The Web of International Intrigue

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is more kung fu craze than blaxploitation. This time Cleo is a stranger in a strange land who spends the entire movie in Hong Kong. Tamara Dobson stands out in even more exotic outfits like a brown sequin dress. Norman Fell plays her new commanding officer that she has a playful relationship with. Cleo is still very much in charge overseas. The only other returning characters are Matt and Mel Johnson who end up captured by the villain during a drug bust.

Despite calling herself the Dragon Lady, Stella Stevens is another white antagonist with more overt lesbian tendencies. Unlike its predecessor, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is rated R like all the other blaxploitation flicks. Aside from some increased violence, the language is still PG and Dobson still isn’t naked. All the nudity is from the Dragon Lady and her girls who wash the Johnson brothers.

The cast is mostly Chinese including Ni Tien as badass undercover agent Mi Ling-Fong. I can’t help but wonder if the black officer and martial arts expert inspired the Daughters of the Dragon from Marvel comics. The climax at the titular casino is even bigger with lots of guns and kung fu action. None of it seemed to help the sequel since blaxploitation was slowly losing popularity. Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold is a forgotten follow up that does enough justice to the revolutionary black female spy.

Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold

Cleopatra Jones at the casino

Preceded by: Cleopatra Jones

Chained Together

The Defiant Ones defies social conventions of the time. The late great Sidney Poitier made history as the first black actor nominated for Best Actor. My mom has recommended many Poitier films, but I always knew I needed to see The Defiant Ones. The clever premise examines what happens when a black man and a white man are chained together in the deep South. The theme of racial tension is fitting for director Stanley Kramer. If not for Gigi, The Defiant Ones would’ve had the best chance of winning Best Picture or Best Director. Best Cinematography – Black-and-White was deserving for finding beauty in the Southern swamps.

Best Original Screenplay was deserving since the movie hinges on the complex relationship between both escaped prisoners. Poitier was nominated for Best Actor alongside Tony Curtis who knew they both deserved top-billing. The black Noah Cullen and white John “Joker” Jackson are equals who clash before and after their prison truck crashes. Their chain forces them to cooperate, but the more they stay together, the more they grow to respect each other. Only Poitier could pull off a believable interracial friendship in 1958. Though Curtis deserves just as much admiration for his commitment.

Theodore Bikel was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor as the Sheriff who tirelessly hunts them down with the aid of bloodhounds. This was the last movie role for Alfalfa actor Carl Switzer before his untimely death. Lon Chaney Jr. notably plays a townsperson who stops a lynch mob and lets the men escape. They eventually find a mother and son who finally help them break their chains. Cara Williams is the only woman in the movie who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress since she forms an unhealthy romance with Joker. Despite being free, it was heartwarming to see Cullen and Joker continue to help each other till the end. Cullen singing “Long Gone” is the greatest act of defiance. The Defiant Ones is a simple drama that’s been replicated, but never duplicated.

The Defiant Ones

Cullen carries Joker through the swamp

Save the Whales

Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home continues the story of the titular killer whale. Despite the fact that Willy has already been freed, Free Willy was a big enough success to spawn a franchise. Similar to the Jaws franchise, except there was also an animated series between the first and second movie. Free Willy 2 picks up with an older teenage Jesse who’s been officially adopted by the Greenwoods. Jason James Richter returns alongside most of the original cast. August Schellenberg, Michael Madsen, and Jayne Atkinson have expanded roles, but Lori Petty was busy swimming around a very different tank (girl).

Mykelti Williamson is mostly a glorified cameo who introduces a younger brother into the movie. Francis Capra plays Jesse’s annoying half-brother Elvis who essentially serves the same purpose Jesse once did. Though his connection to their late mother does bring some heart into the unnecessary sequel. Free Willy 2 does have the same effort put into it. Along with another less memorable Michael Jackson song called “Childhood.” Since Keiko was in the process of being freed, Willy is entirely animatronic along with his orca family Luna and Littlespot.

Jesse reconnects with Willy on a camping trip. Mary Kate Schellhardt plays Jesse’s girl Nadine that he impresses with his knowledge. Conflict only arrives when a carless company causes an oil spill. Without Petty, Elizabeth Peña plays a different well-meaning whale doctor. Jon Tenney is the new greedy businessman and M. Emmet Walsh is a whaler who seek to profit off the orcas. Willy and his pod evade captivitivity, but it’s not as satisfying as his first big jump. So they add an oil fire just to build tension. Free Willy 2 is mostly an excuse to catch up with our whale friend.

Free Willy 2

Jesse meets Willy’s family

Preceded by: Free Willy & Followed by: Free Willy 3: The Rescue

They’re the Clades

Strange World may be the worst Walt Disney Animation Studios movie I’ve ever seen. I usually don’t care about CinemaScore, but it’s worth noting that Strange World has the lowest rating of any Disney movie since 1991. Even lower than Home on the Range or Chicken Little. I know there are several objectively worse Disney movies, but at least I can still feel nostalgia when I watch them. Strange World is too modern for its own good. Which is why it bombed hard with a pathetic $54.1 million dollar box-office gross against a budget of $135-180 million. Thanksgiving is usually a good release schedule for Disney, but Strange World was almost completely overlooked by audiences. As I said in my Lightyear review, Disney sure does love losing money with the direction they’ve been taking.

Encanto wasn’t a financial success either, but the studio can’t keep blaming the Pandemic for their failure. This time you can’t deny that diversity and LGBT characters were more important than good storytelling. Of course Disney’s sixty-first animated film was banned like everything else they pushed in the last decade. Strange World is the brainchild of longtime Disney filmmaker Don Hall. He was inspired by pulp magazines and adventure movies like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Fantastic Voyage, and King Kong. The teaser was made to look like a classic 50’s trailer, and that was the extent of Disney’s creativity. I’ll always know when a new Disney movie comes out, but I don’t blame anyone who had no clue Strange World even existed…

98. Strange World

Strange World

Strange World is basically a modern day Post-Renaissance Disney movie. Like Atlantis: The Lost Empire or Treasure Planet, Strange World is a science fiction adventure that lost a significant amount of money for the studio. Proving once again that musical fantasies and talking animal movies are more likely to be successful. Atlantis and Treasure Planet both got a much needed cult following, but Strange World doesn’t deserve it. Nor does it deserve the 100 year Disney studio banner. I had little to no interest in Strange World, but my brother and I did end up going a week after its release. Our theater was packed with children and they were dead silent the entire time. Strange World was written by Raya and the Last Dragon screenwriter Qui Nguyen, and it shows. None of the jokes are funny and the story is more boring than it has any right to be. I love a good old fashioned adventure, but Strange World is a clunky mix of old and new themes. The Clades are a family of explorers who end up lost like the Robinson family.

After Encanto and Pixar’s Turning Red, Strange World is yet another Disney movie where family trauma is more important than having a villain. There’s actually a scene in the movie where characters literally say having no villain is bad storytelling. Surprisingly, being self aware about the problem just makes it more annoying. It’s almost like Disney is too afraid to have genuinely evil characters anymore. Instead the conflict is between three generations of fathers and their sons. Jaeger Clade is a stereotypical manly man adventurer with a long handlebar mustache. Searcher Clade is his less adventurous son who cares more about botany. I completely forgot Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal previously played father & son in The Day After Tomorrow. Quaid is almost unrecognizable, but I’d recognize Gyllenhaal’s nasal voice anywhere. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, Searcher doesn’t want to be like his father and Jaeger never listens to what he wants. On their latest expedition in the arctic, Searcher makes an important discovery, but Jaeger chooses to continue his adventure and leave his team behind.

The discovery is a bioelectric green energy based plant called Pando. Strange World takes place in a fictional mountainous land called Avalonia. 25 years later, Pando is farmed by Searcher and his family who use it to power their civilization. Farming is no more exciting in a futuristic society as it is in real life. Avalonia looks like the 50’s, but it’s filled with advanced technology like hovercrafts. Though Strange World isn’t centered around a specific culture, it does feature an interracial family. Searcher is white, his wife Meridian is black, and their teenage son Ethan is biracial. There’s also a three legged dog named Legend since disabilities need to be represented somehow. I do love seeing interracial families since I myself am biracial with a white father and black mother. Unfortunately, I have a hard time appreciating it since it was only included for diversity sake. Calling attention to them kissing several times in front of their son feels especially manipulative. Meridian is a strong-willed pilot who barely makes an impression even with Gabrielle Union as her voice. Despite all the unique names in the movie, Ethan has the least exciting name.

Disney continued to pat themselves on the back when they announced Ethan as the first openly gay character in a Disney animated movie. Openly gay comedian Jaboukie Young-White practically voiced the same kind of character in the Baymax! shorts. Ethan has a crush on another boy named Diazo and it’s so forced that it’s actually painful to watch. Trying to be awkward and relatable is cringy regardless of the character’s orientation. Ethan continues to talk about his crush throughout the movie, despite it having no relevance to the plot. You’d think it would be a source of conflict, but Ethan’s parents and the grandfather he never met are all unquestionably supportive of him. Instead, Searcher is afraid Ethan’s adventurous spirit will turn him into his father. The chance for adventure comes along when the President of Avalonia arrives with a special mission. Callisto Mal is yet another generic strong female character for Disney voiced by Lucy Liu. She’s an old friend of Searcher who leads an expedition to find the reason why Pando is dying out.

Naming their airship Venture is a not so subtle reference to King Kong. The crew includes Dopinder himself Karan Soni as a significantly less funny nerdy crewmember and a bunch of other unimportant redshirts. Since the cast isn’t limited to one ethnicity, Alan Tudyk voices an actual character. Duffle pilots the Venture and gets immediately killed just like Wash from Firefly. Ethan is a stowaway on the airship that Meridian ends up piloting. They end up journeying to the center of Avalonia in the titular Strange World. The red and magenta landscape is not as exciting as Journey to the Center of the Earth. Everything seems random from moving cliffs to red dragon-like creatures. Searcher and Legend end up seperated, while Ethan does some exploring on his own. They run into giant carnivorous creatures called Reapers, but Searcher is rescued by his father Jaeger who somehow survived over 25 years stuck in the Strange World. He uses a flamethrower on the Reapers and leads his son across acidic oceans in the hope of finding the airship to escape.

Meanwhile, Ethan runs into an amoeba-like creature that he names Splat. As silent Disney sidekicks go, Splat is no Magic Carpet. Splat initially leads Ethan to the Reapers, but he changes his mind after he shows him kindness. All three generations are united when the women come to their rescue. Jaeger gets along with his grandson, but Searcher continues to hold back. They end up playing Ethan’s favorite card game Primal Outpost which spells out the moral of the movie. Since Strange World has a not so subtle environmental message, almost all the heroes end up looking bad. Searcher and Jaeger eventually see eye to eye when they use Pando to attack the creatures. Ethan starts to have second thoughts and he ends up making an unexpected discovery with his dad. SPOILER ALERT! The twist is kind of obvious when you notice how much Strange World resembles the inside of a body. Hence the Fantastic Voyage inspiration.

Splat and the rest of the creatures are basically antibodies and Pando is a virus attached to the heart. Jaeger leaves once again and Callisto has the Clades locked up, but they still aren’t the villains. When they escape, the Pando is destroyed and they’re forced to live in a world without the energy source. In the end, all three generations grow closer inside and beneath Avalonia which is actually a giant World Turtle. Strange World is somewhat reminiscent of pulp magazines, but the comic book aesthetic is only around in the beginning and end. I might’ve liked the movie a lot more if they stuck with the much more unique 2D pulp animation accompanied by the catchy “They’re the Clades” adventure tune. Instead Strange World looks like every other round glossy computer animated Disney movie from the last decade. Character animation, clothing, and locations are technically well rendered, but nothing impressive. Strange World is a serious wake-up call that Disney hopefully learns from.

97. Strange World

The Clade family explore the center of the world

To Infinity and Beyond!

Lightyear is Pixar’s most desperate attempt to profit off the success of their most beloved franchise. Buzz Lightyear has been a fan favorite ever since his introduction in Toy Story. Every appearance has brought something new and entertaining to the Space Ranger. A feature-length spin-off is the last thing Lightyear needed. Mostly because an origin story was already done a lot better 22 years ago in the traditionally animated direct-to-video movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins. Even the animated series was a better interpretation of the character. Heck, the 3 minute video game opening in Toy Story 2 is more epic than anything in Lightyear. Lightyear asks the question, what was the movie that made Andy want a Buzz Lightyear action figure?

The idea came from Pixar animator Angus MacLane. Though he directed the computer animated portion of Buzz Lightyear of Star Command, MacLane envisioned a sci-fi adventure inspired by the films of his childhood. So despite being part of a long-running franchise, Lightyear is technically another passion project for Pixar. Considering my disappointment with Toy Story 4, I wasn’t sure how to feel about a solo Buzz Lightyear movie 3 years later. After dumping Soul, Luca, and Turning Red on Disney+, it was encouraging when Lightyear became the first theatrical Pixar film since Onward. Then I grew worried with every character change or modern update. For one reason or another, Lightyear bombed at the box-office. Proving just how out of touch Disney has become…

52. Lightyear

Buzz Lightyear narrates in front of Alisha Hawthorne

Lightyear doesn’t come with a short despite its theatrical release. Every Pixar movie should be seen on the big screen, so I’m glad they finally realized that. Lightyear is one of my least favorite Pixar films, but the state of the art computer animation is more lifelike than ever. The best comparison would be an even more advanced version of WALL·E. Director Angus MacLane wanted the animation to be “cinematic” and “chunky” like Star Wars. Which is why landscapes, clothing, and vehicles are more realistic looking. Turns out MacLane used LEGO builds instead of traditional concept art. There were actual LEGO sets later on, but I still think it’s a cool idea. Character designs are mostly stylized, but made to look a lot more human than anything in Toy Story. Compared to the toy he’s based on, Buzz Lightyear maintains his general head shape and large chin, but it’s obvious they’re going for a live-action feel. I’m not sure why they didn’t just make a live-action movie. There comes a point when something is so realistic that it defeats the purpose of animation.

Lack of imagination and fun are big reasons why Lightyear failed. People tried to blame the Pandemic or at-home convenience, but I laughed all the way to the bank when Minions: The Rise of Gru grossed significantly higher without even trying. What should’ve been a fun space romp ended up being generic and boring. An audience full of children barely reacted to Lightyear. I’ve loved Buzz Lightyear since I was a kid, but there’s no way someone as young as Andy would claim this as their favorite movie. According to an on-screen text, Lightyear is meant to be a movie within a movie released in 1995. We’re seriously expected to believe a clearly 2022 movie actually came out in the 90’s. Despite centering around Buzz, Lightyear pushes diversity just like every other Disney and/or Pixar project. The movie lost a significant amount of its foreign audience with another easily edited same-sex kiss. The scene was cut out originally, but former Disney CEO Bob Chapek used it as an act of defiance. I won’t get too specific, but I will say Disney seems to love losing money with their “progressive” content.

The most obvious misstep was recasting Tim Allen with Chris Evans. Tim Allen will always be Buzz Lightyear no matter what anyone thinks of him. Disney claims the decision wasn’t politically motivated, but even his good friend Tom Hanks agrees they should’ve cast him. Buzz was always a good source of comedy, but Allen could still be serious when he needed to be. Chris Evans is a great Captain America, but he is not Buzz Lightyear! The only similarity is a grand sense of heroism that works a lot better with a toy who thinks he’s a Space Ranger. Aside from using “Starman” in the trailer’s, Michael Giacchino replaces Randy Newman for a more adventurous soundtrack. Lightyear’s trademark space suit has the same color scheme, but it’s a clunky prototype suit with several missing features. Space Rangers are issued laser swords, blasters, cloaking technology, and an inflatable escape button. This version of Buzz also shows off the hair underneath his purple cowl, and it’s just as distracting as hearing Evans voice. The movie begins with Buzz as a young Space Ranger who serves Star Command alongside his partner Alisha Hawthorne.

Most of the cast is respectable, but it’s clear a lot of them were chosen for the sake of diversity. Which is probably why the African American Uzo Aduba voices Lightyear’s best friend and commanding officer. Even his iconic catchphrase “To infinity and beyond” is something Lightyear and Hawthorne say together. They explore a planet called T’Kani Prime on a Star Command vessel that Buzz refers to as “the Turnip.” Any attempt at humor feels forced, but several moments lean heavily into dialogue from the Toy Story movies. I can’t say no to nostalgia, but it only highlights the movie’s flaws. Lightyear turns away a rookie named Featheringhamstan that ends up caught in the planet’s deadly vines. Hawthorne saves them both and Buzz attempts to steer the Turnip away from danger. Lightyear does have a villain, but Buzz ends up looking bad when he causes the ship to be marooned on T’Kani Prime. Get used to it, because we’re stuck on this one generic looking planet the entire movie. Though he takes responsibility for his actions, Alisha gives him the mission to fix their hyperspace capabilities.

1 year later, Star Command crew have colonized the planet and Buzz is a test pilot ready to fly into space with the fuel crystal needed to achieve hyperspace. Pedro himself Efren Ramirez briefly voices another friend of Buzz who sees him off. The slingshot maneuver is explained, but I’m not sure how well kids will follow it. After a failed first flight, Lightyear returns 4 years in the future after his 4 minute flight. Time dilation has been done several times before, but it’s the driving force of the movie. Buzz discovers Alisha is engaged and casually asks who the lucky lady is. As Buzz continues to test the hyper crystal, Alisha grows old with her wife Kiko. The split second kiss is barely in this supposed 1995 movie. In order to cope with the loss, Buzz is issued a robot therapy cat named Sox voiced by The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn. I know everybody loves Sox and he is a scene stealer. In fact, I’m pretty sure Andy would rather have a Sox toy after seeing the movie, but to me it’s the same old cat jokes with a robot twist. Sox attempts to figure out the hyper crystal problem during Lightyear’s next few flights.

The intended tear worthy moment is Buzz returning to a vacant office where the now deceased Alisha leaves him a final message. Isiah Whitlock Jr. voices her replacement Commander Burnside who confirms the termination of the Space Ranger program and their journey home. So Buzz hijacks a ship with Sox in order to test the stabilized hyper crystal. The successful hyperspace launch pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it also lands Buzz 22 years into the future. Since it was a big year for her, Keke Palmer voices Alisha’s grown up granddaughter Izzy Hawthorne. She pretty much picks up where her grandmother left off in terms of personality. The only difference is Izzy wanting to become a Space Ranger despite her fear of space. Izzy saves Buzz from Zyclops robots that can only say “Zurg.” I knew Zurg would be the main villain, but they make way too many changes to the Evil Emperor who isn’t even an emperor. Aside from his helmet and booster gun, Zurg appears to be a massive purple robot with legs and no cape. Zurg barely resemble the toy we saw in Toy Story 2.

His robot minions attempt to penetrate the laser shield protecting Star Command. So Izzy and Buzz devise a plan to destroy the ship that controls the robots. They enlist a rag tag group of Junior Cadet rookies who haven’t seen combat. Orange is the New Black star Dale Soules voices short hispanic elderly convict Darby Steel and the overexposed Taika Waititi voices himself voicing frantic deserter Mo Morrison. Lightyear is an animated movie with limitless possibilities, yet this was the best they could come up with?! A wannabe Space Ranger, an old lady who’s good with bombs, a guy obsessed with pens, and a robot cat are seriously the extent of Pixar’s imagination. There’s also another robot named DERIC that gets left behind and an AI named I.V.A.N. that Buzz doesn’t like. Buzz Lightyear of Star Command had alien Princess Mira Nova, giant frog alien Booster, and repurposed robot XR. All of them have significantly more personality than these losers. Izzy’s crew stumble through a Zyclops attack and attempt to find another Armadillo ship when there’s is destroyed. It’s in a ship hangar that Buzz suits up in his old Space Ranger uniform.

Unfortunately, his new crew is also given different colored Space Ranger suits that end up causing an alien bug attack. They also end up at an outpost where they’re trapped in red capture cones. When they escape, they get some downtime eating sandwiches. I’ll admit the meat sandwich with bread in the middle is about the only clever joke in the movie. Buzz ends up with a wrist mounted laser weapon that he uses against an attacking Zurg. All is revealed when Zurg captures Buzz and takes him to his ship. SPOILER ALERT! Though he looks like his father, James Brolin actually voices a much older Buzz who ended up in an alternate timeline. I’m pretty sure they only cast Brolin, because Evans previously fought his son. Having no villain is one thing, but an evil Buzz is just a lazy attempt to shock the audience. The only reason he’s called Zurg, is because the robots can’t say the word “Buzz.”

Zurg-Buzz wants the hyper crystal to travel back in time and become a hero again after he was rejected. Buzz-Prime nearly agrees, but he changes his mind when he realizes it’s better to accept the life they have. When Zurg turns against himself, future Sox gives him time to escape with the hyper crystal. The climax is an internal conflict between Buzz and his future self. Everyone gets something to do. Sox uses concealed tools, Izzy conquers her fear with a perilous spacewalk, Darby builds a makeshift bomb, and Mo finally uses his useless pen. Buzz commandeers a ship with the hyper crystal and Zurg follows with a rocket pack. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my brother pointed out the fact that Buzz doesn’t fly in any of the trailers. Turns out they were saving that moment for when the ship gives him a pair of wings that he uses to stop Zurg and keep his crew from crashing.

It was a cool moment at the time, but flying is such a big part of the character that they didn’t use till the last minute. Though furious, Burnside reinstates the Space Ranger program and the authentic Space Ranger suits are also not seen until the last second. Which means Andy wanted a toy that was barely featured in the movie. Buzz and his crew head to the Gamma Quadrant of Sector 4 and the very last post-credits scene reveals Zurg to still be alive. Though the director wanted a trilogy, there’s no way that’ll happen now. The Toy Story franchise has grossed over a billion dollars at the box-office with Rotten Tomatoes scores as high as 100%. Yet it was all ruined when Lightyear ended up with a 75% and a pathetic $226 gross against a $200 budget. Lightyear is nowhere close to infinity and beyond.

53. Lightyear

Buzz Lightyear vs. Zurg

Spin-Off of: Toy Story

Be Brave, Be Strong, Never Waver

Raya and the Last Dragon is the last thing I expected to see from Disney. Since the last two Walt Disney Animation Studios films were Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen II, I informally referred to it as the sequel era. Raya and the Last Dragon is the first original Disney movie since Moana in 2016. Now the only thing that distinguishes this era are the primarily female production teams led by newly appointed chief creative officer Jennifer Lee. Like Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon focuses on another culture that was yet to receive the Disney treatment. As the fifty-ninth Disney animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon is one of three recent Asian influenced Disney projects including the live-action Mulan and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

I can’t say I’m surprised, because the 2020’s continue to push diversity regardless of quality. Unlike Mulan, Raya and Last Dragon is entirely original with influence from Southeast Asian culture. Specifically the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Brunei, and Timor-Leste. Disney went so far as to establish a Southeast Asia Story Trust made up of consultants from each country. The writers are Asian, but co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada are not. Despite centering around a fictional country, people still complained about the cast not being Southeast Asian enough. You just can’t seem to please anyone these days. Raya and the Last Dragon was nominated for Best Animated Feature, but its cultural impact is debatable…

93. Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya encounters Sisu

Raya and the Last Dragon is basically Disney’s attempt at Avatar: The Last Airbender. You’d think I’d be won over by the martial arts influence, but I’m kind of tired of Disney heading in this direction. I’d rather have an original take on a classic fairy tale than something entirely original. I had no immediate interest in Raya and the Last Dragon, but I was glad they didn’t dump it on Disney+ like Pixar. Of course the Pandemic affected production and the movie was moved from November 2020 to March 2021. Unlike Mulan (2020), Raya and the Last Dragon was the first Disney movie to be released simultaneously in theaters and with Disney+ Premier Access. My brother and I saw it in theaters alongside the animated short Us Again. I think I prefer the romantic dance short over the movie I saw. Since its original, Raya and the Last Dragon has a tendency to over explain with a complicated plot that may go over kids heads. Making the same mistake that Frozen II made.

All Southeast Asian countries are merged into the fictional land of Kumandra. Divine magical dragons based on Nāga bring water to Kumandra, but everything changed when the ancient Druun attacked. The titular last dragon uses a gem that stops the Druun, but leaves Kumandra unprotected. Since a boring black & purple cloud is the antagonist, Raya and the Last Dragon is yet another Disney movie where human discord is the real enemy. It’s another heavy handed message, but I’m not surprised at this point. Kumandra is literally divided between parts of a dragon called Heart, Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang. I honestly don’t think Disney expects the audience to remember each land, since they’re all so standard and lacking a unique personality. Making a circle with their hands is kind of memorable though. Heart is the peaceful home of the dragon gem and the titular Princess Raya. It’s easy to forget Raya and the Last Dragon is technically a Disney Princess film. It’s not a musical and there’s so much focus on action. It’s more like something from the Post-Renaissance with James Newton Howard composing for the first time since Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet.

The different direction turns Raya into “strong Disney heroine #21.” I’m fine with female empowerment, but Mulan did it just fine 23 years ago. Raya is the second Asian Disney Princess, but her look is distinctly Southeast Asian. She’s a warrior with long hair, attractive features, a red cloak, and her signature salakot hat. Raya was originally voiced by the half Filipina Cassie Steele, but she was replaced by the Vietnamese Kelly Marie Tran instead. They claim it was done because Raya was originally too stoic, but I think Disney just wanted to give Tran a second chance after the backlash of The Last Jedi. Raya is still mostly stoic and kind of nondescript in my opinion. As a child, Raya has a traditional topknot and lives with her loving ba Chief Benja voiced by Daniel Dae Kim. Benja teaches his daughter to be a warrior using a variety of martial arts techniques. The fighting is well put together, but I can’t say it’s anything I haven’t seen before. There’s also heavy emphasis on Southeast Asian cuisine that’s also been done so many times by now. The signature dish is the Tom Yum soup made up of ingredients from each tribe that Benji uses as an olive branch.

Raya’s only quirk is being a “dragon nerd” which she shares with Fang girl Namaari that she befriends. Since Raya is yet another Disney Princess without a Prince, people once again interpret their relationship as romantic. I’ll admit it’s harder to argue considering Namaari’s haircut, but she does betray Raya at the first chance of getting the gem for her kingdom. Further division causes the gem to split apart with each tribe taking a piece for themselves. The conflict unleashes the Druun and Raya’s ba is turned to stone. 6 years later, Raya is an adult seeking help from the last dragon Sisu. Raya’s animal companion is her rideable giant pill bug armadillo Tuk Tuk. It was the only character that Alan Tudyk could voice since he’s not Asian, but now has to be in every Disney animated movie. Creatures range from giant Serlot cats to beetles with the immature name Toot & Boom. Raya’s first stop is the desert Tail where she revives Sisu using the gem and water. Like most Disney movies, the comic relief doesn’t show up right away. Sisu is a Southeast Asian dragon crossed with a fuzzy aqua blue My Little Pony character. Between Raya and the Last Dragon and Pete’s Dragon, Disney doesn’t seem to think a scaly dragon can be friendly.

I was willing to accept Sisu at first, but casting Awkwafina made it very difficult. I know I complain about her a lot, but her obnoxious voice gets very grating when she’s the primary comic relief. People comparing her favorably to Robin Williams as the Genie was the only thing that made me laugh. Raya and the Last Dragon didn’t really make me laugh at all. Sisu’s jokes are way too modern with cringy slang like “besties” and “booty.” At least the Genie had an excuse to reference the modern world. “Binturi” is the only slang term exclusive to the movie. Namaari is a Binturi who hunts down Raya on her quest to stop the Druun. Gemma Chan voices the adult Namaari who isn’t exactly a villain. She’s mostly influenced by her ma voiced by Sandra Oh who wants to bring respect to their fortified kingdom of Fang. Sisu isn’t what Raya was expecting since she isn’t as powerful as the legends say. She’s just a good swimmer who inherits the magic of her brothers and sisters who turned to stone.

I know she’s a comedian, but I think Awkwafina is better at Sisu’s dramatic moments. She’s a compassionate dragon who pushes the film’s message to trust everyone you meet. It doesn’t always hold up when Raya and Sisu are constantly being double crossed by people like the Lucille Soong voiced Talon chieftess. As they collect each piece of the gem, Sisu gains the power to glow, create mist, bring rain, and shapeshift into a human. Her human appearance is an odd mix of dragon features. She needs to stay in disguise when Raya and Sisu meet several forgettable traveling companions. Before leaving Tail, they find Boun. Izaac Wang voices the confident young boy who runs a shrimp boat restaurant and lost his entire family to the Druun. Talon is a waterfront marketplace where they find Little Noi and her monkey-like ongis companions. Thalia Tran voices the toddler con artist who lost her ma to the Druun. A baby that does martial arts isn’t as entertaining as it should be.

The final traveling companion is from the icy bamboo forest Spine. It’s pretty on the nose for Benedict Wong to voice Tong, a burly warrior who lost his family and entire village to the Druun. Boun, Little Noi, and Tong left so little impression that I forgot all of their names as soon as I left the theater. I know they’re only in the movie to represent the five lands of Kumandra. Sisu reveals herself as a dragon to the group and Namaari who’s in awe every time she sees her. Since the last gem piece is heavily guarded in Fang, Sisu recommends a peaceful exchange that Raya reluctantly accepts. SPOILER ALERT! Namaari betrays Raya once again and the latter ends up looking bad when her distrust causes the former to accidentally kill Sisu. Her death causes all the water to dry up and the Druun to nearly take over the world.

Raya and Namaari fight to the death, but Raya ultimately chooses to trust Namaari the same way Sisu’s siblings trusted her. I know everyone turning to stone is supposed to be a powerful moment, but it didn’t really affect me. Similar to how I felt when Sisu is revived and Kumandra is finally brought together with families reuniting. I completely forgot the song “Lead the Way” that plays during the credits. Though I didn’t care much for the story, the computer animation is breathtaking. Water is especially realistic and every Southeast Asian inspired location or article of clothing is packed with detail. Southeast Asian patterns and 2D animation are also utilized for specific scenes. Character animation is fairly basic compared to the far more cartoony dragons. The animation is especially impressive when you realize it was all done remotely during the Pandemic. I’m glad I could see Raya and the Last Dragon on the big screen, but it’s just not for me.

94. Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya faces Namaari

The Microverse

Fantastic Voyage pushed the concept of miniaturization further than anyone thought possible. By shrinking a crew of people down to microscopic size and inserting them inside the human body. If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because dozens of cartoons are practically required to make a Fantastic Voyage episode. I can’t tell you how many parodies I’ve seen before watching the original 1966 movie. I always assumed Fantastic Voyage was a Jules Verne story, but it’s actually 100% original aside from inspiration from The Incredible Shrinking Man. Though the novelization was written by sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov before the movie’s release. Richard Fleischer was the perfect director who already had submarine experience with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

A nifty miniaturized sub called the Proteus is manned by a crew for the U.S. Government. Their mission is to save the life of scientist Dr. Jan Benes who perfected shrinking technology. A failed assassination by the Soviet Union gives Benes a lethal blood clot that can only be removed by a precision laser within the body. The crew consists of a more heroic Stephen Boyd as CIA agent Grant, Raquel Welch as sexy technical assistant Peterson, William Redfield as ship pilot Captain Owens, Arthur Kennedy as suspected laser surgeon Dr. Duval, and Donald Pleasence as the much more untrustworthy medical officer Dr. Michaels.

Meanwhile, Edmond O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell play Military officers who help on the outside. The crew travel from the heart to the lungs avoiding antibodies and white blood cells along the way. The 1 hour time limit is stressful, but the most tense moment is in the ear canal where even the smallest sound can send a shockwave. Any interpretation of the movie has a different exit strategy, but the original goes for the eye. Fantastic Voyage can be a little dated with it’s colorful recreation of the human body, but it still looks really impressive for 1966. Enough to win an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and Best Art Direction – Color. A sequel or remake might have improved its special effects, but Fantastic Voyage doesn’t need a franchise to be fantastic.

Fantastic Voyage

The Proteus crew swim around Benes’ body

Nobody Wants a Reboot!

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers isn’t the reboot I was expecting. Chip ‘n’ Dale are a classic Disney chipmunk duo who have been around since 1943. I’ve seen many of their shorts, but I never really watched the Disney Afternoon show Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Like most 80’s cartoons, the show was formulaic, but fun. Although intended to be an Alvin and the Chipmunks style CGI reboot of the Rescue Rangers, the movie ended up going a very different route. The usually raunchy creative team behind The Lonely Island decided to make Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers the closest thing to a Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel we’re ever gonna get. The opening is like a mockumentary with Chip ‘n Dale as actors who starred in Rescue Rangers before it got cancelled. Leading to Chip becoming a boring insurance agent and Dale trying to shed his comic relief image. I didn’t quite understand John Mulaney and Andy Samberg voicing Chip ‘n Dale, but their original squeaky voices are used as a joke.

The movie is very meta with a live-action world populated by more than just traditionally animated characters. Now there’s computer animation, claymation, puppetry, motion capture, and so many other unexpected forms of animation. When they grow apart, Dale receives “CGI surgery” and Chip stays the same. It’s bizarre seeing two different animation styles at the same time, but it gets weirder. Like Roger Rabbit, the movie includes more than just Disney characters in the background. Warner Bros, Nickelodeon, My Little Pony, and even DreamWorks characters are shown respect. Though it does feel wrong to see South Park and Beavis and Butt-Head characters acknowledged in a kids movie. Though not at the same level as Roger Rabbit, the movie does have a bit of an edge. The most hilariously unexpected inclusion is Ugly Sonic. Which is literally the ugly original version of Sonic trying desperately to make a comeback. Of course other non-animated facets of pop culture are acknowledged.

Chip ‘n Dale are brought back together when their old friend Monterey Jack has trouble with his cheese addiction. Tress MacNeille returns to voice Gadget, but Monty has Eric Bana as a convincing soundalike. Turns out Gadget ended up with Zipper and they’re left out of most of the movie. Instead Kiki Layne plays a human police officer named Steckler who helps the duo in investigating Monty’s disappearance. J. K. Simmons voices the claymation Captain Putty who doubts their abilities. After a trip to the Uncanny Valley, a Swedish Chef inspired muppet takes Chip ‘n Dale to meet the villain of the movie. It feels wrong, but the villain is actually a very bitter grown up Peter Pan voiced by Will Arnett named Sweet Pete. He intends to kidnapped animated characters, alter their appearance, and place them in low rent bootleg movies. Sweet Pete is joined by a Coca-Cola polar bear and Seth Rogen as a motion capture dwarf with lifeless eyes. Though the climax does bring back series antagonist Fat Cat in a very unusual way. Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers could’ve been another IP crazy mess, but it does have heart thanks to the duo mending their friendship.

Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers

Chip ‘n’ Dale work together

The Master Emerald

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 gave fans exactly what they wanted. The first movie was fast paced fun, but it still needed to take aspects of the Sega franchise slow. Sonic and Dr. Robotnik were introduced, but not the rest of his supporting cast of animal companions. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is based on the video game of the same name. Along with parts of the third game. I’m still not a hardcore fan, but I did get excited seeing Tails in the mid-credits scene for Sonic the Hedgehog. In the second game, Miles “Tails” Prower is a genius two-tailed fox who can fly and teams up with Sonic. Ben Schwartz was a suitable celebrity voice for Sonic, but voice actress Colleen O’Shaughnessey reprises her role from the games and shows. It’s a little distracting, but I’m sure Tails was a late edition to the first movie. Making me wonder if there was ever an ugly version of Tails. Another promising fan favorite was Knuckles the Echidna.

Knuckles is an honor bound warrior with super strong spiked fists. The only previous reference to him were the Echidna tribe that took out Sonic’s owl mentor Longclaw. Although several tough celebrities would’ve fit, Idris Elba was a perfect choice. Knuckles is a major scene stealer thanks to his self-serious misunderstanding of Earth customs. Despite his dislike of sequels, Jim Carrey returns as a more video game accurate Dr. Robotnik. Sonic still calls him Eggman, but it’s mostly his long bushy mustache and bald head that’s accurate. Hopefully a fat suit comes later if Carrey doesn’t retire from acting. Robotnik leaves the mushroom planet with Knuckles’ help and they form an alliance that will obviously end in betrayal. Sonic tries to be a superhero, but he’s too reckless. The rest of the original human cast returns even though it feels like a completely different movie. After some fatherly advice, James Marsden’s Tom and Tika Sumpter’s Maddie head to Hawaii for her sister’s wedding. Maddie’s sister Rachel was funny before, but it feels like too much attention is given to her and her fiancée Randall.

Later it turns out he’s part of the video game accurate military organization G.U.N. Which is headed by the weird Olive Garden commander from the first movie. Robotnik’s creepily obsessive assistant Agent Stone and Green Hills deputy Wade are also give more attention. Yet Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still heavily steeped in video game mythology. Turns out Tails tracked Sonic to Earth in order to help him in his fight against Robotnik and Knuckles. They’re all searching for the wish granting Master Emerald formed from the 7 Chaos Emeralds. On their way, Sonic and Tails bond in a dance battle and Knuckles joins them when betrayed. The action is just as energizing, but it’s still so surreal to see a live-action Robotnik mech fighting the Sonic trio on the big screen. Just as surprising is seeing Sonic go Super Saiyan Sonic. After eating a chilli dog, Sonic gives up that power, but gains allies in the process. Like before, hardcore fans will appreciate the mid-credits scene introducing Shadow the Hedgehog. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 may be a not so fast 2 hours long, but it blurs the line between video game and movie.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Sonic teams up with Tails and Knuckles

Preceded by: Sonic the Hedgehog

Gotta Go Fast!

Sonic the Hedgehog cracked the video game movie code. Sega has always been in competition with Nintendo. Sonic the Hedgehog was created in Japan to be the Super Mario Bros. of their video game company. Sonic became just as iconic with his superspeed and cool demeanor. I’ve played the side-scrolling original, but my brother is the one who played more games and watched all the animated shows. Sonic became so popular that a live-action movie couldn’t come fast enough. The 90’s would’ve been too soon, but the movie didn’t become a reality until 2020. Though I wouldn’t call myself a superfan, even I knew how awful the original design looked. The initial trailer featured a truly ugly Sonic with freaky humanoid legs, small eyes, white hands, and awkward proportions. Rather than ignore the immense fan criticism, Paramount actually delayed the movie just to re-animated the lead character. It’s a good thing Valentine’s Day 2020 was pre-Pandemic, because the change made Sonic the Hedgehog the best video game movie made at the time.

It’s a low bar, but I wasn’t really a fan of Detective Pikachu. The key was actually treating the lore with respect. Even memes are acknowledged. Sonic is high energy and fun-loving thanks to Ben Schwartz. Although he never had an owl mentor named Longclaw in the games, incorporating the golden rings into the story was a clever idea. Sonic uses the rings to portal to various locations. Most of his time is spent alone in Green Hills, Montana. Normally I hate the fish out of water angle in movies like this, but this was a rare time where I actually liked the original human characters. James Marsden is bizarrely typecast as a CGI animal’s human sidekick. Tom Wachowski is a small town sheriff who dreams of bigger and better things in Los Angeles. Tom is married to veterinarian Maddie played by Tika Sumpter. Most of her time is spent with her disapproving sister Rachel and niece Jojo. Sonic longs for friendship, but he inadvertently draws attention by causing an EMP. So the U.S. Government calls in his longtime archenemy Dr. Robotnik.

Jim Carrey seemed miscast, because Eggman is literally egg shaped with a bald head and long bushy mustache. Yet somehow Robotnik ended up being Carrey’s funniest role in a long time. He’s having a blast pressing buttons and dancing to “Where Evil Grows.” He plays off his lowly coffee brewing assistant Agent Stone well, but I think there’s too much of a rivalry between him and Tom. When Sonic loses his rings, the superfast hedgehog takes a slow-moving road trip with Tom to recover them. Along the way recreating the Quicksilver scene from Days of Future Past at a diner and quickly dispatching of Robotnik’s drones on the road. Callbacks include Sonic eating a chilli dog, getting his signature red shoes, and calling Robotnik Eggman because of his egg shaped drones. The climax is a fast paced race between Sonic and Robotnik using his quill to increase his speed. In the end, the power of friendship wins the day. After an out of nowhere Olive Garden tie-in and a pixelated credits sequence, Robotnik is revealed on a mushroom planet with his video game accurate design. Followed by a fan pleasing appearance of Tails (more on him later). Sonic the Hedgehog learned from it’s mistakes before even being released.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Sonic goes fast

Followed by: Sonic the Hedgehog 2