Wonder Park

Back at the start of the year, the Lambcast devoted an episode to making Box Office predictions for the year and we currently have a draft going. The truth is there is no point in voting for the draft because the winner is determined by the outcome of actual box office returns. Why you might ask, is this the subject at the start of a review of today’s animated film? It’s simple, “Wonder Park” was one of the films I chose for my draft. Here is my dilemma however, three of my films are opening within a week of each other, and two of them on the same day. “Captain Marvel” will earn me plenty of dollars in the Box Office derby, but my two films this week are likely to be a bust. “Marvel” is going to dominate again this weekend, and after seeing both of the other films I despair. Not because they are bad films, they are simply not going to draw a crowd. “Captive State” is too slow and intellectual to pull in many folks, and I think “Wonder Park” is so much more a kids film that only the little ones will bother to come out, and their parents may chose the Captain over the Park.

This animated film from Paramount is a serviceable film for a young audience. It has some inventive visuals and a little bit of character flair going for it, but that is all. The humor is mostly coy and not the kind of slap stick that kids will flock to. There is also nothing in the humor that speaks to adults, the parents who are going to be bringing their kids. This movie turns out to be so conventional that it will hardly be remembered after being seen.

At the heart of the story is a theme of imagination being encouraged. As much as the Comic Book movie dominating the theaters now is about female empowerment, so is this. June, the little girl who is the main character, has an imagination as big as all outdoors. Along with encouragement from her mother, she has visualized an elaborate them park with rides that seem exactly the kind of thing that kids would want to do. Forget the impractical, let’s just have some fun, and no one should fault them for that. June has integrated her toys into the park as well, making her stuffed animals pivotal elements of the park. She of course suffers from the same disease that all kids do at some point in these kinds of movies, a lack of faith in what she is doing.

The key turn in June’s enthusiasm comes in the form of an unnamed illness that threatens to take her mother away from her. As is usual in these movies, Dad is supportive but ineffectual. His attempts at reassurance and encouragement are met with a severe case of seriousness and anxiety by the child.  Somehow, the whole situation gets confronted by the discovery of the real park version of her imagined plans. The creeping decay of the park is much like the story in “The Never Ending Story” As a child despairs, the fantasy world they have created is threatened. You can almost certainly predict where things are going to go from there.

I did like the neighbor kid who is June’s friend Banky. You don’t see a lot of Indian-American characters in films aimed at kids and this is a rewarding change of pace. Also, there is not a local bully, hovering over the proceedings, all the emotion turmoil is self inflicted. The story of a child creating something real out of her imagination is the kind of thing we should encourage. I was reminded of “Caine’s Arcade” and the inventiveness of children when June and Banky launch their homemade roller coaster.  But other than the underdeveloped Chimpanzombies, there is not much to hold a kids attention. There is also a big sadness hanging over the movie.  Parents taking their kids to see this, may have to reassure them on their own health.

The movie is simply not inspiring or funny enough to succeed. It is not a bad film but rather a mediocre one that I unfortunately put my hopes in. I really wish I’d been able to draft “The Secret Life of Pets 2”.

Sing

I would be a little alarmed at the number of adults at a 10:15 am screening of what is basically a kids movie, except for the fact that the three of us who went to see it were also all adults. “Sing” delivers pretty much what it promises in all the promotional material. This is a film cobbled together around the premise of animals singing in an “Idol/Voice/X-Factor” style competition. If you like those sorts of reality competition shows, than this is likely to please you. If you just like anthropomorphized animals in cartoon form, while this should satisfy you as well.

 

Buster Moon is a koala bear who falls in love with the theater as a kid. Every choir singer, high school actor, or member of the glee club can identify with that. If you did dramatic interp on the speech team, worked as a stage hand on a high school play production, or you were an aspiring rock singer with a group of your friends forming a band, you have the bug. It is an infection that makes live performance so much fun and invigorating that you can get over your self consciousness and be willing to stand in front of an audience and potentially look foolish, just on the off chance that someone else might enjoy it.  “Sing” is all about that idea. While there is a little bit of that “can do” theme in the film and story, most of what makes up the movie is a cartoon version of performance.

I’ve got nothing against cartoons at all. I love animated movies and Bugs and Daffy filled my childhood with beloved memories. I never really looked to cartoons to give me life lessons. So the thinness of the theme in this film does not really bother me because it is really just there to help make the running time worthwhile. The story is very episodic with Buster as a Brooks-like producer trying to put together the successful show that has eluded him. His plot-line involve financial shenanigans and theatrical mishaps. Rosita is a pig mama to bacon factory of piglets, she also longs to sing. Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon reunite from the film “Mud” to voice Buster and Rosita. Rosita and her family have all the Rube Goldberg devices from a Road Runner cartoon in their segments of the story. There is also a plot about gamblers after a cheating card player and a shy talent who is literally the elephant in the room. Kids will laugh at the fart jokes and adults will enjoy sampling the wide range of music performances in the film.

 

This movie comes from the same studio that brought us “Despicable Me” and it’s sequel, as well as the “Minions” movie. I thought last year’s “Minions” was mostly an excuse to string together pop hits and fill the movie with something more interesting than the story. “Sing” solves that problem by making all the pop hits be the story and therefore freeing us the obligation to shoehorn all the songs into the movie.   I don’t know that the personalities of the characters matter that much. So many voice actors get used just for atmosphere and not for any other reason. The singers are all fine but no performance stood out in a way that would make it a signature moment in the film.

The movie is lite and entertaining enough for the holiday season. Kids home for the Christmas Vacation will be able to see this with parents who will not hate watching the “let’s put on a show” attitude of the characters. No one is going to have this on their list of greatest animated movies ever, but it combines the animal world of a film like “Zootopia” with singing performances that are entertaining enough for the short time that each one of them runs.

Moana

 

Back in 1991, I took my two small children, 3 and 5 at the time, to see “Beauty and the Beast“. It was one of my favorite memories of their childhood and my fatherhood. They loved the movie and my oldest was so passionately involved that she cried out to warn Belle and the Beast when the villagers are led by Gaston in an attack on the castle. Three years ago, I saw “Frozen” and I imagined that little girls would love it much as my kids had responded to the ’91 film, and it seems they did. My youngest daughter, 26 at the time was unimpressed, and while I thought it was a fine film, it did not have the same impact on me as the early film did. Today I saw a movie that reminded me so much of that late November 1991 experience, I wished I had two small children to share it with. Nostalgia, not being what it once was, leaves me to respond to this movie mostly on my own. “Moana” is great.

Pins a got as a Premiere Stubbs Card Holder at The AMC Theater Today

I don’t think I even saw a teaser for the movie before we went today. I’d listened to a podcast or two where it had been discussed, and since I mostly avoid reading reviews until after I have seen a movie, this was really more surprise than I had anticipated. The look of the animation is marvelous. The characters are designed to accurately depict south sea island people and the characters of “Moana”, her father and grandmother but especially “Maui” are spectacularly authentic and beautiful. The opening sequence with Moana as a toddler, being called to the ocean is charming as all get out. Even the animated water tentacle that reminded me so much of the early CGI work in “The Abyss” had personality to it. The island home is lush and the people, songs and way of life are the sorts of things that drab landlubbers are going to dream of when they imagine escaping to a deserted island and retiring to the good life.

There are some of the same patterns of defiance, growth and independence by a young girl that I saw in the story of Belle 25 years ago. There is also a character song like in so many of these films, where the heroine sings of her dreams and obligations and the burden that she feels. So it might seem that the story is conventional Disney Princess territory. I think that’s going to be a cliche that gets used anytime a young girl is the featured character in a Disney story and I think it’s a little unfair. “Moana” is very different, especially in one of the most important ways. Unlike Ariel, Belle, Mulan, Rapunzel and the rest, there is no love story here. Romance is not part of this equation, unless you count the love that Moana has for her island home and people. This is a very straightforward quest film with high adventure and a lot of humor built in, but there is no subplot about marriage or choosing the one you feel the most for. The writers of the story seem to have drawn heavily from Polynesian mythology, but almost certainly there are the usual Disney variations to keep the story on track and simplify the points being made. I thought it was a unique perspective and made the peoples of the area so interesting to me. There were some similar themes in “Whale Rider” from 2002.

Auli’i Cravalho is a nice discovery as the voice of “Moana”. I loved the line readings she gives as she practices the speech she plans on giving to Maui when she tracks him down. The greatest treasure in the film however is the presence of a man who might have at one time been a punchline in the film business, but today stands astride the movie world as a major star and an ambassador of goodwill from film makers everywhere. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has charisma oozing out of his whole body, and it fills the screen here, even though he does not appear on the screen and only his voice is used to act his character. The animators do their job to make Maui fun and interesting. He is a bit of a goat to begin with, but a very confident demi-god and able to ignore his own transgression, up to a point. His performance of the Lin-Manuel Miranda song, “You’re Welcome”, is right up there with “Gaston” and “Prince Ali” as odes to characters that are self inflated and hysterical at the same time. The use of tribal tattoos on his body to tell his backstory and his faults is a brilliant story telling trick that works very well for an animated feature. It’s one of the many things that reminded me of that soon to be live action film, just as the film makers in Beauty and the Beast found a way to make the story sing with the anthropomorphic furniture, the drawing on Maui’s body let us know more about the character without having to leave the main plot.

There are at least two very entertaining sequences where Maui and Moana have to work together to overcome adversaries. The Kakamora warrior attack will remind you of every Mad Max film. The chase across the ocean looks like something right out of “Fury Road”. While I was less impressed with the fight against Tamatoa, the jewel encrusted crab monster, it still had a number of clever bits to it and again, it shows the creativity of the film from a number of different points. There were times in which I felt I was watching something a little more strange than is expected from a Disney film. The Ocean voyage was sometimes reminiscent of a Japanese Anime film. There were some meta jokes about the whole “Princess” concept, and the focus on the two main characters was much more involved than the usual pack of side kicks and comic relief.

moana_ver4

 

This has been a particularly good year for animated features.

For once , Pixar is unlikely to be the favorite at Oscar Time. I might still give the edge to “Kubo and the Two Strings”, but “Moana” is a worthy entry and I thought it was very much more fulfilling than even some of the most financially successful animated films this year. If you have kids, take them and make it a special holiday excursion. Get them some popcorn, go Christmas shopping afterwards, and laugh with them over the jokes in this movie. I think you will be making a memory for them which will be something they can treasure decades from now. I wish I had grand kids that I could have taken to see this movie, but if you go because of anything I wrote here, it will be a little bit like I was there, taking you to see it. Merry Christmas memories to you.