Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2015)

Personal taste is one relentlessly uncompromising bastard, ain’t it? You can suppress it externally all you want, but it does not extinguish the fire that threatens to, and often succeeds, engulf your better logical instincts. Because of this unfortunate personal crutch, every film critic or film lover have to live with the fact that they have at least one unpopular film choice in their repetory. For me, it’s the fact that two of my favorite films stem from the Alvin & the Chipmunks live-action franchise.

Oh, the havoc and torment I have endured defending these films. Let me set the record straight, though: No, they are not among the best films of all time and they are not made by exactly dignified directors. Putting their resumes together would create an homogonous, wildy erratic, dichotomous track record, unprecedented in cinema. However, I do love the Squeakquel and Chipmunked, as well as really liking the first film. I believe that there is some simmering wit, as it borderlines as a satire of the absurdity and vapitude of pop music, while not ever entirely reaching that goal, due to submerging into standard, customary kid’s film platitudes. With that said, I personally find the flaws and cliches endearing in a puzzling, incredulously entertaining fashion.

But foremost above all, I personally am drawn to the characters of the Chipmunks, in all their convincing CGI glory. Chipmunks are adorable and talking chipmunks are fervently adorable. Again, my admiration of the films are entirely visceral. They warm the cockles of my heart and I don’t cease to think about them after a viewing. It’s sweet on a transcendent, addicting level, like a Youtube cat video marathon, and I personally rank them higher than most of these live-action, CGI adaptations of children’s shows. THAT SAID, I was not looking forward to this movie, not merely because the third movie, whilst being highly entertaining, was a giant cash grab, but because this film, thanks to its publicity, looked like it sunk to the lowest depths a film of this ilk could. I went in expecting abject and received a textbook example of “average.”

The film begins on the Seville household with Dave trying to put the Chipmunks on a leave of absence from music, so they can live normal lives for a while, despite the fact that Dave’s appearances at the house are more sporadic due to producing music. I guess a house without consistent, stable authority counts as “normal.” Apparently, he doesn’t care as much about the Chippettes, as they are allowed to go off and judge American Idol. Although, asking such questions or getting stuck on thoughts like these would be futile.

Anyhow, Dave does introduce his boys to his new girlfriend, Samantha, as well as her son, Miles, who constantly ridicules and mistreats the Chipmunks. They don’t like each other, which, of course, will last through the ENTIRE duration of the film, right? Around the time Dave is going to spend time with Samantha in Miami, the Chipmunks find a ring in Dave’s bag, leading them to believe that Dave is going to marry her and abandon them, which lead them to talk Miles in embarking on a quest to stop this proposal, which means...ROAD TRIP! The originality is one to be admired.

The one facet about my synopsis that some readers might perceive as odd is the fact that the Chipmunks seem to not have much importance or priority. Well, that’s because, in an odd way, they don’t. Of course, they are the main characters, but screenwriters Randi Mayem Singer and Adam Sztykiel don’t seem to have a steadfast, cocksure grasp in how to delineate them. Their definitions are still in tune, but without any verve or pizzazz, which is rather ironic, seeing how Singer helped write Mrs. Doubtfire, which he took generic concepts and molded them together with flair. Alvin’s still a self-absorbed brat, but without the proper panache, he does nothing to stand out. Theodore’s affinity with food is played up to the most incompetent, transparent degree I have ever seen. Simon is still the same, but again, without liveliness around him, he can’t rise above it. They are quite literally puppets, which is not a crack at the CGI, though it is the worst executed of the series. Alvin looks like a pool toy and Theodore looks like an furry, anime version of Porky Pig.

On the subject of Theodore, the entire film gets Theodore wrong. While he actually gets more funny moments in this film than in many of the other films, it actually somewhat plays to his detriment. Theodore is my favorite Chipmunk, because he was the most innocent, the most helpless and the adorable, winning design and demeanor complimented it immaculately. Because this film doesn’t know how to push its characters, it ends up putting Theodore in a position where he is more mature and outgoing than the past films, yet still trying to maintain his doe-eyed, infantile purity. The problem is that it is never addressed as Theodore struggling with trying to feel older. The contrast is so bemusing that it quickly sinks in that the film has designed Theodore to pander to such an extent that he does things that repeatedly seem out of character, whether he is risking his life in an completely arbitrary, extraneous scene, breakdancing during a Redfoo song or...sigh...rapping Baby Got Back. Yeah, we’ll get to the music later.

Miles, the son, is the typical banal, smart-aleck teen with deep, intrinsic issues that contribute to his temperament, but when they are every handled, they are done so suddenly and with such jarring disingenuity that we never are totally, fully invested in the character. However, it’s refreshing to see newcomer Josh Green try to pull something off with it. Seeing how the Chipmunks are executed with wan and with very little personality, some of their moments of abuse are actually mildly amusing. On the subject of fun performances, Tony Hale devours the scenery as the antagonist, Air Marshall James Suggs. Again, poorly written, but his sheer gusto and bravura in his portrayal makes it highly enjoyable and amusing to watch. Of course, Jason Lee is as indifferent as he possibly can be and Kimberly Williams-Paisley seems to only be doing this role, so she can not merely be remembered as being the chick who is riding Brad Paisley’s saddle. Also, to all Shake It Up fans, Bella Thorne does not make anything close to a star-making turn with this film.

Back on to the subject of music, yes? Being a Chipmunks film, there has to be a barrage of music, primarily consisting of covers, with one original song so unimaginative and trite that it’s not even worth mentioning. Exempting a fairly good cover of Iko Iko, it is the most unimpressive, useless set list in the franchise. They pride themselves on their Uptown Funk cover, presumably because of its demand of popularity. However, it is a horrendous cover with stiff, restrictive instrumentals. And it appears during a scene in the film, which demolishes the equilibrium it had been previously retaining consistently. Again, it is an average film, nothing impressive, but nothing terrible. All of that is temporarily halted when the Chipmunks and Miles arrive in New Orleans in a scene so stereotype-ridden and so culturally limited and watered down that I was personally offended. In fact, with all of the locations exhibited in the film, it feels like Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. wanted to take a vacation, yet make another cinematic installment in the series, so he can live off of its residuals when his Nickelodeon TV reboot show inevitably pitfalls in ratings.

Bagdasarian and his wife are the producers of this film and are behind it, as they are with everything under the Chipmunks name, no matter how inept or baffling it is (see Little Alvin and the Mini-Munks). While their presence may be prevalent, it still isn’t as potent as when the first three films were released. The first three films never prided themselves on creativity, but they had certainly more vibrancy than this film. It’s stale, by-the-numbers, and standardly mediocre, though it isn’t totally bankrupt. Outside of its other strong points I mentioned, there are actually quite a few chuckles that were emitted by me (in between the flatuence and juvenile humor) and a scene involving squirrels injesting peanuts tainted with cough syrup had me hysterically laughing. Additionally, it is nice to just see the Chipmunks onscreen. Their essence is present, but it’s just a shame that their surroundings and mechanics aren’t fraught with any substance. To me, it brings me back to 2003’s Rugrats Go Wild. Both are movies with lovable characters that conjure positive memories and moments from other incarnations and chapters of their concrete, initial source material, but both movies fall victim to decrepit, hackneyed script decisions, awkward pandering, and being practically bereft of any authentic, crucial content.

RATING: Two out of four stars

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (2014)

Oh, the trek that I endured with this film. Let me set the context. I'm not being hyperbolic or overreactive of my feelings with this film. I am just talking about the perspectives that encouraged me to see the film. I first viewed the film's trailers and feared it as a soulless, excruciatingly mediocre, by-the-numbers, terribly trite film under the usually meticulous, delicate palms of the company who bestowed unto us the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo, and this year's Inside Out. However, subsequent trailers led me to believe that the movie, while still looking simplistic, might still be rich and emotionally effective. After actually seeing it, my verdict is...Eeeehyahoohyaeh.

I'll get to that. The film takes place in a situation where the celestial (or metaphysical or natural, what have you) force that eliminated the dinosaurs did not occur. Cut forward to millions of years later, two full-grown dinosaurs welcome three babies, the last of which is Arlo, the "Good Dinosaur" in question. Given how he is the Good Dinosaur, you can predict the reason why: he doesn't fit in with his family. He is sensitive and wimpy, which hampers his ability to properly assist with duties on his farm. It also doesn't allow him to reach his full potential by doing something magnificent and leaving his mark. After being unable to finish off a creature that is stealing their food, Arlo's father leads him to finish it off and, in the process, his father dies after being washed away in a river during a tempestuous storm. This traumatizes Arlo, but soon after, he confronts the creature, a Tarzan-like boy named Spot. However, Arlo gets lost and has to find his way home and ends up forming an alliance with Spot.

I spent a good 10-20 minutes of this film (near the end of the first act and beginning of the second), watching it impartially. Given how I'm watching a Pixar film, the feeling of indifference is an uninvited one. My feelings about the film, in general, fluctuated throughout the film's 100 minutes (which end up feeling like 130 minutes, but we'll get to that). I submitted to it and accepted it during the first 15 minutes, finding myself quite pleased by its innocence, but was waiting for it to build up. After that, it gets a little complicated.

The reason I state this is because with all the film's strengths (and there are quite a few), the one anchor submerging it underwater is the Good Dinosaur, Arlo. Arlo is one of the most banal, unimpressive, predictable, toothless, ineffectual, and annoying protagonists in the Disney catalog. It may be the worst in the Pixar catalog. Every move he makes and every nuance he delivers is not surprising, but it's still so painfully derivative. You can predict his arc within the first ten minutes and I sat there, rolling my eyes, waiting for the coda of this protagonist to arrive, preferably sooner rather than later, I thought. The film itself already isn't very original (I picked up hints of Ice Age, Tarzan, The Lion King, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, any other children's film about a 'fraidy-cat hero trying to discover his inner strength, and so forth), so breeding that with a character, whose annoying scream is heard about every five minutes, is not exactly a recipe for success.

None of the other supporting characters are very refreshing and they drag the film down with it, as well...with one exception: Spot. His interaction with Arlo keeps the film afloat for a good long while. While Arlo is one of Pixar's worst characters, Spot is one of their best. It's also the perfect dichotomy with two characters fulfilling the opposite of their default reputations: a nervous dinosaur paired up with a brazen, wild child. Youthful pluckiness is nothing new, as isn't utilizing an animalistic human to offset an anthromorphic creature. However, the character is written with subtle charisma and effective gravitas and animated with simple, gripping, at times humorous, body language. How Spot's arc is wrapped up is one of the more engaging, touching, and effective aspects of the film. I believe if the film was told through Spot's perspective as a near-silent film, much like the short, Sanjay's Super Team, which includes some of the most breathtaking, hallucinatory, poppy animation in the PIXAR canon, in addition to some of the most potent storytelling with pitch-perfect timing, I would've been much more appreciative of the film.

Speaking of which, the animation in this god! The characters, outside of Spot, aren't animated very uniquely or impressively, but the lush landscapes, the visually stimulating insects and small creatures, and its realistic geological environment all not only sit comfortably in PIXAR's animation gallery, but also one-ups itself, in terms of overall quality. It's the closest thing to PIXAR's equivalent of Avatar. PIX-atar, if you will. 

However, with all of these positive aspects, it's Arlo that brings the film down, to some extent. The story isn't all that original or even that busy, but the dreariness of Arlo never allows for the film to gain any energy to sustain itself. When Spot exits the picture, the last minutes of the film are all so telegraphed and passe that it makes the entire experience not feel worthwhile. If the main focus and backbone of the film is something so excruciatingly hackneyed, how can any investment be precipitated? As someone who hasn't seen Cars 2 and Brave, I feel that I can still safely, though not comfortably or firmly, say that this is PIXAR's weakest effort; a film not brimming with as much vision or personality or life as any of its past endeavors. It's not a lost cause, but it doesn't rise to its full potential. It's a sweet film, mind you, but not a special one, which is the greatest offense of all.

RATING: 2 1/2 stars out of four