animated movie review

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

I acknowledge there are serious gaps in my movie education, and it’s taken me a quarter century to finally watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. I also acknowledge that Tim Burton’s world is not one I regularly inhabit. As a dippy preteen in 1993 when this movie was released, I opted, and still do, for the babes in bonnets of Austenland. But like Jack Skellington discovering Christmas for the first time, I was overcome with a childish awe by the creativity of the story and animation, both of which hold up after twenty-five years. The movie enchants in a way few holiday films do – The Polar Express is one similar exception. Nightmare approaches Christmas with an absolute childlike wonder that has you seeing the holidays anew.

The magic of Christmas comes via Halloween and trees that act as portals to various holiday realms. Jack (Chris Sarandon), having spooked his way through yet another Halloween, laments his humdrum existence as scarer-in-chief. Life has become too predictable, and in a fit of melancholy, he takes a long walk through the woods to find himself. In doing so, he also finds the tree portals, which allow him to slip into Christmas Town.

It’s a whole new world, and Jack is overcome by the brightness of it all. With a spring in his step, he marvels that the “children [are] throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads,” that kids are sleeping snug as a bug with nothing lurking under their beds. And when he’s not referencing his own experiences, he just takes in the simple stuff – chestnuts roasting on an open fire, kissing underneath the mistletoe. His enthusiasm and sheer wonderment is contagious, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his excitement, even for the commonplace and cliché.

The movie leverages its high concept for real emotion, and it’s easy to see why it has become required viewing, except for me apparently. It has a grand time deconstructing holiday traditions and includes delightful scenes of deadpan levity, all to a soundtrack that mixes strains of menace with a touch of Broadway pizzazz. When Jack returns to Halloween Town bringing great tidings of this mysterious Christmas celebration, he hopes that the residents, which include vampires, werewolves, and various ghouls, will help him stage a well-intentioned takeover come late December. Jack diligently studies up, going so far as to distill the meaning of Christmas on a chemical level. He doesn’t quite get it, nor do his fellow residents. His explanation about stockings prompts a devilish trick-or-treater to wonder if there’s a foot still inside, and they seem most confused by the lobster king, Sandy Claws. Nevertheless, Jack is determined to shake the town and himself out of this ennui.

Creeping in the shadows is Sally (Catherine O’Hara), the monster in a Frankenstein-inspired subplot. She is the creature and captive of Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey) and has an eye for Jack. It’s disturbing to watch her character in the #MeToo era, though I imagine the sexism and abuse were always disturbing. Sally tries repeatedly to poison Dr. Finklestein, who wastes no opportunity to exert his power over her and to remind her that she literally owes her life to him. While Jack is trying to break free of his tedious existence, Sally is just trying to break free.

“This is Halloween”:

“Jack’s Lament”:

Jack discovers Christmas in “What’s This”:

“Kidnap Sandy Claws”:

“Making Christmas”:

“Oogie Boogie’s Song”:

“Sally’s Song”:

“Finale/Reprise”:

Released: 1993
Prod: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Dir: Henry Selick
Writer: Caroline Thompson
Cast: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glen Shadix
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

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Trolls Holiday (2017)

I’m not embarrassed by my sixth grade Trolls collection, but I also wasn’t nostalgic for the fad’s return in movie form a couple years ago. So it caught me off guard when those ugly, naked, neon-haired dolls sang and danced their way into my heart. Now they’re back for a bite-size holiday special, though holiday is a loose term.

Basically the trolls will celebrate anything – socks, party foam, getting slapped in the face – and they want to spread the holiday cheer. Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) is especially eager to show her neighbors in Bergen Town how to live it up. You see, ever since the Bergens gave up Trollstice, their troll-eating festival, they haven’t had much to look forward to. Sure, they’re no longer blood thirsty murderers, but what’s to fill that void?

In parachutes Poppy and her gang with some ideas. No one is near as excited as she is about, well, anything in life, but the Trolls are a happy species (?) and they agree that they could teach the Bergens a thing or two about joy and sparkle, lots of sparkle. They mount a literal in-your-face song and dance for now Queen Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) and King Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), hoping the royal couple will adopt one of the Trolls’ many holidays as their own.

It turns out that the Bergens aren’t really into all that though. Mosh-a-shan-a, in which everyone jumps around, is not their thing. Neither is Tickle Day, a chance to get tickle-attacked by furry green spiders. Balloon Squeal Day gets a definite thumbs down. There’s a lot more there, about a kajillion by Poppy’s count, and kids and adults with a kid’s enthusiasm will appreciate the bonkers creativity on display. It gets to be a bit of an overwhelming pile-on though, which is exactly the point.

It becomes too much for Bridget and she kicks out her best friend, but in the nicest way possible because she’s super sweet. Poppy, smarting from the rejection and not quite seeing why her good intentions aren’t universally loved and accepted, goes into another funk. Once again, it’s up to her perceptive pal, Branch (Justin Timberlake), to sing her back to her good senses, and when he does, oh, the celebration!

There is so much fun and heart in this tiny special, and I love every second of it. I mean, a caterpillar bus driven by a cloud man that spits out rainbow exhaust? Yes. A neon paneled outdoor skating rink? Check. Glitter everywhere? Definitely. (Though maybe the environmentally friendly kind.) Sure, it helps that the Trolls world also matches my color aesthetic, but you have to have a cold Trollstice-era Bergen heart if you don’t want to jump up and sing and dance with these guys. Kendrick and Timberlake lead the way again, and the pair are perfectly zany; she’s hyperactive and he’s still a little neurotic, because Branch is getting used to this happiness thing and hasn’t mastered the smile. Deschanel is also the dearest, purest ex-scullery maid ever.

My only issue is abbreviated song list. There are three main numbers that will get you moving, the finale “Holiday” in particular, but I’m greedy and I want more. Timberlake launches into an appealing friend-themed medley that could have lasted for a few more hours if I had my way. Even without a full soundtrack though, since this is only a twenty-odd minute special, the holiday feelings are all there. You wouldn’t even classify this as a Christmas movie; aside from a snowy Bergen Town and some ugly Christmas sweaters, you can play this any time of the year and still get the fuzzies. Ultimately, it’s about friendship, about listening to one another and loving the love we share, and this should be celebrated all the damn time.

Soundtrack sampler platter:

“Love Train” by all the Trolls:

Songs about friends by Justin Timberlake, sadly not my friend:

“Holiday” by Trolls and Bergens:

Released: 2017
Dir: Joel Crawford
Writer: Josh Bycel, Jonathan Fener
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, James Corden, Ron Funches, Kunal Nayyar, Icona Pop, Walt Dohrn, Kevin Michael Richardson
Time: 25 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: NBC
Reviewed: 2017

Joseph: King of Dreams (2000)

This small film will never be as popular as its cousins, Prince of Egypt and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which share the same animation studio and source material, respectively. But if we’re ranking Biblical entertainment, or things I can show my Catholic school students to kill time, then this would be one of my favorites. Short and sweet and with some great music to boot, even sans Whitney and Mariah, Joseph: King of Dreams does exactly what you want it to do.

It recounts the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis, favored son of Jacob and his wife Rachel and, of course, king of dreams. His parents lavish attention and resources on him, much to the envy of Joseph’s many brothers. Instead of working in the fields or herding sheep all day as they do, he gets to laze about, and that’s when he’s not also getting the benefit of an education. In addition, Mom sews him a fab coat, which is just too much for his brothers. They chuck him into a well and then sell him off to slavery.

In Egypt, Joseph’s intelligence earns him a place in a captain’s household. While Potiphar admires his industrious servant, his wife has other designs on the young, mostly barechested lad, and her advances land him in prison. Word of Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams reaches Pharaoh though, which is great because he’s been having some wild nightmares about crushed cows and zombie corn. Joseph prophesizes that famine is on its way, and he is elevated to one of the most powerful positions in the land in order to manage the coming crisis. When his long lost brothers come to Egypt looking for food, he has revenge in mind.

It’s a lot of story to tell, but there’s a lot of momentum and power in this compact plot. It packs a great emotional punch, much more so than Prince of Egypt or Technicolor Dreamcoat. I credit the music and its St. Louis Jesuits vibe. I doubt that’s what writer John Bucchino had in mind, but it will appeal to those who like 1970s-90s Catholic mass songs.

The movie opens with an exuberant number, “Miracle Child.” Joseph and his parents bang on about how he’s the best thing ever, making it easy to see why his brothers kind of hate him. But blame doesn’t settle easily on any one person. There is a lot of tenderness, mercy, and wonder too, and the song “Better Than I” demonstrates this beautifully. Joseph’s at his lowest point, figuratively and literally, and can do nothing but will his life to God. It’s a moving contrast from what he sings when he first arrives in Egypt. In “Whatever Road’s at Your Feet,” he also tries to make the best out of a bad situation, which is slavery. The buoyant lyrics and melody speak to his self-reliance though and much less to a higher power.

There are only a few things that diminish this production. One is the unfortunate casting of Ben Affleck as Joseph. I can’t tell if he’s congested or bored or if mopey is just an acting choice. I also didn’t care for the cheap and hasty hit job on Pharaoh’s dream sequence. There was an earlier Van Gogh-inspired one that pointed to the potential of the animation, which is still strong overall. These are minor grumbles though in a movie I’ve rewatched many times, and not even as a time filler for religion class. It’s moving, rewarding storytelling and one rich in love and forgiveness.

“Miracle Child”:

“Bloom”:

“Marketplace”:

“Whatever Road’s at Your Feet”:

“You Know Better Than I”:

“More Than You Take”:

Released: 2000
Prod: Ken Tsumura, Jeffrey Katzenberg
Dir: Rob LaDuca, Robert C. Ramirez
Writer: Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer, Joe Stillman, Marshall Goldberg
Cast: Ben Affleck, David Campbell, Mark Hamill, Richard Herd, Maureen McGovern, Jodi Benson, Judith Light, James Eckhouse, Richard McGonagle
Time: 75 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

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