‘Booksmart’ Review

The teenage coming of age comedy has long been a regular entry into the movie landscape each year. Some I enjoy like Clueless and Juno and others I am more mixed on like Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird. At times the sullen angry teen can be hard for me to connect with and leave me feeling drained (I’m probably the only one who connected much more with the mother character in Lady Bird than the title character). Recently all of film twitter has been abuzz about the latest entry called Booksmart, and I’m delighted to tell you I agree with the buzz. While very raunchy I found Booksmart to be a funny comedy but also a treatise on the importance of friendship.

booksmart

Booksmart stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as 2 seniors in high school who realize they missed out on all the ‘fun’ of high school because they were too concerned with academics. To make up for it they decide to have the ultimate night of partying (and most of the night is spent trying to get to the party).  It’s a pretty simple premise but executed very well.

gigi booksmart

My favorite part of Booksmart is the funny script. It reminded me of a more R-rated Juno. In particular Billie Lourd as the effervescent new-age Gigi was hilarious. I also enjoyed Jason Sudeikis in a small role as the uber-driving principal.  I wouldn’t be surprised if a decade from now we look back at much of the cast going on to be big stars like we do with Dazed and Confused.

booksmart2

There are also some very creative sequences. As a stop-motion animation fan I especially loved a surprise Barbie doll, stop motion segment. It kind of reminded me of the stop motion in the 80s teen comedy Better Off Dead.

As far as any negatives of Booksmart, some of the cast felt under-used. In particular Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents only had a few scenes and they are such funny actors I wish they had gotten more. I would also have liked to have seen more of Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and Molly together to buy what happens at the end with their characters.

Mostly I loved the theme of friendship and seeing Amy and Molly’s relationship grow and change. They are characters who think they know the other perfectly but in fact they have much to learn. I particularly loved a scene towards the end when they get in a big fight and the frustrations of adolescence come out. That kind of pent-up anger at the world I can relate to much more than characters who are mean-spirited and hateful to each other (Edge of 17…).

Just a reminder Booksmart is a very raunchy movie and is not for everyone. It was definitely out of my comfort zone but sometimes I take chances and push myself a bit. In the end, I’m glad I did.

7.5 out of 10

smile worthy

Also I give a huge frown to Molly’s hideous yellow turtleneck!

 

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Missing Link Review

Everyone who reads this blog knows animation is my first love. I adore the medium in all its formats- 2D, CGI, anime, stop motion, motion capture, whatever. I particularly love stop motion with its attention to detail and unique world-building. Aside from a rare Wes Anderson or Tim Burton project, most stop motion over the last 10 years has come from either Aardman or Laika studios.

I love both of these studios and admire so much the work these talented artists are doing. That said, I do not always love the movies the studios produce. Last year I found Early Man, with its soccer themes, to be underwhelming from Aardman and this year I found Laika’s latest Missing Link to be a disappointment.

Missing Link tells the story of adventurer Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) who finds a sasquatch named Susan (Zach Galifianakis) and agrees to take the friendly beast to meet his family of yetis in Siberia. Along the way they meet Adelina (Zoe Saldana) who has a rocky past with Frost. It’s then mostly a road trip movie with these 3 on a series of adventures across the globe.

Let’s start with the positives. The animation in Missing Link is outstanding. They use a lot of CGI for a stop motion film but the amount of world building and action set pieces they designed is second to none. I can’t even fathom the amount of time spent on one short sequence in India or getting the action right in an old Western bar brawl scene. That would be incredibly difficult and I admire the animators for their great skill.

I also thought the sound design was really good. As they go exploring everything feels tactile and real, which helps immerse you in the experience. I particularly liked scenes on an ice bridge where the sound of the ice crackling and characters sliding upon it felt just right.

I think kids will have fun with the adventure aspect of the film. The kids around me seemed moderately engaged. I doubt it will be a favorite but it has fun moments and the message of self-confidence and friendship is lovely so you could do worse than taking your kids to see it.

missing link

And now let’s talk about some of the issues I had with Missing Link…The biggest problem I had (and I had felt this in the trailers but was hoping the movie would win me over) is the strange character designs. I guess I can understand designing a sasquatch any way they want but the bright red pig-like nose was so off-putting. But even stranger is designing adventurer Frost with a bright red triangle nose. It looks like he is in a perpetual state of having just sneezed, and I don’t get it. He’s supposed to be human. Why would you design his nose like that?

While I think Jackman is fine as Frost, I also didn’t love the voice casting. I especially didn’t like Zach Galifianakis as Susan. It didn’t fit for me, and I felt it missed out on huge comic potential. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if the big beast with a big booming voice was actually really sweet and named Susan? Occasionally they’d have him roar and that was funny. The juxtaposition was humorous and could have been much more so if they had gotten someone like Brad Garrett with a lower voice.

Speaking of comedy, that’s my other major problem with Missing Link. I maybe chuckled twice in the film. The humor is a weird mixture of the adult and juvenile variety and it almost all lands flat. It felt kind of like Laika trying to do Aardman and failing. In particular, a whole sequence with the Emma Thompson yetti was long, drawn out and kind of dull. There’s lots of humor that revolves around fighting hijinks. Fighting at a bar, fighting on a train, fighting in the jungle, fighting at the yetis and while the animation in these sequences is impressive they didn’t make me laugh. Is this stuff kids think is funny? It felt very weird to me. Do kids like bar-room brawls and petty fighting between British elites? (I think the film is going to be a very tough sell. I don’t see it appealing to many families and kids unless they happen to like Westerns).

missing link3

I feel bad for being so harsh on a Laika film because I really value what the studio is doing. However,  I have to be honest with my response to a film like Missing Link. It just didn’t do it for me despite the incredible animation. My friend Jen had the same reaction but then my friend Larry loved it so it will be interesting to see what others think.

If you get a chance to see Missing Link let me know what you think. Do the character designs turn you off in the trailer or are you excited for the adventure?

Final Score 4 out of 10

frown

 

 

Isle of Dogs Review

I feel like reviewing Wes Anderson’s latest film Isle of Dogs is almost an exercise in futility. Any filmgoer should know by watching the trailer if this film is your cup of tea or not. Anderson has his own unique style that does not appeal to everyone, but fortunately it appeals to yours truly and since animation is my thing I had to review it! (One of my friends from church asked me if I was going to see ‘that horrific looking dog film’ so that shows you how different the response can be to the trailer!).

Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s second foray into the world of animation; his first being the 2009 animated film Fantastic Mr Fox. I recently did a collaboration with my friend Justin on his channel where I shared my thoughts on that film, so check that out:

While I enjoy Fantastic Mr Fox a great deal, I think I actually preferred Isle of Dogs. It’s weirder and more simplistic narratively but I laughed more and found it more charming to watch. I really thought Isle of Dogs was a great time at the movies.

Isle of Dogs tells the story of a dystopian futuristic Japan that has banished all dogs to a Trash Island. This is done out of fear over a dog flu which is hyped up by the tyrannical rule of Mayor Kobayashi. This was hilarious for me because the company I work for is called Kobayashi America, a branch of Kobayashi Pharmaceuticals in Japan,which is mentioned in the film! Luckily everyone I work with is completely lovely. No dictators present!

Anyway, Kobayashi is made a ward over a nephew named Atari who he then sends his beloved dog Spots to Trash Island. Atari, desperate for his dog, steals a plane and flies to Trash Island. Upon landing he meets 5 dogs: Rex, King, Duke, Boss and Chief. They are all eager to help find Spots except for Chief who is cynical and just trying to survive another day.

The rest of the story is pretty simple with the dogs and Atari traveling to find Spots and facing various challenges along the way. The joy of the film is the droll dialogue from the dogs and the sweet moments between boy and dogs. There is also a subplot with an exchange student named Tracy who investigates Kobayashi but the real fun is spending time with the dogs.

There are so many things to praise about Isle of Dogs. First, the animation is just tremendous. I honestly don’t know how they were able to do the fur and make it seem so lush and textured. These are not the clay figures of Rankin Bass or other old-school stop motion animated animals. It blew me away. I also loved the textures in all the backdrops and props. There are a lot of scenes behind walls of glass and the colors reminded me of a Chihuly art glass exhibit. Simply stunning! They could have used bare-bones backgrounds but they chose to go the extra mile and fill the screen with textured details and color.  If the Academy wasn’t so closed minded I could see it getting nominated for best production design.

The voice cast is also fantastic with many Anderson regulars such as Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Greta Gerwig, Tilda Swinton and many more. It is narrated by Courtney B Vance and the music is superb by Alexandre Desplat.

I suppose if someone were to push me for flaws in Isle of Dogs I would admit that a white savior trope is applied to the story in an unnecessary way. Anderson makes the choice to have the Japanese characters speak Japanese with little to no subtitles, which I thought was really neat. However, it necessitated having an English character confront Kobayashi so that we would know what she was doing. I’m not sure how he could have gotten around that, but I can see why some would complain about it.

It’s also not supposed to be an accurate depiction of Japanese life. It reminded me of anime in that regard. Films like Akira or Ghost in the Shell also use Japan as a dystopian futuristic background to tell their stories, so any cultural appropriation should be taken with a massive grain of salt. Any culture should be allowed to have a wide variety of takes and stories set in it, so I don’t think it is a problem but I’m not Japanese. It will be interesting to see the response to this film over there. I could see them being offended or flattered.  It was cool at least that Anderson took some risks with language and storytelling that made it unpredictable to watch.

Like I said in my intro, if you watched the trailer for Isle of Dogs and responded positively to it then you should definitely see it. I’m certainly glad I did, and I look forward to seeing it multiple times. Incredibles 2 has a tall order to top it in my best animated film of the year list. We will see!

Overall Grade A- Smile Worthy

Here is a podcast I did with my friend Conrado on the film

https://soundcloud.com/rachel-wagner-350487958/talking-isle-of-dogs-with-conrado-falco

Kubo and the Two Strings Review (Masterpiece)

kubo-and-the-two-strings-posterYesterday I got the chance to see the new film from Laika Animation Studios called Kubo and the Two Strings. Here is my youtube review that I made after seeing it:

2016 has been a very strong year for animation in my opinion. Zootopia, Finding Dory, Little Prince, Only Yesterday, April and the Extraordinary World, Kung fu Panda 3 are all special releases. No we get Kubo and the Two Strings and it may be the best yet. What an amazing animated stop motion adventure. It took my breath away but I was also engaged in the story and loved the lead character, Kubo.

The film tells the story of Kubo who is a little boy with magical powers. He can make origami paper come alive and tell stories. He even at one point is able to build an entire boat with his paper. Each day he tells stories to the villagers but he only has one problem- he can never think of good endings to the story.

kuob4His Mother is a sickly woman who he has to care for. He has to cook for her and even feed her she is so weak. However, his Mother warns him to not be out after dark or he will be in great danger. Unfortunately one night he ends up outside and spirits begin calling for him “Kubo, Kubo, they call”. As he follows them he ends up on adventure to get the armor of his father that will protect him and his Mother.

kuboAlong the way he meets a monkey and a beetle who help him on his journey. One thing I liked is I was never sure where they were headed or what the next step was going to be. This is not like Lord of the Rings where the clear goal is Mordor and the destruction of the ring. Without a clear roadmap the film was very unpredictable and surprising.

The dialogue is also very well done. Monkey and Beetle are funny together and have a lot of sarcastic jabs at each other without being too modern or hip. In fact, Kubo is probably too old-fashioned for its own good. It would probably be easier to market if it had the wise cracking modern sidekick like Mushu in Mulan.

kubo6Nevertheless, I loved the characters, especially Kubo. Much like Judy Hopps in Zootopia this year, there was an earnestness and sincerity to Kubo that won me over immediately. He is blind in one eye but that eye is expressive and his smile made me very happy. I wanted him to be happy. I was rooting for him to succeed, which is probably the greatest compliment I can give to a character. He was brave and strong but felt real and vulnerable at the same time.

kubo-and-the-two-strings-official-trailer-3-2-820x795Do I even need to say the visuals are stunning? Yes, the visuals are stunning! There were so many moments when you can’t believe it is stop motion. The character movements are so fluid and the fast paced movements and lush landscapes are like something I haven’t seen before. It is without a doubt the greatest looking stop motion animated film I’ve ever seen.

kubo8It also has a great emotional reach. There are moments that will make you smile, laugh, cry and get a little scared. I don’t think it is too scary for most kids but maybe if they aren’t able to handle darker Disney villains like Maleficent than it isn’t for them. My theater was full of kids and they were totally engaged (unlike so many animated films I’ve seen in last few years because with the good comes the bad too…).

KUBO_monkey_laika_focus.0.0Mostly the film just has a huge heart that wins you over to the story, characters and world-building. I loved it and I fully intend on doing a detailed spoiler review once I get to see it more than once like I have done with Zootopia and Inside Out.

Unfortunately, it looks like this film is pegging to open at 12 million this weekend. That is so discouraging. It really is a masterpiece. I don’t want to live in a world where The Angry Birds Movie does better than Kubo and the Two Strings and yet there it is. What’s wrong with America?

Please let’s prove these prognosticators wrong!  Go see this film. Take your family. Take your friends. It’s great for all ages. It’s great for all interest levels. It’s a great movie. You don’t want to be the one who missed 2016’s masterpiece do you? See Kubo and the Two Strings. It’s that special.

I wouldn’t recommend the 3D as it didn’t do much to enhance the experience. Just see it in 2D and enjoy a truly special animated adventure.

Overall Grade- A+

Thoughts (Not a Review) of Anomalisa

anomalisaSince viewing it in January, I have struggled with the best way to share my thoughts on 2015 Oscar nominee Anomalisa.  Mainly how could I post a review of a film that I skipped large portions of for content reasons?  Finally, I just decided to post my thoughts rather than a review.  I think I saw enough of Anomalisa to give an opinion on the style and overall production, but can’t in good conscience give a traditional review.

Anomalisa was the brainchild of director Charlie Kaufman.  He originally wrote it as a ‘sound play’, which I must confess I had never heard of before researching this film.  I didn’t know people went to plays just to hear dialogue?  Cool.

So, eventually Kaufman decided to put up a kickstarter for an Anomalisa short and the decision was made to use puppets and change it to feature length film.  The puppets were made using 3D printers and 18 Michaels and 6 Lisas were designed.  There are only 3 vocal performances in Anomalisa- Michael (David Thewlis), Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Everyone else (Tom Noonan).

anomalisa4According to Kaufman the goal of the film was to “forget they were looking at something animated and just get wrapped up in the scene,” further explaining that “the challenge we felt with so much animated stuff is that you’re always conscious of the animation, and we kept asking, ‘What if we could escape that? What would it be like?”

After viewing the film several times I would say they achieved their goals.  The animation in Anomalisa is gorgeous.  I’m a huge stop motion junkie and to see the fluidity and expressions of the characters is remarkable.  Also it has this unique mix of artistry and realism that I haven’t seen before.  Like there are times when you forget you are watching stop motion but then the lines around the characters faces remind you.  So at one moment you are both immersed in the world and reminded it is art.  I don’t know if that makes sense but there is definitely that dichotomy in the art design.

anomalisa9The main story behind Anomalisa is it’s about a man named Michael who is traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a speech on his book on customer service.  To Michael everyone appears, even sounds the same.  The world has become streamlined and boring and he has lost hope in anything but a robot-like existence.

anomalisa8He ends up making his way to his hotel, briefly having dinner with an old flame and then meeting a woman named Lisa who has come to hear him speak.  She fascinates Michael because of a scar on her face and something different in her demeanor and personality. As they get to know each other better he refers to her as Anomalisa (an anomaly named Lisa).  They become more intimate and then the story plays out more or less how you might predict.

anomalisa3So, let’s address the elephant in the room.  As someone who doesn’t usually watch a lot of rated R content, there was a lot in Anomalisa I had to skip over.  That is why I didn’t feel I could give it a true ‘review’. I skipped at least 20 minutes of the film.  The sensuality and language in Anomalisa is extremely strong.  Even with skipping I was still shocked at how R rated it truly is.

I actually think this is more than just a moral problem with the film.  The first 2/3rd you have interesting character development and then the final act with all the sexuality becomes kind of expected and one note.  I wonder if being sexually daring may have created a distraction on the core story and message? Needless to say, I didn’t feel I missed anything by skipping over it and if that’s the case was it really that important?

anomalisa7Charlie Kaufman’s messaging in Anomalisa is a pretty cynical one and definitely won’t be for everyone.  Michael loves Lisa because she is different, an anomaly; however, when they eat breakfast together her mannerisms start to drive him crazy.  He then starts to see her as everyone else and has a kind of manic episode while delivering his speech.  Kaufman seems to be asking ‘are we all the same’ and if we are- what’s the point in living in all that sameness?

anomalisa2I’m not really sure Kaufman has an answer, which is very depressing.  Maybe it’s just to have sensual experiences or to hope to find an actual anomalisa one day? That if we keep trying we will find something unique?  Like I said, it’s a pretty cynical message.

That said, I do relate to the message in a certain way.  When I was unhappy in my work the world did feel the same- just rows of cubicles and repetitive acts with no meaning or love attached to them.  I was miserable and it’s hard to be hopeful when mundanity  has taken over your life.  I know I would rather do anything than work at desk with a cubicle like the scores of Lisas do in Michael’s dream.

anomalisa19There’s even a philosophic concept behind Kaufman’s visuals.  It has to do with the reality of ‘the other’. When we meet another human being we are immediately struck by their sense of being or their humanity.  Then we, in an attempt to order what’s around us, turn them into the same.  So, a person is human but then they are a more of the same- a woman, an ethnicity, age, race, religion etc.  We all do it. It’s human nature.

Once someone is the same they can be treated differently than when they are a unique being.  We can see that in Michael’s treatment of Lisa.  When she is an anomaly she is prized but as soon as she is the same he is done with her.

anomalisa12I guess where I wonder about Kaufman’s cynicism is can you really know someone’s sameness or uniqueness from one night of sex? Most of what Michael is depressed over comes from kind of superficial observations and even with Lisa he really doesn’t get to know her very well before judging  her as both an angel and then a bland bore. But then again, that’s kind of what happens when we are depressed so maybe that’s what Kaufman is trying to show?

Actor David Thewlis voices Michael Stone as he engages in puppet showering, puppet profanity, puppet nudity and puppet hallucinations.

It’s another reason I think the sensuality becomes a distraction in the last third of the story.  I really wanted to find out more of why Michael is so cynical and depressed.  I mean we’ve seen the morose suburbanite contemplating sameness so many times (American Beauty, Birdman…) that aside from the stop motion I’m not sure what is so new about Kaufman’s insight here?

Even his wife’s attempt to throw a surprise party is seen as more of the same to Michael.  What could make him happy?  Evidently it is finding more Anomalisa’s but since the Anomalisa was a disappointment it seems a hopeless endeavor?  I don’t think Michael will ever find what he is looking for, which is very depressing.

anomalisa5My final thoughts on Anomalisa is it is striking and beautiful in many ways.   I like the core idea of examining sameness and the other but it’s not exactly new to cinema. Sure the animation is different and the adult content shocking, but Kaufman is so relentlessly cynical it becomes frustrating.  In many ways the cynical answer is kind of easy where a more hopeful one takes work and a more complex view of human beings.

I wish instead of spending the final third act shocking the audience with sexual content Kaufman had explored some kind of solution for Michael.  I’m not saying he has to be happy and everything be solved but maybe a more complicated answer than we are all robots and there is no hope would be more thought provoking?

But that said, I do appreciate the artistry and ambition of Anomalisa.  It’s definitely something that will make you think about your own life and if you are an Anomalisa or just like everyone else. (Also are you judgemental like Michael and TURN everyone into the same when they are actually unique?). I appreciate the questions the film asks and the way it is animated.  I think the third act gets distracted with the adult content but as I skipped over some of those segments there may be insight I missed.

No grade from me for Anomalisa, as this is not a review, but I hope that insight was helpful.  Make sure you know this is a strong R rated film and definitely not for everyone.  Even skipping the sexual content, there is a lot of profanity and vulgarity, so be forewarned.

So what did you think of Anomalisa?  I will definitely be curious for your thoughts on this one!

Rankin/Bass 9: Year Without a Santa Claus

yw santaSorry I have gotten a bit behind on my Rankin/Bass month what with that little thing called Star Wars! Luckily they have a lot of non-Christmas specials so I should be fine stretching it into January where hardly any good movies come out.

One thing I’ve learned about these Rankin/Bass specials is they all have a kooky weirdness to them.  I don’t know if you notice it as much when you watch one a year like a normal person.  At least it is more noticeable watching them in a block like I have been.  I’ve been wondering why some of them are weird and work and others miss the mark?  I’m not sure but I think the weirdness is better as an embellishment than the whole story.  Like in Jack Frost the story was pretty good and so it made it better to have weird touches.

Anyway, The Year Without a Santa Claus is definitely one of their more successful entries and it is also full of strange elements.  Released in 1974 it is a stop motion 48 minute special that tells the story of the year Santa decides to stay at home!

yw santa-2Santa, you see, is in need of a break and his doctor tells him to ‘forget delivering presents to those ungrateful kids who don’t believe in you and stay home!’ (amazing how many people in these specials hate Christmas!).  Santa listens and Mrs Claus and the elves Jingle and Jangle are horrified (you think he could just take a day off and not the entire year!).

Jingle and Jangle decide to take a young reindeer named Vixen (they both ride the little reindeer like a horse which looks very strange) to find proof for Santa that someone believes in him.

They are stopped in their quest by the Miser Bros’ who rule the clouds- Heat Miser and Snow Miser who hate each other.  I liked these character’s designs and behavior.

yw santa-6They end up in a town called Southtown where they try to find anyone who believes in Santa but Vixen becomes sick and nearly dies.  Mrs Claus comes and they meet a boy named Ignatius Thistelwhite who doesn’t believe but his father believes.

yw santa-5Then they must go and find Mother Nature in order to convince Heat Miser and Snow Miser to work together so that the town and Ignatius will believe in Santa.

yw santa-4Santa then comes to save Vixen but before that we get a very melancholy version of Blue Christmas sung by a little girl with lots of stop motion tears.  Rankin/Bass loves the stop motion tears!

yw santa-9Santa eventually see’s the error of his ways and makes everything right in the end.

yw santa-7I mean come on- you hear that description it’s pretty creative right?  It’s wacky and nutty but very creative.  In one 48 minute short we have elves, dying reindeer, Santa playing hooky, Mother Nature, Heat and Snow Miser and a girl singing Blue Christmas. That’s great!

There are also some really nice songs with good performers.  I like I Could Be Santa Clause, I Believe in Santa Claus, The Snow Miser and Heat Miser Songs, Blue Christmas and Hear Comes Santa Claus.  They are all well sung and some of the best writing from Maury Laws and Jules Bass.

At least to me this is just wacky, weird fun:

I also like Year Without a Santa Claus is a little less heavy-handed in its messaging than some of the other Christmas shorts.  It is mostly about Santa with a thin message of believing in things and being kind.

The animation is also a little more seamless than some of the other shorts and I really liked the colors in scenes like at Heat Miser’s castle.

Scenes like this are just so nutty and silly:

It’s certainly one of my favorite of the Rankin/Bass specials.  Have you seen it?  What did you think?

Rankin/Bass 8: Nestor the Long Eared Christmas Donkey

nestor2One thing you have to give Rankin/Bass credit for is their creativity.  Maybe it’s partly running out of Christmas stories to tell but even their Rudolph special (that review is coming on Christmas Day if you were wondering) they were very creative having plot points like an elf that wants to be a dentist. You can certainly see such creativity on display with their short Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey. I mean have you ever seen a film about a long-eared donkey?  I haven’t until this one!

No doubt taking cues from Dumbo, Nestor is a donkey during the time of the Romans with abnormally large ears that go down to the ground.  For some reason they decided to give this story a folksy narrator donkey named Spieltoe voiced by Roger Miller.  It never quite fits with the feel of the short.

As if having long ears isn’t trial enough things go from bad to worse for poor Nestor.  The opening scenes soldiers come and take all the donkeys except Nestor including his mother.  Then Nestor is thrown out by the farmer and he and all the animals are really mean.

nestorNestor and his mother are caught in a blizzard and the next morning his mother has died. (It really is quite a grim film for a Christmas special!).

nestor7Then Nestor meets an angel who tells him to travel to Bethlehem because “your ears can do wondrous things no other ears can do”.  Then he and the angel travel across desert and have quite the journey.

nestor4When they arrive near Bethlehem Nestor is seen as unneeded so the owner sells him to Mary and Joseph for cheap so she can get to Bethlehem.  It is a perilous journey but “he follows the voices of the angels” and Nestor helps them find the stable to have he Christ-child.

nestor5I expected the film to end with Nestor staying at the nativity stable but in an odd turn he goes back to the original stable where they were so mean to him and he is treated like a hero.  This is strange because how would they know what he had done in Bethlehem and why would he want to go back there?

I give them huge points for creativity on this one and  it’s harmless enough.  The animation is quite good as it is one of their later films (1977).  And I’m always up for stories about characters who fight bullies and come out on top.

However, the film is so gloomy for a Christmas picture.  Almost nothing but death, rejection and persecution happens to Nestor until the very end.  Also the ending didn’t really make sense to me.  I also found he music, while pleasant to not really fit the tone and characters very well.

So over all I’d say see this as a curiosity and to see their creativity but it is not a favorite of mine.

Rankin/Bass 5: The Little Drummer Boy

drummer boy8Oddly enough there aren’t very many holiday specials or films for that matter that focus on Jesus Christ- the reason for the season!  And that is truly one thing that stands out about the Rankin/Bass film The Little Drummer Boy.

Before reviewing this film I must own The Little Drummer Boy is not a carol I particularly enjoy.  It’s nice sung by a choir but I guess I prefer the Christmas songs that I can sing easily by myself and ‘rump a pum pum’ doesn’t work with only one!

That said, the Little Drummer Boy is about a boy named Aaron who has a magic drum that charms his friends a donkey, sheep and camel. The animation is not very fluid in this movie but I oddly got used to it after a while.

drummer boy

Life seems good for him but one night his family is killed and his home is burned to the ground by roughians.  That’s right.  They don’t mess around in this film!  It’s pretty dark to begin with.

drummer boy4Then a man named Ben Haramad abducts Aaron and forces him to join his circus of nitwits.  Aaron becomes very bitter towards the people watching him in the circus and to Ben.  At one point Ben paints a smile over Ben’s face because he refuses to smile for the crowds.  It looks kind of like the Joker.

drummer boy9Aaron meets a group of Wise Men from East heading towards a new born King.  Aaron escapes but as they head to Bethlehem Aaron’s sheep is injured and near death.

drummer boy5Aaron presents his sheep before the Christ-child and plays his drum as his gift. The sheep is healed and Aaron feels joy.  It’s really quite a lovely moment.

drummer boy6I was ready to give this one a pass at first- especially when it got so grim and sad but by the end it had won me over.  I liked seeing the character arc of Aaron and the whole sequence at the nativity was lovely.

The other standouts are a great voicecast with Greer Garson, Teddy Eccles, Jose Ferrer, Paul Frees, and June Foray

The music is also really special by Rankin/Bass regulars Maury Laws and Jules Bass.  I particularly loved the Vienna Boys Choir throughout which fit for a story about a little boy.

Of course we get our title song and I think it was all handled beautifully.

So The Little Drummer is definitely a film worth a watch.  It’s only 25 minutes (made in 1968) so what have you go to lose!

Rankin/Bass 3: The First Christmas Snow

first christmas9The next entry I’m looking at in my Rankin/Bass month is the 22 minute program The First Christmas: The First Christmas Snow.  The rather ungainly title refers to a nativity play put on but really the The First Christmas Snow is more the plot of the special.

first christmas3The First Christmas Snow unfortunately is one of the weaker entries I’ve seen but that’s not to say it doesn’t have some positive elements.  It’s just very syrupy and preachy.  More along the lines of something you’d watch as a kid in Sunday School to teach a principle than a real piece of cinema.

It tells the tale of a little blind boy named Lucas who is lost in a storm watching over his sheep and some nuns including Sister Theresa take him in and care for him.  Theresa is voiced by Angela Lansbury and I could listen to her all day.  Basically little Lucas gets to know the nuns and starts to feel at home with his sheep at the monastery.

first christmas7But mean old Father Thomas (Cyril Ritchard) doesn’t think it is the right place for a little boy and insists he be taken to the orphanage.  But Lucas and his friend Louisa pray for a miracle and they get what they ask for and more.  Lucas is also trying to thwart off pranksters who lose his sheep and also trying to find the perfect gift for Sister Theresa.

first christmas2there’s a Christmas pageant where Lucas and Louisa are our angels (did any of you doubt that would be the case?)

first christmas6The thing that makes this bit watchable and sweet in its own way is the songs.  Angela Lansbury sounds completely lovely singing White Christmas, Christmas Snow is Magic and Save a Little Christmas.

first christmas8The stop motion is fine but not the best I’ve seen from Rankin/Bass and it’s just so syrupy it is hard to recommend- and that’s coming from an adamant apologist for many Christian films.

If you need to have a sub for Sunday School and want to teach about faith and miracles it would be a fine choice but I can still think of better. Honestly any of the veggietales shorts would be better with a similar message.

first christmas5So this will definitely be near the bottom of my Rankin/Bass rankings if I do one but luckily it is only 22 minutes and I can stand just about anything for that long.