‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’ Review

If you have been following this blog you know I am not a huge fan of Illumination Studios. In particular their popular yellow gibberish talkers, the Minions, drive me bonkers. Occasionally they will give us a break from our yellow tick-tacks with a Sing or The Secret Life of Pets– my 2 favorite from the studio most of their offerings are mediocre at best. Pets is particularly memorable for me because it was the first time I went on Rotoscopers podcast and it helped inspire me to podcast more. Now we have The Secret Life of Pets 2 and to my surprise I really enjoyed it!

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One of the challenges of these films is how many characters they establish. It almost necessitates a Toy Storyish plot where they can all contribute little bits to the journey. This makes a sequel even more difficult because do you do more of the same or try to come up with something different? I know many were scared from the trailer The Secret Life of Pets 2 would end up being a copy of Toy Story 2, but that is not the case.

Instead they divide up our team into 3 smaller stories with a vague theme tying them together (almost like a package film or TV series). It definitely has an episodic feel and will do very well when aired on television, but I didn’t mind it. I can see how some will want a more over-all plot but each part was strong enough (particularly 2 out of 3) that I left entertained.

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The first plotline involves Max’s owner Katie getting married and having a child named Liam. Max is very protective over Liam and starts scratching himself out of the anxiety he feels. As someone who deals with anxiety this was handled pretty well and may be a good touching point to talk to kids about how to deal with these strong emotions. Plus the relationship between Max and Liam is very sweet and easy to relate with (it’s a dog and a baby. Who can dislike that?).

Max, Duke and the family end up going out to the country where they meet a sheepdog named Rooster voiced by Harrison Ford (I believe his first voice acting role?). Rooster is disgusted by Max’s cowardice and helps encourage him to face his fears and have more confidence. These scenes while predictable were charming and sweet.

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The second subplot is about Gidget (who is my favorite from the first film) trying to retrieve a bumblebee toy Max gave her to guard while he is away. The problem is the toy is stuck in the home of a crazy cat lady with dozens of cats! She even talks Chloe (my other favorite) into giving her lessons on how to be a cat. This section had some nice physical comedy and slapstick that made me laugh.

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The final plot centers around Snowball, the Kevin Hart voiced bunny who is convinced he is actually a super-bunny because of the way his owner plays with him. He meets a new doggie named Daisy (voiced by Tiffany Haddish, who evidently must be in ever animated film this year). Daisy is upset because she saw a baby tiger get taken by a mean man at the circus. Snowball and the team of pets must save the tiger and restore order to the city.

This was the least successful of the 3 plots. First of all, I felt bad  the circus  is once again dragged through the mud. Most circuses took very good care of their animals and there aren’t many reported instances of abuse or neglect. It would be illogical of them to do so since they need the animals to perform in the show. I don’t think the circus is much worse than any other zoo experience, and yet they are usually the evil villains (Dumbo was a better, more fair approach). However, this portrayal of the circus wasn’t really my problem. It’s that Snowball is irritating and the villains are bland. I got a little sleepy to be honest in this section.

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While some may not care for the episodic nature of the story in The Secret Life of Pets 2, I didn’t mind it. The characters are cute and there are enough laughs and heart to keep my interest. The  vocal performances are all good (Patton Oswalt does a good job subbing out for Louis CK) and like I said, the message on overcoming fears is really sweet.

Alexandre Desplat deserves a huge shout-out for the music. It really helped sell the comedic and action- filled scenes, making me smile. The ending credits are also very sweet and heart-warming.

I have no doubt The Secret Life of Pets 2 will make a boat-load of money but for once it is deserved. The pets are adorable and the 3 sections (especially 2 out of 3) are charming and helpful for kids. I still wish Illumination would challenge themselves artistically more but there’s value in a simple comedy where characters learn simple lessons. I walked out having had a pretty good time.

smile worthy

Overall Grade- 7 out of 10

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2018 in Animation

Today I wanted to share with you all a podcast I did with 3 of my friends on the year of animation in 2018. It’s a long one but we covered every release we could from the small to the large.

If you get to listen I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. What did you think about animation in 2018? Any disappointments or surprises?

My ranking of 2018 animation:

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse

2. Ralph Breaks the Internet

3. Incredibles 2

4. Sgt Stubby: An American Hero

5. The Night is Short Walk on Girl

6. Mirai

7. Maquia: When the Last Flower Blooms

8. Isle of Dogs

9. My Hero Academia: The Movie

10. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies

11. Tito and the Birds

12. Hotel Transylvania 3

13. Pokemon: the Power of Us

14. Liz and the Blue Bird

15. Next Gen

16. Smallfoot

17. The Grinch

18. Maya the Bee 2: the Honey Games

19. DC Superhero Girls: Legends of Atlantis

20. Early Man

21. Gnome Alone

22. Fireworks

23. Ice Dragon: Legend of the Blue Daisies

24. Sherlock Gnomes

25. Lu Over the Wall

26. White Fang

27. MFKZ

28. Duck Duck Goose

 

Pixar 40: Coco

I know I can hear you guys yelling at your screen ‘finally! She posts her review of Coco!’. It is long overdue, but I wanted to do it right because it is a movie that I loved. In fact, Coco was my favorite movie of 2017, and I saw nearly 150 new releases!

One of the great things that Disney has always done for little kids is help them understand the tough things of life. They have never been a studio that is satisfied to just make kids laugh. They took on themes of death, despair, frustration and anger in movies like Bambi, Dumbo, Lilo and Stitch and more. Pixar has also carried this torch with moving films like Up, Toy Story 3 Inside Out and Finding Nemo. Coco continues this proud tradition by being an important film about forgiveness, family and death. It is honest with children about the struggles of family life while still telling an engaging story with a likable protagonist.

Coco tells the story of a boy named Miguel who wishes to sing more than any thing else. Unfortunately his family is against singing and forbids him from entering a local talent show. On the Dia de los Muertos, Miguel decides to take the guitar from his grandfather Ernesto de la Cruz’s mausoleum to use in the show. This act of theft takes him into the World of the Dead where only his dead relatives can see him. He must get a blessing from a relative in order to return to the living and this is where the majority of our story lies. His dead relatives also hate music and want him to disavow it as part of their blessing. Then Miguel meets a man named Hector who is about to lose his spot in the Land of the Remembered unless his picture is placed on the offrenda.

In some ways Coco is predictable. We know that certain story beats are coming, but I thought they were executed really well and so they still worked for me. For example, when Ernesto proves to not be the person he is praised to be on earth it isn’t surprising but it still works because it feels surprising to Miguel. His response feels so genuine and sweet that it involves you into the story and his journey. I also love the way his relationship with Hector grows in a sweet and authentic way.

One of the things that has always bothered me about Bambi is we have this gut-wrenching scene of Bambi‘s Mother getting shot and then she is never talked about again. This is not a problem with Coco. The whole point of the movie is memories and how memories keep those we love alive in a tangible way. The song Remember Me tells us as much:

Though I have to say goodbye
Remember me
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you each night we are apart

Remember me
Though I have to travel far
Remember me
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you the only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
Remember me

My Grandfather died in 2001 and to this day when I think of him I start to cry. I miss him now as much as I did those many years ago. There was never a person like him in my life and there will never another. When I remember it helps me feel him close by and that our love has power to make my life better.

Honoring and finding out more about our ancestry is something that is also a very important part of my religion so the themes of Coco really rang true for me. Miguel begins to understand this importance as he grows increasingly desperate to save himself and Hector. When he is pleading before Grandma Coco it is one of the most emotional moments I’ve had watching a film in a long time. Please Grandma Coco! Don’t forget!

The artistry in Coco is also phenomenal and I love that they introduced me to a whole new culture. Yes, I have seen The Book of Life but that didn’t feel as immersive in Mexican culture as Coco (partly because it is narrated by a white tour guide…). Everything from the marigold petals to the offrendas was moving, beautiful and interesting.

Fortunately, Coco is also very funny with wonderful skeleton gags that will definitely make you smile along Coco’s cute dog Dante getting into trouble. For people that thought The Good Dinosaur was too drab and Cars 2 was too silly, Coco gets the tone just right making it a joy to watch.

Some of Miguel’s family can be a bit off-putting but I think it is similar to the families in movies like Footloose or Dirty Dancing where they don’t want the children in their lives to grow up and make mistakes. They think they are protecting them when they are actually limiting their joy. This is why Miguel’s victory in the end has added meaning and power. He has come to know for himself who he is and what really matters in life- family, tradition, music and love.

In some ways Coco reminds me of Coraline. Both movies are about young children who must learn to love and forgive their imperfect families and go into a magical world that tempts them to throw off that family. They both must fight for who and what is right (and they are both visually stunning films to boot!). Miguel just like Coraline learns the value of a single human soul and once he understands that he will do anything to save Hector. It’s the connection with the Other that separates us from the animals and this connection continues after death with our memories. This is the message of Coco.

Coco is a triumph in every possible way. The message is beautiful. The animation is stunning. The music is touching. The look at Mexican culture is immersive and wonderful. It’s the last original film we will have from Pixar for a little while, and I am going to treasure it.

Overall Grade- A+

Modern Mouse Radio: Life Lessons of Disney Princesses

Hey guys! I hope you are all doing great! Most of you know that I have a little podcast called Rachel’s Reviews  that I am extremely proud of. If you aren’t subscribed you should be because I produce pretty engaging content, much of it focusing on Disney and animation. Well,  last week I had the tables turned and I got to be interviewed on a podcast for once!

Josh over at the Modern Mouse podcast asked me to join him and talk all about Disney Princesses both official and not quite canon. In particular, we asked the question ‘which of the ladies carry the most social change and the best life lessons.”

I personally think all of them can teach you something and be a good example for kids but it was great having the discussion with Josh.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-lessons-disney-princesses-modern-mouse-radio-185/id1118717435?i=1000404142734&mt=2

https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/network-1901/e/53506883

Batman vs Two-Face Review

Last year Batman appeared in 4 films, only 1 of which I liked. It was a throwback to the old 1966 Batman TV show called Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders. I liked it because it had a sense of joy about it. I felt happy watching it and wasn’t put off like I was the other 3 films. This year so far I’ve seen 2 versions of Batman I really liked- Lego Batman and Justice League Dark. Both were well made and engrossing stories although different in tone. So now, before Justice League comes out, we have a sequel to last year’s best Batman film entitled Batman vs Two Face, and just like the last I enjoyed it very much. In fact, in many ways I think it is an improvement upon its predecessor, which is about all you can ask for in a sequel.

This version of Batman is of course campy and full of big pows and bams when they hit each other. Maybe it is nostalgia talking but I like that style. It’s a lot of fun to watch.

Adam West returns as Batman in his last role, which is neat to hear. It was worth doing this movie just so he could do that one more time! We also get to hear Burt Ward as Robin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman. Some people say that these characters sound old like their voice actors, but I don’t see it that way. They honestly sound like they have always sound to me. I think people have the image of them as old, so that makes the voice sound old but it doesn’t impact me.

But all that said, the real standout is William Shatner voicing Two-Face/Harvey Dent. He is fantastic doing both parts. It’s a shame this wasn’t discovered now because he could have been doing this part for years like Mark Hamill has done with the Joker. He was that good.

The script in Batman vs Two-Face is an improvement upon the original film. It is less episodic and a more of a compelling narrative. They sacrifice some of the jokes, but I was ok with that. They also limit the cameos, which were overflowing in the last film. Here it was really fun to see King Tutt and The Bookworm back with story arcs!

This is not a parody film like Lego Batman or the previous film. This is a Batman movie with a few jokes thrown in. They do a great job showing the two sides of Harvey Dent/Two-Face and the struggle that Batman has over his loyalty to Dent. Is he going to stay true to his friend or will he protect the city from Two-Face? It plays out in a compelling way.

If you like Batman and are open to different interpretations than I think you will really enjoy this film. The animation is good, it clips along nicely, it’s funny and is a great way to say goodbye to Adam West. I recommend it highly.

Content-wise it is fine for kids. There is a little bit of innuendo from Catwoman but nothing too bad.

DreamWorks 16: Flushed Away

Do you ever have those movies that you feel like you should like so you keep going back to hoping that time will do the trick? Flushed Away is such a movie for me. I love Aardman Animation. I love the voice cast and the story although generic would be fine if the execution worked for me. My nieces and sister  love it so that makes me want to love it. Sadly I watched it again today and walked away  not loving it or even liking it much to be honest. Let me try to explain why. Flushed Away is about a pampered rat named Roddy. He is the pet of a rich family and one day he is flushed down the toliet by a common sewer rat named Sid. This is the first problem. I hate Sid. He’s supposed to be funny but comes across as super annoying instead. Such is the case with many of Flushed Away’s characters.

The second problem is Roddy has no motivation as a character. He’s flushed down the toilet against his will and then spends the rest of the movie trying to get back home, except for him home isn’t family or something like that. It is luxury and fine living. Getting back to the high life doesn’t make for a super compelling character.

Once in the sewer he meets a tough talking rat named Rita who is trying retrieve a stolen ruby from an evil toad. She is doing this for her family, which gives her some motivation but in the end it is a buddy road trip movie and nothing more. I expect more inventive storytelling from Aardman Animation.

The villainous Toad has some fun moments but nothing that made me warm up to the movie as a whole. The animation is also very rough in patches with cgi trying to mimic the look of Aardman’s stop motion, which is  a real shame since I love their stop motion style. There are times when the rendering looks pretty bad. I realize it is way back in 2006 but it is the same year as Cars and Happy Feet- both films with way better animation. The next year would come Ratatouille, which just the Paris cityscapes  alone triumph over anything in Flushed Away.

A lot of the enjoyment of this film will come down to whether you find it funny. I did enjoy the singing slugs. They made me laugh and brought some good tunes into the mix. Unfortunately the rest of the jokes either annoys me or lands flat. Like I said, my sister and nieces think it is hilarious so it depends on your sense of humor I suppose.

I like the overall message about family and that even if they drive you crazy those bonds are special and should be treasured. Single life could have been portrayed with a little more nuance but it’s a movie for small children so I will give them that one. Most people will feel good with the message of the film.

Sometimes with films we just have to say ‘this one isn’t for me’ and that’s the case with Flushed Away. I see why other people enjoy it but it doesn’t work for me. I don’t enjoy watching it and really have no desire to watch it again. I recommend watching Pirates! or Shaun the Sheep Movie instead

Dreamworks 2: Shrek

So, I’m just going to rip the band-aid off guys- I don’t like Shrek. Is it awful? No but on the whole I don’t think it is a very good movie, and I will attempt explain in this review why.

It all started for me back in 2001 when I first saw Shrek and thought it was pretty funny. Particularly Eddie Murphy as Donkey made me laugh and since I wasn’t high on Disney then the parody of Disney films was funny. With anticipation I got it on vhs eager to repeat my positive experience, but to my surprise when I watched it again I realized- it wasn’t that funny any more.

Truly great comedies I can watch again and again laughing with each watch. For example, Monty Python and the Holy Grail I have seen I can’t tell you how many times and I still laugh. Even other parody films like Airplane! still make me laugh. From way back in 2001 that was never the case for me with Shrek.

And unfortunately when you take out the humor there isn’t that much going for it. The animation isn’t that great. Some of the voice work is shoddy (cough Cameron Diaz cough) and the story is actually pretty pedestrian and predictable.

Now that you all hate me let’s talk more about the movie.

Shrek is about an ogre in a fairytale land who likes living in his swamp by himself. One day he gets besieged by fairytale characters that have been evicted from the land by the evil Lord Farquaad. In order to get rid of said characters Shrek makes a deal that if he can rescue the Princess Fiona then he will clear his land.

Shrek goes on the quest with a sidekick donkey who drives him crazy but they put up with each other and they find her pretty quickly. Then the Princess and Shrek form a bond and she it turns out has a curse where she turns into an ogre every night. She must be kissed by her true love to break the spell. Fortunately at the end Shrek storms the castle and admits his love and she ends up remaining an ogre as her truest form.

I don’t know if you noticed reading that description that even with all its parody Shrek follows the basic princess movie formula perfectly. You have the damsel in distress that is rescued, cooky sidekick,  evil villain, forced marriage,  dramatic declaration of love and the breaking of a curse. I think this is why the jokes really aren’t that funny on rewatch because the story surrounding the jokes all becomes rote quite quickly. Real humor that lasts isn’t just parodying things of the moment but they tap into universal truths and themes any age can relate to. Again to use Monty Python as an example, their skits and movies will be funny for generations because they aren’t merely parodying but they are making fun of timeless institutions like marriage, love, warfare, sex, sports, and more.

The funniest scene in Shrek that still gets a laugh out of me is the gingerbread interrogation. This is because it is making fun of torture and torture scenes in movies we still often see today and it was separate from the more pedestrian narrative. It feels more surprising and relevant than the other humor.

As more of an adult, I also notice things that make me a little uncomfortable in Shrek like Snow White being described as “not easy”, Robin Hood making a joke about he likes to get laid, and Shrek teasing Lord Farquaad about his size and “do you think maybe he is compensating for something”. I hate that kind of humor in fairytales marketed to children.

I like Eddie Murphy as Donkey and Mike Meyers is fine but as I hinted at earlier Cameron Diaz is not a strong vocal performer. Her line readings sound the same whether she is happy, sad, angry, whatever. I really wish they had gone with a professional voice actress.

Other issues with the movie is the soundtrack. It has not aged well. Using pop music of the era by Smash Mouth and others immediately dates the movie. It would have been so much funnier if they had used the music to parody the Disney musical. This seems like such an obvious choice it is kind of baffling. Plus, the oddly sober choice of ‘Hallelujah’ thrown into the film does not fit at all.

The animation in Shrek is fine for 2001 but it is nowhere near the quality of Monsters Inc from Pixar that yea.  In that film, Sully’s fur was so lush and vibrant and the world building still feels fresh and fun. There is no scene, for example,  in Shrek that mirrors in animation quality the scene racing through the doors at the end of Monsters Inc. Not even close.

I also resent Shrek because I feel its success has really hurt animation. Ever since it became a phenomenon we have so many movies that put humor ahead of story, caring more about cheap cultural references and celebrity voice casting than crafting real art. Imagine in an alternate world if Prince of Egypt had been the Dreamworks’ film to really take off? Animation would be in a much better state than it currently is.

Oh what might have been…

Overall Grade- C-

BLIND SPOT 16: FROM UP ON POPPY HILL

Sometimes people think I have seen every animated film but in truth there are many I haven’t seen. Particularly in anime I have many holes. Well, this month for my monthly blind spot series I am checking a Studio Ghibli film off of my bucket list. Today we look at the 2011 film From Up on Poppy Hill.

This movie was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, who I still think was treated way too harshly for Tales from Earthsea which I enjoyed. However, this film is a definite step up for him as a director. It was written by his father Hayao Miyazaki but it reminded me the most of Isao Takahata’s film Only Yesterday. Both are films about the simple stories of every day people.

From Up on Poppy Hill will not be for everyone. Some will find it’s rather mundane story to be boring. I like slice of life films that let you walk in others shoes so I found it quite charming. It does not have supernatural characters or exciting events like many of the more popular Studio Ghibli films but sometimes I like gentler more calming films.

This tells the story of Umi and Shun. They are teenagers going to a boarding school who begin a sweet little relationship only to find out they are connected in unexpected ways. They are both children of single mothers and Uni’s mother is gone abroad most of the time. It is easy to see why these two are drawn to each other and have a connection.

At the same time there is an old building on campus where various clubs and organizations meet. The school wants to tear down the building and redevelop it into something new. The students meet and voice various ways to stop this from happening. Some are anarchists, some are more democratic and some want to protest. The girls suggest they fix up the building so that there is less reason to tear it down, which is what they do.

The animation From Up on Poppy Hill is gorgeous. I loved the watercolor feel to everything and the way the characters were designed in such approachable ways. There was nothing acerbic or strange like other Studio Ghibli films. This is just an extremely gentle, peaceful film.

There are some flaws with From Up on Poppy Hill. The music is a little too ever-present and a bit overbearing at times. Also the story does fall into melodrama on occasion but I didn’t mind that. It worked for the kind of story it was. After all, life can get melodramatic at times! Especially when you are dealing with love and romance!

So I would definitely recommend you watch From Up on Poppy Hill. It’s a sweet, simple movie about likable people growing up and figuring out who they are. I enjoyed it very much and it is beautifully animated to boot.

Overall Grade- B+

Dreamworks 1: The Boss Baby

So I announced a few days ago that I am going to be starting a Dreamworks series of reviews. In that post I gave a schedule for the reviews because I am not going to review them chronologically. However, I haven’t been able to post my Shrek review yet so I am making a change and having their latest release The Boss Baby as my first in the series. You guys all know how little I was looking forward to The Boss Baby, so let’s tear off this band-aid and talk about it.

The Boss Baby is extremely loosely based on a picture book by Marla Frazee. Since seeing it I’ve been trying to imagine the board meeting where this concept was pitched. “We are going to make a movie about a baby that’s a boss. It will be a big hit”. These people are going to devote years of effort and millions of dollars and yet somehow they decide a talking baby movie is a great idea? How does that happen?

Anyway, how does the movie turn out? There are positives: the lead character of The Boss Baby is a little boy named Tim who leads an idealistic life with a wild imagination. Occasionally the movie will dive into this imagination and those segments are bright, colorful and a lot of fun.

The animation on the whole is as good as we have come to expect from Dreamworks. I also enjoyed the music from Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro and there are a few nice moments of emotion between the two brothers.

You see little Tim’s ideal world is disrupted by a new baby brother who is delivered in a taxi cab, wears a suit and talks like Alec Baldwin. Tim’s parents are completely fine with their baby looking like this and arriving in this way, which is odd. It is such a strange way to start off a movie but it gets even stranger.

It turns out that in the world of this movie babies are made on an assembly line with some going to families and others to “management”. The lucky chosen babies for Baby Corp are taken directly from the assembly line to a cubicle in a vast office building where they will spend the whole of their lives. This seemed incredibly sad to me. I hated corporate work-life so much that I can’t imagine being stuck in a cubicle from the time you are born and never being mothered or loved. All they want is the great corner office. This felt sooooo strange coming from a baby. And this is never really resolved in the film. At the end Baby Corp still exists and the babies are still working in those cubicles…Yikes

A lot of the appeal of this film will depend on how funny you think it is to see Alec Baldwin take his Jack Donaghy shtick from 30 Rock into a baby. There are a few decent laughs but for me it was more annoying than humorous. At the very least it is extremely repetitive and the only other humor is of the toilet variety.

The other weird aspect of The Boss Baby is the idea of babies competing with puppies for love. At one point in the film, Boss Baby presents the babies with a chart showing babies losing love to puppies and how that is hurting the bottom line of Baby Corp. His goal is to spy on Tim’s parents who work for Puppy Corp and find out about a new breed they are releasing.

On one level this plot could be effective as children often fear losing love of their parents when a new sibling comes into the picture. Unfortunately here the wrong message is shown because a finite or limited amount of love is shown and never really resolved by the film. In real life of course, love doesn’t have limits. We can love 2 kids and then we get another and we can love 3. Love expands that way. So the idea that puppies will steal love from babies is just not true and could be kind of confusing for kids. Children need to know there is plenty of love for them not that there are limits.

But all of that wouldn’t matter if it was funny or engaging in other ways but The Boss Baby just isn’t. It quickly falls into a poorly executed Toy Story/Secret Life of Pets copy. After all, you have the main character leading the perfect life and then the newcomer disrupting it. They hate each other and then must learn to work together. Sound familiar…

Particularly the last 30 minutes go completely off the rails with a boring villain, chases, races, and a trip to Vegas. It just doesn’t work and becomes pretty generic and boring.

Here is my youtube review. I would really appreciate it if you gave it a like or subscribed to my channel if you haven’t yet:

But I don’t know if I could ever personally get over the weird premise and a baby that’s a boss. It’s just not for me. If the trailers appeal to you then maybe you will enjoy it. I definitely think it goes with Home and Shark Tale as one of the worst Dreamworks films.

Overall Grade- D+ and yes I’d rather watch Rock Dog than this…Get it together Dreamworks!!