Isle of Dogs

Directed By Wes Anderson

Starring – Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Koyu Rankin

The Plot – In this stop-motion-animated film, an outbreak of canine flu in Japan leads all dogs to be quarantined on an island. A boy (Rankin) journeys there to rescue his dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), and gets help from a pack of misfit canines who have also been exiled. His quest inspires a group of dog lovers to expose a government conspiracy.

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some violent imagery

THE POSITIVES

– It’s clear even in the slightest sense that Wes Anderson has a fondness for man’s best friend. If you ignore the spelling of the movie, it reads instead as I LOVE DOGS, and the script overall has more than a few unique quirks in presenting things from a canine point of view. One such is the language barrier for the film that sees the dogs speaking in English, while the human characters speak in their native tongue without translation. This is to no doubt focus entirely on the animal aspect first and see the human antagonists in the same way that the dogs might see them.

– Perhaps the most noticeable difference between this and Anderson’s animated predecessor is that ‘Isle of Dogs’ speaks with a surprisingly mature approach to the themes and concepts it endures. Beyond the PG-13 rating that the film has for itself, the subject matters of violence, death, and politics push this even further than your typical children’s movie, crafting a kind of adult bedtime story to feast on.

– Breathtaking stop-motion animation. Between this and ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’, Anderson has carved out for himself quite the artistic touch, breathing life into characters and locations that highlight even the slightest detail. It’s abundantly clear that the lighting and scenery feels greatly improved here, and the use of abundance in photographic lens offers so much for a one-off shot that never appears again.

– The movement of the camera feels well paced and incredibly choreographed, mapping out the most of every sequence with a comically familiar nod to Anderson’s one-of-a-kind touch. Considering most of this film is a faithful homage to Japanese classics, the marriage between this and Anderson’s signature style of framing and quick-pans blesses us with endless energy to combat the often monotonous line reads.

– Perfection in music capturing the proper moods and environments. First of all, the soundtrack vibrates that of the bleak and despair that surrounds the island with these betrayed dogs. On top of that, Alexandre Desplat continues the momentum of his Oscar winning year in ‘The Shape of Water’ with a score that is equally ambitious for different reasons entirely. Desplat’s masterful beat of the drum adds the proper kind of energy necessary in combating the prior moods mentioned, but does so in a way that never feels overbearing or compromising to the consistency of the picture.

– Much of the film’s comic muscle dealt with the small touches that I greatly enjoyed as being a fan of 80’s animation cliches. One such instance is that of the dog tussles that are surrounded by what feels like an endless array of smoke, in which we only see the occasional paw or contact. Also great was the on-screen text that sarcastically translates what we already knew with certain foods or emotional responses.

– One thing that worried me about the big name cast voicing these characters was their familiarity in tones that would make it difficult to immerse themselves in their respective characters, and while that is the case as a whole, I think those actors also do wonders for the diversity in character traits that prove no two dogs are exactly the same. Anderson invites the larger-than-life personalities to seep through, and fans of each of them will indulge at this hitters row of A-listers sharing the stage in vocal capacity.

– It is refreshing to see a dystopian film in which a society seems to be progressing. Ignore the obvious plot device of a flu tearing through the city, and you have a beautiful, heavily-populated setting that succeeds in all of the opposite directions that YA novels have soiled.

THE NEGATIVES

– While I was never bored by the film, I found myself lacking the proper engagement in the characters to worry about their well being. One reason for this I believe is that the film drops the ball midway through on juggling unpredictability that compromises the danger in their situation. Had the film went through on the surprising and out of nowhere scene that felt replicated from one in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, then I probably would’ve believed that any character was expendable. I find this a huge disappointment because I myself am as big a dog lover as anyone.

– The plot to the film is a bit elementary when you really think about it. You’re taking what is virtually an episode of Lassie, giving it 95 minutes of screen time, and adding overly ambitious artistic merit in hoping it will hide such single-dimensional penning. It feels like you’ve seen this kind of narrative direction before, and the moot examples of surprises all but confirms our suspicions.

8/10

Sherlock Gnomes

Directed by John Stevenson

Starring – Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, James Mcavoy

The Plot – When Gnomeo (Mcavoy) and Juliet (Blunt) first arrive in the city with their friends and family, their biggest concern is getting their new garden ready for spring. However, they soon discover that someone is kidnapping garden gnomes all over London. When Gnomeo and Juliet return home to find that everyone in their garden is missing there’s only one gnome to call Sherlock Gnomes (Depp). The famous detective and sworn protector of London’s garden gnomes arrives with his sidekick Watson to investigate the case. The mystery will lead our gnomes on a rollicking adventure where they will meet all new ornaments and explore an undiscovered side of the city.

Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor

THE POSITIVES

– This is a very talented A-list cast that each bring something diverse and personal to their respective roles. However, there are a select few who break away from the pact, immersing themselves so deeply in their characters that their familiar voice patterns seem to just fade away. James McAvoy as Gnomeo, Johnny Depp as Sherlock, and especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as Watson.

– The animation is much greater improved from the 2011 original film. So many of the human beings move with such fluidity in their designs, and the surrounding landscapes seem to radiate a glow of realism that adds more dimension to the hollow properties of the gnomes themselves.

– At 81 free-flowing minutes, a majority of the movie moves with crisp pacing that never rarely drags. I can respect any film that knows how much material it has within and doesn’t require stretching to meet a 90 minute quota.

– There is a plot twist midway through between Holmes and Watson in the film that I wish would’ve been followed through with fully. In fact, for all of my interests, I would’ve preferred an animated Holmes and Watson movie without the gnomes. From a psychological standpoint, the film takes a surprising dive repeatedly into the mind of Sherlock to show us for the first time how he ticks as an intellectual.

– Exceptional work by Elton John and Bernie Taupin on providing some fresh twists on classic Elton favorites. This soundtrack is nothing short of a toe-tapping good time, and I felt the re-imagining of some of these timeless classics really gave spring to the very adventure aspect depicted in the film.

THE NEGATIVES

– Much of the time, this film feels like two different 40 minute scripts (Gnomes Vs Holmes) that don’t necessarily mesh well with one another. I mentioned earlier that Holmes would’ve been the way to go for this particular film, and I further that stance because much of the supporting gnome characters, and even McAvoy’s Gnomeo become a bit of background in their own franchise. Imagine if Buzz and Woody were reduced to Rex and Slink in a fourth Toy Story.

– As to where I already mentioned the solid addition of Elton with the music, I have to slander his inclusion in the dialogue that set up for FAR too many puns with his song titles. I probably heard the phrase Tiny Dancer a hundred times in this movie, and the film is never inspired to let go of it.

– Speaking of which, the overall comedy for the film fumbles what little opportunities it presents to itself. My problem isn’t so much that I only laughed once during the film, but that most of the scenes and lines during the trailer that made me laugh simply aren’t included in the finished product. Try entertaining a child with no comedy.

– The third act takes far too long in getting where it needs to finish up. Considering this final conflict begins with around 30 minutes left in the film, there’s an overall feeling in making this final presentation one that glitters the wonderment of children, but I felt that its flashy perspective did more harm in keeping the interest glued. So much can easily be edited to reduce repetition.

– There is very little in the way of surprises for this screenplay, and it’s a shame that much of that overwhelming taste of mediocrity will be what sticks with audiences most of all when the film ends. With more care and concern for keeping the content sharp, the film could’ve kept some of that lightning in a bottle that fizzles out once the outline of where the film is headed becomes obvious.

5/10

A Wrinkle in Time

Directed by Ava Duvernay

Starring – Storm Reid, Chris Pine, Oprah Winfrey

The Plot – Meg Murry (Reid) is a typical middle school student struggling with issues of self-worth who is desperate to fit in. As the daughter of two world-renowned physicists, she is intelligent and uniquely gifted, as is Meg’s younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), but she has yet to realize it for herself. Making matters even worse is the baffling disappearance of Mr. Murry (Pine), which torments Meg and has left her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) heartbroken. Charles Wallace introduces Meg and her fellow classmate Calvin (Levi Miller) to three celestial guides-Mrs. Which (Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling)-who have journeyed to Earth to help search for their father, and together they set off on their formidable quest. Traveling via a wrinkling of time and space known as tessering, they are soon transported to worlds beyond their imagination where they must confront a powerful evil. To make it back home to Earth, Meg must look deep within herself and embrace her flaws to harness the strength necessary to defeat the darkness closing in on them.

Rated PG for thematic elements and some peril

THE POSITIVES

– That sense of escapism and imagination that filled the pages of the book is one of the only things that translates well for this picture. Throughout the movie, we are treated to some truly gorgeous Greenland landscapes that never need C.G pixelation in harnessing their beauty, as well as a vibrant color scheme that triggers an out-of-this-world kind of energy for us to intake.

– It’s kind of refreshing to me that for once in a movie we are seeing the little girl take command of the situation, and the little boy is kind of left to be the side piece to do nothing but support her. This certainly gives the film a progressive sense of direction that will inspire girl audiences everywhere.

– While she doesn’t succeed at every level of camera work, Duverney can at least hang her hat on being a risk taker. Ava refuses to ever settle for just one continuous style in shooting these characters and visuals, and this speaks volumes to the levels of articulation that she possesses as a top notch director in Hollywood.

THE NEGATIVES

– This screenplay feels like it (Like Chris Pine’s character) got lost somewhere along the way. I say that because so much of the material not only feels out of context, but also short on exposition for the very lack of rules explanation that the film supplants. The on-going journey very much feels like writers who are making up the rules as they go, neglecting the vital details from the book that communicated the logic. The child reactions and logic are also ridiculously stretched here. Kids react to these weird things going on around them like these three magical women showing up on their doorsteps like it’s no big deal. There’s no shock or awe in any of them, and sadly I blame this on a director who never dives deep into her characters.

– Speaking of lagging exposition, not one character outline is given to any single person in this film. Reid’s Meg is obviously the main character of the film, but there’s very little we actually know about her by film’s end other than she’s smart and she’s Chris Pine’s daughter. When I care more about the characters, I care more about their peril, and I never found myself fully immersed in any kind of conflict in the film.

– EXTREME CLOSE-UP WHOOOAAAAAA!!!! I mentioned that Duverney doesn’t succeed at every angle she shoots in the film, and none are more harmful than the tedious exertion that she gave in shooting too close. There were several times in the film where I felt physically uncomfortable with Ava’s decision to cover each and every reaction that sometimes goes without saying.

– Considering this is Disney Studios and there is over a hundred million dollars invested into the film, the computer generation properties in the film are really an eye-sore. This goes well beyond the hollow movements and terribly cheesy green-screen outlining. This is really more about the believability in presentation that leaves very little to the imagination. A film should try its hardest to make the live action transition seamless, otherwise why not make this an animated movie to begin with?

– Nothing memorable in terms of performances. Reese Witherspoon is definitely the best of the three adult counterparts, emoting Mrs Whatsit with a sarcastic tongue that occasionally got the better of her. The problem is Witherspoon (Like Winfrey and Kaling) is playing an amplified version of herself, never allowing herself to get lost in the character. The child actors too are abysmal. Reid lacks enough personality to make her intriguing as someone we follow for a majority, and the work of Levi Miller as Meg’s crush made for as much awkwardness in line reads as a Fifty Shades movie. Seriously, this kid was a stalker, right?

– If you forget Meg’s brother’s name is Charles Wallace, fear not because the movie repeats it no fewer than sixty times throughout. If there is one positive to this, it’s in the capability in creating a fun drinking game with friends that will have you passing out before having to sit through 104 minutes of this boredom.

– Which brings me to my final problem for the movie; it is an anomaly with its pacing. I say that because despite a screenplay that is literally and figuratively running through scenes with very little explanation or impact, the film still manages to slug along with repetition in dialogue about the importance of love and family that they beat over the head time-and-time-again. After an impressive opening act, it’s a shame that this film never finds the proper formula in establishing that the sum is greater than its parts.

3/10

Early Man

Directed by Nick Park

Starring – Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Eddie Redmayne

The Plot – Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug (Redmayne), along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth (Hiddleston) and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Rated PG for some rude humor and scenes of action

THE POSITIVES

– Steller animation yet again by Aardman Animations. The use of authentic backdrop properties in trees and rocks blends colorfully with that of the claymation characters and their stopmotion animation. In addition, the characters themselves illustrate the evolution between neanderthal and the next step smoothly, leaving enough evidence in physical features between the two sides (Big teeth, misshaped heads) to bridge the gap.

– Immersive vocal performances that engulf our A-list cast whole. I’ve always said that the best animated performances are the ones that make you forget who is vocalizing them, and the trio of leads here nail that in spades. The best for me is definitely Hiddleston’s indistinguishable gangly turn as the evil Lord Nooth.

– At 79 minutes, this is as harmless of a sit as you’re going to encounter this weekend. The pacing never drags or stalls through its narrative, keeping the attention of its audience without having to trim the fat of needless time filler.

– There is a kind of tragic element hanging over the heads of these characters that goes far beyond the conflict of this film. Despite the outcome of this soccer game, we all know the progression from the Stone Age, and that hint of inevitable doom is one that brought an unintentional dramatic layer to what I was watching.

– The observational humor is definitely the winner in the battle with the dialogue, penetrating with enough visual sight gags to throw us a bone of subversive for the adults in the audience, once in a while.

– I’m always one to lend kudos to a screenplay that introduces a prominent female character and doesn’t make her the love interest of anyone in the film. ‘Early Man’ follows this lead, giving little girls an inspiration not only to play sports, but also in carving out just how important she was to the conclusion of the picture.

THE NEGATIVES

– As to where the observational grants more hits than misses, the dialogue itself in the movie is slightly too authentic of its neanderthal foundation. With the exception of a few generous giggles, I found much of the material in the film to be very underwhelming for Aardman and the kind of tummy-ticklers we’re used to leaving the theater with. It’s unusual that this material won’t really cater to adults or kids with confidence.

– The whole film builds to this soccer match that is nothing more than a series of montage sequences in a race to the finish line. Believe me when I say that every shot in this game is to showcase when a team scores, and that’s a bummer because there’s never any inspiring instances when this game can break away from the cliches of previous sports films that have already outlined what we are going to see.

– I’m sure it’s ridiculous to complain about historical accuracy in a film where the pig is the smartest character, but I still wonder why things like toilet paper, speakers, and even a one hundred foot duck are all present in a film that takes place during the Stone Age.

– There is absolutely zero character exposition here. Each and every character runs together, and can’t be dissected any differently than labeling them “Main character” or “Female character”. If a film lacks characters that you feel empathetic towards, a plot about them losing their home won’t have much tug towards your heartstrings.

6/10

Peter Rabbit

Directed by Will Gluck

Starring – James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne

The Plot – Peter Rabbit (Corden), the mischievous and adventurous hero who has captivated generations of readers, now takes on the starring role of his own irreverent, contemporary comedy with attitude. In the film, Peter’s feud with Mr. McGregor (Gleeson) escalates to greater heights than ever before as they rival for the affections of the warm-hearted animal lover who lives next door (Byrne).

Rated PG for some rude humor and action

THE POSITIVES

– While the film isn’t the most faithful to its literary property, it’s completely harmless. Purists of the former will indulge in enough gentle heart imagination and innocence in the bond between humanity and animals, as well as moments of visual Easter egg throwbacks to the original illustration. The new fans of Peter Rabbit will enjoy the quick-witted, physical slapstick that offers plenty of laughs without settling for the low-hanging fruit of toilet humor.

– Speaking of laughs, the film is very clever with its material, choosing to break the fourth wall of kids movies on more than one occasion. Because of this meta stance, the script and these characters constantly feel like they’re one step ahead of our expectations, leaving us plenty to guess about what’s to come.

– Gleeson steals the show. If you didn’t believe that Domhnall Gleeson was a revelation before this film, his role as the antagonist of sorts will be your convincing note. Not only does Gleeson revel in chewing up the scenery of each and every scene as this sophisticated snob of sorts, but his endlessly amped-up physicality in each scene silences the disbelief of live property versus animated one with ease.

– The film’s quick pacing is complimented by some thrilling chase scenes that truly capture the imagination of the environment. These scenes are tightly edited and rapidly moving to keep their audience at energetic levels.

– A rorschach test of character framing. Interestingly enough, I found the children in the audience to be faithfully rooting for Peter and his band of colorful creatures, but I saw things from Gleeson’s point of view repeatedly, and I think that adult versus child comparison comes into play in a film with characters this respective of each demographic.

– In addition to a roller-coaster of laughs and debauchery, there’s a hearty romance developing between Gleeson and Byrne that is taking place in the background. The subtlety of their growing relationship takes its time firmly, and the chemistry between them is every bit as delightful as it is important to each respective person. After being chained down for ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ this weekend, it was nice to see how a real romance develops between two human beings.

– Lets all give Sony a round of applause for making a movie without pimping their products out. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, I’ve seen films (Cough Cough, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’) that feels like a two hour commercial for the production team behind it. Less is more, and maybe they are starting to learn that.

THE NEGATIVES

– The musical soundtrack does the thing where it soils the integrity of the property by instilling a collection of top 40 favorites to boost downloads. Where it tries to improve itself is changing and adapting the lyrics of such songs like Len’s ‘Steal My Sunshine’ or Fort Minor’s ‘Remember the Name’ to narrate a character struggle. It’s just the minority when compared to the majority that isn’t this creative.

– Pointless narration by Margot Robbie’s bird character. The narration is only in the film four times, and every time we hear it, it’s to remind us of something we just learned in the previous scene.

– The rules of who can hear the animals talking gets slightly skewed in the final act, especially after a random little girl acknowledges that she can hear them easily. This creates some holes in logic for earlier sequences that would’ve been spoiled had the rules followed these twists.

7/10

Father Figures

Owen Wilson and Ed Helms wonder who is their daddy, in Warner Bros holiday hilarity ‘Father Figures’. Fraternal twin brothers, Kyle and Peter Reynolds (Owen Wilson and Ed Helms) have learned that their father did not die when they were young as they had previously believed, and their eccentric mother, Helen Baxter (Glenn Close) had slept with many rich, famous and powerful men in the 1970’s, adding greater difficulty to this unfolding mystery. When they go on a long distance road trip to find out who their real father is, they find out more about their mother than they probably ever wanted to know, as well as encountering a mysterious hitchhiker (Kat Williams) and other misadventures that add a confrontation speedbump. ‘Father Figures’ is helmed by first time director Lawrence Sher, and is rated R for adult language and sexual references throughout.

‘Father Figures’ is certainly not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. After sitting on the production shelf for over two years, the film was finally blessed with a release date of Christmas week, competing against the best that the holiday season has to offer, instead of a Father’s Day release that could tie into the marketing of the movie. I was expecting pure sludge going into this film, and was remotely surprised at just how much heart burns deep beneath a typical Owen Wilson movie. One big hurdle that I see for the film is that it is entirely marketed wrong, catering in its trailer to the very bromance comedies that require gross-out humor in appealing to its audience. That is not what we get here at all in the majority, despite there being a few rare instances of seediness that the screenplay just can’t stay away from. This instead feels like a cute and quirky indie comedy with some credible cinematography to boot along the way. Because of this, it finds itself in an awkward situation in which it won’t be crude enough to appeal to the audience that it was marketed towards, and it won’t find the audience needed in making it reputable because of the trailer that did more harm than good. Baffling I know, but Sher’s film isn’t anywhere close to the kind of juvenile films that I have sat through across this year of below average comedies, giving way to a possible blessing in disguise by having your expectations so low going into it.

Stuck somewhere between road trip films like ‘Father’s Day’ and ‘Due Date’, ‘Father Figures’ meat and potatoes revels with this parental mystery that has come to light suddenly, and leaves Helms character in particular jaded by his newfound lack of identity. Because of this, the quest to find their mysterious father figure becomes the goal, but as the film progresses, it’s clear that this becomes more about Wilson and Helms respective characters in mending a relationship that has soured over time. It was in this perspective of the film where I found great positive return in what I was enjoying, but unfortunately it is all too good to last since this feels like the victim of surgical re-writes in plodded pacing, as well as those few instances that I mentioned earlier that feel desperate in extremities to give this forgettable script something to remember by. On the former, much of the film feels like scene-by-scene exposition instead of moving in sync as one cohesive movement. Because of this, the screenplay never picks up enough momentum to carry it to the next gag. On the latter, what comic hijinks that it does have never feels genuine to the rest of the screenplay around it that feels too mature at times to fall for this level of practicality.

As for the mystery itself, it’s really quite easy to figure out at about the halfway point because of that cursed trailer that gave away too much going into it. Based on this two minute video, we know that there are only four men in contention here to be the Father, so of course each of them will get their own set-up and progression, and then three of them will suddenly realize that they can’t be the father. It’s interesting to me how they always realize this after a couple hours of hanging out, and not the second that their respective year with Helen is brought to light. Anyway, the answer will become clear when we’ve rushed through three of these males within the first half of the movie, and that could only leave one possible answer. Because of this third act predictability, the film just kind of stands in place and confirms what we were beginning to fear about it; that too much time was invested in this aspect and not enough to their loving Mother. She practically disappears until the final few scenes of the film, and by then that missed opportunity in telling her story just feels like a tacked-on layer to force the audience into enduring its miniscule level of heart that has been stored away repeatedly until now. It constantly feels like Sher’s film is in a tug-of-war creatively with itself, and if it were brave enough to take the road less traveled, it could’ve returned the surprise sweet hit of the year, but ‘Father Figures’ feels doomed to the shelves of rental stores, only one month after it hit theaters.

What did surprise me was in the credible cinematography here by John Lindley that proved that someone was trying to go above and beyond in this project. When I called this an indie comedy earlier, I meant that in the visual spectrum sense, as Lindley channels us through some very artistic transitional scenes, as well as some moving sequences that prove an honorable and stylish presence behind the lens. What’s even more credible about them is that the transitions don’t feel like a gimmick by growing stale in repetition along the way. Every so often, Lindley switches up the design and gives those tightly-knitted film students something to hang on to in the way of substance for this film that can sometimes lack it in the long run. Beyond this, the song selections as well are tender and very welcoming of this classy mood that overcomes us. I’m not familiar with any of the tracks myself, but it was nice to have a modern comedy that didn’t need the newest top 40 rap track in accommodating its scenes audibly to give it a fresh and hip perspective.

The performances themselves can feel overall inconsequential, even though Helms offers a strong transformation from beginning to end that proves his character’s emotional growth along the way. When the film began, I truly hated his character. It mostly feels like Ben Stiller should’ve played this role, as it’s often too dry for Helms animated sense of personality that usually carries much of the comedic load. But as the film progressed, I saw the character shaking his endless bouts with depression that have plagued his life, and saw the opening up of a conservative character who learned to live for the moment. This is undoubtedly Helms best performance to date, and that’s a bit of a shame considering so few people will give this film the light of day. As for Owen Wilson, well it’s the same role that he has been playing throughout his career. Because these two are in 95% of the scenes in this film, Wilson is half of what we’re saddled with, so the usual dazed and confused routine becomes the norm. His character is a polar opposite of Helms, so the opposites attract scenario is full swing with this one, carving out a telegraphed plan that any moviegoer will see coming. Close is my favorite performance unquestionably, but her character doesn’t have enough of a presence on the finished script. Likewise are J.K Simmons, Christopher Walken, Terry Bradshaw, and Ving Rhames who also don’t stick around long enough to leave a lasting impression in their multi-dimensional personalities. I never felt that any of them were the right choice for this family, but one of them has to be picked, and I guess the ending is as good as it could’ve possibly been with this set-up.

THE VERDICT – ‘Father Figures’ has instances of maturity and dignity in its productional aspects that already gave me more positively than I was expecting from this film. Unfortunately, much like Helms and Wilson’s protagonists, the film too seeks the proper hands of guidance to cradle it competently, relenting on two polar opposite tastes of comic direction that collide and cut short one another. With better pacing and less attention to the tasteless gags, Sher’s film could’ve been just the kind of comedy occasion that families flock towards during the holiday movie weekend. As it stands, this father-finder runs out of gas halfway across the expedition.

5/10

Paddington 2

Written and directed by Paul King

Starring – Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw

The Plot – Paddington (Whishaw) is happily settled with the Brown family in Windsor Gardens, where he has become a popular member of the community, spreading joy and marmalade wherever he goes. While searching for the perfect present for his beloved Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, Paddington spots a unique pop-up book in Mr. Gruber’s antique shop, and embarks upon a series of odd jobs to buy it. But when the book is stolen, it’s up to Paddington and the Browns to unmask the thief.

Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor

THE POSITIVES

– Infinite imagination in visual effects, including some awe-inspiring transitional stylings that echo the vibe of colorless page-turning animation in a pop-up book kind of feel.

– Hugh Grant’s energetically over-the-top charge as the antagonist for the film. Omits that feeling of fun from Grant’s usually distinguished reservoir

– A screenplay with an innocent adventure that is equal (If not better) than the original film.

– Despite the additions of many new cast members, the Brown family feel like they are just as necessary as ever in the ever-unfolding mystery of this bear’s quest to get back home

– Seems comfortable in finding an entertaining medium between adults and child audiences that doesn’t alienate either’s experience.

– No fart or bodily humor. This should be a given, but in a kid’s film, it is unassuming.

– The vibrancy of colorful backdrops, especially in that of the Brown’s home that never settles for one choice of color consistency

– Paul King’s strict approach in not relying on any material or familiarities of the first film, crafting an original chapter that stands on its own

THE NEGATIVES

– The humor is noticeably absent. There were moments where I grinned, but nothing that gave me the long-term laughter needed in keeping the atmosphere delightful

– While the overall animation is exceptional, the shading of Paddington’s design still feels hollow to the light and shadows that he comes into contact with. His face gives off a level of being too light to be authentic.

8/10

Ferdinand

Blue Sky Studios delivers a Christmas gift to families in the form of a lovable bull, named ‘Ferdinand’. Based on Robert Lawson’s children’s book ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, the film revolves around Ferdinand (John Cena), a Spanish Fighting Bull who prefers smelling the intoxicating scents of flowers and practicing non-violence rather than chasing red cloths held by matadors in arenas. Because of this, Ferdinand lacks the kind of inspiration that comes with being proud in a career of choice. But when disaster comes to him, he is taken to a fighting stadium, and Ferdinand needs to decide if he is a fighting bull or a flower smelling, generous bull, in order to earn his freedom. Along the way, Ferdinand meets and befriends some colorful characters who inspire him to become all who he was destined to be. ‘Ferdinand’ is directed by Carlos Saldanha, and is rated PG for rude humor, action, and some thematic elements.

During a year when animated film is kind of having an off year, the door to the hearts of its youthful audience is certainly open for a bull of this magnitude to come charging through. Even still, ‘Coco’ warmed the souls of many a few weeks ago with its unwinding spin of Mexican tradition that enlightened many of its viewers. In the same vein, ‘Ferdinand’ tries to do the same, but with only about half of the success. Blue Sky Studios is definitely getting better overall in their big screen productions, as ‘Ferdinand’ is arguably their best film yet. It proves that this company can turn a profit long-term if they tighten up the rendering of their artistic probe and drive it home with enough heartfelt sentiment to boot. Currently however, there’s still a lack of importance in story direction that limits the adventure aspect of this movie terribly. For family holiday cinema, it’s pretty much a sure thing, but for addition replay value, I worry that something like this will get lost in the fold amongst forgettable animated features that will inevitably only be remembered for its overabundance of zany characters that far too often rub together and offer nothing of variety to feast on.

This is a film that is based off of a very tight children’s book, so in adapting it for a 97 minute feature, the screenwriters definitely had their work cut out for them. Immediately, we are treated to an impactful and dramatic introduction to Ferdinand and his surrounding friends in the way of the sport of bull-fighting. What the script does so well here and eventually midway through the film, is that it takes a very responsible and educative form of storytelling with animal cruelty and the kind of consequences from a sport this violent being nothing more than a form of human entertainment. I like this because it really tugs at your heartstrings and feeds into Ferdinand’s approach at not wanting to fight for the rest of his life. In addition to this, there’s a solid dual-message being played out that preaches you to be who you want to be in a world that is trying to command you in the wrong direction, as well as appearances not being everything. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of low fruit to be hanging here, as the film’s second act opens itself up to the personality of too many characters that offer very little to the value of this script. On this direction, the film kind of becomes more about the characters and less about the journey of Ferdinand himself, who is limited with many pause buttons along the way to keep him from reaching his destiny. One question that I had between Ferdinand’s two settings in the film is how human characters in each knew his name despite him not having a name tag and there not being any correspondence between them. I guess it’s one of life’s many mysteries.

As for some of these characters, they are basically amped up versions of the personalities that their live action counterparts conjure up. Kate McKinnon as Ferdinand’s calming goat is so irritating that I found myself cringing any time she is on-screen. David Tennant’s Angus is basically an Irish stereotype, working in enough puns and digs at Irish culture that distinguish just how one note he is. There’s also no shortage of comedic cast. As the rule for any animated film these days, there is also a trio of supporting characters who serve as the minions of sorts to Ferdinand, except this time the film is generous enough in giving us two different versions of this angle, with a trio of hedgehogs and horses harvesting the comedic energy for the film. Frankly, the only things I found funny about this film is when Cena is the central focus and being allowed to improvise against the observational humor that is being targeted with Ferdinand’s size in focus. Cena himself offers a strong delve into his debut starring role, and there’s much about his animated personality that crafts the title character into the lovable lug that we become saddled with. John himself sounds like he’s having so much fun under this title character, and that charismatic exuberance rubbed off on me throughout the film, making me wish for more of Ferdinand and less of the animals that he meets along the way.

Without question the biggest improvement for Blue Sky Studios is in their animated stylings in presenting us with arguably their most expansive rendering of backdrops to date. The hills filled with flowers stretch as far as the imagination allows them, and the Mexican town-side supplies an array of shops and horticulture that any mental traveler can indulge in despite possibly having never been there. My personal favorite perk of the animation here is definitely in the facial depictions that hammer home the emotional response in versatility that each scene is going for. Is it on the level of Pixar? Absolutely not, but for a studio whose usual animated characters feel like lifeless puppets, the inspiration in ‘Ferdinand’ feels much appreciated for the sleeping giant that may finally be coming awake. So much about Ferdinand’s desire and energy for what inspires him rests in the baby blue eyes that burn a hole into the reflection of the eyes off-screen that stare into them, and even the fluidity of fur movements on the animals is starting to look up. ‘Ferdinand’ could be the first step in getting Blue Sky to where it needs to be to compete, matching the layers of shadow and pixelation accordingly with the vibrancy of color that adorn their pictures.

The last thing that I wanted to talk about was the film’s musical accompaniment because it definitely deserves its own section. As for musical score, composer John Powell whips up an immersive journey through the hills of this foreign land that captures the essence beautifully. With so much influence from Spanish culture blending its way throughout Ferdinand’s adventure, the musical notes that Powell triggers offer a solid compromise of fiery energy and downtrodden dramatic pulse when the film requires it. There is simply no problem that I have with it. The film’s music soundtrack however? That’s another story. It’s true that there is only three songs that play throughout the film, but the decision for them all to be Pitbull songs is still something that makes me scratch my head. I myself am not a Pitbull fan, but that’s not the problem that I have. In trying to capture the Spanish sound of choice, a Puerto-Rican probably wouldn’t be my first choice. That’s not to be prejudice for one distinct direction or the other, but it’s clear with three out of three choices that they felt Pitbull would be the articulate measure in reflecting the vibe of the bull-fighting culture, and it couldn’t be any more wrong on that degree. Instead, his inclusion feels like once again an animated film’s cheap ploy at advertising some Top 40 favorites to sell Itunes downloads, and it’s what soils the sentiment in ways that a film like ‘Coco’ never fell for.

THE VERDICT – ‘Ferdinand’ is not all bull, for better or worse, but the visionary spark of some noteworthy animation, as well as some mature exploration for where its story takes us, supplants this as a worthy hour-and-a-half investment for families everywhere, this holiday. Cena grabs the bull by the horns, commanding Ferdinand with enough peppy touch and immense personality that make him ideal for protagonist following. Ultimately, the film’s lack of focus is its almost complete downfall, choosing to build the characters and not the story, but the honorable dual message cements this as a gently subversive sermon for kids and adults alike.

6/10

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The galaxy far away returns for a ninth silver screen installment, this time promoting the end of the Jedi tradition for the greater good. In ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, Rey (Daisy Ridley) develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of the longtime missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who himself is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Rey seeks to find her place in the bigger galaxy where she lacks a clear and defined fate due to her family’s anonymity. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order after Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) escapes death, and plans a journey en route to crushing the union that is currently being led by his own Mother (Carrie Fischer). ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ is written and directed by Rian Johnson, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, including peril.

In its ninth and most explosive chapter, Star Wars continues to re-define itself in ways that George Lucas could’ve only dreamed when he penned the 1975 original. This time, it’s Rian Johnson’s turn, and while Johnson sometimes over-indulges on fan service, there’s plenty here to love for fans young and old that have handed these series of films down as a generational affair. For his capabilities to dabble in twice the involvement with this picture, Johnson constructs a series of different train tracks in plot that each add a rumble of momentum to the continuous pulse that the film continues through an ambitious runtime of nearly two-and-a-half hours, the single longest film of the series to date. Each of these tracks twist and turn with enough surprises and jaw-dropping moments to give each of them their own turn at controlling the pacing, but it’s in their crash collision that stacks the suspense accordingly and really drives the endless fun and worthy payoff for the twelve months between that we have to wait for the next one. This isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but the positives of Johnson’s artistic scope and widening of character depth, reminds us that this series is only getting started, and the force is strong with the future.

For how ‘The Force Awakens’ introduced us to these new complex characters in a kind of interviewing for the job type of atmosphere, ‘The Last Jedi’ feels like the hiring process, in that we are seeing what each of them has to offer for the spectrum. The story is divided into three different angles with each of them playing a pivotal role to where the film ends up at the heart of this terrifying and brutally violent war being played out. Rey’s story with Luke is continued from the final scene of ‘The Force Awakens’, and it becomes clear that while Rey seeks Luke’s guidance in maintaining the force, it is the teacher who requires the youthful exubberance of his student in inspiring him to live again. The second tier involves Kylo Ren at a crossroads with his inevitable destiny. It was in this subplot where I felt the film had the most to offer in terms of depth, and it’s refreshing to see that good and evil in this universe can’t always be defined by a color, let alone a single action. The final involves Finn (Played by John Boyega) and his newly formed sidekick Rose (Played by Kelly Marie Tran). There’s been much negativity surrounding this subplot, mainly because of how it fits with the other two, but I found it to be much needed for the impact that it placed in fighting the dark side. Is it convoluted at some points? Absolutely, but the endless energy and distinct adult tone of some adult-like fight scenes complete with consequences, constantly kept the bar of expectations elevated throughout some occasional dragging.

My biggest problem with the film isn’t just in the excess runtime, because I feel like the film’s pacing stays firmly tight until the final forty minutes, it’s in where the film finishes that left me kind of with a sour taste. For every riveting blow of battle that is felt throughout, the third act ends on what feels like a stalemate, taking the easy way out in the name of fan service to con the audience into thinking a lot was answered. Besides this, there’s much about the second act, particularly that with Finn and Rose’s adventure on her former planet that definitely could’ve used an edit button. It’s weird because the film feels like this dog with an endless appetite who doesn’t know when to stop eating, then feels bloated when time and reaction starts to set in. There was never a point in the film where I was truly bored, but so much of what transpires feels repetitious to the smooth pacing that Johnson overall masters soundly considering it is 147 minutes, and I feel nothing would be sacrificed with an even two hour film that would definitely keep the audience on their toes.

Not all is a loss however, as the involvement of composer John Williams, as well as cinematographer Steve Yedlin combine in establishing the single most beautifully decadent Star Wars film to date. Williams is always someone who feels more in tune (pardon the pun) than anyone else with this universe, and his score here rumbles through our endless enthusiasm with a versatile score that beats to the drum of several diverse and varied atmospheric landscapes faithfully. It’s gotten to the point that I couldn’t imagine this series without the melodic tones by John that cements that big screen feel. As for Yedlin, I was blown away by the breathtaking scope that he and Johnson team up for in articulating the wide range of color and construction of many establishing shots. The wide angles in space deserve a pause button so you can embrace them in all of their immense details. But not to be outdone are the adrenaline-fueled war sequences in all of their fast-paced glory. There’s a sense in the air that if you blink you might miss something vital, but the strategy involved with gaining on your opposition becomes prevalent the more we see force meet object. But even despite the wide range of color and structure involved with the space scenes, it was the interior shots involving Snoke’s layer that perplexed me with their personal touches of color coordination that beautifully decorated each chance to soak it all in.

I mentioned earlier that this feels like an adult oriented chapter in the Star Wars legacy, and nothing could be more evident than some of the eye-catching visuals that will surprise even the most dedicated of fans. I’ll be blunt here without spoiling anything, there are some very graphic death scenes that I can imagine pushed the boundaries of the PG-13 rating that adorns the film. If I have a say, I think the series needs more of this, as the one problem that I’ve constantly had with these films are the lack of consequences involved in some pretty high stakes gambling of lives for all considered. Johnson does enough to place the urgency firmly where it is needed, and I commend Disney for sitting back and letting a master work his magic in feeling confident that he knows his vision better than anyone.

Finally, the performances brought the thunder for the mostly returning cast, but also opened our eyes to some new favorites who are no stranger to the Hollywood A-list. Laura Dern, Benecio Del Toro, and Lupita Nyongo are just a few to be introduced to the Star Wars legacy, and each of them thrive under the pressures of the spotlight of being cast in a series that they grew up with. One cool thing that hit me over and over again was the casting of Carrie Fisher’s real life daughter Billie Lourd as Lieutenant Connix, one of Leia’s coveted right hands on board. It’s very sureal to see the two sharing screens together, and it offers a heartfelt sentiment knowing that in Carrie’s final film she got to share the screen with her own flesh and blood. Daisy Ridley still kicks total ass as Rey, feeling like the female heroine that so many little girls need in embracing their own inspiration. The scenes between her and Hamill are my absolute favorite of the movie, but there was also no denying the magnetic chemistry that she shared with Adam Driver (As Kylo Ren), even if some scenes had a sexual awkwardness to them in the funniest of depictions. Driver is much better here than his dive in ‘The Force Awakens’, and it’s nice when the film lets him toe that line psychologically in a game of head versus heart.

THE VERDICT – Disney’s third take on its legendary property yields energetic force and stylistic ecstacy for fans of any age group who seek the best in visual spectrum to add to its lifetime of personalities. The film sometimes stretches character arc’s for a bit too long, and the ending itself is one of the least satisfying for me in terms of emphasis in conclusion, but there’s no denying the growth in characters as a result of some sharp twists that shape this as the enthralling thrill-ride of the holiday season. It’s a reminder that each chapter (or episode) peels back another layer in the discovery for who we really are.

8/10

Coco

The striking chords of music separate a boy and his deceased family to The Land of the Dead, in Pixar Animation’s newest ‘Coco’. Despite his family’s baffling generations-old ban on music, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) dreams of becoming an accomplished musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt). Through daily viewings of video tapes and a shrine dedicated to Cruz, Miguel puts in the hours to becoming a signature guitar player with very little luck along the way. Desperate to prove his talent, Miguel finds himself in the stunning and colorful Land of the Dead following a mysterious chain of events. Along the way, he meets charming trickster Hector (voice of Gael GarcĂ­a Bernal), and together, they set off on an extraordinary journey to unlock the real story behind Miguel’s family history. ‘Coco’ is written and directed by Adrian Molina, and is rated PG for thematic elements.

Music can serve and narrate the link between the past and present in ways that can tenderly preserve our memories. This was my biggest takeaway from ‘Coco’, the newest grand slam strike from a company that continues to amaze and raise the bar with each passing year; Disney Pixar. Once again, this company strikes gold in emulating the very traditions and lifestyles of a foreign land in a way that is not only educational for youths with a thirst for exploration, but also intelligent for the way that it carefully juggles the tone of every scene. Like only a couple of films before it, ‘Coco’ took me on a high speed rush of emotional versatility that made me feel bi-polar because of how much can resonate from within in a single 100 minute sitting. Besides the moral of the story that I took away, there’s so much more to this film that provides the perfect family gathering this Thanksgiving weekend, harvesting an urgency for life, as well as a celebration for the deceased that vibrantly decodes the link between these two entirely vast worlds. This is very much a movie that makes you feel enlightened when you leave the theater, and that’s a feat that I feel a lot of films (especially kids movies) are missing from this current day and age. This proves that Pixar isn’t just crafting kids films, but films that cater to every age spectrum that never limits their profound voice.

This is very much a script that takes its time in getting to know our characters pasts respectively, but it moves along so sharp that I never felt bored or dragged down by the endless exposition. The first half Molina’s script follows near the casual setups of a protagonist who is searching to find his voice in more ways than one, but what evolved proves that the information in the trailers is only table dressing to the much tastier main course. The film is a mystery at times, and crosses into the theme of needing to invest in our pasts if we are to continue forth with our futures. This provides plenty of surprises along the way, including a plot twist midway through that takes its cues from the ‘Blade Runner 2049’ school of storytelling that this film even did slightly better. There’s also great thought and imagination invested into the very world building that Molina confidently casts upon his shoulders. The kinds of themes and rules are a throwback to the very legends of Mexican tradition that are past down from one generation to the next, feeding into the finely tuned engine of intelligence that ‘Coco’ carves out for itself. Believe me when I say that this is a screenplay that will at the very least touch your heart, but for the select few, it will resonate in a way that transfixes you with the music that serenades your soul.

On that topic, we have a spirited contender for best musical soundtrack of 2017. At this point, Disney is turning out earworms that live and breed inside of our heads, and the best decision is not to fight it, but go with irresistible melodies that get your toes tapping. Michael Giacchnino’s collection of songs moves at many tempos fast and slow, highlighting the many moments that require an essence of song in the air, but what impressed me most was the insertion of these inevitable hits that built their deliveries. As to where most musicals insert songs every five minutes of the movie, often creating scenes of song that don’t feel authentic in their dissertation, ‘Coco’ carefully reserves the proper moment in time to deliver these numbers. The most important thing here is that the music is working hand-in-hand with the story, firing on double cylinders that brings out the most in terms of confidence for both aspects. Songs have been important in films, but in this movie it feels like breathing for this family of personalities that have either thrived or been left to rot because of it. Either way, I see a lot of Itunes purchases being made for Giacchino’s stirring audible revelation that struck more than just a chord with my heart and ensuing tears that followed.

The performances were all around incredible by this big name group of actors young and old that carve out something far beyond the one-dimensional protagonists that we’ve come to sadly expect. My favorite is definitely Bernal as Hector, the antsy wild card of the film that steers a bit to close to ever be forgotten. What makes Bernal’s voicing so memorable here is that he allows himself to get lost in the character, channeling a sadness and longing because of being forgotten that has paralyzed his time in the afterlife. The chemistry between the tag team of he and Gonzalez leaves nothing to be desired in the very way that it establishes two characters who we yearn to spend more time with, and soon it becomes evident how desperately they need each other. Speaking of which, the little boy himself commands the film with such innocence and wonder that make him feel years ahead of his young age in real life. Anthony himself is certainly no rookie when it comes to acting or singing, but his grasp of both firmly exceeded my wildest expectations for how a child can command a crowd both on and off of screen. Benjamin Bratt also leaves a lasting impression as charmingly arrogant De La Cruz. Behind every immense pop star, there’s a personality a mile long, and Bratt is happy to oblige with such suave debonair that makes it easy to fall to his musical seduction.

Without question though, my single favorite aspect of the film is in the endlessly intense attention to detail that fronts an artistic flow that crushes any other animated film this year in its path. When I see an animated film, I always speak of rendering, shading, and color palate, and this film hits the mark with precision on all of them. The backdrops and landscapes in this Land of the Dead provided so many awestruck moments when it feels like their luminous lights and high-stacked houses stretch further than the eye can see, but how is the character detail? My answer is PERFECTLY. It’s getting to the point where it is truly scary how much Pixar is mastering every small detail to make a character stand out. What I mean by this is just how many differences in bone structure that the film goes through for its hundreds of the dead that get even a second of screen time, as well as spots or moles on skin for those in the living. The hair threads themselves on character heads feel like you can reach out and touch them at any time, only to be topped by the design of Grandma Coco that better win the production an Oscar or I will scream my lungs out in anger. The wrinkle patterns and rendering of this aging woman confined to a chair had me demanding to pause the film just to soak in how fluently she moved to that of her respective age and situation, and I’ve never seen anything so jaw-dropping illustration when it comes to matching that of a live action counterpart.

What small problems I had with the film were so miniscule that it barely requires mentioning, but two things stand-out like a cancer in an overall production that is nearly perfect. The first is the one roadblock in the animation from a group of flying beast characters (they look like tigers) that alienated the consistency of every person or property around them. The beasts have a strange color design to their characters, but my concern is more in the outline of their designs that screams computer animation. If it were up to me, I wish they weren’t even in the film, as their inclusion even feels like it stretches the rules that were carefully constructed in this other world. The other (and much bigger) problem involved the rules provided in the exposition that doesn’t make sense later on. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I will just say that a character in the Land of the Dead is slowly deteriorating because his loved ones can’t remember him. This of course makes no sense because one of his loved ones is indeed with him throughout the film walking, talking, and all else communicating with him. If I spoke to my Mother directly, IT MEANS I DID NOT FORGET ABOUT HER. My point is that this character should never be deteriorating, and it otherwise feels like an obvious ploy to dramatic pulse in a film that was otherwise dealing with death and its themes maturely.

THE VERDICT – Coco will remind you that you have a pulse, in all of its heartwarming family pleasantries and endless ambition to follow your dreams that will provide inspiration aplenty to those who seek it. The animation feels three-dimensional without the need for eye-cramping glasses, and an energetically spirited musical score by Giacchino brings it all home with a tempo-building final performance that concludes with electricity. It’s a responsibly refreshing story that bridges the worlds of the living and the dead impeccably, bringing to light the importance of family that can’t be diminished by either.

9/10

The Star

A collection of animals follow ‘The Star’ as a map in their quest to get to Bethlehem before it’s too late. In Sony Pictures Animation’s newest feature film, a small but brave donkey named Bo (Steven Yeun) yearns for a life beyond his daily grind of repetition at the village mill. One day he finds the courage to break free, and finally goes on the adventure of his dreams. On his journey, he teams up with Ruth (Aidy Bryant), a lovable sheep who has lost her flock, and Dave (Keegan Michael-Key), a dove with lofty aspirations. Along with three wisecracking camels and some eccentric stable animals with electric personalities, Bo and his new friends follow the Star and become unlikely heroes in the greatest story ever told; the first Christmas. ‘The Star’ is directed by Timothy Reckart, and is rated PG for some thematic elements.

Releasing a story about the birth of Jesus around the holiday season seemed like a good idea in theory, but the dulled down execution of ‘The Star’ hints that your time would be much better served doing literally anything else than this. The film isn’t truly awful, just awfully boring, and a great lack of detail paralyzes this one from ever breaking free from the pack of religious films that bring out the groaning in all of us. Thankfully, this one at least isn’t insulting or shaming the non-believing crowds for their respective beliefs, choosing instead to focus loosely on the greatest origin story of all time in Jesus Christ. From a theatrical perspective, this one lacks any clear defining trait in releasing this on the silver screen. From its minimal run time (78 Minutes), to its narrow screenplay or jarringly disappointing animated stylings, Reckart’s honorable tale falls along the way of this aridly dry journey in giving us anything memorably pleasing about the investment made towards wanting to see an original version of the classic telling.

The screenplay is so dry and free of laughs in its material that I found myself fighting off sleep throughout. In fact, my experience with ‘The Star’ makes me feel like the film had some good ideas for the night of the immaculate birth, and then decided to fill in the rest around it as they went along. I say this because the third act of the film is by far the most exciting and the most urgent in terms of my investment as a whole with the movie. It’s nothing amazing by any stretch of original storytelling, but when you consider how mind-numbingly dull the first hour of this movie truly is, you can appreciate a finale that throws as much at the screen as it can to getting audiences back into this thing. The humor inside of this script feels virtually non-existent. That’s not to just say that it is bad in delivery, but that it feels like it is never there to begin with. Considering this is basically a kids-first dominated audience, I feel like screenwriters Simon Moore and Carlos Kotkin cater more to the side of bible enthusiasts instead of the ones that will pile into the theater in droves to see an up-roaring good time. Evidence of this exists throughout the first two acts that feel like you’re being subjected to a Sunday School Hallmark offering that is posing as a Hollywood film in sheep’s clothing. I could forgive Sony Animated Studios if this was the first or second time that I have been annoyed with them, but the sour taste of ‘Nine Lives’ from 2015 still lasts to remind me of the horrors that I’ve been through with this company.

Sony’s brand of animation continues to get better in certain aspects, but still struggles in artist rendering that has it falling by the wayside of Dreamworks or Pixar for top dog. The background illustrations are beautiful here, establishing a patented desire for even the most minute detail in landscapes and buildings that sets a lively stage for our characters. The sky and clouds as well breathe a strong artistic stroke that tiptoes the fourth wall of live action rendering. Where my problem lies is still with the character depictions, especially during the day time scenes that highlight their lumbering movements and facial definitions accordingly. The mouth movements of characters are still trailing behind where they rightfully should be with their appropriate speech patterns, and there’s a great lack of life or energy behind the walking and reaching of both human and animal properties. As to where Pixar gets the little things like facial acne or wrinkles to strong detail in their films, Sony Animation is still leagues behind in this regard, giving their characters the most basic of approaches to what make them standout amongst one another.

My distaste doesn’t just end with the visuals however, it also rang persistent with the collective musical soundtrack by a collection of popular artists like Mariah Carey and Jake Owen. I should first say that the musical score by composer John Paesano is nowhere at fault here, as his accompaniment of orchestral influence gave the film the big feeling that I felt it was sadly missing for the rest of the tonal atmosphere. But with the soundtrack, I feel like this is another example of popstars trying to hip up these classic religious songs with a dose of modern swagger to appeal to a broader audience. Anytime this happens in films, I can’t help but taste the feeling of desperation that sacrifices the pitch and feeling of the story at heart. This kind of thing is nice for a kids movie, but a story about Jesus probably doesn’t require a hip hop influence to its scenes and sequences for the sheer fact that this style of music was thousands of years away. I compare it to hearing hip hop during the 2012 version of ‘The Great Gatsby’. It’s jarring to the point of ruined immersion into the film, and does nothing but play as a distraction on the whole piece.

This wide range of cast are also quite a feat to see under the same roof, even if a majority of their deliveries lack the kind of energy needed in reaching the youthful audience. With the exception of Keegan Michael-Key as Dave the sidekick dove and best friend of Bo, not one of these actors get lost in their vocal versatilities, and choose instead to play everything at face value. What makes Keegan work so well in this role besides his animated vocal tones, is that he truly samples a pitch that sounds completely different from his familiar patterns. Michael-Key’s endless energy goes a long way anytime he’s on screen, and I couldn’t thank Dave enough for waking me from a coma each time he wasn’t present. Besides him, Aidy Bryant isn’t terrible as Ruth, but her character’s one-dimension purpose limits her abilities in breaking out of the Saturday Night Live diamond that she finds herself in. Steven Yeun was very disappointing, sounding off Bo as a protagonist who is simply collecting a paycheck. Whether it’s poor writing or poor dissertation, Yeun’s turn as the lead of this film can’t quite get a grasp of what is needed from the material, and because of such, Bo makes for arguably the worst of animal leads in a year that has John Cena voicing a four hundred pound bull.

THE VERDICT – Few things shine bright with ‘The Star’, but those that do are doing so because of the limited spectrum being displayed by uneven animation, as well as a boring story that alienates quickly. Already with ‘Daddy’s Home 2’ and ‘A Bad Mom’s Christmas’, this has been a holiday movie season to forget, but Timothy Reckart’s animated telling gives us one final blunt blow with a nativity story that incorporates butt jokes and slapstick humor to its senseless direction. If this truly is the greatest story ever told, I’ll opt for fiction.

4/10

Wonder

‘Wonder’ tells the incredibly inspiring and heartwarming story of August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a warm-hearted little boy born with facial differences that have kept him in and out of hospitals his whole life. Up until now, his appearance has prevented him from going to a mainstream school, so Auggie becomes the most unlikely of heroes when he enters the local fifth grade. As his family (Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson), his new classmates, and the larger community all struggle to discover their compassion and acceptance, Auggie’s extraordinary journey will unite them all and prove you can’t blend in when you were born to stand out, proving that the things that make us different also make us special. ‘Wonder’ is directed by Stephen Chbosky, and is rated PG for thematic elements including bullying, and some mild adult language.

If a theater auditorium full of crying people doesn’t restore my faith in mankind, nothing probably will. The tears are ones of joy more often than not in ‘Wonder’, channeling an inspiring tear-jerker that moved me miles in ways that it tugged at the heartstrings with a resounding message of clarity. To be different is not to be unequal, but rather extraordinary, and we should welcome those extraordinary people with forthright actions that will define us. The film more than lives up to its ambitious name by implementing the softer side to cinema that usually more times than not leaves me rolling my eyes. The meandering side to dramas involving characters that are deemed as ‘Different’ comes across in the thinnest of representations, leading to films like ‘Simon Birch’ or ‘Radio’ that often play to the predictability of each respective story. ‘Wonder’ is above all of that, mainly because it tells an honest story first-and-foremost, depicting the very actions and consequences of children with such accuracy that makes them entertaining, but above all else human. This was a very entertaining sit to me, and most of the credit goes to the same filmmaking genius who helmed ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, perhaps the most poignant teenage film of the last twenty years.

That magician is Stephen Chbosky, and if one thing is clear about the circles that he runs around in endless direction, it’s that he understands youths and their unfolding situations accordingly. In weaker hands, this film could easily fall by the wayside corny while reaching for the right degree of sentimentality, but Stephen, as well as his all around perfectly cast ensemble, harbor such surrealism that comes with living with something as challenging as physical appearance and the kind of psychological harm that it can cause to that innocent youth. As a filmmaker, Chbosky infuses a lot of warm color that represents the rich, vibrancy of this movie that removes any doubt of this feeling like a bigger budgeted Lifetime movie of the week. On top of this, the cinematography is gorgeous, harboring a finer appreciation of versatility in shots far and near that play to the drama in each scene without needing the slow close-up that forces us to pay attention to a heavy handed message. Stephen lets his audience come to him, and because of such the wondrous influence that he commands over this movie is one that always feels firmly in his grip without reaching for the sure things when it comes to what will resonate with his audience.

What I came to appreciate about this story is that it isn’t just told from Auggie’s point of view, but rather a healthy offering of characters who each play great value into the peeling of this small boy. For the first half of the film, the narration is done by four different characters of Auggie, his Sister Via, his best friend Jack, and Via’s former best friend Miranda. Not all of them hit as strongly emotionally as others do, and some even come and go without much reasoning for their delve into that particular character. But what I found so enticing about this direction is that the storytelling shows its depth by proving that there’s so much more that meets the eye with this boy and his situation that touches a lot of people for better or worse. To me, his sister’s side of things is one that I valued most, depicting a side of temporary abandonment that doesn’t always get a thorough representation in films like this one. Nothing ever feels rushed or even sloppy by its expanding levels, using the most of 108 precious minutes of screen time that constantly held my attention because there’s something new around every corner.

The few problems that the film’s screenplay by Chbosky does have are few and far between, but there were some things that bothered me. For one, the film’s multiple narration does sometimes stray too far from Auggie before much resolution with his character has taken place. It does make up for it during the later part of the third act with some more time devoted to him, but unfortunately what transpires during a field trip does feel terribly tacked on to the story to offer some last minute drama that the film doesn’t feel confident in what few edge-of-the-seat moments it gave us. The overall final twenty minutes of the film is definitely the weakness of the movie, but it isn’t enough to ever take it down more than a grade for its lack of involvement to the star character. I’ll get to the performances in a second, but the one thing that makes Tremblay just miss from possible Academy recognition during awards season is that the film is noticeably missing that one long-winded moment of dialogue from him to bring it all together, and that reminder to the townspeople of the journey that this strong force has taken.

As for performances, there is nothing lacking in this department. The duo of Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson worked spectacularly, emoting two cool parents who know how to relate to their children, but also know when to turn on the discipline of a stern approach. Jacob Tremblay is a wonder of acting science with his role of Auggie. In him, Tremblay finally capitalizes on his dramatic circumference that was evident in 2015’s ‘Room’, playing him with enough sadness and spunk to appropriately balance them capably without feeling like a drag. My favorite performance of the film however, was from sixteen-year-old Izabela Vidovic who opened my eyes to such a presence in the same vein that she does to the townspeople at a school play in the film. Via feels just as cursed by Auggie predicament, and because of such we get a tender performance by Vidovic that reminds us of the very complexities of finding an identity as a teenager without coming right out and spoon-feeding it down our throats. The scenes with Vidovic and Roberts are definitely my favorite of the film because you feel such invisible angst and depravation being explored in ways that feel every bit as deserving of exploration as they do becoming of each respective character’s direction for the remainder of the film. Subtle visual storytelling at its finest.

THE VERDICT – ‘Wonder’ doesn’t require familiar paths on its journey to compelling drama, it blazes a trail of its own by an informatively versatile approach the pushes this to the front of the line of tear-jerking favorites. Chbosky once again puts the lump in all of our throats with such compassion and vulnerability in the unapologetic circumstance of childish audacity, and this more than capable ensemble cast turn the gears of tears accordingly for nearly two hours. A name means everything to a film, and because of such, the double duty of Chbosky put the ‘Wonder’ in wonderful.

8/10