Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Directed By James Bobin

Starring – Isabella Moner, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Benicio Del Toro

The Plot – Having spent most of her life exploring the jungle with her parents, nothing could prepare Dora (Moner) for her most dangerous adventure ever: high school. Always the explorer, Dora quickly finds herself leading Boots (Danny Trejo), Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), a mysterious jungle inhabitant, and a ragtag group of teens on a live-action adventure to save her parents and solve the impossible mystery behind a lost Inca civilization.

Rated PG for action and some impolite humor

POSITIVES

– Responsibility realized. When Dora debuted on Nickelodeon, she not only became a pop culture icon, but more importantly a Latino one, and especially during a time when our neighbors to the south are feeling the sting of freedom falling apart, the film is perhaps more important than ever in giving them a hero they can feel proud of. As an action protagonist, Dora is tough, charming, intelligent, and even dangerous when she needs to be, and the never-ending flow of her spirit is something that represents the Mexican demographic candidly, etching out a persistence for always getting the job done. Likewise, the film is shot on location in the Amazon, so many of the sets and wardrobe associated speak vibrantly to an Aztec culture that is very rarely rendered in cinema. Everything from family traditions, to free-flowing gowns is on display for the group better known as the people of the gods, and with it holds valuable weight to the film that makes them anything but just a beautiful shooting location.

– Set designs. Speaking of which, the imagination donated to fun and audience immersive puzzles is something that added a lot of intrigue to the film, crafting this as a kids version of Indiana Jones without fully ripping it off for inspiration. Not only is their detailed variety in the gorgeous backdrops that surround our leads, but every trap that they find themselves having to get out of requires each particular character to indulge in something that they are good at, building them stronger as a group the longer the film persists. In contrast to this, the scenes in Los Angeles offer a stark variation on everything that Dora is used to, bringing forth the boisterous sounds and toxic personalities that come with upper class privilege. It gives the film a big budget feel with so many varied locations, allowing it to transcend some of the bigger budget problems that the film faces in other areas that I will get to later.

– Perfect tone. Most importantly, this film knows what it is; a wacky slew of hijinks that vibes togetherness and inclusion in an adventurous manner. It finds a comfortable balance somewhere in the middle between being taken too seriously and feeling so off the wall that it feels disjointed in its sequencing. This one stays focused with all of its madness, and brings forth a level of comic firepower that left my gut in knots more than a couple of times. It’s mostly kid humor, but there are a few clever zingers scattered throughout that only adults will pick up on, and while I appreciate a kids movie that treats youths with respect, the accessibility for all ages of audience is something I appreciate so much more. My favorites are definitely the scenes where everything stops so Dora can speak to the audience beyond the screen, paying homage to the television show in a way that makes her look like a nut here. Loved it.

– Spanish flavored soundtrack. There’s a couple of things to compliment here. The first, Dora’s incredible freestyling skills, which takes the group through many embarrassing and tense situations in which she talks them through peacefully. One such song involves a character taking a dump, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the most catchy and detailed lyrics that I’ve heard from an original piece of music in a long time. Beyond this, the soundtrack itself includes many pop culture favorites, but done in Spanish, complete with mariachi style musical accompaniment. There are many, but the two I caught were Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking”, and of course my second favorite song from The Cure “Just Like Heaven”. It keeps the flavor of the movie finely tuned with the rest of the film’s cultural setting, all the while preserving a level of familiarity in choices that will have the parents toes tapping.

– My favorite scene. I was never a fan of Dora the Explorer during its television run, but the scene that left the biggest imprint on my memory even an hour after the film is this sequence where the characters go through a bit of a drug trip, and their embodiment changes to animated form. I won’t spoil anything else, because there is a lot of creativity donated to the dialogue of the scene, but this three minute fantasy pays homage wonderfully to the spirit of the original television show without soiling the integrity of everything that it’s accomplishing originally within this film. What’s important is the animation is the exact same, not exactly transferring well to the silver screen, but doing its job on the subject of homage integrity that many remakes can’t master accordingly.

– Committed performance. I’ve been a fan of Isabela Moner for a long time, but her work here is her single most convincing role to date. Moner was born to play Dora, and even more than that, she embodies every single aspect about the character that no other acting adaptation has mastered this year for a pre-established character. Isabela’s infectious demeanor requires you to be heartless to not be touched by her magnetic charms, and the girl kicks ass in a way that very few kid properties allow their characters to instill. Capped off with an openness that naively sees the best in people, Dora is the character we don’t deserve, but the one we need right now, and thanks to Moner in the driver seat, there’s no way that a young actress as dedicated to the craft as her would ever let this opportunity pass her by.

– Room on the bone for a sequel. The first half of this film is Dora experiencing real life in America, complete with the awkwardness of high school, and while I enjoyed the adventure that this film took me on, it was the America part that I could’ve used more of. The positive out of this is that it leaves plenty of meat of creativity for a second movie involving Dora’s vulnerability living now permanently in America, as well as dating, bullying, and everything else that comes with a fish out of water story. As for this film, it gives enough satisfaction in its material easily being worth the ticket price for a matinee screening, but it’s wise enough to build a second movie in which the expectations will be much higher since this film became a success.

NEGATIVES

– Awful computer generation. I figured the animal properties and certain effects work of the film would be computer generated, but what I didn’t expect was how lifeless their renderings left my mind having to fill in the gaps of believability. The animals themselves are the worst I’ve seen in a few years, not only for failing to attain the level of natural lighting in any scene that they are involved in, but also for the lack of weight they deposit on a live actor’s interaction. Even for Nickelodeon animation, this is bad on a whole new level, and is easily the biggest flaw for a movie that has a surprising amount of integrity to its reputation.

– No consequences. I understand that this is a cartoon world, but the lack of scrapes, blood, or any kind of injuries through death-defying leaps of faith is something that erases any level of vulnerability, which in turn takes away any shred of suspense for the audience. The excuse will be that people don’t watch Dora for suspense, but this is an action first movie, so therefore it requires even an ounce of real world consequence to its many stunts. The worst of all for me is a jump that Dora makes across two sides of the cave, which can be seen in the trailers for the movie. After her jump, it cuts, and we see Dora laying on the ground at least a hundred feet beneath where she jumped, with no scratches or bone breaks to make her regret doing it in the first place. If Dora doesn’t subdue to pain, then why not have her lunge herself at her opposition at all times? Part of what makes the character so relatable is the fact that she is a teenager, and one who lives, breathes, and hurts just like all of us.

– Weak antagonist. For my money, there never should’ve been an antagonist character in this movie. The antagonist itself should’ve been the cave, with Dora and her crew trying to find their way out of it. With that said, we receive an antagonist halfway through the film, and it holds very little bearing or impact to the remainder of the film. What’s worse is this antagonist makes even less sense the more you think about it. SPOILERS DO NOT READ ON. So you’re telling me that this guy went through everything that Dora and friends did just so he could turn on her? Every death defying instance? One of which he almost drowned on, and all of which he leaves his life in the hands of kids for. Not exactly the criminal mastermind kind of thinking you would expect.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Angry Birds 2 Movie

Directed By Thurop Van Orman

Starring – Jason Sudeikis, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader

The Plot – The flightless angry birds and the scheming green piggies take their beef to the next level when a new threat emerges that puts both Bird and Pig Island in danger.Red (Sudeikis), Chuck (Josh Gad), Bomb (Danny McBride), and Mighty Eagle (Peter Dinklage) recruit Chuck’s sister Silver (Rachel Bloom) and team up with pigs Leonard (Hader), his assistant Courtney (Awkwafina), and techpig Garry (Sterling K. Brown) to forge an unsteady truce and form an unlikely team to save their homes.

Rated PG for rude humor and sequences of action

POSITIVES

– Animation improvements. As to where the vibrancy in color designs were equally as captivating in the original film, it’s really the dimensions given to character outlines, as well as the animator’s firm grip on landscape influence that makes this film stand out as visually superior. In particular, the action sequences feel far more impactful thanks to the detail in devastation that equals that of the rhythmic sound design. Likewise, the eye-popping arrival of the snowy mountainside offers a stark contrast to the sunny tropical climates we’ve grown used to from the franchise. This is certainly a beautiful triumph for Sony Animation, and it’s one that will hold the attention of its youthful audience, if only for the dazzle that comes with production experience.

– Consistently persistent. A film clocking in at 87 minutes is expected to be swift in its storytelling movements, but what works for “Angry Birds Movie 2” is that it constantly keeps the pressure on the movements of the conflicts and environments without it weighing heavily on the pacing of the scenes. There are problems I had with the disjointed nature of the continuity in scenes edited together, particularly during the second act, but never once can I say that I was bored by the film, and that’s almost entirely because, like its feathered flock, this one is always flying by, leaving little in the way of heavy exposition. The material encased isn’t exactly thought-provoking or poignant in deeper meaning, so the decision to keep it short, sweet, and directly to the point is one that I greatly appreciate.

– Charismatic cast. Much thanks goes to Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels for having a much bigger hand than people think in the casting of this film. Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, Leslie Jones, Maya Rudolph, Pete Davidson, and Beck Bennett lead a cast of prime time players who each give their signature flare and raw tapped-in energy to a barrage of eclectic personalities who make up our group. Beyond the SNL crew, we get noteworthy turns as well from Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Tiffany Haddish, Danny Mcbride, Peter Dinklage, and a birds debut from Awkwafina, who steals the show and screen time for the lessons instilled by her character that better materialize Red as the protagonist we’ve always needed. This talented cast goes well above the material, and really invest their all into the heartbeats of their respective characters, and in a collaboration world that recently just saw Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham come together to save the world, the credibility associated with this film comically is second to none in 2019.

– Positive lessons. As is the case with any kids movie, this one summarizes its lessons in the material it conveys, and it’s clear that the intentions are easy to emit from the many scenarios that play out on-screen. “Angry Birds 2” harvests a message of teamwork, as well as a comfortable blanket of being yourself, and not worrying about the way other people see you. As is the case with Red, his newfound heroism is something that he is still learning to grow with, and because of such he allows this thought process to cloud his judgment when it comes to the friendships he has gained for the first time in his life. This gives the film a great continuance on the guidelines it set for opening up during the first movie, and teaches us that being a good person relies on so much more than being there for other people, it’s also being there for yourself.

– My favorite arc. I love that much of the film focuses on the psychology of Red’s moves while in control, and the way that his peers see him since the triumph of the closing moments of the first film. It gives the film an unusually heavy layer of subconscious that breathes alongside the storytelling in ways that allows the central protagonist to grow naturally from one film to the next. Because of the weak antagonist plot, which I will get to later, this more than anything felt like the sail that was steering the fragile masculinity of the character, and gave him a surprising amount of depth in the way that no other character even comes close to. I may not have a lot to say positively about this film, but Red is one of my favorite animated protagonists of 2019.

NEGATIVES

– One sided humor. Like the first film, many of the gags both audibly and visually in the film are geared towards youthful audiences, with very few moments of reprieve for the parents forced to tag along. Especially as is the case with kids movies today, there’s often a desire to please both sides of the coin, but “Angry Birds 2” isn’t clever enough to find the same kind of double meaning in its material to invite multiple age groups to pull something different from the joke, and it demeans it from having strong crossover appeal with those forced to take it in. For my money, I laughed twice in the film, and these certainly weren’t gut-busting blow-offs, but rather bombastic instances where the animation practically leaped off of the screen, and sold the lunacy of the situation better than the set-up ever could. In this regard, the moody crumudgeon Red of the first film gave me at least a few more giggles where I could relate for the similar personality that I possess.

– Weak antagonist. For about the first forty minutes of this film, it felt like there was no villain for the birds and pigs to go against, but out of nowhere, without properly navigating through this character’s backstory, she is turned and sold as the central conflict of the story, and given the tired destructive role that antagonists in kids movies are practically born with. Leslie Jones does a decent enough job emoting this character, but the screenplay couldn’t take a scene to build her on her own when the protagonists aren’t standing right next to her, and it signifies an already cluttered character list didn’t have enough time to properly build one more, and overall it gives much of the conflict dynamic within the film this underwhelming lack of urgency that ironically feels even more cliche’d despite not wasting half of the normal screen time on her.

– Outdated soundtrack. Another tired trope for kids movie is to market these top 40 dance tracks that are a few years too late by the time the film eventually drops, and make a sight gag out of them in lazy, uninspired manners of comedy for the purpose of selling downloads. The easy answer is that the typical animated movie takes 2-3 years to make, but the most familiar offender here, “Turn Down For What” by Lil Jon, is from 2013, giving its inclusion a salmonella level of shelf life that made me sick just from hearing its familiar initial notes. It embodies everything that is wrong with the Angry Birds name to begin with; a corporate manufactured product with the only intention being to sell downloads.

– Too much borrowing. There’s nothing original about “Angry Birds 2”, and what’s even worse? it shares writers with the very films it lifts its material from. Peter Ackerman, who penned many of the Ice Age movies, brings along hijinks scenarios where everything around the characters goes wrong far beyond their control…..similar to Scrat in “Ice Age”. Beyond this, the whole mission itself, from tonal capacity to event outlines, serves as a discount version of “Despicable Me 3”, a film that was easily the weakest of that respective franchise. Finally, how many animated movies have a peaceful group led by a hero, who then comes across a new-and-improved character, which then makes the former feel alienated from the power he has attained? It’s like preserving chewed-up meat, and then throwing it on the grill to hope it will sizzle. It doesn’t, and it leaves this film every bit as uninspiring as it does predictable.

– Pointless padding. Towards the end of the second act, there’s a subplot introduced involving the finding of three eggs that some of the supporting characters try to hunt down. Not only does this not hold any weight within the confines of the central conflict, but its conclusion essentially holds no weight or bearing on the closing moments of the picture. This makes it feel like an obvious device for getting the run time to the desired minimum, and what’s even more confusing is that it should’ve been used to better accommodate the fumbled antagonist focus, which as I mentioned earlier is virtually non-existent throughout the first half of the film.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

The Lion King (2019)

Directed By Jon Favreau

Starring – Donald Glover, Beyonce, Seth Rogen

The Plot – The movie journeys to the African savanna where a future king is born. Simba (Glover) idolizes his father, King Mufasa (James Earl Jones), and takes to heart his own royal destiny. But not everyone in the kingdom celebrates the new cub’s arrival. Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa’s brother-and former heir to the throne-has plans of his own. The battle for Pride Rock is ravaged with betrayal, tragedy and drama, ultimately resulting in Simba’s exile. With help from a curious pair of newfound friends, Simba will have to figure out how to grow up and take back what is rightfully his.

Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, and some thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Jon Favreau. Once again, Favreau instills a personal touch to a Disney classic, this time in the form of intense camera movements and character personality that give way to the more light-hearted, carefree atmosphere this time around. On the former, there are quite a few sequences where we the audience behind the camera are constantly in front of a particular character, engaged in a chase sequence that maximizes the urgency of the situation, and cements Jon as articulate in his captivation of this very dangerous world in ways the animated original simply never could. As for the humor, not everything lands (Especially unnecessary fart humor), but the abundance of comedic characters, as well as colorful ironies, gives way to an indulgence that makes it difficult for any cinematic snob not to embrace.

– Pacing. This Lion King remake is twenty-six minutes longer than the previous animated classic, and while that may feel like unnecessary padding in the form of storytelling, the few additionally original scenes that we are treated to better help earn the feelings and situations that come with Simba’s tale of vengeance. One of my few problems with the animated original is that it felt like it was constantly in a rush to get to the inevitable predictability of the third act conclusion, but here the sorrow of those damned to Scar’s reign of terror, as well as Simba’s time away from home, better capture the dread of this dire situation. This time, we are actually treated to examples of Scar’s authority in the form of specie extinction, and not only does this further flesh him out as an intolerable antagonist, but it also gives much needed attention to the victims of this story, who were otherwise forgotten in the previous film.

– Female empowerment. Speaking of characters forgotten, the lack of female influence was also something that greatly bothered me from the original film, but here is given great importance to everything that transpires. Particularly in the form of Nala and Sarabi, they play a much more pivotal role in the combat of Scar, with the former being a motivator of sorts to this army of misfits who come together as a family. I knew someone like Beyonce certainly wouldn’t be relegated to virtual arm candy to the male protagonist, and this much needed level of gender inclusion will undoubtedly inspire female audiences, young and old, in ways that very few 20th century Disney films captured. Say what you will about Disney live action remakes, but their finger of creativity is constantly on the pulse of modern day social commentary, and the way it’s done is accomplished in a classy way that doesn’t feel preachy in the slightest.

– Endearing cast. While the limitations of script condemn any of these exceptionally talented actors from making any of these roles their own, there are a few notable deliveries who I greatly enjoyed. The ones who come to mind immediately is the duo of Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner as the lovable duo, Timon and Pumba. To anyone who knows these two colorful personalities, the transformations of their on-screen counterparts isn’t a stretch in the slightest, balancing vibrancy in comical range and elevated vocal capacities that really bring their character designs to life in a much-needed shot of adrenaline for the film’s second act. Also buzzworthy is John Oliver’s sarcastic wit behind Zazu that further outlines a serious character living in a care-free world. Considering in real life Oliver hosts a weekly news show, it’s perfect that he serves as the branch of airborne news for the film’s protagonists, and just as he does on TV, Oliver’s wordy dialogue constantly puts him a step above the game in terms of intelligence. It was also great to hear James Earl Jones vocalizing Mufasa again, as even at 88-years-old, the man still commands enough bravado and stern emphasis in demeanor to demand your attention like he does Simba in the movie.

– Transformations in set design. The one aspect that is live action is the dreamy backdrops of the African safari that are practically lifted from the pages of ambitious animation, and brought to life with an attention for detail that constantly impresses. The rock cliff is the easy part, as the familiarity of those stones would point to a huge tragedy in production if not captured authentically, but what amazed me were the shapes and designs of the small objects in frame that prove no spare detail was left on the creative room floor. For my money, the scenes of Rafiki’s cave, as well as Timon and Pumba’s home really impressed me, and served as a virtual checklist in creature and object extras that only further cemented the lasting power of the scene in the animated original. When a production is really good in a remake, you can point to a familiar object and know what is about to transpire, and the eye-catching three-dimensional quality to the lively sets and background props serve as episodic chapters in this modern day rendering of Hamlet stripped down to its bare bones.

– Gutsy. I was more than impressed at the perilous imagery in animal characters that brought back an air of 80’s child cinema that challenged for its gruesome content. That’s not to say that “The Lion King” will blow your mind with violence or gore, but rather if you absolutely dread seeing animals in these kind of situations, the movie will test you in ways that you weren’t expecting, especially from PG-rated cinema. But that ratings jump from G-to-PG has never felt bigger, especially considering the ambush of Mufasa’s downfall, or the camera panning of Scar’s demise, which for better feels a few seconds to late from the mauling that we catch before it pans to shadows. I admire a children’s movie that appreciates the age divide in its audience and finds a healthy compromise somewhere in between for the beats of its material that is easily more testing than any other kids movie in 2019, giving respect to the youth, while rewarding the mature for its evolution in the two films.

NEGATIVES

– Weightless. I say this in the form of computer generated characters that leave this live-action rendering virtually pointless, considering they are basically refined cartoons in the way they are designed. What’s even worse is the C.G is definitely a step below Favreau’s previous work in “The Jungle Book” live action remake, with hollow mouthing captures and overall lack of facial expressions that hinder your ability to connect with the characters. Both of these aspects make the dialogue exchanges feel hokey and lifeless in their enveloping, and quite often brought me out of my investment into this supposed live action story, to remind me of the glaring negatives in post production never immersed themselves smoothly in the progression of the film. I don’t expect actual animals performing in the movie, but it points to perhaps the biggest reason why this animated classic should’ve remained just that, serving as the beacon in a fantastical animated world where anything feels possible.

– Uninspiring. Just as I feared, the film is roughly a 90% shot-for-shot remake of the previous film, and while familiarity is expected in a remake, the level attained by this film is borderline shameless. Not only is the outline of events in the film transferred in the exact same way that it was in the previous movie, but whole lines of dialogue are ripped in a way that prove absolutely no creativity went into making their version stand out with even a shred of originality. While not a bad or even terrible film, “The Lion King” is easily the biggest offender to people like me who ask for something of substance or varied complexity to combat feelings of an obvious cash grab. Even if you haven’t seen this remake, you really have already seen this movie, and before giving Disney one more dollar of the life savings that you have already invested in their company, maybe go back and just watch the 1995 animated original. Key word there is “ORIGINAL”, an aspect this movie never will be.

– It continues. Once again, original screenwriters on the original Lion King movie aren’t credited in the credits of this film, despite writing roughly 90% of the remake’s material. I also pointed this out in the “Aladdin” remake earlier this year, to which a reader so candidly told me I was wrong. Upon a re-watch of the opening and closing credit sequences, I can confidently say that the names of those writers are NOWHERE to be found in that film, as is the case with this picture. As I’ve said before, If you aren’t going to credit screenwriters who are so obviously being ripped off, it is called plagiarism, and while this isn’t a problem to the casual moviegoer, it is the single most offensive thing to a film that is trying to market itself as a new feature length film that you should pump your hard earned dollars into. Only Disney gets away with this crap, and it’s mostly because that mouse touched audiences somewhere vulnerable when they were children. Cute.

– Musical performances. While the singing itself is strong enough in the movie, it was really the lack of fantastical pageantry within the visuals that left me yearning for more. I hate to keep going back to this, but the original animated film presented these in a way that is big and boisterous, catering to the big budget choreography musical nut in all of us. The problem here is that the movie’s grounded approach to realism limits the appeal of what it can capture with the magical essence of the song, leaving a dreaded damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t juxtaposition that will hurt one side of the audience regardless. The truth is, if they wanted a photo-realist story, the music should’ve been left out as a whole, but then you risk alienating the older audiences who grew up with classics like “Just Can’t Wait To Be King” or “Be Prepared”, and look forward to actual musical artists like Glover or Beyonce actually perform them. Speaking of “Be Prepared”, this film destroyed the psychology and momentum of Scar for the way they illustrate and include it into this one. It’s almost an after-note by the time you realize it’s happening before our very eyes.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

A League Of Their Own

Directed By Penny Marshall

Starring – Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Lori Petty

The Plot – During World War II when all the men are fighting the war, most of the jobs that were left vacant because of their absence were filled in by women. The owners of the baseball teams, not wanting baseball to be dormant indefinitely, decide to form teams with women. So scouts are sent all over the country to find women players. One of the scouts, passes through Oregon and finds a woman named Dottie Hinson (Davis), who is incredible. He approaches her and asks her to try out but she’s not interested. However, her sister, Kit (Petty) who wants to get out of Oregon, offers to go. But he agrees only if she can get her sister to go. When they try out, they’re chosen and are on the same team. Jimmy Dugan (Hanks), a former player, who’s now a drunk, is the team manager. But he doesn’t feel as if it’s a real job so he drinks and is not exactly doing his job. So Dottie steps up. After a few months when it appears the girls are not garnering any attention, the league is facing closure till Dottie does something that grabs attention. And it isn’t long Dottie is the star of the team and Kit feels like she’s living in her shadow.

Rated PG for adult language

POSITIVES

– Lasting legacy. Before “A League Of Their Own”, there really were no shining examples of women’s presence in the sports film world, and thanks to Marshall’s respect and documentation for the subject matter, we receive a film that succeeds as a sports biopic on the surface level, yet transcends that accomplishment in giving us a real taste for the time. In this regard, during the 1940’s, women were left to run the country when the men departed for overseas, thrusting them into the limelight for the first time ever in situations that they otherwise wouldn’t be given a chance for. This is different for a war film because they’re often depicted as depressing and full of grim circumstance, but Marshall’s picture grants us an opportunity at solidifying that anything men can do, women can do better, and enclosed we see many examples of the unshakeable prejudice that an entire gender faced in the immense void left by the previous establishment. This film really was a trail-blazer in attaining a level for women’s sports in films that previously we never dreamed of, and it’s one that hasn’t been topped ever since.

– Production detail. This is arguably Penny’s strongest quality, as her scope for a particular age in American culture radiates ever so vibrantly in the many depictions that the film garners. Dated fashion trends involving flowing gowns and three-piece suits, ideal shooting locations involving non-lighted ballparks, an array of weathered billboards, and especially a grainy presentation from cherished cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek that transforms us accordingly. Ondricek was best known for his work in 1979’s “Hair”, and it’s clear that his absorbing radiance has a distinct advantage towards time pieces, especially during the cloudy uncertainty that was World War I. Everything here vibes synthetically, preserving a level of seamless believability that reaches the level of 40’s stock footage over this being a manufactured production of one.

– Precision in casting. Marshall’s one rule in her casting was that any actress would have to know how to play baseball, and it shows in the physical performances here that are twice as demanding as the emotional ones. Geena Davis, Rosie O’ Donnell, Lori Petty, and even Madonna all master a level of athletic professionalism that prove they aren’t afraid to get dirty to get the job done. Particularly, it’s Geena’s bat grip and choreography behind the plate that especially impressed this critic, and completely transformed this group of lady actresses into a full-fledged baseball team. Beyond this, Hanks is clearly the show stealer as the rundown alcoholic Jimmy Dugan. It’s especially unique to see Hanks in a role like this, as before this he was known as the sophisticated leading man in Hollywood cinema, but Tom’s dirtbag demeanor and unflinching rudeness preserves many iconic one-liners that age as gracefully as a fine wine, and further pertain to the redemption storyline for the character that I invested a lot of empathy into.

– In addition to the level of sports believability that I previously mentioned, Marshall’s flashy stance of crisp editing and montage sequencing play into a side of filmmaking, that while easy in outlining, certainly achieves the job in continuity to keep us firmly invested into the sights and sounds of the game. For my money, I could’ve used more long takes in these scenes to establish the impressive nature of learning a sports routine, but the accommodating narration by the film’s broadcast journalist (Played by Laverne and Shirley’s Squiggy) keeps enough of a grip on a game that practically flies before our eyes in progression. It’s especially surprising that outside of the World Series game seven finale, Marshall doesn’t necessarily focus much on the heat of the game’s environment for the film’s ambitious two hour run time, proving that the film values life experience and spiritual bonding over the perks of the game, which can sometimes feel a bit too demanding on a film’s screenplay direction.

– Masterful musical score by Hans Zimmer. That’s right, arguably the most well known composer by 2019 standards was still making his mark on a film’s audible impact way back in 1992, and the work he solidifies in the film provides a nuanced nourishment that is every bit reflective for the time as it is distinct for anything else Zimmer has ever produced. The combination of building drum beats, orchestral horns, and echoing vocals brings forth an infectious feel that makes it impossible not to tap your toes, and plays especially hand-in-hand with the pulse of the game, that rides a roller-coaster of many highs and lows for our team protagonists. Zimmer’s usual flow is dark, ominous, and challenging, but considering this was Hans first interaction with the sport (True story), his tempo in pace proves synthetically fused with the movements of the sequences. Beyond this, we are given a new track from Madonna called “This Used To Be My Playground”, that won her an Academy Award and mainstream recognition from elder audiences who previously deemed her flavor of pop music a bit too rebellious for their tastes. It rounds out a musical collection that articulately channels the uncertainty of a newfound world where women’s loss and fears became inspiration for something bigger.

– Rare accomplishment. My first screening of the film came in sixth grade, when my history teacher showed it to our class during our World War I week, and it was then that I realized this film is one of those rare exceptions that is every bit as entertaining as it is educational. While not everything in the film is factual, the script from four different screenwriters does attain a level of homage to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that it so rightfully deserves. Likewise, the 1940’s narrative begins with a montage taking us through the deployment of troops overseas, as well as the government’s dependency on women to pick up the pieces of a country going through an unforeseen adversity. So many films credit the sacrifice made by millions of brave men who fought an evil regime for many years, but this is one that values a completely different sacrifice, and outlines a level of history, both in baseball and this country, that would otherwise be forgotten if not given the proper light to shine under. Aside from this being educational and entertaining, “A League Of Their Own” is important, first and foremost.

– Dramatic progression. The third act is definitely my favorite of the film, as it is during that time when the seeds of redundancy are relieved in favor of some dramatic underlying tension that the film so desperately requires to push it to the finish line. Urgency develops in the form of soldier husband’s dying, a trade between the sister protagonists, and the return of troops home, which in turn leaves the women’s league with a foggy future. When there’s more stakes involved, the film reaches a level of intrigue that truly makes it memorable, and while every plot is sewed up a bit too easily at times (Especially Tom Hanks alcoholism being cured by Coca-Cola), every subplot culminates in a one game winner take all that serves as a volcanic blow to everyone and everything involved, illustrating a much-deserved center stage for the women athletes that continuously reminds us that there is no tomorrow.

NEGATIVES

– A missing voice. One thing that bothers me each time I watch this film is the missing voice of a black female player that could’ve added a new layer of depth to the film’s reservoir. Sure, there’s a scene of a woman in the audience throwing a baseball that amazes all of the players in frame, but I feel like the desire to establish their yearning to play is something that could’ve added more truth to the time, and given female minorities a familiar voice in a film that so obviously deserves it. Black women were banned from the A.A.G.P.B.L for the time, but still played in Negro Leagues all across the country, and considering this film is a work of fictionalized reality, the script could’ve used a few minutes to balance the blessing that the players shouldn’t take for granted.

– Minimal Characterization. Easily the biggest problem of the film, as every character outside of Dottie is given such a one-note description in personality that it reminds us how little we’ve come to know these ladies by film’s end. Madonna and Rosie’s characters are brought in at the same time because they are practically the same woman, Marla never receives a talking line of dialogue anywhere in the film, and Kit is really just Dottie’s jealous sister. It’s a bit of a surprise that the male characters are written better in a female directed movie, but when you consider that we know Jimmy’s entire backstory, his illness that ruined his fame, and the future direction of his character, it alludes us that the movie’s biggest misstep was trying to be anything other than a female-driven movie.

– The deleted scene. If you’ve ever seen the DVD edition of the film, you know of the many deleted scenes shot in the over four hours of film by Marshall, but none more memorable than the glowing scene between Hanks and Davis that hints at an underlying romance. In the scene, the two share a kiss after Dottie sees Jimmy hitting baseballs after a game, furthering the idea that the passion from within him still resides. Why this scene’s inclusion is pivotal for me is because the movie’s finished product alludes to it many times in the scenes the two share, but it feels like it comes out of nowhere because there’s no scene that ties those feelings all together. In addition to this, the scene develops Dottie even more, establishing her passion for the game that the finished product never fully capitalizes on. It allows the juxtaposition in her ‘Home Vs Game’ mentality to be further fleshed out and full of vulnerability to make her decision all the more complicated to us the audience. This scene definitely should’ve been left in, and if you’ve never seen it, Youtube has it in its 5 minute entirety.

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

Toy Story 4

Directed By Josh Cooley

Starring – Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Keanu Reeves

The Plot – Woody (Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Allen) and the rest of the gang embark on a road trip with Bonnie (Madeline McGraw) and a new toy named Forky (Tony Hale). The adventurous journey turns into an unexpected reunion as Woody’s slight detour leads him to his long-lost friend Bo Peep (Annie Potts). As Woody and Bo discuss the old days, they soon start to realize that they’re two worlds apart when it comes to what they want from life as a toy.

Rated G

POSITIVES

– Evolving animation. While the computer graphics associated with character designs and appearances have remained consistent throughout four films spanning 24 years, the opportunity to blend them with some richly authentic backdrops is what establishes as the most beautifully rendered of the Toy Story franchise. Pixar once again masters this seamless immersion of weather design in the form of raindrops and natural sunlight, and ups it further with a series of objects in frame that make the animated toys feel like they are living and breathing inside of this real life world that feels continuously like our own. There were several times during the film when I had to legitimately stop and focus on a cat or a slab of concrete for how visually striking it conveyed its realism, and overall its evolving dimensions in animation have allowed this series to adapt to the times in ways that never compromises the believability of the visual continuity.

– New personalities. More than anything, what keeps this franchise fresh is the constant addition of new toys that not only give us a chance to enjoy some big name cameo appearances off-screen, but also delightfully feed into the gift of their gimmicks. In this regard, none are as gifted as Keanu Reeves Canadian stuntman Duke Kaboom, who takes pleasure in the thrill of crashing. Reeves unusually excited demeanor in the film gives way to many scene-stealers and insanely quotable dialogue, but it’s the duo of Key and Peele who stole the show for me. As a duck and bear combo who are quite literally joined at the hand, the two embark on an adventure that allows them to bring along the sinister side to their personalities, bringing forth no shortage of laughter for this critic each time they had an idea to add to the conversation. Between these three, I could easily watch another three Toy Story movies without getting tired, and the precision in casting these very vibrant personalities not only brings to life the passion of the characters, but also dazzles us in ways that makes them unique to the dynamics of such a crowded cast in the foreground.

– Funny bone. Nobody does G-rated humor better than Disney/Pixar, and thanks to a consistency rate that was truly out of this world for a kids movie, “Toy Story 4” became one of my favorite comedies of the 2019 film year. What’s commendable is that nothing feels strained or confined because of the dominant audience age, and the material therefore is able to balance awkward pratfalls and timely deliveries in a way that practically dares you not to laugh. Likewise, the material itself never feels geared single-handedly towards youthful audiences, instead extending its hand not only to the newer generation, but also those who, like their kids now, were that age when they first delighted from Woody yelling at Buzz that he is a “CHILD’S PLAY THING”. “Toy Story 4” truly is one of those crossing of the generation moments, and thanks to no shortage of comic firepower, the film manages to keep our attention firmly in its grasp for many belly-tugs.

– Complexity of material. This one works in subplots and tone for the film, as the roller-coaster of emotional pulse makes this easily the most emotionally expansive of the franchise. Dealing with issues of abandonment, lost love, fitting in, and especially past trauma, the film respects its audience in conjuring up enough profound parallels to teach and learn all at the same time. It’s rare that a film can do this all the while transpiring the tone so smoothly, and even though this film has the depth of three or four different movies of comedy, drama, romance, and even horror, the pacing never felt like an arduous task. “Toy Story 4” teaches many lessons simultaneously, and the method of its madness constantly feels earned through twists and turns that honestly I didn’t see coming in the slightest. I probably should have because the hints are there all along the way, but they’re inserted in a way that doesn’t require strained focus or obviousness to sell its purpose, planting the seeds of progression that truly does grow into some beautiful and heartfelt.

– Prominent performances. In addition to the couple of rookies that I previously mentioned, the returning cast of Hanks, Allen, and especially Annie Potts gives way to some compelling dimensions of character that tell the story of their pasts. Allen is easily the least used between the three, but without the direction of Woody he is left to lead by example, and it gives us a few Allen performances for the price of one, thanks to him searching for his inner voice in ways that are anything than what is intended. Potts has evolved into this badass of sorts that is only rivaled by Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” in terms of female heroine. Thanks to an introduction that tells the story of her abrupt departure from Andy’s household, we are able to see what comes from living out nature over nurture, illustrating her as a take-no-prisoners kind of protagonist. Finally, Hanks emotes Woody in a way that not only hints at a deteriorating psyche, but also a vast amount of vulnerability that has him reflecting on a lifetime of shifts and changes. Woody is realizing for the first time that his best days are clearly behind him, and for the first time ever it has him questioning his purpose in a way that adds a refreshing uncertainty to his moral compass for being the one who always puts things back together.

– Randy Newman. The legendary musical composer is back again, but this time his level of vocal familiarity is exchanged for nuanced tones that better establish a scene’s tonal consistency without kidnapping the volume controls. The level of their incorporation feels subtle enough to constantly remind you of its existence, yet mature enough to never take away from the dramatic tension of the scene, and if one thing is for certain it’s that Newman has lived life through every avenue of the blues, and his level of somber resonance knows no boundaries in garnering the perfect poke to prod at tears from the audience. Sure, “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” as well as the new track “Don’t Put Me In The Trash” are there to remind us of Randy’s one of a kind raspy enveloping, but my appreciation here is more for his compulsion in mastering the fruits of the environment so effectively that the music itself is the one character that outlasts all of the others, very rarely leaving our ears if only to change to the next orchestral influence that highlights what’s to come.

– A gentle hand. For a first time filmmaker, the things that Josh Cooley is able to accomplish is nothing short of phenomenal, landing a consistency and fitting place for this film with the others that establishes him as the perfect man for the job. Cooley’s chase scenes are rapidly full of energy and urgency, using many magnetic movements of the camera to perfectly articulate the range in speed and direction masterfully, and his dedication to capturing the perfect resonating moment is something that can only be learned through moments of a director immersing himself into the shoes of the audience, who he knows he can’t let down. This film could’ve easily fell apart after the immense task of picking up the pieces on a finale that left so many ringing from buckets of tears, but his influence breathes new life into the character’s and franchise, inspiring us to seek more from this franchise to continue pursuing the grasp of human commentary from the smallest angles.

– Hidden Easter Eggs. How much can I even talk about this one? There is a specific Hitchcock reference in the film from one of his biggest film accomplishments that was every bit as sinisterly alluring as it was effective in capturing the essence that both films were trying to attain in their respective scenes. Obviously, children won’t interpret this in the same ways, but it gives the sequence a measure of twisted wink-and-nod to horror hounds like myself who simply can’t ignore the comparisons that are so obviously mirrored right down to the familiarity in musical notes. There’s also an entirely different Easter Egg that reaches into Disney’s growing library of properties, and inserts it into the middle of a wild county fair where all rules go out of the window. This truly is one of those blink-and-miss-it moments that could easily be Disney flexing its bulging muscles, but I liked it because it further captures the realism of the world around it, depicting heroes from other movie universes in a way that feels believable because of the way they clash in frame.

NEGATIVES

– A Familiar formula. Part of the nagging bother for me from this movie was how familiar this screenplay outline felt, even if given different directions for it to flourish. Particularly with the original “Toy Story”, there are many comparisons that I found that I would like to mention. Woody and new toy go on long distance adventure, the duo land in a horrific land of distraught toys, Woody constantly tries to tell new toy that he is in fact a toy, There’s a moment where Woody’s intentions casts a huge feel of isolation from the rest of the group, and a scene where the group is being chased by a four legged companion. These are only a few of the similarities that I noticed. If I wanted to, I could spoil much more, but will choose not to. The point is that the Toy Story franchise has been making the same script outline for four movies now, and it’s insane that they are getting away with it.

– Believability. Should I be complaining about logic in a kids movies where toys come to life? You bet your ass I should, as this film not only forgets about the rules that it set with toys being less obvious to the human eye, but also defies wear-and-tear in a way that I’ve never seen before. On the latter, you mean to tell me that none of these toys are decaying even remotely? You mean to tell me that Woody’s voice box is working as good as it was the first day he came packaged? You mean to tell me that we are STILL getting new catchphrases from both Woody and Buzz? How big is this voice box? On the former, there is simply too much toy interaction in the film that wouldn’t go unnoticed by someone in a classroom or county fair that saw something more. In the first two movies, this gimmick felt believable because the way the toys returned always felt grounded in reality. Here, toys disappear and reappear at the drop of a hat, and no one questions it. There’s also a finale with an RV that couldn’t be more absurd if a pink elephant was pushing it from the rear with no one seeing it.

My Grade: 8/10 or B+

The Lion King (1994)

Directed By Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff

Starring – Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones

The Plot – A young lion prince (Broderick) is cast out of his pride by his cruel uncle (Irons), who claims he killed his father (Jones). While the uncle rules with an iron paw, the prince grows up beyond the Savannah, living by a philosophy: No worries for the rest of your days. But when his past comes to haunt him, the young prince must decide his fate: Will he remain an outcast or face his demons and become what he needs to be?

Rated G

POSITIVES

– G-rating. What astonishes me about this film is that it was one of the last non-documentary cinematic releases to be stamped with the rare G-rating, that is often times looked at as a statue of limitations, but here is executed brilliantly to never hinder or demean the film’s potential in material. Aside from the scenes of war and loss coming across as emotionally effective despite showing so very little to us the audience, the themes in the script mature at the rate of speed that its central protagonist does, transitioning us into a third act where the urgency of the film is very in-tuned to the pulse of the unraveling narrative, eventually building to a high-stakes final conflict that has immense consequences that are tastefully carried out. G-rated films in 2019 are as dry as paper, but in 1994 there was an animated movie that touched on the concepts of love, loss, evolution, and jealousy fruitfully, and it’s one that resonates loudly twenty-five years later as the film that didn’t abide by a letter grade.

– Memorable soundtrack. Hans Zimmer and Elton John on the same compilation? Phenomenal. The work done by these two masterminds of music led to a collection of timeless hits and infectious energy that can only be ignored by the heartless, and led to one of the highest grossing soundtracks in cinema history. Not only are the songs reflective of the storytelling beats, not only are they thunderous in the way that everything in frame plays into the heart of the performance, but they also transpire seamlessly at the perfect opportune time at each moment of the changing dynamic to not violently halt the storytelling. Some of my personal favorites are “Circle of Life”, “Hakuna Matata”, and the terribly underrated “Be Prepared”. Not to be outdone by lyrical tracks, however, Zimmer manufactures a presence of the Pride Lands of Africa that constantly persists throughout 83 minutes of brief screen time, outlining an original flavor of geography for the time that better allowed audiences to immerse themselves in the heat of the environment, perfecting every angle of the setting gimmick that gives it consistent weight throughout the film.

– Unmatched cast. This film is easily the winner for best animated ensemble of all time for me, not just for the prestigious names involved with the picture, but also for the highly transformative vocal work that makes it increasingly difficult to imagine anyone else in these roles. In that respect, Jones, Broderick, and especially Irons do such a tremendous job that it often feels like their vocal range is emoting to the movement of the animation, and never vice versa, and it’s that aspect that brings out extreme believability with their influence to the character’s. For Jones, it’s a combination of brawn and heart that etch out the ultimate protector not only for Simba, but for his entire kingdom that depends on him. The tag-team work of teen dream Jonathan Taylor-Thomas and Broderick conjure up a believable transfer of character in Simba that echo the ideals of childhood and adulthood respectively, and make the transformation gel smoothly for a character who grows in size and responsibility before our very eyes. Irons is the true M.V.P for me however, as Scar, the jaded uncle antagonist with a thirst for power that knows no boundaries. Irons chews up an abundance of scenery with his arrogantly sarcastic personality, never hiding for a second the hatred he harvests for those who wear the crown that he deems should rightfully be his, and it’s a conflict that is not only easy to understand in that aspect, but also one that hinders on one of the seven deadly sins (Greed) that echo the devilish demeanor of such a dangerous antagonist.

– Extremely quotable. The dialogue in the film feels as sharp as a dagger, and a lot of that has to do with screenwriters Linda Woolverton, Jonathan Roberts, and Irene Mecchi’s to channel the roller-coaster of emotional vulnerability that keeps it from persistently remaining in one particular genre of material, giving audiences the right level of change at the perfectly precise moment. One example of this is after Mufasa’s untimely death, which is followed by the introduction of Timon and Pumba, leading to the proper amount of comic relief after the single biggest gut-punch of the movie. These two character’s are responsible for many spirited one-liners that have become philosophies of die-hard Disney fans for generations of past, present, and future, but none bigger than Hakuna Matata, the mantra of living without worries. It feels like the perfect branch to Que Sera Sera, and adds importance to a second act that could easily trail off without that proper execution of mood change that I mentioned previously that values the fun in a screenplay as much as it does the dramatic elements.

– Fluid screenplay. What works to the benefit of the movie’s pacing is its ability to pack so much into an 83 minute run time, yet never feel limited by the tiers in the narrative that it constantly touches on. This is a film that continues to march forward, even during the scenes of dramatic mourning that likely made audiences feel like a necessary cool down period. The movie’s notorious death sequence happens with a measly 46 minutes left in the film, choosing to build the relationship between father, son, and the kingdom in depth up to this point, all the while telegraphing the moves of the board for the opposition that awaits him. It feels like we’re seeing each side, good and bad, every step of the way, leading to that previously mentioned confrontation that doesn’t disappoint for heartstring tugging or permanence within a usually light-hearted kids atmosphere. Beyond this, the second and beginning of third acts construct a crossroads for Simba’s past and present, bringing a balance of emphatic reunions and maturity to the protagonist that proves his fate for the throne. When all is said and done, there are 13 minutes left for the showdown between uncle and nephew, and while not the longest or most elaborate in terms of fight choreography, does excel in audience vulnerability for how many of the battle beats strike a familiar chord with the second act fight that took the life of the original king. This film is constantly engaging, and never lags or distracts from the material for a single solitary second.

– The perfect antagonist. Part of what allures you to Scar as an endearing villain is in the way Irons emotes him, but beyond that it’s the way that his actions capture the entire spectrum of devilish deeds, otherwise known as the seven deadly sins. He believes himself to be deserving of power. He also refuses to abandon the Pride Lands, even if it means the death of his subjects (Pride). He acts indolent even as the Pride Lands fall into ruin. (Sloth) He enjoys food while letting the rest of his kingdom, including his loyal followers, starve (Gluttony). He is envious of his brother and nephew for getting the throne, and plots their deaths for it (Envy). In a deleted scene, he comes onto Nala, eager to produce heirs(Lust). He wants power and will destroy anyone to get it. (Greed) He gets enraged when Mufasa is mentioned to him, and he attacks Sarabi for comparing him unfavorably to Mufasa (Wrath). Most Disney antagonists have at least one redeeming quality about them that hints at an air of conscience persisting deep down, but Scar is an empty shell of a man so deceitfully sinister that he gladly sacrifices family if it means attaining the things he wants, a first for Disney antagonists at this point, that was later followed by Hades in in 1997’s “Hercules”.

– Aged well animation. Despite the lack of depth and detail associated with the backgrounds in some tight character angles of framing, the vibrancy in illustrations of animals and environment in the foreground generates a level of artistic merit that I’d easily put up against 80% of today’s animated advancements. Slow motion effects, expansive facial expression resonation, and no shortage of high intensity framing movements gives the film a maturity well beyond its years in terms of capabilities, and really stood as the measuring stick for animated feature length films well before the dawn of Disney Pixar. In addition to this, the haze cinematography is just enough of a presence in each frame without taking too much away from the vibrancy in production design that radiates with the influence of sunbaked scenery. This is a film that gets most of its attention for music and screenplay, and not quite enough for the luster of the lens that immediately captures your attention high atop a cliff during life’s sweetest celebration. In that perspective, “The Lion King” isn’t just a film, but an admiration for all things life, love, and family, and the poetic imagery of visual transfixion does wonders in relaying to the audience the things in life that are most important.

– Modern day Shakespaere. Part of what makes “The Lion King” so compelling and rich in its hierarchy setting is that it’s positively derived from arguably William Shakespeare’s biggest work of literature. Don’t believe me? Lets examine. Simba, like Hamlet, is the king in grooming, both feature an uncle who is eager to kill their nephew for the benefit of gaining the throne, Timon and Pumba easily echo the same comedy-instilled sidekicks that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do for Hamlet, both Simba and Hamlet are driven by the ghosts of their fathers appearing to them in a vision, and the overbearing similarities of graveyards in each story, which involve jokester antagonists like the gravediggers (Hamlet) and the hyenas (The Lion King). Calling this a coincidence is a bit of a stretch, but even so, there’s no denying that Disney beautifully blends the worlds of stage and safari seamlessly, making for a screenplay that proves that great literature is immortal when redesigned to accommodate the era that borrows it.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of female influence. Between Nala and Sarabi, I couldn’t escape this overwhelming presence that female character’s simply don’t apply as much as a necessary influence to the dynamic of the film, and more than not serve as virtual arm candy for the happenings around their male counterparts. Nala receives screen time, but when you consider that there’s never a scene of lone reflection for her that doesn’t involve Simba in the very same scene, you start to conjure up feelings that the story isn’t interested in what she lost that fateful day. Likewise, Sarabi, Simba’s mother, goes missing for ample amounts of time after scenes that rightfully should include her, if only to document her reaction to immense loss. She has a few scenes, but what’s most concerning is that the film never answers if she is still the queen of the land after her husband’s untimely passing, and more than this why she isn’t at the crowning ceremony during the film’s closing shot.

– A tragic misstep. This is all personal opinion, but I feel like Mufasa died in the wrong scene during the movie. He is ambushed by a herd of wild animals, the trio of hyenas, and of course his own brother Scar, at the height of a casual day of training between father and son. This does very little for Simba in terms of emotional tug, because even though he lost his father to disgusting circumstances, it happens during a scene where Simba is obeying the royal parental unit, thus nothing of substance to regret about that fateful day. Now imagine if the death actually took place in the bone graveyard scene instead, during a defiance of his father, which would then lead him to lose the person who matters the most to him. The weight of his immature decision would weigh even heavier on the conscience of the boy, thus outlining a much stronger character arc and internal conflict for him to overcome in the way of adversity. The finished product death scene is fine, but a conflicted protagonist always feels leagues more relatable to the audience, and could’ve practically doubled the dramatic heft of the passing, that would only further enhance Simba’s distancing from the place he once called home.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Directed By Brian Lynch

Starring – Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Harrison Ford

The Plot – Max (Oswalt) faces some major changes after his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) gets married and now has a child . On a family trip to the countryside, Max meets a farm dog named Rooster (Ford), and both attempt to overcome his fears. Meanwhile, Gidget (Jenny Slate) tries to rescue Max’s favorite toy from a cat-packed apartment, and Snowball (Hart) sets on a mission to free a white tiger named Hu from a circus.

Rated PG for some action and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Improvements on all things animation. Illumination Studios has always been a distant third in detailed animation, but thanks to the tightening of illustrations that fills this film, arguably the very best artistic film that the studio has ever produced, they can start to bridge the gap of their opposition. It isn’t just one thing but rather a barrage, as the believability behind stormy weather patterns is beautifully rendered, the expressions of animals during the most extreme occasions adds more to the comedic relief, and even the 3D effects give an immersive quality to everything flowing in frame that warrants paying a little extra to see this film. With time, this studio will hopefully continue this trend, and offer so much more than colorfully vibrant backgrounds against a city skyline that offers plenty of familiar geography to place this story accordingly.

– Talented cast. Oswalt is a more-than enthusiastic fill-in for Louie C.K, but it’s really the work of Slate and Hart who take center stage in incorporating intensity to their often familiar vocal tones. As Gidget, Slate is a force to be reckoned with, juggling an infatuation for Max all the while proving to the audience the extent of her cunning intellect. As to where the first film showed off Slate as a lover, this one cements her as a fighter, and her emoting of Gidget is my very favorite of this entire franchise. Hart should stick with animated properties for a while, because the combination of eccentric deliveries and polar opposite vocal capacity in comparison to that of his furry rendering, makes him perfect for voice range capabilities, and the focus and attention given to his character practically begs for a Snowball spin-off that feels just around the corner. New additions are those from Tiffany Haddish, Dana Carvey, and a wise, weathered dog leader voiced by none other than Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. It rounds off arguably the brightest ensemble of comedic actors in quite some time, and prove that their talents serve a much bigger purpose than just physical humor in sight gags.

– Fluffy run time. This one clocks in at a measly 77 minutes, and with sharing time between three respective story arcs does so in a way that keeps the eagerness and intensity of the storytelling firmly in grip with regards to a youthful audience that sometimes slip away during slow periods of exposition. While this does create some problems for the fluidity of the transitions, which I will get to later, the confidence donated to each vital character receiving their own conflicts in the story gives the movie a three-movie-for-one quality within its pages that practically forces movement in the casual three act structure that can sometimes omit itself invisible in family genre cinema. There was never a time when I was bored or antsy watching this movie, and much credit goes to the producers of the film for knowing just how far to stretch each story before it becomes something in depth that it rightfully shouldn’t.

– Intelligence in gags. I said this about the first film, and it’s something that continues in this movie. The way the film takes real moments of familiarity from the pets in our own lives, and adds a layer of profound poignancy to each situation is something that not only reaches for audience participation, but also does so in a way that will have you intentionally remembering the occasions from this movie once you go home. This gives the film and its material a consistency in shelf life that many films in modern day don’t attain, and speaks volumes to the levels of attention that screenwriters Chris Renaud and Jonathan Del Val engage in to contrast with their audience’s. In that respect, the material itself feels very much fleshed out from real life, and performed in an exaggerated way that works because of its small amounts of truth that derive from these very humorously humbling moments of love from our best friends.

– Pre-credits rap video. I won’t give away much here, but Kevin Hart’s dream to be a rapper comes full circle in a spoof of a familiar rap track from the previous couple years that is given new context thanks to the world surrounding his character. Not since 2006’s “Waiting…” has a post-movie performance left such a lasting impression on me, and the work of creativity in rhymes combined with the sheer lunacy of the situation in mid-day form, makes this moment the one that stands out the most for me in terms of comic lasting power, and non-surprisingly gives the original track, which I hated tremendously, a new lease on life. If this song was heard on the radio even half as much as that original song, then I would be fine with it.

– Strong positive message. As is the case with every kids movie out today, this one has a takeaway message that bonds its respective subplots together for one cohesive beat, and it’s the importance of overcoming fear. Especially with younger audiences, this message will ring true from within them, because it’s at that age where battling adversities prepares them for the war that is adolescence, and it’s something that resonates on-screen in each of the fears that the main character’s have to overcome for the sake of their developments. If an on-screen message is presented strong enough, kids will take even more away from it, and thankfully the film never feels overly preachy or even condescending in the message it sends the next generation of adventure seekers home with.

NEGATIVES

– Incoherent structure. As I mentioned earlier, there are three different subplots competing for time, and while this does wonders in keeping the attention of younger audiences, it does nothing for experienced moviegoers who know how important seamless transitions really are to the progress of a particular narrative. The outline of each story feels episodic, mainly because of unshakeable predictability and adjacent plotting, which does the film no favors in establishing its story as a group effort like the first movie. Because of this triangle of direction, the script itself forgets certain early angles established early on (See Max’s protection of little boy) that would make great films on their own, but are relegated to split screen time with other stories not half as compelling. For my money, the Snowball story could easily be stretched out for his own spin-off, leaving the branches of the other two somewhat connected plots feeling cohesive because of the way one is the effect of the other’s cause.

– Lack of weight. The conflicts from this movie are practically non-existent, thanks in part to resolutions that often come too fast, and a shoe-horned antagonist character who feels completely wrong for this world. On the former, I could’ve used more time for fear or tribulation for the character’s embattled with their respective conflicts. This is where ten or fifteen minutes of additional screen time could’ve further fleshed out the urgency and vulnerability of these small pets in a big world setting, and given way to further audience participation who have shared the struggles that each character has gone through. As for the antagonist, it’s the loudest reminder that this is a cartoon kids movie, complete with bulging eyes, black ensemble, and a hatred for animals for no other reason than the script asked for it. Quick question, how many times have you seen a villain who owns an abusive zoo, where the protagonists have to rescue said animals from his clutches? If you’ve run out of fingers, so have I.

– Plot holes. When you consider that this is virtually a “Toy Story” ripoff, you must consider the rules established within the world that make absolutely no sense when you consider a sprinkle of logic. For one, many of these pets go missing for long periods of time that make me question why no human owner is freaking out about where they’ve gone. In addition to this, there are certain instances in the film where believability is stretched further than a “Fast and Furious” lesson on gravity. Some of my favorite examples are a dog outracing a train, two dogs riding a remote controlled toy car without it tipping over or losing speed, and a psychopathic old woman character who not only commits murder, but also sees no problem with owning a Siberian tiger. Considering much of this film is set-up with real world ideals and consequences, these instances soil the authenticity of the engagement, and disappointed me for how these films are still insulting the intelligence of their youthful audience.

– Additional complaints. While this will only be a problem for people who see advanced screenings of this film, the inclusion of a behind-the-scenes introduction that plays before the film is more than just a little spoiler-filled for the gags it gives away. Why would you include something like these before the film plays? It renders the power of your laughs weak because the audience has already seen it before the movie starts, and just feels redundant once it comes around in the movie itself. The trailers for this film were actually solid, in that they didn’t give much away other than spare instances of familiarity of the pets in our own lives, but this production video did absolutely no favors in those regards, and took away from material that by its own merits was effective at garnering a laugh or two on its original run through.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Aladdin

Directed By Guy Ritchie

Starring – Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Mena Massoud

The Plot – A street rat (Massoud) frees a genie (Smith) from a lamp, granting all of his wishes and transforming himself into a charming prince in order to marry a beautiful princess (Scott). But soon, an evil sorcerer (Marwan Kenzari) becomes hell-bent on securing the lamp for his own sinister purposes.

Rated PG for some action/peril

POSITIVES

– Vibrant production design. The essence of the Middle East is represented fruitlessly in the combination of flowing gowns and colorful set pieces that convey a Bollywood kind of production for the mainstream audience, and offer a bold presentation to bring forth through the live action transition. In fact, the sizzling flavor that continuously envelopes itself around this movie is visually unlike anything that Disney has produced to this point, and stands alone as the one chance that this film took in an otherwise calming sea of conventional renderings that sticks far too close to its animated original. In the visuals absorbing the atmosphere of the film, we get a visual translation too expressive not to indulge in, and the fiery texture of each property continuously commands attention to this fictional place, in that we wish it were real if only for one day.

– Will Smith’s Genie. Considering all of the controversy surrounding this role, it’s amazing that it turned out as well as it did. When the script isn’t trying to mold him into being Robin Williams flashy pizzazz Genie, Smith succeeds at maintaining the sharp velocity of the tongue that constantly keeps his co-stars in check, and for a brief glimpse offers something experimental to what we expected. Smith’s comic landing power hits about 50% from the field for me, and nailed about double that for my interest in the film, which only grew whenever his big screen presence invaded each frame and instilled a positive energy that kept you glued to the familiarity of it all. This definitely isn’t a paycheck film for Smith, and thanks to the excitement and prestige that he brings to the role, we get a shadow that is nearly equally imposing as Williams presence was to the 1992 original.

– Soundtrack of hits. Despite knowing everything that’s to come from Brad Kane, Bruce Adler, and Danny Troob’s original classic collection of time-cherished songs, the inclusion of hip-hop inspired beats and Bollywood dance production gave new life to these familiar audible beats of story narration, and led to infectious moments of delight when even the toughest critic could be won over. The dance choreography is sharp and boisterous with each continuous frame, and song chorus’s are stretched and bent in a way that experiments with a fresh take for the song, that I wish remakes like “Beauty and the Beast” or “Cinderella” would’ve experimented a bit more with. As to where “A Whole New World” was my favorite song from the 92 original, the slow build to a roaring kettle of “Prince Ali” takes the cake for me in this film, and especially stands out because of Smith’s cool demeanor that plays so seamlessly into the pulse of the background beat.

– Progressive with a positive P. I won’t spoil anything, but I took great merit in how this film invests further in Princess Jasmine, not only with a noticeable increase in screen time as opposed to how limited she feels in the original movie, but also in the evolution of her character, which successfully lands a surprise twist in the final minutes of the movie that I audibly commended. Disney has definitely been opening up their horizons with little girls in the audience who are looking for a character to dream themselves into, and thanks to the movie’s way of rewarding her with power both in a narrative perspective, as well as a closer split between screen time with her title co-star, the film creators bridge the gap wonderfully in priding them along, and manufacture a sense of female empowerment within the story that garners something new without it feeling like a distraction (See Captain Marvel)

NEGATIVES

– Uninspired C.G. I was less than thrilled with the artist rendering of computer generation, both for being used too much and for not being refined enough to be believable in their weight played against the live properties in the film. If we’re making a live action remake of an animation movie, why is 40% of any shot you see at all times not authentic to the live action creativity of the picture? Why not just make another animated “Aladdin”? Aside from this, the finished product not only of the Genie, but also in the facial resonation of Abu the Monkey, really took a backseat to “The Jungle Book” remake in terms of fantasy believability, and stood out as a glaring negative each time the latter’s character made a close-up presence on-screen. As well, a scene involving the Cave of Wonders left me disappointed for how the lion’s head entrance didn’t move its mouth like it did in the animated counterpart. If this is because it ruins real world believability, stay tuned for my review of the ending coming up.

– Ritchie’s tweak directing. I’ve never been a big fan of Guy Ritchie’s style of directing. His influence over 2017’s “King Arthur” turned that Medieval setting film into “The Matrix”, for how he constantly slowed and sped up time during the most inappropriate moments, and unfortunately Guy has learned nothing in taking a two year hiatus. It’s really strange that some moments during songs are visually sped up, all the while some scenes during high intensity chase are slowed down in a way contains the adrenaline of the sequence. It made the film feel like someone was sitting on the remote, and frequently rolled over during the scenes that mattered most in character conflict and singing focus. If this is intended, please stop it now. It only comes across as hokey and ridiculous during a scene when you’re supposed to be on the edge of your seat.

– Inconsistent pacing. 1992’s “Aladdin” is a 92 minute movie that never sags or stretches the boundaries of its material. The same cannot be said for this remake, as the two hour runtime, with very little impactful extras, makes for a testy sitting that is especially prominent during the film’s bloated second act. For my money, the first thirty minutes of the film were easily the most engaging, as the combination of Aladdin’s street life and his mission into the cave were cast with such entangling urgency that none of the remainder of the film can ever come close to matching. The second act spends its time between rule setting for the Genie, as well as a high class gala affair that feels like it’s being played in real time. Not only did this area of the film slow down my building interest for the movie, but it more than any other padded the run time for unnecessary stretching of resolutions. The third act improves slightly, but is a defeated effort by that time for the immense jump in logic and off-the-wall lunacy that the closing minutes become saddled with.

– Casting decisions. I knew nothing about Massoud or Scott before this movie, and their roles as the two leads won’t leave me any further interested in wanting to dive into their limited filmography. These two lack any kind of personality that can’t be expressed in spare verbs, and if the overall lack of romantic chemistry between them doesn’t establish how wrong for the parts they are, the mundane deliveries of emotionally-charged diatribes certainly will. Speaking of Will, did I mention how much the movie fumbles whenever he isn’t on camera? We’re left with what feels like two stage actors who constantly don’t believe what they’re saying, and are only passed by an antagonist performance who I couldn’t stop laughing at. Every little boy wears his father’s clothes and pretends to be him at some point. I didn’t expect to see a grown man in a major motion picture doing this, as Marwan Kenzari feels about as threatening as a game of fantasy dress-up. Considering Jafar is one of the most evil and imposing antagonists in Disney animated history, the disservice of casting someone who is not only the same size as Aladdin, but also someone so visually opposite of what I expected from his animated counterpart. I can understand going in a fresh direction with a character, but the work of this trio lacked the magic of translating such iconic figures from the Disney library, underscoring what should be the easiest of decisions.

– No respect. I can overlook company greed to remake a property and manipulating audiences into seeing it, because, hey, childhood, but to not credit the original screenwriters from the 92 original is not only a slap in the face, but a kick to the balls of everything that is right with respectful representation. The screenplay here is credited to John August and Guy Ritchie, and while there are some light changes to the film in terms of material, to not commend the work of Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio is a colossal mistake, considering 80% of the film is still from the story beats and character traits that they established from that original movie. There are even vital scenes in this film that are verbatim (Word-for-word) to the original film for how they play out, and the lack of attention given to the source material gives the closing notes of the film a grave feeling of plagiarism that shouldn’t be overlooked by even the most casual of film audiences.

– Ridiculous ending. LIGHT SPOILERS. You’ve been warned. I can understand this sort of thing in a cartoon, but during a live action movie, and even a kids one at that, the laws of travel aren’t negated because of what’s cute and appropriate for what fits into the story. With that said, a character gets transported to the ends of the Earth by their opposition, and two scenes later is back in Agrabah, like some touch of “The Dark Knight Returns” magic that I don’t care to relive any time soon. In addition to this, the final conflict basically never happens, at least not in a way that requires any of the character’s to get their hands dirty, and it all wraps up with the kind of convenient bow only necessary when you’re gift-wrapping something you know will be met with evil glares or family emancipation. Translating a cartoon to live action is a good time to take the ridiculous out of cartoons, not bring them to the real world. Yet one more reason why live action Disney remakes aren’t necessary in crafting something freshly unique to a new generation.

My Grade: 4/10 or D+

A Dog’s Journey

Directed By Gail Mancuso

Starring – Dennis Quaid, Marg Helgenberger, Kathryn Prescott

The Plot – Bailey (voiced again by Josh Gad) is living the good life on the Michigan farm of his “boy,” Ethan (Quaid) and Ethan’s wife Hannah (Helgenberger). He even has a new playmate: Ethan and Hannah’s baby granddaughter, CJ. The problem is that CJ’s mom, Gloria (Gilpin), decides to take CJ away. As Bailey’s soul prepares to leave this life for a new one, he makes a promise to Ethan to find CJ and protect her at any cost. Thus begins Bailey’s adventure through multiple lives filled with love, friendship and devotion as he, CJ  (Prescott), and CJ’s best friend Trent (Henry Lau) experience joy and heartbreak, music and laughter, and few really good belly rubs.

Rated PG for thematic content, some peril and rude humor

POSITIVES

– Canine control. These movies more than others have a tight grasp on the often times tricky art known as animal acting, but the crisp editing and grounded stunt work from these furry creatures make each of their influences on the scene feel seamless. It helps that most of these sequences are given ample time between cuts, keeping the cut-and-paste option minimal, all the while allowing the dogs to muscle out the commands they are being given. Never once in the movie did I feel the air of cinema magic for brash difficulty in attainability, and this more than anything is the biggest testament to Mancuso as a leading hand, for the way she brings extraordinary precision out of grounded requests from her four-legged co-stars, closing the gap between human and animal actors with a commitment to craft that goes a long way.

– Speaking of human performances, the work of the collective cast here is a majority solid. Quaid is back with his second film in a week, but this time it’s to showcase the sweet and sensitive side of his demeanor that outweighs the hammy nature of his dialogue. Likewise, Kathryn Prescott also carves out confidence in maintaining roughly 60% of the movie. Mancuso keeps the story firmly in-tow with her character, and throughout a series of dramatic beats and life-altering events, Prescott proves her emotional registry being years above her cinematic inexperience. Also, as Bailey the dog, Josh Gad is once again every bit as infectious as he is connected to the audience he engages with. Gad rarely has trouble emitting the energy that each scene requires, and through a healthy amount of audible narration, we are given ample time with the continued presence over the story, who takes us through all of life’s unique quips and quirks.

– Further developing of human protagonists. This is arguably the biggest difference from the first film, as the sequel sticks closer to this dog’s interaction with just the one family, as opposed to the many it came across in reuniting with its original owner. This allows the script to enhance our investment into their story-time dynamics, as well as cutting out a lot of the unnecessary padding associated with pushing the reset button every time Bailey dies, giving us a natural flow of pacing for the plot that (Lets be honest) is the main thing we care about with these movies. In doing this, I found a strong interest with CJ’s well-being, as well as the tumultuous uneasiness that her family is left with after many instances of dramatic tension formed from misunderstanding. It proves that “A Dog’s Journey” values the human protagonists every bit as much as man’s best friend, and can succeed a lot easier with an audience when it sets them on equal footing.

– Mature themes for family audiences. I value a kids movie so much more when it treats the youths with the respect associated in guiding them through meaty material without truly testing the limits of a PG rating. Likewise, the material itself doesn’t suffer a hinderance in effectiveness because of such, taking us through themes of alcoholism, abandonment, reincarnation, and even cancer that constantly keeps them on their toes. To a certain degree, you could say that each of these are used in manipulative ways that damned the first movie from receiving a passing grade from this critic, but the unraveling of events feels natural here, and not necessarily catering to a meandering cause. It’s all about educating its youths in ordinary circumstances which some of them will someday be confronted with, and it elevates the dramatic tension of the film effectively because of its upping of stakes from the first movie.

– Detailed make-up and prosthetics. While only used for one scene and two character’s in the movie, the film’s use of natural aging enhancements feels naturally convincing and reflective of the time that has passed from when we last saw them. This was one of my biggest concerns with watching the trailers, as the film’s multi-decade progression was depicted without any of the scenes of these actors after their separation, but thankfully the surprise was saved for the film itself, and it does so with a modest amount of wrinkling cream, glasses, and wigs that go a long way where computer graphics aren’t necessary. These kind of effects normally do cost more in studio productions, but the integrity of realistic visual effects is something that I commend it greatly for, and I hope it’s a healthy direction that many more films will follow with it.

– Important life lessons. This is especially, but not limited to, youthful female audiences, as the protagonist of the film becomes embattled with some internal conflicts that ages her well ahead of her years in terms of wisdom. Because of such, the film boosts and a message of resiliency and self-belief to young girls everywhere, educating them on the importance associated with entertaining the right choices in male suitors where looks certainly aren’t everything. In a perfect world, films like these would serve as strong poignancy pieces for the future females of tomorrow, but in the overabundance of intriguing details in the movie, it’s easy to see that it could easily be lost or overlooked in translation. Even still, the script takes an approach especially to adopted little girls, who have to blaze their own path after those they depended on fell off of theirs.

NEGATIVES

– Stilted dialogue. Much of the line reads and dialogue associated with still reek of hokey, obviousness, that occasionally makes this feel like a Hallmark Channel movie, instead of the big screen presentation that we’re supposed to feel. One such example is in the continuity of speech by Gad throughout a time-passing montage, that doesn’t make sense when you consider he’s in the scene he’s supposed to be talking over a passage of ample time. This makes it clearly evident that the film values audience narration over storytelling believability, and I wish I could say it’s the only problem associated with Gad’s narration. As well, it’s every bit as re-affirming as it was in the first movie, explaining to us audibly what we’ve already seen visually. It’s like being told every detail twice, and this occasionally gets irritating with the pacing and progression of scenes that should be shorter than they rightfully are.

– Formulaic redundancy. When I saw the trailer for this film, it felt very much like the first movie narratively, and with the exception of cutting down on multitudes of owners that I mentioned earlier, the film’s general outline feels very much identical to the first movie. This is the biggest argument in terms of why audiences who saw the first movie should see the sequel, and especially if you are against seeing dogs being put to death in movies, you should definitely keep your distance from this one. While only happening three times in this film, as opposed to seven in the previous installment, the death sequences themselves are very hard to engage in, and manipulative for how they focus on the face of the animal each time it’s at its weakest hour.

– Obvious foreshadowing. There’s certainly no shortage of this one, as the barrage of unnecessarily-bitchy supporting characters and out-of-nowhere details in storytelling directions, further flesh out the predictability in a story this minimal on depth. Because our central trio of character’s are such good people, it makes the bad ones feel that much more cartoonish by comparison, and because of this we can easily sniff out that relationships and karma are certainly not going to be on the sides of these miserable people. On the subject of plot foreshadowing, the film introduces a scene of cancer-sniffing dogs midway through the film that comes out of nowhere, and is given such an inordinate amount of focus rendered upon, that we know its elements will come into play at some place during the film, and re-appear they do, as a character becomes plagued in a battle with cancer that definitely benefits the convenience of this earlier inclusion.

– Outdated soundtrack. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible that teenage characters are listening to fifteen year old music at a hip high school house party, but the majority of such big numbers surely flock more to what’s current and fresh at the moment. In this regard, the inclusion of The All American Rejects, Phillip Phillips, and Matt Nathanson feel about a decade too late in marketing to the soundtrack hounds that attend these movies. In addition to this, the musical score by composer Mark Isham feels completely uninspiring and piano-repetitive throughout the length of the film. If I could watch this film on mute, I really would, but the importance of details shouldn’t suffer because the musical choices associated with the film feel like they are from a middle aged woman’s IPOD on shuffle.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

Detective Pikachu

Directed By Rob Letterman

Starring – Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton

The Plot – The story begins when ace detective Harry Goodman (Paul Kitson) goes mysteriously missing, prompting his 21-year-old son Tim (Smith) to find out what happened. Aiding in the investigation is Harry’s former Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (Reynolds): a hilariously wise-cracking, adorable super-sleuth who is a puzzlement even to himself. Finding that they are uniquely equipped to communicate with one another, Tim and Pikachu join forces on a thrilling adventure to unravel the tangled mystery. Chasing clues together through the neon-lit streets of Ryme City, a sprawling, modern metropolis where humans and Pokémon live side by side in a hyper-realistic live-action world–they encounter a diverse cast of Pokémon characters and uncover a shocking plot that could destroy this peaceful co-existence and threaten the whole Pokémon universe.

Rated PG for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements.

POSITIVES

– Easily the most accessible of the Pokemon films. In straying a bit from its conventional roots, “Detective Pikachu” is able to accommodate to a bigger audience, all the while remaining faithful to its world building and rules that have garnered legions of faithful followers for many generations. If you want to see a typical Pokemon movie, there are thousands of those, but putting its familiar furry protagonist in a noir mystery that touches on some surprisingly dark territory in material, gives the franchise new life on screen and in direction, which will inevitably make it all the more adaptable for audiences like myself, who have never been struck by the Pokemon lore. This isn’t the first Pokemon film that I’ve ever seen, but it is the first one that had me leaving the theater with an unshakably positive feeling, all the while solidifying my iron-clad views towards the importance of family, that the film takes with it throughout.

– Sparkling special effects. Pay attention Sonic, this is how you seamlessly immerse an obviously computer generated property into a live action background, without alienating the texture of color that lacks believability. Every design here is perfectly rendered and exceptionally detailed, illustrating the very fur and facial movements of the Pokemon creatures with an air of consistency that you rarely see in live action computer-generated kids movies. Likewise, the artificial destruction of some pretty intense and heavy action set pieces rumble the screen in ways that make them inescapable from what is transpiring, cementing a beautifully vibrant transition from animated movies that never leave much to the imagination in terms of what it loses in the transfer. If more live action transformations looked like this, I would gladly welcome the string of video game movies that will inevitably leave me braindead from, among other things, phony post production effects work.

– Cohesively juggling tones. What really surprised me about the movie was how it managed to evolve into this drama during pivotal scenes of emotional wrangling. Aside from the opening fifteen minutes, which feel like they set the ground wonderfully for a revenge narrative, the beginning of the film’s final act constructs a conflict within Pikachu, as well as one with Tim that is anything but the typical third act distancing we’ve come to know. Instead, it’s more about the discovery of the role that Pikachu plays in this progressing mystery, establishing a series of twists that add a fine combination of intrigue for the character’s, as well as a somber atmosphere of tension that adapts to being much more than a lazy comedy. With this film having such a resting backbone on the values of family and friendship, and how those aspects tie together perfectly sometimes, it makes this a recommend for the whole family, remembering to instill the profoundly powerful gut-punch literally moments before they walk out of the theater.

– Ryan Reynolds. Simply put, there is nothing that this man can’t do. While Ryan’s familiar vocal tones never experiment with stretching or tweeking to make them sound different, it’s Ryan’s timely delivery and enthusiastic energy in dangerous situations that made him the focus for audiences well beyond being the title character. When Pikachu is at his most vulnerable, which is roughly 80% of the movie, Ryan delivers his best stuff, emoting a cowardice side of the familiar hero, which certainly casts him in newly hilarious light than I’ve ever seen. His influence is felt so much that in the rare occasion when Pikachu isn’t on-screen, that the movie immediately loses the air of momentum that it builds each time his unshakeable sarcasm and endless wit isn’t there to enhance the interaction of his live action counterparts, and it’s one of those performances that will make it difficult to shake free from his voice, every time you watch a Pokemon movie from this point forward.

– The setting. Ryme City is about as cool a place that I’ve seen in cinema since “Blade Runner”, and it’s clear in the details how the current pays a respectable homage to the previous. The neon lights adorned on sky-scraping signs reflect beautifully on the rain-soaked concrete, and the assortment of opportunity-seeking businesses gives a lived-in feeling to capitalism that ranges even in the locations that feel planets away from our own. It juggles this strange juxtaposition, where the technology feels decades ahead of our own, but the similarities in balance for power and current business time fashions gives it a searing reality not far from where we currently stand. Overall, it gives the location a timeless feeling, which in turn will allow it to age gracefully as the years pass by.

– Easter Egg reference. This is about as unexpected as you can get for a hidden Easter Egg, but I tip my hat for a lengthy amount of time, for the way this film managed to include a reference to my favorite Christmas movie of all time. Even more incredible is that this reference within a reference was created especially for that Christmas movie, so the use of its inclusion is obviously an homage to this movie, and plays incredibly for how it plays simultaneously with the crime noir narrative that is playing out before our very eyes in Ryme City. Despite that movie and this one feeling legions apart in terms of similarities, the way it is inserted is every bit as clever as it is commanding of the attention of moviegoers for the way it practically takes over the scene right from our actors in frame.

NEGATIVES

– Exposition heavy dialogue. Sometimes the spring of knowledge feels as forced as a screenplay can make evident, and it stood as the one aspect (Especially during the first act) that weighed this movie down heavily in my final grade. When a new Pokemon comes on-screen, the film almost stops in its tracks to tell us who they are and what power they possess, and while it doesn’t conjure up the cliche of showing a visual stat-sheet like some films do, the overabundance of long-winded delivery isn’t far off either. I can understand teaching audiences about the character’s and backstories accordingly, but when a scene with an amazing actor (Ken Watanabe) is only there to serve a purpose for Tim, you have to wonder if there were easier and more believable ways to introduce this knowledge without the smell of obviousness dimming the potential of said scene, and it happened more times than I would’ve liked.

– Painful human character’s. There’s no one in “Detective Pikachu” who I related to on a personal level, and that’s a shame considering much of this story’s hidden narrative deals with you indulging and empathizing with these people and their newfound tragedies, and it rendered much of the impact of devastation that much more ambiguous because I couldn’t allow myself to fully invest in their bland personalities. Speaking of which, Smith’s Tim is a sludgy sap of moping reality, and his interaction with Newton romantically felt as cold as arctic temperatures, and about as forced as a spontaneous colonic volcano. The screenplay isn’t interested in developing them individually, so it builds them together in-tow, and as far as lead character’s go, these two aren’t nearly charming or confident in their abilities to get across the magic in their bumbling personas.

– Comedy power. While Reynolds makes miracles out of mirages, the overall landing power of the comedy in this film left slightly more to be desired, especially considering we’ve seen Reynolds at his rudest, in the R-rated duo of the “Deadpool” franchise. For this being a PG movie, it’s clear that PG restrictions were taken, and even despite Reynolds hinting at more adult material from time to time, the film’s firepower remains mostly grounded for what we expect from kids movies that demean their intelligence with sounds and flatulence humor. Aside from this, the film commits the crime of showcasing its best material in the trailer, leaving very little of surprise or payoff in the way of what remains. So if you watched this trailer and weren’t sold on the material, the movie itself won’t provide much other relief in that department.

– Problems with the mystery aspect. There are many here, and unfortunately they are made the more evident the longer the film goes on. The answer is predictable, the interrogations in dialogue and sequencing are repetitive, the plot holes in some aspects are glaring, and there’s simply not enough of a struggle for Tim and Pikachu in solving this case. Most of the latter problem deals with a 95 minute run time, which could use another ten minutes to help stretch the dynamic associated with team thinktank’s to illustrate how thick this mystery really is. The quicker they figure everything out, the more painful it is for the power of the mystery itself, and more alluding to this being a kids-first movie that will do no favors for adults in preserving anything mysterious. For my money, they could’ve targeted somewhere in between these age groups to offer something cryptic to both sides, but unfortunately the youth will get more out of these twists that are visible from a mile away.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

UglyDolls

Directed By Kelly Asbury

Starring – Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monae

The Plot – In the adorably different town of Uglyville, weird is celebrated, strange is special and beauty is embraced as more than simply meets the eye. Here, the free-spirited Moxy (Clarkson) and her UglyDoll friends live every day in a whirlwind of bliss, letting their freak flags fly in a celebration of life and its endless possibilities. In this all-new story, the UglyDolls will go on a journey beyond the comfortable borders of Uglyville. There, they will confront what it means to be different, struggle with their desire to be loved, and ultimately discover that you don’t have to be perfect to be amazing because who you truly are is what matters most.

Rated PG for thematic elements and brief action

POSITIVES

– Meaningful casting. It’s always baffled me why musical kids movies rarely cast singers in these roles, but “Ugly Dolls” takes advantage of some of pop music’s biggest names, and puts them to work, performing no fewer than ten songs in this film. Transcending the film itself, this merging offers dream collaborations for music fans of every age, and while the music itself leaves more to be desired in terms of addictive beats and catchy hooks, it’s an 80 minute concert none the less, whose infectious energy and familiar accents of the cast bring forth all of the right gifts to musical cinema. Are they the best vocal performances? Outside of Jonas, absolutely not, but in a film with an overwhelming amount of musical influence, they are the way to go in this intended direction.

– Deeper meaning? As my readers know, I love watching a movie on a conventional level, and viewing it as something so much ulterior, and I certainly found a devious one with “UglyDolls”. The villain, Lou, (Jonas) teaches perfect dolls how to be perfect for their future children. It basically establishes him as this toy Hitler that is creating a master race of perfection to rid the world of peace and acceptance. Hitler also viewed blonde hair, blue-eyed boys as the future of the human race, and that is none other than Lou’s physical features, perhaps hiding something much more sinister behind his pearly-white smile. Naturally, a child won’t make this comparison, but it establishes a demented layer of fantasy to a film that needs anything to make it that much more entertaining, and for my money, this is the best I could come up with.

– Craziness in a finale. If you see this movie for any reason, watch the final twenty minutes, which includes a robot dog and baby, a legion of zombie followers, a nightmarish darkening sky, and the world’s biggest washing machine. In a sense, this movie is throwing everything at the screen to see what sticks during this pivotal third act, but to a certain degree it’s in this carefree execution where a sequence this convoluted can present the only scene in the movie that I am sure to remember three months from now. It reminded me somewhat of 90’s Disney finales, when all rules were off, and the setting itself became almost a character of sorts for what was revolving between protagonist and antagonist. If STX were willing to take more chances like this one, then maybe “UglyDolls” could be the anti-animated film that paves its own unpredictable path to infamy, but in the end it’s just a lone kickass finale that spiked my interest from non-existent to remote.

NEGATIVES

– Rips off two different franchises. Between the animation textures and musical similarities of “Trolls”, and the plot structure of “Toy Story”, “UglyDolls” finds no shred of originality to counteract the strokes of familiarity that are all over this picture. Because of this, the film reeks of a cash grab, where a studio once again tries to capitalize on the intake of a popular kids toy line, while throwing together a series of flimsy ideas that never add weight of meaning to the purpose of its inception. Aspects like these truly bother me about kids movies, because studios will often slip in these plagiarizing points of plot because they feel that younger audiences either won’t be aware that they’ve seen this movie before, or won’t care because of the vibrant colors or boisterous noises that come with it, and it gives “UglyDolls” an unmistakable feeling of incomplete that it never manages to shake.

– Stretched screenplay. 80 minutes is the bare minimum of acceptable major motion picture run times, but when we dig deeper to the root of the material, we find that the progressing story could easily be told in a half hour special on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network with some tweaks of edit to better pace the story. I mentioned earlier that there are at least ten songs in the film, each of which are around three minutes, so you have already wiped away thirty minutes in songs alone, leaving fifty minutes to establish character’s, build a conflict, and offer a resolution that satisfies your audience. Needless to say, it doesn’t happen, and it makes this film feel like one of the least ambitious and phoned-in movies from a big budget studio that we’ve seen in quite some time. It’s not just a bad movie, but one lacking a sprinkle of creativity to contend in an age where animated movies are doing ground-breaking things.

– Lack of finesse with the animation. I understand that STX Films is certainly no Pixar or Dreamworks with their animation budget, but the combination of computer generation and live action illustration on our title character’s conjures up a Frankenstein finished product that conveys its inability to compete, leaving us the audience limited in our ability to feel dazzled by the presentation. The backgrounds, particularly in the detail given to the Ugly town are three-dimensional, but the same dedication is never given to character movements or facial registration, which feel as lifeless and incoherent as any animated property in 2019. Mastering a visual feast is half the battle with animated films, and with counterproductive traits in animation styles that make up most of what is front-and-center at all times, STX cuts off their legs before the war of comparison has ever begun.

– Combination of cliches. As a screenwriter, Alison Peck combines enough lukewarm sentimentality and empty-handed motivations to make this the Hallmark Cards of movies, for how truly corny and unearned every inspiration felt in the execution. Themes like “Be yourself” or “Listen to your heart” are good in theory, but so obvious in a film genre that does this sort of thing almost weekly. The screenplay tries to jam in far too many, and eventually it just feels like a game of bingo, where you wait until your motivation meme is called, all the while practically slapping kids across the face with intentional clarity long before they are able to piece it together themselves. Good intentions are one thing, but when a movie uses too many of them, especially with an ending conflict that condemns one character for being true to who he was, makes it all feel like a shallow piece of propaganda that is preached, but rarely practiced in the film.

– Flat humor. It’s hard to even classify this film as a comedy, because not only did I not laugh once in the entirety of the film, but the script often goes too far between in even attempting to gain emotional expression from its youthful viewers. This will be the hardest sell to them, for how little it gets them involved in the process of the plot, as well as the complexity of personalities to grip onto. What little comic opportunity there is speaks to the weirdness of the creatures themselves, and really nothing outside of the box in that regard. I was honestly expecting juvenile laughs in the form of bodily humor, but what I got was somehow less than that, cementing one of the most difficult films that I’ve had to sit through in 2019, thanks to arid material so undercooked that it defies the laws of genre classification.

– Lack of character exposition. I mentioned earlier that this film has roughly fifty minutes to get its feet wet in distinguishing these character’s, and with the exception of a dog played by Pitbull, the rest of the UglyDolls are interchangeable if not for the color of their skin. Seriously, there is nothing between them in personalities or motivations that make them even remotely different, and thanks to the film’s lack of time devoted to bringing each of them along with their own respective conflicts, the line of division is that much more blurred because of such. In addition to this, the dialogue feels very clunky, in that it explains the bare basics of the world and conflict without digging deeper to soak in the atmosphere. This makes the character’s and UglyVille world feel like a prop to a hinted at bigger picture that never truly materializes, and scrambles for focus in a screenplay that constantly struggles with disjointment.

– The music. Not only does the musical accompanyment drop the ball on catchy jingles that parents will wear out their IPOD’S playing, but the music itself fails in progressing the story during the momentary instances where everything else stops. In a musical genre film, the music is often used as a tool to fill in the gaps of unseen backstory and inner character psychology, but the lyrics disappoint on a very topical kind of level, keeping the depth of their inclusion pointless, in that we as an audience have seen what they are further repeating. If I had to pick a favorite, it’s easily “Broken and Beautiful” by Kelly Clarkson, a power ballad about seeing the beauty in something deemed different. But by the time the film is finished, this theme is repeated endlessly in the sequences and situations, rendering the power of its message that much more ineffective because of how much it’s hammered home.

My Grade: 3/10 or F

Breakthrough

Directed By Roxann Dawson

Starring – Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace, Josh Lucas

The Plot – Based on the inspirational true story of one mother’s unfaltering love in the face of impossible odds. When Joyce Smith’s (Metz) adopted son John (Marcel Ruiz) falls through an icy Missouri lake, all hope seems lost. But as John lies lifeless, Joyce refuses to give up. Her steadfast belief inspires those around her to continue to pray for John’s recovery, even in the face of every case history and scientific prediction.

Rated PG for thematic content including peril

POSITIVES

– Mutual respect. “Breakthrough” is the rare exception in religious exploitation films, where the film states its case and its belief in a greater power, and doesn’t shun the cliche atheist character for their contradicting beliefs. The character in question is played by Luke Cage himself, Mike Coulter, and he’s depicted in a way that not only gives a strong combination of dignity and class to the character, but also never tries to change his beliefs or prove that he’s wrong. It’s a world developed that allows both sides to prosper without unnecessary confrontation, and that element alone allows the movie the kind of rare open arms treatment, where everyone is welcome, regardless of spiritual beliefs or lack there of. It’s one of the only times when a movie like this didn’t judge me or make me feel uncomfortable, and that alone brings it a step above the rest in living out God’s message.

– Soundtrack depth. When the movie begins, we are treated to pop culture toe-tappers like “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, or “Can’t Hold Us” by Macklemore, and it’s enough eye-opening selections to give the film a rich sense in budget, all the while echoing the cultures of its youths. This of course eventually changes into all spiritual offerings, but the eclectic nature of the genre and composition’s inspire creativity to the conventional hymns that we’ve come to know, and instills a sense of creativity to the movie’s compositions that radiate that fresh appeal, and it allows the music to remain true to itself, all the while catering to a bigger audience based on pop culture familiarity.

– A couple of solid performances. Metz is definitely the breadwinner here, emoting Joyce with no shortage of tears or energy to the command that she has on each situation. The problem is that I detested her character, mainly because the movie hints at a transformation that never comes, but all the same, Metz harvests most of the film’s emotional registry. Likewise, Coulter has a strong on-screen presence that captures the attention in each scene that he’s in, and juggles the biggest conflict of the movie, because his own eyes and ears are failing him on everything that he believed to this point. Topher Grace was also a riot to watch, if only for the facial reactions to the movie’s events, which drew more than a few smiles out of me. In terms of likeability, Topher is the movie’s saving grace, and his hip demeanor in freshening up the old testament is something that this world could use more of.

– Iron production values. While nothing is academy award deserving, it is exceptional in terms of religious movies that sometimes diminish the power of their message with a presentation that looks like it was shot by a high school film class. That simply isn’t the case here, as the neon interiors of the hospital, combined with some breath-stealing scenery of St. Louis, conjure up a visual presentation that confirms a great amount of money was spent in post production, and the editing, while dealing with continuity issues at times, does at least keep the progression of the film smoothly running, to keep us firmly engaged. When you compare “Breakthrough” to a PureFlix movie, you see an immense difference that reminds you how strong a film can be if it has a big studio presence behind it, and it gives us a lot to look at when the film’s plot progression has kind of grinded to a violent halt.

– Big game talents. I was surprised at how much the camera work relied on the skills of the young cast to showcase their basketball skills without manipulating the shot to make them something they’re not. Long take shots offer a balance of choreographed dribbling and long range shot display that came from the hands of the cast themselves, and really impressed me for not only the confidence they display, but the confidence that Dawson has in them to get it right. These are sequences that are such a minimal use of time for the bigger picture, so it would’ve certainly been easy to cut and paste these kids in a way that would fool half of the audience into thinking these kids are something they so obviously are not, but the direction, especially with NBA star Steph Curry serving as a movie producer, commits itself to getting it right, and shows John at work with his finest skill, instead of just telling us.

NEGATIVES

– Predictable. This is the biggest obstacle that the movie faces, as aside from a trailer that gives away nearly everything about this plot, aspects as minimal as lines of dialogue were mimicked by a friend and I, who spoke them seconds before the movie did. It’s expected that the events would be told in completely honest detail, but what’s concerning is how little we learn about the character’s, which could offer some shred of intrigue during the waiting game, which is roughly 80% of this movie. It’s obviously better for people who know less about these true life events, but even then you know there’s only one certain direction that a plot and genre like this can travel, and the fact that “Breakthrough” left me with the ability to telegraph everything scenes before they happen, spoke levels to the entertainment factor of the script, that feels closer to a Wikipedia article for the covering of events.

– Pacing issues. Most of the problems that I discussed directly above this translates to the jagged pacing of the movie, which at nearly two hours feels like a stretch for how much develops during the film. For one, there’s plenty that can be removed with very little impact. Stretched sequences involving throwaway character’s outside of this family, or repetition in scenes that transpire the same way but pivot on character movements, feed into this padding for passage of time that is quite literally that. This movie’s consistency literally did feel like a hospital waiting game at times, and with some more first act exposition before the big splash, the film could ease itself from racing to a red light, which it remains parked at until the final fifteen minutes of the movie.

– Transformation issues. For this movie, there are two character transformations that inspire these character’s to become better people. First is Joyce, an overzealous control freak, whose own insecurities are exposed in the way she devalues those around her. The second is John, as he struggles with feeling the love associated with being adopted. Both of these serve a bigger purpose, but only one of them worked, and it lands in the hands of the person who stays under conscience for most of this movie. Joyce’s supposed transformation didn’t land for me because she isn’t really that different from the person she was before all of this, and even worse, her actions are justified for the sake of John’s progression. She’s a conflicted character who never cures her conflictions, and it says a lot that the kid who doesn’t speak for a huge chunk of this movie attains the things that the film’s central protagonist simply never does.

– Blunders. There were all kinds of errors in believability, continuity, and horrendous line reads that do bring forth some unintentional laughs while watching this. Some of my favorite involve a resuscitation scene where the nurse administering C.P.R is obviously not beating on the chest, nor even doing it on the correct area of the chest for it to work. Likewise during this scene, it’s fairly obvious that John is breathing, especially with the revealing camera angles used, as well as the placing of a tube on his chest, which only makes it easier to detect. This is also one of the worst hospitals in the country apparently, because doctor’s say things like “Think, Gene” to themselves during surgery, or speak negatively in the presence of the boy and mother in their hospital room. If you can get over this believability issue, a musical scene in which students from John’s school sing him to inspiration you simply cannot. The kids are not only singing at a level that would make it difficult to hear from twenty feet away, let alone three floors up on a hospital window that doesn’t open, but it’s even less believable when a piano is heard that simply isn’t there. These are just a few of my favorite things, and don’t reflect the stretches of logic necessary to understand some pretty moronic course of actions that I won’t spoil here.

– Pitiful poignancy. For my money, I could’ve used more discussion aimed at the thought-provoking of its subject matters, that the film slowly steps away from. One such discussion happens late in the film, when a character asks why miracles happen for some people and not the others. Instead of offering up some form of relief for those seeking answers for the awkwardness of the question, the scene uses it as nothing more than a brief hiccup on the way to bigger and better things. If you had no relief in the form of even opinion-based answers, then why bring it up in the first place. This movie is full of solid questions that should be coming from an atheist’s point of view, but the overall lack of energy used to support these queries makes their inclusion feel every bit as temporary as they do pointless. A cop out with no intention of supporting its believers.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+