The Peanuts Movie

For F*** Magazine

THE PEANUTS MOVIE

Director : Steve Martino
Cast : Noah Schnapp, Bill Melendez, Hadley Belle Miller, Alex Garfin, Noah Johnston, Francesca Angelucci Capaldi, Venus Omega Schultheis, Mariel Sheets, Kristin Chenoweth
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 93 mins
Opens : 10 December 2015
Rating : G

            It’s the great comeback movie, Charlie Brown! The Peanuts gang last graced the big screen in 1980’s Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!), and in defiance of that title, Charlie Brown and friends are back indeed. Charlie Brown (Schnapp) has had a streak of bad luck, which he hopes to turn around when a new girl arrives in town. The Little Red-Haired Girl (Capaldi) quickly becomes the object of Charlie Brown’s affections, and he goes about attempting to win her heart. In the meantime, Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy (Melendez) finds a typewriter in a dumpster and begins writing a novel about his alter-ego, the World War I Flying Ace, who battles the Red Baron and falls for the poodle pilot Fifi (Chenoweth).

            The long-running Peanuts comic strip, created by Charles M. Schulz and running from 1950 to 2000, has occupied a beloved place in the American pop culture consciousness. Naturally, many were nervous as to how a computer-animated feature film would fare, given the resolute old-fashioned nature of the strips and related media. Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan co-wrote the screenplay with Cornelius Uliano, ensuring that the film honours the family legacy. Director Steve Martino, who helmed earlier Blue Sky Animation projects Horton Hears a Who! and Ice Age: Continental Drift, retains the mood of the classic animated TV specials by sticking closely to the established designs of the characters. Their herky-jerky movement is an effective way of keeping the film from feeling too slick and modern, while little touches such as the subtle felt-like texture of Snoopy’s fur add just enough detail.



            The aesthetics and wholesome feel of the strip have been preserved, with the film carrying nary and hint of big studio interference about it beyond the inclusion of a Meghan Trainor song. However, there’s very little here that’s capable of sustaining a feature film, even one that’s 93 minutes long. The Peanuts strips were never really rife with incident, but even then, the plot often feels too insubstantial. The most exciting moments of the film are the fantasy sequences in which Snoopy is a fighter pilot during World War I, harking back to the comic strip. These scenes feel superfluous and come off as little more than an attempt to pad things out. The personalities of all the characters do stick very close to those as established in the comic strip, but it seems like there’s a lot more room for a greater breadth of interaction between the various members of the Peanuts gang. As it stands, the movie possesses insufficient narrative drive.



            Another way in which the film sets itself apart from the bulk of Hollywood animated movies is that it doesn’t boast a cast packed with marquee names. All the kids are actually voiced by child actors, Schnapp in particular capturing the underdog melancholy so crucial to Charlie Brown’s enduring appeal. The late Bill Melendez, an animation icon who directed multiple Peanuts TV specials and films in addition to voicing Woodstock and Snoopy, voices the characters posthumously via archival recordings. Kristin Chenoweth is arguably the biggest name in the cast, providing the high-pitched yelps of Snoopy’s fantasy love interest Fifi. The film also preserves the tradition of having the voices of any adult characters, none of whom appear onscreen, be rendered as indistinct “wah-wah” sounds, created by jazz trombonist Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.

            The animation in The Peanuts Movie hits the sweet spot and the film as a whole earnestly echoes a simpler, bygone era, which might be enough for some kids and their nostalgic parents or grandparents. However, this reviewer was left wanting more from the film. “Hollow” isn’t the right word, since it sounds so mean, and the film’s simplicity can be very charming indeed, but there’s just too little here to carry a feature film. If Vince Guaraldi’s classic piano piece Linus and Lucy, wonderfully incorporated into Christophe Beck’s socre, instantly gives you the warm and fuzzies, then The Peanuts Movie should pass muster.

Summary:While it’s an adequate way to introduce the Peanutsgang to a whole new generation of kids, the story is too flimsy a foundation on which to build a feature film.  

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Strange Magic

For F*** Magazine

STRANGE MAGIC

Director : Gary Rydstrom
Cast : Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 29 January 2015
Rating : G
Lucasfilm invites viewers into a world of whimsy, wonder and enchantment (and cheesy pop song covers, a moth-eaten story and some unbearable attempts at comedy) with the animated feature Strange Magic. Marianne (Wood) is a fairy about to marry the conceited prince Roland (Palladio). Marianne’s sister Dawn (Bull) is kidnapped by the tyrannical Bog King (Cumming), with both Marianne and the elf Sunny (Kelley) travelling to the Dark Forest to rescue Dawn. Spurned, Roland devises a cunning plan to make Marianne take him back, a plan that requires the love potion brewed by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) to pull off. Over the course of these events, the Bog King realises that maybe all he needed after all was a little bit of true love.
            Strange Magic begins with a map unfurling and we find out that the two magical domains in which the film takes place are actually called “Fairy Kingdom” and “Dark Forest”. Within the first minute, it’s clear nobody really was interested in doing anything new with the story, which is a shame given the technically-accomplished animation work from Lucasfilm Animation Singapore. Even then, the detailed, lush backgrounds are offset by sometimes-creepy facial animation, sitting on the edge of the uncanny valley. Strange Magic is directed by Gary Rydstrom and, as the poster proclaims, is “from the mind of George Lucas”. Sure, Lucas has defined the storytelling of a generation with a certain space opera saga, but let’s not forget that “the mind of George Lucas” also spawned Jar Jar Binks. True to that, the comic relief characters here are all deeply annoying.

            It’s a shame that after incubating for 15 years, functioning as a sort of proving ground for Lucasfilm’s Singaporean animators, Strange Magic ends up being so mediocre and forgettable. This is a movie that seems hokey and insincere at every turn. It does have a “message”, as films of this sort must – everyone deserves to be loved, don’t judge a book by its cover, you know the drill. The problem is, there is no conviction behind this and it just feels so perfunctory, especially when compared to the surprisingly mature meditations seen in recent animated films like The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6. On top of that, the film is presented in a “jukebox musical” format, meaning it is crammed with cringe-inducing, over-produced covers of songs like “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “Love Is Strange” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”. The soundtrack is produced by Marius de Vries, who was the music director on Moulin Rouge!, also a jukebox musical. The repurposing of the opening chords of “Bad Romance” as a military march is pretty clever, though.

            The voice acting is fine and the one thing the filmmakers do get right is the casting of competent actors and singers in the booth over marketable marquee names. Evan Rachel Wood, who also did her own singing in Across the Universe, is serviceable as the stock “tough girl who can stand up for herself (but who still needs her Mr. Right at the end of the day)”. The Marianne character comes across as a cheap Disney Princess knock-off and the characterisation here reminds us that while it might seem overrated now, Frozen did get a lot right. Elijah Kelley does bring upbeat enthusiasm to the part of Sunny but the character’s “loveable underdog” shtick does come off as very forced. Alfred Molina barely registers as Marianne and Dawn’s father but it might be amusing to some that the character is designed to look as much like George Lucas himself as possible.


            Alan Cumming is the movie’s saving grace as the Bog King. He brings his signature theatricality and flair but tempers it with a lot of growling and snarling. It makes sense once one discovers Strange Magic was originally pitched as “Beauty and the Beast, but the Beast doesn’t transform”. As unoriginal as it all is, at least Strange Magic doesn’t settle for a “good vs. evil” plot and while the Bog King’s change of heart isn’t all that convincing, Cumming makes it relatively easy to go along with. The character animation on the insectoid Bog King himself is also outstanding. Cumming’s fellow Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth has been described with the adjective “annoying” and as the Sugar Plum fairy, she does get on the nerves but all things being relative, is far from the most grating character. That ignominious honour probably falls to Maya Rudolph’s Griselda, the mother of the Bog King. All she does is nag at him to find someone and settle down, and that’s apparently supposed to be funny.


            Animated films have the power to be cynic-proof, to deliver enough invention, charm and humour that hardened critics embrace their inner child for 90 minutes and allow themselves to be swept up in it all. Strange Magicdoes not possess this power. Everything that parents generally find aggravating about bad animated movies is here: painful attempts at comedy, shoehorned-in musical numbers and unsatisfying characterisation. Above all, it’s clear that Strange Magic doesn’t owe its existence to a fresh, intelligent story or dazzling visual invention, but because Lucasfilm Animation wants to prove it can stand with the big boys – which, for now, it can’t. Many of the animators who worked on Strange Magic also worked on 2011’s Rango, which was far wittier, dynamic and entertainingly offbeat. While we probably should be way past the “cartoons have every right to be bad, they’re meant for kids after all” stage, the reality is we’ll have to put up with films like Strange Magic, though hopefully less and less often.

Summary:Unoriginal and uninvolving, Strange Magicdoes have some good animation in it but it cannot compete with the many recent animated films that are well-animated and have excellent stories as well. The cheesy musical numbers and unfunny comic relief do not help.
RATING: 2out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

The Boy Next Door

For F*** Magazine

THE BOY NEXT DOOR

Director : Rob Cohen
Cast : Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, John Corbett, Kristin Chenoweth, Ian Nelson
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 91 mins
Opens : 22 January 2015
Rating : R21
            January is upon us again, and as much as we try to brace ourselves against it, we’ll never be fully shielded from the deluge of dump month dreck. In this very January thriller, Jennifer Lopez plays Claire Peterson, a high school literature teacher whose marriage to her husband (Corbett) is on the rocks after he cheats on her. Along comes Noah Sandborn (Guzman), the new dashing, young next-door neighbour. Friendly, helpful and quick to befriend Claire’s bullied son Kevin (Nelson), Claire is eventually seduced by Noah, culminating in a night of passion. She realises her mistake, but Noah’s obsession with her escalates, putting Claire, her family and friends in mortal danger.
            The Boy Next Door comes from Blumhouse Productions, a studio which has found great success with low-budget horror flicks including the Paranormal Activity franchise. It is puzzling just what demographic The Boy Next Door is going for. On the surface, there’s the Desperate Housewives-style angle of a woman in her 40s falling for a dangerous boy toy but the film’s second half packs in swearing, surprisingly gruesome violence and a dash of nudity (though not from Lopez herself). The Boy Next Door is at once a Lifetime Channel movie of the week and an early-90s erotic thriller, taking the very worst elements of both, the end result wholly lacking in any kind of real appeal. From the get-go, it’s hokey and predictable, Barbara Curry’s screenplay packed with utterly cringe-worthy lines. For example, as part of the set-up of how impossibly ideal a man Noah is, he’s not only handy but is also into classic literature and at one point says “dude, you gotta read The Iliad”.
            Jennifer Lopez’s film career has generally not been regarded as a successful one, despite her numerous credits. Unlike former flame Ben Affleck, she will likely never be able to outrun the shadow of Gigliand that shadow looms large in The Boy Next Door. Jennifer Lopez as a literature teacher is about as believable as when Mark Wahlberg played a science teacher in The Happening. Lopez is a co-producer and it seems the film primarily exists so she can show off that famous figure of hers. We speculate that her character being the object of a much younger man’s ravenous desire was probably appealing to Lopez as well.
            Ryan Guzman, of Step Up: Revolution fame, also gets to flaunt his body – his character is actually introduced by way of a bicep entering the frame. Guzman is an example of what we call the “Abercrombie-isation” of Hollywood’s male leads and his acting skills are indeed sorely lacking. He’s a passable sexy bad boy but is plainly unconvincing as a crazy, deadly stalker and all in all, comes off as one of the blandest psychopaths to ever creep across the screen. Kristin Chenoweth is Claire’s stock annoying friend and conveniently enough the vice principal at Claire’s school. Ian Nelson is stiff as Claire’s son Kevin who looks up to Noah and sees him as someone to emulate. One element that does have potential is how Noah manipulates Kevin in order to get closer to his mother, though even that gets really silly really fast.
            It would seem that director Rob Cohen’s career is spiralling downwards and even when compared to his infamous bomb Stealth, The Boy Next Door is several steps down on the bad movie ladder. Judging by a “tense” sequence built around a runaway Shelby Mustang that concludes in the most stunt show-y way possible, it appears that Cohen dearly misses the Fast and the Furious films, the first of which he directed. Instead, he has racked up so many blemishes on his track record that he has to say yes to helming this pile of unintentional hilarity instead.
Summary: A train-wreck in which unconvincing performances, bad dialogue and half-baked thrills lie on the ground in a twisted mess, The Boy Next Door is a typical January flick.
RATING: 1.5 out of 5Stars
Jedd Jong