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+

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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!!

 

Dreamworks Blog Series Announcement

Hi friends! So you have voted and decided that my new blog series is going to be reviewing the Dreamworks Animation Canon. I’m not going to lie I wish you had selected some of the other options, but there should be many great films I am going to review. Before I start the series I thought I’d explain a few things about how it is going to go down.

I am not a big fan of Dreamworks’ comedies for the most part. They tend to be a bit broad in the humor and weak in stories for my taste. However, I will go into them with an open mind and hope to be surprised.

Obviously I want this to be a pleasant experience for me, so I have decided to not review the series in chronological order. I have created an order that mixes the comedies and dramas and the weak and stronger films so I will enjoy it more. I have also decided to include the Aardman movies even though I don’t really consider them true Dreamworks films. The series will be more fun if I include them.

So here goes. I will review the Dreamworks films as follows:

Shrek

Prince of Egypt

Over the Hedge

Antz

Road to El Dorado

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Madagascar

Shrek 2

Shark Tale

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Ware Rabbit

Shrek 3

Kung fu Panda

Madagascar 2

Flushed Away

Sinbad: Legend of the 7 Seas

How to Train Your Dragon

Shrek 4

Megamind

Chicken Run

Kung fu Panda 2

Monsters vs Aliens

Madagascar 3

Puss n Boots

Bee Movie

Rise of the Guardians

Turbo

The Croods

Home

Mr Peabody and Sherman

Trolls

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Penguins of Madagascar

Kung fu Panda 3

Are you excited for this project? I hope so.  What do you think of my order and what are your favorite Dreamworks films?

Lego Batman Movie Review

lego-batman-logoBack in 2014 there was a surprise little movie that took the world by storm called The Lego Movie. Going into it I thought it would be a pun-filled toy movie but it actually was a visually gorgeous, funny, heartfelt treatise on the way children play and think. The Lego Movie showed the randomness of a child’s brain and it had an emotional story between a father and a son that nobody was expecting. It was also so beautiful the way everything flowed like a world of legos really would. In my opinion, The Lego Movie is one of the best animated films of the last 5 years.

So, it was with great anticipation that I went to see the spin-off film The Lego Batman Movie today. The trailers have been hilarious and as I am not the biggest Batman fan I was looking forward to seeing everyone else’s sacred franchise taken down a few pegs. And the result?  While I do not think it is as good as The Lego Movie, it is still an entertaining spoof comedy movie that I think any animation or comic book movie fan will enjoy.

lego-batman5The best thing about Lego Batman Movie is the pacing. The jokes start literally before the WB logo and they never stop. This version of Batman is dry, sarcastic and lonely. Most of the movie is various characters like Robin, Barbara Gordon and Alfred trying to get through to him and make him lower his pride to admit he needs help. Robin voiced by Michael Cera is Bruce Wayne’s ward Dick Grayson and is energetic and clingy. Of course, this rubs Batman the wrong way!

lego-batman4But the main thrust of the film is from Zach Galifianakis’ Joker who is upset with Batman because he won’t admit they are arch-rivals and need each other. You get some especially good jokes about Batman v Superman and other Batman versions within the interactions with Joker.

legobatman2The jokes come quick in Lego Batman Movie and Will Arnett is amazing in the role but they also pack in quite a bit of story into the 104 minute run time. There’s a lot of action and literally every Warner Bros character I could think of.

The animation was also bright and colorful and a lot of fun to watch. The only problem is it lacked the flow of legos that we had in the Lego Movie. When Emmet in Lego Movie would dive into water the waves looked like legos. You don’t really get that here. I guess that’s fine because it is a comic book world where Lego Movie was more of a fantasy world, but I was more dazzled by Lego Movie’s animation.

lego-batman3Also, there’s something about The Lego Movie that felt more memorable. Maybe it’s partly me not being that big of a Batman fan. It felt enjoyable but not something that will stick with me for years to come like Lego Movie did. It’s more of a solid entertaining animated comedy rather than a game changer.

But those are a small criticisms to a very good film. Your entire family will like it and it was certainly nice to see something self-aware and humorous from the world of comic book films and DC.

If you see it let me know what you think. How does it compare with Lego Movie to you?

Overall Grade- B+

My Life as a Zucchini (or Courgette) Review

my life as a zucchini posterI think I could have subtitled this review- Grown Ups Suck! In fairness there are some lovely adults in My Life as a Zucchini but boy the one’s that suck, REALLY SUCK! This is such a hard review to write but I just wanted to state that out-front and get it out of the way.

So let’s talk about the Oscar hopeful My Life as a Zucchini.  This is a stop motion animated film out of Switzerland that could receive 2 nominations come Tuesday (it is up for best foreign and animated film). On the whole I’d say those nominations will be deserved if they come.  This is a challenging, but rewarding film with amazing animation that draws you into the experience.

It’s very hard to talk about this film without giving out spoilers but I will do my best. Basically it is about a little boy nicknamed Zucchini who’s Mother dies in a shocking way to start out the movie. He then goes to live in a group home for troubled orphans. There he meets a mostly friendly group including a girl named Camille and a rebellious boy named Simon.

zucchini-main-imageThe plot is fairly simple from there. It’s about these kids and how they become a family and help each other overcome their traumatic upbringings.

Just as an example, one of the girls has a hideous aunt who wants to remove her so she can get the foster care money for caring for her. The kids must then figure out a way to protect their friend when the adults fail.

In a way, My Life as a Zucchini is kind of like Annie but there’s not just one Miss Hannigan. Each child seems to have their own Miss Hannigan nightmare, which is probably fairly accurate for the type of child in a group home like this.

That may sound like a real downer and it can be but the film also interjects comedic segments into the story that really work. It can be a quite joyous film and in a way the brutal sequences make the joy more sweet and precious for the kids.

There is also a nice chemistry between the kids.  They feel real and genuine with a terrific English dub cast. These are not the typecast kids you might get in a film like Hook where there is the rebel, fat kid, sweet kid etc. These children are unique and are all pretty well portrayed. The script takes time for small moments of character development  like when one orphan finds a pair of ski goggles on holiday. The owner accuses him of stealing them but he is so happy with them that her daughter gives them to the orphan in a lovely gesture. This isn’t even our lead character and yet it is such a touching moment of human empathy. courgette02When I got out of the theater I tweeted that My Life as a Zucchini was an unusual mixture of the brutal and adorable and that’s really true. It’s like  if Sesame Street had a ‘life kind of sucks’ episode. One of the ladies outside of the theater compared it to Bambi but I don’t agree with that. Bambi has a sad event take place where My Life as a Zucchini is more about pushing through when all of life seems to be out to get you. It’s about finding family, hope and joy in the midst of everyday struggles.

One character in particular, Simon, is particularly well written. Again, he could easily be the rebel kid we’ve seen in a million of these stories but he’s not. There’s a point where he is very envious of Zucchini and Camille but he still gives a loving response. He still tells them that they have to do what is best for them despite him wishing he could be so lucky. It was a beautifully written scene. zucchini-statueIt was really cool after the screening they showed us one of the puppets of Zucchini and told us about the making of the film. Stop motion always blows me away and this is no exception. They did a tremendous job making the characters come alive. The eyes were particularly expressive. It is a tremendous accomplishment and they deserve all the praise they are getting in the animation department.

courgette31There were some children in attendance at my screening but I have to say if I was a parent I would be a little reticent about showing them My Life as a Zucchini. Not that I think children should be sheltered but it’s a lot of bad behavior for a kid to absorb in just one movie. We would certainly have to do some major talking after about addiction, selfishness, wrong choices, poor parenting and the reality of evil. We would also have to talk about the power of friendship, family and love that does pull through in the end for the characters.

It’s a movie of contrasts I suppose, but in my opinion it’s not really a movie for small children, which is fine but perhaps the animation style would lead you to believe otherwise.

I feel like this review is a bit all over the place and that is because I kind of feel that way about this film. It’s shocking, sweet, beautiful, funny, upsetting and adorable all at the same time. A side of me wonders if on rewatch this could become one of my favorite animated films of the year. The writing and animation is strong enough but it’s just so different I’m not there yet.

I certainly recommend seeing it and participating in this unique experience on film. In a way it is kind of like the 400 Blows in animated form! It’s not every day you can use that in a review! If you do see it let me know what you think. I will definitely do a spoiler review in the future and dive into the plot in more detail than I can here, so keep an eye out for that.

For now I give My Life as a Zucchini…

Overall Grade- B+

Animation Pitch Session!

So I just participated in a really fun podcast over on my youtube channel. My friend’s Josh and Mark joined me to do a pitch session for ideas for animated films and series. I got the idea after I was so depressed with the upcoming 2017 slate. So I decided the studios need better ideas and my friends and I could give them some!

The way the pitch session worked is there are 4 sessions. Each of us pitched an idea of why it would be good. Then we could ask questions to flesh out the ideas. Then at the end of the round we each must vote for an idea that is not our own. The idea with the most votes wins the round. Then we do the same thing for the final 4 ideas and a winning idea is selected!

I liked all of our ideas and would love to hear your feedback. Here are polls so you can vote on what you like

We really had a blast doing this so hopefully we will do it again soon. The beginning of the video google hangouts wasn’t switching off the way it should but hopefully you can listen to it just fine.

Anyway, let me know what you think!

Trolls Review

trolls-2016-movie-1Today I got the chance to see the latest film from Dreamworks, Trolls. This is a film I wasn’t looking forward to as the trailers had been frankly terrible (need I remind you of the twerking troll that we can never forget…). But, I always try to go into films with an open mind, and this was no exception. So what did I think of Trolls?

Well, it’s not awful but it is very uneven.

trolls-movieBased on the old toys from the 90s, Trolls is a simple story geared towards little children. It is about Poppy (Anna Kendrick) the happy troll and Branch (Justin Timberlake) the grumpy troll who must work together to save the rest of the trolls from the evil bergens.

Along the way they sing pop songs…this is where some of that unevenness comes in. A few of the songs work like the catchy Can’t Stop the Feeling but most are complete throw-aways and most aren’t very long. For example, they sing Sound of Silence or September for under a minute, which feels weird to have all these abbreviated numbers. Trolls isn’t a very long movie and it felt like the songs were often there to puff up a weak script.

trolls4Once Branch and Poppy get to the bergen village the movie changes from a road trip to a Cyrano de Bergerac story where Poppy and the trolls work to help a scullery maid named Bridget get the self confidence to court the Bergen prince. This part I didn’t really enjoy very much and I particularly found Bridget to be an annoying character very badly voiced by Zooey Deschanel.

trolls3That said, there was a cheerfulness to Trolls that was infectious and made me smile. There were some nice moments of heart between Branch and Poppy and overall I think little kids will be entertained.

It’s very similar to Angry Birds Movie, so if you liked that than you will love Trolls. The message is a little better but the plots are very similar.

The voice casting was uneven. Like I said, I hated Zooey Deschanel but Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake were fine, and they certainly have the singing chops for the roles.

characters_bergens_birdgetUnfortunately the biggest surprise for me was the uneven animation. I love the felt feel to the character design on the trolls but did not like the design of the bergens. I know they are supposed to be the bad guys but I had a hard time watching them.

Most of the animation had a Lisa Frank 90s bright colors feel but then there were sections where the rendering felt cheap and surprisingly weak. Parts reminded me of low-budget fair like the Tinkerbell movies.

So, Trolls is passable entertainment. If you have small kids they will probably like it. It has some nice animation. It has a few fun songs but it also has some poor animation and annoying songs. It has characters I liked and didn’t like. It’s just a mixed bag movie if I ever saw one.

It’s certainly a million times better than last year’s Home so there is that to be grateful for.

Overall Grade- C

Check out my youtube review

Your Name (Kimi no Na wa) Review

your-name3So today I couldn’t sleep so I decided to see the recent Japanese hit Kimi no Na Wa or Your Name for English viewers. This film has made $158 million US dollars in Japan and after watching it I can see why. It is a total and complete delight and one of the best romances I have seen in years.

Your name is by director Makoto Shinkai and it is about a girl named Mitsuha who lives in a country town. One day she laments on her boring life and how she wishes she could be a handsome boy in Tokyo. Well, wouldn’t you know the next day she ends up in the body of a boy she’s never met in Tokyo named Taki.

your-name6This starts a first act that we’ve seen before in movies like Freaky Friday but it really works. Both Taki and Mitsuha have very different lives aside from being different genders (which they mine for great comedy). They are from different classes, have different types of friends and even eat different foods. They don’t just settle for easy antics but think of small details like Mitsuha’s awkwardness paying for Taki’s expensive meals.

your-name4What also makes it very clever is they switch back and forth each day so that keeps it fresh. They start to leave notes for each other on their hands, in notebooks and on their cell phones. And through living each other’s lives they become good friends. It’s all very clever.

Then we get to the final acts and the film takes a bit more of a serious tone but I won’t give any more of that away. Needless to say both parts completely worked for me. Both Taki and Mitsuha were so likable and the tension and stress built naturally. It reminded me a lot of Mamoru Hosoda’s Summer Wars which I also LOVE.

your-name5The animation is completely stunning with lots of emphasis on light giving a hopeful tone even when things looked grim. They also managed to make both the countryside and city look like a fantasy world because that’s kind of what it is to the characters living in different bodies.

your-name-2I know some people just don’t like anime as a rule and if that is you it’s a real shame. Because I honestly believe a movie like Your Name has something for everyone. It is funny, sweet, romantic and tense at times. It has great characters and a creative story. It’s beautifully animated and has wonderful music from a band called Radwimps.

It’s a real achievement for Makoto Shinkai who did everything from the writing, directing, editing and everything else. Wonderful!

Overall Grade A+

Long Way North Review

long-way-north2For the most part the 2016 animated blockbusters have been excellent. Even the middle tier films like Storks and Secret Life of Pets weren’t half bad. That said, I wish I could convince more people to enjoy the equally strong indie animated scene of 2016. We have had great films like April and the Extraordinary World, Only Yesterday (which grows on me more I see it), Miss Hokusai Phantom Boy and now Long Way North!

Directed by Rémi Chayé, Long Way North, is like nothing else you will see this year in animation. It is a small 2D animated adventure that uses color blocking to create a unique visual style.

long-way-north5Rémi said about the style:

“What interests me is the emotion. I want animators to spend time on the characters’ emotions. I don’t want them to spend time tracing details or pulleys. That’s why the graphic style is so simple. No buttons, no laces, no folds in the clothes. So for the ship, the train, the dog sleds, the carriages, we made 3D objects”

This was so beautiful to watch!

The story is set in 1882 Russia where a girl named Sacha is worried about her grandfather who left for the North Pole and never returned. His failed expedition has become a joke and her family is disgraced. She then sets out on an expedition to find her grandfather and redeem her family name.

Adobe Photoshop PDFMy favorite part of the story was Sacha as a character. She is a strong female character but not in a cliched way. She has diva moments where she doesn’t want to let go of her aristocratic ways and I liked that. She felt human and was fallible and grew over the course of the movie.

long-way-north-sacha-voiced-by-chloe-dunn-in-the-northI also liked once they got to the North Pole how things didn’t play out exactly the way I thought they would. Honestly I could have spent even more time there as the adventure really got going then.

long-way-north-still-3-sacha-voiced-by-chloe-dunn-in-a-scene-from-long-way-northThe animation is stunning. I loved, loved, loved, loved it. There was a roughness to the lines and a brightness to the color palate that was so refreshing and beautiful. I think Rémi is right. The simplicity did help me to focus on the emotion of the scenes and Sacha as a character. It’s funny with everything trying to be realistic these days (ala Jungle Book) I get much more emotional truth out of animation like this that is mostly shape and color.

I also really enjoyed the music by Jonathan Morali and a rock band called Syd Matters. It felt modern but as Sacha was a modern voice in this world it worked for me.

long-way-north-sacha-voiced-by-chloe-dunn-and-katch-voiced-by-tom-perkins-set-sailUnfortunately, there were some negatives to Long Way North. I love a good adventure story but some will find Sacha’s story to be predictable.  This wasn’t a big problem for me but I do think they could have introduced more conflict earlier to make it a bit more interesting. For example, it does not take the narrative risks that April and the Extraordinary World takes.

Also I think the middle segment in the boat lasts a bit too long and I got a little bit bored (also that section was the least visually interesting in my opinion). Once they get to the North Pole it picks back up again and I was engaged.

sasha-at-ball

Even with a few issues, I think it is a very strong feature film for Rémi Chayé and he and his 2D animated team deserve tons of applause. Long Way North is a 100% European production with a studio in Paris of 20 animators, 15 layout artists and 20 cel painters and the staff is equally male and female (how refreshing is all of that!). I love what they produced here and can’t wait to see what comes next!

We need independent visually unique voices in animation so I hope you will seek out films like Long Way North and give them your support. Don’t be surprised if you hear about this one come Oscar season!

Overall Grade- B+ (I’ve gone back and forth between B and B+ but it is so pretty I will go with B+)