Review: UglyDolls


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Just Another Toy Story Story About Toys

If, like me, you were blissfully unaware, UglyDolls is apparently an immensely popular line of plush toys from Hasbro that’s been out since shortly after Y2K. If you’re too young for the letters Y2K to hold any significance, you’re surely a part of the age group that knows all about the toyline upon which this film is based so I’ll waste no more time elaborating on such things. However, what this does mean for readers of all ages is that this is a licensed property turned animated project placing it more in line with Playmobil The Movie and the seemingly endlessly growing franchise that is The Lego Movies than its apparently two biggest inspirations: Toy Story and Trolls.

UglyDolls is a 2019 CG animated feature film that received a full theatrical run created by STXFilms; the first for the company known for financing and marketing motion pictures but not making their own. Built upon a budget of roughly $52-million, UglyDolls was a box office bomb, recouping only $32.5-million worldwide.

The story here introduces us to Uglyville, a cardboard shanty town built within the bowels of a toy factory where the misshapen, defomed or incomplete dolls end up post-assembly line. It’s here we begin following a fuzzy pink squid named Moxxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson) whose only “flaw” I could discern was a missing tooth.

Straight away we’re given some expository dialog and back to back musical ensembles driving home the odd mixed messages that everyone in Uglyville is happy but also the only real way to find happiness is to be adopted and loved by a real child.

From here we meander about the bright and cheery village (that seems strangely vacant in many shots), meeting the rest of the ragtag crew that will be accompanying Moxxy in her quest for fulfillment: Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang), Ox (Blake Shelton), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias), Uglydog (Pitbull) and thankfully an infusion of snarky comedy in the form of Wanda Sykes playing herself (actually, a critter named Wage).

Backtracking the same pipe that leads new rejected dolls into Uglyville, Moxxy and company head out beyond the cardboard landscape and into the assembly-line area where they ride the belts right into a very different part of the factory – The Institute of Perfection. It’s here dolls learn the poise and mannerisms of excellence if they are to be adopted by humans. Think the very worst of real life beauty pageants mixed with prep-school and a dose of Mean Girls.

This program is led by Lou (Nick Jonas), the animated mini version of Game of Thrones’ Prince Joffery meets Malfoy Draco. He and his “perfects” quickly take to helping the uglies pass the ultimate test of perfection; “The Gauntlet”, while really mocking them and setting them up for failure.

If you can’t tell by now, the story here is nothing groundbreaking or particularly thought provoking. What sentimental charm there is was very clearly lifted from Toy Story’s masterfully woven tale from the perspective of a beloved (and sometimes abandoned) toy but delivered here in the same goofy, overly musical cheerfulness of Trolls.

The cast here was clearly chosen for their singing abilities over their acting chops (exception: Wanda Sykes) so the precedent for frequent musical numbers is all but implied from the onset. However, unlike Trolls, that made sure to pack its soundtrack with familiar pop selections performed by its vocal talent, UglyDolls goes the way of Disney and attempts to forge its own original classics. Suffice to say, they fall pretty short. Rather than advance the plot, many of the medleys here serve only to slow the pacing while reiterating themes that are very easily gained through the dialog and visuals.

However this isn’t to say the experience is a total loss. A few of the exchanges and comedic beats are surprisingly adept. Musical interludes aside, the pacing is brisk and enjoyable. Sadly, the piece serves as Kelly Asbury’s final directorial effort after a solid list of CG features to his credit including Shrek 2, Gnomio & Juliette and Smurfs: The Lost Village.

All in all, critics came down pretty hard on UglyDolls and while it’s true that the piece’s greatest strengths were “borrowed” from greater films that came before it, it’s also far less offensive than some of the original productions out there clogging up streaming servers (Zoo Wars or Imagination Land to mention a few). It’s colorful, upbeat, well textured and a few of the jokes actually land. As for the underlying message – it’s certainly well-intentioned if a bit off-putting. After all, we’re told here that things like needing glasses and having freckles make you imperfect but it’s alright to be different when in fact the greater message should be that “perfection” is simply a state of mind and thus encompasses everything under the sun.

Younger viewers will be far less critical, however, and thankfully, this is one where adults can take the journey too without fearing having the songs stuck on repeat in their minds for weeks to follow.

Review: The Addams Family


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The Critics Were Altogether Ooky

 It’s been a bit since we’ve had a steady flow of solid macabre CG – for a while there things like Igor and Monster House and Frankenweenie and the Hotel Transylvanias were all the rage. Fitting, then, that the classic family of creep should have received an October of 2019 (back before the real world became a freak show) big screen CG animated feature film.

Produced by MGM and directed by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan (the guys behind the unfortunate Sausage Party), The Addams Family was built upon a fairly modest budget of only $24-million and managed to return nearly 10-times that amount ($203-million) at the box office alone. As always when a movie turns those types of profits, work on the sequel began immediately and should be released theatrically on October 22, 2021.

The 87-minute film eases its viewer into the well-established mythos by providing something even the earliest incarnations seemed to glance over – backstory. The film opens with the literal wedding of Gomez and Morticia (Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron respectively) being cut short by a pitchfork-wielding mob that sends them fleeing into the terrifying wastelands of… New Jersey. Total missed opportunity for a cameo by the surely-strapped-for-cash cast of Jersey Shore.

Anyway, once safely in NJ, we are offered up backstories for the meeting of their butler Lurch, their discovery of the creepy abandoned mental institution they come to call home. We jump ahead thirteen years in the timeline to find the family situated with its pair of children; Wednesday and Puglsy (Chloe Grace Moretz and Finn Wolfhard).

It’s this era that serves as the meat and potatoes for the tale and works off the cliché’ but thankfully subtle concept of it being okay to be different socially. And while this seems to be the biggest complaint by critics, it’s certainly difficult to stage a kid friendly villain against a family who juggles swords and plays with missiles in their spare time.

I suppose, then, it makes pretty good sense to make conformity the greater enemy here and then to personify it in the form of Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), pretentious star of a home makeover reality show with the schtick of making all the homes she remodels in the town of Assimilation the same. Sure it’s a bit on the nose but thankfully there are other threads at play amid this central plot point. Among these Wednesday attending Jr. High for the first time after years of home, er I mean “caged” schooling and Puglsy preparing for a coming of age ritual among monsters known as mazurka.

The charm of the script is accomplished less in witty dialog or memorable character exchanges and more through its visual setups. Some personal memorable moments were when the daughter of the film’s antagonist (Parker) transitions to goth mode and the bottom of her shoe reads “meh” or when baritone Lurch happens to break out into REM’s Everybody Hurts in uncharacteristic falsetto. Cousin It is portrayed with a “big pimpin’” twist, going so far as to have his trademark gibberish voiced by Snopp Dogg in an an angle that’s criminally underplayed even if I did chuckle at the license plate on his lowrider reading “CUZ” upon arrival to the mansion.

Staple character Uncle Fester is along for the hijinks as well and is voiced by Nick Kroll doing his Coach Steve voice from his animated series Big Mouth.

The vocal cast does a great job with the material, especially Oscar Isaac as the caring if slightly oblivious Gomez. The voice direction was given a monotonous subtlety that balances well with the onscreen, oft larger than life, visuals.

All in all it’s important to remind the naysayers who argue that this interpretation of the beloved franchise fails to capture the dynamic of their own favorite incarnation (do keep in mind that since its inception in 1938, countless forms of media from Saturday morning cartoons to live Broadway shows have come to pass) that this latest film does not erase those that came before it. Rather it introduces a slightly hipper version of the material to a generation with the capability of accessing nearly every earlier example of the property right on the phones in their pockets if they are so inspired. I mean in what other version can you find Thing running around with a Fit-Bit on his wrist?

Besides, if this one didn’t do it for you, the next installment is just a little over a year away.

Review: Inside Out


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Pixar Reminds Us It’s What’s Inside That Counts

Life in 2020 has certainly made most of the years prior look a whole lot better by comparison. And 2015, when Pixar released Inside Out, seems like an entirely different era of humanity. Thankfully the timelessness that is nearly any Pixar piece resonates well here so pausing from the contemporary catalog of streaming-only releases to take a look back for purpose of review seemed the right thing to do.

The bulk of Inside Out takes place literally inside the head of 11 year old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who’s dealing with the throes of life in a new town, new school, no friends scenario as a result of her parents’ decision to move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco.

Riley’s emotions, like that of all living things, it’s later revealed, are determined by the interplay of five user-friendly tropes operating a control panel: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black). Before you find yourself wondering why things like regret, excitement, curiosity and the like are absent, I remind that this is Pixar; it’s okay to put your trust in their collective wisdom. Besides, it seems the remainder of the cast of The Office must have been too busy with prior obligations to fill such roles.

All fooling aside, the concept so far is somewhat unique, assuming of course the viewer is too young to remember the early 90s sitcom Herman’s Head but where things become unmistakably Pixar is the attention to detail given to the functions of the mind behind the leading cast of characters. Memories are constantly being made and stored to softball-like glass orbs that can be played at will like a Facebook gif. These can be tainted by emotion even after the fact before they become sorted to long term storage, core memories (the ones that mold who we are), become deleted etc. The thing about those core memories is they are actually used to power entire islands of our personalities – and there is one dedicated to friendship, another family, another our passions etc.

Memory orbs can also be recalled and played at will – a clever little twist explaining why songs like to get stuck in the ol noodle at seemingly random.

Anyway, the timing of all these changes in her life couldn’t be worse because, thanks to a control room malfunction, Joy and Sadness are sucked out of mission command and deposited much deeper into the psyche. Wandering through long term memory storage, they find themselves searching for a way back to headquarters amid places like the movie production company responsible for our dreams, the theme park that is the imagination, even a risky zone of abstract thought where the very rules of existence no longer apply.

The attention to detail and simple cleverness that so deftly cover the nuances are all here and, in a lot of ways, served to put Pixar back onto the path of excellence for once they were known. Hindsight grants a much clearer view of the patterns and it’s important to keep in mind that prior to Inside Out, the company found itself in a bit of a slump. The generally ill-received Cars 2 and Monsters University had been preceded by 2012’s well-intentioned but quickly-forgotten Brave. The last truly moving piece from them, to the general consensus at the time, had been 2009’s Up. It made sense then that they called upon Up’s writer/ director Pete Docter to make it happen once more with Inside Out.

Of course in the time since, Pixar has positively returned to form with films like Coco, Toy Story 4 and Onward; but there is little doubt that Inside Out did its part to pull the company out of the slump of conformity and back into the high water mark of the industry with risky/ thought provoking material as entertaining for children as it is adults as had been their early trademark.

The industry recognized it as something special, accordingly – as the film has been nominated for and won more industry awards and accolades than could possibly be included here, not the least of which involving having received fifteen Best Picture, twenty-one Best Original Screenplay, and forty Best Animated Feature nominations from over 50 different organizations and associations. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the 88th Academy Awards held in 2016.

Viewers, too, were quite happy. Inside Out grossed $356.8 million in North America and $501.1 million in other countries for a worldwide total of $858 million against its budget of $175 million, cementing it as the second highest grossing animated film of that year. However, before becoming too impressed with society’s collective recognition of the cleverness and intelligence that a film like Inside Out brings to the medium, do remember this; the number 1 spot by a huge margin that year went to Minions. Can’t win them all.

Review: Abominable


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At Least It’s The Prettiest Of The Lot

Have you ever noticed, whether by mere coincidence or some corporate style espionage, when animated features come out, they rarely stand alone thematically? This was a lot more obvious a few years ago when creators weren’t struggling for fresh ideas and suddenly we had Toy Story here and Small Soldiers there. A Bug’s Life here and Antz there. Finding Nemo here and Shark Tale there. Monsters Inc. here and Monsters Vs. Aliens there. Megamind here and Despicable Me there. Sure, you may be thinking right now, this type of copying happens in just about every industry. What makes the CG animated film segment any different? The answer would be production time. The average CG feature film takes anywhere from four to five years to create. This, of course, means that no one at DreamWorks could have seen A Bug’s Life and said to themselves, “yes, let’s hurry up and pop out Antz to try and cash in”. They were clearly in development simultaneously.

This all leads us to 2019’s Abominable. As if by some epic orchestration, the CG animated feature film segment became flooded with Bigfoot-themed entries: 2018’s Smallfoot, 2019’s The Missing Link, 2018’s The Son of Bigfoot. It seems like just about everyone that isn’t Disney or Pixar jumped on the skunk ape bandwagon together, posing such questions as why not Loch Ness or the Chupacabra in the process.

Abominable was arguably the largest scale production, being a collaborative effort between DreamWorks and Pearl Studio, even if, at $75-million, it’s production budget comes in 5-mil below Warner’s Smallfoot. It enjoyed theatrical runs in both the US and China nearly simultaneously and managed to return $189.7-million at the box office.

The story in this one tells of teenage girl Yi, who encounters a young Yeti on the roof of her Shanghai apartment building. Befriending the mythical creature and calling him Everest, the pair eventually embark upon an epic quest to reunite the white fluff ball with his family, which so happens to be the highest point on Earth. As is so often the case with such high-stakes endeavors, Yi’s mischievous friends Jin and Peng come along to provide comic relief. All the while wealthy trophy-collecting Burnish and zoologist Dr. Zara are hot on the trail.

If you’re the type who appreciates even the slightest hints of scientific accuracy, or, well, even the slightest bit of logical realism in your films about mythical creatures, Abominable isn’t the one for you. Here we aren’t so much given the large, foul smelling, brutally aggressive Sasquatch of lore and are instead treated to a critter packing some serious magic capabilities. Just how magical are we talking here? Well we are never shown the limits of Everest’s talents but it seems that wherever nature is involved, the guy’s got moves. He can hum berries into epic proportions, glide among the clouds and even make entire fields of flowers behave like surf in the ocean if need be (just try not to start asking yourself why in the world he needs a trio of inept children to guide him home).

However, to let the plot (or lack thereof) detract from the experience that is Abominable is to miss the true meat and potatoes of the whole affair: The visuals. The effects are gorgeous, the settings are spectacular and the animation is spot on. The best approach here is to overlook the done-to-death story, cliché’ and forgettable characters and continuous suspensions of disbelief and just enjoy the visual feast.

The tragedy here is that DreamWorks may have started with the greatest toolset at their disposal within the flood of Yeti popularity. This is, after all, the studio that brought us Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon; they know the tricks of the trade when it comes to timeless all-ages entertainment. However, flatfoot scripting, uninspired pacing and a final delivery that fails to really tug on the ol heartstrings works against Abominable around every turn.

As it stands, Abominable doesn’t offend so much as it feels completely content to simply dwell within the shadows of the genre. It may be the prettiest of the Bigfoot ilk to explode on the scene but Smallfoot remains the superiorly written, more clever entry of the lot.

Review: Animal Crackers


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Better Than It Should Be If Not Quite All It Could Be

Love em or hate em, Netflix is really demonstrating commitment to the CG film medium. In addition to securing many of the biggest players in the field, they supplement their catalog with a bunch of Netflix exclusives such as Animal Crackers.

Animal Crackers, it turns out, is perhaps the most ambitious CG feature film you’ve never heard of: $17-million budget, plot based on a graphic novel, cast that includes John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Danny DeVito, Ian McKellen, Sylvester Stallone, Raven-Symoné, Patrick Warburton, Gilbert Gottfried and Wallace Shawn to mention a few. The soundtrack includes original songs by Toad the Wet Sprocket, Huey Lewis and the News, Howard Jones, and Michael Bublé. They even hired Despicable Me’s character designer, Carter Goodrich.

The piece took a long and interesting road before it found itself on the Netflix homepage. The script has been around since 2010 when Scott Christian Sava wrote a screenplay based on his own web comic. From there it went onto International collaboration, with production being financed between the US and China / Blue Dream Studios (which is exactly what you get when you combine BlueSky and DreamWorks). It was released in 2017 and began making rounds in China the following year. It disappeared for a bit before finally resurfacing as a Netflix exclusive on July 24, 2020.

Whether or not it’s been profitable is tough to say. It took back $10.7-million of its 17-mill budget during its theatrical run. What kind of arrangement Netflix came up with for exclusivity hasn’t been made public.

All of that said – what is Animal Crackers all about you ask? The story can literally be summed up in a single sentence: A family must depend upon an enchanted box of Animal Crackers to save their run-down circus from being taken over by evil uncle Horatio P. Huntington. Simple enough, right? Sadly, across its 1 hour and 45-minute runtime, this simple premise is bloated and complicated way more than necessary.

Rather than start at the present, we begin in 1962 by following brothers Bob and Horatio Huntington and their traveling circus. From there we discover the circus’ resident gypsy fortune teller, Esmerelda trying to get her beautiful niece, Talia a job. Bob and Horatio are both immediately smitten with the girl, but her affections are exclusively for Bob. When the pair announce their plans to marry, Horatio, furious, delivers an ultimatum to his younger brother to choose either Talia or himself. Bob marries Talia, and Esmerelda gives them a mysterious box as a wedding gift, which allows them to open a new circus; Buffalo Bob’s Rootin’ Tootin’ Animal Circus – a show known for animals performing amazing, seemingly impossible, feats.

Years later, Bob’s nephew Owen marries a girl named Zoe at the circus. This entails Owen working as a taste tester for Zoe’s father Mr. Woodley at his dog biscuit manufacturing factory. Meanwhile, Horatio sneaks into Bob and Talia’s trailer, trying to find the secret to the magic animals, and accidentally starts a blaze which apparently claims both Bob and Talia. Their funeral is attended by Owen, Zoe and their daughter Mackenzie. Horatio makes an unexpected visit, and announces that he’ll be taking over the circus.

Before they leave, circus pets Old Blue the bloodhound and Zena the cat give the Huntingtons the mysterious box that they later discover holds animal cracker cookies that were long ago enchanted and turn whoever munches on one into the animal represented. And then the story begins. – I literally made none of that up, by the way.

Why the movie decides to spend the first half hour so thoroughly setting up the origins of the circus and the magic crackers is truly anybody’s guess. Since CG is very expensive to produce and companies like DreamWorks literally have storyboard meeting after storyboard meeting to trim away every ounce of “unnecessary fat” from a screenplay to keep production costs to a minimum, Animal Crackers would have benefited ridiculously by an editor who could have got this one down to about a 90-minute runtime. Not only would have it saved money in production, the story would have been a lot less convoluted and clunky as a result – a good thing when it comes to holding the attention span of a youngster.

Once things do get underway, however, the film is surprisingly competent. The voice cast is simply superb throughout – which is saying a lot given the potential for annoyance in any piece containing both Gilbert Gottfried and Wallace Shawn. Danny DeVito’s narration really goes a long way in keeping things manageable in the beginning.

Visually, Animal Crackers is a delight. Either creating quality rendering is coming down in cost, studios are getting better at working with they have or some combination of the two because for a film with so low a budget to feature the cast this one does, it’s hard to imagine there was a whole lot left in the budget for the animation. Yet everything here is charming, clean, colorful and emoted. The high risk circus stunts and animal transformations in particular are both exciting and very well done.

All in all, Animal Crackers is a hard one to classify. It does nearly everything better than any non-major studio effort should but a few small peccadillos keep it from being a frontrunner the likes of which Pixar, DreamWorks, Illumination, BlueSky or Disney would back. This is especially interesting because it shines where most smaller studio efforts do not; it’s acted wonderfully and looks great too.

It’s biggest flaw in action, strangely, is that it attempts a tad too much. Films like Pixar’s Coco prove that a very complicated tale can be told in the CG medium and still be entertaining and fun but expert craftsmanship in revealing the complexity ensures that the viewer is never overwhelmed. Animal Crackers, conversely, has a pretty unique premise in magic cookies that have the power to turn a person into an animal and how this could be used to save a floundering family circus, but comes out of the gate with a bit too much backstory for its own good.

All in all, though – the cost of admission via the Netflix platform should make these complaints a bit more palpable and there is enough charm here to warrant the sub 2-hour investment in this, the era of social isolation.

Review: Trolls World Tour


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More of the Same Yet Somehow Less

When I first heard Trolls World Tour was coming soon I immediately began to fear those terrible promotional live shows with bad costumes and loud music on stage arriving to a city near you for a limited time only.  For more on this phenomena google up the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Coming Out of Their Shells Tour.  Anyway, and suffice to say, I was quite relieved to discover World Tour was merely the animated sequel to DreamWorks’ 2016 film Trolls.

Trolls, in the event that it somehow missed you, was the 2016 American computer-animated musical comedy starring Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Zooey Deschanel that cost $125-mill to make and returned $347-million thanks in no small part to the oversaturation of the Justin Timberlake song it spawned called Can’t Fight the Feeling.  More importantly, it ensured we would not be going without a sequel for long.

Enter Trolls World Tour, the 2020 followup that cost a little less to make than the original (roughly $110-million) that had the misfortune of coming out smack dab during the Covid pandemic (April) and thus existing mostly as a pay streaming premium upon release rather than a theatrical one.  As such, it managed to take back only $20-million.  It turns out a trip to the theater is as much about getting out of the house for a couple hours as it is what movie you’ll be watching.

The story this time expands upon the world of the first with Poppy (kendrick) and Branch (Timberlake) discovering that there are in fact six different troll tribes scattered throughout the lands. Each tribe is also devoted to half a dozen different kinds of music — funk, country, techno, classical, pop and rock. 

When rocker Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) and her dad King Thrash (Ozzy Osbourne) set out to destroy all the other musical styles (thus enslaving the trolls responsible), Poppy and Branch embark on a daring mission to unite the trolls and save the diverse melodies from becoming extinct.

If you’re thinking this sounds a bit like Infinity War lite, you aren’t wrong!  Don’t really let that upset you though, as the plot here serves as little more than to advance to the next musical infused dance video.  And with half a dozen styles this time around compared to the original’s one style (pop), you can only imagine how many dance numbers, and corresponding musician appearances, await.

How does it all play out in action?  I would say largely the same as the first if a bit dopier.  The absolute oversaturation of color, glitter and bubbliness is still front and center but the idea of any of the characters here experiencing any real sort of development clearly isn’t high on the list of priorities.  Rather, the gags and antics come quick and plentiful, most targeted squarely at appealing to the youngsters should the music gimmick start to run thin.

Kids, for whom the piece was clearly derived, will likely be far more forgiving of the film’s flimsy plot and the simple fact that with so many characters, locations and musical styles occurring from one scene to the next that a line of dialog or single bar of music is about all most will be given to work with here.  Hamilton star Anthony Ramos, country-vocalizing Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige on the R&B tip, George Clinton’s got the funk covered, Anderson Paak’s holding down the rap tribe etc.

Of course the argument could be made that nobody goes into either of the Trolls films looking for things like depth or cleverness and so long as that’s the mindset going in, neither one will disappoint.  Like the first film or even Illumination’s Sing, the best approach here is to consider it a color explosion of cover-music and sensory overload all set at a blistering pace.  Early on in the film, the decision to cram so many pop covers into the viewer’s psyche at once is actually accomplished by melding several together into one song.  The sugary visuals are rivaled only by the attention-deficit disorder induced directing.

All in all fans of the original will likely appreciate reuniting with their favorite characters and even the most impatient of youngsters will find little in the way of boredom here but if you’re easily overwhelmed by color, sound and mediocre music overload, you might be wise to skip this one.  Also I probably shouldn’t tell you Trolls Live! is coming to a city near you.

Review: Arctic Dogs


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It’s as if Norm of the North got Another Theatrical Release

Arctic Dogs is that odd film that comes along that doesn’t do anything wrong so much as it fails to do anything memorable.  There was a time a decade ago when use of the CG animated medium coupled to a theatrical release meant automatic success.  Pixar and DreamWorks had spoiled audiences with so many consecutive masterpieces that smaller, less inspired films could follow in their footsteps and expect to cash in with audiences by default (think movies like The Nut Job and Free Birds).

However, by the time of its 2019 theatrical release, Arctic Dogs (aka Arctic Justice or Polar Squad depending on where you live) opened to much more skeptical movie-goers.  Blame it on countless mediocre theatrical CG comedies before it if you must (looking at you Alpha & Omega and Rock Dog), or perhaps the simple fact that the medium itself is no longer a guarantee for a wonderful piece of cinema and you have the formula for failure.  And fail Arctic Dogs did, having returned a mere $9-million at the box office against its $50-million production budget.  Critics lit it up for being uninspired and immature but we’ll take a look at the material itself after a quick summary of the story.

Swifty, an arctic fox (Jeremy Renner), works a lowly position in the mailroom of the Arctic Blast Delivery Service, but yearns to be a Top Dog, the Arctic’s heralded husky couriers. To prove he has the chops (we’ll forget that he is a fox and not a husky for now), he commandeers one of the sleds and delivers a mysterious package to what turns out to be a hidden fortress belonging to one Otto Von Walrus (John Cleese).  The  evil walrus, it turns out, commands an army of subservient puffin henchmen and is hatching up a dastardly scheme to melt the ice of the arctic (guess all the hype about climate change in the media never reached his fortress).

To save the ice, Swifty enlists the help of his friends: A polar bear voiced by Alec Baldwin, a neurotic albatross (James Franco), a female fox friend (Heidi Klum), his caribou boss (Anjelica Huston) and so on.

Given the star studded cast, it would seem only a major derailment of writing would be all that could sink this iceberg but in practice- that is only the tip of the, uh, iceberg.  The story works on many formulaic institutions, not the least of which is the whole you can be anything you want to be wrapped in a politically driven agenda package.  This is fine on its own but Jeremy Renner was probably not the best choice for voicing Swifty.  One would think the feel they’d be going for is an underdog with whom we sympathize, maybe even for whom we would feel sorry.  Instead we literally get Hawkeye in animated trim – overly confident, snide, stubborn, kind of obnoxious.  When the inevitable conclusion that sees Swifty achieve his dreams arrives, it’s not so much a hard fought changing of the guard as it is an exercise in frustrated predictability.

Despite a 90-minute runtime, the movie attempts the Disney school of animation and packs a bunch of original musical numbers – many of which are sung by the voice actors.  Sadly, much like the film itself, these are not very memorable and serve to simply fluff the runtime.  Couple this to pacing that meanders about and the experience feels so much longer than a mere hour and a half.

Visually the piece is serviceable but never excels to top tier animation, background, color pallet, environmental effects etc.  Perhaps the greatest example of its ilk would be the lovely job Disney was able to do with Zootopia.  As it stands, however, this one comes in somewhere between the visuals of Norm of the North and what DreamWorks was serving up nearly two decades ago with films like Over the Hedge.  It’s by no means unwatchable but it clearly spent a majority of its budget on the cast.

One could hardly fault director Aaron Woodley (who was responsible for 2016’s direct to streaming CG animated film Spark: A Space Tail) for “borrowing” some of the techniques of the masters in the hopes of holding the kids’ collective attention:  An evil penguin army that comes remarkably close to Illumination’s obnoxious Minions and a villain that is literally copied and pasted out of Monsters Inc.  However, even these techniques seem to offer little in the way of consolation.

All in all, and as this review alluded initially, Arctic Dogs isn’t a particularly offensive piece of film so much as it simply does nothing to help it stand out from the ever-increasing pack.  The plot isn’t clever, the setting has been done dozens of times over, the humor relies upon visual gags and slapstick and the visuals are very reminiscent of a direct to streaming CG feature.

While its tremendously poor outing at the box office all but assures we won’t be receiving sequels, fans of the original hoping to get more Swifty and friends action will be pleased to know that an animated series called Arctic Friends has recently arrived to both Apple TV and Prime.

Review: The Secret Life Of Pets 2


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Some Secrets Are Best Left Unrevealed


 Only when dealing with a company as charmed as Illumination Studios could a film that cost $80-million to make and return $434.4-million at the international boxoffice be considered one of the poorest showings to date.  Yet that’s exactly what happened with Secret Life of Pets 2.

Released theatrically in the United States on June 7, 2019, by Universal Pictures, Secret Life of Pets 2 serves as the direct sequel to 2016’s The Secret Life of Pets and represents the second feature film in the franchise.  This is important to note because traditionally Illumination likes to get a lot of mileage out of its franchises. It’s a pretty safe assumption that this will not be the last we hear of The Secret Life gang.

The story here pics up immediately after the conclusion of the first and introduces a few plot threads playing in parallel.  We are explained within the first minute of the film that Max and Duke’s owner, Katie, has gotten married to a man named Chuck and together they had a son, Liam, whom Max disapproves of initially but eventually comes to accept and even protect.

From here we go off on a road trip to Chuck’s uncle’s farm where we are introduced to Rooster, a farm dog played by Harrison Ford, who takes the city dogs under his proverbial wing as they hijinks their way through the change in setting.  It turns out NYC did little to prepare them (well, Max in particular) for dealing with raptor-like turkeys, aggressive hungry pigs and sheep that like to escape their pens and put themselves into peril.

In the meantime we follow Gidget the cat, who Max entrusted his most prized dog toy (Busy Bee).  By a series of events she manages to lose the toy into the apartment of a cat-obsessed lady and decides that the only way to retrieve her friend’s prized possession is to front like a feline and become the leader of the cat clan there.

And again in the meantime we are treated to what is the most convoluted of the trio of threads whereby Chloe and Snowball meet a Shih Tzu named Daisy, who explains that she needs assistance in rescuing a white tiger cub named Hu that she met on a flight back home being held captive by an abusive circus owner.  Daisy and Snowball find themselves on a mission to infiltrate the circus but with Sergei’s black wolves hot on their tails.

In the end all of the three plots do come together but unless you’re pretty unfamiliar with children’s animation in general, you can surely predict exactly how the conflicts within each is going to resolve.  In fact, that is arguably my biggest criticism of the film; it simply paints by the numbers every step of the way. It takes no chances with the story, introduces no real risk and as a result offers no real reward.  Is that to say it’s unwatchable, then? Well, no. It plays to the strengths of the first film with its little animal cliches and silliness but 86-minutes feels pretty long when the plot is offering just enough development and setup for the silliness to proceed.

In all honesty, the film feels an awful lot like the first one.  So much so that I watched the entire thing for purpose of review not thoroughly convinced I hadn’t seen it already.  Upon conclusion I’m still not sure! My best guess is that I managed to encounter at least the middle portion of it prior likely on account of my young nieces but I can’t be certain.  In fact, even upon definitively concluding it this time, I can already feel the details fading into oblivion. I liken the experience to DreamWorks’ Madagascar 3. If you’re not familiar, it is, in many instances, very similar to the Snowball thread here with circus hijinks, abused animals in captivity being set free by our leading cast and an experience that is largely forgettable on the whole.

Like the first one, Secret Life of Pets 2’s greatest strength is the human/ animal interaction gags – there is a scene at the veterinarian’s office that beautifully captures exactly what our pets are thinking in such situations but the trouble is that the gimmick alone isn’t quite enough to carry the whole film.  Ideally what we’re after is a good story laced with pop culture references and funny little puns like that along the way; one in which the growth of our protagonists in the end is what we’re really after (see: Pixar). Without that we’re just left with gags. These are fine, of course, for the young viewers – but it’s proven time again that adults with the money for the tickets are in it to be entertained as well.

Illumination may be the darling of the animation industry with cumulative totals that could make even Disney envious but careful examination of the studio’s films reveals they walk a delicate line.  They became a presence with clever, well crafted screenplays (original Despicable Me) but made the most on films that did away with the intelligence in favor of silliness (Minions).

The first Secret Life of Pets wasn’t groundbreaking but it was cute enough to be entertaining.  The second, sadly, with its lack of focus and plot, offers nothing to elevate the franchise. In fact, what’s here is largely forgettable.  It’s possible I concluded that the first time around too, but simply can’t remember.

Review: The Angry Birds Movie 2


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Some Sequels Are Truly All They’re Cracked Up To Be

I’ll be the first to admit that 2016’s Angry Birds Movie took me by surprise.  Fearing another big budget cash grab based on a video game franchise with nearly zero backstory or character development, the fact that the first film was competent, colorful, well written and quite humorous was, frankly, surprising.

As is required when children’s movies turn a healthy profit, the sequel was in development nearly immediately after and that brings us to 2019’s The Angry Birds Movie 2.  Sony Pictures Animation brings us the 97-minute action comedy that stars the original cast (with a few new additions), was built upon a budget of $65-million and managed to take in $154.6-million at the box office alone.  In short, it’s safe to say this is probably not the last time we’ll be hearing from the Angry Birds.

Interestingly, this is the rare case of a sequel being allotted a smaller budget than the original (in this case $65-million compared to the original’s $73-mil) but both films turned very healthy profits regardless.

The story this time finds Red, Chuck and Bomb taken by surprise (like me with the quality of the first film) when the green pigs suggest that they put aside their feud and unite to fight a new common threat. 

It turns out aggressive birds from a glacier are developing an elaborate weapon to destroy both the fowl and swine occupying the neighboring islands so as to trade in the popsicle life for a tropical one. After assembling a team of their best and brightest, the birds and pigs come up with a scheme to infiltrate the icy island, deactivate the device and be  home in time for seed and slop respectively.

Does the story work?  Sure, so long as you go in not expecting the next Pixar masterpiece capable of changing your whole horizon.  It’s silly, it’s ridiculous, it’s fast paced but most important of all, it’s funny. At the end of the day, that last bit just may be the most important of them all when considering such a piece in the first place.

The first film was a bright silly action romp built atop a surprisingly solid social commentary – that of Red (Jason Sudeikis) being court ordered to undergo anger management where he meets short-fused Bomb (Danny McBride) and neurotic Chuck (Josh Gad).  This time, the plot isn’t quite as subtle. In fact it feels more like what one would expect from DreamWorks if their Penguins of Madagascar was a bit less nonsensical.

There are moments here that feel almost like an animated version of Ocean’s Eleven only with rapid-fire gags, puns and slapstick opportunities coming fast and furious – yes even more than in the actual Ocean’s Eleven.  But every time you think you have the plot’s intentions figured out, they pull a subtle directional change. Expect times where gadgets and technology start to feel a bit like 007, expect times where infiltrating an enemy’s base harkens to Mission: Impossible, expect moments where feuding nations joining forces feels like a legit war movie.  Then, every time you sense a theme starting to develop, insert a random twist, a pop culture reference or an unexpected song (I’m looking at you Lovin’ You by Minnie Riperton) and you have the formula for a romp sure to keep even the most ADHD viewer’s attention locked.

In the event that all of this wasn’t enough – there is an even more preposterous but severely adorable side story going on whereby a trio of hatchlings chase three unhatched eggs around that feels, at times, like those early exercises in computer generated animation to show off what’s possible in the medium.

All in all, the film feels, to me anyway, an awful lot like what I imagined the first one to be – a lot of humorous silliness in the tradition of Illumination’s Minions or DreamWorks’ above-mentioned Penguins franchise.  However, it’s actually got a bit more substance than either of those two – which may have tipped the scales a bit too far to the children’s side at the expense of the adult viewers in tow. Angry Birds 2 actually remembers to pack in some laughs for the adults too – going as far as to actually include a few sexual innuendos that are just vague enough as to fly over the heads of younger viewers like a slingshot feathered projectile.  

There are certainly worse ways to spend an hour and a half and while I still prefer the slightly more nuanced humor of the first, have to say that Sony’s ability to turn these characters into a franchise is no small feat.  It should be interesting to see where they go with the next one.

Review: Frozen II


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The Second Time Around Isn’t Quite So Warm


To my way of reasoning Disney’s 2013 Frozen (like 2010’s Tangled before it) was so successful because it found a way to do something very important, whether viewers were consciously aware of it or not.  See, even though Disney’s name has been stamped on CG production from the very beginning (think Toy Story), the truth is the company didn’t quite know what to make of this new medium that came out of seemingly nowhere.  In fact, in those early years Disney was convinced the future still lied in 2D hand drawn animation while the computer generated fad would fizzle.

In the years that followed they actually farmed out their CG work to other studios (this is how we got films like The Wild, Valiant and Chicken Little) while focusing their big budgets on traditionally animated pieces.  Well hindsight is always 2020 and, we now know that this computer generated imagery is no passing fad. Disney knows this too but for them, making the transition wasn’t quick or easy. They improved with films like Bolt and Meet the Robinsons but it wasn’t until Tangled in 2010 that they really managed to find their rhythm.  We finally had a 3D computer generated animated film that actually felt like classic Disney pictures.

That brings us to the original Frozen.  It took everything that made Tangled so endearing and built upon it.  Once again it followed the old 2D Diz formula to perfection – A classic fairy tale given the modern treatment, musical numbers, well integrated humor, great sidekicks etc.  All of this leads to an inevitable question and observation: Did we really need a sequel to so well constructed a stand-alone film? And why have Disney’s 2D animated sequels never managed to be a fraction as successful as the originals?

Whether we needed it or not, we got the sequel to Frozen in 2019’s Frozen II, the 58th animated film produced by the studio, representing the return of directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, producer Peter Del Vecho, songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, and composer Christophe Beck.

It cost $150-million to make and returned a staggering $1.45-billion at the global box office (compared to the first’s $150-million budget and $1.28-billion return).  Whether the world needed a sequel was answered affirmatively and clearly the new generation is not concerned about Disney’s shaky record with 2D sequels.

The story this time finds a slightly more mature Anna and Queen Elsa, amid the mundane reality of governing a kingdom, when a strange voice begins appearing to Elsa.  The voice seems to be luring her north to a magical land their father told them about when they were little. This land, they are told through a flashback, is where their grandfather went years before to make peace with the native people there (even going so far as to build them a dam).  Only rather than gratitude, he was met with betrayal. The resulting battle between the inhabitants of the two lands was such that the elementals had to intervene and shrouded the entire area in an impenetrable dome of mist.

While this all sounds quite dramatic in summary, the truth of the matter is the film takes an abnormally long while to get underway.  In fact the first quarter of the piece could best be described as “meandering”, with expository scenarios coupled to a slow paced sequence of the lead characters playing charades, with a total of four songs ungracefully dumped upon viewer, in one instance two literally back to back.

Once the grand adventure does finally begin, the stakes feel abnormally low at best and vague at worst.  I kept waiting for some clever plot twist, for the arrival of some treacherous villain to raise the sense of peril, for, well anything that solidified the need for these characters to resurface on the big screen.  Sadly, none manifested. In fact, the tale largely plays it very safe, relying upon odd characterizations to make up for the lack of plotting. Olaf gets a lot more screen time here and, though a personal favorite character of mine, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.  His newborn innocence in the first film is really milked for all its worth here; his curiosity having at some point evolved into a literal existential quest for the meaning of life in relation to age and wisdom.

Then there’s Anna – what in the world happened to her?  Perhaps the film’s creators were looking to tap into the very real threat of human hormonal fluctuations affecting emotions but it manifests itself here as little more than moody and snappy.  I am all for further developing beloved characters but it works against Anna in this case by knowing she would end up so bratty in the years to follow, some of the charm of her character in the first film falters.

Once we can overcome these objections, we can get back into the meat of the tale itself, though in all honesty, this one is more bone than it is tender steak.  The colorful, sometimes trippy journey introduces a bunch of mythical and mystical concepts: standing stones, elemental forces, time-warping glaciers, natives and outsiders, a supernatural dome of fog… But ultimately comes off as feeling obstacles were created merely to be overcome.  Betrayals occur just to be pardoned. Contrivances appear to keep the plot meandering forward. Couple all of these things to a rather rushed and cliche climax and it makes the aimless beginning of the film even more curious.

Production qualities, like any big budget Disney film, are outstanding.  The visuals have actually improved over the first (the water in some segments is so lifelike as to be photo-realistic) and the lighting work is superb.  Voice cast and direction are impeccable as is the whimsical score. The original soundtrack, however, is nowhere near as memorable as the first film’s.

All in all, Frozen II manages to fall into the pitfalls Disney always seems to suffer in its sequel attempts- most notable of these, ample justification for a return to form in the first place.  I may be in the minority here but I think what they need to do is follow the traditional three-act play structure whereby the first film serves as the introduction to the characters and their world with enough resolution to be considered a stand-alone.  The second film should raise the stakes, end on a down note in fact. Then the third should be the big pay-off. That, at least, would justify sequels that build upon the original rather than these that feel like made-for-tv side quests with full ticket prices.

Like always, in these instances, I do have to look at this piece aware of the fact that I am by no means Disney’s target demographic with Frozen II.  As such, the youngsters who loved the first and represented all of the licensed merchandise will likely just be thrilled to be reunited with the characters they love.  Parents, too, will surely be relieved simply to hear new songs over and over again. I find much of the charm of the original to be lacking here and regret, in the desire to return to this gang and their unique world, not simply having watched the first one twice.