animated movie review

Barnyard (2006)

The bovine hero in this cartoon coming-of-age story is Otis (Kevin James), a ne’er-do-well who would rather grass surf with his friends than attend to his chores. And just as this cow spends most of his time coasting from one barnyard hijinks to another, this film meanders along without much purpose. Otis confronts a personal crisis early on when his father (Sam Elliot) is attacked and killed by a pack of coyotes. He has a chance to shed his immaturity and face up to his responsibilities. Instead, he uses his freedom to take joyrides in stolen cars and host raves in broad daylight.

The film spends most of its time establishing the fact that Otis needs to grow up, something already made clear in the opening minutes. The actual growing up, however, gets pushed to the last third of the movie. Though the farm animals elect Otis to be their leader after his father dies, it isn’t until the last twenty minutes or so that he begins to feel the weight of their decision. He finally sees the necessity of having someone in charge; there’s real danger out there, whether from coyotes, snot-nosed boys, or his own misadventures. Suddenly Otis’s “every animal for himself” philosophy seems woefully inadequate, replaced instead by his father’s mantra – “a strong man stands up for himself, but a stronger man stands up for others.” One assumes this applies to cows as well.

Otis questions his ability to live up this standard and, knowing he is not the cow his father was, thinks it may be better for him to leave the farm altogether. It’s a decision helped along by an encounter with the coyotes, who prey on his self-doubt as much as they do on the hens and Otis’s little chick friend, Maddy.

I may be confusing my politics with my cartoons, but this very timely and appropriate message about leadership and about defending others even at great cost to oneself gets lost in the wackiness. Everyone says the right things but the film isn’t in a rush to follow through. Otis’s relationship with his father isn’t particularly resonant. There’s a long gap between when his death happens and when it starts affecting anyone in an emotional way.

Kids will enjoy the distractions though. While Barnyard lacks a strong narrative, it does feature pool-playing farm animals and gophers trading sneakers on the black market. When the barn changes into a bar and disco at night, even I want to join in. A few human characters pop up for laughs, none of them purposeful. The clueless farmer is a genial, benign figure. Their neighbor, on the other hand, is a nosy woman who is portrayed as a loon just because she raises hell whenever she sees Otis and the gang doing human things. She’s ignored by her husband, made to feel a fool, and driven to self-doubt despite the fact that she is right about a cow stealing her car. Not cool, Barnyard, not cool.

Released: 2006
Prod: Steve Oedekerk, Paul Marshal
Dir: Steve Oedekerk
Writer: Steve Oedekerk
Cast: Kevin James, Courtney Cox, Sam Elliot, Wanda Sykes, Danny Glover, Andie MacDowell, David Koechner, Jeff Garcia, Tino Insana, Maria Bamford
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017


Wicked Flying Monkeys (2015)

There are few things that scare a kid more than the strange creatures and happenings in the world of Oz. I mean, melting witches, hologram wizards, and do I even need to mention detachable mannequin heads (thank you, Return to Oz, for several decades of nightmares)? So it wasn’t without cause that I worried about how Wicked Flying Monkeys might traumatize a new generation of children.

Well I’m glad to say that fearsome as said flying monkeys may be, this chirpy animated movie won’t force your kids to retreat under the covers every night. Instead, it delivers a message about standing up for yourself and finding the strength to do so because of, and not in spite of, your quirks and differences. The animation is serviceable, not great, and the characters are generic, boxy creations, but it’s a fun diversion that delivers some touching emotional moments.

Our protagonist is little Ozzy, an insecure winged primate who doesn’t know how to fly. He floats around with the help of a balloon tied around his waist, much to the embarrassment of his father, Goliath. Since Goliath is also the leader of the flying monkey guards, Ozzy’s inability to perform basic flying monkey skills gets in the way of a more tender father-son relationship. That bond is put to the test when the Wicked Witch, Evilene, turns Goliath into a chicken after he tries to defend his son.

The green lady, you may recall, came to a sad, wet end in the Wizard of Oz, but in this movie, we find that the Good Witch, Glinda, has revived her and given her a second chance. Worried that her sister might use her powers to terrorize lost farm girls again, Glinda has locked all of Evilene’s powers into a magic broom to be guarded by the kings of Oz – the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow. However, Evilene, being evil, orders her minions to steal the broom back. The mission goes a little haywire, but Evilene gets her hands on the broom long enough to cast spells on the three kings and send them scattering in different directions.

Like Dorothy before him, Ozzy takes an adventure that teaches him to face his fears. The timid monkey must find the three kings and bring them back to defeat Evilene. His journey leads him to Gabby, Glinda’s niece and witch-in-training. Unfortunately she’s very much a witch in training and has accidentally frozen her aunt. Unable to seek Glinda’s help, he’s left to his own devices. If he doesn’t accomplish his mission, Oz will be lost to Evilene and his dad will be chicken soup.

Even in this magical land, people, well monkeys, are constrained by social norms too. Ozzy has no stomach for wickedness, and if it were up to Goliath, he would probably just let his kid float around with a balloon. But that’s just not the way things are. It takes our little hero to show that kindness and tenderness are compatible with strength and courage, a worthy message and one I want stamped into every child’s brain.

Released: 2015
Alt Title: Guardianes de Oz
Prod: Jose C. Garcia de Letona, Fernando de Fuentes, Jorge Gutierrez
Dir: Alberto Mar
Writer: Jorge Gutierrez, Doug Langdale, Evan Gore
Cast: Héctor Emmanuel Gómez, Susana Zavaleta, Loreto Peralta, Raúl Araiza, Jorge “El Burro” van Rankin, Steve Cannon, Melissa Hutchison, Jenn McAllister, Stephanie Komure, Ambyr Childers
Chuck Kourourkis, Jeff Minnerly, Dino Andrade
Time: 87 min
Lang: Spanish/English
Country: Mexico, India
Reviewed: 2017

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

This is what you need to know. I watched this movie last night. I’m watching it again tonight, not because it made such an impression on me that I had to go back for seconds but rather the opposite. Less than twenty-four hours later, all I remember is Michelle Pfeiffer’s seductive voice and a flying ship. It turns out there’s more to this movie, but there’s also more Master of None and House of Cards to get to, so… (I work with little people, hence the eclectic entertainment choices.)

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas should be a good movie. On paper, the idea is perfect for a family cartoon. Lovable rogue Sinbad (Brad Pitt) wants to steal the Book of Peace and retire to Fiji with his band of ethnically diverse pirates. The book is headed to Syracuse though, where it will be guarded by the king and his son, Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), Sinbad’s childhood friend. It’s not just any dusty artifact; the Book of Peace is a glowing, magical organism that somehow protects the Twelve Cities, which is why everyone is eager to get his, or her, hands on it.

Eris (Pfeiffer), the goddess of discord, has her sneaky reasons for wanting it and takes advantage of Sinbad’s greed, promising him even more wealth if he steals it on her behalf. His sudden bout of conscience forces her to do her own dirty work, however. When Sinbad gets blamed for the theft anyway, he must go to the outer realms, accompanied by Proteus’s fiancée, Marina (Catherine Zeta-Jones), to retrieve it. If he doesn’t return in time, Book of Peace in hand, Proteus will die in his stead.

In my unplanned second viewing, I appreciate that kids will enjoy this movie. There are swordfights and sea creatures aplenty, including Cetus and a frightening and fascinating island monster. The sea is formidable opponent even for a lifelong pirate like Sinbad. Viewers young and old will also come under Eris’s spell. The sultry, shapeshifting goddess oozes with evil, but the fun, tempting kind and not the scary nightmares kind.

The movie is at times visually striking. A product of DreamWorks Animation, it doesn’t have the color and lushness of Disney films, which tend to be brighter and less angular, but it borrows the same style as the studio’s earlier hit, The Prince of Egypt, and that turned out nicely. Parents hoping their kids will learn lessons in friendship, honor, and Greek mythology will be pleased too.

But for all its merits, Sinbad is simply a boring film. There’s nothing distinctive about the story or storytelling, which does little to evoke ancient Greece or its mythology. It’s also not clear how Sinbad, a character of Middle Eastern origin, gets thrown into this world, but that’s clearly no one’s concern. Pitt does a decent job. He has trouble coming up with a personality that stands out though. Sinbad is a cocky smart aleck struggling to prove himself, and this describes a lot of cartoon heroes (e.g. Aladdin, Hercules, Flynn Rider).

His two true friends, Marina and Proteus, are equally flat. Would you guess that Marina is a free-spirit who longs for the open seas but feels constrained by her arranged marriage to Proteus? Sure, she’s gets a chance to swash some buckles and defy some stereotypes. At the end of the day, however, it’s still a choice between two men who hold the key to her happiness, and the other one, Proteus, barely registers on the radar. His presence motivates everything, but his character and friendship with Sinbad need more development if he’s going to more than a rudimentary plot device.

Pfeiffer is the exception. As Eris, she’s a tantalizing and haunting presence, carving out her own corner of animated film villainy. It’s a shame the rest of the movie doesn’t quite rise to her standard. If you’re going to watch a high seas adventure, you should come out with the feeling that you’ve been on one. Instead, Sinbad fills itself with noise and movement but few true thrills and wonder.

Released: 2003
Prod: Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mireille Soria
Dir: Tim Johnson, Patrick Gilmore
Writer: John Logan
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert, Adriano Giannini
Time: 85 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

The Swan Princess (1994)

The Swan Princess, a minor animated film released at the height of the Disney Renaissance, gets off to a sleepy start. Two monarchs decide to seal their friendship and kingdoms by promising their infant children in marriage. But rather than go about this the old fashioned way and force their issue to wed, they decide to arrange yearly playdates so that the young princess and prince can fall in love, naturally. When Odette (Michelle Nicastro, singing by Liz Callaway) and Derek (Howard McGillin) come of age and do start making eyes at one another, everyone is delighted, until Derek opens his big male mouth and proposes. Awestruck by Odette’s beauty, he stares blankly when she wonders what other attributes of hers he admires. The wedding is promptly cancelled. Odette escapes into a forest where she is confronted by the banished sorcerer Rothbart (Jack Palance) and turned into a swan.

That’s when things start to pick up. The story retains many plot points of its source, the ballet Swan Lake. Odette transforms back into human form at night, when the moonlight hits the lake, but has little hope of returning to her old life. Creepy old Rothbart isn’t going to let her fly away so easily and proposes every night in hopes that he can rule the kingdom as her consort. The guy is not at all coy about his plans, because men. Odette’s only chance at freedom is for Derek to vow his everlasting love to her. Kind of mixed messages on the feminism front; girls, demand to be respected for your whole person, but when in trouble, you gotta wait for the dude to come to your rescue.

Directed by Disney alum Richard Rich, The Swan Princess sits squarely in the average range when it comes to quality. (I spotted at least two Sleeping Beauty Easter eggs for those keeping track.) The characters look like they just dashed off the set of a Saturday morning cartoon and the dialogue suggests they took the scripts with them. There is the usual motley crew of talking animals, in this case French frog Jean-Bob (John Cleese), casual tortoise Speed (Steven Wright), and a puffin. They provide some daffy moments, especially Jean-Bob, that kids will enjoy, but they aren’t memorable characters.

Some of the animation has an ethereal quality, which I liked. The forest and lake suggest a dreamy, far-off place where all sorts of magic can happen. But it also seemed like the artists focused their talents on a few set pieces and ignored other details. You might recognize the special effects, when Rothbart casts his spells for example, as something from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers television show.

Inconsistency is the key, but it also turns out to be a wonderful thing if you like your old Hollywood studio musicals. Out of nowhere bursts some showy MGM numbers, with titles like “Princesses on Parade” and “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. The brassy sound, the synchronized high kicks, the endless staircases – none of it matches the fairy tale tone of the rest of the movie. But for a few short minutes, those song and dance numbers add charge to the delicate storytelling. McGillin, who famously holds the record for most performances in the title role of Phantom of the Opera, also lends his considerable vocal power.

“No More Mr. Nice Guy”:

“Princesses on Parade”:

Released: 1994
Prod: Jared F. Brown, Richard Rich
Dir: Richard Rich
Writer: Brian Nissen
Cast: Howard McGillin, Michelle Nicastro, Jack Palance, Sandy Duncan, James Arrington, John Cleese, Steven Wright, Steve Vinovich, Liz Callaway
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Sausage Party (2016)


Those expecting a raunchy, expletive-laden comedy about fornicating foodstuffs will be pleased to know that Sausage Party delivers. Boy does it deliver. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jonah Hill – creators, frequent collaborators, and heroes to teenage boys everywhere – draw from their inexhaustible well of adult humor to bring you a movie about hot dog sex, supported by a cast of virginal buns and libidinous tacos. There’s also a massive food orgy for good measure, just in case you weren’t sure the exact tone they were aiming for. You might be surprised to find out though that the movie tries to leaven its material with thoughtful questioning on religious faith and even touches on certain political conflicts. That’s not to say I love Sausage Party or even recommend it, but you do get a little more than you paid for or expected.

Taking a cue from the many animated films featuring anthropomorphic toys and animals, this one dives into the secret life of food, an idea I imagine was shaped from the billows of weed smoke coming out of the writers’ room. The movie suggests as much in a scene where a guy thinks he sees talking food while he’s stoned. The main character is Frank (Rogen), a packaged wiener who sits suspiciously on a grocery aisle shelf and not the refrigerated section. Red, White, and Blue Day is coming up so he and his sausage mates are perched next to a pack of buns, one of whom is Brenda (Kristen Wiig). The two cannot wait to bust out of their plastic wrap and make sweet hot dog love, but Brenda, being the chaste bun that she is, fears reprisals from the food gods if they so much as touch tips, fingertips.

You see, every morning, the grocery store foods sing an anthem to the gods, praying for the day when they will be taken into the Great Beyond, which lies just past the doors. They don’t really know what goes on out there but they are “super sure there’s nothing shitty,” that it is a glorious promised land that can’t yet conceive of. This, by the way, is the tamest line in a relentless opening sequence that is equal parts shocking and hilarious. When a jar of honey mustard (Danny McBride) returns bearing horrific reports of murder and carnage, their whole existence is challenged. Most cannot fathom these stories of death by boiling, stabbing, and mashing. Frank, however, finds his faith shaken enough to seek the truth.

For a movie that features a literal douche (Nick Kroll) as the main villain [insert eye roll emoji], Sausage Party ventures into surprising territory. A commentary on faith is the last thing you’d expect these lusty vittles to inspire, and while it doesn’t delve into theological truths, it does make you think about religious behavior, how we come to a religious faith and how that dictates our morals and actions. The extended metaphor doesn’t exactly work – no one’s returned from the Great Beyond and lived to tell about it, but it does ask us to consider what motivates belief. In a fraught presidential election year, the same questions could be applied to our faith in politicians, or those posing as such. Not content to simply tackle one big issue, the movie also humorously pokes at the Middle East conflict in the form of a bickering lavash (David Krumholtz) and bagel (a perfectly Woody Allen-esque Edward Norton). The relationship isn’t revelatory but it is funny.

So smarter than expected is the conclusion here, but that’s faint praise considering that, in the end of the day, you’re still watching actual food porn. (The movie was a hair away from an NC-17 rating.) I’m amazed though not impressed by Rogen’s crew to continually seek out new and creative ways to act like teenage boys. Naturally it’s a matter of taste, and though I laughed out loud and thought more deeply than I wanted to, I’m quite happy keeping sex and intellect separate from talking wieners and used condoms.

Released: 2016
Prod: Megan Ellison, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Conrad Vernon
Dir: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan
Writer: Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
Cast: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016