In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
Disney's new movie Mars Needs Moms suffers from a classic mistake: focusing too much on one aspect of a production -- and in this case it's the visuals. The result is an unbalanced mess that looks terrific but doesn't have enough substance to leave the audience with anything more to "ooh" and "ah" at other than all the pretty colors. As we all know from that one really really hot girl/guy in high school who's now overweight and working a dead-end job looks can only go so far.
Adapted from the children's novel by Berkeley Breathed and directed by Simon Wells Mars Needs Moms follows Milo (acted by Seth Green voiced by Seth Robert Dusky) as he chases after his mother who's been stolen by Martians just a few hours after he told her he'd be better off without her. Once he arrives on Mars (by sneaking on the ship) he meets Gribble (Dan Fogler) who informs him of his problem: the Martians are ruled by a ruthless queen-like Supervisor (Mindy Sterling) who's decided that the hatchlings (babies who sprout from the ground like vegetables) must be divided: all males are thrown away into the dump and the females are raised by "nanny-bots" -- robots programmed by the "discipline" energy of good moms like Milo's from Earth. Milo and Gribble buddy-up and with the help of a rebel Martian named Ki (Elisabeth Harnois) the three of them venture to save Milo's mom before it's too late.
And venture on they do. Coming from producer Robert Zemeckis and utilizing the same motion-capture technology as The Polar Express A Christmas Carol and Beowulf Mars Needs Moms rushes forward embracing its visually stunning universe without taking a moment to stop and breathe. The characters never have a chance to do anything significant that would make the audience think they're substantial or important -- especially Gribble whom the filmmakers really really want us to care for. On top of that it relies on a plot line that we've all seen before and instead of diving into the parts that made it interesting (like the question of why men were thrown in the garbage and not women) it skims safely along the surface doing its best to avoid anything deeper than basic themes.
But that may be a little too picky. After all the movie is just supposed to be a fun little child's tale right? In that vein it succeeds. We feel like we're on an amusement park ride thanks to Ki's vibrant '60s flower-power paintings and the adventures on the Red Planet's surface. Even the moments that aren't super fast-paced present environments that are beautiful. Plus Fogler's performance as Gribble (as Jack Black-esque as it was) gives us some fun enjoyable moments and one-liners that kids will no doubt love.
Yet at the same time Mars Needs Moms' visuals aren't all glorious. In fact some hurt the plot because frankly the humans aren't animated very well. There's no life in their eyes. Simple movements like walking look awkward and too often characters facial expressions don't match the urgency found in their voices. Instead the animation just turns all the characters into weird cartoony versions of themselves that look so "almost human" they appear fake. And as always it's difficult to care for fake people.
Children will definitely enjoy Mars Needs Moms but from a filmmaking standpoint Wells really missed an opportunity to deliver something other than neat visuals and one-liners.
Walt Disney animation’s first foray into 3D ‘toon making isn’t just a technical triumph it thankfully also tells the clever story of Bolt (John Travolta). He’s a superstar TV canine who believes the superpowers he displays weekly on his series are for real --especially when it comes to the protection of his master and co-star Penny (Miley Cyrus). One day however the dog is accidentally shipped from his Hollywood soundstage to New York City. Lost alone and confused on the streets of the Big Apple Bolt is still living the show vowing to get to Penny who he believes has been kidnapped by the “green-eyed man.” And so he embarks on a cross-country journey to L.A. to save Penny. Along the way he is joined by an abandoned wily housecat Mittens (Susie Essman) and a TV-loving hamster Rhino (Mark Walton) who believes everything he sees on the tube is ALSO real. Of course Bolt is in for rude awakening when he finds out he is just a regular dog but he still needs to get to Penny -- even if it means she might not be there for him when he returns. Disney is not a studio that generally depends on superstar voices for their animated films but in casting Travolta and tween queen Cyrus they have scored a bullseye. Travolta’s Bolt is a delightful cross between the self-assured superstar and a pooch in denial. The actor doesn’t phone it in but instead creates an original and loveable dog that stands proudly in Disney’s large canon of canine greats. The action scenes created for Bolt’s TV series are lots of fun and the interactions with his traveling companions are choice. As Penny Cyrus is sympathetic sincere and she even gets to sing a duet with Travolta “I Thought I Lost You ” which she co-wrote. The show is nearly stolen though by comedian Susie Essman (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as Mittens -- a smart determined and emotionally wounded pet cat abandoned by her owners and forced to wander the streets alone. And by Mark Walton as the hilarious Rhino the obsessive fanboy hamster who rolls around in his ball. Walton is actually an animator in real life who happened to be so good at voicing Rhino during tests they just gave him the job. Disney vets Chris Williams and Byron Howard capably usher the venerable Disney label into the brave new world of 3D animation and the results are promising -- putting the audience right in the center of Bolt’s universe. The TV series action set pieces are particularly effective in using the technology. It’s not even necessary to see the film in 3D because the whole CG process has come a long way in a few short years and Bolt is one of the best looking most accomplished animated films in memory -- glasses or no glasses. Williams and Howard expertly blend humor pathos and blockbuster-style action scenes effortlessly giving “Bolt” an appeal beyond just the target kid demo.
In The Sentinel the president (David Rasche) faces a whole new threat: the Secret Service. One of its most respected agents Pete Garrison (Michael Douglas) is assigned to take care of the first lady (Kim Basinger) and does he ever! He has an affair with her which while utterly absurd sets the real story in motion. He receives steamy photos of the two in a blackmail scheme that he learns is part of an assassination attempt on the Prez for which he’s being framed. The agent spearheading the investigation David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) grows skeptical of Garrison whom he thinks had an affair with his wife. Before long Garrison’s on the lam in true “it wasn’t me it was the one armed guy” fashion. He’ll stop at nothing to clear his name and bring the bad guy(s) to justice even if it means hooking up to the Internet from a gas station (?) via his Dell computer the tech brand apparently most trusted by the Secret Service. Michael Douglas is back and…the same as ever. He loves to play his roles safe and it doesn’t get safer for him than the urbane almost-over-the-hill pro who yells a lot. He has a stranglehold on baby boomers who’ve stuck with him through thick and Catherine Zeta-Jones and they won’t be disappointed. Sutherland--the son of over-actors if Douglas is the father thereof--acts like he was filming on his 24 set which will make his devoted fans just as happy. The actors engage in one shouting match and it’s as engrossing as it is hilarious surprisingly. There should’ve been more of that dynamic since it’s apparently why people like these two. Eva Longoria appears in her first big movie to date and while she shows promise she’s dug herself a deep (pigeon)hole with Desperate Housewives: Fans long for a scantily clad drama queen not a docile fully clothed rookie agent. Think Sandra Bullock’s first big film role: Demolition Man. For a brief moment The Sentinel entertains us with an interesting and perhaps topical notion that a Secret Service agent with clear access to the president could be plotting an assassination. But then that’s where all the “entertaining” parts of the movie ceases of course. S.W.A.T. director Clark Johnson is at the helm here and he does up Washington D.C. Hollywood-style (in addition to giving himself a brief but important role in the film). Johnson tries to insert Sentinel into his S.W.A.T. template but S.W.A.T. for starters was R-rated and Sentinel should’ve been. When it’s not tripping over its implausibility The Sentinel trips over its predictability thanks to all of its more original predecessors from which it pilfers. And there’s so much product placement that if the film doesn’t do well at the box office we could see a ripple effect throughout the entire economy.
When Alien was released almost a quarter of a century ago moviegoers lapped it up to the tune of $78.9 million--enough to make it the second highest grossing film of that year. Renowned film critic Pauline Kael who wrote about the Alien phenomenon in The New Yorker noted: "It was more gripping than entertaining but a lot of people didn't mind. They thought it was terrific because at least they'd felt something; they'd been brutalized." Now in an era utterly saturated with the genre the film still assaults audiences on a level that has yet to be matched. The story in Alien: The Director's Cut remains the same: seven crewmembers of the commercial ship Nostromo are awakened from their cryo-sleep capsules halfway through their journey home to investigate an S.O.S. distress call from an alien vessel. Unbeknownst to crew the distress call is actually a warning. When three crewmembers leave to investigate the abandoned ship they unsuspectingly allow an alien life to board the Nostromo a galactic horror that begins to kill the crew one by one--leaving only one exceptionally tough woman.
Ellen Ripley (a very young Sigourney Weaver) who leads the fight for survival against the alien has to date returned for three sequels: James Cameron's 1986 Aliens which earned Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress David Fincher's 1992 Alien3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 1997 Alien Resurrection. For fans who have followed Ripley's evolution from a by-the-book crewmember to a hybrid half-alien half-human clone it's exciting to revisit the roots of her character and understand what fuels her revenge. The rest of the ensemble including Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas Veronica Cartwright as Lambert Harry Dean Stanton as Brett John Hurt as Kane Ian Holm as Ash and Yaphet Kotto as Parker seems just as appropriately cast today as it probably did then and even 25 years later the crew of the Nostromo doesn't look like a '70s interpretation of futuristic space workers.
To revisit the set of Alien's Nostromo director Ridley Scott (Matchstick Men) and his team of archivists sifted through hundreds of boxes of film footage discovered in a London vault. From this material unseen in almost 25 years Scott selected new footage which then underwent digital restoration matching it to Alien's newly polished negative. The result is six minutes of additional footage which goes to show how little improving the original film needed. The most palpable addition is a scene in which Ripley stumbles upon "the nest " where she discovers that her crewmates have been cocooned by the alien. But the rest of Scott's additional footage is so subtle that even diehard Alien fans will have a difficult time pinpointing the new material which consists mainly of new shots of the slimy and metallic alien. The Director's Cut also features a brand-new six-track digital stereo mix which strengthens the film's slow but intense cadence with its pulsating beats. But remastered or not the film remains as gripping today as it was when it was first released in 1979.