One of the best things to come out of Disney Plus is the return of the mid-budget family film from Walt Disney Studios. With the exception of their Disneynature brand, the studio for many years only made giant blockbusters with over $100 million budgets. This was a real shame because I love the small live action Disney films from my childhood. Films like Newsies,White Fang, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Brokenand The Journey of Natty Gann are practically as important to me as the Disney animated films. I’m so happy that a new generation of children will get films like these by way of Disney Plus!
Last year the best from Disney Plus in this department was Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. It is a sweet, well written film about an awkward child, dealing with trauma by setting up his own detective agency. It made my top films of 2020, and I absolutely loved it.
While not as good as Timmy Failure, this year’s first contender is the new film Flora & Ulysses. It is a very sweet film about a little girl named Flora who helps rescue (literally giving CPR)a squirrel named Ulysses that just might have superpowers!
Flora’s parents played by Alyson Hannigan and Ben Schwartz are going through a separation and obviously that is hard on everyone. Hannigan is fantastic as her mother who is also a romance novelist with writers block. They get a lot of laughs out of her book titles and covers and the fact she won the Jack and Rose from Titanic prize for writing.
I also thought Schwartz was warm and authentic as Flora’s aspiring comic book artist Dad. He is obviously very sad about what is happening to his marriage but not so much that he lets his daughter suffer.
The real star is young Matilda Lawler as Flora. She is so cute and I am extremely impressed this was her first film role. I predict we will be seeing a lot of her. Especially acting with a cgi creature is not easy and she did a fantastic job.
Parents of divorced kids might be a little annoyed by the ending of Flora & Ulysses and it is perhaps a touch too long but other than that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It will be a wonderful movie to watch for family movie night and all enjoy together. It’s so enchanting it will make you wish for your own super-powered squirrel!
8 out of 10
If you get to see Flora & Ulysses let me know what you think. Do you miss mid-budget live action films from Disney?
Before writing this review I realized I never did my blog review of Onward. I reviewed it on my youtube channel but it was such a crazy time in March I forgot to review it on the blog. I will do a longer review for Onward eventually but it will be out of order with Soul because I am short on time at the moment. (I enjoyed Onward for the record).
Honestly I have a lot of mixed feelings when it comes to reviewing Soul. I really debated how to best express myself. I even watched it twice to be sure of my thoughts (I don’t normally do that but it is an unsual film and I wanted to be sure).
Let me start out by saying I did enjoy the film. It is bold, ambitious and full of things to think about and discuss. I greatly admire Pete Doctor for making such a film and for Disney/Pixar to have the audacity to put $150 million into what is essentially a CGI arthouse piece.
And I think that is essentially the best way to view Soul. If we look at it as an experimental arthouse piece rather than a blockbuster feature film it makes more sense and is more satisfactory.
Now I am going to say something that might be unpopular: I don’t think Soul is for kids. It doesn’t have anything offensive, and I suppose some more philosophic children may like it, but I don’t think kids will enjoy the picture. It has no gateway for children to access the film like Inside Out did. In fact, it doesn’t have as much in common with Inside Out as many people are expecting (or at least I was expecting)
Inside Out has Riley as our entryway into the world of the brain. In addition, emotions are something easy for children to relate to. It’s also funny and sweet with scenarios kids can understand like losing a hockey game or moving to a new town.
Soul, on the other hand, is about a grown man named Joe who is struggling with the meaning of his life. He has questions like, should he settle for the teacher job or keep trying to get the big gig and share his love of jazz music with the world? Footnote- It’s kind of weird how the movie looks down on teaching (it makes sense for the character but just unexpected in a family film). Joe doesn’t have any children nor are there any children in his life aside from his students who are only briefly seen (nothing like Russell in Up for instance).
At the beginning of the film Joe gets his big break playing for a jazz legend at the Half Note Club. Unfortunately on his way home he falls through a man-hole in the street and goes to the afterlife. (This isn’t a spoiler. It’s right in the trailer).
The animation in these sequences is absolutely stunning. Some of the most beautiful blending of 2D and CG I’ve ever seen. This is when I wish I could have seen Soul on the big screen because the images combined with the beautiful score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross took my breath away. Stunning.
But back to the story, Joe doesn’t want to die, so he escapes the Great Beyond and meets a pre-earth spirit called 22. She is convinced Earth is a big scam and that life isn’t worth even attempting. Joe then helps 22 to find her spark, all the while coming to realize what his spark is (which may or may not be jazz).
22 voiced by Tina Fey is supposed to be our entry-point for children, but I don’t think she is. Maybe I’m wrong and kids will love it but the film strikes me as too heady with too slow a pacing for children? I think they will be bored. Are kids interested in career goals? Do they wonder whether our passions are satisfying enough without relationships? Do kids think a lot about what makes for a fulfilling life?
But let’s assume kids don’t like Soul. Is that a problem? I honestly don’t know. Instead of Inside Out I’d compare this movie to Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow shorts or his feature It’s a Beautiful Day. I admire Hertzfeldt’s philosophical films but they aren’t very rewatchable and not something I love. I like to think of myself as a pretty introspective person, but I suppose I go to religion for this type of spiritual nourishment rather than an animated film. Your mileage may be better than mine, but I guess I like to be entertained a little more when I go to the movies.
There are a few attempts at humor like a repeated gag with pizza that are fun. There’s also a funny section with a cat but it’s mostly a very serious slow meditation on the meaning of life. I definitely recommend seeing it (I actually think Disney Plus is the perfect spot for it to be honest) but have a journal handy to write about your experience and ask yourself questions like these:
What is your spark? Has your passion led you to an empty life? Can the passion be a lie? Is a spark what you do or is it innately a part of who you are as a soul of divine worth? Does your career or passions matter at all?
I’m still pondering what the film is trying to say, which is a good thing I suppose. It just makes writing this review difficult!
In the end, I admire Pixar and Pete Docter for making Soul. It’s a bold, ambitious, challenging film that will appeal more to adults than kids. Whether that is a problem I’m still pondering. I do wish it had tried to entertain me a little bit more as well as make me think. However, the animation is stunning and the music gorgeous. I recommend it but just know what you are getting yourself into before watching it.
Hey everyone! I’ve got some more mini reviews for you of films I’ve been seeing over the last few weeks. I have certainly been extremely busy with content to make and movies to watch and it’s not even Christmas yet!
Lapsis is a film I saw as part of the virtual Fantasia Film Festival 2020. It is a very interesting sci-fi film starring Dean Imperial as a man in future dystopian-like world who is desperate for work. His brother is sick and the bills are piling up so he decides to get a job laying cable for a giant corporation. As he embarks on an Appalachian trail type odyssey he grows to realize the reach of the company is bigger and stronger than he ever imagined including little robots he must compete with who are also laying down cable along with the humans.
As you can tell this film has an intriguing premise and for the most part I enjoyed it. The only major flaw with it is the ending is very abrupt. It feels like they ran out of funding and couldn’t finish the movie. Up until then I was really digging the strange take on work in the gig economy. Still there is enough good before the ending for me to recommend giving Lapsis a shot.
6 out of 10
Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe
I am only minimally familiar with the Phineas and Ferb program. I’ve watched a few episodes here and there and recently tried to get caught up with mos the first season. From what I’ve seen it’s a delightful show with a nice sense of humor and playful character designs.
Recently they released a new movie based on the show called Phineas and Ferb the Movie Candace Against the Universe. Despite my lack of familiarity with the characters I really enjoyed this movie. It had a lot of humor that worked, a playful sense of whimsy and as someone with 2 brothers a character in Candace I can definitely relate with. I didn’t feel confused as a non-watcher of the show. The animation is bright and colorful and the music is catchy. Your kids will love it.
7 out of 10
The Blech Effect
The Blech Effect is a documentary that tells the story of investor David Blech as he is about to go to prison for investors fraud. It was for the most part a fine documentary and it is interesting to see the preparation that goes into someone getting ready for a correctional institution. At one point they even have a prison consultant who’s assigned to tell David what the first day of prison life will be like.
The aspect I didn’t like is them painting him as a victim of the system. In particular the repeated use of his young autistic son as a reason to spare him punishment. I am sure raising a son with autism has its challenges but it’s not an excuse for committing crimes or a reason for leniency.
4 out of 10
The Lost Husband
On the surface The Lost Husband looks like a Nicholas Spark-like narrative with our heroine getting back to her roots while overcoming grief. Unfortunately it is missing key aspects that make those movies, sappy as they might, work.
The film stars Leslie Bibb as a widow who moves into a farmhouse with her aunt Jean (Nora Dunn). Farm living proves to be therapeutic for the city girl especially with hunky farm aid played by Josh Duhamel. The problem is the romance is barely developed and the big reveal does not pay off. It makes the entire film very bland and boring where it could have been good.
3 out of 10
When I finished watching the new drama Shooting Heroin I was left more than a little befuddled. The very dark film about a group of citizens that take back their small town from the ravages of addiction has the feel of a faith-based films but then it is loaded with f-bombs, drug abuse and violence. I can’t help but think who was this made for?
The story of the film revolves around Adam (Alan Powell), Hazel (Sherilyn Fenn) and Edward (Lawrence Hilton- Jacobs). All have lost loved ones to opioid addiction and they all do a good job with their performances. Addiction is a horrible blight on humanity and it impacts every family sooner or later. It took 2 of my cousins. So I was with this movie as far as messaging but the tonal shifts didn’t work. It’s not awful but just messy.
In many ways writing a review for a movie like Stargirl is difficult. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. It’s fine but there are a number of things about it that irritated me. If I didn’t have the binary requirements of rottentomatoes I would probably give it some form of meh but I must decide if it is good or bad so let’s talk about the pluses and minuses.
Before we start on the film I must own I was not a big fan of the book by Jerry Spinelli. I found it cloying and annoying but I know many loved the book. If you did, than you should love this movie. If, like me, you didn’t, than you will probably have mixed to negative feelings as they stick pretty close to the book (at least by memory. It has been a few years since I read it).
Anyway, Stargirl is about a young man named Leo Borlock (Graham Verchere) who becomes fixated on a new girl at school named Stargirl (Grace VanderWaal). Stargirl is your classic free spirit that sings with her ukulele (with no microphone!) at the school football games and wears weird clothes. She’s basically a manic pixie dream girl but in teenage form.
Like any MPDG Stargirl exists to help our male character come alive and get over his demons. She has no personal goals or ambitions. We learn almost nothing about her as a character. Is she a guardian angel? Is she an alien or some other kind of mythical creature? Maybe but she exists to help Leo be a better person and I dislike that in female characters. I am aware the tough girl trope can be just as cringeworthy but females are not there to pluck up our lonely males. It’s such a groan-worthy trope that I dislike.
That said, Stargirl has its heart in the right place. The film isn’t trying to make some grand statement on feminism or male/female relationships. They are just trying to make a movie about how a nice girl who see’s the good in people can make a difference. The film’s anti-bullying message is sweet and well done and should ring true to many teenagers.
I liked the chemistry between VanderWaal and Verchere and the supporting cast with actors like Giancarlo Esposito help make Stargirl more than the sum of its parts. The film also loves the Beach Boys just about as much as I do making the soundtrack very enjoyable.
Basically if you watch the trailer for Stargirl and it looks cute than you’ll probably enjoy it. If it looks super cringe-worthy than you probably won’t. It’s as simple as that. I’m in the middle on it but I think I was more annoyed than entertained.
One of my biggest laments in recent years is the practical abandonment of low budget live action films from the Disney Studios. Since The Queen of Katwe in 2016 (very underrated film) there has been almost nothing from the House of Mouse but remakes of their animated classics and you know how much I love those films…
However, one of the exciting things about Disney Plus is the studio now needs content badly and so by necessity they need to start up again making smaller live action films. So far they have released Noelle which was disappointing but passable. Then they had Togo, which turned out to be a delightful throwback to films like White Fang and Iron Will. I really enjoyed it!
Now we have their latest film Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made which may be my favorite of them all. Based on the books by Stephan Pastis, director Tom McCarthy of Spotlight fame has made a sweet, charming, funny film the whole family will love.
The film tells the story of an 11-year old boy named Timmy (played by the adorable Winslow Fegley) who lives in Portland and takes his detective agency very seriously. He has a home office, business cards and a giant polar bear sidekick that help him be ready to crack the toughest of cases. He’s even looking into the Russians and their conspiracy to ruin his school and the scary transition to middle school.
What makes Timmy Failure work so well is they take his character completely seriously. It’s not like the Diary of a Wimpy Kidmovies with over-the-top slapstick sequences (which can be fine). It’s so easy to write child characters as silly jokes but I remember as a kid getting so frustrated by that attitude. I had something to say and my own way of looking at the world, which adults did not care about. This movie cares about Timmy and his world.
I actually found myself tearing up on more than one occasion. Timmy is a really lonely kid and people like his teacher Mr Crocus played by Wallace Shawn don’t seem to even try to understand him. Much of his loneliness is compounded by his worries for his over-worked Mother played well by Ophelia Lovibond and his absent father.
Craig Robinson has a great scene where he talks to Timmy about adaptability and trying to be unselfish without losing yourself. Kyle Bornheimer is great as a meter maid who is dating Timmy’s Mom. These characters take him seriously and are interested in what he has to say. I loved that.
I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made. The script, performances, themes, all worked for me. I even enjoyed the cgi polar bear (there are no trained polar bears so cgi was a necessity). I really think you will enjoy watching it with your family and have a great discussion together about how we all deal with loneliness and achieve our goals. Check it out and let me know what you think
If you have been following this blog for any amount of time you know I am a tough critic when it comes to the Disney live action remakes. A few I like (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella) but most are bland at best. However, there’s a special level of hatred in my heart for 2014’s supposed reinterpretation of Sleeping Beautycalled Maleficent. I hated pretty much every decision that film made, so you can imagine my hesitancy when they announced a sequel for this year, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. But I pride myself on keeping an open mind for EVERY film. So, I went to see it today, and left with surprisingly mixed feelings.
First, let’s talk about the positives. Maleficent: The Mistress of Evil is not a cash grab. It is obvious the creators tried their best to improve upon the original film in almost every way. To begin with, the production design is far better. The original felt like a bland CGI world I’ve seen a million times. In contrast, this film has beautiful cinematography and world building, which felt fresh and original. I particularly loved a long sequence in a nest where everything was monochromatic: filled with beautiful grays and whites woven as background for the bat-like Maleficent. Also, all of the costumes and make-up were stunning. Some of the best I’ve seen all year.
For the first act of the movie I was actually digging the film. It starts out as a fantasy version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was weird and different. As opposed to the original, which felt like an apology and bastardization of Sleeping Beauty (especially the fairies! How dare they!), this film felt alive with its own lore and story. The acting was also much better especially from Michelle Pfeiffer and Elle Fanning who is actually given something to do as Aurora.
Unfortunately this is where my positives stop. Once we have our basic setup of Maleficent vs Pfeiffer the movie begins to falter. Where the dinner scene was surreal and strange, most of the remaining second half is a bland fantasy war movie. It reminded me of the war scene in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I hate, except it went on much longer. Despite being pretty, the story dragged, and Maleficent becomes a character who is acted upon more than she acts. Most of the time she is moping around waiting for other people to do things, so she can either sulk or acquiesce to their ideas.
I also was puzzled by the tone and audience Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (the title is so dumb by the way) is going for? The battle gets intense including a scene that is gas chamber-like for our heroes. I don’t think kids will find this entertaining nor are adults invested enough in the lore to be engrossed. I never watched Game of Thrones, but I know enough about it to spot the many times Hollywood has tried to capture the themes and aesthetics of that series, and this is definitely one of those films (there is even a long sequence with a dragon…)
It’s a real bummer because if they had kept the strange tone of the early scenes I could have had a surprise hit. I don’t even see why the war plotline is necessary? Why not have a movie about Aurora trying to plan a wedding with Maleficent and Pfeiffer bickering the whole time? That would have been amazing. As it is, we got a impressive looking war movie that loses its guts midway through.
I wanted to go fresh because I do appreciate the obvious attempt to improve upon the ‘Maleficent turning into the victim of a man’ nonsense of the original film, but that second half was too dull and derivative for me to recommend. Maybe give it a rental if curious? Otherwise, I’d say pass on this fairy story.
If you have been following this blog for a long time than you know I’m not the biggest fan of these Disney live action remakes. A few I have enjoyed (Mary Poppins Returns, Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella) but even when I enjoy them the overall movement away from animation is not my favorite. Plus, when it goes bad it goes really bad (Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast). So naturally when I heard about a remake of the Disney classic Aladdin I was pretty skeptical. I was made more skeptical when they hired director Guy Ritchie, who I have not been a fan of, to helm the project. Then the casting looked questionable (how do you replace Robin Williams, one of the great vocal performances ever?) and the trailers were uneven at best.
Nevertheless, I always try to set all that baggage aside and go into a movie with an open mind (otherwise why bother?). So what was the result of this live action Aladdin? I’d say it is a decidedly mixed bag. It’s not awful and it’s not a classic like the original. It’s squarely middle of the road entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less.
Let’s start with the positives. The best part about the film is the performances of Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Jasmine. They are not only good charismatic actors but they had great chemistry and are pretty decent singers. I really enjoyed the ‘One Jump’ sequence from Massoud and Scott has a power ballad called ‘Speechless’ that felt a little out of place musically but was still a pretty good, well sung piece (written by La La Land’s Pasek and Paul). I also thought they nailed the ‘A Whole New World’ because of their chemistry and good singing. It was everything I could have wanted in that sequence.
I also enjoyed Will Smith when he wasn’t the blue Genie that we know and love. My friend Jen, who attended the screening with me, said she thought he was playing the part of Hitch, acting as matchmaker between a nervous Aladdin and confident Jasmine. These scenes are funny and well produced. They even have Genie getting some of his own plotlines, which I surprisingly didn’t hate.
The trailers are also misleading on how devoted to the original the remake is. It is not a shot-for-shot remake, which many were afraid of, but instead, tries its own thing. The pacing could be a little tighter in spots but overall the story and script worked. Plus the Alan Menken music is always a treat.
Unfortunately I also had problems with this new version of Aladdin. The biggest fall in 2 camps: blue Genie sequences and the portrayal of Jafar.
Like I said, I enjoyed the scenes of Will Smith playing matchmaker and mentoring Aladdin as a normal looking version of himself. However, I did not like him as the blue Genie. First of all, he looked ridiculous with cgi that was only slightly better than the first trailer. That said, my biggest problem was they took all the funny out of these scenes. I wonder if they were afraid of fans comparing him to Robin Williams? Unfortunately their solution was to make ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ flat and bland with hardly any jokes or energy to them. It felt like glitzy cruise ship renditions more concerned with checking off boxes instead of digging into a deep manic energy to make us laugh and smile. Also Will Smith doesn’t have a broadway style singing voice, so they should have embraced his more hip-hop style rather than produce weak versions of these iconic tunes.
My other problem with Aladdin is the portrayal of Jafar by Marwan Kenzari. He had a lot of the trappings of Jafar but the performance was very annoying and whiny. I’ve always thought of Jafar as a pretty bold but sniveling villain and this was just irritating. It also didn’t help that Iago as a live action character was window dressing instead of the comic relief that makes the animated Jafar so full of dry menacing wit.
I really struggled whether to go smile or frown worthy on this Aladdin. I’m about split down the middle on it but it so pales in comparison to the original animated classic that I’m not going fresh on this one. It’s not awful and has its charms, but I’d still say stay home and watch the original. Tough call but:
Overall Grade 5 out of 10
If you want to hear Stanford and I talk all about the original Aladdin check out our Talking Disney podcast episode:
This year the lead up to the Oscars has been more than a little bit of a mess. Whether it is an announcement for ‘best popular film’ category or the choice to not air categories like editing and cinematography. However, what has been relatively drama free is who will win the Best Animated Feature Film award. This is perhaps surprising as the 5 nominees are all very strong films yet a clear winner has emerged in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Let’s start with the least likely to win,Mirai, from famed director Mamoru Hosoda. It’s actually a huge accomplishment for Mirai to be nominated, as it is the first non-Studio Ghibli film to receive such an honor (a designation very frustrating to those of us who loved snubbed films like Your Name and A Silent Voice). And fortunately it is not just a token nomination as the film is a sweet journey into childhood. Recently my friend David said it was ‘the most creative animated film he had seen this year’ and he hates anime!
Our next most likely contender to win Best Animated Feature at the Oscars comes from Disney in a rare Disney Canon sequel calledRalph Breaks the Internet. This sequel to 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph avoids the potholes of most sequels by giving us something entirely new and it worked for me even better than the original! I loved the evolution of Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship and how they had to accept each other in new ways. I loved the humor especially the princesses (which I didn’t think I’d like) and we even got a surprise Alan Menken song! Still because it is a sequel and the response to it was dampened a bit by the release of Spider-Verse, it is unlikely to win (although never count Disney out entirely!).
Coming up in 3rd place of most likely to win the Oscar is our stop motion animated offering from Wes Anderson,Isle of Dogs. Earlier in the year I speculated whether this was the most likely winners as the Oscars doesn’t tend to like sequels or animated superhero movies (and it has a long standing tradition of loving both Wes Anderson and stop motion). It’s such a sweet enchanting movie with incredible attention to detail. I love all of the dogs and the backgrounds are dazzling (the one pictured made out of pieces of glass is a particular favorite). However, the human sections aren’t as strong and some of the writing is a little clunky. Still, a delightful film from 2018 animation.
My prediction for the runner up for the Oscar this year is Brad Bird’s follow up to his 2004 superhero film, The Incredibles 2. I love this movie and in any other year this would be a clear favorite. It’s not only funny with terrific action but it is a treatise on how hard it is to be a parent. Even Edna Mode says it best: ‘parenting when done well is a heroic act’. The reason I don’t think Incredibles 2 will win is because it hasn’t won any awards prior to the Oscars. Spider-Verse has won every major prize from the Golden Globes to the BAFTA’s. It would take a very bold ballot to pick this film to win but it wouldn’t be the first time Pixar has surprised everyone (Brave…) if it did. Still it would be a big shocker if it won.
Finally, the clear favorite and most likely to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. This isn’t just my opinion, but the opinion of critics, fans, and experts alike. In fact, there are a number of other publications out there that see Into the Spider-Verse as an incredible favorite. Like I said, it would be a huge shock if it didn’t win. It is not only a game changer for animated films and superhero movies, it also speaks to the Academy’s goals to honor diversity both on and off the screen. It honestly should have been nominated for Best Picture in my and many others opinions.
So what do you think of the animated Oscar race this year? Am I too bullish on Spider-Verse? Do you agree with me it has been a strong year for the category? What other predictions are you making for this year’s Oscars? I’d love to hear in the comments section.