Review: ‘Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,’ starring the voice of Jenny Slate

June 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) and Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” (Image courtesy of A24)

“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”

Directed by Dean Fleischer Camp

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the animated/live-action film “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young male seashell and his grandmother, who are living by themselves in an Airbnb rental house after their other family members have gone missing, have to adjust to a new life when a documentary filmmaker moves into the house.

Culture Audience: “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky films that blend animation with live action.

Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) and Dean Fleischer Camp in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” (Image courtesy of A24)

“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” could have been an excessively cute film about tiny sea shells with human-like characteristics, but this unique movie is an offbeat charmer with an appealing mix of comedy and sentimentality about life and love. The movie has an artistic blend of live action and stop-motion animation that looks organic, not forced. And although there are some parts of the film that get repetitive and not all of the jokes land well, the positive aspects of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” far outnumber any of the movie’s small flaws. “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” had its world premiere at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival and made the rounds at other film festivals, including South by Southwest (SXSW), the Seattle International Film Festival and the San Francisco International Film Festival.

The origin story of “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is self-referenced throughout the movie, which has a plot that’s similar to how the movie’s title character first became an international sensation. In real life, filmmaker Dean Fleischer Camp and actress Jenny Slate did a series of short comedy videos called “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” beginning in 2010. In these videos, Slate voiced the character of Marcel, a talkative one-inch sea shell with one eye, human feet and a wryly observant and inquisitive view of life. Based on the way that Marcel talks, he has the intelligence and emotional maturity of a human boy who’s about 9 or 10 years old.

These videos about Marcel became a worldwide hit on the Internet and inspired children’s books written by Slate and Flesicher Camp. And now, there’s an entire movie about Marcel. The feature film “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” directed by Fleischer Camp (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Slate and Nick Paley) takes viewers on Marcel’s often-emotional journey to find his missing family members. Marcel lives in a middle-class house somewhere in Los Angeles, where the unmarried human couple named Larissa (played by Rosa Salazar) and Mark (played by Thomas Mann), who previously occupied the house had a bitter breakup. The house is now being used as an Airbnb rental.

Marcel’s wise and practical grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) is Marcel’s only family member who hasn’t gone missing. Among the those who have gone missing in Marcel’s family (they are all one-eyed small shells with feet) are Marcel’s parents Mario and Connie and Marcel’s brother Justin. What bothers Marcel and Connie the most is that they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye, and they have no idea where the other family members went. Marcel and Connie have photos and illustrations of their family members as visual mementos.

Marcel and Connie have a very close relationship. She often teaches Marcel things about life, often in answer to Marcel’s seemingly endless stream of questions. Connie and Marcel also love to watch “60 Minutes” together and are big fans of “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl. Marcel describes Connie as very independent and resourceful. For example, Marcel says that Connie taught herself how to farm. Connie also loves to garden and spends a lot of her time in the home’s garden.

At times, Marcel has a childlike wonder and curiosity about the modern world. Other times, he has a simple clarity about how to react to difficulties or problems because he doesn’t have as much emotional baggage or insecurity as someone who is an adult. Throughout the movie, there are whimsical moments and more serious moments where Marcel’s personality and quirks get various reactions to those around him.

In the beginning of the movie, Marcel says that he and Connie are living by themselves in the house, along with their pet lint named Alan. Their solitude ends when an Airbnb renter moves into the house with his white terrier mix dog named Arthur. He’s a mild-mannered filmmaker named Dean Fleischer-Camp (playing a version of himself), who needs a new place to stay because he has recently separated from his wife. In a case of art imitating life, Slate and Fleischer Camp (who used to spell his surname as Fleischer-Camp) got married in 2012 and then got divorced in 2016.

As expected, Marcel is curious about the house’s new human resident, and the feeling is mutual. It takes Marcel much longer to get used to Arthur, Dean’s dog, since Marcel is sometimes annoyed by how the dog smells and keeps interrupting Marcel like a curious and playful dog would do. Marcel shows Dean around the house, including the potted plant where Marcel sleeps on a slice of bread. Marcel describes where he sleeps as his “breadroom.”

Marcel might seem like a precocious child, but he doesn’t know a lot about modern technology. Dean tells Marcel that he’s making an online documentary. Marcel’s response is “Online? You lost me.” Eventually, Dean shows Marcel how the Internet works when Dean begins posting videos of Marcel online. The videos become an international sensation, with Marcel developing a huge fan base. (Sound familiar?)

Marcel is overwhelmed and often flabbergasted by all this newfound attention. However, he thinks it can be put to good use when he asks Dean to help get the word out about Marcel’s missing family members. You can easily predict which TV news show might get involved. Someone who doesn’t really want to get too caught up in the fanfare is Connie, who is very skeptical of the Internet and all modern technology.

The first third of “Marcel the Shell With the Shoes On” seems like a series of skits weaved together, with a lot of wisecracking remarks from Marcel, as he and Dean start to get to know each other and eventually become friends. The other two-thirds of the movie begin to have more substance when it story focuses more on the search for Marcel’s family members. The movie has themes of love, heartbreak and grief that are handled with sensitivity without being mawkish.

For example, Marcel begins to notice after a while that Dean is very curious about Marcel, but Dean is very reluctant to talk about himself. And it’s not just because Dean wants to be an journalistic documentarian. Dean is having difficulty processing the breakup of his marriage.

Dean’s preoccupation with Marcel’s problems are a way for him to cope or avoid his own personal problems. The movie doesn’t fully show Dean on camera until a pivotal part of the story when he’s essentially forced to talk about himself. It’s a clever way that the movie has Dean “coming out of the shadows” that reflect his own willingness to be open up more about himself and show more vulnerability. Fleischer Camp gives a solid performance, but the character of Dean seems to know that Marcel is the real star of the show.

“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” has terrific voice work from Slate and Rossellini, who make an endearing and believable duo as a grandparent and grandchild. Connie isn’t a new character, but this movie is the first time that Connie gets her own backstory and story arc. Not everything in “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” is comedic, since the movie has some tearjerking moments that might catch some viewers by surprise. In a cinematic era when animated/live-action hybrid films are so focused on dazzling viewers with big adventures that are visual spectacles, it’s nice to have a movie like “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” that focuses more on everyday emotional connections and appreciating loved ones during life’s difficulties.

A24 will release “Marcel the Shell With Shoes On” in select U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Lightyear,’ starring the voices of Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, Peter Sohn, Uzo Aduba and James Brolin

June 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn), Izzy Hawthorne (voiced by Keke Palmer), Mo Morrison (voiced by Taika Waititi), Darby Steele (voiced by Dale Soules) and Buzz Lightyear (voiced of Chris Evans) in “Lightyear” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

“Lightyear”

Directed by Angus MacLane

Culture Representation: Taking place in various part of the universe, the animated film “Lightyear” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing people and robots connected in some way to travel in outer space.

Culture Clash: In this prequel to the “Toy Story” movies, heroic astronaut Buzz Lightyear tries to make things right when he causes an accident that strands several human beings on a foreign planet that is frequently under attack.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Toy Story” movie fans, “Lightyear” will appeal primarily to people interested in animated films about time travel in outer space, but should be prepared for a plot that’s more convoluted than the average family-oriented animated film.

Buzz Lightyear (voiced of Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) in “Lightyear” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

In the animated film “Lightyear,” the plot about time travel in outer space often gets messy, but the movie has good messages about teamwork and confronting the past without dwelling on the past. The movie’s title character is astronaut Buzz Lightyear, a talking toy character that is one of the main stars of the “Toy Story” series. “Lightyear” is the movie that shows his origin story and why Buzz became a popular toy. It’s a “movie within a movie” premise that has some stumbling blocks, but it works out well enough to be entertaining overall for people who enjoy animated films that take place in outer space.

Directed by Angus MacLane (who co-wrote the “Lightyear” screenplay with Jason Headley), “Lightyear” could easily be a stand-alone movie that doesn’t require anyone to see any of the “Toy Story” films. That’s because, with the exception of Buzz and villain Emperor Zurg (who was first seen in “Toy Story 2”), all of the characters in “Lightyear” are being introduced to movie audiences for the first time. Tim Allen is the voice of Buzz in the “Toy Story” movies. Chris Evans is the voice of Buzz in “Lightyear,” which depicts a young-man version of Buzz in the beginning of movie. It’s a seamless transition, considering that the Buzz in “Lightyear” is not really the same Buzz who’s in the “Toy Story” movies.

The opening scene of “Lightyear” shows that Buzz is part of an exploratory mission in outer space where he and his fellow astronauts from Earth visit other planets in a spaceship nicknamed The Turnip, because Buzz thinks the ship looks like a “root vegetable.” The Turnip has an on-board computer called IVAN (voiced by Mary McDonald-Lewis), which has the type of artificial intelligence that can have conversations with people. Buzz is a type of astronaut called a Space Ranger, whose duties including peacekeeping and law enforcement in the universe.

Buzz and his commander Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) are part of a crew of more than 1,000 scientists and technicians who are heading back to Earth for what they think has been a successful mission. They are about 4.2 million light years away from home when disaster strikes. Their space vessel picks up a signal that there’s a new planet called T’Kani Prime that hasn’t been explored yet for possible untapped resources. Buzz becomes curious about this unknown planet, so he makes the fateful decision to take a detour to visit T’Kani Prime.

The explorers find out too late that it’s an extremely hostile planet with dangerous vines and giant bugs that attack. While under attack, The Turnip sustains some damage, including damage to the hyper-speed crystal that allows the ship to travel to other dimensions. Buzz, Alisha and most of their crew survive, but they are now stranded in this strange and unwelcome world.

Up until this point, Buzz was an overconfident (and some might say arrogant) Space Ranger. However, he feels humility and tremendous guilt over his colossal error in judgment. He vows to make things right and to find a way to get everyone back home to Earth. But the hyper-speed crystal keeps malfunctioning and isn’t working at the speed it used to have. Buzz worries that this malfunction might leave everyone permanently stranded.

After every attempt to use the malfunctioning hyper-speed crystal with The Turnip in outer space, a dejected Buzz has to return back to T’Kani Prime. However, he finds out the first time this happens that four minutes of his time in outer space equal four years of time on T’Kani Prime. And so, every time Buzz comes back from a failed hyper-speed attempt, years have passed, while Buzz does not age at that same pace. Buzz also finds out that the faster he flies into outer space, the further into the future he travels.

After one of his early attempts to get back to hyper speed, Buzz returns to T’Kani Prime and is assigned a cat robot named Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn), who is described in the movie as an “emotional transition robot.” Sox is intuitive and acts as an all-around helper for physical tasks, getting encyclopedia information, and offering words of advice and comfort. During a few of the action scenes, Sox also has a recurring catch phrase/joke about buying time to stall any antagonists in the scene.

Buzz finds out after coming back from a failed hyper-speed trip that Alisha has fallen in love and gotten engaged to a female crew member named Kiko. He’s happy for the couple, but he also feels sad that the lives of other people are passing him by, and he still hasn’t found a way to get everyone back to Earth. Buzz’s frustration at not being able to achieve his goals as quickly as he thought he would is the movie’s obvious message about how life can have unexpected setbacks.

As shown in a montage sequence, Alisha and Kiko get married, and they have a son together. Their son gets married and has a daughter named Izzy (voiced by Keira Hairston), who from a young age, has been determined to follow in her beloved grandmother Alisha’s footsteps as a commander Space Ranger. As for what eventually happens to Alisha, that’s easy to predict, considering that T’Kani Prime is not a planet that can stop the aging process.

None of this is really spoiler information, because the majority of “Lightyear” is about what happens when Buzz ends up going on a mission with Izzy when she becomes a young woman (voiced by Keke Palmer) and other members of a motley crew of explorers. (This plot is in the “Lightyear” movie trailers.) What happened to cause this mission?

The stranded community’s gruff new commander Colonel Burnside (voiced by Isiah Whitlock Jr.) abruptly informs Buzz that Buzz’s most recent mission was his last one, because the program is being shut down. As part of the shutdown, Sox will be decommissioned and probably become part of a robot scrap heap. The stranded scientists have built a laser dome over their community for protection, because they’ve resigned themselves to thinking that they might never be able to leave T’Kani Prime—at least not in their lifetime.

Colonel Burnside orders that Sox get taken away from Buzz. However, Buzz can’t bear the thought of Sox “dying,” so he escapes with Sox in The Turnip. Through a series of circumstances, Buzz and Sox come back to T’Kani Prime, 22 years later. Izzy is now a young woman who’s part of a group of wannabe Space Rangers called the Junior Zap Patrol. And the planet has come under attack by giant robots, led by an entity named Emperor Zurg (voiced by James Brolin), who is somewhat of a generic villain.

Guess who’s going on a mission to save the planet and possibly the universe? Buzz and Sox join forces with Junior Zap Control members Izzy, goofy Mo Morrison (voiced by Taika Waititi) and sarcastic Darby Steel (voiced by Dale Soules) to often awkward results. That’s because the Junior Zap Control is untrained and often incompetent. And even though Izzy wants to be a Space Ranger, she’s terrified of being in outer space.

“Lightyear” has a few surprises, but the movie mostly sticks to a familiar formula in “heroes who save the world” sci-fi/fantasy stories. One of the movie’s greatest strengths is that it introduces characters with memorable personalities and quirks, with Sox being the one that viewers might be talking about the most. Some viewers might think Sox is adorable, while other viewers might think Sox is annoying. Either way, this character was clearly designed by the “Lightyear” filmmakers to sell Sox toys and other merchandise in the real world.

“Lightyear” falters in having a few characters that are somewhat useless or too predictable. Supporting characters such as Airman Díaz (voiced by Efren Ramirez) and Featheringhamstan (voiced by Bill Hader) seem very two-dimensional and underdeveloped. Some of the jokes are very simple-minded. And all of Buzz’s zipping back and forth between eras and dimensions doesn’t leave enough room for Buzz to slow down and develop relationships with other humans where he can connect with them without missing several years out of their lives.

The movie’s world building of T’Kani Prime is more focused on what the planet looks like, rather than the sociology of the planet. However, there’s one interesting dietary quirk that’s revealed about T’Kani Prime that different from how things are done on Earth: The descendants of the stranded community have developed a custom of preparing and eating sandwiches with bread on the inside instead of the outside.

“Lightyear” has the distinction of being the first Pixar Animation Studios movie made specifically for IMAX screens. The visuals are definitely up to Pixar standards, but the visual effects in “Lightyear” are not really game-changing or extraordinary. The voice actors bring a lot of spark to their roles, even if some of the movie’s dialogue is unremarkable and the plot gets a little muddled.

Some viewers will like the time traveling aspects of “Lightyear,” while others will not. And a big twist revealed in the last third of the movie could be divisive to audiences, depending on people’s expectations on how the movie’s characters should be. “Lightyear” spends so much effort trying to be way ahead of the audience, some viewers will feel annoyed by being expected to keep up with all the time jumping, while other viewers will be up for the challenge and enjoy the ride.

Disney/Pixar Animation Studios will release “Lightyear” in U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2022.

Review: ‘The Bob’s Burgers Movie,’ starring the voices of Eugene Mirman, John Roberts, Kristen Schaal, Dan Mintz, H. Jon Benjamin, Kevin Kline and Zach Galifianakis

May 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Linda Belcher (voiced by John Roberts), Louise Belcher (voiced by Kristen Schaal), Gene Belcher (voiced by Eugene Mirman), Tina Belcher (voiced by Dan Mintz) and Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) in “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” (Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Bob’s Burgers Movie”

Directed by Loren Bouchard and Bernard Derriman

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed beach city in a U.S. state that resembles New Jersey, the animated film “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: The working-class Belcher family, which owns a fast-food restaurant called Bob’s Burgers, becomes involved in a murder mystery in the midst of having financial problems over a bank loan.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of fans of “The Bob’s Burgers” TV series, “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” will appeal primarily to people interested in zany animated films that have comedy, drama and musical numbers that can be enjoyed by people of various generations.

A scene from “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” (Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

Whenever there’s a movie based on a long-running TV series, one of the biggest mistakes that can happen is when the filmmakers make the movie confusing to viewers who’ve never seen the TV series. Fortunately, “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” (which is based on the animated TV series “Bob’s Burgers”) does not fall into that trap. In fact, the movie is a great example of how to please existing fans, as well as how to win over newcomers to a franchise.

“Bob’s Burgers” (which premiered in 2011 and is televised in the U.S. on Fox) tells the ongoing story of the Belcher clan, a family of five whose patriarch owns and operate a small fast-food restaurant called Bob’s Burgers in an unnamed beach city in an unnamed U.S. state. (The show has dropped hints over the years that the state is probably New Jersey.) “Bob’s Burgers” creator showrunner Loren Bouchard wrote the screenplay for “The Bob’s Burgers Movie,” which Bouchard co-directed with Bernard Derriman.

Here are the five people in the Belcher family:

  • Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), the pessimistic Bob’s Burgers owner, who’s always worrying that the restaurant is on the brink of failing.
  • Linda Belcher (voiced by John Roberts), Bob’s eternally optimistic wife, helps manage Bob’s Burgers. Linda and Bob are both 44 years old.
  • Tina Belcher (voiced by Dan Mintz), Bob and Linda’s “boy crazy” eldest child, who’s 13 years old. Tina has a crush on a fellow teenager named Jimmy Pesto Jr. (also voiced by Benjamin), who is the son of the man who owns Jimmy Pesto’s Pizza, the biggest competitor to Bob’s Burgers.
  • Gene Belcher (voiced by Eugene Mirman), Bob and Linda’s mild-mannered middle child, who is 11 years old. Gene, who is a keyboardist, is preoccupied with his fledgling pop/rock band The Itty Bitty Ditty Committee.
  • Louise Belcher (voiced by Kristen Schaal), Bob and Linda’s feisty youngest child, who is 9 years old. Louise is fond of wearing a pink rabbit-ears hat, and she dislikes being perceived as a weak and cowardly kid.

“The Bob’s Burgers Movie” keeps things simple by not having too many of the characters that are in the “Bob’s Burgers” TV series take up a lot of screen time. (The character of Jimmy Pesto Sr. is not in the movie, because voice actor Jay Johnston has reportedly been dropped from the “Bob’s Burgers” franchise.) “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” could be a stand-alone story, with people never having to see the TV series to understand the movie. It’s a wise choice in the movie’s narrative, considering that many people seeing the “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” haven’t see any episodes of the TV series.

The essential plot of “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” intertwines two major problems experienced by the Belcher family: a bank loan deadline and a murder mystery. In the beginning of the movie, Bob’s Burgers is struggling to stay in business. Bob and Linda are denied an extension on a bank loan, which needs to be paid back in seven days. The day that Bob and Linda get this bad news, the street where Bob’s Burgers is located has a water main break because of old and leaky pipes underground. The breaking of the water main causes a massive sinkhole, right in front of the Bob’s Burgers entrance.

Bob’s Burgers temporarily uses a side door as its entrance and puts a sign out front saying that the restaurant is still open. But the damage to the business is devastating, since Bob’s Burgers gets no customers the day after the sinkhole has appeared. Bob starts to panic over how he’s going to pay back the loan, while Linda firmly believes that everything will eventually work out for the best. Linda thinks that all they have to do is make enough sales to get the money to pay back the loan.

Meanwhile, Louise (who is a student at Wagstaff School) is being harassed by a student bully named Chloe Barbash (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), who makes fun of Louise, by calling her a “baby” for wearing a rabbit-ears hat. (The hat’s origin story is revealed in this movie.) This taunting then triggers Louise into attempting to prove to the other Wagstaff School students that Louise is no “baby” and that she’s braver than most children. Louise comes up with the idea to explore the sinkhole, and she enlists her siblings Gene and Tina to videorecord this expedition.

To the Belcher kids’ shock, Louise finds a skeleton of a man in the sinkhole. The police are called, and the sinkhole becomes a crime scene. A medical examination reveals that the man was murdered by being shot. The identity of the murdered man is revealed to be a local carnival worker named Danny D’Angelo, also known as Cotton Candy Dan. It’s also revealed that the murder took place six years ago. (The movie’s opening scene has a big hint that is connected to the murder.)

Calvin Fischoeder (voiced by Kevin Kline), the wealthy and pompous landlord for Bob’s Burgers, becomes the prime suspect in the murder, so he’s arrested. Also affected by this arrest are Calvin’s neurotic younger brother Felix Fischoeder (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) and Calvin’s talkative lawyer cousin Grover Fischoeder (voiced by David Wain), who is Calvin’s defense attorney. Bob fears that if Calvin is sent to prison for murder, Bob’s Burgers will lose its lease.

And so, there’s a “race against time” for the case to be solved, with the Belcher kids doing their own private investigation. A cranky cop named Sergeant Bosco (voiced by Gary Cole), who is a regular on the “Bob’s Burgers” TV series, is leading the police investigation. And, not surprisingly, he’s annoyed by anyone he thinks will be interfering in the case. Just like in the TV series, Sergeant Bosco can be a friend or a foe to the Belcher family in “The Bob’s Burgers Movie.”

Meanwhile, with the bank loan deadline approaching, Bob becoming increasingly desperate. And so, loyal Bob’s Burgers customer Teddy (voiced by Larry Murphy), who works as a contractor handyman and is Bob’s closest friend, comes up with the idea for Bob’s Burgers to set up a temporary food cart on the city’s beach boardwalk—even though Bob doesn’t have a permit to sell food on the boardwalk. Desperate times lead to desperate decisions, so they decide to take a chance and operate the food cart on the boardwalk anyway.

Teddy, who is a lonely and divorced bachelor, volunteers to be help operate the food cart by being the cook. Linda dresses up as a hamburger to entice customers. The movie has some amusing moments where Linda thinks that her selling skills are based on how sexy she thinks she looks in this ridiculous-looking burger costume. Bob predictably gets annoyed by Linda’s antics, and he becomes paranoid about getting busted for operating the food cart without a license.

“The Bob’s Burgers Movie” also has recurring comedic moments about each of the Belcher kids’ current obsessions. Tina has fantasies about asking Jimmy Jr. to be her boyfriend for the summer, so there are dreamlike romantic scenarios that play out in Tina’s imagination. Gene dreams of becoming a rock star, so there are musical numbers in the movie with The Itty Bitty Ditty Committee performing the music. Louise imagines herself as a popular kid with a “badass” reputation among her schoolmates, so there are scenes of Louise doing whatever she thinks it will take to have this courageous and heroic image.

“The Bob’s Burgers Movie” isn’t a mindless kiddie film, because it has plenty of jokes that adults will appreciate more than underage children will. These jokes have to do with social class and status issues that are presented in the story. Observant viewers will notice that all the grief that Louise goes through to change her image isn’t much different than all the trouble that adults go through to project a certain image, so that they can be considered “successful” by society.

The musical numbers in “The Bob’s Burger Movie” are very entertaining and amusing, particularly the performances of “Sunny Side Up Summer” and “Not That Evil.” Fortunately, this isn’t a movie where people break out into song every 10 minutes, because it would ruin the flow of the narrative. The mystery-solving part of the story gets a little convoluted and messy, but not too complicated.

“The Bob’s Burger Movie” continues the gender-swapping choices made in the “Bob’s Burgers” TV series casting, with men voicing some of the female characters, and women voicing some of the male characters. Benjamin (the voice of Bob) also voices the character of Ms. LaBonz, one of Louise’s teachers at Wagstaff School, while Roberts (the voice of Linda) is the also the voice of Jocelyn, one of Louise’s Wagstaff School classmates. As previously mentioned, Mintz is the voice of Tina.

There are also some celebrity cameos in gender-swapped roles. Jordan Peele continues as the voice of Fanny, Calvin’s much-younger singer girlfriend, who has a checkered past and a gold-digging agenda. Sarah Silverman and Laura Silverman are, respectively, the voices of Ollie and Andy, who are Jimmy Pesto Sr.’s twin sons.

In response to criticism that the “Bob’s Burgers” TV series cast white actors to voice African American characters, “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” has added some racial diversity to the cast. Nicole Byer (host of Netflix’s cooking competition “Nailed It!”) is the voice of Olsen Benner, an African American TV reporter, who has been voiced by Pamela Adlon in the “Bob’s Burger” TV series. Ashley Nicole Black (a writer for “Ted Lasso”) is now the voice of Harley, an African American girl who’s a classmate of Louise’s at Wagstaff School. Katie Crown was previously the voice of Harley.

Even with a lot of side characters, “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” remains focused on the Belcher family. The Belcher kids get a lot of screen time with the murder investigation, which is a more interesting and funnier part of the movie than the part of the movie about Bob, Linda and Teddy selling burgers on the boardwalk. And out of all the Belcher children, Louise is the one with the standout character arc. There’s not a bad actor in this entire cast.

“The Bob’s Burgers Movie” has wide appeal, but it’s not a movie that some people might enjoy if they’re looking for more dazzling visuals in an animated film. However, for viewers who care more about animated movies that have characters with memorable personalities, some snarky jokes, and an engaging story that’s easy to follow, then “The Bob Burgers Movie” delivers this type of entertainment in a lighthearted and playful way.

20th Century Studios will release “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” in U.S. cinemas on May 27, 2022.

Review: ‘The Bad Guys,’ starring the voices of Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Awkwafina, Craig Robinson, Anthony Ramos, Zazie Beetz and Richard Ayoade

April 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tarantula (voiced by Awkwafina), Snake (voiced by Marc Maron), Shark (voiced by Craig Robinson), Piranha (voiced by Anthony Ramos) and Wolf (voiced by Sam Rockwell) in “The Bad Guys” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“The Bad Guys” (2022)

Directed by Pierre Perifel

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city that resembles Los Angeles, the animated film “The Bad Guys” features a cast of characters depicting talking animals and humans.

Culture Clash: Five talking animals, which have reputations for being villains that scare people, are in a thieving gang and have various conflicts about their reputations and redemptions.

Culture Audience: “The Bad Guys” will appeal primarily to people interested in adventure-filled animated films that have messages about the dangers of misjudging people based on physical appearances.

Diane Foxington (voiced by Zazie Beetz) and Wolf (voiced by Sam Rockwell) in “The Bad Guys” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

Amid the high-energy antics of the animated film “The Bad Guys” are meaningful messages about redemption and the pitfalls of misjudging people based on stereotypes. This comedic movie has some sly anti-hero subversiveness that shines, even when the plot gets a little messy and jumbled. “The Bad Guys” also has plenty of eye-catching visuals and memorable action sequences to satisfy viewers who are looking for thrills as well as laughs in this entertaining movie.

Directed by Pierre Perifel, “The Bad Guys” is based on Aaron Blabey’s “The Bad Guys” children’s books. The movie has elements from the first four books of “The Bad Guys” book series. Etan Cohen wrote the screenplay for “The Bad Guys” animated film, which is Perifel’s feature-film directorial debut. It’s a rollicking adventure that has massive appeal with people of various ages. The movie also avoids the mistake of overstuffing it with too many characters.

In “The Bad Guys,” the title characters are a gang of five animals that are social outcasts because they’re perceived as “bad creatures” that humans fear because these creatures have the ability to kill humans. Because they have reputations for being “bad,” they’ve all decided to become self-fulfilling prophecies of those reputations. They are a gang of thieves in a U.S. city that is unnamed, but it’s designed to look like Los Angeles, and it’s populated with humans, talking animals and non-talking animals.

The five talking animals in “The Bad Guys” gang are:

  • Wolf (voiced by Sam Rockwell), the group’s smooth-talking leader, who is a master pickpocket.
  • Snake (voiced by Marc Maron), Wolf’s frequently grumpy best friend, whose specialty is safecracking.
  • Tarantula (voiced by Awkwafina), a hyperactive and sarcastic computer hacker, who has the nickname Webs.
  • Shark (voiced by Craig Robinson), a somewhat goofy master of disguises.
  • Piranha (voiced by Anthony Ramos), a short-tempered loose cannon, who has the ability to spread noxious fumes when he passes gas.

In the beginning of the movie, it’s Snake’s birthday, which the rest of his friends want to celebrate, but Snake does not want a birthday party because he hates birthdays. Snake doesn’t even want to have a birthday cake, although he does mention that he’s interested in a delicacy that he wouldn’t mind having for his birthday: guinea pigs.

Not long after Snake and Wolf have a back-and-forth debate over how they are going to celebrate Snake’s birthday, the gang robs a bank. As they all make their getaway in a car driven by Wolf, he sneers, “Go bad or go home.” Back at their hideout, the five pals celebrate Snake’s birthday with some cake. He reluctantly enjoys the party.

This gang is the ultimate anathema to Misty Luggins (voiced by Alex Borstein), the city’s hot-tempered human police chief who feels personally humiliated every time that these troublemaking pals get away with their crimes. Someone else who is determined to stop this gang of thieves is the newly elected governor named Diane Foxington (voiced by Zazie Beetz), a confident and intelligent fox. Governor Foxington announces at a press conference about these criminals: “These so-called bad-guys are second-rate has-beens.”

The five gang members see the governor insulting them on TV, so they decide to prove her wrong. Wolf is aware that the downfall of many gangs is when they make their crimes too personal, but he can’t resist the idea of making the governor regret calling the gang a bunch of laughable hacks. The gang members also take delight in embarrassing Police Chief Luggins and her police department.

It just so happens that an upcoming gala presents the ideal opportunity for the gang to do a very high-profile heist. A famous, publicity-seeking philanthropist guinea pig named Professor Robert Marmalade IV (voiced Richard Ayoade) is being honored for his charitable work with the Good Samaritan Award. At this event, this valuable prize will be given in the form of a large trophy called the Golden Dolphin, which is a portable dolphin statue made out of gold.

Access to the Golden Dolphin is highly restricted. Governor Foxington, who will present the award to Professor Marmalade, is the only one who has clearance to a room where the Golden Dolphin is being kept before the ceremony. The room can only be opened through an eye detection sensor on the door, with the sensor programmed to open when it sees an eye of Governor Foxington.

The gang concocts an elaborate plan to crash the gala and steal the Golden Dolphin. And, of course, not everything goes according to the plan. Not surprisingly, Wolf plays the role of a charming gala guest to distract Governor Foxington. Because they are both canines, it’s repeated in the movie that wolves and foxes aren’t very different from each other. And you know what that means, especially when Wolf and Governor Foxington exchange the type of romantic comedy banter of a would-be couple trying to pretend they’re not attracted to each other.

“The Bad Guys” has some plot twists that are somewhat unexpected, while other plot twists are very easy to predict. Marmalade is a do-gooder who believes that criminals can be redeemed, so he very publicly declares that this gang of five should be given a path to redemption. Most of the movie’s plot is how the gang takes this redemption offer but secretly plans to steal the Golden Dolphin anyway.

The movie also has a subplot about guinea pigs being held captive for scientific experiments at a place called Sunnyside Laboratories. A human TV reporter named Tiffany Fluffit (voiced by Lilly Singh) provides some mild comic relief as a character written as a parody of TV reporters who care more about their egos, fame and tabloid stories than in being good journalists. And there’s a cute, unnamed cat (that doesn’t talk like a human), which ends up teaching Wolf and his gang some lessons in compassion.

“The Good Guys” is a well-cast movie, since all of the voice cast members for the main characters bring a distinctive edge to each of their respective characters’ unique personalities. “The Bad Guys” is not a movie where the characters are easily confused with each other, because each has something memorable that sets that character apart from everyone else. In an animated movie business that’s over saturated with stories about talking animals, “The Bad Guys” is an above-average winner that is sure to inspire sequels.

DreamWorks Animation will release “The Bad Guys” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie was released in other parts of the world, beginning on March 17, 2022.

Review: ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines,’ starring the voices of Abbi Jacobson, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Michael Rianda, Eric André and Olivia Colman

March 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rick Mitchell (voiced by Danny McBride), Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), Aaron Mitchell (voiced by Mike Rianda) and Linda Mitchell (voiced by Maya Rudolph) in “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (Photo by courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Netflix)

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines”

Directed by Michael “Mike” Rianda and Jeff Rowe

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of United States in 2020, including Kansas and California’s Silicon Valley, the animated movie “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A teenage aspiring filmmaker, who’s about to start her first year of college, reluctantly goes on a road trip with her family when they all experience an apocalypse where machines try to take over the world.

Culture Audience: “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching family-oriented animation films that have larger commentaries about modern society.

Aaron Mitchell (voiced by Mike Rianda), Rick Mitchell (voiced by Danny McBride), Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson) and Linda Mitchell (voiced by Maya Rudolph) in “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (Photo by courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Netflix)

The animated film “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” puts a high-energy spin on the over-used apocalypse concept, by balancing heartwarming earnest about family with biting satire about technology obsessions. The movie has an entirely predictable story arc, but there are enough engaging characters and comedy in this adventure story to make it a memorable experience that will inspire repeat viewings.

Written and directed by Michael “Mike” Rianda and Jeff Rowe, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” has the type of protagonist that is often at the center of animated films: a teenager on the cusp of adulthood and restless to assert independence from the rest of the family. However, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” has a teen protagonist who often isn’t seen in animated films: a female aspiring filmmaker.

Her name is Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), who is excited to start her first year of at an unnamed college in California, where she plans to study filmmaking. It will be the first time that she will be living apart from her family in her unnamed hometown in Michigan. Katie’s family includes her sometimes-bumbling but well-meaning father Rick Mitchell (voiced by Danny McBride); sensible and even-tempered mother Linda Mitchell (voiced by Maya Rudolph); and nerdy younger brother Aaron (voiced by Rianda), who is about 12 or 13 years old. The movie never mentions what Rick and Linda do for a living.

Aaron is so fascinated with dinosaurs, he randomly calls strangers in the phone book to find out if they like dinosaurs too, so he can find other people to talk to about his dinosaur obsessions. It’s an example of the personality quirks that “Mitchells and the Machines” has for some of the main characters that set this animated film apart from others that tend to have very generic and forgettable characters. Aaron is also at an age where he feels awkward around girls. He’s too young to date but he’s also not sure how to express himself when he’s attracted to a girl.

Katie has her own insecurity issues (she thinks of herself as an outsider at her high school), but one thing she is sure about is that she wants to be a storyteller in filmmaking. Flashbacks show that ever since she was a very young child, Katie wrote and directed stories, with Aaron often being someone she “cast” in roles to act out these stories. Katie and Rick used to have a very close father-daughter bond, but sometime around the time she reached adolescence, they began to drift apart emotionally.

Katie says early on in the story: “My parents haven’t figured me out yet. To be fair, it took me a while to figure myself out. My little brother Aaron gets me, but he has his own weird interests.”

Rick is an outdoorsy type who likes to fix things, but he isn’t as skilled as he would like to think he is. Rick doesn’t really understand Katie’s love of creative arts, which is one of the reasons Rick and Katie have become alienated from each other. Linda is more understanding of Katie’s filmmaker aspirations, but Linda isn’t as immersed in cinema as much as Katie is.

Katie’s irritation with Rick grows to new levels when they have an argument over the dining table because she’s working on her laptop computer during this meal. Rick wants Katie to stop working on the computer and pay attention to the family while at the table. Rick takes the computer, a tug of war ensues between Rick and Katie, and it ends with the computer being dropped and getting broken.

But that’s not all. Katie becomes even angrier at her father when he announces that he canceled the plane ticket for Katie’s trip to California for her college enrollment. Instead, Rick has decided that all four of the Mitchells will take a road trip together to the college. It will mean that Katie will miss the college’s orientation week, which she sees as a crucial way to get to start making friends and getting to know the campus before classes begin.

Meanwhile, in Cupertino, California (which, not coincidentally, is the headquarters of Apple Inc.), a 21-year-old billionaire technology mogul named Mark Bowman (played by Eric André), the found of PAL Labs, makes a major announcement at a PAL Labs event: The company, which is famous for inviting the PAL digital assistant (a hand-held device that looks a lot like an iPhone) is about to introduce Pal Max Robots, which are essentially walking versions of a PAL digital assistant.

The Mitchell family’s road trip starts on September 22, 2020. Even though Katie doesn’t really want to be stuck with her family, she takes solace in making videos to document this excursion. But something goes terribly wrong: The PAL operating system, which has extraordinary artificial intelligence, finds out that the digital assistant will be “downgraded” and eventually marketed as obsolete, compared to the PAL robots.

And so, the PAL operating system (voiced by Olivia Colman) incites and mass rebellion of all machines to take over the world and capture humans at PAL’s command. The Mitchells are on the road when this Machine Apocalypse turns their lives upside down, as they try to escape from being captured. People who’ve seen enough of these movies can predict what happens in the story and the lessons learned by the family members along the way.

One of the many ways that “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” pokes fun at how technology has taken over people’s lives (and not necessarily for the better) is when it shows how people get social media envy when they think other people on social media are living much more glamorous lives, based on what’s presented on social media. Linda has a lot of this envy about the Posey family, a seemingly picture-perfect clan of three whose lives are fashionably curated and documented on social media platforms such as Instagram.

In a case of inspirational casting where art imitates life, real-life spouses John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, who have put their lives on social media, are the voices of spouses Jim Posey and Hailee Posey, who have a bright and inquisitive daughter named Abbey Posey (voiced by Charlyne Yi), who is about the same age as Aaron Mitchell. Abbey predictably becomes Aaron’s crush but he doesn’t know how to handle his feelings about her.

In many scenes, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” makes clever spoofs and observations about how, if the machines we used came alive, they would have a love/hate relationship with people. Humans overly rely on technology, but think no matter what happens, people are smart enough to be superior to technology.

Meanwhile, technology has the power to being people from long distances together, but it can alienate people who are in close proximity. Just go to any party and see how many people would rather look at their phones than engage with other people at the party. It’s why Katie’s father Rick, who’s a self-confessed “technophobe,” is the most insulted int he family when Katie would rather look at a computer or phone screen than talk to him. You can bet that Rick’s technophobia is a big part of the battles that the Mitchells have to do against the warring machines.

All of the voice cast members take on their roles with gusto, especially Jacobson, McBride and Colman, whose hilarious villain antics and quips as PAL are among the movie’s many highlights. In addition, the animation conveys a thrilling array of zany misadventures, and problem solving in the midst of an apocalypse. This is not a movie where viewers will get bored, because there’s so much hyperactivity going on.

Of course, the heart of “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is about family relationships and accepting flaws and quirks in loved ones when it’s unlikely those flaws and quirks are going to change. The Mitchells start off their road trip as an emotionally fractured family. And the movie’s message is that it shouldn’t have to take an apocalypse to appreciate family members whose love might not be perfect but it’s there when it matters.

Netflix premiered “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” on April 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Jujutsu Kaisen 0,’ an adventurous movie prequel from Japan

March 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rika Orimoto and Yuta Okkotsu in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

“Jujutsu Kaisen 0”

Directed by Sunghoo Park

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

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

Culture Clash: A socially awkward 16-year-old boy, who is haunted by the spirit of childhood friend, decides to become a sorcerer to put this break the curse of the spirit.

Culture Audience: “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Jujutsu Kaisen” magna and TV series, as well as people who are interested in anime.

Panda, Maki Zen’in and Toge Inumaki in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” (Image courtesy of Crunchyroll)

In this dazzling and often comedic prequel to the “Jujutsu Kaisen” series, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” should please fans of the series as well as impress new fans who might have this movie as their first “Jujutsu Kaisen” experience. “Jujutsu Kaisen” follows a familiar pattern of anime about teenagers and other young people who have magical powers. Unlike most male protagonists in anime, the central character in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” is wracked with insecurities.

Directed by Sunghoo Park and written by Hiroshi Seko, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” is based on Gege Akutami’s “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” manga series, which is a prequel to the “Jujutsu Kaisen” series. If you’ve made it this far in the review, chances are you’re familiar with the series already. if not, you don’t have to know what that the “Jujutsu Kaisen” series is about to understand or appreciate “Jujutsu Kaisen 0,” which could be viewed as a stand-alone movie.

In “Jujutsu Kaisen 0,” Yuta Okkotsu is a lonely and insecure 16-year-old, who is called on to become a reluctant sorcerer. The movie opens in November 2016, in Tokyo, where Yuta is being attacked by four bullies in his school. Suddenly, a giant ghost that looks like a monster appears and fights back, severely injuring the bullies. Who or what is this ghost?

The avenging spirit is Rika Orimoto, Yuta’s childhood best friend, who died when they were about 9 or 10 years old in their hometown of Sendai City. Rika was tragically killed when she was hit by a car on a street, and Yuta witnessed everything. Not long before she this accident happened, Rika had given Yuta a promise ring and vowed that they would get married to each other when they became adults. Rika also promised to never leave Yuta.

It’s a promise that has caused problems for Yuta, who is blamed for injuring the bullies. Rika has also aggressively come to Yuta’s “rescue” on other occasions, with violent results. Meanwhile, a group of unseen judges gather to decide what will happen to Yuta. The judges have summoned a young adult sorcerer named Satoru Gojo to go to Yuta and train him to banish the spirit of Yuta, among other things.

Satoru Gojo tells a skeptical and terrified Yuta that Yuta will be taken to Jujutsu High, a special school for sorcerer training. Feeling like an outcast anyway, Yuta goes along with the plan. There are only three others who are part of this training program:

  • Maki Zen’in, a sassy and sarcastic know-it-all, who initially disrespects Yuta, because she thinks that Yuta doesn’t have what it takes to be a successful sorcerer.
  • Toge Inumaki, who is quiet and less combative than Maki, and who his more willing to help Yuta.
  • Panda, a panda that provides a lot of comic relief for being over-exuberant, which can lead to clumsy moments.

The rest of the movie follows their adventures in sorcerer training, as well as what happens in the inevitable showdown to rein in Rika. “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” doesn’t fall into the trap that other adventure films fall into when they try to clutter up the story with too many characters. By keeping the story streamlined, focused and easy to understand, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” can have wide appeal to many different age groups.

The voices of the “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Megumi Ogata as Yuta Okkotsu, Yuichi Nakamura as Satoru Gojo, Kana Hanazawa as Rika Orimoto, Mikako Komatsu as Maki Zen’in, Koki Uchiyama as Toge Inumaki and Tomokazu Seki as Panda. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Kayleigh McKee as Yuta Okkotsu, Kaiji Tang as Satoru Gojo, Anairis Quiñones as Rika Orimoto, Allegra Clark as Maki Zen’in, Xander Mobus as Toge Inumaki and Matthew David Rudd as Panda.

One thing in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” that might be an issue for some viewers is how it depicts the female characters as the most problematic. Rika’s obsessive love and her appearance in monster form are over-the-top ways to make feminine infatuation look demonic. She also has temper tantrums that make her look mentally ill. In addition, Maki is the most difficult living human in the story. However, there is some redemption for at least one of these female characters, even though she’s portrayed as very antagonistic for most of the story.

The visually striking animation in “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” is at its best during the last third of the movie, when the biggest battles happen. The movie’s pacing keeps a level of interest that serves the story quite well. Overall, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” is the type of anime that does justice to the manga version. Stay for the end-credits scene if you want a hint of how the story might continue in a movie sequel.

Crunchyroll released “Jujutsu Kaisen 0” in U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022. The movie was released in Japan in 2021.

Review: ‘Turning Red,’ starring the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee and Tristan Allerick Chen

March 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Abby (voiced by Hyein Park), Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse), Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in “Turning Red” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Turning Red”

Directed by Domee Shi 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Toronto in 2002, the animated film “Turning Red” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white and a few black people and Latinos) portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Due to an inherited family trait, a 13-year-old girl finds out that she can turn into a giant red panda when she gets very emotional, and she has to decide if she will keep or get rid of this family trait.

Culture Audience: “Turning Red” will appeal primarily to people interested in entertaining but somewhat predictable animated films that are stories about coming of age and about mother-daughter relationships.

Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) and Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in “Turning Red” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

The comedic animated film “Turning Red” can at times get too one-note and formulaic in its themes of identity and self-discovery, but the movie has enough offbeat charm to make it a memorable coming-of-age story. The movie explores issues that are familiar to movies about children who are descendants of immigrants, such as whether to follow “old country” traditions or “current country” lifestyles. It’s a story that people of many generations and cultures can enjoy.

“Turning Red” is the feature-film debut of director Domee Shi, who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, for her 2018 film “Bao.” According to the “Turning Red” production notes, “Turning Red” (which was co-written by Shi and Julie Cho) is based on a lot of Shi’s real-life experiences as a Canadian child in a Chinese immigrant family. The story, which takes place in Toronto in the spring of 2002, is about a 13-year-old girl who finds her own identity, even when she has people telling her who she should be and what she should do.

The 13-year-old protagonist of “Turning Red” is Meiling “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a smart, obedient and admittedly dorky eighth grader at Lester B. Pearson Middle School in Toronto. Mei is the only child of domineering, overprotective mother Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh) and laid-back and mild-mannered father Jin Lee (voiced by Orion Lee), who both moved to Canada before Mei was born. Ming is the boss of the Lee Family Temple, which is a tourist attraction in Toronto’s Chinatown district. Jin appears to be a stay-at-home father. Mei works part-time as an assistant temple keeper at the Lee Family Temple, where she does menial tasks such as cleaning.

Mei is a self-described overachiever who’s not very popular at school, but she has a tight-knit trio of friends who are students at the same school. Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse) is tomboyish and goofy. Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is bookish and sarcastic. Abby (voiced by Hyein Park) is feisty and hot-tempered. All four girls are somewhat obsessive fans of a boy band named 4*Town, which will be performing an upcoming concert at the Toronto SkyDome, a stadium that can seat 40,000 to 50,000 people. (In real life, the Toronto SkyDome name was changed to Rogers Centre in 2005.)

Because Ming is very strict and suspicious of anything that she thinks could lead Mei to rebel, she won’t let Mei go to the concert. Ming tells Mei that 4*Town’s inoffensive pop music is “filth.” It’s around this time that Mei finds out that the women in her family have inherited a trait where they turn into giant red pandas when they get emotional. When Mei is a panda, she’s about 8 feet tall. Mei discovers this family gene when she wakes up as a giant panda. And later, she predictably turns into a panda when she’s in school, which leads to a humiliating experience.

Mei’s parents tell her that the red panda trait can be suppressed/cured with an ancient ritual during the next red moon, which takes place the following month, on May 25. Meanwhile, Mei finds out that her schoolmates actually like when she transforms into Red Panda Mei, because she’s more spontaneous and fun-loving as a panda. And so, Mei and her three pals come up with a scheme to get enough money to go to the 4*Town concert, which will cost them $200 a ticket. The red panda ritual and the concert are part of a “race against time” aspect to this movie.

“Turning Red” infuses this somewhat simplistic comedic story with more complex commentary about generational traditions and mother-daughter relationships, especially toward the end of the film. Ming expects Mei to put family duties above Mei’s social life, which is why Mei doesn’t hang out with her friends after school as much as she would like to because Mei often has to work at the temple. “Turning Red” has many nods to Eastern culture (which puts emphasis on family/community) and Western culture (which puts emphasis on individuality), as well as the conflicts that can arise when someone, such as Mei, is caught between the contrasts of these cultures.

For example, Ming tells Mei that the red panda trait originated from an ancient female ancestor named Sun Yee, who was a warrior, scholar and poet at a time when women rarely had those roles. During a war, when most of the men were off fighting in the war, Sun Yee prayed to the gods to give her a way to defend her daughter and their village. The gods answered her prayer by giving her the ability to turn into a giant red panda. This ability was passed on to all of Sun Yee’s female descendants. This inherited trait could be considered a blessing for those who see it as good for a community, or it could be seen as a curse for those who see it as bad for an individual.

In the movie’s opening scene, Mei makes a comment that shows how she’s conflicted between the need to get the approval of her family (namely, her mother) and her need to be her own person who can make her own decisions. She says in a voiceover as a montage of her life flashes on screen: “The No. 1 rule in my family: Honor your parents … The least you can do is everything they ask. Honoring your parents is great, but if you take it too far, you might forget to honor yourself.”

Other parts of the movie repeat scenarios where Mei would like to think that she’s independent and free to do what she wants, but then something happens (usually involving Mei’s mother Ming) where Mei is made to feel guilty or pressured to do things that will make her parents proud and honor the family. Ming already has Mei’s life mapped out for her and expects Mei to have a career as secretary-general of the United Nations. Ming is also extremely judgmental and wants to control every aspect of Mei’s life.

For most of the movie, Ming is a caricature of a “helicopter mom,” who hovers and often interferes with Mei’s life to the extent that it causes a series of embarrassments for Mei. For example, when Mei wakes up one morning to find out that she has turned into a giant red panda, Mei is so confused and frightened, she won’t let her parents in her bedroom, but she wails through the door: “I’m a gross red monster!”

Ming misinterprets Mei’s “gross red monster” comment as Mei getting her menstrual period for the first time. That misunderstanding leads to a scene where Ming shows up unannounced at Mei’s school to deliver sanitary pads to her. Much to Mei’s understandable mortification, Ming gets into a fight with a security guard over it in front of Mei and her classmates, while Ming shouts that she just wants to deliver sanitary pads that Mei forgot at home. Of course, Ming eventually finds out the truth, and that’s when Mei’s parents tell Mei about their family’s red panda secret.

It isn’t until the last third of “Turning Red” that Ming stops being a caricature and starts being more of a fully developed character, as some of her human frailties and vulnerabilities emerge. This gradual reveal of Ming’s true character is one of the best aspects of “Turning Red,” which skillfully shows how physical appearances aren’t the only traits that can be passed down through generations. Parenting habits and the ways that parents teach children how to interact with others can also be inherited.

The movie falters a bit in how it introduces a few potential storylines for Mei’s peers, and then just lets those storylines dangle unresolved. There’s a 17-year-old boy named Devon (voiced by Addie Chandler), who’s a heartthrob to Mei, her friends and some of the other girls at Mei’s school. Devon works as a clerk at a convenience store called Daisy Mart. And when Ming finds that Mei has drawn some romantic (non-sexual) fantasy illustrations about Devon in Mei’s sketchbook/journal, Ming goes on a rampage by yelling Devon at his job and wrongfully accusing him of taking sexually advantage of Mei. And then, Devon and his storyline are completely dropped, as if his only purpose in the movie was to be a target of Ming’s misguided parental rants.

Ming also hugely disapproves of Mei’s friend Miriam, for reasons that aren’t made very clear and should have been given better explanation or context. The only explanation put forth in the movie is that Miriam, who likes to skateboard and is comfortable with herself, is perceived by Ming as a threat to Ming’s idea that Mei should be a prim and proper girl. Even though Miriam is a nice person and a supportive friend, Ming has this unsubstantiated idea that Miriam is a troublemaker who’s a bad influence on Mei. At one point in the movie, Miriam briefly mentions that Miriam’s parents aren’t very strict, which could be another reason why Ming doesn’t trust Miriam.

One of the biggest flaws of “Turning Red” is that Miriam, Priya and Abby are underdeveloped characters overall. The movie gives no sense of who these three friends are outside of any context of reacting to Mei’s emotions, offering to help Mei with any problems that she has, or discussing things that they have in common with Mei. Teenage girls talk to their close friends a lot about their personal hopes/goals and their families, but that kind of talk is very absent in this movie for Miriam, Priya and Abby. It makes Mei’s friendship with them look more one-sided than it should be.

Every movie with a school of underage children inevitably has a character who’s a school jerk/bully. In “Turning Red,” this character is Tyler (voiced by Tristan Allerick Chen), a spoiled and privileged kid, who likes to taunt Mei for being nerdy. Not much else is revealed about Tyler. That lack of information about Tyler is a missed opportunity for “Turning Red” to give better context for why school bullies like this exist and why they target certain people. The way that the movie handles the bully storyline is a little problematic, because it’s oversimplified and has a morally questionable message of buying friendships with cash, when the lesson should be that real friendships can’t be bought.

A montage near the beginning of the movie shows what a few people at the school think of Mei. A teacher says, “She’s a very enterprising, mildly annoying young lady.” A female student says that Mei is a “major weirdo.” A male student describes Mei as “an overachieving dork narc.” Mei is then seen commenting cheerfully, “I accept and embrace all labels.” Viewers of “Turning Red” are left to speculate, with nothing shown in the movie, why some students have such hostile feelings toward Mei that they would call her a “narc” (in other words, a snitch) and a “major weirdo.”

The music group 4*Town is meant to be a parody of boy bands that were popular in the early 2000s. The five members of the group—don’t ask why they’re called 4*Town, because there’s no explanation—also mirror the stereotypes of boy bands: One or two members of the group are the most popular heartthrob lead singers, while the other members are more forgettable and tend to fade in the background.

In 4*Town, the two most popular members are Robaire (voiced by Jordan Fisher) and Jesse (voiced by Finneas O’Connell), who overshadow the group’s other members: Tae Young (voiced by Grayson Villanueva), Aaron T. (voiced by Topher Ngo) and Aaron Z. (voiced by Josh Levi). All of the members of 4*Town are not in the movie long enough for them to show distinctive personalities, even though the group’s concert is at the center of the movie’s climactic action.

In real life, O’Connell is the Grammy-winning producer/songwriter who’s best known for his work with his younger sister, Billie Eilish. O’Connell and Eilish wrote three original 4*Town songs for the “Turning Red” soundtrack: “1 True Love,” “Nobody Like U” and “U Know What’s Up.” These songs are meant to sound “boy-band generic,” so don’t expect this music to win any prestigious awards. Ludwig Göransson (who won an Oscar and a Grammy for his 2018 “Black Panther” movie score) composed the musical score for “Turning Red,” which is a serviceable score but not Göransson’s best work.

All of the voice cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, while the visuals are very good but not exceptional. Many parts of the movie are predictable, but “Turning Red” is ultimately satisfying for anyone who can enjoy animated entertainment that hits all the expected notes when the protagonist is a plucky teenager.

Disney+ will premiere “Turning Red” on March 11, 2022, the same date that Disney will release the movie for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas.

Review: ‘Belle’ (2021), an animated version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ from Japan

February 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Beast/Dragon and Belle in “Belle” (Image courtesy of Studio Chizu)

“Belle” (2021)

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda

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

Culture Representation: This Japanese animated fantasy film takes place primarily in unnamed village and in an online virtual world called U, with teenagers as the lead characters and adults as supporting characters.

Culture Clash: A misfit teenage girl creates an online persona called Belle, who becomes the most popular singer in the universe, and she befriends a hunted creature called Dragon under this new persona in this online world.

Culture Audience: “Belle” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime films and unique interpretations of Disney classics.

Hiro and Suzu in “Belle” (Image courtesy of Studio Chizu)

“Belle” is more than just another version of “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s a highly imaginative, visually stunning and emotionally stirring film that embodies some of the best anime of the 21st century. Written and directed by Mamoru Hosada, “Belle” captures the essence of “Beauty and the Beast” but also brings many unique elements to the story, so that “Belle” shouldn’t be considered a remake but a true reimagining.

The central character in Belle is a misunderstood student named Suzu, who is about 15 or 16 years old. She lives with her unnamed widower father in a small, unnamed village in Japan. Suzu is somewhat of a loner who has been depressed and grieving over the loss of her mother about five or six years earlier in a tragic accident, when her mother saved a girl from drowning in a river, and Suzu witnessed her mother’s death.

Because of this trauma and grief, Suzu has grown emotionally distant from her father, who tries to connect with Suzu. But she usually acts irritated by him, so they don’t communicate much with each other. Suzu has self-esteem issues too. She doesn’t think she’s as attractive and intelligent as her peers, so she tends to be quiet and emotionally withdrawn from people. She pours her thoughts into her journals, where she writes and sometimes sketches illustrations.

Suzu is haunted by the memory of begging her mother not to go in the river to save the drowning girl. This memory is shown as a flashback multiple times in the movie. Suzu writes in her journal: “Why did mom go in the river and leave me behind? Why was a stranger’s life more important than her life with me?”

At school, Suzu’s only real friend is a sassy computer whiz named Hiro, who sometimes gives pep talks to Suzu to boost her confidence and other times outright insults Suzu when she becomes frustrated by Suzu’s self-pitying ways. Hiro has a blunt way of communicating that might sometimes hurt people’s feelings, but Hiro believes it’s just being brutally honest.

For example, one day at school, Suzu and Hiro admire from afar a pretty and popular student named Ruku, who is described as “the school princess” and president of their student class. When Suzu laments to Hiro that she will never be as pretty and popular as Ruku, Hiro agrees. However, Hiro comes up with an idea that she thinks will help Suzu with her self-esteem issues.

In “Belle,” there’s an online virtual universe called U, where people can create their own personas/avatars, using their real-life DNA. Here’s how U is described in the movie’s opening scene: “U is the ultimate virtual community, created by five sages called the Voices, who preside over the intellect of this world. It’s the biggest Internet society in history that’s still growing with 5 billion registered users.”

The description continues: “U employs body-sharing technology. Your avatar in U is called AS. It is already created, based on your biometric information. You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.”

Hiro suggests that Suzu create a new persona in U. At first, Suzu is reluctant and a little scared to do so. But when she tentatively starts fiddling around with the app to create a U avatar, she accidentally scans a photo of Ruku from a student group photo and can’t reverse this action. And the next thing you know, Suzu has a new U persona: a pink-haired beauty named Belle, whose only facial characteristic that she shares with Suzu are Suzu’s freckles.

One of the things that Suzu is self-conscious about in real life is her singing. But as Belle in U, she immediately becomes not just a hit singer but also the most popular singer in the universe. That’s because, as explained in the movie, the body-sharing technology of U brings out people’s hidden strengths in their U avatars. Belle’s sudden fame gives her millions of fans, but also the inevitable backlash from “haters,” some of whom are other U celebrities who are envious that Belle has surpassed them in popularity.

Seeing this online criticism upsets Suzu. When she complains to Hiro about it, Hiro has this response: “They’re just jealous. If you only get compliments, you only have hardcore fans. Minor league. In U, stardom is built on mixed reception.” Hiro adds, “Be more confident!”

When Suzu worries that people will find out that she’s Belle, Hiro says in response: “Nobody will ever guess that Belle is a mousy country bumpkin like you.” Because Belle has become a rich and famous singer, Suzu feels guilty about getting all this money under a fake persona. And so, Hiro tells Suzu: “Don’t worry. I’ll anonymously donate every dollar to charity.”

There’s a lot more trouble in U than online trolls and bullying. Seven months earlier, a mysterious creature called Beast (also known as Dragon) has been wreaking havoc by physically lashing out at random residents of U. The attacks have gotten so bad, Beast has now become a wanted entity who is sought after by law enforcement for punishment.

Beast has horns and wears a cloak designed to look like there are bruises on the coat. Other than that, no one seems to know who the Beast really is. Eight superheroes called the Justices, who are the protectors of U, are on the hunt for Beast. The leader of the Justices is a blonde alpha male named Justin, who is the most ambitious one in the group who wants to find and capture Beast.

Through a series of circumstances, Belle ends up meeting Beast, who lives as a recluse in his castle. He is very standoffish and rude to her at first. He even orders her to leave on more than one occasion. But eventually, Belle ends up gaining Beast’s trust, and they become close. Belle is aware that Beast is being hunted, but she is determined not to betray him by turning him into the authorities.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Beast and guessing the real identity of Beast have become an obsession for the residents of U. All sorts of people are accused of being Beast, with many having to prove their innocence. And this guessing game becomes big business, as Beast merchandise and other Beast-related ventures become hot-selling moneymakers. It’s this movie’s clever commentary on how gossip and fads quickly spread.

One of the ways that “Belle” is a big departure from other interpretations of “Beauty and the Beast” is that there is no romance between Belle and Beast. Instead, they form a genuine friendship that doesn’t always go smoothly. Suzu/Belle’s feels a connection to Beast, because they are both lost and wounded souls who want to hide their true selves from the world.

“Belle” also offers an incisive view of how people create online personas to feel better about themselves because they don’t like their lives in the real world. The movie also doesn’t shy away from depicting how this fakery can actually backfire in people’s attempts to boost their egos. With Suzu, it somewhat messes with her mind that she’s so popular in U, but she’s still an ignored “nobody” in the real world. People around Suzu go crazy for Belle, so Suzu starts to wonder if they would still feel the same way about Belle if they knew Suzu was the real person behind this avatar.

However, Suzu isn’t quite the outcast that she thinks she is. At school, Suzu seems to be oblivious to attention from a fellow student named Shinobu Hisatake, whom she rejects every time he makes an attempt to hang out with her. Suzu and Shinobu have known each other since childhood. He’s described as someone who proposed marriage to Suzu when she was 6 years old.

Another student at their school is Kamishin, who is bullied by some other students for being eccentric. Kamishin has started a canoe club where he is the only member. He seems comfortable with who he is, but could he be hiding any dark feelings about being a social pariah? Suzu, Hiro and Shinobu all know Kamishin, but they aren’t close friends with him.

Meanwhile, viewers will also be wondering who’s the person behind the Beast avatar, who definitely identifies as male. That’s why in addition to being a story about love between friends, “Belle” is also a mystery. There’s a major plot development in “Belle” that’s a big departure from the usual “Disney princess movie” formula. This twist to the story comes in the last third of the film and results in the movie’s biggest emotional moments.

“Belle” not only has a richly layered story, but the anime visuals are top-notch. The world of U can be dark and foreboding (such as Beast’s castle) or a brightly lit, vibrant paradise filled with fantastical whimsy, such as the environment where Belle does her musical performances. Suzu’s world is also vividly designed as a small town that affected by modern technology. The songs in “Belle” suit the story, but the visuals and screenplay are the movie’s strongest high points.

The voices of the “Belle” characters are portrayed by different actors, depending on which version of “Belle” that you see. The original Japanese version (with English subtitles) has Kaho Nakamura as Suzu/Belle, Takeru Satoh as Beast/Dragon, Lilas Ikuta as Hiro, Ryō Narita as Shinobu, Shōta Sometani as Kamishin, Kōji Yakusho as Suzu’s father, Sumi Shimamoto as Suzu’s mother, Tina Tamashiro as Ruka and Toshiyuki Morikawa as Justin. There’s also a U.S. version, with the dialogue dubbed in English, that has Kylie McNeill as Suzu/Belle, Paul Castro Jr. as Beast/Dragon, Jessica DiCicco as Hiro, Manny Jacinto as Shinobu, Brandon Engman as Kamishin, Ben Lepley as Suzu’s father, Julie Nathanson as Suzu’s mother, Hunter Schafer as Ruka and Chace Crawford as Justin.

Even though “Belle” is a great anime achievement, the movie was not nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Hosoda’s 2018 film “Mirai” was Oscar-nominated in this category, even though “Belle” is a far superior movie. We’ll never really know why “Belle” got snubbed by the Academy Awards, but a logical explanation might be that not enough Academy Awards voters saw “Belle.” With or without an Oscar nomination, “Belle” is worth seeing as a visual treat and as an emotionally touching story of substance.

GKIDS released “Belle” for special sneak-preview screenings in select U.S. cinemas on January 12, 2022. “Belle” arrived in wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022. The movie was originally released in Japan in 2021.

Review: ‘Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,’ starring the voices of Brian Hull, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Brad Abrell, Steve Buscemi, David Spade, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn

January 14, 2022

by Carla Hay

Blobby (voiced by Genndy Tartakovsky), Wanda (voiced by Molly Shannon), Wayne (voiced by Steve Buscemi), Griffin the Invisible Man (voiced by David Spade), Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull), Jonathan (voiced by Andy Samberg), Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez), Frank (voice by Brad Abrell), Eunice (voiced by Fran Drescher), Murray (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) with (pictured at far right, in the front row) Dennis (voiced by Asher Blinkoff) and Winnie (voiced by Zoe Berri) in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Amazon Content Services)

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania”

Directed by Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluska

Culture Representation: Taking place in Transylvania and South America, the animated film “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American and two Latinos) depicting monsters and humans.

Culture Clash: Count Dracula is ready to retire and pass Hotel Transylvania along to his daughter Mavis, but a mishap with Van Helsing’s invention changes Mavis’ human husband Johnny into a monster and Dracula and his monster friends into humans.

Culture Audience: Aside from obviously appealing to “Hotel Transylvania” movie series fans, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in lightweight animated films with cliché-ridden and predictable plots.

Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg) and Van Helsing (voicd by Jim Gaffigan) in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation/Amazon Content Services)

It’s never really a good sign when a movie studio takes a sequel film from one of its most popular franchise series and sells it to a streaming service. It usually means that the movie is considered not commercially appealing enough for the studio to release the film. It’s also not a good sign when two of franchise’s biggest stars decide not to be part of this sequel.

That’s what happened when Sony Pictures Animation dumped “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” (the fourth movie in the “Hotel Transylvania” hotel series) by selling it to Amazon, which is releasing it on Prime Video. (China is the only country where Sony will release the film in theaters.) It’s easy to see why Sony thought this movie was substandard. It’s also easy to see why original “Hotel Transylvania” franchise stars Adam Sandler and Kevin James took a hard pass on being involved in this movie, whether it was because they weren’t going to paid what they wanted and/or legal issues. (Sandler and James both have lucrative movie deals with Netflix.)

Genndy Tartakovsky—who directed the first three “Hotel Transylvania” movies and co-wrote 2018’s “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation”—co-wrote “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” with Amos Vernon and Nunzio Randazzo. The first two movies in the series are 2012’s “Hotel Transylvania” and 2015’s “Hotel Transylvania 2.” Derek Drymon and Jennifer Kluskais directed “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” which is not a completely terrible movie. But in terms of its story, the movie is lazy and not very interesting.

As the fourth movie in the series, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” had the potential to go on an original adventure with the franchise’s well-established characters. Instead, the movie is filled with over-used clichés that have already been in other films. “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is essentially a not-very-funny comedy with this not-very-original concept: Two characters with opposite personalities are forced to travel together and find out how much they have to rely on each other in order to reach a shared goal. Relationships and characters that could have been developed are ignored or shoved to the margins of the story. The ending of the movie is also kind of weak and abrupt.

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is also one of those sequels that doesn’t adequately explain some of the backstories of some of the main characters. If people need to watch one movie to prepare for “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” it should be “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation.” That’s the movie that introduced monster hunters Van Helsing (voiced by Jim Gaffigan) and his sassy great-granddaughter Ericka (voiced by Kathryn Hahn), who started off as enemies to the “Hotel Transylvania” protagonists and ended up becoming their friends. And in Ericka’s case, more than friends, because she and widower Count Dracula fell in love with each other.

The voice of Count Dracula was originated by Sandler in the first three “Hotel Transylvania” movies. In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Dracula (voiced by Brian Hull) and Ericka (who is a human) are now happily married, but it’s barely explained in this sequel how they got together. The prejudice between monsters and humans, which fueled much of the conflicts in the previous “Hotel Transylvania” movies, is only used as a flimsy plot device in “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania.” Dracula’s vampire daughter Mavis (voiced by Selena Gomez) is married to a human named Jonathan, nicknamed Johnny (voiced by Andy Samberg), who’s had a hard time getting reluctant acceptance from Dracula, who thinks Johnny is too goofy for practical-minded Mavis.

But now that Dracula is married to a human, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” does not do anything to explore this new aspect of Dracula’s life. Instead, the movie’s story goes back to Dracula disapproving of Johnny, which was the basis of the first “Hotel Transylvania” movie, when Johnny and Mavis began dating and fell in love with each other. In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Johnny and Mavis have been married for several years and have a son named Dennis (voiced by Asher Blinkoff), who is about 8 or 9 years old and who has very little screen time in the movie.

In “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania,” Dracula still owns and operates Hotel Transylvania (a hotel for monsters), but he wants to retire so that he can have more time to spend with Ericka. Dracula has decided that he is going to give ownership of the hotel to Mavis and Johnny. Mavis, who has hearing superpowers, overhears Dracula telling Ericka about his retirement plans, which he says he’s going to announce at the hotel’s 125th anniversary celebration.

Mavis is excited to find out that she and Johnny will be taking over ownership of the hotel. She tells Johnny, who’s also elated. Johnny immediately comes up with ideas of how he’s going to change the hotel.

When Johnny enthusiastically shares these ideas with Dracula, his father-in-law is so turned off, he changes his mind about wanting Johnny to co-own the hotel. Instead of telling the truth about why he changed his mind, Dracula lies to Johnny by telling him that there’s an ancient law that says hotels for monsters can only be owned by monsters. At the hotel’s 125th anniversary party, Dracula lies to everyone and says his big announcement is that the hotel will get a new restroom in the lobby.

A dismayed Johnny then asks for help from Van Helsing, who has been living as a retired eccentric who tinkers with inventions. Van Helsing has an invention called a Monsterfication Ray, which can turn humans into random monsters. The device looks like a long ray gun with a giant crystal as its source of power. Van Helsing uses the Monsterfication Ray on Johnny, who is turned into a giant green monster resembling a dragon. Even though his physical appearance has drastically changed, Johnny has the same personality, and he can still talk like a human.

Dracula is furious about Johnny’s transformation into a monster because he still doesn’t want to give Johnny ownership of the hotel. And so, Dracula angrily goes over to Van Helsing’s place to take the Monsterfication Ray and use it to turn Johnny back into a human. But the plan backfires when Dracula shoots the Monsterfication Ray at Johnny, the lasers on the ray ricochet off walls, and the rays accidentally hit Dracula, who turns into a human being as a result. Much to Dracula’s horror, he is now looks and feels like an old man, with a balding head, a stomach paunch and weaker physical strength.

Dracula’s four closest monster friends—good-natured Frankenstein (voiced by Brad Abrell, replacing James in the role), worrisome werewolf Wayne (voiced by Steve Buscemi), fun-loving mummy Murray (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and sarcastic invisible man Griffin (voiced by David Spade)—have all witnessed this debacle. Dracula is terrified about Mavis finding out about him turning into a human and Johnny into a monster. Dracula orders his friends not to tell Mavis.

Somehow, when Dracula used the Monsterfication Ray, the device got broken, and the crystal no longer works. Van Helsing says that the crystals used for the Monsterfication Ray are extremely rare. Through a tracking device, Van Helsing finds out that the nearest crystal is in South America. Guess where Dracula and Johnny are going for most of the movie?

Meanwhile, a poorly written part of the movie has Frankenstein, Wayne, Murray and Griffin turning into humans too. It’s shown in an awkward scene where the hotel’s DJ—a green blob called Blobby (voiced by Tartakovsky)—gives the four pals a drink that has something in it which automatically turns them into humans. Blobby consumes the drink too, but he’s just turn to a green gelatin mold.

Frankenstein changes into a vain “hunk” with a tall and muscular body, Wayne transforms into a very hairy man, and Murray becomes an old man with rolls of body flab. Griffin is exposed as someone who only wore eyeglasses, so he’s naked the entire time that he’s human. Griffin’s nakedness is used for some dimwitted comedy in the movie.

Just like Dracula and Murray, Griffin is horrified that he looks old and out-of-shape as a human. This movie has not-so-subtle and problematic messages that looking like an elderly human being is a terrible fate that should be avoided at all costs. It’s the closest reason to explain why Frankenstein suddenly becomes an egotistical jerk over how he looks as a young and virile human being. This drastic personality change still comes across as too phony, and it doesn’t serve the story very well.

Mavis, Ericka, Frankenstein’s shrewish wife Eunice (voiced by Fran Drescher) and Wayne’s loving wife Wanda (voiced by Molly Shannon) find out that Dracula and Johnny have gone to South America. And so, Mavis, Ericka, Eunice, Wanda, Frankenstein, Wayne, Murray, Griffin and several of Wayne and Wanda’s werewolf kids go to South America to find Johnny and Dracula. It’s never really explained why some but not all of the werewolf kids (Wayne and Wanda have dozens of children) are along for the ride or why these kids even need to be there in the first place.

Meanwhile, much of “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” shows repetitive mishaps that Dracula and Johnny go through as they wander around Amazon River areas in South America in search of the crystal. Dracula has a hard time adjusting to life as a human. He no longer has to fear being in the sunlight, but he’s frustrated that he gets tired, thirsty and sweaty on this grueling trip. When he jumps into a waterfall that Johnny warns could be dangerous, Dracula gets bitten by several piranhas and is shocked that he can’t recover quickly from these injuries.

Johnny is the same cheerful goofball, but he still gets on Dracula’s nerves. Dracula is also jealous that Johnny now has more physical strength than Dracula does. It goes on and on like this for too long in the movie. As an example of how “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” stretches out the banality, there’s a scene with Johnny singing a Spanish version of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” during a bus ride that Johnny and Dracula take with some local people. It’s intended to be hilarious, but it just comes across as dull and cringeworthy.

Visually, “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” does nothing special, although the movie makes good use of vibrant hues in the outdoor South America scenes. The cast members’ performances are adequate. Thankfully, movie clocks in at just 98 minutes, but the story is filled with too many recycled tropes of two opposite personalities stuck together on a road trip; the hunt for a treasured item; and the central characters being chased by people who want to find them.

“Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” doesn’t have much use for the adult female characters, who basically just worry about and react to what their husbands are doing. And because Dracula is separated from his four closest monster pals for most of the movie, that friendship rapport is largely missing from “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania.” This rapport was one of the highlights of previous “Hotel Transylvania” movies.

The movie shows almost nothing about what Dracula is like as a grandfather to Dennis. Wayne and Wanda have a daughter named Winnie (voiced by Zoe Berri, replacing Sadie Sandler in the role), who is Dennis’ best friend/love interest, but that relationship is also essentially ignored in the movie. Instead, some the werewolf children, who do not have names or individual personalities, get unnecessary screen time when they tag along during the trip to South America.

Some people might enjoy “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” if they want to see another “Hotel Transylvania” movie about Dracula and Johnny trying to navigate their tension-filled relationship. “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is being marketed as the final movie in the “Hotel Transylvania” series. If that’s true, then the “Hotel Transylvania” movie series is going out with a toothless whimper, not a bang.

Prime Video premiered “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Sing 2,’ starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Bono and Halsey

November 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row, from left to right: Klaus Kickenlober (voiced by Adam Buxton), Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), Porsha Crystal (voiced by Halsey), Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono), Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), Darius (voiced by Eric André), Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll) in “Sing 2” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures)

“Sing 2”

Directed by Garth Jennings

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. city of Redstone City and briefly in the fictional U.S. city of Calatonia, the animated film “Sing 2” features a predominantly white cast of actors (with a few black people) voicing the characters of talking animals that are connected in some ways to showbiz.

Culture Clash: The owner and star performers of Calatonia’s New Moon Theater take their act to Redstone City, the nation’s entertainment capital, in the hopes of becoming bigger stars, but the ruthless mogul who can give them their big break expects the group’s act to include a reclusive rock star who hasn’t performed live in 15 years. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Sing” fans and fans of the movie’s voice cast members, “Sing 2” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a “jukebox musical” with a poorly constructed, flimsy plot.

Pictured from left to right, beginning second from left: Jimmy Crystal (voiced by Bobby Cannavale), Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll), Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) and Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in “Sing 2” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures)

Plagued by “sequel-itis,” the animated musical “Sing 2” sacrifices character development for a plot that sloppily rushes storylines and then turns into a commercial for Bono and U2’s music at the very end. The movie loses much of the charm of 2016’s “Sing” by having the main characters go off on different tangents and by introducing several new characters that are presented in a very superficial way. The “Sing” movie series (which is about talking animals, many of which can sing) also loses a lot of comedic appeal with “Sing 2,” by introducing a murderous villain that drags down the story with soulless acts of evil.

This decline in quality can’t be blamed on a change in filmmaker leadership. “Sing” and “Sing 2” were both written and directed by Garth Jennings and have the same producers (Janet Healy and Christopher Meledandri), as well as the same chiefs of certain departments, such as film editing, visual effects and music. The voice actors of most of the lead characters in “Sing” reprised the same roles for “Sing 2.”

Considering all of the talented people involved, it’s a disappointment that so much of “Sing 2” seems like a lazily conceived cash grab that does nothing innovative. The entire movie lacks suspense (there are absolutely no surprises) and over-relies on stringing together what are essentially separate animated music videos and trying to make it look like it’s all part of a cohesive plot. The visuals of “Sing 2” are perfectly fine, but there should be more to a movie than it just looking good.

Sequels are supposed to tell you more about the main characters, but “Sing 2” fails in this regard because you won’t learn almost anything new about the main characters from watching this sequel. “Sing 2” continues to have an overload of pop hits (original recordings and cover versions), but it’s less effective in this sequel, compared to the first “Sing” movie. That’s because “Sing 2” is essentially a mediocre “jukebox musical,” where song placement is more important than having a well-written storyline and memorable dialogue. Most of the new characters in “Sing 2” have hollow and stereotypical personalities.

“Sing 2” also follows a predictable plot formula for the second movie in an animated series: The main characters travel out of their home environment and get involved in new adventures somewhere else. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that formula if it’s done with an engaging story. (It’s a formula that Pixar Animation has mastered with many of its sequels.) Unfortunately, “Sing 2” does not have a story that’s very interesting.

“Sing 2” is also one of those sequels that doesn’t do a very good job of introducing the main characters to viewers who didn’t see the first “Sing” movie. “Sing 2” assumes that people seeing this sequel are already familiar with the main characters. But that’s an assumption that just makes the screenwriting look even lazier than it needed to be.

Some of the characters in the first “Sing” movie struggled with different personal issues. For example, one character has a criminal parent who discouraged him from being a singer, and that parent ended up being incarcerated for a robbery. Another character suffered from stage fright. If any those issues are mentioned in “Sing 2,” they’re vague references when they should be a little more detailed, to give the characters more depth. In addition, “Sing 2” doesn’t really mention that all of the main characters that are singers met each other through a talent contest that was the focus of the first “Sing” movie.

If you must waste your time on the inferior “Sing 2,” it’s best to see the first “Sing” movie so you can understand the backstories of the main characters and see their real personalities. In “Sing 2,” almost all of the main characters’ personalities are reduced to soundbite-like dialogue in between singing songs. The good news is that all of the cast members who sing do a very fine job with their performances.

In “Sing” (which takes place in the fictional U.S. city of Calatonia), an ambitious koala named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) owns an inherited theater that’s in danger of shutting down due to his financal problems. In order to get publicity for the theater and increase attendance, Buster holds a talent contest that attracts several Calatonia residents, and some of these characters end up being the stars of the contest. In “Sing 2,” Buster wants to take his productions out of regional theater and into the big leagues of a Vegas-styled musical show.

These singing stars from the “Sing” talent contest make their return in the “Sing 2” movie:

  • Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a pig who’s a harried housewife and a mother of 25 piglets.
  • Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine who’s a rock singer/guitarist and a feminist.
  • Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), a gorilla who can play sing and piano a lot like Elton John.
  • Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), an elephant who’s shy and insecure except when she’s singing.
  • Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll), a pig who’s flamboyant and an occasional duet partner with Rosita.

Also returning for “Sing 2” is Buster’s eccentric administrative assistant Miss Crawly (voiced by writer/director Jennings), an iguana with a glass eye that often falls out and causes mishaps. Making cameos in “Sing 2” are two other characters from the first “Sing” movie: Johnny’s gorilla gangster father Big Daddy (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) and elderly sheep Nana Noodleman (voiced by Jennifer Saunders), who is a wealthy benefactor and former theater diva.

In the beginning of “Sing 2,” New Moon Theater (the venue owned by Buster) is presenting a musical production of “Alice in Wonderland,” with Meena in the starring role of Alice. The show is a local hit that plays to sold-out audiences. During a performance, Buster is excited to see that an important talent scout named Suki Lane (voiced by Chelsea Peretti) is in the audience and taking notes.

Suki (who is a brown dog that can walk upright and has human-like arms and legs ) works for the mega-company Crystal Entertainment in Redshore City, the entertainment capital of the nation. Redshore City is designed to look a lot like Las Vegas. Miss Crawly tells Buster that Suki has been paying attention to the show and seems to be entertained.

After the performance, Buster rushes after Suki to talk to her before she can leave. He asks her what she thought of the show. Suki haughtily replies, “It’s a cute little show, but it’s not what we’re looking for. You’re not good enough. You’ve got a nice little local theater here, and it’s great for what it is, but trust me: You’d never make it in the big leagues.”

Buster is stung by this criticism, but he’s not ready to give up so easily. Even if his productions are considered regional theater, he knows that these shows have value because they frequently sell out. Suki gets in a chauffeured car to leave. Buster chases after the moving car on his bike, and he holds on to the car door to continue to talk to Suki.

Suki thinks that Buster is crazy and tells the driver to speed up, in order to get rid of Buster. Buster is essentially run off of the road, and he lands in a nearby canal. This debacle is witnessed by several residents who are near the canal. It’s a humiliating moment for Buster, but it’s played for laughs in the movie.

A discouraged Buster tells Nana about Suki’s rejection. He moans, “I’m a failure!” Nana scolds Buster for letting this setback make him think that he should give up. She tells him that if he doesn’t believe in himself and what he has to offer, then no one else will. Buster takes this advice and decides to round up Meena, Rosita, Ash, Johnny, Gunter and Miss Crawly to go on a road trip with him to Redstone City. The goal is to convince Crystal Entertainment to let them do a musical at the much-larger and more famous Crystal Tower Theater.

Ash already has a paying gig at a local rock club in Calatonia, but she’s being underpaid. When Buster meets up with Ash to ask her to go on the trip, he sees her backstage after a performance, right before she’s supposed to do an encore. The club owner/manager hands Ash a paycheck, and she’s annoyed because the amount is far less than what other artists at the club are getting paid.

Ash says to the club owner/manager: “I have a rule about not letting guys like you tell me what I’m worth. Unless I get paid like everyone else, I’m outta here!” And with that, she walks out of the building with Buster, without doing the encore.

The owner of Crystal Entertainment is Jimmy Crystal (played by Bobby Cannavale), who is literally and figuratively a wolf. He’s a hard-nosed, ruthless business mogul who insists that people call him Mr. Crystal. He is first seen judging auditioners at Crystal Tower Theater and giving red-buzzer rejections to every act, no matter how talented the act is.

Meanwhile, Buster and his group have arrived at Crystal Entertainment headquarters, but they don’t make it past the reception area because they don’t have an appointment. However, they go in a side employee entrance, find some sanitation worker uniforms, and disguise themselves as sanitation workers, in order to sneak into the auditions.

After a quick change back into their regular clothes, this enterprising group sneaks onto the audition stage. Buster makes an earnest pitch to offer his theater group for a musical show at Crystal Tower Theater. Mr. Crystal rejects them, of course. Buster tries to get Mr. Crystal to change his mind, but Mr. Crystal doesn’t want to hear it and is infuriated that these rejected auditioners don’t want to leave the stage.

Just as Mr. Crystal is about to have them thrown out, he overhears Gunter say that Gunter is a fan of Clay Calloway, a rock superstar lion who has been in seclusion for the past 15 years. Mr. Crystal asks if they know Clay. Buster lies and says yes. Mr. Crystal then changes his mind and says that he’ll agree to let Buster’s group do a show at the Crystal Tower Theater, on one condition: Clay Calloway has to be part of the act too.

Buster continues to lie and says it won’t be a problem because he and Clay are friends. When Mr. Crystal asks what the name of the show is, Gunter comes up with a title on the spot: “Out of This World.” It’s described as an outer-space musical. Mr. Crystal doesn’t care about the details because he just wants Clay Calloway to perform at the Crystal Tower Theater.

Mr. Crystal gives Buster and his group just three weeks to produce the show. He puts them up in the Crystal Tower Hotel and pays for all of their expenses. Buster is elated and decides he’ll figure out a way to convince Clay Calloway to be a part of the show. Ash is a big fan of Clay’s and she wants to go with Buster for this persuasive visit. Ash explains that Clay has become a grieving recluse ever since the death of his wife Ruby, who was his muse.

In the meantime, Buster works with Gunter on the concept for the “Out of This World” musical. They come up with the idea to have Rosita star as an astronaut looking for an outer-space explorer, with Gunter as a robot sidekick/aide. During this mission, she will have to visit four planets that have four different themes: war, love, despair and joy. This idea is as poorly conceived as it sounds.

Meanwhile, there’s more to Mr. Crystal than meets the eye. When an uninteresting movie like this is filled with hackneyed stereotypes, here’s one more: Mr. Crystal is really a gangster. A Vegas-styled hotel/casino owner who’s involved with illegal activities? Where did the filmmakers get this idea?

“Sing 2” starts to go off the rails in how it presents the preparations for this horrendous “Out of This World” musical production, by having the stars of the show go off in different directions with silly subplots. Rosita decides to invite her husband Norman (voiced by Nick Offerman) and their 25 kids to Redstone City. (After all, Mr. Crystal is paying for everything.) And so, there’s a scene of the kids being brats as they invade a food buffet area in the hotel and cause all types of chaos.

Rosita is playing an astronaut who has to do some high-flying stunts on stage. And therefore, it’s not a good time for Rosita to find out that she’s afraid of heights. Around the same time, Mr. Crystal insists that his daughter Porsha Crystal (voiced by Halsey) will be the star of the show. Buster is put in the awkward position of telling Rosita that she’s being replaced in the starring role. Porsha is a spoiled airhead who sounds like she’s spent too much time watching “Jersey Shore.”

Johnny is supposed to play a dancing gladiator-type of warrior in “Out of This World,” but Johnny doesn’t know how to dance. And so, the show’s uptight and mean-spirited monkey choreographer Klaus Kickenklober (voiced by Adam Buxton) makes Johnny’s life a living hell. But what do you know: One day, Johnny sees a sassy lynx street dancer named Nooshy (voiced by Letitia Wright), who attracts an enthusiastic crowd. Johnny is impressed with Nooshy’s talent, so he hires her to give him private dance lessons.

Meena, who is very inexperienced when it comes to dating, is paired with a conceited yak actor named Darius (voiced by Eric André), so she’s dreading the love scenes that they have to do in the musical. “Sing 2” has such slipshod screenwriting, Meena’s and Darius’ character roles in “Out of This World” are never clearly defined, except to show that they’re supposed to play each other’s love interest in “Out of This World.” Darius could have been breakout “Sing 2” character as a hilarious buffoon, but he’s mainly brought out for some underwhelming scenes where the jokes fall flat.

Meanwhile, Meena catches the eye of a mild-mannered elephant named Alfonso (voiced by Pharrell), an ice cream truck vendor. It’s obvious that Alfonso wants to date Meena, but she’s bashful about how to handle it. Alfonso compliments Meena on her singing talent, but she’s afraid to have conversations with him. None of these new supporting characters in “Sing 2” has a backstory or fully developed personality.

Meanwhile, there’s a time-wasting scene where Miss Crawly drives to reclusive rock star Clay’s estate (while System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” is playing), to find out if she can get access to him. Some more problems ensue involving her glass eye, because the filmmakers seem to want to make Miss Crawly’s glass eye the main gimmick for the slapstick comedy about her. Needless to say, Miss Crawly is unsuccessful in getting to Clay. Buster and Ash decide to give it a try.

The second trailer for “Sing 2” already revealed that Clay (voiced by Bono, lead singer of U2) does come out of seclusion to perform on stage. But even if this major plot development hadn’t already been disclosed, it would be very easy to predict. The movie blandly and vaguely handles how Clay is convinced to come out of seclusion.

“Sing 2” is Bono’s animated feature-film debut as an actor. Bono’s speaking voice in this role is lowered one or two octaves from his real speaking voice. It seems like he’s trying to sound like a husky-voiced American rock star (somewhat like a combination of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits), but Bono’s natural Irish accent can still occasionally be heard in the dialogue.

As for the music of “Sing 2,” just like the first “Sing” movie, a lot of it comes in snippets of one minute or less per song. Songs that drop in for a longer than a minute (but still quickly) include Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Mercury Rev’s “Holes,” Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean,” Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” Eve’s “Who’s That Girl” and Camila Cabello and Mendes’ “Señorita.”

The longer musical numbers are serviceable, although there are a few standout moments. Halsey shines in her biggest number, when she sings a rousing rendition of the Struts’ “Could Have Been Me.” Halsey’s version of Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” is also impressive. Johansson does nicely with her cover version of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

However, the Tori Kelly/Pharrell Williams duet of Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” has no heat. It’s also a very tame song selection for the characters of Meena and Alfonso, who are supposed to be in the early stages of a romance. Their first duet should’ve been more of a passionate love song or a more emotion-filled song about longing for love.

It seems like the “Sing 2” filmmakers bent over backwards to make Bono and his Clay character overshadow the movie’s last 15 minutes to steal the show. In the first “Sing” movie, main characters Rosita, Meena, Ash and Johnny all had their big individual singing moments in the spotlight. In “Sing 2,” everyone seems to have to clear a path for Bono/Clay.

In “Sing 2,” the Johnny character is woefully under-used as a singer. The movie seems more concerned about showing him awkwardly learning dance moves. It’s a shame, really, because Egerton is such a talented singer. His rendition of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” in the first “Sing” movie was one of the catalysts to Egerton being cast in John’s 2019 musical biopic “Rocketman.”

“Sing 2” is essentially a vehicle to promote U2’s music in the latter half of the movie. There are four U2 songs in “Sing 2”: the aforementioned “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and “Your Song Saved My Life,” which was written for the “Sing 2” soundtrack. Obviously, “Your Song Saved My Life” is supposed to be Clay’s big moment. “Your Song Saved My Life” isn’t bad, but it’s not outstanding, and it won’t be considered a U2 classic.

If you want to know another reason “Sing 2” is such a disappointing mess, the filmmakers made Bono—one of the most charismatic rock stars on the planet—a dull and dreary character in this movie. The Clay character could’ve been played by almost anyone, but it seems like in order to get U2’s music for this movie, the filmmakers had to cast Bono in this role. It’s too bad that Bono and the rest of the talented voice actors are stuck in this hack karaoke project that has a major studio budget.

Universal Pictures will release “Sing 2” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2021.

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