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Non-Review Review: UglyDolls

UglyDolls exists in the “uncanny valley” of modern children’s animated films.

Films like UglyDolls are a reminder of how profoundly Pixar has altered the cinematic landscape, and shifted expectations in terms of what audiences – young and old – expect from these sorts of films. Most obviously, the basic premise of UglyDolls echoes that of Toy Story; in much the same way that, say, The Emoji Movie mirrors Inside Out. This is a film about sentient toys trying to find an existential justification for their existence, often defined in terms of their relationship to a child. UglyDolls is a movie aout misfit toys cast out from the factory assembly line, wondering if they will ever be worth of love.

All dolled up with nowhere to go.

To be fair to UglyDolls, it is much better than The Emoji Movie. At the very least, UglyDolls understands that the film needs to be ordered around a strong central theme. UglyDolls has a solid conceptual basis, a familiar children’s movie allegory, and a very straightforward narrative structure. That said, although somewhat less crass in its materialist ambitions than The Emoji Movie, the film feels cynically calculated in other ways. The casting of performers like Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Janelle Monáe and Blake Sheldon seems designed to move the film’s soundtrack album. And the premise is obviously toyetic.

Still, UglyDolls comes closer than most of these sorts of films to working, largely failing because it ultimately underestimates the maturity and intelligence of its target audience.

A glass apart.

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Non-Review Review: The Angry Birds Movie 2

The Angry Birds Movie 2 is a mess, a film that seems uncertain of its own target audience.

Like the original Angry Birds Movie, the sequel feels like something a throwback, an animated film that evolutionary leap that Pixar brought to computer-generated animation during their peak in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Other animated studios have come to embrace the sort of sophisticated storytelling that elevated those iconic and beloved Pixar films, most notably Dreamworks in projects like Kung-Fu Panda or How to Train Your Dragon.

Cool customers.

In contrast, both The Angry Birds Movie and The Angry Birds Movie 2 feel displaced in time, or perhaps even a glimpse sideways into a world where Wall-E and Up never happened, so Shrek and its sequels still provide a template for storytelling in computer-generated animation. The Angry Birds Movie arguably made a better deal of this than one could expect, with an approach that harked back to the cartoonish sociopathy that defined so much of twentieth-century American animation, a particularly crass and crude spin on the Tex Avery template.

There are moments in The Angry Birds Movie 2 were that retrograde influence clearly shines through. In fact, The Angry Birds Movie 2 is at its strongest when it feels more like a collection of Looney Tunes sketches than an actually narrative. Unfortunately, all of this gets muddle; the eggs that were such an important plot point in The Angry Birds Movie get scrambled, as the film jumps from extremes; broad pop culture parodies, nineties nostalgia, absurd cartoonish violence, pseudo-feminism, a jilted lover plot, commentary on modern dating.

The se-squeal.

Maybe some of these elements could work in isolation, if the production team found an interesting angle into. Maybe some of these elements could work in unison, if they were combined in small doses and with a clear over-arching design in mind. However, The Angry Birds Movie 2 never seems sure of what it wants to be or who it wants to be for, creating a strange cocktail that doesn’t serve any of its audience particularly well.

The result is something of a curate’s egg.

Birds of a feather.

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Non-Review Review: The Lion King (2019)

It’s a very strange comparison to make, but the film that most obviously comes to mind when watching Jon Favreau’s The Lion King is Gus Van Sant’s infamous nineties remake of Psycho.

This is Favreau’s second “live action” adaptation of a classic Disney animated film, even if that descriptor is somewhat misleading. It might be more accurate to describe The Lion King (which was shot entirely in virtual reality) as “verisimilitudinous.” It is designed to approximate “live action”, rather than being live action itself. On that note, the film is a technical triumph. On the level of pure craft, The Lion King is a staggering accomplishment. It is a virtual reality film that is in many ways indistinguishable from reality itself. However, the onion has even more layers to it. It is a virtual reality film approximating the reality while meticulously and faithful reproducing a beloved animated film.

Join the cub.

As such, and much like Van Sant’s Psycho, there is an element of reflexive postmodernism to The Lion King. Both the Psycho and Lion King remakes feel more like conceptual art installations than movies in their own right. They are certainly more interesting as abstract objects than as actual stories. After all, the stories in question were so closely wedded to form and context the first time around that the idea of remaking them so literally and so faithfully seems absurd from a creative point of view. As such, the process of replication becomes intriguing of itself. Both Psycho and The Lion King are incredibly faithful copies that consciously lean into their uncanniness.

Favreau’s Lion King looks beautiful, but largely feels like a limit case. It is a certain approach to modern filmmaking taken to – and perhaps pushed beyond – its farthest extreme.

Pride of the Pridelands.

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137. Toy Story 4 – This Just In (#116)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4.

At time of recording, it was ranked 116th on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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131. Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion – This Just In (#201)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Graham Day and Bríd Martin, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion.

At time of recording, it was ranked 201st on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Missing Link

Missing Link is yeti ‘nother triumph for stop motion animation studio Laika.

To be fair, Missing Link is a different beast than Kubo and the Two Strings, the last major release from the studio and one of the most striking (and under-appreciated) animated films of the last decade. Kubo and the Two Strings was a lyrical and powerful fairy tale, a surprisingly weighty meditation on big ideas like the stories that people tell and the losses that they carry around with them. Missing Link is a much lighter film than that, a piece of film that is much less consciously mature in the story that it is telling. This is not to suggest that Missing Link is shallow or superficial, or that it ignores big ideas in favour of small delights. However, Missing Link is a film that foregrounds its visceral thrills over its central themes, and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that.

Armed and dangerous.

Although Missing Link director Chris Butler co-wrote the script for Kubo and the Two Strings, it is probably more accurate to treat Missing Link as a more mature extension of Butler’s last work for the studio. Missing Link might be seen as a more reflective and introspective take on some of the core ideas of ParaNorman, a similar high-energy romp that meditated upon the relationship that exists between mankind and those things which exist beyond mortal comprehension. Missing Link is sturdily constructed from a narrative perspective, with well-defined characters who are given strong arc and a script that understands both what it is trying to say and how best to say it without tripping over itself. However, the script also understands that it is not the primary draw to Missing Link.

Whereas Kubo and the Two Strings felt like an intricate portrait drawn from the deepest pools of the animators’ imagination, Missing Link is a much more kinetic and dynamic piece. Missing Link is a globe-trotting adventure that spans from the deep blue-green forests of Washington State to the snowy plains of the Hindu Kush. It is the sort of rollicking old-fashioned adventure populated by heroes who spend a lot of time charting train lines and ferry lanes on maps, where obligatory back story is delivered against mesmerising backdrops, and where a variety of energised and imaginative action scenes arrive to a tightly-calculated schedule. Missing Link might lack the complexity of Kubo and the Two Strings, but there’s an infectious dynamism to Missing Link that neatly compensates.

Following their train of thought.

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111. Beauty and the Beast (#248)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, this week joined by special guest Andy Melhuish, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise’s Beauty and the Beast.

Once upon a time, a tired traveller came upon an isolated castle. Imprisoned by a foul-humoured beast, the man’s daughter was forced to trade her father’s freedom for her own. However, over time, the young woman comes to realise that there may something human lurking beneath the creature’s monstrous exterior.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 248th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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