The Nut Job (2014)

The Nut JobReleased: January 17, 2014. Directed by: Peter Lepeniotis. Starring: Will Arnett, Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson. Runtime: 85 min.

Apparently, it takes three writers, two to write the screenplay and one to think of the story, to write a really bad animated movie tailored mostly for the kids’ enjoyment. There’s three mildly amusing laughs, but that’s about it for the laughs for anyone over the age of 10, unless one of your comedy weaknesses is squirrels farting. “The Nut Job” follows the adventures of Surly the squirrel (Will Arnett) who, after destroying the city park’s food supply for the winter, is banished to the scary city. He is not alone, as he is accompanied by his best friend, a mute rat named Buddy. With luck on their side, they find a Nut store (and arbitrarily start to dance to Psy’s “Gagnam Style,” where you have to wonder how they’re hearing the music) where there’s enough nuts to feed the park for many winters to come. But that’s only if Surly is gonna share! He enlists the help of his acquaintances (because he’s too cool to have more than one friend; one at a time, friends and neighbours) to rob the store of their nut supply.

Dancing aimlessly to music they're not really hearing

Dancing aimlessly to music they’re not really hearing

The premise is designed in a way that might appeal to adults, because, hey, it’s a still a heist film. It’s handled poorly with dumb humour and too many nut puns, like “Hey, don’t go nuts on me,” crap like that. This is sort-of like the premise of “Over the Hedge,” because these are both films about a group of wild animals collecting food, and there’s a character here that’s a mix between Steve Carrell’s Hammy and the adorable lemur from the “Madagascar” franchise. This is such a poor movie because it’s, underneath it all, partly an uncharismatic, full-length version of the Scrat character before each “Ice Age” film. And for this to have any sort-of critical access, I think it’s important that the main protagonist isn’t entirely unlikable.

"We're gonna starve!"

“We’re gonna starve!”

Surly’s personality completely matches the name he’s given; he’s mean and whenever he seems to be opening up, he gets pissed off and pushes the person away. That might be because of vulnerability and the fear of being hurt, but he comes off as a selfish prick and I don’t know why anyone would want to watch any film depicting this character. He’s just uncharismatic and he’s all about himself, it’s just not a fun attitude to watch. Sharing is caring, Surly, you idiot.  Will Arnett’s voice performance is rather bland as him, as if he’s sort-of phoning it in. If you want to experience his voice work, just see his work as Batman in “The Lego Movie” instead. Katherine Heigl is unremarkable as her character Andi. Liam Neeson is okay as Raccoon, the leader of the park animals in New York. Brendan Fraser is trying too hard in a bland sort-of way as Grayson, the squirrel that the parks sees as the hero; and Grayson is too stupid to realize he’s a scaredy cat. Maya Rudolph has an energy in her voice work that brings something partly tolerable to the film. Still not very funny, but not completely awful. She plays a pug owned by the people who own the nut shop.

The film’s animation is the one redeeming quality. Funny thing, it has a look where in the background there are lines that come down and across that look as if the characters are in a dome, like that scene in “Scooby Doo and the Cyber Chase” when the world they’re in becomes vibrant and shows the lines around them, that they’re not yet home. If you know what I mean, maybe I’m just seeing things, it’s noticeable (did anyone else see it?) – and it seemed to have a post-production quality of animation, like it was almost completed but not quite, but the filmmakers said anyway, “Good enough, ship it off to theatres.”

The characters are completed, and the backgrounds are pretty nice, but it seems like they forgot to erase the lines in the background. One thing that is strange is the colour choice of the main character; a purple squirrel? Granted, it’s colourful and it’ll catch the kid’s attention, but boy does it not make sense. Maybe he fell into a can with purple paint and it didn’t get the stain out entirely? Maybe he couldn’t hook up with enough squirrel biddies and got the sister version of blue balls? Purple balls? Get it? Oh, there’s a clever animated sequence during the credits featuring the animaetd version of a popular singer in the end credits singing a popular and upbeat song. It confirms the filmmaker’s insecurities with their own film, shoving in a song that doesn’t have much to do with the film, only to convince you that you had one hell of a good time.

By the way, the people who own the nut shop but it for a heist of their own. They’re digging a tunnel in the basement to the bank supposedly nearby, “The Ladykillers”style. They’re the usual stupid henchmen and random boss you see in animated thug movies. There’s one henchy who is all mysterious and cringes when he hears a dog whistle; which is strange because it never gets explained why his hearing is so hyperactive enough to hear it. Anyway, it makes sense that they’d buy a nut shop; because the only people would walk into the nut shop are those who would ask: “Why do you own a store that only sells nuts?” No one’s going to go in there; alternatively they could have just ran a VCR repair shop. The film wouldn’t happen if that were the case, but that’s not such a bad thing. Mostly because this is a really bad movie. The characters are so lame, you’re probably going to root for starvation to win.

Score25/100

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The Lego Movie (2014)

The Lego MovieReleased: February 7, 2014. Directed by: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller. Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman. Runtime: 100 min.

“The LEGO Movie” isn’t just a great animated film, it’s filled with humour and satirical jabs at corporate America, namely the leader of the lego world being called President Business; the fact that if you’re on TV, people are going to listen to you; and coffee being priced at $37 for the public (here’s looking at you and your overpriced coffee, Starbuck’s). It’s a clever take on totalitarianism, a sort-of dictatorship where a leader has full control over a part of society. President Business (voiced by Will Ferrell) takes control by giving good citizens tacos, distracting citizens by a TV show called “Where’s my pants?” after he says “Non-behaving citizens will be put to sleep!” If that show wouldn’t be distracting, I don’t know what would be. He also keeps the people satisfied by a catchy song that literally plays on every radio station called “Everything is Awesome.”

How did the tyrannical President Business get into power, you might ask? In another realm of the LEGO universe (where he is known as Lord Business), he stole a super weapon called the Kragl from the master of all master builders, Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), which grants him ultimate power. Before Business is able to take it, V speaks of a prophecy – a master builder who finds the piece of Resistance will come along and be the most talented, most brilliant and most important person ever and challenge Business’ plans to glue the universe together.

The person who fills this prophecy is not one that you might expect. He, Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a completely ordinary LEGO minifigure that looks like all the rest of the LEGOs, and he becomes the one to fill this prophecy completely by accident. There’s a charm about it because it’s so unexpected that the one will be so ordinary, making this feel like a subtle underdog story, at least to me. It boasts a message that everyone is special in their own way, even if you don’t think so at first. To all the master builders of the universe, this guy looks totally useless; mostly because he’s a victim of conformity in the realm Pres Business rules. Emmet’s favourite song is “Everything is Awesome,” his favourite TV show is “Where’s my pants?” and he follows instructions because he wants tacos. Building instructions helps Emmet, and otherwise, he doesn’t know what to do without them. (The difference between him and other master builders is funny because it’s hard for original thinkers to follow instructions, it seems).

Business is a clever ruler because by giving these people instructions, he doesn’t let them have a solitary original thought. He needs everything to be in tip-top-shape, and he asks for perfection at every turn, not letting anyone build anything that they want. I think a main message of the film is imagination, something the President doesn’t believe in, at all.

Since master builders can build something out of nothing, I think this film urges children all over the world to use their imagination and create cool LEGO structures, and use their imagination in other parts of life. To build something out of nothing, and it says that everyone can be a master builder if they want to be. I think there’s sheer brilliance in the idea that this world looks like it could be derived from the minds of children, but I don’t think the story would be as smart. The settings are just stunning and creative, and some might particularly like the animation used in the smoke, explosions and water. It’s a whole world made of LEGO, and it’s incredibly detailed (the great animation is thanks to Animal Logic) This film is, of course, also nice advertisement for the LEGO product, but it is a lot more layered than just a big toy advertisement like the “G.I. Joe” flicks or the blockbuster franchise “Transformers”.

The humour will keep both children and adults entertained, because writers and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have such referential and clever senses of humour. They reference things from “The Terminator” to “Clash of the Titans” to “The Godfather”, and one of the realm’s names is a clever play on the world in “The Lord of the Rings” franchise (Middle Zealand – a mash of Middle Earth and New Zealand, the filming location of those films). There are a lot of big laughs in this, and some spectacular action sequences, where teamwork is used; making this sort-of like the superhero teamwork movie many anticipate. I enjoyed this as much as I wanted to enjoy “The Avengers.” With the film’s humour, Lord and Miller are experienced to entertain both children and adults, by tackling animated movies (the two “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” films) and R-rated action comedies (“21 Jump Street”). The real charm about the Lord/Miller pair is that they keep surprising us with films that could be decent, but turn out to be pretty extraordinary; and this is no different. One character they created I was amused by is Bad Cop (voiced by Liam Neeson), who plays to the Good Cop/Bad Cop strategy used by interrogators. He has a bit of a split personality, you can say, but I’ll let you watch that hilarity unfold for yourselves.

The other characters are great because they are great presences. Emmet is a relateable hero because he is so average, and his love interest Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is great because they are so alike in ways. Other characters on the lovable LEGO save the world team include a crazed pirate called Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), an all-too positive cat with a unicorn horn called UniKitty (Alison Brie), 1970s Space Guy named Ben (Charlie Day) and the hilarious caped orphan himself, Batman (Will Arnett)! There are many other classic characters at the meeting of the Master Builders (ones from the DC Universe, among a lot of others), and they’re great cameos – but nothing more, really. It’s good because if they were more, the film would be too crowded. There’s enough characters and hilarity to keep the film moving at a brisk pace.

Score96/100