Movie Review: The Mitchells vs The Machines

Rated PG for action and some language

A few years ago, I was very surprised when Sony Pictures Animation’s film Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse proved that the studio could actually do something worthwhile beyond such mediocre fluff as The Emoji Movie, and The Angry Birds Movie. Up until Spiderverse, I had felt their 2007 release Surf’s Up was the last time they had taken a “creative” chance.

Over the last year, the studio’s latest animated film The Mitchells vs The Machines (at one point titled Connected) looked like its future was unknown, when the pandemic caused it to drop from theatrical release schedules. That future was made a little brighter, when Netflix worked out a deal to bring the film to their streaming service in late April, allowing the Mitchell family to become escapist fare for many families looking for an escape from the comfort of their own homes.

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Katie Michell (Abbi Jacobson) is a teenager who longs to escape from her mundane midwestern world, and find others that share her creative views on film and graphics. When she gets accepted to a film school in California, her dad Rick (Danny McBride) decides to take her there via a family road trip with her mom Linda (Maya Rudolph), dinosaur-obsessed brother Aaron (Michael Rianda), and the family dog, Monchi.

The Mitchells (l to r): Katie (Abbi Jacobson), Rick (Danny McBride), Linda (Maya Rudolph), Monchi, and Aaron (Michael Rianda)

Katie does her best to grin and bear it as the trip goes on, but things take an unexpected turn when an advanced artificial intelligence intends to wipe out humanity, leaving the Mitchell family as Earth’s only hope.

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Following Sony’s last animated film and its awards season wins, my biggest fear was that the animation studio division would “pull a Dreamworks,” and just make everything in the Spiderverse style. Fortunately, that does not appear to be the case with The Mitchells.

A highlight of the art style that directors Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe have gone with, is to render the world of the film like a digital painting. There are a number of soft edges on the characters, and there is an effort to exaggerate vs make things seem photo-real. In a way, it’s a bit like the exaggerated stylings Laika Studios used in the world of Paranorman, making it feel like the concept art has come to life.

Over the years, we’ve seen all manner of dysfunctional family road trip films (from National Lampoons to A Goofy Movie), but it is surprising how much restraint is put on not making the Mitchells “the worst family in the world.” Each one of them has their own issues/faults/etc, but for the most part, they do an okay job of getting along with each other.

Katie and Aaron find something amusing, as their dad looks on.

One of the main storypoints is the disconnect between Katie and her dad. Rick Mitchell is one of those “analog” parents who tolerates computers, but is moreso old-fashioned compared to the rest of his family. In a way, the father/daughter disconnect is a bit like the father/son disconnect in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also produced this film). It also helps that Katie’s mom and brother also seem to be hoping for the two to reconcile on the trip, and they end up being supportive figures in some key moments.

One of the secondary subplots involves the company PAL Labs (think of an Apple/Adobe/Amazon tech conglomerate), and its takeover plans. For the most part, the filmmakers mine this for humor rather than drama, but it never really feels they find a good balancing act for these moments. There’s even an attempt to mine humor from a pair of defective robots (voiced by Beck Bennett and Fred Armisen), but they almost feel like afterthoughts in the film.

The films efforts to be an enjoyable family film is what really made me go back and re-watch it several times. Comedy films can be hard to win me over, but The Mitchells has its heart in the right place, and that allowed me to get sucked in by its charm. The co-directing team also supplied the screenplay, and were writers on the series Gravity Falls. If you saw that series and enjoyed it, you’ll definitely see similarities to some of the comedy beats here.

Throughout the film, several of Katie’s moments are embellished with extra visual touches.

For the last few decades, it has felt like so many animated features dipped into the well of Shrek by just throwing pop-culture references at people in the name of “comedy.” This film has a few, but shows a good deal of restraint for the most part, relying moreso on situational comedy. There also is an added bonus of drawn and creative embellishments that look as if Katie herself has edited this film together.

Even if it doesn’t hit the emotional highs of Spiderverse, The Mitchells vs The Machines manages to be a pretty decent comedy, with plenty of heart. It manages to not get bogged down too deeply in popular culture, and tries to keep its focus on characterization (even if the third act does become a bit too long in trying to reach its conclusion).

After seeing this film, I am hoping this means that a new era of creativity is being fostered at Sony Pictures Animation, that can give us films that push the limits on what animated films can look like, while also giving us entertaining and emotional stories.

Final Grade: B+

Movie Review: Earwig and the Witch

Rated PG for some scary images and rude material

In recent years, Japan’s world-famous Studio Ghibli (home to films such as Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro), has quietly emerged back into the spotlight. While word circulated that co-founder Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to work on a new film, there have been a few other artists who are producing films under the company’s name. One in particular is Hayao’s son, Goro.

Needless to say, Goro’s work for the studio has been somewhat of a mixed bag. His adaptation of Urusla Le Guin’s Tales From Earthsea is often ignored by some (and led to some bitter words from his father), while his sophomore effort From Up on Poppy Hill proved to be a rather enjoyable story about young people living in post-WWII Japan.

Now after almost a decade, Goro has returned to direct Earwig and the Witch, based on a story by Diana Wynne Jones (the author of Howl’s Moving Castle). Most notable about this production, is that it is the studio’s first where computer-generated imagery has been utilized to bring familiar character designs to life.

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Cute and manipulative orphan Earwig (Kokoro Hirasawa) enjoys her days at the St. Morwald’s Home for Children, where she revels in quietly lording over the place and a number of its people.

Things change when one day, she is adopted by a woman named Bella Yaga (Shinobu Terajima), and her lanky partner named Mandrake (Etsushi Toyokawa). Earwig soon finds out that these strange people are actually a witch and a demon, living in a house not far from the orphanage.

Earwig observes her new home

Though Bella simply wants Earwig to be a helper as she prepares spells and enchantments to pay the bills, the young girl is determined to learn magic and other powers from her new guardians, whether they like it or not.

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As soon as still images of the production were released, I was mildly apprehensive of the familiar Ghibli designs having been translated into the computer. Once I saw the characters in motion, it took some time to accept what was being done. There is definitely some care put into a rendering a lot of the familiar traits we’ve come to know for the studio’s character designs, but it feels like the animators tend to make some of the moves a bit more “floaty” than I would have expected, let alone the textures make the characters often look like plastic figurines. There are even a few areas where they had to compromise on translating some expressions, with one of the strangest being how they visualized the boisterous “Miyazaki laugh” many of us know.

Taking in the film as a whole, I found it hard at times to figure out just where the story was going. There are a number of times where it feels like we are getting little clues as to what may be coming down the pike, but they seldom seem to pan out.

Earwig, Mandrake, and Bella Yaga partake in a meal

A big element (and selling point of the ad materials), is that it seems Bella and Mandrake were once part of a band prior to the events in the film. One would have assumed that Earwig would have been pulled into this history lesson (she even shares the name of an album in Mandrake’s possession!), but the film doesn’t think this that important, making a few of the promo materials to feel misleading.

As a character, Earwig herself is one that is hard to really get behind, let alone see her as anything more than a little girl who is determined to make this new house bend to her will in a matter of time. Aside from her sneaking around the house and quietly griping at whatever Bella makes her do, there just aren’t a lot of quiet moments to really find much to make us care about her.

The same can be said for Bella Yaga and (the) Mandrake. They seem to have their own lives and things that they do, but the film just doesn’t want to take the time to explore this. We never do get to see Bella doing much outside of potion-making, and Mandrake just constantly gets fired up about one thing or another. It also stands to reason that Bella is not some wicked witch, given Earwig’s nice clothes and daily meals (though one could make a drinking game out of all the times Bella threatens to make Earwig “eat worms”).

Bella Yaga and Earwig at work

The inability for the film to really go anywhere is its biggest downfall. Goro presents all these elements that make the viewer ready to find out more than Earwig just being stuck in the house, but he doesn’t do anything really compelling with these characters to push them out of their mundane lives. We’ve seen Hayao do some intriguing things with witches and demons in some of his films, but this film feels like if Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle just never did much once she got to the castle.

The film also brings back a former collaborator, in the form of Satoshi Takebe. Unlike his more traditional score from Up On Poppy Hill, Satoshi adds some jazzy rock instrumentals at time that seem quite out-of-place from what we’ve had in the past. It adds an extra layer of darkness and intrigue to the film, but the music at times also slows down to the more familiar melodic tempos we’ve known from past films too.

At the start, I slowly began to get sucked into the story of Earwig and the Witch, as the character stylings began to seem palatable and the unusual use of rock music seemed to feel like this could be a grand experiment for Studio Ghibli. Sadly, the story just feels like there are a bunch of better plotlines that never go anywhere. As I looked back on the film, one of the most shocking things to me was just when the film felt like it might actually go somewhere interesting…it ended!

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Final Grade: C+

Movie Review: Soul

Rated PG for some language and thematic elements

Ever since they were founded back in 1986, PIXAR Animation Studios has often looked to utilize their animation and storytelling skills, in unexpected ways. 25 years ago, rather than adapt a fairy tale or do a musical like The Walt Disney Studios, they created an original film about toys that would surprise many of us.

Since then, they have often looked to do concepts most would never consider. From culinary rats to a dystopian romance between two automatons, they have (usually) sold us on their often unusual ideas.

Five years ago, writer/director Pete Doctor took one of the studio’s biggest conceptual leaps with his film tied into the human mind (2015’s Inside Out). And now at the tail-end of 2020, in a world where life-and-death seem balanced on a knife’s edge on a daily basis, he tackles another concept that no other studio would dare consider.

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Musician Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has spent his life longing to hit the big-time, and become a successful Jazz musician. However, just when his dream is poised to come true, an accident sends Joe into an out-of-body experience.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) takes a stroll through New York City.

Determined to get back to his body, Joe ends up in a place called The Great Before, where souls are prepared to be sent to Earth. Taking on the role of a mentor, Joe is assigned to the troublesome 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent a long time refusing to find anything worthwhile about living.

Even so, Joe is willing to try anything (and everything), if it can mean him getting back to make his big break.

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To most of us, Pete Doctor has created some of the studios’ most memorable films. His work on Monsters Inc paved the way for even greater success with Up in 2009. As I went over his films, I felt that Doctor tended to do quite well when it came to emotional beats (the relationship between Sully and Boo still stands out), but in regards to the connective tissue of his films, it often feels like he’s jamming together a lot of ideas and such, that get a little too cumbersome to achieve equilibrium (just how did Charles Muntz survive for so long in Up, anyways?).

While I did feel Doctor made strides in Inside Out to try and pull together a more cohesive storyline, I have felt that maybe in some cases, he gets a bit too enveloped into the worlds or concepts he wants to tackle, and that can cause little kinks in his stories in places.

As a character, Joe Gardner may put some in mind of Up’s Carl Fredericksen. Both are people who hold on deeply to a dream, and can come off as a bit obsessive when it comes to making that dream come true. Joe’s passion for Jazz and his own daily struggles were something I could latch onto though, but it did feel at times that Joe ends up maybe being used a bit more for comic relief than he should.

Joe (Jamie Fox) attempts to find something that will interest 22 (Tina Fey) to give living a chance.

In the case of 22, I feel Tina Fey does decent work with her character, but like Joe, it feels like maybe there could have been a bit more to her than what we get. 22 is portrayed almost like someone who has had the world explained to them through virtual reality, but is someone moreso able to learn-by-doing. There are some fun little moments of interaction she has with Joe on her journey, but it felt like she just needed something extra to really make her stick with me.

For most of the film, we alternate between the Real World environment of New York City, and the more abstract visuals of The Great Beyond/Before. Much like Doctor’s alternating environs for Inside Out, the artists and technicians at Pixar once again assault our senses in a number of ways that will inspire and amaze. Each place also has hyper-stylized figures, with New York filled with caricatured humans, and The Great Beyond/Before filled with flat/abstract beings (most of them named Jerry). A highlight is the soul-counter named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who is determined to find Joe.

Jerry (Alice Braga) and Terry (Rachel House) keep count over souls heading to The Great Beyond.

Soul also marks the first time some new musicians and composers have been brought into the mix, with a soundtrack that tag-teams Jon Batiste doing Jazz arrangements for the film, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose using their electronic music skills to set the mood of the The Great Beyond, and some of the quieter moments. It’s an unusual mixture of sounds and instru,entals that is quite a lovely breath of fresh air from some of the more regular composers we’ve heard. A highlight is one track where all three men manage to combine their skills into a piece that is one of the more memorable musical pieces I’ve heard all year.

To me, Pete Doctor is not a bad director, but I just wish his storytelling and filmmaking skills would rise to the levels I’ve seen from other directors like Brad Bird (The Incredibles), and Lee Unkrich (Coco). Soul weaves a tale about how our experiences and movements through life tend to make us who we are, but stumbles on it’s way to greatness (in my eyes).

When Doctor hits us with the emotional moments here (like with Up), those will be what washes over most viewers. However, in the process of doing this, he manages to easily distract from the flimsiness and flaws that are often a part of his storytelling process. After 2 decades, I’m starting to think this may just be the way Doctor is “wired” into filmmaking.

Final Grade: B

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 8) – The Rescue

These days, it can be nice when in a world rampant with spoilers, some things can still surprise you.

I remember wandering around Star Wars Celebration in 2019, and seeing people psyched up for The Mandalorian. Even with a prop speeder bike from the show on display, I just dismissed the show as some way to placate the Boba Fett fanboys.

Imagine my surprise later that fall, when I found out how series creator Jon Favreau had something a little different in mind: a series that tapped into the western and samurai tales that George Lucas sought inspiration from, and attempted to tell a live-action story outside the confines of The Skywalker Saga.

Pretty soon, I was drawn into the adventures of Din Djarin (aka the Mandalorian), and his unexpected charge Grogu, aka “The Child.” The show managed to hit me with just enough nostalgia, while taking us off into places that the films would not generally go to.

And now, we find ourselves at the end of the second season, and it’s much-anticipated finale.

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With the coordinates to Moff Gideon’s (Giancarlo Esposito) cruiser now in his possession, The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) puts his plan into action to rescue Grogu.

Along with cohorts Cara Dune(Gina Carano), Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), Mando recruits fellow Mandalorians Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), and Koska Reeves (Sasha Banks) to help them out.

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After episode 6 of this season, I did wonder if the season finale could do everything it needed to in just 45 minutes. Turns out, I didn’t have much to worry about.

One thing that has been clear over much of season 2, is how the show feels no guilt in reaching back into it’s cast of characters to pull some into the light for various missions. Characters like Mythrol and Miggs Mayfield were definitely a surprise to see play larger supporting roles this season, but I didn’t expect to see Bo-Katan and Koska return before the season ended.

For much of the episode, the action is split-up (with Boba taking a backseat to much of the action). While Mando goes in on his own, it was a nice touch seeing the women of the episode work together in infiltrating the ship. Each of them brings something useful to the fight, and getting to see them interact was a highlight. One highlight for me, was seeing a bit more action given to Fennec Shand, whom I have felt had been rather downplayed since her return to the series.

Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Koska Reeves (Sasha Banks) infiltrate Moff Gideon’s ship.

Seen briefly in episode 6, we also get some of our first full glimpses of Moff Gideon’s nightmarish Darktrooper squad in action. The Terminator-like creations provide some nice tense moments, with an added musical cue from composer Ludwig Goransson to make things seem even more harrowing when our group encounters them on the cruiser.

Like a number of episodes this season, this one attempts to balance out action with emotion, and when it comes to emotions, this episode might hit viewers in ways they never imagined.

Certain revelations given in this episode did push a number of my emotional buttons, but once I had some time to recover and collect my thoughts, I had to judge the episode on it’s overall merits. In fact, one revelation would have probably pushed the episode to the top of my favorites of the season, if certain information hadn’t been given away a few times prior to this episode.

Mando (Pedro Pascal) encounters a cadre of Darktroopers

One of the things about the first season of The Mandalorian that I really enjoyed, was that Din Djarin seemed to be a part of the Star Wars galaxy, but quite removed from the previous “lore” that had been a major part of our lives. Seeing Mando encounter characters like Boba Fett and Ahsoka Tano I feel is okay, but I often felt that with Star Wars being such a large sandbox to play in, the show could have done a better job of carving out it’s own way in the universe. That to me seems to be the teeter-totter that the series rests on: it tries to make it’s own way, but has a “habit” of diving a little too often into “the familiar.”

The Rescue definitely feels like a turning-point for the series. It draws a curtain over the eight episodes we’ve invested in over the last few months, but much like The Empire Strikes Back, leaves us at a point where we don’t know just where its characters can go. While some mysteries have been solved, new ones have been revealed. It doesn’t feel like there are any easy answers regarding where most of our main characters can go, and that will surely have many of us guessing as we wait once again, for a new season to start up.

I will admit that season 2 of The Mandalorian didn’t win me over as much as the first season, but watching it there were moments where I wished I was watching these episodes with a theater audience. I saw scenes where I could imagine audiences being just as rowdy and enthusiastic as I recall from the opening night of some of the Star Wars films.

If anything, my one hope is when the series returns, we get a lessening of “guest stars,” and focus a little more on developing the cast of characters surrounding Din Djarin, and where his journeys will take him next.

Final Grade: B+

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 7) – The Believer

As we near the end of Season 2 of The Mandalorian, it’s been a bumpy-yet-enjoyable ride. There have been quite a few callbacks to Season 1, with some new revelations adding to the story of Mando and his young charge, Grogu. The show has also twisted in ways I didn’t expect, and still it has proven itself to be one of the most enjoyable things associated with the words Star Wars in quite some time for me.

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Thanks to some help from Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Mando manages to spring a mercenary named Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr). A former Imperial, Migs is Mando’s key to finding Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito), who is now in possession of Grogu.

With an assist from Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison) and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), the group head to the planet Morak, where Mayfield can hopefully put his former skills to good use.

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It feels like just when our momentum was building up in relation to the closing of Season 2, the series once again puts us in a “holding pattern.” The Believer is another “heist” storyline (directed by show alumni Rick Famuyiwa), but with a few tricks up it’s sleeves.

When it comes to Mayfield, I think like many of us who saw him in the season 1 episode The Prisoner, we figured he wasn’t ever going to be seen again. Much like the character of Mythrol a few episodes back, Mayfield is a reluctant part of the crew. While abrasive and a bit of a motormouth (he feels like the Joe Pantoliano of the episode!), the writers manage to give most of his ramblings a purpose to the story. A highlight comes during a transport scene, where he attempts to engage Mando in conversation.

Cara Dune (Gina Carano), Mando (Pedro Pascal), Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr) plot their next moves

For much of the story, Mando’s companions take a backseat as he and Mayfield are front-and-center on their mission. It almost becomes an impromptu buddy storyline, and even gives us some further insight into just how strictly Mando is willing to stick to his Mandalorian code given where his journeys have taken him.

In terms of new worlds on the show, Morak is one of the first jungle environments we’ve seen, and one that manages to give us callbacks to Rogue One in terms of the types of troopers we see. There’s also an action-scene involving a turbo tank-style transport vehicle, that definitely feels like it could have been plucked right out of a video game. The planet stop-off gives us another glimpse into the remnants of The Empire working to rebuild in the shadow of The New Republic, and offers a brief glimpse into Imperial ideologies, in the form of an officer named Valin Hess (Richard Brake)

Imperial officer Valin Hess (Richard Brake) shares a drink with some troopers

Unlike typical Imperials, Hess’ drawl seems a little out-of-place coming from the mouth of an officer. Even so, the character manages to be quite intriguing given his limited appearance. The show has done a commendable job so far making even the post-ROTJ Imperials interesting characters to watch.

Overall, The Believer feels like previous Season 2 episodes The Passenger and The Siege: it gives us a chance to catch our breath, before plunging us into what will hopefully be an even more exciting episode. Even so, it might be one of those episodes that may age better with time, given some of what is discussed and revealed regarding its characters, and their ideologies.

Final Grade: B-

My Top 10 Episodes for The Owl House (Season 1)

When it came to the recent Disney animated series The Owl House, I didn’t know what to expect. It started innocently enough, watching four episodes in one night on Disney+, and soon snowballed into completing the series over the Thanksgiving weekend!

With a start somewhat akin to Alice in Wonderland, Luz Noceda follows a little owl through a doorway, and winds up in a place called The Boiling Isles. It is here she meets a rogue witch named Eda and a demon named King. Rather than return to the real world where her mother thinks she is at a camp to calm her “creative impulses,” Luz decides to stay with Eda, where she hopes to become a witch and learn magic, before she has to return home one day.

Each episode seemed to bring new character revelations and new information about the world of the isles, that soon had me wanting to know more. With a structure very much like Gravity Falls mixed with the strangeness of something like Star vs The Forces of Evil, the nineteen episodes soon wouldn’t get out of my head…leading to me deciding to make a Top 10 list of the episodes I felt were some of the first season’s best. And so…off we go!*

*This list contains my own personal choices regarding favorite Season 1 episodes. It may not be the same as a number of other lists out there, and I have tried to keep most episode spoilers to a minimum.

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10. Wing it Like Witches

This is kind of a throwaway episode given those that came before it, but it is nice to see Luz, Willow, and even Amity Blight standing their ground in a Grudgby sports match, after Luz takes a stand against resident Hexside mean girl, Boscha. Plus, given revelations that came to light in the previous episode (Enchanting Grom Fright), Amity has some entertaining moments of awkwardness. The subplot where Eda and her sister Lilith play their own Grudgby game is okay, but felt like the writers were struggling for what to do to bring the two sisters together, before the final two episodes of the season hit them hard in a big way.

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9. The Intruder

This is one of the first episodes that serves as a stepping-stone to Luz understanding a little more about magic and demons. When a dark creature attacks the Owl House during a dangerous storm, it’s up to Luz and King to stop it. The set-up acts like a horror film at times in how it’s paced, let alone revelations and parts for the main players to all have a hand in. It serves as a nicely-balanced story with mood, while also giving us some additional history regarding Eda’s past.

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8. Covention

I almost pushed this one down a bit more, but it is an integral storypoint introducing Eda’s sister Lilith, along with revealing more about covens and witchcraft, and how they are set up in this world. We also get some more insight into Amity Blight and what seems to be her dream to one day be part of the Emperor’s Coven, which is the most powerful coven in the land. Most of this moves along well enough, that King trying to snag convention freeebies from the event can be overlooked, though a highlight for many is an action-oriented scene near the end.

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7. Enchanting Grom Fright

This episode is often at the top of most fan-lists for the show given it’s revelations near the end, but while it does bring about some nice and enjoyable moments, I feel the overall story structure can be a bit unwieldly. The main plot involving Amity and Luz worrying about the events of Hexside School’s Grom Night is the superior story, while there is the hammering in of a very minor subplot revolving around King and Luz’s school friend Gus doing Grom Night emcee duties. We also get a reminder that in the human world, Luz’s Mom thinks she’s at camp, and Luz wrestles with her emotions regarding not telling her Mom the truth. This ends up being a nice tie-in to something Luz fears, while reminding us that her time in this world is limited.

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6. Witches Before Wizards

While the first episode of the series was okay as an introduction, this second episode was what got me curious as to what was in store for Luz on the Boiling Isles. Being the only human in this world (that we know of), Luz wonders if she may be a “chosen one” figure like in some of the fantasy stories she reads. This episode functions as a nice dose of fantasy vs reality, as Luz goes off on a quest with Eda and King not far behind. Seeing it for the first time, there is the enjoyability factor as we accompany Luz on her quest, before the episode wraps up to a nice conclusion.

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5. Adventures in the Elements

With this episode, we get one of the most involved storylines of Eda working to train Luz, in the traditional style of “the master frustrates the student with her weird teaching methods.” The journey takes us to another part of the Boiling Isles, let alone brings us an encounter with Amity and her older siblings. King gets his own solo B-story, using some of Eda’s magic to create minions of his own…until his brash demands end up backfiring on him. Fortunately, the A-story manages to be quite interesting as we see the Blight siblings, Eda, and Luz interact in ways we haven’t before, let alone learn a little more about the isles.

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4. Understanding Willow

When Amity ends up accidentally damaging Willow’s memories, she and Luz go into Willow’s mind to fix what has happened. The episode is a window into not only showing us some of who Willow is, but that she and Amity have a history before their time at Hexside School. We also get another episode showing how Luz and Amity work together, while also building up new understandings. A subplot about their classmate Gus struggling to find someone to interview for a school project is a little weak, but the main storyline dealing with Willow keeps the interest going.

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3. Lost in Language

A trip to the library ends up being a most interesting storyline, that opened viewer’s eyes to see that Amity Blight might not be as bad as we first thought. Along with introducing us to her playful-yet-abrasive elder siblings, the story also gives more insight into Luz, including how she may willingly throw herself into a dangerous situation, even if she isn’t fully prepared to deal with it. The B-plot of Eda and King dealing with an unexpected babysitting gig had its entertaining moments, and fortunately was entertaining on its own terms.

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2. Young Blood, Old Souls

Though the final episode of the season, this one managed to provide a little information about the mysterious Emperor Belos, along with just why Eda’s sister Lilith has been trying to get her sister to give herself over to the coven. Luz and King also team up to try and get Eda out of Belos’ cluthes, showing how much Luz has grown to care for her mentor, and demonstrating what she can do using magic in her own way. These storypoints manage to override what feels like a shoehorning in of a secondary subplot that seeks to turn public opinion on how Belos feels about non-conforming witches (such as Eda). It could have been a stronger concept, but it feels like it suffers from having other revelations revealed, but still, one of the stronger episodes of the first season…but not as strong as…

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1. Agony of a Witch

The season has had little moments of emotion here-and-there, but this episode really amped them up in a number of ways. As Eda’s magical curse becomes more unwieldly, Luz uses a school field trip to the Emperor Belos’ castle to try and find a magic relic that might cure her. Unfortunately, she has the misfortune to run into Lilith, who decides to set a trap for her uncooperative sister. This leads to one of the most action-packed scenes in the season, let-alone gives us probably one of the most emotional moments seen on-screen for the series.

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And there we have it.

While not perfect, there were definitely more good things than bad about the first season of The Owl House. The Boiling Isles as a locale is rather grotesque yet fascinating, and unlike my frustrations with Star vs The Forces of Evil, we’re often provided with enough answers to satiate most of the questions I have about the world.

There’s some very entertaining character development that sucked me in, let alone Luz’s adorkable personality and trying to be positive in the face of often overwhelming odds. The optimism ends up being one of her best traits, and the show can often show a nice contrast between creativty and conformity.

Having premiered at the start of this year, word is a second season is currently in production. Needless to say, I have a feeling that this time until the next premiere will be a great way to draw more people into the series, and build even more anticipation regarding what is in store for Luz and her friends coming up.

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 6) – The Tragedy

We’ve now reached the 75% mark for Season 2 of The Mandalorian, and the episodes have tended to bounce back-and-forth between great and good. With the last several episodes delving into The Clone Wars series, the latest episode catches up on a real blast from the past.

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After their encounter with Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and Grogu (formerly known as The Child) head to Tython, where there exists a place that can possibly help them contact other Jedi who might help them give Grogu safe haven.

Shortly after touching down, things don’t go as planned when Mando finds himself facing off against stormtroopers, a foe he once thought dead, and a bounty hunter with a familiar ship.

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Following last week’s events, the opening moments show some further understanding between Mando and Grogu, though it is soon after this that their latest adventure becomes like a video game level. Ever play video games where you have to keep the enemy from advancing on a specific target? This is the episode-equivalent of that very game level!

One thing I was largely on the fence about as soon as it was announced, was hearing that Temuera Morrison (who played Jango Fett in Attack of the Clones) would be appearing as Boba Fett this season. I’ve long been of the thought that while he looked cool, Boba had served his purpose and perished in Return of the Jedi. However, the reappearance of his armor and the final shot of the Season 2 premiere episode The Marshal, piqued my interest.

For this episode, Jon Favreau manages to write Boba as being much more interesting than just the cool-looking guy standing around in the original trilogy (even giving Boba a small callback to his father). We can believe Fett knows his way around blasters and jetpacks, but going into action without these things was most unexpected. A highlight was seeing Morrison wield a gaderffii stick like a Maori warrior, causing me to get drawn into the character for the first time watching him onscreen.

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) encounters Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), and Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison)

We also get the return of Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), whom we last saw on Tatooine in the first season. Much like that appearance however, she’s mainly just along for the ride, making me wonder if the show is just saving her for a much more interesting bit later on (maybe she’ll get her “moment” like IG-11 in the first season?).

When it comes to the arrival of the stormtroopers (coming in some pre-Episode VII troop-transports), this is where the video game-style feelings of the episode begin. Pretty soon, the standard white of the trooper armor gives way to several different varieties, making it feel like a group of online players are mounting an assault on the show. There’s even the appearance of some troopers that play into what was shown at the end of the last episode, making me develop some ideas regarding what the villainous Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) wants Grogu for.

Grogu encounters some dark visitors

The episode is short on revelations, and feels moreso like the kind of action-oriented fare we saw in The Siege. Director Robert Rodriguez (known for his El Mariachi trilogy) never keeps the action from getting dull, and there are some moments that really pushed my buttons emotionally (including one that made me sense a great disturbance in The Force). There are a few times where I did question some things he made Mando do that were somewhat repetitive. It might have been meant to make it seem humorous with each attempt he made, but it felt like it was merely a way to stretch the run-time out a little (this episode clocks in at just 33 minutes, the shortest chapter of the season so far).

The results of The Tragedy, feels like we are entering the Empire Strikes Back portion of Season 2. not that the first 5 episodes weren’t hard on Mando in their own right, but this episode ends in probably one of the most tense cliffhangers yet. It isn’t on the same high shelf that I place Season 2 episodes The Marshal and The Jedi, but it manages to make due with what it has to offer. I do hope that with the final episodes, we get a return to stories that have been longer than most of what we’ve encountered this season.

Final Grade: B

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 5) – The Jedi

When The Mandalorian first started, it felt like we were going to see a world where most of what we had learned via the Star Wars films, would take a backseat. Series creator Jon Favreau, looked to be shifting his focus to the grittier side of the galaxy we had glimpsed just briefly in George Lucas’ films.

With The Child showing a resemblance to Yoda and possessing Force-based powers, there was a hint that the Jedi might be showing up in the series…and now, it looks like that time has come.

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Going on information given to him by fellow Mandalorian Bo-Katan, Mando takes The Child to Corvus, where he hopes to find a Jedi that will accept his young charge.

It is here that he encounters the walled city of Calodan, presided over by the cruel Magistrate Morgan Elsbeth (Diana Lee Inosanto), and her lieutenant Lang (Michael Biehn).

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is escorted into Calodan

Elsbeth requests Mando’s help to take down a Jedi named Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), who has been attempting to breach the walls of her city.

It just so happens, that Ahsoka is also the Jedi that Mando is looking for.

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While the series has shown us a galaxy following the aftermath of the events of Return of the Jedi, this season has also shown us that the series is not afraid to reference things from the prequel films, let alone The Clone Wars animated series.

With The Jedi, writer/director Dave Feloni gets to bring one of the characters he created to life, showing us Ahsoka Tano far removed from what has been seen. Rosario Dawson disappears into her character, showing us someone who seems to have chosen her own path, but still remembers much of her days before the Jedi Purge. The way she is portrayed here, it’s a good bet that current fans of hers will be pleased, and a number of new fans for Ahsoka will be joining them soon.

Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) converses with The Child

The episode also gives us some of the most intimate moments with Mando and The Child we’ve seen yet. It feels like it has been awhile since we saw them connect like this, and Ahsoka acts as an intermediary to help Mando better understand the little one (even revealing it’s name!). Though much like his seeking out Mandalorians in the episode The Mistress, Mando’s search for a Jedi does not quite provide him with all the answers he seeks.

In terms of antagonists, Morgan Elsbeth is more of a low-key villain this time around, a figure who stands calm-and-collected in many situations, but is willing to fight if the need arises. A surprising guest appearance was seeing actor Michael Biehn as her lieutenant. Much like Timothy Olyphant earlier in the season, he just blends in surprisingly well for his brief appearance.

For the theming of this episode, the stylings of samurai films are on full display. From the high walls surrounding Caloden, to the barren stalks of trees silhouetted against the moonlit sky, Feloni is tapping into some familiar theming. Even the opening that introduces Ahsoka feels like it has Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s fingerprints on it. The episode overall feels more like an exercise in quietness and contemplation, than the pulse-pounding action we’ve seen in recent episodes.

Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) confronts Morgan Elsbeth (Diana Lee Inosanto)

This is definitely an episode that requires multiple viewings. Much like how George Lucas would layer in details for the prequels, Filoni does the same here, making me think even a few viewings may not be enough to catch a number of the details included here.

The Jedi will surely provide those with fond memories of Ahsoka Tano, an enjoyable trip down memory lane. Its story swings more towards a samurai tale than a western, but it helps act as a nice change of scenery, where we get to slow down and learn more about our lead characters, without having a major threat to contend with. This may also be one of the most emotional episodes we’ve had in the series so far, but we should be wary as dark clouds still loom on the horizon, and the journey for Mando and The Child, may be a ways off from coming to its conclusion.

Final Grade: B+

Episode Review: The Mandalorian (Season 2, Episode 4) – The Siege

The Mandalorian’s quest continues ever onward, but just when it seems his path is clear, we can always count on something popping up to divert his attention.

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With his ship needing additional repairs, Mando returns to Nevarro (where he first got the assignment that led him to The Child). Since the events of last season, the once lawless town has been cleaned up by cohorts Greef Karga (Carl Weathers), and Cara Dune (Gina Carano).

While things appear to be going okay, the two request Mando’s help to take out an operational Imperial base nearby, that could threaten their attempts to keep order.

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After what we learned in the previous episode, I was really looking forward to The Siege…only to find my excitement tempered, when it was revealed that this was another “back to a familiar locale” episode (at this rate, it makes me wonder if the showrunners are going to send us back to the greenery of Sorgan before the season is up).

Unlike other season 1 locations, we return to a destination that has been transformed. With Greef and Cara having taken control, the streets are now thriving with newcomers and more colorful decorations…while still proving that evil is never fully eradicated in some small, action-packed scenes.

The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) and The Child are welcomed back to Nevarro by Cara Dune (Gina Carano), and Greef Karga (Carl Weathers)

Speaking of “never fully eradicated,” a surprise guest is the aquatic-based Mythrol (Horatio Sanz) from the season 1 premiere episode, who ends up getting dragged along on the mission thanks to Greef. Mythrol almost becomes the C-3PO of the episode, though a tad less whiny in a few situations.

As this is largely a “mission” episode, The Child is put on the sidelines for much of the action. He has a small-but-entertaining scene in the beginning, but the story’s attempts to give him some humor in several other scenes, felt more like the attempts at humor from the earlier episode, The Passenger.

This episode also marks the first directed by a cast member, as Carl Weathers takes on the task. At times, the action-based pacing and setup feels oddly reminiscent of the last episode (The Mistress), but a little more “old-school.” There are even some scenes that made me imagine the excited reactions of a theater audience, given what is put on display here.

Cara Dune, The Mandalorian, Greef Karga, and Mythrol (Horatio Sanz) infiltrate an Imperial Base on Nevarro

The Imperial Base and what goes on within it feels almost like a video game, and the ensuing fight between our heroes and the soldiers that occupy it, feels like some kids playing with their toys in the backyard. There also is the added information that the actions of the shadowy Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito), are not as generalized as we may have thought. One scene caught me completely off-guard, let alone the use of an often-maligned word that had me chuckling at the internet reaction.

The Siege was not what I expected, but it was still surprising once I realized the episode had secrets of its own to reveal. Mando ends up on a mission that reveals things that could send shockwaves through the rest of the galaxy, but it’s too soon to know just what has been uncovered.

It’s a nice little episode to catch up with old friends and reminisce about the past, though it does make me wonder how many additional subplots will be revealed before the season ends, and if the show can find balance once they’ve been revealed.

Final Grade: B

Movie Review: Over The Moon

Rated PG for some thematic elements and mild action

In the last few years, Netflix has expanded its reach into the world of animation, offering an unexpected challenge to some of the big-name studios in Hollywood. Along with animated TV shows like Hilda and Bojack Horseman, they have also entered the arena of animated features, recently producing last year’s Oscar-nominated film, Klaus.

This fall sees the company’s release of the Pearl Studios feature film Over The Moon, directed by two men who once worked for Walt Disney Feature Animation. Glen Keane was part of the company’s character animation division (developing characters such as Ariel and The Beast), while John Kahrs is known for directing the studio’s Oscar-winning short Paperman.

With Over The Moon, they tell the story of a Chinese girl named Fei Fei (Cathy Ang). Uncomfortable at the prospect of her widowed Father (John Cho) remarrying, the studious girl holds onto the story of Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) the immortal Moon Goddess who never forgot her one true love.

Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) and Bungee

Using her ingenuity, Fei Fei builds a rocket, hoping that if she meets Chang’e, she may provide her with the means to change her Father’s mind.

Glen Keane has often focused on characters that seem to be stuck between two worlds, and Fei Fei fits the bill. On one hand she inherits her father’s tendencies towards math and science, while embracing the Chinese legends her mother taught her. That mixture of combining logic with legends is intriguing, but it unfortunately feels like it gets lost as the film progresses.

On any serious journey like this, one needs all manner of sidekicks to help and/or irritate the lead. In Fei Fei’s case, we get a big-eyed bun-bun named Bungee, and on the moon we have a glowing green dog-creature named Gobi (Ken Jeong). There also is Chin (Robert G Chiu), Fei Fei’s overly-energetic stepbrother-to-be who never seems to run out of energy. While they prove helpful in some situations, most of the time they feel like they exist to distract the younger audiences.

In terms of secondary characters, Chang’e is one whom it feels like we could have gone deeper into regarding her emotions. We see her characterization being almost like a superstar with a diva-like persona, but also see that despite seeming to be loud-and-proud, there is something lurking beneath the surface that she may be trying to hide. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t seem willing to explore much in this regard, let alone her relationship with her pet rabbit named Jade. Even Jade himself feels shuffled into a corner, when he could have played a much larger role in us understanding how Chang’e has weathered the centuries being alone.

Chang’e (Phillipa Soo)

It’s also never explained how the “kingdom” of Luminaria Chang’e rules over came to be. Looking like a luminescent space Oz, we’re told nothing of its development, let alone more information on the luminescent beings whom inhabit it and the moon. It probably could have added an extra 10-15 minutes to the plot, but it mostly feels like what we see is just meant to enthrall us visually in the hopes that we’ll just end up totally enamored with the on-screen journey.

I was also surprised when the film led off with a song, and then piled on another one right after it. The songs in the film are okay, jumping into a number of different styles, but none of them really stuck with me once it was all over. One near the end had potential, but the structure and lyrics just don’t have the kind of memorable feel of songs from such popular fare like The Little Mermaid, or Frozen.

At times, Over The Moon’s story structure reminded me of Meet the Robinsons and Up, and while those films had flimsy subplots and sometimes annoying supporting characters, they were supported by decent storytelling to lift up the visuals, and support the lead character’s journey of self-discovery.

Fei Fei surveys the kingdom of Luminaria

In the case of Moon, the film surprised me with its hope that Fei Fei’s emotional journey and the flashy visuals will distract viewers from the fact that the foundations of the story are incredibly flimsy. It feels like Keane and Kahrs try to over-compensate too much in the areas of emotion and visuals, throwing the balance of the film out-of-whack in a most unexpected way (I’m used to the opposite in animated films, where mindless slapstick and pop-culture references hope to chase off pesky emotional stuff). Most films would have a solid story foundation, but I found that to be severely lacking once the film picked up momentum and got us to the moon.

The film was also one of the final projects for screenwriter Audrey Wells, who is said to have written the story as a gift to her husband and daughter as she lost her battle with cancer. Knowing full-well that same feeling of loss, it does feel sad that such a heartfelt gift sadly does not hold up to being something as powerful as it could be. The story gives us little pockets of emotional moments, but when strung together into the final product, the unevenness of the story really stands out.

Over The Moon will surely entrance and entertain some, but to me, it is sadly a misfire from two filmmakers who were instrumental in making me realize the power of emotional storytelling in animation, and a mother who wanted to leave something emotionally beautiful for her family. Both Keane and Kahrs have shown their talents for doing emotional directorial projects in animated short format, but it feels like they attempted to translate those skills into a feature, and came up short. In conclusion, there are small bits here-and-there where things click for the film, but in judging it as a whole, it shoots for the moon and misses.

Final Grade: B-