There are certain franchises that deserve the need to hang their cape and maintain their golden years. I hate to admit it, but I feel Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” is one of them. I recalled fond memories of seeing the first one “Curse of the Black Peal” at my local drive-in theater and enjoying the shear spectacle. As expected, two sequels followed to make a trilogy that were in my opinion mixed but still had some fun. Then “On Stranger Tides” arrived and the wear started to show. Too many complex story-lines, too many convoluted rules and not enough momentum to stay afloat. Now we arrive at the fifth outing, “Dead Man Tell No Tales,” and I feel there’s nothing left to explore here.
Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack Sparrow but there is nothing new Depp brings here. In previous entries, the rum boozed Captain always knew he had an extra trick up his sleeve when it came to escape or battle. Here, we have seen these character’s actions so much that we are aware of the trademarks. Even worse, Depp feels tired in the role as he walks through like he’s sleepwalking his part. The only time he feels interested is when his character is not talking and partaking in action scenes considering the huge amount of stunt work.
Tossed into the mix are two new characters Henry (Brenton Thwaites) and Carina (Kaya Scodelario) who are trying to be the two new leads of the franchise. Henry is set up as the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), who we last left cursed to the Flying Dutchman, and is trying to seek a way to break his dad’s curse. It is the basic father and son story but it doesn’t feel developed. On Carina’s angle, she has an interesting concept but it gets easily tiresome. Carina is constantly deemed a witch by her knowledge of the stars which starts as an amusing joke, but gets old by its constant use and one huge plot hole. If everyone deems her a witch, then how come this government is secretly keeping a witch alive for their personal use. If they are using one for their own service, why not use Carina’s methods for their own good instead of trying to execute her.
In the middle of all this, a dead captain named Salazar (Javier Bardem) is out for blood as he tries to hunt Jack Sparrow down for something the booze-hound savvy did to him years ago. To Javier’s credit, he really chews the scenery and acts like he’s having a good time. I’m close to saying he’s the only reason to see this entry for how well-acted and oddly designed him and his ghostly crew are which feel like remnants of a strange Salvador Dali painting. I like the idea his body moves around like its still floating in water seeing it was the last thing that happened to him when he died. But doesn’t this sound familiar? A supernatural entity that is out for revenge against Sparrow over something he did. Haven’t we been here before?
In fact, the whole movie banks more on the nostalgia of the others and does little to reinvent. Once in a while there is a neat action scene, but it doesn’t last too long to make its impact. Jack finds himself going against a Guillotine blade while being swung around, zombie sharks menace our heroes and old friends return. But there’s much to care about when none of your characters are anchored to a ticking clock or any form of leverage. Certain people could just wonder about without any risk and there still wouldn’t be a sense of care. Even the appearance of old faces like Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) really try to have some fun, but feel this is a tired and repeated premise.
The only reason “Dead Men Tell No Tales” exist is just to see if there’s any life in the franchise along with another reason. I believe after how many fans reacted to the third on “At World’s End,” the people behind this one are trying to make up for those mistakes of a tragic love story and how drawn-out it was. Maybe if this came out 5 years ago, it would have been passable. As it stands, its a swift two hours of swashbuckling that really feels like a fish out of water when your compare it to last week’s Wonder Woman and all the other “better” summer blockbusters that came before it.
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.
There were many things I questioned when watching the 2016 update of “Pete’s Dragon.” I was well aware director David Lowery wanted this take to be far removed from the 1977 musical. Honestly, I don’t blame him. I have a huge soft spot for the original, but will admit it does have flaws. The 1977 version is bloated and too goofy in certain spots. But perhaps, there is where the entertaining aspect came from. As I tried to accept the new version, I found myself at least appreciating it tried, but found myself hard to be engaged with it. Seeing it did get heavy praise from critics, is there something they missed or is there something wrong with me?
The plot for this new version takes the spine of the original and adds more meat to it. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is now a feral child that lost his family and seeks refuge with the green dragon. I give credit due to Fegley’s acting. His performance is going for a wild child take and it does work. But there was something problematic about it to me. For a kid that is lost in the woods for six years and goes “Tarzan,” chances are his vocabulary will either be limited or his speech will be underdeveloped. Having taken up psychology in college, I read up on cases where kids would be treated and lived like animals to the point they act like primitive; most notable is Victor of Aveyron. For if a child like Pete can’t understand what a balloon is or even the purpose of a sandwich, then why have him speak at all?
The reason for his survival is under the wing of a giant dragon he names Elliot. Much like the original, Elliot is big, green and the ability to turn invisible. What’s different this time around is that he’s all CGI and covered in fur. I guess someone had Falkor from NeverEnding Story in mind when designing him, but it goes against the idea of Elliot’s original design. Not only did Don Bluth animate the 1977 version, but he was also modeled after a Chinese dragon in respect for how good they are. There’s a sense of innocence and mischievous personality that feels lost in the new take. Despite the good efforts of WETA Digital, this new Elliot doesn’t have much personality and takes on the feel of a big dog. Again, I know the intent was to make this akin to being cute, but this Elliot was anything but interesting as the story expects us to know his relationship with Pete and not see it develop. I think it would have been wiser to see their relationship much like how Tarzan grew with the apes in 1984’s “Greystoke” instead of just expecting us to accept it.
The new incarnation is also treated to an array of new elements that are either there to distinguish itself or try and improve things. Gone is the fishing town Passamaquoddy, and we get an unnamed town with a logging industry. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the character of the lighthouse keeper with a forest ranger that takes Pete in and tries to understand his survival. Robert Redford is underused as a man who claims to have seen the same dragon in comparison to the overzealous town drunk Mickey Rooney played. A scheming medicine doctor is replaced with a hunter (Karl Urban) that seeks to capture the dragon. And the list goes on.
As I watched this new version, I kept wondering just how these different elements work or even pay off in this version. Some of it does have a sense of good set up like a subtle environmental message which disappears once it gets introduced. Even character motives are lost in the group showing perhaps this version should have been thought out more. Once Urban’s character captures the dragon, he claims to have big plans when he honestly just spitballs a few ideas and claims to own the dragon. There is no real motive outside of just existing for the sake of being a conflict here. I even hoped there would be more purpose to things added in like the logging company playing a part or even Redford’s character. But most of is minimally used or gets abandoned upon first sight.
In a nutshell, “Pete’s Dragon” tries to be more like the typical fantasy family film without a drop of edge, but falls into an unfortunate trap. Instead of giving characters with interesting motives and despite doing different things, it falls into the category of boy or family gets a unique creature and does something with it. I can’t tell you how many variations I have seen of this story line ranging from “Harry and the Hendersons” to “*batteries not included” to even “D.A.R.Y.L.” It’s hard to tell if director Lowery’s intentions were to pay homage to these kind of movies, but I can say what sets itself apart from those is a lack of darkness. “Pete’s Dragon” plays itself so safe, that you can very much predict what will happen before the end credits roll. And even then, the samples I just mentioned are FAR more creditable than this one.
This one is certainly harder to recommend simply because it feels more like an outline for a “Pete’s Dragon” reboot and less like an actual fleshed out story. I found myself nearly nodding off at times due to the slow pace and had a hard time trying to keep focus for what was meant to be a simple story. I guess kids might be ok with this movie. And yet after the theatrical experience I had, my thoughts are starting to question that. Midway through the movie, a family actually walked out of the theater as wrapped in their arms was a sleeping kid. Even near the trash cans, a little girl was more fascinated with the garbage instead of the “wonder” on the screen. And she was gone right before the end credits even began. I argue that little kids might be bored or even grow tiresome about midway after how slow and plodding things are. If I walked out on this movie, I wouldn’t have regretted it. But my honest regret about this new “Pete’s Dragon” was not walking out on it.
Is there really a reason for this sequel to exist? The executives at Disney feel so considering the $1 billion Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” grossed back in 2010. Truly these are different times when one judges success by the box office numbers and not public criticism. That was the old Disney way considering if it wasn’t for the polarizing reaction to “The Sword in the Stone,” we wouldn’t have gotten Walt Disney trying to make “his” version of “The Jungle Book.” On the other hand, Lewis Carol did write two books on Alice’s adventures in the strange Wonderland, so I guess a sequel is needed. However, what we got was an entry that strays farther from the source despite its good intentions to better than the first one.
Mia Wasikowska returns as the curious Alice Kingsleigh who returns from her trip to China, as depicted in an opening which appears like a scene taken from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Not much to say about her character as takes on a spunky attitude and sees life as an adventure. However, her family is in debt as the only means to save her mother’s home is to sell off her ship to the snooty suitor from the first movie (Leo Bill reprising his role) in a possible move of revenge on his part.
Before a deal can be struck, Alice returns to the strange world of Wonder-oh, I’m sorry- UNderland where things are brighter and more colorful compared to the dreary and murkiness of the first film. Director James Bobin (The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted) brings a new variation of the topsy turvy world that appears more whimsical and less grim. Almost every scene has a bright blue sky and only the intense moments have darker shades of black and navy blue. While some practical sets are used, most of the effects are CGI and sadly appear more cartoony and less lifelike. Sometimes, I feel actors get lost on a green screen as opposed to making us believe something is right in front of us. Most notable is Alice’s first descend into the mirror as she takes moving chess pieces and a living tiger skin rug as a natural occurrence.
Not everyone is happy as The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is falling into a deep depression when he feels unsure if his family is alive or dead. While Depp’s performance is not heavily used like the previous movie, there’s something strange about this take her. While the Hatter in Tim’s take was wild and manic, I found myself wondering why Depp would change that here. Instead this Mad Hatter seems confused most of the time and talks in a soft lisp that feels unintentionally comedic. It’s like Jimmy Stewart trying to do an impersonation of a cartoon character.
With her best friend under sorrow, Alice decides to help out by paying a visit to Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) with plans to steal a device that can travel though the past. She believes that she can find a way to save the Hatter’s family so he won’t be under so much guilt. This is an element that was obviously not in the original book as the story of “Looking Glass” was an allegory for chess. Personally, I found the book more unique taking Alice’s journey and putting it on pair with a parlor game. It made for something unique to look into how an innocent girl’s quest to be queen can be seen this way. Unfortunately, that is no the case here. Any material from Carol’s book is tossed out to make way for something far removed from the source as Alice goes from one time period to the next as her venture serves as an excuse to see the origins of characters like the Cheshire Cat or the Queens. Even stranger is the time machine that looks exactly like it was a prop modeled after the craft in George Pal’s 1960s “Time Machine” making it weirder to see sci-fi cross with fantasy nonsense. On the other hand, a set of clock minions can mutate into giant Transformer robots, so why complain?
When “Looking Glass” is not trying to be a prequel, it revives its previous villain, The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) with a plan to steal the time machine Alice took in order to change her sister’s past. Without giving too much, her plan only provides as an excuse for Carter to just walk about, yell obnoxiously and act like a brat as opposed to being a threat like that last film. And when you do find out what her sister, The White Queen, did to make her life so miserable, it makes one to wonder why she didn’t just apologize about it in the first place to avoid such a chaotic mess?
Honestly, I didn’t care much for this sequel and in-between the six years it took to get this into production, I would have been find without it. Characters like the March Hare, the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum get side-linded with minimal lines compared to how prominent they were before. Most of the cast feels like they showed up for a paycheck considering the three lines spoken by the late Alan Rickman as the Caterpiller show how disrespectful they were to the source. Why even have these characters return when they don’t even make an impact? You could have just cut them or replaced them with other characters and the movie wouldn’t change at all. Even some give off hammy and bizarre performances like Anne Hathaway who is reduced to waving her hands like ‘The Wizard of Oz’s” Glinda the Good while talking exposition in an air-headed manner.
The only redeeming factor, surprisingly, is Sacha Baron Cohen as the new character Time, who oddly gets played up like a villain when he doesn’t even intend to be mean that way. True, he does monitor those who kick the bucket and lives in a dark castle, but Cohen’s performance saves this character from being a one-note creation. Time comes off as an eccentric creature that is so obsessed with timelines that even he works like a clock literally. There’s a lot of effort and creativity going into this one character which feels like a mix between a Flash Gordon villain and a Rolex watch.And while I’m not fan of Cohen’s work, I admit when he plays a side-character, there is when I feel most comfortable. Its almost like his wild energy is restrained as he knows exactly what to do with the material he gets, even if its minimal.
As for the rest of “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” there’s not much that can be said. Its a harmless sequel that tries too hard to be expansive, but doesn’t have much necessity value. Plotlines go left and right while characters either chase after each other or try to find a working motive. I also have to question there are odd times when it does have a small dose of darkness that barley goes anywhere. About midway, Alice transports into the real world to find herself trapped in a Victorian asylum without proper transition. A character explains how she ended up there as opposed to showing how she was taken. Something tells me there are missing scenes here. But if the movie is not interesting in clearing this up, than so what? Why should I care for the near death of the Mad Hatter when Alice is busy trying to mend things with the Queens, the Hatter’s family and trying to avoid destroying the fabric of time when she already has done so much damage? For a movie that crams so much and does so little to invest me into what’s happening, I tend to wonder why a raven is like a writing desk more often than the plot holes in this movie. Not the worst, but better recommended as a rental.
The expectations for Jon Favreau’s live-action take of “The Jungle Book” were relatively low. Within the past weeks, I found myself researching and watching as many adaptations under the sun ranging from the 1942 classic with Sabu to Disney’s attempts with the famed 1967 animated classic along with its subsequent live-action take courtesy of Stephen Sommers. At this time, I’m welcome to variety. If a play we know can be re-performed many times with different actors, why not a movie? That’s because there is only one version of that certain take we either grow up on or enjoy. And after seeing the Jungle Book be formed into things like a “Ten Commandments”-style sweeping epic to an Indiana Jones/Tarzan adventure, I’m actually more thankful to see another version take center stage.
Let me get the obvious out of the way. I expected there to be digital effects, but surprised to see how much care was taken to make an actual environment out of it. Truly we are in the day when we can digitally craft a rain-forest from a green screen set. And sadly, it looks convincing. All the while, I felt like I was looking at a full-living and breathing jungle. From watering holes to ancient ruins, it has become apparent that the will to make authentic sets out of a computer and studio space has improved greater than James Cameron’s “Avatar”.
The upgrades to the characters are a nice welcome. We get more of Mogawii’s wolf family and see how much the pack means to them. There’s even a bigger motive behind why Shere Khan (voiced menacingly by Idris Elba) wants to kill the man-cub other than seeing him as a midnight snack. The reason for this tiger’s means of revenge is simple but does hold weight. It almost reminded me of when Don Ciccio wanted to go after little Vito in “Godfather Part II.” When the threat is young, the villain wants to ax him off when he has the right chance.
The source of the material being used is what nearly bugs me. What we get is a hybrid of things ranging from the 1967 animated film being the source. However, they were kind enough to add more material from the Kipling novel. Instead of a weightless adventure, we are treated to a poetic coming of age story while looking at the light and dark views of life. Baloo (voiced hilariously by Bill Murray) envisions a carefree lifestyle while others seek to take control and order like Shere Khan or King Louie. The plot element of “man’s red flower” is given a bigger character here. Instead of a random deus ex machina as in the 1967 version, this version gives more breathing room to see how dangerous this thing can be.
But, wait you cry! What about the story and performances? Weren’t those the most important thing? Well, notice how I tossed around “1967 version” and “some of Kipling’s text” previously. The plot is basically from the original animated tale with Bagheera trying to convince the little man-cub to return to the village. But instead of neglect, it seems the journey keeps getting interrupted by creatures that want to devour Mogawii or use them for their own measures. I actually think this improves over the other take where the two-dimensional Mogawii from the cartoon was more stubborn and keeps wanting to stay. There is a bigger threat at play in this version as the more Mogwaii stays, the more dangerous things become.
Speaking of which, Neel Sethi is a surprisingly good choice for the little man-cub. Not only is he in-tune with nature, but also innovative. There are times when he uses the means of the jungle for simple tasks almost like a mini-MacGyver. Its a welcome character trait that shows he is clever and intelligent. When it comes to obtaining something like a honey comb, we see how the wheels turn in his head while gathering tools from the world around him. It’s almost like Mogawii sees the jungle as his own resource and not of destruction.
The other choices in casting is good too. Bill Murray gives a memorable performance as everyone’s favorite jungle bum, Ben Kinglsey presents a powerful voice to the wise panther, Scarlett Johansson is bone-chilling as Kaa and Idris Elba blew me away owning the role of Shere Khan. The only performance I’m a little iffy on is Christopher Walken as King Louie, an extinct ape that acts like he runs a mafia business. Walken does give a fun performance but it just feels weird seeing his likeness on a monkey.
I guess the final thing to ask is did we really need this version in the first place? Well, at times I did get a vibe where it was trying to pay homage to the 1967 animated classic as the opening logo felt designed much like that version and the movie does end with a book-ending shot (literally) of the same book from the animated version. One can argue it could be a remake of the Disney classic, but there were times when I felt like the improvements did work better than the original. And don’t worry, its still there. As long as you have a copy of the old version on DVD or VHS, it won’t fade away. I can’t say this was a necessary version that demanded to be done. However, I’m surprised to say it was a great improvement.
It can be nice to have another variation of a famed classic as long as it gets done right. In the case of Jon Faveau’s version, it’s a welcome entry. Though, I will admit some things do get glanced over like Kaa’s appearance and some character relationships. But for something that has the charm of the 1967 classic and the beautiful cinematography of the 1942 version, this is one jungle I will visit just as much as the original. On a side note, mothers be warned. Some scenes might be too intense for younger viewers considering this is a much darker take as some animals get killed while others come out of battle with minor injury. I’d say kids 5 and up might be fine but anyone younger are better off with the Disney cartoon. At least when they are older, they will be able to accept the darker version a little better. Hell, it worked for me with the Stephen Sommers version.
It has been a decade since “Revenge of the Sith” and my thoughts were simple. Six films were all that was needed in the Star Wars canon. There was no way they could make a new set of films or even a new one period. The cast was too old and I didn’t feel there was anything else to explore in the franchise. Sure there were tons of worlds but considering the fan fiction and “Expanded Universe,” I didn’t think there was a possible way to make a new movie at the time. And when Disney bought the rights from creator George Lucas, I still didn’t think it was possible. Well one way or another, they did it. They were able to make a seventh entry in hopes of making a new trilogy from what I hear.
I went in, had my “Dark Crystal” t-shirt on (lost my Star Wars shirt. still fitting seeing 33 years ago that movie came out on the 17th of December), treated some friends of mine and watched the movie. My reaction will be quite different from what many will expect. But let me say off the cuff that this is a Star Wars movie. There are elements and things that I can look at and say this is something I can picture in the Star Wars universe. The planets, alien beings and spaceships are Star Wars elements. But as far as the rest of the movie goes, it makes for a good entry. Not a great entry along the lines of “Empire Strikes Back,” but at least respectfully better than the prequel trilogy.
Without ruining too much, “The Force Awakens” has plenty of interesting elements and story ideas. I dig the idea of a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) questioning his place in the universe. Along the ranks of the Iron Giant and Peace from “Wizards,” his position as a weapon is seen as an afterthought as he seeks for redemption. I felt the character and the actor were one seeing how much subtly they show in his wish to change. This is not a basic cliche but a full developed character. Not once in the saga have we questioned the aspect of a mindless solider’s ability to have a personality and questioning morality. Here, we do and it does feel philosophical in a sense. Not in a “beating over the head message” but more of a character motive which is very fitting here. To me, this was “THX-1138” but performed better.
Of course, things get into a tangle with a desert scavenger (Daisy Ridley) who is also searching for purpose as well. Again, hard to talk about the character without giving too much but here are the basics. This is a cool heron. When she is captured, she doesn’t sit and wait for someone to rescue her. This is the kind of character that will seek a way to escape no matter what it takes. Of course, this does contradict it a bit seeing she thinks certain parents who abandoned her as a kid will return. On the plus, its nice to see a female hero that can fight, use logic and know how to run a “bucket of bolts.”
“Force Awakens” I’m sure will be the talk of the town with old fans seeing some familiar faces appear. Confirming just by the trailer, yes we get Han Solo and his sidekick Chewbacca. I admit, seeing Harrison Ford still doing stunts at the age of 73 was incredible. It shows he still knows hows to be an action man even long after the originals. Some get cameos, some get a small importance to the story while others appear just to please the fans. Its nice to see familiar faces and the original actors but part of me wishes they did a lot more. Or didn’t use some for a sequel bait. Oh, well get to that later….in non-spoiler fashion.
However, not all of the new adventures works. At least for me. The story-line I felt took one too many familiar beats from the original trilogy. And I understand what its trying to do. Certain elements are trying to please the mass of die hard nostalgia fans. Again, I can’t talk about them without spoiling it. But let’s say unlike Terminator Genysis, they at least take old stuff and try to do new things instead of tossing them at the screen and seeing if it sticks. A good example is the aspect of the villain. Yeah, they try to do this thing with Vader by giving him a mask and family issues. Its no Vader but there is this nice menace that reminds us of the power that was once there.
And speaking of which, the new baddies were get are not that interesting. Instead of the Empire, we get the First Order. Yeah, an obvious take and attack on Nazism even right down to the flags and its general making dictations of conquest as an army of stormtroopers observe. Yeah, you can argue that was something with the original trilogy but here, it feels a tad more obvious even right down to the banner design. Even the new set of villains are sort of forgettable. With more focus on our heroes, the basic gist we get from these new evildoers is they are evil and want to take over the galaxy.
Even Kylo Ren is pitted as the next Vader and to be honest, he does has some intimidation. You can feel this fear and anger flow from him but only when he had the mask on. Though, there are times when he did act like he was having a childish fit when he thrashed his light-saber at computer screens after hearing bad news. And without giving too much away, when his true face is revealed, most of that menace dimmed. It appeared more like a brooding version of the secret love child between Benedict Cumberbatch and Josh Groban. And the ever so hyped Captain Phasma felt very useless to me. Aside from one moment near the end, this metallic baddie never did anything that stood out to me. The only one who stood out was Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, a tough as nails general whose so determined to conquer even to the point you see his eyes bug out of his head when he’s screaming speeches.
Now, I understand this is a new entry in a trilogy Disney is crafting but when making a new film, it would be nice to at least tie up some loose ends. Again, without spoiling too much, there are open questions left here and there which I feel give too much sequel bait. Call it a nitpick, but seeing we are being introduced to these characters for the first time, I feel it would have been nice to at least give a sense of closure without being too broad. I understand there are character arcs that need to be explored but even in the first Star Wars (“A New Hope”), it ended on a note that felt satisfying as opposed to saying “there will be another” in a blunt manner. A better example are the new Planet of the Apes movies which do open the door for a sequel but not in a demanding way. It tells us the story is concluded and there is room for another as opposed to making obvious set ups. When something like that happens when it leaves too many questions floating around, it obviously says “there will be a sequel to answer those” and it really annoys me. Again, these are new characters and at least we should feel a sense of closure as opposed to a “To Be Continued” feeling by the end. Its a double edge sword but that’s how I felt.
Aside from the flaws, I can safely say this is a Star Wars movie. I can look at a certain scene from the movie and say on the fly, this is what a Star Wars movie looks like and acts like. The action scenes are enjoyable, the new monsters and aliens are unique to look at, the weapons are certainly Star Wars and the new worlds we see are a nice change of pace. I feel like its something “Star Trek: Generations” tried to do by merging the universe of the old with the new, but I feel its done a tad better here. Maybe if the villains where more threatening and the story took some new risks, it could have been this great sequel along the lines of “Empire Strikes Back.” But I feel its enjoyment is on the level of the first movie and “Return of the Jedi.” And thankfully its nowhere near the area of the prequels, but part of me feels there could have been more improvement in spots. On the upside, it was nice to see a new Star Wars movie on the big screen and makes it an easy recommendation. Just don’t go in with too much hype is what I say.
The bar has been raised so high for Pixar, its a wonder how they are able to make one story after another. I will still say the peak for the animation studio was Up. A movie that was able to present heavy themes of coming of age, dealing with loss and making the most of life for a simple idea. This summer, Inside Out nearly trumped that with a premise that has been done before but executed differently. The result was such an enjoyable affair that once again, I wondered just how far these animators and storytellers could go. However, for every good movie they make, there is one that isn’t full of the charm and wonder but at least you can see some form of effort. And this where I’m sad to say, The Good Dinosaur falls in the middle of this.
Once the end credits began to begin, I felt mixed and torn on this latest entry from the studio that showed what toys do alone and what monsters lurk behind our closet doors. One the one hand, this is a grand eye-candy visual of a film in terms of atmosphere. For a CGI movie, the water looks and moves like water, the trees sway like real trees and the ground these extinct creatures walk along is probably the most impressive I’ve seen from Pixar. However, I feel so much focus was spent on working on the scale textures and less on the story along with its concept.
The movie asks “What if the meteor didn’t kill the dinosaurs” as we see the giant space rock zoom past the Earth allowing the prehistoric beasts to evolve over time. What could have been a unique “Planet of the Apes” idea instead has the whole tone play out like a Western. Apatosaurus are seen farming, Tyrannosaurus runs a ranch with prehistoric longhorns and Velociraptors are cattle rustlers. These are interesting ideas for social class in this world but these three barley meet or play off each other outside of the last two mentioned. It seems the world of these creatures are more fixed on the reins of their environment as opposed to being one giant community as seen in Finding Nemo or A Bug’s Life. Perhaps it would have been better if somehow these three species played off each other more but the movie is more focused on finding a story as opposed to sticking with one.
A young Apatosaurus named Arlo is risked with trying to help his folks out while dealing with conquering his fears and making an impression on his siblings and parents. This is symbolized by a footprint placed on the rock wall of a silo as opposed to something that feels more earned like leadership or at least respect. If one were to predict the story already, a death in the family happens causing Arlo to be more traumatized and eventually gets swept down the river as he gets placed on a journey for home. In fact, the way he gets separated from his home happens so sporadically you could swear the movie is rushing itself.
Along the way, a human boy with a dog-like personality befriends him, named Spot by the worrisome protagonist, as the little caveman tries to help find his way home. Sad how this is the only strong element of the movie as we see how these two play off each other. The idea of a strong yet small cave dweller helping a dinosaur lends itself to some humorous moments and a couple of heartwarming ones too. Most notable is a scene when Arlo tries to communicate the idea of family to Spot with sticks and sand. Without giving too much away, it turned out to be one of the most well-executed scenes in the movie. However, it gets crushed by a twist near the end removing the heart touching feeling yet some of it remaining.
In a nutshell, there really isn’t too much to discuss seeing how paper thin the concept and story are executed. From what I heard, there were some production problems behind this one causing a major overhaul tossing out an entire cast and story. I do wonder what that other version would have been like in hindsight seeing it would have been fun to see John Lithgow as a dinosaur. The final result is really a Western with dinosaurs that has some unique ideas but doesn’t go any further. I feel bad as I can only imagine the amount of time those animators spent trying to perfect every rock and blade of grass but to match it to a movie that is barley sub-par. While I don’t feel this is the worst or even a bad movie, I am unfortunate to say this is an uneven one and from times surprisingly brutal for a Pixar film. Animals get swallowed in whole, some get nipped at the body, Arlo’s tripping over rocks come off as more painful than a minor injury and concepts of death seem to be tagged on as opposed to explored deeply as in Up (again, a much better Pixar movie). Which is why the real winner for the holiday season goes to The Peanuts Movie; a movie full of heart, deals with the subject of perseverance on a level kids can understand and a story that is easy to follow and simple. There are tons of great ideas in Good Dinosaur, especially a nice performance by Sam Elliot in a minor role, but if only these story elements and cliches were evolved into a better feature.
Also attached to the movie is a short called Sanjay’s Super Team, a short that explores Hindu religion in a way that is understandable to kids and adults. The story follows little Sanjay as he pictures the Indian gods and goddess as a group of superheroes. Surprisingly, a lot of matieral is covered in the span of 5 minutes from tradition to old vs. new as Sanjay’s father tries to get his son to understand the observance of the Hundu culture. How a short is able to present so much in just a short time as opposed to a full-length feature that goes nearly nowhere with its concept feels surprisingly to me. The idea of comparing ancient gods to how we view superheroes is a common theme as characters like Superman and Spider-Man are see as the modern “Greek gods.” And yet, I feel so much deeper ground is covered when we see Sanjay’s interpretation of these powerful beings and how well it pays off at the end. Here’s hoping this one gets the Oscar for Best Animated Short.
When dealing with themes of the future, movies have a two-sided coin to present. One says make it bright and hopeful like Hill Valley in Back to the Future Part II while the other says make it darker and grimm like Blade Runner. To present an optimistic view of the future while showing conflict is an even heavier attempt has a movie has to balance between showing the upside to a higher lifestyle while presenting there are conflicts like the society of wealthy vs. poverty in Metropolis. To make these elements into a thought provoking blockbuster is not a bad idea but it depends on how the mixture of these elements get handled. Or else one will end up with such a clunky and off-tone picture as Tomorrowland. As I am sad to say, one of the biggest domestic box-office flops of this year seeing so much effort and talent were thrown in yet little pays off or comes as entertaining.
The premise deals with a hidden utopia on Earth, how it is hidden remains unclear, with a promise of peace and harmony but comes off looking like a giant spa resort of gizmos and gadgets taken from The Jetsons and many other future films. Perhaps I should be more precise and bring up the fact this is based on Disney’s Epcot and Tomorrowland theme park attractions. Which is no surprise seeing certain elements like Space Mountain do appear as Easter Eggs here and there. But as expansive as the giant city is, we don’t spend much time in it. The main focus is the story and characters surrounded by this massive place which I wouldn’t have much of a problem if these elements were at the very least interesting.
Britt Robertson plays a tech-savvy teen that always believes in optimism but it nearly contradicts with her character by means of vandalism to a NASA launch pad being dismantled so her father can remain an engineer. I guess her actions account for something seeing she gets a magic pin that shows her this amazing city but only as a holographic illusion. Even more questioning is the ability of the pin as once one touches it, they see this great world but stuck in the real one as they lumber around like some kind of virtual reality helmet strapped on. Even in one scene, we see her move to the city in a corn field but also falling down the stairs when doing so in real life. If this pin makes an illusion, wouldn’t it be safer to confine it to one room as opposed to having said person meander in real life? What if one touches it and walks around in day time traffic? So much for the future of that poor soul.
Either way, this pin creates such curiosity, that she seeks out the origin of it. All traces lead to a cranky inventor named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who wishes to be left alone then return to the fabled city he was banned from. Apparently, he somehow manages to keep track of the world’s lifespan as an impending doom is set against the Earth. He thinks the young teen has the ability to save it as in much stories where the young hero or heroine is chosen to save the day thanks to her kindness.
In a sense, the film tonally tries to be something along the lines of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the good kid gets picked due to their ingenuity and despite hardships has a kind heart but I didn’t really get a sense of care for out characters. The performances are fine but just something about the writing feels off in narrative and character wise. The narrative flow gets distracted by Clooney’s flashing back as the structure of the movie is held by first person narrative as we cut back to the character Frank telling viewers what we are watching. An element cleary unneeded as the film can unfold without it.
Outside of Britt’s character having an open mind and Clooney being the man who lost hope, there wasn’t much else I found that really showed a care or motive to hang on to. Maybe its the jumbled narrative or how little we see of the city, but most of the plot feels very spotty that when one character decides to go on a search or move to the next story beat, there isn’t much risk or purpose behind it. She find a pin, goes to see the source, finds out the villains, saved by a sidekick/henchman type character, comes across a grizzled guy, go to futuristic place, find something is wrong and try to fix it. The story is so basic and paper thin that it shouldn’t feel this complex when its being told. And with not much connection to these story beats and directions it takes, why should we care as viewers?
The bigger problem comes in the second half when our heroes make it to Tomorrowland to find it in shambles. Apparently, a last minute conflict comes in the form of Hugh Laurie who plays a pessimistic Governor of the place who knows the secret link between Tomorrowland and the real world as well as why things are crumbling as they are. With the fear of an apocalypse on the way in people’s minds, it feels this is the direction things are heading into. So right off the fly, the message is a no-brainier. Be happy, keep being positive, work toward a bright future and don’t be negative. My problem is how heavy handed this message is and obvious they hammer it through the majority of the movie to the point it becomes more of the focus and less on the story.
To compare, The Peanuts Movie has a similar theme but not as obvious. As Charlie Brown tires to show he can do great things and fails, the more the viewer wants to see him succeed. The message of hope is more well-preserved here because that is not the focus. The focus is the characters and the story so later on, we can look back and remark the trails the protagonist had to endure as we compare them to our lives. Even themes of optimism and pessimism are explored better in Inside Out as we see how one can’t live without positive and negative things. They have to co-exist and co-operate. Tomorrowland takes these elements and instead cooks them into a good vs. evil manner at the last minute that has been done to death.
Without giving too much away, Laurie’s character reveals how people’s positive and negative thinking are essential to the world of Tomorrowland in a reveal so preachy that it undermines the entire message of the movie. With images of doom and gloom plaguing the real world, it has the future seeking to go in that direction unless convinced otherwise seems to be the logical solution. Instead, the final 20 minutes opts for a big action climax instead of a much smarter route like maybe a talk or a way to convince Hugh’s character that convincing people to be positive is a means to make a brighter future. That doesn’t happen. We get a feast of explosions, destruction and a villain’s downfall that is so cliche it makes my blood boil to see what could have been a nice story about building to a better tomorrow turn into a cliche blockbuster romp.
The screenplay was written by Damon Lindelof who credits include Lost and 2012’s Prometheus while Brad Bird co-writes. With this knowledge, it feels like two different movies are mixed in as the ideology of Brad Bird is clashing with the “whizz,” “bang,” and “pow” of an edgy sci-fi movie. Instead of taking a break for character development or perhaps even heart felt moments which are standard of Brad’s work, we find ourselves watching and counting out the story beats as hero goes from point A to B with little interest knowing what will happen next. Times that could have been used for exploring character relationships are traded up for big action set pieces and CGI wonder as a monument turns into rocket ship and people get obliterated by lasers held by evil androids. There is something very tonally off here between the future talk and the action.
And for those who think I’m being “negative” over Brad Bird, I like the guy. I do. I recall The Iron Giant when the metal monster is told how souls can’t die. Or how about the “Krusty Gets Busted” episode from The Simpsons when Bart is trying to convincing himself his hero is not a crook under shades of blue and Krusty merchandise. And need we not forget Mr. Incredible’s dilemma of trying to be a secret superhero and a family man. If Tomorrowland had more charm much like these small scenes that carry so much weight, perhaps I wouldn’t be so harsh. The city might have an interesting design, but under the retro rubble is a clunky and uneven story that crumbles and pods without pay off or impact. If you want a movie about the optimism and pessimism of the future play against itself, I recommend watching the Back to the Future trilogy more seeing themes of controlling one’s future and the negative benefits of a positive change are far better explored. Even movies like Explorers and The NeverEnding Story had a better handle with certain aspects like building to the unknown or trying to maintain hope. Fraggle Rock’s themes of universal peace was better explored without the aspect of violence being involved to solve a problem. Unfortunately, Tomorrowland didn’t do much for me. Aside from the performances being ok, it just came off as dull, preachy and just really a waste of good talent. I feel bad for saying this but the future of this movie looks rather grim as it stands at #4 at my worst of 2015 list.
With Halloween upon us (or was by the time I wrote this), I pondered just what was it that made Hocus Pocus so popular these days. It was a movie Disney made in 1993, released in the summer (weird choice) and while it did ok at the box office, the film never made a huge splash like in the $100 millions. But now in days, this movie is like a virus on the Halloween season. Hear me out, people at my retail job talk about the film and how it airs to the equivalency of popular water bubble conversations. It gets a huge respect and love at Witch’s Woods, my other Halloween job, with even getting played at one of the haunts. And when I went to look for a copy at my local video store, there was only one Blu-Ray of it left on the shelf. That’s how huge the respect this movie gets around this time of year. So rather than review it, just what about Hocus Pocus does everyone go rapid and joyful for?
Is it the story? Well, not really but granted it does have an interesting concept. A group of witches called the Sanderson Sisters (get it? Sounds like Anderson Sisters?) are put on trail for their crimes in old Salem. They plan to say young and youthful but sucking out the souls of little children to ensure they will live forever. After their hanging, 300 years later, a kid named Max blindly lights a magic candle in their abandoned home causing them to come back and bring chaos. A typical good vs. evil story mixed with some fish out of water elements.
As the witches try to make sense of the new world, being 1993 in the movie’s case, they find Halloween is nothing but a holiday now with trick-or-treaters and technology has been updated. Does this get used to the advantage of the movie? Not fully. There are a couple of fun scenes where they interact with televisions, try to mingle at a Halloween party complete with a song and ride around on mops and vacuum cleaners. But that’s sort of about it. In a sense, I can see this working. The idea of witches resurrected and trying to fit in with modern times but it feels underplayed most of the time.
The more important thing is how Max takes their magic spell book (which by Disney’s standards is nicely designed and very Evil Dead-lite) which has a certain recipe for their soul sucking potion. While the three bewitching sisters try to hunt them down, Max has to relay on his typical sister, a would be girlfriend and a talking cat who is really a teenager cursed to help stop them. So yeah, for a 90 minute movie there is a lot going on here. In fact, there is so much plot going on that one wonders how things don’t get too complex. I can’t say its too hard to follow seeing the fish out of water elements feel like a break from the story but again, its a basic good vs. evil ploy that has been used since Disney’s time.
If that’s the case, do the characters make the movie so well-known? Again, not exactly. The main characters are sort of your run of the mill tropes and cliches. You have the awkward teen that gets bullied, the girl that will become the love interest, the sibling that is between annoying yet has a good heart, the goofy parents, the townsfolk that are deaf to their warnings and the bullies that act like they are hip and cool when they are not. Its very much a big bag of cliches that we have seen before and are written like beings we would see on a TV movie. Which is ironic seeing this movie was originally going to be a Disney Channel Original until executives thought other-wise.
There’s also that talking cat named Binx who has an interesting back-story (voiced by James Marsden, human body performed by Sean Murray) and knows much of the Sandersons. But that’s sort of about it. There is also the question of times when he can talk and times he can’t. If Binx can speak English so well, what is he doing roaming about the old witch house? And if these kids are in trouble, wouldn’t it be more interesting to help convince others of what’s going on? If there was a deleted scene that explained that plot hole, I would be fine but there isn’t. He could have been a more helpful ally but just only resorts his duties to the main characters. We also get a zombie that tries to be the lackey of the Sandersons and has this funny running gag of loosing his head. But again, there’s not much to his character outside of comic relief. And that sort of sums up a good bulk of the main things. There’s not really that big or unique to them. While not bad concepts or ideas for that matter, they don’t feel fully developed.
Another thing I will address before I move on is that some people feel bugged by the whole “virgin” element. If you don’t know, the plot of the curse involves a virgin to set off these chain of events to happen. And Max just so happens to be that said “virgin” who is picked on and doesn’t fit in with the New England town. To be honest, I really wasn’t bugged this. If they flat-out bullied him because he didn’t have sex, then there would be some problems. But for the first half, most of that bullying is just toward him not fitting in and stuff like that. I can barley think of a scene where his character is made fun of just for his virginity aside from maybe one scene and the closing line. But its very underplayed.
So if this movie isn’t really that big of masterpiece then why does it keep drawing new viewers? One answer: The Sanderson Sisters. These are probably one of Disney’s best villains to date. They have have the most fun and the actress portraying them have a lot of scene-stealing moments that really add on. True they are masked by basic quirks like Bette Midler being the annoyed leader Winnie, Kathy Najimy as the child-hungry but very bumbling Mary and Sarah Jessica Parker as the sultry and boy-crazy Sarah. Every moment they are in the movie, you can tell these three are having the time of their life. I love the way their get their eyes widen and just how expressive they can be. Even when they are given little to work with or play off of, they really try.
In fact, I wonder what it would be like if Hocus Pocus was just about them? In a time when self-centered villain movies are being the talk of the town, I would actually like to see maybe a sequel or even a reboot that just focuses on them only. It would be kind of fun to see a bunch of Shakespearean characters try to live in modern times. Heck, there’s even a stage show about them that recently opened up at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Obviously, they are the strongest element in the movie and if you took that out, Hocus Pocus would have been this basic and simple film.
So with that, your probably wondering how I feel about Hocus Pocus overall and where do I stand with it. For starters, I did grow up watching this movie as a kid and enjoying it. But not for the plot or the characters, just for the witches themselves. I can’t really say if that is a good thing or a bad thing but a part of me does feel this movie holds up in some way. Granted, its not a perfect movie by any means or really a masterpiece like say the Wizard of Oz but there is sort of a way I can describe why it got so popular over the years. Because its the one movie that dips itself into holiday tradition more than any other Halloween movie. Of course, movies today like Trick R Treat are starting to catch on (which arguably is a better movie) but there is one big reason why THIS movie is getting more attention to what its doing.
A good example of this kind of movie is A Christmas Story. For those who don’t know, the movie was released and didn’t make a big impact. But over the years, everyone keeps talking about it and watching it like its some kind of Christmas classic. It honors the Christmas traditions we went through as a kid and exploits them in some form of an adult twist. While Hocus Pocus doesn’t do that entirely, it does honor some Halloween traditions like trick-or-treating, urban legends, witchcraft and even discusses darker elements of the holiday that few Halloween family films would even tackle.
So for what it is, I do enjoy Hocus Pocus. Not for the story and not for the characters but what for it does to the holiday. Granted, it could have been a stronger movie if it was placed in different hands but I can’t think of anything too bad or ethically unclean. I know this movie already has a strong fan base and still growing one. But I do warn for newcomers to watch with low expectations. I know there are a good handful of people that don’t find much joy for the story, characters and few things here and there which is understandable. As for me, I don’t mind defending this one even if it is flawed. The witches are fun, the special effects surprisingly still look amazing and its one bewitching flick I always look forward to around this time of year.
We are not done yet! All week long, we are catching up on more horror goodness for that bag of leftover candy you got. Stay tuned creeps!