LEGO Movie 2 Review with InSession Film Podcast

Return to Bricksburg where everything is no longer awesome. Picking up where the first LEGO Movie left us, and jump right back into the action as the invaders from planet Duplo threaten the very existence of Bricksburg and its inhabitants. After the Duplo invasion reduces Bricksburg to a city that is barely recognizable. Now living in a dystopian society, a mysterious figure arrives and promptly kidnaps several of Emmet’s (Chris Pratt) friends, including Lucy/Wyldestyle (Elizabeth Banks). Emmet sets off on his rescue mission to save his friends, but along the way meets allies and enemies who test him at every turn. I enjoyed LEGO Movie 2 nearly as much as the first one! Unfortunately, hosts JD and Brendan do not quite share my sentiment; however, they provide some great talking points! But the only way for you to find out what we think of this movie is to listen to the episode.

For the full review, visit the InSession Film website for the podcast and written review! And if you don’t do so, follow InSession Film on Twitter and subscribe with your podcast service.

And you can also listen to the episode by clicking HERE.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” brief film review

Now THIS is the amazing Spiderman! Eat your heart out Tom Holland and move over Incredibles and Ralph for the best animated feature of 2018. Even if you do not care for comic book or superhero movies, by in large, but love excellent motion pictures (animated or live-action), then I can almost guarantee that you will thoroughly enjoy and greatly appreciate Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Although there have been a handful of animated films that I have liked in recent years, I have not felt emotionally and physiologically engaged with an animated feature to this degree since Kubo and the Two Strings. What both these animated features have in common is groundbreaking artistic precision that typifies the art of animated visual storytelling. Not only does Spider-Verse blow all other animated films out of the water this year, in terms of its contribution to the art and science of motion pictures, I put it on par with Kubo. The attention to production design details and mindblowing editing set the bar incredibly high for animated features moving forward. While the visuals have been likened to an acid trip, do not allow that to dissuade you because never once did I find the avant-garde artistic expression dizzying or obnoxious. It was completely immersive. There was genuine, tangible emotion felt in every frame. And the Stan Lee cameo was priceless. Underscoring everything on screen is the phenomenal screenplay upon which this mesmerizing animated feature is built. Undoubtedly, you will find yourself emotionally invested in the central character of Miles and the chief supporting cast, including the fantastic villain King Pin. There is so many layers to this story, and it works on several levels such as: family, love, self-sacrifice, and more. Highly recommend this film!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Ralph Breaks the Internet” Full Review

It’s cute and entertaining. The highly anticipated sequel to the Oscar-nominated Wreck It Ralph hits theatres everywhere today. Much like the first film, this sequel relies heavily upon nostalgia and familiarity with pop culture more than it it does a strong narrative. All too often, it’s more concerned with making you laugh than it is delivering a meaningful narrative. However, no mistaking it, you’ll have a fun time watching this film. And sometimes an entertaining story for the whole family is all that is needed to accompany your holidays. Ralph Breaks the Internet took what the Emoji Movie attempted to do, but failed, and delivered a heartwarming story that comments on our usage of and fascination with the internet. Return to the brightly colorful animated world of Ralph and Vanellope for a highspeed adventure that takes them from the 8bit world of 80s video games to the immersive world of a visualized, stylized internet. If it’s gone viral on the internet, then you’ll likely find it in this movie. What we see in terms of abstracts or constructs, this film creatively translates that which only exists in 0s and 1s into something far more tangible. For all that Ralph Breaks the Internet did right, and that constitutes a lot aesthetically, it appears as though the writers were far more concerned with cramming every bit of Disney, pop culture, and digital media into the movie than developing a compelling narrative. And that was the part that I found obnoxious, the amount of time we spent on the Disney brands. It became self-serving instead of plot-serving. That being said, this uplifting movie accomplished what other animated films attempted, making what users do on the internet interesting. Must in the same way that Searching brilliantly captured screen-life, Ralph delivers a sensory explosion of what a visualization of the internet may look like. But who would’ve known that we were all POP Vinyls???

Vanellope is bored with her game Sugar Rush. In order to change the tracks up and give Vanellope a new experience to revive her love of her game, he builds a new track! Unfortunately, this means that Vanellope ostensibly takes control of the game’s steering wheel causing the user to break it off when trying to correct Vanellope’s car. When the arcade owner is unable to find a replacement steering wheel on eBay within his budget, he decides to shutter the game. Unbeknownst to him, he forcibly displaces the citizens of Sugar Rush. With no home to return to, the citizens of Sugar Rush are relocated to other games and the racers are adopted by Felix and Sgt. Calhoun. Ralph and Vanellope are determined to replace the steering wheel by exploring the unknown world of the internet where eBay is located. Upon arrival, it is clear that both of them are way in over their heads. They must rely upon intuition, wit, and the citizens of the internet to help them on their quest to make enough money to buy the steering wheel. Their journey soon leads them to Yesss, the head of the algorithm of BuzzTube, the most popular video sharing site, to guide them through turning likes into cash.

Central to this film are the (1) theme of friendship (2) one’s identity with home or work and (3) commentary on one’s insecurities. A nice trifecta of themes and concepts upon which to build the plot. But there is something missing. Something that is a fundamental to any screenplay. And that is clearly defined opposition to the goal represented or manifested by a character. In other words, there lacks a “villain” in this story. The villain in this story is the friendship shared by Ralph and Vanellope. Suffice it to say, it is not a requirement to have a physical villain (or more precisely, a character of opposition), but when abstracts, constructs, or concepts are the villain, it is advisable to select a character from the story to represent the true enemy. Take Jaws for example. The villain is NOT the shark; it is the folly of man. And in order to visualize this opposition, the screenplay uses the character of the mayor to personify it. Looking at Ralph Breaks the Internet, we go nearly the entire movie before we have a true character of opposition. A central character(s) is only as interesting as the character of opposition. Sometimes, the character of opposition is even more interesting than the central character.

There is also very little struggle experienced by Ralph and Vanellope. Vanellope nearly out races Shank of Slaughter Race the first time and Ralph’s first video and all his subsequent videos go viral. Not having a well-denied villain paves the way for Mary Sue characters. Just good at everything. This ease of success takes away from the ability to empathize with the struggle. That being said, after Ralph and Vanellope have their falling out over Ralph’s obsession with what he feels is best for Vanellope, their friendship is called into question and forced to face the fact that their friendship is evolving. And fighting with friends is something with which we can all identify. When Ralph’s insecurities manifest themselves in the form of a virus that takes over the internet, the movie finally has a villain that we can see, hear, and experience. The lack of a villain in this story affects the ability for the story to be as compelling or interesting as it could have been. One of the dangers of not having a villain in a story such as this one is the risk of disjoined subplots. Without a villain, the central characters have to work exponentially harder to get the audience interested in them. As it is, the audience is far more likely to find the internet setting, product placement, and mentions more interesting than our two central characters. The takeaway: make sure your screenplay has a CHARACTER of opposition.

But Ralph Breaks the Internet is not without well-developed characters. More specifically, a well-developed character in Ralph. Two of the film’s themes are manifested in Ralph. The themes of personal/interpersonal insecurities and evolution of friendship are witnessed in the actions of Ralph and Vanellope, but Ralph in particular. Audiences of all ages easily identify with him because they can observe traits, characteristics, and idiosyncrasies that have likely been experienced by each and every member of the audience at one time or another. How many among us do not depend on some sort of external validation in order for us to feel confident in what we do, what we wear, or where we go. We empathize with Ralph when his demonstrably gentle, generous soul gives way to self-destructive behaviors that form a wedge in the friendship between him and Vanellope. And that leads us into the third main theme of this film, and that is the theme of the evolution of friendship. There is no questioning the strength and loyalty of the six-year-long friendship between Ralph and Vanellope. There have been many movies that comment on the state of or evolution of our best friendships, but none quite so creative as this one. However the plot may be lacking in its ability to be truly compelling, the mountains and valleys of the central friendship are ones that many of us can identify with. It’s also a great opportunity to teach kids how their lives may go in different directions from their friends but that doesn’t mean that the friendship has to die or become burdensome. Children (and all of us, really) learn that sometimes when you love someone so much that you have to let them go to pursue their own dreams because that’s what friends do–selflessly support one another’s dreams.

Despite the inundation of recognizable brands and incessant, obnoxious Disney product placement, Ralph Breaks the Internet is an entertaining animated movie that finds a way through the underwhelming plot and constant reminders that we are in a visualized world of the internet into our hearts to brighten our holiday weekend.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” (2018) movie review

Seuss’ beloved Christmas classic gets a brightly animated treatment. Universal and Illumination Entertainment’s The Grinch starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the furry green Christmas-hater with a loyal dog named Max. Dr. Seuss’ works are no strangers to screen adaptations. Many of his books have been adapted to animated successful TV specials and movies, including my favorite adaptation How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). We have the original award-winning 1966 version narrated by Boris Karloff and animated by Chuck Jones, the moderately entertaining live-action 2000 version, and the one we are reviewing today, a truly watch-worthy feature-length animated feature that has the soul of the original with some heartwarming additions. Needless to say, as much as there is to like about this new version, it does not rise to the same level as the Jones’ original, but is certainly superior to the Jim Carrey version. In addition to the main plot points from the book, this film takes some creative liberties to introduce new scenes and provide additional character development for the Grinch, Cindi Lou Who, and Cindi’s mom. Much like with the previous feature length animated and live-action films, this one too contains the quintessential Seussian architecture that lacks any straight lines (incidentally, this same concept is embraced at Seuss Landing at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure). From the top of Mount Crumpit to Whoville town square, if you are a fan of the book and original, then you will certainly enjoy this one and may even add it to your holidays this season. Oh yeah, Angela Lansbury has a cameo as the Whoville mayor!

Ordinarily this is where I summarize the plot, but we all know the story, so let’s jump right into this particular version. Arguably, two of the greatest, profound, and most celebrated Christmas stories feature a central character who hates Christmas; of course, one is an old British miser and the other is furry and green. Collectively, Charles Dickens’ Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ Grinch from How he Grinch Stole Christmas confront the commercialism, greed, loneliness, and the results of hardening one’s heart to friends, family, and the spirit of generosity. Themes that are just as relevant today as they were when first penned. The plots are so simple, yet so incredibly profound and inspirational. Both these stories benefit from simple plots and complex characters. Many of us have been either a Grinch or a Scrooge in our lives, or perhaps you know of one now; and it’s because of the relatability that we can identify with the characters. Taking the tentpole elements of the original animated version and adding a modern touch, 2018’s The Grinch seeks to capture the imagination of young audiences but concurrently providing a wonderful experience for adult audiences too.

One of the most memorable elements in the production design of the original animated classic is the stark contrast between the warm Whovillian homes and the cold, dankness of the Grinch’s lair. One is full of smiling faces while the other is solitary. Anyone who’s read Dr. Seuss’ books notices that there is something incredibly unique to his designs. As pointed out in the opening remarks, there are no straight lines anywhere in a Seuss book or even at Seuss Landing at Islands of Adventure. While this may not seem like a big deal–it is. Truly, it’s one of the illustrated elements that gives the images their trademark look. I greatly appreciate the Illumination Entertainment artists for successfully carrying this over to the film. Even down to the drinking glasses, there are no straight lines anywhere to be found. Another highlight from the original is the music! More specifically, the songs. Instead of simply including the original songs in this feature length adaptation, they were reimagined for a new generation. Although I feel You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch suffered in the translation, the rest of the songs worked really well, and were a lot of fun! In addition to songs inspired by the original, there are song numbers integrated that you may recognize from today’s Christmas music. The new number that was the most fun was the Whovillian Christmas carolers played by Pentatonix singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Not just the song itself, but the choreography of that number was perfect! It combined the stereotypical “annoying caroler” trope with slapstick comedy in a chase scene of sorts.

Because of the feature length runtime of the movie, the writers have the ability to provide subtext that is often more difficult in short films. Not that the original is lacking–certainly not–that’s why it stands the test of time and continues to be adored by millions. Chuck Jones’ animated masterpiece is still teaching us today. That being said, with the additional storytelling time, we learn a bit more about the Grinch and Cindy Lou’s parallels to one another. Both of them have a stated mission and external goal at Christmas. The Grinch wants to steel Christmas away disguised as Santa Claus, and Cindy Lou wants to capture Santa in order to give her mom a Christmas well-deserved since she is a single mother raising a family. Giving and steeling Christmas. That contrast provides a lot of opportunity to play around with the meaning and value of Christmas to the hopeful and the jaded. Both the Grinch and Cindy Lou start their missions with the same two words: Santa Claus. But what they do with those words couldn’t be more polar opposite than the North and South Poles. Further parallels between these two iconic characters is the method executed to achieve their respective goals. Both of them plan and assemble a team, equipment, and traps without anyone finding out. And like each other, both are successful at achieving their goal. The Grinch does steel (what he thinks is) Christmas and Cindy Lou does capture (whom she thinks is) Santa Claus. It’s that chance encounter between faux Santa and Cindy Lou that alters the course of the evening and Christmas morning. Two completely separate plans intersecting in providence that teaches that Christmas “doesn’t come from a store…maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

Much like with the live-action version, we have new characters introduced in this one too. However, the focus is never off primarily the Grinch followed by Cindy Lou. It’s important to note that keeping your central and opposition characters the focus enables the internal needs and external goals to be developed more effectively than shifting focus between too many characters and subplots. Speaking of which, who are the central and opposition characters? Contrary to the “good guy” being the typical protagonist and the “bad guy” being the typical antagonist, this story flips that script and it works beautifully! In The Grinch, the Grinch is our central character and Cindy Lou is actually the character of opposition. The “good guy” is not always your central character. The Grinch has the external goal to steel Christmas from Whoville accompanied by the internal need to make other suffer as he has; opposing his goal is Cindy Lou who also had her own set of internal and external goals. But in this story, the character opposing the central character’s goal/need is actually the “good guy.” Interesting stuff, right?!? Think of main characters in terms of central and opposition, not protagonist and antagonist.

Outside of the Grinch and Cindy Lou, there are important supporting players. Our favorite dog is back, and endearing as ever! Max is even given a bit more screen time and substance in this version. He is truly the Grinch’s only friend, and although gets taken advantaged of, it’s clear that the Grinch does care for him. There is a story of loyalty here, and it’s an element that cannot be overlooked. If the Grinch was completely evil, then Max would likely not stay with him. So, the fact that Max remains by his master’s side teaches us that there must be some good in the Grinch somewhere. We are told that his heart is two sizes too small–not non-existent. How’s about that character of Fred?!? I fell in love with him instantly. Fred, the plus-sized reindeer, plays an important role in the story that I cannot go into without revealing a spoiler. However, I can tell you that he is adorable; and he, Max, and the Grinch form a non-traditional family that works incredibly well in this film and plays into the Grinch realizing that there is value in love, friendship, and community.

Perhaps this animated feature is not as magical as the original; but you now what, it is still incredibly well directed, written, acted, and animated. I am someone who watches the original every year and even have the book. Still, I am able to find tremendous value in this version, and will likely add it to the list of movies that I watch every November and December. There is something for everyone in this movie, and you may even find your heart growing three sizes as a result of this new take on the timeless charming tale of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Echoing the end of Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, what does Christmas mean to you? What would you say if the Grinch asked you?

Merry Christmas!

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) movie review

Prepare yourself for “a tale as old as time” that is ultimately better told through its animated counterpart. Director Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the (1992) Academy Awards, is an extravagant display of visual effects and digital imagery necessary to animate a live-action motion picture. Essentially, he took an animated movie, made it live-action, just to make it animated again. Sure, this new version of the “song as old as rhyme” can certainly stand on its own and is demonstrably well-directed, but 2017’s Beauty and the Beast largely comes across as unnecessary. In terms of the storytelling (or diegesis), the film’s effort to nearly shot-for-shot translate the most memorable parts of the film from animation to live-action pays off nicely! It’s when the film tries to be different that it falls short in its delivery. There are sufficient moments that beautifully recreate that which caused you to fall in love with this movie more than two decades ago; although, with this version, you may find yourself exhausted and over-stimulated by the constant waves of computer-animated figures in a live-action world. Oh yeah, you’ll likely miss hearing the legendary Angela Lansbury as the iconic Mrs. Potts. The film does its very best to justify its existence, but begs the question whether or not this was the movie for which you were waiting.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a young lady with a longing for adventure and a great big imagination, but she lives in a rather provincial French town. But, Belle is about to get more adventure than even she, in her wildest imagination could have dreamt. For through a series of strange circumstances, she finds herself trapped inside a dark foreboding castle, surrounded by a very odd collection of characters. It’s in this castle that she finds her father who she feared injured or dead imprisoned by a Beast (Dan Stevens). Against her father’s wishes, she reluctantly exchanges herself for her father’s release. After the Beast sets him free, Belle is to remain a permanent resident of the castle. Fearing the worst, Belle’s father seeks the help of the misogynistic village heartthrob Gaston (Luke Evans) and his band of goofs and thugs to rescue her. During this time, however, Belle begins to feel “something there that wasn’t there before” as she learns more about the Beast of the castle.

Can this film stand on its own? Sure. There is no question in that. Moreover, is it enjoyable and magical? That, it is. But when most of the campaign, leading up to the highly anticipated release, was primarily built upon how similar the live-action film would be to its animated counterpart, therein a problem arises. Because most people going into the movie will have seen the animated version, Broadway show, or even the show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which, in full disclosure, is a show that I worked when I was a Cast Member at Walt Disney World), you are predisposed to looking for and eagerly awaiting the nostalgic references and memories. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was looking forward to reliving the experience of when I first saw the animated movie. For the most part, if you are like me, then you will be pleased with the live-action translation–truly. However, it’s when the live-action version departs from or adds in material not found or referenced in the animated classic that you may be disappointed or simply ask “why?” You may find yourself wondering why was a live-action remake even necessary?

One of the most memorable elements of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the music! Still to this day, millions of people love hearing the classic music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Both the Beauty and the Beast and Be Our Guest can be heard as part of other shows at Walt Disney World and of course are included in the stage show at Hollywood Studios. Fortunately, the most iconic songs from the animated version are largely untouched; however, with a couple of the songs, there are breaks for diegetic dancing, fighting, or other material that essentially interrupts the organic flow of the music from the buildup to the climax and denouement. Again, the question “why” will likely pop into your head. We are introduced to a few new songs, and in and of themselves, are beautiful! Every note and lyric has that Disney magic that many of us have come to expect and appreciate. Unfortunately, the songs just don’t fit in with the original numbers in terms of pacing, lyrics, and score. Furthermore, here’s something quite interesting and odd: the song [To Be] Human Again was written for but deleted when it originally hit theatres in 1991. It was, however, added back in for the Broadway show and in the 2010 (and Diamond Edition) re-release of the movie. Although it was seen as important enough to include in the Broadway show and add back into the animated version, it is conspicuously missing from the live-action remake.

With the exception of Emma Thompson replacing the legendary Angela Lansbury, the cast was well-selected and demonstrated excellent chemistry between one another. Although Emma Watson is not a singer by trade, she was able to capture a Belle-like essence in her delivery of the various songs throughout the film. There was something uniquely organic in her voice that is seldom captured by other Disney “princesses” (note: Belle is not a princess). I greatly appreciate the dynamic range of characters that Watson has demonstrated that she can play over the years. Dan Stevens wows audiences with his vocal prowess especially in his solo number as we transition from the second to third acts. I appreciate how he stuck a fantastic balance between his human and beast sides respectively. Luke Evans was a perfect choice for Gaston, and his vocal talent matches his muscles–big, bold, and flawless. The rest of the cast, which includes some A-list talent itself, was ideally suited for the enchanted objects in the castle and the village.

Okay, now for the white elephant in the room: Josh Gad’s Lefou. Unless you have been completely disconnected from social media and the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about the first ever Disney “gay moment” in this film. Suffice it to say, the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion. In fact, more attention is likely being paid to Lefou now than had the story never grown to the size of Gaston’s ego. For the most part, the subtext and subtitles of Lefou’s are largely just that–subtle–unless you are looking for them. But, in doing that, you may miss some of the more important and impressive parts of the movie. Moreover, there is nothing in Lefou’s actions that come across as offensive or obnoxious. Before audiences begin accusing Disney of pushing their ideals on those eager to attend this film, it is likely that the entertainment and media giant is simply delivering what audiences already expect or want. As a film and media professor, I can tell you that by in large, media simply delivers what audiences and investors are telling them to produce–not the other way around. Looking back at the animated film, it is pretty obvious that Lefou has a thing for Gaston anyway. Although most of the hints at his sexual orientation are more-or-less winks or nods at the audience (winks or nods that you have to be looking for), there is a moment that is a trifle more obvious at the end of the film. Diegetically, there is nothing bizarre about Lefou’s behavior and it suits his character well.

Prepare to be whisked away to an enchanted castle in a remote part of France. So remote is this province in France, that most everyone speaks with a British accent. Bill Condon’s film will take you back to when you first saw this magical tale of falling in love with someone based upon what’s on the inside and not allowing a beastly outward appearance to detract from the gentle soul. Relive the music that you may still listen to in the car or eagerly look forward to when visiting the Disney Parks and Resorts. Ultimately, this film may not capture the magic of the original for you, but there is a lot to enjoy! Looking for a great date movie this weekend, then this is definitely it! Hopefully a side effect of this film may remind producers and audiences that some stories are better suited for an animated motion picture.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead