Movie Review – April and the Extraordinary World

April and the Extraordinary World (2013)
Written by Franck Ekinci & Benjamin Legrand
Directed by Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci

April Franklin is a woman living in a world where history took a markedly different turn than our own. During the reign of Napoleon III, a scientist is charged with creating animal-soldier hybrids. He creates two hyperintelligent beings that escape and soon after the world’s greatest scientists and engineers begin disappearing. This impediment to progress leads to a mid-20th century where energy is still based primarily in coal and steam power. April’s parents and grandfather vanished years ago during a government crackdown, and she has been fending for herself alongside her genetically altered cat friend Darwin. The two uncover a plot to destroy humanity and the secret solution for the ultimate formula, a serum that would make all life impervious to harm.

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Movie Review – It’s Such a Beautiful Day

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
Written & Directed by Don Hertzfeldt

This animated feature focuses on Bill, a very average man is going through the routines of his life when he’s struck with severe memory loss issues. Other health complications follow and pretty soon it’s clear that Bill’s life is forever changed. Interspersed with Bill’s story are flashbacks and vignettes about his childhood and members of his family. As these smaller stories unfold, they add to the larger narrative that Bill is the byproduct of generations of mental illness. Because the film is told from a third person perspective inside Bill’s head, we see the world the way Bill sees it. His hallucinations are woven into the flow of the story almost imperceptibly at points. His memories of his family and stories he was told about them become suspect as fictions.

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Movie Review – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Written by Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman
Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, & Rodney Rothman

Spider-Man is the main hero of New York City and has been for decades. Meanwhile, Miles Morales is just a talented kid reluctantly attending a boarding school for the scientific minded. During a late excursion to tag a prime piece of real estate in the subway tunnels, Miles is bitten by a strange spider and begins to develop strange powers as a result. When Miles returns to the scene of the incident, he ends up dead center in a battle between Spider-Man and a host of villains in the employ of the Kingpin. The fight ends with Miles squarely set to inherit the mantle and in need of training. The result of Kingpin’s experiments is that the fabric of the multiverse is broken and a host of other Spider-people have found their way to Miles’ dimension. The clock is ticking as reality crumbles, and in a very short amount of time, our protagonist must learn to be the hero his universe needs him to be.

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Movie Review – Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (2018)
Written by Michael Jelenic & Aaron Horvath
Directed by Aaron Horvath & Peter Rida Michail

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The Teen Titans can’t get any respect from the superhero community. While Batman is on his fiftieth movie while everyone else, including the Challengers of the Unknown, are getting their own films. Robin realizes the team needs their archenemy which they quickly find in the form of Deathstroke. They seemingly foil Deathstroke who remains in the shadows with plans to get his revenge. Meanwhile, the Titans embark on series of hilarious vignettes (traveling through time and preventing heroes’ origins, participating in a motivational music video, and more). A rift grows between Robin and his teammates as his movie aspirations begin to push his comrades away.

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Movie Review – The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle (2017)
Written Michaël Dudok de Wit & Pascale Ferran
Directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit

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An unnamed man is struggling to stay afloat during a violent storm on the ocean. He wakes up on the shores of a deserted island. After finding a source of fresh water and fruit, the man decides to use the bamboo that grows on the island to build a raft. His first attempt fails when an unseen force from beneath breaks the raft apart. After two more attempts, he finally spots the culprit, a giant red sea turtle. From there the relationship between the man and this turtle takes some unexpected turns and becomes a film about the stages of human life.

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Movie Review – The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Directed by Chris McKay

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Batman (Will Arnett) is living the life. He fights villains every night, drives and flies around in amazing machines, and hangs out in his comically huge mansion. Everything changes at Commissioner Gordon’s retirement party when the new police boss has plans to phase Batman out of the picture. Bats also meets orphan Richard Grayson (Michael Cera) who, through a series of misunderstandings, ends up Bruce Wayne’s adopted son. Alfred the butler (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned about his employer’s lack of personal relationships and hopes Grayson can remedy that. Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has big plans to solidify his reputation as Batman’s greatest enemy.

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Movie Review – Moana

Moana (2016, dir. Ron Clements, John Musker)

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Moana is captivated by the stories her grandmother tells about her people and their mythology. The story of the demigod Maui particularly inspires a sense of exploration in the young woman. However, she is the daughter of the village leaders and is expected to maintain life on the island as it is. The ocean begins to communicate with Moana, and she learns from her grandmother that their people used to sail across the ocean living on different islands. When Maui stole the heart of Te Fiti, the island goddess, darkness began to spread across the world. That darkness has reached the shores of their island and Moana cannot stay put any longer. She sets out to find Maui and restore the heart of Te Fiti, saving her people.

In 1989, Disney released The Little Mermaid, a film that would serve as the template for princess movies to come for the next 25+ years. Moana very closely follows that formula: A young woman expected to follow the expectations of her parents, she feels a yearning to travel beyond the borders of the land she knows, an event occurs that pushes her beyond the boundaries, she has a weird/silly/funny pet, she conquers a great evil despite feeling apprehensions. It is the traditional hero’s journey story that has cleverly replaced the original Disney style of princess stories. If you haven’t seen movies like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty recently then you may have forgotten how annoying the characters are. Those earlier animations seem more like an exercise in animation technique more than a story about characters with arcs. So, while I greatly appreciate Disney presenting stories about more active rather than reactive princesses, I hope that we continue to see diversity in character but also in the way stories are told and the types of stories being told. Zootopia highly impressed me as a kind of story I haven’t seen from Disney before.

Moana is a lot of fun, but I know I am not the intended audience for this film. It’s a children’s film and thus the story arcs are very evident and classical. There’s not a lot of character complexity but that wouldn’t be appropriate for the intended audience. One element I greatly appreciated was that the film doesn’t have a villain that follows the characters through the whole movie. This lets the movie feel like an actual myth being retold and keeps the focus on Moana’s arc rather than subplots. There are some antagonists who show up, my personal favorite being the Kakamora, animated coconut pirates. The sequence where these monsters attack has been revealed to be a direct reference to Mad Max: Fury Road and it is just subtle enough that it doesn’t come across as a crass pop culture reference. The film’s final obstacle in the form of Te Ka the lava demon has a clever twist that shies away from the act of killing the “final boss”. Lately, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to films that don’t follow the traditional black/white good/evil dichotomy. And it is very refreshing to see this in a children’s film.

I was very impressed with the level of computer animation. It took me awhile to be sold on the aesthetic as a replacement to classic cel animation for Disney pictures, but at this point, they have really perfected it. I’m not one who expects CG to be “realistic,” I’d rather see the technology be used to create the fantastic and impossible. Why recreate something we can already see in the real world when you can make something look real that could never be. While watching Moana, I was captivated by the texture and weight of objects. The previously mentioned Kakamora looked more like stop motion animation than something that was flat and two dimensional. People still look flat to me, but the world around them (grass, trees, water, man-made objects) looked like you could lift and hold them.

With Moana and Zootopia up against each other at the Oscars, I would still have to give it to Zootopia. This is not a slight to Moana, but an acknowledgment that Zootopia was a kind of story we have never had in as much depth and relevance from Disney before. Moana, while an excellent example of Disney creating more diverse characters, follows a very traditional and unsurprising story arc. It’s a film I’m sure kids and parents will enjoy watching again. Zootopia is a larger statement that I suspect will be remembered and studied in a way Disney films don’t traditionally do.