My Neighbor Totoro Review

After my review of Spirited Away back in 2017 (my most popular post to date, mind you), I immediately decided I wanted to review my second favorite Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro. An animation studio that, to the extent of my knowledge, never made a bad film. As you can guess, this goal has been postponed, ignored, and procrastinated for a very long time. Finally, after over a year of slowly chipping away at this article, I feel I can competently and properly review this wonderful film.

My Neighbor Totoro follows two young girls named Satsuke and Mei, as they move to the rural countryside of Japan with their father. Together they settle into their home, awaiting their mother who’s ill at the hospital. Satsuke and Mei, full of curiosity, come across a group of good-natured spirits while exploring their new home. Most notable of these spirits is the lovable fan favorite Totoro, a snuggly and plush creature who leisurely roams the nearby forest.

My Neighbor Totoro is the kind of film that you could mute the dialogue and still understand everything occurring on-screen, while also having an enriching experience. The beautiful hand-drawn animation is abundant with warm, welcoming characters and relaxing watercolor skies, lulling the viewer into a sense of contentment. The magic of Ghibli’s animation maintains a well-deserved reputation for being immaculate, and it continues to delight me to this day.

On a purely storytelling level, Ghibli films often just “go with the flow”. There’s no predictable three act structure that audiences groan at because they know precisely what will happen next. We’re merely along for the ride, traveling through a myriad of dream-like sequences of awe-inspiring music and pleasant visuals.

This way of storytelling makes films like Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro so memorable. They stand out from the massive amounts of animated white noise that’s pumped out every year.

Years ago, the late film critic Roger Ebert noted how My Neighbor Totoro represents the perfect kind of world to live in. One without villains, conflict, or any sort of antagonist conceivable. Not only do I agree with this sentiment, I think it is key to what makes My Neighbor Totoro such a lovably relatable flick.

It’s an exploration into childlike wonder, taking you back to a simpler time of bliss. No need for bad guys in a peaceful reflection of childhood, only the curiosity and imagination you wish you still had.

My Neighbor Totoro is a family-fun masterpiece of the highest quality. There’s a reason Totoro remains so popular with audiences of all ages, garnering a cult following that only seems to get bigger as time wears on. And if there’s anything that time won’t wear on, it’s Totoro, which I believe will remain timeless and relevant for generations to come.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Early Man Review

I always talk about Studio Ghibli as the animation company that has the perfect track record of hit movies. Yet I neglect to ever speak on Aardman Animations, who has a flawless record of unique, stop-motion movies. From humble beginnings in the 1970s, Aardman has since created the popular character Morph, Wallace and Gromit, and numerous highly praised short films and feature films.

Aardman’s newest creation Early Man takes place during the Stone Age (and unbeknownst to our heroes, the dawn of the Bronze Age) and stars the likable cave man named Dug (Eddie Redmayne). And as luck would have it, Dug and his tribes’ peaceful existence becomes endangered when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) threatens to turn their home into a mine for precious metals. Unwilling to be conquered without a fight, Dug challenges his conquerors to a game of football, with it being winner-take-all for the valley.

Early Man was savagely unpredictable in its storytelling department, with a plot that didn’t really flow like most movies. The characters just moved from wacky scenarios to out of place sight gags (like a giant, prehistoric duck that tries to eat our protagonists) with little rhyme or reason. The random, impromptu feel of Early Man was critical in the films ability to engage the audience and make them laugh.

The funniest moments in the film involve the most absurd of situations imaginable. In one scene a hog gives a man a sensual bath massage; which goes on for so uncomfortably long that it became more comical as time wore on. In another equally amusing scene, a messenger pigeon begins to orally recite its message, while also giving dramatic gestures to the recipient. Again, so odd and unexpected that it’s comical.

Some of the verbal humor was so dated that I think the jokes actually came from the Stone Age. Most of the puns were simply dead on arrival and got a whopping zero laughs from the audience. This isn’t too surprising, since Aardman Animation’s most humorous content has always been the more physical/visual stuff. Just look at Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, one of the best kid’s films of 2015 and almost no dialogue.

Early Man was quick, unpredictable, and hilariously funny when it wasn’t attempting to use verbal jokes. Animated movies nowadays are quite foreseeable and unsurprising, so it’s nice to have Early Man come in and throw me through a loop. Aardman seamlessly maintains their creative and unique style of filmmaking with Early Man, and fans of their previous work will easily fall for the lovable characters and animation.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

Peter Rabbit Review

When I heard Sony was making a live-action/CGI animated film of Peter Rabbit (based on the stories by Beatrix Potter), my mind immediately went to Sony Animation’s The Smurfs. A film so dull and manipulative that it practically invented the term “corporate pandering”, I was sure Peter Rabbit would suffer the same fate.

Luckily, in some ways I was wrong. Meaning that Peter Rabbit had some redeeming qualities, which are sadly overshadowed by an overall lackluster picture.

Peter Rabbit stars the adorable rabbit himself Peter (voiced by James Corden), who loves sneaking into Mr. McGregor’s (Sam Neill) vegetable garden. After Mr. McGregor’s sudden passing, his home is left to one of his distant relatives named Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), who plans to sell the house and make a pretty penny in the process. When Thomas discovers the rabbits intruding on his newly acquired property, he decides to take “pest” control into his own hands as an epic battle ensues between the two rivaling parties: man vs. rabbits.

The most insufferable part of Peter Rabbit was of course Peter Rabbit himself, along with the rest of his CGI entourage. All the humor and high jinks surrounding their characters have been done to death, and subsequently they get very few laughs. Most jokes went on for a painful amount of time, and sometimes I had to stop watching altogether (especially when the rabbits just kept talking).

The funniest moments were the oddly dark scenes, like when Mr. McGregor has a heart attack and dies out of nowhere. Not only are the animals overjoyed by his death, they celebrate by partying and trashing his house. While I found these scenes to be rather hilarious, when taking into account the target audience of Peter Rabbit (that being young children) it’s distastefully out of place.

The messages and morals are so on the nose that it treats kids as if they haven’t the least bit of intelligence. And because these messages are so at odds with the story and the characters’ behaviors, Peter Rabbit ends up being a pretty pointless endeavor. The film gives the vague appearance that Peter and Thomas learn something at the end, but their characters make no real change. In fact, both characters seemingly learned these lessons at multiple points in the movie yet resort back to their immature selves just moments later.

As far as creative, funny content goes, Peter Rabbit has more to offer adults in the first thirty minutes than it does kids for the whole movie. Still, this isn’t to say adults will like this, as the vast majority is quite boring. Storywise, this is your typical half-hearted family comedy. Some attempts at real jokes and emotional moments are made, other times it all feels dull, disingenuous, and too cynical. Domhnall Gleeson gives his very best performance, and a lot of times his talent for acting works past the mediocrities, rising to levels of complete insanity. Other than that, everyone (including our furry stars) is bland and uninteresting. And seeing that Paddington 2 came out just a few months prior, there really is no excuse for such a boring story and bland personalities.

My disdain for a product like Peter Rabbit may sound trivial, but I strongly feel that movies should treat children with more respect. Attempting to inspire and challenge kids, as well as make them use their brains. Movies shouldn’t manipulate kids and subject them to apathetic corporate hullabaloo.

The Verdict: D+

-Zachary Flint

Paddington 2 Review

I would’ve never guessed that the sequel to Paddington, a cute family comedy about a talking bear, would be made with the same care and consideration as the first. Even more shocking to me is that Paddington 2 turned out to be even better than its predecessor, with more laughs and excitement to be had then before.

Having settled down with the Brown family, Paddington bear continuously spreads childlike wonder and joy throughout his community. One day he sees a pop-up book in an antique store and decides to save up his money to purchase it. Thinking that the pop-up book would be a great gift for his aunt for her 100th birthday. However, when a thief breaks in and steals the book, Paddington is framed for the robbery. As Paddington adjusts to life in prison, he brings his warmth and joy to very unlikely people. Meanwhile, the Brown family attempts to find the culprit behind the theft and free Paddington before his Aunt Lucy’s birthday.

The most surprising part about Paddington 2 was just how laugh out loud funny it was. Who knew that situations like, say, Paddington getting a ten-year prison sentence, would have such a strong comedic output. The scenes with Paddington in jail were among the best moments of the film, and I enjoyed them to a great degree. The film jumped at every opportunity to throw in a joke, whether it be slapstick or a more sophisticated and subtle humor, and just about all of them were right on the money.

Hugh Grant as the villainous Phoenix Buchanan was delightfully hilarious and fit the mood of the story just right. The rest of the cast fit the bill quite nicely too, as they all felt very authentic and kindhearted in their performances.

Paddington 2 is quite a lot of things. Exciting. Funny. Charming. Sincere. But most importantly, the film is genuine. Paddington 2 isn’t trying to manipulate children’s emotions, and neither is it a cheap, mundane piece of entertainment to be forgotten soon after viewing. It’s a film with crystal clear, straightforward messages that any parent (or person) could get behind.

Paddington Bear teaches children how one person (or bear, in this case) can positively affect the lives of everyone around them. He emphasizes manners, honesty, and kindness, and applies these to every area of his life. Because of this, in my mind Paddington is the perfect role model. I think even adults could learn a lesson from Paddington in how to treat others, more so than children.

Usually I can come up with some sort of flaw or demographic of individual who may not benefit from watching whatever film I’m reviewing. With Paddington 2, I’ve completely drawn a blank. It’s an adorable, family-friendly adventure that nobody should miss out on.

The Verdict: A

-Zachary Flint

Mary and the Witch’s Flower Review

I’ve written in the past about my unrelenting love for Studio Ghibli and their timeless films, and I stand by my belief that they are the best animation company to have ever existed. And after director Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement in 2014, Studio Ghibli has since halted production of their wonderfully bizarre movies.

Enter Studio Ponoc, which was formed by several Studio Ghibli animators as well as the lead film producer for Ghibli, Yoshiaki Nishimura. Bearing the same signature animation as Ghibli, Studio Ponoc’s first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower looked to be a sure-fire hit. And in some ways the film was, with stunning animation, fun characters, and the clever blending themes and ideas from other Ghibli films.

The film focuses on a young, accident-prone girl named Mary, who finds a strange “Fly-by-Night” flower and a broomstick in the forest. Together the flower and broomstick turn Mary into a powerful witch, and send her to a school in the clouds called Endor college. A magical college for witches, the school is run by Madame Mumblechook and the intelligent Doctor Dee. However, after Mumblechook discovers Mary is in possession of the flower, she concocts a plot that may put Mary and her friends lives in serious danger.

Many qualities of the plot and characters pay homage to previous Studio Ghibli films, all without feeling like too much of a retread. Peter reminded me of Kanta from My Neighbor Totoro, and Madame Mumblechook was in some ways like Yubaba from Spirited Away. Even common themes depicted in Ghibli’s work appeared here, like man’s futile attempts to take control over nature. If I had to describe it, I’d say Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a blend of Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and many other Ghibli products mixed into one, which I believe to be a clever first step for Studio Ponoc to make.

Good animation is pretty much an industry standard at this point, and anything below that now is shameful. Even with this, Studio Ponoc managed to impress me with its incredibly strong visuals. The watercolor landscapes and vibrantly drawn characters bring to life a world of pure two-dimensional joy. Films like this often leave me awestruck in the boundless amounts of visual creativity they produce. I’m always left wanting to see more of the world and its many inhabitants. And in the case of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I unfortunately felt this longing to see more to an incredibly high degree, as the film was frequently void of visual wonders.

I really wish Mary and the Witch’s Flower would’ve taken the initiative to push more imaginative boundaries. This is a clever story, and the characters and animation are most certainly there. It’s just that all these elements aren’t utilized to their fullest potential. Studio Ponoc gift wrapped themselves a wonderful world of magic and adventure, yet refuse to open it. When we should be diving head first into the rich environment of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, we’re stuck focusing on too much characterization. Not that these are poorly written or bad characters, it’s just that we’ve already seen them been done before by Studio Ghibli, and already know how everything is going to turn out.

Even with its numerous flaws, I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower and would give it a strong, sincere recommendation. A lack of willingness to go the extra mile (as well as starting off fairly boring) put Mary and the Witch’s Flower below the quality of film I was really hoping to see. The only truly breathtaking part was the quality of animation, which was charming from start to finish.

I wish the very best of Studio Ponoc in the future, and believe that they have the capacity to achieve greatness through their animation.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle Review

Anticipating what I assumed to be a distasteful soft reboot of a fun, lighthearted adventure film, I expected the worst from Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. However, to my pleasant surprise (and curious confusion), Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle shares little resemblance to its supposed source material. Instead of a murderous board game that forces players to partake in increasingly difficult tasks, this involves the hip millennial version of the whole thing.

Four clichéd high school students are sucked into a video game while in detention. Once inside the video game, each high schooler takes on a completely different persona, kind of like an in-game avatar. These avatars are played by Jack Black, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan, who all go off on a vague MacGuffin plot to stop a one-dimensional bad guy. Basically, get the thing, put it in the thing, so it will do the thing.

Jumanji is about as ridiculous and uninspired as you can possibly get, and thankfully the film knows that, making the absolute best of its lame and outrageous premise.

It’s obvious the cast is having a lot of fun shooting Jumanji, and that genuine enthusiasm easily rubs off on the audience. The journey these characters embark on and the lessons they learn along the way was where I derived most of my enjoyment.

Another big part of the film aside from the characters is the humor, which in my opinion was a tad overplayed. Some jokes work very well at first and get a good laugh, only to be drawn out for too long until they become tiresome and annoying. Other scenes intended to be humorous were incredibly childish and tonally inconsistent, leading me to assume that Jumanji had no clear audience it wanted to appeal to.

Jumanji’s strongest suit wasn’t in its humor, but in the genuine moments shared between the protagonists, who were so goofy and animated that I couldn’t help but join in on the fun. The cheesy and poorly written aspects of Jumanji all teeter precariously on “so bad it’s good”. Altogether, I think there is more amusement to be had in Jumanji’s faults than boredom or irritation.

The Verdict: C+

-Zachary Flint

A Christmas Story LIVE Review: A Big Yuletide Log

The latest beloved film to be nostalgically cashed in happens to be one my favorite holiday classics, A Christmas Story. Morphed into a televised musical and broadcasted live by Fox, A Christmas Story Live! attempts to recreate the magic of the original while establishing itself as its own musically inclined entity.

Upon its release, the musical immediately received negative reactions from audiences, and for good reason.

The film goes through many of the same beats as the original A Christmas Story, yet goes about it in the most elongated and roundabout ways. The runtime clocks in way past two hours, and it expands upon the plot in the most puzzling of ways. Moments from A Christmas Story that were brief and concise are pointlessly blown up into entire plot points. Each scene packaged with a not so catchy song attached to it like a leech.

This unfortunate aspect is only compounded by the addition of Matthew Broderick as the narrator, whose performance I took to be a tad creepy.

I think calling A Christmas Story Live! a tremendous misfire by Fox is a gross understatement. The humor is nonexistent, the cinematography is flat and boring, the songs are no fun, and the whole production is just plain dull.

The set designs are creative and remain faithful to both the original film and era, however the overall low quality of A Christmas Story Live! completely detracts from the few positives of the special.

The truth of the matter is that A Christmas Story Live! is nothing more than a pathetic attempt to cash in on peoples’ nostalgia. It’s overwhelmingly poor reception not only brightens my day, but gives me hope that moviegoers have the willpower to just say no to nostalgic cutting and pasting.

After all, ’tis the season to be jolly.

The Verdict: F

-Zachary Flint