18 posts categorized "animation"


'Smurfs' up!

If you're about 5, which I am give or take a half-century or so, "The Smurfs" frolic across a movie screen in eye-popping 3-D like Snow White's blue-tinted Dwarfs on holiday in a far, far away place called New York City.

Those slightly older than that might detect more than a little similarity to the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" franchise.

It's refreshing that this big-screen re-tooling of the TV cartoon "Smurfs" of the 1980s is aimed at kids.  Even though human adults co-mingle with the magically transformed Smurfs in a modern day Big Apple, there's no attempt at dual-aged comic appeal.  You know, jokes that appeal to the target kiddies and others aimed at kids' parents, who generally tag along to movies like this.

The story is simple enough.  In an attempt to avoid peril at the hands of evil  wizard Gargamel (talented Hank Azaria with a shaved head and prosthetic buck teeth), a six pack of tiny Smurfs are sucked through a magic portal and deposited in a stream in Central Park, New York, Earth.

Gargamel and his hissing cat Azrael soon show up as well, and the race is on.  But Papa Smurf (voiced with serious wisdom and wit by the ageless Jonathan Winters) and Clumsy (Anton Yelchin) manage, quite by accident, to land in the apartment occupied by a nervous ad exec (Neil Patrick Harris) and his good natured wife named -- what else -- Grace (Jayma Mays).

There's not really anywhere to go in a family comedy featuring main character a little over seven inches tall that the Chipmunks haven't already ventured, of course.  But director Raja Gosnell ("Scooby-Doo," "Beverly Hills Chihuahua") and a handful of screenwriters keep the mayhem coming.

The little blue dudes and one, only one little blue lady (Smurfette, voiced by Katy Perry), are adequately computer-generated and in 3-D (in select theaters).

Harris ("How I Met Your Mother" on TV), proving versatile enough for almost any show biz situation, fully commits to his plight of playing second fiddle to a handful of little blue, well, handfuls.

"The Smurfs" turns out to be fun for the entire family, whether you're a kid or a parent watching your child giggle at the silliness.

But what do I know?  I'm this many (holding up four fingers and a thumb), give or take a half-century or so.


Larry the overused 'Cars' guy

In its first sequel with more likely to come, Disney/Pixar's "Cars" franchise heads to Europe and Asia with Mater, the good-natured rusty tow truck, out front.

That, of course, means a spotlight vocal prance by Larry the Cable Guy.  It also means a heavy helping of corn pone humor.  In other words, "Cars" has shifted into a cash-for-clunkers franchise in its second drive across the screen,

I freely admit to being a Larry the Cable Guy fan.  By that I mean the clever comedian with the sleeveless shirt and the raunch-riddled mouth who has turned lowbrow redneck humor into his own license to print money.

Unfortunately, that's not the Larry we get in the "Cars" sequel.  We get a sanitized voice that's muffled into a G-rating.

And even worse, Larry is expected to carry the entertainment load this time, instead of just being one of the more interesting digitally animated four-wheeled characters hanging out in Radiator Springs, a place where cars act like humans instead of automobiles.

"Cars 2," another slick, occasionally eye-popping example of Pixar expertise, is too long at almost two hours, especially for kids beginning to squirm behind their oversized 3-D glasses.

And, from this aisle seat at least, it's too boring.  That surprises me a little with Pixar head John Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis at the helm.

Like Chevy Chase's "Vacation" franchise, "Cars" heads for Europe (and Asia) in search of new locales to perhaps find success in exotic backgrounds of Tokyo, Paris and London.

Owen Wilson returns as the voice of hotshot race car Lightning McQueen and is generally fine, if a little too laid-back.  McQueen lines up against chief rival Francesco Bernoulli (voiced with appropriate flair by John Turturro) in a series of Grand Prix races, which Mater either messes up or saves.

The film's other driving force is a spy caper featuring master British spy car Finn McMissile (veteran actor Michael Caine) and British desk agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who's pressed into field spy duty.

Frankly, the young kids in attendance seemed strapped in and paying more attention than I expected.  For those who hopped on this one-trick cinematic pony the first time around, though, "Cars 2" will likely come off as an unnecessary second drive around the animated garage.

Some good news, though:  The "Toy Story" short cartoon "Hawaiian Vacation" is a pleasant added-on surprise before "Cars 2" cranks up.

I am, however, still trying to figure out why a long trailer for "The Lion King" re-release in September takes anxious movie-goers around the "Circle of Life" one more time before "Cars" can start its engines.


Fur flies in battle heavy 'Kung Fu Panda 2'

In the first animated family comedy "Kung Fu Panda," we learned what funny guy Jack Black might look like if he was born a noodle-making panda named Po in fictional ancient cartoon China.

And, oh yeah, that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, even roly-poly pandas.

The sequel, aptly titled "Kung Fu Panda 2," offers these insights:

That loving goose that runs the village noodle shop is not Po's natural father after all.  (Take a second if you need it to get over the shock.)

And perhaps most importantly, audiences will be told that the best way to fight really, really well is to find inner peace.

That's a pretty thin story arc for a movie franchise featuring the voices of A-list stars like Black, Angelina Jolie (Tigress), Jackie Chan (Monkey), Seth Rogen (Mantis), Lucy Liu (Viper), Dustin Hoffman (Master Shifu) and others.

From this aisle seat, the first time around in 2008 was a novel hoot.  Po learned to kung fu fight with his idols, the kung fu masters listed above, and generated a ton of fun going through the process.

The sequel, written by the same team of Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger, feels a little strained when it comes to story fodder.  Jennifer Yuh Nelson moves up from head of story on the original "Kung Fu Panda' to the director's chair in this one, and may still have a little to learn when it comes to battle overkill vs. character development and depth.

And while I'm on my soap box, the bow to the unnecessary trend of pushing 3-D glasses for a premium price is not only unnecessary, it's ineffective.

To me, the animation looks a little muddy and less defined for the second Po go.  And the emphasis is on fighting, which is sometimes creative but repetitive and boring at other times.

Gary Oldman, who hammed it up recently as wolf-hunter Father Solomon in "Red Riding Hood," brings gusto to his vocal role.  He's Lord Shen, a peeved peacock that embraces the Industrial Age only to forge cannons to wipe out his foes and, while he's at it, kung fu.

Young children might delight in all the mayhem.  Adults who bring them, however, are likely to be yawning before Po even raises a paw to bid farewell to his Pa.

Duty calls, you see, even for a fun-loving panda that would probably rather hang around the kitchen and see how many noodles he can stuff into his furry mug.

Since movie studios need to worry about bottom line profit margin and pandas do not, I get the feeling that once around the kung fu block was enough for Po.

It certainly was for me.


CGI Critterville visits 'Chinatown' in 'Rango'

In the ever-increasing deluge of animated films, there are soaring adventures for kids like "How to Train Your Dragon," somber thought pieces for adults like "The Illusionist" and those that aspire to appeal to several generations, such as "Up."

"Rango" is a wild card, even using the aforementioned parameters.

"Rango," my friends, is for movie lovers.  While it might appeal to kids to some extent, director Gore Verbinski aims this amazing critter Western not only at adults, but at adults with such diverse movie-viewing experience as "Chinatown" and, dare I say, "The Terror of Tiny Town."

"Chinatown," of course, was Roman Polanski's sleaze-oozing potboiler of 1974 starring Jack Nicholson and late, great director John Huston as a power broker with a tight grip on the L.A. water supply.  All you need to know about "The Terror of Tiny Town" (1938), an awful movie, by the way, is that it spoofed traditional Westerns by inserting little people into all the traditional roles.

"Rango" does the same, but with critters small and smaller.

Johnny Depp, who has "Arrrrrrrrrrrded" his way through a trio of Verbinski-directed "Pirates of the Caribbean" adventures, injects a ton of personality into the title character.  Rango, or at least the violently displaced family pet that will become Rango, is a chameleon.

He gets lost in the desert near Las Vegas, then, by chance, winds up in the dusty Western town aptly called Dirt.  The water supply has gone bone dry and the mayor, a devious turtle voiced by Ned Beatty (looking a little and sounding a lot like Huston), seems to always be sipping some.

After bragging a little in the saloon following a series of cactus juice shots, Rango is named sheriff.  A posse is formed and the little lizard that could (or maybe not) hits the trail to bring water back to Dirt.

To fully understand the beauty of the CGI animation in "Rango," you just have to experience it.  Say what you will about Verbinski turning an old Disney theme park ride into a cash cow movie franchise, he has done wonders here.

In addition to Depp, who is marvelous, Isla Fisher, Abigail Breslin, Alfred Molina, Bill Nighy and the great Harry Dean Stanton all lend their voices (and are  all tremendous) to a well-imagined character menagerie.

The Western cliches come fast and furious.  But combined with the visual brilliance, "Rango" morphs into an animated comic-adventure that's sure to become a topic of conversation when the next movie awards season heats up.  (No need to worry about that now.  That won't happen for a couple of weeks at least.)

My only minor complaint about this tongue-in-and-out-of-cheek Western spoof is that screenwriter John Logan ("The Aviator," "Sweeney Todd") gets a little too mystical at times.  And, at almost two hours, it definitely runs too long for small children.

I do wish Logan had sneaked in one line, though:
"Forget it Rango, it's Dirt."


Bard to the bone

Lawn statues take on "Romeo and Juliet," perhaps the greatest love tragedy in the history of the written word.  Not counting "The Hangover," of course.

Who says Hollywood is out of ideas?

Actually, with serious apologies to William Shakespeare, "Gnomeo & Juliet" isn't all that bad, especially if you're a kid and you're getting your first dose of Shakespeare and 3-D glasses at the same time.

For adults, though ... You know what, adults can enjoy this silly back yard, off-the-wall Shakespeare reboot as well.

Seven credited writers (Yes, seven and that's not counting Mr. Shakespeare) turn the world's infamous family feud into a stand-off between the Reds and the Blues.   They fight.  They sling insults at each other across the fence they share.

And they're all lawn gnomes.

Two of them, though, are in love.  And yes, Gnomeo (James McAvoy) is a blue and Juliet (Emily Blunt) is, at first glance, a dreaded Red.

I would have probably bailed on this vibrantly colorful silliness if Juliet had wailed from her balcony:  "Gnomeo, Gnomeo, wherefore art thou Gnomeo?"

Or maybe I wouldn't have.

Director Kelly Asbury ("Shrek 2") keeps things moving along.  The animation occasionally dazzles and the voice talent is top notch.

In addition to Blunt ("The Devil Wears Prada") and McAvoy ("Atonement"), Michael Caine is a hoot as Juliet's father, Lord Redbrick, and Maggie Smith (the "Harry Potter" movies) delights as Lady Blueberry.

"Gnomeo & Juliet" is a cinematic truffle.  Delicious in its foolhardiness for a while, and then tossed from the mind and forgotten.

But remember this.  When humans aren't looking, the gnomes out in the back yard might just be up to something.


'Tangled' shines as golden family fun

In the somewhat confusing world of Disney animated movies these days, a movie based on the classic tale Rapunzel is called "Tangled."

That's where the muddled presentation ends, though.  This goldie locks yarn packs computer-generated vim, vocal vigor and spirited animal characters to go along with the familiar story of a beautiful girl with magical hair that measures 70-feet in length.

"Tangled," available in 3-D and traditional 2-D, is a robust comedy with romance the entire family can enjoy together.

Snatched by Gothel (voiced by Donna Murphy), an evil women hoping to keep the secret of eternal youth all to herself, Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) grows up in a tower in a secluded area of the forest.

Her parents, the king and queen, release floating lanterns in a desperate attempt to reach their kidnapped daughter each year on her birthday.   As that special day approaches to signal the start of her 18th year, Rapunzel lets down her hair and runs off with Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a thief with a heart of gold as bright as Rapunzel's rather extended hair.

Co-directors Nathan Greno (getting his feature-film shot) and Byron Howard ("Bolt") take full advantage of Dan Fogelman's ("Bolt") briskly paced script.  There's more than a little of something for everyone.  Girls will love the fairy tale romance.  Boys are likely to delight in the action sequences, and parents can breathe easy knowing that Disney -- and more specifically these days, co-executive producer John Lasseter -- is going to keep everything in the family film arena.

Moore, who's been toiling in TV lately ("How I Met Your Mother," "Grey's Anatomy"), brings effervescence mixed with a teeny bit of rebellion to Rapunzel, which should have been the title character.

Animation film-makers must agonize over whether their vocal co-stars will generate the needed on-screen chemistry using only their vocal chords.  In this case, the directing duo had nothing to worry about.  Levi (as Flynn Rider), the title character of "Chuck" on TV, matches Moore syllable by syllable as the career thief who might just not be so bad after all.

Animated flicks often overdo their computer-generated animal sidekicks.  While that is the case somewhat with Rapunzel's overly cautious pet chameleon Pascal, Maximus, the duty-bound palace guard horse Maximus is a hoot.  

Actually, Maximus only looks like a horse.  He sniffs around for clues like a police dog.  It may sound like it would get overly tedious, but Maximus works to the maximum.

And so does "Tangled," despite its title change and rather one-dimensional story tone.

Gather up the family and treat yourself to the newest animated film delight.  I'm betting you'll be glad you did.


'Despicable' fun brightens summer slate

With an angular lead character that looks like he fell out of a computer somewhere between "The Triplets of Belleville" and "Ratatouille," "Despicable Me" captivates with anti-hero bad-boy naughtiness and determined orphan charm.

It must be a snap for animators to round up A-list talent these days.  The biggest stars appear to be lining up for their turn at the microphone.  Production after production has delivered, beginning probably with the first "Toy Story" in 1995 when Tom Hanks claimed his place in the animation universe as Woody and Tim Allen blasted off "to infinity and beyond" as Buzz Lightyear.

"Despicable Me," like so many animated yarns hitting screens in 3-D, welcomes Steve Carell to the CG-character club.  Of course Carell, who has announced he'll exit "The Office," his highly successful TV sitcom, has breathed vocal life into animated characters before.  He was Hammy the hyperactive Squirrel in "Over the Hedge" in 2006, for instance, and the mayor in "Horton Hears a Who!" two years ago.

Gru, the triangular ambitious villain Carell voices in "Despicable Me," however, is the kind of character that can leave a lasting imprint.

As it turns out, Gru, who has very high evil aspirations, merely wants to steal the moon.  That's right, in this animated world where a rival villain (the nerdy Vector voiced by Jason Segel of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") has already made off with one of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Gru's topper is to grab the moon and demand a princely ransom from Earthlings.

These are the kinds of villainy, I suppose, we can only find in animated fare.   Jimmy Stewart offered to lasso the moon for Donna Reed when they were courting in "It's a Wonderful Life" in 1947.  Stewart's lovestruck George Bailey was just joshin', though.

Gru is so serious about his task that he has a secret lair under his semi-Gothic house in an otherwise ordinary bedroom community.  Every villain needs a lair, of course, and Gru has a good one.  Dozens, perhaps hundreds of tiny yellow minions construct whatever the boss needs; sort of an anti-Santa's workshop.  

Resident mad scientist Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand, on screen recently in "Get Him to the Greek") is the brains of the operation, and might just be more evil than Gru himself, who's a bit of a mama's (Julie Andrews) boy.

"Despicable Me" works where some elaborate animated fables has failed.  Co-screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (both part of the "College Road Trip" writing team) and co-directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin (both with animated short experience) fill the world they've created with gadgets (a shrinkage machine), off-beat adventure and the cutest trio of young orphans you're likely to see on a movie screen -- animated or not -- for years to come.

Let's just say it takes a heap of evil to resist three precocious faces in desperate need of a father figure.  Another impressive thing:  The directors don't overuse the 3-D effect, which apparently takes major restraint these days.

With a PG-rating, "Despicable Me" serves up family entertainment that'll have the kids on the edge of their seats with a to-the-moon-and-back tale.  Parents, meanwhile, can breathe a sigh of non-offensive entertainment relief.


Third time a charming 'Toy Story' too

Well, kids of all ages, there's still plenty of entertainment giddyup left in Woody's pull-string.

"Toy Story 3" defies the usual second-sequel doldrums with a rousing story and spirited, lovable characters, as well as a sweet-talking villain in the form of a cuddly teddy bear that smells like strawberries.

The 11-year gap between the second "Toy Story" and this one evaporates the instant a frolicsome blend of computer animated characters both familiar and new launch an emotional adventure that, believe it or not, pushes Woody, Buzz Lightyear and pals to the brink of fiery toy hell, a.k.a. the furnace at the city dump.

The first "Toy Story" arrived in 1995 with the impact of last year's "Avatar."  John Lasseter and his creative geniuses over at Pixar altered the animation universe with mind-boggling technology.  Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz (Tim Allen), Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles) and the rest of a boy named Andy's pals rolled out of the cinematic toy box as the first full-length animated feature created entirely in a computer (CG) by artists.

The challenge this time for Lasseter and his Pixar staff, who now create under the Disney banner, was to tone done today's advanced computer technology.  The goal, achieved grandly, I might add, was for the 21st century versions of Andy's toy box pals to maintain the original tone of movement.

That accomplished, Lasseter (executive producer this time after directing the first two) and director Lee Unkrich (co-director of "Toy Story 2") sought to continue the exhilarating combination of action-adventure, comedy and heartfelt feelings.

The story, conceived by Lasseter, Unkrich and "WALL-E" writer-director Andrew Stanton, dips high and low on the emotional roller coaster.   Andy, once again voiced by John Morris, is 17 and packing for college.  What to do with his childhood pals?  Trash 'em or box them up for the attack his mom (Laurie Metcalf) dictates.

There's a mix-up and all the toys except Woody are set out with the trash.  This is the point where the latest "Toy Story" moves beyond quirky to something a little darker than you will expect from a PG rating.  Michael Arndt, an Academy Award winner for his edgy "Little Miss Sunshine" screenplay, sends Woody and the gang off to Sunnyside Daycare.

It appears perfect  at first.  Rex (Wallace Shawn), cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and the rest haven't been given playtime attention in years.  But Lotso (Ned Beatty), the deceivingly sweet-sounding teddy bear in charge, wants to throw the new arrivals in the path of what a battered Buzz Lightyear later refers to as "inappropriate age behavior."

Levity balances the weight of the adventure at times.  And never better than when Barbie (Jodi Benson) meets Ken (Michael Keaton) and falls head-over-high, high heels for a guy who appears to be nothing more than a Barbie fashion accessory. (And a light-in-the-loafers one at that.)

Know this, though, parents:  Arndt pushes this tale into dangerous plot turns.  In fact, he presses it into dark areas where probably almost any other scribe writing for kids would back off.

Thankfully, Lasseter and his computer gurus embrace the dangerous story curves and pepper them with delightful and frightful new toys.  My personal favorite is the ominous cymbal-clanging monkey in charge of Sunnyside security.

"Toy Story 3" may be a little too scary for very little kids.  Otherwise, the magic is back for an unprecedented third time.


'Shrek's' 'A Wonderful Life,' lousy sequel

The new "Shrek" is a wreck, and not one that's interesting enough to slow down for.

What else should we possibly expect from a third sequel in a franchise that launched in 2001?

Let's face it ... again.  It's time to bid farewell to the lovable green ogre.

I know what you're thinking:  "Hey, it's Shrek.  My kids will love it."

Maybe.  Perhaps cinematic newbies born too late to enjoy "Shrek" in its prime will.  This one can be viewed from behind 3-D glasses, which only really matters for the opening sequence of white horses appearing to gallop off the screen and into the audience.

Once the horses and the carriage they're pulling have passed, however, the kids will be "enjoying" a blatant rehash of "It's a Wonderful Life," of all things.

In the fourth installment of the once creatively vibrant fairy tale set in a twisted land titled Far Far Away, our rotund hero is fighting the marital/parental blahs; a midlife crisis.  His triplet little ogres are annoying him more with every burp or other gas passing (sure to draw a shock laugh from the kiddies).

Soon after Shrek blows his top at the kids' first birthday party, Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn, a feature voice newcomer who's also in charge of the story) offers the big, green, disenchanted guy the same deal Clarence the angel-in-training sold to Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life."  

The details vary slightly, but suddenly Shrek never existed (just like Stewart's George Bailey).  Far Far Away is ravaged like Bedford Falls gone to hell.  Donkey (voiced vibrantly by Eddie Murphy as usual) has no idea who Shrek is.

What of Fiona (Cameron Diaz)?  A human damsel without her Shrek savior by day and ogre by night,  Fiona's leading the ogre resistance against the king (Rumpelstiltskin, of course) and the witches who protect him.

"Shrek Forever After," directed with lots of bluster but little spirit by Mike Mitchell ("Sky High," "Surviving Christmas"), is a sequel with such minuscule oomph that one of its main characters provides the tired metaphor.

Puss In Boots, the Zorro-like kitty voiced by Antonio Banderas, has grown fat and lazy (just like the franchise itself).  When Puss, which can barely right himself, begs Donkey to lend him a tongue to groom fur he can no longer reach, it's almost as if screenwriters Josh Klausner ("Date Night") and Darren Lemke (a feature film first-timer) are signaling us that they're throwing in the adventure towel.

That brings us to Mike Myers ("Austin Powers"), the former "Saturday Night Live" standout who has been at the microphone as Shrek for almost a dozen years now.

For whatever reason -- personal challenges (the death of his mentor father, a divorce) or maybe just due to the fact that there's nowhere left to go with the green ogre who would rather be having a mud bath than tending the kids -- Myers has lost his joy of performance.  

And he took "Shrek Forever After" with him.


Computer animated 'Dino' might

"How to Train Your Dragon" isn't one of the truly great animated comic adventures like "Up" or "Shrek" or the first "Toy Story," which rollicked across movie screens way back in 1995.

It's packed with vibrant entertainment value, though.  And parents aren't likely to doze off or be disgusted by this rambunctious adventure set in the long-ago fantasy world of plus-sized Vikings and fire-breathing dragons.

Young kids today probably have no inkling that animated films of their generation are no longer harnessed by technical limitations.  The sky really is the imagination limit these days.  Within a minute or two of opening -- even before, perhaps, the 3-D glasses are settled properly onto ears and noses -- the sky fills with angry, marauding dinosaurs-on-the-hunt.

A scrawny teen-age Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel)  is at the center of what appears to be a series of maelstroms dating back 300 years, when the Vikings first landed on the fictional Isle of Berk.

If brawn, not brains were all that mattered in this survival-of-the-fittest yarn, Hiccup would probably appear briefly, as the name implies.  Writer-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who brought "Lilo & Stitch" (a 2002 animated tale I really liked) to the screen, instead mold this unlikely leading boy-man into the easy-to-like anti-hero.

Hiccup's dad Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) is the tribal chief.  Frankly, he's a little ashamed of his thin wisp of a son.  When inventive Hiccup brings down a dreaded Night Fury dinosaur, however, things change drastically. He's sent to dragon slayer school and Stoick the Vast's chest, which is already puffed way out, puffs out more.

For a while, I had a decent time marveling at the technical artistry the directors bring to the screen from the 2003 children's book by Cressida Cowell. It soon becomes obvious, though, that "How to Train a Dragon" bears striking similarities to James Cameron's futuristic sci-fi marvel "Avatar."  

Hiccup befriends the wild breast Night Fury, which he eventually names Toothless.  Together, they soar on a journey that might just bring together two very different tribes (human and beast), just like in "Avatar."

The vocal talent soars right along with the visuals.  In addition to Baruchel and Butler, late-night TV talk show host Craig Ferguson belts his lines with style as Gobber, the village blacksmith and dragon trainer.

And America Ferrera ("Ugly Betty" on TV) might just melt a few young male hearts as Astrid, the Tom Boy Viking girl who becomes entangled with both Hiccup and his black dino stallion.