Taking a Trip With Mr. Peabody and Sherman

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Nothing will cause me to become skeptical quite like taking a long silent beloved childhood memory and giving filmmakers a gargantuan budget to revive it. It’s the trend though, so what are you going to do, right? Primarily it’s fairly easy to ignore these Frankenstein’s monsters, particularly when it’s something like Peabody and Sherman. These two characters were regulars on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Rocky and Bullwinkle was the example of low budget cartoons. They were given a chance at a big screen adaptation a while back. It was terrible. This is actually the third feature film to stem from that little show, come to think of it, with Dudley Do-Right being the other. Dreamworks has been a power-house for decent animated movies lately, so I went to the local library and borrowed a copy. It was a very good family film. And I don’t use “family film” in the sense that it was cranked out solely to babysit children placed in front of a screen. The jokes and visuals are juvenile enough to captivate a young audience, while the plot and even more jokes will certainly keep everyone else engaged. The movie takes head on subjects such as adoption, fitting in and bullying in a way that is funny, it’s essentially the perfect segue to discuss these topics.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman follows the life of Mr. Peabody, a brilliant dog that never fit into his societal mold. This is primarily because he can talk and is essentially the smartest creature on the face of the planet. He adopts a baby named Sherman, which he raises and takes on adventures through time with his “wayback” device. The conflict of the movie happens when Sherman ends up biting someone on his first day of school, calling into question Peabody’s ability to raise a human child. In an effort to smooth things over, the Bully’s parents are invited over for dinner. Naturally the two children end up using the time machine and end up on an adventure through time.

While more or less a typical animated feature, the movie manages to shine at particular points. For one thing it’s nice to have Danny Elfman providing the score. the music adds the level of whimsy that the movie deserves. The writing is also pretty entertaining. If Mr. Peabody is trying to prove he’s a good dad, he certainly does so simply by the amount of puns he uses. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. The writing is sharp and witty to the point where it is both easy to understand and not compromising the intelligence of the audience. Ty Burell manages to give surprisingly accurate life to the spirit of the Peabody character. But it’s Max Charles who voices Sherman that really blew me away. The timing and tone was dead on, a truly perfect voice for the character.

This movie wasn’t anything spectacular, to be certain. However it was a good movie, and sometimes that’s what you need. Not every animated movie is going to be Spirited Away or Toy Story, but that’s fine. This was a movie that did just about the best that it could, and it was just what a Peabody and Sherman movie should have been; short, sweet and pretty darn funny.

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JUMPJUMPJUMPJUMP with Speed Racer

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Adaptations are a funny business. Taking an original artifact, something that’s well loved and already has a fan base and then tweaking it in a way that makes it appeal to a broader audience. Too often the resulting re-translation will alienate those that love the original most. The is an almost indistinguishable line for those running the film industry, a line between a great adaptation and a cold dead husk of a what used to be beloved idea. Adaptations from animation to live action can be particularly difficult and are just terrible when done poorly; as was the case with The Last Air Bender. The difficulty is that you’re changing from a medium that doesn’t have to share the same physics or even social norms as real life and your trying to interpret it in a much harder lined reality. The beauty of Speed Racer is that it doesn’t try to be a live action movie, it’s true to the source, and, consequently, stars a cast made up of flesh and blood. I had the pleasure of re-watching this movie again, after reading Ryan Partlow’s review.

Speed Racer takes it’s story and characters from the 1960s anime of the same name. The story centers around the Racer family and their insatiable thirst for racing automobiles. Now, this is far closer to MarioKart than NASCAR, as far as automobile racing goes. When the Racer’s son, Speed, is given a chance to race under the banner of the mega corporation Royalton Industries he must decide weather to continue racing solely for his father’s small auto shop, or take it to the next level. When he learns the dirty secret of the racing industry, Speed is thrown into a highly stylized duel to the death on a number of eye popping racetracks.

There aren’t many movies out there that stick so close to their animated source materiel. The cartoon that this is based on had lots of races, lots of action and some goofy characters. This film has all of those, and rather than try to take a simple concept and “drama it up” for a live action release, it gives us what we least expect: a live action cartoon. The story is interesting, and it serves it’s purpose of propelling the hero into life threatening, breath taking races. Everything about this movie oozes classic anime tropes, from the dramatic hand motions to the bright colors of the surroundings. This movie is nothing if it isn’t vibrant. After watching this movie I felt like my eyes were restricting me from absorbing the colors that were bursting out of my TV. I had to mentally change the lense that I was watching the movie with. Looking at it as a cartoon made it far more enjoyable than trying to rationalize it as a live action movie.

While the film looked and sounded fantastic (something the Wachowskis are very good at) the editing of the film managed to keep the pace of the movie soaring, even with a longer than expected run time. The climax of the movie in particular was absolutely thrilling. It simultaneously pulled the the emotional strings of the story, and showed the end of the biggest race in the movie in such a flawless way that it was easily the best scene in the movie.

With a superb cast that managed to pull off a cartoon persona, good direction and of course the brightest visuals legally allowed on a screen (that last one is probably not true), the Wachowskis manage to give their full effort to something that a small group held dear, in an effort to introduce it to a larger group. And man, what a ride.

“ParaNorman” Should Have Won Best Animated Feature

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I liked Brave, the 2012 Pixar film starring an adventurous and independent Scottish princess. I enjoyed it, it was beautiful and entertaining; it was not, however, the best animated movie of the year. Despite what “The Academy” says, I was not as impressed as they were with the movie. Pixar has done some truly great films in the past, some of them deserving the coveted Best Picture award and yet losing to a live action film.  Brave was not their best work, it was slightly generic and borderline formulaic. If my say had meant anything and I was given a chance to vote for the award for Best Animated Feature of 2012, my vote would have undoubtedly gone to ParaNorman. I wrote briefly about ParaNorman here. The movie was far less generic, it was new, fresh and exciting. There were aspects of the film that I had never seen in an animated movie, they took creative risks that ultimately paid off for the betterment of the story. Unfortunately it didn’t get near the amount of the attention that other animated features did.

In ParaNorman we’re introduced to a little boy, Norman, who is the only one capable of seeing and communicating with the dead. Needless to say, he is an outcast with very few friends. Even his parents think there is something wrong with him. The gist of the movie comes from Norman being commissioned by his, estranged, crazy uncle (voiced by John Goodman)  to prevent the release of a curse on their tiny town. Things get really bad when a group of zombies rise from the grave and head strait  for the heart of the town. This is one of the few zombie movies for children I have seen (to be honest, the only other one I can think of at the moment is a Scooby-Doo VHS). ParaNorman is a horror movie for children. Not a slasher movie, but a well thought out horror film, it deals with real situations and fears that kids may have in a supernaturally theatrical way. Norman must deal with bullies, being different and the pain that comes with holding on to anger. It’s a my-first-zombie movie with a powerful message about forgiveness. Also, it’s pretty hilarious. Many nods and winks to horror movie fans and plenty of slapstick humor widen the range of audience appeal.

The unique visuals associated with stop motion animation is in full force. The movements of the characters and the somewhat jerky nature of the atmosphere of the film’s reality certainly adds to the supernatural tone that ParaNorman strives for. The color scheme offers some truly stunning scenes, often times transcending the expectations of a film in it’s genre. Every visual aspect of the movie worked in it’s favor, convincing me that this would not have been as good a film had it been traditional animation, computer animation or live action. Scrounging up a stellar voice cast also added to the experience. Each voice was quirky yet not over the top and matched perfectly to the individual character.

It’s a strange type of movie to impress the importance of acceptance and forgiveness to the audience, but as the movie winds down it becomes apparent that that is exactly what the whole film is about. The most prominent of the messages presented in this film is a warning against holding on to anger, even if someone has done something truly horrible to you. In a sea of revenge centric action movies, it was refreshing to see this truth played out in such an unexpected movie. Hate is an addictive poison, one that once we allow ourselves to get caught up in, becomes increasingly hard to give up.

 

A forgotten Holiday Classic: Fitzwilly

The 1960’s brought about a myriad of “caper films” in which the protagonists of the film set about attempting elaborate cons. Perhaps the most heart warming caper movie to ever come along is 1967’s Fitzwilly, starring the incredibly talented, and equally lovable, Dick Van Dyke. The title of the film refers to a shortened version of Van Dyke’s name in the film, Claude Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilly is the head butler in charge of the household of a Miss Victoria Woodworth, an eccentric elderly woman who spends her days doling out large checks to various charities as well as spearheading her own projects; most notably throughout the film she is writing an incredibly extensive dictionary for illiterate people. The only problem is that, though she is acustomed to a lavish lifestyle, her father left her exactly $200 at his death. Fitzwilly and the other staff spend their time coming up with and executing a number of cons and robberies in order to maintain Miss Woodworth’s, as well as their own, style of living. Miss Woodworth is oblivious the entire movie, completely believing that she is fabulously wealthy.
Fitzwilly is an odd movie in that, while it boasts an incredibly loveable cast, the story is humorous and would easily be categorized as a family movie, it is a shining example of a morally ambiguous film. As kind as the protagonist is, he isn’t stealing to simply aid in the survival of a poor old woman, rather he is stealing so she can maintain an existence of pure excess. Sure she gives large sums away to charity, and lets not forget that those companies that Fitzwilly and his band of high societal miscreants rip off are completely covered by insurance. The line is blurred to the point that you find yourself cheering for the bad guys. Though this occurrence is increasingly familiar and acceptable in the current cinematic climate, it wasn’t so common in the 1960s.
While it is certainly hazy in a moral context, Fitzwilly offers a fun and often overlooked holiday cinematic treat. The movie in the past has been increasingly difficult to find, I first watched it in a Film History class in college, and remember thinking it was pretty fun. Recently I noticed it streaming on Netflix, so my wife and I gave it a shot and I came to this conclusion: it is a forgotten family classic. Dick Van Dyke pervades the screen with all the charm he brought to the Disney films he became known for, while at the same time displaying a touch of the sinister with his criminal mastermind like antics. The supporting cast is also a blast to watch, particularly John McGiver who plays the increasingly remorseful priest-turned-thief. Barbara Feldon plays the love interest who almost brings the entire operation to it’s knees, a suitable adversary/ romantic interest for Van Dyke’s Fitzwilly.
It’s a fun little movie that gives off a strong sense of nostalgia, even after the first viewing. It harkens to the fact that, though certain movies will remain in the classic family canon (Marry Poppins, Swiss Family Robinsons etc.) there is a vast amount of movies that time has chosen to brush over. Fitzwilly is one of the unlucky movies to have fallen to the wayside which is  in no way due to it’s quality or entertainment value.

The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant (1999)
Had the there been a category for best animated picture at the 1999 Academy Awards, there is little doubt in my mind that The Iron Giant would have been among the contenders. Released the same year as Disney’s Tarzan and Pixar’s Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant gained little hype before reaching theaters, though other movies certainly weren’t to take all the blame for this. Warner Brothers Studios, who distributed the movie, is largely blamed for it’s poor handling of it’s marketing campaign, believing that “smarter family films” just didn’t sell. They amped up the marketing machine for the video release, giving it the recognition it still has today.
Brad Bird, who later went on to direct The Incredibles, taps into the nastolgia associated with an era gone by. The warm faded colors bring to life the 1950s era that the story takes place, Hogarth (the young boy who leads the plot along with the titular character) loves classic comic books from the, he watches B rated horror movies on television and lives oblivious to the fear associated with the cold war.
The film follows Hogarth, the lonely child whose father died, and whose mother works hard to support them. He finds a friend in the form of a giant robot that fell from the sky. The robot, who knows nothing about his creation or his origins due to a bump on his head, is like Hogarth. They’re both naive and impressionable. The iron giant may have been given directives, for all anyone knows he may have been instructed to attack any and all living things on American soil, but he’s forgotten. While most other live action variations of this type of movie would focus on the fear of the unknown threat and the horror that could ensue, this movie looks at the wonder and the pure elation of the situation. While most adults in the movie are horrified of the mysterious occurrences caused by the 40 foot robot, Hogarth, after getting over the initial shock of the situation, thinks what any little boy would think: This is so cool.
The closest iteration of this story I can think of outside of this film is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Both movies tell stories of innocent beings who are unfamiliar with earth (or the US, it’s not entirely clear where the iron giant comes from) that befriend and learn from young boys. The innocence that comes with childhood causes a change in the iron giant. Whatever he was created for initially begins to struggle with who he has become. The giant has to choose if he is like Atomo, the evil robot from Hogarth’s comics or Superman, defender of the earth.
The atmosphere of the movie is enhanced by a musical score that highlights the suspenseful moments, while at the same time showcasing the “cool factor” of having a giant robot as your best friend. The whole movie feels less like a cartoon than a live action feature due to the elements that surround the story. Though it isa cartoon, you can almost feel the restraint it must have taken to not allow people and scenes to play out like one. On rare occasions are laws of physics completely ignored, and all the characters move and act like real people with vastly different personalities and mannerisms. Brad Bird has a way of handling films that causes him to be blind to the mediums of film. The Incredibles was just as much an action film as Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a cartoon. The line is blurred the same way in The Iron Giant, which is a testament to his talent, and a talent that is all too often overlooked when dealing with animated features and film making as a whole.