The Thinker

Three Mini Movie Reviews

It’s summer time and you know what that means: mindless summer movies that digest faster than the theater popcorn in your stomach. I’m not sure if I would have seen any of these movies on my own. But my wife wanted to see them and won’t go to a movie by herself so I tagged along.


Only in an animated zoo could a lion and a zebra become best friends. For some wacky reason the animated specimens in New York’s Central Park Zoo just love being on exhibition, particularly Alex the Lion. Only the penguins seem ticked off to spend their lives as captives, so they plan an escape. Marty the Zebra, hearing from the penguins how great it is in the wild, decides to follow along with them. Soon all of Marty’s zoo pals follow him in order, for some crazy reason, to convince him to come back to the zoo! Hilarity ensues as the animals run around New York City and create general havoc. As a result of their escape, the animal rights people eventually convince authorities that they should return to the wild. So they end up on crates bound for Africa. All seems well until the evil penguins take control of the ship. They steer the freighter onto the beach of Madagascar, which Alex the Lion mistakes for the San Diego Zoo. Eventually of course they figure out they really are in the wild. The lemurs see the lion as a way to escape natural selection and try to make him their best friend. Alex meanwhile misses his steaks and has trouble avoiding his natural desire to consume Marty the Zebra. The penguins eventually find that Antarctica isn’t quite the paradise they imagine, and conveniently return to Madagascar. And that’s pretty much the plot.

For an animated movie it is short but reasonably entertaining. I must have missed most of the jokes because the more you know movies the more entertaining it gets. Still you can count on some decent laughs. The more you are prone to laughter the funnier you are likely to find it. Unfortunately I must be something of a sour puss. So I mostly sat there unmoved while everyone else seemed to be howling.

It’s probably no longer in the theaters. But no matter, you can easily wait for the inevitable DVD. It’s a fun animated movie that most people will really enjoy. At 86 minutes it feels much shorter so you may not actually finish your popcorn by the time it is over. This is a solid B+ of an animated movie and well crafted by the digital wizards at Dreamworks. So it earns a 3.1 on my 4.0 scale. But I suspect you will find that one viewing is plenty, as it was for me.

Howl’s Moving Castle

I was so taken with Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful animated movie Spirited Away that I consider it to be the best animated movie I have ever seen. So it took little arm-twisting from my wife to go see his latest movie. As with Spirited Away, it was not available at my local multiplex. We found it in the smallest theater inside the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia. Unlike Spirited Away, this movie was not dubbed so we had to suffer through subtitles. Even its credits are in Japanese. According to the Internet Movie Database it apparently is in the process of being dubbed. So if you have to see it then you may want to wait for that version.

While the movie has its moments, it is no Spirited Away. It is not even close. The plot is very loosely based on Diana Wynne Jones’s book of the same name. According to my wife, who read the book, it has little in common with the book. This surreal version of Earth seems to look like Bavaria in the 19th Century, except the signs are in English and everyone speaks Japanese. The plot frankly doesn’t make a much sense. There are fantastic looking airships constantly overhead and some big war going on. A hat maker named Sofi, trying to escape some soldiers who want to rough her up, runs into Howl who is exactly what? A wizard of some sort? Anyhow he lives in a weird house that is actually the moving castle. Its main door is a magic door that opens onto four different realities, depending on how you change the dial by the door. The Witch of the Waste (there is little to explain why she is there or what her beef is) puts a curse on Sofi that transforms her from an 18-year-old beauty into an old lady. Through much of the movie Sofi plays an old lady, who acts as Howl’s housekeeper. The moving castle, by the way, is pretty cool: a decent sized castle with legs that huffs, puffs, and moves around this alternate version of Bavaria. Along the way Sofi makes a number of weird friends including “Prince Turnip” (a scarecrow) and Calcifer, a fire with an attitude. They are reasonably amusing as cartoon characters go and there is a cute doggie that even grown-ups will chuckle at.

It has its moments of being visually stunning like Spirited Away. But unlike Spirited Away, it is a soulless and rambling animated movie. In Spirited Away every character had soul. Here they are all soulless. I guess it’s too much to expect a master like Miyazaki to produce a masterpiece every time. Sadly this isn’t it. Unless you are a huge Miyazaki fan or have to see everything that is anime, steer clear of this movie. While not a bad movie it does not rise to the level of a good movie. Rather it is a visually interesting mediocrity from someone who should have done much better. If you see it enjoy its imaginative elements and cute characters. Just don’t expect any of it to come together into something coherent. 2.3 on my 5.0 scale.

Batman Begins

A proper summer mega blockbuster requires lots of car chases, lavish special effects, expensive sets, things crashing onto or into other things, fancy costumes, fancy props and top tier actors in parts that are generally beneath them. The typical result is a lot of mediocrity where dazzle substitutes for real acting, solid direction and a great script. I’ve seen too many of these kind of movies — you know visually stunning movies that are truly dreck like Van Helsing.

But big surprise: Batman Begins is a really good movie! Rather than scientifically creating a blockbuster, director Christopher Nolan figured if he is going to build elaborate sets and make lots of things crash into each other then he might as well make a convincing fantasy movie. What we get are genuine character development and consistently excellent acting from the whole ensemble. Of course you have to suspend disbelief that Wayne Enterprises just happens to have a research division full of abandoned products that Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) can make available to the young Mr. Bruce Wayne. But in spite of being a fantasy it is just plausible enough that you buy into the whole nutty scenario. You find yourself caring not just for Batman, but his hot sometimes girlfriend/prosecutor Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Albert and the future Commissioner Gordon. Christian Bale is dead on as Batman, and clearly the best of the many actors who have put on the uniform. Michael Kaine is delicious as Alfred the Butler. Liam Neeson is in here too and plays the part of a bad guy for a change. In short the movie really didn’t need all these special effects. This crew could have pulled it all off for one tenth of what they spent on the movie.

Seeing Batman Begins reminded me of how the summer blockbuster has fallen on hard times. I’m trying to remember how many years it has been since I saw a summer blockbuster worthy of the name. For me I have to go back to Independence Day, released in 1996. This Batman movie is totally engaging and wholly sucks you in. There were times when I actually had to restrain myself from jumping out of my seat when Batman made some spectacular and well-timed entrance.

Except for one over the top scene involving epic numbers of digitized bats in the middle of the movie, I can’t think of anything to dislike about the movie. I can think of lots of movies I thought were better on many other levels. This it is high-class and expensive summer cinema at its best. It’s a solid A, so merits a 3.6 on my 4.0 scale.


One Response to “Three Mini Movie Reviews”

  1. 3:12 pm on June 30 2005, Michael said:

    You should check out some of Miyazaki’s other films. “Porco Rosso” is probably my favorite, followed by “Totoro.”

    The dub of “Totoro” is pretty good, but for “Porco” you really have to go with the subtitle: the dubbing is very G-rated, but the movie is more like PG-13, and they cut some important stuff for timing (voices have to match the action more than subtitles do).

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