By BRUCE DENNILL
Justice League: Cosmic Clash (PG) 7.5
Open Season: Scared Silly (A) 7
Molly Moon & The Incredible Book Of Hypnotism 3
Max (PGV) 6.5
The Gooey Lunchbox 6.5
Ratchet & Clank 6
It sounds like a cynical – and silly – marketing gimmick, but the combination of Lego and DC Comics is not only immediately appealing, it’s the basis for a superhero film that’s arguably better than the mega-budget live-action blockbusters in which the same characters get bogged down – to within an inch of their sanity (and the audiences’) – by endless angst. Here, there is an hilariously over-the-top villain named Brainiac (if he had fingers, he’d steeple them…) who wants to capture Earth to complete his collection of planets. Despite his patent absurdity, he has the means to do so, and it will take the best efforts of the Justice League – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Cyborg and Supergirl – to stop him. Their infighting (among other things, Batman has some serious trust issues) and the fact that they end up in different time zones make this task considerably more complicated than expected. Indeed, for a film which can safely be shown to kids, there is a satisfyingly convoluted plot, not to mention some very funny quips and observations that make this a success that doesn’t require any qualifications.
Open Season: Scared Silly is another animated film that received little or no fanfare on its release, but proves to a better option in entertainment terms than many high-profile titles. It pivots on a simple idea – Elliot the deer hatches a plan to help his friend Boog the bear overcome his fear of monsters – that is beautifully developed into a feature-length comedy. There is whip-smart dialogue, forthy pacing and a gleefully wicked bad guy – an excellent, compact (it runs to 81 minutes) package that bears repeated viewings. If you can’t remember what happened in the original film, which was well received but hardly a hit on the scale of a Pixar blockbuster, this story stands on its own – in the same way as you don’t have to have read AA Milne to enjoy the later animated films of Winnie the Pooh by Disney.
Given the success of the above titles in delivering reasonably complex messages to a young audience in ways that stimulate, educate and entertain at the same time, it’s disappointing to see that projects like Molly Moon still attract the sort of budgets and attention that they do. Things start well enough, with the titular orphan discovering a book that teaches her how to hypnotise people. In the hands of Roald Dahl, such a scenario would involve delicious mischief and, ultimately, the comeuppance of whichever individual deserved it the most. Here, though, the protagonist takes the route less interesting and becomes the slightly less snotty version of a spoiled young pop star. The lessons she needs to learn are blindingly obvious, and the way she works her way toward some sort of redemption is unconvincing, so the piece is doubly unsatisfying. You simply don’t care what happens to Molly, and it’s likely that even very young viewers will get bored sometime before the end.
Put a dog in a film and you’re still – even in a supposedly much more sophisticated, post-Lassie age – likely to make some sort of emotional connection with a good chunk of your audience. Max is a service dog that served with the US Army in Afghanistan. When his handler dies, Max is sent back to the US and handed over to his late colleague’s family. Not surprisingly, there are some teething problems (and apt term where a trained canine is involved), but as the relationship between Max and his handler’s sullen teenage brother begins to grow, so does the scope of the plot, which expands into a well-structured crime thriller in which Maz has the opportunity to be a hero all over again.The animal training in the piece is superb – the many dogs who play Max are all capable of incredible discipline and explosive action. And perhaps because they’re not pretending – as actors do, and must – the dogs’ collective performance is really quite affecting.
Bugbox Animation hero/anti-hero Toby continues his adventures, learning about the dangers of being selfish and not appreciating what you have in The Gooey Lunchbox. What begins as dissatisfaction on Toby’s part regarding the relatively boring school lunches his mother packs for him turns into a fantasy parable in which Jesus shows Toby, in a wonderfully creative way, that if everything Toby complains about vanishes, he’ll be left with nothing, and a little perspective can go a long way. Armed with this new knowledge, the youngster is able to better relate to his school and family situations. Parents will appreciate the role this short film (it lasts an hour) will play in educating their kids, while some very sharp humour means there’s plenty of entertainment value for older viewers.
Big-screen animated films made outside of the major players in the game – Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks – always struggle to make the same impact through either their visual style or the sophistication of their scripts. Ratchet & Clank is based on a computer game of the same name and treads almost problematically familiar ground – a villain wants to take over the universe and small band of unlikely heroes must work together to save the day. As such, it has almost no novelty value, but it does have sufficiently good – and regular – gags to keep viewers amused along with a range of narrative twists and some big-name voice talent (Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Rosario Dawson and Sylvester Stallone) that it’s fun to try and identify as you go.