J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Animated’ Category

Up

Posted by J on June 18, 2009

Is a trip to the movie theater even worth your consideration these days?  We Up325went to Up, knowing nothing about it except that it is made by Pixar and follows two wonderful movies in Ratatouille and Wall-E.  We forked over $16 on a product we trusted.

Big mistake.

Up is a boring mess. It was so bad that it made both of us want to leave early, which is quite a difficult thing to do.  It’s chief problem is randomness piled on top of its two main topics, aging and grief.  Earth to Pixar: random cartoon action and grief over the death of a loved one don’t mix all that well.

The story is about an old man who, as a little boy, dreamed of romantic adventures in an undiscovered location known as Paradise Falls.  The boy meets a girl with the same dream, and soon we are whisked into a powerful montage three minutes into the movie wherein the boy and girl get married, grow old together, and then the girl (elderly in the end) dies.  This is the most profound and effective part of the movie.  You may stop watching after this point.

The old man is evicted from his longtime house, but instead of leaving he decides to rig thousands of helium-filled balloons to his house to make the house fly.  This is the part of the movie where we enter into fantasyland — the old man can fly wherever he wants, because this is a cartoon — but fantasyland in this movie is quite barren.  Of course he makes it to Paradise Falls, but what is there?  A few rocks, a waterfall, and little else.

Here is where the movie gets random.  A bird named Kevin, discovered eventually to be a female, follows the old man.  A dog with an electronic collar that allows it to talk enters the picture.  Everybody runs back and forth a lot.  There is a villain who is evil personified.  He has lots of talking dogs and an airship.  None of these things has anything to do with the death of the old man’s wife, nor with his own alienation from the world.  They do, in fact, distract us considerably from those concerns.

A cartoon world can take us anywhere, but Up‘s fantasy world is never very interesting.  There is promise of a jungle labyrinth that never appears.  Instead, we get a boring wasteland.  The giant airship has promise, but we spend only a few minutes inside of it before the predictable chase scene comes. Ho hum.

Ultimately, the old man is supposed to realize that his goal in life is to save a bird, presumably an endangered species, from being hunted down and captured. He also must befriend his sidekick — an annoying Asian American boy scout — and become his surrogate grandfather.   This could be touching, except the characters are never developed. The old man is a grieving grump throughout and not much more.  (He is also the butt of inevitable hearing aid jokes.)

What’s more bizarre is that while the bird of unknown gender must be saved, the old man realizes that his childhood hero makes Darth Vader look like a nice guy.  This hero is Charles Muntz, a famed explorer who lives in Paradise Falls.  Muntz tries to kill everybody, including little boys and puppy dogs.  So why does the old man have to learn to hate the heroes of yesteryear, particularly a noble explorer?  Why is the bad guy an American adventurer, while the thing that must be saved is a stupid bird?

This appears to be the movie’s main moral: the old man must learn to reject and distrust the past, while embracing an environmentalist principle.

If you must see this movie because it is a Pixar movie, stick to renting it from Redbox for a buck. Better, just watch Wall-E again.

Entertainment: 3

Intelligence: 3

Morality: 8

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WALL-E

Posted by J on August 10, 2008

Here’s a rarity: a mass-marketed movie almost without words. WALL-E uses storytelling techniques unique to film and succeeds marvelously. It provides a great lesson for future movies, which is that words and dialogue are, most of the time, redundant.

It is no surprise, then, that WALL-E hearkens back to that other, almost wordless popular movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, WALL-E‘s tone and message are far different than 2001‘s. Instead of evolving outward to the stars, humans in WALL-E are called back to be stewards of the earth. They have gone too far beyond their dominion responsibilities, relying instead on labor-saving machines and gigantic corporations to do the work for them. They sit in chairs, stare at computer screens all day, and get fat, while the technology they have designed works all too well, allowing them to indulge themselves in extreme individualism and hedonism. So the moment when Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathrustra plays during WALL-E is not when humans evolve, but instead when the captain of the spaceship decides to get out of his chair, stretch his legs, and take authority over the robots that control the ship. Then they all return to Earth.

As a parable of our present day society, WALL-E offers these critiques without preaching. Recall the sickening Happy Feet, a movie about dancing penguins that turns sharply into an environmentalist diatribe. WALL-E is content to not wander even close to those parts. It is first and foremost a love story. An unusual love story, since the two parties are a trash compactor and an IMAC.

However, as a story of courtship, it does just as well as any movie involving humans. There was great risk in trying this approach with two robots, but they are anthropomorphized well enough. Wall-E is obviously masculine, while his love interest, Eva, is obviously feminine. We thought initially that the moviemakers would flip the masculine and feminine categories, as they do so often these days. When they initially meet, Wall-E is very timid, while the powerful Eva shoots a deadly laserbeam. But once the courtship begins, Wall-E asserts himself and Eva can’t help but be drawn to him. Wall-E is — we are very serious — a model for young men pursuing a young lady. Demonstrate sacrificial love for her, go to the ends of the universe for her, and her heart will be won. Most of the movie is consumed by Wall-E’s pursuit of Eva and her slow acceptance of his love.

WALL-E may be one of those movies that works better on the giant screen rather than the confines of a house TV. Its color palette is diverse and it paints into the corners of the screen. That might make it more moving and exciting in the theater, so don’t blame us if you wait until it comes out on DVD and disagree with our ratings below. In certain ways, this is probably the best animated movie yet made.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 10

Posted in Animated, Great | 2 Comments »

The Simpsons Movie

Posted by J on May 6, 2008

Since there is no plot that the Simpsons TV show hasn’t partaken in, The Simpsons Movie is a TV episode with 50 extra minutes. For regular viewers, you’ve seen it all before. For those who’ve never seen it before, the movie is all you need.

Somewhere in the mid-1990s, social standards of crudity bypassed the Simpsons. We can remember when the show first came out. Much parental spleen was vented at Bart and Homer Simpson, both of whom displayed vulgarity that some people at the time didn’t want their children to emulate. The Simpsons, then, was primarily about a dysfunctional nuclear family in a dysfunctional town. Nowadays the Simpsons are praised as upholding the values of the nuclear family and small-town America. This change in standards illustrates how low standards have sunk. Homer is still a self-centered blowhard who repeatedly alienates his wife and children, while Bart (in the movie) is encouraged by Homer to skateboard naked around Springfield and get drunk.

There are possible good messages in the movie, underneath all of its crude cleverness, but those are ultimately undermined by its farcical tone. It is not “nuanced” as others have claimed. Nothing is sacred in the town of Springfield, and so everything can be turned into a raucous joke. We weren’t sure how to take the moment when, in an emergency situation, Homer hurriedly flips through the Bible and screams “This book doesn’t have any answers!” This moment is left alone, and it undoes the reasonable portrayals of Ned Flanders (the stereotyped evangelical) and Springfield’s church.

The movie’s willingness to turn everything into farce is too bad, because it satirizes the authoritative powers of the Environmental Protection Agency. After Homer pollutes Springfield’s lake, a pig-headed Washington bureaucrat decides to seal the town of Springfield inside a dome. There are a few excellent scenes in which this bureaucrat persuades President Schwarzenegger to seal off Springfield, and then destroy the town altogether. This portrayal suggests the unjust tyranny of a central authority against the dysfunctional but pleasant, small American town.  It’s too bad that we didn’t care in the end.  We felt as if we were to act like Nelson, pointing at everything and giving off a loud “HA HA!”

Entertainment:6

Intelligence:6

Morality: 1

Posted in Animated, Comedy, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | Leave a Comment »

Surf’s Up

Posted by J on February 5, 2008

For some reason, around 2003 movie studio executives thought penguins would sell. What’s the cultural significance of that? We have no idea, but we do know that after watching March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, and now this movie, we hope moviemakers stay far away from our featherless friends. Of course, now that we’re sick of them, we wouldn’t be surprised if VeggieTales’ next feature prominently involved birds from Antarctica.

Surf’s Up has lots going for it. Mostly, it isn’t terrible like Happy Feet is. But it doesn’t have personality, the jokes aren’t really jokes, and it’s about surfing. Along with the surfing is the stereotypical surfer, “live and let live” attitude, embodied in the movie’s two main characters, Cody Maverick and “Big Z.” Cody is a wannabe hotshot in a somewhat dysfunctional family, and he wants to compete in the world penguin surfing tournament. He idolizes “Big Z,” a famous surfer who supposedly disappeared in a surfing accident. The plot wouldn’t have anywhere to go if Big Z were really dead, though, so you can guess what probably happens when Cody and Big Z get together. The student learns something, the teacher learns something, and the world penguin surfing tournament is the climax of all this learning.

Since the characters lack any sympathetic trait and the plot is pretty lame, we would’ve turned this movie off fairly quickly. What kept us involved was the style and direction. Surf’s Up is filmed as a documentary, with character interviews and hand-held camera motions. It cheats on this style a bit, but overall the documentary aspect frees Surf’s Up to present unique camera angles previously unseen (or unimagined) in digital animation films. We appreciated that and the animation, which is the reason we can say this one sets the standard for mediocre kids’ movies featuring penguins.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 2
Morality: 5 (a few jokes inappropriate for children)

Posted in Animated, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | Leave a Comment »

The Emperor’s New Groove

Posted by J on December 13, 2007

Somewhere, lost in Disney’s 1990s collapse into multiculturalism and embrace of CG animation, is The Emperor’s New Groove. This is a full-length Looney Tune with an obvious, decent moral. That means it is zany and manic at the same time that it strives to teach about the need for repentance, humility, and wholesome family life. We don’t quite know what younger viewers might take away from it, but as Christian adults we prioritized the moral and enjoyed the zaniness for what it was. May wise guardians make wise decisions.

The story involves the Emperor Kuzco, who desires to take away a community’s hilltop village by virtue of his sovereign will (known in our day as “eminent domain”). Reminiscent of Ahab’s maniacal theft of Naboth’s garden, Kuzco wants the hill for his pleasure palace, only to be opposed by the good-hearted peasant Pacha. Kuzco, however, faces his own internal threats. His right-hand lady and her sidekick use a potion to turn Kuzco into a llama, kicking him out of the palace and taking over in a secret coup. It is up to Pacha to help Kuzco return to the palace and change back into a human, so that Kuzco can return to power.

And therein lies the problem. Kuzco remains a self-centered jerk, a snideful mocker of a teenage boy, even while Pacha tries to help him. Ever a model of patience, Pacha lets Kuzco fail in his own selfish schemes again and again until Kuzco eventually relents. You know what will happen after this, but the story is told in an upbeat, postmodern way. By “postmodern” we mean nothing bad. It’s only that the story is self-referential, constantly talking about the way the story is being told. The narrative starts and stops and restarts often, providing spunk and wittiness to an otherwise mundane, familiar plot. This we liked, as well as the failed empress’ sidekick, Kronk, who is a humorous mix of Rocky Balboa and Sancho Panza. Characters like Kronk are few and far between.

The Emperor’s New Groove was part of Disney’s effort to move away from traditional European settings and artwork, so the movie is a send-up of Peruvian and Ecuadorian landscape and Incan artwork. Unfortunately, the Incan empire was far from zany and cool, as The Emperor’s New Groove might have it. Probably a real Incan emperor would’ve been more interested in burning Pacha’s children than in repealing a decision to steal property. The Emperor’s New Groove engages in historical anachronism and bad judgment when it praises the continuation of Kuzco’s bureaucracy and empire. Still, Looney Tunes always simply use history as a prop rather than strive to make a point with it. In that sense, the movie is simply innocent and ignorant.

Entertainment: 9
Intelligence: 3
Morality: 6

Posted in Animated, Pretty Good | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Cars

Posted by J on September 12, 2007

Here is a first: a Pixar movie that we completely loathed. Cars has as much charm and depth as a NASCAR race. In fact, the hint is in the bland title. Cars eschews a story (mostly) and instead produces a narrative that unfolds as if you are watching a TV channel. The “story” begins with a NASCAR race, complete with Bob Costas as an announcer and the Goodyear blimp providing the overhead cam. Then we’re told about the life of Lightning McQueen, the egotistical race car hotshot, through commercials, movie previews, and a Hollywood Insider TV show. Please. If we had wanted inanity, we would’ve flipped on the tube itself.

Equally as bad, the cars in Cars do not work as characters. They look nothing like human beings, and so they lack the expressive features of human beings that allow us to take in a range of character traits. Instead, vehicle difference is substituted for character. There is a semitruck, an old police car, a cutesy sports car (a female, obviously), and a beat-up tow truck. All of these are one-dimensional; they have the personality you would expect a semi-truck or sports car to have. Sometimes glitz is added to spice up the cars. When modified cars appear, equipped with neon lights and blaring rap music, our guess was that they’d have an ethnic flavor. And wouldn’t you know, they were cars with Mexican accents.

The main story is archetypal. Urban hotshot serendipitously ends up in the country, where he learns new life lessons and make friends with the local yokels, and when he returns to the city he is wiser and able to perform something he wasn’t able to do previously. The animated whirly-gigs and the constant noise of car engines are supposed to spice this basic story up, but there is nothing–voicework, scene, or character–that makes this particular story ingratiating or charming. Cars is as loud, flashy, and obnoxious as the NASCAR culture it is based upon. It makes Ratatouille all the more amazing, and we would rather watch it a thousand times in a row than watch Cars one more time.

Entertainment: 3
Intelligence: -1
Morality: 8 (though if it’s this stupid, is it really moral and edifying?)

Posted in Animated, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Shrek

Posted by J on August 27, 2007

We were once visiting a parent (occupation: the ministry), who was dealing with an energetic two-year old. After having some trouble with the boy, the father put him in front of the TV and turned on Shrek. As we all do, the child passively sat there, entranced. With a look of weariness, but without getting the full meaning of his words, the father said, “Training children never ends.”

As it happened, the DVD was set to start in the middle of the movie. It was at the part where Shrek, an ogre who loves his independence and enjoys his own crudity,wrestles WWF-style Lord Farquaad’s knights. At that point, the soundtrack blares the Joan Jett hit, “Bad Reputation”:

I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation
You’re living in the past it’s a new generation
A girl can do what she wants to do and that’s
What I’m gonna do
An’ I don’t give a damn ‘ bout my bad reputation

Yes, we’re always training children. And this kind of brazen rebellion was what the two-year-old was learning throughout.

Entertainment: 4
Intelligence: 4
Morality: 1

Posted in Animated, Clever but Immoral | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Flushed Away

Posted by J on August 22, 2007

Flushed Away is an apt description of what will happen to your mental capacities after you reach the end of its 94-minute running time. You will feel like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz: “If I only had a brain . . .” This movie is a multi-million dollar Looney Tunes feature. The main character–the pet rat of rich Londoners–gets hit, kicked, slapped, and electrocuted dozens of times. In fact if you like slapstick scenes where characters get hit in the groin with one thing, then get hit again with another, you might appreciate the finer nuances of Flushed Away.

Sure, there are one or two clever spots (the scene with the mime and the cellphone, for example). But the plot exists merely to see the sights of London sewers–filled with a rat city and slugs that sound like chipmunks–and to experience chase scenes, love connections, and more chase scenes. Just for kicks, there’s a family values angle to the story. Our main pet rat enjoys life in his bachelor pad, a fact reenforced by Billy Idol’s “Dancin’ With Myself,” played in the opening moments (the lyrics of which you won’t want kids singing). But then he meets the spunky female lead. She’s a family girl, sort of. Actually she wears Union Jack pants and steel-toed boots. She’s a posh, urban warrior-woman, but she’s disappointed that our hero doesn’t have a family. So of course, after a bunch of stuff happens, they sail off together in the end. But you knew that would happen ten minutes in. From our point-of-view, the family values angle is a con, and it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, which is about chase scenes and the main character getting hit in the groin five times in a row.

We can imagine a scene where a parent sticks her kids in front of the TV. She turns it on and pops in Flushed Away. Then she replays it two hours later. Then the next day. Then the day after. This of course trains the kids to do exactly what they see on TV, which is to act like a Looney Tune. We wouldn’t be surprised if little Johnny is hitting his sister twenty minutes into the Flushed Away marathon. This might not happen, but it could. In any case, shut off the TV forever and give Johnny a decent book. If he wants frogs and rats, which Flushed Away features, give him The Wind in the Willows. Let him read that ten times, and see if a different child emerges. We wouldn’t rely on that remedy alone, but stories of value and depth will prove more effective aids in child training than the dangerous sedative known as the Television. If Flushed Away teaches us that, then it has one useful purpose.

Entertainment: 5
Intelligence: 1
Morality: 1 (the lone value this movie has is that it’s somewhat entertaining. But entertainment for entertainment’s sake is a problem.)

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Happy Feet

Posted by J on August 20, 2007

One of the many penguin films of the past few years, Happy Feet won the Truly Moving Picture Award at the 2006 Heartland Film Festival, held in our beloved former home and Midwestern state. Why did it win? The chief criterion for the award is that the winning film should “explore the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life.” Thus, Happy Feet proves that what moderns mean by “the human journey” and “positive values” is nothing more than deep-fried penguin poo.

Happy Feet is a triumphant story for evolutionists who’ve spent no time thinking about the moral consequences of atheistic materialism. In Happy Feet‘s animated world of penguin silliness, survival of the fittest is at its cruelest. Penguins devour fish, sea leopards devour penguins, and killer whales devour everything. The Antarctic is an ecology of death and competition. But nevermind that, because penguins dance and sing idiotic pop songs. Happy Feet‘s penguins are given human qualities so that we can sympathize with their plight and believe its ending. This makes the movie’s message more heartbreaking (supposedly): that humans are destroying the habitats of all Antarctic creatures and we have to stop killing them all NOW. (Gee, people. Have a heart!) However, and this is what we exited the movie wondering, if everything in the Antarctic just lives to procreate and die, why should we care about the food supply of penguins? The environmentalist ethics of Happy Feet leaves us with absolutely no warrant for believing in its cause. In fact, it’s just the opposite. If everything is eating everything else in the world–and we are all collections of atoms anyway–then humans have every right to take and eat whatever we want. To quote Keynes out of context, we’re all dead in the long-run anyway. Further, if penguins evolved by natural selection, they will eventually die by natural selection. So why should we humans care when and by what means this happens? Happy Feet doesn’t supply the answers to these questions, and frankly it doesn’t want you to ask them. The ending is one of the lamest in the short history of movies. The script writers painted themselves into a corner, and in order to get out they had only one solution: to serve their audience deep-fried penguin poo.

Thankfully, Christians have justifiable warrant for conserving and maintaining global habitats: God’s creation mandate to Adam in Genesis’ opening chapters. This mandate shows us that God is the owner of creation and we are its stewards; we therefore are charged with earthly caretaking, a duty that includes not trashing our tiny blue ball in space. Happy Feet, a secular movie, doesn’t understand stewardship. It simply tries to make its viewers feel guilty without warrant (all of whom have no connection to emperor penguins), then calls on a centralized government power (the U.N.) to solve the penguin problem.

We won’t deny that this movie is stunning to look at, especially the long-takes with the camera swooping out and through the Antarctic terrain. But the incorporated pop music is absurd and not for children, and Christians who let their children watch this movie umpteen times have much explaining to do. We were not grooving when a bunch of penguins sang “Let’s Talk About Sex.” Worse, Happy Feet encourages generational rebellion by representing the older generation of penguins as wooden, oppressive fakers. You see, that generation has created a false belief system to deceive the younger generation. Only by singing Prince and Queen do the younger folks rebel against their older oppressors. But who cares about social progress? If Happy Feet‘s penguins don’t get eaten by sea leopards, they’ll die in the long, harsh polar winter. Or they’ll die in five billion years, when the sun cools and expands. In the long-term, nothing matters, and neither does this movie. So don’t even bother.

Entertainment: 2
Intelligence: 0
Morality: 0

Posted in Animated, They Spent Millions on This? | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

Ratatouille

Posted by J on August 4, 2007

Warning: Possible spoilers in the second paragraph.

Here’s an oddity. Ratatouille breaks with the traditions of animated movies, especially with that of Pixar’s recent popular fare. Instead of a simple quest story (as in Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, etc., etc.), we get an elaborate plot structure with an equally strange setting and premise. Most of this movie takes place in the kitchen of a restaurant in Paris (a majority of the characters are French), and the story is centered around the idea of savoring fine cuisine. There are so many significant minor characters that several of them get distracting, but Ratatouille splits its main character duties into two: Remy the rat and Linguini the human goofus. The two share a creative partnership that evolves, gets tested, and then morphs into a satisfying final outcome. This is the best part of the movie. Particularly satisfying was the idea of giving the rat the gift of creativity, then letting that creativity be worked out in his imaginative visions of famed chef Auguste Gusteau. A simpler movie would’ve made the story totally about rats or totally about humans, or else it would’ve given the visions of Gusteau to Linguini. But Ratatouille instead presents us with a host of perspectives, including Remy’s, Linguini’s, and morbid critic Anton Ego’s. This, no doubt, will prove rewarding on multiple viewings.

What partially diminishes Ratatouille‘s complexity is the fact that it tries to bash us over the head with its moral. In fact that moral is stated outright at the end: “Not everyone can be a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Only people goofier than Linguini could’ve missed that. Even worse is that this moral contradicts another of the movie’s prominent messages, that “anyone can cook,” which is the title of Gusteau’s famous book and the source for a few inspirational acts performed by the characters. But clearly (and Linguini is a stellar example) not everyone can cook. As symbolized in the dynamic between the hard-working but thieving rat colony and the palates of customers at five-star French restaurants, Ratatouille contains an implicit tension between egalitarianism and aristocracy. The ending not only leaves this tension unresolved, it blares it loudly. Ratatouille itself, we are told, is a peasant’s dish now being served in the most exquisite of restaurants. So which has really triumphed? What kind of social and intellectual structure is this movie really rooting for, and does it concur with (for instance) Exodus 18 or 1 Corinthians 12?

We quibbled with other choices: with Linguini as an American, with the inclusion of his relationship with Collette, his fellow cook, and with the notion that an elderly lady would fire innumerable shotgun blasts at rats. But this is the land of animation, after all. Ratatouille is one of the best looking movies we’ve ever seen; do not, in other words, watch it on a small or fuzzy screen. And the voicework for Anton Ego (performed by Peter O’Toole) is fantastic. Our favorite animated movie remains one of the Toy Storys, we aren’t sure which, but Ratatouille is more intelligent and novel than any other computer-generated movie we’ve seen. Be on the lookout for its political and social messages, and enjoy the show.

Entertainment: 8
Intelligence: 6
Morality: 7

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