Redbox Reviews: Kubo & The Two Strings

Laika has quickly become a studio known for sensational filmmaking. Paranorman was one of my favorite films of 2012, and even though their last film, Box Trolls wasn’t as strong of a story, it still managed to dazzle with its unique animation and generally charming message. Their newest film, Kubo and the Two Strings, feels like an old bedtime story with all of the magic, mysticism, and heart that make old legends so entertaining.

kubo_and_the_two_strings_posterLike all of Laika’s films, Kubo and the Two Strings is a stop motion animated film. It tells the story of Kubo (Art Parkinson), a boy who lost his eye when his mother escaped with him after her magical father (Ralph Fiennes) and sisters kill her husband. When Kubo’s magical twin aunts (Rooney Mara) track him down, the boy must journey with his talking monkey guardian (Charlize Theron) and an amnesiac beetle samurai (Matthew McConaughey) to find the only thing that can protect him: his father’s legendary armor.

As mentioned, all of Laika’s film are gorgeously animated. Knowing the meticulous nature with which these films are made only adds to the splendor. But even if it didn’t look incredible to the eyes this film would still be a triumph. The story is filled with wondrous adventure and incredible action sequences that never slow. And at the heart of it all are some of the most endearing characters in any animated film. Monkey is a harsh, but caring mother figure and Beetle is a bumbling but brave sidekick. Even a mute, magical origami samurai that guides Kubo provides a touch of comic relief and a dash of nobility.

With memorable characters, great animation, soothing music, and a captivating story that is great for all ages (although perhaps a bit frightening for the youngest viewers), there is nothing to dislike about Kubo and the Two Strings. It is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2016, and if you failed to catch it in theaters as I did, then you should rush to your nearest redbox if you’re a fan of any period adventure film.

FINAL GRADE: A

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Moana (Full Review)

Back in 2010 Disney’s Tangled wound up being a surprise hit and thankfully resurrected the animated musical. Then in 2013, Frozen took the world by storm and fully solidified the return of the genre. Now that the animated musical’s swagger is back, the family juggernaut that is Disney is free to explore realms outside of the common fairy tale, like the story of a Polynesian princess for instance.

moana_teaser_posterMoana tells the story of the young daughter of an island chief. While her father wants her to accept the structured lifestyle of a future leader, Moana (voiced by newcomer Auil’i Cravalho) just wants to explore the wonders of the sea. When darkness starts to fall on their island, killing vegetation and scaring away their supply of fish, Moana’s quirky grandmother (Rachel House) inspires her to follow her dreams and search for the shapeshifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) who they believe can restore a magic gem to a legendary island and save their home.

The films features all of the things we’ve come to love about the best Disney films. The characters are all memorable and magnificent. Though not much different from other female Disney heroines in story arc, Moana is a loveable and feisty lead who still holds a warm vulnerability that makes her relatable to audiences. Dwayne Johnson’s Maui is a perfect counterpart. The character has a comedic brashness accentuated by a funny sentient upper body tattoo. Even minor characters, like Moana’s Grandma Tala and a dimwitted chicken are wonderful every second they are on screen.

The music, which was written by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, is mostly solid. The opening song is a catchy and beautiful chorus that sets the bar high but by the end some songs, like one performed by a giant hording crab (Jemaine Clement), are a bit forgettable. Nevertheless, the movie makes up for any lagging music or cliche story elements with dazzling animation and captivating visuals that perfectly capture the unique world and rich culture of Polynesia.

But what makes Moana the most unique are its endearing characters each with amiable flaws that allow for growth and great chemistry. Carried by strong voice acting and a fun story filled with humor and adventure, Disney has once again created another classic. It’s been a strong year for animated family films, maybe the strongest ever, and Moana manages to put itself on par with the best of the best.

FINAL GRADE: A

Disney’s Zootopia (Full Review)

There are a multitude of animated family films that come out each year. Most of the time, these films are filled with whimsical characters and goofy slapstick that are more than enough to entertain young children for an hour and a half. But at least two or three times a year, the producers of these family films like to bless us with a movie than transcends the simple entertainment factor of the genre to deliver stories that are both enjoyable for all ages as well as thought provoking. Zootopia, Disney’s newest animated feature, is one of those films.

ZootopiaZootopia takes place in a world where anthropomorphic animals live the lives of everyday humans. Small-town bunny, Judy Hopper (Ginnifer Goodwin) has dreams of being the world’s first bunny cop and refuses to let her size, her supportive but fearful parents, or her grumpy bison police chief (Idris Elba) stand in her way. When animals start disappearing in the big city of Zootopia, Judy takes it upon herself to crack the case. But to do so, she’ll need the help of  street hustling fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).
The film’s animation is absolutely gorgeous, which should be no surprise for a Disney film. But the different environments, from the frozen tundra to the rainforests, are especially breathtaking in 3D. The film also manages to successfully strike the comedy chord. Goodwin and Bateman have phenomenal chemistry as Judy and Nick, while Nate Torrence is clumsily lovable as Zootopia Police desk attendant, Clawhauser.
But flawless animation coupled with sight gags and some clever, well timed movie references aren’t the reason Zootopia is an absolute must see. Instead, it is undoubtedly the timely references to racial prejudices. Throughout the film, the story manages to infuse this message within its comedic kid-like tone. There is no mention of black, white, asian, or hispanic. Instead, animals of Zootopia must learn to overcome their pre-conceived notions of smaller animals. But the lions and rhinos of Zootopia aren’t the only animals with prejudices to overcome. Tiny critters like Judy have to learn that being a fox doesn’t make someone sly or mischievous, and being a predator doesn’t make an animal vicious and cruel.
This important message is incredibly vital for all children as they navigate a constantly changing world. What better way than in a thrilling family mystery that manages to make audiences laugh as well as keep them guessing. Disney has hit the high mark too many times to count, but with Zootopia, they’ve managed to create an incredibly fun masterpiece that should stand the test of time as both entertainment and culturally relevant.
FINAL GRADE: A 

The Peanuts Movie (Full Review)

Peanuts_2015Few cartoons or comic strips have ever been more endearing than Peanuts. Originally created by Charles M. Shultz, these cartoons have been a staple for family fun and holiday entertainment for 65 years. It only seems right to bring loveable loser Charlie Brown and his imaginative, eclectic canine pal, Snoopy to the big screen.

The Peanuts Movie, directed by Steve Martino and written by Chultz’s son and grandson, follows Charlie Brown as he embarks on a journey to gain respect from his classmates and gain the affection of the new girl in school. Meanwhile, Snoopy and his bird pal Woodstock try their hand at writing a novel. Along for the ride are all of the classic Peanuts characters: Piano playing Schroeder, know it all bully Lucy, wise, blanket toting Linus, tomboy Peppermint Patty and her brainy assistant Marcie, and Charlie Brown’s spunky sister Sally.

If you’ve ever been a fan of Peanuts then there is absolutely nothing to dislike about this movie. It is as witty, charming, and as downright goofy as the best Charlie Brown comic strips and TV specials. It is the perfect family film for anyone from ages 3 to 93. While it certainly seems lengthy in relation to the TV movies you might’ve become accustomed to, the payoff is more than worthwhile. The only negative part of the experience is the insufferable Ice Age short that appears before the movie starts.

The animation is also stellar, blending the classic style of Shultz’s original artwork with impressive modern age computer generated technology. Blended with a fine soundtrack and the fact that Charlie Brown is just a wonderful character who brings a positive message, The Peanuts Movie is a must watch for anyone who wants to enjoy a movie with a little one or who just wants to embrace their own inner-Charlie Brown.

FINAL GRADE: A

Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out (Full Review)

There are great computer animated movies not made by Pixar (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Despicable Me, Wreck-it Ralph), but for two decades, Pixar has been the gold standard. This title goes beyond just making movies that entertain kids, because kids will pretty much enjoy anything animated. Pixar animation studios is the king of the industry because of their creativity and attention to detail. Sure, the studio had some off years (Cars 2)… but more times than not, Disney/Pixar has delivered animated classics: The Incredibles, A Bug’s Life, Up, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Monsters Inc., The Toy Story Trilogy. And just when you think they can’t be anymore inventive, along comes Inside Out.

Inside_Out_(2015_film)_posterPixar’s newest film brings viewer’s into the world of the mind. In particular, the mind of an 11-year old girl moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. Guiding her every action inside of the headquarters in her mind, are her emotions: Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kailing), Fear (Bill Hader), and the leader of them all, Joy (Amy Poehler). After a mishap following Riley’s disastrous first day at a new school, Joy and Sadness set out on an adventure to recover Riley’s core memories before she suffers an emotional breakdown.

There is so much more to this movie than meets the eye. Much like Wall-E and Monsters Inc., this film creates an intricate world that is fascinating from start to finish thanks to beautiful animation and a perfectly crafted story that gives each of its main cast a moment to shine. It is also filled with several hilarious, and surprisingly deep side characters like Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s pink imaginary friend. The film doesn’t quite have the memorable laughs like many Pixar films before it, but there’s still plenty to chuckle at. Much of the humor is marred in subtlety that will undoubtedly fly over a child’s head, but make every adult in the audience laugh out loud.

It’s that intelligence, that dry wit and cleverness, that sets Inside Out apart and makes it a classic. The children’s movie genre is filled with two hours of slapstick goofiness for kids (the Madagascar franchise), but it takes true creativity to make a film that is both humorous and enriching for children and the adults who have to pay for them to get in. And Inside Out is as enriching as they come. The beautiful lessons about the importance of every emotion, not just joy, will resonate with everyone who sees this film. Just when you think Pixar is out of ideas and hell bent on giving us unnecessary sequels (Toy Story 4), they remind us why they are, and will likely always be, the Kings of animated film.

FINAL GRADE: A

Big Hero 6 Review

Big_Hero_6_(film)_posterThis isn’t the first time Disney has tried their hand at the Superhero genre. Back in 2004, Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles (one of my personal favorites) created the perfect blend of superhero action and adventure with the warm heartfelt tone that accompanies all Disney animated features. But can Big Hero 6, stack up to that? Better yet… can it stack up to Disney’s most recent hits, Frozen and Wreck It-Ralph?

The film, based loosely on a Marvel comic of the same name, tells the story of two best friend brothers, Hiro and Tadashi, who live with their aunt (Maya Rudolph) and are both brilliant robotics experts. Older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) spends his time at a University, honing his skills with his four friends and developing his healthcare robot Baymax, while 14-year old prodigy Hiro (Ryan Potter) hustles people in illegal robot fights. After Tadashi encourages young Hiro to do more with his gifts, Hiro develops a clever invention that gets him a scholarship offer from famed robot professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). But, after a freak accident, his invention is stolen, leading to Hiro, his friends, and loveable Baymax, to become a superhero team to stop the masked thief.

For starters, the movie should be called Big Hero 2. Most of the film is centered around the two brothers and most of the laughs come from their interactions with Baymax. The four aforementioned friends; Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Gogo (Jamie Chung), and Fred (T.J. Miller) have a few funny and exciting moments, but they are otherwise forgettable. But the biggest flaw with the film is not its lack of character development, but its lack of story.

Disney has become almost formulaic with its storytelling. At this point, we know some important character related to the main hero will die, so when it happens we feel some emotion, but its still feels predictable. Nothing that happens in Big Hero 6 feels like a revelation which, in a film meant to be cool more than laugh-out-loud funny, makes it a bit forgettable. Even the masked villain, who looks dastardly enough, seems to lack the ambition to be truly iconic.

The animation for this film is even more beautiful than usual. The location, a mixture between San Francisco and Tokyo, provides a unique backdrop that is awe-inspiring. The technology in the film is also exciting, but the action sequences aren’t quite as lively. The story itself, a.k.a. the most important element, isn’t as good as Wreck-It-Ralph or Frozen so while little kids may get a kick out of it and want to go out to buy Baymax action figures, you’ll just want to go home and pop in The Incredibles.

FINAL GRADE: C+

How to Train Your Dragon 2 Review

Really good family movies are often hard to find. And when I say family movies, I don’t necessarily mean movies made for families, because frankly that encompasses most animated films nowadays. What I mean by ‘a good family movie’ is a movie that succeeds at having elements that each member of the family can enjoy. Moms, Dads, little boys and girls, grandma and grandpa… etc. With How to Train Your Dragon 2 there’s something for everyone.

Image2010’s How to Train Your Dragon was a surprisingly fantastic film about a young boy who goes from nerdy wimp to brave hero by showing his dragon fearing clan that they can coexist with the dangerous creatures. Part 2 picks up five years later. The hero of the first film, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has grown older and wiser and now spends his days flying on his dragon companion, Toothless, and discovering new worlds. Along his journey, he uncovers more dragon hunters led by creepy villain Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) and a swarm of new dragons under the careful protection of the mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett).

As with the previous movie, and most movies by Dreamworks, the animation is beautiful. The scenery is so captivating, you’d swear you were watching a live action film and not CGI. The dragons, which is what most of the kids come to see, are even more fun and fascinating than before. The Alpha dragons, massive ice breathers who can control the smaller dragons, are the most impressive newcomers (I’m only subtly biased in loving them).

But nowadays nearly every animated film has funny characters and elegant animation. To be a truly noteworthy animated film, you have to have a story that will capture those characters in a relatable light and give them interesting challenges. Dragon 2 does just that. Hiccup’s personal journey to live in his father ’s (Gerard Butler) footsteps is a story we can all relate too. And anyone with a pet can’t help but love his relationship with Toothless. Even Drago Bludvist comes with the intimidating mysticism and tragic back story that help make up all of the best film antagonists.

There are shades of other animated films that may make Dragon 2 seem familiar. But with animated films, horror movies, superhero films or any other over saturated genre, that is to be expected. The movie isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, it only intends to satisfy everyone who comes to see it. Parents will laugh and tear up, kids will smile and cheer… what more can you ask for in a summer animated film?

FINAL GRADE: B+

Frozen returns Disney to its musical roots

There was a time when at least once a year, Disney would release an animated feature that would captivate the hearts and minds of adults and children all over the world. I highlighted many of those films last month (Favorite Animated Films). Now, with recent films like Princess and The Frog and Tangled it appears as if Disney is trying to resurrect the classic animated movie styles of old. Frozen, loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen‘s fairy tale The Snow Queen, is Disney’s latest attempt.

ImageFrozen tells the story of two sisters. Older sister and future queen, Elsa (Idina Menzel) is born with enchanted powers that allow her to create ice and snow. Following the untimely death of the King and Queen (Disney sure loves killing parents in children’s movies), Elsa is sheltered from the kingdom as well as from her younger sister until she can learn to control her powers. After a spat with naïve younger sibling Anna (Kristen Bell) causes her to reveal her abilities to the world on the day of her coronation, Elsa flees and freezes the entire kingdom in perpetual winter. With the help of ice-cutter Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven, and a magical snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna sets out to reconcile with her sister and save the kingdom.

The animated Disney films of old all seemed to follow a distinct formula to success: A courageous lead, a sinister yet charismatic villain, a plucky side-kick for comic relief, catchy songs, ground breaking animation, and a solid message. Frozen manages to triumph in some of these areas while falling incredibly short on the others. There is no courageous lead. Elsa is a noble, wise, and fierce character, but for most of the film she takes a backseat to Anna who, although sincere, is almost the complete opposite. There is no charismatic villain. In fact, there is barely even a real villain at all which makes the story feel a tad less lively than all of its predecessors. Then there’s the songs. Sure, some of them are catchy, but unlike previous Disney films the setting and era aren’t infused into the music (see Princess and the Frog, Mulan, Aladdin, Lion King) making it feel more like sing along TV than musical theater.

Luckily, the film does manage to hit everywhere else. The laughs come sturdy and the animation is as rich as ever, especially when it comes to Elsa’s magic. And as far as plucky side-kicks go, Olaf the Snowman is as loveable as any Disney character ever. The message about “true love”, which ironically pokes at Disney princess films of old, is perhaps the film’s biggest saving grace. So while the movie may not stack up to some of the Disney classics, it’s certainly worthy of a watch, especially for adults and children with no Y chromosome.

FINAL GRADE: B