Ralph Breaks the Internet Review

If there were ever a film I was cautiously optimistic about watching, it’d be Ralph Breaks the Internet. As a huge fan of Wreck-it-Ralph, hearing that there would be a direct sequel was exciting. I mean, the potential is limitless with this kind of flick. But when I heard the plot would focus on current internet trends, my heart skipped a beat. All I could think about was the abominable movie that came out just the previous year, The Emoji Movie. Surely Disney wouldn’t make the same mistake as Sony, right? Right?

Taking place several years after the events of the first Wreck-it-Ralph, we see that all is relatively good in the gaming world for our likable heroes Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). That is, until one day a part breaks on Vanellope’s video game Sugar Rush, causing the arcade owner to unplug it. This leaves many without homes and causes Vanellope to question her place in the pixelated world of the arcade. To fix this mess, she and Ralph decide to travel to the vast, sometimes overwhelming world of the internet, where they hope to order her game a new part on eBay and save the day. Coming across many unique characters and situations in the process.

Making a movie about internet culture is practically a death sentence for your longevity as a film. Make the wrong joke about a fly-by-night app or defunct social media platform, and your movie is suddenly labeled as “dated”. Destined to be either hated or forgotten. Take a look at the most extreme case of this, The Emoji Movie. An embodiment of everything wrong with the internet and social media, it’s become one of the most hated movies of recent years.

It’s no surprise that initially Ralph Breaks the Internet was giving off bad Emoji Movie vibes, as both plots essentially deal with the same topic. Thankfully Ralph handles the topic of internet culture with much more grace, humor, and creativity. All things Wreck-it-Ralph fans are sure to respect in this installment. The visualization of eBay, pop-up ads, and the Google search engine are quite cutesy, and viewers are sure to get a kick out of imagination that went behind them.

This isn’t to say there weren’t references that were DOA, dated on arrival. Numerous jokes simply didn’t work because, as the film itself so bluntly puts it, that was trending fifteen seconds ago. Unless you’re still obsessed with screaming goats, hot pepper challenges, and Fortnite dances, you’ll probably find some of this humor a tad out of touch.

Early on there is a clear side plot established featuring Fix-it Felix Jr. and Calhoun that is immediately abandoned. In fact, we don’t see those characters again until the end of the movie. Not that the film needed a story involving these old side characters, I just found it odd that they teased the audience with a plot thread they had no intention of sticking to.

Regardless of dumped side stories, the true focus of Ralph Breaks the Internet is on the budding (yet soon to be strained) friendship of Ralph and Vanellope. We’re given a lot of great moments between the two, which really fleshes out the characters beyond what was seen in the first movie. Both voice actors bring a lot of well-defined personality to the roles, and the unlikely pair have so much chemistry together it’s kind of mind-boggling to think about.

There’s also a clear message worked in about friends keeping close despite growing apart and having different goals to achieve in life. It’s touching and a little complex, but easy enough to understand for young kids.

And I think that’s where the real strength of Ralph Breaks the Internet lies. Not in the trendy jokes or many callbacks to Disney products, but in the fascinating people that inhabit this very thought out world. Ralph doesn’t rely on past characters and environments to prop up its new story, as we get a whole host of new ones in their place. The film hardly even has a villain per se. The most villainous act in the movie is actually carried out by one of the protagonists, how interesting.

Even with some plot flubs and cringe-filled humor, I feel that Ralph Breaks the Internet is a genuinely solid sequel to a wonderfully imaginative family movie.

The Verdict: B

-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

 

Life Review

Life stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson as astronauts aboard the International Space Station, who recover a space probe returning from Mars. They discover that they found the first evidence of extraterrestrial life, an organism that gets nicknamed Calvin. Calvin begins growing at an alarming rate, eventually becoming strong enough to kill one of the crew members. It is now a fight for survival as the astronauts’ battle against a sophisticated being with no intent on letting them live.

I noticed very early on that Life was resembling many similar qualities as Gravity, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien. Even the beginning title card was a callback to Alien. Since Alien is my favorite film, I was immediately skeptical of the direction this film was going in. My reservations ended up being unnecessary, as I was surprisingly fond of Life.

The alien (again, named Calvin) in Life was designed, in my opinion, pretty well. It looked kind of like a slimy starfish that could quickly move through space and easily kill any prey. In this day and age, it’s hard for filmmakers to create a completely original alien that sets it apart from every other movie alien. So with what the film was going for, I thought Calvin was a pretty satisfying (and creepy) alien.

The film attempts to use important dialogue on the meaning of life and our existence as a species, but it comes off as just pretentious and forced. As soon as the characters started talking in this sappy and overdramatic way, my eyes would about roll to the back of my head. Audiences have heard this exact dialogue a million times over, and Life isn’t doing anything new with it.

Despite the self-important dialogue, the characters were for the most part very likable. I wanted to see them survive, and I wanted to see them succeed in returning home. All the acting from every cast member (from Gyllenhaal to Hiroyuki Sanada) was pretty fantastic, and mighty convincing.

I also really liked the general tone and visual style to Life. The close quarters of the space craft gave me a sense of hopelessness and insecurity, like any of our main cast could be killed off at any second. The camera work seconded this, as it gave me a strong feeling of claustrophobia. Also noteworthy was the subtle use of lighting around the spaceship, oftentimes reflecting off a crew member’s face or illuminating a dimly lit room. I’ve always had a love for imaginative lighting styles, and Life supplies plenty of it.

Without discussing too much of how the film ends, I felt very disappointed in the last five minutes or so. It took Life in an unsatisfying and unnecessary direction, ultimately leaving a sour taste in the audiences’ mouths. The ending wasn’t horrible per se, I just think that it’s an overused and cop-out way to end a movie.

The biggest issue with Life is that it attempts to recycle dialogue and plot devices from many of its contemporaries. Essentially dooming itself to future obscurity in the process. It’s kind of like the 2013 film Elysium. It isn’t a bad film by any means, but how does Elysium stand out from other science fiction movies like Oblivion, Interstellar, Gravity, or The Martian? The answer? It doesn’t, not one bit. That’s because it’s your run-of-the-mill dystopian flick that makes few attempts at trying new things. Life, in many respects, is very similar.

Life has a lot of great qualities to it, and I had a lot of fun watching it. However, Life just doesn’t distinguish itself enough from all the other sci-fi films out there. With so many acting talents and skilled individuals behind the camera, I feel like they should’ve been able to accomplish this. Instead, I’m sure many will consider this just a slightly above average “stranded in space” movie.

Even with its crummy ending and recycled content, Life still managed to entertain me tremendously. I loved all the characters and their development in the story, as well as the design of the alien. The tone that the film sets is creepy and bleak, and the camera work kept the film interesting. Call me a sucker for science fiction films, but Life nonetheless gave me a worthwhile experience.

The Verdict: B

-Zachary Flint