Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman (Sandman) and re-conceived by director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas James and the Giant Peach) in 3-D stop-motion animation Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) opens a world of twisted wonder when she passes through a secret door in her new house and suddenly discovers an alternate existence mirroring her own life but making it so much more interesting and satisfying until her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) tries to turn her little visit into a permanent one. Fanning is the ideal Coraline -- curious fickle frightened and determined. She does an excellent job bringing to life this young girl suddenly caught up in an extraordinary adventure that rivals what Dorothy went through on the road to Oz. Hatcher is properly bland as her real mother and slippery as her Other -- she’s clearly having fun ditching Desperate Housewives. Standout is Keith David voicing an exquisitely drawn but quite mysterious Cat. There’s also brief but amusing work from the team of Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French (Absolutely Fabulous) as Coraline’s very very British and very eccentric neighbors and an even wackier Ian McShane as the Russian Mr. Bobinsky. Selick has created a modern classic that tops even his brilliant Nightmare Before Christmas turning the world of Coraline into something we’ve seen before. It’s Alice in Wonderland times 10 but despite its soft PG rating is really dark stuff. Kids won’t be turned off by this but some not-clued-in parents might. The film will be shown in both 3-D and regular formats but go for the 3-D version if possible. It’s a mind-blowing use of the technology and perhaps the best yet put on screen.
Agnes (Ashley Judd) is bored with her life--and she's sworn off men. She's a bit fearful of her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) who just got paroled and works at an all-girl bar with her lesbian friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). When R.C. finds a handsome stranger Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) wandering through town she tries setting him up with lonely Agnes. She doesn’t really click with him but feels sorry for him and lets him spend the night in her rundown motel room. Then the bugs begin to bite. According to Peter they're not just bedbugs but aphids—and Peter thinks the bugs are part of a government conspiracy. To off-set the bug bites fend off the persistent helicopters flying around outside and avoid the mysterious Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O'Byrne) Peter and Agnes cover their hotel room in tin foil hole up from the rest of the world—and spiral down into a world of madness. It's a strange role for Judd. She's not glamorous at all but successfully pushes the edge as a white-trash waitress looking for something more out of life. Judd transforms believably from a strong hard woman to a fragile fearful female on the edge of sanity. She gets naked with a stranger she kisses her best girlfriend--and then she starts believing bugs are biting into her skin. Shannon is alternately a handsome handyman type who is also very uneasy and creepy to be around. "I make people uncomfortable " is his grand understatement. At one moment he is someone who Judd willingly decides to sleep with and in the next moment he's a psychotic wild-eyed madman that she should be running away from. Either way he is compelling. Connick Jr. however plays his bully ex-con role in a characteristic one-dimensional one-note depiction that isn't as interesting nor as threatening as Peter. Director William Friedkin who gave us Exorcist and The French Connection expertly helms this relatively narrow-focused screenplay by playwright Tracy Letts. Since it is an adaptation of a play the actors are sometimes limited in their actions and the setting is almost too claustrophobic. As the camera swoops down overhead to an isolated motel in the middle of the desert from unseen helicopters the drab hotel room transforms into a sparkling foil-covered eerie set with a blue tint courtesy of the talented production designer Franco Carbone (of the Hostel movies fame). Tightly winding up this conspiracy thriller--in which theories about Tim McVeigh the Unibomber and the Bilderberg Group abound—Friedkin allows the paranoia to wash over you in wave after agonizing wave. And nothing is more unnerving than Peter pulling what he thinks is an insect egg out of his tooth. Shiver.
Everything appears to be status quo between humans and mutants. There’s a president who is sympathetic towards mutants Prof. Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) school is thriving and Magneto (Ian McKellen) is quiet--for the moment. But when a “cure” for mutancy is discovered which would give those with the mutant gene the choice to give up their powers and become human Magneto sees red. Cure mutants? Dem’s fightin’ words. With a few more allies on his side--including the resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who now calls herself the Phoenix and has unlimited powers--Magneto prepares to trigger the war to end all wars while the X-Men--lead by the stalwart Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and milquetoasty Storm (Halle Berry)--try to stop him. I seriously doubt this is really their Last Stand. All the usual suspects are back. Stewart is once again sufficiently wise as Xavier while McKellen’s Magneto continues to be one of the cooler comic-book villains. It’s amusing to watch him calmly mangle cars or dislodge the Golden Gate bridge with a gleam in his eye. Janssen also seems to relish playing dual roles--the tormented Grey and her evil alter ego Phoenix who is one scary broad. Unfortunately Jackman doesn’t have as much to chew on in Last Stand as he did in X2 and Berry is once again only good for drumming up fog. But the new mutants are kind of fun: Ellen Page (so deadly in Hard Candy) plays sweet this time as Kitty Pryde who can “phase” through solid material; Vinnie Jones (Snatch) is boisterous as the aptly named Juggernaut; Kelsey Grammer is diplomatic as the highly intelligent--and very blue--Dr. Hank McCoy aka Beast; and Dania Ramirez (Fat Albert) as the blink-of-an-eye quick Callisto gets to kick Storm’s ass. Cool cat fight. How dare director Bryan Singer leave his X-Men to go direct another superhero movie even if it is Superman Returns. If Wolverine had anything to say about he might have ripped Singer a new one. You really do feel Singer’s absence in The Last Stand. All of the director’s tormented pathos towards his mutant comrades and their struggles to live in the human world are not as prevalent in this third installment. Instead we’ve got happy-go-lucky director Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame who turns The Last Stand into one giant id--big explosive and campy. Of course to his credit Ratner is pretty good at delivering a rousing albeit superficial action movie. It’s just not as gripping as X2. But listen the spirit of the comic is already built in from the previous installments so in essence we already know these characters pretty well. Do we really need more angst?
Based on the popular Emmy-winning Saturday morning cartoon show Teacher's Pet revolves around a dog Spot Helperman (voiced by Nathan Lane) who for as long as he can remember always wanted to be a human boy--so much so that he puts on pants tucks his ears underneath a beanie cap and disguises himself as Scott Leadready II a "kid" who goes to his friend's er master's fourth grade class. Spot's master Leonard (voiced by Shaun Fleming) on the other hand just wishes he had a real dog to play with to catch sticks and lick his face. Fat chance with this pooch. Desperate for any chance to be human Spot discovers there's an experimental scientist in Florida Dr. Ivan Krank (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) who although labeled a complete wacko claims he can change animals into humans. Spot sets out to find Krank and make his dreams come true hitching a ride with Leonard and his schoolteacher mother (voiced by Debra Jo Rupp) on their way to the Sunshine State for a national teacher's contest. Several tiresome musical numbers later Leonard tries unsuccessfully to convince Spot to stay a dog and they find the diabolical doctor in the Florida swamps. Zap! Spot/Scott finally gets his wish. Be careful what you wish for little doggie.
It's a good thing Teacher's Pet incorporates some veteran voiceover talents to lend at least a little credibility to the silliness. Lane as the determined canine and Grammer as the evil scientist are animation pros--Lane from his Lion King days and Grammer from his hysterical stints on The Simpsons. They do their darnedest to bring out the best in the borderline corny dialogue from Pet's husband-and-wife writing team Bill and Cheri Steinkellner with lines like Spot's query "What's with this family and singing? I'm feeling Von-Trapped." But Lane and Grammer are consummate showmen delivering the lines and handling the singing chores with aplomb especially Grammer (get this man a Broadway show pronto). Other Pet denizens include Jerry Stiller as the Helperman's perpetually annoyed parrot Pretty Boy and David Ogden Stiers as the agoraphobic but cuddly cat Mr. Jolly. And if you listen closely you'll also hear Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) and Will & Grace's Megan Mullally voicing two of Krank's experiments--with alligators and mosquitos respectively--gone strangely awry.
Despite a weak story and uninspiring songs Teacher's Pet has a unique animated style and that's its one key selling point. Renowned illustrator Gary Baseman whose art is frequently featured in top magazines such as The New Yorker and Rolling Stone got the idea for Pet when he wondered what his dog did all day long when he wasn't there. He teamed up with the Steinkellners (TV's Cheers) and created the TV version of Teacher's Pet which debuted in 2000 and has won several awards including a Daytime Emmy for best animated TV series. In the movie version first-time director Timothy Bjorklund sticks with Baseman's eclectic and off-kilter style and churns out the artist's illustrations at a fur-flying rate. There's lots to see and several inside jokes to catch including poking fun at Disney classics such as Pinocchio (the Blue Fairy done Baseman style is hilarious) and 101 Dalmatians (ditto with the "Twilight Bark"). It's been a long time since hand-drawn art has given audiences something just as distinctive as its rival the somewhat more versatile computer-generated animation.
Based on the classic Rudyard Kipling story Jungle Book 2 starts basically where the 1967 original left off. Having been lured into the human village by a beautiful young girl Mowgli (voiced by Haley Joel Osment) is now living the life of his people. No more bumping bananas out of a tree swingin' with the monkeys or singing about the "bare necessities" with his old friend Baloo the bear (voiced by John Goodman). Mowgli doesn't mind living with his own kind despite their rules and restrictions especially when he can hang out with the beautiful girl Shanti (voiced by Mae Whitman) but he still misses the wild times he had in the jungle. So does Baloo who pines for his little buddy but is told again and again by the wise panther Bagheera (voiced by Bob Joles) that Mowgli is where he belongs. Even the malevolent tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Tony Jay) would like to get his hands on the man-cub--for a little payback. Finally Mowgli is fed up with the village rules and sneaks off into the jungle with Baloo while Shanti thinks he is being abducted by a wild animal and goes off to rescue him. Egad! Now there's two unsuspecting kids in the jungle. What to do? It's a chase to see who gets to Mowgli first--the man-eating tiger his old pals or his new human friends and family.
Everyone associated with this sequel makes a valiant effort to re-create the indelible character voices from the original but unfortunately just miss the mark. Goodman who will forever be the lovable James P. "Sully" Sullivan from Monsters Inc. can't quite capture the same magic the late Phil Harris had when he brought the big-hearted Baloo to life. Try and imagine someone else playing Sully. See what I mean? The same goes for attempting to top the 1967 originals Sebastian Cabot as the harried Bagheera Sterling Holloway as the villainous snake Kaa (remember "Trusssssst in Me"?) and George Sanders as the ultra-cool Shere Khan. These guys made the Kipling characters their own. Trying to imitate them in Jungle Book 2 doesn't work. At least the sequel has enough smarts to leave out the swingin' orangutan King Louie altogether who was voiced in the original by jazz musician Louis Prima. No one could have even touched that performance. Osment who is making a name for himself in the Disney voice-over community after doing the lead in The Country Bears does a fine job as Mowgli.
The one thing you can say about this sequel is that it tries too hard to be like its ultra-hip predecessor. When the original The Jungle Book was released in 1967 Disney had a vision of Kipling's story as a jazzy jungle romp with great songs such as "Bare Necessities" and "I Wan'na Be Like You' and incorporated some of the era's coolest beatniks including Prima and Harris. Jungle Book 2 isn't as toe-tappin' and fans of the original may think the new musical numbers a little cheesy especially the big one in the jungle ruins with Baloo and company. It can't hold a candle to the King Louie number from the original. Still the film doesn't fail completely. The continuing story of Mowgli's life is engaging as we watch him cope with his new surroundings realizing he truly can't be a jungle boy forever.