“Monster High: Scaris, City of Frights” Review

Once more I venture into the limitless void of the TV movie franchise Monster High. Intended as little more than a commercial for the brand of monster themed dolls, I desperately search for something to latch onto from the perspective of an adult male. I’m not picky – a clever use of dialogue, some decent character development, good looking animation or even just one small gag that makes me chuckle. I don’t walk into this endless array of Monster High movies expecting the worst every time. I genuinely pop in each disc hoping that this will be the one – this will be the movie where I finally see that hidden power of Monster High outside its marketing angle. Sadly, this is not that movie.

But let’s be fair. This is not the worst Monster High movie I’ve seen. The story at least has a decent angle. One lucky student specializing in fashion, Clawdeen Wolf (trademarked), receives the chance of a lifetime to travel to Scaris, France and compete for an apprenticeship with a top designer, Madame Ghostier (trademarked). That’s not a half-bad idea considering it’s within the wheelhouse of the franchise and the characters. The whole Devil Wears Prada plot allows for some unique characters added into the mix as well including a skeleton girl with a painted skull. No devil designer present though which could have made for some better jokes. It’s a genuine surprise from a series where all the characters look virtually identical and rely entirely on references and bad puns for comedy.

And, oh, how I wish there was something more to enjoy. The flat characters of simple phrases and traits seriously hamper the story that aims to include as many monsters as possible. Very little of Scaris takes advantage of the French location and theme outside of the cartoonish stereotypes. Then again, there isn’t much to showcase from the TV-budgeted animation of the stretchy CGI animation. The movie could at least take advantage of the monster angle which it almost always fails to capitalize on.

There’s one gag that manages to be effective as the girls remark on the skeletons in the catacombs. Turns out they’re just taking naps and shush anybody who wakes them. It’s a decent joke, but how does that explain an underground prison cell where it implies the last person wasted away to a skeleton? Does that imply that they still live on as a skeleton? Or can they become more accepted if they wear clothes and paint their skull? Are the catacomb skeletons actually hobos? Why do I keep asking these questions about a cartoon for little girls?

The most annoying aspect of the whole movie is that the plot refuses to stick to its running time. The real story wraps up about 40 minutes in. The remaining 20 are reserved for the ride back home in which the monster girls and boys hop around the globe to retrieve their luggage. The movie doesn’t even bother transitioning well into this segment by stating “hey, don’t you want to see how we got back?” Not really. You got on a plane, right? Oh, you had to make some detours to get back some mystical book that doesn’t really have any major consequences? Why did I need to see this? I’m perfectly content if the movie were only 40 minutes. This segment doesn’t really add anything extra to the story. It should be its own short or bonus episode included on the disc – not an excuse to bloat up a movie to an hour.

Scaris, City of Frights may be the only half-decent movie I’ve seen out of Monster High, but it’s still held back if not by its one-dimensional characters then for its short story (which required an extra episode just to make it an hour). Once again, I must preference this review in that I’m not in the target audience. I’m not 12, a girl or collect the dolls. I’m just an adult man writing a negative review about a cartoon movie made specifically and unquestionably to sell toys to little girls.

“Strange Magic” Review

Bless George Lucas’ heart for wanting to create an alternative animated film for his daughters. He puts forth an admirable effort to create an animated picture both unique and old-fashioned with its female-favoring story and plenty of musical numbers amid a classically told story of love and kingdoms. Strange Magic is a movie I want to love so badly in how daring and different it aims to be from the usual template of animated features. And yet I cannot bring myself to that point simply for all the familiar George Lucas faults, which remain present even when he’s not directing.

The story starts off simple enough, but soon twists itself into a series of love triangles. There is a good part of the forest with plants and fairies and a bad part of the forest inhabited with swamps and bugs. The good-natured Fairy Kingdom is about to have a wedding as the ecstatic princess Marianne is to be wed to the cocky Roland. But when she discovers that Roland has secretly given his heart to another, Marianne quickly sheds her princess persona to become a hardened warrior vowing never to fall in love again. Fairies must have wicked mood swings to go from romanced royalty to battle-hungry soldier in a few minutes. Perhaps the abundance of too much splendor in an overly cheerful forest kingdom brings out a quick wish to strife.

While Marianne builds up her angst, her best friend Dawn becomes kidnapped by the evil Bog King of the dark swamp lands. This comes just as the shy elf Sunny has acquired a love potion he hopes will win him the heart of Dawn. But when Dawn inhales the potion, the person she spots to fall in love with is the Bog King. Thus begins an adventure tale of sword fights, giant forest creatures, romance and musical numbers.

While all the songs are sung by different characters in context to their current emotions, these are all cover songs of classic rock and pop tunes. Nearly all the songs are actually sung by the lead voice actors Evan Rachael Wood and Alan Cumming. While their singing voices are more than decent, it made me wonder how much better they’d fair with more original songs as opposed to the overly familiar melodies of Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. George Lucas stated that he initially wanted to have Beatles songs, but they were too expensive. While it might have made the music a little more interesting, I doubt it would’ve improved the presentation nor would the other idea to simply make the movie an opera.

The biggest hurdle for any animated film to conquer – especially one that has been tossed around to various companies – is the animation itself. In terms of design and texture, this computer animated world doesn’t look half-bad. There was certainly some detail put into this as one of the cast members remarked how many changes her character’s hair went through. And while it’s pleasing to see computer animation with designs more anatomical than stylized, it certainly could have used more appeal. Maybe it was due to the production lasting 15 years in various stages, but the characters resembled those old animation tutorials I used to use in college. The fairies, trolls and elves all resemble designs that seem ripped straight from a student animation. It’s an A+ student project, mind you, but this is a theatrical animated picture we’re talking about written by an accomplished filmmaker.

There is some humor and spunk to Strange Magic, but it’s just as shoehorned in as the musical numbers amid a twisty plot of romances. All of the appeal – progressively appealing as it seems – just narrowly misses the mark. The animation is decent, but most kids are not going to respond to an animated film of decent quality. The songs are a charming addition, but outplay their welcome as the relation grows more base with the on-screen emotions. And, most importantly, it all just doesn’t blend as well it should. A fairy romance/action/musical animated picture may work someday, but not with this movie. With its fluctuating tones and simple story elements, Strange Magic is more strange than magical.

“Lalaloopsy: Festival of Sugary Sweets” Review

Years ago I ripped apart the merchandising vehicle that was Monster High, hoping it would die out within a few years for a new fad. Not only did it spur forth with many more films, but now it has expanded into live-action music videos. I later saw grown women donning the garb of the monster dolls for a costume contest. For as much as I loathed the pun-heavy writing and bland character development of those films, I now find myself pining for the eye-rolling of Monster High. After watching another one of these Lalaloopsy videos, I’d be grateful if my eyes could do something besides droop in boredom.

There really is nothing to this story and I’m struggling to find something to latch onto with Festival of Sugary Sweets. The doll world of the Lalaloopsy girls is currently obsessed with their festival of assembling mountains of pastries and cakes. I guess cavities are never an issue when everyone in your society is made of yarn, cloth and buttons. But, oh no, they’ve run out of sugar! What will they do for the festival? They learn to experiment with natural sweeteners and use more fruits and vegetables for assembling treats. And that’s about all there is in a script that’s padded out to fill 45 minutes. There is no major crisis that affects the festival and no character hangups that force anybody to learn anything.

But the way the film just quickly glazes over the aspects of the Lalaloopsy society did leave me with a few questions about their mechanics. The girls of this doll world seem to have organic means of consumption the way they are constantly gobbling down pastries and cakes. I originally thought that sweets were their sole means of nutrition given how it’s all I ever see them eat. Then the film introduces natural sweets and healthier options which may suggest that Lalaloopsy’s agriculture has similar formation to humans. But it appears that two of the littlest girls can make mud pies and actually eat them. This tears down most of my theory in that it’s possible the Lalaloopsy girls don’t actually have any taste buds or proper organs to process food. Is the act of eating just for pretend, echoing previous lifeforms that had taste and digestion?

This brings about the evolutionary questioning of Lalaloopsy’s conception. Just who made these girls and how are they created? I’m assuming they have some grand creator as there are no mothers or fathers present for these girls who seem to live on their own. Maybe they are all orphans of a horrible genetic experiment in combining brains with yarn, exiling the subjects to a secluded island where they run out their remaining days in harmless splendor. They all certainly appear to be built for specific purposes in mind the way their one-track habits rob them of any true personality. The cheerleader girl only cheers people in every aspect of life. Not cheering people on must result in termination of her functions since this character does nothing else in this movie. There are younger girls in the group so perhaps they have also mastered the art of procreation in their yarn-assembled race.

And I just now realized I’ve wrote an examination of Lalaloopsy longer and deeper than anyone will ever care to write. I’ve also probably written the word Lalaloopsy more times than any normal human being should have to write.

Festival of Sugary Sweets is another addition to the Lalaloopsy universe with more artificial sweetener than Splenda. There’s no engaging story or character development to hold your attention even on the most base level of children’s entertainment. The dolls are probably a great product and are a better use of time for kids to develop their creativity. Leave them alone with some of these toys for 45 minutes and I guarantee they’ll weave a better tale than this bland excuse for tie-in marketing.

“Maleficent” Review

Be it the popularity of Game of Thrones or that trend of darkening up classic fairytales, Disney has taken a new approach to the story of Sleeping Beauty with a focus on the villainous Maleficent. But as the voice-over introduction implies, there’s more to the story than we originally thought. In fact, this version believes that the story is completely wrong. Maleficent wasn’t a villain at all, but a wronged woman who ends up saving the day. Such a route isn’t uncommon as the only two ways to make a movie about a villain is to either have them turn around as the hero or slink comfortably into their role of evil. But in the quest to make Maleficent the hero in this story, so much else is sacrificed in the name of making a female-friendly witch of great power and pathos.

The movie begins innocent enough portraying Maleficent as a curious, young fairy of the forest who fancies a prince that wanders into her domain. The two form a relationship, but their souls grow apart as the kingdom of humans threatens to encroach on the magical forest. Battles ensue between the king’s army of knights and Maleficent’s army of trees. Eventually the prince must make a serious choice about where he stands by cutting off the wings of his secret love. And this is the moment where the story loses all its character and tone the way Maleficent being de-winged is staged as a rape allegory with her being drugged, sliced and crying in a pool of her tears in the morning.

This would seem to be the setup for a darker path of a villain given how horribly wronged she was by her first love. But once we get to the familiar story of Sleeping Beauty with the iconic scene of the wicked witch cursing the princess, the movie starts dipping down into the depths of a mediocre fan-fiction. Rather than despise Sleeping Beauty and attempt to keep her comatose for eternity, the magical matriarch regrets her decision after years of watching over her like a mother hen. Rather than harbor some fleeting emotions of their earlier romance, Maleficent and the prince-turned-king are simplistic enemies. And rather than Sleeping Beauty being awakened by the kiss of a prince, she’s actually awakened by Maleficent herself.

All of this staged as if to imply that the true story of Sleeping Beauty was a massive coverup by a patriarchal society. There’s nothing wrong with rewriting a fairytale from a different perspective, but this one appears more vindictive than creative. The best part of the picture is Angelina Jolie as the cackling and sinister Maleficent, embodying the role as no other actor could. The worst part of the movie is everything else. The character that surround Maleficent’s arc are all one-dimensional. The king who descends into madness has no buildup – one scene he’s a boy in love with a fairy, the next he’s a babbling madman swinging a sword. Prince Charming appears in the picture, but only as a worthless red herring. The three fairies that watch over Sleeping Beauty are just forced comic relief embodying a female version of The Three Stooges. And Sleeping Beauty herself would have been better off spending the entire movie asleep with how little she has to say or do.

The consensus among both the writer, director and Jolie was that they felt compelled to make this movie as an aspiring figure for little girls. Sure, because this is what little girls want to see in a movie, right? They don’t want a fantasy story filled with enchantment and wonder – they want rape allegories and pathos in a tone-deaf revenge tale. The movie is entirely dependent on Jolie’s performance to hold this rickety narrative together that tacks on CGI battles and light humor. At its best, the grand effects of walking trees and fire-breathing dragons is serviceable. At its worst, the bickering of the fairies will have you tearing your hair out in annoyance.

Maleficent features Angelina Jolie all dolled up as the perfect villain with nowhere to go. She leaves behind every single actor in the dust as if her magical powers sucked every ounce of character out of the cast. Even her companion – a crow that transforms into a man – isn’t much for conversation. Though given how terrible the dialogue is of the three fairies, maybe he got off lucky. It’s such a shame that the marvelous talents of Jolie are wasted on a ham-fisted script where she has to act against cardboard characters. Sure, she’s a memorable character for rediscovering love and she emits a palpable charm, but at what cost? I want to love her and this movie, but it’s hard to do that when this picture refuses to define its characters or pick a consistent tone.

“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.

“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’.