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.

Pan  (2015)    57/100

Rating :   57/100                                                                     111 Min        PG

The latest reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan operates as a prequel, with Peter (Levi Miller) abducted from his London orphanage during a WWII blitz raid by a flying pirate ship belonging to the dreaded Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a slaver frigate that whisks him off to Neverland and the servitude that awaits him; hard labour digging in the mines for the life giving elixir that is fairy dust, wherein he will meet and befriend none other than fellow slave James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), ultimately taking the two on an adventure that will bring them, along with Smee (Adeel Akhtar), into the sphere of influence of the colourfully kick-ass Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) as they attempt not only to escape Blackbeard’s clutches, but also to discover what happened to Peter’s parents, who left him naught but a silver pendant of some panpipes that he has worn religiously around his neck ever since.

Written by Jason Fuchs and directed by Joe Wright (‘Pride and Prejudice’ 05, ‘Atonement’ 07, ‘Anna Karenina’ 12), the film is notable for its unique visuals where the emphasis of the movie has really been placed, but to be honest, they sent me to sleep the first time around. Thinking this was probably due to torturing foolhardy rubes all night rather than the movie, I watched it again and on 3D this time as it very much looked like it was meant to be viewed that way – alas, it actually looks much worse on 3D with large sections appearing too unreal and layered, to the extent that the flashy sequences matched with a whimsical story and a lack of any real depth to the thing does indeed make it quite soporific.

Light hearted family adventure was clearly the aim, and whilst it may please some youngsters and the wardrobe department have outdone themselves (with clear inspiration from Spielberg’s far superior ‘Hook’ 91) the final result is an ungrounded mess; half-realised ideas with committed performances that are drowned by a visual aesthetic that was way too experimental and ultimately fails. Rooney Mara is as radiant onscreen as she always is, just as Garrett Hedlund continues his growling acting career where he tries way too hard to be hard – this time attempting to be Indiana Jones for most of the film, although to be fair his style isn’t completely out of place with the movie here and he along with the rest of the cast are charming enough.

Ironically, the best moments in 3D are actually the stars twinkling through the credits at the end, credits that state ‘characters introduced by J.M. Barrie’ – ‘created by’ surely? As if the film is trying to take some sort of ownership over the much beloved inhabitants of Neverland, tsk tsk.

Max  (2015)    48/100

Rating :   48/100                                                                     111 Min        12A

Preposterous little film supposed to showcase and extol the value of the bond between man and dog as Max (a Belgian Shepherd) is adopted by a rather introverted, and somewhat disconnected from his family, young kid in his early teens, Justin (Josh Wiggins). It does have some success in that regard and the central performances, including Thomas Haden Church and Mia Xitlali as justin’s father and new friend respectively, are fine but they are all completely buried under the ridiculous story that falsely moves the drama along, a plot that sees Max witness the murder of Justin’s brother by his best friend whilst on a tour of duty in the Middle East (the suggestion is that it’s murder concealed by a firefight, although it is far from clear what actually happened) – a traitorous friend who also happens to run a heavy-duty illicit arms operation, replete with corrupt police official, in Justin’s small home town which will ensnare the family who will then, of course, have to rely on Max to help save them. Features supposedly fake combat between Max and some pit bulls although it really does not look like they are play fighting, as well as the father locking Max up in an open-air metal cage in their garden, leaving him to his own devices out in the hot sun for several indeterminate periods of time with no food, water or shelter. Nice.

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.

Annie  (2014)    65/100

Rating :   65/100                                                                     118 Min        PG

Having being tortured by the borderline pathological repeat of the original ‘Annie’ (82) by a particularly over zealous family member, and given the overwhelmingly negative reception of the new version, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this (both are loosely based on the 1977 Broadway musical), but figured why not give it a go – it is always good to remain open minded when it comes to film generally. Surprisingly, it is actually a lot of fun – due in no small measure to the adult parts being well written and delivered by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale and Stephanie Kurtzuba. Annie herself is played by Quvenzhané Wallis and she appears to be significantly better off than her 80’s counterpart, living in what seems to be a fairly warm and safe foster home rather than an orphanage for example.

She does have to put up with Diaz stropping around and being a general bitch to the girls, but it’s not like she’s renting them to the local Catholic priest for smack or anything, and it isn’t long before Foxx’s Will Stacks, who is running for New York City Mayor, has a fateful encounter with the young lass and invites her to come and live with him to increase his rating in the polls, quickly bonding with her and realising what has been missing from his work centric bachelor lifestyle – a young vulnerable homeless girl in his bed. His spare bed that is, though his serpentine public affairs manager (Cannavale) does complicate matters by trying to use her status for his own profit. There are songs aplenty and at least half of them are quite good – a couple from the original musical survive but the rest are newly penned with principal cast members all performing in the recording studio.

Unfortunately, the songs have been produced via heavy use of Auto-Tune, which is effectively cheating and explains why there is an eerie similarity between them all – and it further sheds light on why when we’re given clear indication Cameron Diaz is about to skydive off tune she doesn’t, in reality she probably did exactly that. Diaz is up for a Razzie for this which is a little unfair – she is ironically completely in character here as the sort of pantomime bad guy who’s ultimately not that bad.

In tandem with post production vocal manipulation is the similar falsification of Annie herself – gone is the struggling orphan with the strong sense of what is right and an earnest belief in hope, whose character was formed by, and endured, adversity. This Annie seems all too comfortable with the cushy environment she is thrust into – Wallis received much critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for this but if anything when she’s around her chums at the foster home they all appear to be better performers than she is. I think perhaps being a young girl of eleven and being told how wonderful you are all the time (being the youngest person ever nominated for the best actress Oscar for ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ in 2013 etc.) is not the greatest environment in which to get into the character of supposedly poor and hard up against it Annie, and whilst she has lots of shouty energy this does not in itself make her an acting prodigy, it simply makes her an irate little girl. Could it be Hollywood is busy creating a MONSTER? Time will surely tell, although her singing certainly appears to be very impressive – but with the technique they used it’s very difficult to tell how much is her and how much is being churned out by a machine.

If you aren’t too concerned about the lack of any real emotional depth or anything but the barest scent of a moral lesson to learn then the film is quite fun, and I see no reason that youngsters wouldn’t enjoy it. Rose Byrne in particular delivers exactly the right warm touch, and at one point she sarcastically refers to Foxx as Batman : Jamie Foxx would be a completely awesome Batman, an at least ten times more respectable choice than Batpuss Ben Affleck. Affleck is apparently going to channel his rage into the character, the rage he no doubt feels at the internet calling him a gigantic pussy that will have criminals rolling around laughing in puddles of their own wee – I mean seriously, if you were a hoodlum would you be scared of Ben Affleck growling in a costume? You might surrender out of pity.

Night at the Museum : Secret of the Tomb  (2014)    62/100

Rating :   62/100                                                                       98 Min        PG

This is essentially completely identical to parts one and two of the ‘Night at the Museum’ franchise, which began way back in 2006 although it seems like just yesterday. The majority of the characters return for this instalment, including the protagonist Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Jed (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) and the late Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, together with new faces Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), La (also Stiller) and security guard Tilly (Rebel Wilson) as well as some great cameos. A very loose thread throughout explores Larry’s relationship with his son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) who is determined to take a year out before college to basically chill out in Ibiza, much to the chagrin of his concerned father, but can Nick convince Larry that he’s mature enough to make his own decisions?

The main story arc follows the somewhat mouldy decline of the golden tablet that brings all the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan to life at night, and just as the previous film took everyone on a trip to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., this time the British Museum in London is where they hope to find answers to the imminent cessation of all their nocturnal activities. The film works as a really great advert for the museum and the not too distant Trafalgar Square area – indeed, these are two of The Red Dragon’s favourite places to visit in London (although usually I am paying more attention to potential new slaves than exhibits, I once met a rather charming girl called Mona Lisa in the National Gallery (no joke) and indeed was similarly distracted in the British Museum and thoroughly enjoyed the visit along with the hieroglyphics merchandise from the shop, until I remembered the Rosetta stone is there and I had neglected to see it. Pesky human females). The film is perfectly in keeping with Stiller’s usual zany, light and family friendly comedy adventures and for precisely that reason this delivers exactly what you would expect – a film that’s easy to watch with colourful performances and the occasional laugh but nothing to make it stand out and overall somewhat banal, with an ending designed to finish the series rather than really make much sense.

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.