Once upon a time, Pixar was infallible. Of their first 11 films, only one (Cars) was a dud (or at least a letdown) and even then it was one of the studio’s most bankable flicks. Now, take a peek at Pixar’s business model going forward. The animation studio, now infamously paired up with Disney, have pledged to produce an original film every year coupled with a sequel to an existing property that’ll see release every other year. This means Cars 3, The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 have already begun development. Respectively finishing off a trilogy that adults have responded to with almost as much non-enthusiasm as toy sales the property has generated. Perhaps the most in-demand and long-awaited Pixar sequel to-be. And another capstone to Pixar’s gold standard franchise, which many believe to have already been concluded to near-perfection in 2010. Read More
“The Muppets: Most Wanted”
Directed Sean Bobin
Starring Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey, Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz
Adventure, Comedy, Crime
From the first musical number, The Muppets: Most Wanted admits what it’s up to. “We’re doing a sequel,” the beloved Jim Henson puppets croak and caw, “that’s what we do in Hollywood. Though everyone knows that a sequel’s never quite as good.” And even though Kermit might be spot on with his sentiment, starting things off with this kind of disclaimer doesn’t offer a ton of hope to an expecting audience. Following that mantra of mediocrity, director and writer James Bobin offers up a Muppets that’s fully tolerable but never exceptional.
Three years ago, the return of The Muppets was met with near universal praise. Its release marked a childhood mainstay returning to the spotlight. Co-written by and starring Jason Segel, The Muppets used his signature blend of awkward comedy and surprising heart to harness a comeback for the cherished characters born of the 70s. Its ‘getting the band back together’ framework excited nostalgia for older audiences while ushering in a new generation of Muppet fans, reminding us why we fell in love with the Muppets in the first place. All Most Wanted does is remind us that not every Muppet outing was gold, nor really worth getting excited for.
After the events of the first film, the finally banded together again Muppets see that the wave of success they might have expected is not in order after all. The general response they’re met with is more a brand of 21st century apathy. So when Dominic Badguy (the obvious red herring is supposed to be funny but I think you can make that judgement for yourself) offers to launch the Muppets on a world tour, the group of fuzzy dolls are ecstatic. All but Kermit that is. As the levelheaded leader of the gang, Kermit sees shortcuts for what they are and urges the group that they need to rehearse and improve their act before unleashing on an unprecedented world tour.
Meanwhile, Kermit lookalike and criminal master-frog, Constantine, breaks free from the inhospitable Siberian Gulag (you know, those forced labor camps that were so popular in Stalin’s USSR) and makes his way across Europe to the touring Muppets. Set up by Badguy, Kermit is tricked into an back alley (populated by dirty bath water and the babucha-clad impoverished that feels straight from a Vittorio De Sica film) where Constantine pulls a devilish switch-a-roo. By gluing a Monroe-like mole onto Kermit’s amphibian cheek and covering his own with green makeup, Constantine assumes Kermit’s identity and leads everyone to believe that Kermit is in fact the famed outlaw. What follows is a trail of bad accents, calamitous Muppet acts and a string of increasingly news-worthy heists.
As Badguy (pronounced Bad-gee), Ricky Gervais is on par with his resume of safe comedies, offering a few chuckles but nothing that originates from the depths of the belly. Ty Burrell, continuing a streak of big screen appearances, gets to try on his best Pink Panther impression as the pretentious, mustache-twirling French detective Jean Pierre Napoleon. He’s at the mercy of the writers but at least with their mockery of French culture, they’ve honed their satire, even if it feels a bit too much like personal jabs.
Locked up in the Gulag with Kermit, Tina Fey sports a hammy Russian accent to not so great effect. Like the onslaught of celebrity cameos around her (from Lady Gaga to Danny Trejo), Fey is fine but nothing to write home about. With every human character relegated to a riff on some European populace or other, and when the caricatures feel this mocking, Most Wanted feels like it’s flirting a dangerous line of xenophobic. But then again, we are dealing with puppets so I expect international audiences may be more forgiving.
Most Wanted is ostensibly ironic but feels the pressure of a hurried studio’s pace, particularly in the story department. Its international heist plot is exhaustingly familiar fare and Bobbitts offers little in terms of breaking free of genre constraints. Instead, it’s all very procedural, very much what you would expect. Nevertheless, Kermit remains one of America’s greatest and most timeless creations; a beacon of reason, an icon of good. A little green Gandhi that the world could always use more of. Too bad then that we spend so much time with the imposter frog, Constantine, a character who ironically seems to sum up the pursuit of the film at large – a knock-off ringleader leading a shortcut effort to make off with a satchel of money.
Its predecessor had the savory flavors of a labor of love, this the stink of a cash grab. Like salt water, you can taste the thirst for profits in the air. Nothing sums it up better than Miss Piggy’s verse in that first tune, “The studio considers us a buyable franchise.” It’s just a shame that that’s all they saw in this.
“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
“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.