Review: ‘New Gods: Yang Jian,’ a fantasy adventure about a mythic figure from China

January 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Yang Jian in “New Gods: Yang Jian” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“New Gods: Yang Jian”

Directed by Zhao Ji

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

Culture Representation: Taking place in China in the years 420 to 589 (during the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties), the animated film “New Gods: Yang Jian,” a sequel to 2021’s “New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” features an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: A formerly powerful god, who is now a poor bounty hunter, competes with his long-lost nephew and other rivals to find the treasure of a magical lotus lantern. 

Culture Audience: “New Gods: Yang Jian” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “New Gods: Nezha Reborn” and any fantasy film involving a hunt for hidden treasure, no matter how substandard the storytelling is.

Chenxiang in “New Gods: Yang Jian” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

The animated film “New Gods: Yang Jian” is just a mess of fantasy adventure clichés about a hero looking for a hidden treasure, and spells that must be broken. Eye-catching visuals can’t disguise the erratic storytelling and stupid dialogue. The movie’s world building is inadequately explained. The choppy editing seems intended for viewers with short attention spans, yet it still makes the story very dull.

Directed by Zhao Ji and written by Mu Chuan, “New Gods: Yang Jian” is a sequel to the 2021 animated film “New Gods: Nezha Reborn,” also directed by Zhao and written by Mu. Both movies are loosely connected to each other in having the same concept of reincarnation/reinvention for their respective protagonist heroes, but both movies have completely self-contained plots. In other words, it’s not necessary to know anything about “New Gods: Nezha Reborn” before seeing “New Gods: Yang Jian.”

“New Gods: Yang Jian” takes place in China in the years 420 to 589 (during the Wei, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties), but most of the story really takes place within a year in a place called the Immortal Realm. The movie has numerous flashbacks that jump around from different decades, thereby further muddling the already poorly constructed plot. A story about finding a hidden treasure should be fairly uncomplicated, but “New Gods: Yang Jian” gets sidetracked with many detours and convoluted explanations that are get quite irritating after a while, in this 126-minute movie that becomes a chore to watch.

In “New Gods: Yang Jian,” Erlang Shen, also known as Erlang Mu, is a poor bounty hunter who used to be a powerful god named Yang Jian. Thirteen years ago, when he was Yang Jian, he trapped his sister Yang Chan beneath a mountain, and Yang Jian was stripped of his powers. (It’s explained why in the last third of the movie.) Yang Jian’s sister has a 13-year-old son named Chenxiang. In the beginning of the movie, Yang Jian has not seen Chenxiang since Chenxiang was a baby.

One day, Erlang/Yang Jian is visited by a mysterious woman named Wanluo, who hires him to find her sister, who disappeared 12 years ago. Wanluo says that the Lamp of Universal Contentment, also known as a magical lotus lamp, was stolen from her sister, and she wants Erlang/Yang Jian to find this magical lamp too. Guess who else is looking for the lamp? Chenxiang, because he thinks getting the lamp will free his mother from the cave.

Other rivals want the lamp too. Erlang/Yang Jian’s adversaries include a hulking duo called the Mo Brothers and a powerful but drunken military general named Shen Gongbao, who used to be a mentor to Chenxiang. Shen Gongbao also has a grudge against Yang Jian. Some other characters appear along the way. One of them is Master Yuding, an elderly and wise teacher of Gold Sunset Cave. Yang Jian used to be a student of Master Yuding.

A major problem with “New Gods: Yang Jian” is that it zips around from one elaborately created location to the next in the Immortal Realm—sometimes with editing that’s so fidgety, a location is shown for less than three minutes before it’s on to the next location. Viewers will feel like visitors who are being rushed through a tour without getting enough time or enough explanation to learn more about each location in the Immortal Realm. These locations include Penglai Fairy Island, Square Pot, Yingzhou and Smuggler’s Point.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” has some unnecessary characters that have no real bearing on the main plot. For example, the beginning of the movie shows bounty hunter Erlang on Penglai Fairy Island, where he narrowly escapes death when a monster named Boss Hai comes after him with an axe. Erlang captures a teenage boy, who is called a “snake oil peddler” and listed as Medicine Boy in the movie’s end credits. Erlang puts Medicine Boy in jail on a ship. None of this action ultimately has any revelance to the outcome of the story. “New Gods: Yang Jian” shows this jailed teenager enough times, it looks he will play an important role in the movie, but he doesn’t.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” also has very unimpressive and sexist portrayals of the movie’s few women and girls, who are either depicted as femme fatales or subservient airheads. Another very unnecessary character is a teenage girl named Xiaotian, who is infatuated with Erlang/Yang Jian. Xiaotian worships him so much, she crawls on all fours when she’s around him, as if she’s a pet animal. The male characters treat her like a pathetic “fangirl” or “groupie.” This Xiaotian character is ultimately not needed at all in the movie, and neither is the misogyny that went into creating this degrading female character.

The hunt for the Lamp of Universal Contentment doesn’t feel like a treasure hunt in the movie but more like plot objective that gets shunted to the side when the movie has more rambling expositions and flashback scenes that clutter up the story. A huge chunk of the movie takes place on a ship (probably the least interesting location), when more time could have been spent in more fascinating-looking places, such as the Fairy Palace or the Square Pot Casino. All of the movie’s fight scenes, except for the final showdown, are very forgettable. As for the characters’ personalities, they are filled with stereotypes and have simple-minded conversations. There isn’t enough comic relief to make watching this shambling movie any easier.

The voices of the “New Gods: Yang Jian” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “New Gods: Yang Jian.” The original Chinese version (with English subtitles) has Wang Kai as Yang Jian, Li Lanling as Chenxiang, Ji Gwanling as Wanluo, Li Lihong as Master Yuding and Zhao Yi as Shen Gongbao. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Nicholas Andrew Louie as Yang Jian, Luke Naphat Sath as Chenxiang, Christine Lin as Wanluo, Parry Shen as Master Yuding and James Sie as Shen Gongbao.

“New Gods: Yang Jian” is the type of animated film that was made to appeal to a wide range of age groups. However, this movie is not going to be very enjoyable to most children under the age of 10, who will easily get restless or bored by a jumbled plot that requires comprehension usually found in people older than the age of 10. Even people who are old enough to understand the plot will get annoyed about how “New Gods: Yang Jian” takes a little over two hours to tell a story that could have been told in a movie that’s 45 minutes or less. “New Gods: Yang Jian” is a treasure-hunt movie that is ultimately not work seeking out by viewers who want to watch a thrilling animated adventure that tells a story in a cohesive and clever way.

GKIDS released “New Gods: Yang Jian” in select U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022, and re-released the movie in U.S. cinemas on January 20, 2023. “New Gods: Yang Jian” was released in China on August 19, 2022.

Review: ‘One Piece Film Red,’ a fantasy action adventure with pirates and a pop star

January 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Uta and Luffy in “One Piece Film Red” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

“One Piece Film Red”

Directed by Gorō Taniguchi

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

Culture Representation: Taking place on the fictional island of Elegia, the Japanese animated film “One Piece Film Red” tells the story of pirates, a female pop star, and how her past connects to the present.

Culture Clash: The pirates get involved in a battle over the pop star, who wants to create a utopia for her legions of followers.

Culture Audience: “One Piece Film Red” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “One Piece” franchise and adventurous anime films that have some social commentary.

Red-Haired Shanks in “One Piece Film Red” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

“One Piece Film Red” is an exuberant adventure story that will please new and previous fans of the “One Piece” franchise. Beyond the thrilling action scenes is clever social commentary about blindly following anyone in power who promises a utopian existence. People don’t have to know anything about the “One Piece” franchise before seeing the “One Piece Film Red,” but it helps in understanding some of the characters’ motivations, backstories and personalities. The franchise follows the adventures of a group of pirates (some with superpowers) as they battle other people in search of a famous treasure called One Piece.

Directed by Gorō Taniguchi and written by Tsutomu Kuroiwa, “One Piece Film Red” opens with the Straw Hat Pirates going to the fictional island of Elegia. The captain of the Straw Hat Pirates is a teenager named Luffy, who is also known as Straw Hat Luffy or Monkey D. Luffy. He has an upbeat personality and, for better or worse, is often impulsive. A running joke in the “One Piece” series is that Fluffy’s enormous appetite frequently affects his judgment when he is hungry for food.

The Straw Hat Pirates have gone to Elegia to see a young pop star Uta perform in concert. She’s abut the same age as Luffy, who is in his late teens. Luffy has a past connection with Uta because he met her through her biological father: a pirate named Red-Haired Shanks, who is Luffy’s idol. About 12 years earlier, Red-Haired Shanks and his pirate crew were stationed in Luffy’s native land of the Goa Kingdom. That is how Luffy met Uta, who was being raised by single father Red-Haired Shanks.

However, during Red-Haired Shanks’ travels, he left underage Uta in Elegia shortly after Luffy met her. She was adopted and raised by a man called Gordon, the former king of Elegia. Red-Haired Shanks told people that he gave up custody of Uta because she wanted to pursue a singing career, and he believed that Elegia was the best place for her to receive training.

Uta has now become a world-famous pop star with millions of devoted followers. Her performances seem to have a hypnotic effect on people because she has control of Sing-Sing Fruit, which casts a trance-like spell on people who hear Uta sing. She has messages of positivity, which makes her a beloved celebrity. Uthe has announced that she’s planning to bring her followers to a paradise called Sing-Sing World, where she says there is peace and unity.

In order to follow Uta to this world, people have to be willing to leave their regular lives behind. And that makes her a threat to the World Government. Uta comes under attack from various entitities, while Luffy and his crew have to decide which side they will take in this battle. In order to fully understand Uta, they have to uncover more of what happened to her in the past. The movie features original songs performed by Ado as Uta’s songs.

“One Piece Film Red” not only has an intriguing story, but the movie’s visuals are also captivating and enhance viewers’ enjoyment of the story. The movie also has touches of comedy that lighten the mood and make the characters more relatable. “One Piece Film Red” has a lot to say about families, identities, and how they play a role in people’s perceptions of themselves and of society. It’s not a preachy film, but it’s not just mindless fluff either.

The voices of the “One Piece Film Red” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “One Piece Film Red.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Mayumi Tanaka as Luffy, Shūichi Ikeda as Red-Haired Shanks, Kaori Nazuka as Uta (with Ado for Uta’s singing voice), and Kenjiro Tsuda as Gordon. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Colleen Clinkenbeard as Luffy, Brandon Potter as Red-Haired Shanks, Amanda Lee as Uta, and Jim Foronda as Gordon.

“One Piece Film Red” has moments that will be confusing to people who don’t know anything about the “One Piece” series, but these moments aren’t crucial to undertstanding the overall arc of the story. The movie admirably doesn’t have a predictable ending. “Once Piece Film Red” looks like it will end one way, but then the last few minutes offer a surprise that’s a little bit of a cliffhanger and teaser for what’s next in the “One Piece” saga.

Crunchyroll released “One Piece Film Red” in U.S. cinemas on November 4, 2022. The movie was released in Japan on August 6, 2022.

Review: ‘Inu-Oh,’ a musical thriller from Japan about lost and found identities

December 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Inu-Oh and Tomona in “Inu-Oh” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Inu-Oh”

Directed by Masaaki Yuasa

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

Culture Representation: The Japanese animated film “Inu-Oh,” which takes place primarily in the 1300s, tells the story of a rock music duo that becomes popular, but secrets from their past affect their identities.

Culture Clash: The two musicians anger the ruling shōgun when the duo’s popular songs about historical events are rewritten versions of what the ruling power’s version of these events.

Culture Audience: “Inu-Oh” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime films that are compelling tales of non-conformity in the midst of pressure to conform.

A scene from “Inu-Oh” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“Inu-Oh” is an innovative reworking of a Japanese folk tale, with this anime movie making social commentary about what happens when two musicians from the 1300s give their own retelling of folk tales and suffer the consequences for it. The movie is filled with striking images, noteworthy original music, and a memorable story about identity and staying true to one’s self, even when there is pressure to change. Even though most of the film is set in the 14th century, the message is timeless. “Inu-Oh” had its world premiere at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival.

Directed by Masaaki Yuasa and written by Akiko Nogi, “In-Oh” is based on Hideo Furukawa’s historical novel “Tales of the Heike: Inu-Oh.” The title character of the “Inu-Oh” movie is the third son of a Noh dance troupe leader. Inu-Oh is treated like a freak because he was born with a deformed face, scaled-covered skin, a very long right arm, and his left arm and legs as stubs. Inu-Oh is forced to wear a mask in public. As a boy, his legs were restored when he learned how to dance by watching his father teach other people how to dance.

As an adult, Inu-Oh makes an unexpected friend named Tomona, who also has traumatic past related to his childhood. As shown in the beginning of the movie, agents of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (based on the real person), the third shōgun of the Ashikaga shogunate that ruled from 1368 to 1394, ordered Tomona and his father to hunt for treasure underwater from shipwreck. The wrecked ship is from the defeated Heike people. Tomona and his father find the legendary Grasscutter Sword in a box on the ship. This magical sword, once uncovered, unleashes a force of energy that blinds Tomona and murders Tomona’s father in half by cutting him in half.

Tomona then goes on a quest that extends through his adulthood to find out exactly why this tragedy happened. He is accompanied by the ghost of his father. Tomona then meets a group of blind biwa players and joins this troupe. However, Tomona changes his name to Tomoichi, which makes it hard for his father’s spirit to know where Tomona/Tomoichi is.

Through a series of circumstances, Tomona/Tomoichi meets Inu-Oh. They decide to form a musical duo, with Inu-Oh as the snger/danger, and Tomona/Tomoichi as the biwa player. The movie puts a modern spin on the story by having the duo perform heavy metal music. The duo’s songs have lyrics that are revisions of folk tales.

This musical duo becomes so popular, large and rapturous crowds flock to see the performances. However, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu becomes upset because the lyrics do not conform to the official folk tales. The ruler is also worried that this musical duo will have too much influence over the masses and might prompt a revolution. And you can easily guess what might happen next when it’s decided that Inu-Oh and Tomona/Tomoichi are declared threats to the government.

The voices of the “Inu-Oh” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “Inu-Oh.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Avu-chan (of the rock band Queen Bee) as the adult Inu-oh, Mirai Moriyama as Tomona, Tasuku Emoto as Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, Kenjiro Tsuda as Inu-Oh’s Father, and Yutaka Matsushige as Tomona’s Father. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Joshua Waters as the adult Inu-oh, Sena Bryer as Tomona, Cory Yee as Yoshimitsu Ashikaga, Jason Marnocha as Inu-Oh’s Father, and Keythe Farley as Tomona’s Father.

In addition to having impressive animation, “Inu-Oh” skillfully explores themes of artistic freedom, as well as individuality versus society “norms.” The movie also respectfully handles disability issues without glossing over the prejudices experienced by disabled people. The music of Inu-Oh is catchy but might not be enjoyed as much by people who are inclined to dislike heavy metal. Overall, “Inu-Oh” is a creative triumph that anime fans will enjoy for how the movie uniquely combines ancient and contemporary storytelling.

GKIDS released “Ino-Oh” in select U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 20, 2022, and is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on January 24, 2023. “Inu-Oh” was released in Japan on May 28, 2022.

Review: ‘The Deer King,’ a fantasy adventure from Japan about a soldier rescuing a girl

December 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Van in “The Deer King” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Deer King”

Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji

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

Culture Representation: The Japanese animated film “The Deer King,” which takes place primarily in various places in unspecified ancient time, tells the story of an exiled soldier named Van, who break out of prison, rescues a girl named Yuna, who’s about 3 or 4 years old, and they both go on the run together.

Culture Clash: Van and Yuna must avoid the spread of Black Wolf Fever, as well as the forces that wish to capture the king and the girl.

Culture Audience: “The Deer King” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime films and don’t mind if they are bland and predictable.

Yuna in “The Deer King” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The Deer King” had the potential to be compelling anime. Unfortunately, the movie fails to capture the adventurous spirit of the novels and is bogged down by clichés, trite dialogue, and frequently tedious pacing. The animation visuals and voice acting are perfectly fine. It’s the way that the story is told that is a disappointment.

Directed by Masashi Ando and Masayuki Miyaji, “The Deer King” is based on Nahoko Uehashi’s “The Deer King” novel series that began in 2014. The books were also made into a manga series. Ando makes his feature-film directorial debut with “The Deer King,” after previously being an animation whose work as an animation director on 2001’s “Spirited Away,” 2006’s “Paprika” and 2016’s “Your Name.” “The Deer King” had its world premiere at the 2021 Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

It’s not necessary to know anything about “The Deer King” books or manga series to understand “The Deer King” movie, which takes place in a fantasy world in an unspecified ancient time. The movie has an introduction that explains background information for the story: “The kingdom of Aquafa was once ravaged by the empire of Zol. Fearing the mysterious Black Wolf Fever, Zol ceased invading Aquafa’s Fire Horse territory. Despite later skirmishes, both nations held their own. Now, Aquafa is under the dominion of Zol. Today, the fever is thought to be no more.”

A soldier named Van has been held prisoner in a salt mine controlled by the Zol empire. A pack of wolves attack some and kill some people near the salt mine. When the wolves pass by Van’s jail cell, Van notices that a wolf has girl who’s about 3 or 4 years old, who’s trapped inside of the wolf’s mouth. Van later finds out that the girl is named Yunacha, but she goes by her preferred nickname Yuna.

Van gets the wolf to drop Yuna, but Van is injured in the process when the wolf bites Van. The wolf’s bite gives Van supernatural powers to break out of the jail cell. Van takes Yuna, and the two of them escape and hide out from people who who are looking for Van, who had been taken prison after the Battle of the Kashuna River. Meanwhile, Black Wolf Fever (also known as Mittsual), which was thought to have disappeared, has returned and is now rapidly infecting communities.

During their journey, Van and Yuna meet a confident young man named Hohsalle Yuguraul, who calls himself a “sacred doctor”; a loudmouth brute named Mokokan; a female warrior named Sae, who has been tasked with tracking down Van; the ruthless Lord Utala, who blames the Aquafese people for brining back the “curse” of Black Wolf Fever; and farmer couple Tohma and Kiya, who give Van and Yuna some refuge. Magical deer creatures named pyuika are mentioned many times in the story and have a purpose that is very obvious.

For a movie that is supposed to be an action-adventure film, many parts of “The Deer King” are actually quite boring, especially in the middle section. Van has a backstory that is eventually revealed, and it’s the most sterotypical backstory that you can guess for a soldier who was all alone in the world when he became a prisoner of war in a world that has been plagued by Black Wolf Fever. Van and Yuna predictably bond like a surrogate father and a child.

The voices of the “The Deer King” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on the version of “The Deer King.” The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Shinichi Tsutsumi as Van, Hisui Kimura as Yuna, Ryoma Takeuchi as Hohsalle, Tôru Sakurai as Mokokan, Anne Watanabe as Sae, Yutaka Aoyama as Lord Utalu, Chad Horii as Tohma, and Hiromi Kawakami as Kiya. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Ray Chase as Van, Luciana VanDette as Yuna, Griffin Puatu as Hohsalle, Luis Bermudez as Makokan, Erica Schroeder as Sae, Doug Erholtz as Lord Utalu, Stefan Martello as Tohmo, and Larissa Gallagher as Kiya.

“The Deer King” might satisfy people who will watch any type of animation, no matter what the quality is. But considering all the high-quality and entertaining animation that already exists, “The Deer King” falls short of what could have been offered in this movie. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not a very impressive one and should have been a lot better, considering the level of talented animation filmmakers who were involved. “The Deer King” just lumbers along with no surprises and absolutely no clever thrills.

GKIDS released “The Deer King” in select U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022, after a two-night preview in association with Fathom Events on July 13 and July 14, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on October 4, 2022, and on Blu-ray and DVD on October 15, 2022. “The Deer King” was released in Japan on February 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,’ starring the voices of Gregory Mann, David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Ron Perlman, Tilda Swinton, Finn Wolfhard and Cate Blanchett

December 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

Culture Representation: Taking place in World War II-era Italy in the 1940s (and briefly in 1916), the animated film “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” features cast of human characters (all white Italians) and magical creatures representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly wood carver/carpenter makes a puppet boy that comes alive and then goes on a quest to become a human being. 

Culture Audience: “Pinocchio” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and the original 1940 “Pinocchio” movie and are interested in seeing a unique retelling of this classic story.

Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor) in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a stellar example of how to do a highly creative movie remake that maintains the spirit of the original while making imaginative revisions. It’s destined to be a classic in stop-motion animation. The movie takes a while to get to the action-adventure part of the story, so be prepared for a lot of very talkative scenes in the first half of the film. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is such a visual treat that lets viewers get to know the characters in a meaningful way, the leisurely pace in the movie’s first half is not too much of a detriment to the film overall.

Oscar-winning filmmaker del Toro had been trying to make a stop-motion animation version of “Pinocchio” since 2002, when the Jim Henson Company acquired the rights to make Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s fairy tale “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (whose animation is inspired by illustrator Gris Grimly’s interpretation of Pinocchio) is directed by del Toro and Mark Gustafson, with the movie’s adapted screenplay written by del Toro and Patrick McHale. The book was famously made into Disney’s 1940 musical animated film “Pinocchio.” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” keeps the gist of the story (an Italian wooden puppet named Pinocchio that wants to become a human boy) and brings it into the 20th century.

It’s not a political movie or a preachy film, but “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is primarily set during World War II, when Italy was under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. A such, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has themes about the horrors of war and how people can become puppets under an oppressive government. The movie keeps the original story’s meaningful messages about family love, coping with death and self-acceptance. There are touches of comedy in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” but people should not expect a perky musical. The movie’s overall tone is dramatic.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” begins with a flashback to 1916, in an unnamed part of Italy, where a kind and amiable wood carver/carpenter named Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) lives happily with his son Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann), who’s 10 years old. Geppetto is a single parent. Carlo’s mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie. The movie’s intermittent narrator is a nomadic cricket named Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who has settled in Geppetto’s home workshop to write a memoir about his extensive travels.

One day, Carlo finds a pine cone and gives it to Geppetto so that Geppetto can plant the pine cone, with the expectation that it will grow into a tree. Carlo gives this gift to Geppetto on the day that he accompanies Geppetto to a carpenter job at the local church, where Geppetto is restoring a giant statue of Jesus Christ on a crucifix. Suddenly, military airplanes appear in the sky, and a bomb is dropped on the church. Geppetto escapes, but Carlo is killed instantly.

About 25 years later, Geppetto is a very lonely elderly man, who is still grieving heavily over the death of Carlo. He sometimes gets drunk to try to cope with his emotional pain. The pine cone that Carlo gave to him all those years ago has now grown into a pine tree. In a drunken rage, Carlo cuts down the tree and makes a wooden boy puppet out of the tree, as a tribute to Carlo. Sebastian observes it all.

One night, the benevolent Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) visits the workshop, and finds out from Sebastian that the puppet was made so that Geppetto wouldn’t be lonely and to remind Gepetto of his son Carlo. (The Wood Sprite is called the Blue Fairy in other versions of “Pinocchio.”) The Wood Sprite brings the boy puppet to life, and names the puppet Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann), while Sebastian witnesses this magical spell. The Wood Sprite calls herself a “guardian” on Earth. She tells Sebastian: “I care for little things, the forgotten things, the lost ones.” And she asks Sebastian to help her look after Pinocchio.

At first, Geppetto is frightened by the sight of Pinocchio being alive, but he eventually loves Pinocchio like a son. One day, Pinocchio follows Geppetto to church, where the parishioners treat Pinocchio with fear and suspicion. The churchgoers think that this talking puppet is demonic, but Geppetto assures them that Pinocchio is just a puppet. Still, Pinocchio is treated like an outcast in the village from then onwards.

The church’s priest (voiced by Burn Gorman) and the village’s podesta (voiced by Ron Perlman), who represent the village’s top authority figures, order Geppetto to send Pinocchio to school, so that Pinocchio can learn the rules and laws of this Italian society. Viewers will have to overlook that most of the main characters have British accents in the English-language version of this movie. Because most of movie’s voice actors do not have Italian accents, it’s one of the few details that “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” gets wrong, but most viewers won’t notice or care.

The very stern podesta has a son named Candlewick (voiced by Finn Wolfhard), who often lives in fear of his domineering father and tries hard to please his father. The podesta is quick to judge others harshly and is eager to dole out punishment to anyone he thinks doesn’t follow his orders. Candlewick and Pinocchio are around the same age, in terms of emotional maturity level, and their relationship at first consists of Candlewick being a bully to naïve Pinocchio.

For example, Candlewick plays a mean-spirited prank on Pinocchio by suggesting that Pinocchio move closer to a fire to get warmer. As a result, Pinocchio’s legs get partially burned off, but Geppetto compassionately makes new and improved legs for Pinocchio. Candlewick and Pinocchio eventually become friends in a poignant storyline where they find out they have more in common than Candlewick thought. Pinocchio also wants to please Geppetto like a dutiful son. These father-son issues are recurring themes in the movie’s story.

Pinocchio doesn’t go to school as planned, and he ends up being lured into working at a carnival as the star act. The carnival is led by greedy and unscrupulous Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz), who is cruel and abusive to his loyal and sweet-natured monkey Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett). The rest of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has faithful renditions of the original story while adding very different new plotlines to the movie.

Sebastian the cricket (who is a purple instead of the traditional green) is not an ever-present sidekick with Pinocchio. In this movie, Pinocchio actually spends more time with Candlewick. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” also has a character called Death (also voiced by Swinton), who is the sister of the Wood Sprite. Both sisters are blue magical creatures that talk without moving their mouths. The character of Death has a lot to do with some of the main changes to the story.

There are some pleasant original songs performed in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” but none that will become iconic such as “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Disney’s 1940 version of “Pinocchio.” Alexandre Desplat, who wrote the terrific musical score for “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” collaborated with Roeban Katz on the movie’s original songs “My Son” (performed by Bradley) and the Mann-performed “Fatherland March,” “Big Baby Il Duce March” and “Ciao Papa.” It certainly would have been easier (and lazier) to try to replicate the Disney songs from 1940’s “Pinocchio,” so the filmmakers of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” deserve some credit for not relying on the same old type of tunes.

The voice cast in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is top-notch and delivers the expected emotions on a very entertaining level. John Turturro has a supporting role as a doctor, while Tim Blake Nelson voices the four Black Rabbits that encounter Pinocchio. Mann’s high-pitched British voice is perfectly fine, but might be a little bit of a distraction for people who think Pinocchio should’ve sounded more Italian or southern European in this movie.

Waltz has played many villainous characters, so his interpretation of Count Volpe has the expected amount of sleaze and smarminess. Blanchett’s voice work is the biggest surprise because many people would never guess she’s the wordless voice of a monkey in this movie. McGregor’s distinctive voice seems underused, since the cricket character isn’t as prominently featured in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” compared to other “Pinocchio” movies. However, Sebastian gets a big scene in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” where his strong-willed and opinionated personality is expressed in full force when scolding Geppetto for not appreciating Pinocchio.

As for the movie’s visuals, the animation is striking, gorgeous and often emotionally rousing. It is stop-motion animation that represents the best of what could be done creatively and technically when this movie was made. The ending of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a major departure from the original book and 1940’s “Pinocchio,” but the conclusion is handled in a way that’s of a much higher quality than Disney’s inferior 2022 remake of “Pinocchio.”

Fantasy films of del Toro often walk the line between whimsy and melancholy in telling stories of life and death. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is no different and is, without question, one of del Toro’s most impressive movies. Some people looking for more action sequences in this movie might be disappointed, but “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has much more to offer than being a superficial joy ride.

Netflix released “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” in select U.S. cinemas on November 9, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,’ starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Olivia Colman, Harvey Guillén, Samson Kayo, Wagner Moura, John Mulaney, Florence Pugh and Ray Winstone

November 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”

Directed by Joel Crawford; co-directed by Januel Mercado 

Some language in Spanish with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional world populated by classic fairy-tale characters and original DreamWorks Animation characters, the animated film “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” features a racially diverse voice cast (Latino, white and black) portraying humans and talking animals.

Culture Clash: Outlaw pirate cat Puss in Boots goes on a quest with friends and competes with enemies to find a magical Wishing Star that can grant one last wish to whomever gets to the star first.

Culture Audience: “Puss in Boots” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s voice cast members; the “Puss in Boots” and “Shrek” franchises; and movies that are family-friendly, thrilling stories with a lot of heart.

Pictured clockwise, from far left: Baby Bear (voiced by Samson Kayo), Papa Bear (voiced by Ray Winstone), Mama Bear (voiced by Olivia Colman) and Goldilocks (voiced by Florence Pugh) in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is a fun-filled adventure packed with comedic moments, poignant life lessons and some wacky surprises. This sequel is an instant classic that charms with a talented voice cast, stunning visuals and a very entertaining story. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is more than a worthy follow-up to 2011’s “Puss in Boots.” “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” could easily be considered one of the best movies from DreamWorks Animation.

Directed by Joel Crawford and co-directed by Januel Mercado, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is the type of sequel where it’s not necessary to see the original movie to understand the story. Most viewers will probably know already that the swashbuckling, outlaw pirate cat known as Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) first made an appearance in 2004’s “Shrek 2” and subsequently appeared in 2007’s “Shrek the Third” and 2010’s “Shrek Forever After.” The first “Puss in Boots” movie was his origin story. Also part of the “Puss in Boots” franchise are the 2012 short film “Puss in Boots: The Three Diablos,” the 2015-2018 Netflix series “The Adventures of Puss in Boots” and the 2017 Netflix interactive special “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale.”

In “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” Puss goes on a quest to the Black Forest to find a magical Wishing Star that can grant one last wish to anyone who finds the star first. He’s got some help from friends and some competition from enemies. Before he gets to the Black Forest, the movie has a meaningful subplot about Puss facing his own mortality. This character development shows a vulnerable side to Puss, whose swaggering confidence and bravery are tested throughout the story.

In the beginning of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” Puss is his usually lovably arrogant self, and he’s still a fugitive from the law who’s wanted for a bank robbery that he was tricked into committing. (The first “Puss in Boots” movie goes into more details about this robbery.) Puss barrels his way into a foreign land, where he ends up in a palace, and slides down the portrait painting of the ruling governor (voiced by Bernardo De Paula), who watches in horror as Puss’s claws drag through the painting and ruin it. Puss then fights and defeats a tree monster, but Puss is soon knocked unconscious by a giant bell that falls on him.

Puss wakes up in the office a man who describe himself as the local medical doctor (voiced by Anthony Mendez), who explains that he also works as a barber, a veterinarian and a witch doctor. The doctor tells Puss that Puss actually died but was able to be revived. The doctor knows that cats have nine lives, so he asks Puss how many lives Puss has used up already. Puss has never really thought about it before, but after some reflection, Puss realizes that he has used eight of his nine lives. After Puss dies in his ninth life, Puss will be dead forever.

The doctor gives Puss this advice that Puss doesn’t want to hear: “You need to retire.” The doctor recommends that Puss go to a home of an animal rescuer named Mama Luna (voiced by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who operates a cat sanctuary out of her house called Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue. Puss refuses to take that advice and quickly leaves the office. The doctor says these parting words to Puss: “Death comes for us all.”

While Puss contemplates his next move, he says to himself while he looks in a mirror: “You’re too good-looking to retire.” Puss goes to a saloon to drink some of his sorrows away. And it’s there that he meets a bounty hunter called the Big Bad Wolf, also known as Wolf (voiced by Wagner Moura), who has been looking to capture Puss. And you know what happens next.

During their fight, Puss is armed with his trusty fencing sword, while Wolf has two scythes that he uses in each hand. Puss’ life flashes before his eyes during this battle. And for the first time in his life, Puss experiences true fear that makes him temporarily freeze. Puss runs into a room, where Wolf traps him by locking Puss inside the room. However, Puss finds a way to escape.

The panic attack that Puss experienced unnerves him so much, he decides to take the doctor’s advice. Puss doesn’t really want to retire, but he’s more afraid of dying in his next fight. Before Puss goes to Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue, he buries his pirate clothes in a shallow grave and gives a mournful retirement speech out loud that no one can hear except Puss.

Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue is crowded with dozens of cats that Mama Luna knows is a violation of health code laws. A running joke in Mama Luna’s dialogue is that she’s constantly paranoid about getting in trouble with animal care officials for all the cats that she keeps indoors. Mama Luna is a bachelorette with a big personality, and she seems to run the sanctuary all by herself. She loves her cats and takes good care of them, but she appears dangerously close to being a cat hoarder.

Puss, who is naturally a loner, is miserable at this cat sanctuary. He’s bored in his new home and dislikes the communal meals that he is forced to have with the other cats. During Puss’ forlorn “retirement,” the Doors song “This Is the End” (sung by Dan Navarro, a co-writer of the movie’s original songs) plays to comedic effect.

Puss soon meets an unlikely friend at this sanctuary: a small, talkative dog disguised as a cat. His name is Perro (voiced by Harvey Guillén), but Puss eventually gives him the nickname Perrito. (In Spanish, the word “perro” means “dog,” and the word “perrito” means “little dog.”) Perrito is humble, very optimistic, and eager to make friends. In other words, he’s almost the complete opposite of Puss.

There would be no “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” if Puss stayed at the cat sanctuary for the rest of the movie. His time at Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue comes to an end with the arrival of four home invaders: Goldilocks (voiced by Florence Pugh) and the three Bears: Mama Bear (voiced by Olivia Colman), Papa Bear (voiced by Ray Winstone) and Baby Bear (voiced by Samson Kayo), who has some rivalry going on with Goldilocks, whose nickname is Goldi.

Just like in the fairy tale, Goldilocks is a human orphan who has been adopted into this bear family. But unlike the fairy tale, Goldi is now a tough young woman who is in the bounty-hunting business with her bear family. All four of them have tracked Puss to Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue with the intent to capture Puss.

During this attempted capture, Puss and Perrito also find out that Goldi and the Three Bears are also looking for the map to the Wishing Star. It’s how Puss and Perrito find out that this Wishing Star will grant one last wish to the first person who finds the star. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Puss now wants to find the Wishing Star too, because his wish is to live forever.

Puss and Perrito manage to escape outside from Goldi and the Three Bears. Puss decides he’s coming out of retirement to find the Wishing Star. He gathers his clothes, his sword, and brings Perrito (a willing sidekick) along for this new adventure. Perrito doesn’t have a wish. He’s just happy he’s found a new friend.

Along the way, Puss and Perrito find out that another outlaw is in search of the Wishing Star: Jack Horner (voiced by John Mulaney), a wealthy underworld boss who operates in the back of a bakery. Jack hasn’t lost his bratty ways since he was a child known as Little Jack Horner, who famously ruined a pie by sticking his thumb in it. Jack is now a ruthless villain who has several minions helping him find the map to the Wishing Star. Jack’s wish is to become the most powerful person in this fairtyale universe.

During the journey that Puss and Perrito take to the Black Forest to find the Wishing Star, Puss unexpectedly reunites with his on-again/off-again love Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek), who reveals that she was hiding in a trunk. Puss and Kitty haven’t seen each other in years. And let’s just say that they have “unfinished business.” Kitty, who is very cynical about many things, prides herself for being just as brave and stubborn as Puss, so naturally this on-again/off-again couple will clash.

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” doesn’t overstuff the movie with too many characters, thereby giving room for the movie to develop all the principal characters in ways that are better than the average animated adventure film. Puss is now prone to having a few panic attacks, which can throw him off his usually fearless game. Kitty struggles with learning to know the difference between being independent and being mistrustful. The relationship between Kitty and Puss goes through a realistic evolution during this adventure.

Perrito is a mixture of being innocent and wise about life, but not in a contrived and cloying way. He is by far the most adorable and sincere character in the movie, so expect kids (and quite a few adults) to want Perrito toys and other Perrito merchandise after seeing this movie. When Perrito tells his tragic backstory about his human family making numerous attempts to abandon him, Perrito chooses to remember it with so much optimism, he describes these abandonment attempts as the family playing pranks on him.

Goldi has her own family issues: Even though the bears raised her as one of their own, she still feels like a misfit because she’s a human in a family of bears. Jack is an unfortunate example of someone who was bullied as a child but then grew up to be a bully. As for Wolf, he might not be what he first appears to be, and his actions in the movie might not be as easy to predict as some people might think.

All of the cast members give very good performances, with Banderas, Hayek, Guillén and Pugh as the standouts. They all make their characters sound like they have fully formed personalities instead of being two-dimensional cartoon characters reciting lines. The movie’s snappy dialogue can be enjoyed by people of all ages (open-minded adults will appreciate the cheeky almost-cursing in the movie), while the plot has some predictability but also some innovation that’s unexpected.

“Puss in Boots” might disappoint some people expecting to hear more original songs in the movie. However, the centerpiece original song (“Fearless Hero”), which is heard at different times in the movie, is catchy and memorable. Navarro, Heitor Pereira and Paul Fisher co-wrote “Fearless Hero,” which at one point is performed by Banderas and Pereira in the movie. Navarro and Daniel Oviedo co-wrote “La Vida Es Una,” performed by Karol G during the movie’s end credits.

Everything in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish: is well-paced, with the action scenes particularly fun to watch. When Puss in Boots first made an appearance in “Shrek 2,” he was a true scene-stealer. With “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” the Puss in Boots franchise is now stealing some of the thunder from the better-known “Shrek” movies. And the high quality and engaging story of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” make it the type of movie that can be considered a beloved treasure by fans of animated films.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation will release “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” in U.S. cinemas on December 21, 2022. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in U.S. cinemas on November 26, 2022.

Review: ‘Strange World’ (2022), starring the voices of Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu and Jaboukie Young-White

November 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), Meridian Clade (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and Legend in “Strange World” (Image courtesy of Disney)

“Strange World” (2022)

Directed by Don Hall; co-directed by Qui Nguyen 

Culture Representation: Taking place on and below Earth, the animated film “Strange World” features a cast of racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Asian) portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A farmer, his wife, his 16-year-old son and their dog go with a friend on an underground mission to find out why a powerful plant that is an energy source for Earth has been infected, and the farmer’s long-lost estranged father, who lives in this unusual underworld, joins them on this mission.

Culture Audience: “Strange World” will appeal primarily to people interested in formulaic but enjoyable animated films about family, self-identity and Earth’s ecosystem.

Pictured in front row, from left to right: Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), Meridian Clade (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and Legend. Pictured in back row, from left to right: Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid). (Image courtesy of Disney)

Pleasant and mostly predictable, “Strange World” is a solid option for people who want to watch an animated film with dazzling visuals and a good story about family unity and environmental protection. Disney’s “Strange World” is saved from complete mediocrity by a surprise reveal in the last third of the movie, as well as a talented voice cast that brings charisma to what otherwise would be a cookie-cutter group of characters. It’s the type of movie that people of many different generations can enjoy, but “Strange World” might bore some viewers who are looking for a more sophisticated or more complex Disney animated film.

Directed by Don Hall and co-directed by Qui Nguyen, “Strange World” (which was written by Nguyen) thankfully does not fall into the trap of overtsuffing the movie with too many characters or too many subplots. “Strange World” is a very straightfoward story that’s easy to follow. The movie is formulaic for being yet another animated film where the main character has “daddy issues.” Disney’s animated films are notorious for taking the angle of protoganists’ emotional baggage being traced back to problems with a father, whether it’s an absentee father or a father who causes conflicts.

In “Strange World,” the central character is 40-year-old farmer Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), who lives with his family in the fictional U.S. city of Avalonia, which is described in the movie as “a modest civilization surrounded by mountains.” Searcher owns and operates a small farming operation called Clade Farms, where he lives with his smart and loving wife Meridian Clade (voiced by Gabrielle Union) and their 16-year-old son Ethan Clade (voiced by Jaboukie Young-White), who is curious, friendly and adventurous. The family also has a three-legged dog named Legend.

Searcher is a kind and emotionally supportive husband and father, but Searcher’s biggest insecurity has to do with feeling abandoned by his own father. A flashback in the beginning of “Strange World” shows a glimpse of what life was like when 15-year-old Searcher knew his father Jaeger Clade (voiced by Dennis Quaid), a macho adventurer who is obsessed with exploring Earth, especially the world’s mountains. Searcher is not as inclined to enjoy these adventures, but Jaeger makes Searcher tag along on these missions anyway. Jaeger’s wife/Searcher’s mother Penelope is briefly in the movie and doesn’t have anything significant to say.

One day, when Searcher and Jaeger are on an adventure mission together, Jaeger saves Searcher’s life from deadly stalacites that almost fell on Seacher. It’s a moment when their father-son bond seems to be strong, because Searcher is grateful that Jaeger saved his life. But the ongoing tensions between Searcher and Jaeger flare up again when Jaeger discovers a mysterious, glowing green plant, which is later called pano. Jaeger and Searcher argue about if and how this plant should be researched.

Flashing forward to the present day, viewers find out that pano has been deemed a “wonder plant” that is the source of energy throughout Avalonia. Pano has essentially eliminated the need for energy from gas or other fossil fuel. Jaeger has become a heroic legend for discovering pano. There’s one big problem though: Not long after discovering pano, Jaeger disappeared while on one of his adventure trips, and he hasn’t had any contact with anyone during those 25 years.

Many people, including Jaeger’s wife Penelope, assume that Jaeger is dead. However, Searcher believes that Jaeger is still alive and made a deliberate choice to abandon his family so that Jaeger could go on his adventure trips without the responsibility of being at home with his family. This feeling of abandonment has haunted Searcher and made him emotionally damaged. Searcher made a vow to himself to never be like his father.

Jaeger is such a sore subject with Searcher, he doesn’t even want to talk about Jaeger. Searcher’s son Ethan sees a photo of Jaeger and asks Searcher why he seems to be ashamed of Jaeger, even though Jaeger has the image of being a legendary adventure hero. Searcher replies bitterly, “Everyone thinks he was an amazing hero. To me, he was a really bad dad. He only cared about conquering those mountains.” Searcher tells Ethan, as if to make a statement about how Searcher wants to be different from Jaeger: “I only care about you.”

Searcher is such a caring father, he wants to give fatherly advice to Ethan about dating, but Ethan has typical teenage embarrassment whenever Searcher wants to talk about Ethan’s love life. Ethan, who is openly gay or queer, has a not-so-secret crush on a fellow classmate named Diazo (played by Jonathan Melo), who seems to be attracted to Ethan too, because he openly flirts with Ethan. Ethan is at the stage of his crush where he’s afraid to reveal his feelings to Diazo. Ethan is normally talkative and extroverted, but Ethan tends to get shy when he’s with Diazo.

The Clade family’s routine life will be interrupted when they get a surprise visit from Callisto Mal (voiced by Lucy Liu), the leader of Avalonia. Callisto, who used to be on Jaeger’s adventure team, has arrived by spaceship to ask Searcher to help her on an expedition to find out why a massive crop of pano has been infected. The infection is spreading rapidly and could wipe out pano as the energy source for Avalonia and beyond.

Callisto says that scientific research has revealed that pano is a singular organism growing on Earth and originating from the same root underneath the Earth’s surface. “Pano is dying,” Callisto tells Searcher. “We have to save it.” At first, Searcher immediately declines Callisto’s request to join her on this mission. However, he eventually changes his mind because he knows that people, including his family, will suffer if pano dies off and becomes extinct.

It just so happens that Meridian has skills to pilot the spaceship that will be used for this underground expedition. And, of course, Ethan wants to go along for the ride. (Ethan’s passion for adventure ends up becoming a problem for Searcher later in the movie.) And so, off the Clade family members (including Legend the dog) go on the expedition, which includes Callisto and her crew of five other people. The only crew member who has a distinctive personality is over-eager Caspian (played by Karan Soni), who is mild comic relief in the movie.

Not long after the expedition goes underneath Earth’s surface, the explorers find an underground world that’s never been discovered before. Without question, one of the best aspects of “Strange World” is that it’s a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The underground “strange world” has vibrant hues and some fascinating creatures, some of which are based on real-life creatures. There’s also a walking land mass with legs, as well as cliffs that seem to be alive.

According to the “Strange World” production notes, the filmmakers purposely made the creatures in this underworld look very different from most creatures in animated films. Nguyen says in the production notes: “We decided that these characters would have no eyeballs, no noses, no mouths—no Disney eyes or Disney smiles—all that goes away.” The production notes has this description of some of the creatures: “The lineup includes reapers, which are aggressive, translucent and tentacled; goblinswills, abstract flocks that are reminiscent of dolphins but without structure; transportasaurses, giant ropes designed to collect and throw things; and the cloud o’war, a lizard-shaped cloud with an inflatable top.”

Imagine if a psychedelic candy shop exploded, and you have some idea of what many of the landscape visuals in “Strange World” looks like. It’s not a cutesy and safe world, however. There’s a large body of water that is acidic, as well as hostile creatures that attack. It’s because one of these attacks that the spaceship crashes. The front window shield gets broken during the attack. And as a result of the crash, Ethan and Legend get separated from the rest of the group. Searcher is also separated from the expedition team.

While Ethan and Legend try to find their way back to the spaceship and the other expedition members, they meet (cliché alert) a cute being that becomes their sidekick. It’s a blue-shaped blob that Ethan has named Splat, which does not speak but makes adorable noises. Splat has a personality that is both goofy and helpful.

Meanwhile, (another cliché alert) Searcher ends up finding his long-lost father Jaeger, when Jaeger saves Searcher’s life (again), this time from a creature attack. Jaeger has a flamethrower shotgun, and he’s very trigger-happy with it. It’s not spoiler information that Searcher and Jaeger have reunited, because the trailers and other marketing materials for “Strange World” clearly show that Jaeger is part of the expedition team. In the movie, Jaeger explains to Searcher that he’s been “stuck” in this underworld (in more ways than one), and he needs a way to get back above ground.

It’s also not spoiler information to say that the entire Clade family and Callista end up gong through this adventure together, under circumstances revealed in the movie. The obstacles they face are what you might expect from a movie of this type. It isn’t until the surprise reveal that viewers will find out that “Strange World” has a lot more to the story than just finding and destroying a plant virus.

“Strange World” aims to be a socially conscious movie and does better in some areas than in others. Ethan’s sexuality is treated matter-of-factly by the characters and with total acceptance and no homophobia. When Ethan’s grandfather Jaeger finds out that Ethan has a crush on someone and gets Ethan to tell him who it is, Jaeger has no hesitation or surprise when he finds out that Ethan’s crush is a guy.

Even with its open-minded attitude about LGTBQ people, “Strange World” still falls into old patterns/stereotypes of animated films giving much more importance to male characters than female characters. (Disney princess movies are an exception.) In “Strange World,” Meredian and Callista are strong female characters, but they are very underdeveloped and underused. Viewers of “Strange World” will find out almost nothing about Meredian and Callista, whereas a lot of screen time in “Strange World” is devoted to the personalities and interpersonal relationships between the male characters.

That does not mean a movie like “Strange World” needed to have “forced diversity.” However, it’s very noticeable that the female characters are somewhat used as tokens, with the filmmakers giving less consideration and lower priorities in showing audiences more of who Meredian and Callista really are. As far as the movie’s message about strengthening family bonds, it’s all about the male characters in “Strange World.”

This gender-bias flaw doesn’t ruin the movie, but it’s an example of how filmmakers need to do better in representing the female gender, which is 51% of the human population. “Strange World” is very imaginative in its world building of objects and creatures, but it could have had many improvements when it comes to originality in telling the human aspects of the story. Even with its flaws, “Strange World” is entertaining enough, as long as people don’t expect it to be a Disney classic.

Walt Disney Pictures released “Strange World” in U.S. cinemas on November 23, 2022. Disney+ will premiere the movie on December 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Pinocchio’ (2022), starring Tom Hanks and the voices of Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and Joseph Gordon-Levitt

September 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Hanks and Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) in “Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Pinocchio” (2022)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed magical world, the live-action/animated film “Pinocchio” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly wood carver makes a puppet boy that comes alive and then goes on a quest to become a human being. 

Culture Audience: “Pinocchio” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tom Hanks and the original 1940 “Pinocchio” movie, but all the star power of this “Pinocchio” remake can’t save the movie from being a lackluster retelling of a classic story.

Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) in “Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Watching how Pinocchio’s nose grows in Disney’s original 1940 “Pinocchio” movie is much more interesting to look at than this unnecessary “Pinocchio” movie remake from filmmaker Robert Zemeckis. The original “Pinocchio” movie is a Disney animated classic. This Disney 2022 remake of “Pinocchio,” which is a live-action/animation hybrid, is like watching a substandard imitation dressed up with modern technology. Even having a talented cast isn’t enough to elevate Zemeckis’ version of “Pinocchio” out of its stagnant blandness.

Zemeckis is the director, co-writer (with Chris Weitz) and one of the producers of this version of “Pinocchio,” which is based on author Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Italian children’s novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” In addition to the 1940 animated film, there have been several other movie versions of “Pinocchio.” Italian actor/filmmaker Roberto Benigni directed, co-wrote and starred as the title character in a disastrous live-action reimagining of “Pinocchio,” released in 2002. Benigni then starred as Pinocchio creator Geppetto in director Matteo Garrone’s live-action “Pinocchio,” which was released in 2019 in Italy, and in 2020 and 2021 in other countries.

Zemeckis’ “Pinocchio” is the first of two “Pinocchio” movies releasing in 2022. Guillermo del Toro co-directed and co-wrote “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (due out on Netflix in December 2022), featuring the voices of Gregory Mann as Pinocchio, Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket and David Bradley as Geppetto. We don’t need two “Pinocchio” movies in one year. Enough already.

What viewers will see in Zemeckis’ version of “Pinocchio” is a lazy retread of Disney’s 1940 version, except for a few new characters (that don’t change the overall arc of the story), four new songs and a very different ending that’s the one truly unique thing about Zemeckis’ “Pinocchio.” Some people might not like this new ending, but the intentions are good in sending a message about celebrating self-acceptance. However, it’s not a good sign when a movie remake waits until the very end to show something that’s a surprise departure from the original movie story.

There’s no question that this version of “Pinocchio” has a talented cast, but their talents are not showcased in an exemplary way in the movie. Tom Hanks portrays Geppetto, the lonely and elderly wood carver, who makes a boy puppet named Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) as a companion, because Geppetto is grieving over the deaths of his wife and son. (The movie doesn’t mention how and when they died, but Geppetto has a family photo showing him with his wife and underage son when Geppetto was a young man.) Geppetto also has a pet goldfish named Cleo and a pet cat named Figaro, whose animation makes this feline look very fake. These animal characters add nothing important to the movie.

Geppetto has a home workshop filled with clocks that he’s made, but he refuses to sell them because he says his wife adored these clocks. There’s no explanation for how Geppetto makes a living if he won’t sell what he’s made. However, it’s abundantly clear that this version of “Pinocchio” is a soulless Disney remake when it has blatant shilling of other Disney movies. Many of Geppetto’s cuckoo clocks are basically Disney merchandise, with the clocks revealing characters from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Toy Story” (the Woody character, voiced by Hanks), “Cinderella,” the Zemeckis-directed “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Dumbo.”

Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the wise, talking cricket who becomes Pinocchio’s companion, is the narrator of this version of “Pinocchio,” and he tells the story as a flashback. This narration choice is awkward because viewers should feel like they’re going along for the ride and experiencing the journey as the characters are experiencing the story, not being guided by a know-it-all creature who tells this narration as a flashback. Jiminy Cricket’s hindsight narration ends up being a detriment to the movie.

One night, a northern star beams a light into Pinocchio, who is turned into a living, talking puppet. Jiminy Cricket is there to witness the whole thing. Shortly afterward, Pinocchio is visited by the Blue Fairy (played by Cynthia Erivo), who touches him with her wand and gives Pinocchio a mind of his own. The Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio that in order for him to become a real boy, “You have to be brave, truthful and unselfish.”

Pinocchio later finds out that when he tells a lie, his nose temporarily elongates. The bigger the lie, the longer his nose gets. When he tells the truth again, his nose goes back to its original size. This pivotal plot development gets very underwhelming treatment in this “Pinocchio” remake, compared to how it was better-used in the original “Pinocchio” movie.

Of course, Geppetto is shocked that Pinocchio has come to life. He treats Pinocchio like a son, but Pinocchio still longs to be human. There’s a lot of talk in the movie about Pinocchio wanting a conscience as part of his humanity. And it isn’t long before Pinocchio ends up being separated from Geppetto. Pinocchio unwittingly becomes part of a traveling circus and is financially exploited by a magician named Stromboli (played by Giuseppe Battiston), who is helped by two con artists: a sneaky red fox named Honest John (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and his mute alley cat sidekick Gideon.

Other familiar “Pinocchio” characters are in this remake: street urchin boy Lampwick (played by Lewin Lloyd) befriends Pinocchio. And the villainous Coachman (played by Luke Evans, hamming it up to the hilt) is also in the movie. This “Pinocchio” remake keeps the same story line for Pleasure Island, which has some of the movie’s best visual sequences.

There are three new characters that give this version of “Pinocchio” more female representation than the original “Pinocchio” movie: a talking seagull named Sofia (voiced by Lorraine Bracco); a circus puppeteer named Fabiana (played by Kyanne Lamaya), who wears a leg brace that’s mentioned in the movie; and a French ballerina puppet named Sabina (voiced by Jaquita Ta’le), who is Fabiana’s constant companion. These characters don’t change the basics of the story, but they just allow the movie to have more diverse characters interact with Pinocchio.

This version of “Pinocchio” has somewhat of a useless sequence of Pinocchio trying to fit in with human children at a school. The school has a teacher named Signora Vitelli (played by Sheila Atim) and a headmaster (played by Jamie Demetriou), who expels Pinocchio from the school when the headmaster finds out that Pinocchio is not a human boy. It’s just another way to show why Pinocchio is desperate to become human, because Pinocchio wants to please his father by going to school to get an education.

This remake of “Pinocchio” makes a half-hearted attempt to be a musical, but there are only seven songs that are sung in the movie. Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard wrote four original songs for this movie, with all of them unremarkable and not worthy of praise: “When He Was Here With Me” and “Pinocchio Pinocchio,” performed by Hanks; “I Will Always Dance,” performed by Lamaya; and “The Coachman to Pleasure Island,” performed by Evans. The Leigh Harline/Ned Washington-written songs from 1940’s “Pinocchio” that are in this “Pinocchio” remake are “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me),” performed by Key; “I’ve Got No Strings,” performed by Ainsworth; and “When You Wish Upon a Star,” performed by Erivo.

This version of “Pinocchio” has a mishmash of international language accents, some delivered in better ways than others. Hanks’ Geppetto accent drifts in and out of sounding Italian and American. Lloyd’s version of Lampwick has an accent that sounds half-British, half-Brooklynite. It’s as if the actors know this “Pinocchio” movie is far from award-worthy, and some of them didn’t bother to work on having a consistent talking accent for their characters.

Disney has been getting criticism for doing inferior remakes of classic Disney animated films. This version of “Pinocchio” is an example of why this criticism exists. Disney had such little faith in this version of “Pinocchio,” it was not released in theaters. Disney also placed a review embargo on this version of “Pinocchio,” so that critics could not publish reviews of the movie before Disney+ released the movie to the public. This late embargo is always a sign of a bad film. Pinocchio should hold his nose for being in this stinker movie.

Disney+ premiered “Pinocchio” on September 8, 2022.

Review: ‘DC League of Super-Pets,’ starring the voices of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart

July 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Merton (voiced by Natasha Lyonne), PB (voiced by Vanessa Bayer), Krypto (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), Chip (voiced by Diego Luna) and Ace (voiced by Kevin Hart) in “DC League of Super-Pets” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“DC League of Super-Pets”

Directed by Jared Stern; co-directed by Sam Levine

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional city of Metropolis, the animated film “DC League of Super-Pets” features a racially diverse cast (white, black, Asian and Latino) portraying talking animals, superheroes and citizens of Metropolis.

Culture Clash: Inspired by DC Comics characters, “DC League of Super-Pets” features a group of domesticated pets, including Superman’s dog Krypto, fighting crime and trying to save the world from an evil guinea pig that is loyal to supervillain Lex Luthor.

Culture Audience: “DC League of Super-Pets” will appeal primarily to fans of DC Comics, the movie’s cast members and adventure-filled animated movies centered on talking animals.

Lulu (voiced by Kate McKinnon) in “DC League of Super-Pets” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Even though “DC League of Super-Pets” sometimes gets cluttered with subplots and characters, this animated film is a treat that has a winning combination of pets and superheroes. There’s plenty to like for people of many ages. In addition to the appeal of having familiar characters from DC Comics, “DC League of Super-Pets” is a well-cast film for its voice actors, because the cast members bring their own unique flairs to the characters. It’s helpful but not necessary to have knowledge of DC Comics characters before watching this movie.

Directed by Jared Stern and co-directed by Sam Levine, “DC League of Super-Pets” makes good use of mixing zany comedy, engaging action and some heartwarming and touching moments. Stern makes his feature-film directorial debut with “DC League of Super-Pets,” which he co-wrote with John Whittington. Stern and Whittington also co-wrote 2017’s “The Lego Batman Movie.” Where “DC League of Super-Pets” falters is when it tries to cram in certain plot developments to the point where “DC League of Super-Pets” comes dangerously close to biting off more than it can chew. (No pun intended.)

If you have no interest in watching an animated movie about pets and would-be pets of superheroes, then “DC League of Super-Pets” probably is not for you. The world already has more than enough animated films about talking animals. However, “DC League of Super-Pets” mostly succeeds at being entertaining when putting comic book characters in a predictable but dependable story of a group of misfits that become friends while trying to save the world.

“DC League of Super-Pets” begins by showing how Superman (whose birth name is Kal-El) ended up with his loyal Labrador Retriever dog Krypto. Kal-El was born on the planet Krypton. When he was a baby, Krypton went under attack, so his parents put Kal-El on a spaceship alone and sent him to Earth for his safety. Kal-El’s parents Jor-El (voiced by Alfred Molina) and Lara (voiced by Lena Headey) say their emotional goodbye to Kal-El.

Jor-El says, “Krypton is about to die.” Lara adds, “But you, dear son, will live on.” Suddenly, the family’s Labrador Retriever puppy jumps on the spaceship with Kal-El. At first, Jor-El wants to try to get the dog back, but the space ship has already been set in motion. Lara tells Jor-El: “Our boy will need a friend.” Jor-El says to the dog: “Watch over our son.”

Years later, Kal-El is now an adult living in the big city of Metropolis under the name Clark Kent. He’s a bachelor who works as a reporter at the Daily Planet newspaper, but Clark Kent is an alter ego to his secret identity: a superhero named Superman (voiced by John Krasinski), who has super-strength, X-ray vision and the ability to fly. The dog, named Krypto (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), is still his loyal companion and knows about the secret life of Superman, because Krypto often fights crime alongside Superman.

Krypto has superpowers that are the same as Superman’s superpowers. And they both have the same weakness: an energy force called kryptonite that can drain their superpowers. Krypto and Superman are a lot alike, when it comes to how they view crime and justice. However, Superman and Krypto are very different when it comes to adapting to life on Earth: Superman/Clark Kent is social with humans, while Kypto is very aloof with other pets on Earth.

An early scene in the movie shows Krypto trying to get Superman to wake up because Krypto wants to go for a walk. But “walking the dog” for Superman really means “flying through the air with the dog.” Krypto often leads the way on the leash. The Metropolis in “DC League of Super-Pets” is designed to look like a modern, well-kept city with many tall buildings, just like in the comic books.

In this version of Metropolis, Superman is such a familiar sight, no one really thinks it’s unusual to see Superman in a park with his dog Krypto. It’s during one of these park outings that Krypto sees that things at home will soon change for Superman and Krypto. Superman/Clark Kent and his Daily Planet journalist co-worker Lois Lane (voiced by Olivia Wilde) are very much in love, and they meet at the park for a date. They show lovey-dovey public displays of affection, much to Krypto’s dismay.

The relationship between Superman/Clark Kent and Lois has gotten serious enough where it looks like this couple could be headed toward marriage. Krypto is jealous and fearful that Superman/Clark Kent will no longer have the time and attention for Krypto if Lois moves in with them. Krypto doesn’t dislike Lois. Krypto just sees her as a threat to the comfortable existence he has always known with Superman/Clark Kent.

As Krypto worries about how his home life will change if Lois moves in, some other pets in Metropolis are worried if they’ll ever have a permanent home. At an animal shelter called Tailhuggers, several pets are up for adoption, but so far, they have no takers. The shelter is run by a bachelorette named Patty (voiced by Yvette Nicole Brown), who is very kind to the pets and keeps them under vigilant protection.

Brash and sarcastic hound dog Ace (voiced by Kevin Hart) is the leader of the shelter pets. Other animals at the shelter are elderly turtle Merton (voiced by Natasha Lyonne), cheerful pig PB (voiced by Vanessa Bayer) and nervous squirrel Chip (voiced by Diego Luna), who are Ace’s closest friends at the shelter. Also at the shelter is a cat name Whiskers (voiced by Winona Bradshaw), whose loyalty to the shelter pets is later tested.

Ace is anxious to run away from the shelter and is constantly plotting his escape. He tells his animal shelter friends that he knows of a paradise-like farm upstate where they can all go to live freely. One day, Ace actually manages to run away from the shelter, but he doesn’t go far. He’s literally stopped in his tracks by “law and order” Krypto, who uses his superpowers to freeze Ace’s legs to the sidewalk when he sees that Ace is a runaway shelter dog. Needless to say, Ace and Krypto clash with each other the first time that they meet.

Meanwhile, Superman has a crime-fighting incident where he summons the help of his Justice League superhero colleagues: Batman (voiced by Keanu Reeves), Wonder Woman (voiced by Jamila Jamil), Aquaman (voiced by Jemaine Clement), Green Lantern (voiced by Dascha Polanco), The Flash (voiced by John Early) and Cyborg (voiced by Daveed Diggs). Through a series of incidents, all of these superheroes are captured by billionaire supervillain (and longtime Superman nemesis) Lex Luthor (voiced by Marc Maron), who is keeping his captives hidden in a secret lair. Lex also has a cynical assistant named Mercy Graves (voiced by Maya Erksine), who isn’t in the movie as much as she could have been. Mercy’s screen time is less than five minutes.

All of that would be enough of a plot for this movie, but “DC League of Super-Pets” also has a plot about a devious guinea pig named Lulu (voiced by Kate McKinnon), who manages to escape from a Lex Luthor-owned scientific lab that was experimenting on guinea pigs. Somehow, Lulu gets ahold of orange kryptonite (she’s immune to kryptonite), she develops telekinesis powers, and goes on a mission to prove her loyalty to Lex by trying to destroy the Justice League.

Lulu has an army of former lab guinea pigs to do her bidding. Two of Lulu’s most loyal of these accomplices are mutant guinea pigs that also have newfound superpowers: Mark (voiced by Ben Schwartz) is fiery red and can shoot flames, while Keith (voiced by Thomas Middleditch) is ice-blue and has the ability to freeze things. Lulu also has a plot to (cliché alert) take over the world.

It should come as no surprise that Krypto ends up joining forces with Ace, Merton, PB and Chip to try to save the Justice League and save the world. During the course of the story, certain superpowers are gained, lost and possibly gained again for certain characters. Viewers of “DC League of Super-Pets” should not expect the Justice League superheroes and Lex Luthor to get a lot of screen time, because the movie is more about the pets.

Lulu’s revenge plot gets a little convoluted, but not so confusing that very young children won’t be able to understand. The movie has the expected high-energy antics, with animation and visual effects that aren’t groundbreaking but are aesthetically pleasing on almost every level. Once viewers get used to all the characters that are quickly introduced in the movie, it makes “DC League of Super-Pets” more enjoyable.

The movie has some recurring jokes, such as self-referencing all the movies and licensing deals that come from comic-book superheroes. “DC League of Super-Pets” also has a running gag of guinea pig Lulu being insulted when she’s often misidentified as a hamster. After one such misidentification, Lulu snarls, “A hamster is just a dollar-store gerbil!”

Lulu has some of the funniest lines in the movie. When she sees the DC League of Super-Pets together, she makes this snarky comment: “What is this? PAW Patrol?” And even though Batman isn’t in the movie for a lot of time, he also has some memorable one-liners, which he delivers in a deadpan manner.

It soon becomes obvious that these Super-Pets have another purpose besides saving the world: Each pet will be paired with a Justice League superhero. PB is a big fan of Wonder Woman. This star-struck pig thinks that Wonder Woman has the confidence and independent spirit that PB thinks is lacking in PB’s own personality.

Turtles are known for walking slow, so it should come as no surprise that Merton admires The Flash, whose known for his superpower of lightning-fast speed. Ace sees himself as an “alpha male” who strikes out on his own when he has to do so, which makes Batman a kindred spirit. Chip is attracted to the fearlessness of Green Lantern. As for Aquaman and Cyborg, it’s shown at the end of the movie which pets will be paired with them.

Amid the action and comedy, “DC League of Super-Pets” also has some meaningful messages about finding a family of friends. Ace has a poignant backstory about how he ended up at an animal shelter. Ace’s background explains why he puts up a tough exterior to hide his vulnerability about being abandoned.

Johnson (who is one of the producers of “DC League of Super-Pets”) and Hart have co-starred in several movies together. Their comedic rapport as lead characters Krypto and Ace remains intact and one of the main reasons why “DC League of Super-Pets” has voice cast members who are perfectly suited to each other. Hart is a lot less grating in “DC League of Super-Pets” than he is in some of his other movies, where he often plays an over-the-top-buffoon.

Even though Ace is an animated dog, he has more heart than some of the human characters that Hart has played in several of his mediocre-to-bad movies, Law-abiding Krypto and rebellious Ace have opposite personalities, but they learn a lot from each other in ways that they did not expect. All of the other heroic characters have personal growth in some way too.

“DC League of Super-Pets” is a recommended watch for anyone who wants some escapist animation with entertainment personalities. The movie’s mid-credits scene and end-credits scene indicate that “DC League of Super-Pets” is the beginning of a movie series. It’s very easy to imagine audiences wanting more of these characters in movies if the storytelling is good.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “DC League of Super-Pets” in U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022.

Review: ‘Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,’ starring the voices of Michael Cera, Ricky Gervais, George Takei, Aasif Mandvi, Michelle Yeoh and Samuel L. Jackson

July 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hank (voiced by Michael Cera) and and Jimbo (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies, Align and Aniventure)

“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank”

Directed by Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the fictional town of Kakamucho, the animated film “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” features a racially diverse cast (white, black, Asian and Latino) portraying talking animals.

Culture Clash: Inspired by the 1974 comedy film “Blazing Saddles,” a dog named Hank is chosen to be a samurai to save a town of cats, but Hank doesn’t know not he’s been set up by villain who wants to rid the town of the cats and wants Hank to be killed.

Culture Audience: “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” will appeal primarily to fans of “Blazing Saddles” and people who enjoy family-oriented films with positive messages of self-confidence and not judging people by physical appearances.

Ika Chu (voiced by Ricky Gervais) and Ohga (voiced by George Takei) in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies, Align and Aniventure)

No one should expect “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” to be award-worthy. But as family entertainment with positive messages, memorable characters and an action-filled story (that sometimes gets jumbled), the movie delivers on a satisfactory level. Although “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” was inspired by the classic 1974 film “Blazing Saddles,” anyone expecting the dark comedy of “Blazing Saddles” will be sorely disappointed.

“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is an animated film geared to people of various ages (mostly underage kids), so the tone of the movie is lighthearted and lightweight. Because it’s an animated movie with talking animals and a theme of an underestimated animal training to be a protective fighter, “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” might also get some comparisons to the 2008 animated film “Kung Fu Panda.” “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” isn’t as good as “Kung Fu Panda” and is unlikely to have as large of a fan base that the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise has, but not all movies aspire to be classics.

Directed by Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey, “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” has the benefit of very talented voice cast members who give the movie’s characters unique personalities. This is not the type of animated film where it’s hard to tell the characters apart from each other. Ed Stone and Nate Hopper wrote the adapted screenplay for “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” which also gives screenwriting credit to “Blazing Saddles” screenwriters Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger.

“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” begins with showing a town called Kakamucho, which is populated entirely by cats. Although the town could exist anywhere, the Kakamucho residents follow ancient Japanese military traditions of shoguns and samurai. The town has recently been plagued by bandits. The shogun of Kakamucho will be arriving soon and will be asked by find samurai who can protect the town. “Blazing Saddles” director/co-writer Brooks is the voice of Shogun, a British shorthair cat.

However, the story’s villain wants to get rid of the residents of Kakamucho, so that he can use the land for greedy redevelopment purposes. The villain is a scheming Somali cat named Ika Chu (voiced by Ricky Gervais), a character that people might or might not enjoy watching, depending on how they feel about Gervais and his cutting British comedy that he brings to this cat’s personality. In movies like this, every villain has a sidekick. Ika Chu’s sidekick is Ohga (voiced by George Takei), a burly Manx cat who leads Ika Chu’s army.

Ika Chu has concocted a plan where he decides to fool a dog into thinking that the dog has been selected as a samurai to protect Kakamucho. Because cats and dogs have been enemies, Ika Chu is counting on the dog to be killed by the Kakamucho residents. Because it’s against the law to kill a samurai, Ika Chu will then have the entire town arrested, and then have the land to himself.

The dog who becomes the unwitting target of Ika Chu’s dastardly plan is Hank (voiced by Michael Cera), a socially awkward beagle who has recently been released from prison. It’s implied that Hank might have been unjustly imprisoned simply because he’s a dog in a cat’s town. Iku Chu summons Hank and lies to him by saying that Hank has been chosen as the samurai to protect Kakamucho. When Hank expresses skepticism, Ika Chu spontaneously scratches the word “samurai” on a coffee mug and gives it to Hank as an “official” memento that Hank is now an appointed samurai.

Hank has no idea how to be a samurai, so he enlists the help of tuxedo cat Jimbo (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), a washed-up and cranky samurai, who spends a lot of time getting drunk on catnip. Jimbo is very reluctant to become a sensei mentor to Hank, but he eventually agrees. Jimbo isn’t entirely convinced that a dog will be accepted by the cats of Kakamucho.

Hank and Jimbo do a lot of arguing during this training, but they have somewhat of a emotional breakthrough when Hank finds out that he’s met Jimbo before. Hank tells Jimbo about a time several years earlier when an unidentified samurai cat rescued Hank from being bullied by some bad dogs. Jimbo reveals that he was that cat.

Jimbo eventually opens up to Hank about something painful from his past too. Years ago, Jimbo was head of security at the birthday party for his employer, an elite feline named Toshi. However, Jimbo accidentally caused a major disaster at the party. The accident resulted in Toshi’s in-laws to become sterile. This mishap embarrassed Jimbo so much, he quit being a samurai and became a bitter recluse.

Although this is a fictional animated film, “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” has a lot to say about prejudices that can negatively divide individuals. It’s a message that’s explicitly stated in the film, but one that’s still meaningful. The bigotry between the cats and dogs in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is obvious symbolism for bigotry in hate groups that teach people to hate others based on their identities or physical appearances.

Observant viewers will also notice how “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” shows something that often happens in real life: opinions and thoughts from young females are often dismissed just because they’re young females. In the movie, a young female Persian cat named Emiko (voiced by Kylie Kuioka), who wants to be a samurai, is intelligent and observant. However, her smart ideas are often ignored, or an older male in the community takes credit for her ideas. The way that Emiko handles this disrespect and what happens to her in the end are good lessons for people of any age.

“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” gets a little messy with a tad too many subplots. One of these subplots involves a giant ginger cat named Sumo (voiced by Djimon Hounsou), who is at various times feared and adored. Sumo arrives in Kakamucho as a fighting enemy to Hank, but will Sumo ends up as a friend?

In “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank,” the female cats are often the calm voices of reason amid the chaos. Yuki (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) is a cheerful Persian cat who is Emiko’s mother. Little Mama (voiced by Cathy Shim) is a wise matriarch of Kakamucho. There’s also a clownish duo of friends: klutzy calico cat Chuck (voiced by Gabriel Iglesias) and tuxedo cat Ichiro (voiced by Aasif Mandvi), who are like the Laurel & Hardy of Kakamucho.

The movie has no shortage of action, with some scenes working better than others. The last third of the movie consists of a flurry of battles and chase sequences that should hold viewers’ interest, despite predictable outcomes. The visuals in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” are good but not outstanding. The most striking visuals are the outdoor scenic shots and many of the action scenes.

“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” makes some sarcastic self-referential comments on movie clichés that can be found in “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank.” When Hank begins training under Jimbo’s tutelage, Hank says, “This is the training montage.” Jimbo replies, “This is my favorite part—the part where you suffer.” A movie that can laugh at itself in this way can’t be taken too seriously.

Paramount Pictures will release “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” in U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022.

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