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Out in Theaters: ‘KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS’

If there was ever any doubt that the circle of awesome that began with Coraline, Paranorman and The Boxtrolls would be broken, breathe relief. First-time director Travis Knight has led the masterful animators at Laika to victory once more with Kubo and the Two Strings. With the precision and delicacy of a samurai, Knight and his roundtable of figurine tinkerers carved out my heart and left it a fluttering mess, crafting a spellbinding adventure that thrums with wistful soul and spirited poignancy. In an age of skepticism and cynicism, Knight and the Laika wizards prove real alchemy exists. Marrying resplendent visual imagination with potent mature themes, they have made gold. Read More

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The Beauty of WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE and Studio Ghibli’s Lasting Legacy

What a beautiful film.

When Marnie Was There is the most recent, and possibly last, feature length film from the legendary anime production company Studio Ghibli. It is a coming-of-age tale, a journey of self-discovery and healing, a ghost story, and a love story… but not the kind you might think. Read More

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Out in Theaters: MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN

“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Starring Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Stephen Colbert, Ariel Winter, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
92 Mins
PG

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“If a boy can adopt a dog then I see no reason why a dog can’t adopt a boy,” goes the logic of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a tale (tail?) of accomplished, anthropomorphic pooch, Mr. Peabody, and his adopted carrot-topped son, Sherman. With a time machine called the “Way Back” at their fingertips (pawtips?), Peabody and Sherman bound through time to learn history lessons first hand. From witnessing Marie Antoinette spout her infamous cake one-liner to rubbing elbows with an unmummified King Tut through getting up close and personal with Agamemnon and his Trojan horse, Mr. Peabody’s field trips really can’t be topped. Being along for the history-hopping ride makes for some quality, light-hearted entertainment and offers a chance for colorful characters and backdrops of various aesthetic quality. Although the magic comes apart in the third act, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a mostly witty and endearing spectacle that will please kiddies and adults alike, with extra points for slipping in a few abridged history lessons.

Dating back to the late 1950s, Sherman and Mr. Peabody first appeared on the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” becoming a bit of a cult sensation. Here in 2014 though, the dog imbued with human qualities is somewhat commonplace what with the cultural reach of Seth McFarlane. In many ways, Peabody is a less crude version of Family Guy‘s Brian. With Peabody’s witticism, his deadpan delivery and bottomless charm, he’s a PG concoction of sassy booze-hound Brian and literature-lovin’ Jack Russell Terrier, Wishbone. Though history makes the argument that Brian is a knowing riff on Peabody, many ignorant of his historical context won’t see it for that.

Director Rob Minkoff may be responsible for the dreadful likes of The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little but he also has one of Disney’s greatest under his belt: The Lion King. And though we wonder how much of his time spent on such commercial dreck as the aforementioned may have rubbed off on Minkoff, his tenure with Disney during their animation Renaissance mostly shines through. Characteristically, the digitally animated visual landscape pops, the characters are inoffensive but never unbearably so and, in a way that only animation can really achieve, everything is larger-than-life. This is Minkoff’s gift and his curse. Accordingly, he’s never able to make the affairs feel quite real enough so even when the world’s end is threatened, we’re never really thinking that things could actually tip that way. As Peabody once comments to a pun-oblivious Sherman, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

The voice acting, for one, is as hammy as Christmas leftovers. Work from Patrick Warburton, who you likely know as Elaine’s on-again-off-again beau Puddy on Seinfeld,  stands out as the symbolic ring leader of a band of actors goofing off in the sound booth. His take on Agamemnon is overbearing as his profound commerical work for M&M’s or Honda. His character, like the movie at large, would have worked better had he toned it down a little bit and found the character beyond the caricature.

Ty Burnell, the beloved patriarch of Modern Family, is suitable as the know-it-all Peabody (I would however have loved to see the original casting, Robert Downey Jr., in the role) but his stiff accent tends to keep him from ever feeling much deeper than a cartoon character. If there’s anyone who’s able to pull at our heartstrings through his casual voice work it’s little Max Charles, offering an earnest and rounded portrait of adoptee Sherman.

The unassuming duo manage to win over pretty much any historical figure their time machine lets them come across just as they manage to win over the goodwill of the audience. Their unorthodox father-son relationship is the anchor of the film but often dabbles in oft-tread territory. Take for example, the fact that many of the themes explored here are abundantly familiar to the genre – the challenges of parenting a maturing child, students adjusting to new roles at school, bureaucratic bullheadedness sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong, and trepidatiously relinquishing autonomy to your children. They do a fine job when treading the straight and narrow but it’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, which would have been more interesting to see them navigate.

A through line for the piece emerges as Sherman becomes the target of a full-blown tease assualt. Classmate and eventual crush, Penny, labels him a “dog”, with all the negative connotations that come along with such. Throughout the film, Sherman fights against this label, proving to himself and others that he’s more human than dog. It’s when Sherman finally realizes that maybe being a dog isn’t such a bad thing after all that we witness a sigh-worthy, ramble-rousing, Spartacus moment: “I’m a dog”,  “I’m a dog”,  “I’m a dog.” Typical. But within this third-act revelation comes cleverly disguised potent thematic elements that poke at xenophobic tolerance and breaking the inbred stigma of seeing the “other” as wolves in sheep’s clothing. And that’s at least something.

C+

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Out in Theaters: THE WIND RISES

“The Wind Rises”
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Starring Hideaki Anno, Miori Takimoto, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Masahiko Nishimura, Steve Alpert, Morio Kazama, Keiko Takeshita, Mirai Shida, Jun Kunimura, Shinobu Otake, Nomura Mansai
Animation, Biography, Drama
126 Mins
PG-13 

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(Note: I saw the original version in Japanese with English subtitles, not the redub featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt)

Traumatic and introspective, The Wind Rises is Hayao Miyazaki‘s magical realist account of pre-WWII Japan as it navigates a seismic earthquake, battles the emergence of lurking fascism and sees its populace wither at the hands of TB. To say it’s not an experience for kids is an understatement, so don’t let the pretty pictures fool you. And yet, preserved is the crisp and distinct Miyazaki visualscapes and a ubiquitous, if stayed, element of whimsy. “In good times and bad, life is magical,” Miyazaki seems to say with a hopeful sigh.

The Japanese visionary has talked at length about how this will be his final feature and accordingly it only seems fitting that The Wind Rises feels like a man penning his own epilogue; a storyteller past myth and allegory, finally willing to stare long and hard at the epoch of his lifetime and reflect, no matter how painful that process.  
 
The hero at the center of this tale, Jiro, seems telegraphed in from a poem. And yet his story is true (somewhat), making Miyazaki’s film a fantastical biopic of the oddest sort. How much Miyazaki saw of himself in the plight of the aviation expert can be assumed but why he has chosen him to be the representative of Japan’s 1920 era is a thing of mystery. But let’s save that debate for later.

Jiro Horikoshi is an aviation aficionado. We meet the glasses-touting to-be pioneer at a tender young age and watch him blossom into adulthood and his fledgling career as an aviation engineer. Ever since he was a boy, Jiro has experienced lucid dreams, his nights filled with times spent alongside Italian aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni, a figure of encouragement prone to designing ambitious triple layered bi-planes the stuff of fantasy. But even in these dream sequences, reality is grounded. There’s no fluffy creatures or wretched monsters, just the harsh reality of unbridled ambition and unrivaled aspiration. Nevertheless, Miyazaki’s 73-year old hand still paints as beautifully and classically as ever.

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Although the animation here is far more realist than much of his former work, Miyazaki still dips in bright colors, painting backdrops so gorgeous you’d expect to find them in a Tokyo art exhibit. And just as his craftsmanship is rich with texture and life, his story is creeping with subtext. To make such a thematic shift this late in his career, away from quirk and metaphorical creatures and into a murky incitement of a culture’s past, surely gives us a glimpse into the mind of a haunted genius.

As the film presses questions of drive and autonomy and the turbulent mix of the two, our minds drift to the writer’s room. Is there intentional poetic justice in Miyazaki decrying the astringent nag that one’s work is never finished just as he’s retiring? Is this film a confession of regret? Of guilt? What has he sacrificed to get where he is today? Or is this merely a reticent sign off to a long and illustrious career? So many questions, so few answers!

And here lies the problem. For all the wonderful questions Mizayaki’s choice to make this his sendoff feature raises, the film itself deals in a tonally inconsistent and wandering narrative rife with teetering pathos that’s almost strangely personal. More tragedy than anything, The Wind Rises earns every bit of its PG-13 rating without ever uttering a swear or witnessing a swing of violence. No, the troubling but true subject matter is bleak and ultimately heartbreaking enough to make anyone old enough blink out a tear or two. Kids though will have all but the pretty pictures soar over their heads like one of Jiro’s aircrafts. That said, it is a visual wonder to behold. Just be prepared to explain to your four year old what tuberculosis is.

Is The Wind Rises Mizayaki’s masterpiece? Certainly not. But it’s an intriguing work nonetheless. It lacks the jubilant capriciousness of Mizayski’s prior filmography, a thing ineffably harder and more coarse than one would imagine from anything animated. In spite of its relative inaccessibility, it is a thing of mighty beauty, even if it is a bit of a melancholy note for Mizayaki to leave on. Like a man looking back at the perfect futility of human life, The Wind Rises is a bittersweet symphony of what it means to love and lose.

B

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Out in Theaters: THE LEGO MOVIE

“The Lego Movie”
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Starring Chris Pratt, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie
Animation, Action, Comedy
100 Mins
PG

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Dripping with commercial appeal and name brand recognition, The Lego Movie could have easily joined the ranks of previous toy-turned-tale blockbusters. With the likes of Transformers and Battleship, studios have established a shady history of leaning on bankable properties to churn out flimsy showcases that add up to little more than an audio assault and visual fireworks, a cheap attempt to capitalize on audience familiarity and earn a quick buck. While those movies sifted our childlike glee through a filter of blue-toned, sensory bombardment, attempting to twist our arms in hopes of nostalgic forgiveness and financial reward, The Lego Movie goes the completely opposite route and awards those hankering to see their favorite childhood toys onscreen with a gleefully told story of epic Lego magnitude. Irreverent and hyper-self-aware, this adaptation takes everything we loved about the buildable blocks and seamlessly weaves it into a startlingly awesome and fully engaging narrative about creativity, imagination and encouragement, resulting in the best animated movie since 2010’s Toy Story 3.

At the center of the Legoverse, lovable goof Chris Pratt voices Emett, a run-of-the-mill construction worker figure who tries his darnedest to assimilate with the uber-chipper Lego society marching in perfect formation around him. In Emett’s city, uniformity is the bee’s knees. Everyone loves the same song (“Everything is Awesome”), watches the same TV show (“Where Are My Pants?”) and has the same water cooler conversations day in and day out.

It’s a society structured around structure, a sociopolitical climate that’s laid out with instruction booklets (*wink*) and enforced with hive mind mentality. And no matter how hard Emett tries to fit in, he’s just so extraordinarily ordinary that people hardly remember his face (well that may be the result of everyone’s face being composed of same shade of iconic yellow, plastered with a smile and bulbous black eyes.) So when Emett stumbles upon a coveted brick and is mistakenly identified as “The Special”, he goes along with it. He allows new ally Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to believe that he’s a world class master builder because it’s the first time anyone has ever recognized potential in him.

Behind the scenes, President Business (a perfectly wacky Will Ferrell) secretly runs the show, cunningly steering the fate of the city’s inhabitants, hell bent on a maniacal scheme to unleash the ghastly Kragle, a weapon so devastating that it will forever glue the world into its proper place With Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) at his every beck and call, Business is out to destroy creativity as well as Emmet, the supposed harbinger of prophecy, and his fellowship of master builders.

Backed by enough voice cameos to keep you wracking your brain and a solid heap of characters pulled in from nearly every imaginable franchise, Lego is overflowing with talent. You’ll find the likes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day as an 80’s astronaut, Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett as Batman, Will Forte, Jonah Hill, Nick Offerman, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Jake Johnson and even Morgan Freeman‘s sultry tenor all giving rock solid voice performances that aid the laughing stock The Lego Movie becomes.

With Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind the first Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the recently rebooted and well-received 21 Jump Street, at the helm, the project has just as much focus placed on the comedy as the storyline and stylish animation. Accordingly, the jokes fly a mile a minute.

But beneath it all is a genuine heartbeat. Emett’s journey is a common hero’s quest but his goofy antics and self-sacrificing ways provide an emotional basis for our ongoing investment in his arc. Driving home a message that everyone’s special may be a little pear-shaped in the age of the Great Recession but there’s something intentionally ironic behind all the hackneyed encouragement. Maybe The Lego Movie would like to tell us we’re all special but that’s a message that only lingers on the surface. Beneath that, Lord and Miller reach out and say “We know that’s not true, but that’s still cool.”

The film is loaded with irreverent, double entendre moments like this, a self-aware meta angle that makes the experience just as much rewarding for adults as it is for kids. The screenwriting duo even take potshots at the lesser regarded Lego properties to great comic effect. Rarely taking a break from tongue-in-cheek mockery of Business, who for all intents is a place holding satire of the very company footing the bill for this movie, their voice is strangely misaligned with the lousy money-grubbing staples of the industry. They preach thinking outside the box while the inevitable accompanying merchandise will deal in exactly this kind of box-set salesmanship. Just eat up that irony.

Going back to the kids, those sugar-stuffed Ritalinites are sure to just eat this up as the partially CGI, partially stop-motion visual style is mind-boggling enough to make even a surly old man’s jaw drop much less a wide-eyed youngster. Cross the delectable ratio of genuine belly laughs with the crafty visual palette and Miller and Lord deserve a hearty pat on the back. Congratulations guys, you’ve made the best animated film in years.

A-

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Out in Theaters: FROZEN

“Frozen”
Directed by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciarán Hinds, Chris Williams, Stephen J. Anderson

Animation, Adventure, Comedy
108 Mins
PG

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Although still lacking the gilded touch that made the likes of Aladdin, Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast such timeless classics, Frozen is a rock solid addition to the post-hand-drawn Disney musical stable and is the best animated feature of the year by a good margin.

Made up of a relatively unknown vocal talent, Frozen values story and song more than an all-star cast and kitschy pop culture jokes, making it an experience that’ll warm the most curmudgeonly of hearts and a film rich with beautifully-realized animation that keeps the wow factor buzzing for children and adults alike.

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The new roster of tunes sound inspired by an alluring amalgamation of Inuit folk songs and bubbly fad-pop songs the likes of Katy Perry. And while some songs are a little too bright for the taste of a self-respecting mid-twenties male, each has a narrative purpose accompanying its infectious melodic tendencies that all blend perfectly into the fabric of the story.

Eight new songs from Kristen Anderson-Lopez (In Transit, Winnie the Pooh) and Tony Award winner Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”) are sure to inspire a whole new generation set to commit these catchy songs to memory. The best of which is the opening, near teary-eyed, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the witty anthem courtesy of reanimated snowman Olaf (Josh Gad)- who is destined to be a favorite for all – in the openly hysterical “In Summer.”

Listening to these tunes, it’s clear why A-list celebrities have been sidelined for more undecided stars – they can all sing…and they can sing well. Unlike earlier Disney musical endeavors, no voice performer is swapped out for a sound-a-like. Keeping this narrative bridge consistent allows character to enliven their songs with the necessary emotional weight or comic vibrancy needed for the scene. But will they stand the test of time to join the ranks of “Tale as Old as Time,” “Circle of Life,” or “A Whole New World”? Probably not.
 
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Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” a non-Grimm fairy tale from 1845 that sees evil trolls, amnesiac kisses, and the Devil himself, Frozen pursues the sugarcoated stylings we’ve come to expect of Disney that champions heart over heinousness and works all the better for it.

In the royal town of Arendelle, we meet a newly crafted version of Andersen’s Snow Queen in Elsa (Idina Menzel), a withdrawn but hopeful young girl with magical powers of icy consequence. Quartered out of site after a childhood accident that nearly saw the death of her fearless younger sister, and this story’s other central heroine, Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa’s loving but misguided parents instill in her a mantra the close cousin of Gandalf’s “Keep it secret, keep it safe.” But throbbing beneath Elsa’s poised veneer is an unflinching desire to break free of the taut regulations that years of secrecy have instilled in her.

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Since we all know the most perilous job in the Disney kingdom is parenthood, it’s no surprise that the young princesses’ parents are lost in a storm at sea, leaving Elsa to take up the mantle of Queen when she reaches the ripe age of womanhood. Years later, on her coronation day, Elsa’s buried abilities are shaken loose by an overeager Anna whose heart is newly set on marrying prince Hans (Santino Fontana), whom she met just hours earlier. Unhinged by a sense of crumbling familial guardianship, Elsa unwittingly lets loose years of repressed icy powers to cover her island community in a blanket of eternal winter. Finally, the town’s people see her for what she really is – a sorceress lacking the most basic semblance of control.  

Deemed a monster by the unscrupulous tradesmen passing through Arendelle on a business trip, fatally cute, and morbidly naive, Anna employs the help of ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer BFF Sven to locate her escaped sister and return the city to prosperity before it’s too late. The normative fairy tale lessons of “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “Be true to yourself” are pounded home but the dichotomy of two princesses each struggling with their own separate but equal identity crises is a new chapter in the Disney princess manual.

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After absolutely dominating the 90s with some of the best animated features, Disney suffered a nosedive in quality that saw the likes of Treasure Planet, Bolt, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Meet the Robinsons flail and fall into obscurity, a side effect of their unwillingness to change with the ebb of culture. Halting their dominant reign (that unarguably stopped after 1998’s Mulan), newcomers Pixar started their own golden age which took the wind out of Disney’s sails. Bookending the period of Disney’s supremacy and the coming of Pixar’s rising star, Disney faded from the spotlight.

But with their recent string of successes, made up of 2010’s Tangled, last year’s Wreck it Ralph and now Frozen, it seems that Disney is finally back on top as the animation studio to beat. Although the hand-drawn days of animation have come to a close, the same immaculately rendered, noticeably loving detail is put into each and every breathtaking sequence in Frozen. This not only has resulted in an animated feature worthy of Disney’s legacy but it’s essentially is assured Frozen a win at this year’s Oscar ceremonies.

Adapting to a new generation of tech-savvy, open-minded youngsters, the House of Mouse also gives some much-needed wiggle room for Frozen to step away from Disney’s legacy of antiquated sexual identities, chartering a new and exciting course for post-feminist Disney princesses. Our main heroine may still be a landlocked princess but a smooch from a prince may not be the ultimate life bandaid we’ve seen in a thousand children’s tales before. Rather, true love is found in self-discovery, or simply etched in the fiber of the nuclear family. This is a new brand of lesson in a new social climate, one where the tenants of yesteryear cease to dictate the values of tomorrow.

B+

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