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

May 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“IF” (2024)

Directed by John Krasinski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

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

“Kung Fu Panda 4”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Migration’ (2023), starring the voices of Kumail Nanjiani, Elizabeth Banks, Keegan-Michael Key, Awkwafina and Danny DeVito

December 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Uncle Dan (voiced by Danny DeVito), Gwen (voiced by Tresi Gazal), Dax (voiced by Caspar Jennings), Pam (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) and Mack (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) in “Migration” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment and Universal Studios)

“Migration” (2023)

Directed by Benjamin Renner; co-directed by Guylo Homsy

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and the Caribbean, the animated film “Migration” features a cast of characters portraying different types of birds.

Culture Clash: A family of five mallards (wild ducks) travel outside their home for the first time to go on a vacation in Jamaica, and they encounter various obstacles along the way. 

Culture Audience: “Migration” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching an entertaining, family-oriented animated film.

Gwen (voiced by Tresi Gazal), Dax (voiced by Caspar Jennings), Pam (voiced by Elizabeth Banks), Delroy (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), Mack (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) and Uncle Dan (voiced by Danny DeVito) in “Migration” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment and Universal Studios)

Elevated by a stellar voice cast, “Migration” is an amusing and crowd-pleasing animated adventure with memorable characters. The movie offers a positive message about being open-minded enough to go outside comfort zones and experience new things. The story is easy to understand and has appeal for many generations of people.

Directed by Benjamin Renner and co-directed by Guylo Homsy, “Migration” was written by Mike White, the Emmy-winning creator of HBO’s “The White Lotus.” There’s some expected formula to the plot of “Migration,” but the dialogue between the characters is an entertaining delight. “Migration” also has some vibrant visuals that showcase birds on a thrilling aerial journey, as well as the beautiful locations that are visited along the way.

“Migration” begins by introducing the family of mallards (wild ducks) that live somewhere in New England go on this life-changing journey. The family patriarch is Mack Mallard (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) and the family matriarch is Pam Mallard (voiced by Elizabeth Banks), who are parents of Dax (voiced by Caspar Jennings) and Gwen (voiced by Tresi Gazal). If Dax and Gwen were human, Dax would be about 12 or 13 years old, while Gwen would be about 8 or 9 years old.

The movie’s opening scene shows how Mack and Pam have different personalities and outlooks on life, which are reflected in their parenting styles. Mack teaches his children to be fearful of the unknown, while Pam encourages her children to be curious of the unknown. Mack is shown telling Dax and Gwen a story about duck children who went somewhere they weren’t supposed to go and ended up getting killed. Pam contradicts Mack assures her kids that no one was killed and the story really had a happy ending.

The Mallard family soon meets a lost duck (voiced by Jimmy Donaldson) in local duck habitat called Moosehead Pond. This duck tells the family that he and his flock are making their annual migration south to warmer weather during this winter season. The duck invites the family to migrate too.

Mack is immediately against the idea, because he and his family have never migrated before. After some back-and-forth debate and pleading from the kids, Pam convinces Mack to change his mind, and they decide to go to Jamaica. Joining them on the trip is Mack’s somewhat cranky bachelor Uncle Dan (voiced by Danny DeVito), who shares Mack’s tendency to be afraid of taking risks in life.

Along the way, the Mallards go to New York City, where they meet a group of scrappy pigeons, led by tough-talking fighter named Chump (voiced by Awkwafina), who immediately clashes with Mack. The Mallards also meet a rare Jamaican parrot named Delroy (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), who has a sincere personality and is beng held captive in a cage by a restaurant chef (voiced by Boris Rehlinger) in the restaurant’s kitchen.

The Mallards help Delroy escape. As a thank you, he offers to show them the way to Jamaica. (This isn’t spoiler information, since Delroy is shown in the movie’s trailers.) The Mallards also spend time at a paradise-like duck farm led by the guru-like Goo Goo (voiced by David Mitchell), which might or might not be the safe haven that it appears to be.

“Migration” has the benefit of very good writing as the foundation for making this movie as engaging as it is. Many animated films make the characters too generic, but each of the principal and supporting characters has a distinctive personality that won’t get confused with any other characters. The character of Uncle Dan is a little underdeveloped though. The movie isn’t overstuffed with too many characters or subplots. “Migration” is ultimately a journey worth taking for anyone who wants to see a well-made animated film.

Universal Pictures will release “Migration” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2023.

Review: ‘The Little Mermaid’ (2023), starring Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Javier Bardem, Melissa McCarthy, Noma Dumezweni and the voices of Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina and Jacob Tremblay

May 22, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jonah Hauer-King and Halle Bailey in “The Little Mermaid” (Photo by Giles Keyte/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“The Little Mermaid” (2023)

Directed by Rob Marshall

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1830s, in and around the waters of an unnamed Caribbean island, the fantasy film “The Little Mermaid” (a live-action remake of the 1989 animated film of the same name) features a racially diverse cast of characters (black, white, Asian and Latin) portraying merpeople, humans and non-human animals.

Culture Clash: An 18-year-old mermaid princess falls in love with a young-adult human prince, and she unwittingly makes a deal with an evil witch to become a human, in exchange for the witch getting to keep the mermaid’s voice and making the mermaid mute.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious fans of the original movie, this live-action remake of “The Little Mermaid” will primarily appeal people looking for family-friendly movies with messages about love, bigotry and re-invention, but fans of the original “The Little Mermaid” might not like some of the uneven qualities of this remake.

Melissa McCarthy in “The Little Mermaid” (Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The visual effects are uneven, and some of the characters are bland, but this live-action remake of the 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid” has enough appealing aspects to satisfy most viewers. Halle Bailey, Daveed Diggs and Melissa McCarthy are the standout cast members. The multicultural update to the live-action “The Little Mermaid” mostly works seamlessly, although some of it looks too forced and only there for the sake of looking multicultural.

The movie remake’s three new and original songs—with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and music by original “The Little Mermaid” composer Alan Menken (who won also composed the score to 2023’s “The Little Mermaid” remake)—are very good but are not in the upper echelon of classic Disney songs. Menken won an Oscar for composing the score to 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.” The musical score and original songs for 2023’s “The Little Mermaid” work well enough for the movie, but none of it is going to win any Oscars.

Directed by Rob Marshall and written by David Magee, the 2023 remake of “The Little Mermaid” adheres closely to the original story with some noticeable changes that don’t alter the overall spirit of the original story. “The Little Mermaid” remake takes place in the 1830s, in and around the waters of an unnamed Caribbean island populated by many races. It’s in contrast to the original “Little Mermaid” which had a cast of mostly white people.

“The Little Mermaid” is inspired by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name that was published in 1837. Although the writer of the original story was a white European, the story’s location of an island kingdom could be set anywhere in a cinematic version of “The Little Mermaid.” With a Caribbean island as the central human location for this remake of “The Little Mermaid,” it makes sense that the movie would have a multicultural/multi-racial cast, since many Caribbean islands are multicultural/multiracial.

Marshall has a background in movie musicals, having also directed 2002’s Oscar-winning “Chicago,” the 2009 version of “Nine,” the 2014 version of “Into the Woods” and the 2018 sequel “Mary Poppins Returns.” This remake of “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t look entirely like a musical but more like a movie with some music video segments incorporated into the film. Viewers will have varied reactions to how the movie puts some modern hip-hop and modern dance moves in a movie that’s supposed to take place in the 1830s.

Marshall also directed 2011’s “The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” so he has experience directing big-budget visual-effects movies taking place in a sea and in Caribbean settings. Although the visual effects get better in the last third of the live-action “The Little Mermaid,” the movie has some visual effects that look disappointingly fake and sloppy in the first two-thirds of the movie. For example, the movie’s opening scene, which shows the world of merpeople who live in an unnamed sea, has some off-putting visuals that make all of the merpeople look too much like computer-generated imagery.

It’s in this sea that viewers first see the underwater kingdom ruled by King Triton (played by Javier Bardem), a widower who has seven young-adult daughters of different races and who represent the seven seas. The daughters are Tamika (played by Sienna King), Perla (played by Lorena Andrea), Caspia (played by Nathalie Sorrell), Indira (played by Simone Ashley), Mala (played by Karolina Conchet), Karina (played by Kajsa Mohammar) and Ariel (played by Bailey). Unfortunately, the movie makes all of the sisters except Ariel have utterly tepid personalities that are indistinguishable from each other, thereby making all the sisters except Ariel look like “tokens” for whatever human nationality they’re supposed to represent.

At 18 years old, Ariel is the youngest and most open-minded of her sisters, who all have been taught to dislike and distrust the humans who live on land, because humans have been polluting bodies of water, thereby killing a lot of underwater life. King Triton has strictly forbidden his daughters to go above the water. Meanwhile, humans don’t trust merpeople, especially mermaids, because humans blame mermaids for casting spells on sailors (usually by singing) and causing these sailors to die.

Ariel has the belief that everyone should be judged on individual merits and not judged based on an identity group. It’s a belief that King Triton thinks is absurd and naïve. (Bardem does a reasonably good but occasionally stiff performance as King Triton.) Ariel is so fascinated with humans, she keeps a collection of human-made artifacts that she has found underneath the sea. In this early part of the movie, Bailey does a stellar version of “Part of Your World” that will hook even the most cynical viewers into wanting to see more of the movie.

Ariel’s closest companions are an amiable flounder appropriately named Flounder (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and a gossipy seagull named Scuttle (voiced by Awkwafina), who is easily able to observe the worlds of humans and merpeople. King Triton’s chief aide is a nervous crab named Sebastian (voiced by Diggs), who is eventually tasked with keeping an eye on Ariel when her father suspects that Ariel wants to go above the water and interact with humans. And sure enough, that’s exactly what Ariel ends up doing.

This version of “The Little Mermaid” has a somewhat drab introduction of the humans in the story. Prince Eric (played by Jonah Hauer-King), who is in his early 20s, is the heir to an unnamed island kingdom. He is first seen on a ship with several members of the royal navy, who are all very uninteresting. None of these navy subordinates has a personality that stands out from the pack. The ship accidentally becomes engulfed in flames, so everyone has to abandon the ship. Not everyone makes it out alive.

In the chaos, Eric falls into the sea, where he is rescued by Ariel and brought on shore to a beach. A groggy Eric regains partial consciousness and finds Ariel embracing him and singing to him. Eric’s vision is blurry but he is utterly enchanted by Ariel’s beauty, compassion and her voice. It’s “love at first sight” for Ariel and Eric. However, Ariel is too frightened to be seen with Eric, so she quickly returns to the ocean. Eric is eventually found by some of his ship mates.

Eric didn’t see that Ariel was a mermaid, so he assumes that she is a human. He goes back to his kingdom and tells his skeptical, widowed mother Queen Selina (played by Noma Dumezweni) that the woman of his dreams saved his life, and he’s determined to find her, because he wants to date her and probably marry her. It’s explained in the movie that Queen Selina and Prince Eric (her only child) are of different races because Selina and her husband adopted Eric when he was an abandoned baby.

Meanwhile, Ariel has become lovesick over Eric. One of the merpeople in this underwater kingdom who has noticed Ariel’s mopey mood is a sea witch named Ursula (played by McCarthy), who hatches a plan to use Ariel for a self-serving scheme to gain control of the kingdom. Ursula, who has a grudge against King Triton, is the half-human, half-octopus sister of King Triton, who banished Ursula years ago for her misdeeds.

Years before Ariel was born, Ursula thought that she would be the one to inherit the sea kingdom, but Triton was named the ruler instead. As part of this leadership position, Triton has a magical triton that has the power to be a weapon as well as way to transform creatures. Whoever owns the triton will essentially be the leader of this sea kingdom.

Ursula introduces herself to Ariel, who is wary because she heard from her father to stay away from Ursula. However, Ursula knows that Ariel and Triton have been arguing because he found out that Ariel disobeyed his orders to stay underwater. Triton also discovers that Ariel has fallen in love with the human prince whom she rescued from death. A smooth-talking Ursula uses this father/daughter conflict to her advantage.

Ursula makes a deal with Ariel: Ursula can turn Ariel into a human for three days, but Ursula will keep Ariel’s voice during this three-day period. If Ariel is able to get a “true love” kiss from Eric, Ariel can remain a human and be with Eric. But if Ariel fails to get this kiss from Eric before the three days are over, then Ariel will be turned back into a mermaid forever and Ursula will get to keep Ariel’s voice.

It’s a big risk that Ariel is willing to take. She’s transformed into a human and ends up naked (covered in seaweed and rope) when she is caught in a fisherman’s net. Ariel is given clothes by the fisherman and eventually finds her way to the kingdom’s palace, where she turned into a handmaiden, who is mute but who catches the attention of Eric. Ariel does not tell Eric that she was the one who rescued him.

Even if people didn’t already know the entire story of “The Little Mermaid,” it’s easy to predict what will happen in this Disney princess story. What makes this movie watchable are the luminous performance of Bailey, the lively voice acting of Diggs (who does a passable Caribbean accent) and the scene-stealing turn by McCarthy. The overall chemistry of the cast members works best when the characters played by Bailey, Diggs and McCarthy are on screen.

Bailey is entirely believable as Ariel, with a performance that is a skillful blend of sheltered innocence and independent curiosity. (A little joke in the movie is that Ariel believes Scuttle’s incorrect statement that a fork is a mini-triton that humans use to comb their hair. Ariel eventually finds out the truth.) Bailey shows undeniable star quality in “The Little Mermaid” (her first starring role in a movie), so it will be interesting to see what other leading-lady roles she will do after this breakthrough performance.

As the frequently exasperated and worried Sebastian, Diggs brings some swagger and bounce to a character whose loyalties are often torn between King Triton and Ariel. Sebastian is also the voice of reason when Ariel becomes too impetuous and stubborn, or when Scuttle becomes too scatter-brained and hyper. The comedy for Scuttle seems to try too hard, while the comedy for Sebastian seems more organic and natural.

Some viewers might not like the touches of comedy that McCarthy (whose speaking voice as Ursula has a lower octave than McCarthy’s real voice) brings to the Ursula character, but these moments of levity are needed and welcome in a movie that comes dangerously close to taking itself too seriously. McCarthy also handles the singing quite well, particularly in Ursula’s signature song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” McCarthy’s version of Ursula might not be as menacing as many people expect Ursula to be, but McCarthy does a convincing job of portraying a bitter witch who feels entitled to take what she thinks is owed to her.

Viewers will also have mixed reactions to Awkwafina as Scuttle, since people either like or dislike Awkwafina’s speaking voice. One of the highlights in “The Little Mermaid” is the new song “The Scuttlebutt,” a rap-pop hybrid performed by Awkwafina and Diggs, who each has a background in performing rap music. The only drawback to “The Scuttlebutt” song is that is it shows Awkwafina has limited singing skills and sounds better as a rapper.

The other new and original songs in this version of “The Little Mermaid” are “Wild Unchartered Waters” (performed by Hauer-King) and “For the First Time,” performed by Bailey. There’s also a new reprise of “Part of Your World,” performed by Bailey. “Wild Uncharted Waters” and “For the First Time” sound more like traditional Disney musical songs. Some viewers will like that conventional sound, while other viewers will think the songs play it too safe and should have been more inventive.

Sebastian’s showcase songs “Kiss the Girl” and the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea” (with music by Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman) join the Menken/Ashman songs “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from the original “Little Mermaid” movie that are in this “Little Mermaid” remake. The live-action movie remake of “The Little Mermaid” has a total running tme of 135 minutes, which is a little too long for a movie that just added only three orginal songs. If the movie needed to be this long, it would have been better to replace some of the duller dialogue scenes with dazzling musical numbers that have new and original songs.

Where the live-action version “The Little Mermaid” falters the most is in not really living up to the potential to have more exciting supporting characters. Hauer-King is perfectly pleasant as Prince Eric, but his performance doesn’t have star-making charisma. Hauer-King’s chemistry with Bailey evokes more of a puppy-love crush rather than the type of passionate true love that can lead to a quick marriage. Tremblay’s capable but uninspiring performance as Flounder is overshadowed by the squawking of Scuttle and the wisecracking of Sebastian.

This live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” has a real imbalance in making the sea inhabitants much more interesting overall than the human inhabitants. Prince Eric in particular should be the type of heartthrob who makes millions of admirers swoon, but that type of magnetic romantic appeal just isn’t there in Hauer-King’s performance. Queen Selina and royal court member Sir Grimbsy (played by Art Malik), who is Prince Eric’s chief advisor and confidant, go through the usual motions, but there’s nothing exceptional about the performances of these two characters. There’s also a royal maid named Lashana (played by Martina Laird), who helps Ariel adjust to work life in the palace, but Lashana is ultimately a very generic character.

That doesn’t mean all of the sea life is compelling in this version of “The Little Mermaid.” The eel characters of Flotsam and Jetsam (who are minions of Ursula) are silent, mostly forgettable, and barely in the movie. It’s a missed opportunity to give Flotsam and Jetsam memorable personalities in a live-action remake. And as previously mentioned, the movie makes Ariel’s sisters look like soulless CGI images, instead of mermaids with specific and identifiable personalities.

In other words, this live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” is a mixed bag of flaws and assets, with more assets than flaws. Seeing this movie on the biggest screen possible just makes these assets and flaws more noticeable. The movie’s concept that a female has to change her physical appearance in order to attract and marry a man seems a little outdated in a post-feminism world, even though most of today’s beauty standards for females are still based in these patriarchal ideals. The live-action “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t quite deliver an epic and authentic-looking romance, but the movie does have some delightful performances while staying true to positive messages of overcoming bigotry and self-doubt.

Walt Disney Pictures will release “The Little Mermaid” in U.S. cinemas on May 26, 2023.

Review: ‘Renfield’ (2023), starring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage

April 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage and Nicholas Hoult in “Renfield” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures)

“Renfield” (2023)

Directed by Chris McKay

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the horror comedy film “Renfield” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A real-estate attorney, who has been forced to become an indentured servant procuring victims for vampire Count Dracula, finds himself involved in various hijinks with Dracula and a drug-smuggling gang. 

Culture Audience: “Renfield” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and over-the-top comedies about vampires.

Pictured in front: Adrian Martinez and Awkwafina in “Renfield” (Photo by Michele K. Short/Universal Pictures)

Nicolas Cage’s campy performance as Dracula is the best thing about “Renfield,” a horror comedy that sometimes gets a little too one-note and manic for its own good. The movie doesn’t take itself seriously, and neither should viewers. It’s not a movie for anyone who’s overly sensitive to graphic violence on screen, because there’s plenty of blood and gore, in case anyone forgot that “Renfield” is a vampire movie.

Directed by Chris McKay and written by Ryan Ridley, “Renfield” has a very simple concept that frequently gets muddled with the movie’s overreach in trying to do too much action and comedy at once. “Renfield” is supposed to be a satire of support-group culture and how therapy of co-dependence could be applied to someone who is a “familiar” (a servant of a vampire) trying to get out of a toxic relationship with a blood-sucking employer. However, there are subplots that get tangled in the mix that could have been presented in a more straightforward way.

In “Renfield,” Robert Montague Renfield (played by Nicholas Hoult) is a native of Great Britain who is living in the United States and working as a real-estate attorney. That’s how he met Dracula (played by Cage), who forced Renfield (a bachelor with no children) to become Dracula’s familiar. Renfield is tasked with finding murder victims for Dracula and cleaning up Dracula’s messes.

Dracula and Renfield move from city to city to avoid getting caught. In the beginning of “Renfield” (which has frequent narration by Renfield), Dracula and Renfield have settled in New Orleans. Most of “Renfield” is about a madcap feud involving Dracula, Renfield, mobster criminals and police. A drug-smuggling cartel, led by Bellafrancesca Lobo (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, doing her best Mafia queen impersonation) ends up blaming Renfield for a stolen supply of drugs worth millions.

Meanwhile, Renfield attends a support group for people who are in unhealthy co-dependent relationships. The scenes with the support group meetings are hit and miss. A running gag that gets old quickly is that Renfield shows up and interrupts the meetings at very inconvenient times, usually when someone is in the middle of sharing their emotional pain with the group.

Also hit and miss is the subplot about budding romance between Renfield and a wisecracking New Orleans police officer named Rebecca Quincy (played by Awkwafina), who is trying to prove herself as worthy of her police badge, because her deceased father was a New Orleans police captain who was a well-respected local legend. Rebecca’s serious-minded sister Kate (played by Camille Chen) is an agent for the FBI. Rebecca and Kate have a sibling rivalry that is clumsily shoehorned into the story and is ultimately not essential to the overall plot.

Rebecca and Kate are the only ones who are living in a parent’s shadow. Bellafrancesca has made her bungling son Tedward “Teddy” Lobo (played by Ben Schwartz) her second-in-command. And he’s desperate to impress his mother, but he often fails miserably, because he’s such a buffoon. You can easily predict who will be in the movie’s biggest showdown toward the end.

Character development is not the strong point of “Renfield.” The main characters don’t have much depth, while the supporting characters aren’t too interesting and just exist in the movie to react to the antics or give a few unremarkable quips. Rebecca’s police supervisor Chris Marcos (played by Adrian Martinez) could have been a hilarious character, but he doesn’t get enough screen time to have an impact. The leader of the support group is a sensitive counselor named Mark (played by Brandon Scott Jones), who is written and portrayed as a character to be ridiculed for being a counselor who is immersed in political correctness.

There aren’t very many surprises in “Renfield,” but the movie can deliver some laughs for people who might like this type of entertainment. Hoult plays the “straight man” to Cage’s wacky Dracula. The movie has some dull reptition, but the overall pace of the movie is energetic. Renfield is a mixture of neurotic and empathetic, and Hoult is perfectly fine in this role, but the filmmakers made the mistake of naming the movie after this character. The real star of the show is unquestionably Dracula.

Universal Pictures will release “Renfield” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023.

Review: ‘The Bad Guys’ (2022), starring the voices of Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Awkwafina, Craig Robinson, Anthony Ramos, Zazie Beetz and Richard Ayoade

April 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“The Bad Guys” (2022)

Directed by Pierre Perifel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Swan Song’ (2021), starring Mahershala Ali

January 1, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mahershala Ali in “Swan Song” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Swan Song” (2021)

Directed by Benjamin Cleary

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi drama film “Swan Song” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with a some white people, Asians and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A graphic designer, who is dying from an unnamed illness, keeps it a secret from his family and secretly arranges for a clone to replace him. 

Culture Audience: “Swan Song” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Mahershala Ali and will appeal to people who are interested in to seeing well-acted, emotionally heavy movies about how people might prepare for death.

Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in “Swan Song” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The sci-fi drama “Swan Song” is a somber and slow-paced film that viewers have to be in the right frame of mind to see. It’s a very well-acted film that handles its subject matter with sensitivity, but it should be avoided if you’re not in the mood to see a movie about terminal illness and death. The second half of the movie is much better than the first half, which has some pacing issues and takes a little long to get to the heart of the story. “Swan Song” viewers also must have patience with movies that tell stories in a non-linear, non-chronological way.

Written and directed by Benjamin Cleary, “Swan Song” does a lot with the relatively small number of people in the cast. The movie is set in an unspecified year in the future, in an unnamed U.S. city. A graphic designer named Cameron has recently found out that he’s dying from an illness, which is also not named in the movie. The only clue to what this illness might be is that it causes deterioration of the brain.

Cameron is married to a loving and loyal wife named Poppy (played by Naomie Harris), a British immigrant who works as a school teacher for children with learning disabilities. Poppy uses music therapy for her students and composes and sings a lot of the music for this therapy. Cameron and Poppy have a bright and energetic son named Cory (played by Dax Rey), who is 8 years old.

Cameron is the more introverted spouse in the marriage, while Poppy is more of an extrovert. These personality differences are reflected in what Cameron and Poppy chose for their respective careers. When the movie does show Cameron do anything related to his graphic designer job, he’s by himself, with any outside communication done electronically.

Because a great deal of “Swan Song” is shown in flashbacks (including the movie’s opening scene), this is not a movie that people should watch while being distracted by other things. There are subtle clues that can be picked up when people watch this movie with their full attention. These nuances can lead to greater appreciation of “Swan Song,” which might bore some viewers who are expecting more action.

Cameron hasn’t told his family that he doesn’t have much longer to live. That’s because he’s secretly decided to sign up for a relatively new scientific experiment from a company called Arra, which lets terminally ill people agree to have replacement clones made of themselves. (In this story, a human clone is sometimes called a “regeneration.”) As part of the contract with Arra, the terminally ill people who agree to be replaced by clones have to keep this decision a secret from everyone they know except for Arra employees.

Cameron’s clone is temporarily named Jack (also played by Ali), who not only has a replica of Cameron’s DNA but he also has a full transfer of Cameron’s memories, including subconscious memories. The only physical difference between Cameron and his clone is that the clone is given a small mole on the inside of his hand, so that the Arra staffers can tell the difference between the real Cameron and his clone. Clones are able to mimic human emotions, based on the clone’s implanted memories.

There’s a transition period when the terminally ill person and the assigned clone get to know each other. After this transition period, the clone officially replaces the terminally ill person when the clone starts to live its replacement’s life, and the clone’s memory of being a clone is permanently erased. The terminally ill person than lives at Arra headquarters until death comes.

“Swan Song” goes back and forth between Cameron’s ambivalence over wanting a clone to take over his life and flashbacks to what Cameron’s life was like before he knew that he was dying. In order to prepare for the clone to take over his life, Cameron has to spend time at Arra’s headquarters, which are designed to look like an upscale retreat. Cameron tells Poppy that he’s away on business to explain his absence from home.

Dr. Jo Scott (played by Glenn Close) leads Arra’s cloning project, and she’s determined to make it a success. She has only two human subordinates working with her: a technician named Rafa (played by Lee Shorten) and a psychologist/head technician named Dalton (played by Adam Beach). As Dr. Scott explains to Cameron, the rest of the staffing duties are done by artificial intelligence technology that she says can do the work of abut 50 humans.

Dr. Scott also tells Cameron, when he asks, that he’s only the third human who’s going through Arra’s clone replacement process. She has no ethical qualms about human cloning. “It’ll be as common as heart transplants, in a few years,” Dr. Scott confidently predicts to Cameron. Dr. Scott also keeps a tight reign on Arra’s secret cloning. When Cameron says he wants to tell his family about it, she’s quick to remind him that he signed a contract and that he will “lose the opportunity” if he tells anyone that he arranged to have a replacement clone.

During his stay at Arra headquarters, Cameron meets another terminally ill person named Kate (played by Awkwafina), whose clone has been out in the world for about 42 days when Cameron and Kate first meet. Dr. Scott says that Cameron should also meet Kate’s clone, so that Cameron can see how it’s nearly impossible to tell a clone from a real human being. Cameron goes to Kate’s job (she’s a real estate agent), where he meets Kate’s clone and Kate’s daughter Sammy (played by Mikayla Lagman), who’s about 10 or 11 years old. Sammy has no idea that Kate has been replaced by a clone. The experience of meeting a clone in the real world somewhat unnerves Cameron, who starts to doubt if he made the right decision.

Kate also has mixed emotions about seeing how her family and other loved ones were easily fooled into believing the clone is the real Kate. On the one hand, Kate says that “my guilt faded pretty quick” after she saw how her family wouldn’t have to worry if they knew the truth about Kate being terminally ill. On the other hand, it’s unsettling and sad for Kate to see a clone take over her life while Kate is still alive. Cameron will also go through the same mixed feelings, which Ali conveys with as much skill as a great actor can have when depicting an introvert.

There are additional reasons for why Cameron wants to keep his cloning decision a secret from his loved ones. Poppy is two months pregnant with their second child. And a few years earlier, Poppy’s twin brother Andre (played by Nyasha Hatendi) died in a motorcycle accident. Poppy went into a deep depression, where she could barely leave the house “for a better part of a year,” as Cameron tells Kate.

Poppy is in therapy over her grief. By contrast, Cameron has never been in therapy. Cameron doesn’t want to add to Poppy’s grief by telling her that he’s dying. Cameron also doesn’t want their unborn child and Cory to grow up without a father. Cameron’s own family history is barely mentioned, except when he tells Dr. Scott that his parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and he was raised by his mother. It might explain any extra motivation that Cameron has to make sure that his children have a father in their lives.

Before Cameron found out that he was terminally ill, he and Poppy hit somewhat of a rough patch in their marriage, where they seemed to be drifting apart. In a private conversation between Poppy and Cameron, she tells him that’s she convinced that her unexpected pregnancy with their second child is a sign that the child will be good for their marriage. Cameron seems to agree, but his terminal illness diagnosis has permanently altered those plans, because it’s very likely that Cameron won’t live to see the birth of this child.

Flashbacks show how Cameron and Poppy met: They were both commuter train passengers sharing the same table. They both ordered the same chocolate bar, but when Poppy started eating the chocolate, Cameron mistakenly thought that she was eating his chocolate bar, but they ended up sharing it anyway. It became an endearing joke between them.

Other flashbacks show their courtship, marriage, parenthood, and how Andre was a close member of their family. (Ace LeVere portrays Cory at age 2. Aiden Adejuwon plays Cory at age 5.) One of these flashbacks is of a conversation between Cameron, Poppy and Andre, where Andre talks about the news that human cloning experiments were happening. Cameron seems turned-off by the idea and says that he wouldn’t want a human clone of himself. He obviously changed his mind after getting diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Ali and Harris, who co-starred in the Oscar-winning 2016 film “Moonlight,” have good chemistry together and make a believable couple. Some viewers might feel that not enough of Cameron and Poppy’s relationship is shown, since the vast majority of the relationship is presented in flashback snippets. Harris’ role as Poppy does feel a little underwritten, since she’s mostly depicted as a cheerful and upbeat wife. The depression she had over Andre’s death is not really shown, even though this depression no doubt caused some of strain in her marriage to Cameron.

“Swan Song” is also a little uneven in explaining Arra’s cloning procedures. There are some questionable decisions in the process that no self-respecting psychologist/psychiatrist would recommend. For example, terminally ill humans are allowed to see how their clones interact with loved ones as the humans’ replacements. The clones are equipped with contact lenses that are linked to live video monitors that can be watched at Arra headquarters by the scientists and the human who’s being replaced. If there are no problems in the trial run, the clone’s memory is then erased about being a clone, and the clone will then move on to living life as the human’s replacement.

“Swan Song” doesn’t do a very adequate job of explaining why these scientists would want terminally ill people to see clones completely replacing these humans without the humans’ loved ones knowing, when the psychological effects would be too risky. Some terminally ill people might feel comforted at seeing their replacement clones take over their lives. However, most terminally ill people would probably feel disturbed by seeing a clone living the life that the humans want to have.

After Jack the clone (before he officially becomes Cameron) is sent to live with Poppy and Cory for this trial run, Cameron sees how Jack is interacting with his family. Cameron reacts exactly how you would expect him to react. It leads to a certain confrontation that affects Cameron’s decisions for the rest of the story.

“Swan Song” (whose futuristic cinematography is awash in a lot of gray and blue) doesn’t hit its best stride until the last 20 minutes of the movie, when Cameron makes a pivotal decision that affects his journey. Ali has his most impactful “Swan Song” scenes in this last part of the movie. Cameron is not a naturally expressive person, so he keeps a lot of his emotions bottled inside until he can no longer ignore his feelings. “Swan Song” might be set in the future, but it effectively shows how issues about humanity and the fragility of life are timeless.

Apple TV+ released “Swan Song” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on December 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,’ starring Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh and Florian Munteanu

August 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Meng’er Zhang, Simu Liu and Awkwafina in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China and in San Francisco, the superhero action film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: A Chinese man who ran away to the U.S. as a teenager, in order to get away from his ruthless overlord father, must confront his past and the power of 10 magical arm rings that are the source of the story’s conflict.

Culture Audience: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and are looking for an enjoyable origin story that is not a sequel or a prequel.

Tony Leung and Fala Chen in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings” has plenty of heart and adventurous spirit to satisfy superhero movie fans. It’s too bad that the title character has a personality that’s duller than the average Marvel superhero. Shang-Chi is frequently outshined by his wisecracking female best friend/sidekick. And there’s a long stretch in the middle of the film that drags the pace down considerably.

Directed by Daniel Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Rings” is an origin story that doesn’t dazzle in a spectacular way, but it gets the job done in a crowd-pleasing way that serves the movie’s target audience well. Cretton co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. It’s yet another Hollywood studio superhero story about a superhero with “daddy issues.” The big difference this time is that the majority of the cast is Asian, mostly of Chinese heritage.

One of the problems with the movie is that the climactic showdown scene doesn’t offer much that most movie and TV audiences haven’t already seen before. To put it bluntly: This movie needed better villains. In “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” there’s a villain named Razor Fist (played by Florian Munteanu) with a machete as an arm. That pales in comparison to a “Stars Wars: Rise of Skywalker” villainous henchman named Cardo that had a shotgun for an arm.

Battles with dragons? Yawn. It’s very “Game of Thrones” and not much different from any recent big-budget live-action movie where the dragons are the big monsters that have to be defeated. And a hero going in a one-on-one duel fight against his villain father? Ever hear of “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi”?

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is literally an origin story, since viewers see how, in China, his parents met, fell in love, got married, and had Shang-Chi as their first child. The movie shows Shang-Chi as a baby, as a pre-teen child (played by Jayden Zhang), as a teenager (played by Arnold Sun) and as an adult (played by Simu Liu). Shang Chi’s father Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung) was a corrupt overlord who came into possession of 10 magical arm rings (because bracelets must not sound macho enough) that allowed him to have immense power. His heart softened when he met Ying Li (played by Fala Chen), who charmed him after a sword duel that she won against him. It was love at first sight, and they got together soon after that.

Shang-Chi spent his entire life training to be a fighter and to follow in his father’s footsteps. Shang-Chi’s mother Li also gave him a special green pendant that she said he must never lose or give away. But tragedy struck when Shang-Chi was a teenager: His mother died. Wracked with griedfand despair, widower Xu Wenwu went back to his corrupt ways. There’s a part of the movie that reveals that Xu Wenwu also might have lost his mind to insanity.

When Shang-Chi was 14 years old, Xu Wenwu ordered him to complete his first “assignment” assassination. At age 15, Shang-Chi ran away from China to the United States. He ended up settling in San Francisco, where in high school he befriended a smart-alecky girl named Katy, and they’ve been best pals ever since. The movie does not show Shang-Chi’s American life during the time that he was in high school or in his 20s, but he and Katy have a few discussions about their past together.

Now in their early 30s, Shang-Chi (who changed his first name to Shaun) and Katy (played by Awkwafina) work together as parking valets at a ritzy hotel. They’re very educated and over-qualified for the job. He can speak four languages, while she has a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Katy has a mischievous and rebellious streak, since she’s the type of valet driver who will take a car out on a joy ride instead of parking it. That’s what she does when she gets handed the keys to a red BMW, which she takes to speed through traffic, with Shaun/Shang-Chi along for the ride.

Katy doesn’t know about Shang-Chi’s past until it catches up to him in one of the movie’s best action scenes. It’s when Iron Fist and some other thugs attack Shang-Chi and Katy while they’re on a moving bus. Katy is shocked to find out that her friend Shaun has superhero-level fighting skills. Later, he tells her that his real name is Shang-Chi.

But the “fight on the bus” scene kicks off the movie in a very thrilling way. The martial arts and choreography are top-notch. And there are some heart-pounding moments when Katy has the take the wheel of the bus and navigate through San Francisco’s hilly, narrow and crowded streets. It makes her daredevil joyrides as a valet look like an easygoing holiday in comparison.

Why is Shang-Chi being targeted by these goons, who seemed to come from out of nowhere? As he explains to Katy about his secret past, it means that his father must be looking for him, because the assassins took Shang-Li’s pendant. And you know what that means: Shang-Chi and Katy are going to China—Macau, to be more specific.

If non-talking monsters or aliens aren’t the main villains in a superhero movie, the talking villains better have a memorable personality. Unfortunately, as talented as Leung is as an actor, this type of formulaic, power-hungry overlord has been done in movies and TV so many times already. After watching “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” for the first time, the average viewer will be hard-pressed to remember one line of dialogue that Xu Wenwu said, although Leung certainly gives it his all in depicting a once-loving father who has since gone in an evil direction.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” does have moments of levity, mainly because of Katy’s sarcasm and the MCU re-appearance of Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley), a flamboyant British actor who was previously seen in 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” It won’t be revealed here what Trevor does in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” but it’s enough to say that a cute faceless and furry creature that Trevor has with him (about the size of a dog) will be one of the most remembered aspects about “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

Dr. Strange sidekick Wong (played by Benedict Wong) is another MCU character who’s in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” although Wong’s screen time is a lot less than Trevor’s. New characters to the MCU include Shang-Chi’s estranged younger sister Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang, making an impressive feature-film debut) and their aunt Ying Nan (played by Michelle Yeoh), who is the sister of Shang-Chi and Xialing’s late mother.

Before Shang-Chi and Katy go through predictable scenes of training for the big showdown battle that takes place at the end of the movie, there’s another standout fight scene that takes place on a skyscraper. In many ways, the skyscraper scene and the bus scenes are more unique and more thrilling fight than the final battle scene. This movie’s action definitely shines the most when it has martial arts between humans, rather than visual-effect-heavy battles with mythical creatures.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a big step forward for Hollywood-made superhero movies that do not have a predominantly white cast. There’s plenty to like about the movie. But as an origin story, it relies a little too much on over-used, basic tropes. Except some of the fight scenes, there wasn’t a lot of originality in how this story was structured. The good news for people unfamiliar with the MCU, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of the few MCU movies that’s a true stand-alone film that doesn’t have a lot of references to other MCU films that you would have to know about to understand these references.

However, it’s not a good sign when one of those past references from an MCU movie (Trevor) is more entertaining to watch than the main hero and the main villain in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Awkwafina might get mixed reactions in her role as Katy, since people seem to love or hate Awkafina’s off-screen personality. Liu is perfectly fine as Shang-Chi, but he doesn’t have the charisma to be in the upper echelon of beloved MCU characters. The rest of the cast is serviceable in their roles. This movie isn’t going to win any prestigious awards for any of the cast members.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” also has disappointing mid-credits and end-credits scenes. People really won’t miss anything if they skip the credits. However, it’s enough to say that the mid-credits scene does show Shang-Chi, Katy, Wong and two other MCU characters. As far as escapist entertainment goes, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” delivers enough to satisfy people who are fans of superhero movies or martial arts. But people who want more magnetic personalities in action heroes might have to look elsewhere.

Marvel Studios will release “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in U.S. cinemas on September 3, 2021. A one-night-only sneak preview of the movie was screened in select IMAX cinemas in the U.S. and Canada on August 18, 2021.

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.

Review: ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run,’ starring the voices of Tom Kenny, Bill Fagerbakke, Matt Berry, Clancy Brown, Rodger Bumpass, Carolyn Lawrence and Mr. Lawrence

March 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Sandy Cheeks (voiced by Carolyn Lawrence), Patrick Star (voiced by Bill Fagerbakke), Plankton (voiced by Doug Lawrence), SpongeBob (voiced by Tom Kenny), Gary (on top of SpongeBob’s head) and Mr. Krabs (voiced by Clancy Brown) in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” (Image courtesy of Paramount Animation)

“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run”

Directed by Tim Hill

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional, underwater places of Bikini Bottom and the Lost City of Atlantic City, the live-action/animated film “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” features a predominantly white voice cast (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) in a comedic adventure story that’s part of the SpongeBob SquarePants franchise.

Culture Clash: SpongeBob SquarePants and his neighbor Patrick Star go on a mission to rescue SpongeBob’s best friend/pet snail Gary, which is being held captive by an egotistical overlord named King Poseidon.

Culture Audience: “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the SpongeBob SquarePants franchise and people who like family-friendly animation that can be enjoyed by various generations.

King Poseidon (voiced by Matt Berry) in “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” (Image courtesy of Paramount Animation

As the first computer-generated imagery (CGI) animated movie in the SpongeBob SquarePants franchise, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” is an exuberant and eye-catching adventure that makes up for some predictable moments with just enough unexpected zaniness to make it worth watching for anyone who appreciates earnestly goofy animation. It’s not necessary to see any episodes of the long-running Nickelodeon animated series “SpongeBob SquarePants” or its spinoff movies (“Sponge on the Run” is the third one in the film series) to enjoy the movie, although it certainly provides some better context for some of the relationships in the movie.

“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” has several scenes that are flashbacks to some of the characters’ childhoods. It’s an obvious promotion for “Kamp Koral: SpongeBob’s Under Years,” the prequel spinoff “SpongeBob” TV series that launches on Paramount+ (formerly known as CBS All Access) on the same day that “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” is available on the streaming service. “Kamp Koral” focuses on what some of the main characters did as children at Kamp Koral, and “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” gives a sense of what people can get expect from this spinoff TV series.

Written and directed by Tim Hill, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” is the first “SpongeBob” movie to be released since the 2018 death of SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 57. The movie has a dedication to Hillenburg before the end credits. Compared to 2004’s “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie” and 2015’s “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water,” there’s a slightly wackier vibe to “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run,” thanks in large part to an amusing featured role from Keanu Reeves.

Things in the underwater city of Bikini Bottom are what SpongeBob fans can expect: SpongeBob SquarePants (voiced by Tom Kenny), the cheerfully upbeat sponge protagonist, is still working as a fry cook at a fast-food restaurant called the Krusty Krab, which is owned by his cranky Scottish boss Mr. Krabs (voiced by Clancy Brown). The pessimistic Squidward Tentacles (voiced by Rodger Bumpass) also works at the Krusty Krab. The tiny green copepod named Plankton (voiced by Mr. Lawrence) and his computer wife Karen (played by Jill Talley) are still scheming to get the secret recipe formula for the Kristy Krab’s Krabby Patty burgers, in order to boost Plankton and Karen’s failing rival restaurant the Chum Bucket.

This time, there’s a new challenge: SpongeBob’s best friend/pet snail Gary (also voiced by Kenny, who makes Gary sound like a cat) is stolen by Plankton, who gives Gary to the vain and tyrannical King Poseidon (voiced by Matt Berry) because the king uses snail slime to keep his face looking youthful. King Poseidon ran out of snails and offered a reward to anyone who could provide him with a useful snail. Plankton sees that offer as an opportunity to try to get in the king’s good graces and get revenge on SpongeBob. King Poseidon lives at Poseidon Palace, which is located in the Lost City of Atlantic City.

What follows is a madcap trek that involves SpongeBob and his amiable starfish neighbor Patrick Star (voiced by Bill Fagerbakke) going on a mission to find and rescue Gary. Along the way, they end up in a Western ghost town, where they have some off-the-wall encounters with flesh-eating zombie pirates (portrayed by live actors), a rapping gambler (played by Snoop Dogg) and a villainous zombie cowboy called El Diablo (played by Danny Trejo). But some of the funniest scenes in the movie are with a giant, advice-giving tumbleweed named Sage that rolls into SpongeBob and Patrick’s lives when they first arrive in the ghost town. Sage is a tumbleweed with a talking head of Reeves inside the center.

Also part of these antics is a new automated computer robot named Otto (voiced by Awkwafina), which the brainy squirrel Sandy Cheeks (voiced by Carolyn Lawrence) has given as a gift to Mr. Krabs. However, Mr. Krabs quickly gets annoyed with Otto and throws the robot away. Otto ends up becoming a crucial part of how the story develops.

The movie also has some cameos of celebrities playing a version of themselves as underwater animated characters that work at a nightclub in the Lost City of Atlantic City. Tiffany Haddish appears briefly on stage as a wisecracking fish that’s a stand-up comedian named Tiffany Haddock. Jazz saxophonist Kenny G plays a plant called Kelpy G, which does a smooth jazz version of “My Heart Will Go On,” the theme from the 1997 movie “Titanic.” It’s a somewhat subversive song choice, considering “Titanic” is a disaster movie where most of the characters end up drowning in the ocean.

There are some other endearingly oddball and unexpected choices in the movie, such as a criminal trial that takes place at the nightclub. The King Poseidon character plays with masculine and feminine stereotypes, by blurring the lines between obsessions with machismo and obsessions with beauty products. It’s why King Poseidon is not a typical villain in an animated film.

“The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” clearly knows its audience well, since it’s made for kids as well as adults. “SpongeBob SquarePants” has been on the air since 1999; therefore, many of the kids who grew up watching the show now have children of their own. It explains the inclusion of Reeves, Snoop Dogg, Kenny G and Danny Trejo as cameos, since these stars’ pop culture significance have a different meaning to people who are old enough remember the 1990s and early 2000s.

The movie’s very retro music soundtrack is definitely geared more to adults, with rock and pop tunes from the late 20th century, such as Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” Weezer has two songs on the soundtrack: “It’s Always Summer in Bikini Bottom” and a cover version of a-ha’s “Take on Me” and the original song Also on the soundtrack is the Flaming Lips’ “Snail: I’m Avail.”

Mikros did the movie’s vivid CGI and animation, which is not as outstanding as a Pixar movie, but it’s better than most CGI animated films. Writer/director Hill moves things along at a brisk-enough pace, even though it’s very easy to know how the movie is going to end. “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” imparts a lot of positive messages of self-acceptance, but the characters have enough foibles and flaws to make the jokes relatable to viewers. Watch this movie if you like animated films and you’re up for an energetic diversion that might make you want more “SpongeBob” movies, regardless of how familiar or unfamiliar you might be with the franchise.

Paramount Pictures’ Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Movies will release “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run” on Paramount+ on March 4, 2021, the same date that Paramount Home Entertainment releases the movie on VOD. The movie was released in Canada in 2020.

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