Frozen 2

Genre: Animation

Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Screenplay: Jennifer Lee

Voice Cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Jeremy Sisto, Ciaran Hinds, Alan Tudyk, Hadley Gannaway, Mattea Conforti

Running Length:  103 minutes

Synopsis: Together with her sister Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven, they embark on a new journey beyond their homeland of Arendelle in order to discover the origin of Elsa’s magical powers and save their kingdom.

Review: When Frozen was released in 2013, no one anticipated exactly how big a movie it was going to be, eventually clocking more than US$1.2 billion in box office revenue and reigning as the Queen of all animated titles. It’s reasonable to say that expectations are sky-high for the sequel, and this is probably the reason why for some audiences, Frozen 2 will never live up to the hype. But taken on its own, Frozen 2 is a more than serviceable sequel, featuring many of the same elements that made the first Frozen such a watchable movie. This really comes across as no surprise, because there is very little reason and incentive to meddle with something that did so well the first time round. That there is so much effort put into trying to create something that can still occasionally feel fresh is actually more surprising.

Frozen 2 has a little more of everything that Frozen had, from more sisterly interactions between Elsa and Anna, to more of the lovable Olaf, to more songs that are designed to be earworms (while “Into the Unknown” seems positioned to take the place of the still-ubiquitous “Let It Go”, there are a few more songs that have great replayability as well). Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have left no stone unturned in an effort to maximize bankability of the sequel.

It may come across as a bit too much at times, and the pacing of the film does suffer a bit due to this, particularly with the heft of the plotlines that at times threaten to overwhelm the younger audience members. It is significantly more complex than Frozen, but that is probably due to the fact that the movie has “aged up”, in line with the same young’uns that were undoubtedly enraptured by the first film 6 years ago.

This is certainly not a bad strategy, as it opens up the potential audience of the film to a wider pool, and in fact the more emotional beats of the movie can only truly be appreciated by older viewers. And the consistently high production values of any Disney animation continue to hold true here as well – the art direction is consistently gorgeous, and the visuals are absolutely top-notch in both the more epic sequences and in the little details.

And then there’s Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), whom many Frozen fans had lamented that had not been given a chance to show off his vocals in the first film. This is more than compensated in Frozen 2, and without going into spoilers, the sequence where Kristoff bemoans that he is “Lost in the Woods” is surely going to be a highlight for anyone who has experienced the late 80s and early 90s, an Easter egg perhaps for the multitude of parents who will be resigned to have to watch and rewatch this movie for at least the next two years.

(Don’t forget to stay for the end credits coda, which has a good payoff to reward your patience for sitting through the relatively lengthy credits.)

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Genre: Animation 

Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Screenplay: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber

Running Time: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, bring their unique talents to a fresh vision of a different Spider-Man Universe, with a groundbreaking visual style that’s the first of its kind. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduces Brooklyn teen Miles Morales, and the limitless possibilities of the Spider-Verse, where more than one can wear the mask.

Review: Spider-Man is possibly the comic book hero that has seen the most reboots in his cinematic career. Since 2002 and Spidey’s proper big screen debut, there have been no less than three actors donning the Spider-Man costume over 6 dedicated films (with a seventh arriving in 2019), and this makes what Into the Spider-Verse has achieved even more impressive – not only is this the best animated film I have seen in 2018, it is also the best Spider-Man movie yet. 

A large part of what makes Into the Spider-Verse so special is because of long time creative partners-in-crime Phil Lord & Christopher Miller. Despite not actually being billed as directors on Into the Spider-Verse due to them working on (and then later leaving) Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s clear that they have left their mark all over the project, and the genre-bending creativity and willingness to take risks that was found in The Lego Movie is found quite intact here.

Rarely can it be said nowadays that a superhero movie is innovative and ground-breaking, but Into the Spider-Verse is exactly that – not only is the movie an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man, it also functions as origins stories for a multitude of Spider-People from parallel universes, setting up exciting potential directions for future films set in the Spider-Verse. That the film actually manages to adequately introduce SIX iterations of Spideys in its under-two-hour running time is a feat on its own. That the story manages to make viewers care about every single one of them (yes, including Spider-Ham) is near unprecedented in the world of superhero movies. 

The innovation extends to the visual style of the film as well. This is the first animated film I have seen that so closely resembles an actual comic book, and having a different stylistic flourish for each of the Spider-People is a move that pays off well. Although it can get a bit too busy at times, the film is truly a dazzling breath of fresh air, as animated films of recent years have generally all converged towards a similar “look” that Into the Spider-Verse completely veers away from.

Unlike many of its brethren, Into the Spider-Verse is actually effervescent and fun, coming closer to the spirit of comic books than many live-action adaptations. It seems weird to describe the film this way, but Into the Spider-Verse comes across as being actually delighted in its own existence, and has such a joyous, carefree feel to it, releasing the film in the December holiday season suddenly starts to make a lot of sense. A note-perfect mix of verve, wit (stay through the entire credits for a coda with a somewhat interesting payoff) and authenticity, this has surprisingly become the movie to beat this holiday season (even if its box office is unlikely to outclass fellow December release.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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Finding Dory

Genre: Animation

Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus McLane

Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse

Voice Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Sigourney Weaver

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: Finding Dory welcomes back to the big screen everyone’s favorite forgetful blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who’s living happily in the reef with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and Marlin (Albert Brooks). When Dory suddenly remembers that she has a family out there who may be looking for her, the trio takes off on a life-changing adventure across the ocean to California’s prestigious Marine Life Institute, a rehabilitation center and aquarium. Deftly navigating the complex inner workings of the MLI, Dory and her friends discover the magic within their flaws, friendships and family.

Review: Dory is the most memorable character in Finding Nemo, and it is only natural that the sequel would revolve around her. While the movie title is “Finding Dory”, it doesn’t really refer to the physical act of locating a lost Dory (though she is, repeatedly), but more to Dory’s journey of self-discovery. It is an engaging tale, though somewhat less compelling than that of Finding Nemo (finding your lost child feels like more urgent an issue than looking for one’s parents, no matter how you cut it), and there are several sequences that are come too close to the original that they almost feel like a rehash.

However, director/writer Andrew Stanton and his capable crew manages to inject a lot of new together with the old, most notably an entirely new roster of animals that Dory et al manage to befriend along the way, including a gruff but lovable octopus, Hank; a near-sighted whale shark Destiny; a beluga whale named Bailey who is convinced his echolocation is not working; and a pair of sea lions named Fluke and Rudder, who are oddly and obsessively possessive of the rock they are resting on.

These characters help to deliver the big laughs in the film, but there’s also a more serious undercurrent in Finding Dory – that of overcoming one’s disabilities and imperfections, since almost all these animals are “damaged” in one way or another. This expands upon the theme that was already found in Finding Nemo, with Nemo’s bum fin and Dory’s short term memory loss. That an animated film has managed to deal with the subject matter in a much more nuanced and profound manner than most live-action films have, speaks volumes about the strength of writing that can be found in Finding Dory. While the film can’t really claim to be a tearjerker, there are moments in Finding Dory which will are almost certain to resonate emotionally with older audiences, especially parents.

Pixar has always delivered the goods on the visual front, and Finding Dory is no exception. The underwater world is even more alluring than before, and the visual richness in the film is truly a sight to behold. The character designs are top notch, with none more excellent than that of Hank, who is truly spectacularly animated. Not only are Hank’s movements entirely believable, the production crew clearly had a great time exploring an octopus’ camouflage abilities, using it to terrific effect at various points in the movie. I did not watch the film in 3D (and honestly I don’t think it will be much of an enhancement) but the visuals really popped – similar to Finding Nemo, this is a movie that would take multiple viewings to take in everything it has to offer.

While Finding Dory doesn’t manage to meet the lofty heights of Pixar’s best, particularly in the final reel where honestly, the wheels of the plot do come off a bit (albeit in an entertaining manner), it still remains an extremely easy recommendation for both young and old audiences alike.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Angry Birds Movie

Genre: Animation

Directors: Fergal Reilly, Clay Kaytis

Screenplay: Jon Vitti, from a story by Mikko Polla, Mikael Hed, John Cohen

Voice Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Peter Dinklage, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Sean Penn, Titus Burgess, Kate McKinnon, Ike Barinholtz, Hannibal Buress, Billy Eichner, Danielle Brooks, Tony Hale, Blake Shelton

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis:  In The Angry Birds Movie, we finally find out why the birds are so angry. The movie takes us to an island populated entirely by happy, flightless birds – or almost entirely. In this paradise, Red (Jason Sudeikis), a bird with a temper problem, speedy Chuck (Josh Gad), and the volatile Bomb (Danny McBride) have always been outsiders. But when the island is visited by mysterious green piggies, it’s up to these unlikely outcasts to figure out what the pigs are up to.

Review: I could never have envisioned that a game like Angry Birds would be able to evolve into a somewhat engaging movie, but here we are with that exact result. While it’s not pushing any envelope or boundary in any meaningful way, The Angry Birds Movie is a pleasant enough distraction, certainly more suited for the younger audiences but not entirely without value for older audience members. It is obvious that the Angry Birds game and brand is past its prime, but the bright, colorful animation and a “leave no pun behind” script filled to the brim with terrible groaners (wordplay is something I personally always appreciate in any film) translates to quite an enjoyable if mindless cinematic experience.

The Angry Birds Movie features quite a number of A-listers in its voice cast, and everyone does a decent job at it, including an… interesting performance by Sean Penn consisting mostly of menacing grunts and odd noises. Narratively, the movie starts out pretty strong with its introduction of the various inhabitants on Bird Island, but loses steam rather quickly and has virtually flatlined by the time the pigs show up on the island. Fortunately, there’s a relatively interesting diversion where a number of birds go in search for the Mighty Eagle, which gives the proceedings a much needed boost in the film’s second half.

The movie also does a decent job in translating the gameplay mechanics into elements in the film, and the final reel’s mayhem and destruction truly mirror what goes on in the game. This is more than can be said of many videogame adaptations. Coupled with the manic script by The Simpsons alum Jon Vitti, and it’s certainly not difficult to find the movie an amusing one regardless of whether one is familiar with the Angry Birds franchise. It probably wouldn’t be enough to spawn a sequel (and in all honesty it shouldn’t), and offers no deep viewer experience akin to Inside Out and its Pixar alums, but it’s actually one of the more decent videogame adaptations I have seen in years.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Good Dinosaur

Genre: Animation

Director: Peter Sohn

Screenplay: Meg LeFauve

Voice Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Maleah Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Jack McGraw, Marcus Scribner, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Peter Sohn, Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Dave Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Mackenzie Grant, John Ratzenberger

Running Length: 101 minutes

Synopsis: The Good Dinosaur asks the question: What if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? Pixar Animation Studios takes you on an epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa) makes an unlikely human friend called Spot. While traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape, Arlo learns the power of confronting his fears and discovers what he is truly capable of.

Review: The Good Dinosaur revolves around one central “what if?” – what if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs never hit Earth, and dinosaurs managed to survive for millions of years more? Although an interesting proposition, the story on show in The Good Dinosaur is extremely simplistic, and even in the hands of Pixar, the film very nearly feels like it’s a little too sparse in the plot department. Fortunately, it is Pixar after all, and the studio still manages to turn the film into a somewhat absorbing hour and a half, filled with cute critters, interesting vignettes and some of the best environmental animation I have ever seen in an animated film.

Although the setting is a bit off-kilter, the story of The Good Dinosaur develops in a very classic Disney style. After a rather predictable tragedy befalls Arlo’s family, Arlo gets (again, predictably) separated from his family and has to fend for himself – until he meets Spot. Yes, the reptile has a human pet, and this is just the beginning of a plethora of rather odd situations that film thrusts its viewers into. An extended sequence sees Arlo interacting with a family of T-Rex “cowboys”, and in one of the strangest sequences ever in a Pixar film, Arlo and Spot consume some hallucinogenic fruit and end up getting high on them. There’s a very good reason why the Good Dinosaur is rated PG, and parents of very young viewers may find this film to be somewhat unsuitable for their consumption.

Look past this general weirdness, and there are some gems to be found in the film. It’s filled with cute critters (and a number of rather disturbing ones) and there are sequences which are very fun to watch while not adding much to the main plotline. And to Pixar’s credit, they managed to include one extremely well executed sentimental scene where Arlo and Spot communicate their family history to each other with minimal dialogue. And whilst Arlo isn’t the most memorable central character in a Pixar film, the environmental animation certainly is. It’s incredible what Pixar managed to achieve here, with photorealistic environments that seem so lifelike I had to question if what I was seeing onscreen was culled from a nature documentary, and not digitally rendered 1s and 0s.

Despite all the visual splendor and a generally enjoyable viewing experience, it is undeniable that The Good Dinosaur firmly seats itself in the second-tier section of Pixar’s studio output. To have to follow an excellent film like Inside Out isn’t an easy thing to begin with, and the unyielding quirkiness of the storyline does the film no favours either.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Inside Out

Genre: Animation

Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen

Screenplay: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley

Voice Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle McLachlan

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Growing up can be a bumpy road, and it’s no exception for Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. Although Joy, Riley’s main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive, the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.

Review: It had almost seemed like Pixar’s stellar run was at its end – Toy Story 3 was the last truly great Pixar film and that was way back in 2010. The following few films – Cars 2, Brave and Monster’s University – were good at best, mediocre at worst. I am glad to say that after a one year gap, Pixar has finally returned to form with Inside Out, which ranks amongst the very best films the studio has released since its inception. Inside Out is one of those rare films that will undoubtedly please the little ones, but bears much more poignancy and deeper meaning for the grown-ups. What’s also remarkable is how inventive this film is, with such a clean and easy-to-grasp take on neuropsychology that it really needs to be seen to be believed.

The premise of Inside Out is nearly impossible to articulate – essentially it asks the question “what if your feelings had feelings”? Yet, Pixar has managed to flesh out a fully-functioning universe based around the concept that everything we think and feel is governed by five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, and that our experiences form spheres that are being looked after by these emotions and a supporting crew. The really important experiences become core memory spheres, powering the “islands” that shape a person’s personality. It’s amazingly inventive – the Pixar team has managed to think of everything, from how a person loses some memories, to how dreams come about, and even why certain songs and jingles become annoying earworms that pop up at the most inopportune moments. While it may not look like it at first glance, Inside Out is certainly one of the smartest films I’ve seen in a very long time.

This actually poses a small problem for Inside Out – the cleverest, most poignant moments in the film will also be the ones that will connect least with the younger audiences. I cannot envision any child being able to appreciate why Joy, Sadness and Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong are reduced to Dadaist shapes when they enter Abstract Thought. Even more so, while Bing Bong has a zany but cute character design – he even cries tears of candy, adults should come prepared with tissues as his story plays out. The film remains generally a bright and colourful one, and there’s enough fun moments in it to please the kids, but suffice to say older viewers will be the one to really experience fully what Inside Out has to offer.

That the film looks amazing is almost a given, but it does come across as rather surprising that almost no effort has been made to make Inside Out pop a bit more in the third dimension – this will be a film best seen without the encumbrance of 3D glasses. But really, this is all nitpicking – Inside Out is not only one of the best animated films I’ve seen in recent years, I believe it has a legitimate chance of a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars next year, and automatically gets a slot in my best-of list for 2015. It may sound a little hyperbolic, but Inside Out is a masterpiece that should not be missed, and one that will stand the test of time, still enjoyable and meaningful years down the road.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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Minions

Genre: Animation

DirectorS: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda

Screenplay: Brian Lynch

Voice Cast: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Pierre Coffin, Michael Keaton, Alison Janney, Steve Coogan, Geoffrey Rush

Running Length: 91 minutes

Synopsis: Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob (Pierre Coffin) are recruited by Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), a super-villain who, alongside her inventor husband Herb (Jon Hamm), hatches a plot to take over the world.

Review: With the widespread (and totally understandable) popularity of the Minions, it was only a matter of time before they broke away from the Despicable Me franchise and became a standalone film. And make no mistake, this movie is catered specifically for Minions fans, which means it will do well enough at the box office, but is unlikely to win over any moviegoer who isn’t already enamoured with the yellow creatures.

The best part of the movie is the first half hour, in which we see the Minions serving various “bad guys” from prehistoric times until they go into a self-imposed exile after a disastrous stint with Napoleon. Although most of the sight gags have already been featured in the film’s trailer, but the inventiveness of the various skits still proves humorous despite having been revealed beforehand.

However, the rambling plot starts to unravel once the film moves into the 60s, where the trio of Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob (all voiced by director Pierre Coffin) behave almost like the Three Stooges, trying their best to please their new master Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock in a very uninspiring, blasé vocal performance). Though it can be quite entertaining to watch their antics, the entire last hour of the film feels like a string of loosely connected skits rather than a coherent whole, and the eventual denouement feels almost like writer Brian Lynch was high on hallucinatory drugs.

Unlike Despicable Me and its sequel which had a bit of heart, this prequel completely lacks any brains or heart, and is enjoyable solely on a very superficial level. The film is bright and colourful and will certainly appeal to the key audience group of under-10s, and the 60s setting does inject a good number of musical numbers that would add some appeal to adult viewers. While it isn’t a bad movie in any way, there’s nothing really good about it either, and is instantly forgettable once the credits roll (do keep your 3D glasses on during the entire credits sequence to make it really worth the additional 3D price of entry).

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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