Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Voracious Filmgoer's Top Ten Films of 2016











TOP TEN
1.     Lemonade
2.     The Witch
3.     Certain Women
4.     Other People
5.     Zootopia
6.     Toni Erdmann
7.     O.J.: Made in America
8.     Cameraperson
9.     Fences

The Alternates (alphabetically):
Elle
The Handmaiden
Julieta
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids
Krisha
Moonlight
Mountains May Depart
Silence
Weiner

Honorable Mentions: 13th, Barbershop: The Next Cut, Eye in the Sky, The Fits, Hell or High Water, I am Not Your Negro, Kill Zone 2, Love & Friendship, Loving, Pete’s Dragon, X-Men: Apocalypse

Other 2016 bests

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Other 2016 Bests


Best Cinematography – Digital
Dion Beebe 13 Hours
Jarin Blaschke The Witch
            Janusz Kaminski The BFG
James Laxton Moonlight
Flavio Marinez Labiano The Shallows

Best Cinematography – Film
            Christopher Blauvelt Certain Women
Mauro Fiore The Magnificent Seven
Stéphane Fontaine Jackie
Rodrigo Prieto Silence
Adam Stone Midnight Special

Best Sound
            13 Hours
            Rogue One
            Silence
Sully
Zootopia

Best Special Effects
            13 Hours
            Doctor Strange
            Rogue One
Sully
            X-Men: Apocalypse

Best Stunts
            13 Hours
            Jason Bourne
            Kill Zone 2
            The Nice Guys
            Rogue One

Best Costumes
            Fences
Hail, Caesar!
            The Handmaiden
The Nice Guys
            The Witch

Best Makeup
            Green Room
Moonlight
The Shallows
Star Trek Beyond
            Swiss Army Man

Best Set/Art Direction
            The BFG
            Certain Women
Hail, Caesar!
            The Nice Guys
            The Witch

Best Editing
            Cameraperson
            Certain Women
            Moonlight
O.J.: Made in America
            The Witch

Best Score
            Nicholas Britell Moonlight
Michael Giacchino Rogue One
            Andy Hull and Robert McDowell Swiss Army Man
Mica Levi Jackie
            John Williams The BFG

Best Song
“Drive It Like You Stole It” Sing Street
“Finest Girl” Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
“How Far I’ll Go” Moana
“Up” Sing Street
            “Where You Are” Moana

Best Adapted Screenplay
Eric Heisserer Arrival
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney Moonlight
Melissa Mathison The BFG
            Kelly Reichardt Certain Women
Martin Scorsese & Jay Cocks Silence
                       
Best Original Screenplay
Maren Ade Toni Erdmann
Jared Bush & Phil Johnston and Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jim Reardon & Josie Trinidad, and Jennifer Lee Zootopia
Kelly Fremon Craig The Edge of Seventeen
Robert Eggers The Witch
            Chris Kelly Other People

Best Documentary
            Cameraperson
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids
O.J.: Made in America
13th
            Weiner

Best Animated Film
            Finding Dory
            Kubo and the Two Strings
            Kung Fu Panda 3
            Moana
Zootopia

Best Foreign Film
            Elle
            The Handmaiden
            Julieta
Mountains May Depart
            Toni Erdmann
           
Best Supporting Actor
Ralph Fiennes A Bigger Splash
Stephen McKinley Henderson Fences
Daniel Radcliffe Swiss Army Man
Trevante Rhodes Moonlight
Harvey Scrimshaw The Witch

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis Fences
Kate Dickie The Witch
            Lily Gladstone Certain Women
            Lupita Nyong’o Queen of Katwe
Molly Shannon Other People

Best Actor
Joel Edgerton Loving
Ryan Gosling The Nice Guys
            Peter Simonischek Toni Erdmann
Denzel Washington Fences
Anton Yelchin Green Room

Best Actress
Krisha Fairchild Krisha
Sandra Hüller Toni Erdmann
Isabelle Huppert Elle
Ruth Negga Loving
Hailee Steinfeld The Edge of Seventeen

Best Director
Maren Ade Toni Erdmann
Ezra Edelman O.J.: Made in America
Robert Eggers The Witch
Kelly Reichardt Certain Women
            Martin Scorsese Silence

Monday, January 9, 2017

Song and Dance, Man: LA LA LAND


I saw La La Land a few weeks ago and, though fun, the more I’ve thought about it the less I’ve thought of it. There’s much to admire about its shaggy fastidiousness bringing the movie musical to an aw-shucks shuffle and mumble aesthetic bursting with glitter at the margins. Writer-director Damien Chazelle glides the Steadicam with dancers great and small, dialing up the colors in the smooth cinematography to just shy of Technicolor vibrancy. The songs don’t exactly burst forth in memorable wit or hummable melody, but noodle around with a passive aggressive earworm tendency to quietly wrap a measure or two around the back of the brain. There’s something appealing about sitting in the theater watching it unspool, but little to stick with you beyond the feeling of having seen something largely pleasant, a mostly empty exercise in style and self-satisfaction. But that's not so bad, considering.

It begins with one of the most exuberant curtain raisers in recent memory, pure joy as a traffic jam erupts in dance, buoyant and colorful gestures totally swept up in moving to the beat. The movie ends with an even better sequence: one of the loveliest sustained passages in any movie I’ve seen lately. I held my breath as the film steps into a poignant, melancholy, graceful dream ballet about fleeting moments, about love and loss and the fantasy of what might have been. In between the film isn’t quite as enchanting and transporting, but it’s really trying, you know? Chazelle has traded in cachet gained from the gruff, buzzy, and percussive Oscar-winning drama Whiplash for the chance to make an original movie musical. We don’t get too many of those anymore, let alone evocations of a Jacques Demy style peppered with allusions to MGM’s Freed unit fare all nestled in a quipping romantic comedy (another genre that’s fallen fallow of late).

Like his earlier film it’s an exploration of artists pushing their talents to the limit, unsure whether their passion is enough to get them to the level of success necessary to make a living, let alone becoming a Great. But instead of that film’s dark central relationship – a jockeying for power between a domineering professor and an aggressively ambitious student – this film is a fuzzy and light romance, as charming as can be while still maintaining a simmering striving sadness underneath. This film’s central couple is a pair of dreamers trotting through a fantasy Los Angeles. She wants to be an actress like her studio-era idols. A huge Golden Age Hollywood poster covers one wall of her tiny bedroom in a cramped apartment shared with three other girls, a place to crash between auditions and barista shifts at the Warner Bros. lot. He wants to run a jazz club. In the meantime he’s obsessively hording artifacts from when jazz was king and piecing together savings from small time gigs playing background noise piano in restaurants or New Wave cover bands at shallow parties.

She is Emma Stone. He is Ryan Gosling. They turn up the movie star charm and crackling chemistry as they perform the expected rom-com moves, starting out prickly, jabbing at each other with glowing conversational daggers. They don’t like each other, each quick with an insult. But they dance so swimmingly in sync, a soft shuffle of steps, a sudden graceful motion, a swooping flourish. In true Astaire and Rogers fashion (in spirit, but definitely not in skill) feet tell the real story of feelings. We know they’re meant to be, and soon they’re giving it a go. Their only problem is being young in 2016, a time in which it’s awfully hard to make jazz pianist or glamorous star a career goal. (Not that it was ever easy to succeed in those professions, but it sure was a lot smoother when there was popular demand.) This makes La La Land, a self-consciously colorful and charmingly artificial romantic musical, a bittersweet tale of people who just weren’t made for these times. They bond over artistic passions – he explaining jazz, she taking a backlot tour – and fall in love, before the demands of selling-out start them on separate paths.

Chazelle makes use of his leads’ appealing banter and expressive moves, turning this into a slight two-hander. No time to flesh out others, it is a duet for young talent with enough experience to shoulder the demands of the roles and smooth-enough faces to play striving ingénues and ambitious self-starters. They are figures conjured for genre play, the types we’d expect to find in a movie like this, their movements and behavior dictated by the way a dress should ruffle, the way glitter should float on a puff of breeze, the way a hop-skip-slide should gleam under a lamppost at night. It’s all rather sweet, but narrow. Their pursuit of success (and each other) is the movie’s exclusive interest, crowding an ace supporting cast (fleeting glimpses of Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K Simmons, Finn Wittrock, and others) out of the chance to strut their stuff. And in the end, even their relationship is lopsided – far more interested in his jazz than her acting – and remains vague on their actual progress to career destinations.

The central question for the characters is whether or not they’ll be true to their artistic ambitions – he likes real jazz; she prefers serious roles – or give in to temptation. And maybe choosing one means losing the other, or each other. That their potential sell-out moves – a gig playing fun popular music with a John Legend type (played by the man himself); a role on a series described as Dangerous Minds meets The OC – sound at least as, if not more, fun than their dream art maybe muddies the movie’s point. Gorgeous widescreen colors stretch across the screen, and the film’s protagonists’ swooning, naïve worship of modes of artistic expression fallen from peak popularity (clinging to an ideal that keeps their prospects slim and dusty instead of embracing the actual mess of creating art) is mirrored in the fussy (and sometimes fusty) evocation of genre gone by. I was frustrated by all this inconsistency, but then there’s that final dreamy conclusion that practically lifted me out of my seat. And, hey, it was worth hanging in there after all. Any movie with two great scenes bookending a technically accomplished (if hollow) middle can’t be all bad.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

For Better; For Worse: FENCES


Fences is the sort of smart, big hearted, densely written, deeply felt, smartly blocked, stirringly performed theatrical experience that can knock you sideways for the rest of the day.  Denzel Washington’s powerful film adaptation of August Wilson’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is thoughtful, patient, considered, literary. It uses the medium of cinema to recreate the full feeling of having spent and been spent by a consuming, heavy-duty, satisfying evening at the playhouse. Feeling no pressure to open up or embellish upon the text, Washington uses screen staging to bring full expression to Wilson’s writing, letting actors roam the frame, boxed in by their circumstances and holding court for each other as a way to feel heard, even and especially if they’re simply talking past each other. Here is a film with no frivolous exchanges. Every line is imbued with forceful personality and deep meaning. A complicated film, this rich text is contrary to the usual contemporary cycle of instant reaction and shallow analysis. You have to sit with it. You have to live in it. The film creates a fully formed world out of a backyard, entire lives out of conversations.

We sit in and around the home of Troy and Rose, a black couple living paycheck to paycheck in 1950s’ Pittsburgh. They have a mostly happy life, but there are unresolved dramas, neglected compromises, and lingering regrets. He (Washington) is a frustrated garbage man still hoping to get ahead, discrimination be damned. Once a potential Negro league star, he just missed the desegregation of the major leagues. He’s trapped by what could have been, caught in the tug of war between prejudice and opportunity that defined the Northern migration of African Americans looking for better futures in the time between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. And yet for as much as his circumstances defined his possibilities and his worldview, he has made progress, with a steadfast wife (Viola Davis), a loyal friend (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a troubled brother (Mykelti Williamson), and two sons (one grown (Russell Hornsby), the other (Jovan Adepo) almost there). He can’t quite reconcile his offspring’s ambitions (jazz and football) with his sense of practicality. He worries for them, and though times have changed and are about to continue changing, he can’t quite see it, because they didn’t change in time for him.

Human and humane, Wilson’s worldview makes the story and characters not a sociological specimen or mere vehicle of messaging. No, Fences is stirringly true to life, with characters full of complications. And into these people a perfect cast breathes astonishing life. In long, complicated, dense dialogues and monologues they speak. We hear them gossip, reminisce, plan and dream, and yet underneath we can hear their fears and see their foibles. Fully rounded and shaded figures, they aren’t always easy to get a read on. They reveal flaws and disagreeable aspects of themselves, sometimes through trying to hide their truth, and other times because they’ve run out of obfuscations and must now confront their human failings. There’s a core elemental quality to the film’s specificity, true to Wilson’s sharp evocation of race, class, time, and space, and his keen ear for the ways in which speech can bring people closer and pull them apart, how the sum total of a person’s experience can both expand and contract a person’s possibilities. We can see and hear how some are taken for granted, and others show affection through gruffness, how cruelty can be a kindness and how compassion can flower even in withering relational pains.

What’s most thrilling about Washington’s directorial approach here is how he turns the movie house into a playhouse, importing all the immediacy of live theater while retaining all the power of the wide big screen image. He finds large emotional scenes subtly wrought, moments of deep psychology and powerful exchanges played not to the back rows but perfectly calibrated with delicate electrifying intimacy for the cameras. He, with cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, builds frames with a proscenium in mind, not stagey but thrillingly contained. The blocking (often a lost art in a world of bland coverage and frivolous CG-assisted swoops) is thought through so deeply, each actor’s placement on the screen, as well as every element of production design, strategically situated to reveal and deepen the emotion of the moment. Watch how a fence becomes metaphor sitting unfinished behind people working to build separations. See how a tree looms above, sturdy growth, or a bat leans ready to strike, full of unspoken potential. Spot movement through a back window, a sight alternating between comfortable domesticity and intentional isolation.

A most intelligently constructed film, Washington has engineered every moment to highlight the power of the play’s text, and the impressively felt, effortlessly deployed performances by himself and his tremendous co-stars. This is a movie of small gestures, quiet revelations, sharp exchanges, quicksand confessions, and dazzling complexity. In its smallness, it grows big, breathtakingly apparent that it’s a major work. More than a surface transposition from theater to cinema, Washington (who surely knows the play inside and out, having starred with Davis in its 2010 Broadway revival) interprets, making it a vital and unshakeable moviegoing experience. He provides space for his talented cast to inhabit their characters, digging deep into their drives and desires, dramas and disagreements, hard pasts and talented possible futures. Through their conversations whole worlds open up. Without visualizing a flashback, Washington need only let the camera linger as he or one of his colleagues holds forth in colorful language, evoking whole strains of conflict and trauma or love and loss in a nod, a fleeting expression, a softly spoken word. It is a rich, dense, and hearty meal in a multiplex otherwise full of empty trifles.

Friday, December 30, 2016

History of Violence: ASSASSIN'S CREED


The director, cinematographer, and stars of last year’s effectively muddy and bloody production of Macbeth have reunited for another movie about fate, ambition, and violence. Unfortunately, and confusingly, the movie is Assassin’s Creed, a murky, inscrutable video game adaptation that goes heavy on the action and portent but light on sense. How they ended up here, other than an eagerness to collect a paycheck, must have something to do with the material’s stupid clever conceit. A modern-day criminal is hooked up to a sci-fi contraption and sent to eavesdrop in the brain and senses of a violent ancestor living 500 years ago. (It’s a Quantum Leap with less responsibility.) There’s a nugget of a fascinating concept about historical inevitability and genetic determinism in this idea, but it is developed in a scattershot way, draining suspense and intrigue the more it tries to complicate matters. At first glance it may look and sound more important than the usual attempts to make action movies out of video games, but the longer it goes the worse it grows – tin-eared, nonsensical, consequence-free.

But you can’t say director Justin Kurzel isn’t trying. He has cinematographer Adam Arkapaw whip up a textured and dusty look for the past and a gleaming antiseptic blue-grey sheen for the future. Into these dark (dim, really) frames goes Michael Fassbender, bringing far more neck-bulging Macbeth emotion than the writing requires. He plays a man on death row who gets injected with the executioner’s chemicals only to awake in a covert institute in Spain where a mysterious Marion Cotillard (a little less Lady Macbeth-y) hopes to use his DNA to extract the history of a centuries-old assassin (also Fassbender) and his mission to hunt down the apple Eve bit in Eden. Yes, you read that correctly. This movie began pleasingly silly in the way plenty pompous pulp pictures do: with a wall of text. This one is describing an ancient battle over supernatural relics fought between the Knights Templar and Assassin’s Creed. The following confounding opening sequences are preposterous and exciting, cutting ruthlessly between slashing violence in the past and glowing doohickeys in the near future, trying breathlessly to tie two timelines and Fassbenders together into one nutty narrative.

By the time the swirling screenplay (by one writer who has adapted Shakespeare and two who adapted Vernoica Roth, if that indicates what’s going on here) settles into its main groove, the full incomprehensibility comes to the fore. We watch as our modern man gets attached to a giant apparatus that allows him to fully experience the sensations of his ancestor’s battles. Yet he can’t change the past. He’s merely an observer. And the company bankrolling Cotillard – and which also employs other great thespians Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael K. Williams, all asked to speak in hushed monotone – simply wants him to see where the elaborate historical action sequences – galloping horses, jabbing swords, and medieval parkour – take the apple. Why they can’t take him directly to when the apple is dropped off somewhere is beyond me. And what will this apple do once found? Nothing less than give them control of Free Will, though what that looks like or accomplishes is left awfully fuzzy. But if you’re already accepting a technobabble process by which DNA can be decoded into the ultimate VR experience, what are one or two more disbeliefs to suspend?

We’re watching two timelines: one in which unknowable future people stare at monitors, and one in which preordained action plays out without suspense because A.) we know they get the apple, and B.) our protagonist’s only involvement is paying attention to it. As a result, my attention dipped dramatically once I got used to the silliness and saw the stasis of it all. Sure, it looks striking and Kurzel has a tremendous amount of acting talent playing along with the inherently goofy story done up in total straight-faced seriousness. It has the thunderous sound design and huge CGI budget of a big studio production, and the constant drumbeat of flashy spectacle and weightless violence required of its genre. But every second that goes by means less and less as the groaning sturm und drang adds up to hollow, pointless confusion. The pseudo-mystical medieval swashbuckler hidden under layers of contrived convolutions would be a lot more fun if it wasn’t tied to such a ponderous drag about Fate and Conspiracy and Revenge. By the end, with the action finally mattering as it (mild spoiler, if you care) erupts in the other timeline, as the Assassin bloodline has its revenge on the techno-Templar, I found myself wondering why they hadn’t done that an hour earlier and saved us all the trouble of sitting through the hectic nothing. No movie this stupid can afford to be so dull.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Stranger in Strange Land: AMERICAN HONEY


American Honey is a long, aimless road trip of self-discovery. It begins with a lost, disadvantaged, impoverished young woman escaping a bad relationship by running away with a wild band of scrappy twentysomethings piling in an old van to travel the American mid- and southwest selling magazine subscriptions. It ends with her having a little bit more of an idea about what she wants to do with her life, but not so much more that there’s anything like a natural endpoint. The movie simply travels along as the group stops at different towns and cities, adding up to a portrait of a nation of juxtapositions and inequalities: rural and urban, rich and poor, young and old. British director Andrea Arnold has traversed similar territory before, albeit in a much more contained setting, in her small, powerful Fish Tank, about a teenage girl living in miserable London poverty. Here, though, Arnold expands her canvas, trying to take in a whole generation, a whole country with one massive, rambling journey. She’s in search of some overarching truth that remains out of reach.

It’s in the tradition of films that find acclaimed foreign directors making a movie about “America.” (Trace the history back further and you could draw a line to Alexis de Tocqueville.) On the one hand, there can be great observations made from an outsider’s perspective. On the other, there can be some clumsiness in what might be more a commentary on America as a symbolic place onto which filmmakers can project their own interests. Thinking of the great eccentric examples of cinematic exchange, like Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, it’s clear the most fascinating cross-cultural USA pictures are those which are most obviously a director’s preoccupations and pet theme’s layered over a new landscape. In the case of American Honey an anthropological curiosity tips over into an indiscriminate eye, looking for beautiful squalor, indulging lengthy sequences of its characters milling about, and failing to filter its incidents into anything like a coherent statement. It’s a grab bag of worst-case scenario Americana: convenience stores, truck stops, cheap motels, Wal-Marts, shallow suburbs, dusty highways, dirty dumpsters, and anywhere motes and bugs flit in the air.

A protracted, lumpy journey, the scraggly band of young people drift from place to place, bouncing along to thumping hip hop and shooting the breeze as they travel empty roads through wide open spaces. The lead (newcomer Sasha Lane) is charmingly inscrutable, energetic and open to new experiences but containing an essential unknowable mystery. She draws in interest, but also holds her motivations at a beguiling remove. She’s always in the moment, but her eyes betray a mind that’s always in two places at once. Others in the troupe include a guy she has a crush on (Shia LaBeouf, looking unkempt and un-showered) and the icily alluring leader of the pack (Riley Keough). The rest are a jumble of interesting faces with wild, unpredictable behaviors and personalities that blur together. You’d think spending nearly three hours with characters would let you get to know them pretty well, but this movie is interested in poses and episodic encounters – hooking up, robbing, hitchhiking, dancing, scavenging – than exposition or exploration of what makes these people tick. When it’s time to get down to business, they go door-to-door hawking their wares, telling unconvincing sob stories and hardly looking like trustworthy salespeople. It’s never clear how anyone could be buying what they’re selling.

For a long stretch of American Honey, with its tire-spinning repetitive grind of incident and Arnold’s typically claustrophobic square-framed trashy/beautiful cinematography, I felt like I’d always been and always would be watching this movie. It feels endless, content to live, and wallow, with the pretty poverty of its hard-living characters. Feinting at honesty when it’s really aestheticized and empty, the film ogles at unwashed skin, desperate situations, crumbling lives as if its act of looking through pretty filmic lenses is equivalent to having something to say. When it’s compelling, losing itself in the makeshift tribal rituals of bouncing and chanting along to mantras and raps or in stealing away moments of fleeting joy in crushing pain and poverty, the actors bring excitement and convincing lived-in feeling to the proceedings. But when it’s at its clumsiest, it’s rootless and pointless, drifting along on borrowed observations and trite conclusions. This is an ode to a lost generation, to young people who are wandering doom- and debt-laden into a world where hope and possibility have been dried out in the wake of their elders. And yet it has no real sense of why that might be or how these characters feel about their plight. It’s as lost and unaware as they are, striking to look at but with little to say.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Don't You Worry 'bout a SING


Sing is the least you can do to make an inoffensive all-ages animated amusement. It’s not particularly inspired or entertaining, with none of the visual beauty of a Laika or Ghibli, the innovation of a Pixar, or the all-around crowd-pleasing nature of a Disney. Despite a host of celebrity voices and colorful shenanigans, it doesn’t even have a leg up over Trolls, the other recent jukebox karaoke musical comedy aimed at youngsters and the adults who don’t mind taking them to such things. No, Sing doesn’t have higher highs or lower lows, because it’s not trying to do as much. It’s set in a world of animals behaving like people in an expansive metropolis, but hasn’t a tenth of Zootopia’s imagination. It is filled with characters yearning to make something of themselves, but with nary the picture book psychology of an Inside Out. It finds a plucky koala (Matthew McConaughey) throwing a singing competition to save his crumbling theater – Muppets much? – and gathers a menagerie of contestants with individual little dramas and conflicts, but isn’t interested in setting up American Idol suspense. It just wants to live up to its title and sing. That’s it. And so it does.

Totally undemanding, the movie starts out like it’ll be a family friendly Altman picture, swooping around its city to find the characters who’ll be the finalists. There’s a harried hog mother (Reese Witherspoon), soulful gorilla (Taron Egerton), moody porcupine (Scarlett Johansson), sleazy rat (Seth MacFarlane), shy elephant (Tori Kelly), sparkling pig (Nick Kroll), and others who fall by the wayside as the big show approaches. That they all have little problems to overcome – stage fright, gambling debts, bad dads, and so on – is par for the course. That none of these issues derail the movie’s genial good spirit and even keel plotting contributes to its blasé sense of anodyne amiability. Some wild cards – a lazy rich sheep (John C. Reilly) whose grandmother (Jennifer Saunders) was once upon a time a theater (or, as she’d pronounce it, “thea-tah”) star – enter the proceedings just to keep churning incident between bobble-headed snippets of pop songs sung loudly and enthusiastically from the mouths of cartoon critters.

The songbook is at least somewhat admirably diverse. Animals sing hits by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Van Halen, Frank Sinatra, Nicki Minaj, Elton John, and many, many more. Remember those infomercials for multi-CD sets of “Greatest Hits,” which would reliably end with brief excerpts from songs included while a complete tracklist would scroll by in garish yellow font? That’s how many a child parked in front of the TV would get introduced to earworms of times gone by. (That and the oldies stations were formative instruments of pop knowledge.) So maybe that’s the function Sing will serve in this on-demand age, letting kids hear a broad swath of easy pop listening while their parents smile in recognition at a couple measures of, say, Crazy Town’s “Butterfly.” That we get a plot punctuating abbreviated musical numbers is too bad, as the whole thing grinds to a halt when we need to care that a mammal is cut from the competition due to his excessive flatulence or that another critter in need of money throws a car wash and uses his fur to buff and dry.

There’s really nothing else to it other than bland believe-in-yourself moralizing that’s been done better, and with more conviction, in a dozen other animated family films of the last quarter century. It has a whole colorful animal world that’s been imagined at the level of a particularly underdeveloped picture book, with not even a scrap of the visual ingenuity and clever visual gags of a Zootopia. There’s even a missed opportunity for an exploration of what these real-world singers look like in the parallel animal world. Think of all the puns left for the taking. Diana Sloth. The Beetles. Llama Summers. Weird Al Yak-ovic. Director Garth Jennings (of the decent Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from a decade ago) and the team at Illumination (of the Despicable Mes) are content to simply groove on the borrowed charms of fun songs to power their blandly amiable time-waster.
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