The Super Mario Bros. Movie

I’m a lifelong Nintendo fan and have dreamed of an animated, reference-filled Mario movie since I was a kid back in the 90s. My excitement for this movie was tempered, however, when it was announced that Illumination was helming the project. Illumination is, frankly, the worst of the big animation studios. In more capable hands, this could have been something truly special. Unfortunately, Illumination staples are ever present, like their gratuitous use of slow motion to punctuate silly action beats, ill-fitting pop songs, and lowest common denominator “jokes.” If the humor in the trailers didn’t do it for you, rest assured that the actual movie isn’t much better. One thing I was pleasantly surprised by, however, was the voice acting. The trailers made the voice acting sound awful, but in the final product, I thought everyone—yes, even Chris Pratt—did a pretty good job.

One reason why the voice acting works so well is that the characters hardly say anything. Luigi is barely in the movie, and Mario spends more time running and fighting in action sequences than he does talking to other people. And that’s really my main beef here. The story is extremely slim. There are zero character moments. It feels like you are basically watching someone else play a video game, because you have no connection to anything. And yeah, I get that the Mario games are not known for their deep plots, but this is a movie. You’re allowed to inject some “movie” into it! Instead, we are rushed from action sequence to action sequence with little to no context or justification. Mario enters the Mushroom Kingdom and is immediately greeted by Toad, who immediately escorts him to the princess without question, who immediately recruits him to help her stop Bowser. Like, can we stop and breathe for a moment?!

Nowhere is this frenetic pace more evident than in the soundtrack. Ignoring the pop songs, the soundtrack is a lovely blend of nostalgic Mario tunes mixed with standard movie epicness. But they tried to cram too much nostalgia into each song, and the same action sequence will mutate through 3-4 familiar jingles in a matter of seconds. Again, slow the eff down and let us enjoy things! This movie is undoubtedly going to do well and spawn at least one sequel, so some of these references, both physical and musical, could have been saved for later. They did not need to expend all 40 years of Mario in their first outing. But I get it. A Mario movie practically demands you fill it with Easter eggs. And these references don’t feel gimmicky at all, because they’re still part of the same universe. In that regard, the movie looks great and is fun to watch at a surface level. But there’s no reason why we couldn’t have gotten something even better.

John Wick: Chapter 4

This was my first John Wick movie, but got dang, what a wild ride. There were four main action set pieces, and the insanity of them continued to escalate. The Arc de Triomphe scene in particular is one of the craziest sequences I’ve ever seen. People jumping out of cars to fight on foot in a busy roundabout was a sight to behold. The apartment sequence that followed shortly after—where the camera pans overhead for a long take as John Wick blasts thugs with incendiary rounds—was a close second. It felt so much like a video game, in the best way possible, that I had to resist the urge to start giggling like a little kid. Of course, this scene ends with John Wick jumping out of a window and landing on a parked car, a fall that should have killed him. Later on, Wick takes a tumble down the stairs that is so comically repetitive, I had to ask myself, “Am I supposed to be taking this seriously?”

People who have seen the other movies probably wouldn’t hesitate to answer that with, “Not at all.” For me, I honestly wasn’t sure. I mean, Keanu Reeves plays John Wick super seriously, almost to a fault. His acting is simply not good. But then you also have Donnie Yen playing a blind assassin. I love Donnie Yen, and he is great in the role, but a blind assassin is a silly thing to introduce to a franchise. If that level of cheesiness was already prevalent back in John Wick 1, though, then I guess it’s not a valid complaint. There’s just such a disconnect between the grittiness that the movie strives for 90% of the time and the huge asks to suspend your disbelief. If you can accept that John Wick is basically a video game character immune to fall damage, and you can accept that there are apparently no cops in this world who respond to public shootouts and traffic accidents, you’ll have a good time.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

I feel like Pinocchio is a difficult story to get right, because it’s so unstructured and episodic in its adventures. Guillermo del Toro’s version similarly struggles to create an end-to-end, engaging narrative. The middle of the movie in particular really drags, and I had to start skipping ahead through the overlong musical montage that’s supposed to encapsulate Pinocchio’s time at the carnival. Everything carnival related represents the weakest aspects of this movie. It’s when Guillermo del Toro strays from the more classic Pinocchio story beats that the movie shines. For instance, replacing Pleasure Island with a fascist youth camp was an interesting choice. You don’t get the same body horror of watching a young boy transform into a donkey, but the war setting still adds some serious gravitas. This is a movie where Pinocchio is literally executed at gunpoint, after all.

Yes, the movie is dark, but maybe not as dark as you might expect from a Guillermo del Toro film. Pinocchio repeatedly dying, visiting limbo, and coming back to life was another fun directorial choice that is both macabre and silly. I appreciated how naive and childish Pinocchio was, especially in the beginning. I do think he grows up too fast, though, given that Sebastian (this movie’s Jiminy Cricket) stops influencing him after the first day. The ending of the movie hinges on Sebastian getting his wish, having fulfilled his responsibility to make Pinocchio a good boy. But Sebastian spends the majority of the movie separated from Pinocchio, and so he really didn’t do much and definitely didn’t deserve a free wish to Deus ex Machina us into a happy ending. Well… semi-happy. The final moments are still pretty sad and do solidify this as a poignant (and beautifully animated) take on a familiar story.

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers

This was a very strange movie, but not for the reasons you might think. It honestly felt like whoever wrote the script was taking the piss out of older animation styles. In the movie’s universe, 2D animation is seen as outdated. One of our main characters, Dale, even gets “CGI surgery” to keep with the times. But it doesn’t stop there, as our heroes visit the “uncanny valley” and meet a 2000s era, Beowulf-looking character who repeatedly gets made fun of for the remainder of the film. In theory, I don’t have a problem with lampooning how far technology has come. But they really did not do 2D animation justice in this movie. Most of the “2D” characters are actually 3D models that have been cel-shaded. And their attempts to make the actual 2D characters look like they’re interacting with the real world are extremely lazy, especially when you consider how well Who Framed Roger Rabbit pulled this off thirty years ago!

Story-wise, it’s fine. I like the idea of going meta and having the Rescue Rangers characters simply be actors who struggled to find work after the original cartoon ended. Unfortunately, the real rescue mission that they now find themselves involved in has hardly any meat to it. The Rescue Rangers movie suffers from Ready Player One syndrome, where references to other pop culture are the sole point of its existence. And yeah, it’s fun to see some of the cameos—like Ugly Sonic and a handful of DreamWorks characters—but none of them are used in any creative ways beyond just, “Look who we got!” There is still some decent humor in the movie, but the script has a habit of over explaining its better jokes. For instance, a clay-animated character smacks his head on a newspaper, which leaves an imprint of the words on his face. Funny, but then he says, “Hey, it’s stuck on my face like Silly Putty. You remember Silly Putty?!”

I really want to know what headspace the creators were in when making this, because, on one hand, it feels like they didn’t trust the audience enough to get some of the references. However, they overstuffed each frame with so many other references that you have to pause the movie to catch them all. Then for other things, they didn’t even get the references right. Pogs, for example, are a plot point, but they keep referring to the missing “slammer” from the Rescue Rangers set as just another “pog.” Like, did you even 90s, bro? And, of course, there’s the general disdain for all animation that isn’t cutting edge 3D. Maybe the oddest choice of all, though, is that they made Peter Pan the villain. If you know the story of Peter Pan’s original voice actor, Bobby Driscoll, then this comes across as being in very poor taste. So the creators either didn’t do their homework (and don’t care about animation history), or they were being purposefully cruel. Not a good look either way.

Jumanji: The Next Level

I watched both of these newer Jumanji movies back-to-back, and for the first half of the second movie, I was thinking, “You know what? This is a pretty good sequel.” The humor was a lot better this time around, because the body-swapping dynamics were more interesting. I liked that the teenagers didn’t end up in the Jumanji avatars they wanted, and having two new people—some old farts who don’t understand video games—get sucked into the game with them helped liven things up. The main thing I disliked about the first movie was that Kevin Hart was basically just being Kevin Hart, so it was refreshing to see him dial it down and play against type for once. Jack Black “playing black” was a little cringey at times, but I thought everyone (mostly) felt like their real world counterparts. The addition of Awkwafina as an avatar they hadn’t seen before was also a nice touch.

But then there’s the horse. I have so many issues with this friggin’ horse. First, why would a HORSE be a playable avatar? Oh, and Alex riding in on the horse (who was Bethany, by the way) had somewhat gross connotations. It was also really stupid to swap everyone’s avatars at this point in the movie and put Milo in the horse’s body. Whoever is in the horse is basically a non-character, so it ruined the emotional impact at the end that he was supposed to have with Grandpa Eddie. Also, he chose to stay in the game as a horse?! So dumb… Seriously, the second half of this movie ruins all the goodwill it had by essentially resetting the teenage characters and shoving the older characters out of the way. Every potential lesson these people were supposed to learn is thrown out the window as the movie devolves into an uninteresting, unfunny, generic action flick. And I blame the horse.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

I had fairly high expectations going into this movie, and yet I wasn’t disappointed. I think what (pleasantly) surprised me the most was how culturally relevant it is to the Chinese American experience. I mean, yeah, I knew it was about a Chinese family just from the trailer, but it is a very Chinese movie. About 30-40% of the dialogue is all Chinese, after all, and the themes about generational approval are painfully relatable. My wife (who is Chinese) possibly enjoyed this movie more than I did, and she’s not usually one for violence or wacky humor. What’s magical about Everything Everywhere All at Once, though, is that the violence and wackiness all serve a purpose. Yes, there are many “LOL, random” moments, but they come with a payoff later in the movie and/or juxtapose the deeper feelings the characters are having.

I like to describe this movie as a family drama disguised as a sci-fi, multiverse action flick. The first half of the movie is very action heavy with some great fight choreography that takes full advantage of its multiverse gimmick. The rules of said multiverse are really fun to watch unfold, even going into the second half of the movie when the action slows down considerably. I guess that’s my only complaint with the movie; the more drama-heavy second half goes on for a little too long. It’s a satisfying conclusion to everything that has happened before, but it does requiring sitting through three different monologues from three different characters. Still, this is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time and, according to my wife, a much better example of Hollywood/Asian representation than Crazy Rich Asians was.