KLAUS OUTSHINES THE OTHER OSCAR CONTENDERS

SHORT TAKE:

The animated feature Klaus cleverly and adorably postulates the origins of the Santa Claus story.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Any age, though there are Looney Tunes level scenes of “violence” and some images no scarier then the chef scene in The Little Mermaid, they are all played for laughs even the littlest can enjoy.

LONG TAKE:

I do not believe in coincidence. And I do not believe the writer-director of Klaus, Sergio Pablos (who also lends his voice to two of the more caricature cast members, Pumpkin and Olaf) does either. I think that everything happens for a reason, as directed by the Divine hand of our Creator. The story Mr. Pablos has lovingly crafted during the last two and a half years, addresses one possible explanation of the origins of the Santa Claus story, and demonstrates this purpose-driven theory beautifully.

Klaus is one of five contenders for the best animated feature film Oscar. The others are: Toy Story 4 (SEE REVIEW HERE), Missing Link, I Lost my Body, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. I think Klaus should be the hands-down winner.

SPOILERS (THOUGH AS FEW AS I COULD)

The premise, without giving away too much, is about a spoiled little rich man who is forced to cope on the island of Smeerensburg, in the outer reaches of the north, among members of two feuding families who have made their community a generational war zone. The name “Smeerensburg” was chosen by Pablos, adopted from a city on the outskirts of the northern frontier with the name of Smeerenburg (without the middle “s”) which no longer exists, so is, in a way, itself now a myth.

While the violence is played for laughs, the oppressive gray scale, deliberately sharp intimidating ubiquitous icicle motiffs, angular houses and angry denizens make the point. This is not a place you want to stay.

But, unlike I Lost my Body, (which is about a severed hand trying and ultimately failing to reunite with the young man from whom it was cut), Klaus is not unrelentingly grim, dark and navel-mediatingly introspective. Klaus is funny, as animated films really SHOULD be. While there is a modicum of slapstick, the humor is mostly from the way people can be amusing just in interacting with each other. The writing in Klaus is warm, smart and clever, creating distinctive personalities amongst the cartoon creations. Klaus gives us likeable, interesting people, unlike one of the other Oscar contenders, the (ahem) abominable Missing Link, which latter movie, unsuccessfully relied upon star power and improv to write their failed script. Klaus is often amusingly unrealistic, especially as Jesper confronts obstacles and, of course, survives things that flesh and blood human beings would not. But much like the OLD Bugs Bunny shows, it establishes and follows its own Universal rules while tweaking real world ones. Missing Link, on the other hand, is all over the place, placing characters in “jeopardy” one moment then having them come away unscathed from other worse events.

Klaus, like any good fairy tale, has an ennobling theme repeated several times: “A true act of goodwill always sparks another.” As the movie plays out, the meaning of this phrase expresses itself more deeply – how great good can come from the most unlikely situations, even in the serendipitous meeting between one man suffering from deep grief and another so myopically selfish he can not see the good he is accomplishing, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The animation while not 100% state-of-the-art, is solid and updated 2D, often clever and delightfully detailed, reminiscent of the artful Anastasia. In contrast, How to Train Your Dragon has some truly gorgeous visuals and the main characters are as endearing as they were in the first two, BUT the plot to Dragon is thin and really just a slightly mixed rehash of ground already covered. Also, Dragon‘s story is far too padded with superfluous characters inserted for laughs but who just come across as obnoxious. What Klaus lacks in cutting edge visuals, it more than makes up for in well developed characters and a subtly intricate plot.

Jason Schwartzman’s Jesper reminds me a lot of David Spade’s cocky, cynically hip Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove. Like Kuzco, Jesper languishes in prolonged adolescence as an unchallenged, indulged youth but who comes into his own and becomes a mensch in discovering previously untapped and unsuspected wells of determination, ingenuity and altruism.

The soundtrack is light and lovely, and, although not a musical, is sprinkled throughout with catchy background tunes intended to reflect the mood of the moment.

Klaus, the character, is voiced by JK Simmons, who stole scenes as the loud blustery editor in the old Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies.

The wonderful Joan Cusack (sister to and often co-star with John C.,  brings ever-angry Mrs. Krum, (reminding me a bit of a female Yosemite Sam) to life. She is an actress who has graced many lovely movies like: Instant Family (SEE MY REVIEW HERE), Raising Helen, the first Toy Stories, and Martian Child. I do not believe I have ever seen a movie with her in it that I did not at least enjoy her performance.

Will Sasso (guest star on The Orville (SEE MY REVIEWS HERE AND HERE)) is the cluelessly combative Mr. Ellingboe. Rashida Jones (Tag SEE REVIEW HERE and Cumberbatch’s Grinch SEE REVIEW HERE) plays Alva, the poster child for demoralized teachers, a young woman who idealistically arrived in Smeerensburg 5 years before and has been selling fish to earn enough money for passage out ever since.

Unlike the devastating betrayal of Toy Story 4 (SEE MY REVIEW HERE), which squandered a deep well of talent, creativity and fandom to put an ignominious end to the entire Toy Story franchise, Klaus gives us a story of altruism and family with a theme repeated often: “A true act of good will always sparks another.” This is a much better theme than Toy Story 4‘s pathetic rationalization for men who abandon their families and responsibilities for the shallow pursuit of their own selfish desires, in order to “follow their heart”. (gag me with a SPOON!)

Klaus, in contrast, harkens back to It’s a Wonderful Life, where one man, DYING to himself (instead of indulging himself) every day can impact so many lives, even if they do not anticipate or understand what they are doing while it is happening.

So while other films may have more money, tech, star power, or a franchise to back them up, Klaus more than outshines them all in superlative storytelling, characterization, theme, heart and … true acts of good will. Regardless of whether Oscar recognizes this or not, Klaus is the true winner.

 

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL – CLEVER AND LOADS OF FUN

SHORT TAKE:

Clever latest installment in the Jumanji franchise.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Mid-teens and up because of unnecessary profanity, including blasphemy, as well as some extreme cartoon gory violence.

LONG TAKE:

Paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin the way my high school teacher did with any recalcitrant students: “Experience is a hard teacher but some will have no other.” This seems to be a thematic motto of the Jumanji franchise (and in that group I would include Zarathustra). Like a harsh fairy godmother teaching in The Wizard of Oz school of learning things, the Jumanji game seeks out unsatisfied people to grant their wishes … but makes them earn it.

The General Studies program at the Jumanji School of Insanely Hard Knocks focuses on maturity, altruism, loyalty and the priorities of friendship and family which can overcome any obstacles no matter how off-the-wall: from eagle size mosquitoes to malicious bands of monkeys, carnivorous hippopotami and lethal semi-sentient poisonous vines, bonding comes from teamwork, accepting others weaknesses, and making the best use of your own strengths to help those you love.

Excellent lessons to learn and, as Mary Poppins might have said, it helps that the sugar to make the medicine go down is wildly funny scenarios, and great actors who are very good sports and don’t mind taking pokes at their own famous reputations.

The original Jumanji and its two sequels excel beautifully in all of the above points. Zarathustra, (the step-child of the group, as it uses a similar scenario and themes but is not strictly part of the Jumanji franchise) follows in those footsteps as well.

For those not up-to-date, Jumanji is a wild game of crazy challenges: stampedes, instant localized monsoons  which fall only where you are, monster crocodiles, a homicidal big game hunter of people, malevolent monkeys — and places you IN the game. Not virtually, but in the real world. In the original Jumanji the creatures came into our reality. In the subsequent Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the players are pulled into the game and manifest as Avatars. Spencer, a slight bookish boy with no appreciable upper body strength becomes Dwayne Johnson. Bethany, a narcissistic “Valley” girl becomes Jack Black. Martha, a girl with no inherent athletic abilities becomes Karen Gillian with preternaturally gymnastic fighting skills. And Fridge, an egotistical football player becomes the much shorter wand weaker Kevin Hart.

This latest Jumanji, Jumanji: The Next Level mixes it up, starting only a few years after the first reboot. All the original team: Fridge, Bethany and Martha have gone to college, done well and look forward to a reunion. Spencer is in a funk, and finds himself longing for the days when he was the size of Dwayne Johnson with extraordinary powers of strength and speed. The temptation gets too much and without consulting his worried friends goes back into the game.

I don’t want to tell you much more and spoil things so I will shy away from specifics. But I will say Next Level has all the humor and inventive scenarios of the original, keeps to the same themes, brings back all the familiar faces but does not just rehash the old. There are lively and justifiable (for that universe) variations which make Next Level as new and intriguing as the very first 1995 incarnation.

The acting is A level and a lot of fun. Not an enormous amount of subtlety but each of the actors do a wonderful job performing multiple characters outside of what you might think is their comfort zone. Returning are: Dwayne Johnson (burly muscle in WWE, and the likes of Scorpion King, GI Joe and Fast and Furious) who truly shines in comedies like Get Smart, The Other Guys, The Tooth Fairy and here in Next Level, where he shamelessly and hilariously makes fun of himself as Dr. Bravehouse/Eddie and Spencer. I was genuinely impressed at the enthusiasm with which he launched into characters way outside of his usual fare. Karen Gillian returns as Martha/Ruby Roundhouse as well as Fridge (you’ll see). She was most notably known before this as Matt Smith’s Dr. Who‘s companion Amy Pond and here does a marvelous job with not only multiple personalities but an authentic American accent. Kevin Hart (The Upside SEE REVIEW HERE) is delicious as Fridge and Milo. Jack Black is delightful as Bethany and Fridge. In addition there are some wonderful small role/cameos by short, growly voiced iconic comedian Danny DeVito (TV classic series Taxi, Throw Mama From the Train, Romancing the Stone, Twins) as Eddie, Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon franchise) as Milo, original Jumanji veteran Bebe Neuwirth as Eddie’s friend Nora, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reprise Nick Jonas (memorable in Midway SEE MY REVIEW HERE) as Alex, and Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians SEE REVIEW HERE) as Spencer and Eddie (again – go to the movie to see what this means).

Portraying the young versions of the “real” people are Morgan Turner as Martha, Madison Iseman as Bethany,  Ser’Darius Blan as Fridge, and Alex Wolff as Spencer. Colin Hanks (Tom’s oldest son) plays grown up Alex.

The soundtrack by Henry Jackman channels Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars in very clever and appropriate moments, as if unable to resist the retro and multi personality motifs that the actors get to play.

Jake Kasden, writer/director (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) who is of significant lineage (son of the famous writer/director Lawrence Kasden who brought us both Indian Jones, many of the Star Wars reboots, and The Big Chill), with cinematographer Gyula Pados, and the other writers Jeff Pinkner and  Scott Rosenberg, do a terrific job creating multiple extreme scenarios. I was especially impressed with the realism in a ridiculously harrowing one with …let’s just say geometry was important.

I would love to recommend this for all ages. And while there is no sexuality the writers unwisely decided to “enhance” a couple of the characters’ personalities with a smattering of profane and even blasphemous language: (*cough cough* Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart, Jack Black). Therefore I would recommended only to mid-teens and up and then only those who will have the sense not to parrot-repeat things they should not. That is a shame because it is the only limiting proviso to this otherwise charming film.

JUMANJI!!!!

CAPTAIN AMERICA DESCRIBED IN A MEDIEVAL BOOK ON CHESS

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION FOR DISCOVERING CAPTAIN AMERICA IN A MEDIEVAL BOOK ON CHESS

Marvel fans have long been familiar with the figure of Captain America. His conception dates back to the beginning of World War II, 1941, when America needed an example of bravery and fortitude against tremendous odds. I’m sure his creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, genuinely believed they were penning a brand new image to inspire a determined America during that time of great peril, as she fought against the evil of tyranny: the Axis in general and Nazis in particular. Inspirational Cap is. Original he is not.

I was doing research for a play set in the Medieval era and came across a book written in 1474 by a man named William Caxton. Caxton is thought to be the first English printer and retailer of printed books and his Game and Playe of Chesse, (and no those are not misspellings but Anglo-Norman English) is believed to be only the very second book ever printed.

In the book there is a passage which anticipated and described the character we know as Captain America with great precision.

The premise of Game and Playe of Chesse is of a tutor instructing a monarch. By way of guide the tutor explains the ideal virtues of each of the gentry on which the piece is based: fairness of a king, faithfulness of his queen, good judgement of his “alphyns” (which in Old German means chaser or wolf and meant as a reference to a judge, which eventually morphed into the modern day chess token of Bishop).

Then the description of the idealized knight.

As a side note, the Anglo-Norman looks strange to the modern eye but with a bit of practice becomes surprisingly easy to parse out. One especially unusual feature is the letter that would soon morph into our familiar “s”, which, in Anglo-Norman English, looks like a lower case “F” with a shortened cross-bar. I do not have that character on my keyboard, and even if I did I would hesitate to use it without an editorial emphasis of some kind because they are, in the jumble of text letters, at first glance (as well as second and third) very difficult to distinguish from our conventional modern “f”. Therefore, for the purposes of this post, I have indicated that medieval “s” as an italicized “f”.

The knyghtes ought to be ftronge not only of body but alfo in corage. Ther ben many ftronge and grete of body – that ben faint and feble in the herte – he is ftronge that may not be vaynquyfshid and ouercomen – how well that he fuffryth moche otherwhile – And fo we beleue that they that be not ouer grete ne ouer lityll ben moft courageous & befte in batayll.

And my amateur/layman’s translation:

The knight should be strong, not only in body but in courage. There have been many large and powerful men who have been faint and feeble of heart. But he is strong who can not be vanquished, discouraged or overcome in spirit no matter how much he suffers.  And so we believe it is not the physical size of a man, no matter how big or small, that matters, but that it is those who have courage who will do best in battle.

So, out of history’s echo, comes the prescient description of America’s example of the perfect knight, 467 years before Cap’s first iteration in Marvel Comics. The physically frail Steve Rogers who, with the help of Dr. Erskine’s Super Soldier formula, becomes the first Avenger, not because of his height or strength, but because of the greatness of his heart – his kindness, his sense of justice, fair play, common decency and courage. And if Cap’s motto while confronting overwhelming odds: “I can do this all day,” doesn’t summarize Caxton’s otherwise flowery prose into a simple and pragmatic maxim, then I do not know what does.