By Adam Donato
If one was to say that Dreamworks is just Disney counterprogramming, they wouldn’t be wrong. Their movies lack the whimsy, musical numbers, and maturity that makes Disney and Pixar the annual winners of the Best Animated Feature Award. Shrek is the only Dreamworks movie to truly stand out and cement a place for itself in film history. The sequel, Shrek 2, is considered by many as the best-animated sequel of all time, which is fair. The popular choice isn’t always the right one as Shrek 2 isn’t even the best-animated sequel made by Dreamworks. The correct answer is Kung Fu Panda 2 and a decade after its release, it’s time everyone recognizes it.
The stereotype in film criticism when talking about good sequels is to say “It’s The Empire Strikes Back of the series.” This refers to a sequel that rises above a solid foundation made in the first installment. A follow-up that expands on the characters, story, and themes of the first. It’s a darker movie with more of everything and providing depth where the audience didn’t even think there was any. Kung Fu Panda 2 does all of this. Unlike The Empire Strikes Back, this sequel has the ability to stand on its own. It’s enhanced by the first movie but tells a complete story.
In the first movie, Po learns Kung Fu. In the sequel, Po learns inner peace. Little background is given about Po in the original, besides him making noodles with his dad and playing with Furious 5 action figures. Here, we get to explore why he is where he is and why he is like no other. Not unlike Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, this animated sequel explores why there is only one of the species of the main character. Po is the only panda due to the implied genocide of all pandas, including his parents. This flash from the past is induced by a red fire emblem prominently on the shoulder of some metal bandit wolves. The audience knows the truth about the genocide, but Po is unaware and his insatiable need to find out about his past gets in the way of their attempts to save China.
The villain threatening China is Shen, the former heir to the throne of China, voiced by Gary Oldman. This peacock is one musical number away from being the greatest animated villain of all time. While he is no slouch when it comes to combat, his real strength is his wit and of course his fireworks. It’s foretold that Shen will be defeated by a Panda, hence why he ordered the genocide of the panda race. This personal connection between Po and Shen is the driving force of the movie. Shen’s ego shines as he has little respect for the dragon warrior. His overconfidence and lack of inner peace result in his downfall, which perfectly contrasts with Po’s underdog mentality and his journey to become at peace with himself. Shen is accompanied by Soothsayer, a fortune-telling goat voiced by Michelle Yeoh, who allows the movie to show Shen being vulnerable about his goals while also being one of the funnier dynamics in the movie.
Po needs to find out what happened to his parents because all he knows is that Shen was there because Po recognizes the red fire emblem on his feathers. Po masters Kung Fu in the original, but when Shen has a weapon that defeats Kung Fu, then Po has to master himself. He has to overcome his past and his pain. We get to see how his tragedy affects his friends and family. Po leaves his family and later goes rogue from his friends. His punishment for this is near death as he finally accepts his past thanks to the help of the Soothsayer. After the flashback of his life’s journey accompanied by the film’s beautiful score, it is a triumph to watch Po evade the fireworks and save the day. It’s equally as tragic to watch Shen be the architect of his own downfall at the end when he is unable to let go of his tragic past. The movie teaches us to rise above bad circumstances and that we always have a choice of who we want to be.
The ancillary characters are also handled well in the sequel. While Master Shifu was a central character in the original, he takes a backseat here, which is refreshing as lesser sequels would recycle his arc from the first movie here. That time is more so dedicated to Shen, which is what helps make the antagonist work so well. The relationship between Po and Tigress is developed as they have a couple of one-on-ones that really support Po’s arc. Speaking of Po’s arc, the side character who steals the movie is Mr. Ping. While it’s funny to see Po’s surprise in the fact that he was adopted, it’s heartbreaking to see Mr. Ping fear losing his son. Kung Fu Panda 2 can make you cry with only one-word “Noodles” and that’s impressive.
Enough about all the character and story stuff, the movie is a whole lot of fun. The action sequences are visually beautiful. There are some awesome hero shots of Po fighting with all of his friends. The fights are range fast-paced and light to emotionally tense and almost scary. The humor doesn’t falter because of the darker tone. Yes, there are still jokes about Po and his arch-enemy, stairs, which is still funny. It really is a testament to Jack Black and the rest of the voice cast for giving each of their characters their own comedic personality.
Shrek 2 and the Toy Story sequels are all great, but when talking about great animation franchises, Kung Fu Panda isn’t even given How To Train Your Dragon level of respect. This action-comedy lands both of those genres seamlessly, while also giving legitimate character depth and solid themes that pave the way for some truly emotional moments. It’s edge of your seat action that will make you laugh and cry. The entire experience is everything that the original was and more. Some may disregard this trilogy as the “fat panda” movies, but they are certainly missing out on what is surprisingly one of the most masterfully done sequels in all of animation.
By Adam Donato
First things first, there is something to be said about the idea of a target audience. If a movie works and appeals to a demographic then there is some value in that. That appeal is concretely measured through the box-office. Say what you want about Transformers, they make a lot of money. That being said, just because a movie can be made for a certain younger demographic doesn’t make it better because the bar is lower. Pixar is great in part because their movies are made for children, but appeal to adults. The problem with Mars Needs Moms is that it appeals to nobody, like Cats!
Where would Hollywood be if it wasn’t for the occasional disasterpiece? Everyone has blindly gone into a movie that’s so bad and so weird that they question how it ever got made in the first place. Just shy of a decade after Mars Needs Moms, the film community was exposed to the depths of Cats! A movie that truly appealed to nobody. It’s too creepy and sexual for kids. It’s also too silly for adults. That being said since Mars Needs Moms is animated, one would say that the clear target audience is children. Of course, children can’t go to the movies alone, so they are usually accompanied by (you guessed it) their moms. The problem is that, like Cats, Mars Needs Moms is one of the most horrific displays of CGI ever seen in theaters.
How did this happen? Robert Zemeckis, who is undoubtedly one of the best filmmakers of his generation, loves to push the technological boundaries of filmmaking. It’s almost painful watching the behind-the-scenes footage in the credits because it’s clear how much effort was put into just shooting the movie alone. I’m sure they didn’t show footage of the animators animating because it was probably full of swearing. How is it that the aliens look more lifelike than the humans? That isn’t a compliment to the aliens either, who look like E.T. when he was dying in a ditch. A great deal of attention is given to the production design, but the movie looks hideous. It’s so dark and creepy, and when there are moments of color, it looks gross. This is a movie meant for babies and half of the time it looks like the set of Aliens.
The cast is a whole situation itself. So Seth Green did the motion capture and voice for the main child in the movie. There’s even promotional footage of the movie where one can hear his voice. For the final cut of the movie, they decided to dub the character with an actual 12-year-old boy. It’s clear to see why they pushed so hard for Seth Green since the rest of the cast is Joan Cusack, Dan Fogler, and Elisabeth Harnois. Cusack kills it as always. Harnois is an actress that has been in projects of note? Fun fact, Brie Larson auditioned for Harnois’s role. Fogler is fantastic as always. That’s right. Demean him with the "discount Jack Black" insults all you want. The Balls of Fury and Fanboys star is most notable probably for his inclusion in the Fantastic Beasts movie (which he was the best part of btw). He has so much energy, comedic talent, and personality. It’s a shame not to see him in more things. He’s the best part of the movie by far.
For what it is, the story works. Now the whole concept of Martians abducting mothers so they can program their nanny bots (not positive that’s correct, but if any die-hard Mars Needs Moms are upset then sorry) is insane and this should not have been made for theaters. That being said, the kid going from being annoyed by his nagging mother to appreciating her after his journey is solid. Folger’s character redeeming himself by guiding the kid and saving his mother, but ultimately deciding to stay on Mars works. It’s not much, but when you’re analyzing what is considered to be one of the worst movies of all, it’s fair to give it whatever credit it can get. The plot suggests the movie has something to say about men, women, and their role in raising children, when in fact the movie has nothing to say besides “moms are good.”
Does Mars Needs Moms deserve to be remembered? As a goof, sure. Play a drinking game with your friends and drink every time someone says the word “mom”. To the ambitious filmmakers out there looking to push the boundaries of technology in movies, watch and take notes on what not to do. Nobody needs to see Mars Needs Moms, but for fans of the disasterpiece, enjoy the IMDb trivia about what a disaster the production, marketing, and reception of this silly movie.
By Adam Donato
Let’s establish something right from the start: There is no bad Muppet movie — even the lesser entries in the franchise. The lowest Rotten Tomatoes score belongs to Muppets From Space at 63%, followed by Muppet Treasure Island at 73%. Absolute insanity. The nineties were great because they just decided to make Gonzo the most featured character, rivaling even Kermit for screen time. While Treasure Island isn’t a whole movie about him, like Muppets From Space, it is akin to The Muppet Christmas Carol wherein he is constantly with the lead cracking jokes, always, of course, accompanied by his best pal, Rizzo The Rat. Muppet Treasure Island is special because every Muppet movie has Muppets, but only one Muppet movie has Tim Curry.
The Muppets are known for having celebrity guest talent in everything they do. Standouts include Michael Caine and Jason Segel, but nobody comes close to how at home Tim Curry feels in Muppet Treasure Island. He’s so animated, he makes the Muppets look life-like. By the way, who doesn’t love a great villain that enjoys being evil? Curry absolutely nails Long John Silver in a way that some adaptations can’t live up to. He’s so charismatic and hammy in a way that almost makes you want to root for him. The most essential aspect of the Treasure Island story is the relationship between Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver. It’s complex because you can tell that Jim is simultaneously vibing with Silver, but can be intimidated on a dime as Silver manipulates him throughout the movie. Their final standoff at the end of the movie is a testament to how well built up their relationship was and how important it is to have an actor seriously commit to such a comical role. While perfectly balancing between threatening villain and comedic genius, his song "Professional Pirate" is an absolute banger and just might be the best in the movie.
Speaking of the songs, Muppet Treasure Island does a great job living up to its predecessors by having some very memorable musical numbers. As stated, "Professional Pirate" is a great villain song, but the crown jewel of the movie is "Love Led Us Here". Kermit and Piggy are hanging off the edge of a cliff tied to a rope that is being slowly lit on fire as they sing about the silver lining to their ultimate demise, they are reunited. All the while, Silver and company celebrate discovering the treasure as if they just won the Super Bowl. One of the most fun sequences in the movie is when the crew gets "Cabin Fever". It’s zanny and wacky fun in a way that only the Muppets can pull off. "Shiver My Timbers" does a good job setting the darker tone for a children’s movie that is not shy about death. "Something Better" is a solid “I want” song from Jim, Rizzo, and Gonzo. Of course, "Sailing for Adventure" is the premiere whole-cast number, where everybody on the Hispaniola gets a chance to shine.
The humor in this movie is simultaneously darker and dumber than previous Muppets content. As stated before, Rizzo breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge Billy Connolly as the first character to die in a Muppet movie. On the other end of the spectrum, Fozzie Bear has a man living in his finger named Mr. Bimbo, who has been to the moon twice. Even Frank Oz took awhile to come around on that joke. Speaking of dark humor, this is where Sam Eagle shines. Interestingly enough, this is the first Muppet movie where he plays a prominent role, which is great as he acts as a good foil to the chaos of the Muppets.
As an adaptation, it’s a very faithful movie. It understands what the core of the story is about and puts its best player right in the center of all the action. For a genre that is dead (Nobody tell Johnny Depp!), Muppet Treasure Island shines as another entry in the pirate genre. A balanced sense of humor, an array of different musical numbers, and Tim Curry are the main ingredients to this recipe for success. The 25 year anniversary is a perfect reason to check this one out again, for you can never go wrong with the Muppets.
By Adam Donato
Devil was supposed to be the first of a trilogy of stories based on supernatural happenings in a modern urban society titled “The Night Chronicles”. The sequels never happened and we are left with just the one: a movie about five people who are trapped in an elevator and one of them is the devil. The film easily outgrossed its $10 million dollar budget in the first weekend and went on to make $60 million at the box office. The critical reception was mixed, which for Shyamalan at the time was a good thing. He did not direct Devil as he was making the most infamous blockbuster of all time, The Last Airbender. Oh, what a year…
As the title states, this movie is being judged like a nothing horror movie dropped in the middle of September. Compared to The Godfather, Devil is terrible. As far as low-budget horror films go, this movie is a crowd-pleasing delight. It’s the whole package. You will be scared, you will laugh, and by the end, you may feel a bit emotional. The best horror movies have something that most others don’t even bother attempting, a character arc. Devil has two.
Trapping the main characters in an elevator is a great way to force the movie to stay short and character-driven. With an eighty-minute runtime, Devil spends half of its time forcing the trapped citizens to interact and reveal interesting details about themselves. The other half of the movie follows a depressed, no-nonsense detective as he tries to get them out alive. This balance helps to keep the movie feeling fresh, without compromising either storyline.
The cinematography is worth a mention as Devil’s is Tak Fujimoto. The same guy who did the cinematography for Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, and Signs (the last two being directed by Shyamalan), is doing a cheesy, low budget horror movie. His choices are brilliant, considering the movie he is making. The close-up, Dutch angle shots while in the elevator help to convey the claustrophobic paranoia of the scenario. Also, say what you want about how ridiculous the opening and closing shots of this movie are, but it works. Yes, it’s cute having the movie being bookended by flipped shots of the Philadelphia skyline. Wait a minute, Philadelphia? Isn’t that where all of Shyamalan’s movies take place? That’s cute.
Speaking of cute, the completions of the two character arcs in the film. The shady male in the elevator, who ends up being the final survivor, confesses his sin of committing a hit and run on a mother and her son. As it turns out, that mother and son were the families of the detective of the elevator case. The detective volunteers to take the lone survivor in and, on their ride, he reveals that his family was the victim of a said hit and run. Forgiveness is given as the narrator says “if the Devil is real, then God must be real, too.” Both arcs come to completion as they come together. The film, which is, for all intents and purposes, just a cheesy horror movie, to end on such a profound and optimistic note is wildly impressive and unprecedented in today’s general horror fare.
The movie is cheesy to the max. The entire cast is full of extreme stereotypes and they are all connected in the most outrageous fashion. The biggest indication of cheesiness in the movie, despite the villain being the actual Devil, is the “jelly side down” scene. One of the building’s security guards claims that there is something supernatural going down in the elevator as he sees an evil face in the elevator security footage. He goes on to test this theory for the skeptical detective by throwing a piece of jellied toast in the air. When it lands jelly side down, he loses it and actively starts praying as this is a sign of the Devil for bad things to happen when he is around. Gold.
Part of the fun of the movie is betting on who in the elevator is the Devil. At the end of the movie, it is revealed to be the old woman. This is an odd twist as the second person to be killed is the old woman who was hung with the elevator chords. Is it possible that the Devil possessed multiple people in the elevator throughout the movie? Then again, it’s hilarious if the Devil pretended to be an old woman, and on her way to kill some people decided to steal a random person’s wallet. The movie does a good job of spreading the evidence amongst all the suspects in the elevator as each person gets a turn on the hot seat.
The horror genre is not given as much credit as it should because the market is saturated by low-budget, non-scary crap. A lot of horror movies don’t work on any level, so to see one that not only succeeds as a horror, but also as a comedy with characters who arc. This isn’t high brow material, but it knows exactly what it is. Devil is unabashedly itself and for what it is, it’s a masterpiece. Not only that, it deserves to be brought up in the conversation for the most underrated horror movie of all time.
By Adam Donato
1990’s Darkman stars Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand, two all-time talents, and is written/directed by Sam Raimi. Raimi is one of the greatest horror and superhero directors of all time. Darkman brings both of these elements together and nobody talks about it. This was a year after Burton did Batman in 1989. The film did turn its $16 million budget into $33 million at the box-office but isn’t brought up when people talk about underrated comic book movies. Is it just not that good or are people not aware that Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy was not his first superhero project?
Darkman is the story of a scientist who seeks revenge against the goons who physically mangled him while trying to find his way back to his old life with his girlfriend. Neeson carries the movie as the titular character and is so much fun to watch on screen. In interviews, he’s spoken about how the character’s inner turmoil and overall self-hatred is what attracted him to the role. Raimi speaks of how the character started out as a normal dude, then seeks revenge, and has to face the monster he feels he has become. Darkman is an anti-hero as he spends the majority of the movie murdering people, but then again, those people are bad people. He also lies to his girlfriend, which prohibits them from moving forward together. References to The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera are big influences on Darkman. His inner conflict is a sympathetic one, while his external conflict is a formidable opponent.
Robert G. Durant, played by Larry Drake, and his goons are fun villains to watch. The opening sequence of the movie shows an even larger gang of thugs being taken out by Durant’s group thanks to a fake leg that is a gun and a cigar cutter that is used to cut off the fingers of his enemies. One of the goons is played by Ted Raimi, who is popular for working at the Daily Bugle in the Raimi Spider-Man movies (“It’s hip, it’s now, and how?”), and it’s always a joy to see him pop up in his brother’s movies. The complaint, if any, about this movie is that the action sequences are lackluster due to the villains just being goons. Darkman can’t feel pain and has the ability to change his appearance, so while a movie about him fighting just goons is a good starting point, it would be interesting to see him fight a villain with a more interesting skillset. That being said, the action scenes are not bad by any means. There’s balancing on steel beams and even Darkman hanging from a helicopter. It’s a wild ride for such a small scale hero.
The love interest is Julie Hastings played by soon-to-be Oscar winner McDormand, who is a step above the rest when it comes to superhero love interests. Not only is she extremely likable, but she’s also an active part of the plot apart from her relationship status. Her noticing of the memorandum is what puts the wheels in motion as Strack has to cover up his misdoings by taking her out. The relationship between Peyton, Darkman’s alter ego, and Julie is compelling in the sense that you want them to be together, but you understand why they can’t. There’s a beautiful scene where Julie is visiting Peyton’s grave when Peyton confronts her. The cavalcade of emotions in this scene is touching as we see her go from shock to horror to sadness to relief in his embrace. You want Peyton to get the girl, but you see the monster that he has become in his actions. This point is hammered home when Darkman chooses to leave Julie at the end of the movie, proving that nobody will ever judge us more than ourselves.
The special effects are great, but that’s no surprise as Raimi is known for it ever since The Evil Dead. Darkman looks terrifying, but you can still identify the man under the gauze. Neeson talked about how he struggled to speak as he wanted the fake teeth to move as little as possible. Part of the fun of this kind of movie is where special effects weren’t used. When Darkman is wearing a mask of one of the goons, their performance as Darkman wearing the goons as a mask is fun to watch. The holograms in the movie look good considering that this movie came out in 1990.
Anytime Danny Elfman does a score for a movie, it deserves to be brought up. The film is given life thanks to Elfman. He not only heightens every single action scene, but he also makes the credits fun to watch, which is an accomplishment. It was very cool to see that Elfman worked on this movie in hindsight due to his future works with Raimi on the first two Spider-Man movies.
So it’s a forgotten gem of a movie. It still has that Raimi cheesiness to it that makes such a dark movie so enjoyable to watch. The whole cast knocks it out of the park. The movie pulls everything off from special effects to score to characters and themes. The ending is the icing on the cake for any Raimi fan. As Julie chases after him, Darkman gets lost in the crowd. His mask, an unknown man played by Bruce Campbell himself. Not only that but left with the tragic feeling of losing oneself as Darkman embraces who he has become. Please do yourself a favor and check this one out.
The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.