“I have aged Phenomenally” – The LEGO Batman Movie (Film Review)

In 2014 The Lego Movie came along and delivered an unexpectedly hilarious, charming and entertaining film catching a lot of people off guard. Originally expected to be little more than a marketing ploy the film was a huge success and there was outrage when the film wasn’t nominated for Best animated feature at the 2015 Oscars. This success has led to the creation of a Lego Movie franchise with a sequel greenlit and a Lego Ninjago movie due out later this year. First though we are treated to a spin-off focusing on the Lego Batman character, voiced by Will Arnett.

The movie begins with Gotham City under siege from the Joker whose plans are once again thwarted by Batman. During the confrontation Batman crushes the Joker’s feelings by claiming they have no relationship and the Joker means nothing to him. This sets off a series of events that lead to the joker voluntarily surrendering so Batman can experience life without him. Meanwhile Commissioner Gordon retires and his daughter Barbara takes his place. She wants Batman to abandon his vigilante ways and team up with the police to take down criminals together, something the caped crusader wants no part of.

From it’s opening shot to its closing Lego Batman is a never-ending cavalcade of jokes, gags and witticisms. One liners, visual gags, slapstick humour and easter eggs are abound and the pace never lets up. Arnett continues his fine work from The Lego Movie, capturing the ultra-serious tone of the character which he juxtaposes with the ridiculousness of his actions. Michael Cera makes a terrifically naïve Robin and Ralph Fiennes is amusing as the ever put upon Alfred. Galifianakis makes a surprisingly charming Joker, giving this popular character a new spin as a partner in an abusive relationship with Batman. He breathes fresh life into the highly popular role and is a highlight in this buoyantly entertaining film. Chris McKay was an animation co-director on the Lego Movie and he steps up to the role of director with aplomb. The miniature Gotham is wonderfully designed and lit with the teale and orange style reminiscent of other popular blockbusters, including last year’s Batman vs Superman.

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The Lego Batman Movie is a meta-cinematic treat satirising and celebrating the history of one of the most popular fictional characters of the modern era. Batman has gone from the pages of early comic books, to a goofy Adam West TV show, appeared in some of the most violent and thoughtful graphic novels of our time and featured in one of the most successful and self-serious movie trilogies of the 21st Century. With a vast and expansive back catalogue to lampoon The Lego Batman Movie is yet another strike for the Caped crusader and it is unlikely Arnett will be hanging up his Lego cowl anytime soon.

4/5

Dir: Chris McKay
Scr: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Cast: Will Arnett, Ralph Fiennes, Rosario Dawson, Michael Cera, Zach Galifianakis, Mariah Carey, Jenny Slate
Prd: Dan Lin, Roy Lee, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Music: Lorne Balfe
Country: USA, Denmark, Australia
Year: 2017
Run time: 104 minutes

The LEGO Batman Movie is out now in UK cinemas.

“Everyone in the city gets a shot at Being a star” – Sing (Film Review)

The latest film from Illumination Studios, the team behind Despicable me, Minions and The Secret Life of Pets, combines talking animals with a singing competition in what is basically Zootropolis meets the X Factor. It’s astounding that no one has thought of this concept earlier, it’s guaranteed to make millions, but is the movie any good?

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Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), the owner of a rundown theatre, decides to try and turn his business around by advertising a singing contest for everyday people with a one-thousand-dollar prize. However, due to a typing error by Ms. Crawley (Garth Jennings), a clumsy Iguana with a glass eye, the flyers advertise a cash prize of one-hundred-thousand-dollars instead. The contest gathers lots of attention, including housewife Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), troubled Johnny (Taron Egerton), nervous Meena (Tori Kelly) and a Sinatra-esque mouse named Mike (Seth McFarlane). Seeing the hype surrounding the contest Buster decides to conceal the fact he doesn’t have the money so the show can go on.

Talent shows, especially in the age of reality TV, have evolved into something of a soap opera posing as real life. The allusion to the X Factor that was made above is actually not very accurate as Sing is a homage to the idea of why we loved talent shows to begin with and want to see “ordinary” people succeed. In an age where the authenticity of shows such as X Factor, The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent are oft questioned Sing is devoid of the cynicism that these shows promote. It’s a joyful romp expressing the inner desires of people who dream of stardom, and may never reach those heights, but want to show what they are capable of if given the chance. Illumination’s CG animation is wonderfully detailed and moves with a pace and drive that fits the madcap speed of it’s narrative. Director Garth Jennings, whose previous work includes The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Son of Rambow, builds a large, complex world filled with characters that, for the most part, balances its ensemble with panache. Every arc gets plenty of focus and although some play out in a cliché fashion you may expect, there are times of unexpected heart in the movie. Sing’s climax is a spectacular blowout that even the hardest cynic would have to try hard to dislike, even if it does result in some of the film’s plot threads being unresolved.

Despite a messy, yet thoroughly jubilant, landing in the third act Sing is full of wit and charm, so wholly joyful that it’s difficult not to nod along with its tune. Filled with nearly a hundred popular music tracks (though some feature for a matter of seconds) there is a pleasant range to the songs on display, and even a couple of original pieces that are solid bits of work, if unspectacular. Fun for all ages, the kids in the screening I was in certainly enjoyed it, this one is definitely worth your time.

4/5

Dir: Garth Jennings, Christophe Lourdelet
Scr: Garth Jennings
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton, Matthew McConaughey, Tori Kelly, John C. Reilly, Scarlett Johansson, Seth McFarlane, Nick Kroll
Prd: Chris Meledandri, Janet Healy
Music: Joby Talbot
Country: USA
Year: 2017
Run time: 110 minutes

Sing is out now in UK cinemas.

 

“How far I’ll go” – Moana (Film Review)

2016 has been a bit of a bust, right? The constant deaths of famous individuals, conflict in Syria and Donald Trump have got a fair few people down. A shining light has been an impressive film year which has constantly delivered a strew of impressive cinematic treats. What have you got to kick off December then cinema? A Polynesian themed, Disney animated, musical directed by the pair behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Princess and the Frog starring Dwayne Johnson with music composed by Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i. Good answer.

Disney are on a bit of a roll right now. In-fact following Pixar’s domination of post millennial animated cinema they have adapted and come back as possibly the strongest studio in CG animation. Pixar continue to make outstanding cinema, though the output has become slightly less consistent, and Illumination have potential but are yet to produce anything of the level of Disney or Pixar. Since Disney’s 2010’s Tangled they have been on a streak that I would argue surpasses the famed Disney renaissance of the 90’s. Moana confirms this. After the wonderful Zootropolis from earlier this year Moana is a beautiful, funny, charming film.

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Moana (Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is an adventurous teenager with a natural affinity for exploration. She wishes to travel across the sea, however her father (Temuera Morrison) forbids travel of any kind fearing the dangers of the deeper ocean. The Island’s coconuts begin to rot, and the fish have all but vanished from the shallows. Moana’s free spirited grandmother (Rachel House) claims this is due to the Demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stealing the heart of the Goddess Te Feti. To restore the island Moana must find Maui and get him to put the heart back where it belongs.

With veteran directors Ron Clements and John Musker at the helm it’s no surprise that the film is a visual delight and is structured in an almost textbook Disney fashion. Speaking of textbook Disney, the music of Moana is truly wonderful with contemporary Pacific music band Opetaia Foa’i, acclaimed Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda and experienced film composer Mark Mancina collaborating to produce a set of wonderfully catchy musical numbers and a terrific orchestral score that complement the movie to wonderful effect. Moana rests heavily on the shoulders of 16-year-old Auli’i Cravalho and, the slightly larger shoulders of, Dwayne Johnson with the pairs chemistry and boisterous energy making Moana infectiously delightful. Cravalho is quite the discovery with an astonishing singing voice while Dwayne Johnson shows off some of his lesser known qualities with a song of his own (You’re Welcome) holding his own against the talented teenager. Supporting the two leads is a colourful ensemble of characters, voiced by Jermaine Clement, Rachel House and Temuera Morrison, who are wonderfully animated and brought to life by the actors. Special shout out to whomever oversaw the animating of Maui’s tattoos which are both visually impressive and hilarious.

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The problem with Moana isn’t in its technical prowess or performances but just that sense of familiarity. Unlike its main character, it never strays from the path, and earlier I mentioned that the presence of Clements and Musker gave Moana a textbook Disney feeling and I believe this is both a positive and a negative. It’s a modern updating of the kind of classic tale Disney would have spun sixty years ago, and fits as a great companion piece to their other modern features such as Tangled and Frozen.

Frankly we’ve been spoilt by animation this year to the point where Moana is, in my estimation, the third best animated feature of the year (with Sing still to come out in the next couple of weeks). This isn’t a slight against Moana, but an appraisal of the golden age of animation that we currently find ourselves within. This is definitely one worth checking out with plenty of laughs, great music and beautiful animation, and a chicken called Heihei who is categorically the stupidest character in Disney history.

4/5

Dir: Ron Clements, John Musker

Scr: Jared Bush

Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk, Jemaine Clement

Prd: Osnat Shurer

Music: Mark Mancina, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i

Country: USA

Year: 2016

Run Time: 107 minutes

Moana is out now in UK cinemas.

“What if I forget you? Would you ever forget me?” – Finding Dory (Film Review)

Finding Nemo is a modern animated classic, now 13 years old, it has stood the test of time and held true as one of Pixar’s finest feature films garnering massive critical acclaim and commercial success. So having already made sequels in the past of Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Cars we finally return to the ocean for a sequel a long time in the making.

It’s been a year since the events of Finding Nemo and Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) now lives with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). During a class field trip she is assisting with Dory has a flashback to one of her childhood memories and has a brief recollection of her parents. This prompts her on a cross ocean journey to the Marine Life Institute to try and find her family.

Perhaps the major concern going into this Finding Dory is the idea of taking a popular supporting character and thrusting them into the focus of the sequel. In Finding Nemo Dory was a comic foil (A very fine one I might add) and there was some apprehension as to whether making her the lead in this movie was a sincere act of trying to tell an interesting story or whether Pixar were simply sticking the most commercially viable character front and centre as a marketing decision. I am happy to report it is the former. Taking Dory’s main comic trait, her short term memory loss, and making it the focus of the narrative was a wise decision as we begin to perceive her failure to recollect information as a form of disability rather than something comically appealing. Ellen Degeneres returns as the forgetful fish and her energetic performance makes her an endearing presence. Alongside the returning characters are some new faces including Kaitlin Olson as a near-sighted Whale Shark, Ty Burrell as a neurotic Beluga Whale and Idris Elba and Dominic West as a pair of possessive Sea Lions. However the stand out of the newcomers is Ed O’Neill as an introverted Octopus (Or Septopus if you will) who has to form  a partnership with Dory out of necessity and their burgeoning relationship is the highlight of the movie and provides the most amusing moments of comedy.

I don’t think Finding Dory manages to eclipse the work of its predecessor due to some slightly choppy pacing and the emotional pay off of the story doesn’t quite manage to achieve the same pathos as Finding Nemo. That being said it’s a really fun, touching film filled with a wide range of great vocal performances and invoking the same high quality animation design that was so astounding 13 years ago. It would also be amiss of me not to mention the fantastic short film that precedes the movie, Piper, that features some of the most breath-taking animation I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing in a cinema with incredible detail on both the animals and the locations. Finding Dory is another successful entry in the Pixar filmography and I’m sure it won’t be the last we see of Dory, if the box office has anything to say about it.

4/5

Dir: Andrew Stanton

Scr: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse

Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell, Kaitlin Olson, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Hayden Rolence, Eugene Levy, Diane Keaton

Prd: Lindsey Collins

DOP: Jeremy Lasky

Music: Thomas Newman

Country: USA

Runtime: 97 minutes

Finding Dory is out now in UK cinemas.

The Secret Life of Pets

Illumination Entertainment has had a highly successful last few years courtesy of the Despicable me series and its Minions spin-off which was released last year grossing over $1 billion worldwide. Now looking to consolidate that success with their newest venture The Secret Life of Pets which revolves around what the pets get up to when their owners leave for the day.

A terrier named Max (Louis C.K) has a perfect life with his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) until one day she returns home with another dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who threatens to upset the stability of Max’s life. Whilst out being walked the pair get lost and end up being captured by animal control but are freed by the psychotic bunny rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart). With Max gone his friends the tabby cat Chloe (Lake Bell), the pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), the dachshund Buddy (Hannibal Buress) and the Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate) set out to rescue him.

The immediate concern that comes to mind is that The Secret Life of Pets shares a similar concept with that of Toy Story, that when the owner isn’t present the pets/toys have a secret life of their own. The lead character Max/Woody lives an ideal existence with their owner Katie/Andy until a new arrival Duke/Buzz upsets the balance of their life. A lot of films follow similar narrative constructs but when you make an animated feature with such striking similarities to a movie as infamous as Toy Story then it is difficult to ignore the similarities. The films strengths lie mostly in its comedic energy with a fast paced multitude of gags flowing thick and fast. Not all of the jokes land but enough of them are amusing enough to keep you entertained throughout with the high energy levels of the voice actors playing a large part in the success of the comedy. Kevin Hart’s performance as Snowball is one of the more obvious examples and a lot of the films marketing has highlighted Hart’s role as the maniacal bunny rabbit. Equally worthy of praise are Jenny Slate’s boisterously fierce Gidget, Lake Bell’s obnoxiously arrogant Chloe and Albert Brooks as the hawk Tiberius who suffers from a lonely existence due to his tendency to eat all of the other animals he meets.

The problem with The Secret Life of Pets that stop it from reaching the levels of other animated fare like that of Pixar, Ghibli, Disney, Laika or even Illuminaton’s Despicable me series is that it lacks the dramatic cohesion and pathos of better films. Half way through an emotional subplot is introduced that threatens to tug at the heart strings but is shoddily mishandled, not given the time needed to develop the proper empathetic response.

There’s a lot of work clearly been put in the The Secret Life of Pets with a large ensemble cast who all bring a high level of enthusiasm to their roles imbuing their characters with zest and energy. The animation is sumptuous and slick with some gloriously designed wide shots of the cityscape and Alexandre Desplat’s musical score is vibrant and manages to compliment the energy of the film. The films plot is somewhat recognisable to older audiences and it doesn’t have the dramatic weight or clever subversions of the best animated features but as a  90 minute comedic romp it delivers enough laughs to keep you on leash.

Rating: 3/5

 

Ratchet & Clank

Based on the popular video game series of the same name, revolving around a ‘somewhat fox like creature’ and his partnership with a robot. Ratchet and Clank is brought to the big screen by Rainmaker Entertainment, responsible for a lot of the straight to DVD/on demand Barbie films of the last decade. Having made the jump to cinematic releases in 2013’s Escape to Planet Earth, with reasonable financial success, their follow up is an attempt to adapt one of gaming’s most successful pairings of the 21st Century.

Ratchet (James Arnold Taylor), a Lombax, is a mechanic with dreams of achieving big things by joining the Galactic Rangers, led by his hero Captain Qwark (Jim Ward). However Chairmen Drek (Paul Giamatti), the leader of the Blarg, is destroying planets whilst building an unstoppable robot army led by his henchman Victor Von Ion (Slyvester Stallone), but due to a system error one of the robots created is Clank (David Kaye) a diminutive being who wishes to seek out and warn the Galactic Rangers of what is about to happen.

Immediately it becomes apparent that, despite some great efforts on the part of the design team, the budget impacts on the overall quality of the films aesthetic. Rather than feeling like a big screen adaptation of a videogame it feels like a high cost cut-scene, impressive on an XBOX one but not in a cinema. The film’s eponymous pair are likeable with the enthusiastic Ratchet contrasting charmingly with the robotic Clank, but they feel less like individualistic characters and come across as poor imitations of what we have seen before. As “cute” as Clank is he is not as funny or well designed as Baymax, or as emotive and endearing as Wall-e and he holds nothing like the depth and complexity of a character like The Iron Giant. With some marquee names in the cast, combined with veteran voice actors from the videogame series, the performances are large, enthusiastic and energetic, doing the maximum amount possible with the limited quality of the script and story. Co-written by Kevin Munroe, T.J Fixman and Gerry Swallow they attempt to draw humour through breaking the fourth wall but Sadly despite a few admittedly well written gags, the best of which younger children won’t enjoy anyway, Ratchet and Clank is a rather drab replay of better films.

In the age of animated brilliance we currently find ourselves within you can’t simply turn up with a few decent gags and an unoriginal plot and expect to get a return. The excuse of being “Just for Kids” doesn’t apply anymore when you consider how successful animation has been at appealing to all ages, something it should always aim to do. As proof the fantastic Zootropolis is currently the highest grossing film of 2016, sitting just shy of $1,000,000,000 worldwide gross. Should we expect an inexperienced studio, with a limited budget, to match the work of Disney? No, But is it wrong to want Ratchet and Clank to not take the easy options with its storytelling, to try and reach a little higher? The movie doesn’t completely lack humour; it’s got a colourful design, an inoffensive tone and charming lead characters to make it a passable experience. But in a world of Disney, Laika, Pixar, Dreamworks, Ghibli, Aardman, Illumination and countless other talented animation studios passable just isn’t enough.

2/5

Review by Alexander Halsall

 

Zootropolis

Zootopia

Zootropolis, or Zootopia as it is titled in America, an animated film in which animals take on anthropomorphic characteristics. The premise seems simplistic, and about as basic and unoriginal a filmic concept there could be. That it seems Disney animation studios are risking their current streak of success on something so ‘safe’ and seemingly ordinary by design prompted some to wonder whether Zootropolis would be the weakest film released by the studio in over a decade?

Zoo/tropolis/topia/city/town/province/Upon-Trent centres on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) a rabbit with ambitions of being the first of her species to become a police officer. Despite making the force she is not respected by her colleagues, and is treated with disdain by her superior Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). However when a number of Zoovillages residents turn savage and vanish Judy must solve the case with the help of a street smart fox, Nick Wild (Jason Bateman), and restore natural order to the city.

Following upon the success of Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, Zoohampton has quite the pedigree of expertise behind it. Seven different people have a story credit on Zoozealand, including Frozen co-director Jennifer Lee, Wreck-it-Ralph director Rich Moore (who also co-directs here), and Wall-e co-writer Jim Reardon amongst many other very talented individuals. Often such a roster of creativity would threaten to unbalance the film but Zooshire is a brilliantly equated film. Deftly sweeping between comedy and drama, and packing an emotional punch on numerous sombre occasions in the film. I mentioned earlier that Zooleftsandovertheroundabout seems quite a simplistic concept to a passing eye but the filmmakers utilise their world to comment upon racial, gender, and social prejudices that are cleverly manipulated for both comic and dramatic effect. At first I thought Zoo Fu Panda was an entertaining well written film with a positive thematic tone. However in the final third we are entreated with a deeper message that looks at the more entrenched fears of the characters and how our difference and upbringing can define upon us a subconscious bigotry. That we should never let our fear allow us define others as we see fit. Are they a threat, or am I just scared? This turned an already delightful feature into one that was both timely considering the current political landscape, and emotionally resonant. The casting of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman is perfect and both deliver great performances managing to show their prowess for the comic requirements of the film, and also deliver at the integral dramatic exchanges throughout. Judy’s short monologue to Nick underneath the bridge (So I don’t spoil with anything more specific) felt sincere and powerfully expressive thanks to a combination of Goodwin’s performance and the animation of the character’s physicality.

It’s no surprise that the animation is beautifully detailed, you would expect no less. However Zoo York City is also brilliantly directed and paced perfectly. A difficult task combining the frenetic frivolity of the films action and comic sequences with a gentler tempo that manages to maintain the earnestness of the films more sensitive moments.

I had a delightful time seeing Zootropolis, the name change baffles me slightly but did allow me to display my awful sense of humour on numerous occasions. I hope if you’re reading this you have seen Zootropolis, or you plan on doing so, as I think it’s a wonderful experience for people of all ages and creeds. Except if you work for the DMV maybe? Though I think they would still have a hard time disliking Flash ‘the hundred yard dash’.

***** stars out of *****

Words conglomerated by Alexander Halsall