Tag Archives: animated

Review: ‘Frozen II’

In the long and storied history of animated feature films, Disney has rarely made sequels intended for the big screen.

The sole exception to that rule, The Rescuers Down Under, barely made a ripple when it was released in 1990. As the home video age took hold, however, the company began producing sequels and spinoffs of established titles. More recently, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) pointed the way forward for Disney to produce lavish, theatrical live-action adaptations of animated hits, to mixed success.

In financial terms, though, Frozen fairly well demanded another film. (A billion dollars in gross box-office receipts tends to do that.) What we have in Frozen II, then, is a movie based on commercial requirements, rather than fairy tales or — gasp! — an original idea or two.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a great movie. Frozen introduced a story that seemed revolutionary because it revolved around — gasp! — two women. That’s reason enough to celebrate a sequel that features the two women working together to save their magic kingdom.

Older sister Anna (Idina Menzel) and Elsa (Kristen Bell) worked out their sibling issues in the first film, which concluded with Anna sitting on a royal throne and Elsa secure in her position as Chief of Comic Relief. Anna is happily single, while Elsa was single and ready to mingle, so she naturally gravitated toward the good-hearted Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who had proven himself over the course of their adventure.

The new film aims to be an animated twist on The Godfather, Part II, moving forward as Anna and Elsa search for the source of Anna’s magical power, and looking backward to trace their shared family history.

While it’s reassuring that family audiences don’t have to fret about Corleone-style bloodshed, parents should note that the new film is rated PG due to “action/peril and some thematic elements.” (The original, by the way, was also rated PG, but for “some action and mild rude humor.”)

Frozen II is definitely a dark and gloomy affair. Certain sequences feature exceedingly striking imagery that is beautiful to behold on a big screen. Even so, that PG rating is not kidding; I was surprised at the extent of the peril that is portrayed, as well as the many suggestions of unpleasant consequences.

As with the original, Frozen II is primarily a musical, which may be a delight for any fans of mainstream pop songs in traditional Broadway musicals. For everyone else, it’s an element to be endured, not necessarily enjoyed.

Still and all, this is an animated film from Disney, and I will almost always recommend Disney animated films, if only for soaking in the glories of high-budget, highly-detailed, thoughtfully-selected animated imagery. Frozen II will not convince any doubters or convert any skeptics about the pleasures of animated films, but for true believers, it’s an easy sell.

The film opens in theaters throughout the area on Friday, November 22, 2019.

Review: ‘The Wild Life’

dfn-wild_life_300The English-language title of a new animated film from Belgium is a play on words that is only accurate in the most literal terms possible.

Gentle and good-hearted as it is, The Wild Life is clearly targeted at patient young children; it quickly becomes tedious for adults to endure. The pace is slow and everything is repeated at least once, if not twice or thrice.

The lighthearted tone occasionally inspires a clever quip to emerge, but The Wild Life is mostly a pleasantly arid version of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719. The film begins with a flashback framing device that also establishes animals can talk, as long as humans aren’t within hearing distance.

The flashback picks up at that point in the novel when Crusoe is shipwrecked on a tiny desolate island in the company of a dog and two cats. The island is inhabited only by a small group of animals, one of each species (?!), who have subsisted on the island thanks to its native vegetation. They overcome their initial fear/suspicion of the human thanks to the encouragement of a parrot renamed Tuesday by Crusoe.

Tuesday becomes a go-between between the human and the animals — and, as narrator, between the movie and viewers — and Crusoe is soon the recipient of considerable, well-meaning help from the local animals. Meanwhile the two surviving cats, who established an adversarial relationship with Crusoe even before the shipwreck, take refuge on a nearby isle and plot their revenge. Once the cats begin their vengeful attack, the film becomes a rolling series of action sequences that are probably executed as well as could be expected, though there’s a fair degree of repetition that becomes exhausting to behold.

It’s not that The Wild Life, directed by Vincent Kesteloot and Ben Stassen (Fly Me to the Man, an animated endeavor of similar temperament), is a bad movie, but more that it lacks much interest for adult viewers: there are no interesting characters, the comic material is threadbare, and the action sequences lack the requisite thrills.

For children, it may be a more promising adventure. Very little grave danger is even suggested; the one character who doesn’t make it to the end is dispatched off-screen, as the result of a heroic gesture. Most everything is explained in simple terms and repeated at least twice; while that may drive adults mad, it’s a kindness to some children.

Sadly, however, it seems that The Mild Whatever would be a more accurate title.

The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, September 9.

Review: ‘The Secret Life of Pets’

DFN-SecretLifeOfPets-300I think it was George Carlin who asked, ‘What do dogs do on their day off? They can’t lay around and bark — that’s their job.’

A similar question is raised in the animated feature The Secret Life of Pets: What, exactly, do dogs and cats and birds and other domesticated animals do when their human owners head out for the day? At first, the answer is exactly as might be expected: they do their job. Dogs lay around and bark, cats slink around, birds fly out of their cages and play video games, and so forth and so on.

Within 10-12 minutes, it seems that all the comic possibilities have been exhausted, but it’s only a setup: the filmmakers have devised a series of episodes that leads the pets outside of their domesticated settings and into all kinds of delightful episodes.

As a product of Illumination Entertainment, known for Despicable Me, its sequel Despicable Me 2, and its spin-off Minions, it’s to be expected that The Secret Life of Pets is designed for a young crowd, those under the age of 7 or so. For that demographic, the movie delivers splendidly, filled as it is with juvenile humor and occasional poop jokes.

Yet the movie is not overwhelmingly juvenile. It’s a well-crafted, well-honed feature that is structured as noted above, in a series of episodes that feature different backgrounds and different characters that hold the interest of young and old alike.

The narrative drive is supplied by a dog named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.). He waits by the door patiently for his kindly human owner Katie (Ellie Kemper), but his world is thrown into turmoil when she brings home another throwaday dog, named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). A far larger dog, Duke is inclined to take over the apartment the moment that Katie is out of sight, which enrages Max and soon leads to a fight between the two that leaves them both out in the cold when they fall under the control of unfriendly forces.

Those unfriendly forces on the animal side of things are led by Snowball, a cute cat with a villainous streak. Voiced by Kevin Hart, Snowball proves to be a formidable nemesis, even more so than the human animal control officers. But he is countered by a neighboring cat named Gidget (Jenny Slate), who has been nursing a crush on Max.

The disappearance of Max leads Gidget to take action and and round up other neighboring pets — a dog named Chloe (Lake Bell), dogs named Buddy and Max (Hannibal Buress and Bobby Moynihan) and a ferocious hawk named Tiberius (Albert Brooks) — to come to Max’s rescue.

One of the pleasures of the film for adults is that the voices are provided by people whose voices sound distinctive from one another and seem to fit the animal that they are voicing. That makes it easier to distinguish their animal characters and adds to the comedy.

Bright, cheerful and funny, The Secret Life of Pets is a delightful, all-ages experience that is light on its toes and all the better for it.

The film opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, July 8.

Review: ‘Belladonna of Sadness’

dfn-belladonna-of-sadness-300The 70’s is one of my favorite decades of cinema for several reasons. Not only did the New Brat pack of Hollywood (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, etc.) fully hone their skills and chart exciting territory in an ancient-feeling Tinseltown that would reverberate still today, but films like Eiichi Yamamoto’s ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ (1973) existed. Adult-oriented animation, based in folk fairy tale, and sprayed across the screen with complete seriousness in imagery and tone. If anything tops the phantasmagoric visual style of the film, its the swooning psychedelic rock soundtrack that accompanies its narrative. Basically, ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ is the complete trip and deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Presented in a new restoration courtesy of Cinelicious Pics, Belladonna of Sadness concerns beautiful Jeanne and her desire to wed strong Jean, a literal trick that is just the first of many double entendres and allusions. When they can’t afford the taxation imposed by the local feudal lord, he proceeds to cast out Jean and rape Jeanne, an act that quickly alienates her desirability to her proposed husband.

Shunned by the village, Jeanne’s domestic trouble seems over once a vision appears to her and promises her wealth and power if she succumbs to his wishes. In straight order, Jeanne makes a pact with the visitor and does indeed become wealthy from further village taxation. That is, until the village turns on her and almost kills her, sending her fleeing into the woods where she lives out the life of a succubus, imbued with the Devil, practicing witchcraft and conducting orgies. 

All of this is represented in fascinating and mind-melting animation from artist Kuni Fukai. At once abstract and violent, ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ imparts its feelings through a variety of styles. Flames are represented as tiny wisps of color that curl up around white legs. The bubonic plague is shown to turn ordinary people into shifting charcoal gray forms. And, perhaps most startling, the impacts of forced sexual aggression and a body being pierced by arrows are rendered with blinding streaks of throbbing red. Fukai’s animation works on a primal level. We feel the colors and sense the violence. It’s something I haven’t quite felt from an “animated” film in a long time.

Yet all this artistry would ring hollow if not for something more, which filmmaker Yamamoto applies through his use of movement within each delicately realized hand-drawn frame to maximum effect. Like legendary auteur Nagisa Oshima did a few years earlier with his film ‘Band of Ninja’ (1967), the camera pans and tracks across a storyboard of images that not only creates action, but implies time passing and memory. It’s a conceit that wonderfully compliments the base animation and breathes life into its characters.

Based on a mid-nineteenth century book by Jules Michelet about witchcraft, ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ does indeed use these arcane mysteries and old wives tales to weave a seductive and dark story. But its the flashes of humanity- the sadly drawn eyes of Jeanne, the quivering lips as she wonders what her life might have been and, at the end of the film a passage that alludes to further real life history- that provide Yamamoto’s daring film with a pulsing heart beyond the simplistic label of ‘adult oriented cartoon’. Go see this and prepare to be dazzled, puzzled, and eventually heartbroken.

Belladonna of Sadness will have a limited engagement in the Dallas/Fort Worth area beginning Friday, May 13 at Alamo Drafthouse cinemas. Go to http://www.drafthouse.com for information.

Review: ‘The Boy and the World’

dfn-o_menino_e_o_mundo-poster-300A sparkling gem, The Boy and the World lives up to its title, following a young boy whose search for his father leads him to all corners of his native land, both for good and for bad.

Written and directed by Alê Abreu, the animated adventure was made in Brazil by a relatively small team; the style of animation resembles handmade line drawings, and looks extremely simple by the standards of today’s extravagant, computer-aided blockbusters. While I’m certainly not an expert on movie animation, it reminds me of indie comic books that must compete against those published by Marvel and DC. The big companies can produce work that looks marvelously complex and detailed, yet is still dependent on relatable characters and a strong story.

While The Boy and the World does not have a compelling story — much of the time, the titular boy wanders with little rhyme or reason from one scenario to the next — the characters more than make up for it. The little boy is beguiling, and “the world” soon becomes its own unique character. It can be baffling to try and understand its likes and dislikes, its dangers and rewards, its charms and snares.

Yet Abreu and his team tap into a childish perspective on life. Of course it’s not always easy to understand what’s happening; that’s how it appears to children, and perhaps some of us can remember times in our childhood when adults did things that were not logical; that events occurred that seemed neither fair nor rational; that feelings and emotions were often more powerful than comprehension or even understanding.

What comes across very clearly is that The Boy and the World is fascinated by the varying environments in which we live. Whether a rural property, apparently located in the middle of nowhere, or a bustling city, or any landscape between here and there, the boy remains curious about his surroundings. He doesn’t shy away from factories or farms or public transportation or any sort of new experience, which is a rather bold stance that reflects the fearless nature of childhood and helps to make the film endlessly confusing and amusing.

The driving force for all this wandering is that the boy’s father has left home, suitcase in hand. Is he seeking new employment to provide for his family? Is he heading off to help other family members in need? The purpose of his journey appears to be discussed by him and his wife, but the words are not meaningful in the context of the story. No subtitles are provided, and the dialect spoken is apparently gibberish. What’s more important are the strong emotions that are evoked. By keeping such story details off the table, our focus turns to the visuals, and they are marvelous indeed.

Despite its title, The Boy and the World will not necessarily translate well for all people, but for those who are as open as the boy to new experiences, it’s a rather glorious trip.

The film, which has been nominated for an Academy Award as best animated film, opens at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano on Friday, February 12.

Review: ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’

'Shaun the Sheep Movie'
‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’
The latest offering from England’s Ardman Animations made me laugh more than any other movie in recent memory. It’s a warm and gentle story, filled with genuine wit, sly jokes, and plenty of clever silliness. And, wonderfully, it’s (basically) a silent movie, and falls nicely in line with all the classic comedies of the silent era.

Set at a farm not too far from a big city, Shaun the Sheep Movie establishes that the routine of daily life for both animals and The Farmer is brain-crushingly rote — without any vacation time, either. Seeking a change, Shaun the Sheep plans a day off for his pals, first setting things up to keep The Farmer from waking up in the small trailer where he sleeps. The animals rejoice and have a fun time goofing off before things go wrong and The Farmer’s trailer ends up rolling down the highway to the Big City on its own.

Feeling responsible, Shaun sets off in pursuit, but before he can locate The Farmer, he is joined by some of his fellow flock-members, which allows for some hilarious attempts at disguising their appearance to avoid capture by Bitzer, an evil animal control officer. Meanwhile, The Farmer has tumbled from trailer to hospital to a hair salon, where his sheep-shearing technique meets with unexpected success. Suffering from temporary amnesia, The Farmer easily adapts to his new job and enjoys acclaim as the stylish and newly-named Mr. X.

Where does that leave Shaun the sheep and the rest of the farm animals? They look to be completely abandoned to dire straits when the amnesiac “Mr. X” fails to recognize them, but, realizing that they badly need each other, Shaun and his flock-mates — plus the formerly antagonistic farm dog — come together to bring The Farmer home.

Shaun the Sheep Movie works wonderfully well for children — I often heard squeals from delight by young ones at an advance screening I attended — and imparts family-friendly lessons without hitting anyone over the head. It’s easy enough to discern that Shaun and the animals are like children who dream of a comfortable life without the restrictions and discipline of their parents, until the dream comes true and they realize how much they need their parents. The Farmer doesn’t have a wife, so he also represents the single-parent head of household, who might dream of a life without the responsibilities and challenges of caring for children.

Again, however, those life lessons are part and parcel of the setup, and the movie never stops to lecture anybody. Instead, it’s absolutely jam-packed with mischievous fun, nearly every frame containing a humorous reference, with many nods to well-known films and TV shows. The movie’s handcrafted look is a refreshing change from the tyranny of computer-aided animation; the character designs also bring a fresh perspective to life on the farm and in the big city.

Most of all, Shaun the Sheep Movie is a delightful experience from opening titles through to the end credits, and is easily among the best movies of the year.

The film opens wide in theaters throughout Dallas today and is highly recommended.