I’m the Greatest Sorcerer!

Willow gave Warwick Davis his much deserved time in the spotlight. After getting his start in Return of the Jedi, George Lucas wrote the movie especially for him. It is rare to have a little person in a lead role afterall. After Star Wars and between Indiana Jones, Lucas intended the fantasy epic to be his next big thing. Despite hiring his buddy Ron Howard as director, Willow wasn’t the success he was hoping for. I know Willow has a cult following, but I never made an effort to see it until now. I had no idea Willow was about a baby until I saw it. According to a prophecy, a baby girl is destined to one day overthrow the evil Queen Bavmorda. So she orders her minions to find the infant at any cost.

If that sounds just like Sleeping Beauty, the difference is the baby Elora never grows up. I expected a time jump, but it’s not that kind of story. This fantasy world is divided between tall people called Daikini and little people called Nelwyn. Willow Ufgood is a young Nelwyn with a wife and kids who finds the baby in a basket. If that sounds just like the story of Moses, I’m sure that was intentional. Willow wants to be a great sorcerer, but his unsureness holds him back. He reluctantly agrees to take Elora to her own kind in order to fulfill the prophecy. On his first quest, Willow is accompanied by a small band of warriors. If that sounds just like The Hobbit, get used to those similarities.

Willow does feel overlong and not as special as it should be. Willow’s quest changes several times and he’s joined by a revolving door of companions. Like Val Kilmer as the likeable rogue swordsman Madmartigan or Joanne Whalley as the warrior daughter of the evil queen. There’s also a pair of comedic brownies and a cursed sorceress who helps Willow perfect his magic. Speaking of magic, Industrial Light & Magic made a crucial technical leap in a scene where the sorceress morphs into a variety of animals. Other effects aren’t as impressive as they probably were in the 80’s. Willow has plenty of heart, but nothing new to contribute to the realm of fantasy.

Willow

Willow on a horse

Brought to You By Popeyes

Little Nicky is the comedy from Hell. It officially marked the downfall of Adam Sandler in the early 2000’s. Even when I was 5, I knew Little Nicky looked stupid. As a Christian, I had a feeling I would be offended as well. Little Nicky is so bad that I can’t really be offended by it. Sandler plays Nicky, the annoying one note weird talking son of Satan and an angel. Nicky lives in a very crappy looking Hell populated by equally cringy demons. Heaven isn’t seen until the end where angels have minor mistreatment.

Nicky is forced to go to Earth where he has to stop his evil brothers from damning all of humanity. It’s there that he wears heavy winter coats, works with a talking bulldog, falls in love, gains metalhead followers, and eats obnoxious amounts of Popeyes chicken. I have no clue why they agreed to appear in the movie, but I’m more baffled by all the celebrities they managed to get. Future award winner Patricia Arquette degrades herself as Nicky’s nerdy love interest. Harvey Keitel plays Satan and Reese Witherspoon plays Nicky’s angel mother Holly.

They even got poor Rodney Dangerfield to play Lucifer. I tell ya he gets no respect. Rhys Ifans and Tommy Lister Jr. put a little too much effort into playing Nicky’s demonic brothers. There are way more celebrity cameos that get stranger and stranger as the movie goes on. I didn’t understand Rob Schneider’s Waterboy cameo, but Carl Weathers reprising his role as the deceased Chubbs from Happy Gilmore is moderately clever. This was the first Adam Sandler comedy under the Happy Madison banner, but there’s no way he thought he was making a good movie. Little Nicky is freaking awful.

Little Nicky

Nicky eats Popeyes with Mr. Beefy

Flawless Victory

Mortal Kombat (2021) got over a 2 decade absence from the big screen. While the 1995 Mortal Kombat was campy fun, the 1997 Annihilation was one of the worst movies ever made. The video game franchise remained incredibly popular when the reboot was stuck in development hell. When the 2021 movie was finally announced, my brother and I made sure to play Mortal Kombat (2011). Although it was simultaneously streamed on HBO Max, we saw it in theaters among like-minded fans. I’m not a diehard fan, but I do have more expectations. Since every game’s fatalities got progressively more violent, it was nice to know the movie would actually be R rated. It also meant a lower budget which is obvious when the movie doesn’t even include the titular tournament. Earthrealm or Outworld rarely feel grand despite the literal gods and monsters on display.

Costumes are grittier, but a little too detailed for my liking. Specifically the armoured look given to Scorpion and Sub-Zero. The movie begins with their bitter rivalry centuries in the past. Despite having the iconic catchphrase “Get over here!,” Scorpion and Sub-Zero speak Chinese and Japanese respectively. Mortal Kombat (2021) includes many important characters, but makes the idiotic decision to omit characters for the sake of being PC. Fan favorite Hollywood actor Johnny Cage is left out to leave room for Lewis Tan as original Asian American character Cole Young. There are literally dozens of characters on their roster yet they chose to make something up. I absolutely hate anything having to do with the character. Kitana is also left out, but Sonya Blade fills the void. She has a kind of pointless arc where she has to prove herself as a champion. Despite their attempt to keep the story Asian focused, Australian mercenary Kano is still the biggest scene stealer.

Former Jimmy Olsen Mehcad Brooks got jacked to play Jax and Raiden actor Tadanobu Asano already had experience with a thunder god. They could’ve once again made Liu Kang the star, but he spends more time training the others with Kung Lao’s help. Shang Tsu isn’t the imposing force he should be, but he gets the job done. His motley crew of enemy opponents consists of Mileena, Nitara, Reiko, Kabal, and Goro. The latter is obviously CGI, but the four-armed monster loses his menace when he has to fight Cole in a barn. The climax captures the spirit of the game, but there’s too much emphasis on Arcana. Scorpion and Sub-Zero have their final dual, but Scorpion’s revenge was done a lot better in the much more faithful hyper violent animated movie of the same name. The movie finishes with serious sequel baiting for an uncast Johnny Cage. Mortal Kombat (2021) is far from a “FATALITY,” but it’s barely a “FLAWLESS VICTORY” either.

Mortal Kombat

Liu Kang and Kung Lao ready to fight

Reboot of: Mortal Kombat (1995)

Prince Dastan and the Quest for the Time Dagger

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was Disney’s first attempt at trying to recapture the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. Both are rated PG-13 with swashbuckling action/adventure. Disney also enlisted Goblet of Fire director Mike Newell and even made dated LEGO sets for the movie. The difference is Prince of Persia being based on a video game. Something I wasn’t aware of when I decided to go see the movie by myself. The 2003 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is considered to be one of the greatest video games ever made. I never played or even heard of it beforehand, so I judged the movie without expectations.

Prince of Persia is actually one of the more entertaining video game adaptations, but just as flawed as the rest. The unnamed Prince is given the name Dastan and Jake Gyllenhaal was chosen to play him. Gyllenhaal is more than capable of doing a big budget action role, but the Prince is basically Aladdin if he were Persian. Gemma Arterton and Toby Kebbell have the same problem as Dastan’s love interest and brother respectively. Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina are the only actors who fit as the obvious twist villain and untrustworthy mentor figure respectively. They do manage to capture the action of the game with a heavy emphasis on jumps and parkour. The adventure kicks off when Dastan retrieves a magic dagger from an enemy kingdom.

Like the game, the dagger contains the “Sands of Time” which allow the user to travel back in time for one minute. A useful power that isn’t used as often as it should be. Prince Dastan goes on the run with the shrewish Princess Tamia in order to stop a plot to take over the Persian kingdom. Along the way fighting snake henchmen, spike throwing assassins, and his own uncle with a very cliché motivation. Like most time travel movies, the solution to undo everything kills a lot of character development. Regardless of quality, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has more effort put into it than most movies based on video games.

Prince of Persia The Sands of Time

Prince Dastan evades enemies

For the Glory of Merlin, Daylight is Mine to Command!

Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans is not the epic conclusion it should’ve been. DreamWorks Animation has made several TV spin-offs of their movies over the years, but Rise of the Titans is the only movie spun-off from a TV series. The Tales of Arcadia trilogy is the brainchild of Guillermo del Toro. His sympathetic monsters and gothic style are apparent even in a children’s show. Though intended to be live-action, computer animation was the only way to pull off a series full of trolls, aliens, and other magical creatures. Arcadia Oaks is the mecha for supernatural activity. Streaming on Netflix; Tales of Arcadia consists of the 3 season Trollhunters, 2 season 3Below, and 1 season Wizards. Each show is rich with complex lore, mature storytelling, terrific character development, awesome action, and a great sense of humor.

I was so hooked that I watched all 88 episodes in the span of 8 days. My brother and I watched them separately, but we were both ready to watch the big finale together. Rise of the Titans begins with a lengthy recap for anyone who didn’t watch the shows. Tales of Arcadia featured an all-star cast from the beginning, but the animation has noticeably gotten more ambitious. Elemental Titans rising from the Earth sparks a globetrotting adventure that starts epic enough with everyone working together to fight the evil Arcane Order on a runaway subway train. Characters from Trollhunters consist of chosen Trollhunter Jim Lake Jr, his magical girlfriend Claire, jokester best friend Toby, academic troll mentor Blinky, troll muscle AAARRRGGHH!!!, and reformed changelings Strickler and Nomura.

Characters from 3Below consist of Akiridion-5 alien Queen Aja, her brother Prince Krel, battle ready bodyguard Varvatos Vex, and helpful alien Stuart. Characters from Wizards consist of wizard apprentice Douxie and his black cat familiar Archie. Plus reformed bully Steve and his less nerdy Creepslayerz friend Eli. Although Rise of the Titans tries to imitate the Avengers, 1 hour & 46 minutes is just not enough time for a well deserved conclusion. Character arcs either feel rushed or disrespectful to everything they went through. Heroes die, but really it’s the ending that ruins everything. Through a series of complicated reasons, the Trollhunter travels back in time to undo the entire franchise and make the goofy sidekick the new chosen one. Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans needed more time.

Trollhunters Rise of the Titans

The residents of Arcadia unite

Believe the Impossible, Discover the Incredible

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island kept the adventure going without Brendan Fraser. It’s kind of a low move, but it does represent the division between 2000’s Hollywood and 2010’s Hollywood. When Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) came out, Brendan Fraser was a safe box-office draw. When Journey 2: The Mysterious Island came out in 2012, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was on the verge of becoming a major box-office draw. This was his first jungle movie since The Rundown, but far from his last. Journey 2 is also the second sequel to add him in a starring role.

An older pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson is the only returning actor. Even his mother is recast with the more well known Kristin Davis. The Rock plays Sean’s charismatic pec-popping stepfather Hank who has useful Navy experience. As the subtitle suggests, Journey 2 now brings Jules Verne’s book The Mysterious Island to life in the real world. Except this island is also inspired by Treasure Island and Gulliver’s Travels. Sean’s grandfather Alexander Anderson is a fellow Vernian who sends him a message. Michael Caine would honestly say yes to anything at this point.

Sean and Hank travel by helicopter to the mysterious island. They’re accompanied by Vanessa Hudgens as Sean’s strong-willed love interest Kailani and Luis Guzmán as her goofy pilot father Gabato. Just like the book, giant animals are small and small animals are giant. We see giant bees, lizards, and birds rendered with mildly better CGI and somewhat less obnoxious 3D. They discover the lost city of Atlantis, but have to leave before the island sinks. Although I wasn’t expecting it, they do find a way to include Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. Despite the movie teasing a sequel based on From the Earth to the Moon, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is just another kid friendly adventure.

Journey 2 The Mysterious Island

Hank, Sean, Kailani, and Gabato on the mysterious island

Preceded by: Journey to the Center of the Earth

World Within a World

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) is more 3D experience than movie. The late 2000’s were filled with movies marketed mostly for their 3D effects. Aside from Around the World in 80 Days (2004), Jules Verne novels haven’t had too many major theatrical adaptations in recent memory. All the obnoxious in your face 3D made Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) look bad the moment I saw it. While the CGI is bad and does resemble a video game, it’s really not that bad. In this adaptation, the book Journey to the Center of the Earth turns out to be real.

Vernians study the work of Jules Verne in order to find his discoveries. Brendan Fraser stands in for Professor Lidenbrock as original American volcanologist Trevor Anderson. I don’t buy Fraser as a scientist, but it is nice seeing him as the action hero. 2008 is sadly one of his last years as a leading man. A young Josh Hutcherson plays Trevor’s somewhat rebellious 13 year old nephew Sean. Trevor recklessly brings Sean along on his journey to the center of the Earth. Where they hope to find answers about their deceased brother/father.

The helpful Icelandic guide is now a beautiful and very competent young woman named Hannah. Anita Briem is so young that I wasn’t sure who she was supposed to end up with in the end. Much like the book, the center of the Earth is fraught with peril. Aside from the usual dangers, the group has to deal with high speed mine carts, waterslides, carnivorous plants, and viscous prehistoric piranhas. The dinosaur they face is simply a T-Rex. At least bioluminescent birds are friendly. Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) is an hour and a half adventure that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Journey to the Center of the Earth 2008

Trevor, Sean, and Hannah ride a dinosaur jawbone

Followed by: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

The Witching Hour

The Witches (2020) will never be half as disturbing as the original 1990 adaptation. This isn’t the first time a Roald Dahl book has been readapted. Since I didn’t grow up watching The Witches (1990), I can’t say I objected to the idea. Though I wasn’t expecting it so soon on HBO Max (thanks to the pandemic). Robert Zemeckis was attached to direct and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro continued to push for more dark children’s films. The Witches (2020) was also co-written by black-ish creator Kenya Barris.

This version of the story is now set in 60’s Alabama instead of 80’s England. The renamed Charlie and his grandma Agatha are both African American. The change doesn’t do much aside from adding in race relations. Plus somewhat distracting Chris Rock narration. Octavia Spencer is just as strong-willed as the original actress. They stay at a hotel now ran by Stanley Tucci. The titular witches loom over the hotel and have the bald heads, square feet, and hatred of children just like the original. The primary difference is their three finger claw hands that caused an unnecessary outcry among disabled individuals.

Anne Hathaway is a suitable Grand High Witch, but Anjelica Huston already set the bar really high. Hathaway is a little too cartoonish and nowhere near as grotesque with a simple toothy grin. The tone feels too safe and the CGI used on the mice isn’t as convincing as puppetry. Charlie and his fat friend Bruno are still turned into mice, but female mouse Daisy is added as they plan to take down the evil witches. Unlike the original, the book’s bittersweet ending is kept intact. The Witches (2020) doesn’t push many boundaries.

The Witches

The Grand High Witch

Remake of: The Witches (1990)

I’m Still Standing!

Rocketman soars as high as a kite. Since Elton John is one of the greatest living musicians, it was only a matter of time before someone gave him a biopic. Turns out the singer had been wanting a movie based on his life story since the 2000’s. The timing couldn’t have been better for it to happen in 2019. Dexter Fletcher directed Rocketman a year after his uncredited work on Bohemian Rhapsody. Both musical biopics center around gay singers who dealt with a lot of personal struggles. Music manager John Reid also plays a part in both stories. Even more ironic is the fact that Taron Egerton was practically born to play Elton John. Though singers and/or actors like Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy were considered, Egerton had a lot of bizarre connections to the singer.

Egerton already sang “I’m Still Standing” in Sing and John himself had a featured role in The Golden Circle. He also happened to work with Fletcher before on Eddie the Eagle. Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn encouraged the casting by becoming a co-producer. Edgerton pulls off the bespectacled look and every flamboyant outfit. Although I saw Bohemian Rhapsody in theaters, I chose not to do the same with Rocketman. Though I am a big fan of John’s songs, the R rating spoke for itself. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman doesn’t hold back on the singer’s homosexuality or various addictions. The film explores his younger days as a piano prodigy and the strained relationship with his parents that led to him changing his name from Reginald Dwight to Elton John.

Bryce Dallas Howard is practically unrecognizable as his mother. As his star rises, John forms his longest lasting platonic relationship with songwriter Bernie Taupin played by Jamie Bell. His troubled love life includes abusive manager Reid played by Richard Madden, but his relationships with women are significantly downplayed. Rocketman is more of a fantasy with purposeful historic inaccuracies and stylish musical numbers for all his songs. Every performance is fun to watch, but Elton’s rehab visits and struggle to love himself are the heart of his life’s story. Which is why “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” won Best Original Song. And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time ’til anything tops Rocketman.

Rocketman

Elton John dressed up

The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs

Epic doesn’t quite live up to its title. In fact, it kind of faded into obscurity. I applaud Blue Sky Animation for taking risks, but it’s difficult not to compare Epic to similar environmental movies like FernGully or Avatar. Ice Age & Robots director Chris Wedge originally pitched the idea to Pixar before it returned to his founding company. Epic is very similar to the DreamWorks film Rise of the Guardians. Both are loosely based on William Joyce children’s books dedicated to his late daughter Mary Katherine. The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs was similarly given a super generic movie title. Epic could literally refer to anything. It tells the story of a miniature society of Leafmen who protect the forest from the blight infesting Boggans.

Although we’ve heard this kind of story dozens of times before, the computer animation is breathtaking. Everything from the tallest tree to the smallest insect feels realistic in this microscopic world. The animation is so good that it doesn’t really matter how basic most of the characters are. Amanda Seyfried voices M.K., the blank slate protagonist thrust into a fantastical world. Jason Sudeikis voices her kooky scientist father devoted to finding the leafmen. The Leafmen are your standard duty-bound soldiers. Josh Hutcherson is the hotshot rulebreaker Nod and Colin Farrell is his mostly serious mentor Ronin.

Aziz Ansari & Chris O’Dowd are the mostly funny comic relief slug & snail duo Mub & Grub. The Boggins are your average horde of mindless monsters. Christoph Waltz is the guy you call for an evil villain like Mandrake. Epic isn’t a musical, but there are at least three major singers in the cast. Pitbull is a gangster toad, Steven Tyler is an all-knowing glowworm, and Queen B Beyoncé is the literal Queen of the forest Tara. She also provided the song “Rise Up.” When M.K. is shrunk, she’s entrusted with a pod that will ensure the forest’s survival. If nothing else, the battles are epic and so is the world it takes place in. Epic is an admirable FernGully for the next generation.

9. Epic

M.K. protects the pod with Mub