With a script by Garth Jennings who co-directs along with Christophe Lourdelet, Sing features a host of animals singing and dancing their hearts out. A who's who of actors lend their voices to the brightly colored animation with a solid message: never give up on your dreams whatever the obstacles.  

The voices come courtesy of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth McFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly and that's just part of the outstanding voice cast, all of whom did their own singing. But it's the legions of animators who create this incredibly energetic, feel-good story, anchored by Buster Moon, a rascally koala bear who launches a singing contest in hopes of saving his father's once enviably grand Moon Theatre.   

After Buster concocts his desperate plan, his looney, lizard secretary's glass eye pops out and accidentally types $100,000 as the prize money instead of $1,000. Game on with hundreds auditioning and a select few chosen, an ark's worth of elephants, porcupines, mice, pigs, gorillas, and more. Within the humorously presented character sketches for each animal resides a serious problem which each confronts, and these mirror recognizable human attributes. The elephant Meena has paralyzing stage fright and then gets paired with Gunter who can't quit showing off. 

The pig Rosita, ignored by her lackadaisical husband while she cares for their 25 piglets, just longs to perform. Porcupine Ash wants recognition and support from her partner for her original songs. Gorilla Johnny longs to follow his muse to become a crooner instead of yielding to his brother's demands in his gang's criminal activities. Throughout tryouts and rehearsals, a spectrum of emotional issues is addressed as Buster scrambles to please Nana Noodleman. She could invest money that would bail Buster out of the literal and figurative collapse of his theatre.

To the beat of snippets from 65 songs and an array of dancing styles, the camera swoops and swivels and flies through sets. Sing is a lively, crowd pleaser suitable for children and the adults who will want to accompany them. At area cinemas, check listings.

 

Through beautifully rendered computer animation, Moana tells the upbeat, inspiring story of clever, brave heroine, Moana. She's the chosen one, the daughter of Polynesian chief Tui whose community lives on the Pacific Ocean island Motunui. No one dares venture beyond the reef due to past tragedies, but environmental pressures dictate the need for exploration, for overcoming tradition and fear. 

Undertaking the Herculean task, Moana, which means ocean, must find and battle the lava monster Te Kā to restore origin goddess Te Fiti's heart. Te Fiti created these islands but in the demigod Maui's battle with Te Kā, Maui lost his magical fish hook, capable of bestowing shape shifting powers on Maui, and he dropped the radiant green stone that is Te Fiti's heart. She must have it to reinstate harmony in nature. Never ignoring her fear, Moana conquers it and redoubles her efforts through great emotional resolve.  

Moana receives help from cockeyed rooster HeiHei, piglet Pua, and magical Maui. While he offers a lively counterpoint to Moana, he also reinforces stereotypes of the overweight Polynesian, a negative cliché that endures because of such unnecessary reinforcement. 

Despite that unfortunate representation, Ian Gooding's production design is first rate with gorgeous art direction and superb editing throughout Moana's quest, and a challenging one it is requiring stamina and intelligence to succeed. The action sequences on and under the waves are thrilling with the ocean a living, enthralling aspect of Moana's world. With the piglet and the chicken involved in the adventure, humorous events and sounds provide enjoyable punctuation, as is characteristic of Disney films. In a refreshing departure from the norm, Moana doesn't involve romantic elements, focusing instead on the daunting mission that will, not incidentally, benefit Moana's entire society. 

Implicitly supporting the idea of an Oscar for voice talent, Hawaiian native Auli'I Cravalho conveys Moana's diverse moods, and Dwayne Johnson does a terrific job as Maui. In fact, the entire sound mix is impressive, including original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa'i.  

Moana is appropriate for all ages, though very young children might be somewhat frightened in a couple scenes. Showing in 2D and 3D at area cinemas.

 

 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has many superheroes with extraordinary powers, but for my money Dr. Stephen Strange has the most intriguing story. Created by Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange works as a lauded neurosurgeon in New York City, a man impressed with his own expertise. A car accident damages his hands so badly that he can no longer operate.   

His life's work in the balance, after trying all western medicine can offer, in desperation Stephen travels to Katmandu to try alternative healing. Dr. Strange gets more than he bargained for as he encounters a metaphysical universe beyond his initial comprehension. Above all, Dr. Strange must forget all he thinks he knows to overcome his own egotistical self-aggrandizement. Love interest Dr. Christine Palmer helps in that regard, though it would be so refreshing for the romantic liaison to be more than a helpmate. 

Co-writer/director Scott Derrickson showcases his great cast beginning with Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, Rachel McAdams as Dr. Palmer, Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, Benedict Wong as Wong, and the always wonderful Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. They act and, often a more difficult task, interact credibly, listening to and countering each other. True professionals, the actors also explain and convincingly present the philosophical and theoretical elements, thanks to a complex but absorbing examination of life's mysteries: mind and matter.

The special effects are exactly that, very special, especially because they connect with the ideas rather than obligatory superhero fights artificially interjected. When Dr. Strange folds and warps time, energy and space, it becomes a visual feast reminiscent of Inception, but it also visualizes his journey. And when transporting characters to and through altered dimensions is needed, sound and image concoct a thrilling creation of complementary factors. In addition, attention has been given to small details of the art direction, including the makeup.

Fans might come for the CGI, the astral projection and even the enjoyable humor that Cumberbatch interjects so seamlessly, as he does in Sherlock. But Doctor Strange, while not a physics lesson, includes tantalizing play with science, and it counsels the reining in of inflated ego. With both of these in one film, count me in. At area cinemas in both 2D and 3D.

 

 

While Rogue One: A Star Wars Story does not bring the excitement of the surprising, original 1977 Star Wars (almost 40 years ago!), it does offer many similar pleasures. Clearly defined good and evil forces face off in critical warfare as courageous warriors do battle with the dark side. 

Traitorous turncoats and enemies may lurk among those who remain intent on furthering peace and cooperation, those who will never compromise their fight for freedom. To that end, Rogue One finds Jyn Erso in a galaxy, yes, far, far away, first as a girl and then as an adult ready to undertake her mission, that is, to render inoperable the Death Star weapon that could destroy planets. Of course, there are the obligatory storm troopers, a rebel alliance, an imperial labor camp, a stop at a trading outpost, an impenetrable planet shield and battles, lots of battles and explosions with whooshing ships in combat, supporting rebels on the ground. In other words, it's what Star Wars fans expect and want.      

Directed by Gareth Edwards and written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, Rogue One begins chronologically before Star Wars, but it stands alone for viewers who aren't the die-hard fans who have memorized every detail of previous chapters. To be sure, Rogue One is a well-crafted film that will reward those who want to see it again and again, as Lucasfilm hopes many will. 

As Jyn Erso, Felicity Jones gives a solid performance through both the quieter emotional and the animated action scenes. As Jones has shown in other dramatic roles, she's a talented actress. Equal to any demands, Mads Mikkelsen is Jyn's father Galen. And contributing to the achievement are Forest Whitaker, Jimmy Smits, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, and Riz Ahmed. 

The sound and music often overwhelms, virtually mandatory, as are the humorous asides, most often provided by the droids. I like the addition of the blind monk, the usual parade of great names like Eadu, Scarif, and Wobani, and the invitation to surrender, one more time, to Jyn's mantra that "Rebellions are built on hope." So are successful franchises, on our willingness to play along one more time, like visiting a long-time friend with some nostalgia for better times while still enjoying this one. In either 2D or 3D at area cinemas.

 

Writer/director Damien Chazelle's La La Land offers a delightful, exuberant indulgence in song and dance in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers tradition. With romance on their minds, Mia and Sebastian find themselves adrift in Hollywood, crisscrossing each other in their aspirational endeavors. He's a jazz pianist who can't conform to playing bland music and she can't quite secure a desirable role. 

Before the story settles into Mia and Sebastian's on again/off again fling, the film begins with an incredible, show stopping musical number on a congested L.A. freeway. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren has choreographed an exhilarating opening number with drivers in and out of their cars, dancing on them, through the lines of automobiles, and with each other. It's so dynamic a beginning that it takes an enormous push of energy from Emma Stone, not the most energetic of actors, and Ryan Gosling, not the most animated, to reignite the action. 

For their encounters, Chazelle does successfully establish a different tone, one of yearning and desire. Can Stone and Gosling sing and dance with the best? Well, no, their voices are slight, but they're a joy to watch, and Gosling learned to play the piano quite well and Stone exudes a plucky frustration. In a strong, too small supporting performance, John Legend as Keith brings his historical insight about jazz to the proceedings, and J.K. Simmons is the inflexible, conservative boss. 

In Whiplash, Chazelle structured the film to the drum rhythms he championed. Here he channels some of the musical classics he screened for his cast and crew during production, including The Band Wagon and Top Hat. The meticulous design extended to Austin Gorg's art direction, especially the Technicolor palette that visualizes the seductiveness of our fantasies. This includes costumes as well with Mia in a silky, flowing dress as she and Sebastian merge in perfect emotional synchronicity. Credit also to composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who keep the mood light in a dream factory world that also shatters aspiration and crushes the ambitious. In short, La La Land  beautifully establishes and balances the illusory appeal of our dreams with harsh reality in a jaunty, entertaining film. Check area listings.

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