Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

It’s a Christmas miracle! Sony has made another Spider-Man movie that doesn’t suck!

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Writer: Phil Lord
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, etc.
Music By: Daniel Pemberton and various hip-hop artists
Rated PG (Contains typical superhero violence, lacking in blood but not consequences)

Peter Parker is a well-established superhero, protecting New York City as the one-and-only Spider-Man…up until teenage Miles Morales gets bitten by a radioactive spider in a subway tunnel, gaining superpowers such as the ability to climb walls, leap buildings, and think in comic book captions. And there are more spider-people on the way, thanks to a new super-collider that is connecting parallel universes in NYC, courtesy of the Kingpin. Five versions of the wall-crawler need the collider to get back to their universes, but they also need to destroy it before it causes a black hole powerful enough to change the art style of Miles’s world. Sounds like a job for the Spider-Men, Spider-Woman, Spider-Man Noir, Anime Spider-Girl, and Spider-Ham.

Saying this movie doesn’t suck is actually the understatement of the year. I had fairly high expectations, and it blew them all away before the halfway point. A Sony Spider-Man movie–an animated Marvel movie–a movie with this many directors, this many characters, and this much weird comic book lore packed into it–has no right to be this amazing. Someone should call the movie police.

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My spider-senses are tingling with shock.

As previous Spider-Man films have shown us, it’s tough to make a movie work when it has more heroes and/or villains than you can count on one hand. This movie manages it, I think, by staying laser-focused on two things: Miles Morales as a character, and Spider-Man as an archetype. Miles is an instantly relatable kid, dealing with stuff like homework, crushes, and the pressure of deciding who he wants to be when he grows up. He’s smart enough to attend what appears to be a middle school for geniuses, but he tries to stay “cool” by failing his tests and vandalising subways. He’s best friends with his law-bending uncle, but has a strained relationship with his cop dad.

All his typical middle school struggles are just compounded when he becomes Spider-Man, because, as he soon learns the hard way, Spider-Man is the multiverse’s punching bag. More than any of his other recent big screen appearances, this one really nails what people love about Spider-Man. It’s the same reason I love Daredevil and other “street-level” heroes: they’re underdogs. And Spider-Man invented the underdog superhero. No matter the race, gender, species, or universe, the web-slinger is always a fallible hero going up against something bigger and stronger than he/she is. And no matter the odds, he/she always manages to pull out a win. That fighting spirit is what gives this movie its enormous heart, and I honestly wasn’t ready for all the feels it gave me.

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“That’s a pretty hardcore origin story.”

Another thing that surprised me about the movie was its sheer cleverness. The humour is often as subtle and smart as it is hilarious. There’s not a fart joke to be seen, but there is a joke about the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir trying to understand a Rubik’s Cube. Oh, and there are one or two meme references (be sure to stay for the end credits) and inside jokes for comic fans. Including the most emotional Stan Lee cameo yet (RIP). But thanks to the fantastic, tightly-written script, I followed the story effortlessly despite not being a hardcore Spidey reader. You don’t necessarily need to know a lot of background info on Spider-Man to enjoy this movie–but I imagine you’ll enjoy it even more if you do. (According to my research, every version of Spider-Man and his villains shown in this movie does indeed come from the comics. Even the anime one.)

The animation here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I need to stop saying that superhero movies remind me of comic books come to life, because this is the only one where it’s really true. Not only is the style inspired by old-fashioned three-colour comics, but there are a ton of little touches ripped straight from the panels: sound effects and thought bubbles appearing onscreen, different art styles for characters from different universes, and a climax that bends time and space in ways that could only work in a comic or an animated film. Every shot is beautiful, and every art choice serves the story. The visuals alone easily make this one of the most creative animated movies I’ve ever seen.

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“Hello Danger…”

Like I said, though, it’s really the characters that make this movie special. The mentor/student relationship between the inexperienced Miles and the washed-up Peter Parker is both funny and heartwarming, as is the camaraderie between all the spider-people. Miles’s relationship with his family gave me the most feels, probably because it was the most realistic conflict in the movie (and because the kid kinda reminds me of a lot of the students I work with…), but his friendship with the parallel versions of himself is what really brings the movie’s message home: No matter what you’re going through, there’s someone out there who understands. And no matter who you are, you can overcome your flaws and do the right thing, as long as you’re brave enough to take “a leap of faith.” What a perfect motivational boost for the last week before Christmas break.

Overall, this movie does what even some of the better MCU movies failed to do: nail the balance between self-awareness and sincerity. It’s very funny, and a lot of its jokes are on the meta side, but it knows when to stop winking at the camera and get serious. The stakes always feel real, and even though the PG rating means a lot of kids will be watching, the movie never talks down to its audience. Thanks to an extremely well-written script, some good voice acting, and of course the incredible animation, this movie is able to poke fun at the sillier side of Spider-Man’s history while celebrating the heroic virtues he stands for.

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Every version of Spider-Man is bad at hide-and-seek.

Let’s see, what else did I love about Into the Spider-Verse? It has the best version of Aunt May EVER, it has my favourite hip-hop-based soundtrack ever (sorry, Black Panther), and it has one of the best superhero suit-up scenes in film history. I love all the side characters, especially Spider-Man Noir, and I would probably watch a whole movie about any one of them. Honestly, the only thing I didn’t love about this movie is that Kingpin wasn’t voiced by Vincent D’Onofrio. And even without his definitive actor, he was still a decent villain.

My love for the Raimi Spider-Man movies is strong, and my love for the MCU is even stronger. So I don’t mean it lightly when I say that this might be my new favourite Spider-Man movie. None of the others have had such flawless artistry, so many lovable characters, or such a rollercoaster of emotional moments. For that matter, neither have most of the movies that hit theatres this year, regardless of genre. I whole-heartedly recommend Into the Spider-Verse to all superhero fans, animation aficionados, and families (although the violence might be a little intense for more sensitive kids).

One last thing to point out: This is the first Spider-Man movie since the Raimi trilogy to use the “With great power comes great responsibility” quote. It’s also, by far, the best Spider-Man movie since the Raimi trilogy. Coincidence? I think not!

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Spider-Man needs his motto, dangit!

Grade: A

 

 

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The House with a Clock in its Walls/Coraline

It’s an odd but undeniable fact: kids love to be scared.

This is far from universal, of course–plenty of children are perfectly content with bedtime stories about puppies and unicorns, where everything has a happy ending and  nobody ever gets hurt. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in a school library for the past two months, it’s that stories about ghosts, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night are in much higher demand than puppies among the grade school crowd. Their enthusiasm for scary stories has put the weird little genre of children’s horror on my radar for the first time, and I’ve been curious to explore it further.

To that end, I watched two movies this weekend–one old and one new–both of which fit neatly into the category of “stories to scare little kids,” but which have very different approaches to their material.

We’ll start with the new one.

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The House with a Clock in its Walls
Director: Eli Roth
Writer: Eric Kripke
Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett
Music By: Nathan Barr
Rated PG for scary images, mild swearing, etc.

In 1955, after the death of his parents, young Lewis Barnavelt is sent to live with his uncle Jonathan, a man he’s never met before. Jonathan turns out to be the kind of cool uncle who lets you eat cookies for dinner and stay up late–and he becomes even cooler in Lewis’s eyes when he reveals that both he and his best friend, Mrs. Zimmerman, are powerful warlocks with tons of magical abilities. But his house is another story. It’s full of pictures, furniture, and automatons that seem to have minds of their own, plus a mysterious locked cabinet that Lewis is never allowed to touch. And somewhere deep in the walls, a hidden clock is ticking down to some unknown, but terrible, event.

The book on which this movie is based has been on my to-read list for a while (still haven’t gotten to it, unfortunately), but what really intrigued me about the movie was the weird combination of talents involved in it. Its director typically makes the kind of horror movie whose tickets used to be sold with barf bags; its writer is responsible for the TV show Supernatural, one of my biggest guilty pleasures; and its two leads are primarily known for movies that wouldn’t even be sold on the same side of the building in an old video store. I was curious to see what a children’s movie made by this…eclectic group would be like.

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It’s almost as weird a match-up as the furniture in the titular house.

I was disappointed that, for a movie preaching the message “it’s okay to be weird,” this one treads a lot of familiar ground. The dead parents, the eccentric mentor, the one rule the main character is destined to break, the discovery of new and special powers…they’re all things I’ve seen in many, many children’s stories before. But nothing about this movie is more generic than the protagonist, who is played with very little energy or conviction by a child actor whose lack of experience shows every time he tries to express a strong emotion. The movie does its best to make Lewis seem like a quirky, “weird” character, but goggles on one’s head and dictionaries in one’s luggage do not a personality make.

The adult stars are much more fun to watch. Cate Blanchett steals the show with her portrayal of a sarcastic, no-nonsense witch with a hidden vulnerable side. Jack Black is much less annoying than usual, and his character’s friendship with Mrs. Zimmerman is as believable as it is endearing. Their scenes together were always fun, no matter what I thought of the rest of the movie.

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Cate Blanchett is so charming, she almost makes Jack Black charming by association.

The villains are also enjoyably hammy, even if they don’t get quite as much screentime as I would like.

But the only really unique things Clock has going for it are its ominous premise and the creepy house where most of it takes place. Unfortunately, it never goes as far with either of those elements as I would have liked. Sure, there are occasional scares, but most of them are undercut with jokes–often rather crude and unfunny jokes, at that. Animated, toothy Jack-O-Lanterns? Creepy. Vomiting Jack-O-Lanterns? Slightly gross at best. I felt the movie had the potential to be a very atmospheric, even Gothic suspense story, but it never fully commits to that tone, instead settling for a sort of hybrid between spooky and whimsically goofy that left very little impact on me.

Still, considering this movie’s target audience is somewhere in the 6- to 12-year-old range, maybe there’s something to be said for having the trappings of a scary story without bringing anything genuinely horrifying to the screen. After all, as much as kids might love ghosts and goblins, no parent wants them taking nightmares home from a movie. If the audience reactions in my theatre were any indication, Clock will probably be a hit with most younger kids.

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Although…they could also just watch Harry Potter.

Overall, I’d recommend The House with a Clock in its Walls to families with kids in elementary to middle school…as long as they’re not too put off by poop jokes and won’t be traumatised by the sight of Jack Black’s head on a baby’s body (I’m a little scarred by that myself). Its message–that it’s better to be yourself than try to fit in with a bad crowd–is a good one for kids, as far as it goes, and it has a positive portrayal of adult authority that can be rare in this kind of movie. There are worse ways to kill a free afternoon.

But what happens when a children’s movie fully commits to the scares–so much so that it’s a little horrifying even for adults?

Well, when it happened in 2009, we got Coraline.

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Coraline
Director and Writer: Henry Selick
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, etc.
Music By: Bruno Coulais
Rated PG for horror

11-year-old Coraline Jones isn’t very happy with her life. She thinks her parents are boring, she doesn’t like the old house in the country where they’ve moved her, and she doesn’t like their food or their rules about going outside. So she’s delighted when she finds a secret door in the house that seems to lead to another world–a world where her Other Mother bakes delicious food for every meal, her Other Father sings funny songs, and their garden is full of magical flowers and animals. The only unsettling thing is that everyone in that world has buttons instead of eyes…and the Other Mother has a set picked out for Coraline.

I have read the book on which this movie is based, mostly because I listened to a Neil Gaiman audiobook early this year, and since then I’ve been on a mission to read everything he ever wrote. It’s written like the kind of children’s story that puts the “grim” in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and the movie keeps that mood intact for the most part. (The only major change is the addition of Wybie, Coraline’s annoying next-door neighbor, who didn’t appear in the book.) Like the book. the movie is slow-paced for the first half, but the suspense grows steadily stronger as Coraline’s exploration of the “other” world turns up more and more…wrongness.

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Secret magical doors don’t always lead to Narnia…

The animation is responsible for a lot of what works in this movie. It’s beautiful and creepy in a way I haven’t seen in many kids’ movies. Stop-motion animation has come a long way since 2009, and some of the character movements look a little rough compared to more recent movies, but that really just adds to Coraline‘s unsettling atmosphere. Add in the creepy children’s choir in the soundtrack, and you have an atmosphere of dread that stayed with me after the end credits rolled.

I’ve heard people say this isn’t a kids’ movie–or, at least, that it shouldn’t be. Most parents would prefer their kids not to have nightmares about getting buttons sewn into their eyes, and most of this movie seems designed to deliver that specific blend of nightmare fuel as efficiently as possible. And it’s definitely true that some kids should not watch this movie. My younger sister saw it when she was about six, and was so traumatised she can’t stand to hear the name “Coraline” to this day.

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Can’t imagine why.

But I can’t help disagreeing with the idea that genuinely scary movies should never be aimed at kids. After all, if the kind of kid who likes spooky stories can’t get those scares from age-appropriate media, they’re likely to go to slasher movies and the like, which really could be harmful. Unlike those movies, Coraline isn’t violent, and while it certainly has some scary images, it doesn’t revel in the horror the way many movies for adults do.  And like the best of the creepy fairy tales that inspired it, it teaches some good lessons. It shows how Coraline’s discontentment and self-centredness get her into trouble. And instead of force, she uses bravery, compassion, and cleverness to survive. I think that’s a good thing for kids to see.

Like The House with a Clock in its Walls, Coraline also offers a simple moral: be content with what you have, and appreciate the people in your life. They may not perfect…but if they really love you, they’re way better than an evil monster trying to eat your soul. And because it comes from a story with such striking, memorable imagery, I think that moral might be more likely to stick with the audience than Clock‘s more generic “be yourself” message.

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Another moral: cats are your friends.

I dunno. Maybe it’s just because I like Neil Gaiman’s style and I enjoy well-made stop-motion, but I enjoyed Coraline a heck of a lot more than Hollywood’s latest attempt at a scary story for kids. I have a few minor issues with it, mostly to do with changes from the book, but overall, I think it’s one of the better animated movies I’ve seen. And I wouldn’t mind seeing more children’s movies in the same vein.

I’d just recommend that families watch them with the lights on.

 

 

 

The Incredibles 2

The latest superhero sequel of the year continues the 2018 theme of franchises not being content to leave well enough alone.

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The Incredibles 2
Director and Writer: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, etc.
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG (for more of the same superhero violence and adult themes found in the first movie)

This sequel picks up right where its 14-year-old predecessor left off. The Parr family has just saved the day from Syndrome’s schemes, but that isn’t enough to convince the government to legalise hero work. After the family is forced underground again, a pair of tech company executives offer Elastigirl an opportunity to advocate for superhero rights by attaching a camera to her suit while she performs public acts of heroism. Mr. Incredible stays home with the kids, which turns out to be a more difficult assignment than he expected when baby Jack-Jack’s plethora of powers start to emerge.  Meanwhile, Elastigirl’s activities draw the attention of a new, mind-control wielding supervillain called the Screenslaver. It’ll take a whole family of supers (plus Frozone and a few new allies) to foil their tech-savvy foe’s plans.

The Incredibles was the first superhero movie I saw in a theatre, and even though it was intended as a deconstruction of the genre, it did more to spark my love of cape-and-cowl fiction than anything else from my childhood (except maybe the original Spider-Man trilogy). I still think it’s one of the smartest, most consistently entertaining superhero films out there, even in today’s golden age of comic book movies. It’s also a very complete movie, especially for its genre. Every plot thread and character arc is wrapped up in the end, with no loose ends demanding a sequel. I’ve heard Brad Bird quoted as saying he didn’t want to make a sequel unless he was sure it could be as good as the first movie. So this film, coming well over a decade after its predecessor, had a lot to live up to.

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Everyone looks a lot better than they did 10 in-universe seconds ago…

And it definitely does a lot of things right. It’s nice to hear all the original voice actors return (with the exception of Dash, who was recast by necessity), and Giacchino’s soundtrack is as jazzy and cool as ever. The animation definitely showcases the technological advancements that have been made since the first Incredibles. It’s actually a bit jarring to see the super-stylised characters from the last movie moving so much more smoothly, and with so much more detail in their faces and backdrops.

But it definitely helps with the action scenes. The action in this movie is as exciting and fun as it was in the first instalment, and if anything, it shows more creativity on the part of Brad Bird and his animation team. Some highlights include a train vs. motorcycle chase scene involving Elastigirl, a climactic fight involving a character who creates portals, and absolutely every scene in which Jack-Jack appears. After the hints we got in the last movie regarding Jack-Jack’s many powers, I was excited to see him use them in this movie, and he did not disappoint. An uber-powerful baby with no control over his abilities may be a parent’s nightmare, but he completely stole the show for the me.

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“No firing the baby around the house!”

Another thing I enjoy about both Incredibles movies is seeing the family work together. When you have a bunch of superheroes with different abilities fighting the same villain, it can be difficult to make them work together in a believable way without resolving the conflict too quickly or giving one superhero more to do than the others (see the end of Justice League for an example of this being done badly). But unless they’re having trouble communicating in-universe, the Incredibles always manage to do the teamwork thing really well: for example, in one scene Mr. Incredible is steering a giant machine away from some buildings while Frozone slows it down with ice and Elastigirl fights the baddie controlling it. Everybody has something to do and does it well, which is always one of my favourite things to see in a superhero team-up movie.

Another thing I appreciate about The Incredibles 2 is that it managed to maintain the same tone as its predecessor. Like that movie, this feels like a superhero film aimed at adults, which also happens to be suitable for kids, rather than the other way round. It doesn’t shy away from death, violence, or complex concepts like the role of technology in our lives.  And the setting revels in its retro-futuristic style as much as ever.

But as much fun as I had with this movie, it didn’t even come close to leaving the same impression on me as the first one did. Granted, I’m much older and far more inundated with superheroes than I was when The Incredibles came out, but I also think this movie fell a bit short in some of the areas that made its predecessor so special.

First, there’s the villain. Screenslaver has a creepy design and an intimidating power, and, at first, seems poised to bring an interesting philosophical question about superheroes to the fore, just like Syndrome did. The villain’s first couple monologues (no, the baddies still haven’t learned their lesson about monologuing) argue that superheroes should stay underground because their heroics make normal people weak and dependent. It’s a valid point that Lex Luthor and other supervillains have explored before to great effect. But this movie does disappointingly little with the idea, and I think it’s partly because Screenslaver isn’t as compelling a villain as Syndrome was.

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“The Screenslaver interrupts this broadcast for an important announcement…”

Unlike Syndrome, Screenslaver has neither a personal connection to the Parr family nor an onscreen backstory. Screenslaver’s identity is also kept secret for half the movie and treated like a major twist when it’s revealed, which I think was a bad idea. First, it relegates our villain’s motivations to one monologue and a 30-second flashback, instead of allowing the audience to see things from their point of view like we did with Syndrome. And the surprise element didn’t even work for me. There were only two possible candidates for Screenslaver’s true identity, and I figured out which one it was about five minutes after they were introduced. Surprise villain reveals are a lot more fun when they’re, y’know, surprising.

This movie also falls short of its predecessor in terms of its character arcs. In the first movie, every member of the Parr family learns a lesson or grows as a person by the end. In this movie, most of the family has everything figured out from the beginning. Bob switches roles with Helen and has to figure out how to be a better dad (kind of like he did in the first movie…), and Violet has a minor subplot where she learns to appreciate hero work and accept her role in the family crime-fighting team (kind of like she did in the first movie…), but Helen, who takes the spotlight for the most part, really has nothing to learn. Her part of the story is all about stopping the bad guy, which is fine–I love watching Elastigirl rubber-punch things. But apart from a few fleeting moments where she gets worried about leaving her family at home, she doesn’t really have an internal conflict to resolve or a flaw to overcome. It almost feels like Brad Bird was afraid to give his super-mom any weaknesses, which is a shame, because it makes her story less interesting than Bob’s was in the first movie.

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At least she gets a cool bike out of the deal, though!

But that’s about it for character arcs. Dash contributes practically nothing to the story, and although Jack-Jack goes through some changes (literally), he’s still more of an unpredictable prop than a character. We’re introduced to some new supers, but they don’t have much to do except help out in a big fight at the end.

Would I care about any of this if I hadn’t grown up with the first movie? Probably not. On its own merits, The Incredibles 2 is a fine movie that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any family with children. But I’m picky about sequels, especially when they come after classics like The Incredibles. In order for me to love a sequel, it has to do at least one of three things: continue a storyline left hanging in the first movie, develop the first movie’s characters in new and interesting ways, or take the first movie’s concept and do something totally unique with it. The Incredibles 2 doesn’t do any of those things particularly well.

But then, what did I expect? The Incredibles is about as close to a perfect superhero movie as we’re ever going to get. It has everything: suspenseful hero action, likable characters, quotable dialogue, an interesting setting, and a bunch of challenging messages designed to make the audience think. It’s basically a smarter X-Men or a less depressing Watchmen. Any sequel was doomed to pale in comparison. In a way, I’m glad the standards have been lowered a bit. Now it might be possible for future Incredibles movies to pleasantly surprise me.

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“I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.”

Still, if you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend seeing this movie in the theatre–if only to make sure you see Bao, the short film that precedes it. It’s the oddest, most surprising cinematic experience I’ve had in quite some time. I won’t say anything else for fear of spoiling it, but just like Piper before Finding Dory, it’s a short that rather outshines its feature film.

Then again, The Incredibles 2 has Jack-Jack fighting a raccoon. That counts for something.

Grade: B+

My Faves: The Iron Giant

Long before Groot, Vin Diesel played another heroic giant of few words. One word, in particular, has melted thousands of hearts and caused the shedding of many tears.

“Superman!”

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The Iron Giant
Director: Brad Bird
Writers: Brad Bird and Tim McCanlies
Starring: Vin Diesel, Eli Marienthal, Harry Connick, Jr.
Based (veeerrrry loosely) on the book “The Iron Man” by Ted Hughes
Released: 1999
Rated PG

This is a special movie. It didn’t do well in theatres when it first came out, but nowadays you’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to say they dislike it. It’s my favourite 2-D cartoon and possibly my favourite animated movie, period. And like most animated movies I love, it’s all about superheroes.

But just in case you have not had the pleasure of seeing this movie, here’s the plot: Hogarth Hughes is a 9-year-old boy who lives with his single mother in the town of Rockwell, Maine, circa 1957. One night, he goes outside to investigate a malfunctioning TV antenna and discovers a 50-foot robot munching on a nearby power plant. The robot gets a nasty shock from the electricity, and even though Hogarth is scared out of his mind, he manages to shut off the power in time to save the Giant. Next thing you know, he has a new friend. The robot has crash-landed on Earth and doesn’t remember anything about himself, where he came from, or why he’s here. Hogarth starts teaching him things like how to talk, how to avoid squishing people, and most importantly, how to use his powers for good just like his favourite hero, Superman. He enlists the help of a junkyard owner named Dean to take care of the Giant, who only eats metal.  But it’s difficult to hide a gigantic robot with the mind of a toddler, especially in the panicky climate of the ’50s, and things only get worse when government agent Kent Mansley arrives to investigate some strange occurrences around Rockwell.

Man, where do I start with this movie? I guess the animation is a good place. It’s beautiful. I’ve only come to appreciate it more as I’ve watched more cartoons, even recent ones, which often don’t measure up despite all the technology available to animators now. The landscapes are so detailed, and the characters’ expressions and movements are so full of life–even when said characters are made of metal. Some scenes look like an animated Norman Rockwell painting, which was probably intentional, given the name of the town.

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But, like, seriously, look at it. Look how gorgeous those trees are.

The movie also does an excellent job of recreating the 1950s American setting. From the classic ’50s diner where Hogarth’s mom works to the hilariously awful instructional video his class watches on how to survive a nuclear attack, it’s obvious the filmmakers did their research on the time period. Most importantly, the movie perfectly evokes the atmosphere of paranoia and xenophobia that existed during the Cold War. Characters talk about the recently-launched Sputnik with dread, worried that the Soviets might be watching them. Hogarth owns propaganda comics with villains like “The Red Menace” and “Atomo.” But it’s Kent who really embodies the Cold War attitude, being ready to assume the worst about the Giant even before he has proof  he exists. “All I know is, we didn’t build it, and that’s reason enough to blow it to kingdom come!” he yells at one point. And that paranoia makes him the perfect kind of villain for a story like this: a cowardly bully.

Of course, Hogarth and the audience don’t know where the Giant came from either, or why he was built, and the movie remains pretty vague on that point. But Hogarth doesn’t really care. This is a kid who thinks of wild animals as friends, much to his mom’s chagrin, and idolises Superman, one of the most idealistic superheroes around. The only reason he needs to help out the Giant is that, in his present state, the robot is kind, innocent, and in need of a friend.

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“He’s…like a little kid.”

The first half of The Iron Giant is pretty light-hearted and funny. After the Giant makes his slightly menacing entrance, and Hogarth finds out he’s really not so menacing, the story becomes about him having comical adventures with his new friend and trying to keep him hidden, while Kent bumbles around searching for a mysterious meteor and generally being ineffectual. There’s a hilarious scene, in which the Giant’s hand gets separated from the rest of him and starts wandering around Hogarth’s house during dinner, that still makes me laugh every time I see it. And of course we’re introduced to Dean McCoppin, who is just awesome.

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“What you currently have IN YOUR MOUTH is ART!!”

But when I first watched the movie, there was a distinct point at which I realised I was watching something a little deeper than your typical funny children’s cartoon. It’s a scene about halfway through, in which Hogarth finds himself having to teach the Giant about death. After that, the movie takes on a much darker tone, but it’s also the beginning of the Giant’s struggle to make sense of his own existence. After all, as that very scene foreshadows, somebody made the Giant for a reason, and it likely wasn’t a peaceful one. He has to figure out how to balance his questionable nature with his desire to do good and protect his friends.

And this is what I love most about The Iron Giant. Lots of kid’s movies have morals they want to teach their young audience, which is a good thing. But so many of those morals boil down to something trite and easy, like “follow your heart.” Not so with this movie (or any Brad Bird-directed flick, as Pixar fans can attest). Here, there are two primary messages, the most obvious being summed up in the quote, “You are who you choose to be.” The Giant’s character development is all about choosing to be a hero, even if that goes against his “programming.” And while the quote is an oversimplification, I think it’s great to show kids that people are defined by their actions rather than by their backgrounds, and that doing the right thing sometimes means going against one’s natural inclinations.

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“You’re made of metal. But you have feelings, and you think about things, and that means you have a soul.”

By contrasting Hogarth and Kent’s reactions to the Giant, and showing the consequences of each, the movie also promotes another message: xenophobia is bad, and fear leads to destruction, while compassion and kindness can prevent it. While the Giant’s own choices determine his character in the end, it’s Hogarth’s friendship that sets him on the path to becoming a hero, and his love for Hogarth that helps him remain one. If Kent Mansley or a paranoid Rockwell resident had met the Giant first…let’s just say the movie would have had a grimmer ending. But because Hogarth reacts to a strange alien monster with compassion and curiosity rather than fear, said alien ends up following his example. Again, I think this is a fantastic lesson to teach kids…and these days, it seems a lot of adults need to learn it as well. With fear of the unknown and the foreigner seemingly on the rise in many places, we could use more stories about showing kindness to strangers.

But of course, neither of those messages would come across very well if this movie wasn’t expertly written, acted, and animated. Fortunately, it is. The script is funny when it tries to be, emotional when it needs to be, and profound without being preachy. All the voice actors do a fantastic job, especially Vin Diesel, who only says a few dozen words as the Giant, but makes every one of them count. The music is also gorgeous, even when it’s not incorporating catchy pop songs from the ’50s.

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Art.

I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could find things to complain about in this movie. There are probably some historical inaccuracies (though I think it would take a professional historian to discover them), and the plot does closely resemble E.T. (except that it’s based on a book that was written before E.T., and it’s also better than E.T.). Personally, though, I think The Iron Giant is about as close to perfect as any movie can get. Why? Well, in addition to all the reasons listed above, I’ve seen it at least a dozen times now, and I still find myself getting misty-eyed at the end. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better about life, and people, and the world in general after you’ve watched it. And not because it sugarcoats real-life problems or provides an escapist fantasy, but because it shows good triumphing over real evil in a spectacular way.

I also love it as a superhero fan, because it offers a perfect example of what I think the ideal superhero should be: unfailingly kind, hopeful, and brave. And honestly, has any actual Superman movie had a “saving-the-world” scene as awesome as the climax of this one?

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He’s the real Man of Steel.

If you haven’t seen The Iron Giant, do yourself a favour and go watch it. If you have kids, make them watch it. But if you’re a single adult, like me, there is no shame in watching this particular cartoon on your own.

The LEGO Batman Movie

It’s been three years since The LEGO Movie surprised me by turning what should have just been a two-hour toy commercial into one of the funniest, most creative, and most heartwarming animated movies in recent memory. And it’s been four years since the DC Extended Universe, which should by rights be the best superhero movie franchise ever, began the slow, agonising process of breaking my heart. Now, in this year’s  crossover, can the magic of LEGO save the Dark Knight from dullness?

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This movie centres on Batman as he appeared in The LEGO Movie, in all his self-absorbed, dim-witted glory. He has no trouble saving Gotham from the Joker’s latest evil schemes (not even when latter teams up with such fearsome villains as Calendar Man and Condiment King), but he is having a lot of trouble forming relationships. Even admitting the Joker is his arch-nemesis proves to be too great a commitment for Batman–which the clown doesn’t take very well. When the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon, unexpectedly helps to capture all of Gotham’s supervillains at once, Batman is left with no one to fight–except Alfred, who wants him to become more mature and responsible, and Dick Grayson, the orphan he accidentally adopted, who just wants a dad. To get out of his funk (and, of course, foil a new scheme by the Joker) Batman must confront his greatest fear: being part of a family again.

If you saw The LEGO Movie, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from this semi-sequel: gorgeously detailed animation, a diabolically catchy soundtrack, tons of pop culture references, and Batman being a giant ham. It’s every bit as funny and frenetic as its predecessor, even if the concept feels less fresh and original than it did the first time around. The plot twists and surprises of the first movie are hard to beat, and for the most part, this one doesn’t even try.

But that’s okay, because this doesn’t feel as much like a LEGO movie as it feels like a Batman movie where everything happens to be made of LEGO. And when you look at it that way, it becomes what DC fans have been vainly hoping for ever since Man of Steel came out: a DC-based film that makes sense, respects its source material, and is willing to have fun. It’s packed with shout-outs to every incarnation of Batman that has ever graced the screen, from the ’60s TV show to Suicide Squad–which it soundly mocks. It even gives a nod to HISHE’s “Because I’m Batman!” meme, for those of us who frequent YouTube. And the story itself wouldn’t feel too out-of-place in a Batman comic (well, with the exception of a few non-DC properties that turn up towards the end). It truly feels like a movie made by and for Batman fans.

“How many characters from the comics should we put in this movie?” “ALL OF THEM!”

This is undoubtedly the most light-hearted incarnation of the Dark Knight to hit the screen in my lifetime, but he’s still got some issues. Just like in all his appearances, he’s hung up on his parents’ death, which in this case makes it hard for him to form relationships, for fear of being hurt again. It’s a pretty relatable problem, and in between all the jokes, it’s developed in a pretty touching way. When it comes time to give Batsy some much-needed character development, this story does so with great sincerity and heart.

And as always, Batman would be nothing without his supporting cast, who are all in fine form here. Alfred has never been more kind and fatherly, or more awesome. Robin has never been more adorable. And Batgirl–well, Batgirl hasn’t made a lot of appearances on the big screen, has she? So I guess I’m just happy she’s here. I’m also happy that she’s voiced by Rosario Dawson, a.k.a. Claire Temple, who has lots of experience talking sense into overly angsty male superheroes. Even the Joker is kinda likable in this movie, even though he’s still pretty evil.

He just needs a hug. And an archnemesis.

I have some nitpicks, of course. For example, I’m sick of seeing Batgirl played as a love interest for Batman. It’s creepy, it’s weird, and it still feels a little wrong even when it’s played for laughs in a kid’s movie. Also, I don’t know how I feel about Sauron being part of Joker’s evil army at the end (minor spoilers, sorry). I know it’s fun to put a bunch of Big Bads from various franchises together in a LEGO movie, but if you’re going to parody the incarnation of evil from the best fantasy tale of all time, you should at least  pronounce his name right. Also also, did Batman need to be waving an iPhone around? Do Warner Bros. and LEGO really need the advertising money?

Look at this. I’m critiquing a LEGO movie. What is wrong with me?

I’m as useless as Bat-Shark Repellent.

Despite some minor flaws, this is, without question, the best Batman movie since the Dark Knight saga. I won’t go as far as some critics have and say it’s the best Batman movie ever made, but it’s definitely in the top five. And like The LEGO Movie, it comes with a message any parent should be glad to teach their kid: You can’t do everything on your own. It’s worth it to make friends and be part of a family, even if you risk getting hurt in the process. That lesson isn’t exactly revolutionary coming from a kid’s movie, but I can think of a few grown-up superheroes who could stand to hear it again. Not to mention a few real-life humans.

Bottom line: LEGO has, indeed, saved Batman. (At least until Justice League comes out and ruins him again.) And everything is still awesome in the LEGO-verse.

The seating arrangements could use some work, though.

Grade: A

Moana

I can’t decide how sad I should be that Disney owns Lin-Manuel Miranda now. On the one hand, I think it’s going to be a really bad thing for his creative freedom (not that we’re likely to hear him complaining), but on the other hand, it’s obviously a really good thing for Disney.

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Moana is the story of…Moana, the daughter of a village chief on the South Pacific island of Motu Nui. Despite being surrounded by ocean, her people refuse to sail very far out on it, for fear of monsters and storms. But our rebellious teen heroine loves the ocean, and it turns out the feeling is mutual. Meanwhile, a curse is destroying all the islands in the Pacific because a demigod named Maui has stolen, and subsequently lost, the heart of life-giving goddess Te Fiti. When the curse reaches Motu Nui, Moana sets off on a voyage to save her people by finding Maui and returning the heart.

This movie doesn’t seem to be getting Frozen levels of hype yet (thank the Lord), but just in case it gets there in the coming months, let me reassure you: nothing about Moana is going to revolutionise Disney forever. True, it taps into a culture and mythology that Disney hasn’t really explored before, which is cool. But it’s still about a princess (with the same face shape the animators have been using since Tangled, no less) who rebels against her overbearing dad and her society’s expectations, has a goofy animal sidekick, goes on a journey, finds out she’s The Chosen One, joins up with a grumpy magical creature, and gets encouraged by the ghost of a dead ancestor. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

It’s a good thing she’s not white, because I was running out of ways to tell Disney princesses apart.

The only thing Moana is missing, in terms of Disney princess cliches, is a prince. I guess this movie is slightly revolutionary in that, not only does Moana not have a love interest, but the topic of romance and/or marriage never comes up once in the entire story. Which is great, because there’s no room for it, and it’s about time we got a fantasy adventure that wasn’t bogged down by a romantic subplot. Moana’s got oceans to sail and islands to save! Romance can wait!

I will freely admit that the main reason I went to see this film on opening weekend was that I’m obsessed with Hamilton. But by and large, I enjoyed it. The animation is lovely, the characters are engaging, and it goes without saying that the music is awesome. (Except for the hideous pop cover of the main character’s signature song during the credits.) My favourite song is “We Know the Way,” the one where you can actually hear the Lin-Man’s beautiful, beautiful voice.

He’s the only Disney prince I need.

But I digress.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Disney formula. It works spectacularly just as often as it doesn’t, and it’s produced many a classic in the past, which is why Disney owns the world now. Moana is a perfectly good princess movie, and, while it may not reach the heights of some of the greatest classics, it’s a huge improvement on Frozen.

But Moana is also an excellent example of some of the things I dislike most about Disney. For one thing, I can’t understand their current trend of injecting self-conscious, 2010s-style dialogue into supposedly timeless fairy tales. I am simply not amused by forced Twitter references and fourth-wall-breaking discussions on whether or not Moana fits into the Disney princess canon. I’d rather just laugh at the suicidal chicken, thank you very much. (I’ll admit, though, the sneaky Godzilla cameo made me smile.)

More importantly, though, this movie’s underlying message is the safest, most time-worn Disney message in history: Be yourself and follow your heart. I’ve always found that movie advice to be puzzling, because back when I was a part of Disney’s target demographic, my heart was mainly telling me to read books all day, throw rocks at my brother, and tell my little cousins that Santa Claus wasn’t real. And only one of those was a good thing. It’s all very well for Moana to follow her heart, since it only tells her to go sailing and save her island, but it’s not the best advice for most real people, especially children. Then again, when has Disney ever cared about reality?

Never. That’s when.

Other thoughts about Moana: 1. I had no idea The Rock had any talents other than body building, but he actually did a pretty fantastic job as Maui. 2. One minor villain’s song seemed weirdly out of place in this movie, but I still kinda liked it. 3. The coconut pirates were adorable and I want to hang one from my windshield.

All in all, a good Disney flick. Disney may never make something as great as Kubo, but they’ve done much worse than Moana.

“I forgive you for stealing Lin.” “You’re welcome.”

Grade: B+

Kubo and the Two Strings

I have a new favourite movie of the year! It’s Kubo and the Two Strings, a pleasant surprise that I knew nothing about before going to see it.

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Kubo is a young boy with some pretty neat magical powers. He can bring paper (and anything paper-like) to life by playing his magical shamisen (a three-stringed lute, for my fellow ignorant Westerners), and he can fly. But everything else about his life sucks. He’s never known his father, he has to take care of his mother because she’s catatonic most of the time, and he’s missing an eye. To make things worse, the people responsible for all these problems, his monstrous grandfather and aunts, are still after him. When they finally find the village where he and his mom are hiding, Kubo has to go on a quest to find his father’s magic armour, his only hope of defeating  his evil relatives. He’s accompanied along the way by a fighting snow monkey and a forgetful giant beetle (plus his ever-present living origami creatures).

Story aside, this is easily one of the best looking animated movies I’ve ever seen. It’s so gorgeous that the sound could have been turned off and I would still feel like I’d gotten my money’s worth. And it gets even more incredible when you realise that it’s almost all stop-motion. Epic mountain landscapes, terrifying monsters, flocks of paper birds, stormy seas, characters with the full range of human expression–all stop-motion puppetry.  The giant skeleton Kubo and Co. fight halfway through the movie? Yeah, that’s an 18-foot-tall puppet. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it puts Pixar to shame.

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Puppets. All puppets.

Oh, and the soundtrack’s lovely, too.

Story-wise, Kubo himself is my favourite thing about the movie. He’s an expert storyteller himself (therefore automatically awesome), and boy, is he good at surviving adversity. I haven’t seen a child protagonist put through the wringer like he is since Oliver Twist. But no matter how much emotional trauma the movie heaps on him, he hangs on to his positive view of the world and never gives up fighting for what he loves. Plus, his magic paper powers are really cool, and he gets to use a sweet samurai sword.

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This is the face of a kid who’s had a few too many bad days in his life.

Kubo deals with some pretty heavy stuff for a kids’ movie–which is one of my criteria for a good kids’ movie. Death, and what happens after, is a major theme, as is the power of stories and the importance of honoring one’s true family, even after they’re gone. Even though it’s made by a bunch of Americans, Kubo‘s Eastern philosophical influences are pretty obvious (and, as far as my very limited knowledge goes, pretty accurate).

But its loudest message is one that’s often found in fantasy movies, kid-friendly or not: “Humans are awesome!” The villains are god-like beings that live in “the heavens” (specifically the moon, if Grandfather’s official title, the Moon King, is any indication), and look down on humans for their imperfections and mortality. But all the human and human-like characters are shown to be heroic and brave, while Grandfather’s definition of “perfection” seems to amount to “being a joyless psycho.” So it’s no surprise that Kubo doesn’t fall for the Moon King’s attempts to convince him to come live in the stars. In real life, of course, there are as many “Grandfathers” here on earth as there are Kubos and Monkeys, and from a Christian perspective, the Heavens are our only reliable source of heroism. But as long as we’re telling stories, it’s nice to focus on the positive side of humanity once in a while.

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And the positive side of monkey-kind, and beetle-kind, I suppose…

Kubo isn’t perfect. A couple of “twists” near the end were so obvious that it was hard for me to take their “reveals” seriously, and the jokes didn’t all quite land for me. But this has been a terrible summer for movies, so I’m not inclined to complain a lot about the one film that actually tried to be a creative, thought-provoking piece of art.

A note of caution: this movie might be a little too scary for some kids. Kubo’s aunts, the Sisters, are extremely creepy, and like I said, there’s a giant skeleton.  And some main characters die in rather upsetting ways. I am personally very much in favour of putting actual danger into kids’ movies, because they’re going to encounter scary stuff sometime, and what better way to get introduced than through an exciting, fictional story where the good guy wins? One can go overboard with the scariness, but I don’t think this movie did. But it all depends on the kid.

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Nightmare-prone children should probably stay away.

And one final note: I think it’s hilarious that this movie cast George Takei (and gave him top billing!) just so he could say “Oh, my” in the trademark tone. ‘Cause that’s pretty much all he does. 🙂

Grade: A