HELL AND BACK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Crude and Sexual Content, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Tom Gianas & Ross Shuman

Written by: Tom Gianas, Hugh Sterbakov & Zeb Wells

Voices of: Nick Swardson, Mila Kunis, Bob Odenkirk, T.J. Miller, Rob Riggle, Susan Sarandon, Danny McBride, David Koechner, Michael Pena, Brian Posehn, Paul Scheer & H. Jon Benjamin

I’m a big fan of ROBOT CHICKEN, so I was interested in seeing HELL AND BACK last October…but it never hit a single theater near me. Cut to almost an entire year later, a co-worker brings up this film in casual conversation and I immediately remember its existence along with my excitement to see it. Seeing that adult-oriented animation is something that’s all too rare, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check out this hellish comedy. Unfortunately, the laughs never match the film’s high quality of animation, which makes HELL AND BACK a disappointingly middle-of-the-road experience.

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Remy (Nick Swardson), Augie (T.J. Miller) and Curt (Rob Riggle) work at a rundown pier carnival. Unfortunately their workplace/childhood hang-out has hit bankruptcy, which means the three friends will soon be out of a job. When Remy discovers an ancient satanic book, he decides it might be the great money-making attraction that the carnival needs. A petty blood oath ends with Curt being sucked into an otherworldly vortex. In order to rescue their friend, Remy and Augie venture into Hell. The two idiots must band together with an adventurous female demon (Mila Kunis) and a mythological figure (Danny McBride) to save Curt from the clutches of Satan (Bob Odenkirk) and his sadistic underlings.

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The film’s best quality is easily its animation. Stop motion is one of the most painstaking, time-consuming forms of animation and seeing it executed well is a treat by itself. The human characters looked a bit like CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH with a bigger budget. Satan had a mostly musclebound appearance, while his demons look less impressive…but the damned souls are nothing more than green silhouettes. I guess the budget had to run out somewhere. If it weren’t already obvious enough, this film is eye-candy…but the script never provides enough laughs to live up to the high production values.

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HELL AND BACK relies on two different types of humor: stupid and crude. I can laugh at stupid jokes. I can laugh at crude jokes. I might laugh even harder at a stupid, crude jokes. Still, this screenplay gets stupid to a point where it’s lazy…something the animation wouldn’t indicate at all. I wouldn’t say the movie is laugh-free wasteland of a comedy, because there are a couple of solid moments. A five-second punchline stood out as borderline hilarious, but the rest of the movie never reaches that level of ridiculousness again. Another noteworthy running joke features a demon inventing rather mundane tortures, which is kind of clever. There’s even an EVIL DEAD reference, which made me chuckle the first time before it was pummeled into the ground as a tiresome running gag.

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The characters and momentum also struggle. In all honesty, I didn’t care about any of these people. They’re all unlikable douchebags, which may appeal to certain viewers. It doesn’t help that the film squanders a talented cast. Okay, Nick Swardson doesn’t exactly have a great filmography, but the rest of these performers have careers to care about. Lines like “my dick would shoot off its dick” or “I think my shit shit itself” probably didn’t provide them with much motivation either. HELL AND BACK frequently drags in places, despite running at slightly over 80 minutes (counting the credits).

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There might be folks who really have a blast with HELL AND BACK and good on them, but the film didn’t work for me on any level other the animation. I laughed about five or six times, but the rest of the movie felt dull, boring and lazy. When you have a running joke about Devil’s Brew (an extreme hell-brand of beer), a grotesque creature with big flapping breasts, and use profanity to the point where it becomes tiresome, it sort of feels like the writers gave up before they even got started. I wish that this animation had a better script to work with, but alas, that was not the case. HELL AND BACK left me feeling apathetic. Great animation, but not much else to praise.

Grade: C

DEADPOOL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout, Sexual Content and Graphic Nudity

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Directed by: Tim Miller

Written by: Paul Wernick & Rhett Reese

(based on the DEADPOOL comics by Fabian Nicieza & Rob Liefeld)

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic & Leslie Uggams

Deadpool has finally arrived on the big screen! Fox previously tried to bring the merc with a mouth to the big screen in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, which easily stands out as the worst X-MEN movie in the whole franchise. They botched that attempt badly. Fear not though, because fans’ hopes and prayers have been answered with this gleefully R-rated superhero flick that’s strictly for mature audiences. DEADPOOL is awesome from beginning to end with multiple jokes being fired off every few seconds, a non-linear storyline, and copious amounts of sex and violence.

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Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a freelance mercenary living in New York City. One night, he falls head over heels for escort Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin) and the two begin a fairy tale romance. These happy times come to an end when Wade is diagnosed with cancer in multiple organs. In an effort to cure himself, Wade volunteers to be subject in an experiment to create super soldiers. It turns out that the people running this top-secret program (mutants Ajax and Angel Dust) have more sinister intentions in mind. Soon enough, Wade is scarred from head to toe and Deadpool is born. Wielding multiple weapons and an infinite amount of smart-ass quips, Deadpool begins a bloody hunt for Ajax (Ed Skrein) in an effort to regain his former face.

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DEADPOOL is a superhero origin story that’s unlike any other origin story to previously hit nationwide theatrical release. This plot is told in a style that constantly breaks the fourth wall, pokes fun at the proceedings, and is told in a non-linear fashion. This film reminds me that seemingly overdone narratives (in this case, superhero origins) can still be brought to the screen in new, exciting ways. DEADPOOL’s nearly two-hour-long run time breezes by as I was laughing the whole way through, found myself fully invested in the plot, and had blast watching every bit of over-the-top action.

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I highly doubt that any other performer could have played Deadpool as perfectly as Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds’s filmography has seen its ups and downs (the latter are openly mocked throughout this film), but DEADPOOL is the best thing he’s done thus far. His narration, constant fourth wall breaking, and comedic timing bring this delightfully deranged antihero to life. Reynolds is not the only memorable mutant here as Ed Skrein is well-cast as the sword-wielding Ajax (who has super strength and is immune to pain). This is a despicable villain that I loved to hate and his frustration towards Deadpool’s sarcasm makes their confrontations ten times funnier. Ajax’s second-in-command is Angel Dust (a well-cast MMA fighter Gina Carano) and though she doesn’t receive as much dialogue as Ajax, she’s still a very strong screen presence.

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As far as Deadpool’s various helpers go, Stefan Kapicic voices a well animated Colossus. Colossus’s nice guy persona make his reactions towards Deadpool’s extremely violent nature stand out as some of the funniest scenes in the film. Newcomer Brianna Hildebrand steals every bit of screen time she’s in as Negasonic Teenage Warhead (who’s essentially a human bomb). TJ Miller is also well cast as the human sidekick Weasel, while Morena Baccarin has great chemistry with Reynolds as Vanessa. This film also features my favorite Stan Lee cameo in any Marvel film thus far.

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The non-linear way in which DEADPOOL is told (with lots of flashbacks) kept me hooked in the story, despite me knowing full well how this origin tale was likely to play out. DEADPOOL may not be free of clichés, but it does openly mock them at every given opportunity. There are tons of references to other superheroes and films as well. All of this is done in hilarious fashion and doesn’t become repetitive in the slightest. The opening credits rank as some of the funniest in recent memory.

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It should be noted that DEADPOOL definitely deserves its R-rating and pushes it to the limits. Of course, there’s lots of violence with bodies being dismembered, decapitated heads being used as soccer balls, and plenty of insane action sequences. The sex is also off the charts as we get nudity (both male and female), crude running gags, and gross-out jokes. The constant sense of humor is wildly irreverent as nothing is off-limits and the F-bomb is thrown around like candy. I have no earthly idea how this movie could ever possibly be edited for basic cable. One can only hope that this film’s guaranteed success will open doors for more R-rated superhero flicks down the line (I’d love to see a proper SPAWN reboot).

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DEADPOOL is exactly what you think it is and I mean that in the best way possible. This is one of the most insane superhero flicks out there. The film is fueled by non-stop sarcasm, crude humor, T&A, gory violence, tons of references, and love for the source material. It will definitely benefit from multiple viewings as there are so many jokes being fired off at a mile-a-minute that it’s simply impossible to catch all of them in one sitting. Simply put, this film is a self-referential, profane, darkly hilarious, gloriously violent, and very R-rated superhero/anti-hero story. If that sounds up your alley, then DEADPOOL is a must-see!

Grade: A+

BIG HERO 6 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action and Peril, some Rude Humor, and Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Don Hall & Chris Williams

Written by: Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson & Jordan Roberts

(based on the BIG HERO 6 comics)

Voices of: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk & Maya Rudolph

Disney is known for tales of princess, far off lands, and immensely creative retellings of classic stories. Every now and then, Disney tries something new or unusual out for size. Sometimes, this approach comes out with a new classic (WRECK-IT RALPH), but it can also result in a flawed or mixed bag (ATLANTIS: THE LOST EMPIRE, LILO & STITCH).  BIG HERO 6 is Disney’s first adaptation of a Marvel comic into an animated family film and winds up being a decent enough movie with some frustrating problems.

BIG HERO 6, from left: Hiro (voice Ryan Potter), Baymax (voice: Scott Adsit), 2014. ©Walt Disney

In a colorful futuristic city called San Fransokyo, Hiro Hamada (a 14-year-old genius) spends his time hustling at illegal bot fights (think cock-fighting by remote-controlled robots). With Tadashi’s (Hiro’s older brother) guidance, Hiro is interested in attending a high-tech university, but disaster strikes. Hiro teams up with the gentle giant Baymax (Tadashi’s invention: an inflatable nurse-like robot) to stop an evil villain, but he’ll also need the help of four friends to take down the masked baddie. This is pretty basic stuff for a superhero origin story, but it’s executed fairly well for about two-thirds of the movie.

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BIG HERO 6 takes place in an awesome world. The visuals are beautiful and there’s a lot of creativity on display. A scene in which Hiro flies on Baymax’s back through the skies of San Fransokyo reminded me of the best scene in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON because of how gorgeous the animated environment looked around them. There’s also a unique style to the animation itself in that this almost comes off like an anime met up with regular computer animation and had a baby. A few characters look like they’re right out of a manga (Hiro, Tadashi, etc.) and others look like they’re from typical animated designs, but they blends seamlessly into one big world that is very cool to look at. It’s an awesome film in terms of pure animation, but the script itself is where things falter.

BIG HERO 6, Yokai (voice: Charles Adler), 2014. ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/courtesy

The characters in BIG HERO 6 are fun to watch, but pretty standard. With the exception of Hiro and Baymax, everyone else comes off as a one-note joke and don’t receive enough time to develop into actual characters. Hiro is a sympathetic teenager who’s suffering from severe depression and Baymax shows a remarkable amount of emotions for a robot (as well as providing the best comic relief in the whole movie). There’s genuine friendship between them that’s the best aspect of the film, besides the unique animation. However, BIG HERO 6 tries to have it both ways in terms of being a rocking superhero movie and a cutesy kid’s film. This isn’t a great mix and it’s clear that a lot of things were compromised in terms of making this child-friendly (just wiki some of the details about the source material for examples). BIG HERO 6 works very well for the first hour (maybe a little longer) thanks to well-placed humor. It’s a fun and entertaining flick that is almost compromised by a rushed climax.

BIG HERO 6, from left: Hiro (voice Ryan Potter), Baymax (voice: Scott Adsit), 2014. ©Walt Disney

All the momentum and entertainment nearly goes out the window in the final third. We are given the reveal of who the kabuki-masked villain is and I will give BIG HERO 6 praise in it being not completely predictable, but the details surrounding the bad guy are so rushed that beating him almost seemed like a shrug-inducing obligation. The stakes weren’t too high and the final battle is an afterthought. The climax isn’t compelling or very exciting. There are even a couple of plot holes introduced by the rushed showdown. It’s almost like you’re on a really fun rollercoaster ride and the cars stop for the final third, so you’re forced to get out and walk the rest of the track. That’s the exact same effect of watching BIG HERO 6.

BIG HERO 6, from left: Baymax (voice: Scott Adsit), Hiro (voice Ryan Potter), 2014. ©Walt Disney

Depending on how well it performs at the box office, BIG HERO 6 is likely to become a new franchise for Disney. I liked the world of this story enough to watch a sequel, but this film is just okay overall. It’s a decent enough origin story that doesn’t develop the colorful characters enough to make me care about anyone other than the two leads and nearly falls apart completely in the last third (opening up a big plot hole and cliché that you can see coming from a mile away). BIG HERO 6 is satisfying family entertainment, but you’d expect more from both Marvel and Disney (let alone a combination of the two).

Grade: B-

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Adventure Action and some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Dean DeBlois

Written by: Dean DeBlois

(based on the book series HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou & Kit Harington

DreamWorks has been bringing impressive competition for Disney in computer-animated family entertainment. Out of their catalog of films, I would definitely say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is the best movie they’ve brought to the screen. Apparently, plenty of audiences and critics agree with me, because that first film has become acclaimed and made huge bank at the box office. It took four years for a sequel to hit theaters and was well worth the long wait to see this stellar sequel in the new animated series. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 manages to keep the level of high quality that the original had and bring to life a completely new chapter that’s unlike anything in the previous film. Usually animated sequels have an unfortunate habit of wearing out tropes that worked in the past, but DRAGON 2 takes some bold new turns. It’s a great adventure for the whole family.

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Five years have passed since dragons and Vikings have learned to live together. The village of Berk has become a wonderful ever-expanding place. With dragons being kept as pets and being rode in Quidditch-like games, everything seems to be working out perfectly. One-legged Hiccup and Toothless have taken to discovering nearby lands and expanding a map of what surrounds Berk. A chance encounter with a group of dragon hunters leads Hiccup to a familiar face from his past and brings the attention of vicious warlord Drago Bludvist.

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One of the twists that might have been genuinely (god forbid) surprising has been given away in nearly every piece of the marketing. This is just one of many ways that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 expands the world of its predecessor and ups the stakes at every possible turn. The first film was excellent, but you could definitely tell it was a “kid’s movie” in the comical sense of humor that came through in nearly every scene. It’s a great follow-up, but DRAGON 2 made me forget I was watching “family entertainment” on multiple occasions. I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way, but I am saying that director/writer Dean DeBlois is more willing (or was allowed more room) to take risks this time around. He does and the emotional payoff to most of them resonates strongly. This is the first movie I’ve seen in 2014 where the theater burst into a round of applause when the end credits began to roll. It’s a terrifically exciting adventure that’s perfectly suitable for any age, despite heavier material thrown in here and there.

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Every memorable character returns from the first film and some get more screen time than others, but everybody is fleshed out. Two major new additions (one of which will not be specifically mentioned, even though the trailer gives it away) are also very well executed. The first film kind of followed the “secret friendship” formula of storytelling and there was no clear-cut antagonist (save for a massive dragon in the final third). DRAGON 2 introduces the intimidating Drago Bludvist and this is one of the best villains I’ve seen in an animated film for quite some time. He comes off as a little understated at first, but more the time spent on him, the more you understand what made him so cruel and why he’s such a lunatic. There was a good portion of the movie where I wanted Drago to die a horrible, painful as possible death because of how downright evil he comes off. That’s a very rare thing to see in a bad guy (especially in a computer animated “kid’s movie”).

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The visuals have gotten even better this time around and that’s saying a lot because they were really phenomenal parts of the first film. Everything is beautiful to look at and every landscape feels like a piece of art. The dragons themselves still come off as winged, scaly, fire-breathing pets and all the children in the theater seemed to love that aspect of it. Toothless is undeniably cute and I still wish that he was real, so I could ride him through the skies. There’s still quite a bit of comic relief thrown in and the story does go through some predictable motions (especially in the final act), but it’s an exciting ride that perfectly fits into this summer season saddled with a drought of family movies.

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I won’t say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is better than the first film, but I like them on equal ground for different reasons. This second installment is more mature, complex, and takes far more risks. It’s an awesome piece of family entertainment and shows that the series (third movie is already in the works) is blossoming into a maturity, kind of like the young central characters. Beautifully animated, surprisingly gripping, and braver than most of the family entertainment to come out in the last few years, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a sequel that completely justifies it’s existence. It lives up to the first film and serves as a wonderful second chapter in a series that might go down as one of the best of its kind since the TOY STORY trilogy!

Grade: A

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sequences of Intense Action and some Scary Images, and brief Mild Language

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Directed by: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois

Written by: Will Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders

(based on the novel HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, T.J. Miller, David Tennant

With the sequel coming out in a matter of weeks, I figured it was time to watch the first HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. Based on the series of children’s novels, this animated fantasy film skyrocketed to becoming a huge success and currently lies within IMDB’s top 250 (no small feat for an animated feature that doesn’t involve the companies Pixar or Disney). DRAGON is the best animated film to come out of DreamWorks (with SHREK 2 as a close second). The story is enchanting. The humor is whimsical and enjoyable for all ages. The visuals can range from good to dazzling. This is a great family film and just a great movie overall.

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For those who don’t know the story, the film is set is in a Viking village on the island of Berk. This village is constantly under attack by dragons. These fire-breathing monsters run amok, steal food, and have been responsible for the deaths of quite a few Vikings (so we’re told, we never see any of these graphically go down as this is a children’s film). Hiccup is the misfit son of the village leader. While everybody in Berk is all brawn and no brains, Hiccup is skinny and constantly inventing new contraptions. He also longs to slay a dragon in order to make a name for himself. One night, Hiccup does take down a Night Fury (the most feared and mysterious type of dragon) with one of his inventions and nobody believes him. Instead of killing the dragon, Hiccup wound grounding it on a mountain. The Night Fury seems unable to properly fly away and Hiccup finds that he doesn’t have it in him to kill the beast. Hiccup and the Night Fury (named Toothless) form a relationship that could be doomed due to the Vikings’ fearful nature of dragons.

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The formula used in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON involves an awkward outsider keeping a secret under wraps from his judgmental peers. It isn’t completely new. It’s been seen in plenty of other stories, especially kid’s movies. What sets this film apart is how everything is executed. I never thought I’d see a movie that turned a dragon into a cute adorable creature that you wished existed so you could keep it as a pet. Color me surprised, because I want a pet Toothless of my own and I’m a grown-ass man who knows that dragons don’t exist. The visual style is a little shaky during moments, as if it wasn’t as fully rendered as it could be, but the movie looks gorgeous in other parts (especially in a couple of flight scenes with Hiccup riding on the back of Toothless).

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I thought the voice cast for the film, populated with a lot of well-known names, was impressive as well. Jay Baruchel isn’t necessarily what you would call a leading man, but he does have the voice for Hiccup and makes the character his own. Gerard Butler isn’t screaming “This is Sparta!” 300-style, but does play Hiccup’s quick-to-judge father and doing a fine job in the part. I did like the love interest played by (unfamiliar face for me) America Ferrera. As far as everybody else went, I could take or leave them. They weren’t too memorable or given much character development other than being detractors for Hiccup that gradually grow to accept him. It was pretty neat to see R-rated comedy regulars Christopher Mintz-Plass (McLovin from SUPERBAD and the well-endowed stoner in NEIGHBORS), Jonah Hill (also from SUPERBAD and KNOCKED UP) and TJ Miller (who starred opposite Baruchel in SHE’S OUT OF MY LEAGUE) in a kid’s movie.

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Though the initial set-up may seem pretty familiar in its general formula, I really enjoyed where the movie went in the daring conclusion and some twists sprinkled throughout. DreamWorks has a knack for going into brave places that Disney wouldn’t dare touch. It’s not that the studio is out-and-out aiming for an adult audience, but they are willing to take new risks and that’s something Disney hasn’t been willing to do for the last couple of decades. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has a rousing and very exciting climax that had me glued to the screen and I’ll gladly sit through the film again multiple times in the future. I’m very much looking forward to the second installment to see where things go from here.

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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is a wonderful film. It will entertain older viewers, while delighting children. Toothless is a dragon for the ages and I would consider him to be adorable. The story itself isn’t entirely unfamiliar, but it does take some risks and goes into territory that separates DreamWorks from Disney and Pixar films. The cast all fit their parts, even if a few members/characters didn’t make a huge impact on the story. It’s a movie that brims with creativity and has earned every bit of its reputation as one of the best family movies in the past 5 years. This is highly recommended, if you haven’t already seen it. If you have, then watch it again!

Grade: A

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