Toy Story 3

Leave it to Pixar Studios to deliver one of the year’s best films in June.  “Toy Story 3” enters the summer arena and livens up screens, delivering as a sequel that can entertain audiences of all ages.

The Toy Story canon kickstarted Pixar and full-on CGI animation back in 1995.  Fifteen years later, the franchise still has juice, as kids that loved the original are now potentially parents taking their little ones to the multiplex.  They should be pleased.  “3” doesn’t just capitalize on a popular title as the last two Shrek sequels have done, but it follows a palpable storyline and takes the series in a logical direction to a fitting conclusion.

Young little Andy isn’t so young and little anymore.  He’s a high-school graduate off to start a new chapter in college.  In the process of cleaning out his bedroom, he is forced to decide what to do with his childhood toys.  His mother says to bag them up for storage in the attic or toss them in the trash.  Most of the gang (including Buzz, Rex, Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead, Ham, etc.) get bagged up for the attic, while Andy decides to keep his favorite toy, Woody.  Due to a misunderstanding, Andy’s mother assumes the bagged up toys are headed for the trash.  Woody makes a last ditch effort to save them, and the toys escape the garbage truck and land themselves in a box of used toys headed for Sunnyside Daycare.  Upon arrival, the toys believe they have found the perfect paradise to find affection and purpose from children all day long, while Woody has his doubts and begs his friends to head back to Andy’s.  The gang makes the decision to stay, and Woody is left on his own.  Soon enough, the toys realize they are meager pawns for destructive toddlers to torment.  Looking to escape, the the group faces opposition from a soul-scarred purple bear named Lotso who has taken control of Sunnyside and will not allow the new toys to leave.  Woody gets word of how destructive and enslaving his friends’ situation has become, and plans a rescue mission to save them.

Following in the footsteps of the previous “Toy Story” films, the final installment stands just about as classic, but probably for different reasons than one might expect.  The plot actually heads into some very dark and dramatic territory as issues of abandonment, imprisonment, purpose and demise culminate the proceedings.  Where the first two films may have been a little more lighthearted and comedy-driven, “Toy Story 3”, while still having its humor, actually builds out of heartbreak, stirred emotion, and a lot of suspense.  In some ways, I was surprised this secured a G-rating.  Pixar’s creative team of writers have recently excelled at exploring deeper thematic material in brilliant ways.  I think of man’s destruction of Earth in ‘Wall-E’ to the loss of a significant other in ‘Up.’  “Toy Story 3” continues that trend.  The film is smart enough for adults and entertaining enough for kids.  Luckily, the entire cast of voice actors return and bring back these characters we all know and love.  Forget the 3D, it’s not necessary.  See “Toy Story 3” for its brilliant writing, its comedic value, its dramatic nature, and its expert animation.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (5 votes cast)

The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the FrogAfter a decade of dabbling in CGI cartoons with the likes of Chicken Little, Brother Bear, Meet the Robinsons, and a slew of award-winning movies by its subsidiary Pixar, one might think that a return to traditional “cel” animation is a bit of a step in the wrong direction.  But like downing a glass of ice water after a long bike ride, watching The Princess and the Frog is a refreshing throwback to the basics:  good animation and a solid storyline, backed up with some fantastic foot-tapping musical numbers and a memorable supporting cast.  Aside from a few questionable scenes with the film’s nemesis, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), this is an extraordinarily pleasant reminder of the kind of moviemaking that made Walt Disney a household name.

Set in the humid streets and bayous of New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog tells the long-trodden tale of a young girl who wants more out of life.  The princess in question this go-round is Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young girl with a hard-working father and loving mother who dreams of opening her own restaurant with her dear old dad someday.  And in the tradition of Disney movies, she wishes upon a star, desperately hoping her dream will come true.  But far from the beaten path laid by the House of Mouse, Tiana does not wish for a handsome prince to sweep her off her feet.  Nor is she under any illusions that a ball of gas burning billions of miles away has the power to shape her destiny.  Instead, she knows that only hard work and unwavering determination can get her the restaurant she dreams of–a moral lesson reinforced by (what else?) a song.  Sometimes the classic formulas are the best, eh?

Princess Frog Balcony

Wow...a girl who wants more out of this (provincial?) life, staring off a balcony, wishing on a star. Didn't see that one coming.

And what good is a children’s movie without some weighty advice on sound financial planning?  Tiana’s entrepreneurial spirit is nearly snuffed out when she is told she only has three days to make the rather sizeable down payment on the riverfront property–a payment that her dozen change jars just can’t quite accommodate.  Fortunately she takes a side job making pastries for a party thrown by her spoiled rotten best friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) who wants to hit it off with the wealthy Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos).  Turns out he is broke, and visits the voodoo artist Dr. Facilier and sells his soul to get some quick cash.  At the party that evening one thing leads to another and Tiana and Naveen get turned into frogs and are float away to the swamp on a pack of helium balloons.

In classic Disney style we are soon introduced to a handful of oddball supporting characters, each with outlandish and highly exaggerated southern/cajun accents and mannerisms.  There’s an old lightning bug named Ray and a misfit alligator named Louis, as well as Mama Odie, a mystical priestess who helps Tiana and Naveen on their quest to return to human form.  Throw in a handful of aforementioned catchy tunes, and like Tiana’s gumbo, you’ve got a recipe for an animated delight.  The cel animation is the icing on the cake that givies the entire production a vibrant, sprightly attitude that makes nearly all computer-rendered animation in the past decade pale in comparison.

The Princess and the Frog is many things, but while the return to traditional animation is a welcome change from much of the bland, sterile computer animated schlock coming out of Hollywood today, I was disappointed in the overall storyline.  It was an enjoyable romp to be sure, but it felt like a paint-by-numbers Disney flick rather than groundbreaking or envelope-pushing like we have seen in Wall-E and Up.  But if anything, it does prove that there’s still plenty of life left in the realm of old-school animation.


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Rating: 4.2/5 (5 votes cast)

How to Train Your Dragon

“Iron Man 2” is about to blast off, but “How to Train Your Dragon” has sort of become the hottest topic at the box office so far this year.  Yes, “Alice in Wonderland,” took the world by storm, but “Dragon” started small and has been raking in viewers every weekend since, showing legs that are like  the second cousin-twice-removed of ‘Avatar.’  So it is in this light that I decide to review “How to Train Your Dragon,” which I went to see only curiously out of its sweeping success.
Somewhat disappointingly, “How to Train Your Dragon” is not the heralded classic its Tomatometer rating might suggest.  The Dreamworks Animation feature has to be experienced on a purely visceral and visual level.  The 3D factor really helps nudge this one a cut above the rest, making a stronger impression than “Kung Fu Panda” and “Monsters vs. Aliens,” but still never reaching Pixar-level storytelling.

The plot involves a young blacksmith, Hiccup, born to the greatest viking in all the land.  Hiccup may be born of vikings, but he has little violence in his blood, as much as he tries to be the warrior his father is.  In an attempt to showcase some valor, Hiccup tries a shot at catching himself a dragon, and does so.  No one believes his story, but the young lad ends up training his newfound pet, Toothless, in secret, learning all the tricks and trades of the dragon population, which allows him to make 180-transition in his training simulations.  Over the course of the boy and dragon’s growing bond, Hiccup learns that the dragons really aren’t savage beasts, and decides he must try to stop the viking population from attacking these harmless creatures.

The story sounds as though it would appeal on an emotional level, but it never quite gets there.  The plot is very standard in the traditional sense of the animation universe, and I think the movie is best enjoyed as an entertaining 3D wallop, which it most certainly is.  Toothless, the dragon, is very cute, and the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is no more than cute.  Perhaps I’ve been getting used to movies like “Up” and “Wall-E” that have had the opportunity to hamper my judgment with animated movies, but simply put, “How to Train Your Dragon” is not quite up to that quality-level of filmmaking–and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Dreamworks provides another serviceable entry to their canon that provides eye-popping action sequences in 3D that make a good argument for that extra dimension.  Audiences should be thrilled, entertained, and will certainly enjoy themselves for the movie is certainly never boring, but I didn’t find it to be as emotionally resonant as it thinks it is.

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Rating: 3.5/5 (2 votes cast)

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

All stories, be they novels, vignettes, movies, poems, or any number of media by which tales are told, start out as ideas. “Hey, what if…” “Wouldn’t it be cool…” “Ok, so there’s this guy…” In the motion picture realm, these ideas can lead to horrendous results (“Robots that turn into cars!” “A talking duck!” “Let’s turn this video game into a movie!“), but often something emerges that turns out to be not entirely awful, but not entirely awesome. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs takes a wonderfully simple premise, adds a generous portion of strained father-son relationship, mixes in a dash of biting wit, blends it with razor-sharp dialog, and topps the whole concoction off with some truly excellent celebrity voice acting to produce one of the most surprisingly entertaining and downright enjoyable movies I have watched in a long time.

Consider this most basic of ideas, something that would seem to have taken shape on a third-grade playground:  What if you could make it rain food?  Turns out the execution of such a premise, when put on celluloid with the magic of CGI animation, is brilliantly entertaining.  Based on the bestselling children’s book of the same, Meatballs tells the story of idealistic young inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader), a post-teenage ADHD case with his head in the clouds and his mind lost somewhere between ambition and common sense.  A resident of the small island nation of Swallow Falls (located just under the “A” in “Atlantic Ocean”), he wants to solve his homeland’s problem of surplus sardines by inventing a machine that creates food–any type of food–from nothing but water.  Part of what makes this such a fun movie is its offbeat sense of humor, tongue-in-cheek scriptwriting, and a keen sense of self-awareness that many other animated movies lack.  Flint’s daring but woefully impractical inventions run the gamut of wide-eyed elementary school notebook drawings:  spray-on shoes, robotic TVs, rat/bird hybrids, and other whimsical creations that somehow seem perfectly at home in the irreverent setting of this animated adventure.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: Flint, Sam, Steve

Sam, Flint, and Steve the talking monkey pondering the meaning of life.

What makes this movie stand out from the crowd is its heart.  Flint is an eminently relatable protagonist, and his eternal optimism is infectious.  His mother, the most vocal champion of his inventions, passes away when he is young, and he grows up with a father who does not understand him and just wants him to work at the local bait and tackle shop.  Never one to settle, Flint refuses to give up on his inventions until his food creation machine wreaks havoc at a local ribbon-cutting ceremony.  But soon he realizes that the machine actually functions better than he thought possible, as it begins raining all kinds of culinary creations from the sky.  I’m not kidding, either–virtually every type of food one can fathom drops from the heavens in this movie, and it’s such an outrageous premise that you can’t help but smile as it all happens.

Rounding out the cast is TV weather reporter Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), greedy mayor Shelbourne (Bruce Campbell!) and devoted police officer Earl Devereaux (voiced by none other than Mr. T himself).  All do a fantastic job in their roles, bringing their characters to life with gleeful aplomb that is so often missing in by-the-numbers hollywood cartoon movies these days.  And as Lockwood’s invention begins to spiral out of control, we also once

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: Tim Lockwood

Flint's dad Tim, trying to work a computer.

again learn the classic animated movie lesson that people are often far more than they appear on the surface–except those evil politicians, though.  Everyone knows they are just as greedy, shallow, and singleminded as they appear because movies like this have been telling us that since we were kids.

Sure things are predictable, and one could probably map out the basic plot after watching the first ten minutes of the movie, but the fun of Meatballs is the wonderful excess to which it lets itself travel.  Swallow Falls becomes literally buried in absolutely ginormous portions of food, and the world itself is threatened with annhillation by means of spaghetti hurricanes, skyscraper-flattening pancakes, and cheese logs the size of farm silos.  And like the best movies out there, this one just asks you to stop thinking logically and start thinking like a third-grader:  just sit back, relax, let the beautiful ridiculousness of this wonderfully executed idea wash over you like a wave of melted ice cream, and enjoy the ride.


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Rating: 3.7/5 (6 votes cast)

Up (Video Review)


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Rating: 4.0/5 (6 votes cast)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

I really liked Batman: The Animated Series when I was growing up.  It was a cartoon that dealt with some very weighty subjects, was not often played for simple laughs, and pushed the limits of what could be seen on afternoon network TV in terms of violence and thematic material.  But woe to the concerned parent who confuses violence with bloodiness, as the animated bullets were rarely the cause of death, and Batman himself was never one to go around shooting people or even killing his enemies.  In fact, the show was more of a morality play than anything else, and certainly dealt with mature life-and-death themes than anything else on TV at the time (think Power Rangers and Animaniacs).  But despite my affinity for the Animated Series, I never got around to watching the bigscreen incarnation of the show until just this past week.

From what I could tell before watching Phantasm, it was set to offer more of what made the Animated Series so great:  weighty subjects, conflicted heroes, and a world that was far more grey than black-and-white in terms of the good guy/bad guy vignettes that played out in similar TV shows and movies.  And while the movie does have these elements, it is also lacking in the sort of grandiose presentation and storyline that I had hoped from a cinematic adaptation of such rich source material.

The story purports to be multi-layered, and in some ways it is, but again, not as much as I suspected it might be.  Batman is once again fighting villains, both internal and external, and faces off against one of his longest-running foes as well as a new one, the Phantasm referenced in the title.  Local underworld bosses and masters of organized crime leaders are being offed by the Phantasm, a shadowy ghostlike figure impervious to bullets with the ability to appear and disappear at will.

The Phantasm.  Has Batman met his match?  Tune in next week...same bat-time, same bat-channel!

The Phantasm. Has Batman met his match? Tune in next week...same bat-time, same bat-channel!

Trouble is, the public is led to believe that Batman is the one doing the killings, and even good ol’ Commissioner Gordon finally turns on our intrepid hero.  Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, is reintroduced to his old flame Andrea, the woman to whom he was once engaged before beginning his days of crimefighting.  This type of relationship, the genesis of which is told through a series of flashbacks, is endemic to the series as a whole, as it presents serious themes of desire, longing, and the chasm between reality and the carrot that is perpetually just out of reach not only for Bruce Wayne but for many of us as well.  The one thing that will bring the most happiness to Wayne is the one thing he can’t have, and this realization is what leads him to ultimately shut himself off from the real world, and real relationships, and take on a secret identity of reclusive crimefighter.

Origin stories are nothing new to theatrical adaptations like this, and I appreciate that instead of seeing another recap of how Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, we see what is essentially the cliffs notes version of Batman: The Teenage Angst Years.  Seeing Andrea again brings all these long-buried questions back to the surface for Wayne, and it casts Batman in a different light that I find particularly refreshing and altogether human.

However, the creators bring the ever-present Joker into the mix, at which point the storyline devolves into a more-or-less typical after school Batman episode.  Joker is once again running amok in the city but this time the mysterious Phantasm is also trying to thwart his criminal exploits.

Bruce Waynes old flame, Andrea Beaumont.  But is there more to her than meets the eye?  Hmm...

Bruce Wayne's old flame, Andrea Beaumont. But is there more to her than meets the eye? Hmm...

The identity of the Phantasm is thus another layer to the plot, but it’s not too hard to figure out and the reveal is somewhat of a predictable letdown.  In fact, the climax of the movie has a girl in distress whose only hope is to be saved by Batman.  Holy déjà vu!

While I appreciate the effort to flesh out some of the Bruce Wayne/Batman persona, I wish this movie wouldn’t have fallen back on some of the tried-and-true tricks of the trade.  I also find the (forgive the expression) cartoonish lack of explanations for various elements frustrating.  The Phantasm is, of course, a real person and not a ghost (anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Scooby Doo will know this immediately) but their (and I use the improper plural pronoun on purpose) ability to absorb bullets and disappear in a puff of smoke is never explained.  The ending chase/rescue is a bit much to take even by cartoon standards.  On a side note, however, it was nice to hear Mark Hamill back at his blood-curdling evil-villain-laughter best once again.  :)  All in all the movie is decent entertainment, but not as good as it could have been given its wonderfully brilliant pedigree.


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Rating: 3.0/5 (2 votes cast)

The Iron Giant

Before Brad Bird was launched into superstardom (directorially speaking, that is) following the release of The Incredibles, he was a creative talent floating around Hollywood with a penchant for animation and slightly quirky stories.  He was a writer and animator for The Simpsons, a consultant for the oddball animated comedy The Critic, and was even involved in a few projects with Steven Spielberg.  With the release of The Iron Giant, his animation-meets-CGI opus from 1999, he was given a chance to show the world what he and his rich imagination could do given enough time to develop a full-length storyline.  The results were good, but met with a few flaws that keep this film from being among the truly classic works of animation.

At its core, The Iron Giant is a story about a boy and his friend.  This boy, named Hogarth, like the protagonists of so many of these kinds of films, is misunderstood by adults, has few companions at school, and spends too much time lost in his own imagination.  He’s a bit Calvinlike, in some respects, though not as mean-spirited towards authority.  At any rate, it’s no surprise that when an unearthly visitor crash-lands near the boy’s small hometown in Maine, that Hogarth forms an immediate bond with him.  Hogarth and the Iron Giant (voiced rather tenderly by the venerable Vin Diesel) spend much of the film simply existing together:  playing, relaxing, having adventures, and keeping their secret friendship away from adults and authority figures.  Much of the film is a paint-by-numbers exercise in retreading past stories, though:  Hogarth’s mom is too busy to pay attention to her son.  One man, a government investigator, knows something is going on with Hogarth and is determined to find out.  One adult does believe Hogarth and helps him out.  Soon enough the secret is out and the authorities do find out.  Everyone freaks, people panic, the Army gets involved, and…well, you get the point.

The Brad Bird quirkiness comes from the sheer nature of the story: a kid befriends a 100-foot tall metal behemoth.  It’s a bit different from typical Disney fare, you might say.  But I had a hard time buying the friendship and the isolation from all adults.  Early on in the film the giant causes a train to crash, and this should have been a pivotal turning point in the story.  But for the most part people just continue in their daily lives afterwards while Hogarth and his pet giant continue to frolic about in the woods unnoticed, and no one in town (save for the savvy investigator) bothering to ask any questions.  I can give animated films a lot of leeway and wiggle room, but I just wasn’t able to let go of some of these types of plot issues.

Like Titan A.E., I get the feeling that this film started out as a fantastic idea, but something got lost in the translation to celluloid.  It’s entertaining but not engrossing.  Interesting but not engaging.  And the emotional core never really came through to me (Hogarth actually says “I love you” to the giant late in the film–a cringe-worthy moment that felt entirely forced and was entirely unbelievable, and seemed like the filmmakers knew they had failed to create a true emotional connection between the two characters and at that point decided to just go for broke.)  I suppose if I was younger the movie would have been better, but seeing it for the first time as a guy who’s almost thirty, it just wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be.

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Rating: 5.0/5 (1 vote cast)

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs


‘Ice Age’ has been good to Fox Studios and serviceable to audiences.  The first film was solid entertainment, the second installment a major bore, and the latest entry again decent. That’s the best compliment I can give it. As a distraction for kids, ‘Dawn of the Dinosaurs’ is better than ‘The Meltdown’ for a few reasons.

The storyline is stronger. Sid (John Leguizamo) stumbles upon three seemingly abandoned eggs beneath the ice surface and takes them to raise as his own. Out hatches three baby dinosaurs and they wreak havoc for Manny (Romano) and Ellie (Latifah) who are expecting their first youngin. When Mama T-Rex comes back for her three babies, Sid is whisked away to a jungle world beneath the ice and it’s up to Manny and team to bring him back with the help of newcomer ‘Buck,’ (the one character that doesn’t work) a swashbuckling, dinosaur-hunting weasel on a continual quest to bring down the greatest dino of them all.

The second pro: it seems as though more screen time was given to Scrat the squirrel and a new sub-plot involving a romance with Scratte, his female counterpart. Scrat’s scenes have always been the best in the series, and it’s proven even further with this sequel.i3

Final pro: Yes. This one’s in 3-D – and not a pointless 3-D. This is where 3-D sells an otherwise average movie. Pixar’s ‘Up’ didn’t need it. ‘Ice Age 3’ really puts it to use and blends the splendid animation with a surrounding landscape, and it all comes together very well. If you’re at all interested in seeing it with those goofy glasses on, more power to you — this is a strong selling point for the movie.  And, at the end of the day, I have to recommend this. It works far better than the last movie, and there’s worse animated fodder that has been released in the past. The movie is short, lively, superbly animated, in a strong 3-D format, sporadically humorous, and a solid choice for kids.  No, it’s not quite as good as ‘Up.’  It’s not Pixar. But what else is, really?

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Rating: 4.0/5 (2 votes cast)