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.]

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