Shrek Forever After (2010)

2018 #132
Mike Mitchell | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Shrek Forever After

Shrek the Third suggested that DreamWorks’ golden-goose animated franchise was running out of fairytales to subvert, so this fourth — and final (for the time being) — movie turns its attention on the series itself.

Shrek is becoming disgruntled with life as a family man, so signs a deal with Rumpelstiltskin to have just one day as a “real ogre” again — but Rumpelstiltskin is a tricksy so-and-so, using the small print to land Shrek in an alternate timeline where he was never born. If Shrek can’t sort it out by midnight, he’ll be erased forever and the new timeline will stick. The filmmakers take this storyline as an opportunity to give us a look at how characters might’ve turned out in a Shrek-less world: Fiona is a warrior leading an ogre resistance, disillusioned by life after no prince came to rescue her; Puss in Boots is a fat, pampered kitty; and Donkey is working as a cart-donkey… but is otherwise pretty much the same. I guess some personalities never change.

Sundry of the series’ many supporting characters get the same treatment, and it’s in this upending of familiarity that Forever After finds its greatest entertainment value. The result therefore favours dedicated viewers, while newcomers would be advised to seek out the franchise’s first two instalments. While this conclusion might not be quite as good, or iconic, as that pair, it does have a lot going for it, making it a more fitting finale than its mediocre predecessor.

4 out of 5

Shrek Forever After is on BBC One today at 3:10pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.

Shrek the Third (2007)

2018 #101
Chris Miller | 93 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Shrek the Third

Shrek the Third is notorious as The Bad One; the one where the bubble burst on the phenomenon that had sustained two well-reviewed and immensely financially successful films. The list of failed threequels is long — so long, you almost wonder why anyone bothers to make them — and while Shrek the Third does indeed do little to buck that trend, it could be worse.

The title isn’t just a variation from calling the film Shrek 3, but also hints at the plot: when the king dies, Shrek is next in line to the throne. But he’s been struggling so much at royal engagements that he wants out of that life anyway, never mind a promotion. Fortunately, there is a possible alternative: a young lad called Arthur. While Shrek, Donkey and Puss set off to find this spare heir, Princess Fiona and a cohort of other fairytale princesses must fend off an attack from Prince Charming, who still has eyes on the throne.

It’s not a terrible plot for a Shrek movie, but it’s not particularly original either. Thematically, Shrek’s disinterest in being royalty was covered in the last film, though at least this time it’s bolstered with a fatherhood angle. The choice of villain, however, straight up takes the last film’s secondary antagonist and recycles him as a primary antagonist — if there’s a more literal example of sequels representing diminishing returns, I can’t think of it.

Action princesses

As for everything else, there are some good ideas and funny bits here and there, but there’s also something that’s just… off. It’s not consistently amusing or creative enough. It doesn’t have the same effortless energy and pace as the first two. And some of its ideas sound decent on paper, but just don’t work in the film. For example, the fairytale twist on a high school where they find Arthur — Shrek’s got good mileage out of spoofing the real world before, so you can see the genesis of the idea, but it just doesn’t land here, with the setting being an irritant rather than an amusing parallel.

Although the film still credits Andrew Adamson, writer and/or director of both previous films, as among its executive producers, I reckon there must have been debilitating changes behind the scenes, because the whole production just comes up short. Like, where the previous films offered legitimately exciting action scenes, the ones here could be decent but come off flat. It shouldn’t matter — this is a fantasy comedy, not an action movie — but it’s just one part that’s emblematic of the whole. Another is the song choices, which, like the fairytale high school thing, are seemingly okay but actually just wrong. As in, most of them are good songs, but they so often don’t actually quite fit the movie — I mean, Live and Let Die during a funeral?

Shrek the Third isn’t entirely without merit, but something seems to have gone awry between conception and execution, and it doesn’t zing in the way its predecessors did.

3 out of 5

The Boss Baby (2017)

2018 #12
Tom McGrath | 97 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / PG

The Boss Baby

The Boss Baby was one of the top 20 highest grossing films of 2017, which earnt it a place on my ’50 Unseen’ list, thereby ensuring it would remain in my consciousness for as long as I referred to said list (i.e. for the rest of time). Then it went and got nominated for an Oscar too, displacing the likes of The LEGO Batman Movie and Ghibli heir Mary and the Witch’s Flower in the process. With those factors combined, I felt I had to witness it for myself. I chose to do so in 3D, to hopefully ameliorate at least some of the anticipated discomfort of watching the film itself. I needn’t have worried: despite what many people will tell you, I thought The Boss Baby was actually pretty good. Well, most of it.

It’s the story of Tim (voiced by Miles Bakshi and in narration by Tobey Maguire), a seven-year-old only child with a hyperactive imagination and two doting parents. But then a new baby arrives… As Tim’s parents’ affection shifts to their attention-demanding bundle of joy, he’s the only one who can see the truth: that the baby wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and is clearly a businessmanbaby on some kind of undercover mission. Obviously no one will listen to Tim, so he sets about exposing the truth.

Sibling rivalry

For all its daft humour, the reason The Boss Baby is so successful (for an adult viewer) is that it’s actually a really neat way of tackling the whole “sibling displaced by new baby” thing, from the kid’s point of view. That’s the thematic and subtextual meat that makes it more than just “wouldn’t it be funny if a baby was a businessman!” As part of this, it has a nice line in juxtaposing how an imaginative seven-year-old sees the world versus how it really is — showing us both Tim’s fantasies and the actual events they’ve launched off from. It allows the film to have exciting and kooky stuff (like talking business-babies and elaborate action scenes) while also remaining grounded. Watching in 3D heightens this further, incidentally: as with most computer-animated films, the 3D effect is generally pretty nice, but it really comes alive during the fantasy and action sequences.

If that all sounds oddly serious, it isn’t. Arguably best known nowadays for his Trump impersonations, Alec Baldwin is an obvious choice to voice an infantile businessman. This one’s actually competent, though, so Baldwin plays it straight and thus is dryly witty. There are also plenty of amusing visual gags, one-liners, and so on to fulfil the expected comedy remit. Okay, some don’t land or are a bit juvenile, but it is a kids’ movie after all.

Parents are so gullible

Unfortunately, what works in the early sections begins to go awry later on. By the third act it’s lost the connection to plausible reality that made Tim’s imagined versions such fun — it’s impossible to translate the OTT action we’re witnessing into what might be really happening. I know it sounds daft to talk about plausibility in a film about a baby who’s a businessman, but it’s the relationship between Tim’s fantasies (i.e. the business-baby stuff) and real-life (i.e. really he’s just a new baby) that makes the earlier parts work.

Arguably worst of all is the epilogue, which takes a very serious emotional issue (the loss of a baby) and tosses it aside to expedite the resolution the filmmakers want to reach. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect a kids’ movie to attempt to tackle the realities of losing a child, especially when it only introduces that element in its closing minutes, but then surely the solution is to not even go there; to find a better way to wrap up the story?

It’s this increasing lack of attentiveness that ultimately led me to give the film a 3 instead of a 4. If it had kept up the early quality through to the end, I likely would have looked more generously on it. Nonetheless, thanks to the bits that worked really well, I generally found the film to be a pleasant surprise.

3 out of 5

Spin-off TV series The Boss Baby: Back in Business is available on Netflix from today.

Antz (1998)

2017 #119
Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Antz

I don’t know if there was something in the Californian water in 1998, but in the same year that major Hollywood studios faced off with similarly-themed disaster movies Deep Impact and Armageddon, fledgling CG-animation outfits did the same with ant-themed kids’ movies. One was Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, which has endured thanks to the ever-increasing cachet of the studio’s brand (it was only their second feature). The other, of course, was Antz, which has the starry-named voice cast but was only by DreamWorks, whose later success with the likes of Shrek has done little to elevate the standing of their entire oeuvre. Anyway, it’s a bit pointless me making these comparisons because I’ve still not seen A Bug’s Life. Maybe in that review, someday.

As for Antz in isolation, it’s a funny old film. It feels more aimed at adults than kids: star Woody Allen is doing a version of his usual schtick, and the plot riffs heavily on political systems like Communism, a combination which means most of the jokes will soar over children’s heads. That’s before we get on to the brutal war sequence against monstrous termites. Plus, the entire voice cast seem to have wandered in from a completely different kind of movie: as well as Allen there’s Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone. I don’t know how well it plays for kids, but, as an adult, all of this stuff gives it a welcomely different flavour.

A bug's famous voice

Visually, it also lacks the slick (if somewhat plasticky) sheen of early Pixar. I can’t quite decide if the animation has aged badly (it is 20-years-old CGI, after all) or has a certain timelessness. Some of the computer animated stuff is blocky and jerky, but it’s frequently paired up with painted backgrounds for scenery and the like, which gives a kind of pleasant mixed-media feel to some sections. The effect is emphasised by the quality of the transfer that’s around: although in HD, it’s clearly been transferred from an actual film print, not clean digital files. And not a great print at that: there’s spots of dirt and everything. I guess that shows the lowly standing even DreamWorks holds the film in, but there’s a certain kind of old-school charm to it. Which is probably just misplaced nostalgia on my part for old lo-fi media, but hey-ho.

Antz is an odd little film. It doesn’t contain the easy charms of a Pixar movie, and I can imagine kids would get very little out of it; but for adult animation fans, it’s kind of interesting.

3 out of 5

Antz is on Channel 4 today at 2:30pm.

Home (2015)

2016 #35
Tim Johnson | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

Oh (Jim Parsons) is a Boov, a race of friendly aliens looking for a new home planet to escape their enemies. When they arrive on Earth, Oh tries to invite everyone to a party, but accidentally alerts their enemies to their new home. Outcast, he bumps into Tip (Rihanna), a girl accidentally left behind when the rest of mankind was relocated by the Boov. Desperate for friendship, Oh agrees to help her find her mother.

Initially I ignored Home, because nothing about it looked particularly inspiring. But I’ve been wrong about CG kids animations before (How to Train Your Dragon; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), so when I happened to see the trailer and it amused me, I decided to give it a go. Unfortunately, characters and affectations that are amusing in the form of highlights lasting two minutes quickly grate in the film proper.

Home’s biggest problems are all in its most fundamental aspect: the story. It doesn’t just have plot holes — the whole premise and inciting incident don’t even hang together. I don’t believe this is just a movie for little kids, I reckon it was written by them too. That’s surely the only way to explain its absence of plausible logic.

Why do the Boov speak English? Why do they speak it wrong? Why does Oh speak it so much more wrong than any other Boov? Why do they know the words for things they have no concept of? Why would humanity accept total relocation without any kind of response? How would only one girl on the entire planet be missed? How would she have had time to come to hate the Boov enough to make multiple pieces of anti-Boov art and set up an elaborate Home Alone-style trap in her apartment when the film suggests the Boov arrived just a couple of hours earlier? How does she know how to drive? If she’s old enough to know how to drive (and to be voiced by Rihanna), why does she do art that looks like it’s by a six-year-old? Why do the Boov make recognisable monuments float in the air? Why would a communication device’s two options be “send to one person” and “send to not only the entire species, but the entire universe, including our enemies”? Why is there no option to cancel such a transmission that is going to take 40 hours to reach said enemies? I mean, that last one’s a stupid question, because why is there even a way to message the enemies?

And those questions are just from the first 15 minutes.

Tip’s full name is Gratuity Tucci, which may just be the most implausible name in the history of the world. Our heroes spend a chunk of the middle of the film just driving across the Atlantic (don’t ask) doing things like listening to Rihanna music (you mean, they listen to songs by the lead voice actress? What a coincidence!) Sometimes the film is scored with such Popular Songs, often tweeny crap, but other times it’s blandly generic Movie Music. Either would be an adequate creative choice, albeit resolutely unremarkable, but having both at random is distractingly schizophrenic. And the songs don’t even have accurate relevance to what’s happening.

Story aside, Home is not poorly made, and there are fleeting glimmers of entertainment. Which is damning with faint praise, really. Naturally, I don’t recommend you waste your time on it.

2 out of 5

Home featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

2015 #45
Dean DeBlois | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Four years ago, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon came as a pleasant surprise: a film I thought looked weak in almost every respect, but which turned out to be immensely entertaining and beautifully made. This sequel has the opposite level of expectation, then, but fortunately it’s (mostly) up to the task.

Part of its success stems from being bold with the concept. Rather than just rehashing the first film’s story, or taking it in only a slightly different direction, returning writer-director Dean DeBlois (his former co-director, Chris Sanders, having moved on to fellow DreamWorks hit The Croods) jumps the story forward five years, in the process changing the status quo of the film’s world enough to keep it fresh. So whereas the last movie ended with dragon-hating vikings having some kind of grudging acceptance of the titular bewinged creatures, here those dragons have been fully integrated into viking society; and the teenage heroes have been aged up to be young adults.

The latter, in particular, necessitates some great design work to age the younger characters appropriately. It’s the kind of thing that looks obvious in retrospect, but it isn’t — how many animations can you think of that have to reimagine their characters as slightly older; enough to make a notable difference, but not as extreme as, say, turning them from young children to adults, or from middle-aged to very old? I can’t think of any. Nonetheless, the team here have done a faultless job. That applies to the film’s visuals on the whole. It looks gorgeous in every way: the design, the animation, the construction of the digital world, the lighting… and so on.

Tonally, DeBlois has been productively inspired by The Empire Strikes Back: it’s still child-friendly, but nonetheless more mature, and with some striking emotional beats. The main plot — concerning an army that enslaves dragons, vs. our hero vikings who live alongside them — is a little hit and miss, with some construction issues (which I’ll come back to). The characters and their emotional arcs, however, are more consistently realised, sometimes with a less-is-more approach. For instance, it’s quite nice that DeBlois doesn’t introduce needless jeopardy into the romance between Hiccup and Astrid: they’re just a couple, and happy — that’s not rammed home, nor do they quarrel over nothing; they don’t split up only to inevitably get back together. Such beats are overworked and over-familiar, and the film has enough else going on not to bother with some fake-out relationship trouble. However, challenging the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless, even if only briefly, is a much more emotionally rewarding thread to pull. Of course, to say how it’s challenged would be a gigantic spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that.

The first film quickly and effectively sketched a largish supporting cast, and they’re deftly used again here. Their parts may be doled out in snippets — a couple of lines here, a short scene there — but they build subplots and comic relief, and pay them off too, all without shifting the focus too heavily on to things that fundamentally don’t matter. Perhaps this is, in part, the benefit of a starry voice cast (where the supporting players are bigger names than the leads!)

If there’s a flaw, it’s in some of the new characters. The primary villain is underused, introduced too late in the game to become a palpable threat. More time spent building him up, seeing his evil on screen rather than just being told about it, would’ve been appreciated. So too for the mysterious vigilante dragon-rider, who turns out to have a very significant role. The deleted scenes include a prologue that would have introduced the character at the start, which would have better established the mystery and import of their role. It’s clear why it was deleted (to focus on Berk and keep the initial tone light), but I still think it would’ve worked better in the film. In the final cut, the vigilante is mentioned all of once, then turns up and is unmasked about two minutes later. Really, though, these are niggles — even for them, the cumulative consistency is certainly better than, say, its Oscar conquerer Big Hero 6.

To make another inter-film comparison, on balance I’d say that the first Dragon is probably better, but there’s little between them — they’re just different. By pushing the world and the characters in new, interesting, more emotionally mature directions, this is a sequel that ensures there’s a welcome freshness to proceedings. Too many animated films skimp on that side of things, but thought and care has been put into making this a worthwhile continuation rather than a cash-in re-hash.

4 out of 5

Monsters vs Aliens (2009)

2014 #21
Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon | 84 mins* | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Monsters vs AliensThere seems to be a certain brand of animated film that I think looks dreadful so avoid, then I hear good things about, so I try it and find that, actually, they are really good. There was How to Train Your Dragon, then Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and now — yes, you guessed it — there’s Monsters vs Aliens.

On her wedding day, Susan is struck by meteorite whose contents causes her to grow to 50 feet tall. Seized by the government and renamed Ginormica, she’s taken to a special facility that houses an array of other creatures: B.O.B., an indestructible blob; Dr. Cockroach, a part-insect mad scientist; the Missing Link, a prehistoric fish-ape hybrid; and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper-sized grub. But when evil alien Gallaxhar arrives seeking the energy that gave Ginormica her powers, it’s realised the only way to combat his giant robots is by unleashing the monsters. Yes, it’s The Avengers with ’50s B-movie monsters.

If that doesn’t sound like a fun concept, you’re probably already on a hiding to nothing. It has a love and understanding of B-movies that should keep many a genre fan happy, suggesting it was created for them almost as much as its true audience, namely the same kids as… well, every other US animation. I suppose in that regard it’s a bit like The Incredibles, still one of the best superhero movies in any form.
Monster Squad
That’s a big comparison to make, but one I think Monsters vs Aliens can withstand more often than not. The climax is a little samey — why do all action-y kids CGI movies seem to have the same final act? — but before then it has a nice line in satirical humour, bold and broad characters, and even some quality action sequences. This is not a film where someone had an idea and coasted on it, but where they poured in a lot of love and elements you might not expect — see: satire, in an American kids’ movie! Not to mention the emotion you’ll get from a giant moth. I mean seriously…

Computer-animated kids movies are two-a-penny these days, meaning if it doesn’t have “Pixar” above its logo or a number at the end of its title, there’s a good chance it’ll be brushed off as “oh, another one”. (Of course, to get the aforementioned number on a title you need a successful unnumbered one first — like the other two films I mentioned in my introduction, for example.) There’s probably a lot of dross that’s being rightfully ignored, but some gems seem to have passed by with less fanfare than their enjoyment-value merits. Megamind is one that comes to mind; Monsters vs Aliens is another.

4 out of 5

* Full running time is 94 minutes. A saving of 10 is what you get for watching it in a PAL version (i.e. sped-up 4%) created for broadcast TV (i.e. hardly any credits). ^

Madagascar (2005)

2008 #89
Eric Darnell & Tom McGrath | 82 mins | TV | U / PG

MadagascarIt had been my impression that this summer’s sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, was a weaker follow-up to a middling original. Clearly I was reading the wrong review, because Rotten Tomatoes offers a different consensus: “an improvement on the original, with more fleshed-out characters, crisper animation and more consistent humor.” Oh. So what of the original?

The characters may not offer great depth, but they serve their purpose well enough. The plot focuses on Marty the zebra, voiced by Chris Rock, who wants to escape to the wild, and Alex the lion, voiced by Ben Stiller, who doesn’t — but doesn’t have a choice when they’re whisked off half-an-hour in. This might leave David Schwimmer’s giraffe Melman and Jada Pinkett Smith’s hippo Gloria with little to do but support, but in an 80-minute kids’ animation you can’t expect an Altman-esque portmanteau.

The animation is better than I expected. At the time, the angular style looked cheap, like a step back from the realism-aiming work of Pixar and the Shrek team. It’s just stylised however, still allowing plenty of expression in characters’ faces and detail in their movements and the locations. It’s not a exceptional example of how brilliant computer animated films can be (unquestionably Pixar’s forte, especially in the likes of Ratatouille and WALL-E’s earlier scenes), but it’s better than some sparse and clunky efforts (such as Aardman’s Flushed Away).

Equally, the humour is above average. Large laughs may be sporadic but are there, particularly in a few moments that nicely spoof other films. Standouts include Planet of the Apes and American Beauty — clearly aimed at the adult audience who have been dragged along by the kids, have come expecting Pixar-level entertainment, or want to see what Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen can be doing in a family film. Plus there’s the penguins, a little band of wannabe escapees who thankfully aren’t overused, especially as the last few years have seen a severe overload of penguin movies (March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, Surf’s Up…) If there’s one element that could’ve been bumped up it’s the monkeys; on the other hand, like the penguins, they’re not done to death.

Madagascar doesn’t reach the highs of Pixar — no surprise there — but it’s at least nudging the ballpark. If the sequel’s better then I might even seek it out before it makes it all the way down to TV.*

4 out of 5

* I never did; and now it’s been on TV (several times), I still haven’t. ^

Over the Hedge (2006)

2007 #51
Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick | 80 mins | DVD | U / PG

Over the HedgeCGI movies are far too common these days, meaning that the quality is dropping (demonstrated by the fact that the number produced has increased massively but the number of Oscar nominations in that category has remained at three).

Over the Hedge is certainly derivative — its character arc is almost directly lifted from Toy Story, for example — but it is beautifully animated and does have some laugh-worthy moments, even if they are almost entirely in the last half hour. There are better examples of the genre, but it passes the time entertainingly enough.

(Stay with it til the end of the credits for a little bit more, although if you bother you may agree with Hammy’s assessment of things.)

3 out of 5