Review: ‘Cryptozoo,’ starring the voices of Lake Bell, Angeliki Papoulia, Grace Zabriskie, Louisa Krause, Michael Cera, Thomas Jay Ryan and Peter Stromare

September 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Cryptozoo” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Cryptozoo”

Directed by Dash Shaw

Culture Representation: Taking place in San Francisco, Florida, Kentucky and the former Soviet Union in 1967, the animated film “Cryptozoo” features a nearly all white cast of characters depicting humans and hybrid/mutant animals.

Culture Clash: A heroic veterinarian teams up with her boss and a gorgon to rescue a baku (a rare dream-eating hybrid creature) before it is captured and sold on the blaxck market by greedy poachers.

Culture Audience: “Cryptozoo” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in adult-oriented animation that’s a throwback to psychedelic, hand-drawn animation of the late 1960s.

Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell), Pheobe (voiced by Angeliki Papoulia) and Joan (voiced by Grace Zabriskie) in “Cryptozoo” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Cryptozoo” brings an intriguing, adult-oriented alternative to the slick kiddie animation that has oversaturated the movie business. The hand-drawn graphics in “Cryptozoo” are sometimes rough around the edges, but the movie has an adventurous and psychedelic spirit that perfectly suits the story, which is set in 1967. Written and directed by Dash Shaw, with animation direction from Jane Samborski, “Cryptozoo” might not interest viewers who prefer their animation to be more elaborate and modern-looking. But the movie is admirable for being committed to its unique vision instead of trying to look like it wants to be a safe blockbuster hit.

“Cryptozoo” begins with a scene that definitely wouldn’t be in a children-oriented animated movie: A hippie couple in their 20s have sex while on a romantic date in an unnamed wooded area in San Francisco. Get used to seeing full-frontal nudity in “Cryptozoo.” The movie has an extended adventure sequence where one of the heroes spends the entire time naked and is neither self-conscious nor apologetic about it. And there’s a sex orgy scene in the movie.

The amorous couple in the movie’s opening scene are Amber (voiced by Louisa Krause) and her boyfriend Matthew (voiced by Michael Cera), who are lost in the woods. Amber and Matthew both consider themselves to be part of the counterculture movement. Matthew talks about a dream he had where he and his peers stormed the U.S. Capitol building and started a perfect society. In terms of personality, Amber is feisty, while Matthew is more laid-back.

Amber says about their jaunt in the woods, “I don’t know where we are. Everyone can go fuck themselves!” When Matthew compliments parts of Amber’s body as foreplay, she asks him, “What about something about my personality?” Matthew replies, “I really love your imagination.” That seems to do the trick, because the next thing you know, they’re having sex.

This bliss doesn’t last long though, as Amber gets nervous about spending the night in the woods. She’s afraid that wolves might attack them. Matthew smokes a joint and tells Amber not to get so worried. They wake up to see a seemingly never-ending high fence surrounding them.

Amber and Matthew, who are completely naked, decide to climb over the fence. They see a castle that Matthew remarks reminds him of something that could’ve been built for Walt Disney. And then, a unicorn appears. Matthew accidentally kicks something at the unicorn, which reacts by charging into Matthew and impaling Matthew with its horn.

A frightened and angry Amber tries to get the unicorn off of Matthew and eventually kills the unicorn by pounding it with a rock. After the unicorn dies, Amber breaks off the unicorn’s horn to use as a weapon in case she encounters any more attacking animals. And that’s when Amber looks around and sees that the place where she’s at has several mutant animals in cages. For example, one of the mutant animals is a chicken with a snake’s head.

Amber doesn’t know it yet, but she’s in Cryptozoo, a special sanctuary for mutant animals, called cryptids, that were rescued from poachers and people who want to sell these creatures on the black market. Cryptozoo is the brainchild of a no-nonsense elderly scientist named Joan (played by Grace Zabriskie) and the zoo’s veterinarian Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell), who is in her 30s. The operation of Cryptozoo is funded by making it a tourist attraction.

Lauren explains in a flashback and a voiceover that she’s been obsessed with this idea of helping these mutant creatures, ever since she was a little girl and met a cryptid called a baku, which looks like a small elephant. The baku is an animal that can eat dreams, and the baku came to her as a little girl to eat her nightmares.

However, this baku (which is a female) disappeared and hasn’t been seen for decades. The speculation over whether the baku is alive or dead has become an urban legend. Lauren, who hopes to one day see the baku again, says in a voiceover, “I dedicated my life to help keep cryptids like her safe from harm.”

The rest of the movie chronicles an international adventure where there’s a race against time to prevent a group of cryptid hunters from finding the baku. The leader of these poachers is Nicholas (voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan), who is ruthless and greedy. Nicholas satyr ally named Gustav (voiced by Peter Stromare), who is hedonistic and untrustworthy.

Lauren and Joan team up with a Gorgon named Phoebe (voiced by Angeliki Papoulia), who hides the snakes on her head by wearing head wraps and wigs. She gives the snakes sleeping medication when she has to be out in public, in order for the snakes not to move around and bring attention to themselves. Phoebe has special powers which are revealed in the story.

Phoebe is reluctant to go on this mission because she wants to spend time with her fiancé Jay (voiced by Rajesh Parameswaran), who is a human and loves and accept Phoebe for who she is. However, Phoebe is convinced to join the mission because Lauren and Joan are both human, and they think it would benefit the mission if a cryptid was also on this journey.

One of the clues to solving the mystery of where the baku might be comes from a recent arrival to Cryptozoo. He is a young male cryptid named Pliny (voiced by Emily Davis), whose entire body is shaped like a human hand. Pliny doesn’t talk, but he can make noises to indicate yes or no answers. However, Pliny has an overprotective mother named Giulia (voiced by Irene Muscara), who has a tendency to interfere with the investigation.

People who enjoy fantasy worldbuilding will find much to like about “Cryptozoo,” which has elements that were definitely influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. “Cryptozoo” is also a rare animated feature film where all of the main heroes are female. The story is somewhat predictable and the dialogue isn’t going to win “Cryptozoo” any animation screenplay awards, but the visuals and some of the scenarios facing the characters are very compelling and presented with a well-paced flair. It’s fair to say that “Cryptozoo” might be one of the most memorable animated films that viewers will see in any given year.

Review: ‘Un Rescate de Huevitos,’ starring the voices of Bruno Bichir, Maite Perroni, Oliver Flores, Dione Riva Palacio Santacruz, Carlos Espejel, Angélica Vale and Mayra Rojas

September 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Toto (voiced by Bruno Bichir), Willy (played by Carlos Espejel), Toporocho (voiced by Claudio Herrera), Bacon, Di (voiced by Maite Perroni), Bibi (voiced by Angélica Vale) and Confi (voiced by Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste) in “Un Rescate de Huevitos” (Photo courtesy of Pantelion Films)

“Un Rescate de Huevitos”

Directed by Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste and Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico and Congo, the animated film “Un Rescate de Huevitos” features a group of talking animals, as well as human Russians and Mexicans.

Culture Clash: A greedy villainess, who collects valuable eggs for a Russian baron, steals two young “golden eggs,” whose rooster father and hen mother go on the hunt to rescue their children.

Culture Audience: “Un Rescate de Huevitos” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching family-friendly animated adventure stories.

Duquesa (voiced by Mayra Rojas) in “Un Rescate de Huevitos” (Photo courtesy of Pantelion Films)

“Un Rescate de Huevitos” (which means “An Egg Rescue” in English) is a lightweight, fun-filled ride for people who enjoy animation with a predictable story arc that’s entertaining, thanks to the variety of characters and amusing situations. The movie might seem to be a little overstuffed with characters for very young viewers or for people with short attention spans. However, the adventurous plot of the movie is very easy to follow, which makes “Un Rescate de Huevitos” a crowd-pleasing film for many generations.

Directed by brothers Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste and Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste, “Un Rescate de Huevitos” is the fourth in Huevocartoon Producciones’ “Huevos” animated series of films that follows the life of a rooster chicken named Toto, beginning from when he was an egg in the first movie to now being a husband and father in this fourth film. The Alatriste brothers (who co-founded Huevocartoon Producciones) co-wrote the “Un Rescate de Huevitos” screenplay.

In “Un Rescate de Huevitos,” Toto (voiced by Bruno Bichir) and his wife Di (voiced by Maite Perroni) are living happily on Granjas el Pollon (El Pollon Farms) somewhere in Mexico. These two lovebirds have welcomed two golden eggs into their family: a boy named Max (voiced by Oliver Flores) and a girl named Uly (voiced by Dione Riva Palacio Santacruz).

These new parents (especially Toto) are very protective of their eggs and get some babysitting help from their egg friend Bibi (voiced by Angélica Vale), who is dating Toto’s egg best friend Willy (played by Carlos Espejel), a former military sergeant. Even though the eggs haven’t become chickens yet, they have minds of their own and want to be independent. Max is very resentful of his father Toto being overprotective, and they have disagreements about it.

The farm’s human owner La Abuelita (voiced by María Alicia Delgado) is so entranced with the eggs’ golden appearance that she enters the eggs into a contest for ranchers and farmers can show off their young animals. The eggs win the grand prize. La Abuelita is proud and delighted, but her joy won’t last long because the eggs are about to be stolen.

At this contest is a Russian egg collector named Duquesa (voiced by Mayra Rojas), a ruthless villain who wants eggs as treasures and as delicacies. She’s looking for chicken eggs to complete her collection. Duquesa (which means “duchess” in English; her real name is Guadalupe) works for Barón Roncovich (voiced by Humberto Vélez), who hosts a gala event in Africa for society’s elite from all over the world. At this event, rare eggs are served as delicacies.

Duquesa immediately wants the golden eggs for Barón Roncovich’s upcoming gala, so she offers to buy Max and Uly for $200, but La Abuelita declines the offer. But that doesn’t stop Duquesa, who orders two hired thugs who are bothers—Panzovich (voiced by Héctor Lee) and Gordimitri (voiced by Juan Frese)—to follow La Abuelita and her family back to the farm. The thug brothers send animal moles with mind-control helmets to the farm to steal Max and Uly.

Uly and Max’s loved ones are frantic when they find that out the two eggs are missing. They form a rescue group consisting of Toto, Di, Willy, Bibi, a goofy Cascarón egg named Confi (voiced by Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste) and a mute bacon strip called Bacon. The thugs betray the moles by leaving the helmets on, and the moles can’t take them off without help.

Willy and Bibi find track down one of the moles, whose name is Toporocho (voiced by Claudio Herrera), and they free him from the helmet. In gratitude, Toporocho tells the rescue group that the eggs are on a plane headed to the African country of Congo. The rescuers hitch a ride on the plane, but a series of events get them thrown off the plane and into the jungles of Congo, where they have no idea where they are.

Meanwhile, Max and Uly have been placed in a collector’s jar. They are being held captive with other eggs who are in the same predicament: Torti, a slow-speaking turtle egg with powerful jaws. snake egg Serp (voiced by Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste); crocodile egg Coco (voiced by Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste); lizard egg Lagatijo (voiced by Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste); ostrich egg Manotas (voiced by Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste); iguana egg Iguano (also voiced by Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste); ostrich egg Huevo de Halcón (voiced by Armando González); eagle egg El Huevo de Águila Real (voiced by Mauricio Barrientos); famine quail egg Huevo de Codorniz (voiced by Ximena de Anda); and peacock egg Pavi (voiced by Mónica Santacruz).

Other characters that make appearances in the movie include chicken-eating opossums (and partners in crime) Tlacua (voiced by Fernando Meza) and Cuache (voiced by Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste). There are also two monkeys named El Chango Bananero (voiced by Freddy Ortega) and El Chango Petacón (voiced by German Ortega that are talent scouts for a “Congo’s Got Talent” show, with a lion named Rey León (voiced by Jesús Ochoa), also known as Leonidas I.

One of the best things about “Un Rescate de Huevitos” is that it keeps the adventurous spirit consistent throughout the entire movie, whose pace doesn’t lag. The captured eggs are transported a refrigerator, where they face near-freezing temperatures due to a mishap and almost face death. There’s also some sly commentary about humans, such when the “king of the jungle” lion says, “No one can beat humans. They are the worst predators.”

As the chief villain, Duquesa is a over-the-top character, as expected. In terms of visual style, she seems to be greatly inspired by the Disney character Cruella. And her snarls and cackles are hit all the right beats, but she’s more campy than scary.

The animation for “Un Rescate de Huevitos” is very above-average, but not outstanding. The best visual scenes are in the jungle during the “Congo’s Got Talent” contest. What keeps this movie engaging is the way that the jokes flow well and stay true to the characters.

There are no heavy-handed and preachy messages in “Un Rescate de Huevitos.” It’s simply a breezy escapist movie about family and the appreciation of loved ones. Sometimes that’s all you need if you’re looking for a movie that children and adults can enjoy.

Pantelion Films released “Un Rescate de Huevitos” in select U.S. cinemas on August 27, 2021. The movie was released in Mexico on August 12, 2021.

Review: ‘PAW Patrol: The Movie,’ starring the voices of Will Brisbin, Iain Armitage, Lilly Bartlam, Marsai Martin, Ron Pardo, Yara Shahidi and Jimmy Kimmel

August 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Zuma (voiced by Shayle Simons), Rocky (voiced by Callum Shoniker), Skye (voiced by Lilly Bartlam), Chase (voiced by Iain Armitage), Marshall (voiced by Kingsley Marshall) and Rubble (voiced by Keegan Hedley) in “PAW Patrol: The Movie” (Image courtesy of Spin Master/Paramount Pictures)

“PAW Patrol: The Movie”

Directed by Cal Brunker 

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional Adventure City in North America, the animated film “PAW Patrol: The Movie” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A boy and his team of rescue dogs must stop a villainous mayor, whose demented plans to control everything end up causing dangerous hazards to people in the city.

Culture Audience: “PAW Patrol: The Movie” will appeal primarily to fans of the “Paw Patrol” TV series and people who want escapist entertainment that can be enjoyed by viewers of of wide age ranges.

Mayor Humdinger (voiced by Ron Pardo) in “PAW Patrol: The Movie” (Image courtesy of Spin Master/Paramount Pictures)

“PAW Patrol: The Movie” is a lightweight, family-friendly animated film with multi-generational appeal. It’s not going to win any major awards, but the movie has positive messages about teamwork, self-acceptance and caring for mental health issues. It also doesn’t fall into a common trap that tends to plague animated films from major studios: trying to cram in as many storylines as possible, and thereby making the film too cluttered.

The simple plot of “PAW Patrol: The Movie” works well because it’s easy for very young kids to follow, and the pacing is just right for this story. A lot of family-oriented animated films seem to forget that many children in the movie’s target audience are too young to understand movies that pile on complicated subplots. And some animated movies get so enamored with world building, it results in too many characters being introduced. Sometimes people just want to see an uncomplicated “good versus evil” story.

Directed by Cal Brunker (who co-wrote the screenplay with Billy Frolick and Bob Barlen), “Paw Patrol: The Movie” thankfully does not assume that everyone watching this movie has seen the “Paw Patrol” TV series, a show that originated in Canada in 2013. The series is televised in Canada on TVOKids and in the U.S. on Nickelodeon You don’t need to see the “PAW Patrol” TV series to enjoy or understand the movie.

What might disappoint fans of the “PAW Patrol” series is that certain dog characters in the movie don’t get the spotlight as they would in the TV series. Newcomers to the “PAW Patrol” franchise who see this movie and don’t know anything about the TV series will come away only remembering the personalities of only three or four (or about half) of the dogs in the movie.

But the filmmakers seem to know this movie’s target audience, because there’s only so much you can put in an 88-minute movie like this one that a TV series would be allowed more time to have. For example, in the TV series, there are 12 dogs and one cat that are part of the PAW Patrol. In this movie, there are six dogs that are part of the PAW Patrol and one dog that’s an aspiring PAW Patrol member.

In “PAW Patrol: The Movie,” Ryder (voiced by Will Brisbin) is a 10-year-old boy who’s in charge of a team of rescue dogs that have the voices of human kids who are around the same age and can do many things thagt humans can do, such as drive vehicles. Ryder and the dogs all live in Adventure City, which is somewhere in North America. Members of the PAW Patrol help the community in various ways, by acting as unofficial police officers and firefighters.

The dog who’s closest to Ryder is a male German Shepherd named Chase (voiced by Iain Armitage), who has a reputation for being the bravest dog in the pack, with a keen sense of sight and smell. Chase is allergic to cats though, which is a hindrance since this movie’s villain has several cats. All of the other PAW Patrol dogs look up to Chase in some way as their “alpha dog.”

In addition to Chase, there’s Skye (voiced by Lilly Bartlam), a bold 7-year-old female tan cockapoo, who has aircraft skills and a custom-made pink-and-grey helicopter. Marshall (voiced by Kinsgley Marshall) is a goofy 6-year-old male Dalmatian with firefighter and paramedic skills and a custom fire engine truck. Rocky (voiced by Callum Shoniker) is a 6-year-old grey-and-white male Schnauzer/Scottish Terrier mixed-breed dog, who is skilled at recycling and handyman duties, and he has a green recycling truck.

Zuma (voiced by Shayle Simons) is a 5-year-old male brown Labrador Retriever whose specialty is water rescues. He has an orange hovercraft that can be used on water or on land. Rubble (voiced by Keegan Hedley) is a 5-year-old male white-and-brown bulldog who is the team’s construction expert, and his custom vehicle is a yellow bulldozer.

In “PAW Patrol: The Movie,” the team is moving to new headquarters that Ryder has chosen for them. Going along for the ride is another dog who eagerly wants to become a member of the PAW Patrol. She’s smart and sassy Liberty (voiced by Marsai Martin), a brown dachshund, who only has a beat-up play wagon as her vehicle. Liberty, who is a new “PAW Patrol” character introduced in this movie, feels like she has to prove herself to be a worthy member of the PAW Patrol. Liberty meets Ryder and the team when she helps navigate them out of a traffic jam—an indication that she has an excellent sense of direction.

Around the same time, Adventure City is about to experience new leadership with the newly elected Mayor Humdinger (voiced by Ron Pardo), an egotistical and cruel blowhard who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. (Pardo also voices the character of marine biologist Cap’n Turbot, a TV series regular who makes a brief appearance in this movie.) Mayor Humdinger likes to wear top hats and loves to get attention for himself.

The mayor also owns several cats, which are the only living beings that he doesn’t mistreat. The movie doesn’t portray cats in a positive way—the PAW Patrol dogs dislike cats and make sour faces when cats are mentioned—but viewers who love cats shouldn’t be too offended, since the cats don’t really do anything wrong in the story. In addition to having cats as his companions, Mayor Humdinger has two boneheaded and bulky henchmen who are at his beck and call: dark-haired Butch (voiced by Randall Park) and blonde Ruben (voiced by Dax Shepard), who frequently argue about which of them is smarter or more well-liked by their boss.

In Adventure City, a brilliant scientist named Kendra Wilson (voiced by Yara Shahidi) has been leading a team to build an invention called the Cloud Catcher, which sucks clouds out of the air. She tells Mayor Humdinger that the purpose of the Cloud Catcher is so that clouds can be studied and examined. However, once Mayor Humdinger finds out about the Cloud Catcher, he orders Kendra and her team to use it so that every day in Adventure City can be sunny.

Mayor Humdinger makes some more awful decisions, such as building an outdoor subway track that looks more like a circular amusement park ride. Not surprisingly, things go very wrong, and a subway train gets stuck hanging upside-down from the track. Its one of several hazardous events that need the PAW Patrol’s help. There’s an environmental disaster that also occurs due to the Mayor Humdinger’s misuse of the Cloud Catcher.

Early on in the movie, during a rescue of people from a burning building, Chase gets stuck on his parachute rope because he didn’t activate the parachute correctly. He’s very hard on himself because of this mistake. And as a result, he loses a lot of self-confidence and starts to have anxiety attacks in stressful situations. It’s a mental health issue that’s handled with grace and sensitivity in this movie, which also hints that Chase has become a workaholic who’s in need of taking a break for self-care.

The movie isn’t all gloom and doom. There are several moments of comedic levity, many of which come from an overly ambitious TV journalist called Marty Muckraker (voiced by Jimmy Kimmel), who wants to get news scoops and uncover scandals at any cost. Mayor Humdinger and Marty both have huge egos. It’s inevitable that both of them will have personality clashes with each other.

If you’ve ever had real-life experiences with a narcissistic, incompetent tyrant who’s been given too much authority and is on a power trip, then you’ll get some laughs out of watching what happens to Mayor Humdinger in this movie. Adults who watch this movie with any underage kids should tell those kids that even though Mayor Humdinger is a fictional character, there are plenty of toxic bullies like him in the real world. A cartoon villain like Mayor Humdinger isn’t too far off from how power-hungry and vain oppressors act like in real life.

All of the voice actors get the job done in a highly satisfactory way, but not in a particularly outstanding manner. What stands out in “PAW Patrol: The Movie” is how well the story makes use of a uncluttered plot, in addition to the real-life lessons that the movie tries to teach, without being preachy. “PAW Patrol: The Movie” also has a very good gender balance in who gets to do the heroic actions. There are certainly more intricately made, higher-budgeted and more dazzling animated films than “PAW Patrol: The Movie.” But for people who are looking for some good, clean fun in an animated movie that doesn’t get dull or overly complicated, then “PAW Patrol: The Movie” is a solid choice.

Paramount Pictures released “Paw Patrol: The Movie” in U.S. cinemas and on Paramount+ on August 20, 2021.

Review: ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy,’ starring LeBron James

August 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

LeBron James and Bugs Bunny in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Space Jam: A New Legacy”

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area and in an alternate technology universe, the live-action/animated film “Space Jam: A New Legacy” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A computer algorithm traps basketball superstar LeBron James in a technology universe, where he joins forces with Warner Bros.-owned Looney Tunes characters for a high-stakes basketball game against computer-generated villains that want to take over the world. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of LeBron James fans and Looney Tunes fans, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a mindless but harmless family film that overloads on shilling for various Warner Bros. entertainment products and services.

Cedric Joe and Don Cheadle in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” is not meant to be a real movie. It’s just a long and witless commercial for Warner Bros. entertainment entities, with LeBron James as a celebrity spokesperson. Even young children and gullible people will notice the over-the-top, shameless plugging of all things Warner Bros. in “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” It’s hard not to miss this obnoxious promotion, because it’s in every scene.

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the sequel to 1996’s “Space Jam.” Both are hybrid live-action/animated movies about basketball superstars who team up with Warner Bros.-owned Looney Tunes characters to play against villains in a life-or-death basketball game. Michael Jordan starred in “Space Jam,” which was also a silly movie, but it had a lot more heart and sincerity than “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which stars LeBron James.

Both “Space Jam” movies have celebrity athletes portraying themselves. All of these athletes have limited acting skills, even if some of these basketball icons have loads of charisma in real life. However, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is a much more cynically made movie, because its highest priority is selling Warner Bros. characters and products. At least the first “Space Jam” movie made more of an attempt to be humorous and have several significant characters whose purpose was not to be a mascot for Warner Bros.

It’s not a good sign when a movie has more than four credited screenwriters, because it usually means that there were “too many cooks in the kitchen.” “Space Jam: A New Legacy” has six screenwriters: Celeste Ballard, Keenan Coogler, Jesse Gordon, Terence Nance, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor. And what’s even worse is that all of these “Space Jam: A New Legacy” screenwriters couldn’t come up with a truly original story for this sequel.

“Space Jam: A New Legacy” essentially copies the same template as “Space Jam,” with just a few changes, such as the reason for the big showdown basketball game that happens in the last third of the film. In “Space Jam,” Jordan has to do battle against basketball-playing monsters from outer space that were literally stealing the talent (by suctioning it out in gas form) from NBA stars. In “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” James has to do battle against a computer algorithm (which can take the shape of a man) that has stolen his younger son and created a team of monsters for the basketball showdown.

Each movie opens with a highlight montage of the basketball superstar’s career, up until the movie was made. Each movie has someone saying more than once, “You can’t be great without putting in the work.” Each movie ends exactly how you think it will end.

In “Space Jam: A New Legacy” LeBron’s 12-year-old son Dominic, nicknamed Dom (played by Cedric Joe), is a computer whiz and aspiring video game developer who has been kidnapped by a computer algorithm called Al G. Rhythm (played by Don Cheadle) into the algorithm’s universe called the Warner 3000 server-verse. Inside this server-verse exists everything Warner Bros., including Looney Tunes World.

Dom feels unappreciated and misunderstood by LeBron, who is pushing Dom to become a basketball star. Dom likes playing basketball and is on his school’s basketball team, but he’s an average player, and he doesn’t have the passion for the game like his father does. There’s a predictable scene in the beginning of the film where Dom is playing in a school game, and he misses a shot that causes the team to lose the game.

Dom wants to attend an E3 Game Design camp, but it’s taking place on the same weekend as a basketball camp that LeBron wants Dom to attend. Father and son argue about it. But in the end, LeBron is the adult in charge and tells Dom that he has no choice but to go to the basketball camp. Dom is predictably resentful about this decision and his father’s control over his life.

The rest of LeBron’s family are just filler characters that don’t get much screen time and don’t add much to the story. LeBron’s wife Kamiyah (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) chimes in early in the movie to say to LeBron about his parenting skills for Dom: “I’m worried that you’re pushing him too hard … He doesn’t need a coach. He needs a dad.”

In this movie, LeBron and Kamiyah have two other children: teenager Darius (played by Ceyair J Wright) and kindergarten-age Xosha (played by Harper Leigh Alexander). Darius’ only purpose in the movie is to be a teasing older brother and occasional basketball practice opponent with Dom. Xosha’s only purpose in the movie is to be a cute and charming kid.

Because “Space Jam: Legacy” is a Warner Bros. commercial, LeBron and takes Dom with him to a business meeting at Warner Bros. Studios headquarters in Burbank, California. Also in this meeting is LeBron’s childhood friend Malik (played by Khris Davis), who is now LeBron’s manager. It’s at Warner Bros. headquarters that viewers first see Al G. Rhythm giving a monologue, as he lurks in the recesses of some giant computer mainframe somewhere in a back room.

Al G. Rhythm can take many different shapes and forms, but he comes out looking like Cheadle when he wants to look like a human. Al G. Rhythm has concocted an idea to use Warner 3000 technology to scan LeBron into Warner Bros. movies so that LeBron’s image can replace major characters in these movies. Warner Bros. executives will present this idea to LeBron in this meeting. The unnamed executives are portrayed in cameo roles by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun, who look like they know they’re in a dumb movie and just want a quick and easy paycheck.

Al G. Rhythm has a sidekick named Pete, which is a mute blue blob that doesn’t do much but act as a sounding board for Al G. Rhythm. Before the meeting takes place, Al G. Rhythm gives this monologue: “I’ve searched far and wide for the perfect partner for this launch. And I finally found him, Pete. He’s a family man, an entrepreneur, a social media superstar, with millions of fans worldwide. Algorithmically speaking, he’s more than an athlete. He’s a king!”

Is this an algorithm or a LeBron James fanboy? Al G. Rhythm then continues with his ranting manifesto, “I’m stuck in the server-verse. No one knows who I am or what I do. But all that changes today, because Warner Bros. launches the revolutionary technology that I masterminded. Today, it’s my time to shine! Once I partner with King James and combine his fame with my incredible tech, I will finally get the recognition and respect that I so richly deserve!”

There’s just one big problem. In the business meeting, LeBron says he hates the idea of being scanned and put into Warner Bros. movies as a replacement character. (But in real life, apparently, he had no problem being put into a Warner Bros. commercial posing as a movie.) The sycophantic executives agree, and the idea is scrapped.

Al G. Rhythm is angry and insulted that his idea was rejected, so he kidnaps Dom, who becomes trapped in the server-verse. And the only way that Dom can be returned to his family is if LeBron and a basketball team that LeBron has assembled win in a “death match” game against Al G. Rhythm and the villain basketball team that Al G. Rhythm has assembled. All of this requires LeBron to go in the server-verse to find Dom. When LeBron (in animated form) ends up in Looney Tunes World, you know what happens next.

At first, LeBron arrives in Looney Tunes World in simplistic animated form. But then, Al G. Rhythm shows up to “enhance” all the players who will be on Lebron’s basketball team, so they go from looking like hand-drawn 2-D animation to computer-generated 3-D animation. The team is called the Tune Squad. The Looney Tunes characters who are on LeBron’s team act exactly how you would expect them to act.

The “Space Jam: A New Legacy” filmmakers got their money’s worth because a small number of voice actors protray several of the Looney Tunes characters, instead having all of the characters each voiced by a different actor. Jeff Bergman is the voice of Bugs Bunny, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear. Eric Bauza is the voice of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Elmer Fudd and Marvin the Martian. Gabriel Iglesias is the voice of Speedy Gonzales. Zendaya is the voice of Lola Bunny. Candi Milo is the voice of Granny. Bob Bergen is the voice of Tweety Bird. Fred Tatasciore is the voice of Taz.

In opposition to the Tune Squard, Al G. Rhythm has created the Good Squad by enhancing real-life NBA and WNBA star players into computerized mutant super-villains. Anthony Davis is The Brow, a giant blue falcon-like creature with a 30-foot wing span. Diana Taurasi is White Mamba, a super-sized mutant snake. Klay Thompson is Wet/Fire, a creature that can create flames and water, as if that wouldn’t be considered a major foul on a basketball court. Nneka Ogwumike is Arachnneka, a large mutant spider. Damien Lillard is Chronos, a time-manipulating creature that can use Dame Time to slow down opponents while he can quickly use fighting techniques.

The big basketball showdown that serves as the movie’s climax is so formulaic that it will be easy to get distracted by trying to spot all the characters from Warner Bros. movies that are in the audience. The audience is supposed to consists of thousands of LeBron’s social media followers who were beamed in from the Internet. But somehow, those who ended up getting the most prominent placement in the front rows were various characters from Warner Bros.-owned entertaint entities, such as Harry Potter, King Kong, Joker, Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Scooby-Doo, Neo from “The Matrix,” Austin Powers, plus characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Game of Thrones,” “Gremlins,” “The Mask,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Some of the Warner Bros. promotion overload is ridiculous and embarrassing to those involved. There’s a scene where Bugs Bunny is dressed as Batman and LeBron is dressed as Robin. There’s a scene where Porky Pig starts rapping in a way that’s has as much hip-hop cred as Judy Garland singing in “The Wizard of Oz.” (In other words: none.)

And there’s even a scene where Al G. Rhythm yells, “King Kong’s got nothing on me!” It’s a famous line said by Denzel Washington in his Oscar-winning role as a corrupt cop in 2001’s “Training Day,” which is (you guessed it) a Warner Bros. movie. After Al G. Rhythm shouts, “King Kong’s got nothing on me!,” King Kong is shown in the audience, crossing his arms in a snit, like a kid who’s been insulted on a playground.

The “family-friendly” messages of “Space Jam: Legacy” are secondary to the constant regurgitation of whatever “intellectual property” Warner Bros. is hawking. The word “inellectual” is an oxymoron for this idiotic film. The animation and visual effects aren’t going to be nominated for any major awards. Much of what happens in the movie is duller than it should be. And even the big basketball game toward the end isn’t very exciting. There’s a big “reveal” about someone on the Goon Squad that’s not surprising at all.

Cheadle is the movie’s only live-action cast member who seems to be having some fun because his performance is deliberately campy. His computer algorithm character has more personality than the human characters in this movie. The rest of the cast members in the movie’s live-action roles give mediocre and bland performances.

Ernie Johnson and Lil Rel Howery portray the basketball game’s announcers in what should have been hilarious roles, but everything these characters say is uninteresting. And unlike the original songs in the first “Space Jam” movie (which featured R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”), none of the original songs in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” will become a hit anthem. The lines of dialogue given to the animated characters are also forgettable. The jokes fall flatter than Daffy Duck’s beak.

And as for LeBron James (who is one of the producers of “Space Jam: A New Legacy”), even the filmmakers know he wasn’t cast in this movie for his acting, because he says this line in the movie’s scene with the Warner Bros. executives: “I’m a ball player. And athletes acting—that never goes well.” That’s probably one of the most genuine things said in this overly contrived corporate movie that pushes plenty to sell but ultimately has a shortage of good filmmaking.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Space Jam: A New Legacy” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on July 16, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on October 5, 2021.

Review: ‘The Boss Baby: Family Business,’ starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, James Marsden, Jeff Goldblum, Amy Sedaris, Ariana Greenblatt, Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow

July 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tina Templeton (voiced by Amy Sedaris), The Boss Baby/Ted Templeton (voiced by Alec Baldwin) and young Tim Templeton (voiced  by James Marsden) in “The Boss Baby: Family Business” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“The Boss Baby: Family Business”

Directed by Tom McGrath 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the animated film “The Boss Baby: Family Business” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A laid-back man and his workaholic brother are physically transformed back to being children, and they team up with one of the brother’s two daughters to thwart an inventor’s plot to make parents into mind-controlled zombies and to have super-smart babies take over the world.

Culture Audience: “The Boss Baby: Family Business” will appeal primarily to “Boss Baby” fans and people who don’t mind watching a mediocre and overly busy animated family film.

The Boss Baby/Ted Templeton (voiced by Alec Baldwin) and Dr. Erwin Armstrong (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) in “The Boss Baby: Family Business” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“The Boss Baby: Family Business” is the equivalent of people promising to tell a good story, but they end up wasting your time with a lot of hyper rambling. This overly cluttered animated movie buries any attempt at clear and concise storytelling. It’s a sequel that tries to have multiple storylines going at the same time and does none of those storylines very well. And it’s also does a terrible job at world building and explaining what happened in the first “Boss Baby” movie, in order for viewers to fully understand “The Bossy Baby: Family Business.”

“The Boss Baby: Family Business” is the sequel to 2017’s Oscar-nominated “The Boss Baby,” which were both directed by Tom McGrath and written by Michael McCullers. “The Boss Baby” (based on Marla Frazee’s 2010 book of the same name) was about sibling rivalry between two brothers: 7-year-old Timothy “Tim” Templeton (voiced by Miles Bakshi) and infant Theodore “Ted” Templeton (voiced by Alec Baldwin), who had the voice and intelligence of an ambitious business-minded adult because Ted came from a place called BabyCorp that manufactures adults in baby bodies. Ted behaves like a corporate executive, so he’s the Boss Baby in the movie’s title, but Tim is the only other person in the family who knows that Ted has this unusually mature mind.

Without rehashing the plot of “Boss Baby” too much, it’s enough to say that things worked out where Ted ended up having a “normal” childhood with Tim. “The Boss Baby” ends about 30 years later, with Tim now a married father. His 7-year-old daughter Tabitha has concerns over her baby sister Tina, who is revealed to be a Boss Baby too. In order to best understand “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” it’s necessary to know what happened in “The Boss Baby.”

And because it’s the type of sequel where much of the comedy depends on people seeing the previous movie, it can be even more confusing than it needs to be to newcomers to “The Boss Baby” series. “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” which picks up right where “The Boss Baby” ended, rushes through an explanation of what happened in “The Boss Baby.” Unfortunately, “The Boss Baby: Family Business,” has three different storylines, which make the plot a convoluted mess.

In the first storyline, Tim (voiced by James Marsden) and Ted (voiced by Baldwin), who are now adults, still have a sibling rivalry with each other. Ted is a hedge fund CEO who is a bachelor with no children. Tim is a stay-at-home father to daughters Tabitha (voiced by Ariana Greenblatt) and Tina (voiced by Amy Sedaris), and he knows that Tina is a Boss Baby, just like her Uncle Ted was. Tim’s wife Carol (voiced by Eva Longoria) is the family’s breadwinner (she works in a high-powered corporate job), while Tim is feeling a little down on himself because Tabitha seems to admire and respect Ted more than she admires and respects Tim.

And so, the second storyline is how Tim can find a way to have the type of close father-daughter relationship that he wants for himself and Tabitha. As an example of how emotionally distant Tabitha has become from Tim. Tabitha refuses to hug Tim, because she says she’s gotten too old for father-daughter hugs. She wants to shake Tim’s hand instead.

The third storyline is about how Tim, Ted and Tina try to stop a devious plot to make adults mind-controlled zombies and to have Boss Babies take over the world. Tim, Ted and Tina visit BabyCorp and find out that it has a Crisis Center that monitors threats to babies around the world. Dr. Erwin Armstrong (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), founder of a learning institution called Acorn Center, has the goal to make babies the ultimate learning machines, and he thinks parents are a threat to these plans.

Acorn Center has been opening up several locations. Dr. Armstrong personally teaches at the main Acorn Center location, where Tim’s older daughter Tabitha has been going to school. Tim immediately figures out that Dr. Armstrong’s Acorn Center is why Tabitha has been acting so emotionally distant from him: She’s being programmed to become one of these super-intelligent people who will take over the world. Part of that programming includes brainwashing to believe that parents are a threat to a child’s independence.

At the same time, BabyCorp has a baby formula that can turn an adult back into a baby. Tim and Ted take this age-reversing formula. The movie has a nonsensical sequence of Tom and Ted being transformed back into being children. (Miles Bakshi does some voice work as the young Tim.) This sequence ends with Ted being turned into a baby, but Tim’s reverse ageing turns him back into a 7-year-old, not a baby. The movie gives no explanation for this discrepancy, which is one of many examples of what’s wrong with the movie’s substandard screenplay.

Tim now looks like his 7-year-old self, so he and baby Ted go undercover in the Acorn Center where Tabitha is a student. This is the type of sloppily written movie where Ted and Tim just walk into the school, with no explanation for how they were able to quickly enroll in the school. And Tim’s “disguise” is just a pair of glasses and an alias: Marcos Lightspeed. Ted and Tim explain their absence to their family by saying that they are going on a business trip together.

Later, Tim tries to disguise himself more with tattoos and a wardrobe that tries to make him look like he’s “tough.” He’s treated like an outsider by most of the students, except for Tabitha, who befriends Tim. For this part of the plot to be believable, you’d have to believe that Tabitha doesn’t know what her father looked like when he was her age, because she doesn’t even comment on the resemblance. In other words, Tabitha might be “book smart” (she gets the highest grades in her class), but she doesn’t seem to have much common sense.

Tabitha brings “Marcos” home for dinner to meet her family, which includes Tim’s parents Ted Templeton Sr. (voiced by Jimmy Kimmel) and Janice Templeton (voiced by Lisa Kudrow). Ted Sr. and Janice notice how much “Marcos” looks and sounds like Tim when he was that age. However, they brush it off as a coincidence because Marcos wears glasses. It’s very much like how people in “Superman” don’t figure out Clark Kent is really Superman just because Clark wears glasses and isn’t in a superhero suit.

Except for Dr. Armstrong (a stereotypical “crazy inventor” villain), the movie’s supporting characters are given next to nothing to do but just take up space. An Acorn Center student named Nathan (voiced by Raphael Alejandro) is the obligatory school bully whose character, just like all the other students, is ultimately just there for show, with very little impact on the overall story. A student who’s given the name Creepy Girl (voiced by Molly K. Gray), who looks like a reject from a Tim Burton animated film, pops up here and there at random moments to act weird around Tim and Ted.

The rest of “The Boss Baby: Family Business” just further tangles these three messy storylines with a lot of filler. It all leads up to a pivotal Acorn Center talent pageant that’s supposed to coincide with what Dr. Armstrong calls B-Day, the revolution that he wants to start where Boss Babies will take over the world, and there are no more children’s rules and no parents in charge. At a couple of points in the movie, it turns into a sappy musical, with Tabitha breaking out into song. The movie’s animation is not outstanding and certainly won’t be nominated for any major awards.

The voice cast members do a perfectly adequate job in their roles. However, Longoria’s Carol, who could have been an interesting character, is the most sidelined role in the family. She’s doesn’t do much and has forgettable lines of dialogue. The wacky toy wizard Wizzie (voiced by James McGrath) brings very few laughs. And the conversations throughout the movie are littered with clichés. At one point in the film, workaholic Ted Jr. says of his seemingly successful life: “It’s lonely at the top.”

“The Boss Baby: Family Business” might be enjoyable for people who just want to watch an animated film as a distraction and don’t care if there’s anything memorable about the movie. But whatever sarcastic wit that Boss Babies are supposed to have in this world is largely missing in “The Boss Baby: Family Business.” It’s a movie that tries too hard to be so many things at once that it ends up being nothing special at all.

DreamWorks Animation will release “Boss Baby: Family Business” in U.S. cinemas and on Peacock on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Luca’ (2021), starring the voices of Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, Emma Berman, Saverio Raimondo, Maya Rudolph, Jim Gaffigan and Sandy Martin

June 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) in “Luca” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Luca” (2021)

Directed by Enrico Casarosa 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Riviera town in Italy, the animated film “Luca” features an all-white cast of characters portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In a world where sea monsters can transform into humans when they’re on land, a teenage sea monster rebels against his parents’ rules by hanging out on land, and he makes plans to run away with another teenage sea monster who has become his best friend.

Culture Audience: “Luca” will appeal primarily to people interested in predictable but enjoyable animated films about family, friendship and self-identity.

Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) and Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) in “Luca” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

How do you know you’re watching a Pixar movie, besides the great visuals? The lead characters are usually male and struggling with identity/self-esteem issues, they go on an adventure with least one sidekick, and they find out the meaning of life with some tearjerking moments. The End.

Pixar Animation Studios’ “Luca” (directed by Enrico Casarosa) follows this same formula to mostly entertaining results in this story about sea monsters and humans. It’s not a groundbreaking animated film, but it’s a definite crowd-pleaser that can appeal to several different age groups. The underwater scenes in the movie are the most visually stunning, but it’s not too surprising, considering that Pixar is also the studio behind 2003’s far superior, Oscar-winning “Finding Nemo,” which was set primarily underwater. “Luca” spends most of the story on land.

Pixar, which is owned by Disney, sets itself apart from Disney Animation Studios by putting more emphasis on original stories about characters who want to feel comfortable with themselves for the first time in their lives. Therefore, the adventures in Pixar tend to have more at stake on a personal level than defeating an evil villain, because low self-esteem is often the story’s biggest villain. The visuals in Pixar films also tend to be more intricate and dazzling than Disney Animation films.

However, it’s concerning that when the world’s population and movie audiences are at least 50% female, Pixar continues to have a majority of feature-length movies where the stories are dominated by male characters. Maybe that’s because almost all Pixar movies are written and directed by men. “Luca” is no exception. The “Luca” screenplay was written by Jesse Andrews and Mike Jones.

Pixar films tend to be very male-centric for lead protagonists, whereas Disney Animation films have more of a gender balance in their lead protagonists. (Disney princesses. Need we say more?) Disney Animation also has a mix of films that are from original and adapted screenplays, since many classic children’s books and fairy tales have been made into Disney animated films.

“Luca” takes place in Italy in an unnamed town near the Riviera, which is populated by sea monsters that can transform into humans when they’re on land. Because human beings have a reputation for killing sea monsters, it’s become normal for sea monsters to fear and mistrust humans, just as many humans fear and mistrust sea monsters. Therefore, it’s not unusual for parent sea monsters to teach their children never to go on land.

That’s the case with Luca Paguro (voiced by Jacob Tremblay), an adolescent sea monster, who sounds like a boy who’s about 13 or 14. His overprotective parents—Daniela Paguro (voiced by Maya Rudolph) and Lorenzo Paguro (voiced by Jim Gaffigan)—have instilled strict rules that Luca can never go on land (anything above the sea is called “the surface”) because it’s too dangerous. Daniela is more paranoid than Lorenzo is about Luca going on land because she’s certain that Luca will be hurt or killed if he does.

Luca’s parents keep him so sheltered that they don’t tell him that sea monsters have the ability to transform into humans when they’re on land and can go back to being sea monsters when underwater. If a sea monster is on land, and water touches a sea monster’s body, the sea monster’s body takes on sea monster physical characteristics, depending on how much water has made contact with the body. And you know that’s going to happen in this movie when Luca gets into some precarious situations.

Luca’s crusty-voiced grandmother, who doesn’t have a first name in the movie and is called Grandma (voiced by Sandy Martin), lives in the Paguro household. Grandma has been to the surface, where she says she hung out with humans to do things like play card games, so she isn’t afraid of the surface like Luca’s parents are. In one early scene in the movie, the family is having a meal together around a dining room table when Grandma starts to tell a happy memory of her time on the surface. However, Daniela gets upset and verbally shuts down Grandma by ordering her never to talk about her surface experiences to Luca.

Luca is a lonely sea monster who doesn’t have any sea monster friends underwater. He spends his days hanging out with fish. His favorite is a fish named Giuseppe. But since these fish can’t talk, Luca is starting to feel isolated. Luca secretly wishes that he could go to school with other kids, but his parents are apparently homeschooling him. His father breeds and handles show crabs for a living, and Luca is expected to do the same thing when he becomes an adult.

One day, Luca sees a young male sea monster in a diving outfit. At first, Luca is afraid because he thinks the individual in diving gear is a human. But the sea monster reveals himself to be a teenager who sounds like he’s about 15 or 16 years old. His name is Alberto Scorfano (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer), who ends up capturing Luca with a fishing hook and bringing Luca to the surface.

It’s how a terrified Luca finds out for the first time that he has the ability to become a human when he’s on land. Alberto lives in an abandoned castle tower, and he says that his single father is frequently away because of the father’s busy job demands. There’s no mention of Alberto’s mother in the story.

Alberto is a bit of a daredevil and mischief maker. In the movie’s opening scene, two fisherman—elderly Tommaso (voiced by Gino La Monica) and young Giacomo (voiced by Giacomo Giannotti)—are on a boat at night. Giacomo is concerned about fishing in this part of the water, because he’s heard stories about deadly sea monsters living in the area. Tommaso is dismissive of these stories. But then, a sea monster (which viewers later find out is Alberto) steals some of items from the boat, including a gramophone, and the two fishermen chase him away.

In his newfound human body, Luca feels scared but excited. Alberto teaches Luca how to walk on two feet and other ways to navigate himself as a human. The two boys end up becoming fast friends. Luca sneaks off to spend time with Alberto as much as possible while his parents are working or asleep. (Luca uses a makeshift decoy to fool his parents if they’re watching from far away.) However, Luca knows that what he’s doing is strictly forbidden by his parents. And it’s only a matter of time before they find out his secret.

One of the first things that Alberto tells Luca when they meet is that everything is better above the surface. Alberto also says that the Vespa scooter is “the greatest thing that humans ever made.” Alberto even has a poster that says that a Vespa scooter equals freedom. It’s Alberto’s dream to have a Vespa scooter so that he can travel around the world. Soon, this dream becomes a shared obsession for Alberto and Luca.

In order to get the money to buy a new Vespa and start this dream adventure lifestyle, Alberto wants to enter a scooter racing contest called the Portorosso Cup, which is held on the other side of the sea where the main part of the town is. At first, Luca is hesitant, but Alberto convinces him to be his racing partner in the Portorosso Cup. Alberto builds a makeshift scooter to enter the contest.

When Luca’s parents find out that he’s been sneaking away to go on land, they punish him by telling him that Luca will be temporarily sent to live with his stern Uncle Ugo (voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen), who doesn’t seem to like children very much. Luca’s reaction? He runs away from home. Luca is now more motivated to win the contest so that he and Alberto can run away and start their adventurous life together without any parental supervision.

During Luca and Alberto’s blossoming friendship, Alberto teaches Luca how to get rid of self-doubt, which Alberto calls Bruno. There are many references in the movie to Bruno, which is the type of self-doubt that causes naysayer voices in someone’s head that tell people they can’t do something or that they’re not good enough. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t have actual Bruno voices because that would be too tacky and distract from the story.

The reigning Portorosso Cup champ is an arrogant bully named Ercole Visconti (voiced by Saverio Raimondo), who has won this contest several times in a row. And he has no intention of ever losing. Ercole predictably has two male sidekick followers—a brunette named Guido (voiced by Lorenzo Crisci) and a blonde named Ciccio (voiced by Peter Sohn)—who don’t speak for most of the movie and passively follow Ercole’s orders.

During the time that Alberto and Luca spend time in the town among humans, Alberto and Luca befriend a human teenager, who’s close to Luca’s age. Her name is Giulia Marcovaldo (voiced by Emma Berman), who is friendly and adventurous. She comes to the town every summer to live with her divorced father Massimo Marcovaldo (voiced by Marco Barricelli), who generously gives the three teens the money that they need for the Portorosso Cup entry fee.

Of course, getting to the Portorosso Cup isn’t without its problems. Ercole wants to thwart these young upstarts and does what he can to ruin their chances of winning the contest. Luca’s parents find out that he’s run away, and they go to the town to try to find him. Luca sees them, and has to spend a great deal of the movie trying to hide from his parents.

Meanwhile, Alberto gets jealous when Luca and Giulia start to become close. Arguments predictably ensue. In the preparations for the Portorosso Cup, the tables somewhat turn as Luca becomes more confident and Alberto becomes more insecure. And the Portorosso Cup isn’t just about winning, but in this movie it becomes a way for Luca, Alberto and Giulia to learn about how they can handle obstacles and what they really want to get out of life.

One of the best things about “Luca” is that it doesn’t clutter the movie with too many characters. The story is also very easy to follow, although it’s not very original, since a lot of animated/family films have already done the “high-stakes contest” as a plot device to have the heroes face off against the villains. All of the actors give fine performances, although it’s too bad that comedian Baron Cohen essentially has just a cameo as Uncle Ugo, whose time on screen is so brief it seems like a waste of Baron Cohen’s talents.

The most irritating flaw of “Luca” is its unrelenting promotion of Vespa. It comes off as aggressive shilling/product placement. And it somewhat taints the movie’s story because Vespa is elevated as this product brand that is the equivalent of freedom and happiness. It’s a shallow and materialistic message, even though the movie has a larger message of self-acceptance that’s more important.

The mistrust and prejudice that some humans and sea monsters have for each other are obvious metaphors of real-life bigotry. Just like in real life, some individuals are narrow-minded and hateful, while others are not. However, the movie has mixed messages about “assimilation” where individuals in the minority feel like they have to be more like individuals in the majority in order to be accepted.

Some viewers might have different opinions about what kinds of message this movie might be sending where a sea monster wants to live as a human. Alberto says in the beginning of the movie that human life on land is superior to animal life in the sea. That’s a message that probably won’t endear “Luca” to animal rights activists.

However, people need to see the movie to find out how these issues of species superiority and inferiority are handled. Because sea monsters can turn into humans, the movie takes the interpretation that they’re almost like biracial people who feel pressure to identify as one race over another. It’s enough to say that the main characters in “Luca” find out that real freedom comes from not being afraid to be who you are and not letting others put you into a narrow box of what they think you should be.

Disney+ will premiere “Luca” on June 18, 2021. The movie will have an exclusive, limited-run engagement at Disney-owned El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, beginning June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,’ starring Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, David Oyelowo and the voices of James Corden, Colin Moody, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Aimee Horne and Lennie James

June 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

David Oyelowo, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson with Cotton-Tail (voiced by Aimee Horne), Flopsy (voiced by Margot Robbie), Mopsy (voiced by Elizabeth Debecki), Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) and Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody) in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway”

Directed by Will Gluck

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of England, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” features a cast of characters representing humans (mostly white, with a few black and Asian people) and animals in working-class and middle-class environments.

Culture Clash: While on a family trip to London, Peter Rabbit separates himself from the rest of the group and falls in with a gang of thieving animals.

Culture Audience: “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” will appeal primarily to people looking for lightweight, family-friendly animated entertainment.

Barnabas (voiced by Lennie James), Samuel Whiskers (voiced by Rupert Degas), Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden), Mittens (voiced by Hayley Atwell) and Tom Kitten (voiced by Damon Herriman) in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

Just like the hyper rabbit who’s the title character, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” hops all over the place, as Peter Rabbit becomes more restless about seeing the world outside of his home. This wandering spirit mostly works well in this affable sequel. And fortunately, people don’t have to see 2018’s “Peter Rabbit” movie to understand or enjoy this follow-up movie. The movies are based on the beloved Beatrix Potter children’s book series.

“Peter Rabbit” director/co-writer/producer Will Gluck returned to direct, co-write and produce “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway,” but he changed screenwriting collaborators. The “Peter Rabbit” screenplay was co-written by Rob Lieber, while Patrick Burleigh co-wrote the screenplay for “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.” The results are a much more frenetically paced, travel-oriented film that stuffs in a “race against time” plot development the last 10 minutes of the movie.

This “race against time” plot development could have worked as the plot of an entire film instead of being rushed in at the end. It seems like the filmmakers tried to incorporate several different plot ideas into the same movie instead of sticking to just one. For the most part, it works, especially if viewers have short attention spans. But other times, “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” seems as if there are three different movies in one film.

One part of the movie is about the mischievous Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) running away from his family and befriending a gang of thieving animals. Another part of the movie is about Peter going home, missing his new friends, and recruiting his rabbit relatives and some animal pals to go back and help the gang of thieves with a big heist. And another part of the film involves a big rescue mission that won’t be revealed in this review. And there’s an over-arching theme about not changing your identity to please other people.

Because of all these different story ideas going on in the same movie, “Peter Rabbit 2” increases the energy level from the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, but sometimes to the detriment of staying focused. It’s not a perfect film. However, it’s good enough to bring some lighthearted chuckles while watching the antics of these precocious talking animals and how they interact with each other and with humans.

There are also some sly meta-references that poke fun at certain members of the cast and the “adventure story” aspect of this sequel. Some adult viewers might get the jokes. For example, Corden is somewhat of a divisive personality in real life. Some people adore him, while others think he’s extremely annoying. In “Peter Rabbit 2,” Peter asks certain animals more than once if they think his voice is annoying. It’s a question that Corden could be asking about his likability in real life.

And in other parts of the movie, there are several mentions of trying to make the “Peter Rabbit” books series more appealing to a wider audience by having the rabbits dress differently and having them embark on different adventures in various locations—even outer space. It seem like a wink and a nod to the pressures the “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” filmmakers must have felt to make this sequel more exciting than its predecessor. As such, Peter and his animal group experience more adventures outside the comfort of their country home in Windermere, England.

In the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, the plot centered mainly on Peter’s battles with members of the McGregor family who hate rabbits and other animals that might disrupt their garden where Peter and other animals like to play. First, there was crabby Old Mr. McGregor (played by Sam Neill), who died of a heart attack near the beginning of the movie. His nephew Thomas McGregor (played by Domhnall Gleeson), another cranky loner, inherited his deceased uncle’s house that’s next door to the house of an illustrative artist named Bea (played by Rose Byrne), a pleasant and gentle nurturer who loves the animals on the property.

Bea is especially fond of a family of five orphaned rabbits that she treats as if they’re her own children. The rabbits are Peter; his three sisters—insecure Flopsy Rabbit (voiced by Margot Robbie); practical Mopsy Rabbit (voiced by Elizabeth Debicki); and cynical Cotton-Tail Rabbit (voiced by Aimee Horne, who replaced Daisy Ridley)—and their older cousin Benjamin Bunny (voiced by Colin Moody), who likes to give wise advice. The rabbits think and talk like humans. But ironically, Thomas, not Bea, can hear the rabbits talk. (Flopsy is the voiceover narrator for these movies.)

The first “Peter Rabbit” movie ends the way that you expect it would. By the end of the movie, Thomas and Bea have fallen in love, Thomas has quit his sales job at Harrod’s, and he has fulfilled his dream of opening up a children’s shop that sells toys and books. Thomas has reached a tentative truce with Peter, with the agreement that Peter won’t touch Thomas’ cherished crop of tomatoes. This is information that’s mentioned at the beginning of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.” Therefore, people who didn’t see the first “Peter Rabbit” movie and want to get the full backstory probably should see “Peter Rabbit” before watching “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway.”

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” begins with Bea and Thomas getting married. They work together in the shop, and Thomas has been an independent publisher for Bea’s first “Peter Rabbit” book about Peter Rabbit and his family. The book, which is a hit, has caught the attention of a smooth-talking wheeler dealer named Nigel Basil-Jones (played by David Oyelowo), an executive at a major book publisher. Nigel comes into the shop one day and tells a delighted Bea that he wants to sign her to a multi-book deal that will significantly increase distribution and profits for her “Peter Rabbit” book series.

There’s just one problem: Nigel and his team of sycophantic executives think that the “Peter Rabbit” book series should be more appealing to modern audiences. Suggestions are made to change the rabbits’ wardrobe to T-shirts and jeans. And the executives want the rabbits to have adventures in other places besides the yard of their home.

Bea is excited about this possible contract and seems willing to make these changes, while Thomas and Cotton-Tail are more skeptical. Bea doesn’t want the changes to be too drastic, but she’s willing to compromise. Nigel can also be very persuasive. There’s a running joke in the movie that people can’t look into Nigel’s eyes for too long because his eyes have almost a hypnotic effect on people.

The first time that Bea and Thomas meet with Nigel in London, the spouses take their rabbit family with them by train. During Thomas and Bea’s meeting with Nigel (with the rabbits also in attendance), Nigel suggests that each of the rabbits should have nicknames that would make the rabbits’ personalities more marketable. For Benjamin, the suggested nickname is The Wise One. Cotton-Tail’s suggested nickname is The Firecracker. Identical twins Flopsy and Mopsy’s suggested nickname is The Dynamic Duo.

And for Peter, Nigel can’t decide between the nickname The Mischief Maker or The Bad Seed. Peter is insulted by both names, especially The Bad Seed, because he doesn’t think he’s bad. And he doesn’t want to be portrayed as a villain in Bea’s “Peter Rabbit” books.

Peter sneaks off from the meeting to sulk and spend time by himself. He wanders into the seedier areas of the city to the sound of Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” playing on the movie’s soundtrack. It’s in this part of the city that Peter meets a rabbit who’s about the same age as Peter’s father would be if Peter’s father were still alive.

This older rabbit’s name is Barnabas (voiced by Lennie James), who is a mischief maker and a longtime thief. After causing a ruckus at an outdoor grocery stand, Barnabas and Peter run away and hide in various places, including a mailbox and a recycling bin.

During their conversations where they get to know each other, Peter tells Barnabas about his family’s up-and-down history with the McGregors. Based on this information, Barnabas then tells Peter that he knew Peter’s father. An instant connection is then formed between Peter and Barnabas. Barnabas is an old roughneck who seems to have a soft spot for Peter and seems to want to be Peter’s father figure/mentor.

Barnabas also introduces Peter to the animals who are the other members of Barnabas’ gang of thieves: a cat named Tom Kitten (voiced by Damon Herriman); Tom’s sister Mittens (voiced by Hayley Atwell); and a rat named Samuel Whiskers (voiced by Rupert Degas). There’s a misadventure involving a pet store called Piperson’s Pets, which has animal catchers roaming the streets, looking for stray animals to capture and sell.

The rest of the movie could have been spent on Peter being a runaway and his family trying to find him. However, it would be too divisive to audiences to have Peter separated from his family for most of the movie. Instead, Bea and Thomas find Peter, and he goes home with the rest of the family.

At home, Peter is still thinking about Barnabas, who was like an instant surrogate father to Peter and seemed to accept Peter for who he is. Peter longs to see Barnabas again and to continue to get Barnabas’ approval. And so, Peter hatches a plan to convince his family and some animal neighbors to help Barnabas and his gang on a major famer’s market heist, with dried fuit being the biggest prized possession for the thieves.

The rest of “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” shows what happens to those plans. Peter’s rabbit family members go along for the ride. Also recruited for this big heist are characters from the first “Peter Rabbit” movie: a hedgehog named Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (voiced by Sia); a pig named Pigling Bland (voiced by Ewen Leslie); a deer named Felix D’eer (voiced by Christian Gazal) who freezes at the sight of lights; a duck named Jemima Puddle-Duck (voiced by Byrne); and a badger named Tommy Brock (voiced by Sam Neill).

The neurotic JW Rooster III (voiced by Jack Andrew), with his now-older children, make recurring appearances, with the running joke that rooster thinks that the day can’t start unless he crows correctly. With all these animal characters, the humans in the story could be overshadowed. However, there’s enough of a balance and a reminder that these domesticated animals, for all of their rebellion, still rely on humans to get their food.

The comedy in “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” isn’t a laugh a minute. There’s a lot of predictable slapstick, of course, with Peter usually finding himself in trouble in one way or another. Thomas is still gangly and awkward, so he’s the human character who’s the most likely to be the butt of the slapstick jokes. Cotton-Tail brings some laughs with her ongoing pessimistic sarcasm.

“Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” also has a recurring gag where Cotton-Tail over-indulges in eating candy, gets very hyperactive from a sugar high, and then her energy level crashes and burns. A joke that doesn’t work as well is Flopsy’s decision to call herself Lavoratory because she’s tired of her identity being so intwined with her identical twin Mopsy. This decision doesn’t last, but it’s a little disappointing that the filmmakers would make one the narrator of the movie call herself a toilet and that she wasn’t smart enough to know what a lavoratory was in the first place.

The movie’s soundtrack has the same rock/pop tone as the first “Peter Rabbit” movie, with prominent placement of tunes from the 1990s and 2010s. Supergrass’ 1995 hit “Alright” seems to be the unofficial theme song for the movie, since it’s played more than once in key scenes. Gluck’s direction moves the film along at a brisk but occasionally uneven pace, since the last 10 minutes of the movie really look like the narrative of the story went on fast-forward.

The movie’s visual effects that combine live action with animation continue to look seamless, thanks to the good work of visual effects company Animal Logic, which also did the visual effects for the first “Peter Rabbit” film. Will this movie win any major awards? No. Just like the visual effects, acting and everything else in the movie “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” fulfills its purpose of providing satisfactory entertainment for people of many age groups, but the work isn’t so outstanding that people will think that it’s the best of the best.

Columbia Pictures will release “Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway” in U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Spirit Untamed,’ starring the voices of Isabela Merced, Marsai Martin, Mckenna Grace, Walton Goggins, Julianne Moore and Jake Gyllenhaal

June 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Abigail Stone (voiced by Mckenna Grace), Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced) and Pru Granger (voiced by Marsai Martin) in “Spirit Untamed” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Spirit Untamed”

Directed by Elaine Bogan; Co-directed by Ennio Torresan

Culture Representation: Taking place sometime in the early 1800s or mid-1800s in an unnamed Southwestern part of the United States, the animated film “Spirit Untamed” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing frontier people living in the Wild West.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old girl defies her father’s orders to ride a horse, and she teams up with two other girls to fight bandits who have stolen a team of horses led by an intelligent mustang stallion named Spirit.

Culture Audience: “Spirit Untamed” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Netflix animated series “Spirit Riding Free,” on which this movie is based, but many viewers might be unimpressed with the bland storyline, unremarkable animation and an origin story that isn’t very original.

Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced), Aunt Cora (voiced by Julianne Moore) and Jim Prescott (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) in “Spirit Untamed” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

In this lukewarm origin story for Netflix’s “Spirit Riding Free” animated series, the animated feature film “Spirit Untamed” does a watered-down and unimaginative Disney Princess version of “Spirit Riding Free.” All of the elements of a Disney Princess story are there: The 12-year-old female protoganist has an absentee or dead mother. She has “daddy issues” with a father or father figure who’s usually overprotective. And she fights gender biases that expect girls to not be as adventurous as boys.

However, “Spirit Untamed” is not a Disney film. It’s from DreamWorks Animation, which has been trying for years to play catch-up to Disney’s dominance of the animated movie business. Unfortunately, “Spirit Untamed” is not an example of a highly creative or visually stunning animated film. It’s so mediocre and formulaic that it doesn’t even look like a movie that needs to be seen in a movie theater.

And it’s disappointing that the movie isn’t better, because “Spirit Untamed” is a rare animated film released in cinemas that has a female-majority team of directors, writers and producers. The movie is the feature-film debut of Elaine Boga, who has previously directed episodes of DreamWorks Animation series such as “3Below: Tales of Arcadia,” “Trollhunters: Arcadia,” “Dragons: Race to the Edge” and “DreamWorks Dragons.” Ennio Torresan co-directed “Spirit Untamed,” which was written by Kristin Hahn, Katherine Nolfi and Aury Wallington.

When a TV series has a feature-film spinoff that’s released in cinemas, it should deliver a story that’s epic, so that people will feel like the story was worth seeing on a theater big screen. “Spirit Untamed” just looks like a story from some leftover script ideas that didn’t make it into the show’s pilot episode, but with different (bigger-named) actors voicing the main characters in the movie. Just because the movie had a bigger budget and more famous actors than the TV series doesn’t mean that the quality is any better than the TV series.

“Spirit Riding Free” is based on the 2002 DreamWorks Animation Film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” which hardly has anything in common with the TV series and “Spirit Untamed,” except for the mustang stallion character Spirit, an intelligent horse that refuses to be tamed and held captive. “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” is told from the horse’s point of view (with Matt Damon providing the narration as the voice of Spirit) and it’s a very male-centric movie.

In “Spirit Riding Free,” the main protaganist is 12-year-old Fortuna Esperanza Navarro Prescott, nicknamed Lucky. She’s a slightly rebellious, very adventuresome girl who has moved from a big city to a small frontier town called Miradero in an unnamed part of the Southwestern United States. The story is set in the early 1800s or mid-1800s, and where Lucky is living is considered a Wild West territory that has not yet been become an official state in the United States.

In the TV series, Lucky (who is an only child) lives with her widowed father Jim Prescott Jr. and her aunt Cora Prescott. She befriends a mustang stallion named Spirit, who heads a team of other wild horses. In the first episode of “Spirit Riding Free,” Lucky rescued Spirit from a group of horse wranglers. The “Spirit Untamed” movie is essentially the same story, except there’s more background information about how the death of Lucky’s mother has affected the family.

“Spirit Untamed” also has the same sidekicks for Lucky: two girls who are about the same age as she is: Prudence “Pru” Granger and Abigail Stone. Pru has a horse named Chica Linda, while Abigail has a horse named Boomerang. Spirit doesn’t want to be owned by anyone, but Lucky is one of the few people who can ride Spirit without Spirit trying to knock them to the ground. In “Spirit Riding Free,” Lucky goes to school. In “Spirit Untamed,” the closest reference to school is near the beginning, when a homeschooled Lucky is still living in the city and she’s reluctant to do homework that was assigned to her by her math tutor.

Viewers will have to suspend disbelief or get used to how this “Spirit” world isn’t historically authentic in many ways. The “Spirit” world is supposed to be set in the early 1800s or mid-1800s, before cars and electricity existed, but many of the characters in the movie dress, talk and use a few things to make it look like this story takes place in the 20th century. For example, in “Spirit Untamed,” Abigail blows and pops some bubble gum, which wasn’t invented until 1928.

The movie’s characters (especially the women and girls) also wear their hair and clothes that look more like they’re in a TV ad for Levi’s jeans, not living in an era before electricity was invented. Yes, many people watching this movie will be children who are too young to know better. But a lot of viewers will be people who are old enough to know that these characters are too modern for the 1800s. And these observant viewers won’t like how this movie was made as if the filmmakers think that people are too stupid to notice.

The historical inaccuracy in “Spirit Untamed” is the least of this movie’s problems. Because “Spirit Untamed” is just a longer retread of the first episode of “Spirit Riding Free,” it comes across as quite lazy that the screenwriters couldn’t come up with a more original story for this movie. “Spirit Untamed” opens with the death of Lucky’s mother Milagro Navarro (voiced by Eiza González), who died when she was thrown off of the horse that she was riding in a rodeo. Lucky’s father Jim Prescott Jr. (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) witnessed this death, which happened when Lucky was a baby.

Jim was apparently so grief-stricken that he didn’t think he could raise Lucky as a single father. And so, Lucky (voiced by Isabela Merced) was raised in the city by Jim’s sister Cora (voiced by Julianne Moore), while Jim stayed in Miradero. It’s shown near the beginning of the movie that Jim’s father James Prescott Sr. (voiced by Joe Hart) is running for governor. The Prescotts seem to be a well-to-do family because they can afford a private tutor for Lucky.

However, Jim and his father are no longer on speaking terms because James Prescott Sr. is not impressed with what he thinks is Jim’s lack of amibition and small-town life. And it’s implied, but not really said out loud, that Jim lost respect from his father because Jim handed off the responsbility of raising Lucky to Cora. And there are hints that the death of Lucky’s mother hasn’t been discussed enough in the family, so the emotional wounds still cut deep.

These are family issues that could be too heavy for an animated film that’s made for children as a large part of the movie’s target audience, but these issues could have been explored better in “Spirit Untamed.” It can be done: Pixar Animation Studios (owned by Disney) has built its brand on making animated films about heavy life issues while still being entertaining to people of all ages. Instead, “Spirit Untamed” just glosses over these issues in a shallow way.

Lucky is shown sulking on a window ledge because she wants to go to a party that her grandfather is having for his political campaign. However, Cora explains that Lucky is not allowed to go to the party because Lucky has to study and work on her math lessons. There’s a squirrel named Tom that Lucky has befriended. And somehow, this squirrel ends up at the party, lands on James Prescott Sr.’s face, and a newspaper photographer caught the amusing spectacle on camera. (This party is never shown in the movie.)

A photo of the squirrel on James Prescott Sr.’s face ends up on the front page of the newspaper. And apparently, he was so humiliated and angry about this squirrel, that he blamed Lucky and sent her away to visit his estranged son Jim (Lucky’s father) in Miradero for a few months. It’s a clumsy way to explain why Lucky and Cora have to go to Miradero, but there it is in this movie.

While riding by train to Miradero, Lucky looks outside a window and sees Spirit for the first time, when he’s running with his team of horses in a nearby field. She’s immediately drawn to this horse and can’t take her eyes off of him. The horse makes eye contact with her, so even if viewers know nothing about the “Spirit” franchise before seeing this movie, it’s obvious that Spirit and Lucky will end up becoming friends.

At one point in the journey, Lucky is at the back of the train and leaning over a rail to get a better view of the scenery. She almost falls over, but she’s caught in time by a rough-looking man named Hendricks (voiced by Walton Goggins), who is traveling with four other men on the train. (Hendricks’ unnamed companions are voiced by Jerry Clarke, Gino Montesinos, Lew Temple and Gary Anthony Williams.) Cora and Lucky thank Hendricks for preventing Lucky from having a dangerous fall. Hendricks seems polite, but it’s soon clear that he’s going to be the story’s chief villain.

Shortly after arriving in Miradero, where people immediately tell Lucky how much she looks like her mother, Lucky has an awkward reunion with her father Jim, who lives in a cluttered house that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a while. Jim doesn’t endear himself to Lucky right away when he sheepishly admits that he forgot the date that Lucky and Cora were arriving, so he wasn’t fully prepared when they showed up at his door.

Most of the house is a jumbled mess, but Jim has thoughtfully redecorated a bedroom where Lucky will be staying. It’s the only neat and clean room in the house, but Jim has gone overboard in decorating the room with strawberry art. The wallpaper even has strawberries on it. He explains to Lucky that she used to love strawberries as a baby, so that’s why the room has a strawberry theme.

Lucky doesn’t think the room suits her taste, but there’s nothing she can do about it. And besides, the plan is that she and Cora will only be visiting for a few months. Behind her bedroom, Lucky finds a secret room with mementos and other personal items that belonged to her late mother Milagro. It’s here that Lucky discovers how much her mother was a well-regarded rodeo horseback rider.

Meanwhile, because of the way that Milagro died, Jim is strict in forbidding Lucky to ride any horses. And, of course, everyone watching this movie knows she’s going to break that rule. Cora takes Lucky to a rodeo, where she meets Pru (voiced by Marsai Martin), who’s a skilled horseback rider. Pru’s father Al Granger (voiced by Andre Braugher) is there too.

Later, Lucky meets a hyper kid, who’s about 7 or 8 years old, named Snips Stone (voiced by Lucian Perez). And it’s because of Snips that Lucky meets his older sister Abigail Stone (voiced by McKenna Grace). Abigail thinks that Snips is a brat, so there are a few bizarre and unnecessary scenes where Abigail has him tied up, because she doesn’t want him pestering her.

The capitivity abuse of Snips is supposed to be funny, but it comes across as cruel. Imagine the outrage if a boy had his sister tied up or hanging by ropes, even in an animated film. Snips and Abigail’s parents are never seen in “Spirit Untamed.” It’s another glaring omission from the film that doesn’t explain why Abigail and Snips don’t seem to have any adult supervision.

Abigail is actually more annoying than Snips in this movie. She brings a banjo with her and starts singing at inopportune moments. Abigail, who also tends to talk too much, has it stuck in her head that she, Pru and Lucky should be in a band. Lucky and even Jim have a few moments where they break out into song too. The movie’s original songs—including “Better With You” (peformed by Merced) and “Fearless” (performed by Merced and González)—are mediocre and forgettable.

Pru has the same deadpan sarcasm that’s in the “Spirit Riding Free” TV series. Lucky and Pru are smarter than Abigail, while Lucky is the biggest risk-taker, the most persistent and the most optimistic of the three friends. Just like in the TV series, Pru, Abigail and Lucky see that the first letters of their first names can be spelled as PAL. And they have friendship bracelets with the world PAL engraved on it.

Hendricks and his gang of horse wranglers are in Miradero because they’ve been hired to break/train some wild horses that were found by Pru’s father Al. Spirit is one of these wild horses, and that’s how Lucky sees Spirit and his team again and gets to know the horses better. Every time Lucky sees Spirit, she can’t resist letting him loose from the ropes that bind him to the corral.

Al is married to Pru’s mother, but Pru’s mother is never seen in “Spirit Untamed.” In fact, Cora is the only “mother figure” or adult female character with a significant speaking role in this movie. The lack of adult female characters with major roles in this story somewhat undermines the feminist intentions of the movie, which basically makes Lucky, Pru and Abigail look like the adolescent Wild West version of Charlie’s Angels when they decide to chase down the bad guys.

That’s because Hendricks and his cronies are really there to steal Spirit and the rest of the wild horses, so that these thieves can auction off the horses into a life of captivity and strenuous labor. And it’s up to Lucky, Pru and Abigail to save these horses. Spirit manages to escape, so Pru rides him on this mission to hunt down the thieves. Everything that follows is entirely predictable, with nothing that hasn’t been seen already in a “Spirit Riding Free” episode.

There are the seemingly impossible horse leaps from one cliff to the next. There are moments when it looks like the villains are winning because they outnumber the heroes. There are the scenes where horses get lassoed and try to break away and seem to be in pain. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway, so there’s no suspense, but the filmmakers should have at least come up with better obstacles for the heroes than the same old scenarios.

All of the voice actors do serviceable jobs in the roles, but no one is going to win any animation awards for “Spirit Untamed.” Toward the end, the movie gets a bit too slapstick for its own good. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t know if the movie should be more of an action drama or more of an action comedy.

Coming from a major animation studio like DreamWorks, “Spirit Untamed” should’ve had outstanding visuals, but the movie looks incredibly generic. The screenplay should have offered more suspense and a less superficial look at the Prescott family dynamics to give more emotional depth to Lucky’s backstory. Now that Lucky’s origin story has been established in a feature film, if there’s another “Spirit” movie based on the “Spirit Riding Free” series, let’s hope that the end results look like money well-spent instead of a cheap knockoff of better-quality animated films.

DreamWorks Animation released “Spirit Untamed” in U.S. cinemas on June 4, 2021.

Review: ‘Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train,’ an anime fantasy adventure from Japan

May 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tanjiro Kamado in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no YaibaThe Movie: Mugen Train” (Image by Koyoharu Gotoge/SHUEISHA/Aniplex/Ufotable) 

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train”

Directed by Haruo Sotozaki

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

Culture Representation: Taking place in early 1900s Japan, the animation film “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” features Japanese characters involved in adventures in demon slaying.

Culture Clash: During a train ride, a master demon slayer and four of his assistants fight a demon.

Culture Audience: Aside from the obvious target audience of people who are fans of the “Demon Slayer” TV series, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in anime or any animated films that have engaging fantasy adventure stories with graphic fight scenes.

Enmu in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” (Image by Koyoharu Gotoge/SHUEISHA/Aniplex/Ufotable)

The animated film “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” (based on the popular “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” anime TV series and comic book series) has broken records to become to highest-grossing movie of all time in Japan and the top-grossing movie worldwide of 2020. Since its release in Asia in October 2020, the movie has since become a chart-topping hit. And in 2021, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” became a hit in several places outside of Asia, including the United States, several countries in Europe and in South America.

Is this movie worth all the hype? Mostly yes, but the movie is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like anime that have more adult-oriented violence than a typical anime film. The movie (directed by Haruo Sotozaki) has some eye-popping visuals that deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. And the story is an immersive experience should please fans of animated stories that blend fantasy adventures with some horror elements.

Where the movie falls a little short is in how it introduces the characters. If people don’t know anything about these characters before seeing the movie, the backstories might be a little rushed for newcomers to process everything as easily as people who are already familiar with these characters. Anyone going into this movie with no knowledge of the “Demon Slayer” canon might find themselves at times lost and occasionally bored by the film.

However, that doesn’t mean that “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” is difficult to understand. Anime production company Ufotable is credited with writing the screenplay, based on a story by Koyoharu Gotoge. The movie’s plot continues with the central theme of the franchise: Red-haired and courageous teenage boy Tanjirō Kamado (the protagonist) and his two male friends: blonde and fearful Zenitsu Agatsuma and impulsive hothead Inosuke Hashibira (who wears a boar’s head mask to hide his delicate-looking face) have teamed up with a young adult Flame Hashira warrior named Kyōjurō Rengoku to slay demons.

Tanjirō, who is the franchise’s main protagonist, has a tragedy which is feuling his motivations to find and kill demons: His parents and three brothers were slaughtered by demons, while his younger sister Nezuko Kamado was turned into a demon. Tanjirō keeps Nezuko hidden, usually in a knapsack that he has with him. However, Nezuko has not turned into a completely evil demon, because she is known to help Tanjirō and his friends when they need it.

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” begins with Tanjirō, Zenitsu and Hashibira boarding a train. The three pals meet up with Kyōjurō on the train, where he’s having a meal. During the beginning of the movie, there’s a running joke in that Kyōjurō keeps saying, “Tasty!” while he’s eating.

The main demon in the story is Enmu, Lower Rank One of the Twelve Kizuki, who finds four young passengers who have insomnia and orders them to enter the demon slayers’ dreams. The rest of the movie has a fever-dream quality where the demon slayers slip in and out of consciousness to fight Enmu and other demons.

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” doesn’t hold back on blood and gore. The movie dosn’t really start to pick up steam until the haflway mark. And from there, it’s an adrenaline-pumping ride as Enmu literally takes over the train in a way that won’t be revealed in this review. The visuals can be stunning, but not anything extraordinary. However, there are some genuinely creepy images in the movie, such as Enmu’s hand, which has a mind of its own.

Most viewers of this movie are watching for the fight scenes. And the movie should meet or surpass expetations. It should come as no surprise that Tanjirō and Enmu have a big showdown (it’s one of the highlights of the film), some of which takes place on top of the train. Kyōjurō also has climactic scene that’s an epic battle.

Because this movie is dubbed in several different languages (and also available in Japanese with subtitles), several voice actors portray the same characters. In the Japanese-language version, the voice actors are Natsuki Hanae asTanjirō Kamado; Yoshitsugu Matsuoka as Inosuke Hashibira; Satoshi Hino as Kyōjurō Rengoku; Akari Kitō as Nezuko Kamado; and Daisuke Hirakawa as Enmu/Lower Moon One. In the English-language version, the voice actors are Zach Aguilar asTanjirō Kamado; Bryce Papenbrook as Inosuke Hashibira; Aleks Le as Kyōjurō Rengoku; Abby Trott as Nezuko Kamado; and Landon McDonald as Enmu/Lower Moon One.

The acting and dialogue in “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” are what viewers might expect from an anime film. The biggest appeal that the movie has is how it hooks people into this world (there are flashbacks to give the characters backstories) and gives viewers many reasons to root for the heroic characters. These demon slayers are far from perfect, and that’s why people of all ages can relate them any or all of them in some way.

This movie also doesn’t gloss over the tragedy and trauma of murders. Tanjirō has flashback scenes with his family members when they were alive, and it gives emotional delpth to the tremendous loss that he has suffered. Tanjirō has solidarity and acceptance in his new family of demon slayers, but viewers will also sense that he will be forever haunted by the tragic murders of his biological family members. And just like any good story, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train” leaves audiences wanting more at the end.

Aniplex of America and Funimation released “Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Movie: Mugen Train” in U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is June 22, 2021. The movie was released in Japan in 2020.

Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ starring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina and Gemma Chan

March 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) in “Raya and the Last Dragon” (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios)

“Raya and the Last Dragon”

Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs and John Ripa

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional world of Kumandra, the animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon” features a predominantly Asian voice cast of characters (with some white people) representing different cultures in this fantasy world.

Culture Clash: After a terrible plague has turned her father into a stone statue, a teenage girl named Raya goes in search of a mysterious dragon and missing pieces of a magical gem in war-torn Kumandra, in order to restore peace and safety to Kumandra.

Culture Audience: “Raya and the Last Dragon” will appeal primarily to people who enjoy visually stunning, well-written animation adventures that are family-friendly and have positive themes.

Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) and Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) in “Raya and the Last Dragon” (Image courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios)

Walt Disney Animation has become the premiere studio for animated movies about princesses who are more like warriors than damsels in distress. And with “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Disney has delivered another instant classic. The movie’s voice cast is predominantly Asian, which is a big step forward for diversity in American-made animated films. The ethnicity of the characters is not the main focus of the story, nor does it have to be, since “Raya and the Last Dragon” has an overall theme of compassion in understanding people’s differences.

Four people are credited with directing “Raya and the Last Dragon”: directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa. Fortunately, the results don’t look like “too many cooks in the kitchen,” since this well-cast and gorgeously filmed movie has a consistent tone throughout the story. The movie’s protagonist is a girl named Raya, pronounced “ry-ah” (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), who explains in a voiceover intro about how her world of Kumandra has been torn apart by tribal feuding and a mystical plague called the Druun, which turns living beings into stone.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is one of those movies where it’s best not to miss the first 10 minutes, because that beginning of the film packs in a lot of necessary information in order to understand what’s going on for the rest of the movie. Raya, who appears to be about 16 or 17 for most of the story, explains that Kumandra was a harmonious world, filled with dragons that brought water and rain and peace. But about 500 years ago, the Druun (pronounced “droon”) arrived (it looks like purple mist), and turned most living beings into stone, except for one dragon.

That last dragon is a female named Sisu, pronounced “see-soo” (voiced by Awkwafina), who “concentrated all of her magic in a Dragon Gem and blasted the Druun.” This gem (which looks like a large diamond) is the only known way to fight off the Druun, so it’s become the most valuable object in Kumandra. Because of Sisu’s actions with the Dragon Gem, everyone that was turned to stone came back to life, except for the dragons. Besides the Dragon Gem, the only other way to stop the Druun is to be surrounded by a large body of water.

Sisu then became a mythical hero in Kumandra, with some people believing that Sisu might still be alive. Meanwhile, Sisu’s magical Dragon Gem became highly coveted, and various people in Kumandra began feuding to get possession of the Dragon Gem, which was secretly hidden. Borders were drawn for five different lands, and the tribes in each land have been enemies of each other for the past 500 years.

Raya describes these five lands:

  • Tail, “a sweltering desert of sneaky mercenaries who fight dirty.” The Tail tribe wears a lot of yellow.
  • Talon, “a floating market with fast deals and fighters with even faster hands.” The Talon tribe wears a lot of purple.
  • Spine, “a frigid bamboo forest guarded by large warriors and their giant axes.” The Spine tribe wears a lot of green.
  • Fang, “our fiercest enemy, a nation protected by angry assassins and even angrier cats.” The Fang tribe wears a lot of off-white.
  • Heart, the land where Raya and her father Benja live, is the most neutral and prosperous of the five lands. The Heart tribe doesn’t really have a color-coordinated way of dressing.

The story continues with a flashback of when Raya was about 10 or 11 years old. Her widower father Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), who is the chief of Heart, has been the secret guardian of the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a remote part of a cave. Raya knows this secret, and she passes her father’s physical test to see if she would be able to reach the Dragon Gem if necessary.

Benja has a bold plan to reunite all the feuding tribes of Kumandra. He invites the people of Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang to Heart. And he gives a speech asking everyone to try to get along with each other. His speech is met with a lot of ridicule, until Raya and Benja mention all the free food that’s available at the gathering. Some of the other tribes are scarce on resources, such as food.

Raya makes eye contact in the crowd with a girl from Fang who’s about the same age as she is. They smile at each other, as an indication that they’re open to becoming friends. Raya steps into the crowd and begins talking to the girl. The other girl is Fang’s princess Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), who is the daughter of Fang’s calm and calculating leader Virana (voiced by Sandra Oh).

The other tribes see how Raya and Namaari have started to amicably interact with each other, so they gather in an area that’s set up to look like Kumandra’s version of a family-friendly cocktail party. Raya and Namaari have an instant friendship connection, when they find out that they are both superfans of Sisu. The two girls also found out other things that they have in common are that they both want to be warriors and they both have single parents who tell terrible jokes.

Namaari has a Sisu necklace that Raya admires, and Raya is flattered and surprised when Namaari gives the necklace to Raya. This act of generosity prompts Raya to to impulsively show Namaari the secret location where the Dragon Gem is kept. However, Raya is in for a betrayal and a rude awakening, when Namaari sends a signal to the people in her tribe that she’s found the Dragon Gem.

Other members of the Fang tribe, including Namaari’s mother Virana, rush inside the cave and begin to try to get the gem. Meanwhile, members of the Tail, Talon and Spine tribes have followed them inside the cave to see what all the fuss is about. And when they all see the Dragon Gem, all hell breaks loose.

Benja and Raya bravely try to prevent the Dragon Gem from being taken, but Raya and Benja are outnumbered. People begin fighting to take possession of the gem, which ends up dropping on the ground and shattering into five pieces. The Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang tribes each take one piece and scatter back to their lands, while a fifth piece is left behind at Heart.

The shattering of the Dragon Gem causes the Druun to come back with a vengeance, so there are many people in all tribes who get turned into stone. One of them is Benja, who valiantly throws Raya off a bridge to save her from being in the Druun’s path. She falls into the water (which is protection from the Druun), and she is able to survive.

The story then fast-forwards to six years later. Raya is now a lonely teenage orphan who’s been wandering through the now-devastated Kumandra, on a quest to find all of the pieces of the Dragon Gem to put them back together. Accompanying Raya on this quest is a creature called Tuk Tuk, which is part pill bug and part pug. Tuk Tuk, which is Raya’s closest companion, has grown considerably since her childhood, from being small enough to fit in the palm of her hand to currently being large enough to transport her like a giant snail.

Raya is grieving over the loss of her father, and she’s consumed with bitterness over how she was betrayed by Namaari. Throughout the movie, it’s repeated how this betrayal has caused Raya to not trust anyone. And she wants to get revenge on Namaari and the Fang tribe the most.

Because being near a large body of water is a form of protection against the Druun, Raya has been seeking out all the rivers in Kumandra. When she gets to the last river, Raya calls out to the spirit of Sisu to help her. Just then, Sisu appears, to Raya’s shock. Sisu then transforms herself into a human, as a teenager with multicolored hair.

Raya is awestruck but she doesn’t lose focus on her mission. She tells Sisu about her plan to find all the missing pieces of the Dragon Gem. Sisu agrees to help her and mentions that her best magical ability is that she’s a “really strong swimmer.”

And so, Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk go on this adventure that’s fraught with danger but also filled with wonder and hope. Along the way, they meet some memorable characters. One of them is Boun (played by Izaac Wang), pronounced “boon,” a wisecracking 10 year-old boy who’s the captain of his own rickety-looking wooden ship. He calls himself Captain Boun, and he invites Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk to ride on the ship to wherever they need to go.

During this journey they also encounter a giant named Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong); Talon’s chief Dang Hai (played by Sung Kang); and Dang Hu (voiced by Lucille Soong), an elderly guide. For the “cute and cuddly factor” that’s a staple of Disney animated movies, there are some innocent-looking characters that commit some not-so-innocent acts: Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran) is a toddler with a habit of stealing items (and she steals lots of scenes too), and she hangs out with three Ongis, which are con-artist creatures that are part monkey, part catfish. And, of course, Namaari shows up again and finds out what Raya is planning to do.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” has overtones about world peace without being too preachy about it. It’s also a story about the capacity to forgive and how difficult it can be to overcome grudges when revenge for death, as well as hatred of a certain group of people, have become ingrained in someone’s soul or someone’s culture. A lot of these messages are wrapped up in the vibrant adventure aspect of the story, but these themes are constant throughout the entire film.

The movie has some commentary about hero worship and the dangers of exalting others to a degree that’s not always healthy or realistic. Sisu reveals some secrets about herself that give a different perspective on her mythical hero status. Awkwafina is a personality that people either seem to love or hate, but her raspy-voiced portrayal of Sisu suits the character well, considering that this dragon has lived for centuries.

Sisu is older and wiser than Raya, and offers some advice about forgiveness that Raya thinks is too naïve. This difference of opinion leads to some mild conflicts between Raya and Sisu, but they remain united in their goal to find the missing pieces of the Dragon Gem. Tran’s portrayal of Raya is relatable and engaging, while Chan also shines in her role as Raya’s enemy Namaari, whose loyalty to her Fang tribe is her greatest motivation and her greatest blind spot.

One of the main themes of Disney princess movies is how girls who seem ordinary can find something extraordinary in themselves during their journeys of self-discovery and while they learn some of life’s biggest lessons. “Raya and the Dragon” falls right in line with this theme. And because this is a Disney animated film, the visuals and the story are top-notch.

Is it a completely perfect movie? No. One of the things that isn’t adequately explained is how Raya and her father Benja seem to be the only people in Heart who are shown in the movie. There’s no real sense of what type of community Raya grew up in and what type of community she would go back to if she returned to Heart. It would have been a little better if the movie showed more of this social context in Heart, instead of making it look like Raya and Benja were the only people who mattered in Heart.

And the way the story is structured, viewers really do need to be paying full attention during the first 10 minutes, or else they’ll miss the informative descriptions of the different lands. (However, for very young kids or people who don’t care about world building, these descriptions won’t matter as much as the adventure story.) Sometimes when a movie has a lot of voice narration in the beginning to explain the plot, it doesn’t work. But fortunately, it works for “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Any of the movie’s minor flaws are far outweighed by this captivating story that is sure to inspire repeat viewings.

Walt Disney Animation Studios released “Raya and the Last Dragon” in U.S. cinemas and for a premium additional price on Disney+ on March 5, 2021.