Dumbo (1941) Review

To fully review and understand a film like Dumbo, one must first preface with a bit of historical understanding of the art of animation during the 1940’s.

I say this because you can’t break down and analyze a classic kids movie like Dumbo the way people dissect modern animated flicks. With vicious fervor movies are torn to shreds on the basis of having too much or too little plot, thin characters, or outdated/ old-fashioned animation; calling into question what makes an animated film worthwhile in the first place. Dumbo clocks in at just over an hour, carries little plot or deep characterization, and doesn’t concern itself with moral complexities. Now it would be ridiculous to assert that Dumbo is or should be judged from a modern outlook, even though it hasn’t stopped many others from doing the same to other movies.

But, when we look at animated films with such a critically harsh lens, we allow ourselves to get into a mindset that may overlook a modern-day Dumbo. Films that have all the heart and dazzle of a masterpiece but are monetarily handicapped.

Everyone knows the story of Dumbo. It’s a sweet (but none too innocent) tale of a baby elephant born with ears that are a few sizes too big, resulting in rude taunting and the cruel nickname of Dumbo. The film takes us through several significant scenes in Dumbo’s childhood, all culminating into his remarkable, uplifting redemption.

Dumbo was released in the Golden Age of animation, where animators working directly with Walt himself were still testing the bounds of what could be visually and creatively accomplished onscreen. Only four years prior they graced the world with their groundbreaking, all-around stunning work of art Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White was an instant hit and sparked a widespread fascination with the concept of full-length animated films.

Or so they thought. As misfortune would have it, Disney’s next animated features Pinocchio and Fantasia never received as much public interest. That, coupled with labor strikes and WWII, slashed the production budget for Dumbo down to a modest $950,000. In fact, Dumbo is still Disney’s cheapest full-length feature to date. This cheaper budget (and therefore simpler animation utilized) helped mold Dumbo into what we know it as today. The detail in the drawings isn’t as exhaustive or articulate, yet the bright and fun colors contribute to the circus setting of the film. The story itself couldn’t be very long, so Dumbo in turn values straightforwardness and conciseness.

Dumbo maintains the same charming simplicity of Snow White in its story, but the elegance and pacing of the stories structure is more attune to Pinocchio. Here we have a misfit protagonist who goes through a series of impactful, life-changing events. One moment Dumbo’s embarrassed, shamed, and made to look like a fool by all his circus mates. The next, he’s unintentionally getting drunk with a mouse and passing out in a tree. The morals of the story are clear and identifiable for young audiences, yet they can still resonate with an adult. Truly timeless.

The pink elephants on parade scene is probably the scene that sticks out in my mind as particularly memorable and visually provocative. Its a downright strange sequence to attempt to explain, and it’s presence in the film is welcomed but feels out of place. The weird, colorful, and psychedelic pachyderms dancing and singing across the screen has become a defining moment of the film that people seem to love reminiscing on.

I’m not even sure if I myself can fully respect the artistic freedom and creativity that Dumbo displays with such ease and wonder. It’s a shame Disney hadn’t the resources to fully experiment with this concept, but the film wouldn’t have turned into the beloved feature we’ve all come to love today.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Review

I’ve always been very vocal about my love of DreamWorks Animation, and their willingness to take chances on creative ideas that companies like Pixar would never consider doing. Films like Monsters vs. Aliens and Kung Fu Panda are bizarre concepts you’d think would fail miserably. Yet, both were highly praised and financially successful.

DreamWork’s release of How to Train Your Dragon in 2010 was, to me, their “play it safe” idea. Something fun and cute that didn’t stray away from past family movie formulas. That was the first movie. How to Train your Dragon 2 completely changed the game, when suddenly everything got a lot more adult and the plot started taking unexpected twists and turns. We saw wars, death, and a whole new group of characters to the mix.

The Hidden World is the delightful conclusion to this beloved trilogy, where we see Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) leading the people of Berk to new, unexplored territory. After new threats surface that challenge their peaceful dragon utopia, Hiccup and Toothless must search out a mythical hidden world for dragons. Upon this journey their destinies change forever when Toothless falls in love with a Light Fury, and Hiccup contemplates a potential life without Toothless. As our character’s priorities alter, they begin to learn what is most important and precious in life.

The Hidden World seemed to lack the storytelling prowess of How to Train Your Dragon 2. The second film was pretty ambitious in terms of ramping up the plot and keeping you at the edge of your seat, whereas The Hidden World tends to meander about more and is less focused. The Hidden World still ends on a positively strong note, albeit not as exciting or ambitious as its predecessor.

The main protagonists like Hiccup, Toothless, and Astrid all come full circle in terms of characterization and story arc. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone discontent with the direction these characters are taken and watching them develop throughout the flick is like a parent watching their children grow up.

Sadly, most of the side characters (particularly Gobber and Snotlout) seemed to stall out for the finale. The previous film saw everyone get more serious and change as characters, whereas in The Hidden World they seemed only to regress to the sole role of comedic fodder. They say some quippy lines here and there, but nothing impactful really happens to these individuals, which was a real shame. Heck, even the new characters introduced (like the new dastardly villain Grimmel and the female Light Fury) received a more well-rounded conclusion than those we started the series with.

It’s fascinating to watch DreamWork’s skill as an animation company unfold right before my eyes. There’s only a nine-year gap between the first How to Train Your Dragon and The Hidden World, and the level of artistry and competence continues to reach new heights. The attention to details in the animation is getting more finely tuned, and the beautiful landscapes continue to take my breath away. There’s one particularly mind-blowing shot of a gigantic waterfall that was so visually impressive and vivid that it could’ve easily been a video of a real waterfall, and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

Yes, this knack for innovation, moving forward, great writing, and trying new ideas is what makes DreamWorks and How to Train Your Dragon so wonderful. We’ve fallen in love with these characters, and now we get to say goodbye to them in a meaningful way. Fans of How to Train Your Dragon won’t be getting any major surprises this time around, but they’re sure to find the series conclusion to be heartwarming, satisfying, and well worth the wait.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

Alita: Battle Angel Review

Going into Alita: Battle Angel, I had no preconceived notion of what to expect, or what it was even about. All I saw in the previews was a wide-eyed, CGI girl kicking butt and taking no names, so I figured it was the perfect flick for me.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on a Japanese manga series Gunnm, and directed by a true filmmaker’s filmmaker, Robert Rodriguez (known for movies like Spy Kids and From Dusk till Dawn). Known for making his most awesome films on a modest budget, he often mixes practical (low cost) effects with computer imagery to get the results he wants. Alita‘s Hollywood blockbuster budget of 200 million is a welcomed, difficult change of pace for Rodriguez’s style. A change that ends up simultaneously working for and against Alita: Battle Angel.

Taking place hundreds of years into the future, after a massive interplanetary war left the world ravaged, we see the remaining people of Earth have come together and built Iron City. A multiculturally vast city with scrap metal and junk plentiful, above Iron City floats the mythical utopian city of Zalem, a place everyone dreams of travelling to.

The story focuses in on a cyber-doctor named Ido (Christoph Waltz), who finds a young Alita unconscious in a scrap yard. When Alita finally comes too, she has no recollection of her past self, only that she has a lust for combat. As Alita explores the new life she’s been given, Ido attempts to protect Alita from her inexplicable past life.

An incredible amount of time is spent building up this larger-than-life, post-apocalyptic world that Alita interacts with, and it’s a huge payoff for the audience. We see a diverse mixing pot of cultures interacting within the context of this cyberpunk society. Scenes are chock-full of what can only be described as “stuff”. Marketplaces, battle arenas, seedy underbellies, everything in Iron City is explored in-depth and beautifully brought to life.

Rodriguez knows his stuff when it comes to directing combat scenes, because Alita consistently shows off fluid and thrilling fight sequences throughout. Utilizing lots of CGI and high-flying acrobatics, the action is quick and to the point. Alita packs such a violent punch that I am surprised they held onto their PG-13 rating, especially considering that several people (humans and robots) get chopped in half. One guy even gets a severed hand in the eye, how brutal.

The acting could get a little wooden and hokey at times, but in a charming, Robert Rodriguez sort of way. In many respects Alita reminded me of Rodriguez’s film Spy Kids. It too got super silly, uncomfortably sentimental, and occasionally dropped off the uncanny valley. But both films have this indescribable sense of fun and wit that pulls the viewer in despite reservations.

Unfortunately, Alita gets to the point where it’s juggling too many characters, too much plot, and not enough time to satisfy the story. Before you know it, you’re halfway into the movie and suddenly they’re talking about newly revealed villains and random, unestablished plot threads. This is most painful in the final twenty minutes, where Rodriguez was clearly too preoccupied with setting up for sequels that he forgot to end Alita on a high note. Every major narrative thread is hurriedly wrapped up in the last couple of minutes, with barely enough content left open for another movie anyways.

The film even repeats itself several times in rapid succession. Without spoiling anything, something tragic happens to one of our lead protagonists, twice, within a span of five minutes. The first time it was emotional and sad, the second time I was so dumbfounded I couldn’t help but laugh.

And that was what stood out most for me while watching Alita: Battle Angel. Even when the film wasn’t making any sense, or the characters nosedived of the uncanny valley, I was still having a great time watching it. Just like the Spy Kids franchise, it has a unique charm and undeniable sense of excitement that can’t be artificially replicated. And it has some pretty badass action stuff too.

The Verdict: B-

-Zachary Flint

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part Review: A Creative Flick for an Unenthusiastic Audience

Everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team! At least, it was in the first LEGO Movie

Now, things have changed drastically five years in the future, especially since the outer space invaders of LEGO DUPLO have taken over their home of Bricksburg. It seems the entire LEGO world has succumbed to bitterness, negativity, and chronic brooding. All except for Emmet (Chris Pratt) that is, who still maintains the same cheerfulness and optimism as he did in the first movie. But when Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), and his other friends are kidnapped by those same LEGO invaders, Emmet embarks on an epic journey to unknown worlds that will test his maturity in this adult world.

The LEGO Movie 2 sports the same colorful animation as its predecessor, computer imagery that looks convincingly like stop motion minifigures. The details are magnificent, down to the light reflections and scratches of paint on our LEGO figure protagonists. CGI has come a long way for the animation to look so realistic that people actually think it’s the real deal, and I have enormous respect for those behind the scenes who’ve made that happen.

The same respect goes for The LEGO Movie 2 in general. Even the casual viewer can observe the effort put forth to make this a family fun experience. Take the extensive voice cast for example, which includes many A-list actors and actresses who lent their voice talent for the film. Mix this with self-aware humor and you’ve got some hilarious in-jokes about celebrities like Bruce Willis, who according to The LEGO Movie lives in an air duct. And after Die Hard 5, that’s probably not too far off! Yes, lots of talent went into trying to make this movie as enjoyable, humorous, and creative as possible.

And the honest truth is, I can’t say I’m surprised at The LEGO Movie 2‘s lack of box office success. With countless remakes, sequels, and reboots out, was anybody that pumped up about a follow up to The LEGO Movie?

The LEGO Movie 2 is big on creativity and imagination, and it has a positive message about being yourself and remaining optimistic worked in there too. But, a lot of this is just a retread of the first film, “been there done that” kind of material. I know kids and adults alike will undoubtedly adore the charm and positivity that this movie has to offer, but that’s if they’re even up to watching another LEGO flick to begin with. And so far, the consensus seems to be no.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

They Shall Not Grow Old Review

They Shall Not Grow Old is as deeply humanizing and empathetic as a documentary about World War I can get.

The film is told through the voice over narration of dozens of actual veterans of WWI, most of whom fought for the British Empire. The narration is organized in such a way as to give the audience the full experience of a soldier who served in the war. We start with how they first enlisted, then move on to their time in boot camp, and then to their experiences on the front lines. All of it being accompanied by beautifully updated, restored, and colorized film footage.

The colorization of this hundred-year-old film footage was time-consuming and painstaking, as director Peter Jackson describes both at the beginning and end of the documentary. He also restored all 100 hours of footage he was given to use by the Imperial War Museum and received no payment for it. I’d consider this a passion project for Jackson and his production company, and their effort to restore this footage as a public service for future generations.

We all know about the horrid conditions in WWI, but to physically watch it happen before your eyes is a whole different story. I found many scenes hard to watch as the bodies began to pile up, as mortar rounds violently struck the ground, and the men slept in vile conditions. The most emotional moments were some of the firsthand accounts the men spoke of, namely a gentleman who put a fellow soldier out of misery because gunfire had left him terribly mutilated. Even though many decades had gone by, the man still got choked up talking about it. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

They Shall Not Grow Old has no agenda, no ulterior motives or contemporary allegories of the political sort. No, the intentions of this documentary are actually quite clear. It exists to bring this monumental event in human history back to the forefront of our thoughts. Capturing in full color the camaraderie, bravery, and heartbreak of warfare.

It asks us to empathize with these men and shows how these crude individuals weren’t much different than young boys today. They questioned why they were fighting the war and were kind to (and often identified with) the German soldiers who they were supposed to hate. These brave souls were willing to risk it all for their country, and many paid the ultimate price.

They Shall Not Grow Old is the ultimate testament to those who those who died fighting in The Great War, and our respectful viewing of the film can help to humanize and rationalize an event previously condemned as part of the past.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

 

Glass Review

At last, M. Night Shyamalan’s dramatic conclusion to his superhero trilogy, Glass, has arrived. And while I was dissatisfied with Split, I had good faith that Glass would turn out significantly better.

Glass brings superhero David Dunn (known as The Overseer and played by Bruce Willis) to a final confrontation with the villains Kevin Crumb (The Beast played by James McAvoy) and Elijah Price (Mr. Glass played by Sam Jackson). All three are locked inside a mental hospital run by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in those with delusions of grandeur. Staple is determined to show these men that their powers aren’t all that special, but a nefarious plot by Mr. Glass awaits just below the surface, ready to show the world his true potential.

Glass first comes out of the gate swingin’, continuing this story in an interesting direction that instantly hooked me. We get some strong storytelling elements mixed with some suspenseful scenes that really stood out as remarkable.

Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worst very quickly.

For about an hour Glass just treads water, bringing the plot and characters to a complete standstill. It’s when our leads arrive to the mental hospital, where the film becomes fixated on what I’d argue is the overarching message of Glass, “Are these guys really superheroes, or is it all in their heads?” The thing is, we already know these characters are extraordinary because we’ve already seen Split and Unbreakable, therefore we know exactly how this will play out. But it doesn’t matter anyways, because the resolve to this theme is non-existent. The great “aha” moment is summed up in Bruce Willis kicking down a door. What a waste of valuable screen time.

Ultimately Glass displays some of the most fundamental flaws with Shyamalan’s filmmaking style and camerawork. The movie is plagued with awkward close-ups, scenes that go nowhere, and pretentiously boring camera angles that make Glass visually difficult to watch. Some of the upside-down shots and camera pans are so bizarre and unnecessary that some will call it artistically bold, but I call it bologna.

The acting often came off as wooden and emotionless from majority of the cast, Anya Taylor-Joy and Spencer Treat Clark were particularly unpleasant. James McAvoy and Sam Jackson stood out as the only noteworthy performances, but maybe they were a little too convincing. As you’ll recall from Split, McAvoy’s character was often goofy and hard to take seriously because of his multiple personalities. This often clashes with the tone of the film, which attempts to take the subject matter gravely serious. Dramatic scenes are frequently undercut by McAvoy acting like a nine-year-old and hacking up a lung, completely throwing the tone of the film off. Am I supposed to be laughing? Scared? Emotional? Shyamalan sure doesn’t know.

The climax between The Overseer and the Beast/Mr. Glass, what all this was supposedly building up to, was dead on arrival. There’s no satisfying battle or showdown, and any real action is marred by the terrible camerawork. Everybody kind of just stands around with their hands in their pockets, and again nothing of worth is accomplished.

And then, there’s the twist. A classic Shyamalan twist ending that’s bound to frustrate those who enjoyed the film up until that point. But for those of us who were already disappointed and bored out of our minds, the twist was merely the last straw. A plot move that irreparably damaged any worthwhile story elements the audience could take away.

I don’t really know what Glass was trying to accomplish, and I don’t really know if it succeeded in this or not. What I do know is just how slow, underwhelming, and anticlimactic it all was. Anyone who says this is Shyamalan’s return to form is misleading you. I can’t stress it enough, Shyamalan has talent, and his greatest works (Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense) are no accident. To my disappointment, Glass was one his accidents. A movie that set out to intrigue and excite the audience but ended up having the opposite effect.

The Verdict: D

-Zachary Flint

Bumblebee Review: A Solid B!

I, like many, found the Michael Bay Transformers movies increasingly unbearable to watch. The first film started out as a so-so guilty pleasure.  The second dropped off completely and was boring and racist. The rest were history.

As fate would have it, another Transformers movie was produced less than a year after The Last Knight; a film that would act as a prequel to Bay’s entire franchise, titled Bumblebee. In actuality this film would go on to bear no resemblance to any of Michael Bay’s films, but it didn’t matter. The collective public groaned and rolled their eyes at the thought of another Transformers movie. They were already on a downward spiral in quality, with The Last Knight being an incoherent mess. How could Bumblebee be any better?

In a shocking twist of events, it can be better! Much better, actually.

Bumblebee takes the basic premise of the first Transformers movie, and shaves away all the fat that makes the plot bloated and boring. There’re bad robots (called Decepticons) chasing down the last of the good robots (called Autobots), who seek to regroup to retake their home planet Cybertron. One of the good robots (nicknamed Bumblebee) goes into hiding on Earth and eventually befriends an awkward, angsty kid named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Together they build a unique friendship and cause mischief. It thankfully doesn’t get much more complicated than that.

From the minute the film starts, it’s evident that Bumblebee is doing its best to emulate the 80’s Transformers cartoon it’s originally based on. We’re immediately visually assaulted by an interplanetary war of robots, all of whom are fighting, shooting, calling for backup, the works. There’s little introduction to who, what, when, where, and why; and yet I found it easy to identify who was good and who was bad, just like any good kids show from the 80’s.

In the same vein I feel that these characters are easily identifiable with young kids/teens. Hailee Steinfeld is a likable actress who plays the part well, and Bumblebee’s antics play off her more temperamental personality in an amusing way.

And Bumblebee doesn’t just look like the Transformers show, because its style and feel are also similar. You can’t go five minutes without being reminded: This is a totally 80’s movie. Chock full of references to Elvis Costello, the Grenada conflict, and Ronald Reagan, Bumblebee lays on the pop culture quite heavily. The soundtrack is laced with songs from groups ranging from Tears for Fears to The Smiths, mostly songs that really exemplified the era.

Bumblebee goes so overboard in its 1980’s allusions that one can assume it was purposeful. The thought process being, make it so dated and cheesy that it inherently becomes charming. And for the most part, this method works! I found myself laughing a lot at the ridiculous teen stereotypes and cultural fads of the time (Remember Alf!).

It’s a shame that Bumblebee is even associated with the other Transformers films, because it’s really its own thing entirely. I’ve heard Bumblebee compared to The Iron Giant, which is a slight overexaggeration, but I think that mindset is on the right path.

Bumblebee is big blockbuster family fun with lots of adventure, action, and just a pinch of cleverness. Bumblebee‘s the kind of film you wish came out mid-summer and not in the middle of winter.

Yes, they play it safe in more ways than one (not to mention the numerous gaffs and other issues), but I found this excusable when looking at the broader scope of what this film is trying to accomplish. That is, making an entertaining Transformers movie that’s a little more thoughtful and faithful to the original show than previous attempts. That makes Bumblebee alright in my book.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint