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New “Beauty and the Beast”dazzles despite having “too many notes”


As expected, it wouldn’t be too long until Disney did a live-action retelling of their 1991 animated classic. There are factors as to why they would do such a thing considering its one of their popular titles. It was well-loved, the songs are still hummed and it got a Best Picture nomination. It’s never easy to fix something that isn’t broken and that was the case here. I’m pleased to say there are plenty of things that keep it far removed from the original (even going as far to give nods to the 1946 Jean Cocteau version). At the same time, I couldn’t help but question why go the great lengths to recapture the magic and spirit when all the time could have been used for a more unique variation.

In no way I am saying this is a horrible version. Dare I say, far from it. There are things I liked about Bill Condon’s live-action take, scenes and images I will take away from as a moment of beauty and will have the appreciation to watch it again when the feeling is there. There is effort in this one, everyone is trying their best and having fun with their roles. I am glad to say there are no fart jokes or dumbing down of the source. But part of me wonders why there is something more to the 1991 animated film in comparison to this one.

For the most part, the performances are fine. Emma Watson is no Paige O’Hara, but she tires to give the character Belle something. She does stand by her decisions like her reason to trade her freedom for her father’s imprisonment (Kevin Kline) and shows she is more than a girl with basic curiosity. A backstory is tossed on where she wishes to know the mystery of her mother and to be fair, the execution is fine. Yet, what kills it for me is her singing abilities. There are moments when I couldn’t help but compare her voice to the others around her during the opening number. I don’t know if it was the sound system, but something felt flat or “auto-tuned” when she was in the numbers. There was an electronic sense to her voice which made me wonder if any post-production work as done on her vocals. Her interactions with the other characters are fine and there’s even some nice scenes between her and Maurice that I found touching. But when your lead character can’t belt a tune that makes you feel for the character’s dreams and feelings, your just left with a rather mediocre performance lost in a sea of people who are trying.

Take Dan Stevens who is gives as much heart and soul to the Beast. While he’s no Robbie Benson or Jean Marais, Stevens’ portrayal does show what years of isolation and a heartless nature can do. Despite the beckoning of his servants, he sees no sign of hope and knows the curse is forever even if he tries. There’s a scene when he is looking at Belle from the magic mirror and feels there is no connection. As another petal from the rose falls, parts of the castle crumble as we feel a part of his heart did. Even surprisingly Stevens can carry an emotional tune as his solo before the climax speaks the heartfelt and tragedy of the character. While I wish some makeup work was involved, the CGI at times isn’t too bad on this furry Scrooge.

Other standout performances include Luke Evans as the cocky Gaston, who will go to the ends of the Earth in order to get what he wants. Evans really chews out the scenery as this famed Disney villain with fancy footwork and an overly conceited manner that was part of the original character. You can tell he’s having a lot of fun as much as Josh Gad is as LeFou. I admit, I was worried for a bit as having the lovable snowman as a comedic sidekick, but I’m pleased to say Gad didn’t disappoint. And for those worried about his “big moment,” I assure mommies and daddies everywhere that its not big to the story and played in a subtle manner. In short, there’s a movie with a girl falling for an enchanted prince and a candlestick doing a big Broadway number with flying dishes. I think you will be fine.

I’d go down the list and check off who did a great job, but I can say mostly everyone did their part (aside from Watson but she tires.) Kevin Kline is sweet as Maurice hinting a tragic moment in life, Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen have humorous chemistry and so forth. But when it comes to altering the story, that’s a different case. There are moments when this “Beast” adds elements from the original fairy tale (Maurice is held prisoner by the Beast for getting a rose from his garden as requested by Belle) and again some subtle nods to other versions like candelabra hands from the Cocteau version.

But when new story beats appear to explain why the Beast got so cold hearten, Belle wondering about this hidden family secret or have Gaston be a famed war captain, this is when it starts to drag. The focus starts to become more on these new additions and less how the story is being told well. Dare I say, these moments do distract but then you have little details used to fill in some plot holes like what would be left of the castle and its inhabitants if the Beast fails to lift the curse. It’s a double edge sword and some of works. But then you have small additions that can change the nature of a scene. Without giving too much away, let’s just say during a big fight scene near the end, a gun is involved. No blade, no fists and no impalement. Just a bunch of bullets and nothing more. There is no sense of intensity as the action in question is by something mechanical as opposed to a blade. It left me wishing it was more intense, but Disney has banned impalement for a while so why bother changing it something more deadly? Nitpick aside, it makes an intense moment less intense.

The songs themselves are fine as Alan Menken returns with old numbers and some new material by Menken and Tim Rice of “Lion King” fame. Some of the songs like “Gaston” and the showstopper “Be Our Guest” contain some new lyrics that don’t diminish why we love these songs. But the new dance breaks and added beats nearly kill the enjoyment of the rhythm. “Be Our Guest” goes from a showstopper into too long of a showstopper as dinner plates sail in the air like kites and Lumiere stops to pay an homage for “Singin’ In the Rain.” The new numbers try to add some new form of substance and they work for the most part. Belle’s father has a nice number at the beginning, the Beast has a powerful song as he scales the lonesome towers of his castle and a sequence with the servants pondering of their fate is interesting. Even if they don’t overpower the others, they are a nice addition for the most part.

I can’t really say I hated this “Beast.” There are moments I did enjoy and some that did get me teary. Will it be memorable as the original? Probably not. This is just part of trend Disney is doing because they want to see what sticks and what doesn’t. While I’m against the idea of doing a live-action take of this one, it was nice to see an attempt. It delivered when it needed to despite having a few flaws. Had the animated movie not exist, it would be difficult to picture if this would stand on its own better. In a sense, maybe but the flaws in story and some performances would still be there. In retrospect, this is very much how I feel about Ron Howard’s “Grinch.” While nowhere near as powerful as the original, it was a good try.

“Finding Dory”worthy sea-quel

finding-dory-trailer-poster-internationalWhen one brings up “Finding Nemo,” most attention turns to the character Dory. A small blue fish, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, who has trouble remembering mostly anything. Instead of an annoying running gag, Dory was an interesting character. The fact she is struggling to think back and maintain her previous thoughts was well written and knew when to be funny. “Nemo” still holds up enough on its own, but was this sequel worth the 13 year wait?

The plot nearly rehashes a good bulk of material from the first movie, but at least it has the advantage to expand on a few things. The first third is mainly comprised of scenes from the first movie as an attempt to remind viewers of previous events. Instead of an angler-fish for example, our heroes get briefly menaced by a giant squid. This is mostly one problem I have with “Finding Dory” as certain moments almost feel like a rehash of the first film. This is the standard trap most movies like “Ghostbuster II” and some of the “Pink Panther” movies where it rehashes some material instead of giving new stuff.

Thankfully, that is not the case here. The final 2/3rds focus on the new environment our characters go to and certainly a lot more exploring on Dory’s character. Instead of a comedic sidekick, we dive into the backstory of this odd fish and how she was separated from her own parents. The search for her folks moves on as it leads them to an aquarium that acts as a hospital for Marine animals. This opens the door to see new creatures and view the world of what a zoo would be like from the eyes of an animal. It leads the way for some clever gags like a “touch pool” and incredible visuals like a massive tank full of different fish.

finding-dory-trailer-whale-sharkFans of the first movie will be happy to hear Dory is great as ever. Ellen’s innocent yet playful personality leads to some funny moments, but even some heartfelt ones. As we progress on the search for Dory’s parents, the story allows this character to be explored more in different ways. Certain moments from “Finding Nemo” are called back, but feel expanded on (the line “I remember it…because when I look at you, I can feel it. And I look at you, I’m home” has more deeper meaning than before.) We get treated to key flashbacks that act like visual clues to the viewer before the final revelation comes into play. Both act as a prequel that is satisfying and useful to expand into Dory’s origin.

Again, much of the movie teeters on feeling recycled but instead does it in a fresh manner. Instead of the “Tank Gang,” we get a couple of Marine animals waiting to be set back into the ocean or enjoy life. Highlights include a beluga whale (Ty Burrell) who self-doubts himself, a whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) who was a childhood friend and even a couple of sea-lions that are territorial like the pelicans and seagulls from the first movie. Each has their own quirk and personality that helps them stand out and become much useful later on.

gallery_findingdory_7_c7217635Perhaps the soul character who will be talk of the town is Ed O’Neill as Hank, a grouchy octopus that is interested in breaking out to another aquarium for selfish comfort than return to the ocean. The minute this suction cup inhabited, CGI creation first appeared, it had me in stitches. Hank is, without a doubt, one of Pixar’s best characters since Sadness or Bing Bong from “Inside Out.” Not only do I love the “Grinch”-like personality, but just the way it moves sly and quick around the aquarium. It serves as a bigger challenge for the workers as Hank uses tons of camouflage methods in order to blend in. Truly the animators had a lot of fun and creativity behind the ways Hank could hide or change color. The movement alone is almost reminiscent of a fast paced Chuck Jones creation, but knows when to slow down for a bit.

For most of the summer, there hasn’t been a single movie I’ve seen that makes me really say “this is what a summer movie should be.” “Finding Dory” comes close to being this level if it weren’t for a few things. I wish the “rehashed” bits in the first third were better done and there is one small dark turn that feels almost unnecessary. Though this “small dark turn” only lasts for a few before turning into an upbeat moment, it still has decent build up. I do admire the twists and obstacles that get thrown out as we start to wonder just how Dory will be able to achieve that happy ending.

Even more, “Dory” is probably the most unique in the Pixar batch for being a movie less about discovering family and more on learning to live with disability. We met these characters who have personal problems and some with internal flaws that can’t be dealt with easily. As Dory struggles to overcome her memory problems, we want to see her succeed instead of laughing at her pity. Its rare for a movie to help coupe with those who have problems like this to tell them its ok to live with these things. And honestly, I’m good with that.


However, parents be warned. Some parts of “Finding Dory” might be a tad intense for younger viewers. From a thrilling squid chase to (again) a certain dark moment near the end, this has material that might upset some kids. While its nothing traumatizing or brutal (like say “Good Dinosaur”), it more feels like the same level of intensity as the first movie. If your kids saw “Finding Nemo” and was ok with the peril, they should be fine then. On the bright side, we do get a cute short call “Piper” that might be able to calm some sensitive viewers down. In connecting with the main theme of the movie, we get treated to a tiny bird who is trying to overcome a big obstacle. In a nutshell, the animation was stylish yet fluffed enough to not deter from the Pixar style. And when a heartwarming short and a good movie go hand in hand, you know your ticket price was worth it in the end.

“Inside Out” bright, funny and emotional gem

Inside-Out-Meet-your-emotions-2To say “Pixar is back” is  a complete understatement. The studio we know never left us and kept working on projects. Many people praise “Inside Out” as the animation studio’s comeback hit is due to the previous films we had like “Cars 2,” “Brave” and “Monsters University.” And even then as a new film from them comes out, we praise it like they raised the bar so high that it can’t be topped. Yet another movie from them comes along to provide the same reaction. I stopped my hype at “Up” knowing that I would never experience an animated movie with so much dramatic weight. Their latest entry comes close but I would have to say seeing its so recent, its probably second best.

The story centers on the mind of an eleven-year old girl named Riley as we peak inside her brain and see how it runs. Basically her emotions drive about like the Enterprise as each different feeling takes control how Riley feels. As she interacts with the world around her, her sentient emotions have a hard time knowing when its the right time to use the controls. With Joy (Amy Poehler) at the helm, she makes sure that everything in Riley’s head is in control despite the other emotions striving for a turn.

Now, this is not a completely original idea but this movie is pure proof you can take the old and bring new life. Directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen are able to bring a fresh new view of what goes on inside your mind and I appreciated every minute of its creativity. I liked how the memories are used as a fuel source for the world that is created, when the other emotions take a hand in making their choices in Riley’s lifestyle and other bits that feel like a psychology class for kids. This is a good thing and a bad thing as terms like “subconscious” and “long-term memory” get tossed around to the point if we wonder how kids will understand it. The setting alone is visually bright and vibrant to explain it that it doesn’t worry me too much.

However, one emotion gets in the way as Sadness (The Office‘s Phyllis Smith) makes a major flub that has herself and Joy outside the command center of Riley’s brain and into the deep part of her mind. It is here things really pick up as we see clever elements that explain how a person’s brain works but not to the point of sugar coating it. We witness brain nerves sucking up old memories that don’t mean anything like piano lessons or phone numbers, a studio that creates dreams at night and even a place where Riley’s own imagination exists but keeps being reformed. As we dig into Riley’s brain (literally), we start to understand what kind of person she is and start to connect with her. Elements like fear of clowns or playing hockey play up as important parts of her mind that show her character than rather explain it verbally. Rarely has a setting describe the main character than just have us study one.

Unfortunately, things are not going well back at HQ as the other emotions (Fear, Anger and Disgust) try to take control of Riley but find that without Joy or Sadness, the little girl they were looking after since she was a toddler is out of control. It is often said that rules set up in a movie were meant to be broken and when I saw Riley’s mind fall apart, I relished in joy over the twist and turns “Inside Out” provides us. Some that are so heartbreaking that I can’t even fathom to explain like the lost imaginary friend Bing Bong which is one of many elements that make this movie a must see.

The animation design has a 1960s feel when we enter in Riley’s brain as it contrasts with the realistic colors and designs of the world outside. I found those choices interesting as much as the abstract look of the emotions as akin to the Muppets with big wide ping-pong eyeballs and fluffy nerves that make it less human but still able to connect. Speaking of Muppets, its odd to mention that two previous Muppeteers make a cameo that add to the odd yet out of control nature of “Inside Out.” When something goes wrong in Riley’s head, we fear the worst as parts of her mind crumble into an abyss of forgotten memories as her personality changes.

To say “Inside Out” is the best Pixar movie is jumping the gun too much. I already said “Up” will be for personal reasons but I would have to say this movie is my second favorite. With few flaws to distract, we enjoy the colorful yet strange world of a child’s mind that later gets duplicated in a great joke midway with Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan as Riley’s parents. As a argument at dinner seems dramatic on the outside, the comedy is played up when we look into the parent’s minds and see how they calculate their next “move.”

The moral at the end is a big one that often doesn’t get discussed. That every negative element has a reason to exist. Like how Lewis Black’s Anger tempted to say a swear word, we know there is a reason for bad things even when they are unexpected. “Inside Out” is cleverly written, fun and above all tear-jerking. It brought about a rare moment when I began to appreciate the existence of my sadness than anything else. Perhaps that is just what the magic of Pixar really is to remind adult viewers its ok to cry in a family movie.


Rental Corner: “South Park” Vulgar, Outdated and Hilarious

"Uh-Oh" indeed...

“Uh-Oh” indeed…

Upon its debut episode, “South Park” has been hailed and continues to be for its topical episodes and humor that makes “The Simpsons” look like Disney. I myself have seen the show and aside from its twisted humor, I do admire how it makes a stand against issues the question of censorship, commenting on events like 9/11 or the Zimmerman trail and even satirizing our daily lives right down to having the N.S.A. use Santa Claus for their privacy checks. At this point, a big-screen adaption would be perfect but the problem is that it happened before and in my opinion too early in the success of the show.

“South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” lives up to its title seeing the animation is cheap but rendered and created on a grander scale, it is 40 – 50 minutes longer than a normal episode and has jokes that wouldn’t dare be seen on Comedy Central. The hype for this movie was big back in 1999 and even today many regard it as one of the greatest animated movies of all time. I hate to step on some toes but I feel different about this one. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good movie but I wouldn’t go that far to say its a masterpiece.

Stan and his friends sneak into a movie starting their favorite Canadian comedians Terrance and Philip but find there is a reason to the R-rating as the film is full of swears and obscenities. The mothers find out and sure enough start to campaign against, not just the movie, but eventually the film’s stars to the point war is waged on Canada. To think one small situation can lead to a huge battle as the freedom of speech is put to the test as just how much material should we expose not just to children but even allow all together.

The movie reflects the harsh nature of the show a lot while making subtle points in our culture. One example is a rally against Canada with one of the mothers Shelia Broflovski talking about how they should protect kids and yet their own sons are in front of them asking to listen to what they have to say about what is going on. Scenes like that are fine as they get the point across to just how extreme we can be at shielding our children from mature material. But then the message starts to wear its welcome out as they continuously address it again and again. Even right up to one of the mothers addressing how the MPAA allows graphic violence but yet has a bone to pick with salty, raunchy dialogue. We get it. The movie is dominate with its political message that it gets tiresome to the point we want to end it sooner.

Points are made further in the guise of subplots that push things further but fit for the sake of the characters. Cartman gets a V-Chip implanted in his brain that causes him to get a shock from his swearing while Kyle tries to muster the courage to tell his mother that what she is doing is more harm than she thinks. It cleverly reflects the neglect parents have in listening to what their kids feel and even the controversy that surrounded the show itself. Almost in a way, this is the creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker expressing their thoughts on the parental backlash the show got along with the others before it like Beavis and Butt-Head and The Simpsons.

While the first half is well paced and knows what to do, the entire second portion gets lost in its political satire and constant snowballing as a friend of the group named Kenny goes to Hell after attempting a dangerous stunt and meets Satan who turns out to be not as horrible as he’s supposed to be made. The closeted good guy demon wishes to live on Earth while dealing with a sex-crazed Saddam Hussein who has more interest in world conquest than a mutual relationship with the ruler of Hell. This is an interesting concept but with a film that already clocks in at 82 minutes, where is the space for this? I guess it adds on to prejudice and don’t judge something but its looks but its way too late in the game as the little mountain town wages war with Canada and plans to execute the fart-loving Canadians they capture.

I don’t mind a movie that snowballs into chaos but it starts to fall apart midway when (again) it hammers in the messages and themes its presenting. I guess that is part of the point seeing its the way the series worked but better in a 23 minute episode because its short and quick to the point. Had there been an extra 10 to 15 minutes, there would be room to expand on things like the Satan subplot and even more curious is Shelia’s hate with Canada that is obviously shown but feels ambiguous at the same time. A moment during the climax where the parents “quit” the group to actually save their kids, Shelia looks on at the violent battle they have created with no emotional effect. Why is that? We never get answer or anything is made clear of it.

Outside of the offensive humor that is a staple of the show, “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” is 15 years old and it shows. Most of the political commentary about how far we must push censorship holds up but most of it feels outdated. We’ve come so far from planting chips in televisions to Christian Watchdog groups that feels more like a look back at this and laugh than a message delivery. Even the look of the movie is a tad crude when you consider how the look of the show is today with how so much Flash animation has come a long way from. I feel newcomers will question why some characters get more screen time than others while being lost at the mention of pop culture references like Bryan Addams and a song dedicated to a famed ice skater.

I forgot to mention. The whole movie is a parody of the Disney formula as well right down to having it be a movie musical. Transitioning into the goods of “Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” even if you don’t like the gross-out jokes then you must admit the songs are great. From the innocent opener “Mountain Town” to the Oscar-nominated “Blame Canada,” these songs satire the archetype of how most animated movies of the 1990’s were for kids and had songs. Ironic how the songs feel straight out of an Alan Menken songbook and are in a mature movie. And when the jokes are solid, they can be really solid. Its nice to see a comedy that is more character driven and less on how we can ante up others like The Hangover.

But aside from that, the biggest problem I have with “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” is that it came out way too early in the show’s success. Sure shows like Twin Peaks got a movie after its short-lived run but “South Park has been on the air for more than 17 seasons and its big time for a movie came out too soon in my opinion. This was also when Trey and Matt were toying with ideas and the style of the humor and it shows. Even the creators have gone on to say that if the first 40+ episodes went missing, they wouldn’t care because of how rough they are. And even this movie reflects it considering its focus is on how cruder and gross can we make these jokes to be and less on how it should affect the characters. I feel the show got better and funnier in later seasons but the movie doesn’t feel it has aged for those reasons. But seeing it as a film on its own without thinking of it being an adaption, its still good in my books.