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poster_petedragonYet another trend from Disney which tends to fall flat with each attempt. However, this one wasn’t as bad as I had expected. In fact that’s the best I could say about it; albeit insanely unoriginal in plot, this live action retell of Pete’s Dragon didn’t entirely suck.

Pete’a Dragon is about a toddler named Pete who’s parents and he suffered a terrible car wreck in the woods of Millhaven, Ore. As the toddler survived, but the parents did not, a legendary docile dragon which the boy names Elliot takes him into its care for the next six years until a logging company and a Forrest ranger discover the boy has been living in the wild all this time. Soon, they learn his dragon exists and a hunter party ensues to capture the magical beast while those who respect the creature look to keep it free and hidden.

Here’s what I appreciated about the film. Elliot never spoke. I was so afraid that character was going to receive the A-typical Disney date rape by having this computer generated character speak English and take that much more reality away from a plot already based in fantasy. However, someone made the decision not to and it worked much better for the integrity of the film, I felt.

I also loved the cast. Bryce Dallas Howard (Lady In the Water) as Grace the forest ranger completely sold her part. She committed and within a Disney fantasy I didn’t expect that from anyone in the film. It was a pleasant surprise and increased my respect for her as an actor.

Frankly, this live action remake of a Disney classic will probably disappoint the die hard fans of the original, I think. I wasn’t one. It’s cute, but I feel this storyline is better in the for of the Steven Spielberg directed classic E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

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poster_moanaI love where Disney is going with its animated films. For years the mega studio has been allowing room for its material to address themes kids truly need to be exposed to, much like the Disney films I remember seeing when I was young. Moana fits into this category; however, when you’re trying to climb to new heights with your material, sometimes, you stumble.

Moana, being less than perfect is that stumble.

Since being an infant, Moana has been drawn to the sea beyond the reef of the island she calls home. Later in life, driven by her father to take over rule of the island, Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, still finds the sea beckoning her for a mission. On the advice of her estranged grandmother, Moana sets out to complete the story of an ancient Polynesian legend of how a demigod named Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson (Central Intelligence), stole the heart of the life goddess Te Fiti which was lost in the ocean during a great battle between Maui and the lava god. Moana sets across the ocean to find Maui and force him to replace the heart to save her island from a mysterious darkness slowly killing it.

With every new major Disney release, one thing is guaranteed; songs. You basically have to expect a musical. Why wouldn’t you? And that’s fine. While the musical movie genre is practically dead once again, Disney has been the only company to continue producing them and have success. My problem this time around is the songs lacked the spark which I expect from most musicals.

Maybe it’s just the theatrical training I received in college, but I’ve always felt and been told songs in musicals are generally ways to express a character’s inner motivations and conflicts, while book scenes focused on the main plot points and outer motivations and conflicts of its characters. Many cast musical numbers express the collective conscious of the group. For example–for those of you who have seen Little Shop of Horrors movie musical with Rick Moranis as Seymour–the opening number of Little Shop had the characters singing about what life is like on skid row, setting the tone for the movie. The musical Rent is the same example; the characters all come together to sing about how broke they are and what they are aspiring to be in general.

For the most part, the musical numbers in Moana do the same; a musical number about how life on the island provides and there is no need to venture out, another number for Moana expressing her need to be whom she knows she is inside, yadda, yadda, yadda. However, the musical numbers themselves lacked the spark other Disney musicals have nailed in the past. It simply didn’t have melodies which people could take home with them. Mulan’s musical number expressing her inner desires, that is memorable. Moana’s, I can’t even recall how it goes at the moment and I just saw the movie a couple days ago. A Whole New World, Beauty and the Beast, Just Can’t Wait to be King; these are all memorable musical numbers which stay with you in a time tested fashion. Moana’s numbers lack that and dare I say are even cheesy in spots.

The only numbers, albeit still not that memorable, which I thought were at least effective where Maui’s introduction number “You’re Welcome,” and the “I’m Shiny” number from the massive monster crab Tomatoa, brilliantly voiced by Jemaine Clement (Rio). These numbers were fun and expressed exactly what the viewer needed to know about these characters.

As far as the placement of the musical numbers, and I’m sorry to spend so many inches on this aspect of the movie, if you couldn’t tell from my tone in previous paragraphs, tend to make the movie very formulaic and not so original.

The only other aspect of the film I did not like is what came after the climax. The movie came to a climax which included a strong plot twist–no spoilers here–but after that climax, the denouement of the film fell into the deadly realm of the hoakey. Seeing Te Fiti at long last was so less strong than any adverse character Moana and Maui faced to reach her. It really hurt the film. There were so many book scenes which were executed so strong that when we come to Te Fiti scene, it fell so short the standard the film otherwise established.

That brings me to the strengths of the film. There were several. The theme alone is always one kids need to be hearing on a regular basis; be yourself. The characters were also strong, well written with clearly defined motivations and conflicts, inner and outer. The adversity scenes were extremely strong and effective which helped keep this thin folklore storyline afloat and moving forward with the viewer engaged. In fact, I don’t remember a single scene without a musical number that wasn’t necessary. That fault came with most of the songs.

Disney’s formula for success also comes with an emphasis on the breakout sidekick characters. For Moanna it looked like it was going to be a pet pig, but soon it turned out to be a mentally challenged chicken which provided some laughs but had a little too many of them for what the film needed at the bird’s expense. However, uniquely presented for Maui, that character’s sidekick was an ongoing tattoo of himself on his chest which served as his conscience at times. This animated tattoo was a great addition to the Maui character which gave a sponge bath to an otherwise flat-footed formulaic Disney vehicle. 

In closing, I liked the movie as a whole. It disappointed at the end and the songs didn’t exactly elevate the story as anticipated, but it’s a quality tale of folklore for the whole family. 

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poster_forceawakensEddie Murphy’s analogy of eating a cracker after walking across a hot desert can only describe why so many people have raved the greatness of this latest Star Wars installment since Disney bought Lucasfilm from George Lucas. While others call it wonderful and have returned to see it multiple time despite being out less than one week, I didn’t see the same film.

What I saw was a film which fed on all the plot points and subplots used by the original Star Wars trilogy. And a handful of performances which lacked commitment. I’m thinking maybe Star Wars fans have been so starved for a new installment, this “cracker” seemed better than it actually was.

In this latest Star Wars jaunt, which takes place 30 years after the defeat of the Empire, a rebellious First Order stormtrooper eventually named Finn, played by Jon Boyega (Attack the Block), and a scavenger named Rey, played by Daisy Ridley (Scrawl), team up to transport a droid of the rebellion with coordinates to the location of Luke Skywalker, the last known Jedi Knight who has exiled himself for no known reason. Meanwhile, the three steal the Millenium Falcon and end up bumping into Han Solo, again played by the legendary Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones films), and Chewbacca, who help them in their mission against the First Order and its arch henchman, Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver (This is Where I Leave You), who has taken up the dark side in an attempt to rebel against his parents Solo and Princess-now-General Leia Organa, again played by Carrie Fisher.

Let’s first go over plot regurgitation. A droid with very important information needs help getting the info to the rebels while being chased by the bad guys–seen in the start of Star Wars, Ep. 4. A young person who doesn’t realize he/she is neck deep with the powers of the force, living in poverty on a desert planet, finds the droid and decides to help it–seen also in Episode 4. Two people being chased by bad guys who want the droid enlist the help of an apprehensive smuggler and his sidekick–again Episode 4 and it’s even the same smuggler. The bad guys build a large mega weapon capable of destroying whole planets–same as in Episode 4 and 6. The rebels use insider gained intelligence to mount an offensive strike against a weakness in the bad guys’ weapon while a ground crew must deactivate the shield generators protecting it–Holy crap this is SOOO Episode 6. One character with the force must fight temptations of coming to the opposite side despite the desires of his father–seen in the original trilogy. This time, it’s a character on the dark side of the force.

Now let’s go over the weaknesses in character. Finn. I hated the comedic moments they gave him. Here is a character who was plucked at a very young age and trained to kill until the day he is commanded to. He then knows what he’s doing is wrong and escape the First Order. Finn is then portrayed as having this “street” manner which simply didn’t fit with the character or the Star Wars universe. It broke me out of the world the film created and bugged me. With Han solo in the movie, there were plenty other vehicles for adding comic relief. Finn wasn’t needed to be that vehicle.

The other issue with weak character writing was in Kylo Ren. While villains in past Star Wars movies have been menacing, scary and convicted, this villain was torn, confused, emotionally hurt with a load of daddy issues. He was weak. He was defeatable. He was a non issue. I was far more interested in learning more about the supreme leader Snoke, played by Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings trilogy), of the First Order which had seduced Ren to the dark side.

While the plot points had been seen before, foreshadow points are also predictable. Rey is obviously either Luke or Leia’s child. The supreme leader is obviously connected somehow to Maz Kanata, played by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), the former-pirate orange frog-looking lady who ran the new canteena, who had Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber in a trunk in her bar’s basement, and appears to be getting set up as the new Yoda. Director J.J. Abrams (the new Star Trek movies) attempted to throw the viewer off by having Snoke as this four story hologram, but he is obviously the same species as Maz and I’m sure have a history with each other.

I’m not sure where Finn’s character is going but somehow I hope he turns out to be Lando Calrissian’s long lost son.

If you’re interested, my movie review cohort Brian G. Felts had a different take on the new episode. You should give his review a read. 

Overall, I enjoyed this latest Star Wars installment. It’s Star Wars characters doing Star Wars stuff. So, obviously I enjoyed it. However, it’s far from a NEW installment since most of the material had been done by Star Wars already. I am interested in seeing the nest Episode (8), but mostly to see if my predictions come true.

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