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Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animated picture is charming and inventive.  Not as compelling or brisk as The Fantastic Mr. Fox (there are moments when the wizardry is doing too much of the heavy lifting), but still, very winning.

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After Paddington 2, it made sense to watch Jumanji 2 (next up – Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Vol. II).   We loved it.  It moves like a freight train, and the gimmick of having the modern teens stuck in detention (ala’ The Breakfast Club) stumble on an old 90s video game, which literally sucks them in, is handled expertly.  Better, when they come out on the other side, they are in the adult form of their video game characters (one poor, vain teen queen is encased in the plump body of Jack Black, while the football star is relegated to the diminutive Kevin Hart).   The juxtapositions are hilarious; in particular, the cranky and unnerved Hart, who can make you laugh in spite of yourself in the lamest of vehicles.  One minor complaint – the video game world was dazzling, but the villain (Bobby Cannavale) was wasted.  A more robust baddie was in order.

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This is a technological wonder and a beautiful rendition of its much cheerier animated predecessor. The insertion of a human in director Jon Favreau’s lush and crisp CGI jungle is a riveting juxtaposition, and the technology is presented as a window, not a club. The young actor playing Mowgli (Neel Sethi), the man cub of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, communicates emotional involvement in what must have been a difficult job talking at a green screen. He is not precocious nor is he showy.  He’s pitch perfect.

Moreover, the voice work of Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Christopher Walken, Bill Murray and Lupita Nyongo is nuanced and rich; they convey a children’s story with a seriousness and gravitas that doesn’t demean their audience. The film is also thematically mature. The jungle is a brutal place and the humanization of its denizens does not white out its dangers or its essence. Mowgli is a threat, and his presence is a danger to the animals, but there is also connection and love.

For every technological Oscar, you can fill out your ballot now. It’s should also be a shoo-in for a best picture nod.


There is trouble in the North Pole. Santa (Jim Broadbent) is listless and bored, barely phoning it in.  His oldest son and heir (Hugh Laurie) has digitized and corporatized Christmas, while his predecessor (Bill Nighy), retired, undermines him at every turn, dreaming of a return to glory.  His youngest son (James MacAvoy) has the spirit but lacks any discernible skill. When a gift from Santa goes undelivered, the fissures of this dysfunctional royal family emerge.

The computer animation is expert, the story enjoyable for kids and adults alike, and it’s even slyly subversive.  Santa Nighy is a misogynist, Laurie’s male elf assistant appears to have a crush on him, and the elves who man the North Pole have a denizen-of-Jonestown quality (so much so that the film threatens a mass elf suicide at the end).

My wife and daughter had been badgering me to see this Disney pic for some time, and I finally got a chance over the holiday weekend. I suspect it was as much of a pleasant surprise to Disney as to me. With a relatively modest budget of $150 million (Disney’s much less successful Tangled sported a budget of $250 million) and a voice cast sporting the lesser known Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel and Josh Gadd, the film was the highest grossing of 2013 and has gone on to make $1.2 billion worldwide. It’s clear why. The story, based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, is solid; you get two princesses for the price of one; and the songs (written by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the former of whom was a co-creator of The Book of Mormon) are captivating, in particular, the Oscar winning “Let it Go”, which has a Wicked-esque quality and has become this ubiquitous:

The film is also economical (hello, parents of the two leads, this is a Disney film, so your presence will not be required for long) and visually stunning, blending CGI and hand-drawn animation to create a Fjordic, Nordic wonderland.  Gadd’s clueless but loyal snowman is a tribute not only to Frosty but to my favorite Disney sidekick ever:

My only nit is that the villain is sprung on the audience, when it would have been better to have him seduced into the role.

At its best, ParaNorman is a funny, clever and visually appealing stop-motion animated feature about a boy who must save his town from the emergence of zombies.  Unfortunately, the characters are a bit stock and thin (the zombies, who are cursed for having wrongly hung a witch back in the day, are the most realized of all the characters).  Worse, it bangs away “lessons” about bullying.  It also continues the recent trend of making almost all adults stupid, cruel and retrograde (Frankenweenie) and likening the world they have created to a gross, materialistic craphole (The Lorax, WALL-E, Happy Feet).

Mostly enjoyable, but the unsubtle p.c. preaching should stay in public schools where it belongs.