children’s

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

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Fantastic Mr. Fox, The

Rental with Snacks

Roald Dahl writes books of fantasy grounded in realism, and the Fantastic Mr. Fox is no exception. Wes Anderson is a director with a deadpan sense of absurdism and dysfunction. From them come this stop-motion animated film, a story of civilized wild animals trying to get their piece of the pie and vex three horrible local farmers, and possibly wrestling with their wild nature. Anderson’s style is very unique and I respect his adherence to it, even though it’s generally not my cup of tea (see: Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic). Here, Anderson makes a children’s book grown-up with existential angst and marital friction and possibly darker underpinnings than Dahl may have intended. The existing classic story fortunately softens Anderson’s fetish for randomness and forces him to stay on track. It’s a nice balance. As one of my companions astutely noticed, Anderson’s kooky brand of humor just works better as a cartoon. I probably would have loved Life Aquatic if it had been animated.

George Clooney is surprisingly cast as the titular patriarch of his little fox family (with wife Meryl Streep, son Jason Schwartzman, and nephew Eric Chase Anderson). Clooney’s Fox is a former chicken thief who just wants one last score off the valley’s three hated farmers, headed by Michael Gambon, while his kid feels neglected and his nephew frets about his family being ill. It’s no Ocean’s 11, but sometimes it feels like Clooney is just rummaging in that bag of tricks. He does the whistling rogue like no one else, but earnest family man less so, especially disguised as a rail-thin fox in a suit and tie. The puppets are sweetly old-fashioned in design, but the odd character design limits their mouth movements. The eyes are great.

Needless to say, this “one last score” plan, despite flowing nearly obstacle free, snowballs into hyperbolic responses from the evil farmers, leading to an extended journey on the part of Fox and his companions, including his lawyer and his superintendent. Yes, the fox’s lawyer and superintendent. Anderson makes copious use of the huge cutaway sets that he employed so well in The Life Aquatic, but as soon as our heroes go underground, we have less rosy, sweet Dahl and more slouching, petulant Anderson. I never lost interest, but the film consistently started to drag just when the danger needed to seem more pressing. The sets are very pretty and the lighting in particular is amazing — the reality of the story is all in the lights and the eyes. The voice casting is good, but many of the voices are so iconic (Bill Murray, Clooney, Owen Wilson, Gambon) that it begins to distract somewhat from the content.

The climax is pretty over the top and funny — I wonder how much of it was Dahl and how much Hollywood. Despite looking like a children’s movie, I don’t think kids would like it very much. It’s long and full of grown-up concerns like mortgages and marital vows, but it does have some funny bits and sweet character moments. It was a nice ride, and definitely is now my favorite Anderson film, but I would recommend renting it at home, on an HD TV if possible for the lovely detail.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 11/13/09

Time in minutes 88

Director Wes Anderson

Studio 20th Century Fox

Where The Wild Things Are

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Occasionally I will mitigate opinions in this forum that I know will be unpopular when I am specifically writing a review of a film that I know carries a lot of emotional charge for people. In trying to be politic I try and soften the subjective emotions I felt to impart a sense of fairness. This is not one of those times. Where The Wild Things Are made me want to punch someone in the face. It’s not Max Records (Max) — he was given the material and he sold it to us with real heart and facility. It’s not the art department, whose awe-inspiring sets and puppet designs are what drew me to the film in the first place. It’s not the musicians, though they skirt the edge of over-preciousness, they never quite tip over the edge. It’s the words.

The Where The Wild Things Are film purports to celebrate the wild feeling of being nine, of being old enough for complex emotions but too young to deal with or communicate them properly. Instead, it feels like a paean to bratty self-absorption, to the same alienating je ne sais quois that occasionally makes me skim McSweeney’s articles or itches me under my skin like the musical Hair. It’s that kind of “every man is an island” lack of self-reflection that I seem to find most often in the films targeted to the Baby Boomer demographic. Not the people, per se, but the stuff “made for them.” It also gave me the same stomachache that I get reading about financial scandals, but I can’t figure that one out. It’s just a gut sense of being repelled, despite the aforementioned artistic triumphs.

Max’s acting out is almost immediately followed by touching remorse — he’s hardly a real problem child, and his home life seems pretty dang nice, even for being a single parent one. He runs away and ends up in the Where of the title, a land of immature, self-involved, bickering monsters who seem to need nothing other than air and each other to sustain themselves. Since he’s street-smarter than they are, Max becomes king. Prolix days pass and characters are annoying and tautological, sounding like these dopey 70’s TA for Tots books. Director Spike Jonze wrote the script with Dave Eggers, who flirts with excessive hipster preciousness quite a bit in his work,; here they try to create a rich and varied world from the unique drawings and brief sentences of Maurice Sendak’s beloved book. In doing so, it seemed that they filled the cracks with some personal baggage that hadn’t been fully sorted yet.

I applaud the film’s strong sense of tone and reality and beauty, I marvel at the puppet-acting and the CG enhancement of the monsters’ faces. These creature costumes were put through the ringer with lots of very physical demands put on them, in huge crashing movement and small, delicate acting moments as well. All the Wild Things’ movement seems very natural and fluid, there are no stiff Skeksis here. If the dialogue could bear the force of the script’s arbitrary mood swings and motivationless tantrums with the same durable pliability of the costumes, I wouldn’t have been so irked.

Jonze and Eggers are my contemporaries, growing up in the same Generation X atmosphere of upheaval and insecurity that marked our childhoods, but these guys seem like they are flirting with the same navel-gazing self-centeredness of their parents. Sure, we’ve all gotten old enough to be disillusioned by our once-seemingly-infallible caretakers. It’s how we deal/dealt with it that forms the core of our character as we grow past that, perhaps into the seemingly infallible caregivers of someone else. If these guys are questioning their own childhoods based on their own daddyhoods, it doesn’t belong here. Max appears to have learned no lesson, nor imparted one, except maybe “yep, life is the same all over so we should probably learn how to be responsible.” I found it to be crushingly slow to come to any sort of narrative interest, after being so circumspect with the creatures in the beginning (I was also reminded of Samuel Beckett, and I don’t mean that as a compliment).

Overall, besides the gorgeousness and the genuine actual performances of Max and the Wild Things, this movie drove me around the bend. Watch it on HBO for the glory of the captured image and save your money for greater things.

MPAA Rating PG

Release date 10/16/09

Time in minutes 101

Director Spike Jonze

Studio Warner Brothers

9

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In the continuing tradition of post-apocalyptic adventures, 9 posits a world where humanity, indeed all organic life, is gone, obviously our fault. Let’s say that 9 takes place about 10 years after The Road and 75 years before Wall-E; or else right after the spaceships left to mine Pandora. It’s actually shocking how many movies 9 reminded me of in every scene, despite appearing to be entirely original. It’s got adorable sack boys wishing they were playing Little Big Planet instead of scrambling to survive in Huge Hostile Planet — and doing so in some quite scary sequences for something ostensibly for children.

Our stitchpunk heroes, known only by the numbers drawn on them by their late human creator, struggle amongst themselves to live in their empty world. It’s about three weeks after the Rise of the Machines and there’s not a naked human hero in sight — well, not alive. Corpses we have plenty of. I am used to seeing corpses litter the landscape in movies, but in a children’s film, not so much. Kids grow up so fast these days.

The production design — from the evil machines and expository materials to our burlap protagonists — is wonderful. If I were only rating on visuals I would give this film four and a half stars. The story starts out intriguing, trips over a philosophical arc (then puts it back where it found it), and then ends up being unsettlingly like Knowing, or maybe Coccoon. When the machines turned on their unsuspecting creators, the story had some interesting potential (albeit one adequately explored by the contents of any Blockbuster Video). But really — even after decades of filmic and literary foreshadowing and the clear SS-helmet design of the chassis of the main War of the Worldsish killing machines — who didn’t see this coming? In real life, Japan even has a product called HAL that they make at the company they named Cyberdyne. Are we even trying to avoid these consequences?

How can these sewn soldiers be alive and what is that dealie-thing they found and who made that crazy awesome cat skull robot beastie and why would it need prey in the first place? You will never know. So, I think our lead bag, 9 (Elijah Wood) has to go get the thing and take it to Mordor — no wait – and rescue Sirius Black, but then he opens the Labyrinth and lets in the Nothing and how will they ever get back to Kansas? And how exactly are 9 (well, fewer) bags of sentience a threat to a machine the size of the Cloverfield monster?

Maybe you can’t tell, but I was pretty disappointed. The look is gorgeous, but so have been a lot of movies (most of which are in this one). 9 didn’t knock me to sleep like Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline, thanks to innovative camera work and pretty decent pacing, but it did completely fail to capture any sense of interest or purpose after the first few close encounters. I think if I were not diligently taking notes for this very review I might have folded laundry or something to pass the time. This film felt like a long movie cut down without any of its creators’ permission and important scenes got excised at random, like something about souls vs. intelligence being the stuff of life and maybe something else about the characters, like anything. 9 is a beautiful movie to look at and a clumsy story with a weird ending.

MPAA PG-13

Release date 9/9/09

Time in minutes 79

Director Shane Acker

Studio Focus Features

Coraline

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I know I am the only person who can’t stand watching the Nightmare Before Christmas. It puts me to sleep within 30 minutes (I have tried multiple times) despite its incredibly detailed and beautiful characters and sets. Corpse Bride has the same aesthetic but kept my interest with ease — possibly for the simple reason that Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Batman, Ed Wood) is a better director than Henry Selick (Coraline, Nightmare, Monkeybone). I fell asleep at least in twice in Coraline, aka Nightmare Before Little Big Planet, despite my caffeinated soft drink and the matinee showtime. I was entranced by the beautiful visuals and the deliciously creepy overtimes. I was amazed at the craftsmanship and the teensy tiny knitting. I struggled to stay awake most of the film (but had no difficulties in the two films that followed that same day) because I wanted to see the beauty and because my companions were so obviously entranced.

I recognize how unfair it is to review something I missed such large chunks of, but the number of movies I have fallen asleep in the theatre to still number on one hand (out of over a thousand since 1995), so that is kind of its own indicator. I felt there was a definite pacing problem (which Nightmare shares). I have no doubt that it is incredibly difficult to feel the rhythm of a scene or a sequence (especially those lacking dialogue to keep up with — that may be the key, actually) when you’re moving your characters in teensy increments 24-28 times per second…though Aardman and others manage somehow. The handy preshow features in my local theatre told me that they actually do a full dry run before actually filming to make sure it’s flowing properly. How can they not feel it? The story is from the book by Neil Gaiman, who does have very British sensibilities, but the films lacked the dry British humor that might have sparkled in scenes.

The amazing figures, so smooth and colorful and delicate, your eye insists are computer graphics instead of stop-motion puppetry. They are so gorgeous and expressive and the lighting and depth is terrific. Rich textures and whimsical character design, a zillion things moving on one set, it’s all impressive as hell. In 3-D, fugeddaboudit. It’s immersive and beautiful. But I was nevertheless bored into a protective somnolence and tapping my foot at the very long-feeling 100 minute run time. One companion (the crafty one, it should be noted) was transported by the visuals while the other was just glad it didn’t condescend like so many other kid movies. Myself, I felt that at times it was trying too hard to be WHIMSICAL ™ and missing the point that whimsy is best taken unselfconsciously. By all means see it if you can also endure the tedious splendor that is Nightmare Before Christmas. They are both stunning to look at and lulling to experience.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 2/6/09
Time in minutes 100
Director Henry Selick
Studio Focus Features/Universal Pictures

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Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who

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A certain Seussian purist I know refused to see this movie with me (or at all) on the grounds that’s all wrong and is doing with Jim Carrey what Aladdin did with Robin Williams. Statistically speaking, that is the most likely scenario from the people who brought you Ice Age, but… She also told me that Blue Sky Studios, the animation house used by Fox, even researched original Horton artwork at the Geisel (a.k.a. Seuss) library. Blue Sky is the only major studio animation house I know of that is any kind of serious competitor with Pixar in terms of sheer detail and care and gorgeousness. The design is so Seussian, so rich in texture and feathery fur, so painstaking in its realistic feel but cartoonish design, it’s truly a visual triumph. Horton’s precious speck (held aloft on a feathery clover) intimates so much detail you can almost see the Mayor of Whoville in the shots of our titular elephant.

I haven’t read this one in a while, I confess, but they quote liberally from it and the overall plot appeared to be on target. Like all very short books made into full length films, action must be padded to fill the 88 minutes, but it all serves the story and/or the characters. Horton’s imagination being rendered in 2-D straight out of the books was a lovely touch too. Carrey s comic but gentle, restrained inside Horton’s enormous heart, only peeking out when a little of his big dreamer self comes out, or when he determines to be a hero to his tiny charges. As a Carrey fan, even I found it hard to remember it was him most of the time, so much did he dive into his character.

Longtime Cinerina readers know that I ate studios who think we see animated movies for the names doing the voices. Unless that big name is also a great voice actor, I don’t care who it is; animation is about story, character, and visuals. Steve Carrel vanishes into his role as the mayor of Whoville, and Will Arnett’s Vlad the Vulture even more so. (I kept thinking, who IS that, he’s awesome — even after watching three Arrested Development episodes in the days prior.) Amy Poehler can’t quite shed her vaguely sarcastic tone, and Seth Rogen just has a lovable puffy-cheeked growl you can’t ignore. Jonah Hill? Yes, Jonah Hill. Isla Fisher? Totally. It’s a Judd Apatow cast in a Dr. Seuss book, ruled by Carol Burnett as a tyrannical conservative kangaroo, and it’s so loving and true, you’ll love it too.

That said, it sagged just a tad in the middle (I could also have had triple feature fatigue) between Horton’s deciding to save the Whos and his obstacles to doing so, but there’s so much to see and hear, you only mind just a little.

It’s a lovely tale about faith — in each other, in ourselves, in worlds or peoples we may never know or understand (but who deserve our respect nonetheless), and it happens to be a tidy little allegory for political manipulation as well. Protecting authority and ideology at the expense of wonder and life? Well, you do the math. The musical finale (the one from the book) is truly heartlifting — and then the studio clearly stepped in and demanded a horrible Shrek pop ending. I labored to forgive the stain on an otherwise charming film. It’s clear from the way the rest of the movie is handled that REO Speedwagon was not part of the original plan. Check it out.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 3/14/08
Time in minutes 88
Director Jimmy Hayward. Steve Martino
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

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Zach Helm (writer of the delightful Stranger Than Fiction) writes and directs this film, one that is, by discussions I have had, either going to be a massive classic or vanish into obscurity. From these two works of Helms, it is clear that he loves the notion of inanimate objects being more in tune with us than would mundanely be thought. I love this notion, and am always willing to run with it. In exploiting this plot device, what was a trivial hiccup in Stranger than Fiction is here a massive lurch of a misstep. In Fiction, Will Ferrell’s watch keeps an eye on him, interposing its will subtly to make a change. We were asked to buy this with little pre-amble, but we knew the narrator was also creating the conceit at the same time. In Magorium, the titular toy store itself is conscious, magical, a wonder. It is a lovely idea, going beyond the Wonka-tastical into full on Nutcracker Suite/Toy Story levels of inanimation.

How is this a misstep? It sounds divine! How could I have pooped myself so brazenly over Enchanted yet still be such a Scrooge about Magorium? I’ll use other movies as examples. In either version of Roald Dahl’s story of Charlie and Wonka, we hear about the wonders, the specialness, the deep international love of the factory before we see a single doorknob. When Dorothy arrives in Oz, she discovers its wonders gradually, exploring its magic and falling in love as she goes. Ditto for Harry Potter as he finds his true identity at Hogwarts. With this film, we are placed inside the store and informed that we are meant to have already fallen deeply in serious love with it with no endowment, no exploration, no nothing, just “this is a store people love. Next!” We have to instantly invest in its extraordinary specialness and care about its survival (and that of Mr. Magorium himself) without having a reason to.

As a result, I was emotionally divested until the unnaturally luminous and magical Natalie Portman’s acting forced me to care (it was her convincing someone else to care, which should not have included me). Ok actually it was the sock monkey that really did it. Jason Bateman is the grey-suited voice of rationality who we are meant to cheerlead over to our side, but who instead provides most of the comic relief almost by accident.

All that said, the movie knows how to put together a charming visual. If it were a picture book (with a proper exposition and the warm voice of someone like Emma Thompson reading it), it would be an instant classic, visually. The score is really pretty, and keeps the overt musical manipulation to a minimum. The set is a propmaster’s dream, and pays for itself with a zillion opportunities for product placement. Except for the unlikely, ungovernable retail chaos that reigns here (I suppose its “magical charm”), the Emporium does look like a great place to while away a rainy Saturday. It took the whole movie to make me care about it, even with my own romantic inclinations.

Dustin Hoffman as the titular profession is pushing the whimsical affectations a bit hard but it’s equally hard not to care about how much HE cares. He gets cuter and sweeter as the movie progresses, but his character falls victim to the same “thrown into the middle” as the rest of the film. As an adult girl who has secretly apologized to stuffed animals as she donates them to charity (and, ahem, not that long ago), I felt that the movie squandered a million chances to truly be magical by trying so hard to magic up the kids of today.

Narrator Eric (Zach Mills, kind of off-putting as an actor as his character is meant to be) is meant to be the younger generation misfit, but instead he gets misused as an engine of unification with the store. (I also had a prodigious hat collection; why did this movie miss the giant red target on my chest?)

Many people old and young have told me they really liked it, so go for the score and sets, and stay for when it finally grabs you, but be prepared for an uphill climb to the transcendence Helm intended.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 11/16/07
Time in minutes 94
Director Zach Helm
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Ice Age: The Meltdown

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How can Robots be so good and both Ice Age movies be so lame? Sure, both Ice Age movies have good attention to detail insofar as biology and various species-specific jokes, but when the best part of both movies is the non-verbal interstitial episodes of Scrat trying to get his walnut, maybe you should rethink the need for a sequel. I can appreciate that maybe initially the writers were trying to get some kind of global warming thing in there, but they didn’t even take advantage of that topicality.

I felt despondent watching this movie. I didn’t care for these characters that much the first time, and I certainly wasn’t given a new reason to care for them this time. Manny the Mammoth has a genuine existential crisis happening, and occasionally I would get engaged in that story – oh, but now it’s time to cut to some nonsensical set piece which was at best, a time waster (think real live whack-a-mole!) and at worst/best, jarringly bizarre and out of place (a full-on musical number of vultures singing scavenger-oriented parody lyrics to Oliver’s “Food Glorious Food.”). Some of the set pieces had no point to them at all, they seemed designed just to fill the 90 minutes and justify the $8 matinee price. Meanwhile our leads bicker and talk about their herd as if we had invested something into their relationship before.

Maybe you can tell that I am not in the pro-Family Guy camp, and maybe this movie is rollicking good fun to that demographic, but even when I am bored by the jokes on the TV show, I have a storyline to follow in the meantime. The Meltdown just lurches back and forth from some peril-that-isn’t-scary to Scrat’s Charlie Chaplinesque adventures.

Ice Age: The Meltdown (no 2?) has vastly improved the animation since Ice Age – the fur looks rich and tactile, the ice translucent and cold. But Robots came out just last year and it is both better written and significantly better animated. What gives? Meltdown does escape the Chicken Little trap up just jabber jabber jabber pop culture references, thankfully largely due to its setting, but it does have its characters sniping and fighting and mocking each other in lieu of any other kind of plot movement. Finally Queen Latifah shows up with her unique brand of magic and energy, and we have a moment of amusing self delusion that goes on too long; when the problem gets sorted out, it’s too late. I did enjoy her relationship with her possum companions, it was the most real thing in the movie.

Adult fans of animation: don’t bother. Parents taking their kids: Spare them. Use the money to beef up your home DVD collection of Pixar titles or even expand into the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Better than to reveal to them that adult moviemakers don’t care about making movies worth watching.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 3/31/06
Time in minutes 90
Director Carlos Saldanha
Studio 20th Century Fox

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Peter Pan (2003)

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After Disney turned J.M. Barrie’s mature play into a fun little tale about permanent play time, it’s hard to recall why Peter Pan got his own syndrome named after him – until you see this adaptation. I fully admit to not having read the original for a very, very long time, but this is the kind of Classic Movie made from a novel which will be ignored in theatres and then replayed a zillion times over the next hundred years because it was made just exactly right.

For the first time apparently in history, Peter is being played by a young (I’d guess 13-14 year old) boy instead of a middle aged woman on a wire. This makes a great bit of difference, because they cast the impishly dreamy Jeremy Sumpter (Frailty) as Peter and the future lust object Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy and the prepubescent sparks fly. Disney’s animated version and the stage musical have lost a lot of the darker and romantic side of this tale, and it’s back in full force here, supported by some seriously hard core effects.

I was actually reminded frequently of my biggest high school era crush by this Peter (in a complimentary way), so knowing are his smiles and so wicked is the sparkle in his eye. His macho pasturing and innocent sensuality are just perfect. And then of course, Peter Pan Syndrome kicks in, and we remember why this story is told again and again in the first place (beyond a chance to play with pirates). The pirates are big fun, cartoonishly scary, but really just little boys at heart.

Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs, doubling as Mr. Darling, father to Wendy and the boys) is deliciously wicked, yet completely real and adult in profound ways. His world is adulthood with no play, and Peter’s world is playtime with no adult responsibilities. Wendy is drawn to both, but ultimately knows her place is in the middle, where she came from. It’s fantastic to see fight scenes between age-appropriate Hook and Pan, it makes everything more dire and more profoundly resonant of the theme.

Inbetween all this deep dark profound stuff is kid fantasy set pieces to beat the band,with all kinds of fun adventure stuff (and even a few visual Disney homages). Director PJ Hogan (believe it or not, My Best Friend’s Wedding) knows that the enduring appeal of Peter Pan for the kids are the Lost Boys and Tink and the mermaids and of course, the tick tocking crocodile, searching to finish off Hook. He exercises a little Peter Pan of his own with the fun.

While you’re watching it, it seems like a straightforward, been there done that adaptation, but it is a solid movie, not *too* scary for kids but definitely with important things to say about love and maturity versus acting grown up and bossy, and a good bet overall. And Jason Isaacs totally kicks ass.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 12/25/03
Time in minutes 105
Director P.J. Hogan
Studio Universal

Comments Off on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

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Dreamworks has rallied as a Disney competitor with the excellent Prince of Egypt and Shrek, and the beautifully rendered Road to Eldorado and Antz. Now, Spirit is a sweet fable about wild mustangs in the old west. It is a compliment to their team of animators that this film looks every bit of a triumph of hand animation as any Disney classic. This should not be surprising, given that Spirit’s lead animator is a Disney veteran! It’s beautifully drawn, the acting (vocal and drawn) is exceptional, and what kid could resist the tale of a horse who beats the odds?

The only, and I repeat only, problem in this film is Bryan Adams. It is this Canadian rocker and nothing else that bumps this heart-swelling fable from Matinee with Snacks all the way down to Rental. Ouch. Hans Zimmer’s pretty and tearjerky score helps, but cannot save it.

Like with Disney’s Tarzan, the songs were written to use as emotional, rather than being sung by characters. Tarzan had Phil Collins and Spirit has Bryan Adams. Both musicians are generally found in the same bin in the used CD store – so what makes the final result so different? I have no intrinsic bias for or against either musician.Trying for objectivity, I watched a little Tarzan to figure out why Phil’s songs worked (or at least did no damage) while Bryan’s literally had me holding my head and shouting at the screen “No, Bryan, stop it please!”

The least well-matched song in Tarzan, “Song of Man” underscores a positive montage of Tarzan proving himself and winning the respect of his ape family. Collins’ music is not trying to be the main crux of the scene (as in a music video) and his lyrics are good. Then I watched my least favorite Adams number, “You Can’t Break Me,” wherein the refrain “get off my back” is repeated endlessly, loudly mixed, and it’s during a scene where Spirit is being forcibly and cruelly ridden by dozens of Union soldiers. The music is too loud and it just doesn’t blend. As it should be, it’s difficult to watch a man trying to tame a creature so wild and beautiful, so why make it worse?

I can only assume the producers were nervous about the horses’ lack of dialogue, or had no confidence that their animators would get enough emotion in their performance. This was a huge mistake.

Brilliantly, the horses only speak horse – neighing, whickering, snorting – it’s all tone and their facial expressions and body language that get the story across, and they didn’t need any music to assist them. What could not be conveyed by neighing is handled in a mostly unobtrusive voice-over by Matt Damon. Major kudos to the horse character teams, and my condolences for what Adams did to your hard work. Did I mention how I did enjoy Hans Zimmer’s contribution?

Spirit’s story, while admittedly tainted with the didactics of an IMAX movie, is interesting, moving, exciting, and (in the right parents’ hands) could open up discussions about the use of other species to further our own and animal’s feelings. Screenwriter John Fusco tempers his more obvious lessons with some unspoken statements about choosing versus being forced to be ridden, conforming. Dreamworks still shoots a little lower in the age demographic than Disney has lately, so we can’t fault them for the “lesson” aspect.

Despite everything, the sweeping vistas and sweet story still made me cry, so clearly something was working. I am serious – rent the DVD, turn on the English subtitles, put on your favorite Hans Zimmer score, and then you will really enjoy this movie. Bonus feature, nicely done: How to draw Spirit.

MPAA Rating G
Release date 5/24/02
Time in minutes 82
Director Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook
Studio Dreamworks

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Dinosaur

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I am not going to lie to you. Dinosaur has the simplest, most straightforward story since the dinosaur segment in Fantasia – but MY GOD the computer animation will knock your hair off. If you saw Jurassic Park and Bug’s Life and Toy Story, you might think, ah so what? You play Myst, you’re used to pretty textures and photorealistic landscapes, sure fine whatever. These thunder lizards breathe and shake and their muscles twitch and their wattles wobble and their weight presses them into the ground. The shadows are finally dark, not with that strange disembodied general glowing problem that has pervaded computer animation. The monkeys fur flutters softly, this is not Jumanji. This is freaking real creatures rolling smoothly across stunning landscapes and being alive. I swear, my jaw did not lift off my chest the first 30 minutes.

It’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful. If you saw the 3 minute preview tacked on to the Bug’s Life DVD you might have thought, wow, that looks pretty good. OH MY GOD. If you saw the preview with the unfortunate quote of “you need help from the love monkey” you might have thought “Oh brother,” and crossed it off your list. Well, the Love Monkey’s character is actually pretty nicely developed, and I mean, his fur! The monkeys and dinosaurs do talk, and they talk well, they are funny and they are sincere and it’s all very simple and straightforward. Remember how scary and awful the humans’ faces looked in Toy Story 1; all immobile and puppety? No more – we have some serious face animation and expression and wow oh wow. It’s not a musical, it’s kind of a drama (outlook: dire most of the show) but it’s full of positive messages for kids and some knockout visuals.

There is one scene where it’s raining, and computer animation buffs can appreciate this: it looks utterly real. The rain pattering off and sliding down the scales, splashing the dust, the hazy distance, the trickling moving foreground. Wow. Fire blazing, reflecting everywhere. Dust sticking to slightly moist faces. Muscles shaking from effort, cheeks puffing and flapping from exhaustion. Oh yes the whole thing is amazing to see. I can’t really even fault them for story because there is a story, it’s just (literally) the oldest one ever told and it’s simple and mostly predictable but it serves to get us from point A to B. The voice casting is unobtrusive (I recognized Julianna Margulies partway through but otherwise was not distracted by familiarity) and the score is adequate. I seriously was agog sucking up all the sights. I took almost no notes except to point out Chrone (?), a character of the same species as our lead, had the best face acting of all the characters (hooray for his leads!) and I simply wrote the word “agape,” for that is what I was: an ape agape at what a bunch of ones and zeros can do.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/19/00
Time in minutes 82
Director Eric Leighton, Ralph Zondag
Studio Walt Disney

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