Tag Archives: The Nut Job

Callum Petch’s Bottom 10 of 2014: #5 – #1

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Welcome back to our collective journey through the arse of film in 2014.  If you’re still here, then that means that you either recovered from my inclusion of Boyhood on yesterday’s part of the list, or you didn’t read yesterday’s part of the list, didn’t know about that fact and therefore are still on speaking terms with me.  If you did miss it, or just want a refresher, you can go here to get all caught up.  Otherwise, we’re going to get going with the lowest of the low.  So, with no more delay, AVATAR STATE, YIP YIP!

There may be spoilers.  Proceed with caution.


Rio205] Tarzan/The Nut Job/Escape From Planet Earth/Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return/Planes: Fire & Rescue/Rio 2/The House Of Magic/Postman Pat: The Movie

Dir: Too many to bother listing

Star: No, seriously, we’d be here all day

This is a message to the feature-length animation medium as a whole.  I AM ON TO YOU.  Regular readers of this fine website will already be very well aware that I am a very, very big fan of animation and take criticism of every animated effort that comes my way with the same amount of seriousness and weight as most real critics do “real films” (if you don’t think that many critics find animation some kind of a lesser medium, you are deluding yourself).  It doesn’t matter if you are a Disney effort, or a low-budget produced by a studio demanding to make a name for yourself: you step into a cinema, you better believe that I am going to hold you all to the exact same standards of quality and creativity.  And if you think that you can sneak past an animated venture with no skill, passion, effort or heart put into it without my calling you out on it?  Oh, son, you are in for a very rude awakening, let me tell you.

2014 was the first year since 2005 in which Pixar did not release a film, and many studios took this as an opportunity to get complacent.  To think that sufficiently filling the space where Pixar would normally sit would be enough to sucker a whole bunch of monies from parent’s wallets and earn an “eh, what else are you gonna see?” from more uncaring film critics.  Those studios would be wrong.  Almost every film listed up there is being called out for having open contempt for its audience, thinking of them only as walking wallets rather than moviegoers deserving of entertainment and wonder.  Some of those are just plain awful, some are passable, one of which was even rather entertaining as I watched it in the cinema and filed my review, but all but three exist for the sole purpose of trying to ape their much better competitors in search of their residual cash.

Each film listed up there has a laundry list of the tropes and cliches of crappy low-effort animation.  These films either have awful, terrifying or personality-free art styles; dull, cheap or just plain poor animation with corners cut at every opportunity; scripts that are devoid of wit, characters, themes and any semblance of originality or unique voice; awfully directed, miscast or just plain bad voice actors – typically celebrities busy cashing their paycheques whilst recording is still ongoing – a complete lack of heart, an overdose on pop-culture references, a cynical desire to just poorly ape the better competition and call it a day, or any combination of the above (and, in one case, all of the above).  And in no instances will I stand for it.

Especially since the other companies who did show up to play in 2014 each tried their damndest to raise the bar that these films worked so hard to lower.  The Lego Movie gave us a fresh, original, heartfelt and hugely entertaining look at creativity with amazing animation in what could have instead functioned as a 100 minute commercial for Lego.  DreamWorks Animation shot for the heart with How To Train Your Dragon 2 – I personally didn’t think it worked, but I’m done repeating myself with that series – shot for straight fun with Penguins Of Madagascar, and attempted to marry the two with Mr. Peabody & Sherman, scoring creative home-runs each time.  My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks took a look at the criticisms of the very good first movie, went away, and proceeded to actively better itself and fix every single one of them near-totally.  The Boxtrolls had a messy screenplay that nearly derailed the entire ride but had charm and heart and energy to carry itself through regardless, whilst The Book Of Life allowed an underrated auteur the money and scope to run wild, creating one of the most visually astounding animated films I have ever seen, and one with enough heart and love to downplay its various issues.

Point is, these films try.  They really try.  They’re not just trying suck money from wallets, they’re trying to be great and do their own unique things.  Christ, even the Tinkerbell series is aiming for the heart and has enough sweet sincerity and joy to carry it through its lightweight and occasionally more low-quality moments (turns out that, Pirate Fairy aside, I am a fan of that series).  Animation means a tonne to me, the whole process, the whole medium – you should have seen how legitimately bummed out I was upon hearing the news of Christine Cavanaugh’s passing – and I refuse to let blatant, low-quality contemptuous cash-grabs like the films listed above drag the pure wonder and imagination and possibility of this medium down by their mere existence.  No fucking way.  I am not going to let them prove the snottier members of the film industry right.

So allow me to send out this message to the feature-length animation industry at large: you are all on notice.  As long as I am walking this Earth – whether that be in this body or in a cyborg version of my body that my consciousness downloads into, like those in Ghost In The Shell – you will all be going through me.  I will be merciless, you will never hear the phrase “good enough for the kids” part from my lips because I know for a fact that, as a kid, I would have demanded better always, and I will most of all be honest.  I expect a lot because this medium can do so much, and I will not let low-quality or mediocre wastes of space pass by unscathed.  If you can’t match, or don’t want to match, the quality of animation on television right now that I and kids around the world can watch for free – like Gravity Falls, Regular Show, Wander Over Yonder, or The Legend Of Korra – then scrap everything and start again because why the fuck should I and we devote time and money to you if you’re not aiming for the level of free entertainment?  You have all been warned.

Oh, and for the record?  Worst animated film of the year is The Nut Job, maybe even of the decade.  It’s not even a contest.


04] Men, Women & Childrenmen women and children

Dir: Jason Reitman

Star: Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Dean Norris, the disembodied voice of Emma Thompson

Oh, Jason Reitman.  What the f*ck happened to you, man?  You made Juno, Up In The Air, Young Adult, and Thank You Smoking!  And then, in the space of 12 months, you make Labor Day and Men, Women & Children?  Is this some kind of James Franco-esque performance art piece?  Did you voluntarily take a torch to your once-promising career just to see how devoted fans like myself would react?  Did you trip over something in the dark, bang your head and just forget how to make good movies?  Was your family held hostage by madmen who refused to let them go until you shat out two utterly irredeemable stinkers to sully your track record possibly irreparably?  What is it?  I need answers, man!

Men, Women & Children is the kind of film that I would have spent almost the entire runtime inadvertently and derisively laughing at and mocking had it come from anybody else and were it any less self-serious about itself.  Men, Women & Children is a walking self-parody that is way too goddamn serious about its overly delusional fears of the Internet and technology to find the slightest bit funny.  A tone-deaf, one-sided, hysterical (in the sense that it’s gone mad from trying to make its point) two hour screed against the Internet and modern technology that only serves to make its co-writer and director seem like the kind of crotchety old man who yells at those darn kids to get off of his lawn and who lives for Bingo night.

It saddles its very talented cast with material better fit for a failing first year drama group, creates a hateful straw-woman to invite viewers to throw righteous scorn at only to turn around and spend 95% of its runtime agreeing with her, and maniacally believes that all of the world’s relationship and intimacy problems would be solved if the Internet and modern technology didn’t exist.  It has an incredibly conservative and dim view on any kind of sex and sexual arousal that doesn’t have to do with the ‘traditional’ way of doing things.  It constantly tries to make its point that all of our personal problems that technology amplifies are ultimately small and meaningless by repeatedly cutting to the Hubble telescope and very subtly hinting that we should drop our reliance on technology and instead get to work on technology, in a blissfully ignorant piece of hypocrisy.  It is a film with nothing new or interesting or nuanced to say despite its grim, serious, sermonising message-movie tone.

It, may I remind you, is a film in which Dean Norris actually jumps back in shock and mild fear from his computer when he discovers that pressing up on a keyboard causes a videogame avatar to move forward.  And let’s not forget the moment in which Adam Sandler tries to straight-facedly finger 9/11 as the moment where we as a society retreated into technology and everything subsequently changed for the worse.

Look, I am not inherently opposed to media that portrays technology as evil or a thing to be feared – I, like any good person, adore Black Mirror – but if you are going to make a serious and frequently anti-tech look at the way that technology and the Internet have affected our modern day relationships, spending two hours hysterically shrieking at the top of your lungs that “THE INTERNET IS EVIL!  IT MUST BE PURGED TO SAVE US ALL!  I AM THE VERY FIRST PERSON TO EVER COME TO THIS CONCLUSION!  PAY ATTENTION TO ME!” is not the way to go about it.  The most maddening part of Men, Women & Children is that there is a damn great, nuanced, smart and thought-provoking film to be made using these actors, this director and this set-up, and at no point does the finished product ever hint at that better movie.  It sucks, it sucks uncontrollably and insufferably, and I worry that Jason Reitman may be incapable of bouncing back.  I really hope I am wrong.


nativity 303] Nativity! 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?!

Dir: Debbie Isitt

Star: Martin Clunes, Marc Wooton, Catherine Tate

Nativity! 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?! is the worst film of 2014.  It is the worst film I have ever sat through to the very end.  Nativity! 3 is the abyss of cinema made corporeal.  The Nativity! series has never been good, but at least the first one attempted to be a film that was watchable and the second was still a film – sort of, in that it at least had a coherent plot even if it bordered on being unwatchable.  Nativity! 3, however, is a giant middle finger to the entire concept of film, filmmaking, and the audience who voluntarily chose to part with their time and money by watching it.

There is no plot to Nativity! 3.  The other instalments in this abominable series at least attempted to have something resembling a coherent plot.  This one has no such attempt.  Stuff happens, with no rhyme or reason.  Plots and arcs and characters are brought up, discarded, brought back, dumped in the bin, treated with absolutely no care or sensitivity, used to simply mark time and nothing else, or force their way into proceedings at the most inopportune moments.  Nothing makes sense and the film doesn’t care that none of this makes sense.  I’d say that a 5 year-old could do better than this but, quite frankly, I get the feeling that this is all very deliberate.  “Go on,” the film seems to taunt, “Try and make sense of this.  Try and explain how we got from Martin Clunes arriving at the world’s worst primary school to whip the kids into shape, to an entire class full of kids serenading Catherine Tate at a wedding in New York that’s not to the fiancée she started out the film with, without frying and killing several of your most important brain cells.”

And I assume that it’s deliberate because, quite frankly, everything about Nativity! 3 seems carefully controlled and co-ordinated to be as deliberately offensively awful as is humanly possible.  Why else would every performance be screeched at the top of everyone’s lungs with no subtlety or variation?  Why else would the film purport to be a musical yet drop its musical conceit for half of its runtime and, despite having already done this twice before, have every single one of its songs be shot and choreographed with no flair and a faint collective embarrassment about it all?  Why else would the film revel in its sub-CBBC production values and shooting style?  Why else would Mr. Poppy, the single worst, most annoying and most evil character in film today, continue to hang around and be treated like some kind of saint and somebody we should all look up to?

And this sh*t is being peddled for kids!  Everybody involved believes that the abomination that they have crafted is perfect for kids!  Maybe it is, if you hate your kids and think that they are no more intelligent than the bacteria that thrives in your toilet bowl.  No kid deserves to be forced to sit through this tripe, no matter how bad they’ve been.  This is a film that thinks kids are total imbeciles who should reject any and all authority, follow around a clearly mentally-ill man who they don’t have permission to run off with and who is not even employed by the school he keeps hanging around at, do the bidding of said man with no hesitation or complaint, blame the victim for anything bad that happens to them frequently and mercilessly – seriously, the film keeps loudly shouting that it was recent amnesiac Martin Clunes’ own fault for losing his memory and that the reason that he doesn’t get his memories back is because he doesn’t want to, and is proven to be right – and angrily and threateningly rap at said victim for any perceived mistake.

Nativity! 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey?! – and, incidentally, I am immensely saddened by the fact that it is 2014 and we are still making “Dude, where’s my car?” jokes – is anti-cinema.  It is a film that hates everyone and everything, spending every last second of its inexplicable 110 minute runtime actively daring the viewer to keep watching, and has such a blatant disregard for the basic tenants of good filmmaking that I can only take it as a deliberate and intentional desire to make the worst film ever released in human existence.  If it was, then congratulations, I am 99% certain that everyone involved has succeeded in their lofty goal.

The film’s writer-director Debbie Isitt, who once upon a time brought us the genuinely decent Confetti, hit back against critics who derided her film claiming that we critics are “just so out of touch with what people like or want.”  If this is what the people like and want, then God help us all.


02] What Ifwhat if 2

Dir: Michael Dowse

Star: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Rafe Spall

Fuck off.

 


the riot club 2

01] The Riot Club

Dir: Lone Scherfig

Star: Sam Claflin, Max Irons, Douglas Booth

So, after 7,000 words, 11 pages, 16 films and pretty much every single negative adjective in the English language, we have arrived at my Bottom Film of 2014.  We have gone through films that disappointed me, films that encapsulated everything wrong with current cinema, films that fail at the basic tenants of filmmaking, and films that just plain pissed me off.  But none of those have taken my absolute bottom slot on my 2014 list.  Instead, and from the moment I saw it I knew it was destined for this slot, it went to The Riot Club.  So, why?  Why The Riot Club over “the abyss of cinema” and a sh*tty rom-com that wouldn’t stop infecting my brain for at least a month after I saw it.

Simple.  Because, unlike those two films, I was literally five seconds away from walking out of The Riot Club.

Allow me to explain.  The Riot Club is a British thriller centred around the exploits of the titular club – a very unsubtle expy of the famous Bullingdon Club – home of the richest, poshest and most spoilt male members of Oxford University.  These are the men who will go on to basically run the country and the club is their place to abuse their privilege, blow off steam, and generally just behave as vile, loathsome degenerates.  They mentally and physically abuse each other, recklessly destroy public and private property, sexually harass any and all women they see, and spout things like “I am sick to death of POOR PEOPLE!”  It is not unclear as to what exactly this film’s message is.  And whilst that would lead to the question as to why one would sit through 107 minutes of this stuff, it’s not inherently a problem since the film sounds clear and consistent in its message.

Except that it is not.  Not at all.  The Riot Club spends 107 minutes being openly, loudly and insufferably hypocritical.  See, The Riot Club wants you to hate these disgusting cretins, and spends much of its runtime screaming at you about how terrible these upper-class twits are.  However, The Riot Club also spends its time indulging them, egging them on, wanting them to be bad, evil, violent, sexist, rape-y so that it has more material to film.  For every scene where it invites the audience to fling fruit at its cast, there’s another where it turns around screams “More!  MORE!  MORE!!” at the cast it supposedly hates, revelling in the debauchery it otherwise spends its runtime constantly denouncing as evil and awful.

In other words, it’s a worst case scenario equivalent of The Wolf Of Wall Street.  That film never openly denounces its despicable cast of characters because it knows that the audience will get how awful these characters are through their actions.  It doesn’t indulge them, it doesn’t openly judge, and it always keeps its moral compass and central message clear and lifted above the muck of everything else.  By contrast, The Riot Club is a humourless nagging nanny that thinks the audience won’t understand that the posh upper classes think of the lower classes as pond scum unless it has multiple walking cartoon characters state as much out loud every 5 minutes.  It indulges them frequently, sets them up to make themselves look awful, and lowers itself to their level as if it is having just as much fun preying on and exploiting their antics as they do preying on the lower-classes.

And when the film gets to its centrepiece – a near 50 minute sequence set at a club dinner that screams “this is where we’re just going to do the play the film is based on now, if that’s OK” – it becomes a test of just how much longer one can take the hypocrisy.  Does one stop during the endless drinking games?  How about when they continually insult the perfectly nice lower-class hosts?  When they bring in a female sex worker and try everything to keep her from leaving?  How about when Milo’s middle-class girlfriend turns up and we seem about 3 seconds away from a rape scene?  All the while, the film practically jerks off to itself on screen.  “Yes!  Yes!  More!  Threaten Natalie Dormer a little more!  Smash up that back room like a group of apes flinging their poo around!  Yes!  Phwoah!”

My final straw came when the lower-class pub owner, who has had enough of their degenerate antics in his establishment, comes to throw them out and everybody takes turns beating him to a state of near-death.  This scene, much like everything in this goddamn f*cking movie, goes on for an uncomfortably long time, as the film takes its sweet time deriving its own sick pleasure from the action being depicted.  Much like everything else in the film, what starts as The Riot Club shouting “Shame on you!  You people are despicable!” morphs into it yelling “Yeah!  YEAH!  KICK HIS FUCKING HEAD IN!  THE TWAT DESERVES IT!”

And at that point, I reached over, grabbed my bag and jacket, stood up and started walking towards the exit.  I was done.  I was tapping out.  I was about to walk out of a film, which I had never done before in my entire life.  The sole film I had ever stopped on its first showing because I refused to witness one more second of it was Disaster Movie and its dubious club was about to get a new member, only this time I was actually going to walk out of a cinema.

But then I checked my watch, to see how far in I’d made it to what was about to become the second film to ever beat me.  To my surprise, I discovered that I only had 20 minutes left to sit through.  Of the 107 minutes that the film was scheduled to run for, I had survived 87.  The finish line was in sight and I was about to give up.  So, reasoning that I’d managed to make it this far and that there wasn’t enough time left for the film to somehow sink even lower, I turned around, went back to my seat, put my jacket and bag back in place, and sat back down.  Sure enough, the film didn’t manage to plumb even further depths in those remaining 20 minutes and I managed to avoid my first walk-out by mere seconds.

That is why The Riot Club is #1 on My Bottom 10 Films of 2014.  It is an evil little film and it was literally 5 seconds away from beating me.  If that doesn’t deserve the top placement, I don’t know what does.


And so wraps up My Bottom 10 Films of 2014 list, as well as my review of 2014!  It, despite this list, has been a great year for films (although not so much for everything else) and I am so grateful for the ability to use space on this website to talk about it all over the past year.  Thank you to every single one of you for reading my work, leaving your feedback and generally just not chasing me away with pitchforks and torches!  Here’s to 2015!

Callum Petch is about to run through more cities than Attila The Hun.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Penguins Of Madagascar

Very funny, ludicrous amounts of fun, and with a surprising injection of just the right amount of heart, Penguins Of Madagascar does right by its title characters.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

penguins 2I’m telling you right now, I don’t ever want to hit an age or level of jadedness as a film critic where I don’t find films like Penguins Of Madagascar to be absolutely wonderful.  If you’ve been following along with this website over the past year, you will have witnessed my journey through the year’s animated releases and seen me find many of them… lacking, let’s put it that way.  I realise that I can come off as unnecessarily harsh, but – as mentioned in my review of The Nut Job – I judge harshly because I care.  I care deeply and I want animated films to try, to try and be more than a sinkhole for parents’ money.  They can reach farther, try harder, tell grand stories about the human condition…

…or they can be Penguins Of Madagascar.  Look, Penguins Of Madagascar does not reinvent any wheels, it does not push any boundaries, it does not attempt to dazzle the eyes with outstanding visuals, it does not try and make any bold statements or messages you won’t have heard from a million animated films beforehand.  It knows this and it’s consciously not trying to do those things.  What separates Penguins Of Madagascar from your Nut Jobs and your Planes and your House Of Magics is fun.  Real fun.  Penguins’ mission, above all else, is to be tonnes of palpable fun.  This is lightweight stuff, but it’s not soulless stuff.  There is effort and attention and love here; a desire to create real fun.

Or, to put it another way, it’s the difference between Crank 2: High Voltage and a crappy Steven Seagal vehicle, between The Avengers and Transformers, between The Hunger Games and Divergent.  One is farted out with the sole intention of box office dollars, the other knows exactly what it wants to be and goes about fulfilling that ambition and intention with style, energy, affection and sheer stick-to-it-iveness.

Based on the spin-off TV series of almost the same name but set in the timeline of the films – if this sounds confusing, fret not as the film’s attitude towards this mishmash is encapsulated perfectly by the kid-focussed prologue being dated as “Some Years Ago” – Penguins follows the scene-stealing Penguins from the Madagascar series.  There’s Skipper (Tom McGrath) – the leader who is committed to his team and doesn’t like his authority being questioned – Kowalski (Chris Miller) – the brains of the outfit and a propensity for bluntness – Rico (Conrad Vernon) – the near-silent and crazed demolitions expert – and Private (Christopher Knights) – a lone egg the rest of the team rescued and welcomed into the group as one of their own, and who wishes to be seen as a valued member of the team.

On the eve of the final performance from Madagascar 3, the Penguins choose to celebrate Private’s 10th birthday by breaking into Fort Knox and treating him to a packet of Cheese Dibbles.  The event turns out to be a trap, however, and the team are captured by the evil octopus Dave (John Malkovich) – who also moonlights as a human scientist named Dr. Octavious Brine, it’s nicely ridiculous and genuinely rather a bit creepy – who, fuelled by years of resentment of being overshadowed by cute and cuddly penguins that started when our lead quartet were first installed at Central Park Zoo, has built a penguin-focussed super-weapon with evil intentions.  The Penguins resolve to take Dave down, but end up having proceedings complicated by the arrival of interspecies task force The North Wind – led by the egotistical glory-hogging Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The plot is really not any more complicated than that and all of the expected beats are hit at the appropriate times.  Certain scenes are more than a little forced, especially the attempts at book-ending the film, but it still all works because these beats are used as jumping off points for jokes, fun and heart.  The obvious scenes – the tension between the two teams, The All Is Lost Moment, the point where Private steps up – are executed with genuine sincerity, the feeling that these scenes have been used because they are what best helps and best fits the story rather than obligation or “this is what we need to do in order to print money”.

That is not to say that Penguins Of Madagascar is overly serious.  In fact, quite the opposite.  This is silly, light-hearted, fast-paced nonsense.  But the film is serious in its desire to entertain.  Hence why it goes all out in the action sequences.  A gondola chase in Venice takes a sudden detour on land, the opening rescue of Private’s egg moves with speed and high energy, whilst the final setpiece shrinks the scale and minimises the carnage but still feels noticeably climactic and high-stakes.  The standout, though, is an alternately hysterical and technically jaw-dropping one-take sequence in which the Penguins make a sudden exit from a cargo plane taking them to an assigned safe-house and attempt to find a different ride or a safe landing.  It’s crazed and fast and incredibly fun, which sums up the film’s overall feel, to be honest.  Pure, undiluted fun.

Incidentally, whilst I’m on the subject, that one-take free-fall sequence is the only time the animation truly stuck out to me.  The Madagascar art-style is very much set in stone by this point and there’s been no real majorly noticeable technical upgrade between films to make proceedings stand out.  Storyboarding and layout is decidedly unspectacular, so the film ends up sliding comfortably into the Madagascar canon without really amazing the eyeballs.  This is fine – as again, the film isn’t trying to astound the eyeballs, and visuals that are too good-looking would likely distract from the intended mood – but it does make the one-take sequence stand out even more, as the film doesn’t really try to match that kind of scale or ambition again.  It is insanely cool, mind, so try not to read that as an insult.

Anyways, as mentioned, Penguins is major amounts of fun.  The whole film carries with it this light, energetic kind-hearted feel.  The film is never mean-spirited, never overly-dark, never sacrifices its heart or nicer kinder characters for a quick laugh.  There’s clear love and affection going on here, a real desire to cut loose and have fun with the premise as much as possible.  And that fun is incredibly infectious.  From about minute number 2 – when the title cards disappear – to roughly minute 86 – after the mid-credits stinger has finished – I had this big goofy grin plastered on my face and it only wavered for the few moments where the film gets some semblance of serious.

That’s as good a segway as I can think of.  So, the heart.  Penguins has one.  It has a big one tattooed on its chest, powering proceedings.  The dynamic between the Penguins is what keeps the film going, keeps that spirit up.  The group are always true companions with one another and this fact is constantly underlined and reinforced.  The main conflict of the film – which is not Dave, although he is the catalyst for it, but is instead Private’s desire to be seen as more than The Cute One in the eyes of Skipper – comes from a place of genuine underestimation and obliviousness, rather than meanness, which is precisely why it works.  It’s in character, at all times, and that enables the film’s final third – where said heart bursts through front and centre without overcooking or schmaltz-ifying the film – to connect way harder than it seems like it would.

Of course, though, Penguins Of Madagascar is supposed to be a comedy and what good is a comedy without good jokes?  Well, good news on that front, there are good jokes here.  Lots of good jokes.  In fact, I’m not going to undersell it, Penguins is loaded front-to-back with damn good jokes and they come at a ferocious pace with an excellent hit/miss ratio.  Of particular note is the film’s lack of reliance on pop culture references – the frequent DreamWorks fall-back during their darker days.  Here, they are limited to one running gag where Dave names his subordinates in such a way that shouting combinations of names in quick succession equals names of actors.  Now, this is the same gag that Escape From Planet Earth did earlier in the year (much to my derision), but the film stretches this to its absolute limits until the joke becomes a joke itself – “Kevin!  Bake on!  We’re going to need that victory cake!”  I mean, they’re still major groaners, but at least there’s meaning behind them besides, “Reference!  Laugh!”

Other than that, the jokes are of the ridiculous silliness variety, albeit silliness rooted in character work.  There’s no random silliness for random silliness’ sake.  The “River dance!” gag is based on the Penguins believing Shanghai to be Dublin, for example, whilst Dave’s attempt at a video call works both on the base level – the increasing frustration of the team, the mundanity of the situation – and a character level – the guy may be competent with evil plans but he is utterly useless at pretty much everything else – and there are a pair of gags in the film’s final third involving The North Wind and a giant explosion that work extra-well because of Classified’s prior characterisation.  There is also a bunch of toilet humour, mostly in the form of pure groaners, but the film’s rapid-fire pace ensures that a gag that doesn’t work will be followed up by five or so that do soon after.

Also, the film openly calls out how irritating “I Like To Move It” and “Afro Circus” are during our first present-day scene, and I am perfectly fine with pandering when its aimed at me and completely deserved.

Since Penguins Of Madagascar is primarily a comedy, I’m resisting awarding it top five-star honours for now – because pure comedies, ones like this, I also judge on how a second viewing treats them – but I can still comfortably place this film in the highest echelons of the year’s animated films.  If The Lego Movie is at the top of the pile, and The Nut Job resides in Sub-Basement 5, then Penguins is currently sharing the number 2 slot with My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks and that number 2 slot is just a whisker away from The Lego Movie.  This is an incredibly funny, incredibly fun, surprisingly heartfelt animated film, and living proof that not aiming for the stars does not automatically mean “cheap creatively-bankrupt piece of crap” and does not mean that trying is optional.

2014 has been a really miserable and disappointing year for animated features.  Penguins Of Madagascar proves that we can have it better and that we don’t need to re-invent the wheel in the process.

Callum Petch is heading into twilight, spreading out his wings tonight.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!

The Unbeatables

Muddled, poorly paced, and saddled with an atrocious English dub, The Unbeatables is a sloppy, bargain-bin effort.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

unbeatables 2This is a tricky one to review, folks.  See, what the ads have been hiding is the fact that The Unbeatables (incidentally, my spell-checker would like the head of whoever came up with and signed off on that name) is actually a foreign film.  Argentinian, to be exact, by the name of Futbolín (in Spain) or Metegol (in Latin America), and the version that’s been released in UK cinemas this weekend is a UK-specific dub.  This means that it makes it harder for me to confidently assign blame for this movie.  How much of it is the fault of the original film itself?  How much is the fault of the script used for the dub?  Can I really call the animation cheap-looking when the film is actually the most expensive Argentinian film ever made?  Stuff like that.

I mean, make no mistake, this is a bad film and I am still confident enough in my reasons for why it is so bad that I am going to spend the next 10-or-so paragraphs bashing it relentlessly, but it shall be done with a permanent tinge of regret.  Of uncertainty, maybe a bit of guilt.  Much like Khumba: A Zebra’s Tale from earlier in the year, The Unbeatables is at least trying which makes it failing and my writing of this resultant negative review an act that causes me a tiny bit of sadness.  It’s not The Nut Job, a film that truly deserves the bile that I spewed its way for it not once trying, is what I’m getting at.  The Unbeatables (OK, seriously, that name is terrible and I can’t believe it got through an entire company of people) is clearly trying… one of its biggest problems, though, is that it’s never clear as to what exactly it’s trying to be, besides a movie.

Our plot concerns Amadeo (Rupert Grint), a boy who lives in a tiny village, nurses a crush on Laura (Eve Ponsbury), and whose only special talent in life is that he is a whiz at table football.  One day, he beats the town bully at a game which causes the bully, who is skilled at actual football, to fly into a fit and swear vengeance upon the town because… he’s a jerk, I guess?  Anyways, years pass, Laura has become friends with Amadeo (but not his girlfriend like I thought she was for a good hour and ten of the film’s run-time) whose standing in life hasn’t really changed, he still spends his evenings hanging out in the bar playing foosball and reliving the night he beat the bully.  Then the bully returns, now a world-famous footballer rechristened Flash (Anthony Head… that’s not a joke, they really did cast Anthony Head in this role), buys the deed to the village from the mayor and plans to tear it down because… he’s a jerk, I guess?  He takes Amadeo’s foosball table from him (he desperately wants the players on it for really, really stupid reasons), “kidnaps” Laura, and leaves the village ready for destruction.  But just as Amadeo is on the edge of despair, his foosball players reveal themselves to be living creatures and he sets off to rescue Laura, the other foosball players and the village from Flash.

So, here’s the thing, this film seems permanently confused about what it wants to be.  From that description, one gets the feeling that it’s supposed to be about Amadeo getting over that one night, moving on with his life and leaving his obsession behind.  It’s an idea the film itself seems to believe in to begin with, as well, the foosball players are all very selfish, self-centred twits who operate on a sexist “bros-before-hos” mantra with Amadeo, like this is all set-up for both their character developments and Amadeo realising that he should move on with his life.  Except nothing ever comes of that.  It’s not even one of those things where it’s clearly not building to anything, I get the feeling that this stuff was actually planned but then the ending of the arc was literally just cut out at some point in a later draft and nobody went back and rewrote the rest of the film to remove its groundwork.  So there’s all this build-up that just stops.

And as for the foosball guys… you honestly could just cut them from the film and nothing would be different.  Despite being the central gimmick for the film, they’re actually rather pointless in its overall picture.  They only interact with each other and Amadeo, they don’t actually play in the final game (Amadeo recruits some of the village people for that), and I thought they might have been setting up a twist where it turned out he just imagined them being alive as a way for him to work up the confidence to be the hero or something but nope.  The end of the film rolls around and no such twist occurs.  I think I’d actually prefer that scenario, in all honesty, as their involvement in the final game is negligible at best and I feel that explaining away their bigger touches in it as accidents or what have you would have been much better for its moral about the power of football.  Besides, it’s not like we’d end up losing some world-class characters or anything, the extent of their characterisations are the funny voice that they’re given and the borderline racist or just plain stereotypes they’re saddled with.

These are just two of the ways in which the film is weirdly muddled and uncertain (I haven’t even mentioned Laura; prior to the final game, there’s a recruitment montage where they come up a player short and it seems like they’re going to put Laura in, but then they just get a random old woman with a moustache).  It all reeks of a script and story-structure that’s several drafts away from being complete, or one that changed halfway through, or one that mistakenly believed that all animated films need to be aimed at kids in some way; especially odd seeing as co-writer and director Juan José Campanella’s last film was the Academy Award-winning The Secret In My Eyes.  As a narrative, it’s all over the place.  Tonally, it’s all over the place; Flash, in particular, should be a funny smarmy villain who’s only really effective on the pitch, and he kind of is, but then he attempts to sexually assault Laura (you know, good clean family fun) before going right back to being simpering, petty and ineffectual whenever a football isn’t involved.  Pacing is a mess, too, this is a film that lasts over 100 minutes yet doesn’t actually get to the really obvious point for a full hour.  In place of narrative momentum, we get extended sequences devoted to the foosball players who, as previously established, are completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things and who aren’t funny enough to make up for that fact.  Actually, let me correct that, they’re not funny period.

Animation-wise…  I feel bad saying this, again I really do because a lot of money was sunk into this thing relative to the country, but this one looks bad.  It gets the detail of the foosball players excellently, scuff marks and worn colours and just general decay are very well displayed, but everything else is poor.  Character designs are both distinctive (primarily lanky, angular and honestly not-all-that pretty) and derivative (which is what happens when you come up with about three or four human designs and practically palette-swap the rest), animation is frequently jerky which would work great for the foosball players except that they instead move too smoothly, motion-blur is excessively deployed to hide corner cutting in the animation, the size and proportion of various objects and characters in relation to one another are rarely consistent, lighting and shadows aren’t convincing (bits of characters that are supposed to be shaded are frequently just plain black), shot geography often makes no sense…  I know that everyone was clearly trying their best, but it pains me to say that their best simply wasn’t good enough.  This is not a good-looking movie.

The dub, meanwhile, is one of the worst I have come across.  Re-written and translated lines often don’t actually match mouth movements, there are many, many instances where there will be great pauses in the dialogue but the mouth will keep moving or the voice actor will rush to deliver the rest of the line.  Localisation, what little there is, often makes reference to English football teams despite the film clearly taking place in an Argentinian village.  And as for the performances?  Hoo, boy.  Flat, lifeless, wildly mis-delivered, poorly directed, occasionally bordering on unlistenable…  The best performance, otherwise known as the only decent one, is Jonathan Pearce who plays an off-screen commentator in the final game and, despite this being a likely low-paying dub job for a film that nobody will remember in this country after this opening weekend, acts like he’s commentating on a real football match.  It’s full of life, energy, passion, the work of a man either desperately trying to will some of this film to work or a man who just cannot half-ass a job that requires him speaking into a microphone.  No exaggeration: everyone else is terrible, he is great.

The Unbeatables comes alive once and that’s for the final game.  It contains the one genuinely funny gag in the entire run-time, its one successful play for heart and is a decent love-letter to football.  It’s extremely generic, including its outcome which, despite attempting a mild subversion, will surprise no-one who has seen their share of underdog stories, but it does eventually work.  For those keeping track, that’s a total of five minutes out of 100-odd where the film becomes watchable or engaging.  The rest of the time, it is endlessly dull above all else.  I can’t even see kids finding it particularly funny or entertaining, unless they’re the kind that like funny voices and borderline racist stereotypes (if anyone else was in the screen, I’d tell you what they thought, but there wasn’t anyone else).  A lot of effort has been put into The Unbeatables, enough to make me feel like I’m kicking a puppy to death as I type out each one of these words, but it can’t disguise the fact that, in a year that has seen no shortage of dreadful animated films, this is a film that lands right near the bottom of the year’s animated output.  It’s so bad that I can practically guarantee that even seeing it in its native language, where I imagine its cast aren’t so clearly phoning it in, would have me saying the exact same things.

There are a million better animated films on the market, folks, and they all deserve your time more than The Unbeatables does.

Callum Petch is bored to tears.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

The Road To El Dorado

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

This year, DreamWorks Animation turns 20.  In celebration, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full on retrospective treatment.


The Road to El Dorado Poster03] The Road To El Dorado (31st March 2000)

Budget: $95 million

Gross: $76,432,727

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 49%

1999 was a bad time to be anyone in animation not working for Disney.  Not in terms of quality, sweet merciful Maker no!  1999 gave us Tarzan, Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant, Fantasia 2000, Doug’s 1st Movie, Wacko’s Wish (the direct-to-video Animaniacs movie that not enough people give due credit to), the Dexter’s Laboratory TV movie Ego Trip, and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.  That is the kind of embarrassment of riches that proves that today’s animated landscape can do much, much better.  Quality-wise, it was a near-untouchable year.  Financially… ever been stuck with a group of people in a factory as the place burns to the ground around you but you’re all still working as hard as you can because you just know the boss is going to fire you if you’re not pumping out quality products, even whilst your livelihood is going up in smoke before your eyes?  I’d imagine that being somebody who worked in feature-length animation in 1999 was kind of like that.

1999 was the year of bombs.  Tarzan made money, Toy Story 2 made money and South Park rode a nice wave of “AN ANIMATED FILM THAT SAYS THE F WORD?! WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!” to relatively decent financial success.  Everything else severely underwhelmed and most bombed hardFantasia 2000, primarily hobbled by Disney’s… interesting release strategy, only made a $10 million profit.  Doug’s 1st Movie opened in a landscape free and clear of any animated fare and still only made $5 million opening weekend before proceeding, like everything else released in April of 1999 regardless of whether they shared the same target audience, to be crushed by the enormous popularity of The Matrix (although I should point out that its planned direct-to-video nature meant that it actually closed after nearly quadrupling its budget).  The excretable The King & I (because even 1999 had to have one outright puke-stain) failed to make back even half of its miniscule $25 million budget.  And The Iron Giant, primarily thanks to incredible mismanagement by Warner Bros.’ distribution arm (rushed late Summer release with next to no advertising), crashed and burned at the box office so spectacularly that it all but shut down Warner Bros. Feature Animation (the only reason it didn’t is because the live-action/animation hybrids Osmosis Jones and Looney Tunes: Back In Action did even worse).

2000 would end up just as bad and, in addition to a pair of very notable Disney bombs in 2001 and 2002, spelt doom for traditional animation in feature-length films, but we shall address that situation fully in a month’s time when we reach it.  For now, let’s return to DreamWorks.  1998 was a very good year for the company with both of their debut films releasing to large box office success, critical adoration and, in one instance, an Academy Award.  Unfortunately, the previously-mentioned competitive desires of its CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg had left the company without a release for 1999.  The plan was for Antz to open in March of 1999 and for The Road To El Dorado to release in late ‘99.  Neither scenario came to pass, Antz due to the A Bug’s Life feud which I am officially done referencing in this series as of now, El Dorado because… well… production on this film was “troubled,” let’s put it that way.  Reports of changes of directors, changes of tone, changes in intended audience (this started off planned at a PG-13 level) changes of story (which is absolutely killer mid-production in animation as anybody with a brain can tell you) and that many of the people who were working on The Prince Of Egypt were also working on this at the same time paint the picture of a film that had sealed its own fate long before release.

Oh, and then there’s the trailer.  Tell me, does this look like the kind of film that you must go and see with your kids opening weekend?

So, unsurprisingly, the film opened soft in the first weekend of April: second place with $12 million.  And though it held rather steady over the following month (rarely dropping over 30% between weekends), it wasn’t a strong performer during the week and soft drops mean little if you opened poorly to begin with.  It closed at nearly $51 million in the US, half of what The Prince Of Egypt was able to accomplish just fifteen months prior, and took only half that in foreign markets.  To date, it is the only DreamWorks Animation film to not make its budget back.  Critics, meanwhile, weren’t kind.  They lambasted its generic looks, its safe and edgeless humour, its formulaic plot, the fact it it’s lightweight and has little going on thematically and, in one bizarre case from Empire magazine, the fact that the two lead heroes seemed more in love with each other than the woman that comes between them (in fact, it’s actually been rumoured that the original plan was for the film’s leads to be lovers with one another, before being dropped because this was the year 2000 and such a move was, and still is unfortunately, considered commercial suicide).  Plans to create a whole franchise out of the film were very quickly scrapped and history would seem to write this one off as complete and total failure.

History would be wrong to do so, though.  See, 90% of the time, films that are both critical and financial duds are duds for a reason.  But, on that rare other 10% of the occasion, they end up unfairly maligned and being bewildering passed over at the box office.  They’re gems that never really got a chance to prove themselves.  And I think I know why such a fate befell El Dorado.  See, critics adored Antz because it tackled weighty themes and they adored The Prince Of Egypt for being an epic realised in animated form with a tone befitting such ambitions.  Past DreamWorks Animations were, in a way, making a purposeful play for critical praise.  El Dorado instead was aiming to be a swashbuckling adventure throwback, a sort-of road trip flick, a buddy comedy and a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, all mashed-up and fed through the lens of a kiddie-fied version of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.  It’s not trying to be deep, it’s not trying to be weighty, it’s just trying to be fun.  Of course, DreamWorks had proven themselves to be more ambitious than this, so critics were going to see this as a step back.  No wonder they were so hard on it.  Marketing, meanwhile, took the lighter tone to mean a license to aim at the youngest kids only, despite the film’s humour hemming closer to buddy comedies that are more enjoyable by older kids and especially parents.  No wonder most people stayed away.

It’s all especially a shame because The Road To El Dorado is a really good movie.  Fun is a rather undervalued commodity by a lot of people, but El Dorado has it in spades.  Real fun, proper fun, not the kind of “fun” that Transformers and its ilk traffic in.  This is a film that moves fast, where barely a minute goes by without something funny happening in some way, where proceedings are kept super lightweight and anything that threatens to bring that mood into something darker is near-immediately distanced and the party is back on.  It’s a film that wants to show you a good time, for you to sit back and let the witticisms, chase scenes, cons and overall silliness just wash over you.  And it owns that totally, which is why it works so well.  Plus, you know, the buddy dynamic is dead-on and excellently pulled off.

If you’re a regular visitor of the site, you’ll be aware that I saw and reviewed The Nut Job this past weekend.  I bring this up because El Dorado’s leads are rather similar to the lead in that film: they’re selfish, jerk-ish criminals who only look out for one-another and have little time for performing good or heroic deeds, but who eventually grow consciences for various reasons (Miguel due to bonding with the people of El Dorado, Tulio due to falling for a young native woman by the name of Chel who wants in on their scam) and end up risking their big scores to do the right thing.  In The Nut Job, this approach fails totally and just ends up creating an unlikeable dill-weed whose late-game change-of-heart rings false.  But it ends up working for El Dorado.  Why?  Well, one of the reasons comes from the fact that the two don’t remain jerks until the 80% mark, the film does a very good job of showing them slowly developing a genuine care for the city they plan on robbing.  If you’re going to do character work, you need to actually keep at it throughout the film, make it a thing whose progress you can actually track, and El Dorado does that very well.

The other reason is because El Dorado’s leads, despite being con artists attempting to swindle a mythical city out of their riches, are extremely likeable and entertaining guys.  You can do less-morally inclined lead protagonists, but if you want us to actually like them you need to make them entertaining (there is a very good reason why Guardians Of The Galaxy just made all of the money, after all).  El Dorado was created with the intention of making the show-stealing wacky, witty, and less clean-cut sidekicks that you normally see in animated films the lead characters and it works gangbusters.  These are two extremely funny guys whose frenzied life-partner dynamic is nailed totally, by both the script and their voice actors.  Tulio is Kevin Kline, so this outcome should surprise no-one who has seen A Fish Called Wanda, Miguel is Sir Kenneth Branagh which, again, should mean that this outcome surprises no-one.  They, in a rare case for animated movies (schedules and all that), recorded their dialogue together at the same time in order to better sell the rhythm, cadence and delivery of the material, improv in places and, overall, just better capture the chemistry the pair are supposed to have.  If you’re wondering as to whether it worked or not, here is the second half of the first scene the duo appear in.

They are a fantastic comic duo whose every bicker-filled interaction is hilarious, so the fact that they don’t start the film as paragons of virtue doesn’t matter.  They’re selfish and terrible, but they’re endearing.  They’re entertaining, and the fact that they’re entertaining is what makes it easy to care about them and to enjoy spending time in their presence long before their character arcs and development kick in.  If a character is entertaining or interesting to watch, the audience won’t mind the fact that they’re not stand-up folks and, thusly, your attempts to get them to care about the character will work superbly.  And so it goes here.  The dynamic the duo share is expertly conveyed, that sense of how much their partnership matters to one another being why its eventual crumbling carries some actual emotional heft and why its eventual rebuilding leads to a finale that can leave viewers with smiles for days on end.

Since it so effortlessly nails the buddy dynamic of the equation, the rest of El Dorado basically falls into place without much of an issue.  The whole movie, which lasts a brisk 90 minutes with credits, moves at a phenomenal clip, enough to let the fun of the whole adventure easily take one over but not so much that it screws up the pacing of the character arcs or the quieter scenes.  Action scenes are breezy and filled with fun little character cues to keep them from just being spectacle.  The comedy is of a very high standard; most of it, after all, coming from anything our two leads say or do but still finding time for some great pieces of physical comedy or silent eye-rolling snarking from Altivo, the horse that ends up inadvertently tagging along with Tulio and Miguel.  Chel (voiced with maximum sass and snarkiness by Rosie Perez) doesn’t get much to do but is a very fun compliment and foil to the dynamic of the two leads, and El Dorado’s high priest Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante) is a good villain because the film knows how to pitch him; threatening when necessary but with a pathetic-ness and radical-to-a-fault devotion to human sacrifices that it can mine for comedy.

That being said, there are two little snags with El Dorado that can’t be traced back to its intended “Hey, folks!  We’re here to help you have fun!  Let’s all have all the fun!” nature.  The first is the animation.  It’s not bad, a large quantity of laughs come from a fantastic set of choices in regards to facial expressions, character poses and well-timed movements and framing.  What it is, though, in terms of raw quality, is average.  The colour palette is a bit muted, the scale never seems to be quite as big as the film wants it to be, there’s a lack of detail going about the backgrounds and props, and character designs themselves (with the exception of the lead duo and the “yes, they really did manage to get away with a PG for this” design for Chel) are rather uninspired and flat.  More problematic are the CG enhancements which are frequent and most have not aged well at all; the one decent one is early on with the barrels that the duo hide in.  Almost all of the gold is rendered in CG, with the team apparently writing an entirely new piece of software because they wanted the gold to look gold instead of a shade of yellow, and it just looks phoney.  Again, the film doesn’t look bad, especially where it counts for the comedy, just average and it’s especially bewildering since the film cost $25 million more than The Prince Of Egypt did and that still holds up as, in my opinion, one of the best looking animated films ever released 15 years on.

As for the other snag?  Well, this may get me lynched by some people, but the songs aren’t great.  I know, I know, “How DARE you insult the work of Elton John and Tim Rice!”  Look, their songs for The Lion King are iconic and exceptional, some of the best ever committed to a Disney film (and we all know that is saying a lot), I am not disputing that.  Unfortunately, that means that I have high standards for them, especially so when all of the ads heavily trumpet the fact that El Dorado has six new songs by the duo, and the songs in this film aren’t even in the same country as those standards.  They’re all just really, really forgettable and they really break up the pacing of the film.  Most of the time they back montages, which is understandable, but they end up causing the montages to run for way too long, as they kinda just kill time until the song finally winds itself up.  “Friends Never Say Goodbye” is a particular offender of this and also isn’t helped by being very noticeably on-the-nose lyrically.  They’re not terrible, they’re just highly unnecessary, over-long and not good enough to make up for those facts.

The Road To El Dorado, like many actually great films that go unappreciated by critics and the general public at the time of their release, has managed to attain a sort of cult classic status on the Internet, where the art of animation and cartoons are taken very seriously indeed, and I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t relieved at that development.  It really does deserve a fairer re-evaluation by people, people who realise that a fun rollicking buddy-focussed adventure romp isn’t something to look down on and who haven’t been turned off by poor marketing (it even seems like some people at Disney were paying attention; think of Flynn and Maximus the horse in Tangled).  It doesn’t set any worlds on fire, it’s about as deep as the shallow end of a kiddie pool, and its animation isn’t exactly world-class, but The Road To El Dorado is damn great at what it aims to do: be fun.  It perfectly nails down the core relationship between Tulio and Miguel and, as a result, the rest of the film and the fun effortlessly slot into place to create a silly, breezy and highly entertaining 90 minutes.  It has no pretensions at being anything more than it is and I really appreciate and admire that kind of honesty in my films.  Honesty that I’m going to borrow because, frankly, the reason I really enjoyed this movie, and why it is way better than reputation suggests, is simply the fact that it is a tonne of fun and, sometimes, that’s all that one wants.  It’s a shame that audiences and critics circa 2000 didn’t seem to.


An undeserved failure with critics and the general public, El Dorado may have caused Katzenberg and the staff at DreamWorks Animation to get a little hot under the collar about their possible long-term staying power.  Fortunately, this was not the only film that they were involved in in the year 2000 and their next film, co-produced with a cult British animation studio, would give them the financial and critical praise that El Dorado lacked.  The animation studio: Aardman.  The film: Chicken Run.  Next week, we’ll take a good long look at the first of DreamWorks’ three collaborations with the creators of Wallace & Gromit.

A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!

Callum Petch got a taste of love in a simple way.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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)!