Onward

Set in a suburban fantasy world, Disney/Pixar’s Onward introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in order to bring back their deceased father for one day.

Onward is everything viewers will hope it’ll be with an original and exciting premise supported by mature and heartfelt themes. The movie does an excellent job at world-building and atmosphere; this suburban version of Lord of the Rings is brought to life with so much creativity and we get to see plenty of corners in this new, fascinating world. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt’s roles fit like a glove — their already known personalities wonderfully amplify the characters that felt like they could’ve been written just for these specific performers. The fact that Holland and Pratt have already shared the screen before in Avengers: Infinity War just makes it even more entertaining, but it’s also the writing for Ian and Barley that makes their brotherhood the anchor of the film. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also great their badass mom, but Octavia Spencer is a standout as the Manticore — a mystical beast who now runs a restaurant and misses the glory days of magic, fighting, and flight. Not only is the character brilliant but Spencer makes the role of a “scary on the outside, soft on the inside” character feel fun and fresh.

Onward is the kind of film where the quality increases as the runtime progresses — the objective is creative and every obstacle, physical or emotional, is exciting to watch and our heroes’ quest never feels dull. Not to mention the plot is more mature than most family-aimed films — even for a Pixar movie. When it comes to down to the true emotion of the film, it lands at all the right moments and manages to craft a realistic representation of sibling-hood and family, even if the main characters happen to be elves. The film is very much mystical yet its roots lies in the real world — it’s based on director Dan Scanlon’s real-life experiences as he lost his father at a young age, meaning it may especially reach viewers who have lost a parent. In my case, this movie did get me emotional but for a much different reason — as an older brother, watching Barley play older brother/mentor to Ian made me reflect on my own experiences with brotherhood (in only positive ways, don’t worry). This is the power of family films — to tell stories about family. While I felt Frozen 2 was lacking of that sort of merit, this proves that may have only been a one-time miss for Disney, and while Onward might not be able to reach Nemo or WALL-E levels of classic — and maybe not better than some of their recent hits like Inside Out and Coco — I can say it’s as great as I was wishing it would be, and certainly has potential to hold up among the rest of Pixar’s library, but only time can tell. Pixar has held a special place in my heart for a reason, and Onward once again proves their strengths in delivering stories that audiences can cherish and grow up with, regardless of age.

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Frozen 2

Elsa sets out to discover the origin of her powers and save Arendelle, with the help of her sister Anna, as well as Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven.

The first Frozen was a phenomenon when it was released six years ago; audiences loved it because of the inspirational and empowering story about sisterhood, family, and independence. Unfortunately, I can’t quite tell you what the second film is really about, even days after I’ve seen it. Frozen 2 has no stakes, resonant themes, memorable songs, or character changes throughout the story. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel are still impressive and the connection between Anna and Elsa is strong, but although they take up the most screen-time, the film in its core isn’t really about them — more so about their deceased parents and some ancient war they took part in. The forest storyline also gets very complicated and uninteresting with a completely wasted performance from Sterling K. Brown. At least Evan Rachel Wood’s voice is a standout in the opening scene. The animation also isn’t as resonant as it was in the first film or Zootopia, Moana, and all of Disney’s most recent animated works. The plot feels very inconsequential and most the characters barely have an arc, so there aren’t any inspiring messages that shine through. There’s also a plot twist that anyone who has seen a single Disney film can see coming. I normally go to animated films in the theaters because I want a film that appeals equally to all generations. Yet unfortunately, this has none of the depth or intelligence the first film had, and is strictly for the pleasure of youngsters. I didn’t even laugh more than once.

Frozen 2 could’ve been a meaningful sequel, but rather it feels more like the unnecessary direct-to-DVD sequels like Aladdin: The Return of Jafar and Mulan II, films I like to pretend never existed because of their disposable and impossible-to-remember-plots. Good cast and animation can’t make up for a muddled story without much reward for the 6-year wait.

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The Lion King (2019)

Disney has been dominating the decade with Marvel, Star Wars, animation (both Pixar and their titular studio), but their series that has divided people the most is their live-action remakes of animated classics. So people were most excited but also nervous when it came to the photoreal-but-actually-still-animated remake of their defining animated feature from the 20th century, The Lion King. First off, on a visual standpoint, this movie is an achievement. It follows the same reign of The Jungle Book in recreating iconic characters and setting to look as real as possible, and it really delivers. All the animals and sets look like an actual picture, even though not a single frame was actually there. It’s amazing to see how far visuals have gone these days, and Disney has been headliner these last few years in consistently breaking the boundaries of what can be done with a computer, whether it’s the amazing action in Avengers and Star Wars films or breathtaking animation in films like Toy Story and Incredibles — but the feats of the CGI completely pay off here in making the illusion unnoticable and making it feel like a more immersive journey. The film is perfectly casted with Donald Glover shining and making something of his own out of Simba’s role here, and it helps that he’s experienced in both acting and singing. Also huge standouts are Timon and Pumbaa, who are scene-stealing and Seth Rogen’s voice espeically fit for Pumbaa. Also worth pointing out is John Oliver who is hysterical as Zazu. However, for some characters, like Scar for example, it’s sometimes hard not to make comparisons to superior versions, like Jeremy Irons who was perfect in the 1994 version. Perhaps neither he nor James Earl Jones needed recasting (the latter of which was thankfully able to return as Mufasa). Speaking of roles from the original, Rafiki’s role was unfortuantely reduced this time around so he feels like less of a mentor to Simba and barely even has dialogue.

The musical numbers are still very fun, espeically the classic “Hakuna Matata”, and the “Lion Sleeps Tonight” gag is extended and made even funnier. The shame is that they shortened the Scar’s menacing anthem “Be Prepared” to be much slower but as a result feels more like a whispered spoken word poem than a song. The Lion King is stuck in a loophole in terms of delivering for fans because people want a remake to somehow reinvent the story but at the same time poeple get angry as soon as something major is changed. Unfortuantely, some of the changes made in this remake are for the worse, and other than that, a lot of sequences in the film or a shot-for-shot copy-paste of what we’ve already seen. A lot of the dialogue is the same as well, and I just wish they had added some more story to what we already know because the fact that we recognize every scene and line so well will eventually make things boring. On the bright side, it manages to retain some of the soul that reminds us why we love the original so much (themes like confronting your past or lines from Mufasa about the truth of being a wise king). The problem is that once these characters are animated to look photorealistic, they can no longer exaggerate emotions like the original iterations do — Scar is no longer a charismatic Shakespearean character, and every character just looks like an animal talking. This movie has incredible visual technology that deserves plenty of praise for Jon Favreau, maybe next time he could have used it to make original content rather than remaking known stories, or just added a little more that we haven’t seen before to do something new with the story.

The Lion King is a visual marvel and filled with nostaliga, but it’s greatest strength and weakness is that it’s almost exactly the same as the original. If the original Lion King was so perfect, why change anything? But why do we want to see the same movie over again? That’s the problem that this new remake finds itself in which is why despite being nice to look at, the script is beat for beat the same, which is why the only way this movie can really be appreciated is in 3D and on the biggest movie screen you can find. Does it offer much new? Not really, or even at all to be honest. But in terms of recommendation for the theaters I have to say go for the visuals and for the story which still stays strong, but the emotional expressions that came through the original versions of the characters (which didn’t need to feel photoreal and therefore could be exaggerated for animals) is exactly what will make the original Lion King forever superior.

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Toy Story 4

When a new toy called “Forky” joins Woody and the gang, a road trip alongside old and new friends reveals how big the world can be for a toy. Soon, Woody runs into an old friend and must rediscover his own purpose as a toy as well.

After the marvelous ending of Toy Story 3, the saga felt over. It was as if a terrific 3-part story had come to a close so perfectly and should never be touched. So it was a surprise to hear that the franchise would continue for one more film, but what was even more surprising was how well everything in Toy Story 4 delivered. Rather than feeling unnecessary, Toy Story 4 crafts an intriguing story of its own that makes it feel exciting yet still deep. Tom Hanks is always perfect as Woody. Over the last four films he’s helped bring to life such a brilliant character who first must commit to being Andy’s toy, then gets passed on to a new kid, and now he questions if his purpose as a child’s toy has already been fulfilled. Also really enjoyable are comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, as well as Keanu Reeves as the sensational Duke Kaboom. Another element of the film I loved is the score. Randy Newman has done a spectacular job of composing catchy themes that are beautiful to the ear and unifying them over four films and he lets the music grow and develop just as the story does. I’ve always loved the music in these films but here it always stands out and almost feels like a character of its own. One thing I noticed is that the film has significantly lower stakes than the last film — in the third film the toys were hold hostage in a daycare and then nearly burnt to death but here they just have to get toys out of an antique shop and get back to an RV. Thing is, this film is less about “good guy vs bad guy” or “will they make it” — instead of that kind of suspense, this movie is more about Woody’s internal dilemmas that he must resolve. Also, I feel like the animation was less impressive this time around but there are still some sequences I thought were very visually pleasing — just not as much as Inside Out, Finding Dory, Coco, Incredibles 2, or most of Pixar’s recent outings. That’s pretty underwhelming considering I found Toy Story 3 to be one of the most beautifully animated films of all time — and that’s not saying the work of hundreds of Pixar animators over five years didn’t pay off, it’s just saying that there are less eye-popping or breathtaking moments than its gorgeous predecessor. And finally, the ending was a very emotional moment that brings a 25-year arc to a close — hopefully for real this time — and reminds us why we care so much about Woody, Buzz, and the entire gang.

I thought Toy Story 4 would be very unnecessary but instead it’s a welcome follow-up and (probably) conclusion, with some deep moments that remind us why Pixar is so great at crafting stories that audiences of all ages can be equally moved by. So go watch Toy Story 4 and let Pixar take you and your family on another adventure — well, you know where this is going — to infinity, and beyond.

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The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

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The citizens of Bricksburg face a dangerous new threat when LEGO DUPLO invaders from outer space start to wreck everything in their path. The battle to defeat the enemy and restore harmony to the LEGO universe takes Emmet, Lucy, Batman and the rest of their friends to faraway, unexplored worlds that test their courage and creativity.

Under the childlike playfulness and humor of a film based on a popular children’s toy line, there’s some heart to be found in this enjoyable and amusing sequel. Despite a concept that was ridiculous when first announced, these Lego movies have actually resonated with critics and audiences as well as at the box office. Though there’s more merit to be found in other animated franchises, the Lego film franchise remains not only a great way for the company to sell more toys, but a pleasing showcase of great cast members, colorful animation, and effective humor. Though sometimes the humor doesn’t hit its mark and feels only aimed towards kids, there’s also some jokes that only adults will get, like references to previous Batman movies (Lego Batman even compares himself to Michael Keaton and Christian Bale at one point), Die Hard, and even an appearance from a Lego version of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As outrageous as it may seem, this film, that’s literally a Lego movie, isn’t afraid to not take itself seriously at all (there’s even a song called “This Song’s Going to Get Stuck Inside Your Head” used to brainwash some characters), but that’s what makes it work. The studios hit the jackpot when they were able to cast Chris Pratt as Emmet because nobody fits the role better than him, but Pratt also plays a new role who’s a clear compilation of Pratt’s live action roles from Avengers and Jurassic World. Will Arnett as Lego Batman is once again another standout, but so are Tiffany Haddish and Stephanie Beatriz as Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi and General Sweet Mayhem, especially Haddish who sings and entertains in her over-the-top but memorable role. Though her character is at times ridiculous to look at, like I said, the film’s ability to go all out on referencing other materials and embrace the ridiculousness of it all is what makes it quite fun, and Haddish as well as every cast member make the best out of their roles (even cameo appearances like Bruce Willis and Jason Momoa who reprise their roles from Die Hard and Aquaman, respectively)

Despite the absurd concepts and non-serious premise, the film finds away to make meaning out of these plastic characters and touch the viewer’s heart by the end. though the first half is basically what you’d expect in terms of story and direction, the movie, especially the second half, connects everything to a bigger theme that applies to the real world — be yourself and let others do the same. This will make for a touching message for audiences of all ages. My one minor problem is — at the end of The Lego Batman Movie, Batman became much more open and decided not to push away those who were like family to him, but here it feels like he’s still trying to not fill that void of losing his parents — I didn’t expect them to go too deep about it, but it almost felt like they undid his development from that movie by having Batman still try to push away any personal relationships. Even though the overall story and script won’t blow you away, the humor and entertaining cast, songs, themes, and references are enough for kids and parents to have a fun time at the movies.

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

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After achieving his dream of establishing Berk as a utopia where dragons and humans can live in harmony, Hiccup and his dragon best friend Toothless encounter a new threat that forces him to lead the people of Berk away from their homes, on a journey to find the mythical Hidden World.

The first two How to Train Your Dragon movies have set the bar high for DreamWorks as their greatest franchise, with emotional and visual quality that reaches near the heights set by the works of Pixar, unlike more playful animated comedies they’ve made like Madagascar or The Boss Baby. The Hidden World is a marvelous conclusion to this excellent trilogy, one that I remember watching the beginning of on the very first day it was out, nearly nine years ago. Along with lovable dragons like the absolutely adorable Toothless (who also has a girlfriend now), the voice cast kills it, including Jay Baruchel as a young man trying to bring together his love and compassion for the dragons with his duty to lead Berk as chief, as well as bigger headliners such as Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, and Gerard Butler. The one character I did not encessarily enjoy was the villain — unlike the villain from the 2nd movie, this one is rather annoying than threatening, and his motivation and presence weren’t strong enough on screen to care. The only reason to hate him is because his goal is to hurt Toothless. But otherwise, the story is packed with plenty of emotion from the main characters and sweet sequences that remind us why we love this ode to the friendship between a human and a mythical creature. There are lots of intense moments but enough heart and action for all audiences to enjoy. And to top it all, the animation is absolutely stunning and makes this a must on the big screen and in 3D. The visual appeal outdoes every past DreamWorks project and every scene, from the ordinary scenery to the vivid Hidden World, is done so beautifully. I was constantly in awe during the film, and watching this in theaters is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. There are some fantastic emotional moments that finally lead up to a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, that will hit you right in the heart and leave you talking. It’s perfect for all ages and I’d be surprised if any animated movie outdoes this one in 2019.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is not only a perfect family movie — it’s a near-perfect movie and a visual masterpiece. I’d be surprised if DreamWorks ever tops this amazing trilogy of touching and moving animated films and this consistently impressive saga will be remembered and rewatched for years. Go see it with your family in 3D when it’s out on February 22!

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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Miles Morales is juggling his life between being a high school student and being Spider-Man. However, when Wilson Fisk uses a collider to open a portal to new dimensions, Peter Parker, another Spider-Man from another dimension, accidentally winds up in Miles’ dimension, joining others from across the “Spider-Verse”.

This animated version of Spider-Man is brought to life with a less popular iteration of the character, Miles Morales, and is animated to look like a comic-book with many different editions of the Spider-Man character appearing, as well as many familiar villains. Though it starts about the same as any Spider-Man story, the second half presents some unexpected and mature character moments that are touching and make the final act of the movie exciting and rewarding. There are some humorous moments throughout, and a solid voice cast, including Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Bryan Tyree Henry, and Mahershala Ali. The animation is often vibrant and colorful, even though some scenes and details feel very vague and dull graphically. Even though it did make me laugh a few times, some moments do feel cringeworthy or only there for fan service. The soundtrack was also poorly chosen and the awful rap songs distract from the strong point some scenes were trying to make. Even though I enjoyed seeing villains like Doc Ock and Green Goblin appear, I don’t approve of them turning Fisk from a compelling and unpredictable human being into a heartless, soulless antagonist who doesn’t stop before making evil decisions and has no moral compass like the superior portrayal of the character in the Netflix series Daredevil. It’s clearly a kid’s film, so I don’t expect them to make him an R-rated character, but I was hoping for enough layer to stay true to what I love about the character but also fit for a PG-rated movie. I really loved Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy, who I had no idea was also Spider-Woman before seeing this movie (and I’d easily watch a spin-off of her own should Sony choose to make one), and Spider-Ham is also an unexpectedly fun character. There’s also a terrific Stan Lee cameo and a touching tribute to the late legend during the credits. Even though the movie does teach kids that they can all be Spider-Man, we don’t need the line “Anyone can wear the mask” constantly repeated to understand that.

Kids and families will definitely have a good time with this new family-friendly version of the friendly neighborhood hero from New York. However, I personally felt that it’s only in the second half of the film where it really finds its heart and makes up for a predictable first half with some heartwarming moments, adding to its solid cast and characters as well as its unique style.

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