Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Critical Frog: SOAC Act 5: BugCarpolypse

As I'm currently in Colorado, it's time for another Smile of a Child TV network review! It seems like the network has made some changes since the last time around- not only is it sporting a new logo, but it seems to have slowed down or even ceased airing some shows: it looks like some of the bad shows that I discussed in my past reviews are either being shown less or not at all ("Ewe Know" has been completely scrapped in favor of public domain with "Lassie" reruns). It looks like the network may start to be improving over time- but there are still a few themes to cover before we can leave the channel alone for a while.

Hermie and Friends/Carlos Caterpillar/Bugtime Adventures
One of the main themes of the cartoons I see on this network (aside from freaking rocks- seriously, what was up with RocKids TV?) happen to be bug-related cartoons. There's about three on the small network that has few shows already. What is peculiar about each of these shows isn't their themes- all of which generally deal with being a good person-but the differing styles of animation. While both Hermie and Friends and The Adventures of Carlos Caterpillar are made with 3D Rendering, the best of the three (Bugtime Adventures) is animated in typical 2-d style like an old Winnie the Pooh cartoon. While these shows are very similar in tone and theme (with insects learning lessons about life and at times facing problems), it's the design choices and voice acting that sets Hermie and Friends above Carlos: the cast includes voices such as Tim Conway and Don Knotts, but the animation is so stilted that it ends up delving into the uncanny valley. There isn't really much to talk about with these three, though- they're all generally the same with mild differences in the animation and tone. If I had to pick one, I'd say that Bugtime is the best of the three as its designs work well and it's characters are strong- but otherwise, they're run-of-the-mill time fillers.

Bugtime Adventures- 4/5, Hermie and Friends/Carlos Caterpillar- 3/5


Auto B. Good/Monster Truck Adventures/The Big Garage
Here's another trend with some of the shows on the Smile network: anthropomorphic cars. Much like the insect shows, these three are relatively the same as well- little cars learning lessons about life, racing and being a good sport. While the likes of Auto B. Good and Monster Truck Adventures aren't anything to write home about, The Big Garage has one thing that sets it apart: it's claymation-style animation. This would be nice if the cars didn't look like horrific human/car monstrosities, but hey, take what you can get. They're definitely time slot fillers, but they're not awful, at least not by the network's standards.

3/5 Each

The Story Keepers Revisited
When I first talked about this show, I didn't go into too many details as I hadn't seen much of it. But seeing the surprisingly good ratings of the show, I decided to give it another shot. And, to be fair, my opinions on a show change the more I watch it (except Little Buds, that still needs to burn), for better or worse. Looking back on Story Keepers, It definitely doesn't have the humor and charm of Veggietales, but does provide an interesting contrast to the rest of the shows on the network in its sense of danger and  history.

The story goes that three children have fled from their city after Emperor Nero's holy war on Christians, where they are taken into hiding by a kind baker named Ben and his wife. From there it is revealed that they are part of the Story Keepers, a hidden underground network of people ranging from commoners to one of Nero's most trusted advisors, who are tasked with helping Christians escape persecution at the hands of Nero and ensure them safe passage to better lives. While doing this they tell stories from the New Testament in order to inspire and encourage their fellow believers with the stories of Jesus and the messages behind them. Unfortunately this puts them in the path of Nero's chief general Nihilus, who schemes to bring them to Nero for execution.

While the premise is interesting (sort of like an Underground Railroad story for kids) and the characters are fun to watch (Ben never gives up despite horrid circumstances, and it's great to watch him come out on top), i will say that the seriousness of the situation can lead to some legitimately dark moments, which even for these Bible shows are rare. Even though there's no blood, characters will be stabbed or harmed on screen, and some end up dying (again on screen). The show pulls no punches in showing what happened in those times: there is discussion of feeding Christians to lions, trapping them in caged holes in the ground to wait until execution, and poor Ben even nearly gets CRUCIFIED in the finale (it also shows JC's crucifixion, only blocking out the driving of the nails).

While this is of course mortifying to an older audience that such things would be in a cartoon, the writers of this series understand that if you're going to talk about the Bible, you need to talk about all of it. The good is mixed in with the bad, and to find out why some of these stories are the way they are, you have to understand both the dark parts and the light parts to get why the stories are still told, and how the tales of Jesus overcoming adversity give hope to the refugees. I'd be lying if I said I didn't learn a few bible stories from this show. It's nice to see a Bible cartoon discuss both the good and bad things done by the religion, and it's a refreshing change of pace from the typical overly happy attitude of the network. Definitely give Story Keepers a watch if you're into religious cartoons.



Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Critical Frog: Captain Underpants

There are times when a critic has to ask a simple question of a film. This question can be good or bad depending on the context, and either open things to discussion or point out how ridiculous something seems. This question, of course, is "Why?"This is a question I asked myself many times during this movie. I questioned the motivations, the characters, the plot and the action. But the one I had the most trouble answering was perhaps the most simple answer of all.

The question I had asked was, "Why is this film so good?"

Captain Underpants seemed doomed to fail the moment the trailer hit the big screen: the combination of toilet humor, dirty jokes, and ridiculous situations is a relatively run-of-the-mill plot for comedies, and with such an absurd title and plot, one would think to write it off as a standard-issue way to occupy your kid for an hour and a half with subpar jokes and no novelties other than the trademark hero and his hijinks. But, against all odds, the film managed to get a set of good comic actors, a simple yet effective plot, and lots of surprisingly well-made wisecracks. It's amazing what a film can do with proper direction. It can turn a ridiculous idea into something truly unique (that's what makes films like Kung Fu Panda, and indeed Captain Underpants, so great).

Our main characters, elementary schoolers George and Harold, are two young students who like to pull pranks and draw comics in an effort to make other students- and themselves- laugh amidst the depressing atmosphere of their school. Their greatest creation: Captain Underpants, a superhero who wears nothing but his white cotton briefs and a red speckled cape ("Most superheroes LOOK like they're flying around in their underwear. This guy actually is!") and fights villains with his battle cry of "Tra-La-Laaaa!". Unfortunately, their laugh-inducing pranks and comics result in them catching the attention of their principal Mr. Krupp, who threatens to separate the two.

After their sabotage of an invention is caught on a spy camera (courtesy of Melvin Sneedly, the school suck-up), Krupp has all the evidence he needs to place George and Harold into separate classes, which they believe will force their friendship apart. In a desperate attempt to stop this, the two boys use the powers of a cereal box hypno-ring to distract Krupp- but, much to the surprise of the two, the ring actually works, and Mr. Krupp obeys their every whim. They quickly decide to make him believe he is Captain Underpants as a gesture of humor- which quickly spirals out of control when the now-nearly-naked superhero jumps out the window to go fight crime. Their greatest creation becomes their greatest problem. But maybe there's another looming around the corner- perhaps in the form of the new suspicious-looking science teacher Professor P.

Most of the film is what you'd expect from something with a name like Captain Underpants: the silly superhero runs around attempting to battle injustice (I.E a mime trapped in an invisible box or a marauding inflatable monster) while at the same time maintaining his secret identity of formerly grumpy principal Mr. Krupp. The Captain bungles his way through situations that leave George and Harold racing to calm him down before he causes any damage. But there's a lot of humor and heart in the film, and a lot of it stems from the boys and the captain himself: the boys do display a genuine comradery and enjoyment from being with each other, and they do believe that the jokes they make are for good purposes (Laughter is the best medicine, after all). The Captain as well, honestly believing that he is helping people,makes some of the situations even more amusing.

A lot of what makes this film work is how well the toilet humor is handled, and to be honest, it's a bit of a lighter hand than one would expect. Sure, the film has it's fair share of dirty and sometimes even adult jokes, but they aren't all over the place- and when they are made, it's by those you'd expect to make them (Captain Underpants is, after all, being made by elementary schoolers). Most of the humor comes from in-jokes to animation and fourth wall breaks, including references to the original books (the page-flipping action feature Flip-O-Rama from the books makes an appearance), and it's these little touches that make the film shine. It strikes a good balance between being self-aware of the ridiculousness of the idea and simply embracing the madness. Interestingly, the film consists of more than CGI animation: there are several different segments utilizing 2D animation, page-flipping, and even sock puppets for some cute cutaway segments. It's got a strong sense of humor about itself, which is something most comedy films struggle to do.

If you're not a fan of the books or just find watching a fat bald man in underoos jump buildings (they originally wanted Chris Farley for the role), then this may not be for you. However, if you like the idea or just want a good laugh, then I'd say it;s worth a look. Put on your cape and your favorite pair of briefs (everyone has one, dont lie) and check it out.


There's a lot to like in this film: the good-natured ribbing. The references to the original. The song by the legendary Weird Al Yankovic in the credits (this actually came from a reference in the first book, where the boys were accused of hijacking the intercom system to play Weird Al for six hours straight). It's a good film for a good man. Three cheers for our defender of Truth, Justice, and All That is Pre-Shrunk And Cottony.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Critical Frog: Wonder Woman

There are times in film history where we encounter a character done so well that we would rather see their story than the one in the film they come from. Such is the case of characters like Loki from the cinematic Marvel universe (how did he go from falling through space at the end of Thor to leading an evil alien army in The Avengers?) or the T-Rex from The Good Dinosaur who supposedly drowned a crocodile in his own blood (which sounds way cooler than anything in The Good Dinosaur), who often become bright spots of already bright or even bad films. Wonder Woman took the bright spot of what was otherwise a slow, uneventful film (The less we talk about that, the better), not only in her theater appearance and personality as the sword-swinging wrecker of Doomsday's s**t, but in the casting of the actress herself.

It figures that you need someone hardcore to play someone hardcore. It's what makes actors like Samuel L. Jackson or Dwayne Johnson perfect for the roles that they are given. Gal Gadot joins this collection as a woman with a very impressive history- one perfect to play Wonder Woman herself. This former instructor from the Israeli Defense Force kicks butt both in real life and on the big screen as the modern Wonder Woman.

From the ancient Paradise Island of the Amazons comes Diana, their princess and mightiest warrior, who's life of peace comes to an end once a crashed pilot and later a platoon of soldiers find their way through the magical barrier to the island. It turns out that the ancient legends of war god Ares may be true, as the people in the outside world seem to be caught in a massive, neverending war- a world war, if you will. Diana sees this as Ares's doing, and seeks to leave with the pilot (Steve Trevor, who you may know as Captain Kirk) in order to find and slay him in order to bring peace to the world. She suspects the current leader of the German forces, General Ludendorff,

But it turns out there's more than one problem happening in the world: Steve has information that must get to the British generals before they can head out to the war. It turns out that Ludendorff has a deadly ally in Dr. Maru (known as Dr. Poison to the allies), a chemist who is in the process of developing a powerful weaponized gas that could spell doom for the allied forces. Diana and Steve form a ragtag group of allies to help them (actor Sameer, sniper Charley, explosives expert The Chief
and secretary Etta Candy), and head out to stop the production of Maru's gas as well as kill who Diana believes is Ares, which (in her eyes) will immediately end all wars. But is it really the fault of a god that hasn't been seen in centuries? And more importantly, how will Diana deal with society?

It's interesting to see the conflicting ideals in this film: an Amazon's pride and duty to defend all mixed with the belief that not all can be saved during war, and that casualties are common. Still, Diana fights through the battlefields of World War 1 armed with a sword and shield on her quest, plowing through the German soldiers.

Wonder Woman finally breaks the trend of DC films being awful lately: it's not perfect, sure, but it's still a strong film. Gal Gadot brings dignity and power to the role, the action is great, and the serious moments about war are very poetically done. Perhaps with Wonder Woman and the upcoming Justice League not being directed by Zack Snyder, DC may hit form again.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Critical Frog: Equestria Girls 4: The Revengening (Legend of Everfree)

Well, here we are again. Back on the blog, now that I have the time to spare. College can get pretty stressful. And what better way to blow off stress than returning to one of the common fixtures on this site- the Equestria Girls series?

It might be the bias that I have as a fan of the series that the universe of Equestria Girls is based out of, but I always enjoy reviewing these films. There’s a lot wrong with them, sure, but there’s always something that keeps me coming back. The characters are fun, the 2d animation has it’s moments and the songs can be downright incredible. I’ve had mixed opinions on these films, and each has it’s advantages over the others and their moments. 

The first film in the series followed My Little Pony character Twilight Sparkle and her dragon assistant Spike as they enters the human world in an attempt to recover a mystical crown from the villainous Sunset Shimmer before she uses it’s power. In addition to dealing with hunting down a dangerous foe, Twilight must come to grips with a new world and body as well as encountering human versions of her friends back in Equestria (as well as reuniting the six main characters after an apparent feud). While it was by no means a masterpiece, it was enjoyable enough. The characters’ personalities stayed true, the physical comedy was humorous, and the story held itself together most of the time.

The second had Twilight venture into the human world once again to aid her new friends (including Sunset Shimmer, who has discovered the magic of friends and is now trying to change her villainous image) against the threat of three malicious Sirens who seek to use the school’s musical showcase to take control of the student’s minds. The main characters must work together to evade the Sirens’ spell and the sabotage attempts of the contest-crazed opposition to defeat the three musical menaces and discover why the magic from Twilight’s world seems to be bleeding into the human world. While the story was at times fast-paced or had unanswered questions (wouldn’t Spike be affected by the sirens too?), it did boast a wonderful soundtrack and a delightful trio of villains that easily propelled the film to become my favorite of the series. 

The third film offers us the whereabouts of the human world’s version of Twilight Sparkle, a student at the prestigious Crystal Prep who seeks to uncover the strange energies pouring out from Canterlot High and is forced to compete in the dueling schools’ Friendship Games at the demands of the headmistress. As her new invention unintentionally begins to sap the magic from villain-turned-protagonist and hero Sunset Shimmer and her friends (our Twilight is currently unavailable due to reasons), our heroes must not only participate in the games (which quickly turn dangerous- is motocross technically a school-appropriate sport?), but track down whoever is causing the strange magical events around the school. While this film has neither the humor of the first or the musical prowess of the second, I do give it credit for striking a nice balance between the two, and having arguably one of the most intense climaxes of both the film series and the show. But how does number four stack up?

After a school year of crazy events, human Twilight (who has been transferred to Canterlot High), Sunset Shimmer (who’s human counterpart we have not encountered yet) and their group of friends are going on a field trip to Camp Everfree. This camp has everything the campers want: archery, nature hikes, arts and crafts (the muscular Bulk Biceps’ mama needs new pot holders), but offers only one strict rule: do not go hiking by the rock quarry. Even Twilight finds herself smitten with the counselor’s brother Timber.

The most intriguing thing about the camp to the characters is the tale of Gaia Everfree, a mysterious forest spirit leaving a trail of gem dust in her wake who is said to hold domain over the forest. It was said that she struck a deal with the first settlers that they could have the land for a time- but swore to one day return and take back the forest for herself. Suspecting a renegade magical being from Equestria much as the Sirens were, the heroes must keep an eye out not only for Gaia, but on Twilight- who fears that the camp and her magic  are awakening something dark inside of her. Something she- and the rest of Canterlot High- would probably like to forget.

Tensions rise when Sunset suspects the counselors of hiding something, and Twilight deals with the fallout of her actions in the friendship games in the form of nightmares about her darker side (Twilight Midnight). To top off what should be a relaxing week, wild and dangerous magical occurrences have begun to spring up around the camp, with the mane six at the at the center of the action. Could it be that being at the camp is awakening some hidden powers for our characters? The race is on to discover the truth before Gaia returns to claim the land as her own- or before the millionaire Filthy Rich buys out the land and replaces it with a spa. 

But most intriguing to the characters is the tale of Gaia Everfree, a mysterious forest spirit leaving a trail of gem dust in her wake who is said to hold domain over the forest. It was said that she struck a deal with the first settlers that they could have the land for a time- but swore to one day return and take back the forest for herself. Suspecting a renegade magical being from Equestria much as the Sirens were, the heroes must keep an eye out not only for Gaia, but on Twilight- who fears that the camp and her magic  are awakening something dark inside of her. Something she- and the rest of Canterlot High- would probably like to forget.

On the surface, there’s a lot of interesting things going on in the fourth Equestria Girls: the background characters develop themselves a little more (many of the well-loved background characters have fun moments or speaking roles, and even former worthless love interest Flash Sentry finds himself with a little development), the characters retain their personalities and enjoyable demeanors, as each character has their quirks and running jokes (much like the other two sequels, the characters can’t stop accidentally reminding the two former foes of how awful they were at the Fall Formal and the Friendship Games), and there’s a legitimately interesting story about human Twilight  and her friendship with the other characters, particularly Sunset Shimmer, who proves that the two are similar in more ways than being cabin mates. There’s also some great chemistry between the other characters and their developing powers (there’s a fun scene where the girly girl pushes the tomboy into a lake). The songs are nice too (human Twilight has a short but sweet soliloquy, and Sunset Shimmer continues her run as one of the best solo singers of the bunch)- while they certainly as bombastic or synchronized (or often)  as the second film’s, Daniel Ingram supplies a much more laid-back and relaxing soundtrack this time around. I suppose it fits the rustic atmosphere of the fourth film.  There’s a neat villain who displays some impressive powers and a catchy song along with some reason behind their madness. And while the climax is a bit rushed, that’s run-of-the-mill in Equestria Girls films. There’s an interesting setup for a sequel as well- one i’m sure will come.

But, of course, we have to have to discuss the flaws. The conclusion is, of course, somewhat forced and sappy and designed to sell toys- as one would expect from a kid’s film. There’s a nice array of characters and stories, but most of them are shoved aside in favor of the development of Twilight, Sunset or Timber. Some characters have one line and are pushed out the door (Trixie, who was a minor antagonist in the second film (although you could argue that she was brainwashed) has one line and only shows up as a background character). And, of course, there’s a love story that slogs the interesting parts down. It’s not too badly done, but it certainly holds the film back. I would have also liked to see more of the powers in action, but maybe that’s just me. Regardless, Equestria Girls 4 is a welcome addition to the series- while not quite attaining the status as the second, it certainly comes close. Story and character-wise, it surpasses them all- but it’s lack of the musical prowess of the second holds it back from being the best yet.


Further Thoughts: 

-It’s the background jokes that really make the film. There’s a lot of in-jokes to the series that are fun, and we even get little shots at the characters from the 100th episode (I still think lyra and Bon Bon are into each other). I would love to see little slices of life at Camp Everfree from these character’s perspectives. That would be a fun mini-series to do. Someone get on that.

-Call me crazy, but I ever actually thought Filthy Rich was as bad in the show as he is in this film. I always thought of him as a respectable, wealthy, but still kind businessman. He supports the local farmers (he buys the first 100 or so jars of their apple jam every season), donates to the school and even takes time out of his work schedule to visit the hospital and see if the old matron of the Apple family’s farm is recovering from a supposed illness. If he’s this bad in the human world, I’d hate to see his wife. She was bad enough as a pony.

-I was hoping to see some more of the characters who had been introduced in the last seasons of the show, if i’m being honest. Now that Starlight Glimmer is a member of the cast, I wonder if we’ll see her in an EG film anytime soon. Preferably not leading a cult. As silly is it is, i also want to see Pinkie’s and Rarity’s families sometime. Their stark contrasts are simply hilarious.

-What happened to the other Crystal Prep people? i couldn’t care less about that witch of a headmistress, but the other characters would be interesting to follow. Do you think Cadence and Shining Armor are together yet? Will we be getting a humanized Flurry Heart?


Friday, October 21, 2016

The Critical Frog: Ms. Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children

In the world of today’s film, monstrous beings known as Hollows walk among us, invisible to the ungifted eye and more than willing to kill. As if that’s not bad enough, some can even take on human form through gruesome rituals. Very few humans are able to see Hollows, but the ones who do have made it their goal in life to hunt them down while protecting the innocent. Each character has a story all their own, but our tale focuses on one main character and his quest to discover his place in a world he finds himself thrust into. Endowed with a unique power, he bands together with other empowered children and they work to protect their world from certain destruction. 

Let me be the first to say that I’m delighted that a live-action version of this story has been made. I’ve always been a fan of Tite Kubo’s hit manga/anime Bleach ……

Hold on. I think I got the wrong movie. That one isn’t coming out for a while. But then what is this?

Ms. Pergerine’s Home for Peculiar Children is ons of those films that bears such a striking resemblance to something else that it simply has to be pointed out. It may just be the nerd of the past that's inspiring me to make the far-fetched claims that the film adaptation of this book and a Japanese Manga are strikingly similar. But there are so many similar aspects in both Tim Burton's vision and the book to Bleach that it's almost impossible for me to bring up one without comparing it to the other. From the Hollows to the showdowns to the bizarre similarities during a fight, this film hits a bit close to what the live-action Bleach adaptation that's been rumored to happen would be- in both good ways and bad. 

Our star of this film is Jake, a young boy who leads a typical life until he is thrust into an encounter with the monstrous beings known as Hollows. Here he is tapped to join an alternate world full of super-powered teens or adults known as Peculiars who are kept hidden from the modern world due to their powers. He is guided by the mysterious Ms. Peregrine on his journey to find a place in this new world- but when a powerful Peculiar turncoat named Barron kidnaps the mysterious woman and sets his sight on innocents for his own needs, Jake must rally a ragtag band of Peculiars to rescue Ms. Peregrine and defeat Barron once and for all- IF they can put up with each other.

(Skip the next part if you don't want Frog's Boring Villain Comparison)

Before we continue, I'd really like to point out some similarities between the antagonists of this film and the antagonists of Bleach. Specifically, their powers. You see, in both worlds, Hollows have the ability to take on human form by one way or another. In Bleach, the strongest of these Hollows are called the Espada, and they are noted for three things: the weaker humanized Hollows they travel with (the Fracciones), the numbers on their body detailing their order of strength (lower is better), and their ability to transform into a more powerful form (Resurrecion) that represents an aspect of death- one of the ten paths of darkness that can be the death of a man. The villain I want to talk about here is properly introduced as His Majesty, the God-King of Hollows, and Espada Number 2- Barragan Louisenbairn. His aspect of death is represented by his Resurrecion form's skeletal appearance - Aging, that which overcomes all in the end- and he shares more than a bit in common with Barron.

It looks like after all his years of ruling over Hollows, Barragan has finally met his soul brother. These two should get together and talk politics sometime (or would that be Hollow-tics?). Where to start? Not only are they both Hollows who take human form and have the ability to change shape, but their personalities are similar: both maintain a cool and collected persona on the surface, but have tendencies to maintain a holier-than-thou image of themselves (Barragan constantly refers to himself as the strongest aspect of death although technically Espada 1 (Isolation) is stronger) and to fly off the handle when lightly enraged to the point of cursing or yelling at their foes. They're more than happy to throw their power around and impose their authority, even to those who may yet be stronger than them, and can become a major threat when irritated. In addition to this, each deploys a pack of six followers- Barron's four Hollows and two Peculiar/Hollow henchmen he sends out to intercept the heroes as opposed to Barragan's six Fracciones- and have two other humanoid allies who they give orders to (two more Peculiar/Hollows or Espadas 3 and 1), one of which has beast-related powers and the other has powers related to the elements (one of the Peculiars transforms her body parts into those of a wolf/cat thing and the other can freeze people Vs. Espada 3's control over water and Espada 1's Resurrecion Los Lobos), one of which is killed by a character who's powers are rarely seen and only revealed during this series of events-oh, you've got to be kidding me. We're gonna move on before I find more to say about this one.

Did the book copy Bleach? It's possible that the similarities aren't a coincidence (Bleach came out nearly 10 years before the novel of Ms. Peregrine), but if it really didn't build off the Manga, this one is a pretty  nasty coincidence. Until then, let's just look at it as a happy accident and hope that nobody calls me bad words for assuming such a thing.

(OK, you can stop skipping.)

Putting aside the similarities to a well-loved Japanese series, does the movie stand on it's own? Yes, certainly- the characters are charming, the peculiarities are unique (one Peculiar can animate things by putting grotesque makeshift hearts in them), and Tim Burton's directoral input grants some frightening imagery for the Hollows and wonderful scenery, as well as some amusing comedy (Barron gets a few funny lines) like many films. It's Burton live action, which is always a good thing. The scenes are wonderful, the fighting is creative, but a bit of it suffers from the slog of everyday life for the characters and the obligatory love scenes (there's no need to develop Jake any more than you need to; we want to see his shenanigans with the Peculiars, not the random island people). Jake himself is a bit bland, and quite a bit is left to the imagination- but overall it's a fun, dark little flick. I'd say it's worth a look for the Hollows at least- I always wanted to know what happened if The Slender Man had a child with Mortal Kombat's Barakka.


Monday, October 3, 2016

The Critical Frog: Wiener Dog

There are times for every critic when a film hits a little too close to home. Whether it's a film with abusive parents being shown to a victim, or a drug problem in a movie seen by a former addict, sometimes a film's content becomes too much to bear for an unprepared audience. And while this can be expected most commonly in horror films where shock is needed, there's a proper time and place to be sad or out there. For me, the line is drawn when pets become involved.

At this point in my career, I'm practically desensitized to most acts of violence: there's always something that can surprise me, sure (such as The Joker's shocking 'Pencil Trick' in The Dark Knight), but not much in the ways of damage to a human body can shock me anymore in the cinema. But animals hit a soft spot for me: as a dog lover myself, particularly dachshunds, the idea of pain or illness affecting man's best friend can leave me with a gaping mouth. Perhaps the fact that the essential plot device of Wiener Dog bears a striking resemblance to a female version of my beloved Ace is what drives me to my conclusions about this film.

Before we start, I'd like to say one thing: If you're looking for a lighthearted comedy about the exploits of a cuddly animal friend or a pet's quest to reunite with it's owners, then please look elsewhere. You're not going to find anything of the sort in today's film.  There are many fun animal films out there, like Homeward Bound, The Secret Life of Pets or even the recent Keanu (although that is admittedly a stretch) that one can watch to get the feelings that the innocent poster and name of Wiener Dog would lead one to expect. This film is not an adorable animal film, where one can watch pets and owners engage in wacky hijinks or tearful reunions. This film is DARK.

Allow me to put things in perspective. There weren't many people in the theater where I went to see Wiener Dog, none of which were behind me, so I had the opportunity to take out my laptop and take a few notes. The second note on my list is, and I quote, "Man, this film is depressing." The last five of these notes are in all caps and each include a unique expletive. Yep, it's one of those films.

Wiener Dog tells the story of a female dachshund as she is passed from owner to owner. Adopted first by a working father as a present for his son (who is recovering from chemotherapy), who christens her "Wiener Dog". After an incident where the child foolishly feeds Wiener Dog a granola bar (as a former vet-in-training, I can say that granola is not harmful to dogs in the dose shown in the film), she is taken to the vet to be put to sleep- only to be rescued by a vet tech who continues the story. The dog is renamed Doody and continues her travels being passed from owner to owner.

Despite what the title of the film would lead one to believe, similar to Keanu,  the focus rests not on the previously mentioned Wiener Dog but on her different owners and their stories. As the years pass, she settles down with not only a family and a vet, but a grouchy old woman, a mentally challenged couple, and a struggling film teacher (played by Danny Devito, he of the magnum dong), and watches as they face life-changing experiences.

Oh, and there's an 'intermission' halfway through the film that has the wiener dog green-screened over famous locations. This lasted long enough for me to run out to the concession stand, refill my cup of water, and return to the theater. The remnants of the water were promptly expelled all over my table when I saw the climax of the film.

Because my job refuses to allow me to give everything away, I will regale you with a story relating to the climax of Wiener Dog: when the film premiered at this year's Sundance, reviewers were so outraged that they resorted to spoiling the movie's ending in their writings so as to prevent others from seeing the film. Draw the conclusions you will from that one.

Wiener Dog is one of those works that people are incredibly split on. They either love the dark humor and silent moments or they don't. And while I'm a fan of black comedy and dark humor myself (I grew up on a cartoon revolving around the grim reaper's wacky adventures), the darkness and sad lives on display in Wiener Dog can be too much. This movie is an exploration more than a film, and the dog is more of a plot device in the end. A few parts of this film work well (Danny Devito's story had a likable lead and some funny jabs at the screenwriting process), and the wiener dog is cute, but aside from that it's something too depressing for most audiences and sometimes too boring for the other end. If you want a dark, funny pet film, go for Keanu- the focus is still on the humans, but the dark stories are overwritten by the comedy duo in the lead.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Critical Frog: Sausage Party

The poet Shel Silverstein once wrote in his short piece "Point of View" about a young man who realized the thankless aspects of food once he began to look at it from his meal's perspective. This can make one wonder what exactly it is your food sees before it enters the cavernous regions of your mouth. Sausage Party, the first R-Rated animated feature in over a decade, takes the time to show us, and the results are ABSOLUTELY HORRIFYING.

Sausage Party is so over-the-top in its sexualization, language and brutality to food that it's no wonder some critics have hailed it a hallmark of adult animation. But does it really pull it's weight, or is it the shock and reintroduction of R-rated animation that sparks such glowing reviews? It's a bit of both, actually.

Our star character is a sausage named Frank, who lives in a supermarket with his pack of hot dogs and has a mutual affection for Brenda the hot dog bun. They dream of being chosen together by the gods who prowl the supermarket aisles and whisked away to the Great Beyond, where supposedly nothing bad will ever happen to the food products at all. After a traumatic event wherein a pot of honey mustard commits suicide to avoid being sent back to the Great Beyond, Frank and Brenda are separated from their packages and shopping cart and must hurry to find their way back to packaging before the day the hot dogs and buns are chosen together for the Fourth of July. But Frank is tormented by the dead condiment's last words, and so goes on his own mission to discover the truth of the great beyond, while Brenda races back to her aisle while evading the nefarious feminine hygiene product that pursues her and Frank on a quest for vengeance. She's joined by a kosher bagel and a piece of Lavash bread that can't get along as well on a journey to return to their feuding aisles (guess what this is a metaphor for?). Meanwhile Frank's pack discovers the horror of what happens once they leave the store, and one little hot dog attempts to escape.

The film can be funny at times, but other scenes take the profanity and sexualized content too far. There's an admittedly thin line between too much and just enough, that very few shows can walk effectively (South Park, Bojack Horseman) that separates the good and the bad of adult animation. If South Park is a ten on the understanding scale and Family Guy is a negative twenty seven, than Sausage Party  would be roughly a six. There are quite a few moments where the profanity fits (such as when a sentient potato is peeled alive, or when a character has an epiphany), and the sexuality works to the film's advantage, but most times it ends up looking too overdone.