Archive | November 2019

Movie Review: Frozen II

Rated PG for action/peril and some thematic elements

I remember 6 years ago being hyped for Frozen, after the 2013 D23 Expo gave us some exciting sneaks and imagery beyond the hackneyed American marketing campaign.

Next thing we knew, Elsa dolls were flying off the shelves, Idina Menzel’s Let It Go drove parents insane, and it looked like Walt Disney Feature Animation was back on top.

While the studio’s micro-managers during the “Eisner Era” sequelized as much as they could with cheaply-done animation, sequels made within the big-budget Burbank Disney Studios were few-and-far-between. The company recently embraced big-screen sequels again with Ralph Breaks the Internet, and now are hoping it’s icy cash-cow still has what it takes to fill seats and sell merchandise.

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When the kingdom of Arendelle is threatened by magical forces beyond their borders, Anna (Kristin Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel), Olaf (Josh Gad), Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and Sven set off to find out what is going on.

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L to R: Sven, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad), Anna (Kristin Bell), and Elsa (Idina Menzel)

Their journey leads them into an enchanted forest, cut off from the rest of the countryside. Within it’s shrouded wilderness, the group finds new creatures, humans, and the chance to learn a little more about Anna and Elsa’s royal heritage.

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Frozen II attempts to do what most sequels do, which is send it’s characters off on a bigger and more eye-popping journey than the first foray. Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck return to the director’s chairs, while caught in a quandary: how to continue telling the story, when they can’t seem to escape the shadow of the first film.

The filmmakers try to utilize some connective tissue to the Arendelle royal family and expand our knowledge of them, but we get a few too many winks to the audience’s knowledge of Frozen (even Toy Story 2 was able to reference it’s predecessor more sparingly than what we see here).

After 6 years (and two animated shorts), we see that there have been a few changes to our main cast of characters. There’s still a small wedge between the two sisters on how to handle certain situations, with Elsa wanting to do things by herself, and Anna still wanting to be there for her older sister.

Most of the film’s humor comes from Olaf, who seems to be entering the “motor-mouthed kid” portion of his being alive. This time around, Kristoff is pushed to the back, with a running-gag “proposition” narrative that seems to be a continuation from what we saw in the 2015 animated short, Frozen Fever.

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L to R: Destin Mattias (Sterling K Brown), Anna (Kristin Bell)

The film does expand on it’s cast once we get to the enchanted forest. From the introduction of a native tribe, to Arendelle Lieutenant Destin Mattias (Sterling K Brown), it at first seems like we’re going to get a larger cast of characters to go on this new journey. In the end however, they feel like minor bumps in the road.

While the first film focused on Anna learning more about life and coming into her own, this film gives over much of it’s character development time to Elsa. There also is the added mystery as to how the enchanted forest came to be, but it never feels like we really get a concrete understanding about this new location. Still, the visuals do show that Disney’s R&D team have taken some amazing leaps when it comes to real-world environments and lighting.

What also doesn’t help the film, is it’s pacing. From the beginning, the film feels like it’s in a hurry to get us to Elsa’s story. There are some moments where the film could take the time to slow down and allow us to catch our breath, but by the end of it all, you feel like stuff has happened…but how much of what you experienced do you actually comprehend, or care about?

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Elsa (Idina Menzel)

Songwriters Robert and Kristen Anderson Lopez are back, with plenty of new music that hits the big Broadway sound, while also dipping into the power ballad arena. Idina Menzel delivers the two big show-stopper pieces, while Kristin Bell and Josh Gad are given songs that just don’t hold much water. I don’t see any of the music becoming the new “Let it Go,” though a song sung by Jonathan Groff will either have you in stitches, or leave you scratching your head.

Frozen II gives us a chance to catch up with old friends, but it feels a little too invested in connecting itself to the first film, and too eager to give us more time with Elsa than to focus on keeping us just as emotionally invested in the rest of it’s cast, both old and new. We’re fortunate that it’s not just a “re-skinned” sequel like Mary Poppins Returns, but it just comes off as a good story, that could have been something far greater (like The Incredibles 2!).

Final Grade: B-

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Movie Review: Klaus

Rated PG for rude humor and mild action

As a former animation student, I like many was saddened at how the hand-drawn medium became sidelined in the early 21st century. While Disney would attempt to revive it stateside with The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Winnie the Pooh (2011), the films did not make much money, and the studio let any further hand-drawn plans sink from sight.

One person who believed in the medium, was Sergio Pablos, who had actually worked for the Disney company on a number of past projects before striking out on his own.

For over a decade, Pablos tried to find investors to bring his film Klaus to life. Finally, Netflix came calling, and the animator’s vision was unleashed to the streaming service, and the world.

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After shirking his Postal Academy training, lazy and over-privileged Jesper Johansen (Jason Schwartzman) is transferred to the isolated island town of Smeerensberg, with the caveat that he establish a postal service there within a year. However, the town is the home of two feuding families (the Ellingboes and the Krums), who would rather see the other side defeated than send each other a letter. Even the town’s lone school teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) sees little future in getting through to the citizenry.

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Jesper Johansen (Jason Schwartzman)

Beyond the town, Jesper comes across a bearded man named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Seeing a large assortment of toys the man has made, Jesper feels that if the kids send letters to request toys from the lone woodcarver, it might be his ticket out of this crazy place.

However, as Jesper begins to put his plan into action, strange things begin to happen to the little island community.

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Like a number of productions in the last 20 years, Klaus comes off as another “you don’t know the whole story” story, but it manages to do things a lot more…”traditionally.”

Pablos’ take on the tale of Santa Claus, definitely feels like it borrows from the older Rankin-Bass Holiday specials (right down to the backwards-thinking jerks who want to quash anything happy). Unlike most films these days, this one treads very lightly into the pop-culture references or “music inspired by” graces of American-made productions. It is quite a feat when the story being put on the screen…is actually focused on telling you a story!

Character-wise, Jesper Johansen isn’t that different from the likes of Emperor Kuzco or Lightning McQueen when we first meet him. He’s your typical character who has it all, and then gets knocked down a few pegs. However, Jesper as a character is not quite as “abrasive” as I had feared.

He does have some work ethic, but he just needs to find a way to focus it. It also helps that we do see him doing quite a bit of action when it comes to helping deliver Klaus’ gifts. The fact that he is quite pro-active for much of the film, definitely helps make us start to feel for his character, even if he isn’t entirely truthful at times.

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Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) and Klaus (J.K. Simmons)

Speaking of Klaus himself, the film portrays him as an enigmatic character: a large figure who seems intimidating, but has a story of his own to tell. Much of his characterization is through little bits of action, and while J.K. Simmons does decent voice-work, it never feels like his voice truly belongs to the gentle giant.

There are also some additional subplots that just feel like overkill for the story.

The subplot regarding the town’s feuding families does get a little flimsy at times. While we do get some scenes regarding the heads of the family, their business within the film just never feels like they’re that much of a real threat.

The town’s school teacher also figures into the plot in a few areas, but it feels like they mainly put her in to give Jesper someone to talk to about the state of Smeerensberg from the inside. She is also given a small character arc, but it doesn’t really seem to be that strong.

The children in the film are what really makes the town seem more alive. As rules are established for the receiving of toys, the children begin to become the more responsible of the citizenry. It is rather fun to see in a few montages, the kids setting a good example to the more “childish adults” around them.

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The art style of the film is inspiring as well. The less-is-more approach to the snow-covered backgrounds, will probably put some people in mind of animation production artists like Mary Blair, or Evyind Earle. There is the use of computer-generated imagery for sure, but it blends in so well to the film, that my brain soon stopped analyzing the techniques and got pulled into the story!

Even so, there are moments that did take me back to what hand-drawn animation could do. From the elasticity of Jesper’s facial expressions, to the “heaviness” of Klaus’ overcoat, this is a film that feels magical in more ways than one.

Klaus is definitely a rare film in this day-and-age, and not just because of the artistry on hand here. While some of the story points woven into it feel a little too much like overkill, the tale of how Jesper and Klaus come together really sticks in your mind long after it’s all over. When there’s an emotional scene to be had in the film, it comes across as genuine and sincere…something that often feels missing from a lot of animated features foisted upon the public these days.

Netflix has helped Sergio Pablos create a wonderful new film, that may surely gain a following of it’s own over the years.

Final Grade: B+

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Movie Review: Terminator – Dark Fate

Rated R for violence throughout, language and brief nudity

In 1984, James Cameron’s tale about a killer cyborg from the future, became one of the year’s surprise hits. Cameron added a sequel (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and a theme park experience (T2-3D: Battle Across Time) to the series before he walked away, but Hollywood couldn’t leave well enough alone.

The 21st century brought about studio-produced sequels, meant to kick-start new trilogies/series related to the characters. Sadly, none of them could make us forget the earlier films.

While Cameron has become more enamored with his personally-created world of Avatar in the last two decades, he has allowed some directors to play in his sandbox. Director Robert Rodriguez resurrected Cameron’s abandoned Battle Angel Alita earlier this year, and now director Tim Miller looks to “finish” the Terminator story, with Terminator: Dark Fate.

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L to R: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), Grace (Mackenzie Davis)

The film breaks free of our regular cast of main characters, and focuses on a young woman named Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), who finds herself in the sights of a new Terminator, the REV-9 (Gabriel Luna). Help comes in the form of an augmented human protector named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), along with two familiar faces from the series’ past: Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), and a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzennegger).

Story-wise, the characters in Dark Fate feel like new avatars of those we’ve seen before. Dani is the innocent whose life is turned upside-down, while Grace is our “Kyle Reese,” but with a few twists. Luna’s REV-9 proves to be a more deadly adversary, with the ability to split into a liquid-metal being, and a formidable endoskeleton, making him twice as deadly!

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REV-9 (Gabriel Luna)

Much has been touted publicly regarding Linda Hamilton’s return to one of her most famous roles, but it feels at times like a “caricature” of the Sarah we know and love, growling out her lines and dropping F-bombs. Mercifully, Arnold is relegated to a supporting role, but those moments definitely stand out, and even give us a few laughs in this very dark feature.

It’s also hard to ignore certain story elements that we’ve already seen in the last three sequels, that Dark Fate wants us to forget. Grace’s augmentation doesn’t feel that far from Marcus Wright’s in Terminator: Salvation, and the REV-9’s metal-over-metal form is eerily similar to the T-X’s in Rise of the Machines from 2003.

Director Tim Miller entertained many of us with his work on the film Deadpool a few years ago, but alas, his storytelling isn’t as strong trying to live up to Cameron’s legacy.

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L to R: Grace (Mackenzie Davis), Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton)

The film almost gives the viewer whiplash in it’s first act, propelling us from flashbacks into a truncated introduction to Dani and Grace, before slowing almost to a crawl in the second act. The film could have used this area to give us more time to develop stronger connections to these new characters, but instead decides to create a journey-filled quip-fest between Grace and Sarah, as they struggle to keep Dani safe.

The way Miller stages his action and night scenes also took away from much of my enjoyment. Some action shots are a blurry mess and cut together so quickly, that it took me awhile to comprehend just what I was looking at. The night scenes he works with don’t get much better, as the imagery is oftentimes so dark, you’re unable to read character emotions. It doesn’t seem good when some shots in this film, made me pine for the clarity of those from Genisys.

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L to R: Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna), T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

This latest film could have tried to steer us down a new path away from the characters and story beats we know by heart, but the film struggles with being a “bridging vehicle” between the older films, and the possibility of new stories with the characters we’re introduced to.

Sadly, we’ve been burned by repetition in this series so many times over the last 35 years (along with the continued knowledge that Judgment Day seems inevitable), that Dark Fate feels like it’s fighting a losing battle to win us over with the promises of greatness, many of us know the series just can’t keep.

Final Grade: C+

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