Tag Archives: Reviews

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse – Review

The comic book super hero genre has dominated the box office for the last decade and a half, but for the most part, the dominance has been represented in live action.  What we haven’t seen too much of are super hero films in the realm of animation; at least on the big screen.  Both DC and Marvel have produced a number of animated features through their respective animation arms, as well as a number of series, but those films have been relegated to either direct to video releases or straight to streaming.  But there have been some animated comic book films that have managed to make it to the big screen.  In 1994, DC released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm briefly into theaters; a film spun off from their popular Batman: The Animated Series.  Surprisingly, despite being owned by a company founded on art of animation since 2009, Marvel didn’t have an animated feature based on their comics until 2014, and it was based on one of their more obscure titles; Big Hero 6.   Despite there not being a lot of familiarity with the Big Hero 6 comic series in the general audience, the Disney animated film still managed to be a box office success and even won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, which just shows how strong the Marvel brand had become up to that point.  But, what a lot of comic book fans were wondering was if there would be any animated representation on the big screen from one of the marquee characters within the pantheon of super heroes in their library.  Though Disney has a legendary animation department at their disposal, they have mostly decided to use their Marvel brand in live action on the big screen, with the streaming arm of Disney+ being the place where they are more comfortable bringing Marvel into animated form; most notably with the What If? series.  However, a different studio which still maintains their license over one of Marvel’s premier characters is not afraid to take Marvel super heroes more into the realm of animation on the big screen.

Sony, which has it’s own animation department, sought to make the most of their legacy license over the character of Spider-Man and do so both in live action and animation.  Though their live action films have been pretty hit (Venom) or miss (Morbius), a very different result occurred with their animated attempt.  Produced by the creative team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the same mad geniuses behind The Lego Movie (2014), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018) not only managed to hit well with audiences as a comic book movie; it significantly changed the market of animated films in general as well.  While computer animation has for nearly the last 30 years been following the lead of Pixar and Disney Animation, with soft edged character models and detailed environmental design, Sony Animation decided to take their film in a whole different direction.  While still computer animated, Spider-Verse’s design was far more stylized, utilizing an aesthetic that felt more hand drawn while still three-dimensional.  Every character and environment looked like they had leapt right off of the comic book page.  Not only that, but their movement on screen was very stylized, utilizing a slower frame rate that made the characters’ animation feel even more hand drawn.  Combine this with the hilarious comedic sensibilities of Lord & Miller, and Into the Spider-Verse was not just a great comic book movie, but arguably one of the greatest animated movies of all time.  It solidified it’s hit status by additionally winning the Oscar for Animated Feature; breaking a monopoly on the award by Disney and Pixar.  The graphic art style has even influenced all animation in general, as more animation studios are ditching the traditional Pixar look for something more like Spider-verse; as seen in Dreamworks’ recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) and Nickelodeon’s upcoming Ninja Turtles reboot.  Even Disney’s upcoming Wish (2023) is adopting a more hand painted aesthetic to it’s animation.  But of course, Sony is also keen to continue building on this franchise as well, especially since it gives them a successful Spider-Man franchise that they don’t have to share with the Disney owned Marvel Studios, like they do with the Tom Holland Spider-Man films.  And this year, we are finally seeing the next phase of their Spider-verse plans with the highly anticipated sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).

The film picks up the story a year after the events of Into the Spider-Verse.  Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is trying to balance his new life as the new Spider-Man protecting the citizens of New York City.  His mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez) and father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry) are concerned that he is shirking his responsibilities at both school and home, unaware of his double life as a super hero.  Things become more complicated when a strange new super villain named The Spot (Jason Schwartzman) has shown up on the scene.  The Spot, who gained his inter-dimensional portal opening abilities from the super collider incident that Miles thwarted in the last film, has a personal vendetta against Miles and is seeking revenge, which Miles initially ignores.  Things, however, get more complicated when one of Miles’ old Spider Friends, Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) aka Spider Gwen, shows up.  She has in the past year been recruited by a team of interdimensional Spider heroes to help set things into order within the multiverse.  The team is led by Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac), known as Spider-Man 2099, who takes the protection of the multiverse very seriously.  His second in command is Spider-Woman, aka Jessica Drew (Issa Rae), and another member of the elite squad is Miles’ old mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) who now has a baby daughter named Mayday.  There are also some outsider assistance provided by Spider-Man India (Karan Soni) Pavitr Pradhakar whose fairly new to the job, as well as Hobie Brown, aka Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya), whose rebellious instincts conflict with most of Miguel’s plans.  Miles sneakily follows after Gwen, who has been on the trail of The Spot, who’s seeking to enhance his powers.  The mayhem as The Spot leaves behind prevents what Miguel O’Hara calls a Canon Event from happening, which he tells Miles is essential to holding up the framework of the multiverse.  When Miles learns that a canon event is meant for his future, he seeks to be sent home in order to stop it, which Miguel refuses.  Miles determination puts him at odds with the team, and soon a whole city’s worth of Spider Heroes is chasing after him.  Is Miles right to determine his own fate, or is he making a selfish decision that could threaten the stability of the multiverse.

It definitely has to be said that when the original Spider-Verse movie came out in 2018, it was a breath of fresh air in an animation market that felt very homogenized.  Animation really lacked variety in the later part of the 2010’s.  Because of the dominance of Disney and Pixar, all animated movies throughout the world market just copied their same style to a degree; even rivals like Dreamworks and Illumination.  Animated movies to that point were not so much judged on the quality of the animation since it was all so interchangeable, but more on the strength of their stories, which of course helped to put Pixar up at the top with their excellently written films.  Into the Spider-Verse however was not just excellent in it’s storytelling, but it equally wowed audiences with it’s wild animation style.  The movie was wall to wall creativity, with surprising details in every frame.  Not since Toy Story (1995) had an animated film challenged the established order of things in the world of animation, and it did so with a story that also tugged just as hard at the heartstrings as any Pixar film.  Suffice to say, it’s a tough act to follow, but of course anybody who knows the super hero genre well will tell you that a sequel is inevitable.  So, five years after the fact, Sony Pictures Animation has finally released a sequel to their ground-breaking hit film.  Surprisingly, the team behind the movie not only had enough story for one film; they had an idea that was big enough for two.  Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the first of a two-part arc, which will conclude next year with Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse (2024).  The question is, did Sony manage to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.  For the most part I would say yes, but I did find a couple issues with this sequel that I will point out.  On the whole, this movie does deliver exactly what you would want from a continuation of the Spider-Verse storyline.  It builds upon what we’ve already seen and even ups the ante in terms of creativity in the art style.  But, as I was watching the movie, and generally having a good time with it, I couldn’t get over this sense of maybe it was all too much of a good thing.

Here’s where I have my issues with the film.  At 140 minutes, this film breaks the record for the longest animated film ever produced by a Western animation studio.  Even Disney has never gone far beyond the 2 hour mark, with Fantasia (1940) being their longest film at 125 minutes.  Most animated films fall within the 90-120 minute mark, so Across the Spider-Verse really has shattered the record.  On one hand, this is a typical length for a standard live action super hero movie.  The longest Spider-Man movie on record is the 148 minute Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), which felt appropriately lengthed.  It’s possible that the time needed to tell a story in animation isn’t as much to tell it in live action, as movement plays by different rules in each medium.  In any case, I really felt the length of this movie, particularly in the slow build first half, and it kind of robbed the movie of some momentum in the story.  While there is still a lot of moments to love in the opening half, you do feel a bit of the bloat in order to get this movie up to the epic length.  Some character moments feel like they would have been better trimmed down without loosing the essentials.  Thankfully, the movie picks up steam in the second half, and culminates in a heart-pounding cliffhanger finale, but I do wish it had kept up that level of energy throughout the film.  The original Spider-Verse was a taut 117 minutes, and it used every moment wisely.  The one other thing I feel worked against the sequel was the fact that it no longer had the novelty of the first film.  Into The Spider-Verse felt like such a discovery when we first saw it; like we were witnessing the beginning of something new in cinema.  Across the Spider-Verse gives us more of the same, which is still amazing to look at and incredibly creative, but it just isn’t the groundbreaking achievement that the original film was.  These issues still don’t ruin the movie as a whole, but I do feel like they hold the film back from truly achieving iconic status in the same way that the original did.

Still there is a lot to praise about the movie.  One of course is the animation.  The Sony Pictures Animation team clearly wanted to build upon what they already achieved in the last film.  One of the most interesting ideas that they executed for this movie was giving each new dimension of the Multiverse it’s own distinct art style.  In the original movie, the art style remained mostly the same when it came to the environments, with much of the diversity of styles saved for the character designs.  This made sense, as we were seeing the world through the prism of Miles Morales’ reality.  Here, the characters jump into multiple universes, and each one is stylized to match the characters that inhabit it.  Spider-Man India’s home world, which is cleverly named Mumbattan, is designed to resemble Indian poster art, including a change in the onomonopia text to reflect Indian lettering.  The various Spider-Man are also creatively animated in their own styles.  One of the visually creative ones is Spider-Punk, who is animated in a way to make it look like he’s made out of a collage of newspaper clippings; making him a clever nod to British punk rock artwork of the 70’s and 80’s.  The movie integrates so many different animation styles together, including having versions of the Spider-Man characters from the animated television series sharing the screen, as well as the ones from the video games.  There are even live action characters integrated in seamlessly.  All the while, the artwork is kinetic, but still services the story effectively.  There is an especially beautiful scene late in the movie with Spider Gwen where the backgrounds change in every single shot, reflecting the change in mood, and each one could be put on the wall and framed as a work of art on it’s own.  The fact that this animation team still is able to pull off a visually creative scene like that, one that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a mainstream studio animated film before, this late in the game is a real testament to their commitment towards driving the capabilities of animation even further.

I also want to spotlight the talented voice cast of this movie, who again bring so much life into these characters.  Hailee Steinfeld is given much more to do here as Gwen Stacy, with the character becoming something of a co-lead alongside Miles Morales this time.  She really brings a sense of gravitas to the character that helps to build her journey across the multiverse.  Of course Shameik Moore once again does a brilliant job of voicing Miles Morales.  His performance definitely reflects the growth the character has gone through between films; finding him in a far more confident place.  Once Miles Morales makes his live action debut eventually, it will be a hard act to follow, as Shameik has done such a good job capturing the infectious exuberance of Miles so far in this animated version.  Though his role is smaller this time around, it’s also good to see a welcome return of Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker.  This time around he has traded in the dad bod to become an actual dad, and Johnson hilariously plays up this Spider-Man’s new domestic situation.  Of the many new characters, the one who stands out the most is Oscar Isaac as Miguel O’Hara.  While Isaac did make a first appearance in the post credits scene of the first Spider-Verse movie, that cameo was played mostly for laughs, poking fun at the “Pointing Spider-Man” meme.  Here Oscar Isaac really gets to chew into this character, and you really feel the weight of his tragic paste playing out in the portrayal of the character.  Miguel O’Hara isn’t exactly cast as the villain of this movie, but his contrasting worldview clashes in a harrowing way with Miles Morales, and Oscar Isaac carries those scenes with ferocious power.  I also liked Daniel Kaluuya’s heavily accented Spider-Punk, which matched the art style that he’s personified with.  As far as the villain goes, Jason Schwartzman does an interesting thing with The Spot, where he’s played off as a bumbling joke of a bad guy in the beginning, but as he builds his power over time, Schwartzman begins to voice him in a much more menacing way, and it’s effectively done.  It’s good to see that in terms of the art style and the voice acting, Across the Spider-Verse is continuing to keep the standards high and giving us the things we really want the most out of this series.

It certainly looks like Sony Animation is pulling out all the stops when it comes to creating these Spider-Verse films.  I definitely love the collection of art styles used throughout the film.  I feel like I’m going to need a few more watches in order to catch every little detail found on screen.  My issue, however, is that I feel like the movie was a good twenty minutes too long.  It takes almost an hour just to get to the actual multiverse jumping that the movie promises.  Once we finally get there, the film definitely gets rolling, but I wish that it had that same kind of energy throughout the film.  A tighter paced first act might have helped with giving me a more satisfactory experience, but at the same time, there are quite a few things to love in that first half of the movie.  The cast of characters namely helps to make the movie an engaging experience.  The film still makes us fall in love with Miles Morales and his journey, and it also helps to flesh out returning characters like Miles’ mother and father, as well as Gwen Stacy, who gets the most additional character development in this film.  I also loved the new characters introduced here, with Spider-Punk being an easy new favorite.  Oscar Isaac’s Miguel O’Hara is also a fascinating new addition to the series, and I’m very interested in seeing where the series takes his arc in the next film.  One thing that I wonder if it had a possible impact on my viewing experience is that this film is the middle chapter in a planned trilogy.  There are certainly many great examples of brilliant middle chapters on the big screen like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), but I wonder if I may like this movie better once I have the full context of it’s story which will conclude with Beyond the Spider-Verse next year.  I do think I may like this movie better once the trilogy is complete, but for now my first impression is one of admiration, but with a reservation for some uneven pacing.  For now, I would put it under the original film slightly, though there are some individual scenes that I do think exceed the brilliance of the first movie too.  I hope that once the trilogy is complete that the full scope will be seen in all of it’s brilliance.  The thing I appreciate the most is that Sony Animation with this series is really shaking up the animation world and holding it up to a higher standard.  Especially coming off of the stale storytelling of The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023), this kind of film with it’s bold brushstrokes in both art and storytelling is so refreshing to see, and my hope is that the other animation studios, including Disney and Pixar, continue to up their game in order to compete.  You got to appreciate a game-changer like the Spider-Verse series, and it’s definitely the hero we deserve right now.

Rating: 8/10

Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2023) – Review

You’ve got to give credit to Disney, they’ve always found a way to make a boat load of money no matter the circumstances.  Sometimes, however, their money making ideas come at a cost of damaging their brand.  Take the later part of the Michael Eisner era at the Disney Studios.  The Disney Renaissance that heralded the return to glory for the Animation Studio at the core of the company was beginning to wane in momentum going into the new millennium, with many films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Brother Bear (2003) all performing well under the average of what films like Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) took at the box office.  Couple that with the rise of computer animation from places like Pixar and Dreamworks, and Disney’s once mighty money making machine was just not able to compete anymore.  Unfortunately, the way that the Disney Team saw as a lifeline through the hard economic times was to turn towards the home video market.  Disney Television animation was in the middle of creating a weekly series spinoff for the film Aladdin, and their epic two part series pilot included a return of the film’s villain, Jafar, as part of it’s central plot.  Disney, seeing the potential appeal of the television event, decided to repackage the pilot into a direct to video movie release, declaring it the official sequel to the original film.  The Return of Jafar (1994) had none of the glossy animation, nor the popular songs, nor even Robin Williams as the Genie, and yet it still made a lot of money for Disney in home video sales; even rivaling the original film with it’s video release.  With the waning box office for their movies happening at the same time, Disney saw this as a lucrative new market for them, so the focus in the early 2000’s shifted away from spending money on new expensive movies, and instead towards raiding the Disney library to make cheap direct to video sequels to their classic films.  They found their way to make money, but at what cost?

From Walt Era classics to Renaissance era new masterpieces, no original Disney film was spared from getting a sequel treatment.  Most of the films made of course were lazy retreads of what had worked before with most of the original magic missing.  If you ask most Disney fans, none will consider any of the movies made in this era canon.  The direct to video craze was thankfully short lived as there was a renewed drive to revitalize the Animation brand with the arrival of Bob Iger as CEO of the Disney Company.  Disney went so far as to close the DisneyToon studio that had been set up specifically to churn out these low grade film and consolidate everything back to it’s roots; even bringing Pixar Animation fully into the fold.  And this led to another bright era for Disney, with films like Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016), and Moana (2016) all performing magically for Disney.  But, while the direct to video era had come to an end, there were still minds within the studio who wanted to find ways to make money off of all the legacy titles they still had in their library.  In 2010, director Tim Burton created his live action version of classic story Alice in Wonderland with the Disney company.  The film became a surprise hit at the box office, grossing nearly a billion worldwide.  The results suddenly made Disney look at what other movies they had that could be given the live action remake treatment.  Suddenly, the new money making machine for Disney became taking their classic animated titles and giving them the live action treatment.  And the results, unfortunately, feel reminiscent of the direct to video craze at Disney.  Yes, they are making a lot of money off of these films, but in doing so, they are stripping away the things that made the original movies so memorable in the first place.  Thus far, they have gone through most of the biggest titles in the Disney canon, with less than stellar results.  This year, they have gotten to he film that launched the Disney Renaissance era itself, The Little Mermaid.  The big worry for many long time Disney fans is that this film will for the best pale in comparison to the original and at worst, stain it’s legacy by being a soulless money grab.  What kind of movie did the new Little Mermaid end up being.

The story of course is familiar to anyone who has either read the original Hans Christian Andersen story or seen the original Disney animated classic.  The ocean is ruled over by the mighty King Triton (Javier Bardem) who welcomes his daughters home for a festival celebrating what they call the Coral Moon.  Unfortunately, he finds his youngest daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey) is missing, so he sends his majordomo, a crab named Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to go out and find her.  Ariel has secretly been collecting artifacts from the human world with the help of her friend, a fish named Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and has consulted with a seagull named Scuttle (Awkwafina) to know what humans use those artifacts for.  Ariel’s collection is part of her obsession with life above the ocean surface, which Triton has forbidden her from reaching.  However, one evening she is drawn to the surface when she sees peculiar lights flashing above.  There she sees fireworks being fired from a passing ship, and on board the crew of humans are celebrating the birthday of their highness, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King).  Ariel is immediately smitten with the young prince, but the celebration is cut short when a storm hits.  Eric ends up nearly drowning when the ship is destroyed in the fury of the storm, but is rescued by Ariel.  He is too weak to see Ariel’s face, but he can hear her siren song and it sticks with him, leading him to vow to find her anywhere on his island if she is real.  Meanwhile, Triton learns of Ariel’s infatuation with the humans and punishes her by destroying all of her artifacts.   Ariel is left heartbroken, which then leads to a intervention from a sinister force that has been spying on her the whole time; Ursula, the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy).  Ursula promises Ariel that she can make her human for three days, allowing her to finally reconnect with Eric in the surface world.  However, Ursula’s spell is purposely meant to entrap Ariel, with Ursula intent on using her to get Triton’s crown and trident.  Can Ariel find her true love before the witch’s spell ends and become a part of that world?

There is no doubt about it; the original Little Mermaid is a landmark classic in the Disney canon.  It’s the movie that jump started the Disney Renaissance and brought back Disney Animation back from the dead.  To this day, it is a beloved film to a generation of Disney fans who came of age during this era; myself being one of them.  So, you can expect me to be a tad bit worried about how a live action remake would reflect on a movie as beloved as the original animated film.  Disney’s track record as of late with the live action remakes isn’t great.  Some are definitely genuine good films (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella, Cruella) while others are just average (Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan and Wendy), while sadly most are just downright awful (Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pinocchio).  Given that, I was anxious about what might happen to The Little Mermaid, but at the same time, I have to go in with an open mind and just accept the movie on it’s own merits.  And after having seen it, I am grateful in saying that the new Little Mermaid is one of the better Disney remakes I’ve seen.  I even dare say it’s worth seeing, even if you are against the idea of it existing in the first place.  To be clear, it’s not without it’s flaws.  The novelty of the original is not here, but there is a lot of creativity still on display that it still kept me engaged as I was watching it.  While most of the other Disney remakes feel like pale imitators, made I might add without passion, The Little Mermaid does what I hope for all the Disney remakes to accomplish, which is to justify it’s reason for existing.  Sadly, too many of the Disney remakes feel like the direct to video sequels, which are just movies existing solely as a product rather than a work of art.  There are times in this Little Mermaid where you do feel the pressure of corporate mandates, but there’s also a sense from the people who made this movie that they are trying their best to give us something special, and that helps to elevate it above the other remakes.

The first great thing I’d like to highlight about this movie is the thing that I’m sure most people are going to be talking about the most with this film, and that’s the performance of Halle Bailey as Ariel.  Bailey is transcendent in her performance as the titular Little Mermaid, giving far and away the best performance that I have ever seen in any of these Disney remakes.  From the first moment she appears on screen, she commands this film and elevates the movie as a result.  Throughout the movie, she exudes this infectious charm on screen, even in the moments where she has to act without her voice.  And man, what a great singing voice.  If there was anything that needed to translate directly from the original to this new live action version, it’s that Ariel had to have the most beautiful voice in the world.  Ariel’s original voice actor, Jodi Benson, is a tough act to follow, but Halle more than meets the challenge.  This is definitely evident in Ariel’s iconic “I Want” song, “Part of Your World,” which Halle performs to absolute perfection.  The audience I saw the movie with were spellbound during that scene, and even applauded at the end, demonstrating just how well she nailed the performance.  I am extremely happy to see her shine so brightly in this movie, given the controversy that surrounded the news of her casting in the film.  Because Halle Bailey is a different skin tone than the animated Ariel, there arose a racist online backlash towards the movie.  Sadly, many attacks were levied at her specifically, and she had to weather a firestorm of negative attention from people were pre-judging the movie before a single frame had been shot.  To see Halle rise above all that and give the kind of heartfelt performance that she did is the best outcome out of all this, and I hope that the undeniable power of her performance silences all the trolls and haters online as a result, especially if it leads to Halle becoming a major star because of this role.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie for the most part rises to the level of Halle’s performance as Ariel.  One thing that I think helped is that the film is directed by Rob Marshall.  Marshall has a mixed record as a film director, but where he has done his best work is in adapting musicals, and more importantly, staging musical numbers.  Drawing from his Broadway experience, the guy knows how to make visually interesting musical numbers for the big screen, something that he demonstrated very well in his big screen debut; the Oscar-winning Chicago (2002).  In The Little Mermaid, he’s working with a very different kind of musical, dependent on a lot of visual effects, but to his credit, he managed to make those musical numbers just as visually inventive as the ones he does with no visual effects.  The “Under the Sea” sequence in particular is perfect example of what Rob Marshall managed to bring to the movie.  Every shot is choreographed well to the song itself, and at the same time it doesn’t merely just copy the original film either.  That’s the one thing that made the Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King remakes so frustrating for me; the lack of creativity in the musical sequences.  They either were copy and paste jobs of the original animated sequences, or they lacked any visual stimulation at all.  With the Little Mermaid, Rob Marshall wants to make these songs feel special, and that thankfully carries through in all the classic Howard Ashman/ Alan Menken songs carried over from the original, as well as the new ones written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Not only that, but the movie benefits from a cast that can actually sing.  While I was worried about the more realistic depictions of the animal characters of Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle, the voice cast helped me to get used to them, and they turned out to be entertaining on their own.  Daveed Diggs’ performance as Sebastian especially works well, making the character just as entertaining as his classic counterpart (voiced by the late Samuel Wright).  The only actor that I wished had gone a bit further with her performance is Melissa McCarthy as Ursula.  She’s not bad by any means, and thankfully exceeded my dire expectations, but at the same time her performance seems too grounded and more of an imitation of the late great Pat Carroll’s vocal performance in the original.  At the same time, I did like McCarthy’s overall look as the character, especially with the bioluminescence they added to Ursula’s tentacles.

The one area where I think the movie may fall behind the original is it’s depiction of the ocean world.  The visual effects are not the worst that I’ve seen in these Disney remakes, but you still get this unfortunate artificiality that encumbers many moments within the movie.  For one thing, the underwater sequences still feel too murky, which dilutes some of the colors.  Coming right off of the heels of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), which revolutionized the ways digital water scenes can be filmed, doesn’t help.  The effects to turn the actors into merpeople is also mixed.  I feel like most of the resources for the mermaid effect went into the characters of Ariel and Ursula, both of whom come off as convincing as the iconic characters.  Other merpeople look unfortunately not as great, which is especially true for poor Javier Bardem as Triton, who often looks awkward in the role, buried under too many layers of effects both for his tail fin as well as for his beard.  The above water scenes fare much better, and the production design team did a great job of crafting Eric’s kingdom into this colorful, vibrant place, complete with a Caribbean flavor to it.  One thing about the visual effects that I really think helped out a lot was actually giving expressions to the animation of the animal characters.  After seeing the cold, lifeless faces of the household objects in Beauty and the Beast as well as those of the animals in The Lion King, it’s refreshing to see the digital animators make an effort here to be less adherent to limitations of live action and actually make the animals a bit more cartoony.  There’s also a lot to be said about the structure of the movie as well.  At 135 minutes, the movie is nearly an hour longer than the original, which ran a tight 83 minutes.  But, even with all that extra length, the movie never feels padded with unnecessary scenes.  All the extra time instead is devoted to extra character development, particularly with Ariel and Eric, whose courtship is fleshed out much more here.  Too often Disney chooses to fill their remakes with plot elements that either add nothing or effectively ruin the story as a whole (the idiotic teleportation book from Beauty and the Beast for example), and that’s thankfully absent here.  This is essentially the same story, but just with more meat on the bone.  And to director Marshall’s credit, it flows just as well as the original.

Out of all the Disney remakes, only Pete’s Dragon is one that I would say exceeds the original, which frankly didn’t have that high of a bar to clear.  In the case of all the Disney remakes, none of them ever have been better than the original animated versions.  But, with The Little Mermaid, I would say it joins the likes of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella remake, which doesn’t exceed the original, but at the same time compliments it.  After so much disappointment, it’s nice to actually say that about one of these Disney remakes.  The film is especially worth your time just for Halle Bailey’s performance as Ariel alone.  I can’t think of a better live action embodiment of one of these iconic Disney characters than her version of Ariel.  She really rose to the challenge, taking on a difficult role, and shone through magnificently.  Thankfully, the rest of the movie is worthwhile as well.  It’s not perfect, and sometimes suffers whenever it has to adhere too close to the original, including some unnecessary shot for shot imitations.  But, there’s a lot of care put into this film that feels absent from so many other Disney remakes.  Somehow, Rob Marshall managed to succeed in a way that other acclaimed directors like Tim Burton, Bill Condon, Robert Zemeckis and Jon Favreau have all failed to do, which is to make a movie that doesn’t feel like a hollow cash grab.  Don’t get me wrong, this movie is still a cash grab, and I worry that Disney will take the wrong lesson from it if it becomes a success.  But, for the first time in a long time, they got the remake formula right.  Much like Cinderella, it changes enough to make it feel like it’s own thing, while still fulfilling the expectations of what we remember from the original.  Despite it’s success, I do wish Disney would get out of this trend of remakes and get back to making original films again.  They’ve got a valuable brand and they are doing no favors for themselves by rehashing their glories from the past.  At least with The Little Mermaid they didn’t stain the legacy of that beloved classic, and at the very least gave it a deserving companion; one where you can definitely say both are worth watching, even though the original is still the top choice.  Thank you Disney for not spoiling your lovely Little Mermaid and letting her be part of our world once again.

Rating: 8/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – Review

What an extraordinary route it took for this movie to finally make it to movie theaters.  When it was first announced at Comic Con 2012 that Marvel was indeed going to adapt a film based on the Guardians of the Galaxy line of comic books, people thought that they had lost their minds.  It made sense in those early years of the MCU to create movies centered around Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, but the Guardians of the Galaxy?  Still, Marvel believed in what they had and more so they believed in the talents of a rising star filmmaker named James Gunn.  The resulting film in 2014 not only proved everyone wrong, but the original Guardians of the Galaxy quickly became regarded as one of the best comic book movies ever made.  The film was a hit, and it quickly sired a sequel in 2017, which also was a box office hit with critical acclaim.  With the Guardians cast also playing a major part in the culmination of Marvel’s Infinity Saga with the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame (2019), these once obscure character known only to die hard comic fans were now part of the Marvel elite.  And they were about to continue the win streak beyond Endgame, with a third film in their franchise meant to be the launching pad for Marvel’s Phase 4 in the summer of 2020.  But, alas, plans went astray.  First off, James Gunn was fired suddenly by Marvel’s parent company Disney in a short sighted response to years old offensive jokes that an online provocateur uncovered as retaliation for disliking Gunn’s left wing political stances.  Disney later realized their mistake and re-hired Gunn a few months later, but by that time he had already been hired to direct The Suicide Squad over at rival DC.  Gunn still accepted the offer to come back so that he could complete the story he created his own way, but it would be some time before he could start production.  The shut-down caused by the pandemic also complicated things, so by the time cameras finally started rolling on this third Guardians film, 5 years had passed since the last one and the world was a much different place.

Still, James Gunn is keeping his promise and we are now finally getting Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  So many different scenarios could’ve played out between Vol. 2‘s release and now, including having this threequel having a different director appointed during the time that Gunn was out at Marvel.  The movie certainly no longer is the launching pad for a new Phase of the MCU.  In fact, it no longer is even part of Phase 4, which ended last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).  While it’s placement in the continuity of the MCU has changed, the goal of the movie seems to have remained the same.  This is James Gunn’s final hurrah with this franchise and these characters.  It may not have been conceived that way, but the way things have played out over the last few years, the movie has taken on a very definitive significance that will certainly define it’s place in the Marvel canon overall.  And it comes at a time when Marvel needs it.  While Marvel is not financially hurting right now, there are many who are observing the fact that the once unbeatable box office juggernaut has been appearing a little soft lately.  Most of their post-Endgame movies are being received more lukewarm compared to the ones that came out before, both by critics and general audiences.  None of their movies have bombed, but they are performing well under the high expectations that have been placed on the Marvel brand.  Many believe that we’ve now reached a point of super hero movie fatigue, which is not only affecting Marvel, but their rival DC as well, given the box office failure seen with Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023).  Given the shaky ground that the genre now sits on, the pressure is definitely high on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to break the current losing streak.  It’s not going to be easy as both of it’s predecessors grossed higher than $300 million at the domestic box office each, and this film is coming off the heels of Marvel’s first ever money loser with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023).  Is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 the movie Marvel needs to save the day, or is it continuing the trend of diminishing returns in a post-Endgame world.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 finds the rag tag bunch set up in their new headquarters, the skull shaped sanctuary known as Knowhere; a place once ruled over by The Collector.  There they’ve helped to set up a community for refugees from across the galaxy.  Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) has taken charge for the most part, since Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord is wallowing in his depression and drinking his sorrows away.  Their peaceful existence is shattered however when a super powered being known as Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) breaks into Knowhere, intent on capturing Rocket.  The Guardians manage to overpower the intruder, but now before Rocket ends up being mortally wounded in the scuffle.  Normal methods of healing him don’t work as they find that there is a kill switch device implanted on his heart; a leftover from the horrible animal experiments that made him who he is.  Peter vows to find a way to save his friend, so he musters his fellow Guardians, including Nebula (Karen Gillen), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to join him in a search across the cosmos for a way to save Rocket.  Their journey involves breaking into an ultra secure laboratory called the Orgosphere, which they receive help from the Ravagers, Quill’s old gang, to infiltrate.  Among the Ravagers ranks now is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is the alternate time line variant of Peter’s murdered ex-girlfriend and has no memory of their past relationship, making their team up a little awkward.  While Rocket remains invalid, he flashes back to memories of his days when he was experimented on by a demented mad scientist named the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who may be the only person capable of saving Rocket’s life.  Unfortunately for the Guardians, The High Evolutionary is behind the attempted abduction of Rocket and he’s adamant about continuing those experiments further, which will endanger more than just Rocket’s well-being.  Despite all their harrowing adventures so far, this is definitely the most personal battle for them so far, and one that will make the team members confront more of their tortured pasts.

Going over the story of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it’s pretty clear that this is not as much of a fun little romp that the past films in the series have been.  It will become apparent from the opening of this movie right away that James Gunn is aiming for a much different tone with his trilogy caper.  The movie does open with a thematic needle drop like the past films; but whereas the original opened with the upbeat “Come and Get Your Love” from Redbone and Vol. 2 opened with the equally light-hearted “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra, Vol. 3 starts out with Radiohead’s “Creep.”  That upfront statement tells you that this is going to be a much different movie than what we’ve seen before, and to be honest, it’s actually a refreshing change.  After several movies in a row from Marvel that felt more formulaic and tethered to a bigger franchise continuity, Vol. 3 is a movie that immediately throws out expectations and does something refreshingly different for a change.  Don’t get me wrong, it still feels like a James Gunn directed Guardians of the Galaxy movie, but Gunn proves here that he’s not afraid to make things a little darker and more serious.  The experiment works for the most part.  It’s clear that James Gunn was intent on pushing a few more boundaries with this movie, as far as he could go with the Marvel mandated PG-13.  This movie even has Star-Lord uttering the MCU’s first unbleeped F-bomb.  And despite it being a harsher story than we usually get from Marvel, it still hits the right emotional notes and it feels in-line with what Gunn has led his story up to now.  I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite of the Guardians movies, that is still reserved for the nearly flawless first film.  But this may be the one that impresses me the most with it’s handling of riskier material and it’s epic scope; showing how accomplished James Gunn has gotten as a filmmaker.

The thing that really elevates the movie is the way it treats all of the character arcs in this film.  Each character, even some of the minor ones like Sean Gunn’s Kraglin and Cosmo the Telepathic Dog (voiced by Maria Bakalova) get these wonderful side stories with satisfying pay offs.  Certainly the Guardians themselves have the most important story beats, but one doesn’t overshadow the other.  Of the Guardians characters, Groot may be the one with the minimalist character development, but he’s still a welcome presence throughout the movie, and there is some resolution to his overall character arc by the end.  They continue to build upon Drax and Mantis’ peculiar courtship as well, which provides the movie with some wonderful comedic moments.  I also love how they have continued Nebula’s arc from villain to hero as she has continued to soften her rough edges, while still at times struggling to control her temper.  One thing I was curious about was how they would deal with the whole Star-Lord and Gamora ordeal.  It picks up from where things left off with Avengers: Endgame, where a different Gamora has emerged whose separate from the team she used to belong to.  In the wrong hands, Star-Lord’s desire to rekindle a romance between them would’ve come across as creepy, but thankfully James Gunn handles the relationship in a delicate way that doesn’t cast poorly on either character and feels organic as part of the story.  But, even with all this, the movie is first and foremost Rocket’s story.  His storyline, part of which is told in flashback, is the most powerful part of the movie, and I can tell you without spoiling anything that his moments were the ones that hit the hardest when comes to the emotional weight.  I saw quite a few people wiping away tears at my screening.  A few of the Rocket scenes may be among the bleakest ever put into a Marvel movie since the “snap” from Infinity War, but James Gunn didn’t put them in here for shock value.  He wants us to understand the hardship that his characters had to overcome, and it’s something that needed to be faced head on.  To make those moments work in a film franchise that up to now had been on the lighter side, with a character mostly known as a comedic sidekick is something really impressive, and one of the main reasons why this movie works as well as it does.

The movie is not without it’s faults though.  Chief among them is the villain, The High Evolutionary.  Given how so many of the characters in this film get these rich story arcs, it’s a shame that the villain they face is so one note.  We don’t learn much at all about the High Evolutionary other than he’s extremely powerful and a egomaniacal scientist trying to play God with his experimentations.  Even by the film’s end he remains an enigma; who is he, where did he come from, why is he experimenting on animals?  The movie just never gives us any answers to those questions.  To be sure, actor Chukwudi Iwuji is swinging for the fences with his performance; giving scene chewing ferocity in every moment he is on screen.  But as hard as he is trying, the movie just never quite makes him as interesting as he should be.  It’s a step down from the impact that Vol. 2′s villain , Ego the Living Planet, had.  At least with Ego and even the first film’s Ronan the Accuser there was a feeling of imminent danger to the lives of the Guardians.  High Evolutionary is only a major force of evil in one character’s story, Rocket’s, and no one else’s.  There are also some pacing issues with this movie that hamper it a bit.  At 2 1/2 hours it’s the longest in the franchise, and while much of the epic scale of this movie supports the increased run time, there are plenty of moments, particularly those devoted to comedic bits, that feel like padding.  There are two extended comedy moments, one related on how to properly use a couch with another about how to open a car door, that on their own are funny enough, but when put back to back of each other makes the film feel like it’s wasting time.  Overall, these moments certainly don’t ruin the movie, but about 10-15 minutes could’ve been shaved off of this movie, and I don’t think it would have harmed any of the story telling at all.

Now there are still plenty more things to praise about this movie.  One is definitely the cast.  It’s clear that these actors knew that this was going to be a film that ends an era, so they are giving it their all to make this movie feel like a worthy culmination of the story.  The most impressive work comes from Bradley Cooper in his vocal performance here as Rocket.  He’s called upon to take Rocket into some very dark places in this story and he really finds the heart and soul of who Rocket is in order to make the movie’s darkest moments carry an emotional wallop.  Christ Pratt naturally continues to make Star-Lord a lovable rogue, which he’s consistently done across all three movies, plus the three other MCU films the Guardians have appeared in.  The same goes for Karen Gillen as Nebula, Dave Bautista as Drax and Pom Klementiff as Mantis.  One of my favorite performances in this film, though, is Zoe Saldana as Gamora, as she is playing a very different version of this character; one who’s a bit more blood-thirsty than we’ve seen before, which leads to some wild moments in the movie.  Newcomer Will Poulter’s introduction as Adam Warlock may be not what comic book fans were expecting or wanting, as it’s a bit of a departure for the character, but how James Gunn uses him in this movie makes sense for this story, and Poulter is perfectly suited for the role.  The movie is also on par with the others in the series when it comes to the visuals.  The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has always been one of the more imaginative visually within the MCU, paving the way for the studio’s more celestial bound adventures, and this movie continues that tradition.  There are some bold visual ideas in this film, like the organically grown structure of the Orgoscope or the oppressive jagged-ness of the High Evolutionary’s fortress.  Even individual scenes are crafted to stun, like a stand-out fight scene set to the Beastie Boys late in the film.  As I said before, despite the change in tone for this movie, it still holds up the high quality craftsmanship that has set this franchise apart in the MCU.

One of the unfortunate things that comes to mind while watching this movie is knowing that we’ll likely never see another movie like it again in the MCU.  James Gunn was a singularly identifiable voice in the whole of Marvel’s pool of talent, and sadly his time at the studio is coming to an end.  He’s about to take the big job over at DC, assuming a similar role over there that Kevin Feige holds at Marvel, and he’ll be responsible for spear-heading the development of all the new DC films and shows coming out over the next decade.  Had Disney not acted as drastically as they did and not fired him over something that turned out to be nothing, who knows if things may have turned out differently.  As far as I’m concerned, James Gunn is in a good position where I think he is going to do an outstanding job.  He clearly has an un-shakable love for comic books and wants to do them justice on the big screen.  He’s already amassed a great track record at DC with the very underrated The Suicide Squad, as well as the spin-off series Peacemaker.  Thankfully, he was able to close the chapter on the Guardians of the Galaxy series his own way, and give it the proper closure that it deserves.  I won’t spoil where all the characters end up by movie’s end, but this movie is definitely a swan song for the team we knew.  Who knows what futures Marvel has in store for them, if at all; we only get the promise of one character’s return in end credits.  But the way that the movie culminates their story after three films is enormously satisfying.  I’ll need to consider more of where I would rank it in the greater MCU, but I can definitely say it’s up there with it’s predecessors in the upper echelon of Marvel Studios movies.  The Rocket Raccoon moments alone I would rank among the best of any Marvel movie.  It’s a movie that I highly recommend for both die-hard and casual fans.  James Gunn did not disappoint, and I’m glad to see that he left Marvel on good terms with one final gift worthy of the franchise’s legacy.  Is it the kind of movie to change Marvel’s fortunes.  That remains to be seen, but it is great to finally spend some time again with the “freakin’ Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Rating: 8.5/10

The Super Mario Bros. Movie – Review

For the longest time there was one thing that was certain about Hollywood; that they couldn’t make a movie based on a video game.  There were many attempts to be sure, but many of them resulted in spectacular failures, both at the box office and with critics and audiences.  A poster child for the dismal record of video game movies was one that was based on the world’s most popular game: 1993’s Super Mario Bros.  The live action film starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as the titular brothers was so removed visually from what the original 8-bit game represented that audiences didn’t know what to make of it.  The film would go on to be a cautionary tale of how not to adapt a video game into a movie and the industry for the longest time steered clear of going all in on video games as sources for their movies.  But, in recent years, something has changed.  Not only are movie studios starting to adapt video games into feature films and series, but in some cases they are actually succeeding in their adaptations.  The Sonic the Hedgehog movies for instance wildly exceeded expectations, especially considering that the first one went through an extensive eleventh hour re-design of the main character that many thought was going to doom the movie.  And on television, a series adaptation of the Playstation game The Last of Us is not only earning high viewership numbers, but it’s also being critically lauded as one of the best shows on TV in general.  I think one thing that has turned the tide with video game adaptations in film and television recently is the fact that we have finally have a generation of filmmakers working now who grew up playing video games.  This isn’t an older generation trying to figure out what these kids are liking any more; now the filmmakers are bringing a lifetime of knowledge about how to tell stories through the video game medium and giving them the admiration they deserve as they adapt them into a different medium.  With this change in the culture, it would make sense that Mario would get another chance on the big screen.

Super Mario Bros. started in Japan in 1985 before eventually making it’s way to North American markets in 1987.  Mario Bros. became what they call in the video game industry a “hardware seller,” because the appeal of the game was so immense that Mario was very much responsible that millions of households in America had a Nintendo Game System.  Often packaged with the console itself, nearly every Nintendo user played the game, and it’s presence in the pop culture spread like wildfire.  As a mascot for the Nintendo corporation, Mario was to video games what Mickey Mouse had become to cartoons; a character recognized all over the world.  Mario’s creator, game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, didn’t just rest on his laurels with the first game.  He would continue to refine the character and his gameplay through subsequent titles in the series, each one taking advantage of the advancing graphical capabilities of each new Nintendo console.  Every time new hardware was released, a new Mario game was to follow, and each game continues to build on what came before it, which has helped Mario to keep his relevancy nearly four decades later.  As the series has gone on, not only has Mario managed to stay popular, but so have all the other characters that appear in those games; some even getting their own popular spinoffs.  Mario’s brother Luigi has his own popular series called Luigi’s Mansion, where he goes ghost hunting, and there are games devoted to characters like Toadstool, Yoshi, and Mario’s doppelganger nemesis Wario.  Now, there seems to be a major attempt to capitalize on the multi-generational appeal of the Mario series, with a major film studio involved in the action.  This year, Universal Pictures is not only attempting another big screen adaptation of the game, but they’ve opened a new section of their Studio Lot park in Hollywood dedicated to the Mario franchise.  As a wise move, they’ve avoided going the live action route like the doomed 1993 film, and instead gave the project to their Illumination Animation division, with full blessing from Nintendo.  The only question is if they are able to make Super Mario Bros work this time as a movie experience.

The story begins with the two Mario brothers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) starting off their new careers as expert plumbers in present day Brooklyn.  They unfortunately suffer several setbacks on their first day on the job, and it leads to their family worrying about their futures, including their highly skeptical Father (Charles Martinet).  A local water main break in their area convinces Mario that they may have a second shot at success, so they take their gear and travel down into the lower maintenance levels of the New York City.  There they find a mysterious green pipe, which unexpectedly sucks them in and sends them on an interdimensional journey.  The brothers get split up, with Luigi being sent to a dark, foreboding place called the Dark Lands, and Mario ending up in the Mushroom Kingdom.  While exploring the strange new place, Mario runs into a talking mushroom creature named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who agrees to help Mario by guiding him to the castle of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy).  Mario meets the Princess and learns of the dangers that faces her kingdom.  Across their world, the tyrannical leader of the Dark Lands, the Koopa King Bowser (Jack Black) is causing terror with his army and flying fortress.  Peach believes that Mario can be of some help, so she agrees to help him find his brother if he agrees to aid in their fight against Bowser.  She believes that the key to stopping Bowser’s army is by recruiting the help of the Monkey Kingdom, and that means having to challenge their mightiest warrior, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen).  Meanwhile, Bowser advances towards the Mushroom Kingdom and learns that Mario has allied with the Princess, after Bowser’s wizard assistant Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson) has captured Luigi in the Dark Lands.  Can Peach and Mario succeed in bringing Donkey Kong and his forces to their side to stop Bowser from destroying the Mushroom Kingdom?

Truth be told, there isn’t much to making a movie adaptation of Super Mario Bros.  The original game’s story is as simplistic as it can be (Mario saves the Princess from the depths of Bowser’s castle) and many of the other games deviate very little from that central premise.  The bar is already set low by the 1993 film as well, which is evident upon watching it that the filmmakers had no idea what they were adapting in the first place.  One of the things that worried me is the fact that Illumination Animation was involved.  Illumination is a studio that has yet to make a movie that I consider anything more than just okay.  They do have a quality animation team, but they also seem to do just the bare minimum when it comes to their stories.  Through their Despicable Me, Minions, and Secret Life of Pets series of films, they are a studio that is more geared toward broad entertainment rather than actually reaching their audience on an emotional or intellectual level.  That’s often why they never gain the critical reception that Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks do with their movies.  On the other hand, their broad entertainment style is what has also helped them to make a killing at the box office.  Their films consistently play very well in theaters, mainly due to the fact that their target demographic is little kids and also because they aggressively market their movies months in advance.  I’m sure that Super Mario Bros. will do exactly the same, because the way I felt about this movie is the way I felt seeing every other Illumination movie; underwhelmed but aware of how big this movie will be with it’s target audience.  It disappoints me a lot that this kind of box office success is keeping Illumination from actually improving as an animation studio.  While other studios take chances, sometimes to the risk of failure, Illumination plays it down the middle safe and it results in their movies coming across as boring.  Sadly, Super Mario Bros. is another one of those movies, and it’s equally heartbreaking that they are doing so with such a legacy brand as Mario and Nintendo.

What I had the biggest problem with in this movie is the lack of focus.  It just seems like each scene was crafted to indulge the audience with references to the games, but none of it really adds up.  The thing that especially gets sacrificed the most in this movie is character development.  Not once in this movie do I ever fully get what Mario or any of the other characters wants; they are all just passively playing their role in the story that vaguely follows the progression of the games.  There seems to be kernels of character arcs set up early in the film, like Mario wanting to impress his family, but that goes by the wayside once Mario arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, where the story just puts Mario through the paces of becoming the hero who will stop Bowser.  Mario’s family is all but forgotten for most of the movie, until the very end suddenly shoehorns the message back in at the last minute.  Also, most of the characters in the story never change throughout the progression of the plot.  Mario never gains the confidence to be a hero; he’s already the more confident of the two brothers in the beginning of the movie, and the film never advances beyond that.  The way the movie starts, with a lot of emphasis placed on the relationship of the brothers, also gets abandoned as the characters spend most of the movie apart.  Luigi’s screen time is also shockingly short in this movie too.  Like with so much of Illumination’s movies, it’s all about cramming in more time for humorous bits to please the younger viewers, and in doing so, character moments get pushed to the side.  The pacing of this movie is just a freight train of Easter eggs and sight gags, with no time to stop and center the story itself and actually find it’s core.  Yes, I know, the Mario games are simplistic too, but you got think that other animation studios would’ve tried a little harder to find purpose and meaning in the story they were telling.  Can you imagine what Pixar or Dreamworks would have done with the Mario IP.  Honestly, I don’t know why Universal didn’t take this film to Dreamworks, since they are also a part of the studio, and have a better track record of adapting already existing IP (Mr. Peabody and Sherman).

At the same time, this isn’t a complete failure of a movie, nor is it the worst video game adaptation.  For one thing, the animation is exceptional.  The direct involvement with Nintendo was a big help, because every character is on model with their video game counterpart, and the environments that they inhabit are beautifully realized.  I especially like the ominous appearance of Bowser’s floating fortress, which seems like a volcanic mountain suspended in the air and with Bowser’s face as it’s intimidating mast head.  If you’ve played the game, As I’m sure most of you from my generation have, you will see references galore throughout the movie, and most of them are true to the games from where they came from.  There’s even a clever reference to the Mario Kart games when Mario and his crew have to build their selective vehicles.  Even if you aren’t a gamer, you’ll still appreciate how colorful and imaginative the movie is.  As someone who has grown up playing these games since childhood, I can definitely say that they nail the visual look of what a Mario game should be.  It’s definitely a far cry from the grungy, dystopian world from the 1993 Mario Bros.  In particular, this movie draws a lot of visual inspiration from the 3D graphics Mario games; from the Nintendo 64 generation on.  Princess Peach’s castle is definitely inspired by the Super Mario 64 game, which has served as the basis of design for every Mario Bros. structure in the games ever since.  The movie also uses clever ways to re-imagine things that before only appeared in the 2D classic games.  The arena in which Mario Fights Donkey Kong features bright red steel beams, a reference to the retro arcade game from which both Mario and Donkey Kong both made their debuts in the early days of gaming.  The movie also does a neat perspective change to emulate the side-scrolling gameplay of the Mario games in a couple of moments.  Where the game has many shortcomings in it’s story, it thankfully still serves up a strong visual feast for the audience, and in a way that is respectful and in line with the legacy of the games.

One of the things that a lot of people were worried about going into this movie was how the celebrity voice cast would work out playing these iconic characters.  In particular, a lot of scrutiny fell upon the peculiar casting of Chris Pratt as Mario.  For many years, the voice of Mario has been provided by voice actor Charles Martinet, who has given Mario this very distinctive, peppy Italian-accented voice that is instantly recognizable the world over.  Chris Pratt is no stranger to lending his voice to animated movies (The Lego Movie, Onward), but given the iconic nature of the way Mario sounds, the news of his casting was not received well by most of the public.  The biggest worry is that like all the other characters that Chris Pratt has played in animated movies, his performance here was just going to be another variation of his own natural voice, which would not have fit the character at all.  But, the final judgment must come after seeing the finished film.  I do have to say that despite the casting of Chris Pratt not being ideal, he actually does an okay job in this film.  For one thing, he doesn’t do the Italian stereotype voice the whole movie, but instead emulates a Brooklyn accent which is closer to being in his wheelhouse.  After a while, the voice just sounds natural for this version of Mario, so at the very least the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario was not the worst case scenario.  He’s also well matched with Charlie Day as Luigi, who was the ideal choice all along for that character.  The voice cast overall does a fine job with the characters they have been cast as; it’s really just the script that let’s them down.  Anya Taylor-Joy is a perfect choice as Princess Peach and Seth Rogan is frankly the only choice for Donkey Kong.  The one who steals the film, however, is Jack Black as Bowser.  Black goes above and beyond with his performance as the villainous tyrant, being adequately menacing when he needs to, but also laugh out loud funny in the most unexpected ways as well, all the while remaining true to the character.  The movie even finds a way to work Jack Black’s musical background into the movie in what has to be the film’s finest moment.  I also do appreciate that the movie did bring Charles Martinet on board to provide a few other voices; an acknowledgement of his long time legacy with the series of games.  While a lot of worries surrounded how the voice cast would be used in this movie, I can definitely say that the actors did the best they could, and some were even better than we would have hoped.  I hope this especially pull the pressure off of Chris Pratt, who actually did alright by this character.

I do know that this movie is going to do very well no matter what I say.  A lot of anticipation has been built up for this movie, for both young audiences looking for something light and silly to watch, and also for their parents who grew up playing these games.  If they find this movie satisfactory, then good on them.  I on the other hand felt the movie fell short of it’s potential.  Typical of other Illumination Animation movies, the film is all style and routine, without a resonate story at it’s center.  I’ve seen many other animation studios take already established IP and develop films that not only utilize to properties to their full potential, but actually deliver a resonate and emotional story with it.  The Lego Movie for example is a film that could’ve turned into a shameless feature length commercial for it’s title product, but in the hands of the right people (in this case, the duo of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord) it became an instant classic movie with a lot of heart at it’s center.  Super Mario Bros. just doesn’t have that emotional center that it should have.  Not once did I feel like I got to know these characters, nor care what they were doing.  Even compared to recent video game adaptations the movie falls short.  While the Sonic the Hedgehog movies are no masterpieces themselves, I still was able to understand the character motivations and be engaged by their development throughout the story.  In those movies, they did a much better job of establishing what the character of Sonic wanted, which was a family and a purpose for being a hero.  In Super Mario Bros. the main character starts off special, and just remains that all the way to the end.  That makes his story boring by comparison.  Visually, this movie gets the look of Mario’s world right, but within that pretty shell is a hollow story.  So, it’s not quite a game over, but I feel that after so many years of waiting for a worthy Super Mario Bros. movie, it feels like the one we deserve is still hidden in another castle.

Rating: 6.5/10

Shazam: Fury of the Gods – Review

2023 is going to be an odd year for DC comic book movies.  For one thing it will mark the end of one era in the progression of movies they have put out, as well as the beginning of another era.  But, before the new can begin, the old must have it’s final say, and that’s what is happening with the DC films this year.  In a remarkable turn of events in the last year, the mega merger of Warner Media (DC’s parent company) and Discovery Entertainment caused a ripple effect across all projects in various levels of development.  One thing was clear as newly appointed CEO David Zaslev took over control of the company; changes had to be made.  For DC, this meant put a stop to the current flow of movies in the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU) pipeline and re-assessing the direction that they wanted to go with the properties that they had.  This is some ways was welcome, as the DCEU has been for the most part an un-focused mess.  Often dubbed the Snyderverse, because of the creative direction the franchise has followed built off of the movies directed by Zach Snyder, the DCEU for the longest time had been playing catch-up with their rivals at Marvel Studios, struggling to build a compelling interconnected universe on the same level.  While Zach Snyder’s vision can definitely be considered unique and in contrast with Marvel, the movies he made were often too dour and pretentious to be considered entertaining, and sadly it caused most of the other DC movies to feel lacking in entertainment as well.  There were bright spots like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), but the DCEU overall never could get it’s footing right, and many felt that it wasted iconic storylines in a hopeless pursuit of besting Marvel.  So, a refresh was definitely called for, and that’s what Zaslev has ordered from DC.  Sadly, this action came with it’s own drastic measures, including the cancellation of a nearly complete, $90 million Batgirl movie.  But, the issue at DC was a lack of cohesion in it’s overall vision, and to try to change course on the shaky foundation of the past would’ve been too much of a hassle for the new regime, so a fresh start is what they chose instead.  And the new DC would also be giving the duty of uniting it’s universe through one creative mind: filmmaker James Gunn.

Gunn has taken over the role of Creative Director for the DC Comics film division with the unenviable task of restructuring the direction of the now dubbed DCU.  Having won acclaim from his time at Marvel, turning the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy comic book line into a billion dollar franchise all on it’s own, James Gunn is entering his new position at DC with a lot of high hopes resting on his shoulders.  A few weeks back, we saw our first glimpse at what his team has come up with for a fresh new direction for the universe, including a mix of familiar faces (Superman and Batman) alongside obscure characters from deep within the DC library; something that Gunn holds especially dear.  Some welcomed the news, while others were cautious in their optimism, knowing how they’ve been disappointed in DC before.  And then there are the Snyderverse stans who refuse to let the past die and are already grinding their axes to take down James Gunn.  Suffice to say, it is going to be interesting to see how Gunn and company manage to roll out their slate of projects after the turbulent ride that DC has been through.  One thing that is going to be interesting to see though is how the remnants of the old DCEU play out, knowing that their storyline is largely coming to an unceremonious end.  There are four DC movies releasing this year: the long awaited and controversial Flash movie, the little known Blue Beetle movie, the sequel to the Jason Momoa headlined Aquaman, and of course, the sequel Shazam: Fury of the Gods, coming out this weekend.  With the knowledge of the DCEU coming to an end, and the DCU rising from it’s ashes, is Shazam: Fury of the Gods a movie at all worth seeing, and is it a bright light on a dark road or an even clearer sign of what needed to change at DC?

Shazam: Fury of the Gods pretty much picks up where the last film left off.  Young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been gifted super human power when ever he says the magic words “SHAZAM,” which turns him into an adult super being of the same name (Zachary Levi).  His foster family of fellow orphans that he shares a home with, including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Glazer), Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand) Mary Bromfield (Grace Caroline Currey), and Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman) have also gained the same ability to transform into super beings (Adam Brody, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Currey again, and Meagan Good respectively) and together they have formed a super hero team to protect their hometown of Philadelphia.  The only problem is that despite outward appearances, they are still kids and they make a lot of mistakes that other more experienced super heroes do not.  This has earned them the unflattering nickname of the ‘Philly Fiascos” by the fed up citizens of the city.  At the same time, Billy is beginning to feel unsure of his ability to lead the others and keep them together as a family unit, knowing full well that he’s going to turn 18 soon and age out of the foster care system.  Meanwhile, the wizard staff that gave them all their powers has been stolen by super powered being known as the Daughters of Atlas.  Two of the sisters, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) have also imprisoned the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) himself and forced him to repair the damage to the staff to bring it’s power back.  Their intent is to reclaim the power of the Gods that the Wizard has stolen from them, which now is possessed by Shazam and his family, and bring back the power to their realm.  There is also a girl who has befriended Freddy named Anna (Rachel Zegler) who may hold a few answers of her own about what is at stake.  Dealing with a threat of malevolent Gods in their city, the family of Supers must figure out a way to overcome their inexperience and rise to the challenge, and Billy must confront the thing that he has long been avoiding, which is the realization that he has to start growing up.

When the first Shazam movie came out in Spring of 2019, it was a breath of fresh air after the depressing Zack Snyder movies and the underwhelming DCEU movies that surrounded it.  It was light and airy, and also not afraid to poke fun at itself and other DC comic book characters.  Most of all, it had a sense of fun and was charmingly irreverent; a stark contrast to what the rest of the DCEU had to offer.  And it did all this, without feeling like a Marvel clone.  For the first time, it looked like Shazam had managed to crack the formula, and give us a DCEU movie that could indeed entertain while still staying true to it’s comic book origins.  Sadly, it’s reign at the box office was cut short as Marvel had it’s record breaking Avengers: Endgame (2019) hit theaters a few short weeks later, but it made enough to convince Warner Brothers to greenlight a sequel.  The only question was, could they capture the same kind of magic a second time around?  Fury of the Gods is coming out in a far different kind of environment.  The movie had to be made during the pandemic and of course the whole shake-up at the top of the company suddenly made the future of this series irrelevant.  So, it is at least a consolation that if this is the end of this series of Shazam movies, at least they are going out on a positive note.  It doesn’t quite surpass the original, but Fury of the Gods is a worthy companion to the first film.  It thankfully maintains the sense of fun and irreverence that made the first so likable.  I think that it’s a result of the same team returning for this production, picking up right where they left off.  Director David F. Sandberg just has a good sense of tone; knowing when to incorporate the humor at the right moments, while also making clear what the stakes are in this story.  He also does a great job of directing the action beats in each scene.  All the action is clear and visible (which really made the first film also stand out against the Snyderverse films) and there is a lot of creativity in how the scenes are staged.

If there is something that I feel like the movie falls short off it’s predecessor with in comparison, it would be some of the character development.  In particular, there is something lacking with the character of Shazam/ Billy Batson.  The first film created this compelling story about Billy’s desperate search for his birth mother, only to lead him towards accepting the family he chooses rather than the family that abandoned him.  It was a heartwarming aspect of his character development that helped to balance out more humorous aspects of his personality when he was in super-powered mode.  This time around, the movie leans more on the sillier side when it comes to Shazam, and that kind of robs the movie of the heart that defined the original.  Here Billy’s story is far less of a factor, with some of his adopted brothers and sisters taking more of the spotlight.  As a result, they stand out more and he’s more or less just present as a comical diversion.  Also, it seems like in the interval between films, Shazam has gotten somewhat dumber.  I understand that part of that is the fact that he still technically a kid and that Billy is fearful of growing up; but there is a level of immaturity with the character in this movie that seems like even more of a step backwards from the last film.  To me, it just seems like the filmmakers wanted to utilize Zachary Levi’s man-child schtick a bit more in this movie, and he carries most of the screen-time in this film.  Asher Angel, who had about equal screen-time in the last film is barely here this time, and there seems to be even more of a disconnect between how the two actors are playing the character.  Levi’s playing him more broad, while Angel’s more toned down, and it makes the conceit of the transformation feel far less effective.

The rest of the cast though feels more in tune with different roles they are playing.  I definitely buy the fact that Jack Dylan Grazer and Adam Brody are playing the same character, as they both are bringing the same fast-talking nerdy vibe to the character.  The even better match is Meagan Good and Faithe Herman as the different versions of Darla, as they both perfectly capture the sweet innocent femininity of the youngest member of the super family.  As far as the villains go in this movie, both Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu bring the right amount of menacing presence to the movie without undermining the overall lighter tone.  Helen  Mirren in particular really understands the assignment, as she uses her high thespian skills to bring sincerity to her portrayal of an all powerful goddess, while at the same time knowing how to have fun with it.  There is one scene where her character read a letter that has to be hands down one of the funniest moment I’ve seen in a movie in a long while.  Her delivery in particular makes the moment work perfectly, and I was cracking up in the theater.  And while I have my reservations about how his character development progressed in this movie, I will say that both Zachary Levi and Asher Angel still do a good job of playing the character of Billy Batson/Shazam.  Levi in particular really manages to put hilarious spins on his line readings that makes the character genuinely funny to watch.  But overall, it’s Jack Dylan Grazer that stands out the most in this movie.  He was clearly the scene stealer of the first Shazam and it makes sense to expand his role further here.  The movie definitely leans into his sense of comedic timing, but I was also impressed with how well he handled the more dramatic moments too.  There are parts of the climatic ending of this movie where he really puts in an emotional performance, and it’s really good to see how well he has progressed as an actor between movies.

The movie also follows in the footsteps of it’s predecessor by being visually pleasing as well.  I appreciate the fact that the movie takes place mostly in broad daylight, which helps to keep everything coherent visually.  Many super hero films, particularly the DCEU ones, cast their color palette in darker tones, probably as a means of softening the look of less than stellar visual effects shots.  Shazam on the other hand keeps things bright, even if it doesn’t help the CGI effects.  The CGI is about on par with most movies in the genre, but with Shazam, the filmmakers thankfully don’t worry too much if a few things don’t look 100% realistic.  As long as the special effects remain inventive and engaging, it doesn’t have to be photo-realistic.  This is definitely evident with the monsters in this movie, which very much look like digital creations.  The designs are unique enough and their actions inventive enough that it becomes acceptable having them appear a little off.  There are good visual effects here too.  One character in the movie has the ability to manipulate environments like they were on a turntable, and it’s a really neat looking visual.  There’s also a very cool looking dragon made out of wood that is beautifully designed and even looks good mixed in with the live action environments.  Sandberg’s direction also keeps the movie briskly paced even with so many characters and plot elements to juggle.  Considering how so many super hero films as of late feel disjointed and meandering, it’s refreshing to see a movie like this keep things simple and clear.  Essentially, the movie centers around a central McGuffin and it’s all about the heroes trying to keep the villains from gaining what they want; simple textbook story structure, but executed to near perfection.  Especially in comparison to the movie that this is most associated with in the DCEU, last year’s Black Adam (2022), this movie thankfully keeps it clear what it’s heroes’ motivations are, and that’s proving oneself worthy of great power; something this movie carries over from the first film.

The movie’s timing is unfortunate for a variety of reasons.  It’s coming at a time when DC is about to re-organize and start their connected universe from scratch, making this movie irrelevant.  On top of that, there seems to be a sense of Comic Book movie fatigue starting to set it with audiences.  This is evident by the recent disappointment of Marvel’s own Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023).  My worry is that this kind of environment is going to cast an unfair pallor over this film, which may sadly cause many people to overlook this very entertaining sequel.  It’s definitely got it’s own flaws, but those shortcomings are overwhelmed by the sincerity and sense of fun that Shazam: Fury of the Gods has.  I really hope that audiences don’t overlook this movie and give it at least a chance.  Whether it’s the lively performances of the cast of actors or the inventive and engaging action sequences, this is a sequel that at the very least matches it’s predecessor in many ways.  The big disadvantage that it has is that it’s not the introduction to the character and his story, taking some of the initial novelty away.  But, enough surprises keeps this movie from disappointing and the overall experience is one that I think that audiences will react to favorably.  It remains to be seen what Shazam’s fate will be in the newly laid out plans for DC’s future.  The end credit scenes don’t give us a definitive answer either (it honestly could go either way).  Hopefully James Gunn still will consider a place for Shazam in the future of the DCU, though it may have to be with different actors.  Asher Angel is growing up fast, and the novelty of a young boy turning into a full grown super hero won’t work as well as he himself ages more into manhood himself.  For a movie on it’s own, Shazam: Fury of the Gods delivers enough of the good things that made the original such a standout delight while adding it’s own special treats to the mix and if this is the end of the line for this story, it at least makes the most of it.  Definitely have a super time with this super hero sequel.

Rating: 8/10

Creed III – Review

Back in 2015, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding the release of the film Creed.  The film was a revival and continuation of the famed series of Rocky movies starring Sylvester Stallone.  It was a franchise that quite honestly had been in sharp decline over the years, though many fans will acknowledge the 6th film Rocky Balboa (2006) was a satisfying final note to leave the series on.  To keep going with not only another film, but another film without Rocky himself as the lead seemed foolish, but some brave filmmakers with a vision did come forward to take on the challenge.  Up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler surprisingly chose to take on a new Rocky movie for his sophomore project after getting positive notices for his first film, Fruitvale Station (2013).  But instead of making the movie about the famed former boxer, he instead chose to make it about the son of Rocky’s first challenger and eventual friend, Apollo Creed.  But, Rocky would not be forgotten either, and instead he would have the roles reversed this time, playing the part of mentor as he uses all of his years in the ring to give the younger Creed the kind of training he needed to become a champion just like his father.  As a result, this was exactly the kind of story the Rocky franchise needed to become relevant again.  Audiences, both long time fans and newcomers to the series, fully embraced this new twist on the Rocky franchise, and the movie became a box office hit, as well as a critical success.  It even helped to put Stallone back in the spotlight, with him earning an Academy Award nomination for the first time since the original Rocky (1976) forty years prior.  The movie also propelled it’s leading man Michael B. Jordan to new heights as a movie star, and it also helped director Ryan Coogler get the most ideal job in the world for a filmmaker of color at the time.

Building off his success with Creed (2015), Coogler was wooed over to Marvel to be the one in charge of bringing it’s ground-breaking Black Panther franchise to the big screen.  With his time now being taken up working on this massive new project, it seemed like Creed would stand as a one and done revival of the Rocky franchise.  But, the franchise’s stakeholders, MGM Studios, had other ideas.  Plans were immediately started for Creed II, but this time it would be made without Ryan Coogler at the helm.  Some believed that this was a mistake, since much of the reason why Creed worked so well in the first place was because of Coogler’s unique vision, and doing a sequel without him might end up spoiling the franchise as a whole, right after they had successfully brought it back to life.  Still, Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone committed to returning for the sequel, and despite not being in the director’s chair, Coogler still was involved as a producer.  Remarkably, in the hands of new director Steven Caple, Jr., they not only managed to make a sequel that didn’t ruin the franchise, but in many ways it actually was as good as the first Creed film.  Creed II (2018) worked as well as it did because it found the right angle to take in it’s story.  It very much involves Rocky even more in the story, as an adversary from his past, Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren making a return to the role) has been training his own son to fight and he now has his sights set on defeating the young Creed in the ring as a way of getting revenge on Rocky.  This battle of wits between the trainers gave this extra bit of weight not just to the film, but to the franchise as a whole, as it helped to bring the whole life and career of Rocky into the context of this new revival, making the whole series relevant again.  Certainly, the success of a sequel ensured that there would be more films down the line as well, but with Coogler still working within the Marvel family on his own sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2023), questions arose over who would be the one to keep the series going.  The answer, in many ways, was history repeating itself, as Michael B. Jordan would follow again in Stallone’s footsteps and step behind the camera himself for the sake of the franchise with this third installment titled easily enough Creed III (2023).

Not long after defeating Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) in the ring, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) further solidifies his status as the greatest boxer of his generation, becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  After reaching the pinnacle of his profession, Adonis decides to retire from professional boxing in order to focus on his family and business.  Managing his gym, he’s now the one bringing up the next generation of fighters, continuing the legacy that Rocky had instilled in him.  At the same time, he is supporting his wife Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) music career, as well as being an involved dad in the life of his hearing impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent).  One day at his gym, a face from his past makes an unexpected visit.  Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) was a one time close friend of Adonis’ back when they were both taking part in amateur matches in their youth.  However, their lives together parted ways after Damian was arrested for possession of a firearm and he was given a harsh sentence based on his prior record.  Now out of prison, Damian hopes to rekindle their dormant friendship and Adonis is very willing to welcome him back into his life.  He invites Damian to spar at his gym with the professional boxers that train there.  However, Damian fights far more aggressively than the other boxers, which alarms the head trainer there Little Duke (Wood Harris).  Sharing concern about Damian’s return is Adonis’ adoptive mother Mary-Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who always saw him as a bad influence.  Still, Adonis keeps giving his friend second chances, but over time, Damian’s alternative motives are revealed, and Adonis realizes the only thing to stop Damian’s unethical rise is to step back in the ring himself.  But, have the years out of practice made Adonis too vulnerable and unable to compete at that level now?

Taking on the role of director for a franchise with this kind of legacy without any prior experience is certainly a tough job to undertake.  This is a nearly 50 year long franchise that is beloved by millions all over the world.  But, Michael B. Jordan has certainly had the best possible tutors around to teach him everything there is to know about making a movie like this.  Ryan Coogler, Jordan’s closet collaborator who has cast him in every movie he has made (including famously playing Killmonger in Black Panther) has no doubt been a heavy influence on him, both with his sense of story-telling and a visual eye behind the camera.  And Sylvester Stallone, who directed 4 of the original 6 Rocky movies, as well as writing the screenplays for the bulk of the series including Creed II, no doubt demonstrated to Jordan how to succeed at pulling double duty in front and behind the camera on these films.  And the results stand for themselves as this is a fantastic directorial debut for Michael B. Jordan.  There is a great deal of confidence in his direction here that is really impressive to see.  The movie feels very much in line with the previous two movies, hitting all the same notes that we expect perfectly.  Jordan’s direction is also measured and subtle.  He is not trying to show off like so many first time directors are apt to do in order to flex their muscle for attention.  There is an excellent control of pacing, tone, and style found in this movie, and it shows that Michael B. Jordan learned a lot of good lessons about filmmaking from both Coogler and Stallone.  He also knows when to take chances, bending the rules a bit for artistic license at the right moments.  This is definitely evident in the fight scenes in the ring, where Jordan brings in some flashy techniques like slow-mo at just the right time.

It should also be noted that the choice of story here is a worthwhile one to delve into for a continuation of Creed’s story.  I for one was very worried when I heard that Sylvester Stallone was not going to be in this movie.  My worry was that they were going to kill off the character and, even worse, do it off screen.  Thankfully, that was not the case.  Rocky is not in this movie, but his fate is also never brought up, indicating that in universe Rocky is still living; just not involved in this story.  It would’ve been a shame to dispose of one of cinema’s most iconic characters in such an unceremonious way, and I’m glad they didn’t go there.  My hope is that eventually they involve Rocky in the story again down the line, but for this film, it makes sense why they would leave him out.  This is first and foremost Adonis Creed’s story.  Rocky was a supportive player in the first Creed, and he had a much more central part to play in Creed II, but here, he would’ve just been in the way of the conflict that needed to happen in this movie, which is Adonis coming to terms with his past.  That’s why the introduction of Damian is a brilliant new direction to take Adonis’ story.  His meteoric rise certainly echoes that of Rocky Balboa, but what did he overcome to get to where he is.  Damian’s return brings back all the trauma of Adonis’ youth, his abuse in juvenile detention and the guilt of turning his back on Damian after the arrest.  The movie is much more concerned about having to overcome all that as it is about the fighting in the ring.  For the first time, we are really peeling back the layers of Adonis Creed as a person, and seeing more of his faults which helps to make him a much more overall interesting character.

The performances are certainly going to be the thing that people take away the most from this movie.  In particular, this movie features a, for lack of a better word, knockout performance from Jonathan Majors as Damian Anderson.  Majors is right now at a breakout point in his career, not just featuring as the antagonist in this movie, but also appearing in theaters at the same time in Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania as the new big bad of the MCU, Kang the Conqueror.  There’s no doubt that he has the acting chops to stand out as a memorable villain, but it may surprise a few just how well he does it here in Creed III.  He just commands the screen in every scene he’s in.  He masterfully handles the moments where we see his vulnerable side, like the scene where he reconnects with Adonis Creed after a long time away.  At the same time, when we see the sinister turn halfway through the film, he becomes quite a frightening presence on screen.  I honestly wish we had seen more of this kind of performance from Majors in Ant-Man, because in that movie he kind of toned it down too much.  Here, he gets to let loose as Damian, and it’s captivating.  Not to be outdone, but Michael B. Jordan also excels in his third time around as Adonis Creed.  In many ways, this is actually his best performance as the character to date, because we see more of the broken side of the character come out this time around.  There is vulnerability in his performance that is handled very well, and it’s nice to see Jordan directing himself into that zone fearlessly.  There are also great performances from the ever reliable Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad, and a very special acknowledgement to deaf actress Mila Davis-Kent who holds her own in scenes with these seasoned professionals.  I also have to spotlight Wood Harris as “Little Duke,” who continues the franchise’s legacy of crusty, smack-talking trainers who steals every scene that they’re in.

The movie also is visually one of the more striking in the franchise as a whole.  If Creed II has a flaw, it was it’s more basic style of filmmaking; not bad but also a bit uninspired.  Creed III on the other hand takes some risks when it comes to the visuals, and that makes it far more akin to the original Ryan Coogler film.  In particular, the fights inside the ring are spectacularly well filmed.  Michael B. Jordan doesn’t get in close like Coogler did in the original Creed, but instead he weaves in and out of close-ups and full frame shots.  There seems to be a real effort to actually show the fight in full view for the audience.  For the most part, Jordan shows us the fight from the perspective of what the referee may see, which is both fighters in full view.  The visceral throws of the punches carry more weight as a result, and when a devastating punch is landed, Jordan goes in for the close-up and slows the film down to capture the full devastation of the hit in bullet-time.  There were several instances of watching these scenes with the audience in a theater where I witnessed people having a visceral reaction to the fights on the screen.  I heard a lot of people audibly go “Oooh” in my theater when a big hit was landed.  That’s a good sign that you’ve done a good job filming the fight scenes.  But, Jordan does something very brave with these fight scenes as well, which we’ve actually never seen in the franchise before.  He gets inside the headspace of these characters and imagines an almost dreamlike state in which they fight in.  A flight of fantasy like those moments could be a step too far for a series that has relatively remained grounded up to now, but the context of them here does make sense, and Michael B. Jordan is a capable enough filmmaker to make it work without going too far into the surreal.  And yes, of course there is your standard training montage sequence; a franchise staple.  The one here doesn’t disappoint, and it stands up well against all the others; though I do miss the underscore of Bill Conti’s original “Gonna Fly Now” theme from the original Rocky.

In total, this is the ninth film in the Rocky/Creed franchise that has spanned over five decades, and it’s amazing that it still hasn’t run out of steam yet.  From Stallone, to Ryan Coogler, to now Michael B. Jordan, this franchise has still managed to find new threads to pull in this story about overcoming the odds in the world of boxing.  Perhaps it is fitting that this is the first film that doesn’t feature the underdog boxer that started it all in the picture, because the cycle of change has now passed on to the next generation.  I think there’s still a chance that Rocky will be seen again, and that Stallone can have the chance to sunset the character in his own way.  But, that’s not the story that needed to be told now, as Adonis Creed had to make a major turn in this film in order to continue into his next phase.  There is an indication now that Adonis Creed will be stepping more into a mentor role in future film within this franchise, if there are any more (most likely there will be).  And as a result, the full legacy of Rocky and Creed’s purpose will be seen in the cyclical passing of the torch from one underdog story into another.  We’ll see how that torch is passed down in the future, but for right now the franchise continues to be in good hands under the direction of it’s star Michael B. Jordan.  If there is anything that could be improved upon from this movie it’s the need to handle the set ups better.  The movie does kind of take it’s time when it doesn’t need to and it also uses some narrative shortcuts that kind of undermine the drama a bit.  But, it’s still an impressive debut for a first time director, and he remarkably does a good job of directing himself on screen, as well as get some astonishing performances from his cast; in particular a standout Jonathan Majors.  Here’s hoping that if they ever make a Creed IV that it continues to build upon the insightful character development found here.  Creed III is another champion in this long running series and a match you definitely don’t want to miss out on in theaters on the biggest screens you can find.

Rating: 8.5/10

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania – Review

The kind of spectacular run of success that Marvel Studios has enjoyed over the last decade is something quite miraculous and not very common in Hollywood.  The studio built up it’s brand from the launch of Iron Man in 2008 and saw the world come together in anticipation for every new film they put out.  With the connective thread found in each individual film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the most ambitious narrative ever undertaken in movie history, with each Avengers movie acting as a touchstone in the overall saga.  Built over what they called their phases, Marvel built towards a grand finale with their two part Phase 3 finishers called Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  There was little doubt that Marvel had succeeded in their goals as Endgame for a time became the highest grossing film worldwide in history.  And with the story they had been building over those ten years finally complete, Marvel could now definitively call the entirety of that era The Infinity Saga, taking it’s name from the Infinity Stones that had been central to the connective narrative in all the movies.  So, with the Infinity Saga complete, what story was next for Marvel to tackle.  It seems like Marvel had the idea in mind of where to go next, as there were hints dropped about a mysterious new element that would soon come into play in the MCU; something called The Multiverse.  Starting with Phase 4, Marvel was set to take it’s universe into an exciting new direction with the concept of the multiverse central to it’s overall narrative.  Some of the Phase 4 movies have tackled it head on, like Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), while others have remained more earthbound in their narratives, like Black Widow (2021) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).  Regardless of which films tackle it or not, this is the multiverse is going to be the centerpiece of Marvel’s master plan for the next few years, and hopefully they are able to get audiences on board like they did with the Infinity Saga.

However, Marvel is also going through an awkward phase, perhaps related to their expansion into streaming over the last couple years.  The Multiverse Saga is not just making it’s presence on the big screen, but on the platform Disney+ as well, with several series airing on there that tie in with the movies.  Shows like Wandavision, Loki, Ms. Marvel, and others have just as many connective threads tied into the Multiverse Saga as the movies do, and in some ways it’s making the overall flow of the storyline a little too complicated for the average viewer to follow along with.  In Phases 1-3 of the MCU, you might have gotten as many as three films a year from the studio.  Now, it’s up to four films plus just as many mini-series on Disney+ all within the same calendar year.  Phase 4 alone had 15 individual titles, which is 3x that of Phase 1.  That’s a lot of story to wrap your heads around if you’re trying to keep track of where the MCU is heading.  And for some audiences, it’s too much.  In the last couple of years through the roll out of Phase 4, a feeling of fatigue has set it.  The once mighty Marvel machine is now starting to show signs of fragility.  The box office, while still decent (especially in the middle of a pandemic recovery) is off from previous franchise highs.  Not only that, but critical reception has slipped as well, with Marvel films like Eternals (2021) receiving for the first time a net negative rating for the studio.  Phase 4 culminated last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and the overall feeling amongst Marvel fans is that the studio had lost a bit of it’s luster over the course of Phase 4, despite some high points along the way.  It’s a tough position to be in as Marvel now looks to begin Phase 5 in earnest.  And to launch their next Phase, they are turning to a character that in some fans minds is seen as one of the lesser Avengers; Ant-Man, who returns to the screen in his third solo outing, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

Quantumania takes place a couple of years after the events of Endgame, with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) enjoying his celebrity status as an Avenger.  He has published a memoir about his experience helping the Avengers reverse the effects of the “Blip” and saving the world from Thanos, and has been receiving honors across his hometown of San Francisco.  At the same time, he also is trying to repair a strained relationship with his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who had to grow up for 5 years during the Blip without her family.  Unbeknownst to Scott, Cassie has been spending more time with Scott’s partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) aka The Wasp and hope’s father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man.  Cassie finally reveals what she has been working on in secret with her two mentors, which is a special device that can probe into the sub-atomic Quantum Realm.  While Scott is certainly proud of Cassie’s invention, the same feeling is not shared by Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hope’s mother who had been rescued from the Quantum Realm after being trapped there for decades.  Unfortunately, Janet’s concerns were warranted as the probing device malfunctions and begins to shrink everything around it down to sub-atomic size, including everyone in the room.  The family finds themselves separated and stranded in the strange universe within a universe that is the Quantum Realm.  Scott and Cassie find themselves captured by sub-atomic beings that call the Realm home, led by freedom fighters Jentorra (Katy M. O’Brian) and Quaz (William Jackson Harper).  Meanwhile, Hope, Janet and Hank try to find their own way back home.  For Janet, the goal is to get home quickly without being seen, because there is someone in the Quantum Realm who she is terrified of running into again; the fearsome dictator of the Quantum Realm, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).

Quantumania is the third film in the standalone Ant-Man franchise in the MCU.  But, apart from it’s predecessors, this film has far more influence on the greater narrative that’s being told in the MCU.  The first two Ant-Man’s were smaller scale adventures that only tied into the MCU storyline through the mid and post credits scenes.  This film on the other hand is launching the next Phase of the MCU, so it’s overall story is significantly more involved in the narrative built thus far and where it’s going next.  The same team from the other films returns for this third entry, with director Peyton Reed once again directing.  And while the new direction of this franchise is brave new territory for everyone involved, it’s also something that works against the effectiveness of the movie overall.  Peyton Reed as a director had carved out this niche for the Ant-Man branch of the MCU as being more light-hearted and comical; a welcome break from the more heavy films in the MCU line-up.  That tone is significantly changed in Quantumania, which is far more science fiction heavy than the previous Ant-Man movies.  The MCU has certainly delved into the weird and alien before, with the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises, but shifting in that direction for Ant-Man is a big swing, and it’s one that I don’t think a filmmaker like Reed is comfortable working in.  A common complaint that has been rising about Marvel in Phase 4 has been that all their titles are beginning to become formulaic and carbon copies of each other.  This seems to be what’s happened with Ant-Man as well, as it’s ditched it’s fun romp through the city formula that served it well before in favor of looking more like the space operas of other franchises.  And that shift overall becomes awkward and unfocused when executed by a team that thus far has been comfortable working with a different style of movie.

There are still things to like about the movie, don’t get me wrong.  There are certainly individual scenes throughout that work very well on their own.  But all the ingredients put together leads to a meal that in some way feels very undercooked.  Peyton Reed is called upon to do so much universe building in this film, and it leaves him so little time to do the things he’s actually good at in this franchise which is comedic action.  The movie itself is very awkwardly paced, moving the story from set-piece to set-piece without every allowing the narrative to find it’s bearings.  You can sense a good version of this story within the film desperately trying to find it’s way out, but is continually denied by the break neck speed of the plot.  Perhaps the movie’s greatest sin is how it treats it’s central villain.  Kang the Conqueror is simultaneously the best part of this movie as well as it’s part.  There’s no doubt that a lot of people are going to be talking about Jonathan Majors performance as Kang in this film.  In just a handful of scenes he commands a foreboding and sinister presence.  Marvel definitely knew what they were doing when they cast him in the role, because this is a very demanding role that requires an actor that can literally play multiple variations of the same person and do so with the same intensity each time.  We first met a version of Kang in the Loki Disney+ series (also played by Majors), but this version is the Conqueror, the one that is feared above all the others, and Jonathan Majors does a magnificent job of capturing that terrifying power in his performance.  The only problem is Kang is very much misplaced in this movie.  The movie cannot quite figure out to use Kang as an adversary in this film.  Ant-Man is clearly out-matched in terms of power, so the film has to find ways to nerf Kang to make him less of a threat, and this very much robs the villain of his menacing nature.  Kang is supposed to be the next Thanos, and first impressions are everything, so if this is our first taste of what’s to come with Kang the Conqueror in the future of the MCU, it doesn’t exactly heighten our excitement.

There are definitely a few other things that help to keep Quantumania from becoming a complete misfire for Marvel.  One is the cast of characters.  With each new film in the franchise, as well as his guest appearances alongside the Avengers, Paul Rudd continues to reinforce his place as the perfect choice to play the role of Ant-Man in the MCU.  He is endlessly charming, and that continues to shine in Quantumania.  Even as the movie begins to lack the comical spark that defined past entries, Rudd is still able to find laughs in the best moments of the movie.  There is a spectacular scene midway where Ant-Man ends up in a realm where he keeps cloning himself exponentially until there are literally millions of him, and even here Rudd is able to find clever ways to make the interactions with himself hilarious.  The movie also does a good job tackling the father/daughter relationship between Scott and Cassie.  The character of Cassie is significantly aged up from the last installment, Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), due to the five year jump in the MCU from the Blip, and Kathryn Newton takes over the role.  While the years have certainly hardened the character, we still see some of the same spirited persona within the character, and Newton does a good job of playing up the childlike enthusiasm of the character.  The other characters have less to do, which is especially true of Evangeline Lily’s Wasp, who only seems to be in this movie because her name is in the title.  Michelle Pfeiffer’s role is expanded, and she does a good job of helping to delve into more of Janet’s past; particularly the trauma that she carries with her.  Of all the characters in the film, Janet seems to be the one who has the strongest arc, as she has to confront the guilt of her past (particularly when it relates to Kang) and overcome it.  The secondary characters are for the most part underdeveloped, but actors like Katy O’Brian and William Jackson Harper make the most of their time on screen.  One character in the movie who I think is going to divide audiences is M.O.D.O.K.  Marvel fans are either going to love or hate what they did to this iconic villain from the comic books.  For me, the character took some getting used to, but at the same time, I feel like this was likely the best we would ever get to having a live action version of this character in the MCU.  M.O.D.O.K., the giant faced, tiny limbed villain has always been weird looking in all variations of media throughout the years, so the fact that Marvel even attempted to make him work here at all was risky, and despite the weirdness of it all, he’s a character that still makes an impression and even gets a well earned laugh or two.

There’s also something to be said about the look of the Quantum Realm itself.  You would think that Marvel has already exhausted it’s share of different world to explore within it’s universe, but the Quantum Realm is visually interesting enough to stand on it’s own.  One of the interesting aspects of how the Quantum Realm is used in this film is that the movie does a good job of making the sub-atomic feel vast.  It’s supposed to feel like a universe on it’s own contained within an even more vast universe, and it’s how the visual spaces are used within the movie that helps to emphasize the different laws of nature that this Realm lives by.  Kang’s stronghold for instance exists within a curved space that appears to extend up and around like the interior of a sphere while still maintaining the urban sprawl of it’s metropolis.  The same alien elements of the Quantum Realm continue through the floating islands of rock that dot the landscape under a sky filled with swirling wormholes.  While the story itself is unfocused, the movie does keep the visuals interesting throughout.  A lot of the re-watchability factor of this movie may come down to catching all the details of the world-building, of which there are many little things worth catching.  Even the creatures are imaginative and different from anything that we’ve seen in other Marvel properties, or any film for that matter.  There’s one character that looks like it has a glass jar for a head with a light source inside.  That and other creatures found throughout the movie really help to give more character to the movie, even if a lot of it is superficial and offers little to the overall plot.  I saw the movie on a full sized IMAX screen, which helped to make the imaginative visuals stand out even more.  Despite all the faults of the movie, the overall visual presentation is definitely on par with Marvel at it’s best.

Truth be told, the Ant-Man franchise has never really been among my favorites in the greater MCU.  I do love Paul Rudd as the titular super hero, but I feel like he has been best used outside of his own franchise in movies like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  The first Ant-Man (2015) was a troubled production that saw it’s original director (the visionary Edgar Wright) removed over creative differences and the finished film feeling in the end like it was compromised; choosing to play it safe as a super hero origin story.  Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably the most cohesive film in the series, but it’s one that feels lacking in urgency and meaning; remembered more for it’s shocking cliffhanger mid-credits scene.  Quantumania is definitely the messiest of the three films in the franchise; unfocused and underwhelming on the story end, but at the same time daring in it’s big swings.  I think what ultimately made me upset about the movie is the missed opportunity it had with Kang as the villain.  The movie’s whole purpose it seems is to introduce us to the next Avengers level threat in the MCU, and it in many ways undermines the importance of that mission by diminishing the character’s power.  Kang never really comes off as scary as he should be, and I feel that’s where Quantumania fails the most as a movie.  That being said, when the movie does deliver something good, like the visuals and the father/daughter storyline between Scott and Cassie, it really hits the mark.  My hope is that when Kang re-emerges in the MCU plot thread that he’ll be far more menacing than he is here and live up to the promise of the character that we know him to be from his history in the comics.  For a third chapter entry in a franchise that honestly has been one of my least favorite in the MCU, Quantumania could have been a lot worse, and I do give it credit for trying something new.  But, given that Marvel’s Phase 5 is starting off with this underwhelming sequel as it’s launch pad, it’s already putting Marvel’s already shaky status into further uncertainty, and hopefully it’s not a sign that Marvel’s mojo has been drained completely.  Thankfully, next up for them is the promising Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, director James Gunn’s Marvel swan song before he takes over DC.  Quantumania is a decent enough adventure in it’s own way, but for it’s place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s memory is likely going to remain quite small in the long run.

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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