Open Road Films via Everett Collection
There is something about The Nut Job that will appeal to the old school cartoon lover — the Bugs Bunny aficionado who revels in the ne'er-do-well antics of scrappy anti-heroes, who appreciates the comic sensibilities of bumbling crooks, who likes watching woodland creatures and doofy humans get konked in the head time after time after time. But where Bugs Bunny cartoons always succeeded was in their wit, a department in which The Nut Job is severely lacking. Just under an hour and a half long, The Nut Job has a minute's worth of genuine laughs, favoring the ostensible charms of goofiness over actual funniness.
Usually, when a children's cartoon lacks good humor, it makes up for it (or tries to) with warmth. Here, The Nut Job is also lacking... not entirely devoid, but lacking. The story follows the lazily, albeit appropriately, named Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett, affecting an occasional New York accent to drill home that his character is a jag), who is a self-serving survivalist who hordes as many nuts as he can find for his own safekeeping without concern for his fellow park-dwelling animals — all of whom subscribe to a strange socialistic society led by a solemn raccoon (Liam Neeson). The only animals who sympathize with Surly are his mute pal Buddy, a rat, and his diplomatic fellow squirrel Andie (Katherine Heigl), the latter of whom endures a constant battle to convince Surly to employ his superior food heist skills to help the other rodents. But he won't... and we're never quite sure why.
Open Road Films via Everett Collection
On the one hand, it could be that he's just a Darwinian individualist. On the other, he drops lines disparaging the aforementioned raccoon for never accepting him, and laments his banishment from the parkgrounds after an unfortunate incident with an inflamed tree. There isn't much work done with the Surly character, so there isn't much of a payoff for his inevitable emotional turnaround. We don't quite understand if he wants to be accepted for who he is, welcomed lovingly into the park community, or adorned with the kind of praise that thick-headed hero squirrel Grayson (Brendan Fraser, giving the funniest performance in the film as a cocky but affectionate dolt) regularly receives.
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When it comes to films directed at young kids, there's usually the hope that there will be something learned, or some semblance of an emotional lesson carried forth. You can pick from the usual grab bag to piece together whatever it is that The Nut Job wants you to feel: accept other people, it's better to help others than help yourself, friendship is important, never trust a raccoon. But more than any of these, the primary takeaway is screwball cartoon mania that you don't often get to see in Disney, or even DreamWorks. And yes, it'll remind you of Loony Tunes in function, but you'll wonder then just why you aren't laughing.
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Kids' movies may be the most difficult cinematic mountains to climb. The filmmakers must cater to two perspectives at constant odds with one another: young ones who find amusement in simplistic stories and broadly painted humor and their parents who need enough of a grounded hook emotional core and clever jokes to keep them from nodding off. Not an easy task.
To see this winning combination pulled off by a 3-D animation/live-action hybrid adaptation of a rather irritatingly sweet cartoon from the '80s…well it's both a shocking and welcome surprise. The Smurfs transcends recent property-grabs like Garfield Alvin and the Chipmunks and Marmaduke by embracing the cartooniness relishing in the fact that it can get away with anything with the help of adorable little blue people.
Smurfs takes the model employed by 2007's Enchanted kicking things off in the colorful fantasy world of Smurf Village and quickly bringing its cheery clueless characters to the terrifying metropolis of New York. After Clumsy Smurf accidentally leads the Smurf-obsessive Gargamel (Hank Azaria) to the hidden mushroom haven of his brethren the bumbling black sheep of the Smurf family finds himself and a few clan members Papa Brainy Grumpy Gutsy Smurfette at the wrong end of a Blue Moon-induced worm hole. The group (along with Gargamel and his cat) find themselves face-planted in NYC's Central Park where they meet Patrick Winslow (Neil Patrick Harris) yes man to the cosmetic titan Odile. This sets the race in motion—the Smurfs enlisting the help of Patrick to find a way back home Patrick seeking the perfect ad campaign for Odile's new make-up line and Gargamel questing hungrily for a few drops of Smurf essence.
If Smurfs was simply a barrage of fart jokes and pop culture references the movie wouldn't click but by giving each of his characters something to do (seems obvious no?) director Raja Gosnell injects the film with a helpful dose of heart. Along with Clumsy's quest to be more than his name insists Harris' Patrick also has his own problems to overcome. Namely preparing to be a Papa Smurf to the kid he's about to have with his wife Grace (Glee's Jayma Mays). Harris and Mays take their roles here seriously going all out when they need to chase the adventurous Smurfs around town in one slapsticky sequence after another but they put just as much into their smaller scenes. One moment where Papa Smurf sits Patrick down for a "Dad talk" even has weight—a near impossible task for a "kids" movie.
But let's not get too sappy: the movie is funny plain and simple. Azaria makes a living bringing cartoon characters to life—he's a reason why The Simpsons has been on for more than 20 years—and his goofy Gargamel antics are inspired. A recurring gag where the evil wizard continually steps through ventilation steam grates probably read fine on paper but Azaria knows how to play big and doesn't allow any moment of physical comedy to lazily fall through the cracks. On the flip side Harris nails the straight man role and acknowledges that hanging out with Smurfs is just as bizarre as you'd imagine. Think The Brady Bunch Movie for the world of animation.
With solid kids' flicks becoming a rare occurrence Smurfs is a breath of fresh air a film that believes in its own simple message while simultaneously being self-aware of its cartoonish heritage. The movie's a smurfy good time but it takes a particularly smurfy Smurf to let go of cynical baggage and smurf it.
This long-delayed fantasy film touted as the most expensive film in South Korean history is some kind of mess. As the title implies dragons do go to war--but the real casualty of this endeavor is the patience of even the most undiscriminating viewer. Here is a movie absolutely overstuffed with exposition and backstory but none of it adds up to anything remotely cohesive or comprehensible. An ancient prophecy about Korean serpents becoming dragons and laying waste to the world is about to come true--some 500 years after it first came to pass. Pressed into service to save the world (or a computer-generated facsimile thereof) are a young TV reporter (Jason Behr) and a girl named Sarah (Amanda Brooks) both of whom are destined to play a pivotal part in the ultimate salvation--or destruction--of mankind. It’s only a matter of time before downtown Los Angeles becomes a war zone. Both Behr and Brooks play their roles with absolute conviction. Unfortunately in this unintentionally outrageous context they come off as laughably stiff as a result. Their obligatory onscreen romance comes off as just that--obligatory. If they’re humanity’s last hope then we’re in big trouble. Chris Mulkey and Elizabeth Pena turn up as FBI agents. Nice to see them getting work but it would be even nicer if they--being the talented actors they are--were given something anything to do. By default Robert Forster comes off best as Jack a wise antiques dealer who definitely has a vested interested in the fantastic goings-on. It’s a stock role and not a particularly good one loaded with senseless dialogue. But Forster manages unlike his co-stars to inject just a little bit of humanity and humor into the proceedings. Writer/director Hyung-rae Shim relies totally and wholly on CGI effects to tell the story but because the story is so unabashedly stupid that reliance comes off as seriously misguided. Dragon Wars is not remotely credible even by fantasy-film standards and it’s not fun enough to encourage audiences to suspend disbelief. There’s never a sense of wonderment or fun and that’s deadly in a film like this. As befits the filmmaker behind such a one-dimensional a film Shim is basically a traffic cop. The actors go here. The effects go here. And despite the endless CGI effects the rest of the cinematography is murky and dark. Dragon Wars (or D-War as it was originally known) does qualify as a movie: It has a beginning a middle and an end--and all of them are useless.
Based on E.B. White’s enduring children’s story we meet Wilbur the Pig (Dominic Scott Kay) a runt who is saved from the axe by a little farm girl named Fern (Dakota Fanning). She raises Wilbur from infancy but eventually she has to send Wilbur over to her uncle’s neighboring farm since there’s no room for a pig in her house. There in the barn Wilbur meets the assortment of colorful animal characters: Betsy (Reba McEntire) and Bitsy (Kathy Bates) two pessimistic cows; motherly goose Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and her henpecked hubby Golly (Cedric the Entertainer); Samuel (John Cleese) an uptight sheep; the skittish horse Ike (Robert Redford); the self-serving rat Templeton (Steve Buscemi); and of course sweet Charlotte (Julia Roberts) a spider with a heart of gold. When the naïve Wilbur finds out he might be Christmas dinner Charlotte makes a promise to her new friend that she’ll do everything in her power to make sure Wilbur sees the Christmas snow—and everyone ends up helping her out. What could be more fun than to voice a barnyard animal? Winfrey and Cedric’s geese banter is like an old married couple. Cleese gives Samuel the sheep a certain upper-crustiness. Redford is actually pretty funny as a horse who’s deathly afraid of spiders (“I’ll listen to you but I just can’t look at you”). Buscemi is a particularly nice choice as the sneaky rat Templeton who only thinks about filling his belly with food (no typecasting there we swear). For pure comic relief there are also two crows voiced by Andre Benjamin and Thomas Haden Church who just can’t quite get around the whole scarecrow thing. And as Charlotte Roberts has a truly soothing and loving tone sort of how you’d imagine it from the book. As for the human aspect Fanning continues to do what she does best playing Fern with the right amount of youthful innocence spunkiness and determination. Just wondering how we are going to handle it when this amazing little actress grows up and starts doing like adult things. Actually it is sort of a shame they couldn’t get a live-action version of Charlotte's Web made before Babe. Sure there was the 1973 animated cutesy film but a live-action adaptation of this timeless tale really should have been the standard by which all computer-generated talking farm animal movies would follow don’t you think? Instead Charlotte's Web pales ever so slightly in comparison. Oh well water under the bridge. Director Gary Winick (13 Going on 30) still manages to invoke the wonderful and uplifting spirit of the novel keeping faithful to the text in all ways. Visually the film is crisp and flawless in its execution particularly in the beauty and splendor of how Charlotte spins her webs and emotionally hearts will indeed swell and tears will flow. Charlotte's Web is the perfect family movie to inspire the next generation of young readers and viewers as well as for the rest of us who fondly remember the childhood classic.
When Professor Utonium (voiced by Tom Kane) creates Bubbles (voiced by Tara Strong) Blossom (voiced by Cathy Cavadini) and Buttercup (voiced by E. G. Daily) he's as excited and proud as any new parent. Then they start to fly around the room. From there we're treated to several scenes of "growing up Powerpuff " from their first peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (crusts cut off using infrared vision) to their first day at the Pokey Oats School (they learn to play tag and destroy the town doing it). When the townspeople see the destruction the girls have wrought they imprison the professor print nasty newspaper headlines ("Freaky Bug-Eyed Weirdo Girls Broke Everything") and vow to get those pesky kids. Disillusioned and depressed the outcast girls find solace and sympathy in an alley with a hobo named Jojo (voiced by Roger L. Jackson) who assures them in no uncertain terms that he is in the same boat. "Alas little ones " he says "I do not rock." But Jojo does have a plan: With a little help from the girls he'll build a machine that will make everything better--and the townspeople will like them again. In a life lesson on why you shouldn't talk to strangers the girls believe him and so they end up using their powers to help him achieve what is actually a diabolical goal--to take over Townsville using an army of mutant simians. Once the girls realize the error of their ways they battle Jojo (who's now calling himself "Mojo Jojo") and his army of monkeys attempting to save the world before bedtime--and to earn the trust of the townspeople.
The squeaky-clean voices of actors playing the Powerpuff Girls seem perfectly suited to the bug-eyed fin-fingered creatures; they're somehow innocent and experienced at the same time especially Daily's Buttercup. Strong's Bubbles certainly does bubble and Cavadini's Blossom imparts the steely resolve that makes her the leader of the pack. For comic punch though the monkeys really steal the show--Jackson's Jojo is supreme evil animated and he lets you know it. Kane's ability to perfectly capture the tone of a 1950s elementary school documentary voiceover should not go unnoticed either.
When Professor Utonium set out to create some little girls he didn't mean for them to have super powers. It just kind of happened when a little "Chemical X" got thrown into the mix. The same could be said of director/screenwriter Craig McCracken's final product: It's not a great film--even by kids' film standards--especially compared to the original TV show. It's slow in key places (the game of tag is interminable and the monkey battles go on and on) and kids will probably lose interest quickly as a result. But there are a few "X" factors that make it interesting for both kids and grownups as long as they can be persuaded to keep watching. First monkey jokes. The monkey army that Mojo Jojo attempts to lead is full of sneaky tricks for obliterating the town and wresting control from Jojo including baboon butt bombs the "sauce of chaos" and a barrel that rolls over things in the street including people and a dog that looks suspiciously like Snoopy. Second Planet of the Apes references. Buttercup rails at one of the chimps to "get your hands off him you darn dirty ape!" Third a mayor with an obsession for large green pickles sold from a cart: he's bizarre and slightly disturbing but nonetheless entertaining.