Movie Review: Chicken Little

“Modern Mallard says that avoiding closure can lead to molting, and I’m already small and on top of that I don’t think I can handle being bald!”

It always seems like whenever a movie is made for the sake of something other than the story, it never fails to disappoint. For example, is there any doubt in anyone’s minds that the Star Wars prequels were little more than special visual effects portfolio pieces for Industrial Light and Magic? If you need proof, just listen to the commentaries or watch the behind the scenes stuff and take note of how often the story is talked about in comparison to the effects and production.

I had this in mind as I sat down to watch Disney’s Chicken Little. This was the first major effort by Disney to produce a CGI animated movie solo instead of in conjunction with their long time associate Pixar. Because of this, I couldn’t help but compare it to the Pixar productions as I watched it and by the end I decided it was more a showcase of their CGI animation capabilities than a movie they decided to make because the story was worthy.

But why? It had all of the cool, trendy CGI graphics and animation. What I found it lacking was heart and a well thought out story. From the trailers, one would believe that it’s all about an alien invasion, but I thought that it took too long to set up that situation and then when we finally do see the aliens, they’re gone before you know it.

The story is basically this: a little misfit chicken, named Chicken Little (shocker), is ostracized by the town he lives in because of his seemingly false claim that the sky was falling which sent the town into frenzy. In his efforts to prove him self to the town he finds that what he wants most is to prove himself to his father.

That alone sounded great to me. I really had high hopes that I’d be surprised by this movie and find that it was actually a touching father/son relationship flick. The problem is they just let it hang. It seemed like towards then end that they must have written in the script, “comedic alien invasion,” and let the gags fly. When it came to resolving the father/son conflict, there was no real bonding between father and son, but it was just that the dad turned into a pushover wanting to cater to every whim of his son’s. To me, that was unsatisfying.

But did I hate it? No. Much of it was very funny! As a comedy it worked well. I liked the premise, it just seemed like it was made up of parts of 4 different movies and it could have been great if it had just focused on one. I also like movies that are funny, but end up making us feel good about ourselves and the experience we had, it seemed like Disney was just in it for the laughs in this one.

I wish they could have focused more on one of the included plots to make this movie a bit more cohesive. Let’s see, is it a story about a misfit kid and the heartache of feeling that the whole world is against you? Is it about an ingenious kid whose incredible dexterity and ability to improvise saves the town? Is it about a father who doesn’t know how to identify to his son because he’s not as coordinated or athletic as he (his father) used to be? (A point that doesn’t jive with some of the stunts we see Chicken Little pull off throughout the movie) Is it about an alien child who accidentally gets abandoned on earth and has to be rescued by local kids and given back to the alien parents before interstellar war breaks out? (Hmm, sounds like E.T.) Any of these stories would have been fun to explore with the others becoming sub plots, but there’s really no clear main story for the movie.

But my kids enjoyed it. And I didn’t find anything in it that was offensive, except for the obligatory burp humor to make kids giggle. If I had to compare it to another movie, I would say it’s a lot like Dreamwork’s Madagascar—big on laughs, but only so-so on heart.

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Movie Review: Dragonslayer

“If he’s ready to lay a dragon in its grave, he’s nothing to fear from me.”

I’ve installed a theater in my basement, well at least I’ve smoothed out a 9-feet wide wall and a wired-in surround system. I don’t have a projector of my own yet, but fortunately I am able to borrow one from work. Watching DVDs on it is VERY cool and it’s nice to have a cinematic experience with movies that haven’t been on the big screen for a long time.

Since I have this new home theater, I thought it only fitting to start revisiting movies that I really enjoyed when I was younger. The first movie I thought I’d try out is 1981’s Dragonslayerstyle=border:none starring Peter MacNicol. This is a movie that I saw in the theater when I was 11 years old (do the math and you’ll know how old I am) and I loved it! I watched it many times on video shortly after, but I haven’t seen it as an adult. I came across the DVD on the store shelf the other day and thought that now would be a good time to pick it up and watch it on the big screen.

The story is pretty straightforward, a kingdom is being terrorized by a dragon, so a group of people set out to find a sorcerer to dispose of it. When the older, more experience sorcerer is unable to pass the “test,” his apprentice takes up the call and tries to fill his master’s shoes.

In addition to MacNicol, who plays the young sorcerer’s apprentice, Galen, this film also features an excellent performance by Sir Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes) as the senior sorcerer, Ulrich.

At first I was worried that my adult eyes wouldn’t think it was as good as I thought it was when I was young. I was also concerned that the special effects would seem cheesy compared to the new CGI stuff that’s so common nowadays. Well, my fears were unfounded. I found the story and the writing just as interesting as before, and George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) produced special effects were terrific! Even the stop-motion animation of the dragon was smooth. I was also pleased that the filmmakers were able to tell the story without inserting a humorous sidekick for comic relief. There are funny moments, but they never seem out of place.

One thing that stuck out to me was how far we got into the movie before we got a clear view of the dragon instead of just a claw here and there. I’m sure that it was because of the budget constraints that made them have to limit how often we see the dragon in the movie, but I thought it served the movie well—adding a lot to the mystery and suspense. I’m sure that if it was made today with CGI, we’d be seeing the dragon all the way through the movie, but I think that would have ruined some of the tension and the awe that we feel when we finally see it.

On a side note, Star Wars fans might be interested to see a younger Ian McDiarmid (Darth Sidious/Senator Palpatine/Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars franchise) who plays Brother Jacopus, a Christian preacher who comes around once magic and sorcery seem to be fading away.

According to IMDB, this was Peter MacNicol’s first role. Occasionally his performance suffers from putting on an English accent, but otherwise he embodies the young, naïve sorcerer-in-training that he is playing. I only wish his hair wasn’t so curly.

I would call this a severely underrated and under watched movie. If you have any interest in fantasy movies of any kind, this movie is a must see!

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Coming Soon: Cars

If there’s any studio that I’d be willing to give a “free pass” to—meaning that I’ll go see anything they make whether or not the initial previews interest me—that would have to be Pixar Animation Studios.

Pixar is the only studio I can think of that fosters an environment conducive to developing a great story above everything else. True, they are on the cutting edge of CGI technology, and have developed many of the tools used by many in the industry, but when one of their movies is on I never sit back and ogle at their technical prowess, I’m enthralled by the story.

Another thing that I really love about Pixar, is that it never talks down to the kids and never thinks that crude humor and innuendo are the only ways to keep adults who are watching the show interested. I’m never worried that my kids are going to start saying words they shouldn’t (like I was from Dreamwork’s Antz) or that they were going to ask me to explain what something meant (like why Pinocchio wearing women’s underwear was such a big deal in Dreamwork’s Shrek 2). Pixar’s movies are sincerely funny and sophisticated.

Why am I bringing this up? Because Pixar’s new movie Cars is due to be released in the theaters June 9th, 2006 and I’m not really all that keen on the concept of the story. I can’t help but think, as I watch the trailers, that this movie is going to seem like a 90 minute Chevron talking car commercial.

But, I will see it and I’m expecting to thoroughly enjoy it. Why this dogged optimism you may ask? Well, I guess it’s in large part faith in the director, John Lasseter. He was the one responsible for Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and A Bug’s Life. But not only that, if you listen to Brad Bird’s commentary for The Incredibles, you’ll hear how many times John Lasseter told him to do what it took to tell the story—that was his primary concern even if it meant increasing the budget or the running time. If you recall, The Incredibles was a remarkably long movie for an American made animated film.

So, from a Disney press release, the story of cars goes like this: “Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), a hotshot rookie race car driven to succeed, discovers that life is about the journey, not the finish line, when he finds himself unexpectedly detoured in the sleepy Route 66 town of Radiator Springs. On route across the country to the big Piston Cup Championship in California to compete against two seasoned pros, McQueen gets to know the town’s offbeat characters – including Sally (a snazzy 2002 Porsche voiced by Bonnie Hunt), Doc Hudson (a 1951 Hudson Hornet with a mysterious past, voiced by Paul Newman), and Mater (a rusty but trusty tow truck voiced by Larry The Cable Guy) – who help him realize that there are more important things than trophies, fame and sponsorship.”

Sounds like it could be a heartwarming tale if you ask me, and with it’s G-rating, definitely something I won’t think twice about taking the family to.

On a side note, my interest in the future of Disney animation took a great leap when I heard that Disney was acquiring Pixar. But not only that, John Lasseter is the new Chief Creative Officer of their animation studios. Already there has been a stop put to production of many projects. Hopefully all of the retooling will be a good thing and we may even see traditional animation return? I hope so. Milt Kahl, one of the early Disney animation veterans said in the 70s, that the problem with Disney features was that “Walt had to go and die.” Walt Disney was the heart and soul of everything Disney put out. Hopefully John Lasseter will be just the person to bring it back.

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Movie Review: Ice Age 2, The Meltdown

>What do you get when you end a movie with a Wooly Mammoth, a Sabertooth Tiger, and a Sloth deciding that they can be their own herd no matter how weird that is? You get a sequel that has a mandate to show us how many more odd combinations of herds there can be. Case in point: a female Mammoth who thinks she’s a possum.

Now that’s not to say Ice Age 2: The Meltdown is a bad movie, it’s just that you loose something once the original three have decided that they are going to be a family. You miss the trust issues, the biting banter, and the fear that the tiger is just going to up and eat them. So now that they’ve set up this “any kind of a herd is OK” motif, they wind up stretching it out so much that the story never quite seemed very fresh to me.

Don’t get me wrong, though. It was funny and entertaining. There were many times where I laughed out loud along with the rest of the audience and there wasn’t anything in it that made me wish my kids weren’t there. It’s a good family film. The art and animation is superb in it as well.

In a nutshell the story goes like this: all of the animals live in an area of land that’s surrounded by a glacier, which appears to be melting. After a warning by a buzzard, they all realize that they need to make it to this “boat” so they can survive once the ice wall breaks down. As the story’s McGuffin, this premise seemed to work fairly well, but there were so many times the characters got sidetracked that it seemed like they either didn’t believe the flood was coming, or didn’t care.

There were two moments in the movie where I thought that they had actually run out of material and were just throwing in things to fill up their running time. One was a musical number and the other was a nighttime detour that Syd went on. They were cute, but had next to zero impact on the rest of the movie.

So would I recommend this movie? Well… maybe. I saw this with my wife and kids and we all enjoyed it. It was a fun day out which was more about spending the time with the kids and filling up on popcorn, pop and Skittles. Everyone had a good time and I thought it was money well spent. But I don’t think I’d rush out to see it if it was just myself and my wife, or some friends. I think instead I’d wait for it to come out on video… or just watch the original.

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