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Monday, 18 May 2020 14:21

‘Scoob!’ a doggone good time

Full disclosure: it is difficult for me to be objective with regards to Scooby Doo. I have had a deep-seated love for all things Hanna-Barbera since I was a kid; those characters are all beloved parts of my childhood pop culture consumption.

That being said, I was unsure how to feel about “Scoob!” The latest attempt to bring the character to the big screen – now available for rent or purchase via VOD – was an unabashed update, an origin story that I wasn’t at all sure that I needed or wanted. Of course, no IP is safe in the current cinematic landscape, so an update/reboot was all but assured.

Surprisingly, “Scoob!” is … not that bad. It’s an engaging enough take on the source material, making an effort to stay true to the spirit of the original. There’s a whiff of the formulaic here, but everything is executed with good faith effort. It’s certainly not going to alienate nostalgic fans, while also having a shot and bringing new ones into the fold.

Published in Movies

When we think about movies for kids, we tend to have fairly specific ideas about them in terms of their style. You hear “kids’ movie,” you probably think about bright colors and simple narratives and a general levity with regards to tone. And a lot of child-oriented stories hew closely to those criteria.

A lot, but by no means all. There’s plenty of darkness to be found in children’s stories. From the bleakness prevalent in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, there have been shadows mixed in with the sunshine.

Because here’s the thing: kids LIKE some darkness alongside the light.

The new Netflix animated film “The Willoughbys,” based on the book of the same name by Lois Lowry, very much embraces that dichotomy. While it is rife with candy-colored goofiness and silly set pieces, there are some underlying themes that are legitimately dark. The balance between the two is what makes the movie work – too much of one or the other would undermine the whole thing.

It’s a story of what it truly means to be a family, as well as of the sacrifices that can be required to do right by the people we love. It also explores the consequences that can come from thoughtless decisions regarding those loved ones. Plus, it’s a great-looking film based on strong source material and featuring an absolutely killer voice cast.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 11 March 2020 13:21

Fractured fairy tale – ‘Onward’

Obviously, I love Pixar movies. I’m a human being with feelings and a soul, so of course I dig the work of the acclaimed animation studio. That being said, I also have to accept that because they have set the bar so very high, there will be occasions in which they fail to clear it.

So it is with their latest offering “Onward,” a film that, were it to come from any other studio, would likely be hailed as great work, but because it bears the Pixar name, it feels just the slightest bit underwhelming.

Make no mistake – “underwhelming” is by no means the same as “bad” – this is actually a charming and fun film. The concept is interesting enough, the vocal performances are typically strong and the execution is quite good. Jokes are made and heartstrings are tugged. All the usual pieces are here. It just doesn’t quite ascend to the level of accomplishment that we’ve come to expect from the studio.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 22 January 2020 14:16

‘Dolittle’ does even less

When a once-hyped big-budget movie sees its release time moved from prime real estate to the January tundra, it’s probably safe to assume that things haven’t worked out the way anyone anticipated. It’s not hard to tell when a studio has made the grim decision to cut its losses.

“Dolittle” was obviously intended to be a tentpole, a spring/summer release meant to kick off a franchise. And with no-longer-Tony-Stark Robert Downey Jr. on board, it probably felt like an easy win, a no-brainer.

Instead, it’s a meandering and pointless exercise in formulaic filmmaking. It is utterly lacking in any sort of spark, a flat and listless story told without any real excitement or urgency. There’s zero in the way of originality and even less in the way of engagement despite an absolutely all-star cast. Younger viewers might get some giggles, but even they will likely sense that something doesn’t sit right.

Basically, “Dolittle” is a dumb movie that doesn’t really care how dumb it is.

Published in Movies

We’ve all heard the adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” While it might not be true in all cases, it is certainly true in the case of “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” the latest offering from animation stalwart Illumination.

And you know? That’s OK.

Sure, one can look at “The Secret Life of Pets 2” as a tossed-off and somewhat cynical attempt to cash in on the surprisingly significant success of the first film (seriously – the first “TSLOP” did over $875 million at the global box office). You wouldn’t even necessarily be wrong to do so. But if there’s one thing that Illumination knows how to do, it’s to make you feel all right about handing over your cash.

This isn’t a great movie by any stretch – what story it has feels stitched together from a handful of discarded ideas and deemed good enough, all of it serving as a framework on which to hang the same kid-friendly pet-themed jokes and sight gags that we saw in the first film. However, that can often be enough – the kids in my screening certainly enjoyed it well enough.

Published in Music
Wednesday, 03 April 2019 12:56

‘Dumbo’ can’t quite take flight

Whatever your feelings with regards to mainstream Hollywood’s ongoing devotion to remakes, you have to accept the fact that things aren’t going to change anytime soon. Like it or not, you’re along for the remake ride – all you can do now is hope that they’re good.

With Disney’s live-action “Dumbo” – a remake of the studio’s 1941 animated classic – it seemed as though the pieces were there for success. Tim Burton’s pop-goth sensibilities and Technicolor weirdness seemed like a potentially fun lens through which to tell this story. The cast looks really strong. And the tale is a beloved one.

And yet – the film is less than the sum of its parts. While Burton’s aesthetic did lead to some memorable, engaging visuals and the ensemble provided generally solid-to-strong performances, an iffy screenplay and lack of spirit undermined those efforts. While it’s far from a bad movie, this “Dumbo” never manages to soar.

Published in Movies

The box office has grown increasingly stratified in recent years, with films fitting firmly into established pigeonholes with the expectation of appealing to this or that specific audience and making X number of dollars. Superhero movies and animated epics and action tentpoles and low-budget horror/thriller – that’s most of what we see at the theater these days.

So when a film like “The Kid Who Would Be King” comes around, it’s worth noting. This is a live-action, family-friendly movie, a movie for kids starring kids; we don’t see many of those anymore.

And here’s the thing: it’s good.

It is a charming, thoughtful throwback courtesy of writer/director Joe Cornish (in his first directorial since 2011’s excellent “Attack the Block”), capturing a 21st century version of what one might call the “Amblin vibe,” named after the Steven Spielberg production company that was responsible for many of the best family films. It’s well-made, with a story built around a retelling of Arthurian legend while ALSO being a wonderful tale of friendship … and it’s the most downright optimistic movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 03 October 2018 12:48

‘Smallfoot’ has a big heart

It’s always nice when a movie surprises you.

Most of the time, you can generate a fairly accurate idea about a film simply by paying attention. All it takes is a couple of trailers, maybe a press tour interview or two, and you can form a good picture of what you’re going to get.

Most of the time … but not ALL the time.

“Smallfoot” is an animated offering, the second to be released by Sony through Warner Brothers Animation (2016’s “Storks” was the first). By all appearances, this was going to be a pretty straightforward and goofy bit of kiddie fare, with recognizable voice talent, decent 3D animation and a handful of not-bad songs. And it is that – but it’s also a little bit more.

Just beneath the surface of this story about a young Yeti’s quest to prove the existence of the mythical Smallfoot is a surprisingly sophisticated allegory about the consequences of conformity and the importance of questioning authority. Oh, and the songs are catchy too.

Published in Movies

I’m not sure when exactly “family-friendly” became code for “condescending and/or milquetoast,” but that’s pretty much where we are as far as Hollywood is concerned. The truth is that there are plenty of ways to make a movie for younger audiences that engages with them in a manner that treats them with respect – folks like Steven Spielberg did it all the time in the 1980s.

So when word of “The House with a Clock in its Walls” came out, I was cautiously optimistic. The original source material – a 1973 YA magic mystery by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey that was the first of a dozen in the series – had the requisite spookiness. Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company is prominently involved. The cast – led by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett – is strong.

But there were questions – and the biggest involved the man sitting in the director’s chair. Eli Roth built his career on brutal, bloody genre fare – the choice to hand what is essentially a movie for kids over to the dude who made “Hostel” is an odd one. It seemed like a jarring, unconventional marriage unlikely to succeed.

Instead, it turned out to be an ideal pairing, with Roth bringing his visceral sensibility to the PG-realm with nary a hiccup, resulting in a children’s movie that isn’t afraid to spend some time in the shadows and bring genuine scares to the screen.

Published in Movies

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. To some extent, the entertainment landscape has always been sculpted by our fondness for memories of the past. But nostalgia’s power has grown exponentially in the internet age; today’s popular culture is powered by our love for what came before.

So it makes sense that a movie like “Christopher Robin” would appear at this moment in time. And when you take into account the general air of cynicism that permeates our discourse, the idea of a gentle remembrance of something pure and beloved from our youth sounds pretty darned nice.

And that’s what this latest Disney offering is – nice. It isn’t anything spectacular. It’s just nice. It’s a chance to visit with Winnie the Pooh and Piglet and Tigger and the rest of the A.A. Milne gang in a slightly different manner. Yes, it’s about what it means to grow up and put away childish things, but mostly, it’s about checking in with some old friends.

Published in Movies
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