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Movie Review : Your Name (Kimi no na wa)

Rated PG for thematic elements, suggestive content, brief language, and smoking

As much as I may say a film’s story or it’s emotional aesthetic should be a litmus test for how good it is…sometimes, money does talk, and makes people like me take notice. Especially, if the films are animated, and not easily accessible within this country.

That was the case in 2001, when word came that Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, had become one of the most successful anime productions in Japan.

History seemed to repeat itself almost 15 years later when last year, word came of a new animated film, that was electrifying the Japanese box-office. Titled Your Name (or Kimi no na wa), it finally made it’s way to US shores this Spring, courtesy of Funimation Films.

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After watching a brightly-colored comet streak through the heavens, we find ourselves focusing on two teenagers: Mitsuha Miyamizu (Moni Kamishiraishi), and Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki).

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L to R: Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki), Mitsuha Miyamizu (Moni Kamishiraishi)

The two have never met, with Mitsuha living in a small village in Central Japan’s countryside, and Taki growing up amid the skyscrapers of Tokyo. However, over the course of several weeks, circumstances will bring them together, in the most unbelievable ways.

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Writer/director Makoto Shinkai is quick to thrust us into a story where it soon becomes apparent, that we’ll need to use our brains, in order to decipher just what is going on in the lives of our two main leads.

It is notable how we also see a contrast in the lives of these two teenagers. While Taki is used to the big city, Mitsuha looks upon it with wonder, as she comes from a village where a dentist office or even a cafe are non-existent. Plus, we even see how the cost of living differs between them (a meal in a Tokyo cafe, costs as much as she could spend on a month’s worth of food in her village!).

The filmmakers also attempt to add in some risque humor in a few instances. While they don’t turn the film into an overtly-sexual teen romp, a recurring joke in regards to Mitsuha, feels like they should have stopped after the first few times.

There are also some nice little instances of ‘body language’ added to the animation, and some minor storypoints in regards to pronunciation of certain words. I will admit, this kind of stuff might go over better with the original Japanese viewers (I can only wonder how the little verbal differences were handled in the English dub, as I preferred seeing the film with it’s original Japanese dialogue).

The film also dabbles in thoughts regarding the spiritual realm, as well as the world of dreams. The concept of ‘memory,’ also becomes an underlying layer as the film progresses as well.

A number of people online, have also compared this film to some of the works of Hayao Miyazaki. However, I think such comparisons are mainly in regards to the rendered environments we see throughout the film.

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Make no mistake: the imagery in this film has the kind of detail that, like in a Ghibli film, you’ll want to fall into and just immerse yourself in.

Though Shinkai based the film’s screenplay off of his originally-published story, I am curious as to the embellishments he may have made. Unfortunately for the flow of the film, it feels like he tends to overdo the use of visuals in a few areas.

Most striking to me, is how he gives the film an intro, almost reminiscent of the manic types of openings one would normally find in an anime television series. It shows us our main characters, before their more ‘looser’ introduction within the story of the film, when we could get a better chance to start getting to know them.

Plus, we get a small music video-style montage 1/4 of the way through the film. I will admit to getting caught up in the catchy music of the soundtrack’s band Radwimps (yes, you read that right), but it feels like this bit seems to stop the film cold for a few minutes.

Of course, most surprising was that almost halfway through the film, one assumes it will zig in a usual manner, but instead, zags in a most surprising way.

 

There are also a few areas, where we are given a lot of information, but it almost becomes a bit too much. Some scenes felt like a muddled sensory overload of information, when a less-is-more approach probably could have made them ‘read’ as more emotional.

As I watched the film, I found myself sitting upright in rapt attention for some parts, but most surprisingly, the emotional resonance of some scenes, just wasn’t sucking me in. I think this is one of the director’s faults when it comes to the execution of the film: at times, it feels a bit too ‘clinical,’ in trying to be ’emotional.’

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While some are apt to think of references to Studio Ghibli, Your Name’s tone and atmosphere, reminded me a bit of the works of author Haruki Murakami, as well as an anime titled, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. There’s also a South Korean film from 2000 that I’d throw in as a reference too, but if I did, I might release a major spoiler.

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Final Grade: B (Final Summary: “Your Name” gives us a science fiction/romance/comedy, that manages to do it’s own thing, and takes it’s storytelling to places that are not as pedestrian as  most animated teenage love stories. However, it feels like writer/director Makoto Shinkai could have tightened up his story in certain places. Some of his uses for visuals gets a bit too over-the-top in places, and a few gags that may have been funny in a smaller dose, are milked a bit too long in other places. However, some character-building scenes and the film’s stunning imagery, will probably overwhelm even the most jaded of audience members.)


Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

‘Rated PG for some action violence, peril and frightening images

Of all the animated features that were released during my youth, Beauty and the Beast is one of those that is at the top, when it comes to animated features that made me consider pursuing a career in animation.

I was enthralled by Glen Keane’s designs for the Beast, the wonderful songs and lyrics of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and a story that delivered on a satisfyingly emotional level, that I hadn’t yet encountered in animated films at that time.

Of course, when it comes to turning animated features into live-action movies, I approached the studio’s recent take on Beauty and the Beast with some trepidation. I had been intrigued by what Kenneth Branagh brought to Cinderella in 2015, but felt little need to see Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book adaptation last year.

Of course, being the glutton for punishment that I am, I bought the ticket, and decided to ride the ride, to see what a live-action version of this “tale as old as time” had in store for audiences.

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In the small provincial town of Villeneuve, resides Belle (Emma Watson), and her artistically-inclined father, Maurice (Kevin Kline). Of those living in the village, Belle is seen as an anomaly amongst the townspeople, though entrances a former army captain named Gaston (Luke Evans), who wishes to make her his wife.

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The Beast (Dan Stevens)

One day on a trip, Maurice stumbles upon a snow-shrouded castle, and plucks a rose for his daughter, enraging the castle’s Beastly owner (Dan Stevens). Belle willingly trades her life for her father’s, and soon meets the castle’s enchanted servants (played by Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and many more), who hope she can break the spell they are under.

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From the early word and trailer imagery, Disney made few attempts to hide that they were attempting to translate the 1991 film (and some of it’s successful Broadway stage adaptation) to the big-screen.

The live-action film doesn’t stray far from it’s roots, and like any adaptation these days, attempts to fill in the blanks, and embellish the story we know so well.

Did you ever wonder just where Belle and Maurice came from? How about what led the Beast to be such a pompous jerk in the first place? We get those answers here, as well as some vague motivations surrounding the Enchantress who cursed the Beast and his servants.

Composer Alan Menken returns to the world he helped create, but has brought on Tim Rice (whom he worked with on Aladdin), to make a few alterations to the film’s music. Some lines are changed from previous works, and a few songs add in bits from the original demo tracks of the animated feature (which were co-written by Menken’s former collaborator, the late Howard Ashman). The Beast even get his own solo (much like in the Broadway production), but none of the newer musical pieces seemed to enthrall me. We even get Celine Dion back, singing a song at the end, that feels more like an afterthought.

When it comes to behind-the-scenes names, Director Bill Condon should be familiar to many when it comes to musicals-on-film. He wrote the adapted screenplay for Chicago, and directed the film adaptation of Dreamgirls back in 2006.

One would assume his pedigree with adapted musicals would be a slam-dunk for this production. Unfortunately, BatB seems to suffer from some ‘speed issues’ when it comes to holding it all together.

I haven’t seen enough of Condon’s filmography to pass proper judgement, but with this film, he really seems to step on the gas-pedal, when the film has to shift into it’s musical numbers, or require a lot of visual effects. Some of the numbers fly by so fast, I was struggling to figure out where my eye was supposed to be focused on (this was most problematic during the Be Our Guest number, which felt like he was trying to ape Baz Luhrmann’s manic Moulin Rouge numbers).

It isn’t until the halfway mark, that the film seems to finally catch it’s breath. In those moments, Condon shows that when he slows down, he can really get to work on making us focus on the characters and their development.

Deep down, I feel that if the film had been more like 2015’s Cinderella, and been less of an adaptation of the animated feature, it would have been more palatable, and stronger in it’s emotional resonance.

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Belle (Emma Watson)

The ‘palette’ of the film, seems to derive itself from 19th century French landscapes. I will admit during the early bits in the village, as we see the landscape surrounding it, I found myself making note of the soft color palette of the backgrounds, almost as if the filmmakers were attempting to make it look like the characters had stepped into a painting.

The film also attempts to pay some small homages to it’s roots. The village is named after the original author of the tale, and, Maurice attempts to bring Belle a rose from the Beast’s garden, which was part of the original story.

However, much  like the story here, the characters can be rather give-and-take as well.

Sadly, Emma Watson did not enthrall me with her singing voice, but she can deliver in certain moments when it comes to emotions. There is an added character point, that Belle is a forward-thinking young woman in the eyes of her rather mundane village, but it just feels like an afterthought as the story goes on.

Dan Stevens as the Beast, has the task of working through motion-capture, that works ‘most’ of the time. The live-action Beast is a bit like the early concept of a ‘man with a beast head,’ rather than the more animalistic creation of master animator Glen Keane. The concept works some of the time, but mostly in the quieter moments.

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Gaston (Luke Evans), and LeFou (Josh Gad)

Luke Evans’ take on Gaston is different from the muscle-bound lothario we all know. A war veteran who seems to satiate his lust for war by hunting, this take on the character is a bit less hunky, and more mental in several of his decisions…though not by much.

One of the highlights of the film regarding comedy, is Josh Gad as LeFou. Every other word out of his mouth just made me and the audience chuckle, and unlike his animated counterpart, he’s given a bit of character growth. I have a feeling many will find Gad just as entertaining here, as he was as Olaf in Frozen.

When it comes to the enchanted objects of the castle, I was hoping they would enthrall me as much as their animated counterparts did, but that was not the case here.

There are no cartoonish features, or large white eyes to draw one’s attention. Instead, the designers try to take an object’s parts and decoration, and make them into faces (or in the case of Lumiere, just make a miniature man holding candles, with another atop his head!). This may look good in close-ups or when a character is being still, but once they start moving around, I found it maddening, trying to keep track of where an eye or a nose is!

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Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Cogsworth (Ian McKellan), and Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci)

A prime example, is Maestro Cadenza, who has been turned into a harpsichord (and played by Stanley Tucci). His keys and music stand are meant to stand in for his mouth and facial features, but I found myself struggling to figure out where his eyes were, let alone his nose and moustache when the camera focused on him ‘talking.’

There is a sliver of an attempt to give the enchanted objects a bit more characterization, but many of the group scenes feel rather poorly staged, and some that involve dozens of other CG-created objects moving about, feel too busy with motion, for us to figure on where to focus our attention.

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Almost 25 years ago, at a swap meet in San Diego, CA, I picked up a book that would change my life forever: The Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast.

The book has been a part of my life since then, and has been in the hands of (and signed by!) several persons associated with the animated Beauty and the Beast.

At the end of the book, the final pages tell how the next generation of Disney animators (in 1991), screened the film for their predecessors (several of whom had worked with Walt Disney himself). After the screening, instead of high praise, word was the new generation was met with: “Eh, it’s kind of like what we did.”

That line was in my head tonight. As the film went on, a number of names I had memorized from that making-of book, popped into my head. Looking at some scenes, I was thinking things like, “Glen Keane did that better,” or “Nik Ranieri made that characterization read so much clearer!”

The film definitely doesn’t skimp on the effort, but it sadly feels like another adapted production, that could have been much more solid, had it not been tied so closely to it’s animated counterpart.

The film seems to try and fly by moreso with it’s visuals and putting Emma Watson front-and-center, when what it needed more of in my opinion, was a story that could be just as emotionally involving today, as the animated feature was to me and millions of others, once upon a time.

Final Grade: B-

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Holiday Special Review: Rapsittie Street Kids – Believe in Santa

Back in December of 2002, I recall going on the messageboards for Animationnation (where a number of industry people hung out), and hearing about a special that had just premiered on The WB television network.

The posts told of a show that had many aghast. Bad animation, horrible dialogue, and this was being touted as a Holiday Classic by the network!

Of course, by the time I heard about it, it had already come and gone, with the network covering up all traces of it’s existence.

A few people like myself wrote about the short, using the scant amount of knowledge we could find. Sources included the poorly-made webpage telling how the Rapsittie Kids were going to become just as endearing as Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, and a short clip that ended up on Youtube, looking like a middle-school project on learning how motion graphics work.

Then, in September 2015, I was informed that a copy of the special (all 45 minutes of it!), had been obtained by The Lost Media Wiki. And with that information, I soon found myself sitting down to watch Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, made by the creative geniuses at Wolf Tracer Studios (makers of that other hit animated short, Dinosaur Island!).

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Rick E (Walter Jones) has a crush on one of the most popular girls in his class, named Nicole (Paige O’Hara). However, Rick E doesn’t have enough money to give her a Christmas gift.

He then decides to give her his teddy bear, which was given to him by his mother. However, Nicole is not impressed by Rick E’s gift ‘from the heart,’ and throws it away.

It is only afterwards does she realize the significance of the teddy bear, and with a few of her friends, attempts to get it back.

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So, after watching this Holiday Special, is it truly as bad as those messageboard posts I read back in 2002 made it out to be?

Yes…yes, it is!

The images in this review are no joke: they are actual screen-captures from the ‘finished product!’

Since it’s release, noone from the production has ever stepped forward to give their side of the story, on why the special looks the way it does. Word was that the show was completed in 4 months. And frankly, I can believe it.

rap-2Most of the backgrounds look like they were rendered on-the-cheap, and we see a number of clipart images rubber-stamped over-and-over in certain places.

Plus, just look at the fine craftsmanship on the sign outside of Rick E’s school (see right).

Characters also move around like they’ve been pasted onto background plates. Some shots linger too long on nothing, and the faces…their horrible, horrible faces!

Most of the characters look like their eyes are in serious danger of popping out of their sockets, and the computer-generated characters, almost make me wish the creators would have attempted something closer to the flat, 2-D look of South Park. At least if they went in that direction, I assume the characters wouldn’t look quite as grotesque.

Rick E is meant to be our main lead, giving off hip-hop vibes with every other line he says. Once we get to his school, we meet a number of other characters and their subplots…most of which can barely hold our interest.

It also doesn’t help that most of the other kids, are little more than one-dimensional bullies. Even Nicole is quite condescending, putting down her friend Lenee’s talk about Santa Claus, leading to a minuscule subplot of Lenee questioning her beliefs.

Even the adults are largely useless. The kid’s teacher comes across as constantly annoyed, and does nothing to keep order in her class. We see her letting kids throw things at other kids, and even dismissing sexual harassment by students (“that means he likes you,” the teacher tells one girl, who is annoyed at one boy touching her!).

rap-3And then, there’s Rick E’s Great Grandma.

It’s crazy enough that we see her wandering around outside without a coat in one scene, but when she starts talking…well…it sounds like Rick E is just trying to ignore that his caretaker might need some medical attention.

Maybe this was some strange way of trying to make Great Grandma reminiscent of the unseen adults talking in the Peanuts specials, but if so, why is it that she is the only adult who sounds like her audio is getting eaten by the tape player?

Speaking of voices, what may make some people do a double-take, are the list of known voice-actors they got for this. Some of the big ones include Mark Hamill, Jodi Benson, Paige O’Hara, and Nancy Cartwright. My guess is someone just offered them a quick pay-day, they read through their lines in a few hours, and then never had a second thought about what they had done voice-work for.

Paige O’Hara and Jodie Benson each get a chance to sing, but their songs are hindered by bad lyrics and stilted animation. It doesn’t help when most of the songs are largely based on repeating a number of the same words over and over again.

rap-4Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa, shows that there are plenty of badly-made Holiday specials, that most have never heard of. The story contained here, makes the animated Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer actually look like a Holiday Classic! Heck, the $60 million atrocity known as Food Fight, even looks competent next to this thing!

The production values look like one of my college’s Team Animation groups, trying to stretch out their 3-minute project to feature-length, but without the necessary talent or tools to do so.

The story of Rick E’s bear is a decent jumping off point for a story, but the special’s ‘good intentions’ are quickly buried in a landslide of bad animation, one-dimensional characters, and a production that was mainly interested in making their final product ‘faster,’ and ‘cheaper.’

At the end of Believe in Santa, a cutesy voice tells how the Rapsittie Street Kids would be back, in A Bunny’s Tale. As it stands now, we’re still left wondering just what horrors would have awaited the Easter Bunny, from Wolf Tracer Studios.

Final Grade: D

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Movie Review: Rogue One – A Star Wars Story

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

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Those were some of the first words, that introduced millions of people to George Lucas’ Star Wars universe. While they offered a small backstory as to this ongoing war raging across the galaxy, there were some over the years who wondered, if they could be expanded upon.

That’s what The Walt Disney Company and Lucasfilm Ltd have done with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Set between the events of Episodes III & IV, we follow that small group of “rebel spies,” and find out how they got those secret plans, into the hands of Princess Leia Organa.

The team consists of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and Bohdi Rook (Riz Ahmed).

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Jyn Erso (Felicia Day) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), walk through the Rebellion’s secret base.

Jyn and Cassian are our main leads in this story, with both having had their fair share of troubles, thanks to the machinations of the Empire. However, it largely feels like we’re supposed to care about them, because they’re the main characters. Most of the time, it feels like they’re simply the driving force in the story, to propel us from one location, to another.

When it comes to director Gareth Edwards, I will admit that I am not a huge fan of his work. Having seen his films Monsters and Godzilla (2014), I can’t help but feel he likes to focus more on the atmosphere and supporting characters, that revolve around his main ones.

Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang’s tag-team of Chirrut and Baze, was a bit of yin-yang characterization that held my attention when they were on-screen. While Chirrut seems to be strongly willing to believe in the power of the Force, Baze relies on his wits and weaponry.

Two other characters that I think will also stick in most people’s minds, are pilot Bodhi Rook, and K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid.

Bodhi is almost like our ‘Finn’ of the piece, and it seemed whenever he was on-screen, I was very much enamored with what he was doing. It feels like out of all the supporting characters, he gets the most development.

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K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) takes the controls.

Much like BB-8, K-2SO proves to be another entertaining droid for people to smile about. The filmmakers manage to find the sweet-spot between making him both informative and humorous, and it was one of the droid’s first lines, that made many in the audience give some of their first applause of the evening.

Also on hand as a new face in the Empire’s cadre of suited figures, is Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn). This (previously unseen) mastermind behind the Death Star’s construction, almost seems written in, to give us a taste of how credit and bureaucracy, often don’t see eye-to-eye.

The Force Awakens last year, definitely touched off plenty of similarities to the films we remembered from our past. Rogue One does some of the same, but moreso feels like a less-pandering  extension of those worlds we were first introduced to. We get plenty of new set-pieces, and some familiar ones, expanding on our past knowledge. Plus, for those of you that are die-hard fans of George Lucas, it appears that there’s a subtle reference to another of his early works.

Of course, the time-frame of the film, also gives us a chance for a few cameos. These can often bounce around from good, to bad (though I will admit there were a couple that made my face light up like a Christmas tree!).

Composer Michael Giacchino fills our ears with a score that sounds like a ‘distant cousin’ to the works of John Williams. While a few familiar musical strains are heard, he is able to walk into the universe, and add his own inspired touch to a number of scenes.

Some of the battle sequences, also feel like they are a bit ‘scattershot’ in the way they are put together. While I like a good action sequence in a Star Wars film as much as the next person, it felt like they carry on too long in certain places. This almost made me pine for the tighter editing of battle scenes in some past films. Say what you will about the prequels, but it felt like even the act of juggling multiple scenes at the end of The Phantom Menace was handled better.

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Work is almost complete on the Death Star.

That isn’t to say Rogue One is a bad film. I walked into it just like I did Episode VII last year, asking only that it entertain me, and it did just that.

Like any film that attempts to rewrite something we’re already familiar with, there are certain elements that are embellished and expanded upon. Given the way the series’ fandom functions, it will be entertaining to see if some of the ret-conned items, end up becoming as ‘scandalous’ as some of the items that Lucas wrote about in the prequels.

The film proves that Star Wars can build an expanded universe on film, and should probably give plenty out there hope, for additional Star Wars Stories in the coming years.

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Final Grade: B+ (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” is the first attempt to expand the film universe of the world’s most famous space saga beyond it’s typical ‘episodes,’ and succeeds in being an entertaining prequel to the events of “A New Hope.” While our main cast of characters doesn’t prove as overall satisfying as the ragtag band of rogues in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” there’s still enough here that should please “Star Wars” fans, both old and new.)

Movie Review: Moana (with short: Inner Workings)

 

(Rated PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements)

 

Earlier this year, Walt Disney Feature Animation surprised many of us, with its Spring release of Zootopia. The story and visuals, showed that the company’s animation division was continuing to “keep moving forward,” honoring the studio’s artistic legacy.

This year is also the first since 2002, that the studio has released two animated features from its Feature Animation division in the same year.

My anticipation for the fall release of Moana was high, given its main directors are John Musker, and Ron Clements. The two have directed over 7 animated features together over the last 30 years, including The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. And now, 7 years after The Princess and the Frog, they have returned, with Moana.

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On the island of Motunui, resides Moana (Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of the village Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison), and his wife Sina (Nicole Scherzinger). Though her parents try to make her see that their island has plenty to offer, the young girl can’t help but wonder what lies beyond it’s familiar shores.

As Moana grows up, hardships begin to affect the island’s people , and she decides to make a daring attempt to save them. Leaving home, she sets out to find the ancient demigod named Maui, who may be their only hope.

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From the very start, Moana quickly reminded me of several other Disney animated films, but soon began to head down its own path.

Though many media and marketing materials claim Moana to be a Princess, she’s simply just the daughter of the island’s chief, and as such, certain royal titles are never brought up (well, only in a few jokes in the film). Not actually having a ‘title,’ actually helped make Moana more of an ordinary girl to me, though one who has a secret or two that makes her a little…extraordinary.

Moana has a spunkiness about her that may remind some of Rapunzel, or Anna (from Frozen). Of course, where she shines most, is in her determination as she takes on a journey that most would probably caution against.

We do get a bit of animosity between her and her father, Chief Tui, who keeps trying to keep his daughter focused on leading the islanders. Tui also shows a stubborness to break free of the old ways, which leads to a small bit of friction with his daughter.

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Gramma Tala (Rachel House) has a few words with Moana (Auli’i Cravalho)

The film may also be one of the first, in which we really see less of a connection with the lead’s parents, and moreso with a grandparent. Moana seems to get along well with Gramma Tala (Rachel House), who for being considered the village’s ‘crazy lady,’ still has a few life lessons to instill, and a few secrets to be told (to those who will listen).

Of course, one of the biggest selling points for the film, has been Dwayne Johnson (aka ‘The Rock’), playing the demigod, Maui. The way he’s portrayed, Maui comes across almost like a former rockstar, with a bit of an ego problem.

A small staff of hand-drawn animators also inject some humor into Maui, as they bring several of his many tattoos to life (with one acting almost like Maui’s conscience at times).

And then, there’s the music.

Broadway sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda has teamed up with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, to produce a a soundtrack that manages to keep one foot in the Polynesian world, and the other foot amid the likes of Broadway musicians Howard Ashman, and Alan Menken.

Tracks like We Know the Way, give us a taste of the culture the film hails from, while Maui’s song You’re Welcome, almost sounds like a combination of the songs Friend Like Me, and Gaston.

For me, one of the most enjoyable songs, is sung by Jermaine Clement, who sounds like he’s channeling David Bowie, and Ursula from The Little Mermaid (trust me, it works!).

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Maui (Dwayne Johnson) encounters Mowana (Auli’i Cravalho)

And as we’ve come to expect, the talented artisans at the studios in Burbank, craft a world so believable, you’ll want to get your feet wet on the shores of Montunui, or explore more of the eerie Realm of Monsters. The film also manages to do for water, what Frozen did for ice. One can only imagine how many sleepless nights were had, to make the ocean waters appear as believable (and unbelievable!) as they do.

One of the biggest hurdles I had while watching the film, was that some of the action sequences felt like a massive blur of color and motion. One scene I was really looking forward to, sadly seemed to barely give me much of a chance to really get a handle on what was going on.

There’s also a few modern-day references that didn’t work for me (and for most of the audience, judging by the silence), but overall, Moana proved to be one of the first Walt Disney Feature Animation releases since Wreck-it-Ralph, that seemed to really engage me on an emotional level. I feel that if it could entrance me as well as it did, it will surely do the same for you.

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Animated Short Review: Inner Workings (Rated G)

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Lungs, heart, and stomach start off a brand new day.

After Zootopia was released earlier this year without an animated short in front of it, I was afraid that Disney had abandoned the idea completely. Fortunately, Inner Workings proves that the tradition is still alive.

Taking its cue from textbooks that diagram the inner parts of the human body, the short functions almost like Inside Out, except with internal organs. The two main ones, are a man’s brain, and his heart. One wants to be sensible, while the other wants to be more spontaneous.

Director Leonardo Matsuda has some fun with the concept, giving identities to the organs, let alone exaggerating the world around our main character. The world outside of the man’s workplace, is full of curves, while he and his co-workers, are in a confined ‘square space.’

It’s a fun concept that Matsuda plays with, though I couldn’t help but feel that the short Paperman from a few years ago, really did a more entertaining job with its message of ‘follow your heart.’ Then again, maybe the short could just be telling us introverts, that sometimes, it can be okay to break out of our shells, and throw caution to the wind.

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Final Grade for “Moana”: B+ (Final Thoughts: This “Princess” film that isn’t, proves to be a pleasant and entertaining surprise. Moana’s journey leads her on a tale of self-discovery, in which the past and present collide, as she looks towards the future. Dwayne Johnson as Maui, adds some fun with his supporting role, and the music helps bring something new to the studio’s filmography. Some jokes don’t work so well, and a few action scenes come off as muddled, but the emotional resonance of the film helps keep it on course.)

Final Grade for “Inner Workings”: B (Final Thoughts: This animated short from the “Walt Disney Studios” shows that the studio is willing to experiment with new shorts and ideas. However, even with some wonderfully stylized characters and settings, the story feels rather average, as it attempts to encourage us to try something new.)

Movie Review: Equestria Girls – Legend of Everfree

When it was first launched in 2013, the My Little Pony: Equestria Girls concept was quickly poo-poohed by fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, who saw this direct-to-video spinoff as little more than a vehicle for selling toys (why does that sound hypocritical?). Surprisingly, the first Equestria Girls film wasn’t as bad as some had imagined!

After its sequel Rainbow Rocks managed to improve some story areas (along with having a very catchy soundtrack album!), many were now aboard the train ride, but felt the tracks got bumpy in the last go-round, with the 2015 release of Friendship Games.

Though Hasbro is still making toys around the Equestria Girls series, they seem to have settled into a pattern of one movie a year for this property. This year, Netflix obtained the rights to stream the latest film, Legend of Everfree, a month in advance of its home video release. After its streaming release on October 1st, I decided to take a peek.

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The students of Canterlot High find themselves at Camp Everfree for a week, under the supervision of Camp Director Gloriosa Daisy, and her brother, Timber Spruce.

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Our ‘mane’ girls have plenty of activities they want to do, but Twilight Sparkle secretly fears that the demoness Midnight Sparkle, is lurking inside her, waiting to resurface.

As camp gets underway, strange things begin to occur, leading some to believe the happenings to be the work of Gaea Everfree, a forest spirit who is rumored to exist in the surrounding wilderness.

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Unlike the previous Equestria Girls films, Legend brings in a new group of writers to the series. Johanna Lewis and Kristine Songco, who have co-written four episodes of the Friendship is Magic TV series together, take the reins from EqG veterans Meghan McCarthy, and Josh Haber.

The two actually have a semi-decent story at hand with Legend of Everfree, but it’s just a pity that it becomes overloaded with subplots. The writers even throw in a few too many camp cliches, with one that just feels totally unneeded to drive the overall story.

When it comes to music, Daniel Ingram returns to pen 6 new songs, but I found this to be the first Equestria Girls film where I couldn’t even think of one that I could easily put on repeat after the film was over.

Ingram’s music is often a treat to many fans, but sad to say, most of the songs sound like they don’t actually fit together properly. Some have lyrics that sound incomplete, and one song, sounds like it could be a major character lament…but it’s over before it feels like it even gets the chance to build into something memorable!

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Much like the last few Equestria Girls films, Sunset Shimmer takes the spotlight, as one of the more interesting characters in the story. Most of the doubts she was working through seem to have gone away, and she ends up acting as a mentor figure to Twilight Sparkle, who is still uneasy after the events from the end of Friendship Games.

One issue I had with Friendship Games, was that most of the girls quickly became little more than stereotypes of their basic personalities, and that seems to almost carry over here. A prime example is Rarity, who just won’t shut up about wanting to put on a fashion show for the camp.

I’m also growing tired of every single film in the series, adding more and more ‘accessories’ to the girls’ ‘Pony-up’ powers (yes, I am aware that this film is meant to sell toys!). Some of the powers here make a little sense, but one wonders how they could affect the girls’ everyday lives outside of camp.

For example, Rainbow Dash gains super-speed, but couldn’t this very well lead to an end to her sports career, given she is now even more super-human, and some could see that as a form of cheating? Most disturbing to me, is Pinkie Pie’s ability to make anything she flings around (when she’s ‘magically-charged’), turn into an explosive…making her a walking Weapon of Mass-Destruction! I kid you not…one wrong move, and she could very well blow up Canterlot High!

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When it comes to the addition of new characters for the series, Gloriosa Daisy and Timber Spruce are our main focus as supporting characters this time around.

Enid Raye-Adams voices Gloriosa with a perkiness that feels very similar to actress Edie McClurg, but overall, it never really feels like Gloriosa’s main role solidifies into a wholly memorable character. The writers even give Gloriosa her own catchphrase, and if you thought Principal Abacus Cinch got a bit carried away with the use of the word “reputation” in the last film, Gloriosa’s catchphrase quickly enters drinking game territory!

Gloriosa’s animation model also looks like she benefited from some advancements, as the DHX animation staff really seem to have fun with her numerous facial expressions.

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Timber Spruce becomes our “nice guy” for the picture, who seems to quickly set his sights on Twilight. Though they try to give him a personality, most will probably think of him as little more than “Flash Sentry II.”

Looking back over the Equestria Girls film line-up, Rainbow Rocks still feels like the high-point in the series. Taking the kids out into the wilderness in this film, felt like it could have led to a new direction to take the series, but the overall structure felt like they had to stick within a rather rigid frame-work.

Fourth films in a series can often get ‘flimsy,’ and that’s what Legend of Everfree feels like. In the end, I think I could go back and watch Friendship Games a few more times, and still get something out of it. Sadly, there just doesn’t feel like there’s enough memorable stuff here, to make one consider repeat viewings.

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Final Grade: C+ (Legend of Everfree moves our ‘mane’ cast of characters out into nature, but turns what should be an exciting adventure, into something that just seems to meander along, on its way to a ‘by the book’ ending. While the character interactions between Sunset Shimmer and Twilight Sparkle are entertaining, the shoehorning in of another encounter with “Equestrian Magic” and more powers for our girls, feels like a missed opportunity to try something new. )

Movie Review: Blair Witch

1999 was a year that stands out in a number of ways, when it comes to film. Not only did we get a new Star Wars episode, and an amazing sequel to PIXAR’s first animated feature, but a little indie company by the name of Artisan Entertainment, took us by surprise that summer, with The Blair Witch Project.

Claimed to be the edited footage of a lost expedition to explore the legends of a haunted area of The Black Hills forest in Maryland, a clever internet marketing campaign, had some believing that the film’s found-footage was real.

The economically-budgeted hand-held film, would go on to become Artisan‘s most successful release, grossing more than $140 million that summer.

The studio quickly started work on a sequel, and a year after the first film, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was released. However, Shadows tanked, and talk of a third Blair Witch film, quickly evaporated.

Then, at Comic-Con this year, many were surprised when a new film being touted as The Woods, was actually revealed to be a new continuation of the film series.

The news was greeted with some excitement, rekindling memories of the first film for many, including myself.

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20 years after the group in the first Blair Witch film disappeared, a mysterious DV recording pops up on Youtube, claiming to be recently-found footage, possibly revealing more clues about the Blair Witch mystery.

One viewer of the footage, is a man named James (James Allen McCune), who is convinced that it contains visual proof that his sister Heather (who was with the group that disappeared in the first film), is still alive.

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The film’s cast. L to R: Brandon Scott, Corbin Reid, James Allen McCune, Valorie Curry, and Wes Reid.

Gathering some of his friends, they head off to the Black Hills forest, equipped with all sorts of cameras and recording items (including a mini-drone). Along the way, they pick up two Burkittsville residents who found the DV tape, and are also fans of the Blair Witch legend.

However, once they make their way into the woods, things definitely start to get out-of-hand…

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Unlike the 1999 film, Blair Witch is put together by a new filmmaking team.Written by Simon Berrett, and directed by Adam Wingard, these two have run tag-team on a number of horror films in the last few years (including hand-held segments on the V/H/S/ film anthology). What they bring to the table with this film, almost feels like what I imagine some expected Book of Shadows to be.

One major problem I had while watching the film, is that it soon had my brain thinking of other found-footage films, which contained some familiar story points I’d seen before. A few of these films that came to mind, were Mr Jones, and Devil’s Pass. If you’ve seen those films, I’m pretty sure you’ll be seeing some similarities like I was.

An annoyance that Wingard seems to also delight in before the real ‘meat’ of the story, are constant loud sound effects, as we switch on and off certain cameras, and their footage. It feels like he’s trying to get in a few cheap jump scares, and it almost makes one wonder who (film-wise) edited this footage together.

Over the years, a number of persons have come up with theories as to what could have happened to the first film’s group, and one theory online intrigued me enough, that I wondered if the film would run with it…and, for the most part, it did! Once one character spouted one line, the film had me hooked to see where it would go.

Of course, the filmmakers don’t stray too far from the first film, and we are given some touchstones, that brought to mind certain remembrances I hadn’t been thinking of in years. For a few, there is a sense of the familiar…but with a twist!

While we do get a few comedy moments from James’ friend Peter (Brendan Scott), much of the cast is pretty ‘regular.’ Though in a surprising way, much like the cast of It Follows, they never develop the kind of traits that make you eager to see them killed off.

Storywise, I was disappointed that we didn’t get more focus on James’ predicament. One almost expects him to explain more about his sister’s disappearance and how it affected his life, but that’s largely left to our imagination. There’s so little talk about Heather after awhile, that you almost forget the search through the woods, is about her.

On a more positive note, the film gets the obligatory argument scenes out of the way quickly (it isn’t a found-footage film without at least a few of those).

In a way, Blair Witch seems to be to The Blair Witch Project, what Terminator: Genisys was to Terminator 2: Judgement Day: a modern reconfiguration of a film series, that attempts to excise some of the less popular ‘chapters,’ and mess with our familiarity of the series.

Seeing the film, I was reminded of a question I’ve often wondered regarding these found-footage films: who are the people in these worlds that find these pieces of film, and edit them together? Is there some secret group whose sole purpose is to uncover hidden footage, leak it to the public, then leave cryptic messages about how they are ‘exposing the truth?’

Now that could be a film idea worth exploring.

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Final Grade: B- (“Blair Witch” plays like a heightened version of the first film, but the added intricacies of what goes on in the Black Hills forest, is what kept the ‘mystery box’ appealing to me. The characters are relatively neutral, and the filmmakers’ constant attempts to keep jump-scaring us can get a little lame. However, where the film takes us, shows there could be enough to still keep us guessing, about what is going on out in the woods.)