animated movies

Casper’s Scare School (2006)

Casper’s Scare School is an unexpectedly pleasant short feature in more ways than one. Casper’s uncles, the Ghostly Trio of Fatso, Stinkie, and Stretch, have renounced their bullying ways since the last time we saw them in Casper’s Haunted Christmas. They’re still an unpleasant lot, but they’re not cruel, and neither is Kibosh, the ghostly ruler of monster-kind. Instead, they’re old grumps but grumps who have the best interest of their charges at heart. The ghosts’ more amiable nature is in tune with the movie’s message about kindness and friendship, and I can support any film that tries to instill these values in kids.

Casper’s problems start as they always do with his inability to scare people. In fact, he’s the one getting scared by the “fleshies”, and when his latest embarrassing fright makes it to the evening news, Kibosh decides that Casper needs to spend some time at Scare School. It’s not exactly the Hogwarts of the underworld. Instead, it’s a remedial school for creatures who need help upping their scare game. Casper’s classmates include a mummy, Ra, who has unraveling issues and Mantha, a zombie who literally can’t keep herself together. Most of the students are like Casper and don’t have a particular desire to spook humans, all except for vampire Thatch, that one kid who tries to be cool by being an absolute jerk.

The headmasters of the school are Alder and Dash, conjoined slug-things who have a very high opinion of themselves. They resent their babysitting job, which they think is a waste of their talents, and instead hope to be promoted to something more important. What they really want is Kibosh’s gig. They don’t agree with his theory of balance, which holds that creatures must scare fleshies just the right amount. Too much and the humans will rise against the monsters; too little and the humans will rise against the monsters. Alder and Dash want all the scares all the time.

After so many stories where Casper is the lone friendly ghost, it’s nice to see that he’s finally found like-minded friends. The school is a meeting place for all sorts of outcasts, and there’s an assortment of furry creatures, skeletons, and pumpkin heads. Alder and Dash and the other teachers may not appreciate his kindness, but everyone else is quick to compliment him on his polite manners. The most touching scene comes when Casper ventures into the Valley of Shadows, a place to where ghosts like him are banished and never heard from again. There, he finds a safe space, but he also realizes that he doesn’t want to hide and be bullied into exile. Casper gets a dose of courage and decides he’s willing to risk getting hurt to stand up for the happiness of others. What a dear, dear ghost boy.

The production quality is fair but not brilliant. There’s some creativity with the story details – I enjoyed the explanation about “scare juice,” i.e. sweat, and the kids cruise around in a stellar pirate ship. But the end credits boast the best animation, drawing on German expressionism, and I would have loved a more stylized rendition of this familiar cartoon.

Released: 2006
Dir: Mark Gravas, Ben Choo
Writer: Andrew Nicholls, Darrell Vickers
Cast: John DiMaggio, Billy West, Dan Castellaneta, Debi Derryberry, Scott Menville, Devon Werkheiser, Brett DelBuono, Pat Fraley, Kevin Michael Richardson, James Belushi, Bob Saget, Matthew Underwood, Christy Carlson Romano, Kendre Berry
Time: 75 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

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Megamind (2010)

There’s so much to love about Megamind. The blue, bulb-headed villain-hero (Will Ferrell) begs for our affection from the start when he rockets to Earth after his planet and his parents are swallowed by a black hole. His pod lands in a penitentiary, and he is adopted by the prisoners who teach him right from wrong, or maybe that’s wrong from right. At school, his nemesis, Metro Man (Brad Pitt), wins over their classmates with spiffy popcorn tricks while he’s branded a freak and troublemaker. Failed by the system, rejected by society, the kid turns to the only kind of life that gives him validation – a life of super villainy!

Megamind is a bad guy by default, and he’s not very good at it to be honest. After he kills Metro Man quite by accident, he realizes that he doesn’t have what it takes to sow terror and destruction on Metro City (rhymes with ‘atrocity’ if we’re going by his pronunciation). He decides to restore balance by creating a new superhero, one who can give Megamind a sense of purpose again. And again, quite by accident, he creates the superhero Titan, or Tighten if you prefer, when a hapless news cameraman, Hal (Jonah Hill) happens to walk by his lair. But Megamind’s tendency for messing things up puts a wrinkle in his plans when Tighten decides that being bad is much more of a thrill than being good. Our villain finds himself in the unfamiliar position of playing hero in order to save Metro City.

It’s hard not to throw your sympathy behind Megamind. His large crystal green eyes are begging for approval. Ferrell zeroes in on his character’s insecurities. Megamind may talk a tough game, but deep down, all he wants is love and acceptance. As one of the few people who isn’t a great fan of Ferrell’s comedy, especially the physical side, I enjoyed this animated, less spastic version of the actor. The script is witty and filled with quirky sense of humor even if some of jokes may fly over the heads of younger kids. Also the animation is a thrill, whether or not you watch in 3D.

As sympathetic as I am to Megamind, however, I found the characterization of Hal/Tighten not just awful but actively harmful. That’s because he’s not an anonymous cameraman but the colleague of Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), TV reporter and love interest of all three male leads. Hal has what seems to be an innocent crush on his very able and accomplished partner, but it becomes apparent that he is a misogynistic beast, a man-boy who feels entitled to a woman’s affections and who goes nuts when he doesn’t get them. His transformation only magnifies his destructive behavior, and some of the most offensive scenes play out like a Twitter pile on. Hal’s first move as Tighten is to woo Roxanne. Failing, he kidnaps her and nearly gets her killed just so that he can swoop in to save her. When she still rejects him, the guy explodes, bellowing, “I have powers, I have a cape, I’m the good guy!”

The movie’s messaging is confused, and ultimately the wrong one comes through. On the one hand, it mocks the notion that the superhero gets the girl simply by being the superhero. But at the same time, “the girl” is often at the center of the fighting between Megamind and Tighten, and she never controls her own narrative. Megamind has no problem using his relationship with Roxanne to bait his nemesis, never mind the fact that he gets close to her by shapeshifting into museum nerd, Bernard. At the end of the day, the trajectory of Hal’s character is this: I get the woman I want and deserve or else I will wreak havoc on society. We have enough of this corrosive thinking in real life. Why would I want to watch it in an animated movie?

Released: 2010
Prod: Lara Breay, Denise Nolan Cascino
Dir: Tom McGrath
Writer: Alan J. Schoolcraft, Brent Simons
Cast: Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jonah Hill, David Cross, Brad Pitt, J.K. Simmons, Ben Stiller
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Casper’s Haunted Christmas (2000)

Casper really is the friendliest ghost, so it’s hard to watch the kid get so thoroughly abused by his awful trio of uncles, Fatso, Stinkie, and Stretch. I’d forgotten how cruel these guys were and was shocked by their relentless bullying, which goes unchecked for longer than I’m comfortable with. I’d hoped someone would call child protective services, but the only ones called up in this Christmas special are the ghost police, and not to arrest the Ghostly Trio for child abuse.

Casper is cited for failing to scare anyone, intentionally, and has just days to meet his scare quota for the year. If he doesn’t scare at least one person before Christmas, he’ll be banished to a friendless void for all eternity. To add to the punishment, his uncles will be joining him since they’ve failed to raise him in the ways of the ghost. Kibosh, the glowy green lord of the undead, sends them off to Kriss, Mass (get it?) to get their scare on, and enlists anxiety-ridden Officer Snivel, inspector of ectoplasmic law, to oversee the matter.

There’s no reason for Casper and his uncles to end up in the most Christmas-y place in America except that this is a holiday special. The creators use every festive tool in the box to create the right mood. Folks are preparing for a performance of The Christmas Carol, the town is covered with snow and decorations, and some people have even lined their toilet seats with sprigs of holly. The merriest of the families are the Jollimores, and Casper meets Holly, daughter of Noel and Carol, of course. She mistakes him for a talking snowman, which puts a crimp in his scaring plans but he’d rather be friends with Holly anyway. His uncles, however, are more than happy to put spook up the holidays, despite having their haunting licenses revoked.

It’s hard not to love Casper, more so because the ones who should care most about him are so mean. Plus, the cuddly translucent light bulb of a boy wants nothing more than to be a good, honest kid. He is conflicted when he doesn’t correct Holly about his true nature and is worried that she’ll be scared when she learns the truth. He’s equally concerned that he’ll have betrayed her trust, something that kind of happens when Casper’s cousin, Spooky, comes to town. The Ghostly Trio hope that Casper’s doppelganger will conjure up some scares and trick Officer Snivel, releasing them from Kibosh’s threat of eternal damnation.

I have great affection for the friendly ghost, and if you have 80 minutes to spare, then this a serviceable holiday film for the family. You’ll have to overcome several things though. The truly harmful behavior by the uncles, even if they do get their due, should be put into context for kids. Also ignore the horrendous computer animation. The ghosts are surprisingly plump and squeezable, their ghostly qualities nicely rendered. Everything else, however, is animated with the grace of clunky animatronic lawn decorations.

Released: 2000
Prod: Byron Vaughns
Dir: Owen Hurley
Writer: Ian Boothby, Roger Fredericks
Cast: Brendon Ryan Barrett, Tegan Moss, Scott McNeil, Graeme Kingston, Terry Klassen, Samuel Vincent, Colin Murdock, Lee Tockar
Time: 86 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018

Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

Here’s a pressing case for Sherlock Gnomes – why is this movie so terrible? Its predecessor, Gnomeo and Juliet, was a clever, fun-spirited retelling of a work with no shortage of creative retellings, but this movie, which tries to do the same, fails to stir up any excitement. Unlike the first gnome-y installment, it doesn’t attach itself to a familiar or beloved story, and though the characters may be well known, they are drawn from two distinct worlds that don’t have a natural meeting place. The star-crossed lovers intersect with a pair of uptight detectives but never occupy one cohesive narrative space.

Since Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) manage to make it out of their first movie alive, we’re venturing into fresh territory, and this time around they are preoccupied with post-marital troubles. Now it looks like their marriage might be the casualty. Their bickering is just a lot of petty back and forth though. If it’s supposed to be something more, we wouldn’t know. We hardly see what’s gnawing at their relationship before the story jumps to Sherlock (Johnny Depp) and Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The two sleuths are hard at work trying to trying to catch Moriarty (Jamie Demetriou), a Kewpie-like pie mascot who’s been kidnapping a bunch of gnomes throughout the city. This Moriarty is low-key bonkers, more manic energy than deliberate murder-maker like his counterpart in Sherlock and Elementary. He seems content just causing chaos, which is appropriate since this is a family film. When Gnomeo and Juliet’s family and friends go missing, lovers and detectives join forces to get to the bottom of the mystery. At least that is what should happen. Instead, Gnomeo and Juliet, being simple gnome folk, lack serious crime fighting chops and instead just tag along while mostly Sherlock does the work.

I’m game for another attempt at literary mash-up, one that is more purposeful and that uses the diverse characters and plot points to support one another. But as this film shows, bringing together two popular literary universes (do we have to use that word now?) does not in and of itself generate a good or meaningful story. Even the set pieces are dodgy, particularly the most colorful one set in a Chinatown toy/souvenir shop. That Sherlock smugly announces clocks are unlucky gifts in Chinese culture does not make it less racist or self-aware. Also, if you wouldn’t have a white actress to wear a cocktail umbrella as a vaguely Asian disguise, and that’s a big ask, you shouldn’t have your white gnome to do the same. I’m only giving Sherlock Gnomes credit for its care in bringing the minor gnomes to life. When the mossy figures are unpacked and newly settling into their misty London backyard, you want to scoop them up and give them a good clean.

Alt Title: Gnomeo and Juliet 2: Sherlock Gnomes
Released: 2011
Prod: David Furnish, Steve Hamilton Shaw, Carolyn Soper
Dir: John Stevenson
Writer: Ben Zazove
Cast: James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mary J. Blige, Jamie Demetriou, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Merchant, Julie Walters, Richard Wilson
Time: 88 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Room on the Broom (2012)

How many award winning actors does it take to tell a children’s story? Seven in the case of Room on the Broom, an Academy Award nominated short based on the picture book by Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. The film features the voice talents of great character actors, including Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins with Simon Pegg narrating.

It’s tale about a witch, her broom, and her animal friends that take up all the room on her broom and is an endearing one for small children. Big people will be equally delighted. The witch (Gillian Anderson) sets off with her cat (Rob Brydon), and it, being very cat-like, is perfectly content to have the human all to himself. So when a few mishaps take the duo off course and lead them to meet new traveling companions, Cat is none too pleased. Dog (Martin Clunes), Bird (Hawkins), and Frog (David Walliams) are all eager to join the benevolent witch on her adventure, even if it means squeezing onto her compact broom.

The story is easy for even very small children to follow, and the stop-motion animation is simple without being plain. Still, it’s not visually arresting, and I wished it had a more distinct animation style. But the movie is so pure that I can appreciate it for what it does bring, and that is a measure of quietness and gentleness. Kids used to a constant fireworks of color and sound may be bored, but I loved the sparsity of storytelling. Besides stripped down visuals, there’s minimal dialogue – so much for the award-winning voice cast, but this only serves to emphasize the characters’ actions. Children will not easily overlook the genial witch and her generous heart nor will they fail to pick up on how the bickering animals overcome their differences to defeat the dragon, and the witch’s impossibly small broom. There’s nothing ostentatious about this little movie, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.

Released: 2012
Prod: Martin Pope, Michael Rose
Dir: Max Lang, Jan Lachauer
Writer: Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler
Cast: Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Timothy Spall, Martin Clunes, Sally Hawkins, David Walliams
Time: 27 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018