The Lego Batman Movie ****

For those worried the Batman might lose his clipped, gravel-toned, conceited edge after the success of The Lego Movie (2014), fear not: Will Arnett gives his little black-clad Lego character an even bigger presence once again in an equally funny but far darker film, The Lego Batman Movie.

Bruce Wayne – aka Batman – must deal not only with Gotham City’s criminals and arch enemy The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), but also a new police commissioner (Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson) with different ideas to his own crime-busting and an orphan child he ‘forgets’ he’s adopted (voiced by Michael Cera). Is Batman going soft in his old age, and will he and his long-suffering butler and ‘surrogate dad’ Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) finally get the family unit they crave?

While Batman revels in his notoriety on screen, DC and Marvel aficionados are thrilled by the blatant mockery of the Batman-related characters from over the years, accumulating in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight versions (for example, Bane). While the first half hour of the film is sheer glee for the adults, the kids are equally thrilled by the whirling colour, jarring movement and crackers pace as they see the Lego come alive. It’s a win-win for family entertainment this half term.

However, be warned: there are some very dark moments and characters in peril that might upset younger viewers. That said everything else is fairly tame, as expected with Lego, so there is no guts and gore, but little bricks flying all over the place. Kids will always love the explosions and mayhem, as adults marvel at the evolving creativity in front of them. A lot of the best lines are in the trailer, such as why does the flying Batmobile only have one seat? Answer: last time Batman checked he only had one butt. However, there are plenty more scattered around the film to enjoy, so you are either continually smirking or laughing throughout. That’s not to say there are not flatter moments where the same jokes are over-peddled, having seen their sell-by date, but the momentum is so erratic, you are propelled onto the next scenario to truly care.

Also, from a family perspective, there are morals aplenty to subconsciously be embedded in your little one’s psyche. This film is all about the importance not only of family and not being able to do it all on your own, but also (eventually) mutual respect – so important in today’s political environment. However, you don’t feel like you’re being bombarded with condescending messages like in some Disney flicks to the point of nausea. Little orphan Dick – who becomes ‘pantless’ Robin – is so adorably chirpy and excitable that you can’t help but be swept up in his gratitude as Batman gives him a chance in life. Of course, there are lots of delicious moments to savour as Batman tries to adapt to fatherhood while Alfred tries to control his ward’s inner child – cue wrong PC password moment that will have you rolling your eyes in recognition and in stitches.

The Lego Batman Movie is a Lego rollercoaster of a ride with highs and lows, and perhaps too many characters than it can handle on one screen and use to full comedic potential. Nevertheless, it is a marvel of an animation with a good pounding heart – plus you’ll all be quoting Batman in Arnett’s gruff tones for days to come.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

Follow on Twitter

Moana (3D) ****

We are getting quite used to strong animated female leads, and Disney’s latest hum-along entitled Moana – the name of the heroine in it – is no exception. She is headstrong, smart, courageous, adventurous and naturally, pretty. What makes her and her adventure more intriguing is the mythology surrounding the tale that anyone can enjoy, with songs that are emotive and toe-tappingly catchy, rather than pure schmaltz.

A terrible curse is triggered after a greedy Demigod called Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) steals a precious stone, causing all islands in the region to slowly perish. When the curse finally reaches Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), an impetuous Chieftain’s daughter’s island, she answers the ocean’s call to seek out Maui and put things right.

Moana is a blaze of colour and a cool refreshing summer breeze on a chilly December day, with exotic island settings and characters that entertain all age groups. It also has enough subtle jokes for adults, rather than overkill of tedious ‘nudge, nudge, wink, winks’ that have to be explained in the darkness of a cinema as to why mummy or daddy is in a fit of giggles when something clearly unfunny has happened to small eyes.

Moana is also justified in her scolding nature at times, especially with the immature Maui, rather than damn right condescending like some other ‘Disney princesses’. She is very practical and full of wanderlust, which is infectious – though Disney can’t resist drumming home the ‘listen to yourself and follow your dreams’ mantra it survives on. Still, what’s wrong with that?

Again, the 3D is irrelevant for kids too young to keep their glasses on. The magic is in the colourful storytelling, the mood-raising songs and the fun characters that all have their minute of fame and purpose. There is even a Bowie-esque number by a crab that thrills.

Moana merchandise is in the shops, ready for Christmas. However, this time, you don’t resent the hard Disney sell as Moana is a role model any parent would actively encourage their offspring to have.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

Follow on Twitter

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ***

The J.K. Rowling imagination is always a treat to witness on screen – and on the page, so this magical ‘prequel’ to the Harry Potter series was bound not to disappoint on a creative level and be equaling immersive.

Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne is English writer Newt Scamander, a socially awkward intellectual who arrives with ‘animal baggage’ in New York to source more species. However, he gets embroiled in sinister witch hunts – by ‘Muggles’ called ‘No Majs’ – and power struggles within the secret community of witches and wizards, seventy years before school-boy Harry Potter reads his book.

The more cynical might say the latest story is milking the cash cow that Rowling has made so lucrative. However, fans of her wizard world cannot get enough of the super imaginative existence, and this is again delivered in spades, along with some comedy moments.

The film also appeals to animal lovers and preservationists, with a couple of ‘innocents’ at the helm trying protect the former. Redmayne is perfectly cast, but as Newt spends a lot of time in mumbled reflection and social awkwardness, it is down to Muggle ‘comic’ sidekick Jacob (a great performance by Dan Fogler), who Newt unexpectedly gets entangled with at the start, to be our guide and re-enforce this ‘wide-eyed innocence’ the film so relies on to further enchant.

Rowling cleverly ties in real-world beliefs, with America’s witch trials in the 1920s, giving the story foundation greater significance. Hence, context, setting and cast are all commendably established, ready for the next in the film installment. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same affliction as the first Potter films, with a lot of the space dominated by trying to set up the pre-Potter world (of how it all began) – even to the detriment of the fantastic animals – that the film’s story gets a little lost.

That said as a festive family offering, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has all the charm needed to make it a satisfying viewing – and a must-see for Potter enthusiasts, kind of like a history lesson in Potter origins.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Sausage Party ***

Sausage-Party

Emphasis on the word ‘sausage’ usually sparks juvenile sniggers from most grown-ups. Seth Rogen capitalizes on this in his raunchy new adult animation Sausage Party – the mere name triggering winks and nudges. This is a Pixar p*** take laced with Rogen’s preferred brand of stoner humour. Those not avid fans of the latter can still catch some laughs, but might tired long before the riotous finale of filthy food porn commences.

Rogen is Frank, a hotdog who is desperate to get inside Brenda the bun (voiced by Kristen Wiig) when they finally leave the supermarket and go home with one of the ‘gods’ (us humans). They need to be picked off the shelf and taken outside to ‘the great beyond’. But disaster strikes when one female god goes shopping, leading Frank and Brenda on a journey back to the shelf while trying to avoid enraged Douche (Nick Kroll).

However, Frank soon learns the disturbing truth about what the ‘great beyond’ really spells for grocery products, backed up by his deformed sausage pal Barry (Michael Cera) who survives a close shave. Now Frank needs to convince the rest of the food population about their fate, before it’s too late.

Sausage Party is created by Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jonah Hill, collaborating with Apatow disciples Paul Rudd, James Franco, Bill Hader, Danny McBride and the like, so you know the kind of film you’re in for, long before you ‘Get your fill’ (quoting the tagline). It’s pure filth, like consuming the dirtiest, calorific dish, awash with cheap ‘laughs’ at stereotypes along the way – Salma Hayek is horny Mexican taco Teresa, for example.

While it offers some crazy insights into the USA’s religious, racial and socio-political obsessions, Sausage Factory also prefers shock tactics to cultivating really clever puns consistently throughout that would have seriously sent up these American neurosises and Pixar’s cute character, coming-of-age adventures, where their world is oblivious to us. There are some seriously laugh-out-loud moments – just wait until the end crescendo, but F word-ing it in every sentence begins to wear thin, bordering on nauseating – and this is coming from a critic who is no stranger to a foul-mouthed rant.

It’s also hard to tell if Sausage Party wants to be taken seriously for its plethora of brilliant observations, as it just as quickly shies away when one of them becomes vaguely interesting, for fear of losing its infantile edge. That said the kitchen scene is a delightful Pixar-bashing episode, and a much needed highlight to break up the otherwise ‘samey’ plot of Frank et al trying to return to the shelf. Douche gets pumped ready for action but loses his spunk at the end; perhaps too much of a main plot distraction or an excuse for Rogen and gang to explore some anal humour? There was certainly a lot of fun had writing/ making this buddy movie, it appears.

Sausage Party goes off with a saucy sizzle and an outrageous bang but wilts at times along the way. If it wasn’t for the grand gang-bang finale boost, it would be a meaty disappointment left undercooked in places.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Ratchet and Clank ***

ratchetclank

Unless you’re a PlayStation fan, the names Ratchet and Clank will fail to register. They are, however, the established animated stars of a sci-fi gaming franchise and now, of a family movie of the same name. Gamers will find nothing new with the big-screen outing. But kids seem to respond to the characters, which are made for a big-screen adventure. Just as well as this is all it takes to will them – and the film – along on its (rather predictable) trajectory.

Squirrel/cat cross Ratchet (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) works at a garage but longs for the day he can join the much lauded Galactic Rangers who defend the Solana Galaxy. He gets his chance to try out for the crew but fails to impress.

Meanwhile, an evil alien called Chairman Drek (Paul Giamatti) is intent on destroying all the planets, with the help of a robotic army created by sidekick Dr Nefarious (Armin Shimerman). One defective robot called Clank (David Kaye) encounters Ratchet, and the two join forces to stop Drek on his dastardly mission.

This rehash of the popular gaming plots is both a comfort and a curse – great to see something familiar played out on film but lazy in ideas when the writers really needed to deliver fresh ones to rival a Pixar production, say. In its defence, they have merely recreated the environment fans are used to seeing Ratchet and Clank in, so it’s hardly surprising either.

Like all family films, everything is on speed, including the leads. Thankfully, the studio decided not to cash in on family 3D ticket prices or they would have had to dish out painkillers afterwards for the oldies. It also means small kids can enjoy the frenetic pace without tackling over-sized 3D specs throughout.

Though the film delivers absolutely nothing new – in fact, it’s like watching a hyper-animated Star Wars version of WALL.E at times, it does have some funny lines and observations to keep adults sane and chuckling. For example, the culture of texting every detail of one’s existence gets a ribbing here, though the joke becomes as tired as Dad’s puns in the end.

Ratchet and Clank themselves cannot fail to be likeable, with the latter and his grounded principles a great role model for the kiddies and sporting new converts straight after the viewing – much like WALL.E did. Drek and Dr Nefarious are carbon ‘baddie’ copies from other films but have enough collective villainy to satisfy the average plot – and Giamatti and Shimerman obviously had fun bringing them to life.

Ratchet and Clank is an enjoyable but too safe reproduction (in effects and plotline) designed to introduce newbies to the characters – as the ending suggests a follow-up is on the cards. They do get you on side straightway with their infectious enthusiasm to put wrongs to right. Now we’ve met them, can we please give our unlikely heroes a meatier, more substantial adventure to go on next time around?

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ***

batman-v-superman

Director Zack Snyder’s new Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in danger of becoming merely ammunition in Warner Bros’s newly launched DC Films Universe battle with Marvel, rather than viewed as a superhero movie in its own right.

This sequel will be compared with Snyder’s first DC Comics film, Man of Steel (2013), with an eye on the much-anticipated, future Justice League movies. The 2013 film was criticised for portraying Superman (Henry Cavill) in a dark, destructive light, something some were not prepared for. Superman even kills one of his own, which shocked many.

Dawn of Justice is no exception – Superman (Cavill again) is far from good and inflicts some rough justice. However, the film attempts to address the fear the character has (where he belongs, what he’s capable of), as well as man’s fear of Superman’s power and threat to humanity.

It uses two contrasting characters to do this in Batman (Ben Affleck) and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), both of which equally despises and celebrates this god incarnate’s gifts. It’s like the comic-book version of the Easter story; the persecution of a deity through ignorance. Using Snyder’s enormous visual prowess, Dawn of Justice is full of intriguing messages and imagery, which is just as well, as the acting gets lost in the CG medley, as do the characters’ reasoning.

After bringing down General Zod – remnants of which we see at the beginning of this, Batman wants to curb Superman’s actions, while the world decides whether it really needs a superhero at all. Is the Kryptonian actually a menace to society, considering the chaos he brought to Earth in the 2013 film?

With Batman after Superman, a new threat, Doomsday, is allowed to emerge, created by Superman’s arch enemy Luthor. Can the superheroes put aside their differences to battle the true evil destroying Metropolis once more, with a little help from Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)?

Think Nolan and The Dark Knight for comic-book grittiness. The sheen is completely absent from Superman’s colourful persona. Thank goodness for Clark Kent – Superman’s alter-ego – or there would be zero soul left in the character. Cavill has limited facial expressions too, relying on his furrowed brow to do all the acting work. Hence this keeps Superman even more two dimensional. It also limits how much we really understand about how exactly this ‘anti-hero’ feels, which is a shame.

Snyder’s Batman is also a damaged character. Affleck gets little to do apart from scowl around and clunk about in what must be the heaviest Batman suit ever. Gone is Batman’s smart-thinking/acting slickness. He seems more Transformer than lithe bat-like creature. This seems to suit Snyder’s heavy-meted action sequences, especially when Doomsday appears. However, Batman comes across as a lumbering, half-witted brute most of the time, which again, makes him ‘heartless’, with only scenes of the wrecked Wayne mansion etc to suggest his inner pain and grief.

As a result of a lack of what is going on inside these characters’ heads, comes a lack of empathy and understanding as to what Batman’s personal grievance with Superman actually is? Snyder merely ‘suggests’ with flashbacks, which doesn’t quite add up. Apart from what Luthor wants both to think of each other, this doesn’t seem strong enough rationality for them to be knocking the hell out of each other.

That said when the Batman v Superman showdown actually arrives, it might be a whirl of CGI but it’s pretty exhilarating to watch on a big screen. Snyder is in his element here, and just the right comic-book fan/artist to recreate such a spectacle for fanboys out there. Superman’s brush with Doomsday re-addresses his lost humanity too.

As lovely and determined as Amy Adams is as rogue reporter Lois Lane, there does seem to be a little too much Ms Lane in trouble – or in the buff – in this. How anyone can navigate that much concrete rumble in heels is anyone’s guess during the final battle scenes. As strong a female character as Lane is, it’s Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman that’s the more positive contrast with the male characters. Hers is a pure superhero without agenda, just old-school trying to save us from the greater evil.

Like Ledger’s Joker, Eisenberg makes Luthor his own crazed interpretation. His is a babbling nervous wreck, likely to self-implode at any second and keeping things edgy. His excitable state at the very least keeps things energetic, or they would be in danger of slipping into a depressed state – him, and Jeremy Irons’s smart tongue as Alfred.

If you like lots of mood, Batman v Superman is your kind of DC Comics interpretation, though it is more visual that cerebral. There is a distinct lack of emotion from the main characters that leaves Dawn of Justice plain numbing. If it wasn’t for some of the supporting cast, it would be a CG swirl of colour and noise. Though, if there was a prize for cinematic gloom, this installment would win hands down.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Maya The Bee ***

maya-the-bee

You could be forgiven for thinking you’ve seen Maya the Bee before. She is 103 years old, after all, the Apidaen heroine of German writer Waldemar Bonsels’ 1922 children’s book, The Adventures of Maya the Bee. She’s also the star of a late 1970s’ German TV series based on the book, and more recently, a 2012 German/Austrian/Japanese one.

Nevertheless, it’s the fact that you may be more familiar with Disney-Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (1998) and DreamWorks’ Bee Movie (2007), so Maya seems like just another colourful animated insect trying to make something of her existence, even though she’s the great-grandma of the bunch. That said there is still a little innocent pleasure to be had from Maya the Bee (2014) though.

As soon as she is born, Maya the Bee (voiced by Mad Max: Fury Road’s Coco Jack Gillies) discovers she is one of an army of worker bees who are not allowed to dream or have fun but must work for the Queen (Miriam Margolyes). Maya decides she’s not just ‘a number’ and wants to dream and have fun, putting her in the direct line of fire with the Queen’s scheming personal adviser Buzzlina Von Beena (Jacki Weaver).

Buzzlina expels Maya from the hive – for despotic reasons other than the young bee’s continual disobedience, forcing Maya to find her own path in the meadow filled with danger. Maya persuades new Apidae chum Willy (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) to come along for the ride, where they encounter chirpy Cockney grasshopper Flip (Richard Roxburgh), who is a well of local knowledge.

Unbeknown to them, they also befriend Sting (Joel Franco), who turns out to be the son of hornet leader Hank (Andy McPhee), the bees’ sworn enemy. When the Queen’s special honey goes missing, a potential war between bees and hornets is on the cards, threatening the whole meadow. It’s down to Maya to save the day.

Anyone familiar with the storybook knows the ending. Those who don’t can guess it straightaway. However, the Studio 100-Flying Bark Productions 3D film has a slight spin on the original 1922 tale’s battle, perhaps bringing it up to date with more peace-seeking times. The rest is a fairly average but charming affair and less of an assault on the adult senses than the hyperactive big-studio offerings.

As Maya aims squarely for the younger, pre-teen market, it is quite innocuous in nature, even in its gag-telling, so there are no real double entendres for the grown-ups to snigger at. It’s a cuddly old-fashioned family flick with all the harm of Mary Poppins – and comes complete with musical numbers, thanks to its very own Cockney character.

Like all family films, it is stuffed with morals, from being yourself and striving to be the very best, to being tolerant of others. In an animation with far less detail in frame to marvel at (except some of the vivid sky palettes), it’s more obvious too. This is almost to the detriment of more thrills, which younger kids do come to expect nowadays with such a feature. With the studios’ ending tweak of the original tale, the prior build-up seems short-lived and flat in favour of being on message yet again.

Still, Maya is button-nosed cute and a positive female lead. Gillies does well to bring her alive and buzzing with confidence and youthful curiosity, while the irony is not lost having Weaver, Animal Kingdom’s malevolent mother, voicing an equally villainous character in Buzzlina.

Maya the Bee is a nice, safe, simplistic cinematic homage to Bonsels’ character. While Maya might be remembered for her sunny-yellow, can-do attitude, the rest can’t necessarily be said about the particulars of the film. There have been too many other insects making their mark on screen for this one to really take flight – even though the Maya doll merchandise handed out on the day was a massive hit.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water 3D ****

spongebob-sponge-out-of-water

Trying to explain why a talking yellow sponge is a hilarious concept to the uninitiated is quite impossible (speaking from experience here). That’s why it’s best to just expose them to the insanity that is Spongebob SquarePants and let the chips fall. It’s not to everyone’s taste – and certainly implies the makers are on something far stronger than the strongest coffee, but if you’re looking for a bonkers laugh, letting everything just come at you like a colourful, senses-pounding rush, look no further than the second Spongebob film, Sponge Out Of Water.

In film number two, everyone’s after the delicious Krabby Patty recipe that Bikini Bottom residents live for, including evil, scheming Plankton (again), Spongebob’s notorious, microscopic enemy. But when The Krusty Krab owner, Mr Krabs, finds Spongebob and Plankton next to an empty safe that contained the sacred recipe – after it mysteriously vanishes in front of them, both Spongebob and his mini nemesis are blamed.

The unlikely pair are ostracised by the community, but set about teaming up to find out just who has the recipe. This involves coming out of water into the real world – and a pirate called Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas) who is up to no good.

Unlike the first film in 2004, this one brings you up for air into the live-action hemisphere, and constantly changes tune in animation style, probably to stretch out the frenetic Spongebob formula into feature film length, when it’s usually only watched in bite-sized TV episode chunks. There is plenty for both adults and kids alike to be thrilled by, with lots of adult action-flick nods, including the arrival of the apocalypse to Bikini Bottom that sees every one in Mad Max mode – and dressed in leather.

Sponge Out Of Water’s plot is simple, but it gets away with wayward tangents, the funniest being the introduction of a celestial, space-aged dolphin called Bubbles (voiced by the brilliant Matt Berry of The IT Crowd fame) who has one of the funniest (albeit, toilet humour) gags going. The reasons for his arrival do become apparent, but it shifts the gear of the film once more, rendering the viewer utterly in awe of where things will go next? Another consistent giggle are the snails, a gag repeated in the finale that will have you crying with laughter as the ridiculousness of it.

Where the film falters a little – where it loses the trademark absurdity – is actually the live-action sequences. Sure, there is a thrill at seeing ‘life-sized’ versions of our Bikini Bottom heroes battling it out with the real culprit of the Krabby Patty theft, but this action-packed battle becomes a little ‘samey’, even if the kids’ gleeful smiles make it all worth the while.

There are also the odd, tonal moments involving semi-clad females and the animated characters on the beach that feel awkward in a kid’s film, even if it’s all done in saucy, tongue-in-cheek humour – quickly recovered by another bonkers scene involving Spongebob, Patrick and a large amount of candyfloss.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water offers far more craziness than David Hasselhoff could in the first film, with Banderas just having fun dressed as a pirate, like a kids’ party entertainer, complete with talking seagull sidekicks, who’s had too much sugar. It may still not convince those who are not already fans (indeed, they may question your sanity), but if you want to tire out the kids this Easter holiday, without doing several laps around a park, this film is an alternative answer – be prepared for the catchy tune sticking in the brain a long time after too.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter

Penguins of Madagascar ****

penguins_madagscar

If you ever thought the quartet of zoo penguins in Madagascar deserved their own film, this is it. Skipper (Tom McGrath), Rico (John DiMaggio), Kowalski (Jeff Bennett), and Private (James Patrick Stuart) regroup in a Bond-style adventure that starts off with a comical March of the Penguins spoof. This sets the sharp-witted tone ahead with many great puns while keeping the kids entertained by a new set of animated heroes.

Getting separated from their colony after finding an egg, the three flightless friends protect their new chick (Private), grow up together, then end up coming face to face with ‘Dave’, an octopus they shared zoo-time with who turns out to be super villain Dr Octavius Brine (voiced by John Malkovich) with a major grudge against them and their kind. He wants to destroy the world and all its ‘cute’ penguins. On his case are agents from a secret agency, North Wind, led by a suave wolf (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), also out to stop Dave.

The endearing quality these penguins have is their positive attitude to every obstacle in their path, wrapped up in some great one-liners and equally silly word plays. The writers have gone to town here, while adding lots of visual gags that will keep you suitably tickled throughout. Plus, to top it off, it’s a whirl of vibrant colour to brighten the mood.

Like every animated film out now, expect breakneck action scenes that veer towards overkill when the animated characters and what they are saying are entertainment enough. There is also another moment of déjà vu with another villain using a custom-made machine to alter the world, as we know it, so this part of the film is only saved from tedium (for adults) by the penguins and their quick retorts. This is yet another film that does not need to be watched in 3D to get the full effect, so save the pennies.

Penguins of Madagascar is definitely top-notch festive family fun and a collectively appealing film – this reviewer took her 22-month-old son along who sat still throughout (minus the 3D glasses so that tells you just how much of an ‘effect’ the 3D has). The penguins become big personalities in their own right and great role models so should expect another big-screen outing again.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

Follow on Twitter