Captions don’t count: In many ways, “The Secret World of Arietty” is the exact opposite of its Studio Ghibli predecessor, “Ponyo.” Both animated films are visually wondrous, as you’d expect from Hiyao Miyazaki’s studio (motto: “Bet You Ten Bucks You Can’t Notice Every Detail We Hand-Painted Into the Background of Our Movies”). But whereas “Ponyo”’s plot went far over the top (a 7-year-old boy must commit to forever loving his fish-girl friend in order to, you know, save the world from, like, bad magic or something), Arietty’s action is almost smaller than the characters who carry it out. The entire story can almost be expressed in the stillness of a tiny haiku: "Sick boy rests in bed/Espies tiny Borrowers/Must they now move? Yes." I realize that kind of smallness is exactly what Miyazaki and Co. intend, and many reviewers find it precious. Honestly, my kids and I found it a little *too* small. It’s not like I can’t appreciate such quiet, languid storytelling. I even prefer the inertia of this movie to the equally small “My Neighbor Totoro,” a movie I generally liked. (Haiku plot: "Girls see camphor tree/Lazy nature gods live there!/Where's Mei? Cat finds her.") It’s just that I’m a bit picky about my perfect balance for a Miyazaki, the right blend of arresting visuals, grand action and show-me-something story. Guess it’s time to go watch “Princess Mononoke” again.
Stronger than bamboo.
Captions don’t count: KFP2 treads boldly into territory that usually belongs only to Pixar. This soulful film swings confidently between heft and lightness, humor and pathos, which until now has been only Pixar’s playground. I’ve blogged here before about how the original KFP out-Pixar’ed Pixar that year and sent Wall-E to the rust bin of history. I’ve also been clear that I didn’t care about this sequel, because the original did its job so well … and since when has a sequel to a children’s franchise been anything other than a mediocre cash-grab anyway? Since KFP2, that’s when. Featuring fewer kung fu kicks, but more meaning, this movie also deals in one of my favorite themes: Self-determination and the notion that destiny is not in charge of you – YOU are. Panda Po comes into his own as a fully fleshed out personality, a magic combination of self-confidence and self-deprecation, of gravitas and goofiness. This is not just a great sequel, it’s a great movie.
Misses the basket.
Captions don’t count: I don’t like spending time badmouthing movies I didn’t care for because a.) making a good movie is ridiculously hard and b.) tearing down a mediocre movie is ridiculously easy. It’s enough to say that “Hop” – though a hit with my kids – is not funny enough for me to sit through it again. James Marsden does his honest best to yuk it up with a CG rabbit, but nobody says or does a thing that I found worth expending energy to laugh about. It didn’t have to be this way; I think there’s a good movie in “Hop” that never found its way out of the rabbit hole. Here’s some constructive criticism for the moment, in 20 years, when some studio opts to do the remake. ITEM THE FIRST: The Bunny Logic is unsound. Why do some characters freak out when they see the bunny while others do not? In a universe where the Easter Bunny actually delivers baskets and hides eggs unbidden, it would be an accepted fact that he exists. No one should be surprised by a magic bunny, because *someone* put all that stuff under the hedgerows every Easter. ITEM THE SECOND: Further internal logic problems: A major segment in the film involves the bunny following Marsden into a job interview and ruining it for him, because Marsden is so preoccupied with keeping the rabbit under wraps. Why does he care if the bunny is seen -- especially when he spends the rest of the movie toting the rabbit around in public? Broken logic, disconnected viewer. ITEM THE THIRD: The prologue narration gives away (and spoils) the most interesting premise of the whole film: That the bumbling human protagonist ends up as the new Easter Bunny. That’s actually an interesting twist that would have been far more fun to discover in the finale. Far, far, far more fun. I would have been surprised. Pleasantly. ITEM THE FOURTH AND FINAL: In a story about following your dreams, the main character learns he must suck it up and accept the predestination he was trying to escape. The entire story revolves around this runaway bunny rebelling against his father’s plans for him, and following his dreams as a drummer. In the end he discovers that an artist’s life is too impractical, and that he must accept the role as chief bureaucrat in a candy delivery firm (albeit in a co-chief capacity). That’s probably realistic life advice, but it’s a downer as a film for impressionable kiddies. BONUS ITEM THE FIFTH AND TRULY FINAL: I have finally reached Hispanic Ha-Ha Saturation Limit. Like Puss in Boots in “Shrek” and Featherstone the Flamingo in “Gnomeo & Juliet,” a wacky Spanish-accented character provides the requisite Amusing Dialect Humor in "Hop." This character is one of a googleplex of baby chicks in the movie, but he is the only one who speaks with this accent. Why? Perhaps it was the only way the filmmakers could figure to render the unfunny dialog slightly more laugh-worthy. Ai caramba, el hassenfeffer.
Accio characterization. Finally!
Captions don't count: At last, at long last, we get a Harry Potter movie that’s almost as fulfilling to sit through as it is beautiful to watch. Unlike past HP movies where the requisite plot-heavy scenes clocked along at a bam-bam pace, “Deathly Hallows” makes the most of its two-part structure by slowing things down so characters can breathe. The plot is no longer the boss, the heroes are. (It bears noting there’s still plot aplenty flying by, and if, like me, you haven’t read the book recently, you’ll have a bushelful of questions go unanswered.) Still, when Harry and friends have time to suffer and laugh and cope and mope, they come alive more than any other movie, and that makes the stakes meaningful. No pointless magic tournaments or Quidditch matches or high-school dances, just characters in a bad way struggling to get better. It’s also chock full of surprises like an animated fairy tale telling, some seriously sinister death-dealing and a naked Harry-Hermione slash-fic come to life. Certain story problems still stick in my teeth. (Why, in a world where anyone can drink a potion to look like someone else, aren’t there more defenses against such an easy ruse?) But on the whole I spent more time with a surprised grin than with rolling eyes.
Stylish cut above.
Captions don't count: Surprisingly more depth and wit than I expected from a Disney princess movie. And don’t be fooled: Even though the marketing campaign shows swashbuckling adventure and boy-friendly pratfalls, the meat of this story is full-on, teen-girl yearning. Which should trigger my schmaltz reflex. As should the typical self-loving scoundrel of a hero who falls in with her in meet-cute predictability. Or the adorable animal-companions-cum-comedic-relief. My eyes should have rolled out of my head and escaped the theater. And yet, they didn’t. I bought it all. And I liked it. Here’s are four reasons why: 1.) Rapunzel’s backstory is set up with the fearless go-for-the-gut instincts of a Pixar film (and it’s no accident Pixar founder and current Disney tree-shaker John Lasseter is the producer). Rapunzel’s mother nearly dies in childbirth, only to lose her newborn to a kidnapper. Then the grieving royal parents launch thousands of candle-powered lantern kites each year on her birthday -- lights that Rapunzel can see each year from her captivity. She is entranced by their beauty while ignorant of their meaning. That’s not quite “Up” levels of pathos, but it’s damn good enough to make me truly care that this wrong is righted. 2.) The animation is punchy, evocative and plum funny. I don’t know what kinds of crippled grips the animators suffered around their digital pens in achieving this, but they wrung every tic, glimmer, wince and furrow for maximum effect in each facial expression. It’s remarkable, especially when your heroine has an alarmingly high eye-socket-to-skull ratio. Rapunzel’s conflicting emotions, her heartbreak and joy, are each hung like portraits in an exhibition. The expressiveness of the supporting cast is just as crisp and humorous. 3.) The villain is the very worst kind of all: A regular human. A bad mom who belittles and whittles away at her daughter’s esteem one slight at a time. She’s no wicked witch (there’s only one spell in the whole Rapunzelverse, and it belongs to the namesake); she’s no wicked stepmother (as in the cartoonishly evil shell of a character from ‘Cinderella’); she’s only this greedy old woman who expresses something like maternal love, dripping with the kind of casual, passive-aggressive malice you’d find at a million American Thanksgiving dinners. It’s very pedestrian, very real, and so much more dreadful than a typical cartoon mustache-twirler. 4.) “Tangled” does the full Joseph Campbell with its hero mythmaking. As you might know, the author of “Hero with a Thousand Faces” identifies death itself as a key milestone in an archetypal hero’s quest, and “Tangled” delivers with gusto. One hero makes the sacrifice of life, which delivers an emotional payoff grander than any Disney fairy tale since “Little Mermaid.” And I think that’s the perfect comparison. Just as Ariel grandly opened the Era of the Disney Princess, Rapunzel closes it with a bookend worthy of the royal bloodline.
Brightest illumination ever.
Captions don’t count: If you value things of beauty, see this movie. My kids enjoyed it, but were a bit confused -- for starters, we had to explain monks and illuminated manuscripts and why Vikings were jerks. Also, the movie departs from a traditional kid-story arc: The final act isn’t about defeating bad guys, but surviving them. While the story ends on an uplifting moment where light is brought into a dark world, it still felt like a downbeat ending to the kids because the good guys don’t sit back and high five at the end. “Did we win?” “I guess…” But no matter; it will grow on them as they mature, because this beautiful work stays with you. The signature art style is built on simplified lines that belie the complexity of illumination, suggestions of which accent the backgrounds and details in surprising ways that delight the eye. Yes, I said “delight the eye.” This movie brings out my inner New Yorker critic. And it would in anybody who has a soul, too. I only regret that “Kells” had to compete against “Up” for Best Animated Film. It really could use a wider audience. See it, see it, see it.
BONUS SCREEN GRAB: The Abbot’s bedroom, bedecked in his obsessive blueprints and calculations of a wall he’s building around the abbey. Look. Look!
Fairly told fairytale.
Captions don't count: I’m a pretty big believer in Shrek -- aside from all the money he made with his first movie, I genuinely like that flick and think it will still be enjoyed in 50 years. That original movie mixed a hard-to-control and harder-to-replicate tincture of snarky comedy, sweet comedy and genuine heart. I believe the rampant pop-culture references in “Shrek 1” will be no more baffling or off-putting in a half century than your average Gilbert & Sullivan opera. (Who knows what half of those political jokes are in “The Mikado”? But damn if it still isn’t popular.) Still, there was never a “Mikado 2,” and likewise the subsequent Shreks diminished their own returns as the tincture turned a bit pasty: genuine heart (the rarest ingredient) was in short supply, throwing off the proportions of sweet comedy, and requiring the balance to come from the universe’s vast stores of blunt, unsubtle, snarky comedy. I’m happy to say the fourth movie reversed this trend, to the point where I feel compelled to take to the Internet and say a word of praise. Not that the heart has returned in force. Indeed, it’s a pretty unoriginal kick-in-the-groin that gets our hero’s journey started: Shrek is in a rut! Having a mid-life crisis! Feeling trapped by family and friends and familiarity! Doesn’t appreciate what he has! If only he could trade it all away! But the movie is rescued by a few factors: 1.) Walt Dohrn as Rumplestiltskin is a fun villain to watch. Between the voice, the impish facial animation and his little doll-bodied antics, he’s a hoot to root against. Also, he’s surrounded by a retinue of Oz witches -- come on, the Wicked Witch; one of the best-designed bad guys in the history of bad guys! This is a spiffy template of a character to work with. 2.) Shrek’s magical bargaining that robs him of his day of birth leads to a fun alternate universe that was easy to believe and fun to explore. Without Shrek, history took a dark turn, with surprising fates for all his friends. For the first time in a while, I cared about -- and remained curious about -- how Shrek was going to set things right. 3.) Bits of comedy that lingered beyond the end credits. It’s been a week, and my kids are still imitating a quick one-off line delivered from a clingy fanboy who wants Shrek to do a personal performance: “Do the roar. Do the roar. Do the roar.” The way that joke ends still makes me chuckle. So if I assume Shrek will never get his lightning in a bottle the way he did with his first movie, then I can accept that he ended his franchise with an encore worthy of an ogre.
Jolly good showstopper.
Captions don't count: I expected a junked-up, summer-movie'd Holmes, and was pleasantly surprised that while, yes, those fripperies were still persistent, there was quite a ripping tale within. I happily fell head-over-Reichenbach-Falls for this feature. A few disappointments: Rachel McAdams lacked the right amount of gravitas to play a wiley love interest who's nearly as smart as Holmes; and Holmes himself, while still up to his usual astonishing deductive leaps, intuits just One Too Far when he guesses the nature of a device found under Parliament. (I mean really, Holmes, you just took one glance at this steampunk water heater and sussed out the natal stages of wireless transmission, did you?) Still and all, a right jolly ride thanks to Downey and Law swimming in a mystery flavored like fun. Science-versus-magic is a standard story stand-off, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle himself and continuing through his detective's many iterations, but the pairing feels lively and brand new here. My wife gave a mild scowl to some of Holmes' stab-in-the-dark deductions (yes, Holmes does have a really keen … and convenient … sense of smell) but if you're steeped in his deerstalkered tradition, this shouldn't pose much of a problem. I liked especially the distancing of Holmes from a suave, uptight Rathbone-type in favor of the socially stunted, poorly bathed misanthrope whose unrelenting calculations extend even to his bare-knuckled brawling. Now THAT’s a detective worthy of a cuss like Moriarty.
A Retort extra:
Quick, you've got 10 seconds to play the final round of "What's That Object?" Annnd, Mr. Holmes has buzzed in first ... your answer, sir? Hunh. "Remote-controlled gaseous poison infuser effective only on those who haven't taken its antidote" is correct! Mr. Holmes wins again!
Capering circus noir.
Captions don't count: I'm guilty of dismissing this 90-minute documentary about that guy who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. My bad. I just didn't account for how difficult it was to sneak into that place and string a cable -- turns out the rope walk was the easy part. Amid the requisite interviews with participants of the "performance crime," the movie is filled with scenes like the one above: A re-enactment of the conspirators planning their infiltration of the roof. Yes, an arrow plays a crucial role. The thriller aspects are as fascinating as the portrait of a man consumed by a wild dream -- and what happens to all the pent up emotions and frustrations after the dream is achieved. Fascinating stuff.
Quaaludes for kaiju.
Captions don't count: If ever there were a movie premise that would own me, it's this: A documentary about an average schmoe who gets supersized by the government whenever Godzilla-like kaiju monsters threaten Japan. In his non-huge state he's a depressingly lonely bumbler, and sadly, as the documentarians follow "Big-Sato" around his empty little life, the storytelling descends from quirky-yet-slow to just plain slow. The handful of standout moments come from some truly original monster fights, especially the one pictured above. Instead of clubbing it out, the "Stink Monsters" and Big-Sato bicker like overserved strangers in a bar. But the sum total of all the character development is bupkus in the end: Wikipedia calls the finale a "hallucinogenic apotheosis," while I would call it "Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" or possibly just "goofy." I wanted to love you, Big Man, but your story was too small.