ice age 3

See that picture up there? That’s one of the reasons Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is terrible. That little fucker is some kind of enjoyment-killing tree sloth fucking thing that leads the Ice Age gang through some mystery cave where dinosaurs are still alive, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. You see, science had led us to believe that dinosaurs were eradicated by an ice age. Presumably the same ice age that Ray Romano’s wooly mammoth and Denis Leary’s sabre-toothed tiger have been living in for three fucking movies now.

Anyway, that little prick’s name is Buck, and he’s voiced by Simon Pegg, who most of the time is hilarious. Except when he plays Buck. Buck is some kind of unholy cross between Ralph Brown and Crocodile Dundee. With an eye patch, so you know he’s hardcore. Buck is the worst.

The pre-existing characters aren’t much better. Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a phone-in job of the highest order. Romano, who sounds bored in his natural timbre, is near comatose here. Queen Latifah can’t emote properly. John Leguizamo should have hung it up once he made all that Super Mario bank. And Leary’s seems to always sleepwalk through his more family-friendly projects.

And despite the obvious historical fuck off involved in the introduction of dinosaurs, the real problem with their inclusion is that it squanders everything the Ice Age franchise had going for it. The original Ice Age, which is actually a fine family picture, was captivating not because it had particularly appealing characters or a plot, but because it inhabited a desolate, solid-white universe, in a transitional period in global history. Very little of what appears in Ice Age had been imagined in quite the same way before. It was novel, occasionally funny, and the sequel The Meltdown piggybacked nicely off its success.

For a third installment, shaking up the formula may have been a pretty good idea in principle, but in execution it removes any goodwill one might have had toward the franchise. Especially since all the jokes are stale rehashings of what we’ve heard before. And the use of digital 3D accomplishes only a cosmetic improvement on a visual landscape that’s less inspired (and less fully imagined) than what the producers of Ice Age captured the first time around.

And the stupid squirrel that fights over the acorn with the lady squirrel to the tune of “You’ll Never Find”? I’ve seen that sequence so many times on TV, in trailers, and in the actual film, I never want to listen to Lou Rawls again.

And that’s the real damn shame.

Film: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
Director: Carlos Saldanha and Mike Thurmeier (yep, it took two directors to fuck this up just right)
Stars: Ray Romano, Queen Latifah, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Simon Pegg, Seann William Scott

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee, small crowd; digital 3D
My grade (out of 10): 1
Rotten Tomatoes average: 44%

Next up: My Sister’s Keeper (part two of a Theater Hopping Double Feature ©!)

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09. Check out the full list to date here.

SMSM ’09 No. 5: Up

June 14, 2009

up

I’ve come to realize in my old age that when it comes to films, I have a far stronger emotional response to muppets, cartoons, CGI creations, etc. than to human beings. I have no explanation for this, and I’m a little embarrassed by it. Maybe it’s because I know that humans can do shitty things, but Kermit the Frog ain’t never hurt nobody. So when our little green friend has to say goodbye to his buddies in Muppets Take Manhattan, it kills me every time. No paint by numbers Hollywood tearjerker could ever get so much as a whimper out of me. But sad puppets, I’m like an infant.

Which is all a long way of saying that the first fifteen minutes of Pixar’s Up is the most emotionally devastating sequence I’ve seen on film in a long, long time. Maybe ever.

That is, of course, quite a superlative. But lately, I can speak about Pixar’s films only in superlative terms. Both Ratatouille and WALL-E, the studio’s last two summertime offerings, were among their respective years’ best films, and Up seems destined for that kind of consideration. From that opening sequence, in which Carl Fredrickson, a young adventure seeker, meets his young love Ellie, as the camera follows their lives wordlessly into their elder age and Ellie’s eventual death, Up sets its tone as unwilling to talk down, or talk around, its audience, be they young or old.

As the film picks up with the elder Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) being bullied out of his lifelong home by commercial developers, it works toward developing a complicated protagonist passed over by society, emotionally wrecked, mean, yet sympathetic. And he’s in his 70s. Not your average children’s hero.

As the plot unfolds with Carl ballooning his house to the South American waterfall paradise his late wife dreamed about, complete with a stowaway Asian American boy scout (mouthful!), the film takes on a more conventional family film story arc. It’s an adventure story with exotic one-of-a-kind birds, robotically assisted talking dogs, and a crazy scientist foil. The plot details become almost inconsequential, and the humor skews toward the broad (though there are certainly some knockout laugh lines). For Up, though, it’s the motivation that matters. Few films aimed at children create more complete backstories for their characters. Up is concerned with what drives its individuals and what they hope to gain, even when what they had is better than what they’re seeking.

The moral is to hang on to your dreams, but never take for granted what you have. In so many stories, that would ring hollow. It’s to Pixar’s credit that Up sold me on it. The studio consistently produces visually stunning films, and while it would be a stretch to say they’ve mastered the art of storytelling, they’ve certainly cornered their genre’s market on character development. It’s almost a shame that Pixar’s follow-up will be a sequel (Toy Story 3), since I’m curious to see who they’ll create next.

Film: Up
Director: Pete Docter
Stars: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger

Viewing situation: Weekend afternoon, full house; digital projection
My grade (out of 10): 10
Rotten Tomatoes average: 98%

Next up: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

battle for terra

In retrospect, there was absolutely no need for me to see Battle for Terra, a CGI-animated non-blockbuster that really defies further description. The film’s opening was greeted with yawns (angry yawns), clunking down at eighth place in the box office tally.

With the unparalleled level of disinterest surrounding Battle for Terra, I was more than surprised that I wasn’t completely alone in my Tuesday matinee. Armed with a small, one dollar bag of popcorn (it was “stimulus Tuesday” at the local Carmike theater) and a one dollar thimble-full of Coca-Cola, I joined this small (yet merry) band of nerds for a rote morality play about a peaceful alien society about to invaded by silly humans intent on finding a planet that can provide a supportive ecosystem (since, of course, they’ve ruined their own). Voice work from the likes of Evan Rachel Wood and Justin Long was not enough to rescue this one.

While it’s certainly no Delgo (and seriously, you should read about Delgo, a similar 2009 alien-based animated film that holds the distinction of the worst major release opening weekend of all time), Battle for Terra is definitely the worst Ottawa International Animation Festival Grand Prize winner I’ve ever seen.

You’re off the hook, 1994 winner The Wrong Trousers.

Film: Battle for Terra
Director: Aristomeneis Tsirbas
Stars: Brian Cox, James Garner, Evan Rachel Wood, Justin Long, David Cross, Dennis Quaid, Amanda Peet, Luke Wilson

Viewing situation: Weekday matinee; shockingly not alone.
My grade (out of 10): 1
Rotten Tomatoes average: 46%

Next up: Star Trek

Summer Movie Suicide Mission ’09: Seeing them all, all summer long. Follow Summer Movie Suicide Mission on Twitter: @SMSM09.

In which one man attempts to view every summer blockbuster for the entire season, regardless of taste, genre, or primates in outer space.

We’re living in a post-Dark Knight universe now, and, for all intents and purposes, that film heralded the end of the summer movie season. While there are some anticipated films left before summer’s out (Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express, The Clone Wars) which are sure to make some pretty nice box office, there’s really nothing left that rivals the sheer spectacle of the huge Batman installment and some of the other actioners that preceded it. What we’re left with is a pretty good bit of filler, as throughout August the movies will roll into and out of theaters at a pretty fevered pace, with as many as four movies arriving per week. A pretty tall order for someone who has to watch all of them, but I’ll manage.

Space Chimps, which premiered in late July and disappeared pretty quickly, marks the first strain of the summertime death rattle, one of the last kid-friendly flicks to hit theaters before the little bastards pack it up and head back to school. The family friendly fare, though, has been pretty consistently good throughout the season. WALL-E rivals only The Dark Knight for the honor of best film of the summer, and Kung Fu Panda was a nice surprise. Space Chimps, though, marks a film with less ambition and focus than either of those two rivals. If you could even call them rivals, as I don’t think Starz Media is really playing in the same league as Pixar or Dreamworks.

Despite the laughs that greeted me every time I told someone that I’d just seen a movie called “Space Chimps,” the film itself is not nearly as terrible as it should have been. First, it’s delightfully short. I’ve found all summer that brevity is almost always a blessing. Second, Chimps presents a world that’s nice enough to look at, even as the story flies off the rails a bit. The true history of chimpanzees used for early tests in space travel provides an interesting backdrop for a narrative, but this film fails to do anything with it.

The casting is, perhaps typically for a third or fourth-tier animated feature, not really up to snuff. Often studios cast well-known stars in voice acting roles, not recognizing that voiceover work is an altogether different skill from a typical on-screen appearance. Sometimes this strategy pays off, but more often than not, it doesn’t. Space Chimps reaches for the best it can get in terms of talent, ultimately deciding that anyone with a recognizable name will suffice, even though none of these B-listers are likely to bring in an audience by name alone. The producers would have been better off casting professional voice talent rather than just grabbing the likes of Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Andy Samberg (“Lazy Sunday,” “Dick in a Box”), who just read their lines pretty aimlessly. I also have a personal predisposition against Patrick Warburton (playing the third-billed chimp; I don’t think anyone really cares about this movie enough for me to bother with a summary), who’s a seasoned voice actor but has little by way of range and has pretty much worn out his welcome with me.

Of all the movies I’ve seen this summer, Chimps is likely the most forgettable. Even sitting in the theater, I kind of felt like I had just surfed across HBO Family, found it sitting there, and tuned out for 80 minutes. This is background noise for the kiddies. I’d strongly recommend it for any frantic parents who see it in the five dollar bin at Wal-Mart. I just wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else.

Film: Space Chimps
Director: Kirk Di Micco
Stars: Andy Samberg, Cheryl Hines, Patrick Warburton, Jeff Daniels

Viewing Situation: Weekday matinee, 3 people, one child, one mother in the lobby on her cell phone; digital projection
Rotten Tomatoes Average: 33%
My Grade (Out of 10): 3

Next Up: Step Brothers

In which one man attempts to view every summer blockbuster for the entire season, regardless of taste, genre, or hot dog milkshakes.

WALL-E is the kind of film I don’t think I even need to rave about, as you can’t turn any corner of the internet or elsewhere without somebody else doing so. Suffice it to say that WALL-E is a fantastic piece of work, a cautionary tale equal parts saddening, maddening and uplifting.

Pixar Animation Studios (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, et al.) has built a solid track record in the field of computer animation, rendering worlds that feel like our own, but somehow brighter and better. Pixar has really created a fresh genre where fantasy feels real, and human.

WALL-E has taken criticism from a number of sources, a likely backlash when it comes to a movie this universally revered. Critics have claimed that it’s too dark for children, claiming that an uninhabitable world is not the sort of setting that’s gentle enough for the impressionable ones. But the kids in my theater seemed to enjoy it just fine, and if they learn to heed the warnings about excessive consumption, all the better.

Others have claimed that WALL-E plays as leftist propaganda, that it is alarmist about the crises facing the planet. But those crises are real. We throw out more garbage than we know what to do with, and our ecosystem is in serious danger. Only the most dubious of scientists would claim that the climate crisis is not something worth being alarmed about.

The film has come under fire from, of all places, obesity rights groups, who claim that the film (which portrays exiled humans living on a luxury satellite as fat pigs, who are mostly immobile and eat all of their food in milkshake form) is insensitive to the overweight. However, the film really portrays obesity as a consequence of not having a planet to live on, and being spoonfed by a large corporation whose sole business seems to be forcing consumption upon its consumers. Similarly, the film has been portrayed as anti-corporate, which is indeed a large part of its message. The future is portrayed as a world where corporations and government have become synonymous. Of course it’s a bit of a slippery slope, but not terribly far fetched when we take a long look at the world we live in now.

Further, some have claimed that the film’s anti-corporate message runs counter to the business behind the film (Disney), which has manufactured countless WALL-E themed products to cash in on the franchise. Well, I guess I can’t really argue against that one.

It’s undeniable that WALL-E is a politically charged film, and if you fall on one particular side of that fence, it may stick in your craw a little. But I’d wager that even those who disagree with the film’s agenda would still be sucked in by the story, which is characteristically charming and endearing. And WALL-E himself is kind of like a new E.T. (just look at the eyes and listen to the voice). And who can hate on E.T.? People without souls, that’s who.

That’s not even to mention how beautiful this film is visually. Pixar has come as close to perfecting digital rendering as I can possibly imagine. In last year’s Ratatouille, when Remy looked out over the animated Paris, I felt like I was looking at the real thing. WALL-E is even sharper. The post-apocalyptic Earth looks both real and frightening, and provides a rugged point of juxtaposition for WALL-E himself, the cuddly figure who roams its corners alone.

WALL-E is a complex text, whose happy endings aren’t really that happy, and whose overall tone can get very dark at times. But this is really what we should want from our entertainment. Film can be incredibly democratic, giving the public the cute story it wants, but still have themes that run deeper, and mirror society at both its best and its worst. Anyone expecting a trifle of a kid’s movie may be disappointed at first, but if they stick with it, they’ll be rewarded. And anyone who expects a little more shouldn’t need my encouragement to see this one.

On my way out of the theater, I knew that this was one of the best movies I’d seen this summer. But the more I’ve thought about it (and I’ve had a lot of time to think, since, as you may have noticed, I haven’t been writing anything), it really gets better and better. Hands down, WALL-E is the best film of the season, and the best of the year so far. Believe the hype. It’s earnest, bold, sweet and frightening. WALL-E will be a big smash come award season. Maybe it’s time the Academy gave some Best Picture love to an animated feature.

After all, this might be the realest fantasy you’ll ever see.

Film: WALL-E
Director: Andrew Stanton
Stars: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, John Ratzenberger

Viewing Situation: Weekend matinee, half full house; standard projection
Rotten Tomatoes Average: 97%
My Grade (Out of 10): 10

Next Up: Hancock

In which one man attempts to view every summer blockbuster for the entire season, regardless of taste, genre, or Dragon Scrolls that say nothing on them but show a reflection of your face so that you understand that the power, the secret, has really been with you all along.

Sometimes I like to imagine myself as a big shot studio executive. It would be kind of like Entourage, except I’d be the guy who kept Vinny Chase from getting work, since its obvious in the subtext that he’s really a terrible actor (Also, Adrian Grenier is a terrible actor himself). I’d drive something outlandish, like an Aston Martin, and give the green light to projects with titles like Fast and Furious, the third (and creatively titled) sequel in the Fast and the Furious franchise. I’d knock around town in my expensive tailored suits, and wear yellow sunglasses all the time like Peter Fonda. I’d roll down Sunset with a smirk on my face, equal parts giddy and self-satisfied, safe in the knowledge that the American people are dumbshits, and I’m gonna make a killing off them.

But I never would have bought a pitch about Jack Black as the voice of a giant panda who trains to be a kung fu master. That’s for damn sure.

Luckily, in my fantasies I’m kind of a failure, and in real life, this one actually got made. Kung Fu Panda is a refined and beautifully framed picture that delivers plenty of laughs–and kid-friendly ones at that–but never once panders to its audience with cheap contemporary musical numbers or pop culture references. By my count, this is the first time a movie from Dreamworks Animation has been able to make that claim. Computer animated films with dignity are really Pixar’s domain. It looks like the rival has finally learned something.

Kung Fu Panda opens with a striking anime fantasy sequence in two dimensional shades of red and yellow, with lead character Po the panda (Jack Black) dreaming about being the Dragon Warrior, a long prophesized figure who would preside over the security of the small Chinese village Po lives in. When Po awakens, we see the full landscape of the film, and it is no less stunning by comparison. Eventually an accident leads to Po being named the Dragon Warrior, and he enters the tutelage of Shifu, a kung fu master voiced by Dustin Hoffman, where he is joined by the Furious Five, a Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross) and Viper (Lucy Liu), who begrudgingly accept the young panda. Together they save the town from evil leopard Tai Lung (Deadwood‘s Ian McShane), and everybody learns something about themselves.

But the plot is really neither here nor there. It’s engaging enough, but we’ve seen this kind of bildungsroman over and over again; it’s the dominant storytelling apparatus in children’s films, and rightfully so, as the audience is literally growing up as it watches them. What made this film so engrossing is what it did not do. As a filmmaker, restraint is important (See Speed Racer for every wrong lesson to this effect). Kung Fu Panda is set in 17th or 18th century China, and it really stays there. The filmmakers never go the the Shrek well and release a barrage of contemporary references that make no sense within the physical setting of the story. And they use no contemporary music (save for a playful cover of “Kung Fu Fighting” over the end credits), just an understated orchestral score by Hans Zimmer. I liked this film almost as much as last year’s Ratatouille, which was the best and most refined animated film I can remember seeing outside of Walt Disney’s heyday.

The most important point, though, is that the kids in the audience seemed to love every minute of it. And if the target audience can get into a film without all the hokey bells and whistles, simply sharp visuals and storytelling, why do so many animated films feel the need to go there? Dreamworks has finally taken a step in the right direction. This one feels like a Pixar film, which is the highest compliment I can give them.

Film: Kung Fu Panda
Directors: Marc Osbourne, John Stevenson
Stars: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Ian McShane

Viewing Situation: Weekend matinee, crowded theater, lots of kids; digital projection
Rotten Tomatoes Average: 88%
My Grade (Out of 10): 8 

Next Up: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

>>Fast and Furious (2009) [IMDB]