HEAVY METAL (1981)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Gerald Potterton, Jimmy T. Murakami, Harold Whitaker, John Halas, Julian Harris, Barrie Nelson, Paul Sabella, Jack Stokes & Pino Van Lamsweerde

Written by: Daniel Goldberg, Len Blum, Dan O’Bannon, Richard Corben, Bernie Wrightson, Angus McKie & Jean Giraud

Voices of: Don Francks, Caroline Semple, Richard Romanus, Susan Roman, Al Waxman, Harvey Atkin, John Candy, Marilyn Lightstone, Eugene Levy & Joe Flaherty

Based on HEAVY METAL magazine, the aptly titled R-rated animated anthology made a splash during the 80’s. This strange blend of science fiction, fantasy, and fun has been held up as a cult classic in the decades following its release. There’s something to be said for HEAVY METAL’s vibrant animation and no-holds-barred silliness. These qualities mix with an appropriately rockin’ soundtrack to make an all-around good time. Though the various stories range in quality, HEAVY METAL is worth the time of anyone who might be intrigued from the idea of an adult-oriented sci-fi/fantasy animated anthology. That concept, in and of itself, is something special. Without further ado, I’ll get onto the stories themselves…

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GRIMALDI: This wraparound tale begins with an astronaut giving his daughter a glowing orb as a present. Unfortunately for both of them, the orb is sentient and evil. The menacing green circle proceeds to melt the father and corner the daughter. The green orb then tells her tales of its evil influence throughout time and space. These wraparound segments are enjoyable, but simply tie the other (mostly better) stories together through narration. The father’s death by melting is cool enough and the ending nicely ties into the final story, even though it opens up a world of plot holes that you just kind of have to accept. All in all, the animation and sheer craziness of this story overshadow its convoluted nature. B-

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HARRY CANYON: In the distant year of 2031, Harry Canyon is a New York cabbie without a care in the world. This changes when a desperate young woman gets into his car. Soon, Harry finds his life upended as a colorful band of thugs comes looking for a strange artifact and missing dame. This is basically a sci-fi noir that lasts about 10 minutes. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and packs in a fair share of action. The story is well-paced in that it leaves the viewer satisfied and never overstays its welcome. This is one of the better stories in the film! B+

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DEN: A teenage geek discovers a green meteorite and is transported into the mystical world of Neverwhere. Besides being in an entirely new dimension, the geek also finds himself in a bald, muscular body. Adopting the name “Den,” the geek-turned-hero rescues a damsel, negotiates with a cocky immortal, and finds himself beset by the sexual advances of an evil queen. DEN is definitely the goofiest short in the bunch, but wears its corny nature as a badge of pride and constantly pokes fun at itself (through the teenage nerd’s narration). This isn’t exactly perfect, because the plot could easily turn some viewers off. I enjoyed this dumb little adventure for exactly what it was…a dumb little adventure. B

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CAPTAIN STERNN: This story follows a cocky space captain who’s been accused of terrible crimes. Confident that a bribed witness will come through, Captain Sternn pleads “Not Guilty” and finds that a glowing green rock quickly turns the trial against him in ways he never could have imagined. Of all the shorts in HEAVY METAL, this one definitely had the funniest story. It also has the best use of rock music in the entire film for me, which is really saying something when you consider that the likes of Black Sabbath, Devo, and Blue Oyster Cult are included on the soundtrack. The fantastic use of Cheap Trick’s “Reach Out” elevates this short’s humor and entertainment value tenfold. This is tied for my favorite segment in the film. A-

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B-17: Tied with CAPTAIN STERNN for my favorite segment in the film, B-17 is a horror story set on a WWII bomber. The story is simple, but effective. A pilot finds that the horrors of war also come in undead forms and desperately tries to escape a gruesome fate aboard his plane. This might be the shortest segment in the film, but it’s effective as hell. The creepy images are brought to life through unnerving atmospheric animation. The ending is also effectively eerie and concludes like any great campfire horror story should, leaving you scared and loving every second of it. If you don’t watch the entirety of HEAVY METAL, you should definitely check out B-17 and CAPTAIN STERNN on their own! A-

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SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS: The film’s two best stories are followed by its worst segment. This story follows a young woman who is abducted onto a spacecraft occupied by stoner aliens and a horny robot. Think about CAPTAIN STERNN and then strip it of everything that works. This is basically what SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS feels like. It’s lame, forced, and ultimately pointless. The sheer mediocrity is made only worse by everything that came before it. Colorful visuals and cool animation do save this story from being a complete disaster, but it’s easily HEAVY METAL’s weakest point. C

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TAARNA: I might receive some flack for my opinion on this final segment. The last story follows warrior Taarna’s quest to save a peaceful city from mutated barbarians. Despite TAARNA being frequently cited as the “fan favorite” of HEAVY METAL, I only found this segment to be good…but far from great. The imagery here is cool and I enjoyed the scenes of this badass babe whooping the weapon-wielding mutants’ asses, but this segment also drags out far longer than it should. There’s a long sequence of Taarna flying to the city that seemed purposely stretched out for the sake of cramming more music into the film’s soundtrack. TAARNA also ties up the wraparound story in a head-scratching way that you just kind of have to accept. This short contains cool visuals, but is nothing truly special. B

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HEAVY METAL is worth watching if you’re up for an 80’s animated anthology of violence, humor, nudity, and cool imagery. This film isn’t exactly high art, but remains very entertaining and impressive for being exactly what it is. Some stories (CAPTAIN STERNN and B-17) are definitely better than others (SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS and GRIMALDI), but the film as a whole is 90 minutes well spent. Whether you’re watching it under the influence of mind-altering substances or you just want to dive into a rockin’ blast from the 80’s past, HEAVY METAL comes recommended for those who enjoy this sort of thing! You know who you are.

Grade: B

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and some Action

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Directed by: Chris McKay

Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington

Voices of: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Mariah Carey, Jenny Slate, Susan Bennett, Billy Dee Williams, Hector Elizondo, Conan O’Brien, Jason Mantzoukas, Doug Benson, Zoe Kravitz, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam DeVine, Eddie Izzard & Seth Green

The first of three new LEGO movies, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a spin-off for the popular DC superhero from 2014’s surprisingly awesome THE LEGO MOVIE. Will Arnett has returned to reprise the vocal work for Lego Batman/Bruce Wayne and this film is set entirely within the Lego DC Universe. Filled to the brim with comic book references and call-backs to other movies, LEGO BATMAN never takes itself seriously at all and yet still manages to throw in a touching message about family and friends. Though not as great as its LEGO predecessor, THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is the best DC Comics movie to hit nationwide theatrical release in years. This is a delight for parents, teenagers, and Batman fans who enjoy a good laugh.

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In Lego Gotham City, orphan-turned-superhero Batman (Will Arnett) enjoys wearing black, playing loud music and fighting crime. He’s always saving the day, but has never let anybody else into his life…other than faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). After Batman foils the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) yet again and hurts the evil clown’s feelings, the villain hatches an ingenious scheme for revenge. Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) has stepped into her dad’s shoes as chief of police and has enacted a new “it takes a village, not a Batman” approach to fighting crime. Also, Batman has taken young boywonder Robin under his reluctant parental wing. The real challenge Batman has to face though…is overcoming his fears about family.

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Will Arnett’s Batman was easily one of the funniest parts of THE LEGO MOVIE and he brings everything that fans loved about that character into a feature-length running time. Though this film has a handful of slow moments that drag, Arnett’s comedic timing and purposely brooding voice frequently rescue the story from being “too much of a good thing.” The rest of the voice cast is stellar as well, with Michael Cera delivering some of the biggest laughs as lively, no-pants-wearing Robin. Tons of Batman’s rogue gallery make appearances too, including a lot of C-grade baddies that provide giggles from their mere cameos. My two favorite side villains were Catwoman (who’s constantly saying “mew mew”) and Bane (who’s adopted the strange, but awesome-sounding voice from 2012’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES). Zach Galifianakis also shines in the most sensitive portrayal of the Joker that you’ve ever seen, making for an evil supervillain that throws tantrums like a depressed ex-girlfriend.

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It should come as no surprise that THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is chock-full of movie, TV and comic book references. There are so many jokes within the first five minutes that it seems impossible to catch them all in one viewing. From signs that cheering citizens are holding to bits of dialogue that directly tie into certain films to full-blown footage used from every big-screen Batman in history, there are tons of laughs and in-cannon material here to satisfy diehard Batman fans. The film also throws tons of references towards DC comics in general, featuring cameos from Justice League members and familiar places from Superman’s stories. Even still, the references don’t stop there because there are unexpected non-cannon characters that have a big part to play in the proceedings. I won’t go into detail, but I was grinning ear to ear for a majority of the action-packed climax.

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LEGO BATMAN MOVIE’s message isn’t exactly original, but seems perfectly suited to the nature of Batman’s character and how we’ve seen this character explored in past versions of the material. The film’s lively visuals explode off the screen, looking like stop-motion even though they are actually the result of highly-detailed computer animation. As clever, entertaining and downright fun as LEGO BATMAN is, the plot encounters a few dull stretches. These mainly come in the second act, where we need to see certain things develop. In writing my summary of this film’s story, it struck me that LEGO BATMAN juggles four different subplots and tries to bring them together as a cohesive whole. The script does a solid job of this for the most part, but occasionally meanders as it brings these storylines together. Still, the pay-off, countless references, sheer entertainment value, and never-ending sense of humor are all well-worth the price of admission.

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If you’re a fan of 2014’s THE LEGO MOVIE or any incarnation of Batman, then THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a must-see! I imagine that DC Comics fans will have a field day with the sheer amount of references, tie-ins, and clever writing; all while kids are having a blast watching Lego Batman run around on the screen. I saw LEGO BATMAN in a sold-out movie theater that was filled with families and an apparent birthday party going on the front two rows. At no point, during any minute of the running time, did a child begin crying or a bratty kid act out in any way. That’s almost unheard of, at least for me. Everybody was glued to the screen and that’s a major feat for any family film. Though the pacing isn’t perfect, but THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE is a ton of fun! Sometimes, that’s all you need!

Grade: B+

SPIRITED AWAY (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some Scary Moments

(Japanese with English subtitles)

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Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

Written by: Hayao Miyazaki

Voices of: Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki, Bunta Sugawara, Yumi Tamai & Tsunehiko Kamijo

I have friends who sing the praises of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, but I haven’t really indulged in these films. As I’m slowly dipping my eyeballs into more anime, I’ve now seen HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE and SPIRITED AWAY. Though I wasn’t a big fan of MOVING CASTLE, SPIRITED AWAY is whimsical, imaginative, and compelling fantasy adventure executed with an incredibly unique vision. Even though the plot isn’t exactly free of minor hiccups, vibrant animation and sheer creativity are enough to outweigh any potential problems one might have with the storyline.

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Chihiro Ogino is a ten-year-old girl in the process of moving to a new town with her parents. She’s understandably upset about the change in location, while her folks seem excited for a fresh start. On the way to their new home, Chihiro’s father decides to take a scenic route and comes across a strange gateway. Taking the wisdom of your average slasher movie victim in account, Chihiro’s parents journey into a creepy abandoned town…and wind up on the wrong end of a supernatural curse that transforms them into pigs. Chihiro soon finds herself immersed in a strange world where spirits, witches, monsters, and dragons exist…and humans are on the menu. If she wishes to save her parents from a gruesome fate and keep herself alive, Chihiro will have to muster lots of courage and use her wits to conquer an array of supernatural threats.

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The first quality that immediately sticks out in SPIRITED AWAY is the animation. The weird world that Chihiro finds herself in is a wild, over-the-top and just plain odd place. The film’s visuals are crafted from computer animation that was masterfully made to imitate Miyazaki’s own hand-drawn characters. If someone had told me this film was traditional animation, I would have believed them without a moment’s hesitation. This movie is simply beautiful to look at, even though Miyazaki specifically tried to lessen the “eye candy” for a more personal fantasy tale. Despite his best efforts, SPIRITED AWAY still contains tons of eye candy in its assortment of creatures and environments, ranging from comical to bizarrely sinister.

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SPIRITED AWAY’s original script would have filled three hours, which led to many scenes being excised for the sake of time. Unsurprisingly, the resulting two-hour running time flies thanks to a plethora of plotlines (almost vignettes) contained within the film. SPIRITED AWAY has enough plot for five features. The main storyline follows a familiar set-up of a little girl trying to rescue her parents and an otherworldly adventure, complete with the inner workings of a supernatural bathhouse. The main antagonist has a sibling rivalry of sorts, that comes into play later on. Sadly, a would-be romance feels forced and comes off as the film’s only weak link (you can tell that scenes were cut from this plotline). There’s even a horror-ish storyline about a strange monster thrown in for good measure, which is easily the film’s biggest highlight for me.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly recap on how awesome this movie’s characters are. Chihiro comes off as an annoying child at first and then gradually matures through her various storylines. Think Jennifer Connelly’s protagonist in LABYRINTH, except with better character development and a more believable (though just as fantastical) story arc. Haku, a watchful protector over Chihiro and her forced love interest, has his moments, though I think most of his character development was left on the cutting room floor (save for two brief conversations). Bulbous-headed witch Yubaba makes for an interesting villainess, simultaneously receiving great bits of comic relief throughout. Two other notable highlights are Kamaji, a spider-like furnace worker, and the mysterious No-Face (my favorite part of the entire film).

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I don’t have any nostalgia for SPIRITED AWAY, Miyazaki, or Studio Ghibli, so I’m approaching this film strictly as a newcomer. Though I feel Haku’s romantic storyline is forced and unneeded, I loved SPIRITED AWAY as a whole. The film’s narrative stumbles are more than made up for by the sheer amounts of charm, creativity and imagination on display. This movie is great for numerous reasons. The characters are unforgettable. The plot contains good old-fashioned morals for kids told in unique ways that are sure to entertain teens and adults. The more I think about this film, the more I love it. SPIRITED AWAY definitely stands as one of the best animated films from the 2000’s and has me interested to check out more Studio Ghibli films down the line.

Grade: A

BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action, Suggestive Material and Rude Humor

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Directed by: Rick Morales

Written by: Michael Jelenic & James Tucker

Voices of: Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, Jeff Bergman, William Salyers, Wally Wingert, Jim Ward, Steven Weber & Thomas Lennon

2016 has been a year of underwhelming Batman movies. BATMAN V SUPERMAN was disappointing for many reasons, despite Ben Affleck’s great portrayal of the Dark Knight. BATMAN: THE KILLING JOKE was stellar for the last 40 minutes, but dragged beyond belief during its unnecessary first half. SUICIDE SQUAD was entertaining, but not nearly as good as it could/should have been. In the wake of three very dark stories in the DC Comics Universe, BATMAN: RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS comes as an unexpected surprise. This far more light-hearted take on Batman is a throwback to the campy 60’s TV series, complete with spinning logos, words that pop up during the fight scenes, bad puns, and three returning cast members vocally reprising their roles.

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After a long day of crime-fighting, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Adam West) and Dick Grayson/Robin (Burt Ward) are winding down with a TV show called “Gotham Palace.” However, their evening of mindless entertainment is cut short by four supervillains who are up to no good. Batman and Robin are off to take down alluring temptress Catwoman (Julie Newmar), the wise-cracking Joker (Jeff Bergman), the umbrella-wielding Penguin (William Salyers), and the intellectual Riddler (Wally Wingert). A TV show hijacking was just the beginning of an even more diabolical plan from the villainous team of baddies. Things become more complicated as a strange duplicating device comes into play, the dynamic duo take giant leaps into new frontiers, and Batman begins to experience a darker change in his usual do-gooder personality.

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When taken as a homage to the cheesy 60’s show, CAPED CRUSADERS is damn near perfect. This animated movie is filled with words popping up in front of the action, scene transitions through various spinning logos, the unforgettable BATMAN theme that will surely be stuck in your head for hours, and ridiculous plot developments. CAPED CRUSADERS expands upon the 60’s BATMAN world by going into territory that the show never could, mostly for lack of budget and special effects. In this way, the homage is a loving addition to that universe too and never once plays things purely for laughs. The straight-faced way in which the plot progresses, despite being extremely silly, makes for a ton of fun and plenty of comic relief without an obvious wink or nudge.

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Two actors and one actress from the original series return for this animated feature. Adam West sounds exactly like he did back in the day and seems to be having a blast reprising his iconic role as Batman. His jovial line delivery and upbeat attitude kept a grin plastered on my face for the entire film. Arguably even more impressive is 71-year-old Burt Ward, who doesn’t sound like he’s aged since the show, slips into cartoon tights as Robin the boy wonder. Julie Newmar (who starred in two seasons) returns as the diabolical dominatrix Catwoman!

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Though many cast members have passed away since the 60’s series ended, CAPED CRUSADERS brought in great substitute voice talent to capture the unique vocals of those supporting actors. Jim Ward stars as Commissioner Gordon, while Thomas Lennon (of RENO 911 fame) gets lots of laughs in his dead-on impersonation of over-the-top accented Chief O’Hara. William Salyers fills in for Burgess Meredith’s smarmy Penguin, while Wally Wingert turns his dark Riddler from the ARKHAM video games into a wacky imitation of the 60’s version. My only complaint is that Jeff Bergman sort of sounds like the 60’s Joker, but it feels like more effort could have been put into making him resemble Cesar Romero (complete with painted-over moustache).

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Unlike the hotly anticipated KILLING JOKE from earlier this year, RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS has vibrant, detailed animation that looks like it was made to be seen on the big screen. There isn’t a single wasted second of the 78-minute running time as the plot moves by quickly and you’ll never have a chance to get bored. I won’t spoil the ludicrous surprises and plot twists, but I will say that CAPED CRUSADERS is far smarter than I expected it to be. This light-hearted romp frequently pokes fun at the later, darker versions of BATMAN, while never going into full-blown spoof territory and paying respect to them the whole time.

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Adam West once referred to his version of The Dark Knight as the polar opposite “Bright Knight.” There’s a lot of accuracy to that statement and plenty of fun to be had with his campy iteration of the character. In a time where superhero movies are so concerned with keeping things serious, constructing cinematic universes, and paying more attention to doom and gloom over entertainment, RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS is a refreshing treat! Not every joke works and a little more could have been done with the Joker, but the rest of this film is spot-on in being hilarious, unexpectedly clever, and absolutely ridiculous. I never thought that this would be the best DC Comics movie of 2016, but the undeniably charming RETURN OF THE CAPED CRUSADERS certainly holds that position!

Grade: A-

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Rude Humor and Action

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Directed by: Clay Kaytis & Fergal Reilly

Written by: Mikael Hed, Mikko Polla & John Cohen

(based on the video game ANGRY BIRDS by Rovio Entertainment)

Voices of: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key & Blake Shelton

I wasn’t expecting THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE to be great. After all, this film is based on an addicting cell phone app. That’s the current state of the film industry though, where a TETRIS trilogy gets greenlit and an EMOJI MOVIE is currently in production. I watched ANGRY BIRDS with hopes that it might be serviceable family entertainment. Not up to Disney or Pixar standards, but somewhere along the lines of a lesser DreamWorks film. I was horribly mistaken. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is one of the worst animated films I’ve seen in a long time and it’s not like this film doesn’t have good production values behind it either. ANGRY BIRDS features a talented voice cast and has solid animation, but the script is offensively lazy and a large portion of the jokes fall flat.

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On the aptly named Bird Island, easily infuriated Red (Jason Sudeikis) has been sentenced to anger management. In this frustrating program, the red flightless bird reluctantly befriends speedy Chuck (Josh Gad) and explosive Bomb (Danny McBride). Red’s anger management classes encounter unexpected turbulence when a mysterious ship arrives, filled with green pigs. The pigs are led by charismatic leader Leonard (Bill Hader), who quickly becomes popular in the bird community. However, Red becomes suspicious of these pigs and is written off as paranoid by his fellow feathered citizens. Soon enough, the outcast trio of angry birds become the only hope for Bird Island’s unhatched eggs.

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To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly sold on ANGRY BIRDS being a film from the get-go. The marketing was lame, but I heard a few surprisingly positive reviews and the animation looked good. This film was made by Finnish company Rovio Entertainment, the very same company that made the ANGRY BIRDS app to begin with, and currently holds the record for the largest budget in Finnish film history. Apparently those investments paid off for them, because this film banked at the box office and there’s already a sequel in the works. Why am I discussing the production of this film, rather than the qualities of the movie itself? Well, those details seem remarkably more interesting than anything I can really say about this dull slog of wasted animation.

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The film’s story seems to be making itself up as it goes along, with many filler scenes before the all too brief conflict between angry birds and green pigs. This film seems like an origin story for the ANGRY BIRDS universe, but forgets part of why that game was so enjoyable in the first place. You’re launching birds at evil green pigs to retrieve eggs. This movie takes over an hour before it finally reaches that point, not that it necessarily would have been better to watch birds vs. pigs for an hour of screen time. What I’m getting at is that THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE runs way too long. This film could have easily been shortened by 20 or 30 minutes and it would have made for a less painful experience.

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The film’s talented voice cast is completely wasted on bottom-of-the-barrel potty humor and pop culture references. Both of those can be well-executed in kid’s films, but ANGRY BIRDS drops the ball numerous times. There’s a forced SHINING reference with two pigs, a Calvin Klein ad with a pig, cholesterol jokes and plenty of substituted profanity (e.g. “Peck my life” and “Shell yes”). Are we laughing yet? Well, if those don’t do it for you, surely you’ll be rolling in the aisle from lame bird puns, a sequence of a snot-nosed bird flying through the air and smearing mucus everywhere, butts being thrown into other birds faces, and an elongated pee joke that’s already been spoiled in the trailer. It’s a wonder that THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE wound up hitting 3,932 theaters, because this thing feels like it should be debuting direct-to-video in Redbox and discount Wal-Mart bins.

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Are there any redeeming qualities to ANGRY BIRDS? Well, two adult-aimed jokes are genuinely clever and the animation is fun to look at. I’m not going to pretend like I’m the target audience for THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE, because I’m clearly not. However, THE LEGO MOVIE also sounded stupid in theory and wound up being one of the best films of 2014. It’s possible to make any idea, regardless of how idiotic and stupid it sounds, into a great or fun film, if there’s enough talent, effort and love thrown into the project. THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE is not that kind of movie. Instead, this lazy cash-grab will probably occupy bored children for 97 minutes, but likely won’t do much for teenage viewers and adults.

Grade: D