JTurner82

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Reviews

The Plague Dogs
(1982)

Gritty, dark, yet compelling adult dog animated feature.
Martin Rosen's second -- and last -- animated feature adapts another grim, harrowing novel by author Richard Adams -- THE PLAGUE DOGS. For anyone familiar with predecessor WATERSHIP DOWN, that movie achieved the impossible: placing cuddly rabbits in a gritty yet compelling story while somehow managing to appeal as a successful work of art on its own. THE PLAGUE DOGS is every bit as dark -- perhaps even more so.

This time the subject is about animal experiments the human cruelty that goes along with it (think THE SECRET OF N.I.M.H., and you get the idea). Two dogs who undergo such torture, Snitter and Rowf, daringly choose to escape the scientists' lab and struggle to survive in the wilderness. But it proves to be a challenge, especially since neither canine has learned how to live in a harsh, brutal world, especially one where humans turn their noses up at them and the only way to live is by mauling sheep. Only a skillful fox, known as the Tod (no, this is not in any way another FOX AND THE HOUND) might be able to help them.

It is to director Rosen's credit that the film wisely refrains from any sugarcoating whatsoever: the struggle of these two canines is plagued with very real danger and dread. It is also ripe with brief but still quite horrifying moments of graphic violence: the most scary of which is when one of the dogs accidentally sets off a hunter's gun, shooting said human in the face. Luckily such scenes are not presented for the sake of violence, but as a means of telling its unflinchingly brutal tale.

Aesthetically, the film's animation can seem a bit rough -- it obviously lacks the lavish budget of, say, a Disney animated feature. Having said that, though, the actual artwork is more than adequate and fitting for this atmosphere. This is no doubt due to how Rosen chooses to stage the film like a live action feature, as evidenced with his dramatic camera angles. Further contributing to that atmosphere are the very fine vocal performances from its cast, which include John Hurt, Nigel Hawthorne, and in a surprise cameo toward the end, a then unknown Patrick Stewart.

Animated movies targeted purely toward adults are very rare to come by, especially from Western animation studios these days. That THE PLAGUE DOGS dares to do so makes it stand out among today's competition. But it also proved to be a tough sell in its initial release date in 1984 -- so intense was the subject matter that many audiences avoided the film like the plague (no pun intended), making it a box office failure. Over the years, however, the film has acquired a loyal cult following, and deservedly so.

The film is available in two different versions: the theatrical cut is 82 minutes long, and a longer, extended version clocks in at 105 minutes. This latter version has been very hard to find and rather rare. Recently, however, Shout Factory has brought both versions to Blu-Ray with stunning results. Both cuts look absolutely fantastic in high-definition, although there are some obvious places where some shots look as though they still have dirt and scratches on them. Given the difficulties for finding elements for the uncut scenes, it's understandable. The fifteen minute interview with Rosen is a nice bonus feature as well.

All in all, THE PLAGUE DOGS is most definitely NOT children's fare, and I strongly wouldn't suggest anyone under the age of 18 view this. However, for anyone looking for a great example of an animated feature that can stand as both a powerful "adult" film and different from the norm, you can't go wrong with this one. I give it my highest recommendation.

Mirai no Mirai
(2018)

Nothing short of amazing and heartwarming.
Mamoru Hosoda's fifth animated feature, MIRAI, may seem a bit more small scale compared to his earlier movies such as THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME, SUMMER WARS, and WOLF CHILDREN, but it's no less mesmerizing. To anyone unfamiliar with these aforementioned films, I do recommend them highly -- they're all magnificent movies, almost the equivalent of Hayao Miyazaki's work. MIRAI isn't quite that, but it's the next best thing.

The film tells the story of a pampered little boy named Kun, used to his parents catering to him all the time. So much so that when he gets a new sister, Mirai (which means "future"), his parents start neglecting him, and of course, he gets jealous. He behaves like any kid in his situation would. He throws tantrums, he bawls, he says nasty things, and at one point, even throws one of his toy trains at his sister. "Your attitude stinks," says another character in the film, quite accurately.

At the peak of every outburst he flees into the garden where a tree is growing, at which point the scene changes to a different location where he meets members of his family when they were younger -- including the pet dog(!), as well as, most mysterious of all, his new sister as a teenager. These close encounters send Kun on flashback journeys where he must learn to be more appreciative and caring and stop acting like a spoiled brat. (In a way, this is sort of like A CHRISTMAS CAROL for 4 year olds, but not feeling "dumbed down" in the least.)

Hosoda handles this story with just the right touch of tangibleness as well as his occasional trademark moments of surrealism. However badly Kun behaves, he remains a very relatable character throughout -- in fact this might be the most realistic portrayal of any such boy I've ever seen in any animated feature. And of course, the animation, as mentioned, is nothing short of gorgeous, complete with a mix of CGI and hand-painted backgrounds -- a rarity in animated films these days... even in Japan. (Hosoda laments how rare this style of background art is becoming and is quite vocal for its support, and rightly so.)

MIRAI is also a surprisingly funny film -- one scene in which Kun and two new friends of his have to put away some dolls without Dad in the room suspecting in particular is hilarious. There's even a brief episode in which Kun tries to ride a bike for the first time -- without training wheels! The results go as well as you'd expect, resulting in yet another outburst as well as a visitation, after which he gets a second chance. There's even a frightening climax at a train station, although I dare not reveal more about it at the risk of spoiling the story.

If you're a fan of Japanese animated features and Hosoda's work in general, MIRAI should be a great one to check out. It's accessible to children and adults, and easily superior to many other Western animated features released this year, notably the overbloated RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET. GKids is releasing this movie and treating it as a contender for Best Animated Feature Film for this year. Even if it probably doesn't nab the prize, it nonetheless is strong enough to make an impression of its own. I dare say it even stands alongside the recent Chinese animated fantasy BIG FISH & BEGONIA as one of my favorite animated films this year.

Adding to an already great movie is an even better dub provided by the folks at NYAV Post, with top notch directing by the always reliable Mike Sinterniklaas and script adaptation by the similarly talented Stephanie Sheh. This dub, like the similarly grand Disney-Gkids-Ghibli dubs, features a cast of noteworthy names such as John Cho, Rebecca Davis, and Daniel Day Kim. Surprisingly, too, Crispin Freeman -- yes, that Crispin Freeman(!) -- has a brief cameo, and it's always a pleasure to hear him. The real triumph of the dub is, as per usual in a NYAV Post, the casting of the kids. Young Jaden Waldman does an absolutely excellent job at rendering Kun, effectively conveying his mood swings and giving him a lot of appeal in spite of this character's sometimes unlikable personality. (Only issue is that he screams a bit too much, but on the other hand, it makes sense considering the circumstances.) I've always appreciated hearing children voice children -- as evidenced in my praise of the dub for "Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water", and it's a pleasure to see that there are dubs doing this practice today, MIRAI being one of them. The lipsync is also spot on with well timed and written dialogue -- a difficult task for any scriptwriter, but it's done well here.

MIRAI marks yet another glorious achievement for Hosoda, all the more so because he bases it on a personal story. It's often been said that some of the more inspiring features sing best when the writers write from their own experiences. This is no exception. I look forward to seeing what this director does next.

Ralph Breaks the Internet
(2018)

Disappointing and inferior sequel reeking of commercialism.
The original WRECK-IT-RALPH was hardly a Disney classic, but that film was nonetheless a clever commentary on videogames and provided a sense of comical, imaginative, tongue-in-cheek humor. RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET, on the other hand, has only the occasional clever moment and at least one compelling concept. That concept, the visualization of the internet world, a sort of futuristic city straight out of one of the STAR WARS prequels, is admittingly impressive and imaginative. Sadly, that's the only good thing about this sequel, which otherwise ranks as one of the weakest Disney animated films I've seen in a long time. In trying to top everything that made the original so great, it ultimately trips over itself. It also reeks of commercialism as well; there's a painfully unnecessary sequence in which the princesses from previous Disney films show up in cameos. The primary reason seems to be to sell more merchandise and cheap laughs more than anything else. The film really hits rock bottom when Venelope sings a song clearly belonging in a better movie. Her deliberately shrill, tonedeaf singing voice -- intended for laughs -- again, falls flat, as do most of the jokes in this movie. Even the chemistry between the two leads doesn't have the same sincerity or heart as the original. This is mostly a noisy, frantic, emotionless, soulless mess with no heart. The filmmakers attempt to redeem this mess by shoehorning a "toxic friendship" message, but that moral has been done better, and is nowhere nearly as lame as this. Kids might get a kick out of this, and I can see why some internet nerds would gravitate to it, but on the whole, this is a major disappointment from the House that Walt built. Even the original was far more fresh and entertaining than its successor.

The Happytime Murders
(2018)

Uneven mix of raunchiness and mystery. Great puppetry though.
"Sesame Street" this ain't. Neither, unfortunately, is it AVENUE Q. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, a pet project of Brian Henson, the son of the famous Jim Henson, is an ambitious and technically amazing but uneven and at times, too distractingly vulgar, production which aims to be primarily for adults. Although capably directed and packed with a likable cast of stars and an interesting if familiar mystery plot, the end result is a mixed bag more than anything else. Critics were especially harsh on this film, declaring it to be an unfunny mess and one of the worst films of the year. My opinion: it's nowhere near that. But it's not exactly a great movie either. It's somewhere inbetween.

The best part of the film is the puppetry. Although the characters in question are a far cry from the likes of Big Bird or Kermit the Frog -- they swear constantly, snort drugs (read: rock candy with a Twizzler!), have sex, and in one disgustingly overlong scene ejaculate silly string over the room(!). But the puppeteers and the technical wizardry behind making these puppet characters as convincing and believable as they do cannot be faulted. This is top notch work. Particularly impressive are some wide shots where we see the puppets in full size walking across the street without having to look at them from the waist up. (As a bonus, there's an end credit sequence in which we see outtakes -- or rather, footage of how this stuff works.) The lead character, a disgraced police officer named Phil Phillips, puppeteered by Bill Barretta, goes through a relatable character arc to keep one invested in his plight.

The other assets are live actresses Melissa McCarty and Maya Rudolph. McCarty shares the top-billing as Phillips' ex-partner, Connie Edwards, and while your opinions about the actress may vary, she actually gives a great performance in this film. She treats the puppets as equals and is a lot of fun to watch. Ruldoph gives a more tender turn as Phillips' secretary, oddly named Bubbles. Although she doesn't have many scenes, she brings a lot of much needed heart to the picture.

The idea behind the picture is sound: a world where puppets are treated as second-class citizens (think WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT but with puppets instead of cartoons and you get the idea), and a murder mystery which involves puppets getting bumped off by a mysterious assassin. These murders, oddly enough, are actually among the most visually humorous moments in the film! Rather than spraying blood, we see stuffing pop out of these puppets as they are gunned down, decapitated, or mutilated -- you name it! It's oddly funny in a twisted way. And the plotline, although not especially original or groundbreaking, at least builds well to its climax, even if the final showoff is disappointingly short.

The primary problem with THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS is that it spends much of its 90 minute running time indulging in a lot of tastelessly vulgar stuff. Although meant to provide humor, sights of seeing these characters doing the things mentioned earlier actually proves to be more off-putting than funny. An overlong sex scene involving Philips and another puppet, femme fatale Sandra, which culminates with a gross, extensive silly string gag, in particular, left me sick to my stomach and did take me out of the picture. The wonderful Broadway musical AVENUE Q had a similar scene that was nowhere near this disgusting and arguably funnier.

Worse still, there's no major purpose to a lot of this shock value stuff. It feels as though Henson was trying to push as much comfort zone as possible, but I feel that bad taste for bad taste's sake does not a great movie make. I can't help but wonder if maybe the film would be better off toning down a lot of this over-the-top raunchiness, as it would at least make its storyline more tighter plotted. There are also some implied ideas that puppets are treated as second class citizens, but the script doesn't delve into them as deeply as it could have.

There are flashes of brilliance in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, and it isn't an altogether failure, but the inconsistent shift in tone and overemphasis on the shock value cause the picture to be a mixed bag. It is worth watching for the amazing puppetry and McCarthy and Ruldolph's performances, but as the show is quite profane and extreme, it's definitely not for kids.

Kimi no na wa.
(2016)

Hilarious and heartfelt.
Makoto Shinkai's YOUR NAME achieved what would arguably be a most improbable feat: it dethroned Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away to become Japan's most successful film. And what a movie it is! Heartfelt, hilarious, moving, thrilling, and enthralling, this movie cleverly mixes together the central idea from Disney's FREAKY FRIDAY with a bit of BACK TO THE FUTURE for good measure.

It's about two teens -- Taki and Mitsuha -- who somehow find themselves switching places in their bodies periodically. (A running gag involves Taki waking up in Mitsuha's place noticing "his" breasts.) Stakes get higher in the latter half when the two star-crossed strangers use that connection to avert a tragedy. Sounds like a bizarre story for an animated film, doesn't it? But it works. The first half in particular, where we see the difficulties that Taki and Mitsuha experience during their supernatural "body swapping" episodes, is hysterically funny. It's only in the second half when things get a little slower, but even then, Shinkai manages to maintain a lot of interest for the viewers, notably in the form of a stylized "time travel" sequence and of course the chemistry between the leads.

The dubbing is very well done as well, as per usual by NYAV Post. Both Mike Sinterniklaas and Stephanie Sheh voice the lead characters (and apparently directed each other as well), and turn in great performances. The show stealer, though, is young Catie Harvey as Mitsuha's little sister Yotsuha, who arguably gets the best lines in the film: "I see you're not touching your boobies today!" she snarks at her sister.

YOUR NAME is more of a story for teenagers and adults, but kids might enjoy watching it, too, for aside from the occasional sexual innuendo (which is mostly played for laughs and frankly, is tame compared to what you would see in raunchier Anime), there's little else to offend.

Taiyô no ôji: Horusu no daibôken
(1968)

Takahata's first feature
HORUS: PRINCE OF THE SUN was the first and only film Isao Takahata directed for what was Japan's top animation studio in the 1960's, Toei, with a little bit of contribution from Hayao Miyazaki, of course. At the time most Japanese animated features were made cheaply and quickly. But Takahata wanted to go one step further and create something elaborate and beautiful. It drove up the budget, to the point where it annoyed the Toei executives. At one point during production, the budget froze and so the animators were reduced to using still shots for certain scenes, such as a wolves attacking on a village at about 29 minutes in, and later, when rats stampede through the same village. For similar reasons, the film was only given a limited release in Japan and it received poor box office numbers, even though the critics greeted it with raves. To add insult to injury, Takahata was demoted and never directed another feature for Toei again. Sometime later, Takahata and Miyazaki left Toei to find work elsewhere.

Watching this animated film today you probably wouldn't even realize that any of this happened, but it did. The animation style is obviously 60's, but it has a vibrant, rich palette. It's not quite as gorgeous as the Studio Ghibli classics we've come to know, but nonetheless it is lovely.

HORUS starts out with an intense action scene in an unknown Scandanevian region in which we see our hero, a boy warrior named Horus (Hols in the dubbed version) battling a pack of silver wolves with only a hatchet as a weapon. In a quick twist not all that different from King Arthur, the tide turns in his favor when he draws a sword from a massive rock giant who appears out of nowhere. After this victorious fight, Horus returns home to his father, who dies after telling him about his village being razed by the evil Ice Lord Grunwald. Vowing to avenge his village, Horus sets off and eventually comes across a village of innocents. En route, he also encounters Hilda, a golden-voiced girl who sings songs on her harp. Unfortunately, she turns out not to be as nice and innocent as she seems, setting the stage for a potential showdown.

The story contains many plot elements that Miyazaki would later use in his subsequent films, but in terms of character development, I'm afraid HORUS comes up a bit short. Horus himself isn't all that interesting, and neither are his companions. Even the villainous Lord Grunwald is pretty much what you'd expect from a manipulative, scheming, power-hungry baddie. Perhaps the most interesting character is Hilda, who is presented as a conflicted character torn between her friendship with the hero and the temptations of the villain. But her redemption at the end feels a bit rushed. Perhaps part of that can be attributed to the running time of 82 minutes; although it results for a faster pace, it does cause for some character bits that seem a bit hasty.

Despite being a financial failure in Japan, HORUS: PRINCE OF THE SUN has attracted considerable attention from viewers both in Japan and even in the U.S.. Bizarrely, the film was shown on American television in the late 60's, renamed LITTLE NORSE PRINCE, although uncut. The dub was done by Fred Ladd's New York-based Titan Productions , so a lot of the voice talent will be reminiscent of shows around this period such as KIMBA THE WHITE LION and ASTRO BOY. They also dubbed THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF PUSS 'N BOOTS and ANIMAL TREASURE ISLAND. As such, the dub is occasionally campy and theatrically stylized, using only four actors(!). Because this was done in the age of reel-to-reel, there are obvious places where the actors struggle to match the mouth movements, and some stiff delivery. Truth be told, the dub is not so awful that it ruins the film, but it is mediocre by today's standards. (It should also be noted that Hilda's songs come across differently in the Japanese version, the English versions are noticeably dissimilar.)

Despite its flaws, though, HORUS is still a fascinating look at historical Japanese anime. Try not to get too high expectations of this film and you'll enjoy it more.

Meari to majo no hana
(2017)

Borrows from the great masters with charm and wondrous beauty. No classic, but pleasant enough.
Studio Ghibli had long established itself as the pinnacle of Japanese animation starting in the 1980's, but recently the studio went into hiatus, leaving most of its younger employees at a dead-end. Not to be discouraged, some of these employees decided to start a new facility of their own. Now christened as "Studio Ponoc", this team of former Ghibli animators, led by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY and WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE) begin their career with MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER, based on a children's book by the late Mary Stewart. The end result could very well be described as basically a "Greatest Hits" of Ghibli as opposed to something that would establish a new identity for the studio, but considering the alternative, which would be a complete extinction of a beautiful form of art, for once, this isn't a flaw.

Probably the best way to describe this feature is that it's a sort of KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE meets HARRY POTTER, with a dash of SPIRITED AWAY, and occasionally PRINCESS MONONOKE, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, as well as CASTLE IN THE SKY for good measure. While MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER doesn't quite live up to the standards of those titles, it is nonetheless a pleasant enough venture. It's also refreshing to see an animated feature targeted at kids and adults which goes all-out on being ambitious. In fact, the film's action-packed opening scene, in which we see a mysterious girl flee from a burning laboratory on a broomstick while chased by dolphin-shaped watery-like creatures, provides a great start.

After this thrilling sequence, we meet Mary (voiced in the English version by Ruby Barnhill), a bored little girl who has just moved to the countryside to stay with her aunt. She's friendless, depressed, and even clumsy. The only other person her own age in the town she has recently moved into, a boy named Peter, also rubs her the wrong way: he jokes about her red hair, which for some reason she is sensitive about. While pursuing a runaway cat into the woods beyond her house, Mary discovers both a little broomstick and a glowing flower. Before you know it, she is suddenly transported to Endor College (no, it's not a reference to STAR WARS), an elaborate fortress of a university which doubles as a school for witches. She is "welcomed" by the school's domineering headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and scientist Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent). But things get ugly when she takes a spellbook that doesn't belong to her and accidentally puts Peter's life in danger. The last act of the movie involves Mary trying to correct her mistake, building to an edge of your seat climax with just enough pyrotechnics and thrills to please any fan of such suspenseful finales.

It's evident that director Yonebayashi is paying homage to his former master with every scene in his film. More often than not, there are visual references that one will make to classic Ghibli films along with visual touches of its own. Endor College is located on a tall mesa stretching above the clouds, bizarre assortments of chimera creatures abound in cages, and there are also the sort of rubbery, shape-shifting, ooze-like creatures that can be found from HOWL. At one point our heroine crash-lands in the forest, with her broomstick broken in half. And the entire climax involves scaling a massive tree which houses scientific technology. The animation is also as richly detailed and colorful as anything from Studio Ghibli, with the character designs each containing Miyazaki's signature style, from the cherub-like faces of the protagonists to the grotesquely proportioned "caricature" creatures.

Musically, too, MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER excels. Although Joe Hisaishi's musical services are missed, Takatsugu Muramatsu supplies a beautiful orchestral soundtrack with occasional Hammer-dulcimer strummed interludes for good measure. There are times when the director does allow the music to take a back seat and let occasional still shots filled with environmental sounds do the talking instead of spoon-feeding us.

Perhaps the only issue with this otherwise enjoyable feature is that it doesn't quite achieve the same heights of Ghibli's classic films. It might be due to Yonebayashi trying to do a bit too much within 104 minutes or so, but there are a few plot points that feel a bit unresolved. I was unclear about Mary's issue regarding her hair, for instance, especially since the film decides to discard it in the second half. Her relationship with Peter also could have used a bit more fleshing out as well -- her sudden shift from annoyance to wanting to rescue him feels abrupt, even for a kid her age. The ending itself, while thrilling, also seems a bit rushed as well. Moreover, Mumblechook and Doctor Dee aren't all that scary for being antagonists, and despite Yonebayashi's claims that they are "misunderstood", all we're permitted to see in the film is both characters mostly engaging in despicable acts.

Probably the most interesting character in the movie is the one that doesn't utter a word, and that is Tib, a black cat who very much resembles Jiji from KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE. He pretty much acts like any ordinary cat would. He meows, prances, acts independently, and mostly communicates with facial expressions. For good measure, Tib even has a girlfriend. Not that the other characters are unlikable by comparison, but these two animals, for some reason, really stand out.

Following in the tradition of the Ghibli movies, this movie also employs some well-known actors and actresses to provide the voices for the dub -- only this time, the dub is recorded at England's Tambourine Studios, resulting with a mostly British-accented cast. Considering that this is based on a British children's book, this provides a nice change of pace, and is arguably all the more fitting for this film perhaps because of that. (None of this is a slight against any of the Disney-produced dubs for the Ghibli library -- they're still excellent, warts and all.) Oddly, the only performance that took a while to grow on me was that of Barnhill as Mary (recently seen as Sophie in Steven Spielberg's THE BFG). Her voice is a bit grating at first, with the occasional moment of tentativeness, but she gradually steps it up as the film goes on and by the end her Mary grew on me. Broadbent and Winslet are fine in their roles as Mumblechook and Dee, by contrast, while Louis Ashbourne Serkis (son of Andy Serkis from LORD OF THE RINGS fame) speaks appropriately for the role of Peter. Strangely, my favorite performance of the dub might be that of Ewen Bremner as as Flannagan, a pompous fox-like character who chastises Mary for how she handles her broomstick. The Scottish accent is a great fit, and he brings a lot of character. There are a few moments where the lip sync is less than perfect, but not distracting enough to take away from the film. I can't speak for the Japanese version, as I haven't seen it.

In the end it doesn't matter which version you watch. MARY AND THE WITCH'S FLOWER, inferior though it may be to Ghibli, is nonetheless lovely and a great way to spend two hours. Although it does little to set Ponoc apart from the studio it takes inspiration from, there's plenty to enjoy. That it comes at a time when hand-drawn animated features like these are scarce (at least in America) is a blessing as well.

Dayu haitang
(2016)

Hauntingly gorgeous and mesmerizing Chinese smash hit feature.
The first thing I should mention about BIG FISH AND BEGONIA is that it is visually stunning. I do not recall seeing many Chinese animated productions (although I wouldn't be surprised if I had inadvertently stumbled upon one without realizing it), but this is one of the most visually impressive I've seen from the country. Like a magnet, it seduces you from the first frame and keeps you entranced for all 100 minutes. In a way, this film reminded me a bit of Laika's recent KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS. That film, while not a tightly plotted story, was nonetheless so visually stimulating that one could not help but be glued to their seats throughout. BIG FISH is the same way.

Describing the plot, it's sort of a mixing pot of THE LITTLE MERMAID with shades of SPIRITED AWAY and Chinese mythology. Basically, this film imagines an "alternate world" way beneath the ocean -- a sort of mythological Chinese flavored kingdom whose inhabitants are some sort of humanoid "spirits" with powers who are responsible for guarding the balance of nature. One of its residents, 16-year-old Chun, participates in a sort of "coming of age" ceremony, in which she is transformed into a crimson colored dolphin and swims to the surface world. Here she comes face to face with a human boy and his little sister. But the visit turns tragic when she is trapped in a fisherman's net. The boy courageously rescues her, only to drown. Feeling responsible, Chun travels beyond the boundaries of her village to some sort of one-eyed demon (Lengpo, the Lady of Souls), where she strikes a Faustian bargain. The boy will be reborn as a dolphin, whom she will have to tame and grow until he is old enough to return to hid world. But the price is two-fold. First, she must give up half of her life force to revive the boy in question (whom she names Kun), and whatever pain he receives, she'll receive too. The second and more dangerous outcome involves unnatural disasters such as rainstorms, maelstroms, and even snow which threaten to destroy her world's existence. Only her closest friend Qiu, who secretly harbors a crush on her, might be able to set things right.

As mentioned, BIG FISH AND BEGONIA is absolutely breathtaking to look at. The film is also rich with metaphorical imagery, particularly when talking about matters such as life and death. In one scene, for instance, when an old man dies, he is reborn as a tree. His similarly deceased wife, incidentally, is some sort of peacock who comes to rest on the tree in question. In terms of character development, BIG FISH AND BEGONIA isn't very heavy on it, but Qiu, oddly enough, emerges as the most interesting of the characters. When we first meet him he appears to be somewhat mischievous and playful. But he also has a very serious dedicated side to him, and ultimately goes to great lengths to help the person dearest to him. The rest of the cast don't stand out as much, but with the possible exception of one fairly negligible potential baddie (who lives in a rat-infested sewer), nobody comes across as truly unsympathetic. Only issue is that there are a plethora of minor characters who only have about five minutes of screentime, to the point where we don't get to know them as well, but that's my only issue.

The dub by Studiopolis is well done for the most part, with no noticeably bad performances, although I DID detect some mistimed lines at least in the first half hour -- I do find it jarring to see a character's mouth start flapping only for no sound to come out until the second one, and this unfortunately sometimes happens in the beginning. Thankfully, this problem disappears in the second half, and other than that, as mentioned, everyone plays their roles well. Stephanie Sheh and Johnny Yong Bosch, in particular, do great turns as the lead characters, Chun and Qiu, respectively.

Perhaps the best way to describe this film is that it is more visual poetry rather than a cohesive plot, but it also offers a sincere heart that somehow manages to win the viewer over. The ending is also bittersweet and will surely wrench tears. (I know I was crying toward the end!) Directors Lian Xuan and Zhang Chun spent more than 12 years(!) working on this film, most of it being a series of starts and stops. According to the making-of-featurette, this film started off as a wildly successful 7 minute short made in Flash, but acquiring funds for expanding it into a feature proved problematic, and nearly disbanded the animation studio B & J. So what saved the day? Crowdfunding, that's what. The amount of interest from said crowdfunds prompted a Chinese distributor to take a chance and fund the film. Xuan and Chun's lengthy labor of love was greatly rewarded: the film was a smash hit in China, the second most successful animated film over there

I wouldn't say this movie reaches the echelons of say, Studio Ghibil, but it doesn't have to. If you're an animation fan and want to see something this breathtaking and emotional, you can't go wrong with this one. Every second of it will have you nailed to your seat.

Solo: A Star Wars Story
(2018)

Probably my least favorite Disney-made STAR WARS, but still better than both the prequels and than it has any right to be.
Disney's purchase of the STAR WARS brand was something I never dreamed I would live to see. Considering the uneven and lackluster nature of the prequels (particularly ATTACK OF THE CLONES and THE PHANTOM MENACE -- REVENGE OF THE SITH being the only saving grace, albeit flawed, too), I wasn't sure if their inevitable sequel trilogy would be any better. Happily, for the most part, it was. THE FORCE AWAKENS may have been a callback to A NEW HOPE, and THE LAST JEDI, for better or worse, was a daring, controversial turning point, but I found both films to be far more compelling than Episodes I & II of the franchise. In between, Disney has also provided us with an "anthology film", ROGUE ONE, which was quite good all around. Now along comes yet another "anthology film" for STAR WARS, this time focusing on the series' most famous scoundrel, Han Solo. This one had a much more rocky road to completion -- apparently the original directors assigned to the project were fired, and a new one, none other than Ron Howard (director of the much underrated fantasy WILLOW -- still one of my favorite movies), was brought in to reshoot scenes. Based on this production nightmare, one would assume that SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY could very well be a disaster. Thankfully, it isn't. Simultaneously, though, of the new STAR WARS movies, SOLO is probably my least favorite of the four so far.

Don't get me wrong, SOLO is not a bad movie at all. It is competently made, well cast, and moves along well for the most part. But compared to what I may argue would be its more ambitious and even daring predecessors, SOLO seems a little too "safe". The stakes in this tale aren't as high -- it's basically about a younger Solo, and so there aren't going to be any major casualties like there were in the previous entries. Consequently, it also lacks the "must-see" factor that was there even for the prequels. Perhaps the worst I can say about it is that it's a bit more forgettable. Other than a few standout action sequences and great performances, I'm hard pressed to remember a lot about SOLO.

That said, does SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY still have its points of interest? Absolutely. Alden Ehrenreich had a very daunting task stepping into the shoes of an iconic character made famous by Harrison Ford. He was never going to be able to top the actor no matter what. But having said that, he still does a very respectable job at making Solo a charismatic, swaggering badass. Part of it might be because he is in the hands of a director who understands the importance of gaining cast chemistry. Either way, his turn as Solo is far more engaging than Hayden Christensen's Anakin in the prequels any day. That said, the real star of the show is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian. Arguably an even better match for what Billy Dee Williams created in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI than Alden would have been for Han, Glover fits seamlessly into the role like a glove, and is charming from the start. Every second of his performance is a delight. Oddly, my favorite performance in the film might be that of Chewbacca. Don't get me wrong, the performances are well done in general, but there was something about Chewie in this movie that I found really appealing, and for some reason he stands out here.

The two sequences that also stand out in the film include a thrilling train chase which must have been inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's CASTLE IN THE SKY. Well staged and timed, this ranks among the most exciting in any STAR WARS action sequence. Just as good is later on in the film when Han steers the Falcon into a nebulous space cloud, dodging TIE fighters at breakneck speed, and outrunning a massive space octopus-sort of creature that threatens to consume the ship. Both of these are worth the price of admission.

So why three and a half stars out of five? The main reason is because I didn't really find a lot of the new characters all that remarkable or interesting. It's not the fault of Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, or Paul Bettany -- they all breathe life to their roles, but none of them really stand out in any way. Perhaps a second viewing will change my thoughts, but I honestly didn't remember much about these new guys worth talking about. That and the storyline, although interesting, does drag at times, particularly the last act. Still, the script by Lawrence Kasdan does contain enough barb and wit from the characters to provide a humorous tone for what are mostly one-note roles. Musically, too, the score is lacking compared to what we've heard from John Williams -- it's not John Powell's fault, he does the best he can, but I'm hard-pressed to remember a cue.

Don't take any of these complaints to suggest that I dislike SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. Despite its faults, it's still a competently executed entry and is worth viewing at least once. Simultaneously, though, it's not one that I'm so eager to see again on the big screen, partially because it doesn't really do anything that we didn't already see. All in all, SOLO is good, but not great -- all things considered, it's better than it has any right to be, but it's not really a "must-see". At least it beats Episodes I & II.

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi
(2017)

"This is not going to go the way you think."
It can't be denied that the original STAR WARS trilogy is one of the most iconic cornerstones of filmmaking -- an ambitious mixing pot of space-blasting action, alien cultures, and mythological nuances that has captivated so many audiences for years. The namesake suffered something of a stall, however, with George Lucas' flawed prequel trilogy, which, with the exception of REVENGE OF THE SITH, couldn't live up to the reputation of the original trilogy. In a bizarre twist of fate, Disney of all companies purchased the rights to STAR WARS, beginning work on a new trilogy with other movies to come in the subsequent weeks. 2015's THE FORCE AWAKENS, handled by J.J. Abrams, while perhaps too much of a copycat of A NEW HOPE, was nonetheless breezy, flashy, and entertaining -- a great love-letter to the trilogy (with the exception of one character death). The subsequently released ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY was arguably even better: a thrilling tale which was arguably everything the prequels should have been.

Now along comes the eighth canonical episode in the STAR WARS series, THE LAST JEDI. Unlike predecessor THE FORCE AWAKENS, this one is helmed by a different director, one Rian Johnson. Naturally, expectations for this were going to be sky-high no matter what, and regardless of how the movie plays out there are always going to be naysayers who will say nay. THE FORCE AWAKENS had a lot of detractors, despite being highly reviewed by critics. THE LAST JEDI, ironically, is suffering the same outcome. Critics have greeted the film with rave reviews, and of course the film was a box office smash, but already there's a huge debate on how this film compares to the original trilogy, and whether this newest chapter charts the series in a bold new direction or if it derails it like the prequels did.

I personally find the latter a very questionable claim, as I didn't particularly enjoy the prequels all that much -- ATTACK OF THE CLONES was the weak link. THE LAST JEDI is nowhere near that territory -- the performances by everyone involved are terrific and the dialogue is thankfully devoid of any laughable, groanworthy lines. There isn't any winceworthy love story either. Which isn't to say that THE LAST JEDI is flawless.

Picking up from where the last movie left off, Rey (Daisy Ridley) meets Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on planet Ach-To, but the latter is reluctant to help out on account of a tragedy that he blames himself for. Meanwhile General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) tries to evacuate the Resistance from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his First Order, while hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) disagrees. Meanwhile former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) tries to take the situation into his own hands. All of this makes THE LAST JEDI the longest of any STAR WARS movie, clocking it at a whopping 153 minutes. For the most part it moves along at a breathless pace, but the second quarter of the movie stalls when our heroes take an unexpected detour to Canto Bight, a newly fashioned casino city planet. Although visually intriguing, this scene takes too long to get through and ultimately builds to what seems to be a pointless attack on Ren's ship, which is nonetheless negated.

There are also a few moments that seem to break plausibility in bizarre ways, particularly one moment where General Leia is literally blown out into space when a photon torpedo smashes her starship, and she somehow uses the Force to pull herself back on board. This scene comes across as too goofy to be believable, more along the lines of SUPERMAN than anything else. Considering that Fisher tragically died last year, it probably would have been better to have her killed off at that point. (Yet she survives anyway.)

Then there's the handling of Supreme Chancellor Snoke (Andy Serkis), a shadowy, bald crone who appears to be the brains behind the whole operation. Surprisingly, however, we get to know very little about him, and he's unexpectedly discarded halfway through. Although at the same time it does provide an interesting twist to how we think the story is going to turn out, it is a bit of a letdown that we don't know who he is or where he came from. On a similar note, some of the film's newer characters, like a potential love-interest for Finn (Rose), a self-appointed codebreaker, DJ, and a female commander who temporarily takes Leia's place on the Rebel ship feel underdeveloped as well.

Despite my quibbles, there's a lot going for THE LAST JEDI. The dynamic between Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren is compellingly presented and all around engrossing, thanks to the skillful acting of all three performers involved. Hamill, in particular, deserves a shout-out. Although Luke here is portrayed as a depressed, demoralized hermit who initially refuses to have anything to do with the Force, Hamill succeeds in making this incarnation very three-dimensional and sincere. He gets to have an especially epic moment at the end of the movie (no spoilers for what it is). The man is a genius at voice acting, but as an actor he's very underrated, and this is arguably his best work as Luke yet. Ridley, Boyega, Isaacs, the late Fisher, and especially Driver as the emotionally conflicted Ren are all at the top of their game as well.

The cinematography is also deserving of a shout-out; this is probably the best shot of the STAR WARS movies, with a lot of iconic moments that rival any in the series. One very poignant scene toward the end in which Luke gazes off at the binary sunset on the island, in particular, is a fitting callback to A NEW HOPE. The visual effects are top notch, as well, without being overly showy or upstaging the actors. The prequels had gone overboard with this problem, seeming to overload CG-effects for the sake of it. Here it's not so much of an issue.

Perhaps the thing that struck with me most about THE LAST JEDI is how daring and bold this newest entry is. Aside from showing familiar faces in a different light, it also makes the controversial choice of deconstructing some of the tropes that fans have come to expect from STAR WARS, therefore charting a new direction for the series. For some who feel the franchise may grow stale with every entry, this change of pace will be refreshing, but others have been miffed by it. This also very well be the darkest and bleakest STAR WARS entry yet -- there's a high body count in this movie, and one spectacularly staged kamikaze attack (with a brief pause of silence for good effect) is something that we haven't seen in STAR WARS before.

The humor didn't really stand out to me that much, it was more or less there. The only jarring moment for me was when Luke takes time to milk an alien -- but even then it's only brief.

All in all, THE LAST JEDI does take the series in directions that I sometimes agreed with and at others I didn't, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't entertained by it. On the contrary. It's miles above both THE PHANTOM MENACE and ATTACK OF THE CLONES, and arguably more original and less derivative than the (still enjoyable) FORCE AWAKENS. I'm not quite sure where this newest film ranks in the STAR WARS saga -- perhaps a few extra viewings and the eventual next chapter will provide me with a new light. Despite my quibbles with some aspects of the story (mostly in terms of space logic and in a few rushed moments), I found a lot of THE LAST JEDI to my liking, and can recommend it wholeheartedly, if mainly to see Hamill go badass at the finale. Even after seeing it twice, I stand firmly by what I said. It is in no way the nadir of the STAR WARS movies and still surpasses the prequels by far. Just a few (minor) quibbles hold it back from my highest rating.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
(2015)

Superior to the prequels and an overall great film, but not quite on the same level as the original trilogy.
Ten years after the lesser STAR WARS prequel trilogy wrapped up with the mostly solid if not perfect REVENGE OF THE SITH, George Lucas' ever-popular space opera saga gets yet another trilogy in the making, this time in the hands of J.J. Abrams, the man behind the magnificent SUPER 8 and the equally enthralling STAR TREK reboot.

This time, he reunites most of the original cast members (including Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, and yes, Peter Mayhew as Luke, Han Solo, Leia, C-3PO, and Chewbacca, respectively) while introducing a welcome host of newcomers. These include Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and even LORD OF THE RINGS' Andy Serkis. Rather than relying on the mostly CGI approach of the prequels, Abrams also opts to use models, bizarre aliens, and lots of action as well as surprise twists out of nowhere.

Does it all work? For the most part, the answer is yes.

This is certainly a much more spirited and lively chapter than the more sluggish prequels, emphasizing humorous byplays between its characters over sometimes overdone CG effects. As impressive as the visual effects are, they never overcome the way of the story. More importantly, the acting is consistently great from everyone involved: something that could never be said for the prequels. Both Ridley and Boyega get into their roles and exchange rapid- fire chemistry in the same manner as the original, and of course Ford, despite being older, obviously hasn't lost his swagger and badassery as Han Solo. Although villains Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are missed, the mentally unstable, bad-tempered Kylo Ren makes for a promising villain (Driver), and his big boss (Serkis) also emerges to be just as menacing as the late Darth Sideous.

Some have quibbled that the plot line for THE FORCE AWAKENS is mostly a retread of the original STAR WARS movie "A New Hope", what with the usual destructive space weapon + secret map + hidden weakness formula as well as a little bit of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. In that aspect, the movie is probably the least "original" of the movies. But the end result of a movie isn't measured upon its originality or derivativeness, but in its delivery. While the prequels were not guilty of repeating themselves, they still suffered from stiff acting and dialogue. On that level, this movie improves on both of those weaknesses by far. The return to the jokey banter atmosphere is more than welcome, and while there is humor, it's never of the juvenile kind.

All in all, THE FORCE AWAKENS IS better than PHANTOM MENACE and ATTACK OF THE CLONES (as well as even REVENGE OF THE SITH; good as that film was, it was still held back by flaws), but I cannot recommend it as highly as the original trilogy as I would like to because it just slightly misses the mark due to a shocking and less effective final third. Having said all this, though, you'll of course want to see this first entry in a new trilogy; even with my quibbles, it does show promise.

The Secret of NIMH 2: Timmy to the Rescue
(1998)

Lame.
The title pretty much says it all for this inferior direct-to-video sequel to the now legendary animated classic from Don Bluth. Eric Idle's performance and musical number is a high point (only marginally), but SECRET OF NIMH 2 is obviously no match for its predecessor, which features disappointingly choppy animation and a story that is better suited to an average Saturday morning kids' cartoon. In other words, the whole tone of the movie plays out like one. Really embarrassing considering that the original had a more realistic, gritty edge to it. NIMH itself, for instance, is portrayed in this sequel as a Dr. Frankenstein sort of castle with a mad scientist as opposed to a facility of scientists oblivious to the cruelties they inflict on animals. Even the music is second-rate; apparently the filmmakers wanted to steal Disney's formula, as evidenced from the uninspired songs. The original NIMH had a far better and more inspiring score, courtesy of the late Jerry Goldsmith. Other elements of ripoff: the overeager hero, comic sidekicks, and the inclusion of a love interest. But none of these ingredients mesh into a tale with any of the depth, drama, or magic of far better animated features. Alas, such is the case with so many of these direct-to-video sequels. As a matter of fact, you can just skip it and not miss much at all.

Into the Woods
(2014)

Terrific translation of classic crossover musical.
In 1987, composer Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine collaborated to fashion a rather warped but darkly entertaining musical called INTO THE WOODS. It's a sort of "crossover" fairy tale which answers the question of "what if Cinderella, Jack from the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel all crossed paths?" Linking this eccentric collage together is an original story thread about a baker and his wife who are cursed by a vengeful witch to never have any children. The witch is willing to reverse their predicament if the couple can retrieve the necessary ingredients to provide a potion. Although the first act deceptively seems to end the show on a "happily ever after" note, along comes Act II which twists the conventions of fairy tales upside down. Things begin to fall apart. Characters betray one another. Some even die. Bittersweet though its final resolution may be, INTO THE WOODS nonetheless proves to be a work rich with cautionary messages, flawed characters, and a surprisingly deep amount of intelligence.

It is extremely ironic that the long-awaited movie adaptation is a Disney production of all things, especially since the overall tenor of the musical clashes with the Mouse House's usual reputation of toning down much of the darker, violent aspects of the Grimm Fairy Tales. As it turned out, though, the marriage of Disney and Sondheim couldn't have been more ideal. (Amusingly, the lively title tune for "Into the Woods" recalls a classic era of Disney long since forgotten.) Considering that the Mouse House has recently been turning its own fairy tale conventions on its head with their recent and massively successful FROZEN, INTO THE WOODS turns out to be a perfect fit just like Cinderella's glass slipper to its rightful owner. Rob Marshall has done an outstanding job of translating the musical to the screen; from the first frame of the film, where we hear a disembodied narration intone the words "once upon a time" followed by the two-note clang of Sondheim's overture and a cross-cutting opening between the primary characters, the show exuberantly comes to life. Marshall clearly understands the tone of the story and laudably remains faithful to the mood of the musical.

Even having said all this, there are some elements of the show which unfortunately didn't make it into the translation. In the musical there is a narrator who serves as a character to the story; later on in the second act he is bumped off (No, seriously!), which causes the characters and the story to go completely off-rails! (Naturally, this wouldn't work for the medium, so instead it's the baker who does the narrating, which is fitting considering how the show ends.) As mentioned, there is also a high body count, with one of the victims being Rapunzel. In this version, Rapunzel survives instead and rides off with her prince, but even then it is still presented in the film rather ambiguously.

Loyalists to the show will probably still find some things to carp about aside from those; two songs are cut (but as a compromise, we hear the melodies as background music instead). These include the jubilant "Ever After", which concludes Act I and the somber, reflective "No More" from Act II. Frankly, though, even with such "changes", there is very little else that INTO THE WOODS loses in its new dress.

Helping matters along is the very fine cast of actors, all of which provide fantastic performances, both on an acting and vocal level. (The latter is especially crucial, because Sondheim's songs can be very difficult to sing.) As the witch, Meryl Streep turns in a performance that could easily garner her another Oscar. She is simply marvelous in the part; her bombastic turn in the witch's climactic number "Last Midnight" in particular a wickedly glorious highlight. Anna Kendrick has the perfect fairy tale heroine voice for Cinderella, while James Corden and Emily Blunt excel as the Baker and his wife. Johnny Depp growls and snarls in his brief cameo as the Wolf (and his second bigscreen Sondheim musical to date). Both Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford are outstanding as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood; it is refreshing to see both parts portrayed by actual children for a change. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen contribute to the film's funniest scene, "Agony", in which both lament their seemingly impossible quests for finding their wives, and suit their princely roles quite charmingly. Seriously, I could not find fault with anyone in this cast.

Visually, too, INTO THE WOODS looks quite pleasing; rather than adopting a lavish, big, over- the-top style, Marshall and cinematographer Dion Beebe use computer enhanced effects rather sparsely, opting instead for a richly dark and gritty color palette. Nothing about the sets or effects looks fake; even some of the more potentially implausible moments, like birds "communicating" with Cinderella, are handled with a simplicity that works well, and the witch's transformation scenes are effectively done without being overly "showy." Only a brief, trippy interlude where we see Little Red Riding Hood toppling through an abyss of billowing blankets as she recounts being swallowed by the wolf in her amusing "I Know Things Now" may strike some as a bit artificial, but even then it is done quite artfully and in a way that does not come across as distracting.

Rich with moral ambiguity and with a twisted, macabre edge, INTO THE WOODS is treated with the respect it deserves for its big screen treatment. With a terrific ensemble cast, fitting cinematography and skillful direction on the part of Marshall, any omissions or changes are more than compensated for by the efforts of everyone involved. Admittingly, your mileage may vary when it comes to enjoying this movie, but for anyone dreading any sort of "Disneyfication"s of whatever kind can gladly put such fears to rest. Major kudos to everyone involved for doing justice to this much loved musical.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
(2013)

More frantic and action-packed with the occasional deviation.
I don't know how one is supposed to turn a rather short book like J.R.R. Tolkien's THE HOBBIT into a trilogy, but that's exactly what Peter Jackson has done. No stranger to Middle-Earth, having helmed the phenomenal LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, the best things that can be said about his re-imagining of this classic tale is that at least the production values and acting are on par with its predecessors. As with the aforementioned trio, THE HOBBIT was shot back-to- back in New Zealand, resulting in the release of one sequel per year. For better or worse, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY kicked off what would be an all new adventure, albeit on a rather sluggish pace, particularly its overlong dinner party sequence and character introductions that made up most of its first half.

Luckily those problems do not extend to the second part of the trilogy, here titled THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Having already established the cast, the film picks up from where we left our heroes after being rescued from orcs by eagles. The pace is certainly tighter and less slow, although there still is the occasional lag. The film begins, oddly, with another prologue scene: this time a conversation between the battle-hardened dwarf prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the ever-wise Gandalf (Ian MacKellen). After that we cut back to where we last left the Hobbit and his dwarf companions. As before, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG really comes alive during the moments which readers are familiar with. Lots of new hazards await our heroes in the form of monstrous spiders, suspicious elves, more and more orcs, corrupt townsfolk, and ultimately, the titular villain himself.

Speaking of which, the crowning jewel of this second part is the fated scene where Bilbo confronts Smaug the dragon in his treasure-laden lair. Like Gollum, the folks at Weta Workshop, through the wizardry of motion capture technology do a bang-up job of rendering this beast a truly dangerous, terrifying monster. Benedict Cumberbatch, too, deserves credit not only for performing the motion capture movements of the dragon (similar to Andy Serkis as Gollum), but for providing the beast with a rumbling, floor-shaking baritone that sends chills up one's spine. For audiences more familiar with Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) as Watson, the scene, perhaps unintentionally, is also dryly amusing if you make the connection. Either way, Smaug is a real triumph, emerging as one of cinema's greatest dragons.

That said, DESOLATION OF SMAUG takes quite a while to get there, and as with its predecessor, it ultimately depends on whether the viewer is prepared to accept the changes and additions Jackson made from the book, appreciate the film at face value, or are prepared to grumble with disappointment. En route, the film zigzags back and forth between talky bits and CGI effects as well as other additions. The fight with the spiders in the Mirkwood forest is chillingly handled and builds to its climax with true terror, the arachnids themselves being the stuff of nightmares. There's also an extensive roller-coaster style escape in which our heroes escape downriver in barrels while dodging attacking orcs. For the most part this sequence is viscerally exciting, but there are a FEW moments when it gets a bit silly, particularly in the sometimes implausible choreography of the elves as they fight back against the attackers. There's an even lengthier showdown between the dwarfs and the dragon in the Misty Mountain which mostly works on a crowd-pleasing level (especially for audiences who want to see Thorin face off against the beast that destroyed his home), but may infuriate Tolkien loyalists expecting an untarnished adaptation what they see as a work of art.

Then there's the inclusion of two new characters, one of who is familiar to audiences of LORD OF THE RINGS, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a skillful she-elf named Tauriel. While it's nice to see Legolas again, I'm not quite sure what Jackson is going for by including him in the incidents where the dwarfs are taken prisoner. There's also an implied "love story" subplot between the youngest of the dwarfs and Tauriel which, although not fatal to the film, is a curious addition nonetheless. We also see Gandalf and Radagast (Sylvestor MacCoy) trail a mysterious evil to stone ruins, which turns out to be the ghost of the major baddie from THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. This is obviously meant to tie THE HOBBIT to the more famous trilogy, which is quite understandable given that this is, after all, a prequel to LORD OF THE RINGS. Lake Town is also stunningly realized as a destitute but simultaneously seedy village with a corrupt mayor. Luke Evans also makes a very pleasing Bard, and the addition of his family brings a lot of emotional weight to his character.

In short, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG's length and additions will understandably annoy anyone expecting Jackson to adapt the novel more "accurately", but my "criticisms" are mostly just shameless nit-picking, because on the whole I really did enjoy THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. It's certainly more frantic than its predecessor and never boring. The only major drawback of the movie is its cliffhanger ending. This is intentional and meant to make audiences come back for the final film, but it's still done in a way that feels very abrupt. On that level, then, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG is not meant to be a standalone film, but a two-parter in the same way that HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS ended up being.

Love it or hate it, Jackson's enthusiasm for the material still shines through even in places where it occasionally goes off the rails. While it may be in the shadow of its predecessor trilogy, it's nonetheless great to go on another adventure with Jackson, Weta, and company.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
(2014)

Uneven but overall solid closing chapter for Bilbo and company.
The first thing I should mention about THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, is that in order to truly enjoy this film you have to be prepared to come to terms that this is not meant to be a standalone movie, but the final act of a story. Because each of these movies are meant to be viewed together as a single unit, viewing this without seeing the first two parts is not recommended. Tolkien purists will also find plenty to carp at for the occasional additions and liberties Jackson chooses to take. If, however, you're prepared to accept all of that, then it's much easier to appreciate the movie at face value.

THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES starts off with a thunderously explosive bang as Smaug takes out his fiery rage on the village of Laketown. This spectacularly staged sequence is nothing short of visceral as we see buildings topple and others torched by the dragon's fiery breath. Everything about this scene all the way up to the climactic showdown between heroic Bard (Luke Evans) and Smaug (who gets to have several new lines) is magnificent, and arguably the highlight of the movie. The story takes a more slower but essentially darker turn, however, as the once proud Thorin Oakshield (Richard Armitage) becomes greedy and refuses to part with any share of the gold in his now reclaimed home. Naturally, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) doesn't take too kindly to this and, in an act of daring defiance, hands over the Arkenstone to the Elf King in order to prevent a bloodbath. This and Thorin's paranoia strain their friendship and ultimately build to what Jackson promised to be the longest battle ever committed to screen. And long the battle of the five armies itself truly is, taking up a good forty-five minutes of the film's 144-minute duration. (Ironically, this is the shortest of the Middle Earth movies!)

In between that and en route, there are other positives to this final chapter. The dynamic between Thorin and Bilbo is powerfully presented, with Freeman and Armitage both providing strong, emotionally charged performances. The chemistry between the two is very powerful, and arguably the real heart of the movie. Indeed, it makes the final parting scene between them all the more heartbreaking and misty-eyed. Armitage also does an expert job of portraying Thorin's conversion to an avaricious tyrant -- at some points his voice melds with that of Smaug's, providing for a rather chilling and frightening effect. This change of character culminates with Thorin having a nightmarish vision of being swallowed by the gold he craves; a somewhat surreal but nonetheless very effective scene.

The performances in THE HOBBIT have always been among the strongest points of this trilogy. Aside from Freeman and Armitage, Evans is a very charismatic and instantly likable Bard, and the addition of him having a family of similar strength provides the character with an arguably greater dynamic both for taking down the beast. He is easily another hero to root for, as are returnees Ian MacKellen as the wizard Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as the elvish Lord Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Orlando Bloom as Legolas. Christopher Lee also gets to show off some real fighting stunts in his return as Saruman. Billy Connelly, although mostly seen on a CGI-rendered pig and wielding an unrealistically huge sledgehammer, is a pleasant new addition to the cast as Thorin's uncle.

For all its positives, though, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES isn't without its faults. Although most of it is just excessive nitpicking on my part, there were several bits that I felt could have been handled differently. Although the battle between the armies itself is dramatically staged for the most part, there were times when I felt disconnected from it, not necessarily because of the onslaught of CGI characters. Legolas' heroic action stunts such as catching a ride on the talons of a bat, slaying said bat with his arrow, and dodging falling bricks like Super Mario also border on goofiness. Even his antics in the LOTR trilogy weren't as "cartoonish". The climactic showdown between Thorin and the nasty Orc Azgog is also too drawn out to have any major emotional impact one way or the other. (That said, the final parting from Bilbo and Thorin that follows this showdown takes the movie's emotional heart back on track.) I'm also unclear about the love triangle between the she-elf Tauriel, the young dwarf Kili, and Legolas. Although all three actors involved play it well, and the resolution is indeed heartbreaking, it doesn't feel very necessary to the momentum of the story and I do question why Jackson thought to include it. Admittingly, Tauriel is a pretty cool character, but again, her presence feels extraneous at times, as if there needed to be a heroine. Probably the only really useless character is Alfrid, a corrupt town official who, aside from having a getaway disguised as a woman, is otherwise a fairly forgettable character.

But these are only minor negatives. Everything else about THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES excels; the production values are as top notch as you'd expect from Jackson, Weta, and company, Howard Shore's score is, as usual, magnificent, and as mentioned, the casting and performances are all spot-on. Aside from the opening and the dynamic between Frodo and Thorin, the other major highlight of this last chapter is the ending. It is brilliantly done and faithful to the book, concluding with a very clever lead-in to THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING as the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) goes to greet Gandalf for the first time in years as the camera slowly trucks in on the map before the closing credits begin.

For all that, THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, although sketchier than one might expect, is still worth a good recommendation and ranks as a solid final chapter overall.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
(2012)

Well executed and good fun overall, but also quite long. Best when it follows the story.
More than seventy years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a story called "The Hobbit", in which the title character somehow gets mixed up with a bunch of dwarfs to reclaim missing treasure. The success and acclaim of this book led to the highly acclaimed "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which years later was transformed into one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time by Peter Jackson. It was perhaps inevitable that one day Jackson would return to this territory to tackle the trials of Bilbo Baggins, but because this movie follows on the heels of a towering achievement like the LORD OF THE RINGS films, comparisons are bound to be inevitable.

Adding to the burden of the brunt is the controversial decision to extend THE HOBBIT into a trilogy. That approach worked ideally well for Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but because THE HOBBIT is a considerably shorter book (more like one third of the trilogy), it doesn't really merit the decision for three two-and-a-half hour movies. A more ideal approach would have been to film the book as a two-part series, not a trilogy. On a technical level there's nothing majorly wrong with Jackson's direction; the casting and performances are both excellent, the cinematography breathtaking as always, and the visual effects, for the most part, are as impressive as ever. The problem is that the movies are just too unnecessarily long.

In fact, it takes a whopping 45 minutes to get Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) out of his cozy home in Hobbiton to go out on his fateful quest with the eponymous wizard Gandalf (Ian MacKellen), as well as a pack of dwarfs led by a brooding fellow named Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). En route, we first see a lengthy, ten-minute prologue in which the old Bilbo (played with a wavering sincerity by Ian Holm) begins writing his book about his adventures, starting with the downfall of the Dwarven city of Erebor. The subsequent half hour is basically the first chapter, in which Bilbo's quiet humble life is turned upside down when the dwarfs intrude into his household and take over his pantry in no time. The nature of this scene is also noticeably more lighthearted than even the prologue of the first RINGS film, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. In all fairness, the tone of Tolkien's HOBBIT is more of a children's story and what's on the screen is more or less true to the original, but it also requires a subjective approach. Fans familiar with the book will get the gist of it and more or less be fine, but for more antsy audience members, it does require patience to sit through this scene.

Extending scenes like this aren't the only aesthetic choices that Jackson chooses to approach when tackling the story to screen. Sometimes he ends up culling information from the footnotes of Tolkien's fantasy, even borrowing bits of THE SIMILARION for good measure. For instance, we meet the wizard Radagast, an eccentric fellow who cares for animals and goes around riding on a massive "rabbit" sleigh. There is also a shady backstory involving a conflict between Thorin against a nasty-looking orc named Azgog (a mostly computer-animated villain with a vicious grin and a prosthetic arm). Finally we get a surprisingly long scene at the Elven city of Rivendell in which Gandalf converses with his colleague, the ill-fated sorcerer Saruman (Christopher Lee) about the potential return of Sauron. This is obviously meant to tie THE HOBBIT into THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, which is understandable because this is, after all, a prequel, but again, whether one is willing to sit through such slow scenes depends on the nature.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY really comes to life during the bits when it actually sticks to the story. The sequence where Bilbo and company are captured by giant trolls does justice to the book. In the second half, we get a scarifying roller-coaster style confrontation with two stone giants to a visit to the infamous Goblin City, ruled by a bloated fellow called the Goblin King. But the film's real highlight is the "Riddles in the Dark" sequence, a cunningly choreographed, thrilling confrontation in which Bilbo must outsmart the twisted Gollum (again brought to life by the remarkable motion capture and hoarse voice of Andy Serkis).

While Jackson's choices may be questionable for some, to his credit, the man hasn't lost his ability to extol performances from his cast. Freeman was practically born to play Bilbo, embuing the character's neurotic reluctance with a charm that easily makes even the slowest parts of the film tolerable to sit through. Armitage mostly portrays Thorin as a grumpy, dour fellow who doubts his new charge, but he does so with hints of a tortured personality. Sylvestor McCoy is also quite good as the eccentric Radagast, and the dwarfs are all well cast and fitting for their roles. And of course, it's gratifying to see McKellan, Lee, Serkis, and even Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel) reprise their roles.

Is this HOBBIT trilogy on par with the original LORD OF THE RINGS? No. But it's still well-made and executed with a style that only Jackson can do. In short, whether you decide that THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is for you depends on how much you are willing to overlook the eccentric decision to extend what is essentially a shorter story and embark on another adventure. Having said that, though, I still quite enjoyed the movie and if nothing else, it left me eager for the next chapter.

Kaze tachinu
(2013)

Long and often very draggy, but richly animated and with moments of pure joy. Average dubbing though.
I've always been a huge fan of Miyazaki ever since I first saw KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, but for his supposed swan song, I honestly don't know what to think. Perhaps because of this, I cannot rate it as highly as his other films. Don't get me wrong, THE WIND RISES is not a bad film at all. It's as colorful and beautifully animated as any Ghibli movie, and of course Joe Hisaishi's music is sublime. There are also moments that truly do recall Miyazaki at his most imaginative. But if you're expecting another movie filled with action, wonders, and magic as his other movies, you will probably be disappointed, because THE WIND RISES is as far removed from the rest of Miyazaki's output than even his less fantasy-oriented pictures. Rather than aiming for the exuberant joy and wonders of LAPUTA, TOTORO, the dark, epic spectacles of MONONOKE, NAUSICAA, and even the surrealistic SPIRITED AWAY and HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, this movie is mostly down to earth, with only the occasional moments of pure spectacle. It's also his most "adult" film to date; perhaps because of this, THE WIND RISES is also cursed with the misfortune of being Miyazaki's least accessible film.

Although financially successful in Japan, THE WIND RISES has not been without its share of detractors, particularly Miyazaki's target audience. Controversially, the protagonist of this story is Jiro Horikoshi, the man who was responsible for creating some of deadliest airplane bombers during World War II. In fact, this film is very loosely based on his account. Naturally, one would expect that Horikoshi would be portrayed as a tyrant considering the outcome of his crafts. But in a rather daring and almost dangerous move, Miyazaki presents the man as a gentle, ambitious soul who simply wants to achieve his dream of flying rather than as a psychopath bent on destruction.

Speaking of dreams, the most memorable sequences in the movie are those which involve Jiro's fantasies of being airborne. In one such scene, an extensive, dialogue-free prologue which opens the film, we see young Jiro wake up from his countryside home, climb to the roof and board an elaborately customized craft, soaring across the Japanese countryside to the strains of Joe Hisaishi's typically melodic score. Otherwise, the rest of the "dream" scenes (interspersed throughout the languidly paced story) feature Jiro interacting with the charismatic Italian aircraft designer Caproni. "Airplanes are beautiful dreams," intones the air designer to the short-sighted Jiro who he refers to as "Japanese boy", "Engineers turn dreams into reality."

For the rest of the film, we follow Jiro as he grows into adulthood; a forty-year cycle of a journey that unfolds in over two hours. Regrettably, this is also one of the film's biggest shortcomings: not only are the scenes involving Jiro's growth less intriguing than his flights of fancy, they slow the movie's momentum to a snail's pace. Miyazaki is no stranger to producing movies that push over the two hour mark, but THE WIND RISES feels even longer than that, with most of the scenes being slow, drawn-out conversations between Jiro and his colleagues.

Aside from the aforementioned "imagination" bits, the only other major highlight of THE WIND RISES happens about a third of the way through in which an earthquake literally tears through Japan and causes a passing train to derail and crash spectacularly. This is arguably my favorite moment of the movie because it showcases Miyazaki at his most visceral. The execution of the tragedy is powerfully conveyed through the dramatic staging and animation.

Alas, such moments are tragically undercut by the film's much more languid second half, which shoehorns a tragic love story involving a gentle painter woman whose internal clock is ticking. I don't know if it is just me, but neither Jiro nor his lover Naoko come across as particularly compelling characters, and perhaps because of this, we are given little reason to care about them. A "courting" scene in which Jiro attempts to fly a paper airplane to Naoko's balcony is inspiring, but that's about as interesting as this love story gets.

More detrimental, unfortunately, is the dub by Disney, which is surprisingly disappointing considering I've always loved the studio's English work for Ghibli's films. Sadly, this is their worst, the performance I found to be the weakest being that of Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Although well cast, he proves, I'm sorry to say, the dullest performance in any Disney dub I've ever listened to. Emily Blunt fares a little better as Naoko, but the love scenes between her and Levitt are shockingly ineffective: however much emotion Blunt gives, Levitt's distressingly wooden performance sadly nullifies any bit of chemistry between the two. That said, I did enjoyed Martin Short, Mae Whitman, Stanley Tucci, and Werner Hertzop's turns -- all four are terrific, especially Short's delightfully irascible Kurotowa and the charismatic, charming Tucci as Caproni. But everyone else didn't strike me as compelling one way or another.

Perhaps another major problem I have is the ending; while the fate of the love story isn't hard to guess, but Miyazaki instead chooses to close the film with yet another dream sequence. Instead of coming across as a genuine conclusion, this last scene feels strangely unresolved. What happens to Jiro after the scene? What became of his career? Sadly, the movie doesn't answer any of these questions, and as such, the denouement doesn't feel like a genuine conclusion. It's almost as if Miyazaki ran out of creative juice and decided to stop his movie on an uneasy note.

Still, take my complaints with a grain of salt and go see THE WIND RISES. Even if it is by no means Miyazaki's best film, the moments that truly excel really show that a genius such as Miyazaki never ceases to amaze, whether at his most vigorous or his most down to earth.

Frozen
(2013)

Exceeds frozen expectations.
I have to admit I almost feel a little embarrassed giving FROZEN my highest rating. However, in spite of my reservations about this retelling -- er, Disneyfication -- of Hans Christian Andersen's SNOW QUEEN -- being a CG film and not a traditional one (the latter format could have been used just as effectively for a film like this) -- FROZEN is surprisingly really good. Which is not something I was expecting to say given how disappointed I was with TANGLED. However, FROZEN earns my highest rating for the following reasons.

While this is a "Disneyfied" SNOW QUEEN, it's not done in the manner one would normally expect. This is arguably a darker, edgier re-imagining; the title queen in this story is Elsa, one of two sisters whose primary motivation for causing eternal winter is not out of outright evil, but for more complex issues. The whole conflict starts off because of an accident that traumatized her and her sister, Anna, in childhood, leading the girl to become emotionally distant. This lends a surprisingly more "adult" angle to the story.

But the best part about FROZEN is how Disney turns two of its tried and true clichés completely on its heels. There IS a handsome prince, yes, and he does romance Anna, but not for the reasons one would expect. Furthermore, the climactic "act of true love" needed to break Elsa's spell isn't romantic, but sister related. It's because of this that FROZEN emerges as one of Disney's best fairy tales in a long time.

The chemistry between the principal characters is also very well done, especially the sister dynamic between the more aloof, distant Elsa and the outgoing, socially awkward (but sweet- natured) Anna. Prince Hans, as mentioned, isn't the picture perfect figure you'd expect. If anything, the most interesting character has to be Kristoff, a somewhat grumpy ice hauler who grudgingly agrees to help Anna find her, but naturally he turns out to be a real soft- hearted gentleman. Naturally, this DOES give this film a "love triangle" angle, but to reveal how it is resolved would be the equivalent of giving spoilers.

The music is also great, especially Elsa's charged ballad "Let it Go." (The only exception is a gospel-flavored song involving trolls, which isn't BAD by any means, it just struck me as out of place with the tone of the story.) Even the occasional comic relief (from a snowman and a mute elk) doesn't overpower the dramatic depth of the story. There ARE a few places where I think Disney could have toned down the laughs, though, but it's nowhere nearly as grating as in TANGLED.

I'm not quite sure where FROZEN ranks in terms of Disney's all-time greatest films, but I WAS pleasantly charmed by it and it exceeded my expectations.

Tangled
(2010)

Some magical moments, but no match for Disney's better films.
Disney animation certainly hasn't been what it used to be. After a share of mediocre to bad animated movies, they churned out an instant classic with the traditionally animated THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. But that film didn't catch on with the public as much as it should have (of course being released around the same time as the mega-super hit AVATAR didn't help matters either). Blaming the underperformance of their film on an assumption that boys were turned off by the phrase "princess", Disney decided to rename their subsequent feature, RAPUNZEL, a similar fairy tale in digital 3-D CGI. This name change is something that I still can't shake my head over. I realize the motivation was to try and attract more people, but c'mon, TANGLED? Sounds more like self-parody if you ask me! As expected, RAPUNZEL -- OK, OK, TANGLED -- is a very loose retelling of the famous Brother's Grimm tale. The title character is a young woman with the largest amount of golden hair imaginable shut away in a tower deep in the forest. Her only guardian is Mother Gothel, who stole the child away from her parents when she was very young. Rapunzel's hair has magic powers; it can heal cuts and make even a centuries-old being still appear young. It is for this latter reason that Gothel keeps Rapunzel captive, although of course our blonde heroine is told by her "mother" that the world is a dark and scary place and that she should stay in the tower. (If this doesn't give you echoings of Disney's HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, then what will?) Of course, Rapunzel years to explore the outside world, namely to attend the "festival of lights" held once a year on her birthday. One day, Flynn Rider, a runaway thief who has just stolen a jeweled crown, sneaks into the tower to hide. Knocking him out cold with a frying pan, Rapunzel forces Flynn to take her to the Festival in exchange for the stolen crown. At first Flynn tries to weasel his way out of the deal, but as he falls in love with her, his motives naturally change. But Mother Gothel wants Rapunzel back at all costs....

There are many moments when TANGLED truly shines, mainly anything involving genuine heart or magic. In the latter half of the film there is a breathtaking moment where glowing lanterns literally float up into the night sky while Rapunzel and Flynn sing the obligatory love song, "I See The Light". This is a truly colorful and imaginative sequence that ranks among the best at Disney. Similarly inspiring is when Rapunzel uses her enchanted hair to heal a cut on Flynn's hand. And the last half hour offers some powerful drama and heartbreaking emotion on the way to its happy ending (surprise).

Arguably the triumph of the film is Mother Gothel, who ranks as one of Disney's finest villains in a long time. She has shades of Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, but there is also a little bit of Frollo from HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. She's selfish, manipulative, greedy, and deceptive in every way imaginable. The dynamic between her and Rapunzel is both one of the strongest points of the movie and reminds one of the Witch/Rapunzel relationship from Steven Sondheim's dark fairy tale musical INTO THE WOODS. In fact, Gothel's signature song, "Mother Knows Best", one of many to be written for this film by Alan Menken, is strangely reminiscent of a Sondheim song. (The score is another highlight of TANGLED; Menken's songs are very pleasing to the ear, with some emerging as true stand-outs.

Unfortunately TANGLED falls short of Disney classic status for the following reasons. One of them is the overemphasis on slapstick comedy for much of the first two-thirds of the film. Most of this consists of Flynn getting whacked around by Rapunzel's frying pan, comical sight gags, and Looney Tunes style goofiness. This gets pretty tiresome quickly after every five seconds. Other sources of comedy comes from Rapunzel's chameleon sidekick, Pascal, as well as a gang of burly bandits who break into song at one point in the film. Both are absolutely useless in that they don't contribute anything valuable to the plot. The bandits, in particular, only show up in one scene that by the time they reappear again toward the finale, I forgot who they were! Pascal seems to be mostly the typical Disney cartoon sidekick intended to provide laughs and/or lure kids into the theater, because that's exactly what he functions as. He doesn't even do anything during the finale.

As far as the lead characters are concerned, Rapunzel is an appealing enough heroine, free-spirited and alternatingly schizophrenic (her various mood swings when she ventures out of the tower for the first time, for instance), while Flynn starts off as a smug, self-centered rogue who has a change of heart as he learns about Rapunzel's past. But while they both have a solid chemistry, there isn't enough of it in the film to emerge as emotionally impactful as it could have been. (Consequently, the climactic moments of the film, while otherwise very strong, don't resonate as dramatically as they would have with better realized leads.) Had the comedy level been cranked down by several notches and the story much tighter, TANGLED would truly be worthy of being Disney's 50th animated feature. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG was a much better production to earn that status. I did enjoy TANGLED overall, but I don't think it's one of Disney's greatest.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
(2010)

Another great NARINA tale... albeit out on sea.
I knew it would happen. From the moment the opening titles came across the screen, I could feel the nostalgic magic so prevalent in the first NARNIA movie seeping in, and it stayed that way for me the whole time. The major difference, of course, is the set-up of the story. Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund Pevensie (Skander Keyes), both approaching adulthood, are staying with their obnoxious cousin, Eustace (Will Poulter) when they notice a beautiful painting of a fantastical ship sailing on the ocean waters. And of course, the picture comes to life, resulting with the squabbling children washed on the deck of the ship in question, the Dawn Treader, where their old friend, Caspian (Ben Barnes), now a bona-fide king, welcomes them. It turns out that Caspian is searching for the seven lords that were banished from Narnia during the reign of his evil uncle. Accompanied by the swashbuckling mouse warrior, Reepicheep (voiced by Simon Pegg), the youngsters travel to various islands across the oceans in search of them. And will Aslan (voiced, once more, by Liam Neeson) be there to help them? You betcha.

In addition to being a seagoing adventure (inevitable since most of the action takes place on the titular vessel), this tale also deals with spiritual matters. Rather than matching wits against an evil menace as with the last two films (although the White Witch does make some brief cameo appearances), the major conflict deals with Lucy, Edmund, Caspian, and especially Eustace, all dealing with their own inner demons. Each island adventure places the quartet through a series of psychological trials that they must overcome. Lucy gets to have a very memorable dream sequence in which she imagines she's as beautiful as Susan, but naturally, it's Eustace who has the most growing up to do.

In the beginning of the film, Eustace is just about what you would expect from Lewis' text--he's snobbish, selfish, and condescending, delighting in bullying others while declaring himself superior. He hates his cousins and quickly makes an enemy out of Reepicheep, who, at one point, chastises him for grabbing his most precious attribute: "No one touches the tail!" And just when you've had enough of him, he is transformed into a fire-breathing dragon midway through the film. This is where Eustace's character development really begins, as Reepicheep takes him under his, well, paws, and inspires him to do the right thing. This above-mentioned dynamic is the heart of the entire picture, and most of the credit goes to Will Poulter and Simon Pegg for their chemistry. Poulter does a bang-up job of making Eustace bratty and unlikeable, and his maturation is a joy to behold. This guy seriously needs an award for his performance. Pegg, although vocally different from predecessor Eddie Izzard, is a delight as the mouse warrior; his voice is a cross between John Cleese and Cary Elwes, which captures his attitude to a T and beyond. He has the best lines in the picture and obviously has fun with his role--although the real success to the character is the very convincing computer-animated effects that bring the mouse to life.

That's one of the many memorable aspects of VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, which isn't to say that it is without its faults. The film is directed by Michael Apted (the previous ones by Andrew Adamson), and he moves the tale along at a rapid pace, making it the breeziest (and shortest) of the NARNIA films. However, I do have some qualms about both his direction and the adaptation; one of them is the scene where Eustace shows himself as a dragon for the first time. Rather than having him see his reflection in the water, Apted decides instead to show Eustace's charred clothes, and then have his dragon form fly out of nowhere. This disappointed me somewhat, as I felt that Lewis' original description of this moment was more powerful. Furthermore, the encounter with Lilandi (Laura Brent), Caspian's future queen, is dealt with rather quickly. An extra five minutes to show Caspian's affection for the girl wouldn't have hurt. Finally, although the film is faithful to the novel for the most part, there is at least one addition that felt very pointless--a girl named Gael (Arabella Morton) who stows away with her father in search of her missing parents. The new character doesn't have a particularly compelling personality and feels so irrelevant that one wonders why the screenwriters included her at all.

But that is, truthfully, the only quibbles I have to say about THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. At first I wasn't so sure about the newly invented subplots concerning the search for the missing swords of the seven lords or a menacing green mist that appears every time a character is tempted, but in the end, I ultimately ended up approving them wholeheartedly. This especially works in favor of the climactic fight against one of the ugliest sea serpents ever committed to film, which is occasionally interspersed with ghostly images of Tilda Swinton's White Witch tempting Edmund to join her. Although longer than in the book, this sequence is nonetheless very thrilling and arguably a more epic scene than in the original.

Every other aspect of the picture is exactly what one would ask for from a NARNIA adventure. The cinematography and visual effects are both breathtaking and gorgeous to look, and David Arnold's score is amazingly epic, occasionally using some of original composer Harry Gregson-Williams' original tunes at various points in the movie. And the principal actors all perform as wonderfully as they did in their predecessors.

There are some differences from the book that purists may quibble with, and a couple of scenes that could stand to be either better or at least more fleshed out, but nonetheless it is a pleasure to join the Pevensies on one final adventure in the world of talking animals, monsters, prophecies and enchantment.

A Goofy Movie
(1995)

Funny as you'd expect, with a surprisingly strong amount of realistic characterizations.
Like the more lesser known DUCKTALES movie, this film is also based on a famous Disney TV show, GOOF TROOP, starring, naturally, Goofy. That said, A GOOFY MOVIE feels somewhat disconnected from the show, as indicated by the style of the animation and the lack of certain characters around. Not that it is a detriment at all, however; in fact, A GOOFY MOVIE is all the better for it.

Goofy is cast as a suburban '90s father who bumbles his way through everything, including almost vacuuming up a prized cardboard statue and smashing a fence when driving his car out of the driveway. An admirer of old-fashioned things like Xavier Cougat, "High Hopes", and fishing, he is a frequent source of embarrassment to his teenage son Max, who is going through that typical adolescent stage where girls, rock 'n roll, and social acceptance are more important to him. Smitten with one particularly pretty classmate, Roxanne, he plucks up the courage to ask her out on a date... but not before hijacking the last school assembly to put on an impromptu rock concert as his idol, a rock superstar named Powerline (Tevin Campbell, who gets to sing two of the movie's liveliest and memorable tunes, "Stand Out" and "I 2 I"). Max does this to both impress the girl and win admiration from his classmates (who think he's, well, a goof-ball), but the exasperated principal misinterprets his actions as a case of being on a road to crime, a point that he over-exaggerates in the extreme on a phone call to Goofy. Needless to say, Goofy is horrified by the news and forces Max to go on a cross-country vacation with him to Lake Destiny to reestablish their bond. Of course, what Goofy doesn't realize is that Max, who has no choice but to cancel his date, boasts that he will be on-stage at Powerline's newest concert in L.A. instead. This sets up a source of tension that escalates between Goofy and Max as they stop at rundown, cringeworthy "resorts" such as Lester's Possum Park (a very loose parody of Disney's "Country Bear Jamboree") and even get into an encounter with Bigfoot. (The latter experience culminates with the beast dancing to the Bee Gee's "Staying Alive" on Max's headphones.) Amazingly, though, Goofy and Max begin to bond as their trip progresses; but Max is still troubled by his predicament, and, thinking his father won't understand, he decides to alter the map so that they can go to the concert instead... ultimately realizing that telling the truth is the better thing to do.

Even with the presence of a iconic lovable bumbler like Goofy as the star, A GOOFY MOVIE is primarily targeted at teenagers, who will undoubtedly relate to Max and his adolescent struggles. On the other side of the fence, parents will also be able to identify with Goofy as he deals with his son's resentment about the vacation while trying to prove that all he really wants is for his son to be happy. It's not often to see such a complex development in a project which is disconnected from Disney's canonical features, much less one from a character best known for tripping on his heels or bungling simple tasks (ala the "How to" Goofy shorts). Ultimately, though, that's what gives A GOOFY MOVIE its heart. No character is portrayed as a purely perfect "hero" or a downright evil "villain"; they are surprisingly more multi-layered than what you'd come to expect. Critics have often dismissed this film as a lesser effort from Disney, but A GOOFY MOVIE has achieved a loyal following, purely because of the surprisingly realistic, honest depiction of "teenager" relationships with their parents. (It also marks the first time we've ever seen Goofy look genuinely crushed and betrayed, particularly when he discovers his son is manipulating him into going to some place other than their fishing destination, as well as having a heated argument with the boy immediately afterward.)

One issue that I do have with A GOOFY MOVIE, however, may be that some of the newer characters introduced, from cheese-guzzling Bobby, to nerdy class president Stacey to Roxanne herself all don't have much screen time. Since all three come across as very appealing newcomers, it would have been interesting to flesh out their relationships with Max and Goofy. Particularly Roxanne, who, although sweet and insecure, leaves one wanting to see her on that special date with Max. This "tease" somewhat grates on me, although not enough to bring down the film.

Technically, the animation in A GOOFY MOVIE (produced primarily in Paris, Sydney, and Toronto) isn't as richly detailed as most of the studio's other films; frankly, though, it is both above-average and very well-suited to this kind of "cartoon". The soundtrack is also a lot of fun; aside from the aforementioned rock songs, other catchy memorable numbers include the exuberant "After Today", the bouncy "On the Open Road", and the heartfelt "Nobody Else but You." Probably the only false note is the "Lester's Possum Park" singalong, but then again, that may be intentional, since the camp is supposed to be, as Max best describes it, "pathetic". Carter Burwell's musical score is also quite good.

All in all, A GOOFY MOVIE may not rank as one of Disney's greatest animated films, but it certainly deserves better recognition. It works very well as entertainment and as a character study, yet as a starring vehicle for Goofy it's something quite different from what one would be used to seeing. That it holds up well even after being released in 1995 is also remarkable.

Gake no ue no Ponyo
(2008)

Less memorable and magical than Miyazaki's other films, but still cute and charming.
It has been widely agreed that Hayao Miyazaki is a master at his craft when it comes to combining rich animation with thoughtful story lines and similarly imaginative characters. His movies, from NAUSICAA, TOTORO, KIKI, LAPUTA, and MONONOKE to the recent HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE are all not only gorgeously rendered in terms of art, but in terms of movie-making as well. Can this man do no wrong? Not really, but it is impossible to expect everyone of his movies to always be five star marvels. His newest film, PONYO, an unashamedly family-friendly tale of a "goldfish out of water", is as lushly animated and alive with interesting characters as you would expect... and yet this is the first film of his which treads into "lesser" territory. Don't get me wrong, PONYO is not a bad movie by any means. As mentioned, it is a sight for the eyes and is as charming and adorable as TOTORO and KIKI. The problem is that the story doesn't stay afloat to satisfy anyone eager for another engrossing, in-depth plot.

For its opening hour, PONYO is Miyazaki storytelling at its finest, in which a rowdy and overeager young goldfish (who later becomes named Ponyo) makes a forbidden trip to the human world where she is subsequently adopted by a boy her own age named Sosuke (modeled, interestingly, after the director's own son). This does not please Ponyo's father, a mysterious wizard named Fujimoto, who is very angry at the humans for their destruction of the sea (this environmentalist theme is not much different from Miyazaki's other films)... a problem he very much intends to rectify by creating jellyfish from the prow of his submarine. He separates the pair and tries to talk Ponyo into staying underwater with him. The goldfish, however, has already tasted both Sosuke's blood (healing a cut on his finger) AND some of the human food (ham, which she becomes inexplicably addicted to), and of course steals into her father's forbidden potions, transforming into a hyperactive young girl (who is the spitting image of Mei from MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO). This triggers a dangerous tsunami which threatens to engulf the entire world with water. Conspiring with his wife, Gran Mamare, a diaphanous sea goddess who alternatingly shifts from super-sized titan to human-size form, Fujimoto decides to test the two youngsters' love for each other. They do this by elevating the sea to the level of Sosuke's house, prompting the youngsters to set out across their now ocean-infested world in an over-sized toy-boat (made possible by Ponyo's own magical powers).

It is at this point where PONYO begins to run out of steam. Although Ponyo and Sosuke are adorable and the scenes involving them are funny and cute, they slow down the film. Where the film really takes on water, unfortunately, is at the climax in which Sosuke must prove his love to Ponyo, presented in a way which is strangely anticlimactic and rushed, bringing an otherwise charming tale to an abrupt halt. This will likely underwhelm viewers expecting another instant masterpiece from the man who has delivered far more interesting finales for many of his other movies. Remember the destruction of Laputa? Satsuki's search for little Mei? Kiki's rescue of Tombo? Porco Rosso's fight with Curtis? The rescue of the Forest Spirit's head? Or even the test between Chihiro and Yubaba? All those resolutions were far more satisfying and felt more complete than this one.

On a technical level, PONYO cannot be faulted. The animation is absolutely gorgeous to look at, produced entirely without a single shot of computer-generated-imagery, and naturally Joe Hisaishi provides us with yet another breathtaking musical score; the best moments being the rousing sequences underwater, accompanied by a chorus and a soprano voice. And the backgrounds are lovingly painted and detailed as any other Ghibli movies.

Having proved themselves worthy on translating and dubbing Ghibli's previous movies into English with top-quality results, Disney Studios and Pixar once again provide an English dub complete with a mostly capable cast of actors. Frankie Jonas is surprisingly good as Sosuke, sounding very natural and believable throughout. Noah Cyrus as Ponyo, on the other hand, sometimes goes overboard in shouting her lines before eventually settling down toward the end. Leads aside, the rest of the cast includes Liam Neeson as the overprotective Fujimoto (who manages himself unsurprisingly well in the character), Cate Blanchett as Gran Mamare (in an omnipresent tone which is not much different from her Galadriel in LORD OF THE RINGS), Matt Damon as Sosuke's constantly seafaring father Koichi (who is good but nothing to write home about), and Tina Fey as Lisa. Of them, Fey is the best voice in the entire cast, imbuing the character with just the right amount of spirit and personality. Her scenes with Sosuke show real chemistry. On the other hand, Cloris Leachman, who was spectacular as Dola in CASTLE IN THE SKY, is disappointingly wasted as one of three handicapped elderly women (she barely has ANY lines!), who are also voiced by Betty White and Lily Tomlin. Of them, only Tomlin's character, a cantankerous woman named Toki, shows any real personality, but if I were casting the movie, I'd switch Tomlin with Leachman. Probably the only really jarring drawback of the dub is a blasty techno-remix of the film's catchy (but ridiculously repetitive) title song, which thankfully doesn't occur until midway through the closing credits.

On the whole, PONYO is a good film; a fine piece of animated work which is perfect for youngsters and family audiences. Due to the loss of momentum toward the end, though, it falls far short of classic status. Since Miyazaki at his least is still better than a majority of other animated films, though, I'll be generous and give PONYO a full star recommendation, because any feature of his is still very much worth watching, particularly on the big screen. (Be sure to catch it in the theaters while you can.)

Wizards
(1977)

Bakshi fans will hate me for this....
I don't know what Ralph Bakshi was thinking when he made this post-apocalyptic animated "fantasy" about an evil wizard who uses Nazi propaganda films to stir his mutant minions to conquer the earth and his brother trying to stop him, but I know what I am thinking: if this is the sort of film Bakshi considers the pinnacle of his career, then I am a monkey's uncle. Granted, WIZARDS does have some interesting aspects, such as vibrantly drawn stills (accompanied by a very BORING, monotonous female voice-over/narrator) and a pretty song during the closing credits, but the overall package is an unbearable, incoherent mess that lacks any kind of entertainment for fans of adult animation or otherwise.

I am not an advocate against adult animated movies; there are some, like PERFECT BLUE, which are well done. WIZARDS attempts to be an edgy good VS evil fantasy epic. Unfortunately it fails on many regards. For one thing, the animation is appalling: it's cheap, nasty, and at times, almost like a cut-rate Saturday morning cartoon. In a story like this, such an atmosphere (with goofy-looking characters and some truly disgusting looking monsters) is inappropriate. Probably the most interesting sequences are when Bakshi uses "rotoscoped" techniques--which are actual live-actors painted with neon shadow colors in post-production. While this makes for a unique look (not to mention economically safer for Bakshi's sake), it clashes with the cartoonish backdrops, only ensuring the poor production values. There is even one bizarre sequence where we see actual footage from a war movie substituting as a background while the crudely drawn elves perform giggle-induced belly flops with the corresponding "BOINK!" sound effects in the background. These clashing styles only put an even bigger damper on the artwork itself; the mismatched visuals, believe it or not, actually look worse on DVD than on video or in theaters. (The digital transfer even suffers from digital defects.) Where WIZARDS really falls apart, however, is in the characterization and plot departments. The overly deadpan female voice-over informs us that the wizard brothers Avatar and Blackwolf are two different opposites: Avatar is pure and loving of nature, while Blackwolf relishes darkness. That description goes out the window when we actually meet the brothers on screen. Avatar, instead of being the gentle, grandfatherly like wizard the narrator described to us earlier, is a dwarfish, grouchy old codger, spending much of the time rambling and holding a cigar beneath his foot. Blackwolf is as gruesome and ugly as we would expect, but all we learn from him is that he wants to take over the world, and consequently, isn't much more interesting than his brother. The same sadly applies to the other characters. There's a very scantily clad fairy female that coos in a grating, giggly voice--she serves no purpose other than to provide something for hormonal boys to swoon at. Only an elf warrior displays something in the way of an interesting personality; very aggressive and bold, he probably might be the only one worth rooting for. But there's nothing appealing or compelling about any of the rest of the cast.

Matters are not helped by the needlessly jumbled overcomplicated plot, which jumps all over the place with no clear direction and throws in some needless, unnecessarily baffling plot twists (such as the fairy character suddenly turning evil and almost written off as a traitor... only to be redeemed at the end). There are even some offensively horrendous sequences (the bottom of a creature with a Jewish star marked on it dangling from a rope in a swastika-adorned throne room, and two praying dwarf priests who beat each other up), and plenty of others involving the cast muttering dialogue that only someone on drugs could construct. When a plot this confusing is gutted by an even more mind numbing script, it makes the experience of watching WIZARDS even more frustrating as a viewer.

The aural aspects of the film, aside from the aforementioned end title song, are just as displeasing. The voice acting (which includes a then unknown Mark Hamill) is dry and awkward, with the worst offenders being the fairy's obnoxious giggling and the boring (and I mean boring with a capital B) narrator. The cheesy synthesizer pop music is, well, just that: cheesy. (Matters are not made any better by the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo or Mono tracks; both sound very hollow and flat.) I did find the extras on this disc somewhat interesting; there are still galleries, two (very bad) theatrical trailers, a TV spot, and a 30-minute interview with Bakshi himself. He comes across as a rambling, disgruntled fellow who tells a story that makes no more sense than this movie does; this probably explains the dubious quality of his output. Indeed, from seeing other films of his such as FIRE AND ICE (probably his best, though that's not saying much) and his hideous "treatment" of LORD OF THE RINGS, Bakshi does have some talent, but he spends most of the time offending rather than getting the point across.

I understand that this film has its loyal following and I do recognize that Bakshi has his merits as an artist, but WIZARDS has never been on my list of favorites, and I cannot recommend it. There are plenty of FAR, far better animated movies than this wretchedly animated, dated, misguided mess.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
(2008)

Worthy --if somewhat loosely adapted-- successor to the first film.
In 2005, Disney and Walden Media took a gamble and produced a big-budget, special-effects heavy theatrical version of C.S. Lewis' classic story, THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. The tremendous success of that film paved the way for both companies to film the remaining books in the franchise, starting with the second entry, PRINCE CASPIAN. (Actually, it's chronologically the fourth entry in the series, but that's time for another discussion.) The four children from the previous entry, Lucy, Susan, Edmond, and Peter, are called back to Narnia to do battle against the Telmarines and their ruthless ruler, Miraz. They do this with the help of the title character of this tale, Prince Caspian, who naturally turns out to be the rightful heir to Narnia's throne.

One of the biggest assets about this sequel is the feel of consistency. Andrew Adamson returns to the director's chair, as do the principal actors (the Pevensie children, Liam Neeson as Aslan) and the special effects team. The adaptation of the story itself is another matter. While THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE proved to be successful in transitioning Lewis' tale to the screen, PRINCE CASPIAN was tricker. The structure of the story, half of which is an extensive flashback on the title character and his kingdom, reads better on paper than on film. A previous adaptation by BBC TV was aware of this, and cut down the story to an hour, while cutting back and forth between the children and Caspian, providing for a faster pace.

Adamson's reinterpretation uses the same technique, only it omits many sequences from the original in the process; to be fair, the BBC version did this too, but some of the deletions include character-building sequences between Caspian and his teacher, Dr. Corneilius. As such, their relationship on screen feels somewhat rushed and not fully developed. For replacement, the script opts for development between two of the least well-defined children from the original--Peter and Susan. The former is more conflicted than the first (and even has a bit of a rivalry with Caspian), while the latter becomes more of a heroic figure, taking charge for the archers of Narnia. There are also a few (very scanty) flirting sequences between Susan and Caspian. These alterations may be cause for alarm with many fans of the book, but fear not--they don't come across as clumsy as they could have.

If one can accept the changes made in the transition to the screen, then it is easier to appreciate PRINCE CASPIAN as a whole. The story still remains faithful in spirit, if not letter, to the original, and the magic of Lewis' world is imperishable. The CGI effects are drastically improved from the first film (Aslan in particular looks much more regal here), and the performances are splendidly done. All four of the Pevensie children show skill and enthusiasm for their roles (even William Moseley, who seemed a little stiff in the previous outing, steps up dramatically in transitioning Peter's growth into manhood), and Ben Barnes makes for a dashing, heroic Prince Caspian (although at times his fleeting Spanish accent is somewhat reminiscent of Inigo Montoya from THE PRINCESS BRIDE). Sergio Castellitto makes for an adequate villain, but not as memorable as Tilda Swinton's White Witch (who incidentally makes a brief appearance in an exhilarating scene I won't spoil for obvious reasons).

However, the characters who steal the show are the animals. Aside from Aslan, the film's highlight is a swashbuckling mouse warrior named Reepicheep, brought to life with vibrant animation and a lively vocal performance by Eddie Izzard. Equally noteworthy are Peter Dinklage as Trumpkin the dwarf and Warwick Davis (yep, Willow Ufgood himself) in a brief but memorably nasty role as the corrupt dwarf Nikabrik.

Despite not being as successful a transition as its predecessor, PRINCE CASPIAN is still great fun. It's not another LORD OF THE RINGS (even though there are some similarities to be had; namely the big battle sequence at the end), but for escapist simplistic fantasy, I don't hesitate to recommend it. Adamson has stated that he would be passing the director's chair to someone else for the next installment, THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. Hopefully it will be every bit as good as these two entries are. (Word of note: this is pretty violent for a PG movie; parents should be cautioned.)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
(2005)

Disney and Walden Media do C.S. Lewis right.
The genre of fantasy has long been ignored for quite a long time in cinema (especially after a period of hit-and-miss entries in the 1980's), but now it has been heavily revitalized, thanks to the runaway success of both Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and the HARRY POTTER movies. Based on this, it is probably no surprise that another beloved fantasy literature series would get the big screen treatment. And what better choice than C.S. Lewis' enchanting CHRONICLES OF NARNIA? In a surprising collaboration between Disney and Walden Media, the first book in the series, THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, hit the theaters in 2005, and went onto become both a critical and popular success. The film may not be a replica of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but that is hardly its purpose. All it has to do is bring this beloved tale to the screen with a touch of magic and heart, and thanks to the craft of highly advanced special effects and fine performances, it manages to do just that.

The story begins in World War II London, where four Pevensie children--Lucy (Georgie Henley), Susan (Anne Popplewell), Peter (William Moseley), and Edmond (Skandar Keynes)--are forced to live in the mansion of an enigmatic professor. During a hide-and-seek game, the children discover a wardrobe which turns out to be a portal to a mysterious magical world called Narnia, a land inhabited by talking beasts and mythical creatures. Unfortunately, this kingdom is under the rule of the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton), who has cursed the entire land to an eternal winter. Only the great lion king, Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), and the children can put an end to her evil reign.

The story has been told several times before Disney's rendition. There was an animated feature produced by Bill Melendrez which aired back in the 1970s, and a three-hour long television adaptation courtesy of BBC. Both of these adaptations showed their age in production values, yet remained fairly faithful to the source material. For those of you who fear that Disney's acquisition of NARNIA means a "Disneyfication" of a classic story, DON'T. As with Jackson in LORD OF THE RINGS, director Andrew Adamsom shows tremendous respect for the source material, and does a first class job of transitioning it to the big screen without sacrificing its magic or substance. If you're expecting a totally literal adaptation, though, chances are you might be disappointed, because there are a few scenes from the book which are obviously shortened and/or altered, as well as some which were added in. However, none of these "changes" compromise the story in any way; the magic of Lewis' world is imperishable, and overall this adaptation is commendably faithful while adding to it in the same way that Jackson's LOTR did.

There are a few places where the visual effects, as produced by LOTR's Weta Digital in New Zealand, lack polish, but are otherwise breathtaking, particularly the talking animals (including a pair of gently funny beavers) and especially the climactic showdown. What ultimately makes this NARNIA are the sincere, believable performances courtesy of the excellent cast. Young Georgie Henley as Lucy, in particular, sparkles the screen with a radiant innocence and cuteness without being saccharine. Her siblings acquit themselves fairly well, too, although William Moseley's Peter is a bit on the wooden side. Liam Neeson has the perfect voice for Aslan, while Tilda Swinton oozes both evil and charisma as the White Witch.

I'm sure that the ages-old book vs. movie debate will last for eternity (in addition to comparisons to previous filmed versions), but this brand-new NARNIA is still most welcome. It doesn't have the depth or complexity of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but it does have a special charm and childlike wonder which makes it a treat in its own right. It will be interesting to see how subsequent adaptations of the remaining books in the series will turn out.

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