Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

The dreaded road trip for the Heffley family turns into ‘The Long Haul’ for Greg and his newest disastrous plot. Based on the record-breaking book series, the Heffley family organize a long-distance road trip to attend Meemaw’s 90th birthday party. But everything goes hilariously off course thanks to Greg’s (Jason Drucker) newest scheme to get to a popular video gaming convention for all of the sweetest prizes. This twisted, off-the-rails family cross-country adventure turns into an experience the Heffleys will never forget, experiencing one wacky shenanigan after another to keep the spirit of the family together forever. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul is directed by noteworthy child director David Bowers, and is rated PG for some rude humor.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul is cinematic birth control. What I mean by that is this is the kind of movie that adults who are becoming parents dread when they think about the kind of modern day fecal matter that is slopped up upon our children’s plates. As time has progressed, companies like Pixar have continued to test the intelligence of their youthful audiences, with colorful characters, as well as plots that challenge the mind and the heart to offer something special in memorable movies. Then there’s movies like this one that consider your precious children to be mindless idiots that only react to loud, animated noises or a barrage of physical comedy whose only punchline is that of gross-out gags, with each one vying to out-do the previous. To say that I hated this movie is an understatement. I simply gave no emotional response to the 86 minutes of bits that barely passed for a big screen script. Being that this is the fourth film in the Diary franchise, and that everyone in the movie has been re-cast, this is the kind of film akin to that of Beethoven’s 4th or Home Alone 4 that belong strictly on a video store shelf, free from the wallet pressures of adults who work hard for their money.

I myself only saw the first Diary movie in this franchise, and while I only felt that it was OK, it was leaps-and-bounds above the material that passes for plot in this movie. The Heffley’s long distance trip to Indiana somehow clocks in at 47 hours on the van’s GPS, and right away my mind pondered as to where in America takes 47 hours to get to Indiana? Beyond this, the main goal is of course to celebrate the 90th birthday of the boys grandmother, but this ambition is cast aside so much in this movie that I constantly kept forgetting where this ending was taking us. Along the way, there are subplots that deal with Greg being the subject of a vicious viral video that has made him famous for all of the wrong reasons. Compelling huh? On top of that, the film feels like a series of skits instead of one cohesive script that beats to the same drum. For instance, each scene that feels like it was written by a second grader has a setup, a conflict, and the shenanigans that follow. Because this routine became so predictable by the end of the first act, I found myself being able to constantly sniff out what was coming with each (So-called) payoff. If there is a villain or adversary in the movie, it’s with this rival family that is on the exact same road and hotel path that the Heffley’s are on. This leads to a final showdown that (I’m not kidding you) spoofed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, complete with slashing music and shot-for-shot re-creations. If this movie didn’t have enough guts from having the words LONG HAUL in their title, the bravery to mock one of the master filmmakers of all time certainly blows my mind.

Don’t worry though, I’m sure the laughs are aplenty from a movie with no shortage of urine, vomit, poop, and fart jokes. At this point in the game, these directions feel desperate, and even in a kids movie we should be reaching a lot further. On the scale of disgust, the film certainly makes a threat to 2015’s horrible Vacation remake, testing your stomach’s limits for what is tasteful. A pet pig is introduced midway through the film. Why? so he can fart and cause a big accident. The family stops at a country fair. Why? So one of the boys can vomit all over the people riding the ride. In case you’re wondering what the urine joke is, they borrow that too from another movie, this time from 1994’s Dumb and Dumber, in which Harry keeps filling up bottles. I’d elaborate a lot more, but frankly I just don’t want to. In a nutshell, I never laughed a single time in this movie, and the single greatest emotional response that I felt was that of two once prominent stars (I know I’m stretching that term) who now have to settle for this muck.

The two who I am referring to are of course Tom Everitt-Scott and Alicia Silverstone as the very parents of the Harelly clan. Silverstone is at least committing to this role, even if her character feels to cynical to ever be a progressive parent. Her character is wound slightly too tight, and it feels like she is trying to live up to an adjective like ‘Square’ that the director told her to aim for. Her singing of Wannabe by The Spice Girls that was seen in the trailer is so damaging to my ears that I began writing her a scathing e-mail to ease the pain. Scott feels asleep at the wheel for a lot of his performance, and often only pops up whenever it feels like he is required to earn a paycheck. For a man who stole many of movies like Dead Man on Campus and That Thing You Do, Tom feels like a shell of himself, going through the motions of workaholic Father who is forced to spend 47 unflattering hours with his family. We too suffer Tom. As for the lead role of Greg, Jason Drucker doesn’t have the personality or charisma to make this an appealing lead protagonist. For much of the movie, Drucker is relegated to complaining or reacting to the comic relief around him, and the lack of emphasis on the actual diary of the movie leaves him squandering for life support to live up to those who donned the role better. Greg embraces the embarrassment of being a child, but never the energy of what goes into being the pulse of this mind-numbingly bland family.

Perhaps the single worst aspect of The Long Haul is how its producers care so little about fluid continuity or the aspects that just don’t add up. Besides the 47 hour trip that I mentioned earlier, there’s also plenty of other mistakes or poorly efficient measures of filmmaking that shows the kind of care that went into this project. I’m certainly not asking the world out of a movie like this, but when I see two characters sitting in their respective seats in one shot, then immediately in the next one that shows them together they are in different seats, I wonder. This movie also re-uses actors and actresses like they think the audience is simply too stupid to piece this all together. I probably wouldn’t have noticed if a black man in the movie who carried a Southern accent during an earlier scene didn’t pop up as a completely different character during the final act. This is as sloppy as it gets with production decisions, but it pales in comparison to that of truly awful voice editing that adorned a particular character. The actor who plays the oldest brother in this film must’ve mis-read a lot of his lines because his lips rarely add up to what is being heard from his character. The volume levels are also slightly higher in his deliveries as opposed to his counterparts, pointing to post-production nightmares that aren’t tightly fixed enough for cinephiles like me to notice.

THE VERDICT – The Long Haul runs out of gas early and finds itself running on fumes for the entirety of this humorless, lifeless picture. If the film captures just one thing perfectly, it’s the torture that envelopes being stuck in a vehicle with people who annoy you to death, with you thinking about the better things that you could easily be doing at that particular moment. There isn’t a single moment original from its gross-out material to the way it savagely borrows from greatly more impactful films, and this is one diary entry that should be scratched-out, ripped-up, and left in the same trash confines where it found its humor.

2/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

The most unlikely of heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe return to save the galaxy again, in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Written and directed by the original film’s James Gunn, the film is set to the backdrop of ‘Awesome Mixtape #2,’ Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 continues the adventures of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper), and the newly born Mini Groot (Vin Diesel) as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos to stop a new threat. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage involving a mysterious new acquaintance (Kurt Russell). Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel cinematic universe continues to expand. The movie is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence, adult language, and brief suggestive content.

After the surprising smash hit that was Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has decided to strike fast while the iron is hot, churning out an ambitious sequel three years after that original effort. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 is very much that first film turned up to eleven, with an unabashedly driving force direction for the best aspects of that original effort, and pushing them into overdrive here. This was a movie that I found very entertaining, with some problems on the side that Marvel still has had trouble with adjusting to. Because of those hiccups, Volume 2 falls just short of the first effort for me, but there’s still more than enough in artistic overdrive to recommend this movie to the faithful fans of the first film. For story in concept, In the same manner that the first movie was about this rag-tag group of misfits becoming a family, Volume 2 focuses on them actually being one, a decision in directional force that caters more to the light-hearted atmosphere of these worlds and characters respectively, and focuses almost entirely on the bond by these protagonists. What follows is over two hours of the most colorfully explosive action that you will see this Summer on the big screen.

Striking a perfect stroke of artistic expression is the color scheme that radiates the contrasting blends of a vintage comic book. Gunn plays so distinctly to color in each and every planet that is depicted here, and it really casts such a gorgeous detail to a setting that is already polar opposite of the one that we live in. Some of my personal favorites were that of the army of gold soldiers that really pop in the dark blue backdrops that illuminate these ships. This use of gold signaled the royalty that was inhabited amongst these people, setting the stage mentally for the kind of character exposition that is to come from us just meeting them. I also enjoyed that very vibrantly breathtaking visuals in explosions and fireworks that is sure to cash in on the most bang for your buck with paying extra for a special screening. I saw this movie in XD, with the wall-to-wall big screen, and I feel like I underpaid for a spectacle that radiated color in comic book movies far greater than anything that I have seen to this point. With Thor: Ragnarok just around the corner, it’s clear that Marvel is moving into an artistic phase to match that of the colorful contrasts in characters that we have come to know and love.

Perhaps that mission in color might’ve cast a shadow slightly too thick however, because the story in Volume 2 pales greatly in comparison to that of the original movie, and that’s mostly because this film is overstuffed with subplots that doesn’t know where to trim. First of all, the positives. I did enjoy the introduction of Peter Quill’s father to the story, and felt that it added a satisfying layer of conflict to that of the family that Peter has come to know with his family in arms. With the introduction of Ego, Peter clings to that last bastion of his past life that still burns inside of him, and the temptation to get closer to a figure that he has only heard about proves to be too intriguing. Another satisfying plot was that of Gamora and her Sister Nebula (Played by Karen Gillian), and the peeling back of their pasts that comes to light. Volume 2 casts Nebula in a different light of sorts with these big reveals, and you tend to feel great empathy for her character and the deadly game of revenge that boils in her fragile state of mind. Unfortunately it’s all downhill from here, as I thought a lot of the film’s tone in scene-to-scene transition felt very jumbled and all over the place. This is a film that rarely ever slows down (Not a good thing) and allow itself time to build to the next big reveal, therefore hurling everything in our direction of narrative too quick to fully register the impact of its reveal. There is a big twist midway through the movie with our intended antagonist, and it just never felt earth-shattering to me or the characters that it impacts. This is mainly because Gunn lacks great restraint in orchestrating sequencing in transition, leaving many scenes of jarring correlation that doesn’t flow together smoothly.

This movie also continues the spell that Marvel has been under since using Loki as a central antagonist in two different films, and that is a great lack of compelling villain to match the protagonists that it so richly devotes time to. Many people will disagree with me here, but this movie uses three different antagonists to make up for its lack of vision with even a single one. When the answer and intended direction finally does appear, it not only feels far too late to make the impact that this character deserves, but this character’s brief appearances on-and-off never give us time to build their importance. This can also be said about the other two groups of antagonists that couldn’t have been more boring during the first two acts. What does work about the characters is that this film feels like an apology to some supporting characters in the first movie that were glanced over. Nebula is given appropriate time in character dissection to finally cast an element of humanity to her tortured soul, Drax the Destroyer carries the comedy with brutish strength and stability that serve as the most dependable aspect in personality that Gunn is trying to convey, and Yondu embraces a road to retribution that has him seeking his own identity. Each of these characters play pivotal roles in the movie’s pacing and entertainment factor, and Volume 2 levels the playing field for their lack of involvement in the first movie that proves it may have been a tragic misstep.

I mentioned earlier that some aspects of the movie are slightly overdone, and this distinctly speaks to that of the music and comedy that was depicted in the film. What I can say positively about the music is that very few films use it to the level of importance that Guardians of the Galaxy does, and this revival of 70’s and 80’s rock favorites kind of serves as the Glee of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for what it does in reverting interest back to these tracks. But here it is gone to the well a bit too much. At 135 minutes, a lot of the length can be attributed to these scenes that completely stop every story or subplot to show Peter or Rocket listening to their favorite track. It doesn’t feel as smoothly depicted as the first movie because it’s so practically delivered here, and it’s a shame because it really is a smashing collection of toe-tapping struts. The comedy level is also raised much higher here, catering more to the laughs instead of the character in the sake of our actual Guardians. You will definitely laugh more than a few times if your experience is anything like mine, but once again this humor slows the movie’s progression down to work in scenes of improv that feel irritating after the first few times. If it’s a one-off line, I’m all for it. Make them laugh and move on. But there are quite a few scenes in this sequel that overstay their welcome far too much and far too long, giving the audience ample time to use the restroom and not miss anything. I’m not naive to not think that this group doesn’t cater to the feel good mood, but much of these lasting setups should’ve been deleted scenes that pushed the sales of the DVD, instead of testing the patience of humorous flow that took a beating by the stretched third act.

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 lacks the patience or practicality to play its greatest go-to hits of the first film that made it such a breakout smash, but Gunn’s return to the scene of his delightful crime does possess enough infectious laughter and visual flair to make this enticing well into the second hour. James sequel is overstuffed, but it’s overstuffed with the kind of joyous, silly, and often heartfelt family elements that makes this latest return to the galaxy one of undeniable pleasure. Good not great.

7/10

3 Generations

Elle Fanning makes a life-altering decision that has her identifying as a male gender, in 3 Generations. A Family of four living under one roof in New York must deal with a life-changing transformation by one that ultimately affects them all. Ray (Fanning) is a teenager who has come to the realization that he isn’t meant to be a girl and has decided to transition from female to male. His single mother, Maggie (Naomi Watts), must track down Ray’s biological father to get his legal consent to allow Ray’s transition. Dolly (Susan Sarandon), Ray’s lesbian grandmother, accompanied by girlfriend Frances (Linda Emond), is having a hard time accepting that she now has a grandson. They must each confront their own identities and learn to embrace change and their strength as a family in order to ultimately find acceptance and understanding within the other’s tender capabilities. 3 Generations is written and directed by Gaby Dellal, and is rated R for adult language.

3 Generations is a film that has certainly had its fair share of problems with finally seeing the light of cinematic day. Set to release in Summer of 2015 under the original title of About Ray, this film sat on the shelf after receiving mostly negative reviews from the Cannes Film Festival of that year. Nearly two years later, I have finally sat down to watch it, and I must say that I agree with a lot of the criticism. For a movie that could easily be as compelling and insightful with engaging the audience into the world of transgender lifestyle, Dellal often times jumbles her movie with tonal shifts and script directions that frankly feel slightly offensive to that of someone going through the same problems and looking for understanding in their particular desire to become the person that they were born to be. With a bit more focus, there’s clearly the capability of being the forefront piece for transgender relations, but 3 Generations focuses too much on issues that have little to no relevance with the vital foreground plot to the movie, feeling often times like two different kinds of movies colliding on the same track, with a few tragic fatalities.

The first act of the movie lays the groundwork for a tortured soul like Ray to identify with who he really is, but it doesn’t show us the examples of how this hinders his life, minus a brief scene of being jumped and robbed by a street mugger. This is ultimately the pause button that the movie never presses play on; we’re never treated to what’s going on inside of Ray’s head, and this is HIS movie. With that lack of ability of making a film like this cerebral, the majority of whom see things in their lives as one-dimensional will lack the kind of understanding that comes with such a responsible film. There are a few moving scenes along the way, particularly in that of this feminist manifesto that at least conjures up the feel-good nature of seeing them presented in such respectable and groundbreaking lights, the same way that 20th Century Women did earlier this year. Unfortunately, the focus in comparison between those two films never feels close, even by the kindest of judgements.

As for the second film that feels more prominently displayed here, we are treated to a Neil Simon kind of clashing of personalities film from the 1960’s. There is some solid Mother/Daughter kind of humor to the movies that made me chuckle a couple of times, and should make it a worthy sit for the females in the family this Mother’s Day, but it rarely finds the capability in crossover appeal. What my biggest problem with this contradiction in direction is just how off-beat and unbalanced that the film’s direction takes us into a final act that doesn’t seem focused on the right character. This becomes a bit more of a dysfunctional family movie, instead of what we have been steered along to at this point, and Ray’s issues suddenly feel miniscule in a movie that hasn’t completely forgotten about her, but has made it clear that she is now a subplot. When you start taking into account some of the problems with the direction and clashing attitudes, there’s an understanding for why this film remained untouched for nearly two years. A lack of concern for that often silenced voice in cinema that we could certainly use more insight into in 2017.

At least the cinematography and overall shooting scheme for the movie is one that I can commend for its rich and elegant tastes. For color scheme, there’s often a white gloss that fills the screen from shot-to-shot, giving the movie that blend of independent movie visuals that the sets it apart in terms of familiarity. The editing is quite experimental, giving way to some inter-cutting shots of Ray’s reactions while listening to a documentary that he is filming about his experiences. There’s even a POV style scene in which we as the audience see things from Ray’s point of view, as he clashes with insensitive people that choose to poke fun at his situation. It is slightly obvious and a little ham-fisted at times with the necessity to include a scene of bullying to entice the audience into pity, but there is genius in forcing us the audience to understand things on a visual level when the story just isn’t working out for itself, putting us at the heart of the situation and asking the internal question of what would we do.

Most of the performances stay pretty grounded, but the lead protagonist is played with a fireball of emotional response from that of rising actress Elle Fanning. In what is definitely her most challenging role to date, Fanning commands Ray with the blending of teenage rebellion and closed-out personality that really omits a cloud of loneliness for his particular situation. Elle is someone who has stolen the screen in films like The Neon Demon and 20th Century Women, but here her theft feels more accustomed because it is after all her movie to steal. I just wish that her character resolution was given more time to grow, and that we as an audience got that scene to bask in her happiness. Sarandon and Watts are decent as a budding Mother and Daughter who have clearly spent far too much time together. Susan is practically playing the same character that she did in last year’s The Meddler, but that doesn’t make her any less enjoyable. She continues to be a familiar face that you can’t help but smile at, and her relationship with Watts in the movie really casts that shadow of doubt as to who really is the parental figure here.

3 Generations is a sign that we are headed in the right direction with showcasing movies that speak to the modern day growth that we as a society need. Unfortunately, this isn’t the film that we will look back on twenty years from now that signaled the change of understanding. With the exception of a strong performance by Fanning and the embracing of feminist-first material, Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations has a lot to learn about focus and what her own audience deems as important within the central plot. Like its title character, this movie wants to be something completely else, but lacks to find its identity the same way that Ray does.

5/10

How To Be A Latin Lover

The sleazy, scheming lifestyle of an arrogant sex-crazed man goes for broke when he gets the worst kind of news that will hinder his get-rich-quick scheme, in How To Be a Latin Lover. Having made a career of seducing rich older women, Maximo (Eugenio Derbez) marries a wealthy woman more than twice his age. 25 years later, spoiled and bored from waking up next to his now 80-year-old wife—he gets the surprise of his life when she ends up dumping him for a younger car salesman. Forced out of his mansion and desperate for a place to stay, he must move in with his estranged sister, Sara, (Salma Hayek) and her nerdy but adorable son, Hugo (Raphael Alejandro) in their small apartment. Anxious to return to the lap of luxury, Maximo uses his nephew’s crush on a classmate to get to his new target—her grandmother, Celeste (Raquel Welch), a widowed billionaire. As Maximo tries to rekindle his powers as a Latin lover, he finds himself bonding with his nephew Hugo, and he begins to learn that being a Latin lover means that loving money isn’t as important as the love of your family. How To Be a Latin Lover is directed by Ken Marino, and is rated PG-13 for crude humor, sexual references and gestures, and for brief nudity.

By rating his movie PG-13, first time actor-turned-director Ken Marino settles for the smarter kind of comedy, and one that doesn’t need the perils of raunchy humor to get its laughs. That’s not to say that How To Be a Latin Lover is a smart or intelligent comedy that pushes the boundaries of intellect, but it is one that focuses primarily on that of dialogue driven humor, instead of physical or gross-out material to get its intended purposes across. There have been a lot of people who have related this movie to that of a Happy Madison production, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s true that some similarities are there with a jerk antagonist character who treats everyone around him like garbage, but still asks to be redeemed by the end of the movie, but Marino’s picture resorts more to the heartier side, displaying a fine layering of family importance that could never be touched by that awful company known as Happy Madison. I had some fun with this movie. It’s certainly got its problems, but it wasn’t enough to derail my time or keep me from the consistent laughter that Derbez’s commitment to character brought me.

The material in comedy does unfortunately have its flatulence jokes, but they are brief enough in the grand scheme of things. This is very much a character that feels on the same levels as that of Gerard Depardeu in the mid 90’s, showcasing a pleasantly humorous side to ignorance. There’s plenty of bravery in a script that could or could not label Latin Americans in a particular light, but the light-hearted consistency in tone makes it a difficult task to take anything to heart. Some of my fondest laughs in the movie usually dealt with the adapting that Maximo’s new chapter of life was taking on, complete with gut-busting facial reactions to the kind of madness taking place around him. With no lies, not all of the comedy here meets their designated marks. There are some truly terrible line reads in the movie that don’t register the fullest of laughs as intended, and sometimes the punch lines do feel slightly too long for a payoff that either never comes or emotes a pity laugh. Overall, there were too many times when this movie ripped the laughs out of me, so I give credit to working hard for this insanely difficult critic when it comes to comedies.

What’s commendable about the screenplay is that it doesn’t just settle for one-level storytelling to get the entertainment value across. The sleazy scheming that we see in the trailers are certainly there for a majority of the three-act structure, but something happens about midway through the movie that starts to earn your respect; the transformation of Maximo. What I love about Marino’s directing here is that he makes us pity our central protagonist by having him endure the same kind of humiliations that he ridiculed other characters for early on in the movie. By leveling out the playing field, the movie’s overbearing message of treating others kindly radiates with each passing moment, and it opened up the access to an otherwise cold-hearted individual. From here I was treated to a family element that even in predictable setups took over the movie accordingly, and brought depth to something that would otherwise be a throwaway comedy. The ending does tend to slightly go back on its transformation a bit, but it’s obvious that Maximo can never fully retreat to the materialistic pig that he donned for twenty-five years of his life.

One aspect that could’ve used trimming was that of the run time that at 110 minutes feels about fifteen minutes too long. The pacing holds up wonderfully for the first two acts, even despite how thin the material feels during this stage of the game, but it’s in that third act where the wear-and-tear of the long endurance starts to take shape. One reason for this honestly is in the setup of the third act conflict, which Hollywood has repeatedly done for decades, and only feels there to setup the retribution that inevitably always follows. This is simply not one of those comedies that can spring for the full two hours, and I worry that some of the antsy motions that come with such a long sit will pop up in those moviegoers who can accurately diagraph what will happen from this point forward.

There is plenty to offer from the cast, most of which includes a variety of famous celebrities that range in importance to the story from very much to not at all. One of my problems with cameos in movies is that they rarely do it to where it feels justified or vital to the inclusion of their character. For Latin Lover, it’s about 50/50 in terms of this. I loved Salma Hayek as his Sister for all of the bickering that they do back and forth that feels very reminiscent of the kind of sibling rivalry that we all deal with at one time or another. I enjoyed Mckenna Grace as Hugo’s school crush. As a little girl, she showcases a personality that is years above her age, and with Gifted, this is the second time that she has impressed me this month. As for who doesn’t work, the additions of Rob Riggle as the film’s antagonist of sorts, Kristen Bell as an obnoxious cat lover and frozen yogurt shop manager, and Rob Coddry as a limo driver with very little dialogue or material to showcase. Without question however, this film was intended to be a one man show, and Derbez is certainly up to the task. As Maximo, we meet a man that has let the better part of a life pass him by, with pursuing a shallow dream. Eugenio commands brilliance out of this character, so much so that he becomes him in the same way that Sacha Baron Cohen became Borat or Bruno. It’s rare in a comedy that an actor can be commended just for acting, but that is what we have here. In many ways, this character sometimes feels too big for this movie, but together they make the most out of a good time.

For an initial effort, Ken Marino’s How To Be A Latin Lover might not come to mind when it comes to memorable comedies, but there’s enough suave and debonair in the performance of Derbez commanding presence, as well as mostly clean cut material that can appeal to the whole family to keep this one staying fresh. The third act does slightly overstay its welcome, but the compassionate lessons that this movie instill make it one of the rare comedies that we can cherish in a terminally polluted 2017 comedy landscape.

6/10

Spark: A Space Tail

Spark: A Space Tail, takes place Thirteen years ago, as the power-mad General Zhong (A.C Peterson) seized control of Planet Bana and tore it to pieces in the process. Now splintered into hundreds of shards, Zhong is Bana’s evil-overlord, ruling with an iron fist. Enter Spark (Jace Norman), a teenage monkey and his friends, Vix (Jessica Biel), a battle-ready fox, and Chunk (Rob Deleeuw), a tech-savvy pig. Spark learns of Zhong’s secret plan to take over the universe by capturing a giant space monster known as the Kraken – a beast that has the power to create black holes. If Zhong manages to harness the Kraken’s power, he’ll have history’s deadliest weapon at his fingertips, and it’s up to Spark and his friends to stop him. Spark’s journey takes him to the farthest reaches of the universe, where he encounters great dangers and discovers the secret of his true identity. An action-packed space adventure full of humor and heart, Spark is the story of a boy who takes on great responsibility and in the process discovers his rightful place in the universe. Spark is written and directed by Aaron Woodley, and is rated PG for action and rude humor.

Bad animated movies are bad for an array of reasons, but mostly it comes down to two aspects; bland animation and bland story. Most of the time, you will get one or the other, but it’s incredibly rare to find a movie that represents the worst in both. Cue ‘Spark: A Space Tail’. A film so dauntingly repressed when compared to the bigger, better animated delights of modern day that it even lacks solid justification for its big screen release. Ever since movies like Norm of the North, as well as Ratchet and Clank were able to somehow get the green lights to coax their studios into releasing these movies worldwide, we are bound to get more and more of these lifeless leftovers for the forseeable future. After seeing this film, I am left with a strong taste of two films in my mouth that accurately depicts what movies that Woodley was watching at the time he penned this script; Ratchet and Clank, and Rogue One. The former is certainly evident not only in some of the jokes that repeat themselves from that very movie, but also in the actual setting itself. You could tell me that this was a sequel and I would have no choice but to believe you. The Rogue One factor is evident in the story. Evil Empire takes child’s family to better their own situations. When child is old enough, he fights back against them, leading a rebellion of misfits. Ripping off movies isn’t a problem, but when those movies are leaps-and-bounds better than what you bring to the table, the similarities start being used as a negative, and this negative is far from the only thing plaguing the creative specter in this film.

For starters, this is a very difficult movie to get into right off of the back. The film starts with a brief two minute recap scene that not only speeds through perhaps the single most important scene of the movie, but gives us absolutely no narration exposition to get to know our characters or feel a shred of investment into their conflicts. It stays this way through 85 minutes of throwaway storytelling that misfires on more misses than hits because of its Saturday Morning Cartoon structure. If this film could take five minutes to slow down and soak in the effects of what should be some major character vulnerability, then maybe we could squeeze an ounce of audience investment out of them. The main character especially, lacks any kind of special trait or talent that makes him destined for this crown, other than him being born into it. Spark is the kind of teenager who gets by on being a slacker, and thankfully for him every adversary that he comes across is a braindead moron who you can’t believe for a second could lead an army, let alone an every planet takeover.

The comedy was non-existent for me. I remained stone-faced for the entirety of the movie, and my theater roommates who were mostly kids, did more of the same. It’s hard to get a sturdy grasp on who this movie is marketed for because the comedic material feels slightly advanced and wordy for that of a child, but far too boring and juvenile for an adult. If I were to accurately hit on it, I would say a young teenager of about twelve to thirteen years old would be the right target demographic. The only problem with it is that particular age group will be booming out of their animation phase by that time, seeking the brighter lights and bigger budgets of Summer Blockbuster action thrillers. The biggest negative for me in terms of dialogue was that of the speed bumps that become a frequent occurance as the film goes on. There are these scenes of stretched material that are either used to pull the run time closer to a big screen telling, or because the film is self-conscious about the abnormal pacing that continues to rush us along. The big showdown in this movie begins with about a half hour left in the movie, and it feels jarringly constricted because it packs so much into this third act and leaves the rest of the movie reaching for scraps that never satisfy. With no heart or sentimentality, Spark might as well be a Playstation One video game. At least then it would combine with a visual presentation that underwhelms at every turn.

I am a firm believer that you give the audience pulse-setting visuals first, above anything else in an animated feature, but the production team of this film lack any kind of energy or synchronicity to address the 1000 pound elephant in the room. I mentioned earlier the similarities of a video game, and that’s because the movements and rendering of physical features leave more than enough to be desired. For a movie that is set in outer space, that great lack of visual pizazz and ambition in backdrops can be blamed on a color scheme and shadow palate that contradicts the foreground characters with their landscapes. It constantly felt to me that the backgrounds were done by one company, and a completely other did the character designs that feel jaded and out of place. The two feel like they are moving at two totally opposite speeds, giving the characters a lagging of about a second before their actions catch up to their ideas.

The voice work however, isn’t all terrible. The positivity can be found in that of A.C Peterson, who is having the time of his life in this antagonist role of General Zhong. Peterson’s performance is a delightful throwback to the days of past flamboyant villains whose tones brought a comfortable combination of power and fear to their releases. I got what little enjoyment that I did out of the movie when Zhong was on-screen, and that alone is a testament to A.C’s work in this picture. After doing some digging, I was able to understand why the trio of big names volunteered themselves to a movie that isn’t an eighth to their standards; the director is related to David Cronnenberg. Yes, THE David Cronnenberg. So it’s obvious that they were doing a solid to the kin of a legend, but their presence in this film collectively doesn’t get it done. Biel, Sarandon, and Stewart aren’t bad, but they’re just so brief that they never get time to make the roles their own. Stewart comes the closest, voicing a weathered captain who has clearly seen better days. Unfortunately, these characters go through noticeable gaps in screen time appearances, and their absences cause a noticeable void that grows with each passing second. As our central character, Jace Norman is decent for a kid, but trails in charisma to hold a production in his growing hands. Spark feels like a hero on accident. The same can be said for Norman’s casting at top bill.

A Space Tail would be a fine enough title, because Woodley’s picture lacks any kind of spark or positive energy to get this film past the threshold of forgettable floundering kids cinema. Plenty happens in the movie, but little of which you are bound to remember five minutes after the credits roll. Generic, charmless, predictable, and narratively unoriginal. The worst kind of kids movies are the ones that make you owe apologies to a better animated film that you at one time deemed “garbage”. To that I say, I’m sorry Ratchet and Clank. You deserved better.

2/10

Gifted

The responsibility of a vastly intelligent little girl falls on the shoulders of an uncle who knows that she is ‘Gifted’. In a small town in central Florida, seven-year-old Mary (Mckenna Grace) shows remarkable mathematical talent on her first day of school. She is offered a scholarship to a private school for gifted children but her uncle turns it down. It emerges that Mary’s mother had been a promising mathematician, dedicated to the Navier–Stokes problem , before committing suicide when Mary was six months old. Since then her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) has acted as Mary’s de facto guardian. Believing that his sister would want Mary to experience a “normal” childhood, Frank is adamant that Mary be enrolled in regular public school. However, she somehow has already mastered advanced calculus before first grade. Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan) seeks custody in the Florida courts, believing that Mary is a “one-in-a-billion” mathematical prodigy who should be specially tutored in preparation for a life devoted to mathematics. Gifted is directed by Marc Webb, and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive material.

In 2009, director Marc Webb materialized perhaps the most honest and heralding look at love in 500 Days of Summer. After falling off with the two Amazing Spider-Man movies that divided audiences right down the middle and blurred Webb’s hearty attention to detail, he seems to have returned to form with Gifted, a movie that is every bit as heartfelt as it is a study of what we deem as different in the prestigious sense. If Marc is gifted and excels at just one thing, it’s in his ability to take audiences on a bumpy road, full of feel good moments and tear-jerking sobs that will give something for everybody in the audience. Surprisingly, I had a great time with this movie, and I say surprisingly because it wasn’t one that I was necessarily looking forward to after a trailer that felt very meandering and manipulative to what we as a society deem as cutesy funny. Add on top that I saw the trailer half a billion times during every movie that I saw over the last six months, and I worried that Webb’s one hit wonder would further feel like miles away. Thankfully I was wrong. Gifted orchestrates its magic through the eyes of one exceptionally special girl, one whose gifts include but are not limited to carrying the integrity of this movie.

This is one of those rare movies where the youth takes center stage and you’re either on-board or you’re not. As Mary, we come to embrace a protagonist who dominates the equations of advanced mathematics, but her gift is only limited to this one aspect. What I appreciate from this screenplay is that the film feels responsible in leaps-and-bounds by depicting that certain kids excel at different aspects, and while much can be said about the prestige in solving problems before her teacher can, Mary struggles with the concepts and conflicts of friendships and fighting back against the alienation that comes with possessing such a gift. It’s proof that this kind of road has difficult decisions ahead, in that Mary must choose between having a real childhood or having the legacy that comes with being one of the truly great minds. There’s plenty of contrast to the positives and negatives of each possibility, and I really dug that position because it casts the audience to almost make the decision for this little girl, offering a conundrum of ‘What Would You Do?’.

For the first act of the movie, I was pleasantly surprised with how much hearty laughter that I exerted on the very timing and emotional responses of our little girl wonder. I haven’t laughed this much during a movie in quite a while, and I award a lot of that response to real life situational humor that doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, the screenplay does mature as the film moves forward, trucking through a second act that does take a quick step into the dramatic territory. The movie is happy to oblige, taking us through a battle between family for the well-being of this cherished mind. The shift never felt glaringly obvious nor disjointed with the first act of the film, but could’ve used more time accentuate its importance in subplot. More on that later. After 96 minutes, the finale did leave me feeling good, hinting that the truest of gifts don’t come from that of what makes us different, but the heart that makes us one in the same. Webb instills in our visions that maybe one can have it all, a concept that Mary is happy to indulge in.

The pacing definitely could’ve used some slowing down through the court scenes in particular to play to the dramatic effect of the movie. Until the final half hour, there is so very effective conflict or obstruction in the light-hearted of this story. Sometimes the court scenes feel slightly out of place when a scene will take place outside of the courtroom that will all but seal up the very reason for the conflict, then in the next scene were back at it like the scene before never even happened. Also in relation to the speeding is a romantic subplot between Chris Evans and Jenny Slate that not only feels forced because they are two good looking people who we have to hook up, but also never gets the screen time to push the value of its importance with all of the events that are speeding by. Slate could be the solidarity that Evans needs to settle down, but sadly their romance is one in a few aspects to the movie that just never lands its feet on the ground.

As I mentioned before, Mckenna Grace wins the award of the night for show-stealing performance. She gives Mary a maturity in speech patters well above her age, but does it in a way that isn’t cutesy for the camera. Some of her responses early on in the movie I would legitimately rank with some of the better comedic performances for timing, personality, and facial reactions that never hide for a minute what this marvelous mind is thinking. The chemistry between her and Evans is evident in that the film casts them as uncle and niece, instead of the usual Father/Daughter that we’ve been saddled with often. What this does is blaze a layer of friendship to play to their family bond, doing wonders for emotional clarity when the two characters find themselves on opposite sides of the road in conflict. Evans as a D.I.L.F (look it up), is the aspect that is for the ladies in the audience. Chris tightropes a thin line of adult responsibilities while still trying to embrace the rebellious youth that was practically stolen from him overnight. It’s nice to see him in more dramas recently, as I think he’s much more than just another Marvel superhero. Octavia Spencer also shines during the few scenes that she spoils us with. You get a Motherly instinct of sorts from her character in what Mary means to her, and Spencer’s moral stigma is greatly appreciated to often times set in motion the focus of what’s really at stake for Chris’s character.

There’s enough uplift and compassion to keep Marc Webb’s newest gift an unwrapped treat for all of us through some murky waters of hollow exposition. This is a film that feels like it’s in a race to reach the finish line, but the hamster wheel keeps moving along with a trio of solid performances, particularly in the coming out party of 10-year-old Mckenna, as well as the responsible observation telling us to find the gift in all of us. This film does live up to its title, and its film is one that is a safe bet for the entire family.

7/10

Leap

The ambitious dreams of an 11 year-old-girl take her on a cross country adventure one choreographed step at a time. In Leap, Félicie (Elle Fanning) has one dream; to go to Paris and become a dancer. Her best friend Victor (Nat Wolff) an imaginative, but exhausting boy with a passion for creating has a dream of his own, to become a famous inventor. In a leap of faith, Victor and Félicie leave their orphanage in pursuit of their passions. But there’s a catch, Félicie must pretend to be the child of a wealthy family in order to gain admittance to the prestigious and competitive Opera Ballet School in Paris. And with no professional dance training, she quickly learns that talent alone is not enough to overcome the ruthless, conniving attitudes of her fellow classmates, led by the devious Camille Le Haut (Maddie Ziegler). Determined to succeed, Félicie finds her mentor in the tough and mysterious school custodian, Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen) who, along with Victor’s encouraging friendship, help her reach for the stars. Leap is directed by Eric Summer and Eric Warrin, and is rated PG for impolite humor, and action sequences.

The Weinstein Company in conjunction with Quad Productions are the latest to throw their animation caps into the ring against the bigger conglomerates, and for a majority of Leap, there’s plenty of imagination in the winds of luxurious backdrops and whimsical dance sequences to more than hold its own. I am not someone who knows a lot about ballerina dancing or the expressive arts to begin with, but Leap is one of those treats of animated features that transcends that of every opinion that you may or may not have gathered from the arts that you would otherwise have no interest in. This is a movie that has currently gotten moved back five whole months, and that’s a shame because this is an underdog story that could do wonders during a spring movie season that doesn’t have a lot of uplifting messages. Have we seen and heard this story before? Absolutely, but the tweeks and adjustments to that popular fable, as well as an artistic direction that paints an ambitious backdrop of Paris, France to accompany such a light-hearted film, is one that tugs at the motivation of the heart within all of us to be better.

At 84 minutes, this is as brief of a structure as you can imagine, so a lot of the first act exposition does breeze by slightly too quickly for my taste. I would’ve preferred some slowing down to capture more of Felicie’s undesirable home life in the orphanage and just how important that it is for her to break free from her mental shackles. There’s nothing terrible offending about quick pacing, but thankfully the second act reminds us of why were here; the dreamer’s story. This is where all of Felicie and Victor’s dreams come true, and what better place than the city for lovers? I loved the hinted romantic chemistry between their characters that even morphed into a triangle when another desirable character introduces himself to Felicie. In addition to this, the second act also lays the groundwork for just how out of sync our central protagonist is with other dancers her age. This film paints such a responsible canvas of illustrating just how difficult the dance of ballerina really is, and through a couple of musical montages, we see our girl grow not only into an incredible dancer, but also an admirable woman in this coming-of-age story.

There are two antagonists that are introduced into this story early enough. One of which I thought worked, in that of Camille, Felicie’s biggest competition to taking the starring role, and Camille’s Mother Regine, whom I felt dragged the story down to familiar cliche territory. This is one of those children’s stories that simply doesn’t need an antagonist. The sweaty and endearing climb up the mountain of sorts for Felicie’s dream is really the central antagonist, so anything else just feels strongly out of place or desperate to adhere to studios who deem it necessary to always feature a bad guy or girl. This becomes even more evident during the final ten minutes, when a sequence involving high risk comes into play, and suddenly I felt like I was watching a completely different movie, in which violent intent became necessary. With Regine’s character, there is a sly nod to the overbearing dance moms of the world who are a tad bit hands-on sometimes, but this is taking that angle and pushing it to unnecessary lengths.

The animation here is mostly gorgeous, making the most of a miniscule 30 million dollar budget that is only a fraction of what the big name studios are offered. Paris is the perfect place to set a story of dreams, mostly because its beautiful landscapes relay a sense of the kind of place where anything can happen and often does. The use of shadow work, as well as lighting effects on the animation amazed someone like me who sees fifty of these animated movies a year, and still felt like something fresh all together. It’s easily noticed most of all during the nighttime scenes, in which our characters pass through a street lamp. The personal attributes do leave slightly more to be desired, mostly in the movements of Felicie in particular during her dance numbers. Her movements feel slightly jerky and about a second delayed when compared to her walking or running. It is the sole aspect of the illustrations that could’ve used a second look, and sometimes make Felicie’s body feel out of place or uncomfortable with what she’s drawn to do.

I really dug this collective cast, most of which get lost behind their animated bodies effortlessly. It’s great to see so much responsibility hanging in the balance for a fresh, young cast full of popular faces that are currently burning up the market. Elle Fanning is someone who has embraced versatility in performances with roles in 20th Century Women and The Neon Demon, but as Felicie we finally get to hear the teenage girl inside of her come out to embrace this endearing dreamer. Felicie is definitely a female lead that holds her own against Disney princess oppositions, and does so even more because everything that she attains with dancing are realistic things that don’t need fairy tale magic to be told. The chemistry between Fanning and Wolff presents itself frequently throughout the film, as I greatly enjoyed their playful innocence with one another. Wolff’s Victor is the comic relief for the film, and the young adult does more than his fair share of humorous antics that make it easy to embrace him as one of the more memorable characters in the film.

Leap twists and turns its way into a choreographed dance that has twice as many dives as it does dips. This is one dreamer’s story that doesn’t deem it necessary to become a princess or a superhero to get the attention of kids. With complimentary animation, as well as stirring vocal performances from Fanning and Wolff, Leap has enough bravado to compete with some of the bigger animation companies that otherwise have a tight grip on the genre. Familiar territory? YES, but the unwavering enthusiasm from this whimsical treat is enough to stand on its toes.

6/10

Smurfs: The Lost Village

The blue forrest dwellers are back, this time in search of a mystic village that beholds an ancient secret. Smurfs: The Lost Village revolves around a mysterious map that sets Smurfette (Demi Lovato) and her best friends Brainy (Danny Pudi), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Mangianello) on an exciting and thrilling race through the Forbidden Forest filled with magical creatures to find a mysterious lost village inhabited by the evil wizard Gargamel (Rainn Wilson). Embarking on a rollercoaster journey full of action and danger, the Smurfs are on a course that leads to the discovery of the biggest secret in Smurf history. Smurfs: The Lost Village is directed by Kelly Asbury, and is rated PG for some mild action and rude humor.

The Lost Village feels like a re-introduction of sorts to the blue elf-like creatures that embraced the imagination in all of our childhoods. It’s not a remake, nor a sequel to the two live action children’s movies that came before it, but it treats the audience with some intelligence considering this is anything but an origin story. On the subject of those two films that came before it, The Lost Village is a MUCH better improvement, shuffling out the cringe-worthy of live action celebrities doing career-ending things, for the colorful animation of this eye-popping world. There are definitely problems not only to the canvas, but to that of the screenplay itself, which leaves as little as a lasting impact that can be imagined, but at 85 minutes, it’s harmless enough to leave you without many lasting memories of that one time you had to see a third Smurfs movie that left you cursing when coming out of the theater. This is a kids movie first, and Asbury knows such, immersing the youthful audience to wacky noises and visuals sight gags that will treat them to a good time even when Mom and Dad are checking their smartphones to reply to their latest text message.

What is refreshing about this story is that it takes a modern approach of sorts in slapping Smurfette with the honors of being the central protagonist, a concept that up until now felt like a distant fantasy to anybody who knows of the male dominated backdrop that makes up these tales. There’s something commanding about this feminist approach in depiction that speaks volumes to the revolution happening within our own world. Unfortunately, the women in the audience deserved a more eventful, albeit unpredictable concept deep within this picture. When children’s movies these days are catering to a more extensive audience, The Lost Village stays juvenile with desperate physical humor, as well as tired puns that constantly keep missing their mark with each passing second. This is a Smurfs movie, so nobody is expecting shakespeare in terms of dialogue, but some of the exchanges in this film felt very distracting to the event-by-event narration that was happening before our very eyes. These are conversations that can easily be edited or trimmed with a screenwriter who believes less is more, and there were so many of these long-winded scenarios that took me out on more than one occasion. Beyond this, everything is predictable. There wasn’t one remote shock or awe within the film that ever kept me remotely guessing. The secret within this lost village is one that kind of goes without saying, and its setup feels on more than one occasion like a cheap porno setting that at least brought a giggle or two out of me. Early on, you realize that this is the kind of movie where you can take a quick 30 minute power nap, wake up, and realize you could still follow along with precision at how very little impact or weightless gravity that this film really has. Predictability makes the most difficult straw in attention-grabbing, and on that scale The Lost Village more so than not lives up to its clever title.

The material in comedy did get me a couple of times early on in the opening act, but soon feels contempt to phone it in with more of the same along the journey. Smurf puns are the most God-awful thing to this critic, and this film certainly has no shortage of them, spouting off line-after-line of filling in the blank with the word ‘Smurf’. Because this is a kids movie first and foremost, the funny bone of this movie relies heavily on what you see and less on what you hear, signaling how little emphasis rests with clever dialogue they really have. The off-beat personalities within the group are enjoyable even if their actual character is repeatedly one-dimensional. I did enjoy Gargamel’s constant ribbing with his cat that showcased the sidekick clearly being smarter than the leader. It seems like this is the aspect of the movie that is one step smarter than the rest of the movie, poking fun at the age old cartoon that had more than one ridiculous aspect to this tier.

The animation was a little off-beat, despite some colorful palate choices that frequently stand out. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of beauty in this Smurf village, which is depicted in high definition animation for the first time in the 21st century. The vibrant tapestry sets a bar of rainbow-like imagination that has only recently been touched by last year’s Trolls. My problem is more in the definition of the animated renderings. To me, it feels like the production team sacrificed fluid movements and layering for blotches of paint that do their best but don’t fully succeed at hiding the problems that I mentioned. The scenes in the laboratory of Gargamel scream of a Dexter’s Laboratory meets Johnny Bravo style of animation from the late 20th century that we are simply too advanced for at this stage. There’s so much about the textures that scream of a Saturday morning cartoon, and this left me scrambling for big-screen definition in an otherwise small game that plagued the visual specter of the movie.

The celebrity cast do a fine job of radiating these personalities to life with some voice acting that triumphs in a who’s who of audible syncing. But the real amazement will come when you see this complete list of heralded actors and actresses who voiced the supporting cast. I will not spoil it. You will have to check it out for yourself. Lovato clearly has the biggest ambition with her character, and the soundtrack of a couple of her songs are more than enough to communicate that this is first and foremost her yard. Demi’s sweet soprano-esque levels brought Smurfette to a place of emotional clarity that we have rarely seen from her character. Jack McBrayer is possibly my favorite of the movie as Clumsy however, despite the stealing of two scenes by director himself Kelly Asbury as Nosey that constantly brought smiles to my face in brief delivery. McBrayer though, is most known for his flamboyant vocal tones that really emote that of a cartoon character. Look no further because he is a delightful injection of off-the-wall humor, as well as spunk in personality that cements him among the all-time greats of actors who have lent their voices to these infamous blue rascals.

Smurfs: The Lost Village isn’t quite to the level of animated films that adults and their children can embrace alike, nor is it consistently entertaining to the value of constant re-watches. But Asbury delivers at illustrating a world of wonderment, as well as a brief, predictable story that should keep the attention of kids for an hour-and-a-half while Mommy and Daddy get some housework done. This franchise still has a long way to go to reach the levels that it deserves, but it left me feeling slightly better than the two live action disasters before it that (Like the characters) left me blue.

4/10

The Boss Baby

There’s a new boss in town, and his imposing stature leaves slightly more to be desired, as ‘The Boss Baby’. A man named Tim Templeton (Tobey Maguire) narrates and describes his imaginative and adventurous seven-year-old self (Miles Christopher Bakshi) as being envious of his fast-talking, briefcase-carrying baby brother named the “Boss Baby” (Alec Baldwin). When he goes on a mission to win back the affection of his parents (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow), he finds out about a secret plot by Puppy Co.’s CEO Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi) which revolves around his baby brother and threatens to destabilize the balance of love in the world. Both brothers must unite to save their parents and restore order to the world and prove that love is indeed an infinite force. ‘The Boss Baby’ is directed by Tom McGrath, and is rated PG for some mild rude humor.

The Boss Baby is the very definition of the term ‘Throwaway kids movie’. It’s one whose investment of 92 minutes isn’t a burden or crippling to the intelligence of audience members who take it in, but rather just something that is easily forgettable a week after you leave the theater. There are very few chances taken, or personal originalities that make McGrath’s animated feature crawl on its own two knees. The animation texture and physical features on characters are distinctly borrowed from Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a movie that McGrath himself worked on. The big eyed designs, as well as lack of fluidity in animated hair movements more than support this claim, and the film (like its earlier counterpart) has a squeaky clean visual palate to it that constantly reminds me of post-2000 Nickelodeon cartoons. As for the overall structure, Toy Story is borrowed once again to perhaps further cement it once again as the most influential kids movie of all time. The concept of two opposites coming together to send one back to where he belongs, and embarking on a long-distance journey, more than draws comparisons to the better feature from Pixar, and with movies like The Secret Life of Pets, and pretty much any movie where the object comes to life, this is becoming a popular trend among children’s cinema in the 21st century.

Through a couple of facelifts, the movie does feel slightly in-cohesive with its act-to-act structure. The first act does come out of the gate swinging, with precision in pacing, as well as comic timing firing away on all cylinders. Most of this early exposition we saw in trailers, so there’s not a ton of surprises. What did set me back a bit with seeing all of these trailers scenes is what would be left for the remainder of the movie. More on that in a second. I think what preserves the first act as the strength of the film is how conventional but accurate the story plays these characters and their conflicts. The house setting is perfect because that is where the fight for struggle resigns, but unfortunately the second act feels like a completely opposite film from the slapstick feud that was previously built. The idea of ambition can be a negative if the story feels like it is being over-complicated, and The Boss Baby quickly turns into a road trip movie complete with the most obsolete of screenplay offerings, as well as ridiculous antagonist subplot that triggered the sound of slowly omitting gas from the energy of this film. The third act delivers on as-promised conflict resolution, but it does it with fifteen minutes left in the film, an obvious foretelling of where the remainder is headed once you see the setup. A brother Vs brother film would’ve been more than enough for me, but unfortunately The Boss Baby’s ever-changing atmosphere between acts leaves the syncing acts feeling unnerving and even jaded.

The humor to the film is certainly acceptable for all younger audiences. What disappointed me was that the film rarely tries to appeal to adults like wiser, funnier offerings from Dreamworks or Pixar, and instead soils itself with juvenile material that while effective, does leave slightly more to be desired. The best bits to me in the entire film involved a creative aspect to imagination that is rarely represented for the dreamer in all of us. Tim enjoys every day adventures in his own mind, with the reality events transpiring around him. For instance, if he’s taking a bath, he dreams of being a scuba diver who clashes with the angriest of sharks. If the childlike innocence of dreaming didn’t tickle my funny bone enough, the exceptional transpiration from fantasy to reality is one that adds an immensely important layer of fun to the project. Just as Tim’s awareness to reality is happening, you see a physical line of clarity that slowly overtakes the dream world and surrounds him with the real world. It’s one of the touches of adventure that I thought played very strongly into the film’s comic core when it wasn’t settling for poo and fart jokes.

As for the voice work from this notable cast of influential personalities, all reign supreme inhabiting these characters, but lack the element of disguise in losing their familiarity. Alec Baldwin is just that…Alec Baldwin. The purpose is for him to have that business class vocal levels to combine with a physical counterpart that alienates the former. So you can’t say he’s doing a bad job, he’s just being him and that’s good enough for this film. Tobey Maguire offers a soft, subtle narration throughout the film, and I think he was the right choice for someone who channels the blend of child and adult baritones. That is no insult. Kimmel and Kudrow play it too safely, and I never for a minute forgot who vocalized their respective characters. Amazingly enough, not one person cast in this film can grab that brass ring of vocal abilities, and that great lack breathes a message of quick payday for anyone wrapped in this production.

The Boss Baby never left me kicking or screaming, but its pointless antagonist subplot, as well as lack of originality to stand out even in the slightest against the competition, doom McGrath to an offering of bland proportions in a genre that is constantly raising the bar. The illustrations are promising enough, particularly in the blurring line of fantasy and reality, and Baldwin generates enough interest with his raspy, dry delivery. But it isn’t enough to hold the comic integrity of a script this flimsy for an hour-and-a-half, and often overshoots its delivery frequently. This baby tries too hard, earns too little, and is in desperate need of a changing.

5/10

Power Rangers

Five teenagers turned heroes learn of the impending doom upon their town of Angel Grove, forcing the group to become the ‘Power Rangers’. Five teens with attitude are inexplicably brought together by coincidence or destiny to become the newest generation in a line of warriors known as the Power Rangers. The world rests in their hands as Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a powerful witch and former Green Power Ranger, launches an assault seeking the Zeo Crystal with an army of stone golems called Putty Patrollers and a giant golden monster called Goldar. Based upon the popular American television series, ‘Power Rangers’ is directed by Dean Israelite, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, minor adult language, and for some crude humor.

There are times in my writing career when I take honor for being correct in my assumptions. Unfortunately for me, and fortunately for all of my doubters, ‘Power Rangers’ will not go down in history as being one of these times. When I first heard that they were producing a big budget silver-screen version of the popular 90’s kids show, I thought about how negatively some of these properties like ‘Jem and the Holograms’ or ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ have been treated along the way. Thankfully, Saban Productions knows the kind of property that they have on their hands, one that speaks to generations younger and older who adore this folklore. For my own personal grade, I view two important aspects to this movie; does it do damage to the original offerings? and does the film present enough of a fresh perspective to justify its re-imagining? Both of these answers play hand-in-hand with one another, but I can gladly say that this 2017 version should pleasantly please audiences of every timeline. Whether you were a 3-season fan like me, or you followed this evolving group of kids through every manifestation, there will be plenty of positives to instill that fun in you that you felt as a child, as well as have you anxiously awaiting the inevitable sequel that is hinted at in a mid-credits scene that is carefully orchestrated.

First of all is this fresh cast that a lot of this film rides on. The movie immediately introduces us to three valuable characters who are equally built among their respective angles and storylines. These are Jason, Kimberly, and Billy. Oddly enough, Billy was my least favorite character in the original ‘Power Rangers’, but here R.J Cyler combines nerdy intelligence with teenage awkwardness that places him in the spotlight of this adolescent who I just couldn’t get enough of. Likewise, Naomi Scott and Dacre Montgomery (Winner of the Zac Efron look-alike contest) too live up to their important characters as Kimberly and Jason respectively, and what I dig about both of them is that they feel like they come from two different worlds, and would otherwise never frequent one another, but this adventurous secret between them and everyone else, crafts a ‘Breakfast Club’ kind of arrangement that hits on that classic 80’s film setup on more than one coincidence. There are two other Power Rangers played by Becki G and Ludi Lin, as Trini and Zack, but sadly neither are given the valuable screen time or smooth transitions to their story that would otherwise build them equally with their other three protagonists. In fact, the film kind of forgets about the two of them until about midway through, when we are told vital information about one character’s sexual orientation, as well as the other one fearful to go home for their own personal dealings. These could’ve used more emphasis in a two hour run time, and regretfully character building is something that this film does feel jarring with all of its picking and choosing. Even still, I thought it was cool how they kept the names the same from all of the original rangers, and yet switching their heritage around with the color of their uniforms.

If there is one MAJOR flaw to the casting, it’s in Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa. I definitely admit that I got my prediction for the finished product of this movie wrong, but I was absolutely correct about this being an immense miscasting for the rangers biggest villain. Not that it’s completely Banks fault. She is given a very miniscule amount of on-screen time not only to build the backstory of her character, but also put her in any scene that doesn’t jumble the teenage drama kind of tone that the film surprisingly hit on wonderfully. Any time that Repulsa is on-screen, we return to the hokey kind of atmosphere that the original series dabbed in, and while this may satisfy some, I can humbly tell you that I never once believed that Banks fully immersed herself in this character. For the most part, it feels like she is playing dress-up and spouting off some cheesy lines that make it difficult to ever take serious. Banks is a decent actress, but this kind of action movie is anything but her forte, and the absence of a strong antagonist keeps this film as consistently predictable.

I mentioned the tone, and what works in its dramatic regards is that a lot of these teenagers in the movie are dealing with issues that mirror that of what our current youth entail. Sexual orientation, high school identity, and loneliness are just a few of the depictions that ‘Power Rangers’ hits on, and the portrayals consistently feel honest and not at all like a gimmick used for plot convenience. To watch this group of kids merge into a family is one that does a lot for the moral integrity of the film, and adds a dramatic layer of depth to your investment in those characters and their well-being. What’s smart about this is that this is an origin story, so the film feels it vitally important to build the men and women inside of the suit before it shows us the goods, a point that pays off soundly. At the end of the day, this is still a group of teenage superheroes who form a gigantic dinosaur, so there is some humor to boot, but the sprouts of it inserted throughout are used wisely and accordingly so as not to jumble the increasing tension within these inexperienced rangers and the impending doom that awaits them.

The action is given a nice big budget presentation in CGI destruction value. It’s kind of funny to watch this once little engine that could be transformed (Poor choice of words?) into a Michael Bay kind of depiction in crumbling buildings practically falling from the sky. The fight choreography pays homage faithfully to the kung-fu kind of brawling that engaged in the original series, even so much as turning the amps to eleven, with fast-paced movements that always feel tightly in-sync with one another. The camera work could definitely be stronger however, as there’s either often too much going on within each frame, or the direction of each shot is negatively compromised because of experimental camera work that reaches a little too much in aspirational pull. Some of what I mean for instance is when a character or machine will get knocked upside down, and the camera has to follow the flip all the way in the same vain that said object does. I certainly do not need this kind of accuracy to understand the pain associated with being knocked on your head, but if feeling the brutality was the intended purpose, then I most certainly did with some of the most visually sickening camera work of 2017.

The only other two things that bothered me was that of some viciously disgusting product placement, as well as an ending that could’ve lasted slightly longer in resolving Repulsa’s immense army. On the latter, this movie does touch on the familiar cliche that if you defeat the biggest one, the rest will fall. If you’ve seen ‘The Avengers’ you know what I’m talking about. On the former, there is a local donut business that gets the most repetitive two hour commercial that money could’ve bought them. Once or twice is OK, but to keep showing, and even having a character feast on a donut during the big climax, angered me to the days of Adam Sandler and all of his cheap usage to put some more change into his pocket. It feels as desperate here as ever before, and the intended purpose for this building could’ve been any other abandoned building or otherwise to get its point across.

‘Power Rangers’ was a brace for the worst kind of modern-day adaptation, but the marriage between 90’s cheesy kids shows and big budget productions is a gift-wrapped delight to fans who have been waiting for this kind of rangers movie for over two decades. With a better casting for the antagonist, as well as some modest step-taking when it comes to shooting action sequences, and Israelite could etch his name as a premiere filmmaker. Even still, the pacing never slows down for two solid hours of nostalgic insanity that will remind you of a simpler place and time.

6/10

Beauty and the Beast

One of Disney’s most infamously cherished classics gets the live action adaptation treatment, in ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Twenty-six years after Belle and Beast warmed our hearts with a romantic tale of song and dance, this re-imagining introduces us to Belle (Emma Watson), a young woman who is taken prisoner by a Beast (Dan Stevens) in his castle in exchange for the freedom of her father Maurice (Kevin Kline). Despite her fears, she befriends the castle’s enchanted staff and she learns to look beyond the Beast’s exterior to recognize the true heart and soul of the human Prince within. Meanwhile, a hunter named Gaston (Luke Evans) is on the loose to take Belle for himself and later intends to hunt down the Beast at any cost. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is directed by Bill Condon, and is rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images.

The unfortunate aspect with watching any movie is that you can only watch it once to be surprised or in awe at the very majestic aura of one’s material. That is the problem that I find with the 2017 version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It’s not a terrible or even bad film. I found it to be aesthetically pleasing, as well as musically sound for the new variations on timeless classics. When I first heard that they were remaking possibly the most notorious Disney animation movie of all time, my heart did kind of skip a beat. This is ‘Beauty and the Beast’ after all, a movie that was nominated for best picture at that year’s Oscars. The first thing that I look for is how the film stands on its own two feet without relying too heavily on the details of the original offering, a problem that 2015’s ‘Cinderella’ went to the well on one time too many. This movie too is unfortunately cursed to accept the same fate, as there’s very little originality to this script that does at least offer a faithful homage to its predecessor. Sure, there’s an informative scene that relates to Belle’s absent Mother from the original story, but it’s a quick glance into a story that should’ve had more weight on the finished product. These differences are too few and far between, and that lack of fresh perspective unfortunately doesn’t vary much from the 90% of this film that mimics scene-for-scene of the original. The remake feels like it has a lot of respect for that 1991 original. Almost TOO much respect, and because of that, this is one remake that will offer a fruitful trip down nostalgia lane, but won’t provide a lot of sound logic for the concept of breaking the remake spell.

The remake is forty minutes longer than the original animation film. For that very investment in run time, we’re not left with a lot that can pace it along accordingly for the two hour mark. There are some new musical numbers and some longer additions to certain classic scenes that we know and love, but it’s easy to remove this and have it hold no weight against the cherished screenplay. What I did commend the film’s script for is the emphasis on catering not only to its youthful audience, but also to that of the adults who have grown up around these pictures. There’s been a lot of controversy about a certain character’s sexual orientation in the film, but never did I feel the story was threatened or overtaken by pointless exposition in him. Where it does acceptably tiptoe that wink-and-nod response to the mature audiences is in the nature that it spoofs itself on more than one occasion. One such mention is during the snowball fight between Belle and the beast in the courtyard, and beast nails Belle with the biggest snowball that you’ve ever seen, knocking her off of her feet. It’s one of those harmless moments that shows the screenwriters accordingly knew where to command the strings of variation in emotional response from the audience, reminding them of the light-hearted nature of this story in between this story of romantic tragedy.

As I mentioned earlier, the aesthetics and artistic merit for the movie are leagues ahead of everything else. The biggest argument for this release is seeing the vibrantly radiant colors splash against the luxurious backdrops in shooting locations, and on that aspect alone this film would be a 10/10. One thing that movie does better than its predecessor in this subject is immersing the audience in the very immensity of the castle, and that cold, isolated feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world around our two protagonists. It’s only in this live action aspect that you can truly soak in the symbolism of how cold and damp that this home is in relation to the beast’s dwindling chances at breaking the spell. The live object CGI achieves and disappoints on many fronts. I did enjoy the designs on the clock and candelabra for their attention to detail in how the facial features of these respective characters felt authentic with the structure of their clock and candlestick design. One such example of not doing this well is with the designs of Chip the tea cup, whom feels like his design was skimmed over quickly, painting a face onto his tea cup. It’s examples like these where the CGI concepts feel like they were trying for something daring, like in ‘The Jungle Book’, but it isn’t sewed up entirely to make it a complete passing grade. Finally, the musical visuals capture the childhood imagination on more than one occasion. It should be no surprise that ‘Be Our Guest’ was my favorite performance, but not so much for the intricately clever lyrics that the song entails, more on the side of entrancing presentation that explodes in your face like an eruption of confetti. I didn’t see this movie in 3D, but I can recommend checking it out in that offering if only for the over abundance of in-your-face objects that fly in your face, nearly captivating you enough to soak in the tastes and smells of this fairytale world.

The costume designs also nail a possible Oscar worthy nomination on grounds of perfectly capturing the transition from animation to live action. Belle’s elegant golden gown shimmers a dazzling glow, and the tuxedo gown for the beast transports us to a bohemian era that really focuses on this French setting. Far beyond the script that plays it safe, it’s clear that the wardrobe department too wanted fans of the film to know that they were determined in bringing such rich fashions to life, emulating upper class fantasy for audiences who invest in these scenes much further than a delightful soundtrack and romantic material.

The overall cast excites and stimulates this fresh chance to try to make their characters their own, with very few negatives along the way. Lets get it out of the way; Josh Gad’s Le Fou steals the show from this decorated cast, because he chooses to add on to the legacy of a character that was nothing more than throwaway in the original. Gad knows who this character is, therefore he chooses not to quiet or hide that fact. He plays Le Fou with memorable flamboyance and debonair that reaches into your gut to pull out laughter each and every time. As for the rest of the cast, none of them ever rise to the occasion to unseat their original casting shadows. Emma Watson proves that she was the only choice for one of Disney’s most cherished princesses. She can sing, act, and most importantly radiate a warm and caring smile that makes it easy to fall under her spell, leaving little doubt that the casting agent hit a home run with this big name steal. As for negatives, I didn’t like anything about the beast, let alone Dan Stevens turn as the heralded figure. The design in concept is terrible, considering the film pulls on more of the human side and less about the beast. He never once treads like a beast, instead walking like a human on hind legs that never cause him to stumble or stutter. There’s a great lack of emphasis on the impact that his movements make that the original capitalized on so much more accordingly, and Stevens range never convinced me once that he BECAME the Beast. Luke Evans as Gaston is the worst though. Evans just doesn’t radiate enough charisma and bravado to channel this macho pig. We are told how great Gaston is, but never given proof of this praise in the form of physical strength or cunning intellect, with the exception of a five second lift of Le Fou. He’s as typical as a jerk antagonist can be, and pales in comparison to an animated counterpart that out-acted and out-charmed him on every capacity.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ is strong enough as a throwaway remake, but does little to convince fans to leave its predecessor in the dust. The lack of character from this lively cast, as well as a screenplay that plays it far too safely in conventional creativity, hinder what breakthrough possibilities that this movie had. Even still, the pagentry is mesmerizing, and the collection of classic musical favorites, as well as a few new additions, give Condon’s presentation a big screen feel. I’d place this one leagues above the ‘Cinderella’ remake, but just below ‘The Jungle Book’ in terms of fresh perspectives. Either way, The enchantment is still there for fans who seek whimsical nostalgia, and Disney is happy to oblige by opening their hearts….and wallets

7/10

Rock Dog

One musically infused canine uses his love of music to save the day, in Summit Premiere’s Rock Dog. For the Tibetan Mastiffs living on Snow Mountain, a dog’s life has a simple riff: Guard a peaceful village of wool-making sheep from the thuggish wolf Linnux (Lewis Black) and his rabid pack. To avoid distractions, Mastiff leader Khampa (J.K. Simmons) forbids all music from the mountain. But when Khampa’s son Bodi (Luke Wilson) discovers a radio dropped by a passing airplane, it takes just a few guitar licks for his fate to be sealed: Bodi wants to be a rock-n-roll star. Yet that means defying his father’s wishes, heading to the city, and locating the legendary and reclusive – musician Angus Scattergood (Eddie Izzard), who needs to write a new song and fast. If Bodi can put a band together, help Angus with his song, and defeat the wolves’ plot to take Snow Mountain, his life will be in tune. Bodi will become what he’s always dreamed of being: A Rock Dog. The movie is written and directed by Ash Brannon, and is rated PG for action and some adult language.

Blending the different worlds of Asian and American animation companies seemed like a great idea. Rock Dog is sadly another failed attempt by amateur animation studios to cash in on a children’s movie without a lot of energy or patience to go into the project. There are some positives that keep it from being an early favorite on 2017’s worst films of the year list, but a majority of its lackluster presentation feels like a passable thirty minute movie that falls short of producing fifty more valuable minutes to push it even futher. This is a movie and character that simply never find the appropriate footing in terms of entertainment value or synthetic pacing to grab and hook children to its original take on music and canine characters alike. It’s too bland to be effective, and too void of anything fresh or compelling to offer any positives with word of mouth from anybody desperate enough to see this Frankenstein mess of careless offerings. There’s nothing terribly offensive about Rock Dog, it’s just a movie that is easily forgettable twenty minutes after you leave the theater, and I’ve nailed down a few reasons for that.

First of all, there’s the animation and art direction for the movie that strums to some gorgeous backdrop detail before snapping a creative chord on character motion detection. When I watched the trailer for this film, I felt that it was the backgrounds that weren’t in-sync with the movements of the characters, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The gorgeous landscapes and effective shading palates to go for the changing locations throughout the movie, shine the brightest in a list of positives that are very moot. You’ll never get the kind of detail like a Pixar or Dreamworks film, but my hats off to Summit Premiere for some noteworthy eye-catching enhancements to make this foreign setting pop, giving children an first-class presentation on European cultures. With the character designs, they felt jarringly rendered to needing another two or three months of edits for finishing. The mouth movements line up accordingly to the vocal work of our A-list cast, but it’s in the lack of fluidity on their body motions that leave a little more to be desired. For the entirety of this movie, it’s obvious that Summit is trying to make the movements in scenes as minimal as necessary, mainly because it constantly feels like our characters are moving in slow motion. I compare it to that of a Playstation 1 Crash Bandicoot video game, in which you can nearly see the lines in design for what minimal effort went into their color schemes and movements. It’s a tough sell immediately when even the animation doesn’t live up to the rich textures that kids are used to seeing from much better movies in 2017.

The script is also full of problems that hinder it from moving forward at nearly every possibility. Considering this film revolves around this dog trying to succeed as a musician, it’s easy to see that the two other subplots that the film entails were kind of left out in the cold in terms of the attention that they received. One such subplot involving a shoe-horned Wolf villain (Voiced by Lewis Black), not only feels unnecessary to the film, but also one that slows down each and every time that we get a little closer to understanding what music means to our central protagonist. This subplot was forgotten about during the second act, and brought back for the third. The final subplot involving Bodi’s father (Voiced by J.K Simmons), shows him holding down the fort against the wolves. This subplot is forgotten about completely during the third act, and brought back for the closing minutes. You start to understand how little any of this matters when Bodi is faced with conflict on three separate occasions in the movie, only to defeat and conquer it in a matter of seconds. If an 80 minute run time didn’t feel rushed, a quick slice of unimpressive conflict should settle the debate. Another concerning aspect is the lack of comedy that the script possesses. It’s one thing to fail miserably at your comedic stick, but it’s completely a new low when that movie doesn’t even try. I didn’t laugh one time at Rock Dog, and that’s certainly not for lack of listening. The writers to this movie left out that ability to laugh, leaving it almost a certainty that kids will suffer great attention defecit in a movie that fails to keep them properly entertained.

The voice performances are decent, mostly because the work of Black and Izzard offer complimentary personalities to the silly character designs visually that they are given. Black was made for voice work. His angry delivery is simply too delightful to not take advantage of in an antagonist offering, and even though I felt his character was pointless, I can’t say I wasn’t relieved when he occasionally popped back up. Izzard gives his best Russell Brand impression, as an Aldous Snow of sorts as Angus. Eddie’s delivery feels like the only true rock stereotype in a movie named after it, and the mumblings of a musician searching for the next hit to keep him on top will remind you of icons like Ozzy Osbourne, even so much as having a robot servant named Ozzy. The only real disappointment that I had was that of Wilson vocalizing the title character. It’s not that Wilson underplays it, it’s that he underwhelms it with his vocal range. Luke is someone who would be better fitted as a supporting character rather than the central figure whose soul mission is to entertain. He simply does not, and Rock Dog falls behind as a supporting character of sorts in his own movie.

One thing that did surprise me was the tremendous soundtrack that this movie shelled out the bucks for. Is overspending on Top 40 hits perhaps the reason why everything else feels at half effort? You be the judge. Radiohead and Foo Fighters are among the bands musically narrating their way through Bodi’s journey to dreams, and their inclusion feels awkwardly satisfying for a kids movie that would usually produce some watered down B-side artists to conjure up an original lackluster song. The original soundtrack itself was also very pleasing, as Bodi’s two songs in the movie stayed in my head long after I left the theater. After having Illumination’s Sing last year, Rock Dog feels more my tempo with actual rock hits that always reach their targeted emotion during their appropriate dropping. This might be the only time I compliment Rock Dog over Sing, and that’s thankfully because the production of the movie didn’t skimp with artists who aren’t always the first call on an animation soundtrack.

Rock Dog strums along to its own original beat free of big name studios, but strikes a dull chord too many with generic animation and a flawed script that doesn’t scratch the surface of edgy or compelling entertainment. Perhaps the biggest flaw of this canine chord-striker are the risks that his story simply doesn’t take, leaving a dry offering that will have audiences of all ages battling narcolepsy.

4/10