Mary and Max  (2009)    75/100

Rating :   75/100                                                                  92 Min           12A

This is a wonderful animation based on a real life pen pal relationship between Australian youngster Mary (she is about eight years old when she first writes to a random person in New York) and forty-four-year-old asperger’s syndrome sufferer Max (the random person). An unlikely bond forms between them; as Mary’s bullying at school and the neglect of her parents strikes a chord with Max’s chronic isolation and difficulty with relating to the world. Their relationship continues over the years and becomes one of the most defining aspects of each of their lives.

It’s beautifully told – the artwork manages to be unique, somewhat warped, and yet stops just short enough of being grotesque to pull off endearing. And the voice work from Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Max and both Bethany Whitmore and Toni Collette as Mary is just perfect. Be warned though, the film is sad from the beginning right through to the end.

The Good Dinosaur  (2015)    56/100

Rating :   56/100                                                                       93 Min        PG

Not exactly living up to its family friendly moniker, Disney Pixar’s latest after the equally unbalanced ‘Inside Out‘ focuses on a young Apatosaurus, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), separated from his family and forced to survive with his unlikely primitive companion, Spot (Jack Bright), a young boy of around seven who still squirrels around on all fours for the most part. The two become erstwhile friends and begin the arduous task of finding their way back to Arlo’s homestead (the film is to my knowledge the very first animated dinosaur western, with the Apatosaurus as ranchers struggling to eke out a living from the land, and the T’Rexs as cowboys, or drovers – all after the asteroid that may or may not have originally wiped out the dinosaurs sails harmlessly past Earth for the purposes of the movie), during which time Arlo must find his courage, which is a nice theme for a film very much aimed at a younger, family audience, albeit one common to children’s fiction, see ‘Blade of the Poisoner‘ for another example.

Given its target demographic, however, there are at least three particularly dubious scenes (not to mention a ‘Lion King’ (94) moment that you will see coming a mile off): we see an enormous insect presented as food to Arlo, who is of course a vegetarian so he is confused by it, before its head is quickly wheeched off by Spot to demonstrate its purpose. Now, it wasn’t the cutest creature to ever be presented in a Disney film, but still such an abrupt execution begs the question of ‘was that really necessary to show?’. As too does a pterodactyl eating whole a, this time very cute, little wolf thingy, leaving a distinct queasy aftertaste to the moment, but chief sin of the three has to go to the two protagonists getting high on wild berries and then starting to hallucinate and trip out, seeing each other with multiple heads and so on.

I mean seriously, what on earth were they thinking. I don’t think even in the early days of Disney where now you can pick holes in the content to a degree, such as Tinker Bell and all the mermaids in ‘Peter Pan’ (53) trying to murder Wendy in rather ungrounded fits of jealousy for example, do they reach the depths of kids taking hard drugs, although actually John does smoke Wampum in ‘Peter Pan’ come to think. The scenery and landscapes are incredibly well rendered and brought to life, the dinosaurs look a little weak in that respect, but the story proves continually misguided with all of the above and multiple character decisions that don’t really make any sense, as well as numerous survivals from altogether too extreme scenarios. Another disappointment from Pixar, which suggests releasing two feature films in the same year, the first time for the company, may have perhaps stretched creative resources a little too far.

Inside Out  (2015)    62/100

Rating :   62/100                                                                       94 Min        U

Disney Pixar’s latest is unsurprisingly ambitious and technically accomplished, but on this occasion they’ve overshot their own creative mark and landed a little too close to the dead zone of thematic ambiguity for comfort. The plot is theoretically about one family: father (Kyle MacLachlan), mother (Diane Lane) and young eleven-year-old girl Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) who relocate from Minnesota to San Francisco, causing Riley to suffer numerous quite natural insecurities and regrets as she waves goodbye to several friendships and a hallowed place on her ice hockey team.

In reality, the movie is focused on what’s going on inside Riley’s brain as we see Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) brought to life as individual entities at the helm, ‘Headquarters’, of Riley’s entire personality and normal function. Herein lies problem number one – an attempt to personify characters as representative of one distinct and solitary emotion but also as characters in their own right who must necessarily exhibit more of a range.

The whole motif behind the movie is that it’s OK to feel sad sometimes, as this can be a visual signal to others that we are in need of help. Sadness initially messes everything up before her place in the grand scheme of things becomes apparent, and as her chaotic influence sweeps throughout the labyrinthine corridors of Riley’s grey matter we watch as entire elements of the host’s personality are completely and irrevocably annihilated by mistake, whilst in the real world her life is equally devastated as a result. All of which has the effect of largely distancing Riley from being in any way in control of herself and her own state of being, which in turn is conceptually very alienating for an audience.

Similarly, there are a lot of very eerie goings-on; we see a large creepy clown lurking around in locked away memories, entire characters begin to fade into nothingness as Riley starts to forget them. Notwithstanding this, there are funny moments and the artwork involved is top-notch, as we’ve come to expect, just as the adventure the central personality profiles go in does more or less hold interest until the end. Still, the film’s premise hasn’t been satisfactorily fulfilled and The Red Dragon is by no means convinced this is a good film to be taking youngsters to go and see.

Minions  (2015)    33/100

Rating :   33/100                                                                       91 Min        U

Early marketing for this looked promising, with one ad for broadband showing the Minions eagerly awaiting a picture to download in the early days of the internet, three of them salivating in anticipation, and it’s a picture of a banana – hopes were raised for some level of adult humour and engagement. Alas, no such luck. This is the spin-off film from the ‘Despicable Me’ (2010) franchise featuring the eponymous Minions who were a big hit in the original films whilst they served their evil master with a soft side Gru. Here we see a brief origin story that leads to America and then England in the 1960s where the wide eyed yellow wannabe Igors are in search of someone suitably despotic to follow, and they decide upon Scarlett Overkill (Sandra Bullock) who is determined to steal the Queen’s crown jewels (her monarchic crown jewels).

She is erroneously referred to as the Queen of England – she is the Queen of the United Kingdom, there hasn’t been a king or queen of England in the sense the film means for many centuries, and indeed the numerous vaguely offensive stereotypes of Englishness which permeate the film may have been responsible for a BBC journalist’s pretty horrid interview with Ms Bullock at the premiere in London – from memory (it’s mysteriously absent from the BBC’s website) it began ‘As an older woman in Hollywood …’ imagine saying that to anyone, never mind Sandra Bullock (who can still easily pass for someone in her thirties) on live TV at the premiere of her new film, I was originally outraged but after seeing the film, not so much. Similarly, Napoleon is presented as an evil overlord at one point – why? For proliferating the metric system?

For adult audiences there really is nothing here worth watching at all, no matter how much you may have liked the characters from the other films. Its much younger target demographic will hopefully get more out of it, but there are still some garish bad guys in there (an evil clown on a unicycle at one point for example) and there were a mere couple of titters throughout from the family dominated audience at the screening I was in. Pretty disappointing all in all, with voice support from Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, Jennifer Saunders and Geoffrey Rush.

Big Hero 6  (2014)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     102 Min        PG

The latest Disney animated feature film is set in the near future in the fictional San Fransokyo, an impression of what San Francisco might be like if it were in Japan (unless they have gone all ‘Watchmen’ on the story and Japan won World War II, this is not elaborated on) which has allowed the illustrators to tinker with a more Japanese style of animation for various elements in the film (alas, no easily discernible hentai on display). It’s based on the little known Marvel comic of the same name, which Disney is at liberty to adapt having bought over Marvel some years ago now and in fact there are a number of elements similar to the character of Iron Man which are a little distracting, but again they don’t have to worry about encroaching on copyright. It’s a bit of a departure for Disney in many ways as their productions are often marked by their originality, whereas here it is a fairly familiar superhero set-up, admittedly with extremely finessed graphical work.

Hiro (Ryan Potter) is a young tech aficionado whose parents passed away in a tragic accident. His brother creates a medical robot, Baymax (Scott Adsit), who becomes Hiro’s closest friend and adventuring companion when a mysterious fire not only destroys his world changing microbots he had been working on, but also sadly claims the life of his brother as well. Baymax has a bulky frame but one created largely via an inflatable exterior, thus differing from all other big-screen mechanoids, and he brings much needed light relief to the film as the duo are accidentally flung into investigating what really happened on that fateful day.

On his journey of self discovery Hiro will have to question his own feelings of rage, as well as what role other people should play in his life – the other engineers from his brother’s lab are concerned about his welfare but he initially keeps them at a distance, for example. All of these elements are resolved and delivered in a fairly two dimensional way, but there is action aplenty and it all looks and feels fresh enough to entertain even if it is going to appeal in a grander way to a younger demographic rather than adults. Maya Rudolph, Jamie Chung, Alan Tudyk and James Cromwell (as Professor Callaghan – a reference to Harry Callaghan, aka ‘Dirty’ Harry, San Francisco’s very own urban diplomacy expert) are the most recognisable names in the supporting line-up and, as you might imagine, there are Easter eggs galore to spot throughout the film.

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                       76 Min        U

The latest in the Tinker Bell series has less going on for adults, and indeed for everyone, than the last outing ‘Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy‘, very much focusing on one character, Fawn (Ginnifer Goodwin), this time rather than a group adventure. Her task in Pixie Hollow is to look after the creatures of the area and nature in general (she is an animal fairy). One day, she encounters a strange and hitherto unknown to her beast, or Neverbeast to be more correct, which is thoroughly busied in its somewhat odd practice of erecting stone arcs. Pulling a thorn from its many times larger than her paw the two bond, though she is keen to keep her new animal friend away from the prying eyes of Nyx, leader of the guardians (the Scouts) of Pixie Hollow that may be a little concerned about the Neverbeast’s overt potential for destruction (Incidentally, Nyx is the Greek goddess of the night, born of Chaos, whilst nix is Latin for snow which may suggest a connection to the race discovered in ‘Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings‘). When an ancient tome is discovered telling of a mythic creature fitting the Neverbeast’s description that appears every thousand years or so and is depicted calling forth death and destruction, Fawn must question whether aiding her friend is indeed the right thing to do after all. It’s a good film about the importance of not judging a book by its cover (although I religiously buy books based on their cover) and understanding those who may be different to ourselves, it’s just not a tentpole of the franchise, indeed the future of the series sadly appears to be in jeopardy with plans for future film releases abandoned for the time being. Boo.

The Book of Life  (2014)    67/100

Rating :   67/100                                                                       95 Min        U

From Dallas based Reel FX Creative Studios whose last output was the dire ‘Free Birds‘, the creative team behind this, led by director and co-writer Jorge R. Gutierrez, were determined to match the adroitness of their concept art with the visual splendour of the final film, and I think they can congratulate themselves on a job well done as I don’t believe I have ever seen an animated movie quite so colourfully rich and involved as this one, easily the film’s best selling point. Voiced comfortably by a cast including Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Kate del Castillo, Ron Perlman and Ice Cube, this tells a story from the Book of Life, a book which contains all stories, of a love triangle involving two young male friends and the local beauty, also the general’s daughter, naturally, in the Mexican village of San Angel – a recipe for disaster that the spirit rulers of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten place bets upon, but over the years which one will win the hand of the fair lady, and what will the consequences be? It’s good fun, with its own take on lots of modern songs (at least two of which appear in The Red Dragon’s first playlist, so they obviously have good taste …) but unfortunately it tries to take the main characters on too many journeys and the central concept ends up meandering as a result, leading to a very average finale. Overall a warm and heartfelt endeavour though.

The Boxtrolls  (2014)    73/100

Rating :   73/100                                                                       97 Min        15

The latest from stop-motion animation company Laika (after ‘Coraline’ in 09, and ‘ParaNorman’ in 12), and based on the 2005 young adult novel ‘Here be Monsters!’ by Alan Snow, this is a particularly skilled production, especially so from directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi along with tremendous voiceover performances from Ben Kingsley and Elle Fanning. The Boxtrolls are trolls that dwell in the underdark of the city of Cheesebridge, creeping out in the night to snatch children away from their families, dragging them back to their rat infested lairs to feast on the blood and bone of the city’s innocents. At least, that is what Dickensian bad guy Archibald Snatcher (Kingsley) would have you believe. In reality they are a peaceful and frightened group of creatures, ones who wear boxes instead of clothes and who do have a human child in their midst, Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who, along with posh girl Winnie (Fanning), generates the central story as the two of them attempt to thwart the dastardly plans of Snatcher as he uses Boxtroll scaremongering to try and wrest political power from the town elite, including Winnie’s father Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris).

The trolls are a little garish and could potentially frighten small children, at least in the beginning – their austere introduction is ameliorated as the film progresses and they are all really secondary characters, certainly for older children this is fine and is not in the same ballpark as the genuinely too scary for youngsters ‘Coraline’. It is interesting how much animation aimed at a younger audience has a garish/creepy edge to it outwith the realm of Disney and Dreamworks, perhaps that’s why, to distance themselves from the larger fish in the pond, but perhaps the reason runs a little deeper – after all, anyone who grew up watching ‘Watership Down’ (78) or the animated ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (78) isn’t going to forget cute little bunny rabbits getting torn to pieces or real orcs (there were breaks in the animation with live actors) splattering blood all over the screen in a hurry.

The story is fun and interesting with standing up and thinking for yourself the central theme, and although it’s good enough for adults to enjoy too, they will notice a lull in momentum going into the final third. One of its strengths is the nuances that have been put into the bad guys which makes them much more interesting as characters, and, along with Snatcher, they are well brought to life by Richard Ayoade,Tracy Morgan and Nick Frost (Simon Pegg also has a brief role). It’s clear to see the amount of work that has gone into the film, and if you sit through the credits there is a wonderful scene at the end showing one of the animators at work with a voiceover from Ayoade, poking fun at the amount of work involved, saying ‘it’s more like a hobby really. You should get a real job’, something no doubt familiar to artists everywhere ….

The Unbeatables / Metegol  (2013)    53/100

Rating :   53/100                                                                       97 Min        U

Animated tale featuring a foosball table whose players all come to life in order to help their owner, Amadeo (Rupert Grint), defeat his town’s returning tyrant who is desperate for vengeance after Amadeo beat him at the table when they were kids, the only time he was ever beaten at anything, and despite becoming a real life international football star he hasn’t been able to come to terms with the humiliation ever since. This is an Argentinian film that has been dubbed in English and bizarrely, the people in charge of doing the English language version have taken the opportunity to play politics by making the winning foosball team English, with a few foreign players, and the side that is always beaten (Amadeo has never lost a game and seems to always play the same side – one could be forgiven for thinking the table was rigged) is entirely comprised of Scotsmen as far as we can tell. The English captain suggests that they have to work as one and are stronger together, which couldn’t be more obviously referencing the upcoming independence referendum next month, and the heavy suggestion that ‘we are better together because you are shite by yourself’ is unlikely to have the desired effect on voters. Why even go there? They could easily have mixed up the nationalities and kept this ‘better together’ theme going, and their direct referencing is surely going to fly over the heads of their young target audience anyway.

It reminds me of a perfectly pleasant and thought provoking debate on the matter I had with a young gentleman from England in the pub the other day, pleasant, that is, until he put his hands on his hips and triumphantly declared ‘And we both know who gets the most money out of the union,’ he smirked, ‘Scotland, haw haw’. Needless to say he wasn’t looking so pleased with himself when I burned him alive and scattered his ashes around Edinburgh Castle. I mean, it’s possible he’s right – but that’s the point, no one really does seem to know for sure.

As a worthy aside since the film attempts to also dis Scotland’s footballing credentials, England’s media love to laboriously mention they won the World Cup in 1966 (although many of you might have picked up on how little they mentioned that fact during this year’s Brazilian tournament – this is a direct result of the looming vote), but they are less inclined to remind people that during the following British Home Championship it was Scotland that was the first to beat that very same team. Nor were they terribly happy when we beat them at the last ever international to be played at the old Wembley Stadium, in fact they were so miffed they fudged in another international to avoid the humiliation (which they also lost anyway, one nil to Germany). Indeed, the Unofficial Football World Cup actually has Scotland sitting at the top of the all time rankings table, and England’s worst home defeat ever was to Scotland, 6 – 1 way back in 1881.

Although it is fair to say Scottish football at this precise moment in time leaves a lot to be desired. Personally, The Red Dragon thinks they should ban foreign players and managers and just focus on the game for the people of the country – levelling the playing field, increasing domestic support and promoting home talent until we have a decent international team again, get rid of the reliance on business and money and focus on the game. They should promote women’s football as much as the men’s too – it’s just as good, in fact they should have a friendly between the two national teams every year.

Anyway, back to the film – you can often tell the quality of the animation you’re dealing with by looking at how well they render the humans, and here that quality is definitely running at a minimum. The foosball players look much better, but backgrounds and secondary characters are predominantly basic and sometimes even garish, although the creative camera flourishes of director Juan José Campanella do occasionally shine through (Campanella directed best foreign film Oscar winner ‘The Secrets in their Eyes’ 09). The story plods on uninterestingly until the finale is set up – an actual football game between the residents of the town against villain Flash (Anthony Head) and his professional teammates. A match which is to decide the fate of the town, and one that is oddly not as one sided as the recent Germany vs Brazil semi-final. Here the film picks up and delivers a rewarding ending, but there’s not much of value in the rest of the movie, and the animated players spend most of the time just trying to find each other before giving a prep talk to Amadeo, ultimately not doing a great deal over the course of the film.

The Nut Job  (2014)    63/100

Rating :   63/100                                                                       85 Min        U

Not sure if ‘The Nut Job’ is really a suitable title for a kids film, but nonetheless it refers to the antics of various squirrels and woodland creatures living in a park in the middle of fictional Oakton City as they try to secure winter food for themselves by stealing nuts from a nearby shop, the owners of which are themselves using this as a cover whilst they try to dig a tunnel under the bank across the street. The animation is essentially quite good and the voice acting from the likes of Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Katherine Heigl and Liam Neeson is fine, with the film playing out rather like an extended version of an episode of ‘Tom and Jerry’ as the story is primarily delivered via an endless series of chase sequences. There is a slightly questionable good guy/bad guy set up as the hero, Surly (Arnett), is mainly concerned with gathering food for himself and ultimately he is vindicated in this (although he of course ends up helping everyone else and realising the errors of his selfish ways), as the powers that be, the evil Raccoon (Neeson) and his ‘angry bird’ clone henchman, turn out to be hoarding food to control the masses rather than to make sure they are all well fed. Should entertain children, but might struggle to ever become a family favourite.