Moana Review: Disney Have Made Yet Another Good Movie

 

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If a marketing agency comes up with the line “From the creators of Zootopia and Frozen” to promote Moana, you know you are in for something good. I would not say that Moana was as good as those two movies, but it is great for what it sets out to do.

2016 has been a really good year for Disney. It isn’t as good as Pixar were in their heyday, but they are better than Pixar have been in recent years. Moana is only a shade behind of Pete’s Dragon, The Jungle Book, Zootopia, and Queen of Katwe which were other movies Disney have released in 2016.

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The Disney 2016 catelogue. I would be happy with that list even though it’s not perfect and some of tne movies don’t show Disney’s finest hour he he he. 

Moana is an adventure story about the titular character who is a young Samoan woman who is next in line to be the chief of her people. There is a problem with her community’s food supply as it is wasting away. She decides to sail across oceans to find the solution to the problem in which Mau, a demi-god (Dwayne Johnson) is involved in.

While I don’t think Moana is quite as good as Disney’s recent efforts, the filmmakers still put so much effort into making it fun and succeeding in the process. The songs are fun and people remember them, the animation is gorgeous and there is good character development in Moana the female protagonist. At least she is confident character going into the story. I wish more Disney movies go beyond “The Princess” as a stock character in the future.

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These supporting characters had good moments. The grandmother had a great one.

There are also many scenes that are distinctive and it builds up to the climax really well. As much as that sounds like the standard thing to do, you would be surprised how many films don’t do that. There are scenes that are memorable in their own right. There is a scene involving a dumb chicken and another that had coconut pirates that looked epic, but I could tell it was well restrained. Which is a good thing because I am not a fan of films where their most memorable sequence is in the first third of the story.

One of the things that Moana could have done better was developing Maui the demi-god. While he had good entertaining moments and was funny, he came off as a bit arrogant. Which is fine, as long as the film addresses it.

When the tattoos you are wearing have better character development that the person who is wearing them, you are going to have a bad time. 

There is a what I thought would be a pivotal scene in which Maui would come to realize his vulnerability and his rashness when he leaves Moana behind on her quest. Such a scene does not exist in Moana. Therefore it came off to me as Maui growing a conscience for no reason when he makes his return.

To be honest, that was my biggest criticism and that was only mildly offputting. It only stuck out because a lot of the story was done so well. It was like finding a stain on white clothing instead of a stain on a unhygienic person.

For the overly formulaic path of so many Disney movies about physical journeys being a metaphorical journey of self-discovery, Moana hits a lot of right notes. It is almost as good as you can get under the limitations of such a familiar path the filmmakers took to making the movie ***3/4

Norm of the North: As Bad As It Looks

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Written by Nelson Cumming

Norm of the North is that movie you find at a Go-Lo or The Reject Shop that only the most desperate parent will buy just to distract the kids for two hours. It will actually sedate them. I honestly believe a nine-year-old will be able to tell the movie is terrible. It is so ineptly made and struggles to tell a single joke properly.

The Pitch

Could you possibly imagine any enthusiasm from a board meeting when the ideas man suggested this:

“We are going to have Rob Schneider play Norm: A twerking polar bear”

That idea was worth 18 million dollars.

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How the hell did Norm of the North bypass the Gruen Transfer?

I may even consider Norm of the North some twisted form of ironic meta humor. The reason being that I am currently studying for a marketing degree and this movie dabbles on about marketing jargon. The movie talks about approval ratings, statistics, re-postings, legalities and investors. Didn’t everyone involved in this realize this is a kids film?

If you account for the marketing budget (which is normally about the same as the production budget), It’s possible that the film didn’t break even. Part of the marketing campaign was advertising a trailer on Youtube. The trailer has a worse likes percentage than Ghostbusters.

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Left: Chris Stuckmann’s reaction to Norm of the North. Right: My reaction to watching Norm of the North

Why is this received so negatively you may ask, well a lot what is wrong with Norm of the North is slapped onto the animation. It is lazily done. The character movements are not naturally smooth and the textures are very basic without much detail to them. It’s like watching a kids TV computer animation. It’s very cheap B-grade looking.

There is also an over reliance of showing popular music and animals and people dancing to it. It served as pure filler that didn’t add anything to the story. It was like the movie was saying “Hey kiddies we know the business-speak can be terribly boring so we are going to entertain you now with more nothing!”

Perhaps another problem is the gags. The gags don’t have much humour in them at all. It goes down to pee and fart jokes that weren’t funny. The filmmakers obviously didn’t think so as they repeated the same unfunny jokes over and over again.

The one and only positive thing about Norm of the North is that it’s material is inherently harmless. Kids won’t be scarred for life and soccer moms won’t complain to classifications board about the movies PG rating. But a lot of adults will see just how aimless the execution is.

At one point, Norm of the North makes a dated Titanic reference and I wrote in my notes “A Titanic reference? That’s because Norm of the North is a sinking ship”. I have not seen a film where the animation was so poor and ineptly made. Watch the trailer and tell me if you have ever seen animation so poorly done on a feature length film that was releases in theaters. I really want to know.  -**

Storks Movie Review

 

storks-posterWritten by Nelson Cumming

Storks is one of the films that is scattershot (throwing things at the walls and seeing what sticks) but works. It has enough humor and heart to make it likable. This is a departure from the normal material of adult raunch comedies from director Nicholas Stoller but it never has a “first-time director” feel to it which is a plus. He juggles the material not so smoothly but gets the job done nonetheless

The film is all about storks who are birds who delivered babies to aspiring parents and it is run like a manufacturing business- you know, the kind of thing you believe as a kid where babies come from. Well that used to be the case until there was a stork that was over passionate about the baby and accidently broke the tracking device that contained the address to the baby’s family

18 years later the business model has completely changed and the factory no longer makes and delivers babies but they deliver all sorts of items that is run like a Fed-ex factory. Junior (Andy Samberg) is a carrier ambitious bird, climbing the corporate ladder and is about to take over the factory from his smug and arrogant boss (Kelsey Grammer). The baby is now a teenager called Tulip who is the only human and is a little clumsy. The boss makes a deal with Junior: Fire Tulip and gets promoted to “boossssss”

The problem is that Tulip accidently starts up the baby making part of the factory and a letter comes from a kid called Nate who longs for a baby brother who has “lots of ninja skills” because his parents are too busy with their home business to take care of him. So the story then becomes Junior and Tulip trying to deliver the baby to Max

Storks is funny in odd and weird ways

To describe how the filmmakers try to make Storks funny would take awhile because there isn’t a cohesive direction in the comedy but it strangely works here. There are adult comedy elements but there are no sexual jokes. There are business jokes that any adult could relate to, yet there are gags that were so overly childish that I couldn’t believe I laughed at. There are several gags with wolves and let’s just say “their methods of transportation” that had me laughing.

This is a film where the comedy is both rooted in reality and fantasy and darts in, out and around the two. You have to be willing to go from understanding the logic the movie creates to completely suspending disbelief to capture the movie’s zaniness. If you need a little consistency and logic in the humor then this is probably not for you.

Despite these lack of consistent brand of humor Storks is witty enough with good charact development between Tulip and Junior. This is a decently fun movie where a lot of things work in the unclear direction ***3/4

The Secret Life of Pets Review

Genre: Animated adventure/comedy
Year: 2016
Rating: PG
Runtime: 87 minutes
Main Cast: Louis C.K.
Eric Stonestreet
Kevin Hart
Jenny Slate
Production Company: Illumination Entertainment
Written by: Brian Lynch
Cinco Paul
Ken Daurio
Directed by: Chris Renaud
Yarrow Cheney

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Written by Nelson Cumming

If there’s a time the makers of Minions should be appealing to kids, now would be that time. The Secret Lives of Pets is a movie that achieves the sole purpose of keeping the kids occupied for two hours while the adults smile because the kids are happy. I think The Secret live of Pets is fine. Just fine.

The story follows a dog called Max (Louis CK) who loves his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) until she gets a new dog called Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Through a complex series of events, they get lost in New York City. Both Max and Duke try to find their way home and the neighboring animals including Gidgit (Jeny Slate) who’s Max’s love interest.

A tired premise.

Does the premise sound too familiar? A tad formulaic? Well, the movie is just that at its core. However, it is covered with surgery, surgery sweetness that makes the pill easier to swallow.

This movie almost exactly reminds me of watching Angry Birds. They both have vibrant and colorful animation and the story flows in a nice linear fashion. Both movies also have likable characters but both movies lack something animation itself cannot fix: substance and meaning. What both have in common is they both were entertaining enough to watch that made me feel ok by the end.

Comedically speaking, The Secret Lives of Pets has nothing that you can take away from unless you have never owned a dog. There are so many dog gags that it gets too repetitive. From Max instinctually surrendering by rolling on his back to dogs chewing shoes and finally to dogs getting distracted by a ball. This is the level of humor that permeates this movie. While that is not bad, it doesn’t offer anything new to the doggy bowl.

The movie borrows from many animal movies over the decades through its premise of animals going through the low life of the streets while comically bumbling their way through to reach their ultimate goal. Unfortunately, The Secret Lives of Pets does not add anything new in that department either.

The animation and cinematography are top notch.

What is so good about The Secret Lives of Pets is the colorful, vibrant animation and the sweeping cinematography that gives the movie it’s positive energy. There are landscape shots of New York city that are both beautiful and overwhelming. There are also shots where the movie sweeps up, down and around New York like we are looking through the eyes of a swooping bird that was pleasing to the eyes.

The overall sound is good to listen to.

Illumination Entertainment has hired the right people to do the voice overs for their roles. Kevin Hart sounds great playing Snowball the bunny. I thought Jenny Slate had the perfect voice to accompany Gidget the little white dog. Slate also voiced the antagonistic mayor in Zootopia, though she is much more fitting for the role here. The sound of all the voice acting was unusually crystal clear which is good.

The Secret Life of Pets also has a musical selection that fits with the movie’s tone. Bright, happy and adventurous are the words to describe not only the music or the movie but the elements that Illumination constantly strive for in their filmmaking. They succeed at hitting those goals but they can only get you so far.

The Verdict

There is nothing wrong with The Secret Lives of Pets, it’s just now with the standards of quality filmmaking and storytelling that people are used to in animation the movie feels like a “less than” movie. The movie is good for the weekend but Illumination Entertainment is sticking to their comfort zones, which you cannot do for long before the animation world passes by. Maybe Sing will make me change my mind for the company later this year. I hope it does. ***

P.S. Shoutout to Dana Carvey who is the Pops in the movie. He is finally recovering from the movie The Master of Disaster and Jack and Crack. He spent years away from the limelight to focus on his family. It’s about time he made a successful comeback 🙂

Pete’s Dragon Soars in Spring

Genre: Adventure
Year: 2016
Rating: PG
Length: 102 minutes
Main Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard
Oakes Fegley
Karl Urban
Robert Redford
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Written by: David Lowery
Toby Halbrooks
Directed by: David Lowery

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Written by Nelson Cumming
Pete’s Dragon is a remake of the 1977 animated original. The remake is a live-action film (unfortunately, the dragon is only animated) and is really good in its storytelling, it’s ability to go places other filmmakers would say is audacious to try and it’s ability to know and play the audience like a symphony. It was an awesome summer flick.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a 9-year-old orphan that encounters a friendly dragon in the forest through a series of events and lives in the forest with the dragon for six years. In the town that occupies the forest, no one believes in the dragon’s existence when Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) tells children, through storytelling, his experience of encountering the Dragon many years ago. Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) a park ranger and daughter of Mr. Meachem finds Pete and he tells the dragon’s existence. Grace then explores the forest to see if the dragon is real.

Director David Lowery loves playing the audience

What is great about this film is that it manages to change from uplifting happy moments into sad, poignant moments and it does this from scene to scene. The funny thing is that Pete’s Dragon is a rare film where the constant mood change feels seamless and not erratic. The kids at my screening were into this film. The kids cheered when Lowery wanted them to cheer and there was stunned silence or gasps when there was a poignant or tense scene.

In a fun way, I was thinking “I know what you are trying to make me feel you bastard but goddammit it’s working” David Lowery just knows how to get people to react in a positive way that I cannot quite explain. The best thing I can think of is he gets every element that makes a good film right.

Every actor plays their part

While I don’t believe there was a noteworthy performance in Pete’s Dragon, every actor played a good performance. Oakes Fegley, the child actor who plays Pete gives a good performance. I always respect it when child actors are entertaining throughout a movie. He was supported through Bryce Dallas Howard who helps give the movie some chemistry with everyone she interacts with and Karl Urban was great at being the antagonist. Urban reminded me that I can still dislike a villain despite him being a G-rated kids villain.

Pete’s Dragon: A courageous movie in subtle ways

I am going to be blunt here: I love it when a movie has balls. I love it, even more, when I think a movie won’t have balls then gives them to you when you least expect it. Ten minutes in I have the pre-conceived notion of “This is a kids film, they will only infer bad things, not show us” I was glad to be proven wrong.

There were moments in the movie where they went places I didn’t think they would go, even more, surprising was they depicted inheritally graphic events in a way kids could digest and not shy away from. When loggers find the dragon and perceive it as evil, they try to capture it by throwing a lasso over its head and hanging it from a tree. Another graphic event occurs at the climax. Trust me, it is not as bad as I described, but the filmmakers went there to make us believe that the heroes could lose. Surprisingly, those scenes were greatly executed and unexpected from me.
Pete’s Dragon is a movie that fits into the odd category of being a great movie without any one thing standing out. I think it’s because everything works and everyone who worked on the film just wanted to do a real good job as a unit. The end product is better than the sum of its parts. This is the first time that I have reviewed three movies in a row that have gotten more than or equal to four stars. The past two months have actually been great with only one film getting less than three stars. Shows you there are good movies out there. Don’t believe a person when they say “movies are dead” ****1/4

Sausage Party Review

Genre: Animated Comedy
Year: 2016
Rating: MA
Length: 88 minutes
Main Cast: Seth Rogen
Kristen Wiig
Jonah Hill
Production Company: Annapurna Pictures, Point Grey Pictures
Written by: Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Story by: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Jonah Hill
Directed by: Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan

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Written By Nelson Cumming

Love it or hate it, Sausage Party is a movie that you will remember. It is a type of movie I have never seen this year. It is an r-rated, rude, crude animation comedy. It has the iconic actors that are a part of the new wave of R-rated comedies such as Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. With such talent signing up for this movie I was highly anticipating it for weeks. The multi-million dollar question for movies as innovative and promising as this is: Does it live up to its hype?

Yes, but…

That would be the short conclusion to my review of Sausage Party.

The plot revolves around personified foods at a supermarket who are eager to be bought by people as they believe that “The Great Beyond” (which is outside the supermarket) will lead them to a better life Frank (Seth Rogan), a sausage, finds out the fate of “The Great Beyond” is not as lush as it seems for the perishable foods and they must stop humans from consuming them.

Really Long Highs, Followed by Really long Lows

When Sausage Party is funny, it is damn funny. When it isn’t funny, it is a little flat in the room. When it wasn’t funny it wasn’t a crowd killer like Zoolander 2 was, but I felt the audience wanting to laugh because the first ten minutes was so good. There was a period where no one laughed for 20 minutes, but at the same time, I felt that no one turned against the movie. Despite the fact the movie is only 88 minutes long, they didn’t have enough tight comedic material to warrant 88 minutes.

Nothing is Sacred

With Sausage Party, they dared to go to the worst places for humour and I loved it. They had fun with religion (A personified Lebanese bread hoped there would be 72 extra virgin olive oils at The Great Beyond) they did a lot of gags about pot (If Seth Rogan is in it, what do you expect?) and there are a lot of sex jokes.

The great part about a lot of the gags that hit in Sausage Party is that they are smartly written in a way that works for both observant and unobservant audience members. The depictions of food torture were highly graphic but easily watchable and humorous. A lot of the best humor works on multiple different levels and is innovative.

The Swearing and Swearing Leaves a Lot Less Caring

The second and last major problem with Sausage Party is there are a lot of f-bombs (and three c-bombs) used in a tiresome manner. Initially, it was surprising because they were swearing in enthusiastic ways. Eventually when they kept doing it, it became tiresome.

I predicted it was on the Wikipedia list for the most uses of the f- word in a film. You need to say it 150 or more to qualify. That’s how many I predicted. The only other time that thought crossed my mind in a movie was in Dirty Grandpa and sure enough, it sad the f-word 160 times. It’s also right alongside Dirty Grandpa. Click here if you don’t believe me

My Conclusion

Sausage Party is outrageously funny enough to overcome its demerits. You can say it’s orgies of fun but the climax is fucked up ***1/2

Kubo and the Two Strings Review

Genre: Fantasy, animation
Year: 2016
Rating: PG
Runtime: 102 minutes
Main Cast: Charlize Theron
Art Parkinson
Matthew McConaughey
Production Company: Laika
Written by: Marc Haimes
Chris Butler
Directed by: Travis Knight

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Written by Nelson Cumming

Kubo and the Two Strings is a movie with ambition which is something I like to see. It fell short of my high expectations but not by a lot. The story is surprisingly dark but does provide tonal variation by the visual splendor of the animation. I think story-wise it could have been better, but I liked it.

The story follows Kubo who is raised solely by her mother as she ran away from her evil family. Kubo entertains his village by producing live origami shows. However, he is strictly told by his mother to not go out of the house at night. One day, Kubo stays up at night only to awaken a vengeful spirit. Kubo must team up with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughy) to find three hidden armaments to battle the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes)

Kubo and the Two Strings works well on the visual spectacle. It is a rare movie that undertakes stop-motion animation but does it a Japanese anime style. It is intriguing not only because that’s a rarity in a film but also because it looks visually stunning. The animation has a great blend of darkness and vibrancy, strong colors and inventive visuals. The origami scenes and the evil twins are great examples of the movies variation.

The other thing that makes Kubo and the Two Strings interesting is Charlize Theron’s character called Monkey. She provides a sweet caring voice that balances the characters overprotected but sweet nature. She makes the movie more interesting than it already was and there was really good interplay with her and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey character)

Kubo and the Two Strings was great until about two-thirds in when it started to lose me a little. The main problem it has is that some of the plot elements are not explained in the universe it’s set in. I kept wondering why memories were forgotten by banished characters even through their eyes were still intact as well as other things. Also one of the subplots was predictable which was the revelation of the Matthew McConaughey character that I thought could have gone in another direction.

I, for some reason, felt that the themes were not well presented as I would have liked. That said, this movie has the guts to explore themes of death, morality vs. immorality, and the high importance of memory shaping a human being. I just don’t think they connected with me on an emotional level. On an intellectual level sure, but didn’t have the spark to connect with me emotionally. That said, they didn’t do anything wrong, I just wasn’t emotionally connected to it when it was clear the movie wanted me to.

I think the people who will like it the most will be people who are into Japanese anime because the characters, the animation, the symbolism and the story were stylised like the works of Studio Ghibli (The studio who made Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle) but I also think a casual audience will like it as well. I think that Kubo and the Two Strings is a different movie as it tries to bridge the gap between those two audiences: The anime enthusiasts and the casuals.

Overall Kubo and the Two Strings is pretty good. Its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. I believe that it’s weaknesses prevent it from being a great movie, but it doesn’t stop it from being a good one. It was well worth my time to see the style of the animation alone, let alone the high bar it aims to achieve. ***1/2