Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 Retrospective (Just the Movies, I Promise)

So, every year I do one of these "least-to-most-favorite" movie lists, usually using "theatrical release" as a litmus test for inclusion, though I've been slowly relaxing that rule for a while now. But seeing as theaters aren't really a thing right now, I'm going to drop it entirely.

That said, I'm still being somewhat selective in what I include here. I'm trying to maintain some sort of line between "feature film" and "TV movie," even when it's not entirely logical or consistent. I can't rationally defend some of these inclusions when I leave off Phineas and Ferb: Candace Against the Universe, but it feels right. Like these are all "real movies" while that's an extended episode. That's not a statement of quality - Candace Against the Universe would absolutely have landed above some of these - but it feels different.

Likewise, I'm not including documentaries. This mainly just means I'm not ranking Spaceship Earth, which I loved. Again, this is a subjective call - I just don't feel like it makes sense.

Also, in case there's any confusion, this list is entirely based on preference, not quality. 

The designs in Jingle Jangle alone are almost enough to bump this up a spot or two, but not quite. I can forgive the weak story and the dull characters, but the abysmal pacing and massive structural problems are just too egregious. It's a situation where the component pieces are really impressive but the sum total is, well, kind of awful.

I really wanted this to be good, and it just wasn't. 

While this is dead last on this list, I do want to acknowledge that's as much because its production values were enough to give it a place. I saw at least four other holiday movies I'm not including that would have gone behind this, but it felt unfair to include them at all.

19. Over the Moon
The hardest thing about Over the Moon is it's incredibly impressive as a visual showcase. This really does look at times like a Pixar movie, and that's no small accomplishment. But the problem with looking like a Pixar movie is it's going to make me want to be watching a Pixar movie, and the script for Over the Moon just isn't up to the job.

About a third of this movie is actually pretty good, but the other two-thirds are just a mess. Honestly, I considered leaving this all the way at the bottom of the list until I remembered the raccoon and bumped it up a few spots.

17. Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made
It's weird looking back at movies released to Disney+ that were actually intended to be released that way. Timmy Failure is an example of a movie that's enjoyable to watch but doesn't really go anywhere. It's got some good characters and a great setting, but it could really have used a story.

16. Enola Holmes
This was fine. Like Timmy Failure, the production values were solid enough and the casting was inspired. But also like Timmy Failure, the plotting was unstructured, and it left me feeling unsatisfied.

15. Mulan
So, it's 8PM on New Year's Eve, this retrospective has been live for a few hours, and I just finished watching... this. I guess... maybe it goes here? Damned if I know.

I can forgive the stupidity, the awful dialogue, and the baffling premise... But most of this movie is just so boring. That said, there's some cool fight scenes, a bunch of ninja, and a couple warrior witches, so it's not a total loss. And for what it's worth, it's far from the worst of the Disney live-action remakes. Plus, I never actually liked the original, so it's not like I care a phoenix crapped on its legacy (was the phoenix actually there, or... never mind - forget I asked).

This was a bad movie, but unless you were dumb enough to pay Disney thirty bucks for the privilege of seeing it early, it's fine as a diversion they tossed on their streaming service.

14. The Willoughbys
I think this may have the rare distinction of being the only movie where I wish the baby had more screen time. I have to give The Willoughbys credit for putting in the effort. The movie throws a lot at you - a lot of B-plots, a lot of weird designs, strange details, story twists...

After a while it starts feeling like they're just tossing ideas at the screen in the hopes you'll like enough to keep watching. I'd say about a third worked for me, but then again I watched to the end, so... mission accomplished?

It was good enough, particularly for streaming, but I wish it had been better.

13. The Old Guard
The "not my boyfriend" monologue almost pushes this up a few spaces, but overall I found too much of this movie boring to sit through. While I like the idea of telling a story about a two-thousand year-old warrior's midlife crisis, the execution didn't work for me. Whenever they relaxed the drama, that changed, but the balance was off. This needed to be more fun and less self-important.

So... if the pandemic hadn't happened... they were going to release this to theaters? It's probably for the best this was streamed - I think the small screen experience probably helped, to be honest. I watched this with the lights out and without pausing, but - honestly - I think even that was a mistake. This might play better broken into chunks - say, a third at a time.

I respect the movie's decision to shift the tone closer to the 70's show and the Donner Superman series, and I really respect their decision to have Diana adopt a "no killing" rule. I'm less keen on the creative decision to make this a bad movie.

The structure and pace are a mess, the love story feels rehashed, Diana's arc feels forced... For me, though, I think the larger issue was the villains. They just weren't compelling, but the movie gave each of them a substantial story arc.

That said, there were some standout moments, like the invisible jet flying through fireworks or Minerva beating that guy to death. But as a whole, this movie was a disappointment.

11. Palm Springs
While I enjoyed Palm Springs, the ending left me a little underwhelmed. After subverting the genre for the first two-thirds, the movie changed gears and fell into typical romantic comedy tropes and patterns.

That said, I love how wholeheartedly it embraced its SF elements, exploring a more complex version of time travel than we typically seen on film. Ultimately, this was a good movie, but I wanted more.

10. Onward
This was a solid animated offering, but something felt a little off. Actually, make that "some things" - this movie had quite a few elements that didn't connect with me, starting with the baffling decision to cast two instantly recognizable Marvel stars in the lead roles. And don't get me started on recycling Star Lord's last moments with his mom. I'm still shocked that made it into the movie.

But it was still mostly fun and occasionally touching. Not to mention Guinevere's last ride: that moment was amazing.

This was ultimately a flawed film that was well served by events forcing the studio to move it directly from theaters to streaming, where it belongs.

This would be higher if it had stuck the landing. Even with underwhelming finale, the movie was still a fun, engaging adventure. Given that it was (I'm assuming) made on a shoestring budget, that's pretty impressive.

8. We Bare Bears: The Movie
This is a made-for-streaming movie wrapping up the fantastic animated series, We Bare Bears. I expected something good, but I'm not sure I was ready for something this brave. The movie explores xenophobia, racism, family separation, and the use of excessive force - pretty heavy subject matter for a kid's movie.

It's still funny, sweet, and ultimately optimistic, but the path to the happy ending goes through some dark territory. I'm not sure the impact would hit as hard if you haven't seen the series first, so that's one of the two reasons I'm suggesting you hold off on the movie until you've watched through the rest.

The other reason is that the show, like the movie, is damn good. Check them both out.

7. Soul
I'm having a hard time ranking this, because... well... it's damn near perfect. And I suspect it's not higher because I'm so used to Pixar churning out damn near perfect films (Onward notwithstanding) that this didn't hit harder.

But I think it's more than that. Soul is almost perfect for its premise, but that premise doesn't leave quite as much room for emotional highs and lows as we're used to from the company. I realize that sounds odd, considering it's fairly somber subject matter, but the story and themes are constructed in such a way the movie feels light and breezy. It's a feature, not a bug, that a movie about life, death, and purpose seems to have some of the lowest stakes we've encountered from the company, but it does mean the movie lacked the typical highs and lows. Again, not a problem, but it's the highs and lows that hit hardest and make a movie truly memorable.

The artistry in Soul is incredible, and the movie is an accomplishment... but it doesn't quite make it to the top of this list.

6. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
This is probably benefiting from low expectations, but that's how it works sometimes. From the limited marketing, I was expecting a one-joke vehicle for Will Ferrell to make fun of the Eurovision Song Contest. Instead, I got a loving tribute celebrating the joy of singing and camp. The movie was a pleasure to watch.

5. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
I won't pretend I wasn't bothered by the movie reinventing characters who maybe shouldn't be reinvented (I really want a comic accurate Cass Cain, in particular, and this moves us further away from getting that). Likewise, I'm not going to sit here and claim the last half didn't lose some energy.

But... wow. Just wow. The action, the style, the humor, the visuals... this was a hell of a movie, and I'm having a hard time thinking of anything to compare it to. This was an entertaining, engaging, and most of all unique film. I have a handful of quibbles, but I was glued to the screen. I loved it.

Favorite Films of the Year

I'm not going to cheat with a four-way tie, but know I seriously considered it. Everything left is a movie I seriously considered for the top spot.

4. Hamilton
I haven't written anything about Hamilton until now, not even a short blurb in any of my "catch-up" posts. You can probably guess why - the play has been around for a while, and the version released this year is literally just the play with a couple swears cut out. Everything everyone's said about the play is true of the recorded version, with the caveat that seeing these live always has more of an impact.

In other words, the only thing I have to say about Hamilton is that everyone's right - this thing is awesome.

By rights, I shouldn't be including this on a list of movies. It's at a massive disadvantage, since it's being plucked out of its medium. It has to make do with the limitations of a real set, an audience, live performances, and so on and so forth). It shouldn't be expected to compete "as a movie" with actual movies.

But here we are. Because despite those setbacks, and despite absurdly high expectations, it was that [expletive removed by Disney's censors] good.

3. Blow the Man Down
Okay, I... I think this counts as 2020? When I stuck it in one of my "Catch Up" posts, I listed it as 2019, because that's when it technically came out. But that was just a festival premiere: the movie wasn't available to a wide audience until last March, when it started streaming on Amazon. If this had gone from festival to theatrical, I'd use the theatrical release date, so I think it counts.

And damned if it doesn't matter, because this was one of my favorite movies I saw last year. Honestly, depending on when you ask me, it might even slide up another spot.

Some of that might be because I grew up in Maine. This doesn't get the accents right (no one ever does), but it captures something more important. I captures the sense of existing in a place built for an age that's past, the feeling of living in a ghost town that never realized it was dead.

The movie builds a sense of the supernatural without ever so much as touching that barrier. I have no idea how this will play to people who didn't grow up in the Northeast (though I suspect it'll still be a really enjoyable film), but for me... it was magic. Dark magic, to be sure, but still magic nonetheless.

Speaking of magic, Cartoon Saloon created a beautiful, haunting, incredible film inspired by Irish lore. Again, I mean. They've done that twice already, and this is a third.

Stylistically, the movie is gorgeous. Auditorily, it is gorgeous. Olfactorily, it is... okay, I can't actually smell the movie, but it does manage to depict smell visually really well, so I'm assuming that's gorgeous, too.

Officially, this wraps up Tomm Moore's trilogy, but I really hope he just says screw it and makes like a dozen more of these.

Back in the golden age of cinema, some of Hollywood's best movies were romantic comedies. That didn't last - really, by the 60's or 70's, they'd faded, and the 80's and 90's mostly offered pale imitations. The romcoms I grew up watching were mostly campy, poorly, conceived dreck. There were a handful of exceptions, the most notable being When Harry Met Sally, but overall, the genre seemed to be dying. Then it seemed to be dead.

I'm not surprised it's making a comeback. The rise of streaming platforms has opened the door for mid-budget productions that no longer made sense on the big screen. I've been expecting them to start showing up again. I'm not even surprised to see some good or great ones.

But if you told me a year ago a Christmas romantic comedy would come out that was on par with the ones from Hollywood's golden age, I'd have told you that you were crazy. But here we are.

Look, I say it every year - this isn't a 'best of' list. This is based entirely on personal preferences, and I'm a guy who likes giant monsters, superheroes, wizards, spaceships, and all that. Do you have any idea how good a romantic comedy has to be to show up here? To not just impress me but outright win me over?

Yeah. This good.

I understand this movie is controversial in some circles. A lot of fans (or would-be fans) wanted something less complicated, less nuanced. They wanted a simple story about simple characters with simple problems - basically a generic romantic comedy where the leads are both women.

And those fans absolutely deserve that movie. They deserve ten of that movie and ten where both leads are men. This genre has been dominated by heteronormative depictions of love for far too long (see also every other genre, but it's even more egregious when the genre in question is defined by romance).

But that's not an issue with Happiest Season - it's an issue with Hollywood. Taken on its own terms, this movie is incredible, and I sincerely hope it gets the accolades it deserves, preferably sooner rather than later.

Movie Review: Wolfwalkers

Cartoon Saloon has kind of been flying under the radar, but if you ignore a handful of TV shows and low budget co-productions and just focus on their four feature films, Saloon's batting average looks a lot like what we saw from Studio Ghibli, Laika, or early Pixar. Their first three films - Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner - were masterpieces.

Scratch that. Their first four films are masterpieces: Wolfwalkers keeps the run going.

Visually, the movie is incredible. Some stylistic elements from Kells and Sea reappear, but this almost has the feel of an old picture book come to life. Sketch lines highlight the forms of living beings, color disappears at the edge of the screen, and distant locations are depicted as if existing in a world without perspective. The movie's story is as much set in its media as its historical location.

Think Disney's Winnie the Pooh, but less far silly. Or, if you'd prefer, apply some of the lessons of Spider-Verse to a storybook. I'm not sure if these were points of inspiration, nor does it matter. However they got to this style, it's enchanting.

And speaking of enchanting, if Disney would kindly instruct their animators to study Cartoon Saloon's depictions of magic, that'd be swell. I'm not naming names, but I can think of several recent Disney flicks which sided with spectacle over substance in ways that neither told a story nor enhanced the tone. Cartoon Saloon adds depth and wonder with magic: everyone else should be taking notes.

The movie's story goes in directions American animation companies wouldn't dare. Like The Secret of Kells, Wolfwalkers's themes include the relationship between paganism and Christianity in Irish history and myth. Unlike Kells, Wolfwalkers is more than happy to lay blame. On a side note, have religious groups started boycotting this yet?

I joked after watching that it was based on the ancient Irish myth, "Princess Mononoke," but while there are definitely some similarities, they're ultimately superficial. Wolfwalkers starts with a vaguely similar premise and crosses over a few similar plot points, but the path it takes is its own. The movie is more concerned with character and theme than plot, anyway.

Like its predecessors, Wolfwalkers leans heavily on music to build tone. Both Kells and Song of the Sea included evocative lullabies which add a great deal of texture to their respective films. The centerpiece in Wolfwalkers is quite different: they went with a sort of pop-folk song reminiscent of America's music from The Last Unicorn. It's a good song, though I'd be lying if I said it hit me as hard as the songs from the other two films (but then again I'd list at least one of those on my top five favorite musical numbers in all cinema, so maybe that's an unreasonably high bar). At any rate, the score for this is really, really good - Cartoon Saloon knows not to cut corners.

While I obviously haven't seen every animated film released this year, Wolfwalkers is easily my favorite for 2020. That's not meant as a slight against Soul, which was also excellent, but I found this one a little more effective.

For the time being, this is available through Apple TV+, which offers free 1-week trials. I'm not saying you should sign up, watch this, then cancel, but... no, wait. I am absolutely saying that. You can watch this right now for free: what are you waiting for?

Movie Review: Soul

Soul is a nearly perfect film, though that perfection comes with a caveat. I was engrossed in this movie start to finish, but when it ended, I found it hadn't hit me as hard as most Pixar movies do. In other words, it's more an experience than a journey. Despite its premise, there aren't a lot of twists and turns, and the emotional rollercoaster employed in every Pixar production is a relatively smooth ride. I'd describe the experience as akin to listening to a really good concert, which is what they were going for, anyway.

I want to stress that I believe this was largely a choice. The movie opted to keep the anxiety to a minimum, possibly to avoid traumatizing young viewers or maybe just to contrast the macabre subject matter. It presents the cycle of life and death in a surprisingly relaxed manner: the stakes here feel lower than any other Pixar movie I can think of, despite quite literally being a matter of life and death. The only antagonist is basically just a slightly overzealous bureaucrat presented as doing his job. He's not even that bad of a guy.

None of this is necessarily a complaint, mind you. It's kind of nice to watch one of these without being reduced to tears. Still, it left me without as strong an impression as I had after, say, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Inside Out... I could honestly go on to list about two-thirds of Pixar's catalog, including several titles nowhere near as good as Soul.

Visually (and auditorily) the movie is a sensory delight. Every second is awesome to behold. The design for the universal beings is phenomenal, as is the visual representation of spaces without space. Everything is evocative and beautiful.

While the movie is almost perfect, I do have one complaint. The ending felt a bit underwhelming to me. I think they kind of wrote themselves into a corner thematically, and for understandable reasons went with the happiest resolution they could think of. I appreciate why they went that way, but I feel like it might have carried a bit more of a punch if they'd been willing to not grant the main character a mulligan. I'm not lobbying for a tragic ending, mind you, just one where he accepts his fate and moves on, satisfied with his experiences.

This is at most a minor criticism; it might just be personal preference. Ultimately, Soul is another phenomenal achievement from Pixar.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Catch Up, Part 5: Kid's Stuff

Welcome to the 5th installment of my lazily thrown together collection of mini-reviews of recentish movies I saw in quarantine. Today, I'm looking at kid's movies. Also, I'll be mangling the definition of "kid's movie" to the point I'm including an R-rated film. But, hey, teenagers are still technically kids, and... look, just be glad you're getting something.

Over the Moon (2020)

I had high hopes for this one, too. The animation looked like a solid facsimile of Pixar, which isn't easy to pull off. Overall, this movie looked great. Better than a lot of theatrically released CG movies, in fact.

The problem is they were less successful duplicating Pixar's formula when writing the script, though it wasn't for lack of trying. The movie opens by establishing then quickly offing the main character's mother, a classic Disney/Pixar move. We soon transition to a colorful fantasy world that... let's be nice and say it feels "inspired" by Coco's.

But if you're going to copy Pixar, you kind of need to get it right. You better make sure your characters are compelling, their flaws are relatable, the story is interesting, and the dialogue is fun. Otherwise, you're going to end up making a movie like Over the Moon.

The premise had merit. It's a story about a girl who's lost her mother learning to open herself to loving others while going on a fantasy journey to the moon, where she becomes entwined with a moon goddess who's pined for a lost love for millennia. This could have been good.

But the movie lacks any subtlety or nuance, the metaphors are clunky and obnoxious, major characters and plot twists are entirely superfluous, and I was left bored and annoyed. As a showcase for an animation studio, its successful. As an actual movie with a memorable story and interesting characters, it isn't.

The Willoughby's (2020)

Let this be a lesson in the importance of endings: I'd say less than a third of this movie worked for me overall, but I liked the ending so I'm giving it a pass. I'm not sure the ending was good, mind you, but it hit a handful of notes that work for me thematically.

Also, I'm racking my brain trying to come up with a single example of another animated kid's movie that was willing to portray the protagonist's biological parents as objectively awful human beings, and I'm drawing a blank (I guess Matilda counts, if you drop the "animated" qualifier). This is first and foremost a movie about abused and neglected children learning to trust and love: the world could probably use more stories like that.

The issue is... God, there are a lot of issues. The animation style didn't work for me - I respect the drive to duplicate the look and feel of stop motion in CG, but I found it distracting when it starts looking like stop-motion characters wandering through an animated world. Maybe it's just a problem with me, but the disconnect kept pulling me out of the movie.

Likewise, the narrator bugged me. This isn't the first time I've seen a kid's movie fail to mine humor from a narrator constantly explaining the same jokes we just saw, only sarcastically. Hell, it's not even the first I've seen do that with a feline narrator. I actually liked this narrator as a character when he interacted with the story, but the running commentary... not a fan.

Structurally, the movie was all over the place, but that didn't bother me. That said, the actual sequences were too hit-or-miss. Some gags worked, others fell flat. Like I said at the start, the stuff that didn't work outnumbered the stuff that did.

But I'm a sucker for a touch of magic dropped in at the right moment, and I was relieved when the movie didn't betray its message at the last minute (seriously: nice fake out - you had me for a few seconds there). So while this wasn't in any way a rousing success, it was a solid B.

We Bare Bears: The Movie (2020)

Let's start with a disclaimer: this is best seen after watching the series it concludes. It'll probably still make sense on its own, and it'll probably still be enjoyable, but...

Look, I don't want to go off on a huge tangent, but We Bare Bears is a really special show. It's a quirky, funny, and heartfelt exploration of finding family and community when you don't fit in. It goes in surprising directions, explores complex subjects, and, well... it's just a whole stack of fun. Watch it.

And when you're done, put on the movie, because... wow. This took themes that were touched on in the series and expanded them in ways I wasn't expecting. Like the series, it's sweet and funny, but if you're old enough to understand the ideas being addressed, it's also kind of heartbreaking.

After finishing the series, I went in expecting a lot out of this. My expectations were exceeded.

Booksmart (2019)

This is going to be one of those times I sing a movie’s praises despite the fact I didn’t love it. I enjoyed this well enough as an original spin on the R-rated teen-comedy formula, but - despite being a really original take – I’m still not overly fond of the genre.

But while this didn’t entirely connect with me, it was crystal clear why it connected with as many people as it did. I know it’s become unfashionable to throw around the term “objective” when talking about movie criticism, but (sorry) this was objectively a great film.

I watched this knowing the leads were girls – what I hadn’t realized was that was among the more minor of the movie’s subversions. The premise, that a pair of graduating seniors try to cram four years of missed teenage adventure into one night, is more a launching point to explore topics usually ignored or (at best) touched on superficially.

What’s even more impressive is Booksmart manages all this without it feeling forced. It helps that the script doesn’t treat its premise as revolutionary. It honestly could have gotten away with patting itself on the back or highlighting the novelty of gender-flipping the typical “horny teenage boys” premise, but instead it acts like all this is normal. It’s a revolutionary movie that doesn’t feel revolutionary: it’s almost like this fell into our universe from one where entirely different (and - let’s be honest – better) comedic conventions evolved.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
With one exception, my opinion of the LEGO franchise has a been slightly abnormal. While I really liked the first installment, I didn't find it as effective as most critics. My opinion of LEGO Batman, a movie many consider their favorite, is harsher. I still mostly enjoyed the humor, but the premise didn't work for me. My experience with Ninjago is far more mainstream: like most people, I never actually saw it.

I was late to the party for The Second Part, too - I skipped it in theaters due to lukewarm reactions. But now that I've seen it...

I love it. It's easily my favorite in the franchise.

Yeah, I was surprised, too. I expected to be writing the LEGO movies off as a franchise of diminishing returns; instead, I got something innovative and intelligent. I love that this is more Wyldstyle's movie than Emmet's. They share about equal screen time (at least that was my impression - I didn't time it), but the actual plot and resolution belong to her. What starts out looking like Emmet's big adventure to save her and the world gets subverted: she's the hero this time.

Likewise, I like that the movie doesn't pretend the audience is oblivious to the twist at the end of the original. It's pretty obvious what's going on in the "real world" from the beginning, which allows the movie to have some fun with the situation.

On top of that, the songs in this are hilarious. Not to slight the soundtrack to the first LEGO Movie, but I think the music in the sequel is better. All in all, this movie was a really pleasant surprise.

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019)
I probably could have just reviewed this - it was released to Netflix in the US, and it hasn't actually been out that long. Honestly, the main reason I'm not writing this up in more depth is I don't have much to say beyond, "It's delightful."

That shouldn't be much of a surprise. Aardman is one of the most consistent studios out there, and the first Shaun the Sheep movie was fantastic. At least, I think it was fantastic. I definitely saw it, and I remember really liking it, but...

See, here's why I don't have more to say. These movies are a wonderful homage to an era before dialogue. They're fantastic examples of visual storytelling as an art form, no question.

But that does leave them less memorable than most modern movies. I honestly do remember loving the first Shaun the Sheep movie. I even remember how it made me feel - warm, happy, and entertained. But damned if I can remember the plot.

Having just watched Farmageddon, I of course have a better recollection of the characters and events. But I don't expect that to last, because - while there's definitely a story and characters - it's all sort of built around pumping you full of positive emotions and making you chuckle.

I'm honestly not trying to pose this as a negative - if anything, it makes this even better than it would otherwise be as a kids' movie: you could probably watch this a few dozen times without getting overly sick of it.

Like I said: it's delightful, and that's more or less all I've got to say.

Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe (2020)
If you've yet to be converted to the glory that is Phineas and Ferb, do yourself a favor and watch through the series as soon as possible. It's deceptively complex, refreshingly kind-spirited, and hilariously funny. I don't care how old you are: it's a delightful show.

Candace Against the Universe is the second made-for-TV movie. The first, Across the 2nd Dimension, came out nine years ago, around the midpoint of the series. Both movies, the show, and a handful of specials are streaming on Disney+, and it's worth subscribing for a few months if you haven't already done so.

For better or worse, Candace Against the Universe feels like an extended episode of the series. This is in contrast to Across the 2nd Dimension, which went out of its way to explore situations and tones the show couldn't really delve into. I have a feeling I'm an outlier among fans of the show, but I really like Across the 2nd Dimension. Candace Against the Universe...

It was fine. Better than fine, compared against most children's media - it's funny and sweet, as always - but I don't think it matched the quality of the series, let alone some of the specials (the Star Wars crossover was more or less a movie in its own right, and that was way better; same goes for "Night of the Living Pharmacists").

Candace Against the Universe had a solid premise, but I almost think it would be better for casual fans. If you've seen every episode, you've seen most of these ideas explored and you're more likely to be bothered by some continuity glitches. I know it's bad form to nitpick minor continuity issues in long-running shows, but that kind of thing still bugs me. Suffice to say, a few characters have now met each other for the first time more than once.

But all that aside, this is an enjoyable movie. Phineas and Ferb was one of the best animated shows in recent history, and it's always nice to spend a little more time with its characters.

Enola Holmes (2020)
There are a lot of good things about Enola Holmes, starting with the casting. Millie Bobby Brown is, as always, fantastic, and Henry Cavill's take on Sherlock was inspired (though it does make me wonder if playing a superhero is now a prerequisite for the role). Throw in some clever spins on the source material and a nice pulpy tone, and you've got a solid start.

Pity that this review doesn't end there, huh? While there are some wonderful elements, the movie as a whole is a goddamn mess. The pacing is off, the plot is overcomplicated, and there's far too much time spent setting up future installments. To put things in perspective, the premise, which fuels most of the characters' motivations, has nothing to do with the plot.

This would have worked far better as a series, and I'd honestly be surprised if it wasn't initially being developed as one. The movie meanders the way you'd expect from a season of a show, spending odd amounts of time on side plots and incidental characters. Maybe it just stuck too closely to the source material - you can get away with that in a book.

If you allow yourself to forget this is technically a movie, it's not bad as a piece of entertainment, but until there's a little more payoff in the form of future installments, I'm not sure it's worth the time.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)
I feel like any discussion around the quality of the live-action Dora reboot needs to start with a discussion about expectations. If you're comparing this to most theatrical releases, you're going to be unimpressed with the cartoonish CG, obvious sets, and simplistic story. Hell, most of this feels low-budget compared to TV movies these days.

But with all that being said, taken on its own terms, Dora is pretty enjoyable, especially for the first half. The movie embraces the weirdness of its premise and runs with it. Dora, as a character, is fascinating, particularly whenever the filmmakers suppress the voice in their heads saying she shouldn't be a superhero. Watching Dora navigate danger without breaking a sweat is surprisingly satisfying. Likewise, it's great seeing a teenage girl portrayed with a Holmes-level intellect.

The problem is this isn't consistent. The movie embraces a "friends matter" theme, which necessitates demonstrating the value of other human beings. In other words, three other teenagers tag along, and they all have to get moments to shine. Structurally, I understand this, since the alternative would be nothing more than a power fantasy about a preschool kid explorer who'd grown into a teenage adventurer.

It's just... damn it all, the power fantasy is more fun, mostly because there aren't anywhere enough centered around female characters, let alone teenage girls. The movie is great when it just embraces that and has fun with it. I wish it hadn't tried so hard to mix yet another lesson about friendship (or at the very least pared it back to one friend instead of three).

I should probably also mention the movie's portrayal of Aztec culture is... er... let's go with "problematic." It's not as problematic as it could have been, but it still wedges in some tired clich├ęs and bad choices.

Oh, and if you're bothered by completely illogical twists, the sudden introduction of a talking anthropomorphic CG fox that no one seems all that surprised by might be a deal breaker. I was mostly fine with it.

[Side note: I saw this (and wrote the review) before watching Enola Holmes. Enola has way better production values, but Dora does a better job reimagining Sherlock Holmes as a teenage girl. Not sure how that happened.]

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Movie Review: Wonder Woman 1984

I watched Wonder Woman 1984 in the most cinematic environment my living room would allow. Lights off, volume up, phone away, didn't pause once from start to finish... And as the end credits rolled, I realized I'd made a huge mistake.

Weird as it'll sound, I think this would have been better if I'd stopped the movie every thirty minutes or so to get a snack. Or if I'd watched the first half one day then picked it up the next to see the finale. Hell, I think the experience would have been better if I'd paid less attention. Maybe checked Twitter every now and then: you get the idea.

Because, here's the thing - this wasn't really a movie. Or at least it didn't feel like one. It was more like a miniseries with an absurdly high budget stitched together. It never really coalesced into a compelling whole, so trying to watch it that way made matters worse. I honestly think sitting and watching it in a dark theater would have been even more of a letdown. This just didn't feel cinematic.

It's difficult to pinpoint where things went wrong. The pace is the easiest target, but I'd have been more forgiving there if the characters had worked. And the more I think about the characters, the more I think they might have worked if the movie had a different tone. Meanwhile, the tone might have felt really cool if it weren't for the pacing... and so it cycles.

I think that's the actual issue: the choices made for tone, character, and pacing all clash, culminating in a movie that just doesn't work. The film opts for a tone unlike its predecessor, instead serving as a campy homage to the Lynda Carter series and Richard Donner Superman film. I don't think that's an inherently bad choice, but it really calls for a snappy, exciting pace. Aquaman was working off of similar inspiration, but it moved at a fast clip, leaping between fantasy locations, to avoid overstaying its welcome.

The other thing Aquaman did well was make its characters compelling. The first Wonder Woman movie did this as well - we liked these people and their relationships. But I couldn't connect with anyone in 1984. Diana felt uncharacteristically mopey (I'd believe that she'll always love Steve, but the "I'll never love again" angle doesn't jibe with any version of this character I've seen... including the one in the last movie). Likewise, the villains - both of whom were given complete character arcs complete with redemptions - were never all that believable or interesting.

We were left with a character-driven story about characters we neither believed in nor cared about, playing out in an absurdist, campy cartoon world.

The action scenes were decent and at times fun, but mostly lacked real gravitas or impact. To be fair, there were a handful of standout effects moments - the invisible jet, for example - but they were few and far between. If it wasn't going to give us a stronger narrative, we needed more of a "wow" factor to gloss over the movie's shortcomings. There was a little here and there, but not nearly enough.

The movie was also hamstrung by existing continuity, which it should simply have ignored. Wonder Woman isn't a subtle character, and having her constantly shush or wink or outright ask side characters for discretion was just confusing. 

And speaking of trivial details that bugged me, I was also underwhelmed by the gold armor, which felt completely tacked on (and I really, really like its comic counterpart).

This is obviously a long way from the worst movie in the DC Expanded Universe (looking at you, BvS), but it's still a hell of a letdown after the astonishingly good first installment, to say nothing of the string of successes we've seen recently (Aquaman, Shazam, and Birds of Prey were all great).

If you've got HBO Max, by all means put it on, but keep your expectations in check and don't try to make it through in one sitting.