Review: ‘Despicable Me 4,’ starring the voices of Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, Miranda Cosgrove, Sofía Vergara, Steve Coogan, Joey King, Stephen Colbert and Pierre Coffin

June 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Minions (voiced by Pierre Coffin), Silas (voiced by Steve Coogan), Edith (voiced by Dana Gaier), Agnes (voiced by Madison Polan), Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove), Gru Jr., Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig) and Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) in “Despicable Me 4” (Image courtesy of Illumination and Universal Pictures)

“Despicable Me 4”

Directed by Chris Renaud; co-directed by Patrick Delage

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the fictional U.S. city of Mayflower, the animated film “Despicable Me 4” features a group of characters portraying a spy’s family that goes into hiding, their enemies and their neighbors.

Culture Clash: After a high school reunion turns sour, Gru (a former supervillain who now works as an agent for the Anti Villain League) and his family go into hiding in Mayflower when they find out that Gru’s enemy Maxime Le Mal wants to kidnap the family’s infant son.

Culture Audience: “Despicable Me 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, the “Despicable Me” franchise, and animated films that have short attenion spans with their plots.

Maxime Le Mal (voiced by Will Ferrell) and Valentina (voiced by Sofía Vergara) in “Despicable Me 4” (Image courtesy of Illumination and Universal Pictures)

“Despicable Me 4” falls into a sequel trap of trying to cram too many things in a story. The results are an unfocused and occasionally amusing animated film that has several subplots that go nowhere. Children under the age of 8 and die-hard fans of the “Despicable Me” franchise might enjoy this movie more than viewers who can’t overlook the movie’s obvious flaws.

Directed by Chris Renaud and co-directed by Patrick Delage, “Despicable Me 4” was written by Ken Daurio and Mike White. The central character in the “Despicable Me” movies is a former supervillain named Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), who now works as an agent for the Anti Villain League. The “Despicable Me” movie series began with the 2010 film “Despicable Me” and continued with 2013’s “Despicable Me 2” and 2017’s “Despicable Me 3.” Like many movie franchises, the first movie in the series is still the best. Gru works with miniature yellow creatures (who don’t speak but make noises) called Minions (voiced by Pierre Coffin), which are Gru’s assistants that have their own spinoff movie series.

In “Despicable Me 4,” there’s not one but two storylines about separate abductions. There’s a story about a family that goes into hiding by relocating to another city, but the family’s patriarch and matriarch try to “fit in” with snobs in their new neighborhood. There’s a storyline about former school rivals who’ve turned into bitter enemies. There’s a subplot about five of the Minions turning into superheroes called Mega Minions. It’s just all too much going on in this overly busy plot, and not much of it comes together in a cohesive way. The movie’s plot often looks like sketches strung together.

“Despicable Me” begins with Gru attending a Class of 1985 reunion at his alma mater high school Lycee Pas Bon, a learning institution for future villains. At the reunion, Gru is miffed that his former school rival Maxime Le Mal (voiced by Will Ferrell) has received the Golden Alumni award. It leads to Maxime and Gru reigniting their feud after Gru is responsible for getting Maxime arrested. Maxime and his sultry girlfriend Valentina (voiced by Sofía Vergara) then hatch a plot to kidnap Gru’s infant son Gru Jr.

Maxime (who is obsessed with cockroaches) sends a video threat to Gru while Maxime is in jail. The Anti Villain League’s efficient leader Silas Ramsbottom (voiced by Steve Coogan) arranges for Gru and Gru’s family to go into a “witness protection” type of relocation to the city of Mayflower, where they will pose as a typical middle-class family. Gru’s family consists of his cheerful wife Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig) and their daughters Edith (voiced by Dana Gaier), Agnes (voiced by Madison Polan) and Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove), along with baby Gru Jr. The family also has a white goat named Lucky that they can’t take with them to their new home.

The family members are given new names and new identities. Gru’s new name/identity is Chet Carmichael, a solar panel salesman. Lucy’s new name/identity is Blanche Carmichael, a hair stylist at an upscale salon called Mane on Maine. Various antics ensue regarding Gru/Chet and Lucy/Blanche trying to become friends with the snooty family next door: Perry Prescott (voiced by Stephen Colbert), who owns Prescott Motors, the largest auto dealership in the state; his socialite wife Patsy Prescott (voiced by Chloe Fineman); and their stuck-up teenage daughter Poppy Prescott (voiced by Joey King), who later engages in blackmail about a secret that she discovers. The movie also has time-wasting scenes showing mishaps involving Gru’s daughters in a karate class, as well as an inexperienced Lucy having a hair disaster with an obnoxious customer named Melora (voiced by Laraine Newman) at Mane on Main.

The movie’s soundtrack music is steeped in 1970s and 1980s nostalgia. The Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” The Sylvers’ “Boogie Fever,” Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana (At the Copa),” “Guns N’Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” are some of the songs that are prominently featured in the movie. Pharrell Williams’ “Double Life,” an original song written for the “Despicable Me 4” soundtrack, is obviously trying to repeat the Oscar nomination success of Williams’ “Happy” from the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack. “Happy” is by far a better song, while the bland “Double Life” is unlikely to get an Oscar nomination or win any major awards.

“Despicable Me 4” has adequate-to-good performances from the voice cast, but what sinks the movie is the fact that the screenplay and direction have too many distractions. There’s a flurry of action scenes that seem more manic than well-conceived. The ending will get mixed results from viewers, since it just seems like a lazy way to conclude the story. Part of the fun of the “Despicable Me” franchise is in how Gru and his allies handle the villains that are pitted against them. The ending of “Despicable Me 4” is a mushy conclusion that further muddles and diminishes the anti-hero personality of Gru.

Universal Pictures will release “Despicable Me 4” in U.S. cinemas on July 3, 2024.

Review: ‘Inside Out 2,’ starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Maya Hawke, Kensington Tallman, Tony Hale, Lewis Black, Phyllis Smith, Ayo Edebiri and Paul Walter Hauser

June 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Disgust (voiced by Liza Lapira), Fear (voiced by Tony Hale) and Anger (voice of Lewis Black) in “Inside Out 2” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

“Inside Out 2”

Directed by Kelsey Mann

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the animated film “Inside Out 2” (a sequel to 2015’s “Inside Out” features a group of characters portraying emotions (inside a specific girl) and human beings.

Culture Clash: New emotions arrive inside a 13-year-old girl, and they clash with her previously existing emotions.

Culture Audience: “Inside Out” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, the first “Inside Out” movie, and animated films about adolescence.

Embarrassment (voiced by Paul Walter Hauser), Anxiety (voiced by Maya Hawke), Envy (voiced by Ayo Edebiri) and Ennui (voiced by Adèle Exarchopoulos) in “Inside Out 2” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Continuing the story that began in the 2015 Oscar-winning animated film “Inside Out” (about emotions that are characters inside a specific girl,) “Inside Out 2” is a worthy sequel in its amusing and touching story of emotions that often conflict with each other inside a 13-year-old girl. The voice cast performances and visuals are stellar, even if the overall plot has no real surprises. People of many generations can enjoy the film, but many of the jokes are best appreciated by people who know or who have experienced how puberty hormones and adolescence can change people’s moods.

Directed by Kelsey Mann and written by Meg LeFauve and Dave Holstein, “Inside Out 2” is a combination of a familiar movie story of a teenage girl who is insecure about accepted by her peers and a race-against-time depiction of the girl’s inner emotions that are battling against each other. “Inside Out” was directed by Pete Docter, who co-wrote the “Inside Out” screenplay with Josh Cooley and LeFauve. The human protagonist in both movies is Riley Andersen. In “Inside Out,” Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is 11 years old. In “Inside Out 2,” Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman) is 13 years old.

In the world of “Inside Out,” the Emotions are characters inside of Riley. The Emotions work inside the core of her being, which they call Headquarters, and they use a console board to control Riley’s feelings. In the first “Inside Out” movie, Riley’s emotions were in turmoil because Riley (who is an only child) and her unnamed parents (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan, who both return for “Inside Out 2”) have moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, and Riley has problems adjusting to her new environment.

The Emotions in “Inside Out 2” are Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith), Disgust (voiced by Liza Lapira), Fear (voiced by Tony Hale, replacing Bill Hader, who had the role in “Inside Out”) and Anger (voice of Lewis Black). Joy is the unofficial leader of the group and the voiceover narrator for “Inside Out 2.” The main conflict in the story happens when new Emotions arrive and take over Headquarters, while the original Emotions strive to take back the control they originally had. The new Emotions are Anxiety (voiced by Maya Hawke), Embarrassment (voiced by Paul Walter Hauser), Envy (voiced by Ayo Edebiri) and Ennui (voiced by Adèle Exarchopoulos). Anxiety is the unofficial leader of these new emotions

In the beginning of “Inside Out 2” (which takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area), Riley is described as being a well-adjusted and happy teenager who is “still exceptional,” says Joy. Riley is intelligent, friendly, and obedient. She excels in academics and in her favorite sport: hockey. The opening scene shows Riley playing in a hockey game, where she is considered to be a star player. Soon afterward, Riley meets two other students who will become her best friends and hockey teammates: Grace (voiced by Grace Lu) and Bree (voiced by Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green), who have fairly generic personalities.

Riley, Grace and Bree are all looking forward to spending their summer vacation attending a hockey camp hosted by Bay Area High School, where the three girls plan to attend. Grace and Bree tell Riley some upsetting news before they go to the camp. Grace and Bree are transferring to another school in the fall. However, Grace and Bree are still enrolled in the hockey camp for the summer.

Riley is desperate to stand out and impress the camp’s no-nonsense and strict leader—Coach Roberts (voiced by Yvette Nicole Brown)—as well as the experienced hockey players at the camp. The varsity captain is Valentina “Val” Ortiz (voiced by Lilimar), an outgoing person who treats everyone with respect. Riley greatly admires Valentina and aspires to achieve the rare accomplishment that Valentina did: make the varsity team as a freshman classmate.

“Inside Out 2” has the expected scenarios that would churn up a teenager’s emotions under these circumstances. The movie depicts Riley being under pressure to win games, dealing with catty gossipers, and trying to fit in with the “cool kids.” Meanwhile, Joy deviates a little from her perpetually perky persona by having a little bit of a meltdown in a memorable scene.

“Inside Out 2” avoids a lot of pitfalls that many sequels make when several new characters are introduced. Because the Emotions characters have the same names as whatever feelings they represent, it’s very easy to not gets these characters confused. Hawke and Poehler are the standouts in the voice cast.

There’s an amusing cameo from an Emotion called Nostalgia (voiced by June Squibb), who is told that she needs to come back when Riley is older. Another new character is Deep Dark Secret (voiced Steve Purcell), who reveals his secret during the movie’s end credits. “Inside Out 2” goes exactly where you think it will go in the battle of the Emotions. It’s still a entertaining ride that has a lot of meaningful things to say (both serious and comedic) about humanity.

Walt Disney Pictures released “Inside Out 2” in U.S. cinemas on June 14, 2024.

Review: ‘The Garfield Movie,’ starring the voices of Chris Pratt and Samuel L. Jackson

May 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Garfield (voiced by by Chris Pratt) in “The Garfield Movie” (Image courtesy of DNEG Animation/Columbia Pictures)

“The Garfield Movie”

Directed by Mark Dindal

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the animated film “The Garfield Movie” (based on the “Garfield” comic strip) features a cast of talking animals and some humans.

Culture Clash: Mischievous cat Garfield and his dog sidekick Odie team up with Garfield’s long-lost father Vic for to steal a large quantity of milk from a tourist farm. 

Culture Audience: “The Garfield Movie” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Garfield” franchise, fairly entertaining animated films where the main characters are talking animals.

Vic (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), Garfield (voiced by by Chris Pratt), Odie and Otto (voiced by Ving Rhames) in “The Garfield Movie” (Image courtesy of DNEG Animation/Columbia Pictures)

“The Garfield Movie” isn’t outstanding, but it’s amusing enough for viewers who want a lightweight film about mischievous talking animals in an uncomplicated adventure story. The movie avoids being overstuffed and has some endearing sentimentality. Some viewers might be disappointed that the movie doesn’t have more interactions between humans and animals, but in the context of this particular plot for this animals, it’s better that most of the animal interactions don’t involve human interference.

Directed by Mark Dindal, “The Garfield Movie” was written by Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgove and David Reynolds. The “Garfield” franchise is based on the “Garfield” comic strip created by Jim Davis and launched in 1978. Garfield is a fun-loving and talkative orange tabby cat who can be mischievous. In this movie, he finds he reluctantly goes on a heist to help his long-lost father and finds out certain things that affect his life in a profound way. People do not need to be familiar with anything in the “Garfield” franchise before seeing this movie.

“The Garfield Movie” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city) begins by showing Garfield (voiced by Chris Pratt) at home and using a phone app to ordering food for delivery (including pizza and lasagna) from Mama Leoni’s, his favorite Italian restaurant. Garfield’s best friend/sidekick is a goofy beagle named Odie (voiced by Harvey Guillén), who does not talk but makes various noises. Garfield and Odie live with their human owner Jon Arbuckle (voiced by Nicholas Hoult), an amiable bachelor who adopted Garfield when Garfield was a kitten.

Garfield explains his backstory that is shown in a flashback. When Garfield was a kitten, his single father Vic (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) took care of Garfield. Garfield’s mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie. One rainy night, Vic told Garfield to wait for him in an alley, where Garfield was put in an open wooden enclosure to shield him from the rainy weather.

Vic promised that he would come back, but Garfield waited for an unnamed period of time, and didn’t see Vic come back. Feeling lost and hungry, Garfield wandered over to Mama Leoni’s, where he looked through a window and saw Jon at a table by himself. The next thing Jon knew, he saw a cute and hungry kitten at his table, with the kitten wanting to eat the pizza that Jon had ordered. Jon hid the kitten at the table and eventually smuggled the kitten outside.

At first, Jon wasn’t going to take Garfield home because, at the time, Jon lived in an apartment that didn’t allow pets. But he was so charmed by Garfield, he took Garfield with him. Garfield says in a voiceover that he was the one who convinced Jon to move from the apartment to the house where they currently live. Eventually, Odie became part of the family.

In the present day, Garfield and Odie get kidnapped and find out that their captor is a fluffy white cat named Jinx (voiced by Hannah Waddingham), a diva-like feline who has two dogs as her main cronies: a Whippet named Nolan (voiced by Bowen Yang) and a Shar-Pei named Roland (voiced by Brett Goldstein), who do whatever Jinx tells them to do.

Jinx tells her story to Garfield and Odie about why she kidnapped them. Several years ago, Jinx immigrated from “a small town outside of London” to America to become a famous entertainer. She failed in that dream. A brief flashback shows that she bombed as a tuba player in a contest called Amerca’s Top Feline.

Feeling discouraged, Jinx befriended a bunch of other outcast and misfit cats, including Vic. One day, Jinx got trapped by animal control officers and spent four years, two months and seven days at an animal shelter, which she calls a “prison.” Jinx is bitter that her other stray cat friends, including Vic, were not captured and didn’t help her when she was captured and sent to the shelter.

For revenge, Jinx kidnapped Garfield and Odie, knowing that Vic would track them down. (It’s explained later in the movie how Vic would know where Garfield is.) When Vic comes to the rescue, Jinx tells them that something terrible will happen unless Vic can steal quart of milk from a place called Lactose Farms, for every day that she was in “prison.” She gives a deadline of 72 hours to commit this heist.

Vic convinces a reluctant Garfield to help him with this heist. Odie is along for the ride too. When they get to Lactose Farms, it isn’t the small “mom and pop” business that Vic remembers. It’s now a corporate-owned popular tourist attraction with a petting zoo and a complex layout to get to the milk supply.

While at Lactose Farms, these three would-be thieves meet a bull named Otto (voiced by Ving Rhames), who was put out to pasture when Lactose Farms was sold to the corporation. This new ownership also resulted in Otto being separated from his longtime love: a cow named Edith (voiced by Alicia Grace Turrell), who is currently part of the petting zoo. Otto agrees to help Vic, Garfield and Odie with this heist (since he’s very knowledgeable of the layout of Lactose Farms) on the condition that they free Edith so that Otto can run away with her.

Otto leads much of the planning for this heist, which will be an undercover operation. He gives code names for the three would-be thieves. Vic is Majestic Bullfrog. Odie is Clever and Curious Chipmunk. Garfield is Roadkill. Naturally, Garfield dislikes his code name.

There’s more to the movie’s story that just the hijinks that ensue for this heist. Garfield has a lot of complicated emotions about the sudden appearance of his absent father Vic. It leads to parts of the movie that cover topics such as childhood trauma over abandonment in a mostly sensitive and touching way.

Meanwhile, Jon frantically searches for Garfield and Odie in amusing segments that poke fun at how call centers frequently put people on hold and give impersonal service that isn’t helpful. A few supporting characters have slightly amusing roles, such as Lactose Farms security chief Marge Malone (voiced by Cecily Strong), who is shrill and aggressive. Making cameo appearances are two stray cats named Maurice (voiced by Snoop Dogg) and Olivia (voiced by Janelle James), who encounter Garfield and Odie.

“The Garfield Movie” has some moments where the pacing drags, but the film mostly has a brisk pace and competently engaging animation. The charismatic voice cast performances go a long way in maintaining viewer interest, since the personalities of the main characters are the driving force of this simple story. This is a very male-centric movie, where the female characters with the most screen time are either antagonists (Jinx and Marge) or need to be rescued (Edith).

The movie’s end credits have social media clips of cat videos, which are cute but look out-of-place in this animated film, even though there’s a running gag that Garfield likes to watch cat videos on the fictional streaming service Catflix. “The Garfield Movie” is not the type of movie that people should expect to win any major awards, but it’s not a complete waste of time either. It’s a middle-of-the-road film that will get mixed reactions but should satisfy viewers who aren’t expecting a masterpiece or a terrible movie.

Columbia Pictures will release “The Garfield Movie” in U.S. cinemas on May 24, 2024. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2024.

Review: ‘IF’ (2024), starring Cailey Fleming, Ryan Reynolds, John Krasinski and the voices of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Louis Gossett Jr. and Steve Carell

May 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Cailey Fleming and Blue (voiced by Steve Carell) in “IF” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“IF” (2024)

Directed by John Krasinski

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the live-action/animated film “IF” features a cast of characters that are humans and imaginary creatures.

Culture Clash: A lonely 12-year-old girl interacts with imaginary beings and agrees to help them find matches with the right people who need imaginary friends. 

Culture Audience: “IF” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and filmmaker John Krasinski, but this poorly paced and unfocused movie might bore many of the people in the intended audience.

Ryan Reynolds and Cailey Fleming in “IF” (Photo by Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures)

Although it’s sweet-natured and trying to have the same impact as the “Toy Story” movies, the live-action/animated film “IF” has an unfocused and messy plot about childhood nostalgia, with underdeveloped characters. This uneven mushfest takes too long to get to the story’s purpose. And the last 30 minutes of “IF” are nothing but blatant emotional manipulation intended to make viewers cry in a way that doesn’t feel earned, considering the shallow depictions of most of the movie’s characters.

Written and directed by John Krasinski (who is also one of the movie’s producers), “IF” begins with voiceover narration from a 12-year-old girl named Bea (played by Cailey Fleming), who says, “I remember my mom always wanted to tell me a story. It wasn’t until much later, I realized the stories she wanted me to tell had nothing to do with me at all … The most important stories are the ones we tell ourselves.” (It’s mentioned later in the movie that Bea’s real name is Elizabeth, and her mother gave her the nickname Bea.)

Throughout the movie, several flashbacks are shown as clips from videos of happier times in Bea’s family. Her father has kept many of these videos on an old video camera that Bea finds in a closet at her paternal grandmother’s home. Bea is the only child of an unnamed father (played by Krasinski) and unnamed mother (played by Catherine Daddario), who both have unnamed health issues. The video flashbacks show Bea at ages 3 and 5 (played by Audrey Hoffman) and her parents having a close and loving relationship. Videos of a family trip to New York City’s Coney Island are significant to the story.

In the beginning of the movie, Bea has arrived with some of her luggage at the New York City home of her unnamed British grandmother (played by Fiona Shaw), who is the mother of Bea’s father. Bea’s mother died of an unnamed illness, presumably cancer, because the flashbacks hint that Bea’s mother lost her hair in chemotherapy. The movie never says when Bea’s mother died, but it seems like it was about seven years ago, because Bea is 5 years old or younger in all the family photos and videos with Bea’s mother.

Bea will be staying with her grandmother because Bea’s father has to check into a nearby hospital to have surgery for an unnamed reason. When Bea arrives, the grandmother mentions that she hasn’t seen Bea in years, when Bea was a lot younger and smaller. The grandmother is very surprised to see how much Bea has grown. Bea also looks uncomfortable when she arrives, as if she’s staying in a stranger’s home. In this day and age when family members can easily share photos and videos, the movie gives no explanation for why Bea’s grandmother has gone years without seeing what Bea currently looks like until Bea shows up at the grandmother’s home.

Bea’s father tries to assure Bea that the reason for his surgery is not for a terminal illness. Bea inexplicably doesn’t ask for details on why her father needs this surgery. Viewers can assume it’s because Bea is afraid to know what her father’s medical issues are because of how her mother died. Those are details that the movie refuses to address because “IF” wants to focus on having a slew of animated characters that can be turned into toys and other merchandise to sell in the real world.

Bea spends a lot of time by herself or without adult supervision. There’s no mention of her being in school, so viewers will have to assume she’s on a break from school when this story takes place. Bea is friendly, talkative and intelligent, but she has no friends, for reasons that are never explained in the movie. The adults in her life seem too self-absorbed to care that Bea doesn’t have a social life.

“IF” shows that when Bea was younger, she used to draw an unnamed imaginary character with a big smiley face. Bea’s father tries to recreate that character by putting some craft designs on an IV drip irrigation tower in his hospital room. Bea tells her father that she’s outgrown this imaginary character by saying, “Dad, you really don’t have to do this.” He says, “What?” She replies, “Treat me like a kid.” (Someone needs to tell Bea that she really is still a kid.)

The imaginary characters in Bea’s world don’t appear to her right away. Glimpses of them are shown as they furtively seem to be watching her in the background and then quickly run away if they think she will see them. It’s stalking, but the movie wants people to think this stalking is adorable. It’s not. It’s just an example of how the movie drags out how long it takes for Bea to finally talk to these characters for the first time.

One of the first places that the imaginary characters are seen stalking Bea is at the hospital where Bea’s father is staying. One day, Bea is walking in a hospital hallway with a bouquet of flowers that she’s bringing to her father. A boy named Benjamin (played by Alan Kim), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, is bedridden (with a cast on his right leg) in a nearby room and calls out to Bea to ask her if the flowers are for him.

Benjamin is joking, of course, and he introduces himself to Bea, who tells him the flowers are for her father. Bea and Benjamin have a short conversation. There are a few more scenes in the movie that repeat this scenario. Bea and Benjamin develop a casual acquaintance, not a real friendship. Bea having a real and meaningful friendship with another human being is something that the movie could have explored but does not. Instead, “IF” has an irresponsible message that Bea is better off interacting with imaginary characters.

Each imaginary character in the movie is an imaginary friend (IF) of a human, but an IF can get discarded when a human does not need the IF anymore. In the movie, no longer needing an IF is portrayed as a human reaching emotional maturity but losing a sense of childlike imagination and hope. Many IFs are wandering around in search of another human who will take them as an imaginary friend.

The three main IFs in the movie are these such wandering IFs in search of human companionship and want to match IFs with human children. They are a wisecracking man named Calvin, nicknamed Cal (played by Ryan Reynolds); a giant purple furry creature named Blue (voiced by Steve Carell), who is goofy, clumsy and amiable; and a walking bee named Blossom (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who wears a ballerina tutu and has the voice and personality of a polite British nanny. Blue got his name because he was created by a color-blind human boy.

Cal is the leader, while Blue and Blossom are his sidekicks. Cal, Blue and Blossom are first seen trying to do a “friendship match” with an unnamed, sleeping 7-year-old girl (played by Sa’Raya Paris Johnson) in her bedroom. Needless to say, this endeavor is a disaster and leaves the girl’s room in a terrible mess, with the girl frightened and confused about what just happened. Don’t expect to learn anything about this girl. She’s never seen again in the movie.

At separate times, Bea meets Cal, Blue and Blossom, who all live in an abandoned apartment that’s being used as someone’s storage room. Bea faints from fear the first time that Bea sees Blossom. Eventually, Cal explains to Bea that Cal, Blue and Blossom are abandoned IFs who are on a mission to be matchmakers for kids who need imaginary friends. Cal asks Bea to help them with this mission about 45 minutes into this 104-minute movie. That part of the plot should’ve happened a lot sooner and would’ve helped this frequently sluggish movie pick up its pace.

Cal, Blue and Blossom have a close friend named Lewis (voiced by Louis Gossett Jr.), a teddy bear who looks very cuddly but has a personality that is very bland. (During the movie’s end credits, there’s a brief “in memory” tribute to Gossett, who died on March 29, 2024.) Ask anyone who’s seen “IF” if Lewis was a necessary character, and most people will say, “No.”

As for the human characters, “IF” has a very questionable and outdated racial depiction of New York City. In real life, the 2020 U.S. Census reports that in New York City, white people are the minority (31%), and people of color are the majority (69%). The few human adults of color in the movie are characters with small, subservient roles. Two examples are Liza Colón-Zayas (who plays a hospital nurse named Janet) and LaQuet Sharnell Pringle, who has the role of an unnamed receptionist.

“IF” introduces numerous other imaginary friend characters voiced by an all-star cast, but most of these animated characters have cameo roles and are not essential parts of the main story. It just seems like the “IF” filmmakers’ way of showing that they could get several big celebrity names in these cameo roles. In other words, it’s all shallow stunt casting. It’s like “IF” is trying to be like a “Toy Story” movie, but without the memorable characters.

These fleeting characters are Unicorn (voiced by Emily Blunt); Bubble (voiced by Awkwafina); Ice (voiced by Bradley Cooper); Guardian Dog (voiced by Sam Rockwell); Flower (voiced by Matt Damon); Banana (voiced by Bill Hader); Robot (voiced by Jon Stewart); Alligator voiced by Maya Rudolph); Magician Mouse (voiced by Sebastian Maniscalco); Cosmo (voiced by Christopher Meloni); Slime (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key); Ghost (voiced by Matthew Rhys); and Gummy Bear (voiced by Amy Schumer). Brad Pitt has a voice role as a character named Keith. All of these characters are gimmicky and are just there to crack a few jokes instead of making meaningful contributions to the story.

“IF” has a flashback of Bea as a younger child doing karaoke and dressed as a mid-1980s Tina Turner while singing Turner’s hit “Better Be Good to Me.” This leads to an awkward sequence where 12-year-old Bea, Cal (in a 1980s mullet and leather jacket) and various characters imagine themselves on stage with Turner while Turner performs the song. Through visual effects, parts of the real “Better Be Good to Me” music video are used in this sequence, with Cal filling in for Cy Curnin (lead singer of The Fixx), who appears in the real music video for “Better Be Good to Me.”

It leads to a question that many “IF” viewers will ask themselves: What kind of audience does “IF” really want? On the surface, it seems like a movie aimed at kids under the age of 13, but as the movie goes on, it becomes obvious that it’s really for people who are old enough to know that “Better Be Good to Me” was a hit video on MTV, back in the days when MTV played a lot of music videos. Why else would this misguided film turn into such a sappy mess about adults reminiscing about their childhood imaginary friends?

“IF” really loses its way when the mission of matchmaking IFs with new kids gets sidelined, and the movie becomes about people being reunited with the IFs they thought they outgrew. There’s a nervous businessman named Jeremy (played by Bobby Moniyahan), who suddenly shows up in the movie with absolutely no backstory or purpose, except to provide a contrived cornball moment that involves Bea following him to a corporate office where Jeremy is about to give an important presentation.

As the character of Bea, Fleming does an admirable job of conveying several emotions. It’s too bad that Bea and the rest of the characters in the film aren’t very interesting. Reynolds is just doing the same type of character he does in most of his movies: sarcastic and jaded, but capable of being a nice guy under certain circumstances. Shaw has a few moments to shine, but her grandmother character is just too absent and too vague to be taken seriously as someone who could have a positive impact on Bea’s life. All of the other performances in “IF” are serviceable and quite generic.

One of the most noticeable problems with “IF” is that it sends a dubious message that it’s okay for people to spend more time with imaginary friends than real friends. Death and medical issues are presented as the main reasons for Bea’s family problems and her sad loneliness. But “IF” refuses to realistically address those problems. Instead, the movie seems more concerned about showing a parade of cute and quirky imaginary characters that can distract Bea from those problems. It’s a very unhealthy way of coping with grief.

The adults in Bea’s life ultimately fail Bea by never talking to Bea about her grief and obvious loneliness. Her grandmother rarely interacts with Bea and only seems to show a personality when the grandmother reminisces about being a child ballet dancer and bemoans that people don’t want to see old women dance. It leads to a very corny scene where the grandmother hears a song from her ballet dancer days, and the grandmother doesn’t really dance, but she just waves her arms like she’s in a nostalgia trance.

“IF” revolves around the flimsy and immature concept that having an imaginary, wisecracking friend should be the gateway to healing over the loss of a loved one. “IF” did not have to be an emotionally heavy drama in order to address issues of human suffering, but one of the movie’s biggest flaws is the movie’s refusal to properly address a child’s grief. “IF” is a family-oriented movie, but the sentimental themes in this film seem geared more to adults who want to reminisce about their childhoods, rather than being geared to kids who want to see a magical movie about imaginary friends. “IF” just has too many unanswered questions about Bea and her family, who should be the emotional center of the story, but instead are just emotionally stunted due to a very flawed screenplay and mishandled direction.

Paramount Pictures will release “IF” in U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024. The movie will be released on digital and VOD June 18, 2024. “IF” will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD on August 13, 2024.

Review: ‘Dragonkeeper’ (2024), starring the voices of Bill Nighy, Mayalinee Griffiths, Anthony Howell, Bill Bailey, Andrew Leung, Tony Jayawadena and Sarah Lam

May 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Ping (voiced by Mayalinee Griffiths) and Long Danzi (voiced by Bill Nighy) in “Dragonkeeper” (Image courtesy of Viva Pictures)

“Dragonkeeper” (2024)

Directed by Li Jianping and Salvador Simó

Culture Representation: Taking place during the Han Empire in ancient China, the animated film “Dragonkeeper” (based on Carole Wilkinson’s fantasy novel of the same name) features a cast of characters that are humans and dragons.

Culture Clash: An orphaned girl goes on a journey to save rare dragons from being killed into extinction. 

Culture Audience: “Dragonkeeper” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the novel or don’t mind watching a substandard animated film with mostly terrible voice performances that sound almost robotic.

Ping (voiced by Mayalinee Griffiths) in “Dragonkeeper” (Image courtesy of Viva Pictures)

“Dragonkeeper” is a shoddy adaptation of Carole Wilkinson’s 2003 fantasy novel of the same name. This animated film makes the story unfocused and bland. Most of the voice cast performances are stiff, with no real personality. They’re just reading their lines.

Directed by Directed by Li Jianping and Salvador Simó, “Dragonkeeper” seems to suffer from the effects of “too many cooks in the kitchen” for its watered-down and sloppily constructed screenplay. Wilkinson co-wrote the screenplay with Pablo I. Castrillo, Ignacio Ferreras, Rosanna Cecchini and Wang Xianping. When there are five or more credited writers for a movie screenplay, the movie is usually terrible.

“Dragonkeeper” takes place during the Han Empire in ancient China, but you wouldn’t know it because the English-language version of this movie makes no attempt to give the characters Chinese accents. All of the voice actors in the film have British accents. “Dragonkeeper” also do much to show Chinese culture, except for a sequence where a dragon teaches a girl what qi, also known as ch’i (psychic energy), is all about and how to use it.

The movie begins by showing two people whose lives will collide in a “good versus evil” battle years later. The story’s heroine is Ping, who is shown being taken as an orphaned baby by a cruel land owner named Master Lan (voiced by Tony Jayawadena) to become an enslaved servant. The story’s chief villain is Diao (voiced by Anthony Howell), a dragon hunter who is determined to kill every last dragon on Earth, or at least every dragon he can find in China.

Master Lan and his entourage are traveling home with baby Ping, but the infant’s loud crying annoys him. The baby is also of no use to Master Lan until the child is old enough to work for him. When Master Lan arrives in his village, an elderly woman named Lao Ma (voiced by Sarah Lam), who lives alone, immediately takes an interest in Ping and decides to raise her as if Ping were her own child.

Meanwhile, Diao has an ailing mother, (voiced by Jaqueline Chan) who is on her deathbed. Diao had been frantically trying to find a cure for his mother’s terminal illness. He believe it’s possible that dragons could hold the secret to healthy immortality. Although Diao is a dragon hunter, he also wants to use and exploit dragons if they can actually have some way to make humans immortal. Diao’s mother dies before Diao can find this miracle cure to death and diseases.

The movie then fast-forwards to when Ping (voiced by Mayalinee Griffiths) is about 9 or 10 years old. Master Lan goes to the home where Lao Ma and Ping live and forces Ping to go with him as his enslaved servant. During her miserable time working for Master Lan, Ping discovers that Master Lan has two adult dragons imprisoned in a secret dungeon.

The two dragons are Long Danzi (voiced by Bill Nighy) and Lu Yu (voiced by Beth Chalmers), who are among the last remaining dragons of their kind. Ping secretly befriends Long Danzi and Lu Yu. Ping also has a companion rat named Hua, who does not speak in the movie.

Something happens to Lu Yu, and Long Danzi is soon supposed to be sold to the emperor (voiced by Paul McEwan), who wants to keep the dragon as a pet for his spoiled prince son (voiced by Felix Rosen). Before Long Danzi is taken to the emperor, the dragon shows Ping an egg made of pearl and says an unborn baby dragon named Kai is in the egg. Long Danzi asks Ping to take care of Kai and keep this unborn dragon safe until Kai can be born.

There’s a certain body of water that is the only place that can dissolve the egg. Guess where Ping’s intended destination will be when she goes on an inevitable journey? Long Danzi notices certain signs that Ping might be part of a lineage of special Dragon Keepers, so Long Danz breathes a laser-like beam onto her chest.

“Dragonkeeper” then zig zags in a jumbled way through the rest of the movie, which has action scenes that often look like cheap-looking and unfinished animation. Except for Nighy (who gives a serviceable but unremarkable performance), all of the voice actors have little to no charisma for their characters. The emotions that are supposed to express in certain scenes are very flat, while the dialogue is very forgettable and trite.

“Dragonkeeper” also has themes and scenes that might be too intense or scary for children under the age of 7. Does any kid that young really want to see a movie about child enslavement? The last scene of “Dragonkeeper” ends like an underwhelming thud, with no real closure about a certain main character in the story. If people want to see an entertaining animated movie about young girl who befriends and rescued an endangered dragon, skip “Dragonkeeper” and watch Disney’s Oscar-nominated “Raya and the Last Dragon” instead.

Viva Pictures released “Dragonkeeper” in select U.S. cinemas on May 3, 2024.

Review: ‘Spy x Family Code: White,’ an anime adventure movie about missing microfilm and just desserts

April 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Anya, Bond and Yor in “Spy x Family Code: White” (Image by Tatsuya Endo/Shueisha/Crunchyroll)

“Spy x Family Code: White”

Directed by Takashi Katagiri

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

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional countries of Westalis and Ostania, the animated film “Spy x Family Code: White” (based on the “Spy x Family” manga and anime series) features a cast of Japanese characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A male spy and a female assassin, who have an arranged marriage as part of their undercover identities, take their adopted daughter on a school trip, where she is targeted by villains who think the daughter has some valuable microfilm. 

Culture Audience: “Spy x Family Code: White” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga and anime series on which the film is based and will appeal to people who like family adventure animation with a simple but entertaining story.

Snidel in “Spy x Family Code: White” (Image by Tatsuya Endo/Shueisha/Crunchyroll)

Neither awful nor spectacular, “Spy x Family Code: White” is has enough unique whimsy to not be completely maudlin. Fans of the manga and anime series should enjoy this spinoff film, which has a predictable but entertaining story. The erratic comedy in “Spy x Family Code: White” will be received better by some viewers compared to others. The movie is a spinoff of the “Spy x Family” anime series (which began in 2022), which is based on the “Spy x Family” manga series.

Directed by Takashi Katagiri and written by Ichiro Ohkouchi, “Spy x Family Code: White” has a story that doesn’t require viewers to know anything about the characters before seeing the movie. The main characters and their relationship to each other are described fairly early on in the story. Most of the action is quite formulaic, but the characters’ snappy dialogue can be amusing and can hold most viewers’ interest. “Spy x Family Code: White” also has some eye-catching and stunning animation that unfortunately is not consistent throughout the movie.

In the “Spy x Family” series (which takes place in the fictional rival countries of Westalis and Ostania) a young male spy named Loid from Westalis has gone undercover in Ostania, to spy on Donovan Desmond, leader of the National Unity Party. Loid is an arranged marriage with a young female assassin named Yor. Loid, who is master of disguises, uses the alias/nickname Twilight. Yor, who has extraordinary combat abilities, uses the alias/nickname Thorn Princess. Loid is intelligent and thoughtful. Yor is impulsive and more likely to act on her emotions.

Loid and Yor (who have the last name Forger in their fake marriage) are posing as spouses as their undercover identities. Yor and Loid keep secrets from each other, including their real identities. As part of his phony identity, Loid is a psychiatrist at Berlint General Hospital. Loid and Yor have an adopted orphan daughter named Anya, who is about 4 or 5 years old (but is pretending to be 6 years old), has psychic abilities, and is an energetic child. The male family dog Bond (who is a Pyrenean Mountain Dog) has precognitive abilities.

Loid is part of a mission called Operation Strix, where he has enrolled Anya in Eden Academy same school where the children of Donovan Desmond are also students. The intention for Anya’s enrollment is for it to be a way for Loid to have some connection or gain access to Desmond through these children. Eden Academy has medals called Stella medals that are given to students for various achievements.

In the beginning of “Spy x Family Code: White,” Loid gets bad news from Sylvia Sherwood, also the Handler, who is his supervisor: Someone else is going to replace Loid in Operation Strix. Loid thinks this would-be replacement is too cautious and incompetent. In order to prove his worth, Loid decides that he can infiltrate a Stella medal ceremony, which an Eden Academy ceremony that Desmond is expected to attend.

One of the ways that Anya hopes to get a Stella is by winning a dessert-making contest. Anya finds out that Eden Academy principal (who is also the head judge of the contest) loves meremere, which is a merengue-styled cake. Anya tells Loid and Yor about this contest. The best place to get the ingredients for meremere is a place called Frigis.

And so, the Forger family (with Bond along for the ride) travels by ship to Frigis. While on the ship, Anya finds a storage room, where she opens a stranger’s trunk and sees a ball of chocolate that’s about the size of a golf ball. Anya eats the chocolate, but she will soon find out that valuable microfilm was hidden in that chocolate. Two armed henchmen of a villain named Snidel find out that Anya has eaten this chocolate.

Anya escapes from these military thugs but the hunt is on to find her. Snidel is a military colonel who is a typical scheming and sinister antagonist. The contents of this microfilm could possibly start a major war. The usual “we have the save the world” platitudes ensue.

Meanwhile, Yor is secretly in love with Loid and wishes that they had a real romantic relationship. Before the trip to Frigis, a friend told Yor that there are three big clues that a cheating partner is having an infidelity affair: The cheater (1) wants to take trips away from the betrayed partner; (2) changes style of dressing; and (3) gives gifts to the betrayed partner out of guilt. The most frivolous part of the movie is Yor fretting over whether or not Loid could be dating someone without her knowledge. All of these scenes of Yor worrying and whining about Loid make Yor look immature and ditsy, especially since Loid invited her on this trip. Therefore, the first “infidelity clue” never applied in this situation.

The voices of “Spy x Family Code: White” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Takuya Eguchi as Loid, Saori Hayami as Yor, Atsumi Tanezaki as Anya, Banjō Ginga as Snidel, Kenichirō Matsuda as Bond and as the movie’s narrator. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Alex Organ as Loid, Natalie Van Sistine as Yor, Megan Shipman as Anya, John Swasey as Snidel and Tyler Walker as Bond.

“Spy x Family Code: White” has some comedy involving bodily functions that people will either tolerate or dislike. The movie has a very simple “good versus evil” plot that gets occasionally messy and jumbled, with the expected scenes of chases and fights. The voice performances are competent.

There’s a lurching and manic quality to how many of the scenes go from one scene to the next. “Spy x Family Code: White” is not an incoherent film, but it zips around from scenario to scenario so quickly, people who are unfamiliar with these characters might lose interest. The “Spy x Family” series is probably a better format than this movie to get to know these characters. However, “Spy x Family Code: White” can be considered a fairly good sample of this engaging franchise.

Crunchyroll will release “Spy x Family Code: White” in U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2024. The movie was released in Japan on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Epic Tails,’ starring the voices of Ellie Zeiler, Mark Camacho, Wyatt Bowen, Terrence Scammell, Kwasi Songui and Patrick Emmanuel Abellard

April 5, 2024

by Carla Hay

Chickos (voiced by Wyatt Bowen), Sam (voiced by Mark Camacho) and Pattie (voiced by Ellie Zeiler) in “Epic Tails” (Image courtesy of Viva Pictures)

“Epic Tails”

Directed by David Alaux, with the participation of Eric Tosti and Jean-François Tosti

Culture Representation: Taking place in ancient Greece, the animated film “Epic Tails” features a cast of characters who are talking animals and ancient Greek gods.

Culture Clash: A mouse, a cat and various other animals travel on the ship Argo to find treasure and to help a city that is being threatened with destruction by the god Poseidon. 

Culture Audience: “Epic Tails” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of animated adventure stories and Greek mythology, but “Epic Tails” is a mishandled and dull film that fails to deliver on many levels.

A scene from “Epic Tails” (Image courtesy of Viva Pictures)

“Epic Tails” should be called “Epic Fails.” It’s a dull and muddled misfire with a terrible message that bullies should be enabled. This animated film that’s set in ancient Greece has shallow Greek deities and generic main characters. Children under the age of 5 might enjoy this forgettable film because they’re probably be too young to know how bad “Epic Tails” is on every level.

Directed by David Alaux, with the participation of Eric Tosti and Jean-François Tosti, “Epic Tails” was written by all three filmmakers. The movie is originally from France, where the movie is titled “Pattie et la colère de Poséidon” (“Pattie and the Anger of Poseidon”). “Epic Tales” is the English-language version of the movie. No one is expecting a children’s oriented animated film to have an unpredictable ending. But these types of films should be at least fun to watch. And even better: They can be educational and inspirational if handled in a creative way.

Unfortunately, “Epic Tails” does none of that. Instead, it’s a monotonous and unfocused movie that wastes many opportunities to have intriguing characters and an epic adventure. The characters plod along from place to place, saying silly and hollow dialogue. The story is very messy and tedious when it did not have to be.

In “Epic Tails,” an optimistic and “book smart” mouse named Pattie (voiced by Ellie Zeiler) dreams of becoming a nautical adventurer, just like her hero Jason, who is famous for his Argo ship and Argonauts crew. Pattie is ridiculed by her peers for having this goal. Pattie’s best friend, who is also a father figure to her, is an overprotective cat named Sam (voiced by Mark Camacho), who agrees to go with Pattie to find Jason. They are accompanied by a friendly rat named Luigi (voiced by Wyatt Bowen), who is a somewhat goofy sidekick.

Meanwhile, Greek god king Zeus (who is portrayed as an egotistical leader) is gloating over a new statue of himself built by the citizens of the port city of Yolcos. Zeus’ brother Poseidon (voiced by Terrence Scammell)—the god of large bodies of water, earthquakes and horses—gets very jealous, so Poseidon goes to Yolcos and tells the citizens that they must build a grand statue of Poseidon in seven days. If they don’t do what he tells them to do by the deadline, Poseidon says he will destroy Yolcos.

“Epic Tails” does so little with the Greek gods and goddesses in the movie, none of them except for Poseidon are listed in the film’s end credits as characters. Hermes’ speed superpowers are briefly mentioned, but that’s about it. The Greek gods and goddesses are just shown doing things like hanging out in a hot tub and looking down from the heavens at some of the action happening in Greece.

Meanwhile, Pattie, Sam, and Luigi find the famous Argo ship and find Jason (also voiced by Scammell), who is now a physically weak, elderly man. All of Jason’s Argonauts are dead, but Pattie finds a way to resurrect all the Argonauts (don’t ask), who steer the ship slowly because they’re supposed to be a bunch of old skeletons. Pattie finds a treasure map and is convinced that they can find the treasure. Somehow, she gets mixed up in finding a valuable trident that needs to go on the statue of Poseidon.

During this very monotonous “adventure,” Pattie and her friends meet a talkative seagull named Chickos (also voiced by Bowen) and mischievous twin rats named Bernardo (voiced by Kwasi Songui) and Gerardo (voiced by Patrick Emmanuel Abellard). The members of this motley crew encounter some obstacles, such as a giant octopus that vomits green slime and a Cyclops that operates a giant rock robot. Pattie and Sam have an argument that separates them, but you just know that they will eventually reconcile.

There is absolutely nothing that’s surprising about “Epic Tails,” which has basic animation, unimpressive voice performances, and a story that is so sloppy, there are many time-wasting scenes with insipid dialogue. (For whatever reason, Poseidon has a weird habit of saying, “Hasta la vista!”) The movie’s hero characters go out of their way to appease Poseidon, who does not face any consequences and is unapologetic for his bullying. It’s a horrible message in an equally horrible film targeted to children and families.

Viva Pictures released “Epic Tails” in select U.S. cinemas on April 5, 2024. The movie was released in Europe, Asia, and Brazil in 2023.

Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4,’ starring the voices of Jack Black, Awkwafina, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Dustin Hoffman and Viola Davis

March 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina) in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4”

Directed by Mike Mitchell; co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine

Culture Representation: Taking place in a mythical version of China, the animated film “Kung Fu Panda 4” features a cast of characters portraying various talking animals.

Culture Clash: Grandmaster Warrior/kung fu fighter Po (a panda) and a rebellious fox named Zhen go on a quest to defeat an evil, shape-shifting villain named The Chameleon. 

Culture Audience: “Kung Fu Panda 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, the movie’s headliners, and predictable but entertaining animation films that blend comedy and adventure.

The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), center, in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4” sticks to a certain formula that’s made entertaining, thanks to a talented voice cast, light comedy and dazzling visuals. The absence of the Furious Five in this story will disappoint some viewers, but the adventure doesn’t get boring. “Kung Fu Panda 4” is the type of sequel that exists to set up a continuation of this franchise with perspectives that were different from previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies.

Directed by Mike Mitchell and co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine, “Kung Fu Panda 4” is part of the franchise series that began with 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” and continued with 2011’s “Kung Fu Panda 2” and 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3.” In the first three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, the title character Po (voiced by Jack Black) had adventures with a group of kung fu masters called the Furious Five: Tigress (voiced by Angela Jolie), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), Crane (voiced by David Cross) and Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen). Po evolves from being an awkward panda to being a full-fledged kung fu warrior, under the guidance of an elderly mentor named Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), who also trained the Furious Five.

It’s mentioned at the beginning of “Kung Fu Panda 4” (which takes place ina fantasy version of China, just like the previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies) that the Furious Five are off doing separate heroic deeds. (In other words, the “Kung Fu Panda 4” filmmakers couldn’t or didn’t want to pay the money it would take to bring the original Furious Five voice actors back as principal characters for this sequel.) Po is now a famous Dragon Warrior who loves to fight and almost always wins his battles against criminals where he lives in the Valley of Peace.

And that’s why Po is surprised when Shifu tells Po that Po is being “promoted” to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, as a replacement for the retiring Master Oogway, an elderly Galápagos tortoise. Po doesn’t think of himself as having enough knowledge about spirtuality to be qualified for this position. He only wants to do what he knows he’s good at doing: “Kicking butt and taking names,” Po says. Shifu gives reluctant Po the task of choosing Po’s successor as the next Dragon Warrior, but Po doesn’t think he’s qualified to do that task either.

Because he is the reigning Dragon Warrior, Po has been given possession of a magical staff that can open different realms. The staff only works if it is in the possession of someone who has been given the staff, not someone who steals or buys the staff. It should come as no surprise that this staff becomes the sought-after object in this story of good versus evil.

Po soon meets a female Corsac fox named Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina), a wily and sarcastic thief from Juniper City, a place that is bustling with high energy but also danger. It’s the type of place where innocent-looking kids can turn into mean little terrors within a split second. Zhen soon gets caught during a robbery and is tossed in jail.

Zhen tells Po that there’s an evil shapeshifting sorceress named The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), who has super-strength powers and an army of Komodo dragons. The Chameleon who wants the staff, in order to have world domination. The Chameleon is already wreaking havoc by having several crime lords under her control in the surrounding areas. She forces these nefarious bosses to give her at least half of their bounty. The crime lords hang out at a place called the Den of Thieves, where they are led by Han (voiced by Ke Huy Quan), a pangolin who can change himself into a ball the size of a boulder.

Po naturally wants to stop The Chameleon. Zhen tells Po that she knows how to find The Chameleon. Po makes a deal with Zhen: He will get Zhen out of jail and get her jail sentence reduced if she can bring him to the place where The Chameleon is. Po figures that if he will soon have to gve up the title of Dragon Warrior, he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. The majority of “Kung Fu Panda 4” is about Zhen and Po’s quest to find The Chameleon and encountering several obstacles and challenges along the way.

It’s a secretive trip that Po doesn’t disclose to his family. Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) and Po’s biological father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston)—whose rivalry was resolved after they met in “Kung Fu Panda 3″—join forces in “Kung Fu Panda 4” to find Po when he goes missing. Mr. Ping is a nervous goose, while Li has a lot of masculine bravado, so these two opposite personalities (who occasionally argue) are fodder of a lot the comedic rapport between these two fathers.

During the time and Zhen and Po spend time together and get to know each other better, they find out that they both spent most of their childhoods as orphans. Zhen says she was taken in and raised by someone who taught street smarts to Zhen. It’s at this point in the story where it might be very easy for some viewers to figure out what’s going to happen.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” voice cast members Black and Awkwafina have done several animated films where they are larger-than-life, comedic characters. It’s a skill set that not all performers have, but Black and Awkwafina excel at it, even if some viewers might think Awkwafina’s voice is irritating. As for the Chameleon character, Davis gives a very divalicious performance as a villain who is both glamorous and menacing.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” also marks the return of snow leopard Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane), who was the chief villain in the first “Kung Fu Panda” movie. Other supporting characters in “Kung Fu Panda 4” are Captain Fish (voiced by Ronny Chieng), a green arowana living in a pelican’s mouth; Granny Boar (voiced by Lori Tan Chinn), who uses her tusks and weapons; and PandaPig (voiced by MrBeast), a pig with certain panda characteristics, who is at the Dragon Warrior Tournament. One of the best-looking fight sequences in “Kung Fu Panda 4” involves Po and some of the other characters in shadows.

Sometimes, when there’s a long gap between movies in a franchise, the movie that closes that gap can be a very stale cash grab that seems outdated. However, the throughline between “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Kung Fu Panda 4” manages to keep the story and characters fresh enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing film. “Kung Fu Panda” is not going to win any major awards, but it fulfills its purpose to be pleasant diversion that people of many generations can enjoy.

Universal Pictures will release “Kung Fu Panda 4” in U.S. cinemas on Mach 8, 2024.

Review: ‘The First Slam Dunk,’ a thrilling anime film about striving for basketball glory and coping with grief

February 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Hisashi Mitsui, Kaede Rukawa, Ryota “Ryo” Miyagi, Takenori Akagi and Hanamichi Sakuragi in “The First Slam Dunk” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The First Slam Dunk”

Directed by Takehiko Inoue

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

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the animated film “The First Slam Dunk” (based on the “Slam Dunk” manga series) features a cast of Japanese characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old basketball fanatic, who is the point guard on his high school team, wants to win the inter-high basketball championships while he is coping with the death of his older brother, who was also a basketball star. 

Culture Audience: “The First Slam Dunk” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga series and anime films with memorable characters, great action scenes, and emotional resonance.

Takenori Akagi in “The First Slam Dunk” (Image courtesy of GKIDS)

“The First Slam Dunk” is one of the best basketball movies you could ever see. It’s a suspenseful and emotionally gripping film that balances a story of achieving sports greatness and coping with grief. Simply put: “The First Slam Dunk” is an artful cinematic adaptation of the “Slam Dunk” manga series on which it is based. There have also been a “Slam Dunk” TV series (which was on the air from 1993 to 1996), video games and other movies based on the “Slam Dunk” manga series.

“Slam Dunk” manga creator Takehiko Inoue wrote and directed “The First Slam Dunk” (his very impressive feature-film debut), based on his 1990 to 1996 manga series of the same name. “The First Slam Dunk” is an example of how the creator of a manga series can be the best person to also a direct a movie based on the series. Fans of “The First Slam Dunk” manga series will be immensely pleased with this movie version, which should also win over new fans.

“The First Slam Dunk” (which takes place in Japan) is centered on the story of a basketball team’s quest to win a high-school championship and a star player on the team who is dealing wt the death of his beloved older brother. The movie’s main protagonist is Ryota “Ryo” Miyagi, the point guard (#7) of Shohoku High School’s basketball team. Ryota, who is 17 years old, is still grieving over the death of his older brother So-Chan “Soto” Miyagi, who died when Soto was 12 and Ryota was 9. Soto is the one who influenced Ryota to become a basketball player.

Ryota lives at home with his widowed mother Kaoru and his younger sister Anna. A flashback shows that after the death of the children’s father, when Soto was still alive, Soto told his mother Kaoru: “I’ll be the family captain, Ma. Soto tells Ryota that Ryota can be the assistant captain. Coincidentally, Soto and Ryota were born on the same month and date, just three years apart.

Ryota is haunted by the memories of Soto. Winning a championship means more to him than just getting a title. For Ryota, it means making his family proud and honoring Soto’s legacy. Much of “The First Slam Dunk” consists of games that Shohoku High School’s basketball teams on their quest for the championship. They want to unseat the reigning championship team from Sannoh Kogyo High School, which has a star player named Kazunari Fukatsu.

The other members of the Shohoku High School basketball team are team captain Takenori Akagi (#4), three-point shooter Hisashi Mitsui (#14), a former MVP of his junior high school; small forward Kaede Rukawa (#11); and power forward Hanamichi Sakuragi (#10), who is the team’s biggest rebel. In the “Slam Dunk” manga series, Hanamichi is the central character.

The road to the championship isn’t easy, of course. There are crushing defeats, injuries, self-doubt and conflicts among the team members. The basketball scenes are absolutely thrilling and will make viewers almost feel like they’re watching a live-action game. There’s also a little bit of romance, since Haruko Akagi (Takenori’s younger sister, who also plays basketball) is the love interest of Hanamichi.

The voices of “The First Slam Dunk” characters are portrayed by different cast members, depending on the version of the movie. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Shugo Nakamura as Ryota Miyagi, Kenta Miyake as Takenori Akagi, Jun Kasama as Hisashi Mitsui, Shinichiro Kamio as Kaede Rukawa, Subaru Kimura as Hanamichi Sakuragi and Maaya Sakamoto as Haruko Akagi. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Paul Castro Jr. as Ryota Miyagi, Aaron Goodson as Takenori Akagi, Jonah Scott as Hisashi Mitsui, Aleks Le as Kaede Rukawa, Ben Balmaceda as Hanamichi Sakuragi and Abby Espiritu as Haruko Akagi.

You don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy “The First Slam Dunk” movie, which is well-written from beginning to end, with many captivating visuals. Hanamichi has the flashiest personality on the Shohoku High School basketball team, but sensitive and thoughtful Ryota is the most endearing team member and is the heart and soul of the movie. “The First Slam Dunk” is not just the name of this move but it could also describe the triumph that the movie is for Inoue as his feature-film directorial debut.

GKIDS released “The First Slam Dunk” in select U.S. cinemas on July 28, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on December 3, 2022. “The First Slam Dunk” will be released on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on February 28, 2024.

Review: ‘The Storm’ (2024), an animated adventure from China about a wayward man and boy affected by a mysterious black ship

February 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

Daguzi/Biggie and Manou/Bun in “The Storm” (Image courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Storm” (2024)

Directed by Yang Zhigang (also known as Busifan)

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unspecified ancient time in China, the animated film “The Storm” features an all-Chinese cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A wayward man becomes a father figure to a boy he found floating in a river, and the two of them experience danger on a mysterious black ship.

Culture Audience: “The Storm” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching adventurous and visually captivating anime with several emotional moments.

A scene from “The Storm” (Image courtesy of CMC Pictures)

The animated adventure film “The Storm” gets a little repetitive, but the visuals are well-done, and the story takes an unexpected turn. The ending is a bold risk that not every viewer will like, but it stands out from other movies of this genre. “The Storm” might get some comparisons to filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning 2001 film “Spirited Away.” There are a few similarities, but each movie stands on its own as an original story.

Written and directed by Yang Zhigang (also known as Busifan), “The Storm” (which takes place in an unspecified ancient time in China) tells the story of a poor and wayward man named Daguzi, who finds a boy named Mantou, who’s about 8 or 9 years old, when he sees Mantou floating down a river stream. Mantou doesn’t seem to have any family members, so Daguzi decides to take care of Mantou and becomes a father figure to him.

Daguzi and Mantou have nicknames for each other. Mantou has given Daguzi the nickname Biggie. Daguz has given Mantou the nickname Bun. They become very close and develop an emotional bond that is like a father and a son.

Out of financial desperation, Daguzi/Biggie does something illegal to get money. He becomes a fugtive of the law and takes Mantou/Bun with him to go into hiding. Daguzi/Biggie and Mantou/Bun end up in Great Dragon Bay.

On the bay is a mysterious black ship that has a sinister reputation: People who go on the ship often disappear. Daguzi/Biggie and Mantou/Bun go on the ship and find out that there are white jellyfish-like creatures named jellieels that can turn people into jellieelsters after a certain period of time.

As already revealed in the trailer for “The Storm,” Daguzi/Biggie gets bitten by a jellieel. A distraught Mantou/Bun then goes through a race against time to find a turquoise magic mushroom to prevent Daguzi/Biggie from turning into a jellieelster. Along the way, he enlists the help of an army leader named Commander Liu (also known as Miss) and her relative called Uncle Big Hat.

One of the best things about “The Storm” is how it creates a fantastical world that is often stunning to look at and which offers both beauty and danger. The movie’s plot gets a little clunky when it shows the military preoccupations of Commander Liu and her troops. However, the story excels when it’s about the relationship between Daguzi/Biggie and Mantou/Bun. The movie requires a viewer’s full attention in order to appreciate it, because some of the plot zips around, as the two main characters don’t stay in one place for very long.

“The Storm” has overt as well as underlying messages about facing fears and what it means for children to make big decisions without parental guidance. The movie also shows how family members—whether they are biological or chosen—can inspire loyalty and love like no other type of relationships. It’s not a perfect animated film, but there’s a lot to like about it.

There’s plenty of action and suspense, but “The Storm” really succeeds in making viewers care about the characters, especially vulnerable but brave and determined Mantou/Bun. Most viewers will not be prepared for the movie’s ending. Stick around for the movie’s epilogue, which adds to the poignancy of this film’s conclusion.

CMC Pictures released “The Storm” in select U.S. cinemas on January 26, 2024. The movie was released in China on January 12, 2024.

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