Christopher Robin: Disney’s Heartfelt Tearjerker a Perfect Family Film

4 Tigger-Bounced, Honey-Soaked stars out of 5 (One of the best of the year)

Image from https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4575576/

I have long been against Disney’s current trend of reimagining their classic films for modern audiences.  While they strike gold on occasion (Pete’s Dragon), more often then not, these films lack the spirit of their originals and grossly misrepresent their iconic characters (Maleficent).  Therefore, it gives me immense pleasure to type that their newest film, Christopher Robin, not only understands the spirit of its characters and source material, but also places it in the modern world without succumbing to crude gags or pop culture references.  If you loved Winnie The Pooh, then you will love this movie.  Like Toy Story 3 (and I don’t make that comparison lightly), it is a love letter to those of us who grew up loving those characters as well as a logical conclusion to their story and a great introduction for today’s kids.

As the trailers haven’t spoiled much of the plot, neither will I.  The film follows a grown-up Christopher Robin (a perfectly cast Ewan McGregor), now an overworked and distant family man whose innocence was buried by the harshness of life.  However, when his childhood friends Pooh, Tigger (both voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (voiced by Brad Garrett), and Piglet (voiced by Nick Mohammed) reappear, Christopher will learn the value of embracing his inner child again.

I love almost everything about this film.  Pooh and his friends retain their personalities and blend seamlessly in the real world.  The ever-reliable McGregor interacts perfectly with his cuddly co-stars, and the film’s score successfully combines bouncy and inviting pieces with surprisingly somber ones when needed.  The voice acting is flawless on all sides, with Cummings and Garrett being true standouts as Tigger, Pooh, and Eeyore.  The people working on this film clearly have reverence and love for these characters and they never talk down to or insult our intelligence.

My only problem with the film is its lack of character development for Christopher at the start.  We see him working at his job, but he’s hard to sympathize with for much of the first half.  However, McGregor’s skill as an actor got me through this early rough period and was worth it in the end.  Also, kids might need some explaining of the plot in the opening 20 minutes, but it’s simple enough to follow after that.  Pooh and his friends lighten the mood and inject humor once they appear, so it’s well worth the wait.

Christopher Robin is just the kind of hopeful family entertainment we need.  It doesn’t shy away from sadness, but it’s not a depressing mess as some have proclaimed it.  I would recommend this film to all family audiences and fans of these characters, if only so this silly old bear can remind us that this dark world still has some light in it.

Rated PG For Some Action (a brief battle in WWII and some property damage).

A Wrinkle In Time: Disney Fantasy Has Diversity, Strong Messages

4 out of 5 stars (one of the best of the year)

This article was originally published on www.theboldopinion.com on March 23rd, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time Poster
Image from http://cdn.collider.com

Live-action Disney movies are a mixed bag.  For every film that goes above and beyond expectations (Pete’s Dragon), there is one with irritatingly underused potential (Cinderella).  Their newest film, A Wrinkle in Time, thankfully sits in the former category, with a mostly solid cast, colorful visuals, and, best of all, a truly empowering message for young children.

The film follows Meg (Storm Reid), a 13-year-old girl whose scientist father (Chris Pine) disappeared 4 years ago to prove his scientific theory of space/time travel.  However, everyone in town thinks he just abandoned Meg, her adopted genius brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and his wife (Gugu-Mbatha-Raw), leaving Meg with abandonment issues.  I applaud the movie for being subtle here instead of spelling it out to us.  Nothing irritates me more than a film treating me like a simpleton.

Meg is surprised by the arrivals of Mrs. Whatsit (an enjoyably swarmy Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and Mrs. Which (A miscast Oprah), three mystical beings who claim to know where her father is.   Despite her reservations, Meg, Charles Wallace, and school friend Calvin (Levi Miller) join the Mrs.’s on a journey through space to try and find their father, with a malevolent force not far behind.

Director Ava DuVernay has not taken the film’s bad press well, tweeting to Vulture editor Kyle Buchanan: “You were the only Caucasian journalist of any gender to see it, understand it, and ask me about it”.  I applaud Buchanan for recognizing the themes, but believe it was a bad decision for DuVernay to bring race into the mix.  Her calling out white people makes it appear as though DuVernay ignored or is unaware of the bad reviews from women and men of other races.  However, the critics are at fault for claiming the film has a thin story without emotional impact.  This was not made with adults in mind, but with children, especially young girls.  I as a Caucasian male completely understood DuVernay’s intent and believe she achieved it.  I admire her for exploring themes that very few childrens’ films attack with such honesty.  This isn’t a cartoon; it’s a deep, dense narrative with subtle character arcs and thought-provoking ideas that should inspire children and the young at heart everywhere regardless of race.

That success comes first and foremost because of its characters. The kids are likable and ground the movie’s more absurd elements.  I’m not currently, nor have I ever been, a 14-year-old girl, but I felt for Meg’s quest and rooted for her every step of the way.  I’m sure her feelings of abandonment and lack of self-worth will ring true with young girls everywhere, regardless of their race or ethnicity.  Young boys will also see strong role models in Charles Wallace and Calvin and learn to respect women as strong leaders (a lesson which, given the current climate in Hollywood, couldn’t have come at a better time).

The child actors do surprisingly well and don’t overplay their emotions.  Meg easily could have been distant, but Storm Reid convincingly sells her low self-esteem with subtle facial expressions rather than constantly whining about her dad being gone.  Deric McCabe exudes childlike innocence without being annoying, and Levi Miller displays unexpected depth.  However, the Mrs. W’s are a mixed bag.  Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling provide humor and personality, but Oprah comes off like a pompous deity.  Pine and Raw hit their emotional beats, and Zach Galifinakis has an amusing cameo.

If fantasy movies aren’t your cup of tea, then this certainly won’t do it for you.  While I am not the world’s biggest fantasy fan, I was able to go along for the ride and enjoy the characters, visuals, and resonant themes without nitpicking the science of it.  DuVernay has created worlds that, while not entirely original, are visually memorable and fun to spend time in.  The computer graphics are effective without overstaying their welcome.  My favorite sequence sees the children flying across a bright landscape that made me feel the thrill of flying as if for the first time.  The climax also has some creepy visuals and produces good tension.  Literary purists should know that much has been cut from the book.  It works on its own, but fans should know they aren’t going to get a direct translation.

The films’ flaws are an inconsistent soundtrack, occasionally awkward camera placements, and The Big O.  The songs aren’t bad, but the lyrics are distracting in certain scenes when the sweeping score would have done better.  The camera also gets too close for my comfort to the character’s faces on some occasions, but it’s not enough to break the film.  Lastly, Oprah fails to disappear into her character and delivers several forced inspirational speeches to Meg that had me waiting for her to turn the camera and say that “Everyone in the audience has a free bible under their seat!”  I would have cast Octavia Spencer instead, as she has a more benevolent presence.  DuVernay is a young director who hasn’t handled a big budget film before, so I’m willing to overlook these problems.

A Wrinkle in Time has relatable characters, a necessary message for young children, and a complex yet engrossing story.  Sans Oprah, the performances are solid, the visuals are breathtaking and reminded me of The Sound of Music, and the score works magic.  I hope to see more films that empower young girls without making men into morons.  If you like fantasies, then I say See It.

Rated PG for Thematic Elements And Some Peril

 

Cars 3: 3rd in Pixar Series Needed Serious Fine-Tuning

2 out of 5 stars (has good moments, but is overall bad)

Cars 3 poster
Image from https://ia.media-imdb.com/

Anyone who knows me knows that I love Pixar.  They have provided my generation with animated classics finding heart, humor, and emotion in ideas that seem poised to fail.  However, Pixar’s track record as of late has been very hit-and-miss, alternating between tear-inducing masterpieces like Inside Out and serviceable fair like Brave.  Every film studio has a few hiccups, but Pixar used to be the outlier, the company my generation could depend on for grade-A entertainment, and, if anything, allow us now 20-somethings to watch an animated movie and not have to lower our standards “because it’s for kids.”

Cars 3 wants desperately to be one of the great Pixar movies: At points it delivers honest truths about the cruel nature of the racing industry and has a great number of laughs, but the film is less than the sum of its parts.  For every emotional moment, witty line, or thrilling race sequence, there is a lazy joke or painful bit of writing.  The film is caught between being a more realistic dramedy dealing with mature themes, or just settle with entertaining young children (which, in my theater, it completely failed to do).  I’ve definitely seen worse children’s films, but Cars 3 hurt me more because it had promise.

We once again follow Lightening McQueen (Voiced by a bored-sounding Owen Wilson) at the top of his game, with pals Mater (Voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Voiced by an underused Bonnie Hunt), and all the other side “caracters” by his side.  However, Lightening’s racing career is threatened by rising hotshot Jackson Storm (Voiced by a swarmy Armie Hammer), who causes him to wreck during a big race and take time out to change his game plan at a tech-heavy training center run by Sterling (Voiced by Nathan Fillion).  Unfortunately, Lightening is paired with ultra fangirl Cruz Ramirez (Voiced by Cristela Alonzo), who is as good at training as I am at Calculus, forcing him to work harder than ever, and possibly realize that he’s reached the end of the road.

I have never loved this franchise.  Cars was fine if unremarkable, and Cars 2 was total kiddishness.  Cars 3 falls somewhere in the middle, with unexpected drama and moments of poignancy, but also having the overly childish humor.  I thoroughly enjoyed the racing sequences in this film, and there are several moments of witty banter that made me laugh out loud, but those elements failed to coalesce into an entertaining whole for me.  The film wants to emulate Toy Story 3, which was more of a dark prison drama than a family comedy, but the difference between the two franchises is that Toy Story entertained children AND adults, while Cars primarily entertains kids.  Kids who loved the first two films in this series will love this one too, but those of us who never understood the appeal of this series will gain very little from this one.

Cars 3 has occasional funny lines, good racing sequences, and unexpectedly poignant drama, but childish humor once again kills any dramatic weight that could have existed otherwise.

Rated G

“Zootopia”: Disney Cop Dramedy Has Vibrant Animation, Mature Theme

4 out of 5 stars (one of the best of the year)

Zootopia poster
Image from http://movies.disney.com/

There is a stigma around animated movies that they are primarily for children. I completely disagree with this claim, as many animated movies of the past few years have more thought and effort put into them then many of the live-action films I see each year.  Disney especially has stepped up their game in recent years with the quality of its animated films, with Big Hero 6 and Frozen exploring complex themes in a way that animated films of the past never dared to.  The House of Mouse has outdone themselves once again with Zootopia, a funny but somewhat mature cop dramedy with cute-looking animals and a very important message for kids and adults.  Don’t let the cutesy ad campaign fool you, there is much more than meets the eye with this one.

It follows Judy Hops (Voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin of ABC’s Once Upon A Time), a bunny who dreams of being on the police force of “Zootopia”, a city where any animal can be anything they want to be.  Through determination and hard work, Judy is able to earn a spot on the force, as a metermaid, you know, that person who gives you a ticket by the meter even if it is one second late.  Though this is not at all what she want to do, Judy accepts it with gusto, performing her duties as well as she can.  I don’t know how someone can be as happy as she is punching tickets, but this film presents a world where predators and prey no longer fear each other, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief a little higher.

Judy’s luck changes when she stumbles into locating a missing otter, one of 15 missing predator cases. Unfortunately, due to the blatant bias of her police chief, Judy is given only 48 hours to solve the case or give up her badge.  Along the way, she begrudgingly works with a con fox named Nick (Voiced hilariously by Jason Bateman) who helps her along the seedy streets to get to the bottom of things.  What they find will change not only them, but the entire city, forever.

The advertisements for this movie made it look like it would either be extremely good or embarrassingly awful.  If Jason Bateman and Ginnifer Goodwin had not been attached, and the 99% approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com not occurred, I likely would have waited for Redbox on this one.  However, there are satirical jabs at our society and some surprising adult references that will fly over the heads of children (but put a smile on their parents’ face).  I laughed several times in this movie, but it is not primarily a comedy.  In reality, the film is more of a buddy-ish cop dramedy that just happens to have cute animals in it.  This is one of Disney’s strangest ideas, and, like many of their recent efforts, I was shocked at the directions it went in, but satisfied when it ended.

In terms of the maturity of the film, there are a couple intense chases and some jump scares, as well as some deliberate bullying by children to the main characters that were honestly uncomfortable to watch. The overall themes of the movie (which I will not spoil) are probably the most mature ones I’ve seen in an animated film in quite some time.  It is handled in an adult manner that does not talk down to children, but treats them with respect and dignity.  I would say this is more appropriate for children than Inside Out (which dealt unapologetically with depression), but children will come out of Zootopia having been exposed to some intense themes that one wouldn’t expect given the commercials.

The movie ticks nearly every box I have for animated films. The animation is instantly gorgeous, especially during the scene where Judy rides into the city.  We are as awestruck as she is thanks to some great cinematography and a perfect song choice (sung by Shakira, who voices a pop star in this film).  Nearly all the characters are likable and understandable (even the villain), helping us to relate to them instantly.  Judy is a great example for young girls because she never lets society put her down.  I would go as far to argue that she’s a better role model than Elsa (begin your boos and hisses now), as she doesn’t have any special powers or run away from her problems, but instead uses her instincts and natural talents as a bunny to solve her problems, maintaining a positive outlook throughout.  Nick starts out as a sketchy con artist, but we learn that he has a good (and sad) reason for doing so, and changes to a good person throughout the film.  Bateman’s voice suits the character perfectly, and I can tell he is having loads of fun.  Goodwin also brings her charm to the role, never going unrealistically over-the-top with her cheeriness, but always looking at the glass as half full.  We need more characters like her in children’s films: strong women who will accept the help of others when needed, but don’t need to fall in love with a man to complete them.

That is probably one of the best things about the movie: It does not follow down the beaten path, but makes a new one for itself. Whenever you think you’ve got the movie figured out, it will throw something new and unexpected at you and continue on, all the way to its heartfelt conclusion.  On a smaller note, I adore the fact that Nick and Judy do not end up together at the end.  I will not tell you what happens, but I will say that they do not have a romantic relationship, but remain friends throughout their journey.  I kept waiting for that forced moment where they would “fall for” each other, but, to my immense delight, it never came.  I applaud Disney for finally showing children that a man and woman can meet each other and not fall in love after a week.  It took a while, but they finally did it.  Good Job.

All things considered, Zootopia is one of Disney’s best, maintaining the classic feel of its old material while injecting modern sensibility into the mix. Frozen has had its time in the spotlight, but now it is time for Zootopia to take the world by storm.  I find it to be a better film in nearly every way, and it should get the credit it deserves.  I’m not saying Frozen was bad, but am I the only one who will bang my head on my laptop if I hear “Let it Go” one more time?  They should take their own advice with that song.

Rated PG for Thematic Elements (seriously, they are there), Mild Action, and Rude Humor

 

Tron: Legacy: Sequel to Disney Cult Classic has Great Visuals, But Generic Plot

2 out of 5 stars (has some good moments, but is mostly bad)

Tron Legacy Poster
Image from https://www.amazon.com/

In 1986, Disney released Tron, a film about a computer programmer (Jeff Bridges) getting zapped inside of a computer game and his quest to escape it.  Though the story and characters were criticized for their generic nature, the visuals pushed the boundaries for what could be done with a computer at that time, earning critical acclaim as well as a devoted cult fan base that waited hungrily for a sequel.  Their wish was granted in 2010 with Tron: Legacy, a film that suffers from the exact same problems as the original.  The visuals were top-notch in 2010 (and look fine to this day), but the story is ho-hum and the characters are forgettable. Tron: Legacy should entertain fans of the previous film, but will likely confuse or bore anyone else.

The film follows adrenaline junkie Sam Flynn (an emotionless Garrett Hedlund), son of legendary video game developer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges reprising his role). Sam spends his days parachuting off of buildings and being angsty about dad  disappearing on him 20 years ago.  Because I’m sure that the 10 year-old boys this movie appeals to will totally identify with a 20-something with daddy issues.  Anyway, Sam receives an unexpected visit from stand-in father figure Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner also returning) who informs him that a call was placed from his dad’s old office.  Because this number has been disconnected for 20 years, Sam decides to check the office out and see what’s going on.

Once there, he discovers the old Tron console along with the laser that blasted dad into the game all those years ago.  After putting 2 and 2 together, Sam blasts himself into the game and starts on a quest to find Kevin and bring him home.  Along the way, Sam befriends a program named Quorra (Olivia Wilde doing the best that she can) and discovers another named Clu (also Jeff Bridges), who has nefarious plans for the game world.

The best thing about this movie is its visual style. The visuals in the game are immediately eye-catching and unique.  I can admire the work that went into creating the world of Tron, as it likely took thousands of man hours to make everything look as cool as it does.  The action sequences are decently exciting, especially the motorcycle race frequently teased in the trailers.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t have much else going for it. Jeff Bridges is having fun revisiting his character as well as playing a villain, easily standing out among the cast.  Unfortunately, the movie falls on newcomer Hedlund, who is unable to properly emote any of his lines.  I believe his extreme sports obsession, but could not buy him as a computer hacker in the slightest.  Also, Sam doesn’t seem very happy upon finding his dad, the supposed emotional moment of the film.  The two of them have a fun conversation, but I never get the sense that the character is excited to see his father again.  Hedlund has gone on to star in other films (his most recent being Pan, a financial embarrassment), but it is hard to tell if he or the script is to blame for his characterization.  Wilde does okay in her role, but this is her least engaging performance.

Though Hedlund isn’t exactly the next James Dean, the script he is given doesn’t give him a lot to work with. After a decently tense opening act, the movie drops the potential “thriller” aspect in exchange for a predictable sci-fi narrative. It’s as if the filmmakers put 95% of their time and effort into the world of Tron, and the other 5% into creating an interesting story within it.  Sam’s character arc is generic and predictable, and the religious metaphors near the end of the film are insultingly obvious.  I like the idea of a world within a computer, but this movie simply doesn’t do anything unique with it.

Disney seriously needs to revamp its live-action division, as many of their recent efforts (Maleficent, Into the Woods) have had fascinating ideas and great marketing, but fallen short of their potential.  A third film in this series was planned due to surprising box office success, but was cancelled after the financial embarrassment known as Tomorrowland (a film whose biggest detriment was its overly mysterious marketing campaign).  It was no classic, but it was a fun family action movie with a great message and cast (George Clooney, Hugh Laurie)

All in all, Tron: Legacy is a visually appealing, yet thematically dead movie that fails to meet its complete potential.  Rent it if you want some decent action, skip it otherwise.

Rated PG for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action Violence and Brief Mild Language

 

“Maleficent” is Not Magnificent, But Worth Seeing

2.5 out of 5 stars (decent)

Maleficent Poster
Image from https://www.imdb.com/

Disney has been around for a long time, bringing us animated classics like Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, and Tarzan.  Of course, those films were in the 1990s, the “Disney Renaissance,” a time when Disney could do no wrong.  Disney’s newest trick has been to re-tell its classic animated films with a darker touch, as well as in live action, since live action appeals to a larger audience.  In 2010, Disney teamed with director Tim Burton to present a re-tooled Alice in Wonderland, which, while a financial success (so much so that a sequel is in the works), was not a critical hit. Maleficent will likely follow the same path as Alice, but I liked Maleficent more.  Maleficent is a dark (for Disney), sometimes funny fantasy telling the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of its villainess, Maleficent.  Is it a new Disney classic?  No, but it is entertaining.

In this interpretation, Maleficent (played devilishly well by Angelina Jolie) was once a good fairy who became close friends with a human, young Stefan (Sharlto Copley of District 9).  Their relationship blossomed through adolescence, when the war between humans and fairies reignited, forcing their lives down separate paths.  As they matured, each became a leader in their kingdoms.  They met again when the aging human king offered his throne to whoever vanquished Maleficent.  Stefan betrayed both Maleficent and the king, leaving her alive, but bitter, while he ascended to the throne.

Years later, Maleficent has a chance for revenge when she learns that Stefan is christening his baby daughter, Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning). Maleficent crashes the affair, cursing her to “fall into a sleep-like state!” on her 16th birthday when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel.  (It’s as if Disney is afraid to use the word “die” nowadays.)  Furious, Stefan tells his guards to burn every spinning wheel and sends Aurora to live in seclusion with three fairies (Lesley Manville, Juno Temple, and the extremely underused Imelda Staunton), who wouldn’t look out of place on one of those never-ending Real Housewives TV shows.  Since none of these three imbeciles possess the means to properly raise a child, Maleficent is forced to play fairy godmother in order to keep the child alive long enough to meet her demise.  The relationships between all the players of this game change and twist as the child grows.

Maleficent has many good qualities. Angelina Jolie is a fantastic choice for the role, giving it her all, as always.  The cinematography and visuals are astounding, and the action scenes are exciting.  The computer-generated creatures are entertaining without resorting to crude jokes or bathroom humor.  If the film is nominated for anything, it will be in the effects category.

Sadly, other parts of the movie are not as well done. Sharlto Copley is extremely miscast and completely unbelievable as a ruler of this beautiful land, there to yell for the entirety of his time on screen.  Elle Fanning plays the role with a little more ditziness than I would have liked, but at least she’s not one of those teenagers who are full of angst.  No Bella Swan complex here.  The three fairies are some of the most annoying creatures ever to come out of a Disney movie.  While their brief bickering was funny in the original, here it makes you want to kill them, and not in a love-to-hate way.

It was very hard for me to tell the age group for which this film was designed.  It has Jolie, who treats the role with the seriousness it deserves, but no adult with half of their brain cells working will find the fairies funny.  Also, the prince that Aurora is supposed to fall in love with is a huge throwaway character, only there for a couple of awkwardly scripted scenes.  The script is the biggest problem.  It switches from good, moderately dark scenes to “funny” ones to calm the kids down.  The kids in our theater were not scared by this at all.  The opening and the climax mirror the previews for the film, but the middle needed some re-writes.  No offense to Linda Woolverton (who also wrote Alice in Wonderland) but she should seriously consider finding a writing partner.  So far, her writing career has consisted of extremely high-concept ideas that end up being half-baked.  All in all, Maleficent is worth seeing and an interesting take on the story, but don’t expect anything magical.

Rated PG for Sequences of Fantasy Action and Violence, Including Frightening Images