Review: ‘Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs,’ starring the voices of Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Claflin, Gina Gershon, Patrick Warburton and Jim Rash

September 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jack (voiced by Frederik Hamel), Hans (voiced by Nolan North), Arthur (voiced by Simon Kassianides), Snow White/Red Shoes (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz), Merlin (voiced by Sam Claflin) and Pino, Noki, Kio (all three voiced by Frank Todaro) in “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs”

Directed by Sung-ho Hong, with co-direction from Moo-Hyun Jang and Young Sik Uhm

Culture Representation: This animated re-imagination of the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” features an all-white cast of characters.

Culture Clash: The Seven Dwarfs are cursed by a spell that has made them into dwarfs, and Snow White’s evil stepmother wants possession of the red shoes worn Snow White, because the shoes can make someone look young and beautiful .

Culture Audience: “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” will appeal to anyone who’s a fan of the original “Snow White” fairy tale and anyone who’s looking for a mildly entertaining and predictable reimagination of this classic.

Magic Mirror (voiced by Patrick Warburton) and Regina (voiced by Gina Gershon) in “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)

Imagine the classic fairytale “Snow White” reimagined as a story about the importance of judging people for who they are rather than for their physical appearances. It’s this positive message that uplifts the lightweight and mostly enjoyable animated “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs,” which can be entertaining to watch for people of any generation. The story will be completely predictable to adults, but the appealing animation and the briskly paced adventure aspects of the story (the movie is 92 minutes long) should keep most viewers interested from beginning to end.

Written and directed by Sung-ho Hong (and co-directed by Moo-Hyun Jang and Young Sik Uhm), “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” begins with a twist on the origin story of the Seven Dwarfs. It’s explained that they used to be tall, good looking young men who were members of a heroic group known as the Fearless Seven. They are described as “the greatest heroes of Fairy Tale Island.”

However, one day the Fearless Seven made the mistake of attacking a fairy princess who looked like a witch, so she cursed them by turning them into green dwarfs. The only way to break this curse is for them to get a kiss from the most beautiful girl in the world. Feminists might cringe at this aspect of the story, but if you’re easily offended by stories that have old-fashioned ideas of the roles of males and females, then avoid fairy tales altogether.

The Seven Dwarfs (formerly known as the Fearless Seven) have become outcasts in society and their only mission now is to find the most beautiful girl in the world. As far as the world is concerned, the Fearless Seven have disappeared and have been missing for more than a year by the time that the Seven Dwarfs meet Snow White. The Seven Dwarfs are so ashamed of how they look that they deny that they are the Fearless Seven if anyone suspects that they are.

The Seven Dwarfs are Merlin, the group’s friendly leader (voiced by Sam Claflin); Arthur (voiced by Simon Kassianides), the often-impulsive warrior who tries to pull his Excalibur sword out of a stone; Jack (voiced by Frederik Hamel), a finicky Frenchman; Hans (voiced by Nolan North), a gung-ho German; and triplets Pino, Noki and Kio (voiced by Frank Todero), who are relegated to sidekick roles with personalities that can’t be distinguished from one another.

Meanwhile, an evil witch named Regina (voiced by Gina Gershon) has a pair of high-heled red shoes that have the power to make the person wearing them look young, thin and conventionally beautiful. These shoes are her most-prized possession because wearing the shoes can changes Regina’s appearance from a mean-looking old hag (her real physical appearance) to someone whose physical appearance is in keeping with conventional standards of beauty.

Snow White (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz) is a princess who lives with her widower father, the king of the land. The major difference between this Snow White and other versions of Snow White is that this Snow White happens to be plus-sized and self-conscious about her looks. However, her father accepts and loves her for exactly who she is. At the beginning of the story, Snow White has just turned 18 and is set to inherit adult royal duties.

And it’s around this time that Regina shows up in town with a strange mirror, and people in the town start mysteriously disappearing. Regina, who has disguised herself as a beautiful young woman (thanks to wearing the red shoes), has found a way to charm the king and get him to marry her, but the king disappears not long after the marriage. Snow White finds the magical red shoes, turns into a thin and conventional pretty young woman, and flies away on a broom to look for her father. An enraged Regina then does what she can in her royal stepmother power to find Snow White and the red shoes.

During Snow White’s quest to find her father, she encounters the Seven Dwarfs. They think she could be the most beautiful girl in the world. Therefore, much of the movie revolves around the Seven Dwarfs trying to find out if Snow White is the one who can break their curse. Meanwhile, because she has other people do the dirty work for her, she is seen back at the castle with her talking Magic Mirror (voiced by Patrick Warburton), which gives her advice on what to do next.

Snow White has been declared a fugitive thief, so when she meets the Seven Dwarfs, she lies and tells them her name is Red Shoes. She wants them to help her find her father, but they don’t want to admit that they’re the heroic group called the Fearless Seven. However, they all have to dodge people who are out to get Snow White, since there’s a reward for anyone who can capture her.

There’s kind of a cringeworthy scene were Arthur awkwardly tries to kiss Snow White/Red Shoes, but she’s resistant because she’s not attracted to him at all. And it should come as no surprise to people looking for a fairy tale romance in this story that Snow White falls for another dwarf in the group. It’s very easy to guess who it is. The movie plays around a lot with the idea of whether or not this budding romance will survive if Snow White and her would-be beau have their true physical selves revealed to each other.

There’s also a subplot of a spoiled royal named Prince Average (voiced by Jim Rash), who is throwing a birthday party for himself, and he’s obsessed with getting “beautiful people” to attend his party. What he wants most is for a beautiful princess to be his date for the party, so he sends his minions to go out and find one and bring her back to him. It’s really not all that much different from real life, when rich people hire supermodels to be at their parties.

In fact, some parts of “Red Shoes” have some underlying sly commentary about how shallow people can become so obsessed with youth and beauty that it can turn them into soulless people who lose sight of what really matters in life. This isn’t a movie that needs to be over-analyzed, but there is an interesting metaphor that can be found between the Magic Mirror and what’s going with a lot of people who over-use Instagram and other social media for ego validation. “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” essentially has the message that people who put a fake image of themselves out there the world so that they can be rewarded for it in some way end up doing the most damage to themselves.

In an animation world where movies from Pixar, Disney Animation and DreamWorks Animation get most of the major awards and blockbuster sales, “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” (from Locus Animation Studio) isn’t going to make a dent in that domination. However, the animation and other visuals in “Red Shoes” are very good for a movie that has the fraction of the budget that a movie from Pixar, Disney Animation or DreamWorks Animation would have.

If “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” looks and sounds very influenced by Disney, that might be because the movie’s character design and animation direction are by Jin Kim, whose credits include the Disney animated films “Fantasia 2000,” “Frozen II” and “Tangled.” Also complementing the film well is the musical score by Geoff Zanelli, whose movies credits include the Disney live-action films “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” However, there are elements of “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarves” that are also influenced by a film from a Disney rival: DreamWorks Animation’s first “Shrek” movie.

The subplot with Prince Average makes the story a little cluttered at times, but the movie doesn’t drag too much and there’s enough humor in it so that it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. And as is the case with many reimagined fairy tales that have been updated with modern sensibilities, this Snow White is definitely not a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by a prince at the end of the story.

Disney’s 1937 animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” stuck to the fairy tale that had traditional gender roles in who does the rescuing. The overall message of “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” has a more impactful message about how true love can be found if it isn’t based solely on how someone looks and if you have self-acceptance first.

Lionsgate released “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” on digital and VOD on September 18, 2020, and on Blu-ray and DVD and September 22, 2020.

Review: ‘Children of the Sea,’ a magical adventure from Japan

September 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Children of the Sea” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Children of the Sea”

Directed by Ayumu Watanabe

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in an unnamed Japanese city, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters, representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl, whose scientist parents work at a local aquarium, encounters two mysterious aquatic teenage boys who were found at sea and who want to get away from the scientific experiments that have forced on them.

Culture Audience: “Children of the Sea” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to fans of Japanese anime and animated adventure films.

“Children of the Sea” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

The gorgeous Japanese animated film “Children of the Sea” immerses viewers into a fantasy world that compares and contrasts life on land and life underwater, but there’s a very “real world” environmental message that is present throughout the story. Directed with both enchanting whimsy and technical prowess by Ayumu Watanabe, “Children of the Sea” has some eye-popping animated visuals that deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Daisuke Igarashi wrote the “Children of the Sea” adapted screenplay from his manga of the same title.

The story, which takes place in an unnamed Japanese city. is told from the point of view of a teenage girl named Ruka Azumi (who’s about 15 or 16 years old) during her summer break from regular school sessions. Her vacation gets off to a rocky start when Ruka, who is a rugby player for her school, is wrongfully accused of starting a fight with a fellow student during rugby practice. The other student, who was playing on the opposing team, was the one who was the physical aggressor, because she deliberately tripped Ruka during the game. 

A supervising teacher calls Ruka into his office and scolds her for being a “troublemaker.” He doesn’t want to hear Ruka’s excuse that the bullying student was the one who started the fight. And he tells Ruka that if she won’t apologize to the other student, then Ruka shouldn’t bother coming to practice anymore.

Feeling dejected and misunderstood, Ruka decides to go to Enokura Aquarium where her father Masaki works as a scientist. Ruka has happy memories of spending her childhood at the aquarium. One of these memories, which is shown at the beginning of the movie, is when Ruka saw a ghost in the aquarium. Her father is one of the aquarium’s scientists who evaluate aquatic life and do experiments, such as seeing how dolphins respond to certain sounds. 

While at the aquarium, Ruka discovers a friendly teenage boy in a back room. He’s about the same age as Ruka, and his name is Umi. He shows Yuka that he has an extraordinary ability to swim and float underwater for long periods of time without any breathing equipment. Ruka is very intrigued by Umi and wants to become his friend.

Ruka’s father tells her that Umi was found 10 years ago with another boy off of the shores of the Philippines. Scientists discovered that Umi and the other boy (who is slightly older than Umi) were raised primarily underwater by dugongs. The boys, who are apparently orphaned and raised as brothers by the dugongs, were kept at the aquarium for research.

One evening, Umi invites Ruka to go with him to see a will o’ the wisp at the beach. Ruka is surprised to see what she thinks is a comet or shooting star, but Ruka insists that it’s a will o’ the wisp. He also tells Ruka that animals shine when they want to be found.

While at the beach, Ruka sees the teenager who is described as Umi’s adoptive older brother: His name is Sora, whose skin is so pale that at first Ruka thinks that Sora is a ghost. Sora has blonde hair and blue eyes, which implies that he’s of European descent, while Umi has the appearance of being Filipino. It’s never explained in the movie how Umi and Sora ended up being stranded at sea together, since both boys don’t seem to have any memories of their human families.

Unlike the amicable reaction that Ruka got from Umi when they first met, the first time she meets Sora, he’s rude to her. Sora tells Ruka that she’s “boring.” He adds, “Umi has me. He’s not interested in you.” It also becomes clear as the story unfolds that Sora is more rebellious and more impulsive than Umi.

Sora is growing tired of being a research subject and wants to spend less time away from the aquarium. This restlessness is one of the main reasons why Sora, Umi and Ruka end up taking a joyride on a boat. It isn’t until they’re in the middle of the sea and that Sora admits he doesn’t know how to sail the boat and he was just winging it as they went along. And so, when the boat’s engine mysteriously stalls, the three teens don’t know how to fix it.

It’s during this fateful boat ride that Ruka discovers Umi’s and Sora’s seemingly magical powers to communicate with the aquatic creatures. She also gets to experience underwater life for the first time in some of the movie’s most visually stunning sequences, including seeing whale shark creatures. Sora eventually warms up to Ruka, but he still feels leery about anyone he thinks might try to break his brotherly bond with Umi.

It’s implied that Ruka has special powers too, but she isn’t fully aware of them yet. Meanwhile, Umi and Sora tells her that numerous creatures in the ocean will be gathering for a Birth Festival underwater and are looking for festival guests. Sora says he’s been traveling the world with a scientist named Jim to research the festival’s connection to Umi and Sora.

The trio makes it back to shore, but it won’t be the last time Ruka, Umi and Sora go out to sea together and experience dangerous situations. There’s a boat they use called the Rwa Bhineda that is a key part of their adventures together. One of the people they encounter near the boat is Angurâdo, a young man who wants to be Jim’s assistant.

There’s also an aquarium scientist named Anglade, who wants to keep Umi and Somi at the aquarium for research, even though it’s becoming obvious that the teenagers are growing into young men and want more independence. And there’s a town eccentric named Dehdeh, an elderly woman with apparent psychic abilities.

Ruka is close to her father, but she has a tense relationship with her mother Kanako, a scientist who also works at the aquarium but is on a leave of absence. The reason is because she’s an alcoholic, which is a secret that has brought shame to the family and has caused Ruka to have resentful feelings toward her mother. Kanako’s work colleagues describe her as “brilliant,” but Ruka doesn’t have much respect for her mother because of how Kanako’s alcoholism has negatively affected the family. It’s one of the reasons why Ruka doesn’t like to spend much time at home.

“Children of the Sea” has subtle and not-so-subtle environmental messages about the world being destroyed by humans’ recklessness and greed. Climate change and how it’s affecting the environment are on display when a megamouth shark and hundreds of fish wash up dead on near the aquarium. A typhoon suddenly occurs during one part of the story. And the movie has constant themes of urgent messages that aquatic animals are trying to communicate with humans.

STUDIO4°C, the animation studio behind “Children of the Sea,” infuses this story of teen rebellion meets environmentalism with a lot of reverential images of aquatic life. Creatures such as dolphins and whales are portrayed as just as intelligent (and sometimes smarter) than humans. And underwater life, although certainly not a utopia, is presented as a lot more harmonious and tranquil than the land inhabited by destructive humans.

The animation also takes risks by having some truly psychedelic imagery toward the end of the movie. Joe Hisaishi’s musical score perfectly complements the mood of each scene. And even though “Children of the Sea” is longer than a typical animated film (the total running time is 111 minutes), director Watanabe makes it a well-paced story. Some of the characters are more layered than others, so viewers will want to keep watching to see what it all means in the end. (There’s also an end credits scene that shows an epilogue to the story.)

The voices of the “Children of the Sea” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “Children of the Sea.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Mana Ashida as Ruka, Hiiro Ishibashi as Umi, Seishu Uragami as Sora, Win Morisaki as Anglade, Goro Inagaki as Masaki Azumi, Yu Aoi as Kanako Azumi, Toru Watanabe as The Teacher, Min Tanaka as Jim and Sumiko Fuji as Dehdeh. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Anjali Gauld as Ruka, Lynden Prosser as Umi, Benjamin Niewood/Benjamin Niedens as Sora, Beau Bridgland as Anglade, as Marc Thompson as Masaki Azumi, Karen Strassman as Kanako Azumi, Wally Wingert as The Teacher, Michael Sorich as Jim and Denise Lee as Dehdeh.

Some adults might think that animation is mostly for kids, but “Children of the Sea” is a great example of an animated film that can tell an intriguing story that’s relatable to people of any generation. It’s clear that the movie has a viewpoint that if aquatic animals could talk, they would be begging humans to treat the underwater world with more respect because how underwater life is treated affects us all. The movie’s environmental message isn’t preachy, but it shows how people on land are connected to the life that’s underwater and how lessons learned from the past can shape the future. 

GKIDS released “Children of the Sea” on digital, Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix on September 1, 2020.

Review: ‘Scoob!,’ starring Will Forte, Frank Welker, Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, Mark Wahlberg, Gina Rodriguez and Jason Isaacs

May 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Daphne (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), Velma (voiced by Gina Rodriguez), Shaggy (voiced by Will Forte), Fred (voiced by Zac Efron) and Scooby-Doo (voiced by Frank Welker) in “Scoob!” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Scoob!”

Directed by Tony Cervone

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in California’s Venice Beach and other parts of the universe, the animated film “Scoob!” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A villain is out to kidnap Scooby-Doo, the lovable, talking Great Dane that’s the best friend of one of the four young people who’ve started a detective agency called Mystery Inc.

Culture Audience: “Scoob!” will appeal primarily to fans of the original “Scooby Doo” TV cartoon series and to people who are looking for lightweight animation for entertainment.

Dick Dastardly (voiced by Jason Isaacs) and Scooby-Doo (voiced  by Frank Welker) in “Scoob!” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

People who loved the original “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” TV series should brace themselves if they see the animated film “Scoob!,” because the uncomplicated charm of the TV show has been turned into a overly busy, often-mediocre film that has a serious identity crisis. The “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” TV series was essentially a detective show, with each mystery solved at the end of each episode. The “Scoob!” movie tries to be too many things at once—a comedy, a mystery, a superhero story, a supernatural horror movie and a sci-fi adventure. But the worst change in the “Scoob!” movie is that Scooby-Doo and the four young detectives at the heart of the “Scooby-Doo” series are split up for most of the “Scoob!” movie.

“Scoob!” begins with showing how the talking Great Dane known as Scooby-Doo ended up with his best friend Shaggy. In the bohemian beach city of Venice, California, a homeless Great Dane puppy is being chased by a bicycle cop and hides out in a mound of sand on the beach. It just so happens that a lonely boy named Norville “Shaggy” Rogers (who’s about 9 or 10 years old) is nearby on the same beach and discovers the dog.

Shaggy names the dog Scooby Dooby Doo. And when the bicycle cop catches up to the dog, Shaggy convinces the cop that he’s the dog’s rightful owner. Shaggy takes Scooby home with him, and they become fast friends. As a token of their friendship, Shaggy gives Scooby a dog collar with a tag engraved with the initials “SD” on it.

Shaggy’s favorite superhero is Blue Falcon, who has a canine sidekick named Dynomutt. Shaggy keeps action figures and pictures of them in his room. Shaggy is such a fan that, for Halloween, he dresses up as Blue Falcon and Scooby as Dynomutt. While they’re out trick-or-treating, some kid bullies steal Shaggy’s candy and knock him  and Scooby down on the sidewalk as they run away.

It’s here that Shaggy and Scooby first meet the three young people who will become their close friends: brawny Fred, compassionate Daphne and brainy Velma. For their Halloween costumes, Fred is dressed as a knight in armor, Daphne is dressed as Wonder Woman and Daphne is dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Shaggy mistakes Daphne for trying to be someone in a “Harry Potter” movie.

Fred, Daphne and Velma offer to help Shaggy after seeing him get knocked down, but he says the only things that are bruised are his “ego and tailfeathers.” (This line is one of the many signs that this movie was written by adults who can’t write realistic kids’ dialogue.) As soon as Scooby and this quartet of new friends start to bond, they encounter their first big mystery together, as they enter what’s rumored to be a haunted house.

They’re immediately terrorized by a menacing ghost in the house. Instead of running away (which is always Shaggy’s inclination), they band together to fight the ghost, which turns out not to be ghost, but a thief who has kept a houseful of stolen electronics and appliances stashed there. And, of course, when he’s arrested, he snarls that he would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. It’s the first real mystery solved by the four friends and Scooby.

Fast forward about 10 years later, and the four friends are now in their late teens/early 20s. They’ve started a detective agency named Mystery Inc., and are trying to figure out how to raise money to keep the business going. While they have a meeting at a diner, Velma (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) thinks that they should find investors.

And lo and behold, Simon Cowell (voiced by the real Cowell) randomly shows up unannounced at the diner, sits down at the table, and says that he’s willing to invest in the detective agency—but only if they get rid of Shaggy and Scooby, since Cowell thinks they’re useless. Cowell cynically adds, “When you get in trouble, friendship won’t save the day.”

Shaggy and Scooby are so insulted, that they don’t wait around to hear how Fred (voiced by Zac Efron), Daphne (voiced Amanda Seyfried) and Velma react to Cowell’s ultimatum to get rid of Shaggy and Scooby. Leaving in a huff, Shaggy and Scooby end up at a bowling alley, where they encounter bowling balls and bowling pins that turn into minion-like robots with chainsaws for hands.

The robots chase Shaggy and Scooby around a bowling alley. Just then, a blue light beams down. It’s the Falcon Fury spaceship owned by Blue Falcon (voiced by Mark Wahlberg) and navigated by pilot Dee Dee Skyes (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), who rescue Shaggy and Scooby from the robots. Dee Dee tells Shaggy and Scooby that the robots are from a villain called Dick Dastardly (voiced by Jason Isaacs).

While on the ship, Shaggy meets his hero Blue Falcon. The superhero is really a guy named Brian who’s taken over the Blue Falcon superhero persona from his retired father, and he hides his insecurity by putting up a blustery brave front. Dynomutt (voiced by Ken Jeong) has the power to extend his neck to great lengths and he’s a loyal and enthusiastic sidekick to Blue Falcon.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Velma has found out through research that Dick Dastardly is wanted by authorities for stealing archeological artifacts from Peru (including a giant skull of a dog) and for taking genealogical records of dogs from the Global Kennel Club. It’s pretty easy to figure out at this point that Scooby is the target of Dick Dastardly’s evil plans. But why? The movie answers that question, but there’s a lot of filler action, as the movie zigzags from genre to genre the way that the characters zig zig from Earth to outer space.

“Scoob!” has four screenwriters—Adam Sztykiel, Jack C. Donaldson, Derek Elliott and Matt Lieberman—and the whole movie gives the impression that the screenplay had “too many cooks in the kitchen.” It tries to be a comedy, but the jokes aren’t very good. When one of the characters calls athletic Fred “a poor man’s Hemsworth,” Fred asks, “Chris or Liam?” And the “mystery” in the movie is very easy to solve, even for young children who might be watching.

As for the animation, when there are Pixar movies in the world, many other animated films look inferior in comparison. The best action sequences in “Scoob!” are with the fearsome Cerberus (the three-headed hound of Hades), which has to do with the supernatural horror aspect of this messy film. There’s a chase scene through an abandoned amusement park that ramps up the action, but nothing in this movie is awards-worthy.

Although the actors do a good job with the screenplay that they’ve been given, it seems as if the Blue Falcon character was added to the world of Scooby-Doo just to jump on the bandwagon of superhero movies and to create a possible cinematic universe with various Hanna-Barbera characters. And the celebrity cameo from Cowell just seems weird and out of place. Cowell’s son Eric even has a voice role in the movie. (Did someone on the “Scoob!” filmmaking team owe Simon Cowell a favor?) Tracy Morgan has a cameo as Captain Caveman on Mystery Island, but his wacky character is very under-used in a script that needed more originality instead of a derivative superhero subplot.

And since Shaggy and Scooby are separated from Fred, Daphne and Velma during most of the movie, this estrangement ruins the original appeal of the “Scooby-Doo” series, which is all about the teamwork and camaraderie between this lovable dog and his four human friends. Another travesty: Mystery Inc.’s 1970s-style van the Mystery Machine is literally destroyed in the movie, which is an apt metaphor for how this movie wrecks the spirit of the original “Scooby-Doo” series. If “Scoob!” had stuck to a well-crafted story about a good mystery that needed solving—instead of trying to be too many things to too many people—then it would have turned out to be a much better movie.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Scoob!” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.

Review: ‘The Wolf House,’ starring Amalia Kassai and Rainer Krausse

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

“The Wolf House” (Image courtesy of KimStim)

“The Wolf House”

Directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña

Spanish and German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chile, the animated film “The Wolf House” tells the story of a woman named Maria, who has escaped from a cult of German religious fanatics, and the house that comes to life after she finds refuge there.

Culture Clash: The nightmarish story of Maria’s isolation in the house has various hallucinations where she is sometimes at odds with entities in the house that morph into other beings.

Culture Audience: “The Wolf House” will appeal primarily to people who like avant-garde animation.

“The Wolf House” (Image courtesy of KimStim)

To understand the experimental animated film “The Wolf House,” it’s better that people know in advance that the movie is inspired by the story of Colonia Dignidad, a real-life cult founded in in 1961 in Chile by a German fugitive Paul Schäfer, who ended up being a convicted child abuser. Not knowing this historical background for the film will leave viewers very confused over the point of this often-incoherent movie, which has striking visuals but lacks a well-written storyline.

“The Wolf House” has a movie-within-a-movie concept, since the it’s supposed to be “found footage” of a propaganda film made by a German colony in Chile and narrated by a man called Wolf (voiced by Rainer Krausse), whose voice is heard at the beginning and at the end of the film. Viewers can assume that Wolf is the cult leader, based on he says in the movie’s last scene.

During the course of the movie, the story is told of a young woman named Maria, who lived in the community but was punished for letting three little pigs escape. She was kept in solitary confinement for 100 days and 100 nights until she escaped into the woods and hid in an isolated house.

“The wolf is coming,” Maria says. “But he will not catch me.” When Maria  (voiced by Amalia Kassai) begins speaking, she takes over the narration of the majority of the movie that shows what happens inside the house while she’s hiding.

What takes place inside the house is like a fever dream, and it’s up to the viewers to interpret what could be real and what could be Maria’s imagination. The entire movie plays out like a psychedelic, nightmarish fairy tale. Just like Lewis Carroll’s Alice who went down the rabbit hole, Maria in “The Wolf House” experiences her own version of a weird and confined alternative world.

Maria asks for help with food, shelter and water—and a tree comes to life to help her. In the house, she finds two pigs, which she names Pedro and Ana. She gives them water and notices that they have human hands. Small animals also give Maria an apple as a thank you gift. Ana and Pedro eventually morph into two human children, with Pedro as a boy who’s younger than Ana. In “The Wolf House,” Kassai also voices the characters of Ana and Pedro.

Maria reads a book to Pedro called “The Dog and the House,” which is about a disobedient dog who jumped out of a window and was never found again but is presumed dead since the wind brought back the smell of the dog’s broken bones and other injuries. The book is an obvious parallel to what Maria might experience, and it serves as a warning/cautionary tale to anyone else who might think of escaping the cult.

The quirky animation of “The Wolf House” was shot frame-by-frame with digital photography. The ever-morphing characters were presented in two ways: (1) as animated puppets made out of paper, cardboard, masking tape and paint and (2) as animated drawings on the walls of the house. Nothing really stays still in the house, and all is not what they seem to be. Walls and furniture can turn into body parts; people can emerge from different objects; and human characters can change their physical size and hair color, or can morph back and forth into animals or other different things.

When Maria is feeling safe and comfortable, she speaks in Spanish. When she’s feeling angry or threatened, she speaks in German. It’s a clear metaphor for her true self being a Spanish-speaking Chilean, while she takes on the persona of her German cult tormenters when she’s having negative thoughts.

When Maria thinks of humans in degrading terms, they’re visualized as pigs. And when Pedro and Ana morph from being Latino-looking children into blond-haired German-looking children, it’s a metaphor for Nazi-like conformity that gives preference to Aryan-looking people. These types of metaphors in “The Wolf House” are why the movie has a deeper meaning if audiences know in advance that the disturbing history of Colonia Dignidad is the basis of “The Wolf House” screenplay.

“The Wolf House” directors Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña wrote the screenplay with Alejandra Moffat. The script seems to be an unfocused secondary priority that just goes with the flow of whatever strange visual effects that the filmmakers wanted to infuse throughout the story. However, the art direction from León, Cociña and Natalia Geisse succeeds on a much higher artistic level than the movie’s script. There are some truly unique images that make “The Wolf House” a treat for people who might be interested in a more avant-garde alternative to Laika animated films.

For people who don’t have the benefit of knowing what inspired “The Wolf House,” the visuals might be enough to hold an audience’s interest. Unfortunately, Kassai’s narration, which has a whispering sing-song tone, can be extremely grating after a while. “The Wolf House” is definitely not a family film (since children will not understand the movie at all), nor is it a mainstream film for adults. Ultimately, the movie’s concept needed to better articulated in its writing, and “The Wolf House” probably would have been better off as a short film.

KimStim released “The Wolf House” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on May 15, 2020.

Review: ‘Trolls World Tour,’ featuring the voices of Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anderson .Paak, James Corden and Kelly Clarkson

April 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) in “Trolls World Tour” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Trolls World Tour”

Directed by Walt Dohrn and David P.  Smith

Culture Representation: This animated film sequel to 2016’s “Trolls” has a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Latino and Asian) voicing characters based on troll dolls.

Culture Clash: The trolls live in different territories based on the music of their lifestyles, and the queen of the rock territory wants to take over everything.

Culture Audience: “Trolls World Tour” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to kids, adults who young at heart and people who like a variety of hit songs.

Barb (voiced by Rachel Bloom) in “Trolls World Tour” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

On Broadway, there are jukebox musicals that string together a plot in between the performance of hit songs. And now, the jukebox musical trend has reached animated films with “Trolls World Tour,” which is a showcase for some original songs but mostly retro hits from various genres of music. This sequel to 2016’s “Trolls” packs in even more stars in the voice cast than its predecessor movie. The result is an energetic and vibrant ride that is utterly predictable but should be a crowd-pleaser for its intended audience.

Even though the plot of “Trolls World Tour” is pretty simple, there are five people who are credited with writing the screenplay: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky and Elizabeth Tippet. The large writing team for this movie is also a reflection of the huge increase in the size of the “Trolls World” voice cast, compared to the first “Trolls” movie. Walt Dohrn, who co-directed “Trolls” with Mike Mitchell, returns as a director on “Trolls World Tour,” but this time with David P. Smith as co-director. Dohrn voices several of the supporting characters in both movies.

Viewers of “Trolls World Tour” don’t need to see the first “Trolls” movie to understand what’s going on in this sequel, but it helps if more of a backstory is needed for the two central characters in both films: Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and her best friend/love interest Bark (voiced by Justin Timberlake). In “Trolls,” Bark (who tends to be overly pessimistic) became a reluctant ally and then eventual best friend to Poppy (who tends to be overly optimistic) in the Trolls’ quest to defeat the sad and angry creatures known as Bergens, whose goal was to make everyone in the world as miserable as they are.

In “Trolls World Tour,” the chief villain is Princess Barb (voiced by Rachel Bloom) a rocker girl who leads the Trolls whose music of choice is hard rock/heavy metal. Ozzy Osbourne is perfectly cast for the voice of King Thrash, Barb’s father. Barb’s goal is to have rock music take over all six territories in the Troll Kingdom. Each territory represents the music that embodies the Trolls’ lifestyle in each territory.

The other five territories represent the music genres of pop, techno, country, funk and classical. In the beginning of the movie, Barb and her minions arrive in a fleet of sharks to take over the techno territory. She takes a valuable guitar string from the Techno trolls and then she and her army of rock Trolls then move on to conquer the next territory.

When news of the invasion hits the pop territory, Poppy thinks that Barb has good intentions to unite all of the Trolls. But her father King Peppy (voiced by Dohrn) reveals a secret from the Trolls’ historical past: The Trolls almost had a civil war over their different tastes in music, so the music territories were created so Trolls who liked the same genre of music could live together in harmony. Each territory was bestowed with a magical guitar string that has the power to control that territory.

Barb is on a mission to collect all six of the magical strings to put them on a guitar. Once the guitar has the six strings on it, she’ll play an “ultimate power chord” that will give her and rock music complete control over all the Troll territories. Since “Trolls World Tour” is an animated jukebox musical, Barb belts out several rock songs along the way, including Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Heart’s “Barracuda.”

“Trolls World Tour” has several jokes about clichés and criticisms that go with certain music genres. The movie pokes fun at pop for being simple, repetitive “earworm” music. Rock is parodied for attracting low-life burnouts who wear mullets or mohawks and do “devil horn” signs. Country music has a stereotype of being full of sad songs and fans who act like rednecks or country bumpkins.

Classical music is labeled as “boring.” Techno gets criticism for its artists not playing “real” instruments. And funk (whose territory is populated with African American voice actors) calls out rap and pop for over-using funk samples. The original song “It’s All Love (History of Funk)” is a clap back to all the music that lifted funk riffs to make hit songs and funk artists not being paid properly for these samples.

Not for nothing, George Clinton (co-founder of Parliament-Funkadelic, one of the most-sampled groups of all time) is cast as new Trolls character King Quincy, who rules the funk territory Vibe City with Queen Essence (voiced by Mary J. Blige). The funk royals have a son named Prince D, voiced by hip-hop star Anderson .Paak, who performs the original song “Don’t Slack” with Timberlake in the film.  And returning Trolls character Cooper (voiced by Ron Funches) from the pop territory finds out that he has a connection to the funk territory.

“Trolls World Tour” once again has Poppy convincing a reluctant and wary Branch to go with her to help stop the chief villain before it’s too late. “Trolls” characters that are also in “Trolls World Tour” are loyal Biggie (voiced by James Corden) and wisecracking Guy Diamond (voiced by Kunal Nayyar), who provide some of the comic relief in the film

But there are so many new characters in “Trolls World Tour” that the movie could feel overstuffed for people who have short attention spans and might have trouble keeping track of them all. Guy now has a son named Tiny Diamond (voiced by Kenan Thompson). Delta Dawn (voiced by Kelly Clarkson) is a sassy, big-haired redhead who is a singer and leader of the country music territory.

Also in the country music territory is Hickory (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a multitalented and brave cowboy who befriends Poppy, much to Branch’s chagrin. Branch has been trying to tell Poppy that he loves her but is afraid to do it, so he gets jealous when it looks like Hickory is winning Poppy’s admiration. Hickory is the biggest standout new character in “Trolls World Tour” since he and his “yee-haw” can-do personality get a lot of screen time.

Some other supporting characters in the movie are the bounty hunters that Barb hires to help her track down the elusive pop guitar string that Poppy has in her possession. The bounty hunters are smooth jazz musician Chaz (voiced by Jamie Dornan), a clarinet-playing Kenny G type who plays hypnotic music that gets on people’s nerves. The other bounty hunters are musical groups representing reggaeton, K-Pop and yodelers. J Balvin has a cameo as the reggaeton leader, and his song “Mi Gente” is in the movie.

There are several familiar hits that get the medley treatment in “Trolls World Tour,” including Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” and LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” has the lyrics reworked with the word “trolls” replacing the word “girls.” Dierks Bentley’s song “Leaving Lonesome Flats” (written for “Trolls World Tour”) is featured in a country music segment. And an electronic-dance music concert in the movie’s opening scene has the DJ playing Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”

“Trolls World Tour” music directors are Timberlake and Ludwig Goransson, the musician who won an Oscar and a Grammy for the “Black Panther” score, as well as Grammys for co-writing and producing Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Timberlake and Goransson co-wrote and produced the majority of the original songs in “Trolls World Tour,” such as the ballad “Perfect for Me,” “Don’t Slack” and “Just Sing (Trolls World Tour),” which is the movie’s obvious signature anthem. The music is very catchy, but won’t be as huge as Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling!,” the Oscar-nominated song from the first “Trolls” movie.

In its plot about Barb the villain trying to make all the Trolls conform to the way she wants them to be, “Trolls World Tour” has a message that people can live peacefully while respecting each other’s differences. It’s a message that comes wrapped in a lot of musical numbers and action sequences, but it’s something that audiences can take to heart. And along the way, some people might learn more about music genres that they might have previously dismissed because of certain prejudices.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation released “Trolls World Tour” for rental only on digital and VOD on April 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Onward,’ starring Chris Pratt and Tom Holland

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt) in “Onward” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Onward”

Directed by Dan Scanlon

Culture Representation: Taking place in a magical world (where almost everyone has an American accent), the main characters of the animated film “Onward” are mythical creatures, but there are some human characters with minor supporting roles.

Culture Clash: A recurring theme in the movie is the conflicts between modern customs versus the magical customs.

Culture Audience: “Onward” is a family-friendly movie that will appeal to anyone who likes an adventurous and heart-warming story.

Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt) in “Onward” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Onward,” the first original film from Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios since 2017’s “Coco,” won’t be winning any Oscars as “Coco” did, but it’s a solid animated film that will be a crowd-pleaser for people of various generations. The movie (directed by Dan Scanlon who wrote the screenplay with Keith Bunin and Jason Headley) spends most of the film as a Pixar version of a video game. The story is simple and straightforward, involving the main characters doing a series of challenges to get to a coveted treasure item. It isn’t until the last 15 minutes that “Onward” packs an emotional punch that shows the movie is a little deeper than a typical animated film.

In the beginning of the movie, which is narrated by teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland), viewers learn that the world he lives in used to be filled with magic. But then modern technology took over, and magic became a antiquated custom that has been forgotten by numerous people in the world.

Ian lives with his kind and loving mother Laurel Lightfoot voiced by Julia-Louis Dreyfus) and his goofy older brother Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt). Laurel, who is a widow, has a “good guy” boyfriend named Colt Bronco (voiced by Mel Rodriguez), a centaur police officer. Ian and Barley’s father Wilden Lightfoot (voiced by Kyle Bornheimer) died when Ian was a bay and Barley was about three years old. Ian is about to turn 16, while Barley is 18 or 19. (His mother Laurel mentions that Barley is taking a “gap year.”)

Barley isn’t in school and he doesn’t seem to have a job, so he spends a lot of time at home being the kind of brother who often annoys Ian, who is studious and socially awkward. The two things that Barley is passionate about the most are his beat-up purple van that he’s named Guinevere and his encyclopedic knowledge of historical traditions in magic that hardly anyone around him seems to care about.

Barley also seems to be living in a “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”/”Wayne’s World” time warp, because he dresses and acts like a playful metalhead, just like those movies’ characters of Bill and Ted and Wayne and Garth. Guinevere is also decked out like something out of the late ’80s/ early ’90s, with the bumper stickers to prove it. Ian is often embarrassed by Barley, because he thinks of himself as intellectually superior to Barley, whose behavior is sometimes like a hyper puppy.

In one scene that shows the tension between the two brothers, Ian has worked up the nerve to ask some of his classmates to his upcoming 16th birthday party. He’s delighted when they say yes. But when Barley shows up at Ian’s school, he embarrasses Ian so much that Ian tells his classmates that the party has been cancelled. What Ian doesn’t tell his classmates is he doesn’t want them to be around Barley, who would be at the party.

For Ian’s birthday, he gets a wizard’s staff that his father Wilden had set aside for Ian to get specifically when Ian turned 16. He uses the staff to make a wish to bring his father back to life for 24 hours. But something goes wrong during the spell, and only the lower half of Wilden’s body (from the waist down) has come back to life. The upper half of his body exists but is invisible.

And so begins Ian and Barley’s race against time to find the magical item that will fully transform Wilden Lightfoot back to his normal self. The item that has the power to do that is a rare, mystical gem that’s hidden. For most of the film, Ian and Barley go off on a frantic quest to find the gem in time before their father disappears when the sun comes up. Just like a video game, they have to complete a challenge to get to the next level in the puzzle that will led them to the gem.

Along the way, they meet a lively group of characters, most notably the sassy Manticore (voiced by Octavia Spencer), also known as a restaurateur named Corey. She’s the owner of Manticore’s Tavern, where she has gone to reinvent herself as a “respectable” member of society after having a wild past. Ian and Barley also encounter a biker gang of pixies that clash with the two brothers.

Meanwhile, the story takes on a “Weekend at Bernie’s” vibe when Ian and Barley have to dress the upper half of their father’s body, including making him wear sunglasses, so that they can see him better. Ian and Barley lead him around by a leash-like belt that’s wrapped around his waist. At times it looks a little creepy, but it’s all played for laughs. In his half-body state, Wilden can’t see or talk, but apparently he can hear sometimes. It’s a plot hole that has to be overlooked in order to enjoy this movie.

The visual effects in “Onward” are perfectly fine and much better than most animated films. But compared to other Pixar movies (such as the Oscar-winning “Toy Story” movies, “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out” and “The Incredibles”), “Onward” is on the lower end of the quality scale. And although “Onward” covers a lot of the same ideas that other “race against time” fantasy/adventure stories have done before, near the end of the film, one of the brothers does something slightly unpredictable that affects how he feels about his family. It’s a tear-jerking moment that a lot of viewers won’t see coming. And it wouldn’t be a Pixar movie if there isn’t a scene that’s meant to make people cry.

Disney/Pixar Animation Studios released “Onward” in U.S. cinemas on March 6, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Disney will make “Onward” available on digital and on Movies Anywhere, as of March 20, 2020, and on the Disney+ streaming service, as of April 3, 2020.

Review: ‘The Call of the Wild’ (2020), starring Harrison Ford

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Harrison Ford in "The Call of the Wild"
Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Call of the Wild”

Directed by Chris Sanders

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Alaska during the 1890s Gold Rush era, the action-adventure film “The Call of the Wild” has a predominantly white cast that represent the working-class and middle-class whose lives are touched in some way by a very lovable and determined St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix dog.

Culture Clash: The characters have conflicts over greed for gold, as well as ownership of the dog.

Culture Audience: “The Call of the Wild” is a family-friendly film that will appeal to fans of Harrison Ford and people who love dogs.

Omar Sy in “The Call of the Wild” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Call of the Wild” takes Jack London ‘s classic 1903 novel on which it based and turns it into live-action/animated hybrid adventure story with moments that are heartwarming, heartbreaking and unapologetically sentimental. The story, which takes place during the 1890s, centers on a St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix dog named Buck, who teaches the humans quite a few things about bravery and emotional intelligence. Harrison Ford receives top billing in the movie, but viewers who don’t know the book’s original story should know that his John Thornton character is mainly in the latter half of the story, although his voiceover narration is throughout the film. The movie keeps most of the plot points the same as the original story, but there are also some changes from the novel.

When viewers first see Buck, he’s living a pampered life in Santa Clara, California, with Judge Miller (played by Bradley Whitford), his wife Katie (played by Jean Louisa Kelly) and their family. Buck is playful and mischievous—so much so, that he ruins the family’s Thanksgiving dinner by trashing the table and eating the entire Thanksgiving feast. Judge Miller gets angry but he’s a kind dog owner who doesn’t abuse his pet.

One night, Buck is stolen by a man who sells the dog to an abusive sailor, who hits Buck with a club and keeps him confined. There are scenes of animal cruelty that might be a little disturbing to very sensitive viewers. Buck is on a ship that is headed to Alaska. Through ingenuity, luck and a will to fight, Buck escapes his cruel owner and finds himself homeless in Dawson City, Alaska. He is taken by an old man, who doesn’t treat Buck much better than the sailor, so Buck runs away again.

While Buck is escaping, he runs into a gold prospector named John Thornton (played by Ford), a recluse who’s come into town for errands. Buck finds John’s harmonica on the street, and John is struck by how intelligent the dog seems to be. Unfortunately, Buck’s old man owner catches up to Buck and he’s back in captivity again.

Buck is eventually taken to a dog pound, where he’s bought by Perrault (played by Omar Sy), a French Canadian who runs a dog-sled service that delivers mail. Perrault immediately warms up to Buck, but his jaded assistant Francoise (played by Cara Gee) isn’t too fond of the dog at first. (In the novel, the dog-sled operators were two men named Perrault and Francois.) Perrault makes Buck part of the dog-sled team, which is lead by an arrogant alpha male Siberian husky named Spitz. The rest of the dogs are of various large-sized breeds.

The dog-sled work is grueling, especially when it’s in the snow, but Buck is a quick learner and he makes friends with the rest of the dogs, except for Spitz. For example, there’s a scene where Spitz makes the other dogs wait for him to finish drinking water from an icy lake, but Buck takes his paws to break open the ice to create a new place where the dogs can drink without waiting for Spitz.

It’s worth mentioning that the CGI visual effects for the animals start off looking very unrealistic, but they get better during the course of the movie. The animals have very humanistic facial expressions and movements, so don’t expect this movie to be completely realistic. You also have to suspend disbelief at some of the superhuman stunts that Buck is able to do. However, the movie doesn’t go too far with the human characteristics for the animals—the animals don’t cry, walk like humans, or talk in human languages—so overall the ways that the animals are presented are mostly realistic.

Whenever there’s an action movie that takes place near a frozen body of water, the inevitable happens: Someone falls through the ice into the water. This happens to Francoise, but of course Buck is there to rescue her and save her life. Her attitude toward Buck starts to change after that incident. She begrudgingly admits to Buck that she underestimated him and that he’s impressed her the most out of all of the dogs in the pack. And wouldn’t you know, Spitz is off in the distance seeing this bonding moment and gets jealous, so he later starts a fight with Buck, leading to a showdown over who’s going to be the alpha male of the pack.

Because the trailers for “The Call of the Wild” make the movie look like it’s only about Buck and John, viewers who don’t know the book might be surprised to see how much of the movie is about Buck’s time in the dog-sled pack. It’s a pivotal part of the story in the novel and the film, because it’s the first time that Buck experiences being part of a dog pack. It’s also the first time he becomes in touch with his wild instincts that originate from the wolves who are ancestors of domesticated dogs. (When Buck uses his primal instincts, he sees a vision of a black wolf with glowing eyes )

So how did Buck end up with John? Buck and the sled team get a new owner named Hal, a greedy, insufferable fop who’s the most abusive owner yet for Buck. Hal wants the dog pack to take him, his sister Mercedes (played by Karen Gillan) and Mercedes’ passive husband Charles (played by Colin Goodell) on gold mining expeditions. Hal beats and starves the dogs into submission. If you love animals, this part of the film is hard to watch, even if you know the animals aren’t real.

Luckily, when John encounters the gold-digging trio and the mistreated dog pack, he rescues a severely malnourished and injured Buck. Hal leaves with the rest of the pack. (What happens to Hal and the dog pack in this movie is different from what happens to them in the original novel.) John takes Buck back to his small and sparse cabin in the woods and nurses the dog back to health.

John lives simply, and his gruff exterior masks a lot of emotional pain. He’s the type of prospector who isn’t looking for gold to get rich. At one point, he tells Buck that all a man needs is enough money “to buy groceries for life.” And it’s easy to see why he feels a strong connection to Buck, because Buck has also experienced a lot of pain.

During Buck’s time with John, Buck meets a pretty female hinterland wolf with white fur, and she introduces him to her pack, which readily accepts Buck, and he spends more and more time with them. (This is where the movie takes a sharp turn from reality, because in real life, a domesticated dog would be attacked and probably killed by a pack of wild wolves.)

It’s during this time that John (who talks to Buck like a human) reveals what happened in his past that’s made him a such a recluse: He had a son who died (it’s not mentioned how he died), and the grief over his son’s death led to him being estranged from his wife. It’s implied in the movie that John left his wife, they’re now divorced, and he let her keep their marital house and everything in it.

John is also a heavy drinker—and this is where the humanistic qualities of Buck are really shown in the movie—the dog scolds John for drinking too much, whether it’s by Buck hiding John’s flask of alcohol or making disapproving noises when he sees John drinking too much. Yes, Buck is not only an incredibly resourceful dog, apparently he’s also an addiction counselor/interventionist too.

Whenever there’s a movie about the wild, wild West, there also seems to be an obligatory scene with a bar fight. That moment comes when John is drinking at a bar and he gets sucker-punched by Hal, who’s angry at John because the dog pack ran off, thereby putting a severe damper on Hal’s gold-digging excursions in the rough terrain. Of course, Buck comes to the rescue when John is attacked. John fights back too, and Hal is thrown out of the bar. Do you think that’s the last we’ll see of Hal in this movie? Of course not.

The rest of the movie is about the bonding time that Buck and John spend together when John decides to take the adventure trip that he and his son had planned before his son died. “The Call of the Wild” is the first movie with live action for director Chris Sanders, who previously directed the animated films “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Croods” and “Lilo & Stitch.” Fans of the “How to Train Your Dragon” series might see some similarities in the “man’s best friend” theme in both movies and how the animals take on human mannerisms.

There have been other “The Call of the Wild” movies, but this is the first to have this type of CGI animation for the animals. For the most part, it works well, even if the action sometimes look cartoonish because of what some of the things these animated animals do that real animals can’t do. However, this version of “The Call of the Wild” (whose screenplay was written by Michael Green) keeps the story’s message of resilience and friendship intact and treats it with respect. It’s a timeless message that will resonate even with changes in movie technology.

20th Century Studios released “The Call of the Wild” in U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, 20th Century Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “The Call of the Wild” to March 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Dolittle,’ starring Robert Downey Jr.

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert Downey Jr.  and parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dolittle”

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Culture Representation: Set primarily in the United Kingdom, this dramatic adventure movie’s live-action characters are nearly all white; the voice actors portraying the animated animals are a racially mixed cast; and the social classes range from working-class to royalty.

Culture Clash: A reclusive doctor with the special power to talk to animals reluctantly goes on a journey to find a rare medical cure, and faces obstacles that include more than one villain.

Culture Audience: “Dolittle” will appeal primarily to fans of children-oriented entertainment who don’t mind if the visuals are much better than the storytelling.

Dab-Dab the duck (voiced by Octavia Spencer), polar bear Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), Dr. John Dolittle (played by Robert Downey Jr.), ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett) and gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

It’s not really a good sign when a major-studio film headlined by an A-list movie star is released in January, the month that’s a notorious dumping ground for bad movies. Universal Pictures must have known that “Dolittle” was going to be a dud, even with star Robert Downey Jr. coming off his major hot streak in the blockbuster superhero “Avengers” and “Iron Man” movies. (“Avengers: Endgame,” Downey’s 2019 movie that was released before “Dolittle,” now holds the record as the world’s biggest box-office movie hit of all time, ending the 10-year reign at the top held by “Avatar.”) “Dolittle” isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a terribly generic film in an era when we’ve been bombarded with kids-oriented movies that have talking animals.

By making “Dolittle” an action-adventure film, “Dolittle” director Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, tried to do something different from previous “Dolittle” movies. The original 1967 “Dr. Dolittle” film, starring Rex Harrison and a cast of other Brits, was a musical adapted from Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle” book series. The three “Dr. Dolittle” movies from 1998, 2000 and 2006 were slapstick American comedies—the first two starred Eddie Murphy as the title character, and a third film was an ill-conceived flop starring Kyla Pratt, who played Dolittle’s daughter in the first two Murphy-starring films.

Gaghan’s “Dolittle” goes back to the original United Kingdom location, during the mid-1800s era of a young Queen Victoria (played by Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness. During the film’s animated opening sequence, viewers see that veterinarian John Dolittle once led a happy life taking care of animals with his beloved wife Lily (played by Kasia Smutniak), who died tragically.

Fast forward seven years later, and Dr. Dolittle has become a cranky hermit who has neglected his hygiene (he’s so unkempt that a mouse has been living in his beard), as he lives with his animals on his estate that’s essentially an animal sanctuary. The filmmakers have made Dolittle a Welshman, so it might take a while for some viewers to getting used to hearing Downey speak in a Welsh accent that sounds a little too pretentious for a movie where most of his co-stars are animated talking animals. This is a kids’ movie, not Shakespeare.

Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett), a boy from the small village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, is an orphaned misfit who lives with his aunt and uncle. Tommy loves animals, and is therefore uncomfortable when he’s forced to go hunting with his uncle. When Tommy accidentally shoots a squirrel while hunting, he decides to take the injured animal to the mysterious Dr. Dolittle, even though the doctor has a reputation for being a curmudgeon. Instead of being afraid of Dolittle’s menagerie of wild animals, Tommy is fascinated and finds out that he has a knack for communicating with animals too. Affected by Tommy’s presence, Dolittle cleans himself up, as he notices that Tommy sees him as a role model and possible mentor.

It isn’t long before Dolittle gets another visitor: Queen Victoria’s attendant Lady Rose (played Carmel Laniado), who arrives with orders to bring Dolittle to Buckingham Palace to give medical aid to the queen. Dolittle has a big incentive to save the queen’s life, because his property has been loaned to him by the queen, and if she dies, he will lose the property.

While at the palace, Dolittle has an awkward reunion with a former school rival: royal physician Dr. Blair Müdfly (played by Michael Sheen), who is jealous of Dolittle’s talent and acclaim. Müdfly is such an over-the-top villain that he practically twirls his moustache and gnashes his teeth. And there’s another antagonist in the story: the ambitious Lord Thomas Badgley (played by Jim Broadbent), who will inherit the throne if Queen Victoria dies. (At this point in her life, Victoria is not married and has no children.)

Dolittle determines that the best cure for the queen’s life-threatening illness is fruit from the Eden Tree on Eden Tree Island, because this fruit is said to have magical powers. (How biblical.) Tommy has essentially decided that he doesn’t really want to go home, so he tags along on Dolittle’s voyage, with Dolittle’s numerous animals in tow as they set sail on a ship called the Water Lily.

Now, about the animals. The problem with “Dolittle” is that there are too many of them in this film. If you’re someone with a short attention span, good luck trying to keep track of all the talking animals. The “Madagascar” movies (another animated series with a variety of wild animals that talk) worked so well because the animals were in a relatively small group and their personalities were so distinct. In “Dolittle,” the personalities of most of the animals tend to blend together in a crowded mush, with the notable exception of the parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), a dutifully efficient assistant/caretaker with a whip-smart attitude. Polynesia holds a special place in Dolittle’s heart because the parrot used to be owned by Dolittle’s late wife Lily.

The other animals in this mixed-bag menagerie are Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek), an insecure gorilla; Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer), a maternal, scatterbrained American Pekin duck; Plimpton, a nervous osctrich (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani); Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), a polar bear who hates the cold, loves adventure, and often bickers with Plimpton; Betsy (voiced by Selena Gomez), a kind giraffe; Kevin (voiced by Crag Robinson), the injured squirrel that was accidentally shot by Tommy and who has a cheeky sense of humor; Tutu (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a fearless fox with leadership qualities; and Mini (voiced by Nick A. Fisher), a baby sugar glider that’s constantly curious.

Meanwhile, other talking animals include brainy dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), a long-haired Lurcher tasked with guarding the queen; Humphrey (voiced by Tim Treloar), a whale that helps navigate the Water Lily; James (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), a nervous dragonfly; Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), a Bengal tiger with mommy issues and a grudge against Dolittle; Don Carpenterino (voiced by David Sheinkopf), the leader of an ant colony; Army Ant (voiced by Matthew Wolfe), Don’s sidekick; and Dragon (voiced by Frances de la Tour), guardian of the Eden Tree.

As for other human characters, there’s also Pirate King Rassouli (played by Antonio Banderas), who lives on Monteverde Island, one of the stops along the way to Eden Tree Island. Banderas hams it up as yet another adversary to Dolittle and his crew. Large ensembles can work for well-written, live-action films geared to adults. But when it’s a mostly animated film geared to kids, the movie can come across as too cluttered for its own good.

“Dolittle” certainly has an impressive cast of acting talent. It’s too bad that so many of the characters are bland. Furthermore, Chee-Chee (the gorilla that’s a visual standout) is a missed opportunity, since the character was miscast for its voice. Malek sounds more like the minature “Frozen” snowman Olaf than a massive gorilla. The Chee-Chee character needed an actor with a deeper voice to better reflect the gorilla’s intimidating physical presence. Former wrestling champ Cena, who’s the voice of Yoshi the polar bear, would have been better in the role of Chee-Chee.

Although the characters in this movie are very underdeveloped, the compelling visual effects (overseen by visual effects supervisors Nicolas Aithadi and John Dykstra) are the most entertaining aspect of the film. Young children who are dazzled by visuals should enjoy “Dolittle” for the movie’s colorful ambiance, even if they won’t remember most of the movie’s animal characters weeks after seeing this film. (Don’t expect there to be a high demand for “Dolittle” toys.) More mature viewers might get easily bored with this movie, because it wallows in a lot of mediocrity that wastes this talented cast.

Simply put: “Dolittle” is not the kind of movie that people looking for high-quality entertainment will rush to see multiple times while it’s in theaters. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Universal Pictures released “Dolittle” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.

 

 

 

Review: ‘Weathering With You,’ an animated romance from Japan

January 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

"Weathering With You"
“Weathering With You” (Photo courtesy of GKIDS)

“Weathering With You”

Directed by Makoto Shinkai

Available in the original Japanese version (with English subtitles) or in a dubbed English-language version.

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in Tokyo, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters.

Culture Clash: In this alternate and supernatural world, underage teenagers who live on their own try to find their identities and independence, while sometimes clashing with adults who might try to control or exploit them.

Culture Audience: “Weathering With You” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to fans of Japanese anime and romantic animated films.

“Weathering With You” (Photo courtesy of GKIDS)

“Weathering With You” is an old-fashioned love story wrapped up in a modern setting with futuristic and sci-fi/supernatural elements. This charming animated movie (written and directed by Makoto Shinkai) was Japan’s official 2019 entry for the Best International Feature Film category for the Academy Awards—and it’s almost the polar opposite from Japan’s 2018 entry: the bleak drama “Shoplifters,” which was about a group of thieves from different generations who live together. Interestingly, both movies do have something in common. The central characters are financially unstable people who are living outside the margins of regular society and who find themselves with a surrogate family.

In “Weathering With You,” viewers first see 16-year-old runaway Hokada Morishima on a ship going to Tokyo, where he wants to escape from his remote island home. While on the ship, and after hearing that a major rainstorm is headed that way, Hokada foolishly goes outside during the storm and almost gets swept overboard. He’s saved by a young man, and as a thank you, Hokada buys dinner for the stranger when they arrive in Tokyo. It’s clear from this scene that Hokada is an impulsive risk-taker, but he also has a kind heart.

Because Hokada is underage and doesn’t have any proper ID, it’s difficult for him to find a job. While figuring out where he’s going to get his next meal, a teenage girl who works at a local café takes pity on him and gives him a free hamburger. Hokada eventually runs out of money, and he ends up homeless and living on the street, where he finds a gun in a paper bag and keeps the weapon. That gun will get him into trouble later in the story. Meanwhile, Tokyo and other parts of Japan are experiencing torrential rainstorms.

As luck would have it, Hokada lands a job interview, based on going to an address of a business card he’s found. It’s a small magazine company run by a mysterious widower in his 30s named Keisuke “Kei” Suga, who works out of his cluttered home with his young female assistant named Natsumi. Keisuke and Natsumi report supernatural news stories, and the latest trends they’re chasing have to do with unusual weather-related events. Hokada is hired on the spot to be an assistant/housekeeper. His salary is very low, but he gets a free place to live and free meals as part of his employment.

Shortly after getting the job, Hokada sees the girl from the café being manhandled on the street by a sleazy local club owner, who’s pressuring her to work for him. (It’s implied in the movie but not said out loud that he owns a strip club.) As the club owner and a henchman try to force the girl into the club, and she resists, Hokada intervenes and is punched in the face by the club owner. Hokada then pulls out the gun and shoots it in the air, giving him and the girl a way to escape.

The girl’s name is Hina Amano, and she says she’s 17 and soon about to turn 18. As a thank you for rescuing her, Hina invites Hokada over to her place and makes him lunch. It’s during their lunch date that they both find out that they have something in common: They are living on their own without parental supervision. Hokada confesses that he ran away from home because he thinks living with his parents is too stifling. Hina lives with her younger brother Nagisa (nicknamed Nagi), and she says that the mother who raised them died about a year ago. (Somehow, Hina and Nagisa, who don’t seem to have any other living relatives, have avoided going into foster care.)

Hina also has another big secret that she reveals to Hokada: She’s a “sunshine girl”—a rare “weather maiden” who has the ability to make it stop raining and bring the sun out, simply by praying. Because Hina has recently quit her job, and Hokada wants to supplement his measly income, they both decide to go into business together by offering her weather-control services to the public. They start a website together, and almost immediately, their business becomes a successes, with Nagisa often tagging along when they go to different locations to fulfill weather-changing requests.

But their success comes at a price: According to folklore, the more a sunshine girl uses her weather-changing abilities, the more her body begins to transform from flesh into spirit, until she is supposed to disappear forever into the spirit world. It couldn’t come at a worse time, since Hokada and Hina are starting to fall in love.

Complicating matters, the police (led by the stern Detective Takei) are on the hunt for Hokada, since his parents have reported him missing, and he was caught on surveillance video using the loaded gun in the street fight where he rescued Hina. Meanwhile, Keisuke (who’s depressed and has a drinking problem) has secrets of his own about his family that end up affecting his relationship with Hokada.

If you’ve seen Studio Ghibli films, then you’ll probably know what to expect for this movie’s animation (from production companies CoMix Wave Films and Story Inc.), which has an unfussy but expressive animation style that’s very similar to Studio Ghibli films. The voices of the “Weathering With You” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Weathering With You” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Kotaro Daigo as Hokada, Nani Mori as Hina, Shun Oguri as Keisuke, Tsubasa Honda as Natsumi, Sakura Kiryu as Nagisa and Yûki Kaji as Detective Takei. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Brandon Engman as Hokada, Ashley Boettcher as Hina, Lee Pace as Keisuke, Alison Brie as Natsumi, Emeka Guindo as Nagisa, Riz Ahmed as Detective Takei.

“Weathering With You” won’t be considered a major Oscar-winning Japanese animation classic, such as director Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” but “Weathering With You” is still a better-than-average modern animated film. Although “Weathering With You” includes serious social issues about homelessness and the hazards of messing with the environment, ultimately this is a sweetly sentimental film where the biggest messages are about taking life-changing risks for true love.

GKIDS released “Weathering With You” for special sneak-preview screenings in select U.S. cinemas on January 15 and January 16, 2020. “Weathering With You” arrived in wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020. The movie was originally released in Japan in 2019.

2019 New York Comic Con: Anime Fest returns for second consecutive year, relocates to Hudson Mercantile

July 15, 2019

by Carla Hay

(Image courtesy of Anime Fest)

For the second year in a row, New York Comic Con has partnered with Anime Expo to create Anime Fest, which will take place on the same days as New York Comic Con 2019 in New York City: October 3 to October 6. Anime Fest is a separate event that will be held at Hudson Mercantile, a change in venue from the 2018 Anime Expo, which was held at Pier 94. New York Comic Con takes place at various locations in New York City, but the main hub is at Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. The good news is that Hudson Mercantile is much closer to the Javits Convention Center than Pier 94.

New York Comic Con badge purchases are not required to attend Anime Fest, and vice versa, but separate tickets are required for most Anime Fest offerings. However, the first floor of Hudson Mercantile will be  Anime Fest headquarters, which will be New York Comic Con badge holders and Anime Fest ticket holders alike. According to Anime Fest, this community hub will have “interactive and immersive experiences and opportunities to connect with other fans.”

Panels announced so far for Anime Fest 2019 include those featuring voice actor Charlet Chung (“Overwatch); Veronica Taylor (“Pokémon,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”); and Christopher Sabat and Sean Schemmel  (“Dragon Ball Z”).