All of 45 pages in length and darkly foreboding in its warning of impending ecological catastrophe The Lorax Dr. Seuss’ 1971 environmental fable is hardly good grist for a modern blockbuster. To broaden its appeal – and its merchandising potential – Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda co-directors of Imagine Entertainment’s 3D-animated adaptation have taken generous liberties with the source text. Their efforts more than adequately satisfy the dictates of commercial family entertainment but they will undoubtedly earn the ire of Seuss purists should any still remain after the 2003 Cat in the Hat tragedy.
Fans of the book will at least recognize the essential elements in the film. We still have the Once-ler (Ed Helms) chopping down precious Truffula trees to make his thneeds and we still have the orange-maned Lorax (Danny DeVito) begging him to stop. But now the former has been refashioned into a guitar-toting go-getter with entrepreneurial zeal and a sympathetic backstory while the latter is given a group of adorably incompetent sidekicks. Meanwhile Seuss’ youthful audience surrogate silent and unnamed in the book has become Ted (Zac Efron of course) a sassy adolescent with a pretty crush (Taylor Swift) a snowboarding grandma (Betty White) and a destiny of his own to fulfill replete with its very own villain (Rob Riggle). Oh and there are now musical numbers as well.
The film’s environmental message is considerably less strident than Seuss’ original story which essentially cast industry and nature as adversaries in a zero-sum death match. Seuss’ ominous exhortation “unless” becomes less a plea to stem capitalism’s inexorable advance than a polite suggestion to plant a tree – which I think even the most ardent global warming deniers would agree is worthwhile. The animation which uses Seuss’ original artwork merely as a jumping-off point is absolutely gorgeous even if it probably betrays the author’s minimalist ethos. The new narrative bells and whistles on the other hand are considerably less appealing and seem too conspicuously designed to connect with younger audiences – and to provide a pretext for some ostentatious chase sequences. The Lorax speaks for the trees; Zac Efron speaks for the vital 12-to-18-year-old demographic.
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Non-traditional heroes have become a staple of animated films in recent years supplanting anthropomorphic rodents and zoo animals as the protagonists du jour. Pubescent Vikings crotchety old men lonely robots and giant green ogres may not be much of a draw in the live-action realm but in the animated world they’re freaking gold. You can add to those prestigious ranks Gru the lead character in Despicable Me a terrific 3D-animated flick directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud and based on a story by Sergio Pablos.
An enterprising arch-fiend with a yen for stealing prominent tourist landmarks like the Times Square jumbo-tron and the Statue of Liberty (the Vegas version) Gru (Steve Carell) thinks he’s at the top of his malevolent game but his contented suburban existence is upended when he receives news that a youthful rival named Vector (Jason Segel) has managed to steal an entire Egyptian pyramid — a feat that renders his own audacious heists pedestrian in comparison.
His delicate villain ego badly bruised Gru aspires to take back the spotlight by stealing the Moon but before he can pull it off Vector sabotages his efforts by swiping a device essential to Gru’s scheme which triggers a duel of ever-escalating firepower reminiscent of the old Spy vs. Spy cartoons featured in Mad Magazine (with weapons straight out of the Acme design lab). Continually stymied by his ubernerd nemesis Gru is about to give up when he uncovers a fatal weakness: Vector is absolutely mad for the cookies sold door-to-door by a trio of impossibly adorable orphan girls Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Eying the children as the key to infiltrating Vector’s lair and succeeding with his moon-stealing scheme Gru agrees to adopt them. Little does he know however that they've unleashed on him a particularly virulent strain of cuteness that is already making its way toward his heart.
As the voice of Gru Carell speaks with a husky Russian-sounding (his true ethnicity is never revealed) accent that drips with exasperation and disdain for the naive simpletons that populate his idyllic suburban neighborhood. At first the idea of casting the Office star in the role seems counter-intuitive: Why go to the effort and expense of hiring one of the most popular comedy actors working today as the lead in your $100+ million (estimated) film only to conceal him in a voice nearly unrecognizable to his millions of fans?
Shortly into Despicable Me the answer becomes clear: because Coffin and Renaud idealistic young fools that they are hired Carell for his talent and not for his star power. And it’s a good thing they did. The same incomparable pathos that turned incompetent corporate stooge Michael Scott into perhaps the best-loved sitcom character ever works its magic on Gru making the story of his transformation from brooding misanthrope to dedicated father as emotionally engaging as it is funny.
A simple story told exceptionally well: It’s the modus operandi for today’s successful animation studios and it’s expertly carried out in Despicable Me. The plot thins out at certain points and at times borders on predictable but its wit and warmth and vibrant animation (the film's colorful gothic aesthetic was inspired by artists Charles Addams and Edward Gorey) — rendered in actual 3D not the fake variety so popular these days with audience-raping studio profiteers — carry it through those brief creative lulls.
Picking up pretty much where we left off Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano) Diego the Saber Tooth Tiger (Denis Leary) and Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) are still palling around together. Goofy Sid feels a little under appreciated sardonic Diego is deathly afraid of water and sad-eyed Manny is still kinda lonely. In fact Manny thinks he may be the last of his species until he meets Ellie (Queen Latifah) a Mammoth who thinks she’s a possum. Don’t ask. Oh there’s also Ellie’s possum buddies Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck) two scrappy fellows up to no good. The more pressing issue however is the fact the polar ice caps are melting and they’ve got to get to high ground before they become fish food (and they are some nasty prehistoric fish too). Thank god for Scrat (Chris Wedge). He’s still chasing the elusive nut--and actually ends up saving the day in more ways than one. How does one become a woolly Mammoth a cockeyed Sloth or a sleek Saber-tooth Tiger? What’s the motivation? For Romano Leguizamo and Leary it’s easy. They just tap into their own inner prehistoric animal because you know we all have one. Actually it amazes me how any chemistry can be developed between the actors voicing animated characters since they don’t record at the same time. Toy Story’s Tom Hanks and Tim Allen ranks as one of the best but these three definitely have it as well; maybe they should think about making a live-action movie together. Queen Latifah also holds her own with the boys while Scott and Peck come off just a wee bit annoying as the mischievous possums. But it’s Chris Wedge’s squeaks grunts and sighs as our favorite antediluvian squirrel Scrat that makes the film--and the desperate little fellow happily gets more air play this time around. Ice Age: The Meltdown suffers from animated sequel-itis--a condition in which a film can’t live up to the certain heartwarming charm the original provided. As funny and delightful as they can be the characters just aren’t fresh and new. A remedy would be to have a better story than the original i.e. Toy Story 2 (still one of the best sequels ever) but Meltdown takes a step backwards relying more on the familiarity of the characters than a cohesive plot. There are definitely highlights: the visuals are crisp and clean and there are few entertaining musical numbers thrown in for our enjoyment including one in which Sid is being idolized by a tribe of miniature sloths and another in which a flock of vultures sing the Oliver! tune “Food glorious food!” while waiting for the movable feast to perish. But overall even though the kids will certainly get a kick out of Meltdown--especially Scrat’s nutty antics--the sequel isn’t quite up to snuff.
In a mechanized world an imaginative young inventor Rodney Copperbottom (voiced by Ewan McGregor) wants to be as famous as his hero the greatest inventor of all time Mr. Bigweld (voiced by Mel Brooks). With his father's "follow your dreams and never give up" ringing in his ears Rodney leaves his small town and sets out to the big bad Robot City to meet his idol and show him his invention. Once there Rodney meets the Rusties a ragtag group of street-smart bots lead by the wacky Fender (voiced by Robin Williams) who know the ropes. Rodney finds out that Bigweld has gone into seclusion and Robot City is being taken over by an ambitious robot named Ratchet (voiced by Greg Kinnear) whose motto is "Why Be You When You Could Be New?" Ratchet soon halts production on parts for the older robots. If the bot folk can't afford the new stuff they are gathered up and sent to an underground chop shop where Rachet's hideous mother Madame Gasket (voiced by Jim Broadbent) melts them down and turns them into metal for new parts. But the evil duo's plan is soon spoiled when Rodney and the Rusties start fixing the older models and decide the must get the reclusive Bigweld back on track to fight back.
How can you go wrong with such a fabulous cast? They all do a great job including McGregor as the earnest Rodney Copperbottom; Brooks as the soft-hearted boss Big Weld; Kinnear as the vain and conniving Rachet; Broadbent as the repugnantly evil Gasket; Jennifer Coolidge as the hilarious and lovable big-booty bot Aunt Fanny; Halle Berry as the smart and seductive executive bot Cappy; and Amanda Bynes as the perky Piper determined to prove herself. But once again voice over veteran Robin Williams steals the show as the broke down and chaotic robot Fender. With his hundreds of voices and impersonations animated films fit the frenetic Williams to a tee making him the undisputed king.
Blue Sky Animation and Oscar-winning director Chris Wedge who brought us the delightful Ice Age are back turning in another stellar animated effort. Robots is rivet-ing transporting the audience into a world of mechanics electronics and robotics. The best scene is when Rodney gets to Robot City and goes on a roller coaster "cab" ride with Fender through a maze of whirligigs and gadgets. Good fun. Added into the mix is a groovin' soundtrack that makes you want to get up and dance with the characters while snickering at the songs' innuendos. Overall Robots incorporates vibrant colors above the ground with dark rusted images below to bring to life this lively world of metal folk.