Monday, February 23, 2015

I Saw This!! Kids Stuff part III

(part II) (part I)
In this edition:
Strange Magic (2015), d. Gary Rydstrom -- in theatre
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), d. Steve Barron -- blu-ray
The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (2015), d. Paul Tibbitt -- in theatre
Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014), d. Rob Minkoff -- netflix

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We came to watch Strange Magic by way of a birthday party my daughter was invited to.  Now, my daughter has been nothing but reluctant, if not vehemently against seeing movies in the movie theatre after the great Muppets Most Wanted trauma of last year, but because this was one of her good friend's birthdays she was into going but only if I joined here.  I had seen the trailer, with it's plethora of pop song covers and was rather wary of the end product ("From the mind of George Lucas!" doesn't quite hold the cache it once did), but I'm always game to be surprised.

Well, Strange Magic isn't quite what the trailer describes it as.  The "goblin king" (it's actually Bog King in the movie) isn't necessarily trying to take over the forest, and our plucky heroes are necessarily trying to stop him.  Instead it's a farcical comedy about both love and a love potion gone wrong, and the Bog King's attempts at obliterating love from the dark side of the forest, if not the entirety of the forest altogether.  It's a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, so the story structure itself is quite surprisingly sound.

But yeah, there's singing.  Lots and lots and lots (and lots and lots and lots) of singing, all of pop songs from the 50's to the modern day, none of which are outright offensive but nothing stellar or exciting.  The songs are incessant, and at times overwhelming but never grating.

The animation, from moment one, is strikingly gorgeous, and I was almost ready to buy in because of it.  The vibrancy of the colours, the lush details of the forest and its foliage, the intricacies of the costuming and hairstyles... it's all so very impressive.  Even the choreography of fight sequences (which are in no way prolonged or egregiously violent) and the musical numbers are stellar, weaving between movement on land and in the air (fighting with wings hasn't been done quite enough).

The opening sequence features a doe-eyed, lovestruck princess Maryanne fluttering about the forest carelessly on her wedding day, singing "Can't Help Falling In Love", which immediately tore into the film's beauty with yet more stock lovelorn royalty, but thankfully, and approvingly, once she realizes her husband-to-be is a total cad, longing only for her power (and an army of his own), she rejects love and goes goth, getting edgy, learning to fight, etc.

It's unfortunate that Lucas and company opted for licensing songs rather than going the route of original numbers. I'm certain the film would have been much stronger and better received had it gone that route.  Pop songs, no matter how they're arranged, seem tedious and even corny when they're crammed into a context not originally intended.  Sure this may be most kids' first exposure to the songs here but it doesn't make it any less a grind for the adults sitting with them.

Likewise, scaling back on the number of musical numbers, and adopting a bit more of a literal adaptation of Shakespeare's original story may have serviced the film far better (had this been a direct adaptation, with the lavish animation, it would have been absolutely stellar).

It's gotten a bad rap from most critics, but it's really a middle-of-the-road picture.  It's themes about accepting people as they are and being able to fall in love with anyone are certainly present, and even I will admit toe getting sucked into the Moonlighting-esque romance of Marianne and the Bog King.   It's decent, but it certainly could have been far better (and easily far worse).

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I covered "TMNT", the 2007 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated feature in the last I Saw This!! Kids Stuff, and noted there my brief (and mostly absent) history with the Turtles.  They just weren't my thing.  Even though the Turtles are technically a comic book property and especially in the 1990s I would watch any comic book movie no matter how awful it looked (yes, even Steel starring Shaquille O'Neal), I never watched any of the live action trilogy.  They just seemed beneath me, juvenile, annoying.

When the hosts announced that they were watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as their next film one week on the Wham Bam Pow podcast, I had thought they were going to be reviewing the latest Michael Bay produced trainwreck.  But it turned out to be the original feature, which I had suspected would be beneath them.  When they (surprisingly) quite favorably reviewed it I actively sought it out, knowing that even if I wasn't that into it, my daughter would be.

Turns out, it's true, it's not so bad.  It's kind of charming in a late-80's grimy, practical-effects and restricted budget kind of way.  Following hot on the heels of the mega-success of Tim Burton's Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles indeed attempts much of the same style and maturity to an ostensibly juvenile property.  That the film, more than most comic book adaptations, remained fairly faithful to the flavour of the source material is quite impressive.

The main plot finds New York City slowly succumbing to a crime wave led by a legion of foot soldiers under the sway of The Shredder.  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles start to come out from their sewer lair to help fight this crime wave, encountering reporter April O'Neill and sports-themed vigilante Casey Jones along the way.

The thrust of the story, however, is about family, and the four brothers (Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael) have very disparate personalities which often find them at odds.  There's a need to prove themselves to one another, particularly between Leo and Raph.  When their sewer lair is infiltrated, their master Splinter captured, and April's apartment destroyed by Shredder and his goons, they flee the city to regroup, train and find some semblance of the teamwork needed in order to take down their foe and rescue their master.

As far as the Turtles pantheon goes, I've long given April the short shrift, but here she's really the glue that holds the whole movie together.  Judith Hoag, with her wild and kinked-out red hair, pale skin and freckles is a bit of a startling screen presence at first, but being the primary human character she adds incredible depth, warmth and she makes you believe this world and these crazy puppets exist.  It's really all for her to shoulder and she carries the movie.  She may not be typical Hollywood attractive, but her charisma becomes undeniable.

The film is not a classic, nor great by any means, but it's truly enjoyable, and far better than it had any right to be.  Also, extra points for a very young Sam Rockwell appearance.

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A decade and a half ago Spongebob Squarepants popped up on an unsuspecting television audience, delighting children, teens, college kids and some parents alike.  The culmination of outre animated comedy defined by Ren and Stimpy  and the irreverent humour just starting to catch on (via Cartoon Network shows like Dexter's Lab, Cow and Chicken), Spongebob may not have been wholly original but it was able to capture a far broader audience than any of its forbears, and become both a merchandising and comedy juggernaut that approximated the Simpsons rise to fame.  Children's animation, for the most part, has become a sea of pale imitators over the past decade-plus, almost to its detriment.  Every show aims for the same irreverence and it's diluted what made Spongebob so special in the first place.

But there have always been certain things Spongebob did that few other animated shows could replicate, particularly the show's radical inclusion of live action and atypical animation techniques.  My favourite Spongebob moments are always those where the characters break the surface tension of the ocean and wind up in a cheaply produced live-action environment as a yellow sponge on a stick, a starfish on a stick etc.  It's absurdity at its finest, the knowingly crude production values, and yet the voice acting carries on as if nothing were out of the ordinary.  The way the show pulls these out (and in moderation as well) I had high hopes for how it would manage a full feature film with Spongebob and gang interacting in a live action world.

Well, that said, the whole conceit of the film, "Sponge out of water", only comprises the last act, while the remainder of the film is an upgraded version of the traditional animation style of the show.  That the commercials (and poster) predominantly show the cgi cast, gussied up as superheroes, gives the expectation that the film will be largely comprised of this type of Who Framed Roger Rabbit animation/reality smash-up, even if it didn't seem like the best idea, it was kind of daring.  The way it's actually executed is anything but.

The film could have easily made up for this duplicity were it actually funny, but clippy irreverence over a 12-minute running time is one thing, doing it over 89 minutes is another, but it's like they didn't even try.  Every joke seems horrendously dragged out, and the pacing never finds its footing.  Each sight gag or sudden jump cut that would usually have an audience in stitches lands instead with a thud, giving itself way too much room to breathe and far too often setting itself up so that the joke is expected.

Nearly everything about this film is a waste of potential.  The plot finds Spongebob teaming up with Plankton after the Crabby Patty formula goes missing and Bikini Bottom falls into chaos without it's regular supply of burgers.  It turns out the disappearance of the formula was the work of the dread pirate Burgerbeard, a live action character played by Antonio Banderas.  Banderas kicks off the film narrating a story to a group of CGI seagulls which look like pathetic versions of the Penguins of Madagascar.  The potential of this film narrated by Banderas is mind blowing but squandered.  The book Banderas reads from had the power to adjust Spongebob's reality, a fact used two or three times in the third act, but could have been utilized with crazy results throughout the film.

While Banderas' casting is squandered genius, Matt Berry's voice work as Bubbles the space dophin, protector of the galaxy is the only oddball feat the film actually manages to make work.  It's a short sequence, 2 or 3 minutes long mid-way through the film but it's reality-bending nature and it's utter weirdness (not to mention Berry's particularly unique delivery) was the only moment that met up with my expectation of what a Spongebob story should be like.

Even when we get to reality, it seems so cheap, so manufactured, so unnatural.  It feels like very little production value went into it. which given my fondness for sponge-on-a-stick Spongebob, you would think I would like.  But it's like they were trying to make "reality" without using reality.  Had they made the film's reality exceptionally cheap, knowingly so, then it would have been incredible.  If there were nods to the props and the obviousness of its fakeness, the film would have paid off its promise.  As it stands it looks like a cruddy video game.

The Spongebob Movie could have been this year's Lego Movie, instead it feels like the rest of the barely tolerable TV movies Nickleodeon airs.

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Like Spongebob, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, comes to the big screen where it started life in a much shorter fashion.  Even shorter than Spongebob's usual 11-12 minute stories, the original Mr. Peabody and Sherman stories were brief segments on the Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show anthology cartoons in the early 1960s.  Each cartoon featured Mr. Peabody, a super-genius bipedal dog, and his adopted pet child, Sherman, venturing into the past (via the "Wayback Machine") to meet a famous historical figure or witness a famous historical event.  Quasi-educational, very silly, and endlessly charming, "Peabody's Improbable History" was irreverent and enduring, much like every part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle ensemble.  The cartoons were ahead of their time, the comedy much more sophisticated than, say, the Flintstones and a product of their time at the turn of the 60's like Looney Toons was in the 40's and Spongebob was in the early years of the new millennium.

With that in mind,.the long-in-development feature film starring Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a bit of a disappointment in that it's not that funny.  However, unlike a great many kids movies that aren't funny largely because their comedy is terrible, juvenile, or ill timed, this film doesn't really strive too hard for comedy.  It's more an adventure, with a heavy dose of father-son relationship drama getting in the mix.  There are some decent chuckles (Mr. Peabody's puns are typically followed by Sherman laughing then coldly stating "I don't get it"), and the adventure leans more towards whimsical than intense, so it's not a harsh film at all, but it does take its relationships seriously.

The heart of the story is that child protective services are threatening to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody after the boy gets into a fight with a girl, Penny, at school and he bit her in the process.  Mr. Peabody holds a dinner for Penny and her family, but things get complicated when Sherman tries to settle an argument by showing her the Wayback Machine, and she goads him into using it.

The adventure finds Sherman and Mr. Peabody on a mission to rescue Penny in ancient Egypt, then losing power and calling upon Mr. Peabody's friend Leonardo da Vinci for help, getting time lost in the middle of the battle of Troy, and finally creating a time vortex by accidentally visiting a time where they already exist (sort of a Back To The Future II situation).  All of the time traveling provides for some light history lessons (filled with a lot of not-so-true-history), but through it all the threads of Peabody and Sherman's relationship is woven.  Sherman, as a son, is in part an academic endeavor for Peabody, something so irrational as emotions seem difficult for him to acknowledge.  Meanwhile, Sherman obviously has some latent issues about being raised by a dog, given his violent retaliation when he's mocked as one (but also probably not helped by Mr. Peabody's emotional neglect).  Doubtlessly the two come to common understanding and acceptance, but it still a rewarding conclusion even if it goes about it in a hammy way ("I am a dog", the crowd starts chiming in as animal control starts hauling Peabody away in their Spartacus homage).

The animation style is fair, but typical, the voice work by Ty Burrell, Max Charles, and Ariel Winter are all solid for their roles (with fun voice work from Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney Patrick Warburton and Stanley Tucci).  There's a device used early on as Mr. Peabody figures his way out of a situation (taking in all information around him and finding the best available option), somewhat akin to BBC's Sherlock or Amadeus Cho in the Greg Pak Hulk comics, but it's kind of abandoned, which is too bad because it was the most visual the film got.  The lead into the time vortex was by far the film's most playful and imaginative moment (as it struggled with multiple versions of its characters and the laws of temporal physics) but upon releasing the actual vortex it becomes less logical and weighed down by the needless "big finish" sequence (with more than a hint of Ghostbusters blazing through).

It's a middle-of-the road kid flick, but on the higher end of that part of the scale.  Not recommended for adult watching solo, but certainly not a bad thing to watch with the kids.