Animation, Reviews

Zootopia

zootopia

Copyright © 2016 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
Fresh from the police academy, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) joins the force in Zootopia aiming to reduce crimes in the city. Instead, her commanding officer, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) assigns her to parking duty. Unfazed by the decision, she still does the job admirably. Opportunity arises when a predator’s wife requests the prioritisation of searching for her missing husband. Judy volunteers and is forced to team up with a conniving fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) as he is last seen with the victim.

Review
What a year it has been for Disney. The most powerful brand in 2016, the reported annual grossing for the collective movies from its in-house division to subsidiaries such as Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm is a whopping $7 billion. Beginning the year with its record-breaking numbers is the first megahit, ‘Zootopia’, a timely and irreverent tale about racial prejudice.

Poise to nab a couple more gongs for ‘Best Animated Feature’, a third consecutive win at the Oscars validates Disney’s return as a mighty storyteller capable of rivaling Pixar’s once unblemished history for innovation. As a buddy cop comedy, a whodunit puzzler and an oft-told reminder of remaining true to oneself, ‘Zootopia’ is entertaining to the young and astute for mature viewers.

Taken at face value, the visuals are stunningly animated, the jokes rarely miss (but Judy’s interaction with a sloth incites only a mild giggle that lingers more than it should) and the cast delights with exceptional voicing from Goodwin and Bateman. Like the best on-screen mismatch combos before, the duo’s unlikely partnership pulsates with thumping hilarity.

Judy’s intuitive disposition added with the savoir-faire from Nick as a street hustler, the case comes to a satisfying end but what really deserves praise is the ingenuity of conceptualising a mystery that correlates with xenophobia and its implications. The film jabs the matter eagerly in a period of political unrest and it is comforting to witness the reactions are gloriously positive.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: A

Rated PG for some thematic elements, rude humor and action

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Animation, Reviews

The Secret Life of Pets

Secret Life of Pets

Copyright © 2016 by Universal Pictures

Story
Living in Manhattan with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), Max (Louis C.K.) is protective and spends every possible moment with his best friend. He patiently waits for her return whenever she leaves the apartment. But he whiles away the time quickly with visits from his other animal friends within the vicinity. One day, Katie brings home a new dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the pound, angering Max. Sensing his hostility, Duke deceits Max into venturing farther to the city and they are extraordinarily captured by Animal Control. To free themselves and safely get back to Katie, the two dogs put their differences aside and form an obligatory alliance.

Review
Positioning a few weeks after the release of ‘Finding Dory’, it looks as if the Universal production is ready for its own anthropomorphic animals challenging the combined strengths of Disney and Pixar. Domestically, it is closing in on ‘Zootopia’ and will vie for the runner up spot after the leggy sequel to ‘Finding Nemo’. No surprise that a follow up has been green-lighted.

Children and adults are loving the misadventures of Max and company which I presume will lead to a higher ownership rate once they are done with this 90-minute romp. Who wouldn’t? I sure would. The cast bring out the best in each character; C.K. suitably lends his acerbic wit as the threatened terrier, Kevin Hart is fabulously restrained and Albert Brooks is a delightful menace fending off his instinctual needs.

‘The Flushed Pets’ resistance where Snowball leads against the humans is the most fascinating aspect of this otherwise inconsequential tale from Chris Renaud whose previous entries, the ‘Despicable Me’ franchise featured sturdier storytelling. This is where Pixar (and now Disney) remain an unstoppable force not only as the leaders for revolutionary animation but as pioneers in novel and original concepts.

As with ‘Minions’, the jokes are abundant and the pace zips along furiously without letting up. Many of them work but the juvenile ones may have you rolling your eyes and facepalm to the age-old question: Really? Jenny Slate is a riot as Max’s love interest; Gidget’s arc undergoes a massive change. Sweet and shy, she is the epitome of purity until her inner beast is emancipated. If watching a Pomeranian losing it is one of your secret guilty pleasures, head over to the nearest screening now.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: B+

Rated PG for action and some rude humor

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Animation, Reviews

The Little Prince

The Little Prince

Copyright © 2016 by Netflix

Story
A mother (Rachel McAdams) and daughter (Mackenzie Foy) move into a new home to enlist the girl as a student of prominent Werth Academy. Her mother has scheduled a life plan that excludes leisure activities. When their neighbour, a retired aviator (Jeff Bridges) starts his airplane and its propeller damages their house, he tries befriending the girl with a story about ‘The Little Prince’. He met the boy (Riley Osborne) when he crash-landed his aircraft in the Sahara. Intrigued by the Aviator’s encounter, the Little Girl forsakes her daily routine to learn more about the prince.

Review
We often find joy in children’s sprightly antics or listening them uttering in their own made-up language. In that brief moment, the weight of all our adult ‘problems’ are ostensibly lifted and the positivity which has long been concealed will resurface, reassuring us that nothing is ever doom or insurmountable. We see hope, aspirations and possibilities reflected in the twinkle of their eyes, the same principles adults tend to forget.

Grown-ups are bogged down by restrictions, whether self-imposed or unconsciously that escaping into an unworldly state is a reminder when things can really be pretty black and white. I am not implying the life of a workaholic (the choice of colours for the monotony in adulthood). Far from it. Our views become clearer when we embrace our once elapsed part of ourselves; you betcha, the formative years.

In any lifetime, being a child is the culmination of living (for me anyway). Why then would parents eagerly deprive the kid(s) of awe and elation? Mark Osborne’s reconstructed version has an answer for it: an overachieving and overbearing mom. Laced seamlessly with the original content from the adapted novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1943, the result is buoyant, humourous and sentimental.

The stop-motion animation bits transport viewers into the author’s artistry boosted by finger-snapping tunes featuring vocalisations from Camille. Topping off the overdue royal treatment it deserves is the A-listers’ delivery; McAdams is affable as the pushy mother, Bridges is the quintessential of kooky, Paul Rudd is a hoot as Mr Prince and James Franco’s subtlety only etches the profundity of the book’s text even more.

Rating
Entirety: A-
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: A

Rated PG for mild thematic elements

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Animation, Reviews

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
A child prodigy in robotics, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) frequently participates in illegal robot duels and his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is troubled by his sibling’s actions. He takes Hiro to his university and introduces him to his friends and creation, Baymax (Scott Adsit), a personal healthcare companion hoping that the skilled inventor will enroll there as well. For his entry project, Hiro’s originality amazes Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) and is accepted instantaneously. The good news is short-lived as his project thought to be lost in the fire is actually stolen by a masked fender bent on seeking revenge for a personal loss. With Baymax, Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), Fred (T.J. Miller), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr), and Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez) by his side, Hiro must now save San Fransokyo from obliteration.

Review
Can Disney and Marvel go any wrong? I am quite sure this is not one of them. A helluva year for comics realised by a returning pioneer (Bryan Singer) and indie favourites (the Russo brothers and James Gunn) whose combined efforts amassed a whopping $2.3 billion during their run in the cinemas. Animation has less to cheer about. Known properties underwhelmed in global takings (‘Mr Peabody & Sherman’) and did not impress critics (‘Rio 2’ and ‘Penguins of Madagascar’).

Only two survived the onslaught in the overcrowded roster; ‘The Lego Movie’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ which looks poise on nabbing the third Oscar for DreamWorks Animation in the ‘Best Animated Feature’ category after the former has been shut out of the race (sniff sniff). Unite both genres together, hey presto, ‘Big Hero 6’ is the unique blend for unparalleled potency (in itself is a literally unparagoned synthesis of East meets West).

Ever since John Lasseter is lassoed back in, Disney’s own productions have gone from strength to strength (‘Meet the Robinsons’, ‘Bolt’, ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh’ are underrated picks but no less whimsical than their recent behemoth successors of ‘Tangled’, ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and ‘Frozen’). It is pretty daunting considering the Ice Queen from Arendelle took the world by storm and just could not let it go from her snowy grasp.

But Lasseter has done it again. Yes, the visuals are gorgeous, the action is rousing enough not to irk concerned parents and it is yet another origins tale for the umpteenth time. As with the retro-influenced ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, what distinguishes it from plunging into mediocrity is a humourously-plotted script boosted by a huggable health attendant-turned-crime fighter (Adsit at his most endearing steers the movie in its breakneck pacing with the right dose of warmth).

The mystery surrounding the passing of a loved one and the disappearance of Hiro’s invention used for malice is passably engrossing, possibly because there are not many suspected felons to begin with, you do not need a three digit IQ level for the big reveal. For a brief instance though, it would appear that the tale may go into darker territories but is held back by messages of forgiveness, familial ties and friendship. The perpetrator’s motivations echo these sentiments (a box of Kleenex nearby can come in handy).

If that is not enough, the loss of a comrade will temporarily overload the senses with grief and despondency, simply as a means to neutralise the comicality power-packed in the first half of the fable. Henney and Potter are commanding as the leader and leader-to-be whereas Miller’s daffy appeal becomes increasingly textured as the narration advances (do not miss the post-credits scene for more Fred and his dad).

However, nothing can compare to Baymax’s sweet and caring disposition. A calmer version of C-3PO, he will have you rooting for in any sticky situation. He is the kind of buddy you would want around as the city falls apart and when the healing commences, he will be with you through thick and thin. A sublime embodiment of Wall-E and Optimus Prime, I am undoubtedly satisfied with my care. You should be too.

Rating
Entirety: A-
Acting (Voice): A-
Plot: B+

Rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements

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Animation, Reviews

The Book of Life

Book of Life

Copyright © 2014 by 20th Century Fox

Story
Childhood friends Manolo Sánchez (Diego Luna), Joaquin (Channing Tatum) and Maria Posada (Zoe Saldana) are reunited many years later after Maria is sent away for causing a ruckus in San Angel. Now, a skilled matador, Manolo and Joaquin, a revered protector of the townspeople are in love with the educated beauty and her predicament is used as a wager between La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman). La Muerte has picked the gentle and caring aspiring singer to be Maria’s suitor while her partner hopes the brawnier Joaquin will be a better match. Should Xibalba win, he will exchange reigning duties with La Muerte as the new ruler in the ‘Land of the Remembered’. To tip the scale in his favour, the meddling spirit’s extremities may eliminate one of the friends permanently from the bet.

Review
It is timely for any movie to be spirited away in the direction of the supernatural comes Halloween and animation is getting more adventurous with a palate for the dead. Some of the finest which tackles this difficult topic with care and sensitivity belong to Tim Burton (‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, ‘Corpse Bride’ and ‘Frankenweenie’). Celebrated Japanese animator, Hayao Miyazaki also took a shot at it and the Oscar-winning anime (sole winner) is still the highest earning film in Japan to this day.

Other significant and whimsical but underrated offerings of the past that deserve mention for their amusing observation on the afterlife would have to include ‘Monster House’, Coraline’ and ‘ParaNorman’. Now, you can tag on this quirky, funny and delightfully made Mexican folklore to the list of must-see shows but have yet to watch. It happens. I actually just completed ‘Oculus’ a while back and the verdict: deftly crafted.

Granted that both fables revolve around family, the outcomes could not be any more different. The Tatum-starrer communicates with the dead for help but the Jason Blum-produced sleeper is dead set on taking lives. Nevertheless, the twists at the end may leave the respective groups cheering for more or flummoxed (I would go for the latter but let’s not kid ourselves, the toon in question, like many before it will reap its happily ever after).

That does not mean the ride is not a fun one to relish. Things really kick in full gear when an unpredictable decision is made and the viewers are thrusts along with Manolo into the ‘Land of the Remembered’ for a literally polychromatic experience. The disparity between the living and the deceased is fittingly represented on how we live our lives in real life – lifeless and pallid while alive but teeming with vivacity in the sweet hereafter.

Even though it can be discordant for traditional to be laced in pop references and bridged by contemporary and original compositions, the songs are bonded riotously to Spanish-sounding beats, a means commendably used in ‘Happy Feet’ for many of the show’s toe-tapping numbers. The charismatic cast of Luna, Tatum, Perlman and del Castillo also boost the sometimes forced humour in its already labyrinthine second act which could be daunting if you are surrounded by preschoolers who are merely warming themselves up before ‘Big Hero 6’ is unleashed.

However, what it lacks in style is highly compensated with wit and originality from the brilliant mind of Jorge Gutierrez, most renowned for the award winning ‘El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera’. As ingenious as a Guillermo del Toro fantasy (he is producer after all), this winner will not only beguile but more importantly, for its venerable contribution to Mexico’s rich and diverse culture.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: A-

Rated PG for mild action, rude humor, some thematic elements and brief scary images

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Animation, Reviews

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

Copyright © 2014 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Story
The Lego universe is in peril as Lord Business (Will Ferrell) has stolen a powerful weapon known as the ‘Kragle’ and is about to ‘seal’ its fate permanently as dictated by the villainous oppressor. Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) prophesies that ‘The Special’ will discover the ‘Piece of Resistance’ to stop it from ending. When Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) accidentally uncovers the hidden piece and taken into custody by Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson), he is rescued by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a Master Builder adept at constructing anything without written instructions. Through the support of other Master Builders, Emmet hatches a plan to defuse the ‘Kragle’ before the world is bereft of any originality.

Review
Truthfully, when the announcement was made that a Lego movie had been green-lit by Warner Bros, it was a no-brainer that the forces behind this decision had to be driven by the mean green. Well, the primary motives are still to sell more toys (undeniably!) and build a non-existing franchise (in the making) but there is a catch; Hollywood actually wants this to be good as well. It is rare but not unheard of as concepts like these can be assembled in any direction deemed fit.

In the hands of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who also serve as scriptwriters, rest assured, great care has been taken to ensure the finished product is a fully realised ball of fun that incorporates plenty of gag references from memorable movie quotes yet unexpected in its own fresh spin to the protagonist’s journey from a nobody to being extraordinary. Just when you thought it could not get any more complex than it already is, the duo inserts a final twist reminiscent of ‘The Sixth Sense’.

Not at all chilling or disturbing like the Oscar nominee nevertheless shocking. Shocking that a toon could reverberate themes most makers will shy away. Trapped in a place where conformity is absolute and thinking differently could steer to the end of the world, it looks like a shoe-in for the ‘Best Animated Feature’ come next year’s award season. Obviously up among the crème de la crème, however, its complexity rivals more closely to Warner’s own experimental breakthrough, ‘Happy Feet’.

It is only a matter of time before this gifted pair is awarded with the accolades they deserve. I can see them doing no wrong with anything that they are involved in. ‘21 Jump Street’ was one of those rare anomalies that not only improved on its source but spawned an even more superior sequel. Wonder if ‘Battleship’ would have stayed afloat if the costly dud was handed to them? Guess we will never know. What I do know is that this adrenaline-charged tale will be incomplete without the vocal talents.

Yes, actors are a dime a dozen. With real talent, the pool is considerably smaller than what is perceived to be. The cast consisting of rising stars, character actors and seasoned performers are all wonderfully matched to their distinctive roles that the weakest link seems to be its running time (with so much going on, another 15 minutes of laughs would have been fine). Everything is indeed awesome. A self-aware satire unafraid to hurl bricks of resistance on a conglomerate-dominated milieu is atypical and is sure to inspire a whole new generation of skillful Master Builders.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: A+

Rated PG for mild action and rude humor

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Animation, Reviews

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Copyright © 2014 by 20th Century Fox

Story
The action takes place five years after the events in part one and the villagers of Berk are living symbiotically with their newfound allies. Being an inquisitive one, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) frequently travels to undiscovered terrains with Toothless and in his latest outing, he meets Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon trapper who sells captured dragons to a tyrant named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Bludvist has been acquiring these dragons for his conquest on all free lands but foiling his plans is a mysterious rider, Valka (Cate Blanchett) who later reveals herself to be Hiccup’s long lost mother. When it is known that the megalomaniac has his sights on Berk, Hiccup, his family and friends will do all they can to defend it from being taken over.

Review
In the vein of ‘Shrek 2’ and ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’, ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ completes the holy trinity of sequels from DreamWorks Animation that improve upon the high standards set by the originals. They exist not only for the purpose of continued merchandising (which is probably where the bulk of the profit comes from a demographic not to be underestimated of their spending power) but as a means to venture deeper into unchartered territories.

Instead of rehashing the tried-and-tested, all share one thing in common; the stories bear more emotional resonance and act as superior companion pieces. Shrek is saddled with the fact that his unconventional good looks will always be ridiculed by his soon-to-be in-laws and Panda Po learns about his devastating past. Hiccup’s new adventure unfolds in his ongoing quest to search for unknown lands but stumbles onto something far more precious.

The interactions between Hiccup and Toothless are featured heavily early on to establish believability for a heartbreaking twist I did not see coming in a frenetic second act. The demise of an essential character may seem contrived but it is necessary for Hiccup’s evolvement into adulthood. Besides being in fine form for the returning cast, the new additions of Blanchett, Hounsou and Harington offer a wider dimension to its fairly simplistic narrative.

Simple but never deprive of heart. Valka’s revelation as mother to Hiccup and wife to Stoick is nothing short on sweet and the reunion that follows will tug at your heartstrings (John Powell’s rousing score blends effortlessly with the folk-tinged hymn he penned specifically for this joyous occasion which is sung affectionately by ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ star). Blanchett, having won her second Oscar last year proves her versatility through a stealthy but no less poignant portrayal of an empathetic dragon keeper.

It is contrasted well against Bludvist, the film’s antagonist brought out with sheer menace from the underrated Hounsou. Under proficient direction from Dean DeBlois sans his frequent collaborator Chris Sanders, what we get does not feel like it is merely a business decision but made out of respect for its source material. A carefully constructed tale on everything that worked four years ago is retained and raised to dizzying heights.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: A

Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

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