Tag Archives: Animation

Review: ‘What If…?”‘ Strongly Suggests ‘Why Not?’

The animated Marvel series debuts on the Disney Plus streaming service. 

Where does the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe lie as it enters its fourth phase? The answer may be found in the Marvel Streaming Universe. 

The first three series, available on the Disney Plus streaming service, have served as the kick-off to Phase Four — since the backward-glancing Phase Four feature film Black Widow was delayed more than once — beginning with the excellent WandaVision, followed by the more routine The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and then the hit-and-miss Loki, which served as an introduction to the Marvel Multiverse. 

What If…?, billed as the first animated series from Marvel Studios — Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K., which debuted earlier this year on the Hulu streaming service, originated with Marvel Television — is an anthology series, inspired by the Marvel Comics series, first published in 1977. It’s a great, self-explanatory  title, since you can easily guess that the series will feature key events from the Marvel films, only twisted to explore what might have happened if things ended differently. 

In speculative fiction, this sort of time-twisting story is often billed as an ‘alternate history,’ and can sometimes lead to richly rewarding works. More often, however, scant attention is paid to the far-reaching implications of an alternate history, and the deeper effects of such a momentous change, beyond ‘what if Marty McFly’s parents never got together’? 

The new Marvel series, directed by Bryan Andrews, with AC Bradley serving as head writer, benefits from its animated format. The first three episodes that were made available to critics in advance all acknowledge the biggest heroes of the past and wonder about possible, rapidly changing futures. 

It’s brain candy, of a sort, probably best appreciated by devoted Marvel fans, rather than those of us who struggle to remember what happened to whom in the movies over the past decade plus, much less spend any time speculating about the respective destinies of fictional superheroes. 

The anthony format, however, may be the most appealing aspect of this new offering, since it offers an easier jumping-on point. You don’t have to necessarily know who is who and what is what, since older narratives are quickly discarded, and most time in each episode is passed with a previously-unseen timeline and a fresh new set of characters. The animation is quite lovely as well, allowing each episode to be absolutely filled to overflowing with action, yet not feeling overloaded somehow. 

And each episode is 30 minutes or less! That’s a bonus as well, allowing the more time-stressed among us to more easily enjoy a taste of Marvel during a break. It’s very tempting to think of What If…? as Why Not? 

The series debuts on the Disney Plus streaming service on Wednesday, August 11. For more information, visit the official site.

Review: ‘The Boss Baby: Family Business,’ Teachers and Students

Designed and built strictly for family audiences, The Boss Baby: Family Business pumps out a steady stream of jokes, wisecracks, and cultural references in a boldly frank endeavor to appeal to both parents and their pre-teen children (but no real-life babies). 

The sequel to The Boss Baby (2017) requires absolutely no knowledge of the first film, since the premise remains the same: babies are far more intelligent that their parents will ever know. The sequel reheats the same tropes as before, while obeying a surefire rule for all subsequent installments of films that earn a multiple returns on the studio’s investment: add even more characters, doing the same kind of thing. 

The titular baby was introduced originally as the younger, infant, suit-wearing brother of putative hero Tim. Subsequently it was revealed that he had an adult mind, thanks to a secret formula that enabled him to serve as a secret agent for a mysterious company. 

Tweaking the premise a bit, the sequel finds Tim (James Marsden) and Ted (Alec Baldwin) all grown up and living separate and very different lives. Tim is married to Carol (Eva Longoria) and a stay-at-home dad to two daughters, Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt) and her baby sister Tina (Amy Sedaris), while Ted is a fabulously successful single businessman. 

An inciting incident brings Ted home to help out Tim, where they both discover that Tina is actually the new Boss Baby with a fresh new mission to go undercover and investigate a suspicious school started by Dr. Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum). That’s also where Tabitha already attends, and so Tim is eager to help out, hoping that he can learn why Tabitha has been drawing away from him recently, even after Tina explains that he will need to drink a new secret formulate that de-ages him into childhood. 

Returning screenwriter Michael McCullers wrote the first film, adapted from a book by Marla Frazee, and his style of witticisms is clever and rapid-fire, as he demonstrated in his past. He is a Saturday Night Live veteran from the late 90s and has been writing live-action comedies like the Austin Powers movies and animated films starting with The Boss Baby. His script meshes well with the visual style developed by director Tom McGrath over the years in films such as Madagascar and Megamind and their sequels. 

From its opening frames,  The Boss Baby: Family Business never pretends to flesh out anything resembling real life. That’s not its intention. Instead, it wants to teach good solid family lessons, stretching that here to encompass good reminders for adults. 

With its plethora of jokes and snappy pace, the film avoids the “sag” that is common to sequels, even though it spends a considerable amount of time on elaborate action sequences that don’t necessarily add to the story at all. It doesn’t present anything new or unexpected, but it does supplies a thirsty audience with a few cups of water on a parched day. That’s not bad at all. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 2. It will also be available to stream on Peacock. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ Warm Hearts, Cool Adventures

Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina lead the voice cast in Disney’s magnificent, heart-warming animated adventure. 

Refreshing in its approach to story, drawn from Southeast Asian folklore, and, perhaps even more importantly, in its depiction of the traditional “Disney princess” (compare with the company’s own descriptions and marketing of such), Raya and the Last Dragon is an encouraging step into a world first broached in Moana (2016), depicting a culture that is not drawn from broad European archetypes. 

Instead, it’s an original work, based on a story credited to a slew of writers; the screenplay is credited to Malaysian-born writer Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen, who both have past experience in writing for television and films, while American Don Hall and Mexican-American Carlos Lopez Estrada served as directors. That so many people were involved in writing and directing the project is no surprise, since sprawling animated adventures take far more time than live-action narratives, yet the involvement of people from a number of diverse backgrounds is notable, and suggests why the film is markedly different from past Disney animated films. 

On one hand, Raya and the Last Dragon loosely follows a typical modern Disney pattern: young female lead sets off on an adventure in which she meets a motley collection of supporting characters who teach her about life and empower her to achieve goals that empower others. On the other hand, the film’s narrative undercurrents stress the need for humility and self-sacrifice for the greater good, rather than self-fulfillment, or striving after personal or family goals. 

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) has spent years in search of a legendary figure, Sisu, who disappeared at the same time as Raya’s father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). Poor Benja transformed into stone, along with throngs of other people, when the malignant forces known as the Druun came to power. If Raya can find Sisu and convince her world “last dragon” to help her, perhaps she can reunite her long-divided land and bring her father (and every other transformed soul) back to life. 

Naturally, Raya is bold, courageous, and headstrong, just like past Disney princesses, though the title she holds is self-effacing. She also displays a delightful capacity for fun and games, but she ain’t got time for that now; she is living during wartime, as it were, since the divided nations that sprang up in the wake of the devastating ‘stone war’ remain continually hostile, suspicious of each other’s motives. 

In time, Raya teams up with Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), who proves to a most unexpected dragon, and collects a mixed team of collaborators (including a gruff giant warrior voiced by Benedict Wong), who all assist in her ultimate battle against her longtime rival, Namaari (Gemma Chan). 

It’s a good story with good characters and good selection of twists and turns, some of which fit broadly into Western narrative tradition, but even more that do not, which flow together to help make the entire film a memorable, sweeping tale that resolves in a very satisfying manner. And, again, the path to the resolution is not entirely expected, which is always a welcome sign as Disney Animation charts a path for the future. 

The film opens theatrically in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on February 5, and will also be available to watch on the same date, as a premium Video On Demand title, at DisneyPlus.com.

Review: ‘Incredibles 2’

dfn-Incredibles2-poster-300Before superheroes dominated the thinking of big Hollywood studios entirely, The Incredibles felt like a blast of fresh air in 2004.

Revolving around the Parr family, hiding out in suburbia because superheroes have become illegal, the film illustrated the very real dangers that might exist if super-powered people existed in the real world, weighed against the good that might be accomplished by such people if they were allowed to legally act upon their own altruistic intentions.

Written and directed by Brad Bird, The Incredibles followed up the filmmaker’s previous animated triumph, The Iron Giant, with an approach that felt very much ‘of the moment,’ a self-aware adventure that was filled with action sequences as well as commentary on contemporary issues. Bird completed his trilogy of outstanding animated films with another dissection of power and its relative value in Ratatouille, disguising his disgust in a heartwarming food story.

Bird then turned to live-action projects, first helming Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol to enjoyable, popcorn-chewing delight, and then faltering a bit with Tomorrowland, which resounded in visual splendors yet stumbled with its often-confusing, perhaps overly ambitious narrative.

Now he has returned to the friendly world of big-budget animation with Incredibles 2, which is absorbing and compelling to watch on the big screen, even though it doesn’t supply as much fresh material as his earlier animated endeavors.

Perhaps that was Bird’s intention? The new film picks up soon after the conclusion of the original. Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen Parr, aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), their teenage daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), their young son Dashiell (Huck Milner) and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) are in the government’s witness protection program — or, rather, the ‘super protection program’ — and struggling to get by in life.

Everyone in the family is superpowered, except for baby Jack-Jack, and remains eager to use their abilities to help ordinary citizens, especially when they come under attack by criminals and other villainous elements. Such activity is still illegal, however. And, after the family leaps into action to try and stop one such villain, not altogether successfully, the government acts swiftly to shut down the program and stop providing financial assistance.

Soon enough, however, possible salvation arrives in the form of Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener). Winston is the very public head of a large and very successful telecommunications company who is very much in favor of all superpowered people (or “supers”) returning to legality and he enlists Elastigirl in his public campaigning efforts. His sister Evelyn, meanwhile, likes to stay in the background while she develops innovative technology to further the cause.

As Elastigirl becomes a spokesperson for the “make supers legal” campaign, she is drawn away from her family, leaving Mr. Incredible to remain just Bob, a beleaguered ‘house husband’ who is quickly overwhelmed by domestic duties and raising their children on his own. Violet is a rebellious teen and Dashiell is a mischievous kid. Oh, and Jack-Jack starts to demonstrate that, while he cannot talk yet, he definitely has inherited a few powers of the “super” variety.

The pace is lively and the extended action sequences are well designed for maximum impact, each differentiated by the primary character(s) involved. Elastigirl’s early sequences, for example, are dark and shadowy, reminiscent of film noir in color as she prowls about the city in search of crimes to foil.

Incredibles 2 flies along with such visual grace, bolstered by witty dialogue and insightful character moments, that the absence of any great driving force behind the film as a whole is not felt until the third act. It’s wonderful that the focus has been shifted from the male to the female perspective on things (in general), yet beyond that, the film doesn’t have much else on its mind, or at least nothing that approaches the depths explored in Bird’s first three animated features.

In that sense, Incredibles 2 resembles Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol: a roaring good time that won’t necessarily stick in your head for any particular reason, beyond its considerable value as feel-good entertainment.

The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas and Fort Worth on Friday, June 15.

Review: ‘Have a Nice Day’

dfn-haveaniceday-300Set in lower income, working class neighborhoods in Southern China, the animated film Have a Nice Day is almost wistful as it wonders, ‘If a large bag of money dropped into my lap, what would I do with it?’

The answer is straightforward, if selfish: ‘Keep it and keep others from getting it!’ Yet it starts with a young man who wants to do something positive with the money: He wants to pay for his girlfriend’s plastic surgery. But it’s not, evidently, because he doesn’t like how she looks.

Rather, he and his girlfriend have been planning to marry and she decided to get plastic surgery, which went horribly wrong as far as she was concerned. She is very unhappy and has holed up in her apartment, not wanting anyone to see how she looks. (Her mother agrees with her.)

Now working as a driver at a construction site owned by a local gangster, the young man is enlisted to deliver a criminal henchman to a bank and back with a large, large sum of money in cash in an unlocked bag. Unable to resist such temptation, he holds up the henchman steals the money. Thus begins a mad caravel of temptations and opportunities which no one is able to resist.

In the opening scenes of the film, though, all we see is a man stealing money and making a run for it. Writer and director Liu Jian then begins introducing other characters and, with time, the individuals and their relationships to each other become more clear, and a pattern is revealed. The filmmaker is far more interested in comparing and contrasting the characters than in making a transparent narrative.

Still, Have a Nice Day is rather propulsive in its storytelling, and if the plot details are not always easy to follow, that may be in part because the style of animation is more vibrant, if rudimentary, than has become customary in Hollywood studio product.

To be fair, Disney and Pixar and Blue Sky and the like are primarily targeting the widest possible audiences worldwide: children and their parents. In contrast, Have a Nice Day was, I believe, made primarily by Liu Jian himself over a period of five years! Talk about a labor of love…

It all pays off, though, in a film that tells a compelling story that feels very authentic to the experience of working-class people (such as myself, even in a country far, far away from China). It’s a lively tale, refreshing and rewarding.

The film opens via Strand Releasing in Dallas and Plano on Friday, March 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse and the Angelika Film Center Plano.

Review: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

dfn-kubo_and_the_two_strings-300A lovely, gorgeous wonder, filled with magic, Kubo and the Two Strings enchants even as it mystifies.

That’s a good thing, by the way. Laika, the company behind Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, has chosen to make stop-motion animated movies that don’t quite jib with the usual, and though they appear to have integrated more computerized methods of animation into their painstaking work, Kubo and the Two Strings reflects well on their creative independence.

As suggested, the story is a bit more complex than might be expected. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is a young boy in a Japanese village who ekes out a living by telling a compelling story with the aid of his magical stringed musical instrument. It’s the same story every day, and it never has an ending, but Kubo tells it so well, and the creatures that come to life during his telling are so fascinating, he continues to draw an appreciative audience. He cares for his ailing, memory-stricken mother in a nearby cave, and yearns for his late father, a samurai warrior.

One day, Kubo inadvertently brings forth a mighty spirit force with a vendetta against him, destroying the village and threatening his life. His mother saves him at the cost of her own life. The next day, Kubo awakens to a new world in which his tiny wooden monkey icon has come to life as a talking monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron). He is charged with finding a magical suit of armor in order to set things right and save his own life, since the magical armor is all that will protect him against evil spirit forces.

On his journey to discovery, he is also joined by a magical talking beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey). Together, the trio have many adventures and unlock long-held mysteries and secrets.

Directed by Travis Knight from a screenplay by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, drawn from a story by Haimes and Shannon Tindle, Kubo and the Two Strings is a magical mystery tour that is sometimes a bit too fancifully plotted; I wasn’t always clear about what was happening and how it tied into the narrative. Yet the overall thrust is remarkably easy to follow: this is a classic story of good and evil, following a child who must come to terms with the actions of his parents and learn from them.

The cast is filled with actors who avoid any histrionics in their voice acting. The voices are not the stars here; the characters are the pivotal figures, and that’s how it should be. The Monkey is firm yet kind, the Beetle is a bit dense yet loyal. They are the ideal companions for Kubo, who demonstrates admirable bravery and strength of personality.

That makes Kubo and the Two Strings a movie for all ages.

The movie opens in theaters through Dallas on Friday, August 19.