Rock Dog ***

Another animation, another animated ‘hero’ full of good intentions, this time the moral in Rock Dog is: ‘follow your dreams and don’t let anyone deter you’, with talking animals, akin to Zootropolis. It’s not the latter though (unfairly judged against a larger studio release in some respects), but has its own indie charm, full of funny, cute moments. What is does have is a highly catchy theme tune in ‘Glorious’, which the kids were humming all the way out of the cinema and down the street afterwards. In that respect, it makes its mark through music.

After a radio falls from the sky, guitar-loving Tibetan Mastiff Bodi (voiced by Luke Wilson) hears rock music for the first time from ‘superstar rocker’ Angus Scattergood (voiced by Eddie Izzard), and realises his dream is to be a musician. That goes dead against what his father, guard dog Khampa (voiced by J.K. Simmons) wants for him – he ought to be guarding the sheep of the village against their ancient enemy, the wolves. Khampa reluctantly lets his son go to the big city to fulfill his dream – and maybe meet Scattergood in the flesh.

Rock Dog has some good-hearted, fun characters to ride along with, and a certain easy charm that makes it totally consumable. Although Bodi is the star and certainly resonates with the kids, Scattergood is for the adults. Izzard is hilarious as the cat ‘music demi god’ who finds most things in life tedious and has run out of inspiration. He is the epitome of ‘Brit music cool’ though and that alone is enough to make him a memorable character.

Indeed, the plot can be seem coming a mile off before the film has even started – we know Bodi will be successful, somehow. The film is about the journey he takes, with its quaint innocence from not only Bodi but also the sheep. It’s also a refreshing take, set in the Tibetan hills, from the usual city affair, though it ends up in the Big Smoke.

The other thing is it is all good clean fun for a younger child to watch – even though it involves a rock star. Even the wolves are not too scary for youngsters (not jumping in mum/dad’s lap this time), and are like poor imitations from a tame Guy Ritchie gangster flick (minus any swearing). Centre stage is given to the fledgling Bodi-Scattergood relationship, and the highs and lows of it. In that sense, kids get to see humility in the end, in addition to the rise to stardom.

Rock Dog has a lot of lessons for all viewers of all ages to learn from – after all, it’s never too late for anyone to follow a dream. Some of the humour is a little slapstick and déjà vu, but utterly harmless, nevertheless. It will make you walk away with a smile and a hum, so that’s not a bad thing.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Smurfs: The Lost Village ****

From The Hobbit’s Shire to the Smurfs’ mushroom village, big and small kids love the idea of a place of serenity, harking back to simpler living. Ironically, defending territory from an external ‘terror’ threat by those wanting to change an existence strikes a chord in today’s unsettled world – one way to use Smurfs: The Lost Village to explain world affairs to curious little minds. So, however simple in plot the new Smurfs film first seems, it does combine in one story a positive sense of self-preservation with a healthy dollop of adventure, all for the benefit of kiddies in glorious multicolour with intrepid gnome explorers. It also attempts to shine the spotlight on Smurfette and mould her (pardon the pun) into a lead character in her own right.

Voiced by Demi Lovato, Smurfette is still trying to figure out what her unique skill is, four years on from the second film, and where she fits in in the Smurfs’ world? A chance encounter with a masked stranger in the forbidden forest and a map leads the only girl gnome and her best buddies, Brainy (Danny Pudi voices), Clumsy (Jack McBrayer) and Hefty (Joe Manganiello), on an adventure to find a lost village. However, Smurfette has unwittingly led the Smurfs’ sworn enemy Gargamel (voiced by Rainn Wilson) and his beastly crew to the new location – and an untapped source of ‘blue power’ the sorcerer needs to be invincible. It’s up to Smurfette and co to warn the residents before it’s too late.

This time creator Peyo’s Smurfs are re-immersed in their own animated existence – no real-world shenanigans like in the 2013 film or creepy-looking ‘human-featured Smurfs’. Sadly, this also means no Hank Azaria in panto as Gargamel – nor in voice, though Wilson is just as entertaining. It does mean the filmmakers have full creative licence to explore the Avatar-styled world, equally bathed in blue. This film bounces along with 100 per cent enthusiasm and is very much about the gnome personalities, the introduction of which at the beginning wastes no time in reeling off a list of character traits in fun-filled, erratic fashion that younger viewers delight at. The rest of the frenetic pace follows suit, as expected with present-day kids animation.

As the momentum roller-coasters on – requiring a certain degree of concentration, as not to miss any ‘adult puns’, there is plenty of silliness, honesty, vulnerability, bravery and morals for kids to latch onto, absorb and ultimately cheer on their diminutive heroes. Admittedly, some of the funnier scenarios are touched on in the trailer, but the little personalities more than make up for this. Indeed, curiosity pays off as we’re all rewarded with plenty of ‘girl power’ in the end – hardly surprising given the writers are women and the scope for potential storyline spin-offs (and merchandise) could run on for years to come.

The fact is youngsters delight in the idea of little people saving the day in their narratives. The Lost Village delivers this thrill, with a few hiccups along the way. There’s also a nostalgic animated innocence to the whole affair that helps the Smurf personalities shine through – something the very busy, effects-heavy 2013 film lost. Smurfs: the Lost Village even has scampering dayglow bunnies, ready for Easter family viewing. There’s enough cinematic cuteness for everyone; if the plight of Smurfette doesn’t win you over, the bunnies will, while keeping the youngsters entertained for 90 minutes.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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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

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Monster Trucks (3D) ***

Don’t be fooled by the title; this is where machine and beast meet, not the kind of engine-driven trucks seen at Santa Pod and the like. Once you get your head around WHY such a monster would want to bed down within a clapped-out old pick-up, the daftness that is Monster Trucks is replaced by a certain fondness for the squid-like animal within, which the kids really do grow to love – once they’ve finished jumping out of their seats at its initial introduction.

Like any teen, Tripp (Lucas Till) is desperate to escape his small-town life and builds a Monster Truck out of scrapped cars at his local garage where he works part-time (run by Danny Glover’s character). An accident at the town’s oil-drilling site causes a ‘monster displacement’ and results in one taking refuge inside Tripp’s truck.

This oil-guzzling creature becomes an unlikely asset and friend to Tripp who makes it his mission to get the creature home – helped by Tripp-infatuated school chum Meredith (Jane Levy), after the oil company ‘baddies’ led by arch villain Rob Lowe‘s character try to prevent the beast and others like it returning to the lucrative, oil-rich drilling site.

This action-filled family adventure plucks at the heartstrings in many ways, unashamedly so too. We do sympathise with Tripp’s difficult family situation and immediately understand the developing bond between him and the monster as both needs protecting in their own special ways.

There is a lot of fun to be had while the film-makers berate greedy oil barons and America’s obsession with mining the liquid gold stuff. In a way, it’s a family adventure for the avid/budding environmentalist, with the mantra of ‘look at the damage caused by fossil fuels’ running right the way through, while strangely, worshipping petrol-head heaven in action.

For smaller kids, it has all that is needed to entertain; monsters, speed, trucks and chases, and the story is more than clear to any under five (as in my son’s case), especially as ‘Crank’ – as the monster is named – returns in The Abyss-style glory at the end. It is simplistic to the point of tedium for adults at times, but watched with small folk, can be quite exhilarating to experience together.

Monster Trucks is nothing profound – in fact, as to alerting young minds to environmental issues go, all-time classic WALL.E beats hands down. However, it does things in an immensely fun and loud fashion and in a way that kids will instantly connect to, guided by a young, good-looking hero-of-the-hour in Tripp. In an unexpected twist, it may just prove to be a school holidays’ box-office hit.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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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

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Alice Through The Looking Glass (3D) **

Alice

The wonder that is Lewis Carroll returns with the loveable Alice in Wonderland characters, but minus his clever, quirky storytelling in director James Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s 3D creation, Alice Through the Looking Glass. Thankfully, the visuals capture the imagination and deflect from the lacklustre adventure.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska returning) comes home from her sea travels on her late father’s ship to find her mother, Helen (Lindsay Duncan) being forced to sell the ship (and family business) or forfeit the family home. This threatens to end her independence and adventures.

Alice returns to Wonderland through a looking glass, only to discover that dear old friend Hatter (Johnny Depp) has gone into a deep depression because nobody believes his family are still alive. In order to prove they are and change the cruel course of history, Alice must ‘borrow’ a vital time machine device from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and face an old adversary, Iracebeth, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

Bobin has big creative boots to fill in Tim Burton’s absence, and he does an adequate job here, gaining the most he can out of a sparse tale with the acting talent on offer. However, the fault lies more on the writing side. Although Hatter’s family demise is interesting – as is the family breakdown and back story of another key character, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to carry the film past the eye-boggling visuals.

It needs to be brain-bending too, translatable to youngsters but fascinating for adults. The key being main character Alice and why she feels compelled to put it all on the line to uncover Hatter’s mystery and save her own sanity. It just feels too superficial, lazily aimed at the effects-hungry youngsters who should not be underestimated for craving substance either.

That said the likes of Depp, Cohen and Bonham Carter fill the story void, each expertly portraying a wonderful animated character, though lacking the narrative space to fully blossom as we are whisked away on the next whiz-bang effects sequence to solve the Hatter riddle. Wasikowska is again commendable as headstrong Alice who is crushingly vulnerable and immature at times – hence retreating into Wonderland.

Attempting to tackle Alice’s personal struggles, including her mental health and society’s expectations of privileged women of that time is stuff of another more ‘grown up’ film version. However, Alice does wake up in an institution so these aspects are still very relevant and lacking the explanation they deserve – the kids will still ask why she’s bed bound. Just as well the arresting visuals come to the film’s rescue to stop you spending any more time contemplating this oversight.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a feast for the imagination, so the design team has well and truly done its job. It’s Carroll’s eccentric storytelling that’s woefully missing, even while revisiting the individually unique characters.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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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

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The Jungle Book (3D) ****

the-jungle-book

Sometimes it pays off to remake a classic, especially a live-action version because we not only get to revisit some beloved characters, but see them transformed into real-life forms. This is the case with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, first animated by Disney in 1967 to become a household classic, then brought to life much later in 1994 with Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli, the human star of the story.

Disney’s 2016 live-action The Jungle Book remains absolutely true to the 1967 story, and has youngster Mowgli, impressively played by rising new star Neel Sethi. It also has the full arsenal of latter-day special effects to hand. In fact, it’s so in-tune with what is deemed by big studios as being an ultimate kids’ action film offering today – complete with 3D, it also bombards you with vision and sound on an IMAX screen.

This is thrilling to witness as it ravages the senses in half the scenes, but often too scary and intimidating for younger kids to deal with – parents, be warned by the PG rating. My three-year-old was terrified by the stampeding wildebeest and mudslides, let alone the likes of Shere Khan or Kaa in full swing.

In the story, a young boy called Mowgli (Sethi) is found in the jungle by a black panther called Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and taken to be raised by wolves as a man-cub. However, embittered tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) warns the animals that Mowgli will grow up to be a man and ultimately, put them in danger with the ‘red flower’ (fire). He threatens to kill the boy before he reaches adulthood.

After the death of wolf-pack leader Akela (voiced by Giancarlo Esposito), Shere Khan begins his man-cub hunt. Mowgli reluctantly flees into the jungle, guided by Bagheera and con-artist bear Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray). Hence Mowgli’s journey of self-discovery begins.

The 2016 film does look glorious on an IMAX screen, though watching it in 3D is another ‘fad’ and not necessary to enjoying its full impact, especially as the glasses at our Leicester Square screening didn’t come in kiddy-friendly-size. The result is small kids end up part-watching a fuzzy image, which is a great shame. With the impressive sound, this film is effective enough, but the big screen exposes you to its spectacular landscapes and really immerses you into the jungle terrain. 2D would still do the trick though.

Fear not, the latest, kinetic incarnation has all the classic songs too, for a bit of downtime from the arresting action. Murray’s voice is perfect as cheeky Baloo, especially when he breaks into song with ‘Bare Necessities’, making the character his own. Elba as Shere Khan is truly menacing. Christopher Walken lends his voice to King Louie, the King of the Swingers (monkeys), conjuring up images of a singing-and-dancing Walken of Fatboy Slim video fame having just as much fun here, though not as nimble as Louie.

If there was a weaker voice to the cast, it would be Scarlett Johansson as slippery snake Kaa. While Sterling Holloway’s 1967 lisping tones are long gone, Johansson’s supposedly seductive ones do not quite do the terrifying reptile image justice, even though the visuals more than compensate to bring on a chill factor.

The Jungle Book (2016) is full of vibrant creativity, noise and movement, probably requiring more than one viewing to fully appreciate what has gone into producing it. This makes it a childhood classic all over again. However, little ones might be best left to the original cartoon version – or run the risk of nightmares, even if the live-action dramatics still compels them to watch through one open eye in your lap until the very end.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2015: Goosebumps **

goosebumps

Jack Black, monsters and imagination – what could possibly go wrong? Well, the latter, actually, which is quite concerning for a film about bringing stories to life. Perhaps the old nostalgia is kicking in, a longing for a half-decent return to the days of Jumanji (1995) – ‘re-imagining’ on the cards for next year – or The Never Ending Story (1984). There were such high hopes for Goosebumps, a nod to such 80s/90s film pop culture.

Based on R.L. Stine’s successful book series, it sees two teenagers team up with young adult horror writer R.L. Stine (Black) and his daughter, after the author’s imaginary demons are set lose to wreck havoc on the town of Madison, Delaware.

The problem isn’t the imaginative aspect of the villainous characters – there are plenty of them to be thrilled by for all ages. It’s the lack of any actual story using them all constructively. Once the Abominable Snowman is set lose, the whole film is a stop-and-start chase – people running, coming-of-age moment, people running, another coming-of-age moment etc. Nothing actually happens with said baddies to develop their presence, apart from with creepy ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black) – every adult’s worst nightmare come true, let alone a kid’s.

The filmmakers – director Rob Letterman and writers Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – have caught the essence of Stine’s Goosebump books, bringing the characters to life, but left them ‘hanging’ in our world with not much to do. This film feels much like a dress rehearsal for the real thing to come – Part II of which is nicely set up at the end of this film.

Also, there’s this annoying filmmaker mentality nowadays that seems to perpetuate the notion that kids don’t have very long attention spans, so let’s make everything snappy so we don’t have to develop any storylines properly. After all, kids will love the fast pace of Goosebumps. To an extent, this is true, but it smacks of sloppy filmmaking, choosing big effect over substance.

Even Black is a tad overcooked in this, overplaying his usual eccentric self as Stine. He does deliver some brief comedy moments though, such as the Stephen King digs at Stine’s expense. The rest of the youthful cast of Dylan Minnette (Zach, the boy crush), Odeya Rush (Hannah, Stine’s naturally pretty daughter) and Ryan Lee (Champ, the usual cool nerd) are fairly vanilla, considering the lads have precedent, having starred in R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour TV series (2011-2013). That said they are sure to get some fans, if only because some kids would love to swap places with them in tackling the monsters.

Goosebumps does give you the pips with some chilling moments as all your childhood fears emerge. It also gives you the willies at how zany the pace is and how much it squanders a perfectly brilliant imaginative set-up. Let’s hope Part II gets a plot and a better outing for its characters and Black’s huge talent.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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