Thursday, June 23, 2022

DreamWorks' Shrek - A Franchise Retrospective (DreamWorks Animation Retrospective #1)

I’ve done plenty of retrospectives over the years ranging from ones that cover a director’s filmography to the more traditional franchise retrospectives that I often do whenever a franchise’s newest release comes out. I’ve also done a few animation-centric retrospectives such as the one that I did on Aardman Animations back in 2018 and what is easily one of the biggest projects that I’ve ever done on this site, a full series of retrospectives detailing the numerous classics made by Walt Disney Animation Studios. However, there’s one retrospective project that I’ve been dying to do for years now and that is covering the filmography of another one of the most prominent animation studios in the industry, DreamWorks Animation. While it goes without saying that Disney is (and will usually be) the key source behind my favorite bits of media, especially when it comes to animated films, DreamWorks’ animated films were just as much of a prominent staple of my childhood. Granted, I stopped watching them regularly in theaters by the start of the 2010s, but back then, I always went to see the newest DreamWorks film just like with all of Disney Animation and Pixar’s new releases. However, when it comes to doing a retrospective on DreamWorks, there’s one slight problem that’s been the reason why it’s taken me so long to get around to doing this. At the time that I’m writing this, the studio has produced forty-two official films since 1998, and to put it simply, it would be downright impossible for me to cover all those films in a single post without it being far too massive.

So instead, I decided that the best solution was to take this one step at a time and divvy these films up into a series of posts just like my Disney Animation retrospectives. But whereas the Disney retrospectives were divided by decades, I decided to start off this new series of DreamWorks retrospectives by first tackling their biggest franchises; specifically, the ones that have had at least three cinematic installments to date. After that, I’ll do a quick run-through of DreamWorks’ brief foray into the world of traditionally animated films before covering any of the studio’s one-off releases and those that have started to spawn their own franchises but not necessarily to the lengths that DreamWorks’ most famous franchises have reached. And, of course, it all begins with the franchise that singlehandedly turned DreamWorks into the animation juggernaut that it is today. Sure, this year will mark the first time that this franchise has seen a theatrical release in more than a decade, but there’s no denying the impact that it’s had on both animation and pop culture in general. Heck, even if I didn’t have the franchise’s name in the title of this post, I’m confident that most of you reading this know exactly what I’m talking about; none other than the adventures of the crude but lovable green ogre… named Shrek. Originally adapted from the 1990 picture book of the same name by author William Steig, Shrek is easily one of the most famous film franchises of all time. To date, it is the second-highest-grossing animated franchise of all time with over $3.5 billion worldwide, a total that’s only been bested by the more recent global phenomenon that is the Despicable Me franchise.

Now, I must admit that this was one of the most daunting retrospectives that I’ve done on this site. To be clear, this isn’t a case of me being nervous about tackling the franchise’s lesser-received outings or anything; instead, this is mainly because of the franchise’s current role in the pop-cultural zeitgeist. As I noted earlier, Shrek still stands as one of the most famous franchises of all time; speaking from experience, it truly was a major staple of my generation and I assure you that it’s still fondly remembered by many of those who grew up with it. But nowadays, when it comes to Shrek, most people are probably more familiar with its status as one of the most prominent icons of internet culture and, more specifically, internet meme culture. Simply put, Shrek has an extensive history when it comes to internet memes, but I won’t be covering any of that here because… well, to be perfectly frank, that’s one rabbit hole that I do NOT want to dive into. Plus, I don’t want y’all getting mad at me if you end up looking some of these up because of how… messed up they can get. Let’s put it this way; as much as I hate the following term because of how hyperbolic and false it is 99.9% of the time, I do sort of feel that some Shrek memes out there could legitimately result in a case of ‘ruined childhoods’. So, with all that out of the way, it’s time to be reminded why ogres are just like onions (that’s right, it’s all because of those layers) as we tackle the fantastical adventures of an indisputable cinematic all-star.

(Also, as a quick disclaimer, I’ll only be focusing on the Shrek films, which means that I won’t go over any of its non-theatrical spin-offs; TV specials, TV shows, the Shrek 4-D attraction that operated at multiple Universal Studios parks for many years, etc. And yes, this same mandate will also be applied to future installments of these DreamWorks retrospectives…)

SHREK (2001)

This past year marked the 20th anniversary of the original Shrek, a film that was a full-on decade in the making. Plans for a Shrek film go back as far as 1991 when Steven Spielberg bought the film rights to William Steig’s book with the intent of making a traditionally animated film with Bill Murray as the voice of the title character and Steve Martin voicing his sidekick Donkey. It wasn’t until 1995 when the film was finally put into development at the newly formed studio that Spielberg co-founded with former Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and business magnate David Geffen, DreamWorks SKG. After an initial attempt at a live-action/CGI hybrid that utilized motion-capture (which, on a fascinating note, was developed by a team of animators that included none other than J.J. Abrams) failed to impress, Shrek was finally turned into a fully computer-animated film developed by Pacific Data Images. Another interesting development came about with the process of casting the title role. At first, SNL breakout star Chris Farley was cast as Shrek; sadly, Farley passed away in 1997 before he was able to complete his work on the film. Farley’s SNL co-star Mike Myers was then cast in his place and, after recording a newly rewritten script, requested to re-record all his dialogue in a Scottish accent. A bold move like this and all the various directions that the film went through to get made ultimately worked out in the end as Shrek promptly became a cultural phenomenon upon its release. It grossed over $484 million worldwide (the fourth-highest total of 2001), won the inaugural Oscar for Best Animated Feature and, of course, effectively turned DreamWorks into the first genuine rival to Pixar when it comes to computer-animated films.

All that said, though, the discourse surrounding Shrek nowadays mostly comes from the debate as to how well it holds up after all these years, especially given the varying quality of its sequels and its overall status as not only a parody of fairytales but also a direct potshot at Disney given Jeffrey Katzenberg’s notoriously unpleasant departure from the studio in 1994. And, of course, there’s everything that has to do with all the… ‘internet shenanigans’ that Shrek has gotten into in recent years that have painted this entire franchise in a new light. But as someone who’s very much a part of the generation that grew up with this series (and yet, for the record, didn’t partake in the fandom’s descent into meme culture) and still remembers going to see this film at his local drive-in theater, I’d argue that much of the first Shrek still holds up quite well, especially when it comes to its writing. Say what you will about the extensive use of pop-cultural references that would up end up defining a lot of DreamWorks films at the time or if the film’s jabs at Disney are a bit too mean-spirited nowadays, but for the most part, a lot of Shrek’s humor and comedic banter is excellent throughout. And, of course, as many have noted over the years, this film deserves quite a lot of credit for somehow managing to be a family-friendly fantasy adventure that isn’t afraid to drop in some subtle (or, in some cases, unsubtle) bits of adult humor that undoubtedly went over the heads of kids like me who watched this back in the day.

It also helps that the film is anchored by an incredibly lovable group of protagonists in the trio of Shrek, Donkey, and Princess Fiona, who are then contrasted by the film’s hilariously self-obsessed antagonist Lord Farquaad (who may or may not have been based on former Disney CEO Michael Eisner), all of whom are excellently voiced by the quartet of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, and John Lithgow, respectively. And so, with all this in mind, to answer the question that I had set up earlier about whether the original Shrek still holds up… overall, I’d say that it does. Now, if you go back to some of my earliest posts on this site, I once listed this as one of my Top 10 Favorite Films of all-time way back in September 2012. Admittedly, I don’t know if it has maintained a spot on that list since then but, suffice it to say, this has always been a personal favorite of mine. Outside of the usual case of it being an early-era computer-animated film that’s obviously been outdone in animation quality by the medium’s subsequent releases, Shrek hits that sweet spot as a nostalgic animated classic for all ages. Case in point, as utterly irreverent and crass as its humor can be at times, it can also hit you with the feels at just the right moments. For better or worse, Shrek truly was a landmark release for animated films and it’s hard to imagine what the world of animation would be like without that old smelly ogre.

Rating: 5/5!

SHREK 2 (2004)

The success of the original Shrek naturally resulted in the announcement of a follow-up not long after its release, and if you needed any further indication as to why this franchise became such a pop-cultural juggernaut in the early 2000s, just look at what 2004’s Shrek 2 managed to pull off. Simply put, Shrek 2 was one of the biggest critical and financial hits of its time; it earned over $928 million worldwide, easily making it the highest-grossing film of 2004 and besting the likes of well-proven franchises like Spider-Man and Harry Potter. This also made it the highest-grossing animated film at that time, which was a record that it maintained for 6 years until Pixar’s Toy Story 3 became the first animated film to gross over $1 billion worldwide. And while it may not have won that year’s Oscar for Best Animated Feature, its overall critical reception was very much on par with the original, with some even arguing that Shrek 2 was a rare case of a ‘superior’ sequel. With almost all the core cast and crew members returning from the original, Shrek 2 dutifully maintains the original’s brilliant mix of kid-friendly humor and adult gags that its target audience won’t truly understand until they’re older and then proceeds to one-up its predecessor on the overall timing and delivery of said jokes to result in a more consistently funny film. And since this film’s animation has aged a lot better, by comparison, there’s a lot of fun to be had finding all the little Easter Eggs and visual gags that are peppered throughout.

Shrek 2 also benefits greatly from all the fun new characters that it introduces. Jennifer Saunders’ Fairy Godmother is a delightfully over-the-top and highly memorable main antagonist right down to her quite arguably iconic cover of ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ that runs over the film’s finale. And, of course, Shrek 2 is also notable for turning the original’s trio of heroes into a full-on quartet with the introduction of Antonio Banderas’ scene-stealing interpretation of the fierce feline swordsman Puss in Boots, who may just be the franchise’s most famous character given that he’s since gone on to headline not one but two feature-length spin-offs and a six-season series on Netflix. In short, it’s easy to see why Shrek 2 is the beloved classic that it is; nevertheless, there has been some debate over the years over its long-held reputation as a ‘superior’ sequel. In other words, while you’re probably more likely to see most people say that Shrek 2 is the franchise’s best film, there are some folks out there who still prefer the first Shrek. As for me, I’d say that I’m somewhere in the middle of this debate where the first Shrek is, as I mentioned earlier, my ‘personal favorite’ of the bunch… but at the same time, it’s hard to deny that Shrek 2 is, indeed, a superior sequel to what was already a damn great first installment.

Rating: 5/5!


With a pair of highly acclaimed and hugely popular films under its belt, it’s safe to say that the Shrek franchise was still seen in high regard as it prepared for the release of its third installment, Shrek the Third. Sure, the production had to undergo a notable change in direction due to Shrek and Shrek 2 director Andrew Adamson’s commitment to Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia franchise, but at the very least, Shrek the Third was under the direction of a familiar face in Shrek story artist and Shrek 2’s head of story Chris Miller, AKA the voice of the Magic Mirror. And upon its release, Shrek the Third did continue the franchise’s success at the box office with a nice $813.4 million run that included a then record-setting opening weekend for an animated film that was also the third highest-grossing opening weekend of any film at that time. But as for its critical reception… well, that was another story. Unlike the first two films, Shrek the Third did poorly with critics as it undoubtedly fell victim to the dreaded threequel curse where the third installment of a popular franchise ends up being seen as its weakest. And when it comes to Shrek, some have argued that this film’s poor reception may have hurt the franchise a lot more than you might think. At a time when several studios were trying (and, in most cases, failing) to capitalize on the concept of satirical retellings of classic fairy tales, Shrek the Third’s middling reception is what may have been responsible for ultimately killing audience interest in the genre, and since this is the very franchise that kickstarted that whole trend… that’s saying something.

Even I’ll admit that back when this film came out, I wasn’t too big on it despite being a huge fan of the previous two films. Admittedly, some of this was probably due to me starting to branch out at the time and watch more than just the newest Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks releases, but while I did get this film on DVD as a holiday gift, I didn’t rewatch it as much as I did the first two films. In fact, when it comes to both this and the next two films, these most recent viewings of them are either the first time I’ve seen them in years… or at all. And once I rewatched this film, I found that my stance towards it hasn’t changed that much. Shrek the Third undoubtedly suffers from a lesser script when compared to the first two films as it's a lot more reliant on its pop-cultural references which, as I noted earlier, were a common (and often criticized) aspect of DreamWorks’ early 2000’s works. As a result, the humor is a lot less consistent and outside of the development that Shrek and Fiona have triplets, there’s little to no character development for any of the main protagonists outside of Shrek’s fears about becoming a parent. Instead, more time is spent focusing on the flimsy premise of Shrek and company seeking out the heir to Far Far Away’s throne, Arthur Pendragon, and dealing with the return of Shrek 2’s secondary antagonist Prince Charming who, despite being promoted to the role of the main antagonist, arguably works better as a supporting villain rather than the main one like his mother, the Fairy Godmother. And as for the new addition of Arthur (as voiced by Justin Timberlake), he ended up being the very definition of a one-off character since this is the only film that he’s appeared in.

But despite these shortcomings, there are some enjoyable parts of this film, such as a superfluous but amusing subplot in which a spell from the wizard Merlin causes Donkey and Puss in Boots to switch bodies or the part where Fiona rallies her fellow princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) to fight back against Charming’s forces. And barring a few iffy visual designs here and there, these Shrek films have, at least, consistently improved their animation quality with each subsequent release. In conclusion, since this film’s release, I’ve seen plenty of folks online label it as one of the worst animated films of all time, with some even arguing that, because it’s so bad, it even ruins the previous two films by proxy… but if you ask me, this film doesn’t deserve such an infamously harsh reputation. No, I’m not saying that this is any sort of masterpiece or anything, especially when compared to the first two films, but on its own, it’s a relatively harmless family flick that, at its worst, is simply a subpar installment of the Shrek franchise that lacks a lot of its trademark spunk. To be clear, I don’t attribute any of this to the change in direction that I mentioned earlier since Chris Miller has been involved with the franchise since the beginning; plus, as we’ll soon see, he did go on to redeem himself as a director thanks to the franchise’s first spin-off. At the end of the day, I’d argue that this is simply a straightforward case of diminishing returns that, admittedly, ended up hurting the franchise overall as it marked a clear turning point for this once seemingly unstoppable phenomenon.

Rating: 2.5/5


Around the time that Shrek 2 came out, it was reported that DreamWorks was planning to make at least three more Shrek films after that (not counting the Puss in Boots spin-off), with the fifth set to be the series’ last. And yet, while I’m not saying that the mediocre reception toward Shrek the Third was solely responsible for the following development, I also wouldn’t be surprised if it was, indeed, ‘a part’ of the reason that the proposed fifth film was ultimately nixed. Thus, the fourth film, directed by Mike Mitchell (director of films like the 2005 cult classic Sky High and the LEGO Movie sequel that didn’t deserve to be a box-office flop) and originally titled Shrek Goes Fourth, was renamed Shrek Forever After and officially repurposed into being the franchise’s final mainline installment. Opting for an It’s a Wonderful Life-style story, the film sees Shrek, having recently become disillusioned with his current life, agreeing to a deal with Rumpelstiltskin (who, funnily enough, was in Shrek the Third as a part of Prince Charming’s crew and had a completely different character design) that will let him have a full day where he can be a true ogre again. But of course, as anyone familiar with the classic fairy tale can probably guess, the sneaky imp double-crosses Shrek by placing him in an alternate reality where he was never born, thus allowing Rumpel to become the ruler of Far, Far Away.

Given what I just said about the plot following the well-established premise made famous by It’s a Wonderful Life in which the main protagonist sees how the lives of their friends and family are considerably worse if they never existed, Shrek Forever After’s plot is, admittedly, quite predictable in its execution. However, the film makes up for this with two things that, in retrospect, were severely lacking in Shrek the Third… heart and legitimate emotional stakes. Looking back, it seems as if Shrek the Third was more focused on replicating Shrek 2’s ‘joke-a-minute’ vibe, thus making it a film that aimed to be more of a comedic romp… but in doing so, lacked the emotional beats that were just as prevalent in the first two films as their wacky senses of humor. Shrek Forever After, on the other hand, admittedly may not be as much of a comedic riot as the first two films were but it’s far more character-driven than its immediate predecessor. Shrek’s complete devotion to Fiona and their children is what drives him to set things right after his foolhardy attempt at reliving the glory days and the film utilizes Fiona, Donkey, and Puss in Boots a lot better than Shrek the Third did. It also sports a solidly entertaining bad guy in Rumpelstiltskin (voiced by the film’s head of story, Walt Dohrn), who does manage to rival Lord Farquaad and the Fairy Godmother as both a hilarious and downright sinister antagonist.

As I noted with Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After maintains the franchise’s track record of consistently improved animation with each new installment. Forever After was also notably released in 3-D since this was around the time when the format was making a comeback and DreamWorks Animation had been using it regularly since 2009. I didn’t see this in 3-D when it was in theaters since I saw it at a drive-in (the same drive-in where I saw the first film, in fact…), but from what I’ve heard, DreamWorks Animation always managed to do quite well with implementing 3-D into their films, especially when compared to films that were hastily converted into the format in post-production to capitalize on its then-recent resurgence. And so, with all that in mind, for a film that I haven’t seen since it first came out 12 years ago… Shrek Forever After surprisingly holds up quite well. While I can’t say that it’s as good as the first two Shrek films, it does give the franchise a much-needed bit of course correction by bringing back a lot of the aspects that made it great but were sadly missing in Shrek the Third. In other words, the best way that I can describe this film is that, when compared to its predecessor, this one feels a lot more in line with what we’ve come to expect from the Shrek franchise. And while it’s still unclear yet if there’s going to be a fifth Shrek film as it’s been in the works for years now, Forever After does succeed in its initial goal of being a fitting send-off for this iconic franchise.

Rating: 4/5


Shrek Forever After may have been the narrative finale to the Shrek franchise but it wouldn’t end up being the franchise’s last hurrah on the big screen. From the moment he made his franchise debut in Shrek 2, it was clear to DreamWorks that Puss in Boots was going to be an indisputable breakout character, and so, Shrek 2’s head of story Chris Miller pushed heavily for a spin-off centered on the suave swashbuckling feline. And while said film was originally conceived as a direct-to-video release that would’ve come out in 2008, one year after Miller’s directorial debut with Shrek the Third, it was eventually repurposed as a theatrical release once DreamWorks eventually realized the character’s full potential for cinematic adventures. Chris Miller soon signed on to direct, thus making Puss in Boots his second directorial outing for the franchise, and thankfully for Miller, Puss in Boots was not a critical dud like Shrek the Third was. The film opened to solid reviews from critics, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, and amassed a highly respectable $555 million run at the box office. As a result, what started out as a spin-off of a hugely successful DreamWorks franchise ended up turning into its own hugely successful DreamWorks franchise. In 2015, it spawned a Netflix series, The Adventures of Puss in Boots, which lasted for six seasons, and this December, Puss in Boots will make his triumphant return to the big screen in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.

But for now, our focus is on Puss’ first solo outing. Set long before his first encounter with Shrek and Donkey, the film explores Puss’ backstory and how an incident involving him and his childhood friend Humpty Dumpty resulted in him becoming a fugitive of the law in the town that he was raised in, San Ricardo, which is a status that he’s been trying to undo for quite some time. This eventually leads to him reuniting with Humpty Dumpty who, along with fellow feline adventurer Kitty Softpaws, recruits Puss for a quest to find the magic beans that will grow the giant beanstalk that will lead them to the Giant’s Castle where they will find the mythical golden-egg laying goose. As I alluded to earlier, this is the one Shrek-related film that I did not see when it first came out. That said, though, since this was around the time that I was starting to truly get into film criticism and was paying greater attention to how films were faring with critics and audiences, I was at least aware of this film’s generally positive reception and how many saw it as a surprisingly solid release, especially given that this was clearly at a time where the Shrek franchise’s popularity had started to dwindle. Having now finally watched this film for the first time, it isn’t that hard to see why it proved to be such a big hit. For starters, the film more than manages to stand on its own as a spin-off of the Shrek franchise without having to rely on any major nods to the previous films outside of the title character’s classic visual cues.

Barring a relatively straightforward plot with some rather predictable plot twists, Puss in Boots is a rollicking swashbuckling adventure that feels right in line with the many classics that that genre has spawned, including the ones that Antonio Banderas has been in like 1998’s The Mask of Zorro. Banderas, of course, is charismatic and great as always in his fourth outing as Puss in Boots and the film pairs him with one of his most iconic leading ladies from outside of the world of animation as Salma Hayek delivers an equally terrific performance as femme fatale Kitty Softpaws. Meanwhile, Zack Galifianakis is a terrific addition to the ensemble as well as Humpty Dumpty, who constantly blurs the line between being Puss’ friend and Puss’ foe to serve as a great foil to him without being a completely irredeemable antagonist. With all this and a lot of great animation (which, just like Shrek Forever After, must’ve made this a fun one to watch in 3-D), Puss in Boots is a highly entertaining spin-off that more than holds its own against the franchise from which it was spawned. Simply put, Puss in Boots, as brilliantly performed by Antonio Banderas, has easily been one of the Shrek franchise’s best characters, and thanks to a film like this, it’s clear that he can be just as great of a main protagonist as he is a loyal sidekick.

Rating: 4.5/5

BONUS REVIEW: SHREK THE MUSICAL (Home Video Release - 2013)

Before we conclude today’s retrospective, I figured that it’d be fun to cover the following release which, while not a theatrical release like the main Shrek films, has been included in some of the franchise’s recent Blu-Ray and DVD boxsets. Sure, reviewing Broadway productions isn’t really my thing, but if I can do something like this for the filmed production of Hamilton back in 2020, I can certainly cover the Shrek franchise’s transition from the big screen to the Great White Way. In 2008, a musical adaptation of the original Shrek film made its official Broadway debut at the historic Broadway Theatre. This was a project that had been in the works since 2002, just one year after the original film’s release, with the stage play written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori with Lindsay-Abaire writing the lyrics. Originally, the production did not use any of the songs from the film, but by 2009, “I’m a Believer”, which was initially just played as background music after the final curtain, was added to the show’s finale. While the show ultimately closed in 2010 without managing to make its initial investment back, it did nab a bunch of Tony Award nominations at the 63rd annual ceremony, including a nomination for Best Musical and acting nods for three of the production’s four main leads, and ended up winning for its costuming. And in 2013, an assembled cut of multiple filmed performances of the show by RadicalMedia (the same team behind the filmed production of Hamilton) was released on home media.

Given that this is based solely on the first film with a few minor nods to Shrek 2 (e.g. a non-speaking cameo from Puss in Boots), it goes without saying that Shrek the Musical benefits greatly from it being based on one of the franchise’s best outings. And overall, David Lindsay-Abaire does a great job of adapting the original film’s story into a musical format, with only a few cuts here and there and some new narrative additions like opening a la William Steig’s original book with a sequence where Shrek’s parents send him off on his own and a plot twist that reveals that Lord Farquaad is the son of the seven dwarves’ Grumpy. While some have argued that the latter twist contradicts the series’ message of embracing who you are (which, ironically, is an argument that goes back as far as the first film’s release given its recurring gag of Shrek and company making fun of Farquaad’s short stature), the musical still maintains the film’s heartfelt themes quite well. Set and costuming design is quite good throughout as they do a solid job of replicating the overall visual aesthetic of the films; makeup design, on the other hand, is a lot more hit-or-miss due to the unsettling looks that some of the characters are given. As for the music, it too is solid throughout with favorites of mine being Fiona’s two solos; ‘I Know It’s Today’, which covers her backstory locked in the dragon’s tower, and ‘Morning Person’, which serves as an extension of the scene in the first film where she goes off on her own and causes a bird to explode by singing in one of Shrek’s many classic bits of dark humor.

But just like how the original film sold itself on its lead quartet of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, and John Lithgow, the original Broadway production of Shrek the Musical is fully bolstered by its lead quartet. Revered Broadway icon Brian D’Arcy James does a phenomenal job in the title role, not at all hindered by the extensive makeup work done to turn him into Shrek and nailing the character’s gruff yet sympathetic demeanor. Daniel Breaker, meanwhile, flawlessly mirrors the madcap, mile-a-minute style of comedy that Eddie Murphy brought to the role of Donkey even if the musical focuses on Shrek’s best friend and noble steed considerably less than the film did. However, the biggest standouts of the cast (especially from a comedic standpoint) are Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona and Christopher Sieber as Lord Farquaad. Foster happily revels in playing a more manic and slightly unhinged version of Fiona who, as evident from her first solo “I Know It’s Today”, was clearly affected by her prolonged imprisonment but, nevertheless, is still very much the same spunky and badass heroine that she is in the films. Sieber, meanwhile, brings all the laughs as Farquaad who, in the musical, is still the same nefarious wannabe despot that he was in the film but way more over the top in execution when compared to John Lithgow’s far more sinister take on the character.

I didn’t see Shrek the Musical back when it made its Broadway debut. While I did visit New York quite often on annual vacations with my family when I was younger, none of those trips tended to include a trip to the theater. In fact, outside of any instances where I went to see a show’s touring production at the historic Providence Performing Arts Center, I don’t think that I ever saw an actual Broadway show directly in New York City until a High School Chorus trip in 2011. Plus, as I noted earlier, this was around the time when I was starting to move away from solely watching films like Shrek; ergo, despite being a huge fan of the franchise, this show, to put it quite simply, didn’t really attract my interest back then. Having now since seen it a few times thanks to its home media release (which, like RadicalMedia’s presentation of Hamilton, is a relatively solid production that’s impressively seamless given that it’s a compilation of multiple performances), I believe that I probably would’ve enjoyed it quite a bit if I had seen it as a kid. As crazy as the idea of a Broadway adaptation of the first Shrek film may seem (especially to some of the franchise’s biggest critics), Shrek the Musical is just as much of an undeniable crowd-pleaser as its beloved source material. This classic story of a grumpy yet lovable ogre is excellently reimagined for the stage without losing any of the original screenplay’s charm, especially thanks to its lovable main protagonists (and main antagonist that you love to hate) being portrayed by some of the most talented stars in all of Broadway. And as a result, it’s another prime example of how DreamWorks’ most prominent franchises have managed to successfully expand their horizons far beyond their humble beginnings on the big screen.

Rating: 4.5/5

And that concludes this retrospective on the franchise that made DreamWorks Animation a household name, Shrek. Thanks for following along and be sure to sound off in the comments below with your own personal memories of this franchise… though, if you’ll grant me one request, let’s keep these conversations restricted solely to the films and any other official franchise spin-offs (video games, TV specials, Shrek 4-D, etc.) and refrain from bringing up any of that messed up internet content that I referred to back in this post’s intro. On that note, as I also mentioned in that intro, this will be the first installment of a new series of retrospectives here on Rhode Island Movie Corner that will cover the numerous feature films produced by DreamWorks Animation. To be clear, there is no definite timetable as to when the next DreamWorks retrospective will be published, but in keeping with my plan of starting things out by focusing on DreamWorks’ biggest franchises in the order of their debuts, the next DreamWorks Retrospective will cover the Madagascar series.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Matrix Resurrections (2021) review

Calling The Matrix a staple of the sci-fi genre would be the very definition of an understatement. Upon its release in the spring of 1999, this highly ambitious sci-fi action flick directed by sisters Lilly and Lana Wachowski immediately became one of the most iconic films of its time. Not only was it a massive critical and commercial success, earning over $466 million worldwide, much critical acclaim, and four Oscars, but it also inspired numerous films that would come after it with its groundbreaking visual effects and extensive use of wire-fu stunt choreography. It would then pave the way for a wide array of media in 2003 to turn it into a full-blown franchise, including two theatrically released sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. And while neither film was as necessarily well-received as the original, they did their job in helping to maintain the franchise’s strong position within the pop cultural zeitgeist in the early 2000s. However, following their release, that was mostly it for the franchise as far as theatrical releases were concerned. Lana and Lilly promptly moved on to other projects and repeatedly rejected ideas for follow-ups to the point where Warner Bros. brought in screenwriter Zak Penn to develop a potential prequel or sequel without them. Ultimately, though, Lana Wachowski returned to the franchise in 2019 as the prospect of bringing back main protagonists Neo and Trinity, who had both died in Revolutions, allowed her a chance to cope with the recent loss of her and Lilly’s parents and a close friend. And while the loss of their parents was the reason Lilly Wachowski didn’t return, instead opting to take a hiatus from the film industry, Lana’s return to the franchise that made her and her sister some of the most famous filmmakers around provides us with an emotionally poignant, visually stunning, and very much self-aware sequel.

Despite all the success that he’s achieved thanks to his greatest creation, a trilogy of games known as The Matrix, video game designer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) has recently been struggling to cope with the dreams that he’s been having that suggest that his reality isn’t what it seems. And while his therapist (Neil Patrick Harris) attempts to help him by prescribing him blue pills, the situation only proceeds to get more complicated with each passing day, especially whenever Thomas crosses paths with a married woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), whom he seems to have some sort of unclear history with. It is only through interactions with a woman named Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and her AI acquaintance Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) that Thomas takes the figurative and literal red pill and finally remembers who he truly is; the mythical heroic figure known as Neo AKA ‘The One’. It has been more than 60 years since Neo was able to successfully save humanity from the machines that had turned the world into a post-apocalyptic wasteland by harvesting humans for energy while keeping them locked within a virtual world known as the Matrix. And while said victory had originally thought to have come at the cost of Neo’s life, it is revealed that the machines have resurrected not only him but also the love of his life Trinity… who now lives within the Matrix as Tiffany. Thus, when Neo learns that he and Trinity were vital to the Matrix’s current operation and that his awakening has now put her in danger of being killed by a system reboot, Neo joins forces with Bugs and the crew of her ship, the Mnemosyne, to rescue Trinity before that can happen.

With The Matrix Resurrections, Lana Wachowski and co-writers David Mitchell and Aleksandar Hermon craft a story that’s very much self-aware of its status as not only the fourth installment of a well-established franchise but also as a follow-up released several years after what was initially perceived to be the franchise’s finale. As such, this film is full of meta-commentary on sequels and the process of rehashing old franchises, and while said commentary may get a bit over-the-top at times in the ways that have made some Wachowski films rather infamous, the writers do an excellent job when it comes to ‘how’ they go about continuing the franchise’s plot. In other words, instead of just making your standard ‘legacy sequel’ that sets up a new ‘human vs. machine’ conflict with new characters mixed in with the older characters, The Matrix Resurrections is, simply put, a story about Neo and Trinity, the franchise’s definitive couple, reuniting with each other. As I alluded to earlier, this was the exact reason why Lana Wachowski ended up returning to the franchise after all this time, and because of this act of unabashed wish fulfillment, The Matrix Resurrections has what is easily the best emotional hook out of any installment of the franchise. And overall, I’d say that this helps the film overcome the fact that, admittedly, it doesn’t boast the same kind of brilliantly choreographed action sequences that the original trilogy had, especially since this is more of a story-driven plot than an action-driven one.

As it has often been with the Matrix films, The Matrix Resurrections largely revolves around the lead duo of Neo and Trinity, and Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss slip back into their iconic roles with ease. Admittedly, Trinity’s role in the film isn’t as big as Neo’s since the whole plot revolves around the process of rescuing her from the Matrix, but without spoiling anything, the route that they take with her character at the end of it all is one that I personally think longtime fans of the franchise will probably find incredibly satisfying. As for the other major characters in this film, they very much fall in line with what I noted earlier about ‘legacy’ sequels that combine new characters with the returning ones. Series regulars such as Jada Pinkett Smith’s no-nonsense captain turned resistance leader Niobe and Lambert Wilson’s infamously snooty Merovingian are largely relegated to supporting/cameo roles while more time is spent with newer characters such as Bugs and the crew of her ship, the Mnemosyne. Sure, most of the ship’s crew members don’t get a lot to work with but Jessica Henwick does headline this new group of characters quite nicely as she adopts the kind of ‘audience surrogate’ role that Neo had in the first film. Apart from all that, arguably the most notable development with this cast was the recasting of two significant roles; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as an A.I. version of Morpheus (who’s established to have died prior to the events of this film) and Jonathan Groff as the reincarnation of Neo’s arch-nemesis, Smith. Neither of these two admittedly factor into the film’s proceedings as much as you’d think, but at the very least, they both do a solid job following in the footsteps of their respective predecessors, Laurence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving.

As was the case with The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, it’s clear that The Matrix Resurrections has been an incredibly polarizing release in the eyes of both critics and audiences. In fact, one could say that, in this instance, it’s a lot like a certain installment of another big sci-fi franchise, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, since, from what I can gather, there’s been a lot of discussion about this not being the kind of film that Matrix fans were expecting. Instead of being an action-packed sci-fi extravaganza like the previous three films were, Resurrections is a more introspective and personal story driven almost entirely by the enduring romance between its two main protagonists… and yet, that’s why it works so well. It may not possess the exact level of visual finesse as its predecessors, but it more than makes up for that with its solidly engaging premise and strong emotional poignancy. And because of how effective it is as a source of meta-commentary on narrative sequels, it’s clear that Lana Wachowski went above and beyond to make a Matrix film that was more than just your standard cinematic sequel. That level of ambition has obviously defined much of the Wachowskis’ filmography, and while not every project of theirs has been as successful as The Matrix (longtime visitors of this site may recall that I wasn’t too big on Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending), you can never fault them for trying.

Rating: 5/5!

Friday, January 28, 2022

The Matrix - Series Retrospective

Today on Rhode Island Movie Corner, we’ll be tackling a series that I’ve been meaning to cover for quite some time now. Two years ago, I was planning on doing this retrospective in honor of the first film’s 20th anniversary, which also happened to coincide with the reveal that the series’ long-rumored fourth installment was finally going to get made. Ultimately, though, 2019 came and went and I didn’t end up doing it at that time; instead, I figured that I’d simply wait for the fourth film’s release… and yes, that’s even after it had to endure a COVID-19 forced delay just like all the other big blockbusters at that time. But now the time has finally come to tackle a franchise whose impact on pop culture practically speaks for itself, The Matrix. What started with the second directorial outing from sisters Lilly and Lana Wachowski after their highly acclaimed directorial debut Bound in 1996 quickly became a pop-cultural phenomenon that would go on to influence the film industry in numerous ways. It inspired many subsequent action films to utilize a greater implementation of wire-fu techniques that had been made famous by Hong Kong action cinema for their fight choreography (which, in turn, helped to introduce films from that subgenre to a wider audience). And, of course, there’s also the franchise’s famous slow-motion visual effect known as ‘bullet time’, which became such a popular fad in the industry that it was not only featured in hit video games such as the Max Payne series but was also parodied in numerous films such as Shrek, Scary Movie, and Kung Pow: Enter the Fist.

Thanks to the success of the original Matrix, the Wachowskis would then go on to turn it into a full-blown franchise with a pair of sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, both being released in 2003. And while neither sequel was able to attract the same level of critical acclaim as the original did, they were still major box-office hits while spin-offs such as an animated anthology film and a bunch of video games helped the franchise maintain its cultural relevancy. When it comes to the films, however, they were only intended to be a trilogy, with the Wachowskis repeatedly rejecting any plans for a follow-up. But now, nearly two decades after the original trilogy’s conclusion, Lana Wachowski brings us back into the war between humanity and the machines with The Matrix Resurrections, and today, in honor of its release, I’ll be looking at both the original Matrix trilogy and the previously mentioned animated anthology spin-off. And so, with that in mind, allow me to present you all with the following choice. If you decide to take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. But if you decide to take the red pill, then prepare to stay in Wonderland as I show you just how deep this rabbit hole goes as we tackle The Matrix.


The original Matrix is very much one of those films that’s genuinely hard to provide any new insight on at this point because its legacy and impact on both film and pop culture speaks for itself. And since I’m not even close to being an expert on philosophy, religion, and the like, this also isn’t going to be any sort of discussion on The Matrix’s deepest cinematic themes. Instead, I’ll be tackling the question of whether this film still holds up after all these years and considering all the franchise’s further developments… to make a long story short, it does. Say what you will about the following two films and where this story ended up, but as for this first film, it still stands as an impeccably directed, written, and produced sci-fi action blockbuster. The Wachowskis’ knack for visual storytelling and their passion for martial arts films and anime is fully apparent throughout the film’s top-notch action sequences, whether it’s Neo and Trinity’s rescue of Morpheus or the climactic fight between Neo and Agent Smith. It also helps that all its main leads are perfectly cast; Keanu Reeves as the reluctant audience surrogate Neo, Carrie-Anne Moss as his badass confidant/love interest Trinity, Laurence Fishburne as the poised resistance leader Morpheus, and Hugo Weaving as the cold and emotionless antagonist Agent Smith. And so, with all that in mind, it’s easy to see why The Matrix is still seen as a landmark entry in the sci-fi genre. Not only is it a, for lack of a better term, ‘cool’ film from a visual standpoint, but the Wachowskis managed to find that perfect balance when it comes to presenting a story that’s undoubtedly smarter than a lot of its genre’s peers but done in a way where it rarely becomes too complicated to the point where it would confuse audiences.

Rating: 5/5!


With a game-changing sci-fi action epic under their belts, the Wachowskis soon began the process of turning The Matrix into a full-blown franchise, and to put it quite simply, calling their plans to do just that ‘ambitious’ would be a massive understatement. Not only were they developing a pair of sequels, which would end up being filmed back-to-back, but they also had plans for multiple spin-offs across various mediums. They recruited a bunch of anime filmmakers (since anime was a major source of inspiration for them when they were developing the original film) to make an anthology film set within the franchise’s universe, The Animatrix, and they wrote and directed a video game tie-in, Enter the Matrix, which featured over an hour of exclusive live-action footage featuring much of the franchise’s cast of characters. Simply put, the immense hype that was generated by the first film’s success was very much in full effect once the second film, The Matrix Reloaded, hit theaters in the summer of 2003. Upon its release, the film grossed over $741 million worldwide, which made it the highest-grossing R-rated film up to that point, besting the record that had been held for more than a decade by Terminator 2: Judgment Day and holding that spot until 2016 when it was dethroned by the first Deadpool. And while its overall critical reception wasn’t necessarily as strong when compared to the first film, Reloaded did do solidly enough with critics; however, the far more negative reception towards its immediate follow-up, Revolutions, clearly had some sort of impact on how it would be seen by many in the years to come. In other words, while Reloaded wasn’t even remotely close to being a critical dud, the first two Matrix sequels are often paired together by those who feel that the franchise lost its way when trying to follow up on the original.

And yet… I find myself amongst the crowd who feels that this film isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests. Still, it does have its shortcomings, and I think it’s safe to say that part of this is due to the more visual-heavy approach that it takes when compared to the original. Unlike the original Matrix, Reloaded and Revolutions feature a lot more CGI effects which, in their defense, was largely so that the Wachowskis could utilize the original’s iconic ‘bullet time’ effects for the incredibly ambitious action sequences that they came up with. This does, however, result in a film that feels a lot like the later installments of another trilogy that was being made around this time, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, by relying on CGI more than it probably should’ve, especially since not all these effects have necessarily aged well. And while there are still plenty of top-notch action sequences such as the widely praised highway chase scene or the early parts of the big brawl between Neo, Agent Smith, and the latter’s vast army of clones, other action sequences can get rather ridiculous whenever they become overtly CGI-based. All that said, though, the film still manages to be a solidly engaging follow-up to the original Matrix with decent bits of world-building even if there are a few times where its philosophical themes can get a bit heavy-handed to the point of dragging down certain expositional sequences. And so, with all that in mind, while you can see some of the narrative and technical cracks that were starting to form as a result of the Wachowskis’ highly ambitious sequel plans, The Matrix Reloaded is ultimately a largely entertaining follow-up to its iconic predecessor. Granted, I can’t quite say that it’s ‘as good’ as the original, but it’s certainly not the ‘disaster’ that it’s been made out to be.

Rating: 4/5


As we get into the final installment of the original Matrix trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, I just want to start by noting that, even to this day, I’m still genuinely fascinated by the fact that Revolutions managed to hit theaters the exact same year as The Matrix Reloaded, coming out just six months later in the fall of 2003. Now, granted, like I noted earlier, these two sequels were filmed back-to-back so it’s easy to see how they could both come out in such a relatively short timeframe; still, there aren’t many examples of a film franchise that has managed to get two whole installments that are directly tied to each other released in the same year. The only other instance where a situation like this has ever occurred (at least, given what I could find, anyway…) was with the original King Kong in 1933, which was then quickly followed by Son of Kong the very same year. And no, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t count in this instance because while multiple MCU films are released in a single year, it’s not like we get two Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy films a year. Regardless, The Matrix Revolutions was set to serve as the grand finale to the story of Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, and the people of Zion’s war against the machines… but things didn’t exactly go as smoothly as before once the film was released. Whereas the equally polarizing Reloaded still managed to garner enough positive reviews from critics to earn the ‘Certified Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Revolutions ended up being a major critical dud as many ultimately found it to be a lackluster conclusion to the trilogy.

Once again, though, I don’t think that this film is as bad as a good chunk of the internet regards it as. I can totally see where some people are coming from when they say that certain routes that the story takes are disappointing or that some of the trilogy’s most notable themes and storylines aren’t explored as much as they should’ve been, but overall, Revolutions manages to be a relatively engaging and appropriately grand-scaled finale for the trilogy. Obviously, like Reloaded, Revolutions’ overt use of CGI can be an issue at times, but in this instance, it’s for an entirely different reason when compared to its immediate predecessor. Whereas Reloaded had a few too many action sequences where the characters were replaced with blatantly obvious digital doubles, Revolutions thankfully doesn’t use that visual effects method as much (or, in other words, if it did, then it hides it a lot better…). No, in this instance, the problem comes from the moments where there are so many CGI visuals on-screen that it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what’s going on during some of the more frenetic action sequences, especially given this series’ penchant for boasting a darker color palette. Despite this, however, the trilogy’s success in endearing you to the main trio of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus helps to keep you invested in their endeavors, which all culminates in an epic final battle between Neo and Agent Smith. And so, with all that in mind, I will admit that I do find myself amongst those who find The Matrix Revolutions to be a legitimately underrated film. Sure, you can argue over the quality of this film’s narrative and philosophical beats until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, I strongly disagree with the long-standing consensus that it’s an utterly worthless sequel.

Rating: 4/5


And finally, we conclude with the project that I’ve repeatedly teased throughout this entire retrospective, The Animatrix, a collection of nine anime short films set within the world of The Matrix. A collaboration between the Wachowskis and some of the most famous anime filmmakers at the time such as Shinichirō Watanabe and Mahiro Maeda, this anthology feature properly expands upon the franchise’s lore in various ways. Some of the shorts, like Kid’s Story (in which the titular Kid, a side character from Reloaded and Revolutions who idolizes Neo, manages to escape from the Matrix on his own accord) and The Final Flight of the Osiris (in which the rebel ship Osiris learns that the Machines are tunneling towards Zion), directly address plot-points that were otherwise unseen in the films. Others are simply unique little glimpses into the universe, like Matriculated, which examines the idea of humanity attempting to convert machines to their side. It all comes together in a wholly engrossing anthology feature in which each one of the nine shorts are beautifully animated. Personal favorites of mine as far as their unique animation styles are concerned include the previously mentioned Kid’s Story, which features some particularly striking stylized visuals, and A Detective Story, with its gorgeous black-and-white noir-inspired visuals that perfectly coincide with its, you guessed it, noir plot.

Overall, The Animatrix is an incredibly well-made collection of anime shorts that is the clear result of the Wachowskis paying it forward to the medium that played such a significant role in The Matrix’s creation. And sure enough, when you combine an iconic medium with what was easily one of the newest and exciting sci-fi action franchises at the time, you get a film that successfully manages to appeal to both those who are well-versed in the world of anime… and folks like me who have little to no experience with it. However, at the risk of making an incredibly controversial statement in the eyes of this film’s fans, I don’t think that this film is ‘100% essential’ when it comes to experiencing this franchise. Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean that I don’t highly recommend this film because that couldn’t be farther from the truth. What I mean by all this is that, ultimately, The Animatrix is primarily intended to be a source of additional context to the main films without resulting in a situation where you would end up missing out on any pivotal plot points if you end up skipping this. Anything significant to the main series that is featured here are minor beats at best such as the connection between Neo and Kid or the inciting incident with the Osiris that kick-started the events of The Matrix Reloaded and, in turn, The Matrix Revolutions. But again, I want to make it clear that, despite everything that I just said, I DO NOT recommend that you skip this because it’s one of the most unique and rewarding experiences that you could have from a spin-off of a hugely successful film franchise.

Rating: 4.5/5

And that concludes our retrospective on the original Matrix trilogy and The Animatrix. Thanks for following along and be sure to sound off in the comments below with your own personal experiences with this franchise, especially if you were a part of its target demographic when it first came out. And yes, I do plan to follow this up with a full review of The Matrix Resurrections. You can expect that post sometime soon.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

No Time to Die (2021) review


Since 1962, six actors have officially portrayed author Ian Fleming’s suave secret agent James Bond AKA 007 in Eon Productions’ long-running franchise of films based on Fleming’s work, with each of them bringing their own unique spin to the title role. Up until this year, however, arguably the one thing that most of them had in common was that, unfortunately, their tenures in the role didn’t exactly end on a good note as their final films tended to be some of the franchise’s worst-received installments, sometimes for reasons that extend beyond the film’s quality. Sean Connery, for example, may have been the first and quite arguably most iconic James Bond, but his run ended in a rather bizarre way where he temporarily left the franchise after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, returned for 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, then left again, and then proceeded to star in an unofficial Bond film, 1983’s Never Say Never Again, which was just a remake of his fourth Bond film, 1964’s Thunderball. During Connery’s temporary hiatus, George Lazenby took up the role, and while 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is often seen as one of the franchise’s best films, Lazenby infamously stepped away from the role after just a single film on the advice of his agent. Thus, Roger Moore ended up becoming the first ‘proper’ successor to Connery and notably appeared in a franchise-record 7 films. However, many felt that he had stayed in the role for too long to the point where, by the time that he had starred in 1985’s A View to a Kill at the age of 57, he was older than lead Bond Girl Tanya Roberts’ mother.

After Moore’s departure, Timothy Dalton was cast; like Lazenby, his tenure was another notoriously short one although, in his defense, this was mainly because the series ended up in some major legal issues after only his second film, 1989’s Licence to Kill. After that, Pierce Brosnan helped revive the franchise in the mid-’90s, with his final film, Die Another Day, notably being released in 2002, which coincided with the series’ 40th anniversary… it also ended up being one of its worst-received outings. Thus, we now cut to Daniel Craig, the man who successfully managed to defy his biggest critics who heavily crucified his casting in 2005 because they felt that he didn’t fit the character’s long-standing image as it was both described in the books and portrayed by his five predecessors. And yet, once his first film, 2006’s Casino Royale, hit theaters, he quickly became a fan-favorite amongst critics and audiences as the series effectively rebooted itself, eschewing many of its campier elements to be more in line with the grounded spy thrillers of recent years such as the Jason Bourne franchise. In the years since, Craig has arguably maintained one of the most consistent runs of any of the Bond leads to date. Sure, his first four films were an even mix of critically-acclaimed outings (Casino Royale and 2012’s Skyfall) and incredibly polarizing affairs (2008’s Quantum of Solace and 2015’s Spectre), but overall, Craig has managed to muster a strongly positive reputation amongst Bond fans. However, by the time that Spectre was released, it was unclear if Craig was going to return for another film, especially after an infamous comment that he had made during an interview where he noted that he’d rather “slash his wrists” than do another one. Granted, he did later admit that this was simply a poor way of responding to the question in the immediate wake of Spectre’s production, but nevertheless, it did cause a bit of a scandal. Ultimately, though, Craig confirmed that he would return for one more film which, as you’ll see, ended up going through quite a lot.

After it was confirmed that Skyfall and Spectre director Sam Mendes would not return to direct a third Bond film, it was announced that visionary director Danny Boyle was tapped to direct Eon’s 25th official Bond film with a screenplay that he had co-written with his longtime collaborator John Hodge. Had this gone through, Boyle would’ve quite arguably been the most prominent director to ever be attached to the franchise given Eon’s tendency to not rely on big-name directors, having notably turned down the likes of Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson in the past. Unfortunately, Boyle ended up dropping out of the project in August 2018 due to creative differences over his and Hodge’s script. Luckily for Eon, the search for a new director didn’t end up taking too long as they ultimately hired Cary Joji Fukunaga. Over the past few years, Fukunaga has made quite a name for himself as a director thanks to his work on the likes of the 2015 Netflix film Beasts of No Nation and the first season of HBO’s True Detective. With his hiring, Fukunaga notably became the first American-born director to helm a Bond film as well as the first to also have a writing credit on the film, which he shares with series regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and, by Daniel Craig’s own request, Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And apart from an ankle injury that Craig sustained during filming, everything seemed to be going well for what would eventually be titled No Time to Die as the film was primed for an April 2020 domestic release… and then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.

With theaters closing around the world due to the impact of the pandemic, MGM and Eon promptly decided to push No Time to Die’s release date back, effectively making it the first film that had to bow to the pressure of a COVID-forced delay. And sure enough, other big-name blockbusters like F9, Black Widow, and Wonder Woman 1984 were forced to move back to a later date as well. As for No Time to Die, it was clear that this was for the best to ensure a strong financial performance at the worldwide box office as it was estimated that the film would’ve lost about $300 million had it stayed in its April 2020 slot. First poised for a November 2020 release, it was then pushed back again to April 2021, a full year after its initially planned release, when it was clear that theaters wouldn’t be back in full operation by that time. But when the new year rolled around, it was pushed back again to October 2021; thankfully, though, that release date was officially locked in back in August, and thus, more than one and a half years after it was originally set to hit theaters, the grand finale to Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond is finally here. Obviously, this one’s been a long time coming, but thanks to Cary Joji Fukunaga’s brilliant direction and its many moments of powerful emotional poignancy, No Time to Die achieves a genuine first in franchise history by giving its lead actor the send-off that he damn well deserves.

In the wake of MI6’s successful capture of Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), the leader of the sinister criminal organization known as Spectre, James Bond AKA Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) has begun to settle down with his lover, psychiatrist Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). However, their peaceful lives are tragically upended when a run-in with Spectre agents leaves Bond to believe that Madeleine has betrayed him, thus resulting in him abandoning her and retiring from MI6. Five years later, Bond is approached by his old friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who requests his help in locating a kidnapped scientist, Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik). Bond soon discovers that Obruchev has been working with MI6 on an advanced nanobot bioweapon known as ‘Project Heracles’ that can eliminate any target by coding itself to their DNA. This immediately compels Bond to return to active duty, where he finds himself reuniting with his old MI6 associates (MI6 head Gareth Mallory AKA M (Ralph Fiennes), his secretary Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), chief of staff Bill Tanner (Rory Kinnear), and Quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw)) while also meeting his successor as 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch). Eventually, Bond comes face to face with the true perpetrator behind Obruchev’s kidnapping, terrorist Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), who happens to have a notable connection to Madeleine due to a previous encounter with her when she was younger. Thus, Bond finds himself having to reunite with Madeleine for the first time in years as he and MI6 work to stop Safin before he can unleash ‘Project Heracles’ upon the world and cause the deaths of millions.

As of 2021, No Time to Die is, officially, the longest film of the franchise with a near 3-hour runtime of 163 minutes. Admittedly, there are a few instances where you do feel the brunt of that hefty run-time, like when the film reaches its finale and it’s clear that there’s at least a half-hour left to go. Still, that doesn’t mean that the film is a slog or anything as the main plot is solidly engaging as far as premises from this franchise are concerned. And just like how Daniel Craig’s previous odd-numbered Bond films did a great job of recontextualizing the Bond franchise for the times in which they were released, No Time to Die wholly succeeds at being another attempt at modernizing James Bond. In this instance, being that this was the first Bond film released in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it goes above and beyond to combat the series’ long-standing habit of objectifying its female characters, mainly by giving them some of the most significant roles that any ‘Bond Girl’ has ever had in these films. And while I know that there are some old-school fans out there who are viciously decrying this film for being ‘too woke’, this is all just very much in line with how Daniel Craig’s Bond films have been handled. It has also helped to give them some of the most emotional narrative moments in the history of the franchise, and sure enough, No Time to Die is arguably the most emotionally driven Bond film to date, which is a fitting development seeing how it does, indeed, serve as the end of an era.

Given how many actors have portrayed James Bond over the years, there’s been plenty of debate over the question of which of Eon’s 6 official leads is the ‘best’ of the bunch. And while many Bond fans usually tend to give Sean Connery that honor due to him being the first and most iconic Bond, it could be argued that Daniel Craig has managed to legitimately challenge Connery’s spot for that vaunted position. Regardless of the quality of his films, Craig has arguably been the best ‘acted’ James Bond as each of his five Bond films has done a great job of highlighting his deeply raw and emotionally vulnerable take on Bond, with his more recent outings also allowing him the opportunity to flex his comedic talents via Bond’s trademark quips. And as I noted earlier, No Time to Die pairs him with some of the franchise’s best female leads which, of course, all starts with a returning Léa Seydoux in a significantly improved turn as Madeleine Swann. Madeleine’s role (and, for that matter, Seydoux’s performance) in Spectre was one of the more polarizing aspects of what was quite frankly the franchise’s most polarizing installment in recent memory, with several critics and fans feeling that her chemistry with Craig was mediocre and that the romantic relationship between Bond and Madeleine wasn’t exactly developed properly. It’s a much different story here as Seydoux’s chemistry with Craig is much stronger and their relationship is far more pivotal to the plot, thus making it a nice bookend to Craig’s tenure as Bond as it matches up nicely with a lot of the big narrative beats that defined Bond’s similarly strong yet ultimately tragic relationship with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.

As for the film’s other Bond girls (a term that, full disclosure, isn’t exactly a fitting way of describing these characters nowadays), despite some initial fears of her potentially being underutilized, Lashana Lynch’s Nomi is properly established as Bond’s equal as his successor for the position of 007. It also helps that Lynch has a terrific back-and-forth camaraderie with Craig whenever they’re on-screen together. And while she only appears in a single sequence in this nearly three-hour film, Ana de Armas is, as has been the case with a lot of her recent work, a major standout as Bond’s CIA ally Paloma. Then, of course, you have all the Bond franchise’s regulars, from Bond’s MI6 allies (Ralph Fiennes’ dry-witted M, Ben Whishaw’s lovably dorky Q, Naomie Harris’ spunky Moneypenny, etc.) to Jeffrey Wright’s first appearance as Felix Leiter since Quantum of Solace. Finally, we come to the latest main antagonist of the Bond series, Rami Malek’s Safin, whose role in the story has been one of the more polarizing elements of the film. From what I can tell, this is mainly because some feel that he isn’t in it that much which, admittedly, has sort of been a recent trend with Bond villains as both Javier Bardem’s Silva and even Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld had rather limited screentime in Skyfall and Spectre, respectively. For what it’s worth, though, Malek does succeed in making Safin a legitimately sinister antagonist, especially thanks to the appropriately oft-kilter vibe that Malek gives him.

For the longest time, none of the actors who have played James Bond have ever had a great final film… with No Time to Die, Daniel Craig officially breaks that curse. Aside from just being another great example of this franchise’s penchant for top-notch action set-pieces and thrilling globe-trotting adventures, No Time to Die also does a beautiful job of maintaining one of the strongest elements of the Craig-era Bond films, their strong sense of emotional poignancy. While this era of the franchise may have started with James Bond being subjected to all the character beats that made him… well, James Bond, this Bond has also undergone a noticeable evolution for a character who was once described by Judi Dench’s M (albeit back in the Brosnan era, but the point still stands) as a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and a “relic of the Cold War”. In other words, regardless of how much it will inevitably piss off longtime fans of the franchise, No Time to Die effectively updates its main protagonist for the current cinematic landscape, thus resulting in a James Bond that no longer beds every single woman that he comes across but is still very much the coolest guy in the room. And since the Craig era was the first time in franchise history where subsequent follow-ups were true direct sequels, this allows No Time to Die the chance to effectively tie up any loose ends from the previous four films which, as a result, gives Daniel Craig’s Bond the best kind of send-off that any cinematic protagonist could possibly get.

Rating: 5/5!

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Disney Retrospective - The Medfield College Anthology

(Today’s retrospective is dedicated to Disney Legend Tommy Kirk (1941-2021), who starred in numerous hit projects for Disney including 1957’s Old Yeller, where he directly participated in one of cinema’s most devastating sequences, and 1959’s The Shaggy Dog, in which he played the young inventor who transformed into the titular character. He also appeared in two of the films that we’ll be covering today, where he played the son of one of Disney’s most notable recurring antagonists of the ’60s. Rest in Peace, Mr. Kirk.) 

Today’s Disney Retrospective is going to be a little different than most of the ones that I’ve done so far since I’m not necessarily focusing on a single franchise. Instead, we’ll be looking at a bunch of films that share one thing in common, their setting. In the ’60s and ’70s, several live-action Disney films were set at the fictional Medfield College, which was named after a town in Massachusetts where several friends of Walt Disney lived. Many historians have noted that Walt visited them frequently and often used to land one of his planes on their property on a private airstrip that is partially still around today. So then, what films will we be looking at today if I’m not doing a single franchise? Well, there are two main series of Disney films that took place at Medfield College. The first of them follows the exploits of a well-meaning but forgetful science professor who creates an incredibly rubbery substance that he calls ‘Flubber’. There were two films made in the ’60s about this character and the original film would end up getting remade in the ’90s, resulting in a film that I’m sure many folks of my generation are decently familiar with. The other series of films is a trilogy (plus a 1995 made-for-TV remake of the first film) that centered around a student at Medfield named Dexter Riley, notably played by Kurt Russell, who tries to help keep the college from falling into financial ruin via various inventions that end up affecting him in unique ways. In fact, every single film that we’re about to discuss in today’s retrospective consists of a plot where the main characters try to help the college get out of debt, so I apologize in advance if it seems like I’m starting to repeat myself at times. Thus, without further ado, it’s time to head back to school, Disney style, as we look at the seven Disney films that were set at Medfield College. This is the Medfield College Anthology.

Also, just a quick disclaimer before we begin. While the following 7 titles were the only Disney films that were specifically set at Medfield College, another Disney film, 1976’s The Shaggy D.A., is set in the town of Medfield, which means that it’s technically set in the same location. However, since that film doesn’t feature the college at any point, I won’t be looking at it today.



We begin today’s retrospective with one of Disney’s earliest live-action hits, The Absent-Minded Professor, which was based on a 1942 short story titled A Situation of Gravity by Samuel W. Taylor as well as being partially inspired by Hubert Alyea, a chemistry professor at Princeton University who was known for his explosive (figuratively AND literally) science demonstrations. It was one of many classic live-action Disney films directed by Robert Stevenson, whose work with the company includes the likes of 1968’s The Love Bug and, of course, the one and only Mary Poppins. With a pedigree like that, it shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise that this film is another well-made family-friendly Disney comedy that features plenty of entertaining sequences that fully capitalize on the concept of a miraculous rubber substance that can defy gravity, such as the famous scene where the main protagonist, Professor Ned Brainard, uses it to help Medfield’s struggling basketball team. Fred MacMurray headlines the film nicely as Professor Brainard as does Nancy Olson as Brainard’s fiancé Betsy Carlisle, who he, unfortunately, keeps forgetting to get married to. This is also notably the first appearance of a recurring Disney villain, Keenan Wynn’s greedy land developer Alonzo Hawk, who would go on to appear in this film’s sequel and the previously reviewed Herbie sequel, Herbie Rides Again. In short, despite the usual ‘dated politics’ that are often seen in an older film like this and the fact that it gets a bit meandering near the end despite a modest 97-minute runtime, The Absent-Minded Professor is another indisputable classic of Disney’s early forays into live-action films.

Rating: 4/5


Thanks to the success of the original Absent-Minded Professor, a sequel was announced not long after its release, thus making it one of the first major Disney films to get a sequel. Really, though, the fact that this occurred at all is quite fascinating given that this was back when Walt Disney was still alive. As anyone well-versed in Disney history will surely point out, Walt wasn’t too keen on the idea of sequels, famously quoting that “you can’t top pigs with pigs” in response to the idea of doing follow-ups to the studio’s iconic Three Little Pigs short. And to be fair to Walt’s stance on the matter, Son of Flubber does often come off as one of those sequels that, for the most part, simply rehashes a lot of the same beats as its predecessor. You’ve got Professor Brainard’s various experiments and the wacky antics that ensue, a scene where he pranks his romantic rival with said experiments and a major sporting event where Medfield’s group of underdogs use them to beat their physically superior rivals from Rutland (only here it’s during a football game instead of a basketball game). There are also a few plotlines that are very much in line with what some sequels end up falling victim to by undoing elements of the previous film’s happy ending, such as a love triangle subplot involving an old flame of Professor Brainard’s that ultimately goes nowhere. But for what it’s worth, Son of Flubber still manages to be another enjoyable comedic romp thanks in large part to the return of all the major cast and crew members from the first film, from director Robert Stevenson to stars Fred MacMurray, Nancy Olson, Keenan Wynn, and Tommy Kirk. Thus, while it’s very much a sequel that’s not as good as its predecessor, there’s still just enough of all the things that made The Absent-Minded Professor an enduring staple of Disney’s live-action catalog to make this a worthwhile watch.

Rating: 3/5

(Now, before we continue, I just want to note that there are technically two other Absent-Minded Professor films that served as pseudo-sequels to the original. These two made-for-TV films starred Harry Anderson of Night Court fame as Professor Henry Crawford, the late Professor Brainard’s successor as Medfield College’s chemistry professor who rediscovers Brainard’s lost formula for flubber. However, due to issues regarding the availability of these films, I won’t be covering either of them today. While the 1988 Absent-Minded Professor film can currently be found on YouTube, the same can’t be said for its 1989 follow-up, The Absent-Minded Professor: Trading Places. At the time of this retrospective’s publication, I cannot find it anywhere online, and to be perfectly blunt, I personally feel that attempting to find it would be too daunting of a process for the sole purpose of covering it here.)

FLUBBER (1997)

Just one year after he wrote and produced the live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians, John Hughes tackled a different Disney remake with the remake of The Absent-Minded Professor, Flubber. It was also notably the second time that he had collaborated with director Les Mayfield, who had previously helmed a different Hughes-penned remake, 1994’s Miracle on 34th Street. Overall, Flubber is a lot like the 101 Dalmatians remake in that it generally maintains all the main story beats from the original; missed weddings, flying cars, a big basketball game, etc. Likewise, any changes that are made to Bill Walsh’s original script, outside of making this film’s version of Flubber a sentient substance, mostly come in the form of aesthetic differences that are in line with the remake’s more modern setting. For example, instead of a loyal canine companion, this film’s Professor Brainard is accompanied by a flying robot assistant named Weebo (notably voiced by The Little Mermaid herself, Jodi Benson). However, despite doing quite well at the box office, where it earned over $178 million worldwide ($93 million of that domestically), Flubber didn’t exactly do well with critics. And for the most part, this stems from something that I mentioned a few months ago when I reviewed the 101 Dalmatians remake in that this was during a time when John Hughes’ work underwent a considerably noticeable tonal shift. In other words, whereas Hughes had made his mark on the industry with his sharply written (and often edgy) comedies, his 90’s films were known more for their juvenile slapstick humor, and Flubber is undoubtedly a prime example of that with pratfalls and head smacks galore.

And yet, even with that in mind, I still find this to be an enjoyable watch. Now, full disclosure, I will fully admit that what I just said is largely stemming from the fact that this is an incredibly nostalgic film for me as I watched it repeatedly growing up (and before you ask, I also watched the original a couple times on VHS when I was younger). That said, though, I also recognize WHY this one didn’t fly well with everyone (no pun intended), such as the argument that Robin Williams may not have been the best choice for the lead role since Professor Brainard isn’t exactly the most likable protagonist. And yet, Williams still manages to find some opportunities to display his comedic talents and all-around earnest persona (even in a role like this that, to be fair, wasn’t that much different from its 1961 counterpart) because… well, he was just that good. Regardless of the quality of the films that he was in, Williams’ talent was always able to shine through and serves as a keen reminder of why he continues to be missed to this day. In short, if you’re willing to ignore some of the weird narrative updates that Hughes makes to this story (e.g. the subplot involving Weebo’s romantic feelings towards Brainard) and a couple instances of incredibly dated 90’s CGI, Flubber is a relatively harmless remake of The Absent-Minded Professor. The original is still the better film at the end of the day, but to be perfectly frank, I can’t bring myself to be too hard on what was very much a childhood favorite of mine.

Rating: 3.5/5



We now move on from the antics of Professor Brainard to the adventures of Medfield student Dexter Riley, originally played by Kurt Russell who, for those who are unaware, mainly got his start in the business as a prominent male lead for Disney in the ’60s and ’70s. As for the first installment of what is called the Dexter Riley trilogy, 1969’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, it very much establishes the key recurring beats that would define these three films. Each installment revolves around an incident in which Dexter gains incredible powers from the latest Medfield experiment as he works with Medfield’s bumbling Dean Higgins (Joe Flynn) to help win money for their financially struggling school while dealing with the threat of corrupt businessman A.J. Arno (Cesar Romero), who also wants to capitalize on Dexter’s newfound abilities. In this first film, an electric shock that Dexter sustains while working on Medfield’s newly acquired computer ends up turning him into a walking supercomputer, and while this ultimately results in a largely by-the-numbers plot, this is still a solidly entertaining family flick that’s fully bolstered by the series’ three main leads. Even in the early stages of his career, Kurt Russell successfully showcased the strongly charismatic screen presence that would end up defining him as an actor. Joe Flynn, meanwhile, provides solid comedic relief as Dean Higgins while Cesar Romero is enjoyably over the top as main antagonist A.J. Arno. As such, while it’s admittedly a rather average outing as far as Disney’s live-action filmography is concerned, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes does succeed in being a pleasantly easygoing crowd-pleaser.

Rating: 3.5/5


The lead trio of Kurt Russell, Joe Flynn, and Cesar Romero all returned for a follow-up in 1972, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t. The film also saw the return of the original’s director, Robert Butler, a veteran director of television who has notably helmed the pilot episodes of several classic shows such as Batman with Adam West (and, of course, Cesar Romero) and the original pilot for Star Trek that featured Jeffrey Hunter’s Christopher Pike rather than William Shatner’s James T. Kirk. In this film, Dexter and his friends come up with a special formula that can turn them invisible. This results in what is quite frankly the most entertaining premise of the entire trilogy, especially since this film does a better job than its predecessor did when it comes to capitalizing on the potential of its premise with plenty of fun invisibility-related set pieces such as the one where Dexter helps Dean Higgins win a game of golf. And while some of the film’s invisibility effects have obviously dated quite a bit, the whole film, in general, is better-paced and a lot more consistently humorous than the first film was. All this helps it to overcome another straightforward plot that, dare I say, kind of feels like it straight-up ignores the events of the previous film at times. In other words, there’s not a single mention of everything that Dexter went through in the first film, including the fact that A.J. Arno tried to have him killed (which, as you might have guessed, is not brought up at all once Arno makes his first appearance in the film after being released from prison). Still, for what is undoubtedly another one of those often forgotten live-action Disney films from the studio’s ‘darker days’ (especially seeing how it surprisingly isn’t on Disney+ at the time of this post’s publication unlike the other two films in the trilogy), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t is, against all odds, a superior sequel.

Rating: 4.5/5


The final installment of this trilogy, 1975’s The Strongest Man in the World, saw a notable change in direction. This time, directorial duties were handled by the brother of trilogy writer Joseph L. McEveety, Vincent McEveety, whose work we’ve previously discussed on this site via the Herbie the Love Bug retrospective that I did a few years ago as he had directed two of that franchise’s films and a few episodes of its short-lived TV series. Unfortunately, this is easily the weakest installment of this trilogy as it’s derailed by some questionable narrative and production decisions. It’s not outright terrible, per se, as there are a decent number of sequences that properly maintain the kind of wacky scientific antics that these films are known for. However, the film suffers considerably from some incredibly weak pacing, with some sequences dragging on for way longer than they need to be. Not only that, but the film has a surprisingly limited amount of screentime for Kurt Russell as Dexter, who’s literally absent for at least a third of the runtime. Instead, more time is spent with Dean Higgins, A.J. Arno and his right-hand-man Cookie, and new characters like Eve Arden and Phil Silvers as the owners of rival cereal companies, the former of whom teams up with Medfield to promote the super-strength formula that Dexter and his friends come up with. Now, granted, this may have had something to do with Kurt Russell beginning to transition into non-Disney projects at this point in his career, but nevertheless, the severe lack of his trademark charisma is quite noticeable. As such, the Dexter Riley trilogy ends up concluding on a mediocre note as The Strongest Man in the World is, unfortunately, a major dud that’s largely undone by a messy plot that, despite having just enough of its predecessors’ most recognizable elements, almost feels like it’s from another franchise.

Rating: 2/5


Finally, we conclude today’s retrospective with the made-for-TV remake of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, which first premiered on February 18th, 1995 on ABC. This was one of four remakes of classic live-action Disney films that aired on the network during the 1994-95 season, with the other three being remakes of The Shaggy Dog, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Freaky Friday. It also notably served as the directorial debut of Ant-Man trilogy director Peyton Reed who, just two years later, would helm another made-for-TV old-school Disney ‘remake’ via The Love Bug with Bruce Campbell. But whereas Reed’s Love Bug was admittedly more of a sequel than a remake given the role that the series’ main protagonist Jim Douglas played in it, this new version of The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes is a more straight-forward remake that, like Flubber, doesn’t make a lot of noticeable changes to the original’s script. Outside of the usual modern aesthetic updates, the only major narrative differences include things like having its main antagonist be the resident genius from Medfield’s rival Hale University (who happens to be 12 years old, by the way…) instead of a corrupt businessman and a decently improved role for the film’s female lead and Dexter’s love interest Sarah Matthews. That latter difference is particularly notable seeing how, in the original trilogy with Kurt Russell, all three films paired his Dexter up with a different female lead who barely factored into the main plot.

In the remake, Dexter Riley is played by Kirk Cameron, who does a solid job in the role overall even if his version of Dexter is arguably cockier than Kurt Russell’s Dexter was in the scenes from the original film where Dexter’s fame started to go to his head. Still, like with any of Lindsay Lohan’s star-making roles, a project like this shows that, despite Cameron’s current reputation, he was a genuinely talented young male lead. Here, he’s joined by 90’s comedy mainstay Larry Miller in a scene-stealing turn as the remake’s equivalent of Dean Higgins, Dean Valentine, and Dean Jones (who, of course, would then go on to reprise his role as Jim Douglas in The Love Bug two years later) as Hale’s Dean Carlson albeit in a relatively minor role compared to everyone else. As for the film itself, I’ll fully admit that there’s not much else for me to talk about as it’s very much your standard made-for-TV film. Despite a few overly campy moments and some plotlines that don’t really go anywhere such as a pair of government agents who think that Dexter’s been responsible for a recent string of high-profile government hacks, it’s an enjoyable little piece of 90’s nostalgia. Granted, I don’t recall ever watching this when I was younger (although I wouldn’t be surprised if I had) but I do believe that I would’ve enjoyed this as a kid just as much as I did with the likes of classic Disney Channel Original Movies from the ’90s and early 2000s like Halloweentown, The Luck of the Irish, and Smart House.

Rating: 3.5/5

And that concludes today’s retrospective on the 7 Disney films that were set at Medfield College. Thanks for following along and be sure to sound off in the comments below with any childhood memories that you have of these films.