Coco (2017) Review: A Magical Odyssey of Death and Family

Coco (2017) Review: A Magical Odyssey of Death and Family

Coco is a Pixar movie. That means it has a formula. There’s a uniquely colourful world featuring an outcast who enters that world on an adventure in order to learn the value of family and believing in himself. We’ve been there before. Pixar has been there before. I guess they call it formula. The trick is how well the animation studio uses that formula in a new world, and the world of Coco is so gloriously imaginative and colourful and funny and creepy and weird that it’s easy to get lost in. It’s one of the best movies they’ve ever made for big screen, mouth-agape viewing. The thing is gorgeously mounted and so funny and fun that you barely realize you’re being set up to bawl your eyes out until it’s happening and you can’t control it. Not me of course. I don’t cry at movies, obviously. But I’m sure someone will.

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Coco (2017) – image via Pixar Studios

This time, the plucky outsider who becomes a hero is Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) a young boy who feels a passion for music in his bones, but is cursed to live in a family that won’t let him even listen to the stuff due to a family tragedy a few generations back. Miguel is determined though. He studios the videos of an old mariachi movie star named Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) with hopes to win a local mariachi contest on the Day of the Dead—things go wrong though. Through a series of strange circumstances Miguel finds himself crossing over to the land of the dead, where he’s pursued relentlessly by his dead relatives who want to send him back. Miguel wants to find his hero de la Cruz, convinced that he might actually be part of his family. Along the way he hooks up with a slapstick silly skeleton named Hector who agrees to help Miguel if he can offer help on the other side. You see, those who live in the land of the dead only exist in the afterlife as long as their relatives remember them. Hector is about to be forgotten and needs Miguel to make sure his long lost daughter in land of the living does not forget him.

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Coco (2017) – image via Pixar Studios

Whew! By the typically stripped down narrative specialists over at Pixar, that’s a lot of ground to cover just to set up the story. It introduces not just a fantastical world to the audience, but an entire culture, and does so with grace and respect. Co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina were careful to honour mythology of The Day of the Dead and as a result it’s already a massive hit down in Mexico. It works beautifully for those who don’t know the world as well. Playing on themes of memory and family and the way we can live forever through legacy. It’s not a conventional Eurocentric view of the afterlife, but one that registers deeply. The filmmakers also run wild with the neon spooky aesthetic of the Day of the Dead, creating the most beautiful and deranged afterlife since Beetlejuice. There are times when you’ll wish you could pause the movie in a theatre and study all of the beautiful design work that the animators layered in. Yet it all suits the story. It’s never style just for the sake of it. The filmmakers elegantly mix style and substance.

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Coco (2017) – image via Pixar Studios

The voice cast of almost entirely Mexican actors is strong as well, varying from the goofily comedic to the heartbreakingly tragic (often within the same performance). Like all great Pixar flicks, the film plays as a pure comedic adventure for so long that you barely notice the tracks being laid for the eventual emotional payoff. The tale is so fun and imaginative with so many delightful characters, asides, and musical sequences (somehow the screenwriters even work in a hilarious Frida parody that suits the story beautifully) that when the final twists and messages snap into place, the waterworks flow like a faucet turned immediately to full blast. The final message is a gut punch of emotion that throws all the wacky fun and glorious imagery that comes before it into stark purpose in an instant. Pixar has gotten too good at this stuff.

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Coco (2017) – image via Pixar Studios

Coco is a wonderful piece of storytelling that hits all the possible pleasure buttons with ease and grace. The only pitfall the filmmakers face is the fact that Pixar has done this trick so many times, audiences are beginning to take it for granted. Some will claim Coco is overly familiar and formulaic to the studio’s house style. They aren’t wrong, but anyone who dismisses it is being overly cynical. Sure Pixar has hit these beats before. So have others. Rarely does it work this well though. This is a special movie. One that will have something to move, wow, and amuse just about everyone. Isn’t it nice when Pixar commits to an original idea rather than sequels? It’s almost as if they should be focused on that rather than cranking out Cars movies until the end of time. Worth a thought anyway.


Liked this article and want to read more like it? Check out Phil’s take on Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day, and It! He also had a chance to sit down with Guillermo Del Toro. Check out his interview here!

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Warcraft (Movie) Review

Warcraft (Movie) Review

World of Warcraft was, at one point, one of the biggest games played consistently by people from around the world. At its peak, it managed to capture the attention of over ten million players worldwide—it was a global phenomenon. So, it was no surprise they announced plans to make a major motion picture based on the franchise lore. With The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit crushing box office numbers, people were poised and ready for a new fantasy world to jump into. Now, years after the initial announcement, a new director at the helm, and a slew of new technology at their disposal, the film finally released. Directed by Duncan Jones, Warcraft paints the world of Azeroth in striking detail, giving audiences a sense they are watching the most expensive cut-scene from a game ever. The only issue is there is no game at the end of this mess…just a sense of confusion and disappointment.

Sticking to the source material, Warcraft spends its 123-minute running time exploring both sides of the “epic” conflict between the Alliance and the Horde. This divided focus has the film following two factions; showing how they interact, grimace, and act like one-dimensional Muppets with little focus or clarity on their motivations. On the one side you have the orcs: a race of dimension traveling, green-skinned warriors. These hulking creatures are lead by Durotan, (Toby Kebbell) a chieftain and new father. Full of honour and angst, he is uncertain of the path his people have set out for them by their evil, death-magic-wielding, shaman leader, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), and wants to find a better. To ensure not all the orcs are made up of pure special effects, we have Garona (played by Paula Patton), who acts as a link between the world of orcs and men.

Warcraft (Movie) Review 4Standing up for the regal humans, we have Travis Fimmel as the battle steady Anduin Lothar, Dominic Cooper as the king and Ben Foster as the Merlin inspired Medivh. For moral grounding/comic relief, we have Toby Kebbell as Durotan: an ex-mage in training who realizes something is wrong with this new magic of the orcs. Despite having the benefit of not being CGI, these human characters are often the weakest points of the movie. Half the time they feel like they were ripped out of some mediocre Renaissance fair; the other half of the time the audience gets the distinct impression that none of them want to be on set. It is the one-note, human characters that are the cause of many of the biggest problems with the film.

Visually, Warcraft is stunning. The team managed to recreate, in great detail, all the scenes players know and love from the game, from the lands of Azeroth, to the wasteland of Draenor, to the detail in the design of each unique crc and mount. There was variety and a sense of scale and stretch that I did not think was possible to capture on the silver screen. The effects team should be commended on their ability to translate the magnitude and scope of an entirely new fantasy world through the effects they employed. Every ounce of turmoil that twists Durotan as he struggles to find a place for his race in a new world, every corrupt smile sprawled across Gul’dan’s evil face, each flash of fortitude and motherly tenacity that remained omnipresent on the face of Draka, was believable. The problem is, it was often far more believable than anything the humans where doing. It is an issue when a collection of data does a better job expressing emotion than the actual actors on screen.

The story and pacing are the other major issues the film faces. There were clearly some lovers of the franchise working on the script. There are nods to everything fans of the games hoped to see; from the way the world is depicted to the locations they visit. Visual shots of the world of Azeroth bring small callbacks to the titles in the series, with one shot even resembling an overhead strategy game with all the characters appearing as units on a map. Yet with all this, there was no clear motivation or sense of urgency for anything the characters where doing. Events seem to take place at random, with much of the beginning of the film feeling jumpy and rushed. The relationships between the characters is not developed beyond a few throw away lines about a back-story. Despite a run time exceeding two hours, the film felt rushed and missing many important scenes that could further develop the characters.

As with every modern fantasy epic, the film climaxes with an epic battle between the two armies, and as with the regrettable Peter Jackson Hobbit movies, this is where things devolve into the realm of cartoons rather than action movies. It is hard to get a sense of place or character with hordes of CGI people running, slashing, and dying for the film going audience. Despite all the chaos on screen, it still manages to have a sense of scale. The world of Warcraft never looked more impressive, even if it is ultimately shallow.

Warcraft (Movie) Review 1Warcraft is not a horrible movie. It manages to capture the scope and concept of the game in a film, build a sense of place with a fictional world never before captured in Cinema, and also features believable CGI characters. Yet with all this, the one-dimensional characters, bad acting, and poor script, make this a movie I could only recommend to die-hard fans of the series. It would be fun to revisit the world of Azeroth, but only with a script that makes sense, and a cast that actually wants to be in the film.

Final Fantasy XV News Roundup

Final Fantasy XV News Roundup

After plenty of leaks and rumours, Square Enix announced it will release the 15

th

main Final Fantasy game on PS4 and Xbox One with a current release date of September 30, 2016.

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The game was originally announced almost ten years ago at E3 2006 as Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and was re-branded as Final Fantasy XV at E3 2013.

The developer also released a trailer, “Reclaim Your Throne”, on the official Final Fantasy XV YouTube channel, which introduced players to the gorgeous open-world environment in the game. The trailer features a modern rendition of an iconic song for the series, Stand By Me, which was re-imagined by Grammy-nominated Florence + The Machine.


“I’ve always seen Final Fantasy as mythical, beautiful and epic,” said Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine. “Stand by Me is one of the greatest songs probably of all time and you can’t really improve on it, you just have to make it your own. For me it was just about bringing the song into the world of Florence and the Machine and the world of Final Fantasy.”

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Fans don’t have to wait until September to get a taste of Final Fantasy XV, as Square Enix has launched a “Platinum Demo” on the PlayStation Store and Xbox Games Store. The demo is a free download, and contains exclusive content that won’t be featured in the main game. Players will control the game’s protagonist, Noctis, “as he masters various weapons, magic skills and driving,” according to Square Enix. Anyone that completes the demo will gain exclusive access to Carbuncle, a magical creature from previous Final Fantasy games.

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Square Enix revealed Final Fantasy XV will come in three editions: standard, deluxe and ultimate collector’s edition.

The Deluxe Edition features steelbook packaging and bonus in-game content including a bonus outfit, a weapon, and a recolour for Noctis’ car. This edition will be available for $89.99.

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The Ultimate Collector’s Edition will cost $269.99, and is exclusive to The Square Enix Online Store. This edition of the game will be limited to 30,000 units worldwide and feature a hardcover art book, a soundtrack, the entirety of the contents featured in the Deluxe Edition, four extra in-game item packs, and an exclusive figure of Noctis by Play Arts Kai. This edition of the game will also contain the exclusive sixth episode of the Brotherhood Final Fantasy XV animated series.

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The Brotherhood Final Fantasy XV anime was also revealed during the Uncovered event. It will be a five episode story with an exclusive sixth episode in the Ultimate Collector’s Edition. The first episode of the series is available today.

On top of the anime, Square Enix revealed a trailer for a full-length CGI feature film focused on Noctis’ dad King Regis. The movie is titled Kinsglaive, and will release this year. It will feature the talents of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones actors, including Aaron Paul, Sean Bean and Lena Headley.

The Final Fantasy XV Uncovered event also debuted the first look at Justice Monsters Five, a mobile pinball game by Square Enix with RPG elements. The game will feature Noctis and some of the franchise’s most iconic monsters. It will launch this year for iOS, Android and Windows 10.

Final Fantasy XV will be available on PS4 and Xbox One on September 30, 2016. Final Fantasy XV director Hajime Tabata said there are no current plans for a PC release.

“Unfortunately we weren’t able to do simultaneous development on a PC and console version for XV. We had to focus on the console version and our goal was to maximize, optimize everything for the HD consoles. Once that’s done, then we will definitely take a good, hard look at PC and what we need to do, and consider all our options. But right now we aren’t decided, we’re still considering a lot of things,” Tabata told Engadget.

Inside Out (Movie) Review

Inside Out (Movie) Review

After a flurry of movies in the 2000s that somehow managed to be crowd pleasing works of animated entertainment and almost audaciously ambitious films, Pixar’s output has cooled as of late. A splat of sequels, prequels, and a token Disney Princess feature were all well made and quite profitable, but lacked the depth that defined Pixar as such a special dream factory. Thankfully, that streak is finally over. Inside Out doesn’t just feel like vintage Pixar, it has the potential to be remembered as one of the finest projects they’ve ever produced. It’s a wonderfully entertaining and colourful little high-concept comedy that packs a moral punch about how to deal with emotions that would take most adults a few decades of therapy to come to terms with.
insideoutheader1The film takes place within the mind of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias). Her mind is represented as a control room run by a collection of emotions: Joy (Amy Pohler), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Sadness (Phllis Smith). A quick prologue establishes that Joy is the leader of the group and the first emotion that Riley ever experienced. Soon sadness joined her and as the girl grew, as did the number of emotions running her control switchboard. Her memories are collected in big balls defined by each emotion and Joy has been careful to ensure that all of the core emotions that define Riley’s personality have been influenced by her perky self. However, that all changes when Riley’s family moves to San Francisco, tearing her from her friends, hockey, and even pizza without broccoli. This creates a new core memory spoiled by Sadness and when Joy tries to stop it, the two conflicting emotions are sucked out of the control center and into the deepest recesses of Riley’s mind. Fear, Disgust, and Anger take over Riley during this difficult time as Joy and Sadness rush through the girl’s imagination, subconscious, and dream centre fighting their way back home.

Like all great Pixar movies, Inside Out works on two distinct levels. The first is as a colorful adventure comedy the likes of which the folks behind Herman’s Head could only dreamed to have made. The emotions might be stock characters limited to their namesake defining traits, but they are so cleverly designed with voice actors cast so perfectly to type that it’s hard to notice. Obviously getting someone like Lewis Black to play anger is so perfect that it practically takes care of itself, but the real coups are Amy Poehler (who approaches her relentlessly optimistic role with just the right shade of irony to keep her from ever becoming annoying) and Phillis Smith (who deadpans the role of sadness perfectly and movingly). The writers, filmmakers, and animators clearly had a ball designing various aspects of the human mind as giant sets, serving up some inspired gags (such as Riley’s hysterical dream boyfriend or the ingenious movie set vision of her dreams) as well as a few adventurous set pieces to keep the pace pumping. There are also some wonderful characters around the edges, especially the melancholically funny Bing-Bong (perfectly voiced by the great Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary childhood friend who embodies the film’s theme of letting go of childhood in the quest for maturity.
insideoutinsert7Of course the other level that Inside Out works on is an emotional/intellectual level that’s even stronger. The central metaphor of emotions controlling behaviour is strong and one that the Pixar team tease out in wonderful ways both big and small (even seemingly throw away choices like the order to which the emotions enter Riley’s mind or the way her mother’s mind is controlled by Sadness and her father’s by Anger speak to deep truths that some viewers might not even notice until repeated viewings). However, the central moral that co-directors Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen (who previously made Up! together) is a real doosey. The film is ultimately about the importance of letting sadness govern our lives as much as happiness and how embracing both extremes fosters emotional maturity. That’s a pretty complex message to squeeze into a frothy bit of animated summer entertainment, yet the filmmakers do so in such simple and eloquent ways that make the message poignantly clear. As you can imagine, since the movie came from Docter who previously delivered the tearful conclusion to Monsters Inc. and the gut-wrenching opening to Up!, audiences of all ages will get a pretty intense case of the feelies by the time the credits role.

Inside Out is weep-worthy, devastating, and thought-provoking, yet somehow also cheerfully entertaining and wildly creative. You know, just like a Pixar movie. There was a period when the studio managed to perfect and repeat that formula in such wildly different permutations that it was almost easy to take them for granted. After a few years of more modest fair, Inside Out feels just that much more special. It’s rare that any movie would do so much so well, let alone something that also offers beautiful CG animation and a story both simple and complex enough to work for seemingly any audience. This is a truly special summer movie. One that will delight kids almost as much as a barrage of dinosaur attacks and give their parents reason to devolve into blubbering tearful messes before re-evaluating the way they carry their emotional baggage over the drive home. That’s not easy, even if Pete Docter and co. make it feel effortless.

Big Hero 6 (Movie) Review

Big Hero 6 (Movie) Review

Disney Animation is in a strange place right now. On the one hand, they’re still clinging to their good old timey princess stories to mild (Tangled) and massive (Frozen) success. On the other hand, they’ve put John Lasseter in charge of the animation department and are trying to latch onto the success of Pixar and Comic Con friendly properties with Wreck-It Ralph and now their superhero movie Big Hero 6. Based on an obscure Marvel property that’s ripe with merchandising opportunities, Big Hero 6 liberally pulls from Brad Bird’s playbook to deliver a movie that’s essentially The Iron Giant Meets The Incredibles. It’s a pretty cynically constructed enterprise that pulls from past successes in the hopes of creating a fresh, sparkly new success. If you’re familiar at all with the genre (especially Bird’s dabblngs) there are no surprises to be found. Yet, thankfully that’s not the same thing as saying Big Hero 6 is a bad movie. It’s colorful and fun and gorgeously animated. It’s just also one of the weaker entries in our current state of Marvel movie overload.

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The story follows Hiro (Ryan Porter), a young robotics genius whose older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is already working at one of the most prestigious robo-schools on the planet. Tadashi has made an inflatable, cutie pie medical robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit). Hiro, on the other hand, makes battle bots and to get into that prestigious robo-school he designs and builds thousands of mini-robots that are operated by the mind and combined to do anything. He gets in and just as it seems like everything is going to be great for the robo-building brothers, Tadashi dies to give Hiro the tragic backstory necessary to become a superhero. In the midst of his post bro-death depression, Hiro befriends the soothing/soft Baymax and together they discover that a masked supervillain has stolen all of Hiro’s mind controlled robots with plans to get up to no good. There’s only one thing that Hiro could possibly do in the face of such dastardly deeds, round up all of Tadashi’s old robo-building-buddies (Damon Wayans Jr., Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez, and TJ Miller) to form a superhero team. Because that makes sense, right?

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So, it’s yet another superhero origin story with a built-in supervillain that ends the second that the team is finally formed to set up a sequel. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that plot structure, except for the fact that audiences have been sitting through it ad nauseam at least twice a year since 2008. Sure, this one is slightly different because there’s also a moving friendship between a precocious socially awkward boy and a kindly cute robot, but even that plot thread comes so thoroughly ripped from The Iron Giant that it’s impossible not to notice (ditto the fractured family relationship between the heroes a la Bird’s The Incredibles). In the end, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen at least a dozen times before over the last decade and it’s hard to get even remotely excited about it one more time. However, that’s a cynical comic book movie fan talking and even though most comic book movies these days are made for my crowd, this one isn’t. It’s a Disney product designed to be a Fisher Price “My First Superhero Movie.” Yes, it hits every genre cliché, but it’s also supposed to be introducing all of those clichés to fresh-faced audiences who don’t know them yet. You can’t blame the filmmakers for sticking to the formula on this one, even if that dilutes the fun significantly for everyone other than the kiddies.


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There’s also no denying that it’s a big, beautiful, glossy production. With a house style that fuses the anime aesthetic with the Marvel color scheme and the free-flowing digital camera of contemporary CGI family action movies, the film is pure eye candy. It flies by at a fast clip, piles up a stack of amusing vocal performances from established comedic actors, and offers plenty of visceral action within a soft n’ cuddly Disney landscape. It might be one of the most commercially calculated movies of the year, but let’s face it: nobody does calculated entertainment like Disney. It’s hard to imagine that kids won’t go crazy for the movie and as a result, plenty of Baymax toys will be sold and the tots who fall in love with superheroes for the first time here will race out and discover all of the classics. That’s really all the movie wants to do and it achieves its goes well enough that you can’t call it a failure. It’s just a shame that the movie didn’t reach the emotional and entertainment heights of the Brad Bird movies that it so desperately wants to be because his voice is sorely lacking from Hollywood animation these days. Hopefully someone at Disney cut Bird a cheque for inspiring this movie though. Any success it achieves owes just as much to him as anyone involved in the original Big Hero 6 comic or the Disney animation blockbuster it spawned.

 

Also check out our interview with Scott Adsit. 

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Movie) Review

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (Movie) Review

If you’re aware that a Mr. Peabody And Sherman movie is coming out this week, you’re probably dreading it. Don’t. Whether you’re concerned that the film will crap all over the classic shorts by Jay Ward (whose work like Rocky And Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right has been butchered in Hollywood repeatedly) or have never heard of Jay Ward and are merely concerned about the potential of a movie about a time-traveling dog and boy duo, I can assure you that this flick will surpass your expectations. It’s a film the manages to capture the spirit of the late Jay Ward’s cartoons perfectly, which means it’s funny, sweet, colorful, irreverent, creative, fast-paced, and constantly entertaining. Movies like this make family entertainment seem easy, simply piling on goofy pleasures from start to finish without a second wasted or a forced message to swallow. It would be nice to live in a world where this was the norm and Mr. Peabody & Sherman felt like an average family blockbuster. But we don’t live in that world, silly. A big Hollywood family flick this funny and entertaining is rare, especially when it’s adapted from a cult classic. Buy a ticket and smile for 90 minutes. It’s really that simple.

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For the unfamiliar, Mr. Peabody and Sherman were characters from the Jay Ward’s classic Rocky & Bullwinkle series. It was essentially a sketch in which a hyper intelligent dog and a dorky kid would travel back in time to pal around with comically exaggerated versions of historical figures. Essentially, it’s smart-dumb comedy, sneaking in some facts amongst the surreal gags that seemed so groundbreaking when Ward unleashed it in the 50s. The film version essentially follows that formula, tossing Peabody and Sherman into the French Revolution, ancient Egypt, the Trojan War, and the Italian Renaissance and shoving jokes into the mouth of famous faces backed by famous voices (an unhinged Stanley Tucci as Leonardo Da Vinci, Mel Brooks as Einstein, Patrick Puddy Warburton as an idiot Trojan soldier, etc.). There’s a plot arc of course, involving a snotty girl (Ariel Winter) in Sherman’s (Max Charles) class who mocks him for having a dog for a father (Ty Burrell perfectly recreating the old Peabody voice). So Peabody has her parents over to impress them and Sherman and the gal end up in the Way Back machine prompting an impromptu adventure through time. It sounds stock, but thankfully, the filmmakers deliver a film rooted perfectly in Jay Ward’s cracked sensibility, where even the unconventional family heart is treated as strangely wonderful. It’s a blast.

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Most of the success of the film can be attributed to director Rob Minkoff. The animation veteran clearly adores the source material and goes out of his way to make a reverential movie that recreates Jay Ward’s charming voice for a new generation. His movie is absolutely hysterical, with ingeniously dumb gags like Leonardo Da Vinci’s creepy Renaissance robot child, the French army’s hatred of cantaloupes, and the Trojan army’s weakness for accepting wooden gift horses prompting giddy responses from adults and children alike (it’s clear watching the movie that the original Peabody And Sherman shorts were a massive influence on the hysterical Bill & Ted movies and that influence comes back around here). Minkoff also goes out of his way to recreate Ward’s crude, yet cute cartoony style in glossy CGI, allowing for all sorts of cartoon tomfoolery that will make you smile. He’s also a gifted storyteller (the man did direct The Lion King) as well as a talented action director (he also directed the Jackie Chan/Jet Li flick The Forbidden Kingdom), so the movie stimulates the adrenaline glands and tickles tear ducts when required. Perhaps most importantly, Minkoff understands that the core of Mr. Peabody & Sherman is simple, goofy entertainment and never tries to make his movie anything more than that. Lesser filmmakers would have tried to make the story too dramatic or silly, but Minkoff finds the irreverent middle ground and walks the tight rope just right.

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Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a big, bright, colorful 90-minute blast of entertainment and nothing more. Yet simply getting delivering that without any needless sentimentality or a barrage of tired pop culture gags is rare enough to make the movie feel special. Sure, it’s not as endlessly creative and inventive as The Lego Movie, but that’s a lofty comparison to make even if it’s a recent one. Nope, the movie is as joyously silly and entertaining as the original Jay Ward cartoon, and that’s exactly what it should be. The film is a perfect way for fans of the original series to feel bubbly and nostalgic and kids to get introduced to Ward’s classic characters in a contemporary CGI blockbuster. It’s rare for any Hollywood adaptation of a classic property to actually honor the source material, but that’s exactly what happened here. It’s 90 minutes of classic cartoon anarchy and for that we should all giggle and rejoice. It’ll be a long time before it happens again, so let’s hope this flick is as successful as all the failures (Garfield, Space Jam, Marmaduke, etc, etc, etc). For once, a reboot actually deserves some brand name loyalty success.

A Fractured Interview with Mr. Peabody & Sherman Director Rob Minkoff

A Fractured Interview with Mr. Peabody & Sherman Director Rob Minkoff

 For anyone who grew up on a steady diet of Jay Ward’s classic Rocky & Bullwinkle show, hearing the names Mr. Peabody and Sherman always brings on a smile. The super-genius dog, his adopted human son, and their time traveling adventures were a fixture of irreverent humor for generations of children and probably also inspired the adventures of Bill & Ted as well. Hearing that they would get a feature length CGI feature was cause for concern for most of these grown-up children, given that previous attempts to adapt Jay Ward’s work to the big screen led to disasters like the Robert DeNiro-starring Rocky & Bullwinkle debacle and Dudley Do-Right. Thankfully, animation snobs and Jay Ward aficionados can calm down, because the feature film edition of Mr. Peabody & Sherman is easily the best and most faithfully Jay Ward adaptation to date. For that we can thank one man: director Rob Minkoff.

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Not just a Jay Ward fanboy-turned-filmmaker, Minkoff is one of the finest animation directors of his generation. He got his start on the early 90s Roger Rabbit animated shorts for Disney like Roller Coaster Rabbit and Tummy Trouble, eventually working his way through the Disney system to direct the classic feature The Lion King. From there he’s gone on the helm the Stuart Little movies and even the Jackie Chan/Jet Li picture The Forbidden Kingdom. However, for over a decade Minkoff has been hammering away on his dream project of a Mr. Peabody & Sherman movie and now it’s finally here. CGM recently got a chance to chat with Minkoff about the project and his career, touching on everything from the challenges of adapting Jay Ward’s shorts into a feature length CGI blockbuster, the death of 2D animation, and the Roger Rabbit sequel that never was.

 

Comics Gaming Magazine: First off, based on the movie, I’m assuming you’re a huge fan of Jay Ward since you managed to get his tone exactly right. So was this a project that you spearheaded?

Rob Minkoff: Yes. It all started with a very simple conversation 12 years ago. I was working on Stuart Little and my producing partner Jason Clark—who has been working with Seth MacFarlane on Ted and A Million Ways To Die In The West—came to me one day and said, “What do you think of Mr. Peabody & Sherman?” I said, “I Love Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” He said, “Well, what about making a movie?” I loved the idea, so then we met with Tiffany Ward, who is Jay Ward’s daughter. We decided to work together right away. There was no screenplay or anything at that point, so we started this epic saga. We took it to this company called Walden Media, who are famous for the Narnia movies. We met with Alex Schwartz who is an executive there and they wanted to do it. Then a whole bunch of things happened that made it impossible to do it entirely with them. So we needed another partner and that’s when we ended up with Dreamworks. At first I didn’t think that would be possible because all of Dreamworks’ animated movies are homegrown and this was a preexisting property. So, I sort of avoided them but finally we tried and they liked it. That was in 2005. So then, we started on the quest of developing the movie with several different scripts and stories.

 

CGM: Yeah, that part must have been tricky. Since there’s no real backstory to these characters, being able to flesh that out in a feature is both a great opportunity and a big potential pitfall with the tone being this irreverent.

RM: Well, what’s interesting is that the adoption backstory is in there, but other than that you’re right. It is wide open. What do we know? Mr. Peabody is a genius. We know that. We know that he’s won Nobel Prizes and that he’s won Olympic Gold Medals. All of these incredible things. He’s the Woof Of Wall Street (Laughs), which we decided to leave out because of the other movie. But we know that he lives with his adoptive son Sherman in Manhattan and they have a Way Back Machine that they use to go on time traveling adventures. Those are all in the movie, obviously. So the things that we did to expand on it, wasn’t to change things per se. It was just to build on what there. You know, like what is it like when they are at home? Things like that were never shown in the original and were wide open to explore. We wanted to look at this unusual family. We didn’t try to change it, just look at it from the point of view of today. How would people react to a dog adopting a boy and the topic of unconventional families. The important thing was that we were making this today and we didn’t want to change it from what it was, because for me it was a timeless classic.

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Mr. Peabody & Sherman

 

CGM: I’ve heard that Dreamworks likes to hire a lot of LA comedians like Patton Oswalt to punch up the humor in their animated movies. Was that the case here?

RM: We asked Patton Oswalt and he refused. We aren’t sure why. But we had some great people. Obviously Craig Wright is credited and he was fantastic who contributed a lot of material to the movie. Do you know Thom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant?

 

CGM: Of course. From Reno 911?

RM: Yeah, they helped a lot and that was pretty much the whole package of writers. And then, of course, there was the story team who contribute a lot and me too. It’s a collaboration. Craig is the only one who managed to get on the poster, but Ben and Thom contributed a lot of jokes.

 

CGM: Was it difficult to replicate both the tone and art of Jay Ward in a CGI blockbuster? Because his work is so specific and you nailed it, but at the same time it has a very old fashioned animation quality that obviously a CGI feature won’t have.

RM: Well, looking back at what he did, the art was a function of the budget. He was working with a very low budget for television, so I think the focus was making the scripts as funny and interesting as possible. The voice acting was amazing as well. The art is generally funny. That was the big thing. A funny drawing would sell the ideas, not the movement or animation. A lot of people asked me when they found out I was doing this, “Are you going to do it in 2D with intentionally bad drawings?” The only thing I really wanted to be true to was the content of the show. The movie was going to be a movie for today and in CGI. As simple as the show was, the film would be more complicated. But at the same time, we wanted the imagery to be reminiscent of the era. We wanted his apartment to retain that classic look. We wanted to show our love for the original by carrying over the shapes of his art style and certainly the character designs. If you look at the original now, you’re just seeing a 2D rendering of what this is. In fact, we produced a little piece that’s really awesome of our Sherman watching the old show on television saying, “Gee Mr. Peabody, they sure look familiar.” And Mr. Peabody says, “Well Sherman, that’s us from 1959.” And then Sherman says, “But if that’s us, then who are we?” (Laughs) The whole idea was to hear our characters alongside the original voices and imagery to show that they do kind of exist in the same universe. It’s just that one is 2D and flat and the other is 3D.

 

CGM: Since you came out of 2D hand-drawn animation, does it frustrate you at all that the medium has essentially gone extinct. Not that I don’t enjoy CGI, it’s just a shame that it completely replaced old format.

RM: Sure. Well, you know, it’s interesting. Because two of the movies nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year were in 2D: The Wind Rises and Ernest & Celestine

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The Wind Rises

 

CGM: Of course but there’s nothing made in Hollywood anymore.

RM: Right. There are people who I know who are hoping to make 2D animated films. So it’s certainly possible that it’ll come back. But you know, if you look at the history of Disney, early on they invented the multi-plane camera and doing complex shadows and tone maps to create a three dimensional illusion on their feature films. That’s really important because you want the audience to go into the world of the story and in 2D animation there were so many tricks used to create that three dimensional illusion. Some animation purists back in those days were against it because they thought that animation should be flat graphics and anything else was a distraction. I think that for feature length storytelling, the audience wants that extra dimension to be pulled into the world. And the truth is that once the audience experienced CGI, there was no going back. I remember—when it started—thinking that CGI was cold and technical and would never replace 2D animation. Well, it has evolved incredibly over the last 20 years and has become a really malleable tool that can do almost anything. It doesn’t look stiff anymore. We worked hard to make sure things could squash and stretch and do traditional animation techniques. I think that computer animation has evolved to a point where it’s become a very satisfying medium for animators to use it to do what they want to do rather than the computer driving the train. I just think that once the audience has seen dimensional worlds, it’s a little hard to go back. Even when I look at The Lion King today, I see the paintings and the brush strokes. Which of course is beautiful in its own right.

 

CGM: Yeah, I guess I’m just charmed by that because it provides a handmade quality.

RM: No question, and it is charming, but I think that now for good, bad, or different progress is progress. We can lament the lost art of the past, but if you do look at those two things, it’s hard to deny that there is something spectacular about seeing a fully imagined world that looks real. That quality is an enhancement to the experience of getting people to watch a movie about such fictional characters. These are cartoons, but you want the audience to believe they are alive and exist. If you can feel like you could reach out and touch the fur like you can in CGI, I think it does something to our lizard brain and makes the magic even somehow more magical.

 

CGM: I wanted to quickly ask about The Lion King, since you brought that up and it’s now 20 years old. Along similar lines, did you feel the same level of authorship on a movie like that as a contemporary CGI movie? Because I just noticed on IMDB before coming here that there were 29 writers credited as well as a second director.

RM: Really? No, that’s not right. The only credited writers were Linda Woolverton, Jonathan Roberts, and Irene Mecchi. I contributed plenty and didn’t get credit, same with Roger Allers. My guess is the other names are from the story team. That’s a typical thing in animation. Once you get into storyboarding, the script is just a jumping off point. Many other people get involved and collaborate from there. They’re primarily illustrators, who, in a live action movie, would be less involved. The script is generally treated more rigidly in live action because once you have your script and you’re shooting, you try to get what’s written. In animation, once you storyboard it, the movie takes on a life of its own and can change and evolve. That’s pretty normal. So even on Snow White you would probably find 27 story artists who were equally involved. That’s just part of the process and I absolutely feel I had as strong a role in The Lion King as anything else that I’ve made.

The Lion King
The Lion King

 

CGM: I loved the old Roger Rabbit shorts that you did at the start of your career and I read that you at one point were going to make the sequel?

RM: Yes, I was going to direct the sequel.

 

CGM: What was it possibly about?

RM: The one I was working on was kind of a prequel. It was about Roger Rabbit coming to Hollywood in search of his mother and then ends up mixed up with a woman who was a bit like Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard.

 

CGM: Well, that fits into the animation/noir world of the first movie.

RM: Exactly.

The Lego Movie Videogame (Xbox 360) Review

The Lego Movie Videogame (Xbox 360) Review

If nothing else, The Lego Movie Videogame deserves a spot in history for having one of the worst titles in the history of gaming. As a game itself, it’s a perfectly acceptable bit of fluff and far better than most licensed tie-in titles. The big problem is simply one of legacy. Not only does the game pale in comparison to the excellent movie that just hit screens, but also the Lego City Undercover and Lego Marvel Superheroes games. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid all of those contemporary Lego classics, then I’m sure this game will be an absolute blast. The trouble is that roughly 99.7% of gamers who are likely to pick this puppy off shelves will know and love at least one of those titles (a very detailed and professional study was conducted to get that number, so you can trust it). As fun as The Lego Movie Videogame can be in fits and spurts, it is ultimately just standing on the shoulders of other brilliant Lego creations and never quite manages to break out on its own. Ah well, at least you can finally play as the 80s Lego astronaut, broken chinstrap and all. So that’s a minor dream come true.

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The story for the Lego Movie Videogame is the exact story of The Lego Movie, pulling scenes straight out of the flick to set up a series of Lego challenges that fans of the previous games will know all too well. The main character is Emmet, a lowly Lego construction worker who lives a life dictated by an instruction book. One day he meets a beautiful gal (well, by Lego figure standards anyways) named Wyldstyle and discovers he might be a chosen Lego figure who will rid the world of the instruction book tyranny created by the evil Lord Business and return the Lego-land to a genre-mashup world founded in creative building. The plot plays out entirely in scenes from the movie and pretty well the whole thing makes it into the game at some point. That makes this a fairly fun tie in game for fans anxious to own a copy of the flick while it’s still in theaters. But it also robs the game of any sense of surprise for those who have seen the movie. You’ll be going through those exact same motions here, only this time with levels instead of action scenes.

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Play style is exactly the same as the last few Lego titles.  The city of Brickburg operates as a sandbox hub while all of the other worlds like Western Land and Coo-Coo-Land are used as levels. As a result, the biggest map in the game is a deliberately generic city while the creative climates are limited to small level maps. A bit of a bummer, but there you go. Emmet is the main character and chances are that you won’t play as him much. In keeping with the theme of the movie, Emmet can’t build or fight very well and given that those are the main skills that define gameplay, the protagonist is absolutely useless and will only be the star during cut scenes. Beyond Emmet, there are dozens of characters from Wyldstyle to Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and Abraham Lincoln. That is a Lego game tradition, of course. The only problem is that in The Lego Movie Videogame, having access to Superman and Batman will only remind players of the far superior pre-existing Lego games that they could and should be playing instead of this one.

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The entire project feels rushed to meet a release date, with the Lego games’ trademark humor essentially absent outside of the scenes from the movie. Now, it would be unfair to call it a disaster. The one major advantage Traveller’s Tales had in creating this title was a rock solid template. These designers have been building and expanding on the possibilities of Lego-themed action sequences since the ancient days of Lego Star Wars. So there are a number of wonderful adaptation of movie action scenes into levels (particularly the chase sequences), and the building dynamic is as fun as ever. The graphics are solid, and you certainly can’t describe the game as boring given that the cut scenes are hilarious and the levels are well designed (with the exception of a few really tedious platforming sequences). Yet, there’s absolutely nothing new or fresh here at all, and that’s a pretty major flaw.

For the first time in quite a while, Traveller’s haven’t reinvented the Lego game wheel. Instead, they’ve simply repeated their own formula based around designs, characters, and plotlines from The Lego Movie. If you could play this game in a vacuum, it would probably be a heck of a lot of fun. The trouble is that any real Lego fan will have just finished Lego Marvel Superheroes and fallen in love with The Lego Movie before picking this disc up. If that’s the case, you can’t help but be at least mildly disappointed. Granted, an average Lego game is still better than most games. However, given that this title offered the Traveller’s team a chance to combine franchises, genres, and techniques from all their previous work for the first time, it’s a big ol’ missed opportunity. Yep, the licensed game curse strikes again. Let’s hope someone finally gets it right one of these days.

 

The Lego Movie (Movie) Review

The Lego Movie (Movie) Review

When you sit down and really think about it, Lego shouldn’t be popular anymore. The Danish building blocks were groundbreaking playthings in 1949, but in days when toddlers are picking up iPads, they should be passé. Yet, Lego’s probably more popular than ever. There are a number of reasons why: nostalgia, simplicity, cross-marketing in videogames/playsets, and most importantly the fact that those little plastic cubes that you constantly step on at the worst possible moment open up a child’s imagination through building like few other toys. As Lego continues its age-bridging, cross-cultural assault through videogames and Star Wars/Batman/Marvel/everything themed playsets, it was inevitable that someday a Lego movie would exist. It’s just too easy to sell to family audiences, amateur stop-motion Lego movies have been made for decades now, and Lego’s multiplatform franchise is made for merchandising.

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Here’s the thing though: how do you make a feature-length movie about little plastic blocks. Break it down to that level and it’s an idea that shouldn’t work. Thankfully, Warner Brothers assigned the task to the two-heading filmmaking team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who specialize in ideas that shouldn’t work. They’ve already made a cult TV show about a high school populated with clones of historical figures (Clone High), a CGI hit with one of the worst titles of all time (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs), and a feature film version of an 80s TV show few people liked in the first place (21 Jump Street). None of those projects should have worked but in the hands of Lord/Miller, they were brilliant. The Lego Movie is the closest thing the duo have had to a sensible starting point and unsurprisingly it’s not only the best thing they’ve ever done, but also the best animated film to come out of Hollywood since Pixar started phoning it in with sequels.

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It’s a gorgeous movie to behold, filled with visual invention and Lord/Miller’s patented pop culture humor

The plot can be cynically broken down to a cross between Toy Story and The Matrix. It’s all about Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt), a Lego construction worker who has posters for “A Popular Band On His Wall,” spends his days constructing buildings based on instruction books, and constantly sings the theme song of Legoland: “Everything Is Awesome.” Then one day he spots a beautiful (well, by Lego figure standards) gal named Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and inadvertently ends up fulfilling an ancient prophecy made by a Morgan Freeman-voiced Lego figure to become “The Special.” Emmet has been chosen to be the Lego drone who will take down the evil President Business’ (Will Ferrell) plot to confine Legoland to the confines of banal conformity. Emmet must bridge the gap between all the segregated Lego worlds (including a Western land and Lego Gotham City) and bring back the open building-block creation of the age of master builders. It’s all much sillier and easier to follow than it sounds, eventually building towards a big twist that most viewers will see coming, but still offers a touching ode to the imaginative power of Lego nonetheless.

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Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the Lego movie is that it is even more blatantly a commercial for the toy at the center than Transformers or Battleship and yet is an infinitely more moving and creative film than any of the toy movies that proceeded it. A big part of that is just the joy of Lego itself, a brain-building toy that has inspired generations of children to create to the point that many adults now have a full time job creating Lego pop culture replicas for the legendary toy company. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller fully understand Lego’s appeal and create a film about that subject without ever losing track of the fact that their film must first and foremost be a comedic adventure. The CGI animation brilliantly creates a low-fi feel of a stop motion Lego fan film, filled with jerky motions, blocky designs, and creative faux-stop motion effects like creating flames out of crudely animated Lego fire pieces. It’s a gorgeous movie to behold, filled with visual invention and Lord/Miller’s patented pop culture humor. With Lego tie-ins to everything from Batman to Star Wars now part of the legacy, Lord/Miller let loose their reverential and referential humor onto a world that has those qualities built into it. No one else should have made this movie and no one could have done it better.

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As per usual in these blockbuster animated films the voice cast is stacked with stars like Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Charlie Day, Will Arnett, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Morgan Freeman, and Will Forte. However, unlike many of these projects, Lord/Miller actually give each famous voice a character suited to their talents and not a single cameo passes by without a major laugh. Thankfully, Lord/Miller never take the easy route to cynically mock their subject matter either, filling the screen with a love for all things Lego including a character who is one of the 80s Lego astronauts that every child of a certain generation owned and even the chin strap is broken in the perfect place. This is a big Hollywood blockbuster made by people who care about the subject matter and know just how to treat it. It’s big, adventurous, hilarious, touching, and makes you want to race out of the theater to buy as many Lego playsets as you can fit in your arms. Balancing all those elements is nearly impossible, but Lord/Miller did it with such ease that they should have a massive hit on their hands and might finally be recognized as two of the most brilliant comedic minds of their generation. Warner already has a Lego Movie sequel in the works, but hopefully Lord and Miller find another project to work on instead. It’s hard to imagine a better Lego movie being made than this, and I’m anxious to see what the next seemingly ridiculous idea that they want to turn into a brilliant comedy is instead.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 (Movie) Review

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 (Movie) Review

When Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs hit screens in 2009, it proved to be an unexpected treat that arrived with little hoopla beyond sporting one of the weirdest (and wordiest) titles of all time. However, the movie proved to be a strangely subversive comedy gem that even managed to sneak Eraserhead references into a kiddie blockbuster. We can thank co-writers/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller for that given that they pulled the same trick on the underrated animated series Clone High and the unexpectedly awesome 21 Jump Street movie. Sadly, the duo didn’t return to the sequel beyond some screenplay tinkering. They’re off making the Lego movie instead, and they should be because they’ll make it great. So now, we have Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 arriving with expectations and without the key creative talent. Fortunately, it’s a wonderfully entertaining sequel that continues the franchise well. It’s more sweet and sincere than subversive and reverential, but when you’re talking about a CGI family comedy about giant sentient cheeseburgers, that’s not exactly a bad thing.

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The roughest patch of the movie comes right off the bat. Unfortunately, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 does suffer from that unfortunate medical condition that plagues many Hollywood products: sequel-itis. The original film was never intended to set up a franchise, so there are some awkward patches early on as the filmmakers struggle to kick off a new story and reunite all of the characters the kiddies loved last time. Fortunately, that’s out of the way fast. Bill Hader’s manic inventor Flint is selected by his childhood hero/iconic food inventor Chester V (Will Forte doing an amusing Steve Jobs impression… only evil) to join his tech conglomerate LIVE Corp. Flint toils away fruitlessly in the big city hoping to become one of the team’s star inventors and then gets a chance to prove himself when his old invention starts running amuck in his hometown. The machine that once made food out of drops of water has started malfunctioning and turned the island into a land overrun by giant sentient food (cheeseburger spiders, crazy cucumbers, cutie pie strawberries, the whole nine yards). So Flint gathers up all of the popular characters from the last movie like gal pal reporter Sam (Anna Faris), her wacky accented cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt), dedicated local cop Earl (Terry Crews), weirdo Brent (Andy Samburg), and his daddy (James Caan) and together they head out to food island for more wacky adventures.

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The good news is that said wacky adventures are still a lot of fun. There’s a worrying moment early on when Flint screams out “there’s a leak in my boat” and then an anthropomorphized leek starts screaming. Thankfully, the movie is not defined by bad puns, even if it’s not above them. Some of the pop culture references from the original remain like the general plot that’s ripped from The Lost World (both the original Arthur Conan Doyle novel and the Jurassic Park sequel) and the goofy Apple parody that is LIVE Corp. However, the new directors Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn lean more on eccentric character comedy and CGI adventure this time around and thankfully that approach works. The voice cast is ridiculously talented and even if it’s a stretch to cram all of the popular characters in here, every actor gets some big laughs (especially Forte who is hysterical as the villain). The character design still comes from the Lord/Miller/Clone High school, and it’s still wonderfully unique and cartoony. The living food monsters/buddies are all creatively designed and milked for all their comedy and cutesy potential. The action scenes are genuinely thrilling and take advantage of the 3D visuals. The emotional arc sparks tear trickles without feeling saccharine. And most importantly, it all wraps up quickly without ever feeling strained or boring. In short, it’s a blast of simple entertainment that will charm the pants off parents, children, and regressed children alike.

cloudyinsert2“Charming” is the word that best describes Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 and given the genre of CGI family comedy it slides into that word suits the film well. Would it have been better if Phil Lord and Chris Miller stuck around for the sequel to pack it full of their weirdo wit? Of course, but at the same time the original movie never cried out for a franchise and the sequel never could have been anything more than a charming follow up. Animation veterans Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn at least know their genre and medium well. They suck up all the possible entertainment value out of continuing the adventures of this likable gang of characters and food fantasy world, then roll the credits before outstaying their welcome. The film is no masterpiece, but it is a perfectly serviceable and goofy blast of family fun that will make the target audience giggle while scarfing down snacks. Really, what else could you possibly expect from a movie called Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2? Wanting more is just being greedy. This is as good as a movie with giant cheeseburger spiders can be and that ain’t bad.