All posts by James Humphreys

Top Ten Movies of 2022

With having come and gone, naturally we have to look back at the year that was when it came to the movies we watched.  Movie theaters in general saw improved business, but it still lagged behind pre-pandemic levels.  What is definitely surprising is that Hollywood toward the end of the year just seemed to abandon the fall season.  There were very few tentpoles released in the Fall, and awards fare didn’t seem to fill that gap like they had in years past.  If not for Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) and Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), this would’ve been the worst Fall season since the start of the pandemic.  But, thankfully, the year 2022 did start off strong, with better than expected box office for Winter releases like Uncharted (2022) and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022), as well as a strong reboot for DC’s The Batman (2022).  But what really stunned people this year, and provided a good sign for the future of theatrical releases, were the strong word of mouth performances of many different sleeper hits throughout the year.  In the Spring, the A24 surrealist action flick Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022) became the biggest all time grosser for the beloved indie lable and a must see in a quiet box office field.  Then in the summer, we saw the complete domination of Top Gun: Maverick (2022), a movie that makes Paramount Pictures seem very wise now for keeping it on the shelf for 2 years until movie theaters were back to normal business.  A sleeper hit even found it’s way into the very depressed Fall season, with the horror film Smile (2022) managing to stay atop the box office in a way that few horror movies do.  Overall, despite the studio’s hesitancy to recommit, there is plenty of evidence that the theatrical market is alive and well, but is in desperate need of more product.  But, to get a good perspective on the year of 2022, it’s time to take a look at the highs and lows of the year in cinema by listing my top 10 best and 5 worst movies of the year.

This last year, I managed to break the 100 films in a theater mark, a new personal best for me.  It was a lot of movies to go out to the cinemas for, and it doesn’t even include the ones I saw on streaming as well, which are also eligible for this list.  It was hard dwindling down my lists to the 10 you’ll see below.  Keep in mind, my list is only the films that I saw within the calendar year of 2022; anything new that I saw in the last week doesn’t count, but they could be eligible for next year’s list.  Before I delve into my top 10 favorite movies of 2022, let me list off a few that almost made my list and that I would recommend seeing: Armageddon Time, The Batman, Benedicton, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Bullet Train, Emily the Criminal, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, The Inspection, The Menu, The Northman, Thirteen Lives, Triangle of Sadness, Top Gun: Maverick, and Turning Red, Violent Night and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Now that we’ve narrowed things down, let’s take a look at my choices for the Top Ten Movies of 2022.



Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

It certainly seemed like a year to explore concepts of a multiverse on the big screen.  Marvel was taking their stab at it with their sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), but in that film the most they explored within the multiverse was maybe three or four dimensions.  Another film, made on a fraction of the budget of Doctor Strange, on the other hand took the multiverse adventure concept and ran with it.  Coming from the same duo of oddball directors behind the film Swiss Army Man (2016), Everything, Everywhere, All at Once was absolutely a movie that lived up to it’s title.  It’s remarkable watching this movie and seeing how much the Daniels were able to milk this multiverse concept with an A24 budget and still make it feel huge and epic in the process.  It’s a movie where every kind of movie comes into play as well, with cinematic inspirations as varied as the movies of Wong Kar-Wai and Ratatouille (2007). The only reason I don’t have it higher is because at times the movie feels a little too much and nearly buckles from the relentless motion of it’s universe jumping.  But, what manages to hold this movie together are the performances from it’s cast.  In particular, this is movie has a career best turn from Michelle Yeoh, one of the greatest actresses of her generation who is now finally getting her due recognition because of this film.  She is also perfectly complimented in her role by a breakout return to film for Ke Huy Quan (Short Round from Temple of Doom as he was most well known for before this movie).  Stephanie Hsu, James Hong, and Jamie Lee Curtis also deliver exceptional work, especially in witnessing them play so many different versions of the same people across the multiverse.  Honestly, Marvel should take note from how this movie managed to make the multiverse work on screen as they build towards their Secret Wars endgame.  There really was no other film like this all year, and it’s great to see a film fit so much interdimensional mayhem into what is ultimately an intimate family drama at the end of the day.  Everything, Everywhere, All at Once manages to find the cosmic within the struggles of one family in a single day and it’s a spectacular ride along the way.



Directed by Jordan Peele

Top Gun: Maverick may have dominated the summer at the box office, and certainly it deserved all the success that it got.  But for me, this was the highlight of the Summer 2022 season for me.  Jordan Peele, in his third directorial effort, changed things up a bit and instead of digging into his horror bag of tricks like he used for the movies Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), this time he decided to test his skills at science fiction.  And the results are his most skillfully directed film yet.  Here, Peele goes more monster movie, and it felt like a nice return to the paranoia monster flicks of the 70’s and 80’s, like Jaws (1975) or The Blob (1988).  Of course there is always a subtext when it comes to Peele’s movies, and in this case it’s about the pursuit of fame that often puts people at risk to themselves and others.  There is a wonderful metaphor woven into the story, with the film cutting back to the past where a chimpanzee rampaged on the set of sitcom in the early 90’s.  In it, we see the folly of trying to control the un-controllable, and it contrasts perfectly with an extreme case involving this UFO terrorizing the characters in this film.  The UFO itself is one of the most original and terrifying movie monsters in recent memory, especially when it’s lurking silently in the shadows.  It also is a perfect examination of the fringes of the Hollywood dream machine; focusing on people chasing that elusive glory.  A disillusioned movie horse trainer, his out spoken hustler of a sister, a failed sitcom star still looking for that big showstopper, a grizzled cameraman seeking that one perfect shot, and a Fry’s Electronics security expert who’s just a little too nosey.  Peele manages to make all these characters shine as they try to survive the unknown terror in the skies.  This is also a big leap forward for Peele as a director, as Nope  really shows him going for grand spectacle for the first time.  It helps that he’s working here with Christopher Nolan’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, because this movie looked spectacular on an IMAX screen.  Whatever Jordan Peele’s got next for us, my hope is that he continues to challenge himself with more variety of stories like this one, because it turns out he’s got the skills to tackle all kinds of different genres with his own unique style.



Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Everything you have heard about Brendan Fraser’s Oscar-worthy comeback role is true.  Fraser’s performance really goes beyond just the physical transformation from all the prosthetic applications to have him appear as a 600 pound man.  He creates a character that genuinely feels authentic and personable; giving depth and empathy to the character that doesn’t feel like awards bait at all.  His character, named Charlie, is a fascinating mix of contradictions; intelligent but also clueless about what’s best for himself, opinionated but also a bit of a sap, and also willing to see the best in people even while he is slowly destroying himself.  Fraser captures all of this with a great amount of subtlety, and quite literally disappears into the role.  The film may be polarizing to many; with some seeing the film as exploitive and depressing, and I totally understand that feeling.  This is not an easy movie to watch, as the movie doesn’t shy away from the more grotesque realities of Charlie’s state of life.  But, this has always been part of director’s Darren Aronofsky’s style.  Almost every movie he has made has put his audience at unease at some point.  From his debut with Pi (1998) to Requiem for a Dream (2000), to more recent movies like mother! (2016), he has pushed the boundaries of what audiences will accept before they are repulsed.  Even more conventional movies of his, like Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014) had elements that shocked and bewildered audiences.  The Whale continues that tradition, but Aronofsky balances it with a tender sense of humanity involved, something he also excelled with in The Wrestler (2008).  Everyone will no doubt praise Brendan Fraser’s performance, as they should, but opinions on the movie will likely fall between the love and hate variety, and I found myself in the former.  This is perfect marriage of a great performance finding the right director and it resulted in a fascinating character study of a subject that cinema is often too afraid to depict on screen.



Directed by S. S. Rajamouli

There’s a phrase where sometimes for something to garner the right amount of attention, it has to be so good that it can’t be ignored.  For a long time the second biggest film industry in world was the one coming from the country of India, which over time earned it the nickname Bollywood.  Indian films were certainly successful in their part of the world, but too often they’ve been looked down on as a niche market here in America.  That was until this year when Bollywood hitmaker S.S. Rajamouli released his most ambitious film yet: RRR, which is short for Rise, Roar, Revolt.  RRR without a doubt is the most insane, grandiose, and earnest action film to have come across American cinemas in some time, and Hollywood would ignore it to it’s own peril.  The movie really does have everything; elaborate action sequences with insanely staged stunts, moments of high tension, romance, bromance, lions, tigers, bears, and a couple of spectacular song and dance routines to round it out.  It’s so much movie, thrown into a blender and tossed back out seeing what’s sticks with the audience.  And yet, even at 3 hours in length, there is not one frame of this movie that is wasted.  The movie definitely benefits from the infectious chemistry between it’s two main characters, Raju and Bheem (played by Ram Charan and NTR Jr. respectively), who pull off some of the most insane action moments you will ever see, including one moment where Bheem uses a motorcycle as a club to knock out British soldiers.  The movie remarkably is based on the lives of two real life freedom fighters from the Indian liberation movement, but the movie is not at all concerned with historical accuracy.  It’s like a Bollywood Braveheart (1995), except this one is aware of how historically inaccurate it is and doesn’t care.  In the end, it’s all about making a movie that is just fun to watch from beginning to end, taking no chances with subtlety, and just going with whatever feels awesome, no matter how ridiculous it may be.  Perhaps it’s time for Hollywood to look harder towards what they are brewing in Indian cinemas right now.  RRR is that breakout movie that has to be seen to be believed, and thankfully it’s a movie that earns every laugh, tear, and cheer along the way.



Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

One of the big themes this year it seemed was film directors becoming introspective about their careers, their upbringings, and about the art of cinema itself.  This was definitely felt in Damien Chazelle’s look at Hollywood of the Silent Era in Babylon, which looked at cinema’s beginnings.  There were also films like Armageddon Time (2022) which weren’t about the movies per say, but did include autobiographical details based on the childhood of director James Gray, as well as another movie that I’ll get to later.  But perhaps the most unique of these movies about the movies this year was the one by two time Oscar winner Alejandro G. Inarritu.  Bardo finds the director taking a more Fellini-esque journey through several ideas and thoughts that no doubt have been on his mind.  The film flows through different states of reality and hyper-reality, with the director’s avatar, a Mexican documentarian named Silverio, moving dream like through different vignettes that contemplates on issues like artistic integrity, immigration, war, colonialism, being a seen an outsider in the country you live in and a sell out in the country you were born, and many more.  To some, the movie may come across and meandering and self-indulgent, but I found myself enjoying the journey that Inarritu took me on.  It’s weird in all the best ways, and features many of the director’s trademark cinematic tricks.  It’s very much a companion piece with his Oscar-winning Birdman (2014) which was one of my favorite movies of the last decade, though with far less of a direct line for his audience to follow.  There are some hauntingly beautiful moments in this movie, including the opening scene with a shadow cast against a desert landscape, as well as a spectacularly staged party scene in a Mexican night club.  He also does take the movie into some very personal areas that also take you by surprise, like an imagined conversation with his father where we see Silverio’s body reduced to that of a boy but his head still remaining the same in a strange but thought provoking image.  It’s definitely not a movie for everyone, and I seem to be one of it’s few champions, but Bardo was a cinematic journey that I could accept for all it’s eccentricities.



Directed by Martin McDonough

McDonough has been an accomplished writer and director both on screen and on the stage.  For most of his career, he has been one of the best scribes when it comes to capturing a very Irish sensibility in his stories and characters, at least on the stage.  His movies on the other hand have gone to places like Bruges, the outskirts of Hollywood, and the American Midwest with the small town of Ebbing, Missouri.  Now, with his fourth cinematic outing, he finally comes home on the big screen and focuses his sharp witted writing on the Isle of Ireland.  In particular, he tells the story of a friendship gone sour on the remote island of Inisherin.  The movie reunites McDonough with his two In Bruges (2008) leads, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, both of whom are excellent in this movie.  McDonough, in all his movies, has been exceptional in crafting darkly humorous situations with characters so colorfully absurd that you can’t help but be transfixed towards seeing just how far they’ll succumb to their own shortcomings.  There’s a great examination of how simple misunderstandings can snowball into far dire consequences, and it’s very entertaining to watch Farrell’s simple minded farmer slowly come to the realization that his unhealthy attachment to companionship may be a destructive force in the lives of those around him.  McDonough’s script is very well constructed, knowing when to use humor at the right times without breaking the dark tone of the movie.  The movie is also quite beautiful to look at, with McDonough giving the magnificent Irish countryside the pastoral splendor that it deserves.  And Farrell and Gleeson are an unforgettable pair that balance each other perfectly, with plenty of character subtleties coming from every line reading that they give.  It’s not easy to make an audience laugh one second and then make them horrified in the next, but The Banshees of Inisherin walks that tightrope with finesse, and it shows that Martin McDonough is probably one of the most accomplished and unique writers working today.  And here, we see him finally bringing that darkly comic Irish sensibility back to it’s roots in a very memorable way.



Directed by Todd Field

Todd Field is a filmmaker that certainly takes his time between movies.  It’s been 16 years since he last stepped behind the camera, with the drama Little Children (2006), but he has now finally returned with a new film that takes a look at the downfall of an individual in the world of music.  The movie is much more than an examination of cancel culture though.  It’s a truly immersive character study of a person who’s experiencing the collapse of her own reputation primarily through her eyes, with the downfall being surprisingly swift and thorough.  The movie also wisely doesn’t take a stance on whether the character of Lydia Tar is deserving of this quick dismantling of her life.  There are times when we sympathize with her in the way she is blindsided by the severity of the attacks on her and in her often cogent arguments in her defense, but then there are other times when we witness just how nasty a monster she can sometimes be to people, and we understand that she may be due for a comeuppance by the end.  Todd Field expertly guides us through the whole journey that we take with the character, delightfully peeling back every layer over the course of the movie’s 2 1/2 hours.  And to the movie’s credit, it knows when to take it’s time to build towards that catharsis.  At the center of the storm, of course, is a masterful performance from Cate Blanchett, here at the height of her powers.  She is fascinating to watch in this movie, perfectly constructing this larger than life character that has conquered the world of orchestral music at the very beginning, only to end up begging for any job she can get by the end.  Lydia Tar may be 2022’s most memorable character overall, and it will almost certainly earn Blanchett many more awards to put on her mantle.  Todd Field, who has also only directed three films total in his entire career, really establishes himself as a master filmmaker with Tar, and it makes you wonder why he doesn’t do this more often.  Hopefully, he won’t take so long to deliver his next film, because with the visually beautiful and superbly written treat he delivered this year, he has shown that his talent as a filmmaker has only improved over time.



Directed by Dean Fleischer Camp

It’s surprising that the best animated feature of the year didn’t come from any of the usual suspects like Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks.  Nor did it come from a very valiant effort by Guillermo Del Toro with his Pinocchio, which just barely missed my Top 10 this year.  No, the best animated movie of the year came from A24, making it’s first ever family film.  Make no mistake, this is still an A24 film, complete with it’s atypical premise and style that defies genre conventions.  This mockumentary style film uses stop-motion animation to tell the story of a andromorphic snail shell with a single eye and the titular red shoes.  It’s a very simply animated movie, with characters created from household objects that have gained sentience and live in the small corners of human homes.  Marcel is our subject and he is a delightful creation.  Voiced by SNL alum Jenny Slate, Marcel is soft-spoken but outgoing, and immediately endearing.  The movie does a fantastic job of constructing the world of this character, looking at a commonplace location like a suburban home through the eyes of a tiny creature, and giving a simple house the feeling of being this expansive world, much like what the Toy Story movies did.  And like a documentary, the movie gives the sense we are observing this world and this life without pandering to sentimentality.  The low-key animation has it’s own surprises too, especially in the subtle ways it presents personality through just a look or a movement from Marcel and his grandmother (voiced by Isabella Rossellini).  There are plenty of silly moments that generate a well-deserved laugh, like when Marcel has to deal with human scale things like phones, or taming his full sized pet dog.  The movie also genuinely knows when to elicit emotion in the right moments.  But, overall, it’s Marcel as a character that is going to win people over with this movie.  Based on YouTube shorts from 10 years ago, the movie managed to expand it’s world and concept to full length without ever sacrificing it’s charm and it comes down to the character at it’s center who remains an endearing guide through it all.  It’s great to see even small scale animated features like this manage to satisfy on so many levels, even with competition from the big studios who honestly had strong contenders this year too like with Turning Red and Puss in Boots 2.  Definitely step into the world of Marcel and see just how mighty this little guy can be on the big screen.



Directed by Edward Berger

This of course isn’t the first adaptation of this story.  The original novel by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque was picked up by Hollywood immediately after it’s publication in 1929, and was turned into a groundbreaking movie.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was only the third film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and is widely considered to be the first truly great movie to take home that top honor.  Now, nearly a century later, another film adaptation of this classic piece of anti-war literature has been undertaken, but this time, it’s by the country of it’s origin; the nation that lost the war in the first place.  That kind of perspective brings a whole new dimension to the story and the result is one of the most harrowing war movies in recent memory.  This movie goes to even more brutal depths in depicting the horror that was the Great War, even more so than the recent acclaimed 1917 (2019).  What the movie really does well is put you right there on the battle field and gives you the sense of the unrelenting terror that each of these soldiers must of felt each and every day on the front lines of this costly war.  It also does a great job of establishing the inhumanity of war, and how it takes passionate young men and breaks them down into nothing.  A powerful early moment illustrates this perfectly, as bloody uniforms are pulled off the dead, then washed and mended, and handed off to the new batch of recruits who are oblivious that they are putting on recycled combat uniforms.  Apart from a small supporting role from Daniel Bruhl (who plays Baron Zemo in the Marvel Universe), the cast is filled with fresh faced newcomers, which adds to the everyman aspect of their character.  They perfectly convey the despair and desperation that must have come from being relentlessly shot at in that War.  This is, in my opinion, the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan (1998) and one of the most powerful anti-war movies I have ever seen.  Being a Netflix film, it’s unfortunate that too many people aren’t likely to see this on a big screen, but if it is available, I strongly recommend it.  Absolutely powerful cinema, and one of the most unforgettable movie experiences of the year.

And finally….



Directed by Steven Spielberg

You know, in the 20-plus years that I’ve been keeping track of what my favorite movie of the year has been, not once has Steven Spielberg ever made it to the top spot, until now.  It seems fitting that the movie that finally did it was the one where Spielberg tells his own life’s story.  The Fablemans is a movie about falling in love with the movies, and focusing that passion into a creative drive that leads to a career in filmmaking.  As someone who has tried my best to follow in those same footsteps, there is so much to like in this film.  But it’s not an indulgent movie either.  Sure Steven Spielberg is drawing inspiration from his own life, but the movie isn’t entirely about him either.  Telling the story of the Fableman family, a fictionalized version of Spielberg’s own, the movie is just as much about the mother and father as it is about Steven’s own stand-in.  While we see the blossoming of a young man finding his passion in making movies, we also see the dissolution of his parent’s marriage taking place, and how that has an effect on everyone.  Michelle Williams and Paul Dano perfectly encapsulate the opposing personalities of the two parents, with the mother being a free spirit creative and the father being a mild mannered but also naïve man of science and innovation.  Spielberg treats these depictions of his parents with great love and care, but isn’t afraid to depict the faults in their character that led to the ultimate break-up of their family.  Overall, Spielberg’s style ends up perfectly suiting his own life’s story, and it’s interesting how the Spielbergian trademarks play out in this very personal story.  The movie also features probably my favorite final scene of any movie in recent memory, which shows the Spielberg surrogate Sammy Fableman reaching the point of meeting one of his heroes.  With Spielberg delivering the expected deft direction, and an intelligent and heartfelt screenplay by Steven and his co-writer Tony Kushner, as well as great work by Spielberg mainstays like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the legendary composer John Williams, this was the best cinematic experience I had all year.  Turns out Spielberg at his most personal delivers Spielberg at his very best.

And now, let me quickly run down the 5 worst movies of the year.  There were some movies not found on this list that were objectively worse made, but these were the 5 movies that left me personally the least satisfied at the movies.  So, let’s take one last look before I can officially put these movies behind me.

5. JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION –  I should have known better than to put my hopes up with the return of the original stars from Jurassic Park (Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum) to this franchise.  All three are wasted, as more time is still given to the blander new characters from Jurassic World (2015) and it’s sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018).  It’s just slightly better than Fallen Kingdom, but not by much, and it clearly shows that any creative momentum this franchise has had in the past has certainly become extinct like the dinosaurs.

4. BABYLON – Damien Chazelle’s new flick is one of the clearest examples of trying too hard that I’ve seen from a studio film chasing after Oscar gold.  This three hour behemoth is trying to wrap it’s arms around something in it’s depiction of Silent Era Hollywood, but in the end it just feels hollow.  The characters are never truly interesting, or really likable, and it seems at times like Chazelle is getting desperate by adding shock value to some of the more debaucherous moments.  The ending especially ticked me off, because it’s just blatantly stealing from the ending of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), except they swapped out Doc Ock with Spider-Man.  If you want to see a better movie romanticizing a bygone era in Hollywood that also stars Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) instead.

3.  PINOCCHIO (2022) – Rest assured, this is not the vastly superior stop-motion film made by Guillermo Del Toro.  This is sadly yet another spot taken up by a Disney live action remake of one of the animated classics; something that has become all too common on these worst of the year lists.  Like most of the other Disney remakes of late, this one fails to make the fundamental case as to why it needs to exist in the first place.  It doesn’t improve on the original film at all and in fact is very insulting to the Disney classic as it shoehorns in contemporary jokes, like that awful Chris Pine pun, that betray the spirit of the story.  The usually reliable Tom Hanks seems pretty lost in his attempt to portray Geppetto, and this marks another career low point for director Robert Zemeckis.  The dismal reception this received, even in direct to streaming on Disney+, hopefully sends a message to the new Disney regime that we are growing tired of these pointless remakes.

2. THE GRAY MAN – The closest you’ll get to seeing actual money burn cinematically.  Since the Russo Brothers signed their exclusives deal with Netflix, they’ve brought some of their Marvel contacts over to start-up new action franchises on their own.  They made the action film Extraction (2020) with Chris Hemsworth, and the drama Cherry  (2021) with Tom Holland over at Apple.  This year, they got Netflix to spend a whopping $200 million for this, quite frankly, boring James Bond wannabe that didn’t even register in the top 5 most watched movie premieres on the streamer this year.  Marvel alum Chris Evans delivers a campy villainous turn, but that isn’t enough to make this movie even remotely close to entertaining.  It’s a pure paint by numbers spy flick, but with a colossal waste of money and talent behind it.

And the worst movie of 2022 is…

1. MOONFALL – No big shock, a Roland Emmerich movie made my bottom spot for the year.  Even by the already low standards of Roland Emmerich movies, this was a whole new level of stupid.  Some may argue it falls into the so bad it’s good category, but it was just bad all around for me.  The premise is absurd, with the title pretty much telling you all you need to know, and when you learn why the moon is falling, it makes the dumb idea even dumber.  Anyone with even a middle school level of understanding of how physics work will be pulling their hair out watching this movie.  How can the gravitational pull of the Moon lift giant chunks of the Earth itself up into the air, but not a car that’s driving across it?  Good actors like Patrick Wilson and Halle Berry are clearly just here to collect paychecks, and they’re giving nothing at all to work with.  If you keep falling for the same mistake of continuing to invest money into yet another Roland Emmerich action flick, you certainly deserve to live with the consequences of those actions.  This was supposedly the most expensive independently financed movie off all time, and to no ones surprise except maybe the clueless financiers, one of the biggest money losers of the year.  A definite low point for 2022.

So, there you have my choices for the best and worst of 2022.  There were definitely some bright spots, and I actually had a difficult time figuring out who would take that final 10 spot, as there was a lot of near misses this year.  Clearly the moment I walked out of the theater watching The Fablemans, I knew it was the movie to beat, and two months later, it still beat all challengers to stay #1.  There were definitely some surprises that I discovered as I was preparing this list.  Particularly with how well movies like RRR and Nope stuck with me all through the Summer and to the end of the year.  Same with Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, which was a Spring release.  It shows that not all the best movies of the year come out in the final 3 months of Awards season.  The best ones are the  movies that stick with you all the way to years end, no matter how much distance that is.  That’s always been my metric.  Some of my favorites here are probably on the worst list for others, like what I’ve seen in some cases with Bardo and The Whale.  That’s the great thing about seeing everyone’s list, because there are sometimes examples where a critic may be the sole champion for one particular movie that meant a lot to them, but for no one else.  After seeing over a hundred movies over the last year in the cinemas, as well as through streaming, I feel confident that I did my homework this year and had an extensive list of choices to definitely make an informed list of movies this year.  Hopefully those of you who have read this far will find this end of the year list helpful.  With all that, let’s hope for a good year ahead at the movies, and that next year’s list will be strong one as well.

The Movies of Early 2023

The year that was 2022 has come to a close, and once again we have seen another year where the movie industry has been thrown upside down in ways that many people would not have expected at the beginning of the year.  Though still off from pre-pandemic levels, 2022 saw a strong return of business to movie theaters, buoyed by the holiday 2021 hold-over of Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) in early January, the mid-Spring successes of DC’s The Batman (2022), Uncharted (2022) and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022), and of course the summertime phenomenon that was Top Gun: Maverick (2022), ultimately closing out strong with James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).  At the same time, the streaming market for the first time showed some cracks in their near flawless sheen for the first time, with Netflix seeing it’s first ever subscriber contraction, which led to a general slow down across the board in the blue sky outlook of the whole streaming craze.  While the beginning of the year promised big things for the streaming giants, the end of the year finds many of them starting to tighten their belts and re-thinking their futures.  In addition, two of the biggest movie studios went through tumultuous upheavals that could also cast a cloud over the next year.  Disney resorted to the drastic firing of their CEO after a disastrous quarterly misstep in their economic performance, and Warner Brothers completed their merger with Discovery Media by cancelling multiple projects across their media empire, including a few in the can films like Batgirl.  Certainly, Hollywood is a much different place now than it was a year ago, with a lot of uncertainty going into the next year.  One of the things that no doubt is going to need to be figured out in 2023 is how the studios will be able to balance their output in both theaters and on streaming, and where they’ll be able to get their money’s worth out of the performance from both with their catalogue of titles.

Before I continue to look back on the year that was 2022 (please wait one more week before I publish my Top 10) it’s time to check out what’s coming up in the early part of 2023.  Like my other movie previews, I will be taking a look at the Must Sees, the movies that have me worried, and the Movies to Skip.  I am by no means the best handicapper (I underestimated Top Gun: Maverick last year) so take my assessments with a grain of salt.  My thoughts are generally on how anticipated these movies are based on the early hype and the effectiveness of the marketing, when it comes to my own tastes anyway.  There could be a lot of surprises in store, so I am looking forward to seeing how this all plays out.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the Movies of Early 2023.



The Ant-Man franchise has up to this point been the runt of the litter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  While the movies are good, the franchise has been largely been mildly received by audiences and has been only successful enough to justify it’s existence, with Ant-Man’s more important adventures taking place in the Avengers movies.  By comparison, the Ant-Man franchise is low stakes and more geared towards laughs.  But, that looks to change with this third film in the franchise.  The stakes are much higher as Ant-Man, the Wasp, and their family end up stuck in the Quantum Realm, a mini-universe existing underneath our own.  The Quantum Realm has been involved in past films in the MCU, mainly in the Ant-Man films and playing a crucial part in the plot of Avengers: Endgame (2019), but here in Quantumania, we are getting the chance to fully explore it for the first time.  This film launches off what Marvel is calling their Phase 5, and it’s kind of surprising that they would give such an Avengers level event to a character like Ant-Man, who for the most part has been one of Marvel’s more affable characters.  But, at the same time, it seems appropriate because the Ant-Man movies thus far have been leading it’s hero to a moment like this, as playing around in the Quantum Realm no doubt has it’s consequences.  It will be interesting to see how Paul Rudd plays his character in this new tone for his story.  The visual representation of the Quantum Realm also looks stunning as well, with epic scope that we certainly have not seen in any Ant-Man movie thus far.  But what is going to be most significant about this movie is that it will introduce us to the next big bad of the whole MCU; the successor to Thanos as you will.  That character is the multi-dimensional tyrant Kang the Conqueror, played with menacing energy by rising star Jonathan Majors.  Majors has already played a variant of Kang in the Loki Disney+ series named “He Who Remains,” but this will be his full debut as the full blown iconic comic book villain, and it will be exciting to see what he does with the part.  Big things are in Marvel’s future, and it’s certainly exciting to see them help elevate their Ant-Man side of the universe in the process.


Speaking of upcoming movies with Jonathan Majors in it, we get the third installment of this franchise spin-off of the Rocky series.  While the original Creed’s director Ryan Coogler has been busy building the majestic world of Wakanda over at Marvel, the Creed franchise has surprisingly remained strong on it’s own.  The sequel Creed II (2018) managed to avoid the sophomore slump and held it’s own both critically and at the box office.  Now, we get the third installment, with the film’s star Michael B. Jordan for the first time pulling double duty behind and in front of the camera.  In his feature directorial debut, it seems fitting that he would take on this role in the franchise as his predecessor Sylvester Stallone also directed a couple films in the franchise, on top of writing the screenplay for the original Rocky (1976).  Jordan has been a steadfast believer in this franchise since day one, so I definitely believe that the franchise is in good hands with him at the helm.  And one of the best story choices that him and his team seemed to make is crafting a new adversary who has a past history with Adonis Creed; a one time surrogate brother who’s shady past has built up years of resentment.  All of this will no doubt lead to a volatile show down in the ring, which is where the Rocky and Creed movies have always excelled at leading up to.  Jonathan Majors is a perfect choice to play this role, being a perfect match for Michael B. Jordan both physically and as a performer.  Quantumania will no doubt showcase Major’s acting chops, but Creed III will show both his accomplished acting as well as his incredible physicality.  One thing this trailer doesn’t show us however is what has happened to Rocky Balboa.  I know it’s not his franchise anymore, but you do hope that the movie does give a shout out to the Italian Stallion.  Stallone certainly is still around and can still pop in for a cameo.  We’ll see what the movie has in store for us, and I hope the Rocky question will have a satisfying answer.  But, there is no doubt that Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors will be giving us one hell of a show once the gloves are on and the bell has rung.


Thus far one of the most exciting series of action films to have come out of the last decade has been the John Wick series.  And surprisingly, even 3 films in, the franchise has yet to run out of steam.  That’s pretty impressive for a franchise that is mostly just stunt work and gun fight choreography.  What this series has managed to do so well thus far is build upon it’s world with each installment; constantly raising the stakes while at the same time doing some incredible world-building around it.  It’s been fascinating to see more layers being added to this underground society of assassins and hit men, all with their own codes, network of bureaucracy, and even currency.  And at it’s center, a fascinating figure in John Wick (played by a career best Keanu Reeves).  Now, we continue the adventures of Mr. Wick, the man you call to kill the boogeyman, who has vendetta to settle with the High Table itself that betrayed him.  For the most part, the plot itself doesn’t matter, and that’s what’s refreshing about this series.  It’s just an excuse to set up the next mind-blowing fight scenes that honestly are works of art from the standpoint of stunt coordination.  The fact that Keanu Reeves is still putting himself physically into these kinds of on screen fights as an actor pushing 60 is really impressive, and it gives Tom Cruise some competition.  But, a hero is only as good as the opponent he faces, and in this one, martial arts movie legend Donnie Yen has joined the already stacked cast.  It will be fun to see what the John Wick team does with his talents as an on screen stunt performer.  Returning cast members Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne are also pleasing to see here.  But of course, it all comes down to Keanu Reeves and what he is able to bring to the table.  Can Keanu continue to keep up the pace of the series up with yet another adventure with John WickAs long as he keeps making these movies fun, there is little doubt that this will be a rollicking good time.


Alas, this looks likely to be a relic of a Cinematic Universe that no longer exists over at DC.  As the comic book giant re-assesses it’s cinematic future amid the shake-up at Warner Brothers, with Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn now taking creative control of the DC universe plans, what was once known as the Zach Snyderverse era of the DCEU is now dead.  2023 will see the last remnants of that cinematic universe roll out into theaters, including the very troubled Flash movie in the summer and an Aquaman sequel in the Fall.  But first up, we get this sequel to what was honestly one of the bright spots of the dour Snyderverse years at DC.  When Shazam (2019) first came out 3 years ago, it managed to strike that right balance between big action spectacle and charming goofy comic book wonder that DC had honestly struggled to find in most of their DCEU movies.  It was honestly the kind of movie that DC comic book movies should have been over the last decade and sadly was too little too late to salvage what ultimately was an unsalvageable mess.  Thankfully, the movie did well enough to warrant a sequel, with much of the original team still in tact.  Zachary Levi and Asher Angel both return as the young man Billy Batson and his super-powered form.  It also looks like the original film’s refreshing sense of humor is translating over, as well as it’s earnestness.  While so many of the Snyderverse DC movies were serious to fault, Shazam was the one film that seemed to understand that it was a comic book movie first and foremost and it fully embraced the silly side of comics that all that entails.  It will be interesting to see how the movie works in the new foes played by Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu, and how the movies is able to build off the last Shazam storyline.  As long as it doesn’t lose sight of what made the first film work in the first place  this will hopefully close out this chapter of the character Shazam on the big screen in a good way.


This could either be one of the dumbest ideas for a movie, or one of the greatest.  Based on an actual recorded incident, the movie’s title pretty much tells us what we’re in for here.  It’s a wild bear that accidently consumes a bunch of cocaine.  And this movie basically speculates on what kind of chaos would ensue as a result.  For the most part, the trailer gives us a pretty good idea of the tone that the filmmakers are seeking with this scenario; pretty much using the premise for violent and gory slapstick comedy.  The film does boast a pretty interesting cast, many not really known for broad comedy.  This includes the late Ray Liotta, in what is likely his last film role, shot before his untimely death earlier this year.  As long as the movie understands that it can’t be taken seriously under any means, and just sticks with the absurdist tone, it might actually work.  There is a danger of them straining one joke over an entire movie and robbing it of it’s effectiveness.  What I think may be key to getting this movie right is the way that the human characters are portrayed.  If they seem to remain broad, cartoonish caricatures like they seem to be in the trailer, it could make the movie as a whole a lot funnier.  It’s all about who’s falling victim to this cocaine crazed bear and how silly their bloody deaths may end up being.  The talent involved could be the key to that, as there are some quality comedic performers here, including the grossly underrated character actor Isaiah Whitlock Jr., with his pitch perfect line reading, “Man, you f$%#ed.”  Hopefully, Cocaine Bear makes good on the promise of it’s premise and delivers something that we rarely see on the big screen these days; a good laugh out loud comedy.



This movie in particular has one major aspect to worry about.  On the surface, there looks to be a lot going right for this movie.  Adapting the legendary video game series is a daunting task, but the movie looks visually dazzling with characters on model and the attention to detail at a very impressive level.  So, why are people worried about this movie.  Because thus far, people are concerned that the role of the titular plumber himself may have been miscast.  Chris Pratt is no stranger to doing voices in animated films, including his charming roles in The Lego Movie (2014) and Pixar’s Onward (2020).  But, his voice just seems like an obvious mismatch for the role of Mario.  Mario has for many years been voiced in the video games by vocal artist Charles Martinet, who gave Mario a high pitched, Italian accented voice that is very distinctive.  In this case, it looks like Illumination Animation and Nintendo are chasing after a bigger name for the role instead of finding the right voice for the character.  To be fair, the rest of the cast is filled with name actors, but for some of those, like Charlie Day playing Luigi and Jack Black playing Bowser, there seems to have been more effort into getting the voices to match the character they are playing.  For Chris Pratt as Mario, there seems to be far less effort.  Mario just sounds like every other character that Chris has played in movies.  His voice can work in animated films, but the characters he has played have often been better geared towards his strengths.  Hopefully the samples of his performance that we have heard so far are not indicative of the whole movie.  The film does look like it is doing justice to the distinctive visuals of the iconic Nintendo franchise.  Let’s just hope that they have done right by their marquee character as well.


Attempting to launch a new franchise is always tricky, especially in what seems to be a dying genre on the big screen like the Fantasy epic.  The days when the likes of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter ruled the cinemas are long over, so it’s odd that one the most notable titles in nerd all of nerd culture is attempting to step in now to begin it’s own big screen franchise.  Dungeons and Dragons of course is a decades old table top role playing fantasy game that continues to be popular with nerds everywhere, but has yet to cross over into mainstream popularity.  A failed attempt to start-up a cinematic franchise was made in 2001, just a week after The Lord of the Rings launched into cinemas, with a laughably bad movie adaptation starring Jeremy Irons and Marlon Wayans.  You would think that would deter any other attempts, but it looks like Paramount Pictures is going to make a go at it.  One thing that does work in the movie’s favor is it’s atypical cast.  The film includes actors as varied as Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Rege-Jean Page, and Hugh Grant.  Chris Pine can certainly carry a big action epic with a lot of charm as he demonstrated in the Star Trek series.  In general, it seems like the movie is going for a bit of a Guardians of the Galaxy in a fantasy realm feel, which can be a good thing if done right.  I haven’t played D&D myself, so I’m not all that familiar with the lore of the world in the game and cannot attest to the accuracy in which it’s being portrayed in this film.  My hope is that the characters and the sense of fun that we potential for in this trailer carries through into the final film, and at the same time, hopefully it manages to translate the game without disgracing the fanbase that holds the game very dear.  It’s a treacherous world for making a new kind of fantasy epic, so let’s hope this film is up to the quest.


It’s always a flip of the coin when it comes to the movies of M. Night Shayamalan.  The director who very much likes his puzzle box, Twilight Zone style thrillers, either makes some great films like The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016), or he makes some truly terrible movies like The Village (2004), The Happening (2008) or After Earth (2013).  Despite a lot of hatred leveled his way, he has still managed to press on and continue to make movies his way with his own voice, for good and bad.  It’s hard to know which way his next film, Knock at the Cabin will fall.  There is some promise in the premise, but the execution could end up making the film fall short.  Shayamalan tends to overwrite his movies, or make the line readings of his actors feel strange and off.  One of the that is promising in this movie is the presence of Dave Bautista.  Bautista has been one of the most surprisingly versatile actors in recent years, capable of comedic performances in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and the recent Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022), as well as dramatic turns in movies like Blade Runner 2047 (2017) and Dune (2021).  Psychological thrillers is something we have yet to see him wrap his muscular arms around until now, so it will be interesting to see how well he works under the direction of Shayamalan.  He certainly brings the right intensity that could work for the role.  Shayamalan is working with a wide range of themes here; religious zealotry, same sex relationships, apocalyptic signs, etc.  All of it may again be beyond his grasps as a director, but it will be interesting to see him try to make the experiment work.  Shayamalan can often frustrate his viewers, but when he does finally manage to make one of his films work, it can be quite the big screen journey.  Let’s hope that it’s one of those kinds of Shayamalan movies.


The first official movie week of 2023 starts off with a movie that is either going to hit it big with audiences, or is going to flounder in it’s own absurdity.  M3gan’s biggest charge against it is that it’s not terribly original.  We are basically just looking at a Child’s Play  for the digital age.  The trailer pretty much leads us towards expecting things to go exactly like they did when it was Chucky the doll causing mayhem.  To the movie’s credit, the doll faced M3gan is an effectively creepy design.  It’s movements, which are more human like as the movie goes on do have a creepy factor too.  But, the movie has a lot more to prove beyond that, which unfortunately from the trailer looks like your standard slasher fare.  Coming off what was actually a banner year for horror movies, with films like X, Pearl, Barbarian, and Smile all earning both critical praise and healthy box office, M3gan needs to show it’s more than just another creepy doll movie and put 2023 on a good start when it comes to the kind of horror movies that can bring back audiences in droves.  Chucky is one of the most famous horror movie icons, so it’s going to be tough to make this new character stick out against his legacy on the big screen.  It can be done, but given that this is a January release, a notorious dumping ground for movies that studios want to bury, the odds are that this movie is likely not going to be the next great horror classic.  But, it could also be a surprise as well, so we’ll just have to find out next week what side of the coin M3gan ends up landing on.



Oh Gerard Butler, why do you make it so easy to lower our expectations.  Butler for a while now has contented himself to being in low budget action flicks with increasing absurdity to their plots.  There have been some bright spots on his resume like Greenland (2020) and Copshop (2021), but for the most part he has been in tough guy action mode since starring in Olympus Has Fallen (2013) nearly a decade ago.  This new film finds him playing an airline pilot who gets caught up in a kidnapping plot with Filipino guerilla war lords, and he must team up with a convicted convict that his plane assigned to transport in order to survive and save the other passengers.  Combine this with one of the most laughably generic titles, and you get what will likely be the year’s most absurd action film, and not in a good way.  Butler continues to phone in these kinds of performances, which is too bad because the good movies that I gave examples of before show that he can still be a good actor when he wants to commit.  But, movies like this are more of what he seems more comfortable acting in, and it’s a a career trajectory that I don’t think does him any favors.  There’s a chance this could be one of those so bad it’s good kinds of movies, but chances are it’s exactly the kind of bad we’d expect from Gerard Butler.


It’s sad when you see some of the greatest actresses to have graced the silver screen reach their paycheck collecting phase during their twilight years.  That’s the case with this screwball comedy that seems especially late to the party, as it’s glorifying quarterback Tom Brady when he was still in a New England Patriots uniform; something that is already outdated by a couple years.  Not only that but the title is wrong for these particular actresses.  Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are indeed in their eighties, at 85 and 83 respectively, but Sally Field is still under the bar at the age of 76 and Rita Moreno is remarkably still acting at a spry 91.  I love all of these actresses based on their years of great performances, with 3 out of the 4 being Oscar-winners, but man is this kind of movie well beneath their talents.  The sight of a blonde, botoxxed Jane Fonda is also very unsettling to see as well.  This is clearly a movie aimed at the over 60 crowd and no one else (maybe a few die hard Brady fans).  Otherwise, this is a wayward hard pass that goes completely out of bounds for me.


As if this franchise hasn’t already wrung out it’s last bit of mojo left, now we get the 6th film in the franchise.  The reason this movie is likely going to flounder is because it’s the first without series mainstay Neve Campbell.  Every movie up to now has centered around the character of Sidney Prescott, including the last one which was released only just last year.  That’s a pretty quick turnaround for the franchise, and I doubt this series has the kind of creative juices to take this premise out for yet another spin.  The truth is, the franchise ran out of surprises after the second film, to where even series creator Wes Craven could no longer maintain the suspense factor anymore.  It’s just the same thing over and over again; people killed by a knife wielding murderer in a ghost-face costume, while the survivors offer up some meta commentary about horror movie tropes while they happen to them.  We all know the formula by now, and the filmmakers just seem content to rehash them again.  Without Neve Campbell’s central presence, does this series have anything left to distinguish itself with.  My guess is not.

So there you have my thoughts on the upcoming movies of the first four months of the year.  Unlike last year, which was seeing some of the lingering effects of the pandemic years affecting the number of movies available for release, this year looks to be a far more robust one at the cinemas.  March in particular looks like the Spring Break seasons of old, with big studio titles coming out every week that month.  Not only that, but there’s a Marvel movie in February, which should definitely give late Winter box office a needed boost.  But, it’s the Summer season that looks even more jam packed.  I’ll cover it more once the Summer season gets closer, but we should expect big things from the returns of franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Mission Impossible, as well as the next big epic from Christopher Nolan, and Harrison Ford’s one last adventure as Indiana Jones.  For these Spring months, we’ll get a good sense of how the rest of 2023 will play out.  One thing that seems to be certain is that movie theaters will see it’s best post-pandemic year yet, just based on the quantity of movies that are coming to theaters in the next year.  Hopefully this helps to increase business to a point where it convinces the studios that the movie going experience is alive and well and the best possible place to see a return on their investment on their big tent-pole movies.  With the streaming platforms in a bit of a flux, this is certainly the time for the cinematic experience to re-affirm itself.  Let’s hope for a lot of good things to happen in 2023, both on the big screen and in the real world itself.  I hope this preview gives you all a good idea of what’s ahead, and may all of you have a lot of fun watching movies in the next year.

Misfit Toys – The Legacy of Rankin Bass and Holiday Specials

On this Christmas Eve many people are no doubt indulging in their favorite Holiday festivities on the night before the big day.  For many, it’s spending the night partying with friends, coworkers, or just family.  Some may go out to the movies, or others may just stay home and watch a holiday standard on television.  There are of course many movies made just for that occasion, from the perennials like Home Alone (1990) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or for something more recent there is a whole marathon of saccharine rom coms from the Hallmark Channel ready to satisfy that feeling of Christmas spirt.  But, for those not looking for a long sit, there is also the tradition of Holiday specials that have been a part of television since the early days.  More often the Holiday special has been used as a variety show for TV audiences, showcasing musical or comedy acts tied around the Holidays with celebrities getting into the festive spirit for the entertainment of audiences who tuned in.  But, Holiday specials were also used for one off short form programming, meant to draw in audiences looking to be entertained with something more substantial than a glorified concert.  These were often a great opportunity for animation studios, particularly smaller independent ones, to reach a wider audience that they couldn’t otherwise have gotten to on the big screen.  Of those animation studios vying to make a name for themselves, one not only emerged as a strong contender, but they also managed to excel so much as a producer of Christmas specials that their name is to this day synonymous with the Christmas season in the world of entertainment.  That studio is of course Rankin Bass.  For a whole generation, Rankin Bass became the authors of many childhood Christmas memories with their colorful and quirky holiday specials that even to this day enjoy a yearly revival on broadcast television.  So how did a pair of New York based ad men manage to conquer the airwaves as the masters of the Holiday special.

Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass grew up on opposite sides of the country, but during the late 1950’s, both fresh out of college upstarts had their chance meeting while working in marketing at ABC.  Rankin was a junior art director and Bass a copywriter, and after a couple years of collaborating on numerous television commercials (which included their first forays into animation) the pair parted ways with ABC in 1960 to form their own independent studio.  Their company was called Videocraft International and like many start-up production companies, they were focused on creating programming for television.  The company started off with cel-based animated series for Saturday morning cartoon blocks, including shows like The New Adventures of Pinocchio and Tales of the Wizard of Oz.  Thus far, these animated series gave them plenty of work, but not much notoriety.  This was until they had a chance meeting with a Japanese based stop-motion animator named Tadahito Mochinaga.  Mochinaga had for years been developing his own animation studio utilizing puppets made from wood rather than the usual clay that most other stop motion had utilized.  Mochinaga’s puppets were doll like and highly expressive, and this immediately caught the attention of Rankin Bass who believed that Mochinaga’s style of animation would blend perfectly well with their own unique house style.  They formed a partnership with Mochinaga’s studio to produce television specials, with the characters being designed by Arthur Rankin himself and the animation itself being conducted at the Tokyo based stop-motion studio.  The style that came as a result of the Rankin Bass designs and the Mochinaga animation was dubbed “Animagic.”  This was a fortuitous partnership, but it needed a special kind of story to give these two animation studios a chance to really stand out in the crowd.

There’s no denying that stop motion is a costly and time consuming form of animation, so for Rankin Bass to convince any broadcaster to take on the project and provide the necessary funding for the project, they needed a surefire story that would connect with discerning holiday audiences.  What the studio ultimately landed upon was the story of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.”  The special would be based on the 1949 song written by Johnny Marks, which itself was based on a poem from 1939 written by Robert L. May, commissioned by retailer Montgomery Ward.  The song was popularized by recording artist Gene Autry, and by the time Rankin Bass were about to approach it, the song had become a holiday standard.  With many people already familiar with the lyrics to the song, all Rankin Bass had to do was fill out a story around it.  Jules Bass collaborated on the script with writer Romeo Mueller, finding a story that could fill the needed hour’s worth or programming that they need.  It seems like the lyric from the song, “They never let poor Rudolph, join in any reindeer games,” provided the driving force in the story.  Their Rudolph would start off as an outcast, shunned by his fellow Reindeer for being different; a “misfit” as it were.  As a result, this lead to Rudolph befriending other Misfits like him, giving the special a fuller cast of original characters; including Hermey, the elf who wants to be a Dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, the very unlucky Klondike explorer.  They even visit a whole Island of Misfit Toys, which gives the movie a surprisingly open minded message of tolerance for those who are different.  Ultimately, Rudolph shows he has value despite the shiny nose than has given him grief most of his life, and ultimately turns that deformity into an asset when Santa needs Rudolph to guide his sleigh through a stormy night.  Rankin Bass’ treatment of the story won over executives at NBC, and they were given a greenlight to produce their special.  It aired for the first time on the network on December 6, 1964, and was an immediate hit with audiences.  It later was picked up by CBS in 1972, and since then has aired on network television every year since.

Rankin Bass suddenly found themselves in demand as an animation studio, with the big networks now looking to them to repeat the success of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  Of course, Rankin Bass continued to look to other well known holiday stories to provide their own twists on the tales.  They continued to work with Mochinaga on their “Animagic” projects, including 1968’s The Little Drummer Boy.  At the same time, they continued to also put out animated specials in their traditional, hand drawn style, with animation services provided by another Japanese based studio, Toei Animation; a studio that would go on to become one of the powerhouse names in Anime.  In the hand drawn animation style, Rankin Bass had another massive hit with the short Frosty, the Snow Man (1969), which like Rudolph was also based on a popular song.  The following decade saw a lot more success for Rankin Bass, as they seemed to have a new special every year lined up.  This included Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) which famously introduced us to the Miser Brothers, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976) a psudo-sequel, Jack Frost (1979), and many more.  They also produced specials and films for other holidays as well, like Mad Monster Party (1967) which was Mochinaga’s final film collaboration with them.  They also were not just successful in making hit shows for television, but they also helped contribute greatly to the holiday time songbook as well.  Most of the specials featured songs from Maury Laws, as well as new covers of classic standards that were often the story basis for the specials.  It helped that some of the best singers at the time were involved as voice talent in these specials, like Burl Ives, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Joel Grey and many more.  In fact, the Rankin Bass specials were a great showcase all around for some of the best voice actors around.  Mickey Rooney was always reliable as a go to Santa Claus, and the legendary Paul Frees often was voicing multiple characters all at once in many specials.  In additions to the popular new covers, the Maury Laws songs themselves became popular standards themselves, like Rudolph’s “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand.”

But, Rankin Bass was not just looking to make their name in holiday specials alone.  They wanted to compete in the same field as the Disney’s and Warner Brothers’ when it came to animation.  Building on the success of their Christmas specials, the studio was looking to expand into feature animation.  They had managed to make simple family friendly animated features in the wake of their Rudolph success, including Willy McBean and His Magic Machine (1965), The Daydreamer (1966) and The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967).  But, in the latter part of the 1970’s, they wanted to go in a direction that ran contrary to where the bigger studios were going with animation, which were stories with a darker theme to them.  And they managed to secure the enviable task of taking audiences for the first time into a mythical place called Middle Earth.  Somehow, Rankin Bass managed to secure the coveted rights to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein, and they were very much interested in bringing the famed Fantasy writer’s first novel, The Hobbit, to animated life.  The Hobbit (1977) became a made for television animated feature that was decidedly more mature in style and theme than what we had seen from Rankin Bass up to that point.  With a voice cast including Orson Bean as Bilbo Baggins, Hans Conreid as Thorin Oakenshield, and legendary film director John Huston as Gandalf the Wizard, The Hobbit may have divided Tolkein purists with it’s condensation of the author’s expansive mythology, but it enchanted young viewer who were getting their first introduction to the world of Middle Earth.  A couple years later, Rankin Bass followed up the success of their Hobbit adaptation with a film version of the third book in Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, The Return of the King (1980).  A few years after that they created a cult hit with the dark animated feature The Last Unicorn (1982).  Though they enjoyed a long and varied career in animation, changing times eventually caught up to Rankin Bass.  The specials of the 80’s were nowhere near as popular as their earlier work, with their last stop-motion special The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985) and their last hand drawn special The Wind in the Willows (1987) both performing very poorly in the ratings.  Even though they still had some success with their Saturday Morning Cartoon Thundercats, the studio ultimately couldn’t right the decline and in 1987, the studio dissolved.  Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass would collaborate one more time in 2001, on appropriately enough a Christmas special called Santa, Baby, but apart from that it was the end of an era for one of the greatest teams in animation history.

So, looking back on the body of work that Rankin Bass left behind, what do we understand about their legacy as animators as well as contributors to the holiday season.  For one thing, the ubiquitous-ness of the Rankin Bass brand with the holidays is undeniable, particularly for GenX’ers out there.  For many, who were raised during the 1970’s and 80’s, the holidays were not complete without seeing that Rankin Bass logo at the end of the credits on each special.  When you sat in front of the TV during the holiday season and saw one of the Rankin Bass specials, it gave you that special feeling of the holiday season being in full swing.  Drawing from my own family experience, my Mom recorded a few holiday specials from TV airings onto a VHS tape, and it included a couple of Rankin Bass programs on it, including Rudolph, Frosty, and The Night Before Christmas, as well as a couple other holiday classics like  the Grinch and Charlie Brown specials.  I probably wore that tape out through years of re-watches, but it did it’s job because it put me very much in the holiday spirit every year.  The same I’m sure is true for many others in my generation of late Gen X and early Millennial kids.  One other thing that the Rankin Bass holiday specials did to help make Christmas time even better is that it moved other like minded studios to elevate their game as well.  The success of Rudolph helped to launch a who new generation of holiday classics, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) from animation legend Chuck Jones, as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) from former Disney artist Bill Melendez and written for television by Charles Schultz himself.  Even Disney stepped up to offer their own holiday short, Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), based on the Charles Dickens classic.  Holiday specials were standard before on television, but Rankin Bass carved out a special place for the art of animation into that block of programming every year.  The reason that there is so many cartoons to this day as a part of the holiday playlist for many households each year is because Rankin Bass was always a present player in the television that we watched during this time of year.

You can still see the influence of Rankin Bass in many new holiday films and specials made today.  Anytime a TV show does a holiday episode that features an animated segment, it almost always is stop motion in tribute to the Rankin Bass specials.  This includes sitcoms as varied as Home Improvement and Community, all with clear nods to the Rankin Bass style.  The style has also been spoofed on shows like Saturday Night Live and South Park, more often affectionately.  Though perhaps the biggest nods to Rankin Bass have been on the big screen.  The 2003 comedy Elf starring Will Farrell features stop-motion animation mixed in with live action to represent a vey Rankin Bass like vision of the North Pole.  The movie even goes as far to have Farrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, having a heart to heart talk with the Burl Ives’ Snowman from Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer.  It’s an affectionate nod to Rankin Bass that clearly knows just how indelible those specials were to the holiday season.  A less obvious nod to the Rankin Bass legacy is found in another film that has become a holiday classic.  I honestly believe that if it weren’t for the proven success of Rankin Bass use of stop motion, director Tim Burton might not have pursued it as the ideal animation style to bring his story of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) to life.  Stylistically, there is little to compare Nightmare Before Christmas with the films of Rankin Bass, but you can see the influence is still there.  The fact that stop motion animation has such a connection to the holiday season is purely the result of Rankin Bass’ influence.  That’s why so many holiday commercials still use the animation style, banking on people’s familiarity with the holiday specials.  It seems reasonable that Tim Burton saw this connection too, and wanted to invoke the familiarity of the Rankin Bass holiday special style while at the same time subverting it in his own way.  You’ll also find references to characters from the Rankin Bass specials in unlikely places, including an appearance of Snowmiser from The Year Without a Santa Claus in the lair for Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997).  Despite their studio being out of the game in the last 30-plus years, Rankin Bass’ place as an iconic part of the holiday season still remains as strong as ever.

Of course, Rankin Bass is not just an iconic part of the holiday season, but also a  highly celebrated name in the field of animation in general as well.  They helped to carve out a special place in the market and elevate independent animation studios at a time when the medium really needed it.  Their “Amimagic” stop motion puppets have this toy like quality to them that makes them appealing to audiences both young and old, and the specials they made continue to resonate across generations.  And Rankin Bass helped to elevate other parts of the animation field as well.  Toei Animation, which through it’s subsidiary Topcraft animated many of the hand drawn specials for Rankin Bass, would go on to make a name for themselves as producers of major anime hits like DragonBall Z and One Piece.  And before Peter Jackson embarked on his own groundbreaking cinematic trilogy, Rankin Bass’ The Hobbit would stand as the preeminent adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic adventure.  For many of my generation, Rankin Bass was our entry point into Middle Earth.  But, it’s unmistakable that the thing that Rankin Bass will be most remembered for are their holiday specials, and for good reason.  The short programs may be simple and quaint, but they are as cozy as warm sit by the fireplace with a warm cup of hot chocolate on a Christmas night.  The holidays are just not the same without them on TV every year.  While Rudolph still gets it’s annual airing on network TV, many of the lesser seen holiday specials have made their way to other avenues of broadcast.  Freeform, formally the Family Channel, has been the home to the Rankin Bass collection for many years now as part of their 25 Days of Christmas block of programming, and you can still find many of the standards like Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Coming to Town there.  There are also DVD and Blu-ray compilations out there, though it’s hard to find complete collections as the rights to the Rankin Bass library is scattered between NBC Universal and Warner Media.  But, regardless of where you find the specials, just know that they feel just as festive today as they did when they first aired.  Both Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass left behind a marvelous legacy to be proud of, and even into long retirement, they managed to see that legacy grow after they long called it quits.  Arthur Rankin passed away in 2014 and Jules Bass passed just this last October, at the ripe old ages of 89 and 87.  They were valuable pioneers in the field of animation and I hope in their last few years they were able to understand how much they made the holidays for a whole generation of children, including myself, that much more merry and bright.  And with that, may all of you have a holly, jolly Christmas this year.

Avatar: The Way of Water – Review

It’s becoming an increasing rarity to see a new film from award winning director James Cameron these days.  Since his Oscar winning epic Titanic (1997) from 25 years ago, Cameron has only directed two narrative films, with a handful of documentaries scattered around.  And both of those movies take place in the same world; one that Cameron is increasingly more invested in.  For the longest time, 12 years in fact, it seemed like no movie could ever catch the box office record set by Titanic, until James Cameron himself took up the challenge.  Avatar (2009) released into theaters with a fairly modest but strong opening weekend, but then it just stayed around, adding on to it’s box office week after week with better and better returns.  It showed long legs at the box office not seen in Hollywood since what was coincidently Cameron’s last film, and remarkably he found himself the box office king again as Avatar surpassed Titanic’s lofty summit and then some.  Most directors dream of making the most successful movie of all time, and James Cameron can say that he’s accomplished that moment twice in his career.  Avatar’s crown has since passed on to the likes of Star Wars domestically and the Avengers worldwide, but James Cameron can still claim to hold two spots on the all time highest grossing charts in movie history.  So, what does he do for an encore.  Given that Titanic and Avatar are so wildly different kinds of movies (historical epic vs. sci-fi adventure) you would think that he would change things up by tackling another genre.  But instead, Cameron decided to not just return to the world of Avatar for an encore, but to commit to a multi part narrative that will likely consume the rest of his directing career.

If the gap between Titanic and Avatar was lengthy, it’s been exceed even more by the 13 years it took to get this sequel.  Truth be told, that wasn’t by design.  James Cameron began rolling picture on this sequel all the way back in 2016, a full six years ago.  One thing that certainly contributed to the lengthy production on this film was Cameron’s heavy attention to detail.  He wanted this movie to push the boundaries of what is capable with digital animation.  The first Avatar was a groundbreaking movie when it comes to the cinematic tool known as motion capture.   Motion capture allows for an actor’s live action performance to be digitally captured and rendered into a CGI character.  This was famously pioneered in The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the character Gollum, but Avatar took the technology a big step forward by adapting it to a larger cast of characters as well as pushing the limits of the technology to make the CGI appear as lifelike as possible.  The end results were impressive for their time, and largely hold up 13 years later, even with the advancements made to the technology since like with characters such as Caesar from the Planet of the Apes series and Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  At the same time, those same effects were expensive and time consuming to get right.  With James Cameron’s well documented drive for perfection, you can see why it takes him a decade to get a movie made, especially when it requires the level of craft that Avatar does.  But, other factors were in play that delayed a quicker release.  The Disney takeover of Fox, the studio behind most of Cameron’s filmography including Avatar, shelved the project for a while as corporate matters were worked out.  And then there was the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw everything get pushed back on the calendar.  But, now, James Cameron is finally releasing his new movie, Avatar: The Way of Water into theaters, the first of what he plans as series of sequels further exploring the world of Avatar on the big screen.

Despite the 13 year gap between movies, Avatar: The Way of Water picks up right where the last film left off.  The Na’vi race that lives on the moon of Pandora has defeated the colonizing humans who have laid waste to their world.  All the military personal have left the planet, with only a few friendly scientists being allowed to stay, as long as they respect the Na’vi’s territory.  Among the Na’vi, there is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the once human soldier who has now been fully melded into his Na’vi Avatar and has become the chief of his own tribe.  His Na’vi mate Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) has in time born his children, and the two nutured a family of their own.  Among their children are two boys, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), a baby girl named Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), as well as an adopted daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), who was born from the Avatar of the deceased Dr. Grace Augustine under mysterious circumstances.  Hanging around the Sully family is a human boy named Spider (Jack Champion), who has integrated himself into the Na’vi culture despite being an outsider.  The tranquil life that the Sullys and the Na’vi tribe have enjoyed for almost a decade is broken suddenly when a new fleet of human space ships suddenly arrive and begin laying waste to the environment.  But the new colonizers carry an even more insidious cargo.  A new crop of Avatar clones have arrived with them, filled with the memories of fallen marines that were at war with the Na’vi in years past.  Among them is an Avatar clone of Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who is eager to pick up where his human predecessor left off; seeking revenge on Jake Sully and hunting down the remaining Na’vi.  Sully learns of the danger from this new threat and for the sake of his tribe decides to retreat into a self imposed exile with his family in order to save the rest of his people.  The Sully family eventually find refuge in a community of aquatic based Na’vi, led by Chieftain Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and his queen Ronal (Kate Winslet).  Despite some difficulty, the Sully family adjust to life living in and around the vast Pandoran oceans.  But, as they soon learn, even out at sea they can still be hunted down by Quaritch, who will find Jake Sully by any means necessary.

When the first Avatar came out, it was a movie that definitely divided audiences.  A lot of people proclaimed it as a masterpiece, while another significant amount of people thought it was trivial and overhyped.  As for myself, I would say I fell more into the latter camp.  I didn’t hate the movie, and I would dare say that I liked it quite a bit as a spectacle.  But, it was a movie that was more style over substance, as the unoriginal screenplay and it’s wooden characters were definitely it’s biggest shortcomings.  What was unfortunate about the movie was the fact that as a story it was painfully derivative, especially with it’s cringe “white savior” narrative, which led many people to deride the film as “Dances with Smurfs.”  But, it should be noted that where James Cameron fails as a screenwriter he more than makes up for as a director.  I can think of very few directors who can command an action scene as well as he does.  It’s the moments when he leans more into spectacle where his movies shine, and Avatar certainly has plenty of those moments.  The guy can direct the hell out of his movies, and that to me is what helped to drive audiences back into the theater multiple times to see the movie.  So, did something change in between the first and second movie for better or worse?  Honestly, whatever opinion you had about the first Avatar will likely be the same opinion you have about the second one.  That’s where I ended up falling after seeing.  Just like with the first movie I admire the movie for it’s spectacle but at the same time can’t help but feel let down by it’s story.  To be honest though, there were some things that I do feel were improved upon a little bit from the original film.  One of the best changes is the “white savior” narrative being gone.  Sully as a character is far more grounded and believable as a hero in this movie, more passively playing a part in this world’s culture rather than being the driving force that he was before.  He’s no longer bending the Na’vi culture to his will, but is instead playing his part in respecting the cultures of this world while at the same time dealing with his own familial issues on the side within the story.

What I also appreciate is that while most blockbuster films force feed their audience backstory and exposition, James Cameron instead allows the viewer the time to absorb the world of this story.  The movie runs a staggering 3 hours and 12 minutes long (only two minutes shy of Titanic  by the way) and at several points in the movie, the film merely lets the atmosphere take precedent.  While the excessive length does open the movie up to some lagging, particularly in the middle, I do appreciate the attempt on James Cameron’s part to actually slow the movie down enough for us to really soak in the world of Pandora; something most other directors would fear to do.  To the movie’s credit, those 3+ hours don’t feel that long, and it especially peaks up steam in that final action packed hour.  The movie constantly lets the spectacle of looking at the world of Pandora be the driving force of the film.  But, at the same time, you leave the movie with the sense that little if anything was accomplished over the course of the movie.  For a movie with a three hour length, there is surprisingly little story in it.  Most of what we see is roughly a cat and mouse chase between our hero and our villain.  There is slight clashing between the sea Na’vi and the forest Na’vi, but nothing that really adds much to the drama of the story.  It’s hard to even say that Jake Sully is the main character here, as the Sully family as a unit is the central protagonist group of this movie.  Whatever character development there is mostly given to the children, and it’s again James Cameron being very derivative in his writing.  Surprisingly, one of the best character arcs in the movie belongs to a redemption arc for a Space whale of all things.  A lot of the shortcomings in the story are pretty typical of a James Cameron movie, as he likes his characters to be simple archetypes who more or less are shaped by events within the movie story itself rather than through lingering factors from their individual backstories.  For James Cameron, the story has always been secondary to the visuals, so it shouldn’t be at all surprising that he continues to lean more on his strengths as a director to carry his movie.

For Avatar: The Way of Water, James Cameron has surprisingly managed to keep his cast in tact even after a decade long gap.  I would say of the returning cast members, the one who has shown the most improvement is Sam Worthington.  It can be said that the weakest link of the original Avatar was Worthington’s one note performance as the lead.  His Jake Sully was mainly there to act as an audience circuit who follows the tried and true “hero’s journey” in a strange new world.  This time around, Worthington is acting pretty much the whole way through as his Avatar, never once appearing as Jake Sully in his original human form.  He’s also a much different character this time around; a father rather than a warrior.  And as such, we see the years of parenting and growing more comfortable with this world having an effect on him.  Worthington in all these years seems to have also found more interesting ways to bring character to his Sully, and imbue him with more personality this time around.  The Sully children are the characters that get the most development throughout the movie, with middle child Lo’ak in particular getting the lion’s share.  What I like is that they integrated the idea of the Sully children having this extra bit of separation from the other Na’vi people because they are half breed, bearing hands with five fingers rather than the more common four, something that was obviously passed down from their human born father.  This introduces an element of prejudice into the story, showing that the seemly noble Na’vi are not without their own flaws, namely towards those that they view as different than themselves.  One thing that is a bit disappointing in this movie is how the returning cast members, other than Sam Worthington, are kind of pushed to the side.  Zoe Saldana suffers the most from this, as her Neytiri (the best character from the original movie) is given not much to do here.  Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang’s performances are also limited as well, even though they do make the most of their limited screen time.  It’s a mixed bag overall with regards to the characters, with some cases being improvements over the original movie while others are unfortunately lessened.

The thing that definitely does not disappoint with Avatar: The Way of Water is the breathtaking visuals.  James Cameron, for most of his career, has been all about transporting his audience.  Whether it’s to the bottom of the ocean floor in The Abyss (1989) to the decks and hallways of the Titanic, to the natural wonders of Pandora in Avatar.  His goal is to make his audience feel like they are there.  The original Avatar did a magnificent job of creating a world that was alien, but also familiar to our own world in many ways, and make it also feel organic and lived in as well.  He succeeded at that in a magnificent way, which makes it even more of a challenge upon revisiting that same world in a new movie.  The smart thing James did in this movie to change things up was switch biomes.  The original movie took place mostly in the rainforests of Pandora, but that’s just a small part of a much larger world.  With The Way of Water, Cameron takes his story out of the jungle and out into the open ocean, and that helps to make the visual feast of this film feel fresh and less like a retread.  We are getting more of a sense of just how diverse the biology of Pandora is, even among the Na’vi, and that helps to give this movie it’s own character as well.  Cameron of course makes good use of the refinements made to computer animation made over the last decade, and in particular, I think that his effects team may have made yet another big leap forward.  I was particularly blown away by how well the digital water looks in this movie.  Apparently, Cameron’s team invented a whole new way to do motion capture of his actors while they were in actual water, thanks to a state of the art sound stage pool that they recorded their foundational raw footage in.  The underwater scenes in particular are the main reason to get out to see this movie on a big screen in 3D.  They are absolutely breathtaking, and show off the best visuals that they movie has to offer.  Until now, water often looked strangely artificial in computer animation, but in The Way of Water, the digital effects team may have finally cracked the code to make digital water look as close to the real thing as possible.  At the same time, the motion capture technology is very much improved since the first film.  Skin textures in particular feel more authentic, and the subtleties in the actors’ facial acting is much better translated now.  Even still, they managed to make the movie feel like a natural continuation of the first movie.  In overall visuals, this movie in many ways improves upon the first.  James Cameron enlisted his Titanic DP, Oscar winner Russell Carpenter, to shoot this movie, probably because of his expertise in shooting scenes in water, and you can really see the impact that Carpenter’s keen eye had in shaping the look of this film.  The Avatar franchise above all else must be a feast for the eyes, to the point where it feels like a real tactile world, and it’s pleasing to see how well James Cameron has maintained that over all these years.

So, for some this movie will likely not win them over to liking this franchise if they disliked the first film already.  Cameron’s weakness as a writer is known, and even in iconic films of his like Titanic he’s had the tendency to have very poor judgement in his choices within the dialogue.  The same problems are found here too, but like most of his other movies, his film is buoyed by the incredible spectacle of it all.  He is an epic filmmaker without equal, and it’s clear that he knows where his strengths lie.  I was able to be on the edge of my seat during the breathtaking action sequences in the movie, while at the same time feeling like the movie would’ve been better served with a different polish of the screenplay.  Cameron needs a writer who understands character development better, like what George Lucas had with Lawrence Kasdan in the Star Wars franchise.  A writer with a strong character building background could work well with James Cameron’s world-building, and help bring this franchise to it’s full potential.  Unfortunately, Cameron’s a filmmaker who likes to be more hands on, even in script process, so the likelihood of him doing that are pretty slim.  In the end, Avatar: The Way of Water is shiny and beautiful on the outside, but hollow inside.  The story, even with the 3+ hour runtime, doesn’t really amount to much.  It’s just the same story with a different setting.  That being said, I could see this as being a much worse sequel.  James Cameron clearly made this movie out of his love for the project, and not as a cynical cash-grab mandated by the studio.  That’s why he’s committed to making several more, which are thankfully going to be released in much shorter windows across the next couple years.  The best thing I can say is that it does interest me in seeing where James Cameron decides to take this franchise next.  Hopefully he continues this world tour aspect and explores even more corners of Pandora in other movies.  Like I said before, if you loved the first one, you’ll probably love this too, and if you hated Avatar before, you are likely going to feel the same with this one as well.  I was more of the mind of being mixed on the original film, and that extended into this movie as well.  It’s got some moments of absolute wonder, as well as the typical Cameron spectacle in it’s action scenes, but it also has a story and screenplay that fall well short of greatness.  For the best experience, find the biggest screen you can (preferably IMAX) and try to see it in 3D.  Full immersion is James Cameron’s goal, and his preferred viewing experience is the one I just described to you,  And if that’s not possible, there’s still enough good about the movie to help keep it afloat.  It’s a job well done for James Cameron, but let’s hope that in the further adventures on Pandora that he adds more depth of character and story to match the out of this world visuals that have distinguished this series so far.

Rating: 7.5/10

Evolution of Character – The Nutcracker

There are plenty of classic tales that have over time become favorites around Christmas time.  There is of course Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as well as more contemporary stories that have come out of the movies like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and  Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  But if there is one story that has certainly become almost synonymous with the holidays and it renowned around the world, it is the classic tale of the Nutcracker.  The story first emerged in 1816 as a short story written by German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffman.  The story titled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is about a young child’s favorite toy coming to life on Christmas Eve to save her from the wicked Mouse King and then after the battle whisks the girl away to his magical kingdom of real live dolls where they crown her queen.  It’s a charming fairy tale for children and it unsurprisingly quickly became a favorite story across Europe at the time.  Numerous adaptations were made in other languages at the height of it’s popularity, including a French one written by famed author Alexander Dumas.  But, it was when the story reached the cultural circles of Russia that it fell into the hands of one of the story’s most important figures.  That man was composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who in 1892 took this familiar tale and used it as the inspiration for his new ballet score.  While Hoffman was the one who created the tale, it was Tchaikovsky who made it immortal.  One cannot imagine the story of the Nutcracker now without the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s musical themes.  It’s also why today the story is retold today, more often than not, in the form of a ballet performance.  This is certainly true of the many film adaptations of the story that have been made, which almost all have at least some ballet elements.  Below are a few of the most noteworthy representations of the character of the Nutcracker on the big screen, which either vary close to the original intention of Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s ballet or take the character and his story in very wild and unexpected directions.


It helps to start with an adaptation that sticks pretty close to the Tchaikovsky ballet that most people are familiar with.  This production was staged by the American Ballet Theater (ABT) and was aired on CBS stations during the holidays.  It’s also noteworthy for having the lead role being played by one of the most famous dancers of that era.  Baryshnikov was at this point starting to become a household name not just in the world of ballet theater, but also in film as well.  This staging came just mere months after his star making role in the film The Turning Point (1977) co-starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft.  His small role as a womanizing Russian dancer stole the film and he earned an Oscar nomination the following year for his performance.  Not bad for someone who was just emerging onto the scene in the prestigious New York based ABT.  He also made headlines years prior for his public defection from the Soviet Union, gaining asylum in Canada before making his way to New York.  Suffice to say, this was a version of the famed ballet that benefitted from featuring a star that was well on the rise.  It goes without saying that Baryshnikov excels in the film with his athletic command of the ballet stage.  The overall presentation is what you would expect of a filmed version of a stage performance.  From what I’ve gathered, this is the only time he has played the part on both stage and screen, given that he was already 29 at the time of the recording of this performance and this is a role that typically is filled by younger dancers.  Still, those looking for a more pure, traditional staging of this story in it’s ballet form will be satisfied with the version of it here, as well as have the opportunity to see a dancer of Baryshnikov’s stature filling out the iconic, titular role.


A story with high fantasy like “The Nutcracker” is almost certainly going to receive the animated treatment eventually.  What is surprising is that the biggest name in animation, The Walt Disney Company, passed on adapting this familiar story into it’s own film; at least initially.  They instead took Tchaikovsky’s score and animated a pastoral montage of nature set to music for a segment in the film Fantasia (1940).  A true animated feature based on the story of the Nutcracker wouldn’t come until 1979, when we received this stop-motion animated film based very loosely on the original story.  Despite it’s strong resemblance to the stop-motion holiday specials by Rankin Bass, this feature was actually a Japanese production made by the Sanrio company, who are most famous for their Hello Kitty character.  The story of the Nutcracker in this film borrows a bit more from “The Wizard of Oz” than it does from the Hoffman tale, with the girl Clara spending much more of her story in the toy kingdom.  The character of the Nutcracker, here called Franz, is very different from the version we are all familiar with, being more of an appointed protector of  Clara rather than a driving force in the story himself.  Unlike in the original story, the curse that makes him a nutcracker happens late in the film rather than being a factor in his introduction.  And I don’t know if it’s a sign of the times, or a loss in translation through the Japanese interpretation of this classic story, but the film depicts a major age disparity between Franz and Clara that gets a little uncomfortable watching it today, especially when the two start showing romantic interest in one another.  It might be a factor in the English voice casting as well, as the mature sounding Roddy McDowall contrasts heavily with the you sounding Melissa Gilbert in their respective roles.  Aside from this, it’s an odd but still visually appealing animated presentation, and that strong resemblance to the Rankin Bass style certainly helps to give the movie a good holiday time feel.  But, as far as true adaptation of this story, there are far better examples to choose from.


Here we have what many proclaim to be the finest cinematic presentation of the ballet ever done.  It’s essentially a filmed version of the ballet, this one put on by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company based out of Seattle, Washington, with stagecraft and scenery based on the artwork of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak of “Where the Wild Things Are” fame.  Sendak’s picture book adaptation of the original Hoffman story is a highly celebrated work of art on it’s own, but here we see it come to life along with the Tchaikovsky ballet, creating a truly surreal experience.  What is great about this version is that the filmmakers took the same ballet from the stage, but they composed their shots like they were filming a real movie.  Basically this is a version of the ballet performance meant primarily to be seen on the big screen.  There are some incredible visual effects used to create an imaginative experience.  Not only does the Nutcracker fight an army of mice led by the Mouse King, but the Mouse King is a grotesque, multi-headed monster that would feel at home in a Jim Henson fantasy epic like The Dark Crystal (1982).  The Maurice Sendak element of it all also gives the film a lot of character, with characters presented with exaggerated features to make them look more closely like they jumped off of the page of Sendak’s drawings.  Give credit to ballet dancer Wade Walthall, who has to perform his acrobatic moves with a giant nutcracker head on his shoulders.  Most stagings of the ballet do require the Nutcracker performer to wear a mask during his first introduction, but the one in this film is ridiculously large in order to mimic the Sendak style, so it’s a testament to the talent of the dancer.  While there is a quaintness to the visual effects of this version of the ballet, it is imaginative enough to help the whole movie stand out as one of the best versions ever captured on screen, and one that has another layer of an artist like Maurice Sendak adding his own visual flair to Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s music.


Since Disney chucked away the story of the Nutcracker in favor of animating to the music, it seems only natural that someone else would swoop in to take on the material themselves.  Made by independent Hinton Animation Studios and released through Warner Brothers, this animated version sticks pretty closely to the original version of Hoffman’s story, but perhaps more than most theatrical versions seen, it puts the Nutcracker himself in a far more central part of the story.  The film still centers around Clara and her journey, but the Nutcracker is far more than a secondary character here.  He goes through his own character arc of having to re-establish his place as a monarch in the toy kingdom after a long absence away.  It also puts more of a conflicting wedge between him and Clara as the condition for him being human again rests on Clara committing to staying by his side as his queen.  Apart from that extra bit of character building, the movie is pretty simplistic for an animated film, which is more a result of having to stretch out Hoffman’s short story to feature length without the benefit of long dance routines to pad the time.  The movie came in a transitionary time for animation, as Disney was in the middle of their Renaissance period, and animation standards were improving greatly.  This movie can’t quite match the same Disney quality, but for a small independent animated project it nevertheless has ambition behind it, as well as a strange stylized backstory that feels like classic Looney Tunes.  The voice cast is also noteworthy, with Keifer Sutherland (yes, Jack Bauer himself) playing the role of the Nutcracker.  Of course this was made when he was still a young actor, but it is kind of strange associating that voice with this kind of character.  This could be a good film to introduce younger audiences who don’t have the patience to sit through a ballet to the famed story, but in the grand scheme of things in animation, it leaves a lot to be desired when compared to what Disney was making at the time.


You may find this hard to believe, but right in the heart of his meteoric rise to fame following a starring role in Home Alone (1990), Macaulay Culkin also starred in a filmed ballet version of the Nutcracker.  It’s actually not too far out of left field.  Culkin in his childhood days before film stardom did take dancing lessons, though he was well short of being a professional ballet performer.  Still, as he was beginning to be cast in more high profile movies, he was also given the opportunity to play the title character in this production of the Nutcracker, put together by the ABT and choreographer George Balanchine.  This Balanchine staging was significant, because it broke with tradition in having young children play the roles of the Nutcracker Prince and Clara.  Typically more experienced dancers play the roles, but here the roles are meant for younger performers with some of the more demanding routines given to the supporting cast, thereby making the staging more true to the original story.  Culkin, for his part, fits the role fine and doesn’t feel too novice compared to the the more experienced dancers.  But, anyone looking to see him play a more central role in this film version may be disappointed as it’s another staging that makes the Nutcracker a more passive player in the story.  What’s interesting is that this movie sat on a shelf for years, even as Culkin’s profile in Hollywood was exploding.  He shot the movie just shortly after he made the first Home Alone, but the film wasn’t released until even after he made Home Alone 2 (1992).  By that time, Culkin had grown up a bit and his star power was not quite as strong as it once was.  If you saw this movie in succession with his other movies at the time, you would see him de-age by about 3-4 years in a jarring change of pace for his career.  Part of the reason for this was contract disputes with the makers of the film and Culkin’s father who managed his career, mainly over how Culkin’s presence in the movie would be publicized.  It only led to this movie missing it’s prime moment and ultimately flopping at the box office.  It was too long forgotten to impact Macaulay in any negative way, and the film ultimately pales in comparison to the Sendak version.  But it is an interesting side note in the history of this character on the big screen, as at some point he was played by one of the biggest movie stars in the world at the time of it’s release.


There will probably never be an adaptation of The Nutcracker story as wild and misguided as this one.  A long time passion project for Russian filmmaker Andrey Konchalovskiy, this version of the story only has a passing resemblance to the Hoffman original.  The rest of this adaptation is filled in with a allegory to the Holocaust.  You heard me right.  Oh, and it’s a musical too.  This is one bizarre movie, and not in a good way.  The Nutcracker himself is also pretty off-putting, animated mostly as a CGI puppet with a disturbing looking, expressionless stare.  Anyone who thinks that the Pinocchio puppet in Guillermo Del Toro’s new stop motion adaptation of that story is disturbing clearly hasn’t seen this version of the Nutcracker.  Not only that, but actress Shirley Henderson’s vocal performance is screechy and obnoxious and not at all endearing.  Thankfully, when the nutcracker turns into a real boy, played by Charlie Rowe, he sounds more natural, but most of the movie features the former rather than the latter.  Just to show you how misguided Konchalovskiy’s adaptation is, the Rat King (played by a very hammy John Tuturro) subjugates the toys within a kingdom with very fascist overtones, to the point where he even begins to  burn them in bonfires.  Maybe allusions to the Holocaust may have worked if the movie fit that kind of tone consistently, but no, Konchalovskiy includes this kind of imagery with a whimsical tone that just makes the Holocaust allegory all the more out of place and offensive.  This alone makes this the worst version of the Nutcracker ever adapted in any medium.  But, there was a lot of other factors in this movie that make the whole thing a disaster, and the disturbing Nutcracker is chief among them.  It’s honestly a movie that really goes out of it’s way to make everything that was great about the Nutcracker (it’s whimsical tale, the iconic music, it’s memorable) and do the complete worst thing possible with all of them.


Well, it took them almost 80 years, but Disney finally got around to making a true Nutcracker movie, or so you would think.  Essentially, they are doing a Hook version of this story, based on the practice of making a sequel to a familiar story with characters returning to a fantasy world after a long absence, without having to make the original as a set up.  The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is another movie from the Disney company that seems to have put the bulk of it’s resources into the art direction and far less into the story and script.  It’s a hollow world-building exercise that in no way feels authentic and worth anyone’s time.  One of the big problems in this version is despite being in the title of the film, the Nutcracker is a minor supporting player in this film.  Jayden Fowora-Knight is decent, and it is interesting at least to see the part played by an actor of color, but the character matters so little in the grand scheme of the cliched story that you wonder at all why he’s a part of the title.  It’s probably because without the name “Nutcracker,” no one would ever know it’s connected to the famous story.  The Nutcracker himself, named Phillip this time, isn’t even cursed in this version, and never goes through a transformation from toy nutcracker to a real boy.  We only connect him to the character purely by the way he dresses, as the typical foot soldier design that most nutcracker dolls are made to look like.  If it weren’t for the travesty of Nutcracker: The Untold Story, Four Realms would likely be the disastrous production of this story ever put on screen.  It had a notoriously complicated production, which led to one director (Lasse Hallstrom) being unable to finish the movie during re-shoots and another director hired at the last second (Joe Johnston) to finish what had been started.  The end result, unsurprisingly lacks cohesion and substance, and not surprisingly it performed very poorly at the box office, dashing any hopes of a franchise.  Still, as Untold Story proved, Disney could have done much worse.  They should have followed Walt Disney’s original instinct and just work with the Tchaikovsky music.

So, there you have some of the most notable big screen versions of the Nutcracker character that audiences have been able to see.  For the most part, The Nutcracker is a character that is better appreciated live on the stage during a ballet performance.  There’s a reason why the ballet remains a favorite all these years later, especially as a key part of the holiday traditions.  What is interesting is that Tchaikovsky himself was not fond of his ballet score, finding it unsatisfying and too simplistic compared to his more preferred complex works like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.  And yet, The Nutcracker compared to the rest is the most often staged, making it his most successful score overall.  It’s only recently that we’ve been seeing film adaptations of the Hoffman story, because of the continued popularity of the ballet.  And because of that enormous popularity, few of the film adaptations stray away from the ballet as well.  The 1986 version with art design inspired by the drawings of Maurice Sendak is probably the best combination of the art of dance and cinema brought together that we’ve ever seen, but there are valiant attempts to fill the story with more than just beautiful choreography.  The two animated versions from 1979 and 1990 do their best to fill Hoffman’s short story with more enriched character development and an expanded plot, even if they fall a little short.  They certainly do a lot better than the live action films, with Untold Story being an especially notorious misfire that insultingly tries to add Holocaust allegory to this simple children’s fairy tale.  Even if the big screen’s samplings have been fairly light, there are numerous stage versions across the country that are easy to find during the Holiday Season.  It’s a production that is a part of every ballet company’s repertoire, and remarkably has shown to account for nearly 20% of all yearly ticket sales alone for those dance companies.  That’s a real testament to the staying power of this story and it’s iconic status as a part of the Christmas season.  Whether he’s dancing across the big screen, or on stages large and small across the world, or just sitting on a table or shelf as one of your Christmas decorations, The Nutcracker still remains an integral figure of everyone’s joyous Holiday experience.

Less Magical Kingdom – The Chaotic End to the Chapek Era at Disney

It has to be one of the most stressful jobs in all of media to take on the role of CEO of the Walt Disney Company.  Disney has in all of it’s nearly 100 years of existence propelled itself to become the largest media company in the entire world.  It not only is in the business of movie making, but it also is a company with deep roots in consumer goods, theme parks, travel and hospitality, and many more avenues of commerce as well.  Being the CEO of a company like that must truly be a jack of all trades with knowledge of how to run so many diverse department all at once.  But being the CEO of the Disney company also has another aspect that proves to be an extra layer of pressure on the job.  Every person who rises to that role does so still within the long cast shadow of the company’s charismatic founder.  Walt Disney truly was a unique individual in the history of Hollywood.  One of the industry’s biggest risk takers, Disney managed to find a way to turn his little cartoon studio and make it into one of the most valuable names in all of entertainment.  When he suddenly succumbed to his secret battle with cancer in 1966, it left a major vacancy that honestly could never be filled again.  Walt’s brother Roy held the company together up until the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, and he passed away soon after himself.  The time afterwards became one of the lowest points in the company’s history, but fresh outside talent brought into the studio in the form of Michael Eisner as the new CEO in the 1980’s ushered in a new era of growth.  Eisner would oversee a prosperous time in the company, but over time he began to also become overwhelmed by the duties the job required.  His successor, Bob Iger, however managed to guide Disney to new heights with major acquisitions like Marvel and Lucasfilm, and was proclaimed as the best head of the company since Walt himself.  Unlike many other Disney CEO’s, Iger handed over the reigns of the company to a new successor while still on top.  However, as we would see, a whole different story would play out with his hand picked successor, Bob Chapek, stepping into the role.

Bob Chapek began working for the Walt Disney Company in 1993 as part of the Home Entertainment department.  A large part of his success in this department came from his push to move Disney into digital entertainment, which at the time was DVD’s and later Blu-ray.  He’s also the guy who created the concept of the “Disney Vault” which was an excuse Disney would use to pull some of their movies out of circulation after a few years, thereby increasing demand for newer editions of the same movie down the line.  You can credit him for the multiple times you’ve bought copies of the same Disney classics through their multiple re-releases, if you’re that kind of Disney fan.  His success in home video eventually got him promoted to President of Consumer Products in 2011.  This was an especially good time to take on that role, as it was around this period that Disney acquired Marvel and Star Wars, which gave Chapek and his team multiple new IP’s to merchandise.  In 2015, Chapek was then moved to the head of Parks and Resorts, a role that was going to be very important in the years that followed as Disney was preparing big projects like Shanghai Disneyland and the opening of Pandora-The World of Avatar in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, as well as the construction and opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland and Disney World.  While Chapek was able to manage these projects to help them complete on schedule, he was also criticized for neglecting other budgeting areas of the park experience, namely cast member salaries and maintenance costs.  Still, CEO Bob Iger was pleased with how well Bob Chapek managed the roll outs of these major projects and decided on him to succeed in the position of CEO once Iger’s contract was up in 2020.  For Iger, he believed it was the right time to go, as Disney had grown to colossal heights under his leadership and that a budget minded person like Chapek was the steadiest hand to take the wheel of the ship into the future.  However, neither of them really knew what that future would be like.

Bob Chapek’s ascendency into the role of CEO of the Walt Disney Company could not have occurred at a worse time for anyone.  The turnover from Iger to Chapek happened mere weeks before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which put immediate and overwhelming pressure on all parts of the world economy, including the Walt Disney Company.  Movie theaters had to close, so there was no box office revenue to be had.  Even worse, all theme parks, the biggest piece of Disney’s corporate pie, were forced to remain closed in order to stop the spread of the virus.  The Disney Company under Iger was also ending it’s run with a massive amount of debt due to the acquisition of 20th Century Fox in the last year as well as the infrastructure needed to launch the new streaming platform Disney+ in 2019.  Chapek was given the unenviable task of steering the company forward even as the world itself was falling apart.  No money coming in from box office receipts or theme park passes meant left Chapek with only one avenue to keep the company from losing so much of what it built up; boosting consumer confidence in Disney’s future.  He did so through drastic expansion of the still in it’s infancy Disney+.  Projects that were initially meant for theaters were turned into streaming exclusives, with the biggest titles like the Mulan (2020) remake getting a special Premiere paid access presentation.  It may have been a droplet in the bucket of Disney’s usual yearly profits, but it allowed investors to be convinced that Disney still had the potential to remain at the top even in the face of the effects of the pandemic.  Indeed, Disney’s subscriber growth in the pandemic economy far outpaced it’s competitors and Disney’s stock price remarkably hit it’s highest point during this time period.  As the year went on, Chapek made further choices to bring high in demand programing like the filmed version of the musical Hamilton (2020) as well as Pixar’s Soul (2020) exclusively to Disney+.  The same strategy continued into the following year, as the theatrical market was slow to recover.  But, after steering the company through the rough pandemic economy, Chapek needed to convince the market that he would be able to make good on the promise of continued growth through a recovery economy that followed.

It was in the year of 2021 that cracks began to form in Chapek’s tenure as CEO of the Disney company.  Where the market first began to become aware of Bob Chapek’s short-comings as a CEO probably came during the public feud that erupted with actress Scarlett Johannsson of Marvel’s Black Widow fame.  Johannsson was finally getting a solo film within the Marvel franchise after over a decade of playing the iconic Marvel hero.  However, when the contract was written up during the development of the Black Widow (2021) movie, it included a share of the movie’s box office profit as part of her compensation.  When the movie was ultimately released, it was given a partial theatrical run with a simultaneous Premiere Access on Disney+.  To Scarlett and her team, this looked like an attempt to stifle the box office portion of her contract by siphoning some of that revenue into the streaming portion, which was not a part of the original contract. Johannsson rightfully took Disney to court over this as she never consented to a split premiere for the movie and that she was entitled to some of the revenue from the streaming pot.  Chapek, for some misguided reason, tried to paint Scarlett as an out of touch elite during a pandemic, but fans didn’t buy it at all.  Instead, Chapek looked like the greedy one, and fans demanded that Disney settle to give Scarlett exactly what she was demanding.  This was Bob Chapek’s first public stumble, but it wouldn’t be the last.  This immediately put a wedge between him and the top brass at Marvel, since Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige needed to maintain good relations with his talent.  Chapek also alienated himself with the animation departments, as they seemed to be increasingly pushed onto streaming against their wishes, especially at Pixar.  But where people really started to be concerned about the direction where Chapek was taking the company came when he made some rather controversial power moves.  In June of 2022, just as Chapek was given an extension of his own contract, he ended up firing entertainment and programming chairman Peter Rice, a person widely seen in the Disney company as a potential challenger to Chapek’s position as CEO.  This had all the looks of a desperation move on Chapek’s part; a Machiavellian gesture to assert his own direction at the Disney company.  This led a lot of people to call out Chapek publicly for his callous power grab at Disney, including Bob Iger who later stated that picking Chapek to succeed him was his worst decision as CEO.  But as long as the Disney company continued to remain profitable, Chapek had nothing to worry about.  But as the end of 2022 drew near, that would prove to be more bad new for Chapek as well.

On November 20, 2022, the Walt Disney Company board took the drastic measure to fire Bob Chapek after a disastrous quarterly earning report that saw Disney’s stock free fall.  What is especially shocking about this is that Chapek was not notified of his firing until it was made public to the rest of the world, and that Bob Iger would be returning to the job effective immediately.  With all that, the Bob Chapek era, the shortest tenure of any Disney CEO, came to a shocking and chaotic end.  There have been controversial corporate politics going on within the walls of the Disney Company before, but this was something on a whole different level.  Why did Disney go to such extremes to remove Chapek so quickly?  Well, if you had been following the inner workings of the Disney company over the last couple years, you could definitely see the writing on the wall.  It’s just shocking that it ended so abruptly.  The contract dispute with Scarlett Johannsson was just the first time we saw this spill over into public view.  Internally, many people at Disney became well aware of Bob Chapek’s poor communication skills and his lack of respect for creatives that worked within the company.  He is a corporate CEO through and through; a man who spends his time being more concerned with numbers on a spreadsheet rather than carving out a vision to inspire a company.  That may be good management style for a different kind of corporation, but Disney is and has always been a company that has put creatives first.  Going all the way back to Walt Disney’s time, the company has strived to push itself forward through innovation in storytelling, art, and the consumer experience.  This is why they try to form creative partnerships with the best filmmakers, animators, engineers, architects, and performers in the world.  And all the CEO’s from Walt to Eisner to Iger carried that vision for creativity forward, making Disney un-paralled in the world of entertainment.  But, Chapek didn’t have the skills to forge a vision for the company nor manage good relationships with creatives.  He had a mind to manage the money, and this unfortunately led to shortsighted pursuits for short term profit gains that diluted the magic within the company.

One thing that Chapek especially lost sight of in his pursuit of maximizing profits at the Disney company was the focus on the consumer experience.  If there is one thing that Disney has that has helped them through hard times, it’s a dedicated fan base.  There are millions of people out there that spend a good portion of their money indulging their Disney fandom.  They go to all the movies, buy annual passes to the theme parks, collect the countless pieces of merchandise, and attend special events for Disney fans such as the D23 Expo each and every year.  For most of people’s lives, Disney has delivered on the so-called “Disney Magic,” and have satisfactorily made the fan base proud and feel like they matter as part of the company’s legacy.  But, under Chapek’s time, the role of a Disney fan seemed to feel more like a chore than a celebration.  With theme parks this was especially true.  Under Chapek, the Disney Parks division seemed to be more concerned with squeezing out more profits off of park guests than in past years.  Ticket prices went up despite no new attractions being open and things that were convenient and free of charge in the past (like the Fastpass service) were now paywalled.  Not only that, but Chapek’s penchant for cut backs in maintenance and staffing began to catch up as the theme parks started to fall into disrepair.  Park guests, both annual and single day, were becoming frustrated with a sub-par experience that they were now paying extra for, on top of a cumbersome new reservation system that was held over from the pandemic.  The abuse of Disney fans’ good will was definitely most visible in the theme parks, but it was also a company wide problem as well.  There was a general lack of creativity being brought into the company, and many of the creative people who had helped to build the company over the years were beginning to leave.  Chapek’s corporate climate was about monetizing the magic through micro-managed short term profits, and that started to make Disney feel a lot less like the Disney we knew.

Not only that, but Chapek was very bad at earning the trust and loyalty of those working at the company.  In some cases, Disney employees felt betrayed by the company at a time when they really needed the support.  This was definitely the case with the LGBTQ workers within the company during the time when right-wing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” Bill into law; a bill that effectively bans any discussion of LGBTQ issues within Florida classrooms.  This ban hit the queer community of the state of Florida hard, as they saw it as a direct assault on their right to free speech, especially in helping young people learn the importance of equality for the gay community and giving queer youth a voice that they otherwise would be able to have.  The Disney Company has been supportive of the LGBTQ community, granting them equal benefits within their corporation long before most other companies did, and the workers that Disney employs in the State of Florida hoped that Disney would led it’s voice of support against this new, restrictive law.  Unfortunately, Bob Chapek initially chose to remain neutral on the issue, not wanting to feud with local government.  This caused an uproar among the LGBTQ workers in the company, who felt betrayed by the brand that had long had their back before.  Chapek, reacting to the backlash, pivoted to speaking out against the bill, which in turn led to even more backlash from Governor DeSantis and the Republicans in the Florida statehouse, who in turn voted to repeal the Reedy Creek Restoration Administration; a crucial special governmental exemption that allowed Walt Disney to develop Walt Disney World without interference.  So, through Chapek’s passive stance on a crucial issue affecting workers in his company, he in turn lost a lot of trust from many of his employees company wide and was in danger of having Disney World lose it’s self-governing administration that Walt Disney worked so hard to secure as payback for not following along with the Florida government’s bigoted agenda.  Had Chapek been more clear on a position from the beginning, no matter what side it fell on, he would be getting it from both side like he ended up doing in this case.  Iger, by contrast, was quick to condemn the Florida law and in turn that has helped him to retain more of that trust from the Disney employees and the fans as a whole.

It’s hard to say if Bob Chapek wasn’t already doomed from the moment he took the job.  The timing of his ascension could not have been worse as it came right at the start of a pandemic.  He did maintain consumer confidence through the worst of that experience, but once the world began to open up again, including the crucial theme parks and movie theaters that are the key money generators for the company, he needed to prove he could continue growing the company even more and he feel way short of that.  Instead, he burned bridges with creatives, cut budgets to within a inch of total annihilation, and nickel-and-dimed the fan base that had their good will wearing thin.  It just seemed like Bob Chapek didn’t care about what made Disney great; he just wanted to find a way to get more money out of what was already there.  The end clearly was coming for Chapek after this last D23 Expo in Anaheim, California.  He only made one public appearance in the three day event, opening the Disney Legends ceremony that kicks off the Expo on day one, and when he walked onto stage he was greeted by a chorus of boos from the crowd.  This was the D23 Expo; a collection of some of the most die hard Disney fans, and they were booing the head of the company.  It took a bit longer for the Disney board to see the light, but Disney fans knew already that it wasn’t working out with Chapek.  He alienated himself from fans, lost trust with creatives, betrayed the trust of marginalized employees at the company, and was increasingly making self-serving power moves to save his own skin instead of course correcting in order to save the company.  Now, Bob Iger is back in charge, seemingly as a means of cleaning up the mess of the last 3 years and making a do-over of training his successor.  I don’t think Iger is going to fix every single problem, but one thing he will be helpful with is re-establishing trust with the creatives within the Disney company again.  That’s the main difference between Iger and Chapek, a vision based on pushing the Disney company to be leaders in the field, and not just managing the stock value.  Some have speculated that Iger is just putting the house in order for a future sale to Apple, which I think is bogus.  Does Apple really want to be in the theme park business?  Or run a cruise line?  Apple’s name is only coming up because they are the only ones with the kind of capital to actually buy a company as large as Disney.  Disney is perfectly capable of maintaining their independence, and they’ve been through hard times before.  There is no doubt that the Chapek Era will be defined primarily for it’s turbulent nature, both of Bob’s own doing and because of outside forces.  Perhaps it’s most memorable moment, however, will be the way it came to an end.  We may never see Disney or any company like it make such a dramatic move to change the course of it’s legacy.  It may in the long run be the necessary move needed to set things right at Disney, because if anything, it demonstrated that the thing that Disney needed to show the world the most was that it was still capable of showing us that it could be that Magical Kingdom again, and not take any of the things that made it magical for granted ever again.

Strange World – Review

What a time for Disney Animation to release their new, 61st feature into theaters.  Just a week before the Thanksgiving Day weekend that has for many years been a major release period for the studio, Disney has seen a major shake-up at the top of their company.  Bob Chapek, the embattled CEO of Disney since 2020 is out and his predecessor Bob Iger is back in, just a few short years after he passed the baton over.  Disney certainly has weathered tough times before, but things certainly were a bit more chaotic during these last couple years, many of it completely out of the control of everyone within the company.  There certainly couldn’t have been a worse time for new management to come in to the head office of the Disney company than the weeks before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but that’s where Disney found itself.  To Chapek’s credit, he did the best he could to steer the company through those early months.  One of the key things that happened in that time was Disney Animation’s move to shifting their productions to “work at home.”  Spread between the animation departments of both Disney and Pixar, this shift enabled the company to continue working on their movies in the pipeline without having to succumb to costly delays.  On the production side of Animation at Disney, the company managed to continue working through the pandemic without missing a beat.  However, Chapek began to lose trust within the company as he cancelled planned theatrical releases for some of the animated films, particularly those made by Pixar, and moved them to streaming instead.  According to some at Pixar, these decisions were made without their consultation.  Chapek’s short term profit motives over time ended up not stacking up as he hoped, leading to big quarterly misses in profits, and thus the Chapek era has come to a drastic and controversial end.  And all the while, Disney has to continue their roll out of new animated features, which have to stand out amidst all this corporate turmoil.

Releasing this weekend is Strange World, an action adventure film that marks one of the final movies made almost entirely at home during the pandemic.  Unlike Pixar Animation, Disney Animation has managed to continue releasing their films in theaters.  The first pandemic affected film, Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) received a hybrid release in both theaters where they were available and through premiere access on Disney+.  The next film, Oscar-winning Encanto (2021), received a full theatrical roll-out that saw modest box office before becoming a huge hit on streaming months later.  All the while, Pixar Animation saw three straight films, Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022) dropped straight to streaming without a full theatrical release like what Disney Animation was getting.  This led the Emeryville based studio to complain that the Burbank based studio was receiving favorable treatment, which may have led to some of the grumbling that contributed to the loss of confidence in Chapek.  Pixar did finally get a theatrical run this summer, but the film Lightyear performed well under expectations.  At the same time, rival studio Illumination managed to gross a billion dollars worldwide with their animated sequel Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022).  With the undervaluation of the Pixar brand during this pandemic, and Disney Animation also failing to reach their pre-pandemic levels at the box office, Disney for the first time in a while looks to be playing catch-up.  And this is after a decade that saw Disney go on a winning streak that included multiple billion dollar movies like Frozen (2013) and Zootopia (2016).  Which means that Strange World has to do some heavy lifting in order to convince Hollywood that Disney is still king of animation.  The question is, did Disney deliver another all time classic or is a movie that sadly is another victim of a company is disarray?

The movie Strange World takes place in the kingdom of Avalonia, a secluded land surrounded by high mountains.  The mountains have long been viewed as impassable, but that view is not shared by Avlonia’s greatest adventurer, Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid).  Jaeger has mastered any challenge thrown his way, but passing through the mountains has been the goal that has eluded him.  He embarks on yet another expedition, but his son Searcher (Jake Gyllenhaal) refuses to go any further after making a discovery in the mountains of a unique plant based power source which he calls Pando.  Jaeger, determined not to give up on his dream of conquering the mountains leaves Searcher and the rest of the team behind and continues his trek.  25 years pass and Searcher Clade has developed a quiet prosperous life as a Pando farmer.  The cultivation of Pando has helped Avalonia progress into an advanced, technological society with flying vehicles and near limitless energy.  Searcher spends his days balancing life as both a farmer and a loving husband a father.  His wife, Meridian (Gabrielle Union) is an expert pilot, while Searcher is hoping to have his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) follow more in his footsteps and take over the farm from him.  But their quiet life is disrupted when the president of Avalonia, Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu), who was once a fellow explorer with Jaeger Clade, delivers the troubling news of a mysterious disease that is affecting their Pando crop.  Searcher agrees to investigate with her, but orders his eager son Ethan to stay home much to the younger Clade’s dismay, as he is hungry for an adventure of his own.  Of course, Ethan manages to sneak aboard their ship as they begin to examine a large sink hole that has emerged in their kingdom.  Not long after Searcher makes the discovery of his son’s hitchhiking, they are attacked by strange looking creatures living in the cavern.  They manage to escape, but find themselves in an even stranger world where everything from the landscape to the vegetation is alive, and out to get them.  But there is more in this “strange world” than what they would have expected, as Searcher runs into someone who has been living in this world for years; his father Jaeger.

Strange World is certainly a departure for Disney, especially after what they gave us with the movie Encanto.  It’s not a musical, and it’s far more pulp adventure than fairy tale magical.  This is a disadvantage that Disney is going to struggle to overcome as it’s contrary to their brand.  This is also especially difficult as Strange World is a high concept adventure film that is going to require a ton of world building that is not exactly easy to accomplish in a short amount of time that most animated features are allowed.  In the long run, this is where Strange World struggles the most.  It’s a movie that spends too much of it’s time building up it’s world, and it works against the other things that are important to making a movie like this work, namely the story and the character development.  Truth be told, the world that is built in the movie is interesting and quite unique, especially among worlds seen in other Disney movies.  But, world-building does not connect if you don’t have story and characters to make it come alive, and audiences will likely not care about how imaginative it is as a result.  In my opinion, I feel like the movie starts to lose it’s world-building touch early, as the kingdom of Avalonia itself is not terribly interesting to begin with.  It’s your generic steam-punk based culture with a Disney coat of paint.  The movie only becomes more visually interesting once it enters the “strange” sub-terrain world, but that’s quite a bit into the story when we finally get there.  What I think also works against the movie is it’s disjointed rhythm.  The movie has very abrupt tonal shifts, making it appear like the filmmakers didn’t quite know how serious or comical they wanted to be with this movie.  It’s probably why Disney has had better luck with their musical films, because there is tonal consistency with their stories.  All the while, despite feeling at times like a mess, there is still enough intrigue in Strange World that helps to prevent it from become a total embarrassment for Disney.

One thing that I do appreciate about the movie is that it is a big swing for Disney Animation.  The thing that I ended up being disappointed with on the movie Encanto is that it seemed too small in it’s scope; which was especially disappointing for a movie that was the landmark 60th feature for Disney Animation.  Strange World by contrast aims higher, at least on a visual level.  Encanto may have been more consistent in tone, but Strange World is far more of an ambitious exercise in its visuals.  It just feels big in a good way.  Where I think the movie really hits its stride is in the final act, when we truly discover what is really behind the origins of this world that we’ve seen.  What I ended up liking is that it worked in an environmental message that feels organic to the story and contains a twist that actually is provocative in its allegorical connection to our own world.  It’s where the story and visuals actually begin to connect in an effective way, and it works in service of the message as opposed to undermining it.  Working in an allegory about protecting the environment could have been easily mishandled and become very heavy handed, but here it feels earned, because it’s a message that the movie didn’t hammer into it’s story early on, but instead let it appear organically as part of the story.  If the movie didn’t have the abrupt tonal changes, which includes some rather jarring jump cuts, it may have made the message work even better.  That’s what happens when high concept movies don’t have enough time to immerse an audience into their world.  An animated movie like Strange World only gets 100 minutes at most to get the job done.  A fantasy film like The Lord of the Rings benefits from 3 hour plus run times that is more than enough to make an imaginative world feel lived in.  Disney ran into this problem before with the movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), another fantasy adventure that felt half-baked due to a short 90 minute run time.  Strange World fares a bit better by keeping the human story simple and the mythology not too dense.  But you can still feel the film struggle to manage it’s various elements as it tries to become a cohesive whole.

The characters in the story are a good example of this movie being a mixed bag.  Some of the characters are wonderfully well-rounded while others are frustratingly simplistic.  One of the movie’s brightest lights is the character Jaeger Clade.  You can really tell that  Dennis Quaid is having a blast playing this boisterous character.  Jaeger manages to be both the movie’s best comic relief as well as its beating heart.  He’s also the one character that feels truly original in this movie.  Most of the others are pretty archetypal by comparison. This is especially the case with Searcher, who just comes across as the typical try-too-hard dad type you see in countless other movies.  Jake Gyllenhaal gives a capable vocal performance, but Searcher is overall a very underwritten character that doesn’t stand out very well, especially in comparison to the character of Jaeger.  A large part of the film’s story centers around the father son story line that spans three generations.  It’s one that is overly familiar, but not entirely done poorly by the film.  It’s in the execution within the movie’s final act that the plot device manages to actually pay off, with the conservative approach of Searcher and the radical approach of Jaeger with regards to parenting manifests in the approach that Ethan Clade takes to making a change in the outcome of the story.  Ethan overall is another character that is both interesting in concept, but perhaps a bit underdeveloped in execution.  He certainly is an important character with regards to representation in the Disney canon.  Not only is he mixed race, but he’s also the first openly  gay character ever in a Disney animated film.  He’s not coded gay or has his sexuality downplayed with a passing mentioned.  The movie does just enough to make it feel like a more important factor in the character’s identity, but at the same time it also doesn’t make too big of a deal about it either.  I especially like how all generations of the family are aware of Ethan’s crush on another boy and it’s treated as completely natural.  Unfortunately, Ethan also suffers from a bit of from being underwritten, and he doesn’t stand out as well in the story as he should.  Jaboukie-Young White voice sounds a bit old for a teenager.  Beyond that, the rest of the cast is mostly passable or forgettable.  I do think Meridian Clade does manage to steal her scenes fairly well, with Gabrielle Union giving a lively vocal performance.  But, it’s a largely mixed-affair when it comes to the characters in this movie.

One thing you can count on from Disney no matter what story they are telling is high quality animation.  Strange World does not disappoint on that front.  The character animation is acceptable enough, with a definite comic book flair given to their character designs.  Again, it’s Jaeger who stands out the most, given that he’s the most lively character in the movie.  The real jaw-dropping animation comes from the creatures that come from the sub-terrain world.  There is a reason why all the creatures look the way they do, but even with that knowledge there is incredible diversity found in the individual organisms that we see throughout the film.  One of the biggest standouts is an amoeba like creature that is given the name Splat.  Splat is a wonderfully animated non-verbal character that has to get a personality across purely through pantomime.  It’s pretty clear that this was going to be the movie’s most marketable character, but to the animator’s credit he feels much more than a ploy to sell toys.  For a character with just a body and no face or discernible anatomy, he manages to convey personality through body language and that’s a challenge that animators love to undertake.  The same care is also given to all the other creatures that populate the film.  One of the best experiences in this movie is seeing how this unique ecosystem functions in harmony with all these living creatures.  Big creatures and small have their own function to play, and it’s fascinating watching how it all works on screen.  This is where the world-building actually comes across effectively in the movie.  The film’s use of color is also fantastic to look at.  They make amazing use of organic yellows and pinks in the “strange world” which contrast with the natural greens and blues of the kingdom of Avalonia.  The worlds of this film are certainly the biggest asset that the movie has, and it’s good to see the Disney animation team use their talents to their best ability in making them feel refreshingly alive.

It’s likely going to be a rough road ahead for Strange World at the box office.  With the corporation going through its own turmoil, it seems like more people are more interested in that drama than what Disney’s putting on the big screen.  It’s likely Strange World will nit change Disney’s current fortunes, but it could live on beyond its box office performance.  We’ve seen over time that Disney movies tend to have long legs in home entertainment, Encanto’s dominance in streaming being the most recent example.  Strange World unfortunately has too many shortcomings when it comes to story to make it stand alongside the very best from Disney.  At the same time, there is some appreciable animation found in this movie that makes it at least a visual feast worth checking out.  I do appreciate that Disney is not over relying on formula and falling back on fairytale musicals.  It’s a gamble, and one that doesn’t entirely work, but at the very least it’s original.  I’ll gladly take this over another Frozen sequel, and this movie is certainly light years better than Frozen II (2019).  I’d even say that it’s a more daring film than most of Disney’s recent offerings, but one that maybe outreaches it’s abilities.  As a film on it’s own divorced of it’s place in the whole of Disney history, I’d say it’s a perfectly fine animated film that presents some interesting ideas and an inspired imagination.  I also appreciate what it’s doing with regards to representation, especially for LGBTQ community, which really needs Disney as a steadfast ally in the culture.  My worry is that some people will label this movie as a failure because of it’s spotlight on queer representation and not because of Disney’s lackluster marketing of this film.  There is going to be a lot of talk about this movie, and sadly most of it will not be centered around the actual merits of the movie itself.  Strange World  is a valiant attempt doing something different, but it suffers from a uneven execution and unfortunate timing in it’s release during a wild time in the corporation’s history.  If you’re looking for something different and challenging from Disney Animation, you could do much worse than this, but those looking for some of that Disney magic making a grand return may just have to wait a bit longer, likely when Disney returns to it’s comfort zone of traditional musical entertainment.

Rating: 7.5/10

E.T. Phone Home – Spielberg’s Personal and Powerful Masterpiece 40 Years Later

Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker is without parallel in the history of Hollywood.  Ever since emerging onto the scene in the early 70’s, Steven Spielberg has continued to remain the most powerful name in cinema, without ever losing his footing in all the decades since.  He’s one of the men responsible for creating the blockbuster era in Hollywood, as well as an acclaimed director who has been nominated for an Academy Award in that field at least once every decade since the 1970’s.  He’s capable of creating big crowd pleasing spectacles like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jurassic Park (1993), and West Side Story (2021), but is also capable of creating intimate and gut-wrenching dramas like The Color Purple (1985), Schindler’s List (1993), and his newest feature film The Fablemans (2022), releasing this week.  But, with a resume as packed as the one he has, how do we we narrow all those movies down to what can be considered the quintessential Spielberg flick?  Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker that puts his very being into each movie he makes, but there are certainly those films that hit especially close to home for him.  He has tackled movies that appeal to his left-wing political beliefs, movies that address his roots in the Jewish faith, and movies that speak to the things that meant most to him in his childhood.  He’s often been criticized for being too sentimental in his movies, but it’s the movies that he makes that are the most sentimental that often are considered among his best.  And there is one movie of his in particular that checks all the right boxes, and can be best described as the movie that is the most quintessentially Spielbergian.  That movie is of course 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

The story of how Spielberg came to be involved with the story of E.T. is interesting in itself, and it finds Spielberg at a crucial cross roads in his life and career.  In the 1970’s Spielberg was the hottest name in the industry with two back-to-back box office hits.  Those movies were, of course, Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Jaws is considered by many to be the first true Hollywood blockbuster, and alongside Spielberg’s friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas with his film Star Wars (1977), the movie industry began to make a monumental shift.  With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg proved that he wasn’t a fluke in the business, and he also demonstrated his skill tackling a more mature and daring subject on screen.  At this point, Spielberg looked like he would be the King of Hollywood for many years to come.  And then, reality came crashing into his world.  His follow-up to Close Encounters was the broad, slapstick WWII comedy, 1941 (1979).  While the movie does have it’s defenders, 1941 is considered to be Spielberg’s first flop, both critically and financially.  Steven took this blow hard and for the first time began to doubt his own talent as a filmmaker.  Today, Spielberg looks back on the disappointment of 1941 as the make-or-break turning point in his life; either he was going to weighed down by the embarrassment of his first failure and give up on Hollywood completely, or he was going to brush it off and try better the next time while sticking it out in the business.  Thankfully, Spielberg was pulled out of his slump by an old friend, George Lucas.  Lucas was eyeing a project based on old adventure serials of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and he wanted Spielberg to direct.  That action adventure project would turn out to be Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it would be the movie that introduced an icon known as Indiana Jones to the world.  This was exactly the movie project that Spielberg needed to pull himself out of his depression, because like Lucas, this was the kind of movie he grew up idolizing.  It allowed him to make something that was fun but also artistically pleasing.  And not only that, but it would offer him an unexpected bridge towards the next movie that he would work on; a movie that ultimately would be the defining movie of his career.

The star playing Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, became good friends with Spielberg during the shoot, and through their interaction Spielberg also got to know Ford’s then girlfriend and future wife, Melissa Mathison.  Mathison was a screenwriter who had already achieved success with her script for the film The Black Stallion (1979).  Spielberg discussed with her the idea he had for a science fiction horror movie called Night Skies, and in those talks, he mentioned this concept of an alien that forms a friendship with a young child.  Mathison was so taken with the concept that she began to write a draft for a movie with that idea central to the story.  In less than two months, she had her first draft complete, just in time for Spielberg to see as he was wrapping up the shoot on Raiders.  The script, then titled E.T. and Me, completely enchanted Spielberg and was immediately interested in making it his next project.  He shopped the script around Hollywood, and eventually Universal Studios bought it for a hefty $1 million.  It took no time at all for Spielberg to move on.  Even while he was in the editing room for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was simultaneously doing pre-production on E.T. and MeRaiders performed very well at the box office, which helped to put Spielberg back on the map as a filmmaker, and it also put him in demand in Hollywood as well.  Numerous projects were being pitched to him, perhaps the biggest one being his friend George Lucas offering him the directorial reigns of Return of the Jedi (1983).  But, Spielberg passed on all of them, because he knew there was something special about this one movie about a boy and his extraterrestrial friend.  Cameras began rolling in September of 1981.  The movie was comparatively modest in scale compared to films like Close Encounters and Raiders; shot in the relatively nearby L.A. suburb of Porter Ranch and with a cast of relative unknowns.  But, in the hands of Steven Spielberg, he would make this small little film into something grand.

For one thing, you can’t really talk about a movie like E.T. without discussing the little alien himself.  The creation of E.T. is a masterclass in utilizing visual effects to create the illusion of life.  There have been plenty of creatures created through visual effects that have managed to garner emotion from an audience, whether it’s King Kong, or the many stop motion creatures brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, or the masterful puppetry from the Jim Henson Workshop, including the incredible work done to create Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  But the creation of E.T. took creature effects to a whole other level.  To create E.T., Spielberg had a team led by effect wizard Carlo Rambaldi build an animatronic character that would be capable of a wide range of expression.  Rambaldi had already created the aliens for Spielberg in Close Encounters, but E.T. would be a far more challenging assignment.  They needed to have a creature that looked very alien, and yet was non threatening and in a way could be considered adorable.  And given the fact that he would be on screen for much of the movie’s run time, he had to be as lifelike as possible.  The head rig for E.T. alone featured dozens of individual functions in order to make E.T. come alive.  The hard work payed off as the E.T. animatronic not only moves in a very lifelike way, but it’s even remarkably capable of expressing emotion through performance.  This is crucial in the long run because you need to fall in love with E.T. just as the characters in the film do, and through the expert puppeteering of Rambaldi’s team and Spielberg’s careful direction, E.T. managed to steal all of our hearts.

Of course, where the heart of the story lies is with the bond that is built between E.T. and the boy who befriends him.  That role in itself was just as crucial to get right as it was to make E.T. come alive.  The role of Elliott needed to work with a young actor who could pull off all the emotional highs and lows that the story needed.  Spielberg managed to find that in a then 9 year old Henry Thomas.  Thomas compliments E.T. so perfectly in the film, managing to act with complete sincerity opposite what is essentially an animatronic machine in an alien suit.  Perhaps what drew Spielberg to casting Henry Thomas in the role was the expressive, wide-eyed wonder in his face.  There was a lot of Elliot that was drawn out of Spielberg’s own childhood, and it would stand to reason that Steven saw a lot of himself come through in Henry’s performance.  It’s in the most emotional beats, when Elliot has to shed some tears that Henry shows skills beyond his years, delivering emotional weight that leaves so many people in the audience balling tears themselves.  The remaining cast are also perfectly assembled in this movie, including Dee Wallace as Elliot’s over-burdened but well-meaning mother, Robert MacNaughton as his older brother Michael, and in her screen debut, a six year old Drew Barrymore as Elliot’s baby sister Gertie.  But, apart from the cast, the incredible E.T. animatronic, and Spielberg’s deft direction, there is one other major star of the film; the music.  Composed by Spielberg’s longest and most celebrated collaborator John Williams, the musical score for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is what makes the film feel complete, and perhaps it’s what elevates it into legendary status.  Considered one of the greatest musical scores of all time, the music of E.T. takes this small, intimate story and gives it almost operatic weight.  The emotional beats feel all the more powerful with William’s score underneath it.  The emotional finale in particular will take your breathe away, as the orchestra swells up in an epic fashion, hitting those emotive beats hard.  Everything really worked together to make this not only a marquee film for Steven Spielberg in his early career, but also a movie that would forever cement his legend in the industry.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial released in the Summer of 1982, which as I’ve written before here, was one of the most competitive summer seasons in movie history.  Going up against the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was not going to be easy, but Universal was confident in what they had with E.T.  Released in June, the movie not only excelled in competition, it dominated.  E.T. became the little movie that could and would end up smashing all box office records at the time.  E.T. ultimately even surpassed Star Wars as the box office king, and held that spot for 15 years, until James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) surpassed it.  The movie also went on to become an award season darling, garnering 9 Oscar nominations and winning 4, for the visual and sound effects and William’s score.  The success of the film also launched Spielberg into a different phase of his career, one where he began to branch out into different kinds of projects.  He would direct big crowd pleasers like a couple more Indiana Jones sequels, but he also began looking to more grounded dramatic stories as well; ones less tied to a supernatural element.  He created movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun (1987), both of which helped him to mature towards the kind of filmmaker he needed to be in order to make movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998).  Even still, there is a bit of that sense of wonder that’s found in E.T. that permeates all of his films to a certain degree.  Spielberg’s gift as a filmmaker is to take his audience for a ride, often through the flow of his shot compositions, but also through the emotional journey of his characters.  When watching E.T., you see a filmmaker who already had the skills to be great story-teller figure out exactly how to use his talents to the fullest.  The Spielberg of the 70’s was a director caught up in the pressure of trying to prove his worth.  With E.T., he discovered what kind of director he wanted to be going forward for the rest of his career, and that was someone who could bridge two worlds together; the epic and the intimate.

When looking back on E.T., 40 years after it’s release, you can’t help but see it through the lens of everything else that Spielberg has made.  It becomes an even more interesting film in his filmography now after the release of his most recent movie The Fablemans.  Up until now, many have considered E.T. to be the closest thing to a self-portrait for Steven Spielberg.  Like Elliott, Steven was a child of divorce and he had to learn to grow up very quick as his life was turned upside down by the break-up of his family.  This is reflected in the story of E.T., as much of Elliott’s character is defined by his desire to have more control over his life.  That’s why he takes such a nurturing approach to helping E.T. find his way back home, because he wants desperately wants to help E.T. not lose his family after being left behind.  It certainly starts as an escape, but ultimately Elliott learns that he bears responsibility to be there for his family too, leading him to the heart-breaking reality that he’ll ultimately have to say goodbye  to E.T.  Spielberg of course never met an alien himself, but he found his own escape in those tumultuous times through his movies.  He not only spent a lot of time watching movies, but also making them with his friends.  That was his adventure as a youth, and it helped to shape him into the master director he is today.  This is far more explored in The Fablemans, which while it’s a fictionalized account of his life story, it nevertheless delves into the kinds of experiences that shaped him as a person.  After seeing The Fablemans, it’s interesting to examine it’s story in comparison to E.T., which shares a lot of parallels.  It’s clear to see that E.T. was the most personal movie for the longest time for Spielberg, and the one where he let us in to his soul for just a little bit.  It comes far more into focus now with The Fablemans giving us a more in depth look into Spielberg’s life.  It’s kind of fitting that this more auto-biographical film is making it into theaters just as E.T. is hitting this important milestone.  They are not exactly linked narratively or thematically, but you can feel the heartbeat of E.T. pumping throughout The Fablemans, making it feel like a spiritual successor, minus the alien.

Now 40 years later, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial continues to a cinematic classic celebrated the world over.  Even as the world has changed significantly, E.T. still has the power to enchant.  It’s a real testament to Spielberg’s abilities as a filmmaker that the movie does not feel dated at all.  Sure the outfits and appliances in the movie are definitively early 80’s, but the pace of the story and the emotional beats it hits makes this movie feel just as fresh as the day it was released.  The E.T. animatronic still manages to impress, even as we are still in an age of CGI dominance.  And I don’t think there is a more iconic image ever committed to the silver screen than that of Elliott’s bicycle flying across a full moon with E.T. sitting in the front basket.  It’s to this day the image used for the logo of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s own production company located on the Universal Lot.  It’s a movie that is often imitated, but rarely matched, with maybe a movie like Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) coming a little close.  But, more than anything, it is the movie that forever positioned Spielberg into the direction that most satisfied him as a filmmaker.  He was always a filmmaker torn between wanting to stay young at heart, while also setting out to prove he could be taken seriously as a director.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial proved that he could do both at the same time.  The story is an innocent modern day fairy tale, with a boy becoming friends with an alien, but it’s told with absolute sincerity and emotional weight, taking on serious subjects like divorce and the perils of life and death.  Grown adults can still cry when watching this movie alongside their children, and it’s an experience now that has passed on to multiple generations.  That’s definitely true in my case, as I was born only a month after it was released in theaters, meaning it was likely still playing to audiences as I came into this world.  I have only known a world where E.T. has existed, and like a lot of my generation, it’s a movie that has followed us as we’ve matured over the years, helping to define us as well.  Spielberg has gone on to define himself with many more movies both big and small, bombastic and serious, but as great as most of them are, I don’t think they will be seen as the most quintessentially Spielbergian film as E.T. has become over the years.  It’s that personal mark that sets the movie apart amongst his other films, showing us how well he can blend the fantastical with the personal, and deliver a movie unlike anything we have seen before.  As E.T. says to Elliott as the two say their goodbyes, “I’ll . . .be. . .right. . . here,” and he has continued to be there for all of us for 40 years, and hopefully for many more to come.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Review

Out of all the success that Marvel Studios has had in the last decade, perhaps the most monumental contribution it has brought to the culture at large is the film Black Panther (2018).  Despite being a cog in the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe machine, Black Panther transcended into a historic, full blown cultural phenomena.  This was a touchstone movie for African-American filmmaking, with director Ryan Coogler granted a large budget and creative freedom to present black culture on the big screen on a scale never dreamed of before, with a mostly black cast and crew in tow.  Coogler was able to present the cultural influences that shaped him into this mighty fictional world called Wakanda, the Afro-futuristic utopia from the Black Panther comic books, and bring a very African sensibility to the art and geopolitical themes of this world and mainstream it with the full blessing of Marvel Studios.  Suffice to say, of all the movies Marvel has made, none have impacted the culture as much as Black Panther has, as it elevated black voices in cinema to much higher degree, as the movie became one of Marvel’s highest grossing films ever.  It also in turn made it’s lead star, Chadwick Boseman, into an A-list star.  Boseman would continue to shine as the Black Panther in the subsequent appearances he made in the Avengers films, and he also began to shine in movies made outside of the Marvel banner as well.  But, in the summer of 2020, the world received the shocking news that Chadwick had succumbed to his private battle with cancer at the age of 43.  A life cut tragically short right when it was taking off into the stratosphere.  Chadwick Boseman’s loss left the world a much emptier place, especially in a year full of tragedy like 2020, and the question quickly arose about what it meant for the future of the character that he will be forever celebrated for: King T’Challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther.

Before anyone knew of Chadwick’s condition, plans were already set in place for a Black Panther sequel.  Ryan Coogleralready had his script written and a release date was announced at the D23 Expo in 2019.  But, plans were inevitably thrown into blender the following year.  Boseman was gone, and the world was reeling from a catastrophic pandemic, which delayed the film’s start of production.  Inevitably, the entire Marvel calendar had to be moved back a year, which had it’s silver lining for Ryan Coogler as it now gave him more time to work out how he would continue with this project without his leading man.  Working with the Marvel team on what to do, the decision that came forward became a surprising one for many.  The role of T’Challa would not be re-cast.  This led many to speculate how Marvel and Ryan Coogler were going to move forward with the franchise.  Could you make a Black Panther movie without Black Panther?  From the promotional materials surrounding the movie, it looked like the solution was to focus was to put the world of Wakanda front and center this time, with all the supporting characters from the original movie now being the focus of attention.  Also, the new threat facing the nation of Wakanda would also be a major factor in the story; an ocean based race of super-beings led by a mutant king named Namor.  The inclusion of Namor is significant because he is one of Marvel’s oldest and most iconic characters, dating all the way back to Marvel Comics Issue #1, but here he will be making his big screen debut into the MCU.  Despite the challenges put up against this movie, which included a struggling production shoot in the middle of a pandemic, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever managed to finally come together and is now ready to be brought before an eagerly awaiting fan base.  The only question is, does the movie manage to overcome the obstacles that were placed in front of it and rise up to the level of it’s predecessor or does it struggle to find it’s way without it’s mighty king.

The film opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) frantically working in her lab to synthesize medicine for her brother T’Challa who has suddenly fallen deathly ill.  She tries as quickly as she can to do all that is possible, but soon her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) enter the lab to deliver the terrible news; her brother has joined with the ancestors.  Wakanda enters a period of mourning, now finding itself vulnerable without their king.  Despite T’Challa’s sudden death, Queen Ramonda asserts that Wakanda remains a strong and independent nation, still closely guarding it’s most valuable resource, Vibranium, the super strong metal that among other things has been used to create things like the Black Panther armor and Captain America’s shield.  However, scientists exploring the Atlantic Ocean discover another deposit of the precious metal beneath the waves.  Their discovery unfortunately brings attackers from the ocean itself to disrupt the excavation of the Vibranium from the sea.  Among them is the sea people’s leader, a wing-footed flying super being named K’uk’ulkan, or as he is known to his enemies, Namor (TenochHuerta).  Namor, equally protective of his claim to Vibranium, approaches Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri to offer an alliance, uniting Wakanda and his underwater kingdom of Talokan against the rest of the world.  As part of this offer, he wishes for Wakanda to help him seek justice against the scientist that invented the Vibranium finding machine that was illegally used in his kingdom.  Ramonda and Shuri don’t want to wage war with the rest of the world, so they decide to seek out this scientist in the hopes of guarding them from Namor’s wrath.  They soon discover that the scientist is in fact an MIT student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne).  With the help of Dora Milaje general Okoye (Danai Gurira) Shuri manages to track Riri down, but not before the Talokan warriors working on behalf of Namor get to them first.  Both Shuri and Riri are captured and taken beneath the waves, with Okoye left to explain the situation to an already grieving Queen.  Ramonda, through her power and influence, seeks help from other allies, including American agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and Wakandan agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).  With multiple forces bearing down on the nation of Wakanda, from Namor and the Talokans to hostile intentions from people working within the governments of other nations, can Wakanda manage to survive what is coming without their “protector.”

What I just described is merely the set up for the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, as this is a very plot heavy film.  There is no question that this movie, due to the circumstances surrounding it’s production, had to do a lot of heavy lifting in order to ground itself again not just as a follow-up to the original film but also as a continuation of the MCU as a whole.  In the end, the movie does a commendable job of pulling things together under the harshest of circumstances, but it also suffers from some issues as well.  One of the things that it does absolutely perfectly, however, is honoring it’s fallen hero.  T’Challa’s presence is still felt throughout the film, and in a way that feels respectful to Chadwick Boseman’s memory.  It doesn’t go too far in dwelling on the tragedy, but does an adequate job of using that feeling of loss as a motivating factor within the story.  Each character has their own different way of dealing with the loss, whether it’s in Shuri’s distractions or Ramonda’sdefiance.  Each reaction to the tragedy informs how the story can progress in a variety of directions.  It also establishes how Wakanda itself finds itself in a position that it didn’t know it would be in; vulnerable.  This is also a Wakanda that has lost their king twice, first to Thanos and now to this sudden illness, and unfortunately there is no coming back from the latter.  It’s in looking at the degrees of grief that Ryan Coogler really finds the heart of this story.  He is very good at getting emotion out of his stories, so given the harsh hand he was dealt with, he thankfully had the skill and the imagination to weave that grief into his art without losing any of the magic that made this world work in the first place.

Where the movie struggles unfortunately is in it’s plot.  The movie is a beefy 2 hours and 41 minutes, the second longest film Marvel film overall (behind Avengers: Endgame’s 3 hours and 1 minute run time).  to Ryan Coogler’s credit, the movie never feels that long, but there are points in the story where the movie does come up a little hollow.  I think that this is due to having to juggle so many plotlines all at the same time.  Not only is he having to continue the story he set up with the first Black Panther, but he also has to incorporate what has happened in the larger MCU as well (especially with a 5 year time jump established in Endgame), as well as establish important new characters like Namor and Riri Williams, and the entire nation of Talokan and it’s entire history as well.  It’s a lot on his plate and despite Coogler’s best efforts not all of it manages to geltogether.  The Talokan part of the plot seems to suffer the most.  It feels like we merely get the cliffs notes version of their cultural history as the plot desperately needs to move forward, which is in contrast to how immersed we were able to be in the world of Wakanda in the first Black Panther.  Namor and the Kingdom of Talokan needed their own movie’s worth of development to really grasp the significance of their place in the world, but the movie unfortunately does not have time for that, even at it’s extended length.  The Wakandan side of the story also suffers because of that, as we don’t really see anything new from that world in this movie.  It’s been said the thing that unfortunately works against this movie is that we can no longer be re-introduced to the Kingdom of Wakanda again.  One of the most magical moments of any Marvel movie was that first glimpse of Wakanda’s mighty capital from the first movie.  Such a scene doesn’t exist this time around as now we are all too familiar with this world.  Not to mention there are side plots a plenty involving how Agent Ross is dealing with protecting Wakanda from hostile intentions within his own government, as well as the internal politics of Wakanda also coming into play, as Shuri has to confront more of her role in the future of her country.  Needless to say the movie buckles under the weight of it’s plot, but Coogler does manage to keep it from collapsing completely.

One of the movie’s best strengths is the performances of it’sactors.  Everyone, probably with the knowledge of the film’s significance in honoring the high bar set by Chadwick Boseman, brings their A-game to the film with some emotionally charged acting.  Though working outside her strength built up in previous appearances in the MCU, playing a mischievous supporting character at Black Panther’s side as Shuri, Letitia Wright does her best to bring emotional depth to the character now that she is front and center in this story.  Shuri thus far has been one of the more comic relief characters, being a carefree quartermaster to her brother with a slight proclivity towards mischief.  But this movie now has to put that character into the position of picking up the emotional weight of this journey with Wakanda and it’s connection with the Black Panther.  It’s not an easy shift to make, and you can’t help but miss the version of Shuri that was more comical in nature.  But, Letitia Wright picks up the challenge and manages to shine despite the obstacles.  She is also equally matched with Tenoch Huerta who brings the mighty Namor to life.  Namor of course comes with this long history behind him, but thus far he has yet to appear on the big screen, mainly due to some rights issues where Marvel had initially granted them to Universal Studios but the purchase by Disney made it impossible for Universal to make any use of their rights.  So basically, Namor can appear in a MCU film, but cannot star in one, similar to the deal regarding the Hulk.  So, this movie managed to work Namor into this story by making him the villain, as opposed to the anti-hero that he is in the comics.  Tenoch does a great job of making Namor this threatening presence but at the same time making him relatable given his tragic backstory.  In the end, they do the iconic character justice, even though he has to piggyback on the shoulders of another Marvel property.  Dominique Thorne thankfully brings some much needed comic relief as RiriWilliams and she steals every scene she is in.  It’s good that she stands out as well as she does given that she’ll be back in a spin-off series called Ironheart on Disney+.  Great performance come from many of the supporting cast as well including returning stars like Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira, and Winston Duke, who also brings some wonderful comic relief as M’Baku.  Of course the performance that most people will talk about is Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda.  Ramonda has a more important role to play in this film and Angela brings some of her most powerful acting chops to her performance here, with some especially electrifying moments of Oscar-worthy acting.  In a series already known for stand-out acting, Wakanda Foreverraises the bar even more for powerful performances in the Black Panther franchise.

The production quality has also translated over from the original movie.  It makes sense as most of the same production team has returned.  Oscar winner Ruth Carter, the costume design genius who created the look of Wakanda with her award-winning designs is back and not only is she working with more of the look of Wakanda, but she also has the unenviable task of imagining the look of Talokan as well.  She has come up with some incredible designs for this underwater kingdom, taking cue from Mesoamerican influence.  One of the especially incredible designs she has accomplished in this movie is the re-imagined look of Namor.  In the comic books, Namor is merely defined by a green speedo and red boots.  For Namor in this  film, Carter has added an incredible metallic bead collar that hangs across Namor’s chest that really defines the majesty of his character.  In addition, when he sits on the throne in his kingdom, he wears a majestic headdress that really invokes this image of a Mayan god come to life.  Carter’s costumes also updates the look of the Wakandan citizens as well, including some truly majestic dresses that Angela Bassett gets to wear throughout the movie.  It’s stuff like Ruth Carter’s costumes that really help to set the world of Wakanda apart in the MCU.  Also returning to deliver even more incredible work is Ludwig Gorranson, who also won an Oscar for his work on the last Black Panther.  Gorranson, who has been busy as of late in other major franchises like Star Wars delivers the same Wakandan sound that we’ve grown to love, but also adds to it the unique sound of Talokan as well.  Remarkably he manages to capture Mesoamerican melody just as well as he does with African sounds and the mix of the two cultures really helps to underline the theme of that clash within the movie.  What I especially love about Gorranson’s work this time around is how he uses silence in his score.  Whenever memories of T’Challa come up in the movie, the music suddenly goes silent as if it too was showing it’s respect to the dead.  It’s an emotional wallop when you hear that wall of sound from Gorranson’s score suddenly go silent, understating the loss that’s felt by both the characters and those of us watching the movie.  The only thing that I think doesn’t work as well this time around is the cinematography.  Rachel Morrison, the DP of Black Panther was not available this time around, so the duty fell to Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who previously shot the series Lokifor Marvel.  Autumn is a capable cameraperson, but her sense of color schemes is less refined as Morrison’s, who managed to bathe the original Black Panther in a gorgeous palette.  Arkapawdoes competent work, but it makes the movie feel more in line with the generic Marvel film look that feels a bit too repetitive.  Otherwise, this is a solidly mounted production that mostly falls in line with the high standard of the Black Panther franchise.

Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a high-point with the original Black Panther, you would think that the bar would be set very high with the newest entry in the series.  This film, given it’s shortcomings, may end up being a let down for some, but in this critic’s case, I feel that some of those expectations were set a little too high.  I for one admire the first Black Panther quite a bit, but it’s not one of the all timegreats for me.  In my original review here, I stated that I had some reservations about the story while at the same time praising it highly for it’s world building.  Though I loved Chadwick Boseman’s performance, I thought the original movie lacked character development for T’Challa, as most of his character arc happened in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  It was the world around him that stood out more to me in the original movie, something that gets more of the spotlight this time around.  It’s sad that T’Challa’s story ends so abrubtly for us, but it can’t be helped.  We can’t bring Chadwick Bosemanback, and Marvel and Ryan Coogler made the choice to not recast the part.  It will remain to be seen if that was the right choice in the long run.  It wouldn’t have been the first time Marvel has recast a major character (Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Don Cheadle as War Machine) nor will it be the last time (Harrison Ford replacing William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross).  Coogler decided for his story that Boseman alone was going to be his T’Challa and that for the franchise to progress it fell upon the rest of Wakanda to become future of the series.  I won’t spoil how the Black Panther itself is worked into that story, but there is a reason why this is still a Black Panther movie.  For the most part, it’s a commendable sequel that I think is pretty close to being on par with the original, but doesn’t exactly exceed it.  The performances are amazing, as is the production design.  And Namor is an absolute stand out villain that does justice to the iconic character from the comic books.  Perhaps with the difficult task of moving on from the tragedy of the past out of the way we may see a bright future ahead for this franchise.  It remains to be seen what that will actually mean, but the end credits promises “Black Panther Will Return.”  For now, Marvel and director Ryan Coogler have done a magnificent job of honoring the memory of Chadwick Boseman with this emotional tribute of a film and hopefully the future remains bright for Black Panther in the years ahead.  Indeed, Wakanda Forever.

Rating: 8/10

Focus on a Franchise – Planet of the Apes: The Caesar Trilogy

Back in the 1960’s, as the world became embroiled in a number of on-going tragedies, from the ongoing war in Vietnam to numerous assassinations of political and social movement leaders, there was also a major shift going on within Hollywood.  The mega-budget, opulent and airy musicals and epics that dominated the early part of the decade were suddenly out of flavor with audiences who now wanted what they saw on the big screen to better reflect the harshness of the world that they were currently living in.  One of the places that best represented this shift in a microcosm was 20th Century Fox.  In the latter part of the 60’s, Fox began to hit hard times as their expensive old-fashioned musicals like Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello, Dolly (1969) ended up flopping at the box office.  To better connect with a newer, more cynical audience, they had to adjust quickly and find a new type of movie to help salvage their brand into the future.  Strangely enough they found that film in a strange little science-fiction thriller called Planet of the Apes (1968).  Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, and starring the king of epics himself Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomenon, becoming one of the biggest box office hits of it’s time.  The story itself is pretty simple, an astronaut lands on a planet where apes have become the dominant species, but it’s execution on all fronts (writing, direction, performance and especially score) that helped to make it resonate even more.  And then of course there is that legendary twist ending which has been parodied relentlessly over the years.  The success of the movie led to a series of sequels, though none made the same impact as the original film did.  For a while the franchise went dormant, though the first movie remained a mainstay in Science Fiction circuits.  Eventually, Fox believed they could do something once again with the property, which led them to greenlight a remake in 2001, under the direction of Tim Burton.  Unfortunately, that film turned out to be a colossal mess, neither capturing any of the cinematic wonder of the original, nor showcasing any of Burton’s trademark weirdness.  And once again, the Apes franchise was abandoned.

But, in the early 2010’s, a new team at Fox decided it was time to undertake another chance at rebooting the Apes franchise for a new generation.  This time around, the filmmakers would be utilizing the latest in motion capture animation to bring their apes to life. Fox approached Weta Digital, the New Zealand based visual effects studio behind the Oscar-winning CGI of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sought their expertise to pull off a different way of creating life-like apes that evolve to be more human like.  With The Lord of the Rings, the Weta Digital team made ground-breaking use of motion capture to make their digital creations come to life in a way never before imagined.  The most astonishing achievement from those films was in the remarkable creation of the creature Gollum; a digital character so lifelike that it proved to Hollywood that yes, even a visual effect could carry a dramatic performance on screen.  Seeing how well the Weta team brought Gollum to life, Fox believed that this would be the best way to take their Apes franchise in a whole new direction.  In the original films, the way that the filmmakers were able to bring these humanized apes to life was through ground-breaking make-up effects, courtesy of Oscar winner John Chambers.  But, as impressive as the make-up was, there was still the tell-tale signs of the actor underneath the make-up that made the illusion work only to a point.  Now, with motion-capture, the filmmakers could take the movements of real actors and fix a photo-realistic digital skin of an ape on top of their performance.  Thus, Fox could have a Planet of the Apes movie where the apes indeed looked like the real thing.  But, as good as the animation would be, it would still be dependent on the actor who was performing the role.  Thankfully for Fox and the new Apes franchise filmmakers, they managed to get the actor who had plenty of experience performing within the confines of motion capture technology; the man who brought Gollum himself to life, Andy Serkis.  And as we will see, his contribution would launch a whole new era for the Planet of the Apes franchise with a trilogy centered around his character; the Ape known as Caesar.


Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Instead of following immediately after the last canonical film in the original series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), or after the terrible Tim Burton version, this new reboot wisely rolls things back to the beginning.  And by beginning, I don’t mean back to when the original film started.  For Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the story actually brings us to where it all began; before the Apes evolved into their humanized form.  We all know from the original movie that the Planet of the Apes itself is our own Earth after a cataclysmic even caused most human life to die off, with Apes rising up to become the dominant species.  With that knowledge in hand, we get to see how that apocalyptic future came to happen.  At the heart of the story is a chimpanzee named Caesar.  Caesar is discovered to have been born with unnaturally high intellect as a result of experimentation from the lab he was born into by doctors seeking a cure for dementia related illnesses.  Caesar is capable of communication with his caretakers through sign language and he displays evidence of critical thinking and human like emotion.  But, corruption at the lab leads him to be sold to a zoo, where he begins to turn resentful of the mistreatment of his fellow simian-kind there.  Eventually, he steals the drug made his brain more human-like and uses it on the other apes, leading them to revolt en masse.  Eventually Caesar does lead his band of apes out of the city and into the wild, but his actions also came at a steep cost.  The pathogen that increased the apes brain activity also unleashes a deadly virus on the human population, leading to a catastrophic global pandemic that plays out in the end credits.

For a reboot of this longtime franchise, this was a pretty successful end result.  The thing that really helps this movie stand out is the stellar performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar.  The actor, of course, disappears into the character as it is a digital overlay over his physical pantomime, but even still there is such skill in how he is able to bring so much personality into the role even through that digital skin.  It’s the subtleties of his performance that really sells his work here, especially in the facial acting.  Andy Serkis, when not performing in motion capture, is a very expressive actor physically, and the command that he has in his facial action is particularly on a different level.  Often the Lord of the Rings animators had to exaggerate the Gollum model in order to have it rise to the level of what Serkis gave them in his original on set performance.  Naturally, he refined this skill working within the confines to motion capture, and Caesar is a testament all those years of experience.  The one downside to his strong performance in this movie is that it outshines everything else.  Caesar is almost too strong of a character, as most of the human characters are flat or uninteresting.  James Franco is fine as the scientist that helped raise Caesar, but his character is more or less just a function of the story and has little in the way of an arc.  The one other downside is that despite the motion capture animation looking quite impressive throughout, the compositing to Caesar and the other apes into the scenes is still not as good as it could have been.  You are still very much aware that you are looking at visual effects, as the seam lines between digital characters and the real world environment still don’t quite blur.  Even still, for a franchise reboot that had a lot prove to audiences, it’s a commendable starting point.  And as we would see later, this franchise would not only survive into the new millennium, but thrive as well.


Directed by Matt Reeves

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a general, by the numbers action flick that did it’s part fairly well, Dawn would see the franchise not only reach it’s potential, but it would even supplant the original series as the most ideal telling of this story.  This was the Planet of the Apes movie that every dreamed about but was only now fully realized.  Andy Serkis returned once again to continue Caesar’s story, and this time the rebooted series would have Matt Reeves behind the camera.  Reeves made a splash a few years prior with his ground-breaking found footage film Cloverfield (2008), which showed his mastery in making digital effects feel incredibly real and life-like.  While the compositing of the apes didn’t quite work as well as intended in Rise, the animators thankfully were able to refine their tools to make the animation of the apes look better this time around.  The hard work paid off, because Caesar and the other apes are astonishingly well animated here.  The compositing is so good that it indeed looks like they are occupying the same space as the live action actors, with the seams basically gone.  Matt Reeves style of filmmaking is particularly well used here.  He does a great job of making the world look bleak and wild in this pandemic affected not too distant future.  The tone is especially set up perfectly in the opening scene of the movie as we observe the Earth from space, watching the lights go out on the power grid and the chatter on the radio frequencies growing quieter and quieter; a chilling representation of mankind’s downfall.  This is not the campy, minimalist version of Planet of the Apes that we’re all familiar with from the 60’s.  Reeves take on the franchise treats the premise with absolute sincerity and seriousness, and with the visual effects being as good as they are, that serious side to this story actually works.

Striking that more serious tone in turn elevates the concept of the story even more.  Before the franchise thrived off of it’s weirdness and campy elements.  Reeves took this franchise in a different direction, treating it more like a war movie, but with intelligent apes.  What’s interesting is that the movie manages to find even more character development to give to Caesar as part of his ongoing narrative.  In the last movie, we saw him lead a revolt.  Here we see him be a pragmatic leader, choosing to avoid conflict with the surviving humans as a means of protecting his community.  He’s fully aware of his status as a leader and here we see him use that title responsibly.  It’s very much in contrast with another ape named Koda (Toby Kebbel), who is very much out for cold-blooded vengeance, and thus he becomes the antagonist of the film.  Kebbel does a fairly good job himself in portraying Koda, especially with the gnarly character model put onto his motion capture performance.  It’s interesting that a couple year later, Kebbel would play another motion capture animated ape named King Kong in the film Kong: Skull Island (2017), a role that Andy Serkis also filled in 2005 remake by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.  The one downside to the movie is that the live action human characters are nowhere near as compelling as the apes are; a problem that the first film also shared.  Even a great actor like Gary Oldman feels wasted in a thankless role that means little to Caesar’s own story.  Had the conflict mainly stayed on the rivalry between Caesar and Koda, the movie might have been less uneven.  Even still, it’s an incredible tonal reformation of this series, and one that really delivers on what a Planet of the Apes movie should be.  Where Matt Reeves really excels the most is in his portrayal of the action scenes, which have the intensity of a fully immersive war movie.  As we would see moving ahead, this kind of style would continue to build into an even more compelling portrayal of Caesar’s story.


Directed by Matt Reeves

Both Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis return to pick up right where Dawn left off, and not only do they match the high standard left by the previous Apes movie, but they also managed to improve upon it.  This concluding chapter in what would be known as the Caesar trilogy brings his story full circle to a satisfying conclusion.  What is left of humanity has grown hostile to the Apes who are rising in power, and now Caesar and his community finds themselves being hunted.  Leading the blood-thirsty band of mercenaries is a man known simply as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  In confronting the Colonel, Caesar is tested like never before, seeing so many of kin falling victim to the Colonel’s cruelty while trying to maintain his own restraint in rising above his own animal instincts.  What makes War work so much better than the other films in this reboot comes down to one important thing; compelling human characters.  Woody Harrelson makes the Colonel a terrifying villain, and one that especially raises the stakes of this series even more.  His introduction into the movie, where his troops invade the Apes sanctuary and begins to slaughter them is a particularly harrowing scene, especially with the eerie shadows they cast in the moonlight reflecting off a waterfall.  The movie also shows the great advancement that has been made in motion capture animation in the years since the reboot began.  The uncanny valley has been fully crossed and there is no visible seams that manifest that makes the apes look anything other than fully physical characters.  The subtlety of acting from Andy Serkis is fully on display through the Caesar model, making his performance all the more compelling.  The intensity of the performance also comes through, especially in the moment when he’s at gunpoint.  You see everything read through Caesar’s face in that moment, which is something that I don’t think would’ve been done without manipulation a decade prior.

The movie also closes the chapter of Caesar’s story in a satisfying way, while also at the same time setting the stage perfectly for what will inevitably be the beginning of the setting for the original movie.  Caesar doesn’t know the direction that the planet Earth is going to go with Apes now in charge, but his whole story has been about finding a safe place for his kind to call home, and the story concludes with Caesar in his final action, walking his fellow apes into a safe haven where they can build their future.  I think the reason why these movies succeed as well as they do is because of the focus they all have in telling the full story arc of this one central hero.  We don’t see much outside of Caesar’s own internal environment.  The vision of a decaying world is entirely through his own local community; mainly around the San Francisco Bay area.  There’s no intercutting to ape uprisings across the globe; none of that matters at all because it’s Caesar’s control.  This is his story, and it’s a credit to the filmmakers that they found such universal themes salvation, humanity and courage in just the story of this one important ape, and that they could maintain that story across a three film arc.  Sure, the setting of a decaying world is bleak, but there is hope in that story too as Caesar proves to be an aspirational figure of clear-minded civility in an increasingly uncivil world.  It is also interesting that this movie legitimizes the trajectory of the story into what would be the original film, and at the same time ret-cons the sequels it spawned out of canon.  Clearly Matt Reeves and company wanted to honor the movie that spawned the series to begin with, but with the skills they have now, they are clearly showing that this is by far the more fully realized version of this concept.  Regardless, for an exploration of just one character’s journey through this apocalyptic world, it is a triumph of a complete narrative, with Serkis’ performance being the key ingredient.

The Planet of the Apes franchise has an over 50 year legacy in Hollywood, but I think that it can be argued that the Caesar Trilogy of the 2010’s is the pinnacle of the franchise when it comes to storytelling.  With state-of-the-art visual effects making it possible for human actors to fully act within the skin of the apes they are playing, the artificiality that came from the original series goes away and we see the franchise brought to us in the most earnest way possible.  The trilogy started off solidly enough, but Rise was just an average action flick compared to the two Reeves film, which really elevated the Apes movies to the compelling epic dramas that they are.  They take the basic premise of these movies and strip all cynicism and campiness away, treating the Apes’ stories with the same level of seriousness that you would get from a war flick.  It of course is not just the director’s vision that makes that take on the concept work.  Andy Serkis, digging into all the acting expertise he has while wearing his motion capture suit, just brings Caesar to devastating life, complete with all the emotion shown across his face rendered in remarkable detail.  You really wouldn’t expect any less from the man who made Gollum leap off of the computer screen and into cinemas in a stunningly life-like way.  This trilogy is honestly a text book example of doing justice to a backstory in a prequel to the story that spawned it.  We know where the Earth is headed, with it being ruled by “damn, dirty apes.”  But what the team behind this reboot, and especially director Matt Reeves, showed us is that how the Planet of the Apes came to be is a compelling story in it’s own right, and one that features a surprisingly complex character at it’s center.  Is there more to explore with the world of the Planet of the Apes?  Time will tell what Fox and their new parent company Disney plan to do with this title in the future, but regardless, the Caesar Trilogy is a full and complete story that on it’s own proved that this was more than just popcorn entertainment; this franchise could indeed be a strongly themed, character driven drama on par with some of the best to ever come out of Science Fiction.