DVD Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda (2008)

20100824133914!2008_kung_fu_panda_003Panda-tastic!

Has it really been five years since this very definition of cool, sassy, kick-ass CGI from directors Mark Osborne (ahem, of TV’s SpongeBob Square Pants (2003-04)) and John Stevenson (it was also a first-time feature move from the glass teat) first hit our screens?

Jack Black is Kung Fu Panda Po, swaddled in layers of black and white computer-generated fur and delivering a performance that rates among his most persuasive and appealing. All his life, Po has dreamed of joining the ‘Furious Five’ – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Snake (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross) and Monkey (Jackie Chan) even though he’s a burly, bumbling bear – you must have been living on another planet if you didn’t catch the cute posters swathed over Europe’s city centres at the time of this film’s release, and the film is cuter yet, promise.

Visually lavish (China has rarely looked so beautiful), hysterically funny thanks to sterling voice work from those already cited and Dustin Hoffman in particular, who brings Shifu, the red panda and martial-arts master who comes to train Po to transcend his portly frame to wonderful life, and charming without having to indulge in a plethora of pop-culture references that have previously swamped certain so-called CGI masterpieces such as the Shrek canon, this really is about as good as animation gets. You will not be forgiven for missing this, either by ankle-biters or better halves, so don’t.

92 mins.

DVD Movie Review: WALL-E (2008)

A lonely robot finds love

Long-established as the leader in creative, endearing and enduring animated features, such as Toy Story (1995) (and its simply marvellous sequels Toy Story 2 (1999) and the truly brilliant Toy Story 3 (2010)), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007) and Up (2009), Disney Pixar’s offering WALL-E (2008), from Oscar-winning writer-director Andrew Stanton nevertheless ranks as perhaps the studio’s very best, in its tale of the havoc that ensues when boy robot meets girl robot, falls in love and follows her across the galaxy.

“The movie is essentially a love story,” said Stanton at the time. “WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) is the robotic housekeeper we all wish we had, left behind on Earth to clean up humankind’s garbage while mankind took their hols, some 800 years in the future. Unfortunately, that vacation never ended. Little WALL-E builds himself a house, makes friends with an indestructible cockroach, and all seems peachy. Until another robot, EVE (Elissa Knight), makes her entrance – and she’s the most beautiful thing that WALL-E’s ever seen…”

The distinct resemblance between ET and WALL-E (voiced by Ben Burtt, who also did a stand-out job on the sound effects and design for the film) is probably strictly intentional, but Stanton also stated, for the record, that he based the robot’s design on a pair of binoculars that he was playing with at a ball game – indeed, the love-struck ‘droid’s features do consist of two large, surprisingly expressive lenses. And Pixar geeks take note – the Pizza Planet truck, which has had a cameo in every one of the studio’s flicks, makes its Hitchcock-esque appearance in the film’s first 20 minutes. Keep your eyes peeled…

The film hit the jackpot big time, both from financial and critical perspectives. Said the Los Angeles Daily News: “The film’s visions of a ravaged, abandoned future Earth and a mechanized, corporately controlled space ark/pleasure cruiser are stunning, hilarious and hit their pro-green, anti-consumerist points remarkably hard.” The Wall Street Journal’s film critic, meanwhile, raved: “I must drop my inhibitions about dropping the M word – especially since I’ve already used magnificent – and call WALL-E the masterpiece that it is.”

So there you have it – if you haven’t done so already, check out WALL-E, and make sure you leave your rubbish out.

97 mins.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Toy Story 3 (2010)Pixar’s peak

A delight – make sure you don’t miss your chance to laugh and cry in roughly equal measure at the final Toy Story installment.

I ask you – manipulated to tears (nay, proper sobs) by a bunch of cartoon characters? That was me, sure enough, at the end of Toy Story 3 (2010) by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 2 (1999)) who, along with writers Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine (2006)) and John Lasseter (Cars (2006)), has ensured that the franchise that first put Pixar Studios on the map takes its bow with all the wit, charm and sheer lovableness that characterized the first two chapters.

Would that live-action ‘three-quels’ would ever live up to such high standards; it having already taken $100 million in its opening US weekend, critics are already talking about Toy Story 3 as being the movie that has finally won the big people over to the ‘toons, and deservedly so.

We join Woody (Tom Hanks) Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the rest of the gang as they are preparing for what looks likely to be a long departure of their owner Andy (John Morris) from their lives – the 17-year-old is all set for college, his sister is still getting on his nerves and is after his bedroom, while his mum is nagging him to either put his old toys in the attic or else donate them to the local day-care centre. Woody, loyal to the last, is trying to rally the troops around to the attic, explaining that they owe it to their owner to stick around and wait for Andy’s own children to play with them.

But, there’s a rebellion brewing and, when the toys end up at the day-care centre anyway and discover what appears to be a paradise overseen by the seemingly friendly bear Lotso (Ned Beatty), with lots of happy children to play with and full ‘toy-care’ facilities available, even Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Buzz decide that enough is enough, that their work with Andy is done.

But, when the cruel reality of Lotso’s real regime becomes apparent to them, following Woody’s departure, it’s up to the toys to work together one last time to get back to Andy’s attic. Will they make it, do you think?

And, this time around, the suspense is for real – Unkrich et al have managed seamlessly to blend a darker element into the trilogy’s denouement, one that threatens the gang’s very existence, but which ultimately never detracts from the inimitable sense of sheer fun that still pervades proceedings.

Hanks and Allen, as you’d expect, still have the lion’s share of the best lines (and there is a simply marvellous set-piece involving Buzz getting in touch with his Spanish side), but the introduction of new characters such as Barbie (Jodi Benson), Ken (Michael Keaton, just wonderful), Chatter Telephone (Teddy Newton) as well as the series’ most diabolical ‘villain’ to date in Lotso, ensures that you are simply hooked right to the end.

It’s a finale that manages to be both heartrending, heart-lifting and hilarious – they’re still the toys to entertain you.

103 mins. In English and Spanish (!).

Screwy Squirrel (1944)

Let’s go nuts, kids…

Cillian Donnelly returns with his thoughts on the brilliant beginnings of cartoon violence…

If, like me, you believe Tex Avery to be the only true genius born in the 20th century, then you’re probably already ahead of the game when I say that Screwy Squirrel remains to this day the most tragically forgotten icon of the golden age of American animation. If you have no idea who either Tex Avery or Screwy Squirrel are, then, my friends, what a delight awaits your curious mind…

Tex Avery was, no less, the man who invented cartoon violence. A threadbare claim, maybe, but without his skewed input into popular culture every childhood since the war would be clogged with the likes of Merrie Melodies for their Saturday morning memories, and we certainly wouldn’t have heard of the Animaniacs, Itchy and Scratchy or the The Happy Tree Friends.

Avery was the man behind such iconic cartoon figures as Daffy Duck, Droopy and Chilly Willy, and was also the originator of the malevolent Bugs Bunny, before the character was taken away and modified. His greatest creation, however, remains Screwy Squirrel, a rodent monster whose hyper-surreal, ultra-violent antics graced the silver screen for five gloriously bonkers adventures between 1944 and 1946.

The first of these was the self-explanatory Screwball Squirrel; the formula of which was simple, and repeated. In it, a dangerously unhinged squirrel (called Screwy, natch) goads a dimwitted dog (nicknamed Meathead by Screwy) into chasing him around for about seven minutes, with seemingly the only purpose being for Avery and his team to launch a series of repeatedly over the top gags aimed at breaking down the conventions of cartoons in general, and Disney in particular.

Screwball Squirrel (1944) opens on a cutesy scene of bucolic splendor, with a doe-eyed squirrel skipping carefree through a pastoral scene. That is before he is unceremoniously stopped by another squirrel, a tough-guy kind of rodent James Cagney: “What kind of cartoon is this going to be anyway?” he asks, before sumilarily violently dispatching said cutie pie and telling the audience that the “funny stuff” will commence after the phone rings. The phone does indeed ring and Screwy (for it is he) initiates the plot – simply that he provokes a dimwitted dog into chasing him around for a bit.

Immediately all the key elements are here: the violence, the iconoclasm, the breaking of the fourth wall and the deliberately unlikeable protagonist; but over the course of the cartoon other recurring themes would be introduced: gags-for-gags sake, false endings, an obsession with detachable body parts and the brilliant use of random objects (which, over the series, would range from phones, to photo booths, to mutoscopes to sinister boxes filled with “swell stuff to hit dog over the head”). Oh, and the drumroll gag is definitely the best bit…

The follow-up Happy-Go-Nutty, also from 1944, repeats the formula. Screwy escapes from the ‘Nut House’ (mental illness was funny in the forties) and is chased around by the hospital security dog, Meatball. Working on the philosophy that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix’, this is essentially a replay of the previous film, except with better jokes involving cliffs and bombs, a gloriously groan-worthy telephone gag, plus a sideswipe at coca cola, a skunk with BO and a very silly ending.

By the third cartoon, Big Heel-Watha(1945) we have dispensed with the dimwitted dog in favour of a dimwitted native American warrior from a patronisingly caricatured tribe (which, along with the touch of ‘comedy’ racism from Happy-Go-Nutty does grate on modern audiences), whose task it is to find meat for his deprived tribe in return for the hand of Mini Hot-Cha, the (Mae West-voiced) daughter of the (Droopy-voiced) chief. The gags don’t come quite as fast this time, although the key line that “in a cartoon you can do anything” does keep up the desire to continually break down barriers between audience and film.

The Screwy Truant (1945) is essentially a remake of Happy-Go-Nutty, with a school in place of the institution and Meathead replaced by a different kind of dimwitted mutt. The sight gags are brilliantly in evidence (‘500 yards of phony squirrel tail’, the whitewashing of the screen, a variation on the classic door gag), but this time we add some unexpected meta-referencing; the cartoon becomes inexplicably wound up at one point with Little Red Riding Hood. Don’t be fooled, though, by the Big Bad Wolf’s summation that the Screwy Truant represents a “corny B-picture3, this is 40s animation at its best.

The same, sadly cannot be said for the last in the series, Lonesome Lenny (1946), in which Screwy becomes the playmate to a big, hulking dimwit (natch) of a dog, based, somewhat strangely on Lenny from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (the dead mouse is the giveaway) and voiced by Avery himself. Here, the gags appear tired and worn (the best bit is the preamble set in the pet shop, which includes, among others, a gag about rabbit procreation and a reprise of the spitz joke from The Screwy Truant), and Screwy merely cruel. When he dies in the end (and he does, sorry to spoil) it, sadly, comes as a relief.

Anyway, for those of you with a little frivolous time to spend, don’t bother with all these smugly self-refential ‘adult’ cartoons it’s deemed OK to like. Go back to the source and marvel at how long all this has actually being going on. Enjoy.

Up (2009)

Soaraway success

It seems that hardly a year passes without an animated masterpiece from Pixar – following the wonderfully moving ecological fable Wall-E (2008), the ‘toon geniuses take us on a new journey into beauty…and this time, it’s in 3D.

To be fair, writer-directors Pete Docter (Monsters Inc (2001) and Bob Peterson (it’s his first feature) have taken something of a risk in their choice of ‘hero’ – Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) is a 78-year-old grumpy grandpa, seemingly left all alone in his dotage, and turning sour at the missed opportunities of his life.

Long having dreamed of travelling the world, Carl takes matters into his own hands with thousands of hot air balloons on his house that take him up, up and away into the great unknown. But what he hadn’t counted on was a seven-year-old stowaway, Russell (Jordan Nagai) – and there is much to be learned for both in the adventures ahead.

Quite aside from its credible, likeable characterizations, superb voice talents and very funny set-pieces, what sets Up (2009) apart from virtually all animated features is the simply breathtaking beauty of the vistas that open up, in stunning 3D, before our eyes.

It’s digital 3D, to boot, and not used in the film merely as a gadget – you live and feel the action, no question. Let us not blanche before hyperbole – rarely are films of such beauty seen.

The first Toy Story (1995) will always be a benchmark when it comes to discussion of Pixar’s best, but there is no doubt that Up is a dazzling visual adventure backed up with a crackling script, a film to appeal to the eternal child. Missing this would be just silly.

96 mins.

New Ice Age Movie – Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)

A fine finale, s’no word of a lie…

Picturenose would take the opportunity to dedicate this review to Hélène Noël, who passed away on 16 June, 2008.

It took me completely unawares, did Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha’s Ice Age (2002), not unlike falling in love with Hélène, who first showed me the film.

Not normally being a huge fan of animated features, no matter how well drawn/’CGId’ they are, I was struck by the bone-dry wit of the first instalment, which was perfectly complemented by hilarious characterizations, slap-stick set-pieces and, of course, Scrat (voiced by Chris Wedge).

For the uninitiated (shame on you), Scrat is the sabre-toothed squirrel constantly (and hilariously) seeking his acorn in the ice age tundra that forms the film’s setting. Since part the first, Mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) has been the story’s central character – initially joined by sabre-tooth tiger Diego (Denis Leary) and Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo), the sequel Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) saw Manny get hitched to Ellie (Queen Latifah) and her two ne’er-do-well possums, Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck).

All appeared rosy at the end of part two, but the latest film opens with the unconventional ‘herd’ in a state of flux – Manny and Ellie are expecting a baby, Diego, who’s fed up with being treated like a house-cat and fears he is losing his ‘edge’ declares his intent to hit the road, and Sid is getting envious of the mammoths’ new-found domestic bliss, and wants a family of his own. By chance, he stumbles upon three dangerously large-looking eggs in an underground ice cavern, and claims them for his own. They hatch, and three very cute dinosaurs enter the world – trouble is, Mummy’s looking for them, and she is not happy. Sid, having already ‘bonded’ with his ‘children’ is reluctant to relinquish them, even to a roaring ‘terrible lizard’, so when the rightful parent reclaims her own, he is dragged along for the ride, to a mysterious underground world, where the dinos still rule. And, of course, it falls to Manny and Co to rescue their errant friend – along with a one-eyed weasel named Buck (Simon Pegg), who seems to be a few bones short of a full fossil…

Now, before those part-time paeleontologists who want to pick holes in a cartoon’s interior logic take the podium, let it be quickly noted that this reviewer is perfectly aware that dinosaurs and mammals were separated by millions upon millions of years. Listen, guys, it’s only a story, OK, and the ‘undiscovered underworld’ contrivance by which the species meet works perfectly well. With any luck, this will be the final instalment (it’s in 3D for cinema release) – not because it isn’t any good, simply because it’s difficult to see what else could be incorporated into a future sequel.

Co-director Mike Thurmeier has teamed up with Saldanha for Dawn…, and, from a visual perspective, it’s fair to say that two heads have proved better than one, with the animation of landscapes and close-up action clearly the best of the franchise. The screenplay, too, is more than up to snuff, even if there’s a sense that there are far more nods to grown-ups this time around, with a slight touch of smut on display. A pity, because innocence was always Ice Age‘s strongest suit, but that’s not to say that the gags aren’t satisfying, for they certainly are.

Mr Ubiquity himself, Simon Pegg, here gets a good chance to show off his vocal talents as Buck, who comes off as something of a cross between Johnny Depp’s Cap’n Jack Sparrow and a young Peter O’Toole, with his blend of whimsy and wit, and there’s even a chance of romance for Scrat – he encounters the beautiful Scratte (Karen Disher) and it’s (sort of) love at first sight. Trouble is, she likes her nuts, too…

In short, you won’t have much more fun than this over summer, whether accompanied by your own little monsters or not. And the 3D visuals will have you jumping from your seats, that’s a promise.

87 mins.

Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)

Ice, ice baby!

Ahead of the release of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009) in July, we take our own little trip back in time, to enjoy Hélène Noël‘s take on the second adventure…

It all begins and ends like last time. I mean the first time. We follow the desperate efforts of our favorite kamikaze sabre-squirrel Scrat- preceded by his priceless acorn – to progress along unpredictable pack ice. Ninety minutes later, we end up in paradise. Or maybe not…

In between, Carlos Saldanha’s film goes through an ‘Iced’ Club Med village, Jaws (1975), Bambi (1942) and even The Old Testament. We cross the path of countless weird animals, including two mischievous possums. Or maybe that’s three, depending on the point of view. We catch up with Sid the Sloth (voiced by John Leguizamo), Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano) and Diego, the dry sabre-tooth tiger (Denis Leary).

On Sundays, when I was a small girl, I used to spend hours glued to the TV, watching cartoons in which the same silly coyote pursued the same funny bird along the same empty road in the same desert. I used to find it hilarious, even if I knew the story by heart before ‘That’s All, Folks!’

Years later, it seems that I’m pretty much the same, so it would be dishonest to pretend I found The Meltdown boring simply because the second story is a variation of the first. The truth is, I had great fun.

On the subject of message, however, the sequel is quite different. Ice Age (2002) was an almost mythical quest reflecting on the differences between species (read ‘race’), loss of family, the friendship that grows between natural enemies and the meaning of loyalty in an endless winter. This is more like a romantic comedy about identity, adoption, courage and second chances.

It’s Spring, there are walks in the woods, a carpet of wild flowers growing at your feet, and love falls down from a tree. A little later, family matters come to mind, while the suicidal Scrat tries again, and again, to secure his ever-mobile treasure.

The water’s transformation from white continent to flooding wave is so complex that it is a character of its own, a metamorphosis from turquoise streams and crystal puddles into deep dark thrills. Oh yes, I forgot! The baby! Where is the baby? The Meltdown is collapsing under babies. It’s Spring. Didn’t I tell you?

90 mins.

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

The best of British

This is getting silly. Revisiting this film on St George’s Day was a curious inversion of time and space. Wait a minute here…the English/British aren’t supposed to be that good at anything any more, declinism fuelled by lack of funding in the NHS and public services, the Millennium Dome, the scandalous Olympic overspend. It is thus perhaps perverse (or maybe salutary) to stand up and shout for two plasticine models as the vessels of greatness, but Wallace & Gromit refuse to be anything but standfasts for standards in 21st-century UK.

No ifs, buts or maybes – this is a very, very good movie, judged by whatever criteria you care to mention. One almost now yearns for Nick Park and the whole bally Aardman crew to trip up (although Shaun The Sheep might yet prove their Achilles heel). Not here though, not yet. Put it this way – what other cultural franchise in the UK can have grumpies and tinies alike in fits of laughter?

The alliance with DreamWorks, the dalliance with CGI – neither really harms the daffy conceit of the whole. Master and pooch have hit the big time as human pest-controllers – until, that is, thanks to Wallace’s intervention, a terrifying, outsize rabbit is set loose among the cabbage patches and cold frames.

A great rock musician this writer once talked to spoke of British music-making as shamateurism meeting amateurism, comparing it to Churchill building his brick wall at Chartwell. Park gets this. Wallace is the well-meaning, occasionally inspired meddler, whose intention is to make dull, quotidian actuality much more efficient and exciting and less demanding, but whose means are constrained by those very faultlines. From the Morph animations and A Grand Day Out (1989), Aardman has been essentially a cottage industry but loved planetwide, as class a marque as Barbour macs and Tiptree jams. What those concerns do is take the veneer of amateurism and turn it by sleight of hand into super-professionalism. The toy train sequence in The Wrong Trousers (1993) is a case in point. It could not have been simply knocked up. Its flawless borrowing – but always with integrity maintained – from Tom and Jerry remains one of the funniest pieces of British film-making. Half-assed dilettantes don’t do that.

There’s more of the same in this recondite whimsy in which the pace becomes so fast at times it feels more like a PE lesson than watching a film.

Much is always made of the ‘typical Britishness’ of the settings, of Peter Sallis’s salt-and-vinegar delivery as Wallace, but the series’ gift is to subtly elide a whole mess of pop-cultural references that makes modern Britishness what it is. This is done with such elan and sheer entertainment value that isolated villagers in the hills of Sarawak or Paraguay may one day yet come to regard Wallace & Gromit, and not David Beckham or Bobby Charlton, as the ideal avatar of Britishness.

85 mins.

Over The Hedge (2006)

Over the HedgeCutting hedge humour

We at Picturenose have a mind to bring you the best in films, so I make no apology for the subject of this review. Those who complain that it doesn’t count or is not highbrow enough may not only be missing the point, but also a very good movie.

Over the Hedge (2006) is apparently based on a comic strip, although I have to admit to never having read it. No matter, because it delivers laughs, a not-too-contrived story (as if talking woodland creatures were not by their nature contrived), some subtle gags for the grown-ups and a very interesting reworking of Chuck Jones’s Pepé le Pew routine.

The creatures of the woods awake from their hibernation and get together to plan the foraging for next winter’s supplies and are surprised to find that there is a giant, angular green thing in their way. ‘Steve’, as they call it (“Steve is a nice name”) presents a huge barrier to their achieving their task. They all gather round their leader, Verne the Turtle (Garry Shandling) and muse upon what it is that Steve wants and why he’s there. Enter RJ the raccoon (Bruce Willis), scouting around trying desperately to replenish the food he foolishly stole from the bear Vincent (superbly voiced by Nick Nolte) who shows them that by going through Steve, they can get access to stores of food beyond all their dreams.

This point is where the ‘message’ comes in. While not overdone, RJ delivers a fine polemic against humans and their wastefulness and the obsession of modern man with feeding himself. The device serves well enough to set the scene. Animals are the misunderstood natural foragers and humans think they are vermin because they misunderstand the animals’ intentions. As RJ says: “We eat to live – those guys live to eat.”

Once that’s out of the way, the chaos begins. RJ shows the animals how to get enough food for the winter in a fraction of the time it would have normally taken them. He, of course, has an ulterior motive, but Verne can’t quite finger what it is. The underlying motif for most of the film is the power struggle between slow, dependable Verne and smooth operator RJ. One of its best features – for kids and adults alike – is the fast and furious slapstick action sequences, both well animated and timed to perfection. I dare you not to have a grin on your face after the sequence with the playful dog!

The eclectic, yet famous voice talent is augmented by a number of superb characterizations. Nick Nolte brings menace and brooding to the character of Vincent the Bear in a way only he could pull off. Hammy the Squirrel (Steve Carrell) is insanely hyperactive throughout and drives much of the knockabout stuff – not least the Matrix-esque sequence towards the end that had me laughing out loud. While I wouldn’t say she was great, Avril Lavigne plays to type as a teenage, slack-talking girl (OK, so she’s a possum, it’s a movie) and cranks up the quirkiness level a bit further. Omid Djalili has a short-ish appearance as Tiger the Cat – Persian, naturally. For me, though, the star of the show is Ozzie (William Shatner) the possum who’s just a little too fond of playing dead for his family’s liking. It is a talent that comes in useful however, and the absolute highlight for me was his extended “death”. Shatner plays a possum parodying the famous Shatner. Style. Of line. Delivery. It could only be him. Watch out for the Citizen Kane reference in this marvellous set piece.

All said and done, this is a great family film and much better than I expected when I saw the dreaded ‘From the Makers of Shrek‘ emblazoned across the cover. There really is something for everyone in it, and it stands up against other animated favourites very well. The DVD includes the now-obligatory animated short, and this too is a cut above the rest. Get the kids, the in-laws and the local priest round and give them all drinks and popcorn. Guaranteed to amuse.

83 mins.