Archive | January 2014

Terrible 2’s Reviews: The Little Mermaid II – Return to the Sea

*Some people may say that most films lose their way by a third sequel, but that isn’t always the case. For every “Wrath of Khan” or “Toy Story 2,” there’s a dozen ‘number 2’ films that were made, that could not uphold the energy and enthusiasm of the first film. This review section, aims to talk about these “Terrible 2’s”*

By now, you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard of, or at least seen Walt Disney Picture’s 1989 feature, The Little Mermaid. Singled out by many as the animated feature film that heralded the start of Disney’s second golden age of animated films, it would go on to break VHS sales records, and make many forget that just 5 years before, Disney had released a film with Daryl Hannah as a mermaid (aka Splash).

Of course, executives within the studio were always trying to find ways to squeeze more money out of their sea (cash) cow. That golden ticket revealed itself in the fall of 1994, when a direct-to-video sequel to Aladdin was released, titled The Return of Jafar. With inferior animation, forgettable songs, and even lacking Robin Williams as the Genie, the video release made enough money on its name and character recognition alone, to have management at The Mouse House declare that more profits could be made with these cheaply-produced sequels. And thus, the Home Video market would become the place for the studio to churn out sequels to films like Cinderella, The Lion King, and many more.

11 years after Ariel longed to walk on land, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea was released to the cries of greedy little children, who begged their parents for more Ariel, regardless of the product’s quality, and making it prime fodder for this column.

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The film starts about a year after the end of The Little Mermaid, with Ariel and Eric sailing out to the ocean, to introduce their daughter Melody, to King Triton. However, no sooner does this happen, than an appearance is made by Ursula’s sister, Morgana.

After threatening to feed Melody to her hench-shark Undertow, the family manages to get their daughter back, but Morgana vows revenge, disappearing in a swirl of ink.

The thought that their daughter could now be a target, causes Ariel to suddenly go into full-on protective parent mode. Given that there is a vengeful sea witch’s sister out there, and even though her own father is the King of the Sea, Ariel cuts herself off from her former, watery way of life. As a ‘safety precaution,’ an enormous 30 foot wall is erected along the beach near Prince Eric’s castle (which I’m sure the kingdom’s people were eager to contribute to).  Just like in the first film, Sebastian is put on babysitting duty, tasked with watching over Ariel’s daughter.

The story then cuts to 12 years later, where the castle is preparing to celebrate Melody’s 12th Birthday. Unknown to everyone, Melody has grown to become a younger, polar opposite of her Mother. While Ariel longed for land, Melody longs for the sea, sneaking out and swimming along the waters near the castle wall. As well, she converses regularly with Sebastian and Scuttle (though strangely enough, she doesn’t question ‘why’ she is able to do this), telling how she sometimes dreams of having fins of her own.

It just so happens that Morgana also decides to come out of hiding, and upon finding Melody’s wish to be a mermaid, decides to use the girl’s dreams, as a way to try and get back at Triton and his Kingdom.

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As one can probably surmise from the information above, there’s not a whole lot to Return to the Sea. While the original Disney version of Mermaid wasn’t a perfect film, it at least had plenty going for it: from believable characters, to toe-tapping songs. So, when one compares the sequel to its predecessor, there are a lot of little things that stick out to me.

One of the strangest things is that Melody is celebrating her 12th birthday, yet every other person claims she’s becoming a teenager. Did I miss the memo or something? I thought you officially became a teenager when you turned, thir-TEEN!

One of the saddest things the film does, is try to make Ariel’s sidekicks from the first film relevant…and they rarely serve any purpose at all. Flounder is now all grown up, with children of his own. Scuttle? Well, it sounds like they recorded Buddy Hackett just spouting off gibberish, and felt that would be good enough for the scatterbrained seagull.

But Sebastian? The sequel deals the most bitter blow of all for the famed ‘court composer’ of Triton’s kingdom. Commanded once again to be a ‘royal babysitter,’ Sebastian seems able to sing well, but come on…after the events of the first film, he should have been reinstated to writing symphonies again. That was where his talents lay. Instead, his career has been put on hold indefinitely. Poor crab. With this plot set-up, he’ll die old, sad, cursing all the great symphonies he was denied because of Triton’s actions.

The film at times feels like it was ping-ponging between several story points, and the reasoning behind Morgana’s plan is a good example of this. Her first appearance makes it sound like she harbors a grudge for the death of her sister, but 10-15 minutes later, she’s in her lair changing her tune. Apparently, she was the sister that couldn’t live up to Ursula’s greatness, and she also seems bitter about this.

Then again, that is probably the only way to enjoy this film: throw what little logic you can out the window. “Don’t think so hard,” you’ll hear the average moron say. “You’re getting all worked up over a kids cartoon.”

And speaking of a ‘kids cartoon,’ that’s about as bad as the animation level gets much of the time. Don’t expect the kind of decent-animation levels put out by late 80’s Disney Feature Animation artists. You’ll see choppy animation of a ship sailing into action, numerous characters going on and off-model, and much more. There’s even some scenes that look like they traced over Glen Keane’s pencil work on Ariel from the first film!

And that brings us to Melody. The filmmakers attempt to give us a character that is meant to be a younger version of Ariel, but it just seems that the stuff Ariel did that made her endearing, just ends up making Melody that much more annoying. Of course, one funny way of looking at the trouble Melody causes Ariel, is to think of it as some form of universal payback for the hard time she gave her father when she was a teenager.

Melody is also given her own sidekicks once she is off on her own: a walrus named Tip, and a penguin named Dash. The two claim to be adventurers/explorers, but are your typical bumbling duo who rarely seem to get anything right, leading them up to some major heroic action at the end of the film.

It’s rather sad for me to say how much I dislike this film, because voice actress Tara Strong (voice of Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls, and Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony), was once quoted as saying that she loved the original film, and getting to voice and sing a character alongside Jodi Benson was a dream come true.

Song-wise, there’s nothing here that comes close to the lyrical and memorable works of Alan Menken, and Howard Ashman. The songs for the film are done by Michael and Patty Silversher, and sadly, it’s a poor blemish in their repertoire of work. Prior to Mermaid, the two had done music work for a number of episodes of the Disney Afternoon. I guess when it comes to music work, they work best in small doses, rather than in feature-length.

The film even rubs a little salt in the wounds, as over the credits, they play a new version of “Part of your World,” sung in a country twang by Chely Wright. If you’ve never heard of her, don’t worry – neither have I. In fact, it seemed that most sequels did this: attempted to quell its audience with a rehash of a popular song from the original film.

While handily not the worst of the Direct-To-Video sequels, it isn’t helped that it is a continuation of one of the most beloved films the studio has made. Following the release of Return to the Sea, Ariel would come back for one more DTV release, albeit in the form of a prequel with 2008’s The Little Mermaid: A New Beginning. As I was rather put off by the results of Return, I didn’t decide to give Beginning a look.

While some praised the animation style for the 2008 prequel, it’d be one of the last films released before the studio would finally put to rest making unnecessary sequels or prequels. Once a management shake-up occurred at Disney with John Lasseter and Ed Catmull coming to work for the studio, the Direct-to-Video production end was shut down, with its studio division now tasked with making original works, or spin-off productions (such as the Disney Fairies line, and the recent release of Planes).

Movie Review: Drew – The Man Behind The Poster

There are several major artists who come to mind when I think of my youth: Walt Disney, Charles M Schulz, Glen Keane, and J Scott Campbell, just to name a few. But in the back of my head, there was another artist out there, whose name I wouldn’t really grasp until I was in my late teens: Drew Struzan.

Drew’s art for 1982’s The Thing (created in under 24 hours!)

Much like the works of The Walt Disney Studios or The Peanuts comic strip, Drew’s work has been seen the world over. That’s because one of his claims to fame, is doing artwork for many of the iconic posters we often saw growing up. His art was on many of the VHS covers our family had as a kid, and I even added several posters of his work to my lifestyle. A copy of his Back to the Future poster hangs on my work cubicle.

Filmmakers Erik Sharkey, Greg Boas, and Charles Ricciardi are also in Drew’s fan club, and in recent years, set out to achieve something that proves them to be die-hard fans: make a documentary about the man whose art got us so jazzed to see movies! The film originally started out as one of the first Kickstarter campaigns I ever heard about, and the first one that I eagerly donated to, when the film needed a little extra to get through the editing phase.

Drew’s art that made Back to the Future my favorite film!

For much of the film, Drew is front and center. A modest man, relating the rough and tumble life of coming from a family that didn’t love or want him, and of the grueling poverty he and his wife endured as he struggled to make ends meet. As amazing as it sounds, there were times in his youth where Drew only ate 2 times a week, in order to afford paint! In fact, he found ways to make his art supplies last as long as possible: allowing him to use techniques that still endured into his later years.

We also learn about his early beginnings doing music cover art, a subject that then catapulted him into the big leagues: movie posters!

Of course, there’s more art than can be shown in a 2 hour documentary, but we do cover some of the highlights of his career, with commentary from noted filmmakers, celebrities, and even Drew’s wife and son. We see George Lucas and Drew going over the different pieces he’s done for Star Wars, Michael J Fox telling of the thrill of meeting Drew during Back to the Future Part II, and even Drew reminiscing about meeting Jim Henson when he was assigned to do a poster for The Muppet Movie! In fact, after that first poster, Jim told Drew, “you are THE Muppet artist.”

Drew’s art that made us excited for Star Wars, in 1997!

Of course, a Drew Struzan poster didn’t automatically mean a movie was going to be great, but there’s no doubt that Drew’s artistic sensibilities helped get us excited. One funny scene in the documentary, features actor Thomas Jane, drooling over Drew’s poster work for the 1987 film, Masters of the Universe.

Talk even extends to the artistic nuances that Drew brings to his artwork. It was his idea to do a tryptic for the Star Wars: Special Edition releases in 1997, and his own imagination regarding the poster art for John Carpenter’s The Thing. I’m sure many of us think of Back to the Future every time we check the watches on our wrists, all because of that pose Drew has Marty McFly in.

In this day and age, movie poster art is sadly, a dead art form. Frank Darabont even made a quip about this in his film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist. At one point, a major storm has destroyed a project that the lead character (Thomas Jane, portraying a Drew Struzan-like artist) is working on. When he looks over the destroyed remnants of his work, he quips how Hollywood “could whip up some bad Photoshop poster in an afternoon. They do it all the time, two big heads.” And in a sense, that’s true: how many movie posters these days are able to make photos look as “artful,” as the stuff that people like Drew Struzan have made?

Drew’s unused poster art for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The end of the film gets a touch sad and melancholy. You can just hear Guillermo Del Toro wanting to go off on a tirade about modern-day movie marketing, and how determined Frank Darabont is, wanting to make sure that Drew never lives up to his claims of “retirement.”

One of the things I love about some of the great artists like Glen Keane and Hayao Miyazaki, is how they can stay so humbled in the face of hundreds of people fawning over them. This is definitely the case when we see Drew show up for 2011’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, CA. People are lined up to see Drew, and even he is unbelieving of this amazing sight.

Probably the biggest disservice to the film, is that given its subject matter, I was expecting it to be picked up by numerous film festivals. However, I was greatly annoyed when in a place known as The Second City, not even the Gene Siskel Film Center, or The Chicago International Film Festival picked it up to be screened! It’s not easy to annoy or irritate someone like me, but it made me once again sad that this City seems to care very little for The Entertainment Arts like this documentary.

Drew’s unused poster art for Pan’s Labyrinth

Drew – The Man Behind The Poster stands out as a great reminder of not just a great and humble artist, but also of a career that has spanned 30 years. The fact that we see people of all ages talking about Drew, proves that love for artwork like this is not dead, but is probably even now being discovered by this current generation (and maybe even inspiring them!).

In the end, it is sad to think of all the films in the last decade that could have benefited from his talents. It’s not often that a documentary can leave me feeling both happy and sad, but the filmmakers have done their job with this one. I had to edit down a lot of what I witnessesed in the documentary, otherwise I’d give away a lot of what you might discover in it.

Much like animation can sometimes be considered as magic when it comes to “the illusion of life,” the creation of Drew’s art also can fit that bill. One magical moment in the documentary, shows Drew working on the poster for Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. You see him using everything from acrylics, to airbrush, and even colored pencils! Sure, many of us still bash the film almost 15 years later, but I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t not love that poster. I’m sure many people afterwords exited the theater, looked at Drew’s work and wondered, “why couldn’t it have been as exciting as the poster made me wish it to be?”

iPad App Review: Frozen Free Fall

(Available in the iTunes App Store for iPhone & iPad. Requires iOS 5.0 or later. Price: Free to Download, with buyable Power-Ups)

Since the introduction of Apps and the Apple App store in 2007, many companies have utilized “smart” products to also play to our growing need to be entertained on the go. Ergo, games for multiple mobile devices can usually be found on several.

Of course, it is usually in simple games of matching and shapes, do we sometimes find ourselves going to. When I was growing up, one game that was most entertaining, was Tetris. We had a copy for our Nintendo Entertainment System, and I always remember it as the only game my Dad would sit down and play.

Prior to the release of Frozen in late November, was the release of a game titled Frozen Free Fall. Following the same setup as games like Candy Crush, Free Fall brings you a Frozen-themed matching game, where matching 3 of a jeweled object will cause it to disappear. There are also other things that will happen if you match 4-5 of a certain colored jewel, usually with ice/frost-based results.

There are currently over 90 levels, where one can earn 1-3 stars, based on how many points you score. The levels include tasks like clearing a certain number of ice blocks, making certain items drop from top-to-bottom, and a timed level where you need to earn a certain number of points.

The game can be oriented for both portrait and landscape formats on the iPad, and each screen includes a character from the film, who also can give you the ability to utilize a special item to make some jewels disappear, or clear out certain sections of your gameboards. For those who have seen the film, you will get both young and old variations of certain characters, as well as background images taken directly from the film! There’s also a minimal amount of animation on the characters. They will do little gestures during game play, as well as give you an affirmative if you beat a level, or a look that says “sorry” if you fail.

In truth, the game does nothing really new with the matching game format. It’s a cute tie-in to Frozen, but I’m sure it is the presentation that will make people click on it (okay, it definitely WAS the presentation that made me click on it!).

Musically, you won’t find any of the film’s toe-tapping songs, or any of Christophe Beck’s score. Instead, some original music is included, with piano and string melodies, that is actually quite soothing, if a touch sad at times.

When you first start unlocking various characters, you’ll be given 2-3 special items that character can use, free of charge. The problem is that the level you’re on, will then force you to use those items. So, what you may think you can stockpile later, will most likely be gone after a few gameplays.

It’s almost like the game is doing this to whet your appetite, and make some in-app purchases.  This also seems evident in how the game tries to regulate your game play activity. At the beginning of a full gameplay session, you are given 5 lives to play with. However, once you blow through all 5, you have to wait a certain amount of time for your lives to build back up.

The in-game purchase option allows you to buy items such as a 5-pack of lives for 99 cents, as well as packs of various power-ups. The power-up packs range in price from 99 cents, to $2.99. I believe they’re trying to make people think that $2.99 is a drop in the bucket, but I could see some people falling back on them like a crutch trying to get 3 stars on some levels. If you’re not careful, Frozen Free Fall could become a rather expensive game to play/invest time in.

One person I discussed the game with, said the strategy to winning, is patience. It may take you several dozen times, but eventually, you just might get a board with the right combination to get you at least one star, if not more. If you take the game at its value as something to just sit down with and unwind to, I think it’ll help (unless you get tense in the case of the timed levels).

As of now, Level 90 leads you just past Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post (and Sauna). We can assume further updates will be coming down the line, as the game’s path seems to be following that of the one we see within Frozen. Of course, just how many levels we’ll encounter, is anyone’s guess at the moment.

Frozen Free Fall has definitely proved a good time-waster over the month of December, and is something that can be enjoyed by both kids and adults. However, I strongly caution parents to watch their kids, as if you’re not careful, I could see some parents find some bills charging them for power-ups and add-ons to the game, if their password information isn’t protected.