Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) Review

Director: Dave Filoni

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

This animated Star Wars movie was the first look fans would get at the style of animation that would be employed in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars television series, which was also launched in 2008. Set in between the events of Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) and Anakin Skywalker (voiced by Matt Lanter) are tasked with rescuing gangster Jabba the Hutt’s (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) son, Rotta (voiced by David Acord), as the Clone Wars rage on across the galaxy. This one’s strictly for followers of the franchise only.

The film in question is actually four episodes of the aforementioned T.V. show stitched together (think of it as the series pilot). This means that the structure of the picture is on the awkward side, with several climaxes. Okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds, but it definitely feels like a small part of a larger whole, as characters come and go from the narrative. Yeah, sending this movie to theaters was clearly a cash-grab move.

This film caters to Star Wars fans who prefer the action set-pieces to the chit-chat (wait…are there any Star Wars fans who watch these flicks for the dialogue?). The action scenes are almost incessant here, with plenty of familiar-looking vehicles, weapons, droids, and gadgets thrown into the mix. They’re more over-the-top than anything viewers had seen in a Star Wars film up to the time of its original release, but I suppose that’s to be expected, as it is an animated film.

Speaking of animation, it’s certainly a mixed bag, to be sure. It often looks too mechanical, but it does look pretty at other moments. Anyway, Star Wars: The Clone Wars sticks quite close to the spirit of the franchise. Audience members who aren’t already interested in Star Wars will get lost awfully quick, but fans will find enough here to make it through the runtime. This feature took a thrashing from critics, yet people already in love with that galaxy far, far away will be far more forgiving.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020) Review

Director: Ken Cunningham

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It’s probably a daring move to put the words “Holiday” and “Special” together into a Star Wars movie title after the disastrous The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is considered such an abomination that it’s never been given an official home video release. However, in 2020, Lego put out its own Christmas-themed Star Wars film, meeting greater acclaim than the 1978 flop. Set after the events in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the good guys of that picture set out to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, while Rey (voiced by Helen Sadler) tries to uncover some lost Jedi knowledge, causing her to discover a gem that enables time travel.

This animated film is clearly aimed at people who are already fans of the Star Wars saga, especially the kids. It breaks no new ground, but it provides a fun nostalgia trip for viewers accustomed to that beloved galaxy far, far away. A few actors from the live-action movies even return to voice their respective characters. Anthony Daniels voices C-3PO, Billy Dee Williams does Lando Calrissian, and Kelly Marie Tran brings life to Rose Tico.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is a lightweight pleasure, but it knows that it belongs to a franchise that’s seen plenty of controversy, and it gently ribs a few of the more divisive elements of the series. Its story revolves around time travel, but doesn’t really try much new with the concept, other than using it to show off a bunch of already-iconic characters and situations. Despite being set in a Lego universe, this aspect of the picture seems underused, with little toy-building in sight.

This is an inoffensive comedy that some have compared to an overlong toy commercial. If it is an advertisement, it certainly is an entertaining one, made by people who know the lore of the Star Wars galaxy. The young ones will get the most mileage out of The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, but those who’ve followed the franchise for a while will be rewarded with an in-joke or two. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s not something you’ll regret watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Matilda (1996) Review

Director: Danny DeVito

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

While some liberties are taken to make it more cinematic, the 1996 film Matilda sticks close to the spirit of the 1988 Roald Dahl book of the same name. In both, a kid genius named Matilda (Mara Wilson) must put up with neglectful, materialistic parents and psychopathic, tyrannical school headmistress Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). The movie reflects the nature of the novel, where the courageous, compassionate, and intelligent inhabit a dark, menacing world and must work together to protect themselves and other innocents.

Matilda was directed by now-Internet-icon Danny DeVito, who also plays the father (Mr. Wormwood) and the narrator. He gets some of the better moments in the picture, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an ego trip. However, the standout performance here is from Pam Ferris as the vicious, child-hating principal. Often filmed in grotesque close-ups, she’ll intimidate even the adults watching. The acting from the adults may be a bit too broad for some, but I certainly didn’t mind it.

The film’s good-versus-evil struggle shows that even children can be empowered to see justice done on out-of-line adults. There are some fantasy elements here (like in the novel), but I won’t spoil the detail of them here. The special effects related to the supernatural aspects hold up pretty well, which is fairly important considering the feature goes more over-the-top with them than the book.

Matilda is a solid family film, sometimes being funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes suspenseful. It shows that people who use their “powers” for good can triumph over those who abuse theirs. Also, yes, in case you were wondering, that is Paul Reubens playing one of the FBI agents monitoring the activities of the title character’s shady father.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Despicable Me (2010) Review

Directors: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Genre(s): Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

One of the selling points of Despicable Me is that it’s an animated kids’ movie largely told from the perspective of a bad guy. Well, don’t worry, parents, he’s really not that bad of a dude. You see, high-tech supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is plotting on stealing the Moon, but the affection of three orphans, Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (voiced by Dana Gaier), and Agnes (voiced by Elsie Fisher), threatens to derail his plans.

While this is certainly a funny film (with a couple of good jabs at Ugly-Americanism), it’s probably the more heartwarming moments that steal the show. The picture strikes a commendable balance between silly humor, loopy action, and human drama, making it run like a well-oiled machine. Okay, “machine” makes the whole thing sound a bit more, uh, mechanical than it actually is, but this is still lightweight stuff.

Steve Carell, who voices the central character, is in top form here. His Gru has an appealing blend of sinister and benevolent traits. Of course, no review of Despicable Me would be complete without a mention of the yellow Minions (the faces that launched a thousand “normie memes”). They’re actually pretty cute and funny, without becoming overbearing.

This feature is painless viewing for grown-ups, so it’s one of those flicks that both parents and their children can both watch and enjoy. Hmmm…maybe I’m underselling it by calling it “painless.” Let’s try this: Despicable Me is a charming, effortlessly engaging piece of cinema that will probably entertain filmgoers of all ages. Ah, yes, that sounds better.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Spookley the Square Pumpkin (2004) Review

Director: Bernie Denk

Genre(s): Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

This children’s computer-animated film plays out like a Halloween version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Based on the book The Legend of Spookley the Square Pumpkin by Joe Troiano, this movie follows a cube-shaped pumpkin (voiced by Sonja Ball) who is made fun of by the rest of the normal-shaped inhabitants of the pumpkin patch. Okay, this one might be easy to dog-pile on, but I’ll be merciful.

The first thing one notices about this picture is the dated animation quality. It’s not horrible, but time hasn’t been kind to this particular aspect. With all of the talking vegetables and moralizing, it feels like an early episode of VeggieTales (except with more bullying). The message of the movie is, of course, to not judge someone by their appearance.

To an adult, Spookley the Square Pumpkin could seem a bit slow and padded (even at forty-seven minutes), with some less-than-stellar jokes. The musical numbers are fine and the characters are easy to keep track of. The target audience (kids, obviously) will be far more forgiving and will hopefully take away the film’s message of tolerance with them. It’s rightfully rated G by the MPAA, featuring no swearing or real violence (although there is some peril).

This isn’t the most famous feature of all time, with, at the time of this review, IMDb listing its release date as 2005. However, this is apparently only for its Dutch-language release in Belgium. Wikipedia (never wrong, never wrong) says it came out in 2004. In case you were wondering, yes, there is a sequel, called Spookley and the Christmas Kittens (2019), but it’s so obscure that it doesn’t even have an IMDb page at the time of this review.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Wonder (2017) Review

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Genre(s): Drama, Kids & Family

Runtime: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Middle school isn’t the easiest time to be alive, and it’s harder for those who stand out in a crowd. Wonder tells the story of Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), a child with a facial deformity (and who is a fan of all things Star Wars and Minecraft) who’s quitting home-schooling to go to junior high. Described by some as the kid-friendly version of The Elephant Man (1980), this film’s proud motto is “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

Wonder is an excellent, moving movie, but even many of the critics who praise it will still admit that it’s a pretty manipulative picture. I don’t really have much of a problem with this, as, in my opinion, films are supposed to shrewdly manipulate the emotions of the audience to some extent. Wonder is a fairly saccharine movie, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

In addition to its alleged mawkishness, there was an extremely minor controversy over the production not casting an actor that actually had the condition that the main character, Auggie, has (well, at least, according to Wikipedia, there was). I don’t have much to say about this, but I think the results are satisfying enough to just file it under “Things to Keep in Mind for Future Casting Decisions.” Apparently, the make-up that Jacob Tremblay wore for the role took an hour-and-a-half to apply.

The bottom line is that Wonder is a marvelous family drama (with some comedic elements) that desperately wants to tug on your heartstrings. It doesn’t break much new ground, but it doesn’t need to. Keep your eyes open for some Star Wars-related product-placement (character-placement?). Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts show up as Nate and Isabel, respectively, Auggie’s parents.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Call of the Wild (2020) Review

Director: Chris Sanders

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Kids & Family

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Even though I’m really more of a cat person, I still enjoy a piece of media about a cute dog or two. There’s no felines in sight, but The Call of the Wild still manages to work for me. The story’s about a dog named Buck who’s kidnapped (dognapped?) from his California home and brought to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s to serve as a sled dog. Along the way, he’ll meet up with adventurer John Thornton (Harrison Ford), and the two will develop a close friendship.

The Call of the Wild is a film about people going on adventures because, well, that’s what true adventurers do. The movie really captures that spirit of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants journey to the ends of the Earth. The emotional moments really put a lump in your throat, so it succeeds as both an adventure picture and as a drama. Harrison Ford is perfectly cast here as a grumpy, semi-hermitic character on the run from his tragic past.

The animals in this feature, including Buck, are computer-generated, which is fine. This disappoints many, but I suppose that that’s just the way cinema is made these days (plus, it’s better than putting actual animals at risk). The Call of the Wild occasionally goes heavy on the special effects, giving it a video-gamey feel, but there’s always some heart to the story that prevents it from becoming a soulless tech demo.

Perhaps because it’s based off of a (famous) novel (by Jack London), this film verges on becoming episodic at times. However, it keeps things together and crosses the finish line a winner. Overall, I think that this is an excellent family-oriented adventure movie. It’s certainly better than the forgettable The Call of the Wild (1972), which has Charlton Heston in the John Thornton role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) Review

Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, and King Vidor

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Musical

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: G (2D version), PG (3D version)

IMDb Page

The hype exists for a reason. There’s little I can say about this endlessly iconic 1939 feature that hasn’t been said before. The charming story is about a Kansan farmgirl named Dorothy (Judy Garland) and her dog, Toto (Terry), being whisked away to the magical Land of Oz during a tornado. Even if you feel like you’re too old to be watching a family film like The Wizard of Oz, I highly recommend it anyway.

How was this made all the way back in 1939? The songs are still as catchy as ever, the special effects just as stupendous, the characters just as lovable, the flying monkeys just as frightening, the visuals just as splendorous, the action just as exciting, the drama just as moving, the humor just as amusing, and the pacing just as swift as ever. Those who say films were merely “proto-movies” prior to Citizen Kane (1941) can take a hike!

Holding this timeless masterpiece together is the message of there being no place like home. Sepia-colored Kansas may not be a roller coaster ride of excitement, but that’s where the heart is. To find their way back to the heartland, Dorothy, Toto, and their new friends must put their inner courage, compassion, and smarts to the test and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Who couldn’t love a story like that?

The Wizard of Oz is just about as close to perfection as motion pictures can get. What? Are you actually going to criticize the painted backgrounds for not looking realistic enough? Anyway, this is a true classic that hasn’t aged with time. From the yearning for a better tomorrow displayed in the opening to the crazily imaginative adventures in Oz to the tear-jerking finale, this is the real deal.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Adventures of Tintin (2011) Review

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Being an American, I wasn’t all that familiar with the character of Belgian comic hero Tintin growing up (although I do remember watching the cartoon series The Adventures of Tintin on television). I’m grateful for director Steven Spielberg for largely introducing audiences in the United States to the world of Tintin with the 2011 animated motion picture The Adventures of Tintin. Blending three of the classic Tintin stories (The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn, and Red Rackham’s Treasure) together, the plot involves intrepid reporter Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his dog, Snowy, going on an adventure after purchasing a model ship that everybody wants to have a part of. Okay, after using the word “Tintin” approximately 10,000 times over the course of one paragraph, let’s get on with the review.

After directing the Indiana Jones flicks, Steven Spielberg was a perfect choice to helm an entry into the almost equally pulpy Tintin franchise. Many (but not all) of the beloved characters from the comics make an appearance here, and there are several visual references to other Tintin adventures. As much as I loved the film overall, I am a bit disappointed with its depiction of Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis). He shows a bit too much of his buffoonish side here, and not quite enough of his badass personality. All of the other characters seem to be on-point, though.

For this feature, the action in the comics was taken and pumped up to an eye-popping extreme. The film’s manic action sequences are astounding, featuring camerawork and choreography that would be near-impossible to pull off in a live-action movie. From a pirate battle to a wild chase through the streets of a Moroccan city, the big set-pieces really bring out the viewer’s inner child. Also worthy of mention are John Williams’ lively musical score and the fantastic opening credits scene.

The Adventures of Tintin is definitely one of my favorite animated movies of all time, and, as far as action-adventure pictures go, it’s up there, too. It has both the lovable characters and the jaw-dropping action scenes that those sort of features need to succeed. It’s terrific entertainment for most ages (there is some blood in one scene, after a man is shot) that’s bound to encourage viewers to learn more about the Tintin universe. Let’s hope that that sequel gets made!

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) Review

Directors: Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch

Genre(s): Adventure, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 66 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

What’s the world’s oldest surviving feature-length animated movie? Something by Disney? Nope, that honor goes to a silent German film by the name of The Adventures of Prince Achmed (originally titled “Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed“) from 1926. The story is about young, fearless Prince Achmed setting out to restore order to the land after a devious magician crashes his father’s birthday bash. This picture uses silhouette animation (think stop-motion shadow puppets) to transport viewers to far away worlds. Home video releases are color-tinted.

This fairly short (only 66 minutes long) classic has visuals that are nothing short of entrancing. It’s certainly nothing like any other movie from…well, any time period. The silhouettes are surprisingly detailed, and almost every character, despite being little more than a shadow puppet, has a distinctive look. In addition to its astounding appearance, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is greatly aided by an energetic musical score by Wolfgang Zeller.

Based on old Arabian fairy tales, this feature has a timeless quality to it that keeps it fresh after all these decades. There is some swashbuckling action and some special effects that made me wonder “how did they do that?” The only time the pacing threatens to lag is when Aladdin shows up (yes, Aladdin and his magic lamp are here) and explains his backstory. It certainly doesn’t kill the film, but these flashbacks slow things down just a tad. Just a tad.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is definitely no musty museum piece. It’s amazing from its character introductions at the beginning to its hair-raising finale. I’m not sure how much kids will enjoy it, considering it’s silent and all (despite bombastic music), but people who’re accustomed to pictures with no spoken dialogue will be floored. This one comes highly recommended.

My rating is 8 outta 10.