by Steve Habrat
Almost any movie buff can tell you that January and February are far from the most exciting movie months of the year. Outside of a few Oscar nominees finally receiving the wide release treatment, audiences are stuck with—and astonishingly flock to—clichéd comedies, cable-channel action movies, vapid romantic comedies, and stiff horror movies that should have remained in their coffins. It’s extremely difficult to find a diamond in the rough, but every so often, one shimmering winner shines brightly through the piles of garbage. This year’s diamond in the rough is The Lego Movie, a rainbow explosion of sugary visuals and Adult Swim humor tailored for those far too young to know what Adult Swim is. Refreshingly weird, fast paced, and quick witted, The Lego Movie is an animated jewel that almost demands to be seen twice just so audience members young and old can appreciate the clever script from directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. It’s also a hallucinogenic tribute to soaring superheroes, pop culture icons, and cinematic classics that audiences have all come to know and adore over the years. Did I mention that it boasts an A-list cast enthusiastically lending their voices to these little plastic wonders, and that it also sends a wonderful message to children about the power of imagination?
The Lego Movie introduces us to everyman Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), a happy-go-lucky construction worker who always follows his instruction manual for conforming to the world around him. Despite Emmet’s best attempts to fit in with the rest of the citizens of his Lego world, the bouncy little guy always seems like the odd man out. One evening, while leaving work, Emmet spots a mysterious girl called Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) snooping around the construction site. As Emmet goes to approach Wyldstyle, he slips down a hole in the ground, and comes face to face with a glowing red brick called the Piece of Resistance. Entranced by it’s beauty, Emmet attempts to touch the Piece of Resistance, but when he does, he passes out and wakes up in the clutches of Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), who is the muscle for Lord Business (voiced by Will Farrell), the sinister president of the Lego world. While being interrogated by Bad Cop, Emmet learns that the Piece of Resistance has attached itself to his back, and that Lord Business possesses a weapon called the Kragle, which is capable of freezing the entire Lego universe. Emmet is soon rescued by Wyldstyle, who takes him to meet the Master Builders—a group of heroes capable of building anything they can dream of. Among the Master Builders are a wizard called Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), the pirate Iron Beard (voiced by Nick Offerman), the overly positive Princess Uni-Kitty (voiced by Alison Brie), and ‘80s spaceman Benny (voiced by Charlie Day). It is with the Master Builders that Emmett learns that he is the “Special,” the one who can save every man, woman, and creature from Lord Business’ evil plot.
The Lego Movie’s hyperactive style and rapid-fire jokes will mostly certainly turn off viewers who aren’t open to this sort of thing. But for those willing to open their imagination to what Lord and Miller have thrown up on the screen, the rewards will stretch far beyond the film’s runtime. It’s almost a given that children will be powerless against its 200-mile-per-hour pacing and the barrage of characters both old and new zipping across the screen, but the filmmakers don’t forget about the parents or those (possibly inebriated) audience members looking for a hearty dose of artistic vision. Adult DC Comics fans are sure to have just as much fun as the kids as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern flash across the screen and cleverly poke fun at themselves, while Star Wars fans will certainly have a chuckle at one joke that flickers with Family Guy’s sense of humor. For those who spend their evenings in a marijuana cloud watching Adult Swim, the film’s bloodshot psychedelics and self-aware jabs will have them doubled over in their seats as trippy graphics and sly pop culture references leap out in 3D and call upon the spirit of Seth Green’s dementedly anarchic Robot Chicken. This strange brew may sound like an acquired taste, but rest assured when I tell you that there is a brilliant last act twist that helps this dizzying concoction of caffeinated inspiration go down smoothly.
When it comes to discussing the The Lego Movie’s wide array of characters, there is a long line of A-list actors lending their vocal chords to these little marvels. Chris Pratt brings his man-child charms to Emmet, our everyman hero who proudly stands behind his idea for a double decker couch. Will Arnett lends his gruff voice to Batman, growling the expected “I’m Batman” line with an extra sprinkling of cheese. He’s easily the most fun character of the bunch, mostly because he’s so overly confident even when he’s botching his batarang throws. Elizabeth Banks makes Wyldstyle an instant plastic sweetheart with a rough and tough side. Little girls in the audience are sure to adore her as she flips, spins, punches, and kicks her way through an army of robotic bad guys. Charlie Day screeches his way through the role of Benny, the ‘80s space man who desperately wants to build the crew a retro rocket ship. Alison Brie’s coo and unpredictable mood swings make Princess Uni-Kitty downright hilarious, as she is in constant turmoil with her excessive positivity. Morgan Freeman offers his trademark vocal talents to Vitruvius, a wise but slightly spaced-out wizard with eyesight complications. Will Farrell brings his maniacal cackle to Lord Business, snarling playful threats to our heroes and his endless supply of henchmen. Liam Neeson rounds out the main cast as Bad Cop, the hushed muscle of Lord Business who will suddenly unleash his peppy side.
While The Lego Movie’s razor-sharp sense of humor makes it an instant winner, the real refresher here is the amazing animation that offers a nice change of pace from the computerized creations from Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks. Though the characters and the world around them are brought to life with CGI magic, the film never truly looks like it was brought to life with a computer program. It looks like we are watching a stop motion miracle—a toy store Lego display that has suddenly leapt to crude life and started interacting with us. The filmmakers don’t forget to smartly call attention to the Lego figurine’s flexibility limits, most memorably with Emmet’s hysterical jumping jacks that he starts his day out with. The constant swirl of colors, characters, and action is all brought home with a thumping title track called “Everything is AWESOME!!” from Tegan and Sara, an indie rock duo who provide a electronic dance track that is sure to be an instant favorite in your family. Overall, with so many animated features struggling to win the hearts of both adults and children, The Lego Movie stands tall as a shining example of how to appeal to all ages. It dares to get a little weird, a little wild, and a little satirical, but it does it with plenty of heart and intelligence, sending an enduring message about the power and importance of imagination.
by Steve Habrat
It’s a Wonderful Life ranks as one of my favorite films of all time. I fell in love with this film many, many years ago, allowing it to both carve a sweet spot out in my heart, but also finding it to be one of the most heartfelt movies I have ever laid my eyes on. I adore everything from the good-old-boy performance from James Stewart to the small town setting of the film. Doesn’t that town just feel so homey? Hell, even our contributor Charles Beall, who resides near Seneca Falls, sent me a photo of the famed bridge where George Bailey tries to end it all, the bridge all decked out and trimmed with Christmas lights. While the film’s message of savoring everything that surrounds us and using the backdrop of Christmas still resonates today, this is a sturdy production with sharp direction, bountiful sets, and a surprising romanticism that fails to be matched (“Do you want the moon, Mary?”). It still wows me that this film was made in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Hollywood was embracing film noir and grittier pictures rather than fantastic productions, as the world had seen the epitome of evil and destruction first hand during the war. And yet the pains of real life do hang over It’s a Wonderful Life, as suicide, hopelessness, and desperation all come up, it’s all handled with a compassionate sanguinity from director Frank Capra. Capra makes us feel George’s heart and soul breaking, and we fear he may be lost, but surprisingly, it’s not the religious tones that oddly lift the picture up and allow it to really soar. It’s George’s heart of gold.
George Bailey (Played by the marvelous Stewart) is a real stand-up guy, one who will go above and beyond for the people he loves and stand up to those who bully. After the sudden and tragic death of his father, George finds himself taking over his father’s business, Bailey Building and Loan Association. While George had dreams and aspirations to go off to college and travel the world, the board of directors beg him to stay and run the family company to keep it out of the hands of the ruthless and leering Henry F. Potter (Played by Lionel Barrymore), a majority shareholder in the company who rejects giving home loans to the lower class workers of Seneca Falls. Potter desperately pleads with the board of directors to put an end to this but George consistently stands up to Potter. On the night that his father dies, George was wooing the beautiful Mary (Played by Donna Reed), who has liked him ever since he was a boy. George also had to watch as his brother Harry (Played by Todd Karns) goes off to college and gets married. George finally marries Mary, but finds himself sacrificing the honeymoon to keep the Building and Loan from collapse.
World War II soon erupts and Harry is drafted into the army as a fighter pilot and ends up being a war hero. George cannot enlist due to a bad ear, an accident from his childhood, so he stays in his hometown to hold down the Building and Loan. On Christmas Eve, George’s Uncle Billy (Played by Thomas Mitchell) is on his way to make a deposit of $8,000 for the company when he bumps into Potter. Uncle Billy shows Potter a newspaper headline that says Harry has won the Medal of Honor. When Potter takes the newspaper, he finds the $8,000 hidden inside and keeps the money for himself. A frantic search breaks out to find the money and George finds himself at the mercy of Potter, who refuses to give him a loan to save the company. Potter then promises to have George arrested for bank fraud. As George’s world crashes around him, he begins to contemplate suicide and right as he is about to end it all, a guardian angle appears named Clarence (Played by Henry Travers) and begins showing George what life would be like without him around. If Clarence can save George, he will earn his wings he has desperately been working for.
A cozy film, It’s a Wonderful Life presents George as such a likable guy, its damn near impossible to find a flaw in him. You find yourself wanting to reach through the screen and give George a big bear hug to reassure him everything will be just fine. Potter is the epitome of a vile antagonist, a man you can’t bring yourself to see any kindness in. It’s heart wrenching to watch George realize his fate as he begs to be spared by Potter. It’s moments like this that portray the realism that cinema was trying to achieve after the war but it also is perhaps my favorite sequence in the film. The scene is bitter, cruel, pathetic, and quite possibly one of the most charged sequences I have seen in a motion picture. Yet the film eases the tension the whimsical appearance of Clarence, who comes in the nick of time and adds a much needed dash of fantastic. The ending of the film reminds us of the magic in the air come Christmas, and how it puts a spell over all of us. That is, if you are willing to believe in magic.
The Christmas aspect of It’s a Wonderful Life enters only at the end of the film, which may leave some who have never seen it to question why this is such a popular holiday film, but it is the spirit of kindness and giving that solidifies it’s place in holiday movie history. The way George Bailey lives his life, as a kind and warm soul, willing to go the extra mile, is a mentality that many of us only embrace around the holidays. What would happen if we embraced that attitude all the time? Why should it only be limited to the Christmas season? If only we could all be like George every day of the year. It’s his past actions that ultimately save his life by the end of the film, rather than Clarence, who is only there to provide examples.
Capra begins the film with a hand turning pages in an old story book and he molds it into an ethereal bedtime story for all ages. He does a hell of a job with the snow caked scenes at the end of this film, scenes that especially seem like they could have been ripped out of that old story book, sometimes so detailed they almost seem like a painting. I dare you to watch the scene of George Bailey running through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, Christmas lights and artificial bells strung across the streets and trees, calling out “MERRY CHRISTMAS” and not help but think that would make a perfect Christmas card graphic or painting. Even though the film is shot in black and white, it remains eternal despite some dated dialogue. The film circumvents the cookie-cutter religious preaching and becomes a beacon of hope in humanity itself. Every time I see It’s a Wonderful Life, I swell with happiness and hope that kindness will reign supreme in the hearts and souls of every human being. With not one performance slacking and not one scene out of place, it’s a rare work of art that defines excellence. It really is the perfect film to watch with a mug of hot chocolate in hand, Christmas tree glowing bright, and snow quietly drifting down outside from the night sky. Who am I kidding? It’s the perfect film to watch anytime.
It’s a Wonderful Life is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
While Disney-Pixar’s computer animated offerings always leave me in awe over the creativity poured into each film, it’s the hand-drawn works that really showcase the artistic abilities of those who punch the clock at Disney. Take for instance Winnie the Pooh, the newest hand drawn gem from the animation factory that really takes your imagination by the hand. To many, he may seem dated and the urge to watch garbage like Cars 2 may seem like the more entertaining option, but I say give this adventure a go.
Pooh (Voiced by Jim Cummings) and his merry gang of loyal friends go on the hunt to find Christopher Robin (Voiced by Jack Boulter), who they believe has been captured by a mysterious beast called a “Backsoon”. They are also desperately trying to locate sad sack Eeyore’s (Voiced by Bud Luckey) tail, which has also gone missing. The first one to find the tail wins a jar of honey, which Pooh desperately wants due to a shortage at his homestead.
The entire gang makes an appearance in Winnie the Pooh. We have Piglet (Voiced by Travis Oates), Tigger (Voiced by Jim Cummings), Owl (Voiced by Craig Ferguson), Kanga (Voiced by Kristen Anderson-Lopez), Roo (Voiced by Wyatt Dean Hall), and Rabbit (Voiced by Tom Kenny), all along to catch and trap the dread “Backsoon”. Some stick-in-the-mud adults may find the brief 63 minute runtime to be entirely too long to tell the tale of Pooh but children should be glued to it.
Adults will enjoy the smiley croon of Zooey Deschanel (Elf, New Girl), who sings a number of toe-tapping little numbers sprinkled throughout. The characters themselves break out into a number of memorable songs that pay tribute to classic Pooh adventures. The best song is a tie between Pooh’s hallucinatory accolade to honey called “Everything is Honey” and Tigger’s directions that “Get You Tiggerized”. I should also acknowledge the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wink to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a charmer.
Sure to slap a big smile on the faces of those who will level with it, Winnie the Pooh encourages a vivid imagination in every viewer. It stirs up the child in the adult viewers and it will get the kiddies riled up to venture outside and organize their own search party for the “Backsoon”. Winnie the Pooh is harmless with a sunny disposition and just as sweet as honey.
Winnie the Pooh is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you are in the market for big laughs during the holidays, stop your search at National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the third and perhaps best entry in the Vacation series. Hugely slapstick and loaded with good intentions, Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is somewhat of a bumbling hero to the comedy realm. He wants nothing more than to spend quality time with his family and goes to great lengths to make sure their trips and holiday’s are something to talk about for years to come. Yet this should not be confused with intellectual depth, an attribute that is severely lacking in much of the National Lampoon cannon. But as a mindless distraction, Christmas Vacation will tickle your funny bone with its dry wit, raucous charisma, smart aleck one-liners, and none other than Griswold himself. I wish I could go on about how this film makes profound statements about the meaning of Christmas, but I can’t stretch it or sugar coat this film.
Clumsy oaf Clark Griswold (Played by Chase) wants none other than to provide his family with a good old-fashioned family Christmas. One with the perfect tree, warm company, gaudy outdoor decorations, and a big fat Christmas bonus so he can build a luxurious pool in his backyard for his children and extended family to enjoy. Along with his affectionate wife Ellen (Played by Beverly D’Angelo) and his disinterested offspring Audrey (Played by Juliette Lewis) and Rusty (Played by Johnny Galecki), the Griswolds face entertaining their in-laws, snooty neighbors, wild animals laying waste to their home, and the unannounced visit from their southern fried cousin Eddie (Played by Randy Quaid), a beer swilling moron who makes Clark look like a rocket scientist.
A much more adult oriented holiday funny flick, Christmas Vacation is loaded with toilet humor, sexual innuendos, and a finale that includes kidnapping and a massive SWAT siege on the Griswold homestead. It main goal is just to make you belt out hearty laughs at the expense of Clark’s pain. They throw him into every situation imaginable, ranging from tumbling off ladders while covering every inch of his home in white Christmas lights, to him stepping on boards and whacking himself in the face. The impatient one-liners from his children are also winners; one includes a disastrous trip to the lingerie section of a department store. At odds with Clark is Cousin Eddie, who spouts off with even more stupidity than Clark, although Clark’s comedy centers more around him getting hurt or frustrated. Yet Christmas Vacation manages to be spot on about your in-laws and extended family shacking up with you for the holidays. Personalities conflict, arguments arise, tempers flare, and you have to put up with at least one family member you have no desire to see. In Christmas Vacation’s case, that is Cousin Eddie.
If dealing with nagging family members is the extent of this film’s depth, we can only further evaluate it on its performances, which are all quite fine and bursting with the right amount of silliness. The film relies on its how-much-worse-can-this-actually-get premise to the point where it literally ends in explosions and fireworks. Quaid’s Cousin Eddie steals the show with his asinine remarks and constantly hindering the fun that Clark and Ellen try so desperately to provide. It’s nice to see him on Clark’s turf this time around and not in his native hillbilly setting. D’Angelo’s Ellen really doesn’t undergo any drastic change to her character. She still sticks by her Clark even at his dumbest. William Hickey and Mae Questel show up as the elderly Uncle Lewis and Aunt Bethany. Lewis is cranky and shrill, constantly snapping and disinterested in the entire effort by Clark. Aunt Bethany is a senile old bat that delivers one hysterical quote after another. Just try not to burst into hysterics when she sees Clark’s outdoor lighting scheme for the first time. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest show up as Clark’s hip neighbors who scoff at his attempts for a family Christmas. They also deliver their fair share of memorable moments to keep Christmas Vacation afloat.
Credit should also be given to director Jeremiah S. Chechik who allows the film to coast along and expertly balances out the laughs. He makes a moment where Clark watches old films of Christmas and his childhood a tender moment. He allows the film to be warm and accommodating, making us almost feel like actual guests in the Griswold home. We see scenes of darkened rooms where the guests are sleeping. We laugh over Rusty and Audrey awkwardly sharing a bed and being furious over each other’s movements. We almost feel like we are staying over with all of these characters. The inviting nature of this film always made me a softie for it. I will say that the film seems to wait a little too long to reveal its big twist and the hurries the final events. You’ll forgive it though.
Christmas Vacation is the furthest thing from cinematic brilliance but it sure can get the inevitable moments we all face at this time of the year correct. The film opens with a snazzy cartoon number and a catchy little tune you will be humming along with. It’s also insanely quotable and will have you and your family spouting off lines to each other for days. Ranking as the most polished and probably the most consistent Vacation film, it easily has the most replay value. It is without question the most family friendly entry, just outdoing the sub par Vegas Vacation. It should also be noted that the film has aged miraculously, never truly reeking of the 80s. Hell it even makes a good holiday double feature with A Christmas Story. If you the adult finds this a tough glass of eggnog to drain, your kids will sure be howling with delight. If you can lower your pretensions long enough to appreciate an innocent laugh, you’ll enjoy dropping in on the Griswold’s old fashioned family Christmas for years to come. I just hope you make it out alive.
Christmas Vacation is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before Jack Skellington and Sally were mall goth heroes, they were a magical pair of claymation figures who just wanted to experience the joy and wonder of Christmas. Before all the heavy metal covers and the 3D conversions, their world was even more tempting, never needing an update and forever remaining timeless. The best of the claymation bunch, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a childhood favorite of mine, favored more around the time when Jolly Old Saint Nicholas plops down the chimney than my other favorite holiday. I always thought this film does capture the hypnotizing quality of Christmas, the one that makes us feel like children again. It really gels when Jack finds himself is Christmas Town, gaping at snowmen, elves, Christmas lights, and children snuggled in their beds. It painstakingly tries to re-establish that Christmas is about awe, not about the material fixation that now comes with the most wonderful time of the year. The film, which is the brainchild of producer Tim Burton (No, he did NOT direct this!) and director Henry Selick, is teeming with some of the most creative and bizarre animated characters ever captured on camera, and they do not feel like they are stretched or insipid.
The Nightmare Before Christmas ushers us to Halloween Town, a place where all the typical Halloween ghouls reside and emerge every year to give us the willies. Halloween Town finds a leader in the bony Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who is growing weary of the same old traditions every year. With his ghost dog Zero, Jack wanders off into the woods and stumbles upon a portal to another holiday dimension: Christmas Town. Bursting with excitement and inspiration, Jack hurries back to Halloween Town and fills in the locals about what he has seen. Jack and the monsters vow that they will give “Sandy Claws” a break for the year and they will put on Christmas. As Jack’s plans slowly fall apart and his idea grows more and more dangerous, it’s up to the lonely Sally, a ragdoll zapped to life by a mad scientist, to try to convince Jack to leave Christmas to the residents of Christmas Town. Across Halloween Town, the sinister Oogie Boogie has plans of his own for Santa Claus.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true work of art, one that works simply because it carries off the viewers imagination. It did mine when I was young and I still smile today when I see the film. The 3D conversion the film underwent was rewarding because we get to see the fine details to Halloween Town. The film was the brainchild of Burton and watching the film is like stepping into the mind of Burton himself. The inspired characters also make the visit to Halloween Town beyond memorable. There are mummies, a trio of glammed up vampires, a two-face politician, witches, the boogieman, and a band of devious and merry trick-or-treaters. There are nods to the classic Universal Movie Monsters while also opening the door to a brand new world. Seriously, the film commences with a door being opened and ghosts coaxing us into the darkness. It’s really quite exciting.
As far as musicals go, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stand out as far as I’m concerned. This film gives us some of the most ingenious, cleverly written musical numbers you will see in an animated film. Just get a load of that opening introduction as the monsters all introduce themselves. It’s a horror fans dream come true and anyone who appreciates the value of lyrics will be head over heels with delight. You will be tapping your toes along with it. The song, “This Is Halloween”, is now a goth anthem, even getting a makeover from heavy metal artist Marilyn Manson a few years back. Other standouts include the dreary “Sally’s Song”, Jack’s inquisitive “What’s This”, and the trick-or-treater’s bickering “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.
There are some minor flaws to be found in this film. The love story between Sally and Jack is a bit wobbly. It never really gets off the ground and we mostly see the love from Sally’s side. Jack seems relatively unconcerned with her and barely notices her presence at times. The film is a bit short, abruptly wrapping up just when things are really starting to grip us. Oogie Boogie only really shows up at the end, a character that is the very definition if cool. What aids us in overlooking the minor bumps is that the characters are just so nifty. Jack has become an iconic animated hero and you’ll be overloaded on cute when you meet his playful pup Zero. The Mayor of Halloween Town will keep the kiddies chuckling, especially when his mood alters and his face changes. Santa Claws is also quite creative, a huge red blob of a man, a version of him that only Burton could think up. Sally is a hopeless romantic and we feel her sorrow. The most astonishing aspect is the complexities in Jack. He’s a control freak and at times a bit domineering, yet we root for him to see the error of his ways. Perhaps that is meant to force us to reflect on our own approach to Christmas. Have we missed the point of this Holiday? Are we any different than Jack? According to Burton and Selick, not really.
The Nightmare Before Christmas may prove to be a bit too eerie for some young viewers, but with films like Corpse Bride and Coraline (Also directed by Selick) on the market, that’s up for you to decide. It’s a shame that goth kids have marked it as their own, as there really is something for everyone to enjoy within the film. I think that Jack stands for much more than as the leader of the gothic nation. He represents our ignorance, our fascination with all things magical, and is the face of a truly poignant redemption story. He even symbolically rises from ashes near the end of this film. I think he represents more than the kids who shop at Hot Topic think. This film also cast its spell over me as a kid and I’m glad I had the chance to see it before the recent surge of popularity. Eye opening and intricate, with treasures abound, The Nightmare Before Christmas sweeps us off our feet, much like the season it is a testament to. An undeniable family classic.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.