Sunday, June 29, 2008

WALL•E

Calling WALL•E the best animated movie of 2008 would itself be the biggest understatement of 2008, akin to calling Michelangelo a good painter. When was the last time the year’s best movie was an animated film, a science fiction film, or a romantic comedy? Added to this, has one single film ever been a champion of all three genres? Despite having very little dialogue and very few human characters, WALL•E has more genuine emotion than any of its summer competition. It’s the very best film so far this year, and it won’t be dethroned easily.

As great as any movie Pixar Animation has ever made (and that is saying something), WALL•E takes place hundreds of years in the future. The Earth has been abandoned because of excessive trash, and WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load-Lifting Earth-Class) robots have been left to clean up the mess. By 2815, only one WALL•E unit is still operational, and he has developed an inquisitive personality. He lives in a bunker full of human knick-knacks that are familiar to us, but mysterious to him (very reminiscent of Ariel’s cave in The Little Mermaid). Once an EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) robot arrives on a secret mission, WALL•E becomes completely love-struck, and soon gets caught up in an interstellar quest to save humanity.

Just as The Incredibles (2004) surprised viewers by not only being a great family film, but also a great superhero movie, I think WALL•E will surprise fans of science fiction. Serious themes are explored, and the film serves as a cautionary tale against the excessive waste of our consumer society. The environmental moral is powerfully conveyed, but never hit over our heads, and the overall message is a hopeful one. However, the romance between WALL•E and EVE takes center stage, and I’m still not sure how Pixar pulled it off. If you think a robot romance can’t move you to tears, think again.

For a film set so deeply into the future, WALL•E feels a lot like the Classics. Similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey (which is paid homage in WALL•E more than once), this film has very little dialogue. It’s just a few tweaks away from having no spoken words at all, but the storytelling is so strong, you probably won’t notice. The romance is old-fashioned, and much of the soundtrack is built around songs from Hello, Dolly! (1969), which WALL•E watches constantly via an ancient VHS tape. When the film opened with a shot of outer space and Michael Crawford singing, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” I knew I was along for a very special ride.

Pixar does things with animation that no one else has been able to do. Perhaps most impressive is the equal appeal to viewers of all ages. Most family films have scenes for adults and scenes for children, but in Pixar's films, the same scenes speak to all. As simple as it may seem, there’s rich complexity in this multi-layered storytelling. It’s the tried-and-true recipe of every great family film, and it’s never as easy as it appears.

Given Pixar’s track record, I expected to enjoy WALL•E, but I didn’t expect to be awestruck. I wasn’t prepared to wipe tears away during the closing credits. I didn’t think a rusty old robot could be so endlessly lovable. Writer/Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) has crafted a bold, wonderful tale of loneliness and love that will transcend ages and cultures, and just like its central character, will stand the test of time.

Note:

My wife and I saw WALL•E during an electrical storm, and the theater lost power twice during the movie. At the end of the show, we were given vouchers to see any film we wanted. We’re going to see WALL•E again.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated G

WALL•E’s first half-hour has some surprisingly dark elements, being set in a dystopian future, but I think kids will eat up the visuals and quirky humor. The loud sounds and explosions might frighten the very youngest children, but there’s no truly objectionable content. You’ll enjoy this just as much as your kids, if not more.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It’s been 19 years since Indiana Jones rode off into the sunset at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). A fourth installment has been in the works ever since, and part of me hoped it wouldn’t ever happen. Did we really need one more adventure? Well, for better or for worse, the fourth film has arrived. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are back at the helm, offering all of us an excuse to spend two more hours with one of Hollywood’s greatest characters. The majority of it succeeds in being exciting and familiar, but there are still many aspects that I wish had been handled differently. My thumb is up, but with an asterisk.

The most vital element to this film’s success is, of course, the character of Indiana Jones himself. As soon as you see Harrison Ford back in the famous outfit, your biggest fears will be alleviated. He’s older, but within moments, he proves that he’s still Indiana Jones. The story unfolds in 1957, as Indy and an adventurous young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) try to outrace the Soviets in recovering a mystical Central-American artifact, the Crystal Skull. Cate Blanchett plays the villainous Soviet Colonel Irina Spalko (her over-the-top Russian accent is a lot of fun), and Jones is joined by a new sidekick, George ‘Mac’ McHale (Ray Winstone). Indy’s old flame from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), also gets caught-up in the adventure.

The Indiana Jones series was originally a love letter to the classic B movie serials of the 1930’s, and this new installment stays in the same tongue-in-cheek vein. There are snakes, skeletons, mummies, car chases, waterfalls, man-devouring ants, whips, punches, and many impossible feats of daring-do. The action stands out as the film’s greatest strength; most sequences are thrilling and fun, and only a few scenes go too far (the few that did push the known limits of reason induced both laughs and groans from the audience). Most of the action is done the old-fashioned way, with real stuntmen, and there’s a spectacular car chase through the jungle that evokes Raiders of the Lost Ark. Every time Indy punches two guys at once and gets another with his whip, we feel right at home.

The film features an extra-terrestrial element, and while this works with the 1950’s setting, it didn’t feel right alongside the previous films. Indy’s displacement is a problem for me; I didn’t want to see him as an older man, battling Soviets in the late 1950’s. As a superhero, he should forever be frozen in time, fighting the Nazis in the 1930’s. I got over it and was able to enjoy the ride, but I still say that we didn’t need a sequel to the greatest adventure movies ever made. Especially in light of the 19-year gap, expectations were impossibly high. It may not be completely fair to compare this movie to the originals, but you invite that comparison when you take on a project like this.

Early scenes of Dr. Jones teaching in his classroom are welcome, but the intelligent character exchanges are sorely missed. Watching the originals again, it’s surprising just how much time elapses between the action sequences. Memorable characters help carry those movies, and the characters and plot of this latest chapter don’t stack up. Without giving anything away, Ray Winstone’s ‘Mac’ character doesn’t make much sense. I would rather have seen John Rhys-Davies reprise his role as Sallah from the originals.

In the final moments, when the classic music swelled and I reflected on all I had seen, I felt conflicted. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull works as a fun Summer movie, and it carries the Indiana Jones label well enough. It’s not all it should have been (and I still hold that it wasn’t necessary), but I do think audiences will have fun. Often in these Indiana Jones films, Indy will exhume some precious artifact, be glad to have unearthed it, but eventually wish he had left well-enough alone. I’m glad to have seen one last Indiana Jones movie, but part of me wishes it had stayed buried.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.

The violence and scary images are on par with Indiana Jones’ previous adventures. We see people get shot, consumed by mysterious extra-terrestrial flames, and eaten alive by enormous ants. You may recall that the originals also have moments of strange, semi-ridiculous violence: faces melting off, hearts being ripped out, etc. The violence isn’t striving for realism, but it’s still a bit disturbing. As is often the case with movie sequels, you can use the originals to determine whether or not you should take your kids.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

For multiple reasons, Prince Caspian has big shoes to fill. Continuing the story begun by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), this film has the built-in problems of being based on a beloved book and being the sequel to a hit film. Prince Caspian deftly leaps across both these hurdles, not just living up to its predecessor, but complementing it. Like the books on which they’re based, these two Narnia films are stronger as a pair than they are as individuals.

The story begins in 1941, as the four Pevensie children are mysteriously whisked away to Narnia, the fantasy realm they discovered one year earlier. They soon learn that though they have only been away from Narnia for one year, 1300 Narnian years have passed. Everything has changed, and the kingdom is now ruled by the cruel Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), a usurper who plans to kill the rightful heir to the throne: his own nephew, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes). The four children join an underground resistance to help Caspian, all the while wondering why the creator and true ruler of Narnia, the great lion Aslan, doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

This film adopts a much darker tone than its predecessor through its themes, its intense action, and even in its color palette. The film carries a PG rating, as no blood is seen, but let’s just say PG isn’t what it used to be. Battles are much more frequent, and much more potent. Despite the heavy overtones, the family-friendly nature ultimately remains intact, and humor helps offset the violence. Trumpkin, a sharp-tongued dwarf played by Peter Dinklage, breathes fresh air into the series. The four main actors, all of whom successfully sustained the first film, are even better this time around.

Unfortunately, the story itself isn’t as compelling as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis’ second Narnia novel unfolds at a slower, more contemplative pace. The writers compensated for this in several ways, the biggest of which was adding an important action scene to Prince Caspian that isn’t in the original novel. Surprisingly, the addition enhances the story. What could have been an empty action sequence becomes powerful because of how it connects to the story’s key themes. It’s a change that I think C.S. Lewis would have approved of.

Your enjoyment of the first film can serve as a fair barometer for this one. If you didn’t care for the first, there’s probably nothing here to win your interest. If you haven’t seen the first, I recommend that you do so before seeing the sequel, because as I said before, the two films complement each other very well. As an avid fan of C.S. Lewis’ novels, I loved the first film, and enjoyed this second journey into Narnia just as much, if not more. Within the last decade, breakthroughs in visual effects have allowed many great fantasy classics to translate legitimately to the big screen, and I’m thrilled that so many have been done so well. Visual effects make fantasy films possible, but classic cinematic virtues bring them to life.

Prince Caspian is based on the second of seven novels in The Chronicles of Narnia. I hold what seems to be a minority opinion among fans of the books, and that stance is that the next film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, should be the last. It’s the last story to feature the Pevensies as children, so there’s no race against the clock to retain the same young actors (like with the Harry Potter films). I just think that the stories become too abstract and philosophical down the road, and in its themes and scope, Dawn Treader would be a fine finale. Whatever the filmmakers choose to do, I hope they can match the same quality of work already set forth. For lovers of fantasy and adventure, this latest journey into Narnia is one worth taking.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for epic battle action and violence.

I think most double-digit kids will enjoy Prince Caspian, but you may want to prescreen it or talk to other parents who have seen it if you’re planning on taking younger children. It’s PG only because there isn’t any blood, but the action is certainly intense enough to warrant PG-13. As I understand it, director Andrew Adamson even had to make minor adjustments to squeak-by with a PG rating.