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.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Pixar makes it ten gems in a row with this enchanting animated story of 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen a recent widower who decides to fulfill his (plus his late wife’s) lifelong dream of tying thousands of balloons to their house and floating off to a mountaintop in South America. But he soon discovers a stowaway in the form of Russell a precocious eight-year-old “Wilderness Explorer” who he reluctantly allows to accompany him on his journey. Together the unlikely pair embark on the adventure of a lifetime encountering Kevin a rare 13-foot tall-flightless bird; Dug an overly-friendly talking pooch; and Charles Muntz a once-famous adventurer who now lives alone in a massive airship surrounded by a pack of attack dogs.
WHO’S IN IT?
Sticking to their general custom of casting actors not big stars in key voice roles Pixar assembled a superb cast for Up led by veteran TV star Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as the aged Carl who takes flight in his house and finds there is a lot to learn about life even as you near death. Asner’s grumpy delivery provides the perfect counterpoint to nine-year-old Jordan Nagai’s Russell a bright and optimistic kid who proves an invaluable assistant to Carl throughout their journey. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) is authoritative and intriguing as the obsessed Muntz and John Ratzenberger (Cheers) extends his streak of Pixar films to 10 as a construction engineer who tries to convince Carl to sell his house. Bob Peterson does delightful double duty as two of the key dog voices lovable Dug and the menacing Alpha head of the pack.
Like Pixar’s previous Oscar-winning masterpiece Wall-E Up is a ‘toon that is not content to explore the same places we’ve seen in previous animated blockbusters. Centering an action comedy around a 78-year-old man isn’t a strategy you’ll find in the youth-obsessed Hollywood recipe book but it pays great dividends here with a moral that life’s greatest adventure is the one you share with someone you love. The non-humans — particularly Kevin and Dug — are hilarious and unique and a silent sequence detailing the courtship and marriage of the Fredricksens is a sweet touch that could have come straight out of a Charlie Chaplin movie.
With a string of critically-acclaimed hits that includes Toy Story Finding Nemo The Incredibles Ratatouille Wall-E and now Up Pixar is ruining it for everyone else. There is simply no way they can be topped when it comes to pushing the boundaries of animated movies. Bad for other studios. Good for us.
Could Up which just became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival also become the first to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (before the Animation category was even established)? At this point in the year it’s actually a good bet. Whatever the case expect Up to earn several nominations come Oscar time.
A swashbuckling swordfight across the skies between two near-octogenarians? It’s the best action scene in a summer full of ‘em.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Oh pleeeeeease! Get to a theater fast. Up is also available in 3-D at select locations. Either way it’s a must-see.
Calling all eligible bachelors: Nicole Kidman is looking for someone to take to the Academy Awards. The 34-year-old actress, who has been recently accompanied by Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann to many events and brought her father to the Golden Globes, confessed she is dateless for the March 24 main event. Kidman received her first Best Actress nomination for her role as the doomed courtesan Satine in Moulin Rouge.
When asked at the Oscar nominees luncheon Monday whom she was planning on taking, Kidman responded to Hollywood.com, "I'm not bringing Baz," she laughed, "but I don't really have anyone to bring at this point. I'm looking." Pay attention, gentlemen!
Britney Spears has denied rumors circulating that she and her beau, Justin Timberlake, have broken up. On Monday, she told MTV Europe that the rumor was not true, even though several news wires reported that unconfirmed sources say the two split last week due to hectic work schedules.
Francis Ford Coppola will be producing an international version of Suriyothai, the current box office smash hit in Thailand. Directed by Coppola's friend Chatrichalerm Yukol, the film's story centers around a 16th-century Thai queen who sacrifices herself to save her king during a bloody attack by the Burmese. Coppola told Variety, "I hope the changes I suggest retain the exotic beauty and continuity of the original."
In a study conducted by the British medical journal Tobacco Control, evidence was found that major tobacco companies encouraged actors to smoke to influence moviegoers. USAToday.com reported on the study, saying that a 1980 internal document from R.J. Reynolds showed the company gave free cigarettes to 188 celebrities. And a similar 1989 document from another tobacco company, Philip Morris, quoted the company as saying it needed to "exploit" actors.
The CBS documentary 9/11 received huge ratings on Sunday. Nearly 39 million viewers tuned in to watch the special about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, as never-before-seen footage from filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet aired. Not surprisingly, there was strong viewership from the New York City area, comprising about 35% of all the households around the country.
Beverly Hills, 90210 alumni Tori Spelling and Tiffani Thiessen, Oscar winner Martin Landau and actress Mary Stuart Masterson are making their way to the small screen. Spelling will star in WB show Way Downtown, about a struggling writer, while Thiessen will star in Fox action/drama Fast Lane. Landau will be starring in an untitled ABC drama, playing a key adviser to a media family, and Masterson will star in CBS show R.U.S./H., about an elite LAPD squad. Oh, goody.
Sally Jessy Raphael has to hang up her microphone. Her long-running daytime talk show has been canceled after being on the air for nearly 20 years. The show is currently in ninth place in the ratings.
Wes Scantlin, the lead singer for the rock group Puddle of Mudd, and his fiancée, Michelle Rubin, were arrested Sunday for fighting. The couple was booked on domestic-violence charges when witnesses called in that a man was forcing a woman into a car on a highway shoulder in Ventura County, Calif. The reason for the argument has not been disclosed, according to the Associated Press.
R&B soul singer Lauryn Hill will be performing at the May 11 St. Lucia Jazz Festival. She'll be joining other artists performing during the festival, including Smokey Robinson, Stephanie Mills, Branford Marsalis and India.Arie. The West Indies island festival runs May 3-12.
Maybe she's not guilty, after all. There's a twist in the case of the ill-fated December shopping spree made by actress Winona Ryder, in which she has been accused of shoplifting from a trendy Beverly Hills store. As reported by TV show Extra Tuesday, store surveillance videos did not corroborate police reports. Extra obtained more than an hour of footage of the incident, where Ryder is shown putting on hats and lipstick, not removing security tags from clothes and putting them in her bag, as the police allege. The actress is currently out on bail, and a preliminary hearing is due to be scheduled this week.
Singer Connie Francis, who has been dealing with mental-health problems since her rape and torture in a hotel room in 1974, has sued Universal Music Corp. for allowing her music to be licensed for use in porno movies. She alleges the company is taking advantage of her because of her mental problems.
A man, who was a guest on the Jerry Springer Show in May 2000 about secret mistresses, has gone on trial for murdering his ex-wife. Hours after the episode aired July 24, 2000, Ralf Panitz, who appeared with his ex-wife and current wife, went to his ex-wife's house and beat her to death. Double yikes.