BOY AND THE WORLD (Brazil, 2013)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

CAST: Vinicius Garcia, Alê Abreu, Lu Horta
MY RATING: 10/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A little boy goes on an adventurous quest in search of his father.

Filmmaker Brad Bird, the mind behind The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles, once said something that occurred to me multiple times while I was watching the Brazilian animated film, Boy and the World.

“…animation is not a genre.  And people keep saying, ‘The animation genre.’  It’s not a genre!  A Western is a genre!  Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre.  You know, it can do a detective film, a cowboy film, a horror film, an R-rated film, or a kids’ fairy tale.  But it doesn’t do one thing.”

Boy and the World proves Bird’s statement correct by delivering a succinct, poignant film, virtually without words, that defies classification.  Is it a kids’ film?  It’s colorful, vibrant, and contains no long words, but it was rated PG in America.  Is it a “grown-up” film?  There is absolutely some thematic material that might require some parental explanation, but the style of the film’s images is almost like a children’s book come to life.  Boy and the World is quite unique in animation, at least in the animated films I’ve seen.  The only film I might possibly compare it to is Walt Disney’s Fantasia…or more accurately, I’d say Boy and the World was inspired by Fantasia’s core concept.  It’s a fairy tale and a cautionary tale and a coming-of-age story and a visual tour-de-force all in one.

We first meet the titular Boy in this story as he seems to be hearing music coming from under a colorful rock in a field.  The Boy is never named.  Indeed, what little dialogue we ever hear in the movie is conveyed either by grunts and coughs and harrumphs, or by a peculiar, unrecognizable language.  I turned on the Blu-ray’s subtitles, and it only said “SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE.”  But the film’s story is so well-constructed, a literal understanding of their speech is never necessary.  (Trivia note: I learn from the disc’s special features that the language we hear is Portuguese…spoken backwards.)

The Boy lives with his mother and father in a humble dwelling in the Brazilian countryside during an unspecified time period, though his clothing indicates something close to present day.  One day, his father simply decides to leave, boards a train, and is gone.  We are not given a clear reason for his departure.  The Boy is distraught, so one night he packs a suitcase (its only contents: a photo of him with his mother and father) and sets off to find him…

From there, the movie becomes an absolute visual feast.  I do not wish to give further plot details – and there IS a surprisingly compelling plot – but I do want to give some idea of the startling originality on display during the film.

  • The Boy has a unique ability that no one else in this world seems to have: he can see music.  Whenever his mother hums a tune, or his father (in flashback) plays a song on a recorder, the Boy sees the music appear in the air as little balls of color, like cotton balls or tiny clouds.  Later, he watches a parade go down a street, and the music clouds rise and swirl together in the sky, forming a huge multicolored bird.  Later still, a military formation marches down another street.  The boy sees that music as blacks and greys, and the bird it forms in the sky is far more imposing and ominous.
  • Nothing in the film is a literal representation of what it’s depicting.  For example, when the Boy sees a big city for the first time, most of the vehicles appear to have faces.  The language on all the ads and billboards doesn’t make any sense.  The sports he sees on the TV sets in the shop windows are confusing and nonsensical.  It is more like an impression a child might have of a big city, and it feels more real because of its stylistic liberties.  When he sees large industrial machines in operation for the first time, they look more like elephants and dragons than tow trucks and construction cranes.  This is something animation can do better than any other medium.

  • There is a heartbreaking scene when the Boy sees a train pull in at a station and sees his father step out.  The Boy runs forward…and then his father steps out of another car.  And another, and another.  And soon the platform is crowded with scores of men, all identical to the Boy’s father, and the Boy falls to his knees in frustration.  I interpreted this as an eloquent analogy of how anyone in the Boy’s situation might see a recognizable figure in the distance, only to be disappointed again and again.  Instead of it happening 15 or 20 times in the movie, we got it all at once, and it was an unexpectedly powerful moment.
  • Listen closely, and you’ll hear that a lot of sound effects, from birds in the jungle to car horns honking to clattering machinery, are made by musical instruments or the human voice and/or body.  Yet another unique element to an already unique film.
  • The resolution of the boy’s search took me completely by surprise.  There were little visual clues that had me believing the movie was not going to have a happy ending.  But then it unfolded, and the effect was eye-opening.  I won’t say one way or the other if he found his father or not, but I will say the ending felt earned, authentic, and very satisfying.

All told, Boy and the World is a marvelous little discovery, one that I plan to re-watch soon to drink in its marvelous visual concoction once more.  My colleague, Marc, is a playwright who once wrote a short play as a pantomime.  He believed (and still does, I think) that the main purpose of the visual arts is to show us something new and exciting whenever possible.  Boy and the World would be right up his alley.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Trey Parker
CAST: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 80% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Movie Based on a TV Series”

PLOT: When the overprotective mothers of South Park convince America to go to war with Canada over a Canadian R-rated cartoon (wink, wink), they unwittingly set off a chain of events that could lead to global apocalypse.

I sat down and watched South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut for perhaps the fifteenth or twentieth time in my life.  My mind went back to the first time seeing it in movie theaters in 1999, one of the single greatest years of American cinema since 1939.  [Fight Club, The Insider, American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, The Iron Giant, Galaxy Quest, Three Kings, need I go on?]  I recall laughing and laughing and laughing, then forcing myself to be quiet so I could hear the next joke, and then laughing some more.  I recall being shocked, yes, SHOCKED to hear such salty language coming from the mouths of animated children.  I had seen the first season or so of the TV series, especially the pilot featuring the battle between Santa Claus and Jesus, and the aliens who force Cartman to sing, so I was not unfamiliar with the formula.

And yet, as transgressively funny as the TV show was, here comes the movie, which featured, among other things I’m sure I’m forgetting:

  • Several uses of the “F” word.  (Not THAT one, the OTHER one.)
  • A socially unacceptable use of the word “retard.”
  • A very brief glimpse of a white character in blackface.
  • A character who uses very naughty language to describe God.
  • Satan and Saddam Hussein having conjugal relations in Hell.
  • A song with a passage containing musical farts.

…the list goes on.  (One of my favorite exchanges: “Haven’t you heard of the Emancipation Proclamation?!”  “…I don’t listen to hip-hop.”)

These are the kinds of jokes you only repeat to your friends when you’re certain there are no eavesdroppers.  Heck, some of them I wouldn’t repeat to my best friend on a desert island.  But I must be honest: I laughed and laughed again.

Naturally, the satirical elements are bloody ingenious.  The story revolves around our lovable heroes – Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny – sneaking into a Canadian R-rated film based on one of their favorite television shows, “Terrance and Phillip.”  The aptly named Asses of Fire seems to contain three hours of nothing but two goofy-looking characters farting, making fart jokes, and singing songs about farting and having carnal relations with your mother’s brother.  Our heroes walk out of the movie thoroughly entertained and sporting a new profanity-laden vocabulary that would be right at home in The Aristocrats.  When their mothers hear where their precious children heard such foul language, they form a protest group against Canada and sing the Oscar-nominated song (true story!) “Blame Canada,” which contains this revealing line: “We’ve got to blame Canada, we’ve got to make a fuss / Before someone thinks of blaming us!”

To everyone’s great surprise, it turns out these events might bring about a Biblical apocalypse in which Satan will escape Hell and cleanse the Earth, with Saddam Hussein by his side.  Because, you know, why not?  How this crisis is averted, and how it involves a Clockwork Orange-esque “V-chip” implanted in Cartman’s brain, I would not dream of revealing.

The cleverness of this plot is breathtaking, skewering the concept of forced morality with wit and poop jokes, but something tells me they’re preaching to the choir.  The folks who most need to see this film are clearly the ones who will stay the farthest away from it.  (In one of Hollywood’s supreme ironies, since “Blame Canada” was Oscar-nominated, that meant it was to be performed at the Oscar ceremony, but the network censors would not allow the singer, Robin Williams [!], to sing the word “fart” on national television.  How they got around that absurd logic, I leave it to you and Google to discover.)

This is one of those “review-proof” films, like the Jackass or Scary Movie franchises.  You could line up established critics around the block, telling everyone how juvenile and crude and offensive this movie is, and it will not matter a tiny, tiny bit; they made money, and lots of it.  I might even agree with those critics to a certain degree.  But I cannot deny the fact that tears of laughter rolled down my face when Cartman sang “Kyle’s Mom Is a Big Fat Bitch.”  I cannot deny that watching Saddam Hussein’s idea of foreplay made me first recoil, then cackle with more laughter.  I cannot deny that my best friend and I still laugh today if one of us starts singing, “Shut your ******* face, uncle ****** / You’re a *****-biting bastard, uncle ******.”

It’s juvenile.  It’s rude.  It’s socially unacceptable.  But sweet baby Jeebus, it is funny.


Best line or memorable quote?
[I already said what my favorite exchange was, but what the heck I’ll double-dip:]
“Remember what the MPAA says: Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don’t say any naughty words! That’s what this war is all about!”

If you have seen the television series, do you prefer the movie or the TV version?  Why?
Another moment of full disclosure: I haven’t watched the South Park TV series since shortly after they introduced “Mr. Hanky, the Christmas Poo.”  Honestly, the show’s style of humor started wearing thin, at least for something that aired weekly.  I thoroughly enjoyed 80 minutes or so of the movie, but the show itself just got tiresome.  (You can’t see it, but I just shrugged.)  Even Parker and Stone’s next movie project, Team America: World Police, had its laugh-out-loud moments, but the pinpoint satirical accuracy was missing, and it just seemed mean-spirited compared to the South Park movie.  Apparently, my taste for fart jokes and pervasive profanity does have its limits.  Who knew?

MARY AND MAX (Australia, 2009)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Adam Elliot
Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Humphries, Eric Bana
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Stop Motion Film”

PLOT: A tale of friendship between two unlikely pen pals: Mary, a lonely eight-year-old girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and Max, a forty-four-year-old severely obese man living in New York.

“Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles. Her birthmark, the color of poo.”

Thus begins the narration of one of the most poignant movies I’ve ever seen, Mary and Max, a 2009 stop-motion animated film made in Australia.  It never got a wide release in America; were it not for the fact it appeared on the IMDb list of the top 250 favorite films worldwide, I might never have heard of it.  Thank goodness I found a copy online and bought it…one my best “blind-buy” purchases ever.

At this point in an earlier draft of this review, I launched into a plot description which veered into a discussion about the movie’s color palette, its tone, its agenda, etcetera.  But that somehow didn’t feel right, and I got bogged down.  What I really want to impart upon you, the reader, is how it made me feel.

It’s a drama about mental illness wrapped in the trappings of a Tim Burton-esque dark comedy.  What this means is, some of the visuals are right out of The Nightmare Before Christmas: oversized flies with googly eyes, suicidal goldfish, main characters whose body shapes resemble vegetables more than people.  But the story and emotional beats rival any Merchant Ivory film or James L. Brooks weepie.

Eight-year-old Mary Dinkle, who lives in Australia, starts up a pen-pal correspondence with Max Horovitz, a 44-year-old obese single man with undiagnosed (at least initially) Asperger syndrome.  After his initial panic attack at receiving a letter from a complete stranger, which throws his carefully controlled equilibrium out of whack, he writes her back, and they wind up having a decades-long correspondence.  She has no friends due to her prominent forehead birthmark.  He has no friends because he can’t relate to people.

The movie is mostly an unseen narrator bridging gaps between their letters, while the letters are read as they’re being written/typed by Mary and Max.  The relationship between the two is as touching as anything I’ve ever seen on film.  She sends him a hand-drawn picture of herself, which he keeps in his mirror to remind himself how people are supposed to look when they’re happy.  He sends her his recipe for chocolate hot dogs (a chocolate bar in a hot dog bun).  She asks him all the important questions, like: if a taxi drives backwards, does the driver owe YOU money?  He explains a long gap in their correspondence: “I was hospitalized, won the lottery, and my next-door neighbor died.”

These two lonely souls reaching out to each other just made me feel sunny inside, even amid the small tragedies they each faced.  Mary’s father dies.  Max keeps having to buy goldfish.  Mary falls in love with the Greek boy across the street, a boy who stutters, wants to be an actor, and, when they become engaged, makes her wedding dress for her.  Uh, huh.

The way in which the stories of these two people were written to complement each other without being identical is a delicate balancing act that threatens to veer into farce, then rights itself at the last second.  As I say, it’s hard to describe.

A turning point occurs when Mary gets a bit older, goes to school, studies mental disorders, and writes a book about her American pen-friend with Asperger’s.  She sends him the very first copy…but Max’s reaction is not what she anticipated.  She falls into a depression…

And here the movie takes a brilliantly dark turn.  I remember watching it for the very first time thinking, “Are they really telling THIS kind of story in a stop-motion film?”  Yep, they are.  There is a key scene where Mary has a kind of fever-dream hallucination choreographed to a haunting version of “Que Sera, Sera”, and my jaw dropped.  I cannot claim to have intimate knowledge of mental illnesses, but this scene just feels right.  This is a great representation of what someone’s mind might look and sound like on the brink of a terrible decision.

I realize I’m not making this movie sound like a lot of fun.  I can assure you that it is entertaining and fun, with a nasty (in a good way) habit of getting a chuckle while juxtaposing it against a scene of subtle awfulness.  The way Mary’s mother dies gets a laugh…but only as you’re listening to her death throes in the background.  The way Max’s various goldfish die is alternately funny and gruesome, or both at the same time.

And the REAL kicker is the final sequence, where Mary finally discovers where Max has kept all her letters through the years.  This moment is one of the greatest revelations I’ve ever seen, and I nearly shed a tear when she did.

Portrayals of mental illness in films have had varying degrees of success.  For every Rain Man, there’s an I Am Sam.  With Mary and Max, the filmmakers used the stop-motion medium to present hard-hitting material without totally getting bogged down in the inherent trauma or pathos of the illness being portrayed.  It’s an ingenious combination, but I’ll be damned if I can explain exactly WHY it works.  It just does.  Mary and Max remains one of the most unique animated films I’ve ever seen.  Seek this one out if you can.


Were you surprised by the ending? What would you do differently?
I was bamboozled by the ending. I do sort of wish we had some idea of what happened to Mary after her trip, but I guess that’s okay. I wish her well in her future endeavors, wherever she may be.

Why do you think stop-motion was chosen for this film rather than animation?
As I mentioned, I believe it was to leaven the deep, potentially dreary material with the inherent oddness of the medium. Even a man in a wheelchair with no legs looks undeniably goofy…but it’s tragic. But he looks kinda funny.


By Marc S. Sanders

What I hearken back to most when I watch The Little Mermaid is my junior year of high school in 1989.  If you were around at that time, then maybe you realized how much of an impact the characters of Ariel, Sebastian, Flounder, Scuttle and Ursula The Sea Witch had on kids, but teen pop culture as well.  Batman was big that year.  Disney’s underwater, romantic, musical adventure was at least as large.  Driving home from school, everyone I knew were singing along to celebrated numbers like Kiss The Girl, Les Poisson, Under The Sea and Part Of Your World.  My drama class couldn’t get enough of Poor Unfortunate Souls.  Oh, how overdramatic we would get in Mr. Locklair’s class while emulating Pat Carroll.  I still harmonize Ariel surrendering her voice.  Yes!  I can hold the tune!!!!  There is no denying The Little Mermaid cast a spell over the student body at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida.

The Little Mermaid is an important entry in the Disney lexicon.  Disney films were considered substandard, tired and stale before this release.  However, the adored fable based upon a story from Hans Christian Anderson awakened something that still carries on.  The music within the film from beloved writers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were delivered like Broadway showstoppers.  The quality of the songs was elevated with gorgeous calypso and reggae harmonies, and vocal characterizations as colorful as the underwater life depicted on screen.

Ariel (Jodi Benson) is the title character who dreams of what life is like above the surface.  Her father, King Triton, strictly forbids her from going above the water.  In his eyes, humans are ghastly.  That’s a problem because his daughter is enamored with handsome Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes).  Like a sixteen-year-old who sneaks out of the house through a bedroom window, Ariel visits the nefarious and alluring sea witch, Ursula (a rapturous Pat Carroll in one of the best fantasy villain roles to ever appear in the movies).  The deal is Ursula will turn Ariel into a human for three days.  In exchange the little mermaid must surrender her gorgeous singing voice.  If Eric does not give Ariel a kiss of true love by the time the sun sets on the third day, then her soul belongs to Ursula for all eternity. Ariel gets some help from Sebastian the crab (also a sea-life orchestral conductor), innocent Flounder, and a zany seagull named Scuttle (Buddy Hackett).

The animators at Disney use everything at their disposal to burst wondrous color within the film.  There’s life brought to the sea life within the backgrounds from a blowfish who BLOWS, to the Octopus and the shrimp and swordfish.  Even the random bubbles that float around are marvelous to look at. Nothing is off limits and life under the sea seems so much more enticing compared to the ho hum activities that we humans endure each day with traffic jams and junk mail.

Other Disney productions like Alaadin and Beauty And The Beast that followed, offer some life lessons for the protagonists to consider.  The Little Mermaid doesn’t actually.  It rests upon wishes and dreams for Ariel.  I’m thankful for that.  It’s such a glorious picture that I coast through on the fantasy of it all.  Ariel takes me on adventures to explore shipwrecks and her grotto where her human collectibles are stashed.  I get to carefully approach the dark imagery of Ursula’s caverns where countless, slimy, pitiful souls suffer, while the tentacled monster delights in her vanity with Pat Carroll’s gleeful voiceover.  It’s just enough for me.  Disney doesn’t always have to preach, and I think it’s why The Little Mermaid is my favorite of all of their films. 

Every moment is beautifully drawn in shape and color.  Still for a film that came six years before the Pixar evolution, the expressions of the characters come off so naturally.  Look at Sebastian’s fear and frustration as he tries to keep up with an independent Ariel.  Pay attention to Ariel’s nervous reaction when she encounters Eric on the beach after she’s become human.  She’s animated to try and straighten her hair and grin her teeth because its as if the popular kid in school is walking across a disco lit gymnasium to ask her for a dance.  The animation is purely inspired by natural, human behavior that we are all too familiar with.  When drawn like this, we can’t help but be impressed.

The songs are the highlights though.  The compositions are so lively and easy to pick up and sing along to, like we all did in high school.  The lyrics are equally impressive like the most brilliant of dialogue.  When Ursula makes her campaign for why this trade would be advantageous for Ariel (Poor Unfortunate Souls), I can’t help but believe her.  She’ll have her looks and pretty face.  It’s only her voice!  You got a point there Ursula.  The best villains always have the most sound reasonings behind their motivations.

Sebastian (Samuel E Wright) makes a strong argument for why life Under The Sea is so much better than living on land.  His enthusiasm in song is completely convincing.  Life under the sea is nothing but a party.  Let’s go.

Jodi Benson gives a strong voiceover performance as Ariel.  I’m hearing a firm and independent young woman who stands her ground and will defy any orders to go after what she desires.  Her rendition of Part Of Your World is one of Disney’s most treasured and celebrated moments in film history when accompanied with the setting of Ariel’s towering grotto of props that we humans take for granted like fish hooks and dining utensils, especially a dinglehopper…you know…a fork!  This is what a kid dreams of becoming when alone in her room with no one there to judge her true feelings and desires.  It’s truly glorious.

The one scene that does give me pause is the dramatic discovery King Triton has of Ariel’s secret vault of collectibles.  By the end of the moment, his temper has grown so big, that he unleashes the power of his trident to destroy everything she’s treasured.  I’ve always said this looks brutally familiar to how a father might take a baseball bat to a kid and her room, teetering on domestic violence.  The scene is memorable but unnerving all the same.  Still, I have to remind myself that this is a fantasy, and this is only a movie. 

Nonetheless, The Little Mermaid is a timeless film filled with magic and whimsy and daring escapes and big laughs that are not just relegated for eight-year-olds.  As adults, we remember those butterfly feelings of our first crush and what held us back from pursuing it further.  We can relate to what the characters do for, and towards each other.  Again, everyone from the deliciously wicked villain down to the defiantly brave protagonist and her sidekicks have a point and very human understandings for why they exist and what they want out of life.  Being a mermaid or a crab or a sea monster doesn’t make any of these people any less human. 


By Marc S. Sanders

Walt Disney Studios is the granddaddy of animation. No one questions that. Yet when I watch a film like Wreck-It Ralph, I am enthralled at not just the imagination of story or the eye-popping visuals, but most importantly the made-up science the film’s video game characters interact with.

There are rules in play. All arcade game personalities can schmooze with each other after hours. Cross each other’s paths at “Cross Central Station” where a Pac Man cherry is offered up to a homeless Q-Bert, and even attend a Bad Guys Anonymous Group, moderated by the orange ghost Clyde (infamous rival of Pac Man). That last bit is one of my favorite parts of the movie. So inspired to have a Satan character console a dejected hulking, overalls wearing Ralph, aka Wreck-It Ralph. He’s the villain in the arcade game known as Fix-It Felix.

One rule to watch out for though, if you die in an arcade game you normally don’t inhabit, you can die permanently. When our title character gets overanxious, that’s a threat to not only himself but other important characters like Fix It Felix Jr (Ralph’s adversary), Calhoun (a first person shoot ’em up military woman) and Ralph’s inadvertent best pal Vanelloppe (the unfortunate glitch of a candy land racing game called Sugar Rush).

The jokes are great. The vocal cast of John C Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBryer, Jane Lynch and Alan Tudyk is perfectly assorted, as if the script was written specifically with these performers in mind.

There’s a lesson to be learned, because this is a Disney movie after all. It’s a pretty good lesson in knowing to love everything about yourself, glitches and all. Thankfully, the film does not patronize and melodramatically bash it over your head.

I love the arcade 80s relatability of the games and the settings of games like Fix It Felix, Heroes Duty, and especially Sugar Rush, looking as if ideas from Willy Wonka were swiped and polished to bring chocolate mud puddles, peppermint stick trees, Nesquik quicksand, and stalactites made of Mentos that drop into a lava like pit of diet cola that molten upon impact.

Soon after Ralph almost broke the arcade, he breaks the internet in a subsequent adventure, and that’s as endlessly hilarious and fun as his feature film debut.


By Marc S. Sanders

It’s kind of neat to see the evolution of a classic film character when you are a fully aware adult.  In 1995, I had no idea what the term Pixar meant, or knew the impact it would have with the Disney brand as a whole or on the cinematic landscape.  Pixar is now as pioneering as Skywalker Sound or Industrial Light and Magic.  There’s Pixar, and then there’s everything else.  Back in ’95, I was age 23, and my intuition never perked up that I was watching a touchstone character like Buzz Lightyear who would become as grand today as Batman and Elvis turned out to be in an ever-changing pop culture lexicon. Buzz Lightyear is by far one of the company’s most inventive creations.

Jump to nearly thirty years later, with four Toy Story adventures, and endless amounts of merchandising the Space Ranger has been primed for a more personal adventure beyond the imagination of a young child possessing an action figure in his playroom.  Lightyear tells of the adventure that leant to merchandising of the toy depicted in the Toy Story fictional world.  (Try not to think too hardly on that description.)

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is the eminent Space Ranger of Star Command, out to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and– STOP! That’s another franchise.  When Captain Lightyear comes upon an unchartered planet, complications in unexpected science fiction adventure ensue.  Buzz and the small colony living on his global spaceship are marooned on this planet with no immediate solution for getting off and returning to Earth, 4.2 billion light years away.  Buzz makes it his mission to uncover a new kind of resource fuel that will eventually help the colony make its eventual return home.  Yet, with each experimental try, the minutes he spends in his super speed orbits around the planet equate to years for the colony who have set up habitation below.  His comrades on the ground below continue to age while Buzz does not.

I needed help with this picture.  My wife had to explain the staple lesson that usually comes with each Pixar film that I just didn’t catch while watching Lightyear.  I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but the film reminds us to accept the hand dealt to us and appreciate what has come even if we never expected or planned on the circumstances in the first place.  It’s a good lesson.  I guess I just wish Lightyear made it a little clearer.  There’s a lot of mud on the windshield that I needed to wipe away before I realized what the message was about.

Maybe I was not fair with this film.  Tim Allen was not invited back to lend his recognizable voiceover to the character.  I guess Pixar is insistent that he’s reserved only for the toy version of the character.  Chris Evans is fine, mind you, and he doesn’t overdo it.  Yet, I could not help but think Tim Allen would have been just as capable and even more entitled to voice the role yet again.

Perhaps I was thinking that if Pixar wanted to go in another animated direction with the character, it just seemed completely fruitless.  How different could Lightyear be from the Toy Story films if the animated design is pretty similar in every frame?  Honestly, it doesn’t look like a new kind of device.  So that was a problem for me, as well.  It wasn’t inventive enough.  Maybe it’s time for a live action version of the space traveler.  Imagine Chris Evans wearing a live action and tactile version of the famous astronaut costume with the colorful buttons.  I still say that could work, and it’s what Disney/Pixar should have considered.

Maybe I’m getting bored with the time travel motif.  Isn’t everyone doing that these days?  Doesn’t it also seem like all our heroes are meeting their future selves and struggling to understand their current predicament?  Lightyear hinges on these story developments, and when the moments arrive my eyes rolled in the back of my head.  Time travel stories are very tricky for me to appreciate.  Often, the narrative paints itself into a corner, unable to explain itself back correctly.  Only two films that come to mind have worked their way out of it almost seamlessly – Back To The Future and 12 Monkeys.

So, while I love the lesson that Lightyear offers, the standard carbon copy plot outline left me unfocused at times.

The voiceover cast is well done with Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi and James Brolin.  The animation is gorgeous, most especially when Buzz is piloting his super jet around the planet’s sun. The atmosphere of the planet is fun when it becomes a nuisance with giant flying insects and vines that come alive to entangle the characters at any given moment.

Science Fiction can go to infinity and beyond with the directions it can take.  There is absolutely no limit.  With today’s technology in filmmaking and the endless resources that Disney provides, why didn’t the filmmakers try a little harder with Lightyear? Again, a live action interpretation would have allowed it to stand apart from the character’s prior Toy adventures, and some different avenues in space exploration would have opened a leaner and more entertaining story.  If Star Trek can do it, Lightyear can do it too.

I think Pixar tried to go the route of Christopher Nolan, by way of Interstellar.  However, Lightyear is designed for people of all ages where the brain of the show is in reminding us how to carry ourselves through life, and not to uncover the twists that a brilliant filmmaker like Nolan has become recognized for.  I didn’t want to resolve a puzzle in fictional science.  Lightyear is trying too hard to be to be brainy and thus we get distracted from its “The More You Know” lesson in self-effacement.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Directors: Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, Simon Wells
Cast: Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, Martin Short (whew!)
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 80% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Egyptian Prince Moses learns of his identity as a Hebrew and, somewhat reluctantly, realizes his destiny to become the chosen deliverer of his people.

I sat down to watch The Prince of Egypt for the umpteenth time today, ostensibly in honor of Passover, but really it’s just an excuse to watch it again.  In the 24 years since its release, it’s become one of my favorite animated films.  I started out thinking it was a gimmicky cash grab.  Then I realized how majestic the score and songs were (by Hans Zimmer and Stephen Schwartz, respectively).  Then I came to appreciate how effectively it humanizes the Exodus story, so it becomes something more than just an excuse for some crazy visual effects.  Then I looked more closely at those visual effects and realized how magnificent they are, too.

So now it’s a treat when I watch it.  But something rare and unexpected happened to me when I watched it today.  Before I get into that, though, for anyone who may still be unfamiliar with this marvelous film…

Moses (Val Kilmer), a prince of Egypt, younger brother to Rameses (Ralph Fiennes) and son to the great Seti (Patrick Stewart), is comfortable with his place in the world.  One day, he comes across Miriam (Sandra Bullock), a Hebrew slave who boldly informs him he is not Egyptian.  He is, in fact, the son of a Hebrew slave woman who set him adrift on the Nile River to spare him from the bloody purges ordered by Seti, the man he calls father.  Disturbed and conflicted, Moses unthinkingly kills an Egyptian slave driver in a heated moment and leaves behind the only family he’s ever known to face his fate in the desert.

There he meets Tzipporah (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Midianite girl on whom he showed mercy earlier, and her family.  Embracing his new Hebrew identity, he marries Tzipporah and becomes a shepherd.  Time passes.  One day, Moses is searching for a lost sheep when he is confronted with a strange sight: a bush that appears to be, not burning, but covered in cold white flames, nevertheless.  To his shock, a voice speaks from the bush.  It is the God of his ancestors, and He is displeased with how His people are being treated in Egypt.  He commands Moses to go to Egypt and tell the pharaoh to let His people go…

Need I go on?  The staff, the plagues, the blood, the angel of death, the pillar of fire…it’s all presented here in spectacular fashion.

When DreamWorks first announced plans to make what basically amounts to a musical version of The Ten Commandments, I was skeptical to say the least.  I even remember what theatre I saw it in: the Ybor Centro movie theater in 1998.  I sat through the movie, and I allowed my skepticism to color my entire viewing experience, right up until the sensational Red Sea parting, which even now is one of the great animated sequences of all time.  But aside from that, I felt The Prince of Egypt was all flash and no substance, a way for an upstart movie studio to get people into theaters with an overabundance of star power and little else going for it.  But after watching it on home video repeatedly…I mean, REPEATEDLY…I started to analyze it a little more.

The first thing that really renewed my interest and appreciation for the film was the humanization of the main characters, particularly the relationship between Moses and Rameses.  Moses is no movie idol in this film.  He’s just a man.  Kind of a scrawny man, too, not classically handsome like his brother, Rameses.  Where Moses looks a little spindly and frail, Rameses looks like he lifts weights, or whatever folks did back then on “arm day.”  I also like how the movie allows these two men to behave and relate to each other like real brothers might.  They race chariots down city streets, needle each other, call each other names, play pranks on the high priests, the whole nine yards.  It’s a dynamic the two men surely must have shared as brothers growing up, but it never gets addressed in other interpretations of the story.  Because we get to see how much they love each other, the scene where Moses reluctantly turns his back on Rameses carries so much more weight than we might be accustomed to seeing.

This dynamic comes full circle when Moses returns to demand freedom for the Hebrew slaves.  Rameses is now pharaoh, and laughs at Moses’ demands, wondering what his “angle” is.  And then, when the plagues are visited upon Egypt and the city has nearly crumbled, the two men share a scene of astonishing power.  Rameses sees his city in ruins, but ruefully remembers how Moses used to get him out of trouble when they were younger.  It’s a wonderfully human moment.

The second element of the film that sparked my renewed interest was the music.  At the end of the opening number, which is itself emotionally powerful on several levels, a solo female voice sings out, “Deliver us!” right at the end of the song.  I can no longer remember a time when that moment didn’t give me goosebumps.  The score by Hans Zimmer is magnificent.  There is one particular motif of a choir of voices that we hear whenever we are in the presence of something holy or mystical, and even that gives me goosebumps.  Another moment that deservers recognition is during the big number, “When You Believe,” as the Hebrews are flowing out of Egypt.  At one point, the song is replaced by a Hebrew folk song, “Ashira L’Adonai,” sung by a little girl.  Her voice is joined by several others, and then a few more, and then a whole choir, and then the whole orchestra comes in for a reprise of the chorus, and if you don’t get goosebumps at that moment, you need a vacation.

The third element that keeps me coming back to this movie is the visuals.  True, the CGI visuals are relatively primitive compared to what was going on at Pixar around the same time.  The chariot race between Moses and Rameses features CG chariots which you may notice have wheels that don’t always turn while the chariot is moving.  This was an aspect of the film that led to my early dismissal of it.  But then came the Angel of Death scene, with a hole literally torn in the sky and sinister tendrils pouring out of it and into the village streets.  And then came the eye-popping Red Sea sequence.  More so than any other version I’ve seen, The Prince of Egypt made me feel in my bones that, yes, THIS is what it would have looked like if uncountable tons of water were parted down the middle, clearing a path large enough for the entire Hebrew nation to walk across.  (Depending on who you ask, that number could have been up to two million people, so we’re talking about a WIDE path.)  As they walk between the two massive walls of water on either side, lightning flashes illuminate sea life swimming alongside them, including some really large fish.  Now THERE’S something you don’t see every day.

So, yeah, the movie is amazing.  People may quibble about its historical inaccuracy, or the liberties it may take with certain religious beliefs.  But that does not diminish its power in the slightest bit.

Which brings me back to what I mentioned in the opening paragraph:

I sat down to watch the movie today, and for reasons I can’t explain, the opening scenes were bringing a lump to my throat.  That solo female voice singing “Deliver us!” nearly brought a tear to my eye.  And it nearly happened again after a wedding song.  And again, when Moses is leading the Hebrews out of Egypt to the strains of “When You Believe.”  And when Moses slams his staff into the shallow waters on the banks of the Red Sea, and those waters shot up into the air and kept going and going…my God, man, I nearly lost it.  I was one thread of self-control away from going full-on blubber-fest.  I mean, I grabbed my chest like a Victorian lady reading a Jane Austen novel.  In the middle of my emotional experience, I kept asking myself, “What is WRONG with me?!”

The answer is, of course, nothing is wrong with me.  I was just in exactly the right frame of mind to have a borderline religious experience while watching a movie.  It’s the same when I watch the finale of Fantasia 2000, when the sprite erupts from the ground in a gesture of pure joy.  Or when Riley learns the importance of experiencing sadness at the end of Inside Out.  Or any number of other transcendent films that can put me right in the middle of the story emotionally.  The Prince of Egypt does exactly that through a well-managed mixture of story, visuals, and music.  It may not be perfect from a technical standpoint, but it gets me where it counts, and that’s all that matters.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Domee Shi
Cast: Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Wai Ching Ho, James Hong
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 95% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A 13-year-old girl named Meilin wakes up one morning with the rather inconvenient power to turn into a giant red panda whenever she gets too excited.

Disney/Pixar’s Turning Red is one of the best, funniest animated movies I’ve seen since Inside Out.  Or The Lego Movie.  Take your pick.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know the plot.  A 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl named Meilin [may-LINN] discovers one day she has the (inconvenient) ability to turn into a giant red panda.

Details: Meilin’s relationship with her mom, Ming (Sandra Oh), is complicated enough without this new tangle.  Ming encourages Meilin to excel at everything and has enlisted her help with running and maintaining a small Chinese temple devoted to an ancient ancestor of theirs who supposedly channeled the power of the red panda to defend her children thousands of years ago.

When Meilin learns to control her newfound power to a certain degree, she decides to use it, not to fight crime, but to earn some money to buy a ticket to see this awesome boy band, called 4Town (even though they have five members), with her three besties.  Like, Oh.  Em.  GEE!

Complications ensue, Meilin tells a crucial, heartbreaking lie at one point, and previously unsuspected powers are unleashed.  That’s all you’re getting out of me, story-wise.

While the story was great, and worthy to stand with Pixar’s finest films, what made Turning Red stand out for me was the humor.  It is just plain laugh-out-loud funny.  I was laughing through almost the entire movie.

Through a completely believable misunderstanding, Meilin’s mom, Ming, thinks she knows what’s behind Meilin’s strange new behavior and asks her, ever so delicately, “Did the scarlet peony bloom?”  There’s a brilliant moment when Ming chases Meilin to school and, in front of an entire classroom, holds up an item she forgot to pack in her bag: a box of pads.  That’s right out of a John Hughes movie, man!  I laughed like a maniac.

Meilin’s three friends are a treat, especially the little spitfire named Abby, whose face seems to be permanently stretched into a fierce scowl.  There’s a moment when she catches one of those red playground balls with her teeth.  Maybe SHE’S the monster.

As with all the best Pixar films, though, the humor, as effective as it is, is just window-dressing for the real thrust of the story.  The exploration of the mother-daughter relationship hasn’t been done this well since Brave.  And I’ve gotta say, it was refreshing to see how real the character of Meilin was.  Because she’s rooted in the real world (of 2002 Toronto), her attitude felt more authentic somehow.  Sure, in Brave, Merida had the same rebelliousness and determination to forge her own path despite an imposing mother figure.  But with Turning Red, everything was more grounded.

There’s a moment when Meilin has turned into a panda and is running down a city street trying to hide.  She passes a convenience store where a cute guy works the counter.  She is desperate to get out of sight…but she stops just long enough to glance through the window at the cute guy, stomp her foot like Thumper, and yell, “Ah-OOO-gah, ah-OOO-gah!”  Another big laugh.  And I thought to myself, “See, that’s normally what you would see GUYS do in a movie.  Who makes a Disney film about a girl obsessed with boys?  What a treat!”  (I know, I know, the early Disney princesses weren’t exactly models of modern feminism, I’m talking about more recent films, stay with me here…)

Naturally, there’s a lot of symbolism with Meilin being thirteen, coming of age, and suddenly going through all sorts of changes.  What’s great about the storytelling is that the symbology is secondary, at least initially.  There’s the usual very well-executed denouement where all the emotional threads come together.  But before we get there, it’s just a story about a young girl with a weird problem.  And I have to say again, it is doggone FUNNY.

I took a glance at the “rotten” reviews at, and I kept seeing one repeated phrase among several of them: the lead character was “irritating.”  I am at a loss to explain this point of view.  Meilin is a 13-year-old girl.  Of COURSE, she’s irritating.  AND obnoxious.  What were you expecting?  Meilin is endearing precisely because she’s portrayed as someone who isn’t perfect, even though she’s trying hard to be.  She lies to her parents.  When she has to think of something to calm herself down, she doesn’t think of her mom…she thinks of her best friends.  She feels bad about it, but what are you gonna do, she’s thirteen.

Further pontificating from me seems pointless.  Take it from a lifelong Pixar fan.  Turning Red is one of their finest moments.  It’ll make you laugh, and if you’re not careful it’ll make you cry.  It might make you remember what it was like to scream like crazy at a rock concert.  It’ll make you remember your first real best friends.  And it’ll make you wonder why more people don’t make movies like this.  Because they should.


By Marc S. Sanders

Batman: The Animated Series from Warner Bros was a hallmark in telling more mature stories that could still appeal to kids, but adults as well for the superhero genre. Due to the show’s success, following the release of Tim Burton’s successful live action films, the animated series spun off a film of its own for the theatrical medium, and it works.

Subtitled Mask Of The Phantasm, Batman finds himself to be the blame for some vigilante murders of high-ranking mobsters in Gotham City. Turns out there’s another shadowy caped figure causing the mayhem.

At the same time, Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) is reunited with an old flame (Dana Delany) who has returned. Their history is told in flashbacks, and it could pertain to the appearance of this Phantasm. The Joker (Mark Hamill) is causing interference as well.

The animators and writers for Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm take their film completely seriously. From a story perspective, there are plot developments at stake along with the colorful cast of characters. Batman especially looks great as does his cave, Batmobile, Bat Cycle and Bat Plane. The Art Deco settings of Gotham City’s skyscrapers, and broad angles that enhance the vastness of the city are completely immersive. The voices work too.

The movie certainly ranks better than the Joel Schumacher Batman films, and at least just as good as Tim Burton’s second effort with the Caped Crusader, Batman Returns.

Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is a great adventure steeped in mystery and big surprises. I really liked it.


By Marc S. Sanders

Before he became known as a Mission: Impossible director or the guy who brought The Incredibles to the screen for Disney/Pixar, Brad Bird made the animated film The Iron Giant for Warner Bros. Animation. It’s absolutely brilliant in its visual drawings, storytelling, characterizations and period setting awareness.

The film takes place in a small town off the coast of Maine in the year 1957. The race for space has declared a winner as the Russians’ satellite, Sputnik, is the first to orbit the planet. The threat of the Cold War is no longer a secret. It’s out in the open as classrooms are exposed to danger drill warning films where children must hide under their desks in the event that a nuclear holocaust occurs. The film they watch is an absolutely hilarious sequence about what was a pretty serious subject matter at the time.

One student gleefully takes in the residual flying saucer flicks on TV, that spawned from this quagmire of paranoia occupying America at the time. His name is Hogarth Hughes, voiced by Eli Marienthal. When his TV antenna turns up missing one night, Hogarth goes off into the woods where he discovers a giant robot munching on the metal of a nearby power plant and in danger of electrocution when he gets tangled in the wires. The robot (Vin Diesel) is unfamiliar with earth and recognizably innocent, but quickly trusts Hogarth as a friend.

Young Hogarth is thrilled upon his discovery but knows his mom (Jennifer Aniston) would never approve of him keeping the robot, much less even a small pet. A government bureaucrat named Kent Manley (Christopher McDonald), complete with the fedora hat and trench coat, becomes suspicious of Hogarth. Kent’s Cold War guard drives him to uncover this 50-foot-tall robot with his own eyes. Find the threat and eliminate it at all costs. When he eventually gathers the evidence, he calls in the military to wage war right in the heart of the small Maine town.

There is much humor in The Iron Giant which truly stems from the intelligence gifted to all of the characters. Hogarth, as a kid, is first a teacher as the robot learns to pronounce basic vocabulary. The Iron Giant who has the capability to shape shift his body into a blaster kind of weapon, is not aware at first of the destruction he can leave behind until Hogarth makes him understand. Early on, Hogarth learns that the giant feeds on metal, but he must show his friend the best way to satisfy his hunger. It’s not with railroad tracks, that’s for sure.

Hogarth also matches wits with Kent. A great scene has the G-man and the kid defying each other to stay awake, rather than go off into the night in search of the giant. The clock just ticks away. Their eyes get more and more droopy. The laughs come from the animated characterizations and editing.

Hogarth’s mother, Annie, is never regarded as naive even if she’s unaware of her son’s new secret friend. A great scene has Hogarth doing his best to hide the giant’s metal hand in his bathroom. Hogarth has to do some quick but believable thinking to cover up what’s crawling around the house. Annie is a mom concerned her son might be violently ill, but trusts him when he insists he’s alright. I like that. Mom regards son as an equal. She respects his privacy but regrets it when she steps out of bounds to peek in on him in the bathroom. It’s sweet and smart, but funny too.

The Cold War is likely not a familiar subject matter for most kids, and yet there’s something to learn here. Russia and America were on the dawn of new technology. The nuclear age was upon us. The question was will they or won’t they act upon that technology. As well, will the two countries act in response to simply the threat of having such power at their fingertips? That’s what The Iron Giant of the film represents. When the giant, metal eating man is uncovered what response will it generate?

As the film progresses, kids can see why a resort to violence is truly not the answer. For how we appear might not offer an explanation on the surface. We need to familiarize ourselves with one another before truly declaring an enemy in our midst. So many movies only exist because one character just won’t speak up. Brad Bird’s film, adapted from Ted Hughes’ book The Iron Man, goes against that convention. A beatnik character by the name of Dean (Harry Connick Jr) who helps Hogarth and his new friend actually explains how the robot is not a dangerous figure who wants to destroy our planet. It then becomes a means of debate for the purposes of violence between the Army General (John Mahoney) and Kent Mansley, the government official. Do they believe the giant won’t become destructive?

I like to think a moment like this offers a subtle suggestion for the people in positions of power that are in charge to justify whether to go to war or not. It might be simplistic animation and the suspense is heightened by the time the film reaches this moment, but it’s another opportunity for viewers, especially kid viewers, to decide for themselves of what is right and wrong. Is defense or engaging in offense a more appropriate action?

Too often in family films, the kids are geniuses, maybe a little too smart or inventive, and the adults and parents are nitwits as a means for slapstick gags. Not the case here. Every character has an intelligent perspective. That’s what sets The Iron Giant ahead of other subpar family films.

Credit also has to go to the animation. There’s depth to everything seen from the main street of the town to the ocean side harbor to the woods where the giant hides. The sketches are so well defined, you want to look in the windows or sneak around the next tree. This is masterful direction. While an animated film is never shot in an actual location, Brad Bird makes sure you’ll see every corner of the New England locales that are conceived for his film.

Everything about The Iron Giant is a crowning achievement in animation. One of the best of its medium for sure.