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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
Wednesday, 21 February 2018 11:42

‘Early Man’ is right on time

Animated movies have become been big business in recent years. Yes, the Disney juggernaut has been rolling for decades now, but in the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen an explosion of cartoon content – these movies have been getting bigger in scale and box office scope, with nine-figure budgets producing ten-figure returns.

But that’s not Aardman Animation’s style.

The studio’s newest feature is “Early Man,” directed by Nick Park of “Wallace & Grommit” fame. It’s another lovely example of the whimsical simplicity that marks so many of their works, short and feature alike. It’s got that wonderful stop-motion look, a dynamite voice cast and the signature cheekily innocent wit that has become a hallmark of Park’s work.

Published in Movies

One of the realities of Hollywood’s love of sequels, remakes and reboots is that you’re guaranteed a fairly wide range of quality, though history shows that you’re much more likely to get a dud than a diamond. The most effective projects seem to be the ones that can manage to update a property while still retaining the aspects that made them successful in the first place.

That said, be honest – you’ve probably never spoken aloud (or even thought) the sentence “I sure would like to see an updated reboot of the 1995 family film ‘Jumanji’ – preferably starring The Rock.”

And yet that’s what we’ve gotten with “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” It probably seems odd to be getting a movie like this some two decades after the original, but that’s not even the biggest surprise about the whole thing. The biggest surprise?

It’s actually pretty good.

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 20 December 2017 13:51

Stop and smell the flowers with ‘Ferdinand’

Retelling of children’s classic offers sweet family fun

Published in Movies
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 12:55

Pixar’s ‘Coco’ brimming with life

Exceptional animated offering is beautiful and touching

Published in Movies
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