“Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart” Review

Computer animated films tend to follow a specific track to keep everything looking clean, pretty and bouncy. ‘Jack and the Cuckoo Clock’ attempts to break all the rules and delivers a more artistic animated film as if it were a trippy fantasy from the 1970’s. It plays with the medium, switches it up constantly and constructs a unique world of European gothic. The movie also happens to be a musical set with a darkly romantic tone and an undeniably odd charm. It’s as if someone took the brain of Tim Burton and injected it with a large dose of pep.

Our protagonist is a boy born on the coldest day that his heart was made of ice. Before it could melt, the midwife replaces his freezing organ with a cuckoo clock. After the depressed mother leaves, Jack is raised by the midwife so that he’ll adhere to the rules of maintaining his heart: Keep it clean, keep it wound and don’t fall in love. If the latter occurs, his clock could break down and kill him. But a little death by organ failure can’t stop a romantic youth. On his first visit into the city, he breaks into a song with the lovely Miss Acacia. During their duet, Jack pulls back just in time to save his faulty heart, but loses sight of his love at first sight. Pining for his love-at-first-sight, Jack attends public school with Acacia nowhere in sight. His presence is instead given note to the local bully Joe, determined to mock and assault our poor protagonist. Karma catches up with him, however, when Jack’s cuckoo goes off and pluck out Joe’s eye.

The threat of imprisonment forces Jack on the lamb where he joins a freak show circus of colorful characters. Led in by an eccentric camera man, Jack finds work as a haunted roller coaster host. It is there that he finally meets the lovely Acacia who turns out to have a freaky talent for growing thorns from her skin. Unfortunately, several years have past and the girl no longer recognize Jack as the cute boy she shared a song with on the streets. She recalls the moment, but doesn’t it relate it to Jack. He’s going to have to win her back and fast seeing as how she’s already taken a liking to the villainous Joe.

This is a tremendous film with animation unlike any other feature film out there. Everything from the character designs to the architecture feel very off with a gothic tone adding to the otherworldly quality. I especially dug the design of the trains as octagon accordions that stretch and contract when in motion. The characters all look like big-headed dolls from some old collection unearthed specifically for this film. They don’t have the largest range of emotion, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The film also happens to be very well shot, playing with every single advantage of computer animation from the coiling shadows to the strange perspectives through dreams and cameras.

I should mention that this movie also happens to be a musical. The songs are not exactly memorable, sounding more like an opera, but they serve their purpose well adding more style and charm to a film that is already bursting at the seams with it. This is one of the most alluring animated films I’ve seen with an appealing dark fantasy that hooks you almost instantly. Though it may echo elements of Tim Burton’s worlds, it’s presented in this film with far more originality and creativity. The film ends on a somber note with the most artistic representation of accepting one’s fate with the climbing of snowflakes in a frozen world. ‘Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart’ is a true artistic feature film that dares to experiment in an expensive medium.

“Team Hot Wheels: The Origins of Awesome” Review

I’ve seen so many of these commercial-based animated films over the years which do little more to sell toys that you start to grow tired of their shameless formula. ‘Team Hot Wheels’, however, managed to surprise me from its first vivid and wildly colored shot. A mysterious car whizzes through the dessert with a popping purple dust. It looks like something straight of an A+ animation student’s demo reel and that style maintains throughout the picture. As far as these types of movies go, this one has a unique animation style with a clever wit unlike anything I’d expect for a direct-to-video release.

The story is simple enough. Four kids are so bored with their town that they congregate with a local automotive mechanic the helps them fix up go-karts. When they’re behind the steering wheel, these kids own the town with their various expertise that include gadgets and daring feats. My favorite of the group is the portly member who fancies himself a car guru believing he can connect with a vehicle through meditation and oneness. Their town is put in peril, however, when a strange driver known as Rev rips up the road of the town with his seemingly magical car. Apparently it has some form of imagination generation that causes all kinds of strange effects as when pigeons turn giant and a robotic Abe Lincoln turns evil. Being a Hot Wheels film, you’ve also got to have that tie in with the iconic orange tracks. The kids are the town’s only hope as the eccentric and sly mechanic they befriend bestows some super-powered cars they can utilize to catch the speedy menace. Don’t bother questioning whether kids should be driving such cars without licenses as that would slow down the momentum.

‘Team Hot Wheels’ has a lot to love from the start. All the character have some very funny dialogue on par with animated pictures such as ‘Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs’ and ‘The LEGO Movie’. Very few of the gags ever miss a beat and have the perfect timing to keep any family smiling throughout. The animation style is also very admirable as a cross between traditional 2D animation and 3D computer graphics. A true mark of quality is when you can’t quite tell the difference between the two mediums. The only time it becomes abundantly clear is during the car racing scenes in which the vehicles are far too slick compared to the rest of the animation.

While I enjoyed the spirit and the look of this movie so much, it was rather disappointing that this was such a substandard story. The mysterious car chase is a decent concept, but then the plot begins to veer off into needless filler with the boys experimenting on animal DNA. The boys want faster cars so they use the DNA of various fearsome animals to create self-aware vehicles with an unstable nature. It’s the one time during this video that I felt it was a shameless plug for toys. The whole plot with Rev, as loose as the rules for that scenario were, was far more entertaining watching the boys save their town from all kinds of weird creations Rev leaves in his wake.

I grew a little tired with ‘Team Hot Wheels’, but was impressed enough by the characters and the animation to recommend the video. Kids and adults alike will appreciate its enthusiastic nature, but I just wish it had a better story to elevate all the other elements. This production team deserves another movie and a better script which I hope they’ll receive in the future. If they do, they’ll be able to make some an animated film that transcends any other animation on home video.

“Batman: Assault on Arkham” Review

The villains of Batman tend to be much more intriguing than the title hero and now a handful of them have been given their own animated film. But rather than admiring their pathos, this film is more a Dirty Dozen deal. The villains are not spruced up to be more redeemable protagonists and are instead given the reluctant rouge angle. They’re all still evil characters, but just evil enough to be likable for the rather violent mission forced upon them.

The secret government organization known as Suicide Squad takes in villains and offers them a chance to shave off some time from their prison sentence. In exchange, they must complete a secret mission for the government. If they fail, being captured won’t be an issue as the explosives attached to their necks will explode. And, naturally, these missions are not voluntary. The group selected for this mission includes the keen-eyed assassin Deadshot, the witty Captain Boomerang and the overly eccentric Harley Quinn among others. Their mission is to break into Arkham Asylum and take out the recently captured Edward Niggma. But once the group starts questioning the reasons behind the secret murder, they try to stay one step ahead of Suicide Squad supervisor Amanda Waller. And with The Joker running loose inside the asylum and Batman hot on their trails, they’ve got their work cut out for them in addition to dealing with the security.

While the villains we follow for this story are mostly B and C listers of the DC Comics roster, they’re still very fun to follow in a darkly comedic way. It helps that the film is setup with this tone similar to that of a 1970’s mercenary ensemble feature. I was reminded of those 1980’s mercenery ensemble pictures if not for the music and editing than for the slick introductions given to our key players. The manner in which they proceed to carry out their tasks while retaining their despicable behavior is incredibly entertaining. I guess I was just more impressed that film did not dial back on the villainy. This is a group that while reluctantly working together still will not hesitate to kill one of their own if they can get ahead. There is just enough backstory given to Deadshot where we identify with him the most and hope he’ll make it out alive.

It may sound strange writing this, but Batman and Joker are the weaker links of this movie. The Dark Knight manages to pull off shreds of good detective work, but his master plan for infiltrating the Suicide Squad could be seen a mile away and wasn’t all that surprising when it was revealed. The twisted love triangle between Joker, Harley and Deadshot was not as strong acting as a setup for the third act showdown. Joker manages to get in some mildly amusing bits, but nowhere near as entertaining as the relationship between Killer Frost and King Shark or the sly wit of Captain Boomerang. This group manages to hold their own in this thriller of bad guys working for people are far more worse.

While ‘Batman: Assault on Arkham’ does have a thriller angle to uncovering the secrets of the Suicide Squad program, it’s much more enjoyable for its bombastic directing. It’s ruthlessly violent, scandalously sexual and a clever script to boot. This all manages to come together in a fun, almost campy appeal to prisoners breaking into a prison. It manages to be vastly different from DC Comic’s previous direct-to-video animated films which all seem to follow a similar template. For being so wildly different, I can’t help but recommend such a movie even with our title character missing for half the film.

“The Wind Rises” Review

The animated films of Hayao Miyazaki have always been one step above the competition in animation and storytelling, humbling even the best directors at Disney. So you can imagine my excitement and sadness to discover that The Wind Rises will be his final film. Even though this isn’t the first time he’s made this announcement since all the way back in 1997, this latest animated feature seems to have all the signs of a final curtain.

Unlike Miyazaki’s other features, The Wind Rises takes place in a realistic time focusing on the real life of World War 2 fighter plane designer Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). This is not a war movie, however, as it mainly focuses on Jiro’s dreams and aspirations of designing planes. Air combat does appear in his dreams, but most of his visions are that of speaking to famous plane designer Caproni (Stanley Tucci). In his dreams, Jiro discusses his career aspirations with Caproni as the two of them float and walk along various aircraft in flight.

This continuous inspiration helps fuel Jiro’s desires for becoming a top-notch aircraft designer. Not even the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that mostly decimated his school could hold him back. All Jiro could think about was how to make a design soar faster and better, despite limited materials. He spends most of his lunch breaks in college looking at fish bones trying to find the perfect curve for his masterpiece of engineering. While every waking moment seems to be obsessed with his craft, he still manages to find time for love when he crosses paths with the beautiful Nahoko (Emily Blunt). And though they spend most of their lives separated by tragedy, their romance stands the test of time.

It should go without saying that the latest film from Studio Ghibli is nothing short of a masterpiece. The animation completely wraps you into the setting with lush green landscapes and bold aerial visions with a painterly quality. The musical score composed by Joe Hisashi matches the majesty of the visuals. I don’t honestly find this to be one Ghibli’s best productions, but even their lesser films are still a massive cut above the rest. There really is nothing like them, even for a film as down to earth as The Wind Rises.

It’s clear why Miyazaki chose such a story for his final film. He identifies with Jiro’s desire for perfection and getting the most out of one’s life. This makes The Wind Rises one of his most personal films that honestly feels more like an examination of how Miyazaki recognizes his lifetime than an analysis of Jiro Horikoshi’s legacy. He inserts several elements from his previous films that captured the wonder of imagination and the human spirit.

That’s not to say that the story of Jiro doesn’t stand well enough on its own. It’s amazing to watch both his career soar and his love for Nahoko develop. Though I must admit we spend much more time inside Jiro’s head than we do with his love interest. This makes the romance feel a little rushed and slightly inorganic given the large amount of time the two spend apart. Uneven as it is, the moments where the two connect are touching and overflowing with emotion more than any other animated couple I’ve ever seen.

At one point Jiro is invited to Germany to examine various aircraft and is thrilled with the experience though heavily censored by officials. As I said, this is not a war movie so you won’t hear much mention of the Nazis or tension with the United States. This is a more personal look at one’s life during rocky times in the background.

If the film had to be classified, it would have to be a romance. This is for both the tragic love story between Jiro and Nahoko as well as Jiro’s passionate obsession with perfection. In one of his visions, Caproni tells Jiro that he’ll only have ten years in the sun. After living through a decade of triumphs and failures, the icon of Jiro’s dreams asks if it was worth it. He agrees as he watches his designs soar off into the sunset. It’s a fitting final scene and a wonderful way to remember one of the greatest animation directors of all-time.

“Son of Batman” Review

I fear that Warner Brothers may have exhausted their Batman animated movie ideas if they’re now resorting to estranged child plots. Such a concept seems like something more common for a television program in the twilight of its run. It’s a move that one would have to be very brave and very capable of pulling off to make for an entertaining movie. This is not that movie as the whole idea is given a very lukewarm presentation.

Damien Wayne has grown up far from his father Bruce Wayne in the mountain HQ for the League of Assassins. His entire life has been spent on intense warrior training with his mother Talia and his grandfather Ra’s. Terror strikes, however, when the evil Deathstroke descends on the stronghold with his highly-trained minions to destroy the League. When Ra’s is murdered in the scuffle, Damien vows swift revenge for the death of his grandfather. His quest leads him to Gotham City where he finally comes face to face with his father. Naturally, being the dark knight, it isn’t long before Damien takes an interest in the Robin costume and the dynamic duo takes on a father-son relationship.

The two are polar opposites, however, with Damien being more of a killer than a crime fighter. Growing up with assassins, he’s been taught some rather nasty lessons that Bruce must now rectify with his more humane approach to vigilantism. He shows him the ropes by following the trail of clues that leads them to some fights with Killer Croc and a gang of Man Bats. Those fight scenes are decent, but never really ascend past the level of television animation. And the final showdown between the two and Deathstroke is so underwhelming for a fight with swords and martial arts. These three are supposed to be masters of their fighting craft and here they’re pulling out amateur moves and mistakes. This could have been an impressive display and instead it just feels like another uninspired moment.

What’s really so disappointing about the film is the very poor choice in voice talents. None of these voices really fit all that well. I couldn’t buy the emotion of Bruce Wayne, the cruelness of Damien and the evil of Deathstroke. All of the voice acting either feels ill-fitting or phoned in with a dry delivery. The animation looks decent, but does appear to be a step down from Warner Brothers’ previous direct-to-video animations. It has that sort of stylized jerkiness you’d see on ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. For television, it looks great. But as an animated film for video, this needs an upgrade. I wasn’t entirely uninvested in the film as there are some great dialogue exchanges between Bruce and Damien as well as some fun lines for Alfred and Nightwing. As a whole, however, I was more distracted by the dip in quality for just about every department. In the canon of these direct-to-video DC Comics movies, this is certainly not a highlight and may be one of the worst they’ve made.

“Frozen” Review

Disney’s latest animated musical certainly has a lot to offer. There are a lot of songs, plenty of characters and a story that’s more focused on sisterly love than finding prince charming. While ‘Frozen’ certainly does bring a lot of new elements to the table, it ends up like Chinese food; it tastes pretty good, but ultimately leaves you empty desiring more.

Anna spends her youth completely separated from her sister Elsa, hidden away in a room with her icy powers. When Elsa finally comes of age to inherit the throne, the two sisters finally connect for the first time in several years. But their reunion is cut short when Elsa accidentally exposes her dangerous powers and nearly injures her guests. Convinced she is a monster, Elsa retreats to nearby mountain where she assembles her ice fortress and casts a spell of eternal winter on the land. It’s up to Anna to save her sister and restore order with the help of the mountaineer Kristof, his trusty reindeer Sven and the comical snowman Olaf.

As Disney’s follow-up musical to ‘Tangled’ (from most of the same team no less), I couldn’t help but make comparisons. The songs, for example, are not as memorable and don’t have that same energy. For having twice as many musical numbers as ‘Tangled’, there wasn’t a single one that I found myself admiring. Some of them are still amusing as when Anna harps on life outside the castle and Olaf dreaming of being able to experience summer. Other songs just feel entirely out of place. The biggest song of the movie, “Let It Go”, feels somewhat misleading. Based on the tone and melody of that sequence, it seems as though Elsa finally embraced her powers with an upbeat outlook on her new sanctuary. It almost looked as if she were going to go into full-on villain mode which would’ve made the film a lot more interesting. Instead, she reverts back to being sad and ashamed when we next see her. Either “Let It Go” was a poor choice of music or Elsa has strange mood swings.

While the music and tone may not be impressive, the animation manages to pick up the slack. There are some gorgeous sequences involving lots of snow and perfectly timed slapstick. Most of the humor is in the department of Olaf, a character who I wasn’t fond of at first but soon warmed up to. Being a snowman, there are so many possibilities with removing body parts and reassembling himself with the abundant white resource. I ended up liking Olaf so much I almost wanted the story to be entirely about him. The other characters have some hilarious lines and physical gags as well, but they hardly compare. For instance, the reindeer Sven gets in some great expressions and poses, but all I could think of was the horse from ‘Tangled’. We’ve seen this same character with the same bit before. Give us something more than just a carbon copy, Disney.

I’ll give ‘Frozen’ some credit for taking a few risks and trying out some new material as it leads up to the happy ending we all see coming. But as far as Disney animated musicals go, this one was lukewarm. It attempts to juggle many characters with a plot that may be too intricate for its own good. There is still some detailed animation and exceptional gags, but I’ve come to expect most of this from Disney anyway. If they ever hope to top their surprise hit ‘Tangled’, they’re going to have to serve up something warmer than ‘Frozen’.

“Jeff Dunham: Achmed Saves America” Review

Jeff Dunham’s one-note ventriloquism puppet Achmed takes a leap into the world of animation. The result of a failed suicide bomber mission, Achmed is plucked from his Middle Eastern home and transported to America. Choosing to accept his now skeletal appearance, a family takes him as they mistake Achmed for a French exchange student. Though the tiny terrorist is still hellbent on destroying the Western world, he soon comes to adore the country via friendly people and all-you-can-eat buffets. Before you know it, he’s on a mission to save his new family.

I’ll preference this review by stating that I am not a fan of Jeff Dunham’s brand of comedy. All of his puppet characters spout mostly simplistic politically incorrect statements with a subtle tone of racism. That can be funny for a few bits, but this style seems to comprise the majority of his puppets. Achmed’s angle is that he keeps shouting “Silence! I kill you!” while making stereotypical observations of Western and Middle Eastern culture. Sure enough, this animated feature does just that by featuring all aforementioned exaggerations. Some of the characters Achmed meets includes the sexually confused teenage girl, the anal-retentive liberal, the gun-toting redneck and the angry terrorist leader who rolls over easily for something as simple as frozen yogurt.

Oddly enough, this seems a little toned down for Jeff Dunham. There is nothing that risque in any of the humor. In fact, most of it feels like watered down ‘Family Guy’ jokes with the constant pop culture references and questionable observations. There are a few jabs made at both east and west, but nothing all that biting. It’s almost as if Dunham is trying to steer his act in a new direction as he paints Achmed as a more sympathetic character who learns to love. It’s a logical progression for the story, but it kind of ruins the whole point of the character.

Speaking of ‘Family Guy’, the animation designs feel very uninspired with simplistic round faces and eyes. Thankfully, the actual animation itself is impressive for the sheer timing and detail in movement. If anybody deserves praise for this special, it’s the technical team that make most of the visual gags work and take full advantage of Achmed’s skeletal form. Achmed’s jaw literally drops in shock to which he replaces as if they were his contacts. He shatters when hit by a car and struggles to put himself back together. These are all solid gags that are handled rather well by the visual team.

But, wow, the majority of the written jokes are flat. Jeff even resorts to old-as-dirt bits such as the rabbi and the priest who walk into a bar. If you’re going to dig up those corpses, you better have an original idea to dress them up in. Sadly, Jeff mostly just goes for the easy laughs. He never really shocks and he never really surprises with originality. There are some amusing bits here and there (thanks mostly to the quality animation direction), but they hardly warrant an hour-long fish-out-of-water movie. This may have worked better as a TV pilot, but it sure wears thin for its movie-style length.