Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Spring Movie Diary: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Date: March 24, 2013
Time: 5:20 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane
Company: Derrick

Food:  Dr. Pepper; bottomless popcorn which I am never eating ever again
Runtime:  1 hour, 39 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Wes Anderson

Quick Impressions:
Ordinarily, there’s little I love more than metadrama, but for the life of me, I could not understand why this film needed so many frame stories.

On the ride home from the theater, I said to my husband, “Okay, I just don’t understand why there were so many layers of narrators.  At the beginning, the set-up seemed so complicated and star-studded that I assumed we’d jump back out into each successive frame story at some point later in the film, but I mean that never really happened.  So why did they need so many frame stories?  Was it just to pack in more cameos?  Why have such an elaborate frame…about an elaborate frame job…and the theft of a framed portrait…of a subject the central story’s central character identifies with himself…Okay, never mind.  I guess Wes Anderson knew what he was doing, after all.”

So if you like frames, then buy a ticket to The Grand Budapest Hotel and get ready for a real treat!

Frames aside, I thoroughly enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel.  My husband and I agree that overall, Moonrise Kingdom was probably a better film.  (The story there seems so perfectly paired with Anderson’s style.)  But “better” is always highly subjective when it comes to art.  Like virtually all of Anderson’s movies, The Grand Budapest Hotel is presented like a picture book for adults.  Stylistically, it’s very similar to Moonrise Kingdom, but thematically it’s totally different, and tonally, it’s quite dissimilar.  (Maybe it’s not true that thematically it’s totally different.  The movies share the element of bittersweet nostalgia.  But barely adolescent first love is something in most people’s past, whereas few people have probably enjoyed the precise sorts of adventures depicted in this film.)

Honestly, to me, the fantastic performance of Ralph Fiennes as Gustav H. (a memorable character for sure) is more than reason enough for anybody to see this movie.  He’s really marvelous.  Part of me hopes that he’ll somehow end up with a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for this.  That’s probably just wishful thinking, but it’s such a phenomenal part, and he plays it with such committed panache.  I also truly enjoyed the sonorous narration of F. Murray Abraham.  His last line to Jude Law, summing up the character of Gustav H. is so wonderfully eloquent, perfectly apt, and winningly melodic.  For that line alone, the movie gets an A+ from me. 

If you usually like Wes Anderson’s films, then you’ll probably like this one, too.  If you usually don’t like them…then why do you keep going to them?  Surely by now everyone knows what sort of thing to expect from Wes Anderson.

The Good:
The theatrical trailer of this movie almost looks like a parody of Wes Anderson’s movies.  Just about everybody who has ever even seen one of his movies eventually shows up at the Grand Budapest, whether there’s a part for them there or not.

I wasn’t kidding when I said the movie revels in frame stories.  They’re not interesting or well-developed frames, particularly.  They’re just kind of hanging around (like frames do, you know).  Seriously, the film starts with a woman reading a book.  Then we see the author of the book (Tom Wilkinson) narrating some kind of documentary about how he wrote the book.  As he tells us his story, we jump into a flashback.  Old writer Tom Wilkinson is replaced by young writer Jude Law who proceeds to wander vaguely around the 1960s-era Grand Budapest Hotel, now very much in decline, and basically just as you would expect it to be (i.e., Jason Schwartzman is there).  Eventually he meets F. Murray Abraham who finally starts telling him the real story, which of course takes place in yet another era when F. Murray Abraham was a young lobby boy (played now by Tony Revolori). 

By this point, I was thinking, Wow, this is a lot more complicated than I expected, and I wondered if we would continue jumping through time throughout the entire film.  But it all stops there, and we spend most of the movie following the misadventures of Gustav H. as remembered by his faithful and devoted Lobby Boy (though commendably, at the end of the story, we do travel back through the narrators again until we end with the original girl reading the book).  So Anderson’s film (as usual) is very carefully crafted.  Basically we get this story about a guy who identifies with the subject of a painting he inherits, and the story is essentially a portrait of him introduced by a series of frames.  So that’s nice.  (But it does seem like kind of a waste of the talents of Tom Wilkinson.)

This elaborate (yet shallow in terms of development) setup does effectively emphasize for us the significant distance between the main story and the present day.  Since the gulf separating the past from the present is a major theme of the movie, that’s all quite nicely done.

The main part of the film is quite simple in terms of plot.  It’s also fast paced, with an antic craziness and amusing delight in mayhem.

The story is refreshingly original and unconventional.  Popular, high-grossing movies that come out of Hollywood have always been formulaic and familiar.  This film definitely is not.  Off the top of my head, I cannot recall another cinematic protagonist quite like Gustav H.  He’s definitely one-of-a-kind.  I don’t mean that there aren’t others like him out there in the world, but he has such life and vibrancy as a character, and he’s definitely not your typical Hollywood hero.  Ralph Fiennes brings him to life beautifully and so memorably.  He makes Gustav H. endlessly watchable and easy to root for, really far more likable and compelling than he ought to be on paper.  I honestly do hope he gets some kind of Oscar recognition (because they kind of owe him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and this could be called a supporting performance).

The other performances are good, too, although there are probably more of them than their need to be.  F. Murray Abraham (who’s always good at narrating tragic stories full of surprising intrigue) is absolutely great as the (not-long) mysterious Mr. Moustafa.  And Tony Revolori is very solid as Zero.

This movie has a staggering number of familiar faces stuffed into various supporting roles, but not all supporting roles are created equal.  There’s a good part for Adrien Brody, a better part for Jeff Goldblum, and an even better part for Willem Dafoe.  They all make the most of what they’re given, and they’re given quite a bit.  Saorise Ronan also gets a lot of screen time as Agatha, and she’s always very good, particularly in the elevator scene.

The butler and the maid managed to distract me throughout the whole movie.  They aren’t in it much, but they both make a huge impression.  They’re very good, especially considering the limitations of their roles.  I was pretty positive the maid was Léa Seydoux (because she looked just like Léa Seydoux, so why wouldn’t she be?), and she is.  I couldn’t place the butler at first, but I was almost positive that I’d seen him in a James Bond movie, and sure enough he’s Mathieu Amalric from Quantam of Solace.  (He’s also the guy who plays Jean-Do in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film that left me feeling vaguely despondent for days.)  (That almost seems like an insult.  After seeing that film, I felt vague for…days.  I really didn’t mean it that way.)  Anyway, I think both of them are very good, even though their parts are fairly small.

Some small parts seem far more meaningful than others.  Some of the virtual cameos seem more like inside jokes for Wes Anderson fans than actual, fleshed out roles.  Even Edward Norton feels more like an inside joke than a fully realized character, and he has a fairly large part.  I’m not exactly complaining.  I’d prefer that all of these amazing people stay in the movie, no matter what they’re doing there.  Tilda Swinton has a very small part, but she’s pretty perfect for it.  To me, that casting choice makes absolutely perfect sense.  (We need someone who can lie very still and yet make a huge spectacle of herself…)  I like Jude Law a lot, but his character seems importantly only because they need an extra narrator for some reason.

The movie is just as stylized as you’d expect, and the story-book visuals make for a pleasant viewing experience.  The characters themselves are more original and interesting than the plot they’re mixed up in, but the setting is intriguing, and I always love any story that includes a funicular.  (I had such an exciting experience in one when I was in Italy.)  I myself once wrote a novel that involved a funicular, and looking back I can now say that the funicular is the one element of that quasi-thriller that I do not regret.

Best Scene:
Maybe this isn’t the best scene, but my favorite part in the movie comes when Zero visits Gustav H. in prison for the first time, and Gustav recounts his fight with a fellow inmate.  It’s the way that he describes his relationship with the other inmate now that gets me. 

I literally fell over into my husband to avoid laughing out loud obnoxiously when nobody else was laughing much.  I opened my mouth but no sound came out.  I looked like a hyena having a nightmare.  (Well, I mean, that’s how the hyena would look to himself if he were having a nightmare like the one in The Artist.) 

The way Gustav behaves here so perfectly reveals the essence of his character.  The best part is that he’s so sincere and so committed to his life philosophy.

Best Action Sequence:
Anytime there’s murder and intrigue in a monastery (especially if it’s up in the snowy mountains), you’ve got my attention.  This sequence is all pretty action driven and weirdly comical.  But the best part by far comes when Gustav H. stares death in the eye as he’s hanging from a mountain ledge.  The way this scene ends had my husband and me in stiches.

Best Scene Visually:
Hiding stuff in cake is always fun, especially when it’s really pretty cake.  (Ornate cakes and F. Murray Abraham together always make me remember the Nipples of Venus from Amadeus.  Well, always is probably the wrong word to use there since this is the first time it’s come up.)

Obviously since this is a Wes Anderson film, the whole thing is really stylized and looks great.  But if you’re looking for something in a different direction from pretty cake, I also found Jeff Goldblum’s final scene quite arresting.  (The earlier scene with his cat is similarly compelling, first amusing then horrific.)

The Negatives:
Speaking of Jeff Goldblum’s final scene and the scene featuring his cat, I feel compelled to mention that you definitely should not take children to this movie.  That should be obvious because it’s rated R, but Moonrise Kingdom is so mellow overall that some parents might mistakenly believe that based on its previews, The Grand Budapest Hotel is not really all that objectionable.  If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re wrong.  And trust me, if I think something is inappropriate for young children, it definitely is.  (That’s not a strike against the film.  This just seemed like the most appropriate place to include that warning.)  The colors may be pastel, but the story has some very dark elements.

The Grand Budapest Hotel’s most glaring weakness is that the rest of the film is conspicuously not on the same level as Ralph Fiennes’s excellent performance.  The actor and the character he’s playing are considerably better than the movie.  That’s not to say that the movie is bad.  In fact, although I think at this point, Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s masterpiece, I’d put this film firmly in the upper echelon of his filmography.  In fact, to be honest, I think I liked it better than all his other films except Moonrise Kingdom.  I’m not saying that others will feel the same way, though.

Parts of this film feel less…I don’t know…maybe less important than others?  The same thing is true of the cast.  There are so many people in it that some actors feel underutilized, some characters underdeveloped, they’re just off in a corner hanging around while our focus is elsewhere.  Some elements of the story just really don’t seem to matter.  Now maybe that’s being done intentionally.  So it’s quite possible that on repeat viewings, I will appreciate more about The Grand Budapest Hotel.  But right now, it seems vaguely like the Hotel California.  A lot of the cast is checked out, but Wes Anderson just won’t let them leave.

I’ve been looking forward to The Grand Budapest Hotel for a long time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Ralph Fiennes’s central performance as the one-of-a-kind Gustav H. is really something special.  And I find F. Murray Abraham’s final assessment of the character infinitely quotable, perhaps worth the price of admission in and of itself.  If you liked Wes Anderson’s other movies, you’ll like The Grand Budapest Hotel, too.  It’s definitely odd, but there’s nothing else like it in theaters right now.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Spring Movie Diary: Muppets Most Wanted

Date: March 23, 2014
Time: 3:40 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope

Food:  mixed red and blue Icee, popcorn, Whoppers
Runtime:  1 hour, 46 minutes
Rating: PG
Director: James Bobin

Quick Impressions:
Chances are, if your kids watch the Disney Channel, they’re dying to see Muppets Most Wanted, and if they’ve watched Good Luck Charlie or Dog with a Blog in the past month, I can personally guarantee that they’ve already seen the opening number and about twenty-five percent of the rest of the film.

These new Muppet movies aren’t perfect, but nobody can say that Disney hasn’t done a great job marketing them.  When my husband got home from India on Saturday, I asked, “Should we take the kids to see Muppets Most Wanted tomorrow?”

My five-year-old immediately exclaimed, “Oh the new one with Constantine?  I have been dying to see that.  It’s not easy being mean.”

My husband decided that we’d leave the decision to her eleven-year-old brother, and guess what?  He watches the Disney Channel, too. 

And to be honest, I watch with them, and even my husband checks in from time to time, so the four of us headed to the theater this afternoon knowing that Muppets Most Wanted was going to change our lives for the better.  I mean look what it did for Ross Lynch, star of the hit show Austin & Ally.  He got to visit the set and wear a tie of authority.  (We’re also looking forward to our next trip to Disneyland.  I hear the really brave kids ride California Screamin’ with their dads, and if you haven’t heard that, too, then I know for sure that you don’t watch the Disney Channel.  And I feel sorry for you.  How will you ever learn which products you need to purchase in order to be happy?)

Anyway, Muppets Most Wanted is a pretty worthy sequel to the 2011 reboot.  It’s not perfect by any means, but it builds energy as it goes and eventually ends up in a more delightful place than the previous Muppet outing.  (And I don’t just say that because I spent my honeymoon at the Tower of London.)  Although the final act is decidedly stronger than the beginning, and it’s a real shame that Christoph Waltz had to bow out of a leading role now played by Ty Burrell, Muppets Most Wanted features a number of very strong scenes, some sweet comedy, and once again a thoroughly catchy, offbeat soundtrack by Bret McKenzie.  All four of us enjoyed the experience, and I’d gladly buy a ticket to another Muppet movie from the same creative team.  It’s always a pleasure to see the old gang together again.  (In fact, they should bring back Tina Fey next time, too.  And Ricky Gervais can come back, too, if he promises to wear that costume from the helicopter.)

The Good:
This is honestly the kind of movie that will fare better on the small screen.  The beginning is a little weak, but when you’re watching at home, you can zone out and do something else while you sing along to the catchy songs, and then sit down and focus on the movie once it picks up a bit about a third of the way in. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t go see it in the theater while it’s out.  The four of us had a fabulous time this afternoon.  I’m just saying that Muppets Most Wanted is going to enjoy a long life on television.  And you’re probably going to want to buy the soundtrack.  (I know I do.)

I’ll also mention that 2011’s The Muppets improved dramatically for me once I knew all of the songs by heart.  I’ve found it far more re-watchable than I would have guessed on the first viewing.  It grows on you, and I think this one will, too.

Honestly, once the film finds its footing, I think Muppets Most Wanted is an improvement over 2011’s The Muppets.  For one thing, this time around the Muppets are actually the film’s undisputed protagonists.  The humor feels more authentically Muppety, too.  It’s pretty tricky to find the right blend of wide-eyed innocence, off-the-wall absurdity, just-north-of-cynical satire, old vaudeville routines, and classic Hollywood production numbers.  If anything, 2011’s Gary, Mary, and Walter (who’s back in this film) erred on the side of being too innocent, too straight-laced, and too earnest. 

The Muppets are innocent, but the world around them is not, and there’s also a kind of twisted quality to Muppet humor that was largely missing from the 2011 film.  I don’t mean that the Muppets are perverted or dirty or dark, just that Jim Henson’s Kermit brought a kind of quietly exasperated, slightly desperate sarcasm to the table that is for the most part missing from 2011’s The Muppets.  That sense of perspective is back here, though.  Kermit is really the only one who ever reigns in the chaos of the other sweet but unwittingly bizarre Muppets.  This movie makes a point of taking Kermit away and replacing him with a disinterested enabler.  When that happens, the others spiral off into endless strangeness and don’t even have the self-awareness to realize it’s happening.  So there’s an element of sophistication to the storyline that I appreciated.

Now that said, the whole plot is (of course) incredibly silly and ridiculous.  I’ve heard people calling it a rip-off of The Great Muppet Caper.  I didn’t feel that way.  The Great Muppet Caper is actually my favorite Muppet movie (by a long shot, although I’m also fond of The Muppets Take Manhattan).  When I was four, I loved puns and could laugh for hours about “the fabulous baseball diamond.”  To me, that was the height of wit.  And don’t even get me started on John Cleese’s bit about the pig climbing up the side of the house.  That still makes me laugh out loud.  Diana Rigg and Charles Grodin are also fabulous, and Peter Falk has a wonderful cameo.  That’s just a great movie.  I could watch it right now.

But this movie isn’t ripping it off.  The plot is completely different, and so are all the supporting characters.  I mean, Constantine and Kermit being easily distinguishable because of the mole is very similar to Kermit and Fozzie being identical twins indistinguishable except that one wears a hat.  But I would call that an homage.  And I don’t think it’s inappropriate or particularly lazy under the circumstances.

The premise of the movie doesn’t really matter much, anyway.  Muppet movies have always had rather thin, contrived premises.  (I did hear that the original title of this installment was The Muppets Again.  They should have let that title stand because it’s punched over and over throughout the movie, and I think it works better.)

Clearly this movie was made by fans of the original Muppet movies.  Watching it, you almost get the idea that there’s some creative team sitting in the dark watching reels of old film and taking notes, like, “There’s usually a big, kind of meta production number all about how the whole thing is actually a performance,” or “There has to be a scene when Kermit and Piggy fight about their relationship,” or “The others really need Kermit, but they don’t appreciate him enough.”  At moments, it feels a little bit Muppets-by-Numbers. 

But let’s face it, that’s probably the best we’re going to get.  Jim Henson is gone.  I remember the day he died vividly.  He was a creative genius, and his death was a staggering loss.  Nobody can bring the Muppets to life the way he did.  Nobody has come remotely close to replicating the winning chemistry he had with Frank Oz on screen, let alone even echoing his creative contributions behind the scenes.

But the people who are trying their hand at bringing the Muppets back now are doing their best to replicate the overall feeling of his work.  And the formula pretty much works, most of the time.  Bret McKenzie’s songs really help.  They’re a creative entity in their own right being blended with the Muppets now to help the franchise along.  Even when the story or pacing falters, the songs keep your toes tapping.  They’re whimsical and off-kilter and charming and odd.  And any Muppet vehicle needs that kind of energy to succeed.  Plus there is enough genuine wacky humor and clear respect and fondness for the characters that, overall, the movie wins us over.

As always, the cameos are great fun.  Some of them are quite clever this time.  Some seem to make sense.  Others are a bit more puzzling.  (I love Frank Langella, but I have no idea why he shows up in his particular role.  Is there some inside joke I’m missing, or does he just love the Muppets, so they found a random cameo for him?  I’m not sure.)

Wisely the movie focuses primarily on the Muppets this time and casts the human stars in supporting roles.  I’m not particularly a fan of Ricky Gervais.  My mother hates him, and normally when she dislikes celebrities, I find myself going out of my way to defend them, but championing Gervais has always proved too Herculean a task for even an apologist of my stature.  When I saw that he’d been cast in the Muppet sequel, I immediately thought, Oh no!  I’ll never be able to get my mother to see it now! 

But you know what?  He’s actually really good in this role.  I think Gervais plays the perhaps-not-so-misleadingly-named Dominic Badguy just right.  His “I’m Number One” duet with Constantine is one of the towering strengths of the early part of the movie. 

Throughout the film, Gervais’s line delivery is consistently strong.  He does seem to be winking at the audience a bit from time to time, having a joke at the expensive of the credulous, easily hoodwinked Muppets.  But he doesn’t turn the character into a joke.  When Badguy is not slickly conning Muppets, he takes his work (and himself) very seriously.  Gervais plays it straight, and that’s why it works.  Yes Badguy’s name is bad guy, and yes, he works for an evil frog, and yes, that evil frog has a conspicuous mole and a thick Russian accent.  Does Badguy find any of that funny or ridiculous?  Not at all.  If he were a minor character in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, he’d play the part in exactly the same way.

Even better than Gervais is Tina Fey (another person who is not on my mother’s Christmas card list).  Why no one has thought of teaming up Tina Fey and the Muppets before now is beyond me.  In retrospect, the pairing seems so obvious.  In fact, after watching how well she clicked with Kermit in this movie, I’d honestly like to see a reboot of The Muppet Show with Fey involved.  Seriously The Muppet Show is like a blend of SNL and 30 Rock with more song-and-dance routines and (obviously) more Muppets.  Even if Tina Fey is busy (and when isn’t she?), there needs to be a new Muppet Show.  At the very least, she could be a guest host.  I’ve always liked Tina Fey, but I was honestly somewhat surprised by how conspicuously excellent her scenes were.  After the movie, I told my husband, “I would have watched a whole movie called Kermit in the Gulag,” and he agreed.

Best Scene:
When you find out the plot of this movie—most of the Muppets tour Europe putting on sold out shows while Kermit is trapped in a Siberian prison camp—you really wouldn’t expect the most fun and memorable sequences of the film to take place in the Siberian prison camp.   And yet that’s exactly what Muppets Most Wanted delivers.

The longer Kermit stays in the gulag, the better the scenes there get.  It helps that the gulag scenes feature a great cast.  Besides Tina Fey as the prison guard, Nadya, we get Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, and Josh Groban (among others).  And best of all, we get Kermit the Frog, the real Kermit the Frog.

At heart, I think that’s why life in the gulag is so superbly entertaining.  Tina Fey is there giving a great performance, and her scene partner is Kermit the Frog, the rightful protagonist of any Muppet movie.

Like Gervais, Fey plays her character straight.  Yes, it’s funny.  But Nadya the prison guard isn’t in on the joke. 

I suppose my favorite scene of all comes when everyone is auditioning for Kermit.  The musical number that they choose just fits the moment so perfectly, especially if you’re familiar with the musical.  There’s an off-the-wall (literally off the wall), absurd hilarity to the entire thing.  And then a moment later, we get a quick scene that reminded me (fondly) of the Menudo movie I watched in my seventh grade Spanish class.  (I think it may actually be called The Menudo Movie, but I’m not sure.)

Actually one of the things I liked most about the gulag is that the humor is so associative.   One minute, Nadya is telling Kermit that there’s no family in the gulag, and the next, she’s going through a nightly ritual that is very reminiscent of a classic TV show about a family.

I actually think Nadya’s character nicely echoes Charles Grodin’s character in The Great Muppet Caper.  They’re not alike in temperament or occupation.  What I mean is, Grodin’s Nicky Holiday is so desperately, wretchedly in love with Miss Piggy.  And it’s not a joke—to Nicky, I mean.  He really is legitimately besotted.  Fey’s Nadya has a similar intensity.

Funniest Scene:
There’s something winningly random about the first time we see “the wall” and how it works as a punishment.  I also liked one-liner about the Tower of London being the most romantic place ever.  Not only is that darkly hilarious in its own right, but it reminded me of my honeymoon.  We were staying at the Hilton London Tower Bridge, and I didn’t remember to call and confirm the reservation or to find directions to the hotel.  When we got there, I told my husband practically, “Well, we’ll just take the train to Victoria Station, then take the tube to the Tower of London.  The Tower Bridge should be right by the Tower.  Then we’ll walk across the Tower Bridge, and the hotel should be right there.”  Sure enough, we could see the Hilton from the Tower Bridge as we walked across.  And that is why I love London. 

Best Action Sequence:
I love the way the wedding scene plays out.  Seriously, I wish my wedding had been like that.  And while I’m on the subject, I should note that another towering strength of this film was its improved use of Miss Piggy.  She really has a lovely part in this movie, which is nice because in the 2011 film after a fabulous introduction (featuring a very clever cameo from Emily Blunt), Piggy goes on to spend the majority of the movie off in a huff away from the others.  The Piggy/Kermit relationship in this one was good, especially in the last act.  I just wish they’d done more with Kermit/Fozzie.  Frank Oz and Jim Henson had such amazing chemistry as screen partners.  They were brilliant as Bert and Ernie, Kermit and Piggy, and Kermit and Fozzie.  These new films do make the most of the Kermit/Piggy romance, but they don’t showcase Kermit’s relationship with his exasperating but devoted sidekick Fozzie as well as they could.

Best Song:
Just like last time around, Bret McKenzie’s songs are great.  On a first viewing, I didn’t hear anything that sounded as much like a shoo-in for an Oscar as “Man or a Muppet.”  But all of the songs were jaunty and pleasant.  I personally loved Miss Piggy’s moment with Celine Dion, and my stepson is a huge fan of Constantine’s “I’ll Get You What You Want.”  The interrogation song is also extremely catchy.

Best Scene Visually:
Some of the best visual elements come late in the film.  We get beautiful shots of The Tower of London and the surrounding area.  There’s also a great mirror gag, a car joke, and (my personal favorite) a wonderfully hilarious scene of babies crawling through a tunnel.

The Negatives:
The first part of the movie could definitely be more compelling.  Last time around, I remember thinking, “This movie is okay, but it’s supposed to be about the Muppets.  Do we really need Jason Segel and Amy Adams?”

But then today, I sat in the darkness realizing, “Hmm, maybe we do need Jason Segel and Amy Adams.”  (Maybe we always need Amy Adams.  I’ll be honest.  I kind of wish she were here right now.)  Their romantic subplot (or was it the main plot?) was pretty weak, but together, they brought a lot of star power, charisma, and energy to the screen.  And though their opening song was on the long side, by the end of it, we definitely knew for sure which characters mattered and what they all wanted.

By comparison, the beginning of Muppets Most Wanted seems almost spectacularly unfocused.  (Seriously, they have a whole big production number about how they’ve got to throw something together fast.)  The plot gets underway immediately, but the problem is we don’t feel particularly invested in the characters.  As I watched the early scenes of the movie, I found myself thinking, You know, last time around, they did a pretty good job of giving us a reason to care about Jason Segel’s Gary, his suspiciously Muppety brother Walter, and his long-suffering girlfriend Mary.  In fact, that was the biggest problem with that movie.  It was called The Muppets, but the Muppets were reduced to supporting players.  Now that problem is bleeding over into this sequel.  Last time we eventually got invested in the protagonists, but now those protagonists aren’t here anymore—except Walter.  And we haven’t really gotten to know Kermit and the others properly.

For people my age, this movie is a little confusing.  Growing up, I loved the Muppets, but these aren’t exactly the same Muppets.  Jim Henson being gone makes a huge difference.  I will say, though, that what James Bobin, Nick Stoller, Bret McKenzie (and also Jason Segel) have done with the Muppets is a huge improvement on everything anybody but Jim Henson has tried to do with them before now.  Still, the gang may be back together, but it doesn’t feel quite like the ol’ gang.  The Kermit/Piggy storyline is surprisingly compelling, but the Kermit/Fozzie camaraderie doesn’t even really exist.  The characters seem to have slightly different personalities now, and we don’t have long enough to get to know them all as a group before Kermit disappears.

On the other hand, my daughter volunteered that her favorite characters were Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Animal.  So maybe this is not as big a problem for new Muppets fans as for older ones.  The beginning of the movie is slow, though.  There’s just no real sense of urgency, and there’s no focused star power.  It’s hard to become invested in any particular character.

For me, another weakness of the film was the pairing of Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle.  I really like Ty Burrell.  He’s great on Modern Family.  As far as that goes, I like Sam the Eagle, too.  I’m just not sure I like them together. 

Part of this may be my own problem.  I went in knowing that Christoph Waltz was originally cast in Ty Burrell’s part and that he had to bow out due to scheduling conflicts.  Knowing that, it’s practically impossible not to imagine Waltz in the part.  And my imagination has convinced me that Waltz would be much better in the role.  Now whether my imagination is right, of course, is open to debate.

I guess the problem I have with Burrell’s performance is that unlike Gervais and Fey, he doesn’t play it straight.  He is having entirely too much fun as the self-consciously ridiculous Interpol agent.  He’s laughing at himself too much.  He seems like Phil on Modern Family pretending to be an Interpol agent and getting a big kick out of it.  (It pains me to write this.  In my imagination, I’ll post this review, and nobody in the entire world will actually take the trouble to read it—except Ty Burrell.  Seriously, in my mind, he’s reading it right now and weeping at my savage inhumanity.  If you are reading this, Ty Burrell, please know that I really like you in Modern Family.)

The part is wittily written.  Perhaps it should have been played by a Muppet.  Actually, I think the best choice for the part would be someone who is actually French and who pointedly does not seem amused by all the references to long lunch hours and extended vacations, someone who delivers these announcements factually and dares you to laugh at them.  That would be extra funny, of course, because any French person willing to take the part would be complicit in the humor of the film.  What’s funnier than pretending to be humorless?

By the end, I really loved Muppets Most Wanted.  It gives us some extremely funny moments, winningly whimsical songs, probably the strongest part Miss Piggy has had in years, and great supporting performances, especially from Tina Fey.  Never before has a family movie managed to make hanging out in a Siberian gulag look so strangely appealing!

If you like Muppet movies, you should see this one.  All four of us left the theater with smiles on our faces, eager to listen to the soundtrack.  I’m glad Disney is pushing the Muppets back into our lives again.  Now I’ve got my fingers crossed hoping the future holds a mind-blowing Muppets/Star Wars crossover.  You know there’s major merchandising money to be made there, so don’t think for a minute it can’t happen.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Spring Movie Diary: The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu)

Date: March 16, 2014
Time: 4:25 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Penelope, Mom, Dad
Food:  medium Mr. Pibb, pretzel bites, Whoppers (that spilled all over the floor)
Runtime:  2 hours, 6 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Quick Impressions:
We’re back from seeing The Wind Rises, and my five-year-old is busily making paper airplanes and wondering if they’ll fly as far as the ones in the movie if she remembers a trick my dad taught her and uses just the right paperclip.

Halfway through the film, my daughter leaned over and whispered to me, “Wait a minute.  Is this really in Japanese?  Are we supposed to assume that German man is talking in Japanese to him when he’s talking in English instead of German?”

“Yes,” I whispered back.

“So is the movie really in Japanese, and they just put in the English voices for us, but usually it’s Japanese with words?”

“Yes,” I whispered back, explaining, “but I thought it would be hard for you to keep up with reading the movie, so I picked this screening because it’s in English.”

With a sigh, she said, “I’ll bet it’s better in Japanese with words.”

Maybe so, but she has a habit of reading the “words” out loud (the only way she can read), and I’m pretty sure the rest of the audience would not appreciate that.

My husband is still in India (and just finished celebrating the extremely colorful festival of Holi), so The Wind Rises seemed like the ideal, child-friendly choice for a new(ish) movie to review this week.  My parents came along, too.

Going in, I knew that The Wind Rises, which is supposed to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, tells the true story of a pioneer of Japanese aviation during World War II, and I knew, too, that it’s not technically a children’s movie.  But my five-year-old didn’t know that, and she liked it just fine.  My parents liked it, too.

The Good:
The Wind Rises may be a true story, but it definitely feels like a Miyazaki movie.  As always, nature seems wild and organic and welcoming and peaceful and humanizing.  Meanwhile, the industrial world is a bit off-putting in its cold, geometric invasiveness. 

Although this isn’t a fantasy (like almost all of Miyazaki’s most widely known films), the protagonist has such a rich interior life that The Wind Rises still offers audiences a charmingly whimsical take on reality.

Here in the United States, we don’t get too many movies about the development of Japanese fighter planes and bombers in World War II told from the point of view of a sympathetic aviation engineer who draws inspiration from the designs of German and Italian warplanes.  I wonder why!

Can you imagine American audiences rushing to take their children to a live action movie about a really nice guy who worked for the Axis powers making planes to bomb the United States and other Allied Nations?  Had anyone but Miyazaki made this movie, nobody over here would even have heard of it, let alone had the opportunity to see it in theaters.  The film won a slew of awards and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film.  Can you imagine a non-animated Japanese film on this topic being so warmly embraced by the Academy?  I certainly can’t. 

I’ve read that Miyazaki’s father ran a factory that assembled the aircraft that Jiro Horikoshi designed, so the story is probably deeply personal to him.  As a novelist, I can see why Jiro’s story would appeal to an artist like Miyazaki.  Apparently, he was inspired by something Horikoshi once said, “All I wanted was to make something beautiful.”

Artists, writers, scientists—dreamers always need financial backing.  And people with money and power always screw everything up and destroy the world and desecrate our dreams.  Ask anybody without money.  We’ll all tell you that.  Really, it’s self-evident.  I feel terribly sorry, actually, for all the artists and innovators working for the Third Reich who discovered far too late what they had actually gotten themselves into. 

I like the line about the pyramids that Caproni says to Jiro in his final dream of the film.  Sometimes I think there are two fundamental ways life can go wrong.  1) You don’t do anything (so you waste your potential, squander the gift of your life) 2) You do something (so your actions probably indirectly kill millions of people or destroy the moral fabric of the universe.)  (Seriously, real life sometimes dishes up such awful alternatives, it makes the whole Scylla vs. Charybdis thing look win/win by comparison.)

The recurring dream sequences with Caproni were my favorite thing about the movie.  They were so winningly whimsical, and yet they presented a kind of uncluttered view of Jiro’s soul and his passions and priorities.  In some ways, the sequences were more like hyper-reality than fantasy.  What really mattered to Jiro always appeared in that beautiful dreamscape with Caproni.  That was his reality.  The exterior world was just clutter and complication, accidental things outside of Jiro’s control.

The other thing I really liked about The Wind Rises was how poignantly and effectively it presented the idea of the transience of beauty.  What is really beautiful and special is more beautiful and special because it is fleeting and cannot be held.  The entire doomed romance with Nahoko served as a perfect thematic parallel to Jiro’s professional life.  My daughter didn’t realize how things would end up for Jiro, but every adult in the audience should realize that things aren’t going to end well for a Japanese boy in 1918 who dreams of designing planes and then grows up to design bombers and fighter planes for the military.  If you have a basic grasp of arithmetic, and you know how World War II ended, you’re pretty sure that our sweet young protagonist is in for some pretty serious disappointment.

Like all of Miyazaki’s movies, this one is really beautiful, and it’s particularly moving.  I cried through the last fifteen minutes at least.  My daughter was also quite troubled when she found out what TB means.  (Other aspects of the movie confused her more.  At one point, I whispered, “Well, you’ve heard of Hitler,” and she answered earnestly, “No.”  Continuing the whispered conversation in a meaningful way got very tricky at that point.  We did have at least a little success much later on when she revealed that yes, she was aware of the existence of Hawaii.)

The movie really isn’t for children, but my daughter (not even knowing who Hitler is, apparently, and having no significant knowledge of World War II) watched the movie very attentively and seemed to enjoy it.  The thing is, Miyazaki’s movie is more personal than it is political.  Jiro is a sympathetic and captivating character, and the film’s main themes are pretty universal.  You don’t have to know any context at all to find the characters relatable and the story engrossing.  And as always, the hand-drawn animation is so serenely beautiful.

I haven’t heard the original Japanese voice cast, but I liked the English dub quite a bit.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt, particularly, is perfect as Hiro.  I spent most of the movie trying to place his voice, but I could never quite manage it.  (It was driving me crazy.  I was like, “I hear this voice all the time!”  At one point, I actually thought, “Is it Ben Affleck?  No!  He’s too young to be Ben Affleck, but it’s definitely not Christian Bale.  He sounds so much like somebody who ought to be Batman, but he’s too young!”  Thanks for the help, brain!  How could I never get from that to Joseph Gordon-Levitt?  I think in riddles, apparently!)

Emily Blunt is good as Nahoko, too.  For some reason, I went in knowing that Emily Blunt was in the English language cast.  (I  don’t understand why I only knew about her and none of the others.)  Anyway, by process of elimination, I immediately figured out that she was the adult Nahoko, even though it only sometimes sounded like her.

Mae Whitman is very recognizable as Jiro’s sister, a character I wish we’d seen a bit more of.  Jon Krasinski does a great job voicing Honjo, a character who provides some very interesting political commentary and complements the idealistic, aviation-obsessed Jiro perfectly.  I didn’t recognize Stanley Tucci as Caproni or Martin Short as Kurokawa, but I should have recognized Short, and I really loved both of their characters and performances.

Best Scene:
Jiro’s courtship of Nahoko was by far my daughter’s favorite part of the movie.  All this doesn’t happen until pretty late in the film, of course.  But once Nahoko reenters the story, both the film and Jiro’s life become much more focused and fast-paced.

My five-year-old seemed to love the balcony scene with the paper airplanes.

On video chat with her father, she declared that her favorite scene was, “that wonderful wedding with the beautiful flowers and the red dress.”  She elaborates now, “It was very good, you know, and I like Japanese love stories the best because they’re so lovely.    I like Japanese and I like love stories, so if you mix them together, they’re perfect.”

Funniest Scene:
I absolutely love the look and animation of the character of Jiro’s boss Kurokawa, (hilariously voiced in English by Martin Short).  What’s best is that although the character seems almost cartoonish, this somehow never detracts from the serious tone of the film.  It just always seems perfect for the character.  Kurokawa provides some comic relief simply because of his antic prickliness, but he never becomes ridiculous or unrealistic.  (It’s pretty clear that the character affects a gruff exterior, but takes his work very seriously and cares deeply for those in his charge.)

Best Action Sequence:
Most of the action in the film involves test flights (or imagined flights) of various planes, but I personally preferred the dream sequences with Caproni.  There was a beautiful elegance to everything that happened in Jiro’s dreams.

Another scene that really caught my eye was the pursuit on the streets of Germany that Jiro and Honjo casually witness. I love the use of the shadows on the distant wall.

Best Scene Visually:
I absolutely love the depiction of the earthquake that derails the train. My daughter found this quite captivating, too.  In fact, for a second, she was scared.  The earthquake seems so evil.  It also seems to foreshadow an ominous ending to the dreams of young men like Jiro eager to work in Japanese aviation.

Fairly late in the film, there’s a scene featuring Jiro walking ahead of his plane (being pushed by humans) that’s framed very nicely.  The framing in the film is very captivating.  We see scenes from some highly unusual and very arresting angles (but there’s nothing so unusual that it’s jarring).

The Negatives:
I’m not sure how true this movie is.  The love story with Nahoko seems to complement the aviation plot so perfectly that I often found myself wondering how many liberties Miyazaki had taken with the historical facts.  Then again, perhaps the film’s central thematic concerns fit the plot elements so well because of the way the story is framed.  Obviously, all narrative is constructed, so I don’t know how much it matters if the events of Jiro’s personal life actually happened as they do here or affected his interior life in the way depicted.

I honestly think the film raises some very interesting (and fairly sophisticated) questions about whether the historical facts even matter in the face of an individual’s self-concept and intentions. I truly love the way that Jiro’s interior life is by far the most compelling, realistic, and meaningful part of his story until the adult Nahoko enters his world.  And even then, she’s incorporated into his interior life eventually.  We get this really strange moral.  Does it matter (to you) if something you created is used for evil if you created it to be good and beautiful?  Isn’t everything created capable of being used for evil?  Should we create nothing?  How responsible are we for the ultimate fate of the ideas we let out of our heads into the greater world and other people’s hands?  The dream Caproni seems to suggest that living in a world with pyramids is worth it, but this whole interpretation is complicated by the fact that Jiro has allowed this discussion into his interior world in the first place.  Clearly he does not completely believe that he is innocent of the destruction his creations helped to cause simply because his ideas and motives were pure.  If he did believe in his own innocence with conviction, then he would not be having these discussions with himself in his own dream world, the safest and most real place he knows.

The Wind Rises is long and unusual, and it’s full of controversial ideas.  Just making a film featuring a sympathetic Japanese war plane designer in World War II is a pretty risky and unusual choice.  But ultimately, I don’t think there’s anything actually wrong with Miyazaki’s swan song.  Some people won’t like the movie, but I’m sure he doesn’t care.

The Wind Rises is a beautiful and moving film that tells a story we almost never hear.  You don’t have to be interested in World War II, aviation, or even Japanese history to find this film compelling and fascinating.  It’s a long movie with a somewhat meandering story, but ultimately it’s so gorgeously drawn and creatively presented that surely everyone who sees it will get something positive out of the experience.  My daughter, my parents, and I all enjoyed the movie, and afterwards, my mother remarked wisely, “Well, my brother always said that when it came to the aerodynamics of the designs, the Japanese had the best planes in World War II.”  So there you go.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Spring Movie Diary: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Date: March 8, 2014
Time: 3:30 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope
Food:  medium Mr. Pibb, popcorn, Whoppers
Runtime:  1 hour, 31 minutes
Rating: PG
Director: Rob Minkoff

Quick Impressions:
When I was in second grade, I didn’t like school much, so I would try to wake up as early in the morning as possible.  That way, I could spend a large chunk of time doing something pleasant before I had to go to class and worry that I would get “licks” for sharpening my pencil too often as “the bad boys” always did.  (I didn’t know how much was too often, so I just played it safe and never sharpened my pencil.  When it got really flat, I’d scrape the wood back with my fingernails.)  Anyway, that’s probably the only time in my life I’ve voluntarily woken up in the dark seven days a week!

On Saturday mornings, the show that came on insanely early was Rocky and Bullwinkle.  I still remember how I loved snuggling under a cozy blanket on the couch watching the show on our living room TV.  Rocky and Bullwinkle took me by surprise because its humor was so different from 1980s children’s programming.  I loved all the running jokes, the puns, the off-kilter humor.  I still remember repeating my favorite moment to my mother in delight. 

“…So Bullwinkle said, ‘Miss, please, try to keep a civil tongue in your head,’ and then that little man in the white suit came on again and interrupted, ‘That’s a War Between the States tongue!'"

That killed me!  (I’m probably misquoting Bullwinkle’s line, but that’s the gist of the joke.)  They didn’t write kids’ shows that way when I was a kid.

I’ve always enjoyed Rocky and Bullwinkle, and our kids love going to movies, so I was pretty sure we’d see Mr. Peabody and Sherman.  (Since my husband is going to be in India for the next couple of weeks, I have a feeling my next review will be of something kid friendly, as well.  I prefer not to go to the movies alone, and I don’t want to see The 300 sequel or The Grand Budapest Hotel without my husband.  It just doesn’t seem fair.)

I did wonder, “Why are they making a Mr. Peabody & Sherman movie right now?”  The film answered that question fast.  It’s loaded with pretty pointed social commentary that’s impossible to miss.  Well, anyway, I thought it was impossible to miss.  But my husband thinks it will prove quite possible to miss and that I underestimate the tenacity of viewers determined to miss messages with which they don’t agree.  He’s probably right.  On the plus side, the fact that we had this discussion in the car on our way home prompted our eleven-year-old to remark in surprise, “So sometimes movies are telling you something?”  After a few minutes of discussion, he asked, “Is it that way with everything?  Do you think there’s a message we’re supposed to get out of…like…Spiderman?”  (Ask Uncle Ben.  He’ll be happy to tell you.  More than once if necessary.)

So not only does Mr. Peabody and Sherman offer a fun romp through history, but it can be educational in other ways, as well.

The Good:
The movie quickly gets off to a very promising start (after kind of a weird little cartoon short featuring Steve Martin as an ill-fated alien space captain). 

It opens with an introduction of Peabody and Sherman, and then dives right into one of their adventures through time in the notorious Wayback machine.  This delightful, cake-filled whirl through the French Revolution plays a lot like one of the original Peabody and Sherman shorts from Rocky and Bullwinkle.  The episode even ends with one of Mr. Peabody’s trademark morals, a clever-yet-groan-worthy pun that sails right over the top of young Sherman’s head.  It’s so like the old show that for all I know, it is taken directly from an episode of the old show.  The only difference is it’s now in 3D and features a lot more action.

That opening in France is pretty effective.  It’s well paced, occasionally witty, silly, and the perfect showcase for introducing Mr. Peabody’s character and personality to today’s young audiences.

But it’s more than just silly good fun.

The movie doesn’t debunk the whole, “Let them eat cake,” thing, but it does show very clearly that the remark is taken out of context and woven into a well-crafted piece of propaganda used to incite revolution. 

That’s a pretty sophisticated move for a silly little kids’ movie about a dog and his boy.

I mean, right from the first big sequence, the movie has the audience questioning history.  You get this idea that what we are told about the past is never reliable. What many of us now consider factual history is shown to be, in fact, just a well-planned piece of propaganda, concocted by people who had an agenda, to say the least.

So Peabody manages to finish the episode with a corny little pun, and everything is going swimmingly…until Sherman has to start school.

The next forty minutes of the movie are not as effective as they could be (but I’ll talk about that more later.  The pacing is off, and the stress level is pretty high.)

But then we get more episodic mayhem as Peabody, Sherman, and Sherman’s “enemy” Penny travel back in time in a machine, routinely encountering wacky mishaps like something out of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure or even Dr. Who.

Once all the Wayback excitement starts up again, the film finds its footing, and entertains its audience.  (Why the movie needs such an elaborate, intense plot is something I don’t understand.  I think just an episodic series of adventures might have worked better.)

Peabody, Sherman, and Penny have several captivating, amusing adventures as they travel through time.  And then, at the end of the movie, everything really gets crazy, and some well written dialogue sells the ending and redeems all the time the movie wasted earlier on setting up its bogged-down, stressful unifying plot.

Ty Burrell makes a pretty good Mr. Peabody, I think.  Max Charles and Ariel Winter are good as Sherman and Penny, too (although it’s certainly not as hard to play the kids as it is to play Mr. Peabody).

Best Scene:
All the scenes that take place back in time are the best.  After the movie, our five-year-old volunteered that her favorite part is a Rubik’s Cube joke at the very end.  (She recently learned what a Rubik’s Cube is while watching an episode of her favorite web show Nerdy Nummies, and she did laugh pretty hard at the joke.)

But she enjoyed all the scenes that took place back in time.  She found an early joke about sewer water hilarious (and unfortunately remarked rather noisily on what she suspected might be in the water). 

Best of all, she loved the part set in ancient Egypt.  She wants to be an archeologist when she grows up and has long had an interest in Egyptian funerary customs.   So she was on the edge of her seat throughout this entire sequence.  She just really ate it up.

And I liked that part a lot, too.  For one thing, after slowing down for a while in the second act (or whatever act you want to call it depending on how you prefer to break up the movie), Mr. Peabody & Sherman finally rediscovers its energy and picks up the pace during these scenes.  The jokes are faster and funnier.  The situation has greater urgency.  There’s more peril, more adventure, more action, more 3D effects.  (We saw the film in 2D, but it’s easy to imagine where that extra D would come into play.)

Honestly, instead of the old “Peabody and Sherman” cartoons, this Egyptian interlude reminded me more of a mash-up of kids’ entertainment in the 1980s.  It’s like one part The Chipmunk Adventure, two parts Indiana Jones, and other assorted parts that look an awful lot like bits and pieces of my cinematic childhood.  I guess it’s fitting that they’re stumbling around in a tomb with mummies since the whole sequence is like a Frankenstein’s monster made of movie homages.

Funniest Scene:
Much of the humor in this film is directed at adults.  I’m not saying that it’s crude.  (What Peabody yells to Sherman when he bursts through the elevator doors could definitely make the faint of heart among us blush, but that’s not really adult sexual humor.  Almost everyone in the auditorium laughed, including our eleven-year-old.  I’d guess that most kids in the upper elementary grades are going to get that joke.  There’s a quick reference at the end that could be construed as a dirty joke, but the thing is, to get the joke at all, you have to know history.)

What I’m getting at is, the most humorous and rewarding aspects in the movie come from being vaguely familiar with history/literature/classic movies (there’s a fantastic surprise "cameo" that really cracked me up, but you have to know about old movies about older history to get it) /current events from before people my kids’ age were born.  You also have to have a grown-up vocabulary to get all of Peabody’s word play.

So the film gives us a mix of reasonably sophisticated humor (though you don’t have to be a genius or anything; you just need to know a little about very famous historical figures/moments) and very juvenile slapstick (that usually involves butts and what can come out of them).

Personally, one of the things I found funniest is that someone dissatisfied with his own father might run away and seek the protection of Agamemnon!  (I mean, can you imagine anybody yelling in adolescent frustration, “I wish Agamemnon was my dad!”?   He was so nice to Iphigenia, after all, and he had such a happy family life.  Who wouldn’t kill to be in that family?)

(It’s also a nice tough that Agamemnon is voiced by Patrick Warburton who for the good of mankind should appear in every animated feature.  Like Dan Castellaneta, Warburton makes every line funnier just by saying it in his hilarious voice.  He’s capable of elevating any material.)

Best Action Sequence:
I’m personally a fan of the flying scene.  I’m sure it looks even better in 3D.  It made me remember Florence and also think fondly of Hudson Hawk (if not one of the craziest movies I’ve ever seen, then certainly one of the craziest movies I’ve ever liked).  (Stanley Tucci and Lake Bell are pretty great in their roles.)

Best Scene Visually:
I wish we could have seen the last big sequence in the film in 3D, the part with the massive portal.  I’m sure that would have looked amazing.

The Negatives:
The movie has major pacing problems.  When we’re not having adventures in the Wayback, the film really drags. 

It’s also very stressful.  My daughter (who loves scary movies but is horrified by the cinematic depiction of interpersonal conflict) got incredibly stressed out and anxious during the non-Wayback parts of the film.  Honestly, that stuff was stressing me out, too.  (I mean, she starts kindergarten this fall.  I don’t want her to think that school will be like that.  Also, I don’t want to think that school might be like that for her.)  Honestly, some of the scenes in this felt very intense to me.  Not since Rise of the Planet of the Apes have I been so close to a panic attack worrying about meddlesome outsiders ripping a loving but unconventional family apart.

But though she was stressed out, my five-year-old still kept her composure enough to continue watching the movie.  She watched the whole thing most attentively and claimed to have liked it at the end, citing several favorite moments, and singling out the last Rubik’s Cube joke.

Inconsistent pacing is really what drags the film down.  But I think part of the reason that the non-Wayback scenes seem so slow is that they’re not enjoyable to watch.  (I like both Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann, and they do what they can, but it’s not enough.)  These scenes are highly stressful, and maybe a bit more fraught than they ought to be. 

There’s also very pointed social commentary, which often gets on my nerves.  I don’t like it when movies drop all subtlety to push an agenda, even when I agree with said agenda (which I usually do in the case of mainstream movies being pushed at us by “liberal Hollywood.”). (That’s what bugged me about The Lorax, though it had some rousing songs, and I certainly agree that we shouldn’t continue destroying the environment.)  In this case, though, the movie is actually subtle and artful enough to escape my wrath.  It doesn’t force its message across artlessly, but it doesn’t deliver it particularly well, either (in artistic terms) for most of the movie.

My husband doesn’t think that everyone will see what I’m talking about, but listen to this.  A dog adopts a boy.  When the boy goes to school, he’s teased because his father is a dog.  The school social worker gets involved and declares that dogs shouldn’t be allowed to adopt human children because it’s against nature.  A dog couldn’t possibly be a proper parent to a human child because that’s not a natural arrangement.  So the dog pulls out all the stops trying to impress the social worker, but nothing he does is ever good enough because she’s already made up her mind in advance that he’s not a fit father because he’s a dog.  Then she backs him into a corner.

Just writing all that out is giving me a panic attack.  It’s such a stressful scenario to be the driving plot of a children’s movie.  Besides that, Mr. Peabody & Sherman seems transparent in the message it’s trying to get across.  I mean, the way the film ends is pretty emphatic and hard to misunderstand.  Sherman’s solution to the whole mess is perfectly worded.  I won’t spoil the ending by repeating what he says, but he basically sums up the whole point of the movie in a couple of well-put sentences. 

The thing is, what Sherman says is so good that the ending suddenly felt really powerful to me, and so I liked it (even though much of what came before was heavy-handed, slow, stressful, and boring).  Sherman is innocent and doesn’t even realize what he’s saying (making his words all the more powerful).  Peabody sees a very scientific solution in Sherman’s words, one Sherman doesn’t really intend or understand.  Adults in the audience should see the movie’s message in Sherman’s words (again, this is not what he intends.  He’s just a child who feels he personally has made a terrible series of mistakes).  But these words are well chosen by the writers, well delivered by Max Charles, and terribly effective.

What happens to Ms. Grunion, too, is pretty pointed and hard to overlook.  She ends up exactly where she belongs.  If you don’t get that message, then I don’t know what to tell you.  (But when I figure it out, I’ll tell you directly in literal, straight-forward terms.)

(I will add that I was personally quite relieved to get that late scene that shows us how Ms. Grunion feels about her new situation because the last time you see her just before that, it’s hard not to feel a bit of uneasy horror.  I mean, it’s a funny joke, and a fitting end and everything, but viewed in one way, it’s pretty harsh.)

I always like Allison Janney (who voices Ms. Grunion), but this particular character really stressed me (and my daughter) out.

In the end, I thought the movie made a nice statement and offered up plenty of humor, food for thought, and material for discussion.  But I do think that the “fun” sequences set in the past are more effective, more entertaining, and more deftly executed than the heavier, clumsier, slower mechanics of the highly stressful central plot.  In the end, the story is emotionally rewarding and makes a really strong (and optimistic) statement about life and society.  It’s uplifting—which Mr. Peabody must love because um…I don’t want to spoil the ending, but you know, the solution to the big problem, it really is uplifting, wink, wink, if you know what I mean.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a pretty respectable present day treatment of beloved (by me, at least) source material.  It has some pacing problems, and its plot may be stressful for younger children, but when the characters step into the Wayback machine, the movie really fires on all cylinders.  At its best, the film is funny, witty, insightful, thought-provoking, and genuinely touching.  And if you go see it, chances are you’ll get to enjoy the preview for How to Train Your Dragon 2, which is finally coming out this summer.