2021 was another weird year on planet Earth! But I don’t need to tell you!
Unfortunately for me that meant taking a bit of a break from reviewing movies here at AV. I still watched them though. So instead of leaving 2021 as a big black hole in our review coverage, we thought why not just end the year off right with a quick review recap of some of the big studio releases!
Since it’s been a while (and for any newcomers) here’s how I rate movies. I give films two scores: an Overall score based on artistic merit like you’d see at any other review site. And a Fun Factor score, rating the movie purely on how entertaining it was. The scores are on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being the worst of the worst, and 10 the best of the best. Those scores are saved for the very rare movie that really deserves them. I think I’ve only awarded those scores twice in 15 years. From there I determine if the movie was poor (1 to 3), average (4 to 6), or good (7 to 9).
The first two films listed I did a full review of earlier this year. The next seven are new reviews.
I know your scores will probably be different than mine. So feel free to tell us what you thought of the films of 2021 in the Animated Views Forum!
March 4th / FORUM DISCUSSION
I reviewed this movie back in March. Read the full review here.
BOTTOM LINE: With a mess of a story, a spinoff angle that felt forced in, and an over-the-top and embarrassing attempt to canonize the main character, there’s no denying fans of the show deserved better. Feel free to run from this sponge.
March 5th / FORUM DISCUSSION
I reviewed this movie back in March. Read the full review here.
BOTTOM LINE: So much potential. An unplumbed setting for an animated film, a deep and interesting foundational legend to build off of, a good message, amazing animation, a great cast of actors, and all the resources Disney can provide. All of it squandered because somewhere along the way, someone suggested they give audiences a pop princess rather than a hero on the regular.
April 23rd / FORUM DISCUSSION
HEADLINE: A surprisingly touching film about the straining bonds between a father and daughter… set during a techno-pocolypse!
STORY: The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a very funny movie, but right from the start shows its heart. The story centers around a father and daughter who just can’t understand why the other doesn’t understand them — even though they are both more alike than they seem to think. The tension between them is exacerbated as the daughter is about to leave home for college, and both want to leave on good terms. When that doesn’t seem likely, dad suggests a cross country family road trip to her school. While that alone is an idea ripe for drama and comedy, the end of the world gets thrown in as well. And it mostly works! The ending gets rushed and a bit too “deus ex machina-y” for my taste, but fits well enough with the manic energy of the rest of the film. What really gives the movie it’s emotional heft is something that a lot of animated stories (which are usually aimed at kids) ignore: parents. Parents get short shrift in a lot of animated films. But here, not only does the father learn to see and appreciate things from his daughter’s point of view, she is encouraged to take a step back from the hustle and bustle and other distractions of a teenagers life to really see and comprehend what he has sacrificed for her.
ANIMATION: The visual style was interesting. While obviously computer generated, the animation for humans and backgrounds incorporated hand-drawn elements that gave them an even softer look when compared to the sleek robots. Think Into the Spider-Verse (also from Sony) but instead of a comic book overlay, more of a pencil sketched look. Additionally, the entire film is punctuated with animated extras throughout, as if the main character, an amateur filmmaker, was putting in special effects for a YouTube video. For small example, when characters hug, a hand-drawn heart might appear between them. Or for a bigger scene, the film may go into a freeze frame while the entire screen is covered with meme-ish GIFs and captions. These were sometimes cute, occasionally cringy, but mostly ignorable.
MUSIC: The movie was so fast paced and frenetic that I didn’t really notice the score. Obligatory pop songs are scattered throughout, usually as stingers to a joke or big moment.
ACTING: The casting for the film is solid across the board. The father/daughter dynamic is captured perfectly by Danny McBride and Abbi Jacobson, with Maya Rudolph and Mike Rianda bringing in support as the rest of the family. Olivia Colman, Fred Armisen, and Beck Bennett are great as several of the title Machines.
BOTTOM LINE: A lot of fun, but with some real emotional depth.
June 18th / FORUM DISCUSSION
HEADLINE: The Little Mermaid meets Cars meets Ratatouille? OK, not exactly, but weirdly close!
STORY: The plot is fairly simple, but crafted extremely well. Luca is a sea creature who wants to explore that shore up above but who’s parents forbid it. Alberto is a sea creature who lives on land with a collection of human gadgets and gizmos aplenty. (When out of the water they appear human.) Luca runs away, befriends Alberto, meets a human girl named Giulia, and the three team up to enter a local race that will allow the two secret merman to buy a Vespa and explore the rest of the above-water world. The story is sweet and fun, and the conflicts are not too heavy or emotional. One of my favorite sources of friction in the film is the triangle between the three young leads. The story takes place in that innocent time of childhood before kids are aware of romantic entanglements. So having a girl come between the two boys, but in a strictly platonic sense, made for a unique plot line. The climax of the story came a little too fast and the resolution didn’t feel completely earned. I really think extending the fairly short 95 minute running time was needed to give the audience a proper ending.
ANIMATION: The animation in Luca is very different from the Pixar norm: almost cartoony, with wide open mouths that move to the sides when characters are in profile, and arms and legs that sometimes look like they’re being controlled by puppeteers. That’s not a knock. It works well with the film, given it’s lighter tone… and the fact that their mouths kind of look like fish!
MUSIC: The score helps underscore the setting, which is important when the setting is so important to the story. But it doesn’t do much more than that.
ACTING: I enjoyed the main characters’ performances all around. Jacob Tremblay nails Luca’s naiveté and curiosity, Jack Dylan Grazer gets Alberto’s misplaced confidence and secret loneliness, and Emma Berman portrays Giulia’s excitement and indignation just right.
BOTTOM LINE: A lovingly well made piece of light entertainment.
HEADLINE: Musical monkey on a mission with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
STORY: Vivo is one of those types of films from studios not named Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks that always worry me, especially when they feature singing/rapping animals! But, like a lot of recent Sony animated films, this one was a pleasant surprise. The plot has the too often used cartoon road trip as its foundation, but doesn’t fall into the episodic trap. The journey is interesting enough, has some fun characters along the way, and isn’t too predictable. The film has a fairly solid emotional core that by the end will have you actually caring about what happens to the characters.
ANIMATION: Sony Animation is not slacking in the animation department vs their competition. The overall art style here is fun and colorful and character designs are varied and interesting. We even get some wonderful hand-drawn styled animation throughout where the original CG-renderings get a 2D-makeover that doesn’t feel like it was done in a slapdash manner, but with care for the format.
MUSIC: Lin-Manuel Miranda writes some great music, but he is a very infuriating lyricist! Whenever I listen to one of his song scores, they always feel… unpolished. There’s always a song or two that are good to great, then too many that seem like he didn’t finish them in time so rushed out the last few verses. Also he has a few stylistic choices that grate, like just narrating action rather than being lyrical, repeating words and phrases too much, structuring the song with too many different sections, using filler words to get the lyrics match the melody, and thinking that having an up-tempo song that is so dense with words that it’s incomprehensible is clever. All that is true here. But thankfully the ratio of “works” to “doesn’t work” is more on the plus side than usual.
ACTING: While I originally didn’t think Miranda’s voicing of the title kinkajou was a good fit with the character, it did grow on me as the film went on and by the end I enjoyed his performance. Ynairaly Simo was sweetly annoying as the hyper Gabi, which is not a dig but a complement! And Juan de Marcos González and Gloria Estefan bring some gravitas to the roles of old musical partners who try to reconnect after years of denying their feelings for each other.
BOTTOM LINE: Vivo may not be an Oscar contender, but it is entertaining and made with care — far beyond the assembly line animated fare studios sometimes churn out without regards to quality knowing they’ll still make money.
HEADLINE: Another surprisingly touching dystoian-esque take on the role social media play in our lives.
STORY: Barney and his friends have grown apart over the years since elementary school, with their online lives seemingly subsuming their real lives in a race to create content and generate clicks to show how popular they are. Without a device of his own, Barney is a digital and IRL outcast. When personal social media robots become the next craze, his family finally gets him one, whom he names Ron. But it’s defective and doesn’t have the proper algorithm for friendship. So Barney has to teach him how to be his friend. The writers do such a wonderful job of almost surreptitiously demonstrating to Barney and the audience that friendship is not a one way street. Social media, which only shows part of our lives and doesn’t involve any real interactions with those commenting and liking, is literally that one-way street — which makes building a true friendship difficult. Kids experiencing relationships through their phones isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During the pandemic and lockdowns it was a life line. But Ron’s Gone Wrong reminds us that may have forgotten (or maybe teaches those too young to have realized) that it’s the people on the other ends of these devices that we should be forming bonds with, not the devices themselves. Even better, it does it without getting preachy. And to top it all off, it’s a very funny movie!
ANIMATION: While the animation in Ron’s Gone Wrong is great, it’s not distinctive or different than what any other good studio is putting out. However, Ron’s animation is noteworthy. The animators and writers did a wonderful job with the somewhat limited ways in which the he can show emotion and interact with others. This, along with the vocal performance, are the reasons why Ron is such an endearing character.
MUSIC: Another film where the music was perfectly serviceable but not particularly memorable or even important to the plot.
ACTING: I’m always surprised when I enjoy a Zach Galifianakis movie performance so much because I usually just think of him as a big goofball. But he is a very good actor in just about everything, and his role here as Ron is no exception. And Jack Dylan Grazer plays well against him as Ron’s owner Barney. These two center the action and heart of the film and are an important part of why the story works so well.
BOTTOM LINE: A movie with a message that doesn’t make the message the movie. All while being a lot of fun.
November 24th / FORUM DISCUSSION
HEADLINE: A magical mess of a movie.
STORY: The Madrigal family lives in a magical house, and each one of the family members is gifted a magical power when they reach a certain age. Everyone but Mirabel. She does however start to notice that the magic seems to be fading in the house and among her family — a fact everyone else want to ignore. And that’s basically the plot. There is no antagonist. Why the house is magic is never explained. Why Mirabel has no power is never explained. Why the magic is disappearing is poorly explained. One major plot point that is finally revealed is later ignored. In the end everything that went wrong is magically fixed with no explanation as to how or why. This is such a mess of a movie that I’m having trouble trying to even explain what’s wrong with it since there is not much plot to talk about.
ANIMATION: Despite the story issues, Disney can almost do no wrong when it comes to animation these days. Stunning scenery, amazing effects, compelling character designs. They got it all right. Especially praiseworthy was the Casita. A house that was both magically alive and rooted in realism as a building (for example, not just going all out by adding hands, feet, and eyes) was a fine line that they tight-walked beautifully.
MUSIC: Lin-Manuel Miranda writes some great music, but he is a very infuriating lyricist… Everything I said above for Vivo applies to Encanto’s songs as well. But the ratio of “works” to “doesn’t work” isn’t as high. Germaine Franco’s score, however, is nice: fitting to the setting, functional to the story, and just fun.
ACTING: One big problem in Encanto is a glut of characters, so many that they all get very little meaningful screen time. All were fine in their roles, but again, due to sheer numbers and the running time, they don’t get a lot to do. The one character who gets the most time, Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel held the movie together almost single-handedly with an enthusiastic performance.
BOTTOM LINE: What in the world was that? “Let’s make a movie about family love. That’s a plot, right?”
HEADLINE: Monsters fighting monsters. What else do you want?
STORY: Monsters fighting monsters. What else do you want? Seriously, this is a basic, by-the-numbers story about a sports league where monsters representing different cities fight other monsters representing other cities. The townsfolk get behind their monsters and root for them fanatically. The monsters have a coach who works to train them. That’s basically the story… and it’s not that bad! The plot is your cookie cutter sports cliche movie: a washed up player tries to live up to the legacy of dad with a unexperienced trainer on a team far removed from its glory years to attempt to win a championship from an unbeatable opponent who has disrespected them all. It’s every sports movie you’ve ever seen with absolutely no surprises. But again, if you accept that, it’s not that bad. Not great, but entertaining enough for something most of us weren’t expecting much from.
ANIMATION: Like the story the animation is not bad, but nothing will wow you. While the monster designs are fun, the human characters look too stiff.
MUSIC: Some stock pop songs (including the obligatory Eye of the Tiger and Tubthumping) and not much else.
ACTING: I love Will Arnett. He’s one of the funniest guys in show business. But his voice is so distinctive that it sometimes takes me out of the film for a moment. Changing it up just a little bit like his roles in Horton Hears a Who and The Lego Batman Movie would go a long way. Geraldine Viswanathan brought some much needed emotionality to the film without going too far with it or losing the character’s gruffness. And Terry Crews was a lot of fun and the egotistical champion Tentacular.
BOTTOM LINE: Monsters fighting monsters. What else do you want? A good choice for a rainy day when you want to relax and enjoy a movie but not think too hard or feel too much!
December 22nd / FORUM DISCUSSION
HEADLINE: Another one!?
STORY: You know how almost every animated movie ends with the characters all singing a pop song and dancing as the film goes to the end credits? What if the entire movie was the characters all singing a pop song and dancing as the film goes to the end credits? And then what if they made a sequel to that film? Sing 2!
ANIMATION: Illumination does have some great artists. Colors pop, movement is fluid and natural, sets are fantastical, and the art is top notch. Please give these wonderful artists something better to do with their talent.
MUSIC: Pop song after pop song after pop song.
ACTING: Matthew McConaughey is a good actor. I have no idea why he agreed to be part of this! But I will admit his performance is better than this film deserves. Like Will Arnett, he has a distinctive voice, but does an incredible job of hiding it with a voice that doesn’t feel fake at all, but is almost unrecognizable.
BOTTOM LINE: Ugh.