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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As its title suggests Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended to lay the foundation for a new franchise of sci-fi flicks in which humans and super-intelligent apes battle for earthly supremacy. Its duty then is to explain within the span of two hours and with a modicum of credulity how exactly our simian friends might come to supplant us atop the animal kingdom. The scenario was at least partially addressed in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes the fourth entry in the original series’ convoluted and time-warped canon and while Wyatt's film draws inspiration from Conquest it is by no means a remake. Nor for that matter is related in any way to Tim Burton’s underwhelming 2001 entry. (And thank goodness for that.)
The titular rise begins as with many of the world’s great catastrophes with the actions of one highly irresponsible man. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist of prodigious talent and questionable ethics who works at a fancy San Francisco biotech firm called Gen-Sys (subtle!). His effort at producing a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease carries an ulterior motive: His father (John Lithgow) suffers from it and is close to entering its final stages. Will is close to a breakthrough when one of his chimpanzee test subjects goes well apesh*t causing his company’s suitably callous CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo gamely spewing lines like “I run a business not a petting zoo!") to order the research facility’s entire chimp population liquidated.
Will is busy carrying out the grim mandate when he discovers that one of the test chimps has borne an offspring one he can’t bring himself to euthanize. Instead he and his primatologist girlfriend Caroline (Frieda Pinto gorgeous and superfluous) partners in appallingly bad decision-making decide to raise the infant chimp as their own naming it Caesar. Having inherited his mother’s gene modifications he shows signs of advanced intelligence and quickly develops a close bond with his adoptive human parents. But Caesar soon outgrows his domestic habitat and eventually must be shipped off to a simian “sanctuary” that is in reality anything but.
At this point we’re halfway through the film – and miles away from erudite apes and enslaved humans. To get us on track director Wyatt executes a rather audacious tonal shift transitioning abruptly from what was heretofore a fairly sober Project Nim dramatization into the balls-out apes-gone-wild summer action flick promised by the film’s trailers. His efforts are aided tremendously by his screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa whose clever absorbing script offers just enough plausibility in the first half to make its increasingly loony second half not just palatable but downright enjoyable. Wyatt strikes a delicate thematic balance respecting the subject matter while acknowledging its inherent silliness. (Scattered throughout the film are sly nods to previous Planet of the Apes films as well as a glimpse of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.)
The silliness accelerates seemingly by the frame in Rise’s latter half as Caesar mounts a conspiracy to escape his Dickensian squalor exact revenge upon his cartoonishly malevolent captors and take his simian revolution to the streets. And it only gets crazier from there – the third act is basically a PETA wet dream. As far as cautionary tales go Rise is about as cautionary as they come.
Andy Serkis who performed all of the performance-capture work for Caesar is a marvel in the role though the question remains as to how the credit should be divvied up between him and the technicians at WETA digital who “painted” the character’s CG features. And make no mistake Caesar is very much a character – as well-rounded and fully-formed and convincing as they come and easily more compelling than any of his non-digital counterparts. Franco for his part is credible enough as a scientist who in spite of his academic credentials is a bit of a dolt (and perhaps a tad disturbed) and Lithgow tackles a relatively thankless role with grace. But the real stars are all those damn dirty apes.
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.
In other words The Holiday probably falls under the “guilty pleasure” category. Its not a classic romantic comedy by any standards but darn it it still makes you smile more often than you want to admit. The story centers on two women: Iris (Kate Winslet) a British newspaper columnist hopelessly in love with a man about to marry someone else and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) a highly successful L.A. career woman who just broke up with her latest cheating boyfriend. Being at the right place at the right time these two gals meet online at a home exchange website and impulsively switch homes for the holiday. Shortly after arriving at their destinations both women find the last thing either wants or expects: A new romance. Amanda is charmed by Iris' handsome brother Graham (Jude Law) and Iris with inspiration provided by legendary screenwriter Arthur (Eli Wallach) mends her heart when she meets film composer Miles (Jack Black). Oh just go ahead and take a big gooey bite. It’s good for the soul. The biggest problem in The Holiday is unfortunately the casting—which is real shame because you really want the chemistry to zing. They get it right with Winslet and Law who are both trying something a little different as romantic leads. Winslet in fact admitted to Reuters this was one of the more nerve-wracking parts she’s ever played because she couldn’t hide behind an American accent or a costume playing someone closer to well herself. But you would think these two Oscar-nominees had been making these type movies all along especially the insanely gorgeous Law who should have every woman swooning with his sensitivity. Where they get it wrong is with the Americans as the Brits just act giant circles around them. Black is clearly out of place. Although being very charming and funny looking like he made Winslet laugh a LOT (and who wouldn’t with that guy around?) their connection on screen is somewhat amiss. Diaz comes off looking even worse. Even though she’s the veteran of the romantic comedy (There's Something About Mary My Best Friend's Wedding) her screechy neurotic klutzy Amanda is in no way appealing. You have to scratch your head wondering why Law’s Graham would fall so hard for her. What does make The Holiday work however is writer/director Nancy Meyers. She’s proven herself quite adept at the genre with films such as What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give under her belt. With The Holiday Meyers skillfully crafts individual moments of refreshing comedy as well as heartening scenes of blossoming romance. The initial seduction scene between Amanda and Graham is particularly sweet and quirky with the crisp dialogue flying at a nice clip. And isn’t it comforting to see a holiday movie minus feuding neighbors commerciality or any sort of mean-spiritedness? But Meyers has the tendency to go more for the superficial rather than dig deep with her characters. The Holiday has a one of those glossy rosy glows whose only aim is to make you feel good. True the film will mostly speak volumes to the women in the audience (that’s a polite way of saying its a “chick flick”) but oh well. It’s fluff may be a nice reprieve during the hustle and bustle of the season.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.