By BRUCE DENNILL
The Lego Batman Movie / Directed by Chris McKay / PGV
A Mermaid’s Tale / Directed by Dustin Rikert /PG
The Star / Directed by Timothy Reckart / PGV
The Emoji Movie / Directed by Tony Leondis / PG
Storks / Directed by Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetman / PG
Ballerina / Directed by Eric Summer and Eric Warin / PG
Trolls / Directed by Mike Mitchell / PG
Contemporary children’s movies run the gamut from gooey slush to sophisticated, multi-layered narratives (the latter often in the top end of the animated film market), and discovering which movies deliver on which facets is often an unpredictable business.
DC is, on most fronts, lagging far behind Marvel in terms of the respective superhero universes the companies have created. So they must feel slightly bemused about The Lego Batman Movie being easily their best offering in this arena, even though it’s a comedy and, indeed, a parody of the dour Ben Affleck-starring live action instalments put out by the company. The script here is literally clogged with high-quality gags, which start even before the opening credits. Will Arnett is the perfect driver for the Lego batsuit, not least because the filmmakers made the decision to pair him with his Arrested Development co-star Michael Cena as Robin, and so make the most of the pair’s already well-developed chemistry. Zak Galigianakis’ manic energy is brilliantly harnessed in The Joker, who is crazy, but also hilarious, thanks to the aforementioned non-stop laugh-fest. It’s not just punchlines, though: the writing also delivers a convincing thriller of sometimes bewildering complexity that ties up all loose ends in a satisfying manner. This is a sublime, irreverent comedy, but also much more.
The Son Of Bigfoot doesn’t have the same studio might behind it, and the scope of the story it tells is much smaller. But it’s a clever, engaging idea – that an intelligent boy curious about the fate of his absent father discovers that he is related to Bigfoot, and that the real monsters are not necessarily the obvious candidates. The villains are unlikely, and because of that, their actions are funnier and have more impact. The humour is sweet at times and smart at others, and there are cute animal interactions for youngsters and plenty of action sequences to hold the attention of both kids and their parents. It’s a family film about a family and connects on all levels because of that. It’s not profound, but it’s enjoyable.
A Mermaid’s Tale has none of that refinement, but it’s also not aimed at an adult audience. It’s a story of a little girl forced to move to a remote town where she is lonely and sad until she finds a friend in, well, there’s a clue in the title. Everything is simple and superficial – including performances by Jerry O’Connell (no surprises there) and Barry Bostwick (not his best work) as a duelling son and father. But kids who still retain an appropriate level of naivety will find enough magic in the mythology at the heart of the piece to allow them to invest in its smarmy plot about relationships, love and loyalty. It may not be worth a second viewing, but it’ll keep little ones out of mischief temporarily.
The Star is a Christmas movie, telling the story of the lead-up to the birth of Jesus through the eyes of a mischievous young donkey named Bo (voiced by Steven Yeun). He has delusions of grandeur, wanting to escape a life of toil to become part of the royal retinue, but ending up with a sweet young couple named Mary and Joseph. Given the theme, adding too many twists to the story is out of the question, but there are some entertaining subplots here, including the couple’s ruthless pursuit by a Herod-hired hitman and Bo’s many allies, including the amusing Dave the dove (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key). Funny, insightful and faithful enough to the original story to make it a go-to repeat every Yuletide.
The Emoji Movie was pretty much universally panned on release and, while it’s true that the story doesn’t measure up to the average Pixar release in terms of emotional nuance, it still has plenty to amuse audiences of all ages. The idea behind the story – that inside your smartphone is a whole city and culture populated by characters defined by the emotion their masters (phone users) have assigned to them – is actually relatively profound; certainly no less so than the concept of Wreck-It Ralph, for instance. And while aspects of the tale lend themselves to rather puerile perspectives – in the context, it makes sense that a couple of characters are representations of piles of pooh, with one of them played by Patrick Stewart in what he may later consider a skid-mark on his legacy – the rest of the narrative is perfectly believable in terms of its following the fortunes of a youngster trying to find his place in a society he doesn’t quite fit or understand. Funny, snappy and worth a watch.
There is yet another approach in Storks, from Warner Animation Group. It’s one of those pieces that has a deceptively simple premise, filled out by several superb setpieces and comic concepts and also including unexpected drama towards the end. The story here follows Junior, a young stork now engaged to deliver packages (the dropping off baby days are over) who, though an unlikely combination of circumstances, is landed with a small human to transport to a faraway destination. His quest also catches the attention of his superiors, some of whom appear to have rather darker plans in mind than he is aware of. Most of the film’s best moments involve the actions of a wolf pack who fancy the baby – initially as a tasty snack and later as an asset to be protected – and the casting of comic duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele brings that pair’s side-splitting humour and fizzing chemistry to the film overall. Loads of laughs and a fair amount of tenderness.
If you’re not terribly excited by the clichés or tone that Hollywood feature are more likely to contain, the prospect of a Franco-Canadian production like Ballerina may hold more appeal. Another coming of age story (an unsurprising staple in films aimed at younger viewers), this one, written and made more in the style of French classics by Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas, sees poor orphan Felicie (voiced by Elle Fanning) attempting to realise her greatest dream – becoming the prima ballerina at the Paris Opera. Part of what makes the film work is its authentic take on the heart necessary to achieve success in the arts – the engine behind the discipline, the talent and even the foundational passion. This is evident in Felicie, but also in her mentor Odette, to whom pop star Carly Rae Jepson’s vocal performance gives unexpected depth.
Trolls has two exceptionally charismatic vocal leads in Anna Kendrick (as Poppy) and Justin Timberlake (as Branch). And though the original concept – or at least the germ of the marketing idea – came from a series of children’s dolls popular a couple of decades ago, the film is effective for a couple of major reasons. One of those is its borrowing certain elements from classic fairytales, meaning that there is a dark threat to the protagonists throughout, though irreverent humour constantly undermines any possibility of that becoming heavy in any way. Another is the way the writers have created a wide range of characters around single characteristics that viewers will partly or wholly identify with – optimism, shyness, a love for dancing, and so on, meaning that its possible for viewers of all ages and personalities to connect with the onscreen action.