Wreck-It Ralph

November 2, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: voices of John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch
Directed by: Rich Moore (debut)
Written by: Jennifer Lee (debut) and Phil Johnston (“Cedar Rapids”)

For better or worse, Walt Disney Animation Studios with always be compared to its wildly-successful upstart corporate sibling, Pixar. Ever since the latter released “Toy Story” in 1995, Disney Animation had been stuck in a creative funk. High points in the late-’80s and early-’90s like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King” gave way to forgettable bombs like “Treasure Planet” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and other titles that stand no chance of being preserved in the sacred Disney Vault. Recent duds by Pixar, however, like “Cars 2” and “Brave” paired with the breezy success of Disney’s “Tangled” signaled a return to form for the venerable animation studio. And with their latest release, “Wreck-It Ralph,” its clear Disney has been looking over Pixar’s shoulder, taking notes on how to create kid-pleasing animation filled with enough wit and heart to appeal to adults as well.

“Wreck-It Ralph” takes us into the secret lives of video game characters after the doors of the arcade close. As the villain in the classic video game “Fix-It Felix, Jr.,” the brutish Wreck-It Ralph (perfectly voiced by John C. Reilly), punches out and heads home to the dump just off screen. While it’s Ralph’s job to be the bad guy, defeated time after time by the game’s hero Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer), he’s a good guy at heart, grown weary of being the villain. In order to prove he can be a hero, Ralph “game jumps” and ends up in the first-person shooter “Hero’s Duty” under the command of Sgt. Calhoun (Jane Lynch) in a quest to win a medal. When things go awry, an escape pod sends Ralph, his medal, and a dangerously devastating cy-bug rocketing into the candy-coated racing game “Sugar Rush.” Here, Ralph meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) a glitchy 9-year-old racer looking to become part of the game, a feat she can’t accomplish without Ralph’s help.

Directed by “Simpsons” veteran Rich Moore, “Wreck-It Ralph” establishes its retro-geek bonafides from the very first frame: the “Steamboat Willie”-inspired Walt Disney Animation Studios logo rendered in lovingly lo-fi 8-bit graphics reminiscent of the golden age of arcade games. It only gets better from there, from the “Donkey Kong” meets “Rampage” gameplay of “Fix-It Felix Jr.” to the “Bad-Anon” meeting wherein reluctant bad guys like Ralph look for support among like-minded villains like Bowser (of “Super Mario Bros.”), Zangeif (“Street Fighter II”) and Clyde (the orange ghost from “Pac-Man”) that brilliantly takes place in that little ghost box that sits in the middle of the “Pac-Man” game board.

It would be a hollow victory, though, if fond memories were all “Wreck-It Ralph” had going for it. Thankfully the film goes for the high score with a heartfelt, laugh-filled story to match its nostalgia-fueled visual palette. Reilly’s endearing, self-aware voice work on Ralph powers the story forward, while strong performances from Silverman, McBrayer and Lynch prove once and for all that you can still cast big-name celebrities perfectly for their animated roles instead of simply plugging current stars in to whatever roles are available. I’m looking at you, Dreamworks and Fox Animation.

While the cynics in the audience may scoff at the formulaic “find your true self” storyline Ralph embarks on with Vanellope that dominates the second half of the movie, the inclusion of songs from current hit-makers Rhianna and Skrillex, or the romanticism of a thriving arcade still existing in 2012, “Wreck-It Ralph” is delightful and charming enough to keep earning its quarters all the way through to the end.

Shrek Forever After

May 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz
Directed by: Mike Mitchell (“Sky High”)
Written by: Josh Klausner (“Date Night”) and Darren Lemke (“Lost”)

“Shrek Forever After” is being labeled as “The Final Chapter” of a 9-year-long fairytale franchise and well it should be. It’s a sequel that’s squeezing out what little magic is left in it’s ogre-sized tank. It might be superior to the slaphappy third installment in 2007, but there’s still not enough originality to make it a truly happily-ever-after.

In “Forever After,” DreamWorks Animation and screenwriters Josh Klausner (“Date Night”) and Darren Lemke (“Lost”) toss a little of Frank Capra’s classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” into the mix as a more mature Shrek returns to a Shrek-less version of Far Far Away.

With the everyday repetition of his family life (changing baby ogre diapers isn’t as adventurous as he thought it would be), Shrek doesn’t feel like the same nasty ogre that once instilled fear into everyone. Instead of running for the hills when Shrek is near, the villagers now look upon him as a celebrity.

In an attempt to revisit his glory days, Shrek signs a pact with the villainous Rumplestiltskin (Walt Dohrn), who has held a grudge with the lovable ogre since he ruined him chance to take over the kingdom years ago. All Shrek wants is one more day where he can feel like the ogre he used to be. Rumple, however, has other ideas.

Transporting into an alternative universe where he was never born, the Shrek realizes that a lot has changed in Far Far Away. Fiona (Cameron Diaz) is now a strapping warrior leading an underground ogre resistance; Donkey (Eddie Murphy) pulls a carriage for some evil, whip-whapping witches; and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) has packed on a few pounds and become a lazy house cat.

To break the spell and return to his regular life, Shrek must get Fiona to fall in love with him all over again and share in “True Love’s Kiss.” Isn’t breaking a spell with a kiss as listless as a storybook tale can go these days?

As in the last two “Shrek” movies, it’s Banderas’ Puss in Boots who steals most of the scenes. Even though there’s not much swordplay in this last film, the now pudgy feline with the Spanish accent is able to match the energy of the new characters, including an army of personable ogres (Craig Robinson and Jane Lynch give funny performances). Cameos by the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) are also enjoyable. One of the best parts of the movie is when Gingy gives his best impression of a gladiator chopping down fierce animal cookies in a coliseum.

Despite some character highlights, “Shrek Forever After” doesn’t reach the level of the first two installments. It may be the darkest of the series, but it’s light on charm and all around cleverness.

Post Grad

August 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Alexis Bledel, Zach Gilford, Michael Keaton
Directed by: Vicky Jenson (“Shark Tale”)
Written by: Kelly Fremon (debut)

It’s no secret college graduates nationwide are having one heck of a time landing a dream job. Even with a fresh degree and a go-getter attitude, finding a career in today’s market is like finding a script in Hollywood without the words “remake,” “reboot,” or “sequel” attached to it. Once you’ve found one, hold onto it tight because chances are another might not come along for a while.

That’s what makes a film like “Post Grad” such a disappointment. Somewhere inside the pages of the predictable and fruitless script, there’s a real story about what it must be like for a young woman to graduate from college jobless, helpless, and hopeless. It’s unfortunate that director Vicky Jenson (“Shark Tale”) and first-time screenwriter Kelly Fremon couldn’t find it amid the clichés and stale characters that mute the entire point of the narrative.

In “Post Grad,” recent college graduate Ryden Malby (Alexis Bledel) thinks she has it all figured out. Actually, she’s had it all figured out for a while. Even as a little girl, her life plan is something she always intended to follow. With high school and college behind her, the next step is to secure a position at one of L.A.’s most respected publishing houses.

When things don’t go quite as she wants, Ryden hesitantly moves back in to live with her parents Walter and Carmella (Michael Keaton and Jane Lynch), little brother Hunter (Bobby Coleman), and Grandma Maureen (Carol Burnett, who is completely wasted as the coffin-shopping granny) until she can find a job and move out on her own.

There to comfort Ryden during her pity party at home is best friend Adam (Zach Gilford), who wishes he could be more than a shoulder to cry on, and the hunky Brazilian neighbor David (Rodrigo Santoro), who is basically written into the script to give Adam someone to envy and to spout off motivational nonsense as Ryden tries to understand her place in the big scary world.

While Ryden starts off as a respectable character and one that might have actually been able to break all romantic comedy stereotypes, Fremon slowly but surely presses her back into that exact mold. Who could have guessed that someone as well-educated, independent, and charming as Ryden would morph into the one person a girl like her probably despised back when she had a brain in college?

Sadly, Jenson and Fremon don’t respond to her sudden change in principles. It’s all go-with-the-flow from there as “Post Grad” goes from slightly empowering to shamefully unrealistic. Like everything else these days, it would probably be best if Jenson and Fremon blamed this one on the economy.

Role Models

November 1, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Paul Rudd, Seann William Scott, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Directed by: David Wain (“The Ten”)
Written by: David Wain (“The Ten”), Paul Rudd (debut), Ken Marino (“The Ten”)and Timothy Dowling (debut)

When you look back at some of the roles actor Seann William Scott has played over the years, the term “role model” isn’t one of the first things that comes to mind. Most of them tend to center around chauvinistic, moronic, and promiscuous characters. (His Steve Stifler alone probably caused fathers of high-school-aged daughters to scale way back on curfew hours.) In “Role Models,” his alpha-male tendencies are balanced out well with the softer Paul Rudd.

Working as energy-drink peddlers and anti-drug spokesmen, Wheeler (Scott) and Danny (Rudd) visit high schools to give students a caffeinated alternative to getting high. Wheeler loves his job as the company’s official mascot, the mythological Minotaur, because it allows him to half-ass his way through life and focus on more important things, like getting laid. Danny, however, is bored and frustrated, and it’s affecting his relationship with his successful-lawyer girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks), who is fed up with his resentfulness. When Danny reaches his boiling point (they have a little mishap with their company monster truck), he and Wheeler are sentenced to 150 hours of community service at Sturdy Wings, a Big Brother-type organization run by rehabilitated bad girl Gayle Sweeny (Jane Lynch).

There, Wheeler and Danny are matched up with two kids: Augie Farks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, aka McLovin from “Superbad,” who avoids the Jon Heder “Napoleon Dynamite” typecast trap by actually staying funny after his nerdy breakout role), a lonely teenager caught up in his own little world of medieval role-playing, and Ronnie Shields (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a foul-mouthed grade-schooler raised by a single mother and obsessed with “boobies.” Ronnie has managed to scare off every one of his “bigs,” but Wheeler knows if he doesn’t get through this mandated mentoring program he’s going to be thrown behind bars, where he’s more than sure his pretty-boy image will attract unwanted physical attention. While Wheeler has trouble with his “little,” Danny is just trying to pass the time watching Augie pretend sword fight without really connecting with him on a personal level.

Many viewers might be unfamiliar with director David Wain’s comedy (he helmed and starred in the short-lived MTV series “The State” in the ’90s), but “Role Models” is a version of what he and some of the show’s original cast members can do with a more mainstream script. It’s not nearly as deadpan as “The State” (the vulgarities are many), but Rudd, as a first-time screenwriter who has probably been taking notes while on the set with director-writer-producer Judd Apatow on so many occasions, adds a hipper sense of humor and heart that has made comedies like The “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up” more entertaining than your run-of-the-mill R-rated shtick.