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

September 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“Pinocchio” (2022)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

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

“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On”

Directed by Dean Fleischer Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, Marcel begins to notice after a while that Dean is very curious about Marcel, but Dean is very reluctant to talk about himself. And it’s not just because Dean wants to be an journalistic documentarian. Dean is having difficulty processing the breakup of his marriage. Dean’s preoccupation with Marcel’s problems are a way for him to cope with or avoid his own personal problems.

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

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

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

Review: ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ (2021), starring Darby Camp, Jack Whitehall, Tony Hale, Sienna Guillory, David Alan Grier, Russell Wong and John Cleese

November 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Darby Camp and Jack Whitehall in “Clifford the Big Red Dog” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Clifford the Big Red Dog”

Directed by Walt Becker

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the live-action/animated film “Clifford the Big Red Dog” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old girl’s stray puppy, which has an unusual red color, grows into a gigantic dog overnight, and she has conflicts with authority figures who want to take the dog away from her. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Clifford the Big Red Dog” cartoon fans, this movie version of the TV series will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching predictable family films with a dull storyline and bland characters.

Jack Whitehall, Darby Camp and Izaac Wang in “Clifford the Big Red Dog” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

With not enough imagination and too many boring clichés, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” clumsily stumbles around more than this elephant-sized dog does in his New York City apartment. This is the first feature film based on Norman Bridwell’s “Clifford the Big Red Dog” children’s books series, which have also been turned into two separate animated TV series. Unfortunately, this franchise’s first movie (which is a combination of live-action and animation) is an embarrassing dud, with almost nothing that’s worthy of its cinematic format. It looks like a lazily conceived TV special, but with a movie studio budget that’s wasted on dull stupidity.

Directed by Walt Becker, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” was written by Jay Scherick, David Ronn and Blaise Hemingway in such a by-the-numbers way, it seems like a computer could’ve programmed this script and probably done a better job. The jokes fall flat, the characters are forgettable, and the plot is so unadventurous and maudlin, you wonder why it took three people to come up with such a drab screenplay. The filmmakers also made the mind-boggling, bad decision to not have the dog Clifford talk in the movie, as the dog does in the animated TV series. Not giving Clifford the ability to talk erases any personality through spoken dialogue that the dog might have had in the movie, which will surely disappoint many fans.

The basic plot of the movie “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is that a 12-year-old girl named Emily Elizabeth Howard (played by Darby Camp), who lives in an apartment in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, has a stray puppy whose fur is an unusual color: fire-engine red. She names the dog Clifford, and is told that she’s only allowed to keep him for one night. She wakes up the next morning to find that the dog has grown to be about 10 feet tall. Some hijinks ensue, as Emily tries to hide Clifford and tries to prevent people from taking the dog away from her.

But these hijinks have no real creativity and have been seen and done in many other movies where a child is trying to hide a secret and unusual companion that is in danger of being exploited and taken away for scientific experiments or for greedy business reasons. Everything in this movie is so predictable and with such mediocre visual effects, it’s almost offensive that this substandard project was given the budget of a feature film from a major movie studio.

And because Clifford doesn’t talk in this movie, the dog just does basic, run-of-the-mill things that dogs do. The filmmakers instead made the awful decision to make the comedy focused on Emily’s annoying and irresponsible uncle Casey (played by Jack Whitehall), who doesn’t particularly like the dog. Casey’s lines of dialogue are tepid or just downright cringeworthy. It tells you what you need to know right there about this dreck: A movie called “Clifford the Big Red Dog” just makes the dog a giant CGI prop to an irritating human being.

Emily lives with her single mother Maggie Howard (played by Sienna Guillory), a paralegal who’s stressed-out due to financial problems. Maggie is heavily in debt, and she’s barely making ends meet on her salary. Maggie often has to travel away from home when her boss does work outside the area. (Emily’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.) And so, in addition to having financial woes, Maggie feels guilty about not being there for Emily as much as Maggie would prefer.

When Maggie is away on business, she has a trusted person look after Emily. And this time around, because Maggie can’t find anyone else on such short notice, she reluctantly asks her younger brother Casey to look after Emily while Maggie is away for a few days. Casey, who’s about 10 to 15 years younger than Maggie, hasn’t told his sister that he’s currently homeless and living in a moving truck.

Casey is the type of flake who shows up 45 minutes late for a job interview at a place called Kerner Comics & Design, where he had hoped to work as an illustrator. Needless to say, because of his tardiness, Casey doesn’t even make it past the reception area because he blew his chance for the interview. Before he leaves, he takes some free candy in the reception area and mumbles something about how this candy is his dinner for the day.

Casey is homeless because he and his live-in girlfriend broke up, and his student debts have made him unable to afford his own place. (The movie never bothers to mention anything else about Casey’s college education to explain why his student loan debts are his biggest expenses.) Casey is first seen in the movie trying unsuccessfully to talk his way out of a parking ticket. Instead of taking the ticket, he ends up running away from the parking enforcement officer.

Casey and Maggie’s family history is briefly mentioned much later in the movie. They were both born in England, but their family moved to the United States when Casey was 2 years old, which is why he doesn’t have a British acccent. (Whitehall is British in real life though.) Maggie and Casey’s mother died when Casey was still underage. Their dad “fell apart” (Casey’s words) after his wife died, so it was up to Maggie to raise Casey. She gave up a chance to go to Oxford University (where she had a scholarship) because she had these guardian responsibilities.

Meanwhile, Emily is in sixth grade at an elite private school, where she attends on a scholarship. Predictably, she’s bullied at school by a clique of snobby “mean girls,” who ridicule Emily with the nickname Food Stamp because they think Emily is so poor, her family must be getting food stamp welfare from the government. Emily is a sensitive and compassionate child who already feels like an outsider because she’s new to the school, having recently relocated with her mother from upstate New York.

In the beginning of the movie, Emily is seen going around the neighborhood to collect recyclable cans for a fundraising drive at her school. It’s just a reason for viewers to see other people who clutter up the story, just so the movie can have a certain number of adults who can later react to seeing gigantic Clifford walking around the neighborhood. The supporting characters in this movie are very generic and have uninspired lines of dialogue.

The neighborhood supporting characters include Packard (played by David Alan Grieri), the cranky superintendent of the building where Emily and Maggie live; Raul Sanchez (played by Horatio Sanz) and Alonso Sanchez (played by Paul Rodriguez), two brothers who own and operate a bodega; Malik (played by Russell Peters), who works in a convenience store; and married attorney couple Mr. Jarvis (played by Keith Ewell) and Mrs. Jarvis (played by Bear Allen Blaine). They all contribute to Emily’s haul of recycled cans.

Casey tries to be responsible when taking care of Emily, in an attempt to make up for mistakes he made in the past when she was under his care. One day, while they’re strolling through a nearby park, they see an animal rescue tent called Bridwell’s Animal Rescue. Emily asks Casey if they can go inside. He tells her yes, but only on the condition that she knows that they can’t take home any of the pets.

The tent on the inside actually looks like a dark Victorian parlor that has some dogs and cats, but they’re outnumbered by wild animals that could be at a zoo. They include creatures such as a sloth, a chameleon and an animal that looks like a baby giraffe. Emily and Casey are greeted by Bridwell (played by John Cleese), the owner who has a mysterious aura about him.

Bridwell steers Emily to take a look at an unusually red stray puppy that he recently found. It’s shown in the movie’s opening scene that this puppy was born into a stray family of yellow Labrador retrievers in a warehouse. His mother and siblings were taken away by workers at a local dog pound, while the red puppy, which wasn’t seen by the workers, was left behind. The puppy escaped into the streets, where Bridwell found him.

Emily immediately adores the puppy and wants to take it home, but Casey is firm in telling her that she can’t have the dog because dogs aren’t allowed in the apartment building. He also knows that Maggie wouldn’t approve of having a dog anyway. “How big is he going to get?” Emily asks Bridwell of this puppy. Bridwell answers, “That depends on how much you love him.”

When she’s at home in her bedroom, Emily can’t find any information about Bridwell’s Animal Rescue on the Internet. But what do you know: Emily finds the puppy has mysteriously ended up in her backpack. Casey allows her to keep the dog, but only for that night. She names the dog Clifford, because that’s the first name the dog responds to in a positive way.

At school, Emily brings a giant plastic bag filled with the recycled cans that she collected. The “mean girls” leader Florence (played by Mia Ronn) and her two sidekicks Isabelle (played by Madison Smith) and Melinda (played by Madison Morris) scoff at Emily and tell her that their parents just wrote checks for the fundraiser. Meanwhile, a fellow student named Owen Yu (played by Izaac Wang), who has a secret crush on Emily, notices that Emily is being ridiculed, so he tries to make her feel better by telling her that it’s admirable that she went to the trouble of collecting recyclables to raise money.

Emily brings her plastic bag into the classroom. The contents accidentally spill out, and many of the students laugh at her. Someone recorded the incident on a phone, and the video goes viral. At home that night, Emily is crying in her bed while holding on to Clifford. Before she goes to sleep, she tells Clifford: “I wish you were big and strong and the world couldn’t hurt us.” Just at that moment, it’s raining outside, and Bridwell is standing on the street outside her building, as if he can hear Emily’s wish.

You know what happens next: Emily wakes up and sees that Clifford is no longer a small puppy and is now a dog that’s 10 feet tall. She’s startled at first but gets over it quickly. By contrast, Casey is thoroughly freaked out. And just at that moment, the building superintendent Packer is coming over to the apartment to fix a plumbing problem. Then there’s the expected frantic rush to hide Clifford.

One of the biggest problems with “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is how most people’s reactions to seeing this giant dog are unrealistically calm. People react with curiosity, with some taking out their phones to film or take pictures of the dog. There aren’t as many panicked reactions as there should have been, which would’ve made this film a lot funnier.

For example, there’s a scene that takes place shortly after Clifford becomes a giant dog. Clifford sees a man walking in a giant plastic bubble in the park, so Clifford runs after the bubble, like a dog that wants to fetch a ball. The man inside is terrified, but most of the people in the park just stare at this dog causing terror. It’s not the way most people would really react, which is to run away from the sight of a giant dog and call for help.

The reaction from the authorities is also toned-down. There’s some effort to find the dog, but it’s not on the level of the dog being seen as a monstrous freak that needs to be captured. No military units are deployed, and New York City doesn’t go on lockdown for people’s safety. Clifford also shows up in Emily’s classroom, and the dog makes her popular with most of the students. Viewers of this movie will have to to assume this story takes place in an alternate world where people occasionally expect to see giant animals walking through New York City.

In fact, the only time that Clifford really seems in danger of being captured is when the corrupt president/CEO of a genetic engineering firm named Lyfegro finds out about Clifford. Lyfegro does scientific experiments on animals to find out how to grow large crops of food, in order to ease world hunger. Lyfegro’s greedy leader is named Zack Tieran (played by Tony Hale), who keeps genetically modified animals at his company lab. (For example: a two-headed sheep.) He doesn’t really care about world hunger or animals. He just wants to get rich.

All of the scenes involving Lyfegro are convoluted aspects of the plot, which should’ve just stuck to Clifford being hunted for capture by military or law enforcement, because it’s unsafe for a giant animal of this size to be walking around any area that’s populated with humans. There’s a very phony-looking press conference with Police Chief Watkins (played by Ty Jones), where he urges the public, “If you see something, say something,” as if this giant dog is the equivalent of a suspicious package.

Owen and Emily predictably get to know each other better and become closer. Owen’s father Mr. Yu (played by Russell Wong) also becomes part of the story because he’s a wealthy businessman who comes up with an idea for this situation when Clifford becomes a “wanted dog.” It’s an idea that might or might not pan out.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers try too hard to make Casey the comedic star of the movie. His panicked reactions are just dumb slapstick scenarios that are too corny to be funny. Casey’s “jokes” are abysmal. He says of Clifford turning into a giant dog overnight: “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to Burning Man.” It’s a weird joke for a movie intended for audiences where many of the viewers are too young to know what Burning Man is. A lot of adults who’ve never heard of Burning Man won’t get this unfunny joke either.

And speaking of terrible jokes, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” sinks to the lowest common denominator in scenarios involving bodily functions and body parts. When Clifford takes a leak (which looks like a small rain shower) on a tree, Casey remarks that he hopes the dog doesn’t “do No. 2.” At another point in the movie, Owen comments on his own anxiety: “I still can’t get my butt cheeks unclenched.”

Owen has a pug dog, so there’s a not-very-funny gag about someone lifting up the pug to Clifford’s level so the two dogs can smell each other’s rear ends when the two dogs meet each other for the first time. Later in the movie, Owen is hiding with Clifford in Casey’s truck, where Clifford farts, so Owen throws open the back door to run out for fresh air, thereby letting the dog out once again to run out on the streets. This is the type of lackluster slapstick comedy that’s in the movie.

The movie wastes the talent of several well-known actors, who are given very hollow characters to play in this vapid film. Kenan Thompson portrays an unnamed veterinarian who examines the giant Clifford at Banfield Pet Hospital. The dog ends up annoying the doctor because the dog wants to lick him on the face during the exam. Then there’s the inevitable dog-chases-man scene in the exam room. This veterinarian is one of many people in this movie who don’t seem too concerned about how big this dog is.

Rosie Perez has a very quick cameo as an employee named Lucille, who works at the pet hospital’s front desk. Lucille tells Emily, Casey and Owen that animals that come into the hospital from Bridwell Animal Rescue seem to have magical powers and that people who own these animals have their lives changed for the better. Lucille mentions two pet owners: one who was mute and began speaking after geting a pet from Bridwell; another pet owner couldn’t move and then gained an ability to walk.

Emily says she doesn’t have any physical disabilities, so she wonders what kind of miracle Clifford could bring to her life. But since this movie spells everything out for viewers from the beginning, it’s said in Bridwell’s voiceover narration: “Two lost souls are looking for one another, but they don’t know it yet.” Considering that Emily and Casey’s personal conflicts with each other take up more screen time than Emily bonding with Clifford, it’s easy to figure out who these “lost souls” are.

The characters of Emily and Owen are the only ones that have glimmers of likability and charm, thanks to the acting talent of Camp and Wang. However, the adult characters aren’t interesting at all, unless you consider it interesting to see an entire movie of Whitehall just mugging for the cameras while uttering badly written lines as the immature Casey. Hale is a noteworthy actor when he’s given good material, but in this movie, his Tieran character is a completely useless and mundane villain.

The visual effects for Clifford never look convincing. The movie might have been livened up a little if Clifford could talk. The end result is a dog that is a lumbering, awkward CGI giant, with no wit or personality. And that’s ultimately why “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is a misfire on so many levels. The movie’s namesake comes across as soulless as the computer technology that created it.

Paramount Pictures will release “Clifford the Big Red Dog” in U.S. cinemas and on Paramount+ on November 10, 2021.

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

August 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“Space Jam: A New Legacy”

Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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