Catch-Up Fall and Winter Reviews: The Good Dinosaur, In the Heart of the Sea, Goosebumps

the-good-dinosaur-posterThe Good Dinosaur

Pixar’s newest film doesn’t enter a free world. Released on the back burners of best-in-class Inside Out, the company’s most sterling film in six or seven years (nothing can surpass the indomitable Wall-E), The Good Dinosaur has the misfortune of discontinuing the company’s renewed one-film “excellence” streak and sliding them back on the train to childhood cinema. The much vaunted “well they make films for children and adults” refrain doesn’t so easily apply to The Good Dinosaur, a film that does not, surprisingly, follow-up on the visualization-of-childhood-mental-breakdown and ode-to-depression themes of Inside Out. The Good Dinosaur, in contrast, is a proud cartoon, a willful and maybe even radical rejection of the need for “serious themes” in animation and a bold return to playful animation as the front-and-center first-line of any sterling animated film. It is, without apology, a Saturday morning film.

Perhaps, we might consider the idea that perusing such a creature isn’t all that negligible after all. The Good Dinosaur is something of a return to the “just-another-animation-company” status of Cars, Brave, and Monsters University, regrettable but not necessarily the girders of a regrettable film. In fact, The Good Dinosaur is something of a palate cleanser, a work of vital relaxation and enviable simplicity that slides itself nonchalantly into a low-key adventure register that seems like a riposte to Inside Out, rather than an afterthought to it.

The obvious feather in the film’s cap is its ravishing technical beauty; no animated film thus far has grasped the wooly immediacy of everyday life in its backgrounds quite as effectively as The Good Dinosaur. This is the realm of eye-searing beauty, folks. But realism alone is old hat; we’ve been inching there for a decade or more, with Pixar almost always at the helm, and “realism” per-se isn’t exactly the most ambidextrous of styles when you have the imagination-scape of animation at your finger-tips.

Instead, The Good Dinosaur’s most ravishing aesthetic achievement is to disconcert and dismantle its realism by introducing it to some of the most vivaciously, vigorously cartoonish characters the company has ever know; they’re all flat, rounded lines and curving symmetry that contrasts fascinatingly with the rough-hewn beauty of the film around those characters. As a visual lexicon for the disturbances of a world in which the dinosaurs didn’t go as chance or entropy intended them to, the juxtaposition of squishy, deliberately artificial-looking dinosaur characters into a hostile wheat thresher of bustling, untamed everyday geography is startlingly abrasive. It isn’t a perfect mismatch – animating the film’s few humans in the heavily-lined, astringent tone of the backgrounds would have further sequestered them off to the realm of the “natural” and distanced them from the artificial cartoon shenanigans of the dinosaur protagonists. But what is here is stellar aesthetic animated cinema masquerading as run-of-the-mill naturalist beauty. This is eye-popping animation with a purpose and a sense of spatial relationship to its characters, and no mere technical achievement for the sake of hubris.

The film sequestered into those savagely combative animation contrasts, however, is both intentionally and necessarily flimsy, a work of cartoon physics and mutable, simple moralizing. There’s some neat subversion that doesn’t amount to much – the main character is a dinosaur and his chatty but non-talking sidekick is a baby human, in a role reversal from the typical Disney formula – but meditating on The Good Dinosaur belies its elegantly superfluous charms rooted primarily in anarchic, ductile slapstick and torrential, harried tectonics. In the age of desperate, occasionally belabored survivor’s tales (of which The Revenant is the most bellicose and grandiloquent in recent memory), there’s something refreshing about a film that couches its sense of quasi-Malickian cosmic Earth in a more relaxed, reticent world (it’s also a refresher from the motor-mouthed Inside Out). Like all of those films, The Good Dinosaur is ultimately a tale about the forces of nature striking back at us, the living. With an eye for tactile expanse and domineering vistas, The Good Dinosaur is no less eloquent in expressing this world than most of its live-action counterparts.

Score: 7/10

thumbnail_20384In the Heart of the Sea

Willing, able, functional, and mostly ironclad in its efficiency, In The Heart of the Sea is nonetheless never more than passably diverting in its consequence-free quasi-spectacle. In some ways, it is the typical Ron Howard film: streamlined, a little mechanical, never less than fully competent, circumspect in the personality department, and vaguely mature in no specific way. The gambit with a Howard production is his screenplay; with a saccharine, drippy one such as A Beautiful Mind, he will sour his direction to accentuate the rot and the mildew, but with a sleek and push-forward screenplay short on depth and heavy on heave, such as 2013’s Rush, he will polish all the scruples and girders for maximum shininess and entertainment.

In the Heart of the Sea splits the difference. The screenplay by Charles Leavitt (based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction book from 2000 about the whale hunt that inspired Moby Dick) never resorts to adamant sermonizing, but it is never as deep, nor as airtight, as it thinks it is. Furthermore, the film’s central relationship – an antagonistic pas de deux between stern aristocrat George Peppard (Benjamin Walker) and salty sea dog Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) – is not helped by virtually copying the fundamentals from Howard’s previous film, the breathless Rush. The peculiar concoction of brash showmanship and bemused mutual fascination is exchanged for a more anemic, bluntly one-note approximation of hidden hostility flaring under sustained tension.

Yet the film – which intermittently comes alive from sequence to sequence, such as a calamitous surprise whale attack and a traipse through a bone-fettered cave – sputters rather than flows. Howard’s direction flails between kinetic entropy and stilted, opaque solemnity, enough to keep the film away from the dreaded museum-like quality of so many history films but not enough to cure the film of a certain curated, rusted tempo. Anthony Dod Mantle’s primary-colored cinematography often bustles with motion and even occasional poetry – there’s a graceful quality to his sea-faring camerawork and a malarial, sickly hue cast over the latter portions of the movie. But the film never exists as more than ramshackle cross-stitch of set pieces, none wild and wooly or bone-cracking enough to attain the tremulous temperament of the white whale the story is so famous for. Or the ominous, abominable existential dread at the heart of the Great American Novel based on it.

Score: 5/10

2015goosebumps_film_2_090715-article_x4Goosebumps

The trouble with 2015’s Goosebumps is that it ought to be a write-off. A fifteen-years-too-late pre-teen comedy with an aging Jack Black struggling to survive past his prime and a milquetoast pair of leads engulfed in oodles of garish CGI overload? All of these things are true for Rob Letterman’s Goosebumps, and yet some of them are just ever-so-slightly warped in a slantwise way. Not enough to genuinely excite or meaningfully accomplish anything except stave away the lesser aspects of the film, but for a piece that ought to read like a disaster, Goosebumps is surprisingly tolerable cinema. Alas, it’s nothing more, but tolerable is, by definition, tolerable, and if honesty is a virtue, as they say, I must confess that I did not hate Goosebumps.

Not that the exsanguinated opening portions of the film make it easy. Material involving Zack (Dylan Minnette) struggling to adapt to suburban Delaware with his mom (Amy Ryan) and meeting the friendly next door neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush) vaguely recall an attempt at Joe Dante, but the withering wit isn’t there, nor the cheeky, almost subliminal character framing. After all, everyone remembers what Wayne and Garth said about being magically whisked away to Delaware, right?

Throughout the first half, the kiddie-horror, and Jack Black, are but whispers in the film’s mouth; Black, Hannah’s father, scuttles about behind closed doors and demands his privacy – he’s the eeriest thing in the film, and intentionally so at that – but he isn’t afforded the opportunity to try on any other outfits. Thankfully, the film takes a left turn from kiddie-horror into kiddie-metatextualism (bet you didn’t see that coming) when it is revealed that Black is in fact R.L. Stine, the writer of the outdated Goosebumps manuscripts from the nightmares of ’90s children across the land. His books – which exist in the film’s world as well – were paltry but successful solutions to the demonic nightmares he envisioned in his everyday life. By writing them down, he entrapped them in a prison of paper and ink.

Now, it wouldn’t be a Rob Letterman movie if those beasts didn’t get themselves up to escaping, would it? Unsurprisingly, the second half of the film implodes in on itself, and Black’s maniacal Stine is engulfed in too much cotton-candy CG. A few of the setpieces are surprisingly fluid, and even venomous. The Garden Gnomes are cheerfully animated in faux-claymation and presented in a different framerate from the rest of the film; their stop-start movement is visually discomfiting and even dangerous in a film that should be as light as a feather. Meanwhile, a runaway Ferris wheel allows Letterman the gift of pretending he knows how to move a camera. But mostly, anemic, welterweight chaos is the order of the day.

Through all of this willful disdain for common courtesy, the film’s bedrock – and its one truly disconcerting, thrillingly lunatic facet – turns out to be Black himself, pulling double-duty as Stine and the voice of head-villain Slappy the Dummy. Not only does the dueling role provide the film’s only successful filmic refrain to its psychoanalytic soul-split “Stine vs. Stine’s darkness embodied in his creations” motif, but Black plays up all of fictional Stine’s schizophrenic ticks to create a thrillingly unhinged suburbanite. He single-handedly concocts a comical embodiment of the dark underbelly of Suburbia (he wouldn’t seem out of place in a David Lynch film). Even with him, the film isn’t exactly an example of smart filmmaking, but it isn’t always entirely dumb filmmaking either.

Score: 5.5/10

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