visit a planet which is near enough to a black hole that time bends with the gravitational pull, causing one hour on the planet to be close to seven years further away from it.
The story is episodic in nature; it's basically a tour of alien worlds with unusual climates. This kind of story lends itself a magnificent display of visual effects, but not a terribly interesting storyline. There is a great deal of dialogue explaining things as they go along. It makes sense because apart from Cooper, most of the characters are scientists and feel a need to explain things as they go. This results in a very verbose story in a visually based medium. Dialogue is important but a good piece of writing should show, not tell, us what is happening and why. More so in movies. Inception had a lot of exposition in it, too, but it was done in small increments between tense moments of action while still showing us examples as new information was presented. In Interstellar there was a lot of sitting around discussing science, relativity, and exchanges of feelings and doubts. It was good and well written dialogue, but made the movie feel slow at times. I still yearned to be shown these things rather than told. Possibly my favorite segment of dialogue was when Hathaway's character is speculating about love being a scientific force of nature, like gravity, that we haven't had the forethought to incorporate into our views of science. I'm unconvinced of that idea, but it was a good bit of dialogue.
Without the very important relationship between Cooper and his daughter, Murphy, Interstellar would have been much weaker and nothing more than a tour of alien planets. Generally I don't like having major child characters only because children don't tend to be good actors. Mackenzie Foy was highly impressive for a child actress; she and McConaughey had some outstanding and emotional moments together and father and daughter. I'm very much impressed with her, and look forward to seeing how she fares further on in her career as an actress.
It's hard not to hold 2001: A Space Odyssey up to Interstellar. Both are about space exploration, have "movie epic" lengths (a run time that exceeds two hours), and comment about man's place in the universe. I think comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges. While I'm not the biggest fan of 2001, it is a masterpiece of cinema art, full of elaborate camera work, complex symbolism and theme, and mind-blowing abstract concepts. Interstellar is basically a gorgeous display of visual effects and a few touching family moments. It was lacking in symbolism, had a good but straightforward theme, and didn't feel nearly as profound as 2001. Similar to 2001, the last thirty minutes of Interstellar does some far out, even trippy things while tying the story together for its conclusion. As was the case with Inception, you may need to watch the last bit a few times before you are able to piece it together in your mind. Also, it's hard to ignore the similarities between 2001's monoliths and Interstellar's robots.
Overall, I did enjoy Interstellar, but it took me a while to decide that I did. It had some great visuals and camera work, several good characters that I could relate to, and some great bits of dialogue. Since it was so dependent upon these great bits of dialogue, the story feels slow from time to time, and it lacks the symbolism and thematic complexity that many of us where hoping for when we saw the trailer. Admittedly it was a bit foolhardy of us to expect another 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Christopher Nolan has given us reason to expect Kubrick-level cinema art from him, and I don't doubt that he is capable of that in the future. It simply wasn't accomplished on this occasion. If you value special effects and graphics in movies then Interstellar is worth catching in theaters. If you are like me and value characters, story, and theme above all else you're better off waiting for this on home video. I wouldn't mind seeing it a second time, but I didn't love it enough to get my own copy.

What did you think of Interstellar? Did you like it? Was it a disappointment? Do you have mixed feelings about it? Comment below and let me know! (But please avoid spoilers)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hoodwinked Review

I've had several people (or maybe one person many times) recommend Hoodwinked (2005) to me. The trailer looked a lot like a wacky fairy tale story that was capitalizing on the novelty of Shrek. Most of what put me off was the low quality animation. I assumed it was a mockbuster; a film created with the intention of piggybacking on the publicity of a major film with a similar title or theme and is often made with very low budget. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find a lighthearted and detailed story with plenty of off the wall cartoon antics.
The recipes of the forest's goody shops have been stolen by The Goody Bandit, and many animals are going out of business without them. While the police are chasing the criminal, there is a mess at Granny's house involving Little Red Riding Hood (Anne Hathaway), The Wolf (Patrick Warburton), The Woodsman (Jim Belushi), and Granny (Glenn Close), disturbing the peace in the forest. They are all arrested by the impatient Chief Grizzly (Xzibit). Detective Nicky Flipper (David Ogden Stiers) is in charge of the investigation and each of the accused gives his/her own version of the incident. Are one of the suspects The Goody Bandit?
As I said previously, the animation here was just awful. The characters had very jerky movements and few facial expressions. Nearly everyone moved with unrealistic slowness and deliberation, or they moved with such ridiculous speed so as to seem unrealistic even for cartoon characters. The few really zany characters that actually made funny faces all made the same funny face. I have seen better animation from CGI Saturday morning cartoons that went off the air six years prior to this (i.e. Reboot, Beast Wars: Transformers). It really was distracting at times. About the only thing that looked reasonably well animated was a couple of explosions. It's no wonder this seemed like a mockbuster.
DreamWorks studios have put out some pretty weak movies in the past couple of years that displayed some good animation and a terrible story and script (looking at you, Shark Tale). But Hoodwinked is just the opposite; lazy, lackluster animation with an above average script. This seemed a lot like an old Tex Avery cartoon (who had spoofed the story of Red Riding Hood many times) combined with the "Fractured Fairy Tales" segment of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. There were so many funny lines and puns strewn throughout, it had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. And the story was more elaborate and interesting than I ever would have guessed.
The first half of the movie consists of Nicky interviewing each of the convicted suspects. The story is then told and retold from different perspectives that lead up to the Red Riding Hood story set up at the movie's intro. Weird, seemingly non sequitur events and gags happen in each one and end up being explained later in another character's account. For example, an unexplained avalanche chases Red down a mountain in her story. Later Wolf has to take an alternate route to Granny's house because of the same unexplained avalanche. Then the Woodsman tells his story, and it's not until Granny's eccentric version of things that this plot device is explained. In the end all the wacky events come together to tell one fairly elaborate story that is still simple enough for young viewers to keep up with. I was genuinely impressed by this bit of storytelling, simple as it was. It's not a deep or moving story; it's just a fun, lighthearted romp that is a step or two above most Saturday morning cartoons.
Overall, I have to say that Hoodwinked is not bad. It's got an upstart charm, a clever premise, appealing characters voiced by a terrific cast and a script that should make you laugh out loud more than once. The animation was awful. It lacked subtlety, refinement, and texture; all of which had been achieved in CGI animation years prior. It lacks some of the wit that Shrek has, but still was worth a few laughs. This will appeal much more to kids than it will to adults. There were a few times I started to get bored, but I don't doubt young audiences would eat this up. Hoodwinked is currently streaming on NetFlix. I enjoyed it for what it was. If you've got kids this is worth watching with them, otherwise you'll be better off with something that has a bit more substance to it.

Can you think of another movie where the story/script was better than the animation itself? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Maze Runner Review

Upon seeing the trailer for The Maze Runner (2014) I became really interested in seeing it. The trailer said it was based on a novel, so I looked up the book to learn more about it. As it so happens, this is yet another dystopian survivalist movie based on a Young Adult book trilogy. I've read the Maze Runner trilogy now and taking the books into consideration, the movie did a pretty good job.
Thomas (Dylan O'Brian) wakes up in an elevator, remembering nothing but his own name. He emerges into a world of about 60 teen boys who have learned to survive in a completely enclosed environment, subsisting on their own agriculture and supplies lead by Alby (Aml Ameen) with Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) second in command. A new boy arrives every 30 days. The original group has been in "The Glade" for three years, trying to find a way to escape through the Maze that surrounds their living space. The Maze changes daily and at night is crawling with nightmarish creatures called Grievers. The boys have begun to give up hope. Thomas's curiosity spawns some optimism among the boys except for Gally (Will Poulter) who was suspicious of Thomas from the start. With a fellow Maze Runner Minho (Ki Hong Lee) to help, Thomas sets out to solve the Maze. But then a comatose girl named Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) arrives on the elevator with a strange note, and their world begins to change.
The nature of this story doesn't lend itself to deep characters; every single one of the boys (and Teresa, for that matter) have amnesia. None of them know anything about themselves apart from their first name. This keeps all of these characters from having a complex past to prompt present behaviors. Sure, they have their shticks, but that's pretty much the only thing that defines each of the characters. Thomas is very curious, but seems to be the only one out of 60 boys who have no idea why they are there. Thomas is also a heroic go-getter, but the fact that he's the main hero of the story practically requires that quality of him. Why is he like this? We don't know, and neither does Thomas.
One of my biggest complaints about the books is that the "why" never seems to be addressed in much detail. Thomas wants to know what's going on and the other "Gladers" either tell him they don't know, wouldn't give him a straight answer, or told him it didn't matter. This happened so much throughout the trilogy that by the time I'd finished the last book I still only had a vague idea as to why any of the insane plot actually happened. For the movie, they did explain a little more of the bigger picture at the very end than the book did. This made it slightly more satisfying, but still wide open for a sequel. The other irritating thing the book did was spam the reader with fictional slang used in place of actual profanity. While it was present in the movie, it was used significantly less than it was in the book, thank heavens. Other changes were relatively minor and were reasonably left out in the interest of time.
Teresa is pretty much the only female character in the movie. She plays a pretty important role in the book, but her character is so watered down and made so negligible, I have to wonder why she was included in the movie at all. She wasn't even included as an obligatory love interest; she seems to be there only to cause the boys to roll their eyes when she acts irrational. Teresa isn't even portrayed by a good actress; she's almost like a budget Kristen Stewart.
There is an unexpected moment of theme development shortly before the climax of the movie. It's a short scene where Thomas, Teresa, Newt, and a couple others are talking amongst themselves. They decide that past experiences aren't indicative of future experiences. They also talk about how the present is all that matters; they could stay there, worry, and panic about whether or not their misfortunes will come again, or they could ignore past wrongdoings and focus on what they can do about it right now. Who they were isn't nearly as important as who they are now. This was great and gave the characters a chance to show what makes them tick, it gave some thematic depth to the story, and moved the plot forward as they decide to take action. The movie really needed more moments like this. It was a great scene.
The book focused more on finding clues to solve the elaborate puzzle of The Maze, whereas the movie focuses more on the action while running around in The Maze. There are a LOT of scenes where Thomas is having to squeeze through walls that are closing in to crush him. It's enough to make anyone feel claustrophobic. The action is well choreographed. With shifting walls and Greivers attacking from various directions the action scenes could easily have become disorienting and confusing. But the shots were strung together in such a way that we're able to keep up with the action. The action scenes do lend themselves to some violent imagery. But just as things are about to get brutal, it cuts to another shot or something obscures our view of what could be a grisly scene. It remains safely within its PG-13 rating; I wouldn't worry about showing this to preteens if they really wanted to watch it.
The Maze Runner was better than the book it is based on, but that's not saying a whole lot; I didn't care for the books much. It's almost like The Hunger Games meets Pac-Man. The characters are shallow, some to the point that I wonder why they were included at all. The story is vague and leaves most of the questions it raises unanswered. The visual effects and action were quite good. All in all, it ends up being a decent popcorn flick; good special effects and action, but hardly anything else. This is a renter at most; young teens will probably love it, but anyone else should probably borrow a copy from a friend if you want to see it badly enough.

I've not given the last couple of YA novel movies very good reviews. Apart from The Hunger Games they follow a standardized formula and end up being uninteresting. Do you know of any YA novels out there that breaks the mold and are really good reads? Comment below and let me know!