(In French, Video On-Demand, July 2017) Another month, another animated film … and lest anything think I’m complaining about quality, I’m not—most animated movies these days are consistently enjoyable. I’m actually complaining about the sameness of most animated movies. Once you’ve thrown in the anthropomorphized characters, chase sequences, montages and pop song, many animated movies all follow more or less a consistent tone. The Boss Baby is no exception, although its own internal mythology is wilder (and less credible) than most. It does play effectively with some of the current baby and parenting clichés (although, having watched it in French, I had to back-translate some material to make sense of the jokes) and makes up for innocuous family viewing. As a pre-school buddy comedy, it’s not too bad … but it does feel generic most of the time. You can file this one solidly in the average middle for Dreamworks Animation’s releases.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2017) An unfortunate collision occurred in the making of The Road to El Dorado, as an adventure film for all audiences crashed into a Disney kid’s movie. What could have been a rousing adventure tale became watered down in a series of musical numbers, kid-level plotting, easy answers and less-than-distinguished characters. At a basic level, this Dreamworks Animation production still works: There’s some fun in seeing two con artists make their way to El Dorado, being hailed as gods (albeit from someone with a Machiavellian intention) and dealing with the situation. Never mind the unbelievable coincidences required to get there: as a comedy, it works. But the musical numbers stop the movie in its tracks, the characters aren’t as distinct as they should be, much of the complexity of the story seems watered down for accessibility and kids friendliness—another rewrite could have worked wonders. As it is, it suffers from comparisons with the similarly themed contemporary The Emperor’s New Groove, which worked at a superior level in integrating Central-American imagery with rapid-fire comedy. I’m not saying that The Road to El Dorado is a waste of time—Chel’s character and her resolutely practical approach redeem much of the film—but it’s not quite what it could have been.
(Netflix Streaming, September 2016) There was a definite danger that a spin-off movie focusing on the best bit players of the Madagascar series would overexpose them, but Penguins of Madagascar surprisingly doesn’t run its subject entirely into the ground. Sure, they’re fleshed-out, lessened by their explained history, brought down by lame moments and not quite as cool over 90+ minutes than in small sketches within a longer movie, but these penguins come out of their showcase more or less as enjoyable as they were before the film, and that’s not bad. It helps that Penguins of Madagascar has a few great moments to even out the lengthier sequences. Particular note should be made about That One Continuous Shot in which the penguins jump, run and parachute down to Earth through a plane and other assorted debris. Otherwise, Skipper remains the rough voice of aggressive action, the other penguins respond ably, the film amuses itself by showcasing other animal covert agents and the action moves briskly across the globe. Only the villain seems weaker—with conflicting morals, not-cute aesthetics and a somewhat ineffectual plan, it takes a while to warm up to him, and even then not completely. Still, as an animated movie for kids, Penguins of Madagascar hits its expected targets in a frantic display of action sequences and the result is in-line with the Madagascar series so far. It could have been much, much worse, along the lines of the immediately forgettable Puss in Boots spin-off.
(In French, Video on-Demand, September 2016) I wish I had something insightful or interesting to say about Kung Fu Panda 3, but as it turns out the third instalment of this series doesn’t feel any different from the first two ones. Here, once again, we have our Panda hero getting a bit better, inspiring others and vanquishing a terrible danger. Fat jokes included. But I’ve never been able to warm up to the mildly annoying protagonist of the series, and I don’t find its central world building to be all that interesting. None are bad movies—they just don’t happen to catch my interest. Whatever nice things I have to say about Kung Fu Panda 3 aren’t particularly specific to the film itself: The animation is often beautiful (especially those set in the Spirit Realm), the individual gags often succeed and the pacing is fast enough that there isn’t much time to be bored. The kids will like it, and that’s pretty much the bottom line for any contemporary computer-animated films. I’m not particularly interested in a fourth instalment in the series, but I’ll probably watch it when it’s available. Sometimes I wonder if I should just wait until I’m in a better mood, watch the entire series back-to-back and see if my opinion of it improves.
(In French, Netflix Streaming, June 2016) While largely forgotten today, there’s a lot to like in DreamWorks Animation’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. It goes beyond the basic story-of-an-animal level to deliver a somewhat harsh take on western colonization, domestication and the relationships between Natives and Whites. The animation is beautiful, with imperfect but audacious integration of CGI and cell animation. It may be a bit too intense for very young kids (some of the action sequences are relentless, and the degree of cruelty experienced both by the horse protagonist and the native characters can be hard to bear) but it’s perfectly adequate for older kids and interesting to adults. Unusually enough, Spirit doesn’t anthropomorphize its horse characters too much (aside from some inner monologue, the animals don’t speak). It also avoids comic sidekicks and atonal comedy, making it feel somewhat more respectable than many other similar animal-centric movies for kids. Well worth discovering, Spirit is a film that almost measures up to much of what Disney had to offer at the time—and that does mean Brother Bear. Interestingly enough, Ryan Adams sings a translation of his own songs on the French-dubbed version.
(On TV, February 2016) Given my advancing age and perennial lack of coolness, I’m not really allowed to grumble and complain about the entertainment served to kids these days. But I can’t help it: While I approached Rise of the Guardians with the best intentions, something annoyed me about its Jack Frost protagonist and his portrayal as a super-kewl rebellious character (who, admittedly, learns better). It feels straight from the Big Corporate Book of Pre-teen Cultural Appropriation, and cheapens what was otherwise an interesting premise for a movie. The basic idea that various mythical figures (Santa Claus, Easter Rabbit, The Sandman, The Tooth Fairy) band together to protect kids from evil forces is interesting in its own public-domain-mash-up fashion. Elements of the characterization (Claus as a battle-hardened lumberjack figure, Sandman as old and mute) are interesting, and while the character design is a bit off-putting, there’s some invention to the film. But then walks in Jack Frost, all attitude and myopic narcissism, and he’s presented as an insufferable hero well before he gets to understand the limits of his initial personality. It doesn’t help that the film itself has the rote quality of 2010s animated film: loud action sequences (maybe a bit too scary for kids) set alongside too-busy world building. There’s probably a song or two in there as well, but Rise of the Guardians slips a bit too quickly out of mind to be sure. While not a bad film per se (even limiting ourselves to kids’ animated movies, there’s a lot worse out there), it’s a disappointment: the lead character is an irritant, and the result doesn’t seem to come close to the potential suggested by the premise.
(In French, On TV, January 2016) Keeping expectations low is one of the best ways to approach the Madagascar series. Given that the second film wasn’t particularly remarkable, most should be properly primed not to ask too much from Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. Yet viewed with this background in mind, the movie becomes almost curiously enjoyable: it helps that it leaves the jungles of Africa for the urban and mountainous vistas of Europe, joining a circus for a welcome change of pace. I’ll note, out of homegrown pride, that I really did not expect a Cirque du Soleil joke in the middle of the film (“until those French Canadians came along, drunk off of their maple syrup and cheap pharmaceuticals…”) and that it was one of a few quick laughs that the movie earned. The penguins, once again, are a welcome addition to the film. King Julian, less so. Madagascar 3 also has the decency of wrapping up the trilogy in a way that could satisfyingly end there if they wished, which isn’t bad at all. Seeing this third instalment in French sadly takes away the comfort of some familiar voices—as usual, I most miss Chris Rock’s distinctive intonations. Otherwise, this is a fairly by-the-numbers animated movie, best appreciated by fans of the series so far, but more energetic than could have been expected.
(Netflix Streaming, July 2015) The story of Moses isn’t exactly unknown, so seeing an animate film take it on seems a bit superfluous. But in the hands of Dreamworks Animation (then a brand-new studio with something to prove), The Prince of Egypt ends up being a lively, even exciting presentation of a familiar story. The integration of traditional animation with computer-generated imagery is a bit dodgy (as is the case for most animated films of that time), but the animation itself is usually solid. The songs are fine, the characters make an epic story somewhat approachable and the expected high points (the plagues and the parting of the red sea, obviously) are indeed highlights of the film. The prince of Egypt, even more than fifteen years later, compares favorably to the far more technically polished Exodus: Gods and Kings.
(On TV, April 2015) Given the success of “Puss” in the Shrek films, this spin-off prequel was as inevitable as it was likely to be disappointing. Not all supporting comic characters have enough presence to sustain a full-length movie, and so Puss in Boots is largely forgettable despite Antonio Banderas’ vocals and the efforts of the Dreamworks Animation team. Part of the familiarity is the once-again approach in poaching modern storylines from fairy-tales: Here, there’s not much Puss in Boots and a lot of Humpty-Dumpty and Jack and the Beanstalk as the protagonist gets embroiled in a heist plot. (Thankfully, the links to the Shrek movies are very, very thin –not even the settings match.) It works sporadically, just well enough to earn continued attention throughout. Much of the rest is straight from the contemporary animated-movie framework: escalating action sequences, recognizable voice cast, spirited gags and conventional storytelling. Plus a big helping of cat-related jokes. But then again, originality doesn’t really pay in developing family-friendly animated films, especially if they don’t aspire (like Pixar often does) to thematic greatness. Thankfully, Puss in Boots is light on pop-culture references, stands up on its own as a non-Shrek movie and pairing off Banderas once again with Selma Hayek, even if only vocally, seems like the right thing to do. There may not be much to love in Puss in Boots, but there is enough to like.
(On DVD, February 2015) Dreamworks Animation has always been a bit of a hit-and-miss studio: some of their films are remarkable, while others are instantly forgettable. The Croods falls somewhere in the middle, its uneven humor bolstered by inspired moments of lunacy but dragged on by an over-eagerness to stuff sentimentalism in a film that doesn’t need it. As a premise, the idea of following a prehistoric family as their learn modernity and escape a continent crumbling into pieces isn’t too bad: the anachronisms are part of the fun, and the setting offers a lot of colorful possibilities. Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone deliver standout vocal performances, but it’s really the animation that’s worth seeing, with fantastical creatures and dynamic camera moves working to deliver something interesting. Some sequences work well, usually when the film stops worrying so much about sentiments and an overused plot structure: The Croods is best in absurdist humor and fast-paced montages. It’s when it keeps harping on its basic themes that the film slows down to a crawl and gets annoying. Still, the film does have themes and emotions, which is more than could be said of other films in the Dreamworks Animation filmography. The Croods is watchable enough, and works even better as a family film.
(In theaters, December 2010) Comic-book culture is so pervasive by now that films such as Megamind can just file the numbers off the subgenre’s most familiar archetypes and run with the concept. The derivative nature of such premises is obvious –but given that derivation is Dreamworks Animation’s specialty, it’s perhaps better to be happy at the end result than to expect fresh premises and concepts from them. Surprisingly enough, Megamind actually has one or two things to say about super-villainy and its need for super-heroism: Our protagonist isn’t evil as much as he’s misunderstood and bored: by the time he’s had a few weeks to rule over Metro City, his lack of challenges is such that he sets out to reinvent a superhero… with hilarious results. The action set-pieces have a welcome kinship with Monsters Versus Aliens; unfortunately, the angular character designs owe more to the Madagascar films in that they are distinctive but not particularly appealing. Fortunately, most of the film feels bright, bold, clean and contemporary: The action sequences have a fondness for large-scale destruction, and the film moves at a pleasantly rapid pace. There are a few twists and turns: nothing shocking, but a pleasant reconfiguration of dramatic situations every twenty minutes or so. In doing so, Megamind manages to be the best think-piece about superheroes since The Incredibles and The Dark Knight, and it’s partly that vivaciousness of ideas that makes it so much fun to watch. In this context, the derivative nature of its premise isn’t as much a problem as it is scene-setting for second-order questions… and that’s not bad, especially for a film supposedly aimed at kids.