Tag Archives: animated films

The Nut Job

No.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the nut job 2I have been given crap for my review of Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy because I dared to compare it to other, far superior animated movies on the market; your Lego Movies, your Mr. Peabody & Shermans, your Frozens, even your How To Train Your Dragons.  I got stick for commenting in detail on the animation quality.  I got stick for attempting to evaluate the film despite not being part of the target audience.  (I also got stick for not having familiarised myself with the series beforehand which is a fair complaint that I will admit is unprofessional of me.)  I have even been accused of being the kind of guy who nitpicks at supposedly perfectly good films for no other reason than I like to and that I am the kind of guy who has forgotten why I go to the cinema: to have fun.

I don’t feel shamed by any of this.  Really, I don’t.  I don’t feel any remorse whatsoever for that review and I don’t feel any remorse for my continuing love and harsh criticism of animated films.  Do you want to know why?  It is not because I am a fun-hating killjoy with a giant stick shoved right up where the sun don’t shine.  No, it is because I love animation.  I adore animation.  I always have and, goddammit, I always will.  The medium is one filled with boundless, near-limitless storytelling potential.  A chance to create and display images of astounding beauty that would be impossible or near-impossible to replicate in live-action.  The possibility to take the viewer on a trip to brand-new worlds, the likes of which one has never seen before.  A chance to make the kind of films and tell the kind of stories that would never get funded in live-action, wouldn’t have the same experience as in live-action, and to create a timelessness that telling the story in live-action might lack.  Pixar (circa 1995 – 2010, minus 2006) were kings at crafting lived-in worlds, Disney can pump out strong, memorable characters in their sleep, DreamWorks at their best know perfectly how to balance comedy and strong character work, Persepolis (although not a kids’ film) is one of the most beautiful and emotionally affecting films that I have ever seen and could only be told in the way that it was via animation.

So, no.  I will not apologise for the way I review animated films.  I will not be forced to apologise for holding animated features a higher standard.  Because I know that this medium can do better.  I know for a fact that it is better and deserves better than the crap that is constantly pumped out cynically for a quick buck.  I know that shovelware is going to crop up for all mediums and that live-action cinema, in all of its forms, has just as much, if not more, crap than the animated landscape ever will have.  And guess what?  I’ll call those out for being terrible, too.  But animation means a whole lot to me and to be accused of being a fun-killer for not giving a pass to every cheap mediocre-or-worse slop that is plopped down in cinemas for the sole purpose of sucking parents’ wallets clean because, “Hey, the cinema’s cheaper than a babysitter,” infuriates me.  I hate because I love, I hold animation to a higher standard because it can do better and I don’t just give slop aimed at the youngest and stupidest of children a pass because, guess what, they deserve better.  And they can get better; turn on the TV to quite literally any cartoon channel nowadays and they will get better for free!  There is no excuse and I will never apologise for the way I go about reviewing these films.

I bring this up because The Nut Job is literally a walking example of everything that is wrong with animated kids’ films.  This is a film designed by a committee for the sole purpose of making money.  There is no heart, there are no characters, there are fart noises and Gangam Style music cues in lieu of jokes, the animation is mediocre at best and terrible at worst, the voice acting is boring and uncommitted, the art design and layout and storyboarding is all lifeless and uninteresting.  No effort has been put in, not in conception, not in execution.  The one interesting thing it has is the fact that it kind of wants to be a heist movie, but it bungles proceedings so thoroughly, and seems so uninterested in actually being a heist movie, that all it does is leave me wishing that somebody would make an actually good animated heist movie.

Think of something that happens in a bad kids’ movie and it turns up here.  A cast of characters who have one single trait, go through pretty much no arcs, and who exist almost solely for jokes yet the film still wants you to care about anyway?  Lame puns based on a word that is supposedly inherently funny but really isn’t yet the film stops to call attention to it before moving on?  Sequences set to chart-ready pop songs, including one where the film stops dead for a good minute because it was popular when the film went into production?  Disconnected story threads where the human villains get nearly as much screen-time as the animals that we’re supposed to care about, and who keep getting shoved back into the main plot despite their overall irrelevance to it?  A section near the end where it looks like our hero has died, and the film acts like he has, but then it turns out he’s actually OK and you were crying for no reason (which is a trope/beat I am officially banning all movies of all kinds from using in the future)?  A lead female protagonist who is supposedly tough and capable on her own yet whose only function is to be constantly rescued by our lead male protagonist?  An “Obligatory Dance Party Ending Over The Credits”?  Yes, they are all present and correct and done with so little effort or interest it’s insulting.

The jokes, meanwhile… oh, lord, the jokes.  The Nut Job has all kinds of bad jokes.  We got fart jokes, jokes based on characters very noticeably and clumsily dropping the word “nut” into a sentence, jokes based around characters dancing to Gangam Style, obvious blind jokes, jokes that just involve characters shouting lines of dialogue at one another, jokes that just involve characters screaming lines of dialogue at one another, jokes designed around the fact that one of the characters has a bird who looks exactly like one of the Angry Birds birds, and jokes based around how irritatingly stupid the whole cast is (a stupid cast is fine in a comedy, obviously, but you need actual jokes because otherwise you’ve just got annoyingly stupid characters).  Each joke is pulled off with a total lack of skill, effort, construction and timing (said fart jokes genuinely just involves fart sound effects playing on a near-constant loop on the soundtrack at one point as everyone takes turns to say how disgusting farting is).  There is one, precisely one, that got a positive reaction out of me and that involved two speeding vans passing a donut shop, upon which point every cop inside collectively have their heads rise up like an old broken-down animatronic on a fairground ride.  Everything else landed with a thud at best, or a sigh of derision at worst.

Animation is all over the shop.  At the best of times, it’s half as good as Monsters Inc. from 2001.  Character models lack detail but they are passable enough, scampering is clearly hiding a limited budget but at least fits considering the fact that we’re talking about squirrels and rats and the like, and there’s a bit in the finale involving water that doesn’t look horrible.  Otherwise, this is hideous.  Lighting is dreadful, sequences set at night barely look any different from sequences set in the day except that the sky is now purple.  Everything lacks detail, something that’s especially prominent whenever the famed and desired nuts get a close-up and just end up looking plastic.  Character movements that don’t involve scampering are too restrained and unconvincing, especially whenever cartoon physics take over (there are multiple jokes that should end with one or more characters dead which, incidentally, saps any tension the later sequences should have).  Facial expressions frequently border on completely lifeless and mostly just settle for plain boredom, the lone female human genuinely looks like a Barbie doll and it is creepy as all hell.  And character designs are uninspired with some characters (namely that bird and any and all humans) looking like they don’t even belong in the same film as the rest.

Also, during the aforementioned end credits dance party, an animated version of Psy comes out to dance to Gangam Style and I am not kidding or exaggerating or anything of the sort when I tell you that it is genuinely the cheapest and lowest resolution animation that I have seen in a feature-length animated film released in cinemas in…  in…  You know, I honestly can’t recall ever seeing an uglier and lower-quality piece of a theatrically-released animated feature-film.  It is quite literally unbelievable just how horrible the end credits look.

Also of note is just how despicably unlikable the lead character is.  Surly (voiced by a Will Arnett who clearly does not care enough to keep up the Russian accent I think his character is supposed to have) is a thoroughly unpleasant lead who is mean to everybody, selfish, and isn’t even witty or entertaining to make up for that fact.  He’s just a jerk, a complete and total jerk.  And he remains that way for a good 80% of the film’s runtime despite needing to become a more selfless and heroic guy at the end.  So, at the 80% mark, around about the time the film’s big lifeless final chase scene starts, he suddenly becomes a paragon of virtue.  As expected, it didn’t take to me, and it especially didn’t take seeing as every other character in the film is a complete tool that nobody in their right mind would step up and defend or a really annoying one-joke blank slate (step right up, the groundhogs) that is impossible to care about.

Look, folks, I am tired.  I am tired of animated films that are not trying harder.  Before The Nut Job, a trailer for Jorge R Guitérrez’s upcoming debut feature-length animated film The Book Of Life was shown.  In that one two minute trailer, I saw more imagination, invention, heart, character, love, visual splendour and overall effort than the entirety of The Nut Job.  There was also a trailer for Laika’s third animated feature The Boxtrolls and that too displayed more imagination, invention, heart, character, love, visual splendour and overall effort in two minutes than all 86 of The Nut Job.  I am tired of people not aiming for those levels, I am tired of people not trying.  They don’t even have to be that good, just as long as everyone involved is clearly trying.  So I am done giving crappy animated films a pass.  In a year that has seen The Lego Movie, in a year that has seen Mr. Peabody & Sherman and in a year that has seen How To Train Your Dragon 2, there is no excuse for Escape From Planet Earth, there is no excuse for Tarzan, there is no excuse for The House Of Magic and there is no excuse for the cynical, soulless pile of complete tripe known as The Nut Job.

You want to distract your kids with cartoons for two hours?  Turn on Cartoon Network, turn on Nicktoons, turn on Disney; turn on any TV channel that shows cartoons because there are brand new kids’ shows on the air right now who are of far higher quality than this crap and which will cost you pretty much nothing.  Just do not take them to this because not only is there better, and not only do your kids deserve better, animation as a whole deserves better.  Do not reward them for churning sh*t like this out.

Callum Petch wants to run til we meet in the night.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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The House Of Magic

For children aged between 5 and 8 only, The House Of Magic will be a decent enough way to pass the time.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

????????????I’ll say this for The House Of Magic, if nothing else, it’s not bad in any respect.  You know that I have seen a lot of animated kids’ films so far this year and you are likely well aware that I found many of them to be of middling quality at best and straight up “OH GOD, MY EYES” at worst.  The House Of Magic slips firmly into the first of those two categories, much like Rio 2 with the exception that it has very few genuine high points like Rio 2 did.  It does have charm, though, and I can definitely see a version of myself from just over a decade ago that would have been either enraptured or, at least, more than engaged with the material on display.  It’s not a bad film, it’s just a wholly unremarkable one that does nothing new and nothing particularly interesting with its set-up and existence.

Said set-up involves a cat abandoned by his family when they move house.  After stumbling around the neighbourhood for a while, he finds himself drawn to an old broken down house, home to aging magician Lawrence and his enchanted contraptions.  Lawrence turns out to be a bit of a softy for cute little cats such as our hero, so he takes the poor thing in and dubs him Thunder.  And though Thunder makes fast friends with Lawrence and his various enchanted contraptions, he draws the hatred of Dylan the rabbit and Maggie the mouse who are worried that Thunder will end up usurping their master’s love and kicking them to the curb.  One of their attempts to remove Thunder from the equation ends up putting Lawrence in the hospital, which Lawrence’s manipulative and conniving real-estate agent cousin Daniel uses to trick him into selling the house so that Daniel can make a tidy profit out of it.  Forced to keep Thunder around in order to use Daniel’s cat allergies to their advantage, all of the house’s inhabitants have to team up with one another in order to drive out Daniel and any potential buyers in order to keep their home.

That summary is basically my opinion on The House Of Magic.  It is what it is and nothing more.  It hits the beats you’re expecting, makes the jokes that you’re expecting, makes a play for the heart it would probably have if it weren’t so lazy and thuddingly predictable in its design and execution.  None of it’s bad, it’s just passable.  The film rises above passable once, in a scene where Thunder and the house’s residents decide to use the haunted tag that the place has been saddled with as license to utterly terrify a pair of repo men who Daniel has hired.  It’s genuinely a fair bit of fun and shows an interest and effort that the film lacks for the remaining 80 of its 85 minutes.  Voice acting is alright, the guy who plays Daniel is able to get a lot of mileage out of the allergy trait and everyone’s at least putting in some effort, but it’s nothing to write home about.  Animation is stiff, for the most part, which works as long as nothing human-like goes on at which point the low corner-cutting budget is put on display for all to see.  The art style is very bright and colourful but lacking in detail and, again, noticeably low-budget.  The 3D attempts to be justified by having multiple moments where the focus on everything except the centre of the screen drops and something pops out in a way that makes it very clear that this wasn’t exactly designed to be watched in 2D (like I did do because 3D and my seeing glasses don’t go together), and some extended POV shots which should suitably thrill kids who still somehow find 3D fascinating.

I know you’re used to me writing reviews long enough for the seasons to change by the time you’ve finished reading them when it comes to animation, but, again, I got nothing for this one, folks.  It’s OK.  It is an animated film aimed at kids between the ages of 5 and 8.  If there were kids in my screening, I’d instead be reporting on how they found the film, but there weren’t any and I was basically the only one in there.  So I can only speculate as to whether they’d like it, and my guess is “yeah, I can see it.”  Again, it’s not bad in any way shape or form (well, maybe with the egregious 3D) and there’s still a bit of charm poking through the otherwise lazy construction.  If I was a decade or so younger, I could see myself liking it.  Not loving it, but liking it.

As it stands, I was fully engaged twice.  The first was during the aforementioned haunted house bit.  The second was when I was tapping my toes, and bobbing my head from side-to-side, at “The Love Cats” by The Cure as it played over Thunder’s attempts to get into the titular house.  So, if you want to get your kids into The Cure at an early age (and, really, more kids could use an introduction to The Cure), I guess The House Of Magic is your one-stop shop.  Otherwise, there are better animated kids’ films out there.

Callum Petch slips through the streets while everyone sleeps.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

How To Train Your Dragon 2

HTTYD2How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a bunch of excellent individual scenes in a pretty good whole.  Exactly like the first film.  Exactly like the first film.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

I get why everybody is head over heels in love with How To Train Your Dragon.  I do.  It’s a good movie, and the fact that it came from the studio that only half a decade earlier believed that Shark Tale was quality work that they were willing to stand behind and release to the general public is friggin’ miraculous.  It had a good amount of heart, some great visuals and some beautiful or just plain excellent individual scenes.  I would stop short of declaring it “great,” though.  Despite those individual scenes (Hiccup’s first encounter with Toothless, the montage of the pair slowly warming to each other, and the realisation that Hiccup has lost one of his legs are the ones that currently spring to mind), the film never quite came together as a whole, for me.  It felt a bit too unfocussed, expected me to care about a motley crew of secondary characters who weren’t particularly likable or relevant until the plot said they were, the animation wasn’t quite up to the ambitions it clearly had, and the Astrid stuff infuriated me to no end.  As a film on its own, divorced from contexts surrounding it, it’s very good at what it is but disappointingly falls short of greatness. As a gold star “Yes, DreamWorks!  You’re on your way; more like this, please!” piece of encouragement, I can get behind it.

2010 was four years ago and, in that timeframe, DreamWorks Animation have clearly taken that gold star encouragement as incentive to get better.  One need only look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for their last three films in 12 months (70% for The Croods, 67% for Turbo and 79% for Mr. Peabody & Sherman) compared to those in the same time period from 2006 to 2007 (72% for Aardman’s Flushed Away, which is being generous, 40% for Shrek The Third and 51% for Bee Movie), whilst the Kung Fu Panda movies (the second of which I haven’t seen and the first of which is due a re-watch) have gathered a substantial fan-base and the first DreamWorks film I had watched in five years (with the exception of Puss In Boots), Mr. Peabody & Sherman, was a genuinely great film that I was completely surprised by the quality of.

You may be wondering why I used a full paragraph and one terrible, comma-filled sentence to tell you this stuff.  Simple; I wanted to properly set the scene and let you know that it is no longer 2010.  It is 2014.  We live in a world where Walt Disney Feature Animation has been on a hot-streak not seen since the early 90s, where Pixar have taken a huge battering after a string of sub-par for them and just plain sub-par films, where Laika proved Coraline was not just a fluke, and where The Lego Movie was legitimately fantastic.  It’s a changed world and the animation landscape has changed with it.  How To Train Your Dragon 2, however, is still stuck in 2010.  I have pretty much the exact same qualms and praises with it as I did the original, and the film still fails to live up to the potential its best individual scenes clearly demonstrate it to have.  There are legitimately great films in here, but they keep getting lost by the wider picture which is just “good”.  Naturally, if you loved the original and had next-to-no problems with it, I guarantee you’ll love this one too cos it’s the exact same.  I keep hearing that bit in 22 Jump Street where Nick Offerman snidely remarks that the case they’re tackling was exactly the same as the last one.  The exact same.  It fits here far more snugly than I’m comfortable to let it get away with.

We rejoin the inhabitants of the island of Berk five years after the climax of the first film.  The island has become a practical paradise with dragons and humans co-existing peacefully and happily together.  Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is being groomed by his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) for the island’s chief, but he’d much rather head off and explore the world with his dragon best-buddy, Toothless.  It’s on one of these explorations that they come across a destroyed fortress home to a group dragon trappers, led by Erit (Kit Harrington), who work for ruthless warlord Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou).  Drago is building an army of dragons for mysterious reasons that you can probably guess due to him being a villain and the mere mention of his name causes Stoick to lock down Berk.  Hiccup believes that Drago can be reasoned with, though, and sets off to convince the man that dragons and humans can live together peacefully.  And that’s when he runs into his long-lost mother (Cate Blanchett) who has been rescuing and living among dragons for the past 20 years.

Right, I’m going to stick to the stuff I liked first, because the stuff I liked, I really liked.  Exhibit A?  This is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous CG animated films I have ever seen.  The original HTTYD occasionally touched the level of quality present in here, but that was held back by the technology of the time; some noticeable chroma-keying, an inconsistency in fluidity of animation with regards to humans, weird drops in quality and detail when things get busy.  Fortunately, four years have passed since then and HHTYD2 finally delivers consistently at the level it wants to.  There are times here where I could have sworn that this was just CG overlay on real-life actors performing the material but there’s still a stylistic tinge to the art-design that keeps it from just being creepy.

The key word here is detail.  There is a breath-taking amount of it going about in nearly every single scene, no matter whether it’s just Hiccup and his family sat in a cave or a giant battle sequence with hundreds, if not thousands, of constantly-moving variables on-screen at once.  It brings the world to life and makes the little things stick out that much more.  Early on, Hiccup has a little tuft of his hair knotted/braided (I don’t know hair terms, sue me) by his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) and it stays that way for the entire length of the movie; it’s rather tiny and the film never draws attention to it, but it’s there in every shot that I could see its existence in.  Every dragon has individual little marks and bumps that set them apart from others in their species, instead of just being palette swaps.  Tiny little crusts of frost appear on Stoick’s beard and moustache when he goes flying through Arctic-like conditions, enough that you can tell it’s not too cold by the fact that they don’t cover up his entire beard, you can still see its colour peeking through.  There’s a section in the finale that communicates the majority of events happening purely through little changes in the shape and movement of a pair of eyeballs.  Details, the kind you may not immediately notice but only add to the life of the world.

Human animation is extremely fluid and naturalistic, again to such an extent that I would not be surprised to find out that they were primarily done by actors in mo-cap suits.  At times they’re a bit too distractingly realistic, the animators putting in too many unnecessary shrugs and bounces and movements as if they’re showing off technologically, but those moments are rare.  90% of the time, the animators know just how much is too much.  In these cases, faces move like real people, they gesture like real people and they just plain move like real people.  Even when they don’t need to, when they could just be in the background or out-of-focus and let up on the detail, they still keep up that level of detail and fluidity and that’s what keeps it from being distractingly fake-looking.  Praise too should go to the dragons whose excellent design work means they can be imposing and dangerous one moment and cute and lovable the next without it ever seeming jarring.

Lighting is utterly gorgeous.  Although there aren’t as many scenes set at night or in darkness as there were in the original film, ones that are still make excellent usage of shadows and shading.  There’s a scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons in a dark cave that’s a particular showcase for the technology powering the film.  It even works during the day, too; shadows cast by dragons flying overheads affect everything in its area accurately.  Cinematography, meanwhile, overseen by Roger Deakins, no less, is exceptional, frequently conjuring up images of sheer beauty (the end credits run over concept art of the film and practically the only difference between them and their equivalent shots in film is that they’re hand-drawn) and swooping and diving and shaking during the action scenes like the action is happening on a real film set.  Visible chroma-keying is practically non-existent even during some of busiest scenes, I think I noticed it once during a mid-battle conversation between Astrid and Hiccup that was shot in close-ups but that’s about it.

Point is, if you’re looking for an animated film to absolutely blow you away visually, stop looking.  This is it.  I was astounded at this film’s visuals and you may notice that I am not easily impressed with these things.

Meanwhile, there are several excellent individual scenes worthy of note.  Obviously, thanks to the animation, there’s pretty much any time any character mounts a dragon and the pair go tearing through the sky, but there are more specific instances.  The aforementioned scene where Hiccup is surrounded by dragons leads into the reveal of his mother and even though the reveal bit itself has been seared into my brain permanently thanks to trailer overexposure these past six months, the scene still had genuine emotional impact.  Although their relationship is barely touched on, there’s a very naturalistic and cute scene with Astrid and Hiccup early on.  The reunion between Stoick and Valka (the name of Hiccup’s mother) is sweetly tender, as is a duet between the two later on.  The first of the film’s two giant battle sequences is a technical marvel and, though its emotional climax didn’t really work for me personally, it’s executed strongly enough that it will lead to wet eyes for the majority of the audience.  And there’s one short little sequence in the film’s finale that goes back to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship (which is put on the backburner for most of the film, more on that in a second) that legitimately affected me, though that may be due to my being a dog owner.  These are the film’s high points, when everything is in perfect sync and operating at full power, and they tease towards an excellent film.

And I know that sounds like an excellent segway into a “but…” but I need to single out Jay Baruchel’s voice work, real quick.  He wasn’t bad in the original film, far from it, but hearing his voice come out of the body of a 14 year-old was… jarring.  I get the idea it was going for, but it didn’t really work.  Now, though, Hiccup is 20 and Baruchel’s voice is practically perfect for the man.  Of course, if that were all it were good for, I wouldn’t be singling it out.  He is fantastic in this.  Genuinely fantastic.  He nails practically every single line, getting the right cadence for the situation and conveying Hiccup’s feelings expertly; there’s a scene during the film’s emotional high point where, again whilst it didn’t quite work for me, I realised exactly how powerful it’s supposed to be thanks to his subtly distraught line delivery.  He’s so good that it’s even more jarring when he over-eggs the film’s final narration just a little bit too much cos he’s fantastic, otherwise.

OK, now it’s time for the “but…”  See, despite the beautiful animation, Jay Baruchel’s phenomenal voice work and those excellent individual scenes, the film still doesn’t work as a whole.  Some of those reasons are easy for me to explain, some aren’t at all.  Although it doesn’t have the pacing issues the first film did (which, for me anyway, dragged in spots even though it only lasted 98 minutes), How To Train Your Dragon 2 still has a large amount of dead weight and a lack of true narrative focus.  For example, remember the other dragon academy kids from the first film?  They’re back and they still do pretty much nothing except provide occasional bursts of comic relief and be another recognisable face in the battle scenes.  The film teases having a subplot for them, involving two of the guys competing for a very uninterested girl’s affections, but it never amounts to anything more than tossed-off comic relief.  So the kids show up to get kidnapped at one point and that’s about it.

More problematic is the lack of a true emotional core to the film.  HHTYD2 has the mother plot and the Drago plot and it wants to do both.  It really wants to do both.  The problem is that both plots, theoretically, have enough ideas and themes in them to sustain an entire film by themselves.  The mother one has parental abandonment, couple reunion, re-integrations into society, mother-son bonds and the question of whether people really can change; the Drago plot has dragon hierarchies, militarisation of dragons, noble intentions corrupted by power, tragedy, indiscriminate mass-murder by the heroes (are you seriously going to try and argue that all of those random human mooks in the battle scenes teleported away before death or something) and the opportunity for a morally murky villain.  Unfortunately, the film wants to do both and neither side has themes that cross over enough to allow either side to be developed fully.  So, consequently, neither side gets explored enough to have their full impact and both sides end up relatively wasted in some way.

Drago, for example, doesn’t appear on screen for the entire first half of the movie and is barely on screen even after his appearance.  He’s first mentioned at the 20 minute mark but despite constant invocations of dread by the characters of the film, he doesn’t actually do anything until a good hour in, like he’s just waiting for the mother stuff to finish so his plot can start.  His backstory gets a dramatic reveal and teases motivations that could lead to a morally tricky conflict, but it’s almost immediately discredited as Hiccup all but shouts, “You’re a bad guy,” and Drago basically smirks and admits, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m a dick and didn’t mean a word of what I said.”  He’s not even an imposing or menacing villain, he’s just boring and one-dimensional instead of mysterious or threatening.  It’s a waste of a villain.  Also, yes, the fact that the villain is the sole character of colour shown in this world in-film is a very unfortunate implication that I can’t believe an entire company, in a post-The Last Airbender world, allowed to pass through unflagged by somebody.

Valka, meanwhile, does get a lot of time fostered on her but she affects practically zero percent of the plot.  Because the plot ends up revolving around Drago and, despite being a master dragon wrangler/tamer/rider, when it’s time for battle to start, she is knocked on her arse and shoved off to the side-lines for Hiccup to resolve everything.  Snippiness aside, despite taking up pretty much the entire middle act, Valka contributes nothing of real value to the film besides a pep talk to Hiccup and to exist for something that just clicked in my head but I can’t talk about because spoilers.  It’s like the Astrid stuff from the first How To Train Your Dragon, which similarly showcased tonnes of narrative potential only to be totally squandered by the film’s decision to just turn that character into a satellite that orbits around Hiccup accomplishing nothing by themselves (incidentally, Astrid’s role in this film consists of: couple talk, pep talk, getting kidnapped, being rescued by someone else, face to follow during battles, Big Damn Kiss).  It’s extra-infuriating here because the film spends so long on Valka and her character arc, even attempting to make her the emotional centre, until it just flings it all away for the last half hour…

…wherein we return to the Hiccup/Toothless relationship to raise stakes for the finale.  It should be a huge emotional gut-punch, but it doesn’t work because the film kind of forgets how important the two of them are together once Valka hits the scene.  It relies on prior attachment for all of its emotional impact, so HHTYD2’s near-total dismissal of just how important the pair’s bond is until it’s relevant to the plot kills most of the possible impact.  It feels cheap, especially since the whole situation gets wrapped up about 10 to 15 minutes after it’s brought up, so there’s no real chance to let it sting or for the themes it wants to touch on to resonate.

But more than that, something has plagued both How To Train Your Dragons for me.  Like, both films have clearly definable issues but there’s also something… more.  Something else that I can’t quite explain.  They’re missing… “something,” a certain feeling, a certain magic, the kind of magic that can overcome issues like poor story structure and a lack of focus.  I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but it’s there in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s there in The Lego Movie, it’s there in Mulan, it’s most definitely there in ParaNorman, but it’s missing from here.  It’s especially baffling because Dean DeBlois (who directed both installments) and Chris Sanders (who only did the first one) are previous of Lilo & Stitch, which had the unexplainable yet tangible quality in spades.  It’s not heart, because both films do have it and both films are clearly made with a lot of love, it’s something else and it’s the lack of that “something” that keeps the whole enterprise from soaring as high as it should do and as it keeps teasing it can.  Better film critics or film scholars than I will likely come up with actual theories or explanations that may hit the nail on the head for me, be they explaining that missing “something” or finding an actual problem that I couldn’t explain, but all I can do is tell you what I know and what I know is that something I don’t know is missing from or spoiling this movie and that keeps it from being excellent despite my not knowing exactly what it is… if you get what on earth I mean.

How To Train Your Dragon 2, then, really is its parent film’s sequel.  It has most of the exact same strengths, most of the exact same highpoints, most of the exact same flaws and that exact same “something” that dragged down the first film.  If I had seen this in 2010, from the animation company that just two months later was going to deploy yet another Shrek sequel on this undeserving planet, I would have given it a gold star sticker of improvement and given it a total pass in the hopes that DreamWorks can do better.  Unfortunately, this is 2014 and DreamWorks have shown that it can do better, but it’s made a movie with the exact same strengths and weaknesses as that film from 2010, so I have to evaluate it as I see it.  And I see HTTYD2 as a good movie that I very much enjoyed held back poor plotting, inconsistent focus in both the narrative and the emotional core, and suffering from a certain “something”.  Gorgeous visuals, though.

Of course, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you may want to ignore all of this and go and see it anyway.  In fact, no, if you had no problems with the first How To Train Your Dragon, you should ignore all of this and see the film immediately.  It really is exactly like the first one, so I see absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t love this.  I can only tell you how I felt and I didn’t love the first one, so… yeah.

Callum Petch is oh so healthy in his body and his mind.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Tarzan

Tarzan 2014This is an ugly, inept, insulting abomination.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

No matter what I type here, it will fail to fully and accurately convey my emotions upon finishing this CG motion capture interpretation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous Tarzan of the Apes.  It will fail to convey the full amount of befuddlement, disbelief, anger and just overall plain astonishment at the film I had spent 98 minutes sitting through.  This is incompetent filmmaking.  Nothing works, nothing is pulled off right.  Choosing to spend money watching this film or, hell, choosing to watch this film in general is asking to spend 98 minutes watching quite literally everything that could possibly go wrong go horribly, horribly wrong.  If Tarzan were a person, it would have ended this film in a bloody, beaten mess; all of its bones broken, internal organs crushed, blood coming out of every orifice, maimed and disfigured.

It would also be completely deserving of that outcome because Tarzan believes that you, the reader, your significant other, your children that this is likely aimed at and which you will keep them far away from if you consider yourself a worthwhile parent, your best friend from high school and pretty much anybody who is alive on the planet today or will be in the future, are an idiot.  A total grade-A moron who can barely operate a toaster without setting yourself on fire.  Consequently, this a script both loaded with exposition and a narrator who literally describes events that you can see happening on-screen that second, and a finale that has been edited and staged to the point of incomprehensibility but it hopes that you’re still too dumb to call it out on.  I haven’t seen a film that has insulted my intelligence this much in gods know how long.  I despise everything about this film, and nothing I write over the next (likely) 4 A4 pages will adequately express the levels of hatred I have for this film.

Nevertheless, I am a writer by trade so I will give it the old college try.

In this interpretation of the story, Tarzan (eventually Kellan Lutz, this is a weirdly paced film) loses his parents in a helicopter crash after his father, the head of a large energy company, invokes the wrath of… something, it’s never explained, by chipping off a piece of an alien meteor that struck the Earth 70 million years ago.  Rescued by a recently widowed mother ape, who also lost her original son about five minutes after said widowing, he grows up amongst the apes as one of their own until he one day stumbles across a teenaged Jane Porter (eventually Spencer Locke, again this is a weirdly paced film) and secretly keeps her safe from harm during her time in the jungle with her father (Les Bubb).

Doing so unlocks a desire in Tarzan to connect with people instead of animals and also possibly memories of the crash from all those years ago.  That second part is really unclear, the whole scene where he comes across the helicopter wreckage plays like an amnesiac remembering their traumatic past but the film doesn’t seem to explain if that’s the case.  Anyway, at roughly the one hour mark of this 98 minute film, Clayton (Trevor St. John) finally shows up, with Jane in tow, as the new head of Greystoke Energies attempting to find said meteorite in order to mine it for its potential power because he’s the head of an energy company, what did you think he was going to be a nuanced villain?

As you may have gathered, this is supposed to be a film of two halves.  One wants to be a relatively straight-laced telling of Tarzan of the Apes (although it still Disney-fies all of the more morally ambiguous elements) and the other half wants to be…  man, I have no idea what in the blue hell the other half wants to be.  Seriously, what on earth is going on with that meteor crap?  Why do people keep going after it when, quite clearly, it screams “DO NOT DISTURB OR WE WILL SPOIL YOUR DAY IRREPARABLY”?  Why can it turn some of nature into weird alien-like hybrid species things?  Why does it apparently have spiritual apes guarding it yet they don’t actually do anything?  In fact, what is gained by adding the meteorite to the story of Tarzan besides a ridiculous disconnect between the non-meteorite stuff and a sledgehammer-subtle environmentalism message?

Needless to say, it doesn’t work.

In fact, I find it weird that I’m sat here with questions about certain aspects of the film seeing as it spends nearly the entire runtime explaining things.  Clayton’s first scene, for example, is literally him recapping the importance of the meteorite and the events of the opening 15 to 20 minutes of the film, in case anyone nodded off during them or suffers from very short term memory loss.  Very little of what dialogue is spoken in this film is not exposition of some way shape or form which, surprise, creates the issue of the film not having any actual characters in its roster.  Characters always say what they are feeling, point out the obvious, recap the plot, the whole shebang and it’s endlessly irritating.

And then there is the omniscient narrator.  Now, you may be wondering what the point of there being a narrator is considering the fact that 80% of words spoken in this film amount to exposition.  The answer, of course, is to offer up even more exposition!  This is where the film most demonstrates its contempt for its audience as the narrator describes everything.  And I mean everything up to and including things you can see happening right in front of you that very second.  “Tarzan and Jane ran through the forest from Clayton’s men.”  Yes, film, I can see that.  “As Greystoke ventured further into the cave, the guardian apes grew more restless.”  Yes, I know, you cut to the apes as he went further in.  I can figure that…  “The mother ape (I forget her name) had lost her husband.”  YOU JUST SHOWED…  “From the first day he arrived, Tarzan became a thorn in the alpha ape’s side.”  SHUT UP!!  Maybe it’s supposed to give off the effect of a storybook, actions being read out whenever stuff isn’t happening, or maybe the filmmakers just didn’t trust that its target audience would be able to follow along or pay attention if there went five minutes without anybody saying anything.

Needless to say, it’s really patronising and very frakkin’ annoying.

Animation-wise…  I regret insulting Escape From Planet Earth nearly two months ago, now.  I really do.  See, because when I tell you that Tarzan is uglier than that by a country mile, you won’t believe me.  For a lot of people, EFPE looked average at best and that may be true; I only called it bad because I spend most of my days consuming various forms of animation and know what to look for.  Nobody, though, should be in any disagreement or doubt at any point as to how hideous Tarzan is.  Not one single human or animal looks convincing.  They are all way too creepy and off-putting, humans especially have faces that are trying to strive for realistic but just cause everything to trip and fall into the bottomless chasm known as The Uncanny Valley.

Movements are stiff and unnatural 90% of the time, with the only time it does work being some of Tarzan’s ape-like walking movements and those only serve to make everything else look worse.  I never noticed a character blink, all of their gestures are performed like they have 2-tonne anvils attached to their arms and rain and water, which featured a lot, makes them turn a dark shade of white instead of looking like they’re actually wet.  Environments are weirdly coloured and lack detail, lighting is simplistic, never varying in shadow or temperature, and camera movements are static or extremely cheap (there’s a bit during Clayton’s boardroom meeting where the camera has to cross the room whilst focussing on his static face and it there is such a jarring disconnect and poor application of perspectives that I can’t do it justice describing in word form).

This does not look like a film that cost millions of dollars to make.  This does not look like a film that should have been released in cinemas.  This does not look like a movie that was designed and worked on by professional CGI artists and animators with specialised technology.  This looks like the tech demo reel for a rejected CalArts student.  This looks like something somebody put together in Blender.  This looks like somebody filmed a five year-old playing with their Barbie and Ken dolls and wildlife action figures and then green-screened the results over barely shifting low-res JPEG images of their uncle’s summer vacation in Africa.

Needless to say, it looks f*cking appalling and I am offended by its existence.

Meanwhile, anybody who is looking to fill up their empty Worst Performances Given In A 2014 Film slots will find no shortage of contenders, here.  Kellan Lutz is OK when he just has to leap around all ape-like and utter out nonsensical sounds that are somehow understood by all creatures of all kinds, but give him human words to say and it all falls apart with mis-delivery after mis-delivery.  Spencer Locke says everything in the exact same tone of voice regardless of the line, situation or context and that one tone is of a wooden “I am trying really hard to act” that quickly got on all of my nerves.  Trevor St. John is never menacing or excited or hammy or any of the things that make an interesting villain.  The absolute worst, though, and by a country mile at that, is Les Bubb as Jane’s father.  He tries this accent that never sticks or sounds convincing and his every line is delivered wobbly or overly-inflected or, to put it in simpler terms, just plain wrong.  He is, no exaggeration, abysmal and his abysmal-ness sticks out even amongst this bunch.

Needless to say, we have serious Razzie contenders in this film.

And then, to top it all off, we have the last 15 to 20 minutes.  Folks, I have seen some incompetent finales in my time.  I have seen some utterly, bafflingly incompetent finales in my time, and this may top them all.  It’s rushed, it’s poorly edited, it’s inconsistently motivated, it suddenly gets really dark for seconds at a time (and the film has a joyless mood for most of its run time, anyway) and then goes back to normal, it’s anaemic in content, poorly set-up in terms of scene geography and atrociously edited.  Yes, I did just mention the editing in this finale twice and that’s because I want to bring special attention to how poorly sequenced and edited and paced the whole thing is.  It cuts between actions and shots so quickly and so haphazardly that it serves to make the whole enterprise completely incoherent and incomprehensible.  My brain was futilely trying to make sense of the thing and the only thing it managed to accurately suss out was how f*cking awful the thing I was witnessing was.

Needless to say, the rolling of the credits did not leave me in a pleasant mood.

Folks, this Tarzan is an abomination.  An utterly incompetent piece of trash that belittles audiences of all ages and seems to have had no actual effort put into its construction.  I feel sorry for any child who finds this to be their first exposure to Tarzan and the Apes because it may just turn them off it for good.  And Maker forbid you have any reverence for the source material in any form.  This film is so bad that is screws up the “my name Tarzan, your name Jane” scene because of its abominable animation, atrocious dialogue, atrocious delivery of said dialogue and then following it with a laughable time-skip romance montage backed by “Paradise” by Coldplay (you know, in case you wanted that song, and “Loud Like Love” by Placebo which plays over the end credits for some bizarre reason, ruined for you).

This is trash.  Of the highest order.  I do not recommend it to anyone under any circumstances and I can guarantee you that it will be fiercely battling it out with 300: Rise of an Empire for Worst Film of 2014 when that time comes around.  And even with that ignominious honour, I still don’t think I have accurately transcribed my feelings on how much I hate this film or even why I hate this film so much.  Like, this is horrendously made but it’s not mean-spirited or anything.  So why am I so worked up about it?  I don’t know.  I honestly don’t, maybe I never will, but what I do know is that this Tarzan is awful and, if we are all very lucky, this will be the most anybody ever writes about it or pays attention to it and we will all go about the rest of our lives forgetting its existence.

Again: this is utterly and completely dreadful.  Do not see it.  Not even for a joke.  That is an order.

Callum Petch makes all the b-boys scream.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Khumba

KhumbaIt tries really hard, which is more than I can say for most kids’ films I’ve seen, but Khumba is still not a good film.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

My continuing quest to absorb all of the animation as it happens is one often fraught with feelings of despair and sadness.  Usually because the medium, which is one filled with possibilities in both the story-telling and artistic senses, is mostly used by film companies to pump out mediocre, by-the-numbers and, saddest of all, soulless products designed to strip money from kids who, presumably, don’t know any better.  And that bums me out.  Just because animated kids’ films almost always seem to make money, doesn’t mean that accountants should be in charge of their production in order to boost the bottom line at the end of the year.

Khumba, the second effort from South African production company Triggerfish Animation (previous of Zambesia), does not have that problem.  Whatever other failings it does have, they’re not caused by a lack of effort or interest in the project.  This wants to be a good film, it is trying to be a good film and that earnestness infects most every facet of the film, which is more than I can say for some other low-budget animated films I’ve had the displeasure of seeing.  Unfortunately, earnestness and enthusiasm can only carry a film so far and Khumba falls down on the whole “being a good film” side quite majorly.

Our story follows Khumba (Jake T. Austin), a zebra born with only half of his stripes much to the mockery of the rest of his herd.  He is raised by his father (Laurence Fishburne) in a gated community in the Great Caroo that hasn’t had any rain since he was born which the very superstitious herd blames on his birth, not helping his outcast nature.  One day, he meets a mantis who draws him a map that leads to a supposedly mystical water hole that may give him the rest of his stripes.  Tired of being different and spurred into action by the passing of his sick mother, Khumba ventures out into the wild, gaining two travel companions, a wildebeest named Mama V (Loretta Devine) and an ostrich named Bradley (Richard E. Grant), being pursued by an opportunistic leopard named Phango (Liam Neeson) and leaving the herd to decide on their future when the water runs dry.

It sounds messy and overstuffed (needless to say, Khumba and co. run into a whole bunch of other eccentric characters through the film’s svelte 85 minute run time) but the script does a good job at balancing proceedings.  It only asks the audience to invest in a few characters, the rest basically wander in and out of proceedings as a way to provide action or humour or one of the film’s overall messages of “doesn’t matter what species(race) you are, everyone is still a living thing at heart and we should come together in celebration of that fact”.  Honestly, I’m OK with that.  The film is very clear as to who we need to invest emotionally with and I prefer this approach to the kind of mess Escape From Planet Earth had where it tried to put stories and character arcs and the like to all of its characters in its 80 minutes and came off rushing things as a result.

A mostly interested voice cast also help truck along proceedings, even if some of them aren’t very good.  Chief among those not very good is Jake T. Austin as Khumba, he does seem to be interested in proceedings but his line readings are the definition of stilted.  Sometimes his line deliveries have passion and suit proceedings, other times they’re flat or the wrong direction for the scene.  Fairing much better is Richard E. Grant as the film’s main source of comic relief, he may not get anything funny to say but he nails the pompous theatricality inherent in the lines.  Loretta Devine exudes motherly warmth whilst Laurence Fishburne just about stays on the right side of the line between “gentle paternal authority” and “phoning it in”, ditto Liam Neeson but replace “gentle paternal authority” with “menacing villainy”.  Plus, littering about the film are professional voice actors in several of those supporting roles, like Charlie Adler as the leader of some Rock Rabbits and Dee Bradley Baker as a doting Meerkat father, which pleases me, a staunch supporter of giving professional VAs large-ish roles in animated movies, to no end.

The score backing this thing, by the way, is actually really rather interesting.  It does operate predominately in the same way that American-made animated films soundtrack proceedings, lots of orchestral bombast during action sequences and light bouncy music for most everything else, but it also infuses it with elements of traditional South African and country road-trip music.  It’s definitely unique and helps give Khumba its own feel.  Admittedly, it doesn’t always work, the addition of vocal wailing on the score over the fake-out death at the end of the movie only serves to push the scene into overwrought parody territory, but it is different and it fits the travelling scenes very nicely.

Unfortunately, that’s about it on the list of things that Khumba is good at.  See, enthusiasm and heart can only take you so far and Khumba has three key issues that keep it from being worth your time.  The first of which is the quality of its animation.  At best, it’s sub-par.  Character designs for the different species are nice and distinct, even rather good in some cases (a recurring wild dog voiced by Steve Buscemi in particular has a tiny stature, specific wide eyes, mangy quality to his overall being and yet is still rather cute in his own way), but individual character designs are neither of those things.  Despite how much time we spend with the zebra herd, I could not confidently tell you which one is supposed to be Khumba’s father if you put the lot of them in a line-up.  This is used as the basis for a joke with a gang of Springbok, but that only serves to call attention to the problem, not explain it away.

As for when things start moving, it’s all over the place.  Lighting and shading lack detail as does pretty much everything else in the film (a brief section set on a dusty plain during high winds just looks like an Instagram filter has been overlaid on the action).  Movement switches between unnaturally fluid and noticeably jerky between shots, the one constant being that all actions take a few frames less to perform than they should do which creates a disconcertingly fake and cheap feel.  There’s a frequent tendency, too, to underplay certain gestures.  Bradley gets a sudden musical number (the only instance of one throughout the whole film so it does awkwardly stick out) but his accompanying dancing is too restrained, too hemmed in and so the whole thing feels awkward.  Meanwhile, chroma-keying (the act of animating characters separate from the backgrounds and then digitally adding them in later) is very noticeable and disappointingly frequent.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a budget problem, more an issue of inexperience.  After all, you can do a lot on a little over this film’s $20 million budget (just look at most any feature-length Anime), and the issues mostly stem from problems that could have been avoided.  Don’t have the budget to animate all of the frames necessary to move Character A to Expression B in Position C?  Then work around that, find an exploitative loophole.  It’s animation!  You can use that bending of reality to your advantage if you do it well enough.  I got the constant feeling that a few more years of experience and practice under the animation team’s belt would have managed to make a pretty great looking film considering the budget.  But there are just a surplus of rookie mistakes littering the animation and it exposes the whole enterprise as cheap.

The inexperience similarly shows in a screenplay that liberally borrows from other, often resoundingly better animated films.  There are cribs and shout-outs from and to Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Fantasia, The Black Cauldron, Rio, Madagascar and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (hey, I said “often better” not “always better”) and those are the ones I actively noticed.  It’s not done in the way that more cynical animated kids’ films do it, there is a genuine love for the source material it cribs from and its aim is to use these references to further its own story.  The issue is that the non-cribbed material is not particularly engaging and the execution of the borrowed material never quite works, it hits those points without getting why they work.

It’s all stuff that I’ve seen before and better executed in those other places.  Khumba wants to use its borrowed material to help boost its own story but it only serves to highlight how… middling its own story is.  None of the characters are particularly unlikable but I didn’t feel an attachment to any of them, either.  The story beats are rote and uninspired, failing to put any new twists on them to justify their being trotted out for the hundred-millionth time.  There are some occasional mysticism and superstition elements thrown in to try and make things seem more epic but inadvertently only serve to needlessly clutter the finale and the villain’s motivation.  Again, none of this is to a lack of trying, but it means the film never rises above its pastiche of references to stand up with its own identity besides the enthusiasm.

One last issue is down to pacing.  Now, normally when I talk about pacing, I mean it in the sense of “this film is way too long/short” because that’s the most noticeable kind of bad pacing.  Khumba is the perfect length, it never drags and it never charges through things at 200MPH.  The issue is that the action on screen never seems to get out of first gear.  Action scenes are too gentle, too slovenly, there are no stakes and no danger because nothing feels deadly or intimidating because nothing particularly seems to happen in them.  There’s an early section where Khumba, Mama V and Bradley are surrounded and pounced on by a group of wild dogs but the whole sequence plays out with all the urgency of being harassed by a couple of rogue fleas.  The animation too stiff, the camerawork too static, the music remains sedentary.  Almost every action scene is like this and it kills a lot of investment because these characters are clearly not in any danger so why should I worry about what happens to them?

It bums me out to have to type this review, it truly does.  See, ripping apart a soulless bad movie is easy: it’s clear that nobody involved cared about the product other than the bottom line it generates so there’s precisely no reason to feel bad about treating it like a leopard treats its prey.  Having to dismantle a bad film that is trying really, desperately hard to be a good film is akin to kicking out Tiny Tim’s crutches as you walk past him, or deliberately performing an elaborate tap dance routine in front of people paralysed from the waist down, or going around to the houses of those who made the film and taking a dump on their front lawns whilst they watch.  You’re going to feel bad, unless you’re a monster, because the victim is so earnest and desperately trying to avoid being deserving of the sentence you’re flinging down on them.

And that’s Khumba.  It’s earnest, it’s got heart and it thinks that is all it needs to win because heart and good intentions can overcome poor execution, right?  It’s the scrappy underdog in the sports movie that’s not the best at the game but still triumphs in the end because believing in yourself despite your sub-par abilities conquers all, right?  Sadly, though, reality ensues in this metaphor and Khumba’s noble intentions and excitement to be here is negated by poor animation, stake-less action and an inability to rise above the influences it has a good deal of respect for.  Hopefully, Triggerfish Animation use this as a learning experience and come back with something better next time because there is clearly potential and love coming from that studio and it saddens me to see inexperience sink that.

Callum Petch wants you to know he’s a rainbow too.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!