Friday, March 27, 2015

Mr. Peabody & Sherman Review

There have been a lot of movies in recent years that were based on cartoons that the baby boomer generation grew up watching, Yogi Bear, The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Rocky and Bullwinkle among others. Most featured CGI animated versions of these normally 2D characters interacting with live actors, and most have been notably bad. For the first time I can think of, one cartoon featured a fully digital animated feature based off of one of these cartoons. Namely the Peabody's Improbable History segment of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014). I've got to say, I was pretty impressed.
Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is a business titan, inventor, scientist, gourmand, two-time Olympic medalist, and genius who also happens to be a dog. Using his most ingenious invention the WABAC machine, Mr. Peabody and his adopted boy Sherman (Max Charles) hurtle back in time to experience world-changing events first-hand and interact with some of the greatest historical figures of all time. But when Sherman breaks the rules of time travel, our two heroes find themselves in a race to repair history and save the future, while Mr. Peabody may face his biggest challenge yet - being a parent.
The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show originally ran from 1959 to 1964, but I still enjoyed watching reruns a great deal as a kid in the 80's. It was known for its quality writing and wry humor. Mixing puns, cultural and topical satire, and self-referential humor, it appealed to adults as well as kids. The art had a choppy, unpolished look and the animation is extremely limited even by television animation standards at the time. Yet the series has long been held in high esteem by those who have seen it; some critics described the series as a well-written radio program with pictures.
Holding true to its roots, Mr. Peabody & Sherman have a similar style of writing; it's witty, somewhat satirical, and chockfull of puns. In the original Mr. Peabody would take Sherman on time travel trips to educate the boy. While the lesson of the episode was a nice moral, it was always delivered as a terrific groaner of a pun. Mr. Peabody & Sherman opens with what would have been a typical episode of the original cartoon. The movie, though, features a lot more action than the cartoon's notoriously poor animation could deliver, but had just as much silly cartoon goofiness that made the TV Show famous. The voice actors also sound remarkably like the original characters.
Something unique the movie does which the cartoon never did was develop the characters. In the cartoon the characters were just means of setting up and delivering silly jokes. In the movie we see Mr. Peabody and Sherman face personal obstacles and interpersonal conflict with one another and other characters. This takes the form of token family bonding stuff that seems to be obligatory in most family films. Yet there are a few moments where it's done really well. There's a montage early in the movie as Mr. Peabody reflects upon photos of him raising Sherman which prompt some touching flashbacks. There's another scene where Mr. Peabody is getting advice from Leonardo da Vinci on the nature of children and how they learn and grow which ends up being more poignant than I would have expected. Then at the conclusion there's so much sweetness and love between the characters I actually got just a bit choked up.
On top of the common "what it means to be family" message, there's an oft overlooked exploration of adoptive families. Disney so often uses orphan characters for the purpose of garnering empathy from the audience, but never explores much once we feel for the characters. In Mr. Peabody & Sherman it uses the complications of adoptive familial relationships to add further depth to the characters. Sherman has to defend himself against school mates who insist that he doesn't really have a father, or more specifically endure bullying from kids who say he's a dog because his father is a dog. You don't see that kind of trouble in movie adoptive families, but it's a very real thing that real adoptive families endure. Mr. Peabody & Sherman get bonus points for that.
Another unexpected thing that I didn't expect was having issues with time travel and paradoxes. On the one hand that gave our heroes some obstacles to overcome and made for some interesting, though still very cartoonish, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff to deal with. But on the other hand, I felt like that story arch moved a bit too far from the original whimsical slapstick-driven shorts on which it's based. Time travel was obviously important, but they got a little too close to a Doctor Who sort of story than what it should have. Don't get me wrong, I love Doctor Who; but Mr. Peabody & Sherman and Doctor Who are very different things and shouldn't overlap quite this much. Never the less, the concepts of time paradoxes were explained simply enough for kids to keep up with.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a whip-smart, consistently funny and good-natured film with some terrific voice performances. The fun does get a little strained as it goes on, but remains a mostly solid family film that anyone could enjoy. There's some touching moments of family love and some that were trying a bit too hard. The animation was pretty great, too. I saw it in 2D which I recommend since it seemed to rely on 3D gimmicks whole lot. Baby Boomers who grew up watching The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show or anyone who enjoyed the reruns growing up will likely get the biggest kick out of this movie. I'm not sure why Mr. Peabody & Sherman did poorly at the box office; it was way better than most of the baby boomer cartoon remakes I've seen thus far. I recommend seeing it, and possibly consider owning a copy if you've got small kids in the house. As of writing this review, it is available on Netflix streaming; go give it a shot!

What has been your favorite movie based on an old school cartoon? George of the Jungle is probably mine. Comment below and let me know!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cinderella Review

Last year Disney released a live action retelling of their animated classic Sleeping Beauty in the film Maleficent. It was okay; it would have been much worse without Angelina Jolie. This year, another live action remake of different animated Disney classic was released. After Maleficent's hype and subsequent mediocrity, I wasn't too keen on seeing the new Cinderella (2015). I was pleasantly surprised to find an engaging movie that has stuck to its (Disney) source better than the other fairy tale movies that have been released in the past several years.
Young Ella (Lily James) was raised in a happy and loving home by her parents (Ben Chaplin & Hayley Atwell). Her merchant father remarries following the tragic death of her mother. Keen to support her loving father, Ella welcomes her new stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera) into the family home. But when Ella's father suddenly and unexpectedly passes away, she finds herself at the mercy of a jealous and cruel new family. Finally relegated to nothing more than a servant girl covered in ashes, and spitefully renamed "Cinderella" since she is made to work in the cinders, Ella could easily begin to lose hope. Yet, despite the cruelty inflicted upon her, Ella is determined to honor her mother's dying words to "have courage and be kind." She will not give in to despair nor despise those who abuse her. One day Cinderella meets a dashing stranger in the woods (Richard Madden). Unaware that he is really a prince, not merely an employee at the palace, Ella finally feels she has met a kindred soul. It appears as if her fortunes may be about to change when the palace sends out an open invitation for all maidens to attend a ball, raising Ella's hopes of once again encountering the charming "Kit." Alas, her stepmother forbids her to attend and callously rips apart her dress. But as in all good fairy tales, help is at hand as a kindly beggar woman (Helena Bonham Carter) steps forward and, armed with a pumpkin and a few mice, changes Cinderella's life forever.
It's interesting that Disney chose to stick to the sweet innocence of their classic animated feature when remaking this live action adaptation. We've had movies like Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Jack the Giant Slayer which are all dark reimaginings of Grimm's fairy tales. But Cinderella stuck to its guns and remained a cute, romantic, and charming adaptation of the Disney animated classic. Had this come out ten years ago, I don't think it would have been as well received. Many of these dark fairy tales explore themes such as feminism, the blurred lines between hero and villain, and the strength of women. Those are great, and this Cinderella does focus on feminine strength, but not the sort in the previously mentioned movies. I think that to contrast these dark interpretations, Cinderella provides some pleasant themes of kindness for which we redeveloped a craving after all the mature and dark movies of the past decade. Some of them were good, but Cinderella is kind of a breath of fresh air we didn't realize we wanted.
This Cinderella has been criticized for making a weak girly character of its tragic heroine, lacking agency and independence. I disagree! Cinderella does have horrible things happen to her; had I been in her shoes I would have retaliated. But despite her circumstances, she chooses to return Lady Tremaine's cruelty with kindness and patience. She had the power to leave her abusive stepmother at any time, but chose to care for the home of her parents to honor their memory in spite of how demeaning and emotionally painful her stepfamily was. Also, in the scene where Prince "Kit" and Cinderella meet in the woods, at no point did I feel like he was in control. Cinderella was in control of the conversation and the outcome and allowing herself to be herself, regardless of what was thought of her. Furthermore, Cinderella had no interest in meeting the prince at the ball; her whole motive for attending was to simply have another chance meet the young man she'd met in the woods, not knowing he actually was the prince. She was not interested in high society, glitz and glamor, nor was she seeking to anything of self-interest. Cinderella was simply seeking a kindred spirit. This character is not defined by the men in her life, nor is she seeking to live up to men's expectations. Having said that, I think this Cinderella is more pro-feminism than Maleficent was; female strength needn't be physical nor should it be defined as power over men. It can very much be strength of character and sticking to ones principles. I love the warrior princess characters we've had in the past couple of years such as Merida in Brave, she and others are fantastic and worth emulating. I'm simply delighted to see a female protagonist be the type of woman who has the courage to be kind in a world full of cruelty. That's the kind of strength of character I think we should encourage and instill within our daughters.
I think this Cinderella is a better role model than its animated predecessor. I never liked the animated Cinderella movie that much because kind as the character is, she basically sits around wishing things were better and wants to go to the ball because girls like that kind of thing and the prince is handsome. This doesn't lend itself to depth of character, and even as a kid I thought she was uninteresting. I don't really like characters who rely on others to fix things for them, regardless of gender. This Cinderella, though, sticks to her principles with kindness and patience. She has moments of sorrow, but recommits herself to being a good person. It's not until she has reached her lowest low that her will finally breaks and begins to accept the world as a cruel place, no matter how hard she tries to make it good. At this point her Fairy Godmother intervenes, not to solve all her problems, but to give her the boost she needs to overcome her trials and find a sense of happiness again. The deus ex machina plot device that the fairy godmother normally provides is still present, but this Cinderella seems much more deserving of it. She's worked hard to be a force for good in her world rather than simply wishing things would get better.
I often mention good costuming to illustrate a time period. But the costumes and dresses in Cinderella were stunning and gorgeous beyond compare! Lady Tremaine's dresses are always the height of fashion, and Blanchett displays them as well as any fashion model would. The gown that Cinderella is granted for the ball is striking and resplendent; often put against orange colors, blue dress looks picturesque in every shot and almost seems to gracefully move of its own accord while Cinderella dances.
The only real issue I had with Cinderella was the CGI animal friends. Cute animal sidekicks and friends work well in animated Disney features, but in live action movies they tend to become awkward very quickly. I saw them in the trailer and was worried they would act as the primary comic relief, and be silly as they so often do in animated features. While they do appear regularly in the movie, it's only for short bouts and they act mostly like normal mice. I think it would have been just a little bit better had they trained some mice to run around looking cute rather than having slightly cartoonish digital mice run around looking cute.
Cinderella is a fantastic remake of Disney's classic animated feature. It's refreshingly traditional in this revisionist era of movie remakes. Kenneth Branagh shows us that Disney hasn't lost any of its old fashioned magic. This version has more depth and complexity than the original, but holds true to the classic tale even with some unexpected twists. They've done something right; this story has been retold many times over.  This fresh take on the story caused me to gasp a few times. This Cinderella is a stronger and more interesting character than her animated predecessor, and of a class that I would like to see more of. I even got caught up in the romance which is normally so clich├ęd that I check out of that particular subplot.  Cinderella is a good movie! The camera work was breathtaking in some scenes, especially the fireworks display at the ball.  After mulling it over in my mind, I've decided that I want a copy of it on Blu-Ray when it becomes available. You can wait until then if you want, but I think this is worth the price of a movie ticket.

With Cinderella being as well done as it was, I think I'm looking forward to Disney's upcoming live action Beauty and the Beast movie. That's one of my favorite animated Disney movies, and they'd better not screw it up! What are your feelings about this Cinderella movie and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast one? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, March 13, 2015

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water Review

Nickelodeon's popular cartoon show SpongeBob SquarePants has been running since 1999. SpongeBob has been around long enough that kids and teenagers have grown up watching him. There was a theatrical movie released in 2004, and now eleven years later another has been made. The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015) champions some hilarious puns and gags while sporting a variety of very interesting art styles.
Up to his old tricks again, Krusty Krab rival Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) launches an attack against the fast food establishment to steal the Krabby Patty secret formula. Krusty Krab proprietor, Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) and employees Squidward (Roger Bumpass) and SpongeBob (Tom Kenny) defend the restaurant with the help of SpongeBob's friends Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke) and Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence). But during the skirmish, the Krabby Patty secret formula vanishes. The residents of the underwater city of Bikini Bottom go crazy without Krabby Patties sending them in to a Mad Max style apocalypse. They believe that SpongeBob and Plankton were working together to steal the secret formula. The two are forced to team up and build a time machine to get the secret formula back before it disappears and end up in some weird places along the way including a time parallax were they meet a dolphin time wizard named Bubbles (Matt Berry). SpongeBob and Plankton's plan to save the secret formula fails, and all of Bikini Bottom wants to destroy SpongeBob. But when Mr. Krabs and SpongeBob smell Krabby Patties being cooked, the gang and stowaway Plankton, follow the sent to the water's surface where the dastardly pirate Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas) is selling Krabby Patties to families at the beach. With plenty of tricks up his sleeve, Burger Beard is a formidable opponent. Can SpongeBob recover the Krabby Patty secret formula and bring peace and Krabby Patties back to Bikini Bottom?
The story here is all over the place. The SpongeBob cartoons work great in eleven or twenty two minute stories. The writers don't seem adept in telling a story with these characters for longer than that time frame. It's as if the story in Sponge Out of Water were several 11 minute chunks of vaguely related story mashed together without any breaks. It starts off like many of the cartoons do with Plankton trying to steal the secret formula, then there's an "episode" that comically resembles a Mad Max parody, then another with wacky time travel antics. It's almost as if they had worked in pauses in the story for commercial breaks, but didn't actually have commercial breaks. This made the story rather disjointed and lacking in unifying theme. However, this is SpongeBob we're talking about, and it simply isn't interested in telling an complex or deep story; it's a bunch of silly nautical nonsense for the sake of being entertaining, silly nautical nonsense. And Sponge Out of Water does that really well.
The jokes, puns, and gags were brilliantly implemented. I laughed a whole lot at this movie. Some of the jokes were just plain stupid, but I still couldn't help laughing at them. Many of the goofy physical jokes were the same kind you'd see on the TV show. Most are so wacky and silly that describing them in words would sound ridiculous to say the least. Well, they are ridiculous, but without the rapid fire visuals, they would be weakened by a descriptive examples here.
In the cartoon show, any time characters go above water they are suddenly no longer animated. This is occasionally depicted as an ordinary kitchen sponge on a stick used as a puppet. A major part of this movie's advertisements was showing 3D CGI renderings of the characters interacting with a physical world after they go to the surface. Incidentally, this was only done in the latter fourth of the movie. But it was really well done! Even when interacting with live actors and physical props and sets, the character animation and how they interacted with the world around them was impressive. Earlier scenes such as the times when SpongeBob and Plankton are traveling between time periods featured some very trippy animation. The movie was available in 3D, and I imagine some of those borderline acid trips looked incredible in 3D.
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water was pretty much what I expected it to be. A weak, disorderly story with lots of laughs. The jokes and puns were great, the cartoon physics (even in the "real world") were a hoot, and the wacky characters were fun. I got a kick out of it, but was growing bored with the disorganized story itself. The animation was better than it had reason to be; hosting a variety of 2D cell animation styles, some abstract animation, and some great CGI work. This is a good movie to watch with kids, though if you're not already a fan of SpongeBob, you probably won't enjoy it all that much. Kids will eat this up, though. I don't think it's quite worth the cost of a movie ticket. You may want to buy a copy if you have youngsters in the house, otherwise it's a renter.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Incredible Hulk Review

We are greatly anticipating The Avengers 2 coming up in a couple of months and I think I should go back and review some of the movies that have lead up to it. The Incredible Hulk (2008) was the second installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was meant to act as both a reboot and a sequel to Ang Lee's Hulk movie from a few years prior which itself wasn't involved with the whole Avengers cross over storyline movies. The Incredible Hulk not only helped get us psyched up for the eventual Avengers movie, it was also cram packed with references to the old TV series and comic books.
Picking up after the events of the Gamma Bomb experiment gone wrong, Dr. Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) travels the globe looking for a cure. The Gamma radiation he was exposed to transforms him into a powerful, uncontrollable raging "Hulk" when angered. Banner strives to keep this primal alter ego under control, but as the target of an international man hunt lead by General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) it is difficult to contain. When Banner meets Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) who believes he can cure Banner of his transformations, Banner travels to Culver University in Virginia to meet Sterns. This risks encountering Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) a past love interest of Banner's, whom he has avoided to keep her from the dangerous Hulk. In desperation, Ross calls in power-hungry soldier Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to help capture Banner. Blonsky undertakes some transformations himself trying to keep up with the Hulk and slowly begins to change into a more bestial creature himself.
While Ang Lee's Hulk movie was alright, it ended up being too stylistically cerebral and artistic, vying for dramatic depth for a movie about a gigantic green rage monster; too much talking and not enough smashing. The Incredible Hulk doesn't really ignore that origins storyline, and starts off with Bruce already able to transform if he loses control of his emotions. The opening credits recap the back story with a prologue using the cast from this movie before it gets going. You don't really need to see the previous Hulk movie to get into this one.
The Incredible Hulk caters to fans of the 1970's and 80's TV series and comic books. Most notably, Lou Ferrigno has a cameo as a security guard. He's way more muscular than he ever was actually playing The Hulk in the TV show that made him famous. Ferrigno actually voiced the Hulk for the movie. One of the students who witnesses the fight at Culver University is named Jack McGee, which is the name of the tabloid reporter who attempts to track down the Hulk in the same TV series. Some of the theme music from the series was used in this movie. In one scene Betty buys Bruce some purple pants, a nod to the comics where the Hulk is almost always seen wearing purple pants. Paul Soles briefly appears as "Stanley," the pizza shop owner; he provided the voice of Bruce Banner in the 1960's Hulk animated series. The name of the character may also be a tribute to the Hulk's co-creator Stan Lee. You should also watch for Iron Man, Captain America, and S.H.I.E.L.D references.
Edward Norton made a fantastic Bruce Banner. Not only did he play the character amazingly well, he also offered rewrites of the script which were included in the final production. Norton is a Hulk fan and really wanted to do it justice for the fans and help tell a solid story. He and director Louis Leterrier both felt that just because they were making a superhero movie it doesn't mean it should exclusively appeal to thirteen-year-old boys. They see superheroes as the new Greek Gods and wanted give the story dramatic suitable dramatic action. Much to the chagrin of fans of The Incredible Hulk, Norton did not reprise the role for Banner in The Avengers. Leterrier's first choice for Banner had originally been Mark Ruffalo, and Ruffalo did take on the role for The Avengers and was signed on for future appearances. They are different takes on the same character, but both do a simply amazing job.
I just love what The Incredible Hulk does with color. Bruce wears a lot of blue and the Hulk is represented by green. Bruce's eyes turn green as he begins to transform into the Hulk, signifying which of the two personalities are dominant at the moment. In one scene Bruce and Betty are lying in different beds, troubled by their thoughts. Betty's head is surrounded by the color blue in this shot, suggesting that her thoughts are on Bruce. The shot switches to Bruce, who is surrounded by the color green, suggesting he is troubled by and thinking about the Hulk. The camera rarely holds still; there's no shaky cam (thank goodness) but the camera is in constant movement panning through sets alongside the action. This gives it a sense of urgency and motion which complements the manhunt chases which is, at the most basic level, what the movie is about.
I really liked The Incredible Hulk. It was well written, well acted, paid homage to many of its source materials and predecessors, and was just plain fun. I don't think it was the best of the first wave of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's movies, but it was very much enjoyable. There are a few particularly violent moments during fights between Hulk and Abomination that made me cringe; that might be a red flag for parents who intend to watch this with young kids. It still remains safely in the PG-13 realm. If you haven't seen this movie yet, I recommend it. I've already got a copy sitting safely on my shelf among other favorites.

There is currently not a plan for another solo Hulk movie, though he will be appearing in other Marvel movies. If Hulk were to get another solo movie, what storyline would you like to see made? There's some good potential for the Planet Hulk story line now that we've got space epics thanks to Thor and The Guardians of the Galaxy. I'd also like to see Hulk's nemesis, The Leader, make an appearance. Comment below and tell me what you think!