Dumbo (2019) review

DUMBO

Director: Tim Burton
Cast : Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei
Genre : Adventure/Family/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 52 mins
Opens : 28 March 2019
Rating : PG

           This year, we’ll be getting several live-action remakes of Disney animated features – or, to be pedantic, a photo-realistic CGI remake with The Lion King. The House of Mouse kicks off the 2019 slate of remakes with Dumbo.

It is 1919 and Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I, having lost his left arm in the battle. Holt and his late wife Annie were trick riders in the circus. Holt returns to the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), to find they have run into hard times. An elephant acquired by Medici gives birth to a baby elephant with abnormally large ears. The baby, named Jumbo Jr. and nicknamed Dumbo, is forcefully separated from his mother. Holt’s young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) discover Dumbo can fly.

The story of the amazing flying elephant attracts the attention of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who buys out Medici’s circus. The circus performers, including Dumbo, relocate to Vandevere’s sprawling theme park Dreamland. Vandevere has Dumbo perform alongside trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). While Medici is initially swayed by Vandevere, he and the other circus performers eventually discover that Vandevere is exploiting them and is exploiting Dumbo in particular. Holt, Milly and Joe hatch a plan to free Dumbo and reunite him with his mother.

Disney’s live-action remakes have sometimes been criticised for being too literal – 2017’s Beauty and the Beast comes to mind. A remake should put enough of a spin on the original such that it doesn’t lose its spirit, but still feels transformative enough to be worthwhile. Dumbo largely achieves this with its story focusing on new human characters, while keeping the titular baby elephant as its emotional centre. Thankfully, elements from the original such as the racist crows are jettisoned, and this film’s message of inclusivity feels more genuine than that espoused by fellow circus movie The Greatest Showman.

Tim Burton’s sensibilities might not seem like the best fit for a family-friendly Disney film, and his attempts at family-aimed movies do tend to be inadvertently horrifying. However, Dumbo benefits from the distinct visual stylisation that Burton brings to it, and is also very much a story about outsiders, which is familiar territory for the director. Dumbo’s big ears, the thing for which he is mocked, are also the source of his special abilities. It’s not quite Edward Scissorhands, but one can see the connection there. There are times when it feels like this isn’t exactly a passion project for Burton and that he’s very much a hired gun, but then again, it’s easy to overdose on Burton-ness and for him to lapse into self-parody, which he stays a safe distance from here.

A lot rides on the shoulders of the titular pachyderm – if audiences believe the wholly computer-generated creation as a living, breathing character, then it’s easy to empathise with him and to feel sad when bad things befall him. The visual effects are supervised by Richard Stammers, and while Dumbo might look a bit unnatural in stills and posters, the result is successful. The human characters do a lot of interacting with Dumbo, which is mostly seamless. This is a movie in which the title character is only added into the film in post-production, and there isn’t an actor performing motion capture on set like with the Planet of the Apes reboot series or Alita: Battle Angel.

In addition to the synthetic main character, the human cast is a big part of what makes Dumbo work. There was a period in Colin Farrell’s career when Hollywood was pushing him as an action hero, and he’s much better as characters like Holt – quiet, tortured characters who are still noble, they’re just not spouting one-liners. Farrell brings a pensive sadness to Holt, who is handicapped after fighting in the war and is struggling to raise his two children after the death of his wife.

Michael Keaton is having heaps of fun as the slimy P.T. Barnum analogue. His villainous character is never truly terrifying and isn’t half as terrifying as Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s also the irony of a slick huckster who swallows up a smaller business being the villain in a Disney movie, given that Disney regularly swallows up slightly smaller businesses.

DeVito brings humour and heart to the role of Medici, someone who cares for his employees but who is struggling to make ends meet. The film hints that the circus performers have lives and personalities beyond their gimmick – Roshan Seth’s snake charmer character Pramesh Singh cares deeply for the elephants, while DeObia Oparei’s strong man character Rongo is also Medici’s accountant and general right-hand man.

Eva Green has become something of a muse of Burton’s, this being her third film with him. She brings elegance and mystique to the role of Colette, whom Vandevere keeps firmly under his thumb.

Nico Parker gives an assured performance as Milly, who has her heart set on becoming a scientist. She’s a girl ahead of her time, aspiring to something more than being a circus performer. Milly’s brother Joe is a bit less defined as a character, but Finley Hobbins is still quite endearing.

While Dumbo sometimes feels just a bit too conventional, it is a moving, often enchanting take on the classic animated film. The film benefits from just enough of Burton’s signature weirdness and darkness while still being something for the whole family.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Ralph Breaks the Internet movie review

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Director : Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
Cast : John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, Alan Tudyk, Flula Borg
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Family
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 22 November 2018
Rating : PG

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-posterWreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) may come from different arcade games, but after the events of the first Wreck-It Ralph film, they’ve become inseparable. In this sequel, the good-hearted oaf and the hyperactive princess get a lot more than they bargained for as they venture into the wild wild web.

It has been six years since Ralph and Vanellope became friends, and while Ralph finds comfort in the predictability of his daily routine as the designated villain  in the Fix-It Felix game, Vanellope has grown restless, the tracks of Sugar Rush no longer providing any excitement. When the steering wheel component of the Sugar Rush console breaks, Ralph and Vanellope use the arcade’s newly-installed connection to the internet to seek a replacement.

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In the cyber realm, our heroes meet all manner of colourful characters, including the badass driver Shank (Gal Gadot) from Slaughter Race, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), head algorithm of video sharing site BuzzTube, search engine KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk) and all the Disney princesses. While the internet contains endless wonderment and awe, there is also a dark side that Ralph and Vanellope are exposed to. When a calamity that could possibly break the internet is accidentally unleashed, Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship (and the computing power of servers around the world) will be put to the ultimate test.

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2012’s Wreck-It Ralph is one of this reviewer’s favourite Disney animated films in recent memory. It’s an energetic, effervescent film that cannily plays with video game tropes while delivering a heartfelt story populated by loveable characters. The sequel turbo-charges this, taking place on a larger scale and crammed with pop culture references, wordplay jokes and visual gags. Amidst everything swirling about in the teeming metropolis that is the internet, Ralph Breaks the Internet holds together because of its focus on the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope.

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It’s easy to be cynical about a movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet, given that much of the story and humour is fuelled by online culture. Co-director Rich Moore cut his teeth on such series as The Critic, The Simpsons and Futurama, bringing much of that self-aware reference-heavy comedy to bear. A Grand Theft Auto-like game is crucial to the plot, Vanellope hangs out with Disney princesses, and Ralph attempts makeup tutorial, hot pepper eating challenge and unboxing videos, among others, in the hopes of becoming a viral sensation. The jokes could’ve very easily been too obvious or cringe-worthy, but in the hands of directors Moore and Phil Johnston, this film never feels like it’s made by clueless adults pandering to kids they don’t understand.

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As is expected from Disney Animation, the visuals brim with detail and the character animation is just the right amount of cartoony, the degree to which their features and expressions are heightened varying from character to character. There is a high-octane car chase straight out of the Fast and Furious films, and the visual interpretations of sites like eBay, Instagram and Pinterest are well thought-out and amusing.

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The film’s signature sequence is the meeting between Vanellope and every official Disney Princess, including Snow White (Pamela Ribon), Cinderella (Jennifer Hale), Aurora (Kate Higgins), Ariel (Jodie Benson), Belle (Paige O’Hara), Jasmine (Linda Larkin), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), Merida (Kelly McDonald), Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). Ribon, a screenwriter who also worked on Moana, conceptualised the scene. The House of Mouse gamely and entertainingly takes the Mickey out of its own core sub-brand, commenting on common tropes seen in the Princess movies while providing the fantasy imagery of all one’s favourite characters just hanging out together. Vanellope also runs into Marvel and Star Wars characters, and there is a cameo that is wont to tug on the heartstrings given recent events.

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Both Reilly and Silverman continue to provide great humanity and heart to their characters. Ralph has never had a real friend before Vanellope, and is understandably distraught at the prospect that he might be replaced as her best friend. Meanwhile, Vanellope struggles with issues of identity and belonging, feeling like she is meant for something greater and perhaps a little less safe than Sugar Rush. While the misunderstandings that occur between Ralph and Vanellope feel a little like a re-tread of the conflicts in the first film, both characters continue to develop and continue to be endearing.

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Gal Gadot plays a character who is pretty much exactly Gisele from the Fast and Furious series, which is a neat little nod. Taraji P. Henson voices the Yesss with effortless cool, with real-life YouTube personality Flula Borg as Yesss’ right-hand man Maybe. Alan Tudyk, Disney’s current lucky charm, voices KnowsMore; he voiced King Candy in the first film.

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While Ralph Breaks the Internet’s pop culture reference jokes might lose some of the younger kids, its eye-catching design and heart-warming character interactions will hold their interest. The film doesn’t reach the surprising emotional heights of the first film, nor is it as creative and fresh, but it’s still plenty of fun and utterly hilarious. Stick around for a scene after the main-on-end titles and another at the very end of the credits.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Christopher Robin review

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Director : Marc Forster
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 mins
Opens : 2 August 2018
Rating : PG

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” so wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Corinthians. In this live-action/animation hybrid comedy-drama, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has put away childish things, but the time has come for him to rediscover them.

As a child, Christopher played in what he called the Hundred-Acre Wood with his stuffed animal friends, including the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), ebullient Tigger (also Cummings), despondent donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett), worrywart Piglet (Nick Mohammed), fastidious Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), intelligent Owl (Toby Jones), warm Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and her joey Roo (Sara Sheen). They had tea parties and grand adventures, but Christopher has bidden them farewell.

Now an adult, Christopher is married to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and they have a daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is preoccupied with work at the luggage manufacturer Winslow Industries, and is treated poorly by his boss Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When a crisis in the office pulls Christopher away from a weekend in the countryside with his wife and daughter, Pooh intervenes. Christopher is confused and unwilling, but eventually gets back in touch with the simple joys of his childhood, as the unexpected visit from his friends reorders his priorities.

This is an utterly devastating film that had this reviewer in tears almost from beginning to end. That is in no small part because it is emotionally manipulative, but just the premise is quite depressing: Christopher Robin has a mid-life crisis. This is not a movie meant for children, or at least primarily for children, judging by all the fidgeting kids in our screening. It’s a movie about what it’s like to lose and then regain a sense of wonderment and awe, and it’s something that’s readily relatable.

Last year, the biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the toll that the success of the stories had on their author A. A. Milne and his family, especially his son Christopher Robin Milne, was released. That film was sad and poignant and might’ve ruined Winnie the Pooh for some, seeing how much pain that bear wound up costing its creator. Christopher Robin is sad and poignant in a different, perhaps more production line way.

Director Marc Forster revisits territory akin to that he covered in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, about the inspiration behind Peter Pan. Here, he works from a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, with Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson receiving a “story by” credit. The number of writers indicates a cluttered script, but there is a refreshing simplicity to Christopher Robin. At times, it comes off as too simple in straining to be twee and nostalgic, but it generally works.

The dreary post-WWII London setting is contrasted with the idyll of the woods in Surrey. Above and beyond the period details, the visual effects in bringing the cuddly denizens of Hundred-Acre Wood to life are key in making audiences buy into the premise. The character animation, mostly done by visual effects houses Framestore and Method, is pitch-perfect – the way each character moves, the texture of their fur, the subtle nuances in the facial expressions – Pooh and company are all brought to life so lovingly.

Ewan McGregor’s performance as Christopher is reasonably endearing, but all the human characters are quite thinly drawn. We see how much pressure Christopher is under and how he is intent on his young daughter going away to boarding school, against her wishes. Because the titular character is intended as a cipher for all adults, there’s not much that makes him distinctive, apart from how he’s friends with a bunch of sentient stuffed animals.

Hayley Atwell is underused in a sparely written role as ‘the wife’, while Bronte Carmichael does inject some personality into Madeline, but again, it’s not much more than “I don’t get to spend enough time with my dad”. The whole thing is very “cats in the cradle” – or “bears in the honey jar”, if you will. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss relishes playing the cruel boss.

Veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh since 1988 and Tigger since 1989, is such a joy to hear. His performance as Pooh sounds natural emanating from the fluffy three-dimensional rendering of the beloved bear. While the rest of the voice cast are not as closely associated with their respective characters as Cummings is, everyone does well – especially Brad Garrett as Eeyore, who gets some of the best lines.

Disney has been leaning extremely hard on nostalgia, and Christopher Robin puts a bit of a spin on that by commenting on the nature of adulthood and of maintaining a connection to childhood after we’ve crossed that threshold. The film doesn’t comment on this in the most insightful manner, but there are moments that are sweet as honey, and, if you’re as emotionally fragile as this reviewer, as sad as an empty honey jar.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wonder movie review

For inSing

WONDER

Director : Stephen Chbosky
Cast : Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Daveed Diggs, Mandy Patinkin, Crystal Lowe, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon
Genre : Drama/Family
Run Time : 1h 54m
Opens : 14 December 2017
Rating : PG

Everyone has felt like at outcast at some point or another in their lives. It seems August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) has felt like at outcast at every point in his ten years alive. Auggie was born with a craniofacial condition and because of his deformity, has gotten used to drawing stares from strangers. Auggie’s parents Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson) decide that after being home-schooled all this time, Auggie should enrol in a regular school.

Auggie faces his first day at Beecher Preparatory School with trepidation. The principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) has assigned three children to help Auggie feel welcome: Julian (Bryce Gheisar), Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) and Jack (Noah Jupe). Julian relentlessly bullies Auggie and Charlotte can get a little over-excited, so Auggie finds himself becoming friends with Jack. Summer (Millie Davis) also decides to reach out to Auggie.

In the meantime, Auggie’s sister Olivia (Izabela Vidovic), nicknamed “Via”, feels neglected because her parents have shown Auggie so much attention. She develops a crush on her schoolmate Justin (Nadji Jeter), while grieving the loss of her grandmother (Sonia Braga). While adversity has figured strongly in the Pullmans’ lives because of Auggie’s condition, weathering this together also pulls them closer.

Wonder is based on the 2012 novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio. Director Steven Chbosky works from a screenplay he co-adapted with Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. Chbosky directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower based on his own book, which also dealt with themes of being different and navigating school as an outcast. Wonder is cuddlier and more conventional.

Cynics will be quick to decry it as sentimental and emotionally manipulative and, at times, Wonder tends towards that end of the spectrum. However, it is never so cloying and saccharine as to alienate viewers outright, and there is plenty here that is easy relatable – especially for the parents in the audience. Wonder deals with themes of acceptance, bullying and friendship in a familiar but amiable way. The film shifts between several points of view, letting the audience see the story through a few different perspectives. This device could’ve made the movie fragmented or messy, but the transitions are handled organically, and this approach fleshes the story out.

Jacob Tremblay burst onto the scene with his stirring turn in Room, and continues to prove his chops as Auggie. Crucially, the character has a personality and the film is quick to show that there’s so much more to Auggie than how he looks. Quite endearingly, Auggie is a Star Wars fan, like Tremblay is in real life. A certain Wookiee whom Auggie relates to appears in some imaginary sequences. Auggie is realistically withdrawn, but when he gets to open up to someone, becomes animated. The role is acted with considerable nuance.

Roberts plays the over-protective, stressed-out mum who’s always being pulled in many directions. Many mothers in the audience will recognise the constant frazzled state she’s in, and how Isabel has had to sacrifice her own dreams to care for her children. Wilson plays the cool, slightly goofy dad, and gets a few emotional moments in which Nate professes his love for Auggie.

Izabela Vidovic, who played the daughter of Jason Statham’s character in Homefront, also delivers a credible performance. It is to the story’s credit that one sibling feeling they must step aside for the other is explored in a satisfying manner. The romantic subplot between Via and Justin is simplistic, but is sweet and complements the rest of the film.

Broadway stars Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs provide solid supporting turns as principal and teacher respectively. Hamilton star Diggs is warm, but exercises restraint, such that Mr. Browne does not come off as a standard ‘inspirational teacher’ type. Patinkin brings a soulful authority to the role – every school should be so lucky to have a principal like Mr. Tushman.

Wonder might turn off the jaded, but this isn’t a movie made for them. Sure, the movie has its share of fortune cookie hokum, but there’s a palpable sincerity to it and there are sure to be viewers who’ll find it inspirational and uplifting. It falls short of profundity, but Wonder makes for a good movie to watch as a family and discuss afterwards.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Paddington 2 movie review

For inSing

PADDINGTON 2

Director : Paul King
Cast : Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin
Genre : Comedy/Family
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 7 December 2017
Rating : PG

Everyone’s favourite marmalade-loving Peruvian bear is back on the big screen. Unfortunately, he finds himself in the big house, too. Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is thrown in prison, after being framed for a robbery he did not commit. His adoptive family, comprising Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) Brown, plus housekeeper Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), must clear Paddington’s name. Paddington must find a way to foil the dastardly plans of Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a fading actor who will stop at nothing to acquire a priceless treasure. While in prison, the cuddly little bear must defend himself from various nasty types, including the imposing prison chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). With a positive attitude, good manners, and a little help from people who care about him, Paddington just might survive this ordeal.

After the runaway success of 2014’s Paddington, a sequel was inevitable. We can’t stop the cynics from viewing this film as a shameless cash-grab, but we don’t have to. Paddington 2 does a fine job of that all by itself. This is a film that brims with heart, is ever-so-English, impeccably acted, and not too sickeningly twee. Like its predecessor, there’s also a sweet pro-inclusivity message, conveyed by way of Peter Capaldi’s Mr. Curry, who hates Paddington just because he’s an immigrant.

On top of that, Paddington 2 is hilarious. Director and co-writer Paul King, who also helmed the first Paddington film, delivers a delightfully witty movie that features a mix of expertly-choreographed physical comedy set-pieces and clever wordplay. The film is a masterclass in the art of the setup and the payoff – things that register at first as silly details later become important in the plot, and it snaps together in such a satisfying way. The action-packed finale plays like a cross between the climactic scene of Back to the Future Part III and the opening set-piece of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The first Paddington movie was going to star Colin Firth as the voice of the loveable bear, and Ben Whishaw was brought on as a last-minute replacement. Whishaw is effortlessly sweet and earnest without it coming off as an affectation. The computer-generated effects seem to have improved since the last movie, and it’s easy to buy Paddington as an actual character. While it’s not as photo-real as the work in War for the Planet of the Apes (nor is it intended to be), this reviewer found himself as invested in Paddington’s journey as he was in Caesar’s.

The stable of talented English actors who fill the supporting cast returns from the first film, with the addition of a few big names. Bonneville plays the pragmatic patriarch who, after years in the insurance business, has lost his taste for whimsy. Hawkins serves as a foil as the warm-hearted Mary. Walters is endlessly amusing as the plucky Mrs Bird, while Capaldi is as crotchety as he can be without Malcolm Tucker-style swearing.

Hugh Grant is the runaway scene-stealer. He gamely sends up his own career, playing a self-obsessed actor whose glory days are far behind him. Seeing as Grant was one of the hottest stars of the 90s and saw his stock fall after personal scandals and massive flops, it’s admirable that he’s willing to poke fun at himself. Not only that, he appears to be having a grand old time doing so. As excellent as Nicole Kidman was in the first film, Grant’s villainous turn handily one-ups hers.

Brendan Gleeson is also a joy to watch as the widely-feared prison cook whom Paddington gamely tries to befriend. All the actors seem to enjoy being a part of the project, and nobody looks like they’ve been forced to put on a happy face.

Given the current political and pop culture climate, few things are cynic-proof. There are popular YouTube channels dedicated to mercilessly dismembering every last thing anyone finds remotely enjoyable, and plenty of think-pieces endeavour to do the same. Paddington 2 is a shining light in this fog of scoffing and irony. What the film possesses in sincerity, it matches in technical accomplishment and engaging storytelling. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel the warm fuzzies.

In a year that’s given us some surprising, spectacular blockbusters, Paddington 2 might not be a shock to the system, but it shouldn’t be. It should be a hug, and that it certainly is. The film is dedicated to the memory of Paddington creator Michael Bond, who passed away just before filming wrapped. If future Paddington movies are anywhere as good as this, his legacy is in the safest paws.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Dog’s Purpose

For F*** Magazine

A DOG’S PURPOSE

Director : Lasse Hallström
Cast : Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, John Ortiz, Juilet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Peggy Lipton, Bryce Gheisar, Pooch Hall
Genre : Drama/Family
Run Time : 1h 41min
Opens : 2 March 2017
Rating : PG

a-dogs-purpose-posterThere is a wealth of movie-related resources online. Beyond the obvious review sites, one can peruse elaborate fan theories, read up on how a biopic measures up against historical fact, or check if a given film passes the Bechdel Test. DoesTheDogDie.com catalogues movies in which animals are put in peril. Here we have a movie which is predicated upon the dog dying several times.

 

Josh Gad provides the internal monologue of a dog’s spirit. In 1961, we meet this dog as the Golden Retriever Bailey. 8-year-old Ethan Montgomery (Gheisar) convinces his parents Jim (Kirby) and Elizabeth (Rylance) to let him keep the dog. They become best friends, and several years later, Bailey remains by the now-teenage Ethan’s (Apa) side as he falls in love with his classmate Hannah (Robertson).

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After Bailey dies, he gets reincarnated as Ellie, a German Shepherd K-9 who is paired with police officer Carlos Ruiz (Ortiz) in 80s Chicago. In her next life, Ellie becomes a Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Tino, who is taken in by an Atlanta college student named Maya (Howell-Baptiste) and accompanies her as she starts a family. Finally, Tino is reincarnated as a St. Bernard/Australian Shepherd mix named Buddy, who is neglected by his trailer trash owners Victor (Primo Allen) and Wendi (Nicole LaPlaca). Buddy is eventually dumped in an abandoned lot, and seeks a place where he belongs and after many lifetimes, comes to understand what his purpose on earth is.

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A Dog’s Purpose is adapted from the novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, who is also one of the five credited screenwriters. Director Lasse Hallström, who also helmed the canine-centric Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, has put together an unabashed tearjerker. A Dog’s Purpose is geared towards anyone with even the slightest affection for dogs and advocates adoption and rescue. The problem is that people who love dogs generally don’t want to see dogs in pain or die onscreen, and there’s a great deal of canine misfortune, packed in with cutesy shenanigans. The emotional manipulation is plentiful and blatant, and because of the film’s episodic nature, the relationships between the human characters are largely simplistic.

Then there’s the elephant in the room, the infamous leaked video taken on the set of the film that showed a German Shepherd named Hercules being forced into rushing water. This drew sharp outcry, and while an investigation conducted by an independent animal cruelty expert concluded that proper safety measures were taken and that the video had been manipulatively edited, the damage was done. The film’s Los Angeles premiere was scrapped and A Dog’s Purpose will forever be tied to the abuse allegations. It’s possible that animals are often coerced in the making of movies and TV shows, if not mistreated, and this has further fuelled the debate of whether animals should be made to perform for the sake of human entertainment. It dates back to the days of circuses, and we’ll go out on a limb and say that animal actors in Hollywood are generally treated far better than circus animals.

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A Dog’s Purpose is ambitious in that the story spans several decades, and it features a convincing if sanitized re-creation of nostalgic Americana in its first segment. Bradley Cooper was originally cast as the voice of the dog, and was replaced by Gad. Gad has the wide-eyed earnestness down pat, but the voiceover is a big part of why the film is as heavy-handed as it is. Apa, currently playing Archie on Riverdale, makes for a decent teen heartthrob, while Robertson is appealing as she usually is. Quaid, the film’s most recognisable star, doesn’t get all that much to do. Both Ortiz’s Carlos and Howell-Baptiste’s Maya are likeable in their own ways, but suffer from the thin characterisation necessitated by the film’s vignette format.

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A Dog’s Purpose is filled with especially adorable canines (our screening seemed particularly taken with that Corgi), but its sentimentality is relentless and comes off as patronising. The plot of A Dog’s Purpose needs multiple dead dogs to make its altogether simple point. There are charming moments and large swathes of moviegoers will get misty-eyed, but A Dog’s Purpose often forgoes meaningful storytelling in favour of emotionally-manipulative shorthand.

 

Summary: There’s little profundity to be found in this tearjerker, though some will find its syrupy aw-shucks wholesomeness appealing. And, naturally, the dogs are really cute.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pete’s Dragon

For F*** Magazine

PETE’S DRAGON 

Director : David Lowery
Cast : Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Oona Laurence, John Kassir
Genre : Adventure
Run Time : 1 hr 43 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

Pete's Dragon posterCall it “Re-Pete’s Dragon”: Disney has remade one of the lesser-known films in their canon, changing the setting from a seaside Maine town in the 1900s to the forests of the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. Pete (Fegley), has spent six of his 11 years alive living in the forest after being stranded there following an accident. He has since befriended a green, furry dragon named Elliott (Kassir), who has the ability to turn invisible. Elderly wood-carver Meacham (Redford) claims to have encountered a dragon in the woods in his youth, but everyone writes it off as a tall tale. Meacham’s daughter Grace (Howard), a forest ranger, takes Pete in after Natalie (Laurence), the daughter of Grace’s boyfriend Jack (Bentley), spots Pete in the forest. In the meantime, Jack’s brother Gavin (Urban) becomes obsessed with capturing Elliott, thinking it will bring him fame. Pete must learn to live as a regular boy, but yearns to be reunited with his friend Elliott.

Pete's Dragon Elliott and Oakes Fegley 1

Pete’s Dragon is quite the wonder in that in contains nary a shred of cynicism. Director David Lowery strives to recapture the charm of old-school ‘A Boy and his X’ tales, and largely succeeds. Little of the original 1977 musical film remains: there’s a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliott who can turn invisible, and the characters of Nora and her father Lampie are reworked into Grace and Meacham. Pete’s Dragon is what a remake should be: key components of the source are repurposed to fit a new vision and it isn’t a beat-for-beat re-tread of what came before. It’s warm-hearted but does take a while to get into gear, with a few moments bordering on cheesy. Pete’s Dragon stands on the shoulders of kids’ adventure films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and The Iron Giant, its old-fashioned sensibilities contrasted with the advanced visual effects technology used to bring Elliott to life.

Pete's Dragon Oona Laurence, Elliott and Oakes Fegley

Elliott is a supremely loveable creation, with some design cues taken from The Never-Ending Story’s Falkor the Luck Dragon. Lowery justified giving Elliott a furry coat by saying he wanted Elliott to be “the kind of dragon you really want to give a hug to”, and this reviewer did indeed very much want to hug Elliott. The visual effects work, supervised by Tony Baldridge and Eric Saindon, makes Elliott feel like a living, breathing creature. The moments in which Elliott interacts with his environment, knocking over trees, splashing about in the river or sliding into the grass after a rough landing, are uniformly convincing. Elliott possesses multiple doglike attributes, with his vaguely Chewbacca-like vocalisations provided by voice actor John Kassir. Every whimper and growl makes Elliott seem more like an actual animal, and the in-universe explanation of the dragon being regarded as a folk legend cryptid gives this flight of fancy some grounding.

Pete's Dragon Oakes Fegley

The live-action actors expectedly play second fiddle to Elliott, but they all take this quite seriously. Fegley’s Pete is the second feral boy in a live-action Disney movie this year, after Neel Sethi’s Mowgli in The Jungle Book. Fegley brings a wildness and physicality to Pete, whose years in the forest have made him adept at climbing pretty much anything. His interactions with Elliott are the very stuff that warm fuzzy feelings are made of.

Pete's Dragon Oona Laurence, Bryce Dallas Howard and Wes Bentley

Between this and Jurassic World, it seems giant CGI creatures just won’t leave Howard alone. She doesn’t get much to do, but her performance does feel straight out of an 80s Amblin movie. Redford’s gravitas, warmth and that perpetual twinkle in his eye give the film plenty of heart. Meacham is an old-timer who never lost that sense of imagination. Laurence was one of the child actresses who originated the role of Matilda in the eponymous musical on Broadway, and glimmers of the precociousness integral to Matilda are present here. She gets to boss Redford around a little, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the living legend getting barked at by a kid. Bentley is passable if not terribly interesting as a blue-collar dad, while Urban sinks his teeth into the antagonist role even though it’s a little thinly written. He sneers the line “the dragon is mine!” with admirable conviction.

Pete's Dragon Robert Redford

While it bears more than a few similarities to that recent Boy and His X favourite How to Train Your Dragon, Pete’s Dragon is charming is different ways too, thanks to its wholesome Americana vibe. Live-action kids’ adventure movies are a bit of a dying breed, but Disney’s recent live-action successes might mean a resurgence for the subgenre. As an avid indoorsman, this reviewer enjoys experiencing the wonders of nature from the comfort of a cinema hall. New Zealand doubles for the Pacific Northwest, and the actual scenery is as pleasing as the computer-generated visuals. Daniel Hart provides a rousing score, and ‘hip-hop violinist’ Lindsey Stirling makes her feature film debut performing Something Wild with Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. It all makes for a simple, wistfully-told story that harks back to simpler times and yet doesn’t drown in schmaltz.

Pete's Dragon Elliott and Oakes Fegley 2

Summary: Despite starting out slow, Pete’s Dragon becomes an absorbing adventure boasting marvellous visual effects work. Toothless has got heady competition in the ‘cutest dragon’ stakes.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Secret Life of Pets

For F*** Magazine

THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS

Director : Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Cast : Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks, Tara Strong
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1 hr 31 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : PG

The Secret Life of Pets posterDouble lives make for inherently intriguing storytelling: from the playboy/vigilante to the Wall Street stockbroker/serial killer to the electronics salesman/superspy, we can’t get enough of them. This animated film sheds light on what pets get up to when their owners head out to work. Naturally, it’s not quite as dramatic as the above examples.

Max (C.K.) is a Jack Russell terrier who is completely devoted to his owner Katie (Kemper). His idyllic existence is upended when Katie brings home a new dog, the shaggy mongrel Duke (Stonestreet). Upset that he is no longer the sole beneficiary of Katie’s affection, Max plots to get Duke kicked out of the house. The two get into an altercation and get lost, running into a gang known as the “Flushed Pets”. These unceremoniously abandoned animals are led by the psychotic rabbit Snowball (Hart), who has vowed vengeance against all humans. Gidget (Slate), a Pomeranian who has been nursing a crush on Max, leads a group of their friends to search for and rescue Max and Duke. The group includes aloof tabby cat Chloe (Bell), geriatric basset hound Pops (Carvey) and Tiberius (Brooks), a red-tailed hawk who has to keep his killer instincts in check. An odyssey through New York ensues, as Max and Duke have to put aside their differences and try to make it home.

The Secret Life of Pets Duke, Katie and Max

The Secret Life of Pets is directed by Chris Renaud, who helmed the Despicable Me movies, and Yarrow Cheney, who was the production designer for them. Animation studio Illumination Entertainment is on a roll, with The Secret Life of Pets now a worldwide box office hit. The bits and pieces that have been cobbled together from other films are clearly evident and have been frequently pointed out: Max’s resentment of Duke echoes Woody’s jealousy when Buzz Lightyear enters Andy’s playroom in Toy Story and the story of stranded pets finding a way back to their owners is reminiscent of Homeward Bound.

The Secret Life of Pets Chloe, Max and Mel

While it isn’t exactly original, the film is energetic and vibrant and remains engaging throughout. The animation isn’t a dizzying sensory overload, and the design of New York City is just heightened enough while still being recognisable. Composer Alexandre Desplat channels George Gershwin with a breezy, jazzy score. Inventive moments of physical humour are showcased during several intricately choreographed set pieces, including a skirmish in which Max and Duke are bounced about between multiple clotheslines and when Buddy (Buresss), a dachshund, navigates a fire escape. While there are obvious jokes about bodily functions, The Secret Life of Pets does hit a few balls in the direction of the parents in the audience. “For me, every breath is a cliff-hanger,” the elderly Pops wheezes. Elsewhere, there’s a reference to the gentrification of Brooklyn. It’s the right shade of ‘adult’. A hallucination sequence in which Sausage Party seems to have invaded this film is more miss than hit, though. It’s not razor-sharp wit, but this reviewer laughed more often than not.

The Secret Life of Pets Chloe, Mel, Buddy, Tiberius, Gidget and Sweet Pea

This film marks C.K.’s first voice role. Cynicism and wry, world-weary observation is very much built into C.K.’s persona as a comedian – as such, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised at how convincing he sounds as an earnest, enthusiastic Jack Russell terrier. The conflict between Max and Duke is efficiently established and predictably enough, they have a few bonding moments along the way, eventually reaching inevitable that “hey, you’re not so bad” point. Stonestreet is a good choice for the loveable big lug, who isn’t as dim-witted as one might expect. Yes, we’re guilty of judging books by their covers.

The Secret Life of Pets Snowball and friends

Speaking of going off appearances, a lot of the humour in The Secret Life of Pets is derived from first impressions being deceiving. There’s the refined poodle who head-bangs to System of a Down’s Bounce, and of course there’s Snowball. Hart does a lot of manic yelling, and while it’s not a bad concept for the primary antagonist, the character’s drastic change of h(e)art towards the film’s conclusion is difficult to buy. As it stands, Snowball is not much more than a less esoteric Rabbit of Caerbannog from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

In this image released by Universal Pictures, Gidget, voiced by Jenny Slate, left, and Max, voiced by Louis C.K., appear in a scene from, "The Secret Lives of Pets." (Illumination Entertainment and Universal Pictures via AP)

Slate’s distinctive raspy tones sound very apt emanating from a Pomeranian, and the character’s determination to rescue her beloved Max is endearing. Brooks, voicing a very different animated character from Marlin in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory, gets some of the film’s funniest moments. Tiberius is a lonely hawk cooped up in a cage whose nature as a predator gets in the way of him making any friends, and it’s always fun to see a kids’ film with talking animals actually acknowledge the fact that animals eat other animals, while giving the carnivore in question some redeeming features. Bell’s cool indifference as Chloe the cat is an amusing counterpoint to the overall enthusiasm expressed by the various dogs.

The Secret Life of Pets gnarly cats

            We’ve avoided this comparison for this long, so here goes: The Secret Life of Pets can’t match the warmth and profundity of Pixar’s best works, but it’s still sufficiently moving and entertaining, with quality animation work making it a visual treat. Oops, we said “treat” out loud. No, sit, sit!

Summary: Thanks to a funny, talented voice cast and eye-catching animation, The Secret Life of Pets is good fun in spite of its familiar aspects.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

For F*** Magazine

ALEXANDER AND THE HORRIBLE, TERRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY

Director : Miguel Arteta
Cast : Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Dylan Minnette, Ed Oxenbould, Kerris Dorsey, Megan Mullally, Jennifer Coolidge, Bella Thorne
Genre : Family/Comedy
Run Time : 81 mins
Opens : 4 December 2014
Rating : PG
Daniel Powter sang about a “Bad Day” in 2005 and in this Disney comedy, we meet someone who’s had his share of bad days, 11-year-old Alexander Cooper (Oxenbould). It’s the day before his 12th birthday and Alexander’s crushed that all his friends will be attending another schoolmate’s party instead. None of his family members will give him the time of day because they’re too caught up celebrating all the things that are going right for them. A dejected Alexander fixes himself a makeshift birthday sundae, wishing that the rest of his family will experience a downer day of their own. The next day, Alexander’s wish comes true: his dad Ben’s (Carell) job interview takes a less-than-successful turn, the children’s book his mum Kelly (Garner) is publishing emerges with an unfortunate typo, his sister Emily (Dorsey) might have to sit out the production of Peter Pan in which she’s starring due to the flu his older brother Anthony (Minnette) has a disastrous driving test and a falling out with his girlfriend Celia (Thorne) and his baby brother Trevor (Elise/Zoey Vargas) ingests a permanent marker. Alexander realises what his wish has wrought and the family band together to make it through the day together.

            This writer is grateful that Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day has as long a title as it does because it will help with his word quota. The film is based on the 1972 children’s book by Judith Viorst, which was earlier adapted into an animated musical special. Being a 32-page children’s book, the film calls for adaptation expansion. So, while the book focused on Alexander’s own bad day, the bulk of the film centres on the bad day Alexander wishes upon the rest of his family. It’s basically Hijinks Ensues: The Movie, with Murphy’s Law in full effect. There’s a degree of schadenfreude to be had in seeing myriad family-friendly calamities befall the Cooper clan. This is best-described as a sitcom episode with a larger budget. It’s really, really silly but you knew that going into it already. Between the least successful stage production of Peter Pansince the one in 21 Jump Street, Steve Carell pursuing a runaway kangaroo through the neighbourhood and strippers showing up for a kids’ birthday party, the comedy set-pieces are lively but stop short of being satisfyingly elaborate.

            Parents make many sacrifices for their children and sitting through cringe-worthy family movies is one of them. Thankfully, Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day isn’t as torturous for the older members of the audience as it could’ve been and it helps that it clocks in at a breezy 81 minutes. Steve Carell’s presence elevates the pratfall-heavy flick – no matter what he’s in, he never looks like he’s phoning it in or that the material is beneath him and he’s been subjected to far more embarrassment in earlier films like Evan Almighty. He’s game for anything director Miguel Arteta throws at him, including being lit on fire at a Benihana-style teppanyaki restaurant. Jennifer Garner’s good in this one too, making for a believable pillar of sanity for the family. The attitudes that both Ben and Kelly Cooper carry are actually quite uplifting and it does bring a smile to one’s face to see this couple try their darndest to remain positive as everything unravels around them in comedic fashion.

            The child actors in the film are competent if not particularly remarkable. Ed Oxenbould has just enough of that “loveable moppet” quality about him without looking like he was assembled in a Disney child star factory. It’s also pretty funny that Alexander is fascinated by all things Australian, and Oxenbould is an Aussie himself. Kerris Dorsey is appealingly loopy as she attempts to play Peter Pan while high on cough syrup. Dylan Minnette is a little stiff as the older brother eager to impress his date and Bella Thorne does bring just enough “mean girl”-ness to bear. Dick van Dyke is a bit of an odd cameo choice – we suppose there’s the Disney connection. Genre fans will also get a kick out of seeing Burn Gorman from Pacific Rim, Torchwood and Game of Thrones show up as the drama teacher.


            Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day has its share of bodily function jokes and other juvenile gags but it’s able to escape that feeling that it should be consigned to the Disney Channel thanks to the two A-list stars playing the parents. The production values are also decent, barring an iffy CGI kangaroo. If you’re at the Cineplex and have got little ‘uns in tow, you could do worse than this bad day.
Summary: It’s a really silly, fluffy family flick, but the gags fly thick and fast, Steve Carell throws himself into the nonsense and it’s all over fairly quickly.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Dolphin Tale 2

For F*** Magazine

DOLPHIN TALE 2

Director : Charles Martin Smith
Cast : Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Freeman
Genre: Family/Comedy/Drama
Opens : 2 October 2014
Rating : PG 
Run time: 107 mins
The true story of Winter, the rescued dolphin with the prosthetic tail, was dramatized in 2011’s Dolphin Tale, this sequel following up on Winter and some of her new companions at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick Jr.), his daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff) and teams of volunteers cope with the crowds of visitors who flock to the aquarium to see the now-famous Winter. Sawyer (Gamble), with whom Winter shares the closest bond, notices that Winter has become erratic and aggressive. Panama, the dolphin who lives alongside Winter, dies of old age. U.S. Department of Agriculture regulation states that a dolphin in captivity must be accompanied by another of the same sex and cannot live in isolation. The companionship of rescued dolphins Mandy and Hope might be just what Winter needs. While Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Freeman) works on a new prosthetic tail for Winter, Sawyer and his mother Lorraine (Judd) must decide if he will accept a prestigious scholarship, which means spending three whole months away from Winter.

            A good live-action family film seems to be an increasingly rarer beast at movie theatres these days. It’s difficult to strike a balance in order to create a film that appeals to kids but also won’t elicit protests from adults. 2011’s Dolphin Tale was mostly successful in this endeavour, an involving “a Boy and his X” tale that wasn’t overly schmaltzy. It doesn’t seem like the natural candidate for a sequel, but it turns out that Winter’s story didn’t end there. Thankfully, all the principal cast members and director Charles Martin Smith have returned, ensuring that Dolphin Tale 2 shares many of the attributes that made the first film palatable. Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that just as it was for the first go-round, the human characters share few similarities with their real-life counterparts and “Sawyer Nelson” was created from whole cloth for the purpose of a “Boy and his X” narrative.

            This isn’t one of those children’s movies where everyone gets along and everything is hunky-dory. There is a good deal of drama and conflict in the plot, partially owing to the main kid characters coming into adolescence. Hazel is at loggerheads with her dad and Sawyer is conflicted as to whether or not he should take an extended period of time away from Winter to go on a university research trip. Dr. Haskett has to fend off the threat of Winter being taken away from Clearwater Marine Aquarium by the USDA and has to explain to the board of directors why Winter can’t make public appearances. While it’s good that character development is made central to the story and that the film doesn’t resort to a cartoony villain, the film is undeniably at its best when we spend time with the dolphins and not with the human characters alone. At times, it can feel like Winter, Mandy and Hope are not receiving sufficient screen time even when the focus is always ostensibly on the dolphins.

            The returning cast helps maintain a sense of continuity and allow viewers to get back into Winter’s story with ease. “You kids take us by surprise, you grow up so stinking fast!” Judd’s character says at one point. She’s right – both Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff have grown into fine young adults, capably handling the dramatic moments and the interaction with the animals just as they did as younger children. There must’ve been the temptation to shoehorn some kind of romance in but thankfully, Smith resists doing so. Both Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman’s roles are smaller than in the last film, but their kind, authoritative presence is still welcome. “Soul Surfer” and shark attack survivor Bethany Hamilton cameos as herself. Winter and Hope the dolphins, who play themselves, deserve credit as well.

The KNB Effects Group, headed by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, returns to furnish the animatronic animal effects and the results are largely seamless. That’s right, the guys responsible for the dolphin, pelican and turtle puppets in these two movies also help create the zombies for The Walking Dead. The underwater photography is also as beautiful as in the first one. In spite of some stilted dialogue and overly-engineered plot mechanics, Dolphin Tale 2 emerges as an above-average piece of family entertainment and to its credit, does not feel like a cash-grab sequel, as it well could have. Older audience members might roll their eyes at the continuing antics of Rufus the Pelican, but the goings-on at Clearwater Marine Aquarium are depicted in a fairly engaging manner.

Summary: Just like its predecessor, Dolphin Tale 2 is a decent family film with an educational quotient but just as the Clearwater Marine Aquarium has expanded and gotten busier, this film loses some of the intimacy and warmth of the first.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong