16. Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)

I really want to like this movie, since there’s so much neat stuff about it, both in concept and part of its execution. But something’s keeping me from being anything but apathetic towards it; like its positive and negative qualities perfectly cancel each other out leaving me with nothing. Man, that sounded kind of harsh. Anyway, the film is a loving homage to the B-horror movies of the 1950s, featuring an epic fight between monsters and aliens… kind of. Gallaxhar, an alien from a far-off world comes to Earth in search of a powerful element known as Quantonium, which via a meteorite caused bride-to-be Susan Murphy grow to be multiple stories tall. She’s apprehended by the government and put up in asylum with a gaggle of other oddballs: the genius insect-headed Dr. Cockroach, the human-fish hybrid Missing Link, the mindless (literally) blob B.O.B., and the gargantuan bug Insectasaurus. When Gallaxhar sends a giant robot to San Francisco to scope out his element, the government has no option but to send the monsters to fight it, allowing their freedom if they succeed.So while this movie pays tribute and inspiration from 1950s sci-fi films, ultimately it’s a story about a woman who learns to do things for herself. And that’s kind of trite and overdone. But that on its own doesn’t make it bad. Kung Fu Panda is your typical hero’s journey/schmucky underdog tale, but it triumphs based upon the characters and how it’s told. As a lead, Susan isn’t all that captivating. She’s cute and we root for her, sure, but there’s not really much to her character that makes her truly engaging. Her plight is also rather dry; her fiance only cares about his career! Was this ripped from a C-grade romantic comedy? Through the movie, she learns to take matters into her own hands, crowing about what she’s done without her man, like stop a giant alien robot! All on her own… with the assistance of super powers. But in the end, she manages to kick ass when she’s back to normal again, so that transformation comes out mostly satisfying in the end.The movie really shines with its monsters, not surprising given the title, all of whom are a lot of fun to watch. Will Arnett’s Missing Link is like a wannabe womanizer, as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon only came to shore to hit on chicks rather than terrorize. Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Cockroach is your typical mad scientist, but also a refined gentleman, with a few flourishes in attempting to sound hip (“We all think the new Susan is the cat’s me-wow! Heh heh… I’m sorry.”) Seth Rogan’s B.O.B. is basically Seth Rogan in blob form, but his voice and his laugh perfectly fit that character. Insectasaurus is great for what we see of it, as well as its big twist at the end, and also sweet is his kinship with Link, giving him a sweeter edge apart from his would-be macho persona. Also fantastic are Kiefer Sutherland as General W.R. Monger (great pun), no-nonsense military type who actually is nicer than he lets on, and the greatest casting of all, Stephen Colbert as the President, who’s basically playing… Stephen Colbert. Rainn Wilson as Gallaxhar is alright too, I guess. He’s not bad, but something about the performance didn’t work for me. Maybe I just couldn’t get Dwight out of my head.There’s a lot of really neat sequences and moments, the most show-stopping being the fight with the robot on the Golden Gate Bridge, which is just spectacular. Though that almost works to the film’s detriment as the final fight on the mother ship doesn’t quite live up to it. I think an issue is that they made Gallaxhar too goofy; he’s kind of overly comical and the monsters infiltrate the ship and get to the main core almost too easily. It’s all played for laughs of course, but as high as the tension was supposed to be, I never felt any real danger in the climax. Granted the whole movie is basically screwball, but they toyed with having some more emotional scenes and succeeded, like when the monsters were at their lowest point. Also featured are a fair amount of groaner pop culture gags, like Link referencing An Inconvenient Truth and the main core being like a DDR machine. But largely the humor comes from the characters, be it the monsters trying to occupy their time in lock down or working together to stop an alien invasion.
Final Verdict
So like I said, I really want to like this movie more, but ultimately it kind of ranks ‘meh’ with me. There’s a lot of cool and inspired stuff here, but as the heart and main focus of the movie, Susan and her journey isn’t all that interesting. I still feel like I haven’t figured out why I’m so blaze about this film, there’s just something about it that didn’t totally click with me. It’s also the first DreamWorks movie to be released in 3D, which you can tell given the many shots that you can tell were intended to be see in 3D. Hell, the damn things starts with the most hackneyed 3D trick of them all: a guy smacking a paddle ball at the camera. You can say that’s part of the gimmick since they’re paying homage to cheese, but the film as a whole doesn’t entirely reflect that, so it doesn’t quite work.

15. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008)

 

When I first heard of this movie coming out, I was confused. A sequel to Madagascar? It made a good amount of money, but not like mammoth Shrek numbers, and beyond that, did kids really love it that much? Apparently they do, since this is now a franchise, with the films, the spin-off series, TV specials, rides at theme parks, and so forth. It’s kind of shocking to me, considering, as I mentioned before, the four leads are some of the most boring, uninteresting protagonists I’ve ever seen in an animated film. One of the film’s few saving graces were the penguins and the monkeys, who are back in full force here for the second outing. They reconstruct the downed plane in Madagascar so the group can get home to New York, with King Julien in tow. The plane is unsafe, of course, crash landing smack dab in the middle of Africa. Alex is surprised to find his parents are there, having been taken and lost off the reserve as a small child. Ancillary things happen with the other characters, but the main story is about Alex reconnecting with his father, who is shocked to learn that being “King” of New York does not involve fighting, but actually that he’s a dynamite dancer.
This movie has like six different things going on at once, but ultimately feels like nothing is happening. It’s like a pastiche of stories, where most of them come together in the end, except it’s even clunkier than that. Alex’s story is at the forefront, leaving the other three to fend for themselves. Marty deals with feeling less unique amongst a herd of zebras that look and act just like him, Gloria goes man-hunting and lands on the brutish hunk Moto Moto, and Melman becomes the resident doctor, whilst harboring a long unrequited crush on Gloria. None of this is really interesting or purposeful. The latter two are especially disconcerting: with a perverse gruff voice of will.i.am, Moto Moto is like some kind of swarthy chubby chaser, and the whole Gloria-Melman thing is all kinda of inter-species weird, and also makes no sense whatsoever. They just had nothing for those two characters to do, so they shoved them together. Also with literally nothing to do is King Julien and Maurice, who meander about the movie dispensing wisecracks and bad advice. Maurice is especially useless; acting as Julien’s voice of reason in the first one, now he’s just kind of… there. Same with the impish Mort, was it really that important to bring everyone back?
So Alex has a birth mark on his tattoo just like his father, which is how they identify him. What is it shaped like? Africa. Of course. The first part of the movie is Alex’s father misinterpreting his talk about his New York life as being a great king, now a performer at a zoo. While it’s amusing at first, soon enough we’re waiting for the truth to be exposed, which it is in an admittedly funny scene where Alex does West Wide Story and gets his ass kicked. Zuba’s disappointment with his son’s personal choices also feels like an evident allegory for homosexual kids and their parents. Am I thinking too deep into this? I also don’t know if that’s a good thing for this movie, or just another one of the weird overhangs it has. Combined with that is bitter lion Makunga, who vies for Zuba’s position as pride leader, and uses the Alex situation to his advantage to get it. He’s basically Scar from The Lion King, except a hundred times worse of a character, the resemblance in terms of the story is almost shameless. And it’s completely toothless; Scar felt it was divine right for him to be king, and riled up an army of vicious hyenas in order to assist him in power. Makunga is just an asshole who wants a power trip, and once he’s in power, for some reason the rest of the pride does nothing about it even though they greatly outnumber him. And then he continues being a dick. He’s just a very confusing, empty character.
From the very beginning, I knew this was going to be rough. After the prologue and a brief recap of the first film, what do we open with? A big reveal of our characters singing and dancing to “We Like to Move It,” the now oft-repeated anthem of this series. It has such a tired, pandering feel to it; what you liked about the last movie, here it is again in the second! This is spoken in volumes with our other antagonist, I think. Remember that little old lady who beat up Alex at Grand Central Station? Well, she’s back again, in a big, bad way. She’s on a safari tour group who gets stranded, and she becomes their de facto leader, setting up camp in the woods and building a dam for themselves, which causes the drought down by the pride, setting up our final act. But what, a comically old Jewish lady who beats people up in a wacky fashion? It works as a quick joke in the first movie, but having her expanded as a character, and with no other traits added to her beyond that, is baffling to me. I guess the guys at the studio must have fucking loved her character, though I’m confused as to why. The whole human subplot is completely unnecessary; if they kept it Alex vs. Makunga, at least the story would have been streamlined to that point. I dunno.
Final Verdict
Both movies got mixed critical reviews, but it boggles my mind that this one edged out in Rotten Tomatoes to a positive, at 64%. The consensus is that it’s “an improvement on the original, with more fleshed-out characters, crisper animation and more consistent humor.” Well, the animation is as lush and splendid as always, I can give it that. But while I could appreciate the first one on some level for its neat visual style and frantic pace (when it worked), all of that good will is worn out by this second outing, and what they did add feels unnecessary, empty, or at worst lifted from other, better movies. As with the first, the stuff with the penguins and monkeys are the only thing worth watching here. Between one of them pulling a switchblade on Alex for questioning their authority, to trying to mow down the old lady with a jeep, those little guys are hardcore.

14. Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Up to this point, the last DreamWorks movie I was interested in seeing in theaters was Shrek 2. Past that, I either never saw them on the big screen, or saw them when I just happened to be by a theater and thought I would wing it. The formulas and tropes of the studio had permeated through the marketing alone, that DreamWorks movies were wacky slapstick-filled schlock-fests with typecasting out the ass. And by all accounts, Kung Fu Panda looked to be no different. The ads featuring Jack Black making obnoxious kung fu noises, screaming and yelling, “Skadoosh!” completely turned me off. But then I copped and decided to watch it anyway. And I’m glad I did. To burn through the story real quick, the film takes place in the Valley of Peace, presumably in China, which is guarded by the Furious Five, kung fu fighters all trained by the wise and skilled Master Shifu. Po, a portly panda, is their biggest fan, and dreams of mastering the art of kung fu. Shifu’s master, Master Oogway, senses great danger, and decides now is the time to pick the “Dragon Warrior,” who is destined to bring peace to their land. Po is chosen seemingly by freak accident, and Shifu must begrudgingly train him. There’s more to it than this, of course, but I wanted to keep it short.
The film opens with an eye-popping animated sequence of Po’s dream, done in 2D, and my interest peaked immediately. After that, I got my first relief: instead of being smug and arrogant as I feared from the trailers, Po is actually sweet and humble, and moreover, is like a giant geeky fanboy. His excitement and outbursts are only fueled by his excitement over being put in this unexpected position of being trained by his heroes; the scene of him running around the palace past all of the artifacts he’s only dreamed of seeing is indicative of that. All the other characters are just as interesting to watch: Shifu is a non-nonsense instructor as you’d think, but we later find out why that is and it kind of becomes the main crux of the story. We see his frustration with being saddled with Po, and eventually his growth in learning from his own master on how to be one unto him. The Furious Five are kind of minor characters since it’s not their story, but are definitely fine characters, and really fun to see in action. Finally, Tai Lung is an excellent villain; from the jaw-dropping prison break sequence, you know he’s a fucking maniac and a force to be reckoned with, and as we learn his back story, even one who feel some sympathy for, despite the horrible things he’s done.
On paper, the story seems simple, and in title, the premise seems dumb. It’s Kung Fu Panda, and it’s about a flabby, stupid panda trying to learn kung fu! It seems like it would be typical DreamWorks fare. But it actually ends up being a lot more than that. The characters have a surprising amount of depth to them that elevate the story, giving the impeding threat of doom more weight since we care about these guys. Po knows he’s a screw-up and has been brought there by accident, but as Master Oogway insists, there are no accidents. By the urgings of his master, Shifu must learn how to train him, and goes from trying to get rid of him to figuring out exactly what motivates him. Meanwhile we go into the back story between him and Tai Lung, which also ties in with the Five to some degree, and ultimately connects everyone onto the same wavelength. It’s Shifu and the Five vs. Tai Lung, with Po entering as this wild card that’s apparently destined to take him on himself. And in that final battle, you not only buy that this tubby panda can defeat this insane wild beast, you cheer him on for it. It’s a rudimentary story told in the most satisfying, crowd-pleasing-est way possible.
The visuals are outstanding. The designs, the sets, the animation, everything looks great, as it usually does in a DreamWorks picture. Standing out here, of course, is the fight choreography. From the beginning where we see Shifu training the Five as the camera spins around and around, your mind is just on overload trying to keep up with the action. But in a good way, in that it’s so well done. The amazing sequences in this film are so numerous: the aforementioned prison break, Oogway’s ascension into the heavens, the Five fighting off Tai Lung, and the final battle at the end. But a lot of the fight scenes have more going on in them, like Shifu vs. Tai Lung is a lot more weighted and emotional, for reasons I won’t spoil. Also Shifu’s methods for training Po may seem obvious and comical at first, but you grow to really believe in it, and ultimately see how it pays off in the end as the two of them duke it out over possession of a very sacred object. Beyond scenes, there’s a lot of great direction here too, and so many great little moments. Like when Tai Lung escapes, there’s a flash of lightning to the next scene of the valley at sunup, where we see his shadow loom over for a second before it fades away. This movie’s full of a ton of neat stuff like that.
Another thing this movie pushed: end credit sequences. There’s more 2D animation over the cast credits, then we get like a rolling scroll of production art, and it looks absolutely fantastic. Pixar had been doing this stuff too, with Ratatouille, and WALL-E in the same year, but it seemed around this point other studios were all starting to do stuff like this. Traditional animation isn’t dead, it’s just relegated to the end credits. Whelp, I guess it’s better than none at all.

Final Verdict
Of all the films so far, this is the first one I can say that I truly love, and it’s the one that I feel really started DreamWorks on its new direction. Sure, one week after its box office success, Katzenberg came out and claimed that six(!) sequels were in the works, so the company’s franchise focus was not gone, but the movie was solid, it used physical comedy appropriately, its characters were likeable and interesting, and it had a solid emotional core and meaning. That, and it’s a lot of kung fu kickin’ fun. From this point on we’ll be seeing more movies like this, that look deceptively crass and horrible, but ultimately end up pretty good. Well, I have one specifically in mind that this regards to that we’ll get to later. But also sometimes what it looks like ends up being what it is. Sometimes. Now I’m all mixed up. Let me lie down for a bit, I’ll straighten out and get back to you.

13. Bee Movie (2007)

One trend DreamWorks seems to have with their movies is attempting to ride the line between children and adult entertainment. Studios like Pixar, and to some extent Disney in their Renaissance, showed that animated films could be just as enjoyable to parents as to their kids, and with its high profile celebrity voiced and pop culture references, many DreamWorks films have tried to take strides to pulling in adults. How successful this is varies from film to film, but this is an example where they seem to have gone too far. Bee Movie stars and is co-written by Jerry Seinfeld, who is real big with the kids, and is an incredibly awkward movie in that I’m really not sure who it’s for. It starring an animated cast of bees certainly makes it seem like it’s targeted for the little ones, but a lot of its subject matter and humor, the story ending up at a high stakes trial with celebrity guests and other such elements I would think go way over the heads of any kid. It’s a very bizarre film in its execution, but in terms of the film itself just comes off as very bland and forgettable.
Barry B. Benson (love that alliteration) is a go-getter bee ready to enter the workforce, but immediately becomes disillusioned when he finds whatever job he chooses he’ll work at for the rest of his life. Not wanting to get pinned down, he goes out into the world with the rough tough pollinators for a day, only to experience how dangerous a bee’s life can be in the human world. He’s saved from being squashed by a woman named Vanessa, a bug sympathizer, which Barry breaks “bee code” to talk to, and the two develop a kinship. It isn’t long after that that Barry discovers that humans harvest honey and sell it for themselves. Outraged, Vanessa helps him organize a class action lawsuit against the entire human race to get the rights to their honey back. He ends up winning, but finds this garners disastrous results: his entire hive becomes layabout loafers, and worse yet, with no bees to pollinate, plants all over the world are dying, leaving it all up to Barry to get things back the way they were.
So Barry is a sort of a quipster, with a dry, commentating sense of humor, always armed with some witty joke. And he’s got Jewish parents. And his hive is in New York. He’s basically Seinfeld in bee form. Following that, the basic premise of a single insect in a massive working society feeling like he’s made for something more echoes closely to Antz, so I was rather tired with the movie right from the start. On top of that… bee puns. Lots and lots and lots of bee puns. The title itself is a goddamn pun. Most of the humor is either that or Seinfeld-type asides and banter, which become weary very, very quickly. Along with that, the basic plot is basically a gag with the bee trial, and that’s kind of a big issue of the film. Bees wanting to sue the humans over stealing their honey? A funny idea, sure, for a SNL sketch, maybe. But making it the lynchpin for an entire movie? Dragging it on as long as they do just makes it feel even sillier than it already is, and when they want to draw drama out of it when Barry’s friend cheats death by stinging the defendant, it not only falls flat, but ends up feeling incredibly bizarre, to the point where I’m not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be relating to.
Another part of the movie I’m unsure what to make of is Barry and Vanessa’s relationship. Barry does seem smitten with her, like in a romantic sort of way, but the film doesn’t really further address or resolve any of this. Not that I’m expecting any sort of weird inter-species romancing going on here, but that’s just another folly of the film. Had this been a late night sketch, or maybe even something out of South Park, a bee suing the human race, whilst having a physical relationship with a human, is rife with comic potential, but in this safe PG environment, all of the elements just lay there and are played out in the most by-the-numbers way possible. In the end, Barry is solely responsible for making the planet a barren wasteland, because apparently bees are the only insects that pollinate in this universe, and he’s got to make things right. He and Vanessa get some of the last flowers available on a plane to head back to New York, and with some bee assistance get it to land. Then he beseeches his bee brothers that they need to do what bees do best, like he’s giving them a pep talk for some reason. He’s the only one who was averse to being a bee, now he’s motivating everyone else. And no apology either, he just saved the day and is a hero. Eh, whatever. I don’t know what I was expecting.
I’m struggling to try to come up with some stuff I liked about the movie… I can’t really praise how it looks… Everything looks gorgeous to be sure, but there isn’t a distinct style or visual flair to it like Madagascar had. All of the designs are very bland and formulaic CG characters, awkward-looking at worst, particularly in the case of Vanessa’s boyfriend, who looks so odd, but I can’t exactly place why. Actually, the only really great thing in the movie is Mr. Montgomery, defendant for the honey industry, played by John Goodman. It’s a fantastically over-the-top performance, both in Goodman’s performance and the animation, particularly the tour-de-force when he’s stung and flounces about the courtroom. It’s the best scene in the whole movie, not that there’s much competition to be had though…

Final Verdict
This film ends up not being DreamWorks’ worst only because Shark Tale exists. I wouldn’t say it’s lazy, but in some regards it is; its fatal flaw is its inability to decide what exactly it is and who it’s targeting. Kids won’t be able to really understand any of the stuff with the trial and guest spots by Sting and Ray Liotta, and adults certainly aren’t going to stick around for a softball cartoon starring cutesy bees. So in the end, it kind of becomes a movie for nobody.

12. Shrek the Third (2007)

Shrek’s third outing is everything I feared Shrek 2 would be: it’s a film that truly felt dictated by box office receipts than someone coming up with a good story. Where the last one built a bit on the characters and the world, this movie feels pretty superfluous, just going through the established motions and same kind of tired jokes to keep the mean green merchandising machine alive. We start with King Harold, still a frog, on his death bed, informing his son-in-law Shrek must take over the throne. Having hated filling in for his duties during his illness, Shrek discovers another possible heir: Fiona’s cousin Arthur, a lame duck loser high school kid, who Shrek scoops up hoping to thrust the responsibility onto him instead. Meanwhile, Prince Charming is still stewing over the events of the previous film, still craving his own happily ever after. Corralling the sympathies of a gaggle of fairy tale villains, they all storm the kingdom of Far, Far Away and lay siege. Now Shrek must convince Arthur to take over the kingdom, and also save the day and rescue Fiona, who is also with child. Or, childs. Children.
At this point, it’s almost like I have a mental checklist with these movies. Fart/poop jokes? Check. Donkey singing songs? Check. Pop songs on the soundtrack? Check. Ye olde cultural references? Check. While I wasn’t too big on the original, at least the first film had a sort of freshness to it in its tone and scope. By this point it’s just grown kind of tired, and everything just seems to be moving on auto-pilot. These characters have “grown” as much as they can, it seems. Shrek’s dilemma about being a father hits similar beats from the last movie, except it’s more muddled since there’s more going on in this one. Plus there’s a disingenuous air through the whole film, where Shrek peddles the kingdom off on this kid only because he doesn’t want it. Even if he does form a kinship with him in the end, his phony “confession” to him about his actual intentions are still true, yet it doesn’t seem to matter much. Despite the tired message at the end of “be true to yourself,” “don’t let bullies get to you,” blah blah blah, the overhanging moral I got from it was if you don’t want to do something, just convince someone else to do it. Smashing.
Arthur is played by Justin Timberlake, and the guy may have proven himself over the years to be a competent actor, but he’s not a very good voice actor. A lot of his lines feel so stilted and flat, but that could also be from the script. This movie seems to be about him, in his personal journey from being down on himself to having faith in his actions, evidenced by him giving the final moral speech. But who is Arthur? He’s a push-over schmuck when we see him, then he becomes kind of a braggart, then we learn his father left him, then we see he has a penchant for play-acting and tricking people… all of these character traits don’t really add up to a person I give a shit about. I just don’t understand who he is, and furthermore he doesn’t really seem to evolve as a character at all. He’s just this plot device that gets things moving, a cargo Shrek must deliver to shirk his duties. The other new character is eccentric wizard Merlin, played by Eric Idle, a rather unfunny, forgettable addition, who doesn’t seem to serve the story at all, really. The more stuff to kill time, the better.
Another big issue is that Prince Charming is not a very intimidating villain. He was a mindless lackey to his Fairy Godmother in the second one, but even backed by a team of baddies, he’s just not that big of a threat. We get to the end and we see he’s busy hamming it up in rehearsing his big show, you start wondering what the hell is happening and what kind of a threat he is. They should have either toughened him up a bit, or made the other villains more ruthless and menacing, but instead, everyone comes off like a big dummy, which doesn’t help to create any kind of tension. Also there’s the mini story with Fiona, the Queen and the princesses who, after being locked away during the regime change, decide enough is enough and to take action themselves. Before that we get a scintillating scene of Fiona’s baby shower where they talk about child rearing and what makes a good marriage. Real exciting for the kids, huh? Then Rapunzel betrays them for Charming for some reason, then they fight back, or something… I dunno, a lot of this stuff feels like random ideas they had off of the first two that they could just slap into this one. None of the concepts really gel together, they run side by side until they collide at the end and make a big mess.
It really just doesn’t feel there’s enough story here, and what story we have feels either contradictory or redundant to the last two films. In its place we get a lot of filler, be it with Merlin, the stuff at the high school, and since Donkey and Puss really don’t have anything to do, let’s have them switch bodies for comic relief! But everything works out fine in the end, and Fiona gives birth to triplet ogre babies, which may be the ugliest looking things I’ve ever seen in a CG film. The designs are so weird to me…

Final Verdict
Yeah, this one’s pretty bad. With nothing new or interesting to bring to the table, the film basically has “unnecessary” written all over it. I don’t even know what kind of story you can have with this world at this point; you had the first one subverting fairy tale norms, then the second one showed the backlash and dissected it further, but now what more is there to do? A It’s a Wonderful Life parody? More on that later.

11. Flushed Away (2006)

Since releasing Chicken Run in 2000, DreamWorks had had a partnership with Aardman Animation, the British studio best known for the Wallace & Gromit shorts. But the relationship wasn’t without its squabbles. During production of the Wallace & Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit, DreamWorks barraged them with notes, all seeming to revolve around making things less “English,” removing certain references and toning down accents, even going so far as considering getting a new voice actor for Wallace. Then we come to Flushed Away, a film that actually makes this list as it’s a co-production between the two studios. As the large amount of water effects would have been a nightmare to create using stop-motion, the film is fully CG, but using the traditional Aardman-style designs. The companies’ creative differences, as well as the lower end box office take for this and Gromit, the two ended up parting ways. Considering the absolute greatness of Aardman’s past and future films, it was kind of a bonehead move on Dreamworks’ part.
The film follows prim and proper pet rat Roddy, living in a lavish house in Kensington all by his lonesome. Then from nowhere comes the boorish, slovenly Sid, who intends to makes Roddy’s house his own. Roddy attempts to dispose of him by posing the toilet as a whirlpool bath, but Sid, being smarter than he gave him credit for, pushes him in instead and flushes him away, thus giving us meaning to the film’s title. Roddy is now thrust into the underground community in the sewers, trying to find a way to get home. He finds it in Rita, a scrappy rat with a stolen ruby intending to use it to support her enormous rat family. Discovering the ruby to be a fake, Roddy makes her a deal, that if she gets him back to the surface, he can get her the genuine article from his human’s jewelry box. On their tail(s) is the deranged toad known as… Le Toad, also from the surface world, who completely despises living amongst filthy rats, who has a plan to wipe them out once and for all.
First off the 3D mimicking of Aardman’s style looks fantastic. The animation is a bit more reserved and stuttery as if it were stop motion, and instead of using interpolation, the mouths are all swapped off as if it were being done physically. Some models even have scratches and smudges on them as if they were actual plasticine. Stuff like that kept me perpetually visually arrested, the film looks frigging great. Story wise it’s fairly simplistic, but not entirely to its detriment. Aardman’s films usually are some kind of subversion of other film types, like Chicken Run was a prison break and Were-rabbit spoofed old horror movies. This movie is kind of your more standard fare, a kind of fish-out-of-water adventure of Roddy trying to get home while an evil scheme is a-brewin’. The story beats are all familiar and predictable, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. It’s the set dressing and trimmings that make it unique, with the class warfare between the surface and the sewer, and the big climax taking place due to everyone holding in their pee for halftime during the World Cup.
The cast here is pretty stellar, all big names of course, but excellent in their roles. Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet lead and work quite nicely together. Jackman has the right mix of natural charm with bumbling naivety that comes from him being a pampered, isolated pet, while Winslet takes the no-nonsense, street-smart tough girl role and gives it dimension with Rita tending to her family and being genuinely charming and captivating throughout the film. Ian McKellen plays Le Toad over-theatrically and bombastic, a fantastic hammy villain who is truly a maniac, which goes into wonderfully disturbing territory when we see his true plan for the sewer to be overrun by his tadpole offspring. True highlights are Andy Serkis and Bill Nighy as Spike and Whitey, Toad’s two lackey rats, the former edgy and wirey, and the latter a big lovable dullard, who’s got some of the film’s best one liners (“That’ll be last night’s curry, Spike. I’ve got a bum like a Japanese flag.”) Between our main cast and the highly enjoyable incidentals (the rambunctious Sid is hilarious for the few scenes he’s in), I really liked spending a movie with these guys.
There’s also a lot of humor, which sort of feels like a hybrid of DreamWorks and Aardman’s styles. There’s a fair amount of slapstick, but also lots of verbal humor and cultural references, both regional and across the pond, but they seem to work. A particularly great moment is when Roddy is first flushed and encounters a goldfish who asks, “Have you seen my dad?” Five minutes later we see him lying face up on a hibachi. Of course we find out soon after he’s still alive, but the initial shock of it is a great bit. One running gag that does wear out its welcome are the singing slugs though, which allegedly was DreamWorks’ pushing. The first time they show up it’s kind of cute, but then they keep coming back again and again and again and quickly become irritating.

Final Verdict
There are very few points I can take issue with in this one; all in all, it’s pretty fantastic. Lovable characters, lots of humor, arresting style and a satisfying story and ending, it’s a wonderful animated romp. Between this and Arthur Christmas, Aardman shows its magic touch exists regardless of what medium. Though perhaps not so much in terms of box office take, which is why DreamWorks let them go in the first place. But whatever, at least we get some awesome films out of ’em. At least until the money runs out.

Also, sidebar, in the early 2000s, Aardman’s original pitch for the film centered around a gang of pirates, but DreamWorks turned it down, claiming that no one wants to see pirate movies anymore. Cut to few years later, Pirates of the Caribbean is a mammoth success, and you can imagine Aardman’s chagrin. Then cut to the present where they’re now partnered with Sony Pictures, and what movie releases this year? The Pirates! Band of Misfits. They finally got to make it. And it was quite good.

10. Over the Hedge (2006)

2006 is kind of a year lost in the ether for DreamWorks, with two films that didn’t perform incredibly well and are pretty much forgotten to most. That certainly isn’t to say that they’re bad, just to say they didn’t break bank. This film is based upon a comic strip of which I’d never heard of about woodland critters and their culture clash with suburbia. We start with miscreant loner raccoon RJ in the midst of swindling an entire wagon full of human-manufactured goodies from hibernating bear Vincent. When he wakes him and the foodstuffs end up destroyed, Vincent gives RJ an ultimatum: reproduce all of the food in a week’s time, or he’ll have to eat him instead. RJ goes off to find help for this nigh impossible task, and finds it in the form of a simpleton woodland community who is shocked to find an entire suburban neighborhood had been erected during their hibernation. RJ exploits their naivety with alluring junk food and the sensationalist knick-knacks of the humans to help cart off all the eats, while their meek, cautious leader, Verne the turtle, remains hesitant. It isn’t long of course before RJ starts to warm up to the other animals and feels guilty for using them, but with the end of the week looming, and the humans incensed by their neighborhood being ransacked, he must figure a way out of his own mess.
Amidst the predictable, overplayed elements we’ve seen many a time involving the hotshot newcomer slowly gaining humility and the value of friendship, the overall story here is actually kind of interesting. The best parts of the film come from RJ regaling the other animals with the human world, from how he sees it, like humans driving SUVs because they’re slowly losing their ability to walk. The highlight comes with a fantastic montage of him explaining how human life revolves around the acquiring, devouring and ultimately wasting of food; it’s an unusually intriguing sequence, it makes a whole lot of sense on the surface, and as what an animal would think of looking upon the humans. Also great is the mild vilification of mass production and packaging; these small-forest rubes used to eating bark and twigs have their minds blown by mere nacho cheese flavoring, and before long they’re hooked on a diet of powdered donuts and caffeinated soda. It’s played more as light gags than actually bearing on the plot, but I kinda like that they did that, though probably slightly disingenuous since I’m sure they slapped these characters’ faces on fruit roll ups and cookie boxes.
The film tells a simple story very well, but that’s also slightly to its detriment. The concept of woodland creatures combating with suburbia feels so rich but almost feels underutilized. The critters wreck havoc on the humans, and in turn they are getting destroyed by fatty, sugary snacks. Granted that’s a bit more dramatic, and the film certainly isn’t going to cry foul on any junk food given how much marketing money comes in through those companies, but when you introduce those topics, I’m inevitably going to be hungry for more. Going along with this, being so simple means it ends up being none too memorable. There’s some amusing moments and inspired bits to be sure, but nothing that I’d really point out and say was completely extraordinary. Visually it’s typically DreamWorks, with a few extreme takes and animation flourishes, and the suburban world is lusciously laid out, alternatively clean and pristine, and large and harrowing. Everything hits their mark, but very few elements seem to go above that point.
DreamWorks’ stunt casting is as prevalent as ever, but thankfully no actor slips below the level of “unnecessary.” Like you have Wanda Sykes playing the skunk, who is basically written like Wanda Sykes, aka sassy and indignant. Bruce Willis and Gary Shandling are just fine as the leads, pulling off their emotional moments effectively. Standing out to me are the three antagonists: Nick Nolte as Vincent is perfect since he sounds like a grizzly bear anyway, Alison Janey is the irritable and insane head of the home-owners assocation, a lady so mad with power she punches out some cops in the end, and Thomas Haden Church as the creepily dedicated exterminator, a character I wish we’d seen more of. Also notable is William Shatner as a possum with a penchant for dramatic over-acting, the one particularly inspired bit of casting. Also featured is music by Ben Folds, some original songs and some old ones, including a G-rated “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” I love me some Ben Folds, and he’s a welcome addition in orchestrating the beats of this sweet story.
Final Verdict
It’s cute, it’s amusing, it’s entertaining for what it is… and that’s about it. I put this at a dead heat with Madagascar; while that film had a striking visual style and some dementedly funny moments, at least this one actually has a story, and some interesting plot elements to it. Both are effectively disposable, but if I had to pick one to watch again… I think I’d go with Hedge. I was more entranced with its innocence, as opposed to the crude, slightly uncomfortable insanity of Madagascar.