Big Hero 6

Genre: Animation

Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams

Writers: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Jordan Roberts, based on the comic by Duncan Rouleau, Steven T. Seagle

Voice Cast: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph

Running Length: 108 minutes

Synopsis: An action comedy adventure about brilliant robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), who finds himself in the grips of a criminal plot that threatens to destroy the fast-paced, high-tech city of San Fransokyo. With the help of his closest companion—a robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit) – Hiro joins forces with a reluctant team of first-time crime fighters on a mission to save their city.

Review: We have all gotten used to the short film that precedes most animated films these days, but this could possibly be the first time that I feel a feature presentation has been somewhat hurt by the short film before it. While Big Hero 6 is a fun romp for both young and old, the emotional depth (nowadays more commonly referred to as “the feels”) actually pales in comparison to its companion six-minute short Feast, which is an excellent short film. And while this is a good, if somewhat unexpected, addition to the Marvel Comic Universe movies, the fact remains that there is a better superhero animation in the Disney/Pixar stable (no prizes for guessing which).

As always, I will touch on the short film first. Feast is a recounting of the relationship a Boston terrier has with his master over 12 years, except via the unusual angle of his food. It seems like such a simple conceit, but like the best of animation, it is evocative and manages to tell a very engaging story. There is a good chance that many animal lovers or pet owners will choke up (like I did) over Feast, which is high praise given that it unfolds in such a short span of screen time. If this is what writer-director Patrick Osborne can achieve in under ten minutes, I am definitely looking forward to his first feature film (surely not too far away).

Perhaps it’s a direct result of Pixar’s stellar output over the years (and to be fair, a smattering of animated films from rival studios) that expectations for animated films have risen dramatically. It doesn’t help that technology has advanced to a point that spectacular visuals are almost a given in any computer animated film these days, and often the differentiating factors come down to the storyline, the number of A-list actors in the voice cast, and the production design. The need to sell animated films with Hollywood actors has become almost a liability however, because not all name actors are necessarily good in voice roles. Thankfully, Big Hero 6 eschews this, going instead with a bunch of relatively lesser-known actors that do pretty well in their roles.

As for the visuals, there’s really nothing to complain about, except once again this is not a film that needs to be seen in 3D. The character designs are uniformly excellent, with some truly colourful and creative flourishes, and the setting of San Fransokyo is wonderfully imagined, creating an inventive mashup between San Francisco and Tokyo. Then, there’s Baymax – Disney has created a surefire marketing phenomenon with the most cuddly robot design I’ve ever seen, and despite straying far, FAR away from the source graphic novels, will capture the hearts and minds of audiences of all age groups.

This is not the first movie in the Marvel Comic Universe to work with a relatively obscure Marvel property, as Guardians of the Galaxy lays claim to being the first. There’s also an interesting parallel between the two movies, since both are about a motley crew of unlikely heroes, and also touches on grief and loss. I would say that the themes are better handled in Guardians of the Galaxy versus Big Hero 6, but this is a somewhat unfair comparison given that Big Hero 6 is aimed at a much younger audience. Given that there will be a lot of young ones watching the movie, the concept of death is actually quite elegantly handled, even more so than How to Train Your Dragon 2 (I’ll keep things vague although the full trailer does give part of this storyline away).

Most of the film stays pretty light-hearted with a number of fun action set pieces, and it would take a heart of stone not to be somewhat taken by Baymax and his lovable antics, so it is not difficult to recommend the film, especially for younger audiences. There are a number of more affecting moments, to be sure, but Feast manages to do better in this aspect than the whole of Big Hero 6 (hence the earlier comment about the short film hurting the feature film, something that I have not experienced prior). Although the superhero origin story is done to death at this point, Big Hero 6 offers a somewhat fresh perspective, even if it doesn’t match the narrative strength of The Incredibles, still the gold standard for animated superhero films a decade after its release.

P.S. The end credit sequence is a blast, and features one of the best cameos I have seen to date, particularly so for fans of the Marvel universe. Definitely worth staying through the credits for.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Ice Age 4: Continental Drift * * 1/2

Genre: Animation

Directors: Steve Martino, Michael Thurmeier

Writers: Michael Berg, Jason Fuchs

Voice Cast: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifa, Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Wanda Sykes

Running Length: 85 minutes

Synopsis: The trio from the previous Ice Age movies returns – Manny the wooly mammoth, Diego the sabretooth tiger, and Sid the sloth – embark upon their greatest adventure after cataclysm sets an entire continent adrift. Separated from the rest of the herd, they use an iceberg as a makeshift ship, which launches them on an epic seafaring quest. Manny and the gang are challenged like never before to become heroes and do the impossible, as they encounter exotic sea creatures, explore a brave new world, and battle ruthless pirates. And Scrat’s reunion with his cursed nut catapults him to places no prehistoric squirrel has gone before.

Review: There really isn’t much reason for this movie to exist, and it shows – although Ice Age 4: Continental Drift is superficially entertaining with a plethora of funny and cute animals, the plot is virtually nonexistent and the social message feels tacked on. It has been a decade since the first Ice Age, and yet the franchise does not seem to have improved with time, with a large part of the film feeling like nothing more than a rehash.

The entire concept that Ice Age 4 revolves around also feels like an uneasy marriage – having the main characters duke it out on a newly formed ocean on “ships” made from icebergs feels almost too human for a bunch of creatures in the Ice Age. The additional subplot involving Manny the wooly mammoth’s rebellious teenaged daughter is even more uninteresting, and the way it plays out and resolves itself is very perfunctory.  

Credit to be given where it’s due though, Ice Age 4 looks great (like almost every computer animated film these days), and the usage of 3D is rather impressive, especially for younger audiences. Scrat, the iconic squirrel chasing after his acorn, is still as entertaining as ever, providing much needed diversion from the clunky main plots. Many of the new characters are actually more interesting than the original Ice Age gang, with the most memorable being Sid the sloth’s grandmother, wonderfully realized by Wanda Sykes.

Special mention must be given, however, to the best part of the show, which actually occurs before the start of Ice Age 4. Do not miss out on the excellent short film The Longest Daycare, starring Maggie of The Simpsons – the four and a half minute short is brilliant, packing more creativity, wit and heart than the entire movie that follows. For Simpsons fans like me, this short film alone is worth the price of admission.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter * * 1/2

Genre: Action

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writer: Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel of the same name

Cast: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Jimmi Simpson

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter explores the secret life of one of the U.S.’s greatest presidents, and the untold story that shaped that country. Producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov reimagine Lincoln as one of history’s greatest hunters of the undead.

Review: Given the names of the visionaries that are backing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, it’s truly a surprise that the end result is such a middling movie. It’s almost as though producer Tim Burton and director Timur Bekmambetov (Daywatch, Wanted) couldn’t make up their mind whether the subject matter functions better as a satire or a straight up horror/action film, and the eventual execution, whilst perfectly serviceable, lacks the qualities to be memorable in any way.

One would assume that with a concept of turning the president of the USA into a vampire hunter, the film would be quite “out there”, but the tone is far more serious than it should be. The first half of the movie is the better half, with the “origins story” of how Abraham Lincoln becomes an axe-wielding vampire slayer, but once the narrative moves toward marrying fact (Abraham Lincoln: President) and fiction (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), it starts to falter.

It doesn’t help that the vampire hunter premise already feels tired after the first two reels, and becomes multiple variations on the same (old) theme. The acting is pretty much mediocre throughout, with Benjamin Walker being the biggest offender – he has absolutely no charisma as Abe, and when the film ages him with somewhat dodgy makeup, it becomes even harder to look past his subpar acting chops.

With Bekmambetov helming the camera, it’s almost a given that the visuals will be impressive, and for the most part they are (although the 3D implementation feels half-baked). In fact, if not for the great action set-piece near the end, involving a train heist, hand to hand combat and a burning bridge, the second half of the movie would have been pretty much a downer.  This becomes one of the few redeeming points of the movie – but whether it’s enough to justify the price of entry would depend on one’s threshold for the chaff that makes up the remainder of the film.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Puss In Boots * * *

Genre: Animation

Director: Chris Miller

Writers: Tom Wheeler, based on a story by Brian Lynch, Will Davies and Tom Wheeler

Voice Cast: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris

Running Length: 90 minutes

Synopsis: Long before he even met Shrek, the notorious fighter, lover and outlaw Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) becomes a hero when he sets off on an adventure with the tough and street smart Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek) and the mastermind Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) to save his town. This is the true story of The Cat, The Myth, The Legend…The Boots.

Review: After playing second fiddle to Shrek for three movies, the orange tabby finally gets his own movie, which seemed like a long time coming. The good news is that this Shrek spinoff manages to retain the trademark (slightly subversive) humour of the Shrek franchise, with more puns and visual gags than one can shake a sprig of catnip at, and also looks as good as any decent animated movie does nowadays. However, the story itself lacks imagination, and exists merely as a vehicle for the visuals and jokes to ride on. It remains a fairly entertaining movie but if only there was more once one scratches beneath the glossy veneer.

Cats are a cultural phenomenon on the internet, and rightly so – they can be really cute creatures to go gaga over, and yet have a regal nonchalance that is oddly alluring. Puss in Boots captures both aspects pretty well, especially since Antonio Banderas adds a sultry Spanish flair to the voice acting. However, despite the title of the movie, the true star of the film is Zach Galiafinakis and his Humpty Dumpty, a surprisingly nuanced character with complex, adult issues that almost seems out of place in what is essentially a movie catered for the younger audience. The film does not have the universality like many Pixar films, and these adult elements will not be readily identified by the kiddy set, but it’s always a pleasant surprise to find an animated film that does not talk down to its audience. However, that having been said, little is done with the deeper material, which results in a lack of resonance with the moral of the story.

The visuals as a whole are bright, colourful and detailed, and there are some truly memorable personifications of fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters (my favourite would have to be Jack and Jill, because they are the ones that confound expectations the most). Although it’s now a prerequisite for animated films to look good, Dreamworks probably does some of the best computer animated work after Pixar. Unlike many 3D films released nowadays, the third dimension in Puss in Boots isn’t used in a gimmicky manner, but does help to augment the film in terms of immersion. However, 3D does not lend itself well to higher-speed sequences, and there are some dance and action scenes which were a little overwhelming to watch.

The one biggest redeeming factor for Puss in Boots is simply that the film never takes itself too seriously. Once that mindset is in place, it’s easy to enjoy the movie for what it is – short, cinematic fluff that won’t fail to entertain even the most jaded cinemagoers. It even throws in a Lady Gaga song for good measure – and as the leading purveyor of pop culture these days, who can really argue with that?  

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Cars 2 * * 1/2

Genre: Animation

Directors: John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Writer: Ben Queen

Voice Cast: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Bonnie Hunt

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Star racecar Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) and the incomparable tow truck Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) take their friendship to exciting new places in Cars 2 when they head overseas to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix to determine the world’s fastest car. But the road to the championship is filled with plenty of potholes, detours and surprises when Mater gets caught up in an intriguing adventure of his own: international espionage. Torn between assisting Lightning McQueen in the high-profile race and towing the line in a top-secret spy mission, Mater’s action-packed journey leads him on an explosive chase through the streets of Japan and Europe, trailed by his friends and watched by the whole world. Adding to the fast-paced fun is a colorful new all-car cast that includes secret agents, menacing villains and international racing competitors.

Review: It had to happen eventually – Pixar has finally released a film that doesn’t meet up to the usual expectations that a Pixar film sets. It’s still a very decent animated film, but is very apparently the studio’s weakest offering to date. Perhaps it’s because Cars was already a tough sell (anthropomorphic cars are not easy to identify with), but Cars 2 comes up short especially in the areas which are usually Pixar’s strengths.

Cars 2 is the first Pixar film where I felt held very little interest for the adult viewers, and whilst young viewers will undoubtedly have a ball of a time, the storyline is never really emotionally engaging on any level. This comes as a surprise because the relationship stuff is usually the core of a Pixar film, but this seems to have been eschewed for obligatory, tacked-on mentions about not giving up on friends. There is also very little about Cars 2 that feels fresh, and unlike Toy Story, Cars 2 brings nothing new to the table at all, despite the spy movie angle and opening up the Cars universe to beyond Radiator Springs.

Whatever criticisms that can be leveled at the other aspects of the film, one thing that hasn’t changed is the visual quality of a Pixar film. This is a seriously good looking movie, and apart from the well-rendered cars themselves, there’s great attention to detail in the surroundings they are in. The 3D, however, is so minimal that one wonders why 3D was even touted to begin with. It’s definitely not gimmicky, but doesn’t add much to the viewing experience overall.

Perhaps it’s telling that even the animated short film that precedes Cars 2 feels perfunctory, unlike the usual gems that the studio produces. It features almost the full Toy Story cast, but other than a couple of laughs, feels more like an outtake reel of Toy Story 3. Hopefully this is merely an aberration in Pixar’s illustrious history, and not a sign of things to come.  

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)

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Kung Fu Panda 2 * * *

Genre: Animation

Director: Jennifer Yuh Nelson

Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger

Voice Cast: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie,  Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Jean Claude Van-Damme

Running Length: 90 minutes

Synopsis: In Kung Fu Panda 2, Po (Jack Black) is now living his dream as The Dragon Warrior, protecting the Valley of Peace alongside his friends and fellow kung fu masters, The Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Cham, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu) .  But Po’s new life of awesomeness is threatened by the emergence of a formidable villain Shen (Gary Oldman), who plans to use a secret, unstoppable weapon to conquer China and destroy kung fu.  Po must look to his past and uncover the secrets of his mysterious origins; only then will he be able to unlock the strength he needs to succeed.

Review: Two words encompass what Kung Fu Panda 2 would mean for most cinemagoers – crowd-pleaser. Although it doesn’t even try to deviate slightly from the formula set in the first film, and perhaps exactly because of this, Kung Fu Panda 2 has a lot of ticks in the right checkboxes. It’s a beautifully animated, consistently funny film with a good number of well-choreographed action set pieces that will be able to entertain both children and adults (more the former), despite being very light on plot and completely wasting the numerous A-list stars found in its voice cast. Somewhat surprisingly, I found myself enjoying Kung Fu Panda 2 even more than the original film, which, believe it or not, means this franchise shares a common trait with the Godfather movies.

Jack Black, despite his manic intensity and crazed performances, is not always an asset to a movie (case in point: Gulliver’s Travels), but as the voice behind Po, it is a partnership that works very well. Perhaps it’s because we never really see Jack Black in the flesh, and the panda persona is actually far more cuddly and crowd-friendly than his real self. Gary Oldman is a new addition to the voice cast, but is perfectly in his element as the central villain in the film, and his nuanced vocal delivery helps to give Shen some much needed dimensionality. The same cannot be said of any of the very well-known actors who have lent their voices to the film, especially when a few of them have literally nothing more than a handful of lines to deliver.

The world of Kung Fu Panda 2 is lushly detailed and richly coloured, which really needs to be seen without 3D glasses and their dimming effect to be fully appreciated. Coupled with the facts that pretty much nothing significant happens in the third dimension, and that some of the action sequences can be quite hard to follow in 3D, there’s very little reason to shell out more to watch this film in 3D.

Although Kung Fu Panda 2 does try to introduce a little pathos with the somewhat clichéd origins story behind both the villain and the protagonist, the plot is not the film’s strong suit. There also seems to be a rather ill-advised attempt to create some romantic tension between Po and Tigress, which seems rather out of place and never gets resolved fully – perhaps it’s waiting for a second sequel. However, the film is so entertaining with its witty banter and action sequences that the little flaws pretty much cease to matter. This isn’t a revolutionary animated film by any measure,  but it’s entertaining and accessible, and is the most family friendly film to be released this summer season so far.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Despicable Me * * *

Genre: Animation

Directors: Chris Renaud, Pierre Coffin

Writers: Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio based on a story by Sergio Pablos

Voice Cast: Steve Carrell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Will Arnett, Kristen Wiig

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Gru (Steve Carrell) has prided himself on being a supervillain, but when someone else steals the Great Pyramid of Giza, Gru knows it's time to step it up a notch. His new plan – to steal the moon and hold it ransom – can only be accomplished with a Shrink Ray, but getting his hands on one can be very tough when he's pitting himself against Vector (Jason Segel), the new villain on the block. Gru chances upon an unconventional solution of adopting three orphan girls – Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) – who will then become his "in" to infiltrating Vector's fortress. What Gru didn't count on, of course, was that his paternal instinct would be brought to the forefront when he is with the three girls. Superbad? Or Superdad?

Review:  Despicable Me bears more than a passing resemblance to the Shrek franchise – both movies establish an anti-hero as a central character, and both make copious use of humour and a bevy of interesting (and some will say scene-stealing) supporting characters to augment the leads. In fact, Despicable Me seems to have borrowed a fair bit off a number of other movies, but thankfully despite this the film still manages to be quite an entertaining film for young and old.

The best thing about Despicable Me is its humour, which is presented both visually and in its smart script. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the directors wisely decided to give the minions (strange yellow gnomes spouting gibberish) a lot of exposure, with much of the sight gags coming from these creatures (and some great Spy vs Spy moments between Gru and Vector). It is great fun to watch, and even though it’s a little too piecemeal for my liking, there’s no denying that Despicable Me would be a true crowd pleaser across most audience demographics.

The voice cast is a mixed lot – Steve Carrell’s accent seems a little inconsistent, and Julie Andrews is criminally underused as Gru’s mum (although her non-committal “eehhhhh”s to Gru was one of the highlights of the film to me), but generally the cast turn in decent vocal performances, especially the directors themselves who voiced most of the gibberish spouted by the minions.

And now, the million dollar question for films released this year – to 3D or not to 3D? Despicable Me takes a slightly different route in its 3D implementation and intentionally creates scenes where the “3D effect” is very obvious, including a very tongue-in-cheek end credits sequence where the minions try to outdo each other in being “more 3D”. Yes – it’s completely a gimmick, but one that would probably be appreciated by younger audiences. I remain unimpressed, and in my opinion the film is not one that needs to be watched in 3D.

It seems that 2010 is the year of animated films, and although Despicable Me does not come close to the bar set by Pixar’s Toy Story 3, especially in terms of its story, it still manages to roundly beat almost every single live-action summer blockbuster I’ve watched this year. Even if one remains unmoved by the rather simplistic plot, only the dourest audiences would leave the cinema without at least a smile on their faces.

Rating:  * * * (out of four stars)

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