Swiss Army Man (2016, Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) English 5

Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Timothy Eulich, Andy Hull

(5-Okay Film)

Strange. Eccentric. Tiresome.

A man (Dano) stranded on an island finds a chance at escape when a dead body washes up on shore (Radcliffe). To his amazement, this dead body possesses all kinds of extraordinary abilities including flatulence that can act as jet propulsion, for example. It’s an extremely strange and quirky picture which naturally makes it an indie darling. I give it all the points in the world for originality, plus the two leads perform the hell out of it, but I was turned off from the jump, and found myself shaking my head in bemusement for much of the film’s remainder.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


A Monster Calls (2016, Directed by J.A Bayona) English 5

Starring Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell, Lewis MacDougal, Liam Neeson, Geraldine Chaplin

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(5-Okay Film)

Brooding. Unsatisfying. Skilled.

A beleaguered school-age boy (mother suffering from cancer, bully at school, distant father, emotionally cold grandmother) finds his nights being taken up by a storytelling tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). With the help of this unlikely new friend, he learns to deal with the circumstances around him. It’s possible somewhere down the road, I’ll come back to this film and view it differently, but on first viewing I found myself as emotionally distant as the grandmother character seems to be. I enjoyed much of the individual pieces. The monster’s enigmatic stories are told in wonderfully animated sequences. Felicity Jones is suitably moving in her role as the sweet, dying mother. Liam Neeson’s voice as the sage monster is perfect. The young actor in the leading role is excellent. All of these elements work, and yet I felt the material was overly familiar, and the tone stolid where I thought a lighter touch at times could have been more impactful.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016, Directed by Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Alessandro Carloni) English 5

Voices of Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman, J.K Simmons, Bryan Cranston, Seth Rogen, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall Duk Kim, Jean-Claude Van Damme

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(5-Okay Film)

Amiable. Attractive. Worn.

The third installment in the saga following the legendary dragon warrior, Po (voiced by Black) features more backstory as we meet his father (Cranston) and an entire Panda community. Meanwhile, an undead warrior, Kai (Simmons) returns to wreak havoc and establish himself  as the ultimate kung fu master. Like its predecessors, it goes down easily enough, and some of the diverse animation is spectacular, but the substance isn’t there. There’s nothing very compelling pushing the story forward and the humor isn’t there. It relies too heavily on the cuteness factor of the new panda characters.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016, Directed by Tim Burton) English 6

Starring Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Terence Stamp, Samuel L. Jackson, Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Allison Janney

(6-Good Film)

Creepy. Colorful. Secondary.

Based on the bestselling young adult series, Tim Burton’s latest film about a boy, Jake Portman (Butterfield), reeling from his Grandfather’s bizarre death, and the secret community of strangely gifted children that he discovers isn’t thrilling enough for mass appeal. However, if you enjoy creepy content aimed at younger audiences, in the vein of ’80s classics like Something Wicked This way Comes (1983), there’s a flock of eyeball-digesting scientists in this film that might appeal to you. Not all that inventive in the wake of Potter-mania and all of its clones, but it is entertaining and just the right amount of scary. Eva Green is particularly good in the title role.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Princess and the Frog (2009, Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker) English 8

Voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Jim Cummings, Jennifer Lewis, John Goodman, Michael Leon Wooley, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard

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(8-Exceptional Film)

Lovely. Old-fashioned. Underappreciated.

       Traditional animation is a thing of the past for Walt Disney Animation Studios. The lovely, hand-drawn, two-dimensional work that made Disney famous (Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Cinderella) has given way to three-dimensional computer animation, first achieved by Pixar (Toy Story), now taken up by just about every American animation studio including Disney itself. Ten years ago, around Christmas, saw the last time Disney released a big-budget 2-D animated flick, The Princess and the Frog, with the more modest release of Winnie the Pooh following 2 years later. Neither film proved a hit financially, though both were critically acclaimed. In the meantime, the computer-animated Disney films Tangled (2010), Wreck-it-Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013), etc., each made at least $450 million worldwide, with Frozen going over a billion on its way to becoming the second-highest-grossing animated film of all-time (not adjusted for inflation). Does this demonstrate that people aren’t drawn to 2-D animation anymore? Has 2-D animation become like black-and-white photography? I don’t think so, though it’s hard to prove. I know it’s different cultures and demographics, but anime is more popular than ever. Your Name made over $350 million worldwide just 3 years ago. And I’ve never heard a kid complain about the animation of Snow White or Pinocchio or The Lion King the way most kids will complain if you try to get them to watch black-and-white classics. So traditional animation doesn’t appear to be “antiquated” in the same way as black-and-white filming.  It’s difficult to put my finger on just what did hold The Princess and the Frog back from becoming the global hit most other Disney princess movies are and I suspect the easy answers aren’t any good. For one thing, traditional animation was floundering for years before The Princess and the Frog. Atlantis, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, and Home on the Range had varying levels of success but I think it’s safe to say that each of them was disappointing in some way (either commercially or critically). Maybe it’s a case of guilt by association. The Princess and the Frog looks like those movies. Tangled is a huge success. Let’s stop making movies that look like the former and emulate the latter. Whatever the case, it’s a shame that The Princess and the Frog isn’t more appreciated or even seen, because it’s quite a film. It’s not on the level of Disney’s very best but I’d place it on that very next tier which is still pretty special.

The film begins with a quick glimpse at the modest but happy childhood of heroine, Tatiana (voiced by Rose), and then we flash forward many years to see her as a hard-working adult in 1920’s New Orleans trying to save up enough money to own a restaurant. Tatiana is black, making her the first black Disney princess (the only one to date), so from the very first minute, before we know if the film is any good, we know it’s important, and we hope that it’s good and worthy. I say Tatiana is a good role model for anyone watching. She doesn’t have time for much fun, as she sings in the film’s best song “Almost There,” but she’s not a shrew either. Then there is Prince Naveen (voiced by Campos), a cad, recently cut off from his parent’s money. He arrives in New Orleans with two choices: get a job or marry someone rich. His rogue heart is set on marrying someone rich. It’s noteworthy to me, and it’s one of my few quibbles with the movie, that Naveen is ethnically ambiguous, which is fine, but I really would have preferred a black prince. There’s some good to be found in portraying love between a mixed couple, certainly, but there are so few positive depictions of black males in the media in general that I believe an opportunity was missed. Anyways, Naveen gets mixed up with a local voodoo practitioner named Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David and it’s a great voice as anyone who’s seen Gargoyles will remember) and ends up a frog. If he doesn’t kiss a princess by a specific time, he’ll remain a frog for the rest of his life. Finding Tatiana at a costume party and mistaking her for a princess thanks to her costume, he convinces her to kiss him, but she winds up a frog as well. The two travel across the bayou looking for Madame Odie (voiced by Lewis), who might be there only chance at changing back.

As the first attempt by Disney to feature black characters in the lead, The Princess and the Frog is open to intense scrutiny. Maybe it suffered a bit from that, but most of what I’ve heard in the form of criticism is nonsense. I recall Paul Mooney complaining that Tatiana spends most of the film’s runtime as a frog. I say who cares, though that’s not much of a counter-argument. Also, there were questions about the Disney princess formula running out of steam. Perhaps The Princess and the Frog is too traditional. It’s classic formula through and through: princess, prince, music, villain, colorful side characters, animals. I love the formula and don’t think the formula will ever truly die. Tangled came out a year later and resurrected it while Frozen put to rest the idea of stopping Disney princess films for good. I don’t know why but The Princess and the Frog failed to surprise people and somehow Tangled and Frozen gave the impression of something completely new, despite all following that same formula. I happen to think The Princess and the Frog is better than Frozen while Tangled is the best of the three. The Princess and the Frog is one of the most beautifully animated films Disney’s ever produced. It has a cast full of great characters including a standout villain, great music by Randy Newman, and a fun story to get you from the opening credits to happily-ever-after. I suppose it will just have to settle for being underrated.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


Wreck-It Ralph (2012, Directed by Rich Moore) English 6

Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack MacBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk, Mindy Kaling

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(7-Very Good Film)

Colorful. Clever. Light.

Ralph (Reilly) is the villain of a classic arcade video game called Fix-it Felix Jr., but every once in awhile, he’d like to be the hero. “Just because he’s the bad guy, doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.” At night, when the game ends, and all the characters go home, he’d like to be treated as part of the gang. Seeing that that’s never going to happen, he sees an opportunity to be a hero by sneaking into other games at the arcade, and eventually he ends up in Sugar Rush, a racing game where he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Silverman), King Candy (Tudyk), and a host of other characters on his quest to win a medal and return to his game a hero. Top shelf animation, vibrant visuals, and a premise abundant with possibilities. It’s a terrific adventure film and a prime example of Disney’s second Renaissance.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-


The Black Cauldron (1985, Directed by Ted Berman and Richard Rich) English 7

Voices of John Hurt, Nigel Hawthorne, Susan Sheridan, Freddie Jones, Grant Bardsley, John Huston

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(7-Very Good Film)

Exciting. Impressive. Undercooked.

A pig keeper, Taran, fights to protect his pig’s mystical powers from an evil king looking for a powerful magic object. The accepted run time for animated movies does not really allow for the full scope of an epic story such as Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and apparently many of the more creative elements of this film were weeded out by executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, but still, this animated flick boasts great animation, some darker material than we’re used to from Disney, and a thick coating of eighties camp that makes it interesting. I wish they would have followed through on the telling this dark adventure though.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-