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.
October 12, 2001 8:19am EST
The story takes place in Zhejiang a province ruled by a greedy governor who spends his days guarding his precious jewels and cavorting with his harem. But not even his legion of soldiers and mercenary Shaolin monks can stop the Iron Monkey a masked vigilante who steals from the rich to give to the poor from infiltrating the palace to stealing the governor's booty. Tired of continued defeat at the Iron Monkey's hands the governor orders his chief constable Master Fox to find and unmask the avenger. What no one realizes is that the Iron Monkey is also the benevolent town medic Dr. Yang. Caught up in the melee are Wong Kei-ying a respected physician and martial artist from Guangdong and his 10-year-old son Wong Fei-hong. In the ultimate kung fu showdown the Iron Monkey comes to the aid of those falsely accused of his crimes.
Yu Rong-guang as Dr. Yang a.k.a. Iron Monkey gives a seamless performance transitioning gracefully from the warm and delicate doctor to the deadly martial artist. Donnie Yen as the elder Wong a victim of the government's "monkey sweep " is saddled with the difficult task of portraying a tough militant fighter and a sweet and loving father yet he does so convincingly. The extremely talented young female martial arts champion Tsang Sze-man plays his son Wong Fei-hong the martial artist and patriot character featured in the Once Upon a Time in China movies and Drunken Master. Jean Wang also puts on a great show of skills as Miss Orchid Dr. Yang's assistant. The martial arts skills of the stars combined with their warm and realistic portrayals of their characters add depth to the otherwise comedic and clumsy minions who appear alongside them.
The fact that Iron Monkey was made in 1993 makes this film even more impressive than it already is. Originally released direct-to-video in the U.S. Miramax Films bought the theatrical rights in 2000 and re-released the newly restored subtitled print. While the subtitles help retain the sense of the original dialogue they also highlight its silliness. Characters for example announce their moves before doing them like "Shaolin Golden Palm!" or "Flying Sleeves!" The corny dialogue is at times reminiscent of old B-movies but the mind-blowing action sequences make up for that and the unoriginal story line. Why is the action so much better than the story? The director's skills lend a clue: -you might remember Iron Monkey director Yuen Wo Ping's action choreography from the recent hits Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and The Matrix.