Based on the classic book of the same name written by Jack London in 1903, The Call of the Wild is an entertaining family-friendly adventure movie that does a good job of retelling the timeless story and making the excellent casting choice of Harrison Ford, but the emotional impact is lessened by the over-reliance on CGI for the animal characters. Taking place in the 1890s, the plot follows a kindly large dog named Buck who we first meet living a normal happy life as a pet in California until he is stolen and eventually sent to the Alaskan Yukon to be sold as a sled dog. Over the course of the film, Buck goes through several owners as he acclimates to the bitterly cold Alaskan wilderness and is first used by a friendly couple as a member of a dog sled team delivering mail to remote outposts. However, he does fall into the hands of a vicious owner who is definitely out of his element named Hal, played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, and physically abuses the dog team and pushes them to do things that are extremely dangerous. The true emotional heart of the movie takes place in the second half when Buck finally becomes the companion of the troubled yet compassionate John Thornton, played by the terrific Harrison Ford, who moves to the Yukon to simply get away from humanity after a family tragedy. Like the breathtaking scenery of the Yukon, Buck and Thornton develop a very beautiful relationship in which they care for one another in their own different ways, and Buck truly becomes man’s best friend. Rather effectively, Thornton also is the common thread throughout the movie because he is the narrator of Buck’s adventures all the way from California to the isolation of the Alaskan wilderness. The presence of Harrison Ford’s voice and his empathetic acting performance give the audience a certain degree of calmness that everything will turn out alright for Buck and Thornton. The filmmakers did make the mistake of wholly creating Buck and the other dogs out of CGI and giving the animals overly expressive faces and behaviors that enter the realm of the uncanny valley in which they unrealistically mimic humans, thereby making it rather cheesy and distracting. Overall, I found it to be a nice and comforting adventure tale that displays the important bond between human and animal and is also a wonderful tribute to the universally acclaimed writer Jack London by creating a atmosphere that would fit right at home with the novel’s themes about nature and love.
Based on the video game series created by Sega and first released in 1991 as Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog is a surprisingly amusing and creative video game adaptation that has fun and thrills for the whole family and is enhanced by the terrifically manic Jim Carrey. We first meet the blue extraterrestrial hedgehog named Sonic, voiced by Ben Schwartz, escaping his home planet and living for ten years in a cave outside of the small town of Green Hills, Montana. Watching the townspeople from afar for so long, Sonic increasingly feels lonely living by himself. He particularly becomes attached to the local sheriff Tom Wachowski, played by James Marsden, and his wife Maddie, played by Tika Sumpter, but he must stay hidden and not reveal his ability to travel at supersonic speeds. However, after growing upset one night, he inadvertently creates an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out power across the entire Pacific Northwest, alerting the federal government. Unable to discover what really happened, the United States government covertly enlists the mysterious genius Doctor Robotnik, played by the perfectly cast Jim Carrey, who has a truck full of highly advanced drones and gadgets. Following the unusual power outage, Tom is horrified to find the strange-looking Sonic who is obviously from another world. The villainous Robotnik also eventually discovers Sonic and becomes obsessed with capturing Sonic in order to use his body for scientific research and develop ultra-powerful technological devices. Sonic needs the still bewildered and hesitant Tom, who is considering transferring to the San Francisco Police Department, to take him to San Francisco to retrieve a very valuable item that would allow him to escape to safety. They embark on a silly and hilarious road trip in which Tom is obviously exasperated by Sonic who will not stop talking and desperately wants to be Tom’s best friend because he has been all alone for the past few years. Along the way, the over-the-top Doctor Robotnik chases Sonic and Tom across the country in a series of bizarre and cartoonishly funny moments extremely well-suited to Jim Carrey’s slapstick comedy style. Overall, I was rather shocked to find the movie to actually be an entertaining adventure that is somehow able to recreate the energy of the title character Sonic the Hedgehog and the beloved video game series.
Produced by Blue Sky Studios best known for the highly successful animated Ice Age franchise first released in 2002, Spies in Disguise is a delightfully entertaining family-friendly animated movie that is of the same quality as a Pixar movie as a result of a terrific voice cast and unique story. The plot follows super spy Lance Sterling, voiced by Will Smith, who is the top agent at a fictional secret American spy agency run by Joy Jenkins, voiced by Reba McEntire, but runs into trouble after the appearance of the super villain Killian, voiced by Ben Mendelsohn. Killian who has a powerful cybernetic arm is trying to steal a highly dangerous drone in order to kill Lance and all of his fellow agents. Eventually, the proudly self-sufficient Lance who loves to use lethal weapons must get help from a very unexpected source, a lonely and nerdy weapons lab technician named Walter Beckett, voiced by Tom Holland. Walter has always been an optimistic inventor who wants to make non-lethal weapons to make the world a safer place, and he discovers what he believes is a game-changing way to disguise anyone. To Lance’s great horror, he inadvertently uses Walter’s new weapon and is transformed into a talking pigeon. He eventually realizes in a series of funny moments that being a pigeon actually has its advantages, particularly as he is being chased by Killian and his own agency led by a security agent of the agency’s internal affairs Marcy Kappel, voiced by Rashida Jones. Over the course of the film, Walter and Lance begin to understand one another and become friends who are in it together to fight off Killian and reclaim their reputation that was tarnished by Killian. Overall, I found it to be a fun animated feature that can appeal to both kids and adults as a nice time to the cinema and brings a fresh story to the action-adventure animated genre.
Directed by Guy Ritchie best known for such comedy crime films as 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and 2000’s Snatch, Aladdin is a live-action remake of the classic Disney animated movie released in 1992 that is full of CGI spectacle but does not come close to the original with its remarkable voice acting of Robin Williams. Set in a fictional Middle Eastern kingdom, the story follows the street thief Aladdin, played by Canadian actor of Egyptian ancestry Mena Massoud, who falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter Princess Jasmine, played by English actress of Indian ancestry Naomi Scott. After he is led to a secretive cave by the villainous advisor to the sultan Jafar, played by the Dutch actor of Tunisian ancestry Marwan Kenzari, Aladdin comes into possession of a magical lamp after he steals it from the power-hungry Jafar. Aladdin soon discovers that the lamp contains the powerful and magical Genie, played by a blue colored Will Smith, who enjoys putting on a show and making jokes but also has the ability to grant Aladdin three wishes. However, Will Smith’s character comes off way too silly and does not even come close to replicating the comedic genius of Robin Williams’ Genie. Aladdin decides to use the wishes to better pursue Princess Jasmine as his love interest and one way to do that is to magically become a prince from an unheard-of land. Despite the helpfulness of Genie who is obviously the comic relief of the movie, the situation becomes complicated especially with interference from Jafar who wants to become Sultan by all means. Similar to the original, the movie is filled with sometimes random musical numbers that are not quite as effective as they were in the animated version. Overall, I found it a mildly entertaining film that does a good job of creating a fantastical world while also importantly using a cast largely composed of actors of Middle Eastern descent, but it also beg the questions of why did the classic animated feature need to be remade and whether Guy Ritchie and Will Smith were the right fit for this particular movie.
Directed by Tim Burton and a live remake of the original 1941 Disney animated film, Dumbo is a visually arresting movie that attempts to recreate the magic of the original beloved classic but ultimately fails to provide the expected high-flying inspiring emotions. Set in 1919 America, the film begins when we meet a soldier returning from World War I named Holt Farrier, played by Golden Globe winner Colin Farrell, to the Medici Brothers’ Circus where he was employed in a horse show and is reunited with his two kids who just recently lost their mother and his wife. The owner and operator of the circus Max Medici, played by Golden Globe winner Danny DeVito, knows that his circus is in financial distress so he takes a gamble in purchasing a pregnant elephant named Jumbo. After the aging elephant gives birth to a baby elephant with abnormally large ears and is made fun of and called Dumbo, Medici tries to get rid of both elephants. However, Holt’s children Milly, played by newcomer Nico Parker, and Joe, played by Finley Hobbins, become attached to the mother elephant and her son and quickly discover Dumbo is very special because he can fly. Eventually, Medici discovers his baby elephant’s potential to make money and decides to sell Dumbo and the entire circus to V. A. Vandevere, the slick owner of a amusement park known as Dreamland and is played by Oscar nominee Michael Keaton. Also deep in financial troubles and trying to get financing from a New York banker who is played by Oscar winner Alan Arkin, the amusement park owner is desperate and cuts all corners in order to make money off of Dumbo and separating him from his mother to avoid a distraction. He even asks his prized trapeze artist Colette Marchant, played by Golden Globe nominee Eva Green, to join a very risky trick with Dumbo using his ability to fly. Towards the end of the movie, things go very badly for the villainous Vandevere and a plan is hatched by the members of the Medici Brothers’ Circus to rescue Dumbo and his mother. Where the loosely adapted story of the animated film is lacking, Tim Burton’s unique visual vision is brilliantly able to recreate a glossy circus and amusement park from a vintage era in which showmanship was essential. Overall, the highly anticipated movie fell short of expectations and puts into question Disney’s money-making strategy of sometimes unnecessarily remaking their animated classic catalog into live action movies.
Written and directed by British filmmaker Joe Cornish best known for 2011’s sci-fi movie Attack the Block, The Kid Who Would Be King is a surprisingly well-done and fun family-friendly adventure film with a very creative take on the iconic British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The film follows a young teenager named Alex, played by newcomer Louis Ashbourne Serkis, living in London who leads a fairly typical adolescent life until one day he discovers the magical sword Excalibur previously possessed by the legendary Arthur. Along with his bullied best friend Bedders, Alex is unwittingly tasked with saving England by fighting off the magical evil force of Morgana, played by Rebecca Ferguson, who is the half sister of King Arthur and the mortal enemy of the wizard Merlin. With the discovery of Excalibur, she and her magical zombie army are awakened from the depths of Earth after a centuries-old spell to avenge Arthur’s curse and destroy Great Britain during a solar eclipse. The fatherless Alex is told this unbelievable story and how he is a descendant of the great King Arthur from the famed wizard Merlin who is disguised as a older teenage student, played by the film’s comic relief Angus Imrie. When he is not trying to blend into modern-day England, Merlin appears either as an owl or an older man, played by the great Patrick Stewart. Eventually, Alex and his best friend are reluctantly partnered with the school bullies Lance and his girlfriend Kaye to go on a perilous journey to locate and kill Morgana. In the process, the four of them learn moral lessons to overcome their challenges with each other to become lifelong friends despite being enemies prior to their quest. Overall, although it is definitely geared to be a wholesome family movie, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it to be a terrifically entertaining adventure story also appealing to adults looking for a fun time at the movies.
The follow-up to the hugely successful Disney computer animated film Wreck-It Ralph released in 2012, Ralph Breaks the Internet is an endearing and extremely creative computer animated feature that effectively incorporates popular culture into a family-friendly story about changing friendships. Like the original, the plot follows a video arcade character named Ralph, voiced by Oscar nominee John C. Reilly, and his adventures with his best friend, another character from a racing video arcade game named Vanellope who is voiced by comedian Sarah Silverman. They both live in a magical world in which they can travel between games at a video arcade that is full of eccentric and lovable characters. The major twist in this particular film is that both best friends end up venturing into the previously unknown world of the internet after the owner of the arcade installs a Wi-Fi router giving them access to the colorful expensive universe of the internet. Ralph must look for eBay in order to purchase a part for Vanellope‘s racing game before it is permanently shut down. The filmmakers create a playful environment recreating what the internet could look like to children characters in which well-known websites like eBay and Facebook are represented as vibrant buildings within a large city. Not realizing that they must pay eBay actual money, Ralph and Vanellope embark on an entertaining adventure to make money through a spambot website represented by a street hawker and eventually a YouTube-like video website. Through the help of a search bar named KnowsMore, voiced by Alan Tudyk, the two are first led to an online racing game called Slaughter Race where they meet a tough racer named Shank, voiced by Gal Gadot best known for her role as Wonder Woman. Ralph finally discovers that he can make the necessary money by posting viral videos to the video sharing website BuzzzTube run by an algorithm represented by the fashionable character Yesss, voiced by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson. Chaos ensues after Ralph helps unleash a virus that could possibly prevent Vanellope from wanting to stay in the online game with her new friend Shank. His jealousy and sadness over the possible separation from his dear friend is a message to the viewer about the hardships of a changing role in relationships with friends and family. Ralph eventually comes to terms with his best friend’s desires, and they are able to remain friends despite not always being together at the arcade. Overall, I found it to be a fun and unique movie appealing to both adults and kids who can appreciate the clever representations of the internet and the heartfelt message underscoring the entire premise. The only fault with the film is the occasional oversaturation of pop culture that can sometimes feel like an advertisement for the real products and intellectual property represented, especially during a scene in which all of the Disney princesses appear.
The tenth overall installment in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World movie franchise beginning with the first Harry Potter released in 2001 and the sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a surprisingly complicated mess of a movie that tries to recapture the magic of the hugely successful Harry Potter universe, and the only real merits are to appeal to Harry Potter fans and the use of fantastical CGI. Set a few years after the original Fantastic Beasts and many decades before the appearance of Harry Potter, the plot follows the exploits of the lowly wizard Newt Scamander, played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, who must track down and disrupt the malevolent desires of the recently imprisoned dark wizard Grindelwald, played by the always creepy-looking Oscar nominee Johnny Depp. Suspicious of his connections to Grindelwald, the British Ministry of Magic also tries to find the villain of the first movie Credence, played by Ezra Miller, who they believe may be working with and for Grindelwald. Newt is surprised to run into his non-magic Muggle friend Jacob, played by Dan Fogler, and Jacob’s magical girlfriend Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, who join the investigation into Grindelwald and the manipulated Credence. In a nostalgic nod to Harry Potter fans, Newt eventually meets up with a young Dumbledore, played by Oscar nominee Jude Law, at Hogwarts School made famous in Harry Potter because it is believed that only the powerful Dumbledore can defeat the equally powerful Grindelwald. As they continue to pursue Grindelwald, Newt along with Jacob and Queenie as well as his love interest Tina, played by Katherine Waterston, find themselves in Paris and trying to find information at the French Ministry of Magic. From there, the characters are taken to the climax of the movie where Grindelwald has gathered all pureblood wizards to join his plot to take over the Muggle world. He uses his dark magic skills to practically force wizards to take up his cause, and Newt along with his allies engage in a battle with Grindelwald in a fantastical CGI sequence. Overall, I found it to have an overly complex storyline that was often hard to follow for the average moviegoer not well versed in the Wizarding World, and strangely there were not many scenes with the titular character Grindelwald or much about his so-called crimes. Unfortunately, I felt that the franchise is reaching a point where it is overextending itself in order to simply make money at the box office and appease the rabid fans of anything related to Harry Potter.
Following in a long line of successful Disney and Pixar productions, Coco is a terrifically well-made CGI-animated film geared for kids that also delights adults for the dazzling visuals and creative story about family and loss. Voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, the main character Miguel Rivera is a 12-year-old Mexican boy living in a small town in Mexico who dreams of becoming a musician. However, his large family forbids anyone in the family from playing music after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his great-great-grandmother Imelda and his great-grandmother Coco so that he could become a musician. Miguel decides to secretly participate in a local talent show on the Day of the Dead in hopes of becoming just like the most famous Mexican musician and guitar player Ernesto de la Cruz, voiced by Benjamin Bratt, who is from Miguel’s hometown and lived in his great-great-grandparents’ time. The night of the Day of the Dead, a special Mexican holiday when families visit their dead relatives’ graves to celebrate their lives, Miguel along with a friendly stray dog named Dante is magically among the dead spirits and travels to the Land of the Dead. He must get the blessing of one of his dead relatives before sunrise in order to go back to the Land of the Living. However, he discovers that he must speak with Ernesto de la Cruz to receive the proper blessing. On his adventures in the Land of the Dead, Miguel befriends a lonely trickster named Héctor Rivera, voiced by Golden Globe winner Gael García Bernal, who is trying to be remembered by his family so that he can visit his grave and see his beloved daughter. Towards the end, we learn that not everything is as it seems, and Miguel develops a greater appreciation for his family and perhaps will be able to be a musician. Besides the beautifully emotional plot, the movie does a remarkable job creating the Land of the Dead as a brightly colorful and whimsical world in which the dead depicted as skeletons are not scary and ghoulish. Overall, I found it to be yet another memorable Pixar film that uses its visual appeal to engender a story full of heart while also celebrating Hispanic culture, particularly Mexico and such traditions as the Day of the Dead.
Based on the 2012 best-selling novel of the same name written by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is a well-crafted sentimental movie with a hopeful and inspirational story about a young boy suffering from a medical disorder. Played by the talented young actor Jacob Tremblay best known for his role in the 2015 movie Room, the story follows August “Auggie” Pullman as he enters fifth grade after being homeschooled by his mother Isabel, played by Julia Roberts, because of his rare genetic condition that causes facial deformities and has required many reconstructive surgeries. He is fearful that the kids at his new school will bully him for his appearance and, like most kids, whether he will fit in and make new friends. The filmmaker uses the unusual technique of starting the film with several different sequences about specific main characters. The film begins to follow the emotional journey of Auggie’s parents Isabel and Nate, played by Owen Wilson, as well as his older sister Olivia who all cope with the difficulties associated with Auggie’s condition. In the segment following Olivia, the audience learns that she is also affected by her brother who receives most of the attention in the family, and she has to deal with the pressures of high school and the distancing of her best friend. Like Auggie, she has to find a safe and happy place, which she discovers is the high school drama program where she meets her new boyfriend. Towards the middle, the movie shifts to a more traditional narrative showing Auggie adjusting to his new school run by the kind-hearted principal Mr. Tushman, played by Mandy Patinkin, and having to face the school bully Julian while developing a friendship with a nice boy his age named Jack. Eventually, Auggie finds his place and is encouraged by his inspirational homeroom teacher Mr. Browne, played by the musician Daveed Diggs. Overall, I found it to be an uplifting film that sheds a light on how severe medical disorders affect not just the sufferer but also everyone around them who must also deal with the challenges. Despite Auggie’s disability, he is able to move beyond the difficulties and become an inspirational figure for his family and classmates.