Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, it's onward we go
Onward is directed and co-written by Dan Scanlon, and stars the voices of Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Octavia Spencer.
The past few years have not been kind to my approval of Disney and their decisions when it comes to nearly anything and everything cinema. From giving sequels or prequels to timeless classics like Mary Poppins, to giving needless live-action remakes to just about every major animated film they've released in their history, Disney has gone all-in with the, "preying on nostalgia" strategy that is showing no signs of slowing down. And why should Disney change? No need to worry about creating brand new, original works that are super imaginative when The Lion King Part 2: The Sequel to the Reboot of the Long-Lost Prequel is making millions of box office dollars. So, until the inevitable live-action remakes of Bambi and Snow White hit theaters and ring in the end times, we must continue to endure Disney's repeated screams of "Give us your money!"
So, what does Disney's malevolent intents have to do with Pixar? Pixar is a subsidiary of Disney, but I do not to hold the same animosity towards the two, because at least Pixar doesn't prey on our nostalgia for older classics, and they still have the decency to pump out something original every now and then. Where I'm getting at with all this is that Onward, Pixar's newest feature is something completely original, and it's a truly refreshing kind of original, which sounds a bit strange when the also original Coco came out only a few years ago. What happened was that Disney dropped us sometime ago in a desert, barren of originality, and Onward is that heavenly freshwater lake that we finally stumbled across.
So, Onward takes place in a world populated by mythical creatures, who once lived by using magic. However, technological advancements through the years eventually overtook magic, and the practice was almost entirely forgotten. In the present day, two elf brothers, Ian (Holland) and Barley (Pratt) Lightfoot live in New Mushroomton city. Ian is a high-schooler who struggles with confidence, and Barley is a free-spirited fan of history and role-playing games. The two brothers live with their mother, Laurel (Louis-Dreyfus), who is dating one of the city's police officers, Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez). On Ian's sixteenth birthday, Laurel gives the brothers a gift from their father, Wilden, who died from illness before Ian was born. The gift is three separate items: a magic staff, a Phoenix gem, and a letter describing a "visitation spell", which, if performed correctly, will resurrect Wilden for one day. Ian attempts the spell, but only succeeds in bringing back half of Wilden's body before the Phoenix gem disintegrates. With only a 24 hour window to see their father again, Ian and Barley set out on a quest to retrieve another Phoenix gem.
One of the dangers with Pixar releasing such highly-regarded animated films over their history is that "great" eventually becomes the norm, and anything less than "great" may be seen as a disappointment. And while I would not consider Onward to be "great", at least great in the sense that we say Toy Story, The Incredibles, or Finding Nemo are great, Onward fits snugly into Pixar's "good" tier, that is, it's a film that takes place in an interesting setting and does enough with its characters, story, and humor to satisfy. Where the film largely falls short, however, is that it just skims the surface when it comes to its world-building and character dynamics, though I think the film also deserves a lot of praise because it goes in a pretty ambitious direction with its story, and it doesn't bring a tidal wave of sentimentality crashing down on you at any point.
- I have to be careful with how I proceed with discussing my main high point of this film, as I could get dangerously close to major spoilers. Here goes: on paper, Onward looks to be largely a fun, fantasy-based adventure, and if that is how the film exactly passed out, it would get by as a fun, charming, albeit safe addition to the Pixar library. What really makes Onward stand out though is that it takes its story in a direction that tackles a message that isn't at all obvious form the get-go. The message is a family matter that I don't think gets anywhere near enough attention, certainly not in other animated films. Now, plot twists are not the first thing I think of when discussing Pixar films (certainly, Pixar has pulled off quite a few plot twists over the years), but Onward's third act is a twist that is not only unexpected, but also quite effective. I honestly think the ending will hit harder for parents than it will for children, especially because of some of the discussions the film's ending could generate in the hours, even days after a first viewing. I think the messaging is also what will make Onward quite memorable going forward, not just the simple fact that, "it's original." Unfortunately, going any farther I'm afraid will start to step into major spoiler territory. One last word: the film indeed has a happy and satisfying conclusion. It just isn't the happy and satisfying conclusion you might guessed initially.
- World-building can be challenging, especially when you're granted only about a 90-95 minute run-time, excluding credits. Regardless, I did find it disappointing that Onward doesn't go deep enough with its world-building, especially since it shows strong potential by mixing high fantasy with modern-day technology. There are a lot of ideas to work with here, such as connecting what happened in the past with the present. You could do something like, "Old-time magic once taught people ways of thinking that could be just as important in the present, where everyone has phones, computers, and other forms of technology." Unfortunately, the high magic of Onward ends up being not much more than a plot device, which isn't the worst thing in the world, but it does seem like a missed opportunity. Pixar has thrived on turning goofy-sounding concepts and worlds into incredibly charming and memorable experiences, and that's not what we get with Onward.
There are several other areas in the film that feel rather shallow as well. Ian and Barley are with each other virtually the entire movie, but we never get quite a full idea of what their relationship has been like over the years. The movie does have the two argue with each other once or twice, but their arguments just end up being little more than petty squabbles and not plot-altering conversations that add to Ian and Barley's respective characterizations. Onward also doesn't show as much creativity as it could with all its characters being mythical creatures. Octavia Spencer voices a Manticore, which should be super cool, except that the script gives her a rushed and almost out-of-nowhere motivation to join the central plot. Also, if Colt Bronco wasn't a name that was thought up at the last minute for a character that is part-horse, then I don't know what is. At the very least though, the movie gives us a hilarious group of biker pixies, and you can be that this adds a ton to the film.
In the end, Onward is perfectly acceptable work from Pixar and another animated feature the whole family will enjoy. The world-building and characterization fall short, but the story and the direction it goes makes this one of Pixar's more memorable features. As always, the animation is gorgeous to look at; that's a high point that always exists, but doesn't need any real discussion. For right now at least, it looks as if Pixar is dedicating more time to purely original films, which I know we will all welcome with open arms. What remains to be seen is will these original works be timeless classics or more additions to Pixar's "good" tier? It's hard to imagine another Cars 2 disaster anytime soon, so I'd say we can go into just about any new Pixar feature with an open mind. Onward had the luxury of being so refreshingly original, and while it doesn't mean we're forever free of sequels and prequels, it does put a little bright spot on a year that desperately needs them.
The Secret Life of Pets 2 is directed by Chris Renaud and stars the voices of Patton Oswalt, Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Tiffany Hadish, Lake Bell, Nick Kroll, Dana Carvey, Ellie Kemper, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, and Harrison Ford.
I have, admittedly, a soft spot in my heart for Illumination's The Secret Life of Pets: a film advertised as a top secret, inside scoop of what pets do at home when their owners are away. Sure, the plot ended up being a total copycat of the first Toy Story, but at least the film had enough charming, humorous pet moments to show at least a commitment to making us appreciate why dogs, cats, birds, etc. are such beloved companions. I have no soft spots at all, however, for the 2019 sequel, The Secret Life of Pets 2, most certainly to be the second installment of what will one day be a Secret Life of Pets trilogy, because just about everything now comes in threes. The Secret Life of Pets 2 is about as "meh" of an animated film as you'll find this year, which is better than straight-up mediocrity, although given the standard that Illumination has set for itself with its animated features over the years, the range between mediocre and meh is rather small. What exactly is it then, that makes Secret Life of Pets 2 a "meh" film? The story? The characters? The comedy? It's really a bizarre mixture of everything, although if I were forced to choose one particular part, it would have to be the story.
The story takes place sometime after the events of the first film. Jack Russell terrier Max (Oswalt) and Newfoundland mix Duke's (Stonestreet) owner Katie (Kemper) meets a man named Chuck (Pete Holmes), marries him, and has a son named Liam (Henry Lynch). At first, Max is repulsed by Liam, but he quickly comes to love him, and later starts to be overprotective of him. The family then goes on a road trip out to the city, where Max has trouble adjusting to the new setting. Before they leave, Max assigns white Pomeranian Gidget (Slate) to watch over his favorite Busy Bee toy, but Gidget loses Busy Bee inside an apartment that is rampant with cats. While that's going on, former villain turned superhero bunny Snowball (Hart) teams up with a Shih Tzu named Daisy (Haddish) on a quest to rescue a White tiger cub named Hu from an abusive circus owner named Sergei (Kroll).
There are several frustrating things about this story: first and foremost, it's made up of three separate sub-stories that have almost nothing to do with each other, that is until the third act mashes all three together by force. Secondly, only one of these sub-stories has anything resembling stakes or consequences; the other two just sort of happen with no clear purpose. The Gidget sub-story kind of has stakes: if Gidget doesn't retrieve Max's Busy Bee toy, she will fail him as a friend and blow any hopes of one day being romantically involved with him. Too bad this little nugget is discarded entirely for the sake of the third's act final sequence on a train, thereby rendering the entire story line almost pointless to begin with. Third, it's impossible to guess which of these sub-stories is supposed to have greater priority over the other two. It has to be Max's story because he's the main character, right? It seems that way, at least up until the finale, which is centered around bringing closure to the Snowball-Daisy tiger rescue story line. It's confusing as all hell to figure out how this is all supposed to fit together, and with a mere 86 minute runtime, there's next to no time to figure anything out.
- It pains me when I have to really scrape and claw my way through a movie just to figure out some sort of high point to discuss, and The Secret Life of Pets 2 is absolutely one of those movies where finding something of true substance is a frustrating (and somewhat wasteful) use of my time. There is only one thing I can dig up: Harrison Ford in his first ever voice role as a Welsh Sheepdog named Rooster. If anything, Ford brings an "old guy who knows how everything works" kind of charisma to his role, and it's the only charm to be had from a cast that is basically sleep-walking their way through their performances. I suppose if there's anything else to speak nicely of, the animation is bright, detailed, and cheery, as seems to be the norm for an Illumination film. Solid animation is colorful and artistic, and Illumination is no exception to this.
- The Secret Life of Pets 2 is targeted primarily at children, which is kind of horrifying considering the contempt put on display by the film's story. Trying to juggle three semi-connected stories is one thing. It's another how unorganized the movie is with keeping them all in line, with the blame solely being placed at the feet of the film's ridiculously short attention span. It almost seems deliberate the way the film bounces from one sub-story to the other, and from one stupid joke to another. Illumination clearly believes children can't follow a concept for longer than 11 seconds, so why should the movie bother to do so? Max's storyline starts out as a metaphor for helicopter parents, only to then suddenly switch gears and turn into a life lesson on how the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. You see, it's not the fear for Liam that ends up being important to Max; what ends up being important is the fear he has for himself, because Illumination knows pushing the initial metaphor over the finish line would have taken extra thought and effort.
There's no consistency to any of this. The Secret Life of Pets 2 gets so wrapped up in what it can do at this very moment, that it's completely oblivious to the bridges it burns and the general disregard it shows for its target audience. Children are more than capable of watching colorful animated films full of complex themes that require your attention from start to finish to fully understand. Films like The Secret Life of Pets 2 lead us to think that Illumination doesn't share this same mindset. To them, children need to have something goofy thrown at them every ten seconds to stay engaged, and as long as parents are willing to throw their hard-earned dollars at these movies, why would they ever change?
I don't want to end this review sounding like I'm knocking films that just want to be goofy and have fun. There's nothing wrong with such a movie as long as the comedy is there, and the story is something at least halfway decent. The Secret Life of Pets 2 though, is not a good example to use, because it's an extremely "meh" film that teeters dangerously towards being a mediocre one. Harrison Ford is a bright spot in a talented yet uninspired cast, but aside from that and the generally high quality of the animation, there's hardly anything of substance The Secret Life of Pets 2 has to offer. A metaphor about helicopter parents? Nope. Hilarious jokes that transcend low-bar comedy like fart jokes or bathroom humor? Also nope. What we get instead is a discombobulated story with the attention span of a goldfish, potential payoffs that get scrapped altogether, and an animation studio that is basically telling the world, "we don't need kids to look up more than a few seconds from their devices in order for them to follow along." This is bad practice from an animation studio that thinks it's a lot smarter and more successful than it actually is, and if they keep churning out "meh" films like The Secret Life of Pets 2, well, I pray and hope that children and their parents will have the smarts to put their foot down and say no. Real life pets are more fun than the like of Max and Snowball anyway.
Recommend? No. While the movie is very short, it's rather unsatisfactory viewing.
Toys R Us
Toy Story 4 is directed by Josh Cooley and stars the voices of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Ally Maki, Jay Hernandez, Lori Alan, and Joan Cusack.
Toy Story 3 was about as perfect of an ending to the once-believed-to-be trilogy of Toy Story. By all means: Pixar could have ended things right then and there for one of the most beloved animated film series in existence, and no one would question if there was still a part of the story left untold. We would all happily go on with our lives, fully content with how it all worked out: each film in the trilogy was Pixar at their very best, the first one forever being a watershed moment in animated film history.. Then came the news in November 2014: a fourth Toy Story film was being made. Needless to say, the reactions and speculation in the years leading up to the film's 2019 release were mixed. Should we be super excited that we would get one more chance to watch our favorite animated toys Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, Hamm, Rex, Slinky Dog, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, etc. on the big screen, going on another wacky, hilarious adventure? Or should we be skeptical that Pixar was going to run the risk of tainting what would have been a perfect trilogy? All the big-name voice actors were returning, and infamous Pixar director John Lasseter had a hand in the story's conception, so, at the very least, there was promise that Pixar would find a way to deliver yet again.
Whether you want to consider it a surprise or to consider it no surprise at all, Toy Story 4 hit theaters to massive critical acclaim, and looks to be a pleasant success at the box office too (if not a total smash hit). I myself walked away very impressed, not just in how Pixar was able to put together something that we can easily call a worthy follow-up to the most perfect trilogy closer in Toy Story 3, but in how Pixar was able to find even more precious, memorable story-telling with these characters, when it seemed like the previous three films had exhausted every worthy theme imaginable for a premise that deals with the relationship between kids and their toys. The thing is, Toy Story 4 alters the story-telling to being not so much about how meaningful a toy can be to his or her kid, but towards a more inward look at the toys themselves, and how they view their own purpose in a world where they only come alive when their human companions aren't around.
The film takes place two years after Andy donated all his childhood toys to the young girl Bonnie. Woody and his pals are enjoying their new home alongside Bonnie's other toys. However, Bonnie starts to use Woody less and less during her play time, and she is about to start kindergarten. While the toys worry that Bonnie will be overwhelmed and won't make any friends in kindergarten, Woody sneaks into her backpack to accompany her during her orientation. At the orientation, Bonnie uses a spork from the trash along with some arts and crafts supplies to make a new toy: Forky (Tom Hale). Forky comes to life, but believes he belongs in the trash, causing headaches for Woody as he tries to keep Forky from running away during Bonnie's family road trip. While on the road one night, Forky throws himself out a window, and Woody follows him. The two wind up at an Antique Store, where they come into contact with a doll named Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks). Gabby Gabby notices Woody's voice box, revealing that she wants to take it and replace her own, broken voice box. Woody manages to escape Gabby Gabby and her ventriloquist dummies, but Forky gets left behind. Not to worry: Woody reunites with Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who has been living a free lifestyle ever since Andy's younger sister gave her away years ago.
The return of Bo Peep is no kind of spoiler; the only way her return could surprise you is if you went into the movie having not seen any posters or seen any of the trailers. Of course, there's also the opening flashback scene that shows us Bo Peep being given away, which should automatically tell you that she is going to resurface later on in the movie. So taking all that into account, let's just say that Toy Story 4 does not care at all to try and surprise you with Bo Peep coming back. What you may not expect at first is that Bo Peep turns out to be quite important to the narrative, and not just coming back for the sake of fan service. Her presence creates a fine line that introduces the idea of toys craving possession to their child owners versus toys that no longer have that desire to be played with, wishing to live life on the outside. It's this fine line where Toy Story 4's narrative is at its peak, which, without spoiling any specifics, Pixar executes on gracefully without a hint of cynicism.
- Disney and Pixar's animation has reached such an advanced state and has been firmly established for years as the animation paragon, that it's just utterly pointless now to continue lauding the animation of their feature films. The animation is so impressive that it has basically become a form of photorealism, backgrounds and textures looking like something that was shot in live action. No, really, what is there to say?
- All the Toy Story films have wonderful voice casts and colorful groups of characters, and I took a special liking to the particular group of characters in this film. Not a single new character in the film, whether it's Forky or Gabby Gabby, came off as annoying or useless, the screenplay by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton doing an impressive job of fleshing out enough of these new characters' personalities and motivations in a 100 minute span. Each Toy Story has been impressive in the way they've each had a memorable villain, and Gabby Gabby, although I use the word villain lightly, is no exception. Her and Forky fit right into the film's narrative concerning a toy's internal dilemma, with Gabby Gabby wanting to take Woody's voice box so that she can no longer be a "broken" toy, while Forky struggles to understand that, while he was made from pieces and parts that were thrown away in the trash, he should not think of himself as trash. The other thing that made these characters more memorable to me is the passionate voice performances by Christina Hendricks and Tom Hale. Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and all the returning veterans are great as usual, but Hendricks and Hale are so invested in their respective performances, that their charm permeates across the entire frame, whenever their characters are talking. Hendricks and Hale obviously benefit the most because they are brand new voices to the franchise, but it's the kind of fresh life blood that prevents Toy Story 4 from seeming like more of the same. It's new characters that we can fully get behind, both from a voice acting and screenwriting perspective.
- I wish I could have the same high praise for other characters in the film as I do for Gabby Gabby and Forky. Poor Buzz Lightyear is reduced to supporting character, with the likes of Jessie, Hamm, the Potato Heads, Rex, and Slinky Dog all given next to nothing to do during the entire film. That's just the unfortunate reality when you gather so many different, notable characters together in the same environment: at least a few of them are going to take a backseat. I normally would be forgiving, but I couldn't help but feel irked by what the movie does with Buzz, mostly because of how Buzz was so integral to the plots of Toy Story and Toy Story 2. How could Buzz Lightyear, arguably Woody's equal in this franchise, could get knocked down to a mere supporting role? To be fair, Buzz isn't completely irrelevant, but the problem is that every meaningful thing he does in the film is not given the time nor the attention it deserves. Retrieving a lost key? Nah, we'll just have the person place the key down right next to Buzz, for the sake of a joke. He doesn't need to fly through the air and do some crazy stunt to get the key. Buzz does no kind of clashing with Woody; whatever Woody proposes, Buzz agrees to it. Just because the two are best friends doesn't mean we can't stop having any sort of conflict between them. I think something that could drive the plot like a heated disagreement between Woody and Buzz would've been very interesting to see. And while we're at it, we could have Jessie, Hamm, and the others all try to do something on their own, something to make this wacky adventure even more crazy. I'm not asking for too much, am I?
The anticipation leading up to Toy Story 4's release was one of the weirdest ones in recent memory. Were we supposed to be excited or skeptical that Pixar had the audacity to say, "Oh no, Toy Story 3 wasn't the end, despite the fact that it very could have and should have been the end." Whether you were excited or skeptical (or both), the decision turned out to be a successful one. Toy Story 4 achieves the seemingly impossible feat of being a worthy follow-up to one of the most pitch perfect trilogy endings in Toy Story 3, loaded with plenty of humor and heart that is perfectly suitable for people of all ages. Christina Hendricks and Tom Hale are superb in the way they bring the franchise's new characters to life, although several veterans like Buzz and Jessie are unfortunately shoved to the sidelines without much to say or do. Regardless, this is still great stuff by Pixar, and it's exciting to hear that now they want to focus on getting back to making more original works, because making non-stop sequels can only work for so long. As for the Toy Story franchise, Toy Story 4 surely will be the final film, at least, that's what we'll all be thinking for the foreseeable future. I highly doubt a Toy Story 5 will ever happen, but in this day and age, you can't rule out any conceivable film idea. Who knows? Maybe a Toy Story 5 will happen one day, and we'll watch it, love it, and think to ourselves, "How does Pixar keep doing it with these characters?" We've known and loved these toy characters for almost twenty five years now. They set the example for what computer animation could be way back in 1995, and for that, we'll always remember them. Instead of being upset that the franchise didn't end with Toy Story 3, Pixar fans should be grateful that these toy characters have continued to hold up, even all these years later.
Recommend? Yes.Be sure to have seen the previous three films.
Enter the Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon is directed by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois and is loosely based on the 2003 book of the same name by Cressida Crowell. The film stars the voices of Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, and Kristen Wiig.
DreamWorks Animation has been largely hit or miss in their twenty one-something years of making animated feature films. Although Shrek may forever be their definitive film in regards to studio identification, the acclaim gathered by 2010's How to Train Your Dragon has completely wiped away any and all tag lines that say something to the effect of, "From the studio that brought you Shrek." If we can conclude anything given the next ten or so years of the studio's history after How to Train Your Dragon, we might as well say that the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy is the best thing DreamWorks Animation has ever produced. The Shrek films only got worse over time, and no one seemed to get all bent out of shape about the Kung Fu Panda trilogy. Is anyone still talking about the highly acclaimed Chicken Run or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit?
I'm not sure if I can say it's a little easier or a little harder to review How to Train Your Dragon here in 2019, when two sequels have come out and you no longer have the capability of reviewing it upon initial release. Honestly, I don't think it matters in the slightest: a great animated film is, and always will be, a great animated film, and How to Train Your Dragon is a dazzling work of action, character, screen writing, and, well duh, animation.
Taking place in the Viking village of Berk, How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of the clumsy Viking teenager named Hiccup (Baruchel), who happens to be the son of the village chieftain, Stoick the Vast (Butler). The village is constantly under attack by a swarm of dragons, and Hiccup tries to contribute by inventing and using various mechanical devices, all of which end up only making things worse. During one of the dragon attacks, Hiccup manages to shoot down a dragon claimed to be one of the deadliest breeds of dragons ever: a Night Fury. Hiccup later ventures into the woods to find the Night Fury, but instead of killing it, he lets it go free. The dragon is unable to fly away however, due to an injury to its tail. Meanwhile, Stoick and the rest of Berk make preparations to find the dragons' nest and end the dragon threat once and for all. At the same time, Hiccup befriends the Night Fury, giving it the name Toothless and creating new inventions in order to help the dragon fly again. As he spends more and more time with Toothless, Hiccup uncovers something about the dragons that may change the way of life for Berk forever.
- It's not every day that you can praise the action scenes of an animated film, but that's something I very much can do for How to Train Your Dragon. With dragons zipping through the air left and right, the action in How to Train Your Dragon is always fast and fiery, yet Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois make sure everything stays conceivable and in focus. Scenes with dragon action are executed in ways that never lose sight of how much space is involved and how characters are moving here and to. Something else that goes on in the story is that Stoick signs Hiccup up to participate in "dragon killing" classes, all of which take place in a fighting pit. The scenes of Hiccup and his peers doing their training with the dragons show off a nice mixture of POV shots and wide-scale shots to give us ideas of both what the characters are seeing through their eyes and what kind of environment that their training is taking place in.
The use of wide shots during the action is critical for making it all work. By keeping everything at a distance, it's much easier to discern the fast moving objects flying around the frame, as well obtain a clear picture of who is where. Every little thing, whether it's someone throwing an axe or a dragon spitting fire, nothing is left to chance with the shot composition during the action scenes. It's beautiful work, and the kind of execution that all action-based movies should strive to achieve.
- Being based on a series of children's books, Sanders and DeBlois must have thought it was in their best interest to make all the dragons look as cute and cuddly as possible. When you realize what the big secret about the dragons is, it makes sense to have them be designed the way they are. Unfortunately, I still found myself a tad disappointed that several of the dragons don't look at least a little bit intimidating, something that would especially benefit the early scenes of the Vikings fighting the dragons. Animated or not, a dragon is a dragon, and something that can be a destructive force of nature ought to at least look the part a little more. Basically, this is me criticizing the dragon designs. A lot of the designs look too similar in regards to the dragons' snouts, fangs, and horns, as if there are secretly only two dragon breeds: Night Fury and non-Night Fury. Toothless' design is perfect, given his relationship with Hiccup in the movie. The other dragon designs, however, leave a bit more to be desired.
So to conclude, I'm not sure how "original" my praise for How to Train Your Dragon can be, since it's been almost a full decade since this movie first hit theaters. Some of the praises are worth repeating: How to Train Your Dragon is full of heart and exciting action, and it flies to the top tier of DreamWorks' animated features. The action especially should be singled out, for the masterful way that Sanders and DeBlois put it all together. It's an animated film that offers something special to people of all ages, from kids loving the cute dragons, to older folks appreciating the true meaning of Hiccup and Toothless' budding relationship. Now with a full blown trilogy in existence, we can look back on How to Train Your Dragon and understand that a long, wonderful journey was in the works. Other animated films can have their toys, insects, mice, whatever. DreamWorks has freaking dragons. Hard to go too wrong with them.
The Emoji Movie is directed by Tony Leondis and stars the voices of T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris, Maya Rudolph, Steven Wright, Jennifer Coolidge, Christina Aguilera, Sofia Vergara, and Patrick Stewart.
Let's just cut the crap and get right to it: The Emoji Movie has one of the dumbest concepts for a movie ever and is probably the dumbest concept for a movie that I have ever seen up until this point in my lifetime. I thought Jaws: The Revenge had the stupidest concept I had ever heard of (and it still is very much stupid), but when stacked next to The Emoji Movie, Jaws: The Revenge's concept looks like a creativity goldmine. As the great Roger Ebert once put it, it's not what a movie is about, but how the movie is about that thing. This, unfortunately, does not apply to The Emoji Movie, for it's a movie whose what has no hope, no potential, no dignity.
There is one thing that we do learn from The Emoji Movie: Hollywood's creative thinking tank is officially empty. Anything, and I mean anything, is now fair game for Hollywood to consider making a movie out of. Board room meetings among Hollywood producers and executives now go something like, "Hey, remember that movie that came out a while ago and developed a fan base over time? Let's give it a sequel!" or, "Do you remember that toy or fad that was popular at one point in time? Let's make a movie out of it!" All of the laziness, creative ineptitude, and heartless branding that embody the Hollywood business industry today are on full display in The Emoji Movie, for it is a film plagued by lazy humor, a glaring lack of imagination, and rampant product placement. There are simply too many ways one can go about attacking The Emoji Movie's jet black heart of malevolence and greed, and I'll get to the major ones as we go along this review.
For now, it makes the most sense to discuss the basic plot before I get my hands dirty with all of the horrific wrongs of this movie that I have easily declared the winner of Worst Movie of 2017. The Emoji Movie mostly takes place inside the phone of high school student, Alex. Inside Alex's phone is a world known as Textopolis (not Emojiville or Emojiworld or anything like that and is supposed to be the world inside everyone's phone), where all of the phone's emojis live. Gene (T.J. Miller) is a "meh" emoji living in the phone, but he is capable of making many other expressions besides "meh". The Emojis are brought into cubes where a scanner scans them to send up their information whenever Alex decides to use a certain emoji in a text. Alex is crushing on a girl at school named Addie, and he decides to send her an emoji text. Alex decides to use "meh", and the scanner chooses Gene, who is having his first day in his cube. Gene panics, and the resulting text is a confusing expression. Confronting Gene is the text center supervisor, Smiler (Maya Rudolph), who declares that Gene is a malfunction and must be deleted. Smiler unleashes a group of bots to hunt down and delete Gene, but Gene runs away and meets up with the Hi-5 emoji (James Corden), who tells Gene of a hacker named Jailbreak who could help reprogram Gene into a normal "meh" emoji. The two then set out on a journey throughout the phone, causing issues for Alex in his world.
The first trailer for The Emoji Movie dropped back in December 2016, and it unleashed a fire storm of hatred and disbelief similar to the one brought on by the 2016 Ghostbusters. In the months leading up to the film's theatrical release, people everywhere were anxiously wondering, "Is is really going to be that bad?" Turns out, The Emoji Movie is that bad. It is so bad, that I don't hesitate for a second to call it one of the worst animated movies that I have ever seen. I mean, we all knew it was going to suck based on what the teasers and trailers showed us, but even if we had held the slightest bit of optimism that the film could bring another Lego Movie-esque surprise, it was just a matter of time, waiting and waiting until the movie came out and confirmed our worst fears. As I mentioned already, The Emoji Movie had no potential from the get-go, because how much can you do with those cute little faces that are on your phone and get sent through your text messages?
One thing The Emoji Movie does is blatantly steal from other, better animated movies, but without any freaking clue about how to recapture the magical charm of those better animated films. The animated movies that people bring up the most when discussing what animated films that The Emoji Movie copies off of are The Lego Movie, Wreck-it-Ralph, and Inside Out. Among these three, Inside Out is the big one, as both Inside Out and The Emoji Movie involve two different worlds that know almost nothing about one another, yet the events going on in one world impact what's going on in the other world. In Inside Out, the adventures of Joy and Sadness affect what's going on in the life of Riley. In The Emoji Movie, the antics of Gene impact the state of Alex's phone. There's really no contest when trying to decide which is a more interesting world to explore: a human mind or a phone. As much as The Emoji Movie fails in replicating the success of Inside Out, the other animated movie to mention is Toy Story. Director Tony Leondis has stated how much he loved Toy Story, wanting to do a new take on Toy Story's concept, but with a toy that no one had explored yet. Leondis then received a text message with an emoji, and that was when he decided, "That's it! Emojis are the world I want to explore!" So basically, The Emoji Movie was inspired by someone who watched Toy Story and said, "Hey, that was amazing! I want to do that too!" When your director has mentioned how his inspiration comes from the success of another movie and wanting to duplicate it in a different way, you're in a bad spot my friend.
- Even when you get past the whole "ripping off better animated movies" stage, it is still impossible to forgive just how flimsy and goddamn stupid that The Emoji Movie's script is. The world of Textopolis doesn't have anything remotely interesting about it, and the way the film explains how the emojis work by getting scanned by a giant finger scanner isn't creative in the slightest. In the opening minutes, Gene, in voice over, mentions that emojis are the most important form of communication ever invented. Oh, and if you didn't walk out by that point, it doesn't stop there. Any and all remaining prayers that you might have for The Emoji Movie to be at least halfway decent are shot down when you hear lines like, "What if you get sent out on the phone, making the wrong face?" And then you have the obvious product placement slip-ins ("Don't worry! This app is secure!"), and you are left in further disbelief that fully grown human beings sat down in a room and came up with this garbage. But wait! It gets EVEN WORSE!
- Awful dialogue isn't all the script kills your spirits with. There are two horrendous subplots on top of an already horrendous main plot, one being Alex's attempt to win over Addie, the other concerning the relationship between Gene's parents (we are to assume that emojis are capable of breeding...I refuse to proceed any further with that topic), who I'll just call Mom Meh (Jennifer Coolidge) and Dad Meh (Steven Wright). Everything involving Alex concerns his efforts to send Addie an emoji text, (the film never explains how the two got each other's phone numbers, which would suggest that the two have some sort of prior connection), meaning that the film's human romance story completely hinges on the success of one single text message. I don't know about you, but I highly doubt kids nowadays hook up solely by text messages and emojis. It doesn't make any sense, and it's unbelievably stupid. What teenage girl is going to get together with a guy just because he sent her a neat-looking emoji text? And speaking of romance, the subplot concerning Gene's parents involves the two potentially splitting up. That's right, the lethargic Meh emojis are having problems in their relationship. I mean, it's obvious why it's there. It's all for the sake of a bad joke about near emotionless emojis going through an emotional struggle, and it's driven into the ground until there's nothing but dust remaining.
And, of course, I just cannot end this review without briefly discussing the great Sir Patrick Stewart playing the poop emoji. The poop emoji only appears in the beginning of the film and close towards the end, but he's only there for some utterly lame poop jokes, because, y'know, kids just LOVE poop jokes and the writers just couldn't help themselves knowing that a poop emoji exists. But aside from lazy bathroom humor, The Emoji Movie settles for jokes and references that are more shallow than a dried out kiddie pool, completely devoid of wit and refusing to assume that the audience is smart (actually, the movie doesn't offer any proof that it's respecting its audience at all).
It is not enough to say that I hated The Emoji Movie. I hated every second of it, but hate was not my dominant feeling while watching it. More than hatred, I felt depression, depression that I had to accept the fact that this movie truly exists, depression that a film whose inner mechanics that are made up of bad comedy, product placement, and material shamelessly copied from somebody else's work was released in theaters and targeted at children, depression that Hollywood and the cinema, the latter one of the chief joys of my life, would stoop so low so as to green light a movie about freaking emojis. It is not charming or funny or creative in any conceivable way. No, The Emoji Movie is an experiment in trying to destroy charm and humor and imagination, having the foolish notion that children and their minds are merely confined to the world of their phones and are incapable of being wildly creative and imaginative. Yes, it's true: Phones play a big part of people's lives and, sometimes, a little too much. But The Emoji Movie makes no effort in making a meaningful commentary on the way people are attached to their phones. It takes people's phone addictions for granted and uses them as a platform to advertise waning phone apps while also attempting to deliver a "be yourself" message that is of the most cliched of messages normally found in children's films. I hesitate to say The Emoji Movie is a children's film, because it only causes damage and puts constraints on the curious minds of children, and I certainly wouldn't want any small children that I know to go anywhere near The Emoji Movie. This is a movie that needs to be buried deep into the Earth and erased from the cinema history books for all time. Correction: The Emoji Movie is not even a movie. It doesn't deserve any thin satisfaction from being called a movie; it's a heartless, cynical bag of trash that should be erased from all existence, because the world and everyone in it will be much better off not knowing that The Emoji Movie was ever a thing.
Recommend? What do you think?
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: