Over the next few weeks I am going to be posting fairly brief reviews of the screeners I received in late 2010 that were intended to help me select winners for the NYFCO annual meeting that was held in early December. Most of these films were Hollywood productions that I would not ordinarily pay money to see but now offer up my reviews as a public service for those leftist malcontents who trust my judgment for some mysterious reason.
I am not quite sure how I am going to group these reviews but at the outset I am confident that it makes sense to look at the 2010 animated films as a group. Like most people who loved animated films as a kid, I continue to be interested in what the studios are turning out even though I have no reason to spend money to see such films in a theater. Perhaps if I had kids, I would. In any case, I am still enough of a kid to figure out which of these movies is worth renting from Netflix at this point (most are.)
These reviews appear in order of preference:
1. How to Train Your Dragon
As it turns out, I decided to write these reviews since this is now running on HBO for the first time. While watching it for the second time last week, I was reminded of how great it is. Among all the Hollywood movies I saw at the end of 2010, this was by far the best.
At first blush, the plot seems to be a retread of all those animated features about a maladjusted youth who comes into a contact with some kind of monster that turns out to be his best friend and constant companion. It is also reminiscent of movies, not necessarily animated, that recount the story of a kid who learns how to tame a wild stallion that he or she then rides to greater glory.
Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the young son of a Viking warrior named Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) who sees him as a kind of screw-up whose ability to turn into a dragon-slayer was limited at best. Hiccup is in a training program with other young Vikings who seem much more bloodthirsty than him, including a girl named Astrid (America Ferrera) who eventually becomes his love interest. Despite the fact that the characters are Vikings, they tend to speak in Scottish brogue that actually works well despite being anomalous.
One day Hiccup discovers a flying dragon in the bottom of a ravine that is trying desperately to fly away but keeps failing because part of his tail has been chopped off, courtesy of a Viking no doubt. Seeing the creature as vulnerable, in a way mirroring his own Milquetoast tendencies, he decides to take pity on it and treat it decently. This involves raiding his parents’ icebox (literally) and bringing back a fish that Toothless, his name for the dragon, devours. Showing his gratitude the way that a cat might offer up a dead mouse to its master, the dragon regurgitates the tail end of the fish that Hiccup is expected to eat. This he does to great comic effect. I should add that I found Jay Baruchel, the voice for Hiccup, totally engaging even though I could not stand him in the Canadian indie titled “The Trotsky”. As is so often the case, the script is key. “How to Train Your Dragon” has a great script and “The Trotsky” did not.
At a certain point the Vikings decide to raid the lair of a super-dragon that has the other dragons in thrall. The dragons have only resorted to raids on the Viking camps in order to steal food that they must deliver to their master. In the rousing climax of this movie, a group of Viking youth who have been converted to Hiccup’s pro-dragon orientation join the battle flying the creatures in Avatar fashion. This is about as thrilling a ten minutes of animated action as you are ever going to see and worth sharing with your kids or enjoying on your own, even if you are a 66 year old kid like me.
“How to Train Your Dragon” can be rented now from Netflix.
2. Toy Story 3:
This is another winner. I thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story 2 and assume that the first in the series was also great, even though I haven’t seen it.
I think most people tuned in somewhat to pop culture know that this stars Tom Hanks as Woody, the cowboy doll of a kid named Andy, who is the acknowledged leader of his toy collection that spring to life whenever a human is not around.
In this latest installment, Andy has reached college age and obviously no longer has any use for his toys. When his mother decides to donate them to a day care center, the toys are initially elated since they will be getting a new lease on toy life. Woody, however, holds out hope that Andy will still have a need for them. Being in a minority of one, he is left behind as they are put in a box and dropped off at the day care center.
Not long after the toys are taken out of the box and put on the shelf for the kids to play with, they discover that their new home is a kind of prison camp where the toddlers have more interest in tearing them apart than anything. As a kind of collaborator with the system, a bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) jails Andy’s toys for refusing to adapt. His chief enforcer is a big mute baby doll that is about as scary as any you would see in the prison break movies that this brilliant animated feature is based on, including “The Great Escape”.
Whether a film is directed toward children or adults, whether it is animated or not, what makes it succeed is a good script that includes fresh dialog and interesting character development. There’s plenty of that in spades in “Toy Story 3” that is available on Netflix, including a streaming version.
3. The Illusionist
Strictly speaking, this is not intended for kids. After seeing it, I wonder how many adults will appreciate it either. This is an animated feature that is based on a script by Jacques Tati, the actor featured in numerous Mr. Hulot comedies—films that I must admit having trouble “getting”. Mr. Hulot is a tall, spindly character who never says a word as he keeps getting into compromising situations on a holiday or in other settings. They are a much drier and much more Gallic version of the British Mr. Bean series that are obviously inspired by Tati’s work.
The main character is an older magician forced to perform in smaller and more obscure locations as the popular taste has moved away from such stage shows and much more toward television. All in all, it has the same sort of morose quality as the 1960 “The Entertainer”, a movie that starred Laurence Olivier as an old-time vaudevillian struggling to make a living. In one scene in “The Illusionist”, a long-time friend and fellow performer of the unnamed main character kills himself in a hotel room out of despair. Not really the stuff for kiddies.
While performing at a pub in a small Scottish town, the illusionist manages to convince at least one person that he is still capable of holding his own. A young maid named Alice becomes enthralled with his performance and quits her job to join him on a train bound to Paris where he has lined up a gig at a seedy theater. Even after ends up playing second fiddle to a rock band, just another symptom of changing tastes, he plods on with Alice in tow.
There is something vaguely unsettling about what might be a kind of unrequited romance between a sixtyish man and a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. Supposedly Tati intended that the script for “The Illusionist” to be seen as a reflection of his relationship with his own daughter but in the absence of dialog—a sort of sine qua non for a Tati film or one inspired by it—we have no way of knowing what is really going on between the two.
The main strength of this film is the truly inspired artwork that is like nothing seen in computer-generated films such as those turned out by Dreamworks. What is lacking, however, is a story to go along with the artwork. It is still worth renting from Netflix, even if it fails to deliver what the screenwriters and director intended, namely a work of art that would rival the original.
As a postscript, I should mention that Tati’s grandson has disavowed the movie as a travesty that effectively purges the original intent of the script, which was a kind of apology to Tati’s daughter for abandoning her during WWII. You can read his open letter here: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/directors/the-shame-of-jacques-tati.html
4. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole and Despicable Me
This is a tie for last place. Both of these films are milling affairs with nonstop action, all of which is a poor substitute for a story and character development. “The Legend of the Guardians“ is supposed to convey the apocalyptic “final battle” character of the last of the Fellowship of the Ring movies, but one has lost interest in the drama not 15 minutes after the film has started, largely because of the unremitting and unenlightening staged battles between the two owl armies.
Despicable Me stars the truly unfunny and overexposed Steve Carell as the evil genius Gru, a throwback to the villains in old James Bond movies, who adopts three young girls in a ploy to hatch a fiendish plot to steal the moon. Like Legend, it is nonstop, almost manic, action none of which amuses or enlightens. A.O. Scott of the New York Times nailed it just right:
Gru’s grand criminal scheme, which involves skittering robots baked into the cookies and then ever larger and more elaborate gizmos and flying machines, is as hectic and desperate as “Despicable Me” itself. The filmmakers seem motivated above all by the terror that if things slow or quiet down for even a second, the audience will either fall asleep or throw a tantrum. And so the projectiles (aren’t you glad you paid that extra fee for the 3-D “experience”?) keep coming, interrupted by wisecracks and snippets of teary sincerity.