Sunday, July 16, 2017

10 for 10: Kidstuffs, tufts for kids

10 for 10... that's 10 movies which we give ourselves 10 minutes apiece to write about.  Part of our problem is we don't often have the spare hour or two to give to writing a big long review for every movie or TV show we watch.  How about a 10-minute non-review full of scattershot thoughts? Surely that's doable? (Edit... maybe not so much, I started writing this at the end of March, got to A Series of Unfortunate Events and couldn't contain myself, and finished that extensive section in April.  I'm only now, in July, getting around to adding pictures and publishing),

This time, some programming and movies intended for younger audiences:
Big Hero 6 (blu-ray) 2014, d. Don Hall, Chris Williams
Zootopia (VOD) 2016, d. Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Babe (DVD) 1995, d. Chris Noonan
My Neighbor Totoro (Netflix) 1988, d. Hayao Miyazaki
Babe: Pig in the City (DVD) 1998, d. George Miller
JLA: Trapped In Time (Netflix) 2014, d. Giancarlo Volpe
Jumanji (TV) 1995, d. Joe Johnston
Jungle Book (Netflix) 2016, d. Jon Favreau
The Lego Batman Movie (in theatre) 2017, d. Chris McKay
A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix, 8 episodes) 2017, d. Barry Sonnenfeld, Mark Palansky and Bo Welch

aaand....go
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In live action, Baymax in this poster would
be portrayed by Jack Black
Oh man, I don't remember much about Big Hero 6 at this point.  Mainly disappointment.  After missing it in the theatre and then waiting well over a year for the price to go down to buy it on disc (the price never did go down in stores, it was joining the Disney Movie Club that got it to me for free) once I finally got to see it, it didn't live up to expectations.  Not only that, my kid got kind of bored while watching it.

Science, yeah!  That's what I remember.  It's about science.  And of course, orphans.  Two genius-level boys, living with their aunt...or grandma... I don't recall.  And then to make their life so much worse, one of them dies.  The other finds a surrogate brother in Baymax, an inflatable helper medical droid, who he weaponizes because superheroes and stuff, and additional family in his brother's friends at science school. Based of a very unknown Marvel comic this movie has some inspired bits, particularly the San Frantokyo city and its mash-up of American and Japanese cultures.  But the dead brother thing weighs so heavy, it doesn't feel like much fun.

Honestly, I don't even really remember the full story to this.  I don't remember the bad guy.  That's not good.  It's not a tremendously memorable film, and after watching it I had little desire to revisit it any time soon.  Even now, with memory of it fading, I have little desire to refresh myself.

(8:22)

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Like Big Hero 6, this is another not-Pixar but basically Pixar (now that John Lasseter runs everything Disney Animated) feature from Disney that, hey, just won an Oscar.  Hey, I actually saw an Oscar contender from last year.  Yay me.

There's a stand-out gag in Zootopia, one that took it from "enh, whatever" to "must see".  I don't remember which film it was I was going to see but prior to the film they played the entirety of Nick and Judy's visit to the DMV and their interactions with Flash, the sloth.  This is an instant classic comedy bit, one that will forever lift Zootopia up high in the ranks of incredible children's entertainment.  Even the Oscar couldn't really do that.

The movie has a moral, basically being don't let anyone tell you what you can or can't be in life. If your will is strong and your desire is there you can be anything you want.  It's an inspiring message, not wholly correct, but definitely inspiring.  Kids movies can be a bit simplified like that.

This movie has a mystery to it, as well as a conspiracy.  It's not quite as good as Rango (which was basically an animated version of Chinatown) was about treating the conspiracy with real weight and consequences for the people of Zootopia, but it's simplified version is also effective.

The best part of Zootopia is its introduction to the city itself.  The ride Judy takes into town that traverses it's unrivaled biodiversity is astounding.  I could get lost taking in those details.  Sadly the film doesn't explore the city's fantastical setting with any real awe or wonder.  It's just the environment the story is told in, which is kind of disappointing in an otherwise enjoyable film.

(20:01)

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I've had zero desire to see Babe from day one.  From the first commercial I saw about the precious talking pig and the precocious farm animals he comes to live with and the singing mice, the whole cloying affair just screamed for me to stay away.

So why, over 20 years later, would I buy the damn movie?
Mad Max: Fury Road.  That's why.
Director George Miller's modern masterpiece (and potential dethroner of Die Hard as #1 action movie of all-time) made me curious about Miller's rather scant list of other directorial efforts.  Plus, someone once mentioned how Babe: Pig in the City was their favourite movie ever (I'm thinking it was Comedy Bang Bang's Scott Aukerman...sounds like something he'd say).

Upon watching it, it's still a pretty cloying movie, at times utterly precious, and yet, it's not unpalatable.  It's got its charm for sure.  It's certainly a much different piece of entertainment.  It's slow, and erratic.  It plays out in chapters that are largely compartmentalized and don't necessarily combine to form a whole, meaningful story.  And those singing mice are the friggin' Minions of their day.  Small doses, man, small doses.

It's a bit of a wonder on its own, though, wrangling all these animals into on screen performances with limited CGI technology at the time.  I'd be much more fascinated by a behind-the-scenes documentary than the film itself.  Plus, it's just now I realize that George Miller only directed the follow-up, and not this one.  Moops.

(29:57)

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Totoro is one of those pop-culture figures I didn't understand because I had no frame of reference for.  A gigantic cat like thing from a Japanese cartoon?  I mean, I knew of Totoro as early as 20 or 25 years ago, and yet I never got around to seeing the film which launched him as an icon, the inspiration for a bazillion stuffed animals of all different sizes around the world.

My Neighbour Totoro is considered a classic, for good reason.  It's sweet, charming, and innocent.  It has a host of moments where it puts its young characters in harms' way, including a particularly harrowing moment where their father fears them missing.  It's dangers are kind of naive threats and existential fears rather than big scary villains.

There's gentle fantasy throughout, so gentle it's almost as if it doesn't exist at all.  One kind of wonders if they're the delusions of children or honest spiritual phenomena (at least in the context of the film).  It's a product of a different time of filmmaking so the pacing is quite deliberate, and curiously it underuses its titular character to a shocking degree.  Totoro is barely in the film at all.  But when he is there, he makes an impact.  It's like the xenomorph in Alien but in reverse.  He bring calm and peace instead of fear and anxiety.

(39:26)

Now this is what I was after.  Babe: Pig in the City, by George Miller, is an utterly insane movie.  Utterly insane.  I don't even know how to describe it beyond saying it's insane.  Because it is.  It's insane.

Miller constructed an crazily elaborate studio set for Babe and the other animals to inhabit as the titular city.  It's like Gotham from Tim Burton's Batman, but fully animal accessible.  The plot finds Babe and his owner's wife flying out to a Sheepdog competition in hopes of saving the farm from debt collectors.  Through curious circumstances they wind up missing their connecting flight and have to venture into the city to stay, where the farmer's wife has her luggage stolen.  A strange hotel for animals, nosy neighbours across the streed, a chimp mafioso, and god...so much more.

I mean what is this movie?  It's whimsical and dangerous, it's bizarre and amusing.  There are elaborate physics-defying physical gags that seem straight out of the 1930s but there aren't any straight up jokes.  This is meant to be a old timey comedy adventure, but with animals and puppets instead of the Little Tramp or Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy.  It's whackadoo and kind of ingenious.  Definitely different and visionary, in its own weird way.  It's a sequel that's nothing like its predecessor, despite following the first film's formula.  It's the Fury Road of the Babe movies.

(49:59)
[-break-]

DC Comics and Warner Brothers have been producing direct-to-video animated movies for over a decade.  These efforts were fully independent of other animation ventures on Cartoon Network such as Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans Go, and Young Justice, and usually they were adaptations of popular stories, such as Superman: Doomsday or Darwyn Cooke's 1950's inspired New Frontiers.  In recent years most of their efforts have been in supporting the New DC Universe after it was completely relaunched and rebooted in 2011 with most releases being adaptations or interpretations of Justice League or Batman stories.  These stories have a connective thread though, building a larger universe of animated features and have branched out to telling their own original stories in this world.  Alternatively there have been animated efforts to support the Batman Unlimited line of toys, which is a natural fit (even though both the animated series and toys are now kind of kaput).

JLA: Trapped In Time, however fit neither with the Batman Unlimited toys nor the New 52.  It's a curious project which starts with a "present day" action sequence in which Lex Luthor appears to die in the Arctic only to jump a thousand years into the future of the Legion of Super-Heroes where he's being kept in stasis. Dawnstar and Karate Kid roam a museum after being rejected by the Legion.  Karate Kid accidentally frees Luthor from his stasis and Luthor gains the power of the Time Trapper, and seeks to destroy the Justice League before they're even started, with the help of the Legion of Doom.

This is old school comic book superheroes, but with a modern eye towards multiculturalism and inclusiveness.  It's rather entertaining, surprisingly so...wish it were more than a one-shot.

(1:00:01)

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Another reach-back into kids movies I never saw.  There's a new Jumanji sequel being filmed starring Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart and Karen Gillen, and I know I'm going to want to see that, so I figured I should start with the original.  Again, like most kids movies which popped up in the 90's I was kind of dismissive of it, mainly because I was a teenager and these things weren't meant to appeal to me and my sour teen attitude.

But Jumanji is actually quite fun and exciting children's entertainment.  A mystical board game that brings to life the dangers that should only be imaginary, in today's current board game resurgence, this is such a fun idea, well ahead of its time.  Unfortunately, though, if you don't finish the game bad things continue to occur.  That's what happened when young Alan got sucked into the game, and his friend, poor Judy ran and didn't complete her turn.  Alan disappeared and Judy went kind of mad.

Decades later a couple of kids (including Kirsten Dunst) discover the game and start playing themselves, freeing a now adult Alan who has to convince a troubled Judy of his return and of the need to finish the game they started.  The dangers exacerbate as they play and their town becomes more and more menaced by the creatures they unleash.

It's actually typical Joe Johnston fare...the man is tremendously consistent.  Jumanji fits quite adeptly between The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III and Captain America The First Avenger in his storytelling repertoire.

[1:09:49]

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I didn't think there was a need to see this Jon Favreau directed live-action adaptation of the Jungle Book, I wondered what it could possibly have to offer as an almost literal translation of the animated Jungle Book film (minus most of the musical numbers).  And yet, it was surprising in many different ways.

It's not a direct, shot-for-shot adaptation of the Disney cartoon, but it is more based of it than Rudyard Kipling's original story.  I think by doing all these live action adaptations of their adaptations of public domain stories Disney's hoping to supplant the original stories and make their interpretations of them the story of record.

Anyway, I had to appreciate the exquisite craft put into this movie.  The set design is immersive, you truly believe Mowgli lives in this jungle, and you believe his relationships with the various animals he meets.  The visual effects (another Oscar award winner this year, beating out Rogue One and Doctor Strange) are superb.  The voice cast, including Idris Elba, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Ben Kingsley and (best of all) Christopher Walken (as King Louie), are all superb, but young Neel Sethi holds the picture, a rare child acting talent that can feel at home in such a made up world (much kudos to Favreau's direction as well).  The King Louie sequence excited all my giant gorilla feels, better than the last King Kong movie (but maybe not the next one?).  After watching it I found myself wanting to watch it again.

[1:20:17]

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Phil Lord and Chris Miller's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is maybe my all-time favourite animated movie at this point.  It's a comedic masterpiece as well as an absurd one.  Their Lego Movie, by equal measure, is a stroke of genius, making something such as a movie about a non-descript toy product be about something so much more, while also being completely about the toy product.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had a sequel, not directed by Lord and Miller, which tried to replicate the success of the earlier, but failed pretty spectacularly.  Lord and Miller are so aware of convention and cliche that they can exploit, play with and play into them for comedic, dramatic and action purposes.  Few others are so capable of doing so (Dan Harmon of Community and Rick and Morty is another) without going full fledged into satire, lampoon or parody mode.

Similarly, this Lego Batman Movie feels like Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2.  It's a sequel (indirectly, but still a sequel) to The Lego Movie but most of its predecessor's cleverness remains.  The Batman of The Lego Movie worked because he was delivered in such small doses.  That egotistical, metal screaming Dark Knight plays itself out pretty quickly in The Lego Batman Movie.  The forced concept of the loner most afraid of being alone so he stays alone could work, but it's hard to really feel for this character through the veneer of braying ass that he kind of is in the film.

The film also tries, with limited success, to touch upon The Lego Movie's fourth-wall busting aspect, but here it does so in the service of gags, while in the Miller-Lord production it was all in service of story.  Even breaking down the walls of different genres of Lego had logic in the first movie, while here it's just sort of accepted.

Okay, killing my 10-minutes-and-out policy with this one because I need to rant about how poorly executed this film was from a storytelling standpoint.  Part of the film's story thread is about how Joker and Batman need each other, they are compliments, they are their greatest enemies, and yet the callous Will Arnett Batman dismisses the Zack Galifianakis  Joker as meaningless to him.  The wounded Joker plans his revenge to destroy everything that Batman cares about (eg. Gotham City) by freeing all the villains of the Phantom Zone (set up by showing news footage of Superman placing General Zod into it).  Later Batman's tense relationship with the other superheroes is shown when he goes to the Fortress of Solitude to steal the Phantom Zone projector, only to find that the Justice League is having a party without him.

There's two things set up here: one, that Zod is in the Phantom Zone, and two, that Batman has a strained relationship with his teammates primarily because he's decided he's a loner.  In the film's climax Joker does manage to free all the villains, which inexplicably includes a host of bad guys from other Warner Brothers and Lego properties like Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and Doctor Who.  It's cute to see all these things crop up on screen but there's no real rationale as to why they would be there or as to why Superman would have put them in the Phantom Zone.  Anyway, with all the villains that escape, who do we never see?
Zod.
And when Batman's at his most dire moment, when he's most in need of help, who shows up?
Not the Justice League.
This movie is confounding.

I didn't buy into it at all. This film does a complete disservice to Batman, Robin, Joker, their relationships... pretty much everything Batman is thrown under the bus for cheap gags and a cliche lesson for Batman to learn about trusting and loving others (including the Joker, in a way).  There are moments of inspiration in vehicle design and character use, and good moments that call back to the world the Lego Movie set up (Batman referencing that he is a master builder) but overall it's a film that gets lost in the shadow of its predecessor and a film that loses itself in its legacy.

[1:42:03]

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(weeks later, breaking the formula...hard...) Number 10...here we go. 

I haven't read all of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and what I have read was so long ago it's faded from memory (as most books do in my brain).  I did enjoy the previous Jim Carrey-starring adaptation but I could certainly acknowledge there was room for improvement.  The intent of that film was to run through the whole series of thirteen books in a trilogy of movies, but it didn't do well enough to carry on.

Thankfully Netflix saw the potential in the book series to be done right, with director Barry Sonnenfeld leading the charge and Lemony Snicket himself, Daniel Handler, handling the scripting chores for much of the adaptation.

The first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events plays out in four 2-part episodes, each covering one book.  Essentially each book gets its own movie-length story told in an episodic fashion.  It's a brilliant structure which makes consumption quite easy.

Sonnenfeld is known for his rather whimsical visual style which he's brought to television before with Pushing Daisies and the (first) live action adaptation of The Tick.  He typically likes bright colours with heavy contrast and those are definitely at play throughout the series, not just the four chapters he directed.  The show has a fastidiousness to it, a meticulous attention to detail that comes close to Wes Anderson in its anal retentiveness.  It's at its peak in the second story, The Reptile Room, but it's prevalent throughout.  The production quality of the show is enormously high, with sets, costuming, practical effects and CGI all creating a decidedly unique and charming world of bleakness.

As I talked about before with Riverdale and Emerald City, there seems to be a current of blackness invading programming based on materials for younger readers.  But there's a difference with A Series of Unfortunate Events, this a series designed from its inception to be very American-style tragedy, with a dust-bowl sensibility. But it's also a dark comedy, underlining the heightened surreality of the show with more extreme melodrama to the point of buffoonery. tapping into both melancholy and resilience in the face of adversity rare for kids literature and kids programming;  it's a place few shows, stories or networks are brave enough to go but A Series of Unfortunate Events just keeps going there again and again.  The despair one feels for the Beaudelaire children is palpable, but in a sick sense of schadenfreude (hinted at in the wonderful Stephin Merritt-inspired theme song in which Handler warns to "look away") is what makes the show so enjoyable.  Whenever validation, illumination or happiness is potentially in reach for the Beaudelaires, it's snatched away.  Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket, the narrator of the story, outright foretells the fate of the children in stages throughout the show, but in spite of his foreshadowing the show still provides glimmers of hope that he's wrong...but he never is.



While each book/movie/set of episodes is stand alone, there's a larger story of discovery as a mysterious secret society begins to unveil itself.  It's not simply the tale of nefarious Count Olaf scheming to steal the Beaudelaire children's inheritance, but what ties Olaf has to the Beaudelaires, how their unfortunate guardians tie in, and what Lemony Snicket's role in it all is.  It's an immersive through-line.

The show's regular cast is tremendous, with Neil Patrick Harris once again redefining his career as a genuinely evil villain who is equal parts ridiculous, stupid, and scary.  His schemes are sometimes violent, sometimes funny, and sometimes so outlandish even Olaf has a hard time fully committing to them. One of the great undercurrents of the show is that all adults in some form are really stupid.  They may be smart about certain topics, like lizards or the law, but they have irrational blinders to many stupid things.  The point being that adults are too quick to dismiss the concerns of children.  But the show is also tremendous at showing the children doing for themselves.  Violet is crafty, a tinkerer, maker of fantastic inventions.  Klaus is studious, a fast and avid reader absorbing knowledge like a sponge. Sunny is a baby with an incredibly strong jaw and tough front teeth who can chew through anything.

If there is a weak point, it's the uncanny valley that is Sunny.  As a baby performer, the show has little patience for trying to capture a scene with the wee performers playing her, and as such Sunny is almost entirely digitally inserted or altered.  Sunny is a true character, speaking baby gibberish, but subtitled to imply she's actually speaking intelligent thoughts that only Violet and Klaus can understand (my least favourite trope of the show, I would have preferred if she were like R2-D2 and only certain characters understand her, but we as the audience only somewhat get the gist of what she's saying) .  And yet, Sunny has her purpose in the show as much as Violet and Klaus do, some plot threads hinge around her, so it's not even like I wouldn't want her in the story, I just don't like the creepiness of the animation at times.

Second and third seasons, rounding out the baker's dozen of books, have been confirmed by Netflix, which is awesome.